Tuesday, May 27, 2008

If It's Broke, Reboot It

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I'm thinking of focusing this blog's posts on pop-culture/movie reviews and that sort of thing because my own personal/political rants don't really have any place here; I can post them on my multiply blog anyway.

Most people think the concept of the movie franchise "reboot" started with 2005's Batman Begins. As I posted a couple of years ago, that isn't necessarily the case. In 2002, Paramount Pictures, despite the success of the last installment of the Jack Ryan franchise, Clear and Present Danger starring Harrison Ford in 1994, decided to go with a younger actor, namely Ben Affleck, for what should have been a subsequent installment as far as the books were concerned, The Sum of All Fears. The film obviously couldn't have been a sequel, but because, storywise, it took place later than the other books, it couldn't really be treated as a prequel either. And it was too soon since the last one to be considered a re-make, especially since the book had never been adapted before. It was thus that the reboot was born.

Although Sum may have flown under most people's radar (and it would, next to the much more high profile Batman Begins and even the James Bond reboot, Casino Royale) it did pretty respectable business back in its day, dislodging Star Wars: Episode II from the top spot of the U.S. box office and grossing more than $100 million dollars in the U.S. alone. It validated the concept of the reboot and now it appears to be en vogue, with the handlers of many a flagging franchise at least toying with the idea.

One of those handlers, the newly-formed Marvel Studios, appears to have adopted that idea for one of their own franchises, the Hulk. Though I personally liked Ang Lee's decidedly unconventional take on the character in 2003, I can certainly understand and sympathize with the people who hated the movie. Still enjoying the runaway success of Iron Man, Marvel hopes, with The Incredible Hulk, the second feature film based on the titular property in five years, to rub out the box-office stench from Universal Pictures' failed attempt to establish the Hulk as a franchise.

It's actually somewhat laughable how Marvel tries to distance themselves from the word "reboot" even though they've already categorically admitted to hitting "the reset button" for this franchise as if they're ashamed to admit it. To an extent I understand their leeriness; it's only been five years since the last film, and unlike the Ryan, Batman or Bond franchises, there's been one other film so far. A reboot, therefore, feels too premature, even though a sequel to a film that many people hated obviously feels like a bad idea. So they're caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Whatever they want to call it, though, this film represents something very important for the studio as they try to build on the momentum they started earlier this summer with Iron Man. This film is meant to make a statement, namely that "the studio did it wrong; now that we have creative control, we'll do it right."

And they've hit a lot of right notes so far, from the casting of Edward Norton (who was actually one of Ang Lee's first choices for the role for his 2003 film) as Bruce Banner to the inclusion of character actor Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) as Emil Blonksy, better known to comic book fans as the Abomination.

Having been burned by the backlash they got for the computer-generated imagery of the first film (which in my opinion was actually pretty good), Marvel held off releasing footage of the new Hulk as long as they possibly could while they tweaked the shots, and were accused of refusing to market the movie. Of course, when they finally did release the trailer and several minutes of action footage besides, they still got the inevitable and utterly predictable fanboy bitching about how fake the CGI looked, as though it's possible to make a "real" looking nine-foot, 1500-pound green man. Maybe my post flipping the bird to fanboys needs updating (especially with all the Indiana Jones bashing that's been going around). Still, even the CGI-bashing fanboys have acknowledged that from what they've seen this film is definitely a departure in tone from the previous film and professed some optimism. Of course, fanboys are the only barometer so far because only fanboys love to shoot their mouths off about movies they haven't yet seen. Everyone else, like critics and audiences, weighs in after they've seen the film.

As a Marvel fan I dearly want this film to be good and may even forgive it some of its shortcomings, whatever they may be. I was happy that Iron Man restored some luster to the Marvel brand after the thorough disappointments that X-Men 3 and Spider-Man 3 turned out to be, and while I seriously doubt that The Incredible Hulk will ascend to those heights, critically and commercially, I at least hope it will be good. The Hulk, I think, is a beloved enough property to justify a second attempt, as soon as it may seem. There's no denying though, that for all their careful casting choices and aggressive marketing at this stage, Marvel are still facing an uphill battle. Still, if they win it, what a victory it will be.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Paramount Pictures: Credit Where Credit Isn't Due

I guess one of the downsides of being a small, starting-up outfit is that when your product has the name of a bigger group attached to it, people will remember the bigger name.

