Sunday, May 29, 2011

Top 25: Guilty Pleasures

I may have overstated things slightly when I said this would be the most consequential post of all time. Yeah, probably. To celebrate our official grand opening today, we’re going to do something COMPLETELY meaningless: list my “guilty pleasure” movies. Yep, horrible, horrible movies that I just can’t resist when they come on television. The only caveat, they can't be cult classics -- so don’t expect to see Flash Gordon or Rocky Horror Picture Show. Here they are ranked in order of how close I am to quoting them from memory. . . oy:

1. Predator 2 (1990): It’s difficult to fully describe the awfulness of this film. Every moment is a cliché. Characters randomly spout lines ripped off from B-movies and take actions that make no sense. And forget continuity, the film was re-edited 20 times before they released it. Despite this, it’s still fun to watch Danny Glover hunt the Predator and vice versa. Also, because of the heavy cliché factor, it’s like watching every cop movie ever made at once. “Mike, goddamn it. This ain't your personal little war, you know.”

2. Deep Blue Sea (1999): Thomas Jane, LL Cool J, Samuel Jackson and three genetically manipulated killer sharks?! What could possibly go wrong? Well, the film feels like a quickie sequel to a better movie, how’s that for wrong? Still, I can’t not watch. There’s just something about LL Cool J explaining the theory of relativity that makes this sucker compelling. “Ooh, I'm done! Brothers never make it out of situations like this! Not ever!”

3. Conan The Destroyer/Red Sonja (1984/1985): These two might be the same film, I'm not sure, but they might as well be. Both seem like someone who had never seen Conan the Barbarian decided to make a sequel and prove they could do it on a third of the budget. The plots are little more than “stupidly hire a hero to protect someone I want to kill, send them out for a walk, and proceed to final confrontation.” The acting of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brigitte Nielsen is not credible. And the sets were stolen from a high school play. But somehow these work as sword and sorcery flicks and the characters are likeable. “My brother's sister's cousin never said anything about bars.”

4. Immortal (Ad Vitam) (2004): I know, you’ve never heard of this one. Count yourself lucky. I saw this late one night and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It's the first film shot entirely against a blue screen and it's nonsense. But it offers such a strange world that I keep thinking about it and wondering if there isn’t a decent movie buried in there somewhere? “The greatest power of all. The power to procreate with God.”

5. Speed Racer (2008): This film vacillates between being written by six year olds and being a fever dream, but I love the colors and effects and it’s got heart. Is it a good movie? Don’t make me laugh. But as pure escapism, it doesn’t get much better than this. “It's the only thing I know how to do and I gotta do something.”

6. Krull (1983): This film sports some talent (Liam Neeson, Freddie Jones, Francesca Annis) but does precious little with them. A weak plot (find out where the movie will end, go there and kill the bad guy with a circular boomerang), poor staging (rush to the middle of the stage and then read lines), and plastic sets make this film never quite feel real. Still, it cobbles together a pleasant little adventure film. “The man has raisins in his braincase.”

7. Beerfest (2006): Not nearly as funny as it should have been and not all that well made. Poor acting and poor sets. But the concept is worth the price of admission and the story is entertaining. Also, what can I say? I’m German. This film tugs at my ancestral roots. “It's time to scheiz or get off the crapper.”

8. Smoking Aces (2006): This film is so hip it forgets to be good. The director loses control of his timeline and forgets about some of his characters. But it’s got ATTITUDE like no other film. This film made me want to be a hitman! “He's got some clarity issues.”

9. Alien Resurrection (1997): This film may be failed parody. I'm not sure. But either way, it's pointless and stupid and nothing in it make sense. But it’s got some cool effects and some fun scenes, if you can get through the offensively obvious gimmicks and hokey dialog. Apparently, I can. “I thought you were dead?”

10. Planet Terror (2007): I’m scratching my head on this one. It was meant to be hokey and cheesy and it does that in spades, and in the process, it achieves the right level of badness to become a cult classic. Yet, I'm the only one in the cult. Still, I’ve got plenty of robes, so give this one a couple dozen chances. “That boy’s got the devil in him.”

