Welcome to The Morning Read.
I've never been one to be shy about self-promotion, so I'm going to sing it loud and proud this morning. Over at Popcorn Fiction, you'll find my just-published second Commander Future story, "Moving Day," and you can still read the first story, "The Interview," if you haven't had the chance yet. I love the site anyway, and being able to introduce this character I love so much and do it in a place where I don't have to give up all control of him forever… that's heaven for a writer. I've got some big plans for the Commander this year, and I will be eternally grateful to Derek Haas and Mulholland Books for giving him his first home.
Oh, yeah… and there's something about some movie called "The Avengers" or something? There are going to be a lot of headlines this morning about the film starting production today, and I'm genuinely pleased to hear it. Seems like one of those things that I never thought would actually happen, and yet… they're doing it. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, the world's new busiest man Jeremy Renner, and Samuel Motherscratchin' Jackson are all gearing up to make what promises to be the most outsized superhero film of all time. Better be, anyway. If you're spending years running up to something, and you stop and you call your shot like Babe Ruth, then it's time to step up to the plate, focus, and knock this thing out of the park. I better hear Randy Newman music and see a scoreboard explode after you swing. The nice thing about having Joss Whedon at the helm is that he's going to have a sense of humor about it, whatever happens. I quite enjoyed his statement today on what "The Avengers" will be about: "The Justice League." Indeed.
Welcome to The Morning Read.
I'd like to get your opinion on something, even as I offer up my opinion on a few things. A little give and take, as it were, on a holiday weekend Sunday evening. I want to ask you how much of our festival coverage you guys actually read, and what value there is in it for you.
I can tell you that from my end of things, I feel like festivals are the cornerstone of a film critic's year. If you manage to make it to Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, Fantastic Fest, and Toronto, I feel like you've got your year covered, and if you add in supplemental local fests like the LA Film Festival and AFI Fest here in LA, you can eventually catch a surprising number of the year's films and see a wide range of what's going on in the world. If you really want to understand where cinema is at any given moment, I think you need to put yourself out there on the festival circuit and see as much as you can.
One of the things that happens at many of the festivals is that you end up prioritizing what gets written up in the heat of the moment and what's doesn't, and it's rough for some of the smaller films. Especially if they're movies that don't already have distributors in place and that you're not sure you'll ever see again. The thing is, there's value in seeing those films for me, and there's absolutely a benefit in it for the indie filmmaker, who is always hoping for press that draws attention to what they've done… but is there value in it for you, the readers, who haven't seen these films and who may never see them?
It's interesting the way "secrets" work these days.
I was under the impression that it was going to be a secret all the way through production and until release that Ian Holm and Elijah Wood appear together in the wrap-around segments of "The Hobbit," tying the films directly into "Lord Of The Rings." Then Elijah's participation in the film was confirmed a while ago, and this week, no less that Peter Jackson himself confirmed that Ian Holm is in "The Hobbit."
It seems like there really is no such thing as a surprise anymore. Earlier today, the post-credits bumper for "Thor" showed up online, presumably duped from one of the Australian screens where the film is already open. For fans around the world, they can simply spoil that moment for themselves now with one click as opposed to waiting a few more weeks to see it at the end of the film, when it would have far more impact.
The difference here is that Peter Jackson is the one who gave away the spoiler this time, and if he says it's fine for people to know, then I guess it's fine to know. Jackson has been helping to define the way filmmakers can interact with fandom since the year 1999, and while I might have kept the Old Bilbo/Frodo stuff secret, I'm not about to tell Jackson he's wrong for revealing it in such a casual off-hand manner.
So far this week, I've published reviews for "African Cats" and "Water For Elephants," two of the bigger releases, but I've also previously published reviews for some of this week's other releases, and because of things like festival schedules, I figured we should run links to some of those earlier pieces, plus offer up a few quick reactions to things I never quite got around to reviewing.
