Monday, February 23, 2009

Rewarded At Last

It's true enough that the independent film as we know it owes much of the recognition it receives today to the Weinstein brothers, Harvey and Bob, and the studio they founded, Miramax, but this is far from the only studio that has produced some truly quality independent movies in the last fifteen years or so.

My personal favorite purveyor of indie films happens to be Fox Searchlight Pictures. Sure, like many fans aggrieved by his decisions with respect to Marvel Comics movies I may think Tom Rothman is the devil's spawn, but Fox Searchlight is a different animal from 20th Century Fox and they've come up with some really memorable films. For those unfamiliar with their films, it will be my pleasure to list my favorites:

The Full Monty (1997) is, as far as I know, the film that put the then-fledgling indie film distributor on the map. Directed by Peter Cattaneo and written by Simon Beaufoy, the film tells the (apparently true) story of several blue collar workers in England who, upon being retrenched, decide upon a rather unorthodox way of making money for their families, i.e. by doing a male striptease act a la Chippendales. It's British humor at its very finest, and even the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences was captivated; the film received four Academy Award nominations including nods for Best Picture and Best Director.

Waking Ned Devine (1999) set in a tiny Irish village, is another absolute gem of a film about a man who dies of a heart attack upon learning that he has won the lottery, and, more imporantly about the village's collective effort to cover up his death so that they can collect the prize and split it amongst themselves. I think I may have burst blood vessels laughing at how funny that movie was.

Sideways (2004) is set on the other side of the pond for a change; specifically, California, where depressed middle-school teacher Miles (a wonderful Paul Giamatti) accompanies his friend, over-the-hill actor Jack (the hilariously authentic Thomas Haden Church) on one last weekend of fun in California wine country before Jack gets married to his longtime girlfriend. The film alternates between haunting poignancy and laugh-out-loud hilarity, and was my favorite release of 2004, even over the acclaimed blockbuster Spider-Man 2. It also got multiple Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, and it ended up taking home the golden statuette for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006) a film about a children's beauty pageant, which has her entire family composed of her self-help guru dad (Greg Kinnear), exasperated-to-have-invested-all-her-money mom (Toni Colette), emo/ultra-quiet/aspiring pilot half-brother (Paul Dano), her insane, profane, drug-addict grandfather (Alan Arkin), and her suicidal gay college professor uncle (Steve Carell) make a cross country trip in a beat-up Volkswagen bus that turns out to be a character unto itself as the movie unfolds. Like Sideways, it's a movie about a road trip, and what a road trip it turns out to be! I loved this film and apparently the MPAAS did too; it won two Oscars, one for Best Original Screenplay and the other for Alan Arkin's supporting role as the foul-mouthed granddad.

Juno (2007) is a movie about a smart (and smart-mouthed) teenage girl (Ellen Page) who gets pregnant by her best friend (Michael Cera) puts her baby, unborn for most of the movie, up for adoption. The couple that responds to her ad, a pair of yuupies played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner seems to be the perfect couple and therefore the perfect parents but like the saying goes, looks can be deceiving. Again, Fox Searchlight flirted with Oscar as the film garnered nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actress for Page's spunky teen, and Original Screenplay. Writer Diablo Cody took home the award for her bitingly original script.

If I seem unduly preoccupied with the attention the films released by Fox Searchlight have been getting from the MPAAS it's because I am truly and deeply glad that on February 22, 2009 at the Kodak Theater, one of their releases, the extremely popular Slumdog Millionaire, finally took home the top prize for the studio, besting offerings from Paramount, Focus Films (Universal Pictures' independent arm), Universal itself, and Oscar veterans the Weinstein brothers courtesy of their new studio, Weinstein Films. It was also the film through which Monty screenwriter Beaufoy managed to snag a long-overdue Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

