Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Film Friday: Avatar (2009)

Avatar, a.k.a. Dances With Smurfs, is a crappy movie. There is no other way to say it. If someone tells you they liked this film, punch them in the face. Not only is this the most politically correct film ever, but it’s poorly acted, poorly written and deathly dull. I feel like I’ve lost a portion of my life watching it.

** I would insert a spoiler warning here, but you can’t spoil this film. **
The "Plot"
Oh where do I begin. An evil corporation has invaded some planet (the unoriginally named “Pandora”) so they can mine something called “unobtainium” -- a word stolen from the infinitely better yet still crappy movie The Core. This unobtainium does something. We don’t know what exactly because James Cameron wasn’t smart enough to come up with anything, but just take it on faith that it’s important.

The main character, Jake Sully (we’ll call him “Lifeless” in honor of the acting non-talent of Sam Worthington), is a former Marine who lost the use of his legs. . . probably from sitting through this film. He takes a job on planet PandaOdor where he will be an avatar operator. What's an avatar you ask? Basically, Ripley from Alien came up with the idea that if you want to exploit a native people, you gotta look like the native people, then you can trick them into trading their land for your beads. So she invented these body-suit things that look like the locals. We aren’t really sure how the suits work or how they’re made because Cameron didn’t care about this aspect of the film. But don’t worry about it, you won’t care either because your mind will be numb by this point in the film. . . ten minutes in.

Lifeless’s job is to operate his avatar in such a way that he endears himself to the locals, a tall blue race called the Na’vi, who look an awful lot like Smurfs who’ve spent time on a Medieval torture rack. After a boring, boring, boring 20 minutes of watching animators try to make Lifeless emote as he runs through the forest of this standard videogame world, Lifeless comes up with a plan. He decides to get himself attacked by wild animals in the hopes that some borderline-retarded princess of the Na’vi happens by and saves him. Of course this works because you can’t swing a dead panda on PandaOdor without hitting a Na’vi princess and because chicks can’t resist a dude who is helpless, rude and stupid.

After a few more minutes of scenery and some pidgin English, these two fall in love and the Smurfs make Lifeless a trusted member of their tribe. Retarded-Princess then mates with Lifeless’s avatar. . . somehow. . . before we are “treated” to another thirty minute scene where Lifeless runs through trees and learns to fly on the backs of creatures on Smurfback Mountain as the other Smurfs learn to accept him and see him as the chosen one.

Suddenly, it’s back to the plot. For reasons Cameron never bothers to explain, the evil US Military decides that since they can now succeed with their plan of gaining the Na’vi’s trust, now would be the perfect time to ditch that plan and instead start killing them for fun. What?! Those aren’t the US military, you say? Well, you could have fooled me. Then the “plot” stops, a fight ensues, a lot of people die, as do many Smurfs, and forty minutes later the evil military loses and Lifeless becomes the leader of the Na’vi. Roll credits.
The Characters
Now that you know the plot, let’s talk about the characters. The characters are awful.

First, you have Lifeless. He’s a pointless character with little to add to the movie despite being the main character. His role is clearly a copy of Kevin Costner’s role from Dances With Wolves, but Worthington comes across more like a mental patient whose thorazine wears off every once in a while. Indeed, he seems incapable of displaying any emotions, despite suffering wild mood swings -- “I hate this place,” “no, I love this place, it’s paradise,” etc. etc. His character also is prone to saying really stupid things, but that’s ok because the other characters aren’t listening. In fact, one of the first things you’ll notice about this film is that none of the characters speak to each other, they deliver speeches to the audience. If it weren’t for the fact they do touch each other once in a while, you’d almost swear they filmed their parts separately and never met. Even simple lines, like "good morning fellow capitalist oppressor," seem to be spoken past the other characters.

The main bad guy is Colonel Cliché, who has a severe disability which prevents him from saying any line you haven’t heard in another film. He loves to kill. Sigourney Weaver plays a woman who occasionally uses scientific terms and then dies. She likes to be rude to people. And there are a whole bunch of other actors too, who presumably do something plot-wise, though it’s not really clear what. Finally, there are the Smurfs, whose main job is to speak like cliché American Indians, while pretending they aren’t American Indians. Not much more to say about them.
The “Writing”
The writing is awful. In fact, there wasn’t really a single line in the film that didn’t make me cringe. Every sentence was cliché-ridden and predictable. The word choice was around a fifth grade level. There was nothing subtle in the writing either. If they want you to know a particular character can’t be trusted, they will literally have multiple characters come on screen and say, “You cannot trust Character X.” And the only memorable line in the film was “The End,” words for which I was truly thankful.

The Political Correctness
Now that we’re done talking about the good parts of the film, let’s talk about the most serious problem with this sucker: this film is pure leftist propaganda. Every single line delivered in this film is crawling with politically correct bullsh~t. Seriously, these people can’t say good morning without making some leftist crack. These characters don’t speak, they make speeches. And here’s what they say: corporations are evil. The military is evil. Scientists who do the bidding of evil corporations or the military are evil. The American Indians are noble creatures who lived in an ideal world where no one died and their gods literally existed and everyone was a vegetarian and loved each other until whitey came along and killed them all and herded them into casinos. Save the environment from capitalist whitey and the military. The war on terror is evil. The American military are terrorists, shock and awe is evil. Shave the whales! Down with whitey!

The anti-white message in this film was particularly obnoxious. All the bad guys were white. In fact, the only minorities on staff (the Indian dude and the Hispanic chick) quickly changed sides and betrayed whitey to aid the Smurfs, as did all the women and the handicapped guy (what, no gays?). Whitey Colonel Cliché even asks Lifeless how it feels to betray his race, which may have meant “human” in this instance, but sure sounded like "white."

But before James Cameron goes patting himself on the back for being a full-blown worshiper of oppression theology, let me point out one irony. Why is it, James, that the only person who can save the backwards Na’vi is the white dude? And why would these peaceful people make him their leader, as they apparently do at the end of the film, when his only qualifications are being a solider and being a white dude? Are you saying that a moronic white dude is the best and brightest on their planet? That seems kind of racist. Seriously James, it’s amazing how easily your screed against white oppression seamlessly morphs into the noble savage fantasy that was so popular among empire builders in the late 1800s. I guess you see yourself as the man who would be king?

The anti-military message was obnoxious as well. All the soldiers are drawn entirely from the paranoid Hollywood clichés of soldiers. They are bloodthirsty and irrational and long for nothing more than subjugating the scientists and businessmen who run the show, just so they can kill the Na’vi because. . . well, just because. Sounds to me like James Cameron must have had a bad experience with a solider at one time. . . in a mensroom.

Unfortunately, these messages permeate everything you see and hear in this crap-fest. Indeed, there wasn't a line of dialog that didn't push these ideas. And that was a big enough turn off to anger me, whenever I awoke from my periodic movie-induced comas.
Conclusion
To sum up this film, all I can really say is that it swings wildly between boring and offensive, with a pretty lame videogame thrown in between. I am glad this turkey will be forgotten in a couple years, but saddened that James Cameron made any money. Maybe he’ll get robbed. . . now that is a happy thought!

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Film Friday: Wall Street (1987)

Wall Street is a great film. It’s well-paced, well-shot, well-acted and quite dramatic. But it has a rather ironic history. It’s ironic because Oliver Stone wanted the film to stand as an attack on Wall Street and the Reagan philosophy, but it seriously backfired and he ended up sending an entire generation of kids to finance school specifically to become the very villain the film rails against.

** spoiler alert **

At one point, Oliver Stone was a talented director/storyteller. Wall Street was made at the height of his abilities and is perhaps his finest film. But it was this ability to craft a highly compelling and engrossing film that tripped Stone up. Stone, no friend of capitalism or Ronald Reagan, intended Wall Street to be an anti-Reagan, anti-Wall Street, anti-capitalism screed. He hoped to discredit everything Reagan had achieved and get people leaving the theaters believing that the Reagan recovery (then underway for several years) was smoke and mirrors, with the rich getting richer by illegal means and the poor being tossed into the streets. But people didn’t see the film that way. To the contrary, they were inspired to become the very thing he hated: Gordon Gekko.

If we take the story as Stone intended, we get the following. Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is an eager young man who wants to do better than his father (Martin Sheen), a beloved union man. Fox joins the white collar corporate grind, doing cold calling for a brokerage firm. But greed entices Fox into the world of corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), an evil man who symbolizes the Reagan years. Gekko wrecks companies so he can squeeze out their savings for himself. Under Gekko’s spell, Bud changes. He becomes cynical. He goes from a normal American to buying modern art he once despised, to taking drugs, to falling for a woman who is, in essence, a high class prostitute or gold digger. Most importantly though, Bud becomes a slave to Gekko, doing his bidding, emulating him, and being used and abused by him. Ultimately, Bud becomes a criminal. Gee, capitalism sucks.

