24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Politics

Is China exerting an undue influence on Hollywood films?

June 12, 2012 |  5:05 pm

As it seeks to grab an ever-larger share of the global movie market, Hollywood has been keeping foreign cultures in mind. Studios now regularly cast actors or tweak titles to make sure filmgoers from Mexico City to Moscow feel at home when they sit down to watch one of their movies.

But no country has ruled the American film business’ consciousness lately as much as China.

 In its attempt to woo audiences in the Asian nation — now the largest filmgoing market outside the U.S. — studios have added scenes ingratiating to the Chinese while also excising anything that might be deemed offensive by the country's censors (including Chinese baddies).

As I and colleague Jonathan Landreth report in a story in today’s Times, the instances are many and diverse.

Among the examples:

— MGM, the studio behind the upcoming remake of the 1984 action movie "Red Dawn," digitally altered the invaders attacking the U.S. to make them North Koreans instead of Chinese, even though they were written and shot as Chinese.

— In Columbia Pictures' disaster movie "2012," the White House chief of staff extols the Chinese as visionaries after an ark built by the country's scientists saves civilization. The scene caused some in the West to roll their eyes, though it garnered ovations in Shanghai.

— For its new film “Iron Man 3,” Marvel is shooting in China and working with Chinese interests to add “a local flavor [that] will enhance the appeal and relevance of our characters in China's fast-growing film marketplace."

— When aliens besiege Earth in Universal Pictures' new action film "Battleship," they attack, of all cities, Hong Kong. Washington then credits Chinese authorities with identifying the invaders.

 Experts view these instances as an unprecedented, shaping not only exports but what we see at home. The result, they say, is a generation of Western filmgoers that will basically get only a positive, sanitized view of Chinese in their films.

 "I don't think the average U.S. filmgoer is hugely aware of all of these small decisions," said USC professor Stanley Rosen, who runs the school’s East Asian Studies center.  "But subliminally, it can start to have an effect."

 Click through for a fuller exploration of the complicated influence of China on American movies, and weigh in with your comments below.


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Photo: Hong Kong comes under attack in "Battleship." Credit: Universal Pictures.

Obama campaign ad to air during MTV Movie Awards

June 1, 2012 |  3:00 pm

Sarah Jessica Parker in Obama ad

The Obama campaign's first national TV ad will air Sunday during the MTV Movie Awards in a sign that campaign strategists see the youth vote as crucial to his winning reelection in November.

In the 30-second ad, "Sex and the City" star Sarah Jessica Parker will describe her reasons for supporting Obama, citing his role in ending the war in Iraq and his job creation record, and inviting the audience to enter a raffle to attend a fundraiser with the president at her New York City home June 14.

The core demographic for MTV's awards show — which will feature appearances by young celebrities such as Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Emma Stone, Mila Kunis and Andrew Garfield — is viewers ages 18 to 24, a group that helped propel Obama to victory in 2008.

A spokesman for MTV said the network is also talking to Mitt Romney's campaign about future advertising.

The president's reelection campaign has been increasingly relying on entertainment outlets to reach the youth audience. Obama appeared on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" in April, for instance, to talk about student loans and to "slow jam" the news.

The event at Parker's home will follow the model of the president's fundraiser at George Clooney's Studio City home May 10, which raised nearly $15 million, largely from a similar online contest.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who is jointly hosting the Parker event, appeared in a campaign ad released Friday urging audiences to enter the raffle, which ends Monday, June 4. "Please join us," Wintour said, "but just don't be late."


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Documents provide new insight into Kathryn Bigelow's Bin Laden movie

May 23, 2012 |  5:05 pm


The release of hundreds of pages of government documents Tuesday has fanned a simmering controversy in Washington over how much access the White House, the CIA and the Pentagon granted director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal for their upcoming movie on the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

But in Hollywood, the documents raise eyebrows for a different reason: They provide insight into how the Oscar-winning filmmakers behind "The Hurt Locker" are attempting to craft their secrecy-shrouded movie, which already had been in the works before the dramatic raid in Pakistan last May in which Bin Laden died.

The emails and meeting transcripts obtained by the watchdog group Judicial Watch reveal that the filmmakers got access to a Navy SEAL who was involved in orchestrating the raid, and toured "the Vault," a CIA building where planning for the operation took place.

The documents also show how the filmmakers are attempting to construct a narrative of the years leading up to Bin Laden’s death, including debates among CIA and White House officials and rehearsals of the maneuver in the final weeks of preparation.

