Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Don't Laugh, This Is Replacing TV in 5 Years

It's the Best Viral Videos from this year! Enjoy, or rather "enjoy".

Weekend Box Office

Numbers Courtesy boxofficemojo.com

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Walk, Don't Run

And maybe consider which direction to walk.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Orgin of a Gag on Facebook

I had the good fortune this weekend to be cast in a short independent film. Actually, I had the good forture to be cast in it last year, but it took a while to get the shoot together. It's a few scenes from a proposed full length feature about a college student struggling with brain disorder, and I play his callous guidance counselor who is trying to convince him to go on medication. Presumably if the short cuts together good enough to entice investors, I'm cast in the feature as well. Either way, I'm thrilled that they stuck with me this long.

Can't say the name of the feature. Frankly, it would get a few people in trouble. For example, we were shooting in the conference room of a condo in a Beverly Hills-adjacent area, and we were delayed for half an hour while we waited for the producer to let us in. He couldn't open the door until his wife left, because she wasn't supposed to know we were there. This kind of thing is common with independents - I took a producing course at Hollywood Film School where they specifically said don't bother with permits, just be ready to stall when the cops ask you what you're doing. Tell them the permit is back at the office and you'll send someone to get it. How long will it take? A little longer than it takes to get the shot.

So the Facebook gag: this conference room is in the lobby of the condo, and was doubling as a guidance  counselor's office. Looked a little ritzy to me but I dunno, maybe the kid's going to a private school where the staff has french doors and marble flooring. Anyway, one of the cameramen kept getting forced farther his left as they were framing a shot, until he was half standing in a potted fern in the corner of the room. "It's like I'm shooting in Vietnam here!" he quipped. Hence my gag:

Independent film production is like Vietnam: you start out with the best intentions but pretty soon you've lost half your crew and you can't remember why you started in the first place.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Anti-Christmas Movies

(Full disclosure: This is another re-edited TPN rescue. Well, about 75% of it, at least.)

The holidays have hit big time, and I'm tellin' ya the TV Yuletide assault in already in high gear. Just in the last week, I've seen bits and pieces of “Christmas Carol” adaptations featuring Reginald Owen, Alistair Sim, George C. Scott, Kelsey Grammer, Bill Murray (Scrooged: awful, awful) and Patrick Stewart. (no sign of the Muppets, The Flintstones, Mickey Mouse, Blackadder or Mr. Magoo as of yet.)


Ignorance and Want, from Richard
Williams' Christmas Carol

The 2009 George Zemekis CG version voiced by Jim Carrey is in heavy rotation on the premium channels (a fine interpretation, IMO) but the 1971 half-hour adaptation made by animator Richard (Roger Rabbit) Williams hasn't surfaced yet. This is a real gem among Christmas Carol adaptations-- It's a bit truncated story-wise, but it was painstakingly animated in the style of a 19th century engraving. It's also quite scary. Dickens' original story is quite scary in and of itself, but most production tend to pull punches so as not to frighten the kiddies. Not this one. A fuzzy upload can be seen online here.

As long as we're parsing Holiday entertainment, Slate has an article listing the five worst Christmas movies of all time. Two of the usual suspects are in the list: Santa Claus Conquers The Martians and the truly weird Mexican Santa-vs-Satan Santa Claus.

All well and good to list bad movies, but I'm here to list my three favorite Anti-Christmas movies.

The anti-Christmas movie does not just point up the absurdities of the Holiday season, it actively tries to deconstruct the reasons and traditions of Christmas. Most of the time this is done in a spirit of irony, pointing out the sillier parts of what is undeniably an over-the-top holiday. I for one will argue that sappy, formulaic star vehicles like Jingle All the Way or Deck the Halls or Christmas with the Kranks or The Santa Clause trilogy in their own way do more damage to the spirit of Christmas than films that actively make sport of it. Fake sincerity is generally more pernicious and damaging than active mockery, a form of complicit betrayal, a treason of the season, if you will.

The Hebrew Hammer (d. Jonathan Kesselman, 2003) The titular character, the defender of Jews everywhere, is a superhero in the Mystery Men genre, thoroughly mortal and played with a streetwise flair by Adam Goldberg . The heavy of the piece is Damien Claus (Andy Dick), the evil son of Santa Claus, who kills his father and sets out to make Christmas the only December holiday. Central to his plan: making all Jewish children watch It's a Wonderful Life. The Hammer eventually defeats Damien and saves Hanukkah by-- and I'm quoting both Wikipedia and the film here-- “using Judaism's ultimate weapon (complaining and guilt).” This is a fun little film with a good heart and a message of tolerance, even as it rips on every ethnic stereotype you can imagine non-stop.

Santa's Slay (d. David Steiman, 2005). The opening scene was so stunning I had to see it all the way through. The Masons, a typical bickering middle-class family, are sitting down to Christmas dinner. Santa enters the house and proceeds to gruesomely slaughter everyone. Leading the cameo appearances as the Masons are James Caan, Fran Drescher and Chris Kattan. Santa is played by WWE wrestler Bill Goldberg. See a pattern here?

The premise of this film is that Santa is actually a demon who lost a bet with an angel and had to do 1000 years of community service as a good guy giving out presents. Now the bet is off and every Christmas he goes on a killing rampage. He's basically a thinly veiled lift of Robot Santa from “Futurama:” according to the film, before Santa lost the bet and had to be nice people spent Christmas hiding from him.

As weird and inspired as the opening sequence was, the film quickly goes downhill from there and becomes a holiday-themed gore-fest. Like The Hebrew Hammer this movie has a strange sort of Jewish bent to it, but unlike that film Santa's Slay is not well-written enough to convey any sort of message, which makes it fairly worthless entertainment.

Bad Santa (d. Terry Zwigoff, 2005). A holiday movie with 170 occurrences of the F-word, its protagonist is Willy, a perverted, foul-mouthed, alcoholic safecracker who badly impersonates Santa in department stores so he and his elf-sized partner can rob it after hours. Billy Bob Thornton does an impressive job of portraying a worthless, shiftless bastard with absolutely no redeeming qualities and lots of repellent ones. I'll venture an opinion about Mr. Thornton as Willy: he does a good job, but I never thought he was quite right for the role. He's too rangy and skinny, even though I can't imagine anyone else doing a better job on the voiceovers. Apparently, Jack Nicholson was interested in playing Willy, but ultimately had other commitments and had to back out. A shame: he would have been just perfect.

Wonderfully, Bad Santa never even gets close to a cheery holiday-themed message: in the end, there is redemption for Willy, but without spoiling the ending let's say it involves the Christmas sentiment of others, not the principal characters. It's the perfect antidote to the holidays.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Weekend Box Office



Check out boxofficemojo.com for more figures!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Matango: The Brady Bunch Connection

The sexy, sexy Italian one-sheet for Matango.
 This is the other old TPN post worthy of rescue (and re-editing).

In this article we're  going to discover why "The Brady Bunch" owes so much to Godzilla.

I had the pleasure of watching a Netflix DVD loaned to me by Chris, my business partner: Matango (1963). It was known in the US as Attack of the Mushroom People. It scared the living crap out me when I was a wee lad watching  "Chiller Diller Matinee" on Channel 44. Remarkable to see this film fresh and uncut, in 2.35:1 TohoScope, bright Fujicolor and subtitled Japanese. The channel 44 version was the one we ALL saw as kids: A heavily edited, clumsily dubbed, 16mm pan-and-scan print, run through a (no doubt) crummy film chain-- it was so washed out my recollections if it are in black and white.

This film was directed by Ishiro Honda, The Kaiji Eiga (Giant Monster Movie) master who directed Godzilla, Rodan and countless others. Matango is an unusual Honda film, an atmospheric horror movie with people-sized monsters.