11. The Fog (1980): Hal Holbrook. Adrien Barbeau. Janet Leigh. Jamie Lee Curtis. And a cast of spooky dead lepers who were tricked into crashing their ship upon the rocks of this small California town 100 years ago! How can this John Carpenter film go wrong? By being totally lightweight -- even the best scenes were forced into the movie by the studio. Still, this could be my personal favorite Carpenter film. It’s creepy, efficient and unique. “The celebration tonight is a travesty. We're honoring murderers.”

12. Leviathan (1989): Hey, let’s rip off Alien and The Abyss only without the production values! So why like this one? It’s copied good movies and condensed them into an easy to absorb topical. “I bet you were imploding in your pants.”

13. Poltergeist III (1988): Oh oh, somebody left the sequel machine on. P3 doesn’t include the original cast and it’s little more than a collection of things jumping at you. But it’s fast moving and it’s scary enough to entertain. “That’s not Carol Anne!”

14. Blue Thunder (1983): Malcolm McDowell chases Roy Scheider around Los Angles in helicopters. Everyone in this movie is pretty dense and the plot is paranoid and dishwater thin, but the movie works. The flying scenes are neat and Scheider is likeable. “You're supposed to be stupid, son. Don't abuse the privilege.”

15. Hackers (1995): Computer films never show what computers are really like. According to this film, hacking is like riding a skateboard through a videogame as young clubkids Angelina Jolie and pre-Trainspotting Johnny Lee Miller save the world from an evil corporate hacker. Still, it’s stylishly shot, has a cool techno soundtrack and most of the actors are up-and-comers. “Ugh. Hard copy.”

16. Bloodsport (1988): A highly-manipulative, faked martial arts tournament interrupted by moments of manipulative, unbelievable “plot” combine to trick you into thinking you’re watching a movie. Yet, somehow Bloodsport manages to be both tense and patriotic -- even with “the Belgian Waffle” in the lead. “Very good. But brick not hit back!”

17. The Core (2003): Yeah, I know. . . it’s crap. What’s your point? I like the actors. “Hang on. This isn't going to be subtle.”

18. The Quick and the Dead (1995): This film is an over-the-top collection of Western clichés, meant to look down pretentiously upon the ignorati who enjoy Westerns. Besides that, it’s one ass kicking film filled with amazing gun play, cool characters, a stunningly great cast, and a stylized American West that makes you want to buy a gun. “You see it's a gun fight. We both have guns. We aim, we fire, you die.”

19. Wing Commander (1999): Never-will-be teen actors in space acting out a film based on a videogame. But it’s an ok action/science fiction film with a believable world. “Better than sex with myself.”

20. Doom (2005): Do you smell what the Rock is cookin’? It ain’t a best actor award. But this film has uber-cool Karl Urban, the even cooler Rock, and the adorable Rosamund Pike killing monsters without end. . . or plot. “Aw, there's something behind me, isn't there?”

21. Cannonball Run (1981): Smokey and the Bandit was monumental and culturally relevant. . . this wasn’t, but heck was it fun. Who wouldn’t want to be part of this race? Come on, show of hands! “That must've been the entry of the National Safety Council.”

22. Xanadu (1980): I can’t explain it. The story is weak, the acting is worse and the visuals are horribly dated. But the soundtrack is strong and there’s something about the lightness of the film that makes it enjoyable. “Guys like me shouldn't dream anyway.”

23. Circle of Iron (1978): Bruce Lee wanted to make a movie using Zen principles. But he died and they made it anyway, with a man who lacked all of Lee’s charisma. Yet, somehow, this intellectually pretentious film works. Maybe it’s David Carradine’s triple roles? “The whole world is in commotion and you wish me peace!”

24. Tremors II: Aftershocks (1996): Fred Ward and Michael Gross?! Who could resist? Certainly not the Mexican Army, which calls them in to solve their little Graboid problem. Only these Graboids walk! “I am COMPLETELY out of ammo. That's never happened to me before.”

