Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Miley Cyrus: Eyebrows, Overbite and Ambition

I have reported before that Miley Cyrus, the perfectly nice kid who starred in the Disney monster hit "Hannah Montana," is a remarkably flat-footed actress, so much so the showrunners brought in Emily Osment to prop her up in most scenes. Now she has her first non-Hannah Montana movie out, The Last Song, based on a Nicholas Sparks weepie. Of course she's taken the years on Disney's soundstages to hone her craft, and the proof is in the reviews. Let's start with Rob Nelson at the usually boosterish Variety:
Cyrus, alas, hasn't yet learned not to act with her eyebrows and overbite.
Mick LaSalle, SFGate:
[T]he bottom line here is that Cyrus is ghastly in "The Last Song," bad not just in one or two ways, but in all kinds of ways. It was a disservice to the audience, to the material and to Cyrus herself that she was put in this position. [...] Cyrus plays one note - rage - in scene after scene. There's no motivating anguish underneath the anger. It's all surface snarling and sneering, and within minutes, she alienates the audience. She makes herself repellent and doesn't seem to know it.
A. O. Scott, New York Times:
Another big problem is Ms. Cyrus. [A]cting, for the moment at least, seems almost entirely beyond her. In “The Last Song” she pouts, slouches, storms in and out of rooms and occasionally cracks a snaggle-toothed smile, but most of the time she seems to be mugging for the camera, play-acting rather than exploring the motives and feelings of her character.
The hilarious, celeb-ripping part: according to wire reports, Miley wants nothing more than to go thespian.
[T]he star wants to leave the music industry for good and become a fully fledged Hollywood actress. On the red carpet for her new film The Last Song, Cyrus told reporters, "I've got a record coming out in June and then I'm done. I just want to work in movies. That's what I like and that's what I want to be doing."
I don't know if this is painfully naive or just straight from the heart. Probably the latter. And why not? Purportedly, Miley, hand-picked by her dad for the Disney show, had this property hand-picked for herself, inspired by the success of the 2002 Sparks romantic weepie A Walk to Remember. She met her boyfriend Liam Hemsworth on the set. And unlike the pressure-cooker of episodic TV production, on a movie set she only has to knock out ten-odd scenes a day, allowing her to spend most of her time in the trailer, where people bring lattes and muffins.

I would add another perk for her, that she doesn't have to memorize anything longer than a page anymore, but having watched a few episodes of her old show it was readily apparent she read much of Hanna Montana's dialog off cards. But ya know what? Who cares. If The Last Song makes money, good for everybody. Acting-wise, up-and-coming ingenues can't all be Dakota Fanning.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Weekend Box Office

Heartache by the numbers.

Well, looks like that crazy 3D fad has run its course - Alice In Wonderland knocked out of the top spot by a digital cartoon! Let's see: How To Train Your Dragon takes #1 with $43 million dollars and... it's in 3D. OK, don't switch to monocles yet.

At #3 the other new entry, Hot Tub Time Machine. Only $14 million! Sometimes making the internet the basis of your marketing strategy works, others... well, I bet it does good cult business.

Allllll the way down at #105, Murder In Fashion. $177. A look at this description will confuse you. It reads like a documentary, but the genre is listed as "horror", or on Variety's chart, "crime". Might be worth sneaking in to if you live near the one theatre it's playing at. If you know anything about it, comment for us won't you?

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Terrorists Win

After eight seasons, Fox’s “24” is coming to an end.

The groundbreaking action drama will air its final real-time episode in May, the victim of a confluence of circumstances: a swelling budget, declining ratings and creative fatigue.

Yet for fans of Jack Bauer, there remains hope. Studio 20th TV is developing a theatrical film that takes Bauer to Europe, and showrunner and executive producer Howard Gordon says other possibilities are being explored as well.
On the plus side, Bauer can finally get some sleep.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Weekend Box Office

Hey hey we're the numbers.

Alice lives here for the moment: At #1 Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, pulling down $34 million in the weekend and $265 million so far. You'd think they could afford to let you keep the glasses!

And 3 new movies nipping at Alice's heels: Diary of a Wimpy Kid at #2 with a respectable $22 million, The Bounty Hunter at #3 with $21 million and Repo Men at #4 makes only $6 million. I confess that I know nothing about the Wimpy Kid. Wherever they were advertising that thing, I wasn't. The other two, more power to 'em.

Interesting rerelease this week: hitting the chart at #95, Kurosawa's Rashoman pulls down $331 at one location. Of course that's the distributor reporting. The theatre remembers it as having only made $150, the projectionist insists that it made $500.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Great Screenplay, Clumsy Movie: Heat (1986)

I just treated myself to a DVD viewing of Heat, the 1986 Burt Reynolds vehicle. Burt Reynolds doesn't interest me - by 1986 he didn't interest most people. However, Heat is the brainchild of William Goldman, a screenwriter who is of perpetual interest.

