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I went into "Elysium" with reduced expectations. I'd been warned that Neil Blomkamp's new science-fiction allegory, the follow up to his excellent "District 9," was a much simpler and less ambitious story that was more concerned with being an action-packed summer blockbuster. However, I wasn't prepared for how much of a step down from "District 9" it would be.

Things start off well enough. We're introduced to the world of 2154, where most of the population lives on an overpopulated, polluted Earth in poverty. The elites long ago fled to an orbiting space station called Elysium, which is visible from Earth. In the slums of Los Angeles lives a former orphan and car thief named Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), now a blue collar factory worker just trying to make an honest living. His childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga) is a nurse at a nearby hospital. Max always dreamed of going to Elysium, but illegal ships carrying non-citizens are turned away or shot down by Elysium's zealous Secretary of Defense, Jessica Delacourt (Jodie Foster). However, when Max receives a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, his only chance for survival is reaching Elysium, which has special Med-Pods that can save him.

You might notice that the basics of the plot are pretty close to "District 9." We have a protagonist who has a serious medical condition that requires him to undertake a hero's journey and transcend the broken systems of a dystopian society. The difference this time is that there's so much more typical action movie business tacked on. Max not only has a love interest in Frey, but Frey has a little daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), who is also sick and needs to get to Elysium. Delacourt is not only enforcing the totalitarian rules of this society, but also plotting a coup with corrupt industrialist John Carlyle (William Fitchner). But if that wasn't enough villainy to deal with, there's also the mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley), who does most of their dirty work, and provides an excuse for one-on-one fight scenes with Damon. Oh, and there's even the loyal ethnic friend who gets the short end of the stick - here it's Julio (Diego Luna), Max's fellow petty criminal pal. However, at least the Ally of Convenience, a gangster named Spider (Wagner Moura from the "Elite Squad" movies), who runs all the illegal flights to Elysium, is around long enough to be a real character.

"Elysium" is clearly a much lighter and more commercial film, but not everyone seems clear on to what degree. So you have Jodie Foster playing a wildly over-the-top villain whose performance is noticeably too cartoony for the film's more serious tone. And then there's Sharlto Copley's Kruger, who doesn't really work at all, because his menace keeps being undercut by barely intelligible rambling that may have been meant to be comedic. Possibly. And you have the same kind of gory, visceral violence from "District 9," where you see a lot of the carnage up close. However, the story is told in very broad strokes, including scenes of uncomfortably on-the-nose moralizing that seem like they should be in a movie for a much younger crowd. The social commentary on the state of healthcare and the divisions between rich are poor are not handled very well, the fantasy filter far too slight, and the workings of the world of "Elysium" too underdeveloped.

Oh sure, the film has great visuals. With the benefit of a Hollywood budget, Blomkamp does a fantastic job bringing visions of decaying urban cities policed by robots and space station paradises to life. I love the way that he delineates the different kinds of technology used on Earth versus in Elysium, and the different languages, and all the weaponry and vehicles. As an action film "Elysium" does its job, providing a fair amount of fights and chases and demonstrations of how to fell a flying Roomba. However, the movie clearly wants to be more than that, and comes up empty at every turn. There are too many unanswered questions about the world, like why Elysium won't share its technology, and what the terms of its coexistence with Earth are. Surely Elysium is still dependent on Earth for resources to some extent, right?

However, I keep coming back to the basic storytelling as the fundamental problem. It's a major disappointment that after a hero as complicated and memorable as Wikus Van de Merwe from "District 9," Matt Damon is stuck playing someone as trite and bland as Max Da Costa. It's to Damon's credit that Max comes off as well as he does. The metaphor of rich and poor being physically isolated from each other is a perfectly fine one, but there's no bite it the way it's presented, no sign of the fiendishly clever scripting that let Blomkamp address lots of different facets of problematic race relationships his last time out. Instead, it too often feels like the director was being distracted by shiny sets and fancy effects. He clearly had a lot of new ideas he wanted to try out, but there aren't many that worked as intended.

I hate to say it, but this sophomore slump may be indicative of a one-hit wonder. And that's an awful shame.
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I'd never been to one of those "one night only" Fathom Events screenings before, but when I heard that my local art house was going to show an encore of their live filming and transmission of the UK's National Theatre production of "Frankenstein," I was in. I had actually tried to get tickets last March, but they were sold out almost immediately for my area. This time, with expanded theaters and playdates, it was much easier to find an available screening. I couldn't do both nights, so I picked the version where Benedict Cumberbatch plays the Creature, and Jonny Lee Miller plays Victor Frankenstein. That's two Sherlock Holmes for the price of one.

