Friday, September 30, 2011

Film Friday: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Boy did I hate Star Trek: The Motion Picture when it first came to theaters. Everything about this film was wrong. But over the years, I’ve had a change of heart. Don’t get me wrong, everything about TMP is still wrong, but it has one thing all the other Star Trek movies are missing. It has a sense of adventure.

** spoiler alert**

Let's list what TMP did wrong in order of increasing importance. This isn’t going to be pretty.

● The Uniforms: People hated the uniforms; they called them pajamas. I can see that. They aren’t very science fictiony, they’re too casual, and compared to the more Napoleonic dress uniforms of the later films they are way too dull. But I actually don’t hate them. I think they’re a sensible evolution from the series, and I particularly like the away uniforms being a throw back to the pilot episode The Cage.

● The Klingons: The Klingons don’t bother me per se. In fact, I thought they were pretty cool. But it’s poor judgment to so totally change the Klingons’ appearance and then only use them for the first two minutes of the film. If you’re going to radically change an icon of a beloved series, you should have a point.

● Sloppy Filmmaking: Now it gets worse. The film was directed by Robert Wise, who has impressive credentials (Andromeda Strain, West Side Story, Run Silent Run Deep), and yet the film was beset by sloppy filmmaking. The pace was so slow people called it “The Motionless Picture.” The story was stolen from an old episode ("The Changeling"). Unfinished sets appear in one scene. And much of it made no sense, e.g. in the opening scene, Starfleet taps into the Klingons’ view screens to watch the battle (which makes no sense technically) and not only gets images the Klingon's couldn't get, but also gets images after the Klingon ship is entirely destroyed, all of which immediately strikes fans as impossible. And how is it that assembling the Enterprise’s transporters and warp drive can be so difficult? These technologies are as mundane as cars or elevators today. . . they're frik'n plug and play! Yet all of Starfleet couldn’t figure out how to turn on the ship’s engines? Each of these moments and more was evidence the filmmakers didn’t think things through and assumed fans wouldn’t notice or care.

● The Vulcans: The Vulcans in the series had suppressed emotion and built a scientific, diplomatic society based on pure logic. But the film replaces that with mysticism. Hence, Spock goes from being computer-like to being a monk and in the process is robbed of the uniqueness of his character as he gets turned into something we’ve seen in dozens of other films. Moreover, this ruined the character dynamic, as I'm about to explain.

● The Characters: Now we come to the core of the problem. Star Trek IS James T. Kirk. The show was set up as a series of adventures and morality tales involving Kirk. Helping him were Dr. Leonard McCoy and Spock. They were his friends and his lieutenants, but they also represented the dual aspects of Kirk’s judgment. Spock represented pure logic. He analyzed everything with reason and he encouraged Kirk to make decisions without emotion. Dr. McCoy represented pure emotion. He urged Kirk to feel his way through decisions. Spock and McCoy fought each other constantly because they represent diametrically opposed forces. Kirk was the battleground. He had to choose between his friends while simultaneously navigating the duality of all decisions. This created an incredibly strong character dynamic because it meant each episode came with built in drama and it allowed the series to explore the decision process itself, where drama truly lies.

TMP tossed this out. When they changed the Vulcans, they took away Spock’s personality. Rather than being a creature of logic, he became a creature of calm who would no longer spar with McCoy as he had done. Instead of being one half of Kirk’s conscience, Spock instead became a monk who hands out sage advice. And since Spock no longer fought McCoy for Kirk’s soul, McCoy wasn’t needed anymore. So McCoy went from being the voice of passion and emotion to just being a cranky ship’s doctor. The triangular dynamic that let the writers explore the duality of humanity was gone.

But worse was yet to come.

As I said, James Kirk was Star Trek. And as the series progressed, we came to understand who Kirk was. He was superman, but not because he was stronger or faster or smarter than everyone else, but because he made great decisions. He was wise and moral and brave and ultra-capable. Kirk wasn’t inherently perfect, but he was a man who could overcome his own worst instincts and his flaws, who could put aside his ego, and who could learn from his own mistakes. Thus, he never made decisions for the wrong reasons. Essentially, he was each of us at our best.

But that’s not the Jim Kirk of TMP. The Jim Kirk of TMP was arrogant, petty and insecure. He coveted the Enterprise so badly he abused his power to steal it from its commander. Further to create tension on this point, the filmmakers invented the ludicrous idea that somehow Kirk wasn’t familiar with the way this ship worked, which gave Commander Decker a basis with which he could fight back. Not only is this nonsense, but it leads to one of the most embarrassing scenes in Star Trek when Kirk cowers helplessly in his command chair like some science fiction version of Captain Queeg as Decker saves the ship from his folly. Kirk then retaliates against Decker to satisfy his ego and loses the respect of everyone around him. The Jim Kirk from the series simply would be incapable of such behavior. . . and yet there it is on film, leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

This is why I hated this film. This wasn’t STAR TREK: The Motion Picture, it was The Motionless, Lifeless Star Trek Imagery Picture. It gutted everything good about Star Trek and replaced it with pointless special effects and characters sitting around waiting for the end of the movie. There are no dramatic decisions, no tests of will or conscience. In fact, there's little for Kirk to do. Even the love interest gets tied to the Decker character rather than Kirk for some reason.
But. . .
But I’ve slowly changed my mind over time. I don’t retract anything above, but I’ve found a saving grace in this film, and it’s one I didn’t find until I realized why the other Star Trek films were all so hard for me to like. Sure, those films are better made and some of them are quite exciting. . . but they all feel hollow. What they're missing, which TMP has, is a sense of adventure.

Star Trek was a morality play, but it was also a show that looked to the future out beyond our little world. This was a show about people who went to other planets because they could. They weren’t flying between federation planets on a huge cruise ship cataloging space farts... sorry, gaseous anomalies, as the Next Generation crew did, and they weren’t out there engaged in geopolitics as the later films did. They were explorers. They were Columbus, Magellan and Lewis and Clark and Li Quan of Mars, and they wanted to see what was out there in the universe.

TMP captures that spirit. Sure, they went to stop a threat to Earth. But once they got there, the old explorer’s instincts kicked in and they wanted to see what was there. They didn’t just want to save the Earth, they wanted to know what V’Ger was. And when they got there, they used their wits to solve the puzzle they found. None of the later films did this -- they were all action films. This was science fiction.

I respect that.

