Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 36

There ain’t no such thing as the mob. But there are movies about the mob!

What is your favorite gangster film?



Panelist: ScottDS

The Godfather: Part II. Yes, I'm one of those people who thinks the second film is just a hair better than the first film. When my media department supervisor at Best Buy found out I had never seen these films (this was 2002), I rented them immediately and was hypnotized by this one: the acting, the dark cinematography, the parallel stories, and Michael's slow inevitable descent. The final shot is haunting, Nino Rota's score is beautifully melancholy, and this film has one of my favorite transitions, when we dissolve from Michael on frame left to young Vito on frame right. "...this is the business we've chosen."

Panelist: AndrewPrice

When I look back on it, I'm surprised how few good films there really are about the mob? Largely, The Godfather and Goodfellas are it. Though on television you also have The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. But I like to zag when others zig, so I'm going with Black Caesar. That's right, Blacksploitation at its best as Fred Williamson tries to muscle his way into power in Harlem.

Panelist: T-Rav

As much as I really like The Godfather and its sequel, I think GoodFellas may actually edge them out on my list. Not only is it probably the best directorial work Martin Scorsese ever did, in my opinion, with an excellent cast in every respect, I think it's actually better at showing the moral rot that set in within the Mafia over time. Whether or not it really was about family, protection, and respect at one time, by the time the movie ends, it's become a mere collection of criminals who show no qualms about killing one another to stay on top. The best gangster movies are the ones with a cautionary tale woven throughout them, and this one pulls it off beautifully.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

I hadn't even finished the question before my mind was typing in The Godfather. For me, the better question is which I like more, I or II. Hard to say, but my gut tells me the original. Probably because of Brando, and the way Michael emerges as the youngest ivy league son who has the force of personality to take care of all family business.


Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, April 27, 2012

I Got Nothing (Plus Bonus Round)

Folks, I got nothing for ya today. So sad. The old brain-thingy just couldn’t get it focused. So instead, let’s turn the floor over to you. Tell us about some of the movies you’ve seen lately, old or new. What’s been good? What’s been bad? What did you like? What didn’t you?


BONUS Round: By the way, we mentioned this in the comments the other day and I thought I'd mention it here. Think of it as a public service announcement. Amazon has a lot of free books on the Kindle. A whole bunch of these are classics, but even beyond that you can find a lot of free modern stuff as well. Here is a link to the Top 100 free and not-free. (Free Stuff -- Best Sellers). From there, you can move down into each genre to find the top 100 in each genre and this will often lead you to more.

But wait... I don't have a Kindle! you say?

No problem. There are two ways you can get around this. First, you can turn almost any device (PC, tablet, phone, etc.) into a Kindle by downloading an AP from Amazon here: Kindle Me Beatch. OR you can download anything to the Amazon cloud (for free) and read it there from your computer.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Scott's Links April 2012

Scott roams the internet far and wide. Because of this, he supplies interesting links to Big Hollywood every day. I've asked Scott to give us a list of the best links he finds each month and a quick synopsis of what's behind each one. Check these out. . . share your thoughts! And away we go. . .

10 ways self-hating fans make genre entertainment worse

I can't disagree with any of this and I'm guilty of some of these myself, especially #9. Why does the geek world have to be full of haters? We're all on the same side here!

"My two husbands was turnips": thoughts on film noir dialogue

I'm not as well-versed with film noir as I'd like but the one thing I love about the genre is its dialogue. And for some bizarre reason, whenever my friends do impressions of me, they invariably sound like Edward G. Robinson saying, "Yeah, see?!" I don't sound like that!

How the American action movie went kablooey

I'd say this is relevant to some of our recent discussions. Plus, how do you reinvent a genre after it sinks to the level of parody?

The ultimate list of movie sound cliches

Sound is 50% of the film experience, yet we often hear the same sound effects in every movie, as well as the same sound mistakes. For instance, why do we always hear the sound of brushing metal when a character takes a knife out of a cloth pocket?

Home video blunders: when studios do it wrong

They're preaching to the choir with this one. Forced trailers, old video transfers, missing extras, a lack of catalog titles, impossible packaging, and crappy artwork. It almost makes me envy laserdisc collectors, from a time when the studios took this sort of thing seriously.

7 ridiculously outdated assumptions every movie makes

I can't disagree with any of these either. It's amazing how much of what we know is influenced by what we see in movies. But what we know, in turn, influences future movie makers, creating a bizarre Möbius strip of cliches.

8 weird creatures that need their own SyFy Original movie

Andrew, this one's for you! Personally, I'd love to see SyFy do a movie about the Golem, a creature from Jewish folklore.

"That's the fact, Jack!" 20 facts about Stripes

This is one of my favorite comedies, from an era that managed to crank out (now-)classic comedies left and right. This reminds me... it's been years since we've had a "Misfits join the Army and save the day" movie. Maybe it's time for a new one...?

The Star Trek Las Vegas attraction that almost came to life in 1992

Two words: life-size Enterprise!! No doubt it would've cost a fortune, not to mention maintenance and upgrades. But man, what could've been...

The raunchiest comedy movie posters (SFW)

Memorable movie posters are, for the most part, another relic of yesteryear. And for whatever reason, it's hard to pull off a successful teen sex comedy. You can't pull back but you can't go too far either. I can safely Zapped is quite insane and Mischief is worth watching for two or three reasons. [cough]

Last night's listening:

I'm taking advantage of a feature in Apple's iTunes Match service: after you upload everything to the cloud, you can then re-download everything, including songs you didn't purchase from iTunes, all at a higher bit rate with no DRM. I decided to re-rip some CDs at a higher bit rate (stuff iTunes doesn't have) and yesterday, as I studied for my Art History final, I decided to listen to the Forrest Gump soundtrack. Believe it or not, I actually have some albums with actual songs that have actual lyrics! [smile] This 2-CD set features Elvis, The Beach Boys, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, and The Doors, among many others. Can't go wrong with that!

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 11

Jean Luc Picard can do nothing right. Well, sometimes he’s right. But sometimes he’s wrong. Today, Scott takes Picard down for making the wrong moral choice.

Question from Andrew: Scott, name an episode where you felt Picard made the wrong moral choice.

Scott’s Answer: I know we’re fond of breaking the rules here and since we just discussed “I Borg,” I will instead call out Star Trek: Insurrection. I know it’s not the first time this film has come up but even as a know-nothing 15-year old, I disagreed with Picard’s decision in the film. Picard finds out that the Federation and an alien race called the Son’a plan to relocate the Bak’u from their world. Picard objects, despite the fact that it’s only 600 people and that their planet’s regenerative powers can help billions of people. Remember, at this point in Star Trek history, the Federation is at war and these powers would no doubt help the cause. In addition, the Federation has approved of the relocation and not only that, the Prime Directive doesn’t even apply since the Bak’u aren’t indigenous to the planet in the first place! I’d call this a good case of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” There is, however, one point - and just one - in Picard’s favor. Andrew and I have wondered why they couldn’t simply relocate the Bak’u to another part of the planet but I’d forgotten about the line of dialogue that mentions that the process used to harvest the regenerative particles will render the planet inhospitable. So there’s that, but I still think Picard should’ve considered the big picture.

Andrew’s Response: Hmm. I disagree. That’s right... I’m siding with Jean-Luc! I am a firm believer in private property rights and I don’t think it’s morally acceptable for a government to seize property, even if the wants of the many outweigh the wants of the few. Indeed, let me be clear on that point -- it is noble for Spock to sacrifice himself to save the rest of the crew, but it is evil for the government to sacrifice Spock to help others. The government, i.e. the Federation, simply should not be allowed to place itself in the position of redistributing other people’s lives, liberty or property.

