Why Rated R Movies are Better for Kids than PG-13 Ones

People who let their kids see rated “R” movies are often considered to be “bad” parents who aren’t paying enough attention to what their children are exposed to. In fact, if you take a kid to a rated R movie, the guy behind the ticket booth will usually ask “you know this movie is rated R, right?” The problem is, kids love the kind of violence normally associated with these movies. This caused a conundrum after the release of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984, smack-dab in the middle of the first Hollywood Blockbuster heyday. It was too violent to have been PG but they still wanted to make money off of the violence-starved young masses. Spielberg and the MPAA solved it with the magical rating “PG-13.” Now you can say “fuck” once, show Kate Winslet’s tits and kill as many people as you want as long as it’s not too bloody or gory. Problem solved? Not quite. I posit that PG-13 movies are actually worse for kids than rated R movies. They teach young people that violence is a fun, bloodless affair that isn’t nearly as bad as the news makes it out to be. Rated R movies on the other hand show audiences how horrific violence is and set high stakes for the characters.

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Take the PG-13 Jurassic World for instance. A shit-ton of people die. They get munched by Velociraptors, snatched by flying pterodactyls, dropped into the gaping maw of the sea-dwelling mosasaurus and eaten alive by the genetically altered “Indominus Rex.” But it’s also fairly tame. The director cuts away when the actual eating happens, there’s no guts, barely any blood and we don’t see any arms or legs ripped off. No one we care about ever gets killed. The people who die are generally assholes but we don’t know enough about them to actually enjoy it when they receive their just desserts. In other words, violence is something that happens to other people, not us. It’s also not scary. It’s kind of funny. Therefore, the movie fundamentally fails to be what a monster flick should be — scary.

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Put Jurassic World up next to one of the best rated R monster movies, the original Alien. Only a half a dozen or so people die in this movie, but when they die, they die. You see aliens ripping out of people’s chests, people getting burned with alien acid blood, blood gurgling out of people’s mouth. It’s fucking scary. It reminds us how small we are and how fragile our existence is. It shows us that death isn’t fun, it’s horrible.

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Compare that to the post-credits scene of another monster movie, the very PG-13 The Mummy. It’s an epic war sequence in which a horde of Middle Eastern warriors engage in battle with the French Foreign legion. More people die in that first scene alone than in the first two rated R Alien movies combined. But somehow this movie is considered less violent because they don’t show anyone’s blood or guts. So three things are happening here. We are showing an ass-load of people being mercilessly slaughtered in a movie marketed towards children. We’re also portraying violence in a way that is highly unrealistic. Third, we’re making violence seem fun. So what’s a worse influence on your kids? A movie in which a few people die and you see some blood or a movie in which countless nameless Middle Eastern people and young soldiers murder each other in a light-hearted spirit? Think about it.

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You can’t shield your kids from violence. Even if you don’t let them watch any movies they still live in a world filled with war, genocide and murder. So the question becomes, what do you want them to think about violence? Is it something scary and horrendous or is it something fun? At the end of the day, don’t give movies too much credit for influencing your kids. It detracts from the impact of your role as a parent. Films can only shape your children’s understanding of the world if you aren’t around to show them how it really is. After all, it’s just a movie.

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Kanye, U2 and the Boss

In recognition of world AIDS day, a Bono-less U2 took the stage in Time Square Monday night for a surprise free concert with an impressive retinue of guest performers including Coldplay’s Chris Martin, American Idol sweetheart Carrie Underwood, superstar Kanye West and the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen.

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On a whim, I decided to trek down from the Upper West Side and brave the rain for a few hours to see the show. It was interesting seeing the generational and demographic divide between those who came to see the Boss and those who came to see Kanye.

Demographic-wise I’m somewhere in between —  too young to be a U2 or Springsteen fan and although I’ve liked Kanye for some time and loved his last album, I’m more of a Rock ‘n Roll dude than a Hip Hop guy. In fact, I didn’t even know Kanye was supposed to be there until I was waiting for the show to start. Starring at my phone, I said aloud “wow, Kanye is going to be here too” and a young woman looked over at me like I was crazy, her eyes asking “why the hell else would you be there?”

As our diverse melting pot of fans waited in the rain under a canopy of intersecting umbrellas, people in the back began yelling for us to close our umbrellas. I turned around snarkily and yelled “I’ll close my umbrella when someone more famous than you gets on stage”. I kept to my promise, and the concert lived up to our anticipation.

10509771_10101550338760558_2665281406887499673_nKanye was explosive and amazing. I felt young, empowered and filled with life and verve. After his set, a WAVE of kids who had aggressively and rudely pushed their way past me aggressively and rudely pushed me out of there out of the crowd, leaving just as the Boss took the stage. C’mon teens, don’t be a parody of yourselves.

Then there was the Boss. Whoa. Now I know why he’s called by that moniker. He’s just really, really, really cool. I can’t really explain it. I guess that’s what being a super-famous person is all about. It made me start thinking. On the outside, The Boss and Kanye might seem as different as their fans. But in actuality they are more like each other than they are like their fans. They are both living legends, existing on some crazy Mount Olympus of fame and money. So what does that mean? It means that WE the audience are more alike than we think we are as well. Those kids looked at me like I was a mental patient because I didn’t come for Kanye. I looked at them with scorn when they peace’d out before Bruce took the stage. But as the music continued and I found myself enjoying U2’s played out catalog of hits that I usually can’t stand I felt a weird companionship with those around me who had been cheering Kanye and were now cheering Bruce. We all had one thing in common. We said yes to life that night.

As for Carrie Underwood and Chris Martin…they did alright for a Talent Show winner and a Radiohead knockoff who clearly didn’t know the lyrics to the songs he was singing (although his Substitu2 t-shirt was priceless). Underwood’s voice sounded beautiful carrying through the streets of Time Square, but whoever writes her songs is clearly phoning it in. She’s a legitimate talent who deserves better material.

But at the end of the day, who stole the show? Bill Clinton of course, making a surprise appearance to cheers of “4 more years!” (incidentally the exact same thing that was chanted the LAST time I saw Billdog speak a few years ago). Love him or hate him, President Clinton proved once again that he’s as charismatic and spellbinding as any Rock ‘n Roll star.

