Sense of Wonder: Curse of the Quote Whores and Fictitious Film Critics

HOLLOW MAN - one of several Sony productions to receive favorable blurbs from fictitious critic David Manning
HOLLOW MAN - one of several Sony productions to receive favorable blurbs from fictitious critic David Manning

Note: This is a repost of an article I wrote back in 2001, in response to the scandal that erupted when it was revealed that advertising campaigns from Sony Pictures had included favorable quotes from a critic who did not, in fact, exist. The studio wound up on the receiving end of a class-action lawsuit from angry customers who had been hoodwinked into seeing these movies. In 2005, the Associated Press reported that the company settled the suit for $1.5-million, allowing customers who had purchased tickets to VERTICAL LIMIT, A KNIGHT’S TALE, or THE PATRIOT  to get a $5 refund.
Sony Pictures did not admit any liability, even though two executives were temporarily suspended when the scandal first first erupted. The lawsuit began when two ticket buyers in California claimed that an ad for KNIGHT’S TALE fooled them into seeing the film by quoting “David Manning of the Ridgefield Press” as saying that Heath Ledger, the film’s lead, was “this year’s hottest new star!” The Ridgefield Press, a small weekly newspaper in Connecticut, had no such film reviewer. Other ads to feature phony quotes were for films like THE ANIMAL and HOLLOW MAN.
Although Hollywood studios are no longer attributing quotes to fictitious film critics (as far as we know), they continue to employ other techniques mentioned below, in an attempt to squeeze a few good words out of reviewers who should know better.
The American public was shocked—simply shocked—when they found out in 2001 that Sony Pictures publicity had invented a fictional film critic by the name of David Manning to praise some of their less praise-worthy films (such as the Rob Schneider comedy, THE ANIMAL and director Paul Verhoeven’ HOLLOW MAN). Well, maybe they weren’t shocked; perhaps “amused” is a better word. After all, what’s more fun than to have your cynical suspicions confirmed by objective evidence?
We all know that Hollywood is a huge hype machine that will stop at nothing to promote its films, so the fact that the studio would stoop to outright deceit (as opposed to exaggeration and spin-doctoring) is not very surprising in and of itself. The real question is why the publicity department felt it was useful to invent a non-existent critic. What was to be gained?
The answer to that question requires a little back-story, which reveals that Sony’s actions were really just the logical extension of a pattern that has been evolving over the course of the past 25 years. Not that this makes their actions excusable, just understandable.
A long time ago (i.e., before there ever was a film about events in a galaxy far, far away), major motion picture studios would premier their films in exclusive or limited engagements, opening them in only a few theatres in major markets, such as New York and Los Angeles (a little bit along the lines of what Walt Disney Pictures does today with their major animation features). A film would open in some luxury theatre downtown, and all the major critics would weigh in with their opinions in print and on TV, while word-of-mouth would spread from those viewers who just had to see a film during its exclusive run instead of waiting for it to move into their neighborhood theatres.
The reactions a film received would then help determine how it would be released to the rest of the nation. Advertising campaigns might be tweaked for different regional markets; a film might be re-edited into a shorter version for mass consumption; sometimes, if a film fared extremely poorly, a national release might even be avoided altogether.
However it worked, the bottom line was that the film was given its chance to generate word-of-mouth and critical buzz before it appeared in the vast majority of theatres around the country. No matter how much hype went into the marketing, the film ultimately had to stand on its own two feet.
JAWS: one of the blockbusters that changed the way movies are released
JAWS: one of the blockbusters that changed the way movies are released

