Saturday, March 31, 2012

THIS AIN'T YOUR MOM'S "DARK SHADOWS"!

Bill Barnett, a friend and fellow movie aficionado asked me what I thought of the trailer for the upcoming DARK SHADOWS movie starring Johnny Depp. I told him that while it looked funny, I was sad that director Tim Burton chose to make it a farce and not be faithful to the more serious tones of its source material. The original 1960’s soap opera scared the bejeezus out of millions every afternoon for five years, including me, and I felt it was a shame that Burton and Depp weren’t being more reverent. Bill agreed and wondered why so many filmmakers today feel the need to snicker at the material they’re adapting. “I’d hate to think what some smart-aleck screenwriter will do some day to HILL STREET BLUES”, he sighed.
Johnny Depp as vampire Barnabas Collins in the big screen version of 1960's TV soap DARK SHADOWS.
Sigh indeed.  You can follow this link to see the trailer of the Burton and Depp version of DARK SHADOWS: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cVcpz8H3Pk. If you don’t know the original show, you’ll surely laugh. If you do know the original soap, you may weep.

So, why are so many filmmakers adapting material for the big screen with nary a shred of reverence for the original material? Who are the folks in Hollywood who devote years to bringing something like STARSKY & HUTCH or CHARLIE’S ANGELS to the screen, only to snigger at it? Who in Hollywood said, “I love that old Stephen J. Cannell show 21 JUMP STREET so much and have to make it into a big screen adventure” but then chose to make it into a complete joke? Yes, the movie version of it this past month was quite funny, but why didn’t the filmmakers just do a straight version of it?  Why not show a little more respect for the material?
Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in the big screen version of 21 JUMP STREET
Christine Lynne, a filmmaker friend of mine in Hollywood who worked with Cannell for many years, surmised that it’s all about ensuring a built-in audience by creating works with a familiar name, and that the tone is probably irrelevant to most of the exec’s green-lighting such projects. She’s right, of course. Movie studios are interested in creating works that have instant audience relatability. That’s why there are so many remakes, reboots and blockbusters based on board games. Any project that comes down the pike that is a known entity makes studios drool because it’s pre-sold and a helluva lot easier to market. True, it’s called “show biz” not “show art”, but it takes a special kind of cynicism to stand idly by as filmmakers blatantly ridicule those ‘sure things.’




I wonder if it might also be due to the fact that there's always been a sense of superiority that the people who make films have taken towards those in television. (Wrongfully so, I might add.) Perhaps they're sneering or turning up their noses at TV adaptations here. But then why do a series adaptation in the first place? Why not write something original if you're only going to insult the tone of what the creators of the original TV source material were going for?

Johnny Depp has said he’s a huge fan of DARK SHADOWS, and he’s tried to bring it to the big screen for years, but is a farce what he had in mind? The powers that be who brought THE FUGITIVE and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE to the big screen stayed close to the source material, so why couldn’t DARK SHADOWS be like that and not seem like a warmed over version of THE ADDAMS FAMILY movies? Horror Hound magazine had the same question for Burton, asking him in an interview this month why he chose to make DARK SHADOWS into a Gothic comedy. He responded, “Any time I’m making something, I don’t know if it’s a drama, a comedy, whatever.” Really, Mr. Burton? Is that cynicism or ignorance? Either way, it’s unsettling considering when it’s so obvious that your trailer is played for laughs.
Quentin Collins (David Selby) and Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) in the original ABC soap DARK SHADOWS.

The truth is that the original DARK SHADOWS, created by the legendary Dan Curtis (THE NIGHT STALKER, THE WINDS OF WAR), was definitely not a Gothic comedy. It was fun to watch, yes, but it was a melodrama, striving for something serious, both in its scares and its romanticism. Its two leads, vampire Barnabas Collins and werewolf Quentin Collins, were tragic heroes. They were tortured men caught between two worlds: the modern day and their monstrous pasts. Where’s the humor in that? 
The cast of ABC's hit primetime soap REVENGE.

Perhaps Burton should have taken a look at the hit TV series REVENGE, currently garnering big ratings Wednesday nights on ABC. It too is a fun soap, but its makers treat their story with a sense of regard, not scorn. Not once have they ever stepped outside the genre to ridicule it. Granted, Burton and Depp have enough clout to do anything in Hollywood they want, but why take such an obvious and lazy route as another parody of horror? There’s way too much of that already glutting the screens. And besides, Depp has shown that he can laugh at genre and treat it with sincerity, parodying pirates (the Disney franchise) as well as treating them with respect (FINDING NEVERLAND). So why not strive for something more reverential here?

