Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Hollywood Babble On & On #1262: Quo Vadis American Crime Story?

Glad to back my loyal readers. I hope you're still out there.


Sorry it's been soooooo long since I last posted. Things have been busy lately. One the up side, I signed a contract with a publisher in Los Angeles for a mystery novel, and my work as chief caregiver for my parents has been taking up most of my time lately since my mother's knee surgery.

Anyway, enough about me, let's talk about movies and TV.

If you've been missing American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, you've been missing a treat. It's been wildly entertaining, and stacked with tons of Emmy worthy performances from the entire cast. I haven't seen a single false note in the acting, and more than a few moments of pure performance bliss.

(The scene where David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian lectures his kids on the emptiness of fame without virtue is pure brilliance. I had to rewind to revel in its satiric glory)

But what to do with Season 2?

Well, it seems that the show's driving force Ryan Murphy wants to take the show in a different direction in Season 2. He wants to take it from covering a true crime story with the sort of intense detail that only a TV series can do, and do a fictional story about people living in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. So basically a variation of David Simon's Tremé from HBO, which came and went with some good reviews, but not much in the line of impact.

This seems to be in keeping with Murphy's modus operandi to create a show, deliver really high quality in the first season, then begin whittling away everything people liked about the show in subsequent seasons to diminishing returns in audience satisfaction and ratings. I witnessed this with Murphy's biggest mainstream hit Glee, where my twitter feed went from fans raving about the show, to fans complaining about the show, to fans ignoring the show. The same has happened with his other anthology series American Horror Story, which got raves at the beginning and then faded into a mess of loose narrative strings and steadily declining viewership.

I don't know what happened in the case of Horror Story, but it seems that Crime Story is the victim of a fundamental misunderstanding of the show's success. The people behind the show seem to think that the show's success hinges on issues of race in America.

Like in the real case of O.J. Simpson, race is more of a distraction and an excuse for some decisions than the real heart of the issue. The success of American Crime Story is that they're telling a true story where literally everyone knows the ending so well that it's compelling to watch.

I think there's a market for more true crime, and that Murphy and ACS are fools to just give it up when they've already set themselves up as the gold standard.

Let's look at some cases they could adapt that would be better ideas:

Harry Thaw & Stanford White.  In the 1900s White was a brilliant architect, top dog of New York high society, and an unrepentant lecher. Harry Thaw was the son of nouveau riche industrialists who had the paranoid belief that White had blackballed him from high society, this obsession grew even stronger when he married model and dancer Evelyn Nesbit. Nesbit had been White's mistress when she was a teenager, and may have even been raped by White. This put the already mentally unstable and violently abusive Thaw over the edge and he murdered White in the middle of a nightclub in front of a hundred people.

The trial and its aftermath pretty much birthed the tabloid and scandal culture we have today, and is loaded with so many myths, deceptions, and half-truths it could make compelling viewing. 

Stephanie St. Clair: The Queen of Harlem. This is the story of a woman who came to control the "numbers racket" in Harlem. While Queen she held off the mobsters like the psychopathic Dutch Schultz and became a thorn in the side of corrupt and racist policemen by using her resources to promote civil rights and political reform.

And if business and activism wasn't enough trouble for her, she ended up in a disastrous marriage to a  political activist turned cult leader with messianic and hitlerian tendencies that ended with a gunshot.

The fact that she survived and thrived in these conditions would make a fascinating television show.

You could even cast Travolta as Dutch Schultz, Sterling K. Brown as her right hand Bumpy Johnson, and Courtney B. Vance as St. Clair's charismatic but erratic cult-leader husband Sufi Abdul Hamid who was dubbed the "Black Hitler" by the press.

The Murder of William Desmond Taylor. I wrote a review of the riveting book Tinseltown and I said then that it would make a great series, and I still do.

Anyway, these stories are true and I think they'd really rope in the viewers far better than just another social realist drama about how life is hard in New Orleans.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Hollywood Babble On & On #1261: Whitewashing or Stereotyping?