Two films in the 1970s changed all that: JAWS (1975) and STAR WARS (1977) proved that you could make a financial killing by opening a summer blockbuster nationwide instead of in limited engagements. With a film playing in hundreds or even thousands of theatres on opening weekend, it could reach a sizable percentage of its audience before word-of-mouth could kick in. Therefore, the pre-release hype became even more important.
This did not eliminate the publicists’ relationship with critics, however. Although many potential viewers might not read a complete review before seeing a film, almost inevitably they had to look at an ad, if for no other reason than to check out where the film was playing. And those ads sure looked better when they were full of positive sound bytes lifted from critics. After all, film critics supposedly represented an objective opinion; everyone expected the studio to hype its efforts, but if a dozen critics all said that the film was great, then it must be worth checking out, right?
Therefore, the goal for publicists was to find ways of getting the press to say good things about studio product. You could bribe them in subtle ways—invite them to the set, fly them to exotic locations to view filming, give them lots of free food and liquor at gala premiers. How else to explain the way the opening of PEARL HARBOR was treated like a major historical event by network television news outlets—did journalists really expect great things from the movie, or was it that they just could not pass up that trip to Hawaii for the premier?
But those premiers do not come cheap, and they are not always 100% effective. A far cheaper and easier way to get good quotes was simply careful editing: you pulled out the one or two favorable sentences from an otherwise unfavorable review. Technically, you don’t need permission to do this, and presumably the writer cannot object since he did, after all, say what he’s quoted as saying. (Theoretically, permission is supposed to be obtained if the quote is paraphrased or altered in anyway that might be misleading, but there is no official body to enforce this.)
This method is fine; however, there still may be times when you come up empty-handed or, worse yet, embarrassed. After all, there is some risk involved. You don’t want to print “Achieves Greatness!” at the top of the ad, and then have some article come out a week later pointing out that the original review actually said, “The film almost achieves greatness, but ultimately stumbles into awfulness.” So, what’s the next step?
The answer lies in those ratings charts that some newspapers and magazine used to run, which allow all of the regular staff to give numerical ratings (such as one to four stars) to each film in release. A glance at any chart like this will reveal that almost any film, no matter how bad, has at least one supporter at each publication or outlet who will give it at least two stars, maybe three, and sometimes even four. If you are a studio publicist, your tactic is clear: bypass the critic who wrote the printed review, and call up the one critic who gave your film four stars.
This led to the ‘90s phenomenon known as “Quote Whores,” those journalists so eager to see their name in print that they could always find something good to say. The situation was tainted by the fact that writers were no longer required to actually write anything in order to be quoted; they simply said something nice over the phone, and the publicist would tailor it to fit into the ad.
It’s easy to see why a journalist would fall into this trap. If you’re writing for a publication but your editor asked someone else to review the weekend’s major new release, obviously you’re not at the top of the pecking order. How to increase your cache as a critic? Well, the more your name is seen in advertisements, the more you seem to be the voice of authority. Of course, these so-called writers knew they had to say something favorable, but many rationalized this by telling themselves that there is something good to say about almost any movie, so they were not really lying, just giving an honest opinion that emphasized the positive. If they had been asked to write the review, they would have said the exact same thing, and they would also have pointed out the film’s shortcomings. At least, that was the excuse.
The problem for publicists, of course, was that outside of Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael, there weren’t that many film critics with nationally recognized names, so the only way to lend authority to these quotes was by listing the name of magazine or newspaper after the name of the critic. This led to the bizarre phenomenon of quotes being attributed to publications in which the words never actually appeared.
BARB WIRE: recipient of an undeserved blurb from "Cinefantastique"
BARB WIRE: recipient of an undeserved blurb from "Cinefantastique"

