Saturday, July 27, 2013

GET US OUT FROM UNDER, WONDER WOMAN!



My friend and fellow screenwriter Colin Costello opined on his Facebook page this week that he didn’t feel that actress Olivia Munn was an ideal choice to play Wonder Woman. She was telling the press how she coveted the role but Colin didn’t think she was quite right. He felt she probably wasn’t tough enough and he may be correct in his assumptions. Colin favored someone more like MMA champion Gina Carano. She may have the toughness but does she have the acting chops? Iffy, in my opinion, if HAYWIRE and FAST & FURIOUS 6 are any indication. So, just what kind of actress is right for the role? Young yes, but how young? Tough of course, but not too butch, right? And do you keep that skimpy, sexy costume? Hmm, lots to decide here.

Say what you will about the limits of 70’s television, but Lynda Carter was pretty darn terrific in the dual role of Wonder Woman and her 'alter ego' Diana Prince. Sure, Carter wasn’t all that athletic. And her Wonder Woman wore heeled boots for God's sake, but she brought a warm earnestness to the whole shebang not unlike what Christopher Reeve gave to the role of Superman in the classic 1978 movie. Carter was tall, glamorous and had a quiet authority to her as well. So what actress is like that today? Or does Wonder Woman need to be re-imagined as someone harder than that for our cynical modern times? 
Lynda Carter in the 1970's television series.
There have been some good thoughts on who could play the role over the years. Some thought Catherine Zeta-Jones would have been perfect for it...10 years ago. Megan Fox seemed like a strong choice when she was the hottest new thing in Hollywood, but now she seems less interesting and more like a second or third tier choice. Is somebody like Olivia Wilde simply too gorgeous for the character? Is Aussie hurdler Michele Janeke far too unknown? Is Kate Winslet way too serious? The issues of casting the role creates all kinds of polarization, and most of it has to do with just what kind of character is Wonder Woman. That is one of the main reasons it has become so problematic a project over the years. 

But now because of the ginormous success of Marvel Comics’ AVENGER movie, Warner Bros. is fast-tracking their adaptation of the DC Comics’ superheroes movie JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. The JLA would showcase their own uber awesome team of Batman, Superman, The Flash, possibly The Green Lantern and Aquaman, and yes, certainly Wonder Woman. So now the many questions surrounding how to bring Wonder Woman to life on screen are even more immediate because casting is starting now.  

And casting isn’t the only issue. Should her origins story, if there is one, be a period piece? The original Wonder Woman fought the Nazis in the 40's but would that be too much for her narrative or could the heaviness of that period make her seem even more legit? And what about that revealing outfit, with her burgeoning breasts and blue satin pants? Is it too sexist for modern audiences? Would it turn off women? And if the costume needs an update, what should it look like? And as for that Amazonian island populated only by women, what does one do with that? Lots of questions like these have plagued all who’ve attempted to launch the property too, including some of Hollywood’s biggest and best talents like J.J. Abrams and David E. Kelly. Kelly famously tried to do a TV adaptation a few years back but it was deemed too awful to even air. (There are bootleg copies of it to be found at comic conventions if you're willing to shill out a couple hundred bucks. For such mediocrity, I'm certainly not, no matter how much a curiosity it may be.)
So why is Wonder Woman such a problem? And how do you bring her to life without being sexist, old-fashioned or cheesy? Well, it helps to remember that her character is remarkably similar to that of Superman. Like him, she's stronger than most humans and has extraordinary powers that truly make her truly special, like her cat-like reflexes that give her the ability to deflect bullets with her golden bracelets. And like Superman playing Clark Kent, she's hiding in plain sight too, pretending to be one of us. And there's a charm to her in her confidence knowing that she's pulling one over on us mere mortals. Heck, she even flies a custom-made invisible plane which is incredibly weird, yet cool. 

So how do you bring such a character to life, making her relevant for a modern audience, as well as give her nuances, and even flaws? If she's going to yield her own franchise, great care must be given to make Wonder Women credible and heroic, even if she looks like a 40's pin-up. 

Of course, Zack Snyder did a pretty good job with WATCHMEN and the way he brought out the characters of Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman). They too were dressed in sexy, pin-up style costumes, yet were believable as strong, determined women. That's due greatly to the two terrific actresses playing the two role. But by treating them seriously on all fronts, we believed that they were part of the elite group of self-styled heroes protecting the USA from the baddies out there. Whomever makes Wonder Woman into a movie would be wise to watch out Snyder and his talented team did it. 

