Friday, June 29, 2012

Film Friday: Source Code (2011)

I see why Source Code made a good deal of money. You’ve got the kind of science fiction premise which makes people think something deep is going on, even though there isn’t. That makes people feel smart. You’ve got an up and coming star who is being pushed as a blockbuster hero, a real Ethan Hawk. The film is pretty and has lot of big explosions. But this isn’t a very good film. Here’s why.

** spoiler alert **

Source Code stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Capt. Colter Stevens, an Army chopper pilot who thinks he’s in Afghanistan, but soon discovers he’s in a capsule of some sort. Before he even knows what’s happening, Jake gets sent back in time to eight minutes before a commuter train blows up outside of Chicago. Once there, he quickly discovers he’s inhabiting the body of a man who was on the train. His mission is to locate the bomber because the bomber plans to explode a dirty bomb in Chicago later in the day. At first, Stevens has a hard time understanding what is happening. But slowly, he accepts the mission. Then the “big secret” is revealed, I yawned, the movie played out exactly per formula, and the credits did roll mightily.
Source Code should have been a good movie, but it wasn’t because it was beset by several problems which just smothered the film. Jake Gyllenhaal is about as believable as Capt. Stevens as Denise Richards was believable as a nuclear scientist. The film crawls with product placements to the point that they become distracting. You can actually play “find the Dunkin Donuts logo” in each scene. The science fiction behind the idea was nonsense and felt like nonsense. The bad guy sucks. But most importantly, this film undercut itself time and again.

Let’s start with the bad guy. This guy is awful. He looks like something out of Office Space and he’s far less menacing. He’s a nerd who want to kill millions of people because that’s what the plot requires. Indeed, when he’s asked to explain why he’s doing this, all he manages to babble is something about people being bad or something like that. Nor does Mr. Dull seem competent enough to put together the dirty bomb Jake is looking for. Did he find the plans online? Did he scrape the radioactive material from the copier at work? The film doesn’t go into “how” at all, but it seems fairly clear this idiot couldn’t build a bomb. And why the heck did he blow up the train at all if his real goal was to blow up the dirty bomb a few hours later? I can’t imagine why anyone would do that? Do bank robbers rob liquor stores on the way to the big robbery as a warm up? Always stretch!

Gyllenhaal similarly strains credibility throughout. First, there is nothing about Jake which lets us think he’s a pilot. Military pilots are always in complete in control. They are confident, dare I say cocky? They are Type-A personalities with exacting attention to detail. Yet, when you first meet Jake, he acts like he’s intimidated by rank, like some kid fresh out of training. Then he decides the mission is really a simulation so he goes goofy and treats it like a kid playing a videogame. Then he alternates between stupid and whiny, taking pointless and poorly thought-out risks, and he flops all over the place emotionally. Not once does he show military discipline or show the kind of confidence military training and combat experience bring. Nor does he have the slightest chemistry with either Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan), who he falls deeply in love with in eight minutes, or Capt. Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), his controller who decides this program is wrong for no reason whatsoever except that it helps the plot.

Even worse, however, Jake is told that he cannot save the people on the train because of something-something [fake scientific term] something-something. But Jake decides he knows better, based on nothing more than wanting it to be true. So he insists he’s going to save these people despite the scientists telling him that’s impossible. Naturally, he’s right and they are wrong because that’s how the movie wants it to be. There is no reason to think Jake would be right, nor is there anything which causes this belief in Jake. He just decides that he can do it, and so shall it be because the hero gets what he wants. No attempt is even made to explain how this could work (or how the ending works), it just IS because that’s the ending the writer wanted. That’s pathetic writing.

This type of writing-failure is actually a problem throughout. When Jake acts up on the train, the reactions of the other characters feel like movie characters rather than real people. They protest just enough to let him deliver his lines while looking tough, and then sit quietly as he does what he needs to before he moves on to mess with the next person. Nobody calls the conductor or cops or attacks him. When we find out “the secret” (that Jake is actually dead), we suddenly get treated to this “I need to talk to my father” subplot which Jake isn’t able to sell convincingly. Of course, Jake gets his hands on a phone and calls his father while in the other body, and his father gives the perfect responses (without a hiccup) to resolve this issue happily within the deadline Jake needs.

Moreover, the science is flaky. And even worse, it feels flaky and they know it, so they try to hide it behind evasions: “you wouldn’t understand if explained it.” Basically, this program lets Jake occupy the body of anyone who died, somehow, but he can only occupy it for eight minutes, for some reason. How does he do this and why only dead people, you ask? That would require complex physics to explain. . . you wouldn’t understand. When he’s in that body, he can move around and interact with the people of that time, i.e. changing the time line, but he’s not changing the timeline, he’s really causing new dimensions to form. I’d explain it to you, but you’d need a PhD to understand. Oh, but wait, it turns out he actually can change time, for some reason, and he can stay in the body of the guy who never really died now. Don’t ask me to explain it, though, you wouldn’t understand.

This is a sign of a writer who has no clue (0.0%) of how his idea is supposed to work. And it gets really annoying to hear Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright), who invented the Source Code Program, be incapable of explaining how this works and then giving mental placebos like saying this isn’t time travel, “it’s time rearrangement.” This very much undermines the film because they never establish any real rules for what is going on, so you don’t know what is really possible or what isn’t or why things happen.