But Stone made a huge mistake by glorifying the experience. He gave it cool settings, beautiful people, access to a secret world, and even a great soundtrack. Consequently, what most people got out of the film was this: Gordon Gekko owns expensive cars, private planes and homes on private beaches. He has the coolest office in the world. He belongs to private clubs, where he gets to push around rich people who thought they were better than him. He makes his own schedule, orders off the menu in restaurants, gets the best tables, meets the coolest people, has sex with the most attractive women, and gets to play monopoly with real companies. And his life can be yours, if you're just willing to break a few harmless rules.

What’s more, Stone compounds his error by adding the character of Sir Lawrence Wildman (Terence Stamp), the white knight corporate raider. Wildman is the good capitalist, a man who genuinely wants to turn companies around and save jobs rather than wrecking them. BUT, we are also told that Wildman was Gekko before Gekko, and that his good guy status is only of recent vintage. Bud Fox reinforces this when he talks repeatedly about making a fortune so he can then do good with it. Thus, through Wildman’s actions and Fox’s words, we are told that it’s ok to be Gekko to get rich so long as we eventually do something noble with the money. . . at some point.

Thus, rather than the anti-capitalist “finance makes you evil” message Stone intended, the message that comes across in Wall Street is that it’s ok to do bad things to become ultra rich, because (1) it’s a great way to live and (2) you can redeem yourself later by doing good things once you can afford it. This was the message picked up by millions of college kids who suddenly wanted to become Gordon Gekko. They dressed like him, quoted him, and talked about becoming him. Indeed, just like LA Law sent kids to law school and ER sent kids to medical school, Wall Street sent them to business school to learn corporate finance. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser has confirmed this, stating that he has been approached many times by people who told him, “This movie changed my life. Once I saw it, I knew that I wanted to get into such and such business. I wanted to be like Gordon Gekko.” Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas also report that people tell them they became stockbrokers because of Fox and/or Gekko.

How’s that for irony?

But there are more ironies to consider. For example, this was a criticism of Reaganism, but corporate raiding exploded under Clinton. Stone complains that Gekko wrecks companies for no reason except his own profit, but it was the corporate raiders of the 1980s/1990s who are now credited with making American industry profitable again by breaking up large conglomerates that were run by inefficient management -- indeed, the failure to do this in Japan is one of the causes blamed for their decades long economic nightmare. Stone also complains that the economy is a “zero sum game,” a fancy economic term meaning that every winner has an equal loser and that no new wealth is ever created. But the economy grew from four trillion dollars at the time of the film to thirteen trillion today, even though Stone’s criticism would have predicted little to no growth. Similarly, Stone’s predicted pension fund collapse never happened.

Finally, it should be pointed out that much of what Stone sees as criminal in the conduct of Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko is not actually criminal. It is definitely criminal for Fox to break into offices using the cleaning service, and it is probably criminal for him to trade on what his father knows, depending on how his father learned this information. But Fox following Wildman around to figure out what company Wildman wants to buy is not illegal, despite Stone’s obsession with that point. Indeed, this is not insider information, this is nothing more than seeing Warren Buffett checking out the local grocery store and buying their stock because you think he wants to buy the company. Nor is it illegal to call the newspaper and tell them you plan to buy a particular stock, assuming you are truthful. Stone makes this sound criminal as well, but this happens every day when people go on CNBC to announce what they are interested in.

Thus, while Wall Street is a great film and it’s quite fun to watch, it fails pretty miserably at delivering its intended message. . . unless that message was “greed is good.”

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Is Hollywood Finally Listening?

Is Hollywood finally listening to conservatives? Hollywood has always had a liberal bent, though it was not always particularly noticeable. Part of this was that in the 1940s-1950s, liberalism was closer to classical liberalism (i.e. modern conservatism) than it was to hateful, lunatic modern liberalism. In the 1990s, however, Hollywood began to change and it became openly leftist and extremely hostile to all things non-liberal. But I wonder if that’s changing?

When the Clintons came to office with the support of Hollywood, Hollywood came fully out of the closet and jumped into the tank for the Democrats. As the Democrats drifted further and further to the nasty left, Hollywood followed. Gone were the generic public service announcements of the 1980s and the strategically placed “No Smoking” or “End Apartheid” signs in films, and in their place were open tirades against everything American. By the 2000s, this become so commonplace that there was scarcely a film that didn’t include some anti-Republican, anti-conservative, or anti-American message. And even when the films didn’t include these messages, many of the actors spent their days giving vile speeches supporting dictators and damning America.

The content was changing too. Villains became much more nasty and were drawn from narrower ranks, i.e. they all became melodramatic liberal bogeymen. Moreover, certain types of people could no longer be anything but villains. The American military and intelligence community because disloyal murderers. Priests became pedophiles. Businessmen because perverts, thieves, and killers. Religious people were portrayed as stupid lunatics with cultish overtones. There were no exceptions.

But then something began to happen. Americans, particularly conservative Americans, began voting with their wallets. Indeed, since at least the Iraq war, more and more conservative consumers began turning their backs on Hollywood. Profits continued to rise, but that was because of skyrocketing ticket prices and 3D surcharges; in real numbers ticket sales keep falling. Hollywood has noticed, though most tried to blame the recession. But this trend started long before the recession, and the public's boycott is too selective to be part of a general economic trend.

For example, while war films continue to play well (Valkyrie (2009), Flags of Our Fathers (2006)), not a single Iraqi War film escaped the bust label. Matt Damon was a bankable superstar until he started whining about Bush and Katrina and America. George Clooney’s box office appeal crashed the moment he began spewing. Ditto Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Megan Fox and others, and the presence of these people can now drag any film down. Everything politicized directors like Michael Moore and Oliver Stone did suddenly flopped, as did the political films. People even stayed away in droves from Disney’s attempt to satisfy race-baiting critics by providing a black princess in The Frog Princess, from the anti-religious rant The Invention of Lying, and anti-Wall Street films like Wall Street II.

So is Hollywood getting the message or is all of this falling on deaf ears? Well, consider this. In the past year, we’ve suddenly had two films that never would have been made in the early 2000s. The first is The Book of Eli and the second is Legion. Legion is your standard “angles are nasty creatures sent to kill humans” story that seems to have become popular ever since The Prophecy. But what makes it rather different is that it contains an anti-abortion message. Indeed, to save humanity, the heroes must protect a woman who wanted to have an abortion, but changed her mind. That’s a message you simply could not have put into a film before the somewhat ambiguous Juno in 2007. . . Hollywood’s feminist lobby never would have allowed it.

The Book of Eli is even more interesting. This is a film about a man, Eli (Denzel Washington), who is walking through a post-apocalyptic world with a book. They don’t tell you what the book is right away, but it’s so obvious that you can’t help but figure it out -- The Bible. Throughout this film, we are told that the horrific world in which humanity finds itself is the result of a war in which people tried to destroy every Bible because they blamed it as a cause of conflict, e.g. just like many on the atheist-left do today. At the same time, the few survivors with knowledge of times before the war talk with reverence about the power of the Bible to improve people’s lives and make the world a better place. Moreover, the film doesn’t hesitate to make it clear that God is real or that he is protecting Eli as he travels. AND, as he goes, Eli learns that the importance of the Bible is not the words per se, but living your life according to its teachings. Think about this for a moment. What was the last film produced by a major studio that was deeply complimentary to Christianity rather than deeply insulting?

I'm seeing hints in other movies too. The villains are getting more generic again and less-obviously insulting to America's institutions, and I'm seeing fewer straight up political moments in non-political films.

These could be outliers, but even if they are, they are outliers that simply could not have been made in the early 2000s. Perhaps this is evidence that Hollywood has turned a corner and that cracks are appearing in the Tinsel Curtain? Maybe this is even the beginning of an acknowledgement by Hollywood that it realizes that it needs to win back conservatives? I guess we’ll know when we see our first film in which American soldiers are made out as heroes rather than psychopaths?

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Television Networks

I often marvel at how poorly the television networks are run. In fact, if it weren’t for the airlines, I would say that no industry in America is more poorly run than the networks. Consider the following:

At a time when people are abandoning the network news because they offer nothing that can’t be found on the internet, the networks are laying off news staff and relying more on wire reports. . . the same wire reports that supply every internet news site. Wouldn’t it make more sense to increase resources so the networks can offer stories that can’t be found on the wire?

The networks are obsessed with competing head to head. If Fox gets a science fiction hit on Friday night (e.g. the X-Files), other networks (cough cough NBC) will try to come up with similar science fiction shows and run them opposite the Fox hit. If there’s an NFL game on one channel, rest assured someone else will run “guy films” to try to steal that audience. Wouldn’t it make more sense to grab the audience that isn’t flocking to the other guy's main attraction each night?