It's been fun watching people react to "Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," and I salute Morgan Spurlock for making the publicity for the film entertaining instead of self-serving. Spurlock is part of that new breed of documentarians who put themselves front and center in their films, and that can get really obnoxious. Spurlock manages to use his big broad ideas to examine things without preaching, and in this new film, I think he's done a particularly good job of looking at the way product placement works in our new media landscape. He's not a scold, and he's not a clown, and the way he's managed to sell this movie by extending the message of the film into every single action he's taken since Sundance is fairly ingenious.
Also this week, you can catch up with "Legend of the Fist," one of the 10,000 films that Donnie Yen starred in last year. I would recommend this film if only for the oh-my-god opening sequence in which Yen appears to win WWII single-handed. Yen's really hit his stride as a performer over the last few years, and I think he might be the most exciting martial artist working anywhere in the world right now.
I never read Sara Gruen's novel, but having seen the film version of "Water For Elephants," I have a pretty good idea what to expect. I have no doubt that Richard LaGravenese has crafted the classiest possible version of what feels like a very old-fashioned melodrama, while leaving much of the texture of Gruen's novel intact. I'm almost curious enough to go read a few chapters now to see if my guess is right.
Almost. The thing is, what praise I have for "Water For Elephants" isn't really about the story. Instead, I'm impressed by a few of the performers and, in particular, by the way director Francis Lawrence approached the material. Especially in the first half of the film, he captures a romantic version of the circus on film that I'm not sure ever really existed. He makes it feel real, though, and evokes a nostalgia for a time when you could hop the rails in search of some sort of direction when your life was falling apart, and when running away with the circus was this charming possibility. There's one scene in particular, the first time they're setting up the circus and Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is watching them, that is honestly one of the best versions of that scene I've ever seen done. It's alluring in all the right ways, and by the end of it, I wanted to run away and join the circus, too, if only for a weekend.
Ruben Fleischer was pretty much offered the world after "Zombieland" came out. He was given opportunities to choose between several different films, and he eventually chose to direct "30 Minutes Or Less."
Early word from people close to the film is fairly rabid on this one, and with today's release of the first red-band trailer for the film, I'm excited about getting a look at it later in the year. The script for the film by Michael Diliberti made the Black List a few years ago, and it looks to have been a real draw for some of the funniest people in film right now.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as a pizza delivery guy who is abducted by two guys (played by Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) who strap a bomb to him and order him to rob a bank. Now, this actually happened to a guy, and the real story was sort of tragic and insane and bizarre, but it does seem like a great jumping-off point for a truly manic comedy, and the trailer does a nice job of setting things up without ruining the entire movie.
In particular, I like the idea of Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari as friends. You wanna talk about two totally different types of energy playing off of each other… that seems like it sets up some outstanding opportunities, and even in this little glimpse at the movie, they've got great natural chemistry.
Welcome to The Morning Read.
I will welcome absolutely any project that gets Robert Zemeckis to direct a live-action film again. If it turns out to be "Flight," that's fine by me. The film, written by John Gatins, sounds like a cross between the Dustin Hoffman movie "Hero" and the Zemeckis film version of "Forrest Gump." Denzel Washington is sorta kinda thinking' about making it, starring as Whip Whitaker, a pilot who manages to land a plane during a mechanical failure, narrowly averting disaster. He's celebrated as a media hero, while no one realizes that he was drunk and high while he was flying. Gatins is the screenwriter on "Real Steel," based on a Richard Matheson story that was also adapted into a "Twilight Zone" episode, and he wanted to direct the film. If Zemeckis ends up making his deal with Paramount, then Gatins is going to have to settle for having written a Robert Zemeckis film. I'm sure he'll dry his tears with his mountain of $1000 bills.
Jake Johnson is building a nice impressive list of appearances, film after film, and I'm particularly impressed by his work in "Ceremony," Max Winkler's debut feature. He's signed now, according to Variety, to play the principal in "21 Jump Street," and this can only be a good thing for the film.