But the real problem at the core of this film is the utter lack of consequences. We are told that everyone onboard the train died and that Jake cannot save them. This turns out not to be true, but we don’t discover that until the end. So for the first hour plus, you never really worry about the characters on the train because you know they will be dead no matter what Jake does. And later, you don’t worry about whether or not they will be saved because this film makes it clear Jake will get whatever he wants. We are also told up front that there is no danger to Jake, so we don’t worry about that either. Nor do his actions travel over into future loops, where they could have negative consequences, nor is there a limit on the number of jumps he can make. Essentially, there is zero risk. Indeed, the only possible negative consequence is that some nerd may set off a dirty bomb in Chicago, but we know this film won’t let that happen. Nor are we shown anyone who would really be in danger from such a bomb, so this risk never feels real to us. Similarly, the big secret is that Jake is already dead, which is supposed to create some moral dilemma. Only, they never really explain why this is a problem. Also, there really isn’t any tension because wanting to die is hard to support (especially as he's not suffering), and because Capt. Goodwin decides to help him die for no reason. So again we know Jake will get his wish.

You see the problem? No one can really get hurt in this film because we’re told everything is inevitable and we aren’t given clues that events could really be changed. Moreover, everything in this film comes so easily to Jake that there’s no suspense that he won’t get what he wants, especially as he can just keep trying until he gets it. That sucks the drama right out of the plot.

This is why Source Code stinks. It completely lacks suspense, it lacks interesting characters, difficult choices, recognizable motives, and the big idea science fiction films always try to send you home with. . . the “what if” thought. This film is Groundhog Day without the growth, the humor, or the humanity.
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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Scott's Links June 2012

Scott roams the internet far and wide to ply his trade as a link dealer. Fortunately, Scott provides links free to us. Check these out. . . share your thoughts! And away we go. . .

Screenwriter/novelist William Goldman's epic takedown of Saving Private Ryan

Andrew, this one's for you. Your mileage may vary but I recall hearing about this essay years ago and I finally found it. (PLEASE NOTE: I got a weird audio-only advertisement of some kind the first time I accessed this site. You may not, but I'd adjust the volume accordingly.)

The literary roots of Prometheus (spoilers!)

To say Prometheus has received mixed reviews would be an understatement. While I was disappointed with the film, I've had the pleasure of reading several thoughtful analyses (seriously, this could've been a Prometheus-themed link page) including this one which traces the material back to Lovecraft and Kubrick.

Why movie blockbusters need to get their act together

I'll quote the tweet that inspired this article: “If Michael Bay directed Raiders, the Ark would be opened in the first act, and people’s heads would explode through the rest of the film.”

Classic TV actors that never got proper recognition

Typecasting sucks but just consider all the talent that was on display in the sitcoms we now consider classics. Despite being buried under Frankenstein make-up, Fred Gwynne was also a very good actor. Ditto guys like Don Knotts and Alan Hale Jr.

5 scientific ways watching movies effects you

Pretty much what you'd expect though I don't like the idea of filmmakers hooking up test audiences to MRI machines in order to make them feel the same way at the same time. Sounds like something out of science-fiction. While we're on the subject...

Ray Bradbury's predictions fulfilled

It's always interesting to see how much of our present was predicted in the past but, sadly, Fahrenheit 451 seems to be the most prescient.

Star Trek II and the case of the missing baby

The Internet never ceases to amaze me. [smile] Did you know Khan had a baby son? I only found this out in the last year or so. A couple of still photos exist but I'd be surprised if the footage is still around.

Celebrating 45 years of The Dirty Dozen

You're mileage may vary but it's interesting to see just how ahead of its time this movie was. Blood? Anti-heroes? I especially love the New York Times review quote that opens the article. Any movie described with the word "hooliganism" can't be all that bad!

Come on, Hollywood, give us more practical effects!

Forget creatures and cityscapes. The one thing I really miss is exploding blood squibs. Today's filmmakers use CGI blood because it's easier to clean up, but I have yet to see it done 100% realistically. (David Fincher's ridiculously underrated Zodiac is an exception.)

The other great performance in the movie

Very good article. We're usually so focused on iconic performances that we often neglect "the other guys." Sure, Pacino and Brando are excellent in The Godfather but so is John "Fredo" Cazale. (Interestingly, Cazale only made five films, all Best Picture winners or nominees - he passed away too soon at age 42.)

The 22 rules of storytelling according to Pixar

I'll quote rule #4: "Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___." It's just that simple!

10 reasons we don't want a Batman reboot after The Dark Knight Rises

The Superman films declined in quality and a reboot was inevitable. But the Batman films are a little different. The first four films went downhill at the end but Christopher Nolan has set the bar so high that any future Bat filmmaker would be wise to continue where he left off instead of staring from scratch. (Do we need to see Bruce's parents killed again?)

Last night's listening:

Instead of geeking out over my latest film score purchase, I'd like to show you something instead. For my Color Fundamentals class, I edited together a montage of movie clips to illustrate the color wheel (red, orange, yellow, etc.). It's seven minutes long and features three cues by James Horner. I hope you enjoy it!

