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Category: In the Cinema (page 1 of 2)

Life On Mars?

I have not yet seen Andrew Stanton’s John Carter. From the sound of things, I had better hurry. The grosses from midnight screenings are pretty soft, and the critics are treating it lightly; my guess is that if it had been made by anyone but Stanton—whose two previous films both won Oscars, and deserved them—they would be laying into this thing the way Rush Limbaugh romances women: with remorseless, unforgiving gravity. The, ah, aficionados over at Ain’t It Cool News (sounds better than “savants,” doesn’t it?) like the movie okay, but they’re pushing it uphill, and their readers are rebelling. It’s a puzzling reaction to a movie that truly doesn’t look any worse than G.I. Joe or Avatar, both of which made gazillions of dollars even as people walked out of them in a haze of three-dimensional indifference.

The funny thing is that Disney seems to be encouraging people not to care about John Carter. I can’t think of a reason that Disney’s marketing arm, a more-or-less infallible alien intelligence, would do these things to a film they actually want people to see.

The Name on the Cover. John Carter of Mars is a swashbuckling hero; John Carter is a nobody who picked both his names randomly from a phone book.

The Trailers. Tell us nothing, and worse yet, they tell us nothing to symphonic Zeppelin. Symphonic Zeppelin. You might as well hang a sign on the thing that says From the culture that brought you “Heavy Metal 2000.”

The Font on the Poster. It’s Basic Commercial Black, as seen on the signage of the New York City Subway. Why not Interstate, as long as we’re pulling industrial fonts straight outta our ass? How in the hell is this flat, utilitarian typeface supposed to fire us up and make us wanna see some CGI Barsoomians, doing whatever it is CGI Barsoomians do? This is the font that Helvetica uses on its online dating profile to make itself look hotter than it is.

Uh-oh: Nikki Finke just predicted a $30 million opening weekend. John Carter is about to get its ass handed to it by The Lorax. I’m coming, John! Mi hermano! Blast the symphonic Zeppelin to distract them, and I’ll be there as soon as I can.

In Defense of ‘Tron: Legacy’

Last weekend I saw Tron: Legacy and enjoyed it. It is everything a sequel should be: a whole-cloth improvement on its source material. The visuals are more dazzling, the dialogue has more snap, and the action is more thrilling. It’s not as groundbreaking and unexpected a piece of cinema as the original film – indeed, how could it be – but it is a solidly entertaining flick, and director Joseph Kosinski should be commended for his audacity. It’s not every director who dares to take on such a tall order as his feature film debut, and like David Fincher before him, I predict this former director of television commercials will go on to make some amazing films, and we’ll see them simply because he made them.

I dropped Fincher’s name with good reason. Looking back, it’s tough to remember that the acclaimed director of The Social Network, Fight Club and Zodiac made his feature debut with the reviled Alien3. Later, after Fincher had made Seven and The Game, critics and viewers returned to Alien3 and discovered that their opinion of it had significantly raised now that they better knew the man who made it. I suspect the same will prove true of Tron: Legacy – and that everyone who’s now taking a massive digital dump on this worthy sci-fi/action movie will revise their take on it in the years to come.

By my unscientific estimate, nearly half the people who have seen Tron: Legacy have hated it with an Alien3-like fervor. Some viewers told me they even walked into the film knowing they were going to hate it, which baffles me, but whatever. I’ve been reading criticisms of Tron: Legacy since the film opened, and I have to say that some of them seem unfair, hanging the film on issues for which the dreadful Star Wars prequels received an undeserved pass.

I can’t defend Tron: Legacy as a classic cinema. But I want to try to speak to some of the criticisms of this very good popcorn movie because, in a few years time, some of us may change our minds. Including me.

Warning: Spoilers.

“The face of the ‘young’ Jeff Bridges looks like CGI.”

CluWell, yeah. Jeff Bridges is in his early sixties; it’s a miracle that Tron: Legacy generates a version of him that appears half that. The effect is decent if you don’t think too much about it. Still, there’s an argument to be made for CLU’s perfect face. It’s a wholly justifiable case of the Uncanny Valley effect: Kevin Flynn’s ageless doppelganger has to look evil and unnatural, because he isn’t real. In fact, no one on the Grid looks human—not the weird ladies in the armory who walk backwards, not the weaselly minion with a popcorn popper for a hat, and certainly not Michael Sheen’s Thin White Duke analog. The only program who looks passably human is Olivia Wilde’s Quorra (pictured above), who has a good plot-related excuse for looking more human than everyone else.

