Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Film Faves: 2004

Welcome to yet another edition of Film Faves.  Every edition features a complete and unabashedly biased countdown of my favorites in film.  Instead of a top ten list, I avoid the inevitable honorable mentions and count down a list of twelve of my favorites of any given topic.  Take this as not a serious "best-of" list as much as an insight into what it is I really love when I'm not trying to be objectively critical.

I'm continuing my travels back in time with the year 2004.  While the years 2008 and 2009 were really great years in film, I contend that 2004 was the best year in film of the last decade.  Hopefully, after reading this post you'll understand why. 

Let's do a rundown of the year.  The highest grossing films of that year were Shrek 2 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanMillion Dollar Baby, The Aviator, and Ray all took the top honors at the Oscars.  And, if memory serves, 2004 boasts the most entries in my Best of the Decade list, although only one made it to the top ten.  The year brought us possibly more good movies than any other year including those already mentioned and: 50 First Dates, Badassss!, Before Sunset, The Bourne Supremacy, Closer, Friday Night Lights, The Girl Next Door, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, The House of Flying Daggers, In Good Company, Maria Full of Grace, The Notebook, Open Water, The Passion of the Christ, Saved!, Some Kind of Monster, and Team America: World Police.  If you haven't seen all of those then you're in for a treat (although referring to The Passion of the Christ as a 'treat' is probably a stretch) as they are all worth at least one viewing.

No year is without its trash, however, and 2004 had a handful of doozies, including: Alien Vs. Predator, Baby Geniuses 2, Catwoman, Garfield, Napoleon Dynamite, The Punisher, Ocean's Twelve, Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, and Van Helsing.

That being said, I had a hard time making a list of twenty movies turn into twelve favorites.  Here is the result:


12. 13 Going on 30

This Jennifer Garner delight is without question Big-lite with a catalyst that’s less convincing and a “30 and flirty and thriving” wish that’s less relatable than Big’s desire just to be… well, bigger. Still, Jennifer Garner proves she’s great at physical comedy and is undeniably charming in this sugar-sweet rom-com. Mark Ruffalo plays the friend you know she’s meant to be with, but avoids being wasted here. And it’s hard not to appreciate a movie, no matter how slight, that captures little ‘80s details like eating a fruit roll-up wrapped around your finger and features a ‘Thriller’ dance scene.

11. Dawn of the Dead

Yes, this remake completely lacks the anti-consumerist message of the original and takes much more of a straight-horror take on the mall-as-refuge-from-zombies story. As a result, it does lose a bit of a punch as a monster or horror movie (after all, the entire point of the genre is largely the ‘horror’ or ‘monster’ as commentary on something). And director Zack Snyder wastes no time jumping the shark with a debut that features a zombie pregnancy. But Dawn of the Dead redux has a frightening intro and an excellent opening credit sequence. Oh yeah, and it’s a blast from beginning to end!

10. Garden State

This movie came out when I was nearing the age of 24 and seemed to capture so much of what I was witnessing from my generation: the drug-littered parties, paths crossed with former classmates, the malaise and aimlessness of many who were supposed to be on their way to success. Garden State seemed so much to be a movie of my generation. I know, star and director Zach Braff was closer to 30 at the time, which actually places him at the tail end of Gen X, but whatever – it still spoke to my friends and I. Braff can’t seem to help infuse the comedic talents he’s known for in Scrubs as Garden State has several absurd moments and hilarious lines of dialogue. Regardless, it may fall short of The Graduate, but it’s the closest anybody could get these days.

9. The Incredibles

This Pixar superhero film is not only a better Fantastic Four movie than that year’s Fantastic Four, but it is also a better story than most live-action superhero films. What makes The Incredibles better than any straight-to-video animated superhero adventure is its mature handling of themes on family, marriage, and that some of us are more talented than others.

8. Hero

Zhang Yimou’s luscious legend of the King of Qin, who endeavored to unite all of China, and the assassins who intended to stop him, demands mention on this list. The fight choreography is as graceful as ballet and the film features the best use of color I’ve seen since Kurosawa’s Ran. Of course, Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi and the rest of the cast are superb. Hero is a gorgeous piece of art that ranks among the best martial arts films.

7. Fahrenheit 9/11

This is probably one of the most important documentaries of the last decade. Say what you will about Michael Moore or his smug comments during the first half hour, he knows the power behind his subjects and images speaking for themselves. There are other documentaries (Why We Fight) that should accompany this, as it certainly isn’t the definitive look at our post-9/11 involvement in Iraq. But it was the first to give Americans an unflinching look at what we’d done to citizens in the Middle East and its cost to families back home. Its controversial subject matter is still met with denial and anger by many.

6. Mean Girls

This movie makes me sad. When I watch the opening minutes to this incredibly clever and witty high school comedy, I’m reminded of a time when you could look at Lindsey Lohan with respect and hope of a promising career. That time has passed, but Mean Girls held the promise of another burgeoning talent: Tina Fey. Fey wasn’t exactly new to audiences, having spent a few years on SNL. But it was with Mean Girls that we learned how talented a story writer she could be. I laugh a lot at this movie every time.