Sorry I've been so lax with the posting lately. Things have been pretty busy lately, and there just wasn't enough time in the day. It's getting even tighter, but I will try to squeeze out what wisdom I can in the moment I can spare.

Today the term "whitewashing" gets tossed around a lot. The biggest uproar being over The Gods Of Egypt, which featured no Egyptians or anyone who looked Egyptian.

But I'm not talking about that film, because there was a bit of a point behind the criticism.

What I am going to talk about is where some critics are demanding that what they see as whitewashing be fixed by replacing it with a stereotype.

Allow me to explain.

Marvel cast a British actor to play Daniel Rand, also known as Iron Fist, a martial arts master who is partnered with Luke Cage as the Heroes for Hire to be featured on Netflix in Jessica Jones and probably Daredevil someday as well.
A Daredevil appearance is likely since Iron Fist was Daredevil for a while.
Well the outrage was quick in coming.

"WHITEWASHING!" they screamed, or tweeted, and demanded that an Asian actor get the role.

This made me ask 2 questions:

1. Is it really whitewashing?

2. Isn't the proposed solution of replacing Iron Fist with an Asian character stereotyping?

Let's think about it.

1. Iron Fist was always a white character. The whole premise of the character is that he is a Westerner who is taken in by Asian friends of his father after he is orphaned and is fully absorbed into their culture to the point where he dawns the mantle of the Iron Fist.

I guess you could say that it's all about cultural appropriation, but that's another story.

But let's get to stereotyping...

2. If you're an male Asian actor in Hollywood you get cast in one of three roles all the time, and they are:

A. Martial Arts Master
B. Triad Gang Member 
C. Math/Science Geek

How will pigeonholing an Asian actor into one of the three stereotypical Asian roles somehow right this perceived wrong?

Wouldn't it be better to show that there's a commercial viability in seeing an Asian character in a non-stereotypical role? Or if you're not willing to take that leap, at least try to get Marvel to bring in Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu.

Maybe, folks are just looking for something to be offended over so they can tweet about something without the effort of trying to be interesting.

That's what I think, put what you think in the comments.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Hollywood Babble On & On #1260: Why The Oscars Are So White...

With the Oscar nominations out comes the traditional complaining about how weirdly unfair the nominations seem to be.

For the second year in a row all of the acting nominees are white, marking the return of the #OscarSoWhite and #OscarsSoWhite hashtags on twitter as well as threats of boycotts from several prominent black entertainers.
They do have a case. Several African American actors like Michael B. Jordan, and Samuel L. Jackson, and the cast of Straight Outta Compton have put out performances that critics and audiences have considered Oscar worthy. Also the African American directors F. Gary Gray and Ryan Coogler were snubbed even though their films, Straight Outta Compton and Creed, had excellent box office, reviews, and Oscar buzz.
So, why all the snubbing?
Do the Academy members meet around a big table and declare a moratorium on African Americans getting nominations?
Are the individual Academy members so riddled with hate for non-white people they can't bring themselves to nominate African-Americans?
The answer to both questions is: No.
The cause isn't hatred.
The cause is blindness.
You see the Academy members are predominantly older (average age 67), predominantly white, and predominantly politically liberal. 
They are the generation that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s and they see literally EVERYTHING through that lens.
Which brings us to the reasons why Creed and Straight Outta Compton were mostly snubbed: They didn't look like "black films" to the Academy voters.
For someone in the very rarified demographic of an Academy Voter Straight Outta Compton and Creed look radically different from the way everyone else saw them. To an Academy Voter Straight Outta Compton was just a showbiz biopic about a kind of music they don't like, but don't dare admit to not liking, for fear someone will call them racist. 

