E-mail from me, to regular crew of film writers: "Hey, is anyone planning an end-of-year film feature?"
Response from Jonathan Kiefer: "I have an epistolary exchange between myself and my Sacramento colleague Jim Lane ... Obviously this is tricky to reprint as is because your readers would be like, 'Who the hell are these guys and why do we care about their letters to each other?'"
Colleague Kirk Woundy and I, deeply analyzing Kiefer's response: "Yup."
But — and this is where we try to make you care — both of these guys are pretty good. Lane has written for the Sacramento News & Review, an esteemed altweekly, for more than a decade; Kiefer, a regular Indy contributor, is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and has been published by Salon, the Village Voice and PopMatters, among other outlets. And the source material in the letters does provide some nerdy insight into a handful of upcoming releases.
So we've opted to excerpt from and lightly edit them below, mostly providing two takes and, occasionally, the illusion of an Ebert-Roeper dialogue. Regardless of this pair's lesser prominence, here goes:
On Life of Pi (Nov. 21):
Lane: I'm curious as all get-out for Pi. An Indian youth, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger adrift together after a shipwreck sounds like a tough sell, but I'll follow director Ang Lee almost anywhere.
Kiefer: The trailer worries me a little. It has that same desperate-seeming computery varnish, which so often tends to leech out any real wonder.
I read and wrote about Yann Martel's novel when it was new, and I remember it fondly but not possessively. The thing is, what I enjoyed about the book wasn't just its fabulist vitality, but also its humor and nonchalance. And while I've admired Ang Lee — even enough to allow a soft spot for his misfire of Marvel's Hulk — I can't say "effortless" or "funny" are the first words his name brings to mind. When the book came out in 2001, my only automatic suggestion for turning it into a movie would have been to try with animation.
On Red Dawn (Nov. 21):
Lane: Whose bright idea was this, and why? Did somebody note Chris Hemsworth's passing resemblance to Patrick Swayze and think, "Why not?" (If so, thank God they didn't opt for Road House or Next of Kin.) Still, as dumb ideas go, this one sticks out. A Soviet invasion was a semi-credible stretch in 1984; North Korea in 2012, not so much.
Kiefer: I can't help but see it as a state-of-the-industry yardstick. Not because it's yet another rehash of the pop monoculture that poisoned my mind as a boy, but rather for what it reveals of the craven Hollywood urge toward overseas-market revenue dredging.
Note that the villainous invading army used to be Chinese, but reportedly was reconfigured in postproduction as North Korean. Racist? Xenophobic? Well, sure, but mostly just a matter of which country's box-office cash we really can't do without. Not even a semi-credible stretch, indeed.
On Anna Karenina (Nov. 30, at Kimball's Peak Three Theater):
Lane: This umpteenth filming shows promise, with writer Tom Stoppard, director Joe Wright (Atonement) and actors Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Emily Watson and Kelly Macdonald on board. But frankly, Knightley, with her hungry-shark grin, isn't quite my picture of Anna; a better choice, I think, would have been Kate Beckinsale, if she hadn't wrecked her reputation as an actress on the rocks of the Underworld franchise. Still, Jude Law, Tom Stoppard; I dare to hope.
Kiefer: You know, I seem to recall the trailer saying something about a bold new vision and then showing some boilerplate period-drama set piece. Hey, Focus Features, no need to be ashamed that Tolstoy's novel is just one of those durable tales that's been made into movies ever since movies began.
But how will this one rate? After Hanna especially, I do wonder if the prestigious director Joe Wright is actually just a heavy-handed hack — technician enough to mount that single-shot Dunkirk scene in Atonement, yet dullard enough to dilute Beethoven into a screen-saver for The Soloist. Stoppard's script might be his saving grace here. And yes, nowadays, when it comes to doom-y, throbbing-hearted self-interrogation, who but Keira Knightley will do?
On The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Dec. 14):
Lane: I have high hopes for The Hobbit after the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and who can doubt Peter Jackson's vision? I'm not sure J.R.R. Tolkien's prequel warrants two movies (with the second half, The Desolation of Smaug, coming next year). Is this a marketing ploy to pad the box office? Or — perish the thought! — will Jackson do what he did with King Kong, inflating the 1933 original (just about the tightest hundred minutes in movie history) out past the three-hour mark?
On Hitchcock (Dec. 14, at Kimball's Peak Three Theater):
Kiefer: From Stephen Rebello's book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, and directed by Anvil: The Story of Anvil director Sacha Gervasi, here we have Anthony Hopkins back in impersonation mode. Will it do him or Hitchcock any favors? Hopkins made an oddly compelling Richard Nixon, and at least with Hitch he'll have an easier accent to fake. Helen Mirren plays his wife Alma, with Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh (well, fine, I guess) and James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins (I'd have voted for Andrew Garfield). Could be fun, all told.
On Django Unchained (Dec. 25):
Kiefer: I'm skeptical of this slave-and-bounty-hunter buddy movie (starring Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz), with which Quentin Tarantino appears to remain a clone of himself.
Lane: Clone or no, Quentin can hold your attention, and I'm curious to see if he'll be as free-and-easy with history as he was on Inglourious Basterds.
On Les Misérables (Dec. 25):
Lane: Musical theater buff that I am, I expect Cameron Mackintosh's long-deferred movie of his opera-lite phenomenon to be a milestone movie musical. A beloved show to two generations, lavishly produced with a brilliant cast that you'd never see on any stage — Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne, Colm Wilkinson — all singing live on the set instead of lip-syncing to canned playback.
If this turns out a turkey, director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) will deserve never to work again. I don't think anybody anticipates that.
On Zero Dark Thirty (Jan. 11):
Kiefer: Regarding director Kathryn Bigelow's nail-biter about the Navy SEALs who tracked down and took out Osama Bin Laden: I believe that title derives from military code. And as such it's quite effective: I have no idea what time that is.
Lane: Like you, I'm hopeful. BTW, I understand the title is military-speak that translates roughly as "the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere."