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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: December 2010

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Did movies get better or worse in 2010?

December 30, 2010 |  2:04 pm


The end of the year tends to prompt reflection on all things on God's green earth, including on what for film buffs is perhaps the most important thing of all -- the state of our  movie culture.

So that subject was already much on people's minds when this New York Times article about studios' willingness to gamble on original ideas began kicking up some dust, eliciting both scoffs and nods of agreement. And it made everyone, including us at 24 Frames, wonder if movies as a whole got better  or worse in 2010.

Is it possible to say both?

There's no objective truth on any of this -- one man's mess is another man's masterpiece -- but a lot of us have had the sense that 2010 was a tale of two seasons.

The summer brought more than its typical share of live-action critical clunkers --  for every "Inception" there was an "A-Team," a "Last Airbender," or a "Grown-Ups" -- while the fall seemed to yield an unusually large number of gems.

The summer and the fall have long had a quality gap, but this year it seemed wider than usual. "The Last Airbender" and "Grown-Ups," for instance, each failed to top a 10% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  (The lowest Rotten Tomatoes rating for a big-budget extravaganza last summer was 20%, for "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.")  And while "Grown-Ups" got an overall CinemaScore of B from audiences, that was inflated by under-18 viewers, who gave it an A-; most adults gave it far below a B.

But it all turned around after Labor Day once the smaller guys took the stage. Reviewers and audiences began embracing a wide range of movies: "The Fighter," "The King's Speech," "Black Swan," "The Social Network,""True Grit." (You can also toss "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter's Bone" into the mix -- they were technically released in the summer but both were indie films through and through.)

Last fall yielded some well-regarded movies too -- including "Avatar" and "Precious" -- but the list of the roundly loved was decidedly thinner. It was a season, after all, of "Brothers," "Invictus" and "The Lovely Bones." (None of this, incidentally, applies to animated films, which somehow continue to get better no matter the season.)

The widening in quality between summer and fall films is hardly an accident. As studios continue to go for sequels and brand-driven movies, some big-budget summer releases inevitably find themselves in a creative rut. Meanwhile, the independent-film world, still reeling from a shakeout, is experiencing a cream-rising-to-the-top effect. It's possible movies like "Black Swan" or "The Fighter" would have been made five years ago, when financing flowed more freely. But they probably wouldn't have been made as rigorously, and they might have been diluted in a sea of lesser films.

Given how studios remain focused on remakes while the indie world finds itself in a state of semi-recession, we can probably expect more of the same in '11. That's the bad news -- and the good news too.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "The Last Airbender." Credit: Paramount Pictures

'Inception' wins informal poll as most overrated movie of 2010 (Part 2)

December 30, 2010 |  7:00 am


Last week we asked readers to weigh in on the most overrated movies of 2010. In messages, comments and tweets, the feedback has come, and the consensus choice is..."Inception."

Christopher Nolan's action-puzzle had its defenders, to be sure. But the plurality of moviegoers who responded said that it, among all 2010 films, didn't live up to the praise it was getting. ("The Town" and "The Social Network" finished in essentially a tie for second.)

Much of the feedback on "Inception" came with some pithy comments . Among them:

"Big set pieces are the wizard's curtain."

"Inception, hands down. And it will be like a taco inside taco within a Taco Bell that's inside a KFC that's within a mall that's inside your dream!' Seriously. Inception."

"'Inception' is 'Ocean's 11' minus the hot dudes & charisma."

Of course the choice may have something to do with the fact that "Inception" received so much praise in the first place, and was also one of the biggest hits of the year. (But then, we suppose that's what overrated means.)

The movie still has a shot at winning the Oscar for best picture. Which would only make the supporters and the skeptics scream louder.  Which in turns means that the film may also deserve another title: the most polarizing movie of 2010.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: 'Inception.' Credit: Warner Bros.


What's the most overrated movie of 2010? (Part 1)


Around Town: Marilyn Monroe, Jacques Tati and a screening you can't refuse

December 30, 2010 |  5:00 am


It's a big weekend for the Corleone family. The 1972 Oscar-winning drama "The Godfather" screens Thursday evening at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre, with 1974's "The Godfather: Part II," visiting the theater on Saturday. (Also on Thursday "The Godfather: Part III" screens at the New Beverly Cinema.)

The Cinematheque's Aero Theatre continues with its annual screwball comedy festival Thursday evening with the 1935 laugh-fest "Ruggles of Red Gap," starring Charles Laughton and directed by Leo McCarey, and the rarely seen 1935 James Whale mystery comedy "Remember Last Night?"