“Part of the challenge for us is to capture how difficult this was because there is a version of it that in hindsight, it just looks like it fell into place,” Boal told Department of Defense officials at a meeting last July, according to a transcript. “That is why I just wanted to ask you hypothetically about what could have happened wrong, because it makes it more dramatic when it all goes right.”

The access Bigelow and Boal have had to CIA, DOD and other government officials is not unheard of for Hollywood productions. “Battleship” director Peter Berg embedded for a month with Navy SEALs in western Iraq as research for his upcoming SEAL film “Lone Survivor,” and filmmaker Lionel Chetwynd was granted an hour with President Bush for a 2003 movie he wrote for Showtime, “DC 9/11: Time of Crisis.”

Bigelow's untitled movie -- which is sometimes referred to by the name of its production company, Zero Dark Thirty -- commenced production in India and Jordan this spring, with a cast that includes Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt and Jessica Chastain. 

Controversy over the project first surfaced last August, when Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, sent a letter to the CIA and the DOD asking for an investigation into whether the White House had granted the filmmakers access to classified information that could prove useful to America's enemies.

The records publicized by Judicial Watch this week reignited the debate, but representatives for Sony Pictures, Bigelow and Boal declined to comment on them, merely reiterating the statement they issued last August:

“Our upcoming film project about the decade long pursuit of Bin Laden has been in the works for many years and integrates the collective efforts of three administrations, including those of Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama, as well as the cooperative strategies and implementation by the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency,” the statement said. “Indeed, the dangerous work of finding the world’s most wanted man was carried out by individuals in the military and intelligence communities who put their lives at risk for the greater good without regard for political affiliation. This was an American triumph, both heroic, and non-partisan and there is no basis to suggest that our film will represent this enormous victory otherwise.”

The movie is scheduled to open Dec. 19.


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Photo: Director Kathryn Bigelow and director of photography Barry Ackroyd on the set of "The Hurt Locker" Credit: Jonathan Olley / Summit Entertainment

Sarah Jessica Parker to host Obama fundraiser

May 18, 2012 |  2:40 pm

Sarah Jessica Parker will host Obama fundraiser

If President Obama could finance his reelection campaign with donated stilettos, Sarah Jessica Parker would be his go-to bundler. Instead, the Obama campaign is relying on the "Sex and the City" star for a more traditional contribution: Parker will host a fundraiser at her Manhattan home June 14.

Billed as "A New York Night With the President, First Lady and Sarah Jessica Parker," the event will follow the model of Obama's fundraiser at George Clooney's Studio City home May 10, which raised nearly $15 million, largely from an online contest. As with the Clooney event, Parker's fundraiser will be open not only to big-ticket donors but also to members of the public, one of whom will be selected to attend with a guest. The prize includes airfare and tickets to a Mariah Carey performance, according to the fine print of the contest rules.

The Obama campaign has been increasingly engaging the entertainment industry in order to reach donors and voters, including an appearance on ABC's daytime talk show "The View" this week in which the president discussed topics from gay marriage to "The Avengers."

Like Obama's visit to "The View," the campaign involvement of Parker, who has been a supporter since 2008, represents a way to reach women voters. Best known for her performance as a fashionable, romantically challenged Manhattan journalist in the "Sex and the City" TV and movie series, Parker's next role is as feminist Gloria Steinem in a biopic of porn star Linda Lovelace.

The actress' fundraising pitch, which went out in an email Friday, focused on her gender, tax status and middle-class roots.

"As a woman, a mother, and an entrepreneur, I need to believe our country can be a place where everyone has a fair shot at success," Parker wrote in the pitch. "This November's election will determine whether we get to keep moving forward, or if we're forced to go back to policies that ask people like my middle-class family in Ohio to carry the burden -- while people like me, who don't need tax breaks, get extra help."



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Photo: Sarah Jessica Parker. Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press.

Obama on 'The Avengers,' Kardashians, 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

May 15, 2012 |  1:06 pm

Obama on the view
Perhaps he is actually the first pop culture president. President Obama appeared on ABC's "The View" Tuesday for an interview in which he discussed Wall Street, gay marriage and the Hulk.

Co-host Joy Behar administered a zeitgeist quiz to the president during the show, taped Monday, asking him to name three characters from "The Avengers." "I just saw it, so this is easy," Obama said. "You've got the Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man."

Asked which Kardashian was married for 72 days, the president answered correctly, "That would be Kim." Obama quickly explained his knowledge of the reality star as accidental. "Because he was a ballplayer," he said, referring to Kardashian's ex-husband, NBA player Kris Humphries. "That’s how I know, from watching basketball." 

