Friday, July 29, 2011

THE TELL-TALE DETECTIVE


Pity Edgar Allan Poe.

He was scarcely understood in his lifetime. And now his legacy is being equally ignored by Hollywood.
Original caricature of Edgar Allan Poe by Jeff York    copyright 2011
That’s not to say that studios aren’t finally paying attention to him. This year three different projects feature Poe as a main character including a big studio picture starring Chicago’s John Cusack in the role of Poe. There have been scant portrayals of him before, with no biopics to speak of on or off the big screen. It’s encouraging to see Poe finally getting his due. But alas, all three have treated their Poe the same – he’s an amateur sleuth helping solve a murder mystery. Poe played many roles in his day. He was a poet, literary critic, short story writer, journalist and puzzle expert. But a CSI? Ah, Hollywood.

The reason for the gumshoe angle is that Poe wrote the first detective story in literature. His short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue became the template for every book, film and TV show about crime solving forever after. Poe’s work inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes, and Agatha Christie to create Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. The Rue Morgue story also established literary devices that have since become standard in the genre: the hero detective; his colleague or friend ‘narrating’ the story; a twist in the last moments that puts all the pieces of the puzzle into place; and an ending where all is explained by the intrepid shamus.
An illustration from THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE
But Poe’s resume had greater achievements. Unfortunately Hollywood doesn’t seem to be interested in delving into much of that, nor in dramatizing his harrowing life. Did you know that as a young man, Poe was disinherited? And that he was thrown out of West Point? And that he married his 13-year-old first cousin? You probably knew that Poe struggled to stay sober and avoid the poor house all his adult life, but did you know that in his last days he was found lying in the streets of Baltimore, babbling incoherently and wearing another man’s clothes? Less than a week later he died in a hospital and yet the exact cause of death remained a great mystery. Everything from an epileptic seizure to rabies was blamed. Poe lived hard and died harder. And during his 40 short years on earth he wrote some of the most distinguished short stories of all time like The Tell-Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher. He wrote classic poems of love and tragedy like The Raven and Annabel Lee. And he set the stage for modern horror with macabre tales like The Pit and The Pendulum and The Black Cat. You’d think that would make for an incredible motion picture biography but so far no studio is biting.

Perhaps they consider Poe’s life to be too dark and depressing so rather than showcase his true story they fictionalize his world, turning him into a sleuth that everyone can love. But do they have to do the same exact angle three times running? Apparently so.
John Cusack as Poe in the soon-to-be released thriller THE RAVEN
As mentioned earlier, John Cusack is starring as Poe in a film entitled THE RAVEN and its plot has the author helping out the Baltimore police in pursuit of a serial killer offing his victims in ways inspired by Poe’s prose. (I’m sure the pitch to studio execs was a mere three words: Poe meets SEVEN!)

In Francis Ford Coppola’s soon-to-be-released interactive feature TWIXT starring Val Kilmer and Ben Chaplin, audiences will be able to determine the film’s plot while watching it. Apparently members get an electronic gizmo that they then manipulate during the screening to determine the trajectory of the story. Their choices will instantly change the direction of the narrative, just like one does during a video game. And what kind of story is TWIXT? You guessed it it’s a detective yarn, this one concerning an author trying to solve the murder of a friend with the help of the ghost of Poe. (My guess is that pitch went something like this: Poe meets Nintendo!)
Val Kilmer and Ben Chaplin in the upcoming thriller from Francis Ford Coppola called TWIXT
And finally, CBS shot a TV pilot called POE, although it isn’t on their prime time schedule just yet. It’s hook? Yes, that’s right, Poe is an amateur sleuth in this dramatic hourly series as he assists the Baltimore police in the 1840’s in their most baffling cases. It’s Poe in a way but it’s really just another variation on CASTLE or THE MENTALIST.

Hollywood has a long history of excelling at biopics. RAGING BULL (1980), GOODFELLAS (1990), MALCOLM X (1992), SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), CAPOTE (2005), and MILK (2008) are just a few standouts in the last few decades. None of their stories had happy endings yet they were all quite successful, so what’s the resistance to telling Poe’s true story?

