Friday, April 29, 2011

Film Friday: Kick Ass (2010)

Kick Ass is a comic book movie about a teenage superhero wannabe (Kick Ass). Through a series of misunderstandings, he makes himself a target of a drug kingpin, who is being hunted by a foul-mouthed eleven year old girl (Hit Girl) and her father (Big Daddy). The critics called this film “ultra-violent,” “an explosion in a bad taste factory,” “quasi-porn. . . except there’s absolutely no ‘quasi’ about it,” and Roger Ebert called the film “morally reprehensible.” But they’re wrong. What’s more, I enjoyed it. Surprised?

** spoiler alert **

1. The Criticisms Are Disingenuous

The critics level two general complaints, though both complaints are unfairly made. The first complaint is about the level of violence. To hear the critics tell it, this is one of the most violent films ever made. Yet, that's false. People do die, but not more than average for an action film. And more importantly, they don’t die graphically. In this film, people tend to die from single bullets or knife wounds and they drop to the ground. Their bodies don’t explode, their limbs aren’t ripped off, and no one gets hacked to pieces or decapitated. At no point does the director try to exploit gruesome deaths. Thus, while the film has a typically-high body count, it never feels particularly violent.

So why the complaints of ultra-violence? Knee-jerk liberalism. Let’s let Roger Ebert explain it: “when kids in the age range of this movie’s home video audience are shooting one another every day in America, that kind of stops being funny.” Wahhh. Grow up Roger. First, it’s a myth that “kids are shooting each other in the streets.” Secondly, this is fantasy. No eleven year old is running around fighting gangsters with knives, and no one uses a bazooka to kill anyone. To equate this with reality is truly stupid. Moreover, if truth be told, it’s not even the violence that upsets the critics, it’s the “failure” of the film to attack America for its violent ways. Indeed, many of the critics fault the film for failing to make a “social commentary” about America (which presumably would have made the violence cool again in their eyes). That’s what’s driving the violence complaints: pure politics.

The second complaint is that Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) is sexualized -- the word “porno” gets tossed around a lot. Now, I personally have mentioned this problem before with comic books: comic books have become highly sexualized and perverted. Comic book heroines run around in ultra-tight leather catsuits, bondage gear and hooker heels, with their super-enhanced breasts pouring out of their plunging tops. This is hardly an outfit conducive to crime fighting, but it sure excites the nerds’ domination fantasies. And that's the problem. I’m sure these critics ran to the theater with all kinds of dirty thoughts about what they would see, especially when they heard that the heroine was an eleven year old girl who uses both the f-word and the c-word. But the film didn’t match their expectations because the film sexualizes nothing. Hit Girl runs around in a lumpy costume that covers her entire body like a potato sack. She never tries to seduce anyone. No one tries to seduce her and there is no sexual relationship between her and anyone else. Indeed, the only sexual moment in the whole film is between Kick Ass (Aaron Johnson) and a girl who thinks he’s gay, and that was pretty funny. The only way to see this as a porno, would be to come to the film looking to see it that way, because nothing in the film suggests it. Hence, the critics’ outrage is nothing more than a hypocritical outburst aimed at projecting their own shame onto the film. . . “she made me want her officer.”

2. What Made This An Entertaining Film

Putting the critics aside, the question remains: is this a good movie? It’s not a great film, but it’s enjoyable. Why? For one thing, it’s fun. The characters are cleverly written as lovable losers. The story is fast paced and doesn’t beat you over the head with a message. And while the film isn’t as funny as it could have been, it still repeatedly pays off with great little moments. For example, as these are not “real” superheroes, their survival instincts kick in at the funniest moments when they suddenly realize “hey, I could get hurt.” And you get unexpected moments like when Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) jumps off a dumpster and says “ouch, my knees!”, which give the whole film a lighthearted and playful undertone, despite the surface seriousness with which the film is presented.

Secondly, despite having a very predictable plot with key plot-points that you know must be coming, what happens in between these plot points is surprisingly unpredictable. Indeed, individual scenes diverge quickly from what you expect, and that makes the film fresh and unpredictable. The film also avoids all of the clichés one would normally expect, which is refreshing.

Further, this film does something unheard of in comic book movies: it presents a realistic and believable world. Now, I don’t mean it’s believable that an eleven year old girl could kill 5-6 grown men with little difficulty. But the fighting is done with realistic physics, i.e. there are no wirefights, and the heroes get beat up when they take on too many bad guys. There are no moments where a bazillion bullets fly past the heroes without hitting them, unless the heroes have ducked for cover. And there’s nothing inexplicable. That gives the film a genuineness that makes the film feel real despite the fantastic plot.

Finally, the film has a genuine heart. The actors are earnest about their roles, i.e. they aren’t jaded. The characters they play are motivated to help those they love or the world at large, i.e. they aren’t cynical. And it’s the kind of film where you know from the beginning that good will triumph no matter how idiotic the good guys get.

Is this a great film? No. But it's a fun ride that's worth taking.

[+]

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Top 25: Westerns You Should Know

Let’s discuss the Top 25 Westerns you should know to be well-versed in Westerns. Westerns are one of the most distinct genres with storylines that can’t easily be translated to other genres, e.g. wagon trains and cattle drives. They are also the quintessential story of America. Picking the Top 25, however, is surprisingly difficult because Westerns have been a cultural battleground where left and right struggled to define American’s Mythology. This means the influence of individual films often was short-lived and coincided with cultural changes within the country, rather than coming from the film itself.

1. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966): This may not sit well with traditional western fans, but GBU is easily the most influential Western. Part of a “Spaghetti Westerns” trilogy (including Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More), GBU forever changed the Western. Prior to GBU, Westerns were philosophically black and white, with clear good guys and bad guys, and they were about settling the West, bringing law and order, building an economy, and taming the Indians and the wilderness, i.e. the building of America. This film tossed all that aside by introducing the “anti-hero,” a good guy who acts more like a bad guy -- this remains the dominant form of protagonist in film today -- and changed the themes of Westerns toward selfishness, cynicism and the exploitation of others. This film also made Clint Eastwood a star. “Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. We’re gonna have to earn it.”

2. The Covered Wagon (1923): This is the first truly epic Western and established many of the conventions of the genre -- including Indian attacks, shoot outs, fording rivers, and the hero who must clear his name. “Far out on the westward trail stands another plow that bravely started for Oregon.”

3. High Noon (1952): High Noon is fascinating and controversial. Premised on the now-classic Western theme of a sheriff (Gary Cooper) waiting for killers to come to town, High Noon was written by communist Carl Foreman, who chose to make this sheriff weak and unwilling and the townsfolk cowardly. This was Foreman’s attempt to eliminate the hero from Western mythology. Yet, as with The Guns of Navarone, Foreman ultimately fails because Cooper rises to the occasion and becomes an iconic hero as a man who answers the call of duty even when those around him try to tear him down. “In the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.”

4. Rio Bravo (1959): Considered by many to be Howard Hawks’ and John Wayne’s finest Western, this was Hawks’ direct response to High Noon, which infuriated him. Hawks believed firmly in strong and self-reliant heroes, like Sheriff John Chance (John Wayne), who must fend off the brother and gang of a man he holds prisoner for six days until the marshal arrives. Hawks’ view of heroism would continue to reign in Hollywood until the The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. “Sorry don’t get it done, dude.”

5. Stagecoach (1939): By the 1930s, Westerns had fallen from favor and were seen as B-movies. John Ford’s Stagecoach saved the Western through a combination of inventive camera work which remains influential today (such as riding among the Indians), incredible stunts, the use of stunning scenery from Monument Valley, complex dialog, and its huge box office success. This film also made John Wayne, who played outlaw Johnny Ringo, a star. “I guess you can’t break out of prison and into society in the same week.”

6. Shane (1953): Shane add two of the most common conventions to the Western mix: the gun fighter who tries to put away his guns until he is forced to fight to protect those he loves and the struggle between the farmers v. cattlemen. “Shane. . . come back, Shane!”

7. Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969): Starring leftists Robert Redford and Paul Newman, Butch Cassidy attempted to declare the Western dead. Not only did Butch Cassidy do things like send its heroes to New York and Bolivia, but it included a pop music soundtrack and it used cars, bicycles and electricity to signify the passing of the West into history. Moreover, while it rejected traditional heroes entirely, it also largely lampooned the anti-hero of the Spaghetti Westerns by presenting heroes who were neither heroic nor all-that competent. It would take sixteen years for the Western to recover. “The future’s all yours, you lousy bicycle.”

8. Silverado (1985): Directed by Lawrence Kasdan, Silverado was the film that revived the Western after Butch Cassidy’s attempt to kill it. By reaching back into the past for old-school, classic Western heroes, Silverado sucked the cynicism from Westerns and returned to classic pro-American themes of settling the West, bringing law and order, and heroes protecting the weak from the predatory. This film made Kevin Costner a star. “We’re gonna give you a fair trial, followed by a first class hanging.”

9. Unforgiven (1992): When Unforgiven first came out, people saw it as an attack on the Western and a repudiation of Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns. This was largely the result of Eastwood’s grumpy attitude, the constant dispelling of myths by Gene Hackman and the claim that all their prior triumphs were the result of being drunk. In effect, this film appeared to take a cynical look at the cynical anti-hero. But over time, this view has changed and people now see Unforgiven as a surprisingly strong Western with a solid moral compass that humanizes the anti-hero and shows they can be genuine Western heroes when they have a moral motivation. “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”

10. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943): One of the first socially-relevant Westerns, with an anti-lynching theme, Ox-Bow involves a posse looking for a murderer. They happen upon three men, led by a Mexican (Anthony Quinn) and decide to hang them. Henry Fonda stands against the crowd, attacking both Southern racism and vigilante justice. “If people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience and what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived.”

11. The Magnificent Seven (1960): Based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven is the last hurrah for the classic Western, as larger-than-life heroic gunmen defend a Mexican village. With a stellar cast, including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson, and a massive score by Elmer Bernstein, this was the last big cynicism-free Western until the 1980s, but would soon be overtaken by the anti-heroes. “If God didn't want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”

12. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): Just as Magnificent Seven was the last hurrah of the BIG Western, Liberty Valance was the last shot of traditionalist John Ford to justify the old-style heroes. Liberty Valance is the story of Jimmy Stewart, a civilized man, who is given credit for shooting outlaw Valance (Lee Marvin), even though ruffian gunman John Wayne actually did the shooting. The moral here was that men like Stewart owe their civilized, rule-of-law world to the difficult choices and hard deeds of frontiersmen like Wayne. In other words, we all owe the heroes of the past a significant debt even if we no longer accept their ways today. This was a powerful counter to the deconstructionism of the era, but ultimately proved futile as the country was changing. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

13. How The West Was Won (1962): This epic covers all the bases of the Western genre, following a family as it moves from the East to the West, becoming trappers, pioneers, gold miners, soldiers, and gamblers and helping build America. This film presents the classic American (pre-1960s liberal) view of the settling of the American West and the virtues of America. “Out of their rude settlements, their trading posts came cities to rank among the great ones of the world. All the heritage of a people free to dream, free to act, free to mold their own destiny.”

14. Dances With Wolves (1990): Wolves is difficult to rank. It’s a dull movie that’s rife with political correctness, having been made during Hollywood’s “noble American Indian” phase, where Indians were idealized, whites were demonized and only a white liberals could save the Indians. It did have significant influence at the time, although that influence really hasn’t lasted and didn’t really impact other films. Nevertheless, you should know this film. “Turned injun, didn’t yeh.”

15. Tombstone (1993): Starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, Tombstone came along just as it appeared Hollywood was trying again to remove heroes from the old West with films like Unforgiven, Dances With Wolves, and The Quick and the Dead. But Tombstone was a rowdy, old-fashioned Western that reveled in classic heroes, classic themes, and black and white versions of good and evil. And the public’s acceptance of Tombstone kept the Western alive and well. “Wearing that badge don't make you right.”

16. My Darling Clementine (1946): Staring Henry Fonda and Tim Holt, John Ford’s version of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Clementine became an inspiration for many Western filmmakers, including Sam Pekinpah. “When ya pull a gun, kill a man.”

17. Dodge City (1939): Errol Flynn must tame Dodge City, a notoriously violent cattle town full of ex-soldiers following the end of the Civil War. This is a classic Western of the type Hollywood made before its more political period started. “Gamblin’, drinkin’, and killin’. Mostly killin’.”

18. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976): One of the few serious Westerns made in the 1970s, Josey Wales tapped into the stress of returning Vietnam veterans by presenting Civil War veterans who were incapable of integrating into society. “Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?”

19. High Plains Drifter (1972): Along with Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter was one of the few serious Westerns during the post-Butch Cassidy dead period. In Drifter, Clint Eastwood tries to give his Spaghetti Western past a supernatural aspect and an extra-dose of cynicism as even average citizens are portrayed as unredeemable degenerates. This perhaps went too far for Eastwood, who remade this film as Pale Rider in 1985, this time making the citizens the normal decent folk of prior Westerns. “You're a man who makes people afraid, and that's dangerous.”

20. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): Directed by John Huston and staring Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt, Sierra Madre added Mexico to the film world of the West and provided an in-depth look at treasure hunters and gold fever. “Badges? We don’t need no stinking ain’t got no badges!”

21. The Searchers (1956): Ostensibly a revenge film wherein John Wayne seeks to avenge the massacre of his family by Indians, Searchers is actually an anti-segregation statement by conservative John Ford. “A fellow could mistake you for a half-breed.”

22. Blazing Saddles (1974): The only comedy on the list, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles effectively lampoons many of the conventions of Westerns, and treads all over the politically incorrect topic of race in America. “The sheriff is a nig...”

23. The Wild Bunch (1969): An anti-Western and anti-Vietnam War statement, The Wild Bunch is a defeatist, immoral jaunt as a gang of railroad deputies led by outlaw Robert Ryan chase a gang of outlaws led by William Holden. Bloody, crude, and without any moral compass, The Wild Bunch is unlike any other Western ever made. It is also considered Sam Peckinpah’s greatest achievement. But unlike Butch Cassidy, which made Westerns “uncool,” The Wild Bunch was too violent and nasty to have significant influence in the culture. “It ain’t [your word] what counts! It's who you give it to!”

24. Quigley Down Under (1990): Tom Selleck takes Westerns to a new land. . . Australia. “You’re about a half a bubble off plumb, and that's fer sure and fer certain.”

25. The Quick and the Dead (1995): Sharon Stone, Leonardo DiCaprio and Gene Hackman star in this highly clichéd attempt to open the gunfighter subgenre to women. The film bombed in theaters, but not before inspiring a series of films attempting to open Westerns to other minority casts. The film has since found an audience on cable. “Is it possible to improve on perfection?”


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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Film Friday: The Core (2003)

I’ve got a film on my mind: The Core. The Core isn’t horrible, but it’s not a good film either. Strangely, The Core has generally good writing, good special effects, some likeable characters, an interesting plot, and decent production values, but it's still not a good movie. Why? Because it’s lazy.

** spoiler alert **

The Core is a high-budget ($60 million) disaster movie that pretty much bombed, though it eventually turned a profit. It is the story of a group of people who must travel to the Earth’s center to restart the Earth’s core, which has stopped spinning. Without that spinning core, the Earth’s magnetic field will fail and we will be exposed to solar radiation, which will kill us all. In the meantime, the intermittently good/evil US military is planning to use a secret weapon to try to restart the core. . . the same weapon that stopped the core spinning in the first place.

Oh, where to start. If you look at the movie on paper, it should be a pretty good film. The story is interesting and isn’t packed with filler, nor do inexplicable things happen. There are some likeable characters and some good actors. The writing sounds good when heard in isolation and some of it is quite witty. But it never adds up to much because it’s just so lazy.

