Thursday, February 26, 2009

Oscar winners are only certainty in an uncertain biz

If you’re the sort of person who expects the unexpected, then Sunday’s Oscar telecast was probably almost as disappointing for you as it was for Mickey Rourke.

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony was completely devoid of surprises, unless you count the surprising lack of surprises. No out-of-nowhere winners like Marisa Tomei or Roberto Benigni. No one-armed push-ups. No streaker running past a delightfully unperturbed David Niven.

Usually the Oscars offer up one or two unexpected moments, if only to make you forget how predictable the rest of Hollywood’s annual celebration of itself really is. This year, however, not even that. The 2009 edition was so paint-by-numbers that kindergartners could have written the jokes. As it was, Bruce Vilanch wrote the jokes — as usual. And that’s basically the same thing.

“Slumdog Millionaire” took home the top prizes of Best Picture and Best Director. Sean Penn robbed Rourke just like he robbed Bill Murray in 2004. Kate Winslet finally snagged the Best Actress prize she should have won years ago. Heath Ledger received a posthumous Best Supporting Actor honor.

And so on.

It was all from the standard playbook. Oscar voters love to reward middlebrow, little-seen art films. They love to pat Penn on the back when he’s the least-deserving nominee. They love to make up for past mistakes. And they love to give awards to actors who play psychopaths (for example, Anthony Hopkins). There are exceptions to the first rule, like “Titanic,” a middlebrow film everyone saw, and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” But even “The Return of the King” falls under the making-up-for-past-mistakes rule. It won after the first two movies in the trilogy lost.

The Academy Awards are so predictable that filmmakers sometimes make movies with Oscar gold in mind, which is often a winning strategy, at least so long as it isn’t too obvious. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Changeling” were two films this year that went too far and came up empty as a result, except for a few technical awards for “Benjamin Button.” Nobody wants to see a movie beg.

Still, I was happy to see Ledger and Winslet win, even if, now that she has her Oscar, Winslet says she isn’t doing any more nude scenes. Gee, thanks, Kate. Leave the nude scenes to actresses so thin that when they turn sideways all you can see are their implants. Meh.

Maybe I’m being too hard on Hollywood. You can’t really blame the Oscars for being predictable. They’re about the only thing in Hollywood that is. Compared to figuring out how to make a profitable movie, figuring out how to make an Oscar-winning one is easy.

Consider the top grossing movie of 2009 so far, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” Granted, it’s only February, but who would have predicted that a lowbrow “comedy” about a security guard would top the box office in its opening weekend, let alone be the top grossing movie two months into the year? No one, that’s who.

If you’ve ever wondered why the major studios make the movies they do, it’s because no one in Hollywood actually knows what they are doing. And I don’t mean that as an insult. I mean moviemaking is the riskiest, least predictable business on Earth. Most movies are lucky to make back their production and promotional costs after factoring in overseas grosses and DVD sales. If you’re a studio executive, you just hope that a couple of your movies hit big enough to make up the difference and keep you in your job.

It isn’t that Hollywood isn’t trying to appeal to moviegoers. It’s that moviegoers are the most fickle market there is.

Arthur De Vany, professor emeritus of economics at the University of California, Irvine, and author of “Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Industry,” went looking for some pattern of success in Hollywood and found none. Nothing can predict whether a movie will be a hit or a flop. Sequels are slightly less risky, which probably explains why Hollywood makes so many of them. But even most sequels are more likely to lose money at the domestic box office than break even.

So, I can’t begrudge Hollywood its one night of predictability. Ironically, it’s the only night when the movies stick to the script.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

‘Youngblood’ is a bad movie just waiting to happen

I’ve heard it said that no one sets out to make a bad movie. Bad movies, like natural disasters, just sort of happen.

I’m not sure that’s entirely true. For example, I think Uwe Boll, director of “House of the Dead,” “Alone in the Dark” and “BloodRayne,” among other crimes against humanity, may indeed set out to make bad movies.

Then there is Brett Ratner, a director who can take an otherwise successful film franchise and turn it into fertilizer. Hannibal Lecter and the X-Men are his two most notable victims.

“Red Dragon” is a pale parody of its predecessors, “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal.” Meanwhile, “X-Men: The Last Stand” is a bloated, incoherent mess that disposes of major characters as if they were dirty diapers.

Having sullied the X-Men, Ratner is obviously the perfect choice to take on another superhero franchise — one that is already so awful even he can’t ruin it.

He now has his chance. Hollywood trade publications reported last week that Ratner will direct a film based on Rob Liefeld’s “Youngblood” comic.