They also saw Creed as just a sports movie and a comeback vehicle for a previous nominee who has been below their precious radar since the first time he played his signature character.
No one in Compton or Creed are brutalized slaves in the pre-Civil War South, or led Civil Rights marches in the 1960s, or ended up on death row because of a racist justice system manned by white men with heavy southern accents. If they were, then they'd all be up for Oscars, because to Academy voters those are Oscar worthy African-American movies. Instead, the movies featured African-Americans using talent and hard work to succeed in America, and, to various degrees, doing just that.
No martyrs, no Oscar nominations because the Academy just cannot accept them as telling a "sincere" or "real" African-American story, because they lay outside their narrow field of vision.
There is a way to use the Academy's narrow vision to get nominations and awards.
Bryan Cranston was nominated for playing blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo, a film whose sole purpose was to get Cranston an Oscar nomination and to do that, it followed a carefully structured formula. 
It was a story about Hollywood, and Academy voters love navel gazing.
It has a martyr, Dalton Trumbo, albeit a Hollywood kind of martyr, who was blacklisted for his politics. For those who don't know, blacklisting meant that he was forced to write screenplays for less money under pseudonyms.
It has a politically acceptable villain, chiefly right-wing American politicians who didn't care for Trumbo's love of the Stalin regime.
It's a perfect white man's Oscar bait film, and it could be performed entirely in gibberish with falsetto voices by a cast wearing clown make-up, it would still get at least one nomination.
Now you're probably sitting in front of your computer or tablet, furrowing your brow and thinking "What about Will Smith in Concussion?"
If the Academy thinks like me, they probably looked at the trailer for Concussion and thought: "Denzel Washington or Idris Elba would have knocked that out of the park. Will Smith just seems too fluffy, to 'movie star' to pull it off." Then they'd see what else was on.

Those are my theories, what are yours?

Friday, 15 January 2016

Hollywood Babble On & On #1259: It's Oscar Time...

Here's the list of Oscar nominations with my commentary possibly coming later...

Best Picture

“The Big Short” 

“Bridge of Spies” 


“Mad Max: Fury Road”

“The Martian” 

“The Revenant”



Best Actress in a Leading Role

Cate Blanchett, “Carol”

Brie Larson, “Room”

Jennifer Lawrence, “Joy”

Charlotte Rampling, “45 Years”

Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn”

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”

Matt Damon, “The Martian”

Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”

Michael Fassbender, “Steve Jobs“

Eddie Redmayne, “The Danish Girl”

Actress in a Supporting Role

Jennifer Jason Leigh, “The Hateful Eight”

Rooney Mara, “Carol”

Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”

Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”

Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs“

Actor in a Supporting Role

Christian Bale, “The Big Short”

Tom Hardy, “The Revenant”

Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”

Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”

Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”

Best Director

Adam McKay, “The Big Short”

George Miller, “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Alejandro G. Inarritu, “The Revenant”

Lenny Abrahamson, “Room”

Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”

Visual Effects

“Ex Machina”

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

“The Martian”

“The Revenant”

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Best Documentary Feature


“Cartel Land”

“The Look of Silence”

“What Happened, Miss Simone?”

“Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom”

Best Documentary Short Subject

“Body Team 12”

“Chau, Beyond the Lines”

“Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah”

“A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness”

“Last Day of Freedom”


“The Big Short”

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

“The Revenant”


“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Production Design

“Bridge of Spies”

“The Danish Girl”

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

“The Martian”

“The Revenant”

Best Original Score

“Bridge of Spies”


“The Hateful Eight”


“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Best Foreign Language Film

“Embrace of the Serpent,” Colombia

“Mustang,” France

“Son of Saul,” Hungary

“Theeb,” Jordan

“A War,” Denmark

Best Original Screenplay

“Bridge of Spies”

“Ex Machina”

“Inside Out”


“Straight Outta Compton”

Best Adapted Screenplay

“The Big Short”



“The Martian”


Best Original Song

“Earned It” from “Fifty Shades of Grey”

“Manta Ray” from “Racing Extinction”

“Simple Song No. 3” from “Youth”

“Til It Happens To You” from “The Hunting Ground”

“Writing’s on the Wall” from “Spectre”

Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

“The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared”

“The Revenant”

Best Animated Feature


“Boy and the World”

“Inside Out”

“Shaun the Sheep Movie”

“When Marnie Was There”

Best Animated Short Film

“Bear Story”


