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2014-05-29 10:45 pm

It's About Time For "Future Past"

The "X-Men" movie franchise, now up to its seventh film if you count the two "Wolverine" solo adventures, has had a lot of ups and downs over the past fourteen years. Nobody likes "The Last Stand" or "Origins." The continuity has become a snarled mess. The newest installment, "X-men: Days of Future Past," is best enjoyed if the viewer is familiar with the rest of the series, and yet it blithely ignores major developments from those films. Last summer's "The Wolverine," included a mid-credits teaser sequence that set up "Days of Future Past," for instance, but it doesn't actually connect to anything that goes on in this movie.

And yet, "Days of Future Past" makes all that history and all that interconnectivity work for it in ways that the competing Marvel Cinematic Universe films have never managed. I enjoyed "Days of Future Past" more than any superhero sequel in ages, and I think a large part of it has to do with the fact that it's been quite a few years since we've last properly seen many of the characters as they were originally depicted - "Last Stand" in 2006 was the last to feature most of the cast of the original "X-men" films - and in both of the eras that are depicted in "Days of Future Past," a lot of time has passed and a lot has happened to our heroes.

In 2023, we have a dystopian future where nightmarish automatons called Sentinels have nearly exterminated mutants and a good chunk of humanity. Among the survivors are Magneto (Ian McKellan), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), and Shadowcat (Ellen Page). In a last ditch attempt to beat the Sentinels, Shadowcat sends Wolverine's consciousness back in time fifty years to his body in 1973, to stop the Sentinels from ever being created. To do this, he needs the help of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who we met in "First Class," to stop the assassination and martyrdom of the Sentinels' creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), by the conflicted shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).

Despite hardly any of these characters looking like they've aged, the "First Class" gang is now a decade older and more cynical, grappling with the tail-end of the Vietnam War era and the fallout of a lot of historical and personal tragedies. The original trilogy's present-day characters have been flung even farther into the future, eking out their survival in a hellish nightmare world. It doesn't matter if the little details between all the different films don't match up because the "Terminator" -esque story is strong enough, and all the important characters and their circumstances are well established enough that "Days of Future Past" largely works on its own apart from everything that came before.

It's good to have director Bryan Singer back, who is a deft hand with both the action sequences and the melodrama. While "Days of Future Past" does have the large-scale set piece we see at the end of all big-budget superhero films these days, the outcome actually hinges on some very intimate character interactions. James McAvoy and Hugh Jackman in particular shoulder a lot of the weight. I was also happy to see Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique getting a big boost in screen time and narrative importance. The movie is a little lacking in female characters, but Lawrence steals every scene she's in, and at this point she's the definitive Mystique.

The vastly overpowered cast, full of Oscar winners and RSC vets, keep the movie humming along a very human scale, and from becoming too much of a slug-fest. Not that the slugging isn't a lot of fun. There are a couple of stand-out effects sequences, including a jailbreak lead by a speedster mutant named Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and some brawling between the Sentinels and a group of future X-men that shows off multiple kinds of powers being used together. However, it's really the storytelling that makes the film, and I got much more out of the smaller moments of humor and the period touches when Wolverine finds himself back in the '70s.

I've always liked the way that the "X-men" franchise has such a strong sense of history to it, and "Days of Future Past" is perhaps the ultimate expression of this. Unlike other superhero serials that tend to drag their feet when it comes to showing any character progression or disrupting the status quo, these last few "X-men" films have embraced the passage of time. Actions have consequences that echo through the decades. People grow and change and die. The superheroes are not infallible and villains are not always wrong. This version of "Days of Future Past" depends on it.

I've seen some describe this latest "X-men" film as a reboot to some extent, because it negates some of the events that happened in earlier films, but I think that's a mistake. "Days of Future Past" is watchable if you haven't seen any of the past movies, but those who know the series and love these characters already are the ones who will get the most out of it. And they're the ones who will be the most appreciative of the complicated, but compelling time travel fable that Singer and Kinberg and Vaughn and Goldman and the rest are telling here.
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2014-05-21 10:15 pm
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Dark Delights of "The Double"

I didn't know that Richard Ayoade had this kind of movie in him. The British funnyman made his directing debut in 2010 with "Submarine," a poignant, sweet, occasionally weird coming of age story with some Wes-Anderson-y flourishes. With "The Double," he's gone in a different direction completely. Here we have a dark and paranoid adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "The Double" that shares similar aesthetics with Roman Polanski's 1970s psychological thrillers, most notably "The Tenant."

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a worker drone for a Kafkaesque data collection company, who lives such an anonymous existence that the security guards at his place of employment don't recognize him even though he's been working there for seven years. He pines after the girl in the copy room, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) and tries to curry favor with his boss Mr. Papadopolous (Wallace Shawn), with little hope of success. Then one day a new employee, James Simon, shows up at the office. He is everything that Simon is not: affable, charismatic, and confident. He also looks exactly like Simon, down to their wardrobes, though no one else seems to notice. At first James is friendly with Simon, even helpful, but he soon reveals sinister ulterior motives.

It is a little difficult to categorize "The Double," which looks and acts like a thriller, but is not particularly concerned with behaving like one. Instead, it's better to think of it as a very dark, wry, comedy about a hapless loser who inhabits a particularly strange and alienating universe. I love the way the world of "The Double" has been constructed, with its dark, moody atmosphere and endless bureaucratic frustrations. Nearly all the action takes place at night, or within dimly lit interiors. The technology and the television broadcasts we glimpse suggest that we're some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s, but there's a sense of timelessness to the murky environs, which mix Eastern European utilitarianism with peppy Japanese pop songs. The sound design is wonderful, full of oppressive ambient noises that dog our hero wherever he goes. Are they being magnified by Simon's subconscious?

Jesse Eisenberg delivers two fine performances as Simon James and James Simon with ease. These are familiar types that we've seen him play before, but he does a commendable job of keeping them entirely distinct every moment we see them onscreen, and without leaning on many gimmicks. I liked that there's really no attempt made to explain the presence of James, or delve very deeply into any existential questions about why he exists. Once it's established that no one else takes any notice of the fact that James is a double, his role is to be Simon's antagonist. Larger philosophical questions are not off the table, but they're not the point. "The Double" is primarily concerned with Simon's narrative rather than grappling with metaphysics, as the recent Denis Villeneueve film "Enemy" did.

I think that's why I prefer "The Double" to "Enemy," which is also about a pair of inexplicable doubles who wreak havoc on each other's lives. "Enemy" has more high-minded ambitions, and is full of obtuse symbols that demand dissection and interpretation. "The Double" is a far more straightforward piece of work, but with more nuanced execution. It takes the time to build its characters, acquaint us with their lives, and lets us get deeper into the protagonist's screwed-up head. There's actually a nice little romance that plays out reasonably well, which let me connect emotionally to Simon and Hannah, whereas the characters in "Enemy" came off as utterly cold, flat constructs.

My only quibble with "The Double" is that the story plays out almost entirely as expected, and the stylization makes it feel a little too slick. The movie comes off as slight as a result, a genre exercise that doesn't really pack the kind of punch that it could have. However, it is such a unique bit of filmmaking and Richard Ayoade makes a lot of interesting choices here. When searching for other films to compare it to, I kept pulling up art house obscurities like Kieślowski's "A Short Film About Love" and Scorsese's "After Hours." The aforementioned "The Tenant" is probably the most obvious precursor, with its endless insomniac night scenes and deeply confused hero.

So I suspect that "The Double" is one of those odd little films that only an art house nerd could really love. The subject matter and the style are so far off the beaten path that even with a pair of recognizable young actors like Eisenberg and Wasikowska as the leads, it doesn't have much hope of attracting a larger audience. That's a shame, because Richard Ayoade deserves kudos aplenty for puling this one off. And I can't wait to see what he does next.
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2014-05-01 10:10 pm
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The Indispensible iCheckMovies

I realized I haven't written much about the one movie site that I access almost daily and have been the most active on: iCheckMovies. Sure, Letterboxed has been getting a lot of press for its social networking features, and GetGlue/TVTag has its fans, but when it comes to cold, hard, data crunching, I haven't found anything better than iCheckMovies. This is a no-frills, Web 1.0, cinephile-centric site that gets the data I want in front of my eyeballs faster and better than all the rest.

There are two things I use the site for primarily. The first is keeping track of what I've been watching. The second is finding more movies to watch. Plenty of sites use the checkbox approach that let you indicate the movies that you've seen, usually with an option to rate them. IMDB is one example. Letterboxd uses the film diary approach, which insists on tying viewings to specific dates. Film diaries are good for some viewers, but in my case I don't keep track of the dates that specifically. In my own records, I only so go far as to indicate what year I've seen a film. I can usually pin down the approximate month I've seen a film because they're listed by viewing order, but I rarely have any need to know anything more accurate. iCheckMovies keeps track of the particular date I checked a movie, which is often helpful, but doesn't assume that's when I actually watched it the way that Letterboxd does.

More importantly, iCheckMovies allows me to sort everything by various criteria that I don't keep track of myself. For example, if I want to profile a particular filmmaker for a "Great Directors" post, my first step is usually figuring out how many of their films I've seen. iCheckMovies will pull up a list of everything someone has directed and show me which titles I've checked off. It's harder to do this in Letterboxd, which uses an interface that shows you poster icons for each movie - and with older and foreign classics it often takes some work to figure out which poster goes with which title. You can also sort the iCheckMovies lists by year or name or how often they show up on the site's collection of movie lists.