The first tip off about the laziness is the acting. At no point do you ever get any sense that the actors know who their characters are or that they care about what they are doing. For example, Aaron Eckhart plays a generic scientist who solves the riddle of what’s happening. I like Eckhart, but he doesn't seem to realize he’s a scientist or that he’s the lead character. It feels like he just showed up on set one day and started reading some lines. Tchéky Karyo, who I also like, plays another generic scientist and Eckhart’s friend. We are meant to see these two as fairly close, but there’s no chemistry between them because neither actor acts like they are anything more than acquaintances. Stanley Tucci plays another generic scientist who is also the half-hearted villain. He’s kind of bad, but not really, and Tucci doesn’t bother establishing him as more than just arrogant but helpful. Delroy Lindo plays Tucci’s “nemesis.” Lindo invented both the ship they will use to get to the center of the Earth and the “unobtainium” out of which the ship is made -- a deus ex machina material that solves all possible problems. Tucci stole credit for Lindo’s prior inventions, but Lindo doesn’t care and remains quite civil.

Bruce Greenwood plays an assh~le space shuttle commander who will pilot the ship, and Hilary Swank plays the “super smart” shuttle co-pilot who will go along. They couldn't have less chemistry. Greenwood is bland except when he’s reading insulting lines at Swank. Swank (a high school drop out) is unbelievable as someone with even a middling brain and basically stares at things. Meanwhile, back at HQ, the military is represented by lifeless Richard Jenkins who gets about as worked up over the end of the world and his role in causing it as if someone told him the lawnboy was coming Wednesday instead of Tuesday. “Oh, really? Ok, I’ll mark my calendar.”

Even when the scenes call for emotion, these actors don’t seem to care. For example, in one scene, Swank is supposedly upset because she killed Tchéky. Yet, she delivers her lines like she’s ordering lunch and almost giggles. When Rome is about to be destroyed, their hacker lifelessly says “Rome does not look good.” When Jenkins learns that friend-of-the-family Swank won’t be fired by NASA, he sounds about as happy as if he learned the lawnboy will now be coming on Friday. And at no point do any of them seem all that upset the world is ending. It’s like these actors didn’t bother reading the script ahead of time and are just winging it line by line.

What’s more, this same laziness pervades the writing. The characters have no backstory -- what you see is what you get, and their relationships never rise above the level of acquaintances tossed together for an uninteresting weekend, i.e. there is no urgency, there is no emotion. In fact, the one time Tucci shows emotion comes across as perhaps the worst moment in the film, as he delivers lines so poorly written that you can almost see him begging the others to cut off his ridiculous tirade so he can stop speaking the lines: “You wanna be a hero? You wanna be a martyr? What do you want to be? You're out of your minds! Thank you!” Also, when things need to be done, they just sort of happen without difficulty or explanation. Oh, you need a hacker, here he is. Oh, you need to build a spaceship in three months that hasn’t been designed yet, will take 10 years to build, and is not like anything else on Earth? No problem, we’ll take care of it while you go get lunch. . . don’t worry, we have “scientists” who can do this sort of thing. Oh, you need to find the secret government project? No problem, it's on the map.

Moreover, few of the technical aspects are explained to any degree. . . “we go, make boom, core start, movie end.” And what science they do give is horrible. It's so bad that a poll of scientists voted The Core the least accurate science fiction movie, and Dustin Hoffman actually led an initiative of the National Academy of Sciences to get Hollywood to start getting their science right and to stop making movies like The Core. What's worse, “unobtainium” is used as a catchall explanation to solve all problems the writer didn’t want to bother thinking about. How do they get through the Earth’s crust? Unobtainium. What protects them from the planet crushing forcing? Unobtainium. Where do they get power? Unobtainium. How do they save themselves once they lose their engines? Unobtainium. It slices, it dices, it cuts a planet in half. . .

But what really kills this movie is the overall laziness of the story. The story happens just as you expect, and that's it. There are no surprises, no interesting twists, no memorable moments, and no variances at all from what you would expect from your average low-budget disaster film shown on the Sci-Fi Channel. And that is truly disappointing.

Now in truth, I enjoy this film enough to watch it, but then I'm a fan of bad science fiction. But if you're looking for anything more than "Mega Storm 4" or "Attack of the Giant Killing Thingy," you will be disappointed. And that's too bad, because with the money and the cast invested in The Core, this one had potential.

[+]

Friday, April 15, 2011

Film Friday: Ronin (1998)

Most action movies are utterly mindless. They offer little more than adrenaline highs, triggered by big explosions, fast motion and loud soundtracks. Ronin, directed by John Frankenheimer and essentially written by David Mamet (credited as Richard Wiesz), is different. It’s brilliant. Ronin is gripping. It’s got fascinating twists and turns. It’s got characters that are both deep and deeply interesting, and it presents a truly immersive world. How does it achieve this? Minimalism and realism.

** spoiler alert **
Ronin Uses Minimalism To Make Us Build The Story
From the beginning, Ronin deliberately uses minimalism to pull us into the story. Little is said, less is shown and we know almost nothing. How does this pull us in? Because our brains don’t like information gaps, and will fill in those gaps with information that we consider appropriate. Thus, by carefully rationing information, Ronin actually co-opts our brains to get us to fill in the world with details that work for us. In effect, we personalize the film by assembling the characters, giving them backstories, and explaining the dispute.

