Welcome to the Evening Read.
Yes, that's right. I rearranged the schedule today so I could post those reviews first, and now I'm putting together an Evening Read after spending some time with the boys this afternoon. Lots of interesting stuff going on out there today, so I wanted to make sure we got a chance to share some of it before the day is done and I start celebrating my birthday... which, at this age, means "drinking heavily and weeping in the shower."
I'm not going to link out to the sites who are spoiling a very clever cameo in one of this summer's big movies, but I am going to ask the question why you would do that to your readers. I got yelled at (primarily by one guy repeatedly) by a few of you over my decision to run the "Muppets" trailer the other day without hiding the fact that it was a trailer for "The Muppets" in my headline, and that was a decision I had to contemplate. In the end, very few of you would have clicked on an article about an Amy Adams/Jason Segel romantic comedy that you'd never heard of before, and I don't blame you for that. I don't post stories with the specific goal of having no one read them, so I erred on the side of spoiling a two-minute trailer for you in that case. And that was, let's be clear, a piece of advertising. But regarding an actual movie? And a surprise hidden deep within that movie? There's no way I would do that to my readers. I won't even tell you what movie it was they screwed up. I'll just say that it's comparable to what would happen if there was a scene in "Cowboy and Aliens" where Han Solo showed up as one of the aliens and had an onscreen moment with Harrison Ford. The crowd would go berserk, right? Well, that's the way this particular cameo plays in its film, and the idea of someone posting the information as a headline… not even as part of a story, but as an unavoidable headline… makes me think that maybe studios aren't wrong when they play hardball on screening dates and embargoes. If you can't trust a fully-functioning adult to handle a piece of information properly, then you have to stop giving all the adults that information. It removes the temptation to be a total tit from the equation. Shame on you, Comic Book Movie.
Welcome to the Evening Read.
One of the genuine delights of the original "Kung-Fu Panda" was realizing that the film was a perfect gateway drug into real kung-fu films for kids, an authentically built story of a misfit named Po (Jack Black) who wanted to become a master like the Furious Five, the kung-fu heroes he worshipped. The film featured a pretty menacing bad guy in the form of Tai Lung (Ian McShane), and when it offered up either philosophy or action scenes, there was a credibility to it that I found impressive.
With this new entry in what I can only imagine is a series, director Jennifer Yuh has crafted a truly ravishing visual experience, and the script by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger is solid and streamlined. My one complaint about the film is just how painless the entire thing seems, how very linear the storyline is. There's a problem, the good guys go to deal with it, and then they do. It's not much more complicated than that, a particularly stripped-down version of Campbell's basic story form.
Having said that, the film is energetic, filled with clever and exciting kung-fu action, and there is an emotional arc for Po that I found personally very affecting, more so than I would have expected. Overall, I would call "Kung-Fu Panda" pretty rousing family entertainment, and if your little ones are eager to see the film this weekend, it's a safe bet that they'll be just as pleased as you are with your time in the theater.
I'm starting to believe that comedy and sequels simply do not mix.
It is no coincidence that horror, the other genre I believe this about, works because of the same sort of involuntary reactions that make great comedy effective. It feels to me like the simple act of making a sequel to a comedy or a horror film is an act of diminishing returns in practice. There is an element of surprise that seems necessary for comedy or horror to work on an audience completely. The first "Hangover" became an international hit based on two things: the chemistry of its cast and the clever way the film was structured as a mystery. That allowed for the film to drop its best surprises out of chronological order, and it saved its biggest payoffs for the closing credit photo montage.
"The Hangover Part II," opening tomorrow, is a well-made sequel. Once again, Todd Phillips seems to be one of the few guys making this sort of big broad mainstream comedy who loves to shoot in full 2.35:1 scope, and he's got a keener sense of what to do with a frame than, for example, Rob Marshall in "Pirates of the Caribbean 4," who shot the jungles of Hawaii like he was making a TV movie on a soundstage in Burbank. Phillips takes full advantage of the grimy, sweaty opportunities afforded by Bangkok and Thailand, and the film has this dangerous, sun-blasted visual style that really works. The cast all seem game for this return to the characters, and there's a manic energy to a lot of it that seems appropriate.
I just wish I thought the damn thing was funny.
It's been strange watching the production of "X-Men: First Class" from a distance.
