Thursday, October 31, 2013

Notes on the Anniversary of a "Nightmare"

Time for a little Halloween nostalgia, kids. "Hocus Pocus" and "Army of Darkness" are all well and good, but "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" (directed by Henry Selick, of course) is the kids' horror classic that really deserves some celebration for hitting the twenty year mark this season. Its rise in the pop culture pantheon is a classic underdog story, and one fueled almost entirely by its loyal fans.

In 1993, Disney was skeptical of the film. Everyone was skeptical. A stop-motion film? An animated horror musical? Where a gang of monsters kidnap Santa Claus and take over Christmas? I remember an LA Times article full of hand-wringing about the scary imagery and macabre themes that were sure to terrify unsuspecting children. How could Disney let Tim Burton do this? The ad campaign didn't skimp, but it couldn't seem to make up its mind - some emphasized the scares while others tried to hide them, pushing the Jack and Sally love story front and center. Afraid that there would be backlash from the angry parents of sensitive children, Disney released the film under its Touchstones Pictures banner with a PG rating and prepared for a flop. They also made the same mistake with Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" seventeen years later.

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" wasn't a smash hit, but it did pretty well in theaters, impressed critics, and had enough exposure to attract a loyal base of fans. The returns were good enough for Disney to bankroll Henry Selick's next feature, "James and the Giant Peach," but they were still tentative about associating too closely with "Nightmare." For years, its media presence was scarce. Clips appeared in the intros to Disney branded programming for a while, but the film itself was rarely seen. Because of its short length and its PG rating, it didn't immediately join the regular rotation of Halloween television programming. I only saw it air on a broadcast network once, in the late 90s, during the early evening hours. Now ABC Family runs it every year around Halloween.

So what changed Disney's mind about the film? The adoring audience, primarily. Merchandise initially was scarce in the U.S. for years, though there seemed to be a ton of it available in Japan, where the film had been a much bigger hit. I remember finding fantastic Jack Skellington Christmas ornaments in an import shop, and wondering why they weren't in any of the Disney stores. Similar ones showed up there eventually, after specialty product lines proved to be very popular with the Hot Topic crowd, and by the late 90s "Nightmare Before Christmas" paraphernalia was a perennial bestseller for the company. This spawned a re-issue of the film and talk of a possible sequel in 2000, a 3D conversion in 2006, and more limited runs every subsequent year until 2009. New product lines, including video games and a tribute album followed. Soon Jack Skellington was everywhere.

But maybe the most symbolic sign of Disney's newfound acceptance of the property came in 2001, when they created the Haunted Mansion Holiday, a "Nightmare Before Christmas" overlay for Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, to go along with the Christmas versions of It's a Small World and The Country Bear Jamboree. Japan got one too, for its Haunted Mansion at Tokyo Disneyland. Now for a few months every year, you can find Jack, Sally, Oogie Boogie, and all the rest in the Disney parks. The U.S. version of the ride has proven so popular that FastPass machines have to be activated especially for it every year. The villain-themed store in New Orleans Square became devoted entirely to "Nightmare Before Christmas" merchandise for a few seasons. When I saw the place last, Jack Skellington was still sharing shelf space with Jack Sparrow.

Ironically "The Nightmare Before Christmas" turned out to be a perfect fit for Disney's collection of brands. It appeals to older children and teenagers growing wary of the squeaky-clean Disney image, but it's light enough to maintain broader appeal. Despite all the subversive touches, it's still a very traditional musical film underneath, and some fans have been asking for years for a stage production (unofficial ones keep popping up like daisies). While the film is scary and unsettling in places, it turns out that it hasn't traumatized kids any more than they can handle, and has become a holiday favorite in many households.

If you wondered why Disney bankrolled Tim Burton's passion project "Frankenweenie" last year, which most considered a very niche and very strange little animated film of limited appeal, you have to remember that twenty years ago, this was the same attitude that everyone had about "The Nightmare Before Christmas." Who knows what we'll think of "Frankenweenie" twenty years from now? It wouldn't surprise me if it became a cult hit. "Nightmare," having risen to such prominence, will probably still be around then too.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The October 2013 Follow-Up Post

If you're new to my follow-up posts, these are a collection of brief updates on topics I've previously written about, but that I don't believe require an entire new post to themselves. The original posts are linked below for your convenience.

Incoming Fall Premieres - On the cancellation hit list so far are "We Are Men" and "Ironside." NBC doing away with "Welcome to the Family" has opened up Thursdays for the return of "Community" in January. No sign of our favorite cannibal yet. On the flip side, the big hits of the year so far are "Sleepy Hollow" and "The Blacklist," neither of which intrigued me enough to keep following after their pilots. I'm still watching "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" for now, which aren't doing great, but they should at least last out the season. I find it completely inexplicable that "Dads" managed to get a full season order, but oh well. Still have to watch and review "Dracula."

A View on "The View" - Jenny McCarthy. Jenny No-Good Sassafrassin' Vaccine Alarmist Viper Woman McCarthy is who they picked to fill the void left by Joy Behar and Elizabeth Hasselbeck. I'd be more enraged if I were still actually watching the show, but I'm not, so I just fume whenever anyone brings it up. My only comfort is that McCarthy apparently hasn't been well-received by the audience, and her hosting tenure may be short. Now Barbara Walters has announced that she's retiring too next year, and possible additions to the cast include Margaret Cho (yay!), Brooke Shield (sure, why not), Ali Wentworth (fine), and Mario Cantone (whaaa?).

The Gauntlet Has Been Thrown - Netflix has been making waves again recently. Its big gambles with original serialized content this year appear to have mostly paid off, as evidenced by their soaring stock prices (I still have a few shares) and the amount of hand-wringing that I've seen among the traditional media stalwarts. This week they're at the center of attention again, thanks to recent controversial remarks made by Ted Sarandos, Netflix's head of content. Netflix is looking to move into feature films next, and intends to release them simultaneously in theaters and on its web platform. Will this lead to the end of movie theaters? Considering that many smaller films are already doing this, probably not, but the comments are making exhibitors nervous.

Tales From Development Hell - It has now been over a year since I wrote about these projects and none of them has moved forward an inch. Also, nothing new from any of the titles from 6 More Upcoming Anime Adaptations to Worry About. There's a new anime adaptation that was announced just today that we can add to the list of hopefuls, though. "Jack Reacher" director Christopher McQuarrie has been attached to Skydancer's live-action adaptation of "Star Blazers," the Americanized version of the beloved "Space Battleship Yamato" anime series from the 70s. The Japanese did their own live action version a few years ago.

Where's the Third "TRON"? - There's still nothing concrete to report, but as recently as two weeks ago, we were still getting reassurances from producer Adam Horowitz that the third "TRON" movie was getting scripts rewritten and director Joseph Kosinski was very much still involved. I have to wonder how the failure of "The Lone Ranger" and the departure of Jerry Bruckheimer has affected the film's development, and how willing Disney is to movie forward with this sequel now. They've been keeping pretty busy with Marvel and Star Wars movies, and I don't know if there's room on their slate for a "TRON 3" for the foreseeable future. It's still very possible that it could happen, but I'm not holding my breath.

An A La Carte Cable Fantasy - Comcast recently announced that they're offering a new plan where HBO is available with a much lower tier subscription plan. You still have to pay for a very basic package of about ten channels, but this means you get HBO and HBO Go for $50-70 s month instead of having to pay over $100 and subscribe to bunch of other premium channels. Alas for me, too little too late. I've embraced my cordcutter existence and have no intention of ever going back to cable viewing. Still, it's a good first step toward the a la carte model that so many of us have been asking for. I hope this ploy successful, so others will join in.

All "Simpsons," All the Time - After 25 years, "The Simpsons" is finally going to cable syndication. Does this mean the show is ending soon? Does this mean that FOX managed to renegotiate its contracts for broadcast syndication, which have required exclusivity for over two decades? Right now nobody knows for sure, but this means that FOX's potential plans for an all "Simpsons" cable channel are probably kaput.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The World of "Leviathan"

"Leviathan" is a documentary that chronicles life aboard a North Atlantic fishing vessel. It's inevitable to want to make comparisons to the Discovery Channel show, "Deadliest Catch." However, "Leviathan" has no orienting narration and no context at all is provided, aside from a brief Biblical epigraph. It does not identify the ship or any of the crew by name, and we don't get any of their backstories. It does not follow a conventional narrative or really any kind of narrative at all. Because of this unorthodox approach, some have classified "Leviathan" as an experimental film.

What "Leviathan" does do is to plunge the viewer into the thick of the action, immersing them in all the sights and sounds of life on the ship and the surrounding ocean. We begin at night, while the fishermen are bringing in their catch. It's difficult to make out what we're looking at, but images become more distinct and recognizable quickly. Nets and traps are hoisted from the sea. Then fish fill the screen, often spilling over the edges. The camera is placed at the level of the deck in many scenes, so every rush of water or new wave of incoming fish threatens to overwhelm our field of vision. The sound of the ocean and the ship's machinery is inescapable, drowning out the few bits of offhand chatter from the sailors.

The idea here is to capture the sensory experience rather than rely on the momentum of a standard dramatic narrative. Shots linger on what we might usually consider incidental things, like fish heads being washed off the deck, or an unlucky bird momentarily trapped by some of the equipment. The ship becomes a microcosm of drama and struggle. The human beings aboard are not neglected, shown going through their regular daily routines, but always with a clinical eye and a necessary distance that allows the audience to view their behavior in more objective terms than we usually see. Mundane actions like working, cooking, and showering are highlighted. In a humorous moment, there's also a lengthy shot of one sailor watching an episode of "The Deadliest Catch," with stone-faced scrutiny.