Obama has made entertainment programs an increasingly important venue for his public appearances. In 2010 he became the first sitting president to appear on a daytime talk show when he visited "The View," and last month he talked about student loans on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." Such shows are a way to reach demographic groups key to the president's re-election campaign — women and young people.

A record-setting fundraiser at George Clooney's Studio City home last week also relied on the president's Hollywood ties: Organizers used the joint star power of Obama and Clooney to lure campaign donations from tens of thousands of participants in an online contest vying to attend.

On "The View" episode that aired Tuesday, the commander in chief seemed pretty pop culture savvy for a man with a country to run and a hotly contested campaign underway — he said he DVRs the shows "Mad Men" and "Homeland" for viewing on his long flights.

But the president did miss some questions. He didn't know that Jessica Simpson had recently had a baby, and he deflected a query on the hot-selling erotic novel "Fifty Shades of Grey." When asked "What’s the controversial sex book that’s on millions of women’s bedside tables?" the president said: "I don't know that. I’ll ask Michelle when I get home."




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Photo: Barbara Walters, left, President Obama and Joy Behar on "The View." Credit: ABC.

Mikhail Gorbachev says DVD can help cool U.S.-Russia relations

May 2, 2012 | 10:23 am



NEW YORK -- Television images accelerated the end of the Cold War and social media toppled several Arab regimes. Can a DVD have a similar geopolitical influence?

Mikhail Gorbachev thinks so.

The former Russian premiere was at New York's Paley Center earlier this week, touting the home-video release of “Cold War,” the massive documentary about the epic conflict.

It’s been 14 years since the original aired on CNN, 24 46-minute episodes, each tackling a new chapter in Soviet-American relations. A Ted Turner passion project, the series (produced by British documentarian Jeremy Isaacs) takes few ideological positions but instead examines a range of perspectives from east and west, interviewing everyone in the Cold War from world leaders to foot soldiers.

Surprisingly, the series has never been available on DVD, but Warner Bros. Home Video decided to release it now, unedited, as a kind of super-film, as the Cold War is perhaps more at risk than ever of being forgotten.

Appearing on a panel with Turner and Isaacs, Gorbachev, seeming slower and heavier but still quick of mind, said he was particularly concerned about that kind of historical forgetfulness. He said the latest complicated chapter in American-Russian relations — with tensions between President Obama’s White House and Putin’s Kremlin continuing to bristle — could use a dose of the movie.

“We need to make sure this spiral does not reemerge, that we do not reignite another Cold War,” the dean of glasnost said. “And that's why this film is necessary.”

He continued, “We see that another arms race is possible. We see that nuclear weapons still exist in large numbers and they're regarded as real weapons of war.”

Scanning “Cold War” again,  one at first can’t help feeling like there’s something quaint about the whole thing; even amid the mushroom clouds and summit meetings, the stakes seem somehow smaller than we remember them. (The upcoming release of Sacha Baron Cohen's "The Dictator," which makes good sport of the idea of tyranny, may also contribute to this feeling.) Then something like the Cuban Missile Crisis pops up, and it all comes rushing back.

Turner added that he, too, was worried about loose weapons material. “We are in a dangerous situation [because of the weapons]. Let's figure out how to resolve this.… The legacy of the Cold War is not over.” (In that sense, the release has a similar mission as “Countdown to Zero,” Oscar nominee Lucy Walker’s 2009 documentary about unaccounted-for nuclear material.)

Gorbachev also opened up about politics in general, making a curious plea that suggested he understood French voters who chose far-right candidate Marine Le Pen over Nicolas Sarkozy, who has had his share of personal crucibles.

"You saw how elections went in France. The first round gave 18% to a very right-wing lady, and that’s in a country that's very advanced in all respects,” he said. “Should we accuse all those who voted for her, should we accuse those who did not vote for the current people?” he continued. “[Voters] see who builds and who destroys … people see who takes and who steals."

As for his country, Gorbachev, who said he has undergone an ideological "evolution" and now considers himself a Social Democrat, said he believed the controversy in the recent reelection of Putin was overblown. “Even though there was some election fraud, I believe Putin won the election and most of the votes for him were real.”

Gorbachev then made a plea for understanding on behalf of his country's volatile politics. "The democracy you built in 200 years,” he said, “we cannot build in 200 days.”


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Photo: Nixon meets Mao in a scene from the new DVD of "Cold War." Credit: Warner Bros. Home Video

Israel's Shimon Peres reflects on Hollywood's global influence

March 9, 2012 |  3:15 pm

Shimon Peres at DreamWorks

Israeli President Shimon Peres told a movie and television industry audience at the DreamWorks Animation studio lot in Glendale on Friday that Hollywood often wields more influence across the globe than world leaders do.

