Monday, April 27, 2009

Iron Man II and Terrence Howard's Tribulations

The idealist in me wants to sympathize with actor Terrence Howard, who was dropped from the cast of the upcoming sequel Iron Man II. From the outside looking in it seems to be yet another case of the big guy (Marvel Studios in this case) trampling on the little guy (Howard).

The problem is, I didn't care that much for Howard's performance in the first Iron Man movie. I pretty much liked every performance in the film, but as far as I was concerned, Howard's was the weak link and I know other people felt the same.

Secondly, I actually prefer Don Cheadle, the actor tapped to replace Howard as Col. James Rhodes, Tony Stark/Iron Man's best friend and confidant, who like Howard, and even Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr., also has an Academy Award nomination under his belt. I came to like Cheadle as early as his regular appearance on David E. Kelley's TV Series Picket Fences in the early 1990s and found his performance as Paul Rusesabagina in 2004's Hotel Rwanda to be particlarly moving. So all things considered, I believe Marvel traded up.

But it's hard to write off Howard's ranting as that of an actor spurned; he got the shaft after having signed contracts, and though the odds are good that I'll enjoy Iron Man II with or without him, Marvel still appears to be the heavy in this instance and it doesn't feel particularly good.

Ultimately I guess one can chalk it up to Marvel having made a mistake in its early dealings with actors...they are, after all, a fledgling studio...but I sure hope this isn't a sign of what's to come from them, especially with so many important movies in the pipeline.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Foot-in-Mouth Disease on the Web!

Most of my favorite sites these days are the ones on which I get to post my thoughts, such as this blog, my multiply and facebook page, and my diecast forum. I no longer care much for any of the other sites I used to visit, whether it's the movie sites or the comics sites, and rarely even click on them anymore.

The lone exception, however, would have to be, a site I follow as much now as I did when my regular haunts were entertainment news sites and comic book sites.

I haunt their site on a semi-regular basis because I like their stories, a lot of their reviews, and even their message boards (dubbed 'talkbacks') because unlike the other stuff I used to read the comments there are actually laugh-out-loud funny, whether deliberately or otherwise.

But I think my affinity for this site stems from the fact that it kind of represents a bunch of fanboys made good. I mean, these are guys who get passes to movies and all kinds of sneak preview goodness based simply on the fact that they are fans who were industrious enough to put up their own website and proclaim their love for pop culture. These were not some basement-dwelling trolls content to infest other people's websites with their snarky, infantile comments; these guys made devotion to pop culture their life. I don't even know what Harry Knowles, the site's founder, even does for a living apart from this site, assuming he even has to.

I was, as a result, somewhat disappointed to recently learn that Knowles, who has practically attained the status of pop-sub-culture icon, is not nearly as well-versed in the pop-culture he professes to adore as he himself thought he was, and made this ignorance embarrassingly public on AICN itself a few days ago.

He created a post on AICN saying, to paraphrase him, that the marketing materials of the upcoming X-Men Origins: Wolverine had put him into a "berserker rage" a phrase often used to describe Wolverine's fits of murderous rage during which he vivisects his enemies with his adamantium claws. A click on the article showed that Knowles was having conniptions about the fact that one of the featured mutants in the movie, Emma Frost, who is in fact based on a character appearing in the X-Men comic books, was depicted as having the mutant ability to turn into, as Knowles put it, a "Disco Ball." What followed then was a string of profanity directed by and large at the studio which produced the film, Twentieth Century Fox, and an admonition to at least consult wikipedia on the characters they were bringing to the screen, because Emma Frost (a.k.a. The White Queen) isn't some "Disco Ball" girl, she's a (censored) TELEPATH!

And it was in this moment that Harry Knowles, supposed pop-culture demi-god, turned putting his foot into his mouth into a goddamned art form.

See, the thing about Emma Frost is that in 2001, when Grant Morrison, a writer some people revere as the next Alan Moore, was writing one of the X-Men's monthly comic books, he introduced the concept of a "secondary mutation" or, in layman's terms, either a second unusual feature or a second superpower for some of the title's characters. Emma Frost received one such "secondary mutation," and her added power was that she could turn her skin into diamond. So counting from '01, Emma Frost has basically had this power, in addition to her telepathy, for almost nine years.

