Monday, January 23, 2012

Spike Lee is Peeved. Again.

By Steve Evans

The 2012 Sundance Film Festival got an injection of hubris from director Spike Lee, who is angry again, this time at Hollywood for not greenlighting his projects and for offering what he suggested was ...too many suggestions on how he should write his scripts.

"I didn't want to hear no motherf------ notes from the studio telling me ... about what a young 13-year-old boy and girl would do in (Brooklyn neighborhood) Red Hook," he told a Sundance audience. "They know nothing about black people. Nothing!"

Lee catapulted onto the national cinema scene in the 1980s with race-relations films, most notably Do the Right Thing. He made a fortune, seemed to lose his way in the 1990s, and hasn't made anything especially memorable since Malcolm X, with the possible exception of Inside Man (2006), on which he was only a hired gun to direct a screenplay written by Russell Gewirtz.

Spike, baby, you gotta understand: it's not whether Hollywood suits know anything about black people. They are only interested in films that make money. A lot of it. Either pull together financing for your own projects and roll the dice with an indie distributor, or accept the simple verity that Hollywood studios are not going to bend to your churlish tirades.

Spike famously got into a who's-got-a-bigger-dick contest with Quentin Tarantino over the latter's pervasive use of the N-word in Jackie Brown (1997). No less an authority on hipster cool than Samuel Jackson came to Tarantino's defense at the time, saying, "I don't think the word is offensive in the context of this film ... Black artists think they are the only ones allowed to use the word. Well, that's bull. Jackie Brown is a wonderful homage to black exploitation films. This is a good film, and Spike hasn't made one of those in a few years."

Jackson's observation on Lee's output still holds true today.

It seems Lee wants it both ways: to spend Hollywood money and enjoy complete control. That's not a bad goal, per se, and maybe he could have both if his track record of late wasn't so spotty. It's not a matter of having control over, black, white, blue or pale-yellow films. It's about making good films.

For a director who launched himself into the limelight 25 years ago as an angry young man with indie street cred, I note with an air of fatalism that today Lee is a one-trick pony who has grown into little more than an angry old man who used to make good films. His message, if he still has one, is lost in the delivery.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Backstage at the Golden Globes

By Steve Evans

Every year Hollywood royalty strut the red carpet outside the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where the Hollywood Foreign Press Association awards the Golden Gobes.

The HFPA does this in January to beat the Academy Awards in February, since passing out Golden Globes after the Oscars would be even more irrelevant than passing them out at all.

It's a little-known fact that a mere 90 people are voting members of the HFPA. They would have you believe that this minuscule gathering of opinion is a barometer of quality in the cinema and on television, since they also dish out TV awards each year. In reality, the awards ceremony gives HFPA members an opportunity to rub elbows with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and the Kardashian sisters, whose names I cannot be bothered to look up right now. HFPA members take lots of pictures posing with celebrities and send these digital images back to their respective publications in some 55 nations, where the magazines and newspapers publish them to a fawning audience. This annual activity also helps mollify the editors and publishers at the home office, who might otherwise grouse about the high cost of their correspondents living large in L.A.

They also distribute some philanthropy as a result of revenues generated from televising the show, “more than $12 million in the past seventeen years to entertainment-related charities, as well as funding scholarships and other programs for future film and television professionals,” according to the HFPA website.

But the principal reason so many stars turn out for the event – and one of the main reasons you may want to watch it – is the open bar that flows continuously from well before the ceremony to some indeterminate time thereafter. A crowded ballroom of celebrities drinking heavily makes things a bit loose and funky. You may find it amusing. The Academy Awards are a dry affair, figuratively and literally, but at the Golden Globes movie and TV stars get down.

Here’s a clip of Liz Taylor high as a monkey and presenting the Golden Globe (or in her words, “the Golden Glow”) for Best Drama in 2000:

Comedian Ricky Gervais returns this year to host the Globes. He’s one of the funniest comics working today, but the herpity-derp expressions on the drunken faces of his targets will provide far more hilarity come show time. Check those reaction shots when Gervais gets rolling. He was so acerbic last year, he wasn't invited back -- until the producers saw the Nielsen ratings.

