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Nostalgia and the Academy Awards

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The Academy Awards are one week away and, at this point, it looks like the big winners will be the French silent movie tribute “The Artist,” the American tribute to French silent movies “Hugo,” and other films, like “The Help” and “Midnight in Paris,” set in or obsessed with the past. Clearly, this year’s Oscars are all about nostalgia. But why? In The Los Angeles Times, Neal Gabler locates the origin of this trend in the neurotic minds of Hollywood executives who, he writes, are “full of self-loathing”:

“We tend to think that the denizens of the film industry luxuriate in the popcorn movies they deliver to us, that they love the bombast that is now the primary reason people go to the movies. Indeed, the stereotype of the movie mogul is still a man or woman who cares more about money than prestige, and who boasts, as a writer once remarked of Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn when Cohn said a movie wasn’t any good because he kept wiggling in his seat, that the whole world is ‘wired to his ass.’ They are us — only richer.”

Gabler believes that as the movie industry’s offerings have gotten dumber, its need for respectability has intensified. That led to the situation we have now: where, Gabler explains, the studios pump out only two kinds of movies: blockbusters and “anti-blockbusters.” These films, like “The Artist” or “Hugo” or “War Horse” don’t just steep in the world of the past, they celebrate the past in order to denigrate the present. “The Artist,” for example, is a story about the tragedy of innovation. Its hero is a silent film actor at the top of his game. When Hollywood introduces sound, and the actor — the artist! — refuses to make the transition, he is nearly destroyed. But even more importantly, the beauty of silent film was destroyed, and it’s that beauty that “The Artist” seeks to resurrect and honor.

Gabler has certainly identified a legitimate trend amongst this year’s Academy Award nominees. He’s a smart guy too; Gabler wrote “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination,” one of the finest biographies in recent memory. But I’m not sure he’s reading this trend correctly. Is the nostalgia amongst a wide swath of 2012 Oscar nominees a reaction against mainstream Hollywood or an expansion of it?

After all, cinematic nostalgia was not simply limited to awards pictures last year: it was the predominant theme in all kinds of films. Just about everything Hollywood makes these days is indebted to something that has come before. It might be something based on an old television series or or a landmark series of books or a toy popular with children in the 1980s. Don’t forget all the prequels to sci-fi classics or comic book movies. Then there’s the big-screen adaptation of the old cartoon and the big-screen adaptation of the old cartoon and, of course, the big-screen adaptation of the old cartoon. Even so-called “original” films look like prior works, from Steven Spielberg movies to James Bond adventures. The trick is the same every time — take an existing property with a built-in fanbase and gussy it up with new effects to capture the imagination of a new audience and recapture the imagination of the old audience who loved it even before it looked good.

Gabler says that the Oscars’ “sudden burst of nostalgia” may be “a demonstration of the self-contempt of an industry that is finally tired of itself.” But the same impulse fueling a film like “War Horse” — which Gabler cites as an example of an old-fashioned anti-blockbuster — is basically the same impulse fueling a film like “Cowboys & Aliens” — a new-fangled action spectacular. Like “War Horse,” “Cowboys & Aliens” is indebted to the works of John Ford (as well as the works of other nostalgia icons like George Pal and Ray Harryhausen) — and like “War Horse” it’s also about “primal communions” between boy and father, man and horse. “War Horse” might be soppy melodrama and “Cowboys & Aliens” might be a noisy bore, but the cloth they’re cut from is not all that different. And both came from the same man: director and executive producer (respectively) Steven Spielberg.

Maybe Hollywood is full of self-loathing; in my experience, most people and most industries are. But I’m not sure the presumed popularity amongst Oscar voters of “The Artist,” “Hugo,” and others is indicative of that self-loathing. It seems equally likely that nostalgia’s Oscar dominance this year simply reflects nostalgia’s dominance across all kinds of filmmaking disciplines. Most of the nostalgic movies mentioned above were huge hits; I selected them from this list of the highest grossing films of 2011. If we looked back over the past couple years, we’d find similar results. Old is the new new. And money is still money.

What do you make of all the nostalgic films at this year’s Academy Awards? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Bourne

Bourne to Run

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Bourne Movies

Catch The Bourne Ultimatum this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

You know his name, as the Super Bowl teaser for the upcoming summer blockbuster Jason Bourne reminded us. In this era of franchise films, that seems to be more than enough to get another entry in the now 15-year-old series greenlit. And gosh darn it if we aren’t into it. Before you catch The Bourne Ultimatum on IFC, here are some surprising facts about the Bourne movies that you may not know. And unlike Jason Bourne, try not to forget them.