Well, of course there's a range of Japanese action figures
available for Matango! The monsters depicted here
are much cuter than in the film.
The things that scared the piss out of me as a kid are still there: the ghastly, faceless mushroom people, the distorted laughter on the soundtrack, the air of gloom and slow death. Justifiably a cult classic.

A have heard all effective horror films play on primal phobias: violence, heights, enclosed spaces. (Daniel's brother Ed once surmised that if someone could realize a fortune if they make a horror film exploiting the number one fear in America: Public Speaking.) Matango works as a horror flick on several levels:

• The scary, lumbering mushroom folk, they're pretty scary in a monster-movie sort of way.

• The fact these fungal folks were once people and the characters are going to turn into them unless they can escape plays into fears of loss of humanity and Self.

Matango plays on fears of germs and filth and disease. The island the principals are marooned on is lush and tropical: the abandoned ship they take up residence in is covered with mold, dry rot and fungus. They manage to clean it, but the mold soon returns. For the fastidiously clean Japanese audience the film was designed for, the creeping corruption and rot must have been harder to take than the prospect of turning into an ambulatory shiitake.

This film was based on "The Voice in the Night," a short story published in 1907 by pioneering English sci-fi author William Hope Hodgson. Conversely, it has long been rumored that Matango was an inspiration for "Gilligan's Island," that iconic, unlikely comedy series from the 1960s.

Exhibit A: Cast of Matango. Left to right: "Writer," Bombshell,
Chaste Young Girl, Skipper, Rich Guy, First Mate and Professor.
Note the First Mate has a red shirt, as did Gilligan.
After a careful comparison of the two works, allow me to lay such rumors to rest: It was. TV Producer Sherwood Schwartz (who also created "The Brady Bunch") had a motive, opportunity and even tacit permission to swipe the basic premise of Honda's film.

The basic story common to both movie and TV show involves seven people from various walks of life on a short pleasure cruise. They get caught in a storm, marooning them on a deserted tropical island. Schwartz basically took this first half-hour of Matango and pitched it to the network, adding "and then hilarity ensues!" He left off the rising themes of violence, greed, lust, starvation, and death that drives the latter hour of Matango, replacing these with coconut shortwave radios and funny guest stars.

Exhibit B: flashback scene. The dialog in subtitles is that
of the "writer," explaining why his manuscript (on
the table) seems so derivative.
But the cast of "Gilligan's Island" is almost entirely present in Matango: Skipper, First Mate, Professor, Chaste Young Girl, Glamorous Bombshell, Rich Guy. He made one cast change, and a very telling one: Instead of Mrs. Rich Guy ("Lovey" Howell), the seventh castaway in Matango is a writer. He's the first character to, when things begin to get desperate, steal food from the others, and the first to eat the fateful mushrooms. He's a morally weak character who, in a flashback scene, plainly admits to plagiarism.

Puzzling evidence.








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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Weekend Box Office



Numbers courtesty BoxOfficeMojo.com

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Some Muppet Semiotics

Went to see the new Disney film The Muppets with my sister's family, at a kid-heavy Saturday afternoon matinee, no less. Sort of a mixed reaction: Adults loved it, and some of a certain age got teary-eyed at the end. Most of the older kids loved it, but some of the younger tots (like my youngest niece and the seat-kicking little squealer sitting right behind me) got bored at the one-third point and started a noisy rebellion.  I thought it was very clever and entertaining (all I ask for in a movie, really)-- but there was a weirdness about the whole affair that lingered after the tag-less credits.

The Muppets is a bildungsroman with two main characters: Gary (Jason Segel) and his brother Walter, who is a muppet. We see their relationship develop in a series of childhood flashbacks, Gary growing to adult size while Walter remains about 2' tall. We never see their parents fully onscreen-- but we see enough of them to know they are both human. So the movie's context is set up: sentient beings made of stuffing and felt are treated as fully normal, fellow people.

This context is expanded as Gary and Walter discover what has become of the famous muppets as the years have passed since their show faded from our collective memory (and even syndication): The principals have all moved on with their lives. Kermit lives alone in a moldering Bel Air mansion among mementos of his former fame, attended to by a hilariously antiquated 80s-era robot (my favorite new character, as I'm a bit of an 80s robot myself). Miss Piggy runs a magazine, Gonzo has become a manufacturing magnate, and Fozzie is barely hanging on fronting a muppet cover band in Reno. In other words, this elaboration shows that muppets have exact same aspirations, failings and material needs as any nominal human being.

(There is a very brief but philosophically jarring shot in the film where the camera pans over the picture-covered walls of Kermit's abandoned studio office. Among all the publicity stills of long-past "Muppet Show" guest stars is a 8x10 glossy of Kermit and Jim Henson. This is what I'd call a "meta-meta-moment:" even in the self-referential world of this film, it is an image of a concept that cannot be parsed.)

Walter, though raised in human society, is fascinated by the muppets, and it is made obvious as the story unfolds that he will eventually fully accept his muppet-ness and be folded into the troupe. Really, the main plot arc hinges on his acceptance a a "real" muppet: His brother Gary cannot fully become a man and consummate his relationship with his long, long, long-standing girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams, about a radiant as she was in Enchanted) until Walter has moved on and no longer needs his protection and companionship.

But what is a muppet?

In intrinsic reality, we all know what they are: puppets, animated and voiced by human performers. Bur this definition is unavailable in The Muppets, so we have to move on to the movie's in-universe definition: A muppet is a special sort of sentient being, an analog of a flesh-and-blood being (frog, pig, chicken, etc.) or an abstract "monster" (Animal, Gonzo, etc.).

But how are they "special?" This can be uncovered by flipping over the definition again. Substitute "celebrated entertainer" for "muppet" in the subtext and it all makes sense. The muppets, once-celebrated entertainers who have fallen into obscurity or non-showbiz professions, are shown to be incomplete unless they are entertainers and being celebrated for doing so.

The major story arc for all these characters is their collective effort to put on one last show to save their old, abandoned studio from development. But if you think about it, this effort makes no sense. In the first act we see that ALL the muppets have moved on-- they have abandoned their old studio themselves, as their audience vanished over time. The only way this can be made logical is as they re-discover that their only definition is as entertainers, and cannot fully exist any other way.

This definition applies to novice-muppet Walter as well. He cannot really become a member of the muppet troupe until he finds his unique talent-- which he eventually, and surprisingly, does. The point is hammered home again: it's not enough to be made of felt and have little stick arms. Walter has to have a solid, show-stopping act. He becomes a celebrated entertainer.

The Muppet franchise has not always been part of the Disney universe: They were acquired in 2004 and The Muppets Studio LLC is a wholly owned subsidiary. A lot of Disney's offerings (especially at cable-TV level) have a strange self-referential obsession with showbiz (High School Musical, "Hannah Montana," etc.). The original 1970s "Muppet Show" has always been a show about a show, but the franchise's new run through the Disney echo filter has transformed it into a perfect ouroboros: A movie about a movie about a show about a show, featuring muppet performers who yearn to be muppet performers.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Weekend Box Office



Numbers courtesy boxofficemojo.com

Monday, November 21, 2011

More First Movies Ever

Here are a few more first movies, culled from the Facebook responses to that last post about first movies:

David (California): Where's Poppa? I was five. Nightmares.

--Where's Poppa? (also titled Going Ape, D. Carl Reiner, 1970) is one of the films I remember (along with Slap Shot, Mother, Jugs and Speed and Blue Collar) playing over and over and over on Home Box Office back in the early converter-box days. And young David was driven to bad dreams by the edited, "happy ending" version of this film-- the original version (which is intact on the DVD) has the darkest, most twisted ending of any comedy since Dr. Strangelove.