As long as I've been aware of Walt Disney as a company, nature films have been part of that identity.
I'd even argue that the first documentaries of any type that I saw as a kid were the "True Life-Adventures," a series of short films that ran from the late '40s until 1960, and which were packaged and repackaged as part of the various Disney anthology shows on TV. As an adult, I'm aware of the awful reputation the "True-Life Adventure" films have in terms of inaccuracies and animal cruelty, but I'm also aware that at the time they were made, many of them won Academy Awards. I loved the films when they would show up on TV, and when they were released on DVD a few years back, I was thrilled.
In the wake of the almost unbelievable box-office performance of "March Of The Penguins," every studio started thinking about how to get in on that type of business, and Disney remembered that they already had a history in that market, one they could easily build on now with the marketing muscle they have at their disposal. DisneyNature was born as a distribution label within the larger Disney family, and kicked off with "Earth" in 2009, which was basically just a stripped down feature-length greatest hits version of "Planet Earth," the acclaimed BBC documentary series. They followed that up last year with "Oceans," a very pretty film that felt fairly innocuous overall. This year, they're offering up "African Cats," co-directed by Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey, and I think it works much better as a piece of narrative than "Oceans" did. To me, this feels like the 21st century version of the "True-Life Adventures" in a way that absolutely deserves the Disney name on it.
I've been holding off announcing this, and I've been crossing my fingers like crazy, but it appears that the process has been completed and I am indeed heading to this year's Cannes Film Festival, the first time I've ever attended, and it feels like if I had to pick a year to go, this is the right one.
Yes, I'm excited about "The Tree Of Life." After all, it's Terrence Malick, and by my personal estimation, he has yet to make a bad film. I revere "Days Of Heaven" and "Badlands," and I think "The Thin Red Line" is remarkable. I have my problems with "The New World," but there's still a lot about that film I find hypnotic and beautiful. For me to get a chance to see the new Malick film in an environment like Cannes? That's very exciting. That sounds like exactly the sort of film I hope to see at a festival like this one.
Now, there are some very big commercial movies playing there this year, as seems to be the standard now. For example, the photo you see illustrating this story is Astrid Berges-Frisbey as Syrena the Mermaid, one of the two young leads in the sequel "Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," and there's quite a bit riding on just how much an audience ends up liking her. They're also showing "The Beaver," which I saw at SXSW. Woody Allen's going to kick the festival off with "Midnight In Paris," his latest, and I'm looking forward to it. With Allen, it's hit or miss, and I'm always willing to at least give his films a try, because the ones I love, I love dearly. I'd say the last one that I have huge affection for is "Vicki Christina Barcelona," and I'm always hoping the next one will hit me that same way.
We have reached a very strange moment for our industry, and moving forward, we have some very important decisions to make.
DirecTV, working with Sony, Universal, Warner Bros, and Fox, is getting ready to launch their new premium video-on-demand service this Thursday, and at first glance, it looks fairly awful to me. The fact that they're launching it with Adam Sandler's miserable "Just Go With It" seems appropriate. You'll be able to download a different film every two weeks for $29.99, and for that price, you can watch the film for 48 hours. It'll be in 1080p HD, and available only to customers who have an HD DVR. The films are going to be movies that are available before the home video window, but after the theatrical, collapsing the release schedule even further than it was already collapsed.
I don't really get this one. I understand the debate that pops up from time to time regarding a day-and-date pay-per-view window, offering a premium price for a movie that's opening in theaters, and I can honestly say that there are films I'd consider doing that for. If they offered a chance to see "Pirates Of The Caribbean 4" at home opening weekend for $50, it would make sense for my family to do that. Two months after release for an Adam Sandler film I hated? I can't image that.
But when I say I would pay for a day and date release, that's not the same as me saying that I think the industry should move in that direction. And today, an open letter was published that focuses this debate a bit more. Here's the full text of it, including the signatures, which I think you'll recognize: