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There's usually a film or two every year that I feel obligated to watch because it's very high profile and making waves in the critical community, so I feel that in order to stay informed I ought to see it despite having no interest in doing so. Past titles have included things like "Dreamgirls," "The Road," and "Cyrus." 2013 was a great year and there was a flood of good features that I was happy to tackle with relish. I couldn't watch everything, of course, but the things that got left off my "To Watch" list were super obscure titles like Claire Denis' "Bastards" and Mira Nair's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," which weren't really part of any major conversations about film that I was aware of.

In 2014, however, there's at least one film that I know I'm going to have to figure out how to address one way or another, and that's Lars Von Trier's "Nymphomaniac." It's being released in two parts, totaling somewhere north of four hours of screen time uncut. There's going to be a lot of explicit sexuality that I'm not looking forward to, particularly as it's coming from Von Trier, who seems to delight in making sex as cringeworthy as possible. "Volume I" opens in selected cities in the U.S. today, so there have been plenty of reviews in circulation - some good some bad, and some indifferent. However, Lars Von Trier is a major cinema auteur, and I've seen a good chunk of his work, enough to know that I really should see "Nymphomaniac" and form my own opinion about it.

I've had mixed reactions to Von Trier films. I enjoyed and fully endorse "Dancer in the Dark," "Breaking the Waves," and "Melancholia." "Dogville," and his earlier films like "Europa" were middling. I flat-out detested "Antichrist," "Manderlay," and "The Idiots." I have no idea which category "Nymphomaniac" is going to fall into, but the premise just sounds unbearably tedious, and this is from someone who just finished watching the six-hour Mosfilm version of "War and Peace." The length doesn't phase me. The content does to some extent, with the promise of lots of kinky business going on, though I've been assured that there's nothing as gruesome as the final scenes of "Antichrist." Von Trier himself claims that the film is not pornography, and that there is nothing particularly titillating about the copious amounts of sex that he depicts.

Maybe it would be easier if "Nymphomaniac" were just empty, gratuitous sex for four hours, or the trashy erotica that I'm expecting the "Fifty Shades of Gray" adaptation to be. Then I could dismiss it more easily. However, "Nymphomaniac" is supposed to be taken seriously as the newest work from a major filmmaker, and I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around that. All the marketing and all the chatter around the film that I've seen so far point to the movie being another Von Trier exercise in shock and awe rather than a mature, grown-up examination of sexuality like, oh, "Last Tango in Paris" or "Eyes Wide Shut" or "Lust, Caution." Sex in Von Trier films tends to turn into a horror show - rape and sex as degradation are way more common than healthy sexual relations - and I don't have much confidence in him changing his approach here, where sex is going to be front and center the whole time. Even if it's not "Antichrist," I expect "Nymphomaniac" to be a difficult watch, to say the least.

I have to say that I am curious about the participation of so many familiar names like Uma Thurman, Christian Slater, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, and of course, The Beef. Von Trier regulars Stellan Skarsgaard and Udo Kier will be in the mix too. And of course there's Charlotte Gainsbourg as the female lead, Joe. This is her third collaboration with Von Trier, and she seems to be one of his few leading ladies who actually enjoys working with him. And I know that I'll probably get something out of seeing "Nymphomaniac," just as I usually get something out of seeing most of the other films I've had these kinds of doubts about.

Watching difficult and challenging movies is good for us. It gets us to examine and push past our prejudices, to deal with uncomfortable subject matter and the emotions that they stir up. Lars Von Trier films disturb and alienate me because they're provocative and dangerous. And that's why I love some of them too. That's why I keep watching them, and that's why I keep watching films from similar directors like Gaspar Noe, Michael Haneke, Harmony Korine, and Nicholas Winding Refn. These are artists who don't play by the rules, and they're important to acknowledge and engage with.
So I will see "Nymphomaniac." All of it. Eventually. Doesn't mean I have to like it though.
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I was debating about what to write about to today, and considered a "Rank 'Em" post for the PIXAR movies. 2014 is going to be the first year in a while that won't have a PIXAR release, and honestly it's something of a relief after their last few films. Since "Toy Story 3" in 2010, the quality has noticeably slipped, most obviously with "Cars 2." I liked "Brave" and "Monsters University" more than most, but I understand why others have been underwhelmed. By embracing franchises, it feels like PIXAR has fallen a step or two behind and lost some creative momentum.

So Bob Iger's announcement today that two more PIXAR sequels are in development has raised some mixed emotions. These are "Cars 3" and "The Incredibles 2," which we know almost nothing about except that Brad Bird is apparently writing the new "Incredibles" movie, and the earliest we'll see either of them will probably be 2017. After "Cars 2" and the spinoff "Planes" series, there wasn't much enthusiasm for a "Cars 3," but the response to an "Incredibles" sequel have been fairly positive, since original creator and director Brad Bird is going to be involved. "The Incredibles," celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, is one of the few PIXAR movies where there has actually been vocal demand for a franchise.

I'm not so convinced that it's a good idea. "The Incredibles" ranks very high on my list of favorite PIXAR films, and is the last one I was entirely happy with. Moreover, Brad Bird maintained for years that he would only return to the "Incredibles" universe if he came up with a good enough story to warrant a sequel. He very well may have been struck by inspiration, but I have to wonder about the timing. If you look at the list of PIXAR movies, the sequels are coming in roughly the same order as the first movies. 2001's "Monsters Inc." was followed by 2002's "Finding Nemo" and then 2004's "The Incredibles." Looking at the sequels on PIXAR's current slate, 2013's "Monster's University" will be followed by 2016's "Finding Dory" and then either "Cars 3" or "The Incredibles 2." Bird may not have been pushed to come up with new "Incredibles" story, but he was almost certainly nudged.

Also, it was particularly shrewd to announce the two sequels together, because it takes the attention off of "Cars 3." The "Cars" franchise is regarded as a necessary evil by PIXAR fans these days. Nobody really minded the first movie, though it wasn't recieved with much enthusiasm, but "Cars 2" received the worst reviews of PIXAR's entire history by a large margin, and less than impressive domestic returns. However, PIXAR and Disney have made a killing on "Cars" merchandise, and the sereis remains very popular worldwide. Globally, "Cars 2" outgrossed "Brave" and "WALL-E." "Planes," made on the cheap by former direct-to-video outfit DisneyToon Studios, also made a healthy profit on ticket sales alone, in spite of very mixed reactions. A "Planes" sequel is due out in theaters this summer, less than a year after the first. To put it bluntly, the decision to make a "Cars 3" is as financially driven as the decision to make those "Planes" movies, but if PIXAR uses those profits in part to make more original films, you won't hear many complaints.

The pressure has been turned up for PIXAR to release more films, increasing from one film a year to one-and-a-half. Consider that Dreamworks Animation has been releasing two a year since 2010, and is increasing to three starting this year. What effect this has had on the quality of their films is debatable. However, PIXAR is moving to close the gap a bit. The current plan, announced by Ed Catmull last year, is to release an original film every year and a sequel or prequel every other year. However, that's not going to be an easy schedule to keep to. The next two features coming up, "Inside Out" and "The Good Dinosaur," are are both originals and both due in 2015. "The Good Dinosaur" was supposed to be the big 2014 summer film, but it was beset by delays over reported story problems, so it was pushed back a year, "Inside Out" was moved up, and "Finding Dory" got bumped to 2016.

Ultimately I'm happy an "Incredibles 2" is going to happen, but I'd be much happier if I didn't know about all the financial considerations behind the scenes that were driving it. I would have been much happier to hear about a "Ratatouille 2" or an "Up 2" honestly, because those were weirder, more idiosyncratic films that didn't do quite as well, and a sequel probably only would have happened because somebody at PIXAR really, really pushed for one to happen. No sequels at all is probably too much to ask for these days - but maybe not. Look at how the tables have turned when you compare PIXAR to their once greatest competitor. After the mess with all the DTV sequels, have you noticed that the newly resurrected Walt Disney Feature Animation hasn't made or announced a single sequel since the "Winnie the Pooh" movie?

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So the long-awaited "Veronica Mars" movie finally appeared in theaters and online this weekend, to the delight of "Mars" fans everywhere, and to the fascination of industry watchers curious to see what a Kickstarter-funded movie was capable of. "Veronica Mars" is not destined to be a blockbuster hit, being far too much of a love letter to its existing fanbase to be very accessible to new viewers unfamiliar with the former teen-detective television show.

After a quick exposition dump to fill in for any brave newbies what the premise of "Veronica Mars" is, we learn that Veronica (Kristen Bell) is living in New York, fresh out of law school, and on the verge of landing a lucrative job with a prominent law firm. She's in a steady relationship with college boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell), and steadfastly refusing to acknowledge her upcoming ten-year high school reunion. Then she gets the fateful phone call from her high school bad boy ex, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who has been accused of murdering his high profile pop star girlfriend. Veronica heads back to the sunny, corrupt town of Neptune, California to help save Logan's skin, reconnect with old friends, and get herself thoroughly tangled up in a big mystery once more.

As a fan of the show, the "Veronica Mars" movie gave me exactly what I wanted. There's lots of snarky banter, updates on the lives of all the familiar characters, Veronica getting her sleuth on again, and some pretty big questions about her future that get definitive answers. I didn't mind the fact that the whole thing felt more like one of those old reunion TV movies that they used to do for shows like "The Brady Bunch," or the pilot for a new "Veronica Mars" series than a proper stand-alone movie. And I didn't mind that it was clearly made on the cheap with very TV quality production values, with a soundtrack full of indie acts that seem to have been chosen by lottery. It felt like we were comfortably back in the universe created by Rob Thomas, even if Veronica could throw out a few unbleeped expletives now.

What did concern me was the parade of cameos. At times it felt like every minor recurring character whose actor was willing to return was shoehorned into the story somewhere. I understand why time was devoted to Veronica's besties Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino), and sometimes ally Weevil (Francis Capra), but did we need to check in with the high school principal (Duane Daniels)? Or Veronica's long-ago crush, Deputy Leo (Max Greenfield)? And that's not even getting to the actual celebrities who make appearances, whose identities I won't spoil here. At certain points the movie feels like a game of spotting the famous and familiar faces, and it gets pretty distracting. Oh, and there are in-jokes galore for fans to catch and for newbies to feel self-conscious about not getting.