Toby (California): Yellow Submarine. At age five I thought the Blue Meanies were super cool.

Chris (Washington State): The Apple Dumpling Gang.

Caroline (California): I have a terrible memory of a Western where a stagecoach with a set of four white horses went over a cliff. It drove me screaming and crying from the theater. But the first full-length one I really remember was Help! at the drive-in. Wore my footie PJs.

Lynn (California): Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was the first movie I saw at a drive-in (with my parents). Not sure if that was the first one ever although it might be.

Marianne (California): I was the youngest of four... who the hell knows? As the youngest, my family fed me memories just to shut me up. Half of my memories actually happened to another sibling, not me. As an example, I was told that I had nightmares after seeing Darby O'Gill and the Little People. But it turns out that was Rebecca.


-- Which is quite an insight. Memory is a mercurial, hit-or-miss thing before age 5. They can be constructed out of disparate experiences or influenced by hearsay. Makes sense that a lot of what we "remember" are actually things told to us by older relatives from which we have stitched together into real-seeming, but fake, memories.

Which is why that first remembered film is important-- it establishes a time when you can coherently remember anything. It has been remarked on over and over by smarter folks than me that movies are a shared dream, and the conventions of cinema's image-based storytelling has evolved over the decades to ever better fit into the deeper parts of perception, to seem more and more like a dream or a set of real memories. Where do we leave off and movie-based memories begin? How much of our personality is borrowed wholesale from the media we consume? What you talkin' 'bout, Willis?

The developed ability in childhood to stitch together a received narrative into something you replay half a lifetime later says quite a lot about the power of cinema and remarkable qualities of the human mind.

And finally, the antidote to the charm of the "first movie ever" memory:

Cova Lee (California) Fantasia… It's still on my all-time most hated list! That would a hatred stemming from the psychological torture of being forced to sit through the most boring movie ever made more times than I can count! The last time being my 12th birthday with a bunch of my friends… so not cool because Grease was playing in the theatre next door and of course my father caught us trying to sneak into that instead!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Abby's First Movie Redux

(This is a re-edited posting from the Box Office Weekly Podcast site from around March 2008. I just recovered an old hard drive with a bunch of these articles-- the online versions are gone, down some Australian memory hole. I'm republishing this one, and one other that I think is totally worth revisiting. --S)

Last weekend my niece Abigail reached a milestone in her young life-- she was taken to her first movie.

This event is a sort of maturity marker for parents-- To take a very young child to a theatres makes some basic assumptions: Will he or she sit still for two hours? Will he or she understand, or at least uncomprehendingly enjoy, the movie? Does he or she know that you have to use your quiet, whisper voice? Well, these SHOULD be the criteria for taking small children to movies: Anyone who has attended a popular film lately must believe, as I do, that there must be some sort of terrible babysitter shortage.

According to her mommy Abigail, who is two years and nine months old, passed with flying colors, enjoying Horton Hears a Who! (d. Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, 2008) in a matinee screening.

I had an opportunity to drop by Abigail's place, where she consented to a brief interview about her cinematic experience. She is just as cute as a bug's ear, my niece.

UNCLE SKOT: Abigail?
ABIGAIL: What, unka?
US: Did you see a movie?
A: Uh huh.
US: What did you see?
A: Um. Horton.
US: What's Horton?
A: Elephant.
ABIGAIL'S MOMMY: What do the Whos say, Abigail? (note: They say "We are here!")
A: Help! Help!
US: Do you want to go to the movies again?
A: I want to go to Africa.
(Abigail begins a new conversation with her imaginary friend Michelle, effectively ending the interview.)

It brought back something of a special event for everyone: That first movie. Really, you were taken you your first film before the age of four you don't really remember it. Long-lasting memories are tied into brain developments that occur about age four or so, so even if you have scraps of vivid memories your brain didn't have a good filing system in place. Still, that first movie one can remember seeing was special.

I dropped a few emails into the ether, asking people the first film they and got a surprising variety of answers. Actually, most of the first movie experiences were Disney movies, which is not surprising at all: In the pre-home video days they constantly re-released their features, two a year by average.

GLEN (California--where he was as a kid): Mary Poppins. I'd just turned four years old. The film was released in August of that '64, but I'm sure it was tough for mom to get the trip all organized, so we made it to the theater near the end of the film's first run. Mom and Grandma took my two sisters and I. I'm pretty sure we saw it in Burbank, but maybe San Fernando. The house must've been packed, because I remember we were in the front row. The theater seemed really fancy, wherever it was.

JOHN (California): I believe it was Snow White. I have the vaguest of memories of sitting in the theater watching it.

SUE (Great Britain): Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Other recollections are eclectic to say the least:

DANNY (Louisiana): Well, I definitely remember seeing The Poseidon Adventure in the theater.  When the ship rolled over, so did my soda! The Jungle Book was also a big early one.  Not sure if that predates Poseidon.

SCOTT (California): It’s interesting that you would ask this question today. On this morning’s show [Scott hosts a weekly radio show] we talked about the passing of Arthur C. Clarke, and I mentioned seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in the theater when I was 4, and that’s the reason I’m so messed up now.

CHRIS (California): Dr. Doolittle.

DAEV (Arizona): Hmm… I have a vivid recollection of seeing 2001 at a drive-in, but I think Cat Ballou or Oklahoma! was the first I saw in an indoor theater, probably at a matinee.

CAMERON (Australia): I can't remember exactly but it was either Enter The Dragon (my dad taking me to the drive-in) or Star Wars!

BILL (California): I have a memory of seeing a very boring film about Bigfoot at the Capitola theater.  Searching IMDb, it may have been Bigfoot: Man or Beast?  I guess I was about six.

This last one is great-- Bigfoot was released by American National, a bottom-dwelling roadshow exhibitor like Sunn Classic Pictures used to be. They specialized in exploitation films: Chariots of the Gods, In Search of Historic Jesus, stuff like that. They released their terrible, non-factual documentaries "four-wall:" Rent movie screens (all 'four walls") in a particular TV demographic region, then blitz the local channels with lurid, overheated ads. Fast money made, they would move on to the next demographic area.

Still, it's all part of the film experience we all fell in love with. There you are, tiny in your chair, in a big dark room. The images on the screen are titanic, the colors intense, the sound loud. There is something about the act an ritual of moviegoing that makes us all kids, looking up at a world that is larger than life, larger than us.

--Skot C.

p.s. What, MY first movie? I'll never forget it: The Sand Pebbles (d. Robert Wise, 1966). What on earth was my dad thinking, dragging a four-year-old to a bloody, violent, morally ambiguous, patently adult three-hour-long film? Well, he was a former Marine, and he probably was very interested in the story of a headstrong, anti-authoritarian sailor (Steve McQueen) caught up in the turmoil of American gunboat diplomacy in 1920s China? He probably thought I'd, in the parlance of the times, "learn something." Dad would later drag me along to enjoy such family-friendly movies as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969).

I did learn something: I learned how beautiful and exotic the world looked when it was shot in Panavision and projected on an 80' screen. The photography for The Sand Pebbles was (and still is!) stunning, washes of blues and oranges, Chinese alleys and streets disappearing into mist. The final showdown in the Mission was a perfectly choreographed sequence (rendered in dark blues and grays by DP Joseph MacDonald), just Steve McQueen and his Browning Automatic Rifle valiantly defying his fate. On the way home, dad told me that was the kind of gun he used in the Marines (they gave the tall guys in the squad the heavy machine gun).

So I gained two things at my first movie: the beginning of an abiding passion for cinema, and a rudimentary working knowledge of mid-20th-century American military firearms. --s

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Weekend Box Office



Numbers courtesy BoxOfficeMojo.com.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Weekend Box Office



Where does he get those numbers from, anyway?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Weekend Box Office



The numbers come from here.

