Friday, July 31, 2015

The Magic of "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell"

I'm more convinced than ever that the best way to adapt many novels for the screen is to adapt them as miniseries or very short limited series.  "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," originally an 800 page fantasy novel by Susanna Clarke, benefits tremendously from being presented in seven one-hour installments.  This allows the series to unfold the way the book did, to slowly build from a light 19th century comedy of manners to a rip-roaring adventure story in the final acts.  The early installments are also almost totally about Mr. Norrell, as Jonathan Strange didn't appear until a quarter of the way through the book.  A film version would have had to compress the timeline and excise the more satirical, humorous elements.  A longer series would have been in constant danger of losing momentum and running out of material.  BBC going the miniseries route here was the best possible choice.
But enough about the format.  "Jonathan Strange" charts the careers of the two main characters, who become magicians in an alternate version of Regency England, where the practice of magic has been dormant for three hundred years.  Fussy, book-hoarding Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan) gets the ball rolling, by moving to London in order to make himself useful in the war efforts against Napoleon and thus bring new respectability to English magic.  Norrell's abilities come from lengthy study of his beloved books.  However Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), a younger, dashing gentleman who soon arrives as England's second "practical magician," is largely the product of natural talent.  He and Norrell ally themselves, but find that they don't see eye to eye in many important respects.  Their relationship is further strained by the lurking presence of a strange, white-haired Gentleman (Marc Warren), who helped Norrell revive Lady Pole, (Alice Englert), the wife of a prominent minister, and has now taken an interest in Strange's wife, Arabella (Charlotte Riley).
The BBC spared no expense, and as a result "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" looks absolutely fantastic. The period sets, the elaborate costuming, and the displays of CGI-aided magic are great fun.  Magic is used with restraint, however.  The series is driven primarily by terrific character work bringing to life Norrell's stubborn efforts to enforce his particular ideologies, Strange developing his own opinions on magic, and the clandestine plotting of the eerie Gentleman.  Marsan and Carvel are both at their best and lead a strong ensemble cast.  Several of the most memorable performances come in the smaller roles: Norrell's manservant Childermass (Enzo Cilenti), a butler of the Pole household, Stephen (Ariyon Bakare), who falls under the Gentleman's influence, and the comical opportunist Drawlight (Vincent Franklin), who quickly attaches himself to Norrell when he arrives in London.  I especially appreciated the greater emphasis placed on the two major women of the piece, Arabella and Lady Pole, who are more active and outspoken than they were in the novel, to the series' benefit.
I think that fans of the book will be pleased, though they'll more likely to notice the series' weaker spots. There are some pacing issues that crop up in the last few episodes.  This easily could have been nine or ten installments, and the fireworks of the finale are all jammed into a very short span.  Various developments involving the Gentleman's machinations are also spelled out much more explicitly, lessening the air of mystery and intrigue.  There's a noticeably slickness to the production - nearly all the primary creative talents are recent "Doctor Who" alums - that mark it as being filmed for television.  As lovely as the production design is, you could never mistake this for a feature film.  Also, I felt that the miniseries left things slightly too open-ended, perhaps anticipating a sequel.  It's a pity Susanna Clarke hasn't finished hers yet.  
These are very small issues, though, in an impressive, faithful adaptation of a well-loved fantasy novel.  I enjoyed it thoroughly from start to finish, and I hope that Hollywood can look to this as an example of how to handle other adaptations of similarly difficult source material in the future.  And I can think of about a dozen other books that I'd love for the BBC to tackle next.   