Ever since I met Matthew Vaughn at a lunch with Guy Ritchie and Harry Knowles, he's been incredibly approachable and easy to talk to about his films, and I spent a fair amount of time watching him work on "Stardust" and "Kick-Ass." I shouldn't be surprised, though, because this time, he's not working for himself, and he didn't self-finance the film through his own Marv Productions. He was working for 20th Century Fox, and on a superhero film, pretty much the opposite of every professional situation he's had so far.
I've certainly had plenty of tough things to say about Fox and Fox management over the years, and I was concerned during production that part of the reason for the cone of silence was that Matthew was having a terrible experience. Based on the final film and our chat today, I'd say he was just busying running as fast as he could to make his release date, staying focused because there was no time to get this one wrong.
When we spoke, he was in bed with tonsillitis, but he sounded just as sharp and energetic as usual. As we started our conversation, I told him how pleased I was with the end result. Vaughn says, "Yeah, well, we were up against it on this movie, but somehow, I think the Movie Gods shone on us."
We talked about how rich the world established by this film is, and I asked him about his choice to use Sebastien Shaw as the main villain in this one. The filmmaker reveals, "He was the villain… no, the character, that I was most afraid of. I kept thinking, 'Are we going to pull Shaw off?' And the comic book version made me nervous, and I would argue with Lauren [Shuler-Donner] about it, and she'd say, 'He must have the ponytail and the cravat.' And I would argue, 'He is going to look like an Austin Powers villain, Lauren. We cannot do that. I have to make the movie work, and Kevin Bacon with a ponytail and a cravat dressed as an 18th-century fop will look ridiculous.'"
Tilda Swinton is one of those people I was eager to sit down with precisely because I knew I wasn't going to get something cookie-cutter and overly-managed out of her. I think she's a fiendishly smart performer, with an underground sensibility that still makes her feel like she's resolutely outside the Hollywood system, even after winning an Academy Award.
Her work in "We Need To Talk About Kevin" really shook me up, and I was excited to sit down with her and discuss the way the film came together. It was first thing in the morning, the third or fourth day I was in Cannes, and we met at the special beachfront pavilion that Moet Champagne had set up. She was dressed in a knee-length green dress, with minimal make-up, and couldn't have been more striking.
As soon as we were seated, I started talking to her about how much the film rattled me, and how it's full of moments that any parent can immediately understand, no matter what their relationship with their child. In particular, we spoke about the way most movies romanticize the process of parenthood, taking out all the ugly and unpleasant and unhappy moments, which is really what "Kevin" starts with. I asked her how early she became involved with the material, and how much she helped to shape the approach they took. "When we first talked about it, there was no script. There was a book," she said, "but more than the book itself, there was this attention paid in the book to this… this survival. The film really is about surviving. I don't think you have to be a parent to know the nightmare fear that can be involved. Even if you were just left with someone else's kid for the day. There was no script, so there was only the question of how to extract that feeling from the book, which was incredibly dense."
I can't believe Cannes is already in the rear-view. It seems like we just found out a few weeks ago that I had my press badge for this year's festival and would be going, and now it's all over except for the publication of a few final pieces. Crazy.
I'm going to start with a round-up of four reviews, movies I liked to varying degrees but didn't fully love in any case, and I want to make sure the films at least get some attention. With one of them, I'm sure you'll have a chance to see it later this year, and with the others? Well, who knows if they'll ever play US theaters? I could easily imagine that these might just disappear or show up a few years from now, once any potential heat has dissipated. It's happened to plenty of good movies over the years, and sometimes, these festivals represent my one shot at seeing them in a theater.
Take "Bonsai," for example. Chilean filmmaker Cristian Jimenez, working from a novel by Alejandro Zambra, has crafted a wry, sincere piece about how easy it is to get hung up on an idealized love from the past at the expense of an imperfect but attainable love in the present, and it's a small-scale charmer that would probably have a nice tidy little life on the arthouse circuit in English. I'm not sure distributors are cool enough to give a movie like this a chance when it's done Spanish-language instead, and without any easily marketable names. There's no real high-concept to the film, so you can't even cut a trailer that sells it just based on the premise. This is a film that has to play out in full before its appeal is totally evident. Julio (Diego Noguera) is a young man looking for work who meets with Gazmuri, a semi-famous writer. He tries to get the job typing up Gazmuri's new novel, but he asks for too much money and Gazmuri turns him down. Julio doesn't tell his semi-girlfriend Blanca (Trinidad Gonzalez) that he lost the job and instead take the opportunity to write his own book, the story of his first real love, Emilia (Natalia Galgani). In writing the book, Julio begins to really buy into the romantic legend of how great things were with Emilia, but he seems oblivious to just how determined Blanca is to help him.