And Harry Knowles didn't have the first clue that she did, and even accused people who DID know that fact of being ignoramuses. Of course, a lot of fanboys who HAVE read the X-Men in the last ten years or so had a field day with Knowles.

Now, I was actually sad to see this happen to Knowles, because of all the people whose reviews I read on AICN, it is him with whom I have the most in common in terms of taste in movies. About 85% of the time we've seen eye-to-eye on several blockbusters and even some of the smaller films he reviews. With the notable exception of his unhealthy preoccupation with the Russian girl in the last two Spider-Man movies, we like and dislike mostly the same things about the movies he reviews. An endorsement from Harry Knowles can sometimes (though not always) get my fanny into the seat to watch a movie. There are a number of other writers on the site whom I would have loved to see make fools of themselves in so blatant a fashion, but apparently they all do their homework better than Knowles.

I'm not even disappointed that Knowles didn't know about Emma Frost's additional power. I'm disappointed that he didn't take his own advice and learn more about the character via Wikipedia or a good old-fashioned trade paperback before shooting his keyboard off about what sodomizers Twentieth Century Fox are. I'm the last person in the world I'd consider a Fox defender; what they've done to at least three Marvel properties, including the X-Men, is virtually unforgivable, but it just so happened in this instance that they were right on the money. It also makes sense from a cinematic perspective to use Emma's "diamond skin" power because frankly it's a lot more unique that telepathy, which has already been thoroughly done in three prior X-Men films.

That's really the thing about fanboys at the end of the day, even the prominent ones like Knowles, is that they can be so intoxicated with their own self-importance in terms of pop-culture that they consider themselves above even doing a simple fact check before shooting off their mouths, which also explains the ENDLESS stream of message board posts proclaiming "this movie is going to suck" based not even on movie trailers or teasers anymore but on mere ANNOUNCEMENTS as to cast or crew. I had thought Harry Knowles above that sort of garbage, and felt extremely disappointed, even though he's never exactly been a role model of mine. I also don't think he helped himself one bit when, in editing the piece, he acknowledged his mistake and then added with visible bitterness that Frost's diamond power was stupid anyway and that "technically" Fox was not responsible for her having that power. Well, Harry, I'm sorry to tell you this but as far as the comic book character goes, Fox had NOTHING to do with Emma gaining diamond-skin powers. "Technically" doesn't even enter the picture anymore because Fox's non-involvement in Grant Morrison's creative decision is ABSOLUTE.

Knowles should consider himself lucky he never tried to become a lawyer, as that kind of unfounded, shoot-from-the-hip proclamation is the sort of thing that could cost him a case. Maybe I could be a fanboy demi-god someday...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Hollywood Whitewashing

Last weekend, a movie version of the popular Japanese manga Dragonball Z opened across the globe, to tepid box-office results. It starred a Caucasian actor, the bug-eyed Justin Chatwin, whose last truly notable role was as Tom Cruise's teenage son in War of the Worlds. Next year will see the release of at least two intended "tentpole" summer pictures with lead characters that aren't Caucasian: M. Night Shyamalan's adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender (simply titled The Last Airbender, due to disputes with James Cameron over the use of the word "Avatar"), and Jerry Bruckheimer's big screen version of the popular game The Prince of Persia.  The former is admittedly set in a fantastical world, albeit one heavily influenced by Asian culture as is clear from its themes, visuals, music, the names of the characters, and ultimately the admissions of the creators themselves.The latter, however, is set in the historical kingdom of ancient Persia and India though the story also has some fantastical twists.

In both cases, though, Caucasian actors have been pretty much shoehorned into roles that, to put it mildly, seem somewhat inappropriate for them. In the case of Persia, the role of the Prince is essayed by semi-popular actor Jake Gyllenhaal, apparently angling for his big breakout action movie (considering that in the last one he starred in The Day After Tomorrow, the real star was the digital rendering of the multiple catastrophes that rocked the world), while role of the princess is played by recent Bond girl Gemma Arterton. Neither actor, conspicuously, is Middle Eastern, though one could argue that Gyllenhaal's Jewish heritage brings him a couple of steps closer to the Prince, certainly more than Arterton is to an INDIAN princess.