The pre-show material was mercifully limited. Instead of the usual "First Look" commercials package, we got sounds of a murmuring audience and the screen cycling through black-and-white stills from "Frankenstein" rehearsals. In the place of previews, however, there were a couple of schmaltzy ads for Broadway shows, a PSA for screening sponsor Aviva to push their charity work, and of course Fathom Events and the National Theater plugging similar events. Then there was another intro from a female presenter, and a short making-of segment that felt like I'd accidentally clicked into the DVD extras, before the main event got underway.

Now the conceit of the play being filmed live was something that sounded fine in theory, but I wasn't sure how it would actually come off in practice. It took me about fifteen minutes or so to adjust to the fact that I actually was watching a play and not a film in a movie theater setting. The the editing and pacing were entirely driven by what was happening on stage, but with the multiple cameras providing coverage and often jarring cutting between different shots, initially it felt like the action should have been moving along a little quicker. the fun of live theater is being there in the moment, but the filmed version was too obviously planned out to capture that spontaneity. I'd also have liked more wide shots to show off more of the impressive stagecraft on display, and less of the distracting overhead camera, which was slightly too far from the stage.

Once I got caught up in the play, most of these distractions faded into the background. Though the Creature and Victor Frankenstein are given equal billing, this is really the Creature's show. The first act of "Frankestein" deals entirely with the Creature's birth into the world and early education. Cumberbatch is phenomenal in the role, with one of the best introductions I've ever seen. He first emerges from a womblike structure a howling mass of newly conscious flesh, and then learns to use arms and legs, to crawl, to stand, to walk across an empty stage, all in the space of a few minutes. He writhes and spasms, but gradually gains control over his malformed, stitched-together body. We see his growing self-awareness, his struggle to learn, to live. Most importantly, we see signs of a keen intelligence in the swiftness of his improvement, missing from most filmed versions of "Frankenstein."

The play hews closely to the content of the Mary Shelley novel, if not its form. Instead of the nested flashbacks, the narrative is linear, following the Creature's point of view as he explores the world, and has his first unfortunate encounters with human society. Several minor characters are nicely fleshed out, including De Lacy, played by Karl Johnson, the old blind man who becomes the Creature's friend and tutor. Instead of merely taking instruction, the Creature debates with him after learning to speak, challenges him, and displays early signs of alienation and anger. Also greatly improved is the role of Elizabeth, Frankenstein's fiancée. She's played with considerable charm by Naomie Harris, one of several colorblind casting choices in the production, who we meet once the Creature arrives in Geneva to confront Frankenstein directly.

Now Victor Frankenstein has always been an arrogant, prideful encapsulation of everything scientific ethics review boards exist to prevent. Jonny Lee Miller nails that, but he also makes the man a little sympathetic, a tragic figure whose downfall is painful to watch. His scenes with the Cumberbatch are the heart of the story, and the two are much better matched than I was expecting. The play treats them as equals, really two sides of the same person, to underline the obvious subtext. Cumberbatch is the stronger actor here, and he's has the meatier role for the performance I saw, but Miller does his share of heavy lifting. By the climax, he's become the play's second protagonist, despite having less time onstage. His awkward affections for Elizabeth are convincing, as are his struggles to contain and mollify a ravenous scientific curiosity.

It makes me curious about Miller's take on the Creature, and how it might differ from Cumberbatch's performance, which was the clear highlight of "Frankenstein" for me. I've never seen anything else quite like this, where the actor is juggling impeded speech, sometimes shambling and sometimes frenetic movement (or both at once), and a massive amount of make-up and prosthetics, all in the name of making the Creature look properly inhuman. The physical stuff is damned impressive, but it pales in comparison to the way Cumberbatch gets across the Creature's moral and intellectual development, that fuels the inner torments of his existence that inevitably consume him. He seethes at the injustice of being abandoned and condemned to loneliness. He becomes cruel and vicious, and even something of a bitter wit, but there's never a doubt that he has the capacity for goodness.

The production by Danny Boyle is eye-catching. A star field of dangling incandescent light bulbs stand in for thunder, lighting, electrical activity, and perhaps other things. The rotating stage occasionally reveals hidden sets, and more complex structures build up over time, but early on there's a nice minimalism to the staging. Sun and moon are simple illuminated images, and a strip of turf and illusory flights of birds stand in for all of nature. It was difficult to get a sense of the space without actually being there, and I'm sure that some of the effect didn't come across as intended. For instance, a miniature locomotive traverses the stage at one point, but the cameras did a terrible job of conveying the size and the speed of the thing, which would have been easy to see if I were actually seated in the audience.