Overall,  I think there are five crucial things that need to be done to make Wonder Woman a success, either as a member of the JLA team or as a headliner of her own movie series afterwards. So let me spell them out for you, and see if you agree:

    1.) KEEP IT EARNEST
As stated earlier, the success of the TV series WONDER WOMAN in the 70’s was due largely to it being rendered irony-free. Granted, the world is very snarky these days, but Wonder Woman should not be. And she certainly can be witty and smart without being naive. Lynda Carter made goodness incredibly fun and sexy. So did Christopher Reeve. The new version of WW should do the same. Be sincere, honest, straight-forward with Wonder Woman's 'squareness' and it will be cool. At the very least, the filmmakers bringing Wonder Woman to life should follow the example of another film that laid similar groundwork - THOR. If that ridiculous half Shakespeare/half gladiator world can be done with a straight face, so can this one. Yes, some of Wonder Woman is corny with her golden lasso that makes liars tell the truth, but it's no more absurd than Thor's silver hammer. Play it straight and we'll believe in it all.

2.) CAST AN UNKNOWN
Did anyone know who Christopher Reeve was before he appeared in  SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE? How about Chris Hemsworth in THOR? Thus, Wonder Woman should be cast with a terrific actress and not a big star. Let the part make the actress a household name. And let audiences believe she’s the character rather than a pricey A-list actress trying to merely create a cash cow franchise for herself.
The misbegotten costume from David E. Kelly's TV pilot updating WONDER WOMAN
3.) BE FAITHFUL TO THE COMICS
How about giving the writers who’ve succeeded so demonstrably over the years scripting the Wonder Woman comic book series a crack at her origins screenplay? I bet they'd be able to do all sorts of wonders with our woman. For starters, they know the character and storyline inside and out. And that means her origins story needs to be kept intact. Don't re-invent the wheel here. David E. Kelly was new to the Wonder Woman world and he tried to update far too many things, including the costume. And it was a disaster.  

4.) KEEP THE ICONIC COSTUME INTACT
The David E. Kelly debacle brings me to WW's famous costume with that zaftig, golden bustier and her Star-Spangled shorts. I say keep ‘em, love ‘em, cherish them. The iconic wardrobe of hers for the past 60 years needs to stay absolutely in place for any big screen version. Hey, if Christopher Reeve could make wearing red shorts on the outside of blue tights seem believable and even heroic then why can't a good actress rock the WW costume? Of course she can. 

     5.) SHE'S A WOMAN, NOT A MAN
Hollywood should resist the urge to butch our girl up. Look at the JLA animated series rendering above, which did the character very well. She’s not that big or buff. She looks incredibly feminine. The only part of her that’s badass is the attitude. When the going gets tough, Wonder Woman gets going, but she doesn’t need to look like a WWE wrestler or mixed martial athlete to do so. Even Lynda Carter, who was pretty willowy in her way, knew how to be steely and tough when needed. That's Wonder Woman. And modernity should not be forced upon her and make her asexual. Quite the contrary. Wonder Woman defied sexist men in the 40’s who underestimated her, by being strong and incredibly alluring. And she should and easily could do the same to today. A women can remain herself even playing in the 'big boys' world - isn't that the story in Wonder Woman?

Which brings me to one last suggestion that I know Hollywood won’t regard, but they really should:

    6.) KEEP WW IN WWII
Granted, it's hard to keep Wonder Woman as a period piece if you're going to introduce her in the modern day Justice League, but her origins story during World War II was exquisite and should really remain there. Fighting for “the old Red, White & Blue”, as you may remember the lyric said in the old TV show's theme song, was her calling and it added to her all-American appeal. Just as Rosie the Riveter went to work while USA men went overseas to fight, so did Diana Prince. She opted to rise and fight the Axis countries trying to take over the world in her own way. A rather spectacular way. A woman fighting against the bigotry and oppression of fascism is the perfect place for her story.

Wonder Woman will strike a chord with audiences, no matter what period she's in, just as she's done for over half a decade. And her story would comment beautifully on all of the issues facing women in the world today. Let's face it, when a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her own body is still being questioned,  Wonder Woman is needed to champion the cause. Period pieces are always really about the present anyway, so if Wonder Woman’s fight for her rights take place in yesteryear, they're still all about today. 