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Holy Grail Post, Part 2

Continued from yesterday's post of Holy Grail projects I'd love to see...
"The Pillowman" - Martin McDonagh's 2003 play about a writer of horrific children's stories standing accused of murder, quietly captured my imagination when it came to Broadway, and never really let go.  The black, black humor, the fascinating exploration of storytelling, and the twisted original fairy tales really appealed to me.  Because of the extreme nature of the material, this would be a hard sell as a film, but it wouldn't be a particularly costly project.  Most of the action takes place in a single room, and there are a lot of options for dramatizing the protagonist's stories.  I'd like to see some independent animators like the Brothers Quay or Michel Ocelot involved, though that would mean a much more complicated and lengthy production.
McDonagh has become a writer/director of feature films in recent years, responsible for "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths."  Unfortunately, he's expressly ruled out revisiting his older work, preferring to create new stories for his movies.  However, he's stated no opinion on others taking a crack at his back catalogue. I can think of several directors who would be able to balance "The Pillowman's" acts of graphic violence with its childish whimsy and creepy jaunts into the fantastic. The play veers close enough to horror that the goremeisters might be interested in putting something together, but at the same time it's probably far too talky and cerebral to appeal to the usual genre fans.  I suspect that "The Pillowman" would never work onscreen as well as it does on the stage.  But I'd still love to see somebody try.
Snow Crash - Of the cyberpunk classics that have yet to be adapted, I think that "Snow Crash" is one of the biggest long shots because of its sprawling, freewheeling story and difficult core concepts.  Still, pizza delivery badass Hiro Protagonist is far too magnificent a character to never reach mass audiences in some form, and the novel's satire just gets closer and closer to reality every day as the internet continues to take over our lives.  I've dreamed of seeing the opening pizza delivery sequence fully dramatized, along with the full glory of the Metaverse and the franchise-dominated shopping mall of a world that the characters inhabit.  I have no idea what it would look like - but Terry Gilliam or Luc Besson or someody out there does.  And I really want to see it. 
Vincenzo Natali, of "Cube" fame, has been leading the charge to adapt "Snow Crash," "Neuromancer," and other science-fiction favorites, but has run into no shortage of pitfalls.  He's convinced that "Snow Crash" can only be done as a series rather than a film, and he's probably right.  However, I don't see the "Snow Crash" universe being done justice on a TV budget.  In addition to all the usual dystopian spectacle, a lot of the fun of the book is in the wild, almost cartoonish level of action.  This is also a rare science-fiction property with a black hero (technically half-black and half-Korean Hiro), and it would be a monumental shame for a role like this not to be given the highest visibility possible.  I'm convinced there are the pieces of great movie here somewhere, though it may take a genius to get them all to fit.
Paradise Lost - The idea of the epic struggle between God and the Devil playing out on biggest celestial canvas that Hollywood can provide holds plenty of appeal for me, but I can't quite wrap my head around it actually happening.  Yet, more than one director has already tried to make this a reality, the latest being Alex Proyas in 2011, who actually got to the casting stage before the plug was pulled.  The concept art looked pretty keen.  I have a fascination with depictions of Old Testament Christian mythology, which can be fertile ground for weird and wonderful spectacle, like Darren Aronofsky's "Noah."  "Paradise Lost" offers that in abundance.  Angels and demons, heaven and hell - and of course one of the greatest literary characters of all time at the forefront: Milton's Lucifer.
The trouble is, of course, that whenever you have any kind of media based on the Bible, the politics of the Christian faith inevitably get in the way of the art.  It often feels like there's no room for anything in mainstream film except the safest, blandest, and most insular Christian pablum.  Milton's poem is old enough and revered enough that a straight adaptation probably wouldn't kick up too much controversy, but there's still a risk involved.  And a big Hollywood film dramatizing war in the heavens would already require a significant financial commitment.  The potential returns are also huge, which is why Proyas's project got as far along as it did, but I can certainly understand why the people in charge balked when they did.  The subject matter is still a tempting one, and there's still a good possibility this could happen one day. 
Domu  - This one came across my radar about fifteen years ago, through AICN.  "Domu" is a Japanese graphic novel written by Katsuhiro Otomo, best know for "Akira," about a psychic old man who terrorizes the inhabitants of a massive apartment complex.  And frankly, "Domu" is a much better candidate for a film adaptation that "Akira."  The concepts are simpler, the characters more universal, and the potential for jawdropping spectacle is about on par.  I especially enjoy the villain, a senile old codger who is childishly vindictive, but escapes notice because of his age and stature.  It would also be very easy to transplant the story from a Japanese setting to a Western one.  Similar films like "Dark City," "Chronicle," and "Looper" have all been well-received here.
Guillermo Del Toro had his eye on turning "Domu" into a feature fifteen years ago, but ran into trouble when trying to acquire the rights.  Katsuhiro Otomo himself is reportedly working on a version, and there were reports of test-footage being shown to investors back in 2013.  Alas, no news on the project has surfaced since.  I'm iffy on Otomo directing this himself, since his live-action work hasn't been nearly as good as his animated films, but on the other hand nobody knows the material better.  Frankly, there are a lot of directors who could do "Domu" justice, and in the age of CGI-aided disaster porn there's no better time for the manga to be adapted.  I think this has a very good chance of reaching the big screen eventually, once a few hurdles are properly cleared.
Repent, Harlequin! - "1984" -esque dystopian stories have gone out of style, replaced by the more audience-friendly fables of adolescent rebellion like "Hunger Games" and its imitators.  Nearly all of the famous ones like "Brave New World" and "Harrison Bergeron" have been adapted in one form or another anyway.  One exception, however, is "'Repent Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," Harlan Ellison's short story about a glum future society obsessed with everything running on time.  The hero, the Harlequin, is considered terribly dangerous for causing disruptions to the schedule with silly pranks.  I've wanted to see his jellybean operation brought to life in some form since I first read the story in high school.  "Jelly for God's sake beans!"
There has always been one significant barrier to any kind of adaptation, and his name is Harlan Ellison.  The notoriously litigious Ellison is fiercely protective of his work, knows how to hold a grudge, and his ire is a mighty thing to behold.  He was ready to go after the Andrew Niccol film "In Time" a few years ago for having superficial similarities to "Repent Harlequin!" before he even saw the picture. He has been involved in some notable science-fiction media, though, like "Star Trek," "The New Twilight Zone" and "Babylon 5," on his own strict terms.  And last year, after decades of saying no to everybody, he granted "Babylon 5" creator J. Michael Straczynski the rights to "Repent Harlequin!" out of the blue, which is a huge step toward a film or TV version being made someday.  Probably not for a long while yet, but someday. 
"Creature Tech" - Here's another one from AICN.  Back in 2008, Drew McWeeny posted a gushing review of Doug TenNapel's "Creature Tech" graphic novel, about a scientist who finds himself bonded to an alien symbiote, and struggles with questions of faith, identity, and his place in the universe. I went out and bought the book on the strength of that review and loved it.  This would absolutely make for a great live action science-fiction comedy in the same vein as "Men in Black" or "Guardians of the Galaxy."  FOX apparently acquired the rights some time ago.  However, "Creature Tech" has some tricky material, particularly the hero's crisis of faith.  I love the thoughtful conservative Christian voice that TenNapel brings to his work - and yes, I know about his homophobic side.  I'm still struggling with that, but at the same time his talent is undeniable.
Whether his work is palatable to the mainstream, however, is another matter.  Faith-based films and splashy genre blockbusters have mostly been cordoned off into their own spaces, with the exception of a few old-fashioned Bible epics rolled out around the holidays.  "Creature Tech" is definitely not one of these.  It's a high energy action movie romp full of cartoony aliens, silly situations, and nerdy, nerdy dialogue.  More importantly, it has a big heart and a sense of wonder that I more commonly associate with PIXAR films.  And it's unabashedly Christian, using religious concepts and imagery in ways that would probably make some people, both believers and non-believers, a little uncomfortable.  Not a big problem if this were an indie project, but "Creature Tech" is a property that needs a big budget to adapt properly.  It's probably better if it just remains a weird, wonderful comic.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Holy Grail Post, Part 1