Ultimately, I don't think that the filmed transmission "Frankenstein" is a great substitute for the real live play. But given the extremely limited ability that most of us have to access these highly acclaimed productions, it's damn well good enough. And I have to say that it was nice to be in a screening situation where you know it's perfectly okay to clap at the end, as the theater was full of the sound of the National Theater audience cheering on the performers as the pay ended. I cheered with them.
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My favorite author is dead. Perhaps this is not such a sad thing, as Ray Bradbury lived a very long and full life, was much beloved and respected, and created many, many enduring works of fiction. My first major encounter with his writing was when I was about twelve, and borrowed the audiobook, "The Fantastic Tales of Ray Bradbury," from the library to help pass the time during a long car trip. The selection was random, but I spent most of that trip becoming increasing entranced with Bradbury's stories. Each of the eight cassette tapes had a short story or two on each side, narrated by Bradbury himself. One of them, containing "The Illustrated Man" and "Marionettes, Inc," refused to play on my Walkman. However, after trying every other option in the house when we got home, it was coaxed to play correctly on my father's hefty old 70s era portable cassette player, about the size of a briefcase. I just had to keep holding down the Play button to counter one of the cassette spools being a bit stuck, which I did for the entire length of both stories, not minding a bit.

Bradbury wrote about October circuses and robot grandmothers and the terrible beauty of the planet Mars and its inhabitants. He wrote about being a boy in a small Midwestern town, about nightmare visions of the future, about monsters of every conceivable shape and size, from red-faced babies to totalitarian societies that would criminalize the act of taking an evening walk or owning a book. He's best known for his fantasy, horror, and science-fiction, but he also wrote nostalgic stories about American life and childhood. What made much of his work so distinctive was his ability to make any setting, any place feel wondrous and terrifying and full of unseen mystery. His short stories were anthologized in dozens of collections with titles like "R is for Rocket," "S is for Space," "The October Country," "The Illustrated Man," and of course, "The Martian Chronicles." The city library had several of these, but my junior high library actually had more of the older, more obscure volumes, which I happily devoured, along with "Something Wicked This Way Comes," "Fahrenheit 451," and "The Halloween Tree." Many of the short stories became the basis of the anthology series "The Ray Bradbury Chronicles," which was produced for television in the mid-80s.

As this is a media blog, I should talk about Bradbury's multiple brushes with Hollywood. He wrote for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and he wrote a single installment of "The Twilight Zone," though his own stories often seemed to embody the spirit of that show better than many of the actual episodes. Bradbury also wrote for movies, including the first treatment of "It Came from Outer Space," John Huston's "Moby Dick," and an unproduced sequel to "The Day the Earth Stood Still." There were several adaptations of his work, including "Something Wicked This Way Comes," François Truffaut's deeply troubled "Fahrenheit 451," "The Illustrated Man," the "Martian Chronicles" miniseries, "The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit," "A Sound of Thunder," and an animated version of "The Halloween Tree," which I try to watch every year. None of the adaptations ever lived up to the books and the short stories, as it has proven very difficult to translate the richness of Bradbury's writing to the screen. Filmmakers keep trying, though. Remakes of two films, "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Illustrated Man," have been in various states of development for ages.

I regret that I never quite managed to meet the man. In the mid-90s, I remember reading about his yearly appearances at the Los Angeles Festival of Books, but the events were always hours of driving away, and Bradbury's appearances were so popular that there was no hope of getting tickets. By stupendous luck, I was in the audience for his final appearance at Comic-Con, but missed him at the book signing afterwards. I can't imagine what I would have said to him. Probably thank you. Thank you for Margot in the rain on Venus, and Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, and the dark Martians with their golden eyes, and every single member of the Elliott family, but especially Cecy and Timothy. Thank you for the catacombs of Mexico, the dandelions in Illinois, the African veldt in the nursery, and the empty mechanical house in the year 2026. And thank you for inspiring me to try writing myself, though it never amounted to much. Once I got into the habit, though, it proved very hard to stop.

Hail and farewell, my dear old friend. And rest assured that the best of you will surely live forever.
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There's a Slate article that was posted yesterday about Before Watchmen, a series of prequel comics about the origins of the major players in Alan Moore's "Watchmen" universe. Alan Moore has made it clear that he does not approve of this, and while some fans are rejecting the new stories sight unseen, most have been fairly ambivalent. Everyone agrees that the move is a cash grab by DC, meant to capitalize on the higher profile of "Watchmen" after the recent movie version. Not many particularly care.

