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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: February 2012

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'Godzilla' and two more Japanese gems: Kenneth Turan's DVD picks

February 29, 2012 |  6:02 pm

Three films from three different eras of Japanese cinematic history -- "United Red Army," "Three Outlaw Samurai" and "Godzilla" -- have been the beneficiaries of recent DVD releases.

The most recent, 2007's "United Red Army," is a dramatic film, directed by Koji Wakamatsu, but based on real events -- the activities of militant student activists in the 1960s.

The most entertaining of the bunch might be Hideo Gosha's 1964 "Three Outlaw Samurai," an unapologetic sword-fighting film that is an origin story inspired by a popular Japanese television series.

The most celebrated of the three is "Godzilla," the uber-monster film that called forth almost 30 sequels. The comprehensive Criterion release features both the original all-Japanese 1954 epic as well as the Americanized version with actor Raymond Burr added to the mix.


Buster Keaton's classic films return

Laurel & Hardy and Ernie Kovacs on DVD

Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead and more: Kenneth Turan's DVD picks

-- Kenneth Turan

Sony Pictures Classics nabs documentary 'West of Memphis'

February 29, 2012 |  5:49 pm

Sony Pictures Classics has acquired "West of Memphis," the Peter Jackson-produced documentary about three men in Arkansas who were imprisoned for 18 years for murdering three boys and released last August after questions were raised about their prosecution and the evidence against them. 

The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, follows the plight of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. They were never fully exonerated in the 1993 murders of the three boys in 1993. To attain freedom, they were forced to enter Alford pleas -- a unique situation in which defendants do not admit guilt, but admit that the prosecution could likely prove the charges. It's regarded in court as a guilty plea. 

Directed by Amy Berg, "West of Memphis" garnered attention at the Sundance Film Festival in January because it included interviews with three new witnesses further implicating a longtime suspect in the case. Many believe it is possible the footage may prompt the Arkansas justice system to take a further look at that suspect -- Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie Branch, one of the children who was slain. 

Of course, "West of Memphis" is not the first documentary to tackle the intriguing case. "Paradise Lost," a series of three films directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, followed the case for years and has been credited with helping to generate major public interest in the effort to free the three men.

The final film in the trilogy, "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," was nominated for documentary feature at the Academy Awards last weekend but lost out to the football team drama "Undefeated."

A release date for "West of Memphis" has yet to be set.


West Memphis 3 outcome 'bittersweet,' filmmaker says

West Memphis Three are freed after 18 years behind bars

Sundance 2012: Will 'West of Memphis' lead to new look at case?

--Amy Kaufman


Photo: Damien Echols, top left, director Amy Berg and producers Lorri Davis and Peter Jackson at Sundance 2012. Credit: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

'Bully' seeks rating change (and exposure)

February 29, 2012 |  5:29 pm

The campaign to get the “Bully” rating knocked down is picking up momentum. On Wednesday, the Weinstein Co. announced that it had garnered more than 150,000 signatures petitioning the Motion Picture Assn. to downgrade the movie from an R to a PG-13.

Lee Hirsch’s documentary examines a group of five families who have been affected by the bullying crisis, sometimes in catastrophic ways. The movie contains profane language, prompting the MPAA to deny an appeal last week for a PG-13.

The campaign, which is being hosted by the online-petition site Change.org, aims to move the MPAA to change its mind. As part of the campaign, Katy Butler, a bullied Michigan high school student who has been instrumental in the anti-bully movement, went so far as to say in a statement that “by refusing to change the film’s rating to PG-13, the MPAA is acting like a bully, too.”

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that an online or social-media campaign will stir the group to reverse course. But the push has generated free publicity for the film—many of the kids who signed the petition are now aware of a movie they never heard of before last week—which is arguably as important to the Weinstein Co. as getting theater owners to allow 16-year-olds to see it without their parents.