And then the camera turns to look at what's going on off the ship, and this is where the visuals go from intriguing to sublime. The cameras travel over the surface of the water and beneath it, taking in the natural world. However, this is not a series of serene beauty shots edited together with soothing music, but a rough, often jarring exposure to the elements and the wildlife. The cameras bump and jostle along, sometimes only catching glimpses of fish and birds at strange angles. However, the movement of the cameras become part of the experience, so much so that the viewer often forgets to wonder how the filmmakers are achieving the unique shots that we see.

The signature sequence of the film is a long shot where the camera is being pulled along by some unseen mechanism, and keeps plunging in and out of the roiling water. Under the surface, the sound is muted and the image is murky. Things move more slowly and the frame often feels empty. Above the water, it's chaos aurally and visually. The sky is full of gulls and other sea birds who have been attracted by the fishing operation. Filmed from below, they look like an endless mass, and their calls are deafening. As the camera goes back and forth between these two extremes, we are better able to appreciate how they contrast with each other.

I've never seen another nature documentary like this, one that makes aesthetic choices that are so different from the expected norm in order to create an intensely tactile and engulfing film. "Deadliest Catch" certainly has its good points, but there are too many reality show devices in play to really let you get a sense of the rhythm and atmosphere of life on its vessels the way that "Leviathan" does. I've never seen birds the way they appear in this film, or the doomed fish sloshing around on the deck in wretched limbo. Above all the soundtrack stays with me, the chugging engines and motors, the hundred different manifestations of the ocean, and the screaming gulls.

I've seen several reviews insist that the only way to see "Leviathan" is on the big screen, with a full surround sound system, so you really get the full effect of all the sensory bombardment. They have a good argument, but I found "Leviathan" a perfectly good watch at home on my laptop. It's very easy to get sucked into the movie, to the point where I would hesitate to characterize this as a casual watch. It's certainly nothing that requires much investment or brain power, but it's definitely an experience that needs the viewer's full attention.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Midlife Musings and "Before Midnight"

The cinematic journey of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) now spans three films, eighteen years, and multiple countries. You don't have to have seen the two preceding films chronicling their love story, "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," but "Before Midnight" is much more effective if you're already familiar with the characters' histories and the series' format.

The couple are now in their forties, enjoying the waning days of a summer in the Peloponnesian region of Greece. A lot has happened since we saw them last. Jesse divorced, married Celine, and they have a pair of twin daughters. However, thanks to a severe falling-out with his ex-wife, he doesn't get to see his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) very often, and feels like he's neglecting him. The opening scenes follow Jesse dropping Hank off at the airport, before being driven home by Celine, sparking the beginning of another long, rambling, revealing conversation that will carry us through the film. We learn their lives have become busy and complicated. We learn that significant tensions and conflicts have resulted.

The earlier installments of the "Before" series impressed me for being so well written and so good at capturing the nuances of a very specific, but fascinating relationship between two people who only met by chance. The movies are deceptively simple, just following the pair around a picturesque locale as they converse, and intensely personal. Hawke and Delpy have screenplay credits alongside Richard Linklater, the series' chief architect and director. I think "Before Midnight" may be my favorite of the set, though, because it departs from the formula in several ways, and because it tackles a stage of life that is very rare to see handled on screen so well and so honestly. This is the movie where the relationship itself finally becomes as important a force as the two personalities who share it.

Encroaching middle age and the diminishment of romantic passion aren't all that uncommon to see in films, but rarely do you get to know the people involved the way longtime viewers know Jesse and Celine. We've seen them as bright-eyed twenty-somethings and more tempered thirty-somethings. We know about Celine's passionate ambitions and her strong convictions. We know about Jesse's more laid-back approach to life, his occasional carelessness, and the course that his writing career has taken. "Before Midnight" also picks up many threads from "Before Sunset," so we learn the consequences of Jesse's terribly romantic decision at the end of the previous movie, which have had nine years to play out. As the pair wend their way through the day together, the details are filled in gradually.

The nine year gap didn't hit me quite so hard the last time, as I watched "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" fairly close together, a few years after the second movie. This time it did, possibly because I experienced the interval closer to real time, or because my own relationships had progressed to the point where I could make some comparisons. Jesse and Celine felt slightly removed from time prior to this, two picture-perfect lovebirds rambling around Vienna and Paris, having these erudite conversations. But with so much of this outing involving their children, and encounters with other people, bits of the modern world inevitably intrude here. Little things like the references to Skype and old cartoons made me acutely aware of the existence and passage of time in the "Before" universe.

Also, touching lightly on some spoiler territory here, "Before Midnight" also sees a momentous event in the couple's relationship that is different from the past ones, though handled just as well. This makes the film an unexpectedly gripping watch, because Linklater and his actors are treading in very different territory. We're not looking at two people contemplating the potential for a relationship anymore, but a long-estaplished pair trying to figure out how to deal with a very solid and weighty reality that they live with every day. The romance isn't over, but reality has sunk in. We find they've made sacrifices for thier marriage, expended great effort to keep it going, and perhaps both aren't quite so happy with how it all turned out.

I'm not in the camp that would like to see the "Before" movies go on indefinitely the way the famous "Up" documentary series has, following its subjects into old age. However, I think there's definitely room for another movie or two, to follow up with Jesse and Celine at another stage in their lives, further down the road. Even if we don't get a "Before Noon" in 2022, this has been an extraordinary run of movies, up there with the best of all time. You have to go back to Bergman and Truffaut and Satyajit Ray to really find anything comparable.

And it's my favorite film of the year to date.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Strange Cult Status of "Hocus Pocus"

It's always fascinating to see which initially ignored and panned films manage to endure the test of time to emerge as cult classics a few decades later. There are a heap of early 90s children's films that have become cult favorites, sparking a lot of recent discussion. Barely anyone remembers that "Hook," the 1991 Spielberg fantasy film, was met with mixed and downright hostile reviews. There hardly seems to be a Millennial out there who doesn't love it. Was "The Nightmare Before Christmas" too dark and scary for children, as the LA Time fretted back in 1993? Disney sure doesn't think so these days, with "Nightmare" merchandise now a ubiquitous presence at their stores and parks.

Usually I get why one of these old kids' films has become a perennial, but sometimes I don't. I watched "Hook" as a kid like everyone else, and while I love the score and a few standalone scenes, it's become all to clear to me over the years that the movie is a mess. But still, I can understand the appeal. It's a big budget spectacular, stuffed with action scenes and humor and kid-friendly thrills. It has endlessly repeatable one-liners, and Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman hamming it up with all they've got. The special effects still look pretty good, and the loud, noisy, raucous atmosphere must have been irresistible, for little boys especially. When you're ten, you're not paying attention to things like shoddy plotting and bad characterization.

However, the cult status of another 90s kid film that has re-emerged recently has left me scratching my head. Apparently there's a whole generation that has grown up loving the Disney live-action Halloween film "Hocus Pocus," which came out twenty years ago to absolutely dismal reviews. It didn't last long in theaters, though it did make its modest budget back. I remember the movie pretty well, because it was used as convenient holiday time-filler for much of the 90s, particularly on the Disney-owned networks. It also shared a couple of actors - Omri Katz and Jason Marsden - with "Eerie, Indiana," which I was a big fan of. I must have been too old when I watched "Hocus Pocus" for it to get a grip on my affections, because I remember it as a remarkably campy, silly, and all too often awkward children's movie that felt like it had been slapped together out of spare parts.

The witches, played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker are clearly the best the movie has to offer, playing a trio of goofy baddies with magnificent costumes, but they're so cartoonish that they never come across as a real threat. Everything is against them in the movie, from the insanely specific circumstances required for their resurrection to their unfamiliarity with the modern world. I know that they're supposed to be comedic figures, keeping it light for the littlest kids and amusing for the grown-ups, but the plot needs them to be at least a little scary by the third act. But good grief, the CGI "Casper" two years later was more intimidating.

The stuff with the teenagers running around, trying to stop them? Pretty dire. The actors aren't bad, but the characters are sketchy and the scenarios are bland. The teen romance was especially bad, and I cringed through a lot of the tin-ear dialogue about virgins and Vinessa Shaw's yabbos. For a movie meant to be safe for the very smallest tots, it's got some weirdly sexual elements in it that make me suspect that "Hocus Pocus" was initially a very different movie. Perhaps a musical of some sort, as this is the only movie directed by Disney regular Kenny Ortega, who made his name as a choreographer, that is not a musical.

I do like some bits and pieces of the movie. The talking cat is great. Doug Jones as a zombie is great. The best sequence is almost certainly when Bette Midler gets to sing "I'll Put a Spell On You," and vamp as only Bette Midler can. But those things aside, I can't work out what it is kids saw in this movie that stuck with them. "Hocus Pocus" looks like every other generic kids' Halloween movie from the same time. The effects are mediocre. The story isn't all that exciting. Were the Sanderson sisters really all that appealing to kids?

Familiarity is the culprit, I suspect. As I previously mentioned, "Hocus Pocus" has been a staple of Disney Halloween programming for years. Kids saw this movie over and over and over, until it became something nostalgic and fondly remembered, the same way that I got hooked on terrible old Arnold Schwarzenegger movies from the '80s. Young kids really have no sense of whether a movie is good or bad, but they respond well to bright colors and exaggerated characters, which "Hocus Pocus" has plenty of.

So, I suspect the same thing might have happened with any number of other movies if Disney gave them the same treatment. The far superior "The Witches," perhaps, or "The Halloween Tree." But Disney had the rights to "Hocus Pocus," so they played "Hocus Pocus," and twenty years later it's a little scary how many twenty-somethings can quote it verbatim.

Ultimately it's all about distribution.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Let's Talk About "S.H.I.E.L.D."

