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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: June 2011

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Sports films: Pick your champions

June 29, 2011 |  7:30 am

Baseball had the Great Bambino. Hockey had the Great One. Boxing had the Greatest. All were singular athletes who defined their sport for generations. But when it comes to sports movies, how do you measure greatness?

Sure, there are statistics such as box-office dollars, but every number might as well have an asterisk next to it à la the mythical one next to Roger Maris' onetime home run record. Quite simply, inflation and the ways films are distributed make the playing field too uneven.

Poll Picking the best sports films really comes down to opinion. And that's where you come in.

We've narrowed the choices to five top films in 10 sports -- baseball, basketball, football, tennis, golf, hockey, boxing, horse racing, soccer and surfing. Click here or on one of the images to register your votes for the champ in each genre. Or write in your picks in the comments.

So, let the games begin. The ball's in your court. It's gut-check time. Step up to the plate. And don't pull any punches.


Gerard Butler begins playing the (soccer) field

Hockey movies: The Stanley Cup meets Hollywood

A Formula One movie steps on the accelerator with Ron Howard

-- Scott Sandell

Photos, from left: "The Fighter" (Jojo Whilden / Fighter, LLC), "Bend It Like Beckham (Christine Parry / Fox Searchlight Pictures), "Remember the Titans" (Buena Vista Pictures)

Warner Bros. waves its wand over 'Carter Beats the Devil'

June 28, 2011 |  6:03 pm

EXCLUSIVE: Movies about circus performers, magicians and other showmen are again finding themselves on the main stage in Hollywood, what with "Water for Elephants" a tidy hit for Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson this spring and Steve Carell plotting "Burt Wonderstone," a story of rival Vegas magicians.

Carte A similar film could soon join them. Warner Bros. is pulling out of its sleeve "Carter Beats the Devil," an adaptation of Glen David Gold's 2002 novel about a magician who either is getting played or creating the grandest illusion of his career.

Gold's bestseller is a 1920s historical mystery in which the titular magician, Charles Carter, stages a sawed-in-half trick on President Warren G. Harding, only to be forced on the lam after Harding mysteriously dies shortly after. The plot mixes in other historical figures and Carter's rivalry with an archnemesis.

Attempts to make "Carter" into a movie have been around for a while — Tom Cruise tried developing it shortly after the book was published — with all of them vanishing in development. But the movie is now back on the frontburner at studio Warner Bros., according to two people who were briefed on the studio's plans but were not authorized to talk about them publicly.

A new version of the script has been completed and turned in to the studio, the people said, and Warner Bros. has put Johnny Depp atop the list of actors it wants to play Carter. (From Willy Wonka to Jack Sparrow, Depp has a history of playing eccentric showmen.) Warner Bros is also seeking directors and has put the word out to the major Hollywood agencies that it's looking to fill the position, said agents at three of the largest Hollywood agencies. A Warner Bros. spokeswoman did not immediately have a comment.

The world of magic is ripe for drama, what with its fierce rivalries and convincing in-movie performances (in a film, any illusion can look real). That world is also lucrative, as both "The Prestige" and "The Illusionist" proved in 2006. And far more than more than making rabbits disappear, Hollywood loves making green things appear.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: "Carter Beats the Devil." Hyperion Books.

What does the climactic scene in 'The Tree of Life' mean (and why does it evoke the final episode of 'Lost')?

June 28, 2011 |  5:17 pm

[Spoiler alert: This post discusses the meaning of a key scene in "The Tree of Life." If you've not  seen the film, read at your own peril.]

For filmgoers who've seen "The Tree of Life," there's perhaps no scene as intriguing as the climactic one, in which the O'Briens (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn and the kids) as well as others reunite on a windswept beach. Of the many water-cooler moments in Terence Malick's existential drama, it's probably the one that's most often argued about. Are the characters alive? Dead? Is it the future? Heaven? Or is the scene just something that's unfolding in the mind of Penn's Jack O'Brien?