Little in science fiction today contains any sense of adventure, and I miss that. Almost all of it is action films or dramas set in space. I honestly can’t think of the last show or film about a small group of intrepid explorers going to the stars to see what’s out there. . . going boldly where no man has gone before.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Audio Commentaries

by ScottDS

One advantage of DVD and Blu-Ray is the audio track. These can be used for foreign languages, Descriptive Video Service, and, best of all, audio commentary. The very first audio commentary was recorded in 1984 by film historian Ron Haver for the Criterion laserdisc release of King Kong. Whereas this feature was once reserved for classic films with scholarly merit, today the feature has been co-opted by marketing departments and can be found on such cinematic dreck as Epic Movie and Meet the Fockers.

While some filmmakers (like Steven Spielberg) have no interest in recording commentaries, many have become masters of the medium and, in this writer’s humble opinion, you can’t go wrong with a track featuring Terry Gilliam, Kevin Smith, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell, Bruce Campbell, film critic Roger Ebert, and film historians like Rudy Behlmer, Nick Redman, and Jon Burlingame. Some commentaries are done solo, others in groups, and yet others consist of multiple speakers recorded separately, their comments weaved together into a seamless presentation. Some cover only select scenes; the vast majority last for the entire duration. Here are my favorites.

Brazil – director Terry Gilliam (“When you’re going well [in Hollywood], you got lots of friends but the minute you start having any problems, it’s amazing how they disappear.”)

Originally recorded for Criterion laserdisc in 1996, Gilliam discusses the controversy over the film’s release and his epic battles with the studio, somewhat mimicking the battles fought by lead character Sam Lowry. He delves into design, music, working with actors and co-writers Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard (whose verbal humor usually went over Gilliam’s head), and, of course, editing and the effect the removal of a scene can have on the narrative of a film. He also touches on the film’s politics, insisting Brazil is a critique of Thatcherism though, from what I understand, it can be seen as the exact opposite of that as well. He talks about film criticism (on Gene Siskel: “F--- him!”) and discusses the effect this film has on audiences: how the unassuming viewer will be thrown from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other in a matter of seconds with no warning.

Aliens – writer/director James Cameron and many members of the cast and crew (Cameron: “At the time, I knew diddly-d--- about how big corporations worked so to me they were just this big shadowy entity.”)

James Cameron takes the lead as he discusses the origin of the characters (mostly taken from a sci-fi spec script of his titled Mother), design contributions (he designed both the alien queen and the power loader), as well as more arcane details such as lenses and film stocks. Along with producer Gale Anne Hurd, he also goes into detail about the British crew’s seeming lack of ambition, a mutiny led by a disgruntled first A.D., and the annoying British tradition of “tea time.” FX gurus Robert & Dennis Skotak and Pat McClung analyze the visual effects, most of which still hold up. Cast members Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jenette Goldstein are clearly enjoying themselves as they make fun of each other, point out now-iconic lines of dialogue, and reflect on their loyalty to Cameron. The late Stan Winston discusses the creature effects and actors Carrie Henn and (in the extended cut) Christopher Henn talk about what it was like for two little kids with no acting experience on the set of a big science fiction film. Cameron also talks about the weapons and Sigourney Weaver’s reluctance to use them, until she fired a few practice rounds: “Another liberal bites the dust!”

Kentucky Fried Movie – director John Landis, producer Robert K. Weiss, and writers David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams (Weiss: “The first time we showed this to lawyers, the guy said this was unreleaseable. And then we asked the financial guy, ‘What do we do?’ and he said, ‘Get different lawyers.’”)

Collectively, these guys are (partly or wholly) responsible for Airplane!, Animal House, The Blues Bothers, Police Squad!, Top Secret!, The Naked Gun, Hot Shots!, and more. To put it mildly, they helped shape my childhood. Anyway, this commentary is a riot from start to finish even though the film isn’t. Given the episodic nature of the film (it’s a series of sketches and commercial parodies, based on the ZAZ team’s Kentucky Fried Theater revue), the guys always have something to say. They discuss raising money and all the shady characters they had to deal with and the humor gets quite self-deprecating as Weiss asks if they ever figured out the profit participation and Jerry Zucker says they should’ve put their wrap party mariachi band in the film. Both Landis and the ZAZ team talk about their humble origins and everyone has kind things to say about the various performers (many of whom came from the KFT ensemble). Landis talks about the trouble they had getting an R rating and Weiss reveals that the original title was Closed for Remodeling but theater owners didn’t want that on their marquees!

Used Cars – director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis, co-writer/producer Bob Gale, and Kurt Russell (Zemeckis: “Why is that funny?!” Russell: “It’s a dead man driving a car!”)

Robert Zemeckis is best known for Serious Movies™ like Forrest Gump and family adventures like Back to the Future so to hear him and co-writer/producer Bob Gale (also of BTTF) reflect on their raunchy R-rated second film, complete with nudity, profanity, and a healthy level of “social irresponsibility” (to quote producer John Milius) makes for quite a listening experience. Throw in a jovial Kurt Russell and let the good times roll. Apparently, a large portion of the crew was into the drug scene, other crewmembers were stealing money, and Zemeckis has a blast as he talks about a hypoglycemic child extra full of chocolate who, when “Action!” was called, just decided to run down the street. Given the film’s political subplot (Russell’s character wants to run for State Senate and is involved with graft and there’s a mention of Arab terrorists), both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter get some jabs. The trio has nothing but respect for Jack Warden who got to do two things in this film that actors love to do: play dead and play two roles (he plays twins). Zemeckis also complains about certain shots, including one where the camera operator missed a stunt. This film isn’t the funniest in the world but these guys are clearly fans, even though Zemeckis admits he’s glad to have outgrown it.

Mallrats – writer/director Kevin Smith, producer Scott Mosier, Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, Jason Mewes, and View Askew historian Vincent Pereira (Smith: “I’m fatter than Ben Affleck in Mallrats.” Affleck: “That’s not me, that’s my twin brother: Barney Affleck.”)

Mallrats was Kevin Smith’s second film and first for a major studio after the indie success of Clerks. Over the span of 90 minutes, we learn what went wrong. The studio wanted “a smart Porky’s” but after a disastrous test screening, the opening was reshot and many lines that referred to it had to be dubbed with alternate dialogue. These guys still like the movie but Smith admits the studio simply didn’t know how to market it. Affleck finds himself the butt of many jokes and Lee reflects on what was his first film and how nervous he was. Mosier and Pereira discuss the various deleted scenes and subplots and Smith mentions a few gross-out gags in the original script that would be considered downright tame today. They all have fun pointing out little Easter Eggs and odd-looking extras while Affleck nitpicks the film’s camera work and Smith’s lack of skill in that area. They all have kind words for the name actors like Michael Rooker as well as Stan Lee (who appears in a cameo). On the original 1999 DVD, you can watch footage of the commentary recording session. It only works for select scenes but it’s still pretty neat. (See below.)


