Friday, August 27, 2010

Film Friday: The Usual Suspects (1995)

The Usual Suspects is a neo-noir crime thriller with an intensely intelligent plot that twists and turns and wraps a riddle within an enigma as it tricks the audience with their own preconceptions. Add in stellar acting from an incredible cast, a pitch perfect soundtrack, an absolute lack of mistakes or bad choices by a creative director, and easily the most daring script of any film I’ve seen, and you’ve got one of my favorite movies and a movie you must see.

To discuss this film will require MAJOR SPOILERS. Do NOT read this if you haven’t seen the film.

Directed by Bryan Singer, The Usual Suspects ostensibly is a story of a robbery gone wrong, but that’s hardly a fair description. When all is said and done, The Usual Suspects is a mystery, where different characters give you different facts that you need to piece together to decide what really happened.

The story begins with small-time criminal Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) telling U.S. Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) what happened the prior night when a group of criminals attacked a boat in San Pedro harbor. Verbal appears to be the only survivor and he has given testimony in exchange for immunity. Kujan is racing against the clock to question him before he is released. According to Verbal, the robbery began several weeks prior in New York, when the police brought in four hardened criminals (and Verbal) for a lineup after a truck was highjacked. This group consists of Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), and Fenster (Benicio del Toro). They decide to use the opportunity of the lineup to work together on a heist in NYC. After they pull off the heist, they fly to Los Angeles to meet the fence who will sell what they’ve stolen. In L.A., they are forced to perform a robbery for a criminal legend named Keyser Sӧze, who may or may not exist. Sӧze, supposedly, is a ruthless, omnipresent Turkish criminal mastermind who uses other criminals to commit his crimes. The robbery involves forty million dollars in dope and an equal amount of cash on a ship in San Pedro harbor.

This sounds straight forward, but director Singer does something daring. As Verbal tells this story, Agent Kujan keeps interrupting him with facts that Verbal either does not know or has lied about. At the same time, FBI Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) provides us with additional facts. For example, there were no drugs and it appears the true purpose of the raid was to kill a man who could identify Sӧze. When Kujan finally confronts Verbal with what Kujan believes happened, Verbal breaks down and agrees with everything Kujan says. He is then released. But as he leaves, we learn one more crucial fact -- Verbal is identified as Keyser Sӧze by a witness pulled out of the harbor. In this way, Singer presents four different versions of what happened. Verbal tells one story. Within Verbal’s story, we are given a second version by Dean Keaton, the man Kujan thinks is the leader of the group and who Kujan ultimately believes to be Keyser Sӧze. Agent Kujan and Baer give us a third version based on the facts Kujan collected from before the robbery and Baer collects from the harbor. Finally, we are given what appears to be the truth when we learn at the end that Verbal is Sӧze.

This alone makes this a brave script. The use of the four different version plot device (which dates back to Kurosawa’s Rashomon) is very difficult to pull off and extremely confusing when done poorly. Moreover, unlike prior films that used this and which always told the audience what really happened in the final version, Singer only provides some verified facts and leaves it to the audience to piece the truth together. That is a daring choice because it’s by no means certain the audience will be able to put this back together, and a confused audience is an unhappy audience.

What’s more, Singer doubles down on the difficulty by mixing up the movie’s chronology: it starts the night before, moves forward to today, backs up several weeks, swings back to the present, moves back to a different point in the past, and so on, as different parts of the story are told. There are many dangers to this approach. For example, the audience may not be able to put the story back in the right order. Moreover, because the audience knows the ending right at the beginning, there is a real danger the attack on the harbor will lose its drama because the audience knows how it will end. But Singer overcomes these issues brilliantly both by maintaining a strong pace and by giving you characters who seem so determined, so in control, and so competent that you don’t believe they can fail, even though you’ve already been shown that they do.