5. Sideways

Perhaps the greatest comedy of the decade is not one that goes for cheap slapstick laughs or girl-on-girl humiliation, but features some of the best characters in the genre and some of the most exquisite dialogue of the decade. I give you Sideways, a comedy about life and love. Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen are exceptional and Thomas Haden Church gives one of the most surprising performances in recent memory. Anything but boring, Sideways find its humor in situations and dialogue rather than pratfalls and kicks to the nards. Most importantly, it’s a really well-written character story about finding your true love in life.

4. Spider-Man 2

Once the Alex Ross-painted credit sequence that recaps the previous movie with that Danny Elfman score begins, you know you’re in for something great. Few superhero films give its hero as much character as Spider-Man 2. Parker’s job and school is suffering. He can’t seem to be there for his friends when they need him. And he must constantly choose between being Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Having gotten the set-up out of his system with 2002’s Spider-Man, director Sam Raimi was able to have fun and put his stamp on the series by injecting some great comedy and horror moments into what would be a straight-forward superhero popcorn flick in anybody else’s hands. Studio manhandling prevented Raimi from repeating this creative success again. Still, Spider-Man 2 remains one of the greatest superhero films (and sequels) to date.

3. Shaun of the Dead

I love Shaun of the Dead! What makes it so great is it works on three levels: 1) a horror-comedy that pays homage to the classic Romero zombie flicks, 2) an excellent zombie film in its own right, and 3) a romantic comedy that just so happens to take place during a zombie apocalypse. Name another zombie film that has more layers and is still a blast. Also, unlike last year’s Stateside Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead is not just about the fun of killing and surviving the zombie attack; it has heart.

2. Kill Bill Volume 2

While Kill Bill was originally conceived as one film, business needs led Tarantino to release the film in two parts; one in 2003 and the other in 2004. While Vol. 1 introduced us to The Bride, her agenda, and her mad blood-spurting skills, Vol. 2 shows us there’s more to our fearless assassin than her rage. David Carradine gives us one of the decade’s greatest villains. At one time just a velvety voice outside the frame, Carradine’s Bill was fleshed out into a charismatic spurned lover and protective father, who happens to also be the ruthless leader of a team of assassins. Great fun and great filmmaking.

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

My favorite movie among all the great films of 2004 is this extraordinary sci-fi romance. “Sci-fi?” you ask. Of course! Did you really think the technology to selectively wipe the memories of a former lover actually exists? There are so many things about this film to love and one of them is the fact that, as in Children of Men, the sci-fi is nothing more than the set-up to a story wherein everything else is grounded. The ice scene perfectly exemplifies both lead characters: Winslet’s Clementine runs out and gets hurt while Carrey’s Joel is more reluctant and fearful of getting injured. The premise of being so hurt by the loss of a relationship that you wish you could forget it ever existed is extremely relatable and executed brilliantly here. Eternal Sunshine… is a small-scale love story with a large cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, and Tom Wilkinson. Like Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally…, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a classic romance that will endure because it is one of the few in its genre that actually says something about love.

And that's 2004!  I hope I've illustrated why it is quite probably the best year in film of the past decade.  If you somehow missed any of the above favorites - or any of the other great films listed in the intro - do yourself a favor and check them out.  What are your favorite movies of 2004?  Were there any I forgot?  Leave a comment below, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

Next time on Film Faves: a school rocked, buckles were swashed, mutants united, and a king returned - 2003!  See you then.

Remember That Movie: What Dreams May Come

I’ve wanted to watch this movie for over a year now. I remember when I saw this at the age of 17 or 18 my young romantic self was moved to tears by the film with the titter-worthy title. I’ve wanted to revisit this earnest Robin Williams vehicle first because I haven’t seen it in over ten years, but most recently because I’ve wondered how well it’s held up. Is What Dreams May Come a genuinely moving spectacle or a saccharine piece of tripe?

In case you don’t remember, What Dreams May Come stars Robin Williams, Annabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Max von Sydow and is based on a novel by Richard Mattheson (its title originates from a line of dialogue in Hamlet). The story is about a recently deceased husband and father traveling through heaven and hell to reach his soul mate.

The movie starts off lovely. A young couple meets, falls in love, laughs a lot, sprays each other with water, has kids, and makes out while their kids spray each other with water. It’s all down hill from there. The kids die. Then one of the couple, Chris (Robin Williams), dies. And then their dog dies. Things get very depressing.

That’s what makes this movie fall short of the emotionally sweeping saga it aims to be. Its tone is too sincere and melodramatic. It’s as though a hack director decided to take a crack at material on the level of a Bergman film: it’s an attempt so outside his reach that it becomes a fool’s errand, resulting in a mediocre product that hits all the plot points about love, life, and death, but lacks any of the power or gravitas. I’m not comparing Mattheson’s source novel to the austere excellence of an Ingmar Bergman film. The novel is a religious dissertation that challenges the reader to care what the author has to say in its final pages. This movie is fun by comparison.