So that is the “why” behind the Golden Globes. As for the when, you can watch the awards Jan. 15 on NBC. Show starts at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Above all, keep an eye on Jack Nicholson.

Cinema Uprising © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 9, 2012

George Clooney to Battle Nazi Art Thieves

By Steve Evans

George Clooney says he will co-write, direct and star in an adaptation of Robert Edsel’s 2010 nonfiction book, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” No word on casting, beyond Clooney himself.

The “Monuments Men” were a group of men and women from 13 nations who worked collaboratively to protect monuments and art objects from destruction during World War II. “In the last year of the war they tracked, located, and ultimately returned more than 5 million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis,” according to the Monuments Men Foundation website.

Nazi plundering of European art occurred on a massive scale throughout the continent from 1933 until the fall of Berlin in 1945. Modern art that did not fit the Third Reich ideology was destroyed. While the French resistance, especially, fought to protect art treasures and undertook sophisticated measures to hide and relocate great works of art, the Nazis managed to seize and abscond with innumerable treasures. Art historians estimate the Nazis seized up to 20 percent of art in Europe. More than 100,000 objects are still missing.

The Rape of Europa, a fascinating 2007 documentary on this subject, is currently available on Netflix for instant viewing. Edsel co-produced. Read more about the documentary

Director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) presented a fictionalized account of Nazi art looting and Allied efforts to stop the plunder in his 1964 action film, The Train, with Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield. Art appreciation and history take a backseat to spectacle in this film, but Lancaster is always fun to watch and does his own stunts. This seldom-seen film deserves a look, with a great supporting cast that includes Jeanne Moreau and Michel Simon. View the trailer for The Train

For his project, Clooney promises a big-budget production with substance. Unlike, say, The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009).

As with any expensive Hollywood picture “based on” or “inspired by” true events, it will be entertaining to see how closely Clooney & Co. follow recorded history.

Edsel appears to endorse the project. “I am so proud to share this news,” he posted today on his Facebook page. Hope he still feels that way when the film is eventually released.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Girls, Dragons, Tattoos & Hollywood Remakes

By Steve Evans

In the entire history of cinema I cannot name a single significant foreign film that was a remake of a motion picture made in the United States. However, the number of American remakes of major foreign movies must be close to 1,000.

Sometimes the remake is only approximate. “The Seven Samurai” (1954), Akira Kurosawa’s action masterpiece of feudal Japan, was remade six years later with the story transposed to the American Old West in “The Magnificent Seven.”

Sometimes a remake is designed to resemble the original film as closely as possible, particularly when both are based on a wildly popular novel, as is the case with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Author Stieg Larsson died in 2004 before the books in his now-famous Millennium series were published. The three books in the series, including Dragon Tattoo, have sold nearly 30 million copies in 40 countries. After the success of a 2009 Swedish film set in Stockholm and the surrounding country where the stories take place, Hollywood smelled money.

The Swedish original was produced on a $13 million budget starring two unknowns, Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace as the titular tattooed girl. The film fairly reeks of the wickedness, terror and gloom that permeates Larsson’s first novel. This original picture, quite faithful to the book, is as gritty a film noir as anyone has made in half a century. When the wind howls through snowy woods in this film, we feel the sharp cold slice clean to our bones. More importantly, the film takes the time to present the characters so we begin to understand their motives and care about what happens to them.

Within a year of the original’s release, four studios, including Columbia and MGM, ponied up $80 million to produce David Fincher’s English-language remake starring Daniel Craig, of James Bond fame, and Rooney Mara, who appeared in Fincher’s previous picture, The Social Network. She plays the young woman who breaks up with the Mark Zuckerberg character in the opening scene, irking him enough to create Facebook. The remake of Dragon Tattoo was released barely two weeks ago, although industry insiders say the studios are already disappointed with the box office results, but still vow to film the last two books in the series.