Wonder Woman isn't that hard of an egg to crack. She's a female super human who cares about truth, justice and the American way. And boy, does she do the job and she looks fine doing it, never losing her strength, beauty or sensitivity as a woman. So Hollywood, go out and find the right unknown actress and do all the things that seem fairly obvious to me as a fan, and you'll have a great character and franchise that all of us will clamor to see.  Wonder Woman is a wonder so give us one worth watching.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

THE BEST HORROR MOVIE OF 2013 (SO FAR) IS THE CONJURING


Dread is rare in horror movies these days. It’s that fear of what’s coming next that truly keeps audiences on the edge of their seat. And too many modern horror movies are so formulaic that the audience tends to be about 10 minutes ahead of what’s happening on screen. This is not the case with THE CONJURING which just opened.  It sustains a sense of dread down to the last second and had me on edge the entire movie. It’s quite an accomplishment.
Vera Farmiga in THE CONJURING
This sublime scarefest is helped by the fact that THE CONJURING is based on a true story. In the 70’s, Ed and Lorraine Warren (played earnestly by accomplished actors Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) were paranormal investigators whose ghostbusting adventures turned them into minor celebrities (http://bit.ly/bSdLyM). They were called in on many cases, including that famous one up in Amityville, New York. And their investigation into the Perron family’s problems with their Rhode Island farmhouse may have been their most disturbing investigation, and up until now, it’s never been fully disclosed.

Perhaps it was kept secret due to it being too incredible. This ghost story had it all – ghosts of homicidal mothers, creepy children, demonic dolls, an elaborate exorcism – but the events are documented and that helps make this movie all the more creepy. It also helps that this movie is told without a lot of stylistic flourishes that could have gotten in the way. By and large, director James Wan (SAW, INSIDIOUS) lets the taut and tight screenplay by Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes do the heavy lifting. On occasion, Wan still indulges in cocked camera angles or self-conscious POV shots but his restraint is admirable, letting the events speak for themselves.
Patrick Wilson in THE CONJURING
And speak they do, as these ghosts call after the Perron family with eerie effect. Their torment of the children in particular is relentless. They speak to them, pull at their feet in bed, slam their bedroom doors, and even attack them by pulling hair and choking these adorable little girls. Yet none of these are ever presented as cheap shocks that so often populate horror films. Particularly frightening is how the ghosts repeatedly mock the family. The girls’ game of “Hide and Clap” is turned into a fiendish attack that will make you jump out of your seat.

There’s a lot of that in this movie - all genuine, all truly frightening. It’s made even more so by the fact that Lorraine is psychic and can see the ghosts and other ghastly visions from the ‘other side’. When she’s introduced to the family, she tries to be cordial and soothe the distraught girls but she can see the ghostly presence clinging to them. Vera Farmiga, so sublime as Norma Bates on BATES MOTEL (http://exm.nr/11iJ9cU), works more wonders here. There’s no actress working today who conveys fear better. Her expressive pale blue eyes are as haunted as the house!
Lili Taylor in THE CONJURING
The rest of the A-list cast gives it their all too. Patrick Wilson straddles his true believer with a witty sense of skepticism around the edges. And Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor really make you ache for these kind and unassuming people, struggling to keep their wits and their family together in one piece despite all the terrible events occurring in their home. And when Taylor becomes possessed by the demon, it is truly horrifying. Taylor’s full-throttled commitment as an actress is a marvel. She will not likely get any acting awards for this role, but that doesn’t make it any less stunning of an accomplishment.

And it’s a shame because, unlike the Emmys acknowledging Vera Farmiga for her work on BATES MOTEL this week, as well as 17 nominations for the likes of AMERICAN HORROR STORY (http://bit.ly/15OS1cf), the Academy Awards rarely honor such genre accomplishments. That’s an utter shame, as the artists at work here deserve such acknowledgement. Wan’s direction, as well as Joseph Bishara’s score, Kirk Morri’s editing, John Leonetti’s cinematography, and Julie Berghoff’s production design are easily some of the best this year. 