The studios have managed to add bells and whistles to the standard audio commentary though one could argue that it’s all useless gimmicks. For the 1999 DVD release of Ghostbusters, Sony not only included a great audio commentary but also used an extra subtitle track to present the speakers’ silhouettes in the style of MST3K. Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis have some fun pointing at certain things but they don’t quite take full advantage of the feature. For Men in Black, Sony went a step further and gave director Barry Sonnenfeld a telestrator allowing him to “draw” on the screen. Again, kinda gimmicky. Some DVDs and Blu-Rays utilize the multi-angle feature to present footage of the commentary recording session but, for the most part, it’s usually just a couple of guys in a room.

Sony pioneered the text commentary (or trivia track), which simply displays informational text on the bottom the screen via the subtitle track. Ghostbusters was the first DVD to include one, presenting material from Don Shay’s book, Making Ghostbusters. I believe the first text commentary not based on prior material was found on The Abyss. DVD producer Van Ling, who had worked on the film as director James Cameron’s researcher, presents biographical info on the cast and crew, breakdowns of the visual effects, details on editing and production design, and even the lyrics to “Willing” which plays during a scene in the Special Edition version. Ling topped himself on the DVD re-release of Terminator 2 in which he not only presents a text commentary but graphics, including moving lines and arrows to point out the separation of elements in visual effects shots.

Lest you think this is all a pretentious waste of time (and some commentaries certainly are!), the studios can also have fun with this stuff. MGM’s 2000 DVD release of This is Spinal Tap features a commentary by band members Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls. In other words, actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer improvise 90 minutes in character and the results are frequently hilarious as they badmouth director Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) for making them look like fools. Paramount’s 2009 Blu-Ray release of Galaxy Quest includes the “Galactopedia,” a trivia track that treats the Galaxy Quest TV series as if it were real and features information on plots, characters, and more.

The Ones That Got Away

In the heyday of laserdisc, Criterion was releasing quality titles supported by thorough supplements. Unfortunately, once their licenses reverted back to the original studios, the studios rarely licensed the Criterion features. While there are some exceptions, this means that film students and fans who were too young to get into laserdisc will most likely never have the chance to listen to these commentaries, short of purchasing a player and discs on eBay. Some lost gems include film historian Ron Haver’s commentaries for Casablanca and King Kong, Terry Gilliam’s commentary for The Fischer King, film scholar Howard Suber’s commentary for The Graduate, the original (NOT in character) commentary for This is Spinal Tap, and, perhaps most infamous of all, the original “banned” commentaries for the first three James Bond films, which led to a massive recall after EON Productions decided the tracks were a little too politically incorrect at times.

What are some of your favorite DVD/Blu-Ray bonus features?
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Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Great (film) Debates vol. 8

Maybe there's something wrong with our species, but we seem to prefer villains to heroes. So let's go with that:

Who is your favorite film villain?

Panelist: T-Rav

Surely Dennis Hopper's Howard Payne in Speed. There's nothing complicated about him; he didn't have a bad childhood or a government that turned on him; he's just a jerk who wants money that isn't his, and he doesn't care who he kills to get it. Straight-up bad guy, and the wit and energy Hopper gives him makes him fun to watch, even though you don't ever want to root for him.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Keyser Söze. We know nothing about him, yet we think we know everything about him. We spend the film staring right at him and don't even realize it. He tricks us into sympathizing with him, tells us nothing but lies, and yet when we learn the truth, we don't hate him. . . we admire him. There is no other villain like him.

Panelist: ScottDS

Another hard question. Getting my driver's license was easier than this exercise! [Smile] I've given it some thought and I would have to say Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman - his film debut! - in Die Hard. Suave, cunning, vicious, with a sonorous voice and a great tailor ("John Phillips, London."), Gruber is the leader of a band of German "terrorists" who turn out to be simple bank robbers. All goes according to plan until NYPD cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) gets involved. Trivia: Rickman's look of surprise as he falls from the building (onto an airbag) is real: he was dropped on the count of "two," not "three." Whoops! "I read about them in Time magazine."

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Favorite film villain is Margaret Hamilton as the wicked witch of the east. Best cackle in film.

Comments? Thoughts? What would you choose and why?

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Film Friday: Piranha 3D (2010)

I don’t often call for the brutal murder of an entire film crew, but in the case of Piranha, I think it’s necessary. Do not see this film. Seriously. Don’t. Normally, I’m a sucker for these kinds of films, but this is an atrocity.

** spoilers. . . yeah, whatever **
Piranha or Piranha 3D or Piranha 3Ds and an F or whatever it’s called is the story of what happens when an earthquake opens a passage from an underground lake containing super-aggressive, two million year old piranhas to a lake used by hundreds of drunken college kids for spring break. Meanwhile, there’s a subplot involving the sheriff (Elisabeth Shue) who must save her kids, who have gone out on the water on a boat with Jerry O’Connell (Sliders), a porno director, and two porn stars. There’s also a scene with Richard Dreyfus which is supposed to be an homage to Jaws, but isn’t. Jim from Taxi (Christopher Lloyd) has a scene as a scientist. Ving Rhames has a speaking part as a deputy. The rest is sex or carnage.
No. . . Just No.
When I first heard about Piranha, I was actually a little excited. I’m a sucker for films like this because they’re pure escapism. Indeed, when it comes to mindless fun, there’s nothing better than watching some washed up star or never-has-been chasing a giant Dinocroc or Sharktopus or the Abominable Panda. Horrid acting, bad dialog, lousy effects, plots that make no sense and moral dilemmas written by ten year olds. . . it’s all fun. And when these films somehow get a budget and some real actors, the fun goes up a notch!

But Piranha was not fun, it was revolting.

Piranha combines the most violent gross-out moments of Saw or similar torture porn with the over-the-top sleaze of Girls Gone Wild. You will be treated to several minutes of lesbian sex, followed by more naked girls, followed by about 20 minutes of the most disgusting dissections of humans ever. If you can think of something disgusting to do to a human body, they do it in this film. And like all filmmakers with nothing to offer except shock, they carry this on way too long. I’m not kidding when I say the massacre lasts about 20 minutes, with each moment trying to get more disgusting than the prior moment. And this is on top of the gruesome killings that dot the rest of the film.

Cult Classic? Hardly.

Piranha wanted to become a “cult film.” Cult films somehow develop a fanbase despite being truly awful. And those fans will spend money on these films for decades. But like Snakes on a Plane and other manufactured wannabe cult films, Piranha failed. There are two reasons for this.

First, these manufactured films fail because they are marketed wrong. People who enjoy cult films do so because they feel they’ve stumbled upon something the rest of the world missed. A movie like Piranha, by comparison, is sold as a “cool” movie. It’s the difference between finding a cool bar in the bad part of town and having a commercial bar made up to look like a dive. The cult film crowd knows the difference. And if you’re trying to reach the cool kids with your advertising, don’t expect these people to fall for your pitch.