Maybe they’re fictionalizing him over and over again because of the fact that most of Poe’s work was not appreciated in his lifetime. Like Van Gogh and Mozart before, he was an artist ahead of his time, and one who died in poverty because the masses failed to recognize his brilliance. Poe wrote dark, horrific stories and haunting, intricate poems about death and despair and love. He was a man who conjured some of literature’s greatest nightmares yet lived a life that was more direful than any of his fiction.
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."
That’s a fascinating story. But apparently it’s one you won’t be seeing any time soon. And what a missed opportunity it is. I like creative “mash-ups” whether they’re songs on GLEE, new takes on old classics like the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novella, or having the X-Men prevent the Cuban missile crisis in the movie X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. Thus, I’m looking forward to Poe’s new role as a criminal profiler in THE RAVEN. But he was more than just the father of detective fiction. He was one of the world’s most important and innovative writers and Hollywood should showcase the larger picture of him. But for now, a truer appreciation of Edgar Allan Poe remains nevermore.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

THE PROBLEM WITH ACTION MOVIES


One is tempted to say the problem is simply Michael Bay, but that’s not entirely fair. (He is a problem but he’s not the problem.) The real culprits, the real villains are actually these three trends that are taking down the action movie:

ACTION MOVIE FOE # 1: A LACK OF BELIEVABILITY

I do not go to the movies to see realism per say, but a little believability in an action flick would go a long way. Unfortunately realism in action pictures today is about as rare as Nic Cage finding himself cast in a good one. Everything is so over-the-top and big that the modern action picture is starting to play more like a live-action cartoon.

I’m referring to films like KICK-ASS (2010) where the Hit Girl character defies gravity and runs up the sides of walls. I’m pointing a scolding finger at the CHARLIE’S ANGELS franchise where the gals leap 50 feet into the air from a standing position and then land upright on their four-inch heels. And I’m thinking of just about any Jason Statham actioner where he fights off hordes of trained killers, barely breaking a sweat or ripping a stitch in his Hugo Boss suit. These films strain credibility to the point where they’re not action movies anymore, they’re abstraction movies. When nothing is real, nothing is at stake. And when nothing is at stake, why should anyone care what’s happening to the people on the screen?

In the TRANSFORMERS movies (Here we go, Mr. Bay!) Shia LaBeouf is tossed around like a rag doll amongst the various Decepticons and Dyspepticons or whatever the hell those surly robots are called. Yet he never gets hurt. Maybe a dusty shirt but that’s about it. In this summer’s FAST FIVE Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel go mano a mano for five minutes, pummeling each other with rock ‘em/sock ‘em fisticuffs, and both walk away injury free. And how many Roland Emmerich flicks must we watch where people outrun explosions, speeding aircraft or even tsunamis? A certain suspension of disbelief is fine, but this sort of thing is getting simply absurd. Yes, CGI can make anything look believable but that’s different than it actually seeming believable.

It would be nice if filmmakers studied CASINO ROYALE (2006) rather than the oeuvre of Bay for their template. The re-launch of the James Bond series was such a landmark action picture because Daniel Craig’s version of 007 was so vulnerable. After being poisoned by that nasty cocktail during a high stakes poker game in Montenegro Bond rushes out of the hotel choking and wheezing in an absolute death spiral. He almost dies. Yes, that’s right, 007 comes scarily close to biting the dust and that authenticity made this adventure a startling one. It’s a shame that more action films didn’t follow suit and strive for such plausibility.

ACTION MOVIE FOE # 2: SPECIAL EFFECTS

CGI (computer generated imagery) can create all sorts of marvelous illusions in movies. It can render settings that would otherwise not be affordable, like the Roman Coliseum in GLADIATOR (2000). It can make you believe that Doc Ock has four mechanical arms coming out of his back in  SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004). And it can create movie violence without using a single squib or blood pack as director David Fincher can tell you. He puts all of his blood spatter in during post-production. But sometimes too much CGI can paint box a film into a corner. Case in point, this summer’s mess called THE GREEN LANTERN. Its special effects made it into something wholly artificial.