The networks spend a fortune coming up with “new” programming each year, but their failure rate is incredible. More than 80% of new shows will fail each year, with about a third not lasting a month. What’s worse, to achieve this “success rate,” they take the safest, i.e. “most cowardly,” approach possible. They do nothing that hasn’t been done and isn’t already airing. All sitcoms are either knock-offs of Friends or the awful generic family sitcom. All dramas involve cops or lawyers or over-sexed teens. They recycle stars more than environmentalists recycle their garbage. Yet, only 20% even make it to year two? And every year network audiences shrink even as the population grows? Wouldn’t it make more sense to try something new, like taking risks on content? HBO, AMC, and FX are all taking risks, and are being well rewarded for their efforts.

Also, wouldn’t it make sense to change the whole model? For example, you could start a show with a 15 minute pilot tacked onto the end of an existing show to see if people like it. You could spend a week running new pilots and getting audience to vote on them. Or you could start them on cable auxiliary networks and “promote” them to the network if they succeed. What other industry would accept a 20% success rate on new products without changing their business model?

The networks also spend a fortune bidding on sporting events like the Olympics and the NFL, on which they admit they will lose vast amounts of money. They do this to earn the “prestige” of having these events. But does anyone really watch NBC sitcoms or dramas because NBC had the Olympics or because they have the NFL? Do you think any less of ABC because they don’t? And if you’re going to spend money on these properties, why not do more tie-ins like having NFL players appear on sitcoms or doing a show about the NFL?

Finally, why would these networks let their shows and their news become so politicized? Does it make any sense to turn off half (or more) of your audience? Could you imagine WalMart blasting right-wing propaganda over its loudspeaker when you enter the store, or having its cashiers lecture you on the problems caused by unions? They don’t do that because they aren’t a political organization and it doesn’t make sense to offend their customers. So why do networks do/allow this?

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Top 25 8: Holiday Films You Should Know

With Thanksgiving upon us next week and Christmas following closely, it’s time to consider holiday movies. But this isn’t as easy as it sounds. For while holidays are some of the most deeply-ingrained aspects of our culture, there seem to be a shortage of significant holiday movies. It’s not as bad as trying to find films about the American Revolution, but it’s pretty close. So let’s call this a Top 8.

What’s interesting about holiday films is how few are actually about the holidays themselves, i.e. few films retell Christmas stories or tell us tales about Pilgrims. That tends to be the domain of television, where you find the likes of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and The Charlie Brown Christmas Special or A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Instead, we seem to consider a movie a holiday film if it takes place during the holidays and it involves “the holiday spirit.”

The holiday spirit consists of a combination of deep sentimentality and some form of redemption. Even the holiday films that aren’t truly sentimental in the strictest sense always end up with a moment near the end where all sins are forgiven, the bad guys are redeemed (as is the misguided hero), the value of family relationships and friendships is extolled, and everything ends happily. Here’s the list:

1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946): Directed by Frank Capra and staring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, Life is the story of George Bailey, who is prevented from committing suicide when his guardian angel shows him what his family, friends and community would have been like if he had never been born. While this movie flopped when it came out, it’s become the most-loved holiday film and tops almost everyone’s list. “Harry wasn't there to save them, because you weren't there to save Harry.”

2. A Christmas Carol (various): Charles Dickens’ classic tale A Christmas Carol has been made and remade so many times and in so many forms that it’s impossible to pick a single version as the most influential or best. Many people swear by the 1951 British version, while others prefer the 1984 George C. Scott version. Some like Bill Murray’s version in Scrooged. Even It’s A Wonderful Life contains elements of this story. My personal favorite version is The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). In any form however, this is one of the most well-know stories on the planet, and everyone knows each of its elements. “What day is it?” “Why, it’s Christmas Day, sir.”

3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947): Miracle is the story of a department-store Santa who believes he really is Kris Kringle. When they try to institutionalize this Santa for being insane, a young lawyer defends him by arguing that he is the real Santa. In the process, this film points out that a little faith in good things makes all of our lives better. “Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to.”

4. A Christmas Story (1983): Set in small-town America in the 1950s, this tale of a young boy’s quest to get his hands on a Red Ryder BB gun swims in nostalgia and sentimentalism. This is another film that flopped in the theaters, but got a second life on television. By 2007, this film crawled to the top of several “best holiday film” lists. In fact, the film has became so popular that one cable station now airs a 24 hour Christmas Eve marathon each year, during which they run this film over and over. . . and people watch. “I want an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!”

5. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989): This is possibly the best of the Christmas comedies (see below), and I’ve separated it because this is the one that spawned a generation of holiday movies that took a cynical look at Christmas. Unlike prior, thoroughly-sentimental films, Vacation dug into the love/hate relationship that many people have with the event that is the family Christmas, and it waited until the end before it whipped out the usual sentimentality. “Welcome to our home - what's left of it.”

6. White Christmas (1954): The story of two army buddies who meet their former commander in Vermont amidst a series of romantic mix-ups, this light romantic comedy was based around the song of the same name and was basically a star vehicle for Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. “There's no Christmas in the Army!”

7. The Bishop’s Wife (1947): The story of an angel (Cary Grant) who comes to Earth to help a bishop (David Niven) who has lost focus on what is important in life as he has become obsessed with building a cathedral. On Earth, Grant finds himself falling for Niven’s wife (Loretta Young). “Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread.”

8. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1997): Not particularly influential, but very popular, Planes is the only Thanksgiving film on our list.Planes is the story of an advertising executive (Steve Martin) who wants to fly home for Thanksgiving, but finds himself stuck with an obnoxious salesman (John Candy) as a traveling companion. Written by John Hughes in three days, this film went on to gross $50 million and remains a television mainstay today. “Those aren't pillows!”

Christmas comedies: Finally, let’s finish off the list with a group acknowledgement for the holiday comedy. Films like Elf, Ernest Saves Christmas, Jingle All The Way, Bad Santa, Home Alone, and The Santa Clause are standard Hollywood comedies that touch upon Christmas in one way or another. There’s little to these films, and they have even less staying power, but they do tend to make money as star vehicles in the year they are made, and the ones listed here have been entertaining enough to stick around for a little. It's hard to say that any of these films is influential, but the genre itself continues to reflect the cynical side of our views of the holiday season.


There are other holiday films we could list and some that are seen as holiday films despite not having any particular holiday theme (like Babes In Toyland). But none of those films is particularly influential. In fact, even the holiday films listed here were not particularly influential, certainly not as influential as those on the other Top 25 lists. Perhaps this is because our holidays are defined elsewhere in the culture, and these films only reflect what we already know about the holidays rather than trying to make a statement about the holidays? Or, said differently, maybe we don’t need movies to tell us what Christmas and Thanksgiving mean because we already know?

So what are your favorite holiday films?

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

TV Review: Sherlock (2009)

The BBC has a recent history of producing very entertaining, high-quality programs. Everything from the new Doctor Who to Top Gear have been smashing successes worldwide. High production qualities, top notch acting, and quality writing have abounded. Even some of their misses have been better than anything on American television today, like Primeval and Apparitions. The new PBS Masterpiece Mystery program Sherlock, a BBC production, easily continues that tradition.

Sherlock is a three part series that is written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and directed by Paul McGuigan and Euros Lyn. This is the team responsible for the best Doctor Who episodes, including The Empty Child, The Beast Below, The Time of Angels, The Girl In The Fireplace, and Silence in the Library, as well as Torchwood Children of Earth. They also wrote the Victorian Era episode The Unquiet Dead. Moffat also previously adapted The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into the 2007 series Jekyll. So this is an impressive pedigree, and they don’t disappoint.

Modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes are difficult, almost by definition, because Holmes is so associated in our minds with Victorian times. The way he speaks, his habits, his style of reasoning, his relationship with others are all deeply Victorian, as are the types of crimes and criminals he pursues. Indeed, prior to this series, I suspected that his very essence was uniquely Victorian and probably could not be brought outside of that era. But this new production proves that wrong.

What is truly striking about Sherlock is just how well they capture the essence that is Holmes. They kept his superior intelligence and his incredible ability to deduct stunning (yet obvious once you hear them) conclusions from minute details that you or I would otherwise miss. But even more importantly, they’ve managed to keep the balance between Holmes’ amazing ability to understand everyone around him instantly, against his inability to relate to anyone. Indeed, despite his almost omniscient grasp of human nature, he seems strangely incapable of dealing with others on any personal level. And it’s not clear if Holmes is a pathologically introverted character who offsets his problem with extreme arrogance, or if his “bored genius” makes him a “high-functioning sociopath,” as Holmes describes himself. This is classic Holmes.

Moreover, they have done a stellar job of maintaining the relationship between Holmes and Watson without giving in to modern "sensibilities." Indeed, at a time when it has become popular to suggest that the two are gay (a misunderstanding of Victorian era norms), this show avoids that trap, just as it avoids introducing modern soap-opera-like drama into their relationship. At one point, they actually poke at this theory when Holmes jokingly suggests that people might think they were gay because of the way Watson is behaving.

The production qualities are first rate as well. The sets are well chosen, giving you a flavor of London without doing the usual clichés. In other words, rather than doing things like setting scenes at the gates of Buckingham palace, they use locations like a railway yard with only a hint of the famous Battersea Power Station peeking out from behind an overpass. The inside sets are realistic as well, unlike shows likes CSI where the coroners work in the dark under intense mood lighting. In fact, every single setting is entirely believable and feels like something your would find in real life.

The actors are well chosen too. Holmes and Watson are strong actors with obvious chemistry as friends, but also manage to display the tension that comes from Holmes’ constant condescending to Watson. There is a character introduced near the end, whose name I will not reveal, who also ends up being perfectly played despite my initial shock at his mannerisms. The extras too impress me. Most of them are fat or old or simply "normal," but that helps make them entirely believable. Indeed, this is something great about British television, which is lacking in Hollywood: the ability to produce believable “every day” people on screen.

Finally, the show is fast paced with gripping plots that balance carefully between giving you enough to follow the story and to feel that you can predict where the story is heading, and giving away too much. In fact, you probably won’t have any idea what will happen next, though you never feel cheated. And even better, there isn’t a hint of political correctness. We are not treated to anti-war statements, attacks on religions or the military, attacks on corporations, attacks on conservatives, etc. They don’t wedge minorities into every position of authority, there are no moments where we are told that Islam is wonderful, and Watson even shows disgust at the homeless. There are even two moments that the gay lobby would not have accepted on film in this country. It is refreshing to not feel like you are being lectured.

All in all, I highly recommend this show. They really have managed to take the essence of Sherlock Holmes and bring it to the present. The only complaint I have is that there are only three episodes. Let’s hope for more!

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Film Friday: The Guns of Navarone (1961)

The Guns of Navarone is a fascinating movie, and not just because of what’s on the screen. Based on a book by Alistair MacLean, the film was written and produced as anti-Cold War propaganda by Carl Foreman, a member of the communist party, who was blacklisted in the United States. His intent apparently was to suggest to Western audiences that they not fight the Cold War. But like so many other liberal message films, his message backfired, and he ended up creating a rousing film that remains one of the stronger World War II movies.

** spoiler alert **

Navarone ostensibly is the story of a commando team that must infiltrate a fictional Nazi-occupied island in Greece and destroy a large rail gun so the British Navy can pass by the island to save 5,000 trapped British troops. As they do this, they are repeatedly faced with nasty choices, such as whether or not to kill one of their own when he gets wounded or to feed him false information knowing he will reveal the information under torture. They also encounter betrayal, cold-blooded murder, and cowardice.

More importantly, the three main characters struggle with each other. Capt. Mallory (Gregory Peck), an American, is tired of the war, but continues with his duty even though it seems hopeless to him. Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a former Colonel in the Greek army, fights to free his home. Corporal Miller (David Niven), a British explosives expert, is anti-war and revels in criticizing Mallory’s actions.

I say “ostensibly” because the film is actually a metaphor for the Cold War. If we see this film as Foreman intended, then we would notice the following: the Nazis, who stand in for the Soviets, are ruthless, efficient, and nearly omniscient. It is hopeless to fight them. Mallory, who represents Americans, is a stupid man who is only doing what he’s been told and has no idea why he’s fighting. Miller, who represents America’s allies, is worn out, cynical and ready to make America carry the load. He also manipulates Mallory into doing all the dirty deeds. And Stavros represents the people of third world countries who are dying on these misguided American missions.

But here’s the problem for Foreman. Leftist propaganda doesn’t sell. To make the movie profitable, the characters had to resolve their issues before they could move ahead. And in so doing, Foreman’s anti-war message morphs into a call for everyone to understand the importance of fighting, i.e. the reasons why the West did fight, and to grasp their importance to the fight. In effect, to draw an audience, he turns an anti-war screed into an incredibly strong pro-war film.

Indeed, as the characters reach the make or break moment, Mallory suddenly realizes why he’s fighting -- he needs to make this realization if he is to be able to continue the mission. He realizes that he is not fighting just a different ideology, but an evil ideology, and that he must succeed if he is to save the people who are relying on him. In other words, he learns that he is part of a bigger picture and what he does matters because people are relying on him.

What brings about this epiphany is his observation of the Greeks. Up to this point in the film, Mallory and Miller have been little more than tourists. They see the island as just another battleground and they pay no attention to the locals. But as they are brought into the lives of the locals, they come to realize what the Nazis have wrought upon this community and the lives they’ve destroyed. This particularly strikes Mallory when he realizes this war is a matter of life and death to Stavros, and that Stavros can’t simply quit the war and go back to his old life. He knew this, just as he knew that 5,000 soldiers and sailors would die if he failed, but his experience finally personalizes this for him.

It’s at this point that Mallory has enough of Miller’s constant harping and disclaiming of any responsibility. Miller has disavowed responsibility for everything that happened, and criticized Mallory at every turn, safe in the knowledge that Mallory would do his duty no matter how asinine Miller behaved. But now Mallory has his fill, and he delivers one of the most pro-war speeches you will ever hear in a film. Indeed, he berates Miller for trying to pretend that he is only an observer and he tells Miller “whether you like it or not, you’re in this thing, up to your neck.” He then demands that Miller finally carry his own weight. Shamed, Miller realizes that his cynical pacifism had been disloyalty bordering on sabotage.

Thus, what was meant to present an image of America adrift facing an invincible foe as worn-out, whiny, worthless allies harp at America from the sidelines, suddenly becomes a rousing pro-war statement declaring the importance of everyone working together to win this struggle to set the world free. Basically, Foreman’s anti-war film turned into a crystal clear statement of why everyone needed to do their duty.

This is one of the ironies of leftist propaganda films: they often backfire on their creators because the need to attract an audience requires certain elements that change the message of the film. In this case, had the characters surrendered to their cynicism, then there would be no doubt about the anti-war message of the film. . . but there wouldn’t have been an audience. Instead, the characters overcome the ideological confines placed upon them early in the film so they can try to end the movie successfully. And because of that, the “message” of defeatism actually gets converted from being the thing the audience was meant to take away from the film into the thing that must be beaten for a brighter future. And that's the exact opposite of what Foreman hoped to convey.

Whoops.

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Friday, November 5, 2010

How To Remake A Movie/TV Series

Hollywood loves remakes. On the surface, they appear intellectually easy because all the work of creating characters and situations has already been done, and done in such a way that it proved to be a success. Indeed, these movies/TV shows tend to come with ready-made audiences because they have long-term fanbases. Toss in a few new things to add to that audience and you have guaranteed success, right? Not quite. If it was that easy, then remakes would never fail, and most of them do fail. I think the reason is a lack of love for the subject matter.

What Doesn’t Work

Hollywood has tried all kinds of things for remakes and most of them have failed. The types that have failed generally fall into three categories:

(1) Frame for Frame Remakes: These films basically remake the prior movie almost exactly or with slight differences. The idea behind this type of remake is to sell the movie to an entirely new generation by including new actors. The classic example of this was the scene for scene remake of Psycho starring Vince Vaughn. Other examples include things like the remake of Final Destination, which uses different ways to kill characters but follows the same plot point by point.

The problem with this type of remake is that it’s pointless and it risks killing what made the original so interesting. If the film offers nothing new other than new actors, what is the point in seeing it? Moreover, movies are more than the combination of their plots. They are defined by their camera work, the chemistry of the actors, and the quirks of their time. When you start removing any of these elements, the quality of the film suffers. Thus, these types of remakes are rarely as good as the original and their appeal tends to be limited to fans of the new actors.

(2) Remakes In Name Only: These films are not really remakes, though they claim to be. The classic example of this type is Starsky and Hutch, which had nothing to do with the original series. Instead, this was just a generic modern cop-buddy comedy with the names from the original series laid over the characters. In fact, if you removed the character names, no one would have been able to tell what was being remade. The problem with these films is that they insult the fans’ intelligence, because it’s easy to see that Hollywood is trying to exploit them. Further, these films often turn off non-fans who fear that they would need to know the original material to enjoy the remake.

(3) Provocative/Angry Remakes: This is the type of remake where the person who has gotten their hands on the rights to the original, apparently has no love for the original work. A classic example of this would be the remake of Battlestar Gallactica. It was clear to fans of the original series that Ronald Moore hated the original series; you could see this in all of his interviews where he was condescending to every aspect of the original material, from the storylines to the characters to the production values. And this came across in the first season of the series, where he made needless changes to the characters that insulted fans, and seemed to revel in attacking the original work at every turn. Another example of this was the first year of Star Trek The Next Generation, where the show seemed more interested in repudiating the universe created in the original series than it did in creating a watchable television show. In both instances, it wasn’t until they moved beyond this anger that these shows really found audiences. In films, a good example of this was The Stepford Wives which added an intense amount of anger at the original material, which made the movie unpleasant rather than morally provocative, as the original had been.