What I like about Fox Searchlight movies is that while they show a broad spectrum of human experience with dark or heavy films like Boys Don't Cry or Kinsey also having come from their stable, most of their truly outstanding movies, and the ones that garner the most recognition, are all life-affirming, lighthearted affairs that, even if they don't necessarily have storybook happy endings, are nonetheless very positive in their overall outlook. I hear that Slumdog continues this trend and am quite excited to see it, apart from the fact that it has won an award for the studio which it has deserved for a long, long time.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why Comic Book Makers Should Stop Pandering to Hollywood

These days, thanks to films like The Dark Knight, the first couple of Spider-Man films and Iron Man, comic books are seen as entirely legitimate source material for motion pictures. This is good in that comic books seem to finally be coming out of the ghetto to which they've been confined for the longest time, but bad in that now, a lot of comic book storylines feel extremely self-conscious, as if their writers were making pitches for Hollywood screenplays. Worse still, a lot of writers working on comics these days are screenwriters or TV writers, and their work is of mixed quality; while I loved the work of J. Michael Straczynski, for example, I can't say the same for that of Jeph Loeb. Quite frankly the problem with comics these days is that a lot of them feel like wannabe movies.

And this is a terrible thing. Comics are comics and movies are movies, and both are distinct art forms, each with its own peculiarities and idiosyncrasies, and each with characteristics unique to its own form that the other cannot and should not aspire to mimic.

There are so many things about comics that simply have not been translated to movies: Spider-Man has forgotten the ability to wisecrack. V (in V for Vendetta) suddenly became an agent of democracy rather than anarchy. Superman has not faced any of his cosmos-shattering adversaries like Darkseid or Braniac and has had to content himself with flying really fast and lifting really heavy objects. The Hulk, well, for two movies running now, the Hulk has not quite felt real. This may not speak very well of the movies that adapted them, but it speaks well of the source material in that there remain certain intangibles which they have over their adaptations; there remains reason for viewers to say "I liked the comic better" the same way Lord of the Rings purists will always say "I liked the book better."

Bill Watterson, creator of the now defunct Calvin and Hobbes, hit the nail on the head when he refused to allow his creation to be adapted as a cartoon. Basically, even though he had a deep respect for the art of animation, he had a problem with voice actors giving life to Calvin. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine Watterson feeling that no six or seven-year-old boy could properly deliver Calvin's ridiculously precocious dialogue properly, or that some middle-aged woman (e.g. The Simpsons' Nancy Cartwright) would always be just that: a middle-aged woman and not a child. Thanks to this little bit of artistic integrity on Watterson's part, the strip is now immortalized in its current form and Calvin will never be reduced to the identity of his voice actor or Korean animation studio, which is more than I can say for Spider-man, who is indelibly linked to Tobey Maguire by millions of people who've never picked up a comic book.

Lest I be misconstrued, I'd like to clarify that I'm not against adapting comic books at all; I love many of the comic book adaptations that have come out over the years, with the first two Spider-Man film and last year's Iron Man being my favorites with my (personal) runnerup honors going, in no particular order, to the Bryan Singer X-Men films, the Hellboy films, Guillermo Del Toro's lone Blade film, Blade II, and the Christopher Nolan Batman films.

My point is that the attempts of some comic book creators or publishers to "make life easier" for the filmmakers that may or may not adapt their work by writing stories that pander to them or redesigning costumes or origins or various other tweaks is doing the comic book industry as a whole a severe disservice. Of course, in some cases "realistic" costume tweaks can help; without Adi Granov's designs, I'm pretty sure Iron Man would not have been half as watchable as it eventually was.

I say, let the film industry play catch-up. One can only imagine how frightfully dreadful comic books and their subsequent adaptations would have been had Stan Lee been content to limit his stories to the kind of images that the technology of the time was capable of realizing.

Hollywood has caught up with a lot of comic books, having made some pretty sterling adaptations in the last few years. If comic book writers absolutely have to think about Hollywood when writing their plots and scripts, I think their driving concern should be "so what CAN'T Hollywood do yet?" Assuming visual effects studios can ever crack those nuts, that would make for some pretty engaging viewing.