With Dragon Tattoo, Fincher returns to the film genre that made him famous. He gets the look just right, but the story has been dumbed down – as if no one in Hollywood really trusts American audiences to “get it.” There’s also a disappointing lack of suspense, although I am willing to concede my familiarity with the material going into the theater may be partly to blame. Still, even the computer hacking so crucial to the plot is reduced to a few shots of keystrokes and blurred fingers in motion, as if every cyber genius clacks on a keyboard with that same machine-gun pace we’ve been seeing in films since well before the Matrix.

Now, I don’t really care whether Daniel Craig is more or less convincing than his predecessor Michael Nyqvist in the role of a magazine journalist investigating a serial killer. It is also probably moot, a mere exercise in academics, as to whether Noomi Rapace or Rooney Mara owns the Goth look, the attitude, the disturbed brilliance and deep emotional scarring that makes the dragon-tattooed Lisbeth Salander such a memorable character. The point here is not even why Hollywood feels compelled to remake foreign films. Hollywood remakes foreign cinema for the same reason that studios produce movies based on old TV shows, video games and comic book characters: the source material has a proven audience and devoted fan base that can reduce the risks involved in making hideously expensive American films. There is no other reason.

Instead, I am more concerned and even a bit saddened that most American audiences will likely come to this story only through exposure to the English version of the film. They will get an expensive-looking movie with English actors speaking in peculiar Swedish accents. Worse, Fincher has subtly softened the character of Lisbeth Salander with bits of sentimentality that undermine the tone of his film and betray the ruthlessness of the novel.

Stieg Larsson wrote a terrific mystery that evolved into a trilogy exploring themes of political corruption, violence against women, female empowerment, dysfunctional families and the moral bankruptcy that seems inherent in big business. The stories are set principally in Sweden, for that is where Larsson lived and worked all his life. His novels, as well as the original films inspired by them, possess an authenticity and cultural integrity that no amount of Hollywood gloss can replicate. Stamping an Anglo-American sensibility on a story set in Sweden results in awkward narrative. Then again, judging from their consumption habits, I doubt most Americans would notice if someone mixes Swedish meatballs with Ragu spaghetti sauce, stirs in a handful of macaroni and serves the dish at Pizza Hut under the banner “Now That’s Italian.”

The world is a more interesting place because of the diversity of its cultures.

See Fincher’s not-bad remake if you must, perhaps out of curiosity as I did. But do read the books and see the original films, maybe even read a bit of history about Sweden during World War II. Then you can cultivate a deeper appreciation of what Larsson was getting at, and why culture and setting are so vital to the richness of this story.

Larsson clearly realized that to understand a nation is to know its history. The three Swedish films adapted from his books reflect this knowledge. Fincher’s English adaptation jettisons virtually all of this context in delivering a lean thriller.

Both the Swedish original and Fincher’s film tell the same story, but the differences between them are significant. In the American version, we are mere observers. Immerse yourself in the original film trilogy if you want to feel fully involved.

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cleaning Out the Closets & Caveat Emptor

By Steve Evans

Came across this concert DVD, Steve Hackett: Once Above A Time, while clearing out the closets. Spring cleaning gets done early around here. At first, I couldn't imagine how I came into possession of this disc, then remembered I'd found it in the cutout bin of a used record store.

For those of you who don't know but might still be interested, anyway, Steve Hackett was a guitarist for prog-rockers Genesis in the 1970s. He joined the band in 1970, about the same time as Phil Collins, but departed for a solo career in 1977. The aftermath can be found on this DVD. Lest you repeat my mistakes, read on.

Hackett throws down 20 tracks of progressive rock, now a quaint anachronism, in this April 2004 concert in Budapest.

This will not be a kind review.

Now, there's nothing wrong with arty space rock, per se. Me and my delinquent high school buddies wasted a recreational hour or two in our parents' basements back in the day, listening to King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes—and, yes, Genesis. The opening chords of "Roundabout" or "Dance on a Volcano" can transport me instantly to a simpler time, when black-light posters were more fun (and less expensive) than computer games, when bongs bubbled merrily under cover of purplish neon light, and the room was filled with sweet, pungent smoke. And laughter. Does anybody remember laughter?