I first encountered this while working as the West Coast Editor for CINEFANTASTIQUE magazine. I was surprised to open my copy of the LOS ANGELES TIMES one day to see an ad for BARB WIRE with an extremely favorable quote attributed to one of our free-lance writers. Unfortunately, he had not written the review that actually appeared in the magazine, which was overwhelmingly negative. At my instigation, we immediately instituted a policy which prevented free-lancers from handing out quotes with the magazine’s name attached; they could say whatever they wanted over the phone, but the quote could only be attributed to the magazine if it was from a review that had actually been published in its pages.
Now maybe you’re starting to see how this led to a fictional film critic. Most journalists’ names are not that well known. If you can’t get something good from the top critic at the major publications, and if the publications are not letting their other writers hand out the magazine’s name to any publicist who asks, you’re into a situation where you’re increasingly relying on unknown names. It no longer matters who said it; the only important thing is what was said.
This combines with another fact of life: writers should be literate, but they are not necessarily articulate. You can’t always get a great-sounding piece of hyperbole over the phone. So publicists found a method to save these Quote Whores from having to think up their own quotes: they started sending out what looked like a multiple choice quiz. When a film was about to be released, a journalist would get one of these in his fax or e-mail, with the film’s title at the top and a list of perhaps 10 choices, preceded by the question, “Which of these most nearly describes your reaction to the film?” Needless to say, all the options were overwhelmingly positive (e.g., “Best Film This Year!”), so if anybody bothered to check off one and fax it back to the publicist, they had a guaranteed usable quote.
At this point, we get into the science of statistics and probability. If you provide 10 choices and all of them are positive, it’s only a matter of sending out enough faxes until someone gives you the response you want. If you’re diligent enough, it becomes more or less inevitable that you will get a positive hit on one or maybe even all of the choices provided. Human nature being what it is, we like to take short cuts when we know the outcome is inevitable. It is rather like the Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Library of Babel,” in which every book that can be written has been written; it’s just a matter of finding it somewhere in the infinite chambers.
This is probably why the Sony publicists opted to create a ficitonal film critic and put their words into his mouth. Why bother with the time and trouble of faxing out multiple-choice questionaires when you know that, inevitably, someone, somewhere, will say what you want? Having put pre-written words into the mouths of real (if unknown) journalists for years, the publicists decided to skip a step. After all, did the names of these unknown critics carry any weight with the public, or was it simply important to see something good said about the movie? And if the author and outlet are not important, what’s the point of searching for a parrot to repeat what you say, when instead you can have a ventriloquist dummy do the job for you?
After a diatribe such as this, which identifies a problem, typically one is expected to offer up some kind of solution. “Don’t believe everything you read,” is one obvious lesson, but that does not really rectify the situation. I suppose we could call on Hollywood to behave itself a little bit better, but are we really naïve enough to think that that will happen anytime soon?
There are a couple things to do. First, newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and websites that review films should instigate policies like the one we adopted back at CINEFANTASTIQUE: the only time the outlet’s name should be allowed in an ad is when the quote actually appeared in that outlet. Furthermore, all of us webheads should do a better job of policing Hollywood. When you see some hymn of praise for an abysmally bad movie, go online and do a search on the name of the critic and his outlet. If no such person or outlet exists, write to the studio, and let your local newspaper know.
Best of all, maintain a healthy skepticism about the quotes you see in ads, and realize that the Hollywood pre-release hype machine has been at least somewhat undercut by the existence of the Internet. The goal of studio publicists is still to get onto thousands of screens for opening weekend, so that they can make as much money as possible before word-of-mouth warns ticket-buyers, but nowadays that word-of-mouth travels almost instantaneously online. No matter how tightly the studio press machine keeps the lid on a film, no matter how many phony quotes and critics they invent, you can get the real story from outlets you trust, and you can get it in time to save you from wasting your $8.00.

Copyright 2001 Steve Biodrowski

Nolan Steps Back From 'Superman' Film

christopher-nolanAt a party for Christopher Nolan’s INCEPTION, plugging it’s Oscar chances to the press, HitFix spoke to the director and his wife and producing partner Emma Thomas about the Superman movie and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.
Thomas described Chris Nolan as very single-minded when making a film, and that it would be difficult for him to try to work on another project. Thus, now that he’s sure that David S. Goyer’s concept has been worked into a script that they and Warner Brothers like, they’ll be stepping back and handing off the Superman film to director Zack Snyder (WATCHMEN). Nolan  will have little to do with that movie’s production.
Christopher Nolan expressed surprise that fans think he has all the details worked out on the Batman films, sometimes long before he’s even begun working on them. Apparently, he’s still writing  the screenplay (due in January) with his brother Jonathan Nolan, and has not finished casting the film.
At the same event, Thomson on Hollywood also spoke to Nolan, who will not confirm if  Tom Hardy (STAR TREK: NEMESIS) will be playing a hero or villain in his third Batman film. He did shoot down the internet rumor that he planned to use stock footage of Heath Ledger to insert the Joker into the film.
Also attending the event was composer Hans Zimmer (THE DARK KNIGHT), who is presently set to write the music for Zack Snyder’s Superman re-boot, after doing the latest PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN film, and the SHERLOCK HOLMES sequel.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