Fortunately there is a strong story to keep the whole thing together, and Veronica is still as fun and watchable a heroine as ever, who works fine on the big screen. The case has some good twists, landing Veronica in serious peril. The sheriff's department of Neptune has gotten even more corrupt since we saw it last, making it even harder for Veronica to conduct her investigation. The Veronica-Logan-Piz love triangle is inevitable, of course. The major conflict of the film, however, is actually the question of what Veronica wants to do with her future. If you were left unsatisfied, as I was, with how the ending of the television series played out, and where we left Veronica Mars as a character, the movie does a great job of giving us some resolution as she confronts some demons and gets her priorities in order.

Veronica remains one of the best female characters to come out of TV in the past generation, and I'd love to see "Veronica Mars" get a sequel, either on film or on television. Heck, I'd settle for that rumored spinoff series featuring Ryan Hansen as the doofusy surfer bro Dick Casablancas, who is deployed as much-needed comic relief throughout the film. Or one for the movie's MVP, Enrico Colantoni, as Veronica's father Keith Mars. If there's any character who I wanted to see more of in the "Veronica Mars" movie, it was him.

There's been a lot of drama around the film because of the Kickstarter campaign, but I can't imagine that many of the backers could be too upset with the film itself, which is absolutely made for them. And while I don't have a non-fan perspective, I think that the film is a good enough watch on it's own to potentially hook a few viewers who were unfamiliar with the "Veronica Mars" series. I don't know if Kickstarter is a good option for many cancelled shows, but I'm happy with the results here.
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I recently watched "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2," which was pretty bad. Going into it I knew it was going to be pretty bad, but I watched it anyway. If thy make a third one, I'll probably watch that too. Animated films are a weakness of mine, and I've sat through all the "Shrek" and "Ice Age" movies, despite not really enjoying any of them aside from the first "Shrek." I expect I'll be sitting through "Muppets Most Wanted" at some point, even though from what I can tell it's got more or less the same plot as "The Great Muppet Caper," and the recent reboot was pretty mediocre. And I'll be seeing more "Fast and Furious" movies and more "Expendables" movies as they come down the pipe, though the most recent installments struck me as only meh.

As I look ahead to the movie slates for the rest of the year, I've found that there are very few movies that I'm actually anticipating, but a bunch that I'm probably going to end up watching just because I've seen previous installments that were okay, and I have some idea of what I'm getting myself into - "22 Jump Street," "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," "Night at the Museum 3," "Expendables 3," and maybe even the next "Transformers" movie since it'll sort of of be a reboot and promises to aim for a slightly older audience. Is this franchise loyalty? No, because I don't really have any expectations that these movies are going to be any good, or any fondness for the properties that would carry me through a few bad installments. I'm going to call it franchise inertia, which is about gravitating toward familiarity more than actual enjoyment.

Even though I like to think of myself as a discerning cineaste with higher standards than most, the truth is that I'm usually game for slick Hollywood product of just about every stripe. I'll watch anything that they can shoehorn Jason Statham or Arnold Schwarzenegger into, anything with a decently large budget and lots of CGI action scenes, and pretty much anything animated that doesn't look too unbearably pandering to small children. "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" and the recent "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movies failed that test, but not that much else does. Franchise movies require almost no thought for me at all - as long as I got some amount of enjoyment out of a previous movie from the same series, I'm willing to give a new installment a chance, no matter how awful I suspect it's going to be. Hence why I paid to see "A Good Day to Die Hard" last year.

Most of the time I know exactly what I'm going to get with a sequel, so even though the reward isn't great, there's almost no risk associated with it. I can't say that about an original film, even when it has all the right names attached. "The Lone Ranger" wasn't any worse than the last "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, but I understand why audiences were more reluctant to see it, since there were a lot of uncertainties about what changes to the formula would have to be made to switch gears for a western. "Pacific Rim" was considerably better made and more kid-appropriate than any of the "Transformers" movies, but because it required buying into a whole new set of characters, terminology, and universe, it was a much harder sell. Branding carries an awful lot of weight, so even if you change almost everything from one installment of a franchise to the next, including actors, directors, and continuity, people will still come out for "The Amazing Spider-man."

Logically I know that I'm more likely to find a good film if I dig through older or foreign or independent movies, but that often requires a lot of time and effort I'm not willing to put in. Often it's just easier to grab the latest blockbuster available. And honestly, sometimes I'm just not in the mood to watch a really strong, challenging film. Most Hollywood movies let me be lazy, and don't require my full attention. Sequels don't even require me to learn the characters' names or the basic premise of the story because I already know what they are from the first movie. Watching franchise films often feels like watching new episodes of a television show in that respect. And as with television shows there are franchises that do wear out their welcome and that I've given up on - I dropped "Saw" after two movies and "The Pink Panther" after three. I still love "The X-files," but could never bring myself to watch that last movie.

It's usually harder to drop a movie franchise than a TV series, though, because movies are still positioned as events and have much bigger budgets. And there's always a chance that one of them will pull a "Madagascar 3" or an "X-men: First Class" and turn themselves around unexpectedly. It's rare, but it happens. And sometimes, it's worth sitting through all the mediocre parts to get there.
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Seven years ago, Zack Snyder's "300" came out in theaters, did summer blockbuster numbers at the box office, and reaped some big rewards to all involved. Gerald Butler was promoted to Hollywood leading man status. Zack Snyder was hailed as a visionary and handed gigantic budgets and famous franchises for follow-up projects. Adult-oriented comic-book properties were mined for more material. And, of course, the sword-and-sandals epic genre saw a spike in numbers. And now with the release of the "300: Rise of an Empire" the long-delayed sequel (prequel? midquel?) starring somebody else and directed by somebody else, we can look back at all that the first "300" has wrought and realize that Hollywood still has no idea why it was a hit.

Clearly, it wasn't Gerard Butler. He's been handed multiple chances to distinguish himself in multiple action films ("Machine Gun Preacher," "Olympus Has Fallen"), thrillers ("Law Abiding Citizen"), and romantic comedies ("The Ugly Truth," "The Bounty Hunter"), but his most successful role since playing King Leonidas has been as the viking dad in the "How to Train Your Dragon" franchise. Butler belongs to the class of the "stand-in" leading men like Sam Worthington who have made their name in big effects pictures, but have failed to parlay the success into better parts that really showcase their talents. Butler at least has more name recognition thanks to playing a more distinctive, iconic character, but it's all too easy to get him confused with other, similar actors.

Everybody knows who Zack Snyder is, but that may not be a good thing. After the success of "300" and his earlier "Dawn of the Dead" remake, Snyder was essentially given carte blanche to direct whatever projects he wanted. This lead to the deeply flawed film version of Alan Moore's "Watchmen" graphic novel and then the greatly reviled "Sucker Punch." Both movies barely made their budgets back and landed Snyder on shaky ground. Last summer's "Man of Steel" didn't really help matters, making his flaws as a director painfully clear. Snyder has his fans and his apologists, especially among the fanboy set, but he's proven himself to be a very niche director with mainstream-unfriendly tastes, and his involvement threatens to put the entire DC film universe in a very bad position.

What about the swords-and-sandals subject matter? Did that account for the success of "300"? Well, between the original "300" and its sequel we've been subjected to "Clash Of The Titans," "Wrath Of The Titans," "The Legend Of Hercules," "Immortals," "Pompeii," and a new "Conan," none of which have been particularly well received. "Clash" made enough money to warrant a sequel, but the rest did not. Television fared better with the "Spartacus" series, but similar projects have been scarce. There's been no great demand for action films set in ancient times, and the upcoming 2014 slate reflects that. There's still Brett Ratner's "Hercules" with The Rock coming up, but attentions have shifted away from Rome and Greece to Biblical stories like "Noah" and "Exodus."

Did the adult comic-book origins of "300" have any effect? The film was based on a violent Frank Miller graphic novel after all. With the "Sin City" sequel delayed to later this year we haven't had another film based on Miller's source material, but there have been plenty of similar projects including "The Losers," the two "Kick-Ass" films, the "RED" movies, "2 Guns," and of course "Watchmen." Well, considering how these films performed in comparison to the PG-13 superhero movies aimed at younger audiences, it doesn't look like that was a winning tactic either. The most successful adult comic adaptation has been AMC's "The Walking Dead," which has fairly adult content, but has much less leeway than a feature film to really utilize it.

So what made "300" a hit? The Dissolve pegged it - neat graphics and special effects work, which made "300" look different from all the sword-sand-sandals movies that preceded it. There's not really much special about the movie otherwise. The performances are solid, but unspectacular. The story is sexed up, but follows the template of a sword-and-sandals adventure pretty closely. Zack Snyder's style is impressive, but the novelty of it wore off after subsequent films where it didn't prove a good fit for more nuanced material. The grim and gritty design is actually starting to look a little dated after so many other action films of recent years adopted the same approach.

Personally, I though "300" was a decent movie, but its outsized impact on the blockbuster landscape always puzzled me. I guess its success was such a surprise and it presented so many elements that looked easily reproducible that Hollywood was duped into thinking that they just had to reuse its basic elements in the right ways to achieve the same results. Of course Hollywood has been making this same mistake for as long as there has been a Hollywood. The only surefire way to capitalize on a movie's success, of course is, to franchise it. And sure enough "300: Rise of an Empire" is busy beating up the competition at the box office as we speak.
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Fritz Lang remains one of the most successful and influential German directors of all time, who not only created some of the most indelible masterpieces of silent era German Expressionism in the 1920s, but successfully made the transition to sound films in the '30s, and went on to enjoy a long and prolific Hollywood career specializing in crime dramas and film noir all the way through the '50s. In fact his first sound film, "M" is considered the prototypical film noir, the story of a child murderer who terrorizes Berlin.