This comic book adaptation had many problems, not the least of them a terribly glib Ryan Reynolds performance as action hero Hal Jordan. But the biggest mistake was the film’s use and abuse of CGI. The movie drowns in all its manufactured fakery. Half of Reynolds screen time was a computer-generated image of him. His glowing Green Lantern suit, even his mask, were artificial and looked it. The effect of all those post effects took me right out of the movie. How can you invest in a story where everything you see is just bytes of data and code? You can't.

ACTION MOVIE FOE # 3: RELENTLESS PACING

The gaming industry may very well have turned the majority of the younger male audience out there into adrenaline junkies. The relentless pace of video games and their need to jack up the action with every new level of play has now become the template for Hollywood action movies. The studios figure this is what the audiences want or at least are used to, so action picture after action picture follows suit. And they become non-stop action films. And now every one that comes out seems to feel that it has to top any previous entries in relentless pacing and attack.

Look at this trailer for the upcoming SHERLOCK HOLMES sequel due at Christmas. Is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s intellectual detective anywhere to be found in these frenzied clips? And how many expensive, slow-motion explosions can Holmes and Watson outrun? (Wait a minute, is this a Roland Emmerich film?)
I think any filmmaker contemplating writing or directing an action picture today should do himself a favor and Netflix the movie DIE HARD (1988). It’s one of the all-time great action movies and it succeeds by essentially thwarting every last one of those three foes.

First off, the hero in DIE HARD is entirely credible. Bruce Willis plays cop John McClane as an average Joe, estranged from his executive wife, who’s come to LA to try and reconcile with her during her office Christmas party. The plot kicks in when ruthless Euro-trash terrorists take over the building and hold the office party hostage. McClane is in the wrong place at the wrong time and has only his wits and a handgun to help him. He doesn’t even have shoes as he was changing clothes when the attack started! Those bare feet will be cut to bloody ribbons by the end of it all. And that vulnerability gives the film an aching realism.

And because this was made before the advent of CGI, everything was shot in camera. And virtually every action sequence is performed by a real person: the ever game Willis, the stellar supporting players, and some of the best stuntmen in the history of motion pictures.

Finally, it takes time to build its characters. And the pacing of the action. It doesn't run and gun right out of the gate. It has dozens of wonderful little quiet moments throughout where the audience can breathe. Sure DIE HARD has plenty of tough, tense set pieces but, more importantly, it takes time to carefully craft a clever story. And when its well-defined characters get placed in the charged scenes we really care about what happens to them.

I wish more action movies were as smart and human as DIE HARD or the likes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) or BULLITT (1968) or TELL NO ONE (2006) or the BOURNE movies but too often they are not. So much of today’s action product is made by rote, like a bad recipe ground out by a machine. Just toss in some cardboard characters, bad plotting, routine dialogue and big, expensive effects and mix. And we're all dazzled. Only we're not. The formula is boring and is turning the summer season into a uninspired time. Is there anyone out there who will remember THE GREEN LANTERN affectionately five years from now? Or 25 years from now like DIE HARD? Doubtful. I have high hopes for CAPTAIN AMERICA this weekend and COWBOYS AND ALIENS the following one. But I'm not holding my breath.

Action movies should keep us on the edge of our seats but too often I’m on the edge of mine, inching off of it, planning to sneak into another theater at the Cineplex for something better to watch. A J-Lo romantic comedy has to be better than another mind-numbing, digitalized, formula robo-movie, right? Right?

Friday, July 15, 2011

HARRY POTTER GROWS UP TO FIGHT THE MONSTERS

The final film in the Harry Potter series has just opened and HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 2 is a fitting conclusion to the terrific eight part film series. The films were tremendously loyal to the bestselling prose of J. K. Rowling’s books. And like their source material, each subsequent movie grew darker and more complex. And now that I’ve seen the last of the films, I must say that the tale of Harry Potter is a lot less about his mastering of magic as well as enduring the ups and downs of school, and much, much more about facing up to the various monsters in the world. And not just the likes of Lord Voldemort.

