Sunday, September 21, 2014

FIVE STORIES FROM THE FILM INDUSTRY THAT LEFT ME FLABBERGASTED THIS WEEK


If you think it’s been a confounding couple of weeks with a new war in the Middle East, Scotland voting “no” on separation, and all the NFL domestic violence issues, they were equally troublesome in Hollywood. Granted, much of what I am writing about today does not reach the level of drama as those more important stories, but nonetheless, the following five items left me flabbergasted.
 
Olympian soccer star Hope Solo
WHY CAN’T THEY CATCH THE HOLLYWOOD HACKER?

Can’t they nab the jerk who’s assaulting women online with his release of their most intimate photos he’s stolen? I wrote about this a few weeks ago (http://bit.ly/1rJGLLN), and it strikes me that this might be an inside job at Apple or the NSA. How is this creep able to hack into over a hundred accounts? Apple blocks anyone after three mistaken password guesses, so how did he hack all those celebs so easily?

Well, now he’s dropped a second round of hacked photos from various iCloud accounts and the FBI or Apple still don’t seem to have an UNSUB (unknown suspect) in their sites. Seriously, with all our NSA spying and CIA eavesdropping capabilities, how was this allowed to happen twice in as many weeks? I feel especially sorry for soccer star Hope Solo. She sure didn’t need her candid shots exposed like they were when her week already was awful due to her domestic violence charges remaining in the news.


WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON WITH JOHNNY DEPP?

Can Johnny Depp play real people anymore? In the 2014 thriller  TRANSCENDENCE he played a virtual human being, and now in TUSK, an otherwise good horror movie, he gives a performance that would graciously be called a caricature. It’s so over-the-top hammy that it ruins the last third of the movie. Time was Depp could make normal people interesting like in WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE or DONNIE BRASCO, but those days seem long ago now compared to all the wigs, putty noses, and goofy accents he’s trotted out for films like CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

Gene Wilder created his Wonka without changing his looks or voice, but Depp seems to lately be feeling the need to act with a capital A. I still am a fan, but it’s getting awfully hard to remain so these days.
Julianne Moore in the yet to be released STILL ALICE.
WHY SO MANY OBSESSIVE OSCAR PREDICTIONS?

Websites like GoldDerby.com and Sasha Stone’s AwardsDaily.com exist to predict and pontificate over movies and their accolade potential. But this week, Gold Derby’s panel of awards prognosticators almost unanimously declared that Julianne Moore would finally win her Oscar for the yet-to-be-released STILL ALICE (http://bit.ly/1p8Di2L). Elsewhere, others are as certain about Steve Carrell’s chances as Best Actor for FOXCATCHER, a film only festival attendees have seen.

Look, I love a good horse race as much as the next movie fan, but some pundits’ certitude borders on asinine. I remember how so many thought Matthew McConaughey was a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination two years ago for MAGIC MIKE. Some practically were trying to will it to happen. It didn’t, of course, though MM did take Best Actor the next year for DALLAS BUYERS CLUB.

The problem is that these 'expert sites' are potentially robbing some chances of films before they’re even seen. Even worse, some voters just read these sites and vote accordingly with what's said without honoring their responsibilities as Academy members to judge things for themselves. I’d love to see Carrell win, or Michael Keaton, or Benedict Cumberbatch, or Eddie Redmayne, but I’d like to see their movies in contention first before the game is called "over".


THE DOMESTIC BOX OFFICE IS DOWN SO THAT MEANS MORE MOVIES NEED TO BE MADE TO PLAY IN CHINA?

In the Hollywood Reporter this week, some studio executives said that because American audiences are unreliable, that put more pressure than ever to create tent pole movies that play overseas, particularly in China. Ah, no. Here’s the way to make more movies that play at home and abroad. Make better ones. Make more original ones. Stop with so many sequels, reboots and superhero sagas. As David Fincher said, superhero movies are boring because we know the stories and we know the hero will prevail. Stories succeed best when they keep the audience in rapt attention and uncertain of what's to come next. If we get ahead of the story, we’ll become bored. That’s why the nation’s 2014 box office has been so tepid. Too much Wolverine, and not enough wow.


WHY DO YA TITLES HAVE TO BE SO DEPRESSING?