It was in that spirit that I wanted to enjoy this concert: to relive memories of a misspent youth. Ah, but I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now. In the intervening years, I've also made peace with an important discovery: The problem with progressive rock, then as now, is the fan base is constantly growing up. Teenagers tend to take themselves far more seriously than adults who have experienced a bit of life, acquired an education, and opened their minds to—among other things—music that doesn't require heavy ingestion of vodka and Quaaludes in order to render it listenable.

Put another way, it's no wonder Peter Gabriel quit Genesis a quarter-century ago to develop his own socially conscious (and melodic) music. Long after Gabriel bailed and recorded a quartet of brilliant solo albums, Genesis was still plodding along under the leadership of drummer and crooner Phil Collins, riffing on esoteric music for extraterrestrials until the band finally imploded from an overdose of fan indifference. Collins went on to win an Academy Award for composing and singing the songs in Disney's Tarzan; Hackett, as this disc proves, stuck with what he knows best: the same ol' thing. The result is a mess.

This brings us, finally, to the problem of this concert DVD.

If penning pretentious songs and performing them with the élan of a busted chainsaw were a capital offense, there would be no need for this review. I would be absorbed in a good film, and the people responsible for this DVD would be chilling on death row. At times I had to stab the pause button on my remote control while enduring this concert; such was the convulsion of my laughter. This is not a compliment.

Lumbering tunes like "Mechanical Bride" (!) and "Air-Conditioned Nightmare" are embarrassingly bad, like forks on a blackboard. My favorite song title on this disc is "The Circus of Becoming," the sort of gibberish we might expect from an arrogant grad student of English lit.

Let me be clear: Comedy is where you find it, be it intentional or otherwise. If the song titles are supposed to invoke imagery during Hackett's free-form performances, then the titles are also equally arbitrary and interchangeable and, therefore, meaningless. By this logic "Mechanical Bride" might as well be called "Pig Squealing in Hot Oil," which would lend greater truth in advertising.

Call me a philistine, but Hackett's experimental noise, if it can be charitably described as such, could make hounds howl. One song, tongue-twistingly titled "Firth of Fifth," opens with the tweety sounds of a wooden whistle. I waited for Ian McKellen and Elijah Wood to come onstage in Middle Earth garb, inquiring about a certain Ring of Power, but the song just droned on instead.

After two spins of this disc, I am convinced that black beret–wearing tenth graders with clove cigarettes dangling from their lips and musical instruments off the shelves of Wal-Mart could make sound no less intolerable than the 104 minutes of sonic irritation produced by Hackett and Co.

So what's favorable to be said?

The video image is vivid; the Dolby sound mix as clear as plucked Waterford crystal. Holding the camera on the musicians for minutes at a time is also a welcome reprieve from the rapid-fire cutting that ruins so many otherwise enjoyable concert discs. Sound and image were captured by professionals. And the light show is pretty good. These technical achievements elevate the disc from the cutout bin and prompt me to goose the overall rating from a goose egg. Extras are limited to a short backstage featurette.

The concert was recorded in Budapest during a European tour in support of Hackett's album To Watch the Storms. To listen to a storm, cue up this DVD and give the volume knob a sharp, clockwise twist.

But remember: I warned ya.

Set list:

• Valley of the Kings
• Mechanical Bride
• The Circus of Becoming
• Frozen Statues
• Slogans
• Serpentine Song
• Ace of Wands
• Hammer in the Sand
• Blood on the Rooftops
• Fly on a Windshield
• Please Don't Touch
• Firth of Fifth
• If You Can't Find Heaven
• Darktown
• Brand New
• Air-Conditioned Nightmare
• Every Day
• Clocks
• Spectral Mornings
• Los Endos

Cinema Uprising copyright © 2012 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.