During the height of the comic-book boom of the early 1990s, several popular Marvel Comics artists decided to leave and start their own company, Image Comics. Liefeld, who had drawn “X-Force” for Marvel, was one of those artists, and “Youngblood” was his flagship series for Image.

Somehow, Liefeld became a minor celebrity even outside the world of superhero comics. Director Spike Lee featured him in a Levi’s ad.

What superhero comics have to do with blue jeans I’ll never know, but even more incredible is how popular Liefeld became as an artist.

I learned a lot from reading Liefeld’s comics back in the ’90s. I learned, for example, that severe scoliosis and a lack of feet are no obstacles to being a superhero.

“Youngblood” is representative of everything that went wrong with comic books in the ’90s. So, what would a faithful movie adaptation of it look like?

Ratner could follow the lead of Zach Snyder, director of “300” and next month’s “Watchmen.” Snyder’s films try to stick as closely as possible to the look of the original graphic novels. If Ratner did that with “Youngblood,” most of his special-effects budget would have to go toward making his cast look like a bunch of deformed mutants.

It’s impossible to overstate just how bad an artist Liefeld is. He apparently can’t draw feet, so he usually draws characters so that their feet cut off at the ankles. When he does bother to draw feet, they end in points, like a ballerina standing en pointe.

All of his females have impossibly contorted spines, which Liefeld seems to think makes them look sexy. His male characters are so over-muscled they can’t put their arms down. And everyone, male and female, has an impossibly small head.

If you think Peter Jackson had problems trying to make Hobbits look smaller than humans, imagine the amount of CGI you’d need to make a normal human being look like any of Liefeld’s superheroes.

On the other hand, Ratner could save a bundle of money on sets. A truly faithful adaptation of “Youngblood” wouldn’t need them.

You see, Liefeld apparently decided one day that his comics didn’t really need backgrounds. Maybe he thought drawing backgrounds was too much work. Maybe he thought no one would notice. In either case, his comics started to depict a lot of anatomically impossible people standing in the middle of otherwise blank panels.

Somehow, however, I doubt Ratner will try to adhere to the visual style of Liefeld’s artwork. So, while I don’t expect “Youngblood” the movie to be any good, there is a fair chance it won’t be as bad as its source material. Of course, a “Youngblood” movie directed by Ed Wood would likely be an improvement on the source material, too.

To get a “Youngblood” movie that’s actually just as bad as the comic books, you would need a director who actually sets out to make bad movies. Fortunately, I think Uwe Boll is otherwise engaged.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Jane Austen plus zombies equals box-office gold

I’m not a bitter man, but I really, really hate Seth Grahame-Smith.

Who is this fellow with the hyphenated last name, you ask? And why do I sometimes find myself wishing he’s come down with a permanent case of African sleeping sickness?

Grahame-Smith is the man who has come up with the most brilliant, most lucrative and yet laziest idea I’ve heard of in ages.

He has re-written Jane Austen’s classic novel “Pride and Prejudice” — and added zombies.
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is scheduled for publication in May, but Hollywood studios are already bidding for the movie rights. Grahame-Smith is about to be quite financially secure. And for what? Adding zombies to a classic novel.

In fact, according to one newspaper account, Grahame-Smith admits that 85 percent of his novel is from Austen’s original text. He had to do only 15 percent of the work. Yet, because Austen is dead — and not a zombie — and because her book is in the public domain, he gets to keep all of his Hollywood riches to himself. Well, except for what he has to fork over to the government.

There is only one word for this. “Brilliant.” Or “lazy.” But mainly it’s brilliant, because the laziness is part of why it’s so brilliant.

What’s killing me is that I didn’t come up with it. Brilliant and lazy is what I do. For example, this column. It required no more research than reading an article in Variety and searching Google for “Seth Grahame-Smith” so I could know exactly where to direct my righteous fury. For the record, Grahame-Smith is a film and TV writer/producer in Los Angeles. He also writes for The Huffington Post, a liberal political blog. His Internet Movie Database page is, well, lacking. But I assume that will change soon enough.

Now I’m even angrier with myself. I’ve written for high-traffic blogs, so where is my book deal?

More to the point, however, why didn’t I come up with “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”? Why are movie studios not calling my agent, besides the fact I don’t have an agent? These are the questions I’ll take to my grave.

I mean, it didn’t even have to be “Pride and Prejudice.” It could have been almost anything. “Sense and Sensibility and Zombies”? Sounds like a winner to me. “Oliver Twist and Zombies”? A zombie infestation could only improve any Charles Dickens novel. “Vanity Fair and Zombies”? Genius!