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 19

Life is full of accidents, and Star Trek is no different. And sometimes, accidents mean everybody else steps up in rank! :) Let’s suppose that Kirk and/or Picard met with such an untimely terminal incident.

Question: "Who would have made the better replacement: Spock, Riker, Data or McCoy?"

Andrew's Answer: Interestingly, we’ve seen three of these four in action at one point already, with the odd man out being McCoy, who should NEVER be given command of anything. Spock and Data both had trouble relating to their crews and found themselves assaulted. Riker had trouble making big decisions. Riker would probably be a fun commander, the guy you want to work for, but I think he would get you killed eventually. Between Data and Spock, I think the easy choice is Spock because while he is logical and tends to play the odds, he also grasps the need for intuition and the occasional desperate move. Data doesn’t. So I would choose Spock.

Scott's Answer: I suppose I will have to go with Riker. He usually came across as a natural leader, knew when to talk, knew when to fight, and inspired loyalty among the crew. On the other hand, I might be a little biased because the writers regularly hinted at Riker getting a command of his own one day, possibly as early as the first season. It's clear this was always on their mind, in case Patrick Stewart decided to leave the show. As far as getting people killed, every Starfleet officer seemed to have that problem! Having said that, if the choice were between Spock and Data, I agree with Andrew: Spock is the logical answer.

Thoughts? Anyone you think would be better?
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Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 43

There are the famous, the infamous, and the other guys. And many of the other guys deserve a little more fame (or infamy).

What actor do you wish would be better known (or “given more prominent films”)?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Tim Roth. I think he is a fantastic actor. He isn't exactly not known, just underutilized.

Panelist: ScottDS

After Firefly, my answer would've been Nathan Fillion. However, given that he's currently starring in a popular TV series, I will now go to my second answer: Connor Trinneer, who played Commander Charles "Trip" Tucker III - chief engineer and everyman - on Star Trek: Enterprise. I can't explain it but I became a fan of his pretty much after his first scene. His post-Enterprise career seems to consist of various guest roles as well as an arc on Stargate: Atlantis. I haven't seen him in anything else so it's possible he isn't a bigger star simply because he's not as good an actor as I think he is.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

As so often happens, Jed stole my answer. Tim Roth is a great actor and I've been super impressed with him since Reservoir Dogs. So I'll go with Adrien Brody. Yes, he's well known, but he's not the A-Lister he deserves to be. The man can act!

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Philip Seymour Hoffman, though I think his wish to do great work overshadows his desire to be better known. As an aside, I am surprised at how truly talented Daniel Radcliffe has turned out to be. The kid can sing, dance, AND act for real!

Panelist: T-Rav

There are several I could name, but one guy I'd like to see get more screen time is Britain's Jared Harris. He's a bit better known than he used to be, partly because of his stint on Mad Men, but he should get more props as a character actor, with his ability to play a variety of types very convincingly.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Film Friday: Phone Booth (2002)

If I told you that a movie takes place entirely within a phone booth, you’d probably wonder how interesting that could be. Well, with only minor exceptions, the movie Phone Booth takes place entirely within a phone booth and the street surrounding the booth. And as unlikely as it sounds, this movie is gripping! It’s also a rather conservative film.

** spoiler alert **

Phone Booth is the story of uber-jerk Stu Shepard (Colin Farrell), a small time New York City publicist. He lies to his clients, tricks newspapers into publishing stories about his clients, flirts with having an affair and generally mistreats everyone in his life. Every day at the same time, he uses a phone booth to place a call to the woman he’s flirting with, so his wife doesn’t see a cell phone record. On this particular day, Stu receives a call when he steps into the booth. The call is from an unknown man (Kiefer Sutherland) who argues with Stu and seems to know everything about him. As Stu is about to hang up, the caller tells Stu that he has a rifle pointed at the phone booth and that if Stu leaves the booth, he will be killed. Stu must then deal with a series of challenges including the police.
Phone Booth is a fascinating film precisely because of the difficulty in getting a film like this to work. You have limited visuals you can offer the audience because the film is confined to a very small set. You need the perfect actors because they have to carry the plot with little help from modern storytelling techniques. There is no CGI, no high speed chases, and only one man is in danger. Not to mention, you need to come up with a reason why this film stays confined to the phone booth and why the conflict you will use to keep the audience hooked must play out there.

In fact, the idea of a film taking place entirely within a phone booth was originally pitched by writer Larry Cohen to Alfred Hitchcock in the 1960s. Hitchcock liked the idea, but he and Cohen couldn’t come up with a reason why the story would stay confined to the phone booth. Thirty years later, Cohen came up with the right idea: a sniper. What Cohen did was invent a character, the caller, who wanted to toy with Stu. Making him a sniper justified keeping the story in the phone booth. As an interesting aside, this film ultimately had its release date pushed back because of the DC Sniper.

But more importantly than coming up with the sniper, Cohen brilliantly gave the character a truly twisted motivation. Specifically, the caller sees himself as the good guy, and he thinks his calling (pun intended) is to get Stu to admit the lies he’s been telling himself and others, which the caller thinks will make Stu a better man.