10. Matt Damon was a long shot to play Jason Bourne.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Coming off of Good Will Hunting and The Legend of Bagger Vance, early ’00s Matt Damon didn’t exactly scream “ripped killing machine.” In fact, Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe and even Sylvester Stallone were all offered the part before it fell into the hands of the Boston boy made good. It was his enthusiasm for director Doug Liman’s more frenetic vision that ultimately helped land him the part.


9. Love interest Marie was almost played by Sarah Polley.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Damon wasn’t the only casting surprise. Franka Potente, of Run Lola Run fame, wasn’t the filmmaker’s first choice for the role or Marie in The Bourne Identity. In fact, Liman wanted his Go star Sarah Polley for the part, but she turned it down in favor of making indie movies back in Canada. A quick rewrite changed the character from American Marie Purcell to European Marie Helena Kreutz, and the rest is movie history.


8. Director Doug Liman was obsessed with the Bourne books.

Universal Picutres

Universal Pictures

Liman had long been a fan of the Bourne book series. When Warner Bros.’ rights to the books lapsed in the late ’90s, Liman flew himself to author Robert Ludlum’s Montana home, mere days after earning his pilot’s license. The author was so impressed with his passion for the material, he sold the rights on the spot.


7. Liman’s father actually worked for the NSA.

Universal Picutres

Universal Pictures

Part of Liman’s fasciation with the Bourne series was that his own father played the same spy craft games portrayed in the books while working for the NSA. In fact, many of the Treadstone details were taken from his father’s own exploits, and Chris Cooper’s character, Alex Conklin, was based on Oliver Stone, whom Arthur Liman famously cross examined as chief counsel of the Iran-Contra hearings.


6. Tony Gilroy threw the novel’s story out while writing The Bourne Identity.

Universal Picutres

Universal Picutres

Despite being based on a hit book, screenwriter Tony Gilroy, coming off of The Devil’s Advocate, had no idea how to adapt it into a movie. He said the book was more concerned with people “running to airports” than character, and would need a complete rewrite. Director Doug Liman agreed, and Gilroy claims to have condensed the original novel into the first five minutes. Getting that out of the way, he then wrote his own story, based on a man who wakes up one day not remembering anything but how to kill.


5. Damon walked like a boxer to get into character.

Universal Picutres

Universal Picutres

Damon had never played a character like Bourne before, and was searching for a way to capture his physicality. Doug Liman told him to walk like a boxer to give Jason Bourne an edge. Damon took that to heart, training for six months in boxing, marital arts and firearms.


4. Damon broke an actor’s nose.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Damon’s training for the films is legendary, but mistakes still happen. While filming a scene for The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon hit actor Tim Griffin so hard, he shattered his nose. Apparently, the space the scene was filmed in was smaller than originally intended, throwing Damon off just enough to exert a real beat down.


3. James Bond visited The Bourne Legacy set.

Eon Productions

Eon Productions

Actor Daniel Craig stopped by the set of The Bourne Legacy to visit his wife, actress Rachel Weisz, who was starring in the movie. While having James Bond on a Bourne set must have been exciting, The Bourne Legacy was the only Bourne movie to not actually feature Jason Bourne, meaning our bets on who would kick whose ass would have to wait for another day.


2. The Bourne Identity was nearly a bomb (in the box office sense).

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

As reshoots began to pile up, and an all-out war between the studio and director Doug Liman spilled into the press, expectations were that The Bourne Identity was going to flop. Matt Damon told GQ that, “the word on Bourne was that it was supposed to be a turkey…It’s very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and it’s good.”


1. Matt Damon wasn’t the first actor to play Bourne.

Warner Brothers Television

Warner Brothers Television

Aired on ABC in 1988, the TV movie adaptation of The Bourne Identity, while not exactly critically acclaimed, was a more faithful version of Ludlum’s book. Richard Chamberlain, of The Thorn Birds fame, played a much less ass-kicking spy, while “Charlie’s Angel” Jaclyn Smith played love interest Marie. If you like your Bourne movies heavy with poorly lit ’80s melodrama, this might just be the adaptation for you. Otherwise, you should catch The Bourne Ultimatum when it airs this month on IFC.