But even more importantly, the whole concept of how they try to manufacture films like Piranha is wrong. Most cult films are truly earnest. The creator had a vision which they loved and they set out to see their vision made into a film. Evil Dead was shot over a period of a year and a half, on a shoestring budget, despite numerous hurdles. Sam Raimi didn’t set out to make a bad movie, he set out to put his vision on film the best he could. Rocky Horror Picture Show, perhaps the greatest cult classic, started out as a play written by a man trying to sort out his gender issues. Neither filmmaker expected commercial success, far from it, but they genuinely believed in what they were making and they weren’t trying to make something that would be mocked.

Piranha on the other hand, like Snakes on a Plane and other attempts at creating a cult classic, was made to be mocked. Studios think the common thread in cult classics is that they are bad films. Indeed, they are so bad and so campy that they seem to a professional as if they were meant to be bad. Hence, studios cynically set out to make bad, campy films when they try to create cult films.

But this completely misses what fans see in cult films. Cult fans aren’t looking for bad movies, they are looking for earnest movies that turned out all wrong. They are looking for films made with a lot of love, but little talent. They see the diamond in the rough, even if no one else does. What Piranha offers is a diamond that’s been scratched up to look rough. Indeed, whereas Evil Dead or Rocky Horror strove to reach their full potential, it’s obvious to anyone watching that Piranha never even tried. Think of it this way, we love the minor league player who gets his shot but just can’t pull it off. . . yet we despise the pro who only gives it half his best effort.

What’s more, the studio is so afraid of being tagged with having made a bad film that they fill these fake cult films with signals to tell you they intended the film to stink. This is downright insulting. It’s like an author taking a chance on some unusual style for their book but then constantly inserting editor's notes to tell you what they did is intentional. Have faith in your work or don’t bother.

Finally, let’s cut to the truth about Piranha. Piranha stinks not because the studio tried to make a bad film, but because it is a bad film. If the studio had any idea how to make this a good film, it would have done so. When it realized it didn't know how to make this film work, it came up with this bullship idea of intentionally making a bad film. In other words, this was the best the studio could do, and all the rest is a cover up. . . it's sour grapes ("I could have done better, but I didn't try."). What’s more, like the studios do with other failures, it tried to hide its failure with over-the-top sex and gore, which it then pretended is all part of the gag. Tell me you can't hear the executives laughing at the "idiots who will buy anything."

So it is without heavy heart that I am calling for the brutal murder of the entire cast and crew of this film. . . except Ving Rhames, I like him.

What are your favorite cult classic? Or giant monster film?

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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Do Fans Have Rights In Films?

Who really owns a film? The legal rights are clear: the producer of the film owns the legal rights and can do anything they want with it. They can show it, sell it, change it, colorize it, or even destroy it. . . legally. But do the fans have rights in it too?

This issue has come to the forefront because of the Star Wars saga. Star Wars is an iconic film (three actually) and really changed the world in many ways -- but suffice it for our purposes to say that millions of people fell in love with Star Wars and it has great cultural influence. So George Lucas should be congratulated and heartily thanked.

But in 1997, George did an evil thing. He released revised versions of these films which were an atrocity. I won’t go into all the details here or the fact I think Lucas did this with the intent of upsetting fans. What matters is that he ruined the original films. But who cares? He can make as many versions as he wants and we can ignore all those versions and stick with the originals, right? Actually no. At the same time Lucas released his new versions, he declared that he would never let the originals be seen again. And to this day, he has done his best to make that happen.

So does he have the right to do this? I’m a firm believer in property rights, but I don’t think he does. Here’s why.

Lucas created an iconic film. This is as much a part of the history of film and a pillar of our culture as Casablanca or Citizen Kane. To allow him to suppress the original version, the version that became iconic, to keep it from being seen and to replace it with his idiotic, ADD-riddled second version would destroy that part of film history and make that part of our culture inaccessible. It would be like letting someone purchase all the rights to the Mona Lisa, and then declaring that the image could only be used if Mona was first given a clown nose. We would never let that happen to a cultural treasure like the Mona Lisa, so why should we let it happen to an equally influential film?

Even our copyright law acknowledges the public's interest because it allows creators to claim the rights for only so long before they enter the public domain. Though, thanks to our idiot Congress, we no longer can rely on copyright law to help us in this. Copyrights were originally 14 years. This was expanded to 28 years in 1790. Then it became 56 years. Today, they run for the life of the creator plus 70 years (for anything created after 1978). Does that seem right? It doesn't to me. That means a thirty year old filmmaker who lives to be 100 could effective tie up their film for 140 years. . . until 2151 if they produced the film today.

I certainly respect the filmmaker's right to benefit from and control their own creation. And that typically includes the right to use or not use the property as the owner sees fit. But I also abhor waste. And I see it as wasteful to let someone suppress art.

I tend to see art as something different from regular property as it is societal in nature, i.e. it derives its value from being observed by society. When an artist offers that to the public it becomes part of the culture and I think they should not be allowed to take it away again. I'm not saying we shouldn't let them exploit it and profit from it, but I do have a problem with them simply refusing to release it just as I would have problems with a drug company refusing to release a vaccine. It is bad for society to let ideas be suppressed.

But this raises some obvious questions. For example, what becomes a cultural icon and what doesn’t? Or should we skip that question and just disallow the suppression of any film or any book by its owner? And if we don’t allow such suppression, what obligations would we place on the owner to make it accessible to the public? If George Lucas refuses to put it on BluRay, can we force him to do that? Can we say that others have that right if he won’t?

That's actually what I would suggest. It really doesn’t give me any heartburn to shorten copyrights again to a reasonable period, like 40 years, and require that those copyrights be used or sacrificed, i.e. use it or lose it. That way, George would be free to use the films as he saw fit, with the one exception that if he tried to bury the originals, then someone else could come along and release them.


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Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Great (film) Debates vol. 7

We've already asked about the saddest moment in films, so let's cheer everyone up by asking the opposite:

What is the happiest moment in films?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Happiest Moment in film - I guess the ending to It's a Wonderful Life. Runner up? The song "Happy Talk" in South Pacific.