The Marx Brothers are up to their hilarious shenanigans in 1937's "A Day at the Races" and 1935's "A Night at the Opera," both screening Saturday. And on tap for Sunday is Howard Hawks' wickedly funny 1940 "His Girl Friday," with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 pre-Code masterwork, "Trouble in Paradise."

The Egyptian Theatre celebrates the 30th anniversary of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" Sunday afternoon with a triple bill of the 1981 Steven Spielberg classic, as well as 1984's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" and 1989's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," which features Sean Connery as Indiana Jones'  father.

Continue reading »

Betsy Sharkey's film picks of the week: Barry Pepper movies

December 29, 2010 |  4:00 pm

Barry Pepper in True Grit

Barry Pepper is one of those actors who can slip by you, often disappearing from the screen almost as soon as you’ve started to appreciate how good he is. Again.

His bad boy looks and wound-tight delivery inside a body that appears as if it were born gaunt, marked him early on as a character actor whom directors could count on to do more than they asked with whatever bone they threw him. That ability to hold the screen is in excellent form in “True Grit,” where he kicks up dust as outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper –- with Pepper (no relation we presume) finding a way to lodge a streak of decency inside all that evil.

Barry Pepper in Casino Jack He’s in another movie at the moment, not such a good one, with Pepper nevertheless a nice slice of sleaze partnered up with Kevin Spacey in "Casino Jack." Far better Pepper can be found on DVD, in "Saving Private Ryan," the young sharpshooter who never saw the irony of mixing killing with a line or two from the Good Book

But if you’re in the mood for a lot of Pepper, perfectly milled, pick up Tommy Lee Jones' feature directing debut, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” Pepper is terrific as the spring-loaded young Border Patrol agent who kills Estrada in a panic, only to be forced by Jones’ irascible rancher, Pete Perkins, to pay his debt by taking Estrada’s body home to Mexico and getting an earful of Pete’s musing on humanity along the trail. It’s pure Pepper: biting, hard, vulnerable, scared.

You just wish more filmmakers would consider how much flavor he adds to whatever stew they're cooking up.

--Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times film critic

Photos (top): Barry Pepper with Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit." Credit: Paramount Pictures; (bottom) Barry Pepper, with Jon Lovitz, in "Casino Jack." Credit: ATO Pictures

'Barney's Version' director Richard J. Lewis goes from evidence to existence

December 29, 2010 |  9:00 am

It's unusual enough these days to make a movie about the broad canvas of a life. It's even more atypical if you just spent a decade on a prime-time hit about the specific details of a death.

That's the transition Richard J. Lewis, a former Canadian tennis prodigy who spent years as the executive producer on "CSI," undertook in adapting  Mordecai Richler's sprawling first-person novel "Barney's Version," which is having an Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles.

"I hear people say, 'You're not supposed to have a heart; you're from "CSI."' I think directors should able to jump about, not just in mediums but in genre," Lewis said in a recent interview with 24 Frames.

Despite their manifest differences, Lewis says his hallmark show, which he began working on as a director and writer nine years ago, and his new movie aren't really that far apart. "When you're telling a story in television, it's really important you pare away all the useless crap, strip everything away to its essentials," he said. "That's pretty helpful when you're trying to pack a 470-page novel into a two-hour movie."

That novel already packs in a lot itself: Richler's phenomenon (in Canada) is a verbally deft, morally complicated story about an oily television producer named Barney Panofsky (played in the film by Paul Giamatti) who's also a Renaissance man, romantic, wiseguy and a possible murderer. As he nears old age and a possible case of Alzheimer's, he flashes back on his rich and complicated life.

Continue reading »

'Little Fockers': Why is it so easy to mess up a comedy?

December 28, 2010 |  4:47 pm

It's rare to find critics and audiences agreeing so heartily on anything. But such is the power of "Little Fockers."

Critics thought the Ben Stiller-Robert De Niro threequel was one of the worst movies of 2010 -- a dismal 4% of the top reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes deemed it fresh.  And for once, audiences didn't disagree with them -- more than a third of the moviegoers who turned out for the second film didn't show up this time. Those that did weren't impressed: They gave it a middling B- CinemaScore.

When a film performs this badly, there are usually more culprits than a bank-robber convention. And so the post-holiday Hollywood chatter went. The in-law antagonism felt overplayed. Dustin Hoffman needed to be dialed in at the end of the production. The movie's release was pushed back from the summer, a sign of a problem if not a problem in itself. Third installments of live-action franchises rarely work. And adding young children to any comedy franchise, on the big or small screen, is the surest sign of a shark-jump.