Ah yes, the lists. One of the main features of iCheckMovies is that they offer a collection of Top Lists, such as the IMDB Top 250, the various AFI Top 100 lists, and more ambitious ones like the They Shoot Pictures Don't They Top 1000 list and the BFI Sight & Sound lists. There are country-specific lists, genre-specific lists, lists of highest box office grossers and cult classics, and more. Currently there are 155 official Top Lists, and one of the main metrics for how movies are ranked and sorted is how often they appear on the lists. "Citizen Kane" shows up on 31 lists. "Dumb & Dumber" shows up on three: The Empire Magazine Top 500, The All-Time Worldwide Box Office, and the iCheckMovies Most Checked lists.

It's convenient having all of these various lists in one place, with the ability to sort and order the entries. I've been working on the They Shoot Pictures Don't They list, for instance, and keeping track of my progress is a breeze. I can see the whole list ordered by date or title or popularity or runtime. I can filter out the titles I've already seen, or the ones that I haven't. All the individual movies have their own pages with basic info and links to IMDB. The site may lack visual sophistication, but it's extremely user friendly and useful. It also has a particularly devoted user base that is instrumental in checking for bugs and data errors, alerting people to updates, and creating a wealth of great unofficial lists.

I find the site a great source for recommendations. iCheckMovies not only keeps track of all the movies you have seen, but all the movies that you haven't seen, and will order them for you by how often they appear on the official Top Lists. When I'm at a loss for what to watch, sometimes I'll just open up that "Unwatched" list and scroll through the titles until I see something that looks interesting. This obvious isn't going to work for everyone, and I suspect it takes a certain breed of movie nerd to really get the most out of the site.

And I'm certainly one of them. At the time of writing, there are only two official lists out of the 155 on iCheckMovies where I haven't seen any of the entries. One is a Top 100 Korean films list that doesn't have any entries later than 1970, and the other is the list of winners of the Stallion of Yennenga prize from biannual Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO).

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2014-04-30 10:24 pm
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"Episode VII" Has a Cast

I feel a little guilty writing this post, because casting news is really pretty speculative stuff, and there's really not as much controversy to talk about the way there was with the "Fantastic Four" cast a couple of months ago, which touched off a good debate about racebending and diversity. But good grief, the newly announced cast of the next "Star Wars" movie seems to be all anybody is talking about. The list of names was released yesterday, along with a picture of everyone gathered together for a script reading. The internet happily went bonkers over the news, so what the hell. I'm as much of a "Star Wars" nerd as anybody. I should get to enjoy this moment too.

And my reaction to the announcement is overwhelmingly positive. I love that the new cast is comprised of mostly unknowns, or at least actors who have been under the radar to the general public. I'm familiar enough with most of them - John Boyega from "Attack the Block," Adam Driver from "Girls," Domhnall Gleeson from "About Time" and many other things, Oscar Isaac from "Inside Llewyn Davis" and many, many other things, and Daisy Ridley as the new female lead who hasn't been in a single feature yet. There's also Andy Serkis and Max von Sydow, beloved cinema veterans bringing years of experience to the table. And returning cast members include Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, and even grumpy ol' Harrison Ford has been coaxed back into the mix.

I'd caution eager "Star Wars" fans that the cast is far from everything. For the prequels George Lucas had a slew of talented actors, including Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, and Ewan MacGregor, and we all remember how those movies turned out. I remain far more heartened at the involvement of Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote for the original trilogy. I remain non-committal about J.J. Abrams as the director. I liked his first "Star Trek" movie fine, but the second one seriously has me questioning his abilities. The fact that Hamill and the other leads from the first trilogy are coming back as major characters, and not just cameos, points to a potential repeat of some of the same problems that franchise reboot suffered under Abrams' watch. However, considering how Disney has been handling the Marvel films, and Abrams' notoriously jam-packed schedule, I doubt he'll be directing more than one or two installments.

But back to the cast. Right now, the biggest talking point that much of the internet has latched on to is that there's only one actress among the new cast members. Add Carrie Fisher, and that's a grand total of two. "Star Wars" always suffered a serious gender imbalance, with Natalie Portman's character the only major female figure in the sequels, but for whatever reason the skewed ratio pinged as more heinous this time around. There have been a lot of opinion pieces about female fans getting shafted. However, J.J. Abrams and others have pointed out that casting isn't done yet, and there is another major female role that still needs to be filled (rumors about Lupita Nyong'o were circulating recently), so any debate of the topic is operating without a complete picture. We can't connect the actors to specific roles either. Adam Driver is probably playing a villain, but we can only speculate about how large or small the other roles are.

Personally, I'm willing to wait and see. Even if we aren't getting more female characters, how they're used will trump how many there are. Meanwhile, it's worth noting that the cast reflects some very positive strides in other areas. On the subject of racial diversity, I'm thrilled at the inclusion of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. Boyega in particular is one of those young actors who has been on the verge of stardom for a while, and I'm so happy he's getting his shot. Even if he turns out to only be playing a supporting character, another Lando or Mace Windu, this is going to raise his profile into the stratosphere. We're going to have to see how Daisy Ridley fares, but this is a very strong group of talent, and I don't see any of the youngsters becoming the next Jake Lloyd, Hayden Christensen, or Ahmed Best.

It's finally sunk in that the new "Star Wars" movies are really happening, and I find myself excited about the franchise for the first time in a very long time. I was so disappointed by the prequels, I forgot how much fun "Star Wars" hype can be. While I'm fully aware that this could all turn out badly, today I'm just going to put the cynicism aside and enjoy the possibilities. I can't wait for 2015 and "Episode VII."
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2014-04-27 09:17 pm

Feeling Out "Mood Indigo"

Michel Gondry made one truly exceptional film, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," ten years ago, and hasn't quite gotten back to that level since. HIs subsequent projects have all been interesting and watchable (with the exception of a certain superhero reboot that wasn't really his fault), but none have had quite the same clarity and resonance of that Charlie Kaufman-scripted love story. "Mood Indigo" isn't quite "Eternal Sunshine" either, but it does get fairly close. It's an ungainly, over-designed, exhausting film to watch because Gondry gives full rein to his usual whimsical stylization, but there is a solid core to it that gives it some real kick.

Based on Boris Vian's surrealist science-fiction romance novel "Foam of the Daze," "Mood Indigo" tells the story of a man named Colin (Romain Duris) who lives a carefree life with his talented man-servant Nicholas (Omar Sy), bibliophile friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh), and a mouse roommate (Sacha Bourdo). After Chick gets a girlfriend, Alise (Aïssa Maïga), Colin decides that he too should fall in love, and soon after meets the lovely Chloe (Audrey Tatou). Colin and Chloe enjoy a whirlwind romance, but alas their happiness is short-lived. Chloe becomes ill, Chick and Alise's relationship becomes strained, and Colin's charmed life is soon beset on all sides by misfortune.

It's always a tricky prospect to make a surrealist film, and Gondry's approach seems to have been to translate every element I imagine was metaphorical in the source material as literally as possible for the screen. Colin appears to live in a Parisian Pee-Wee's Playhouse, where Nicholas consults with a cooking mentor who inhabits the oven, and the doorbell is a bug-like creature who has to be swatted to be silenced. At one point the walls physically close in on Colin when he receives bad news. Some of these conceits work, like a character who literally ages years in days due to worry, but others, like a dance sequence where all the characters are obliged to don cartoonish, elongated prosthetic limbs, do not. Some are too literal or too obviously analogues, so the film lacks the truly absurdist free-wheeling nature of something like Leos Carax's "Holy Motors." And I don't think anything involving the mouse character worked at all.

When I'd first heard that the distributors wanted to edit the film down for international release, I was completely against the idea, but now having seen it for myself, I think it's a reasonable choice. "Mood Indigo" has pacing problems and could stand some trimming, especially in the meandering first half that chronicles new love in bloom. Gondry's wild visual inventiveness is always interesting, and I appreciated his efforts, but they kept getting in the way of his storytelling. I've liked Romain Duris and Audrey Tatou in other films, but here their bubbly love connection is not so much enhanced by all the graphic blandishment, but weirdly disconnected from it, such that it feels like the couple is enduring each new scenario - a flight in a cloud car, a picnic that takes place in the sun and the rain at the same time - instead of embodying them.

The story and visuals mesh together considerably better in the second half of the film when things take a darker turn. Suddenly all the whimsy and delight begins to transition to decay and despair, and the central relationship becomes truly compelling as the pair begin to face hardship and doubt. There's a greater universality to Colin and Chloe's downward spiral, and Gondry is more adept at reflecting them in their surroundings. The performances come into sharper focus, particular Roman Duris's, and the supporting characters become more important and are better defined. I especially enjoyed the arc of Chick, who obsesses over a particular writer to such a degree that he finds new ways to consume his writings by turning them into injections and eyedrops, until his whole life is consumed by them.

For fans of Michel Gondry's work, this is about as Gondry as it gets. Though the production values of "Mood Indigo" aren't as high as those of the films he made in Hollywood, his ambitions are as large as ever, he clearly wasn't working under any studio constraints, and he attracted all the right talent to the project. Though there are a lot of missteps, I found this to be a much more cohesive and successful film than anything else Gondry has produced in a long time. Though the documentaries and smaller projects like "The We and the I" have been all well and good, it's the larger fantasy projects like this that continue to be his most distinctive and rewarding. It's hard to imagine anyone else making a film like this, with such commitment and such fearlessness.

"Mood Indigo" is far from perfect, but there's enough good mixed in with the mediocre that I'm glad it got made. I do hope Michel Gondry keeps shooting for the moon. He may never make another "Eternal Sunshine," but his work is always worthwhile.
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2014-04-26 10:36 pm
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Survival "Snowpiercer" Style

I was going to wait until the US release dates, but screw it. Distributors have been dragging their heels and these features have already hit home media in several other countries, so you're getting reviews of some of my most highly anticipated films from last year now.