The 2011 Austin Film Festival Day-to-Day

Thursday October 20th - Flew in non-stop from San Jose, got a lift to David Miller's house from David himself.

The last time I was here in 2009, when John and I were finalists, I spent all my time in the AFF bubble, the four-block area centered on the Driskill and Stephen F. Austin hotels in the heart of downtown. This time I was lodging in South Austin, 6 miles from the action, and I had a car to use (and, unfortunately, pay to park). This situation, and the fact I had nothing in competition this year, gave me a somewhat more realistic take on things.

Didn't do much more that day than get my laminates and meet up with some nice folks for some drinks at the Driskill Bar, seated right next to where Joh, our wives and I celebrated our win two years ago. Left, had Tex-Mex with David and got too hammered make the first AFF late-night party.

Friday October 20th - Made several panels. One, called "A Shot of Inspiration" with Shane (Lethal Weapon) Black and Jim (Fight Club) Uhls, was quite excellent and inspirational as advertised. Another, with some dev girl from Pixar, bombed out and went to questions after only 15 minutes. After excellent BBQ at the French Legation, waited in an immense line for the AFF screening of The Rum Diary.

Bruce Robinson (L) and Johnny Depp (R)
The film itself was fairly good, though there was something definitely wrong with it. Protagonist problems, perhaps. In the Q&A afterwards Johnny Depp is nothing short of charming and clever, but writer-director Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I) was reeling, sloppy, incoherently drunk. (All part of his bio, apparently). This threw off moderator Elvis Mitchell, who was snippy throughout the session. It didn't help that pinwheel-eyed Depp fans were asking questions like "I'm making a short film and I'm wondering, Johnny Depp, if you'd want to play God?" His response: "That sounds great, but… the research…" This debacle was the talk of the AFF for the rest of the weekend.

Attended a late-night party at Ruth's Chris Steak House. This was just as it was last year: A bunch of writers jammed into a room with free Dos Equis and 100dB conversational levels. Met a slick-haired fellow from Florida who made a film about an 18-year-old virgin stripper and, minutes later, a big-eyed young lady from Michigan who had a rather touching family story as a short in competition. Both these folks shot their films on Red One cameras in 2.35:1. See? Anybody can do it these days. Chatted up Lawrence Kasdan and met Thomas Jane.

Saturday, October 21st - My favorite moment came early in the morning at the Silver Valley Donut Shop on William Cannon Drive. The place was full of locals, Good Ol' Boys. As one fellow made for the door, his friend said "Have a good'un, Earl. Stay out of trouble."

Without breaking stride, Earl replied, "You can't tell me what to do! I might be fixin' to start something."

Typical Panel, Driskill Hotel Ballrooom
More panels at the AFF. John Lassiter gave a good talk about the Pixar writing process, which is diametrically opposed to the standard Hollywood process, where most producers are lawyers or agents-- which makes them spectacularly unqualified to give notes on writing, but do anyway. Takeaway quote: "Imagine taking a 747 from here to Tokyo-- and the pilot is a lawyer who 'always wanted to fly a plane.'"

Another Panel featured Rodrigo García, the son of Gabriel García Márquez. His talk was supposed to be about constructing complex characters but ended up being mostly about himself-- excluding the part about how his being a famous person's kid got him into the business in the first place.

After some fine BBQ at Stubb's with John and his Seattle posse, crashed for a few, then came back downtown that night for the Pitch Fest at the Speakeasy and late night party #2. This one was not quite as loud. Went back to South Austin and collapsed on the couch. David came back from a gig in San Saba at 2:30 a.m. and we stayed up 'til 5 talking old trucks (he has a '55 Panel, I have a '56 Panel) and finishing a bottle of Jack's.

Sunday October 22nd - Slept right through the "Hair of the Dog Brunch," the final party of the AFF weekend. After grabbing some migas at Casa Garcia (yum!) I made the afternoon panel-- "Endings: Good, Bad and Insanely Great," given by Michael Arndt. This guy wrote Little Miss Sunshine in 3 days, revised it 100+ times, and it won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2006, a first for a first-time scripter. He also wrote Toy Story 3, which was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2010. Arndt obviously had had a lot to teach us-- and he did. By far, the best panel of the entire weekend, almost worth the steep cost of the badge.

Driving around rural Texas in a pickup
truck in the middle of the night.
After tearing up some Texas freeways in David's 1995 Chevy pickup afterwards (so I can cross 'drive a pickup in Texas' off my list of things to do) got a ride to the airport from the finest steel guitar player in all of Austin.

Overall, and excellent weekend in the finest city in Texas. Three summary observations on The 2011 Austin Film Festival:

1. It's definitely a bubble. in the Badge Zone of the AFF, you get to meet, chat up and even pitch ideas to people high up in the industry. Just remember that when you're back in the real world, you'll never get within 2 miles of these people.

2. Much easier to see said bubble when you spend a lot of time outside it. Got to visit the Broken Spoke Honky Tonk, Barton Creek Mall (for souvenirs), The Alamo Drafthouse South and got drive-thru at R. Terry's on Lamar. Out there, where the real Texas is.

3. As fun as the 2011 AFF was, it does not beat being there with a script in competition. Doesn't even come close. Still, here and there throughout the long weekend people remembered me for our 2009 win. And that felt pretty darn good. Who knows? I might be fixin' to start something.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Just Seen: In Time

A nice little work of speculative fiction depicting an alternate universe that some may even find attractive: Everyone has been genetically engineered to stop aging at 25, and has to earn every minute of their lives after that, conveniently counted down on green clocks on their forearms. If you can't get the minutes, you'll die young, but you'll at least leave a good-looking corpse.

Writer-director Andrew Niccol seems to specialize in the Philip K. Dick idiom of sci-fi: high-concept, freighted in some bit of impossible future tech, with an undeniable touch of paranoia. Observations:

• As much as it resembles Niccol's other sci-fi films-- the genetics-is-destiny concept of  Gattaca (1997) or the really, really artificial reality of The Truman Show (1998)-- In Time seems to be a logical expansion of Logan's Run (1976), Where everyone had a little glowing plastic flower on their palms which blinked out at 30, along with their lives. This film was based on a 1967 book by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, which had everyone time out at 21 (which has an undeniable 60s flavor to it). In Time adds the neat trick of turning an arbitrary execution date into a sort of financially-based expiration date.

• The easy-to-carry concept of In Time-- Money now literally equals time, carried on a clock on everyone's forearm: some have a minutes, others have centuries-- is quite timely, despite it's sort of abstract quality. The haves have so much time they seem to move slowly (because they literally have all the time in the world) and live far from the teeming have-nots, who scramble to get enough minutes to last out the day by a system that continually squeezes them by raising prices. This is a situation that, you have to admit, feels quite familiar.

• Even with it's nifty premise, In Time suffers from a familiar flaw in it's sci-fi universe: call it "Arbitrary Totalitarianism." The good-looking, well-dressed folks, rich and poor, go through their well-ordered lives without any contact with each other, with a yawning societal stratification which goes unaddressed by democratic discourse or media of any kind (aside from wanted posters). Authoritarian governments are so common in sci-fi that universes with suffrage or talk radio tend to stand out ("BSG" being a big one). I think this is because depicting a society without the messy debates of democracy plays much stronger on-screen and hangs a huge lantern on the central gimmick. It's not really writer laziness, rather a form of shorthand, like the movie trope of turning on a TV exactly when vital info is being broadcast (which happens several times in In Time).