We're five episodes into Marvel's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," and now the grousers have taken center stage. Viewers are getting impatient with the show, unhappy with the characters, unhappy with the tone, and unhappy with the incremental pace of the plot and character development. The ratings reflect this, still decent, but sinking from the premiere, which was one of the highest rated debuts ABC had in years.

So what's the problem? From what I can tell, it's a mismatch between viewer expectations and what the show actually is. The viewers were hoping for a Marvel movie every week, a continuation of "The Avengers." Instead, what they're getting is a fairly generic team adventure show that has the potential to become something more interesting, but hasn't really gotten there yet. It's not a superhero show, as no one has displayed any special powers beyond being very good at fighting and hacking and science. The special effects work has been solid, but not spectacular. There are signs of a larger mythology being built up, but so far we've only gotten hints of something going on with Coulson's near-death experience and Melinda's checkered past.

And if the show wasn't so hyped up and so high profile, that would probably be fine. Genre shows like this often take a while to find there footing. The CW's "Arrow" has come out swinging in year two after a long run of awful episodes in year one. The Whedons' last series, "Dollhouse," didn't really come into its own until about halfway through its first season too, when they finally delved into the show's complicated mythology and started giving individual characters some room to grow. "S.H.I.E.L.D." reminds me a lot of the early "Dollhouse," when they were still trying to follow a procedural formula.

There are some other factors exacerbating this. For one thing, the show is designed to be family friendly and it's running on Disney-owned ABC. They want something that will stay light and happy and kid-friendly, so I don't know how much the show can really capitalize on the premise of working for this morally gray government agency. For another, "S.H.I.E.L.D." is taking place in a shared universe with the Marvel films, and it's not clear how expansive and epic its storylines will be allowed to get, for fear of stepping the toes of of the movies. Right now they've been playing it much too safe, staying firmly on the periphery when the show could be a great way to deal with some issues in depth that the movies don't have time for.

However, there are some areas where "S.H.I.E.L.D." can certainly make some improvements quickly. Start by giving us more information about the characters besides Skye. Make the implied explicit, and let us in on what's bothering Melinda and what's up with Coulson. Give Ward some bigger problems to deal with. Start using Fitz and Simmons for more than just comic relief. Fitz has revealed he's a nerd with an ego, but Simmons is still almost a total blank. Give the girl a crush on Melinda or a bad childhood. Anything. Moreover, it's high time we had a wacky recurring villain show up. Is Alan Tudyk doing anything?

I do think that the show could become something really entertaining and interesting, and worth following weekly. I'm sticking around for a while longer because I dig the B-movie hijinks and the actors have already improved a bit. However, like everyone else I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'm waiting for a proper villain, some real crisis for the characters, or at the very least better cases of the week that show off more of this world. They have the whole Marvel Comics universe to play with, so where are all the mutants and the aliens already? Where are all the minor players who aren't big enough to get their own movies?

What's the most frustrating thing here is that "S.H.I.E.L.D." is wasting a lot of goodwill from interested fans and a substantial budget that could allow them to do so much more. I've enjoyed some things like the gravity fluctuations in the third episode, and the flying car from the pilot, but otherwise there's not enough to build the show around spectacle. The storytelling really needs to pick up the slack if it wants to keep the attention of the audience.

If this were a show airing on the CW or Syfy, I'd be much more forgiving, and I expect "S.H.I.E.L.D." would be able to eventually work out its problems over the course of a full season or two or even three. However, it's airing on a major network in valuable prime time real estate. ABC is not going to be nearly as patient, and I worry that it's going to negatively impact the show's chances in the long run.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Who Blinked?

As awards season barrels toward us, there have been several last minute scheduling changes, and there will probably be a few more to come. "Monuments Men," the George Clooney film about a group of art historians and preservationists trying to save important cultural works during WWII, has been delayed to next year. The stated reason is that there wasn't enough time to finish the special effects. It follows on the heels of other delayed films like Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher" crime drama, and "Grace of Monaco," currently the subject of a very public spat between its director and the Harvey Weinstein, who wants to make some edits, as Harvey is wont to do.

These are only the most high profile titles that have exited the Oscar race, though. The Weinsteins are also holding back "The Railway Man" with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman and James Gray's "The Immigrant" with Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard. Lionsgate is doing the same with the star-studded "A Most Wanted Man," based on the John le Carré nevel. Depression-era thriller "Serena" with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper is in limbo, without a North American distributor, and it almost certainly won't be making it to screens this year. The much-debated and much-edited Weinstein version of Bong Joon-ho's "Snowpiercer" doesn't look like it's getting a 2013 U.S. release either.

To a certain extent this happens every year. The distributors strategize to maximize their award season chances, banishing weaker titles to the post-Oscar season. This time the race is particularly competitive. The Weinstein Company is handling multiple contenders including "Fruitvale Station," "Lee Daniels's The Butler," "August: Osage County," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," and "Philomena." They're in for a hard fight against early favorites like "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity," and "Captain Phillips." Other big upcoming titles include Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis," David O'Russell's "American Hustle," Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street." And there are all kinds of potential spoilers like "Her," "Dallas Buyers' Club," "Saving Mr. Banks," "All is Lost," "Rush," and "Blue Jasmine."

The end-of-the-year deadline can also be daunting for filmmakers trying to finish complicated projects while maintaining artistic integrity. "Monuments Men" was originally slated for a December 18th release date, a very late premiere date for a major contender when early critics' awards are handed out at the beginning of that month. Most of the other titles hitting theaters around the same time, like "August: Osage County" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" had fall festival premieres much earlier in the season. The big exception is "The Wolf of Wall Street," which was delayed for a month, and there was significant speculation over whether it would pull out of the race entirely. Now it's slotted for Christmas Day, and everyone's crossing their fingers.

Now a film exiting the Oscar race doesn't necessarily spell doom and gloom. Last year "The Great Gatsby" was pushed from December to May, and it did quite well financially in summer blockbuster season. However, it is completely out of the running for serious awards contention this year, and if Leonardo DiCaprio is getting another chance at a Best Actor trophy, it'll be for "Wolf of Wall Street" and not "Gatsby." Since prestige films depend so heavily on awards buzz to fuel their marketing, more often than not the delayed films end up with much smaller releases and lower profiles, like "Girl Most Likely" or the most recent version of "Great Expectations."

Though there are always a few exceptions to the rule, but films that come out earlier in the year have worse chances at being remembered at Oscar time, and a distributor that releases a film too early is sending the signal that they don't have a real contender. "Monuments Men" has a new release date in February, 2014, which makes it very unlikely that it'll have any buzz left by the following December. The same holds true for "Grace of Monaco," which has been reshuffled to early March. Holding a film until the next awards season, like Warner Bros. did with "Gravity," is possible if they commit to it early enough, and makes for a bigger vote of confidence.

All in all, it looks like we're in for a great season. The slate is absolutely stuffed with good movies, and we're bound to have a few out-of-left field nominations like last year's "Amour." Plus, there have been some pretty resounding K.O.s already, ending the chances of "Diana," "The Fifth Estate" and "Jobs." Who knows who's going down next? And who's going to bow out before they're pushed? And is anybody going to be real competition for Cate Blanchett? I guess we can't count out Julia and Meryl, but time is running short, even though it's not even November yet.

It's a good time to love the movies.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Comments Section

The comment hosting service Disquis has long been one of my mortal enemies. Many versions refused to load comments properly, or resulted in so many script problems it would often freeze or crash my browsers. At a certain point I got so fed up that I had to block the platform entirely for a few months. The trouble is that Disquis has become a default for many sites like CNN and Wired. A.V. Club uses Disquis and recently went through a design upgrade that rendered the comments inaccessible for me from Internet Explorer and Firefox. They still work on Chrome, for the time being.

Then there's Slate, a webzine that recently decided to make itself more mobile friendly and decided to go with a layout that makes it look positively godawful on a desktop. Seriously, is it that difficult to host different sites for mobile and web browsers? Anyway, one unintended consequence was that the Slate comments section is also kaput for me, specifically on the version of Internet Explorer on my work computer. Slate has their own site-specific commenting system, but every time I try to use it, the text box and scroll bar elements come up in the wrong layer. I can see how many comments should be there, but I can't actually see any comments. It's been frustrating, to say the least.

I've realized since losing the comments sections on these sites how important they are to my experience with them. A.V. Club in particular has one of the most well-moderated, well-behaved communities I've ever seen on a media review site. There are joke and pun threads, but you also get good, solid, serious discussions that can go into much greater depth than the review or article that it's commenting on. It's often difficult to find articulate, intelligent fans who have something interesting to say about any particular show or movie, but A.V. Club regularly attracts hordes of them. And you're as likely to see them debating "Adventure Time" as much as the latest episode of "Homeland."

The Slate commenters tend to be more hit-and-miss depending on what the topic is, but I find them invaluable for some of the regular features like the "Dear Prudence" advice column written by Emily Yoffe. For "Prudence" the commenters often provide a fascinating counterpoint, debating the value and the applicability of the offered advice, questioning if situations have been misinterpreted, and pointing out possible alternatives. It makes for a far more interesting read than the column by itself. So when the comments section became impossible for me to use, I became less inclined to read the latest installments of "Dear Prudence."

And then there's Deadline Hollywood, which is overrun with minor show biz minions sniping at each other, but it's fascinating to watch them try to construct these elaborate, ridiculous narratives that push their own agendas. The weekly box office reports are always a good source of entertainment, thanks to them. Or there's the perpetual war between Republican and Democratic commenters on any FOX News story, which tend to be more illuminating than the actual content. Social media sites like Reddit and Twitter can be viewed as just one big comments section for content from all over the web.