Further, letting the Federation weigh which action will result in the greater good strikes me as a formula for abuse. This is a very slippery slope which power abusers, who are drawn to power, will be quick to exploit. Where do you draw the line? How much harm is too much? And how little benefit is enough? How much greater must the benefit be? Would we allow the Federation to kill the 600 people to improve the health six trillion or must it save at least 600 lives? Would we allow six million murders to save six trillion? Kirk says no (LINK). He was even faced with this exact same problem in Mirror, Mirror, where the leader of the Halkans refused to give Kirk some crystals and then reminded Kirk that Kirk had the power to just take. Kirk said, "But we won't... consider that." He was right then and Picard is right now. Even adding the war doesn’t change this analysis. For one thing, maybe the Federation should try harder to end the war rather than using it as an emergency pretext for taking the Bak’us’ rights? Maybe they just need to find the Bak’us’ price? If they are moral people, then wouldn’t they be inclined to help out the six trillion?

History has shown that government gets lazy because they have eminent domain powers and they just don’t want to pay a fair price. Private companies without eminent domain powers have achieved all the same things government has done, and have done so through genuine negotiation with nobody being stripped of their rights. Picard is right. The needs of the many are no excuse to screw the few.

Scott's Reply: Good answer, and I can't entirely disagree. I think the problem is two-fold: a.) the writer gives the villains an "out" so to speak (the non-applicability of the Prime Directive) which makes the issue less complicated than it might've been otherwise, and b.) the Bak'u are written as a bunch of holier-than-thou prigs which makes them difficult to sympathize with. Besides, not to go off on a tangent, but wouldn't the idea of private property rights also apply to Avatar? Or should we simply forget that film ever happened? [smile]

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 35

In the pantheon of film heroes, there is nobody cooler than the action hero. They blow all the rest away. (See what I did there?) But modern action heroes come in all shapes and sizes and some just aren’t that tough.

Who is the toughest/coolest action hero of the modern era?

Panelist: AndrewPrice

There are many choices here and I admit that Bruce Willis is probably the man. But I like being unpredictable, so I'm going with Kurt Russell! That's right, Jack Burton, or is it Snake Pliskin? Russell has never disappointed me in a film and I hear he's a Libertarian to boot! In the female division, I will play it safe and go with Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Hands down - Jack Bauer! 24 was most of time completely illogical. How did Jack get around after a nuclear attack on LA and never get caught in any traffic? Or how did he get from Queens to mid-town Manhattan in 20 minutes?? It’s just not possible. Or, why didn’t anybody care about all of the bodies that Jack killed when trying to save th world? Always filled with surprises and plot twists, perimeters set up, and thigh-shooting, Jack Bauer was “The Man” and he always saved the world from certain destruction.

Panelist: T-Rav

Bruce Willis. For me, he tops guys like Schwarzenegger because he's not a grim, vengeful guy; he's got a sense of humor and he can make you laugh/snicker, even as he's blowing villains away. Only he could have said a line like "Yippee-ki-yay, motherf@#$er!" His versatility as an actor makes his performances generally very strong, even outside the action genre. Plus, he killed a man with a samurai sword in Pulp Fiction, so there's that.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Jason Statham and runner-up Angelina Jolie.

Panelist: ScottDS

This is a tough one, especially since I've been (re)visiting a lot of the classic 80s action films. As much as I enjoy Arnold and Sly, I think Bruce Willis wins by a hair. He's the consummate Everyman, ye he looms larger than life. He can crack wise. . . and skulls. "Welcome to the party, pal!"

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Film Friday: Horrible Bosses (2011)

Lately, we’ve been talking about the dearth of good comedies in the modern era. It seems that most modern comedies are gross rather than funny, dull rather than clever, and generally generic. I had little hope for Horrible Bosses. Imagine my surprise to find a truly enjoyable film.

** spoiler alert **

Horrible Bosses is the story of three disgruntled employees, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day), who decide they want their bosses dead. Eventually, in an homage to Hitchcock’s Strangers on A Train, they decide that the only way to make this happen, and to not get caught, is if they kill each other’s bosses. But there’s a problem. . . they’re idiots. And soon the hunters become the hunted.

This film works for a variety of reasons, each of which is generally missing in the comedies of people like Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow. Specifically, you have well-drawn characters, a tight script, and clever social commentary.

Well-Drawn Characters: One of the first things you notice in Bosses is the great characters. What makes them stand out from other modern comedies is that they are all unique. For example, Nick, Kurt and Dale each have different personalities, see their jobs differently, and have different driving motivations (money, love, public good). Yet, they have formed an enduring friendship, which the actors sell through the way they interact, particularly the use of careful comedic timing to fire lines back and forth and thereby show they have known each other for years. Good luck finding that in an Apatow film, where the relationships are distant.

But the real treat is the bosses. Kevin Spacey plays Nick’s boss Dave Harken. He exploits his employees with promises he’ll never keep and with threats. He’s abusive and angry and jealous of anyone who gets near his wife. Spacey plays this character like he played the hateful Buddy Ackerman in Swimming With Sharks, only he adds an element of maniacal joy to his evil. This makes you enjoy hating him rather than just hating him. He also gives the character just enough of a God-complex to make his over-the-top actions entirely believable.

Colin Farrell plays Bobby Pellit, a drug-abusing, power-abusing, paranoid slimeball wannabe, who inherits a great company and decides to run it into the ground because he hated his father and because he’s paranoid that others look down on him. He’s the kind of guy who has a wall-sized portrait of himself doing martial arts. Like Spacey, Farrell makes the character believable by adding just enough hints of paranoia and self-doubt behind his eyes to let you know why this guy really would act this way.

Finally, you have Jennifer Aniston, as uber-cougar Dentist Julia Harris. What she does so perfectly here is to put on a hard-sell seduction of Dale, which would frankly work on any man, and then add a little touch in each scene to make it uncomfortable. It’s in those moments of discomfort that you see her insanity and where everything she does becomes believable. She is essentially completely out of control.

These characters are all funny and believable. They all have unique traits, which broadens the variety of jokes available. Also, the good guys are good, unlike in a Rogen film, and they aren’t unmotivated and pathetic, like in an Apatow film, so you genuinely cheer for them against the bad guys.

Tight Script: This leads us to the second point: the tight script. One of the biggest problems with modern comedies is sloppy scripts with characters doing things which make no sense and unrelated gags strewn throughout the film. None of that is true here. For one thing, there’s no filler. Everything any of the characters does is designed to show you some aspect of their personality which explains their future actions. And everything these characters do makes sense. For example, the heroes don’t just decide to kill their bosses because the script calls for it, they are pushed into it when their bosses attack things which are dear to them and make it clear they will continue to harm them in the future, AND their alternatives are taken away. Even then, they act reluctantly because they just aren’t killers.

Further, nothing in this film comes out of the blue because everything is foreshadowed. And the crazier the event, the greater the foreshadowing, with the craziest moments being foreshadowed at least twice. For example, toward the end, it becomes important that their On-Star-like system can hear what is being said in the car. Before this happens, however, you are shown twice how this works with conversations with the On-Star service rep. Thus, when this moment arrives, you don’t have any problems accepting it. Similarly, another character is distracted by an attractive woman at a critical moment. While this may seem difficult to believe under normal conditions, you’ve actually seen this character get similarly distracted twice before and you’ve been told how this woman fools around. Again, this means you never once doubt what happens. Compare this with Apatow and Rogen films where events occur seemingly randomly and without any warning.