By 1986 Goldman's star was pretty tarnished as well. In the seventies he had become pricey talent because of his work on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, Marathon Man and The Stepford Wives, brilliantly crafted hits. But a man can't top himself forever. He cemented his rep by writing Adventures in the Screen Trade, the best book ever about Hollywood, but when the decade turned the industry was content to leave him to his comfortable laurels and seemed a little annoyed that he kept writing anyway. Goldman came back the next year with The Princess Bride, which is significant in discussing Heat.

It's a kind of action movie/character study about Nick "Mex" Escalante, a freelance bodyguard (he lists in the yellow pages as a chaperone) in Las Vegas who never carries a gun but is brilliant in the use of improvised edged weapons. For example, a thrown ashtray. Nick is semi-famous due to some exposure in Soldier of Fortune magazine. One night a friend of his, a prostitute named Holly, asks for his help in locating the creepy pretty-boy john who beat her up and abused her. Nick discovers he's the son of a gangster kingpin but roughs him up anyway. Complications ensue.

The great joy of Heat is watching Goldman work the audience. He introduces Escalante as a guy harassing a nice girl in a bar who winds up taking a beating from her much smaller, less macho boyfriend. Goldman knows what you expect and takes delight in twisting it up. His dialog is tough and sounds less like people talking than it sounds like DIALOG. Characters are killed but it turns out they're not, gangsters do unexpected things.

It would all be textbook screenwriting, but Goldman at that stage in his career couldn't just phone it in. Heat, like The Princess Bride, is a parody of itself. It's the work of a great screenwriter working hard to keep himself interested, so he pushes everything just a liiiiiiiiitle too far, to see if he can pull it off.

One of the things to love about this movie is that Goldman basically stops the action dead in the second act for a half hour, to pursue other things. It's a breathtaking tactical mistake, and coming from a rookie it would have gotten him fired. But it give the movie its most interesting moments, separating it from the routine action fare (say Malone for example) available at the time.

So, great screenplay. Sadly the movie doesn't quite work - maybe it never could. Maybe it only works as a novel (Goldman wrote that too, and it's a better read than The Da Vinci Code) but it can't translate to the screen. It would be interesting to see this remade, with the exact same script. It doesn't date at all. Even downtown Vegas looks the same. Benicio Del Toro would make a pretty good Nick Escalante.

Now This Lawsuit Is Getting Interesting

Because content owners large and small use YouTube in so many different ways, determining a particular copyright holder’s preference or a particular uploader’s authority over a given video on YouTube is difficult at best. And in this case, it was made even harder by Viacom’s own practices.

For years, Viacom continuously and secretly uploaded its content to YouTube, even while publicly complaining about its presence there. It hired no fewer than 18 different marketing agencies to upload its content to the site. It deliberately "roughed up" the videos to make them look stolen or leaked. It opened YouTube accounts using phony email addresses. It even sent employees to Kinko's to upload clips from computers that couldn't be traced to Viacom. And in an effort to promote its own shows, as a matter of company policy Viacom routinely left up clips from shows that had been uploaded to YouTube by ordinary users. Executives as high up as the president of Comedy Central and the head of MTV Networks felt "very strongly" that clips from shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report should remain on YouTube.

Viacom's efforts to disguise its promotional use of YouTube worked so well that even its own employees could not keep track of everything it was posting or leaving up on the site. As a result, on countless occasions Viacom demanded the removal of clips that it had uploaded to YouTube, only to return later to sheepishly ask for their reinstatement. In fact, some of the very clips that Viacom is suing us over were actually uploaded by Viacom itself.

Given Viacom’s own actions, there is no way YouTube could ever have known which Viacom content was and was not authorized to be on the site. But Viacom thinks YouTube should somehow have figured it out. The legal rule that Viacom seeks would require YouTube -- and every Web platform -- to investigate and police all content users upload, and would subject those web sites to crushing liability if they get it wrong.

Viacom’s brief misconstrues isolated lines from a handful of emails produced in this case to try to show that YouTube was founded with bad intentions, and asks the judge to believe that, even though Viacom tried repeatedly to buy YouTube, YouTube is like Napster or Grokster.
Oh man, I can't wait to see what happens next with this one.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

...For the Rest Of Us

You may recall that I blogged about my headshots last Sunday, and how the session was brief and productive. Well, I let you in on a little secret. I had seriously considered doing it myself. Have been for years. Here's the last headshot I submitted, for an exploitation movie being made by an acquaintance of mine.
You can see the difference. This was taken at a Starbucks by my friend Ivy,  and I cropped it and slapped a title on the bottom. In some ways it fulfills the criteria for headshots: looks like me, is in color.... okay, that's about it. However, the session was FREE.

Computers have changed a lot about showbiz in the last quarter century. And the chief upheaval has been the displacement of The Professional. In the early eighties you had to spend an awful lot more money than you do now just to get the attention of showbiz mavens. You wanted headshots, you went to a photographer who had an investment in lights and cameras and studios and film and developer. He'd take your picture for an hour, then print up a proof sheet and you'd pick the one or maybe two shots that you liked. These prints would be taken to a lithographer who would typset your name at the bottom with expensive machines, and run a minium of 200 shots which you'd shell out the cash for, and then you'd put them in envelopes and mail them to agencies.