"Letters to the Editor" have existed long before the internet, allowing individuals to correspond with the content providers and resulting in plenty of interesting discourse in major newspapers and magazines. However, the internet has really turned the feedback into an integral part of the way many people consume content. Now it's not just carefully selected letters that get published, though some sites like the New York Times online edition still curate their comments, but everything that makes it through the spam filters and the mods. You get a much more accurate sampling of reactions, and quicker too.

You'd think that I'd be pretty active in these comment sections considering how much importance I place on them, but I'm not. I had a Disquis account at some point, but only used it very rarely. I never signed up for an account at Slate, and for most of the websites I have signed up and gotten verified for, I almost never actually use the comment sections. These aren't forums that I feel very comfortable expressing my opinions in, though I'm glad for the commenters who do.

You see, when I get fired up about an article or a review enough to actually want to share any comments, my responses tend to get way too long and involved to be appropriate for the average comments section. They tend to turn into essays. They tend to turn into blog posts. And the feedback turns into legitimate content. And I guess that's just how the internet goes around.

Well, except for Disquis. That's definitely still broken.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Baz Does "Gatsby"

I've been putting this one off for a while, but Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" is a film that requires some attention, for the scope of its grand ambitions if nothing else. Also, I'm fairly sure that I'm the only one who is going to be comparing it to Zack Snyder's "Watchmen," another deeply troubled adaptation of beloved source material.

So for those of you who didn't read the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel in school, "Gatsby" takes place in the early 1920s on Long Island, where a young bond salesman named Nick Carraway (Toby McGuire) rents a house next door to the palatial mansion of a mysterious man named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), who throws wild parties constantly, but is rarely seen. Across the bay lives Nick's cousin Daisy (Cary Mulligan), who has married a rich polo player, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). One night Nick is invited to one of Gatsby's parties and becomes caught up in his neighbor's seemingly charmed life. It turns out that Daisy and Gatsby have history together, and Gatsby is keen to reconnect, with Nick's help.

Set at the height of the Roaring Twenties, when jazz and flappers and loose morals were in full swing, "Gatsby" has become associated with a bygone era of American decadence that Baz Luhrmann was clearly keen to exploit. Much of the film's budget goes to the massive parties thrown by Gatsby, in an ornately decorated estate where everything seems to be embossed with his initials. The whole film boasts magnificently stylized visuals, full of bright colors and art deco flourishes. Luhrmann has always been a showman at heart, and here he unleashes the full bag of tricks to make this far and away the best looking "Gatsby" ever filmed. And with Jay-Z handling the anachronistic, but appropriate soundtrack, the aural magnificence matches the visuals.

The trouble is that the spectacle only gets Luhrmann so far. He's perfectly faithful to the Fitzgerald prose, perhaps even leaning on it too heavily at times with Nick Carraway's on-the-nose narration. However, Luhrmann seems reluctant to really engage with the novel's major themes, and the heightened reality he creates leaves little room for subtlety. Each new twist and turn in the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby lands with a hammer-force blow, and every major epiphany is underlined several times. For instance, there's the famous scene where Gatsby is showing off his wardrobe to Daisy, who famously starts crying, and can only blurt out that she's never seen "such beautiful shirts." Luhrmann sees fit to add narration from Nick Carraway on top, explaining exactly what she's feeling.

The actors do what they can to breathe some life into characters who keep threatening to turn into caricatures. Leonardo DiCaprio makes an excellent Jay Gatsby, giving him an easy charm, bullheaded stubbornness, and deep personal flaws. Cary Mulligan makes shallow, spoiled Daisy at least sympathetic, but she doesn't get much opportunity to dig any deeper. Joel Edgerton was a nice surprise, elevating Tom above the usual villainous cliches. Sadly it's Toby McGuire who is the weak link. I'm still trying to decide if he was miscast or if Luhrmann's more morose, emotional version of Nick Carraway was the problem.

It's a little startling how much Baz Luhrmann imposes his sensibilities on the material, and how distracting it becomes. The movie shares almost the same basic structure with "Moulin Rouge!" for instance, including the story being framed by scenes of Nick Carraway as a depressed alcoholic, who bangs out the story of Jay Gatsby on his typewriter, while the narrative is relayed through his flashbacks. There are also the odd comedy beats that find their way into the movie early on, like Gatsby micromanaging the tea party that he's asked Nick to host, so that he can have a private meeting with Daisy.

And this is where the "Watchmen" comparisons come in. Zack Snyder had similarly good intentions when adapting the Alan Moore graphic novel, displayed a similar passion for the material, and was in some ways faithful to a fault to his text. However, he was far more interested in creating a spectacle than in really grappling with the questions that "Watchmen" presented. And Snyder's trademark use of stylized violence is completely inappropriate. As a result, his film feels shallow and misses the point, though there are some outstanding individual sequences.

"The Great Gatsby" has similar flaws. Luhrmann does do a few things right, giving us some evocative visuals and setting the stage for some good performances, but he glosses over the complexities of the story in favor if his trademark glitz. And in the end, he has to have Nick Carraway spell out nearly all the big messages for us, because it seems that Luhrmann can't figure out how to convey them to us cinematically.

Baz Luhrmann's "Gatsby" is entertaining, but Fitzgerald it ain't.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ground Control to Mr. Cuarón

It's easy to get caught up in all the hype about how Alfonso Cuarón made "Gravity," his new space adventure thriller. The film's impressive visuals required the invention of new technology, and a radically different production timeline than most studio features. After all, the major selling point of "Gravity" is its spectacle, the ninety minutes of visceral thrills and awe-inspiring special effects work that distinguish a very simple survival story.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer, is on her first mission as a newly trained astronaut, with the space shuttle Explorer. Disaster strikes when a destroyed Soviet satellite causes a debris cloud that wreaks catastrophic damage on everything in its path. Caught out during a space walk, with all communications with Earth severed, Stone and fellow astronaut Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are separated from the shuttle and at risk of drifting away beyond anyone's reach. They have to find their way back with limited resources and limited time, in order to return to Earth safely.

I heard some complaints when the trailers were first released for "Gravity," that casting two major A-listers like Bullock and Clooney was distracting. However, I think having actors of this caliber in the film was a necessity. The script by Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonás is very simple, and the characters are fairly generic. Nearly everything depends on the performances of the two leads, and they don't have much to work with. We have to relate to and root for the astronauts to overcome each obstacle in their path on the way home, and the film wouldn't have nearly as much impact if the emotional journey wasn't as engaging as the physical one. "Gravity" wouldn't work without Sandra Bullock, and after all the drama about casting the film in the early going, I'm glad she's the one who ultimately got the part.

However, the bulk of the kudos have to go to Cuarón. As we saw last year with Ang Lee and "Life of Pi," it's one thing to have access to sophisticated special effects, but quite another to be able to use them to tell a story in an engaging way. The reason "Gravity" required so much innovation was because of how Cuarón wanted to tell the story. Cuarón insisted on opening the film with a complicated, endless shot that starts with the Explorer as a speck on the horizon and then zooms around it to introduce and follow the characters as they work on the maintenance of the Hubble telescope. Existing methods of simulating weightlessness simply wouldn't cut it, so new methods had to be invented.

One of my favorite shots in the film is the "womb" shot, where we see Sandra Bullock briefly curled up in a fetal position, floating in isolation. It looks so simple at first, but when you consider the logistics of what was necessary to achieve that image, suddenly it becomes exponentially more impressive. Scientific accuracy isn't always paramount in this film, as multiple scientists have already pointed out, but there was clearly a high awareness of the necessity of getting the little details right. Sound doesn't carry in space, so all we hear are the astronauts and the score by Stephen Price. Fire behaves differently. The actors have to move in specific ways to convey the lack of weight and friction. I especially like how all the space shuttles and space stations in the film are ones that actually exist or are planned for the near future.

The technical achievements are without question. The viscerality and the immersiveness of the experience play a major part in its effectiveness, and I think it's to Cuarón's credit that so many critics are calling for the film to be seen in a 3D IMAX format. But at the end of the day, were all these thrills put to use in the best way to tell a good story? Spectacle for its own sake can make for a decent movie, but I expect more from a director like Alphonso Cuarón. By and large I think he managed it. I don't think this is his best film. The dialogue is too simplistic and the metaphors are too blunt, but I was on board with the story the whole way through, and there were times when the human drama did make me briefly forget about the spectacle.

That said, I can't help hoping that Cuarón's next film is a smaller one. "Gravity" is a wonderful film, but I'm not so sure it was worth seven years out of the career of one of the best directors currently working. I don't like the idea of Cuarón turning into another James Cameron, because we already have James Cameron. In any case, I want to see what Alphonso Cuarón wants to do next.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Little Asian-American Solidarity

I was all geared up to write a post on the twentieth anniversary of "The Joy Luck Club," which premiered back in September, 1993, and remains one of the media touchstones for my generation of Asian-Americans. Then, upon further reflection, I decided I really didn't have enough material for a whole post, so I decided to fold it into something a little bigger.

The thing is, I never really much liked "The Joy Luck Club." The book was great, but the film version never quite matched up. I loved seeing so many different Chinese actors together in one project, and the portrayals of Asian-American childhood, but from early on I knew that the film was more important that it was actually any good. However, for a brief period it was mandatory viewing. All my relatives saw it, either in theaters or on video. My family ended up with a video copy, which Dad habitually put on when we had relatives over. I remember watching it at Christmas a lot.

But it's the twenty years since that I'm very interested in. Are we getting anywhere with the portrayal of Asian-Americans? There's been precious little since "The Joy Luck Club" that has achieved the same kind of mainstream visibility and success. "All American Girl," "Vanishing Son," "Martial Law," "Outsourced," "The Mindy Project" and "Nikita" on television, perhaps. Smaller films "Better Luck Tomorrow," "The Namesake" are only really known among Asian-Americans of a certain age. I guess that means the "Harold and Kumar" movies win by default. Projects that have been explicitly Asian-American themed haver really gotten much traction. Asian-themed, yes. See "Memoirs of a Geisha" for starters - but not Asian-American themed.