Also unlike Rogen and Apatow, this script rarely sinks to sex jokes or gross-out jokes. And the few times it does, the jokes are understated, leaving much to the imagination, and it always has a purpose, i.e. it will become relevant before the film ends.

Clever Social Commentary: Finally, this film takes swipes at liberal sacred cows. For example, the three heroes want to find a hired killer, so they go to a bar in a black neighborhood. They don’t think of themselves as racist, but the racism is obvious in their assumption that murderers would most likely be found at a black bar. When the bartender reacts poorly to the suggestion that all black people must be criminals, they try to use standard liberal talking points about tolerance and oppression to talk their way out of it by suggesting they see “you people” as victims. To this, the bartender angrily retorts that he’s a small business man. The liberals are stumped. But their liberal stupidity has drawn the attention of Dean “Motherf*cker” Jones (Jamie Foxx), who exploits the prejudice they didn’t believe they had.

There are also jokes about Priuses versus SUVs, they make light of sexual harassment and anal sex in prisons, and there is a funny moment about how useless it is to force someone who is intent on killing you to keep their firearms in a locked case. . . it doesn’t prevent anything. These joke aim directly at the flaws inherent in these liberal ideas, flaws which politically correct liberals pretend don’t exist. Naturally, for doing this, writer Markowitz got hammered for being racist, homophobic and misogynistic. But the joke was ultimately on the critics, as the film broke records on its way to making $209 million worldwide.

This film has much going for it, especially compared to recent comedies. Is it the greatest comedy ever? Hardly. Is it better than Ghostbusters or Night At The Opera? Nope. But it shows that buddy comedies can still be funny, and it does that by giving us unique, likeable and hate-able characters, by giving us a solid script with zero waste or padding, by poking fun at things Hollywood normally won’t touch, and without making us watch characters trade bodily fluids for humor. Bravo.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Guest Review: The Buccaneer (1958)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

How many times have you heard critics use the phrase “for fans only”? The Buccaneer was meant to be Cecil B. DeMilleʼs re-make of his own 1938 film, and seemingly had everything going for it. Starting with the obvious credibility of DeMille himself, it boasts a great cast including Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston at the prime, Inger Stevens, Claire Bloom, Charles Boyer, E. G. Marshall, and Lorne Greene.

A highly romanticized story based on real historical figure Jean Lafitte (Brynner), the film follows events leading up to the Battle of New Orleans at the conclusion of the War of 1812. Although he doesn’t prey on American ships, Lafitte remains an outlaw since he sells merchandise tax free which, combined with his considerable personal charm, makes him popular with the local citizenry. When the British threaten the city, Lafitte must choose between fighting on the probable winning side (where he is not an outlaw) or joining forces with General Andrew Jackson (Heston). His ultimate choice is influenced by a combination of patriotism, a romance with the governor’s daughter Annette Clairborne (Stevens), and probably most importantly, a promise of full pardon for past crimes authorized by Gov. William Clairborne (E.G. Marshall).

Released December 1, 1958 when historical costume productions were much in vogue, this one never quite lived up to expectations. Critics have been mostly lukewarm, and I cannot entirely disagree despite my own lofty expectations for the recent DVD and Blu-Ray release. That expectation was based, at least in part, upon originally viewing it at age ten in one of the old movie palaces in downtown Philadelphia. Should you invest your time and money in The Buccaneer? Perhaps, if you are “a fan.” Let’s explore not only some reasons you might choose to skip this one, but also some reasons you might find it worth re-visiting.

Three Reasons To Skip It

1) It was not actually directed by the great “Cecil B.” after all. By the time filming commenced, DeMille was nearly 80 years old and critically ill. This was his last credited film as he died shortly after it was released. Unable to direct for himself, his son-in-law, Anthony Quinn pinch hit. Trouble was, although Quinn was one of the great actors of his generation, he had no directorial experience of his own, and it shows. Direction is aimless and stilted. This is the only directing ever done by Quinn and we can apparently be thankful for that.

2) The film lacks realism. It looks an awful lot like a musical without music, although that may not entirely be by accident. It turns out DeMille intended his “re-make” to be a musical. He most likely wanted to cash in on Brynner's success from The King and I. For some reason, Yul balked at the idea of another musical, and there was no question DeMille needed Brynner for the lead, so that concept was scrapped. Still, too many group scenes include people dutifully standing stock still while the leads recite speeches in lieu of singing songs. This is particularly true for Brynner who constantly delivers his lines while standing with feet spread apart, hands on hips, and wearing his ballet tights, calf high boots, open puff sleeved shirt, and leather vest. Of course just seeing him with hair can unsettle the unsuspecting viewer.

3) The story line develops too slowly. The way the film was marketed, one expects a big pirate action adventure with a major historical battle as the climax. Realistically, the film is more dialogue driven with a strong romantic interest. It takes far too long to lay out all the conflicts Lafitte must resolve in order to make the decision that essentially forms the heart of the movie. Apparently, the real Lafitte actually had an affair with the governor’s wife rather than his daughter as portrayed on film. I suspect that had more to do with appealing to both men and women, as well as keeping with the social mores of the time.

. . . And Three Reasons For Fans to Watch It Anyway

1) Heston, Brynner, and Stevens light up the screen. Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner reprise their co-star duties from The Ten Commandments. Now this film should never, ever, be mistaken for that masterpiece, but these two guys were film giants in an era known for its movie stars. Interestingly, although it’s a supporting role, I actually liked the performance of Heston as Jackson better than Brynner’s Lafitte. He’s in the very first scene and creates such a commanding presence that he dominates every scene he’s in, including those with Brynner. It may come down to something as simple as Heston being born to play historical figures. It’s all about the “gravitas”. This is not to say Yul was deficient. He’s an incredibly commanding figure to be sure, yet for me, Heston loomed larger.

Inger Stevens is an actress who died too young and never received much credit for her craftsmanship. I found her to be both beautiful and compelling in this film as the governor’s daughter and Lafitte’s love interest. There is just enough of a clash between lovers from two different cultures to create plausible romantic tension.

2) Hey, come on . . . we ARE talking “The Battle of New Orleans” here, aren’t we?! The costumes alone are magnificent considering when it was made. In fact, the only academy award nomination for The Buccaneer was for costume design. What ultimately won me over, though, is the advance through the fog by British Troops under artillery bombardment while the Black Watch dutifully plays an attack march on their bagpipes. This particular custom was designed to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy, and there can be no doubt it usually had a chilling effect. In fact, I’d love to see a really good depiction of the Battle of Long Island during the American Revolution, when the British got in back of Washington’s militia. His soldiers had no idea what was coming until they heard the skirl of the pipes -- behind them! This battle scene has a definite “in the studio” feel and has neither the realism nor scope of more modern depictions of war. Still, it’s not bad for the 1950ʼs, and represents the main reason I “just had” to see it again.

3) The Buccaneer looks great in 1080p. True, it was not given the high-end restoration techniques bestowed on Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur. In fact, since I have not seen it in DVD format, it is quite possible this particular restoration would work nearly as well in 480i if a good scaler is handy. Either way, it is amazing how good they can make 50 year old productions look anymore. And at two hours, it doesn’t require that extra long time commitment so often associated with costume period pieces.

So, the bottom line is you can enjoy this one as an interesting study of film techniques in the 50ʼs, as a chance to see some great actors of that era play off each other, or just a chance to see an interesting period in American history portrayed. But if you do happen to pass on it, rest assured you should not lose any sleep over your decision. What other periods or topics in American history do you feel need to be visited again in film?