I expect that Bong Joon-ho's science-fiction action film "Snowpiercer," is going to be pretty divisive. For one thing, it's one of those social allegory films like "In Time" or "Equilibrium" that has a really half-baked premise that is completely implausible when you think about it. And then there's the dark tone, the two-dimensional characters, and the fairly heavy-handed messages about class and persecution. There are plenty of action sequences to keep the momentum going, but they're not the point of the movie, and the director refuses to follow the usual formulas for the action spectaculars his audience may be expecting.

"Snowpiercer" takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a new ice age has wiped out most of life on earth. What remains of humanity live on a train, the Snowpiercer, which perpetually circles the globe. The elites live at the front of the train and the poorest passengers are kept in the tail compartment, downtrodden and oppressed by the agents of the train's mysterious creator, Wilford (Ed Harris). After some of the tail compartment children are taken away by the cruel Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), a rebellion is organized by a man named Curtis (Chris Evans). He and a group of the passengers intend to fight their way to the front of the train, seize the engine, and overturn the system. The first step is breaking an engineer, Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho), out of prison.

The first thing you'll notice about the film is that in spite of the Korean director and crew, nearly the entire cast is made up of recognizable Western actors, In addition to Evans, Swinton, and Harris, there's also John Hurt as Curtis's mentor figure Gilliam, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer as other members of the rebellion, and Alison Pill as a teacher they encounter further up in the train. Most of the dialogue is in English, though Namgoong Minsu and his daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung) converse almost entirely in Korean. "Snowpiercer" was clearly intended for Western audiences, and borrows lots of tropes from Hollywood action films. You have the small band of scrappy freedom-fighters rising up against a corrupt system, the loathsome totalitarian thugs, the madman visionary, and snazzy gun battles galore.

That's why the departures from the Hollywood template have more impact here. Ideas and story are given particular emphasis, while the action is a secondary concern. Violence has consequences, usually very bad, and the world of "Snowpiercer" is much harsher and more cynical than the bulk of similar American dystopia films. Bong Joon-ho doesn't flesh out its characters as well as he should, with a few exceptions, but he does a great job with the worldbuilding. If you're willing to suspend some disbelief, exploring the little microcosm of human society aboard the Snowpiercer is a lot of fun. Each lovingly designed train compartment reveals new details of the hierarchy, and helps piece together its history. The visuals are a real treat, incorporating CGI as well as any summer blcokbuster I've seen in recent years.

I was skeptical about Chris Evans in the lead role, playing the gloomy, bearded freedom fighter Curtis who pings about ten years older than Captain America, pre-defrost. However, he grew on me, and delivers a utterly ridiculous monologue in the last act with such sincerity, that he ultimately won me over. He's playing a fairly cliche character in a film full of over-the-top caricatures and larger than life personalities, but grounds him enough to pass muster. Other performances are hit or miss, but I loved the bureaucratic awfulness of Tilda Swinton's Minister Mason, and Ed Harris's benevolent madman. The Korean characters had potential, but they weren't given much to do, and often felt like an afterthought.

For me, the worldbuilding and the simple narrative were enough to keep me entertained and engaged, but I can easily see others being infuriated by the illogical nature of how of the "Snowpiercer" universe is constructed, the lack of depth to the characters, and some of the underlying philosophical ideas. This is sure to be a nitpicker's nightmare, starting with the idea of the train being powered by a perpetual-motion engine that can somehow sustain an entire self-enclosed ecosystem. I appreciate the film being so willing to grapple with big themes and being so ambitious in its scope, but the execution is far from perfect, and I sympathize with those who expected more from the film.

Of the three major South Korean directors who made films for Western audiences last year, Bong Joon-Ho has found the most success, and "Snowpiercer" suggests that he may have more mainstream prospects if he wishes to pursue them.
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2014-04-24 10:25 pm
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A WHAT Movie?

I have always been of the opinion that a good movie can be based on any source material. The first "Pirates of the Caribbean" was a lot of fun, and its theme park ride origins were barely apparent in the movie. "Clue" is one of my favorite 80s comedies, despite being based off of a board game. I haven't seen "The Lego Movie" yet, but the raves and the box office success its enjoyed suggest that being a giant extended toy commercial didn't mean the movie couldn't also be fun and entertaining and artistically ambitious too. Time and time again I've come across movies with completely absurd premises that have somehow managed to make the best of them and be great.

Then again... an awful lot of movies with unlikely origins have come out about as badly as you'd expect them to. And there are dozens of announced projects based on more rides and games and toys have never made it off the drawing board. For every "Lego Movie," there's a "Stretch Armstrong" languishing in development hell. Back in 2008, Hasbro and Universal Pictures signed a deal to create a series of board game movies, only one of which was ever made - the disastrous "Battleship." And then there are the Disney rides. Lot of projects have been announced, from "Magic Kingdom" to "Adventureland," but nothing has move forward except a TV project based on "Thunder Mountain Railroad," which didn't get past the pilot stage. In the past couple of days there have been a flurry of announcements for a new crop of these tie-in films. Let's take a closer look at their prospects.

The Barbie Movie - There's been a long-running series of CGI animated direct-to-video Barbie movies for little girls, but this one is going to be a live action theatrical feature. After the success of "The Lego Movie," there's been renewed interest in building franchises around toys. Sony Pictures announced this one yesterday, and their plan for it actually sounds pretty promising. The Barbie character will be a do-gooder polyglot whose overstuffed resume (is there a profession she hasn't tried?) gives her the skills to become "a modern-day Mary Poppins." The script is currently in the hands of Jenny Bicks, the showrunner of "The Big C." Lots of variables are still unknown, but I can see how this could be an interesting project. Barbies were never my favorites, but I did play with them and retain some fondness for them, as I'm sure many women and girls do.

The Peeps Movie - I actually know the world of the marshmallow Peeps better than most because I have a friend who collects them. Seriously, he's got an ever- growing Peeps collection that features all sorts of seasonal variants, stuffed toys, related merchandise, and fan-created work that ranges from the impressive to the somewhat disturbing. But even with a healthy appreciation of the creativity swirling around the beloved Easter candies, I'm having trouble wrapping my head around a Peeps movie. At this point the project is one writer, Adam Rifkin, who optioned the rights and is working on a script for an animated project, involving a Peeps diorama contest. He's certainly got his work cut out for him. Peeps are iconic, but there are no real characters, no semblance of a story, and the point of Peeps boils down to eating too many of them and trying not to feel too guilty about it. I thought "Angry Birds" was iffy enough, but this one really takes the cake.

The "It's a Small World Movie" - Anyone else's eye starting to twitch at the mere thought of That Damn Song wafting out of multiplexes to invade our helpless ears? This is the latest of the aforementioned Disney theme park ride projects, which have mostly been duds after "Pirates of the Caribbean." Jon Turteltaub of the "National Treasure" movies has been attached to direct. No story details have been announced, but I'm guessing there's probably going to be some kind of globe-trotting element, a la "Around the World in 80 Days." I hope that they don't entirely drop the underlying philosophy of the ride, which was to promote peace, love, understanding, and all those other 60s hippie ideals, but that is probably asking too much. I expect this is probably going to be in development for a long time, and doesn't have nearly as good a chance at getting a greenlight as some of the other ride movies currently in the pipeline.

The Mrs. Doubtfire Sequel Movie - Finally, because this came totally out of the blue and there's been such a negative reaction to it, let's talk about the "Mrs. Doubtfire" sequel. I liked the original. It's one of those gentler family comedies that I wish they made more of these days. Fox is behind this one, and is all set to reunite director Chris Columbus and star Robin Williams. Note that neither are at a particularly good point in their careers right now, much like former 90s stars Arnold and Eddie Murphy, who are subjecting themselves to similar head-scratcher sequel projects. My worry is that in trying to modernize the concept, we're in for a more typical, cruder, lazy cross-dressing comedy in the vein of a bad Adam Sandler movie. And we have enough of those.

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2014-04-22 09:06 pm
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It's Going to be Quite a Summer

Good grief, it's nearly the last week of April already. As previously announced, this blog is going on hiatus for most of the summer while I take care of Real Life Business, so I'm not going to be around for the bulk of the summer blockbuster season. I'm a little sad about that, because this is definitely going to be an interesting one. 2014 has its share of sequels and franchise movies, but it can also be viewed as the calm before the storm that will be the summers of 2015 and 2016, when the really big franchise showdowns are scheduled. This summer actually features a lot of original projects and a fair amount of lower budgeted titles that could become potential sleepers.

These are the kinds of conditions that could lead to a bust at the box office, where multiple would-be tentpole projects fail one after another. More likely we're going to see the trends from 2012 and 2013 continue, where we get a mix of big hits and big underperformers. 2014 has had one major flop already, the Wally Pfister directed "Transcendence," with Johnny Depp, which doesn't bode well for all the other original science-fiction movies coming our way soon. Most of the expected heavy hitters are frontloaded in May, as usual, but there are also some major franchise films scattered throughout the summer that should keep the momentum going through mid-August. Watch out for last year's bout of mid-summer blockbuster fatigue making a comeback though.

Most of the box office winners are easy to guess. I expect to see the new "X-Men," "Spider-Man," "Transformers," and "How to Train Your Dragon" films at the top of the list. "Guardians of the Galaxy" will be up there too, because of its Marvel pedigree. Though it's been dismissed sight unseen by so many, I think "Teenage Mutant Ninja" stands a good shot at being a hit because the offerings for kids are pretty paltry this year. The absence of a PIXAR feature is noticeable. As a result, the "Planes" sequel is probably going to make a good chunk of change too. Smaller franchise films like "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "Expendables 3," "22 Jump Street," and "The Purge: Anarchy" should also at least turn a profit. The only sequel I think has iffier prospects is the long-delayed "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For," which is coming in late August, and nearly ten years after the original. Still, the "300" sequel didn't do too badly, did it?