I'm still a little stunned that "Ender's Game" actually became a real movie last year, after decades of rumors and dead ends.  It wasn't a very good movie, but it was undeniably "Ender's Game."  And many of the other projects once thought to be impossible and untenable have reached the big screen screen in some form or another over recently - "Cloud Atlas," "Watchmen," "Life of Pi," "Days of Future Past," and even Kerouac's "On the Road" - which was pretty good - and "Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" - which was not.  With the "Preacher" TV pilot in the bag, and the announcement that "The Killing Joke" is getting an animated adaptation, what were once thought to be "Holy Grail" projects are coming our way fast and furious. 
Of course, there are plenty of big ones left.  "Neuromancer," "Blood Meridian" and "Confederacy of Dunces" are still in development hell and probably always will be.  "Dark Tower" and "Foundation" projects are inching ahead, but they've been inching ahead for years now.  Still, I think they have a much better chance to be made in 2015 than they would have twenty years ago, thanks to the new affordability of CGI effects, and the increased appetite for genre content from a wide range of new content producers.  So I think this is a good time to revamp my own personal list of "Holy Grail" properties.  What are the stories that I'd be the most excited to see become a movie or television/web series today?
First, the caveats.  The list below does not cover the specific projects tied to a particular director, so we can leave off James Cameron's "Battle Angel Alita," Terry Gilliam's "Man Who Killed Don Quixote," Satoshi Kon's "Dream Machine," John Milius's "King Conan," and the long lists of projects that Steven Spielberg and Guillermo Del Toro are attached to.  I'm focusing on the source material here, where my excitement doesn't depend so heavily on the people adapting it.  Also, I'm limiting the selections to material than hasn't been adapted yet, or at least not very recently and not to their full potential.  So as much as I'd like to see others tackle the "Dark is Rising" and "His Dark Materials" series, I think they both need to wait a bit for the recent Hollywood misfires to be forgotten before somebody tries again.
"The Sandman" - Neil Gaiman's got a long list of development hell occupants like "Good Omens" and "American Gods."  However, the oldest and most difficult project associated with him is still his fantasy series "The Sandman," which unfolded over the course of 70-odd issues of a comic book series aimed at grown-ups.  Highly literary, conforming to no easy template of good vs. evil conflict, and full of fantastic concepts, the series quickly attracted a devoted readership.  It's still hugely influential and remains one of the most first titles recommended to dispell the notion that comic books are only for children.  Since the '90s there have been attempts to make a film version, but I think "Sandman" stands a much better chance of getting a worthwhile adaptation now.
For one thing, "Sandman" would work better as a series than as a stand-alone film.  At heart it's a character study of it's central protagonist, Morpheus the Lord of Dreams, who has more in common with Don Draper than he does with Tony Stark.  A film version certainly could work, though, and would benefit from the serialized nature of modern comic-book movies, which are often told over multiple installments.  You could make a trilogy from the "Preludes and Nocturnes," "Season of the Mists" and "Kindly Ones" storylines.  Or throw in "Doll's House" and "Brief Lives" if you want to extend it.  And then spin off an anthology series for the dozens and dozens of side characters and peripheral tales contained in "Sandman."  There's a massive amount of material here that could sustain an entire universe by itself.  Fox's new "Lucifer" series is based on a "Sandman" spinoff, so we're seeing bits of it being adapted already.  Fingers crossed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt or someone else gets "Sandman" made soon..
"The Last Unicorn" - The 1982 animated film is a cult classic, and plans for a live action version attracted a lot of attention after the success of "The Lord of the Rings."  Alas, the company holding the rights to Peter S. Beagle's book never raised the funds to actually do anything with them, and I believe that the rights are currently in limbo.  "The Last Unicorn" is a long shot for a major adaptation anyhow, since it doesn't fit the Hollywood blockbuster template well at all.  High fantasy never really did come back into vogue after the boom in the '80s.  Superficially similar modern films like "Stardust" have flopped.  Moreover, "The Last Unicorn" is very melancholy and contemplative, without much by way of action or thrills.  I always found its poignant depictions of characters touched by loss and regret to be what set it apart from other fantasy tales, but that also makes it a less appealing property for the big studios.
On the other hand, I can easily see a smaller, more intimate live action version of this story being made with minimal CGI.  You'd need an old school fantasist like Terry Gilliam or Michael Gondry involved, but the scope of "The Last Unicorn" is small enough that it would be manageable as an independent feature.  The best case scenario I can think of is an auteur far outside Hollywood taking this up as a passion project, making use of the new effects technology to introduce it to a new generation, while preserving its quieter, more thoughtful nature.  While ther interest is certainly there, a studio film would likely require far too many compromises to be worth the trouble.  Meanwhile, a new stage version is currently in the works, and Beagle wrote a brief sequel story a few years ago.
"Neon Genesis Evangelion"  - There are a lot of anime that I'd love to see adapted for live action in some fashion.  Realistically, it's the popular science-fiction adventure stories like "Cowboy Bebop" and "Attack on Titan" that are most likely to make that leap.  "Neon Genesis Evangelion" is at the top of my list because it has some concepts that would provide such a great opportunity for visual spectacle.  "Pacific Rim" has established that skyscraper-sized mecha can work in live action, and it borrowed more than a few of its Jaegar design elements straight from "Evangelion."  However, "Pacific Rim" lacked the apocalyptic setting, the screwed up teenage characters, and the utterly terrifying antagonists - the Angels.
There are a lot of big hurdles here.  Any sort of decent film version would be massively expensive, and though the "Evangelion" fanbase is famously devoted, it's not very large.  The seminal 1996 series gained a lot of fans in the West, and has been very influential over the years, but it's not popular on the same scale as something like "Pokemon."  The source material has a lot of problematic and controversial content, though I think it could survive shedding the most troubling bits.  The twisted pieces of Judeo-Christian mythology, filtered through depressed creator Hideaki Anno, make for some awesomely strange and disturbing visuals, but will probably be too much for domestic audiences.  The anime franchise remains alive and well after nearly twenty years, though, and we've all seen that nifty WETA concept art.  This is somebody's dream project just waiting it happen. 
Prydain Chronicles - I'm genuinely surprised that nobody has made another attempt at adapting Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books after "The Black Cauldron" became one of the Walt Disney Studios' most infamous animated bombs in the '80s.  The book series is in the same sword-and-sorcery vein as Narnia and Middle Earth, and remains very beloved by its fans. It features lots of memorable characters, fun villains, and fantastical adventuring - all very straightforward, family-friendly, and easily accessible.  On the other hand, maybe I should be grateful that it has escaped Hollywood's notice long enough to take advantage of the current trends in adapting this kind of material.  Prydain has five books, following a strong core cast through different stages of their lives, and would make for a great serialized film or television series.     
It's not clear whether Disney still has the rights to the Prydain books, but they're in the best position to make another attempt to get them right.  There are enough fantasy elements that you'd need a decent sized budget to be faithful to the books, and Disney knows how to market to kids like nobody else.  Its competitors are more in need of the content though, with major young adult fantasy franchises like "Hobbit" and "Hunger Games" either complete or nearly there.  The biggest hurdle for Prydain is its age - the series was written in the '60s, and may be a little too straightforward for the current generation of kids.  But good grief, if they managed to bring "John Carter" and a new "Lone Ranger" to the screen, Prydain should be a piece of cake.
This post got terribly long when I wasn't looking.  Part 2 and the rest of the list tomorrow.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Why Did I Like "Mortdecai"?