What sets "M" apart as a thriller is its psychological effectiveness. There is very little onscreen violence, in spite of the subject matter. However, Lang's ability to conjure suspense and horror is fantastic. It takes only brief shots of a lost ball and an escaped balloon to tell the audience that the worst has happened to little Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), but it's the juxtaposition of the frantic reactions of her poor mother (Ellen Widmann) that really drive home the impact of the loss. So disturbing are the crimes to the Berliners, we learn, that public outrage spurs the efforts of the local police to new extremes to find the culprit. Their efforts become unbearably disruptive to the criminal underclass, and they too join in the hunt for the murderer.

The monster of the piece is Hans Beckert, played by Peter Lorre in one of his first major roles. Lorre both began and ended his career as a chiefly comic actor, and often played colorful supporting characters, but in "M" he's the central figure of both sinister menace and pitiful insanity. Beckert is revealed to the audience as the murderer very early, and we follow his progress in parallel to the manhunt. What makes him so frightening is the fact that he appears so ordinary, and is able to hide in plain sight. There is nothing about his outward manner that instantly pegs him as a villain. However, he reveals himself unconsciously through one of the first cinematic musical leitmotifs - he whistles Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" as he stalks the children, a habit that a blind man eventually uses to identify and point him out. His looming shadow gives form to the creeping danger he poses to his victims. Then the tables turn and it is Beckert who becomes the target of an entire city that is out to get him. When Beckert is finally caught, his mental unraveling, revealing the depths of his madness, is one of Lorre's finest screen moments.

I love the subversive edge to "M," the way the police investigation lead by Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) is mirrored by the efforts of the criminals conducting their own manhunt under the direction of The Safecracker (Gustaf Gründgens). In Lang's Berlin, even the beggars and the pickpockets depend upon a certain framework of social order that its members won't hesitate to protect from an outside threat. The police employ the newest crimefighting techniques like fingerprinting, but it's the criminals who find Beckert first through their citywide network of petty crooks and derelicts. They subject him to their own brand of justice, a raucous kangaroo court that threatens to become a lynch mob, until the police finally intervene. Though anarchic, the criminals' judgment feels more satisfying than the one ultimately passed down by the official courts.

"M" bears all the hallmarks of German Expressionism, full of eerie shadows and reflections that hint at the unseen depths of its characters and foreshadow their ultimate fates. The visuals are ambitious, featuring a camera that is constantly moving, and technically complicated shots. In the restored print that I saw, when one lengthy shot moves from the exterior to the interior of a building through a window, you can actually see the pane of glass being slid out of the way to allow the camera to pass through. High angle, POV, and even aerial shots are employed, heightening the mood of dread and suspense as paranoia takes hold in the city.

Lang uses similar techniques with the soundtrack. Sound film was still in its very early, rudimentary stages, so there are long periods of silence, and the execution of the sound effects is very rough. However, "M" was one of the first films to have a complex soundscape, using a mix of ordinary incidental noises - footsteps, ticking clocks - to create anticipation. Dialogue rises in volume to delirious heights in the climactic scenes to match the dramatic visuals.

"M" remains one of the most influential movies ever made, a key precursor to so many films and films genres that its presence still looms large in cinema today. However, it's my favorite Fritz Lang film for the way that it got me to sympathize with Peter Lorre's hapless killer even as I rooted for his capture, for its vision of a city that rises up to combat an evil that the people will not tolerate, and for the way a chill still runs up my spine when I hear "Hall of the Mountain King."

After 80 years, "M" is still a thrill to watch.
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The first "Hunger Games" movie was a little rough around the edges and a little oddly formed. At times it didn't feel quite committed to its shocking premise, and its young heroine was a little too opaque. Still, it did distinguish itself from all the other young adult genre franchises thanks to a good lead performance by Jennifer Lawrence and some genuinely resonant subject matter. The sequel, I'm happy to report, manages to improve on it substantially.

The last time we saw Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), she and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutsherson) had been crowned the co-victors of the Hunger Games, the yearly gladiatorial deathmatches used by the leaders of their dystopia to oppress the downtrodden populace. Katniss learns the corrupt Capitol is far from done with her, especially since her victory has been seen as a gesture of defiance, spurring signs of an uprising. She and Peeta are sent on a victory tour, and ordered by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to continue the ruse that they're young lovers, though Katniss is actually smitten with her childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Meanwhile, Snow and a new Gamemaker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) prepare for the next Hunger Games, which they plan to use to eliminate Katniss permanently.

Last time, it was everything going on outside the actual Hunger Games, the reality show spectacle, the distorted celebrity culture, and the not-so-subtle mass media critique, that delivered the most entertainment, while the Games themselves were fairly mediocre. This time the film is more competent as an action movie, but the good stuff is still mostly the maneuverings that are going on outside and around the Games. We get much more focus on the political climate and the social unrest this time, as Katniss struggles with a life in the spotlight she can't escape. Jennifer Lawrence continues to deliver a strong performance, as Katniss's survival-oriented worldview begins to shift towards rebelliousness. She really sells the paranoia and the moments of blind panic early on, which make Katniss's later bravery all the more affecting. Her would-be screen beaus can't keep up with her, though Hutcherson improves quite a bit.

The budget was noticeably increased for this film, thanks to the series' newly minted blockbuster status. The talent level of the incoming actors reflects this too. In addition to Hoffman, new characters include other former victors Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Jena Malone), Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), and Mags (Lynn Cohen), who may be new potential allies or enemies for Katniss. Donald Sutherland gets much more screen time and much more to do, cementing him as the real Big Bad of "The Hunger Games." He's a lot of fun bringing on the malevolence here, as are returning cast members Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson in supporting parts. More importantly we've got an action movie director onboard for this round, Francis Lawrence, best known for "I am Legend." No more shakey-cam, and though the action remains firmly in PG-13 territory, not so much squeamishness about the violence either.

All in all this is a much more comfortable, self-assured outing. In many ways the plot retreads significant portions of the first movie, but now the commentary is more pointed, the action more impactful, and the narrative much more focused. Stakes are raised across the board. The sinister tyrant who watched the first Games from afar is now right across the table from Katniss, and threatening her directly to her face. Where media manipulation was a clever strategy in the first movie, now it's a matter of life and death with both sides constantly debating ways to use Katniss's image to their own advantage. Concepts are better fleshed out, characters have more depth and definition, and it's much easier to get swept up into this universe.

I do miss some of the roughness of the first "Hunger Games," with its bluegrass infused score and gloomier, more atmospheric depictions of Katniss's impoverished home town. "Catching Fire" is much more polished, and its wilder conceits are easier to swallow because of better execution, but as a result it comes across as a little more generic. However, "Catching Fire" is much more accessible and delivers on all fronts a lot more consistently. It also does a great deal of heavy lifting to widen the scope of "The Hunger Games" to accommodate a four-film franchise. I'm much more interested in the seeing the rest of the films now than I was after the first one.

In fact, when you put it up against all the other big budget action franchises out there right now, "The Hunger Games" is one of the best that Hollywood has to offer. It does have some real substance to it, features a compelling narrative with strong ideas, and is terribly entertaining too. Let's hope they keep it up.
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There are flops and there are legendary flops, and Michael Cimino's 1980 western epic "Heaven's Gate" is one of the most infamous of all time. It not only lost so much money that it destroyed United Artists, but it's commonly pointed to as one of the films responsible for ending the New Hollywood film era that saw the control of American films shift away from directors to studios and corporate interests. Critically, it was reviled upon initial release, but its image had been rehabilitated significantly in recent years. A 219 minute "restored cut" was made available by the Criterion Collection in 2012 under the director's supervision, adding over a full hour of footage. This is the version that I saw, having had no experience with the original theatrical cut. So is "Heaven's Gate" a misunderstood masterpiece finally getting its due? No, not really.

Loosely based on a real range war that happened in the 1890s, "Heaven's Gate" follows a marshal named Jim Averill (Kris Kristofferson) who becomes caught up in the conflict between an Association of rich cattle barons, lead by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) and Billy Irvine (John Hurt), and the growing number of poor immigrant settlers who are more recently arrived. Averill is friends with Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), who has been hired by the Association to hunt down and kill suspected cattle rustlers, a pretext to drive away the settlers. The two men become involved in a love triangle with a local madam, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), known to be friendly to the immigrants, and who becomes target of the Association. The "Heaven's Gate" of the title refers to a roller rink the immigrants use as a meeting place, and where Averill and Ella fall in love.

I give Michael Cimino full points for ambition. "Heaven's Gate" is certainly an epic in every sense of the word, full of beautifully composed, large scale action sequences, huge crowd scenes, and a faithful recreation of the period environs. It's unflinching in its violence, includes some perfectly appropriate sexual content, presents social commentary that still resonates, and has a refreshingly mature take on romance. There are singular moments in the film that are truly arresting, and well worthy of praise. The cast is stacked with strong talents, and I had a great time picking out familiar faces in early roles. Christopher Walken comes off the best as one of the three leads, a hired gun with a sentimental heart. I also like Isabelle Huppert, whose character is a little ridiculous in construction, but she doesn't let that stop her for a moment.

Sadly, the movie is a dreadful bore. Characters show up and are given nothing to do. Important relationships are established quickly and left underdeveloped. The director seems to have something against basic exposition, preferring to spend long stretches of the film acquainting us with beautiful landscapes and incidental moments in his painstakingly recreated Wyoming frontier. I had to look up who some of the characters were, like the roller rink owner played by Jeff Bridges, who wander in and out of the narrative at random. This is not necessarily a bad approach in the right hands, but Cimino too frequently leaves his audience adrift, saddled with repetitive sequences, a plethora of confusing minor characters, and a narrative that fails to maintain any momentum for far too long.

The movie improves as it goes on, and the bodies start piling up, but it's an awful slog to get to the parts that feel like a proper movie instead of an indulgent tonal exercise. Kris Kristofferson's Averill is a major problem, a nonentity who spends a lot of time onscreen without making much of an impression, who I found impossible to connect with emotionally or psychologically on any level - and the whole point of the movie is his spiritual journey. Kristofferson's career would never be the same after "Heaven's Gate," which I find a little unfair. It wasn't so much his performance, but the total lack of a character that did Averill in. By the time the film's coda rolled around, it felt like I'd missed a huge chunk of the story, despite having watched it all unfold for over three hours of screen time.