Panelist: T-Rav

I have a couple of personal "happiest moments," but by a very small margin (the runner-up would be the ending of Schindler's List), I'm going with LOTR: The Return of the King, when Gandalf and Pippin are in the besieged city of Minas Tirith, preparing to face the attacking orcs one last time. Pippin tells Gandalf, "I didn't think it would end like this," and Gandalf replies by telling him what death is like. I paraphrase: "The silver rain curtain parts, and you see...white shores--and beyond, a green forest... No, it's not bad at all." As someone who believes in the afterlife, I find those to be incredibly uplifting and optimistic words, and a great promise for those on the side of good. An odd kind of "happy," yes, but this does it for me.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

This was surprisingly difficult. Sad is easy, happy seems harder. My first thought was that if Spock dying was the saddest moment, then his being reborn should be the happiest?! But it's not. . . it's a dud. Then it hit me, the 1995 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice is one of the best (if not the best) romantic films of all time. Not only do Darcy and Elisabeth finally get together, but they've both become better people to get there. What can be more happy than that?

Panelist: ScottDS

It's been a while but the first thing that came to mind was the ending of The Shawshank Redemption. Somewhere on the DVD, the filmmakers mention that there are so few modern day films about male friendships. For the sake of argument, I am not including the recent spate of mostly idiotic "bromance" movies.

Comments? Thoughts? What would you choose and why?

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Friday, September 16, 2011

Film Friday: The Caine Mutiny (1954)

The Caine Mutiny is a classic. It’s also one of my favorite films. This movie does everything right, including having a fantastic twist long before twists were cool. It is an acting tour de force. And what makes this movie work, believe it or not, is subtlety.

** Spoiler Alert -- If you don’t know the ending, see the movie before you read this review. **
The Plot
Adapted incredibly well from Herman Wouk’s novel of the same name, The Caine Mutiny is the fictional story of a mutiny aboard a United States Navy destroyer-minesweeper during World War II. The story begins with the arrival of self-centered, spoiled Ensign Willie Keith aboard the Caine. Keith resents being assigned to the Caine, an ancient, beat up minesweeper, because he saw himself as more important than this. What’s worse, the Caine’s captain is a slob who has let discipline fall apart.

Keith befriends the ship’s executive officer Lt. Stephen Maryk (Van Johnson) and its communications officer Lt. Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray). Maryk is earnest and loyal, but not very bright. Keefer is cynical and cowardly. Soon the Caine’s captain is replaced by Lt. Commander Phillip Francis Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), a no-nonsense career officer who has served in hard combat for several years. At first, Keith is happy that Queeg has taken over because Queeg demands regular navy discipline. But it doesn’t take long for Keith to resent Queeg because Queeg seems arbitrary and tyrannical. It also becomes apparent that Queeg’s nerves are shot. All of this alienates the crew and worries Maryk, who fears that Queeg is unfit for command. During an ensuing monsoon, Queeg freezes up and Maryk relieves him of command to save the ship. A court martial follows.
What Makes This Film So Great
At the core of The Caine Mutiny lies some truly spectacular acting. Van Johnson walked a tightrope with Maryk, between being a simple, earnest man we could trust and respect and being just dumb enough to be made a patsy. MacMurray had to be trustworthy enough that we believed Maryk would trust him, but cowardly enough to explain how he kept his hands clean, and cynical enough that his attacks on Queeg were sharp and eviscerating and would sway the audience. Both of these performances required real understanding of human nature and how to walk the fine lines that separate very different personalities.

But the real star was Bogart. The Caine Mutiny includes one of the greatest acting performance ever when Humphrey Bogart testifies at the court martial. Bogart’s portrayal of a man breaking down on the stand was so captivating the entire film crew actually gave him a thundering round of applause when he finished. It was well deserved.

This was an incredibly fascinating and subtle performance. We’ve seen Queeg throughout the film and in each instance, he was arbitrary or cowardly. Even when he tried to be jovial, he seemed tyrannical. Moreover, we know for a fact he froze up in the monsoon and put the ship in danger -- thus, we know Maryk was justified in his actions and has essentially been wrongfully accused by Queeg. Hence, we are predisposed to hate Queeg. But Bogart can’t let us hate Queeg because of the twist to come. So Bogart needed to find a way to make us sympathetic to both Queeg and Maryk, even though they are directly opposed.

Here’s how he pulls that off. First, when Queeg shows up at trial, he tries to diffuse the whole proceeding by being magnanimous and stating that he holds no malice against the mutineers. This teases the audience by suggesting he may recant. It also suggests mental instability because of the personality shift. But as he’s questioned by the prosecutor any pretense of honesty vanishes and he knowingly shades the truth. Bogart tells us Queeg knows he's lying, because he acts like a man trapped in a lie. He’s hesitant in his testimony, he shifts uncomfortably in his chair, and he seems unable to make eye contact with the defendants.

Bogart has done two interesting things here. First, he gives the audience hope that Queeg will break on the stand because Queeg is already falling apart. This raises the stakes for the cross-examination and heightens the tension. Secondly, by suggesting that Queeg feels trapped in his lie, Bogart starts to break down the audience's hate. When Queeg first walked into the room, the audience saw Queeg as a petty tyrant. Suddenly, there is the suggestion that Queeg can’t help himself. This introduces the idea that Queeg is actually a pathetic character rather than a genuine tyrant.

Then the cross examination begins. As defense attorney Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer) hits Queeg with a series of questions about seemingly minor incidents, Queeg begins to embellish. He doesn’t rant or rave or scream or challenge Greenwald, he simply changes his story as needed, each time adding more people to the list of people he’s calling disloyal. This reinforces the idea that Queeg has a problem, rather than being malicious. As the list grows, Bogart’s Queeg gets more and more nervous because even he realizes that while he might have thought he was right in each instance, the sheer number of instances and their similarity are starting to sound paranoid.

Then Bogart makes a key dramatic shift. Queeg is confronted with an incident where he is absolutely certain he was in the right and he jumps on it. Now he rants and raves and exorcises all of his frustrations about the disloyalty he felt he received. But rather than direct Queeg's anger at the mutineers, everything he says is aimed at proving he was right in his suspicions. In other words, Bogart transforms Queeg from a man accusing others to a man trying to justify his actions himself. This is a vital difference. If Queeg is accusing others, then we are happy when he fails. But if Queeg is trying to prove his own sanity, then we are sad when he fails. And when Queeg looks up and sees the shocked faces of everyone in the room, he stops. He knows he’s wrong.

At that point, we are relieved that Maryk and Keith have survived the trial, but we also feel a great deal of pity for Queeg. Then the film hits us with the twist.

As the mutineers celebrate their victory, Jose Ferrer shows up drunk. He’s upset because he thinks the mutineers were the real bad guys and he feels horrible about “torpedoing” Queeg to help them. Queeg was worn out, his nerves were shot. The crew fought him at every turn, and when you think about it, what seemed like humorous disobedience aimed at a tyrant really was a tantrum aimed at a man who was trying to hold together a United States Navy vessel that was falling apart. Ferrer even reminds us that we scoffed at Queeg when he came begging for help.