“Sanjay’s Super Team”

“We Can’t Live Without Cosmos”

“World of Tomorrow”

Best Live Action Short Film

“Ave Maria”

“Day One”

“Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)”



Best Cinematography


“The Hateful Eight”

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

“The Revenant”


Achievement in Sound Mixing

“Bridge of Spies”

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

“The Martian”

“The Revenant”

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Achievement in Sound Editing

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

“The Martian”

“The Revenant”


“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Best Costume Design



“The Danish Girl”

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

“The Revenant”

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Goodbye Major Tom

David Bowie is dead.
Killed by cancer just days after his sixty-ninth birthday and the release of his latest album.
Turning on twitter and seeing reports of his passing was a real kick in the teeth for me. Like millions of others around the world Bowie didn't seem like an ordinary mortal. Death seemed so inconceivable for such an important part of the soundscape of our lives. One could be forgiven for assuming that Bowie would just assume a new persona and genre and go off in some new creative direction. 
Sadly, he was just a human being and death came for him as it will come for us all eventually.
His death stings especially hard because Bowie taught people who were freaks growing up learned that not only were they not alone, there was a way they could be accepted and that's by being as creative and as accepting of others as they can possibly be. To be a Bowie fan was a responsibility. He wasn't everyone's cup of tea, and when I was growing up, a time when the music you listened to established your identity, those who didn't get Bowie liked to express their displeasure with your choices often verbally, and on rare occasions physically.
However, camaraderie could be found with other Bowie people, who would then introduce you to other bands and styles of music, who themselves were influenced by Bowie's work and versatility. Bowie was the gateway drug to alternative rock and alternative pop culture.
I always admired how Bowie managed to remain cool right to the end by avoiding the trap that had ruined so many of his profession. Since he was constantly experimenting and reinventing himself and his music, and wasn't wed to some look from what he considered his gloried past. A habit that transformed too many rock and pop legends into ridiculous or creepy parodies of themselves.
Could you imagine if he had never left his Ziggy Stardust phase?
That constant experimentation and reinvention also meant that if one of his experiments didn't succeed with some segment of the audience, no problem, his next project will be different anyway, and you might like that instead.

Well, we won't be able to take David Bowie for granted anymore.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Hollywood Babble On & On #1258: 2015 - The Year In Stupid