The 1995 movie adaptation of THE BRADY BUNCH may have set a dangerous precedent that Tinseltown is still avidly following. That movie adaptation lampooned its source material and became a sensation so perhaps that is why Burton, Depp and countless studios are going for laughs instead of something more genuine. Granted, the Brady family wasn’t any more realistic than creatures of the night, but I think DARK SHADOWS deserves a straighter take. We’ve already had so many funny vampires as of late, what with the likes of HBO’s series TRUE BLOOD and movies like FRIGHT NIGHT, so why not try for something scarier, even moving or truly haunting? In my humble opinion, a version like that would not only be fresher but also have a lot more teeth. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

HYPE, HOLLYWOOD & THE HUNGER GAMES

 “The Hunger Games” finally opened this weekend and it almost felt anti-climatic. Not only because the movie is pretty awful but because I feel like I’ve lived with it now for months. And God knows we all have. Between the excessive coverage of it in the entertainment world ever since the announcement of Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as the lead to the saturation, dare I say, bombardment, of souvenir books everywhere months before it came out, “The Hunger Games” has been nothing if not overexposed.
Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games"
Now, any phenomenon that gets people into the movie theaters is in most ways a very good thing. But knowing that the audience is so built in here, and that this was going to be a phenom, couldn’t Hollywood have made a better film? “The Hunger Games” is so uneven in tone, so poorly paced and so badly shot it is absolutely shocking. In the rush to get this film out and capitalize on the books' popularity, the filmmakers glossed over a lot of story, shortchanged the narrative, and spent more time on silly costuming than developing character.


Right off the bat, the filmmakers demonstrate a slipshod attitude by lazily tossing out about seven title cards explaining the back story, which is never a good sign when a movie makes you read exposition rather than view it. Those title cards tell us that certain factions of the populace are living in poverty due to some war and they’re being punished for their betrayal in this new country called Panem. I haven’t read the book but I know all that must have gotten a lot more explanation than the few sentences deemed worthy enough for the film. And the movie never explains much more after that about this new world order or the war that devastated it. It's more obsessed with the overstylized art direction, garish costuming, a few scattered expensive CGI shots, and the strange eye make-up worn by every cast member from Lawrence to Lenny Kravitz. I wanted to know more about the districts and why they have been sending in their victim/guinea pigs each year to appear in this garish reality show called "The Hunger Games” that all factions are obsessed with. These games are so popular amongst the new nation, it's lasted 75 years. Death and destruction as the new Olympics, go figure. But the lack of logic, back-story or explanation of any of this seems to have slipped the minds of director Gary Ross and his fellow screenwriters Billy Ray and adapting author Suzanne Collins. Why worry about things making sense for an audience when there are a costume designer's wet dreams and an art director's futuristic matte paintings to "ooh" and 'ahh" over? 
Elizabeth Banks in "The Hunger Games"
But my feeling of confusion and that the filmmakers didn't have their priorities straight for the audience stayed with me throughout this entire film. I kept having questions like how is this nation run and why is one show the only thing on TV? Why would the teen participants make any alliance if it is a 'last man standing' kind of competition? And wouldn’t a smart player kill his alliance members while they slept? Other questions plagued me. Why do the rules keep changing during the game? Why do the poor people look like refugees from “The Grapes of Wrath” yet they all manage to have big screen TV’s? Are they state sanctioned, like some sort of entertainment welfare? And why are some of the characters so cartoony like those of Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks while others are more modestly portrayed? Kravitz and Donald Sutherland give subtle performances compared to the wild flailing of Tucci and Banks. Are the richies supposed to be that insane? Then there's Jennifer Lawrence who plays it all so straight you’d think she’s playing Ophelia in “Hamlet.” Luckily the Bard's ingenue never had to utter such idiotic lines like, “Take care of them, Gale! Don’t let them starve!”
Stanley Tucci in "The Hunger Games"
Of course this isn’t Shakespeare. It’s pulp fiction. But even on that level, the filmmakers fumble. The tone is all over the place rather than being sharp and deft and consistent. One minute it's maudlin, the next it's practically Willy Wonka, still the next it’s trying to be an indictment of reality TV series like “Survivor” and “The Bachelor.” They can't even get the actions scenes right, and they're over half the movie. The fight scenes are impossible to follow as they are nothing but a blur, as if the film had to be shot so quickly to be released in time for all the kids on spring break that there wasn’t time to hire a decent fight choreographer! I have not seen a picture shot so frantically and sloppily in some time, and that’s saying a lot considering the overly caffeinated camerawork and editing already on display in this year’s “Project X” and “Chronicle.”


