Thursday, November 27, 2008

Must Read - Roger Ebert sounds the bells for the death of the film critic.

"The news is still big, it's the newspapers that got small."

The merits of the essay linked below speaks for itself. As for film criticism, the future clearly lies with blogs and sites like this, where quality prose can breathe and live and find whatever readers find it worthy. But it is a shame that the tradition of the newspaper film critic, the very thing that aspired me to first love movies, has so quickly been destroyed in a little under two years. He is not the first person to sound the alarm, but this is the one that most people will read... the sound of doom from our most trusted film critic.
Please read and worry.

Scott Mendelson

"Deconstructing Harry" - Are the Dirty Harry films really the right-wing propaganda that they are presumed to be?

Since I am currently out of town until Sunday, I am offering this archival piece of film analysis. As part of my college portfolio, I did a relatively detailed deconstruction of the Dirty Harry films, arguing that their 'facist/right wing' propaganda reputation was not entirely justified. While this is work from over seven years ago, I think it still holds up. Please enjoy and I'll be back with more timely news after the break.

Scott Mendelson

“Dirty-ing” the Waters

“Most people who talk about the rights of the accused have never been victimized; most of them probably never got accosted in an alley. The symbol of justice is the scale, and yet the scale is never balanced; it falls to the left and then it swings too far back to the right.”

--- Clint Eastwood defends Dirty Harry in a 1974 interview for Playboy.


The Dirty Harry series, spanning from 1971 to 1988, contained five films, of varying quality, have been accused of everything from endorsing fascism to displaying racist caricatures. In reality, upon viewing these films in the thirteen years after their finale, all five pictures in fact contain a most moderate of philosophies. They neither whole-heartedly endorse a savage, police state-like environment nor do they actually believe in every platform of the Libertarian party. As Eastwood stated in the same interview as quoted above, the first Dirty Harry picture was “just the story of one frustrated police officer in a frustrating situation on one particular case.” Like real life, the films take different stands on different issues.

Opening in the fall of 1971, the original Dirty Harry was attacked from many circles as fascist, anti-peace, and racist. Still, it was a big hit; thanks to the star power of Clint Eastwood, the boasting an all-time classic villain (Andrew Robinson, the actor who portrayed Scorpio, was so deluged by hate-mail and the occasional death threat that he had to get an unlisted phone number), and the fact that, alleged politics aside, it was a very good action film. It would eventually spawn four sequels. Whether it actually fits any of the above labels is certainly a question that has been debated, but Eastwood and company spent the next three sequels trying to deal and answer to their critics in all three of these areas.

The charges of racism stem from the famous “Do you feel lucky punk?” robbery scene that concerns Harry stopping several black bank robbers from making a successful getaway. Is the very image, regardless of context, of a strong white man pointing a gun and smirking at a fallen black man racist on its own? Director Don Seigel and Eastwood were concerned about this potential reaction ahead of time, as the very next scene in the film has Harry being stitched up by a black doctor who had apparently been friends with Callahan for a long time (the scene was actually shot near the end of production with the 2nd assistant director playing the doctor). Even without this extra scene, if one looks closely at the bank job scene, one will notice something quite interesting. As Callahan slowly walks over to the wounded bank robber to make his classic threat, there are a couple dozen-window washers, painters, fellow cops, hot-dog vendors, and the like. Nearly all of these people are black. Throughout Dirty Harry, African Americans are portrayed as both good and evil. Black people are doctors, bank-robbers, painters, cops, and thugs who will beat someone up for money. Just like real life, people of color come in all colors.

Eastwood attempted to rectify this conception, true or otherwise, with the second film, Magnum Force (1973). Felton Perry, an African American, was cast as Harry’s newest doomed partner and the film included a scene where Harry and his partner shoot it out with a gang of racist convenience store robbers. Unfortunately, the film’s attempt at racial harmony was potentially undone by a long, extremely graphic scene of a stereotypical black pimp murdering one of his prostitutes by beating her and forcing her to drink Drano (an act which was duplicated by a group of thieves who decided to force their five bound and gagged victims to drink Drano before shooting them). For better or worse, it is this set piece that would be far more likely to stand out to a casual audience member, rather than the scenes of Detective Earthy enforcing the law alongside Inspector Callahan.

“Harry’s hippie adversary,” states Pauline Kael, referring to the original film’s Scorpio killer, “is pure evil.” “This monster--who actually wears a peace symbol—stands for everything the audience loathes and fears.” According to Kael and others, the character of Dirty Harry Callahan was a representative of the conservative champion of law and order, martyred with blood on his hands in his quest to rid the world of murderous hippie-scum and the liberals who would set them free. The two main pieces of evidence for this argument were Scorpios’ peace-sign belt buckle and his use of the signs of the Zodiac in relation to his killings. As for the belt-buckle, director Don Siegel has simply claimed that the peace sign simply symbolized “that no matter how vicious a person is, when he looks in the mirror he is still blind to what he truly is”. It is certainly worth noting that the character of the Scorpio was very heavily based on the Zodiac killer who was stalking San Francisco only a few years prior. Like the Scorpio, the never-apprehended Zodiac killer murdered according to astrology, sent taunting notes to the police, and even threatened to abduct a bus-full of schoolchildren (an act that occurs in the film’s climax). Throughout the film, Scorpio never once expresses any kind of political philosophy and was never intended to represent anything more than a sociopath.

Again, stung by this criticism, Eastwood dealt with this topic, as well as the aforementioned racial qualms, in the third film, The Enforcer (1976). The main plot, inspired by the Patty Hearst case, involves a group of homicidal thieves who masquerade as freedom-fighting hippie rebels robbing and killing for their own revolutionary cause. It is Callahan who sees through their false pretensions and he even consults and is aided by a group of militant black freedom fighters in his quest for justice. This, of course, kills two birds with a single stone; providing both an example of extremist, liberal political groups who can cooperate with the police and positive black characters to counter-balance the alleged racism of the first two films.

The most potent and common cry against the first Dirty Harry film is that it promoted vigilantism and fascists’ ideals. While Don Siegal claims the film does not condone Harry's behavior, the fact remains that the film is open to various interpretations; there is certainly evidence to support both sides. Whether the audience condones Harry’s behavior or not, the audience is certainly meant to feel outrage when Scorpio is set free on legal technicalities as a result of Harry’s apparently illegal search and seizure. We are also meant to at least feel some sense of satisfaction when Scorpio finally meets his violent end (of course that applies to 99% of all action films which celebrate the villain’s climactic death). And there is ample evidence to support Pauline Kael’s writings comparing Inspector Callahan to a Christ-like figure, met to suffer and shed blood to save us all from dregs of society, regardless of the rules and regulations of man. Not only do Harry and his partner first shoot it out with Scorpio while perched on the roof of a church, but also one should take notice of the scene where Callahan first confronts Scorpio face-to-face at the end of the ransom-payoff scene. Having been run all about town by the mysterious villain, Callahan is beaten to a pulp and nearly shot while standing in front of a giant cross. And what is one to make of the climactic scene, where Harry takes his badge and flings it into the river (an obvious homage to High Noon, where Gary Cooper feels a similar sense of abandonment and futility)? One could argue that this represents Callahan’s final admission of martyrdom, having sacrificed his life to a career enforcing law in a liberal society that was not willing to do what was necessary to keep order.