The big question marks are the star-driven vehicles and original projects. Will people show up to see Angelina Jolie play "Maleficent"? Or Melissa McCarthy in "Tammy"? What about Tom Cruise in "Edge of Tomorrow? Adam Sandler's new comedy "Blended" seems like a sure bet, but what about Duane Johnson in "Hercules"? Or Scarlett Johanssen in "Lucy"? If that one does well, does that increase the chances of a Black Widow movie? Does Godzilla still have enough notoriety and cultural cachet to headline his own movie? Does the underperformance of similar kaiju movie "Pacific Rim" last year mean anything? Will pitting Seth Rogen against Zac Efron sell people on "Neighbors"? Is putting Seth McFarland in western spoof "A Million Ways to Die in the West" a good idea? How about the pairing of Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz for "Sex Tape"? And what are we supposed to make of Channing Tatum in elf ears for the Wachowskis' "Jupiter Ascending"?

And then there are the smaller films. There seem to be a lot of non-traditional counterprogramming this year for older and less blockbuster-inclined audiences. Right smack in the middle of May we're getting Jon Favreau's foodie feel-good comedy "Chef," and Disney sports biopic "Million Dollar Arm." Fox is putting out a low-budget romantic drama "The Fault in Our Stars," starring Shailene Woodley in June. Then comes Clint Eastwood's screen adaptation of the "Jersey Boys" musical on the same day as "Think Like a Man Too." In August, filling the traditional feel-good picture for older women berth, Disney has "The Hundred-Foot Journey" starring Helen Mirren. And of course there are a slew of art house pictures to look forward to, including Woody Allen's "Magic in the Moonlight" and Richard Linklater's "Boyhood."

I don't have any particular stake in any of these movies doing well, though I'm looking forward to several. What I'd really like to see is the big franchise films not entirely dominate the top spots this year. I'd love to see any of the smaller films break out, or even one of the star or director driven projects. Ideally, there should be more of a balance among all these different types of films, which would help to encourage more variety at the box office. Otherwise, there aren't going to be many more summers as potentially interesting as this one in the future.
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2014-04-20 11:25 pm
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My Favorite George Cukor Film

It’s common for profiles of George Cukor these days to start out by declaring that the director, who was known for "women’s pictures," was not limited to directing films featuring and aimed at women. This is certainly true, but why not celebrate him for directing these films? In the current film landscape, there are scarcely any directors with any particular facility for these types of movies anymore. It's difficult to think of more than a handful working in Hollywood who can turn out a decent romance or romantic comedy regularly. It's rare to find director-actress pairings as fruitful as the ones that Cukor enjoyed with Katherine Hepburn and Judy Holliday.

My favorite of his pictures is his most well known and most celebrated, "My Fair Lady," based on the Lerner and Loewe stage musical of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion." I don't consider it the best example of Cukor's work - that would probably be "Gaslight" or "Born Yesterday" - but I am unable to resist the combination of Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, and Cecil Beaton's iconic art direction and costumes. To some degree it's a nostalgia pick, because it's the first of his films I saw, but it's stuck with me over the years and my relationship with it has changed as I've gotten older. I knew and liked it primarily for its music as a kid, but I've since reconsidered. As a musical I find it leaves quite a bit to be desired now - the songs are fun and Marni Nixon dubs Hepburn's vocals just fine, but Rex Harrison speak-singing through the whole film strikes me as more peculiar every time I see it. As a film about gender and class relations, though, it's become far more fascinating.

What I really appreciate about Cukor films isn't just that they tend to feature great performances by strong leading ladies, but that they feature them in such interesting relationships. I commonly see "My Fair Lady" categorized as a romance, and always found this misleading. Romance is certainly alluded to between Eliza Dolittle and Henry Higgins, but that's not really what their relationship is based on. They're strictly teacher and student for the vast majority of the film. Even at the end, there's nothing really more than the potential for a love match between them. Others may interpret romance as the inevitable outcome of this, but that's not what happens in the Shaw story, and I always preferred to imagine that the two became good friends instead of lovers. Eliza and Freddy's pairing is much more explicitly romantic, but it's really more of a complication to Higgins' and Eliza's relationship than anything else.

And fifty years later, I can't think of another examination of a male-female onscreen relationship quite like this. All the other Pygmalion stories I've seen, like "Educating Rita" and "She's All That" insist on making the romance explicit. As a result, the much more interesting gender and class dynamics have a tendency to get downplayed. In "My Fair Lady," Cukor spends no small amount of time poking fun at the upper classes with the Ascot Racetrack sequence, the embassy ball, and of course the antics of Eliza's father Alfred, who is obliged to get married and become respectable once he has money. And poor Eliza discovers that once she becomes a proper lady, there's no going back.

This is easily my favorite Audrey Hepburn performance, because it gives her a chance to really show off her formidable comedic skills, which too often get short shrift. She's perfectly fine playing the swan when the film calls for it, but it's her gawky ugly duckling moments as Eliza that really won me over. Sadly, her worked was panned at the time of the film's release and she didn't share in the kudos heaped on the film. Rex Harrison is, or course, an utter bastard, but is enjoying it so much that it's impossible not to love him for it. And Harrison and Hepburn together are a joy to watch, as they verbally spar and struggle with each other, and it's with the comedic moments that the movie is at its most surefooted.

Compared to the other big musicals of the time there aren't many big set pieces. Dance sequences are almost entirely absent, and the setting is hardly epic. Edwardian London never looked lovelier, and Eliza Higgins' costume changes provided more than enough eye candy, but you could never call "My Fair Lady" a spectacle in any sense. That's what made it such a good fit for Cukor's sensibilities, which were always centered squarely on the interactions of his characters and the chemistry of his performers. And maybe that's what got him into trouble on the bigger projects like "Gone With the Wind." But when he had the right material, there was no one better.

George Cukor remains one of the classic Hollywood greats. And it wasn't in spite of his work with the genres that have become devalued today, but largely because of them.
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2014-04-17 10:45 pm
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"Prisoners" and "Enemy"

I think the work of Denis Villeneuve is overdue for a post here. The Canadian director first came on my radar with the 2010 mystery "Incendies," which made my Top Ten list that year, but which I never got around to writing a review for. He followed that up with last year's crime thriller "Prisoners," starring Hugh Jackman, and then "Enemy," a strange little existential puzzle film, which hit VOD recently. I thought I'd take a closer look at the latter two pictures, two intense stories about frustrated, lost men.

"Prisoners" is one of those ensemble dramas with a big cast of familiar faces. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a working class man who becomes a vigilante when his young daughter and her friend disappear at Thanksgiving, and the police are unwilling to charge a mentally challenged young man, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who Dover is convinced is involved in the disappearance. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is leading the investigation, has to contend with elusive suspects, many wrong turns, and Dover's increasingly desperate and extreme tactics to find his daughter.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the trailer for "Prisoners," which seemed to give away far too much of the film's twisty plot, actually didn't give away as much as it appears to. "Prisoners" is quite a complicated narrative following both Dover and Loki in their parallel hunts for the kidnappers. Between the psychological murkiness and the gorgeously bleak Roger Deakins cinematography, "Prisoners" reminded me a lot of David Fincher's "Zodiac," except that it plays out in a much more conventional fashion. A clear answer to the mystery is dutifully provided at the end of the movie.

I found that the melodrama occasionally gets cranked up a few notches too high. There's a pulpiness to how events play out that suggest "Prisoners" was influenced by more high octane crime films like "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" or several of the recent hyper-violent Korean revenge dramas. While Dover's moral ambiguity is placed front and center, the film doesn't seem particularly interested in exploring it in any depth. We see that the consequences of his rage are horrific, but story choices lessen the impact, to the detriment of the whole.
That's not to say that the movie isn't well made or well executed. The writing is taut, the suspense is excellent, and the performances are all solid, particularly Hugh Jackman's wild-eyed Keller Dover. I'd recommend this to anyone who likes a good crime thriller and doesn't mind a few nasty shocks. However, it does feel like something of a missed opportunity, considering how many juicy concepts and sticky issues are raised by the film.

"Enemy" is a smaller, more modest project despite a much more ambitious concept at its core. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a college professor named Adam who discovers that he has an identical double, an actor named Anthony. Adam becomes obsessed with Anthony, eventually tracking him down and involving himself in his life, which has some unforeseen consequences on both Anthony's relationship with his wife Helen (Sarah Gadon) and Adam's relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent). Isabella Rossellini also appears for a brief, but important scene as Adam's mother.

I categorize "Enemy" as a puzzle box film because Villeneuve includes an audacious ending that essentially demands that the viewer go back and actively search out, pick apart, and interpret the film's none-too-subtle symbols and messages. The concept of the double is only one of several themes in play, serving to add more layers to the spare, but involving thriller scenario that plays out between Adam and Anthony. The film manages to be ambiguous and intriguing about its aims without feeling too manipulative, though I found it a little stingy with the little details that make similar puzzle films more fun.

However, I did appreciate the paranoid atmosphere, wonderfully sustained by Villeneuve throughout the whole of "Enemy." We're never told anything particularly concrete about the strange situation that develops between Adam and Anthony, but simply invited to witness the consequences of their existence and meeting. Exposition is sparse, in favor of slowly ratcheting tensions and an alienating mood that is effective without ever feeling too obvious. Jake Gyllenhaal does an excellent job in both roles, and this is one of his better leading man outings in a while.

I don't think "Prisoners" or "Enemy" live up to "Incendies," but then they're very different films and aiming for different audiences. I've enjoyed everything I've seen from Denis Villeneuve so far, and think he has the potential to do a lot more. He's proven he can tackle art house and mainstream material with equal skill, and seems to have a good eye for interesting projects. I'll continue to keep an eye out for his work in the future.
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2014-04-16 10:20 pm
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Go "Joe"

"Joe" is being trumpeted as the return of beloved movie star Nicholas Cage to the realms of serious acting. He gets a pretty juicy role here as the title character, an ex-convict with a past who befriends a troubled teenager. However, this is also the comeback of director David Gordon Green, who got sidetracked with idiot mainstream comedies like "Your Highness" and "The Sitter" for too many years, and is finally finding his way back to his low-budget dramatic roots with "Joe" and last year's odd but interesting "Prince Avalanche." And it also features another major turn by Tye Sheridan, the young actor last seen in "Mud" and "The Tree of Life."