• This must have been a easy script to pitch to a studio: an alternate reality where everyone is 25 and extremely attractive. Olivia Wilde plays Justin Timberlake's hot 50-year-old mom. The pursuing cop, the indefatigable Javert of the piece, is supposed to be over 70 and is played by smooth-faced Cillian Murphy. I'd read one review that said the movie looks like a 99-minute long credit card ad. Have to agree.

•Just a wee little bit overwritten. Practically all the characters are cutely named after timepieces: Salas, Weis [Weiss], Hamilton, Fortis, Citizen, Raymond [Raymond Weil], etc. Andrew Niccol had the restraint not to name anyone Timex, Swatch or Fossil, so there's that.

• Seen at the Daly City 20, a fine digital projection which showed the amazing photography of Roger Deakins to best effect. At the end, when the director credit came up, some fool in the back bellowed "HOR-RI-BLE!" That got a few chuckles. Since I was by myself and wouldn't embarrass anyone, I loudly intoned back into the dark, "--Then why did you sit through the whole thing?" That got a good laugh.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Weekend Box Office



For the numbers, click here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Spirit of History

In my continuing attempt to document my acting career and fill blog space, I'll tell you what I'm up to this month: I can be found next weekend at the Ghost Tour in Strathern Park.
  
Strathern House

Essentially it's a "haunted house" with a pro-social purpose. Strathearn Park is located in Simi Valley about three miles north of the Ronald Reagan presidential library, and it's stocked with hisotrical buildings. The one depicted above is the Strathearn house, but many of the other structures have been transplanted to the grounds so you can see what life was like before smartphones.

The Simi Valley Historical society hires actors to play the ghosts of famous Simi Vally figures. ("Famous" is a term of art; the only figure I'd ever heard of is Crash Corrigan, the silent movie cowboy who isn't even depicted this year) The actors perform 3 minute scenes which serve to explain their place in local history. As it happens, there were enough creepy folk in Simi Valley's past that Halloween is a perfectly appropriate time to mount this little dog and pony show.

Note, there is neither a dog nor a pony in the show.


Here is me and Veronica Scheyving as Finis and Mary Yoakum, who were founders of the Pisgah Grande Colony and mission at the turn of the last century. It was a health cult. As cult leaders go, Yoakum is among the more benign in the area's history.  The least benign is probably Krishna Venta, whose space alien/religion/sex cult went so off the rails in the 1950's that his followers literally blew him up with dynamite.
The interesting thing for an actor in this gig is - well, are - a. they actually give you money to act and b. you get a lot of "stage time." True the scene is only three minutes, but over the course of any evening you will perform it to 13-15 groups of about 20 people each. It's only a three weekend run, but it's still more exposure than a 5 weekend run in a regular play. So it's worth being trapped outside for 4 hours.

If you're in the area next weekend and not interested in checking out a recreation of the Reagan-era Air Force One, swing by.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Headin' Back to Austin

Flying out tomorrow at an ungodly time to Austin, Texas, to attend the 2011 Austin Film Festival and Screenwriting conference. I've got my Producer's Badge, which gets me into almost all the conferences and all the good parties.

I was there two years ago, under very different circumstances: John and I were finalists in the screenwriting competition. We eventually won our category, and to this day the Bronze Typewriter award sits on my mantlepiece (John said he had more than enough awards jamming up his office, and it's true).

After the win came a small avalanche of requests from producers and development shingles to read the winning manuscript, and a few days of pitch meetings in LA. But in the end all I can report has happened with The Sensitivity Program (the winning script) is several revisions and it's current option held by a Bay Area production company.

So as you can imagine, this time out it's not going to be the non-stop demi-celebrity experience we had in 2009 (Ron Howard congratulated us!). John's going to be there, but he's staying in a condo across from the Driskill Hotel (AFF's ground zero) with some buddies he met at The Film School in Seattle so he's sort of doing his own thing. I'm crashing at my bud David's place in South Austin, where I can admire the four Grammy awards on his piano and feel humble.

I was quite excited about the AFF when I got the badge-- last-minute thing that depended on some last-minute money coming in. But now I'm set to go, and I can't help think it's gonna be a big disappointment compared to 2009. When you think about it, how can it not be?

Still, some fun should be be had. I have access to a pick-up truck, which should open up the whole Austin experience considerably. Also, James Franco and Johnny Depp and Mike Judge and a bunch of famous screenwriters and inebriated not-so-famous screenwriters will be there, so how can it not be fun?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Weekend Box Office




Where is he getting these numbers, anyway?

Just Seen: The Tingler

Halloween is closing in again, and on cue the cable nets are loaded up with horror films. Actually, I'll say the spooky season was kicked off quite well by last Sunday's season 2 premiere of "The Walking Dead" on AMC. A very impressive, excruciatingly tense 90 minutes. The only thing that let the air out of a fine evening of zombie action was the increasing tempo of commercial breaks, which started hitting every ten minutes or so in the third half. I guess they had to capitalize on the buzz-- and were rewarded with the best ratings for any AMC show so far.

Up-dial a bit, I got a chance to catch The Tingler (1959) last night on TCM, in finely transferred HD. It was part of William Castle's most successful cycle of gimmick-driven horror films, along with House On Haunted Hill (1959) and 13 Ghosts (1960).

Quite a few years ago, I got to see The Tingler in a revival house in San Francisco in an auditorium wired for "Percepto," the sensory gimmick from the original release. And by gimmick, I mean several buzzers wired into selected seats. When the blackout part hit ("The tingler is loose the the theater! Scream as loud as you can!"), the buzzers were turned on (along with, for added terror, a Van Der Graff generator throwing out blue sparks under the screen) and all the hipsters in the house reliably screamed their heads off.

No Percepto last night (though I did watch it a little buzzed) so I got to dig into the film's plot. It was written (along with the other two) by Robb White-- and it's obvious the poor guy had William Castle hovering over his typewriter the whole time. a few super-weird plot motifs popped out in this screening:

• Strange family relationships. Vincent Price (in his skinny-moustached prime) plays Warren Chapin, a pathologist. As the story opens he is conducting an autopsy on an executed criminal. Ollie, the executed guy's next of kin, plays a pivotal role in the story that follows. Dr. Chapin is married to Isabel, a gold-lamé-wearing trollop. She's an heiress who refuses to share her wealth with her good-hearted younger sister Lucy, who also lives with them. Lucy is going steady with David, who is played by Darryl "Dobie Gillis" Hickman and who Dr. Chapin considers a son to him. Everything that happens not directly Tingler-related involves the baroque, complex and hateful dynamics of this family unit.

• Weird plot holes. Dr. Chapin's trollop wife Isabel, a fairly important character, vanishes from the film at about the two-thirds point-- no real reason given. Vincent Price greets this development with a shrug, and the film continues.

• Time wasters. Aside for the long scream-filled blackouts at three points in the film (which are cheap to shoot!) We're also treated to an extended sequence in the silent-film theater (before the Tingler gets loose in it) of Tol'able David (1921). This was a wheezy melodrama featuring Richard Bartholomess about a mistreated bumpkin who gets his big shot a manhood when he gets to deliver a mailbag. For the most part, films-within-films usually make some sort of thematic commentary to the overarching narrative. Not this time. It was probably a way William Castle could add four minutes or so of length to his movie (which was shot in two weeks) and he didn't give a damn if it informed the plot or killed it dead.

Even with it's manifold faults, The Tingler is a genuinely creepy film, with a clever bit of color in the scariest part. There is an almost Lynchian despair and strangeness to the thing, an effect that lingers well after the last 50's teenager screams. it doesn't hold up well, but it holds up.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The End of Film

Sometime in 2009, the last professional 35mm motion picture camera was assembled.