Originally, the trailer was worrisome as it gave away so many of the best scares: the sheet flying off the clothes line that outlined the figure of a ghost nearby; the ghost’s hands clapping behind Lili Taylor’s head; the children being pulled out of their beds, etc. But there are so many other scares in this movie, and they all come legitimately out of the story, that you’ll walk away feeling totally satiated. And I can’t remember the last movie that had me squirming in my seat, wondering what was coming next, and fearing for the lives of the characters on screen.

I’ve had some issues before with James Wan’s showmanship (http://exm.nr/Qol5SS) but here exhibits marvelous control. He even downplays the dog’s demise, which is one of the first sign that’s something is amiss in the house, and the only egregious cliché in the film. But other than that, this film doesn’t strike a wrong note. And it sustains its moodiness and terror right until the last shot of a spinning toy stopping right before the credits. THE CONJURING is easily the best horror film on the big screen so far in 2013, and with more true stories to be told from the Ed and Lorraine Warren casebook, I’m hoping there are sequels. Bring on the ghosts!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

HOLLYWOOD RIPS ITSELF A NEW ONE


If you think that the ultra-right wing of the GOP has it in for Hollywood, you should see what the elites on the left are parsing out. Some of the most stinging takedowns of Tinseltown’s culture are coming from within the very confines of the 90210 zip code. In fact, two of this summer’s best movies are blistering dark comedies savaging the town that were made by Hollywood insiders.
Filmmaker Sofia Coppola is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and her movies have always been tinged with the bitterness of a child who stood too close to the malarkey of the fame game. In LOST IN TRANSLATION and SOMEWHERE she told knowing stories about big movie star types who tired of the celebrity carousel and wanted off the dizzying ride. Now she’s turned her focus from the insiders to the outsiders that desperately want to hop on. In her black comedy THE BLING RING she tells the true story of a group of privileged LA teens so aching to live the glam lifestyles of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, they literally started stealing from their idols to achieve it.
Emily Watson in THE BLING RING.
‘The Bling Ring’, as they were dubbed, was a core group of five teens (played with the right mix of innocence and snarkiness here by young actors Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emily Watson, Taissa Farmiga and Claire Julien) that coveted the designer duds and partying ways of their TMZ favorites. Between 2008-2009, these materialistic brats brazenly broke into the Hollywood hills homes of Lindsay and Paris, as well as Rachel Bilson, Megan Fox and Audrina Patridge, and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of their clothes, jewelry, money and other baubles of fame.
Sofia Coppola wrote and directed THE BLING RING.
Watching such disaffected youth casually commit these crimes, nonchalantly climbing over locked gates, then rummaging through the celeb’s closets, couldn’t help but remind me of the antics of the Manson girls back in the late 60’s. Those hippie outsiders used to “creepy crawl” through Bel Air homes too and steal whatever they deemed worth taking. Chilling too is the same devil-may-care expressions on the ‘Bling Ring’ girls, not far from the smirking faces of Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkle and Leslie Van Houten sitting on trial for the Tate/LaBianca murders. The girls in THE BLING RING may not be murderers like Manson’s minions, but they too are ‘takers’ with utterly sociopathic inclinations.

Then there’s THIS IS THE END, one of the most hilarious movies to come down the pike in a while. Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg are Hollywood insiders, and best buds, and here they’ve worked together to create a viciously funny putdown of young Hollywood actors mistaking fame for greatness. It takes place at a Hollywood party hosted by James Franco (as himself) filled with narcissistic celebs (all playing themselves) snorting, drinking and engaging in all kinds of lurid acts. Then, their world comes to an end. Literally. The earth explodes and starts swallowing up the sinners (most of Franco’s guests) and saving the good for God. Those remaining behind must fend off the devil that is now ruling the hell on earth, and figure out just why they weren’t deemed ‘Rapture’ worthy.
James Franco's party takes a turn for the worse in THIS IS THE END.
The young Hollywood crew left behind, including Jonah Hill, Danny McBride and Craig Robinson, come to the realization that they may be marquee names, but that doesn’t mean they’ve necessarily earned a VIP pass to the afterlife. Rogan and Goldberg recognize that there are too many false idols in town, and the true worth of someone lies beyond their ability to ‘open a movie’. It’s bold to take the piss out of your very existence, but Rogan and Goldberg clearly do here. Their movie be over-the-top dirty and even offensive to some, but its message of righteousness is as pure as the driven snow.
Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, the creators of THIS IS THE END.
Both THIS IS THE END and THE BLING RING are modern morality plays, joining the esteemed ranks of other films ripping Hollywood like SUNSET BOULEVARD, S.O.B., BARTON FINK, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, BOWFINGER, and a number of Woody Allen movies, just to name a few. And both new films cut similarly, and deeply, as only films by those who’ve lived it could. Coppola, Rogan, Goldberg and crew may all have lived exceptionally coddled lives, but at least they know that doesn’t make them quite as special as Us magazine would tell us they are. In a town known for its navel gazing and selfishness, it’s an utter marvel to see such ‘anti-vanity’ projects coming from within.

