Sunday, March 28, 2010

Apology from Screen Writer of Battlefield Earth

Last month, Battlefield Earth was given the "award" for Worst Film of the Decade by the Razzies, and now J.D. Shapiro has written an open apology for the film in which he recounts how the film came about and his experience with scientology. An excerpt:
My script was very, VERY different than what ended up on the screen. My screenplay was darker, grittier and had a very compelling story with rich characters. What my screenplay didn't have was slow motion at every turn, Dutch tilts, campy dialogue, aliens in KISS boots, and everyone wearing Bob Marley wigs.

Shortly after that, John officially attached himself to the project. Then several A-list directors expressed interest in making the movie, MGM had a budget of $100 million, and life was grrrrreat! I got studio notes that were typical studio notes. Nothing too crazy. I incorporated the notes I felt worked, blew off the bad ones and did a polish. I sent it to the studio, thinking the next I'd hear is what director is attached.

Then I got another batch of notes. I thought it was a joke. They changed the entire tone. I knew these notes would kill the movie. The notes wanted me to lose key scenes, add ridiculous scenes, take out some of the key characters. I asked Mike where they came from. He said, "From us." But when I pressed him, he said, "From John's camp, but we agree with them."

I refused to incorporate the notes into the script and was fired.
Reading this makes me thinks that a movie about the making of Battlefield Earth could be hysterical.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The End of Cult Movies

Matthew Belinkie on has written this piece about the end of cult movies. Specifically, Belinkie writes about the way Generation X experienced cult movies: mostly through video stores and interpersonal networking. Today, with online streaming sites, a lot more films are available, but the effort to find them is a lost art. An excerpt:
I love movies, and I love having them at my fingertips. But something has been lost. Part of being a movie geek is priding yourself on seeing the obscure stuff that lesser geeks and mere mortals don’t bother with. This used to be challenging. Today, a movie can have cult status because only a small group of people like it… but not because only a small group of people have access. Finding the movies is never a challenge (finding the time to watch them is another story).

But what I really miss is the sense of community. Back in the day, the best way to expand your movie-going horizons was to find friends with the same passion, and borrow, trade, and share each other’s collections. There’s even an episode of The Simpsons where Bart and Milhouse discover Comic Book Guy’s secret room of bootleg videotapes, and make serious money by charging admission to screenings. I have totally been to parties like that. The episode aired in 2001. Less than five years later, it was completely obsolete. Nowadays, Comic Book Guy’s random clips wouldn’t be on VHS tapes--they’d be all over YouTube. And the people of Springfield would watch them at home, alone.
There is some irony in this. In the early 1980s, when home video first appeared, cinema owners and some theater-goers bemoaned the end of the midnight movie and the drive-in. And while there are still a few drive-ins and midnight screenings that survive on nostalgia and curiousity, it is unlikely that the same kinds of copy-and-swap networks will continue, at least not in person.

At the same time, there has been a resurgence of interest in cult films from Killer Klowns from Outer Space to episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. There is also the deliberate attempt to manufacture cult films (with mixed success) in movies like Grindhouse and Repo: The Genetic Opera. It's fitting that a culture that has embraced irony would find joy in films that are often poorly made and enjoy them specifically for that reason. I think it speaks to a resistence to the very polished but often soulless product of the digital age.

There is a further consequence that has yet to work itself out. The major directors that came out of the New Hollywood era (from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s) were products of films schools and had experienced cinema in a theater primarily viewing Hollywood studio films and European New Wave cinema. The major filmmakers from this period--Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas--reflect the films they were influenced by and how they watched them in the work they produced: The Godfather, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Taxi Driver, and Star Wars. The next generation of filmmakers, coming into directing chairs in the 1990s--Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky--had been educated about film through the video store market and their films reflect that influence: Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, and Pi.

As filmmakers of the Millennial generation take their place behind the camera, they will have consumed films in theaters and on DVD (which has its own peculiarities of deleted scenes, alternate cuts, commentary tracks, and other extras), and over the web. They will also have experienced the fragmentation and mini-storytelling that began in the 1980s with music videos and has now been extrapolated into short pieces on video tube sites. And the means of filmmaking have been made so accessible that these videos can be shot on their cell phone and edited on a laptop.

