Friday, June 22, 2012

THE LOST ART OF MOVIE POSTERS

The teaser posters for BREAKING DAWN: PART 2 are out and surprise, surprise, they are basically close-ups of the stars’ faces, just like every other poster for all four previous TWILIGHT movies. Granted, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson are easy on the eyes, and big stars, so that’s why the studios are using their faces and little else to sell it, but knowing that the box office for the franchise’s final entry is assured, couldn’t the studio have been a little more adventurous with their last poster? And tried to make them look different from every other one? How about something more chilling? Even a little bit edgy? Compare it to ROSEMARY’S BABY, another horror movie about maternity. That poster was provocative. Kristen’s poster is as ho-hum as she is as Bella.
The truth is most movie posters are more ho-hum than provocative these days. Great movie posters are becoming a lost art. Too many of them are done by rote today, with Photoshopped headshots of the stars taking up as much real estate as possible. Too often the posters tell us who’s in it, but precious little else. No sense of story or tone. It’s sad.

And where are the illustrations? Granted, drawings and paintings take more time to create, and cost more, but they really get your attention because they’re different, so why not do more of them?  Is it just another example of Hollywood expediency these days? Taking the well-trodden path? Going along with what everyone else is doing? And studios wonder why movie audiences are shrinking. Not only is everything a retread but also the posters all have a ‘been there, done that’ feel to them.

Look at these film poster comparisons and tell me that the art of movie posters isn’t waning. To compare apples to apples, I’ve juxtaposed a film from yesterday and a modern counterpart. 
THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974) vs. BATTLESHIP (2012)
Both are adventure films with a humongous sense of scale, but isn’t it interesting how much more involving the older one is? The endless high-rise engulfed in flames in THE TOWERING INFERNO is terrifying. And it’s an illustration! As for the alien vessel threatening the noble sailor in BATTLESHIP…meh. Not too scary. Not very unique.
REPULSION (1965) vs. GONE (2012)
Which psychological thriller with a blonde beauty under duress looks more disturbing? More exciting? More creative? The Roman Polanski classic with a young Catherine Deneuve is brilliantly rendered, using negative space to great effect. The poster for the Amanda Seyfried frightener looks as generic as any B movie starring Shannon Tweed from the 80’s still gathering dust on a Blockbuster shelf. 
MY FAIR LADY (1964) vs. ROCK OF AGES (2012)
Movie musicals are a tough sell these days. Not in the 60's when superb works like MY FAIR LADY were delightfully brought to the screen and their poster reflected it. (Bravo, Bob Peak!) But in today's world, where MTV and music videos have robbed musicals of much of their novelty, it's a tough road. Crappy poster art, like this for ROCK OF AGES surely doesn't help compel anyone into the movie theater. It's an uninspired cornucopia of ego, all Photoshopped star turns, with mismatched sizes and lighting. It all makes for one of the ugliest movie posters to come down the pike in a long time.
THE THING (1982) vs. THE THING (2011)
I guess imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Especially in Hollywood. Even on their movie posters. Sigh.
LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (1978) vs. THAT'S MY BOY (2012)
Both are  comedies. Both are about a mismatched duo. But which one looks funnier? Wittier? Worth seeing?
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974) vs. THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012)
What do you do with an all-star cast? Present them with style like artist Richard Amsel did in his classic illustration of the who’s who from Agatha Christie's famed whodunit? Or line them up for the Stallone actioner and do your aging action heroes no favors by drowning them in garish orange lighting?
Sure, there are terrific posters being done today. The one-sheet for BLACK SWAN with Natalie Portman’s red eyes staring out amidst her pale skin was arrestingly brilliant. Also, Warner Bros. has done a marvelous job on every one of the Christopher Nolan BATMAN pictures. And having Steve Carrell grin like a naïf on the poster for THE 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN was a stroke of genius. But those are the exceptions to the rule. Give me one poster today that touches artist/designer Saul Bass’ amazing work for ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959). His imagery was attention-getting, unsettling and hip. And it was a cartoon. A cartoon. Now that was a poster. It was also art.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

THE PROBLEM WITH HOLLYWOOD & FOREIGNERS


The box office for the sci-fi horror movie PROMETHEUS dropped over 50% from last weekend to this one. That’s not good news for its star Noomi Rapace. The movie and her performance got mixed reviews. And now word-of-mouth is hurting it too. The film’s problems don’t rest on her shoulders alone, but its failure may hurt the Swedish actress in her quest for a Hollywood career. Join the international club, Miss Rapace.
Noomi Rapace in PROMETHEUS.