Shamelessly Riding the Obama Phenomenon

Last January, Marvel Comics sold over 350,000 copies of a Spider-Man comic book that featured U.S. President Barack Obama on the cover and in a five-page back-up story. I saw a copy in Filbar's and despite having an overwhelming urge to join the wave of speculators that no doubt helped propel sales skyward I balked, being utterly turned off by the art and script of the story featuring Obama, all of which pretty much gave comic books a really bad name.

Not too long before, Marvel's Editor-in-Chief had said that in keeping with Marvel portraying the "real world," the U.S. President of the Marvel Universe would be Barack Obama. This was buttressed by an appearance the Commander-in-Chief apparently made, in continuity, in an issue of the comic-book Thunderbolts, which also came out in January. The writer of the series, Andy Diggle, went on record saying the President was Obama and even spiced up the script with a reference to his star-studded inauguration.

And it was then that marketing reared its hideous head.

Probably at the instance of some clowns with MBAs, Marvel's marketing arm claims that the only Obama appearing in the Marvel Universe is the one who shows up in Amazing Spider Man 583, the one whose dialogue is downright embarrassing (along with the dialogue of the rest of the story), the one who doesn't look a blessed thing like him, and who appears in a horribly stereotypical, borderline racist depiction of what a "black president" should be like (i.e. a basketball expert). Not, Marvel's marketing is quick to point out, the decisive, authoritative figure that attempts to rein in the now power-mad Norman Osborn. That man, according to Marvel marketing, is merely "the representation of who the President in the Marvel Universe is" even though he's quite obviously black, slim and young(ish). Of course, the appearance of Obama elsewhere would probably detract from the sales of the book Marvel are most keen to push. Maybe they can retract their announcement later, when the sales department is satisfied with the figures.

Please, Marvel, ditch the suits. They're really just embarrassing the lot of you.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Barack Obama: A Cultural Phenomenon I'm Glad I Lived to See

My daughter is three years old, going on four, and knows nothing of racial differences between people, much less stereotypes. A few days ago we were watching Iron Man on DVD, and upon the appearance of James Rhodes, a character played by African-American actor Terrence Howard, she cried out "it's Barack Obama!"

I believe that speaks volumes about Barack Obama's cultural impact the world over. Like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, Obama is now the global avatar for the black man. It is true that he is a man of several different ethnic backgrounds, considering that his mother was white and that his stepfather was Indonesian, and people who really care to read up on the man will know this as there is pretty much a wealth of information steadily becoming available about him.

For the rest of the world, however, what they see is what they get, and as a result white and brown melt away and suddenly Obama is the quintessential black man, which, for black activists everywhere, can only be a good thing. This has been written elsewhere, and far more eloquently, but I thought it worth taking note of considering my kids are even in on it.

It's really worth taking note that a three-year-old immediately identifies a random black man as "Barack Obama" considering that less than two years ago people who weren't following the American political scene were saying "what's a Barack Obama?"

I like the fact that my children are growing up in an era where Barack Obama's success is even possible, considering how it's barely been a year since people were saying it was not. Heck, I love having witnessed this era myself, even if I wasn't in Washington or Chicago for all the festivities.

Monday, February 02, 2009


When it was announced that M. Night Shyamalan, Indian-American director of The Sixth Sense, would be directing the live-action adaptation of the popular cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, I had mixed feelings on the matter. I was, without question, glad that a director of such high profile had been given the project, and glad further than he had a distinctive Asian heritage which could translate into a keen awareness of the story's Asian orientation and a desire to bring that intact to the big screen. I was worried that this movie was not exactly up his alley, as it will be his first adaptation of someone else's material and it will be an action movie, which is quite a contrast from the slow-burn thrillers he's done throughout his career.