"Mortdecai," the latest action-comedy starring Johnny Depp, will go down in history as a complete bust.  Dumped in January with the rest of the studio refuse, it made less than $5 million at the U.S. box office, and earned some of the worst reviews of Depp's career.  Its Rotten Tomatoes is currently at a cringeworthy %12.  And while I agree that "Mortdecai" is not the movie it could have been, I liked it.  I liked it far, far more than I was expecting.

Charlie Mortdecai (Depp) is a scoundrel and crook, who is sometimes employed as an art dealer, but far more often as a charming swindler.  In danger of losing everything after a large tax bill comes due, and with his marriage to the lovely Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) on the rocks, Mortdecai agrees to help Inspector Alistair Martland (Ewan MacGregor) track down a stolen painting and keep it from falling into the wrong hands.  With his trusty manservant Jock (Paul Bettany) in tow, Mortdecai jets around the globe in search of a way out of his latest predicament, while staying a step ahead of Martland and the villainous Emil Strago (Jonny Pasvolsky).

There's a lot about "Mortdecai" that doesn't work.  The capering is haphazard.  The villains are a wash.  However, I thought that the basic conceit of Johnny Depp playing a egotistical, craven British snob who gets up to Inspector Closeau style antics was pretty sound.  The performances are decent, and occasionally better than decent.  Depp recycles some of his Jack Sparrow schtick, but he's a hell of a lot more lively here than I've seen him in a while.  Gwyneth Paltrow's a little wooden, but she gamely steps up to be Depp's verbal sparring partner and pulls the stylized banter off just fine.  And Paul Bettany as the long-suffering, eternally put-upon, and yet still terribly good-natured Jock?  I grinned every time I saw him.  I didn't mind sitting through the pedestrian plotting in order to watch these actors onscreen.

And clearly I'm in the minority, because "Mortdecai" seems to have royally ticked off a lot of the people that saw it.  And I find that fascinating, far moreso than the film itself.  What was it about "Mortdecai" that created such a bitter response?  Was it Johnny Depp playing one ridiculous character too many?  The bad marketing campaign that focused on Mortdecai's mustache?  Were the critics blowing off steam from frustrations boiling over from the Oscar race?  The ongoing backlash against Gwyneth Paltrow?  "Mortdecai" was Depp's passion project and bears all the earmarks of one, but this wasn't remotely as bad as some of the stinkers I've seen over the years.  Good grief, does no one remember "Battlefield Earth"?

Maybe it was whe film's very European sense of humor.  One of the reasons I found "Mortdecai" tolerable was that it wasn't reliant on crass gross-out gags.  It was raunchy, yes, but in a much less sophomoric way than what we normally get out of Seth McFarland and Judd Apatow and their ilk .  I can't help comparing "Mortdecai" to the 2012 remake of "Gambit," with Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz, which was similarly deplored by critics and ignored by audiences.  It never received a Stateside release, despite being written by the Coen brothers - and it had a very similar tone and sense of humor to "Mortdecai."  Lots of colorful characters and witty banter.  Lots of complicated capering.  Lots of poking fun at English upper class snobbery.

Or maybe Depp and the Coens are just behind the times.  The "Mortdecai" novels were written in the '70s, but the film's aesthetic borrows heavily from media of the '60s like the "Avengers" television show, Blake Edwards movies, and early James Bond.  The original "Gambit" arrived in 1966.  We've already been through a few rounds of spoofs on '60s media, like the "Austin Powers" series, and this kind of material feels awfully played out.  How many members of the audience even know the material being sent up or being paid homage to? It makes me a little nervous for Guy Ritchie's upcoming take on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

But then, I'm probably blowing this out of proportion.  The simplest explanation is that Depp's one of my favorite actors, and there aren't many of his films that I haven't found watchable, simply for the fact that he's in them.  Add the involvement of Paul Bettany and Ewan MacGregor, and I probably didn't stand a chance from the start.  "Mortdecai" probably is as terrible as the critical consensus says it is, and the movie just happens to have found its way through my defenses via one of my cinematic blind spots, like animated musicals and costume dramas.

It's actually kind of nice to know I still have those.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Joy of Fan-Made Trailers

Fans of the "A Series of Unfortunate Events" book series cheered the arrival of a new teaser trailer for the new Netflix series last week.  It was chock full of easter eggs, references, and fun little macabre touches.  And it turns out that it was also a fake.  The polished, professional looking video that was uploaded to Youtube, with its high quality special effects and prominent Netflix logo in the last shot, didn't come from Netflix. Nobody has come forward to claim the credit yet, but there's rampant speculation going on as to who is responsible.

This is just the latest of a series of fake trailers and teasers that have popped up online for highly anticipated media.  Though they technically fall into a copyright gray area, fan trailers are rarely in any danger of being squashed by studios, because they're free marketing and almost always highly complimentary.  "American Horror Story" has had some impressive ones, following the style of the eerie third season teasers that went viral back in 2013.  Fake teasers for "Star Wars VII" and "Batman v. Superman" preceded the official ones.  It's rare to find fake promos that are good enough to fool most viewers, the way the "Unfortunate Events" teaser did, but that doesn't mean that there's not still a lot of effort and ingenuity that goes into them.