You know, I give the generic poorly-scripted romantic comedy a hard time in print, and that seems very, very mean of me. After all, they can't help it. The audience will pay to see the same formula a bazillion times over, and if they don't have to try any harder than they already are, then why bother?
Jason Segel and Amy Adams, though, are fairly appealing, and in this case, I'm willing to give "Green With Envy" a chance. After all, James Bobin is directing and his work on "Flight Of The Conchords" was always sharp and funny, so I'll give him a chance.
I'm having a hard time understanding what the hook is, though. Doesn't look like anybody body-switches or gets amnesia or is aging backwards or anything that might typically motivate a sort of high-concept riff on the romantic comedy. Is this really just as simple as "Love struck meets star struck when a small town couple (Amy Adams, Jason Segel) head to Hollywood and discover their dreams of hitting the big time may cost them the one thing that matters most - each other"?
Welcome back to The Morning Read.
Our long national nightmare is over. We can all finally breathe easy again. It's hard to believe, but somehow, the lawsuit between Quentin Tarantino and Alan Ball has been resolved, and it was done without calling in The Wolf.
Boy, Cannes worked me over. Then again, every festival seems to work me over at this point. I think it just comes down to the fact that I am a very old man. This Thursday marks my 41st birthday, something which seems like a horror movie. That can't possibly be true. Maybe we can just agree to have a week of good news. That would be a great gift. For example, Oscilloscope Laboratories, which picked up my favorite Sundance movie, "Bellflower," this year is also planning to release one of my favorite films from Cannes, "We Need To Talk About Kevin." They're looking at a winter release with an eye on being part of the awards-season conversation. Oscilloscope is rocking it these days, and when they sent out word this morning, it made me genuinely happy. I like they way they handle the films they buy. They care, and you can tell. Later today, I'll have my interview here with Tilda Swinton, star of the film, so check back for that.
Because I am writing this from the comfort of my home in Northridge, CA, instead of filing from the press lounge at the Grand Palais, there is a weird feeling of disconnect even though I was at this year's Cannes Film Festival for most of its duration. I missed a few films for various reasons, and as a result, there are things I can comment on and things I can't. One thing is obvious, though, looking at the list of winners for the festival… Cannes covered a lot of ground this year, and it was an incredibly strong line-up overall.
The biggest award at the festival is the Palme D'Or, and the winner was "The Tree Of Life," Terrence Malick's long-in-development personal look back at childhood in the '50s in Texas, as well as our place in the universe. As I said in my review of the film, I thought it was a beautiful, ambitious piece, and I've certainly spoken to people whose genuine reactions to the film were emotional and profound. I just felt like, for me, it was Malick doing Malick, feeling the pressure to deliver THE film instead of just a film, and less successful overall than past efforts from him. I certainly wouldn't slam the choice, and I think it's a movie that leaves a lot of room for each individual viewer to walk away with a very different experience.
I am happier overall with "X-Men: First Class" than with any other film released so far in the "X-Men" franchise at Fox. And I suspect that when I see it again before my full review, I may find even more to like about it. Right now, I'm still sort of in shock at how much of it works, and how ambitious the entire thing is.
I'll have a full review of the film closer to release, and in that, I might get a little spoilery. But my first impressions of the film are so strong that I want to share the big points without spoiling anything for you. First, there's the style of the world, the way the mutants are built into reality, and I think one of the things that makes this such a success is the confidence that's part of every choice made by Matthew Vaughn and his creative team. The film is set in the '40s and the '60s, and while I wouldn't call it realistic, I think the impressionistic take it offers on period is even more fun than if they did it as complete realism. The powers are so matter of fact, so much a part of the world, that it never feels like the film stops to show off. "Hey, look, this guy teleports!" Well, no duh. That's the sort of movie this is. People teleport. The film just takes that as a given, and so action scenes erupt without too much labored exposition or set-up. We learn how things work as the film needs us to, and not before. Characters are still discovering their own abilities, still learning how the world around them works.