The problem with this type of remake is that it has no good will. It turns off fans of the original almost before they’ve seen it, and it keeps non-fans away, just as strangers tend to avoid sitting between squabbling family members. Moreover, it wastes its creative energy attacking the original rather than creating an entertaining new product.

What Does Work

So what does make a good remake? In truth, it’s probably just the avoidance of the three problems above. First, if you’re going to remake material, don’t ever do just a frame for frame or plot-point by plot-point remake. You need to find some new spin on the material and present a full story that stands on its own. Secondly, don’t try to pass off a regular film as a remake just because you include the character names or some references to the original story, you need to capture the essence of what the fans liked about the original.

But the third point is the most critical: not only should you not despise the original material, but the best remakes are made by people who clearly loved the original material. Consider for example The Brady Bunch Movie or The Addams Family films, these were excellent films that struck a chord with the public and continue to get play today. What made these films so special was that the producers clearly loved the original material and intended to keep the essence of the original alive in the remake. They didn’t try to change the characters and they didn’t set out to punish them or to settle scores. And when they did poke fun at the original material, they did it in good humor (not nasty), and the jokes tended be the sorts of things fans might sit around joking about when the original shows were on the air. It’s the difference between laughing with someone and laughing at them.

The remake of Ocean’s Eleven is another good example where they took the overall premise of the original film, kept the hip spirit of the movie and characters, and then set about making a good film that stood on its own, but which simultaneously honored the original material. Indeed, it was clear that whoever remade Ocean’s Eleven understood what made the original so loved, and worked hard to keep that essence in the remake even as they were offering something new to the audience. To give you a sense of what could have gone wrong, the writer could have tried to make the characters edgy, rather than hip, or they could have tried to insert the standard liberal criticisms of the 1950s being a time of racism, wife beating and alcoholism. . . but they didn’t. They stayed true to the spirit of the original.

The problem with this, of course, is that it takes a lot more brain power to understand something and then to expand upon it, than it takes to just steal some character names, make a few references to the original and otherwise just write a generic modern film. Apparently, it’s also hard to find people in Hollywood who don’t hold grudges against older material. But this is something Hollywood should think about asking the next time someone suggests a remake: do the people involved really love the original material or do they just see it as easy material to exploit?

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Friday, October 29, 2010

What's Wrong With Slasher Flicks?

As you know, I’m a big fan of horror movies (see the Top 25 Horror Film list for proof). But I don’t like slasher flicks. In fact, slasher films have really begun to offend me on many levels. Not only have these films become utterly pointless and uncreative in the extreme, but they’ve sunken to incredible depths of depravity. It’s time this tired genre got the chop.

The reason I like horror films is the strong emotions they can evoke. A great horror movie can provide both a physical and a mental experience. These films stick with you; their themes and ideas play themselves out over and over in your mind until they achieve a level of paranoia or terror normally reserved for life threatening situations. That can be exciting. And with that terror comes a series of physical reactions. For example, it can make your heart race. It can also heighten your senses, letting you hear every little noise, see things you normally don’t notice, and even turn your skin into a sensor for the world around you as it reacts to even the slight breezes. There is something satisfyingly primitive in this.

But slasher flicks are a different beast entirely; they don’t seek to generate terror, they seek to shock you. Thus, whereas horror movies try to find the one thing that terrifies you deeply and bring it to life on screen, slasher films simply toss disgusting and shocking images at you until you can no longer bear to look. At best, they cause a nervous reaction that passes the moment the stimulus is removed.

Moreover, slasher films are some of the least creative films ever made. Every one of them follows this pattern: young female hottie is going about her business. Meanwhile, the psycho killer appears, be he an older male psychopath, alien or supernatural being. The psycho killer stalks the young hottie, usually killing her friends in the process, often in sexually suggestive ways. In the end, the hottie escapes, the killer appears to die, and we wait for the hint of the sequel. There is no variation. Sure, you can add a subplot about a conspiracy or an evil-being hunter, but that’s just window dressing. The story always remains the same.

There’s no writing skill required either. You set the story somewhere isolated, though anywhere will do. You introduce the characters, and have one of them tell the rest about the legend of old ____. After that, it’s just screams and blood. In fact, a typical script probably looks a little like this: “Hey, let’s go skinny dipping. You mean at haunted killer lake? Yeah. Ok. . . ahhhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhh ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Roll credits.”

Let’s face it, there’s no there there. And I find that objectionable. These movies are little more than a series of gross out scenes connected by a plot so thin it could be written on the head of a pin. What’s the point in watching that? Why not just watch actual autopsy videos? Heck, rent Autopsies Gone Wild, it’s a scream.

But my real objection to slasher films is the level of depravity. The modern slasher film’s primary purpose is to find new ways to destroy a human body. Yet, that’s not actually what I consider to be the depraved part. Indeed, while I find no artistic merit in what they are doing, it is difficult to say that showing someone hacked to death is somehow morally worse than seeing them shot on screen. One is certainly more disgusting and arguably more gratuitous to the plot, but substantively, the morality is the same -- both involve the killing of a human being.

So what is the depravity? Well, it’s a combination of two things. The first derives from a complaint made by feminists that I think is somewhat correct. They have long objected to slasher films on the basis that they glorify violence against women. That part I think is bunk. Slasher films are about violence and it doesn’t really matter who the victims are. Moreover, people who have studied the matter have found that males faired much worse in slasher films than females. But there is a related aspect to this that is a valid criticism: slasher films combine sex and violence. Indeed, large parts of the violence in slasher films is of a sexual nature: almost every one of these films involves people killed while they are engaged in sex, people who are killed through some attack on their genitalia, or people who are killed in other sexually suggested ways.

The combination of sex and violence, particularly the suggestion that the two are connected, makes these films little more than simulated snuff films (where real murders were supposedly caught on film -- though there is little evidence this genre actually existed). This is the kind of stuff that motivates serial killers and true psychopaths, and we should not be too quick to dismiss this merely because the depravity is only simulated by the actors. Indeed, ask yourself if you would draw such a distinction if we were talking about kiddy porn versus simulated kiddy porn? The answer is “no” because it is the attraction to the depraved activity that we consider the problem, and it does not matter whether that activity is simulated or real. The same is true with snuff films. It is the attraction to seeing others killed that is problematic, and it does not matter if the killing is merely simulated. And before you say, “wait, there’s nothing wrong with films about murder,” let me point out a key difference. When people see films about murders (or other acts of violence), they are drawn in by the story; indeed, they don’t even need to see the murder to get full satisfaction out of the film. But with snuff films, it is the murder itself that attracts the viewer, just as it is the images of sexually exploited children that attract the pedophile to child porn. Thus, the closer slasher films get to snuff films, the more depraved they become.

Further, let us look at the second reason modern slasher films are depraved: a high level of sadism. Sadism is the desire to inflict pain or injury on another without cause. It is a mental condition that is common in sociopaths, and slasher films now thrive almost exclusively on sadism, with each director trying to outdo those before him.

By sadism, I don’t mean that the killings are more graphic. That’s the issue addressed above about shooting someone versus cutting them up. What I am talking about is the replacement of simple killing (no matter how graphic) with torture killing. In older films, the slasher villain was motivated to kill and they did so, often brutally, but with little doubt that their sole goal was to achieve the death of their target. But that’s no longer the case. These days, it’s not enough that the villain simply kills for revenge or kills because they are mentally ill or kills because they are evil. Instead, today’s slasher villain must kill because they derive a thrill from it, and to express that thrill, they need to prolong the death and find ways to make the victim suffer as much as humanly possible.

This trend really took off with the Saw series, which involved a sadistic killer who arranged ways for his victims to maim themselves before they died. This has since become the norm in the slasher genre. For example, there was a film on television the other night (The Final) where a group of high schoolers captured another group of students and forced them to cut off each other’s body parts or paralyze each other. No doubt the director would claim this was a film about ironic punishments and that the slashers had a motive for their actions -- seeking revenge for mistreatment by bullies -- but that’s not true, their actions were pure sadism. How do we know? Because nothing these characters did could be considered a valid form of punishment or even vengeance under any moral scheme known to man because their behavior was not intended to remedy a problem or to prevent a harm or protect a person, and because the punishment was in no way proportional to the crime, instead, its sole purpose was for these characters to derive a thrill from torturing and killing others. And the justification offered for the characters’ behavior was nothing more than a pretense, a smokescreen meant to hide the fact that this film was the director’s sadism fantasy.