But even more than these issues, Singer takes a tremendous chance in that ultimately we know nothing of what really happened. Indeed, when we analyze the facts presented and we consider what we actually know to be true, rather than what we think we know, we quickly discover that we can’t believe anything we’ve been told throughout the movie. The only facts we know for certain are (1) Verbal is Keyser Sӧze, (2) Verbal and a group of men attacked the harbor, (3) the four criminals (Keaton, McManus, Fenster and Hockney) are dead, and (4) Keaton’s girlfriend is dead. That’s it. Nothing else in Verbal’s story can be verified and most of it can even be dismissed out of hand. Thus, Singer essentially shatters the entire film. The danger with this approach is that it risks alienating the audience. Audiences don’t like feeling like they’ve been misled or like their time has been wasted, and nothing feels more like having your time wasted than being told that you can’t believe anything you’ve seen over the last two hours. But Singer does something very clever here. Despite telling the audience quite plainly that nothing they’ve just seen can be believed, he also gives them one moment of truth -- when Verbal’s true identity is revealed. This allows the audience to feel that they really do know what happened; indeed, strangely, we take this fact and instantly reassemble the story into a new narrative that makes sense to us. . . even though none of the pieces we use to reassemble that narrative are true.

And that brings us to the twist. Using a twist in a movie is very risky because a poorly done twist, i.e. one that isn’t organic to the story, feels cheap and tacked on and leaves the audience feeling cheated. But making a twist feel organic and still keeping the audience from seeing the twist too early is very difficult and often requires careful slight of hand.

Yet, despite this difficulty, Singer hides nothing. Indeed, from frame one, we are told this will be a mystery and the question will be “who killed Dean Keaton.” Thus, the audience is put on alert from the beginning. Then, throughout the film, Singer constantly gives clues as to Keyser Sӧze’s true identity. For example, Sӧze and Verbal have the same lighter and Verbal clearly is playing with Kujan -- something that should be out of character if he is who he says he is. Yet, the audience overlooks these clues because Verbal doesn't fit our preconceived notions about what a criminal mastermind must look like and act like. In other words, we simply find it impossible to believe that the meek cripple is the Satanesque villain we are looking for (Kujan, by the way, makes the same mistake and indeed tells Verbal repeatedly that a "stupid," "cripple" like Verbal could only be a pawn). Instead, we find it much easier to believe that the menacing, brooding Dean Keaton is Sӧze, just as Kujan urges us to believe.

Which one is the master criminal?

Singer takes a huge risk here that the audience will see the twist coming and link Verbal to Sӧze right away -- which would ruin the movie. He even adds to that risk by warning us that we need to look beyond our perceived notions. He does this when Verbal warns Kujan: “for the cops, there’s no mystery to the street. If you think some guy did it, then you’re going to find you’re right.” And that is exactly what we do in the film: we size up the suspects and we pick the guy it usually would be -- Dean Keaton. Singer deserves tremendous credit for correctly calculating that we would ignore the clues.

That’s why this is easily one of the smartest films you will ever see. It is so tightly written, so daring in its choices, so mistake free, so perfectly acted, and so expertly assembled that a movie that could have been a horrific jumble in other hands turns into an intelligent puzzle in Singer’s hands. And Singer takes real risks and overcomes them brilliantly by skillfully deceiving us with our own preconceptions. The American Film Institute ranked this the tenth best mystery film of all time, I would rank it higher.

Not bad for a six million dollar film no one wanted to fund.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Film Friday: The Box (2009)

When it comes to films, I’m all for creativity. Interesting camera angles, unique visual tricks, and neat twists of chronology all have the potential to truly enhance a film and make it stand out. But there’s a catch. The creativity needs to serve a purpose, otherwise it’s just a gimmick, and gimmicks get annoying fast. One film that suffers from misuse of such gimmicks is The Box, a 2009 science fiction story based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button.”

** spoiler alert **

Matheson, by the way, is one of science fiction’s greats. His most famous works include “I Am Legend” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” and many of his works have ended up as films or Twilight Zone episodes. Even “Button, Button” was made into a Twilight Zone (1985 version) before it was made into The Box.

The Box is the story of a young couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, who have no chemistry) who receive a box from a mysterious man, who offers them one million dollars if they push the button on top of the box. The catch? Someone they don’t know will die when they push the button. In and of itself, this makes a fairly interesting premise for a psychological character study. Would you push the button? Does it matter that you do or don’t know the people? What happens if you and your spouse disagree? What happens if you push the button and then change your mind?

