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ShoWest Diaries: Day Two – Hamlet 2, Kung Fu Panda, and Ang Lee

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In which our intrepid reporter finally gets to Dine With the Stars, sees three movies in one day, and learns a hard lesson about the difference between a Pepsi and a Red Bull.

The first thing that happened after I arrived in Las Vegas on Saturday was daylight savings time, an hour of sleep wrested from me on top of the other hour I lost on the plane. On top of Vegas’s general discombobulating effect of the inside always seeming like night and the outside always seeming like day – or maybe it's vice versa – I was exhausted before the conference even got rolling. (Oh wah , poor diddle ting too tired for Vegas… somebody get me a walker and a Country Kitchen buffet.) But I stumbled out of bed on day two determined to persevere.

I wandered Bally’s Paris aimlessly trying to locate the promised 9 a.m. sneak peek of Monsters VS Aliens in 3D. When I finally did locate the obvious and clearly marked auditorium which I had wandered past several times already, the showing was completely full. So I missed the conference opening ceremony with an intro from Jeffery Katzenberg, and the chance to see a clip of Monsters VS Aliens 3D, but I did get a chance to go sit in the ShoWest Press Center, located in the Burgundy Room, and act hard like I both belonged there and intended to be there all along. 3D cartoons? Jefferey Katzenberg? Whatever. I’m here for the bagels.

Random Thing Overheard At ShoWest:
“And so I told him, I am NOT obsessed with Matthew McConaughey. I just think he’s a really good actor.”

At 11 I ventured forth to try again, this time for the screening of Hamlet 2, the comedy darling of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. This time, I'm successful at both finding the theater and arriving early enough to get in. Hamlet 2’s star, Steve Coogan, is on hand to introduce the film, giving me my very first thrill of being thanked by a star for coming to their little show. Coogan is a British comedian better known in his home country than in the US, although I believe that may be a temporary condition. I first noticed him in the movie 24 Hour Party People, a fabtabulous film about the Brit music scene in the early '80s which, when I saw it in my 30s, only confirmed what I had long suspected during my adolescence — somewhere out there people had been having a hell of a lot more fun than me, and I should have snuck out of the house more.

Hamlet 2 features Coogan as a profoundly unsuccessful actor who turns to teaching high school drama, just until his agent can round him up a better gig, of course. Coogan is quite possibly the worst drama teacher who ever lived and after years of producing wretched stage adaptations of movies like Erin Brockovich and Mr. Holland’s Opus, he is informed that the drama program is being cut. Inspired by his arch-nemesis, the school’s 14-year-old drama critic, Coogan throws himself into creating a re-imagined Hamlet; a Hamlet where, thanks to a helpful time machine and lots of Freudian therapy, Hamlet is able to save the day and everyone lives happily ever after. Lest you think I’ve given away the entire plot, I assure you this is really only the introduction.

Lots of voices at ShoWest were talking about Hamlet 2 as if it were the next huge thing, destined to eclipse the indie success of Little Miss Sunshine. Personally I thought it was a funny, entertaining, imperfect film which, I hope, can escape the burden of over-expectation. It’s not going to cure cancer, or win anyone an Academy Award. But it will make people laugh and, one hopes, inspire communities to invest in their school arts programs so as to avoid anything like what happens in the film.

Hamlet 2 was followed by a luncheon "Celebrating the Importance of Independent & Specialty Film in Today's Marketplace". Steve Coogan opened the lunch with a pretty funny joke about Governor Spitzer but quickly went downhill trying to find amusing things to say about movie suits that no one, including Coogan, actually knew. This segued into the first award du jour, the ShoWest/NATO Freedom of Expression Award, which was awarded to Ang Lee, in part for agreeing to release his latest film, Lust/Caution, with an NC-17 rating.  I actually felt pretty psyched to be there for this particular award since freedom of expression and MPAA ratings are two things about which I know way too much, care a bit too excessively about, and have been known to bore people with at cocktail parties.