The other hurdle this movie has is its female lead (played by Sciorra) is unbearably melodramatic, making it tough to understand what Chris (Williams) loves about her, aside from some great shared moments. We only see enough of her before the death of her children to know she wasn’t always this depressing and somber. The rest of the time, she’s drab and unpleasant, uttering such groan-worthy comments as “A whole family lost in car crashes… it’s enough to make someone buy a bike.” It’s understood that she suffers from depression, but we’re so disconnected from her that we only understand her feelings in a general sense and are unable to sympathize with her completely.

However, the movie isn’t the complete drivel its reputation purports it to be, especially during the second half. Once the film turns into a valiant quest through heaven and hell things pick up and get more interesting. The special effects improve at this point and many of the ‘memory’ scenes are genuinely moving, particularly those of the kids. I don’t quite understand why Chris loves Annie, but I believe that he does because Robin Williams sells that passion.

Overall, What Dreams May Come offers a strong performance by Robin Williams and has many powerful and moving moments (yes, I was still moved to tears at times). It is terribly sincere, failing to make for a fun night for many people, and it does back itself into a corner in the end (only to cheat its way out). Yet What Dreams May Come is a slight improvement over the source as a somewhat powerful love story that unfortunately falls short of its ambitions. That said, this is not a film for cynics.


Should you see it? Rent

What Dreams May Come is available on DVD.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Toy Story 3 Continues Pixar Legacy

Over the past decade, we’ve gotten a new Pixar film almost every year. This year, Pixar broke its toys out of its abundant box of ideas for Toy Story 3, their second sequel to date. Sequels pop up every year like babies in a day care; some are more difficult than others, but every once in a while there’s one that’s really special. Pixar has really avoided doing that and seems to have pushed out one genius idea after another.

It’s been eleven years since the last Toy Story movie. Is Toy Story 3 another brilliant, story-driven idea or a sign that the studio with the lamp as bright as their ideas is finally going dim?

Andy has grown up and is packing up for college. Woody, Buzz, and, well, some of the gang are still hanging around just in case Andy ever needs them. After a mishap, the toys end up at a day care center. But this day care turns out to be a prison camp ruled by a cuddly bear with a plush-embraced iron grip. Realizing this is not the way a toy should live out its plastic days, the gang plots to escape back to Andy’s, preferring to rest in an attic than endure the daily torture of unruly toddlers.

Toy Story 3 finally puts to rest any lingering questions about the fate of yesterday’s playthings. While it feels more like a tacked-on sequel than its predecessors, it also feels less so than most other sequels, animated or otherwise. It avoids feeling unnecessary, continuing the story about these toys to its natural conclusion while exploring the fate of others. The idea that a day care center (where new kids, eager to play, pop in endlessly every year) is toy nirvana is extremely clever – and it could’ve been the resolution to Toy Story 2. To turn that concept on its head is a genius way to continue the story (much more so than the scrapped overseas adventure originally conceived).

Not only that, but while Toy Story 2 toyed with the notion of these characters being in danger of demise, Toy Story 3 outright drops them in a very real threat to their existence. The stakes are raised and the intensity is amped-up.

The voice acting is some of the best you’ll ever find with a mix of voice and name actors disappearing into their roles. Special mention in this installment should go to Ned Beatty (Deliverance) as Lotso-Hugs Bear, Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice) as Ken, and Jodi Benson (Ariel of The Little Mermaid) as Barbie. The dollhouse couple, together for the first time, balances vacuity and aggression well. And Beatty’s not-so-cuddly Lotso continues the tradition of the dual-natured embittered elder.

It’s worth noting briefly that the 3D in Toy Story 3 is subtle to the point of non-existent. The picture is so clear that I forgot I was supposedly watching a 3D movie while also adding nothing to the experience. I’m not sure how the 2D presentation looks, but the 3D plays like a 2D movie. This is baffling and shocking after last year’s Up, wherein 3D was used to great effect to immerse the audience in the cliffside environment. As a supporter of 3D in CG animated movies, I’m disappointed.

It isn’t perfect. There is familiar ground at times. But any noticeable flaws in Toy Story 3 are nitpicky. As for how it stacks up to the others in the series, it seems to depend on the person you’re asking.

What is less questionable is the way in which Pixar can tell a story. They can combine comedy, drama, escape thriller, and yes, even horror into a great story about mortality and loyalty. This skillfulness, among many other traits common in Pixar films, is what sets the studio apart from everybody else. Chief among those traits is Pixar’s consistent quality. Sure, not every film achieves greatness (Cars), but there is no question that even their lesser work is better than most animated spectacles other studios trot out.

Pixar transcends the conventional wisdom that animated features are simply cartoons for kids. John Lasseter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, has made no secret that he admires the works of Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away) and the Japanese attitude toward animation: that it is not a genre exclusive to kids and families but a format for rich stories and characters. Pixar’s films have made use of Disney’s cute humor aesthetic over the years to get their progressively mature stories to broad audiences, slowly reducing the reliance on those conventions with Wall-E, Up, and now Toy Story 3.