Fake promos tend to fall into a few broad categories.  The first are the "gotcha" videos, the ones that are trying to be mistaken for the genuine article.  These are the teasers and trailers created for properties that are already in the works, that people are aware of and waiting to see.  These are fairly rare, since there aren't many creators out there with the resources to turn out professional-level work, especially for the genre media that attract the most attention.  There's no mystery why people create these promos, though.  Teasers and trailers attract a huge amount of buzz, and can be some of the most talked about content on the internet.  Look at the scrum around the release of the last "Star Wars" trailer.  Heck, a few tweeted set pictures can be enough to attract a storm of media attention.  The downside to the gotcha trailer is that they often aren't as fun or interesting as some of the others, because they have to toe the line of believability.

Next come the fan-made trailers for projects that don't exist yet, often for movies based on popular video games or comic book characters.  Some are humorous and tongue-in-cheek, satirizing trailer tropes - SNL and College Humor regularly turn out some doozies.  Others are very earnest, meant to drum up interest in a particular project or just o do something creative with a beloved piece of media.  Viewers usually know these are fake from the get-go, such as last year's fan-made trailer for "Akira" with Osric Chau as Kaneda, or all the different takes on a potential "Legend of Zelda" movie we've seen over the years.  My favorites have always been the rougher looking trailers put together by amateurs from the early days of the internet, the ones where you could feel the passion of everyone involved coming through, in spite of the cheap production values.  While the bigger-budget  entries featuring recognizable stars and professional-grade CGI effects certainly look more impressive, often they're not as much fun to watch as something like the gloriously cheesy "Grayson," which takes place in a version of the DC Universe where Robin takes matters into his own hands.

And that brings us to the last category, which is fan-made trailers for existing media, created by re-editing or recontextualizing existing footage.  These are the simplest and easiest to make, but can produce great content.  Some fans have fun creating crossovers between different properties, swapping genres around, or just paying homage to their favorite movies.   Since the film or television show in question already exists, these are usually created by fans of the specific media itself, rather than their properties.  This isn't always the case though.  You might remember a fan-made trailer for "John Carter" that came from a frustrated editor who was underwhelmed by Disney's marketing campaign for the film.  He cut the trailer together from all the footage that Disney had already released, and touched off a heated debate over the "John Carter" marketing strategy.

I expect that being fooled by more of these high-quality fakes will be a common occurrence in the future, as more talented creators join in the fun.  There have already been several cases where creators of fan trailers got work in the industry thanks to their creations.  The most recent iteration of the opening sequence of "Doctor Who," for instance, was deliberately patterned on one created by a fan - a professional graphics designer, but still a fan.


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Chipping Out "Chappie"

"Chappie" is not Neill Blomkamp's worst film.  That honor still belongs to "Elysium."  However, "Chappie" is rife with the same problems and issues.  There's the haphazard, not-quite-thought-out social commentary, the messy narrative, the rampant cribbing from other media, the paper-thin villains, the grating misuse of good actors, and the increasingly detrimental involvement of Sharlto Copley.  There's downright terrible writing everywhere you look.  And yet, "Chappie" manages to create a good central character, and makes good use of some interesting concepts.  By the end, the film won me over, though it was a very close call.
Chappie (voiced by Shalto Copley) is a rabbit-eared police robot, one of a group that has been created by the Tetravaal company to replace human officers in Johannesburg.  Chappie's creator, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), has been working on creating a true artificial intelligence, and uses Chappie to test his work.  Unfortunately, both are kidnapped by a gang of thieves led by brutish Ninja and motherly Yolandi (South African rappers, Die Antwoord, playing versions of their stage personas).  Deon is forced to turn over custody of the newly sentient Chappie to the gang, who intend to use him to commit a big heist.  Chappie, however, is mentally an infant and needs time ot learn and grow.  So Deon, Yolandi, and Ninja tussell over Chappie's education and development, each trying to instill their own values in him.  Meanwhile, Deon's rival at Tetravaal, Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), hatches a plan to sabotage the existing robot force, so that he can push his own creation, a larger and deadlier robot sentinel.
Nearly everything about "Chappie" feels like it's been borrowed from somewhere else.  The plot is "Short Circuit" crossed with "Robocop."  The robot design was clearly lifted from Masamune Shirow's "Appleseed."  Blomkamp also includes many of his favorite elements - a hero whose life is on a timer, a heartless corporation as the big villain, and uncouth street criminals as smaller ones.  This wouldn't be so bad in the right hands, but here all of it is mashed together in a story that frequently feels like it's struggling to get the characters from one plot point to the next.  The script ties itself in knots to put Chappie into the hands of Ninja and Yolandi, but still accessible by Deon, and somehow on Vincent's radar, but not Tetravaal's.  Chappie is obliged learn at an astonishing rate, yet still be dumb enough to fall fro Ninja's simple deceptions, to enjoy acting gangsta, but not actually want to commit any crimes.  Yet he does commit crimes thanks to Ninja, whose attitude toward Chappie is constantly changing depending on what the movie needs him to do.  And poor Dev Patel seems to be constantly running from one place to another, trying to keep up.  
At least he comes off like he knows what he's doing onscreen, which is more than I can say for the Die Antwoord members.  Yolandi Visser kind of works as Chappie's "Mommy," in spite of her odd affectations, but her role seems purposefully limited.  Ninja, who is obliged to do much more, is often painful to watch.  I'm not sure if it's his accent, his overly broad mannerisms, the paper-thin gangster character, or the crummy dialogue, but Ninja's just a hot mess.  I'm tempted to compare him to Tommy Wiseau in a couple of scenes, he's so off the wall weird.  Then there's the moustache-twirling, villainous cliche that Hugh Jackman is playing, and the totally blank Tetravaal executive Sigourney Weaver has to work with.  There's an awful exposition scene with both of them in the third act, where I was actually getting upset at how badly Neill Blomkamp was wasting these actors.  
Oh, and we can't forget about Sharlto Copley.  The Chappie character's biggest flaw is his voice.  He's often described as a child, but doesn't sound much like one except for a few mild verbal tics.  He doesn't really sound all that much like a robot either.  He sounds like Sharlto Copley with his voice through a filter, and Copley has demonstrated time and time again since "District 9" that he's good at playing exactly one type of character, and has trouble when he strays too far from that persona.  Here, Copley plays Chappie way too big, often barking his lines, so that he comes off as mentally stunted rather than naive.  It takes far, far too long for the film to establish that Chappie is inherently a good soul, worthy of our affections.  And yet, in spite of all the contradictions and all the shoddy construction and Sharlto Copley, I found I liked Chappie very much.  
The CGI in Blomkamp's films is still gorgeous, and Chappie is an absolute marvel to watch as he moves and interacts with the world around him.  Even if the film got nothing else right, it gives its title character a strong, solid emotional arc.  It gives us reasons to empathize with him and root for his survival.  I think it helps that nobody is saving the world or mankind or anything so lofty here.  We're only asked to care about one person, to care about the choices that he makes and the lessons that he learns.  And though the telling of it is often rushed and messy and compromised, in the end I found myself fully invested in Chappie's story and ultimate fate.  It doesn't matter what kind of tired, action movie nonsense he's obliged to fight through, or the ridiculous human characters he's stuck with as a makeshift family - Chappie works.
So I found the thirty-odd minutes primarily featuring him outweighed the hour and a half of additional dreck.  Barely.  I'm sure it didn't for many viewers, though, and understandably so.  There's way too much here that's just lazy, uninspired, and downright bad filmmaking.  Neill Blomkamp remains a terribly talented director, and a terribly disappointing one. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