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All in all, glad I went. This is after all the type of thing I moved to New York for. The knowledge that we are in the center of the art and commerce and all of the most famous and talented people on the planet may show up at any time. Also, I felt a genuine sense that I chosen to say “yes” to life that night and was surrounded by others who made the same decision.

More importantly it got me thinking about how to harness the idealism of artists to literally save the world. Artists like Bono take a lot of flack for expressing their political views and advocating for social change. I make fun of him all the time. Frankly it’s easy, they guy wears sunglasses inside and loves the sound of his own voice. But an artist like Bono or Kanye can mobilize masses of energized young people in a way that Presidents and Senators can’t. I’ve grown up thinking that the AIDS epidemic would never be solved in my lifetime. This week’s concert give me a glimmer of hope. It also got me to donate a few bucks to the cause. The concert may be free but the life-saving AIDS medication that can be used to stop the spread of this deadly disease isn’t. Thanks Bill, Bruce, and Kanye for reminding of this while having a great time. Who said saving the world can’t be fun?

Terror of the Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes films have always been scary to audiences both young and old. Not the “boo” scary of a horror movie or even the “ewww” scary of a monster movie. Sure the makeup and effects have been consistently overwhelming and grotesque from the first incarnation in 1968 to Tim Burton’s brain dead “re-imagining” (whatever the hell that is) to the pumped up 3D version in theaters this week. But that’s not what continues to scare me about this franchise. It’s the sense of existential dread that man’s dominance on our planet is perilous and finite. That our own technology and hubris could pave the way for another intelligent and able-bodied species to take our place as the masters of the Earth. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is perhaps the most riveting exploration of those fears in the entire history of the long-running franchise.

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The earlier films and their newer counterparts both express the fears and moral conundrums of their day. The films of the 60’s and 70’s were cautionary tales about the consequences of racial inequality and the palpable fear of worldwide nuclear annihilation. Charleton Heston’s beach-pounding “damn you all to hell” in front of the rusted and ruined Statue of Liberty rivals Doctor Strangelove as cinema’s greatest anti-war statement of the nuclear age. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and its immediate predecessor Rise are about anxieties over man’s increasing dependence on pharmaceuticals and the fear that a modern and insidious plague could bring our civilization to its knees. It’s no mistake that the post-apocalyptic society (and landscape) of the newest film resembles something out of Walking Dead or Contagion rather than The Omega Man.

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But apes prove much livelier than zombies in the rousing spectacle of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. They growl and leap and pound on bears, humans and each other. They eventually steal our weapons and overtake our streets in the heart-pounding climactic battle — the best the series has ever seen and the all out ape war I’ve been waiting for since I was a boy. The image of the warmongering chimp Koba riding through a wall of fire on horseback, toting two machine guns and eventually overtaking a tank single-handed is the best thing to flicker on celluloid this summer season. The motion-capture performances are so compelling and the technology so near-perfect that the characters in this movie scratch and crawl and bite their way out of the so-called “uncanny valley” of computer characters. (Although the little boy inside of me still misses seeing actual actors clad in grotesque makeup appliances and weird, 70s leather jackets).

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The production design of the film as also breathtaking. As a native Bay Area resident (recently transplanted to New York) seeing my home destroyed by the fall of man is at once heart-wrenching and terrifying. It is also a realization of something I have been asking of this series for years.

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The earlier films provided amazing matte paintings of man’s fallen cities but aside from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (the first sequel) we didn’t get to spend enough time there. Dawn finally has the technology to let this destroyed landscape become a truly immersive environment rather than a static background. It makes the horror of this world gone made all the more real and frightening.

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But the visual elements of this film are not really what continues to scare me the more I think about it. It’s how “believable” it all seems. The premise of the apes’ rise seems pulled out of the headlines and the dawn of the ape civilization realistically parallels the early villages and tribal customs of mankind’s ancestors. “Realistic” is a relative term of course, considering this series has always coasted on the nightmarish absurdity of its own higher-than-high concept. But there are a lot fewer questions than the earlier films had such as “Why do they all speak in British accents? How do they have guns and cameras but all their other technology seems rather stone age? Why do they have the same idiosyncratic idioms we do except modified for apes?” This is the Apes movie with the least eye-rolls in the history of the franchise. Of course it’s not WITHOUT those moments. After all, this is a movie about talking apes riding around on horses with machine guns.

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But by the end of the film, it’s clear that this Apes installment is not about man versus ape. It’s about those who seek peace versus those who lust for war — be they ape or human. It’s a nuanced perspective that earlier films in the franchise have attempted to take but for the first time it’s not too on the nose. The fact that this movie paints with such compassionate shades of gray is a “twist” that rivals the Statue of Liberty denouement of the first film and it will serve to preserve the thoughtful and compassionate soul of this venerable franchise for a long time to come.

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X-Men and Society’s Other

Everyone at some point in their lives has experienced the stinging feeling of being different. Sometimes it can be as innocuous as being the new person at work or school but many others have felt the pain of realizing that they are different from others based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, nationality or body type. Historically, humanity has been better at oppressing one another best on these difference than embracing each other in spite of them. As with all societal problems, our best hope for overcoming this unfortunate tendency is through our children. But how do we teach the next generation to evolve as a society and overcome the petty prejudices that have divided humankind for millennium? Take them to see the new X-Men movie this summer. xmen For the past 50 years the venerable X-Men franchise has been known in comics, television and film for its fantastical tales of science fiction, superpowers and spandex-clad heroics. But beneath the bombastic pageantry of a series that began at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement has always been an underlying theme of embracing those who are different as extraordinary and learning not to fear those who we do not understand. Science fiction has always been a great way to subtly deal with complex social issues and societal anxieties in manner that is accessible to a broad audience. The original Godzilla slyly chastised the United States for the nuclear horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Planet of the Apes addressed issues of racism in America and Star Trek boldly preached for a better tomorrow where the planet finally overcomes war, greed and intolerance. But perhaps more than these or any others, the X-Men series has always tackled these issues with unmatched humor, humanity and energy. X-Men portrays a world in which “mutants”, individuals who have evolved to possess superhuman abilities are scorned, oppressed and misunderstood by a society that fears and hates them for being different. Replace the world mutant with “black”, “gay” or “Muslim” and the parallels are impossible to ignore.