But those who would argue that Callahan was a fascist-wannabe are missing one major point. Throughout the entire film series, never, not once, does Callahan commit murder. Yes, he shoots and kills countless bad guys over seventeen years, but it is always either in self-defense or after a rogue has refused to surrender and poses a clear, present, and immediate threat (notice that Harry does not kill Scorpio until the villain goes for his gun). Never once does he cross that line into pure vigilantism. Every time he does violate procedure, there are consequences and Callahan is forced to enforce justice through proper legal methods, which he of course does. He may not like the strict rules and regulations that govern his line of work, but he does respect and attempt to follow them.

This is specifically dealt with in the second film, Magnum Force. The plot concerns a group of rogue police officers that runs amuck murdering countless criminals and thugs. “A man’s gotta know his limitations,” Callahan states in the climax as he confronts the leader of the badge-carrying death-squad. He fully acknowledges that there is a line that a cop cannot cross lest they become what they fight against. Callahan may dislike this or that rule or regulation, be he completely understands the need for rules and regulations lest there be only chaos. It is unfortunate that film number four, Sudden Impact (1983), has an out of character Callahan allowing a vigilante murderer, who has methodically killed the men who once raped her and her sister, to walk away unpunished while a deceased gang leader of takes the rap (one could argue that the film series was trying to broaden its appeal to women’s rights advocates). It is all the more appalling, as he seems motivated less by a slightly skewed sense of justice then by his feelings of lust for the female avenger in question (played by his then-wife Sandra Locke, who seemed to have an unusual habit of being sexually assaulted on camera in films she made with Eastwood).

Having run out of things to apologize for, the final episode, The Dead Pool (1988) is little more than a fun, light, exciting mystery flick with an almost cartoonish aura about it. Throughout the entire film, Callahan does not violate one rule or regulation during his investigation and the grittiness and general dark, pessimistic tone of the series is missing. Its portrayal of a sensationalistic media, however, could be a response to years of alleged misconceptions and hyperbole about the previous entries.

The original Dirty Harry was about something very simple. It is about a man who is in conflict between enforcing the law the way he thinks he should and the way he knows he must. In the end (remember, the film was not meant to have a sequel), Callahan realizes that he can no longer do his duty by the book and decides to walk away from the job before he truly crosses the line and dishonors the badge and his fellow officers. Like The Searchers, the hero of Dirty Harry realizes that his type of law enforcement is of little use in this more civilized world. In the finale, as he throws his badge into the bloody waters, Inspector Harry Callahan decides that he would prefer to become one martyr than create many.

NOTE: All pieces of trivia and quotes related to these films were taken from
www.thedirtiest.com

Fun Trivia of no relevance to this essay: There is an interesting theory floating about, which is probably not true, that states that The Zodiac Killer was actually Ted Kasyinski before he became the Unabomber. Due to the conflicting personalities of the two serial killers (the Zodiac was one of the most confrontational serial killers to ever use a firearm while the Unabomber was the sort who preferred not to confront his victims directly and kill from afar), this is a highly unlikely possibility. Still, the timeline of Kasyinski’s life, in terms of important events, does match up with the timeline of the start and end of the Zodiac killings and the beginning of the mail bombings. Again, I highly doubt the accuracy of this idea, but it is a fun theory for those who enjoy urban legends.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: Frost/Nixon (2008)

Frost/Nixon
2008
122 minutes
rated R (language)

Note – because this is based on true events, and those events provide a context in which to evaluate this fictionalized interpretation, there are spoilers regarding the actual historical outcomes.

by Scott Mendelson

The idea of Richard Nixon being brought down because of a burglary and/or an attempt to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee (and the subsequent cover up) is a lot like Al Capone being busted for tax evasion. Of the countless illegal and immoral deeds that Richard Nixon committed (countless politically based wiretaps, accepting illicit campaign contributions, engaging in harassment against political enemies and/or peaceful opposition groups, the bombing of Cambodia etc), the crime that actually caused his downfall was a minor one in the grand scheme of things. Depending on your political persuasion, you may find Nixon’s misdeeds dwarfed by the follies of the Clinton years, the clumsiness of the Carter years, or the corruption and incompetence of Reagan and W. Bush years. But there is something almost nostalgic about a time when citizens were actively outraged by shenanigans in the highest office, and partisan politics took a temporary backseat to do something about it.

Frost/Nixon is an adaptation of a stage play that details the build-up and production of four interviews between former president Richard M. Nixon and British television host David Frost in 1977. The interviews were quite important as they were the first to be conducted since Nixon resigned from the Oval Office. This was to be the first, and best chance, to theoretically heal the nation by getting Nixon to come clean about his criminal culpability. Would this lightweight showbiz interviewer be able to match wits with a master politician, or would be play an unwitting role in rehabilitating the image of the hated ex-president?

In a rare move, both of the original play’s leads reprise their roles for this Ron Howard-directed film version. Frank Langella once again portrays Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen again takes on David Frost. Langella won a Tony in 2007 for the stage version, and he has a pretty solid shot at a Best Actor Oscar nomination for this film version. While Richard Nixon is basically a supporting role (he’s barely in the first half of the picture), it’s the kind of flashy, pomp-and-circumstance role that the Academy loves to honor, especially when delivered by older veterans who haven’t really had the chance to shine over the years (let’s face it, most of Frank Langella’s fan base knows him as ‘the guy who played Skeletor’).

The rest of the cast shines just as brightly. Michael Sheen has the difficult task of keeping Frost sympathetic while he consistently underestimates the demands of the assignment he has given himself. However, the most entertaining beats involve Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt. Rockwell in particular excels as anti-Nixon historian James Reston Jr., who desperately wants to use this interview to ‘give Nixon the trial he never got’. Oliver Platt is less over dramatic as ABC news honcho Bill Zelnick, but it’s always a joy to watch him play subtly sarcastic, intelligent men of authority (he single handedly saved The West Wing by making the protracted MS cover-up storyline bearable).

But, alas while the film is exceptionally acted and the story is usually entertaining, the sledgehammer attempt to equate politics and journalism with a sporting competition (such as a boxing match) slowly turns the film into something resembling a Rocky sequel. We have the initial training montage (research and practice interviews), the initial defeat (the first days of interviews), followed by the rehabilitation and potential for climactic redemption. Heck, we even have the equivalent of the late-night cramming session, where the lead character finally gets motivated and tries to learn a whole administration’s history in a single night. I can’t speak for the play, but if Ron Howard wanted to make a political drama into a underdog sports film, he would have been wise not to hit every cliché in the genre.

Not helping matters is the inclusion of a fictional late-night conversation between Nixon and Frost, which serves to give Langella the required ‘big scene’ as well as give Nixon the chance to explain his entire character arc. Is the scene entertaining? Of course, but it feels like such a screenwriter’s crutch that it could only be justified as good drama if it actually happened. It may be the scene that will be used in various awards shows, but it’s the most artificial and phony bit in the whole film.

And, in the end, aside from historical anecdote, what is the long term consequence of Frost’s potential victory against Richard Nixon? If we are to view this film purely as an acting treat and a tidbit of little known history (behind the scenes of a major political interview), then it works as a solid entertainment, a fun glance at political theater in an age when the media was briefly riding high. But it fails to achieve any deeper meaning, and it fails to convince us that the interview had any implications beyond one man’s mea culpa (besides, in our society, nothing rehabilitates an image like a humbled apology). The legacy of Nixon is a complicated one (by today’s skewered standards, his politics would almost be considered center-left), that of a potentially great man brought down by paranoia and a need to both be admired and be feared by the people he felt loathed him. Other than some fine moments by Langella and some nice supporting turns by Platt and Rockwell, and Kevin Bacon, Frost/Nixon fails to add anything of substance to the history that it portrays.