This Movie Makes No Sense: “Cars 2″

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Earlier this week at a press junket for “John Carter,” Disney producer Lindsey Collins suggested that a Pixar backlash was to blame for “Cars 2″‘s lack of an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. “I think it had the fact that Pixar has dominated going against it,” Collins told Movieline. “At a certain point there was going to be somebody who was going to take the fall a little bit. It was going to be like, ‘Eh, we don’t like that one.’”

Was there a Pixar backlash? Perhaps. It definitely felt like a few critics took an undue amount of glee in finally getting an opportunity to savage a film from the vaunted Pixar Animation Studios. In their sixteen year history making animated feature films prior to “Cars 2,” Pixar had never received a negative score on Rotten Tomatoes. Even 2006’s “Cars” — supposedly “the bad Pixar movie” according to some critics — earned a respectable 74% on the movie review aggregator. But if critics were lukewarm on the first film in the series, they were bitterly cold on its sequel, which ultimately wound up with a rotten 39% Tomatometer rating. The reviews were scathing, a veritable festival of anti-pull-quotes. “A mess!” declared the Associated Press. “Surprisingly tedious!” moaned ReelViews. “Utterly ordinary!” kvetched The New Orleans Times-Picayune.

If you’re looking for someone to refute the bad vibes, to explain how everyone missed the boat and why “Cars 2″ is a misunderstood masterpiece, you’re parking in the wrong garage. “Cars 2″ is a mess, and its plot is, at times, surprisingly tedious. It is easily the worst film ever produced by the animation wizards at Pixar. It’s not, however, “utterly ordinary.” In fact, “Cars 2″ is a bit more interesting — and a whole lot weirder — than you’ve heard. Ordinary? A film about sentient automobiles existing on a planet exactly like our own except for its total lack of human life, engaged in auto racing (a sensible occupation for cars) and international espionage (a less sensible one)? A film with car toilets and car bidets and car food and car sleeping gas? Sorry, no ordinary film makes this little sense.

Of course, the living, (apparently) breathing cars first appeared in the original “Cars,” directed, like its sequel, by head Pixar honcho John Lasseter. But they invited less questions that time around. “Cars” was largely confined to the comings and goings of a sleepy town called Radiator Springs, where a race car named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) got stranded on his way to the big finale of the NASCAR-ish Piston Cup. Though inspired by a Lasseter family vacation along the old Route 66, Radiator Springs was an entirely fictitious setting. It felt divorced enough from our own reality to let the inherent strangeness of its premise — a universe of cars without humans who, according to my vague recollections of elementary school social studies, were the ones who invented cars in the first place — slide. Anthropomorphic cars. Fine.

The expanded setting and more complicated plot of “Cars 2,” though, make the larger implications of this world harder to ignore. This time out, Lightning is invited to participate in the World Grand Prix, with races all over the globe. While in Tokyo for the first leg of the WGP, Lightning’s dopey sidekick Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) gets mistaken for an American spy by British secret agent Finn McMissle (Michael Caine). While Lightning drives through the World Grand Prix, Mater participates in a series of James Bond-style chases and “car-ate” fights to protect the world from evildoers who wish to interrupt the races and discredit its sponsor, a new alternative fuel source named Allinol.

If the cars are searching for an alternative fuel source, then they must be using a non-alternative fuel source — and, sure enough, “Cars 2″‘s opening sequence, inspired by the pre-credits adventures of 007 in thrillers like “The Spy Who Loved Me,” follows Finn McMissile as he sneaks aboard an enormous off-shore drilling platform. In other words: the cars of “Cars” need gas. Fair enough; but if cars need gas to run, and the gas needs to be sucked out of the ground just like it does in our reality, how did the cars function before they built their first oil wells?

Exactly what the cars need to survive is massively confusing in general. The cars require gas (or Allinol), but they can also apparently eat as well, ingesting foodstuffs through the enormous cartoon mouths on their front bumpers (their mouths also sport teeth and tongues, which must freak out potheads when they watch this movie). The World Grand Prix’s launch party in Japan features a free food buffet, including wasabi that Mater mistakes for pistachio ice cream. As you might expect, Mater eats too much and is sent scrambling for water. The existence of wasabi means the existence of organic foods which would be unnecessary (or impossible) in a world without humans or animals. Then again, Mater mistakes wasabi for pistachio ice cream, which implies the existence of ice cream, which implies the existence of cows. But where are they? Who milks them? And how?

Cars need to make pit stops just like humans do, but still, it’s a bit unsettling to learn the cars use bathrooms like the one Mater patronizes in “Cars 2.” During the aforementioned Japan sequence, Mater begins “leaking” and dashes off to the lavatory. You might expect a car’s bathroom to look like a car wash, but no, a car’s public restroom looks exactly like a human one, right down to the mirrors and sinks (even though the cars don’t have hands to wash in them).

Mater uses a toilet stall and gets roughed up by a parody of Japanese “Super Toilets” that include high-tech features like bidets and heated seats. Lasseter has said in interviews that “Cars 2″ was inspired by the international press tour for “Cars 1,” and it seems likely that he himself might have had a bewildering altercation with a crazily elaborate Japanese toilet. But that still leaves me wondering: WHY DOES A CAR NEED TO USE THE GODDAMN BATHROOM?

Let’s talk about God for a second. The cars seem to have one, as a race in Italy is attended by The Popemobile. During a stopover in Paris, we also see Notre Dame Cathedral which sports clever “car-goyle” statues amongst its spires and arches. These are all clever visual jokes, but the film doesn’t dwell on them, probably because if it did you’d start to think about them, and when you start to think about them the whole thing falls apart. If God created man — or cars — in his own image, that would seem to suggest God, at least in this batshit crazy universe, is a car too (probably a Lamborghini).

Here’s another one that stumped me. The final leg of the World Grand Prix is in London, where the Queen is both a spectator and the potential target of Finn McMissile’s enemies. Eventually, the heroes defeat the villains, and Mater gets knighted by a thankful Queen. A Queen car! So there’s car royalty! How does that work? The English royal bloodline goes back centuries — does the English car royal bloodline work the same way? If it goes back even two or three generations, that’s before the invention of cars. Was Queen Crown Victoria, say, a horse-drawn carriage? Did the cars evolve from lesser forms of transportation? How does Darwin fit in here? If all of human history played out basically as it did in Cars Land, what did Ancient Greece look like? Or the American Civil War?

So many questions. I’ve spent so much time dwelling on the larger theological and political implications of a world of cars I haven’t even mentioned the more practical puzzlers, like the strange choices surrounding which characters returned from the first “Cars” for the sequel. If Doc Hudson was killed off in deference to the passing of his voice, Paul Newman, why did they recast George Carlin’s character Fillmore? It all makes no sense.

Actually, while this movie makes no sense to me, an alleged adult, it might make perfect sense to a child. Kids, after all, routinely anthropomorphize their toy cars with nary a thought to rationality or continuity. The charmingly human world of “Cars” speaks to a child’s logic even as it confounds an adult’s. That’s why this series has become Pixar’s second-most successful franchise and a huge cashcow for Disney even though it’s never connected with parents in the same way more respected and literate Pixar films like “WALL-E” and “Up” did. It may not have earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, but I’m sure in the universe of “Cars” it would have won every single award given to movies. And the statuettes would have been shaped like the open source car — or OSCar for short. Just don’t ask why.

What part of “Cars 2″ makes the least amount of sense? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

The rise of the film critic filmmaker

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The line between film critic and film maker has always been a blurry one. “Battleship Potemkin” director Sergei Eisenstein wrote essays and books about the language of motion pictures that continue to be studied by film students to this day. Many of the biggest figures of the French New Wave, from Jean-Luc Godard to Francois Truffaut, were first writers for the magazine “Cahiers du Cinema.” The same was true of the leaders of the New Hollywood era, where Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader crossed over from writer to critic. Even the great critic Pauline Kael took a job as an executive at Paramount Pictures for a short time.

Through all of that, though, there was still a bit of a divide. You could write a piece of film criticism, or you could make a film, but it was very difficult to do both. Now, that seems to be changing. We’re witnessing the rise of the film critic filmmaker.

Arguably the most famous film critic filmmaker, and certainly the spiritual father to this new marriage between film commentary and film production is still almost entirely anonymous. In 2001, this faceless, nameless editor took George Lucas‘ cut of “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” — which, in an interesting bit of timing, is coming back to theaters this Friday in a new, 3D print — and excised almost twenty minutes from the film, removing most of the scenes featuring characters like Jar Jar Binks and Anakin Skywalker that fans of the original “Star Wars” trilogy hated. He called it “Episode 1.1 – The Phantom Edit,” and he was so scared of reprisals from Lucasfilm that he credited himself only as “The Phantom Editor.” This all took place so long ago that the project was initially considered by many to be nothing more than an urban legend. Those who saw it, at least at first, did so on dubbed VHS tapes. Just a decade later, it’s astonishing how much has changed.