Sheridan plays Gary, a Southern kid living on the brink. His father Wade (Gary Poulter) is a vile, abusive alcoholic who puts his son in the position of sole provider and protector of his mother and sister. Gary gets a job clearing trees with a work crew run by Joe (Cage), who is impressed with Gary's work ethic and determination, but reluctant to get involved personally. Joe has a violent streak he's been trying to keep at bay, and has made enemies, including Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a local degenerate who nurses a major grudge. At stake is the modest, but honest life he's managed to build for himself with girlfriend Lacy (Heather Kafka), and his small circle of friends. However, Joe inevitably finds himself giving into his instincts on Gary's behalf.

I admit that I nearly forgot what a low-key, subtle performance from Nicholas Cage looked like after years of his notorious hamming around in one bad blockbuster after another. As Joe, he still gets a few explosive outbursts to play with, but they're well grounded in the context of a thoughtful examination of a complicated man who is caught between the need for self-preservation and the new role of surrogate parent to a boy who sorely needs one. For the first time in a long time I forgot that I was watching Nicholas Cage onscreen, forgot about all those tell-tale mannerisms and wild-eyed facial contortions he brings out so often, and just got to enjoy his work. And it was great to see.

Tye Sheridan also continues to impress, now three for three in a great run of films. His character here shares about equal screen time and narrative emphasis with Joe, and is equally as compelling. Sheridan is so good at embodying inner conflict, and Gary has plenty to be conflicted about. His best scenes are where we see his dark side manifest, where we see the building frustration and rage growing in him that might become a more destructive force than any singular, immediate antagonist. The surrogate parent-child relationship that forms between Joe and Gary is a pretty convincing one, unsentimental and unforced, that manages to hit all the right notes.

The real star of the picture, however, is its setting. David Gordon Green's personal projects share quite a bit in common with the work of Jeff Nichols, who directed the superficially similar "Mud," another coming of age tale set in the American South starring Tye Sheridan. I admire "Mud," but I prefer "Joe" for its wonderful, simmering tensions, it's rich atmosphere, harshly beautiful environs, and its rougher cast of damaged characters. There's an uncomfortably genuine nastiness to the villains, particularly Wade, which really enhances the impact of the occasional bursts of jarring violence within the film's universe.

This commitment to authenticity extends throughout the film. Everything we see is run down or worn, and value is tied heavily to functionality. Dogs are a major metaphor, kept by several characters for protection rather than companionship. "Joe" doesn't move quickly, and many of the opening scenes are devoted to showing the daily routines and the familiar rhythms of Joe's life. I've seen the film described as an exercise in misery and impoverishment, but there are several moments of happiness and small victories that show the characters have plenty in their lives worth fighting for.

"Joe" has a lot of themes and ideas that have seen a resurgence in American film lately: Southern culture, coming-of-age stories, deteriorating working class families, and rural survival thrillers. The mix here is very strong, and "Joe" works as both a character drama and a more accessible genre picture. I sincerely hope that this isn't just a digression for both David Gordon Green and Nicholas Cage, because this is the best thing that either of them have been involved with in several years. I have to wonder why Green hasn't ever tried making a more profile thriller.

As for Nicholas Cage, I didn't realize how much I'd missed him in films like this and roles like this. "Joe" could be a real turning point for him if he wants it to be.
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2014-04-14 07:48 pm
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"Captain" On Deck

I got overhyped for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which some fans are calling the best Marvel universe movie yet, and on par with the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. I'd place "Winter Soldier" about on par with the first "Captain America," which I liked an awful lot, maybe a little higher, but still firmly behind "The Avengers" and the first "Iron Man" movie. I prefer my Marvel movies lighter and quippier, and "Winter Soldier" is all business. But for some the more down-to-earth political thriller trappings will be a big plus, and I understand why the movie has been embraced so wholeheartedly.

We find Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) working for the intelligence operation S.H.I.E.L.D., headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). After a mission with Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) where Cap is displeased to discover that the two of them have been given different sets of orders, Fury reveals that he and Secretary Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), are working on the secret Project Insight, where a trio of new helicarriers will give them the capability to target and eliminate anyone on earth. Sinister forces are at work, however, which soon pit Cap against a "ghost" assassin called The Winter Soldier, and Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), leader of a S.H.I.E.L.D. counter-terrorism unit gone rogue. Fortunately Cap still has Black Widow on his side, and a new ally in former pararescue soldier Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), also known as the Falcon.

While "The Winter Soldier" clearly takes place in the Marvel Universe, where cryogenics can preserve a supersoldier for seventy years and nifty gadgets let ordinary people accomplish all sorts of outlandish, impossible feats, the story takes its cues from recent Bourne and Bond spy thrillers more than any of the familiar superhero templates. Sure, you get your giant scale battles full of carnage and destruction, but the bulk of the story is all about the cloak and dagger operations of a group of baddies who have the most frightening tools of the surveillance state at their disposal. There's quite a bit of not-so-subtle commentary on the current state of the military industrial complex, the intelligence community, drone warfare, and privacy concerns I didn't ever expect to see in a Marvel blockbuster.

Of course, this only goes so far. This is still a comic book movie and so all of these problems can be solved by simply identifying the bad guys and the bad organization that they work for, and taking them down with all manner of fancy stunt work and CGI explosions. And boy is the action a lot of fun in "Winter Soldier." We're treated to car chases, aerial chases, gun battles, cat-and-mouse games, a couple of different hand-to-hand showdowns, and a fight sequence in a crowded elevator that is just delightful. Better yet, "The Winter Soldier" has a wonderful momentum and energy throughout that has been missing from far too many similar movies. It's could stand a little trimming here and there, but otherwise it's an excellent flick as far as action is concerned.

Where I think the movie has been oversold is the maturity of its storyline. Yes, it's great to see Cap and friends dealing with some real-world issues and tackling a situation with some very big stakes in play. However, the twists and turns remain very PG-13, easily digestible, and pretty typical action movie fodder. While there are permanent consequences that seriously affect some of the characters and the Marvel universe as a whole, we're still taking about fantasy baddies and soap opera twists. These are executed about as well as they possibly could be, but despite the presence of Robert Redford in a prominent role, this could never be mistaken for a serious 70s political thriller, and it lacks the operatic grandeur of Nolan's Bat films.

"The Winter Soldier" is a solid, entertaining film, but I think the most recent couple of Marvel sequels have been so lackluster that the bar has been lowered to the point where this one seems better than it actually is. The Russo brothers were handed the directing reins, and acquit themselves nicely, though they get a little carried away with the shakeycam, and they're not in the same ballpark as Paul Greengrass. Chris Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers, but he's not in the same league as Robert Downey Jr., and the movie leans heavily on its sterling supporting players - several of them in dire need of their own spinoff films. Nick Fury and Black Widow in particular get plenty to do, and end up outshining our hero.

There's no doubt that this is one of the best Marvel universe films, but that doesn't mean as much as it would have a year or two ago. It does a good job of being its own self-contained film and still pushing larger events in the Marvel movie franchise forward, but I can't help thinking that it could have been better if it didn't have to worry about setting up more sequels.
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2014-04-12 11:16 pm
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Now 2016 is Getting Crowded

2015 was billed as the year that we were going to be overloaded with major event movies. Summer was going to be a showdown between some of the biggest names in blockbusters, including a potential "Avengers 2" face-off with "Batman vs. Superman." In a post I wrote up a year ago, I listed over two dozen major titles expected to debut in 2015, but also noted that we were probably going to see many of these projects delayed or cancelled. I was right. 2015 is still going to have a lot of big movies from big franchises, including "Fast & Furious 7," "Avengers 2" plus Marvel Universe film "Ant-Man," two PIXAR movies, a James Bond movie, "Jurassic World," "Terminator 5," "Bourne 5," "Mission Impossible 5," the last "Hunger Games" movie, and of course "Star Wars: Episode VII," but a lot of the biggest potential moneymakers have been pushed back to 2016. And now the 2016 schedule is starting to look crazy.

May and June are battlefields already. May 6th has "Batman vs. Superman" pitted against "Captain America 3," which is suddenly looking like a much more even match-up since "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" has cleaned up at the box office and received sterling critical notices to boot. Memorial Day pits "Alice Through the Looking Glass" against "X-Men: Apocalypse." Two weeks after that comes "The Amazing Spider-Man 3." And then a week later, "Finding Dory" is somehow scheduled to open on the same day as "How to Train Your Dragon 3." Later in the season comes "Independence Day 2," "Ice Age 5," "Planet of the Apes 3," and another Marvel universe movie that we don't have the details for yet. Not on the schedule yet but certainly still in play are "Pirates of the Caribbean 5" and "Avatar 2." As usual, we must provide the caveats that many of these projects are going to shift dates or be delayed, and there's no way that the three showdowns I've listed won't result in some of these movies getting bumped a few weeks earlier or later.

Still, we're looking at another packed year in the making. It's scary to think of it, but the overstuffed 2015 roster may have been the start of a trend. With the exception of that last "Hunger Games" movie, all those titles I listed for 2015 will spawn sequels if they do well enough, and the studios have every expectation that they will. Four of the movies jockeying for prime release dates in 2016 are direct sequels to films that are coming out in the next few months of 2014. That means that we can expect sequels to most of those 2015 films coming in 2017 and 2018. Considering how much they've invested, Disney will be pressing on with more "Star Wars" movies no matter what the response to the first one is. And we can expect more Marvel movies on the way, at the rate of at least two per year. And two to three animated Dreamworks movies. And the goal is three yearly releases from PIXAR and Disney Animation combined. And remember that WB, Sony, and Fox want their own comics-based movie franchises following the Marvel model, built around the DC, "Spider-man" and "X-men" universes.