25. Final Destination 2 (2003): If there’s teenagers getting killed, I’ll be there. And when you cut out the middle man and death itself is doing the killing, well, that’s simply irresistible. Number 2 is the best in the series because it’s got less filler than the first and more point than 3-4. “Only new life can defeat Death.”

Anything on the list you want to claim is actually a good film? And what’s on your list?

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Film Friday: Predators (2010)

I’ve been debating whether Predators deserves a full review. I try to review films only when I have some point to make about them, and I wasn’t sure I did with Predators. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw something worth discussing: Predators is a great action flick because it goes back to the old-school way action films were made, which is something we haven’t seen in years.

** spoiler alert **

Since the 1980s, action films have been made according to formulas. Their highs and lows are generically scripted and the details get filled in according to the type of action hero choosen: muscle men, martial artists, hot chicks or street-wise tough guys. Plots are little more than MacGuffins, and each story includes a standard set of required situations: the capture, the escape, the betrayal, the showdown and the fake first death. All the while, CGI explosions cover the screen to distract you from the crappy story. Predators disdains that formula and acts more like an old-school action film, where the actors have to pull you in, where the story is interesting in and of itself, and where the “action” derives from the actions of the characters rather than the CGI explosions.

Predators is a sequel of sorts to Predator and its progeny, though it barely mentions those. The story opens with Adrien Brody being parachuted into a jungle. In the jungle, he meets seven other people. They are all killers. For example, Alice Braga is an Israeli Defense Force sniper, Walter Goggins is a murderer on death row, and Louis Ozawa Changchien is a Yakuza enforcer. The only one out of place is Topher Grace, who is a doctor. It doesn’t take long for them to realize they are on an alien planet and they’ve been brought here to be hunted. The rest of the movie involves these characters struggling to defend themselves against the predators. There is even an excellent cameo.

Everything about this film works. But let me highlight four areas in particular:
1. Death to CGI! The scenery is excellent because it's real, i.e. it's not CGI. The monsters are excellent and real. The action feels authentic. At no point does this film wander off into CGI cartoon land. In fact, you leave the film wondering if they even used CGI. And the benefits of this are huge because it gives this film a solid connection to the real world.

2. The Plot. While I like films like Commando and The Transporter, the truth is they have no plots. They offer just enough conflict to justify the action and no more. Predators actually relies on its plot. In fact, there is surprisingly little action in the film and most of it comes later in the film -- it takes almost an hour before you even see the predators for the first time. In the meantime, the characters try to solve the mystery of where they are and why they are here. This is very reminiscent of old-school action films where the action was considered a climax to the plot rather than a plot-substitute. And even though the plot is largely obvious, it's still sufficiently unpredictable from moment to moment that it keeps your interest.

3. The Writing. Everything about this film feels authentic. It's entirely believable that this group of people would be chosen and it's entirely believable these people could put up a tough fight against the predators. They react as one would expect given who each of them is, e.g. they aren't all the bland modern self-sacrificing reluctant hero. The way they behave is believable. Their dialog not only suits them perfectly, but is tailored to each character, i.e. they talk like what they are. Even the humor is believable as there are no comic relief characters and the plot is never compromised to set up a joke -- the jokes derive from things you actually expect these characters to say and they are used to break the tension, but without becoming comedic. Moreover, it's so well written that it's full of lines that make you think "that's the best line in this film" over and over again.

4. Adrien Brody. Finally, the most impressive thing about this film is Adrien Brody. I could say "the acting" because they're all good, especially Grace and Goggins, but the guy who carries the film is Brody. Interestingly, while I’ve come to respect Brody’s acting ability in films like The Village and The Jacket, I had serious doubts he could pull off an action hero. But pull it off he does. He plays an American mercenary with a black ops background, and he plays the role perfectly. He speaks quietly and authoritatively and has a commanding presence. He moves smoothly and ruthlessly. He never acts stupidly or arrogantly and he never forgets his experience just to move the plot. All in all, watching him is like watching a special ops team on the Discovery Channel. I simply can’t say enough good things about the job he does.
This is why Predators succeeds so well and why it made $120 million. It’s smart, tense and it keeps your interest for reasons other than big shiny things blowing up. It’s the first action film in a long time where you don’t know who will live or what comes next. It also avoids all of the clichéd scenes that now make action films so lame, i.e. there's no moment where we discover that our government is secretly behind this, no double cross by the hero’s lifelong buddy, and no scene where the hero surrenders to save a puppy. There is just a highly believable story with engaging characters. And that's a heck of a lot more than we get out of most action films these days.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Film Friday: Cube (1997)