What’s especially interesting is just how many monsters there have been for Harry to face. Sure, Voldemort is the main bad guy, but look closely and you’ll see that a more complex villainy is woven throughout the books and movies. Voldemort may be the representation of ultimate evil, after all he does want to kill the young wizard and destroy any Muggle or Hogwarts alum who gets in the way of his dream of underworld domination. But look back upon the series and you'll readily see how many other forms of wickedness haunt Harry. And they have faces far more human than those of Voldemort’s lizard-like features.
Let’s start with Harry’s adoptive aunt and uncle, the Durseleys. These horrid humans treated him terribly. Child services should have been called on these shabby excuses for step-parents as they’re practically guardians out of a Dickens novel. Harry’s home life with these two cretins proved that they were utterly incapable of showing him any love whatsoever. They were the most self-centered of buffoons. At every turn they tried to suppress Harry's talents. They insulted his dead parents' memory. And they often kept poor Harry locked in the closet. Eventually they threw him out of their house simply because he showed some necessary defiance. At least Oliver Twist came close to getting that second bowl of gruel when he spoke up and defended himself.

Then at school Harry was routinely used and abused by the various teachers who crossed his path. The main baddie at Hogwarts was Severus Snape, the potions teacher. It is revealed in this last chapter that he’s carried an unrequited torch for Harry’s dead mother since their childhood together at Hogwarts. Unfortunately the black-clad professor had grown so shut off and suppressed in dealing with his emotions that the only way he could act out was to become antagonistic towards Harry, a constant reminder of the girl who got away.
Then there was the revolving door of Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers, each with a motive to either destroy Harry or use him for their own vainglorious purposes. The worst had to be Professor Dolores Umbrage who disciplined the upstart Mr. Potter by making him write lines after class with a “blood quill” that cut the same words into his flesh. Perhaps Rowling listened to her Pink Floyd album “The Wall” a few too many times as a teen. It's dark stuff. And hard to believe it's a kid's tale at times.

Still, Rowling is on Harry’s side, and even though he suffers for his gifts, he tends to prevail. But he has to work extra hard because everyone around him, even his friends and loved ones at some time or another, have waned in their support of the well-meaning boy. And they always seem to be holding Harry’s specialness against him. Even Hermione, the heroine of the series, fancied Harry's doofus buddy Ron over him. It seems that throughout the tales, Harry just couldn't catch a break.
That is, until this last film. In part two of The Deathly Hallows movie, Harry is mad as hell and he’s not taking it anymore. He holds firm in his convictions and does not waver. Here he doesn't allow one person to ride roughshod over him. Even in the beginning scenes Harry is cagey and tough, out-negotiating an untrustworthy dwarf and challenging the conclusions of a veteran wands expert. Harry is always thinking throughout the film and manages to stay a step or two ahead of both his enemies and his friends. He has always been the moral center, obviously, but he's even more so here as he heroically saves a couple of student enemies from certain death in one of the film's big action set pieces. Harry refuses to take the easy path, the way of least resistance. He turns down the offer by his deceased headmaster Dumbledore to go quietly into that good night. And he faces Voldemort and his hordes of horrific followers in the forest alone, knowing full well that he may not come out alive. Despite everything against him, Harry stands tall. And he prevails.

At the end of it all, Harry has become a man. He faced down every threat, every villain, and every monster, be they supernatural demon or clueless Muggle. Harry Potter is “the chosen one” as he’s referred to constantly throughout the series. Why? He acts like a savior and he often suffers at the hands of those "who know not what they do." He turns the other cheek and refuses to hate. In the final chapter Harry kicks some major ass, but there is no joy in it, only the sad obligation of fixing the world so everything can get back to some sense of normalcy. At the beginning of the series, Harry was a child. At the end he is an adult whose true education has been in figuring out exactly how the world works. It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears just to get through the day, to live, to love. Harry Potter is a grown man, an adult, a guy who has figured out how to survive and thrive. Just how magical is that? Very.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

No, I am not writing about that classic Sergio Leone film today, but rather opining about the film year at its midway point. Some of my thoughts:

COMEDY

The Good – BRIDESMAIDS was like THE HANGOVER.  But with women. 