"Hard to Be a God" and "Salt of the Earth"

Masterpieces are often not all that they're cracked up to be.  Take "Hard to Be God," the final film of Russian auteur Aleksei German, which he worked on for the last fifteen years of his life, and was completed after his death.  Based on a science-fiction novel from the same writers behind the source material for Tarkovsky's "Stalker," the film tells the bleak story of a scientist sent to live incognito among the inhabitants of the planet Arkanar, where humans are still stuck in the Middle Ages. Despite his best efforts, our hero, Anton (Leonid Yarmolnik) cannot help but become involved in this world's unfolding history.  With that kind of pedigree, "Hard to Be a God" was destined to enter the cinema pantheon one way or another.
I saw the black and white, nearly three hour film over the weekend.  And yes, it was clearly made by a skilled director with a clear, uncompromised vision.  But good grief, what a vision.  German creates a medieval hellscape of putrid misery, full of mud and filth, and then shoves his camera in uncomfortably close so that the awfulness of it is inescapable.  For three hours.  Anton putters along, being subjected to the onslaught while navigating an almost incoherent plot involving Arkanar's warring factions and a missing doctor.  I gather from what I've read about the source material that there's quite a bit of political and social commentary that's been completely lost on the way to the screen.  The director seems far more concerned that we get the full visceral impact of the squalor and despair that ensuring that his narrative is comprehensible. 
I've never been worn down by a film like this.  Though similarly lengthy and stark, Bela Tarr's creeping existential dread and Andrei Tarkovsky's meditative long shots were absorbing and enriching.  "Hard to Be a God" just made me increasingly disgusted by the whole experience the longer it went on.  I'm glad I didn't see this one in a theater, because the ability to take breaks from the viewing experience was vital.  At the same time I can appreciate the shot compositions, the lighting, and what I could see of the art direction under all the rain and excrement.  As antagonizing as the film is, there's no denying how artfully all the ghastliness has been presented.  So I can see how some critics are making the case that this film lives up to Aleksei German's towering reputation and deserves a place among the Russian cinematic greats.  But good grief, I can't imagine many people actually wanting to subject themselves to this film too often. 
Wim Wenders' latest documentary, "Salt of the Earth," also contains uncomfortable material and disturbing images.  However, it's a far, far more tolerable watch.  It's the latest and perhaps the best of the director's profiles of other artists.  Here Wenders' subject is SebastiĆ£o Salgado, a Brazilian social photographer best known for capturing images of humanity in extreme circumstances - famine victims, refugees, mine workers, and the like.  Wenders joins Salgado on one of his globetrotting expeditions, capturing the artist at work while delving into a retrospective of Salgado's long career.  The film also touches on his family life and other projects, like Salgado's conservation efforts with the Instituto Terra.  "Salt of the Earth" makes great use of Salgado's photographs, but the man himself is the film's best resource, whose lifetime of experiences have shaped a truly remarkable human being. 
Wenders' style is similar to that of his fellow New German Cinema alum, Werner Herzog, presenting everything through a very personal lens.  Wenders provides some thoughts on Salgado through narration, but he doesn't put nearly as much of himself in the film as Herzog would, preferring to let Salgado speak for himself, especially about his work.  Here I should caution that the subject matter is challenging, as Salgado's photographs document human suffering and depravity in great detail.  Viewing some sections can be very difficult.  However, there is always clear, measured, and thoughtful commentary to keep the horrors in perspective.  The final third of the movie, featuring Salgado's work with the natural world, also provides a good counterweight, allowing the film to end on a more hopeful note.
I've seen "Salt of the Earth" referred to as a particularly difficult and harrowing watch, but after "Hard to Be God," it felt like a breeze.  Perhaps I'm not intelligent or open-minded enough to appreciate Aleksei German's work the way I appreciate Wim Wenders,' but somehow I feel that both directors got exactly the response out of me that they intended.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Dissolve Fades Out