This weekend THE MAZE RUNNER kicked ass with a weekend gross of 32 million. A lot of teens, particularly young girls, showed up for this one, as they have for THE HUNGER GAMES, DIVERGENT and of course the entire run of mediocre TWILIGHT movies. But all of these stories are downers. Even the excellent THE FAULT IN OUR STARS was about terminal cancer, for heaven’s sake! And the theme of teenagers trapped in a dystopian society with few choices or pre-ordained tracks they're forced to take, seem so one-note to me. And not really a reflection of today's times. I know college degrees don’t mean much these days, the 1% are still too few of the population, and the world is filled with more and more chaos and strife, but I’d think younger people would gravitate towards something less depressing in lieu of such realities. Can't movies be Xanax or Zoloft?

Monday, September 8, 2014

JACK THE RIPPER UNMASKED? HOLD UP THERE, INSPECTOR ABBERLINE!


The Internet went crazy today with the news that Jack the Ripper, the late 19th century’s most infamous serial killer, might have been positively identified through some new DNA work. Of course, most news sources didn’t exactly stress the word might. Instead, they breathlessly exclaimed that it was a definitive fact. It isn’t. Not just yet anyway. And frankly, we’ve been down this road before.

A high-tech DNA technology called ‘vacuuming’ has supposedly named Aaron Kosminski, a 23-year-old Polish immigrant at the time during Jack’s terror in the fall of 1888 London, as the likely culprit. Kosminski has been the number one suspect for some time now. Ripperologist Martin Fido thinks so, and has for decades. So do most of those following the case at Casebook.org, the definitive website for all things JTR (http://bit.ly/1ufTDYV).
The new story that is getting all the ink today started in 2007, when Russell Edwards of the UK, purchased a bloodstained shawl at a Suffolk auction. It was advertised as belonging to one of the killer’s victims, Catherine Eddowes. The shawl was discovered next to the Eddowes’ mutilated corpse. Edwards, a policeman, gave it to his wife as a gift but apparently she didn’t appreciate his dark sense of humor.
Potential Ripper? Aaron Kosminski?

He discovered that it still had blood stains on it, so he kept it intact, and has since been trying to find a way to determine if it was the blood of Eddowes or the Ripper. Well, a few years ago, there were advances in DNA testing that could test dilapidated materials, so Edwards had his shawl tested. He also had DNA swabs taken from a descendant of Kosminski. Supposedly, it is a virtual match. And he is certain that he's nailed the killer.