The Bad - THE HANGOVER II was like THE HANGOVER. Too much so. In fact, it played practically like a carbon copy. A sequel written by Xerox.

The Ugly – The Danny McBride comedy YOUR HIGHNESS wasn’t BRIDESMAIDS or THE HANGOVER. Heck, it wasn't even THE HANGOVER II. What was it? A contender for worst movie this year.

MOVIE ADVERTISEMENTS

The Good – Check out this brilliant trailer for the fall’s highly anticipated espionage thriller TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY.
The Bad – Isn’t this teaser poster for the new BATMAN a touch too similar to Christopher Nolan’s third Batman movie? Or is it just me?

The Ugly – Final Destination 5. Really makes me want to go. Not.
MOVIE STUDIOS

The Good - Despite the recession, studios are having a good year.

The Bad – Studios are charging Netflix more moolah to stream their movies. Guess who else will be paying more soon?

The Ugly - Glenn Beck is building a film studio in Dallas. Bet the pitch meetings there will require lots of chalkboards.

SUPERHEROES

The Good –THOR was fun, smart and looked great.

The Bad - THE GREEN LANTERN was everything THOR wasn’t. And it looked cheap.

The Ugly – A GREEN LANTERN sequel has already been greenlit. Ugh.

LEADING LADIES

The Good – Jennifer Aniston was hilarious in her turn as a horny, predatory dentist harassing Charlie Day in HORRIBLE BOSSES.

The Bad – Julia Roberts played a sourpuss in LARRY CROWNE. So did the audiences, as they stayed away in droves.

The Ugly – The lovely Rooney Mara is unrecognizable as Lisbeth Salander in the upcoming THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. (But is she too ugly? Perhaps.)


OSCAR CONTENDERS

The Good – We have at least four films that are worthy of 10 best lists and Oscar consideration: MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, TREE OF LIFE, BEGINNERS and CEDAR RAPIDS.

The Bad – Slim pickings amongst the rest.

The Ugly – The Academy changed its rules so now the Best Picture category will have between 5-10 nominees. Just make it five. Please.

JOHNNY DEPP

The Good – Depp will likely star as reporter Carl Kolchak in a big screen version of the 70's TV-movie THE NIGHT STALKER.

The Bad – Because his 4th PIRATES movie broke all kinds of international box office records, expect 5 and 6. Very soon. 

The Ugly – Depp played ugly in RANGO. (But in a good way.)
NEWCOMERS

The Good – Melissa McCarthy stole the show in BRIDESMAIDS.

The Bad – Rosie Huntington-Whitely is a beautiful model. And she was definitely gorgeous in TRANSFORMERS 3: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. But I'm not sure she was really anything else. 

The Ugly – The beaver puppet was hardly a cutie in Jodie Foster's movie THE BEAVER. In fact it had all the charm of Mel Gibson during "Happy Hour." Only uglier.

LEADING MEN

The Good – Owen Wilson stars in two of the year’s biggest hits MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and CARS 2. And in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS he does the best Woody Allen since, well, Woody Allen.

The Bad – Tom Hanks wrote, directed and starred in LARRY CROWNE but no one saw it as a crowning achievement.

The Ugly – Ryan Reynolds may have abs of steel but that’s the only thing critics liked about him in THE GREEN LANTERN.

INGENUES

The Good – Mila Kunis accepted an invitation to the Marine Ball in Greenville, N.C. by Sgt. Scott Moore. Classy move, young lady.

The Bad – Apparently that was Blake Lively in those nude text pics. And it didn't help that her people denied it at first. (Somewhere Anthony Weiner is smiling. Or texting.)