Granted, I haven’t read the book yet. For all I know, Grahame-Smith’s 15-percent contribution could be the most brilliant, witty, sparkling prose since Oscar Wilde died of wallpaper poisoning in a Paris hotel room. But it could be utter rubbish and still net him a movie deal worth in the high six figures.
“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is, as they say in Hollywood, a “high concept” piece. High concept projects are anything you can sell to a movie executive with a sentence like “It’s something you’ve heard of meets something else you’ve heard of.”

“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” is “Pride and Prejudice” meets zombies. How much more high concept can you get? The idea sells itself. It’s a bonus that Hollywood can’t get enough of either zombie movies or Jane Austen adaptations. Here you get both. Put Keira Knightley in a period costume and stick Rob Zombie behind the camera, and you’re guaranteed a $100 million opening weekend. Probably. I’d know I’d pay to see Mr. Darcy eat Elizabeth Bennet’s brain. (I hope that’s actually in the book.)

Well, never again. Listen up, Hollywood. I have my own high-concept movie. It’s called “Kung-Fu Biker Zombies vs. the Vampire Strippers from Hell.” It’s “Easy Rider” meets “Dawn of the Dead” meets “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” meets “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” meets “Showgirls.” I think Quentin Tarantino would be perfect to direct, and I spent the entire weekend fleshing out the story.

Call my agent. As soon as I get one.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Super Bowl film ads are winners and losers — but mostly losers

Sunday’s Super Bowl is the first I can recall where the game definitely outshined the commercials.

Advertisers paid record rates, but the only one that seemed to get its money’s worth was Denny’s, which generated plenty of water-cooler buzz with its offer of free food, which is second only to free T-shirts as a way to lure customers.

But who were the biggest losers? Offhand, I’d say they were the Hollywood studios trying to build hype for this year’s slate of would-be summer blockbusters.

Jack Black and Michael Cera star in “The Year One,” a historical comedy that features the two as lazy hunter-gatherers who get banished from their tribe. Left to fend for themselves, they encounter a host of biblical characters. Yes, it’s a comedy of biblical proportions — if, of course, you haven’t already had enough of Black’s poor-man impersonation of John Belushi and Cera’s impression of a depressed turtle.

The late Dudley Moore already tried this joke in the 1980 stinker “Wholly Moses!”  Nothing short of a burning bush giving “The Year One” a three-star review could get me into the multiplex for this.

The latest ad for director J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot offers plenty of explosions but still looks like “Star Trek” crossed with “Beverly Hills 90201.” That is not a good thing. Of course, “Trek” fans will pack theaters opening weekend, if only so they can complain about how the movie trashed Gene Roddenberry’s vision. But does anyone else care? And is the world ready for a James T. Kirk who is not William Shatner?

It will take more than a commercial that makes “Star Trek” look like every other action/adventure movie on the market for this Enterprise to live long and prosper.

Next up, the sequels and prequels. Tom Hanks returns for “Angels & Demons,” the prequel to “The Da Vinci Code,” while Vin Diesel takes the “Fast and the Furious” franchise for another spin in “Fast & Furious.” Neither film seems to have much appeal beyond fans of the original films, and Diesel’s star power has dimmed after a string of duds. At whom are these Super Bowl ads aimed, anyway?

And that brings us to the Super Bowl’s power couple: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” Both are based on Hasbro toys. Both were incredibly popular in the 1980s. And both inspired multiple lines of comic books and cartoons.

Those of you who made the first live-action “Transformers” movie a hit in 2007 know who you are, and if you actually liked the first movie, this one will give you more of the same. That means not enough giant robots fighting each other and way too much Shia LaBeouf.

“G.I. Joe” looks absurd and completely over the top, which is exactly what I expect from “The Mummy” director Stephen Sommers. Die-hard “G.I. Joe” fans are nervous, but the cartoon was pretty silly, too. Remember the episode in which Cobra Commander used a huge laser to carve his face into the moon? Besides, the movie features Christopher Eccleston (“Doctor Who”) as Destro and Sienna Miller inside the Baroness’ fetching leather cat suit, which is more than any of these other films have.

But did the ads for “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” really move Super Bowl viewers who weren’t already fans? I doubt it. Still, Super Bowl exposure probably did help two contenders.

The sleeper hit of the bunch may be “Race to Witch Mountain,” Disney’s return to a live-action film series that was popular when I was young. If Disney was trying to reach Generation X dads who now have children of their own, a Super Bowl commercial was the way to go.

The same goes for “Land of the Lost,” a big-screen remake of a popular 1970s Saturday-morning adventure series. Except, in this case, what was a clever and sometimes spooky TV show is now just another alleged Will Ferrell comedy, only with dinosaurs. When will Ferrell’s movie career go extinct?

Probably not before this travesty makes a bundle and tarnishes my childhood memories.