Yet pushing the button is only the beginning of the plot. Without giving too much away, it soon turns out that the box delivering man, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), works for some very powerful people, and they have the power to control the minds of people all around the unhappy couple. This turns the film into a mystery the characters try to solve who these people are, how they are controlling people, and why they are doing it. All told, this should make the plot very interesting and well worth seeing. But there are major problems with this film that kept me from enjoying it, and those problems were entirely avoidable.

First, director Richard Kelly sets the film in 1976. So what's wrong with 1976? Well, for starters, this is not the kind of film that benefits from being a period piece, unless there's a good reason for it, e.g. you're spanning time. Here the reason will not be obvious to most people and is not strong enough to justify making this a period piece (he wants the film to coincide with a Mars probe). That makes this feel like a gimmick, and it becomes annoying as you find yourself waiting to find out why the film is set in 1976. . . only to discover there's no real reason. Further, 1976 is not far enough back to be a sufficiently interesting period. Consequently, you end up feeling that the director chose 1976 just so he could play music from that period and have several scenes where the television announces some “new” sitcom that eventually would become a classic -- a total cliché for modern period pieces.

Secondly, even though this film could have taken place anywhere in the world, Kelly chose Richmond as a setting. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal, except that Kelly uses the setting as a reason to have Cameron Diaz fake a “Virginia” accent, something she does very, very poorly. Again, there is no reason to have done this and it comes across as yet another gimmick.

Third, Kelly tries to build drama by stretching out his scenes. This is a trick that various great directors have mastered -- Quentin Tarantino comes to mind. But whereas Tarantino fills his scenes with compelling dialog and a steadily building level of tension, Kelly just stretches each scene. This causes the film to feel slow and meandering, even though the nature of the plot should make it fast-paced. It also comes across like a heavy-handed, film-school gimmick.

Kelly also repeatedly demonstrates a lack of faith in his audience. For example, he keeps beating you over the head with the idea that he's withholding key elements from the audience and that this is the kind of film that won’t explain everything. But at the same time, he tells you the information he is supposedly withholding if you just pay attention to what the radio and the background characters tell you. And in case you miss it the first time, they repeat themselves a dozen times. And just in case you still missed it, he repeatedly interjects scenes where two characters suddenly begin explaining to each other what is about to happen (or what just happened) and what it means.

Yet, at the same time, Kelly is too coy and waits too long to get into the plot details. Thus, you’re confronted with scenes like the opening scene, where a student humiliates Diaz seemingly for no reason. You will understand much later what possessed the student to act this way (though Diaz’s reaction makes no sense), but until that happens you’re left with a scene that just strains credibility and drags the movie down.

Continuing the lack of faith issue, Kelly doesn't trust that his audience will accept his characters' choices, so he stacks the deck. Indeed, rather than letting the young couple decide on their own whether or not to push the button, the first several minutes of the film are a set up where everything the couple has relied upon financially is slowly taken away from them. Thus, the film itself justifies their decision to push the button and thereby resolves the moral issue that theoretically sits at the center of this movie, i.e. the film excuses their behavior. Kelly then repeats this trick several times throughout the film to make the paths the couple should choose obvious in each instance. It would have been much better not to manipulate the circumstances, but to let the characters deal with their own thoughts and emotions honestly.

All in all, Kelly had in his grasp a fantastic story with incredible potential. But he kept mucking it up with pointless gimmicks that did nothing but distract from the film, and he weakened the underlying dilemmas by manipulating the circumstances to make the moral decisions much easier for his characters. If he hadn’t done these things, I would be screaming that everyone should see this film. As it is, all I can really say is that it was an interesting film that I'm glad I saw, but I don’t want to see it again, and I can’t help but think that I would have been better off just reading the short story.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Modern Literary Fiction Stinks

Do you know what literary fiction is? Literary fiction is fiction that doesn’t fit into other genres and is somehow supposed to be above other forms of fiction. People believe this because literary fiction traces its roots through a line of authors like Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Updike, whose books did indeed change the world. Whether it was simply changing the way Americans saw each other, or sparking legislation to change the injustices identified in their books, these literary giants helped shape our country. But those days are over. . .