Grade: B-

Test your Government and Civics IQ

Apparently, the average score for this Civics and Government test is a lousy 49%. Truth be told, it's a pretty challenging test, as it ventures far outside the usual high school proficiency test stuff (I did well, but I had to think about some of them). It's from the Conservative think tank Intercollegiate Studies Institute (hence the emphasis on the glory of free market capitalism), but it's still a solid quiz. Michael Fox on Open Salon covers the possible hypocrisy of the ISI condemning America for not being literate on matters of civics, so I won't repeat that here. Give it a go and see how you do.

The Quiz


For the record, I got 30/33 (missed some tax questions). If you're brave enough, take the quiz and let me know how you did in the comments section.

Scott Mendelson

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Yes, Twilight is sexist, but it's also female escapism.

This will be an essay regarding the alleged political and social undercurrents of the first Twilight movie (for a normal review, go here), and how whether it matters in judging the film. For the record, I have not read the books and I know very little about what happens in the later stories. I will be only taking stock of the content of the first film. I will be dealing with (alleged) symbolic as well as literal interpretations of onscreen events.

Taken as a movie and taken at face value, Twilight is simply a romantic drama involving a young girl and a brooding but handsome vampire (who looks and acts her age, but is actually nearly 100 years old). Like any worldwide phenomenon, the original books (and thus this first movie) have been dissected by the page. Most of the criticisms are in the vein of ‘it’s sexist’ or ‘it’s anti-feminist’, or ‘it celebrates the oppressive patriarchy’. Do these charges apply purely to the first movie? And if they do, is it intentional, or merely an inevitable byproduct of the story that the author and filmmakers wanted to tell?

Much has been made of the author Stephanie Meyer’s Mormon religious leanings, but the movie’s symbolism is generic enough to apply to many religious or cultural dogmas, since all too many of them treat sexuality, especially female sexuality, as something dangerous and to be kept locked up. Bella’s inherent desire to ‘be’ with Edward at all costs, as well as Edward’s constant attempts to brush her away, have disturbing implications, since it is the girl’s (metaphorical) sexual awakening that leads Edward to place her family and his family in jeopardy. One could argue that this is simply a double standard, that far more films treat the male as the aggressor and the female as the one who must ward off his advances. Why should we decry a movie that simply reverses the formula? The issue is the fact that, although Bella is the aggressor, it is still Edward who presents the danger. Thus we have a situation of Edward being dangerous to Bella, yet the primary responsibility to prevent that danger falls in Bella’s hands, not Edward’s.

Further muddying the waters is the fact that the ‘danger’ that does present itself is not from Edward, but from a third party threat from a different vampire. James is presented in the film as a standard variety psychopath, who just happens to be a vampire. If the story did not involve the supernatural, would Bella really be seen as responsible for drawing the prurient interest of (for example) Edward’s old college buddy who happens to be a rape-minded murderer? While most of the movie treats vampirism as a metaphor for consensual sex, the climax does revert back to the vampirism equals rape metaphor that usually exists in such fiction. Thus we are dangerously close to having a film where Bella’s romantic advances toward Edward are seen as responsible for a third party taking an interest in (metaphorically) raping and (literally) killing her.

The problem, and the key to understanding why the story is offensive to some people, is that the core of the romantic drama revolves around two contradictory and troubling connotations. On one hand, Edward keeps telling Bella that he cannot control himself around her, that she is putting herself in danger. Thus the sexual wiles of Bella is endangering all around her, because Edward may or may not be able to control his own lethal desires. But, wait, he is also protective of her, and the movie seems to imply (by her constant run-ins with lethal danger from outside forces) that she cannot take care of herself and must be guarded and watched at all times. Edward states both of these notions outright during the course of the movie.

There are two main classic cultural myths of females, two false assumptions that have been used as the definitive excuses to subjugate and disenfranchise women for centuries in all manner of societies. The first is that women are devious and reckless creatures who tempt men who can’t control themselves. As a result of these fiendish seducers, the weak but noble men do all manner of vice and corruption, deeds that without the temptation of the women they would not have even considered. But, wait, they are also weak-willed and emotionally fragile creatures that cannot care for themselves and must be protected from peril and shielded from emotional complication (‘the fairer sex’). Whether accidentally or intentionally, Twilight revolves around both stereotypes.

Ok, so assuming that the narrative of Twilight is sexist and does play into classic myths that have excused female domination, does that make the film sexist, or merely the very sort of fantasy that it wants to be? As I discussed a few months back (when discussing Sex & The City: The Movie), the core elements of female fantasy is the idea of shirking responsibility, throwing caution to the wind, and living out all of your selfish desires without major consequences. Comparatively, the male escapist fantasy involves immature boys who man up just a little bit, take responsibility, and use their talents to save lives, make a difference, and win the girl without having to make any true concessions to their character and personality).

In this archetypal female fantasy, the shy girl moves to a new school, completely unaware of how intelligent and attractive she is (for all the hubbub about how ‘dreamy’ Pattinson’s Edward is, Kristen Stewart’s Bella isn’t exactly Dawn Weiner* either). Without even trying, she gets hit on by every boy in the school (and, in one creepy scene, her father’s much older friend) and manages to draw the attention of the school hunk with absolutely no effort. He ignores everyone else in the school, but he takes a shining to her immediately. When the danger of this forbidden romance is exposed, Bella chooses puppy love over the safety of Edward’s family and her own family and pays no price for it (in fact, she gets to keep Edward and her friends and family). And, let’s not forget, part of the point of fantasy is to indulge in that which is not (or, sometimes, what shouldn’t be so).

In Twilight, the target demographic of young women gets to spend two hours in a prototypical female escape fantasy, and they can also make a choice to ignore the sociological undercurrents. They can choose to revel in the fairy tale stereotypes, and even play around with the female culture myths if they so choose**. Maybe the irony is that the female escapism genre involves allowing women to give into their most selfish possible instincts, while male escapism involves men ignoring their base instincts and striving to be better people in situations of great consequence. Actually, if you take the gender politics of Twilight and view them as a pure fantasy, then it actually makes the very real women who view the film look pretty good.

Scott Mendelson

* For the record, I am referencing the character of Dawn Weiner from Welcome To The Dollhouse, not the actress Heather Matarazzo, a talented and lovely actress who deserves much better work than ‘naked tortured chick’ in Hostel 2.

** Frankly, I was far more disturbed by Enchanted, which aimed its anti-feminist fairy-tale foolishness at a demographic far too young to separate the fantasy from the gender politics underneath the surface.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Box Office Bingo - 11/21/08

Twilight - $75 million. The hype for this one has been building for the last few months, with at least two Entertainment Weekly cover stories to boot. The books are a huge deal with the target demo (middle school and high school girls and, to a lesser extent, adult women) and this adaptation promises to be about as slavishly faithful as Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone. Of course, it's not a coincidence that the upstart Summit Entertainment moved this one from December 12th to November 21st, following the rescheduling of a certain boy wizard. Summit desperately wants this to be as much 'the next Harry Potter' in the film world as the books are in the literary scene. Fun trivia - when I saw Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (exactly three years ago this weekend), a huge chunk of the female audience loudly sighed/swooned when Cedric Diggory first appeared onscreen. How ironic that 'the boy who lived' is being directly challenged by a franchise starring Robert Pattinson, 'the boy who died'.