Time and time again, a foreign actor or actress becomes a worldwide sensation and then when Tinsel Town comes a-calling, they screw up. They end up finding themselves miscast, in roles that don’t play to their strengths, and struggling to emote well in English. Then after a couple of duds, they are either relegated to the scrap heap of the forgotten or return to their native lands, tail tucked between their legs. Remember Audrey Tautou, that beguiling ingénue from France? After AMELIE she was going to be our next Audrey Hepburn. Then she did THE DA VINCI CODE, a movie where she was completely miscast as a feisty heroine and struggled to speak coherent English. Soon after, she wisely returned to France to take better roles more suited to her guileless strengths.

Hers is not the only time she and Hollywood didn’t quite know what to do. The film industry too often is completely baffled by stars with foreign accents. And sadly, more often than not, studio executives seem to think that anyone who is not a “red, white & blue American” should be pigeonholed in antagonist roles. Is that xenophobia or just plain ignorance? I’d suggest both. Take the story of Mikhail Nyqvist. He became famous worldwide playing the likable hero in the Swedish version of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, yet once Hollywood got its mitts on him, he was cast as the villain in back-to-back action pictures ABDUCTION and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL. I understand why Christoph Waltz from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS gets placed in such parts, but Nyqvist?  That is prejudice of the highest order. Or just plain stupidity. 
Penelope Cruz in VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA.


Foreign ladies don’t fare much better. They’re usually relegated to arm candy roles that any young actress, foreign or otherwise, could play. Penelope Cruz bombed in one movie after another when Hollywood tried to make her an all-purpose ingénue. The roles she played in ALL THE PRETTY HORSES and SAHARA did her no favors. She had to return to her native Spain to remind Hollywood that she was an accomplished talent who could play strong, earthy sensualists. Her successes in VOLVER and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA showed Tinseltown what she could really do. And since then, Cruz has established a sterling career for herself at home and in America.

For every Monica Belluci or Roberto Benigni who have stumbled or failed to capitalize on their international success here in America, there have been stars that have succeeded admirably. French actress Juliette Binoche achieved huge success here with THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and THE ENGLISH PATIENT but wisely chose English speaking follow-up roles that suited her quiet strengths, like in CHOCOLAT. She also continued to take parts where she could speak in her native tongue, like in BLUE and CACHE. Thus, she has remained well-reviewed and good box office the world over.
Vincent Cassel in BLACK SWAN.


Another way foreign actors can ensure success in American films is by taking character parts. Vincent Cassel is a leading man in France, but he’s wise enough to take good roles, even if they’re supporting parts, when he appears in English-speaking roles. His turns in EASTERN PROMISES and BLACK SWAN were excellent performances and he continues to be very much in demand in both countries.

This year’s Oscar-winning Best Actor Jean Dujardin is learning English now to capitalize on his fame from THE ARTIST. It remains to be seen if he will be the next Binoche or the next Tautou, but right now, he is remaining in French movies until he masters that second language. His enormous talent should help his chances too as he can sing, dance, play comedy and drama. Harvey Weinstein thinks he could be the next Marcello Mastroianni, a leading man for the international world. He may be right as Dujardin has a lot going for him, including a cheeky awareness of the pitfalls awaiting foreign actors. Check out his hilarious spoof of how foreign actors get instantly cast as villains in this short film at FunnyOrDie.com.
It would be wise for Dujardin to take a page from Javier Bardem’s playbook. Bardem is tremendously successful, both at home and abroad because he alternates his American, English-speaking roles with those in his native Spain. Still, Bardem did succumb to the egregious cliché of foreign-tongued baddie by getting himself cast as one in the next James Bond film SKYFALL. He’ll likely go on with aplomb after that, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that his follow-up to that Christmas release is ALACRAN ENAMORADO, a thriller from Spain.
Javier Bardem with Daniel Craig announcing their upcoming Bond film SKYFALL.