The NC-17 rating was created by the MPAA to give filmmakers an alternative to the "X" rating which, due to the MPAA's failure to trademark it like the rest of its rating scheme, was immediately taken over by the porn industry as a means of marketing its wares. The first feature film to be released as NC-17 was Henry and June, an art house picture about Henry Miller and Anais Nin, which well reflected the hope and the intent of the NC-17 rating: a category for films that dealt with adult topics, including sexuality, in ways both explicit, intelligent, and artistic.

Unfortunately the next film which won the NC-17 rating was Showgirls, a film which, as Roger Ebert expressed, "had so much nudity, the sexy parts are when the girls put on their clothes," but very little in the categories of art or intellect. Most movie theater chains, already nervous about what an NC-17 rating might mean, took this as a sign that NC-17 was in fact an X rating in sheep's clothing and refused to carry NC-17 pictures. NC-17 was ghettoized and became considered enough of a death knell to the success of a prospective film that some filmmakers, like Todd Solondz (Happiness) or Larry Clark (Kids) were willing to forgo the rating process altogether and release their films unrated rather than risk the damage of an NC-17 rating.

Since the rating's initial stumble, there have been many who hoped that some director and production company would finally be brave enough to release a quality NC-17 picture in order to get the rating out of the dog house. As more and more DVDs are being successfully released to the general public in "unrated" versions, the hope existed too that perhaps America was finally ready for real adult pictures that weren't a euphemism for porn. Thus when Ang Lee, a well respected (Incredible Hulk notwithstanding) and Academy Award winning director, agreed to release his World War II espionage thriller with an NC-17 rating, it was seen by many as the picture that would prove that NC-17 is a rating that in the words of the intro for Mr. Lee, "serious filmmakers should take seriously."

The award was accepted by Ang Lee and his longtime producing partner James Schamus. Schamus was also, interestingly enough, the producer for the film Happiness, which allowed him to make a delightful and interesting speech about doing the ratings waltz with the MPAA. He described meeting with the MPAA review board to argue the NC-17 rating which had been assigned to Happiness. He described the board as each, in their own way, "with their purses and man purses, looking like Margaret Thatcher, without the raw sexuality for which she is famous." After he made an reasoned, impassioned, and informative argument as to why Happiness should be spared NC-17 ignominy, the other side offered this eloquent rebuttal: "It's obvious why this movie should be NC-17."

Over ten years later, Lee and Schamus have decided to meet the MPAA at their own game: create a quality, intelligent picture which proudly bears the NC-17 label and then allow movie theater owners to explain to their customers why, for their own good, the theater is refusing to show them Ang Lee's latest work of art. Lust/Caution has made over four million dollars at the US box office and, hopefully, has washed most of the Joe Esterhaus off of the NC-17 designation.

Next up on Dining With the Stars, Robert Redford was awarded the ShoWest Visionary Award. The tone of the award was set during the introduction by Paul Richardson, head of Sundance Pictures, who announced that Redford has "made everyone in the room a lot of money over the years." (Yaaay! Big applause! Lots of money! Yaaay!) Redford, who is indeed both shorter and older in person, discussed his vision of Sundance, taking care to say repeatedly how much he loves Hollywood, how much Sundance is not anti-Hollywood, and even offered a lengthy explanation/apology about some Sundance-related business venture with which I was totally unfamiliar but apparently lost a few people in that distinguished audience some money. (Yaay! Robert Redford is sorry he lost us money! Let us give him more! Yaaay!)

I was a bit disappointed in Redford's address, not because of what he said about Sundance, which only made sense given the context of the audience, but because he opened with a joke about salad dressing. Before I went toShoWest my brother and I had one of those conversations which can basically be summarized as "If you encountered a famous person, what profound witticism would you offer that would make them immediately see how cool you are and promptly invite you to join their table/ skiing/ become their personal assistant." For Robert Redford, I had a salad dressing joke which would simultaneously acknowledge that people confuse him with Paul Newman all the time, that I know how ridiculous such confusion is, that I respect his great body of work, and I eat vegetables. His opening remarks, about constantly being complimented for his salad dressing, pretty much killed my joke dead. Apparently, I'm not the first to have thought of it.