"Heaven's Gate" doesn't strike me as a legendary disaster, but it is a film best suited for very niche tastes that had no business being made at a Hollywood studio for the exorbitant funds that it cost. There are some wonderful images and strong performances in it, but they're not enough to offset the lack of focus and lack of discipline. I think this was a major missed opportunity for something better, and the best thing I can say about it is that it remains a fascinating, flawed curiosity that once had the potential to be a great work of art.
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Going into "The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug" with reduced expectations helped a lot. The movie has all the same problems as the first installment - way too little of Bilbo, way too many cameos, and all the issues that resulted from trying to stretch roughly a hundred pages of story into three hours of blockbuster filmmaking. However, this time at least the introductions and much of the exposition had already been taken care of, and our heroes are firmly in mid-adventure, so there weren't any problems keeping the story's momentum going. Also, the high points of “Smaug” were a good deal higher than “Unexpected Journey.”

When last we saw Bilbo (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and Gandalf (Ian McKellan), they were being pursued by orcs and still a long way from the Lonely Mountain, their ultimate destination. The journey takes them to Mirkwood, where they meet the hostile Wood Elves, led by King Thranduil (Lee Pace), and then to Lake-town, inhabited by humans, where they enlist the help of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Bilbo continues to the power of the ring that he won from Gollum, and readies himself to go up against Smaug the Dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch), unaware of the ring’s connection to the dark power that Gandalf continues to investigate.

The biggest departure from the book, and for some viewers the biggest headache will be the return of Orlando Bloom’s Legolas, who along with a new female warrior elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) get quite a lot of screentime. There’s really no justification for them to be part of the story, and Tauriel seems like a much too convenient excuse to shoehorn a romance into the works, but it doesn’t come off that badly. The elves are largely limited to action sequences, and Tauriel does have some chemistry with the young dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) who catches her eye. She’s fun to watch - essentially another Arwen, but with more fancy weaponry.

Characters that do come straight from Tolkien don’t necessarily work any better. There’s a curious digression to have a few scenes with Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a “skin-changer,” which doesn’t amount to anything except that it means a favorite character from the original novel wasn’t left out. Bard gets an expanded part, which paints him as an outsider in Lake-town, but it feels like the writers are trying too hard to get the audience to view him as a hero figure without making him properly heoric, similar to their missteps with Thorin. Fortunately we see less of other problematic characters like Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and the various orc warlords this time, and they’re deployed in a more tolerable fashion. Gandalf’s expanded subplot even builds to a nice climax after all the meandering from the first movie.

Performances are pretty strong all around. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo gets more to do, Richard Armitage is growing on me, Ian McKellan’s Gandalf is as much of a delight as ever, and I was surprised at how much I liked Evangeline Lily as Tauriel after bracing myself for the worst. I found that most of the new faces weren’t nearly as effective, though. There’s something a little off about Thranduil and Bard - or maybe it’s just that the film versions of the characters have taken liberties with them that I haven’t quite gotten my head around yet. As for the return of Orlando Bloom, he honestly doesn’t get that much to do and I spent most of his screentime marveling at how different he looked from his last appearance in “Lord of the Rings” despite not seeming to have aged a day.

The movie’s main event, and what I’ve been waiting years to see, is the full realization of the dragon Smaug, a wonderful CGI creature whose interactions with Bilbo Baggins were worth waiting for. Jackson insists on adding action scenes here where none existed, but they’re well executed spectacle of the best kind. Most of the action has been improved in this movie, more well grounded, and more focused on character. Two other standout sequences are Bilbo’s fight with a group of spiders and an escape involving the heroes riding barrels down a raging river. I should also point out that most of the little quibbles that I had with visuals in “There and Back Again” because of the use of the 48 fps projection have mostly been fixed in “Desolation of Smaug.” The picture looks absolutely gorgeous.

In short, I was able to turn my brain off long enough to enjoy the new “Hobbit” movie as an action blockbuster and stop comparing it to “Lord of the Rings.” I still think that this new trilogy has been severely compromised by stretching it out to three movies and shifting the focus away from Bilbo, but at least they’re making improvements and have translated many of the best bits of Tolkein to the screen in truly epic fashion. I still can’t name more than three of the dwarves and I still think Peter Jackson included far too many callbacks to the previous trilogy, but I really enjoyed “Smaug” and have much higher hopes for the finale, “There and Back Again” coming in December.
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The ceremony ran a little longer than average, hitting the three-and-a-half hour mark, but it was a remarkably painless evening at the Academy Awards. Ellen Degeneres was a good host, avoiding big production numbers and scripted segments, but doing several running bits with her audience of celebrities that came off very well. The hosting choices of recent years have been a very mixed bag, and I can see the Academy latching on to Ellen for the long term. Her humor's on the gentler side, but she can still land a good "You're all racists" zing once in a while. There were too many random montages and perfunctory appearances, but all the musical performances were pretty strong. Poor Idina Menzel stumbled with "Let it Go," but John Travolta has been getting more flak the morning after for mangling her name.

The awards themselves offered few surprises. Ever since the guild awards became more high profile and the prognosticators ramped up their game, all the suspense is gone. So "Gravity" won all the technical awards, there was a Director and Picture split, and Lupita Nyong'o beat out Jennifer Lawrence for Best Supporting Actress, exactly as everyone predicted. The only remotely surprising outcome came in Documentary Feature, where "20 Feet From Stardom" beat out "The Act of Killing," and it wasn't hard to figure out why in a crowd of entertainment industry insiders. Fortunately we had a good crop of heartfelt, well-delivered acceptance speeches this year. Darlene Love sang. The Lopezes rhymed. Spike Jonze brought imaginary people. Lupita Nyong'o was sobering and eloquent. Matthew McConaughey couldn't have been more charming.

I'm far from convinced that the right people won, but I wasn't too bothered by the ones who did. It actually helped that the choices were pretty much a foregone conclusion by this point and there weren't any major upsets. In spite of "Gravity" getting the lion's share of the trophies, totaling seven, nearly every film I liked came away with something. "12 Years a Slave" got Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actress. "Her" got Best Original Screenplay. It bothered me that "American Hustle" racked up so many nominations at the expense of much better films, but it came away the biggest loser last night. Zero for ten, which has got to hurt. There were an awful lot of shutouts last night, including "Nebraska," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Captain Phillips," and "Philomena." With the expanded Best Picture field, I suppose it as inevitable.

The telecast never runs smoothly, and this year had its share of flubbed intros, weird cutaways, and technical glitches. However, the whole thing looked considerably more modern and well considered this year. The nomination graphics had a decidedly Web 2.0 design sensibility, with the final run of Best Picture hopefuls depicted in a flash animated segment instead of the usual montage of clips. The set design was unobtrusive, the musical cues only stuck out in a few cases, and I didn't catch a single instance of the orchestra drowning out a speech as a winner was played off stage. There were definitely some changes made to streamline the ceremony - no accountants, no prefilmed opening segment, and Ellen Degeneres did most of the intros for presenters instead of a generic announcer, which also gave her a chance to do more schtick - but the event's organizers seemed less worried about the time crunch this year, so everything felt more relaxed.

What I think made the most difference this year was that there was a lot more spontaneous interaction with the celebrities in attendance. Pharrell got Lupita Nyong'o, Amy Adams, and even Meryl Streep to dance with him during his performance of "Happy." Ellen seemed to be in the aisles as much as she was onstage, with her multi-part pizza gag and the epic selfie. Brad Pitt passing out paper plates and Jared Leto racing over to be in the picture are things that you just can't script. Harrison Ford was a lot more entertaining getting pizza in his seat than he was awkwardly reciting bland copy from the teleprompter. It gave the whole event a warmer, more personal, collegiate atmosphere. The appearance of people having fun counted for a lot.

I was glad to see that Sarah Jones was acknowledged, that the performance clips were in, that interpretive dance sequences were out, that Bill Murray got a chance to give a shout-out to Harold Ramis, and that Kevin Spacey brought his Frank Underwood drawl along for presenting duties. I have no idea what that animation "heroes" montage was about and the proliferation of older actresses sporting botox was disheartening, but these are minor quibbles. Yes, the Oscars were a little boring this year, but they were also much more watchable, pleasant, and enjoyable than they've been in some time.

Until next year, award show fans.
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7:01 PM - More Ellen and selfies with the audience. This is great. Meryl's never Tweeted before!

7:03 PM - Here's Michael B. Jordon and Kristin B. Ell. Ah, the Sci-Tech awards rundown.

7:05 PM - Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron are here to present the Sound awards. Sound Mixing goes to the "Gravity" team. Annnd Sound Editing goes to "Gravity." They're sweeping the technical awards, as predicted. Gotta speed it up, guys. We're past the halfway point of the ceremony, but only just getting to halfway through the awards to be presented.

7:11 PM - This is very cheery intro music for Christoph Waltz. Ooh, Best Supporting Actress time. Yay, Lupita Nyong'o wins! Quite a field in this category this year too. I haven't seen "August Osage County," but the rest of the nominees were stellar.

7:21 PM - Ellen's bit with the pizza goes on. Brad Pitt is on paper plate duty. They're shaking down Harvey Weinstein to tip the delivery guy.

7:23 PM - Here's the president of the Academy, Cheryl Boon Isaacs. The new museum they want to build looks very shiny.

7:25 PM - Amy Adams and Bill Murray are presenting Best Cinematography. Aw, Murray gives a shout out to Harold Ramis. Emmanuel Lubezki finally lands one for "Gravity." I can already hear the moaning from people who think there was too much special effects work involved for this to qualify. I don't care how many computers helped. That movie didn't shoot itself.

7:29 PM - Gabourey Sidibe and Anna Kendrick present for Best Editing. Cuaron's going home with at least one Oscar tonight! "Gravity" team wins!