Can anything stop the inundation? Well, yes. The studios keep making more and more big films because there is the demand for them, but we're reaching a point where the market may not be able to sustain them all. The disastrous "implosion" of the film industry predicted by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas last year hasn't come about, but too many crowded movie seasons like 2015 and the summer of 2016 certainly appear to be setting the stage for it. Eventually we are going to reach a point where making so many movies this way becomes unfeasible. Some big, expensive projects are going to go down hard, and create losses too big to be absorbed. Disney's more notorious misses like "Lone Ranger" and "John Carter" are made up for by their profits from hits like "Avengers" and "Frozen," but the prediction is that one of these days, one of the major studios will have one bomb too many, and get wiped out.

And honestly, that may not be such a bad thing. The current practice of dragging some of these franchises on to fourth and fifth installments and beyond, rebooting old properties that should have stayed dormant, and pumping out way too many gargantuan movies based on little more than good branding is far too prevalent. If audiences keep shrinking the way that they have, and the release calendar gets more and more crowded every year, diminishing returns are inevitable. Until that happens, though, moviegoers are in for some wild times as event movies go bigger and bigger, and the studios pit them against each other in increasingly high stakes matches. Here's to the upcoming battle for the summer of 2016.

May the best movie win.
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2014-04-09 10:57 pm
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Why Be a Film Snob?

I'm getting precariously close to finishing off the "They Shoot Pictures Don't They" list of the top 1000 movies ever made. This is illusory, since the thirty-odd films I have left to see are among the most obscure of the obscure, and include things like the fifteen-hour "Heimat" series and the experimental film "Out 1," which isn't available in my country in any form, and I have no plans to track down in the near future. However, I have to admit a certain sense of accomplishment getting as far as I have. However, I've been left with the nagging question. Why did I embark on this crazy journey to begin with? Why did I want to watch all these films and become the pretentious film snob I am today?

I mean, if I wanted to simply watch great films, I wouldn't have been so dedicated to watching every last title I could get my hands on. I'd have ignored all the Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson titles after a certain point. Heck, I'd have probably picked a different list that wasn't so dedicated to being so diverse and all-encompassing. There are several other 1000 film lists I could have tackled that aren't nearly as challenging. However, I picked "They Shoot Pictures' because it was the most difficult, because it contained experimental films, and films from more obscure film cultures, cult films, and films that only the really dedicated cinephiles know or care about. I've watched films that most mainstream moviegoers would be hard-pressed to even identify as films. So what have I gotten out of it?

Well, it's mae me a much more informed and confident movie watcher, for one thing. I've been working my way through another list of films lately, the list I of all the films I still want to see from the previous year before I write up my "Best of" list. I'm down to about ten titles now, mostly foreign films since the bulk of December releases finally hit DVD over the last few weeks. This year, however, I noticed that the composition of the titles was a little different than usual. I usually make a point to watch all the Best Foreign Language Oscar nominees and all the Best Documentary nominees so I have a decent sampling of each before making my list. This year, I've seen three of the five Foreign Language Nominees, but have no desire to track down the last two, "Omar" and "The Missing Picture." I'd consider watching both when they become available, but they're not priorities.

Why? When I look back at everything I watched for 2013, I've seen dozens of foreign titles already. "Blue is the Warmest Color," "A Touch of Sin," "Le Passe," "Wadjda," "Borgman," "Heli," "Gloria," "Museum Hours," "Drug War," and many others. On my "to watch" list are a few more, including "The Wind Rises," and "Bastards." Over the last few years I've figured out how to follow the festival coverage, which critics have good recommendations, and which filmmakers to keep an eye on. I've figured out how to pick and choose among titles instead of blindly watching every awards contender that showed up on the radar. Of course, that was a good thing to do for a few years until I got my bearings and started developing - and I know how this sounds - a better sense of taste.

Context is vital to being able to navigate world cinema the way I want to, and thanks to "They Shoot Pictures," I now have some pretty good footing with just about every genre and film culture. I don't get intimidated by films from Brazil or Romania or sub-Saharan Africa because I've seen the foundational films from each school of filmmaking. Looking at the some of the prominent foreign titles from 2013, I don't think I would have gotten half as much from a movie like "The Great Beauty" if I hadn't been familiar with Fellini. And knowing Godard's "Band a Apart" was vital to understanding the final scene of "Le Weekend." I may not like Godard films, but I get a lot out of being familiar with his work.

The crux of it is that I love movies and the more I know about movies, the better I tend to enjoy them. This certainly isn't true for everyone, and I readily admit that becoming a film nerd has steadily decreased my tolerance of studio pablum. However, I still love a good Arnold movie, and I'm certainly not giving up superheroes or cartoons. I think it's better to say I've refined my tastes rather than replaced them wholesale. And in the process I have so much more cinema available to me than ever before, whole categories I would've passed by without a thought ten years ago.

And though the going got rough sometimes, it was a lot of fun getting here too.
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2014-04-08 09:58 pm
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Trailers! Trailers! The 2014 Grab Bag Edition

We've been seeing a steady influx of trailers for the summer movie season, and a couple of oddball outliers for pictures coming up later in the year and beyond. So here's a quick rundown of some of the notable trailers and teasers that have popped up since January. All links below lead to Trailer Addict.

Annie - The reactions to the new "Annie" coming up for the holiday season have been decidedly mixed, especially Cameron Diaz's new take on Miss Hannigan. Still, Quvenzhané Wallis looks like she's going to make a great Annie, and Jamie Foxx is in rare form as Will Stacks, the new Daddy Warbucks figure. I'm a little disappointed that we didn't hear more of the music, though, and that the trailer decided to emphasize the humor instead.

Hercules - So much cheese on display. I'm getting flashbacks to "Conan: The Barbarian" here. Best case scenario is that we get a completely pulpy, silly B-movie Hercules and Duane Johnson's considerable charms don't get buried under too many CGI effects. I'm not sold based on the action and the spectacle alone, and this trailer really could have used a little more spark and personality. Unfortunately this comes off as pretty generic-looking.

Chef - It's nice to see Jon Favreau taking a break from big summer blockbusters and trying his hand at a foodie comedy. And it doesn't hurt that he apparently decided to have an "Iron Man 2" cast reunion at the same time. Being released in the middle of May, "Chef" is clearly a personal project being served up as counterprogramming, and looks like a perfectly sweet, feel-good alternative to the superheroes and Adam Sandler. They don't make enough of them like this anymore.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - A very brief look at the new designs for the Ninja Turtles confirms that they're way too humanized, to the point of being a little off-putting. The rest of the trailer is following the exact same template as the "Transformers" films, especially with the presence of Megan Fox as April O'Neil. I don't have high hopes for this, but I've learned not to underestimate Michael Bay and toy aisle nostalgia. Proceed at your own risk.

Tammy - Melissa McCarthy has worked her way up the ranks over the past few years to the rare position of female comedy headliner - and when was the last time we legitimately had one of those? The trailer for "Tammy" makes it very clear that this is a major starring vehicle for her. I've found McCarthy's previous efforts very hit-or-miss, and I don't know how well she's going to work as a lead, but this teaser with her stumbling through a robbery routine did make me smile. I wish her all the best.

The Giver - Confession time. Despite being recommended the book by every English teacher in junior high, I've never read Lois Lowry's beloved dystopian YA novel, "The Giver." I figured this could be a plus, allowing me a different perspective on the film version than I've had with other, similar adaptations. So far, the trailer is pretty bland, trying too hard to make itself look like every other teen action franchise out there. The appearance of Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges is intriguing though.

Peanuts - This isn't coming out until November of 2015, but it provides a crucial first look at the visual style that's going to be used for the new "Peanuts" movie from 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios, best known for the "Ice Age" movies but steadily getting more ambitious with recent features like "Epic." It looks like they've done a good job of capturing the iconic look of the Charles Schultz drawings with CGI. However, getting the story and humor right will also be crucial.

Edge of Tomorrow - I thought this was a spring release, but apparently the latest Tom Cruise science-fiction action film is coming in June. Cruise has proven to be a good fit for this kind of material, and I'll watch Emily Blunt in just about anything. Based on a Japanese novel and manga called "All You Need is Kill," this looks to have a lot in common with "Source Code," except much more action-oriented. Also, having Doug Liman and Christopher McQuarrie onboard doesn't hurt.

Guardians of the Galaxy - And finally, we come to my favorite trailer of the batch, which introduces us to the motley crew who will be starring in the next Marvel Universe film. I think what makes this work is really John C. Reilly as the audience surrogate, providing the introductions and setting the tone for how we're meant to view these characters. Frankly, I have my doubts about how the concept is going to play, but the trailer goes a long way in convincing me that they've got the tone right and the humor right, and we're in good hands.
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2014-04-07 10:16 pm
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Getting Biblical

One of the big trends this year is the return of the Bible epics and the rise of the grassroots Christian films. The former include Darren Aronofsky's "Noah," which has been banned in several Muslim countries but is doing pretty well at the box office everywhere else, and Ridley Scott's upcoming Christmas release, "Exodus: Gods and Kings," which will star Christian Bale as Moses. I guess you could also count "Son of God," which is a theatrical film cobbled together out of footage from last year's hit "The Bible" miniseries that aired on the History Channel. On the other end of the spectrum we have "God's Not Dead," notable for generating $32 million so far after three weeks of release from a budget of $2 million, thanks mostly to the backing of several major Christian organizations. Somewhere in the middle you have the little indie drama "Heaven is for Real." There's also a reboot of the "Left Behind" series starring Nicholas Cage coming in October.