What caught my eye were the comments about fanfiction, first comparing a "Before Watchmen" cover image to "fan fiction detritus," and then suggesting that fanfiction was a more suitable avenue for this brand of derivative works than the "official" comics, and noting that Moore essentially wrote fanfiction himself with "Lost Girls." Cue multiple comments in the discussion section arguing the proper use of the term fanfiction, which I'm not going to reiterate here, because I've already had that argument and written those posts. Instead, I'm going to try to answer the question nobody quite managed to ask here - what makes a derivative work, a piece of intellectual property based off of a previous piece of intellectual property, a legitimate extension of the original? Where is the border between the canon work and the fanfiction? And what is the mechanism for granting that authority?

Well, you start with the original author first as the prime authority on their own work. If J.K. Rowling says that Dumbledore is gay, even though it was never stated anywhere in the "Harry Potter" books, then Dumbledore is gay. If she decides to anoint a new author to continue the adventures of the Potter kids, her word carries more weight than anyone else's. Film and television series, which are more collaborative mediums, often depend on a creator incorporating the work of others. There are only a handful television creators, for instance, who will write every episode of a show themselves, but if they retain creative oversight over the finished product, the show is still considered their work to a large degree.

However, you can't call something a derivative work until the original author is out of the picture. These days that's very common, as many creators of popular media don't have the rights to their creations. Legally, whoever controls the rights to the property controls the official canon, the right to add or change a story as their see fit. So DC can hire other creative talent to write "Before Watchmen" comics without paying any attention to the wishes of Alan Moore. When Bryan Singer made "Superman Returns," he chose to ignore the third and fourth theatrical "Superman" films and pick up the story after "Superman II," with Warner Bros' backing. In the case of comic book characters, they’re often passed around between so many different writers and artists, each making their own contribution, it’s hard to say who really was really the primary creator.

When most people think of fan fiction, they think of the amateur stories passed around online by hobbyists. However, what professional writers do when they work in one of these existing universes isn't any different, except for the money and the legalities. They're using existing characters and concepts to tell new stories. However, what the money and the legalities give them is immediate legitimacy because they also get the right to profit by the work's association with he original. Anything written for profit is taken more seriously than the stuff written for fun and self-indulgence, and the involvement of whoever is holding the rights, even if it's as licensor for a bad tie-in novel, will at least give the appearance of oversight. Something "official" suggests that there's quality control at work somewhere, that there is a protective gatekeeper acting in the best interest of your favorite franchise, Of course, most of the time it's really about exploiting a piece of IP to the fullest extent possible. Do you really think most "Spider-man" fans are all that excited about the new reboot?

Now when the rights holder and the original author clash over the canon, who wins? It depends in each case. J.K. Rowling’s reputation is such that she’d easily win out in the court of public opinion over any company that managed to wrest the “Potter” rights away from her, and try to launch additional sequels with a different writer. Her writing is so integral to those books, she is irreplaceable. However, there's hardly any fuss when Marvel plays musical chairs with the writers and directors of its "Avengers" universe movies, or make decisions about their content that any previous creative talent would disagree with. In the television world, fans raised a fuss when Dan Harmon was fired from "Community," but nobody blinked an eye when "Whitney" got a new showrunner.

The final arbiter is really the audience. They're the ones who draw a lot of the lines between what is considered canon and what isn't, who will challenge the authority of the people who control a beloved media property, and sometimes even the original authors. They're the ones who ignore lesser movie sequels, who pretend that "After MASH" and the third season of "Gargoyles" never happened, and are quick to remind you that Han Solo shot first, despite what George Lucas thinks. No amount of hype or marketing was enough to convince them that George Lazenby was meant to be James Bond, or that Halle Berry was Catwoman. The fans are the ones who care the most about what is and isn't canon, so it makes sense that they often have the most say over the matter in the end.

There are very few instances of something originating purely from the fans being incorporated into canon, because the amateurs and the professionals exist in separate universes to everyone's benefit. but it does happen once in a while. There's Derpy from the "My Little Pony" cartoon, "Figwit" in "Lord of the Rings," and Lt Uhura's first name. And of course that's not counting the number of fans who ended up writing for "Dr. Who" or "Batman" or "Star Trek" officially, with all the money and the legalities. You'll hear writers for many of these properties touting fan credentials these days, and for good reason. If the original author is out of the picture, and the motives of the rights holders are suspect, sometimes a derivative work can still be good and worthwhile if the new creator is significantly invested in it.

In the case of "Before Watchman," DC did one thing right. They put some of their best talent on the project, including J. Michael Straczynski and Brian Azzarello. You can argue that DC is disrespecting Alan Moore and that they're only doing this for the money, but nobody can say whether or not the miniseries are actually going to be any good. If the quality is up to par, and they're accepted by the fans, they'll become a part of the "Watchmen" canon whether Moore likes it or not. And if they're terrible, then the fans will reject them, like the "Psycho" sequels no one remembers, or "The Blues Brothers 2000," and we can all move on.
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Ready for a little anime history lesson? This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the FOX network, which will be airing a special this Sunday to remind us of all the good times, and their best shows like "The X-Files" and "24" and "Arrested Development." However, one corner of FOX's television history I'm sure they're going to ignore is what happened to FOX Kids, which had the top rated children's programming in the country for most of the 1990s, before it and most network children's television was scrapped or farmed out in the early 2000s. And there's no chance that they'll acknowledge what remains the worst thing I ever saw them put on television: the FOX Kids edit of the Bandai anime series "A Vision of Escaflowne."

First, some context. Anime series have been acquired and edited for American cartoon viewers for decades. However, starting in the mid-90s, we had a significant boom. "Pokemon" got huge, and then the Cartoon Network started Toonami in 1997, their afternoon action block that started bringing in the anime titles that skewed a little older and little more risky than the shows that ran on the networks. The emerging young otaku population, which was starting to get their anime unedited and unfiltered through smaller distributors and the internet, made the Toonami block a hit. In the year 2000, they attracted a lot of attention with the success of shows like "Gundam Wing" and "Tenchi Muyo." The big networks, namely Kids' WB and FOX Kids, got interested. This resulted in a brief arms race as the different channels went after popular anime series. That fall, Kids' WB nabbed "Cardcaptor Sakura," renamed "Cardcaptors," and "Yu-Gi-Oh!" Fox Kids had "Monster Rancher," "Flint the Time Detective," and "A Vision of Escaflowne," a fantasy series Toonami had previously expressed interest in.

It became very obvious very quickly that FOX had no idea what they were doing with "A Vision of Escaflowne," retitled "Escaflowne." The original version was an adventure serial made for older children and teenagers. Its protagonists were a girl, Hitomi, and a boy, Van, both about fourteen years old. The story was mostly told from Hitomi's point of view, a girl from Earth mysteriously swept away to Van's world, the fantastic planet Gaea. FOX wanted an action show that would appeal to its target demographic of 6-12 year old boys, and edited "Escaflowne" to fit. They deleted the entire first episode, deemed too slow, and too focused on Hitomi, opting to insert parts of it into later episodes as flashbacks to fill in any story gaps. Poor Hitomi, like Sakura in "Cardcaptors" the same year, was heavily de-emphasized in favor of the male lead. All the romantic storylines were cut or minimized. Episodes were edited for time and inappropriate content, but also to speed up slower scenes, to provide more blatant exposition, and to make the action sequences more prominent.

Imagine "Game of Thrones," edited for the time and content constraints of network television. Now imagine that it's edited so that the child characters in the ensemble are now positioned as the lead characters. Now imagine that it's also edited to appeal to the sensibilities of teenage "Twilight" fans. You get my drift. "Escaflowne," ironically, didn't have all that much objectionable content. There wasn't nearly the amount of violence as something like "Gundam Wing." However, the show had mature elements like an ongoing war, missing and illegitimate children, arranged marriages, and lot of the story revolved around romantic relationships. "Escaflowne" was a terrible fit for FOX Kids from day one, and the going theory at the time was that the show had been acquired by the network solely to spite its competitors.

Existing fans were already bracing for the worst when the promotional material started being released, but nobody was really prepared for how bad FOX's "Escaflowne" would turn out to be, or the unusual strength of the backlash. In the end, only ten episodes of "Escaflowne" aired on FOX Kids before it was cancelled and replaced with "NASCAR Racers." The entire run aired in Canada on YTV, where it came to light that the series had been shortened to 23 episodes from the original 26, due to the extensive cuts. So much material was removed, that several episodes ran short, and had to be supplemented by adding scenes from the next episode. This resulted in a string of installments that were actually the back half of one episode grafted to the first half of the next. This played havoc on the show's existing story structure. And by removing all the slower-moving incidental and character building scenes, and relentlessly focusing on the action and spectacle, the result was a severely simplified and dumbed down "Escaflowne" that was practically unwatchable.

There had been badly localized anime before, but the notoriety of this particular adaptation was fueled by a couple of other contributing factors. One was access. This was one of the first cases where you had a significant number of fans who were already familiar with the original anime and understood how severe the changes were. Bandai, through the AnimeVillage label, had already released the entire series with English subtitles on VHS tapes in 1998. "A Vision of Escaflowne," an ambitious title with high production values, was very popular and well-known among older American anime fans. I had rented my way through the whole set the summer before the English language version premiered. Also, as the FOX edit was being broadcast, one of the story editors who had worked on it, using the pseudonym "TVGuy", was posting about the adaptation process to one of the Usenet anime groups. He was very forthcoming, and clearly very frustrated by the situation, detailing a constant struggle behind the scenes to keep the edits from being worse than they already were. He attracted a lot of debate and discussion that otherwise might not have happened.

TVGuy not only provided an insider POV, but he also confirmed the existence of a lot of the lousy network practices that had only been suspected up to that point. For instance, acquired programs had their existing scores replaced by music composed in-house, to make the editing easier. This meant that "Escaflowne's" highly praised orchestral score, composed by Yoko Kanno, was replaced in many places by a new techno-heavy one. Kanno's score would have been replaced entirely, but Bandai fought to keep it. However, the surviving pieces, rearranged and credited as "additional music," didn't mesh particularly well with the new themes. And thanks to a network rule that no cartoon was allowed to have silence for more than 90 seconds, the new "Escaflowne" was terribly overscored. All the quieter moments were remixed to add music, changing the tone and atmosphere considerably.

"Escaflowne" got a happy ending, though. The original Japanese series was already a worldwide hit, and when the unedited version was released on DVD later in 2001, it sold well. The kids who saw "Escaflowne" on FOX and were curious about it could easily get a hold of the originals, which was rare in those days. As for FOX Kids, they were part of the Fox Family acquisition by ABC, and ceased to exist after 2002. The FOX version of "Escaflowne" also had a home video release, but it was quickly cancelled after only four volumes.

Oh, and there was an "Escaflowne" movie, released in Japan in 2000. It had a limited run in 2002 in the US, and aired on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim in 2005, with no apparent edits.
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Continued from the last post...

Stephen Frears - Next up for him is "Lay the Favorite, Take the Dog," a gambling film with Rebecca Hall and Bruce Willis. The plot synopsis over here makes is sound like "21" without the racebending. Frears hasn't had the greatest track record since the success of "The Queen," but he was always great with thrillers, like "Dirty Pretty Things" and "The Grifters," and I'm glad we're getting another one from him. "Lay the Favorite" should reach theaters sometime next year.

Terry Gilliam - Still working on "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," now with Robert Duvall instead of Jean Rochefort. Pray for him.

Paul Greengrass - I was worried that Greengrass would be stuck in director jail after the poor performance of "Green Zone." But after a couple of false starts and flirtations with projects like the "Fantastic Voyage," "Cleopatra," "Rush," and "Memphis," it looks like Greengrass may commit to "Maersk Alabama," about a scuffle between Somali pirates and Tom Hanks. Another "Bourne" movie is currently in the pipeline, but Greengrass doesn't have anything to do with it. Neither does Matt Damon for that matter.

Jim Jarmusch - One of the patron saints of American independent cinema is still around and kicking. His latest film has no title yet, but Tilda Swinton, Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska will be in it playing vampires. Yes, vampires.

Spike Jones and Charlie Kaufman - These two are up to something. Nobody knows what, and as of December when they were making the rounds with investors there wasn't even a script yet, but those two are definitely up to something.

Neil Jordan - The man is busy with the "Borgias" miniseries right now, but his next project looks like it's going to be science-fiction film "Broken Dream" with Ben Kingsley, which has a long and interesting history involving John Boorman and River Phoenix that I won't get into here. Jordan is also attached to a bunch of other projects including vampire drama "Byzantium, horror film "Heart-Shaped Box," the supernatural "Our Lady of the Forest," and an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book."

Ang Lee - They're finally making "Life of Pi"! It already has a release date slated for next December! Yay! And then I remember Ang Lee's brain-spraining "Hulk" movie, and the fact that the studio demanded that this be shot for 3D, and I calm down. Still, "Life of Pi," an extreme survival story based on the beloved novel by Yann Martel, is one of those projects that has been in the works for what feels like forever, tossed from director to director until Lee was attached back in 2009. It's good to see it going forward at last.

Baz Luhrmann - I don't know how, especially after "Australia" underperformed, but Luhrmann assembled a killer cast for his new adaptation of "The Great Gatsby, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire, and Isla Fisher in the key roles. What cinephile could say no to that? However, I have to wonder if Luhrmann is going to do a straight adaptation, or sex it up the way he did with "Moulin Rouge!" and "Romeo + Juliet." "Gatsby" starts filming in July, and will be released in 2012.