Now if we could just get Hollywood to stop making so many movies about robots.

Friday, July 5, 2013

THE LONE RANGER? MORE LIKE THE LONGGGG RANGER.


The new Disney epic adventure THE LONE RANGER is getting rather bad reviews for a number of reasons. It's title character is rather 1-dimensional and even foppish. The tone is a strange mix of the heavily violent juxtaposed against sitcom-style male buddy banter. And Tonto isn’t played by an Indian actor. But where the real egregiousness lies is in its ridiculous length of 2 and ½ hours. What should have been a smart, tight rollercoaster ride ends up being an overstuffed, dragging extravaganza that does the one thing that no action film should ever do. It bores. This western adventure felt more like the CENTENNIAL mini-series on TV back in 1978. That long-form TV western lasted 21 hours. THE LONE RANGER just felt like it.
Now, there are some things to admire in THE LONE RANGER. Johnny Depp is very funny, as always, if you can get past the arguments against him playing the role of Tonto. The special effects are excellent with a lot of terrific CGI throughout. And the first action scene, set on a runaway train, is a visual marvel. But the film never matches that first set piece, even though it tries. God knows it tries! And at the climax of the movie the filmmakers haul out another train chase. There’s bookending, and then there’s never ending.
That last action scene not only repeats a lot of what we’ve already seen, but it becomes a drawn-out mess with dueling trains, track jumping, crashes, explosions and collisions that left me exhausted, not elated. THE LONE RANGER takes an eternity to tell its rather simple story about how a good man turns into an outlaw to bring justice to the West. And all along the way, the movie makes mistake after prolonged mistake that turns something light into something lethargic. Did the movie really need that self-indulgent framing device with an elderly Tonto narrating his story to a kid in a sideshow? Isn’t the first rule of action adventure supposed to be that action pictures need to move?
So why are so many in Hollywood forgetting that most basic of rules? I liked a lot of MAN OF STEEL but then that last half hour choked on its own excesses of city destruction and endless fisticuffs. Christopher Nolan restored the seriousness to THE DARK KNIGHT franchise after the garish Joel Schumacher campiness, but why did each sequel become more bloated, with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES clocking in at 165 minutes? Why is producer Jerry Bruckheimer able to produce such tight, fast-moving TV shows (The CSI franchise, THE AMAZING RACE) while the length of his PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels just went on and on and on?
Maybe too many filmmakers feel that movies need to be epic to offer something that TV cannot. They think the big screen needs to show big, larger-than-life sequences that just can’t be seen on the small screen. There may be some truth in that, but it’s reaching a point where the excess is just that and little more. Certain visceral emotions, like laughter, fear and adrenaline, are hard to sustain onscreen for any extended period of time. Even the most exciting thrills become familiar after a certain point, and that’s why most genre films clock in well under two hours. Horror films and comedies mind the time, why not action?  And long movies aren’t even good for the box office as lengthy screen times mean fewer showings per screen, and that means less profits for everyone.
Storytellers in Hollywood should be able to take their time telling stories. But extended, sustained narratives are meant for TV series or miniseries. And indeed, certain film's stories need more time.  The movie WATCHMEN felt cheated by being condensed to a  less than three hour running time. The intricate, multi-layered source material needed something more akin to a miniseries to tell it. THE LONE RANGER however did not need 149 minutes to tell its rather obvious story. What it needed was a deft 100 minutes and not a moment more.

How badly was some judicious editing needed on THE LONE RANGER? Well, when the movie strikes up the William Tell Overture for that final train battle, it’s exciting. But after the soundtrack repeats that three-minute Rossini piece for the third time, you know the train isn’t the only thing hurtling off the tracks. The movie as a whole is. And Hollywood’s sense of what constitutes genuine thrills jumped off with it too.