A few things, however, will prevent this from reaching Harry Potter opening weekend heights (not that anyone is going to be disappointed with anything over $40 million). First of all, Summit is only opening on only 3200 screens. Second of all, unless you're a big fan of the books or the subject matter, the film doesn't look very exciting, more like a slightly better cast and produced version of The Covenant. Third of all, let's face it, one of the big reasons that the film industry is such a male-dominated enterprise is that girls are usually more than happy to see 'boy movies' like Iron Man, but boys usually won't go anywhere near 'girl movies' like Sex & The City. Basically, this is a textbook example of 'female escapism'. So, aside from any existing male fans of the books, the only male traffic is going to be from boyfriends (who can't help but come up short in comparison to the seemingly perfect Edward), platonic friends who really want to get laid (it ain't gonna happen... move on), and from pervy older men who want to scope out the stream of awkward, single, romantically inclined high school and middle school girls. If I score this weekend, my wife gets one 'hot nerd' at the next Comic Con (think Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory).

That $75 million could well be an underestimate (even Summit Entertainment is claiming a shot at $70 million), but I'm not willing to presume anything after the shocking under performance of High School Musical 3 (fine, it wasn't going to open to $80 million - but to barely make $80 million total??). For the record, expect opening day front-loading on the scale of Sex & The City and XXX. Still, this is going to be a huge opening and if the fans are happy, expect a frighteningly small drop-off over the Thanksgiving weekend (what else are they going to see - Australia or Milk?).

Bolt - $40 million.
This is the third 'not Pixar but not just Disney' release in the last two years, and also their third 3D release. Chicken Little was atrocious while Meet The Robinsons was the best movie of 2007 (you heard me - go rent it and tell me I'm wrong). I'm guessing this one will be somewhere in the middle. The marketing has been mammoth per usual, and the cast is unfortunately more celebrity heavy than the recent Disney slate (good for marketing, but often bad for the movie). The reviews are surprisingly solid (84% so far), so expect this one to equal if not surpass the three-day take over the long Thanksgiving holiday. But seriously, go rent Meet The Robinsons... it's good for the soul.

Quantum Of Solace - $34 million.
The word of mouth is decidedly mixed and the marketplace will be crowded, so expect an unusually large drop for this very fast-earning 007 picture. Still, even if the drop is 50% or more, it should level off over the next month as it becomes the safe second choice of casual moviegoers for the rest of the year.

I'll do my best to update tomorrow.

Scott Mendelson

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Trailer Watch - Thoughts on the recent spate of genre previews

I don't usually do a 'let's rundown all the new trailers', but there were several released just in the last week that are worth discussing. If you want to hear my thoughts on Star Trek, go here. Otherwise...

Watchmen - March 6th, 2009.

I may be in the minority, but I far prefer the first trailer released back in July. The visuals are pretty similar, but the dialogue snippets seem to suggest an on-the-nose adaptation, where a complicated and 'messy' narrative is condensed into simplistic terms (someone wants to destroy the world, so said 'someone' starts killing off heroes so they can't stop them). While it's not Jackie Earle Haley's fault that Rorschach's voice sounds quite a bit like Christan Bale's McGruff The Crime Bat voice, but both of them are uber-cheesy. And Those who have seen bits of the finished film claim it's pretty faithful in content and tone to the original, so this may be a case of a trailer that makes a smart film look stupid (the 1997 sci-fi fable Gattaca was far smarter and more moving than the action-based trailer suggested).

Besides, the visuals in the original graphic novel were pretty matter of fact. The story was pretty radical in its day, so the artwork was more low key as a balance. The comic book panels weren't stylized or overly razzle-dazzly. If anything, the original story was a sober deconstruction of the pop-and sizzle/gee-whiz superhero stories of that era, a 'real-world' look at super heroics. Ironically, this slow-motion filled preview actually dilutes the seriousness of the material. In a world that has already given us The Dark Knight and Unbreakable, the pop-candy colors and splashy and stylized palette almost makes our beloved Watchmen seem campy. We can only hope that Zack Snyder has not tried to jazz up a story that at its core was a sad, mournful human tragedy.

Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince - July 17th, 2009

It seems like the second domestic trailer goes out of its way to counter balance the super-creepy Omen-ish teaser from July. This one is filled with lighter moments, bits of high adventure, and much more footage of our young heroes (I adore that 'but I am the chosen one' bit with Harry and Hermione). The climactic moments in the preview are presented as rousing and epic, rather than... well, no spoilers for those lucky enough to go in blind (as I've said before, the sixth book contains the most inspired plot twist of the whole series). One final note - I love the new, hard-charging percussion-heavy variation on the Harry Potter theme that plays at the trailer's end.

Valkyrie - December 26th, 2008

Another solid trailer, emphasizing the ensemble cast and the dark thriller aspects of the film, rather than selling it purely as a Tom Cruise star vehicle. Although why the trailer labels Bryan Singer as the director of Superman Returns rather than X-Men, I can't say (X-Men was far more liked and is much more of a team picture). Of course, the weirdest part of the trailer is the climactic action montage, which actually uses the 'all twists revealed' music from the climax of each Saw film. It's certainly appropriate music for rising tension, but it may produce a giggle or two from those who recognize it.

The Day The Earth Stood Still December 12th, 2008

This trailer scores points in an unexpected fashion. The climax of the trailer seemingly displays pretty much every action beat the film seems to offer. Of course, close observers will note that most of the allegedly 'wowser' moments are just different angles on the giant glowing orb object. Thus, but inadvertently showing its hand, this new trailer offers hope that the sci-fi remake won't be action-packed, but rather character and plot driven in a manner similar to the original. I'd all but guarantee that the few destruction set pieces on display are from one or two montages in the film. I did like the copious footage of Jon Hamm in the opening moments of the trailer, seemingly from the opening moments of the film. This suggests either that he's not in the film that much but Fox wanted to highlight the rising star (just as the trailer for Catch Me If You Can made it seem like Jennifer Garner had a co-starring role), or that he dies at the conclusion of the first act.

Speaking of Fox, when the heck are we going to see a real (non-Comic Con) trailer for X-Men Origins: Wolverine? Unless they're saving it for The Day The Earth Stood Still, I'm not sure what they're waiting for.

Scott Mendelson

Review: Twilight (2008)

Twilight
2008
120 minutes
rated PG-13

by Scott Mendelson

How do you judge a film where the core element doesn’t work but everything else does? To say that I kinda liked Twilight but didn’t care for the romantic drama at its center may be the epitome of absurdity. On the other hand, it should be noted that the other elements of the film are worthwhile. And really, is enjoying Twilight despite the flaws of the main love story any different than enjoying Quantum Of Solace despite the abysmal editing of the action scenes?

A token amount of plot – Bella (Kristen Stewart, making her character’s immaturity seem almost noble at times) has just moved to Forks, Washington to live with her father for awhile. She almost immediately attracts the attention of the brooding and handsome Edward Cullen. They quickly hit it off, but Edward is off putting and afraid of forming a real connection. Eventually, Bella learns the truth (refreshingly, she actually uses her brains and does research): that Edward and his family are actually vampires and part of Edward’s attraction to Bella is driven by his desire to drink her blood.