I know. . . I know. . . you’ve never heard of Cube. Well, you should have. Cube is a Canadian science fiction/psychological thriller that’s become a cult classic. It's got an interesting story, a very believable atmosphere, and it's surprisingly gripping. It’s also got a fascinating take on the nature of evil. Sadly, it squanders a bit of its potential with political correctness, but overall it’s absolutely worth seeing.

** spoiler alert **
1. The Plot:
Imagine you wake up in a strange room shaped like a cube. You have no idea where you are or how you got there or even why you are there. In the center of each wall (including the floor and ceiling) are hatches you can open. Each hatch leads to an apparently identical room, except for color. Only, some rooms are booby trapped in ingenious ways. That’s the premise of Cube as a group of people find themselves stuck inside this deadly maze.

Beyond this, Cube is a sort of character study mixed with a mystery about the nature of the cube -- both what it is and why it is? It’s in the character study that political correctness rears its ugly head and hurts an otherwise fine film. It’s in the nature of the cube that this film truly excels. But before you read ahead, be warned that I need to discuss the two significant twists to address these points.
2. The Characters:
Cube focuses on six people who find each other inside the cube. There is Quentin, a level-headed police officer who is looking for practical solutions. David Worth (David Hewlett of Stargate Atlantis) is the voice of surrender. Joan Leaven (Nicole de Boer of Star Trek DS-9) is an expert mathematician. “The Wren” is a criminal who has escaped from seven prisons. Kazan is an autistic man. And Dr. Hellen Holloway is a big time leftist. She’s bitter, paranoid, and spouts off conspiracy theories and oppression theory.

As a group, these characters are well chosen to provide plenty of drama. They have conflicting personalities and the actors bring a lot of tension to their interactions. But the writers fail to exploit this excellent choice of characters because they opt for doctrinaire political correctness rather than character development. Thus, rather than watching these characters grow and evolve, we are instead given shallow and predictable leftist clichés.

Quentin is the prime offender in this regard. Cube was made before 9/11 when the left still openly described all police officers as lovers of violence who beat their wives and get a sexual thrill from imposing “the man’s fascist system” on minority communities. Thus, police officer Quentin very quickly transforms from an interesting character into a mindless cliché psychopath who beat his wife and likes to impose fascism on an unwilling society. Naturally, at least if you think like a leftist, Quentin becomes an over-sexed murderer who revels in violently oppressing the other characters. This is both annoyingly predictable and squanders what started as a well-written character. And lest you think Quentin being black is unexpected, you need only listen to Holloway to understand that he's been brainwashed to think he's part of whitey's club. The other characters fall into similar patterns too. The white guy is complicit in the evil, the leftist is the only one speaking truth to power, and only the retarded kid can save them all.

Don't get me wrong, this is still a good movie and it's not as annoying as it sounds, but Cube would have been so much better if they had gone for real characters instead of predictable leftist PC clichés.
3. The Cube:
Where Cube really gets interesting is in the nature of the cube itself. Who made the cube? The evil military? Nope. Some crazed James Bond villain? No. The answer is that no one in particular made it and that’s a pretty original idea. Indeed, as the story goes on, Worth admits that he saw the plans for the cube when he was hired to work on part of it. From him, we learn the cube was essentially put together on autopilot. Someone in “the system” got the ball rolling. From that moment on, the system did its thing and thousands of people were put to work making the cube without ever knowing what they were building. It might even have evolved as individual designers and workers made changes to their parts. Now it exists and it does what it was designed to do even though no one is out there directing it.