While not as cheerful or heavy on laughs as the other Toy Story movies, Toy Story 3 is heavy on creativity and excellence. It is a perfect farewell for these beloved characters and continues Pixar’s legacy of brilliance, even with sequels, to infinity and beyond.


Should you see it? Buy tickets (in 2D)

Toy Story 3 is in theaters now.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The A-Team: Couldn't Come Up With A Better Plan, Huh?

I remember when I was a kid in the eighties, TV was a place for pure escapism and you’d be hard-pressed to find a series that took anything as seriously as programming today. There were shows about a teenager with a PhD, a group of senior citizens that were feistier than a cheerleading squad, and a scientist that could level a private army with just a rope, gum, and a radio. Then there was The A-Team, an action-adventure series about four distinct personalities working together to help others while running from The Man. It was iconic. Mr. T alone became one of the biggest icons of the decade with his tough attitude and heart as gold as the heap of chains around his neck.

Ever since the success of the Mission: Impossible movies an A-Team movie has circulated the stacks of brand-name remakes on studio executives’ desks. At times, it looked like it would never get made. Once filming finally began last year, it became clear that this film was either going to be really awesome fun or a mediocre studio film.

It comes as no surprise to me that I have to say the latter is more the case. The movie is fun in places and I did laugh at times, but I walked away underwhelmed. After thinking for a while why this was, I realized there was nothing exceptional about this action movie to make it stand out. Think about the best non-sci-fi action films you’ve seen: Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, True LiesThe A-Team doesn’t compare. Part of the problem is when a movie is under development for as long as The A-Team a lot of scripts get written from many different people – and many of those scripts cannibalize elements of the previous drafts (can you imagine a movie about soldiers getting screwed by the government seven years ago?). Once there gets to be so many hands on a project that is studio-pushed the result becomes something less special and more vanilla. The A-Team screams of machine-pressed mediocrity.

Even attempts to call back the original series for fans, most of which is at the end, feel forced or tacked-on (a post-credit cameo sequence literally is tacked-on). For example, B.A. has the words ‘pity’ and ‘fool’ tattooed on each hand near the knuckles. Outside of a reference to the show, it doesn’t make any sense. One hand is ‘pity’; the other is ‘fool’?

What is interesting about this movie is it feels less like The A-Team and more like a less sophisticated cousin to Mission: Impossible with less brains and more brawn. It even follows a similar villain story to the first Mission: Impossible movie and stars Henry Czerny, who played Kittridge in the 1996 movie. Furthermore, director Joe Carnahan, who previously directed the excellent Narc, was originally tapped to direct Mission: Impossible III in 2006, but was let go for creative reasons. And if one were to look at many elements of The A-Team they would notice it is very similar to that spy franchise in that a group of individuals with specific skills create elaborate plans to get something from somebody or get one up on somebody.

As an action film, The A-Team also suffers. Yes, it occasionally hits the feel-good, cool-looking beats to keep enough people happy and most people to stick around for the end. But there are scenes where CGI is clearly used instead of practical effects, which takes away from some of the sense of danger. If something falling toward a character clearly looks fake then how are we to worry over the character’s safety?

Most importantly: why, oh why do action movies have to shoot fight scenes so tightly and quickly these days? What is wrong with action directors? Don’t they want their audience to enjoy the fight someone went through the trouble to choreograph? Did they go through hours of trouble to meticulously arrange an action sequence just so the audience couldn’t have fun with it? Take lessons from Spielberg, McTiernan, Campbell, Donner, and Cameron: pull back the camera so we can see and enjoy what is going on! I don’t want to guess that B.A. kicked someone’s ass or that the Prince of Persia beat a villain with some cool move, I want to see it!

However, there are things about The A-Team to enjoy.

It’s interesting that the CIA was more impressed with its own code-name mystique and gawk at its high-tech gadgetry like a fried teenager than effective at accomplishing anything. They can’t even load a gun well! This made for some fun and amusing moments led by Patrick Wilson, who proves once again to be worth watching out for. This guy can do sympathetic creep (Hard Candy), ass-kicking schlub (Watchmen), and desirable guy next door (Little Children). In The A-Team, he proves he can also have fun.

The best thing about The A-Team is how perfectly it was cast. I can’t imagine anyone to better play Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson), Mad Murdock (Sharlto Copely), Faceman Peck (Bradley Cooper), or B.A. Baracus (Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson). ‘Rampage’ may not be as iconic as Mr. T, but he was more than capable in the role of an aviatophobic, mohawked brute. Sharlto Copely of last year’s hit District 9 is on the way to stardom here while Bradley Cooper solidifies his stardom as the charismatic and good-natured Faceman. Liam Neeson suitably accomplishes all he needs to by chewing his cigar and rambling about “having a plan.” This team was excellent and the only thing keeping me interested in this movie.

Overall, aside from a couple action sequences and a terrific ensemble cast, The A-Team is just another in a year of hum-drum studio assembly-line mediocrity. Its attempts to appeal directly to fans of the show are forced and the action often fails to be comprehensible. The result falls way short of the best action movies and continues what is so far a disappointing summer movie season.


