The Light from the TV Shows: The Prequelization Principle

You know you’re a real fan of “Psycho,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film adaptation of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, if your first reaction to hearing about A&E’s new series, “Bates Motel,” which premieres on March 18, was to grumble, “They’ve already done a TV show called ‘Bates Motel.’”

bates-motel

True enough: in 1987, NBC aired a TV movie called “Bates Motel,” which starred Bud Cort as Alex West, a fellow with a few mental troubles who shared some quality time with Norman Bates in the state insane asylum and, as a result, finds himself the beneficiary of the Bates Motel in Norman’s will. The intent was to use the movie as a backdoor pilot for a weekly anthology series of sorts, following the lives of individuals passing through as guests of the motel, but when ratings for the movie proved disappointing, the plan for the series was abandoned.

But A&E’s “Bates Motel” isn’t a retread of that premise. Instead, it’s a prequel, revealing how Norman Bates became the kind of guy who’d grow obsessed with his mother that he’d take on her identity on occasion and kill anyone who looked at him sideways.

Oh, wait, you say that’s already been done, too?

Yep, it sure has: in 1990, Showtime produced “Psycho IV: The Beginning,” which pointedly ignored the aforementioned TV movie and showed a very-much-still-alive Norman (Anthony Perkins) calling into a radio talk show about – what are the odds? – matricide, using the conversation as a framing device to flash back to his youth and reveal the bond between Norma Bates (Olivia Hussey) and her son (played by Henry Thomas). It doesn’t exactly hew 100% to the continuity established by the preceding three films, but as a standalone film for casual fins, it holds up relatively well, thanks in no small part to Perkins’ performance.

Actually, A&E’s “Bates Motel” isn’t a retread of that premise, either. Not really, anyway. I mean, yes, it starts at approximately the same point in Norman’s life, and the general idea is the same, in that it’s looking into all the Oedipal-ness of the Norma/Norman relationship. This time, though, it isn’t a period piece. For better or worse, it takes place in present day, which means that it’s arguably not a prequel at all but, instead, more of a complete reboot of the franchise.

Don’t worry, though: the Bates Motel itself still looks just as decrepit and foreboding as ever.

But, of course, “Bates Motel” is far from the first occasion of an existing property has been turned into a prequel for TV. Heck, it’s not even the first time it’s happened in 2013!

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Blu Tuesday: Teenage Violence, Muppets and More

First things first: I was in Austin last week for the SXSW film festival and was unable to put together a column in advance of my trip. But there were so many great Blu-rays released that it didn’t feel right to completely ignore them, so be sure to check out “The Descendants,” “Young Adult,” and if you’re a fan of Steven Spielberg, “The Adventures of Tintin” if you haven’t already. With that said, however, this week’s offerings are even better, including several Oscar nominees and one of the coolest cult films ever made.

“Battle Royale”

If you’ve never seen Kinji Fukasaku’s Japanese cult hit “Battle Royale,” then it’s something you should remedy as soon as possible, preferably before heading to theaters this weekend to check out “The Hunger Games.” Originally deemed too controversial to be released in the U.S. (partially due to the Columbine killings that occurred the same year), the movie is finally getting an official Blu-ray release through Anchor Bay in a blatant attempt at cashing in on the “Hunger Games” media frenzy. And why not? Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy may not be a total rip-off, but there are still a number of similarities that can’t be ignored. Though the books aren’t nearly as brutal in their depiction of violence as it is in Fukasaku’s movie, that’s what makes “Battle Royale” so effective. It’s more twisted, more exploitative and much bloodier, but it’s also a great commentary on how desensitized society has become to violence. Plus, it features one of the most entertaining Beat Takishi roles of his career, and that alone makes it worth watching.

Blu-ray Highlight: Although all of the extras are incredibly dated (ported over from the numerous DVD editions), they’re still worth flipping through if you haven’t seen them before. The real highlight, though, is the four-disc box set itself, which includes two versions of “Battle Royale” (the theatrical cut and a director’s cut with additional scenes that were filmed after the movie’s initial release), a copy of the subpar sequel, and an entire disc of bonus material (albeit on DVD). Additionally, it comes housed in some killer packaging that resembles a hardcover book. In other words, it was worth the wait.

“The Muppets”

It’s hard to believe that it took this long for Kermit the Frog and Co. to make their return to the big screen, because although the Muppets property had been clearly suffering creatively by the time “Muppets from Space” was released, all it needed was someone from the outside to remind everyone why they fell in love with these characters in the first place. Kudos to Disney, then, for having the prudence to hire Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller to write a movie that would introduce The Muppets to a whole other generation of fans while still preserving what makes them so timeless. The movie has just about everything you could want, including jokes that appeal to both kids and adults, some fantastic original music (courtesy of Flight of the Conchords member Bret McKenzie), and a brand new Muppet that fits right in with the rest of the colorful cast. The human cast isn’t too shabby either, but it’s called “The Muppets” for a reason: they’re the real stars, and let’s hope no one forgets it this time around.