Terrence Malick - He's hard at work on a new movie with Ben Affleck. Shooting is finished, which means it should reach theaters in, oh, six to twelve years.

Nicolas Winding Refn - "Drive" with Ryan Gosling got great press at Cannes, where Refn picked up a Best Director prize. On his growing list of upcoming projects, is the remake of "Logan's Run," another of those films that seems to be perpetually in pre-production and just on the verge of getting made. And from recent comments, he seems to be making a play for the notoriously problematic "Wonder Woman" franchise too. You have to admire the man for his ambitions. And "Bronson."

Jason Reitman - Two upcoming films to watch out for. One is a comedy, "Young Adult" with Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt, which will reunite Reitman with "Juno" scribe Diablo Cody. It's expected to land sometime in the fourth quarter of 2011. Then next year he'll direct, "Labor Day," a thriller with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin that sounds very different from the dark comedies and wry satire he's done so far. This could be a good chance for Reitman to stretch a little and see what he's capable of. Fingers crossed.

I'll wrap up with Part III in the next post.
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Barbarella is a space adventuress in the distant future, played by a doe-eyed young Jane Fonda, who is sent off to find a mad scientist named Durand Durand (Milo O'Shea), inventor of a fearsome new weapon that may endanger Earth. After her shag-carpeted spaceship crashes on the planet Tau Ceti, she befriends the blind angel Pygar (John Phillip Law) and another mad scientist, Professor Ping (Marcel Marceau, in a rare speaking role). Pygar accompanies her to the evil city of Sogos, which ruled over by a Great Tyrant (Anita Pallenberg) who may be in cahoots with Durand Durand. Our heroine, despite her reputation for brilliance, isn't very good at taking care of herself, and so has a tendency to get kidnapped a lot and require rescuing. Oh, and she has sex a couple of times, though a few of those only involve engaging in various suggestive activities that are meant to stand in for sex - I think.

"Barbarella" is famous for being a naughty slice of 60s sci-fi erotica, directed by the notorious Roger Vadim and produced by Dino DeLaurentiis. It is a very European piece of work, and one gets the sense that it had to be. Hollywood at the time was simply too straight-laced to commit the amount of funds necessary to make the film look like a presentable piece of quasi-science fiction, while retaining the adult content. Forty-odd years later, the only thing that would raise any eyebrows is Barbarella's zero-G striptease during the opening credits. None of her trysts are explicit, and her encounter with an ominous sexual torture device may have once been thought of as outrageous, but it comes across as very silly now. With a few edits, the movie can easily play on broadcast television, where I vaguely remember seeing it when I was younger.

Despite its reputation, "Barbarella" is at least as much space adventure as erotica, and the film works best if you think of it as a knowing, sexed-up parody of the science fiction of that era. Well, an attempt at one anyway. The dialogue tries for wit and sophistication, but only rarely manages to be as smart as it wants to be. The instances of broader humor tends be more successful. There is a rudimentary plot as outlined above, but Barbarella mostly just meanders from one setting and set of characters to the next, until a deus ex machina or a sex scene sends her off to her next destination. Apparently in the future, you're repulsed by anyone you've just had sex with and must leave the vicinity immediately. There are some elements that have held up nicely, though. The production design is weirdly gorgeous, bizarre traps and devices are around every corner, and the psychedelic special effects are very eye-catching.

Also, several of the performances still work. Jane Fonda's Barbarella may not be a particularly effective heroine (she loses fights to a gang of children and a swarm of adorable parakeets), but she's extremely sympathetic and appealing. Barbarella is meant to be both a liberated sexual creature and yet also a naive innocent. Fonda manages to pull this off without too much self-contradiction, by making her something of a space-age Alice in a strange new Wonderland. Barbarella dutifully parrots enlightened Earth wisdoms, but finds the conventional rules don't apply on Tau Ceti. Clearly, she still has a lot to learn about the universe. You can also sense the potential for a more active, modern heroine beneath the surface, who might emerge if she got to use her fancy ray guns as often as she changes costumes.

And then there's John Phillip Law as the studly, angelic Pygar, whose impressive wingspan is one of the best effects in the film. He mostly serves as the film's damsel-in-distress, getting himself captured and rescued about as often as Barbarella does, and giving her someone to act protective towards. Occasionally he'll make such heady observations as, "An angel does not make love. An angel is love." That's about as good as the zingers in this movie get. I also liked Anita Pallenberg as the Great Tyrant, though she's not particularly threatening, and develops the amusing habit of calling Barabarella her "Pretty Pretty." I'd have rather seen a movie about her, to find out how she ended up in power in the first place, and untangle her relationship with the "mathmos," a substance of pure evil that bubbles beneath the city of Sogos. There are an awful lot of promising ideas in the story that don't get developed much.