Weinstein Co., which is releasing the film commercially at the end of March, is planning a large rollout of the film at schools around the country throughout the month, in the hope of creating dialogue among kids, parents and teachers. Hirsch told a group of high school students at one such event last week that he was bullied when he was younger. “When you’re dealing with this stuff people try to minimize your pain,” he said. “I felt like I didn't have a voice.”

At the screening, held for Fairfax High School students in Los Angeles, one student stood up and called out students in the room who had been bullying her, yielding a moment as eye-opening and uncomfortable as any scene in the film.

The campaign has also had its more surreal moments. One of the unlikely people the Weinstein Co. has enlisted in its latest publicity campaign is the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

While not generally thought of as an authority on the subject of bullying (or ratings), Jackson nonetheless said in a statement that the movie “depicts the nightmare that some kids face every day in schools across America." He added, "Children are afraid to go to school and therefore their educational productivity decreases.  It creates violent reactions in our children and they must be allowed to see the movie as it was intended to help raise awareness, increase empathy and change minds.”


'Bully': Can Weinstein Co. resign from group it doesn't belong to?

'Blue Valentine' wins MPAA appeal

Gina Carano's 'Haywire' stuck with R rating

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: A scene from "Bully." Credit: The Weinstein Co.

Bela Tarr: Hungarian auteur on 'Turin Horse' and quitting cinema

February 29, 2012 |  3:34 pm


Hungarian writer-director Béla Tarr’s art-house bona-fides set up his work, fairly or not, as intimidating, impenetrable and overwhelming. His fierce reputation makes “The Turin Horse,” Tarr’s newest and reportedly final film, opening in Los Angeles on Friday, all the more astonishing for its simplicity. Long takes are carefully orchestrated around the tight space of a remote country cabin as an elderly father and his adult daughter steel themselves against a world that seems to be slowly winding down as resources diminish. It’s a slow-motion apocalypse.

With his graying ponytail, leather jacket, penchant for cigarettes and disarmingly direct manner, the 56-year-old Tarr is something of a central casting ideal of an international art-house filmmaker. He sat down for a conversation over cheeseburgers and draft lagers when he was in Los Angeles last fall for the film’s screenings as part of AFI Fest.

Your films have a reputation for being difficult to get through. It’s a badge of honor for some cinephiles just to say they sat through the seven-hour running time of “Satantango.”

It is easy. Easy to watch. It’s three parts, two intermissions. It’s really not a big deal to watch it. It’s just you are not used to that. Usually, when it’s shown anywhere in the world, it’s a weekend program, they start around 2 o’clock in the afternoon and finish around 10, then afterward everybody can go eat something. It’s really just, who was the stupid man — and I know it was here in Hollywood — who decided a film has to be 11/2 hours or maximum two hours?

Do you limit writers and tell Mr. Tolstoy, ‘‘‘War and Peace’ is nice, but it’s too long. We should take out the peace part because it’s boring and nothing happens”? That’s why I find it so stupid to talk about the lengths. I did a five-minute-long movie and it was my haiku. Sometimes, I only need five minutes.

Do you demand more of the audience? Do you want them to put in more effort when watching your films?

It is not an effort. If you are just sitting and watching, that is totally enough. You don’t need any effort. Just trust your eye and listen to your heart. It’s not difficult. Please do not use this word “effort.”

First of all, when you touch the camera, then you are waking up at four in the morning, in the dark, you are driving to the location and it’s cold and everybody hates everybody, it’s too early and you hate the actors, the actors hate you and the catering is bad, the coffee is bad and you hate the whole world. But you know why you do it? I do it for you. And of course I respect you and I know I have to do my best for you, because you are not a kid, you are an adult and you have to have the best. You are waiting for some good scenes, not just only for the stupid entertainment.... Everybody believes that film is just one thing. Surely not.

The story of “The Turin Horse” has its basis in an anecdote about Friedrich Nietzsche hugging a horse he had seen beaten in the street shortly before suffering a mental collapse. Is the horse in the film meant to be that horse? How did it get from Turin to the cottage?