Obviously, this was meant as social commentary about the dangers of individuals not asking enough questions, with the point being that if we don't know exactly what we are doing, then we could be aiding "the system" in creating something evil. Ok, point taken. What I find more interesting though, is the idea that something evil could be created by sheer momentum. Indeed, the cube is the first "villain" I can think of that wasn't intentionally created, isn't being used for some specific evil purpose, and doesn't have any particular motivation. It's not trying to take anything over or oppress anyone, it's not motivated by revenge or greed, nor is it even just trying to survive. . . it just is.

This is also strangely believable. Indeed, we constantly hear of government programs that have fallen through the cracks and which continue for decades before anyone discovers they are there. It isn't hard to envision this cube doing its thing for decades until some bean counter stumbles upon an unexplained "maintenance charge" on some balance sheet. So in many ways, this is a criticism of overly expansive government where the government has become so big and complex that the right hand no longer knows there even is a left hand. That’s what makes this film so fascinating.

I absolutely recommend this film (despite its PC failures). It's got good action and is surprisingly gripping, and it leaves you with plenty to think about. Avoid the two sequels, however! They completely miss the point of the cube and they turn it into nothing more than a standard military conspiracy to eliminate undesirables.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Reality Ain't What It Used To Be

I often wonder about the effects of videogames and films on the human mind. In particular, they seem to be changing the way we perceive reality and I wonder if they aren't making death seem less permanent?

It’s fairly obvious to me that films, television and videogames are distorting our perceptions of reality. The clearest example of this comes from what they’ve done to our expectations regarding human interaction. In films, characters always know the perfect things to say. Politicians always deliver the cleverest lines seemingly off the cuff. Lawyers always say the exact thing that triggers the needed response from the witness. Jokes are always well set up by their victims. And dates are unbelievably perfect. Indeed, characters in romantic films always say just the right thing to keep conversations moving in the right direction, to excite the other person, and to win the moment.

Unfortunately, people seem to be confusing this with reality. Indeed, I’ve heard many people bemoan the fact their dates didn’t come across like the ones they see on films. They never had the right word for the moment. Their conversation often stalled out. And worst of all, when they tried to hit the proverbial "verbal homerun," they just came across as creepy.

But here’s the thing: that’s how real life works. What these people don’t grasp is the difference between a conversation involving two independent human beings, whose reactions are largely unpredictable, engaging in an off-the-cuff conversation versus a manufactured situation where two characters exchange words that have been pre-written after a great deal of thought and editing and where each character is guaranteed to respond in precisely the perfect way, i.e. there is no chance of failure. The two situations just aren't comparable. Yet, many people now judge real life based on the false standards set up by films and they wrongly downgrade individuals who can’t live up to those impossible expectations.

The same is true in sports, where slow-motion instant replay has changed the perception of what athletes should achieve. Go to any sports bar and you'll hear a gaggle of idiots talking about how they would have “turned this way and grabbed the ball and then flipped over that way and etc. etc.” The reality is the action they are talking about occurred in less than a tenth of second, too fast for the human nervous system to respond, yet these idiot are demanding actions that would have taken 8-10 seconds. . . the length of the replay they are seeing. Again, their perception of reality is false yet they can't tell the difference.

So what about death? Nobody dies permanently in films or on television. If your main character dies in a science fiction story, you can be pretty sure they’ve been secretly cloned and will be back. If they die in a drama, they’ll be back in dreams. Everybody died at the end of your film? Don’t sweat it, just do a reboot or prequel or a sequel that pretends they didn’t die. Death just isn’t a permanent state of being in entertainment, not as long as audiences want the character to return. Heck, even villains need to be killed twice before they finally die.

Videogames are even worse -- death is never the end. In fact, death is nothing more than a chance to start over and try a different path, i.e. the one that didn’t get you killed. Went down the wrong alley? Ducked when you should have jumped? Tangled with the wrong Nausicaan? Don’t worry, you’ll be dead in a moment and you can try it differently.