The cast of The Last Airbender, as I have noted in another post, is even more ridiculous; M. Night Shyalaman has gone with, for the most part, a bunch of Caucasian UNKNOWNS for the lead characters; ALL of whom are clearly designed to be Asian-inspired. I was even profoundly insulted by an alleged comment I read on Wikipedia where one of the teeny-boppers cast as Sokka, who would best have been essayed by an Inuit/Native American, crassly said something like "I'll just have to get a tan and shave the sides of my head; a little suspension of disbelief is required." The belated casting of Slumdog Millionaire's breakout star Dev Patel as Prince Zuko is hardly a balm to the sting of Shyamalan's ridiculous casting decisions; the damage has been done.

Ironically enough, the voice actors of almost all of these characters, from Yuri Lowenthal who voiced the Prince to Zach Tyler Eisen who voiced Aang the Avatar, are white, but there's a world of difference between animation and live action in this respect; an animated character is an amalgam of his voice and his visual representation, but in the end it's what people, whether the gamers or the viewers, see on the screen that really leaves the impression; just about anyone could be a voice actor and in fact in other territories, the voices are quite easily replaced. With live action, though, no amount of dubbing can change what appears on the big screen, and the awkwardness of bad casting.

The way I see it, the imperative here is to create an affinity between the audience and the characters they are seeing on the screen, and to an extent I get that, especially in the case of Persia, which has been cast with a semi-well-known actor. 

But if there's any lesson that films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and, more recently, Slumdog Millionaire have to teach, its that you don't have to put white asses on the screen to get white asses in the seats. Furthermore, the audience for these movies goes well beyond the borders of the United States now; many movies make the real money overseas. As impressive, for example, as Titanic's 600 million dollar gross is, it is dwarfed by the $1.2 billion gross it made in the rest of the world, which is, loath that I am to state the obvious, 2/3 of the film's total gross. 

In short, there is no need to just pander to white Americans, many of whom, incidentally, recently voted a black man into their highest public office. 

 It was gratifying to see Dragonball: Evolution crash and burn, even though in that case, casting a white actor was arguably not as strange considering Gokou is supposed to be an alien. With any luck, though, maybe the whitewashing will stop someday soon, and we'll see more East Asian or West Asian people actually PLAYED by East Asian or West Asian actors.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Passion of Star Trek: and the Fanboys Are At It Again...

The Star Trek reboot, which is due out in a little less than a month, like any piece of pop-culture in this day and age of the internet and Apple downloads, has its share of fans and, ridiculously enough, its detractors.

It no longer comes as any surprise to me that fanboys are lightning quick to make the conclusions as to the quality of this film based on a few trailers and casting decisions. Since The Dark Knight pleased audiences and critics the world over long after fanboys declared it would be the greatest movie of all time I've simply resigned myself to the fact that they will milk their newfound sense of infallibility for a long, long time to come and have thus far been able to avoid my old vice of reading messageboards and thereby spared myself some undue aggravation. Accusations like"Star Trek 90210" are utterly puerile, they no longer annoy me the way they would once have done.

What strikes me as amusing and appalling at the same time is the thought that considering the profile of several fanboys, a lot of the twelve to fifteen year olds who post on message boards weren't even zygotes at the time the last Kirk Star Trek movie came out, and I'm hard-pressed to imagine a forty or fifty something, the generation of people who would have actually grown up with the original Star Trek series, coining a name like "Star Trek 90210." Of course, it's never wise to underestimate the devotion of Trekkies of any age, and the original Trekkies were, after all the forefathers of the modern fanboy. Still, I can't help but feel that a late-thirty, forty or fifty something person posting "this will suck" about a movie he hasn't seen is downright pathetic, as is a teenager or tweener spending all of his time going over old Star Trek replays or DVDs instead of playing outside.

For my part, I think the movie looks great based on the trailers, but am not about to draw any conclusions one way or the other about it. That's pretty much how one should assess a movie one hasn't seen. If one doesn't like what he sees in the marketing materials, he is free to not watch it, no matter what devotees of Speed Racer might whine on messageboards.

The thing about "this is going to suck" pronouncements is that I think they're here to stay. It's like I've been saying for ages: thanks to the internet any idiot with an opinion can make it known (feel free to insert snark about this writer here).

To be fair to the naysayers, they HAVE been pretty much on the money about Mark Steven Johnson's Marvel films...