P.S. How did this poster escape Andrewʼs article on that topic?

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 10

Probably the coolest thing Star Trek: TNG did was invent the Borg. They are truly one of the best villains of all time. But then they had to go and ruin it with "I Borg". At least, so says Andrew.

Question from Scott: “What's the problem with ‘I Borg’?”

Andrew’s Answer: Let me say up front that as episodes go, “I Borg” was entertaining. It was well-written and as a stand-alone episode, it was pretty good. BUT there are huge problems with this episode.

For one thing, the Borg is terrifying because it is a collective. Its members cannot be individually influenced and it lacks the motives that are common to normal individuals. Thus, you can’t “deal” with it. You must defeat it or die. Moreover, since being assimilated means being absorbed into the collective, this is a form of identity/soul death -- you cease to be forever. "I Borg" wipes that out. Suddenly, being assimilated into the Borg is no longer the death of the identity/soul, it is now simply being put to sleep until you die or can be freed. In other words, the Borg as originally presented represented a type of immortal death, but the “I Borg” version reduces this to just a life sentence with the possibility of parole. That reduces the terror factor significantly.

Further, "I Borg" changes the nature of the Borg itself. Rather than being a collective which desires to absorb all, it instead becomes an entity which suppresses its members. In real terms, this is like the difference between an army of devout Islamic terrorists v. a conscript army led by a dictator. The first is relentless because each part shares the goal and you can’t kill it by just killing the head. The second is a thing of pity because it only stays together under threat and it will fall apart once you undermine the key member.

"I Borg" also displays daffy liberalism. Liberals have always maintained that given the chance, everyone in the world would think like a liberal. So if someone is running around raping, pillaging and murdering, it must be because some horrible force has made them do it. Liberals simply cannot conceive of “true believers.” This idiocy is on display in “I Borg” (and with 7 of 9), because once these drones are released from the collective, they instantly accept Starfleet philosophy as true and go about becoming just like Picard and the crew. Even 7 of 9, who supposedly didn’t fit in, only had problems with the chain of command, not the fundamental beliefs.

If they wanted to do an episode like “I Borg” more honestly, then they should have acknowledged that these people likely would have very different views than those of Picard et al. and not all of them will be nice people. But they didn’t do that because the point to the episode was, “if we free people from evil political systems, they will become good liberals and it will be a great world.”

Finally, as an aside, the follow up to “I Borg” is rather stupid if you think about it. Supposedly, Hue brings back “knowledge of individuality” to the Borg like a virus and causes chaos. Really? How is it the Borg has no knowledge of this? They absorbed millions of people and none of them ever mentioned this? How can the collective be so fragile that one person enjoying freedom would catch the whole system by surprise and destroy it? That was nothing more than an attempt to hide Picard’s stupid decision in "I Borq" to let the Borg destroy trillions of lives rather than make Hue feel bad.

Scott’s Response: I definitely can't argue with your last point! Having said that, while I'm neither praising nor blaming any one person, from a TV writer's point of view, it's incredibly difficult to successful pull off an enemy of this nature. There is no one to relate with, no one person with whom to communicate, and Picard and Co. seem to have no trouble defeating the Borg. The more that happens, the more the Borg are diminished as a threat. "Don't worry. We beat them before, we'll just do it again." I agree it would've been nice to present different viewpoints, or at least explore the consequences of Picard's actions... but this is what happens when the writer who creates the alien race leaves the series, with other (newer) writers filling in the details later.

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 34

Everybody wants to quit their jobs and own a bar. . . of something. Yep. There's nothing cooler than handing alcoholic beverages to strangers.

If you could own one club/bar from any film, which one would it be?


Panelist: AndrewPrice

I was going to say the Star Wars Cantina, but I imagine they have a lot of clean up. Then I thought about the one in From Dusk Til Dawn, but I doubt vampires are good tippers. So I'll go instead with the club from Cabaret. Weirder than the Cantina, more Nazis that Rick's Cafe, and they ain't got no problem with droids making it in the booths.

Panelist: T-Rav

The retro '50s joint in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta and Uma Thurman have their dance. I'm not big on the idea of having to look after a club or bar, but I really like the '50s.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

I am partial to Moulin Rouge on earth, and the bar on Tatooine from Star Wars for extra terrestrial.

Panelist: ScottDS

The Double Deuce, as seen in Road House, a film I saw for the first time just last year and absolutely loved. I recall telling my friend, "I wanna be just like Dalton when I grow up!" Of course, my answer is predicated on having Dalton - who graduated from NYU with a philosophy (!) degree - as my bouncer.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, April 13, 2012

Film Friday: Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)

Directed by James Bond director Guy Hamilton, Remo Williams was meant to kick start a James Bond-like franchise about an American assassin. It didn’t. The film bombed at the box office. But it has since become a cult classic which still gets television play almost thirty years after it was released. I enjoy this film a lot, but I also know why it went wrong.

** spoiler alert **

Remo Williams stars Fred Ward as a New York City cop who gets drafted by a mysterious organization called CURE. CURE is only three people, Wilford Brimley, J.S. Preston and Ward, and they answer directly to the President. Their mission is to target untouchable high-level criminals who walk the halls of power within the nation’s capitol by killing them in what appear to be accidents. As Preston puts it, they are enforcing the Eleventh Commandment: “thou shalt not get away with it.”

As the story begins, Ward is “recruited” by Preston. This entails putting Ward into a coma, taking him to the hospital where he undergoes plastic surgery, reporting him dead, and giving a new name -- Remo Williams. Ward is then taken to meet Chuin, a Korean martial arts master of the (non-existent) art of Sinanju. Chuin begins Remo’s training. Meanwhile, the film introduces George Grove, the villain. He owns Grove Industries, a defense contractor which is selling defective equipment to the military, including an SDI/Star Wars defense prototype which doesn’t really exist. Grove is being pursued by the tenacious Major Fleming (Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek Voyager), who is an auditor with serious doubts about Grove Industries.

These characters soon collide in a series of incidents.

Why This Movie Deserves To Be Remembered

There are several reasons this movie deserves its cult classic status. For one thing, it’s just a fun movie. This is partially because the actors are all very likeable and partially because the film never takes itself too seriously. Indeed, in many ways, this film is exactly like other quasi-comedic actions films of the period like Buckaroo Banzai and Tremors. Thus, you get lighthearted action and lots of little jokes throughout the film, like how Preston names Remo after a bedpan, a masterfully well-done scene where Remo gets chased by overly-talented dogs, and an hilarious bit of flirting between Remo and Fleming: “nice buttons.”

Secondly, the character of Chuin is worth the price of admission alone. Played by Joel Grey (Cabaret), Chuin is an ancient martial arts master who loves soap operas, is fiercely anti-anything that isn’t Korean, and just barrages Remo with obscure and hilarious insults. His take on American life is both biting and yet also extremely funny: “they call it fast food because it speeds you to your grave.” He also displays near magical powers, such as being able to dodge bullets, which make all the training scenes extremely entertaining. Chuin also provides the movie with heart. For while he has little respect for Remo initially, he slowly grows to love him like a son, which adds a few nice emotional moments to the film.

Why This Movie Failed

Despite the above, it is undeniable that Remo Williams ultimately fails as a movie because it lacks a strong punch. The characters are solid and you care about them and the crime is inventive and despicable, but somehow none of it feels consequential. Moreover, while Remo does a lot of exciting things, the film never sustains a sense of excitement. Why? Well, because the story has been assembled in the wrong order.