But on this long list of factors, it's worth looking in one place in particular: the director's chair. Both "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers" were helmed by Jay Roach, the rare filmmaker who can balance the slapstick and the subtle in comedy. Including "Parents" and "Fockers," Roach (who has an Emmy under his belt for the dramatic "Recount") is responsible for four comedy mega-hits that critics liked nearly as much as audiences ("Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" are the other two).

Roach decided not to go for the hat-trick on "Fockers" -- he learned his lesson, apparently, from the last time he tried that, on "Austin Powers in Goldmember" -- and decided to make "Dinner for Schmucks" instead. (He's credited as a producer on "Fockers" but he was concentrating on "Schmucks" much of the time "Fockers" was being made.)  So in his place the production went with Paul Weitz, the "American Pie" director who hasn't done much funny on this side of the 21st century (last credit: "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant").

But it would be unfair to blame Weitz entirely. Many who've gone before him have also stumbled. Top-tier comedy directors are a rare breed in the first place, and even those who reach that status rarely achieve any consistency. Often they spin their wheels trying to do something more serious, a la Judd Apatow and "Funny People." Or they simply find their touch, and the times, suddenly eluding them, something that was painfully obvious with James L. Brooks' recent "How Do You Know."

John Hughes was one of the few to buck the trend, but that was a different time, and his was a different comedy. Shawn Levy was considered an exception too, but then came "Date Night."

The lack of reliability is why comedies so often get made on the basis of their star (and why, in turn, every third comedy in this country involves Adam Sandler). When that star does come on board, studios often don't even bother trying with a real filmmaker and just bring in a director who doesn't cost much and knows when to get out of the way.

Weitz is better than that. But he's not that much better. His punchless movie, in a season of punchless movies, makes you realize that if someone's going to make a comedy they should try to get a Jay Roach or maybe they shouldn't try at all.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Little Fockers." Credit: Universal Pictures


'Little Fockers' falls short of box-office expectations

Movie review: 'Little Fockers'


Javier Bardem goes gritty in 'Biutiful' [Video]

December 28, 2010 |  8:54 am

Whether you feel moved by "Biutiful" or find yourself frustrated by it -- and Cannes audiences and an early smattering of reviewers have demonstrated both reactions -- there's little doubt that the Spanish-language film is like nothing else out there. A meticulously shot movie about a small-time con man and single father (Javier Bardem) trying to provide for his kids as he dies of cancer, Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest effort probably won't win the award for feel-good movie of the year.

But the film, Iñárritu's first without screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, will have its admirers. You can judge for yourself with this clip, in which Bardem's character tries to reason with his troubled wife. The movie opens across Los Angeles in January after select screenings this week.

-- Steven Zeitchik

'All the President's Men,' 'The Exorcist,' 'Malcolm X' among 2010 National Film Registry picks [Video]

December 28, 2010 | 12:01 am



"Airplane!" the outlandish 1980 spoof of disaster movies; "All the President's Men," the Oscar-winning fact-based drama about the uncovering of the Watergate scandal; and "Let There Be Light," John Huston's controversial 1946 war documentary that was banned for several decades, are among the 25 films selected for the 2010 National Film Registry, according to the Library of Congress. 

The films on this year's list -- which also include the 1934 W.C. Fields comedy "It's a Gift," 1891's experimental "Newark Athlete" and George Lucas' 1967 student film, "THX II38 4EB," which became the basis of his first feature -- are considered to be "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant," according to the Library of Congress, which announced its selections for the registry Tuesday morning. 

The list was assembled from recommendations from various creative film guilds and archivists, which were submitted to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, but the public was invited to submit their choices as well through the library's website, according to Patrick Loughney, chief of the Library of Congress' Packard Campus of the National Audio Visual Conservation Center.

Every year since 1988, when the Library of Congress passed the National Film Preservation Act, which established the National Film Preservation Board, films have been selected for the honor. To qualify, titles must be at least 10 years old and must have had some form of theatrical release. "When you look at these really old films from the 1890s or documentaries, that is a pretty broad definition of what constitutes a theatrical release," Loughney said.

Over the next year, the Library of Congress will ascertain the condition of these films. "Many of the films have been preserved by other archives or the studios who own the films," Loughney said. "We will make an effort to contact the rights' owners or the archives and make inquiries and encourage the films to be preserved."

With the addition of this year's selections, the registry now boasts a total of 550 films. 

Following is the complete list of this year's selections in alphabetical order, with excerpts from the Library of Congress as to why they were chosen:

Continue reading »

Natalie Portman's 'Swan' baby (and its wings)

December 27, 2010 |  3:00 pm

So it looks like the Black Swan is getting a visit from the stork.