Far from shying away from these uncomfortable societal issues, the film incarnation of X-Men has always embraced them head on. Director Bryan Singer, who started the film series in 2000 and brought it back to glory with the latest installment knows what it’s like to be different. Raised in a Jewish family, Singer is also one of the few Hollywood directors who is openly gay. Both of these aspects of his identity are present in the first two films in the series. The first film begins in a Nazi Concentration camp located in occupied Poland, showing the young mutant Magneto—the film’s “antagonist” persecuted by Nazis for his Jewish identity. Flash forward to the not-so-distant future and Magneto attends a hearing where government officials call for a “Mutant Registration” act that bears a terrifying resemblance to the infamous “Nuremberg Laws” of Nazi Germany that eventually lead to the horrors of the Holocaust. The opening of the latest X-Men film, Days of Future Past reveals that these anti-mutant sentiments will indeed lead to a Holocaust that not only dooms mutantkind, but all of humankind along with it. The first two X-Men films introduce us to Rogue and Bobby, two teens coming to grips with being mutants. Rogue finds that she is unable to become physical with her boyfriend because she is a “mutant”. Bobby has to deal with “coming out” as a mutant to his parents. If you changed every reference to “mutant” to “gay” in the dialogue, the scene would play exactly the same. Bobby’s parents say that they still love him, but just didn’t know he was a “mutant”. Bobby’s mother is shocked and asks if he’s ever “tried not being a mutant”. Bobby’s brother rejects his sibling based on this revelation and storms off to his room. It is a moment that many gay teens have experienced beat for beat when coming out to their families. Perhaps even Bryan Singer’s own coming out mirrored this experience.

By the third film, a scientist whose son is a winged mutant named Angel announces he has developed a “cure” to being a mutant, much like the many pastors and priests who claim they can help people control and contain their homosexual tendencies. Young Rogue lines up to receive the cure so that she can finally hook up with Bobby. But Angel defies his father and flies shirtless above the streets of San Francisco, known worldwide as the most gay-friendly city on the planet, inspiring his fellow mutants to reject this cure and remain proud of themselves. The scene may sound cheesy (it is) but for anyone who has ever felt pressured to change who they are to please others, it is a powerful message: You are beautiful, no matter what they say. In X-Men First Class, the characters adopt the catchphrase “Mutant and Proud” which mirrors both the “Black is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s as well as the current day Gay Pride movement. In one scene, two white males in black suits ridicule the titular first class of mutants, prompting a discussion among the characters of the pain caused by the way they are viewed by mainstream society. By the end of the film, the “Mutant Pride” movement diverts into two distinct paths, with some of the characters following the militaristic Magneto and others following the more pacifistic Charles Xavier. This distinction subtly parallels the philosophical divide between the militant Malcolm X and the peace loving Martin Luther King Jr., two figures of the Civil Rights movement who would come to embody their respective perspectives on how to combat racial inequality.

Most Americans are ignorant of the fact that Malcolm X would later come to embrace the belief that the races could in fact coexist together peacefully. It is moral complication that history chooses to ignore because it blurs the binary nature of our society’s historical narrative. Days of Future Past for its part, shows Magneto following a similar path as Malcolm X. Born Malcolm Little, the legendary leader adopted the stark moniker “X” as to represent the lost tribal name that was lost when his forebears were take from Africa in chains. The characters in X-Men similarly forsake their “slave names” in favor of Mutant alter egos. Magneto’s disciple Mystique refuses to respond to her human name of Raven, and when introduced to the troubled young mutant John Allerdyce, Magneto asks for the boy’s “real name”. John responds “Pyro”.   For generations, the “others” in society have been framed as weak, ugly and inferior. The X-Men series shows young audiences and readers that the others are strong, beautiful and just as good as anyone else. In fact, sometimes they might even be more evolved. Magneto, for his part, considers he and his mutant brothers to be something of God’s chosen people, another parallel to his Jewish heritage. At one point in the second film he turns to Pyro and lets him know “You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different.” The actor portraying Magneto, Ian McKellen, is himself not Jewish, but he is openly gay. In fact, he originated a role in the play Bent, which tells of how homosexuals were treated even worse than Jews in the Holocaust. It is a beautiful and poetic moment indeed to see a gay actor born 30 years before the Stonewall riots turn to a young man and remind him that he should be proud of who he is no matter what anyone says. Magneto began the series as its “villain” but in Days of Future past he finally redeems himself. It takes him two Holocausts to realize it, but he eventually comes to understand that all life is precious and beautiful and that no man or woman is better or worse than any other. And if a hardened old man who has experienced so much suffering and intolerance can finally overcome his own prejudices then none of us have any excuse not to follow his example. So teach your kids to embrace their classmates no matter what they look like, who they pray to and who they love. And for god’s sake, take them to see Days of Future Past, it’s freaking fantastic.

Top 5 Christmas Movies

The year is winding to a close and it’s time to enjoy all of the wonderful movies this magnificent season has to offer you and your beloved family. Only have time to watch a handful of films, do you? Fret not! We’ve put together a spectacular list of heart-warming Christmas classics that are guaranteed to fill your soul with holiday joy. So without further ado, we are proud to present the top 5 Christmas movies for you to watch with your kin! Merry Christmas and to all a good year!

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5. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

“Merry Christmas 007,” sneers Ernest Stavro Blofeld, arch nemesis of secret agent James Bond, before gifting him a horrific Christmas death within the mechanical bowels of an Alpine gondola. After leaving Bond for dead, Blofeld proceeds to play Santa with the harem of hot lady-hostages holed up in his evil snowy lair, stuffing their stockings with brainwashing devices that turn these lovely young vixens into ecological terrorist-elves, delivering death and starvation to billions (and to all a good night, indeed). Although Bond manages to escape death and foil Blofeld’s dastardly plan, the villainous mastermind does succeed in murdering Bond’s wife and one true love. Happy Christmas indeed!

4. Lethal Weapon

It’s the Holiday Season in Los Angeles and we all know what that means: A  beautiful and bare-breasted young woman has leapt to her death from a high-rise building in a suicidal stupor induced by Draino-laced narcotics. So America’s favorite law enforcement agency, the LAPD, sends in their best officer,  a crazed Vietnam-vet-turned-narcotics-officer-who-has-recently-lost-his-wife-and-almost-murdered-a-suspect-while-conducting-a-drug-bust-at-a-Christmas-tree lot. After a harrowing series of insanely violent shootouts, he manages to bust the ring of pornographers and drug runners behind the beautiful young woman’s death and is finally able to celebrate Christmas properly: at the grave of his dead wife! But don’t worry, he still has time to deliver a Christmas present to his partner, the bullet he was planning on blowing his own brains out with. Ho! Ho! Ho!

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A movie musical that takes place on Christmas Eve! Yay, what’s it about? Why it’s the heartwarming tale of a barely-legal heroin-addicted stripper who falls in love with a washed-up recovering junkie-rockstar-wannabe who lives with a penniless filmmaker whose promiscuous girlfriend left him for a woman more manly than him. Although they can’t afford the electricity for Christmas lights, or any lights for that matter, they at least won’t spend their Christmas sober

because after being mercilessly beaten by street thugs, their ATM-robbing hacker ex-roomate shows up with a transgender street performer bearing a bottle of booze purchased with blood money earned from murdering the innocent dog of the former friend turned landlord who is letting them live in their shithole of a building for free. And when he reveals a Christmas plan to improve their quality of life through urban renewal and tries to send the heroin-addled stripper to rehab, they then turn against him by staging a massive protest that erupts into a riot. And the cherry on top this cheery fruitcake of Yuletide joy? All the characters are dying a slow and painful death from AIDS! Happy Holidays everyone!

2. Home Alone

Finally, a story about a child discovering the joy of Christmas through a series of nail-bitingly suspenseful nightmare scenarios that represent every parent’s, deepest and most profound fears! When a young boy’s negligent family unwittingly abandons their adorable son to spend the Holidays in Europe, he is forced to fend for himself against an attack from a duo of dangerous criminals intent on ransacking their home. Luckily, the child is a maniacally violent sociopath who wantonly subjects the would-be robbers to a brutal horror house of escalating tortures until they finally succumb to his merciless onslaught of pain and suffering. It’s Christmas fun for the whole family that is sure to teach your children that instead of calling the police, you should turn into a bloodthirsty vigilante bent on taking the law into your own hands by booby-trapping your house against all who dare enter it during the Holidays.

1. Die Hard

Finally it’s time for our absolute favorite Christmas movie, a touching tale of love, sacrifice and redemption that is guaranteed to warm the cockles of your heart like a toasty fire on a snowy night.  It’s the inspiring story of a hard-nosed cop who decides to visit his estranged wife and children for Christmas only to discover she is hiding his existence from everyone around her by living her life under a different name. This desperate man’s last-ditch attempt to save his marriage is rudely interrupted when a vicious gang of German terrorists infiltrate the office Holiday party and begin murdering employees in order to steal their assets. Narrowly escaping their clutches, our hero systematically hunts down and kills the entire band of terrorists. After his first kill, he places a Santa hat and a taunting message on the bullet-ridden corpse and leaves the body for the man’s grieving brother to find. Meanwhile, he forms a friendship with an overweight fellow police officer who recently shot an innocent child to death by dropping another mangled body onto the hood of the unsuspecting officer’s car. Eventually, our hero manages to save his marriage by throwing a man out of a high-rise window in front of her as we watch him plummet to a horrid death in haunting slow motion. And the corpulent peace officer finally makes up for killing that stupid kid by blowing away the one person that our hero had spared. Cue “Let it Snow” and roll credits ladies and gentlemen. It’s Christmas Eve.

Happy Holidays everyone! We sincerely hope that you and your family enjoy this lineup of our favorite Christmas films. We sure enjoyed putting it together for you!

All the World’s a Screen

The Brightest Heaven of Invention

The works of William Shakespeare have demonstrated a remarkable ability to traverse the centuries without losing their relevance or effectiveness. More striking than that, is how the Bard’s canon moves through storytelling mediums as well as it does through time. Hundreds of years after his death, Shakespeare’s plays continue to be delivered to audiences through technology that was not even a twinkle in humanity’s eye during the Elizabethan era.

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Orson Welles made adaptations of Shakespeare a staple of radio drama in the 1930s, and Laurence Olivier made cinematic versions of the Bard’s work an Oscar-winning enterprise in the 1940s. Franco Zeffirelli made Romeo and Juliet fresh and new for the generation of free love in the late 1960s and Baz Lurhman did the same for the MTV generation in the 1990s. Kenneth Branagh made even the densest Shakespeare text digestible for ordinary audiences with his Henry V and Hamlet. The brilliant visionary Julie Taymor took the Bard’s forgotten tragedy Titus Andronicus out of place and out of time with cinema’s most wildly anachronistic adaptation of Shakespeare, Titus. Modern audiences are able to enjoy podcast performances of the favorite Shakespeare plays on their iTunes as they commute to and from work. The younger generation can even play a videogame based on the characters from Hamlet on their Android or iPhone.

The words of the Bard of Avon are alive and well in an era of storytelling where tales of “sound and fury” filled with incredible imagery and effects have delegated the kind of clever wordplay that Shakespeare embodies to the backseat of dramatic narrative. And yet, one of the vanguards of this bombastic trend of storytelling, Joss Whedon, has taken a respite from his storied career of vampires, spaceships, aliens and superheroes to bring us a great cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing.

Much Ado About Plotting

Much Ado is like a blueprint for all romantic comedies, and the genre follows its template to this day: Two characters who are obviously destined to be together spend the first half of the film bickering. They finally admit to themselves and each other that they love each other, but due to a series of misunderstandings caused by a rich and handsome douchebag, everything goes to hell. After much cringing from the audience, the plot creaks its way to resolution, our two leads end up together and the rich and handsome douche gets what is coming to him. The formula still works like a charm even though everyone knows how it will play out.

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A Company of Players

For the majority of his career, Shakespeare relied on a trusted troupe of actors known as the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” to bring life to his characters.The various players in the troupe would appear in production after production of Shakespeare’s plays, playing dozens of characters. With the cast of Much Ado, Whedon has demonstrated that he has created a troupe of actors as loyal and familiar as Shakespeare’s. Fans of Whedon’s works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and The Avengers will recognize almost all of the faces here and it’s clear that this is a family of performers who were most likely paid nothing more for their appearance here than the pleasure of working with old friends. It works well for a play like Much Ado, whose dramatis personae is populated by a tight-knit community of cousins, comrades and co-conspirators who have a long history together.