Having played a lot of games in my time, I can tell you that if you play them long enough you will occasionally find yourself thinking in terms of “next time.” For example, “next time I’ll go to that college instead” or “next time I turn 40, I’ll skip the ‘Mount of Donuts Cake’ and have the ‘Sausage Platter Cake’ instead.” This is classic game thinking that your mind is expressing. . . planning for the next time. The only problem: there is no next time in life.

So what’s the point? The point is that I suspect our entertainment dramatically affects how we perceive the world. I don’t know if this ultimately changes our actions, but I'm pretty sure it influences our judgment to varying degrees. Maybe we should think about that the next time we go writing a film or videogame that promotes really bad thinking?

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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Film Friday: eXistenZ (1999)

Written and directed by David Cronenberg, eXistenZ is one of those films. It’s got a great science fiction concept, a quality cast (Jude Law, Willem DaFoe, Ian Holm) and enough mystery to hold your interest. I generally enjoy it and even find it strangely fascinating. Yet, it’s unsatisfying. And the more I think about it, the less satisfying it gets. The reason for this, sadly, is that Cronenberg has created a mess and he tries to cheat his way out of it.

Before we go further, let me give two warnings. First, there will be serious spoilers, including discussions of the twists. Secondly, you can enjoy this film if you don’t think about it. So if ignorance is bliss, then skip this review.
1. The Plot:
eXistenZ starts as the story of Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who are on the run from people trying to kill Geller. Geller is the world’s greatest virtual reality game designer and she has a new game called eXistenZ, the only copy of which is in her game pod -- a living game machine that ports into your body. Pikul is a marketing guy assigned to protect her. The people trying to kill her are a nebulous group of “realists,” who are waging a vague military style insurgency against her company for distorting reality.

As they run, Geller’s game pod is damaged in an assassination attempt and she decides to test the game to make sure it still works. Inside the game world (“Cort-Stim world”), they discover a somewhat parallel world also with a violent struggle between virtualists and realists. Numerous twists and turns later, they return to the world in which the film started (“eXistenZ world”) only to discover that realists have launched an attack on them. This leads to a quick series of betrayals, which end when it is revealed that this world is actually a videogame called tranCendenZ and the people they’ve been running into are other players who are test marketing the game in the real world (“tranCendenZ world”).
2. Failure of Concept:
You should recognize this as the classic science fiction theme of a reality within a reality, as seen in films like Inception and The Thirteenth Floor. These stories work by blurring the worlds and causing the characters to lose track of which reality is real. Indeed, these films invariably end with some character asking “but what if this isn’t real?” eXistenZ is no different. It tries very hard to make us think the characters are losing track of what is real and what isn’t and it even ends on the line: “are we still in the game?” Yet, eXistenZ fails entirely to pull this off because it never presents anything to make us believe the characters could be the least bit confused about what is reality and what isn’t.

Consider the “reality” in which most of the movie takes place -- Cort-Stim world. We know from the get go that this world exists solely inside a videogame and at no point is it ever suggested that this world might be real. Thus, the whole concept of having a world within a world is undercut from the beginning because both the audience and the characters know this is just a videogame. Further, there is no bleed through from one world to the other, there is no threat that can travel back and forth, and there is no possibility of getting stuck in Cort-Stim world. Moreover, Cort-Stim world is full of obvious game elements (like characters going into game loops) which don’t exist in eXistenZ world, and thus make it easy to tell which world is which.

Despite this, Cronenberg tries to sell the audience on the idea of confusion by filling Pikul's dialog with comments about having a hard time telling the difference between the "real" world (eXistenZ world) and the game world. But this makes no sense. Pikul knows he’s plugged into a game and he’s only been playing for a few minutes. So why would he be confused? Also, to convince the audience that this confusion is real, Cronenberg has Pikul spend his time in the game being pensive about the dangers they are facing and asking repeatedly to leave the game before something bad happens. But this is as nonsensical as worrying about getting hurt in a car race game.