imaginarium_of_doctor_parnassus_ver13It’s nice to finally see a Terry Gilliam film on the big screen again. It’s been a long time since the back-to-back box office debacles of BRAZIL (1985) and THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988) sent him scurrying to prove that he could turn a profit by working more as a hired gun than an auteur, directing other people’s screenplays or adapting other people’s books instead creating his own original scenarios. The results have been sometimes satisfying (THE FISHER KING and 12 MONKEYS were not only entertaining; they also connected thematically with his own work), sometimes frustrating (FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS caught the ups and downs of a drug-fueled perspective but didn’t necessarily make us care about that perspective), and sometimes disappointing (THE BROTHERS GRIMM feels like an attempt to cram Gilliam’s usual concerns into the format of a commercial Hollywood film, with results that are not only dire but also dull). Good, bad, or indifferent, none of these titles quite qualifies as a genuine “Terry Gilliam Film” despite the possessory credit he managed to maintain on screen. (There was one near-miss: the aborted THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, with a screenplay co-written by Gilliam, would have been a return to form, but it was felled by numerous disasters, as depicted in the documentary LOST IN LA MANCHA.)
After this long history of frustration and disappointments, the release of THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (which opens today in limited Oscar-qualifying engagements before widening next year) is a moment worth celebrating. This is an authentic Terry Gilliam film, written with long-time collaborator Charles McKeown (who co-scripted BRAZIL and MUNCHAUSEN), which traffics in themes that characterize Gilliam’s best work: It’s about the importance of imagination over pragmatism, about the capacity of fantasy to enrich souls deadened by the weight of too much reality. Or put another way, this is a film that celebrates the all important “Sense of Wonder” that is at the heart of the best cinefantastique.
It would be supremely satisfying, therefore, to announce that THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS is a triumphant return to form for Gilliam; unfortunately, the film represents a return of both the strengths and weaknesses inherent in his work. For all his extolling of the virtues of imagination and wonder, Gilliam often finds it difficult to capture that wonder on screen; the result is a little bit like listening to someone deliver a lecture on the benefits of humor, without being able to actually tell a funny joke.

The silent, immobile stage presentation of Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) understandably fails to excite his audience.
The silent, immobile stage presentation of Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) understandably fails to excite his audience.

Gilliam dramatizes his theme in the opening sequence: In modern day England, outside a night-club frequented by drunken dullards, an ancient traveling sideshow – the titular “Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” – roles out its wares for an unappreciative public. We immediately know that we are supposed identify with Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his traveling troup of performers, including the handsome young Anton (Andrew Garfield), the diminutive Percy (Verne Troyer, Mini-Me in the AUSTIN POWERS movies), and Parnassus’ daughter Valentina (Lily Cole); however, their performance is so dull that one easily understands the derisive reaction it receives. The show consists mostly of Parnassus sitting in an immobile trance, and things only get interesting when one obnoxious club-goer storms the stage and disappears through a mirror that takes him into an alternate reality. Confusion then ensues when Parnassus admonishes his daughter that this is never supposed to happen. (What? Parnassus expects his audiene to take his word for the wonders on the other side of the mirror?)
After this awkward opening, we go into a long stretch filling in the back story. Doctor Parnassus, we learn, is immortal, or at least very long-lived; he has spent decades if not centuries of millenia matching wits in an on-going contest with the devilish Mr. Nick (an excellent Tom Waits). The latest challenge involves who can be the first to save or damn a certain number of souls, with Valentina as the prize. Complicating matters is the fact that the young Valentina, who is about to become of age, yearns to leave behind the wonders of her father’s Imaginarium, in favor of a simple domestic life – one which the smitten Anton would love to bestow upon her, if only she would return his ardent love.
The set-up is rich with possibilities, presenting us with interesting variations on characters seen in previous Gilliam films. The aging Doctor Parnassus, with his tall tales of fantastic adventures, is another version of Baron Munchausen; as embodied by Plummer, he also bears a strong resemblance to the romantic idealist Don Quixote – a semblance further underlined by the presence of Troyer in what is essentially the “Sancho Panza” role – the voice of ironic pragmatism that calls Parnassus back to practical matters that he might overlook from having his head too far in the clouds. Likewise, Parnassus’s daughter Valentina is an older, post-adolescant version of the young girl from MUNCHAUSEN – the latest incarnation of a recurring character in Gilliam’s work, the next generation charged with taking up the baton from the old teller of wild tales.
The ancient monastary where Doctor Parnassus first met the devilish Mr. Nick
The ancient monastary where Doctor Parnassus first met the devilish Mr. Nick

