Friday, December 30, 2005

MATCH POINT for Time Lords

HERE is my belated review for Woody Allen's latest, MATCH POINT. I am a big Woody fan and am happy to say this is one of his better films even if it isn't one of his early funny ones.

I'm also here to herald the arrival of the 10th Doctor Who. For those of us stateside who have been fortunate enough to keep up with the BBC's latest incarnation of the cult series, this latest episode is a relief. Christopher Eccleston (the 9th Doctor) is a hard act to follow especially since the 13 episodes he was in were some of the best of the whole Doctor Who universe (in their writing, acting and special effects). Kudos to series producer Russell T. Davies for the casting of David Tennant as the new time lord. Tennant's mix of absurdist humor, derring do and commanding presence is a return to the Jon Pertwee days (okay, is my geek showing now or what?). He will be a welcome incarnation.

Have a Happy New Year everyone!

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Hidden (CACHE) Review

HERE is my review of CACHE. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

We Three Films...

Well, the year is winding down and it looks as if 2005 will go down in movie history as an underachiever. As further proof, you can read three reviews for three new films: THE WHITE COUNTESS, WOLF CREEK and CACHE.

Of these 3 only CACHE is worth a visit to your local art house. And when I say "art house" I mean that this film is for die hard cinephiles only. My review for CACHE is not up at the moment, but my laments about WHITE COUNTESS (the new and last Merchant / Ivory film) and WOLF CREEK (an Aussie horror mess) are.


Visit WOLF CREEK HERE ... if you dare.

I'm off to Philadelphia tomorrow for a little Yule, family and wind chill. Merry Christmas to all (unless you insist on Happy Holidays for religious or other silly reasons)!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

What? A Performance? -- Misplaced Faith In Actors

Is it me or are we placing too much faith in actors these days? Judging from the current list of Golden Globe nominees, it would seem so.

Granted this year was quite possibly the weakest year for movies on record. It's hard to pick the good from the bad when you only have the mediocre. Still there are films like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK that are receiving heaps of praise. Yes, these films feature some of the year's best acting, but the films themselves are either good but not great (BROKEBACK) or seriously flawed (GOOD NIGHT).

Actors, while being very key to the success of a movie, are not the only element that needs to work in order to achieve "best of" status. There's writing, directing, cinematography, editing, etc. All these crafts should meld together to make a whole. This year, however, the actors have been garnering the most attention because they are the only ones holding up their end. Writing is especially lacking for reasons that would take a whole other blog entry. Writing by committee, lack of story development and just plain bad writers (I'm looking at you Akiva Goldsman) all contribute. On the technical side, all films look good these days (given the level of digital technology, there really isn't any excuse for a film that looks bad), so the next step is for the director and his craftsman to shape their work to support or compliment the actor and the story.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN comes the closest to this. The problem is that it's a ho-hum story. It doesn't really stay with you afterwards or offer any keen insight into how country folk deal with sexuality. According to the genre known as "gay cinema", cowboys are just as intolerant as most everyone else when it comes to love between same sexes. Yes, it can be destructive. It can alienate. We know this. I'm not trying to say that, just because a story has been told once, we shouldn't sit through another point of view (that would invalidate the countless Shakespeare and Austen variations (many of which are excellent) not to mention the theatre arts that thrive on new interpretations of old plays). I simply wish BROKEBACK wasn't so stoic in depicting the damage intolerance can cause.

As for the other offerings this year, acting is the only thing that brought most films attention. Felicity Huffman in TRANSAMERICA. David Strathairn in GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK. Kong in KING KONG. Philip Seymour Hoffman in CAPOTE (well, that film was actually good all around - how'd people miss this?) But are good performances enough to earn awards?

They surely aren't enough to win box office. Hollywood for the longest time has relied on actors to translate into success. That's why they're so perplexed when a star heavy film fails (like most of the films this summer). The reason is that actors are only a part. A vital part, but only one of many.