If modern literary fiction could be summed up in one word, that word would be pretentious: self-indulgent themes, a disdain for its audience and the public at large, the use of erudite sounding but actually quite poor analogies, and a continuing struggle to use larger-than-necessary words that don’t fit the meaning as well as they should. Those are the hallmarks of literary fiction today.

Though, in truth, I don’t think literary fiction can be entirely defined with one word. It takes two. And the second word is cliché. Most literary fiction offers little more than well-worn clichés masquerading as intellectual depth. Indeed, which of these stories isn’t about the repressed wife who puts on the happy facade as everyone around her dies of cancer?

The problem with modern literary fiction is that it has lost its focus. Old school literary fiction didn’t view the public as evil or corrupt and didn’t look down its nose at its audience. It wanted to elevate the audience. Today’s fiction wants you to wallow in the author’s imagined pain. Moreover, literary fiction used to look out at the world, hunting injustice and pointing accusing fingers at the indefensible. Today, literary fiction isn’t concerned with injustice, it’s concerned with the inner struggles of characters in the mistaken belief that this somehow tells us something about ourselves.

They even have an excuse to justify their own aim-low approach: “the American scene is just too complex -- and too aware of its own complexity” for the likes of an Updike to come along again. That’s loser speak.

Time magazine just did a story on the latest “greatest” in the field. His name is Jonathan Franzen and even the article about him is pretentious. His last novel “told the story of a Midwestern family that goes to pieces spectacularly as the father succumbs to Parkinson’s.” Uh huh. His new one is about a “superficially happy household” in the Midwest where everyone is really dissatisfied with their lives, especially the repressed housewife. Oh, and there’s an alcoholic father and a date-rape. Nope, no clichés there.

What really bugs me about the Time article, aside from horrible writing and the pointlessness of it all, is that the “journalist” completely buys into the rather stupid idea that this form of literature has any real meaning to us: “he shows us how we live” gushes the “journalist.” Really? Or does he show you how you coastal liberals want to think the rest of us live? Are we really all unhappy alcoholics in Hicksville just wishing we could be like you? Or is that just wishful thinking by liberals who tend to be horrified when they run into genuinely happy people in Mid-America?

The truth about fiction is that it’s fiction. It’s not real. To the extent that it includes facts, it can inform us. To the extent it teaches us reasoning or logic, it can educate us. But teaching us something about ourselves by looking at made up, clichéd characters? Nope. That it cannot do. All it can tell us in that regard is what the author thinks, nothing more.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

How To Un-Cliché Your Villain

A cliché is an artistic idea that has been so overused that it offends the patience of the audience. It’s the kind of thing that gets an audience rolling their eyes and saying, “oh no, not again! Can’t they think of anything new?!” And nothing ruins a movie quicker than a clichéd villain.

Examples of cliché villains include anything resembling a James Bond villain and the evil corporation as the bad guy motif. Other examples include the liberal boogeymen trinity: greedy corporate bosses, bloodthirsty military men and perverted religious leaders.

What is it that each of these have in common? Two things: simplistic, unrealistic motivations and melodramatic characteristics.

Humans come with a whole range of good and bad motivations. But this is too complex for Hollywood. Instead, Hollywood follows a formula where each villain they use has only one motivation, and that motivation is an amplified form of the most prominent characteristic of that character’s profession or role. Thus, for example, because business strives for profit, the corporate villain is always motivated by greed, and only greed. Because the job of soldiers is to kill the enemy, the soldier villain is always motivated purely by bloodlust (ditto on “the hunter"). The politician is always motivated purely by power. And so on.

But humans aren’t like that. Humans are complex creatures with many motivations. And this is where you need to begin your search for the non-clichéd villain. Indeed, the surest method for avoiding a clichéd bad guy is to employ a motivation other than the one Hollywood always uses. Thus, avoid the greedy businessman. Instead, consider a businessman who might act out of fear of being replaced. Avoid the power hungry politician and go for a politician with a pathological need for approval. Avoid the bloodthirsty solider. Instead, consider a soldier like Captain Stransky in Cross of Iron, who tries to send the heroes to die to keep them from reporting his cowardice.