Unfortunately, the story construction is delivered in the form of leaden exposition lacking any spark of creative life (even flashbacks of the first encounter between Parnassus and Mr. Nick do little to galvanize the tedious first act). The love story between Anton and Valentina is written in generic terms, and the performers, though appealing, are unequal to the tast of making us feel the desire, yearning, and passion that the script has not supplied. Consequently, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS begins to feel abstract and distant, a film about wonder without any actual wonder in it.
Fortunately for all concerned, the troop discovers a body hanging by his neck from a bridge. The not-quite-dead man turns out to be Tony (Heath Ledger), who has no memory of how he came to be in that near-fatal position – although the presence of a small metal tube in his throat, which prevented his wind pipe from being closed by the noose, suggests he escaped a murder attempt. By virtue of the mystery surrounding him, Tony is more interesting than the other characters; he has an ambiguity the others lack. He is also performed by an actor with the skill to take over the screen and breathe some life into the lethargic proceedings. Once Ledger appears, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS almost turns into another movie: What had seemed dry and academic up to this point becomes fun, entertaining, and even, at times, wonderful.
Tony immediately sees what has been obvious to the audience from the opening scene: the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is badly in need of an update for the 21st century. He radically revamps the presentation, easily luring in new customers who are enthralled and beguiled by their brief visits to the wonderland residing behind the magical irror. This leads to several sequences in which Gilliam shows off his patented visual flair for fantasy; although in this case the old hand-made style makes way for modern computer-generated effects, much of the old charm retains intact.
The mysterious Tony, played by Heath Ledger in the real scenex and by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Collin Farrell in the fantasy scenes
The mysterious Tony, played by Heath Ledger in the "real" scenex and by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Collin Farrell in the fantasy scenes