If you were a band, you'd rehearse in a garage, then you'd rent studio time with a professional engineer to cut a demo. If you were a filmmaker and wanted to make a short, you'd try to find the cheapest rolls of film possible and rent some equipment - but then you'd also need to find an editor to work with to load the footage up on machines and start trimming it down to a finished product.

Starting with the laser printer, computers (especially Macs) have been chipping away that these middlemen ever since. Let's take the band example - I have an iMac. For the minimal investment of an adequate mic ($60-200) and a midi-controller (like a piano keyboard but with less octaves and no sound output of it's own) I could make my own demo and it would sound just fine. The software comes with my computer. My headshot up there could just as easily have been taken with a camera phone as a real camera, especially given the results. Filmmaking - entirely possible with with the same minimalist tools. You don't need money or trained equipment jockeys, you just need a LOT of free time.

And yet there are still printers and photographers and recording studio engineers. Because sooner or later, you need to go beyond the demo stage. A recording studio may not do much more than GarageBand, but it is quieter than your apartment. You can print a head shot that looks as good as one from Kinkos, but they'll do 100 of them a lot faster than you could and probably cheaper. And I can buy my own lights and take my own headshots, but at end of the session I might say, "why didn't someone tell me that my collar wasn't down"! 

So the Professional endures, though with less power than he used to have. Maybe it's better for him too; no longer getting gigs from total wannabes, he can concentrate on clients with some potential. The computer revolution has succeeded in weeding out that first wave of losers and educating the second wave of could-bes. 

80s remakes: I was kidding, but...

According to Variety, Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) is set to direct the remake of Fright Night, the 1985 horror/comedy which featured Chris Sarandon, Amanda Bearse and some twerpy kid... William Ragsdale, there it is.

So this 80s revival is a real thing, I guess. I had no idea Hollywood was serious about this. Then again, American Apparel is bringing back neon headbands. Just two weekends ago my breakfast companions and I were witness to a woman walking into the restaurant patio wearing leg warmers and a gray heather sweatshirt torn wide open at the neck. I don't think she was being ironic.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The New 'Thing' Thing: Next Big Thing?

As I write this, and as predicted here, Universal is beginning shooting on a remake of John Carpenter's The Thing, the 1982 horror film that scared the crap out of everyone. I'm referring to the very first time I saw it, in a midnight "Check Screening." We had these on Thursday nights, ostensibly to verify the quality of the print and splices-- but really it was an excuse for all the employees of the Santa Cruz UA Theatres to gather, drink Bartles & Jaymes and have bragging rights. As the film unfolded, Joe Louis, the manager of the Del Mar 4, screamed his head off at the terrifying parts (and there were lots). Mr. Louis was by no means a stalwart, just an average guy-- but that night, John Carpenter's filmmaking had him shrieking like a 13-year-old girl.

This is a great, great film, under-appreciated in it's time. For those of you who still read things on paper, The BFI put out a extremely well-written monograph on The Thing a few years back, written by Anne Billson. Highly recommended.

As far as I've read, the new Thing is going to be a prequel, covering the events that lead up to the beginning of the John Carpenter movie. Just what was going on in that Norwegian camp? This folds nearly into the thread of this blog: It's the Tron Legacy approach, making a sequel or prequel rather than a reboot, keeping the original intact and reworking the premise.

Of course, it would be the acme of foolishness to point out that the events before the beginning of the 1982 movie do not really need to be spun out into a film. It was not a mystery, after all: it was set-up, indirect information that advanced the plot. I would say the new Thing a slightly less silly move than, say, making a unique Star Wars movie based on the text crawl in the beginning of a Star Wars movie. Oh, but I forgot-- Lucas did that with his "Clone Wars" deal. So never mind.

Although there is nothing in print that indicates this, I am willing to bet that the Director of Photography on The Thing is bungee-cording a second camera right next to the first one. I will be darn surprised if they don't go 3D in a big hurry. Honestly, looking at the last two weeks box office, I have never seen a gulf that consistent and wide between first and second place.

Will the inevitably computer-generated, morphing, shape-shifting alien have as much visceral impact as the makeup-and practical effects-based one did in the original? Objectively, I'd say not: I'm thinking of Will Smith being menaced by digital zombies and digital zombie dogs and digital lions in I Am Legend. Not scary. Even a mildly sophisticated moviegoer can pick out a digital monster from a real one, and I think the subconscious pre-processes CGI beasties as "not real: therefore, not scary." Really, it all lies with the power of the director. They've got Matthijs Van Heijningen Jr., a dutch commercial director, for the remake. First feature film: anything can happen.