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Where We Lay our Scene

The production was filmed at Whedon’s personal home, which makes the world of the story seem real and comfortable. It must have been a challenge filming without the flexibility of a soundstage, as evidenced by the tremendous number of electrical technicians credited for this film. As the story plays out, you begin to feel like a guest at the Don’s home, enjoying the long string of parties and after-parties that make up the bulk of the plot.

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Unlike many modern or anachronistic productions of Shakespeare, this production doesn’t beat you over the head with the fact that the words don’t match the setting like in Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet or the Ethan Hawke Hamlet. There are a couple of nice moments that acknowledge the disconnect, like when letters or other correspondence appear as text messages, or guns fill in for swords, but that’s not the point of the exercise. It also avoids some of the staginess of more traditionalist interpretations of Shakespeare’s works like Olivier’s films. This never seems like a film of a play. It always feels like a film. I’m not sure exactly what the choice was to film in black and white. Maybe there is a color scheme in Whedon’s decor that doesn’t match the setting of the story. Although there is nothing in Whedon’s interpretation that dictates the film needs be in black and white, it works here.

Words, Words, Words

The key to helping a modern audience understand Shakespeare’s language is to make sure that the actors understand what they are saying. The poetry is beautiful in its own right, but the intention and meaning behind the words are what make the plays great. So many modern performances of Shakespeare fall flat because the actor’s don’t seem to know what the hell they’re talking about. Despite a strong cast of supporting players, Lurhman’s Romeo + Juliet never escapes the realm of eye candy because the two leads seem hopelessly adrift in the text. Kenneth Branagh’s production of Much Ado is fantastic, but suffers whenever Keanu Reeves is onscreen because he clearly can’t handle lines more complex than “Whoa” or “Excellent!” Whedon is not dealing with Ian McKellan or Patrick Stewart here, but there are very few weak links in the cast. The two leads are fantastic, and the rest of the cast provides excellent support.

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The songs play well with Shakespeare’s lyrics, to the point that the people I saw the film with weren’t even sure they were from the play. Whenever 400-year-old words don’t seem out of place in a modern time, that’s a really good sign the director is doing something right.

The Undiscovered Country

While Joss Whedon’s reputation is that of a sci-fi/fantasy genre director, he has displayed an impressive knack for the classics. This film could very well have ended up a high-profile version of the drama club school play—something that’s only fun for those involved. Instead we have received an adaptation of Shakespeare refreshingly devoid of pretense or self-importance that is also fun and accessible. The real question is, what’s next? Whedon is already directing the second Avengers film and most likely has his pick of plum projects going forward.

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Why not combine his skill at staging genre epics with his ability to shake up Shakespeare? Forbidden Planet, the sci-fi classic loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest demonstrated that the Bard’s stories work even in a futuristic setting. I’d love to see a sci-fi version of the battle of Agincort with a lightsaber-weilding Henry V jet packing around calling out “Once more onto the breach dear friends!” Why not stage a production of Hamlet on a lonely moon base? How about a Midsummer Night’s Dream where a bunch of kids beam down to a fantastic alien planet called Arden? How about a version of Macbeth in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of murderous warlords? Sounds crazy? So does a black and white production of Shakespeare directed by the guy who made Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But hey, it works.

A Darker Man of Steel

The Last Son of Krypton is a difficult hero to bring into the 21st Century. As the first true “superhero,” and the prototype for all who followed, he is a bit of a relic from a bygone era with simpler ideas about right and wrong, good and evil. He is a pure and idealistic figure that seems out of place in the cynical world we live in today. There appears to be a growing opinion that Superman is not as interesting as other superheroes because he is so powerful. Most fans of Supes know there is more to him than his incredible abilities, and the new film Man of Steel tries in earnest to demonstrate it. For the most part, it succeeds.

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Still, by bringing Superman into the era of The Dark Knight and Skyfall, one gets the sense that something was lost in translation. Superman seems as out-of-place in 2013 as he does on the planet Earth. But as a person who keeps a figurine of the Man of Steel on my desk to remind myself to always strive to be the best person I can be, I know that we need a hero as simple and pure as Superman in this time of moral ambiguity. Man of Steel, while not a great film by any stretch, will hopefully remind moviegoers of this.

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As the latest of numerous television, cinematic, animated and live-action portrayals of Superman, Man of Steel represents not only a reboot of the character, but a significant shift in tone. Superman has traditionally been portrayed as a sincere Boy Scout with a winning grin, and his adversaries were light-hearted scamps with decidedly G-rated schemes involving real estate or accounting scams. This Superman is brooding and troubled, and his adversary is nothing short of a genocidal maniac.

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DC and Warner Brothers seem hell-bent on making sure that Superman could potentially exist in the terrifying world of the Dark Knight. While this darker take on the Man of Steel mythos never completely betrays the character, there are a few moments that come close. These beats are not at all shocking for your typical modern movie, but they are fairly disturbing in the context of a Superman adventure. After all, he’s a guy in tights who can fly. You shouldn’t take him too seriously.

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It’s clear that this film is building the foundation for an inevitable Justice League film featuring Bats and Supes. And while Man of Steel is by no means a misstep, Warner Brothers may need to be reminded that Superman doesn’t need to be as dark as Batman. The two characters are supposed to be the foil to one another. They challenge each other and keep the other one honest. If you make them too much alike, they won’t be interesting together.

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As an origin story, Man of Steel is serviceable. Comic fans are generally extremely concerned that origin stories are true to the source material, but Superman has been rebooted so many times in the comics that there isn’t a lot of grounds for nerd rage here. The Krypton scenes represent something of a science fiction pastiche. The planet itself looks like a cut scene out of a Halo game, with weird space armor, laser guns and alien hover ships The Genesis chamber looks like a leftover set piece from the “real world” of Matrix. The Kryptonian leaders are wearing what looks like costumes from the David Lynch Dune movie. And why is it that everytime Russell Crowe dies to a Hans Zimmer score, they have some vaguely ethnic lady singing a sad song? What is this, Gladiator is space? Still, the proceedings move more briskly than the 1977 rendition of Krypton’s last days, even though Crowe pales in comparison to Marlon Brando as Jor-El.