These are also notable because they involve the three other actors as Tony: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Although THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS should right be viewed as an auteur piece that resides comfortably within the context of of Terry Gilliam’s previous work, it will inevitable be regarded through the prism of the unfortunate circumstance of its creation: Heath Ledger died after completing all of the “reality” scenes, forcing Gilliam to recast Tony. Although certainly unusual, this is not a unique strategy; Luis Bunuel did something similar in THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977), with similar results: namely, making the character more abstract, more of a mystery, someone who presents more than one face to the world, leaving you to wonder which, if any, represents the reality of the identity within.
The result works perfectly on screen. If you happen to be one of the few ticket-buyers unaware of the film’s tragic history, the substition of alternate faces seems integral to the story (Tony enters the Imaginarium with different characters; each new appearance of his conforms to what these other characters want to see). For the majority of viewers, who do know the story behind the making of IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASUS, the sight of the late Ledger’s friends – Depp, Law, and Farrell – filling in for him is not only magical but sadly moving, as they channel some essence of inner character, suggesting an underlying continuity hidden behind their different faces. It is really not fair to judge a film’s achievements based on such a matter of necessity, but these moments really will bring a pang to your heart. In the past, Gilliam has spoken of his need to confront challenges in order to achieve his best results; faced with a seemingly insurmountable one, he managed to find a solution that serves both the film and the memory of its late star, acting as a fitting tribute (although the title card “A Film by Heath Ledger and his Friends” borders on exploiting the actor’s death).
In any case, thanks to Tony’s showmanship, Doctor Parnassus is soon reclaiming the souls of enough customers to edge ahead in his contest with Mr Nick – until complications set in. There are hints that Tony may have been involved in raising money for the poor, but a disreputable air hangs around him – the air of a con man. Valentina sees only the charm; Anton is of course suspicious. The love triangle leads to trouble, and in a rather unusual development, Valentina allows herself to be seduced by the mystery man. Her transformation from virginal innocence to post-coital bliss is one of the more striking images in the film, but it exists in a vacuum virtually without consequences (after its plot function is served, it is simply forgotten, with no effect on the character’s ultimate fate).
Eventually, the truth about Tony is revealed; Valentina rebels against her father; and Doctor Parnassus takes action to rescue Valentina from Tony and/or Mr. Nick, leading to the film’s other unusual element (for Gilliam at least): an ending in which conventional, boring, ordinary life is upheld as the ideal of happiness. The thematics are vaguely askew, perhaps just simply vague. The tryst between Tony and Valentine ignites the sparks lacking in the love story between Anton and Valentina, suggesting some schism between love and passion; it’s one step removed from the suggetion that female sexual satisfaction occurs only in a context of tawdry duplicity. Apparently having learned her lesson, Valentina retreats into a domestic life reminiscent of a sexless ’50s television show. 
Regardless of whether the thematic threads can be sorted out in a satisfying way, the latter portions of THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS retain their appeal, rewarding the audience for sitting through the slow set-up. Plummer brings dignity and an air of sadness to the aging Parnassus, and Troyer’s Percy is the perfect foil for the old wizard. Waits is excellent as the unctuous Mr. Nick, sly and insinuating, always insisting that he enjoys the contest with Parnassus for the sport, not for a chance to win his soul. But above it all, the film is a triumph for Ledger. Although the role is no match for his insanely effective turn as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, his presence illustrates how a star can illuminate material that is otherwise not as bright as it should be. His presence lights up the film and goes a long way toward eclipsing its imperfections. Thanks to him, Gilliam fans in a forgiving frame of mind can leave the theatre feeling that THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS was almost everything it should have been.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009). Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown. Cast: Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole, Verne Troyer, Tom Waits, Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Peter Stormare.

Brothers Grimm (2005) – Fantasy Film Review

2005_the_brothers_grimm_poster_004I’ve been a big fan of director Terry Gilliam for a long time, but THE BROTHERS GRIMM is the worst thing he made since his terrible solo (i.e., non-Monty Python) debut, JABBERWOCKY. The script by Ehren Krueger is terrible: the story is muddled, confused, leaden, and uninteresting. And Gilliam’s patented visual style only makes things worse, weighing everything down, dragging out dull scenes with excess flash that only reminds us how empty and unimaginative this fantasy film is.
The special effects are a near disaster. Gone is the hands-made approach of previous Gilliam films, which not only looked good but suited his overall visual style, lending his fantasies a distinctive touch of personality. Instead, we get lame, impersonal digital work – which is bad enough, but much of it is also totally unconvincing. In fact, the CGI is so phony you keep thinking, “Well, it’s supposed to be like a fairly tale, so it doesn’t have to be realistic.”
However, the tone of THE BROTHERS GRIMM is decidedly not a fairy tale at all. It’s filled with severed heads, bisected bodies, and other repellent violence. The whole thing is so goofy that the gore doesn’t really horrify; it just feels repulsive because it’s so out-of-place and inappropriate. The film starts off as if it wants to be a light-hearted romp, then turns murky, muddy, and uglier by the second.
The stars keep acting as if the whole thing is good fun, but they can’t convince us, no matter how hard they try. Jonathan Pryce (who appeared in previous Gilliam films BRAZIL and THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN) gives it his best shot, but it’s a hopeless effort. And Peter Stormare is tedious in a supporting role. Long before THE BROTHERS GRIMM is over, you will wish the whole thing had come to a merciful end.
It’s not hard to see why the subject matter might have interested Gilliam: THE BROTHERS GRIMM offers another collision of fantasy and reality, with lots of opportunities for interesting visuals. But the lead characters in this story (unlike TIME BANDITS, etc.) are not imaginative dreamers; they’re con men who exploit people’s beliefs in myths and legends. So Pryce’s character (basically a reprise of his villainous voice-of-reason martinet from MUNCHAUSEN) doesn’t work very well as an antagonist, because he’s basically right. Consequently, it’s impossible to identify deeply with the story or care how it turns out.
If this is the best that Hollywood will let Gilliam do, he should just quit making Hollywood films. I know he dreams big and wants the budgets to see those dreams realized, but this isn’t worth it. The only redeeming feature is the hope that his salary from THE BROTHERS GRIM will help him set up a good, old-fashioned Gilliam film, in the tradition of his excellent early work.
THE BROTHERS GRIMM (2005). Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by Ehren Kruger. Cast: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Pryce, Lena Headey, Monica Bellucci.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