Sadly, we’ve been down similar paths before, what with the London Times accusing businessman James Maybrick as the culprit two decades ago as they ran the “Diary of Jack the Ripper” for a week. That 'evidence' turned out to be baloney, a total hoax, and the forgery was definitively disproven and the Times was left with a greatly tattered reputation. 
And then of course, pulp author Patricia Cornwell famously fingered artist Walter Sickert in 2002 as ‘saucy Jack’ but her book “Portrait of a Killer” was discredited before the galleys were dry. Thus, the Casebook site itself is recommending extreme caution. What may be right and wrong with the ‘evidence’ is discerned here: http://bit.ly/1q8MCJ4.
So, why am I writing about this on a movie blog? Well, I’m actually a bit of an armchair detective about the case myself, having read a dozen books on the matter, and attended a Ripper conference or two as well. Plus, the story of Jack has had an interesting if somewhat repetitious telling by Hollywood, and I thought I’d share some thoughts on how the criminal case has been portrayed in movies. 
Johnny Depp in FROM HELL (2001)
Despite the perennial popularity of the crime, and one person's hypothesis being as good as the next, there haven't been a lot of attempts at telling the story in Hollywood. The most high profile one that most people know is that of FROM HELL (2001). It starred Johnny Depp as Victorian Era Ripper detective Fred Abbeline. It was tense and exciting, but was a bit short on substance, and frankly, it glossed over a lot of the case. Sure, it indicted the Royal Family as being behind the killings, to protect Prince Eddie's penchant for ladies of the evening, but unless you were really versed in the case, most of the story here probably sailed over your head. 
Michael Caine played Abberline too in a respectable TV movie adaption done for British television in 1988. It was pulpy but took the case seriously, and tried to examine the hysteria of the killings in their time. 
Alfred Hitchcock famously did a take on the story, albeit with new names and plot points, way back in 1927 with THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG. It was a silent, black and white film that called its villain “The Avenger!” (Take that, Tony Stark!)
David Warner as "Jack" in TIME AFTER TIME (1979)
The great David Warner memorably played Jack the Ripper who uses H.G. Wells’ time machine to escape to a modern day San Francisco in the luridly entertaining TIME AFTER TIME in 1979. Malcolm McDowell met Mary Steenburgen while making it, and married her afterwards. And he was quite funny and finicky in a rare good guy role.
There have been a few more since. THE LODGER was remade in 2009, as a modern Ripper was imitating his predecessor. It starred Alfred Molina, Hope Davis and Simon Baker of THE MENTALIST fame, but it wasn’t particularly good, thus it went quickly to home video.  
This year, PENNY DREADFUL, John Logan’s macabre horror series on Showtime, mentioned Jack the Ripper a couple of times in its bloody cocktail mix of vampires, Frankenstein and devil possession, but it doesn’t appear to be a plot thread that will be carried out in the second season. A better take on the Ripper was done by British television with its series RIPPER STREET the last couple of years. That show not only made a lot of hay out of the elusiveness of the Ripper, but also suggested his example set off even more horrific crimes following his reign of terror those few short autumnal months. 
Perhaps now the latest Kosminksi news will open up the door for some further evaluations of the world’s most famous serial killer in the entertainment world. I think a real thriller might exist about the modern day hunt for Jack, and all the competing amateurs out there insisting they know who he really was. It would probably make for a great dark comedy.
Still, if you’re looking for something satisfactory about the Ripper on film, might I suggest MURDER BY DECREE? It’s a 1979 Canadian thriller done by Bob Clarke, and it stars Christopher Plummer and James Mason. No, the incomparable Plummer does not render the Ripper for the big screen. Instead, he plays Sherlock Holmes in a mash-up of saucy Jack and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (BTW…Mason made for a slyly observant and slightly befuddled Watson in it. It's one of the better good doctor's committed to film.)
The story, like that of FROM HELL, treads through the Royal Conspiracy terrain. And what a doozy that idea is, suggesting that Queen Victoria’s son Prince Edward got a prostitute pregnant, and the prostitutes who knew were killed to protect the Monarchy. The idea of having Holmes on the case was ingenious and almost painfully obvious. The Holmes stories existed in the same time period as Jack, and the only real surprise is that Doyle himself didn’t try to create a fiction of it himself.
Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes in pursuit of the Ripper in MURDER BY DECREE (1979)
Of course, Holmes figures out not only whodunit but also howdunnit, but more importantly, he adds an element of moral clarity to the whole shebang. As political officials sweep it under the rug to protect the Royals, as well as the class system so crucial to England, Holmes scolds a select committee about their complicity. He tells them off, well, royally. If you think Plummer exhibited power and fortitude as Captain Von Trapp, wait until you see him admonishing a room full of stuffed shirts as a bold and heroic Holmes. He’s mesmerizing.

As is the case of the Ripper. It may never be solved. But it’s ceaselessly fascinating and therefore tremendously entertaining. Let’s just hope if Kosminski is proven to be the definitive villain that it yields some fresh takes on the material. After all, ol’ Jack could use some new blood.

Monday, September 1, 2014

ON THE HACKING OF HOLLYWOOD, THE ILLUSION OF PRIVACY AND ONLINE SEXISM


By now, most of you have heard about the hacking scandal that is rocking Hollywood right now. Some scumbag hacked into the iCloud accounts of hundreds of female celebrities yesterday and released dozens of photos of their most intimate and private shots online. Jennifer Lawrence, Kirsten Dunst, and Alison Brie are just three of the big names exposed in the first dump and the perpetrator has apparently promised to release similar nude shots of hundreds of more female celebrities, everyone from Rihanna to Cat Deeley.  To hack that many private accounts would seem to require some NSA-level skill, so hopefully the authorities can find this thief and ensure he gets the just punishment he deserves for all the damage he’s done. And before he’s able to do more.

Many of the stars’ lawyers, like those of Lawrence, have promised lawsuits, and indeed, the law is getting better about fighting back against such cyber crimes. The hacker who released a half dozen of Scarlett Johansson’s nude photos he stole from her cell in 2011 was sentenced to 10 years. And other such invasions of privacy, from the “revenge porn” release of nude shots of ex-wives or girlfriends to pirated sex tapes, are receiving swifter and heavier punishment these days. That’s very, very encouraging.