Should you see it? Rent

The A-Team is now in theaters.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

3D: A Cash-In Trend or The Future of Cinema?

This year, audiences are faced with a full-fledged onslaught of movies with a 3D option. This is a form of entertainment that’s asking to take more out of audience’s wallets during a time when pockets are lighter. It seems sensible to examine as many aspects of this new craze as possible, to make the average moviegoer more informed about what they’re being asked to hand over more money for by examining this latest phenomenon’s rise from obscurity, the different methods and possible intentions behind 3D releases, and general responses on the 3D format by the critical and film community.

Let’s start at the beginning.

As many already know, 3D was first introduced to theaters in the 1950s and was mostly applied to cheesy science fiction movies. It soon faded away from pop consciousness as little more than a novelty, which is where it stayed, only making appearances in the occasional horror flick or IMAX documentary. In recent years, 3D has been creeping back into the theaters. Roughly five movies were released in 2008 with the 3D option, including U2 3D, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Bolt. The technology was still viewed as mostly a novelty, but with Journey earning over nine times its budget and Bolt earning twice its budget, 3D proved to hold possible financial benefits for studios. In 2009, 3D releases jumped to over ten movies, nearly 70% of which were animated features. According to Box Office Mojo, most of these earned at least twice its budget in theaters, the biggest earners being Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Up, which earned nine and four times their budget, respectively.

The top dog in 3D last year ended up not being Ice Age, but a movie from a whole other planet, Avatar. While Avatar only earned roughly five and a half times its reported budget, the $500 million budget happened to also make Avatar the most expensive movie in history; its $2.7 billion earnings squashed Ice Age’s measly $884 million. What distinguished Avatar from other movies that year (among other things) was it was the only live-action adventure movie released in 3D. It proved that the technology was viable for action blockbusters, not just animated and horror pictures. Not only that, but unlike 2008’s converted Journey to the Center of the Earth, Avatar was filmed using revolutionary technology that advanced the picture quality of 3D.

All right, enough about budgets and grosses of movies past, what does it all mean?

Here’s the thing: studio executives have taken Avatar’s success (along with the success of the films mentioned above) to mean there’s been some kind of latent thirst for three-dimensional cinema in audience’s minds. No matter if there’s any truth to this or not, the order for 3D releases by studios has doubled this year from that of 2009. Warner Bros. even announced that all of their future tentpole movies (movies that are expected to be events or kick off franchises) will be released in 3D, including the final Harry Potter films.1 What isn’t clear from Warner or some of any other studio’s future releases is whether or not these films will be shot in 3D or converted from 2D to 3D.

There’s a difference? Yes, there is.

Some movies (as my limited, tech-deficient mind understands) are shot simultaneously with two or more cameras during production. These are movies that are originally intended to be seen in 3D. Other 3D releases usually are released with a 2D option. Most of these were filmed in 2D and converted to 3D during the post-production process. The result has been the subject of much dire attention by film journalists and makers, particularly with regard to live-action movies (more on that later).

This is less of an issue with CG-animated films, which are created via computer and can thereby yield better results2 (the 3D in How to Train Your Dragon is more effective than that of Avatar). However, Shrek Forever After, a movie converted to 3D, seemed to be one of the exceptions. Many, including Maura Gallucci of KZOK in Seattle, described the 3D in that movie as “distracting”.3

As for live action, last spring’s Clash of the Titans was such a 3D conversion failure that critics across the board were warning anybody who was listening to avoid paying the extra money. For example, Peter Sciretta of / described it as “unnatural”, “odd”, “subpar”, and likened it to “cardboard cutouts”.4

Regardless, one method of 3D is more often a creative preference while the other method is driven more by financial interests.

What do I mean by financial interests? Don’t all movies need to make money? Consider this: once Avatar exceeded its production budget in the box office, Warner Bros. ordered Clash of the Titans, which was to be released two months later, to be converted to 3D. Whenever a studio makes a decision about one movie based on the financial success of another movie it’s not for artistic reasons. Warner Bros. ordered a process to be completed in half the time it usually takes.

During this time, AMC, Regal Cinemas, and Cinemark all coincidentally announced a raise in ticket prices (they proceeded to raise those again six weeks later, first with the release of Alice in Wonderland then again with that of Shrek Forever After).5 The reason: 3D tickets sold; therefore they were concluded to be under-priced. Another way of putting it is the success of 3D via Avatar has made studios and theater companies as greedy as Giovanni Ribisi wringing his hands over unobtainium.

The endless fight of who will be tops at the box office has now turned into a question of who has the newest 3D movie for the week; Avatar reigned supreme through the month of January, Alice in Wonderland during its first three weeks, How to Train Your Dragon during its first and fifth weeks, Clash of the Titans during its first two weeks, and the same for Shrek Forever After. Only eight of the year’s first twenty-two weeks had a conventional 2D movie hit number one at the box office.6

Unfortunately, many people who pay the extra five dollars for a 3D-converted movie seem to regret it after the credits roll. The understanding seems to be if the movie is in 3D and costs more, then it must be a better experience, thus worth the extra money. The reality doesn’t always appear to match the impression studios want the public to have.