This has become an entirely too common occurrence.  The Dissolve, a film website devoted to in-depth reviews and discussion of film, has folded after a brief two years of existence.  It was home to critics Tasha Robinson, Scott Tobias, Matt Singer, Genevieve Koski, Nathan Rabin, and Noel Murray - most of them alumni of the A.V. Club.  The A.V. Club was never the same without them.  I frequented the site only occasionally, but it was impressive how quickly the Dissolve made a name for itself and became the home of major voices in the critical community.  And how quickly it attracted a community of eager film fans.
The basic economics of running this kind of site are daunting, and this is a stark reminder that no matter how strong the writing or how good a site's reputation, it doesn't matter unless the content attracts the necessary amount of traffic and advertisers.  I've seen so many media sites and blogs close shop over the years.  Some, like Cinematical and Spill, were acquired by bigger companies who couldn't figure out how to turn the profit they wanted from them.  Some that stayed in private hands, fell apart after they owners simply couldn't afford the operational costs anymore.  Talented critics migrate from one site to the next, some never recovering from a particularly bad termination.  I'm not worried about anyone over at the Dissolve, but it does make me nervous about other film sites I follow, and the precarious state of film journalism, criticism, and commentary in general.  
It seems like we can't go a month without some major upheaval in the community.  The old guard that had its stronghold in print is inexorably being dismantled, column by column, review by review.  Cost-cutting lead to rounds of firings over the past few years, and it often feels like everyone who hasn't retired or been squeezed out is teetering on the brink.  Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide ceased publication in 2015 after a 45-year run.  Meanwhile, the new, online-based critical community is still wildly unstable, and steady gigs are a rarity.  I'm not convinced that we're looking at the death of meaningful film criticism, as some have claimed, but we're definitely in the middle of a major transitional period, and it's been a very bumpy one.  It's still very uncertain what the landscape will look like for professional film writers in the future - or if it will be tenable as a profession at all.  Certainly no one will be quick to launch a possible replacement.
This also underlines for me how difficult it is to find online film communities and platforms that will support good discussions about film.  Theoretically, in the big, wide, open internet, there should be plenty of places where these communities should exist.  And yet, finding spaces that attract film fans with a decent baseline of maturity, where there are the necessary moderation tools in place, and that encourages lively discussion, seems to be fewer and farther apart every day.  As highly as they're touted, commentary on the big social media platforms is often chaotic and participation can be difficult.  I've found that they just don't do the job as well as good, old fashioned message boards and site forums.  However, the old standbys are quickly fading away.
So where should the Dissolve community go?  Letterboxd seems to have drawn a good crowd.  The Red Letter Media folks are fun.  Some might go back to the AV Club, though it won't ever be the same.  Never head of Solute, which was mentioned in the Dissolve's goodbye announcement.  I can't recommend my old stomping grounds, the Rotten Tomatoes forum, which currently appears to be in its death throes (again), or the Usenet movie groups, which are long dead and buried beneath an avalanche of bots.  Reddit has the tools in place, but the user base just hasn't been up to snuff.  Other promising movie sites have turned commenting off completely, not having the resources to handle moderation.  
I feel guilty now that I hadn't spent as much time at the Dissolve as I wanted.  I was linked to its various articles and essays often, and I was always impressed by the level of discourse I found there.   I loved how they revisited the classics in particular.   About a month ago I spent about an hour trying to figure out how to get the site's podcast on my iPod without having to download it.  I gave up eventually and vowed to go back another day.  I thought I had more time. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

My Top Ten "Cosby Show" Episodes

The recent news about Bill Cosby hit where it hurts, mostly because "The Cosby Show" really was as good as you remember.  I fully sympathize with those unable to decouple Cosby from Dr. Cliff Huxtable, but I found that I could, and the show somehow hasn't been ruined for me in the least.  "The Cosby Show" is at the very outer limits of programming I can remember watching from my childhood, and that definitely colored my picks here.  As I was about Rudy's age at the time of airing, she and Vanessa were the two characters I identified with the most closely.  And I don't think I've ever done a top ten list this lopsided before, with all but three episodes coming from the first two seasons.  Picks are unranked and ordered by airdate below:
"Goodbye Mr. Fish" - We bid farewell to the dearly departed goldfish Lamont, via a hysterical bathroom funeral that gets the entire Huxtable clan involved in helping Rudy cope with the sudden loss of her pet.  The pilot and the show's second episode, "Mr. Fish," helped set the tone for the series - very much a family sitcom, but smarter and funnier than the old "Brady Bunch" style shows of the previous decade.  The family was more interesting, the humor more well grounded, and the parenting far more realistic.  It was still television, of course, but the creators were charting new territory here in more ways than one.
"A Shirt Story" - Theo had the best episodes in the early going, because he was such a perfect embodiment of the overconfident, self-assured, and often completely clueless teenage boy.  That's not to say that Theo wasn't clever and charming - he was.  However, he was also prone to getting himself into situations like the one in this episode, where he overspends on a designer shirt and winds up paying Denise to make him a knockoff - and what a knockoff!  It's the performances that really sell the multiple reveals and the escalating silliness, cementing that the younger actors on this show were as important as the adults.
"Independence Day" - The episode where Theo gets his ear pierced to impress a girl.  Cliff and Claire finding out about it are plenty of fun, but it's when the grandparents get involved that the episode turns into a classic. Russell and Anna Huxtable don't get enough love, as they're an integral part of some of the best episodes.  Here, Cliff feels that Theo's stupidity for the sake of love deserves a lecture from Russell, but things don't work out that way.  Instead, we get a trip down memory lane to revisit some of the other stupid things the Huxtable men have done in the name of love, resulting in plenty of embarrassment and family bonding for everybody.   
"The Slumber Party" - We're so used to modern sitcoms with their tightly plotted acts and multiple subplots, that it may be hard to remember that sometimes all you really need is to put your headliner together with a bunch of little kids and funny things will happen.  In this episode, made specifically for the smallest members of the audience, there's hardly any plot to speak of - Rudy gets to have a sleepover, with her father chaperoning.  This provides ample opportunity for Bill Cosby to improvise with a pack of adorable kids and let everyone have a good time.  This episode also marked he first appearance of next-door neighbor Peter, whose finest moment would be in... 
"The Juicer" - Now here's a typical family sitcom plot.  One of the kids does something they shouldn't, in this case Rudy using Dr. Huxtable's newly acquired juicer without permission and making a mess of the kitchen.  Trouble and consequences follow.  However, the way the aftermath plays out is what makes this so much fun.  Sure, Rudy's the main wrongdoer here, but she's not the only one, and the blame needs to be sorted out equitably.  I distinctly remember watching this around the age of seven or so, and understanding the situation from the parents' point of view, something I don't think I appreciated before that point.   
"Happy Anniversary" - Another conflict-free, plot-free episode devoted to just spending some time with the Huxtable family.  This time we have a special occasion - Cliff's parents' wedding anniversary.  Dinner and a fancy present are warmly received, but it's nothing compared to the grandparents' (and the audience's) delight at the Huxtables' musical performance at the end of the evening - lip-syncing Ray Charles' "Night Time is the Right Time."  More anniversary episodes with similar performances would follow this one, but the original was special.  And it's a great example of how the Huxtables were a TV family it was nice to just spend time with.
"Theo's Holiday" - More life lessons for Theo in the most memorable of the series' high concept episodes. I don't think a lot of sitcoms could have pulled off the "Real World Apartments" idea, but all the actors really commit to their roles (within roles), and once you go along with Theo to see how far the Huxtables will take the game, it all pays off in spades. I love that this episode really gives the actors a chance to stretch in different ways, especially Phylicia Rashad. The series would try similar conceits in "Theogate" and the dream episodes, some to great success, but Theo getting a taste of responsibility Huxtable style was the show at its best.
"Can I Say Something, Please?" - What I always liked about this episode was that it shows that Cliff and Claire respect and listen to their children, even when they're clearly inviting trouble.  Rudy gets a perfectly fair shake when she brings up her list of grievances - she's allowed to have a later bedtime provided that she can deal with the consequences.  And of course she can't, but nobody's smug about it or has to underline the message.  It's what kept "The Cosby Show" a cut above the countless imitators that followed it, or even the show's later seasons.  And Rudy wasn't just the cute one or the precocious one.  She was a real character.
"The Day the Spores Landed" - "The Cosby Show" occasionally had fanciful dream episodes, which were often very silly and didn't really work.  One involved Muppets.  One involved little Olivia becoming a tyrant.  However, I have to admit I got a real kick out of the very weird and very subversive dream episode where Cliff and the other male members of the cast find themselves pregnant, thanks to some wacky alien spores.  As Dr. Huxtable and his fellow fathers-to-be deal with their pregnancies, the story just keeps getting weirder and weirder, finally culminating in the most bizarre labor sequence ever shown on television. 
"Isn't it Romantic?" - It's all about building up to the last five minutes, the tale of the wooden barrette, and one of the greatest reveals in TV history.  I haven't written much about Sondra and Denise, the lovely adult daughters of the Huxtables, or their husbands, since they were difficult for a grade-schooler to really relate to.  However, they were a big part of the family, and many episodes revolved around their love spats and domestic squabbles.  And things always got more fun when the elder Huxtables got involved.  The romantic bet is a pretty flimsy excuse to set up the ending, but when the ending's this good, who could complain?