And finally, my personal attachment to John Carpenter's The Thing: I got a chance to see some of the sets when I gate-crashed the Universal lot back in 1981. Daniel's friend Bill told me exactly which gate to go through so I wouldn't be challenged. I was a fearless, dopey kid back then-- had lunch in the commissary and everything. I got to walk through the sets (which were completely empty and unguarded) for the Norwegian camp and the tunnel under the shack where the alien was constructing a miniature flying saucer. They were covered with fake plastic icicles and plastic snow, convincingly arctic-looking despite the 95° heat. There were even little newspaper clippings tacked on the posts, all in Norwegian. I was tempted to snap an icicle off a set for a souvenir, but the call sheets on the door told me the crew was scheduled to shoot in them later that week.

And no, this is not an endorsement to go gate-crashing. In these celebrity-obsessed, post-9/11 days I think the guards wouldn't just politely escort you back out the gate if they caught you.

Weekend Box Office

I'm your numbers! Drink me!

Holy Mackerel, 3D is unstoppable. There are new movies on the chart - Matt Damon's Green Zone comes in at #2 with $14 million (respectable for an Iraq war movie) romantic comedy She's Out Of My League delivers a lackluster $9.7 mil at #3. At #5 few people remember Remember Me with only $8 mil and at #6 "indie" comedy Our Family Wedding receives $7.6 mil in gifts.

But if you're looking for action, go ask Alice.

Tim Burton's 3D take on Alice In Wonderland takes the #1 spot with $62 million dollars. It's down 46% from its massive opening, which is in itself massive. This looks like one of those easy-to-greenlight deals which pays off for the studios and keeps somone employed at Disney through four or five flops. Whoever they are, I resent them.

Bottom of the chart newcomer is My Year Without Sex, pulling down $528 at one theatre in its first weekend. Geez, subject matter notwithstanding, couldn't you guys shell out for a coupla TV ads SOMEHWERE?

Monday, March 15, 2010

History Repeats Itself

Director James Cameron wants to bring some of Avatar's box office magic onto the big screen with a re-release of Titanic in 3D.

The director of the original 1997 blockbuster told USA Today: "We're targeting spring of 2012 for the release [of a 3D version of Titanic], which is the 100 year anniversary of the sailing of the ship."

April 15, 2012 is the exact date when the "unsinkable" ship crashed into the icy North Atlantic sea and lost 1,500 of its passengers.

The Paramount Pictures/20th Century Fox movie was the top-grossing film, until Cameron's Avatar took the No. 1 spot in late January.
Well, at least it's not a remake.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Free Samples

If I had known it was so easy, I wouldn't have waited fifteen years between sessions.

Yesterday morning I bit the bullet and had a professional take headshots. This is partially because I'm appearing in a play next month and I need something to put on the wall that doesn't look crummy next to the other actor's pictures; but also I've reached the stage where I honestly believe I can competently deliver a performance if asked, and therefore I'm serious about trying to get work. Plus I've lost almost thirty pounds since the divorce and I figure I'll never look this good again.

So headshots - what's the deal with them anyway?

You can look at them as a free sample of you. A good headshot represents you while you're out doing something else. It's like a preliminary interview. For example the picture above accurately depicts me (albeit at my maximum charm level) so if I send it in to a casting director they can either say, "give him a call" or "no, I want someone who looks more like Don Rickles". This is why you should minimally retouch head shots - if you show up and it turns out you DO look like Don Rickles when they wanted that guy above, they'll just bad-mouth you to the other casting people.

My photographer, Jesse Biltz, is interesting in that he only works in natural light and prefers midmorning bright sun. No extra lights, reflectors only if necessary. I'm fascinated by this because early morning is probably the worst time to photograph most actors, because of their dissipated lifestyles. Not to mention we had to re-schedule from the previous weekend, when it was raining. Then again in Southern California, you can pretty much count the days without bright sunlight on two hands.

But you can see how good the light is. It's very crisp. Biltz finds a  few spots in Studio City with big monochrome walls, puts you in a shaded area with reflected light bouncing at your face, and snaps away. We squeezed off a little more than three hundred shots in under an hour. When I had shots done in the nineties this would have been very expensive but now with digital photography, there's no expensive film to waste. Snap away! Print what works, delete what doesn't.

With these landscape shots, BTW, you can crop it so it makes a perfect little business card. All the text goes in that negative space to the right. Negative space here defined as space not occupied by me.

I think the next time I blog, it'll be about the usefulness of having a professional do this stuff.

Friday, March 12, 2010

3D Remakes Test the Formula

Everyone who has seen the scary successful Alice In Wonderland has also seen the trailer for Tron Legacy, the long, long, long-planned sequel to Tron (1982) And TV is currently saturated with ads for Clash of the Titans, a re-make of the 1981 version set to open in April. Both of these films are in 3D, of course.

Let's see if we can apply the Daniel's Remake Formula to these new films. That formula:

Never redo a classic – always remake a movie that had a great premise but somehow didn’t quite work. That way the premise gets another chance, and only a handful of people are familiar with the original and probably don’t like it anyway. Everybody wins! –Daniel K.