This is the cause of much divisive discussion among both film journalists and filmmakers. Usually, disputes over movies have the line crossed between those who make movies and those who criticize them. The 3D trend has been an interesting cause for critics to unite unofficially with filmmakers against other filmmakers and critics.

Some like the podcast, and directors Joseph Kahn (Torque) and Martin Scorsese are supporters of 3D (yes, I just paired the director of Taxi Driver with the director of Torque). Both directors even go so far as to argue it as the future standard of cinema much like color or surround sound.

On the other hand, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, Roger Ebert, and directors Michael Bay and James Cameron have all come out against 3D. Cameron, being an advocate for 3D technology, is the most surprising to respond in this way. Here’s what he had to say:
“Now, you’ve got people quickly converting movies from 2D to 3D, which is not what we did. They’re expecting the same result, when in fact they will probably work against the adoption of 3D because they’ll be putting out an inferior product.”7
Roger Ebert wrote an article for Newsweek in which he goes into depth (no pun intended) on the effects 3D has on movies on technical and business levels. He argues the recent glut of 3D stems from a forced-hand approach by executives to their directors that is prompted only by the desire to see bigger dollar signs. He also argues against its reliance on spectacle and grosses over substance and storytelling. “I have the sense that younger Hollywood is losing the instinctive feeling for story and quality that generations of executives possessed. It’s all about the marketing.”8

Like Ebert, most opponents of 3D seem to take issue with the across-the-board notion of 3D’s future and the conversion-for-a-buck mentality. Michael Bay, a director known less for substance and more for spectacle, also expressed reservations recently, “I’m not sold right now on the conversion process… You go to the screening room, you are hoping to be thrilled, and you’re thinking, huh, this kind of sucks.”9

Even to this writer, the use of 3D seems best as a creative option rather than a standard – an option best left to animation and horror, with some creative exceptions to other live action films.

One of those creative exceptions is Christopher Nolan’s forthcoming mind-twist Inception. Nolan mentioned he prefers to shoot with film rather than video, the necessary medium for 3D technology.10 Therefore, he constructed 2D shots with 3D in mind and made use of the post-production conversion process. It remains to be seen if the result is superior to Clash of the Titans, but the intention appears to be more artistic than the studio-mandated model we’ve seen and will see more of this summer.

In his essay ‘Legacy of Star Wars’, Roger Ebert illustrated how after Star Wars directors moved away from striving for the Great American Film and started aiming for the Great American Hit, thus the overabundance of tentpole movies since. Sure, we’ve had plenty of unique artistic visions over the years, but on the whole Hollywood has laid more emphasis on what will appeal to everyone and make the big bucks. This 3D craze, with its conversions, over-saturation, and hiked prices may be where Hollywood’s greed and superficial mentality was inevitably heading. After all, Lucas has been planning on converting his blockbusting saga to 3D for years.

Technology has advanced our TVs, media players, and our movies – and it isn’t perfect. Movie lovers now need to research their TVs and players before buying. DVDs have given way to Blu-Ray, an imperfect technology that requires each release to be reviewed for picture and sound quality. On top of all of that, ticket buyers are asked to pay extra for a 3D product that may be inferior to its cheaper 2D counterpart. Furthermore, customers are hoped to blindly jump on the bandwagon at home with the invention of 3D TVs and Sony decided to convert classic movies to 3D and re-release them on DVD (an idea that is evoking memories of the colorization of black and white classics).11

Gone are the days when a movie was simply a movie, good or bad. Moviegoers now need to be more informed than ever about their entertainment. More discretion is required toward what kind of movie they want their wallets to vote on rather than simply jumping at whatever looks cool or fun (Was the movie shot in 3D or converted? Is it a cash-in studio film or something original?). To be completely frank: a big box office take is the only thing that spells success to a studio executive. If only movies that look cool, regardless of quality or artistry, sell than that will be all that the studio system will greenlight and your wages will continue to be exploited.

2D / 3D transfers:
Alice in Wonderland
Clash of the Titans
Shrek Forever After
The Last Airbender
Cats & Dogs: Revenge of Kitty Galore
Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows

3D releases:
How to Train Your Dragon
Toy Story 3
Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole
Resident Evil: Afterlife
Tron Legacy
Logan’s Run
Kung Fu Panda 2
Alien prequel

Unspecified 3D:
Step Up 3D
Piranha 3D
Jackass 3D
Green Lantern

UPDATE: According to this article, Christopher Nolan apparently never intended Inception to be in 3D. Regardless, it is possible for a director to make creative use of the conversion process by setting up scenes and shooting with 3D in mind.