This is the problem with modern slasher flicks. The originals walked a fine line between stories of unusually brutal killers and plotless, quasi-snuff films. The modern version jumped that line and ran miles down the wrong side of the road. They now glorify snuff films and revel in sadism. And that makes these films depraved and without merit. Add in the lack of creativity, and these things need to go.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Film Friday: Bob Roberts (1992)

In the spirit of the upcoming election, I thought I’d do something you never thought I would. . . I’m going to recommend a movie written by, staring, and directed by Tim Robbins. This is another one of those richly ironic films where an über-leftist tries to expose the “evil right wing” and ends up exposing his own side. It’s also a very entertaining film.

** spoiler alert **

Bob Roberts is the fictional story of Bob Roberts, a candidate for the United States Senate in Pennsylvania. It’s told in a documentary style, but remains very film-quality. Roberts (Tim Robbins) and his mysterious campaign manager (Alan Rickman) manipulate the press, slander their opponent, enter into shady deals, encourage cult-like followers, and dodge an obsessed “journalist” (Giancarlo Esposito) who investigates the truth about Roberts’ mysterious dealings. That truth appears to be that Roberts is a Manchurian candidate of military contractors and the C.I.A., who are secretly funding his campaign. No dirty trick is too low for this campaign.

So why in the world would I recommend this film? Well, for one thing, it really is quite a good film. It’s well shot, well paced, and all around entertaining. For another, the film boomerangs on its leftist intent. Here are some examples:

First, while Roberts is the evil right winger cliché that haunts the dreams of leftists like Robbins, Roberts actually comes across as one of those likeable villains you find yourself cheering on -- just like the generation of kids who wanted to be Gordon Gekko after Wall Street. It's hard not to like Roberts because he's friendly, witty, and is unfairly put upon by the other side. For example, Roberts keeps saying things like: “stay off crack. . . it’s a ghetto drug.” If you understand the anguish the left has regarding the disparity between how cocaine and crack are sentenced, and how they blame that disparity on racism, then you’re supposed to see this statement as evidence of racism and you’re supposed to be appalled. But that's too deep in the pond of leftist paranoia for most people and anyone not steeped in hard-left victimology will simply see this line as funny and/or absurd.

Secondly, the folk music is great. Roberts is a folk singer and he uses his music as part of his campaign. The music is intended to be pure satire, as Roberts sings lines like “be a clean living man with a rope in your hand” (implying you should act like a vigilante). But most people will find themselves having a high degree of sympathy with the lyrics of his songs. In fact, Robbins became so concerned about this that he refused to release the soundtrack for fear that Republican candidates would start using his songs -- just as Ronald Reagan turned Bruce Springsteen’s anti-American rant “Born in the USA” into a pro-American anthem.

Third, this film highlights the nastiest side of liberalism in the most unflattering ways. For example, in one scene, it shows the intolerance of liberals when Roberts appears on a fake Saturday Night Live show (the parody of SNL is actually spot on, with poorly-written unfunny scripts, bad acting, and mindless characters). The actors (including John Cusack) throw tantrums about Roberts showing up, treat him rudely, and finally try to sabotage the show to deny him any publicity. While Robbins no doubt thought the audience would see these characters as noble for standing up to power, they actually come across as mean, petty, and intolerant. . . exactly the kind of vile, intolerant, hateful types we've seen parading through Hollywood for years now. Moreover, their hate is made impotent in the film because nothing they try seems to be able to stop Bob.

Fourth, this film is rich in irony. While Robbins means this film as an indictment of the American right, the things he accuses the right of doing are all out of the playbook of the left. For example, it is hilarious to see Robbins complain about secret military funding of right-wing Bob, when the past 20 years have shown that liberals are the creatures of big business, the military industrial complex, and foreign money. He accuses right-wing Bob of planting a fake sex scandal to embarrass his opponent, something Democrats specialize in (like all the October surprises, e.g. the fake Bush Sr. affair, CBS making up Bush Jr.'s military record, etc.). It’s also hilarious to see a brainwashed cult-like group of followers (including a young Jack Black) begin following Bob around, when the only thing approaching this in real politics has been the legion of Kool-Aid drunk liberals that wept whenever Obama spoke.

In some ways, this film is also quite prescient. For example, it foretells the much nastier style of campaigning that has become a Democratic specialty -- secret dirty money, image over substance, a hard-left flank that tries to suppress its opponents by any means including violence, faked scandals, loads of hate, etc. It also foretells the shift from a mainstream media to a more fringe media. In fact, Bugs Raplin (Esposito), the crazed journalist, is a lot like the paranoid weirdoes who would soon begin to inhabit places like Huffington Post, where they too complain that the MSM won’t cover the "real" truth because they’re beholden to secret corporate interests.

At first blush, this film sounds like something you wouldn’t want to see if you’re not a flaming leftist, but it really is worth watching. Robbins’ attempt to slander the right backfires in almost every scene and his story telling ability is undeniable. The story has clever twists and turns, the acting is perfect, and the characters are likeable. Moreover, unlike most leftist films, this one doesn’t preach because it assumes that you will pick up the meaning from the words and deeds and motivations of the characters, and that you will naturally agree with Robbins. . . hence, no need to preach.

Sadly for Robbins, he never realized that the window he thought was letting him peer down into the dark side of conservatives was actually a mirror. Good for us though.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

And They Were Bored. . . The end.

For several years now, I’ve noticed that I’m getting less and less thrilled with the endings of movies. Actually, “thrilled” isn’t the right word, “bored” would be more correct. I’ve considered several possible causes for this, but nothing ever fully explained it. But now I think I’ve finally figured it out.

When I initially noticed this issue some time ago, my first thought was that perhaps our short-attention span culture was finally getting to me? Maybe decades of ever-shortening commercials and instant gratification was killing my mind and causing me to lose interest in anything lasting longer than a few minutes? But then I realized that my most favorite movies tend to be long films that take their own time, and I have no problems sitting through those.

Then I thought that maybe the issue was familiarity. Maybe the real problem was that I was watching movies I’d seen before, and since I knew the endings, there wasn’t a lot of point to sticking around to see them play out. This is the same reason I don’t watch reruns of sporting events. But this didn’t quite work either. For example, I can still watch many of my favorite movies over and over and I don’t turn them off before the endings. Indeed, it’s just not The Great Escape until you see Steve McQueen sitting in the cooler one last time, and it’s not The Empire Strikes Back until you see the Millennium Falcon disappear into the distance. So how could it be familiarity? Not to mention that I’m not just having this problem with films I’ve seen, but with most modern films even when I am seeing them for the first time.

So perhaps it’s a different kind of familiarity. Maybe the problem is that so many movies are so formulaic today? Maybe it’s a matter of “seen one, seen them all”? But again, how does that explain my willingness to sit through dozens of older films where I know the ending, even though I can barely get myself to sit through a film like Terminator Salvation without flipping on my laptop? Or maybe it’s just that the endings of films can rarely hold up to the promise they hold before they start having to answer the questions they posed when they began? But that same problem should apply to older movies I haven’t seen and yet I find myself much more interested in those than in new films I haven’t seen.

I could suggest that maybe I just like older films better, but that’s not true. I don’t succumb to nostalgia, I don’t prefer fakey effects, and I think story-telling techniques have continued to get better and better over time.

So what is causing this problem?

Well, after the last couple weeks of watching dozens of modern horror flicks, a pattern began to reveal itself. No matter how interesting these films started, when they got near the ending -- about twenty minutes out, the writers simply quit writing, and instead of anything plot related, they just inserted a constant assault of screaming, running and squirting blood. . . a mind-numbing assault.

And it wasn’t just horror movies. The last twenty minutes of every modern action film has become a videogame chase scene awash in gun play, wire fights, and unbelievable CGI escapes. The last twenty minutes of modern science fiction films have become shoot outs and scream-fests as the heroes run from space monsters while the space station explodes around them. Even cartoons are following this pattern.

Consider the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. The last twenty minutes of the first film were largely a combination of two fight scenes, though they weren’t super obnoxious and they involved breaks for plot. But the sequel ended in the now-standard mind-numbing Hollywood chase. The third film ended in an atrocity, a 30-plus minute special effects assault intermixed with a ludicrous CGI fight scene. Some of the CGI fight scenes at the end of the second and third Matrix films come close to 40 minutes depending on how you count them.

Everything I’ve seen lately falls into this same pattern: near the end of the film, the script apparently contains the words: “insert videogame, attention-deficit-disorder, assault-the-senses-arama here. . . roll credits.” It must be a macro.

But hasn’t this always been the case? Actually, no. And that’s why I’m finding that only modern films are boring me. Sure, older films followed a pattern of trying to put the climactic scene at the end, and that often involved a shootout, a chase scene or a fight. But they rarely ran more than a few minutes and they always left room for plot. Compare the famous car chase in Bullitt (which isn’t actually at the end), which lasted only nine minutes total, with the first two not really being a chase in the traditional sense, against the never ending CGI fights at the end of the movies listed above. Or compare the feel of the attack on the Death Star, which involved little action mixed in with significant dialog, against the videogame lightsaber fight and cliché-fest at the end of the third prequel.