The Phantom Editor did eventually out himself as Mike J. Nichols, a Hollywood film cutter who’s worked on movies like the Billy Joel concert documentary “The Last Play at Shea.” But that came much later. Nowadays, film critic filmmakers don’t need to hide behind assumed identities. A few are even gaining recognition from sources outside the echo chamber of the Internet. One of the most well-received films at last month’s Sundance Film Festival was “Room 237,” a feature length examination of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” The documentary, by director Rodney Ascher (not, say, “Mr. Redrum”), explores the myriad interpretations of Kubrick’s work and features film (or conspiracy) theorists explaining how “The Shining” might actually be a story about the genocide of Native Americans or an admission of guilt on the part of the director for getting involved in the “fake” Apollo 11 moon landing. Though Ascher interviewed all these people, he illustrates their arguments and comments with footage from “The Shining” and other Kubrick films. For that reason alone, the film will almost certainly be impossible to release in a typical, commercial way. But the fact that a film that a decade ago would almost certainly have been met with skepticism or fast and dirty lawsuits played at Sundance at all is an important marker of the progress of film critic filmmakers on the road to artistic legitimacy.

A similarly audacious project was launched last week on the Indiewire blog Press Play by film critic filmmaker Peet Gelderblom. His “Raising Cain Re-cut” is a “Phantom Edit”-style revision of Brian De Palma’s 1992 film “Raising Cain.” As Gelderblom explains in an essay that accompanies his “Re-cut,” De Palma was never fully satisfied with the structure of his film and, exasperated in the editing room, he radically revised his initial conception of the picture during post-production. Gelderblom decided to take the theatrical version of “Raising Cain” and restore it to something closer to the director’s original vision. At least for now, you can watch the entire “Raising Cain Re-cut” in this embedded video.

Raising Cain Re-cut from Press Play Video Blog on Vimeo.

To get the full effect of Gelderblom’s work, I rewatched De Palma’s “Raising Cain” over the weekend and then dove immediately into the “Re-Cut” version. In my (non-filmmaker) film critic opinion, he’s done as good a job as seems possible with the material he had to work with. In interviews, De Palma stressed that his reason for making “Cain” was not (SPOILER ALERT) to tell the story of a crazy dude with multiple personalities, but really to delve into a romantic melodrama involving the crazy dude’s wife, who cheats on her husband in a surreal swirl of dreams and nightmares. In the theatrical version, John Lithgow’s Carter is established first — and established as a nutjob — before we ever meet his wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich). Gelderblom’s biggest adjustment is to start with Jenny, and to keep Carter as a background character through the first twenty minutes of the film. Right after Jenny has succumbed to a series of fantasies (or perhaps true adulterous encounters) Carter surprises her by strangling her, seemingly to death.

There’s one major downside to Gelderblom’s version, namely that this protagonist fake-out makes “Raising Cain” look even more like a “Psycho” knock-off than it already did. But otherwise, his conceit works, and makes a certain amount of sense, too. Davidovich’s character is having a hard time telling the difference between dream and reality and all of a sudden her husband tries to kill her; which, at first, seems like another possible layer of dream. The “Re-cut”‘s biggest problem is that Gelderblom only has the original theatrical cut to play with — and his version could use at least a few more scenes of seeming domestic bliss between Jenny and Carter to really sell the big reveal, as well a a clearer transition between Carter’s attempted murder of Jenny and the flashback to the beginning of his wicked deeds.

All in all, though, it’s a very interesting effort. And while he hasn’t spoken publicly about it, I imagine De Palma would approve, if not with the execution then at least with the conception. After all, De Palma was, on some level, a sort of prehistoric ancestor to the modern film critic filmmaker. Few directors know more about the movies than De Palma, and few deploy that knowledge more explicitly in their work. His movies were sort of remixes before the rise of remix culture. “Blow Out” combines elements of “Blow Up” and “The Conversation” with the conspiracy around the Kennedy assassination (not to mention Chappaquiddick). “Body Double” is a bit of “Vertigo” and a bit of “Rear Window” with a dash of some Hitchcockian Wrong Man thrillers as well. And “Raising Cain,” of course, with its cross-dressing, multiple-personality-afflicted protagonist, owes a fair share to “Psycho.” You wonder whether De Palma sees these film critic filmmakers and imagines what his own career would look like if he’d come of age today. It might be enough to drive a man crazy.

What do you think of the rise of film critic filmmakers? Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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