“The acting is terrible.”

Portraying an action hero is difficult work for an actor, and not only because he or she has to generate credible emotional responses to a blank green wall and have meaningful dialogue with tennis balls on sticks. That actor, no matter how good he is, has a job no artist can be expected to fill to our complete satisfaction: He has to play us. The action heroes of the screen are wish fulfillment – nothing more, nothing less. They are the physical embodiment of our desires to fly, to have an endless supply razor-wire bon mots at the ready, and to punch someone’s ignorant lights out. Actors, screenwriters and directors can fulfill these wishes to a degree, but at some point, they have to fall short of our expectations because they don’t know what they are. Inevitably, we’re going to walk out of the movie saying, “I woulda punched that guy,” or “Why didn’t she just melt him with her laser eyeballs?”

Such is the burden Tron: Legacy’s stars must carry. Since get to know them in what is essentially a video game, we immediately disregard their human characteristics and view them solely as action figures – riding motorcycles, hurling pimped-out Frisbees and kickin’ ass. But the characters of Tron: Legacy are called upon to do more than that: They are asked to make basic human connections and to puzzle out the mysteries of the world they live in, processes that may seem tedious to some viewers because it’s what we did on the way to the theater and it’s what we’re probably doing even now. We don’t need to watch out our action heroes doing that; we want them to put on the big blue Smurf outfit and blow shit up real good. They can talk about what it all meant later, after we’ve gone home.

The odds are stacked against Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde and Jeff Bridges before “put on your 3-D glasses now” notice leaves the screen. But you know something? They pull it off. I could easily see Hedlund as the son of reckless Kevin Flynn, raised from age eight by the stoic Alan “Tron” Bradley. Wilde’s Quorra has the searching mind and wide-eyed engagement of someone who’s read about the real world but never really seen it.

And Bridges’ Flynn is … aw, hell. If I have to defend Jeff Bridges’ acting to you, then maybe we should part company now. He’s gifted enough to pull a huge laugh in Tron: Legacy simply by saying “Dogs are cool.” Bridges has ever been the best part of bad movies, and a large part of the success of classic movies.

I’ll happily take Tron: Legacy’s lengthy considerations of simulacra and its thinly-veiled analogy of genetics research over another Frisbee fight.

“It drags in the middle.”

Now, you see, I liked that. I was pleased that the characters were allowed the luxury to talk about the ideas fueling Tron’s world-building, much as they did in the original film. Science fiction movies are all about ideas, and while ideas don’t blow up, they have more staying power than your average Michal Bay explosion. So there’s a big gap between Tron: Legacy’s action scenes: big deal. You want action? Jason Statham is making some fairly wonderful action movies, some real sexed-up oiled-down bare-knuckle fuckfests. There’s never a reflective moment, because only the weak look backward, mate.

As for me, I’ll happily take Tron: Legacy’s lengthy considerations of simulacra and thinly-veiled analogy of genetics research over another Frisbee fight. I think “Tron’s” ideas and action are well-balanced, just as they should be in your basic good sci-fi movie. For more on the dichotomy between action/sci-fi and sci-fi/action, watch Plinkett’s thoughtful (also NSFW and borderline psychotic) review of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek.”

“The Daft Punk music was too obtrusive.”

Seriously? Huh. I’ve got nothing for you here. The score is terrific.

“The female characters are lacking.”

GemI have to agree with this one: The women of Tron: Legacy get unforgivably short shrift. I noted exactly six women in the whole of the film: Wilde’s Quorra, the four Sirens, and Sam Flynn’s grandmother, who has one line. (There are other women in anonymous, background roles, though I can’t remember exactly where.) I only learned the name of the siren played by Beau Garrett (Gem, pictured at left) by checking IMDb; no one ever says it, while the male characters repeat each other’s names almost constantly.

While Quorra can drive a hellish Lightcar and swing a mean Identity Disc, she doesn’t seem to have any veto power over her story. Even Leeloo Dallas Multipass was able to bring her foot down on The Fifth Element as if to say, we’re going to do this now, alright? And the Sirens demonstrate exactly two skills: assembling a wardrobe, and walking backwards in high heels.