Which brings me back to Rapace. I, as many others, adored her as Lisbeth Salander. She was feisty, smart, sexy, physically commanding and acted like she owned the screen. But that role also required her to play a badass, something that she hasn’t done in her American roles thus far. She took the innocuous ‘girl part’ in SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS and her turn in PROMETHEUS was that of heroic lead. Perhaps if she takes darker roles, she’ll fare better. And while she’s courting stardom in LA, it’s wise for her to remain active in Sweden. Hopefully she can have the best of both worlds. And we, her audience, can too.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

CHARLIZE THERON REIGNS

Is there a braver actress working today than Charlize Theron? One could argue that Meryl Streep or Kate Winslet reign higher atop the food chain, but I think Theron is right up there with them. Not only is she a brilliant actress and a gorgeous movie star, perhaps the most beautiful we have working today, but she is an actress who consistently takes big chances with complex roles. And those roles she's taking have a lot to say about the lot of women in today’s society and how sexism and ageism confront them at every turn. 
Original caricature by Jeff York of Charlize Theron in SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN
In the just released SNOW WHITE & THE HUNSTMAN, Theron plays the evil queen Ravenna out to destroy Snow White. Her magic mirror has deemed the younger girl “the fairest of the fair” prompting the monarch to call for the ingénue's head so she can remain in power. That mirror sounds an awful lot like numerous studio execs in Hollywood prone to dismiss any actress over 30 from fronting a movie. Clearly, Theron at 36 can relate all too well to such industry discrimination, and it enables her to mine the sympathy out of such a villainous role. Ravenna may be vicious, but her motivation is purely defensive against a world that’s continually told her that beauty is the key to a woman’s power. 
Charlize Theron as Ravenna in SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN
Even when Theron was playing ingénues, she rebelled against the ‘girliness’ of such roles. In 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY she was the sexy moll of a hit man who despised being his arm candy. Her eyes spoke volumes in that role, as they always do, loathing the sexist putdowns from boyfriend James Spader. In THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE she was the restless wife of Keanu Reeve’s workaholic lawyer who saw the hell the devil was creating around them. Her desperation gave the role a depth that was not on the page and made that movie a much deeper entertainment than its rather one-note high concept story. 
Charlize Theron in 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY
As she grew older, Theron’s range grew even greater. She won an Oscar stepping far outside the confines of a glamorous leading lady with her turn as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in MONSTER. For that role, Theron gained 30 pounds and wore heavy makeup to play the truculent con with a chip on her shoulder a mile wide. Theron burrowed deep into Wuornos’ psyche, far beyond the cosmetic, far beyond the hatred, to find the lost little girl inside the beast. Rape and abuse made Wuornos a monster but Theron made her vengeance understandable and even pitiable. 
Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos in MONSTER (2003)
From there Theron took more and more character roles instead of typical leading lady parts. As the struggling detective anchoring IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, Theron tried to help military veteran Tommy Lee Jones discover the truth surrounding his son’s death at an army base. Once again she portrayed a woman fighting a world of sexism. She was the smart girl trying to win a place in the boys club. But the chauvinists at the police station and the military HQ tried to thwart her at every turn because they couldn't see beyond her sex. 
Charlize Theron as a detective in IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (2007)
And in the finest role of her career, Theron played Mavis Gary in YOUNG ADULT (I picked it as one of the 10 best movies last year: http://theestablishingshot.blogspot.com/2012/01/my-picks-for-10-best-films-of-2011.html) Mavis had it all in her teenage years. She was prom queen, dated the quarterback and was a promising writer. But once she graduated the world got uglier and so did she. Mavis returns home in the story, trying to rekindle the romance and restore her former glory, but it doesn’t take. And she becomes unraveled by it. Theron was emotionally naked throughout, distraught and bitter, her eyes conveying a decade of hurt, hate and disappointment. It was unflinching work, and she never played outside the role, asking for pity. She was mean and petty and hard to feel for, but we did anyway because Theron made us understand. Just like she made us see why her queen is so wretched towards Snow White. 
Charlize  Theron during the 2012 awards season.
 Theron chooses roles that speak to her, to us, and to our times. And in a time when a woman’s right to choose and even her ability to gain access to birth control is still being argued by chauvinistic old men, Theron’s choices speak volumes. Perhaps we haven’t progressed all that far beyond the Dark Ages of Snow White and Ravenna. It may be a fantasy world but it sure does resemble today’s reality. Charlize Theron knows that. And because of her, so do we.