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The Smallville scenes are mostly told in flashback, interspersed throughout the plot of the movie. Kevin Costner once again proves his ability to be “America’s Dad,” and as Clark Kent’s adopted dad, he brings the kind of warmth that the rest of the movie lacks. Diane Lane similarly brings a lot of heart to the role of Martha Kent. These sequences concentrate heavily on how Superman learns to control his powers and more importantly, understand the responsibility that comes along with them. These scenes establish the essence of Superman’s struggle quite well. Amy Adams does fine as plucky reporter Lois Lane. The budding romance between Supes and Lane is acceptable, but earlier cinematic portrayals of this relationship easily surpass what is established here.

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Henry Cavill is a great choice for Supes. The suit looks a little too dark and textured (and where’s the underwear on the top of the tights!) but he wears it well. Maybe it’s too cheeky in modern times, but I would have liked to see the Superman “curl” in his hair. He doesn’t need to wear it the whole time, but can’t we have a moment where it falls into his forehead as a wink to the audience? And it’s fun winks like that this film sorely needs

It is notable that this is the first portrayal of Superman to “realistically” portray his powers. We truly see a believable demonstration of what it would look like if someone could fly through the air and smash through buildings. But unlike the previous films, we don’t get to have any fun with these powers. There are no moments of true wonder like when Superman first saves Lois from a crashing helicopter in the original film, or when he lands a plane in the middle of a baseball game in Superman Returns.

The best part of this origin story is the last 5 minutes of the film. It is here where Cavill is allowed to really slip into the role of Superman as we know him. His interaction with the crusty military commander does a great job establishing Superman’s personality. He is firm but not aggressive. Charming but not smarmy. When he finally puts on his glasses as Clark Kent, there is a feeling of satisfaction akin to seeing Chris Pine settle into his chair at the end of 2009’s Star Trek or Daniel Craig finally utter “Bond, James Bond” at the end of Casino Royale. Everything is in its place again, and we’re ready to begin the adventure.

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Watching a reboot of Superman is a bit like watching a production of Hamlet. It deserves to be examined on its own terms, but demands to be compared to what has come before. What is always understood is that it will not be the final time the story is told. In the final analysis, Man of Steel is not the definitive rendition of the Superman mythos some may have hoped it to be. It is, however, a worthy chapter in the Last Son of Krypton’s long and enduring history. Welcome back, Kal-El.

Back in Development

The premiere of the long-awaited 4th season of Arrested Development might constitute the first video on demand “event” in streaming television history. The whole point of VOD and online streaming is that you don’t have to watch the same content as everybody else at the same time. And yet, fans of the cult favorite found ourselves on the Netflix website at midnight May 25th, eagerly clicking refresh until the new season dropped.

It’s appropriate that the show is making its triumphant return as a streaming series, as many of its fans first discovered the show online. But back in 2006, streaming television was not a mainstream form of consuming content. Streaming was something underground, illicit and maybe even a bit illegal. In order to watch the shows you wanted, your friends had to send you links to secret websites and you’d have to gobble up your content before they were shut down for copyright infringement. Learning from the music industry’s post-Napster implosion, network TV decided not to fight the new wave of online streaming, but rather join in.

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The return of Arrested Development is proof that VOD has come of age and has a bright and profitable future. The “premiere” was a big hit, and Netflix has expressed its willingness to continue producing the show for another season. But enough about who’s making money off the show and how, let’s answer the question on everybody’s mind: Is it any good?

The first episode of season four is not the falling on the floor laughing affair that was the original pilot in 2003, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. The pilot had to be the first hit off the “big yellow joint” of Arrested D, and it had to get you hooked right off the bat. This first episode has a lot riding on it to be sure, but show creator Mitchell Hurwitz knows that even if the season opener is a total dud, everyone is going to keep watching to the end.

Sure, Hurwitz and co. could have made S4.E4 a cavalcade of inside jokes and crowd-pleasing references to previous seasons, but instead they decided to make it a slow build towards a big payoff. As the season progresses, this turns out to be a wise choice, and Hurwitz’s talented ensemble proves they still have the same skill of adeptly weaving together a complex tapestry of mishaps and misunderstood double entendres into a hilarious comedy of errors. And this author suspects that just like the previous seasons, rewatching the shows after seeing the whole season will expose layers upon layers of additional jokes and Easter Eggs that you may have missed the first time.

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Although it’s been a decade since the show premiered, the new Arrested Development has adapted well to the changing face of American popular culture. George Michael’s arc of the story is a clever parallel to the rise of Mark Zuckerburg, Michael has trouble using his iPhone calendar and drives a Google mapping car, Buster and Lucille have fallen in love with the term “hot mess” and Tobias has moved from the Blue Man group to musicals based off of the Marvel Universe.

The new season goes even deeper into the world of industry in-joke meta-awareness, with some hilarious success and occasional misfires. Narrator and producer Ron Howard has a large supporting role as himself, roping Michael into a scheme to produce a movie based on the Bluth Family. As a testament to the shows latent popularity, many comedy mega stars have cameos in the show, most notably Kristin Wiig and Seth Rogen as young Lucille and George. Ben Stiller returns as Tony Wonder, this time playing a more major role in the story.

Each episode centers around a different character of the family, with each of their stories weaving in and around one another as the plot thickens. This inventive format really pays off in the “back nine” of the season as everything comes together with hilarious results.  Gob’s episodes are probably the funniest and certainly the truest to the original run. There already some running jokes that are just as memorable as those of the earlier seasons, especially Gob’s new theme song “Getaway.”

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this new run is that it ends on a cliffhanger, assuring audiences that the cast and crew is ready to continue the (mis)adventures of the Bluth family. It has been reported that Michael Cera was the last hold-out to sign-up for the new run, and it seems he has come to his senses. His career has plateaued a bit since his Juno/Scott Pilgrim/Superbad days and he has hopefully been humbled enough to remember that Arrested Development is the show that got him where he is.

So mix a martini, dip a frozen banana, cozy up next to your cousin and enjoy the long-awaited return of the Bluths. It’s worth the wait.