This was my only real disappointment with Tron: Legacy, and I hope it’s remedied in a sequel. Last week I was at Walt Disney World, where Tron: Legacy crap was on the shelves of every single souvenir shop. Right away, I noticed that Quorra was the only major character without an action figure, and hers was the only one I was interested in. The Tron: Legacy billboard that features Quorra in a gladiatorial pose was one of the things that had me most excited to see the film, but its promise was only three-quarters realized. Should Tron: Legacy be fortunate enough to generate a sequel, Quorra needs to play a more involved role in it. Perhaps even be its star.

“You don’t understand what’s happening if you haven’t seen the first movie.”

Simply untrue. Tron: Legacy nearly belabors its premise.

“It doesn’t seem related to the first movie.”

Woof. There are Tron references aplenty; screenwriters Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz apparently went over the code of the original film line by line and found hundreds of ways to link the two films. Even the basic elements of Kevin and Sam Flynn’s journeys are similar, and they happen in the same order (again, SPOILERS): The transport to the Grid, the Disc battle, the escape from the Light Cycle arena, and the trek to the I/O tower are all where they should be. The title character even manages to make an appearance at close to the same time as he did in the original film. And then there’s that big door.

“It sucks, plain and simple.”

We said that about another movie that came out 28 years ago. It was called Tron, and it just generated a worthy sequel. In 2038, when Tron 3 is released, we’ll probably have this discussion again … so if you would, kindly hold on to these talking points.

PHOTO: WALT DISNEY PICTURES

Ten things Disney could have done to geek up without buying Marvel

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By now we’ve all heard that Disney is buying Marvel Entertainment, home to two dozen popular superhero characters and three thousand near-anonymous dregs. My Facebook friends list is awash in the blood of comic book geeks slitting their wrists in anticipation of the inevitable Wolverine/Bambi team-up.

Here’s what I think will happen to Marvel’s properties under Disney’s cape: next to nothing.

To my mind, the purchase of Marvel is one of the few missteps the Mouse has made under Bob Iger’s reign. Disney isn’t getting a hell of a lot for its money. The theme park rights to the characters will continue to be held by Universal. And the movie properties that Disney could use to keep Bruckheimer on the lot — Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man—will remain the properties of Sony, Fox and Paramount well into the forseeable future. (According to Variety, Fox’s deal allows them to keep the film rights to Fantastic, X-Men, Daredevil and Silver Surfer in perpetuity, just as long as they keep making the films. For Disney’s purposes, that means forever.)

Buying Marvel was an audacious move on Disney’s part — if you can’t lure the Comic Con geeks to your tweenaged-girl fairyland, just buy ’em. But it may not have been the right one. Superhero films are big-money gambles — you can’t make one for under $150 million and if it doesn’t make half that money back in its opening weekend, you won’t see profit for years, if at all. And Disney doesn’t have the big names to play with — I mean, they may be able to develop a Runaways franchise or get the publishing side to start up an Incredibles title, but I think that’s it and that’s all. Four billion dollars spent to wait out contracts and to see if Avi Arad and Jerry Bruckheimer will duke it out in Thunderdome.

I can think of ten ways off the top of my head that Disney could have spent that money to win tweenaged boys and geeks — ways that build on existing assets. Maybe I’m right; I’m probably not. Still, you can’t deny that these things would make you happy:

1. Remake Condorman with Sam Rockwell or Patton Oswalt. Only, y’know, better than the first time.

2. Revisit the Oz books. The two-decade-old Return to Oz is only now beginning to find its cult audience. Give the stories to Henson’s crew, to Tim Burton or to your own animators, front them $150 million and let ’em rip.

3. Lock down two more Tron films now. You’re going to have a Matrix-sized hit with Tron: Legacy, and probably a Rebooted and Revelations-sized critical and commercial dropoff with the sequels — but they will still make you a lot of money if you move fast.

4. Own your steampunk heritage. 20,000 Leagues! Island at the Top of the World! Atlantis! Fast-track these reboots and remakes while the goth kids are still wearing top hats and rust-colored leggings.

5. Put a billion into updating f–king EPCOT, already. Fill it with the cool hi-tech, geek-geared shizzy that appeals to readers of Wired. Every geek kid has geek parents that will fly halfway around the world to see the world of tomorrow.