To praise mediocre films just because the acting was believable is kind of like saying the chicken was bland, but the sauce made the meal. Okay, that wasn't the greatest of analogies, but we in Hollywood have got to start focusing on the whole dish. (Now that's writing!!)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Happy Holidays! (to you and you and you)

Please forgive a little holiday blasphemy, but I couldn't resist ;-)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

In related DVD news... KONG

After ranting about the absurd state of legal affairs in DVD production, I'd like to point you to a DVD set that represents some of the best in featurette work.

PETER JACKSON'S KING KONG DIARIES remind me of the days when Walt Disney would make a film like THE RELUCTANT DRAGON. Even though you get a glimpse into the process, Jackson (like Disney) means to entertain you with the magic of what they do more than the technique. Each entry is a treat.

For a full review of this unprecedented DVD box set (one that shows you the "making of" before the film comes out), click HERE

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Screen Actors Killed The DVD Star

SAG wants a piece of DVD sales!

It all started when DVDs became big money for the studios. Usually when a corporation (like the monopolies that run Hollywood) makes a substantial profit, the people who actually helped make that product start wanting a taste. Since actors are a major reason why films have a shot at gross receipts, you can't blame them.

See, when an actor appears in a film or television show, they are entitled to residuals any time that work is shown. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) has a formula for this kind of thing and the amount differs from deal to deal. Basically the idea of residuals makes sure that Alan Alda is fairly compensated for all the sales of M*A*S*H Fox was able to wrangle. If you're making money off someone's talent and likeness, they're entitled to something (even if Alda had to sue for what Fox owed him).

The problem is that SAG never saw the success of DVDs coming. No specifics for residuals were laid out until recently and then only in a vague notion. That's where the quagmire began. Studios are making a mint off these discs and the actors that starred in the films don't see a dime.

While negotiations over digital media continue between SAG and the studios, the actors have begun to ask for talent fees anytime they are interviewed for one of those "making of" pieces you get as a bonus feature on the DVD. This is fair. They are giving their time to a new production that will increase the worth of the DVD release.

But what about film clips?

Recently, while doing retrospective documentaries on the directors that comprise the MASTERS OF HORROR, we've run into a legal snafu over film clips and whether or not we owe money to the actors featured in those clips. These are clips of films that have already been released and, in most cases, were filmed before the new rules on DVD residuals were in place. When the actors appeared in these films, they signed away their likenesses for the purposes of that film (including publicity). The problem is that SAG insists that, if we use a clip from that old film, we're using the actor's likeness to make a new product.

Well, that's not exactly true. If I were to take a clip of Kurt Russell from THE THING and splice it in to my film about the Iditarod, then I would be using the clip to make a new product. In a documentary that discusses the making of THE THING (among other films) by John Carpenter, a clip featuring Kurt Russell is using the clip as it was originally intended... the way Kurt signed on to have his image used. As an extension of the film titled THE THING.

A clip from THE THING is just a sample of the full length movie. It doesn't become a whole new creation if you take a one minute piece out to show. The same goes for a still from that film or clips used in a trailer. Taking things a step further, if I were to include a clip from THE THING in a new DVD documentary featurette, I'm promoting that film just as any other promotion would. And the cast of THE THING allowed their likeness from that film to be used in this manner when they signed on the production. True, back in 1981 they didn't know DVDs were a possible venue for this sort of thing, but that's why all standard Hollywood contracts have a phrase that refers to "all future technologies"

Now, considering how the negotiations for a clear standard addressing DVD residuals for new productions is seeming more and more elusive, SAG (supposedly on behalf of its members) has been attempting a work around. It has to do with likeness rights.

This phenomena began when some genius on Madison Avenue came up with that whole Fred Astaire dancing with the vacuum cleaner ad. Astaire's family weren't contacted about this and, in the settlement that followed, likeness rights (as we know it) were born.

These rights have been given added dimension ever since the courts allowed actors to sue paparazzi for stealing a shot of them at the beach for "The Weekly World News". This has given the actors a new found control over their image. Again, this is fair. A still of an actor taken by a studio publicist is different than shooting through the bushes into the private backyard of an actor's home. One involves consent, one doesn't (I'll let you guess which one is which).