This is a fascinating motive if you think about it. On the one hand, the caller is right. He wants Stu to be a better man, and if Stu stops lying he would be. This in turn would make everyone happier and better off in Stu’s world. Thus, in many ways, this is an admirable goal, and you could easily see this being an uplifting movie about a priest or therapist or friend who struggles to teach this to Stu. BUT, the way the caller chooses to go about this goal ultimately makes him a sadistic and evil villain. This makes the character very interesting.
At the same time, this desire to cure Stu gives Farrell a lot to work with. Farrell is forced to admit to his wife that he is flirting with another woman. He’s forced to admit that he’s been misleading his intern. And ultimately, he’s forced to admit that his self-image isn’t what he projects. And in the process, Stu grows tremendously as a character, with a truly cathartic moment coming when he finally decides to free himself of the caller’s trap. This is great writing. But even more so, this is great acting. I’m not sure another actor could have pulled this off. Farrell plays Stu so odiously at first, but somehow keeps you from hating him. I attribute this entirely to the likeability Farrell projects onto the screen. He then makes every moment believable as Stu struggles with staying in the phone booth as the outside world (including Police Captain Ramey (Forest Whitaker)) tries to get him out. And finally, he is absolutely convincing as someone who has an epiphany in the midst of what appears to be a breakdown. Farrell proves beyond any doubt that he is a top actor in this film and he makes this film work.
There’s also an interesting political undercurrent here, though the film is in no way political. This is one of those films which I would describe as premised on conservative values even as it does not espouse conservatism. For example, the things Stu has done “wrong” align strongly with traditional moral beliefs. Lying is wrong (something liberals excuse if the motive is a good one). Infidelity is wrong, but even more so, flirting with infidelity is wrong. This goes against the liberal ideas of no-fault relationships, that men naturally stray, and that we should not judge people’s behavior. When Stuart breaks down, we are then introduced to the idea of shame, another traditional belief liberals now reject. We are shown through the sniper that just because you have good motives doesn’t excuse your bad deeds. This flies in the face of much of liberalism which says force is justified to make people better. Finally, we are shown the idea of self-help. Indeed, Stu does not rely on the cops to save him, he helps him self and finds the only true solution. This again goes against the liberal idea that the individual is powerless to help themselves and must rely on government experts to save them. I’m not saying these points are intentional made as a political statement, but they are how the story operates and the unconscious message it sends.

In the end, this is a fascinating, gripping film. This film shows that all the things Hollywood thinks you need, e.g. CGI, chase scenes, shootouts at touristy locations, etc., aren’t necessary. All it really takes is solid writing. I highly recommend this film.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Some Thoughts On Blade Runner

There are seven known versions of Blade Runner. This weekend, I watched the three BIG versions of Blade Runner back to back to back. Yes, yes I did. Why? Because one of the HBO channels was showing them. It was fascinating watching all three and seeing the differences and this got me wondering about a couple things I’d like to discuss. Feel free to share your own views and add any other issues you’d like to discuss.

Issue One: To Narrate Or Not To Narrate. Not. When the film hit theaters in America, the suits decided the film needed a narration in the beginning where Harrison Ford explains who his character and some of the others are, what the world is like, what his mission is, and basically what you’re watching. This narration lasts sporadically for the first 5-10 minutes. This sucks. When you see the later versions, especially the final cut, there is no narration and it is much easier to get into the ambiance of the film. The world feels more real and your mind is more awake understanding what is happening. Moreover, all the actors are excellent, as is the direction, and you absolutely don’t need the information provided by the narration to understand everything going on, so it adds nothing at the cost of much. Leaving the narration off improves this film by an order of magnitude.

Issue Two: And They Lived Happily Ever After (Until They Were Killed Outside The Apartment). The studio also demanded that Scott add a happy ending to the original release. The final cut removes this and it works much better. Indeed, the happy ending makes much in the film nonsense. The atmosphere of the film works because you have a sense that the earth has been run down to the point we see on screen. If, at the end, Deckard can just hop in his car and drive off to beautiful countryside, then why is everyone living in Craptopolis? Doesn’t that undercut the whole dystopia?

Moreover, this blows a hole in the question of whether or not Deckard is human. Gaff would not have let Deckard go rogue if he was a Replicant. So when Deckard tells us that Gaff lets him and Rachel go because he thinks Rachel will die any minute, that tells us Gaff doesn’t think Deckard is a Replicant. Case pretty much closed. Except, Gaff still leaves an origami unicorn for Deckard to find. Doesn't this mean Gaff thinks Deckard is a Replicant? Indeed, in the final cut, Deckard has a unicorn dream, suggesting that Gaff knows his memories, just as Deckard knows Rachel’s, i.e. he’s not real.

Issue Three: Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? So what exactly is a Replicant? The view most everyone seems to have held for years, me included, was that Replicants are machines. We’re told they’re manufactures and they’re called machines and skinjobs (i.e. metal covered by fake skin) throughout. They even appear to have superhuman skills. But upon further review, there are so many hints that Replicants are actually cloned humans. They speak at times of the Replicants being grown, and they use the term “bio” to describe them, suggesting living tissue. Moreover, none of the manufacturing comments at all preclude the Replicants being grown.