Tron was filled with cutting-edge CG for it's time, so I don't know if it can be faulted for having poor effects. It was never a giant hit, but it was profitable and is still quite beloved, has a cult following, and was spun off like crazy. This is probably why they're not actually remaking it from the ground up. They even have Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges and Box Brucelightner again. (Hey, where's Cindy Morgan?) It has been rumored the budget for Tron Legacy tops $300 million, far more than Avatar. Yikes.

Clash of the Titans hews closer to the Remake Formula. Sure, the original was a Harryhousen flick, full of good stop-motion action, and it featured Lord Laurence Olivier and Harry Hamlin (whose next film would be Arthur Hiller's Making Love). But it is also a silly film, so-called "family fare," with Greek heroes battling a Scandanavian Kraken and a cute R2D2-style robotic owl tossed in for laughs. The limitations of special effects in 1981 informed how the original Clash of the Titans was structured: Long stretches of yakking with short stop-motion sequences. The new film looks a mid-budget CGI-fest, which portends two things: they probably won't waste a lot of time trying to improve the story, and it should make a pile. The remake is budgeted at $70 million: the original had an estimated budget of $15 million, which was quite considerable for it's time, maybe even equivalent to the remake in inflation-adjusted dollars.

If these two films are successful, look out for more strip-mining of early 80s fantasy and sci-fi films. Galaxina, Outland, Scanners, Basket Case, and The Beastmaster, all comin' at ya in 3D. Oh, and just to complete the 3D circle, Comin' at Ya! (1981) too.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Weekend Box Office

Numbers here.

Looka that, I been so busy I that I forgot to post the numbers yesterday! What'd I miss anyway... Oh, that's interesting. Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland made $116 million dollars in 3 days.

!!!

Yeah, looks like 3D is a pretty safe bet for the foreseeable future. I mean, good lord! Let's compare Alice to the #2 movie, Brooklyn's Finest. It only made $16 million. What's the difference? Obviously, no 3D. If you have a movie in the pipeline, let me suggest right now that at the very least, you rejigger the titles so they float a foot in front of the screen. And maybe add a wisecracking ghost who comments on the action.

At the near-bottom of the list, Beeswax. For a change this #104-positioned movie, which pulled down $96 in three days, looks pretty interesting. Maybe I'm wrong but if I'm not, maybe this blog will pump up the numbers and Beeswax will make twice these numbers next weekend. Twice! The power of the press, ladies and gentlemen.

Monday, March 8, 2010

New Media Saves Old Media

Oh, that long, long ceremony. Every year it comes up and I'm vexed by how to deal with the Oscars. Watch at home alone? Invite friends? Just ignore it? As an entertainment blogger and someone who is at least attempting to break into the industry (plus someone who is obligated to TALK about this stuff, because its an industry town) I know I have to watch. To date I've never been able to talk someone into watching it at home with me, even though I have a wonderfully flat and hi-def medium on which to view it. The dirty little secret about this town is, we're all as bored with the Oscars as the rest of America is.

In past years I've opted to view at a British pub near my house, but last year they simply cut off the first hour of the program until the Big Game was over. And that first hour has the first twenty minutes, which contains the only entertainment.

This year, I've found the perfect solution. It combines the requirement to see the whole thing with the option to keep busy when there are dull parts.

I set my iMac (which has a TV tuner from Elgato attached) to record the whole magilla. While I went out for pizza with a date, the hard drive sucked it down, in full 1080i glory. I got home and set it to whittle it down to iPhone size, so I could take it to work with me this morning. And today, instead of listening to music while I do my boring desk job, I have been watching and/or ignoring the Oscars. It's almost noon and I'm about 2/3 through.

Either George Lucas or one of his effects minions once complained that they spend a year and a half trying to make a model look like it's the size of Texas, then the movie gets onto TV and it's the size of a model again. Watching the Academy Awards on an iPhone (and sideways, to boot) has the same effect on these people but let's face it, that's exactly the perspective they need.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscars: Hooray for Conventional Wisdom

The fabulous 82nd annual Academy Awards handout is now in the history books. It was a triumph of Hollywood Conventional Wisdom, a perfect sort of ceremony that featured no real surprises. Okay, there were a few:

• Somebody made the strange decision this year was to start the Best Actor and Best Actress nominees with encomiums from peers and co-workers: we were treated to Tim Robbins talking about Morgan Freeman (funny), Colin Farrell toasting Jeremy Renner (embarrassing, but also funny), Stanley Tucci gassing on about Meryl Streep, etc. This process ate up over ten broadcast minutes, and it was deadly. Time stopped.

But there was a sound reason they decided to structure these categories that way: the undeniable force of Conventional Wisdom. Everyone in the Kodak Theater knew who the winners were. Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock were just plain due for Oscars, period. No Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls snubs tonight! So the surprise in the end was how well the ceremony was engineered to make two solid locks seem downright magnanimous.