Now, faith-based and Bible-based films have a long history in Hollywood, despite the claims that the town is hostile to the faith community. Some of the biggest hits in movie history have been Christian-themed, including "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur," and "The Passion of the Christ." There was a whole flourishing genre of Bible epics in the '50s and '60s that gave us titles like "The Robe," "Exodus," "The Greatest Story Ever Told," and "King of Kings." With the recent spate of historical epics and sword-and-sandals movies, it makes sense that Hollywood would revisit and update some of these stories for modern audiences. There are lots of opportunities for spectacle, and despite the controversy that seems to dog even the most innocuous religion-themed film, they can be extremely lucrative. With Easter coming up, there's been a lot of chatter going around about the possibility that this trend may stick around long-term.

However, there is the little matter of the current cultural divide. When you look at the religion-themed films, the first thing that you notice is that the studios are really only interested in putting money into the big Bible epics. Smaller, more contemporary stories about faith are very few and far between. Religious comedies like "Oh God!" and "Sister Act" are practically extinct, with the exception of the Tyler Perry movies, aimed at a very niche audience. Prestige pictures like "Philomena" rarely call attention to their religious themes. It's been a long time since we've seen anything really controversial like "The Last Temptation of Christ" or "Dogma" on the scene. The ruckus around "Noah" has been mostly limited to Islamic countries, where the screen portrayal of prophets, such as Noah, is not allowed. Christian conservatives have had mixed reactions to the film and some of the artistic license taken with the story, but there hasn't been much outright hostility. All in all, there's been a definite retreat from religious subject matter in recent years, particularly by any filmmaker who wants to examine religious questions seriously. As a result, even films that casually involve religion are scarce.

Those little, independently produced Christian movies we occasionally see popping up in the box office standings often claim to be filling the gap, purportedly serving a market that is perceived as being ignored by Hollywood. I don't find this to be true. These are better characterized as Evangelical films, because they're usually aimed toward reinforcing an Evangelical worldview and have very little crossover appeal, even with other religious audiences. "God's Not Dead," for instance, is premised on a scenario where Christians are persecuted in academia for their beliefs, which is a flimsy idea at best. It's biggest star, amusingly, is former "Hercules" actor, Kevin Sorbo. Like most of these films, the reviews were lackluster and awareness of the film outside of its intended audience is practically nonexistent. And for every "God's Not Dead" which attracts a fair amount of attention, there are dozens of others that flop, such as the notorious "Alone Yet Not Alone," which was involved in the recent Oscar scandal.

It'll be interesting to see if any of these movies do well enough to really make an impact on the commercial film landscape, but it seems doubtful that religious films of any real consequence will result from the the trend. We're looking at either studio blockbusters or didactic message movies, not that I mind the existence of either, but there's little middle ground. I don't see much room for the really interesting projects that have been percolating for a while, like Paul Verhoeven's historical Jesus biopic or Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Shusaku Endo's "Silence." "Noah" seemed promising because of Aronofsky's involvement, but seems to be far more spectacle than anything else. And if we are going to have a revival of the religious films, it would be a shame if we didn't get any that actually bothered to seriously address modern questions of faith and religion.
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2014-04-01 08:35 pm

"Inception 2" Monkey See, Monkey Do

Minor spoilers ahead.

Brett Ratner helming a second "Inception" movie was always an iffy prospect, but somehow he got nearly all the major cast members from the first movie back for another round (with the notable exception of Leonrado DiCaprio), and and seemed to be working with an intriguing new concept: reversing an inception, or removing an artificially implanted idea from someone's mind. Sadly, the execution frequently feels like a retread of the first film, though not a bad one.

Tom Hardy takes over the lead for "Inception: Mindscape" as Robert Eames, the chameleon "forger" who has gotten himself deep in debt with the wrong crowd, and is recruited by a government operative, Louise Revere (Joan Allen) to go into the mind of Senator Edmund Hawkes (Stacy Keach) who they suspect has been incepted by agents of a foreign conglomerate. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Ariadne (Ellen Page), Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and Saito (Ken Watanabe) are back, along with new faces Heloise (Felicity Jones) and Crawford (Anthony Mackie), Eames' new love interest and the new stick-in-the-mud respectively. We also have obvious villains this time out in the form of evil European tycoon Magnus Vang (Aksel Hennie) and his sister, the femme fatale Magdalena (Lea Seydoux).

The good news is that Ratner can still handle an action scene, and though his gunfights and car chases ping as fairly generic, they do a good job of keeping the momentum going. Less successful is the dream imagery. Apparently Ratner took the complaints about the previous dream environments being too utopian and rationally ordered to heart, because he injects several absurd elements into the mix - circus animals in the train sequence and steampunk vehicles in the cathedral showdown, for instance. A better director could have handled these more effectively, but in Ratner's hands they just tend to be distracting. More fundamentally, despite all the fancy new CGI dreamscapes, new characters, and a twisty, complicated plot, the structure of the new "Inception" movie, down to many of the action beats, is almost identical to the first one.

And that's not the only thing that feels too familiar. Hans Zimmer's famously unsubtle score is back, and way more obtrusive here than it should be. We get more gravity-defying stunts, more James Bond inspired fights, but they're only minor variations on things that we've already seen. For the most part the dream worlds are missing that meticulous construction and sense of cyberpunk dystopia that Christopher Nolan brought to his work. Brett Ratner manages to give us a decent approximation, but it's just not the same. I'd have rather seen a more radical departure from the style, maybe from a director with a more distinct visual sense, like Tarsem Singh or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Probably the best bit of imagery that Ratner pulls off is the M.C. Escher cathedral, where the climax takes place, though we don't get much of a chance to really look at it for more than a few seconds, which is a shame.

The actors pick up a lot of the slack. Tom Hardy is perfectly comfortable in the leading man role, and fortunately much more intelligible than he was in both "The Dark Knight Returns" and "Mad Max: Fury Road." However, he has far more chemistry with Seydoux than he does with Felicity Jones, and the romantic subplot really feels tacked on. The tone of the film is much lighter, with a lot more banter being tossed around by the supporting characters, and Aksel Hennie hamming it up nicely as the villain of the piece. For the most part the humor avoids being jokey and I think it works, though there are a few scenes that feel too much like material cut from one of Ratner's "Rush Hour" films. And I suspect he may have seen "Juno" one too many times considering the amount of snark he has Ellen Page deliver.

What I found really disappointing, though, was that "Mindscape" doesn't do much to expand the "Inception" universe except in the most perfunctory ways. We barely learn any more about the most intriguing characters from the first film, none of the dream technology is expanded upon, and there's little insight into the corporate hegemony that seems to run the world despite the entire plot depending on navigating its intricacies. We do learn a lot more about Eames, but it only serves to genericize him into a typical action hero. I guess that was to be expected, since the point of this sequel seems to have been to genericize "Inception" to the point where it would be easier for Warner Brother to pump out more sequels.

"Inception: Mindscape" is decent enough for a big budget action movie, but viewers hoping for something to match the original movie are bound to be disappointed. I did have fun with it though, and the movie leaves enough unanswered questions that I'm open to seeing an "Inception 3," though I do hope that Ratner cedes the director's chair to someone new.

Someone with less of a simian fixation. Seriously, what was with all the monkeys?
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2014-03-28 11:15 pm
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A Surprising "Touch of Sin"

I'd seen two of Chinese director Jia Zhangke's films before, "Platform" from 2000 and "Still Life" from 2006. It was enough to get a good sense of his style and his aims as a director, which is to explore modern Chinese life and society with a more critical, nuanced eye than many of his predecessors were able to. His work is definitely art house fare, meditative dramas full of slow, quiet scenes. So it was a shock to find his latest film, "A Touch of Sin," is a crime movie with several jarring moments of violence.

The two-hour film is an anthology of four different stories with very different settings and protagonists. All of them are based on real life crimes that highlight a variety of socials ills. In the first story, a man, Dahai (Wu Jiang) attempts to bring to light the corruption of a group of village officials who have profited handsomely from the sale of the local mine. In the second, we follow a migrant worker, Zhao San (Wang Baoqiang), who is visiting home for the New Year but not received warmly by his family. The third is about Xiao Yu (Tao Zhao), a woman who works at a spa and is conducting a secret affair. Finally, the last story is about a young factory worker, Xiao Hui (Lanshan Luo), who falls in love with a prostitute, Lianrong (Li Meng).

There are few connecting threads between each story, aside from the thematic goal of exploring different forms of sudden violence and their causes. At first glance all four stories appear to follow a similar pattern. We are introduced to our protagonist and his or her circumstances, following the ordinary course of their lives and witnessing the slow burn of simmering tensions that eventually boil over at the end of the story. However, these characters are quite different from each other and their paths to violence are not the same. One is clearly disturbed from the beginning, another is frustrated by a perceived lack of other options, and another is gradually desensitized to violence after repeated exposure in everyday life.

Jia does not focus on the violence, though it is portrayed bluntly enough that the Chinese censors have condemned the film for graphic content. Each story ends almost immediately after each incident of violence occurs, and we are not shown reactions or consequences, with one exception. Rather, Jia is concerned with the systems and culture that seem to foster violence. We get these wonderful snapshots of the various communities and oppressive social structures that the affect the characters through incidental conversations and interactions with minor players. The introspective leads are often isolated on the screen, brooding silently as part of the long, beautiful shots of busy city streets or empty country roads. In the final story, the cramped factory dormitories and luxurious nightclubs serve to emphasize the alienation and hopelessness of the final protagonist.