For example, we know Ronin is about a group of mercenaries hired in Paris by an Irish woman named Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) to steal a briefcase from a man surrounded by expert security, but we don’t know what’s in the briefcase. It could be blackmail material, diamonds, nuclear material, computer code, counterfeiting plates or anything else. If the writer chooses one of these, there is a good chance some portion of the audience will decide this isn’t worth fighting for. But by staying silent on this point, everyone in the audience will mentally fill the briefcase with something they personally think is worth fighting for. Thus, the audience satisfies itself that the premise is justified and makes sense.

Ronin uses this same technique to build incredibly rich characters. We know almost nothing about the mercenaries, though we are given clues. In assembling these clues, we ourselves create backstories for the characters that just don’t exist in the writing. For example, we know nothing about Sam (Robert DeNiro), except that he’s an American. We also know nothing about Gregor (Stellan Skarsgard), but his accent tells us he’s probably German. When Deirdre tells us they were all referred to her by “the man in the wheelchair,” we infer that they are mercenaries of some sort. When Gregor asks Sam how the man ended up in the wheelchair, Sam says, “I was under the impression that happened in your neck of the woods, during the late unpleasantness.” From this, we can infer that they were spies during the Cold War and that Gregor and Sam were on opposite sides. We don’t know any of that, but we can infer it. We can also infer they no longer work for their countries. And when we infer these things, we simultaneously fill in their pasts with an appropriate backstory for spies who have become mercenaries. Thus, with only a few words from the writer, we ourselves create extensive backstories for the characters which satisfy us as to their credentials.

Sometimes we are even given specific hints to guide our newly-created backstories. To understand what I mean, consider this. At one point, a Russian asks where he’s seen Vincent (Jean Reno) before. Vincent responds with one word: “Vienna.” And when he says it, his voice is seething with hate. With that one word, a whole chapter in Vincent’s past is revealed to us and this whole imaginary chapter becomes part of his character even though nothing more is ever said than the one word. Seriously, when you hear him say that single word, you can literally imagine the entire Vienna incident. Similarly, we are told that Deirdre’s boss Seamus (Jonathan Pryce) was tossed out of the IRA for some reason, which again we aren’t told. But our brains fill in his backstory by coming up with some horrific deed that we personally believe would make the IRA kick this man out. Again, without coming up with a single word about his past, the writer tricks us and now we see Seamus as an evil man of the highest order.

In this way, Ronin causes us to build these characters and to generate the world that surrounds them within our own minds, and that makes the story all the richer for us.
Ronin Uses Realism To Make Us Care About The Consequences
Having gotten the audience to build the characters and fill in their world, Frankenheimer then uses realism to give the story meaning. Why? Because the more real a story feels to us, the greater we will perceive the consequences to be and the more we will care about what happens. In this case, the realism involves both the characters themselves and the physical laws of their universe.

Consider the characters. These men are highly competent. But unlike Tom Cruise movies, where someone needs to tell Tom that he’s “the best,” we learn this in Ronin by observing these men. They are fast and smart and clever. They make no mistakes. They are fearless, but not reckless. They display tremendous experience, critical knowledge and sound judgment. In other words, they are highly believable as spies or mercenaries because they display the exact traits we assume a top spy would need to survive. Moreover, their low key but determined approach immediately gives them an authenticity that a flashy James Bond character or an invincible Jason Bourne character can never achieve. This makes them real to us and draws us in because we feel like we are seeing something with real-world consequences.

The sets add to this sense of realism too. Everything happens in Paris and Nice, which lends an exotic touch to the story, but the characters spend their time in dingy apartments with blacked-out windows, i.e. places they would really stay. They don’t rent impossibly large hotel rooms overlooking the Eiffel Tower and advertize themselves to the world.

They use real weapons too, rather than the super-weapons preferred by most action heroes. What’s more, the action itself is much like we would expect it to be in real life. For example, when these characters empty a clip into a crowd, innocent people die. When they get shot, they bleed or die. Indeed, throughout this movie, you have the feeling that every time a gun is fired, something very real and very terrible can happen, and that keeps you on the edge of your seat in the fight scenes. Further, when car chases happen, there are no Dukes of Hazzard jumps, they don’t ride on two tires, and no one climbs out onto the roof and tries to jump onto another car. What they do instead is push their cars to the limit of losing control, a place that most of us have been at one time or another with our own cars. And because we remember what it felt like when our car started to skid out from under us, we recall that feeling when we see it happen to Sam or Vincent and we add it to the experience. Thus, by staying within our real world frame of reference, they pull in our own angst to heighten the danger. Compare that with the nothing you feel when two characters are fighting on top of a moving car.

The bad guys are believable too. They all have motivations: some want money, some are in this for the politics. Yet, they don’t see themselves as bad people (nor do they delude themselves that they are angels) and none of them are maniacal. They just are what they are and they’ve come to terms with that, and that makes them horrific to us because they’re cold-blooded and inhuman. Indeed, unlike most Hollywood villains who need to kick puppies or shoot henchmen to prove they are evil rather than just prancing fools, the bad guys here need no such proof. Everything about them tells you these men think nothing of killing and do it quite efficiently. But just as importantly, they don’t kill for fun or because they are sadists; they kill because it’s required to get the job done. This keeps them from seeming cartoony to us. It also heightens the tension because we know these people are truly serious and will not mess around. That’s never something you can be sure of with the comic book villains, who seem to distract themselves at all the wrong times.
This is why Ronin is such a fantastic action movie. The story is great and the film is well shot -- excellent sets, soundtrack and scenes. But even more importantly, we are co-opted into creating ultra-rich characters that we care about personally because we made them. Then they are put into seemingly real danger, under real world rules that keep us from knowing that everything will work out in some improbable way. I cannot recommend this film highly enough.