It wasn't exactly a fix, but Conventional Wisdom was too strong this year (as were the "for your consideration" campaigns) to allow any other outcome. When the Best Actor segment was over, I turned around to the people watching the broadcast with me and asked: "Think fast: what film did Jeff Bridges just win for?" "Uhhhh... Country Heart?" Giving everyone a moment to be personally celebrated, to have a moment of unshared spotlight, probably seemed like the least the Academy could do. Gotta keep Oprah happy...

• Conventional Wisdom made it's shadowy presence known again a few moments later, for the Best Director award. Okay, can you tell me what presenter Barbra Stresand would have done if a white male had won that Oscar? Tarantino as Taylor Swift and Babs as Kanye West, that's what.

And they played Katherine Bigelow off to "I Am Woman." What the hell? Jon Stewart calls the Oscars "The Gay Super Bowl:" Maybe there was a need to bury the needle on the kitsch-o-meter at least once during what was otherwise a rather restrained evening. I mean, the dancers were wearing-- quelle horreur-- street clothes!

• Speaking of what the hell, during the "rollcall of the dead" or whatever they call it, the Academy acknowledged Michael Jackson-- but not Farah Fawcett, who passed away on the same day. She was in nine theatrical releases: He was in two, and he was dead for one of them.

• Since Barbra was appeased by the selection of a female director, The air was let out of the Best Picture category as quickly as possible. Tom Hanks practically trotted out to the podium, tore open the envelope, barked out the winner (The nominees were not listed!) and quickly moonwalked back to allow Bigelow to retake the stage. (I really liked seeing Hurt Locker stars Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty take the upper stage, howling, laughing and doing The Bump. Spontaneous and fun-- and, with all due respect, I doubt they'll ever be up there again.)

• A few surprises were to be had, my favorites being two blatant displays of bitchery. Roger Ross Williams, winner of Best Documentary Short Subject, came up on stage and started gushing in the emotionally overwhelmed way most lower-level Oscar winners gush. Then an apparition wearing a sparkly shower curtain-- Elinor Burkett, the category's other winner-- came in stage right, pushed him aside and said, "Ain't that just like a man?" She then started in with her grand, swinging-for-the-fences speech-- and the mike was abruptly cut off. 45 seconds, people! The long shot afterward showed the presenters trying to shoo her off the stage.

Sandy Powell won her third Oscar for Costume design. She slowly slinked to the stage, fairly broadcasting the fact she made her own gown. Her speech went something like this: "This my third Oscar, so it's not quite as surprising to get it. I would dedicate this to all the new talent and designers just getting into the business, but I'm keeping this."

• In some of the podium presentations, there was a strange, rather prominent noise going in the background, a roaring, clunky commotion. It was in the parts where the nominees were speaking into the podium mikes, which were pointed upwards and were likely catching machinery noise in the massive flyspace above the Kodak Theater stage. Or it was, for the first time ever heard by the public, the great gears of The Industry meshing. The great gears grind slowly, but they do grind everyone.

• My wife summed it up best: "Everyone got what they deserved: the nominees, the audience, everyone."

ADDENDA: Dana Stevens of Slate had an interesting interpretation of Sandy Powell's speech: she may have been signaling that the Academy can stop giving her awards, thank you. And from what I have read on the Washington Post, the Elinor Burkett stage shove was the end result of some amazing offstage action.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

And Don't Call Me Shirley


A big, big thank you to the fine folks at Turner Classic Movies for their double-feature programming on Friday: They had a slate of airliners-in-trouble movies. But to kick it off, they showed Airplane!, the 1980 comedy. This was followed immediately by a pristine HD screening of Zero Hour!, the 1957 thriller Airplane! was fashioned from.

I have seen Airplane! dozens of times, and I find it funny every time I see it. The very first time I saw it, a sold-out screening in auditorium 2 at the Del Mar, I laughed so hard my sides hurt afterward. So I can say I have always been curious to see the film it was based on. Apparently DavidZucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (the comedy trio commonly referred to as ZAZ) bought the rights to Zero Hour! outright, which allowed them to do whatever they wanted to to it. I imagine back in the late 1970s they were able to get the full rights for whatever they could find under the couch cushions and a stack of S&H Green Stamps. It was probably the last time in history anyone could do this cheaply: It was just before VHS and cable created demand for studio vault content, and for Paramount Zero Hour! was just taking up space.

So how was it? It was Airplane! played straight. The plot: Ted Stryker, a combat fighter pilot haunted by memories of the war, is forced to fly and land an airliner after the crew and half the passengers are taken down by food poisoning. It features Dana Andrews as Ted Stryker, Linda Darnell as his long-suffering wife, an uncomfortably dyspeptic-looking Sterling Hayden as Ted's former commander (the Robert Stack character from Airplane!), and a supporting cast of doughy, sweaty white guys. (The 1950s were the Golden Age of the Doughy Male.) There's even a Johnny in the control room, but instead of cracking wise ("How about some coffee, Johnny?" "No, thanks!") he actually fetches coffee.