Who cares about Turin? We just had a question — what could happen to the horse? — and we just wanted to tell you something about the horse. I remember the Milan Kundera book “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and I could say we just did a movie about the heaviness of being. We just wanted to show you how long is life. You are doing your routine but every day is getting dimmer. And the light at the end just disappears, quietly, silent. And that is what we wanted. Not more and not less.

You know what the real human tragedy is? When you are capable, but by the end you cannot do it. You have the capacity, but you have no chance to fulfill your ideas.

Is it difficult for you when someone watches one of your films and then asks you what it was about?

When someone asks, “What about?,” I say, “How can I explain to you a film?” Because film is a picture, you can see with your eyes. How can I explain to you the eye of the horse? I have no words. And that’s the reason I did not become a writer. I’m a filmmaker. I know how to show you. I know the way. It’s impossible to tell you what you will see when you see the eye of the horse.

Why have you decided this will be your last film?

I think I’ve said everything I could.


Indie Focus: Gerardo Naranjo's 'Miss Bala'

'Bullhead' boosts Michael R. Roskam and Matthias Schoenaerts

Indie Focus: A world of drama in Oscar foreign-language race

--Mark Olsen

Photo: Bela Tarr. Credit: Cinema Guild


Oscars 2012: ‘The Artist’ producer tops final Heat Meter rankings

February 29, 2012 |  2:25 pm

Tom Cruise and Thomas Langmann: Click for full Oscars coverage

Sure, “The Artist” won best picture at the Oscars on Sunday. But who was the hottest personality during the entirety of the award season just ended?

According to Heat Meter, The Times’ data desk's analysis of the race that used a sophisticated point system to rank contenders, it was "The Artist" producer Thomas Langmann, who topped all other personalities, including his own director, Michel Hazanavicius (who came in second). Langmann had 235 points to Hazanavicius’ 231.

The hottest non-“Artist” personality was Meryl Streep ("The Iron Lady"), who with 207 points landed in third place and set a personal best, topping even the two previous seasons in which she also won Oscars. Alexander Payne, who at the Academy Awards picked up an adapted screenplay win and a director nomination, edged out Jean Dujardin for fourth place.
On the film side, "The Artist" trounced the competition with 715 points. Coming in a distant second was "The Descendants" with 409 points, followed by "The Help" with 370 points.

Not surprisingly , Weinstein Co. won the race for hottest studio. But more dramatic was the race for fourth place, which saw Paramount edge out its former corporate sibling, DreamWorks, by just one point, 355-354.

You can see the top five personalities, films and studios after the jump.

Continue reading »

Oscars 2012: Could this idea make the academy more diverse?

February 29, 2012 | 11:09 am

Christopher Plummer
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, responding to a study by the Los Angeles Times, said it wants to diversify its ranks. But it won’t be easy.

The Times study, which identified more than 5,100 active, voting academy members, found that they  are 94% white, 77% male and have a median age of 62. Only 2% of the members are younger than 40, while more than half are 60 and older.

Times columnist Patrick Goldstein suggested on Tuesday that giving veteran Oscar members a different, non-voting status might help skew the academy’s demographics younger. He wrote:

For example, if you haven't had a credit in 25 years, you'd become an emeritus member, which would entitle you to all the perks the academy offers, minus the voting. Currently, approximately 5% of the voting membership is over age 85. If they were put on emeritus status, that would presumably open up the membership rolls to a younger, more vital constituency.

We tested the hypothesis, assuming that the academy would take its diversity pledge to an extreme. 

Times database wizard Doug Smith pulled up the paper’s Oscar voter rolls and followed Goldstein’s suggestion, removing all voters 85 and older, about 300 members. Smith then replaced them with imaginary non-white women aged 50 -- the median age of all new members invited to join the academy since 2004 (that's the year the academy started publicly announcing its invitees). 

Such a switch would leave the academy looking like this: 83% white, about 73% male and with a median age of 61. If the emeritus status began at age 80-- a change that would take away the voting rights of this year's best supporting actor winner Christopher Plummer, age 82--the voters would be 82% white, 68% male and have a median age of 59.