I found "Barbarella" fascinating as a campy relic from the early days of the sexual revolution. It still retains a lot of entertainment value, but I think it's more interesting in the way that it reflects the era in which it was made. What would "Barbarella" look like today, as a modern woman? Could she reach her full potential and become both an erotic and dramatic heroine? Or even more? Several remakes have been in development for a while, and this is one of the few titles I think would actually would benefit from an update. Unfortunately, no one's had much luck getting the project made in Hollywood.

Maybe they ought to try Europe.
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The recent LA Times article about Disney animation moving away from fairy tales to more gender neutral stories had me rolling my eyes. It's a sentiment that the Disney executives have expressed before in the past, and the decision has always come back to bitE them in the unmentionables. Now that "Tangled," their new fairy-tale feature based on "Rapunzel," has exceeded expectations to become one of Disney's biggest opening films in some time, there has been quite a bit of backpedalling. It turns out that the general public is perfectly receptive to a good princess movie, as long it's not being marketed as a "princess movie." With that in mind, I've whipped up a quick list of suggestions for future projects based on stories featuring princesses, or heroines who eventually become princesses, for the Disney creative types to consider.

"Thumbelina" – Don Bluth made a rather unfortunate animated feature based on the story of this Hans Christian Anderson heroine in 1994. It's high time somebody took another stab at it. "Thumbelina" not only features the tiniest girl in children's literature, but lots of appealing animal characters like evil toads and injured birds. The original story was a little humdrum with the biggest threat being Thumbelina facing marriage to a mole, but had some exciting escape and flying sequences. And there's a lot of potential in playing with the oversized world of such a miniature heroine, especially on an IMAX screen. Disney could take pointers from Studio Ghibli, which released a thematically similar "Borrowers" movie this year.

"Twelve Dancing Princesses" – Contrary to the title, the princesses aren't the main protagonists. That honor goes to the soldier who discovers their secret, so I don't think anyone would object if that . Change the title, reduce the number of princesses to a more manageable number, and sign on a few popular recording artists to provide the music, and you'd have a perfect tie-in for all the dance show competitions currently littering the television landscape. Currently the only major adaptation anyone has done has been the Barbie direct-to-video version, but that didn't have much impact on Disney's "Rapunzel," and the awkward title is easy enough to change.

"Eros and Psyche" – If you want to change the reputations of these princess movies, the best way to do it is to make films with stronger princesses. My favorite Greek fable, since it featured a rare princess who actually got a full quest story, with an antagonist in the form of Aphrodite, her future mother-in-law. There are some elements that are awfully similar to "Beauty and the Beast" and "Sleeping Beauty" in the versions I'm familiar with, but there's also plenty of room to modernize the story. And I always loved the imagery associated Eros and Psyche – the winged lovers are connected with several different symbols, including archery, firelight, and butterflies..

"Ariadne" – Ariadne of Greek mythology, the princess who helped Theseus defeat the minotaur and escape the labyrinth, always struck me as a character with a lot of potential. Theseus abandons her on his way home from his victory, the jerk, and Ariadne eventually ends up with the god of wine and revelry, Dionysus. How did that happen? I'm envisioning a nice little road-trip-for-revenge movie, a junior version of "Kill Bill" where the princess aim goes on a rampage, but eventually decides not to settle her beef with the ex-boyfriend. Instead, she learns to be more laid back with a new beau, who perhaps tagged along in the guise of a mortal frat-boy type.

"Donkeyskin" – There are several variations of the story of a princess who is forced to disguise herself as a beast, often a donkey, and then takes the active role in meeting and courting her prince by appearing to him at a succession of royal balls. I'm not sure why it's become one of the more obscure fairy tales over the years, because it was always one of my favorites. Once again, the story belongs as much to the prince as the princess because he's the one being tested by her through the elaborate ruse. There have been a few excellent adaptations like Jim Henson's "Sapsorrow" and Jacques Demy's "Peau d'Ane" that could easily be used as templates.

"The Princess and the Pea" – The original fairy tale was only about a page long, but the comic potential is endless. How did they get those mattresses stacked to the ceiling? Why use a pea instead of a kidney bean or a brussel sprout? How did they keep it from getting squashed under the weight of all that bedding? That must have been one stale pea. And does the princess's sensitivity cause any other problems for her? How did she get into that bedraggled state anyway? A little cynical kids-eye view deconstruction feels appropriate here. I know Disney purists abhor the thought of more "Shrek" clones, but nobody ever said all animated comedies had to follow the Dreamworks model.


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