That's exactly the case with Marvel Studios, which is enjoying an enormous amount of success with their inaugural offering, Iron Man, the first of several films Paramount Pictures is releasing pursuant to a distributorship agreement with Marvel for several of their self-made films. Marvel is the big winner here, having made a movie entirely on their own terms, creatively speaking, and now laughing all the way to the bank because of it. After all, they only have to pay a relatively nominal fee to Paramount for its help in marketing and releasing the film, as opposed to the lion's share they previously had to give up to studios like Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox. This bodes extremely well for future self-made movies, like Captain America (which Paramount may help finance) and the strongly hinted Avengers movie.

What irks me a little, though, is how in some of the mainstream and internet press, Iron Man is apparently being billed as a Paramount picture. Not just a Paramount release, mind you, although some media outlets have it right. No, some writers seem content to just chuck the Marvel brand aside and assume that Paramount came up with this picture with a little help from Marvel, much like Sony did the Spider-Man movies or Fox did the X-Men ones. For example, the very industrious (and credible) box office tabulator Gitesh Pandya of boxofficeguru.com, on the eve of the release of inevitable box-office juggernaut Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull is hailing the possibility that Paramount may be the first studio to "generate" two movies that grossed over $300 million dollars in a year two years in a row.

Now, I understand that for purposes of tabulating box-office results here it makes sense to just group movies according to their distributors, but this annoys me for a very specific reason and it's not just because Marvel deserves full credit (which they do) for having made, not released, the best comic book movie ever to the complete exclusion of Paramount Pictures.

This annoys me because quite frankly, Paramount deserves little to no credit for actually making the movies that propelled it to the top of the charts last year as the studio with the biggest box-office, and even less credit for what is currently the highest grossing movie of 2008 (at $223 million and counting).

Sometime in 2005 or 2006, Paramount bought Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks studios, and essentially inherited all of the movies that were in the pipeline at the time, including eventual box-office smashes like Transformers, Shrek 3, Blades of Glory, and A Bee Movie, or all four of the movies they released in 2007 that grossed over $100 million. What did they do in-house that year? Anyone remember Mark Wahlberg's Shooter? No, I didn't think so.

Before 2007 they had turkeys like Mission Impossible 3 and War of the Worlds (which was co-produced by Dreamworks). If anything, it's an article about War of the Worlds that even prompted this rather indulgent post.

Back in 2005, WoTW essentially opened to a $100 million weekend over the Fourth of July Holiday frame, nearly $80 million shy of the benchmark that had been set the previous year by Spider-Man 2. When asked how he felt about their biggest tentpole movie for that year basically falling far short of the record, some suit at Paramount basically said "this isn't just some comic book property, it's a beloved classic" or some really insufferable bullshit like that and went on to suggest that WoTW would have the legs to outgross SM2...which it didn't.

And NOW, after essentially basking in the success of properties they bought from Spielberg rather than making their own movies (the vast majority of which have tanked since the year 2000, when Tom Cruise was still able to sell Mission Impossible: 2), Paramount are receiving credit for the success of..."some comic book property?!?"

Hey, Pandya and all you other misinformed writers there who will probably call Iron Man and Indy Paramount's "one-two punch" of 2008 along with some other movies inherited from Dreamworks like Kung Fu Panda, please get it right: Paramount did not "generate" Iron Man (and arguably not even Indy, which is a Lucas property in the same way that the Star Wars movies are), they simply distributed it. They deserve no more credit for Marvel's inaugural smash hit than Newmarket Films did for The Passion of the Christ. THAT'S a comparison that should make sense to you.

I know Marvel are rolling in the dough right now and need about as much sympathy as a winner of the grand jackpot in the lotto, but the irony here hit me so hard I couldn't help but put in my two cents' worth.

Seriously, Paramount Pictures is enjoying a lot of time in the spotlight these days on the strength of films they either just bought lock, stock and barrel (like all their Dreamworks stuff) or are just distributing. Their formula for success or regaining their long lost box-office glory seems to be to just buy someone else's studio or distribute someone else's movies. When they start ponying up money and/or actual input for movies again, like they did for James Cameron's Titanic many years ago and like they will reputedly do again for Captain America sometime down the line, then maybe they'll deserve all the praise people are now heaping on them for coming up with box-office success.

(Of course, I wouldn't want them to start fucking up Marvel's movies like Sony and Fox did, but a big, fat boost in the production budgets of the movies would be nice...)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Anime Dialogue

Has anyone ever noticed how consistently awful the dialogue in most mainstream Japanese anime is? I used to think it was a function of the translation, but after hearing dialogue from several different shows I've come to the conclusion that it's now more the rule than the exception in today's serialized Japanese cartoons.