One of the most important rules of writing is to build to a climax. Hence, the conflicts within the story should build one on top of the next until you come to the point of resolution, which is the climax. Remo Williams doesn’t do this. To the contrary, it delivers its climax in the middle of the film and does so without connecting the various story threads.

The real crime at issue in Remo Williams is the fake SDI program (the HARP). That is what Fleming is investigating. That is what CURE is investigating. That is what Grove is paying generals to cover up. So resolving the HARP issue should be the film’s climax. Indeed, it should be the focal point where Fleming’s story and Remo’s story come together as they meet in a final match against Grove. But it’s not. The HARP issue gets suddenly resolved halfway through the film when Remo and Preston raid Grove’s warehouse and the HARP blows itself up, covering up the crime. At that point, the film shifts. Fleming now pursues Grove over some defective rifles Grove has sold the Army -- a minor subplot which was barely mentioned in the first half of the film. CURE declares its mission over. And Remo decides to seek revenge against Grove all on his own. This will now be where the story resolves itself.

But this is problematic. For one thing, this means that everything CURE and Fleming have done up to this point is now meaningless. This is particularly problematic with regard to Fleming because her story has yet to mesh with Remo’s. And since Remo knows nothing about the rifles and doesn’t care, those two stories can’t really mesh, as seen when the film tries to combine their missions to achieve a climax. Since they have no common goals, they have little use for each other. Thus, Remo just makes sure she is safe and then continues his mission without her, turning her story into simple filler. This wastes her entire character.

Moreover, the HARP mission had the bang to be a climax, but the rifle mission doesn’t. The HARP mission involved breaking into a secure warehouse, guarded by unknown forces and highly trained dogs, and it ended in a huge explosion. This is exactly the type of action which starts or ends all action films. The rifle investigation, by comparison, is small potatoes. It involves a chase through the woods with limited players and limited effects. There are some dangerous stunts, but they aren’t visually spectacular. The sense of danger also is rather low because this isn’t Grove’s home turf, so he doesn’t control the challenges Remo faces and Grove himself is no match for Remo. Thus, making this the ending was a poor choice all around.

What Remo Williams should have done was swap out these two moments. The rifle investigation should have come first and led to the HARP investigation, with Remo and Fleming drawing closer and closer as the stakes went up as they get nearer to the resolution of the HARP project. This would have allowed everything the film did to build on itself and would have allowed Remo and Fleming to develop their chemistry. How much stronger would this have made the film? I would think a lot stronger. In fact, in hindsight, this is so obvious that I wonder why they didn’t see this? The screenwriter, Christopher Wood, claims he wrote a more climactic scene which was discarded for budgetary reasons, but even if that is true, it still doesn’t explain the strange choice to essentially start the story over midway through? This tells me, we are probably looking at writer-failure.

All in all, it’s too bad this wasn’t fixed because so much else about this film resonates so well.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Guest Review: Air Force One (1997) vs. Executive Decision (1996)

By ScottDS. The success of Die Hard spawned a new genre: “Die Hard on a [blank]” with [blank] representing everything from a bus to a hockey arena. It was inevitable we would see “Die Hard on a plane” and two of the best examples are 1996’s Executive Decision and 1997’s Air Force One. However, while Air Force One is the more successful of the two, I believe Executive Decision is the leaner, more efficient film. Neither film is a work of art, however one is oblivious to its stupidity while the other is almost aware of it.

In Air Force One, Harrison Ford is President James Marshall, veteran Vietnam helicopter pilot and Medal of Honor recipient. We open with the capturing of Ivan Radek, a terrorist dictator in Kazakhstan. Three weeks later, Marshall delivers a speech at a Moscow state dinner. He reminds the guests that the U.S. will not sit idly by while atrocities occur halfway around the world. Meanwhile, a group of Radek loyalists posing as a Russian news crew is allowed to board Air Force One. Their leader is Egor Korshunov (Gary Oldman, a tad over the top).

Assisted by a traitorous Secret Service agent, Korsh and his men hijack the plane. Marshall is rushed to the escape pod (an ingenious, albeit fictional idea) while Korsh kills the pilots and sets a course for Kazakhstan. He calls VP Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) and demands Radek’s release from prison. Marshall, hiding in the avionics bay, calls the White House. Korsh has taken First Lady Grace and First Daughter Alice up to the cockpit area. Several hostages parachute to safety during refueling but one of Korsh’s men causes the parachute bay to depressurize. Korsh takes Marshall hostage and demands Radek’s release. Marshall acquiesces but eventually breaks free and kills Korsh while Radek is killed outside the prison. Marshall takes control of the plane but it's badly damaged during a firefight. An Air Force Pararescue plane evacuates the remaining passengers. The Secret Service agent reveals himself but Marshall escapes and the agent goes down with the ship.

This is an exciting movie! Wolfgang Petersen directs from a script by first-time screenwriter (and future Castle creator) Andrew Marlowe. This might be Harrison Ford’s last great action movie and he’s right at home playing a tough-talking Commander in Chief. The supporting cast is populated by familiar character actors like Paul Guilfoyle and Philip Baker Hall, and they all do good work. This film is also a great opportunity to explore Air Force One itself, an aircraft to which most of us will never have access. Editing, sound, and cinematography are all first-rate – this was the pre-shaky-cam era. The visual effects are top-notch (with one exception) and Jerry Goldsmith’s music score is heavy on action and patriotism (my local critic labeled it “cheddary”).

On the other hand, I feel Glenn Close overacts as Bennett. The Secret Service agent’s motive is never explained. There’s a useless subplot where SecDef Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell, channeling Alexander Haig) insists he’s in charge, despite what the 25th Amendment says. William H. Macy is fine as Major Caldwell but he tells Marshall he doesn’t know how to fly a plane… except he has pilot wings on his uniform! The script is full of the usual clichés, including a wire-cutting scene and a cell phone losing reception, and some of the dialogue is cringe-inducing, especially the Situation Room material where the overacting doesn’t help. The CGI shots of Air Force One crashing into the Caspian Sea are some of the worst effects seen in a major motion picture!

Executive Decision features Kurt Russell as David Grant, a think tank nerd. We open with a team of Special Forces operatives led by LTC. Austin Travis (Steven Seagal) raiding a Chechen mafia safe house on the hunt for a stolen Soviet nerve gas, DZ-5… but it’s not there. Cut to: David Grant learning how to fly. I can’t help but admire this blatant setup. Grant is notified that El Sayed Jaffa (the late Andreas Katsulas), one of the world’s most notorious terrorist leaders, has been taken into U.S. custody. Some time later, Oceanic Airlines Flight 343 departs Athens on its way to Washington D.C. It’s hijacked by Jaffa’s deputy director, Nagi Hassan (David Suchet), and his men. The film never explains how their weapons are already stored aboard the plane.

Grant is summoned to the Pentagon where SecDef Charles White (Len Cariou) is running the show. (The president is never named; the VP isn’t mentioned at all.) They listen to a message from Hassan, who wants Jaffa released. Grant believes Hassan himself arranged for Jaffa’s capture and that Hassan has the DZ-5 aboard the plane and wishes to detonate it over D.C., but how will they prove it? Travis has them contact Dennis Cahill (Oliver Platt), an engineer who has developed an aircraft called the Remora, which will allow a team to transfer mid-air on board the hijacked airliner. Travis wants Grant to tag along, even though he's out of his element. They’re met at Andrews AFB by Cahill and Travis’ team: Louie (B.D. Wong), Baker (Whip Hubley), Rat (John Leguizamo), and Cappy (Joe Morton). Once docking begins, things get bumpy and Cappy is knocked unconscious. Grant climbs up the docking sleeve to help but the stress is too great. Travis sacrifices himself, closing the hatch as the sleeve is blown away. Hiding in the avionics bay, the team has no way of contacting D.C.