Monday, April 06, 2009

Adapting Anime

This week, the live-action adaptation of Dragonball Z is coming to theaters in the Philippines. I'm the last person on earth I'd call a fan of that long running Japanese animated show, but the merest glance at the promotional material such as the posters and theatrical trailers told me that a great many liberties had been taken with the original story.

And I wondered to myself just then if it even made sense to adapt that series, as well as several other works of anime. I guess another way to ask the question would be: does anime lend itself well to live-action adaptation? For me, the answer is a big, fat, emphatic "I'm not sure."

The adaptation of many TV series, I think, makes sense. While I wasn't a fan of Speed Racer, either the adaptation or the cartoon it was adapted from, there was, to me, definitely a logic in bringing the 1960s series to the big screen.  I can also say that I am looking forward to the CGI adaptation of Astro Boy, a TV series I followed quite extensively when I was younger, as well as the alleged Robotech adaptation that was greenlit following the success of Transformers. Most of the old anime TV shows, after all, due to their mass-market, serialized nature, sported so-so animation and generated their followings based mostly on their stories and characters rather than stunning visuals, although the odd episode would be remembered for great animation too. So bringing those to the big screen makes sense, for the most part.

But what about the sprawling, ambitious, eye-popping feature films like Akira, Ghost in the Shell or any of the works by Hayao Miyazaki, which ooze consummate artistry from their every cel? Like Disney movies, they represent hand-drawn animation at its highest form, the cartoon done to perfection. And yet, in the case of Akira, at the very least, I understand that a live-action adaptation is bubbling on the minds of some studio execs, which to me would be heresy. After all, does any Disney exec fancy adapting Beauty and the Beast, or Cinderella, in live action? Of course not. Some works of Japanese anime should be similarly sacrosanct.

Another problem adapting anime presents is the very distinctive look of its characters, who, apart from having highly exaggerated facial features, often achieved highly exaggerated facial expressions which cannot really be reflected in real life and yet which often imbue the storytelling with its distinctive flavor.  Part of me understands (though I still refuse to condone) M. Night Shyamalan's decision to cast his adapatation of the anime-inspired Avatar: The Last Airbender with white actors; no Asian/Japanese/Chinese actor could have the round eyes of an anime character; it simply isn't physiologically possible.  Of course, he could have gone for Indian actors, whose eyes are arguably often bigger than those of Caucasians, but that's a whole other can of worms. 

The point is that several visual quirks of the characters, an integral part of the anime aesthetic and mythology cannot be effectively adapted in live action. Of course, by that logic the upcoming Astro Boy is exempt as it is done in CGI rather than live action.

There are some anime that may lend themselves well to adaptation, but if Hollywood knows what's good for them, they should leave classics like Akira alone.

The World Doesn't Get Alan Moore

While I am well-aware of Alan Moore's significance as a modern cultural touchstone, I can't honestly say I've read any of his truly significant works. In fact, apart from an issue of Spawn and a couple of issues of WildC.A.Ts I can say I haven't read anything by him at all. As a longtime comic book fan I am embarrassed to say I haven't read Watchmen (at least I can claim having flipped through The Dark Knight Returns when it was on display at Power Books., though that was by Frank Miller, back when he was still credible).

Arguably, then, I don't have any business writing a blog post about Alan Moore's work, but the thing of it is, I have enjoyed at least two adaptations of his seminal comic books, V for Vendetta and Watchmen, the former a bit more than the latter and am sincerely disappointed that people don't seem to appreciate these works as much as I have. Rather than offer some snarky, elitist explanation as to why people don't "get" Alan Moore, though, I thought I'd try to posit a little theory I've been brewing since I found out that Watchmen conspicuously underperformed at the box office.