Fox Searchlight, which released the Malick movie, last week convened a number of religion and academic experts in Los Angeles to discuss the film and the meaning of several scenes, including that final one. (They didn't always agree.) What follows is a rundown of a few of their interpretations on that beachside reunion. Please leave your impressions below.

Dr. Robert K. Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Citing Malick's Episcopalian background, Johnston sees the scene as a product of the Episcopalian belief that the afterlife makes things that are broken whole again. "Part of the ability to process pain ... comes from the experience that the world is whole again.... That's what Malick is saying. He's going back to his Episcopalian tradition. Black, white, poor and rich, we will be together again [in the afterlife]."

David Wolpe, conservative rabbi, Sinai Temple. Mentioning the end of the ABC television series "Lost," another beach-heavy piece of entertainment whose finale featured a reunion of characters who might or might not be dead, Wolpe said he saw the final scene as a way of contextualizing (if not explaining) human suffering. "God couldn't [explain] suffering in Job, and Malick couldn't do it in 'Tree of Life.' What [God and Malick] can give us is a moment of beauty ... [a chance] to escape your corner of the universe."

Sister Rose Pacatte of the Pauline Center for Media Studies. For her, the beach was a representation of a bridge between this world and the afterlife, a "lean imagining," she said, and "a metaphor of crossing over." Water, which figures heavily in that scene, is an ideal image to symbolize the crossing over because it represents the creation of life in Catholic theology.

But perhaps the most resonant description of the beach scene came from Scott Young, executive director of the university religious conference at UCLA. "I'm not sure I have an interpretation for the end of the film," he said.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Sean Penn in "The Tree of Life." Credit: Fox Searchlight.

Motion Picture Academy launches online database of production art

June 28, 2011 | 11:36 am

If you can't come to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library to do research on production design, the library's database can come to you.

On Tuesday, the academy announced the online launch of the Production Art Database.

The database is a trove of more than 5,300 items from the library's vast collections including costume and production design drawings, animation art, storyboards and paintings.Half of these records include images.

Among the highlights in the database are animation cels for the 1949 Oscar-winning Pepe Le Pew cartoon "For Scent-imental Reasons" and production designer Jeannine Oppewall's drawing of the Victory Motel for 1997's "L.A. Confidential."

-- Susan King

Photo: Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in "L.A. Confidential." Photo: Peter Sorel

Frame Grab: A real gang member seeks 'A Better Life'

June 27, 2011 |  2:55 pm


The tattoos run up and down his neck, arms and torso like an overgrown vine. With close-cropped hair and dark, piercing eyes, Richard Cabral looks like bad news. Then he smiles. And the menace gives way to bright, white teeth and dimples indenting each cheek.

This incongruous mix is part of what makes the gang member-turned-aspiring actor so compelling. After making his big-screen debut  in Chris Weitz’s “A Better Life” playing gangster Marcelo Valdez, Cabral hopes his acting career will kick into high gear and make his old life an even more distant memory.

Growing up in East Los Angeles with a single mom, Cabral says he was in a gang by 13, made his first trip to jail at 14 for stealing a wallet, and by 15 was addicted to crack cocaine. His teenage years were a blur of trips in and out of lockup.

“It was real crazy at that time,” says Cabral, now 27. “I remember being 13 and coming out of school and shots being fired. There are just so many gangs. I was chased. I was run over. Gangs and shootouts, there was nothing unordinary about it. That’s just how we got raised.”

At 20 Cabral was arrested and charged with attempted murder after he was involved in a gang shooting. He went on the run for three months before turning himself in to the Montebello courthouse a week before his 21st birthday. He spent a year in jail while he awaited trial. If convicted, he was facing a sentence of 35 years to life. He started to despair as he saw others in jail get handed sentences of 50 years, 80 years.

The day before his trial was to start, Cabral made a plea deal: five years in prison. It was a long but doable sentence, he believed, that would still give him a future. (He served 27 months.) “Going through that experience was tormenting,” he says. “There are so many people in Los Angeles fighting life [sentences]. And we’re all young: 18, 19, 20. I just knew I couldn’t do this no more. I knew I needed a change.”