Then, there is the love triangle between Katniss (Lawrence) and her two suitors – the aforementioned Gale (Liam Hemsworth, who has precious little to do here except register as a younger version of his brother Chris “Thor” Hemsworth) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, quite good in “The Kids Are Alright” two years ago). The boys here seem like just two more hunks, nothing else. They're consistent with the way all young male leads seem to be cast in these things, for their brawn and magazine cover potential, rather than for true screen presence or acting ability. 
Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson in "The Hunger Games"
Despite the many, many flaws, there are a few moments in this movie that do work well. When Katniss gets stuck up a tree and decides to cut loose a limb attached to a gigantic hornet’s nest so it will drop on her competitors, the tension created there is utterly palpable. Woody Harrelson gives a nuanced and likable performance, despite being stuck in a bad wig and goofy clothes. And Lawrence is a real star, her face saying more than most dialogue. (Especially given the turds she has to utter here.) 


But despite these attributes, and a nice vindicating of the 1% holding down the 99% in today's economic world, this film seems mostly content to be slick, vacuous and shrill. Its parody has precious little bite. And I don’t know what it thinks about its main characters except that the world seems to continue to make teens moody and sullen, like they're all descendants of the likes of so serious Edward Cullen of the trite “Twilight” world. Hell, my generation had moody teens too, but at least they showed up in complex films like “Risky Business” and the John Hughes oeuvre. Don’t today’s filmmakers and teen audiences want a little more than just Calvin Klein ad posturing? Have any of them ever seen “The Graduate”?


But then this movie, and most of Hollywood these days, isn’t interested in making lasting classics. They’re primarily interested in making franchises, films that audiences, particularly teens, will come and see again and again and again, sequel after sequel.The studio spent more time on the PR and franchise implications than ensuring a great film, one that had clarity and integrity, was delivered. And yet despite such low aim, of course they’ve succeeded spectacularly on the box office front. Despite the wretched shortcomings, the audiences are lining up to see this drivel and the opening day sales already netted a nifty 20 million. 
Woody Harrelson in "The Hunger Games"
I'm hopeful that the makers of "The Hunger Games" get more serious for subsequent outings and try harder. It took the Harry Potter series two films to find its groove, so there is hope here. But I worry because formula and money seem to be the main drivers these days. The worth and legacy of any movie should be in and of itself. Not its box office. And certainly not the proliferation of souvenir books available at every CVS counter in America.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

COMING SOON TO MOVIE CONCESSIONS...EXCEDRIN!


Lately, movies have been making me sick. No, not because of the caliber of them, though 2011 was not a banner year, but because of the preponderance of handheld, shaky camera cinematography. 3-D isn’t going to take over the movies. Nor HD. Instead it’s going to be the look of homemade, handheld video cameras.  I never realized how many headaches I’d be suffering just from trying to watch a movie these days.

Dane DeHaan in CHRONICLE

These types of movies are everywhere at the Cineplex now. This year we’ve already suffered the handheld treatment in everything from THE DEVIL INSIDE to CHRONICLE to PROJECT X, and it’s only March. The camera work in these movies is so damn unstable and erratic that it makes me feel like I’m watching from the deck of a cruise ship during choppy seas. I know that films need to grab audiences but throttling them with this in-your-face cinematic style is getting ridiculous.

It's a trend being driven by cost too. Movies cost so much to make, with average marketing costs exceeding 20 million per big studio release. You can understand why studio execs are thrilled that more and more filmmakers are developing scripts that are supposed to look 'homemade' and cheap.
Oliver Cooper, Thomas Mann and Jonathan Daniel Brown in PROJECT X


It's like suddenly the gold standard is, of all things, YouTube. We've all gotten used to crappy looking viral videos, why shouldn't Hollywood just follow suit? Well, for starters, I'm not paying 12 bucks a pop to watch YouTube. And also, shouldn't the professional world of entertainment strive for a higher standard than something any teen can cut together on his Mac's Final Edit program at home?

Blame THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT for all this havoc. That 1999 sleeper horror hit about three film students making a documentary and stumble upon a dangerous occult paved the way for crude, amateurishly shot docu-style films as a norm. And movies like the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY franchise followed and made gazillions and now the 'found footage' genre is here to stay. Sadly.