I know they're pretty much the world's easiest target, but first of all I blame Hollywood, and V for Vendetta, while it remains my favorite adaptation of a work by Moore, is a good example. There the filmmakers (Andy and Larry Wachowski of The Matrix fame) were able to preserve a lot of the key elements and aspects of the story but still managed to dull its edges by removing some of the more risque aspects of Moore's storytelling. There's a whole wikipedia entry on the changes, but I was struck by the removal of Finch's resorting to drug use to try to learn to think like V, and ultimately by the fact that unlike his cinematic counterpart, the comic-book version of V cared not a whit for democracy but was in fact an anarchist. There is such a thing as taking creative liberties, but there's also such a thing as hijacking somebody's body of work to make it a platform for one's own agenda, and though I had no problem with the film being the anti-Bush propaganda that critics accused it of being, I really wasn't fond of the fact that the story went from a bold vision of a world where all vestige of despotic order is destroyed and replaced with its antithesis to a feel-good, twisted version of an "I'd like to teach the world to sing" Coca-Cola chorus. It became about "freedom" and "democracy," which, while virtues in and of themselves, were NOT part of the original story. So for the most part, Hollywood doesn't have the balls to envision Alan Moore's work as it should be done. One only need watch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to see that.

How, then does one explain the underwhelming box-office performance of Watchmen, which a lot of fans have hailed as painstakingly faithful to the source material?

That brings me to the second culprit behind the lukewarm reception to adaptations of Alan Moore's works; Joe Public's perception of comic book movies.

Now, though it wasn't my favorite comic book movie of last year or of all time, I really have to concede that makers of The Dark Knight have probably made the boldest narrative effort by (spoiler alert, if one is needed) pitting Batman against a villain he cannot conclusively defeat without great personal cost. Thing is, there was a structure to it; a hero, a villain, and acts of good pitted against acts of evil.

Neither V for Vendetta nor Watchmen follows that paradigm, with the characters there often acting with as much villainy as heroism. And it is because of this, the absence of larger-than-life archetypes, that the general audience, who, I think, have pre-conceived notions of the kind of stories their comic-book based movies should tell based on over three decades of such movies starting with 1978's Superman, simply doesn't connect to Moore's characters, which is really a shame because they are wonderfully nuanced, even when watered down.

Another aspect I think comes into play is something Moore himself declared; his works are unfilmable, because they depict events and characters in a way that can only be done on the printed page. I don't know that I agree entirely with that and certainly the technological advances made since Watchmen's initial publication in 1986 have made that statement debatable, but it is still entirely possible that things may have gotten lost in translation. Some of the most damning indictments of the film have come from internet fans who watched the film, were underwhelmed, re-read the comic books to restore their faith in Moore, and came to the conclusion that the story "wasn't really that great to begin with," which is more the fault of the filmmaker than anyone else; I mean, I don't remember it ever happening that an adaptation has literally dragged down the source material along with it. Maybe Moore was right and the series should never have been filmed.

I think the problem in a nut shell is that the world is not ready for Alan Moore yet. Whether it's Hollywood producers with no balls, or audiences with too many preconceived notions, I don't think people are in the proper position to appreciate the subtext of Moore's works.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Film Piracy Rears Its Head Again

I have to confess that X-Men Origins: Wolverine was not particularly high on my list of "must-see movies" for this year and indeed the only big ticket movie I'm really intent on seeing, James Cameron's Avatar, isn't due out till December.  I'd also like to point out that I'm not a fan of the way 20th Century Fox, as a studio, have handled their Marvel properties, basically butt-fucking everything from the X-Men franchise to Fantastic Four to Daredevil.

Still, the thought that something like 90% of the movie has been released on torrents really pisses me off.

I appreciate that video piracy is quite the equalizer considering the way DVDs used to be priced and considering the way Blu Ray discs still are priced now, but the thing about downloading movies before their release doesn't just hurt the home video market; it hurts the moviemaking industry itself. I've already gone on about this at length in an older post, but I think it is worth adding that in this day and age of internet, where millions of people can download from a single site, some real damage can be done. This isn't the age of the bootleg betamax or VHS tape; it's a lot more serious.

Good for you if you're out to destroy Hollywood, which is admittedly a pretty ugly place these days capable of producing some really trashy product, but not if you actually love movies. I never could reconcile my late best friend's proclamation that he loved movies with the fact that just about every video in his collection was pirated, even the small, independent movies.

I'll agree that, quite often, studios need to be cut down a peg or two and piracy can be a good way to do it, and maybe, just maybe, that's a little slap in the face Fox needs to start taking their Marvel Properties seriously, lest Marvel buy them back and start making the X-Men, FF and Daredevil actually watchable again.  So fine.

But let's not delude ourselves that these torrent bastards are champions of the people. Please.