7:32 PM - Whoopi Goldberg is presenting the special tribute to "The Wizard of Oz," celebrating its 75th anniversary this year (and because "Gone With the Wind" has too much baggage). Judy Garland's kids have shown up. And here's Pink singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

7:42 PM - Ellen's in a Glinda outfit. I love that crown. And the sleeve poofs. Here's Jennifer Garner and Benedict Cumberbatch presenting Best Production Design. Oscar goes to "The Great Gatsby" team. Mrs. Luhrmann just scored her fourth Oscar, and second of the evening.

7:45 PM - Chris Evans (that's two "Avengers" this evening so far) is presenting a montage of "popular heroes." Looks like this is genre movies, and the previous one was for historical and prestige dramas.

7:48 PM - Okay, another break. We're down to the music categories, the big six, and the memoriam. Hold on to your hats.

7:52 PM - Glenn Close is presenting the In Memoriam segment. Here we go. Didn't know about Les Blank or Frederic Back. Couldn't place the music until Richard Matheson's name came up - it's the theme from "Somewhere in Time." I'm glad they held Bette Middler's performance back until after the montage was over. Sorry to friends of Sarah Jones, but there were way too many people that had to be mentioned this year.

8:01 PM - Whoah, almost missed that little popup tribute graphic at the end there. Partial victory?

8:03 PM - They crashed Twitter! The selfie is currently the top post on Reddit. Lupita Nyong'o's brother just kinda snuck right into the middle of that one, didn't he?

8:04 PM - Goldie Hawn is here with the last batch of Best Picture nominees, "Philomena," "Captain Phillips," and "12 Years a Slave."

8:08 PM - And they roll out John Travolta to "Miserlou." He's introducing Idina Menzel to sing "Let it Go" from "Frozen." She didn't quite nail that ending there. Ah, the perils of live performances.

8:12 PM - Jamie Foxx and Jessica Beal present the music categories. Score goes to Steven Price for "Gravity." That's six by my count. Song goes to "Frozen." Robert Lopez has his EGOT. The Lopezes wrote a rhyming speech and they are awesome.

8:22 PM - Ellen's passing Pharrell's hat around for pizza money. Harvey, Spacey, Pitt, and Ejiofor chip in. Lupita Nyong'o adds her lip balm.

8:23 PM - Robert DeNiro and Penelope Cruz are presenting the writing awards. Adapted Screenplay goes to John Ridley for "12 Years a Slave." Hooray! And the steam is coming out of Armond White's ears as we speak.

8:26 PM - Original Screenplay goes to Spike! Go "Her"! His speech is adorable. It really has been a good night for speeches.

8:28 PM - They're running long. Four more to go.

8:30 PM - Has everyone seen the red carpet photo of Benedict Cumberbatch photobombing U2? Go Google it. I'll wait.

8:32 PM - Angelina Jolie and Sidney Poitier get a standing ovation - 50th anniversary of his Best Actor win, remember. They're presenting Best Director. Just want to give a shout out to whoever is doing the nominee graphics this year. They're fabulous. Alfonso Cuaron wins! Considering what it took him to get "Gravity" made, can't begrudge him one bit.

8:38 PM - I have no idea how Ellen keeps here energy up like this. Cute fake-out, but we've got a couple more to go.

8:41 PM - Ooh, Daniel Day-Lewis. Best Actress time. Cate Blanchett wins her second Oscar, and delivers a perfectly polished acceptance speech. Yep, Woody got namechecked. Suck it, haters.

8:47 PM - Jennifer Lawrence is presenting Best Actor. It's a McConaughey night. Alright, alright, alright! The man's career has had a heck of a turnaround these past two years. I'm happy for him.

8:54 PM - Best Picture! Will Smith presenting... which could be a tip off, but let's not get ahead of ourselves... okay these graphics instead of the montage are are lot of fun... Oscar goes to "12 Years a Slave." Oh with the hugging! "Gravity" still takes home seven trophies, remember. Brad Pitt is talking because he had a huge part in getting the film made, guys.

Steve McQueen, stop apologizing. You're a winner.

Now he's bouncing up and down. That's more like it.

Happy Oscar night. Proper dissection tomorrow.
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5:34 PM - Aaargh. I'm late due to a technical glitch. We're already partway through Ellen's monologue. Going well so far. Doesn't look like I missed a production number anywhere.

5:36 PM - The room loves Jennifer Lawrence. Who doesn't?

5:37 PM - Aw. Bruce Dern and Laura Dern are seated next to each other.

5:40 PM - Hi Anne Hathaway. Here comes Best Supporting Actor. Yes, we get performance clips this year! Leto wins, as expected. Good grief, he's not delivering this speech well. You'd think that with the roll he's been on, he'd have this down by now.

5:46 PM - Back to Ellen for a much needed energy boot. And here's Jim Carrey. We still love you!

5:47 PM - And Carrey's here to present the animation award. I don't know what he has to do with animation, but at least he's doing better than last year's presenters. I'm kinda confused by this montage though. It's a really poor sampling of movies. Oh, wait. He's not presenting an award. Just that lousy montage. Huh.

5:51 PM - Moving on, here. Pharrell with "Happy" the first Best Song nominee. Go Lupita!

5:56 PM - Samuel L. Jackson and Naomi Watts are presenting Costume, Hair, and Makeup awards. Costume goes to "Great Gatsby." Good to see this getting some recognition. Baz's "Gatsby" was a bust, it sure looked great. Ah, the winner is Mrs. Luhrmann! As a three-time winner, she's definitely got more Oscars than her husband.

6:00 PM - Makeup and Hairstyling goes to the team from "Dallas Buyers Club." Apparently they had the smallest budget too.

6:02 PM - Harrison Ford comes out to the "Indiana Jones" theme. He's presenting Best Picture nominees. Looks like they're doing them in batches this year. "American Hustle," "Dallas Buyers Club," and "Wolf of Wall Street" up first. Mr. Ford does not appear impressed by the lines he's been given.

6:05 PM - Channing Tatum is here to talk about an Academy outreach program called "Team Oscar." For all of five seconds.

6:10 PM - Ellen's handing out Lotto scratchers as consolation prizes.

6:11 PM - I've just lost audio, and have no idea what Kim Novak and Matthew McConaughey are saying, but Novak looks a little ill. Oh, they're presenting Animated Short! I haven't seen any of these, but the winner, "Mr. Hublot" looks great. The director is adorably nervous, and thanked his cartoon star, Mr. Hublot.

6:14 PM - Animated feature time. Oscar goes to "Frozen." Much as I'd have liked to see Miyazaki take another one home, it's about damn time Disney got a win in this category.

6:16 PM - Mark humor. I love Ellen. And here's Sally Field, looking gorgeous as ever.

6:19 PM - This "hero" montage is better, but still way too slanted toward modern films.

6:20 PM - Emma Watson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are presenting Best Visual Effects. Oscar goes to "Gravity," of course. No mention of the picketers outside.

6:23 PM - Zac Efron presenting Karen O., singing "The Moon Song" from "Her."

6:29 PM - So they're not going to explain what Ellen was doing with that guitar? Okay, here's Kate Hudson and Jason Sudiekis with the Best Live Action Short. Oscar goes to "Helium." Good grief, none of these shorts are from the U.S.

6:33 PM - Best Documentary Short goes to "The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life" about Holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer, who just passed away.

6:35 PM - More Ellen. I'm glad she's staying so present during the show instead of disappearing like some of the past hosts.

6:36 PM - Here comes Documentary Feature with Bradley Cooper. I've actually seen most of these this year. Holy moly, "20 Feet From Stardom" won. Over "The Act of Killing." "20 Feet" was a good film, but this is perplexing.

Okay, that's probably the best speech of the night. Nobody's playing her off.

6:40 PM - Kevin Spacey's here to give us the rundown of the Governor's Awards. I love the little Frank Underwood he slipped in there. Honorary awards went to Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, and costume designer Piero Tosi. As usual, I wish I could have seen that ceremony. Wait, they gave the Hersholt to Angelina Jolie?

6:46 PM - That Google Play commercial officially had the best movie montage of the evening so far.

6:47 PM - Ewan McGregor and Viola Davis presenting Best Foreign Language film. Rooting for "Broker Circle," expecting "The Great Beauty" to take it. Yep, "The Great Beauty" wins. That film completely went over my head.

6:50 PM - Hi Tyler Perry. He's presenting more Best Picture nominees. "Nebraska," "Her," and "Gravity." Amy Adams does not realize the camera is pointed in her direction, making it look like she's as underwhelmed with the award show pablum as the rest of us. But damn, these are all good movies.

6:54 PM - Ellen's wardrobe change gets whistles. Hee. And here comes Brad Pitt to intro U2, performing "Ordinary Love" from the "Mandela" biopic that nobody saw. Ever since "Across the Universe," I have the sneaking suspicion that Bono is always in The Walrus mode.

6:59 PM - To be continued in Part 2 after I get a hummus refill.
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Yes, I heard about Harold Ramis. Terrible news. And yes, I heard about Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Shirley Temple, and Sid Caesar, and Joan Fontaine and Peter O'Toole right at the end of the year. I also heard about the passing of a few names you probably won't recognize, like Miklós Jancsó and Jimmy Murakami. I love all their work, but I've refrained from writing about them on this blog. I only write up full posts for the figures who really meant something to me personally, and by my account that's only happened three times to date, for anime director Satoshi Kon, for Ray Bradbury, and for Roger Ebert. As awful and tragic as losing some of the others were, writing about their deaths wouldn't be the same.

I decided on this policy a long time ago, because to set the bar any lower would mean making judgment calls I'm not particularly inclined to make. Just look at what's happened to the In Memoriam segment at the Oscars, where there's a full-blown battle every year over who gets on the list. Every year someone notable gets left out, leading to lots of grousing. Every year there are calls to just do away with the whole thing because the process has gotten so acrimonious. This year things have even taken on a political dimension, with a petition going around to include Sarah Jones, the second assistant director of "Midnight Rider," who was killed in a terrible accident during the film's production, in this year's montage. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler announced his support a few days ago. I don't think they have much of a shot, considering how jam-packed the list of potential honorees is this year. There's a good chance that Ramis isn't going to make it in this year because his death came so close to the date of the Oscar ceremony.