The problem though is more than just finding the hackers and throwing the book at them. The real issue is how do you put a genie back into the bottle once it’s gotten out. Sure, it’s great that Johansson’s perpetrator is in jail, but her photos are still out there, everywhere, all too easily found at every corner of the web. Can Johansson ever truly be vindicated with such exploitation still going on?

Likewise, the shots of Lawrence, Dunst and others are already being passed around from gossip sites to porn sites to personal emails. Even if they catch the jerk that released the photos, how do we stop the networking and trafficking of the shots? Fuzzy international boundaries and different countries’ laws will make it even harder to retrieve the shots. So does that mean that Jennifer Lawrence will have to deal with the pictures that were only intended for her boyfriend’s eyes, remaining in the public domain for the rest of her career? Yes, all too likely. 

Thus, there are five, inescapable conclusions from such matters. I hate to list them, but here they are:

ONLINE PRIVACY IS AN ILLUSION

And it particularly is for celebrities. Even with all their status, millions, agents, lawyers and bodyguards, celebs really have no privacy. It’s a shame, but everyone who becomes a star in Hollywood has got to realize that they can, and more likely will, be fodder for all kinds of lurid news and gossip. And in this modern world, that means, “Watch all that you do”. Despite their attempts to hide from the paparazzi, or keep certain things private, there is little chance for such pipe dreams in this modern era.  There are simply too many bottom feeders out there willing to do anything to make a buck, and if that means taking whatever picture they can, they will. Even if they have to steal it from your iCloud.  

THOSE WHO SEXT, PLAY WITH FIRE

Everyone should know by now that any nude picture or sext message can be hacked. Heck, any picture or message could easily fall into the wrong hands. Anything you send in an email or text can be stolen, retrieved, manipulated or used against you. Sign up for the new Facebook messenger app and it looks like it's going to get access to not only your list of friends and likes, but your cellphone's camera and microphone too. The new Adobe Flash player is asking for similar access to your computer when you install it. They want to know as much info about you as possible so they can target you with precise news and ads. That also means they get access to anything you might be saying or doing while using your cell, tablet or computer too. Scary, but true.

THE INTERNET IS THE WILD WEST

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum wasted months debating women’s personal access to birth control during the 2012 election. They should’ve been arguing about the blurred lines of everyone's access to personal data and online information. The wild, wild web still has yet to be a real political issue, but it will soon. As cyber crime, online bullying, hacking, and identity theft continue to increase in numbers, the world’s leaders will have to start addressing the modern world. But right now, it’s still too lawless, unchecked, and untamed.

MOST OF US ARE ONLINE ILLITERATE

“No one understands the Cloud!” Jason Segal yelled at Cameron Diaz in this summer’s romantic comedy SEX TAPE about a married couple’s tryst on tape that went viral. That line shouldn’t have gotten the big laugh it does in the film because it’s actually quite terrifying. Most of us really don’t know how our information is stored and shared. The NSA is scarcely regulated. Social media shares way too much. And firewalls and Clouds can be easily compromised, even in big companies. Knowledge is power, and most of us have very little of either when we’re online.

WE STILL LIVE IN A SHOCKINGLY SEXIST WORLD

You know what that hacker did to Lawrence, Dunst and the others? He assaulted them. Truly, it’s a version of sexual assault. And sadly, even the brave new world of the information age doesn’t seem too far off of the Stone Age. Isn’t it strange how you never hear about any male star nude photos being hacked and shared everywhere? There are too many awful men who will find new ways to exploit and bully women. And in doing so, women will continue to be suckerpunched.


It goes without saying that the digital age can be wonderful. It’s given us so much information that we never dreamed possible with its news, encyclopedias, stores, streaming, and social platforms. But sometimes it goes too far. And it sure the hell did yesterday.

Monday, August 25, 2014

FIVE WAYS HBO'S TRUE BLOOD SHOWED SOME REAL TEETH DURING ITS SEVEN SEASONS ON TV


TRUE BLOOD finished its run on HBO yesterday, August 25, and if its finale was a letdown, well, so was the entire last season. Arguably, the once stellar horror series hadn’t had the same bite the last couple of years. There were too many characters, too much silliness, and not enough scares. Still, it was a show that made horror both a critical and ratings success on television. And it paved the way for THE WALKING DEAD and AMERICAN HORROR STORY to follow. In fact, TRUE BLOOD did five extraordinary things that should be remembered in the series’ final analysis. (They're certainly appreciated by me, the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner http://exm.nr/VOzMlz.)


