Weekend Reel Reads: 'Halo,' Charlie Chaplin and More

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by Steve Greene
April 29, 2012 12:15 PM
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Weekend Reel Reads is a regular feature that gathers lengthier stories related to the world of film criticism you may have missed during the week. If there's anything you think would be ideal for future installments, please let us know at critic@indiewire.com.

Microsoft Studios' "Halo."

Why the "Halo" Movie Failed to Launch:

One of the best-selling video game properties of all time, the "Halo" franchise, has long been ripe for a big-screen adaptation. Numerous directors have been attached to helm a film version, with a few that have even gone as deep as a venture into pre-production territory. This piece, published on Wired’s Game | Life blog, is an excerpt from Jamie Russell’s recent book on the history of Hollywood video game adaptations. While some readers may be familiar with the demise of Peter Jackson’s long-simmering, much-hyped vision that ultimately fell through, the story of the bidding war that preceded those developments is a fascinating look at the business of rights purchasing:

"Fortunately Larry Shapiro’s team at CAA had called ahead and warned the studios’ security heads what was going on. The Master Chiefs were allowed onto the lots at Universal, Fox, New Line, DreamWorks and others without firing a single shot. If this was the videogame industry literally invading Hollywood, it was remarkably bloodless. They delivered their scripts and waited outside the meetings rooms in silent character, flicking through the pages of Variety. Everyone knew the clock was ticking: Studio executives only had a couple of hours to read the 'Halo' screenplay and decide whether or not to make an offer before the Master Chiefs returned to CAA with the screenplay. It was the deal of the century, and a fantastic piece of showmanship."

Who Invented Chaplin's Tramp?

Published in the LA Review of Books, Jon Boorstin’s piece looks at the genesis of Charlie Chaplin’s iconic Tramp character. It was a persona that, in Chaplin's time, defied simple categorization and one that many modern audiences credit the actor for creating. Boorstin examines the Tramp's first appearances in an attempt to determine who is most responsible for its ultimate popularity. Two of Boorstin’s likely candidates (that have been overlooked in the current retelling of the actor/character’s mythos) are early cinema multitasker Mack Sennett, but perhaps most important, leading lady Mabel Normand. It’s a look at the dawn of 20th century cinema through the prism of an idea and a helpful reminder that legends are rarely ever the product of a single individual.

"What Sennett and Chaplin both neglect to mention in their memoirs is that Mabel Normand was among the very first stars to direct their own films, and Normand directed 'Mabel's Strange Predicament.' Perhaps in the intervening decades they forgot. It was certainly in their interest to forget. Why diminish their own roles in creating the miracle of the Tramp? Normand remembered it differently; she recalled Sennett's fury after seeing Chaplin's performance, screaming that Lehrman 'had hooked himself up with a dead one.' Normand said she begged him to give Charlie another chance."

A NYT Double Feature About Rights:

The concept of licensing previously produced works of art also popped up twice in The New York Times articles earlier this week. One details the struggle of documentarian Denny Tedesco to make a documentary about The Wrecking Crew, an oft-used cadre of studio musicians that backed some of the most recognizable recordings of the ‘60s. Even as the son of one of the members, Tedesco is caught in a budgetary bind because nearly every song clip in his documentary comes with a price tag. After premiering at SXSW in 2008, the film won’t reach a wider distribution until he can pay the record companies.

"'There are 132 music cues in this film, and you’ll know 99.9 percent of them,' Mr. Tedesco, 51, said. 'But when I asked one record company for a quote, they said it was going to cost $2.5 million.' He has managed to bargain the labels down, but, he added, 'I’ve still got about 25 songs left to pay off and need to raise $175,000 before I start to see the light.'"

And, much like music, works of art from recent centuries are subject to copyright law, too. Tales of their depictions in film feature prominently in another New York Times article. As a result, their usage as background material in films is subject to the same hurdles. The only difference is that, with a work by someone like Picasso or Matisse, some filmmakers simply choose to ignore the legal ramifications.

"Other filmmakers have tried to comply with family requests. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory sent the Picasso family a script of their 1996 film, 'Surviving Picasso,' and then flew to Paris to make their case in person. But the estate was unhappy that Picasso was portrayed as an inconsiderate womanizer, so it refused to grant permission. Instead, to recreate the aesthetic atmosphere, the filmmakers used work by Picasso’s contemporaries, Matisse and Braque."

Stirring the Pot on “The Hunger Games” and the Digital Issue:

“The Hunger Games” and the debate between digital and film are two starting points that have sparked a good amount of discussion on this particular blog. These conversation-starters seem to draw fire among casual observers and diehard cinephiles alike. Writing at Film School Rejects, Adam Charles pondered Lionsgate’s choice to direct "Catching Fire," the "Hunger Games" sequel. While Charles’ overview of the final four options' filmographies is a neat recap, his overall argument is an interesting one. He posits that, despite the success that a number of auteurs have enjoyed while adapting notable literary properties, perhaps the second installment will be best served by someone who isn’t necessarily the best director:

"However, if you were to poll the fans of 'The Hunger Games' series and name the films that each of these filmmakers made I can almost guarantee that most of the fans will not only recognize, but say they enjoyed the films of Francis Lawrence despite what any critic or film buff claims. Lawrence makes movies for the masses and the majority of that mass enjoy the movies he makes for them. Many of the individuals who presumably don't like his work are fans of the material his films were adapted from and they didn't like them (most specifically 'I Am Legend') because the film wasn't made for them, it was made for everyone else."

One of the recent logs on the digital/film fire comes from Criticwire member Jason Bailey in a recent post for The Atlantic. His argument? In today’s indie world, it might be too easy to make a film that is visually spectacular. With the proliferation of digital, a Tribeca film like "Babygirl" that has a grainier feel to it stands out far more than it normally would.

Before that, visual griminess was one of the last aesthetic vestiges of independent film, from the dirty-ashtray flavor of Clerks to the high-contrast Eraserhead­-style industrial technique of Pi to Sundance hitTadpole, which Entertainment Weekly memorably noted "looks like it was shot on wax paper." No more. I've overheard countless other critics and industry types leaving screenings raving about how gorgeous a particular film is, but I've had to chase down the corridors of my memory to conjure up a single film at this year's Tribeca festival (or South by Southwest, or Sundance) that didn't look terrific. The proliferation of not only the RED camera (with its 24fps high-definition images and astonishingly precise focus) but also of still cameras like the Canon Rebel (with HD video capabilities thrown in almost as an afterthought) has resulted in an abundance of smooth, professional video presentations.

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