When the first "In Memoriam" montages started appearing in award shows in the 90s, I found them a highlight. It was a nice break from the awards show banter, and pointedly injected some real gravitas into the Hollywood spectacle. Sadly, all too soon they became criticized and compromised, as inclusion in the montages became a status symbol. Suddenly it was a big deal if a famous name was left out, even if the justification for adding them was iffy. People got emotional and nitpicky. Campaigns and petitions started appearing at the end of every year. For a while there were the complaints over the varying applause levels that different honorees would attract, which lead to requests that all applause be held until the end of the segments. Ironically, cutting the applause often made all the honorees seem less important. I've found the recent practice of inviting famous performers to sing something melancholy during the segment is awfully distracting. A few years ago the Emmys got The Canadian Tenors for theirs, which was pretty dire.

Want to add more names? That usually means that the In Memoriam segment gets stretched out to untenable lengths in an already lengthy awards ceremony, or that individual honorees get less time. The Emmys tried to mitigate this somewhat by specially spotlighting six notable figures, which didn't turn out so well. Cory Monteith got one of the special tribute spots over other beloved TV figures with far longer and more accomplished careers, which predictably brought out the complainers (me included). The Oscars have already posted a hefty list online of every Academy member who died last year to emphasize that they haven't been forgotten - simply that there isn't enough time for everybody in Sunday night's montage. Of course, not every notable or semi-notable figure from the film community who died last year was a member of the Academy.

The basic idea behind the In Memoriam segments and the sentiment that fuels their popularity remain perfectly legitimate. I still get a chill every time I spot someone in the lineup who I didn't realize was gone, or had forgotten had only passed recently. However, the major memorial montages have transmogrified over the years to stand for things that they were never meant to. In the eyes of many they're just another industry recognition to be fought over, bargained for, and dissected for motes of meaning by observers. What will it mean if Sarah Jones gets included in the montage over Maximilian Schell or Richard Matheson? What about if Paul Walker gets more applause than Joan Fontaine? What does that signal? Probably not much except the prevailing sentiments of the hour.

I have my own little list of names in my head of people that I hope the Academy doesn't forget, but honestly enough of a fuss has been made about this. And if I look at my own blog, there's really only one person I cared enough about to try and honor myself - Roger Ebert.

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Now that I've gotten through the backlog of prestige pics, it's time to catch up with some of last year's superhero films. 2013 wasn't a very good year for superheroes, though they were among the top box office moneymakers, as usual. I found both "The Wolverine" and "Thor: The Dark World" pretty underwhelming, so I'm covering both in a single post.

First there's James Mangold's "The Wolverine," a perfectly noble second attempt at building a feature film around Hugh Jackman's "X-men" character. This time Logan is summoned to Japan, where an old acquaintance, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who Logan met during WWII is dying of old age. He wants Logan's help in extending his life, and out hero quickly gets himself entangled in the messy affairs of the Yashida family. He falls in love with Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), becomes allies with her mutant foster sister Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a precognitive, and gets on the bad side of Mariko's father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and a new femme fatale, the Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).

"The Wolverine" mostly avoids the pitfalls of the 2009 "Wolverine" feature, delivering some decent action scenes and delving into Logan's past. It also does an admirable job of addressing the fallout from the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who appears in several dream sequences. It's refreshing to see a superhero film that isn't afraid to slow down a little and really delve into some character drama. However, I'm sorry to say that as with most American action films set in Japan, the Orientalism is laid on pretty thick, and the Yashidas aren't a particularly compelling bunch. Tao Okamoto as Logan's new love interest is a bland presence, and the movie doesn't do enough to sell the romance. I liked Rila Fukushima's Yukio, though, and hope she carries over to future "X-men" movies.

It's hard to escape the film feeling very perfunctory, a story that was necessary to get Logan from point A to Point B, in light of the mid-credits sequence and the new "X-men" movie coming this summer. As a stand-alone adventure it works, but there's not much in it that is particularly memorable or stands out. It's hard to see where a third "Wolverine" movie could go from here, since so little of consequence seems to have happened in his solo films so far. Still, compared to some of the other superhero films this year, at least "The Wolverine" managed to make good use of its central character and tell a coherent, fully-formed story.

I wish the same could be said of "Thor: The Dark World." I found the first "Thor" film to be a terribly flawed piece of work, and among the worst of the Marvel superhero movies. The sequel is better in some ways, but overall about on par. It builds on the existing characters and character dynamics to good effect, but at the same time it wastes an awful lot of potential and the plotting is about as slapdash and messy as the first.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still keeping the peace in the Nine Realms while his trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been locked up by their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) for his shenanigans on Earth in "The Avengers." Soon enough a new threat, the Dark Elves lead by a baddie named Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) are invading Asgard and threatening Earth too. Thor's human lady love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) gets caught up in the mess when she accidentally becomes a vessel for a destructive power called the Aether that Malekith wants. Thor and Loki have to team up, as you might expect, to defeat the new foe.

"The Dark World" relies on a lot of energetic chaos to make it feel like important things are constantly happening, but it's all very shallow and unsatisfying. The villains are utterly one-dimensional, and Malekith has no discernible personality whatsoever. I felt bad for Eccleston, buried under all the make-up with little to do except posture in an intimidating manner. Natalie Portman gets a little more autonomy this time out, but Jane's relationship with Thor remains largely unexamined, which would be all right if it had been properly established in the previous film, but it wasn't of course. A possible love triangle with Jamie Alexander's Sif is alluded to, but nothing comes of it aside from people exchanging meaningful looks at opportune moments.

So the heart of this Thor movie is once again Thor's relationship with his wayward brother Loki, and thank goodness because Loki remains the only interesting villainous character in the entire run of Marvel movies so far. Tom Hiddleston is not onscreen for nearly long enough, but when he does show up he plays a big part in keeping the film's momentum going and making it feel like there are actual stakes to the story. Also, his performance is a lot of fun, as usual, and Hemsworth's Thor tends to work better in his vicinity too. At this point I'm convinced that Loki is more vital to the "Thor" movies than Thor is.

Alan Taylor takes over directing duties from Kenneth Branagh, and he's fine. There's not much to say about the action or the effects, except that they are very competently executed. There are some nice visuals, like a floating truck and some spiffy monsters, but nothing particularly noteworthy. The comic relief, in the form of Kat Dennings' Darcy and Stellan Skarsgaard's Erik Selvig are more emphatically comic this time out, which won't be to everyone's tastes, but I thought they were fine. And at least they are properly identified this time as Jane's intern and mentor respectively.

I'm sure there will be a third "Thor" movie, but I'm not especially excited for it. These movies have gotten so episodic that it feels like I'm tuning in to a television series. And "Thor: The Dark World" was mostly filler.
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And now for something completely different again.

For fun, I've put together a second Youtube playlist of various television and movie (and related) clips that have a strong musical element involved. It’s a mix of clips from movies and television shows, a couple of shorts, various obscurities, tie-ins, and one fan video. They have absolutely nothing in common except that I enjoyed them and thought they were saving the links to and worth pointing out for recommendation. Hopefully, you'll find something in the mix that you’ll enjoy too.

Flash Gordon Opening Titles - Still one of my favorite opening title sequences to any movie, that pays homage to the “Flash Gordon" comics while revving the audience up for oncoming action and fun. The theme song by Queen is, of course, immortal, and I was thrilled when it popped up in “Ted" as part of their extended “Flash Gordon" homage.

Science Fiction: A Montage - Initially I was wary of putting any fan-made videos into this list, but I couldn’t pass up James Van Fleet’s tribute to science-fiction cinema, set to the Jupiter movement of Gustav Holst’s Planets suite no less. Unlike most of these tribute videos I’ve seen, there’s lots and lots of clips from older films like “Forbidden Planet" and “Metropolis," and a real focus on the science-fiction elements instead of just action or effects shots.

The Adventures of Chip ‘n’ Dale - Back in 1959, an episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney" was devoted to Chip ‘n’ Dale cartoons, which included specially animated intro segments and an incredibly catchy theme song. I’ve included the opening number here, which shows off some nifty integration of the 2D animation with a real world environment.

Signal in the Sky - Former kids of a certain age will remember the Cartoon Network “Groovies," a series of shorts in the form of music videos, each devoted to a particular cartoon on the Cartoon Network roster. The best of them, and the one that they seemed to play the most often was “Signal in the Sky," featuring The Powerpuff Girls and music by Apples in Stereo. Though the girls appear in their usual animated forms, most of the short was actually live action and puppetry, created by the Will Vinton studios.

That Steve Martin Number From “Little Shop of Horrors" - I’ve refrained from using the more famous title of the song in case you’ve never seen it before, because it would spoil the surprise. The first time I saw “Little Shop of Horrors" I had absolutely no idea what was coming, laughed so hard I missed half the jokes, and I still can’t watch this without a ridiculous smile on my face. It’s my favorite thing that Steve Martin has ever done in his entire career.

Broken Circle Breakdown - A quick teaser trailer featuring the most wrenching number from the film. The full version has been posted up in a few places, but there are some major spoilers that come with it, and I think it really needs the context of the rest of the film to get the full effect. Still, I do want to acknowledge one of the best musical moments in film that I’ve seen this year, so the teaser will have to do.

Please Mr. Kennedy - From “Inside Llewyn Davis," this is the other entry from a current film on the list, and frankly it’s a shame the song wasn’t eligible for the Oscars.

Time Warp vs. Shake Your Groove Thing - “The Drew Carey Show" remains much beloved by its fans though sadly forgotten by most TV viewers. They had a particular love for elaborate musical numbers, such as this one, where “Rocky Horror Picture Show" loving Drew and his pals have a standoff with mortal enemy Mimi Bombeck and her “Priscilla Queen of the Desert" minions. It’s a camp-off of pure delight.

Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight - It’s a shame that the opening sequence of the “Lodoss War" television series is really the best thing about it. You can really get a sense of the scope and the grandeur that they were going for, but failed to achieve. Thanks to the Yoko Kanno’s “Sea of Miracles" and some really killer high fantasy imagery, this remains one of the best bits of the whole franchise, and I’d put it up there with the best anime openings of all time.