Some Oscar nominees said Sunday the academy needs to change and not just chalk things up to a lack of homogeneity in the film industry.

Asked if the academy is only as diverse as the industry, "The Help's" lead actress nominee Viola Davis said, “I don't think that that's what Hollywood is. I think that's probably just something the academy says.”

George Clooney, nominated for lead actor from “The Descendants,” said he was hopeful that the organization would become more diverse.  “That'd be a good idea, don't ya think?” he joked. “You can look at the Senate and it's roughly the same thing. I don't think to diversify is ever a bad idea.”

But how is that going to happen? “It's a tricky thing, because you actually have to open it up to more,” Clooney said, “as opposed to trying to keep people out, instead of taking their cards away.”


The Oscar voters: Meet the members at large

Who's Who in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

Unmasking the academy: Oscar voters overwhelmingly white, male

Unmasking the academy: Oscar voters aren't always who you might think

--John Horn and Amy Kaufman

Photo: Christopher Plummer at the 84th Academy Awards. Credit: Matt Sayles/Associated Press

Jason Segel's 'Engagement' will open Tribeca Film Festival

February 29, 2012 |  6:25 am

Jason Segel at the Oscars.

The Tribeca Film Festival is going to the comedy well this year, announcing that the Jason Segel marital pic “The Five-Year Engagement” will kick off its annual gathering April 18.

“Engagement” follows a couple (played by Segel and Emily Blunt) who seem to have it all figured out but soon find plenty of bumps on the road between their engagement and their wedding. The movie marks a reunion for Segel and director Nicholas Stoller, who last collaborated on the 2008 hit “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” The pair co-wrote the new film, on which Judd Apatow served as a producer.

Stoller deadpanned in a statement that, “To be honest, this is all just a ploy to stand on top of a building with Robert De Niro and look out over New York City at dusk.” Stoller's movie opens commercially April 27.

The festival has moved in different directions with its opening-night slot, one year going serious with “United 93” and another year taking the animated route with “Shrek Forever After.” It last opened with a live-action comedy in 2009, when Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works’ kicked off the festival.

This year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the 11th annual affair, runs through April 29 in downtown Manhattan.


With 'Jeff,' Helms and Segel in a new light

Jason Segel says playing a lovable loser comes naturally

'Bridesmaids:' Judd Apatow wants a comedy Oscars category

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Jason Segel at the Oscars. Credit: Joel Ryan/Associated Press

Oscars 2012: How would you overhaul the show? [poll]

February 28, 2012 | 11:26 am

Oscars 2012: Click for more photos

The ratings for Sunday’s 84th Academy Awards were up slightly from a year ago — more than 39 million people tuned in, compared with 2011’s audience of nearly 38 million. But very few people seemed that excited about the ceremony itself, and the Oscars were seen by fewer people than this year’s Grammys.

Many critics trashed host Billy Crystal, some detractors blamed the soulless acceptance speeches, while a handful of commentators found fault with the movies themselves. Only one best picture nominee, “The Help,” is a legitimate box-office hit, and “The Artist” may turn out to be the second lowest-grossing best picture winner (beating only “The Hurt Locker”) in the last 35 years.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences says it enjoys little leeway in overhauling the broadcast. Like a three-hour football game in which the ball is in play only for a dozen minutes, there’s just 30 minutes or so in the Oscar show for anything original — all the other time is taken up by the presentation of the trophies. And the academy consistently has refused to consider moving awards such as sound mixing and art direction into a non-televised ceremony.

Some academy officials believe the show ain’t broke. "This is the best show we've ever had. Nothing has come close to this," the Wall Street Journal quoted Hawk Koch -- a candidate to be the academy's next president -- as telling Oscar producer Brian Grazer.

If you disagree, check out our poll. Assume you have unlimited power to renovate the Oscars. What would you do to make it more exciting?


Oscars 2012: Full coverage

'The Artist' is big winner at Academy Awards

Oscars 2012: What was Billy Crystal's lamest joke? [Poll]

Photo: Billy Crystal hosting the 84th Academy Awards. Credit: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press.