[+]

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

TV Review: Is It Real (2005-2007)

If you’re looking for a great show that debunks a variety of supernatural, paranormal and just plain crazy theories, then Is It Real is for you. Produced by the National Geographic Channel, Is It Real is a 28 episode documentary series that examines everything from ghosts to alien abductions to Atlantis to exorcisms to human superpowers. It’s honest, it’s fair, it’s snarky and it’s well worth your time.

For some time now, claims of the paranormal have been gaining credibility because books like Erich von Däniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” and “Ancient Aliens” on the History Channel are ramming these ideas into the public consciousness. And since humans love to believe the inexplicable and are easily fooled by false logic, these ideas are catching fire within our culture. Unfortunately, the evidence presented to support these claims ranges from the paranoid or conspiratorial to the just plain stupid. But often it’s not clear just how fraudulent these claims are until someone does a critical analysis of the claim.

That’s where Is It Real comes in. Is It Real gives both proponents of these theories and skeptics a fair chance to present their arguments -- though, when I say “fair,” I mean precisely that: “fair” not “unchallenged.” Indeed, unlike so many of these shows (both pro/con) which typically just accept one side's presentation at face value, the Is It Real crew will interview witnesses, will stage experiments, and will consult actual scientists to examine claims. This makes the show a valuable resource for anyone who wishes to understand the issues being addresses. For example, they interview the man who claims to have worn the Big Foot costume in the famous Big Foot Photo. They show how insects will cause the precise conditions that cattle mutilation enthusiasts claim can only be made by alien surgeons. They explain the psychological reasons people would want to believe they are possessed. They show how the description of aliens varies by culture and explain the reason for this, and how alien abduction stories are the result of sleep paralysis. Etc.

Many believers object that the show favors the skeptics, but it’s hard to agree with their point. Certainly the show lands on the side of skepticism, but that is because the skeptics are making arguments that are logically sound, backed by evidence, and consistent with human experience; the believers have nothing similar to offer. Moreover, Is It Real always acknowledges the limits of the skeptic's case, and has at times found some credibility in the claims of paranormal activity, such as when they examine sleep-walking murders, where they note both that sleep walkers are capable of performing highly complex tests and that people awoken from such states are often intensely violent.

I highly recommend this series. Not only does it give you the basics upon which these beliefs arise, i.e. the history of their development and a discussion of the most famous cases, but it carefully dispels what can be dispelled and it exposes the charlatans who seek to profit from pushing these beliefs. And it does so with both a snarky sense of humor and a fair examination of the evidence. All of which makes for an enjoyable and educational experience.

It also just so happens that Is It Real can be watched instantly on Netflix at the moment. Check it out. . . do it for Nessie!

So, what’s your favorite paranormal phenomena/supernatural creature?

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Friday, April 8, 2011

Film Friday: Devil (2010)

Based on a story by M. Night Shyamalan, Devil is a supernatural thriller involving five people stuck in an elevator. What’s worse, one of them is the devil, and he’s come to torment the rest and take their souls. This sounds like an intense, psychological, claustrophobic thriller. And it actually isn't a bad movie. But I just can’t recommend it because it provides a great example of how some movies can be less than the sum of their parts.

** spoiler alert **

Let’s start with the good parts. The film is well shot. It’s got interesting visuals, good angles and the right feel for this type of film. . . kind of an eerie isolation without feeling contrived. It’s got good acting too. There wasn’t a point where any of the actors didn’t fit their roles or couldn’t pull off what they were tasked. The writing is competent in that the characters act in ways you would expect and none of them does anything stupid or silly to drive the plot. The plot is solid too and is surprisingly suspenseful. Indeed, despite the narrow premise of five people being killed in an elevator as the police watch, it manages to keep you guessing as to what will happen next and which of them is the devil.

The film also has good values and continues a trend where Hollywood is becoming surprisingly respectful of religion. For example, the first character to recognize what might be going on is a deeply religious security guard. And while the other guard tells him he's crazy (a perfectly natural response) he doesn't go out of his way to bash religion. The detective (Chris Messina) also doesn't believe at first, but quickly comes around when the facts start pointing to a supernatural event. Moreover, the story itself centers around themes of redemption and forgiveness, and treats both in a positive light. Indeed, according to the film, seeking redemption or offering forgiveness can save you from the devil.

All of this combines to make a perfectly serviceable film that I enjoyed well enough. But I wouldn’t want to watch it again. Here’s why.

For starters, the film never lives up to its promise. The premise seems like a claustrophobic, psychological thriller. But it never achieves that. In fact, the characters in the elevator barely interact -- the story centers almost entirely on the detective. Thus, you never feel trapped. And there really are no complex choices to be made which would make this a psychological thriller.