That’s About the Size - Bud Luckey is one of the great unsung animation greats. He’s currently a character designer at PIXAR, but had a long career in commercials, and during the ‘70s created many beloved animated segments for “Sesame Street," writing, animating, composing, and providing voices and songs for “Ladybug’s Picnic," “The Alligator King," and “Penny Candy Man." His “That’s About the Size" remains one of my favorites.

Noi Siamo Zingarelle - I saw this gorgeous stop-motion short on PBS when I was a kid in the early ‘90s, when it was used as a time filler between programs, and spent years trying to track it down. Finally, after I got to college, success. It’s one of the segments of “Opéra Imaginaire" a European animation anthology, where all the shorts are set to pieces from famous operas.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life - Because I can’t think of a better way to end anything in all of cinema.
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The ceremony is next weekend and I've seen nearly all the big contenders, so let's get down to predictions and "If I picked the winners" for the major categories. It's been a fun, if overlong season full of drama and controversy, and there's some real ambiguity as to who is going to walk away with the top prize this year. Let's start from the top.

Best Picture - "Gravity" took home the BAFTA a few days ago, and there are still rumblings of a potential "American Hustle" upset, but I think the Academy is going to go with "12 Years a Slave." The narrative is just too good - the fiftieth anniversary of Sidney Poitier's Best Actor win, the first major film about slavery from a black director, and a bumper crop of prestige films about African-American this year that didn't get much attention like "Mandela," "Fruitvale Station," and "The Butler." Who ought to win? The only two nominees I feel strongly about are "12 Years" and Spike Jonze's "Her." I'm going with "12 Years a Slave."

Best Director - Alphonso Cuaron has won most of the early races, and considering what he went through to get "Gravity" made, he's certainly got a lot of points in his favor. Also, last year the Academy gave the award to Ang Lee for "Life of Pi," a similar technical marvel. "Gravity" doesn't have a shot at any of the other non-technical awards, besides Cinematography, so I'm guessing the recognition for "Gravity" will come here. Cuaron's biggest competition would be Steve McQueen, who would be the first black Best Director winner, but I think it's more likely that Best Picture and Director are going to be split this year. McQueen would be my pick if I chose the winners, though, for that hanging sequence if nothing else.

Best Actor - Matthew McConaghey's comeback is a great story, and he's done so well this season that I think the momentum is going to be with him. I could see Chiwetel Ejiofor or Leonardo DiCaprio winning too, but McConaghey has had a great run these past few years that the Academy will probably take into account. Personally, while I think McConaghey was the best thing about "Dallas Buyers Club," I don't think he was as good and Chiwetel Ejiofor or Bruce Dern in "Nebraska." My choice would be Dern.

Best Actress - I don't see anybody but Cate Blanchett going up to the podium to collect the statuette for "Blue Jasmine" and she deserves it. In fact, the conversation seems to have turned to how she should acknowledge Woody Allen in her acceptance speech, considering the controversy surrounding him these past few weeks. Sadly, it's not a very strong field this year, with too many appearances by old regulars like Meryl Street and Judi Dench. Amy Adams is a strong runner up though, in one of her best roles.

Best Supporting Actor - Jared Leto has been winning everything, so I don't see why he wouldn't continue to. The category is, sadly, something of a mess, missing Daniel Bruhl, Sam Worthington, and a couple of others who could have really made the race interesting. While I thought Leto did a perfectly fine job, my pick would be Michael Fassbender from "12 Years a Slave" in one of his most terrifying performances. Oh well, I guess I should be glad he was nominated at all. Really, what is Bradley Cooper doing here?

Best Supporting Actress - It's down to Lupita Nyong'o and Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence won last year so the Academy will be wary of handing her two in a row, though she was one of the best things about the deeply problematic "American Hustle." Nyong'o has won her share of the preliminary bouts, enough that I'm going to call this in her favor. And I wouldn't be surprised if this is the only acting trophy "12 Years a Slave" ends up winning. My pick? June Squibb for "Nebraska," who totally knocked my socks off.

Best Original Screenplay - I haven't been keeping up with the writing races, so I'm going to take a shot in the dark here. I think we can rule out "Dallas Buyers Club," which is a pretty standard social issue film, and "American Hustle," where the screenplay seems to have been mostly ignored. That leaves "Blue Jasmine," "Her," and "Nebraska." I think there's too much heat on Woody Allen this year, so "Blue Jasmine" is out. Between "Her" and "Nebraska" I preferred "Her." I think the Academy voters will too.

Best Adapted Screenplay - "12 Years a Slave" is going to be the frontrunner here simply because the film is a frontrunner for Best Picture. I think its only real competition is "Wolf of Wall Street," as "Captain Phillips" and "Philomena" were much more performance-driven films, and "Before Midnight" is a dark horse. If I had my way though, I'd love to see an upset here with "Before Midnight" taking home the prize. The film was one of the best of the year and it deserves all the recognition it can get.

As a final caveat, I have proven to be notoriously bad at these predictions in the past. We'll see how I did on Oscar night.
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Oh, the wails and lamentations going around the internet today! The cast of the new reboot of "The Fantastic Four" was just announced, and reactions have been less than stellar. Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic. Jamie Bell as Ben Grimes, The Thing. Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, The Human Torch. Kate Mara as Sue Storm, The Invisible Woman. Why is the Human Torch black while his sister is white? Why are all the male member of the cast under the age of thirty? They're all supposed to be these super competent scientists, right? Why on earth is skinny Jamie Bell playing the team's hulking bruiser, Ben Grimes? What are FOX and director Josh Trank thinking?!

Well, the film isn't due in theaters until 2015, and Miller and Bell are still in negotiations, but I think that if the casting reports are correct, this movie is looking much more promising now, and potentially could be a huge improvement over the terrible 2005 and 2007 "Fantastic Four" movies. This is a great collection of up-and-comers. Teller is coming off of "The Spectacular Now" and "Whiplash," which picked up the major awards at Sundance this year. Michael B. Jordan carried "Fruitvale Station," and already worked with Trank in "Chronicle." Jamie Bell is still best known for "Billy Elliott," but has been doing solid work in smaller parts for well over a decade now. And Kate Mara? She's done mostly TV work but that includes two seasons as a major player on Netflix's "House of Cards." It's a lineup that more than matches up to what we had in the previous films, which featured Jessica Alba, Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, and a pre- "Captain America" Chris Evans as The Human Torch.

Best of all, this looks to be a major departure from the established conception of the "Fantastic Four," which was always a little goofy and retro with a very 1960s vibe. The movie versions handled by Tim Story didn't help much, offering silly, forgettable B-movie action and sub-par visuals. Comic book fans bemoaned the fact that they wasted some of the Marvel Universe's most beloved villains like Dr. Doom and Galactus, never mind that we were somehow expected to be taking villains with names like Dr. Doom and Galactus seriously. This time around, we've been getting rumors that the new movie will be based on the "Ultimate Fantastic Four" a comic-book series that significantly modernized and reworked the characters, and introduced an entirely different origin story. So why not a more progressive movie version with a black Human Torch and a trimmer Thing? And adoption or remarriage easily accounts for the Storms having different skin tones.

The stakes have been raised for superhero movies in recent years, as comic book characters have become valuable commodities. FOX may have started the trend of modern superhero movies with "Blade" and "X-men," but they've fallen behind Marvel, are less visible than Sony or Warners, and have been struggling to catch up for a while now. "Fantastic Four" is one of their most promising properties, but if they don't make it into a hit, they may have to let the rights revert back to Marvel, whose films show no sign of slowing down. FOX has announced some big plans, potentially connecting "Fantastic Four" to their "X-men" movie universe, so there's a lot riding on this movie. The choice of Trank as a director is a good one, since he helmed one of the best superhero movies in recent years, the found-footage action film "Chronicle."

Is there the risk of alienating existing "Fantastic Four" fans? Sure, but it's not exactly a healthy franchise at the moment. Unlike the Batman and Spider-man movies, the most recent "Fantastic Four" films were critical busts and audiences didn't like them much either, which is why only two were made. Many older fans have fond memories of the comics and cartoons, and the characters enjoy a lot of name recognition and pop culture clout, but it's mostly of the nostalgic variety. The new film will be targeting younger audiences, and there aren't many under the age of twenty-five who are particularly familiar with the source material anymore. Nobody was fantasy casting The Thing. In short, it's one of the comic book properties that could probably most benefit the most from some vigorous reinvention.

The "Fantastic Four" reboot had barely been on my radar before this, but I'm much more interested in where it's going now. It's got a good group of people attached who deserve a shot at making this work. I can understand the trepidation from viewers who have only seen Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan in "The Awkward Moment," or got attached to Michael Chiklis, but this could turn out to be something really interesting. Stay tuned.
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I've sidestepped talking about a lot of major media-related news items that have been circulating lately. For instance, I didn't bother writing a Superbowl post this year because I didn't see the game. I did go online afterwards and watch all the ads, but I didn't see much that was worth writing about. The movie spots in particular were lackluster, and none of them were for films I had much interest in seeing. Not many big summer films made an appearance. The biggest exceptions were "The Amazing Spider-man 2," which gave us a two-part look at one of the action sequences and "Transformers: Age of Extinction," which confirmed that Mark Wahlberg is indeed taking over hero duties from Shia LaBeouf. Neither were all that interesting.

So may bigger titles failed to make appearances, there's no point listing them all. Most of the movie ads were for spring releases like the new "Robocop" and "Captain America," and smaller action films like "Need for Speed," "3 Days to Kill," and "Pompeii." The most successful of them was for "Muppets Most Wanted," which had some funny digs at quote mining and Twitter users. Nobody was really using the Superbowl to launch a campaign or to show off anything really new. As a result there wasn't much buzz about any of these spots online after the game, the way there was about the 360 shot in the Superbowl ad for "The Avengers," for instance, or that one for "Independence Day" back in 1996 where Roland Emmerich sent a UFO to blow up the White House. Still remember that, don't you?