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Falling Through the Digital Distribution Cracks

I'm very excited about making time to see "Advantageous," a new independent dystopian science-fiction film directed by, written by, and starring Asian-American women.  However, I almost missed it - the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, but was then acquired by and premiered exclusively on Netflix last week with little fanfare. 
With no theatrical release, that means that the title didn't appear on the film release calendars I use - Wikipedia and Boxofficemojo currently.  Because Netflix paid for exclusivity, "Advantageous" is only available online - it's not even considered a VOD release.  That means that many film outlets didn't run reviews.  At the time of writing there are only twelve reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes for "Advantageous," 75% positive.  The big names like Variety and the New York Times covered it, but not most of the smaller publications and websites.  I only learned about the movie because I stumbled upon a rave by Katherine Trendacosta at io9 through a content aggregator site, and then another review over at WIRED - neither of these sites appear to be counted by Rotten Tomatoes, mind you.   I'm subscribed to a couple of film blogs, Film School Rejects and Indiewire, specifically to catch smaller titles like this, but neither of them have run anything substantive on "Advantageous" aside from basic synopses from when the film premiered at Sundance.
As an Asian-American woman and science-fiction fan, I am the exact, dead center, target audience for "Advantageous."  Outside of monitoring the new release schedule for Netflix, there was no way for me to know that this film existed, even though I'm a cinema buff who makes a point of keeping an eye out for films like this.  Netflix has generally been considered great for indie films, because they can get smaller films in front of more people.  However, it doesn't really have the resources to promote them the way that other distribution outfits might.  I'm fairly sure this release strategy makes "Advantageous" ineligible for any awards that might give the picture more buzz and coverage.  Also, the film is stuck in an odd kind of media jurisdictional limbo.  It's comparable to if it had been picked up by one of the premium cable channels like HBO or Showtime.  The lack of a theatrical release means they're treated like television films, which often end up being covered by television writers and reviewed by television critics.  Exceptions are made occasionally when there's an auteur involved, as with Steven Soderbergh's "Beyond the Candelabra."  Netflix isn't television, though, so which critics should lay claim to "Advantageous"?
This is a rare occurrence now, but it won't be in the future.  Netflix's recent push for more content had lead them to acquire more and more films themselves.  So far it's been mostly documentaries, including the Oscar nominated "The Square" and "Virunga."  "Advantageous" is the first feature they've acquired in a while, but it will soon be followed by Cary Fukunaga's "Beasts of No Nation" and Richie Smyth's "Jadotville."  Netflix is also producing a new "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" sequel, a Pee-Wee Herman movie, all those cringeworthy Adam Sandler comedies, and Brad Pitt’s upcoming “War Machine,” which Netflix recently paid $30 million to finance and distribute.  And I have no doubt that Amazon, and other competitors will soon follow in the film distribution game - Amazon is already chasing film directors like Woody Allen and David Gordon Green to create programs for them. 
Most of the coverage of the "War Machine" brought up the implications for theaters, but there will surely also be an impact on viewers as well.  There are more films being made now than ever before, and so many, many places to view them.  It's going to become tougher to keep track of current releases when they're scattered across multiple VOD platforms, streaming services, theater chains, and other venues.  Television is already in the thick of it.  Did you hear about the superhero series "Powers" that's being run on the Playstation Network? Did you know the Playstation Network existed?  I expect that the existing organizational tools I use will be updated eventually to reflect this, or that better alternatives will be come available.  But for now, during the transition, I'm going to have to either become more vigilant or just learn to be okay with letting a few titles slip through the cracks.