1. Billington, Alex. ‘All of Warner Brothers’ Tentpole Movies Will Be Shown in 3D’, 19, 2010.

2. Giardina, Carolyn. ‘Debate Waging Over 2D-to-3D Conversion’, Hollywood Reporter April 4, 2010.

3. Bob Rivers Show, KZOK 102.5. May 24, 2010.

4. Sciretta, Peter. ‘Peter’s Thoughts on the Post Converted Clash of the Titans 3D Footage’, /Film March 18, 2010.

5. Schuker, Lauren A. E. and Ethan Smith. ‘Ticket-Price Increases Debut at Movie Theaters,’ The Wall Street Journal March 24, 2010. Also: Chen, David. ‘Movie Ticket Prices Hit $20 Mark’, /Film May 21, 2010.

6. Box Office Mojo. ‘Weekly Box Office Index, 1982-Present’

7. Fleming, Mike. ‘Michael Bay and James Cameron Skeptical of 3D Conversions: “The Jury is Out”’, Deadline New York March 23, 2010.

8. Ebert, Roger. ‘Why I Hate 3D (And You Should Too)’, Newsweek May 10, 2010.

9. Fleming.

10. Sciretta, Peter. ‘Christopher Nolan Filmed Some of Inception Using 65mm, Calls 3D “An Interesting Development”, /Film March 25, 2010.

11. Gleiberman, Owen. ‘Colorization, part II? Sony Now Plans to Reissue Some Classic Titles… in 3D’, February 4, 2010.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Remember That Movie: Sister Act

While thumbing through my parents’ DVD collection one day, I came across this comedy from 1992. I remember the movie was a fun, feel-good comedy when I was 12 or 13. I wondered if today it played more like a silly (read lame) high-concept “Whoopi is a nun? High-larious!” piece of disposable entertainment. Thankfully, it turned out to be a fun, feel-good comedy that’s light on its feet, doesn’t take itself seriously, but has held up well over time.

In case you don’t remember, Sister Act stars Whoopi Goldberg as a casino girl-group singer. Everything about her is second-rate: she sings one-hit wonder medleys of sixties girl groups in Reno and is mistress to Harvey Keitel’s mob boss. With plans to break up her dead-end affair, Whoopi accidentally walks in as Keitel’s driver is shot in the head by his boss. Goldberg runs to the police and is put in hiding while waiting to testify. Naturally, she is hidden as a nun of a church in San Francisco. Whoopi doesn’t exactly fit in until she is assigned to the choir where she is pushed into directing the cacophonous bunch of ladies. Of course, there’s a leak in the department protecting her so her sanctuary may not last.

Music sets the tone and emotional spirit of Sister Act.  There are a handful of scenes that would be dead-serious in any other movie involving murder or the threat of death.  These scenes are kept light with a very zany score by Marc Shaiman.  During the choir’s first performance under Whoopi’s guidance, it’s hard not to feel an overwhelming sense of joy as we hear the beautiful harmonies and spirited second half of the song.  Each choir performance is a treat to watch and the film relies on them to sell itself to the audience.  It works.

It’s tough to imagine that Sister Act was originally written in 1987 by Paul Rudnick with Bette Midler in mind. Eventually, Midler left the project and the script was passed around to various writers, including Carrie Fisher and Nancy Meyers (Private Benjamin). The final script bared such little resemblance to the original that Rudnick refused credit, opting instead for the pseudonym ‘Joseph Howard’.

Death seemed to follow this movie for some reason.  It was directed by Emile Ardolino (Dirty Dancing), who died a year after its release.  Mary Wickes, who played the former choir director Sister Lazarus, died three years after Sister Act was released.  Joseph Maher, who played Monsignor O’Hara, died a year after that.  And Whoopi Goldberg’s movie career pretty much died soon after Sister Act.

Speaking of acting careers, we would only see Maggie Smith (Harry Potter series), Harvey Keitel (Pulp Fiction), Kathy Najimy (King of the Hill), and Bill Nunn (Spider-Man trilogy) continue a healthy career after this. A sequel subtitled Back in the Habit was released, but it’s since been left in purgatory. Although it did give us Jennifer Love Hewitt, right?

Also worth noting, Wendy Makkena’s singing voice was unfortunately dubbed over by Andrea Robinson, although it’s very difficult to find much information on this. I always found this knowledge disappointing and stained her character’s break-out singing performance for me – and now I’ve ruined it for all of you.

Sister Act is a fun comedy of light entertainment. It has a decent story that avoids being too serious and delightful performances by its cast. It clearly relies on the choir performances to keep you interested, but it works rather well. It’s a comedy that’s held up over time and still worth a look. If nothing else, it’ll remind you why you liked Whoopi Goldberg and may inspire you to check out her work from the previous ten years.


Should you see it? Rent

Sister Act is available on DVD.

Prince of Persia: King of Its Genre

Video game movies have an established history of suck. In fact, whenever a new video game movie comes to theaters the question becomes less about how good a movie it will be, like with any other film, and more about if it’s going to be as bad as the others. This may seem unfair, but it isn’t entirely unjustified. If one were to look through the catalogue of video game movies, they’d find the bar of excellence has stopped with Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, and Resident Evil.