"The children believe the actors more than politicians," Peres said to a crowd that included Billy Crystal, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross, CBS chief Les Moonves and Sony Pictures Chief Executive Michael Lynton, among other Hollywood executives.

After Katzenberg introduced the Israeli leader as "a real hero," Peres spoke for less than 10 minutes, urging "close cooperation between Hollywood and Israel" and reminding the audience that "among the founders of Hollywood there were many Jewish people."

Peres' visit to Los Angeles caps a weeklong U.S. tour for the Israeli president that included a private meeting with President Obama and an address at the Israel Political Affairs Committee's annual policy conference in Washington, a conversation with Charlie Rose before an audience in New York City and a stop at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.

Continue reading »

Russian documentary captures anti-Putin pranksters in action

March 4, 2012 |  2:26 pm


Russia held presidential elections Sunday, and amid reports of irregularities, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claimed victory after early returns showed him with 63% of the vote. Opposition groups have threatened protests Monday, and the outcome seems sure to add kindling to the fire that fuels art group Voina, the country's premier political pranksters.

As documented in the new film "Zavtra" (Tomorrow), Voina's mission is to stick a finger in the eye of the establishment. The group, whose name means "war" in Russian, has a handful of core members and an amorphous set of more than 200 activist accomplices. They perform what could be called radical acts of creative outrage, such as throwing stray cats around a Moscow McDonald's, staging mock hangings in supermarkets and jamming gum into the locks at a Putin campaign office. Voina posts amateur video of its activities online, which is where they caught the eye of Russian competitive ice dancer-turned-documentary filmmaker Andrey Gryazev. 

"The first time I saw a Voina action on the Internet, I came to the decision that  their work had potential," said Gryazev.  "That these ideas should be distributed beyond the Internet, that there were possibilities for them to become known through television and in newspapers. ... Through my film, I wanted to bring them to a larger audience."  That audience turned out to be at February's Berlin International Film Festival, where "Zavtra"  had its premiere.     

Gryazev said he had to earn the trust of the outside-the-law street activists by making about 50 mini-films of their actions, and posting them online. "It was a symbiosis in the sense of 'I'll help you, you help me.' " Voina members try to live without money -- they don't pay rent, and they shoplift food and supplies. Gryazev had to live by those rules while making the film: He said he slept on the floor in the group's squat, ate members' purloined food and spent only about $2,000 -- almost all of it on train tickets between Moscow and St. Petersburg. In all, he spent a year and a half with the group, recording some of its most infamous performances, and keeping his project a secret.    

Among the actions depicted in the film is a precision-timed mega-graffiti work from June 2010 that turned a rising St. Petersburg drawbridge into a phallic retort to the nearby offices of Russia's Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.   Though the paint was quickly removed by the authorities, a video of the stunt has been viewed countless times. The stunt even won a contemporary art award sponsored by Russia's Ministry of Culture, which was, naturally, rejected by Voina, which said it would give the prize money to political prisoners.   

Much of "Zavtra's" plot concerns a Voina action called  "Palace Revolution," and the months of practice  and planning that preceded it. The group overturned a police car, set up in a scripted video as a scheme to rescue a child's ball that had rolled underneath. Thanks to "Palace Revolution," two of the group's main members, Oleg Vorotnikov (Vor) and Leonid Nikolayev, face multiyear prison sentences for hooliganism.    

The breakout star of the film is the child whose ball gets stuck under the police car in "Palace Revolution." He's a charming toddler named Kasper, and he's the son of Vorotnikov and Voina member Natalia Sokol, known as Koza. Whether he's turning over his own toy police cars, gumming large hunks of "borrowed" supermarket sausage, waking up group members by sprinkling them with a watering can or being taken into state custody briefly when police arrest his parents, Kasper is more than just along for the wild ride. While shoplifting, vandalizing and protesting, it sometimes feels as if Vor and Koza are using their baby as a prop, excuse or even a shield.

Gryazev insists that Kasper's parents and the other members of Voina have the boy's best interest at heart. "Essentially, everything the group has done has been for Kasper.  For his future, so that he will be able to live in comfortable conditions, that he will have laws, or perhaps it's better to say an absence of laws of the sort that we currently have in Russia, so that in the future he will be able to enjoy absolute freedom."

With Koza a fugitive and the case against Vor under review for the third time by the Russian public prosecutor, it's safe to say that future is yet far off. 