A movie like PROJECT X about a high school kegger run amuck, was probably pitched to Hollywood executives as “SUPER BAD, only homemade.” Rather than striving for the impeccable ideals and craftsmanship of a Martin Scorsese or David Fincher, filmmakers now are aiming no higher than AMERICA’S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS. Might as well give Daniel Tosh the reins at Paramount or Universal.
Heather Donahue in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT
And does anyone out there buy that these films are ‘real’? That these films are actually 'found footage'? Do the marketers think we’re that dumb? It’s the same kind of bad lie that Doritos trots out every Super Bowl, telling us that their commercials were shot for less than 20 grand. Who’s naive enough to believe that any commercial with a professional sound mix and color transfer to meet network specifications could be done so cheaply? Maybe the Doritos execs but few others.

All I know is that as a film fan, the 'found footage' genre looks like crap and seems utterly lazy. They're a ruse, both in the way they try to pass themselves off as documentaries, and in the way they try to pass themselves off as films. And they give me a headache and make me nauseous. I sure hope they start stocking Excedrin at the concession stand soon.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

NEW FACES (AHEM!) IN HOLLYWOOD


I was watching SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE last evening and I think Lindsay Lohan hosted. It looked kind of like her anyway, but I couldn’t be sure just who it was. The woman appeared to be so full of Botox, collagen and peroxide, I couldn’t be sure if it was Lohan or some impersonator. Maybe even a drag queen. Is it any wonder my eyes were perplexed? The troubled ingĂ©nue has gone through so many different looks and styles that I can’t recognize her anymore. And the bee stung lips and puffy cheeks she sported last night looked more like a caricature rather than the real thing. 
Lindsay Lohan looking under the influence...of Botox, perhaps?

The trouble with actors like Lohan is that they now rely all kinds of  casual plastic surgery to fix whatever little problem areas they have, but they don't realize it's all eradicating their very recognizability. We’ve all seen actors or actresses go away for a few months, then return with bigger boobs, tighter jaw lines, saucer eyes, or immobile foreheads. So why should Lohan think it's any big deal to do her cheeks or lips or hair or whatever she's doing while she's away? 


Did anyone else out there gasp a little bit when Sandra Bullock showed up to present at the Oscars last week? I could be wrong, but it appeared she had undergone some 'work.' She had that Cher thing going where her face looked rigid and frozen, a bit like a Madame Tussaud figure. There is something wrong when  eyes start to rise up in the corners like they’re trying to be those in the bottle from the animated opening of I DREAM OF JEANNIE, don't you think? 
Do Sandra's eyes on the right (from the 2012 Oscars) look a bit higher than they did from the 2010 Oscars on the left?

The ruination of faces from plastic surgery is as old as Michael Jackson’s first chemical peel. Especially with actresses. Not every one can be as talented as Meryl Streep, so they need to find ways to stay relevant. Plus, Hollywood is so brutal to women, with so few good roles for them, that it's easy for actresses to succumb to the knife just to stay in the game. As Goldie Hawn’s character in THE FIRST WIVES CLUB observed, there are only three phases for actresses - “Babe, district attorney and driving Miss Daisy.” 


And few actresses in their 40’s are ready to become Jessica Tandy.But now, the obsession with staying young seems to be happening to men just as much. Men are having pec implants, calf implants, you name it. All in all, Hollywood has turned into a land where 'no age' is par for the course. It's like pod people have taken over. Aliens seem to be walking around Tinsel Town masquerading as former leading men and women.
Those like George Clooney know how to leave well enough alone.

Thank God for those like George Clooney who don't cave to the pressure. He’s fifty and doesn't disguise that fact. And he doesn’t color his hair or try to quash the bags under his eyes. But that doesn’t stop those in Hollywood from suggesting maybe he should spruce it up a bit. 

Now it's a constant drumbeat from every corner of the town. Every minor imperfection seems to be a call for half the Internet to intercede and offer their criticism. And bloggers can be absolutely merciless. Jean Dujardin had barely won his Oscar last week and the Hollywood pundits started talking about how he needed to have his teeth whitened and straightened. How sad. 
Jean Dujardin flashes his imperfect but charming smile on Oscar night.






And to what end do the insane demands lead? The town is strewn with far too many stories of ruin. Karen Carpenter starved herself to death. Jennifer Grey had a nose job that rendered her almost unrecognizable. And Michael Jackson peeled away his face is in a hopeless bid to be more accepted. Ugly business all that.

That's why I love those who fight it. Bravo to Charlize Theron and Gwyneth Paltrow for refusing to augment their breasts. Cheers to  Adrian Brody for not touching his nose. I salute Christopher Plummer for reveling in being an octogenarian. So, please, please, please, Jean Dujardin, do not change your smile. Bite the hand that feeds you and keep your imperfect but perfectly adorable incisors.