Issue Four: Who dat? Finally, I got to wondering, how would the film have turned out if they had used a different actor? Apparently, Gene Hackman, Sean Connery, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and even Arnold Schwarzenegger were considered. I think replacing Harrison Ford with any of these actors would have completely changed the tenor of the movie and it would not have been as effective. The one actor I could possibly see replacing Ford would be Kurt Russell, but that’s about it.


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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 18

Cool lines make films. They are the moments you remember, the highlights as it were, and you can quote me on that. Star Trek is no different and it's provided some great quotes throughout the years!

Question: "What are your five favorite Star Trek quotes?"

Scott's Answer:

1. Spock: "It knows only that it needs, Commander. But, like so many of us, it does not know what." (Star Trek: TMP)

2. Kirk (to Gillian): "You're not exactly catching us at our best."
Spock: "That much is certain." (Star Trek IV)

3. Kirk: "What does God need with a starship?" (Star Trek V)

4. Data: "Believing oneself to be perfect is often the sign of a delusional mind." (Star Trek: First Contact)

5. Dr. Crusher: "If there's nothing wrong with me, maybe there's something wrong with the universe." (Star Trek: TNG "Remember Me")

Andrew's Answer:

1. Spock: "I have been, and always shall be, your friend." (Star Trek II)

2. Kirk: "Here it comes." (Star Trek II)

3. Kirk: "What does God need with a starship?" (Star Trek V)

4. Kirk: "We can admit that we're killers, but we're not going to kill today. That's all it takes. Knowing that we won't kill today." (Star Trek "A Taste of Armageddon)

5. Spock: "You may find that having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting. This is not logical, but it is often true." (Star Trek "Amok Time")

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 42

All the world’s a sitcom writ large. . . or something like that. But hey, who hasn’t enjoyed a good sitcom now and then?

What is your favorite sitcom?

Panelist: AndrewPrice

This is a tough one. I generally have stopped watching modern sitcoms because they're all the same. But I did like a lot of the older ones. Probably the one which stands out the most for me, strangely, is Barney Miller. It was depressing, it had that 1970s "the world is breaking down" sense, and it wasn't particularly zany like a WKRP, but it was just a truly enjoyable show. Brownies anyone?

Panelist: BevfromNYC

My all time favorite sitcom is Sports Night though I have to throw in The Big Bang Theory for current shows. However now that there are a plethora of cable stations that broadcast television shows from the 70’s, 60’s and even the 50’s I get the opportunity to revisit some really great television – The Jack Benny Show and the Burns & Allen Show – now those were great sitcoms!

Panelist: T-Rav

Technically, I’m not sure it qualifies as a “sitcom,” but I absolutely love The Office. Or at least, I really loved the early and middle seasons. Nowadays it’s not as great, but most of the Steve Carell era had good storylines, strong chemistry between the actors, and some memorable jokes. After all, if not for Michael Scott, we would never have the phrase “That’s what she said,” and where would we be without that?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Cosby Show. Second place Mary Tyler Moore. Positive fun prior to the slutty young adult meme of today.

Panelist: ScottDS

Of all-time? Probably Newsradio which edges out Seinfeld by a hair. I truly believe it's the last great three-camera workplace sitcom, the ensemble cast was pitch-perfect, and unlike Seinfeld, there were no bad episodes. I don't know how I managed to follow it across five different time slots (at least!) over five years. My favorite current sitcom is Community.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Open Thread, Film Style

Once again, I got nothing for ya today. So sad. The old brain-thingy just couldn’t get it focused, nothing I watched spoke to me, and the world has run out of ideas. So let’s turn the floor over to you, loyal readers! 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? Or tell us about something else. Speak your mind.
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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Guest Review: Another Earth (2011)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

This “indie” production is the first feature film collaboration between director Mike Cahill, and his long time friend, actress Brit Marling. They met while studying at Georgetown University, and co-produced and co-wrote Another Earth. Cahill directs, edits, and does cinematography while Marling takes lead acting responsibility. Made on a shoestring budget, the film received critical audience acclaim at the Sundance Festival, winning a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures. Largely unknown, this is an interesting film on several levels. Particularly noteworthy is the acting debut of Brit Marling. I unhesitatingly recommend this one, so letʼs discuss why, and review both strengths and weaknesses.

** spoiler alert **

The Plot - Rhoda Williams (Marling) is a high school senior celebrating early acceptance into M.I.T.ʼs astrophysics program. After drinks with some friends, she starts her drive home, and hears on the radio that a new previously “hidden” planet has been discovered, appears to be moving closer to Earth, and is visible to the naked eye in the evening. While sticking her head out the window to try and spot it, she crashes into John Burroughs (William Mapother) who is driving home with his family. His pregnant wife and child are both killed instantly, and he lapses into a coma. Instead of heading off to M.I.T., Rhoda finds herself a convicted felon sentenced to nearly four years in jail.
The story quickly jumps ahead to her release as she returns home to live with her parents and younger brother. Profoundly changed by the experience, Rhoda takes a job as a school janitor to limit her contact with others. She learns that Burroughs had been a music professor at Yale University and highly regarded composer.