Louie discovers a bomb, with DZ-5 canisters and a barometric trigger. Bomb expert Cappy has been rendered immobile but Cahill assists in its dismantling. After Jaffa is released, Hassan kills his second-in-command after the man asks if they’ll be diverting the plane from its course now that their mission is complete. Grant determines that Hassan’s men can’t know about the bomb, but the bomb’s computer had run a diagnostic: there must be a separate trigger man on board. Rat and the men kill the lights and storm the cabin. The trigger man and all of the terrorists are killed but Hassan kills the pilot and co-pilot, so guess who has to land the plane? Rat kills Hassan and, with the assistance of flight attendant Jean (Halle Berry), Grant manages to land at Frederick Field.

I’ve always liked this movie and I believe it’s unfairly overlooked. First-time helmer Stuart Baird (an Oscar-nominated editor by trade) directs from a script by action vets Jim & John Thomas. Baird and his crew get the job done as efficiently as they can. It may sound backhanded but when it comes to the action genre, efficiency is a good thing. Like AF1, editing, sound, and cinematography are all first rate and we’re never confused. The actors mostly do a good job and we get a sense of the team’s camaraderie. Russell is his usual likable self and I like that the bookworm saves the day, not to mention the idea of all the heroes using their gifts: Grant, Cahill, Travis' team, and even the Air Marshal who gets the first shot at Hassan. The flying effects are excellent though the landing features some shoddy model work. Jerry Goldsmith is on autopilot, but that’s better than most composers on their best day!

Both films are a lot of fun and treat their subject matter seriously. However, while AF1 tries to ratchet up the tension with forced melodrama, ED has no time for such things. It’s nine minutes longer but it’s lean: there’s no traitor, no romantic subplot, no kids, no third act surprise. It’s inevitable that Harrison Ford would turn into, as one critic put it, “President Indiana Jones,” but again, I have to admire the scene in ED featuring Kurt Russell learning how to fly, as if the filmmakers are telling us, “Yeah, we know!” Neither script is Oscar-worthy but I would almost prefer no memorable dialogue to Ford’s hammy “Get off my plane!” (but it is satisfying!). The Pentagon scenes in ED are much better than the Situation Room scenes in AF1. Both films feature dependable character actors, but the ones in ED manage to exude the right amount of professionalism and grace under pressure; the ones in AF1, not so much.

While neither film is a masterpiece, ED comes across as slightly more authentic – perhaps because it’s aware of what it is – while AF1’s obliviousness causes it to come across as… almost too “cinematic” with plot developments that happen because we expect them to happen and characters spouting clichés: “Five more minutes!” “There’s no time!” I also find it interesting that one film is directed by a veteran director working with a first-time writer… while the other is directed by a first-time director (albeit a seasoned film professional) working with veteran writers. I guess this proves the old adage: if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage, even if the stage is a plane.

“These things almost land themselves, don’t they?”

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 9

Last week we tried to list the best original series episodes, so this week we go a different way. . . because we’re contrarians!

Question from Andrew: "What are your five least favorite episodes from TNG?"

Scott’s Answer: The funny thing is, there are only a handful of really terrible episodes. Many are simply... unremarkable. Here are the five I'm least inclined to watch over and over again!

"Code of Honor" - "Where are the white women at?!" This episode isn't that racist, save for the fact that all the villains are portrayed by black actors in what can only be described as a completely wrong-headed decision. The crew needs a vaccine but Lutan, the leader of the society that possesses it, wants something in return: Lt. Yar as his wife. Yar has to fight "Amok Time"-style with Lutan's wife Yareena. By episode's end, Yareena is presumed dead and manages to hook up with Lutan's number two man and Picard and Co. get their vaccine. Like many early episodes, it's slow as molasses. Oh, and during the crisis, Picard lets Wesley man the ops station! As per my research, this episode's director - who may or may not have been a racist - treated the actors terribly and was fired by Roddenberry before filming was completed. If you ask any of the actors which episode embarrasses them the most, chances are it'll be this one.

"Justice" - The crew lands on a planet populated by a hedonistic race called the Edo ("bad perm" in English). Wesley falls into some bushes and the penalty for this is - wait for it - DEATH! The way this society works is simple: nobody wants to die, therefore nobody breaks the rules. The only problem is that the rules apply to randomly selected "punishment zones." Meanwhile, a strange entity appears in orbit and the Edo recognize it as - wait for it - GOD! Picard eventually risks the wrath of this entity and allows Wesley and the away team to beam up, much to the chagrin of the Edo. This episode is crap. The Edo belong in an XXX Trek parody and the tonal shift between the frolicking first half and the moralizing second half is less than smooth. On the plus side, the effects crew was able to recycle the "God" miniature: it was later used as a space station! Take it away, Wil Wheaton!

"Shades of Gray" - Ah, there's nothing like a clip show! Riker is infected by an alien parasite and flashes back to previous events during his treatment. This episode was a victim of the 1988 Writers Guild strike. There were only 22 episodes this season and even the fall premiere ("The Child") was recycled from an unfilmed Star Trek: Phase II script. I'm pretty sure I've only seen this episode once and I honestly have nothing to say about it - it was filmed out of necessity. To add insult to injury, this was the season two finale! Could you imagine a TV series ending a season with a clip show today?

"Cost of Living" - I once showed a friend some screencaps from various TNG episodes and we came across one of Deanna's mother Lwaxana and Worf's son Alexander sitting in a mud bath together. We asked each other, "What the hell episode is this?!" Well, it's this one. Lwaxana (the late Majel Barrett-Roddenberry) is getting married to a one-time guest star and Worf is having trouble with Alexander. Naturally, the elder Troi takes the younger Klingon under her wing. Truthfully, I don't hate the Lwaxana Troi character. One appearance per season was just fine and I always enjoyed seeing Picard, Riker, and Worf bristle in her presence. However, I can see why some people would find her annoying and she might be at her most annoying in this episode. And in case you were wondering, the poor groom calls off the wedding when he finds out Betazoid women get married in the nude. [shudder]

"Gambit" - This is a two-parter but I'm including them here as one episode. The story involves "space pirates" raiding Romulan archeological sites and a Vulcan intelligence officer (played by Robin Curtis a.k.a. the second Lt. Saavik) who's on the hunt for an ancient Vulcan telepathic weapon. These episodes are the very definition of "bland." The acting is bland, the art direction is bland, the story is bland, and even "Part II" writer Ron Moore later admitted that they ran out of story. "Part I" opens with Picard presumed dead and of course we know that can't be true. These episodes aired early in TNG's seventh and final season and it's clear that everyone's attention was elsewhere: DS9 was in its second season and both Voyager and Star Trek Generations were in development.

Andrew’s Response: Scott, those are some dogs, though I liked Gambit until the ending. My least favorite is "Sub Rosa", which is like a weak, haunted romance novel, as we meet the ghost who's been shtupping the Crusher women for generations. Then you have a series of Troi's mother episodes: "Dark Page" (mom in a coma), "Haven" (Troi's arranged marriage), "Half A Life" (Troi's mom gets the hots for Lane Meyer's dad), and "Cost of Living" (Troi's mom becomes gold digger). You also have this turd ("Lessons"), where Picard fraternizes some woman he finds below deck (which sadly is not a euphemism for anything) but finds it too fricken hard to both be a lover and a Captain. Finally, there is "Conspiracy", which didn't bother me at the time, but seriously -- a plot to conquer Starfleet from within gets raised and resolved within the same episode? Oh the pain. . . the pain.