6. Give Javier Grillo-Marxuach a deal and let him do something wonderful. You worked with him on The Middleman, a series that is now finding its audience on DVD. By the time he gets around to making a nice, cheap Middle-movie, the demand for it should be strong.

7. Bring back Duck Tales. Hew closer to the Carl Barks stories and cast Billy Connolly, the ne plus ultra of gruff but jocular Scotsmen, as the voice of Scrooge. I don’t know if that’ll bring the tween boys to the yard, but also, I don’t care. Bringing back Duck Tales is something Disney should already have done. ‘Cos I miss it, that’s why.

8. Make a movie based on Split Second, the car-chase video game you’re working up for the XBox 360. Stuff blows up!

9. The Disney Princesses: Teach them kung-fu and arm them with wrist-holstered blades and pistols.

10. You’ve got Nathan Fillion and Morena Baccarin on the lot working on Castle and V respectively. Marvel favorite Joss Whedon has worked with Disney on Atlantis and Toy Story. Do the math.

Life Imitates Pixar

"Up" to Ballard

This photo was taken this morning in Ballard, the northwest Seattle neighborhood I call home. The house is real, and the balloons were added by a local PR firm promoting “Up.” Many of them had popped by the time I took this photo, but you get the idea.

The house belonged to a local hero, the late Edith Macefield. The 86-year-old refused to sell her longtime home even as the offer topped $1 million, and stayed put as that grotesque commercial development went up around her.

Edith’s life story is here, and is as bittersweet as Edith’s life was long. And while I don’t want to tell Disney its business, I think Edith’s story would make a fantastic movie, too.

Where’s the “Cat From Outer Space” reboot?

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WALT DISNEY PICTURES

Disney delivered a one-two punch of fan service today. They cast the lead in the 150-million-dollar “Tron” reboot and announced a McG-helmed prequel to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” This is the geek equivalent of the Rapture. As I write these words, Harry Knowles is prostrate on the floor of his office with his venerated articles of Disney memorabilia, and he’s speaking in tongues.

I am modestly excited for the “Tron” redux. Roger Ebert once suggested that remakes should be made of recent films that didn’t quite meet expectations, and though “Tron” is close to thirty years old, I think it qualifies in that regard. It took years for Hollywood to catch up with “Tron’s” breathtaking visual design, and longer still for the film to find an audience halfway conversant in the language of computers – so by that reckoning, “Tron’s” time is now.

Director Joseph Kosinski needs only do three things to preserve the goodness of the original “Tron,” and to improve upon it. He needs to cast Jeff Bridges, and he has. He needs to make the sequel look as good, if not better, than the original movie – and judging from the product reel on his website and the bootlegged trailer from last year’s ComicCon, he’s going to nail it. And most important, he needs an ear for dialogue, which the original film doesn’t have.

It’s this last element that has me concerned. If the “Narnia” films taught us anything, it’s that Disney has no problem launching a submarine with screen doors.

That awkward segue brings us to “Captain Nemo.” I’ve often wondered what a “20,000 Leagues” reboot would look like, but now that a prequel is actually in production I have to admit to a sinking feeling. Nemo’s pre-story is a magnificent tragedy, which James Mason reveals in pieces over the course of the original film.

I am not what is called a civilized man, Professor. I have done with society for reasons that seem good to me.

What you fail to understand is the power of hate. It can fill the heart as surely as love can.

You call that murder? Well, I see murder, too. Not on those drowned faces out there, but on the faces of dead thousands! They are the assassins, the dealers in death. I am the avenger!

Here’s a question: Do we really need to see Nemo’s heart being broken in any detail? One of Nemo’s defining qualities is his mystery – while he had no problem with destroying the warships that represented the death of his family and his original self, he didn’t feel the need to sign his work, preferring to allow civilization to believe the destruction to be the work of some occult hand. Delving too deeply into that mystery in a prequel may not change the course of “20,000 Leagues,” but it will surely change our approach to it – perhaps robbing the 1954 film of the very thing that gives it a soul.

And by the way: McG, if you’re gonna make this thing, please have the decency to bill yourself as Joseph McGinty Nichol. McG isn’t an auteur’s name; it’s a nom de cheeseburger.

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