I can pinpoint exactly what it is about the dialogue that bothers me, too: the seemingly inexhaustible need for exposition, either by a bad guy or by an ominous supporting character. At some point in the story, the bad guy/supporting character explains, in rather stilted English when the cartoon is dubbed, an important story point to the hero, who, it seems, cannot otherwise figure anything out for himself. This exposition is punctuated by some extremely pretentious and wholly unbelievable language which seems all the more absurd when enunciated by the voice 'actors' who are either the same awful ones used over and over or different people trained to speak in the same monotonous accent. I used to think most of the English dubbing was done in Canada, but now I think it's done in Asia by people vainly trying their hardest to speak like Westerners. My computer is not facing the TV, but when I'm on it I can tell if the channel on is Animax from both the stilted (Canadian? Japanese?) accents of the characters and their ludicrous English they're spouting.

This character monologuing undermines the individual shows and the genre in several ways; first it violates one of the first principles of storytelling: show, don't tell. Considering that the medium here is a visual one, the storytelling deficiency betrayed by such heavy reliance on this poor excuse for 'dialogue' is all the more glaring and the irony almost too bitter to endure.

Some of the truly great anime, like Akira, relied very little on dialogue except at crucial points in the story, and even then not so much. One seminal work, Ghost in the Shell, was heavy on exposition towards the end where the Puppet Master character explained everything to the Major, and kind of ground the narrative to a halt, but at least not before the movie had hurtled along at two hundred miles an hour with some of the most eye-popping action sequences ever animated. The funny thing is, I don't even know that dialogue that appears midway through the story for exposition is even a Japanese thing; I've seen Japanese cartoons that have gone without it, and although I've seen very few of the legendary Akira Kurosawa's films, I know they weren't really dialogue heavy, either.

There's a reason it's called anime, which incidentally isn't even a Japanese word; it's French, and loosely translated it means alive. The recent wave of dreck polluting Animax and some other channels featuring Japanese cartoons is anything but that.

Second, the reliance on consistently bad writing in lieu of action just goes to show how, just like the American shows they used to stand head and shoulders above, the makers of Japanese cartoons are not in the least bit above cutting corners and sacrificing the quality of their work in the process. Talking heads, after all, are a lot easier to animate than people fighting or running or jumping or doing anything else that could propel the story forward without hitting both the hero and the viewer over the head with some explanation of everything that's going on. It was bad enough when they had Gundam robots just floating around in space on their rocket boots or packs instead of running , throwing punches, swinging their lazer swords or whatever their weapons are. Now, they apparently can't even have people moving around; it's either too expensive or time-consuming, so they just have them stand around and talk most of the time.

I'm no anime connoisseur, but I am familiar with some of the best in the genre like the aforementioned Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo and some of the works of Hayao Miyazaki like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. That was stuff that was vibrant and alive and made full use of the imagery that was at their disposal. There, the only limits were the imaginations of the writers and animators. These days, apparently there are a lot more considerations weighing them down.

It's kind of absurd that in cannibalizing one of the oldest Japanese cartoons for the big screen, Speed Racer, the Wachowski Brothers have, based on the mostly negative reviews I've read, imported this penchant for expository dialogue in one of the scenes involving the hero listening to...you guessed it...a long monologue by the villain.

This is not what anime should be about, and if this truly is the future of the medium, I honestly hope it leads to its extinction, so that people with a real sense of imagination can take the reins and give us actual anime, not just cartoons.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Marvel Films' Next Move

Over on my multiply page (apeltala.multiply.com), I basically wrote a review fellating everyone who had anything to do with the brand-spanking-new comic book adaptation, Iron Man, from Robert Downey, Jr. to Stan Winston and ILM to the Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby to Jon Favreau. I'm totally gay for all of those people now for making what I feel is the best comic-book based movie of all time. What I didn't mention in the review, which reached epic lengths, was how totally proud I was of Marvel studios for having successfully put to bed their very first movie as a studio.

Of course, the success of the endeavor will be decided in the coming days as the opening weekend grosses are determined, and more so in the weeks that follow as audiences will determine if the movie is nothing but a one-weekend-wonder (assuming it even achieves that) or a bona fide smash hit. Based on reviews and building internet buzz (generated by people who've already seen it), I'm willing to bet on the latter.

Granting that Marvel does bag its first box office smash right out of the gate, I think they should set in motion a number of things, which may or may not already be on their to-do list:

1. They should start aggressively buying back their properties from the studios they have existing deals with. Spider-Man is pretty much out of the question considering Sony's made billions out of just three movies and have at least another three contracted. Besides, it was Sam Raimi's vision and Sony's laissez faire attitude that were responsible for the thoroughly brilliant first two films and Avi Arad's intervention and desire to pander to fanboys that were responsible for the crapfest that the third movie turned out to be. So I think Sony should be left to their own devices with respect to Spider-Man, even assuming they wouldn't fight tooth and nail to keep him in their stable. Fox, however, has basically ass-raped the X-Men, repeatedly clipping Bryan Singer's wings and churning out the pure dreck that was X-Men 3 two years ago. They also ruined Daredevil and the Fantastic Four even though I actually enjoyed the second FF movie quite a bit. A buy back is definitely in order here, and given Tom Rothman's track record and visible disdain for these properties I wouldn't be surprised if all he'd ask Marvel would be "how much are you willing to pay for them?"