And like that, your view of every event in the film suddenly changes. Suddenly, we realize that the mutineers, and we the audience by proxy as we enjoyed their games, have been unfair to Queeg the entire time. We mistreated Queeg. We caused the very circumstances that led to the mutiny and we destroyed him. And that makes this one of the best twists of all time, because it fundamentally changes the meaning of the film and because the evidence was there from the opening frame. We just didn’t want to see it.

This is a classic example of everything that can go right with a film when you’ve got great actors, writers and directors who understand subtlety and how humans respond to certain behaviors. Every fact we needed to know was there all along, but we never saw the truth because our opinions about the characters were expertly manipulated so that we just didn't want to see it. This is how movies should be made.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Conservative Guide To Movies

Today is more a question than anything. I’m putting together a book: The Conservative Guide To Movies. I think this could be a useful tome to teaching conservatives how to take back Hollywood. So far, I’ve outlined most of the stuff I plan to cover, but I’m curious what you all think such a book should include?

In a general sense, I’m planning to define conservatism and liberalism and explain how to spot a film’s ideology. I’m thinking of debunking the liberal boogeymen that films often include, like the evil corporation. I’m planning to take an in-depth look at some conservative films and some liberal films and then compare and contrast a series of similar but ideologically opposite films (e.g. Dirty Harry v. The Star Chamber) and explain how their choices formed their ideology. And I’m thinking of pointing out some liberal hypocrisies, such as their professed feminism compared to their treatment of female roles. The idea would be to help conservatives express themselves better when Hollywood asks "what do you conservatives want?" and to give conservative writers some tips on how to slip conservatism into their work.

I can't promise you anything, but I would love to hear any thoughts you want to share! What else would you like to see in a book like this? Any films you think should definitely be covered? Anything you think should be debunked?

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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Film Friday: World Trade Center (2006)

This article is also posted at Big Hollywood (LINK).

Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center was wildly disappointing. This film could have been the defining film of our times, but it ended up being nothing more than a generic disaster film. It's a missed opportunity, which I think was brought about because Oliver Stone lost his nerve. But can there even be a defining 9/11 film in this day and age?

I’ve experienced several historical events, but nothing quite like 9/11. I lived in D.C. when 9/11 happened and I used to drive right past the spot where the American Airlines jet crashed into the Pentagon. That particular day I passed by twenty minutes before it happened. I still remember the morning DJ joking about "some idiot who slammed a Cessna into the World Trade Center" ("how can you not see the World Trade Center?"), and I remember the horror in his voice when he learned it wasn't a Cessna. Then there was actual panic and confusion and people talked about the Capitol being destroyed and the White House. It took me six hours to get home, fifteen minutes away, as they closed the bridges and soldiers set up road blocks.

I also remember the shock and disbelief that this was happening in our country. And I remember feeling sick upon seeing people jump to their deaths in New York. All of this is vividly etched in my brain as it is for so many of us.

When I heard that Oliver Stone would do a film about 9/11, I had high expectations. Stone is a leftist nut, but he had undeniable talent at one point. Platoon was brilliant, as was Wall Street. Platoon was so good it literally broke the Vietnam spell in our country and ended the tension between the public and the soldiers who fought in Vietnam. Wall Street (ironically) inspired an entire generation of kids to become Gordon Gekkos. Heck, even The Doors was great and turned me into a fan of the group. So I expected something pretty incredible from World Trade Center, even if it was likely to be liberal.

In fact, I expected something that would mirror the shock, the disbelief, the panic, and the horror that people felt. I expected something that highlighted the selfless bravery we saw on our televisions that day. I expected something that caught both the grand scale of what this meant to the country and also something that captured the personal effect this had on so many people and so many families.

Instead, I got a remake of The Towering Inferno.

It’s not that World Trade Center is a bad film as far as disaster films go, but it completely lacks context and it has nothing like the impact it should have had. It is a small film. It follows a small group of first responders, a brave group of Port Authority police officers, who arrive at the WTC after everything has already begun and it never moves beyond them. There is no doubt their story is heroic and deserving of being told, but this came nowhere near capturing the emotion of the moment. There’s never any sense of how shocking these events were, or how far ranging. There’s little attention given to the three thousand other people who were killed that day or the tens of thousands more who came close. Nor are the characters given much chance to become personal to us before they are thrown into the action. This is like doing a film about Pearl Harbor by focusing on a small group of firefighters aboard one of the battleships and starting the film after the battleship has already been hit without even explaining that the attack was a sneak attack and the country was at peace moments before.

For a guy with the talent of Oliver Stone, this was a total failure. For a film about an event that remains so raw in so many people’s minds, this was a total failure. For a film about a great national tragedy and outrage, this was a failure.

Obviously, I can’t read Stone’s mind, but I think he was afraid of this topic. Stone has tremendous talent, but he’s also got a horrible reputation. I think he feared that anything he did beyond the very narrow confines of this small story would result in a backlash by one side or the other, and he apparently wasn’t prepared to experience that backlash. But in succumbing to this fear, Stone blew his chance to do something truly inspired and that is the real shame here.

To this day, I think 9/11 still waits for THE film that will give Americans closure because something this horrible calls out for our culture to digest it and explain it to us in a form we can contemplate. But that film will take a lot more courage than Hollywood has shown in quite some time, because such a film will require showing real people and real suffering, and that will anger people and hurt feelings.

And admittedly, it might not even be possible for a film to compete with reality, now that reality comes with its own video images. Could a film really show the raw horror of people jumping to their deaths? I don't honestly know. Seeing actors pretending to die certainly doesn't have the same impact as seeing the real thing caught on tape. But Hollywood has some advantages. It knows what images have endured in the public consciousness and it can manipulate the story to be more coherent. And it can bring us closer to people we never actually met, but whose fates we know. I guess we won't really know if this can be done until someone gives it a genuine try. But Vietnam was the first televised war and there are miles of footage about every aspect of it, yet we remain so fascinated with it that we still watch the movies about it.

I think 9/11 needs a definitive film. And if liberal icons like Stone can't or won't do it, maybe some young conservative screenwriters or directors should give it a try?


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Friday, September 9, 2011

The Great (film) Debates vol. 6

Today's film review will be moved to Sunday morning to coincide with 9/11. In the meantime, let's focus on history for our Great (Film) Debates series:

What historical event do you think needs a movie?

Panelist: ScottDS

I don't know if this counts because it's a recent (and on-going) event. There's a non-fiction book on the subject titled Thieves of Baghdad and I will borrow from Amazon's synopsis: "When Baghdad fell, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos was in southern Iraq, tracking down terrorist networks through their financing and weapons smuggling - until he heard about the looting of the Iraq National Museum. Immediately setting out across the desert with an elite group chosen from his multi-agency task force, he risked his career and his life in pursuit of Iraq's most priceless treasures." It's C.S.I. meets Indiana Jones in the Middle East and it's all true!