Some nice person did all the hard work and posted a shot-by-shot comparison on YouTube:




Anyone who is interesting in writing comedy should see these film side-by-side. For one thing, ZAZ knew that even though they were making a broad comedy with machine-gun-fire gags throughout, they had the have the solid underpinnings of a compelling story to keep the audience in the game. If the narrative is strong, the nutty gags and random bits tend to catch the viewer more off guard. And people get a larger sense of overall satisfaction from narrative films: Like the debate on anthology versus serial television shows, stories with character continuity are just more effective. And as for the adaptation of Zero Hour!, the jury is still out for me: are ZAZ geniuses for taking a pedestrian thriller and re-purposing it into a hit comedy, or are they lazy for taking a pre-existing story and fluffing it up with jokes?

Another thread that is common to both films is poor Ted Stryker's haunting memories of the war. In Airplane! it's spoofed as a cliché: flashbacks of crashing planes, old-timey flying machines, etc. In Zero Hour!, Ted is absolutely debilitated by them: He has a hard time staying employed, and he boards the plane because his wife is fed up and leaving him. He obviously suffers from a severe case of what is now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But in 1957 (or 1980, for that matter) PTSD wasn't even defined. Zero Hour! thus becomes a rather scary case history of how the post-war, Greatest Generation handled PTSD: They didn't. Ted is repeatedly told he has to "forget" the war: his wife, a potential employer and Sterling Hayden all gang up on him in turn, essentially telling him to suck it up and deal with it. At least in Airplane! Ted got to spend some time in a military mental hospital with Ethel Merman.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

New Category: Best Actor-Type-Person

Last month I was joshing about increasing the Academy Award's Best Picture nominations next year to 25, because it would be fun to have the Oscars grind out for five hours. But I just read a proposal which, if implemented, would lop off ten nominations in one fell swoop. But the reasons are far from fun-- and are as poorly thought out as my idea.

Kim Elsesser, titled a research scholar (i.e. grad student) in Women's Studies at UCLA, has proposed in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times that the acting categories go unisex. On one hand this is an intriguing idea, and would cut a big chunk off the broadcast: Supporting Actor, Director, Actor, Best Picture, boom, done, goodnight!

But Elsesser isn't interested in making a short night of it: her bent, as you can guess from her academic credentials, is that the whole notion of Actor and Actress Oscars is deeply sexist. What can I say-- aside from the fact she is wrong, and she uses some shaky logic to prop up her ideas. Out of the gate, she kicks her argument off with a vivid example:
Suppose... [the Academy] presented separate honors for best white actor and best non-white actor, and that Mr. Freeman was prohibited from competing against the likes of Mr. Clooney and Mr. Bridges. Surely, the academy would be derided as intolerant and out of touch; public outcry would swiftly ensure that Oscar nominations never again fell along racial lines.
She goes on to say gendered awards are just as discriminatory. This argument is pure equivocation: Racism does not equal sexism, and gendered categories don't equal sexism either.

Her topper occurs a few paragraphs later:
But separate is not equal. While it is certainly acceptable for sports competitions like the Olympics to have separate events for male and female athletes, the biological differences do not affect acting performances. The divided Oscar categories merely insult women, because they suggest that women would not be victorious if the categories were combined. In addition, this segregation helps perpetuate the stereotype that the differences between men and women are so great that the two sexes cannot be evaluated as equals in their professions. [italics mine]
This is a classic example of argumentum ad ignorantiam. It's an argument from personal belief, that belief being that western culture can and will instantly slip back to Jim Crow, pre-suffrage times if not for constant vigilance. So in Ms. Elsesser's mind, the Academy ballot-holding members are saying: "Oh sure, Sandra Bullock is great and all, but Matt Damon would have been so much better." Her argument also flattens the definition of acting from a whole-body, presence-based performance to a simple profession, no different than being a plumber or Speaker of the House. (oh, and BTW: does saying that the Actress categories are some kind of set-aside program for women seem a bit like self-loathing? Couldn't the opposite be true?)

There are plenty of non-gender professions with singular award categories: director, cinematographer, art direction, etc. They are singular because they are judged by output: the director's finished film, the costume designer's visual style, etc. Acting is about producing a version of one's own self. To judge a performance, you have to consider gender first, because really that's the first thing you see (this ain't radio, after all).

Having worked with actors quite often, I can say there is a big difference between the performances of male and female actors. Sure, it all comes from conceptual frameworks that are universal (Stanislavski, Method acting, etc.), but most actors build their acting instrumentation starting from the most basic framework: their own gender. And because the differences between the genders can be profound, the elements that comprise a strong performance can be as equally disparate. it's not a "stereotype" that men and women are different: they really are. Just ask any man or woman: they'll tell you.

(I'll admit this isn't always true: I just re-watched Alien (d. Ridley Scott, 1979) last night. The actors could have chosen their roles randomly, and the film would have played out pretty much the same.)