What makes this all the stranger is that at the same time they are inserting these long, long pointless endings, they are editing them with ultra quick cuts to try to maintain the attention of the audience. When I saw Armageddon for the first time, I found the editing to be so obnoxious that I found myself counting the number of seconds between cuts; I never made it to 8. And while I thought that was a bad sign at the time, that’s the golden age compared to today. Today, waiting as long as 8 seconds to make a cut in a fight scene would be unthinkable. . . and that doesn’t even consider the vomit cam.

I think this is why I find myself rarely paying attention at the end of modern films. Once the fighting begins, everything of interest in the story is over. So I flip on my laptop, and I start doing something else. I hope Hollywood is paying attention, but I doubt it. . . there aren’t enough explosions in this article to get their attention.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Film Friday: Memento (2000)

A couple weeks back, we talked about the incredible human brain and its ability to take events that are out of sequence and put them back into their proper order. Nothing highlights this better than Memento, a psychological thriller written and directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception). Memento is the story of a man who can’t make new memories, and what makes the film really stand out is the way Nolan tells the story. He tells it backwards.

** spoiler alert **

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce -- L.A. Confidential) is a former insurance fraud investigator who suffers from a condition called anterograde amnesia. This is an actual medical condition which renders the brain incapable of storing new memories. Essentially, the sufferer has all of their memories up to the point of injury, but cannot remember anything that happens thereafter. Leonard got this condition when he was struck on the head as his wife was raped and murdered. That's the last memory he has. He has spent every waking moment since that attack tracking down the killer: “John G.” To aid him in this search, Leonard has the police file and his mysterious friend (Joe Pantoliano). Also, since he can’t make new memories, he takes Polaroid photos and writes cryptic notes to himself on these Polaroids, notes like “don’t trust him.” He also tattoos important rules on his body, things like “never answer the phone.”

The story begins with Leonard killing a man named Teddy, who he believes to be John G. This scene is in color. The story then shifts to a black and white scene with Leonard sitting in a hotel room telling someone on the telephone about his condition and what he’s been doing. The story then shifts back to a color scene, only this scene takes place before Leonard killed Teddy and it ends right at the moment the first color scene begins. It takes a moment to understand what is going on, but what Nolan is doing is telling the story in two parts by alternating the black and white scenes with the color scenes, each of which last only a few minutes. The black and white scenes are told in chronological order, whereas the color scenes are told in reverse chronological order (during the opening credits you actually see a scene running backwards, but that is the only time Nolan does that).

While this sounds confusing, it turns out to be a brilliant choice. By telling the story backwards, Nolan gives the audience a sense of confusion similar to what Leonard experiences. Basically, each scene begins without any idea of what has come before that scene. Thus, for example, Leonard may find himself holding a gun, but he has no idea where the gun came from or what he was doing with it. And since we are in the same boat as Leonard because of the reverse-chronological order of the film, we likewise have no more idea than Leonard where the gun came from. Similarly, we have no idea who the people around him are or what they may have done or said only a few minutes prior. Hence, we are just as lost and disoriented as Leonard. Can he trust the weeping woman who needs his help (Carrie-Anne Moss -- The Matrix) or the hotel clerk who’s exploited Leonard's condition to rent him multiple rooms? Who is Teddy really? We don’t know, and neither does Leonard. (Interestingly, experts on anterograde amnesia agree that what Nolan has created is similar to what people with anterograde amnesia actually experience.)

But unlike Leonard, we have one advantage that really makes this film pay off -- we know his future because we’ve already seen the ending and are working our way backwards through the story. This brings us to Nolan’s second achievement. By going this route, Nolan converts what would otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill film into a stunning story with a constant barrage of twists. Almost every scene involves revelations that change the entire complexion of the story, as we learn about the real motivations of the characters, we learn what Leonard’s notes mean, and we learn why Leonard has taken the steps he takes. Indeed, with each scene we find ourselves reinterpreting the events that we know will take place to fit the new facts we’ve uncovered. The result is a puzzle that grows with complexity as you get closer to its solution.

While this is going on, the interwoven black and white scenes have Leonard telling us how his condition came about and he describes a man he met with the same condition: Sammy Jankis. Leonard investigated Sammy for insurance fraud, and we learn that Sammy’s tail ended tragically because of Sammy’s wife’s inability to understand what was really happening to Sammy, which was caused by Leonard’s insistence that Sammy was faking. Without giving too much away, this raises questions about divine retribution or karma, what is memory, is there a part of us that learns by instinct rather than through the conscious making of memories, and what makes us who we are. There is even a twist regarding Sammy that adds a whole new layer to this story, though I won’t give it away here, except to say that maybe Leonard doesn’t have true amnesia, but instead wants to believe he cannot make new memories. Indeed, there is considerable evidence for this when you find out the real relationship between Teddie and Leonard, and in the fact that Leonard occasionally seems to know things that happened after the injury.

This is a movie you should see. It’s intelligent with great acting, gripping story-telling, and amazing surprises. This film presents a fascinating look at what it would be like to have true amnesia and it gives us a classic example of the power of our minds to assemble a complete story from out-of-order pieces -- as well as the limitations on that power. Indeed, the main theme to the story seems to be about those limitations, specifically how easily we can be manipulated, even by ourselves, when we lack full knowledge.

I highly recommend this film.

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What Makes Us Like Characters?

Have you ever wondered what makes us like certain characters and dislike others? Of course you have. There seem to be a lot of possible explanations offered, everything from our opinion of the actor to the morality of the character. But in the end, I think it comes down to one thing: we like characters who display personality traits we wish we had, and we dislike those who display traits that annoy us.

Let’s start with the idea that our opinion of a character will be determined by our opinion of the actor. Hollywood bets heavily on this, and there is some truth to it. Indeed, our goodwill to an actor can translate into goodwill toward the characters they play. But few actors generate much goodwill. Moreover, while this can translate to the character, that isn't always true. For example, our goodwill toward Harrison Ford may make us inclined to like Han Solo, but it likely would not improve our opinion of Humbert in Lolita, should Ford play that role.

Further, the fact that different actors can play the same character tells us that the identity of the actor actually isn't all that important to the character. Indeed, in general, unless the choice of actor interferes with our perceptions of the character, e.g. they are physically inappropriate like Truman Capote as Rambo or they bring negative baggage like Michael Moore, then any actor should be able to play almost any character. That means it is something other than the actor which decides our views of the character.

So what is it then about the character that matters? Liberals suggest that we like those who are most like us, and fear those who are different. Thus, they would (and do) suggest we like characters who are similar to us, e.g. whites don't like black characters. Of course, this goofy theory of oppressionology falls apart once you realize that movies don’t attract audiences that are identical to the demographics of their characters, and that whites have accepted actors like LL Cool J and Ice Cube, and Americans have accepted foreign actors, and even males and females seem to like each other.

Traditionalists argue that we like characters based on morality issues. Thus, we like characters who act morally and dislike characters who act immorally. But that falls apart right away as well. We like Darth Vader, and he’s hardly a good guy; even before the lousy prequels, Vader was evil, tyrannical, and also a lapdog for a truly unlikeable Emperor. We liked Max von Sydow in Needful Things, even though he played the devil. . . a generally difficult character to like. And there are a bunch of characters who are paragons of moral virtue that we just can’t stand.

Heist films present an excellent example to consider. We like Danny Ocean, even though he’s immoral, and even though we would vote to convict him if we sat on a jury. Indeed, we love all the bank robbers, the schemers, and the fraudsters, but only on film. . . not in real life. And even on film, there is a fine line: the moment they cease being hip or cool, and instead become murderous or rotten, we suddenly stop liking them. Tony Soprano was cool, Phil Leotardo was not, even though both did the same acts. And what is the difference between these two?

Consider this. We like to live vicariously through films and books; they are our fantasy worlds. And in our fantasies, we want to see ourselves as better than we currently are. Thus, we prefer characters that have the traits we wish we did. We want Darth Vader’s power to terrorize. We want Danny Ocean’s cool. We want characters who are under control, funny, sexy, smart, strong, interesting, and a whole host of other things we admire or yearn to be. And when we find characters who have these traits, we like them. On the other hand, when we find characters with traits we find annoying either in ourselves or in our day-to-day lives, we dislike those characters. Thus, we don't like characters who are whiners or weaklings, who suffer from indecision, or who are vindictive, petty or arrogant. These are traits we see every day and which we want to escape.

I think this is what determines whether or not we like characters. It's not the morality of the characters or their actions or what they look like, nor is it the actor who plays them. What makes us like or dislike characters are the traits the characters possess that we either aspire to or which annoy us. In fact, I would go one step further and even suggest that these are the same reasons we like/dislike particular actors.