And yet, there have been major Asian-American characters that have penetrated, mostly in supporting roles on television. There's Christina Yang from "Grey's Anatomy," Boomer from "Battlestar Galactica," Chang from "Community," Raj on "The Big Bang Theory," Kelly Kapoor on "The Office," the new Dr. Watson on "Elementary," Tom Haverford on "Parks & Rec," and the gang over at "Hawaii Five-0." We're a long way from Apu at the Kwik-E-Mart. Heck, only Raj speaks with a noticeable accent these days, and he's probably more well-versed in American pop culture than the rest combined.

And they've been showing up in greater and greater numbers. In the newest crop of network shows this year, there are at least a dozen titles that have Asian-American secondary characters, including "Super Fun Night," "The Tomorrow People," "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," "Ironside," "The Blacklist," "Sleepy Hollow," and "Dads." Ah yes, "Dads." It's 2013 and the "Dads" pilot made it to air. This is not a good sign, but I do take some comfort in the fact that it got called out for being racist so quickly, and that there has been a pretty strong consensus that it was inappropriate for prime time.

How about the portrayals of these characters? I was watching "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," which features Ming Na-Wen, who played Jing-Mei in "The Joy Luck Club" all those years ago. Here she plays Agent Melinda May, and it struck me that it had been four episodes and nobody had acknowledged her ethnicity in any way. The character could have been Caucasian, black, or Latino from the way she's been portrayed, and it never would have made any difference. I've seen this a lot more lately, where Asian-American characters are shown as completely assimilated into American culture.

On the one hand this means no funny accents and less stereotyping, though the old "Asians are smart" business comes up pretty regularly. On the other, it also reveals a reluctance to really delve into the cultural baggage of these characters. Many exist in a strange vacuum where they're the only Asian-American presence. On "The Mindy Project" we've met Mindy's brother, but not her parents. Joan Watson is a central character on "Elementary," but we've seen her mother and brother only once apiece. Mostly, Mindy and Watson remain the only minority characters on their shows.

Of course, "Elementary" is primarily a mystery show where the personal lives of our lead characters isn't as important as the case of the week. And there are plenty of second and third generation Asian-Americans like Mindy who don't maintain very cultural strong ties, or simply don't consider their ethnicity a big deal that needs to be addressed very often. It does tend to be grating whenever one of these characters tries to make any kind of stand against stereotyping and racism, because nobody has done it well.

Overall, though, I see little I can complain about on television. Strides are being made, slowly but surely, and the level of awareness and attitude about ethnic diversity overall has definitely improved. Things could be better, but we're getting there. The movies are a different matter, still much more xenophobic and wary of anything beyond token recognition. If we do get another "Joy Luck Club" one of these days, it's far more likely to be on the small screen than the big one.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

My Top Ten Kids In the Hall Sketches

Would I have gotten through my sophomore year of college without coming home after morning classes every weekday to chill out with an hour of "Kids in the Hall" reruns on Comedy Central during my lunch break? Probably, but it wouldn't have been nearly as fun. Here are my top ten favorite sketches from my favorite Canadian sketch comedy show. All links lead to Youtube.

The King of Empty Promises - One of the first bits of "Kids in the Hall" I ever saw, and the one that helped get me hooked on the show. Kevin MacDonald plays the title character, who borrows a video from a friend, played by Dave Foley, and keeps failing to return it, to the friend's increasing consternation. I love how the situation escalates, and MacDonald keeps getting more and more infuriating.

Pit of Ultimate Darkness: Employee Employer Exchange - MacDonald and Foley again, this time as their recurring characters, Sir Simon Milligan and Manservant Hecubus, who love telling us of their evil doings, that are never quite as evil as they make them out to be. In this installment, Simon and Hecubus switch jobs and Hecubus tries his hand at hypnotism, with a little help from a syringe of sodium pentathol.

Pear - A bizarre sketch from the very first episode where a man played by Scott Thompson keeps waking up from strange dreams within dreams, each time to a different sleeping arrangement with different partners. It's a good taste of the troupe's penchant for high concept pieces and kooky surrealism. I love the self-aware pretentiousness, the art film visuals, the oblique dialogue, and the final punchline.

Francesca Fiore: Spy Models - My favorite Scott Thompson character is the fabulous Francesca Fiore, a gloriously over-the-top movie star. "Spy Models" is one of her fake films, where she's a spy who has gone undercover as a high fashion model in order to dispose of an evil General with a little help from her sometimes-ally, sometimes-lover, Bruno Puntz Jones - Dave Foley in a bad accent, moustache, and Panama hat.

Experiment - The three guys I've talked about so far are my favorites, but the other two "Kids in the Hall," Bruce McCulloch and Mark McKinney, deserve their kudos. Here McKinney plays his recurring oddball character Darill, who is recruited by a scientist named Carlo, played by McCulloch, for experiments in foot energy generation. This one stuck with me for being such a strange idea handled exactly the right way.

I Speak No English - A shopkeeper tells a baffled man trying to get directions that he speaks no English - in perfect English. Dave Foley's delivery of his increasingly ridiculous and verbally sophisticated explanation is priceless, particularly when his confused patron loses his temper and starts getting physical. Only the Kids and the Pythons were ever able to pull off sketches this smart this consistently.

Trappers - Foley and MacDonald play a pair of French Canadian fur trappers, straight out of the colonial days, who now stalk a more modern prey - businessmen and women in fancy suits. The silliness of the premise and the joyous execution is what gets me, from the jovial duo singing "Alouette" together as they paddle their canoe through office cubicles, to selling off the Armani suits they've harvested like beaver pelts.

Into the Doors - Perhaps Bruce McCulloch's finest moment, playing a record store owner who lays out for an awestruck customer exactly what it means to be a Doors fan, and what it takes to become one. His monologue is a masterpiece of music fandom, and delivered with the conviction of a true believer. I will never be convinced Jack Black's "High Fidelity" character wasn't inspired in some way by Bruce.

Husk Musk - I know that Danny Musk, played by Scott Thompson, appeared in other sketches, but this is the only one that I can recall. It's a classic example of one small idea expanded into an epic. Musk's natural musk is discovered to be so soothing to the senses that it does away with animosity, perhaps leading to world peace or the end of the world as we know it. How do these guys come up with this stuff?

Girl Drink Drunk - And finally, the sad downward spiral of an alcoholic, played by Dave Foley, who becomes addicted to alcohol - but only in the form of girly drinks. Common drinking problem scenarios are complicated by ludicrously complicated drinks with funny names, and little paper umbrellas take on sinister connotations. You may never look at milkshake or a blender the same way again after this one.

And shoutouts to Buddy Cole, Gavin, Maudre and Jocelyn, the Chicken Lady, the Headcrusher, the A. T. & Love ladies, and all 30 Helens, who I couldn't find individual sketches for that measured up to this bunch, but who I couldn't imagine the show without.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"Escape From Tomorrow" is No Disneyland Dream

I had to see this thing for myself. Back in January, "Escape From Tomorrow" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and attracted a huge amount of attention. You may remember it as the notorious guerrilla Disneyland film where director Randy Moore and his actors surreptitiously filmed large sections of the feature film in and around the Walt Disney World theme parks in Orlando, Florida. Disney being notoriously protective of their IP, was expected to bury it in litigation, ensuring it would never reach general audiences. And yet here we are, nine months later, and the film has been given a very limited theatrical release and has been made available online.

First things first. The movie is terrible. It depicts the nightmarish final day of the White family's trip to the Disney theme parks. In the opening scene, father Jim (Roy Abrahamsohn) is fired over the phone. He doesn't tell his wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), trying not to spoil the day for their two young children, Elliott (Jack Dalton) and Sarah (Katelynn Rodriguez). However Jim becomes increasingly frustrated with his family and disillusioned with the theme park experience. He gets sinister visions. A pair of teenage French girls (Annet Mahendru and Danielle Safady) keep distracting him. He flirts with a fellow parent (Alison Lees-Taylor). As the day goes on, things keep getting stranger.

The acting is marginal at best, the dialogue is clunky, and the plot is nearly incomprehensible. Moore's idea of satire is to juxtapose the Disney branding with adult lewdness, creepy horror movie imagery, and art school surrealism. At least, I think he's trying to do satire. When the story really goes off the deep end in the last half, and Jim apparently wanders into a paranoid science-fiction conspiracy, the movie becomes a series of nutty B-movie hijinks, each weirder and more unpleasant than the last. Some of the black-and-white cinematography is pretty good, the special effects are occasionally impressive, and the kids are cute, but the whole project is so confused and convoluted and ultimately amateurish, it's difficult to take seriously.

And yet, in terms of sheer conceptual daring, "Escape From Tomorrow" has a lot of impact. Simply having the film take place in the real Disney World adds a lot of and atmosphere and tension that a recreation couldn't hope to match. That's the real line for the "Buzz Lightyear" ride that Jim and Elliott wait in endlessly. That's really "It's a Small World" where Jim and Emily have a brief spat, even though the iconic theme song has been replaced by a generic jingle for legal reasons. The Disney parks, hotels, shuttles, merchandise, and characters are everywhere, inescapable, and you do get a sense of the company's famous insidiousness, though the ham-handed family drama at the forefront is much too blunt to capitalize on much of it.