How much of the responsibility for these tragedies should be borne by the individual and how much should be blamed on society? Jia doesn't give a straightforward answer, and the circumstances are different enough in each little morality tale that they point to different answers. However, he does single out various societal forces as contributing factors: apathy towards the abuses of the elites, weakened familial ties due to working conditions, and a lack of opportunities for the young, among others. This is all conveyed fairly subtly, in terms that would never get "A Touch of Sin" mistaken for a more typical social justice picture, but I still find it remarkable that Jia Zhangke is able to be so candid in his examination of Chinese social ills.

Of the four stories, I think the first with the corrupt officials is the strongest and the one that makes the most lasting impression because it is so dynamic, and the tragicomic performance of Wu Jiang is a lot of fun. It comes the closest to the usual template of a bombastic action movie, and is the least like Jia Zhangke's other films, which is probably why I found it such a great surprise. I also like the third one featuring the director's wife and longtime muse, Tao Zhao, though the climax feels a little tacked on. The other two have their strengths, but they're less successful and contain some puzzling ambiguities I'm not sure were intentional. The psychopath story in particular needed some fleshing out and I'd love to see a longer version.

I wouldn't be disappointed if Jia Zhangke went back to making his more subdued social dramas, but it's always exciting when a good director tries to experiment a bit, and I hope he considers more genre outings in the future - especially if they come out as well as "A Touch of Sin."

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2014-03-26 10:04 pm
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Theaters Are Losing the Target Audience

Worrying news out of Cinemacon, the The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) convention, this week. The MPAA has released movie attendance statistics for 2013, revealing that the number of frequent moviegoers (who go to the theaters once a month on average) in the 18-24 year-old age group has fallen 21%, and 12-17 year-olds are down 15%. Most other age groups are also down, though kids and older viewers saw boosts in their numbers. However, the younger demographics are the important ones to Hollywood, who the vast majority of movies are made and marketed for. The drastic reduction in their attendance is a very bad sign.

Though these are dramatic numbers, this doesn't come as much of a surprise to most industry watchers. Theaters have been seeing declining numbers for years due to a variety of factors: rising ticket prices, new technology, the shrinking amount of time a new movie plays in theaters exclusively, piracy, lackluster theater experiences, and competition from other entertainment options like Netflix. Some point to the content being an issue, and indeed 2013 was a pretty lackluster year in terms of the big commercial blockbusters aimed at youngsters, though it was a great year for prestige films that tend to skew toward older viewers. And some point to the recession, which has heavily impacted younger moviegoers, who now have less disposable income to spend on tickets.

You can see priorities starting to shift a bit in response. Animated family films have been the most consistent moneymakers, and NATO chief John Fithian has long been calling for more of them, year round, to appeal to that growing audience of kids. Minorities tend to go to the movies in greater numbers, with African-American and Latino audiences seeing gains last year. In the wake of surprise hits like "Instructions Not Included," "Ride Along," and "Best Man Holiday," there's been a good amount of chatter about more movies made to appeal to them. And this has been the first time in recent memory that I've seen anyone address the rising cost of tickets, with the proposal of more regular discount days, a tactic that has apparently been very successful in other countries.

As one of those viewers who is probably going to go from a frequent moviegoer to quitting theaters almost entirely this year, it feels like too little too late. While there are still plenty of movies being produced that I want to see, it has become far too convenient to watch new movies by alternate means with only minimal delays, and the hassles associated with a theater trip seem to grow with every visit. The average movie ticket now costs over $8, and it's far more in many places. Meanwhile, Redbox prices are still under $2, and comparable online rentals are under $5. Watching the "Veronica Mars" movie on VOD at home through Amazon Instant was a buck less than the cheapest matinee in my area. And this isn't even taking into account the ability to avoid endless ads, parking madness, and overpriced concessions.

Still, I did go and see a lot of movies over the last Oscar season, including smaller titles like "Nebraska" and "Philomena." I still love the theater experience and think it's worth it to experience really great movies like "The Master," "The Artist," and "The Tree of Life" on the big screen with a full sound system and an audience of likeminded cinephiles in attendance. The latest "Thor" movie? Not so much. I wouldn't mind if we saw fewer of the big, sprawling multiplexes, but I'd really miss my run-down old art house theater. Sadly, I expect that if we start seeing theater numbers shrink, the arthouses are probably going to be the first to go.

It'll be a while before that happens, though. Movie theater revenues actually hit record highs in 2013 thanks to all those surcharges on 3D films and advertising sales, but it's been coming from fewer and fewer paying customers. The most sobering statistic in the MPAA report is that nearly a third of the U.S. population didn't see any movies in theaters at all last year. The movie business as a whole is still going strong thanks to rapidly expanding overseas markets, and 2015 is expected to be a record year with all the tentpoles coming up.

But when the movie-loving boomers age out of the customer base, and if the current crop younger viewers don't take the next generation of kids to see movies in theaters, what then? If day-and-date simultaneous multi-platform releases become more commonplace, and VOD really starts eating into ticket sales, where does this leave the movie theaters? Is there going to come a time when seeing a Malick or P.T. Anderson film on the big screen won't even be an option? If so, it'll be an awful shame.
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2014-03-25 10:14 pm
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Rank 'Em: The PIXAR Movies

As noted previously, 2014 is the first year since 2005 where there will be no new release from PIXAR animation studios. So it's time to take stock of the fourteen features that the studio has produced so far. Here's my ranking of the PIXAR movies from greatest to least. Due to concerns about length, I'm going to cheat a little, as you'll see below.

1. The "Toy Story" trilogy - I prefer the second to the first and wasn't really sold on how the third one ended, but it's hard to argue that the "Toy Story" movies aren't the studio's greatest achievement. The first film was an instant animation landmark when it premiered in 1995, and the sequels miraculously matched it on every level. The technology kept improving, but what was really impressive was that the storytelling and the fidelity to those wonderful characters never lagged for a moment.

2. "The Incredibles" - "PIXAR does human beings," was the big selling point, but the real accomplishment was telling a story that skewed a little older and more mature while not losing the sense of adventure and fun that characterized the best PIXAR work. Director Brad Bird joined the studio to bring a fascinating world of superheroes and supervillains to life. I especially love the '60s design touches and all the little bits of superhero terminology that make the "Incredibles" universe feel so alive.

3. "Ratatouille" - Reportedly a difficult production for the studio, which lost one director and had to work on a much shorter schedule than some of the others. However, the end result is a charmer, proving that PIXAR could make a great movie out of the most unlikely subject matter, in this case a rat who becomes a chef. Disney struggled to market and merchandise the film without an easy hook like "monsters" or "toys" or "superheroes." Personally, I always thought the hook was obvious: foodies.

4. "Monsters University" - Yep, I'm surprised to see this one so high too, but I really appreciated what PIXAR did with the "Monsters Inc." prequel. They got me to care about Mike, a character I never really connected to, and delivered a difficult message in a careful, thoughtful way. This may be the only college life movie I've ever really enjoyed, because it is actually about the meat and potatoes stuff of the college experience that the raunchy teen comedies aren't interested in talking about.

5. "Up" - The opening sequence of "Up" is so strong that I feel it takes away a bit from the rest of the movie, which never gets close to finding the same emotional power. Sure, it's a fun adventure movie about a group of misfits, but the underlying melancholy of the main character's struggle with his regrets suggests that so much more was possible. So "Up" remains a conundrum for me, a movie that I admire very much, but with enough weak spots that I can't quite bring myself to count it as a favorite.

6. "A Bug's Life" - PIXAR's sophomore effort does not get enough credit. It remains one of their most gorgeous with some of their most memorable characters, including the evil grasshopper voiced by Kevin Spacey and the ladybug with gender issues voiced by Dennis Leary. Yes, the "Yojimbo" plot is old and full of cliches, but it works. And I still think this is one of PIXAR's most gorgeous-looking movies, especially the way they use light and color in a world centered around plant life.

7. "Finding Nemo" - I love Dory. I love the seagulls. I love the jellyfish and the turtles and everything involving the whale. However, I find the movie as a whole a little on the lackluster side. There are some major parts of the story and major characters that struck me as pretty by-the-numbers, and I never felt that Marlin and Nemo and their relationship got nearly as much development as they needed to really give the movie the proper stakes. "Nemo" is a lot of fun, but feels like PIXAR treading water.

8. "Brave" - This one really didn't hold up as well on rewatch as I was hoping it would. I still adore Merida and the whole relationship with her mother, but when you hold "Brave" up against the rest of the PIXAR films, the worldbuilding is awfully slight and the plot is awfully thin. This is one of those cases where the offscreen struggles over the film's direction really shows. The whole movie feels rushed, haphazardly pieced together, and not quite sure of what it's doing. I'd love a sequel, though, to help fix a few things.

9. "Monsters Inc." - There's something about the "Monsters" world that rubbed me the wrong way. I'm not sure if it was the lukewarm satire on the energy crisis, the jokey handling of corporate culture, or just one monster pun too many, but it didn't work for me. And aside from the Sully and Boo relationship and the last chase scene with the doors, not much else in the film did either. The irony is, of course, that I really enjoyed the prequel, "Monsters University," which didn't live up to this film for many viewers.

10. "WALL-E" - I got some fun out of the first half of the movie, but the second half on the spaceship with the chubby vestiges of the human race was full of missteps that "WALL-E" never recovered from. I disliked it so much that I haven't revisited the movie since I first saw it in theaters. Taken by itself, the first half of the movie would probably rank solidly in the middle of the PIXAR features, since it's so uniquely dark and conceptually bold. I wish the movie had continued in that direction, but oh well.

11. The "Cars" movies - Even the least likeable PIXAR films are works of art, full of beautiful imagery and clever ideas. I don't mind the first "Cars" movie much, even though I'm not a fan. It's clearly PIXAR's work even though it's not the studio at its best. The sequel, however, has all the earmarks of the superfluous sequels that PIXAR promised that it would never make, and for that reason "Cars 2" is on the very bottom of the rankings.