Nor do the consequences seem that high. We're told that everyone in the elevator is a rotten human being who hurts people. So the fact the devil has come to kill them really isn't upsetting. And while there are one or two others who die as well, we don’t know enough about them to know if their deaths are any less deserved. What's worse, there’s no lesson/warning here because there's no indication of why these four were chosen. Their transgressions aren’t small enough to make the point that any evil deed is enough to put you at risk. Nor are their transgressions large enough to explain why the devil would come for them personally. Indeed, there's no sense that these people are all that special or that the devil will somehow gain an advantage over humanity or God or make some larger point by taking them. Thus, from a danger/risk/lesson-to-be-learned perspective, there’s nothing to warn the audience they might be next. It is suggested the devil only came this day because a suicide brought him. But what's the lesson there? If someone kills themselves, we should flee the scene? And if that is the lesson, then it's poorly developed.

Further, the redemption issue is treated too simplistically. Apparently, all you need to do to keep the devil at bay is try to do some good deed at the last minute. This strikes me as dumbing down good and evil/damnation and redemption to the point that they become meaningless. Also, the redeemed character literally doesn’t even try to seek redemption until Satan is staring them in the face saying “you’re next.” That’s not genuine redemption, that's fear talking. Further, the self-sacrifice they offer to get the redemption is fake. Basically, they give it the old "take me instead of the other person" cliché. But since the devil was going to take both, they aren't really offering anything and the sacrifice isn't genuine.

As an aside, this particular redemption involves a coincidence that is one of those bridge-too-far type coincidences that probably excited the writer when they wrote it, but seems too incredible to believe and serves no real purpose for advancing the story.

Finally, we come to my biggest complaint. The devil is one of the most intriguing characters you can jam into a film, and if you’re going to use the devil, then you better have something interesting to say about him. Yet, this movie doesn’t really have much to say in that regard. Indeed, the devil could just as easily have been a serial killer or a vampire without the movie missing a beat. Moreover, the devil comes across as kind of pathetic. For example, why does the devil need to hide his identity? Is he afraid the cops will bust him? And why even bother with this whole affair. These people are rotten and should be in hell a few minutes after their deaths anyway, so why come to earth just to make them fear for their lives for a few minutes beforehand? And why come personally? Does this seem like a good use of the devil’s time to waste a whole day in an elevator killing four people?

When you’re telling a supernatural story, you can go the adrenaline route of having gory things jump out of shadows or you can go for the kind of send-a-shiver-down-your-spine ideas that get people rethinking their own lives. This film doesn’t do either. It doesn’t even try. In the end, that’s the real problem with Devil: it’s just a film about some people killed on an elevator by a mildly supernatural being. Hence, while the film felt well-made, and I liked all of its parts individually, they never added up to anything satisfying.

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Film Friday: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction is brilliant. It’s easily one of the greatest films of all time. As proof, I could offer its massive box office totals, its continuing heavy rotation on television seventeen years after its release, or its ability to revive sagging careers. I could point out that its scenes have become iconic, its dialog has entered our lexicon, and no one has been able to mimic the film. Or I could just tell you what makes this movie so special. In a word: manipulation.

** spoiler alert **

Movies are all about manipulation. Filmmakers are in the business of tricking audiences into believing that actors on fake sets are real people in a real world. And that’s just the beginning. Good filmmakers need to make you care about the characters. Great filmmakers go further and manipulate how you interpret what you see to teach you something you didn’t know about yourself. Pulp Fiction does that, only at a level no one else has achieved.
1. Twisted Clichés: What Clichés?
When Quentin Tarantino wrote Pulp Fiction, his intent was to take well-worn pulp fiction ideas and twist them. Hence, you have the hitman who develops a conscience, the underling who must chaperone the boss’s over-sexed wife, the returning POW who tells a boy about his lost father, and the boxer who takes a dive. These are clichés. But we don’t recognize them as clichés in Pulp Fiction because Tarantino manipulates our expectations to turn these into original-seeming stories. In other words, we all know the hitman must kill his boss or die, we never expect him to simply leave the film. We all know the boxer will put up the fight of his life against incredible odds, we never expect him to kill the other boxer with ease. . . and we never expect him to run into someone like Zed as he’s fleeing from the mobster he betrayed. By spinning these clichés off in directions we’ve never considered before, Tarantino gives us a movie based on clichés but which almost no one in the audience will recognize as containing any clichés. That's impressive.
2. Film Chronology: How Does It End Again?
From there, Tarantino further spins our heads by rearranging the film’s chronology. We’ve discussed before that the human brain is perfectly suited to reassembling a series of events that are presented out of order. Thus, you know exactly what is happening when I say: peanut butter, eat, knife, bread, lunch. Storytellers know this and often indulge in minor manipulation by presenting something out of sequence, like giving a glimpse of the ending before the story begins. But no one has tried what Tarantino does here. He takes the film and divides it into seven sequences and then reassembles those out of order. In and of itself, that’s highly creative and worth recognition. But he goes further.

Tarantino exploits our expectation that the ending of a film always reveals how the story actually ends. Thus, when Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) leave the diner together at the end of the film, the audience assumes they rode off into the sunset. But that wasn’t the end, and people forget that Jules quits and Vincent gets killed in Butch’s (Bruce Willis) bathroom. Yet, this manipulation allows Tarantino to deliver a happy ending, even though the film had no happy ending. Moreover, while people assume that the conversation in the diner relates to everything that happened in the film, very little of what we saw had happened at that point. For example, Vincent had yet to take Marsellus Wallace’s wife to dinner and Marsellus (Ving Rhames) hadn’t met with Butch yet. Thus, many of the things we assume they are reflecting upon have yet to happen, and we are left wondering if Vincent’s opinions would change after those events?
3. Nature of the Film: It’s a Character Study?
But manipulating the film’s plot and chronology only scratches the surface of what is really going on. Would it surprise you if I told you Pulp Fiction is actually a character study?