So why didn't Hollywood come out to play this year? Well, you just have to look at the premier of the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" trailer yesterday on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" Within an hour of broadcast it was all over the internet and the buzz for the movie went through the roof. Consider that the asking price for a 30 second Superbowl spot this year was $4 million. Consider that the new "Guardians of the Galaxy" trailer ran well over two minutes and likely didn't cost anything to air, because Marvel and ABC, which airs Kimmel's late night show, are both owned by Disney. Consider that though Kimmel's audience is only a fraction of the audience for the Superbowl, the trailer has since been seen by exponentially larger numbers since it has gone viral on the internet.

Many marketers have decided that instead of piggybacking off of a bigger media event like the Superbowl or an awards show, they are better off being an event all by themselves. The internet has opened up marketing possibilities in recent years, and many film enthusiasts are more likely to see a new trailer online before they see it in theaters or before the ads appear on television. Not all films have the clout to do this, but when you're highly anticipated tentpole like a new Marvel movie, then the benefits of reaching the Superbowl audience may not be worth paying a premium for, especially as the price tag continues to climb higher every year.

Also when you're a movie with unfamiliar characters, a high concept premise, and a very particular sensibility like "Guardians," you need more than 30 seconds, or even a full minute to sell it to a broad audience. if you look at the new trailer, it spends the bulk of the time having John C. Reilly carefully introduce the five main characters. I suspect this is also why upcoming May releases "X-Men: Days of Future Past" and "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" sat out this year's Superbowl. They're franchise films, but potentially too narratively complicated to get their pitches across so quickly. With "Spider-man" and "Transformers," all you really need is action shots and explosions.

A few weeks ago I wrote about movie theaters cracking down on lengthy trailers, where guidelines were put forward that suggest trailers shouldn't run longer than two minutes. I don't think there are many previews that need to be longer, but you could make a case for some of them. Despite its length, the "Guardians of the Galaxy" trailer is all intro and has no spoilers to speak of. However, you could edit it down to two minutes easily enough and keep the longer version online for those who are curious to see more. Extended internet-only previews are already fairly common. "Cloud Atlas," for example, released one that was nearly six minutes.

In short, the internet has had a big effect on the way movies are releasing new footage, and I expect that it will continue to. As marketing costs go up, television and theatrical previews will still be important, but they're being supplemented in a big way by internet previews, which may end up overtaking them in the long run. We'll always see some movies willing to pay for Superbowl ad space, but there are other ways to make a similarly big splash these days.

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My position on remakes has always been that they are not inherently a bad idea. There have been some great remakes over the years, where filmmakers have put their own spin on old plots and characters to wonderful effect, sometimes even surpassing the originals. However, too often you get remakes that fail to deliver, where the material proves too outdated, where the filmmakers don't bring anything interesting to the table, or where the execution just falls short. Worst of all are the remakes that are little more than retreads of the originals, where everything plays out almost the same, except in a modern, local milieu that is easier for mainstream audiences to connect to. Sadly both the recent "Carrie" and "Oldboy" remakes fall into this category.

Both of these were projects that sounded like they had potential when they were first announced. "Carrie" was in the hands of Kimberly Pierce, who made the well-regarded "Boys Don't Cry" and "Stop-Loss." The story had been revisited a few times already in recent years with a sequel and a TV remake, but this new project had attracted a stronger cast, including up-and-comer Chloe Moretz as Carrie and Julianne Moore as her mother. "Oldboy" was a more high profile project that had been in development for years, at one point connected with Steven Spielberg and Will Smith before it ended up with Spike Lee and Josh Brolin. Lee's track record hasn't been great lately, but he was coming off of the solid indie feature "Red Hook Summer," and had made very strong genre films in the past like "Inside Man."

Sadly, it's hard to think of two remakes with less justification for existing. They're both perfectly decent films, and even manage to do a few thing better than their predecessors. Some of the action scenes in the new "Carrie" are stronger, and the hotel sequence in the new "Oldboy" is a lot of fun. However, both clearly follow the templates of the prior movies, to the point where shots and dialogue are recycled verbatim. No attempt seems to have been made to go back to the source material, Stephen King's "Carrie" novel and Garon Tsuchiya's "Old Boy" manga. The influence of each director is fairly minimal, and what changes have been made are fairly cosmetic. It's hard to see Spike Lee's hand at work in "Old Boy" aside from the appearance of Samuel L. Jackson in a minor role and some of the set decoration.

I found "Carrie" the more egregious offender because it's so utterly rote. Aside from the introduction of cel-phone videos and internet bullying, almost nothing has been updated from the 1970s version. Also, much of the content has been toned down and the characters undermined. Moretz's Carrie is more assertive, which makes her less pitiable. Moore's religious fanatic mother is more humane, which makes her less monstrous and much less entertaining. The film is rated R, but it's fairly tame, and none of the horror is properly horrific. Pierce's direction is disappointingly workmanlike, and I found myself missing De Palma's campiness. The remake is such a toothless, lifeless piece of work, that stinks of good intentions and a total lack of guts. The last thing we need is a kinder, gentler "Carrie."

Now Spike Lee at least got his "Oldboy" off to a good start, giving his protagonist a little more depth and delivering some good early sequences. However, the Korean "Oldboy" was a pulpy, over-the-top action film with a really haphazard story that only worked because Park Chan-wook and his star, Choi Min-Sik were so committed to the high octane style and escalating insanity. Lee never manages to hit the same level of no-holds-barred energetic mayhem, try as he may, so the narrative in the new "Oldboy" doesn't work at all. Brolin plays it way too sane. The female lead played by Elizabeth Olsen doesn't do anything that makes sense. Sharlto Copley's nutball villain seems to be operating at about the right level of crazy, but since no one else it, he sticks out like a sore thumb.

Both films seem hampered by expectations and an unwillingness to depart from formula. They're both determined to give the audience what I guess the filmmakers and the executives thought the audience wanted. A new version of the hammer fight from "Old Boy." A new version of the bloody prom scene. Never mind that both end up feeling perfunctory and unsatisfying because they're so beholden to the originals. I would love to see what an uncompromised Spike Lee Joint version of "Oldboy" would look like, one where Samuel L. Jackson isn't just stuck playing a secondary tough guy with funny hair. Or a "Carrie" that really tackles modern high school bullying and religious fanaticism.

Because the remakes that Hollywood gave us are just a shameful waste of good material.

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It's tempting to want to pigeonhole Abbas Kiarostami as a Middle-Eastern filmmaker. He got his start making documentaries and simple narrative films about everyday people in his native Iran, particularly children. Then in the '90s his films became more experimental and unconventional, full of meta, self-references, often combining fiction and non-fiction elements. His Koker trilogy, for example, is a series of films where the characters in each successive film are aware of, and often participated in the making of the previous installments. The best encapsulation of this approach is 1990's "Close-Up," the story of a peculiar imposter.

"Close-Up" was initially intended to be a documentary about Hossain Sabzian, a film enthusiast who manages to convince the unwitting Ahankhah family that he is the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Through a series of visits, he becomes close with the family, telling them that he's like to use their house for his next film and that he will feature them as actors. Eventually the ruse is discovered, of course, and this is where the story gets interesting, because Kiarostami becomes part of the narrative, as does the act of documenting Sabzian's case. The film is ultimately something far more complex and ambiguous than an ordinary documentary, unfolding like a fictional narrative, with all the real-life participants playing themselves re-enacting past events, including the director. After a certain point it's hard to say what is being caught on film in real time and what is a staged facsimile.

Even without the benefit of the unconventional storytelling, Hossain Sabzian is a fascinating figure, a man who so loves films that he feels compelled to assume the identity of one of his favorite directors in order to participate in that world. He doesn't do it out of malice or for greed, though he does use his leverage with the family to acquire some funds for pre-production of his nonexistent film. Rather, as he explains to the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he's tired of being himself. In his recreations of the scenes with the Ahankhah family, Sabzian is enlivened by the attention and emboldened by his perceived celebrity and authority. Though not a professional actor, the performance he puts on is a wholehearted and committed one. After he's apprehended, he seems reluctant to give up the persona.

Sabzian's journey could not have been so successfully explored without the intervention of Kiarostami. It is Kiarostami who arranges the meeting between Sabzian and Makhmalbaf, which provides the film with its moving conclusion. More importantly, the act of turning Sabzian's story into a film allows Sabzian to fulfill his promises to the Ahankhahs. They do become actors and their house is used in the film. And though Sabzian can never be Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he does become a filmmaker in a way, because his actions are responsible for the creation of "Close-Up." The judge in the courtroom does not understand the point of filming the proceedings, as it's only when you see them as part of the film that they become significant.

Kiarostami's films always have very lived-in universes, where you could imagine following any minor character off into entirely different stories at any moment. "Close-Up" begins not with Sabzian or Kiarostami, but with a reporter investigating the story. He takes a cab ride to the Ahankhahs' house with two police officers in tow to confront the imposter. We spend ten minutes listening to their conversations with the driver as they look for the right street, occasionally stopping to ask pedestrians for directions. When they arrive at the house, the camera stays with the driver waiting outside, who kills time by picking flowers out of a heap of garden trimmings. It was only on rewatching the film that I realized this was a recreation too.

So it comes as no surprise that Kiarostami has occasionally revisited stories and settings from different POVs, and at least once has built an entirely different film around a minor character who appeared in an earlier one. The cab driver may only have a very incidental part to play in the story, but Kiarostami gives his viewpoint its due - the driver has no idea who Makhmalbaf is or why the reporter is so excited about the story, making him a good stand-in for the audience. The whole sequence in the cab is wonderful, relaying exposition, situating us in the universe, and playing out its own small dramas. Similar conversations in cars and vehicles recur in Kiarostami films again and again.

Kiarostami's films have gotten more polished and more sophisticated in recent years, and his last two films were made in France and Japan respectively, with actors from those countries. Fortunately, he's largely managed to retain the spontaneity and structural looseness of his earlier work. However, he's never happened upon quite so serendipitous a series of events as the ones depicted in "Close-Up," that have allowed him to create such a fascinating conundrum of a film, about the nature of filmmaking itself.
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