For those living in a cave for the last few years, Twilight is the first of four books that have scorched the best seller lists. The tale of the forbidden romance between the young schoolgirl and the centuries-old vampire who happens to look and act like James Dean with super powers has captivated young girls, older women, and a token number of males. While most vampire fiction (Dracula, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Interview With The Vampire) use vampirism as a metaphor for rape, the Twilight series (apparently, since I have not read the books), uses it as a metaphor for forbidden, but consensual sexuality (I’ll get into the alleged symbolism and ‘deeper meanings’ in a separate article).

The problem with the core romance is that Edward is brooding, boring, and bland. His opening scenes, where he is physically drawn to Bella’s pheromones, are laughably played, to the point of resembling a bad mime act. Yes, Robert Pattinson is a handsome stud of a man, and he’d probably be great in the sack, but what exactly would he and Bella do when they aren’t brooding about not having sex (or really, about not even kissing)? He’s not funny, he’s not charming, and for the first half of the story, he’s so rude and obnoxious to her that we question Bella’s judgment for continuing to pursue him (he doesn’t treat her all that much better when they do start dating). He doesn’t wear flowing trench coats or half-buttoned dress shirts, but merely puffy winter coats and t-shirts. He can’t even act gallant and romantic when saving her from potential rapists. He doesn’t bother to leap from a rooftop and strike a bad ass pose (he’s a vampire – he could do that if he wanted to); he just pulls up in his car and flashes the beamers a couple times. Yes, teenagers usually don’t care about personality and charm, but it still doesn’t make it easy for us grownups to care about this romance and its implications where we know that Bella could do a hell of a lot better, even among other vampires.

It doesn’t help that much of their romance is basically them staring at each other and engaging in halted, awkward attempts at conversation about how unhealthy their relationship is. If the majority of your relationship involves talking about your relationship, that’s not healthy. The film also stumbles in the third act, by arbitrarily introducing rogue vampires who randomly decide to hunt Bella (to be fair, unlike the book, these villains are introduced at the beginning of the film). It’s like the author of the novel decided ‘wait, we need to create a situation to bring about the rescue/protection fantasy’ and awkwardly tossed in evil vampires. It is faithful to the novel, but that doesn’t make it good.

So if the core romantic storyline doesn’t work, what does work? Well, the supporting characters are surprisingly engaging, even when they don’t have to be. Bella’s new friends at school are all friendly and charming, but just a little obnoxious in that ‘teenager way’. The Native American neighbors are humorous and opinionated, even if they are in the story mainly to introduce local folklore (I’ll assume they play a bigger part in the future stories). And Edward’s vampire family is genuinely entertaining, and the gently awkward first introductions at their house is a highlight of the film (when Bella arrives, they are all frantically fixing her a meal, using their kitchen for the first time and desperately trying to learn how to actually cook). Of course, the first appearance of Edward’s physician father elicits chuckles, as his vampire makeup is so cheesy that I half expected his name tag to read ‘Dr. Acula’. Even Bella’s newly married mother (Sarah Clarke), who has gone on the road with her minor-league baseball player husband, is given a final scene of empathy and warmth that belies her complicated life choice.

Most importantly, Bella’s father (Billy Burke) is portrayed as a completely capable and loving father, not domineering, rarely judgmental, and occasionally funny. Frankly, the shockingly realistic relationship between Bella and her father was the one I cared about in the end and almost makes the movie worth recommending on that basis. They truly love each other and care about each other, and the third act confrontation between them (in which Bella is forced by circumstance to spew hateful things to him to keep him out of danger) is so devastating that the film wobbles by not actually showing their reconciliation.

So, in the end, Twilight is handsomely produced, well-acted (save Pattinson, who was better and far more of a catch as Cedric Diggory), and relatively engaging teen melodrama. That I didn’t buy the core romance would usually be a fatal problem, but I found the rest of the film charming enough to compensate. I liked the ridiculous vampire baseball game (dig those old-fashioned pinstripe uniforms), I laughed out loud at both of the scenes between Bella’s dad and Bella’s boyfriend, I liked that Bella’s female friends are allowed to be pretty and engaging and completely living their own lives unrelated to the central plot. Truth be told, I am genuinely curious to discover what happens next to the people of Forks, Washington, even if I couldn’t care less if Bella and Edward end up together.

Grade: B

Marley & Me gets a rare PG, and other MPAA ratings notes.

Box Office Mojo posted their weekly MPAA rating updates yesterday. Not much to report. Two noteworthy items do pop out, though.

The big news involves Marley & Me. The Jennifer Aniston/Owen Wilson romantic dramedy, that revolves around a troubled marriage and a dog, has acquired a PG (thematic material, some suggestive content and language). The only thing more rare than a live-action non-kid's flick getting a G is a live-action non-kid's flick getting a PG. Really, I can't even remember the last adult drama/comedy that received a PG rating. Was the last one Contact, back in July 1997 (that shocked me too)? The PG is still used for family adventure films (Journey To The Center Of The Earth, Bedtime Stories), kid-centered dramas or musicals (Akeelah And The Bee, Hairspray) and cartoons (Bolt), but it's use for live-action films aimed at adults is more or less nonexistent at this point. Heck, even Mamma Mia! somehow pulled off a PG-13, although content-wise it probably deserved a G (was the harsh rating just because of the insinuation that Streep slept around in her youth?). Come what may, good for Fox for not tossing in a gratuitous 'F-word' just to get the 'harder' PG-13.

The other newsworthy snippet? Australia opens in less than a week, and it only now acquired that PG-13 from the MPAA? I know the 165 minute film was rushing to finish, but this may be a record, at least for a film that wasn't appealing a prior rating.

Other minor bits include the R-rating for Underworld 3 (a prequel where Rhona Mitra fills in for Kate Beckinsale), a PG-13 for The Soloist (which has moved again, now slated for April 24th, right before the summer season starts), and a PG for Old Dogs (a family comedy with John Travolta and Robin Williams that was moved almost a full year - from March 2009 to Thanksgiving 2009). And that's all that's fit to print. Sorry for the rhyming in the post title, it couldn't be helped.

Scott Mendelson

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A passive, borderline useless hero - Why Goldfinger kind of stinks...

I watched Goldfinger for the first time in several years the other day. It still holds up as a fun, well-paced, and entertaining 007 caper. But, there is one glaring problem that almost by itself puts it near the bottom of the Bond totem pole: James Bond is helpless and useless for most of the picture.

A quick recap... James Bond spends the first half of the picture basically playing chicken with Auric Goldfinger, shenanigans that result in the violent murders of two young women (the Masterson sisters - one gets painted in gold and the other gets her neck broken by a flying derby). By the halfway point, James Bond has been captured by Mr. Goldfinger and spends nearly the entire rest of the film in enemy custody. While in Goldfinger's grasp, his life is spared only because Goldfinger doesn't call his bluff about outside knowledge of 'Operation Grand Slam'. Bond learns the gruesome details of the plan, one that involves the mass slaughter of 60,000 people and the detonation of a nuclear bomb inside Fort Knox. But James Bond does not foil this plot. James Bond does not switch the nerve gas canisters to instead release harmless gas on the populace. Pussy Galore is the one who switches the canister and calls the CIA (Bond had tried to warn Felix Leiter, but his plan to smuggle a message out with a doomed mob boss failed). He does not deactivate the nuclear bomb, that is done by a nuclear expert and Felix Leiter right before detonation. He doesn't really even defeat Goldfinger, but rather Auric seals his own fate during his brief fight with Bond, by blowing a bullet hole through a window in his airplane and being sucked out.