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Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 33

We've asked about comedians and we'll ask again because we're funny that way. In the meantime, what is your favorite comedy?

What is your favorite comedy?


Panelist: ScottDS

The Blues Brothers, which is saying something since it's really not a laugh-out-loud film. It's not even just a comedy - it's also an action film and a musical. It's also very quotable and one of the things I love is that it really creates an epic world: the history of Jake and Elwood, the mysteries of the Bluesmobile, even the city of Chicago itself - one gets the sense it's all part of a larger picture. The performances are all great, the musical numbers are toe-tapping, and there's an authentically gritty aspect to the movie that can't be duplicated. My number one Hollywood "holy grail" is the complete roadshow version of the film, which had even more music and mayhem. Unfortunately, all the unused footage was thrown away in the 80s - one deleted song survives in audio form.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

This is such a hard one because comedies are so different. You've got the really great Night At the Opera, which is a true classic. You've got the laugh yourself silly Airplane or Blazing Saddles, which are in a different class again. But my personal favorite is Ghostbusters, which has it all -- a variety of great jokes, some feel-good moments, and a truly solid story.

Panelist: T-Rav

Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Kind of an odd choice, because I'm not a huge fan of Monty Python in general; but between the opening credits, the knights who say "Ni!", the Holy Hand Grenade, and so much else, I find it hilarious throughout. I think I like it because it's just so ridiculous and surreal (Blazing Saddles is my second favorite for similar reasons).

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

An honest to god tie between Animal House and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. If forced, I'd go with the former, probably on the strength of the scene where the Deltas go see Otis Day and the Nights, although Ridgemont does have the scene with Judge Reinhold and Phoebe Cates as a pretty fair answer.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, April 6, 2012

Film Friday: Scott Pilgrim v. The World (2010)

When I first saw Scott Pilgrim, I did not enjoy it. The film lost me right away and never recovered. But I gave it another chance after realizing I had looked at the film in the wrong way. I thought it was a comic book film, but it really isn’t -- it’s a videogame brought to life. I am now of two minds regarding this film. If you have no affinity for videogames, then this movie is not for you. It stinks. BUT, if you enjoy videogaming, then this movie is a brilliant parody.

** spoiler alert **
Plot
Scott Pilgrim is the story of Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera), a Toronto youth who fronts a band (Sex Bob-omb) with some friends and happens to be dating a high school girl named Knives Chau. His friends are all deeply-depressed slackers. As the film begins, he meets delivery girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and convinces her to go out with him on a date. Because of this, Scott soon finds himself under attack from each of her evil exes. In fact, they have formed the League of Evil Exes, and they attack anyone she dates. The rest of the movie involves Scott fighting each of these exes, while being stalked by Knives as his band tries to win a record contract.
You Will Not Like This Film
If you have no affinity for video- games, you will dislike this film. . . a lot. The film itself is nonsense. Its plot is an excuse for a series of fight scenes and little holds these scenes together. The characters are completely without depth and are hard to like because they are all angry, depressed slackers. Michael Cera is even harder to like because he’s lifeless and simply has no charisma -- he comes across as someone you would go out of your way to avoid in real life, and that makes him hard to watch on film. He’s also so whiny and so full of self-pity that you pretty much want to see him get hurt. Finally, the film loses touch with reality repeatedly as videogame elements suddenly appear, such as money raining from the sky whenever Scott beats a bad guy. For most people, these elements will make this an unbearable film.
You Will Love This Film
But let us assume you have an affinity for gaming. Then this film is something else entirely. What Scott Pilgrim really is at its core is a satire of a videogame tropes. It is the kind of film which points out things gamers laugh about.

Turning videogames into films has proven to be a challenge for Hollywood. This is because videogame characters tend to be two-dimensional and because gaming elements don’t translate well to film. So Hollywood has tried several different routes. Films like Prince of Persia and Laura Croft took the characters and turned them into generic action heroes. But these films ended up flat because neither the characters nor the plot offered much depth and fans complained they didn’t capture the spirit of the game. Films like Resident Evil and Hitman tried to include game-like dialog at points and game-like tasks to transfer “the feel” of the game. Unfortunately, “game feel” isn’t what most audiences are after, and these moments felt stiff. Doom actually gave the audience a first-person shooter view for a couple minutes, which seems pretty stupid in hindsight. Super Mario Bros. was made as a comedy with Bob Hoskins and Jon Leguizamo asked to breathe life into the characters. Final Fantasy came close to capturing the game feel, except it didn’t use any of the game characters. Nevertheless, it scored the highest of any videogame film at Rotten Tomatoes with a pathetic 43% (most of these films didn’t get out of the teens). To put a point on this, no one has really been able to adapt a videogame to the big screen yet because no one is quite sure what audiences want from a game adaptation.

Scott Pilgrim tried something unique -- it decided to be unapologetic about being a videogame. Hence, it follows the structure of a videogame and its characters are never phased by the game elements, like when people have strange superpowers, or when people explode into coins when they lose fights, or when scores and instructions appear on screen. Interestingly, this unique approach gives the film a neat vibe which easily allows the viewer to suspend their disbelief, something which is much more difficult in the films like Doom, which pretend they aren’t videogames.

At the same time, Scott Pilgrim mercilessly mocks videogames. For example, after an intro which feels like a slacker film shot on a budget not large enough to buy the crew lunch at the McDonald’s Dollar Menu, Scott engages in a series of what are called “boss battles” in videogame parlance. A boss is simply a named villain the hero must defeat to move on to the next level. Each boss is meant to have a unique power and is more powerful than the last. And that’s where the seven exes come in -- each has their own theme. For example, the first ex conjures Indian Bollywood dancers and tries to defeat Scott using a musical number. Another fights him with a skateboard. Another comes after him in a battle of the bands, and so on. In each instance, the powers they use are like the sorts of things you find in videogames, only these powers are utterly ridiculous. And therein lies the parody.

Further, the way the characters react also is parody. Indeed, all videogame characters are intensely earnest. Yet the characters here are downright blasé about everything. . . “Scott might die? Ok, we’ll be at the coffee shop.” Moreover, these characters constantly wonder why they are doing this. In effect, they marvel at the pointlessness of the game in which they reside. No videogame character would ever do that, but gamers laugh about it.

The conclusion of the film also completely mocks the idea that character’s lives can be relived with different choices made as Scott is able to come back from the dead and “try again,” a common occurrence in video- games. When he does, he rather hilariously rushes through the pre-boss challenges he faced on that level so he can get back to where he was when he died. . . just like every real gamer has done a million times -- right down to forcing their way through the henchmen without waiting for them to deliver their lines. And then he make a different choice and is awarded different powers to use against the boss, something which make no sense in a film, but makes total sense in a game.

What this film does, which no other film has done to date, is translate a videogame directly into a film without removing the ridiculous game elements. To the contrary, it embraces those elements, exaggerates them and mocks them. And in so doing, it creates a fantastic parody of the silliness of videogames. But it also makes this a niche movie. That’s why Scott Pilgrim will appeal to video gamers but probably no one else.

Finally, as an interesting aside, Scott Pilgrim doesn’t actually come from a videogame. . . it comes from a comic book, which makes its success even more intriguing. What’s more, this film received an 81% at Rotten Tomatoes -- almost double the next best videogame-to-film translation. Fascinating.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Save Our Heroes!