2016 has finally stumbled into our lives like an alcoholic uncle who shows up late for the holidays with a bottle in his hand screaming for everyone to keep the party going even though all are still hungover from the last year.
Anyway, 'tis the season for looking back in list form and I'm not immune for that sort of easy clickbait, so let's look back at the year in stupid.
THAT'S OFFENSIVE: 2015 was the year when EVERYTHING was declared offensive. In fact, I'm pretty sure that someone, somewhere is offended by my mentioning people finding things offensive.
It was also the year that a select few saw that no matter what they try, popular culture will always be in the wrong to the new class of professionally offended people who write thinkpieces for websites.
Let's use sexism as an example.
Hollywood does have a sexism problem. They don't know what to do with female stars and female audiences like they did in the allegedly more sexist Golden Age, when both female stars and audiences were much bigger box-office players. However, modern Hollywood sexism is trapped in a never ending circle of offense. Even when they try to appease or even please their critics they still get crapped on.
Critics complain that there are not enough stories being made about the accomplishments of historic women. Hollywood responds with SUFFRAGETTE a lavish period drama about the fight of women to get the vote. SUFFRAGETTE is almost immediately condemned that the suffragette movement was too white and middle class to matter to modern audiences. (Ironically, a complaint made about the real suffragette movement at the time)
Critics complain that there are not enough competent female heroes on the screen, so they give them Rey in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS who is tough, competent, and capable of tackling any problem. Many of the same critics then condemn the film and the character as a "Mary Sue" a female character who is "too perfect" to be believed.
There is literally just no pleasing some folks. 
The greatest irony is that when there is something that just reeks of sexism, it's treated as a victory. I'm talking about the all-women reboot of GHOSTBUSTERS. Hollywood is literally tossing women the scraps of a franchise that's been dead for over 25 years, instead of creating something new and original, and it's seen as a victory for feminism.
To borrow a phrase from Admiral Ackbar: "IT'S A TRAP!"
If the film succeeds, the credit will go to the affection people have for the GHOSTBUSTERS franchise.
If the film flops, the blame will be put on its female stars. 
Yet I appear to be the only person who sees this.
Ironically, I'm not offended by it, just saddened.
GEORGE LUCAS: Lucas called Disney "white slavers" after they dropped $4 billion on his lap for Lucasfilm because they revived the long moribund and once creatively bankrupt STAR WARS franchise sans Lucas and his whims like Jar-Jar Binks.
George, I love ya for creating STAR WARS, but you're driving me crazy with this sort of spoiled brat chatter. It was nice that you apologized, but maybe you shouldn't have said it in the first place, right when people were about to forgive you for the prequels? 
SLOW WEST: My problem is not with the movie itself. It apparently got lots of good reviews. My problem is with the title.
It's hard to sell a Western, but calling a Western SLOW WEST is about as smart as naming a play THEATRE CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS. 
It's going to turn audiences away.
What producer or distributor allowed themselves to be convinced that it was a good title for a Western?
It makes the film sound pretentious, annoying, and, most of all SLOW, and audiences hate slow and will avoid anything that literally promises slowness in the title and makes the film lucky to pull in the $200,000 it did at the box-office.
Not seeing that means those who green-lit that title should probably reconsider their career choices.
MARTIN SHKRELI: Now this isn't an entertainment or pop culture story, but it does have some lessons people in any business can learn.
In case you're living in a cave Martin Shkreli is a millennial multimillionaire who took over a drug company and immediately jacked up the price of a drug for people with compromised immune systems by about 7,000%. He claimed he was going to kick the profits back into research and development, but his lifestyle, business record, and overall attitude about everything made everyone doubt his word.
In fact, when he was arrested and arraigned on running a high financed Ponzi scheme the internet pretty well cheered in unison.
Which brings me to the lesson.
A little known fact about business life is that no matter how honest an American businessperson strives to be, they commit on average several felonies a day without even knowing it. This number goes up exponentially the higher up you go in the financial food chain.
The majority of these felonies are violations of obscure Federal regulations that even the regulators don't fully understand. 
That creates an interesting situation.
First, there are laws that everyone breaks, but since they're so complicated and obscure they're selectively prosecuted.
Second, if you want to be prosecuted for something, be a business person that makes himself a politically attractive target.
Which means that Shrkreli was nowhere near as smart as his ego told him was, or he would have seen that coming. If Conrad Black could be convicted of a crime that never happened, then any businessperson can become a pelt on a prosecutor's wall, so be honest, be straight, and for the love of Xenu, don't make yourself a target.

There's been a lot more stupidity this year, but I've decided to just let it go, and pray that 2016 will be a lot smarter.