I don't know if any of this is good or bad, although I can identify with Belinkie's nostalgia. Film is a medium in constant motion; its tools are ever evolving. Hopefully the result will be an increase in the richness of cinema as it becomes a much more democratic artform.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Salon on "Princess and the Frog" and "Song of the South"

Salon has a fun ongoing feature in its movies section called "The Perfect Double Bill" by Eric Nelson which suggests older and sometimes obscure titles to be watched back to back with new releases. The current article juxtaposes the recent Disney animated film The Princess and the Frog with the mixed animation and live action film Song of the South from 1946 (which hasn't been re-released since 1986). Nelson's article examines the ways in which Disney has dealt (or not dealt) with race and racism. Here is an excerpt about The Princess and the Frog:
But overshadowing everything is the elegant sidestepping of everything relating to race and reality. One sly way the film does this is by turning the heroine into a frog, and keeping her that way for most of the movie. The handsome prince and love object of the lead characters, black and white, is some mocha blend of nationality not found in nature. And, of course, by setting the movie in pre-Katrina New Orleans, we are clearly in a fantasy world from frame one.
And here is an excerpt about Song of the South:
But it is the live-action scenes where the quease factor can rise for the viewer, depending on what the viewer is looking to find. Archetypal "mammy" Hattie McDaniel makes an appearance, and yes, Uncle Remus makes it clear that he knows his place, and that assumed place does provide some cringe-worthy moments. No history, revisionist or otherwise, can wish those moments away to some "laughing place." A rosy hue of nostalgia, even one lit by Gregg Toland, cannot erase the shadows that haunted the South's landscape after the Civil War. Premiering the film in Atlanta probably didn't help, and Walt Disney and the movie were widely criticized before and during the film's first release.
It's unfortunate that Song of the South is unavailable in an official DVD release. Despite the claims made against the film, Nelson suggests that it is an important title both for the history of Walt Disney Studios and for the culture at large (I have to admit that I have never seen it.). Perhaps, with the advent of online distribution or the eventual expiration of copyright, the film may become available someday.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"Vincent" by Tim Burton

Check out this early piece of animation by Tim Burton. The narration is by Vincent Price, who was one of Burton's idols.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Films of Tim Burton on Sounds of Cinema

On Sunday, March 14th, Sounds of Cinema will feature music from the films of Tim Burton. Tune in to hear music from Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Sweeney Todd and a review of Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Roger Ebert Gives Thumbs Down to Variety

Variety has fired Todd McCarthy, its lead critic, citing economic reasons. In response, Roger Ebert has written this piece praising McCarthy's critical work and slamming the magazine.

An excerpt:
Variety used to cover everything. I remember a magical night in Rome in 1967, when I sat late at night on the Via Veneto and gawked at the last remnants of la dole vita. A held a copy of Weekly Variety, all black and white on newsprint and easily more that 100 pages thick. I became fascinated by the back pages, the items two paragraphs long about cabaret performers in Boston, dancers in Miami, magicians in Philadelphia, lounge acts in Las Vegas, jazz clubs in London. Variety got its name from variety artists, and for decades they lived off a favorable notice in its pages. The paper then truly was "the showbiz Bible."

Well, those days over with. The glory days of the famous Variety critics are finished. I knew one of them, Gene Moskowitz, who signed his reviews Mosk., and was the Paris bureau chief who directed coverage at Cannes. In the 1970s, dying of cancer, he came to what he knew was his last Cannes, bringing along his wife and the young son he was so proud of. Under an umbrella on the beach, he looked toward the old Palais and said, "I saw a lot of good movies there." Another man of the cinema, another lover of T shirts.

About Todd McCarthy I am not very worried. He's one of a kind. I can think of no better candidate as the director of a major film festival. Or as a professor, or of course as a film critic. What I lament is the carelessness with which his 31 years of dedication were discarded. Oh, the paper cites its reasons. "It's economic reality," Variety President Neil Stiles said of the move. Some "downsizing" is necessary cost-cutting. Some symbolizes the abandonment of a mission. If Variety no longer requires its chief film critic, it no longer requires me as a reader.
This is part of a larger trend in periodical publications, which have been slashing film critics from their pay roles. But it is one thing when a small town newspaper, or even a national newspaper, decides to let some of its art and entertainment staff go, and quite another when the American film industry's lead trade publication axes its film reviews. The long term result of dismissing film critics may very well change the function of the magazine . . . or doom it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Politics of Oscar 2010

Last year, I made a statement on Sounds of Cinema (which can be found here) explaining why I no longer dedicate an entire episode of the show to Oscar coverage. To summarize, I felt then--and still do now--that the Oscars are a poor barometer of cinematic excellence, that the ceremony exists to preserve the studio power structure, and that the awards do not matter nearly as much as Hollywood would like us to believe that they do. (As proof, try to name the last five or ten Best Picture winners, and then list five or ten films that deeply impacted you in some way. See which list comes out quicker and if any titles on the lists overlap.) This year, I'd like to aim my criticism towards the way the Academy Awards have been used by Hollywood to pad its image as a playground of liberalism and egalitarianism.