Blu-ray Highlight: There are a number of great extras to choose from (including one of the funnier blooper reels and a cool feature called Disney Intermission where the Muppets perform short gags and tease other bonus material whenever you pause the movie), but the commentary with director James Bobin and co-writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller is too much fun to ignore. Though they stray off topic a little too often, it’s a thoroughly entertaining commentary track that adult Muppet fans will really enjoy.

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2011 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

Looking back at this year’s slate of films, it would be easy to label it a disappointment. But while 2011 may not have been very memorable, it wasn’t exactly forgettable either. In fact, the biggest problem I came across while compiling my year-end list was that while there were a lot of movies I really enjoyed, there weren’t very many that I loved. That might not be the most encouraging statement to make before announcing one’s Top 10, but it’s the honest truth, and it doesn’t make the movies listed below any less deserving of my praise, even if there are some films missing that you believe should have made the final cut. But that’s why critics love writing year-end reviews; each one is unique to their specific taste, and mine is nothing if not unique. Well, except for maybe my worst-of list, which is filled with movies that I think we can all agree sucked big time.

Best Movies of 2011

1. “DRIVE

Though I wasn’t that impressed by Nicolas Winding Refn’s previous films, they have an undeniable visual flair and originality that you don’t see very often. “Drive” took those qualities and applied them to a conventional Hollywood thriller, resulting in a movie that feels much more mainstream without abandoning Refn’s art house sensibilities. The film is as beautifully poetic as it is strikingly violent, while Ryan Gosling (who’s had a banner year between this, “The Ides of March” and “Crazy Stupid Love”) has never been better as the soft-spoken yet brutally intense protagonist. But for as much attention as the film’s graphic violence has received, it’s the opening sequence – an edge-of-your-seat car chase packed with tension so thick you could cut it with a knife – that is without a doubt the biggest highlight. And when a movie can start so brightly and continue to build on it like “Drive” does (thanks in part to fine supporting turns from Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks), it’s no wonder why so many people love this film.

2. “ATTACK THE BLOCK

It’s not every day that you get to see a film before the rest of the world, so I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that being among the lucky few in attendance at the SXSW premiere of Joe Cornish’s “Attack the Block” played a part in my overall enjoyment of the movie. A genre hybrid film with influences ranging from “The Warriors” to “Critters,” Cornish’s directorial debut is a lean, mean sci-fi action thriller that, although it boasts a mostly unknown cast and was made for a fraction of the cost of the average Hollywood movie, is the most fun I’ve had at a theater all year. The young actors are great, the creature effects are even better, and the film is fueled by a relentless, infectious energy that keeps the action moving at a rapid clip. There might have been several alien invasion movies in theaters this year, but “Attack the Block” was the best of the bunch – a fun slice of nostalgic geek cinema that blended action, comedy, horror and sci-fi to create an instant cult classic.

3. “YOUNG ADULT

It’s no secret that Diablo Cody has her share of critics, but “Young Adult” proves that she’s more than just a vending machine for the kind of quirky one-liners that initially earned her notice back in 2008 with “Juno.” Thematically darker and more mature than her first feature, the film also feels more personal in its examination of what it means to grow up, providing the perfect platform for Cody’s voice to shine. Blisteringly funny and surprisingly poignant at times, “Young Adult” is so daringly original that its somewhat contentious ending has even divided audiences. But while Cody deserves a lot of credit for taking these risks, it’s Charlize Theron’s performance that brings out the comedy and emotion of the situation, delivering some of her best work as the beautiful but bitchy Mavis. It’s not very easy to make a character like that sympathetic, but Theron pulls it off so effortlessly that it would be criminal to see her name absent from any award ballot.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to November

Can you smell that? No, not the pumpkin pie-scented potpourri that your grandmother bought you last Christmas – it’s the smell of awards season starting to heat up. Though November is typically a pretty eclectic month for movies, you can always expect a fair share of family films and Oscar hopefuls competing for the attention of your box office dollars, and this year is no exception. You also might notice that a few major releases – like the Adam Sandler-in-drag comedy “Jack and Jill” and the latest installment in the “Twilight” saga – have been left out of this preview. That’s no mistake. I wanted to save myself the trouble of writing about them and you the embarrassment of reading about them. After all, there are more than enough good options this month that no one should have to damage any more brain cells by seeing one of those movies.

“A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS”

Who: John Cho, Kal Penn, Paula Garces, Thomas Lennon and Neil Patrick Harris
What: After Harold and Kumar accidentally set fire to Harold’s father-in-law’s prize Christmas tree, the duo embark on yet another weed-fueled adventure to replace it.
When: November 4th
Why: Though I refuse to believe that the 3D revolution is going to stick around for much longer, this is one of those times where I actually don’t completely hate the idea. That’s probably because director Todd Strauss-Schulson is really embracing the gimmicky nature of the technology, but who doesn’t love making fun of 3D? Though Harold and Kumar’s last adventure was a bit ridiculous for its own good, writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg appear to have reined things in for the third (and likely final) installment in the stoner bud series. Toss in some Claymation and the return of Neil Patrick Harris and there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a fun theater experience.

“TOWER HEIST”

Who: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck and Téa Leoni
What: A group of employees at a luxury condominium enlist the aid of a career criminal to help them steal $20 million from the investor that emptied out their pension plans.
When: November 4th
Why: When I first heard that Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy were teaming up with director Brett Ratner for what can be best described as a blue-collar “Ocean’s 11,” I responded accordingly, with a witty comment and a cynical roll of the eyes. But something strange happened between then and now – I saw the trailer for the film, and amazingly, it doesn’t look half-bad. Perhaps it’s just because my expectations are so low for those involved in the movie, but this actually looks like it could be pretty enjoyable, and even somewhat of a return to form for Murphy, who hasn’t been funny in a really long time.

“J. EDGAR”

Who: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench
What: A biopic about the founder of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, whose 50-year reign as the face of law enforcement was threatened by the many secrets in his personal life.
When: November 9th
Why: Everything about this film has “future Oscar nominee” written all over it, including star Leonardo DiCaprio, director Clint Eastwood and co-star Armie Hammer, who’s landed the plum role of Hoover’s lifelong friend and rumored lover Clyde Tolson. It’ll be interesting to see how a mild conservative like Eastwood handles the mysterious relationship between the two men, especially with gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black behind the script, because dodging the issue completely won’t sit well with the usually liberal-minded Academy. The person that stands the most to gain from all of this, of course, is Hammer, who is pretty much a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination after just barely missing out last year for his incredible work in “The Social Network.”

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11 Movies to Look Forward to in 2011

As a film critic, you learn to keep your expectations to a minimum, because more often than not, the movie in question is never as good as you hoped. That doesn’t change the fact that there are still some movies that you want to see more than others, and as long as you don’t mind the possibility of disappointment, it’s okay to let your inner fanboy out every once in a while. This year certainly has plenty of movies to get excited about – at least, that’s what Hollywood is banking on with an upcoming slate that includes “Pirates of the Caribbean 4,” “Cars 2,” “Green Lantern,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Thor” – but there’s a lot more great stuff out there than just the usual summer tentpole films. To give you a better idea of what’s coming to theaters this year, I’ve assembled my 11 most anticipated movies of 2011 with the hope that you might discover one or two titles to add to your own must-see list.

“PAUL”

Who: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig and Jason Bateman
What: Two British sci-fi geeks on a cross-country road trip through the U.S. encounter a real-life alien named Paul who needs help getting back to his home planet.
When: March 18th
Why: The trailer may not instill a whole lot of confidence with its heavy dose of juvenile humor, but as a fan of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (who also co-wrote the film), it’s hard to imagine them disappointing their fanbase. I wouldn’t necessarily expect anything as great as “Shaun of the Dead” or “Hot Fuzz,” but between all the geeky sci-fi references and the awesome supporting cast (including Jason Bateman as the FBI agent on their trail and Seth Rogen as the voice of the titular alien), it’s safe to say that “Paul” will be every bit as funny as it sounds.

“HANNA”

Who: Saorsie Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett and Olivia Williams
What: A girl raised by her father to be the perfect assassin is sent on a mission across Europe while eluding operatives under the command of a ruthless CIA agent.
When: April 8th
Why: Director Joe Wright may be best known for sappy period dramas like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement,” but I can’t wait to see what he can do in a completely different genre – especially one that provides him with a bigger playground to work within. The trailer seems to suggest that “Hanna” will be more than just your average action-thriller, with Wright aiming for something a little more thought provoking. And with a cast that includes Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, and one of the best young actresses in the business in Saorsie Ronan, this could be the surprise hit of the season.

“X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”

Who: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till and Jason Flemyng
What: The story of Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) as young men learning to control their powers, and how they worked together with a band of mutants to stop the greatest threat the world has ever known.
When: June 3rd
Why: Apart from the fact that it takes place in the 1960s and serves as a prequel to the original trilogy, details on “X-Men: First Class” are pretty scarce. But after walking away from the directing gig on the last “X-Men” film, I think that most fans are curious to see what Matthew Vaughn can do with the franchise. The retro setting definitely has my interest piqued, and using the relationship between Xavier and Lehnsherr as a parallel to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X is brilliant. That hasn’t stopped Internet forums from stirring up bad buzz in response to the recently leaked photos and rumors that Vaughn is feeling pressed for time, but he doesn’t have a bad movie to his name yet, so it’s probably better to just let the film speak for itself.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART TWO

Who: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman and Ralph Fiennes
What: Harry returns to Hogwarts with Ron and Hermione to find and destroy Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes, leading to the inevitable battle between the Boy Who Lived and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
When: July 15th
Why: The real question is, who isn’t looking forward to this movie? The previous seven films have grossed over $6 billion worldwide, and where most franchises tend to lose steam around the third installment, this series has only gotten better over time. They’ve also gotten progressively darker, and “Deathly Hallows: Part Two” promises to be the darkest yet, with the massive Battle of Hogwarts resulting in the death of several major players – some good, some bad, and some whose allegiance remains a secret. I’m still holding out hope that the movie will dive a little further into Dumbledore’s past, because “Part One” covered so much of the book that the only thing left is the battle.

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