Will NBC Let Hannibal Eat it?

Cannibalism strikes at the darkest fears of the human soul. It is therefore no surprise that Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter was rated by the American Film Institute as the greatest villain in Hollywood history, beating out Darth Vader, Goldfinger, the Joker and the Wicked Witch of the West herself. And while most cannibals consume their foes in an effort to absorb their power, Dr. Lecter chooses to eat people simply because they are rude. It is therefore not surprising that Lecter is somewhat charming, and often outright hilarious. When played correctly, Hannibal will woo you, make you laugh, and then…well…eat you up.

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Dr. Lecter began as a secondary character in the Thomas Harris novels Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs and eventually evolved into the star of the series in the next two books Hannibal and Hannibal Rising. Each of these films has been adapted into film at least once, ranging in success from critical and commercial flops to Academy Award-winning accolades. And while readers and moviegoers have followed the early years of Hannibal’s reign of terror as well as his late career comeback, we have not had much of a chance to see the evil Dr. Lecter in his monstrous heyday. With the new series Hannibal, NBC has decided to treat audiences with a recounting of Hannibal’s various conquests as a psychologist, serial killer, culinary connoisseur, and advisor to the FBI. And while Hannibal is a wonderfully acted, well-scripted and incredibly eerie program, it has somehow failed to connect with audiences as well as NBC hoped. As the various networks announce which shows they will cancel and which they will renew, Hannibal hangs in a strange limbo as the studio decides the good (bad) doctor’s fate. So while we await the decision, let’s take a moment to review Hannibal’s career.

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Thomas Harris, a former police beat reporter, introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter in his 1981 novel, Red Dragon. The book follows the story of FBI investigator Will Graham, who uses his knack for thinking like a serial killer to track them down. Graham rose to fame as the man who discovered that Lecter was the infamous “Chesapeake Ripper.”  Graham is now trying to hunt down a new serial killer known as the “Tooth Fairy,” a shy and troubled man with a cleft named Francis Dolarhyde. Graham begins visiting his old adversary Dr. Lecter, now in captivity, for assistance tracking down Dolarhyde. And while Lecter is ostensibly helpful, he secretly opens a dialogue with Dolaryhde himself and plots against Graham. This book is the only Lecter tale that has been adapted to the screen more than once. Michael Mann of Miami Vice fame brought the story to the big screen in 1986 with his adaptation Manhunter, starring Brian Cox as Dr. Lecter. Cox’s portrayal was excellent, but overshadowed in the public mind by that of Anthony Hopkins. For Hopkins third and final (so far) appearance as Hannibal, legendary hack director Brett Ratner remade the film under the novel’s original title. This later film features strong performances, but seems redundant and strange considering it is framed as a prequel to Hopkins previous portrayals of the characters and yet all of the actors are clearly a decade older.

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Harris’ follow-up book, Silence of the Lambs, more prominently features Hannibal Lecter. Again, Lecter is a side villain who is enlisted to help the FBI hunt down another serial killer on the loose. This time, the story centers around a young FBI recruit named Clarice Starling who is looking for a “Buffalo Bill,” a killer who skins female victims for a sinister and disturbing purpose. Starling and Lecter develop a strange, emotionally intimate relationship that is perhaps the most interesting element of the novel. In the last act, Hannibal uses his devious wiles to escape captivity and return to his cannibalistic ways. Director Jonathan Demme’s 1991 adaptation of the novel starring Anthony Hopkins as Lecter is almost universally regarded as the definitive portrayal of Hannibal. His creepy “quid pro quo” interplay with Jodie Foster as Agent Starling has come to define what we love and despise about Dr. Lecter. The film was lauded by critics and audiences and Dr. Lecter became an pop culture phenomenon. His infamous “fava beans with a nice chianti” tongue rattle has become one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. Thanks to his enormous popularity, Hannibal Lecter would became the central character for the next two novels and their subsequent film adaptations.

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Harris’ follow-up novel Hannibal is our first chance to see Dr. Lecter on the loose, causing havoc in full swing. With Lecter as the veritable protagonist of the piece, unchained by the constraints of being locked in a cell, Harris breaks the well-established template of the previous two stories. Various parties are on the lookout for Hannibal, including disfigured former patient Mason Verger and a self-serving Italian police officer hellbent on receiving the reward for Dr. Lecter’s capture. Meanwhile, Lecter is stalking his old “friend” Clarice Starling, who finds herself strangely drawn to the villainous Doctor. Along the way, we learn a bit about Dr. Lecter’s past, which begins to humanize the inhuman monster of the previous two stories. We are introduced to Lecter’s “memory palace,” an amazing inner world where Hannibal organizes and explores his brilliance and madness. Hopkins returned to the role in director Ridley Scott’s film adaptation of Hannibal 10 years after the release of Silence of the Lambs. The film’s tone was strikingly different from Demme’s film, and Scott plays it as high camp in the guise of high art. Gary Oldman as Verger is really the villain of the piece, and manages to steal the show from Hopkins. Julianne Moore does her best to fill Foster’s shoes in the part of Clarice Starling, but leaves the audience longing for her predecessor.

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Harris’ final (so far) novel in the Lecter tetralogy is Hannibal Rising. As the title indicates, the book is a prequel to the other stories, chronicling Hannibal’s childhood and eventual descent into cannibalism and insanity. We learn that Hannibal witnessed the death of his family at the hand of Nazi aggression and was manipulated into eating a broth made from the remains of his beloved younger sister. As Hannibal becomes a young adult, he hunts down the men who destroyed his family and consumes them as an act of revenge for forcing him to eat his own sister. We begin to understand why Lecter does what he does, and begin to almost sympathize with him. The 2007 cinematic adaptation of the novel is widely regarded as the weakest film in the series and performed poorly with audiences and critics.