Sense of Wonder: Ledger & Wall-E win Oscars

Last week, Cinefantastique Online posted its winners for the Wonder Awards, honoring the best in science fiction, fantasy, and horror films from 2008. Now it’s time to take a look how well the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did with their 81st annual awards show. Judging by the low bar the Academy has set in the past when it comes to honoring genre entertainment, I have to say that last night’s results were not too bad. Yes, THE DARK KNIGHT and IRON MAN were shut out of high-profile categories wherein they deserved nominations, but  in the categories where nominations were given, there were some worthy winners, including WALL-E for Best Animated Feature film and Heath Leder for his performance as the Joker n THE DARK KNIGHT.
Ledger’s well-deserved win was almost a fait acompli; it is also one of the few instance of agreement between the Academy Awards and the Wonder Awards. As I wrote before, this award was a no-brainer – “merely a great performance but a once-in-a-lifetime piece of magic, the proverbial lightening captured in a bottle.” Seeing Ledger’s family accept the statuette on his behalf was one of the evening’s sentimental highlights, reminding us of the loss not only to the film world but to those who knew the actor personally.
WALL-E’s win in the Animation category was also predictable – it is, after all, a Pixar film. The Wonder Awards does not separate films into live-action and animation, so we had WALL-E competing for Best Picture, where it lost out to THE DARK KNIGHT and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. In Rationale of a Conflicted Contrarian, John W. Morehead argued the case for WALL-E’s supremacy:

WALL-E was the best overall cinematic experience of the fantastic for 2009. This film took computer animation to new heights, from the height of its realism and the detail of its opening scenes as it depicted a dystopian vision of a planet decimated by pollution, to the depth of emotion the animators were able to invest in its leading characters, Wall-E and Eve. In addition to its visual beauty, the film also told a very human story through its robotic characters as well as the humans adrift in space and in need of a healthy reconnection with the Earth, their own bodies, and community.

Outside of these two happy wins, the rest of the results were typically dire. For example, we were sad to see WALL-E overlooked for original screenplay, musical score, and the original song (“Down to Earth”).
The technical awards were also disapointing. The Academy is not prone to handing out Best Picture gold to comic-book-inspired movies, but a lavish blockbuster like THE DARK KNIGHT usually has a good shot in the technical categories. Unfortunately, the film received only one Oscar in these categories, for Richard King’s sound editing, loosing out in for art direction, cinematography, editing, makeup, sound mixing, and visual effects.

Brad Pitt
Brad Pitt

Instead, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON – the only other genre winner of the evening was – prevailed in several of these categories. Shut out of the so-called “major” awards for which it was nominated (including Brad Pitt for Best Actor), the film earned some love from the Academy in three technical areas:  James J. Murakami for art direction, Greg Cannom for makeup, and Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron for visual effects.
Cannom’s win in the makeup category is the only other point of agreement between the Oscars and Cinefantastique Online’s Wonder Awards. We selected HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY for visual effects and production design, but that title was not among the Academy’s nominees in either category. If forced to choose from the Oscar’s list, BENJAMIN BUTTON was a worthy choice in both areas.
On a non-genre note, I just want to add that last night’s strategy of having a quintet of previous winners pay tribute to the nominees in each of the acting categories was absolutely brilliant. As Bruce Dern said in THE DRIVER, there are “winners and losers in this game,” and it’s always sad to see one person walk away with the award when there are four other worthy candidates. I think this may be the first year in which losing lost much of its sting. Sure, it’s nice to take home the statuette, but how disappointed can you be when one of your peers has stood up on worldwide television and told millions of people how much he or she loves your work?