On his way out of prison in 2006 Cabral was shown the documentary called “Champion” about Danny Trejo that depicts the actor’s journey from being locked up in San Quentin on drug and robbery charges, to becoming clean and sober through Narcotics Anonymous and securing a career in Hollywood. “Danny came from the same background as me,” says Cabral. “I thought if he could do it, why can’t I?”

Continue reading »

With 'Cars 2,' has Pixar become like everyone else (and is that a bad thing)?

June 27, 2011 |  9:30 am

For the last decade, Pixar has pulled off one of the great runs in movie history. Until this weekend, it had released eight films, and every single one of them became a runaway blockbuster (at least $200 million in domestic box office) and a critical darling (not a single one got below 70% on the Rotten Tomatoes website).

It was a run, like Joe DiMaggio in the batter's box or Roger Federer at a Grand Slam semifinal, that seemed impossible for the company to keep replicating, and seemed even less likely to ever be broken by anyone else. (It lasts even longer if you throw in the company's trio of 1990s movies, which didn't all hit $200 million but were financial successes just the same.)

But all hot spells must come to an end, and indeed, one of Pixar's two streaks ended this weekend. "Cars 2" did open to $68 million, putting it on pace for another $200-million gross. The movie, however, left critics cold, garnering only a 34% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as my colleagues Patrick Day and Rebecca Keegan note in an article in Monday's Los Angeles Times. 

Audiences came out, but they came out to a movie that, at least by one measure of quality, was muddling around down there with the rest of summer's moneymaking mediocrities. "Cars 2's" Rotten Tomatoes score was just half of its two-digit box-office total, a disparity that puts it in the same camp as "Green Lantern" (Rotten Tomatoes score: 26%. Opening-weekend: $53 million.)

In a way, the fact that "Cars 2" attracted audiences despite the weak reviews could feel more unsettling than if it had performed poorly at the box office. The lesson of Pixar's long run has not only been that a massively sized, big-budget Hollywood operation can consistently create films of quality, but that this quality was integral to its success. Other studios often churn out indistinguishable, derivative entertainment that makes gobs of money. But at John Lasseter's Pixar, impeccable storytelling and huge popularity move in perfect alignment. The company puts out high-end films, and we come out because of that.

Continue reading »

Whitey Bulger's former protege has been writing a movie about his captured mentor

June 26, 2011 |  4:48 pm


For years, the ex-con and former drug kingpin John "Red" Shea would walk the streets dreaming of ways to exact revenge on Whitey Bulger, his onetime mentor in the notorious Winter Hill Gang. Shea had gone to jail for 12 years to protect his boss, only to find out later that Bulger had been regularly selling out fellow mob men to the FBI. Shea was tormented by the question of which distant locale Bulger might be hiding in.

As it turns out, it wasn't distant at all. Those streets Shea had often walked while obsessing about Bulger’s whereabouts were actually in Santa Monica, where he and Hollywood producer Ken Kokin, a longtime resident, were hashing out a screenplay about Shea's time with Bulger. As Shea walked, he was unwittingly roaming the same neighborhood that Bulger,  arrested last week on suspicion of nearly two dozen murders, had called home for 16 years.

"All that time I'd been thinking about Whitey, and it was like 'Holy ... he's been right here,'" said Shea, 45, by phone Saturday. "But I don't think I ever passed him," he added. "I would have recognized those eyes.

At age 20, Shea met and became a prized protege to Bulger, who partly served as the model for Jack Nicholson's coolly sadistic Frank Costello in "The Departed." A Southie kid who showed preternatural ability in the boxing ring (he once knocked down Micky Ward in a bout), Shea had risen quickly through the mob ranks, learning quickly at the feet of Bulger. Within the space of five years, he was put in charge of a vast drug ring.