The Ugly - Megan Fox badmouthed director Michael Bay, comparing him to Hitler. Unless you're brilliantly talented, try not to burn any bridges, Megan.

MAKE-UP

The Good – Meryl Streep looks so much like Margaret Thatcher in the upcoming biopic IRON LADY I predict she and the make-up team will win Oscars next year.

The Bad – You could rent DRIVE ANGRY to check out Nicolas Cage’s latest atrocious wig. But I wouldn't recommend it. Unless you're a masochist.

The Ugly – Colin Farrell is one of Hollywood’s handsomest leading men. Not in HORRIBLE BOSSES. Wow.
Well, friends and followers, those are my thoughts for the middle of the 2011 film year. What do you think about what you've seen thus far? Please share your nominations for 'the good, the bad, and the ugly!'

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Coming soon to a theater near you, Chris Evans as that Marvel super hero fighting off the Nazis during World War II and it’s called THE FIRST AVENGER!
CAPTAIN AMERICA (aka THE FIRST AVENGER)

THE FIRST AVENGER? Wait a minute, isn't it called CAPTAIN AMERICA? Yes, it opens here in America on July 22nd with that title, but not elsewhere. In fact,  it's getting a name change overseas in at least three countries. Why? Distributors Paramount Pictures and Marvel chose to cater to the political sensitivities in Russia, the Ukraine and South Korea where the true American moniker might be seen as too jingoistic. Thus the film will be released under the title THE FIRST AVENGER in those countries. The studios have stated that they are open to further alterations if need be. How far will they go? One can imagine that the Iran receipts would be bigger if the title of the movie there was changed to CAPTAIN INFIDEL, but that would be just plain wrong I think.
BOOGIE NIGHTS (aka HIS GREAT DEVICE MAKES HIM FAMOUS)

Movie titles are a tricky thing. They have to fit the material obviously, but they also have to be compelling and sound attractive to audiences; many audiences throughout the world. And in foreign countries, some American movie titles just don’t translate, so they are changed to ones that are easier for a non-American audience to understand. BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) was a film about the 70’s pornography industry and had a disco song from that time period as its title. That tune probably didn’t mean much in China, so the movie title was changed for its distribution there. Whether or not HIS GREAT DEVICE MAKES HIM FAMOUS is a better title can be debated, but it certainly was a more accurate assessment of what the subject of the movie was for the Chinese moviegoer. Ahem!

The list of films released in foreign countries with bizarre and hilarious name changes is legendary. Among some of the more uproarious ones from recent decades:

THE FULL MONTY became SIX NAKED PIGS (China); DODGEBALL became FULL OF THE NUTS (Germany); THE HORSE WHISPERER became HELD BY WIND IN MONTANA (Japan); THE MATRIX became THE YOUNG PEOPLE WHO TRAVERSE DIMENSIONS WHILE WEARING SUNGLASSES (France); and LOST IN TRANSLATION became MEETINGS AND FAILURES IN MEETINGS (Portugal).

Talk about lost in translation.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (aka IF YOU LEAVE ME, I DELETE YOU)

Usually for foreign markets the easiest thing to do is come up with a title that blatantly tells what the movie is about, albeit without any imagination or subtlety. Thus SUPERBAD became SUPER HORNY in Israel; ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND turned into IF YOU LEAVE ME, I DELETE YOU in Italy; BAD SANTA was translated into SANTA IS A PERVERT in Czechoslovakia; and GREASE was changed to the much less sexy VASELINE in Portugal. Somehow you can’t imagine the Brothers Gibb penning a hit tune about Vaseline being the word. Or maybe you can.

