A few years back, I was really excited about seeing Roland Emmerich’s disaster movie, 2012. I’ve always thought Emmerich was a bit of a hack, but it was his hackiness that made his movies fun in spite of themselves. His climate change fever dream, The Day After Tomorrow, is gleefully ridiculous (At one point characters outrun the air.) and may have set the global warming cause back a few years. Based at least in part on the Mayan prediction of the world ending that year, I expected 2012 to be an enjoyably stupid exercise in widespread destruction. Except it wasn’t. And, it was clearly intended to be. A car chase through LA as the city implodes around the main characters was clearly intended for maximum physical comedy. I don’t know, maybe it was me. Maybe I am getting too old for this kind of thing. Maybe it’s the modern, digital visual effects that can depict any level of global carnage that have grown too sophisticated for their own good, but I left 2012 practically concussed from bearing witness to the deaths of hundreds of millions of people.
I recently had a chance to see the tour of Disney’s Newsies at the Pantages Theater here in Los Angeles. I was really surprised by how much I like it, not that I had expected it to be bad. I find the movie it’s based on to be nearly unwatchable, so I had some trepidations about the stage version. It exceeded my expectations. One of the reasons for that was it contains a pretty full endorsement of organized labor and collective bargaining, probably not surprising considering it’s a show about the New York newsboys' strike of 1899. Furthermore, the show is also a pretty stinging indictment of the for-profit prison system and mass incarceration. Newsies is touring the country now. It’s a splashy, dance-heavy musical aimed squarely at families, but in our current political climate, it feels almost subversive. There’s a lot of power in the message.
I felt the same way about the message at the heart of director Brad Bird’s new film, Tomorrowland. Too bad his new movie isn’t nearly as good as the stage version of Newsies.
This probably didn’t get the news attention it deserved, but we recently passed the 12-year anniversary of George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech. Twelve years later and we still have a military presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Next month, the Congress will vote to renew the Patriot Act, which will be interesting considering a federal court recently ruled that the NSA surveillance program was illegal after all. The War on Terror marches on with no end in sight.
One of my desert island, all-time favorite movies is Billy Wilder’s classic, Sunset Boulevard. One of my favorite things about that slice of demented genius is the knowledge that the guy who came up with it also came up with Some Like It Hot. How could these two vastly different creations have been born out of the same brain?
There were two things that really surprised me about the first Avengers movie. The first was how Jossy it all was. I’m a big fan of writer/director Joss Whedon, going back to his salad days with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is still my favorite TV show of all time. Whedon’s TV work was successful enough to stay on the air, but it was still never quite mainstream, so he was able to be more than a little idiosyncratic. I thought for sure that working on an enormous, superhero team-up movie for the world’s biggest entertainment corporation would sand off his more interesting instincts. Imagine my great surprise when his voice came through loud and clear in the first Avengers movie, which I think really led to it being the world’s biggest-grossing movie not made by James Cameron. It turns out Buffy (and its spinoff, Angel) were great training grounds to write a supernatural team coming together.
Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for these Disney nature documentaries and always have been. As a giant, multinational corporation, Disney does take some heat for being such a huge company that isn’t always benevolent. I must, however, commend them for starting the DisneyNature brand of films a few years ago. These movies don’t make the kind of money a beast like Age of Ultron is likely going to make for them (nor do they cost anywhere near what an effects-driven superhero film is going to require), but it’s great that these movies exist for families to see together. Disney also donates a percentage of the box office grosses to help conservation causes. We live in a time in which the United States Congress is actually seriously talking about giving over our National Parks and other protected lands to private companies to oversee, an idea that’s absolute madness and would be derided by Republicans past like Teddy Roosevelt and Barry Goldwater. That the company seems committed to being involved in worldwide conservation can only be a good thing.
Not all that long ago, a buddy of mine watched the original Rocky for the first time. One of the things he didn’t like about it, he said, were all the sports movie clichés. I had to explain to him that if sports movie clichés are a disease, then Rocky is Typhoid Mary. The incredible underdog facing ridiculous odds, the training montage, the film’s climax at some version of The Big Game, all of those tropes more or less began with Rocky Balboa in 1976.
Well, this has been a weird couple of weeks.
Just to recap: Sony Pictures was hacked and many embarrassing emails were leaked to the public. The FBI thinks North Korea is behind the cyber attack as retaliation for a Seth Rogen movie called The Interview. The hackers threaten 9/11-style terror attacks on movie theaters that would screen The Interview on Christmas Day. Sony cancels the release of the movie after major theater chains refuse to screen it. Much outrage ensues. Democrats and Republicans, who can’t agree on what year it is, both rush to condemn Sony’s decision to pull the movie. Even the President of the United States weighs in and scolds Sony during the final press conference of 2014. Meanwhile, and this is where it really gets odd, North Korea’s internet goes out; the internet for the entire country goes down for several hours. Is the United States involved? We’re not saying. Then, Sony decides to release The Interview at a bunch of indie cinemas throughout the country. Right now, about 300 theaters have booked the film to begin screenings on Christmas. Now, today, the movie is available on YouTube.
Any hipster will gladly tell you that Tim Burton’s best film is easily Ed Wood. Just because they’re hipsters doesn’t make them wrong — it is, by far, his best film. Burton’s biopic about the alleged worst movie director of all time is genuinely terrific and plays into Burton’s common theme of outsiders. Personally, I’m a big fan of biopics of not obvious subjects. I often think they’re far more interesting films that way. It’s obvious why somebody would make a movie about Jackie Robinson’s life or Abraham Lincoln’s life or Stephen Hawking’s life. It’s not so obvious why we should care about Edward D. Wood, Jr, who unleashed movies like Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space on the public.
First off, full disclosure: I’ve never seen Into the Woods performed on stage, so I don’t come into it with any preconceived ideas of how one should approach adapting Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1987 musical. I can only look at the movie on its own terms and not on what it could have been if they’d done it the way somebody’s high school drama department did it.