But in 1990, Shea's ascent ended abruptly when the FBI arrested him and charged the mobster with multiple counts of cocaine trafficking. Rather than shave years off his sentence with a plea deal, Shea refused to rat out Bulger or other associates, an act that would later earn him the moniker "South Boston's most honorable Irish mobster."

Shortly after he was released from prison in 2002,  Shea wrote a book, "Rat Bastards," about his experiences with Bulger. The memoir had an unlikely champion: Mark Wahlberg, who wrote its foreword.

A hardscrabble Dorchester kid who had himself done time in prison, Wahlberg had tried to get in touch with Shea while the mobster was in jail. The actor had been sent a script about a gangster named “Johnny Blue Eyes,” a character based on Shea, and Wahlberg wanted to learn more about him. Although Shea declined to meet Wahlberg in prison — "I wasn't ready to talk about my story yet," he said — and the script was never made into a movie, the two wound up forging a friendship after Shea was released.  Wahlberg would eventually bring Shea to the set of “The Departed” to educate him and other cast members about mob life.

Continue reading »

L.A. Film Festival: Audience favorites coming soon to a theater near you

June 26, 2011 |  1:39 pm


Audiences and jurors at the L.A. Film Festival this year seemed partial to international entries and those with a musical bent -- filmmakers from Canada, Iran and England were among the prize winners, as were films about the band A Tribe Called Quest and country singer Chely Wright.

If you missed the festival, which wraps up Sunday, you'll soon be able to catch some of the award-winners in theaters, among them "Attack the Block," which won the audience award for best narrative. The British comedy from director Joe Cornish, about a group of London teens fending off invaders from outer space, arrives in theaters July 29.

"Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest," which won the audience award for best documentary, will open in limited release July 8. "Senna," a documentary about Brazilian race car driver Ayrton Senna, which was named the audience favorite for international feature and has been raking in millions at the box office overseas, also comes to U.S. theaters Aug. 12.

See our rundown of all the winners.


'Beats, Rhymes & Life' premiere turns emotional

Teenagers take on extraterrestrials in 'Attack the Block'

Tears and thrills from the Formula One racetrack in documentary 'Senna'

-- Julie Makinen

Photo: Scene from "Senna." Credit: Courtesy L.A. Film Festival

The Coen Bros. have an urge for going to the New York folk scene

June 24, 2011 |  8:55 pm

EXCLUSIVE: The Coen Bros. told an audience at New York's Lincoln Center earlier this month that they were working on a music-related film, but didn't offer any specifics.

Now a clearer picture is emerging on the subject of that movie: the Greenwich Village folk scene seen through the eyes of its larger-than-life patriarch.

The Coen Bros. are working on a script that's loosely based on the life of Dave van Ronk, said a source who was briefed on the project but who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the filmmakers' behalf. Van Ronk is a legendary musician who presided over New York city's iconoclastic coffeehouse period of the mid-20th century,

The musician, who died in 2002, was known as the uncle of the coffeehouse scene, a big personality famed for his musical acumen, left-wing politics, general erudition and entertaining storytelling. On his watch, era-defining musicians such as Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were discovered and cultivated. Van Ronk also was a noted blues guitarist in his own right. A spokeswoman for the Coens did not immediately have a  comment on her clients' behalf.

Van Ronk, who died in 2002 at the age of 66, published a posthumous memoir three years later titled "The Mayor of MacDougal Street" which a collaborator helped collate. The source said the Coens are drawing in part from material in the book.

The Greenwich Village figure, a noted supporter of progressive causes, was also arrested during the neighborhood's famous Stonewall Riots, an event that gives a van Ronk movie a certain relevance in light of the New York State legislature's move to legalize gay marriage on Friday.

At the Lincoln Center talk, the Coens compared their movie to "Margot at the Wedding" (Noah Baumbach was on stage with them) suggesting that, like that film, their new work will offer natural dialogue and a feeling of being dropped into the middle of a world. They also said they expected the film to contain musical performances. "We’re working on a movie now that has music in it [that's] pretty much all performed live, single instrument," Joel Coen said.