Oscar's aging audience: Time to shake up the academy?

February 28, 2012 | 10:27 am

Billy Crystal hosting the Academy Awards: Click for more photos

The 84th Academy Awards really looked their age on Sunday night. The painfully cobwebby spectacle included a cringe-inducing blackface joke, a tribute to an elderly seat filler and endless self-absorbed claptrap about the magic of movies. After a dreary 6-month-long awards season largely revolving around movies about movies, why did Oscar organizers feel the need to hammer away at the idea that they love — I mean really love — their movies?

Probably because there's growing evidence that the rest of us don't really love the same movies they do. With one exception, “The Help,” the academy's nine best picture nominees didn't make much of an impression in Middle America. “The Artist” won best picture but hasn't hit box-office pay dirt outside of the urban chattering classes. Having struggled to make $32 million, “The Artist” is on track to be the second-lowest grossing best picture winner in the past 35 years.

The worst performing best picture winner in that period was 2009's “The Hurt Locker.” In other words, the two lowest-grossing best picture winners have come in the past three years, not an especially encouraging sign in terms of Oscar relevance to the broader culture.

The retro feel of Sunday's show didn't do anything to connect the Oscars with a younger audience. Overall viewership was up 4% over last year but ratings were flat with adults ages 18 to 49. As one viewer put it on Twitter: “I think my dad is texting all these jokes to Billy Crystal during commercials.”

Although the academy and ABC have tried all sorts of hip new ways to engage the masses — they've got Twitter, a Facebook page with more than 394,000 “Likes” and whatnot — the Academy Awards remain a 1960s-style variety show, simply one devoted to promoting movies.

PHOTOS: Best & Worst | Quotes | Red carpet arrivals | During the show | Backstage

Before the show began, ABC's Jess Cagle accompanied Tom Hanks down the Oscar winners' backstage walkway to the then-largely empty press room, with Hanks attempting to describe the madcap atmosphere the press corral would have later in the evening. But amazingly, especially for an industry where you are taught on the first day of film school to “show, not tell,” the broadcast never returned to the press room to give us a glimpse of the colorful interplay that ensues when an Oscar winner arrives in a room packed to the gills with unruly reporters.

The Oscar team clearly realized its top films didn’t have much juice with mainstream America. Which begs the question: If the Academy really wanted to connect with a broader audience, why didn’t it organize a “Harry Potter” tribute, spotlighting the beloved actors who helped make the series such an immensely popular box-office mainstay?

In the long run, the show isn't even the academy's biggest problem. In recent years, the organization has lost a sense of focus about what kind of institution it wants to be. For years, we've suspected that the academy's aging membership was about as connected to today's turbulent pop culture as the Council on Foreign Relations. This month, The Times published a study that found that the academy's voting membership is nearly 94% white and 77% male. Oscar voters have a median age of 62, with just 14% of voting members being under 50.

With this new mirror held up to its visage, academy members have been of different minds as to whether a face-lift is needed. Denzel Washington, an Oscar winner for his role in “Training Day,” said that if the “country is 12% black, make the academy 12% black.” But Frank Pierson, a former academy president who won an Oscar for writing “Dog Day Afternoon,” said, “I don't see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population,” he said. “That's what the People's Choice Awards are for.”

This difference of opinion seems to parallel the internal debate the academy has over the show itself — should the Oscars remain a stodgy but classy way of honoring the year's most artistic films? Or should it open its doors to more populist fare in the hopes of reflecting more mainstream tastes (and of course higher TV ratings)?

The truth is, the show could be more populist but still classy. And the academy could diversify itself without diminishing its status as a meritocracy. To insist otherwise is simply a failure of imagination.

The academy says part of the reason it hasn't been easy to make itself younger or more diverse is because its memberships are for life and rules allow the organization to bring in only 30 new voters each year beyond the number of spots created by deaths or retirements.