So, now Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time comes to theaters based on a well-respected adventure game with exciting action stunts and acrobatics. For the first time, video game fans ask is it decent? The answer: yes.

Prince of Persia follows Dastan (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man who was adopted by a Persian king when he was a boy. All grown up, tragedy suddenly strikes when a gift instantly kills the king and Dastan is quickly blamed. Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton), who was expected to marry Dastan’s eldest brother for the sake of political harmony between lands, takes Dastan by the hand for a swift getaway. Soon after, it becomes clear the king’s death may have been politically motivated and a magical dagger with the ability to turn back moments in time may be at the heart of the matter.

I must admit I am a fan of the video game, having played it to completion four years ago (one of the few video games I’ve beaten). The story of the game was much simpler, but no less cinematic, involving a sultan and his army being turned into sand monsters that, when defeated, gave the dagger its power. That the screenwriters, Boaz Yakin (Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights) and Doug Miro (The Uninvited), chose not to adapt that story and instead opted for a more complex narrative involving political intrigue and family loyalty is one of the film’s strengths. Let’s be clear: this is nothing on the level of Elizabeth or JFK, but it is a film complex enough that the dialogue is vital to following the story.

Keep that in mind while I take a moment to remind you of video game movies of the past. Let’s return to the best the genre had to offer: Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, and Resident Evil. Each of these had rather straight-forward storylines where the main character(s) had a single goal – fight in a tournament to defeat evil in Mortal Kombat; obtain a MacGuffin and kill the bad guy in Tomb Raider; survive the zombies and defeat the evil computer in Resident Evil – and that was it. It was as though the assumption has always been by filmmakers that because they are based on video games, these movies must be written simply, often lacking any sense and it didn’t matter if the character-based stuff was thin or silly. Prince of Persia isn’t far removed from these films in terms of logic, but its story is far more complex and intriguing. That puts it above the others and raises the bar for the genre.

It’s important to clarify that this movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is, after all, a fun adventure movie. Jake Gyllenhaal continues a streak of good performances, rising above the contrived plot point regarding his race (that set-up may be contrived, but it is the best executed contrivance of this kind). His performance sells the character and is part of what makes the movie as fun as it is.

As is still the case with video game movies, Prince of Persia has its flaws. It is silly at times and the dialogue is occasionally anachronistic (one could expect nothing more from a Bruckheimer production). But the movie’s biggest crime is in the action. One of the joys of the video game is being able to watch the main character run along walls, as well as flip over and slice bad guys with his sword in really cool ways. The audience is completely robbed of that joy in the movie because the shots are too tight and edited too quickly. There were times when I couldn’t appreciate an acrobatic stunt and other times when I couldn’t tell what happened. The fun and action should not be drained from a film that’s trying to be a fun action adventure!

There is also an issue that many brought up when the film was initially cast and even though it is ultimately minor, it does exist. The issue is that a story that takes place in ancient Persia stars a white man as the prince of Persia! Even his adopted family consists of three white men. One would think that after sixty years we’d be beyond the days of Charlie Chan, The Thief of Baghdad, or The Good Earth, movies where white men masqueraded as minorities. Unfortunately, for reasons of its own creation, Hollywood still fears that an Asian or Middle Eastern lead means box office poison. And this is still true with rare exceptions. Ask yourself honestly, would you be interested in a movie like Prince of Persia if it didn’t star a recognizable white face? One may be able to point to Slumdog Millionaire as a hit to contradict this, but few other examples. It remains to be seen how well The Last Airbender will perform, however all the Asian leads are reported to have been co-opted once again by whites. The only reason Asians in lead roles is a financial issue at this point is Hollywood continues to make it one. And even Hollywood’s most subtle fears about race (or even gender) have an effect on the public consciousness. In other words, if Hollywood would’ve featured a number of Asian or Middle Eastern-lead movies years ago, audiences would’ve been inundated with racially diverse heroes and thus this wouldn’t still be an issue.

Hollywood also continues to this day to confuse races and cultures. In the upcoming so-called The Karate Kid remake, the main character moves to China. Jackie Chan mentions twice in the trailer that he is teaching kung fu, a completely different martial art than karate, which originates in Japan. Yet the movie ignores this and is still named The Karate Kid. Culture confusion exists in Prince of Persia, albeit to a much milder extent. Ostrich racing is featured in the movie for a few minutes, an activity that my research indicates is mostly exclusive to Africa until modern times; Persia existed north of Egypt and to the west of India. However, this ends up only representing one of the sillier moments in Prince of Persia and isn’t something that altogether breaks the movie.

Unlike movies like The Mummy, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time goes along briskly without rushing the story to the next action beat. It has its flaws and fails in the execution of some of its action scenes. But its complicated story about political ambitions and family loyalty is on a slightly higher level of intelligence than other video game movies. Plus, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, despite being racially peculiar, only helps the movie. In a summer where kids’ choices are limited to the likes of Shrek Forever After and Marmaduke, they could do a lot worse than Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. It is a fun movie with some intelligence. It also happens to be the new king of video game movies.


Should you see it? Buy Tickets

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is out now in theaters