Still, as a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender I was excited for the project, even when I heard they had to drop the word "Avatar" from the title due to legal conflicts with James Cameron, whose highly anticipated return to filmmaking, Avatar is due out this December. I followed updates on location shooting and casting, though for a while I fell out of the loop.

Still, I wondered who'd they'd cast as the characters. I knew they'd probably go for unknowns, so I figured, things being the way they are, they'd get Amerasian kids (American citizens of Asian descent) for the roles.

Recently, though, I was able to catch some snippets online, and what I read appalled me. Apparently they've hired WHITE kids to play Aang, Sokka and Katara! Aang, to anyone familiar with the show, is clearly derived from a Buddhist monk, while Sokka and Katara look and dress distinctly like Inuits (the people who, if I'm not mistaken, are more popularly known as Eskimos) so it would have been a no-brainer to cast an Asian unknown as Aang and two Native American unknowns as Sokka and Katara. Right? Right? Wrong, apparently.

It's Mickey-fucking-Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's all over again.

It makes me wonder if Shyamalan and Paramount even understand the whole concept of the show being a love letter to Asian culture and the values it espouses. The series creators have even openly professed their love for the works of Hayao Miyazaki whose styling they often tried to ape in the course of the series.

I smell marketing all over the casting of three white kids, and wonder if the dipshits over at Paramount need to look over the grosses of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon again, a movie that made a bundle of money without a white person in sight, and without a word of English even being spoken. It's kind of mind-blowing how, in an age where a man with American, African AND Asian heritage can be elected President of the United States of America, and where the biggest movie star in the world is an African American, a bunch of myopic movie producers and an even MORE myopic movie director still believe that the only way to sell an ASIAN themed movie is to fill it with white kids.

I took little consolation from the knowledge that the story's primary villain-turned-hero, Prince Zuko, was recast from a white teeny-bopper to rising star Dev Patel, the British Indian actor currently making waves in Danny Boyle's Oscar frontrunner Slumdog Millionaire. Zuko is, next to Aang, probably the most important character of the story, and one Shyamalan himself has identified as his favorite, so it's nice that a person of Asian descent (though he is British) should get this role. But, with a white kid still in the lead role, a role written for an ASIAN kid, it's all still all wrong. Sure, all of the lead voice actors for the characters (again, with the exception of Prince Zuko, who was dubbed by Filipino-American Dante Basco) were white, but the intention for them to be Asian is ALL OVER THE PLACE, from the houses they live in to the clothes they wear to the values they profess to cherish.

People are raising a hue and a cry over the suggestion that Will Smith, the biggest box-office star on planet earth, play Captain America because Steve Rogers, as a character, is blond and blue-eyed. Well, while Aang is certainly nowhere near as iconic as Steve Rogers he is meant to be Asian in his looks AND his personal philosophy, so the decision to go with a white kid, who hearkens from a culture that represents a COMPLETELY different value system (and comes from a state which gave birth to a President more reprehensible than the series' main villain, Firelord Ozai), is every bit as objectionable if not more so.

What kills me about Paramount's and Shyamalan's decision is that Asians outnumber Caucasians by something like five to one on Planet Earth, and in America alone they could have practically thrown a stone and hit a kid of Asian descent and looks, especially if they'd gone to California or Hawaii. Instead, they get a WHITE kid from TEXAS. Just TYPING that makes my skin crawl.

This early, I've pretty much decided not to see this in the theaters; if it turns out to be any good I'll just go to a street corner and pick up a bootleg DVD. Unless and until Paramount get their shit together and show those white kids the door they are not getting a blessed centavo of my money and, if there's ANY justice in the world, not any money from any Asian person anywhere.

It's my hope now that the upcoming Dragonball movie, which also features a white guy in a role arguably created for an Asian, tanks horribly, thus forcing Paramount and Shyamalan to seriously and I mean SERIOUSLY rethink their casting decisions.