The three major camera companies-- Panavision, Aaton and ARRI-- have since been devoted to designing and improving their digital cameras. The 35mm cameras that made them famous are still out there, and they still service them, but to quote Deborah Kaufman on Creative Cow, "someone, somewhere in the world, is now holding the last film camera ever to roll off the line."

Meanwhile, the number of movie theaters screens set up for digital projection surpassed fifty percent of all screens, and they're installing over seven hundred new projectors every month. This is a net gain, I think: the days of scratched prints and out-of-frame shows may be history. But with the exception of IMAX (a 65mm process that grows in popularity every year) film print delivery will eventually become rare, then a sort of historical curiosity. I can see a time not far off when you will have to visit a subsidized rep and revival theatre (a museum screening room, LA's Cinematheque, or the Packard-supported Guild in Palo Alto, for example) to see what a projected 35mm print looks like.

It should surprise nobody that film has been virtually dead in television production for years, but what's weird is how the tipping point came: during the near-shutdown of Hollywood due to the SAG labor dust-up in 2008. TV's move to AFTRA contract players, who had a deal with TV producers so long as the film were made digitally, made film use in TV production vanish overnight.

As far as movies go, we're living in strange times. Sure, the major films shot digitally look a lot like their 35mm predecessors. But the shallow focus and squeezed bokeh of Panavision, the red circles of film halation on point-source lights, the organic grain density of the photochemical process: these are 20th century artifacts, remnants of the analog world.

We're well into the 21st century now, and the precise, pure color of digital cinema is steadily becoming the norm. For filmmakers, this may well be a good thing: 35mm film stock is, and always has been, phenomenally expensive stuff. For the cost of 20 reels of color negative and processing for same, you can go out and buy a RED ONE 4K Digital Cinema camera and capture an unlimited amount of footage at the same resolution.

For film enthusiasts, this progress is sort of a mixed bag. In the days of film, the cost of stock set the lower bar for film production. Film production needed high-level financing, and financing requires return on investment, which requires things like actors, competent lighting, coherent scripts and decent post-production standards. A few years ago the opening up of film markets to zero-budget films spawned the "mumble-core" movement and The Room (D. Tommy Wiseau, 2003). There are thousands of kids out there, energized with all sorts of personal cinematic epiphanies, running their hands over their DSLRs, ready to roll-- and the image resolution at their command rivals any professional camera. Watch out.

On the other hand, It's important to remember that Hollywood is a system: It's stock in trade is slickly made, big-budget creations populated with familiar faces, available to be seen in a darkened auditorium or on a major network near you. This system was created because of the needs of film: To tell a story using the low-sensitivity nitrate stocks of the time, you needed a studio to shine a lot of lights on actors, sets on stages where scenes could be repeated reliably, and access to development labs for workprints. The film studios remain, though the film itself is gone.

Then again: if we can have cars without gas engines and computers without keyboards, we can have film studios without film.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Skippy The Bush Kangaroo As Embodiment Of National Character


Skippy, The Bush Kangaroo (pictured center)
 As I mentioned last week, one of the cultural artifacts my girlfriend Leanne brought back with her from Switzerland was a DVD of some episodes of Skippy, The Bush Kangaroo, enigmatically dubbed into French. To be more specific the episodes are from the 1991 revival series, The Adventures of Skippy. Still the situation is the same - unmarried Austrailian game warden and his two children, sharing adventure with the unusually smart and helpful titular Kangaroo. Pretty obviously male Kangaroo in this case. Don't ask me to give details.

Skippy has captured my imagination.  Even though I don't speak enough French to understand the dialog, it's clear that the show is not dialog driven. It's an action show. Which is why I keep thinking that it must have been unbelievely frustrating for Australians to write it.

Skippy is the main character - you can kind of think of him as a superhero but his chief superpower is indication. "What is it Skippy? What are you pointing at? Oh no, it's a toxic waste spill! Who could have done that?" Skippy's function on the show is to notice the thing that sets the plot in motion, and then accompany the game warden or children as they investigate and solve the problem. If possible, Skippy will notice and indicate something else over the course of the episode.  Perhaps he'll hop off and the little girl will follow him to discover a leaky pipe. But other than that, Skippy ain't nothin'.

Can you imagine the poor staff writers trying to crank out a script every week? "He can't speak, he can't drive a bloody car, he can't hold a gun - crikey, how the hell am I supposed to use this thing? He doesn't even have a bloody pouch." To make matters worse, the characters Skippy deals with most are children, who are similarly limited protagonists. Ultimately the real engine of the show is the game warden, who just does what Skippy and the kids tell him to.

Australians are famously simple men of action, and this show is the most passive/agressive situation imaginable.

Backhanded Compliment Of The Week

"But Allen is a perfect fit for a multicamera sitcom, and despite the predictability of the jokes, he sells them well. As bad as Last Man is, it would be a trillion times worse without him."
- Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman, reviewing new Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Weekend Box Office

The numbers show no matter what month it is, it's still September.

That's right, 4 new movies in the top then and they underperform old movies that weren't doing great to begin with. For starters, premiering at the #4 position, Courageous. It blazed into our consciousness with $9 million. Woo hoo. Next, 50/50, a comedy about a guy who has incurable cancer somehow managed to  make that premise palatable and only made $8.6 million. Below that at #6, Dream House pulls in $8.1 million and finally, at #8, What's Your Number? Its number, it turns out, is $5.4 million.

Make of this what you will - a couple of months ago, a raging pro-Sarah Palin documentary called The Undefeated opened to a sad $65k. This weekend, raging anti-Palin documentary Sarah Palin: You Betcha opened to a far sadder 7K. In either event, it looks like people aren't jumping at the chance to watch movies about Sarah Palin. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Weekend Box Office

Moneyball, numbers -- why do I even need a clever way to link?

New movies still no match for a 20-year old re-release of a cartoon animated through drawing pictures by human hands. That's all you need to know about this week's top ten. But if you want to know more, the 2nd biggest movie was Moneyball, based on a true story almost as uncinematic as The Social Network's. It did a respectable $19 mil, $20 if you insist on rounding up. Just below it, A Dolphin's Tale at $19 mil. At #4 we have Abduction, a thriller that almost cleared $11 million and finally the Sam Peckinpah remake train pulls in again with The Killer Elite, this time not starring James Caan but opening with $9 mil.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Travel, Broadening The Mind

My girlfriend just got back from a biking tour of Switzerland. No, she's not the kind of girl who does that all the time, but I can say she's done it one more time than I have! Anyway, aside from an appreciation of dairy-based cuisine and a higher metabolism, she also brought back a stack of French DVDs, because she knows how much I love the obscure.

Some of the titles were less obscure than she had hoped - for example, she didn't recognize a two-episode arc from CSI directed by Quentin Tarentino, dubbed into French; a few episodes of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo dubbed into French from the original Australian. But at least one item was a brilliant thing I'd never heard of: an Italian horror movie from 1960 called Le Moulin des supplices, or Mill Of The Stone Women.

Neither one of us knew anything about it; she was attracted by the lurid cover, pictured here. We watched it in English with French subtitles, and it's fascinating from the get go - just trying to figure out where and when it takes place for one thing. People are dressed in period garb but you can't quite put your finger on what period. The road signs and so on aren't in English, but they're not in Italian either. In fact, they're in Flemish.

The movie has a gorgeous technicolor gloss to it, like a Hammer picture from the same period - but the Hammer chaps were going for shocks. These guys had one thing on their mind, creepiness. Who is that woman who looks so much like Gina Lolabrigida, peeking from behind the curtain? Why does she have a tiny greyhound on a leash? Why is the old Flemish lighthouse filled with statues of agonized historical figures? Is the lead character really in a mausoleum at the base of the windmill or is he just dreaming?

