Sunday, June 17, 2007

The year of the rat

For a few years now, observers of Hollywood have been speculating (if not outright predicting) that the days of the theater experience as we know it are numbered. The explosion of DVD, HDTV, and other home theater technologies means, if a viewer is willing to wait about six months -- sometimes less -- they can get an experience in their media room that's pretty darn close to the best theatrical exhibition. Minus the $5.00 Cokes, ringing cellphones, and crying babies. Only the window between theatrical and home video release, so the theory goes, is keeping the moviegoing public from cocooning completely.

And though I'm annoyed by unruly tykes as the next person, I do think something will be lost for future generations of moviegoers if the place they experience their first film is on the couch in the living room. I know that some of the greatest impressions made on me were seeing classic Disney films, like Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo at the little movie house back home. I was reminded of those iconic images last night when I was lucky enough to snag the last (literally) ticket to a sneak preview of the new Disney-Pixar film, Ratatouille. It may well be the studio's best work yet.

The film tells the story of Remy, a rat, whose passion in life is the very un-ratlike pursuit of haute cuisine. When he lands in Paris, and at the restaurant of his gourmet idol, Gusteau, it would seem to be the perfect fit. Except for the fact that a rat in the kitchen, obviously, would spell doom for the restaurant. Let alone the fact that what human is going to believe that a rat can cook for the demanding Parisian diners? Enter Linguini, the garbage boy. In whom Remy finds the perfect vessel for working his magic behind the scenes in the kitchen. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

After a softer than expected reception for Cars last year, and given the unusual concept of a cooking rat, questions about Pixar's unbroken string of critical and box office hits may have been in question. Ratatouille should put any doubts to rest until next year's release, WALL-E. The computer animation is stunning on every level. Characters, human and animal, are rendered with greater detail and realism than any before. The Paris settings have a depth to them that, again, recall the classic Disney era films and lend a more timeless feel to the story. More than anything, however, Pixar remains head and shoulders above other CGI animation competitors by focusing on a truly funny and touching story. Without hurling a million irrelevant pop culture references a minute at the adults, or throwing in needless bathroom humor for the kids. Neither age group is talked down to, yet there is more than enough for both young and old to enjoy throughout. As much as you'll laugh at the slapstick comedy, and enjoy the several action set pieces, I promise you will want to clap and cheer for Remy when all the chips are down about the time Act III kicks everything into overdrive.

It opens nationwide on June 29th and I can't wait to see it again.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Knocked down

Scott and Billy have already commented on the various merits of Judd Apatow's latest comedy, Knocked Up. I have not seen it (the "modern American man as stunted adolescent layabout" shtick in current romantic comedies is wearing thin) but do note that Apatow and Universal Pictures were sued for copyright infringement this week by a Canadian author who claims the film ripped off the premise of her own similar work. Nothing like a $30 million dollar opening weekend to bring the litigants out of the woodwork. A copy of the (bare bones) complaint is at

At first blush, it may appear that Rebecca Eckler has something to be upset about, legally speaking. In 2004, she wrote a Sex and the City-ish memoir, Knocked Up: Confessions of a Hip Mother-to-Be, which recounted her own experiences with unexpected pregnancy and the acceleration in maturity that the baby brought (a central theme of the Apatow film). Also, like the Katherine Heigl character in the movie, Eckler is a journalist whose nights of partying are cut short by the impending delivery. Without knowing more, however, I'd guess that Eckler's lawsuit goes nowhere, for reasons that are important for all writers to understand and remember.

First, although not alleged, it's basic copyright law that titles are not protectable. So the fact that both works are entitled "Knocked Up" carries little weight as to Eckler's infringement claims. More than that, however, it is not enough for a plaintiff to contend that the alleged infringing work has borrowed (either in part or wholly) a protected work's premise or idea: IDEAS ARE NOT COPYRIGHTABLE. Protection under copyright law extends only to the tangible expression of the author's ideas, e.g., the completed screenplay, novel, song, etc. The premise of a story about a child who wishes that they could be grown up, for example, is not subject to copyright; that basic idea as expressed in the screenplays for the films Big or 13 Going on 30 is protected.

Indeed, the defense of independent creation allows for the possibility, remote as it may be, that two authors could create the exact same works independently, with both of them being entitled to equal copyright protection. Which is another way of saying, to prove actual infringement, Eckler will have to show more than her story and Apatow's are merely similar. In the absence of direct evidence of infringement -- which is rarely present -- the plaintiff must prove that the alleged infringer: (1) had access to the protected work; and (2) portions of the infringing work are substantially similar, i.e., so similar that it likely could not have been created absent copying. I suppose the facts will bear out whether Apatow ever read Eckler's book prior to writing his script (access), and whether there are any portions of the book that show up in the screenplay largely unchanged (substantial similarity). Both tall evidentiary hurdles for Eckler to cross but possibly good enough for nuisance value and a settlement with the defendants that just makes the case go away.