I can see why Disney didn't feel compelled to quash the film, because it's so clearly the kind of curiosity that will only appeal to a very select audience. It's not good enough to attract the attention of mainstream viewers, though it may be bad enough to qualify as a cult film in a few years. More importantly, even without the big disclaimer at the beginning about Disney corporate not having anything to do with the film, no one in a million years would mistake "Escape From Tomorrow" for a Disney product. It's a bleak, antagonistic, unhappy piece of work from its opening frames, and presents a version of the Disney World experience that is totally antithetical to everything Disney promotes itself as being.

So they've opted to ignore the movie and not give it any attention to capitalize on, which most viewers can feel comfortable doing as well. "Escape From Tomorrow" is daring, but it's not particularly well conceived or well made. I expect that some Disney enthusiasts will get a kick out of it, for some of the unintended campiness and black humor, or just seeing familiar Disneyana through a different, subversive lens. For instance, I loved one scene that takes place during the flying simulator "Soarin'" ride, where Jim sees scantily clad women on the giant screen instead of picturesque landscapes. It's meant to be disturbing, yet another sign that Jim is losing his mind, but I found it hysterical.

Having grown up near the Disney empire in Southern California, I can definitely appreciate the impulse to take some artistic potshots at the Mouse. However, I wish the movie had been made by someone a little more creative with better writing chops. Throwing David Lynchian dream logic into the works didn't accomplish much, and made it feel like the ending was made up at the last minute. And bits of business like equating the Disney princesses with sex workers are positively old hat.

"Escape From Tomorrow" is ultimately a novelty item, and like all novelties, wears thin pretty quick.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Spinoffs: "Wonderland" and "Originals"

Two ongoing genre shows that I've been hearing good things about, but haven't had the time or the interest in really getting into have been CW's "The Vampire Diaries," and ABC's "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland." Both shows have spinoffs that premiered in the past week, "The Originals" and "Once Upon a Time in Wonderland" respectively. I decided to take a look at both, to see how well they worked without knowing all the backstory and to get a sense of what people liked so much about the original shows. I've only seen one episode of "Once Upon a Time" and none of "The Vampire Diaries."

"Wonderland" was fairly straightforward and easy to follow, though I'm not clear on what time period the show exists in. Alice (Sophie Lowe) returns from her adventures in Wonderland as a little girl to discover that no one believes her explanations of where she's been. She resolves to find proof, and grows up into an adventuress who falls in love with a genie named Cyrus (Peter Gadiot). However, after Cyrus appears to be killed by the evil Red Queen (Emma Rigby), Alice goes home brokenhearted and ends up in an insane asylum. Well, that is until the Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) and the White Rabbit (John Lithgow) come to take her back to Wonderland, when rumors spring up that Cyrus may still be alive.

The first thing that struck me about "Wonderland" is how it's absolutely smothered in second rate CGI effects. The set design and costuming look great, but the CGI overkill is very distracting. Secondly, the show plays its ridiculous premise completely straight, not trying to inject any sort of modern irony to the works at all, in spite of a very revisionist attitude where the young heroine can beat up guards better than her rescuers. In short it's very light and very Disney, also sharing some DNA withe old syndicated action-adventure shows I watched in the '90s like "Hercules" and "Xena."

It's amusing, but honestly not as much fun as I was hoping for. Lowe and Socha are pretty good, but the rest of the actors are flat, and the show isn't making very good use of the Lewis Carroll material. "Once Upon a Time" is known for mixing characters from different fairy tales and Disney properties together, so Jafar (Naveen Andrews) is going to be a major villain here. If I hadn't known in advance about it, and wasn't familiar with the franchise, I'd have been completely baffled by all the Arabian Nights elements. For some low grade spectacle, this might be okay, and it would probably be good for kids, but this one is definitely not for me.

"The Originals" has a steeper learning curve, but it's also more interesting all around. I've seen two episodes so far. First Klaus (Joseph Morgan) and then his sister Rebekah (Sarah Holt) come back to New Orleans after long absences, joining their brother Elijah (Daniel Gillies). These three are the Mikaelson siblings, the first vampires ever created, who are called the Originals. Thanks to a lot of past acrimony that we get quick glimpses of through flashbacks, the siblings split up and New Orleans is now under the control of one of their old vampiric offspring, Marcel (Charles Michael Davis).

The world of "The Originals" contains witches werewolves, various factions of vampires, and a few odd human beings too. Marcel controls all of them at the moment through a a complex underground organization and many rules for cohabitation. There's also clearly a lot of history that has gone on amongst many of these characters that has already been explored on "The Vampire Diaries." The goals presented are fairly straightforward - Klaus and Rebekah intend to wrest control of New Orleans from Marcel - but the relationships are not.

Remember "Angel," where every one of the crossover characters from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was trying to get a fresh start in Los Angeles, and the show could go whole episodes without acknowledging anyone's past? "The Originals" is all about the past, and coming back to face all the messy, unhappy consequences of regrettable past actions. Apparently there are several other Mikaelsons we haven't met yet, and all kinds of former love interests and enemies waiting in the wings. What's nice though is that these actors have clearly been playing these characters for a while, so they already have a lot of the performances and chemistry well established.

"The Originals" is going to turn into one big soap opera inevitably, but its genre flourishes are much more fun and there is an intriguing universe supporting the works. I especially enjoy the use of flashbacks, which reminds me of how "Highlander" used to do them. However, the downside is that I'm a little wary of watching further before I figure out what I missed of the Mikaelsons' story from multiple seasons of the "Vampire Diaries."

Monday, October 14, 2013

"Sean Saves the World" and "Super Fun Night"

I'm still trying to catch up on the recent premieres. I watched two episodes of each new sitcom, though my opinions would be the same if I'd only watched the pilot episodes. And here we go.

"Sean Saves the World," NBC's latest Thursday night offering starring Sean Hayes feels like a sitcom from the mid-90s. It's a standard multicamera show with limited sets and very broad characters who stick to their own very specific shtick in each episode. Hayes plays a gay divorce who has recently become a full time dad to teenage daughter Ellie (Samantha Isler) after her mother moved away. He's helped out by his intrusive mother Lorna (Linda Lavin). At work, he and his friends Liz (Megan Hilty) and Hunter (Echo Kellum) commiserate over their unpleasant new boss, Max (Thomas Lennon), who regularly makes unreasonable demands.

The show feels immediately familiar. Sean mixes jokes about being gay with jokes about being middle-aged. Liz is the oversexed party girl bestie. Hunter is the too-cool black friend. Lorna is the overfamiliar, nitpicking parent that every middle-aged sitcom character used to roll their eyes at on similar NBC shows. The cast already feels settled into their roles, particularly Sean Hayes, who does a good job of reminding us of what was so fun about his work on "Will & Grace." I did get a few chuckles out of these episodes, and that was almost solely due to his animated performance. He can still pull off a lot of physical comedy, and there's an old-shoe comfort to his screen presence that does beg the question why NBC didn't give him his own series years ago when it would have been more timely.

While there's nothing new about "Sean Saves the World," that's not a bad thing. The structure works. It's funny. When necessary, it can do heartfelt. It does the generic old formula well enough that you could mistake it for a show that's been around for multiple seasons. There's room for growth. Most importantly, it's a lot easier watching Sean Hayes than Michael J. Fox or Robin Williams, who both have new sitcoms on the same night, and both still need some time to settle back into television. I wouldn't be surprised if Hayes manages to outlast both of them.

I'm far less optimistic about Rebel Wilson and the cast of "Super Fun Night," which was given the post- "Modern Family" slot over on ABC. Wilson plays single gal, Kimmie Boubier, a young attorney who works for a very nice partner named Richard (Kevin Bishop), and is rivals for his attentions with a man-eating mean girl, Kendall (Kate Jenkinson). Kimmie has two roommates, Marika (Lauren Ash) and Helen-Alice (Liza Lapira), who she's been friends with since childhood. All three of them are oddballs who are very unlucky in love, but they go out every Friday night together for their "Super Fun Night." So far, their outings have included a piano bar karaoke competition and a group date.

Now I'm rooting for Rebel Wilson, who was so much fun in "Pitch Perfect" and pretty much everything else I've seen her in. The first two episodes of "Super Fun Night" give her a chance to show off her physical comedy chops, her vocal skills, and a ridiculous impersonation of a Russian high-fashion model, and she's great. The show, however, has yet to find its footing. They're staying away from fat jokes and focusing on Kimmie's self esteem and personal growth, which I appreciate. However, despite her video journal and her spanx, Kimmie's single life in New York doesn't feel remotely genuine to a post- "Girls" television universe.

The roommates are fine, and I like Ash and Lapira so far, though they haven't been given much to do. However, making Kimmie a lawyer is not convincing at all. Her character's immaturity, social anxiety, and general lack of sophistication wouldn't seem out of place in another profession or even another position within a law firm, but as an attorney it doesn't ring true. I have to wonder how she ever got hired in the first place. I also don't see the comedic potential of the Bishop or Jenkinson characters, who so far seem to have been acting out a very simplified version of "Ally McBeal."

Rebel Wilson's comedic persona is usually much more boisterous and raunchy, and it's disappointing to see her in something so safe and bland and far from "super." She's the best part of "Super Fun Night" by a wide margin, but this doesn't feel like a Rebel Wilson vehicle. It feels like something written for a much sweeter actress that Wilson got shoehorned into. There's room for some improvement, but only up to a point. And I can't help wondering what "Super Fun Night" would have looked like on FX or HBO.

Friday, October 11, 2013

"Monsters University" Makes Good

Maybe I was feeling sorry for PIXAR after hearing about the delays with the troubled "The Good Dinosaur" feature, their Canadian campus closure, or the latest round of snarky complaints about how they sold out after the Disney merger. Maybe it was because none of the other animated films this year have been quite as good as I felt they could have been. But for whatever reason, I found myself really impressed with "Monsters University." I had been cool toward the first film, and wasn't expecting much out of the prequel, but this was really a very solid and entertaining PIXAR movie.

This time out, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) is really the star of the show, who makes a fateful visit to Monsters Inc one day as a little monster, and becomes enamored with the idea of growing up to be a Scarer, one of the monsters who travels into kids' bedrooms at night to collect the energy generated by their screams. An ace student, he gets into the top school for Scarers, Monsters University. But though Mike is dedicated, he's simply not as intimidating as monsters with natural talent for scariness, like an infuriating slacker named Sully (John Goodman). Mike and Sully are rivals at first, but when they're kicked out of the Scaring Program by the harsh Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), their only way back in is to lead a team of misfit monsters to victory in the Scare Games, the campus's version of the Greek Games.

There are lots of new characters, the most prominent of which are the other members of the Oozma Kappa fraternity that Mike and Sully find themselves having to join in order to qualify to compete in the Scare Games. There's middle-aged former salesman Don (Joel Murray), two-headed Terri and Terry (Sean Hayes, Dave Foley), eager beaver Squishy (Peter Sohn), and Art (Charlie Day), who is a little out there and who resembles a colorful dust rag I once knew. Much of the film is taken up with getting them all trained up and ready to compete. The Oozma Kappas' chief rivals are the Roar Omega Roar frat of bigger and more aggressive monsters, lead by Johnny J. Worthington III (Nathan Fillion). Oh, and remember Randall (Steve Buscemi), the chameleon villain from the first movie? He's in this movie too, but I won't give away in what capacity.

I don't tend to get along with college frat house comedies, but "Monsters University" really only borrows the basic template of one to tell its story. There's no raunchy humor to speak of, and little material could be viewed as objectionable to small children. However, there's a good, solid story underneath, one that actually gets across some good ideas and messages to its intended audience. Mike's dream is to be a Scarer, but his physical limitations put that goal out of his reach. And the movie doesn't magically find some way for Mike to overcome those limitations or get around them. A big part of the movie is about Mike accepting who he is and Sully helping him get there. The friendship that develops between the two has its ups and downs and silly contrivances, but at the end of the day it's honest and genuine and heartwarming in the best way possible.

Or your could just watch the movie for the gorgeous CGI graphics, which present hundreds of different monsters, big and small, and a scenic campus full of monster-y flourishes, that seems to have borrowed bits of architecture from a dozen different real-life institutions of higher learning. There are lots of little details it takes multiple viewings to fully appreciate, and the visual gags are constant. I especially love the way many of the new character look. Dean Hardscrabble is a cross between a dragon and a centipede. Other monsters resemble griffins, squids, slugs, bears, haystacks, and assorted polygons, with a design sensibility that seems to have been borrowed from the Muppets, where nearly all the monsters are in bright colors with cuddly features. Mike and Sully get shined up a bit for this outing, but look reassuringly like themselves.

The worst thing you can say about "Monsters University" is that it's middle-of-the road, not particularly ambitious in its aims. There's nothing really new or exciting about the technology, the movie was clearly aimed at the broadest audience possible, and there are a few logical inconsistencies with its predecessor that may rile the obsessives. However, what it does choose to do, it does well. This could have easily been a piece of fluff, the way so many other animated sequels and spinoffs have been lately, but it wasn't. This one took itself seriously, and there's a lot of care and contemplation apparent in its story. That's the kind of commitment to quality that I'm glad to see is still alive and well at PIXAR.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Entering "American Horror Story: Asylum"

My expectations for the second round of "American Horror Story" were not high. I'd enjoyed the first for being a campy, schlocky smorgasbord of shocks and squicks, that never got too graphic for basic cable television. I knew "Asylum" had a few more prestigious actors joining the fun, including James Cromwell, Chloë Sevigny, and Joseph Fiennes, but then the setting was to be a mental institution run by Catholic nuns in 1964. Surely we were in for more ham galore.

And boy is there ever a lot of material in "Asylum" to fuel the ostentation. Nuns and mental patients are just the tip of the iceberg. Storylines in this series include Nazis, alien abductions, demon possessions, a serial killer named Bloody Face, mad doctors, mommy complexes, nymphomaniacs, and the most terrifying Santa Claus you ever met. If you liked the unpredictability of the "Murder House" season of "American Horror Story," "Asylum" keeps it up, springing new surprises every week.

At the same time, "Asylum" is far more structurally sound and consistently watchable than "Murder House." The writers have embraced the notion of a limited anthology series and constructed "Asylum" to end with finality at the thirteenth episode. There are fewer characters who are developed more fully, and most of the action stays in one place and time, aside from a framing story that takes place in the present day. Also the actors are far better utilized, given a chance to really bring something to the macabre material.

The insane asylum at Briarcliff Manor is headed by Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), but run day to day with an iron fist by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange). She clashes regularly with the facility's chief physician, Dr. Arden (James Cromwell), and bullies her meek underling, Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe). Among their charges are Kit Walker (Evan Peters), recently arrested for the Bloody Face killings, accused axe murderess Grace Borden (Lizzie Brocheré), and the sexually fixated Shelly (Chloë Sevigny). Rounding out the cast are psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), and an ambitious young reporter, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), who lies her way into Briarcliff to chase a story.

One of these characters is a lesbian, and another is in a secret interracial relationship, two end up pregnant, at least three are killers, and several are in love with or at least in lust with one of the others. And then there's the Nazi, the demon possession, and the one who was abducted by aliens. Logic is constantly being thrown out the window as the plot convolutes itself into knots, and at a certain point you have to wonder if some of these poor characters are ever going to catch a break between disasters.

The show also does take some stabs at becoming a more thoughtful, serious piece of work, particularly in its ending, but mostly it's aim is to deliver scares and salaciousness in bulk. To that end, the show is sometimes a completely mess, with loose ends and too-abrupt developments everywhere. Some of its wilder conceits simply do not work, and there's too much going on. Many promising ideas are abandoned, like the things that inhabit the woods outside Briarcliff.

And yet, more often than not the show does manage to be compelling. The characters are strong and many have good arcs, particularly Sister Jude and Lana Winters. There's a lot of thematically interesting stuff going on when you dig past the genre scares, and "American Horror Story" remains one of the only shows on television that will look at issues like abortion, church abuses, mental health problems, and sexual deviance up close and personal. The show's treatment of them is fairly exploitative, but there's still some bite.

I found "Asylum" to be more sure-footed than "Murder House" in almost every way. Though there is still the feeling that the writers are dumping in a new abomination into the story every time things slow down, there is also a greater willingness to venture outside the normal horror story constructs to pursue good, solid character drama. There's hardly anything campy about the finale episode, where we get some real resolutions for the characters.

The production designs are gorgeous, with all the period sets and props, and there is a big upgrade in the quality of the cinematography. Some of the imagery in this year is just stunning. Performances are strong all around too, particularly Sarah Paulson, who I'll no longer immediately associate with "Studio 60" after this, and an irresistible Ian McShane as the evil Santa.

I find it strangely wonderful that "American Horror Story" is doing horror the way that horror movies aren't these days, giving us stories with some real substance, and characters we can care about. It's enough to make you wonder if the future of the horror genre might be the small screen.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Two by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

As far as the arthouse circuit is concerned, right now the biggest name in Thai cinema is a director named Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who everyone calls Joe, so I will too. After watching his 2010 Palme d'Or winner, "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," I really didn't know what to make of him, but I was very impressed by his filmmaking. So I've seen two more of his films, "Tropical Malady" and "Syndromes and a Century," and would like to put down a few thoughts on them here.

"Tropical Malady" starts as a homosexual romance between a soldier named Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) and a man he meets by chance in the city, Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee). The first half of the film is a pleasant journey through their courtship, taking place mostly around the city's nightlife and in a few quiet pastoral interludes in the countryside. It's a wonderfully immersive experience, giving us a look into the characters' most intimate moments together. You get a feel for the steady pace of their lives, and the little ins and outs of the world around them. There's a brief section where Keng is working in an ice factory that is totally incidental, but oddly fascinating.

And then comes the second half of the story, which may be a continuation of the first, or may be completely unconnected. Now we follow a soldier, played by Banlop Lomnoi, who goes into the darkness of the jungle to hunt a tiger shaman, played by Sakda Kaewbuadee. Where the first half of the film was entirely realistic, except for a few exchanges obliquely referencing the supernatural, now we are in a realm of magic. The tiger shaman can take on human form. The soldier converses with a helpful monkey, and then has an encounter with the ghost of a cow. I'm still trying to figure out what it all means.

One of the defining features of Joe's work seems to be his juxtaposition of the fantastic and mystical with the everyday world. The past lives of the characters affect their present day lives, and the spirits are ever-present, even they're only in the background. I enjoyed "Tropical Malady" for its first half, but the second left me puzzling over what the director's intentions where. Was it a metaphor for the relationship? Was it an illustration of the two men in their past lives? Was this one of those cases where knowing more about the culture of Thailand would have helped?

"Syndromes and Century," however, was much more accessible, though in its own way just as much in need of interpretation. Again, there are two stories, each occupying half of the total narrative. We meet various doctors and patients in a hospital in the 1960s. One man has come for an interview. A group of monks have come for medical examinations. A male and female pair of colleagues consider their romantic relationship. The interactions are ordinary, incidental, and there is no larger story that encompasses these individual characters, except that they all happen in and around the hospital.

Then the second half of the film begins, and for a moment it seems like we've started over from the beginning. We see a man in an interview. Monks have come for medical examinations. The dialogue and the characters are essentially the same as from the beginning of the film, but something has fundamentally changed. The hospital is more modern, and the presence of civilization has expanded greatly, supplanting the natural world. It is forty years later and you can see a shift has taken place. The characters may be the same, but their behaviors and the world around them are different, so the outcomes of their stories are different.