Monday, 30 November 2015



I don't normally do book reviews since I mostly write about the movie business, but there are these things called books, and some of them are about the movie business.
One such book is Tinseltown by William J. Mann which won the Edgar Award for Best True Crime book of 2014. It's a book that shows how intertwined the worlds of celebrity, business, and scandal really were, and how it goes all the way back to the very beginnings of the modern film industry that we know today.
Now the main crux of the book is a story of murder and scandal, but it goes quite a bit deeper than that, and presents a wider picture of a fledgling industry under siege. The best way to blurb it is to tell you a little bit about the main characters.
WILLIAM DESMOND TAYLOR: He was one of the most commercially successful and prestigious film directors for the Famous Players-Lasky Company (later Paramount Pictures). He was a man with a reputation for being a man of excellent character and probity, but he had secrets that he desperately wanted kept, and it's his unsolved murder in 1922 that forms the central crux of the book.
MABEL NORMAND: Was Taylor's best friend and confidante. She was also one of the biggest comedy stars in Hollywood, and was desperately trying to put a past of bad relationships and cocaine abuse behind her. However, the trial of her former co-star Fatty Arbuckle on bogus rape and murder charges, and the murder of her best friend threatened to destroy her career and her life.
MARY MILES MINTER: A Famous Players child star growing up into an ingenue desperately trying to get out from under the control of her domineering mother Charlotte Shelby. She's romantically obsessed with Taylor, to the point of practically stalking a man she could never have.
MARGARET "GIBBY" GIBSON: A former co-star of Taylor's from his acting days who came close to big-time Hollywood stardom, only to have her shot ruined by her fondness for scuzzy men and easy money. She will do anything to get another shot at stardom, and isn't one to let the law or morality get in her way.
ADOLPH ZUKOR: Started life as a penniless orphan from Hungary, and rose to become the head of Famous Players-Lasky, which at the time was the biggest, most prestigious, and most powerful movie producer-distributor-exhibitor in America, and by extension the world. He's also a man under siege, who is desperate to hold onto the company and life he literally built from nothing.
WILL H. HAYS: A former postmaster-general and campaign manager for the Harding administration. He's hired to lead the organization that will become the modern MPAA, and his mission is to save Hollywood from threats both within and without, and boy-oh-boy were there threats.
A series of scandals had rocked Hollywood, involving sex, drug addiction, and even death. This sparked a movement to regulate, censor, or even shut down Hollywood that became downright hysterical when Fatty Arbuckle was unjustly tried for a murder that never happened. It got even worse when Taylor was gunned down in his apartment and the police investigation, hindered by interference by both the studio, and the press who had just realized that Hollywood scandal sold newspapers like nothing before. That takes the book on three tracks. There's the investigation into the murder itself, the effects it was having on three women in Taylor's life Mabel, Mary & Margaret, and the effect on the industry as a whole, as witnessed by Will Hays and Adolph Zukor.
One thing I found surprising was the amount of sympathy I felt, not only for the women caught up in the murder and scandal hysteria, but for Hays and Zukor.
Like many I viewed Hays as a censorious prig, and Zukor as a ruthless cold-fish only out for himself, but this book showed me that I was wrong. (Yes, that happens rarely) You see Hays was deep down a true believer in free speech and free markets. He thought that movies should be free to show whatever they wanted, because the audience was free to not pay money to see something they didn't like. However he was all too often forced into playing the censor by outside forces.
Those same forces also drove Zukor to do many of the seemingly ruthless and heartless things. Yes, he's shown doing many things driven by ego, but most of the stuff he does is driven by inadequacy and a fear that he might lose everything he's struggled build.
Zukor's fears were not unfounded. We may look at the threats by the morality campaigners to have the government seize the entire movie industry, and move it to Washington where it would operate under the supervision of the US congress as ridiculous, but you have to remember that it was these exact same campaigners that got the Prohibition of alcohol written into the American constitution. Alcohol had been a part of the culture for millennia before the country had even been founded, and the movie industry had only been around a little more than twenty years at this point. When you look at it from that point of view those threats don't seem all that ridiculous.
But back to the book.
Mann does an excellent job presenting a very careful analysis of the crime, the evidence, and things that the investigators didn't see, and presents a pretty compelling theory as to what might have really happened.
He also presents where our modern obsessions with celebrity, scandal, and power begin, and is written with a fast paced style that manages to elegantly capture the complexities of this time and place
Now the story naturally has cinematic qualities. It has murder, sex, scandal, and the sort of big business shenanigans that audiences eat up these days. But it wouldn't work as a movie.
For this to be properly adapted, it has to be done as a TV series. While a relatively slim volume at a little over 400 pages, the story is just too damn big and broad to do justice to with a 2-3 hour feature film, or even a two or three episode miniseries. You could two  seasons of 10-13 one-hour episodes each, with season one dealing with events leading up to Taylor's murder, and season 2 with the investigation & aftermath, and then you might get the story right.
But back to the book.

I would suggest picking this up if you're into movies, murder, and history. William J. Mann manages to capture not just the story, but the era, and presents it with great energy and style.