Acting is very much like a sports category, in fact, but far more egalitarian in it's division. Like curling or billiards, all about skill and prowess, not brute strength. A good performance is a good performance, and judging a performance against others in their most obvious and primary peer group is purely logical, and makes evaluation easier, more meaningful, and nuanced. It also better reflects the actor's role as an artistic interpreter of the intrinsic reality of the human condition, which, for any good actor or Academy that hands out vaguely male statues, should be job one.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bruce Willis Hunts Gorillaz


Gorillaz is a great idea. It was hatched by musician Damon Albarn of Blur and artist Jaime Hewlett. The band is comprised of four fictional characters, 2D (Albarn's vocals), Murdoc (bass), Russel (drums) and Noodle (guitar). Because the only consistent musical element is Albarn, the band encompasses a wide variety of styles and features a dizzying number of guest musicians, from Tina Weymouth to Snoop Dogg to Bobby Womack. Their look is provided almost entirely by Hewlett: his visual style is cartoony, awesomely detailed and strangely realistic.

Gorillaz make great music-- they're maybe the only band left, aside from Asleep at the Wheel, I still lay out money for. But it's really all about the music videos: they are arresting, amazing, great. As a virtual band, they were made for that medium. Check out the Gorillaz channel on You Tube and watch: You don't find 2D animation that good anywhere anymore, and it blends with live action seamlessly.

"Stylo," the new video released in advance their new album Plastic Beach, is close to fully live action affair. In a neat cameo, Bruce Willis hops into a vintage red El Camino and tears off across the desert, in all likelihood a bounty hunter or assassin or both, pursuing three members of Gorillaz in a 1968 Camaro SS. They were rendered in 3D computer animation.

So here's the problem: Gorillaz doesn't work as 3D animation. They work, animated or otherwise, as bold line art. Jaime Hewlett's sharp style and exuberant, tight animation (usually done by London's Passion Pictures) overcome the oddities built into the character sheets: empty black or white eyes, green skin, snaggly teeth. In "Stylo," 2D looks sick, Noodle robotic (well, apparently she is a robot now: who knew?) and Murdoc ghastly and undead. In an attempt to better blend the virtual characters into live action, they stumbled and fell deep into the uncanny valley.

There was a term I learned in a class on animation I took in college: "Appeal." It refers to the combination of elements that make animated characters work. Big eyes, simple lines, and slightly stylized features embody the concept of appeal. Mickey Mouse, anime characters and Spongebob have it. But a lot of 2D characters only work that way: render them in 3D, and the appeal vanishes. Think of a Simpsons action figure: not quite right.

It's nice to see fresh Gorillaz content out there, even though their feature-film project seems to have caved in. I just hope "Stylo" is a bump in a long desert road, and the real-life creators steer their virtual creations back to a hand-drawn look.

Gilligan's Island: The Motion Picture

It finally happened.

According to Done Deal, the screenwriting forum and resource site, Warner Bros. Pictures has purchased the screenplay for "Gilligan's Island," the undeniably popular, wildly illogical 1960s sitcom many contemporary critics cited as evidence of the death of American culture. The big-screen script was written by Brad Copeland, a former showrunner for "Arrested Development" and "My Name is Earl." For the big screen, he wrote the script for Wild Hogs and, appropriately, the currently in-production Yogi Bear (featuring the voice of Justin Timberlake as Boo-Boo).

Mr. Copeland is a living embodiment of the ever-increasing imagination gap between movies and television. The series he worked on were delightfully inventive: His big-screen efforts are either 30-year-old TV shows... or Wild Hogs.

Still: it's time to sit back and watch the the internet for the coming avalanche of "casting suggestions" for Gilligan's Island. Oooh, let me start! Robert Pattinson as The Professor, Kristin Stewart as Mary Ann, Megan Fox as Ginger, John Goodman as The Skipper, and Robert Pattinson as Gilligan. That'll work.

As mentioned, I learned of this from Done Deal-- a fascinating website, because it makes no bones about how Hollywood screenwriting actually works: on two nearly unconnected levels.

In the forums, which lie below the main page like a labyrinthine basement, hundreds of threads churn about all aspects of the craft, from simple issues of punctuation and how to write montages to peer review and which contests to enter. Most of the contributors are who you'd think they are: aspirants, mixed with semi-successful writers and a few genuine players. I ain't putting it down: I got a few interesting leads from the site.

On the top of the homepage the "Latest Deals" are displayed in bold. And the names of those landing the deals rarely coincide with those in the forums below. Like Brad Copeland, most of the the writers of the done deals have familiar names and long histories. And the connection between the denizens of the forum and the folks getting signed seems to be limited to the fact they appear on the same website.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Weekend Box Office

Number here, y'all.

New movies take a back seat to Shutter Island, going strong at #1 with $22 mil. #2 (but not trying harder) is Kevin Smith's Cop Out, bringing in $18 mil for questioning. Behind them, The Crazies with $16 mil. By the way, this is the only kind of remake I endorse - good ideas that didn't quite work the first time.

Rock bottom of last week's box office: #104, a foreign drama called 35 Rhums (35 Shots Of Rum). It pulled down $77 all weekend, or a little over $2 bucks per shot.