The Coens, who had what was by far their biggest success box-office ever with the western "True Grit" last year, are often known for tackling wildly disparate subjects from film to film. They've made one notable music-heavy movie before, spotlighting a decidedly different era in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Dave Van Ronk (extreme right), with Bob Dylan (second from right), Arlo Guthrie (second from left) and Dennis Hopper (extreme left) at Madison Square Garden in 1974. Credit: Ray Stubblebine / Associated Press

Robert Rodriguez defends his plan for movies that smell: 'There have been a lot of advances with the technology'

June 24, 2011 |  4:36 pm

The idea of enhancing the filmgoing experience using scratch-and-sniff cards seems even campier now than a similar idea (Smell-o-Vision) did in 1960. That's when the B movie "Scent of Mystery" tried to get viewers' olfactory receptors in on the action by pumping fragrant gases into theaters full of sniffing moviegoers.

But filmmaker Robert Rodriguez -- who announced Friday morning he was releasing his upcoming 3-D family film "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World" using something called Aromascope -- has worked out the reasons why the world is ready for another odoriferous go-round.

Basically, it works like this. Upon purchasing a ticket, all moviegoers will be handed a card with a numbered set of smells. At certain points in the action, audience members will be directed to scratch the corresponding number so they can smell the appropriate scent. (John Waters used a similar technique with  "Polyester" in 1981.)

Below, an except of our conversation with Rodriguez about why smells are swell.

24 Frames: You're comparing this to using 3-D, which you did with the third "Spy Kids" movie in 2003, when 3-D wasn't that popular yet. Are the two things really that similar?

Robert Rodriguez: I think Aromascope is fun in the way that 3-D is. And we wanted to do something in the same spirit of showmanship, which is why we're calling it 4-D. But this is better. When you put on the glasses in a 3-D movie they just kind of sit there and you forget about them. This is interactive throughout the film.

24: Aren't you worried that the interactivity could distract people from watching the movie?

RR: I actually timed it out really carefully so the part where you're supposed to smell the card you also see the characters smelling something. So you really feel like you're a part of the movie. You're experiencing what the characters are experiencing.

24: But you still have people stopping to look down and scratch.

RR: Actually, it's not that distracting. You just wipe your finger on it -- you don't have to scratch like you used to. There have been a lot of advancements with the technology.

24: There have?

RR: Great minds have been working on this for a long time. Like when you wipe your finger on the next smell it won't smell like the one before.

24: It sounds like you've given this a lot of thought.

RR: I've known I wanted to to this for a long time.

24: So you shot it with this in mind, yes? None of this post-production -- I guess you'd call it -- conversion?

RR: Well, I knew. But a lot of the actors didn't. They were wondering why I kept having them smell things in their scenes. I called some of them last week to tell them for the first time and they were like, "Oh, so that's why you kept having us do that."

24: How will this work once the movie leaves theaters and you're watching it at home?

RR: DVDs will also come with the card.

24: Dare I ask what kind of smells you threw in there?

RR: It's a mix. There's a kid who pulls a lot of pranks, so there are a lot of smells associated with him. Some are food items, so sweet smells. Some are surprising smells.

24: So kind of nauseating?

RR: Surprising.

24: You're thinking about 5-D, whatever that is, aren't you?

RR: Don't laugh.

24: Any other advantage to releasing a film this way?

RR: Well it's free for all moviegoers, and you can decide whether you want to use it. It's not like deciding whether you're going to a 3-D showing or a 2-D showing. Everyone gets the card, but if you don't want to participate you just don't use it.

24: You mentioned that the last "Spy Kids" helped kick-start the 3-D trend. Do you think this will spark a smelly-cinema craze?

RR: I don't think it works with all movies. I don't know if it works with "Avatar." Actually, I think it could work with "Avatar." You could smell all the plant life.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: An aromatic scene from "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World," which will be released in August. Credit: The Weinstein Co.



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