People magazine reported this morning that Natalie Portman, the star of the sexy ballet thriller, is pregnant and that the father is her on-set coach and trainer Benjamin Millepied, to whom the actress is also engaged. She has since confirmed the report.

The pregnancy, of course, wasn't arranged by distributor Fox Searchlight (we hope), but the news could boost the film just the same. Portman's movie is at this moment rolling out in a big way -- in fact, the art-house hit just nearly doubled its number of theaters as it tries to cross into the mainstream -- and having an actress in the news for a romance that began during the film's production will likely only help it.

It won't hurt, either, that there are some parallels between Portman's real-life story and the story of her character, Nina Sayers. No, not the hallucinating-about-a-doppelganger part. But the movie is, after all, about the transformation of a young woman's life and body while she pursues her career in the arts. Symmetry -- everyone loves it. (By the way, if you're doing the math, the baby wasn't conceived while they were actually shooting; production ended last winter.)

Portman is also set to start promoting her Ashton Kutcher romantic comedy "No Strings Attached," a title that, with today's news, helps prove that there is a God, and that he has a sense of humor.

And let's not even talk about that raunchy single-girl comedy she's been shopping around.

Portman is a strong contender for the best actress Oscar for "Black Swan." We don't know which seems harder: the physical training she went through for the movie, or slogging through awards season with a little cygnet on the way. Of course, a healthy pregnancy glow can really light up a red carpet, what with paparazzi and the tabloids' penchant for gushing over celebs-with-child. 

At the film's L.A. premiere, Millepied discussed his on-set collaboration with Portman -- you can watch the video interview below. “I had to use the qualities—if Natalie used her head beautifully or if her arms were very good at a certain angle—I had to really find what those things were and use them and choreograph around them,” he said.

When we interviewed Portman in mid-November, she was not showing any signs of pregnancy. But she did allow that she hadn't been feeling well. She said she had just recovered from a recent illness, which she said she suspected to be a case of food poisoning.

“I did a photo shoot, and I think it was whatever they served at lunch,” she explained, cautiously sipping from a bowl of vegetable broth. “I don’t even think I’m sick right now. I think I could probably eat anything, but I’m just like, an interview would not be the place to experiment.”

Portman also said at the interview that she had tried to conceal how ill she felt at the premiere the night before.  “Yesterday, I was on the red carpet like, ‘Please don’t throw up.’   I went home after the red carpet last night and had a saltine and applesauce and was, like, asleep by 10.”

--Steven Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman



Photo: Natalie Portman. Credit: Warren Toda / EPA


Natalie Portman pregnant, engaged to dancer Benjamin Millepied

Black Swan gets a big mainstream push, but how far can it go?

Natalie Portman writing a raunchy comedy

'Black Swan' director ruffles actresses' feathers

Movies take a page from reality TV

December 27, 2010 | 10:29 am

Among other trends at the movies this year, 2010 has been a year when nonfiction films have increasingly assumed the shape of the scripted feature. The social-media movie "Catfish" was as much a thriller as a documentary. "Jack-Ass 3-D" was a true story, but with as many gross-out hijinks as "Bruno."

But as nonfiction films imitated their scripted cousins, the trend has also unfolded in reverse : scripted features are now more influenced -- and constrained -- by the conventions of documentary.

At least 13 movies this fall season are based on real-life stories, including a survival drama ("127 Hours"), a Silicon Valley history ( "The Social Network"), a legal tale ( "Conviction"), a boxing saga ("The Fighter"), a heart-stopping action flick ( "Unstoppable") and a heart-tugging romantic dramedy ("Love & Other Drugs").

In a story in Monday's Times, we take a look at the fact-based trend: what's behind it, where it's leading and what risks it poses. As "127 Hours" director Danny Boyle says: "As a director, you like having a real story because that's what makes it more powerful. But it's also hard because you know you're dealing with someone's life." Or as "Conviction" star Hilary Swank says of the subgenre: "You can't take a lot of liberty with the storytelling."

After a decade of reality television, the movie business is finally catching up. Studios are flogging the truth (or at least truthy) horse. And judging by how well some of the movies have performed so far, it's not a moment too soon. We're all suckers, it seems, for stories that come with a based-on-a-true-story tag.

But are we consumed by reality-inspired stories at our peril? 

"I think everybody is exhausted by neat, shapely fictional stories we've had for so long, and a compelling situation from real life is much more interesting," film historian David Thomson tells The Times. "But there's a great danger. Every time a story is made out of a real person's experience, we enter into a process of distortion."

More on all these issues and entanglements here.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: James Franco in "127 Hours." Credit: Fox Searchlight


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