Movie titles in America are tricky to get right just as much. Sometimes a title that is too oblique or mystifying confuses an audience. The British political thriller THE GHOST (2010) starring Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan was changed to THE GHOST WRITER in America for worries that the audience would perceive it as a supernatural thriller. Some suggested that the latest James Bond movie in 2008 was marred by its odd titled QUANTUM OF SOLACE. Still, other titles may be appropriate but still confuse the average audience about what the movie is about. Examples like GLEAMING THE CUBE (1989), TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING, JULIE NEWMAR (1995) or THE HUDSUCKER PROXY (1994) readily spring to mind. A film title may be spot on but if it's still obtuse chances are the film will bomb. And those did.
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (aka RITA HAYWORTH AND THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION)
Recent AFI Life Achievement Award recipient Morgan Freeman is still irate about the botching of the title of what many consider to be his greatest film THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994). Here is what he said:

It took a long time for word of mouth to kick in because no one could say it. It was 'The Shimshunk Reduction', 'The Hudsucker Redemption'; I mean people just couldn't say it, which really made me angry because I knew that at the time! The movie we made was called 'Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption'. Isn't that a great title? But they were like, 'That won't fit on the marquee.' So it took a year or two for people to say it. Some people still can't say it." 

I think an even better title for that classic would have been RITA HAYWORTH AND THE SHAWSHANK PRISON. Isn’t that intriguing while still letting the audience know what the film’s setting is? And doesn’t the word redemption in the title give away the ending anyway?

I’m always amazed at some of the drawn-out titles that actually make it onto a marquee. In the sixties and throughout the seventies it was common to have endless, crazy titles as that time period was all about breaking the rules and thumbing one’s nose at convention. Thus, we were treated to marvelously bloated and long-winded ones like: DR. STRANGELOVE OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964); THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, OR HOW I FLEW FROM LONDON TO PARIS IN 25 HOURS, 11 MINUTES (1965); and WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THOSE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME? (1971). Even a popular comedy like IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963) contained four uses of its titular adjective when three would have probably sufficed. Madness indeed.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING

Today, in our attention deficit disorder/MTV quick-cut/Michael Bay “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” world, a movie title that dares to be verbose is likely inviting problems. Did MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD bomb in 2003 because of its lengthy title? Well, it didn’t make much money even after it was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, so perhaps it was an inhibitor. Still, the winner that year was a movie entitled THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING but perhaps its built-in audience helped moviegoers overcome that mouthful.

So what are some of the most ridiculous or prolonged or badly translated or unbelievably dunderheaded titles you’ve come across? Let’s keep the conversation going here, followers. Please share your nominees for The Most Astonishing Movie Title Ever

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Friday, July 1, 2011

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE, PART 2

Dear American Film Institute,

I recently wrote an open letter making my case for who the next six recipients of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award should be. After it was completed I realized that there were still more that needed desperately to be honored, particularly some egregiously overlooked female candidates. Thus, here is a second letter and list of a few more that the AFI needs to honor promptly.

SHIRLEY MACLAINE
There have only been six women honored in the almost 40 year history of the award, and how Shirley MacLaine has been overlooked is beyond me. This amazing actress has now starred in movies in seven decades. Seven decades. There is no actor alive today who has had as long a career playing leads. Not one actor. Not one actress. And few have been as distinguished. From her auspicious debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY in 1955, she went on to star in such Hollywood films as AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, CAN-CAN, SOME CAME RUNNING, THE APARTMENT, THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, TWO FOR THE SEESAW, IRMA LA DOUCE, SWEET CHARITY, TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARAH, THE TURNING POINT, BEING THERE, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, STEEL MAGNOLIAS, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE and IN HER SHOES. She has won the Oscar and been nominated five other times. She has starred in TV shows and specials, headlined on Broadway, and is an international bestselling author. MacLaine is a true artist who needs to be recognized by the AFI. She is now 77 and still going strong with no fewer than four releases due in the next year. The AFI awarded her brother Warren Beatty in 2008 and now the same must be done for her.