In the recent past, the major political statements from Hollywood were directed outward at the Washington political establishment such as Michael Moore's hell raising 2003 speech for Bowling for Columbine or Sean Penn's gentler but still polemic 2009 acceptance speech for Milk. Moore and Penn raged against the conservative machine but this year's politics were much more internal and specific to Hollywood. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker and Mo'Nique won Best Supporting Actress for Precious, a film that received very polarizing and visceral responses from critics. Much has been made of Bigelow's win, just as much was made of Halle Berry as the first African American to win Best Actress for Monster's Ball, and nominations and awards given to Brokeback Mountain, Milk, and Crash were cast as as some kind of closet opening, glass-ceiling shattering revolutionary act.

But of course they weren't.

Let me pause right now to say I don't want to take anything away from Bigelow or Mo'Nique or any other Oscar winner. The quality of their work--regardless of their gender or ethnicity--made them deserving of their awards; it isn't like the academy gave the Best Picture Oscar to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. My concern is the way in which the awards are written into a narrative that Hollywood puts forward about itself and its products.

Consider an excerpt from this article by Kate Harding at Salon:

It's fantastic to see black filmmakers recognized -- just as it's fantastic to see a woman win best director, even if it's for a distinctly testosteroney film -- but that hardly means we've transcended demeaning stereotypes. . . . Consider the shocked reaction of umpteen reporters upon learning that the movie's star, Gabourey Sidibe, is nothing like Precious -- that she was, in fact, acting. Consider the clip they chose to show last night that featured Sidibe stealing a bucket of fried chicken, for crying out loud. Consider that four of the best picture nominees were widely criticized for their treatment of race -- "Precious" for all of the above; "District 9" for its arguably sketchy handling of an apartheid allegory and undeniably degrading depiction of human black Africans; "The Blind Side" and "Avatar" for being yet more iterations of a tired and condescending "white savior" narrative. That's not to say those films were wholly without merit or even necessarily undeserving of the praise, but when four of the year's most beloved movies contain problematic racial tropes, it's a bit premature to congratulate the Academy or ourselves for having come so far in the last 82 years.
I don't agree with everything Harding has to say in her article; I would disagree with her take on District 9 and she repeats some of the criticisms of Precious that I did not find convincing. But Harding's overall point, that Hollywood shouldn't be too eager to congratulate itself for giving the equivalent of an employee of the year award to a woman--and it only took them eighty-two years!--is important.

Consider the argument that the United States is post-racial after the election of Barack Obama. It's a nice idea that makes liberals (and conservatives for that matter) feel warm and fuzzy. But it's also plainly false and pretending that racism is now gone from American culture treads from naivete or ignorance into downright idiocy.

And the same is true of the Academy Awards. Putting a woman on a stage and giving her a statue--a statue she deserves, no less--does not exonerate Hollywood of its sexism. The disparities in pay between male and female performers, the generally poor quality of female roles, and the absence of female directors and studio executives should not be ignored.

But why does this matter for the average movie-goer? After all, it might be argued, you've spent a lot of time saying the awards don't matter, so who cares?

It matters because we need to be critical of Hollywood and its product. Like any art form, films shape the way in which we view ourselves, our culture, the outside world, even reality itself. If we take for granted that the creators of film have no agendas and are free of the same biases and prejudices that the rest of us suffer from, then we are setting ourselves up for a fall, and become unable to identify symbols of oppression.

Congratulations to the winners, truly. But as commentators, filmmakers, and moviegoers take note and even celebrate the achievements of these films, we ought not cut Hollywood any slack for images, stories, and business practices that continue to perpetuate the kinds of prejudice that the Hollywood system claims to have put behind it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

"Kick-Ass" Trailer Controversy

The New York Times features this article by Brooks Barnes on a controversy over the red band trailers for the film Kick-Ass. The restricted trailers include hardcore violence, harsh language (some of it coming from a pre-teen), and sexual jokes. This trailer is only available online but the nature of the web makes it accessible to everyone.

An excerpt:
The Motion Picture Association of America, the trade organization that bestows ratings and regulates movie advertising, restricts release of these ads to sites that require viewers to pass an age-verification test, in which viewers 17 and older have to match their names, birthdays and ZIP codes against public records on file.

The problem is that the raunchy trailers pop up on sites without age restrictions almost instantaneously. Fans copy them to their own blogs and Facebook profiles and post them outside of YouTube’s so-called age gates. All movie trailers go viral, but the red-band ones speed across the Internet with an added velocity because of their “can you believe what they just said” nature.
Having viewed the red-band trailers (you can see one of them here), the trailer makes complete sense from a marketing stand-point. The green-band trailer makes Kick-Ass look like a family friendly action adventure, sort of a cross between 3 Ninjas and Fanboys, and Lionsgate, the studio releasing Kick-Ass, would likely find itself in even deeper trouble if the film went to theaters with that impression in moviegoers minds, especially parents.