Screen Shots: Wolverine, Ghosts of Girlfriends, Disney Shorts

The thoroughly confusing, cheesy and contradictory tentpole picture, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, has some entertaining moments and its less-than-spectacular execution is the fault of neither of its leading men, Academy Awards host Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber (The Painted Veil). Blending story aspects of The Incredible Hulk, The Bourne Identity, Rambo—even Shooter—the contradictions mount as Jackman’s superwolf comics character is explained from 1845 to present day: his blades spring to attention without the requisite trigger of his anger and he ages despite being immortal—then he inexplicably stops aging sometime around the U.S. Civil War. Wolverine, battling evil, doesn’t have much of a personality, let alone a sense of purpose, despite having over a hundred years to acquire one. The origins of his wolf-like powers are not exactly demystified, either. Since we already know where his story leads, this poorly scripted, fraternally themed soap opera—complete with a bout of amnesia—lacks tension and excitement.

On the other hand, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a nicely rendered romantic comedy with a clever, if decidedly inadequate, screenplay. With a semi-serious plot based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Matthew McConaughey is cast as the cad with a lesson to learn, with aid from scene-stealing Michael Douglas as his dearly departed uncle. The well-paced story moves to an impending wedding, where the fashion photographer player must face the consequences of his callous, one-night stands. Of course, it isn’t pretty—and, thankfully, it isn’t toilet-joked to death—and some of it’s funny and thoughtful. Unfortunately, they forgot to develop the female lead character (Jennifer Garner). Because she has no life—she comes off as a spinster with nothing better to do than rescue weddings—their relationship has zero emotional impact and there is no convincing evidence that the playboy chooses to change. Still, it beats watching Wolverine.

I dropped in on the 10th annual Newport Beach Film Festival, where event chief Gregg Schwenk introduced a showcase of rare Walt Disney Studios shorts. The evening was hosted by Disney’s Don Hahn and David Bossert, who provided brief (and, sometimes, cutting) remarks before each animated short. The films were screened at the coastal city’s beautiful Art Deco Lido Theater.

I strongly prefer early Disney shorts, such as the 1942 war propaganda film, “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Firing Line,” featuring Pluto and Minnie Mouse, a delightfully entertaining depiction of how to store fat to fight the Nazis (lard contains glycerin, which was used for explosives) which extols then-President Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called Four Freedoms. The Burbank studio’s influential 1932 film, “Flowers and Trees,” the first color animated picture ever produced, is also excellent. Fast forward 50 years to Tim Burton’s nihilistic 1982 picture, “Vincent,” more than a bit dark for a family event, and the brilliantly computer animated 2008 short, “Glago’s Guest,” which portrays a Communist soldier as a kind, friendly fellow.

Depicting a brute for history’s bloodiest dictatorship as a harmless chap is offensive, but the worst film was a frantic 1982 nightmare called “Fun with Mr. Future,” a snide slice of environmentalism that deliberately desecrates the Sherman brothers’ classic tune for Disneyland’s defunct Carousel of Progress—”There’s a Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow,” a wonderful song composed for that General Electric-sponsored Tomorrowland attraction, which celebrated Thomas Edison’s invention, electricity. The joyless “Fun with Mr. Future” attacks electricity, and watching that travesty is enough to make you want to turn on all the lights. The program ended on an ‘up’ note, with a sneak preview of Disney/Pixar’s soon-to-be-released Up, a colorful, adventure-themed movie that reminds everyone that Walt’s creative successor in animation is, except for the post-apocalyptic WALL-E, more Pixar than Disney. Up looks like a cinematic refreshment for family and friends—perfect for America’s first summer of Obama … and economic discontent.

Supreme Court Rules Against Freedom of Speech

The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision against Fox in the television network’s case versus the fascist Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Fox rightly asserted that the FCC’s “fleeting expletive” rule is arbitrary. But Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, stated that he did not find the rule arbitrary and capricious, as Fox claims. So, this decision is extremely harmful to freedom of speech because broadcasters will continue to be censored and live in fear of government penalties. However, the Supreme Court dodged the issue of whether the FCC rule is Constitutional (censorship is certainly not Constitutional) giving a lower court a crack at addressing that fundamental issue. Look for more on this highly important case, which may determine how quickly we advance toward dictatorship.