DIANE KEATON
Who gets the final shot in THE GODFATHER, the greatest film of all time? Diane Keaton does, that’s who. She plays Michael Corleone’s innocent wife watching the door to his corrupt world literally being slammed in her face. Keaton remains in the audience’s empathy until that very last shot, as she is the only one whose humanity is still in focus. And she continues to this day to bring that same humanity to role after role, and holds the audience with her. Keaton’s other highlights include SLEEPER, THE GODFATHER PART II, ANNIE HALL, LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, MANHATTAN, REDS, CRIMES OF THE HEART, FATHER OF THE BRIDE, THE FIRST WIVE’S CLUB, MARVIN’S ROOM and SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE. She has won the Oscar and been nominated three other times. She has been a brilliant dramatic actress and an unparalleled comedic one through five sterling decades of work and the AFI needs to acknowledge her. 

PETER O’TOOLE
The man who holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations without a win, at eight, is Peter O’Toole. He is an actor of the most impeccable standards. A man whose vast and varied career has lasted six decades and seen him thrive in everything from drama to comedy to satire to musicals. Look at this list of credits and tell me why Morgan Freeman was honored before him: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, BECKET, LORD JIM, THE LION IN WINTER, GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, THE RULING CLASS, THE STUNT MAN, MASADA, MY FAVORITE YEAR, THE LAST EMPEROR, VENUS and RATATOUILLE. There have only been four non-Americans to receive the AFI Life Achievement Award – Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, David Lean and Sean Connery. Michael Caine needs to be honored. And so does Peter O’Toole.

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA
I know the argument against Coppola is that he hasn’t made a great film in 20 years. And that likely has kept him off the AFI’s shortlist. Well, that is wrong because here is what he has done in his six decades in the industry. He wrote the screenplay to PATTON. He co-wrote the screenplay, directed and produced THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER, PART II. He produced AMERICAN GRAFFITI. He wrote, produced and directed THE CONVERSATION. He wrote, produced and directed APOCALYPSE NOW. He gave us THE OUTSIDERS and PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED and the wonderful young filmmaker Sofia Coppola. And he’s produced over 23 films in his career. If the AFI is going to honor George Lucas, mostly on the credits of STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and the technical divisions he created with THX sound and Industrial Light and Magic, then they must honor this equally revolutionary filmmaker whose resume is the envy of any filmmaker alive. 


JANE FONDA
Perhaps by semi-retiring she became forgotten by a large contingency of Hollywood, including the AFI, but the simple truth is that there were two actresses who defined the 70’s. One was Barbra Streisand and she's been honored. The other is Jane Fonda and her amazing contributions to film need to be recognized as well. In case it’s been forgotten, and it shouldn’t be, here is what is on her resume: CAT BALLOU, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY, KLUTE, JULIA, COMING HOME, CALIFORNIA SUITE, THE CHINA SYNDROME, NINE TO FIVE, ON GOLDEN POND, THE DOLL MAKER, AGNES OF GOD and THE MORNING AFTER. She’s also produced a number of her movies, like previous winners Warren Beatty and Michael Douglas, and won two Oscars while being nominated five other times. Just because she’s courted controversy all her life should not keep the AFI from honoring this seminal actress.

The real tragedy is that so many deserving honorees have been ignored or overlooked for the expedience of picking more contemporary stars. The likes of Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand, Robert DeNiro, Harrison Ford, Martin Scorsese and Meryl Streep have been honored already and they were lauded while they were only in their fifties. Their fifties! Those choices couldn’t have waited a decade or two more? The answer is a deafening yes, but the AFI opted to compromise the meaning of their awards for TV ratings and bigger names to ensure fundraising. That needs to stop now. These must be the next on the AFI's honor roll:

JOHN WILLIAMS     
ROBERT REDFORD    
MICHAEL CAINE    
WOODY ALLEN     
GENE HACKMAN      
ROBERT DUVALL      
SHIRLEY MACLAINE   
DIANE KEATON  
PETER O’TOOLE   
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA   
JANE FONDA

It is up to the American Film Institute to determine the order, but however they're ranked, none should be crossed off the list. And no others should be heralded before these legends are given their due. It’s high time the AFI got the Life Achievement Award back to being what it should be - the highest honor given to an artist at the end of a career. Not in the middle of it.

Sincerely,
Jeff York