Most people see Pulp Fiction as a crime story. But it’s really not. What few people realize is how little action takes place within the film. Aside from a few moments of shooting, the entire rest of the film is characters talking about things they believe. Indeed, the characters roam the screen telling us about their morality, their views on religion, love and sex, fairness and equity, their hobbies, etc. What’s more, little of the dialog relates to the plot -- it’s all about the characters themselves. This is almost the definition of “character study.”

Yet, we don’t grasp that this is the true nature of Pulp Fiction because it isn’t filmed like an art house movie. For one thing, the characters don't just sit around in all white rooms spouting pretentious lines. Instead, they get guns out of trunks, wait to kick in doors, buy drugs and a whole host of other “gritty” things. Moreover, the dialog isn’t pretentious; it’s been brought down to “street level.” Thus, you get “do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in France?” rather than “One finds that travel broadens the mind.” And you get “I’m about to get Medieval on his ass,” rather than “I feel violated and must find a way to regain my pride.” Because of this, we never grasp that the characters do nothing but talk philosophy throughout the film because it doesn’t register with us that characters who talk like this and who walk around carrying guns aren’t in an action movie.
4. Depth & Mystery From Nothing
Tarantino also cleverly uses a series of MacGuffins to give the story depth. As we noted last week, a MacGuffin is a film term for the item around which all the action in the film is centered, i.e. it’s what everyone wants to steal. Yet, the exact nature of the item is irrelevant to the film as its sole purpose is to motivate the characters’ actions. Thus, a bar of gold could just as easily be a diamond. The audience knows this instinctively and doesn’t get too wrapped up in what the MacGuffin actually is. But Tarantino turns that on its head.

Rather than tossing out an object like a diamond or “the process” and telling the audience, “don’t worry about what it is,” Tarantino turns the MacGuffin into a genuine mystery by giving us clues as to what it might be. Consider the briefcase Marsellus sends Vincent and Jules to retrieve. This briefcase glows gold when it opens and people stare at its contents in awe. They also ask if it really is what they think it is, thereby implying something highly unusual. Yet, we never get to see it. And that creates a mystery, which gives the film depth even though the nature of the MacGuffin is entirely irrelevant to the film. Indeed, people almost immediately start speculating as to what it could be. (FYI, many speculate the briefcase contains Marsellus’s soul, which was extracted from the back of his neck. . . I kid you not.)

Moreover, Tarantino uses multiple MacGuffins throughout the film. Consider the band-aid on the back of Marsellus’s neck. Film audiences have been taught that everything in a film is present for a reason. Thus, when we see the band-aid shown prominently, we expect it to have some meaning. But we never learn what that could be. So like the briefcase, people leave the theater trying to solve the mystery. I would further argue that the film is crawling with MacGuffins, e.g. the watch, Bonnie, “the gimp,” etc., each of which presents a new mystery to consider.

Thus, by manipulating our expectations regarding dialog, props and the use of MacGuffins, Tarantino gives us a character study steeped in mystery, all the while making us think we are watching a fast-paced crime story.
5. Morality: Exposing What We Really Believe
Finally, we come to the most controversial manipulation: morality. Tarantino skillfully exploits two aspects of human morality. First, he realizes our morality doesn't always kick in right away, such as when we laugh at someone slipping on a banana peel. We know this is wrong, but we laugh nonetheless until we can catch ourselves. Tarantino exploits this throughout the film to get us laughing at things we shouldn't laugh at. For example, if you asked people if they would laugh at seeing a man’s head blown off in the middle of a discussion about the occurrence of a genuine miracle, they would emphatically tell you they would not laugh. Yet, everyone in the theater laughed out loud when Vincent accidentally blew Marvin’s head off in the car. The combination of the shock, the comic timing and the characters’ surprised reactions triggered the instinct within us that laughs at the banana peel incident. Some have decried this moment as immoral or as glorifying violence, but if you think about it, we’re the ones with the immoral reaction, i.e. we're the ones laughing.

The same is true when we laugh at Tarantino asking if Vincent and Jules saw a sign on his house that read, “dead n~gger storage,” when Vincent gets shot on the toilet, when Vincent and Lance (Eric Stoltz) argue over saving Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) from a drug overdose, and when Marsellus “gets Medieval” on Maynard and Zed.

Indeed, this last point is also significant in terms of manipulation. We are told revenge is wrong. We are told capital punishment should apply only in extreme instances where the victim has been killed. And under no circumstances do we tolerate the idea of execution by torture. Yet when we see what happens to Marsellus at the hands of Maynard and Zed, we derive a great deal of joy when Marsellus tells us that he’s about to “get Medieval on their asses.” Thus, we not only condone his decision to kill the two, but we even support his plan to torture them to death. Consequently, Tarantino has exposed hypocrisy within us. We claim to believe certain things, but our reactions show that we may actually believe the opposite. What does this say about us?
This is what sets Pulp Fiction so far apart from other films. This film broke new ground in almost every aspect of its presentation. It sold us clichés without us ever realizing they were clichés. It sold us a character study without us realizing it. It gave us depth and mystery without ever saying a word. And it exposed a flaw within us by showing a gap between what we think we believe and what we really believe.

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