Throughout this third 007 movie, James Bond is a passive observer and the day is saved primarily through happenstance, convenience, and the work of his allies. It's convenient that Pussy Galore is willing to switch sides after a single (literal) role in the hay with Bond. But was Bond really willing to bet the lives of tens of thousands on his charms? It's convenient that the CIA is able to break into the sealed Fort Knox vault and dismantle the bomb, but what was Bond going to do if the CIA hadn't rode to the rescue? Sure the fiendish plot is foiled, but James Bond is basically a bystander in his own adventure. Aside from killing Odd Job, James Bond does little or nothing to help prevent the scheme to radiate the gold supply in Fort Knox.

Is the film still fun and exciting? Is the dialogue still witty and the action still entertaining? I suppose so. But the inherent plot flaw, the storyline that basically has your hero sitting by the sidelines as the plot unfolds right next to him, does nothing so much as render James Bond as impotent and recklessly incompetent. This is even worse than the core problem of the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Indiana Jones movies. While those films suffer from outcomes that wouldn't have been altered had Indiana Jones just stayed in bed (ie - the bad guys would have found the fabled item, used it in the wrong way, and doomed themselves just the same), at least Jones can take credit for saving the lives of friends and family along the way (Marion in the first film, his father in the third film, and Marion, his son Mutt, and Professor Oxley in the fourth). Here, not only is James Bond helpless to prevent widespread carnage, his interference actually causes the murders of innocent bystanders. Personally, I prefer James Bond to actually be competent and able to foil the evil plans of various super villains and warlords. But that's just me.

Scott Mendelson

The Quantum Of Solace worldwide box office sprint

Despite that disturbing 44% drop from Saturday to Sunday, which caused the final weekend number of Quantum Of Solace to plunge from $71 million to $67 million (and portends long term trouble for the domestic prospects), the worldwide totals are scorching. After about two weeks in worldwide circulation, and five days in the US, the current 007 film has already amassed a worldwide total of $325 million. That's already #12 worldwide for the 2008 year. Oh, and in twelve days, it's shattered the worldwide totals of The Bourne Identity ($214 million) and The Bourne Supremacy ($289 million), and the $443 million worldwide total for The Bourne Ultimatum is within striking distance by the beginning of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Let's examine the worldwide totals of the most recent Bond films (GoldenEye to Casino Royale), which are all the highest grossing in the series incidentally -

#1 - Casino Royale - $595 million ($168 million domestic)
#2 - Die Another Day - $432 million ($161 million domestic)
#3 - World Is Not Enough - $362 million ($127 million domestic)
#4 - GoldenEye - $352 million ($107 million domestic)
#5 - Tomorrow Never Dies - $334 million ($126 million domestic)

So, as you can see, by the beginning of said Thanksgiving holiday, Quantum Of Solace will be the second highest grossing 007 film of all time. How quickly it will pass Casino Royale is open to debate, but it should easily happen well before Christmas. It's also likely to end up #2 worldwide for 2008, probably surpassing the $786 million of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Nice work, Mr. Bond.

Scott Mendelson

Monday, November 17, 2008

Star Trek Trailer and TV Spot - First contact is a smashing success.



Ok, now that's a trailer. The scope seems to be vast and/or epic and it's obvious where that $150 million went. Aside from the silly first moments of both spots (the already infamous 'young Kirk hot-rodding' clip), this is an uncommonly exciting preview. The film seems to promise an obscenely epic big-budget science fiction adventure, regardless of your feelings on the Star Trek cannon. It may not be smart, and some of the dialogue may be a little on the nose, but the thing looks like buckets of gee-whiz fun. I still think that the release date is poison, but Paramount may luck out and make their money back as this looks like lots of big-budget fun.

Did I say 'big' twice? Well the whole thing just reeks of scale (the half-finished Enterprise, the vastness of the space battles, the sheer number of ships in one shot), more so than any tent-poler since Return Of The King. Of course, if Paramount can convince America that summer really starts on May 8th (Wolverine who?), then they can avoid the second-film-of summer death curse. As it is, I'd imagine this will be the most downloaded trailer on the internet at least until Transformers 2 or Avatar tosses a clip our way.

While I've previously criticized decisions regarding this film (the budget, the release date), Paramount is batting 1.000 so far in their PR campaign with this preview, the initial release of photos and last month's Entertainment Weekly article. The only thing missing in the teaser is that gorgeous 'space - the final frontier' music that should have closed out the preview (what is the name of that music cut anyway?). I could carp on the minor details (the hyper editing, the fact that the only clips shown of women involve either taking off their shirts or being imperiled), but I'd be nitpicking. Frankly, I haven't been this impressed by an initial teaser since the first full preview for The Dark Knight back in mid-December of 2007. This is a thrown gauntlet, a line in the sand, a declaration to be taken seriously against Transformers 2 and Harry Potter 6 in summer 2009. I'm officially intrigued.

Scott Mendelson

Sunday, November 16, 2008

James Bond vs. America? (the politics of Quantum Of Solace)

Quantum Of Solace spoilers...

For the record, I did see Quantum Of Solace yesterday. Quick verdict - terrific acting, a fine, complicated storyline, and fantastically choreographed action with real stunts and real production values. Of course, thanks to the editing, which resembled Chris Nolan and Paul Greengrass cutting while intoxicated, the action was completely incomprehensible and impossible to enjoy. Which would have been ok had the film not been at least 60% pure action. As for that story, I liked that it resembled acts 4 and 5 of the long story begun in Casino Royale (if it were a play, Casino Royale would be the longer act one and Quantum Of Solace would have been the shorter act two). Had the sequel looked and felt even remotely similar, the two films would have made a wonderful long form story of the shaping of James Bond. Still, it was a pretty good James Bond film on its own merits and it gives a genuine sense of progression to the James Bond character. Overall, a solid B+.

One thing that I did find fascinating, however, was the plot thread that had the CIA and the American government more or less joining forces with the shadowy Quantum organization in order to overthrow a leftist leader and replace him with a tyrant more sympathetic to American interests (basically Quantum was presented partially as an independent contracting firm for coups and regional destablization). Of course, to be fair, no government came off very upright, as James Bond, M, and Felix Leiter seemed to be the only three people in the film with a moral qualm about the sinister goings on (and you could argue that James Bond didn't give a damn about the plight of Bolivia, but simply wanted Greene as a means to work his way up the Quantum food chain).

Point being, this is the first time I can remember such a major studio tent pole action picture being so explicit in accusing America of being an imperialist force for real harm in the various regions of the globe. It's certainly the first for a James Bond picture. Sure, Bond pictures like GoldenEye delt with the 'what are we really fighting for' dilemma, but Alec Trevelyan's beef was with England and with the changing geopolitical map in general. But this time, the Americans are explicitly called out as the quasi-bad guys. As I was watching, I kept waiting for it to be revealed that Felix Leiter and his partner were actually undercover or working in someway to disrupt the evil intentions of Dominic Greene, but obviously that never happened. That Leiter eventually gives Bond game-changing information may or may not render the character as the cliche 'guilt-ridden thus helpful minority', but I digress.