Further, this game world bears no relationship to an actual game. It has some classic game elements, but it has no goals or objectives or instruction to players. It offers only one path to the players, with no choice to be made or tasks to be completed, and it lasts only a few minutes and ends with no possibility of victory. All in all, nothing about this feels like a game at all; it just feels like plot filler used to give the characters an appearance of doing something before the film ends, especially the supposed “game urges” which are little more than gratuitous sexual moments that have no purpose in the game (there is oddly out-of-place gratuitous gore too which you don't expect in this kind of film).

eXistenZ world fairs no better. Things seem to happen randomly and much of it is unbelievable and contradictory. The attack of the realist in particular was poorly done. For example, you see them setting off explosions where there are no targets and firing wildly at nothing. Then one of the rebels declares victory, but against what? Then he decides to kill Geller, only Geller gets saved by a man who then tries to kill her, only to have another man try to kill her who has also saved her a couple times and could have killed her at his leisure many times before. Why does everyone who wants to kill her try to save her first? The explanation given by the final assassin is ridiculous: “I wanted to get to know who I was killing first.” Yeah, sure, so much for the dedicated revolutionary.

A good example of this illogic comes from Willem DaFoe’s character. He decides to kill Geller to get a five million dollar reward. But rather than just kill her, he first agrees to install a bioport into Pikul. Why? Because he wants to install a defective bioport in the hopes of killing Geller’s game because there is a bonus reward for killing the game. But how does this make sense? If he kills Geller and Pikul as he plans, then he has the pod and he can burn it or shoot it or whatever. Why go through the elaborate hoax? Also, does it really make sense the people offering the reward would pay for a burned out pod or would they want to verify the game was on the pod? Also, how does he know they will play the game at his gas station so that he gets a chance to kill them after they play? And how does he even know this is the only copy of the game? Essentially, he has to know the plot before his actions make any sense.

Pikul and Geller’s characters fall apart too once we learn eXistenZ world is a game as well. If this world isn’t real and Geller isn’t actually the designer of the game, then she has too much intimate knowledge of the game and of Cort-Stim world. Her knowledge goes way beyond what a first-time player would know. And if the object of eXistenZ is to kill Geller, why doesn’t Pikul just kill her the first chance he gets and win the game? Also, when she shoots her friend, why does Pikul lecturer her that she might have just killed a real human being? This is nonsense. Both Cort-Stim world and eXistenZ world are game worlds. So unless he's claiming confusion with tranCendenZ world, these couldn't possibly be real people -- and he never claims such confusion.

The problem here is that the point Cronenberg is trying to make doesn't come naturally from the story's plot elements, so he's trying to force it by having the characters just say it. But that doesn't work. If the characters really are losing touch with reality, the film needs to show that through its story and the characters’ actions; the writer can’t just have the characters say “gee, I’m losing touch with reality.” What's happened here is Cronenberg made a mess of the underlying concept and he never bothered sorting it out before he made the film. Instead, he hopes to hide this fact by covering up the mess with forced dialog. This doesn't work. In fact, compare this with Inception, where the story methodically builds all the elements needed to let the audience question whether any of the worlds in which the characters find themselves can ever be proven to be real and leaves them wondering how the characters would actually know.

If Cronenberg had bothered solving his plot problems rather than just covering them up, eXistenZ could have been Inception before Inception.

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Friday, May 6, 2011

The Addendum Reboot

I’ve talked before about the problems with sequels and my displeasure with reboots. Today I want to talk about three recent “reimaginings” that add a whole new level of error to the remake industry. These unimaginings commit the sin of sucking the life out of the material they are remaking and then filling in the holes with pure filler. They are like addendums more than films. Specifically, I’m talking about: Halloween (2007), Final Destination (2009), and A Nightmare On Elm Street (2010). Blech.

The originals of these three films were all standout horror films over the past thirty years. Halloween (1978) essentially invented the slasher genre when it gave us Michael Myers, a silent, masked killing machine who returns to his childhood home to kill off every fornicating teenager he can find. Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) upped the stakes for slasher films by improving both the special effects and the level of creativity of these films with the introduction of Freddie Krueger, who kills fornicating teenagers in their dreams. And Final Destination (2000) injected a bit of Rube Goldbergism into the teen horror genre by forcing the teens to solve a series of mystery puzzles while death hunts them for wrongly escaping their destinies. . . and thereby kept them too busy to fornicate.