Given Voina's nature, it's perhaps no surprise that in advance of the film's debut, the group reportedly claimed that it was unauthorized and inaccurate.  Gryazev insists that as an auteur, he has the right to show his own reality, even starting "Zavtra"  with this disclaimer:  "This film does not claim to be historically accurate.  Some or all of the events depicted here may or may not have happened in reality. "He freely admitted that the film is a mix of traditional documentary techniques, re-enactments and scripted scenes, and he said  "Zavtra's" subjects often played to the camera, both acting and overacting.

Voina has its enemies and fans alike.  British street artist Banksy pledged proceeds from one of his prints, more than $100,000, to the group, and Voina, including Kasper, now nearly 3, has been invited to help curate the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art this spring.   

This is the third documentary released by Gryazev, who says he now splits his time evenly between ice skating and filmmaking.  His previous two movies, "Sanya and Sparrow"  and "Miner's Day," both look at life and hardship in contemporary Russia, and have been critically acclaimed in festival appearances. "Zavtra"  has been booked for festivals in Latin America, Australia, Britain, Portugal and Spain. 

Check out the trailer below:


-- Susan Stone in Berlin
Photo: A shot from "Zavtra." Credit: Courtesy Berlin International Film Festival

‘Airplane’ director: Andrew Breitbart was a ‘terrific guy’

March 2, 2012 |  9:59 pm

One doesn’t imagine George Clooney, James Cameron or most other mainstream Hollywood filmmakers rending their garments for Andrew Breitbart.

The conservative firebrand and founder of the Big Hollywood website, who died Thursday at 43 of an apparent heart attack, reserved a certain kind of vitriol for the filmmaking establishment, whom he saw as out of touch and agenda-peddling, to name two lesser charges. As my colleague Patrick Goldstein wrote in Friday’s Times, Big Hollywood has been fond of running headlines like “Game Change: Meet the leftists who turned HBO into a pro-Obama Super-PAC."

But at least one successsful filmmaker says that Breitbart is a man to be missed.

“He was a terrific guy,” David Zucker, the director behind “Airplane” and “The Naked Gun,” told 24 Frames shortly after Breitbart died Thursday. “He’s everything that people say he was: great,” said Zucker, from whom the comments come as little surprise -- he's a known supporter of conservative causes. “I think of his quote that, 'If you’re taking a lot of flak, it means you’re over the target,'" Zucker said.

In his life, Breitbart had returned the favor. The conservative pot-stirrer was supportive of Zucker’s 2008 Michael Moore send-up “An American Carol.” While the late blogger and Zucker were not social friends, the filmmaker said they would see each other at events and bond there. “We felt the same philosophically and politically,” Zucker said.

Among Breitbart’s go-to-claims about Hollywood is that known conservatives do not get the same breaks in the movie business as known liberals. Breitbart and Big Hollywood were prone to pointing to a range of actors and filmmakers to make their case, though such claims always were a little ill-fitting with conservatives' other favorite anti-Hollywood charge: that entertainment moguls are so godless and profit-hungry they would make a movie about Hitler if it was financially expedient.

Zucker, whose “Carol" was not a success, said that, unlike Breitbart, he had the misfortune of working in a medium that did not support his way of thinking. “[Conservative themes] work in radio and the blogs but not in the movies,” he said. “Movies are supported by liberals, not conservatives.”


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-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Andrew Breitbart. Andrew Burton / Getty Images

'Atlas Shrugged Part 2' to start production in April

February 2, 2012 |  8:29 am

"Atlas Shrugged Part 2" is scheduled to start principal photography in April in Los Angeles and Colorado

"Atlas Shrugged Part 2," the second film in a proposed trilogy adapting Ayn Rand's 1957 capitalist epic, is scheduled to start principal photography in April in Los Angeles and Colorado, with an eye toward an October 2012 theatrical release, producers revealed Thursday.

Businessman and Rand acolyte John Aglialoro, who financed the production and distribution of the first "Atlas Shrugged" film for $20 million, and producer Harmon Kaslow announced that they have raised the necessary financing for the sequel. They declined to reveal the final budget, but in an earlier interview, Kaslow said they were aiming for a production budget in the $10 million-to-$15 million range.

"Atlas Shrugged" the novel takes place at an unspecified future time in which the U.S. is mired in a deep depression and a mysterious phenomenon is causing the nation's leading industrialists to disappear or "strike."

The first "Atlas Shrugged" movie rode a wave of conservative anticipation into theaters in 2011. After failing to impress mainstream film critics, however, it took in only $4.6 million at the box office.


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Photo: Taylor Schilling plays heroine Dagny Taggart in "Atlas Shrugged Part 1." Credit: Rocky Mountain Pictures


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