So much is conveyed through art design and cinematography. Joe's filmmaking looks so simple at first, full of neatly composed long shots that allow us to take in the various environments and the places of the characters within them. It's only when the film jumps forty years into the future that you realize all the little ways that Joe managed to include shots of greenery in the film, and the constant nature sounds on the soundtrack. In the modern environment, the crickets and the rustling trees have largely been replaced with the din of traffic, and the greenery is far more constrained. The interiors of the hospital are more monolithic and cold.

And then you look at the way that the monks behave, and the way that the couple interact with each other. Sometimes it's just little things, like the coldness of one exchange that was previously far friendlier. The modern hospital is much bigger, and at one point the monks are almost lost to swarm of other people in the corridor. However, there are no value judgments in play here. The director does not prefer one version of events to another, and there are good and bad sides about life in each. Though the film poses many questions, I think the fundamental thing is to see and appreciate the difference.

And that's enough.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

My Favorite Charlie Chaplin Film

I have always preferred Charles Chaplin films to Buster Keaton films. I respect and admire Keaton, who was the master of physical stunts and elaborate gags that have never been matched onscreen. However, I always found Chaplin's universal Tramp a much more appealing figure than the Great Stone Face. The Tramp is instantly sympathetic, the down-on-his-luck everyman pitted against an unfriendly world. Chaplin could certainly deliver the pratfalls and had his share of amazing gag work, but the secret of the Tramp was his humanity, his ability to evoke strong emotions from the audience.

And there was never a Chaplin feature that tugged at the heartstrings more than the first one, "The Kid," made in 1921. It marked the beginning of Chaplin's transition from shorts to full length features, and cemented his status as one of the greatest stars of the silent era. In it, the Tramp adopts an abandoned baby boy, who eventually grows into a cute little tyke played by five-year-old Jackie Coogan. The pair live in poverty and become partners in petty crime and various schemes, but love each other dearly. Eventually the authorities discover the situation and try to separate them, so the Tramp and the Kid go on the run. And after many misadventures and misunderstandings, everything turns out all right in the end.

The movie is schmaltzy and it's sentimental and it's so obvious about its intentions, but I can't overstate how effective "The Kid" still is. The interactions between the kid and the Tramp are clever and endearing. Chaplin's gags incorporate makeshift child care items and he's perfectly at ease playing off his young co-star. And when the police come to take the kid away to the orphanage, and little Jackie Coogan starts crying, the pathos is terrific. It can hardly be any surprise that Coogan became one of the first major child stars in the movies. And then there's Chaplin's performance, warm and gentle in the early scenes, and then desperate and frantic, as he tries to retrieve his little partner. He puts on a terrific chase sequence full of impressive stunts that barely register because the momentum is driven so strongly by the characters' emotions.

Only running 68 minutes, "The Kid" is not as technically inventive or polished as Chaplin's later films, but its storytelling is unmatched. My favorite sequence is where we watch the pair pull off a moneymaking scheme together. The kid breaks a man's windows by throwing rocks at them and running off. The Tramp comes along with a pane of glass to repair the damage, and when he's finished with his work the kid comes out of hiding to rejoin him. However, the kid comes running up to the departing Tramp as they're not quite out of their mark's sight, so the Tramp keeps trying to shoo him away, and they kid keeps doggedly coming back like he's being drawn by a magnet.

The scene is fun on its own, but it is also key to establishing the central relationship between the Tramp and the kid, a relationship that is vital to sustaining the longer melodramatic story. It was the emotional connection of his characters that distinguished Chaplin's films from his peers. Buster Keaton films had romances in them, where Buster would court a love interest, but in the Chaplin films the romances had far more deeply felt heart and heartache. The Tramp was a born romantic, and Chaplin could convey emotion through his pantomime like no other. So when he's separated from the kid, the paternal worry and anguish are palpable through the screen.

"The Kid" is far from perfect. The plot twists are outlandish, the ending is overly optimistic, and there are some sequences that don't really work. At one point the Tramp has a fantastical dream where he imagines he and the kid are reunited in a heavenly paradise full of angels. Everyone is bedecked with wings and harps, and it's amusing at first, but the charm wears off very quickly, and the scene goes on for quite a while. Also, for those Chaplin fans who prefer a high quotient of laughs, "The Kid" isn't nearly as funny as some of his other films or the shorts from the same period.

However, it is among the most moving and most delightful pieces of cinema that Charlie Chaplin ever made, and it still endures. If pressed, I'd probably point to "City Lights" as Chaplin's masterpiece, but "The Kid" remains my favorite of his films for its lovely simplicity and its great big heart. It's also my answer to the commonly asked question, what's the first movie that you would show to someone who has never seen a movie before? "The Kid" is universal, it's timeless, and it's a great example of the power of the cinematic experience.

What I've Seen - Charlie Chaplin

The Kid (1921)
A Woman of Paris (1923)
The Gold Rush (1925)
The Circus (1928)
City Lights (1931)
Modern Times (1936)
The Great Dictator (1940)
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Limelight (1952)

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Movie Confessions Questionnaire

Once a year I'll take it easy and fill out a film questionnaire and post the results. Last year I filled out the BNAT 14 application, and the year before that I filled out a horror survey. This year I've settled on the Movie Confessions blogathon questionnaire from

Which classic movie don’t you like/can’t enjoy and why?

Anything by Jean-Luc Godard. I don't understand his films. I have no idea what he's trying to do in spite of working my way through most of his filmography and watching several titles multiple times. I think I've worked out "Masculin Feminin," which captures youth culture in Paris in the 1960s, and "Weekend," which jabs at consumer culture, but his approach is so alienating that I can't say I enjoy either. Godard is so fixated on specific political ideas in his early work and then on experimental forms later on, I find him one of the most difficult filmmakers I've ever come across.

Which ten classic movies haven’t you seen yet?

Not a great question for me, since there's not much I'm embarrassed about not having seen. So I picked ten movies I think I should see eventually.

1. Pillow Talk
2. Miracle in Milan
3. Sholay
4. Medium Cool
5. The Passion of the Christ
6. Castaway
7. Meet the Parents
8. All the King's Men
9. Sorcerer
10. The Night Porter

Have you ever sneaked into another movie at the cinema?

No. Didn't have the guts to actually do it. I thought about it constantly for years, though. Theater-hopping was one of my favorite daydreams, just wandering around a big crowded cineplex all day watching different films.

Which actor/actress do you think is overrated?

Mark Wahlberg is good for some things, but I can never quite buy him as a good guy. I don't find him particularly charismatic and his range is woefully limited. Actresses are trickier, but Natalie Portman strikes me as someone who hasn't really done enough to live up to her press.

From which big director have you never seen any movie (and why)?

I had to wrack my brains and do some emergency Googling for this one. But then the answer was obvious: Tyler Perry. I haven't seen a single Tyler Perry movie, and shame on me, because there's no reason why I shouldn't have by now. I like the actors he regularly works with, and the level of cultural clout he has should surely count for something.

Which movie do you love, but is generally hated?

It feels like I'm chreating because this is a childhod favorite, but I always loved "Red Sonja." One of the local syndicated stations played this and the Conan movies constantly, and I loved every last goofy, cheesy, bad special-effects adorned minute of them. Sonja was supplanted by "Xena: Warrior Princess" eventually, but I'm still very fond of her. And yes, I know about Brigitte Nielson and Flava Flav.

Have you ever been “one of those annoying people” at the cinema?

Once. I went with my brother and father to a screening of "Die Another Day." We were late so my father went to park the car while my brother and I got tickets. The movie started, Dad ended up in a spot that he had to keep feeding quarters to, and didn't make his way into the theater until the opening credits. We had an argument in the theater about whether we should go or stay, and if it was worth going in and out of the theater to feed the meter. We kept getting shushed by James Bond fans around us. We ended up staying. No one left to feed the meters because we eventually realized it was the weekend and nobody was checking them.

Did you ever watch a movie, which you knew in advance would be bad, just because of a specific actor/actress was in it? Which one and why?

I've watched plenty of movies for specific actors, but I could rarely predict in advance whether the movies were going to be any good or not. I guess the closest case would be saying yes to seeing the first "G.I. Joe" movie, because at least Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in it, and I could just turn my brain off for most of it. Well, that didn't work at all, and I have no idea how anyone thought that casting Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Cobra Commander was a good idea.

Did you ever not watch a specific movie because it had subtitles?

Very funny. Next.

Are there any movies in your collection that you have had for more than five years and never watched?

I guess "My Neighbor Totoro," which someone got me as a gift, knowing that I like Studio Ghibli movies. I'd seen "Totoro" before a long time ago, but never felt like rewatching it. The DVD remains unopened on the shelf next to "Howl's Moving Castle" and "Spirited Away," which get much more frequent traffic.

Which are the worst movies in your collection and why do you still own them?

Ruling out movies that I didn't acquire myself, I guess it has to be "The Golden Child" with Eddie Murphy. It is an appalling mish-mash of Orientalist stereotypes parading as an adventure comedy, where the exotic Asian beauty isn't even played by an Asian woman, and dear god I love it so. Eddie Murphy keeps the movie going by sheer force of will, and the scene with Charles Dance in the Nepalese airport is absolutely priceless.

Do you have any confessions about your movie watching setup at home?

Despite having a nice flatscreen and a stereo system hooked up, I still end up watching lots and lots of movies on my laptop. I just find it more convenient to use the VLC player for the easier controls, and if a film takes a turn for the worse, I can simultaneously browse online in a separate window.

Any other confessions you want to make?

I didn't think "Prometheus" was that bad.