Still, these are dangerously close to the clichés, so let’s dig a little deeper.

As I’ve pointed out before, it is a fact that real life villains never think of themselves as villains. They may recognize that they’ve done evil things, but every single one of them thought they were justified in doing so -- either to rectify some injustice done to them or to further some “noble goal” they wanted to achieve. For example, serial killers often report that their victims wanted to die or that they were doing the work of God. Hitler viewed himself as the savior of the German people, and he justified his evil as necessary to achieving that purpose. Ultimately, his justifications were insane, but they made sense to him, and that’s the key here: people just don’t see themselves as evil.

This translates into the story arena as well. Think of the best film villains and you will find a group that rarely sees themselves as evil. Darth Vader thought he was bringing peace to his Empire. The Borg in Star Trek were simply doing what came naturally, as did the Alien and Jaws. The Terminator was just following its programming. Captain Bligh was a sadist, but thought he was in the right. Bartholomew in Rollerball thought he was doing what had to be done to protect society. Dean Corso in Ninth Gate was just doing his job and following his curiosity. Even the guys in Rope thought they had the right (if not the duty) to murder their friend. These are all characters who would be shocked to hear that they were cast as the villains in their stories.

Here’s another great example of this. In the Star Trek episode “Conscience of the King,” the character Kodos was the governor of Tarsus IV. When a famine wiped out their food supply, he ordered the execution of half the colony to save the rest. He thought he was doing the right thing. Or look at the bureaucrat in Torchwood: Children of Earth (left), who makes the cold-blooded calculation that turning several thousand children over to a horrible fate is worth it to save millions more, and then goes about callously selecting them. Both of these characters did what they thought they had to do, even though it pained them personally.

What this tells us is that the easiest way to avoid a cliché is to remember this key fact: if your villain can’t legitimately explain how they’re justified in doing what they’re doing, then you’re probably on the precipice of a cliché.

Moreover, there isn’t always a direct link between the motivation and the end result. In other words, the villain need not always be motivated to cause something evil, sometimes it’s just a byproduct of their misbehavior. A perfect example of this would be a scientist who thinks he’s doing something great, but actually invents something horrible, or a bureaucrat who turns a blind eye to right and wrong because he’s unwilling to act outside of his assigned box, or even a prosecutor who pushes a little too hard even where they suspect the defendant might be innocent (see Breaker Morant).

If you want a great example of this evil by-no-design, look at the movie Cube, which had an incredible premise (ignore the sequels). The premise was that people awoke trapped inside a huge cube that is full of traps. Why? Who built it? Apparently, no one did. . . at least not intentionally. It was built by thousands of people, each doing their parts, without ever knowing exactly what they were creating. And the reason it was built? Again, no one knows. They speculate it was just some bureaucratic idea that took on a life of its own -- which happens more than you would think in the modern world.

Also, keep in mind, that sometimes the villain is simply someone who was put in a situation way beyond their competence, and they didn’t have the strength of character to admit that. So as things spin beyond their control, they get busy trying to cover their rear ends to hide what they’ve done or they try to fix things and only make them worse (see Brazil).

Finally, there is one more thing that needs to be done to avoid the cliché: drop the melodramatic traits. The truly evil among us don’t go prancing around reveling in their evil and shooting henchmen for sport. And if you think about it, you’ll understand why: it doesn’t make sense in the real world. Could someone as unstable as the Hollywood “greedy businessman” ever make it to the top of a corporate empire? Would anyone promote the soldier who laughs maniacally as he gives insane orders to shoot his own troops? Would anyone work for the villain who shoots his henchmen when they get his coffee order wrong? No. It is the rarest of rare stories where something like this could make sense.

That’s my thinking.