Vampires were dimensionalized as never before

The vampires shown on TRUE BLOOD weren’t villains. They were multi-dimensional characters. Some were good, some bad. Some old, others were young’uns. These vamps proved that those with fangs could be straight, campy, city slicker or bumpkin. And they had rich, lengthy backstories and depth, which made them seem more human than ever before.

On TRUE BLOOD, vampires were people, not monsters, not too different from you and me. And they were never mere antagonists, even when they were being bad. Both lead male vamps, Bill and Eric for example, were incredibly complicated men. Sometimes selfish, more often generous, and played with nuance by Stephen Moyer and Alexander Skarsgard, respectively. Overall, the show did a marvelous job of turning the too often one-dimensional archetype into something truly multifaceted and fascinating.


The South did rise again…from the dead

Few shows tread south of the Mason Dixon, but TRUE BLOOD did. And it did it wholeheartedly.  Show creator Alan Ball adapted Charlaine Harris’ “Southern Vampire Mysteries” and gave it more southern flavor than a rural church picnic. TRUE BLOOD embraced its Louisiana setting and all of the region’s language, customs and quirkiness. Even its Emmy-nominated credit sequence was chock full of dried possum skins, river baptisms, and juke joint trysting. TRUE BLOOD was always true blue to its red state culture.


The horror truly pushed the envelope of violence

You expect horror to have violence, but TRUE BLOOD let the river run red with blood. Shows like GAME OF THRONES and THE WALKING DEAD couldn’t be as gory as they are now if “True Blood” hadn’t set such a stage for it. Never before had so many deaths occurred on a weekly basis. Necks were cut to ribbons. Bodies blew apart. And everyone got soaked in crimson.  The show was never one for the squeamish, but here, even vampire tears were filled with plasma. Sometimes all that violence was so over-the-top it became hilarious. But more often than not, it was disturbing as hell. Just like good horror should be.


The show had a ton of strong female characters

Few of the edgier dramas on TV, even premium channels like HBO and Showtime, were as dominated by strong female characters. And they weren’t lawyers, doctors or businesswomen who are usually shown wielding such power on TV. Here, the strongest character was Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a hash-house waitress. Vampire Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten) was an equal to Eric, and she quickly became one of the show’s most important players and a fan favorite. And the show had vivid, strong supporting characters in Tara (Rutina Wesley), Arlene (Carrie Preston), and ingénue Jessica (the invaluable Deborah Ann Woll).

Even the key villains during the first three of the seven seasons were women – Michelle Forbes, Anna Camp and Fiona Shaw. In fact, the only real bimbo on the show was a ‘himbo’ – Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten). The show’s only real dumb blond was that hunk, and he was a hilarious riff on all the sex object stereotypes that went before him.


The show was a metaphor for civil rights

Horror films are often metaphors for all kind of social issues. Everything from the threat of communism (THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS in 1956) to the rampant spread of sexually transmitted disease (RABID in 1977) has been portrayed in the genre. And TRUE BLOOD was all that and more. It unabashedly made the case for civil rights at every turn. The governing idea of the show was always the struggle of vampires acclimating into normal human society. The advent of a synthetic blood (‘the Tru Blood’) rendered their need to feast on humans obsolete, but that didn’t put the kibosh on fear, resentment or trepidation on either side. The vampire struggle was a metaphor writ large about fighting discrimination based upon race, sex and sexual orientation. Ultimately, the show was a ringing endorsement of tolerance for every soul from every walk of life. Even the, ahem, undead.

It’s a shame that last night’s final episode opted for such a hasty conclusion to its Yakuza storyline. Bill’s long goodbye with Sookie was too talky and corny. And the big marriage of Jessica and Hoyt felt far too traditional for a show that so often played as a hedonistic fever dream. Sadly, the entire last season felt like one long cast reunion as well, and it’s unfortunate that the show went out with such brazen sentimentality. This show was never better than when it fought all those traditional kinds of story points. It was best when it skewered such clichés.


Nonetheless, TRUE BLOOD was once a revolutionary show, as well as appointment television on a Sunday night. It was a shocking, outrageous and hugely entertaining dramedy during its first five seasons. The show did amazing things for the horror genre, HBO’s roster, and the way we think and talk about sex, race and politics. It wanted to do ‘bad things with you’ as its theme song went. And for the most part, it did. And it felt ridiculously good.