The great thing about the movie is that the answers to these questions is even weirder than you thought, though also largely improbable and insane. Like any effective horror movie, the dream logic is a lot stronger than the normal kind.

Still it's probably that lack of plausibility coupled with the awful title that kept the movie out of sight for all these years. And they tried a lot of other titles over the years: The Horrible Mill Women, Drops of Blood, Icon or my favorite, Doktor Skräck och de förstenade kvinnorna. It's Swedish and funny because there is no Doctor Skrack in the movie.

Anyway it was worth the effort to watch, and considering it's copy protected AND encoded in PAL instead of NTSC that's saying something.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Weekend Box Office

Can you feel the numbers tonight?

This is the first time I can remember that I got out over the weekend to SEE the #1 movie, and I fell in love with it all over again. The Lion King, this time in 3D through judicious saving of files on Disney's part, is just about the perfect movie. Everybody involved was at the top of their game, the storytelling is epic and economical at the same time, the songs are hummable and they took a few crazy chances, such as visually referencing Leni Riefenstahl in the "Be Prepared" number. So I'm happy to report that the re-release took the #1 spot with $30 million. I bet it's still in theaters when the Blu-ray comes out!

A handful of new movies opened this weekend too: action drama Drive came in @ #3 with $11 million; the long-awaited remake (?) of Straw Dogs took #5 with $5 million, and I Don't Know How She Does It doesn't quite do it, coming in at #6 with only $4 mil.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hollywood's Immune System

In order to see Contagion comfortably, I chose a late, late showtime: 10:55, the last showtime at the Tanforan 20. From what I'd read about the effectiveness of Steven Soderbergh's new thriller, I wanted at least a few rows of seats between me and the next moviegoer. There were only 8 or so in the auditorium, and nobody was coughing. (but there was, as there always seems to be in late-night movie screenings these days, a couple dragging their toddler-aged kid along.)

Contagion is a very good, very scary film. Soderbergh calls it a horror film, evading the "thriller" tag, and he has a good point. Good horror plays on primal fears-- remember that grotty dude hacking away without covering his mouth at Starbucks last week? Sure you do. That, coupled with the always-unsettling glimpse of the thin veneer of society peeling away at the epidemic's later stages, creates feelings of rising unease as the film progresses. And as it uses Soderburgh's signature multiple-storyline style, you're never quite sure which of the Oscar-caliber ensemble is going to bite the dust next.

Later in the film there are plenty of scenes of National Guard troops in digital camouflage and Hum-Vees keeping roadblocks. This aspect calls back to the discussion about Torchwood: Miracle Day, which covers remarkably similar ground concerning profound social disruption. But here's the thing: the high-concept sci-fi idea of everyone on earth inexplicably granted life everlasting is sort of fun to think about, but the hard-science idea of an unstoppable virus wiping out millions is not only depressing and scary to ponder, less than 100 years ago something very similar actually happened.

Aside from the micron-sized and therefore un-telegenic virus, there's a human villain in this piece: Alan Krumweide (Jude Law), a crummy, weedy fellow who sows fear and misinformation and false hope in alternative medicine cures through his blog. In a film that focuses on the selfless efforts of government scientist to save lives (a la Outbreak and The Andromeda Strain) he represents the conspiracy nuts, the anti-vaccine moms-- the whole, weird anti-science know-nothing movement that seems to depressingly be steadily gaining traction in larger society.

But I think there's something more subtle going on here. This is at least the second major feature film which paints a harsh picture of the internet in general and social networking specifically. Recall the tone of The Social Network, a film that exposes Facebook's roots as a crude sexist college diversion and it's founders as litigious snobs or prickly sociopaths. And in Contagion, it's made clear that everything would be going so much better for humanity in general if it were not for some nutty blogger from San Francisco (surprise: Hollywood yet again portrays the Bay Area as a scenic loony bin).

And why shouldn't establishment Hollywood view the Internet in the worst possible light? As far as the studios are concerned, it's a disease.

I think such negative depictions of internet culture in major movies are a sign of Hollywood's immune system going into overdrive. Even now, there is little the internet and social networking can do to help studios sell tickets: viral hits like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project are so rare they've become cautionary tales (as in: never mention either of them when you're pitching a script). In realpolitik, internet film marketing is just another money-suck for which studios are obliged to staff buildings full of web designers and marketers to create feckless web presences for their movies.

The internet has come to represent nothing less than a full attack on Hollywood, a galloping infection that attacks both control of product and the bottom line. The studio buys a script, and they have to make sure it doesn't get uploaded somewhere. Greenlight, and there are even more potential leaks. Outright piracy begins generally at the first pre-screenings right through general release, eating away box-office as effectively as a blood-borne parasite eats red blood cells. As whole films fall into bit-torrent oblivion, snippets of their films get cut out and put on YouTube or Daily Motion and there's little to be done about that either. Finally, even the home video market and it's tidy widget-style sales model is being sapped by streaming services, offering the same film for a fraction of the cost of a DVD or BluRay version.
As falling revenues draws the industry into existential crisis, we're seeing it's immune system deploy T-cells and leukocytes, out to destroy the malignancy. Expect to see more.

Once upon a time, internet culture as depicted by Hollywood was a rich source of pseudo-high-tech, blatantly unbelievable tropes: "I'll have to hack their IP with a custom-written worm to access their triple-encrypted password. And… there it is!" Remember Hackers (1995) with Angeline Jolie as "Acid Burn" and Jonny Lee Miller as "Crash Override?" Hoo-boy. But that was then: the era of that sort of fun-loving naivete is over.

Endorsement: Sherlock (2010)

The thing that makes Sherlock Holmes a great character is this: He'll open with an unlikely conclusion, and then dazzle you with the insane amount of detail he observed to reach it. And no matter how implausible the conclusion is, you see that there can be no other. It's with this in mind that I tell you this:

BBC's recent 3 episode series of Sherlock, set in the present day and starring an actor named Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes is brilliant.

Actually the 1st and 3rd episodes are brilliant, the 2nd is merely very good. Here's my favorite line from the 1st episode, a curt response to one of Inspector Lestrade's team:



Against all odds this Sherlock is bouyant, depsite there being absolutely no need for a modernized Sherlock Holmes. Let's face it, he's already all over televsion in the person of Hugh Laurie's Dr. House, any given episode of CSI: Wherever, Castle -- 50% of all primetime TV is Holmes nowadays, and another 35% is reality TV. What does that leave? Two and a Half Men. And that's just America.

What works with the new Holmes is, as far as I can see, pure serendipity. You have the right show runners (Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat, who also are steering the Dr. Who franchise nowadays -- there's another Holmes for ya) the right actors (Cumberbatch, who Moffat claims is the only actor to play the character who has a stupider name than Sherlock Holmes) and Martin Freeman, late of The Office and Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy)) and the right format (90 minutes! Who the hell makes 90 minute TV shows? But it's just right for the complexity of these stories) and maybe most important, Holmes kinda belongs in the 21st century.

I don't want to give anything away because this stuff is available on streaming Netflix and places, but I will say that for starters, HOLMES LOVES TEXTING. And Google. If there's an internet outage in some upcoming episode, the poor detective will likely go insane.

Anyway, check it out, especially if you were disappointed with Robert Downey Jr's Holmes recently. Because this one works.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Weekend Box Office

Numbers fever -- catch it!

Not bad for early September! A virus thriller with an all-star cast called Contagion takes the top spot, with $22 million. This week's other new movie, Warrior, barely fights its way to #3 with $5 mil.