Ultimately, the key to avoiding clichés is to avoid over-used motivations and the melodrama that always attaches to those clichéd motivations. Understand your characters. Make sure they would feel justified in every action they take, and avoid ever thinking that they would see themselves as evil. If you do this, you’ll also find that your story necessarily adjusts away from cliché storylines because those types of storylines can’t reflect the character’s more natural motivations and responses.

Or maybe it’s best summed up like this: realism kills clichés.

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Friday, August 6, 2010

Film Friday: Surrogates (2009)

Surrogates could have been a fascinating film about the consequences of losing ourselves to the virtual world. But it wasn’t. The writers never could look beyond their knee-jerk liberal worldview to create a believable future and they were terrified to explore any of the issues that arose. At the same time, the director couldn't decide if he wanted to make a science fiction film or a summer blockbuster. He ended up with neither: an action movie without any thrills and an intellectual movie without any brains.

** spoiler alert **

Surrogates takes place in the near-future when mankind has invented human-like drones that people literally use as substitutes for themselves. As the operator lies in a sensor chair, the drone lives their lives for them, obeying all of their commands. Theoretically, this premise makes the film ripe for a fascinating set of philosophical questions and social commentary. For example, you’ve got questions of privacy, questions of anonymity and knowing who or what you’re really dealing with, questions of people losing touch with the real world, questions of the loss of our physical health as people vegetate in front of computers, and questions of what defines us.

That’s a lot of fertile ground for a pretty compelling and interesting take on the modern world. Indeed, this is the kind of premise that could easily showcase both the best and the worst of our increasing reliance on the internet, and could result in a film that is simultaneously both inspiring and deeply disturbing. But it wasn’t. And there are two main reasons the film never came anywhere near its potential: (1) The knee-jerk liberal worldview adopted by the writers (it actually came from a comic book) and (2) the director’s desire to appeal to a mass audience.
Bad Writers
Right out of the gates, the audience is hit with a liberal worldview that matches nothing that thousands of years of human existence have shown us about human nature. Consider this: what would happen if people suddenly learned they would no longer bear any of the negative consequences of their actions? In other words, they could no longer get hurt no matter what they did, they could look however they wanted no matter how they maintained themselves, and they could move through the world anonymously. If you said, “crime and discrimination would disappear,” then you’re an idiot. . . or you’re one of the writers. No rational person would believe this. It makes no sense. Put humans in a consequence free environment and they take advantage of it, they don’t suddenly lose their worst instincts.

Yet, the film starts with this nonsensical premise -- which is based on the liberal fallacy that crime is supposedly the result of disadvantages and is not a conscious personal decision. And in so doing, the writers immediately create a huge disconnect with the audience, which makes it impossible for the audience to relate to the people in the movie.

Moreover, this premise falls apart immediately as the writers introduce all of the standard liberal boogeymen. You have the blood-thirsty military, the corrupt cops, the dirty businessmen, the religious fanatics who are actually hypocrites and really work for the corrupt businessman. Yep, the only thing missing was Dick Cheney. And each of those standard issue boogeymen was made all the worse because they found themselves in a consequence free environment. . . the exact opposite of the premise upon which the movie world is based. Thus, the writers undercut their very own liberal knee-jerk world when their other liberal knee jerked. Jerks.

Further, the writers were clearly too afraid to touch upon the issues that would make this film so much more interesting. Willis suffers from anxiety when he’s out in the street in person rather than in his surrogate. But it passes right after it’s mentioned. People who have done nothing but lie around for ten years immobile, can suddenly get up and walk around without showing any signs of the atrophy that comes with being bedridden. It’s mentioned several times that you never really know who is operating the surrogate (as you can look like anyone), but we aren’t shown any of the kinds of depravity or betrayals this would lead to . . . and which occur every day on the internet where predators and perverts lurk anonymously. And for all the talk in Hollywood about racism, they never touch upon this subject even though the obvious question would be: would minorities continue to be minorities in public? They also completely skip over the question of kids being raised by parents acting through robots. And they utterly fail to grasp the social consequences of any of this. For example, if people are partying through their robots and never really meet in the flesh, who is getting married and having kids? Wouldn’t there be a population plunge? What about the irresistible human desire to pull pranks, to hack, or to exploit a system? Nada. What about the herd instinct? Wouldn’t everyone try to look like the latest supermodels? And how exactly do people in the poorest parts of the world afford these surrogates? And so on. . . all skipped.