Sure The Bourne Ultimatum had an evil US black ops operation, but it was presented so cartoonishly as to negate any dramatic impact (and the only people they were harming were the ones that Jason Bourne was stupid enough to place in danger). It also had a quasi-feel good ending where virtuous Americans turn the tide and the evil Americans are punished for their transactions. Not so here... although Leiter's boss is sacked and Leiter is promoted, the general feeling is that nothing really has been resolved in the grand scheme of things. James Bond may have had a psychological breakthrough, but Quantum and its evildoing is still as strong as ever, as are the nations that use it to do their bidding.

I'm curious if this reading of the film, also detailed with much historical context here, will be noticed by general moviegoers and whether it will affect the long term box office. Let's see if The Onion picks up on this as well ('New congress quickly calls hearings into Bush administration's ties with shadowy Quantum organization'). Ironically, the whole point of Spectre in the original series was to deal with real-world politics without implicating real nations (other than the USSR I suppose). Spectre was the original private contractor for global tiddly-winks, not associated with any one country and an enemy to all of them in the end. Not so with Quantum. This time, the evil super villain organization is very much in bed with allegedly law abiding countries and shockingly enough, America is apparently one of them. Good thing that James Bond is there to save us from ourselves.

Scott Mendelson

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Update - Weekend 007 numbers- Bond does a Bourne/Pirates sequel bounce

Various people are tossing around the Batman Begins/Dark Knight comparison for the Quantum Of Solace's $27 million opening day and $71 million opening weekend. But the real point of comparison, as I predicted two years ago, is that of the Bourne series (I'm not saying I'm a genius, I just did the math right). The Batman comparison only works if you factor in the whole 5-day opening of Batman Begins (and by that rationale, the uptick between Pirates 1 and Pirates 2 fits like a glove too). Both of those respective sequels basically tripled the three-day opening weekend grosses of their respective originals.

If you deal with Casino Royale as a 'first in the series', then the comparison fits perfectly and James Bond and Jason Bourne are now identical in box office performance, as well as (allegedly) thematic presentation. I say allegedly, since a family emergency has prevented me from Quantum Of Solace yet (and also explains the lack of a box office bingo column yesterday). The Bourne Identity opened to a solid $27 million back in June, 2002. It played all summer long, eventually taking in $122 million and becoming one of the most rented titles of the year on video and DVD. So we have a solid but not spectacular opening, which buoyed good word of mouth and solid reviews into an extended play period. So, two years later, The Bourne Supremacy capitalized on that exceptional audience goodwill, also helped by superior reviews, to open to a colossal $52 million in July of 2004. That was a stunning 1.9x increase in opening weekends, almost doubled.

So let's apply that number to Casino Royale. Casino Royale rode a wave of free publicity ('come see the bad-ass new James Bond!) and exceptionally positive reviews to a $40.8 million opening weekend. Of course, not only was that not the biggest Bond opening of all time (Die Another Day did $47 million back in November 2002), but it wasn't even number 01 for the weekend. If we recall, the dancing penguins/acid trip environmental fable Happy Feet was number one that weekend with $41.5 million. Fun fact - Casino Royale ended with $167 million - which is the 7th highest grossing film never to be number 01 at the weekend box office.

Although it opened smaller than Die Another Day, it rode incredible word of mouth to a leggy theatrical performance, also capitalizing on a less than mighty holiday season (only Night At The Museum had any firepower after Thanksgiving weekend) and slightly out grossed Die Another Day domestically (globally, it was a massacre, as it made $426 million overseas). And, yet again, the film became incredibly popular on DVD and the brand-new BluRay technology. It was the biggest selling BluRay disc at the time (and came packaged with many a bundle promotion). So, two years later, history repeats itself. Since Quantum Of Solace pulled in $71 million, the sequel uptick is 1.775x. It's not exact, but it's certainly a closer comparison than Pirates' sequel 3.14x uptick and Batman's 3.23x jump between films.

As for long term prospects, I can only say that, once again, the box office will be a near tent-pole dead zone after Thanksgiving weekend (the three big November films remaining are Bolt, Twilight, and Australia). Only The Day The Earth Stood Still qualifies as an adult December 'big event picture', and that's still a month away. Once again, the only major films around Christmas is a star vehicle family film involving fantasy come to life (Adam Sandler's Bedtime Stories), and a Will Smith drama (Seven Pounds - same director as The Pursuit Of Happyness). Everything else is either mid-range genre films (The Spirit, Four Christmases), or Oscar bait (Doubt, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button). Valkyrie is allegedly pretty good, so it could target the same audience, but it doesn't open until Christmas Day.

So unless Quantum Of Solace turns off audiences with its hyper editing and alleged lack of plot and character, it will likely become the first 007 film to cross the $200 million mark domestically. And yes, it also has an outside chance of out grossing The Dark Knight in overseas box office. The Dark Knight is about to cross $1billion worldwide, but that's pretty much a 50/50 split. Considering Quantum Of Solace has already made $160 million overseas in the first 10 days, beating The Dark Knight's $469 million overseas take should be almost easy.

We'll see. If anything shocking happens tomorrow, I'll update accordingly. And I'll be sure to fill you in when I actually see the bloody picture!

Scott Mendelson

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

MAD TV - 1995-2008 - RIP

The Defamer is reporting that Mad TV has been canceled in the middle of its 14th season. I will miss it for two reasons.

1) Unlike its more popular rival, Saturday Night Live, Mad TV usually knew when to end a skit, rather than dragging it out to the point of tedium. And, frankly, their sketches without a built-in high concept were often sharper and funnier than the free-form sketches on Saturday Night Live.

2) Mad TV did TV satire better than any other medium on the block, including the example below, one of my all-time favorite sketches anywhere.

Rest in peace, old friend. You will be slightly missed.

Scott Mendelson

Their best political sketch: I Rack


Their best movie spoof: Terminator 4: The Greatest Action Story Ever Told


Their best TV spoof: Suddenly Millenium

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

'And I thought my jokes were bad' (the sad truth behind the ridiculous Turkish Batman lawsuit)

It was arguably yesterday's biggest laugh-out-loud article in showbiz. The Mayor of Batman, Turkey is suing Warner Bros and Chris Nolan personally for not getting permission to use the name 'Batman' in the film The Dark Knight.

The biggest question, of course, was why Mayor Huseyin Kalkan was only suing Chris Nolan and Warner Bros, and not the eight-billion or so people over 69 years who have profited from the character of Batman. Why not sue DC Comics, Tim Burton, Bruce Timm, Adam West, or I dunno, the heirs of Batman creator Bob Kane (but not Bill Finger, nope, cause he of course had NOTHING to do with creating Batman)?

Everyone's favorite paragraph was the one towards the end, in which the Mayor explained the very real harm done by The Dark Knight and the stealing of the name Batman:

"The mayor is prepping a series of charges against Nolan and Warner Bros., which owns the right to the Batman character, including placing the blame for a number of unsolved murders and a high female suicide rate on the psychological impact that the film's success has had on the city's inhabitants."