The academy could easily decide to put its oldest voters on retired status after a certain point — a step that is now strictly voluntary. For example, if you haven't had a credit in 25 years, you'd become an emeritus member, which would entitle you to all the perks the academy offers, minus the voting.

Currently, approximately 5% of the voting membership is over age 85. If they were put on emeritus status, that would presumably open up the membership rolls to a younger, more vital constituency.

FULL COVERAGE: Academy Awards 2012

Lorenzo Semple Jr., who wrote such classic films as “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View,” is 88 but an avid participant in social networking. So I asked what he thought of the idea. It turns out that in the 1970s, after he'd become a member of the board of governors, he proposed a similar idea.

“People hated it — they thought it would be a terrible blow to older members,” he recalls. “Now that I'm older, I believe in the value of wisdom that comes with age. And it would be ridiculous for the academy to exactly reflect society as a whole. But we should consider the idea of having older members go on retired status, so the academy would be represented by more active members.”

The academy's lack of diversity is reflective of Hollywood as a whole. Executive suites are almost entirely bereft of people of color, and the majority of movie crews have very few minorities in their midst. The academy can't force the studios to hire more minorities. But it does have the economic resources to develop even more minority outreach programs than it currently funds. And it has the clout to send a clear message to studios that it expects to see a movie community with fewer barriers of entry for minority aspirants.

If our country's finest academic institutions feel an obligation to promote diversity by finding qualified students, it is long overdue for the industry that creates our kids' pop culture fantasies to do the same. Even though Billy Crystal is taking tons of heat for joking, apropos of “The Help,” that there are no black women in Beverly Hills, he would've been on perfectly safe ground noting that there aren't any black women greenlighting movies anywhere in Hollywood.

It is an industry-wide embarrassment. And because the academy represents Hollywood's highest order of artistic aspirations, it should make itself a visible leader, starting with an Oscar show that doesn't feel like a stale trip down memory lane.


What was Billy Crystal's lamest joke?

Oscar voters overwhemingly white, male

The best picture slump: Is Hollywood stuck in an Oscar bubble?

— Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Billy Crystal performing his opening number at the Oscars on Sunday night in Hollywood. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.

Oscars winners: 'A Separation's' triumph raises hopes for Iran

February 27, 2012 |  8:37 pm

Sussan Deyhim still worries that saber-rattling rhetoric could escalate into war between Iran and Israel or the United States.

"There are enough crazy people out there ... that this actually could happen," said the Tehran-born singer-composer, whose film music credits include "The Kite Runner" and "The Stoning of Soraya M."

But Deyhim hopes the success of the Iranian domestic drama "A Separation," which won the best foreign language Oscar on Sunday, and its director's carefully-worded acceptance speech could help ease rising tensions and alter Western perceptions of her homeland.

PHOTOS: Best & Worst | Quotes | Red carpet arrivals | During the show | Backstage

In receiving his Oscar, director Asghar Farhadi offered a plea that "At the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.

"I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment," he added.

Said Deyhim, "He was making it very clear that as people we are very pacifist."

Across Southern California, home to one of the world's largest Persian expatriate communities, other artists voiced similar sentiments. "I think once Americans, they see that and they relate and they understand there is no need for wars and guns," said Andy Madadian, an Armenian Iranian pop singer who has lived in Los Angeles for decades.

A number of Iranian and foreign news reports Monday quoted Iranians voicing pride at their country's first Oscar win. Some Iranian authorities also expressed satisfaction that "A Separation" beat the Israeli film "Footnote," about father-son Talmudic scholars.

But at least for a moment, art may have spoken more loudly than political spin, suggested Aryana Farshad, L.A.-based director of the documentary film "Mystic Iran."

"Every time there is the threat of war, intellectuals, artists, filmmakers always come to the rescue," Farshad said. "The Iranian filmmakers, they're my heroes."


Oscars 2012: Full coverage

'The Artist' is big winner at Academy Awards

'Separation' director says Iranians care about the Oscars

-- Reed Johnson

Photo: "A Separation" director Asghar Farhadi (Iran) holds aloft the Oscar for foreign language film. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.


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