Attempting to work through her guilt, Rhoda visits the crash scene on the 4th anniversary of the accident, and sees Burroughs (recovered from his coma) leave a toy as a memorial. Later, she is compelled to visit his home to try to apologize, but when he opens the door, she is unable to summon the courage to do so, instead claiming to be an employee of a maid service offering a free trial cleaning. At first, John refuses, but reconsiders, given that his house represents a drunken disaster of trash and empty liquor bottles. Clearly he too is still coping with enormous grief. After seeing the great job she does, he reluctantly agrees to let her come once a week.

At this point, just as the story seems headed in an all too predictable dramatic direction, another concurrent plot-line begins to take shape. The new planet with its moon now dominates the sky. Evidently it is not merely similar to earth, but an actual mirror image. Whenever Rhoda is not working, she is transfixed by the object that caused her life to change so dramatically. As national news networks carry a live feed, Dr. Joan Talis (Diane Ciesla), a government scientist, attempts to contact potential life forms there. The entire world is shocked when she not only receives a vocal reply, but the response is apparently from Dr. Talis herself. This information raises the potential specter of the “other” earth as some kind of parallel universe existing adjacent to our own. Speculation begins immediately as to whether everyone on our earth has a corresponding “duplicate” on the other. A wealthy entrepreneur sponsors a mission to the other earth, and promises to take along the winner of an essay contest about why the writer wishes to go. Of course, Rhoda writes an essay and enters.

While that plot thread moves forward, Rhoda and John continue to build their relationship, gradually realizing they have each made the other smile and laugh again. Soon, things escalate to a more romantic and physical level. Inevitably, Rhoda learns she has been chosen as the winner of the essay contest, and rushes to tell John. He immediately toasts her stating “to your most improbable dream coming true,” then decides to cook her a celebratory dinner. After dinner, realizing how much he cares for her, John pleads with Rhoda to stay with him and not go to the other world. In what is perhaps the most emotional moment in the movie, she explains why she cannot remain, and finally confesses her true identity. However, to find out how this all ultimately plays out, you will need to either see the film or seek out a review that spills the beans.

Strengths - The two main characters are believable and sell the story. Enough credibility straining plot holes exist to potentially sink this film were it not for the superb performance of the two lead actors. Mapother is a character actor with recognizable, memorable facial features. Heʼs best known for In the Bedroom, and as a recurring character on Lost. By drawing from his own experience and talking with people who have had similar experiences, his interpretation of John Burroughs feels very real.

Brit Marling is nothing short of amazing in her debut performance and credits her work as co-writer for allowing her to “become the character”. I had been greatly impressed by Jennifer Lawrence in the film Winterʼs Bone, but must state Marling is equally impressive here. Perhaps the fact neither was well known at the time of release adds to their credibility, but I expect to see a continuation of good things in the future from both Marling and Lawrence.

A second positive is that the film is devoid of political agenda themes that make many of todayʼs films distasteful. The story was developed from a conversation between Cahill and Marling about what it would actually be like to encounter a true Doppleganger. From this, they slowly developed their story, one which is ultimately hopeful.
The final major strength is the integration of two very different genreʼs into a single film. The underlying story is a fairly standardized drama about how two people sharing a common tragedy relate to each other; the second is a science fantasy about parallel realities, dopplegangers, and how it might actually feel to meet or at least see yourself from the outside as others see you. Alone, these themes are hardly unique, but the combination of the two creates a nice twist that elevates the plot above the mundane and helps prevent it from descending to the level of cliché.

Weaknesses - The plot is, to say the least, highly improbable, and the science behind the duplicate planet is not at all well explained. While I did find this bothersome to an extent, I again point out that the skill of the two actors really shines through in selling their story, allowing the viewer to largely overlook the issue. I tend to agree with one reviewer who likened the story to an episode of Twilight Zone. Viewers of that series rarely had any problem suspending belief if the storyline itself was otherwise sufficiently engaging.

Cinematography, as might be expected, looks low budget. They couldnʼt afford elaborate sets or gaffers. But after viewing the special feature on the Blu-Ray disc where Cahill and Marling discuss the problems they faced, my appreciation is raised for the solutions they found. There are many views of the planet in the sky above New Haven—almost too many. I found myself thinking “o.k., I get it, thatʼs your big effect; now show me something different.”

I also found the romance that developed between John and Rhoda too predictable, almost inevitable, and as such, slightly off-putting. Had the film makers not added the twist of the duplicate planet, I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much despite the great acting.

Conclusion - As a first effort, it was nice to see these young film makers achieve some critical (if not financial) success. The film ends abruptly and leaves plenty of room for the viewer to ponder where the story might lead if it had continued. If you havenʼt seen it, at only 90 minutes, it should be well worth your time. Sound of My Voice, Marlingʼs second effort was released earlier this year, and after reading some reviews and seeing this film, I canʼt wait to see it. These are the films that keep my interest in movies alive.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 17

It’s easy to criticize, but much harder to create. We’ve criticized the Star Trek movies a good deal, so maybe it’s time to offer some tips on how we would improve them? This week, it’s Scott’s turn!

Question: "Scott, How would you improve Star Trek: Nemesis?"

Scott's Answer: Star Trek: Nemesis is a conceptually-flawed movie and it had several things working against it, including a director who didn't do his homework, a producer who had been involved with the franchise for a tad too long, two lead actors who had too much clout and veto power, and an overall sense of what many refer to as "franchise fatigue." Oh yeah, and a release date that put the film against The Two Towers and James Bond.