2. They should fast-track the Captain America and Thor movies. After the end credits of Iron Man, Marvel dropped a big-fat letter of intent to make the Avengers movie a reality. This won't happen, though, until the characters of Captain America and Thor, the only other two members of the team whose popularity would, theoretically, support their own movies, are well-established in Marvel's movie-verse. Thing is, Downey, Jr. has well and truly established himself as Iron Man with his portrayal, but the guy's already into his middle age. I give him a seven-year window at the very most before he starts looking ridiculous parading around as a super hero, so if they want to make an Avengers movie, they'd better do it while he's still got spring in his step. Iron Man's done and dusted bring on Cap and Thor and do it quick.

3. In this connection, Marvel should lure new talent. It's rather striking that in the course of over a dozen movies, Marvel have repeated themselves in terms of cast and crew and I don't just mean actors returning for sequels. No, some actors have starred in films based on two different properties, like Rebecca Romijn moonlighting between X-Men and Punisher and Sam Elliot moonlighting between Hulk and Ghost Rider, to name a couple. Worse still, however, is their woefully small stable of writers and directors. After the debacle that was Daredevil, writer/director Mark Steven Johnson shouldn't have been allowed near another Marvel property again, and yet he ended up making lightning strike twice with the comprehensively awful Ghost Rider. Screenwriter Zak Penn may have had a hand in the handsomely crafted X2, but he was also responsible for garbage like Elektra and X3. Despite the bad reception these films have gotten he was given another bite at the Marvel apple with The Incredible Hulk, even though Edward Norton supposedly made some major rewrites. While it makes sense to retain the services of those who've delivered for them, like Sam Raimi and Alvin Sargent, for example, Marvel should really and truly try to keep their talent pool fresh and perpetually growing in order to keep their concepts fresh. The four writers of Iron Man are a pretty good start in the right direction; their script crackles with intensity and intelligence. They, and not Penn, should be given a crack at the inevitable Captain America movie (and please, please get MATT DAMON to play Steve Rogers!).

If their concern is respect for the material, they should know there's no shortage of Hollywood writers and directors out there who'd love to sink their teeth into a Marvel property. They just have to know how to bring them in, and now that they have their own studio, they are free to do just that.

Iron Man could and probably will be the start of something big for Marvel. It could signal their transition from peripheral player to heavyweight contender in Hollywood, and if they are able to gain that foothold with this and their upcoming Hulk movie they should really make the most out of that goodwill because as with so many other things in tinseltown it could well be fleeting.

Couldn't Help Myself...

...the One Hundred Dollar toy car has been bought, except it turned out to be an eighty dollar car and a twenty dollar car. Over and above anything else, it was an extended (weeklong) period of stress spent finishing a very time sensitive project that pushed my desire past the point of controlling it. Fortunately, this little exercise in self-punishment paid fairly well so I was able (with the wife's consent, of course), to indulge myself just this once, even if it means a fresh and potentially longer moratorium.

There's really something to be said for buying such a lovely item...two of them, actually. Two different scales of the same car, the Porsche 911 997 GT3, by AUTOart. Probably not necessarily the most responsible way to spend money, but I definitely needed it at the time, having deprived myself of both sleep and time for my day job.

Anyway, a friend and fellow collector told me that the boon and the bane of being a collector, even a 'moderate' as opposed to 'hardcore' one is that no matter how gorgeous or definitively satisfying a piece is when one acquires it, x weeks or months later there will be something even more beautiful just begging to be bought. I know that, deep down, I still have a hankering for that Kyosho 1/18 Audi R8 that I just missed out on the day I bought the 1/18 911 GT3, even though I honestly do believe I got a better deal with the Porsche. I'm actually glad for the lean times I have to endure every now and then because at least the urge gets the temperance it needs. Barring another extremely high-stress, high-income stretch of time...or an insanely large windfall I can see myself putting off buying another big-ticket item (the Audi R8 comes to mind) until December at the very earliest, and I'm pretty sure I know where I'll be able to find one by then, even without the benefit of eBay.

But damned if this collector's itch isn't one of the most formidable forces I've ever had to reckon with in my life. I'm actually glad Matchbox makes such nice models; it's easier to keep the need at bay if I can feed it a little every now and then ;)