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Historical Event: maybe not NEEDS a movie, but I would love to see a film made from Erik Larson's book "Thunderstruck." This film chronicles the politics and obstacles confronted by Guglielmo Marconi in the invention of the wireless, and how it was used to resolve a murder committed by an Englishman named Hawley Crippen. This is a true story and Larson's gift is to turn historical event non-fiction into thrillers.

Panelist: T-Rav

It's probably already got one, but WWII's Battle of Britain. Not only is it as straight-up a good vs. evil fight as you're likely to find in the modern era, but it's a fight in which the good guys were the underdog by every standard, and in which, if they had lost, they would have lost everything--think Helm's Deep with machine guns. And as an air battle, there would be some great action scenes.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

There aren't enough genuine Cold War spy stories, but that's too generic to be fair. So I will go with the American Revolution. We've discussed this before that there is a shocking lack of films about the American Revolution. Indeed, I can't think of a single film that really covered this well, except tangentially. It's time that changed!

Comments? Thoughts? What would you choose and why?

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

TV Review: The Killing (2011- )

By T-Rav

The Killing is an interesting show, though not a great one. It started strong and I give it credit for breaking with the typical format of today’s crime procedurals. But it does have serious flaws, which can be attributed partly to sloppy writing and partly to the limitations of reflecting reality too closely in TV programming.

The Killing’s debut was promising. Rather than being a crime-of-the-week show, its first season focused on a single homicide—the murder of Rosie Larsen, a Seattle teen—and how it affects the people caught up in her death. This was an effective choice as it made the show stand out from other crime dramas, such as CIS, which I think have grown tired.

I actually liked CSI for a long time; it had interesting stories and a good cast. But there were always a few things that troubled me, such as the tendency to elevate these glorified lab rats to detective status, or the increasingly predictable murder-of-the-week plots. My main problem, though, is how glib the CSIs are about their line of work. Now I realize that given the line of work, you might need some gallows humor to avoid a mental breakdown, but the characters exude too much hip trendiness for the subject matter of these shows -- especially when the show is heartrending. I surely don’t need to reference David Caruso’s witticisms-while-playing-with-his-sunglasses to make this point. It just seems like they treat murder and suffering too lightly sometimes. The Killing doesn’t do that and, in many ways, seem to offer itself as the anti-CSI.

The Killing gave us the chance to meet characters you normally don’t meet. The central characters are still the law enforcement people, such as lead investigator Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), who is simultaneously training her new partner, Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), so she can hand the case off to him and leave for a new life in California. But we also meet the girl’s grieving parents, Stan (Brent Sexton) and Mitch (Michelle Forbes), and a candidate for Seattle mayor, Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell), who gets sucked into the case after Rosie’s body is discovered in one of his campaign’s vehicles. This worked really well.

The show works in other ways too. First, there is some really great acting by pretty much everybody. Enos does a good job of portraying how Detective Linden begins to lose control of her life and her future as she becomes obsessed with the case. Kinnaman is excellent as a cop with a question mark over his morality. Sexton and Forbes wonderfully convey not only the shattering sense of loss that comes from having a child murdered but also the feeling of being lost, of not knowing how — or even whether — to move on. Secondly, the story is much broader than just the investigation. We see the Larsens struggling to break the news to their other children, the Richmond campaign running for cover from the political fallout of the discovery, and several other threads from the event. I like how these subplots are constructed, and the fact they receive their fair share of attention. It’s actually very fitting this show is called “The Killing,” and not something like “Seattle P.D.” as it goes far beyond being just another tiresome crime-of-the-week story.

That said, there are several aspects of this show which are problematic. One is the writing. It may not be fair to describe the writing as “sloppy,” but “overextended” would be a good way to describe it. The Killing has too many unexplored avenues, especially where its characters’ backstories are concerned. For example, we learn that Linden has had problems obsessing over past cases; she even did time in a psych ward once. But we’re never given the full story — we don’t know why this matters, or what bearing it has on the present case. In fact, we mostly learn about her past in a single episode that ignores the current investigation entirely. Similarly, we find out that Stan Larsen, Rosie’s father, used to work for the mob. Does this have anything to do with her death? Don’t know that either. Once the information is thrown out, it’s ignored for several episodes and thereafter brought up only briefly. This is true of several other subplots, and it makes the overall story feel uneven. In fact, this may be partly a function of not having a clear central character(s). The downside of looking at all aspects of the murder is that attention gets dispersed among too many people. We don’t have a main character we feel we can or should root for.

In the same way, The Killing’s attempt to maintain a strictly realistic portrayal of crime and law enforcement has its weaknesses as well as its strengths. When reviewing The Walking Dead, I argued that one of its key strengths was its ability to tell a realistic story more accurately and convincingly than most members of the zombie genre had been able to do. AMC has really stood out in this respect with its foray into TV programming; Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and TWD have all earned reputations for gritty, no-frills storylines and multi-dimensional characters, things the networks have regularly failed to deliver. As much as I like this approach, though, when telling a story, you have to strike a balance between plausible material and necessary artistic license, and this series has occasionally neglected the latter for the sake of the former.

There are a few examples of this, but one which was frequently commented on by critics was the position of the Larsen parents. The Killing moves at roughly one day per episode, so that the season finale is set about two weeks after the murder. During this two-week period, Stan and Mitch Larsen are generally in shock over their daughter’s death: especially the mother, who shows the classic stages of grief, such as undirected anger, social withdrawal, suicidal thoughts, etc. Now, if I had a daughter who’d just been murdered, this is probably what I’d be going through, so you can’t say there’s anything really wrong with this depiction. But the truth is, her character’s not really interesting while she’s going through this; she’s too withdrawn and bitter for the audience to feel invested in her. It’s not pretty, but there you go. Viewers get bored when they see you in the same grieving mood all season.

Now I certainly won’t tell the show’s writers how to do their job, but it seems to me that when you’re trying to revolutionize the crime drama genre as The Killing is doing, you have a delicate balancing act on your hands. Providing an extensive look at one murder is daring, but you also need to provide the audience with some central characters if you have long-term plans in mind. So is conveying the acute sense of loss, but the characters must show some emotional or character development to keep viewers interested in them. Balancing these tensions properly can result in a truly great television series. But this one hasn’t figured the trick out yet, and they’ve only got so much time to pull it off.

So what to make of The Killing? Personally, I like it in spite of its problems; I watched every episode this season, and I’ll at least start the second season whenever it premieres. But I don’t think this show knows exactly what kind of drama it wants to be yet. I would recommend watching it, but you might find it frustrating.