I confess I can't recall much about Romulan politics at the moment. Many fans consider this film a missed opportunity to do something with characters like Sela (Denise Crosby) or Tomalak (the late Andreas Katsulas) or even Spock and the Reunification Movement. I don't share their views but what I do mind is the ham-handed backstory: the idea that Picard was cloned by the Romulans years ago as part of some secret plan to infiltrate Starfleet. The plan was abandoned, Shinzon was sent to the Reman mines where he suffered at the hands of the Romulans until the Remans took him under their wing... and now he wants to go after Earth? Just why did the Romulans choose Picard all those years ago? How did they get that close to him? If they could somehow infiltrate Starfleet back then, why not go with a bolder plan instead?

I like the idea of a secret cloning program authorized (or not?) by the Romulan government. But I would've liked to see a sequence in which the various Romulan bureaucrats weed out potential Starfleet officers. Perhaps a pre-credit teaser where we see various "possibilities" displayed, with Picard getting the highest marks. "This one will go far..." Then we could meet the operative assigned to get Picard's DNA. A good old-fashioned undercover operation... or perhaps a suicide mission? What kind of man would take the job?

Shinzon's plan to annihilate Earth comes straight from the "Let's do it just like Wrath of Khan!" school of Star Trek filmmaking. Instead, perhaps Shinzon could've wanted revenge against the Romulans who created him in the first place, with Picard and Co. forced to intervene on behalf of the Federation in order to prevent a war. The way the film plays now, the "Nature vs. Nurture" theme is there but not explored to its full potential. With Shinzon going after the Romulans, we also get the "Son vs. Father" theme (it's all very Oedipal!). Perhaps Shinzon could actually meet the man (or woman) who created him and see their previous Shinzon clones that didn't work (shades of Alien: Resurrection). Shinzon admires Picard and what he stands for but is blinded by hate. He doesn't want war but he can't let the Romulans get away with what they did to him. The entire time, we'd be asking ourselves whether or not this is human nature (revenge), or part of his programming (a rogue geneticist at work?), or a symptom of the conditions in which he grew up.

I'd probably scrap the B-4 subplot though if I had to include it, I wouldn't have Data die at the end... or I'd have B-4 die at the end instead. In the film, Data dies but the emotional impact is negated literally minutes later by B-4's reappearance. It's a total cop-out. Brent Spiner has said on numerous occasions that he felt too old to play an android that doesn't age, however there was an episode where they mentioned his aging program. Problem solved! If the B-4 subplot goes, so does the irrelevant chase scene on the planet with the aliens we never meet again. I would also reinstate most of the deleted scenes, including a thematically-relevant scene with Picard and Data where Data ponders the passage of time.

I think this film was a lost opportunity to rekindle the Picard/Beverly romance. Here's my take: we start the film with the aforementioned Romulan/clone scenes, followed by a beautiful title sequence featuring scenic shots of the Alaskan tundra (accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith's score), and then the Riker/Troi wedding. Picard and Crusher can share a nice moment on the dance floor where they reminisce about things past and speculate, as all Trek characters do, about the future. At the end of the film, during the "wake" for Data, they could hold hands - faced with the death of a long-time friend and fellow officer who was supposed to outlast everyone else, they realize life is short after all. Instead of Admiral Janeway giving Picard his orders via subspace, I'd have her show up in person at the wedding, which would give a sense of urgency to the proceedings.

I apologize for the meandering nature of this piece. When it comes to this film, I feel there's nothing worse than squandered potential. What say you?

Andrew's Reply: I like what you've done here, Scott. I think the biggest flaw at the center of this film is that the cloning plot has nothing to do with the rest of it. In fact, that sounds like it would have made a better film. But instead we just get, "Oh yeah, the guy from that cooler movie wants to destroy Earth for no apparent reason." I think at least adding the intro you discuss would have helped a lot, so would tying the rest of the movie into the cloning plot. At the very least, it could have added intrigue to a movie which was little more than "go there, shoot, end movie." I also like the idea of the Picard/Crusher romance as that would have been a stronger bit of character development than them focusing on how Data differs from his moronic cousin. . . and, as an aside, I still don't understand where the Romulans found him? Nice work, Scott.

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 41

We've spoken already about modern heroes and about anti-heroes, but what about classic heroes?

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

Panelist: T-Rav

In a completely arbitrary decision, I'm going to say Charlton Heston. He just commands the screen whenever he's on it, and he exudes such toughness and inner strength (The Ten Commandments, Planet of the Apes), you can't overrate his value. And his later work with the NRA doesn't hurt.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

James Bond in Dr. No. First time you see him in the casino in a tuxedo oozes charisma.

Panelist: ScottDS

Steve McQueen, though I've only seen a few of his films. When a friend of mine saw The Great Escape for the first time recently, I asked him about McQueen and my friend said that, while he wasn't the best actor in the film, you couldn't help but pay him your undivided attention whenever he was on screen. And for those who doubt his acting skills, I have one word: Papillon.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

There are so many to choose from, but the one who stands out above all is Steve McQueen. He is just the definition of cool.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, June 8, 2012

Film Friday: Army of Darkness (1992)

Army of Darkness fascinates me. This film shouldn’t work. It can’t decide if it’s serious or a comedy, which means it’s neither funny nor scary nor action-packed, and its hero is intensely unlikeable. Yet, this film works. Indeed, it’s become a cult classic because it works so well. Why does it work? Bruce Campbell.