This right to control the use of your image shouldn't apply to using images of the actor from a film where they signed away their FILM LIKENESS (a film likeness is what an actor looks like when they appear in the movie).

In some cases, such as the families of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the children of these horror icons have formed estates to control the license of their dad's images (see the above Astaire example for the reason why). This was because everyone and their uncle were making Frankenstein tee shirts and Dracula lunch boxes without giving the family their due. Again, this is right. The fine line comes when one uses a clip from FRANKENSTEIN in a documentary. One use is a blatant attempt to capitalize on Karloff's image (even if he is nearly unrecognizable under all of that make up). The other is for the purposes of discussing the film that Karloff allowed to use his likeness in return for compensation (the fact that the old studio regimes were ruthless and didn't pat Karloff what he deserved is unfortunately in the past).

Now, why do I say that SAG's pursuits of DVD money is going to kill DVD? Quite simply because the bureaucracy that is being hatched will choke off the ability to make DVDs to the quality consumers demand. People love those 'making of' featurettes. The bonus material is what makes a DVD in some cases. Some of you are probably saying, "So what? Studios have gluts of money. They can afford to give a piece." True, but once the cost and headache outweighs the return, studio interest in putting out DVDs will decline.

As of right now, this won't happen. DVD sales outrank box office and these discs are the only place some films make it into the black. But sales have begun to plateau. And, unlike Reaganomics, the trickle down effect is very much a reality in Hollywood. If the studios start losing money, the crafts that support them will start losing money. Runaway production is a prime example of this. It's not that studios are inherently evil (well, maybe Fox is). It's just that, in a town where unions have grown beyond protecting their members and are now bloated bureaucracies in their own right, too many end runs for the dollar can drive the money and the work away (to, say, Canada).

Allow me to give you an example of how things have already gone too far with this DVD business.

Consider the MASTERS OF HORROR docs I am producing for Anchor Bay. To discuss working with director Stuart Gordon, we licensed the use of trailers to his past films. This would enable me to illustrate what the interview subjects are talking about.

But apparently simply licensing the trailer isn't enough. I have to approach every actor that appears in the clip I take from the trailer. They have to grant permission for me to use their likeness. In return I am to pay them a SAG dictated fee on top of the licensing fee I paid the studio who owns the film (and all its contents). If the actor in the clip is dead, I either have to negotiate with their estate or pay an amount into an ESCROW that SAG controls for the purposes of paying off any relative that decides to come out of the woodwork.

Even if the clip I'm using is from a non-union film, one with no affiliation to SAG, I still have to pay. Some of those non-union actors have gone on to join SAG and, in some kind of time travel magic, that entitles them to SAG guaranteed rates for something they did back when SAG couldn't care less about them. It's amazing how much love quarterly dues gets ya'.

To avoid going through these exercises, I either have to use shots that don't feature any recognizable face (such as shots of feet or buildings) or just make a featurette out of a group of talking heads. This is very dull and one of the first reasons DVD critics will say to save your money and rent instead of buy.

For an actor who appeared in, for example, JARHEAD to be compensated when the JARHEAD DVD sells millions is part of doing business. That actor is a major reason why JARHEAD succeeded (as are all the other crew members, but you won't ever see them get a penny out of DVD sales - another conundrum for another time). The sale of another DVD that refers to JARHEAD in a historical context should not be considered the same thing unless that actor in the clip performed a re-enactment for the featurette.

That's my rant. I'm sure there are some fine points of the struggle that I may not be aware of. Please feel free to comment.

For more reading check out this article HERE. This shows how documentarians beyond DVD are being hurt by this nonsense as well.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

TRANSAMERICA... the building is bettter

As usual, I'm taking a counterposition on what many people feel is one of the year's best films. TRANSAMERICA is one of those stealth mediocrities that, due to outre subject matter like homosexuality or political grandstanding, fools people into thinking the film is any good. It happened with GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (a noble effort hampered by the fact that it lacks any context of the times it's depicting) and it happens with this Sundance darling as well.

You can read my thoughts about TRANSAMERICA HERE