Thoughts?

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Top 25: Horror Films You Should Know

With October beginning today, it’s time to roll out the next Top 25: horror movies! These are the top 25 horror movies you should know to be well-versed in horror. Again, these are not necessarily the best or the most scary, but they are the most significant.

Horror is one of the most consistently popular genres in film, with even middling movies guaranteed to make money. Why? Because audiences want to feel emotional responses to their entertainment, and no emotion is easier to evoke than fear. Fear comes in many flavors, everything from being startled or shocked to deep down psychological terror that makes you sleep with the lights on. Few movies reach that final level, but when they do they usually leave a mark on our culture. Let’s begin. . .

1. Night of the Living Dead (1968): The importance of Night of the Living Dead cannot be overstated. This film brought horror movies to adult audiences. Before this, horror was costumed monsters aimed at kids. This film also created the zombie craze which continues unabated today and established the conventions for that entire subgenre. “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”

2. The Omen (1976): The Omen spawned the “Satan is coming” subgenre of horror films and gave us Damien Thorn, a figure who has entered the popular culture as a representation of pure evil. There are even indications this film influenced the American view of Satan and the Book of Revelations. And Gregory Peck playing Damien’s father made it respectable for big name stars to do horror movies. “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast; for it is the number of a man; and his number is 666.”

3. The Exorcist (1973): The Exorcist is considered by many to be the scariest movie of all time. This film brought exorcism to the public consciousness and spawned a demonic possession craze in modern horror films. It also introduced the now-clichéd idea of pitting a demon against a priest who lost his faith, and it gave us perhaps the most iconic horror image of all time: Max von Sydow standing outside Regan’s house under the lamp. “The Power of Christ compels you!”

4. Alien (1979): Alien brought modern horror into the realm of science fiction and established the conventions of that subgenre. brought modern horror into the realm of science fiction and established the conventions of that subgenre. It also involved the first female hero and it established Ridley Scott, who really redefined science fiction. “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

5. Jaws (1975): Jaws sparked a nationwide panic over and fascination with sharks, which continues to this day. It also solidified the career of Steven Spielberg. Jaws is particularly noted for waiting to reveal the monster until late in the film, so as to build suspense, though ironically this wasn’t intentional. . . they just had a hard time making the mechanical shark work. “You're gonna need a bigger boat.”

6. Halloween (1978): Halloween introduced the slasher film, though it was tame by modern standards. Halloween also gave us Michael Myers, as a masked, speechless, killing machine, who escapes a mental hospital and returns home to kill his family and everyone else in town. Myers has become the template for modern slasher villains. “He’s coming to your little town.”

7. The Shining (1980): One of the most iconic and oft-referenced horror films of all time, The Shining is the story of Jack Torrance, who goes insane while working as the winter caretaker of a haunted hotel. This movie, more than any other, defined Jack Nicholson and made Stephen King stories a staple of horror films (though, ironically, King “hated” the film). “Here’s Johnny!”

8. The Ring (2002): This film involves a young woman haunted by an evil spirit. At a time when slasher flicks had become the norm, this film opened the door for a new subgenre by importing the Japanese vision of horror in which creepy, but non-gory images (often involving children) terrorize the heroine while she tries to solve the mystery of what created the evil spirit. A whole slew of similar, remade Japanese films followed (e.g. The Grudge, Dark Water, The Eye, etc.). “He watched the tape!”

9. The Haunting (1963): The story of a group of paranormal investigators who spend several nights in a haunted house plagued by violent spirits, this film established the haunted house subgenre and all of its conventions. This film has been remade and repeatedly copied. “You may not believe in ghosts but you cannot deny terror!”

10. 28 Days Later (2002): This movie revived the slowly dying zombie subgenre (no pun intended), by introducing fast-twitch zombies. Suddenly, zombies became a whole lot more menacing. “Repent the end is extremely f**king nigh.”

11. Resident Evil (2002): Resident Evil started the craze of turning videogames into movies, something which has continued unabated ever since. It also popularized the use of scantily-clad, young women as the butt-kicking heroes, a staple in the horror/action genre. “You're all going to die down here.”

12. Poltergeist (1982): Poltergeist introduced the country to the concept of a poltergeist, not a ghost, but a malevolent force that haunts people. This has since replaced simple hauntings in films. It also created the film conventions for ghost hunters, including the types of equipment they need and their associations with colleges, and it introduced ideas like the blinding white light after death into which we are supposed to walk. This film also highlights the 1980s craze of demonizing property developers. “They’re here.”

13. Friday the 13th (1980): The story of risen-from-the-dead, hockey-mask-wearing, chainsaw-wielding Jason Voorhees, this film added a supernatural element to the silent, killing-machine character first seen in Halloween, and gave us motiveless killers who can’t be killed no matter how many times you shoot or stab them. This movie also gave us the “our friends are dying, let’s go skinny dipping” cliché as Voorhees works his way through a pack of camp counselors. This film has spawned 12 sequels to date. “They call this place Camp Blood.”

14. Scream (1996): The story of a killer who’s watched too many horror movies and decides to live them out in real life, Scream revived the horror genre for younger audiences by setting the film around teenage actors and following like a hipper, totally like cynical, tongue-in-cheek style or whatever. “Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative!”

15. Saw (2004): Saw is basically a snuff film with little else to recommend it. But it belongs on the list because it opened the door for modern torture porn, which all but abandons story in favor of 90 minute, sadistic bloodbaths. “He doesn't want us to cut through our chains. He wants us to cut through our feet!”

16. The Blair Witch Project (1999): Shot like a home movie, this story of three film students who vanish chasing an urban legend started (and basically ended) the “found footage” horror film subgenre. “I am so scared! I don't know what's out there. We are going to die out here! I am so scared!”

17. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Elm Street gave us Freddie Krueger, who could kill you in your dreams, made Johnny Depp a movie star (instead of a television star) and made Wes Craven a star director. This film is referenced in dozens of later films, inspired numerous sequels and copies, and encouraged slasher movies to step up the special effects game and the level of creativity. “Whatever you do don't fall asleep.”

18. The Amityville Horror (1979): The story of a father who goes insane upon moving into a house and repeats the murderous rampage of the prior owner, this film introduced the idea of a “true” horror story, which has become a bit of a cottage industry. “There's nothing like it on the market. Not at this price.”

19. The Evil Dead (1981): Gory, silly and primitive on all levels, Evil Dead is not a good film, but it is a cult classic with a large following and is well-known by horror aficionados. The story of four people in a cabin who open a doorway to hell, this film made Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi into Hollywood names. “Give me some sugar, baby!”

20. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Rosemary learns that a coven of witches think her baby is the Antichrist, oh goody. This film made Roman Polanski famous before he became infamous. It also introduced the idea that perfectly normal looking people could be engaged in Satanism. Many of the conventions created by this film continue to dominate Satanism and witchcraft-based horror movies today, and some have suggested this film spawned the Satanic-cult-mania of the 1980s that destroyed the lives of many daycare workers. “He chose you, honey! From all the women in the world to be the mother of his only living son!”

21. Psycho (1960): Hitchcock’s classic tale of deranged serial killer Norman Bates who is compelled to kill his victims to gain the approval of his dead mother. Although this movie is tame by modern standards, it shocked audience at the time, and in many ways, is the first psychological slasher film. “She might have fooled me, but she didn't fool my mother.”

22. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): A classic film about pod people taking over a small town by replacing the inhabitants, this film expressed the American fear of 1950s communism and represented the height of 1950s-style horror. It also gave us a now-standard horror trope: the friends who seem normal, but aren’t. “Love, desire, ambition, faith - without them, life's so simple, believe me.”

23. Phantasm (1979): Phantasm is the story of a supernatural and malevolent undertaker (“the Tall Man”) who uses the dead for reasons unknown. It’s also one of those cult classics you must know to be well-versed in horror films. “You play a good game boy, but the game is finished, now you die.”

24. An American Werewolf In London (1981): Famous for special effects that were ahead of its time, this very-dark comedy follows a teenage American tourist in London who gets bitten by a werewolf and tries to figure out how to stop killing people. “Kill yourself, David, before you kill others.”

25. Nosferatu (1922): This is the granddaddy of them all and literally started the entire horror movie genre. However, the film has not held up nor is it particularly influential in terms of story or style, hence it is at the end of our list. “Is this your wife? What a lovely throat.”


Again, these are not necessarily the best movies or the scariest movies. John Carpenter’s The Fog and Prince of Darkness are considerably scarier than many of them. The Japanese versions of films like The Grudge and Dark Water are better than the American versions, as is Les Diaboliques. The Ninth Gate is easily my favorite Satanism story, and I truly love Something Wicked This Way Comes. And there are many historical films I’ve left off, such as anything by Lon Chaney or Bella Lugosi. But those aren’t as well-known or as influential as the films above.

Happy October!

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