Next up on my agenda: my first "real" screening of a future Hollywood hit, Kung Fu Panda. Before my allotted screening time I had time to visit the Kung Fu Panda dinner reception which was all you could imagine a Hollywood dinner reception to be. Kung Fu Panda himself was there and, although I had strong reason to suspect that Jack Black was not inside the costume, he nonetheless made himself available for photographs. There were huge Kung Fu Panda banners and a Chinese food buffet with cute little Chinese takeout boxes to eat your food out of. There were acres of cute wee desserts which, due to their tiny size, I had to assume were completely calorie free! There was even an open bar which at first so overwhelmed me I ordered a vodka and OJ, a drink I haven't ordered publicly since college, just because I was so addled by my choices.

After the reception we were allowed to pick up our special Dreamworks/Paramount goody bag, a process so intricate involving repeated showings of ID and the getting of special stamps on our conference "passport", I was certain the bags must contain reliquaries of Jack Black himself, or perhaps a real panda. Instead there were boxes of Kung Fu Panda fortune cookies and a t-shirt for Mike Meyer's new film, The Love Guru. Thank god they had such tight security on those things.

Security at the Panda screening was tighter than the airport, complete with pat downs and ushers wearing night vision goggles to catch unauthorized Blackberry-ing. There were mumblings in the audience over who might show up, and various Jack Black sightings were widely discussed. Dreamworks pulled a fast one on us though and instead of Jack Black, we got Mike Meyers and Jessica Alba, there to promote The Love Guru (Ah so, suddenly the gift bag becomes much clearer). Both Alba and Meyers appeared to be about 5 months pregnant, although only one of them apparently is. We got a sneak peek at The Love Guru, which looks equal parts amusing and gassy, although I personally believe that Meyers' film career peaked at So I Married an Axe Murderer so I may not be the best judge.

Kung Fu Panda was actually not 100% finished for the screening last week, so the cut we saw was actually about 90% completed movie and 10% combination of partially animated scenes and still story boards. Even watching this unusual unfinished cut, it's clear the movie is great. If you're a parent no doubt you've already heard about Kung Fu Panda and are resigning yourself to go. No need to resign yourself. Go happily. This movie is, to re-animate the zombie of cliches, fun for the whole family.

Jack Black voices Po, a clumsy panda destined to inherit his (inexplicably avian) father's noodle soup shop. Po is also a secret fanatic of kung fu and an avid follower of The Furious Five, a legendary band of kung fu masters that keep his valley safe from the evil Tai Lung. Will Po accidentally stumble in to a kung fu career? Will he struggle to convince the Furious Five of his value? Can he possibly defeat the evil Tai Lung who, voiced by Ian McShane, is possibly the scariest animated wild cat since George Sanders' Shere Khan? Here's the thing about Kung Fu Panda. It's not just an awesome family cartoon. It's a plain old awesome kung fu movie. Seriously, it has everything. Go without fear.

After Kung Fu Panda let out, I had about an hour to kill before the final screening of the day/night; a special midnight screening of the Cameron Diaz/Ashton Kutcher vehicle What Happens in Vegas. I decide that, dammit, I'm in Vegas. I'm going to have me some fun. So I go to the Bally's Paris bar and order myself a strawberry margarita in the collectible souvenir mug that looks like a hot air balloon, because I'm crazy like that. My first sip informs me that the bartender clearly poured the tequila into the mug and then the "strawberry margarita" part after, because I'm sucking down pure tequila. The experience is akin to chasing tequila shots with a strawberry/triple sec squishee.

Because I'm a lightweight, by the time I reach the screening, I'm worried about my sobriety levels. I don't want to start snoring in the middle of this thing. The crowd prevents easy access to the free Pepsi table, but I do find myself right by the Red Bull table, so I grab some. Thus I come to learn what any college age kid in this country could have explained to me, which is the fascinating effects of Red Bull when combined with liquor. The film, What Happens in Vegas, is a lightweight comedy about a couple who meets and marries in Vegas in haste, and then repents at leisure upon returning to New York. I'll be honest, I probably wouldn't have found my way to it if I hadn't been given a free pass, and if I hadn't been drinking tequila squishees beforehand. But, I actually really enjoyed it. However, it's entirely possible that my admiration for the film was in some way influenced by the Red Bull/tequila squishee.

Tune in tomorrow(ish) for days three and four, when time all starts to run together in a crazy Vegas haze.

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