Absurd, insane, ridiculous, right? Well of course, but the truth is far more disturbing. Apparently the town of Batman, Turkey does have a high rate of female suicides, and Batman is to blame. Not the caped crusader, but the town itself. As the New York Times reported two years ago, the city of Batman, Turkey has an inordinate number of so-called 'Honor Suicides'. What's an honor suicide? Well, it's like an honor killing, but better! Instead of a young girl or woman being murdered by her own family for some random sexual offense (adultery, sex before marriage, getting raped, glancing at a boy, etc), the 'shamed' family makes the girl kill herself.

Immediately after 9/11, Bill Maher had a handful of discussions on Politically Incorrect about how we on the left could still be our lefty tolerant selves and still admit that our western culture was better in some ways. In our bid to be uber-sensitive and uber-tolerant, we sometimes have a problem coming out and saying that someone else's culture is wrong. That, in this day in age, we still have literally half the human race who is disenfranchised and/or subject to the most base forms of cruelty and suppression for no particular reason... it's something that doesn't get talked about nearly enough. Oh, we cry on and on about racism or bigotry, or the occasional ethnic genocide, but the systematic cultural destruction of literally half the planet is completely taken for granted.

Joss Whedon had an essay about this last year. Although equating honor killings with distasteful ads for Captivity is a bit much, it's worth a read. Just as we invented racism to justify slavery as a Christian practice, our entire globe has constantly invented reasons to hold unnatural power over the female race. But unlike racism or antisemitism, many of these myths universally agreed upon and accepted as at least partially true, even by allegedly progressive thinkers and alleged liberal minds.

We liberals do it when we obsess about Sarah Palin's outfits instead of her ideas. We do it when we don't complain when a razor sharp and powerful attorney can only be accepted as an electable first lady if she all but promises to only be a housewife for the next four years (and remember the outrage when Dr. Howard Dean's wife refused to stop her own medical practice and campaign with him back in 2004?). We do it when we don't wonder why talk show hosts always introduce their female guests as 'the lovely, the talented...' (first off, why is their beauty more important than their talent, and why does their beauty matter?). We do it when we aren't outraged that in 2008, women still make, on average, 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes. Oh we don't like it, but it's accepted as 'just the way things are'. Obviously, it's a far cry from murder and enslavement, but when we accept the notions of the 'traditional' female roles, when we do not question why those roles became accepted as the norm, we are playing a small role in condoning the extremist societies that would punish breaches of said traditional roles with violence and banishment.

But our culture, as flawed as it is when it comes to gender, is still better than theirs. Yes, some cultural warriors on the right may want us to regress a bit in the name of 'traditional families', and they may even be joined from time to time by certain feminist factions on the left, in the name of 'protecting women', but our culture is still better. I hope that this Batman lawsuit gets national play, and that the media (mainstream or otherwise) is willing to shine the light on the absurdity of the situation. The violent subjugation of the female race cannot be pardoned as a by-product of religion, any religion. Any culture that allows it or condones it should never be treated with the same respect on the world stage as those who do not. And any God that would approve of it is not worthy of worship.

Scott Mendelson

Monday, November 10, 2008

Just desserts - Isaiah Washington blasts ABC for homophobia double-standard

So, as word spread last week that noted character actress Brooke Adams had been suddenly and inexplicably fired from Grey's Anatomy, the conventional wisdom seemed to indicate that she had been let go because the execs at ABC were uncomfortable with her character conducting a lesbian relationship with another doctor. I completely failed to do the math on this story last week, but I got a huge, hearty laugh when I finally put two and two together. If I were Isaiah Washington, I would be furious too, and I wouldn't be shy about saying as much. It's also smart of him to not come right out and say what is so hypocritical about the situation - let the readers remember for themselves.

Aside from the unintentional hilarity of this update (and the strong possibility that Isiah Washington may have some kind of wrongful termination suit on his hands), this brings up a disturbing question. Washington was fired a couple of seasons ago for allegedly using a homophobic slur while in heated exchanges with fellow actor TR Knight (who then came out of the closet). Now the studio has stepped in and axed Adams allegedly because they were uncomfortable with the lesbian romantic subplot that had just developed. So, aside from the hypocrisy of firing an actor for expressing homophobia, then firing another actor as a result of apparent homophobia, why exactly do the execs at ABC insist on meddling with the show that, by itself, has become a huge smash hit and reaps tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of profit for the company?

Can you imagine if the ABC execs decided, for whatever reason, that Michael Emerson or Terry O'Quinn just weren't working for them and canned them from Lost? The fans would have a conniption, and rightly so. As far as I know, there has been no tinkering on this level with Lost or Desperate Housewives, so why does Grey's Anatomy constantly have its story lines altered at the whim of studio executives? It would be one thing if the show were in a creative and ratings tailspin (cough-Heroes-cough), but the show is still pulling strong ratings and seems to be doing okay artistically.

Almost as troubling as the homophobia and hypocrisy at work is the apparent lack of creative control that Shonda Rhimes seems to have over her own show. As a viewer, why would I bother investing my time in a show when the character arcs and story lines can be altered or nullified without the consent of the creative leaders?

Scott Mendelson

Joe Johnston to direct Captain America (Yay, Marvel!)

I know I give Marvel all kinds of crap (the recutting of Incredible Hulk and Daredevil, forcing Sam Raimi to use Venom in Spider-Man 3, playing chicken with money issues on Iron Man 2), but I consider it tough love. It's not because I hate Marvel, but because I'm a fan of their properties and their comic lore.

Oh, and now that the truth about the Don Cheadle/Terrence Howard Iron Man 2 situation has come out... wow. Marvel looks a little better and Howard looks really bad. Regardless, I still mourn for the loss of continuity.

But, I digress, I come here today not to bash Marvel but to praise them. Entertainment Weekly seems to confirm this, so I'm treating it as fact. Marvel has just signed Joe Johnston to direct Captain America, which is still on track to be released on May 6th, 2011 (by the way, I refuse to use the 'The First Avenger' prefix as it's stupid). This is a wonderful, surprising, and creative choice. It gives me hope that I'll spend more time in the near future praising Marvel than criticizing them. For those who don't know, Joe Johnston is the man behind such gee-wiz period adventure films as The Rocketeer and Hildalgo. He also directedHoney I Shrunk The Kids, the solid drama October Sky, and the much better than it had any right to be Jurassic Park 3. He is currently in post-production on The Wolfman. I can only hope that there is some correlation between the hiring for the Cap gig and the quality of the updated werewolf thriller (like most Johnston pictures, it certainly has a great cast).

I know I wrote a couple months ago that The Rocketeer hasn't aged well, but the big problem with the film is that Johnston and company didn't have enough money to include all that much rocket-action. The film remains wonderfully cast, impeccably acted, and evokes a nice sense of period. I'm assume money for action set-pieces won't be an issue this time around. And Johnston is one of those directors who knows how to stage an action scene so it is coherent, easy to follow, and contains a clear sense of geography. Now Marvel needs to finalize the Thor deal with Kenneth Branagh and cast Jon Hamm as Steve Rogers. And, of course, the big question is who are they going to use to directed the big one? Who do they recruit to directThe Avengers? Assuming they don't use someone already in their employ, and assuming they don't go for a pie-in-the-sky choice (James Cameron, Peter Jackson, or Terrance Malick), my vote goes for Martin Campbell (yeah, I know, Mendelson just praised Campbell, it must be Monday). Who do you think should get the 'big job'?
Scott Mendelson

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