I miss heroes. For decades now, liberals have waged a war against the idea of heroes. Indeed, they’ve systematically tried to destroy the meaning of the word by defining the most banal and often involuntary conduct as “heroic.” It’s gotten so bad that not killing yourself when you find out you have a disease is now trumpeted as heroic. Give me a break. And Hollywood isn’t helping by stripping heroes of all the things which make them heroic.

In the modern parlance, a hero is someone who undertakes selfless conduct at great personal risk. To be selfless, the conduct must be for the benefit of others, and more importantly, the hero needs to have a choice in the matter, i.e. they must be free to walk away without consequence. If the “hero” has no choice but to act, then they aren’t really heroic because they aren’t acting courageously or nobly, they are acting desperately or out of self-interest. That’s why it’s heroic to stop an armed killer from killing someone else, but it’s not heroic to defend yourself against an armed killer.

Interestingly, while the conduct must be voluntary, there is no requirement that the hero be happy about it. Some heroes, like Superman, happily seek out danger, while others only reluctantly rise to the occasion. Similarly, while there is no requirement that the hero act alone, the more the hero achieves by themselves, the greater the challenge they faced and the greater their heroism.

But Hollywood is changing this formula.

Modern heroes like Perseus in Clash of the Titans 2010, Hal Jordan in Green Lantern, and whatshisname in Tron Legacy are none of these things. For one thing, they have no choice but to act because their own lives are being threatened. Hence, none of them are undertaking selfless, voluntary conduct, and by definition they cannot be considered heroes. Heck, Perseus is even given a sub-motive of revenge. Further, each of these “hero” is supposedly a “reluctant hero.” But unlike reluctant heroes of the past, who were reluctant because of promises they made to loved ones or some other moral qualm, these guys are reluctant because they are slackers. They have no particular opposition to being the hero, they just don’t want to bother. Thus, rather than having a character who must overcome some deep personal conflict, these films use heroes who just need motivation to get off their butts.

Moreover, modern Hollywood has stripped these heroes of their independence. Perseus in 1981 had to solve each puzzle he faced on his own. He had advice from his friends, but they had no special knowledge or skills to help him. The same is true of every other hero in the past -- they all had help to one degree or another, but when it came time to overcome challenges, all the pressure and responsibility was on them.

But compare that to the modern “hero.” In Clash 2010, Perseus’s friends kill all the monsters or set them up for an easy kill-shot from Perseus. They also tell him what to do next -- at no point does he ever work anything out for himself. Basically, he’s a prop for the others to solve the film. In Green Lantern, Hal gets saved time and again by everyone around him. He does finally destroy the bad guy, but again, he does exactly what his Jedi-trainer told him to do earlier in the film. He’s essentially an idiot-proof superhero. Whatshisname from Tron is the worst of the three. He gets led by other characters from location to location until they bring him to where the film ends. Then whatshisname’s dad and Tron stop the bad guy while whatshisname fires a gun which never hits anything. He is essentially a passenger in the hero car.

And these films aren’t unique. In Percey Jackson & the Lightening Thieves, Percey walks around as everyone around him solves all the problems -- lots of deus ex machina. Harry Potter pretty much just hangs out as everyone else does the work. Voldemort even essentially accidentally kills himself to solve the story. Matt Damon is declared a hero by God himself in Adjustment Bureau even though Damon’s actions are entirely involuntary and all he does to “solve” the film is run for his life using tricks the angels told him to use. Alice in Alice in Wonderland is true plug and play as she gets moved from scene to scene and then, in her big fight at the end against the Jabberwocky, we are told that she is merely a tool for the sword she wields. . . anyone could have taken her place. And so on.

Genuine heroes aren’t dead on film, but there is a new breed of slacker-heroes who do little more than move from scene to scene as the smarter, stronger and more motivated people around them set up the final battle and then let the “hero” take the credit. This is pathetic. It’s no wonder these films stink.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 8

There’s good and then there’s great and then there’s the best of the best, sir! That’s particularly true with Star Trek.

Question From Scott: "What are your five personal favorite episodes from the original series?"

Andrew’s Answer: Star Trek is one of those shows where the best episode is the one I just saw last, but there are a few that consistently stand out. These are the ones I think pack the biggest punch:

Mirror, Mirror: It is simply not possible to give a best of list without including this episode. This episode has spawned generations of science fiction with its idea of an evil alternate universe with a bearded Spock. Although their universe simply couldn’t function, it is still fascinating to see the dark side of these characters brought to life. And the final speech where Kirk tells Spock that “one man can change the present. . . It’s up to you. . . in every revolution, there’s one man with a vision,” just sends chills down my spine!

Balance of Terror: This is easily the most tense episode Star Trek made as Kirk plays a high stakes game of chess against the best commander the Romulan fleet has to offer. No episode ever made the Enterprise feel more genuine for me than this one as you see the crew act like a real crew.

Where No Man Has Gone Before: This episode has everything. You get introduced to Kirk, his crew, his mission, and the fact that Kirk will need to choose between his friends and his ship at times in this series. You also have the awesomely well-developed lesson of absolute power corrupting absolutely as we see Kirk’s friend Gary Mitchell slowly transform into a murderous God-like being.

The Ultimate Computer: This episode offers the ultimate in the struggle of man versus machine, as Kirk must overcome a computer which has taken over his ship and cannot tell friend from foe. But even more impressive is the mental breakdown of Doctor Daystrom, whose instability finally causes his mind to collapse and he delivers a speech that I believe truly grasps the pressures under which the human race puts geniuses by holding them to unfair expectations and criticizing them for failing to turn out brilliance on command. . . rows and rows of fools, baby!

Dagger of the Mind: There is so much in this simple episode, from questions of brainwashing to abuse of power to whether or not we can trust the things we “know” to be true. In many ways, this is why science fiction exists, so we can explore technologies that will soon be upon us before they get here. And this episode asks, will we ever be safe if those in power get the power to alter the human mind?

Scott’s Response: Very good choices and I can't say I disagree with any of them. It's amazing how deep some of these episodes really are. Of the ones you chose, I would say "Mirror, Mirror" is my favorite. I realize they might be cop-out answers but I also would've included "The City on the Edge of Forever" and "The Trouble with Tribbles" which is one of the rare classic TV episodes - of any series - that is worth the hype. Best of all, it was revisited 30 years later!

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 32

Spaceships come in all shapes and sizes, from the Event Horizon to the Discovery One to the Borg cube... and nothing can ever go wrong with them.

What is the coolest spaceship on film?


Panelist: AndrewPrice

I SO want to say the original Enterprise. That is just awesome in every way. But if I'm being honest, there's another spaceship which blows them all away. This thing is perfection defined. . . the TARDIS. It can take any shape, go anywhere and anytime, and it's bigger on the inside than the outside. How can you beat that?

Panelist: T-Rav

The Millennium Falcon. Because it's the Millennium Falcon. If you disagree with me, I will have you frozen in carbonite.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

The Enterprise from Star Trek the Motion Picture. A purely emotional choice to be sure. Close second is 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Panelist: ScottDS

I wouldn't be much of a Trekkie if I didn't say the Enterprise. Yes, I know it originated in a TV show but I've always been a fan of the refit version that we see in the first three films (and in the next three films as the Enterprise-A). It's instantly recognizable and, unlike any number of actresses, it has no bad angles. There have literally been volumes written about it and in 1994, production designer Herman Zimmerman was contacted by DARPA and asked to help develop an experimental control center based on the Enterprise bridge. "All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by."

Comments? Thoughts?

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