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Friday, September 2, 2011

The Great (film) Debates vol. 5

With this being a holiday weekend (and us taking the weekend off), let's continue our Great (Film) Debates series today:

Who is your favorite character actor?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Harvey Keitel is my favorite character actor. Have you ever seen him do anything badly? Has he ever not been convincing as the character he was portraying (besides Nixon)? His best role in my opinion was as "the wolf."

Panelist: ScottDS

Stephen Root. If the man had only done NewsRadio and Office Space, he'd be immortal. Just click here.

Panelist: T-Rav

Probably John Travolta. I say this because I was watching Swordfish the other day, and he reminded me how good he can be at playing bad guys or morally ambiguous guys (see also Pulp Fiction, FaceOff, etc.). He's not great in every role, but in those, he shines. One of his directors (I forget who) once said of him, "He's so charming, but when he looks at you just right you can see the eyes of Satan underneath." Very true.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I was going to name Murray Hamilton, the mayor from Jaws (and much more), but then I remembered Hal Holbrook. What an awesome actor! I've loved everything he's done, from Dirty Harry's corrupt boss to Micheal Douglas' judge friend in Star Chamber to Fletch's rotten neighbor to NASA's director in Capricorn One to Lou Mannheim in Wall Street to Father Malone in The Fog and dozens more. He has never given a bad performance and he always makes films better.

Comments? Thoughts? Who would you choose and why?

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why Superhero Films Are Failing

Originally posted at Big Hollywood: LINK

There’s been a lot of discussion this summer about the failure of so many superhero films. They’re making money, but not nearly as much as expected. And until Captain America came along, it seemed to be getting worse with each passing film. Any number of explanations have been offered for this underperformance. Some suggest ticket prices are the problem. Others say it’s because the current crop of superheroes are second tier guys, i.e. the B-Team. Some blame oversaturation. But I don’t find those answers satisfying.

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The B-Team.

If ticket prices were the problem, then you would see a drop for all films. But there’s been no such drop. The “second-tier superhero” argument doesn’t wash either. It’s hard to argue that Iron Man or X-Men were “first tier” superheroes before they hit it big in theaters. And nothing is more first tier than Superman or the Incredible Hulk, yet both have struggled -- not to mention Wonder Woman, who can’t even get a series off the ground.

The oversaturation argument is intriguing. On the one hand, oversaturation cannot be THE problem because people wouldn't turn out for surprise hits like Captain America if they were just sick of superhero films generally. Also, if oversaturation really was THE problem, then why don’t slasher flicks or romcoms suffer from this? Those genres have been steadily turning out the same film year after year for decades. Still, I do think oversaturation plays a part in this puzzle. In particular, oversaturation makes these films less special, which makes people more selective. Being more selective means people are less likely to see films they don’t think are worth their time or money. But what is it that is causing people to choose some superhero films over others? In a word: plot.

Hollywood is using a bad formula for superhero films.

Hollywood wants to appeal both to fanboys and the public at large while also setting up the franchise for future films. But this requires catering to seemingly contradictory desires. The public wants a film that doesn't require them to read the comic book series to understand the movie. Hollywood thinks that means they need to provide a primer on the series. But the fanboys want a deep, new story and don’t want to see a Cliff’s Notes version of the comic book series. And nobody wants to feel like they’re watching a movie that is just setting up future movies.

Hollywood tries to solve this dilemma by giving the public the origin story for the hero and the villain in the first half of the film, which is meant to teach the public the backstory and set up the franchise while making the public think they are seeing a full story. Then, in the second half of the film, they jam in a truncated version of some story from the series to please the fanboys. Then they finish with an “epic” 40 minute CGI fight to turn you into a drooling idiot and wipe your memory before you can leave the theater and warn people how much you hated the first 80 minutes.

This. . . satisfies. . . no. . . one!

Moreover, the formula used for the origin story stinks. This part of the story is presented in disguised-vignette form, connected only by the thinnest strands of plot. That plot is designed to feed you the information you need to know to establish the franchise and usually takes the form of a romance which connects the hero to the villain in some way. There are two reasons for this: (1) romances attract female audiences and (2) the romance gives the film a semblance of being one single story, even though it is really separate stories connected only by the love interest. The vignettes themselves are predictable and lame. They involve the hero discovering their powers, followed by a cliché-ridden 20 minutes of tired comedy as we see the hero learn how to use their powers through trial and error, the introduction of all the characters you need to know for the franchise and a quick glimpse into their lives, and a short version of the villain’s origin story. Then suddenly it’s off to the second plot, where nothing you just saw is relevant.

“I’ll be in Lex’s story for a while. There’s kryptoniteloaf in the fridge. See you in the second half of the film.”

Think of this in Star Wars terms. Luke Skywalker: Curse of the Jedi Phantom Monster’s Vengeance would waste the first third of the film with Luke bumming around at work until he discovers he has hilarious Jedi skills: “Dude! I can make the coffee droid fly and make my boss change my evaluation.” This would be interspersed with scenes of hip, angry, young Darth Vader, a rich corporate titan who has the hots for Luke’s girl, who just happens to work for Vader LLC. The entire backstory of Vader’s life, i.e. the three prequels, would be condensed to about two minutes of whiny exposition as he woos the girlfriend: “Obi-wan never loved me and the emperor tricked me. . . now the world is going to pay. . . you smell purty!” Then suddenly Vader falls into an industrial grinder, ends up in the black suit, shoots a henchman, kicks a puppy, finds plans for a Death Star on eBay, builds it overnight, and kidnaps Luke’s girlfriend because that's the only connection his story has to Luke. This forces Luke to use his powers to fight Vader in a 40 minute CGI death struggle as CGI buildings explode all around them. Roll credits. AndrewPrice slams own head into wall.

"I find your lack of faith in my TPS Reports disturbing."

A better approach would be to pick one of the stories from the comic book series that really struck a chord with readers and produce that. Forget trying to sample the whole series and forget giving the complete history of each character up to that point: people won’t miss it. Think about it. Do we care that we didn’t see a young Quint getting sunk aboard the Indianapolis or buying his first boat or catching his first shark in Jaws or that we never got to see James Bond’s training before he showed up in Dr. No? Heck no! We do want backstory in our films, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend forty minutes showing it. It’s usually best to bring it out through the dialog as the film progresses.

This is what Hollywood needs to realize. You don’t need a primer to set up a franchise and you probably shouldn’t start with the origin story. Audiences want real stories they can get into, not background information presented as barely-connected vignettes followed by a huge fight scene. And whatever information the casual fans need can be presented as the film goes along in the dialog. Trust me: give the audience a genuine stand-alone story and they will respond.

Know any good superhero films?

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