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In contrast, NBC’s Hannibal represents a high watermark for the series. Charming Danish actor Madds Mikkelsen, who made a splash with American audiences as the evil LeChiffre from Casino Royale rivals even Hopkins in his portrayal of Dr. Lecter. Although he series centers around the Will Graham character from Red Dragon, Lecter once again steals the show. Mikkelsen’s Hannibal is dapper, haunting, hypnotizing and infinitely urbane. The show follows Hannibal’s heydey as the “Chesapeake Ripper,” as he brilliantly manipulates the FBI while serving as an advisor to them. Along the way, the showrunners come up with wonderfully disturbing “killers of the week” for Hannibal and Will to hunt down together. It is surprising how much NBC manages to get away with on this show, as some of the killers are even more gruesome than the Tooth Fairy and Buffalo. Perhaps the most terrifying and entertaining portions of the show are Hannibal’s dinner parties, where he serves his victims to his guests, who unwittingly gobble up their fellow men and women with gusto. These scenes take a dastardly cue from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, who was coincidentally played by Hopkins in Julie Taymor’s cinematic adaptation of the classic play. Like any good prequel, the audience’s knowledge of what is to come gives the show its sense of dramatic tension. And that tension runs high.

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At the end of the day, this is perhaps the best incarnation of the Hannibal the Cannibal saga and its a shame that NBC might be giving it the axe. But then again, NBC has a record for misguidedly cancelling shows that no one in their right mind should have cancelled (Star Trek anyone?). As viewers await NBC’s decision, Hannibal needs your help now more than ever. So crack open a bottle of chianti, boil some fava beans, and give the show a watch. If you like it, make sure to Tweet NBC not to serve Hannibal his last meal.

Star Trek: Into Dumbness

There has been an ongoing battle for the soul of Star Trek since the series was created by Gene Roddenberry in the mid-sixties. Roddenberry always envisioned the show as an opportunity to explore complex philosophical conundrums against the background of a bright vision for a better tomorrow. The studio execs have always wanted Star Trek to be cowboys and Indians in space. With the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, the studios have finally won the battle. The follow-up to Star Trek, the 2009 reboot of the franchise is a mind-numbing 2 hours of gunfire and fisticuffs set against a future we should fear, not aspire to. Gone is Roddenberry’s vision of an enlightened human civilization that has resolved its internal strife and set out to spread a message of peace across the galaxy. This future seems to have taken a colossal step backwards, dripping with the xenophobia and military industrial jingoism of the darkest days of American history. There isn’t a lot of Trekking going on this movie, and not a lot of seeking out new life forms. Like the last film, most of the action centers around Earth and Earthlings. The other planets are just scenery and the other species are mostly cannon fodder.

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I get the feeling that director JJ Abrams is like a kid who asked for Star Wars toys for Christmas, but his mother, not knowing the difference, accidentally bought him Star Trek toys. Unhindered by the miscalculation, Abrams has proceeded to play Star Wars with his Star Trek toys. Luckily, Abrams is finally going to get his Star Wars toys for his birthday, and I am confident he will have more fun playing with those.

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 The film opens on a beautiful planet populated with a race of primitive humanoids. The Star Trek mythos dictates that we should learn who these people are, what their civilization is about, and how they might interact with their more technologically advanced human cousins. Instead, we watch them chase our heroes down while throwing spears at them in an action sequence more suitable for an Indiana Jones flick than a Star Trek adventure. In the middle of the chase, Captain Kirk bumps into a large, hairy alien and instinctively shoots it with his phaser. Moments later, Doctor McCoy reveals that the beast was actually a friendly creature who was going to give them a ride to safety.

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 This moment is indicative of the film’s inherent problem. The characters and plot are moving at such a breakneck, mindless speed that instead of solving story conflicts, they are content to gun them down. The irony is that the film seems to understand its own problem. At numerous points in the story, characters wax poetic about how the Enterprise is supposed to be a vessel of peace rather than an instrument of war. In fact, that is clearly the entire theme of the movie. By the end of the story, the characters have learned this lesson, and the crew of the Enterprise finally sets out on the 5 year mission of exploration that is the entire premise of the series. The question is, why did it take 2 movies to establish a concept that was explained in 30 seconds at the beginning of each episode of the original series?

The answer is marketing. The Star Trek brand had lost it’s appeal in the 21st century. Star Trek was your dad’s science fiction, and in order to compete with the fast-paced, effects-laden, action-packed sci-fi flicks of today, it needed a serious makeover. Thanks to these new movies, Star Trek is cool again. But at what cost? Star Trek is like that smart, funny kid who decided to start dressing and acting like the popular kids to get more friends. The problem is, that kid already had some really great friends, and we feel a little left behind and ignored now that he’s changed so much.

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 Despite my qualms, I still really like this cast. Chris Pine and Karl Urban especially capture the essence of Kirk and McCoy. Zachary Quinto still hasn’t quite found his groove as Spock, but that’s the toughest role in the lot. Honestly, it took Leonard Nimoy a few episodes of the original series to really find the character. Abrams seems to think that in order to give his characters emotions, he needs to make them cry. Captain Kirk, Admiral Pike, even Spock and the Villain all cry in this movie. So many tears flow in this flick, you’d think the production was sponsored by Kleenex. And despite all of this crying, there is little emotional depth to to the film. The character conflicts are juvenile. Spock’s girlfriend is mad because he doesn’t share his feelings with her. Kirk is mad because Spock tattled on him to their boss. Scotty quits his job because Kirk won’t listen to him. Gone are the poignant and meaningful relationships that made the original series so captivating and enter a ship filled with whining hipsters.

 Speaking of hipsters, why is it that the characters seem to change outfits in every scene? Does Starfleet really have a different change of clothes for every activity their officers engage in? They have space uniforms, underwater uniforms, dress uniforms, and volcano uniforms. And when they land on the Klingon homeworld, they all put on sweet leather jackets. Gotta look cool in front of the Klingons. Captain Kirk has more costume changes in this movie than Queen Amidala. Occasionally, they let him wear his regular uniform, but by golly he never rips his shirt and exposes his chest. That’s not the Star Trek I know!

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Now that Star Trek has captured a more mainstream audience and JJ Abrams is moving on to his next assignment pumping some new blood into the rival Star Wars franchise, I have hope that a more thoughtful director can get this franchise back on course. The original series was always smart and imaginative, and occasionally boring for non-devotees. This new film is never boring, but it’s also never smart or imaginative. I give the studio major credit for making people love Star Trek again, I really do. The ship looks great, and so does the cast. But like Christopher Pike told Kirk in the last movie, “I dare you to do better.”