Last week's lowest ranking release The Conspiritor is still holding on, and things are looking up! This weekend it made $32! You know what that means... 3 people saw it, 1 more than last time. Why do I get the feeling that Robert Redford owns a piece of that theatre?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day - The Debate 4

So strangely, Dan and I seem to agree: Russell T Davies seems to have knitted together a TV show that is much greater than the sum of it's prior parts. Furthermore it is quite apparent that he'd be quite happy to move the series past it's small-form BBC Cymru roots to a grander vision with international locations and big guest stars (Bill Pullman! The former Mrs. Clint Eastwood!). After all, he jettisoned all the previous cast except for the two leads, and these characters spent a lot of time distracted and off the procedural trail. I won't be too surprised if the leads next year are Mekhi Phifer's Rex Matheson (quite the sly, TV-sci-fi tip of the hat, that character name) and either Jack Harness or Gwen Cooper.

And yes, I'll agree that John Barrowman is not an especially compelling actor. I was gonna chalk it up to my mistaken idea that he was an English actor being held back by having to do an American accent, but he's basically American-- Scots-born, grew up outside Chicago, he was in an extra in The Untouchables (1987). My wife is terribly perturbed by his hair, which changes drastically from shot to shot.

Honestly, if the premise of the next season is anything like the compelling one of Miracle Day, the whole Torchwood/Doctor Who backstory can be dispensed with.

Torchwood: Miracle Day -- The Debate 3

Ah, that would change one's perspective. Miracle Day does get a lot of charge from being set in the States. It seems like Davies got a bigger budget than usual and plowed it all into a wish list of character actors - the Starz series is peppered with faces that you haven't seen in years, gobbling up scenery like some kind of existential maw at the center of the world. And I'll add that it's great to see Wayne Knight again, fat and sweaty like he's meant to be.

Lauren Ambrose comes from the world of musical comedy, and somehow manages to tap into that energy on the small screen without going big and fake. She's quite a find and they'd be crazy to not make her the engine of the next season. That woman is all charisma.

Also with every succeeding series of Torchwood, Davies jettisons more of the premise of the original series and I like to think he's as fed up with those characters as I am. Especially Captain Jack. My high school drama teacher is right, Jack Barrowman is a terrible actor. Now and then he turns out an authentic moment, but then so do animals and children if you put them in the right context. The thing that ruined Torchwood: Miracle Day for me, more than anything else, was Torchwood.

Still let me be unpleasant with the following spoiler.

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SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!


SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!


SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!


SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!


SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!


SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!


At the end, the two CIA agents are seemingly killed - one survives and one doesn't. The twist is, the guy who's been running around with a gaping chest wound throughout the show survives, because as it turns out, he's been transfused with Jack's blood. Then he's shot at the funeral for the other agent, but he heals up again. Everyone is surprised.
 
WHY? Didn't they notice his failure to die when the blessing reset itself? It's sloppy.
 

Torchwood: Miracle Day - The Debate 2

I have never watched a scrap of the first three seasons of Torchwood. I have also never seen more than a dozen of so minutes of the sixty-odd seasons of Doctor Who. First impressions are made early, and I remember trying to watch the show when I was just a kid-- it was in black & white and consisted of endless scenes of a fusty old Brit climbing around an abandoned brickworks or whatever.

So I took in Torchwood: Miracle Day as a complete newbie, having to fill in the gaps as I went along as to who the supercilious gay guy with the wartime coat and the resentful Taff with the freckles were.

Oddly, I think this perspective put me in a position to really appreciate what a remarkable series it was. Russell T Davies and company (notably former Buffy and BSG showrunner Jane Espenson) cooked up a series that is centered an a hard science-fiction concept so simple, so profound and so rich I can't figure out why nobody had done it before.

And moreover, this simple concept (one fine day, for no apparent reason, people stop dying everywhere) is explored thoroughly and realistically. Yes, Miracle Day would seem like just that for most people-- until you start thinking about the consequences of getting injured or incapacitated or shot full of holes or crushed in a car compactor. Play these things out and you get economic collapse, moral panic, and the eventual re-classification of those incapacitated but undying into a category to be disposed of. Immortal life, which is something we mere mortals can only hope and pray for, becomes the stuff of unending pain and horror. That's good, well-thought-out speculative fiction.

Death is a inextricable part of the human condition-- one which everyone would very much love to banish. But take it away-- and watch the chaos spread. It's such a powerful idea to explore somebody wrote a New York Times Op-Ed about it.

I've lost track of how many TV shows that have introduced a world altering concept and were either too lazy or hidebound to thoroughly explore the ideas they are promulgating. The late reboot of V on ABC was a prime example of this-- after a while, it felt like the the Visitors were nothing more than annoying new neighbors everybody had to just put up with.

So I came away impressed by this show. Sure, it was a bit talky here and there-- and the season finale, though it wrapped things up well, was just plain bad. Without spoiling, in the last two acts the baddies, though they are in an unquestionable power position, stand around like a bunch of potted plants while the intrepid Torchwood team undoes all their grand plans basically right in front of them. And of course, they wouldn't be bad guys if they didn't get in some epic monologing beforehand. (And I'm with Dan, we want more Lauren Ambrose. And John DeLancie had the best parting line ever.)

I'd venture to say that the Miracle Day effect was so rich an idea, it made the precedent Torchwood adventures irrelevant. I feel no need to review past episodes. In fact, since it was a BBC Wales show before the infusion of US cash from Starz/Encore for Miracle Day, I'm sure they're just endless scenes of fusty Brits (and a resentful Taff) climbing around an abandoned brickworks or whatever.

Torchwood: Miracle Day - The Debate

Russel T. Davies' Torchwood series is kind of a gauge of your geek cred. I proudly claim to have seen every episode and for the most part, hated all of them.


The premise of show, a spinoff from Davies' reboot of Doctor Who (attention anagram enthusiasts!) is that  the UK government has a top-secret intelligence agency devoted to tracking down and neutralizing extraterrestrial threats, headed by Captain Jack Harkness, an immortal humanoid alien with a penchant for WWII fashion and an unmistakable American accent. And he's bisexual, though lately only interested in men.

In the last two series, Torchwood has been dismantled (aggressively dismantled) and instead of saving the Earth on behalf of the government, it has been saving the Earth because Captain Jack and Gwen Cooper, the only two original team members not assassinated, simply refuse to leave the Earth to its own devices. The latest series, Miracle Day, has just completed its 10-episode run on Starz. It was epic in scope and, as usual, frustrating.

The series, first of all, seemed about 5 episodes too long. The plot engine in Miracle Day is that suddenly, one day, nobody dies. All around the world, at exactly the same time, everybody is immortal, except Captain Jack. Sounds great at first, but of course the devil's in the details. Overpopulation becomes a problem inside of a week, along with the disturbing proviso that mortal wounds never heal. You're just kind of alive, stuck with this oozing gunshot wound or flesh-eating virus or what have you. Good premise but the longer you have to think about the implications, the more holes you're going to find. And there are a lot of them holes. For example the phenomenon seems linked to Harkness, but when he takes a bullet, he just heals. Hell, they blew him up last year! He was encased in concrete for the better part of century once, and it's no biggie. So why not the new crop of immortals?

And my biggest beef with the series is definitely on display this time around: it violates the prime law of procedurals. Okay, it's my law, but it seems to hold: if you do a show about people with a job, they must be really really good at that job. If it's about bus drivers the plots must be how they solve bus driver problems that would flummox ordinary bus drivers. And they have to care about the bus so much that it takes precedence over their personal lives. A bus driver who is neglecting his kids because he's putting in so much extra time to keeping the bus running is a hero in a procedural.

In Torchwood, it's always been a conceit that the team members are people! With needs! So when Captain Jack literally takes an evening off from saving the world so he can pick up a bartender, it sticks in my craw. A good dozen of the plots in the first two series revolved around Earth-threatening conflicts caused by the Torchwood staff. If I were the British government, I'd have taken those guys out around episode 5.