In short, they hint at some interesting issues, but they whitewash them all, and they ignore a great many more -- especially those that would require them to think of how the world would actually change. In other words, we’re supposed to accept the premise but not really think about what the premise would mean. This makes the film bland and pointless. And it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the writers are the same team that wrote Terminator Salvation, another pointless, lifeless, generic yawner meant to keep your brain from ever coming on.
Bad Director
Beyond the writing problems, lies the problem of the director: Jonathan Mostow. Mostow either didn’t quite know if he wanted to make a contemplative science fiction film or a summer action film, or he was too afraid to lose the summer kids because he never veered from the summer formula -- and he doesn't even do that with any creativity.

Bruce Willis plays the same character he always plays. . . a middle-aged, slightly out of place cop (FBI) with an unhappy family life. The story takes place when Bruce and his partner (Radha Mitchell) discover that someone has a weapon that lets them fry surrogates and kill the user in the process. This of course turns into a global conspiracy involving the standard bad guys: the U.S. military, corrupt cops, evil corporations, and a psychotic inventor who is the real mastermind behind whatever the evil plot actually is. Bet you never saw that coming! The plot is generic. The characters are generic -- Ving Rhames, Rosamund Pike, and James Cromwell are all wasted in this. The plot twists are generic. The pacing is generic. And the ending is uninteresting -- in fact, the movie beats you over the head with “the right answer” so much that when Willis finally is called upon to makes his decision, there’s just no suspense. Nothing interesting, original or spectacular happens in this film. It's entire potential is squandered and it ends up neither as a good action film nor an intelligent science fiction film.

It’s kind of sad that a movie with this much potential achieved so little. In this regard, it reminds me a lot of I Am Legend, which had so much potential, but chose to ignore it all for fear of losing the summer kids.

Oh well.

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

The music industry claims that its collapsing sales are the result of piracy. Arrrrrrgh. . . give me a break. The music industry has been making mistake after mistake for decades now. It got greedy and lazy and risk-averse, and now it’s paying the price. The reality is they haven’t turned out anything worth listening to in years. Their biggest failure is. . .

. . . hold on, we'll get to that in a minute.

I miss progressive rock. Yep. It’s true. Normally, “progressive” is a dirty word, but not in this instance. In this instance, progressive means “experimental,” and that’s a good thing.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the music scene was very different. You had pop bands. You had stoned hippies with guitars. You had country. And you had this thing known as progressive rock. Bands like Pink Floyd, Supertramp and pre-pop Genesis roamed the music world turning out strange, sometimes-horrible, and often times completely brilliant music.

What made progressive rock what it was, was that its creators wanted to experiment musically and lyrically. They wanted to expand the bounds of music and try things that hadn’t been done before. Instead of the 90 second songs of the 1950s, they introduced 5, 10 and 15 minute songs. They introduced concept albums. They added new instruments and new sounds. And lyrically, they took on topics that no pop song would dare touch: some were philosophical, some were angry, some were full of angst, and some were utter nonsense. But most were interesting and deeply thoughtful. Indeed, it's the kind of music you listen too when you want to ponder the imponderables.

It's true a lot of progressive music turned out to be garbage, but a heck of a lot more turned out to be original, intense and brilliant. Moreover, the influence of progressive rock spilled over into every other aspect of music. Even 1970s pop music was much more varied that the pop music of other eras because of the influence of progressive rock. But those days are over and those bands are all on social security. And there is nothing comparable today.

Since the mid-1980s, the music industry has played it safe. They no longer experiment, they manufacture. They’ve been repeating the same sounds and the same mindless lyrics. The only thing that changes is the bimbo or pretty-boy doing the singing. And bimbos and pretty boys they are because the music industry is more interested in selling images than music.

Until and unless this changes, the music industry will continue to turn people off until there is no music industry left, and that's the problem with the music industry.

I miss progressive rock.

What do you think?

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