Susan Boyle, YouTube Sensation

When a friend sat me down to watch the now-famous clip of Susan Boyle on YouTube (appearing on a British television talent show), I didn’t know what to expect. Of course, most people have heard about it by now because the clip went ‘viral’ and has become among the most watched video clips in the world. Another friend later sent a clip of Boyle’s heroine, Elaine Paige, singing the same song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” from the 1980s’ Broadway musical, Les Miserables, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. I hesitate to venture my thoughts on the video hit as a cultural barometer, however, it has spread so far and wide that it’s hard to deny it suggests a common bond among Westerners. I think the clip succeeds due to the contrast of an admittedly ordinary woman who possesses a lovely voice, the reactions of the judges and audience, which heightened the sense that Susan Boyle overcame their prejudices, and the particular selection of music, a melodic elegy for what might have been, which resonated from a person who seemed matched to the material.

But I think that the clip caught on fundamentally because people want to see a talented person in action. The culture’s not completely jaded. Not everyone is infected with nihilism. People may laugh at cynical shows such as South Park, The Simpsons, and sniveling nightly diatribes by Stephen Colbert, Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher (who can be funny, though not much anymore), but they don’t rush to spread sneers. People, judging by the overwhelming response to what was a memorable moment on television, apparently still seek to spread the sight of something good.

The Soloist

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This week offers a choice of opening movies starring two top actors: Iron Man co-stars Terrence Howard and Robert Downey, Jr., both of whom are among Hollywood’s best actors. Howard stars with Channing Tatum (Coach Carter, Stop-Loss) in Fighting, a fighter-themed picture which I was supposed to see (unfortunately, I was unable to attend the screening). Mr. Downey stars with Jamie Foxx (Ray) in the true life-based The Soloist, a heart-wrenching drama which has been advertised for some time. I still want to see Fighting, but, unless you’re a diehard Downey fan, I do not recommend seeing The Soloist. Here’s my review.

Pittsburgh, Television, and an Update

Blogger Aaron West’s first blog post is an excellent tribute to an historic city of capitalism, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the businessman once thrived. The post is a desperately needed reminder about what makes America great. Once a bustling boomtown, Pittsburgh is no longer at the center of American industry. But the metropolis evokes the best of our nation’s Industrial Revolution. Built into the rolling, green hills of western Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh rises as a triangle of skyscrapers at the intersection of two rivers, which merge to become one, wide river, the Ohio, which flows into the West. Aaron’s post, citing industrialists Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan, pulls an excerpt from a book published in 1907, which captures the spirit of Pittsburgh: “Without a single exception, the steel kings and coal barons of to-day were the barefooted boys of yesterday. In this respect no other city is as genuinely republican, as thoroughly American, as Pittsburgh.”

Another byproduct of Pittsburgh capitalism, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), bearing the names of Andrew Carnegie and banker Andrew Mellon, recently sponsored a thoughtful discussion about making money in arts and entertainment, “The Future Business Model of Television” (Pittsburgh is also the site of the world’s first broadcasting station, KDKA). The event was hosted by Heinz College’s Master of Entertainment Industry Management program in Hollywood and included NBC Universal’s Chief Marketing Officer John Miller, Fox’s Marcy Ross, William Morris Agency’s Steven Selikoff, head of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences John Shaffner, and producer and former Warner Bros.’ executive vice-president for production, Judith Zaylor.

The event, held at the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, California, was moderated by Wayne Friedman. Miller recalled that, when Dallas aired on CBS, everyone freaked when they learned that Larry Hagman, who played the male lead, earned $ 50,000 per episode, and he observed that the government might invoke national security and take over local television programming, which is struggling. Zaylor explained how the Sarbanes-Oxley law, which imposes regulations on business, has seriously damaged the ability to produce TV content and everyone talked about the success of Fox’s American Idol, studio cost-cutting and so-called reality TV programming, which, as Shaffner reminded those in attendance, echoes the early days of TV, which was dominated by wrestling, boxing and talent competitions. TV is experiencing a tremendous business model change and the panel reflected the current state of the industry as a work in progress, ripe for new opportunity.

Readers of this blog may notice a few new features. I have added an ability to search the blog, which, it is important to note, is a separate function from searching the site. Please note that the blog search field is located on the right-hand navigation bar (the site search remains at the top of each site page). Another feature is the ability to subscribe to my blog using a feed (see Feeds on the right) and there is now a Permalink at the end of each post, to make it easier to link to an individual post. Also new: archives, arranged by month and year, categories, and an index of outside sources, such as podcasts and blogs (see right). I do not plan to include Comments, which, properly implemented, is extremely time-consuming. Of course, there is more to the site than this Blog, so feel free to scout the subjects under Writings (Books, News & Ideas, War, Health Care, Music, Travel, Interviews and Movies) for something of interest.