Each of these films spawned a bazillion sequels and each should have been pretty decent as reboots because they all offered excellent source material to work with. In fact, all you really had to do to make good reboots out of these would be take the original idea, modernize a few elements, come up with a new take on some aspect of the film, hire a bunch of teen hotties, and start rolling. Sounds easy, but apparently not.

Final Destination 2.0 is horrible and pointless. It's like a Cliff's Notes version of the original that misses the key points. The original Final Destination was an earnest teen horror flick which paid off in the clever and interesting riddles the teens needed to solve to save their sorry butts. They had to figure out why they were being killed off one at a time, in what order they would die, how to spot when death when it came for them, and how to cheat death. All of this involved a good deal of creativity and made the film interesting. Adding to this solid base, death would try to kill them in Rube Golbdberg-like ways which kept the audience guessing how each scene would actually play out.

The unimagining, however, makes a fatal error right out of the gates. It assumes you’ve seen the original and you don’t want to see the characters cover the same ground you already know. Thus, it gives a momentary nod to the parts of Final Destination that made the film so interesting as the characters self-consciously read summary-type lines that translate into “you know what’s going on,” before it jumps into the elaborate death scenes. But these scenes feel meaningless with no story attached to them. . . it's like listening only to song hooks. What’s worse, to hide the missing plot, they made the death scenes much more elaborate. . . which is like listening to 10 minute remixes of song hooks. Whereas the death scenes in the original gave you maybe a 30 second set up with a few twists and turns and no guarantee of how the scene would end, the new film gives 4-5 minute set ups with precise breakdowns of exactly what to expect. This gets old fast.

Nightmare on Elm Street 2.0 does something similar, only worse. This time they not only skipped the plot except for minor references to it, they added no new elements -- they even repeated some of the death scenes. Basically, this film offers a stripped down version of the original with new actors. In fact, the only thing that was noticeably different was the annoying dialog, which seems to have been stolen from other films without context or thought. I’m sure the writer would call this an homage if questioned by the writing police, but it sure felt like they thought they could just randomly take lines from other movies to fill in their own gaps.

Finally, we have Halloween 2.0, which actually tried to add something to the original film: a backstory for the Michael Myers character. But sadly, the backstory they offered was not only pathetic, but actually harmed the very essence of the film. What made the original Myers so creepy was his silent, relentless way of killing without purpose or emotion. We had no idea why he did what he did except that Donald Pleasance warned us that he was pure evil, and that made him interesting. The unimagining wipes all of this out by telling us that poor Myers is a victim of child abuse. Boo hoo hoo. And like that, a horror movie morphs into an afternoon special. Having neutered its monster, the film then adds nothing else new or interesting and leaves us with the distinct impression they only bothered copying half of the already very-thin original material.

Here’s the thing. . . if you’re going to remake a film, you need a reason. There has to be some element of the film you think can result in an order of magnitude improvement or that takes the series in a wholly new, unexpected direction. These films never understood that. Halloween 2.0’s big addition could have been done in a single line of lame dialog, and even then never should have been done. The other films not only added nothing, but they actively took away everything that made those films watchable. And none of these films grasps that a reboot must stand on its own, i.e. you can't just self-consciously point to the original and tell the audience "hey, you know the plot. . . and stuff." Even a lousy movie like Barb Wire (1986) understood this and turned out much better than it deserved to be because it knew enough to keep the portions of the original material (Casablanca), that everyone liked before it tried to add to those. This should be obvious!

So how do we explain these three films? I'm thinking the answer lies in a lack of respect for the audience. I'm thinking the filmmakers figured their audience was too riddled with Attention Deficit Disorder to sit through a remake, so they created Addendums instead of remakes, i.e. "films" that offer little more than a collection of new scenes to be watched in conjunction with your knowledge of the original material rather than films that stand on their own. Pathetic.

Please stop doing this.

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