** spoiler alert **

Army of Darkness is the third in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, though it’s nothing at all like the first two. This is the story of Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) a clerk at S-Mart, a low-end chain store, who gets pulled through a time portal to the 14th Century. Once there, he’s immediately captured by Lord Arthur, who believes Ash is a spy for a rival. Arthur throws Ash into a pit to fight a Deadite, an undead creature. Ash (sort of) kills the Deadite with his rifle and is soon celebrated as a hero.
As the hero, Ash is sent on a quest to obtain a magic book, the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis. This book will rid the kingdom of evil and will allow Arthur’s wise men to send Ash back to the future, but he must use magic words before picking up the book. On his journey, Ash encounters a haunted forest and fights various copies of himself. When he finally finds the book, he fails to say the magic words (“Klaatu barada nikto”) properly so that he can take the book away safely. As a result an army of the undead arises and comes after him, and things go wrong(er) from there.

Army of Darkness shouldn’t work. Indeed, nothing about this film suggests it would be enjoyable. The plot, what there is of it, is pathetically simple, and indeed it ends up more a collection of gags than a plot. The characters are shallow and uninteresting -- you won’t even remember their names. The film itself can’t decide if it’s horror, action or comedy, and it meanders into all three areas without ever really being good at any of those genres. And the real kicker is Ash. He’s a truly unlikeable blowhard. He’s arrogant, stupid and a real jerk. He doesn’t care about anyone except himself, he constantly gets into trouble because he’s unwilling to admit he’s overmatched and he won’t accept help, he’s unreliable, and he never once learns from his mistakes. . . in fact, that’s a running gag. In real life, you would absolutely hate this man. And even on film, it should be impossible to like him.

Yet, this film really works, and the reason it works is because Ash is such a compelling character. He’s compelling because he’s a train wreck waiting to happen. Ash does everything wrong every time. But not only does he do everything wrong, he knows he’s doing it wrong! This is where Campbell’s acting comes into play.

Under normal circumstance, a character who is arrogant and refuses to admit he’s wrong will annoy an audience. To make such a character palatable to the audience, most actors make the character into a bit of a farce, by making the character oblivious -- as Peter Sellers did with Inspector Clouseau or Mike Meyers did with Dr. Evil. Campbell makes a different choice. He tells the audience directly that Ash knows he’s making a mistake, but he lacks the strength of personality to change his ways.
Consider, for example, the scene where Ash is supposed to say the magic words “Klaatu barada nikto.” He knows he’s forgotten the final word, as evidenced by his nervous look before he says the words. But he’s too lazy to go back and ask. So instead, he proudly says the first two words and then tries to cover the third word with a cough, as if he could fool the universe itself. Then he looks around nervously to see if anything bad has happened. When he sees nothing bad, he becomes intensely proud of himself and acts like he got away with it, but he finishes with a quick, nervous glance to tell the audience he knows he’s kidding himself. Then he grabs the book and sets events into motion.

Now consider what he’s done here. First, he alerts us there is a problem. This gets the audience to hold their breath in anticipation of how this crisis will be solved. Then he tries to fake the words, which gets the audience laughing at his stupidity. Then he very arrogantly acts like he got away with it. That’s the set up moment because now you know there will be a train wreck coming. Indeed, every time Ash acts arrogantly, you know he’s about to take a beating. But then he flashes you that brief look to tell you he knows he’s about to take a beating. . . but he does it anyway. This last moment is what makes him likeable. The fact he forgot the word is annoying. His solution is laughable. His arrogance should be off-putting. But the fact he admits that he knows he’s in trouble and then goes ahead and acts anyway is genius. It puts us entirely on his side because it exposes “the real character” underneath, who is willing to plow ahead despite being fully well aware that he’s out of his league and who knows that his own flaws make his problems worse.

In this regard, Ash is very similar to Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) from Big Trouble In Little China. Burton is another character who is big on self-aggrandizement and short on worthwhile skills. But as with Ash, you enjoy watching blowhard Burton because Russell gives you little suggestions throughout that “the real Burton” knows he’s out of his league, yet he continues nevertheless.
In a strange sort of way, this makes these characters endearing. Both Burton and Ash have tragic flaws, just like every other tragic hero written. But whereas other tragic heroes are unaware of their flaws and are undone by them, and thus are tragic, Burton and Ash are both well aware of their flaws yet they are unwilling to fix them. Yet, despite being fully aware of this, both Burton and Ash are ultimately truly heroic because they charge forward even when they know they are about to take a beating. And this puts the audience in an odd spot of simultaneously cheering for the characters, because they are ultimately brave and noble, but also wanting to see them take a beating because they’re jerks who deserve it. This makes them compelling. But it’s the great acting skills of Russell and Campbell which sell this dichotomy to the audience. A little to either side, either the more serious side or the more comedic side, and these characters wouldn’t have worked at all.

I guess the takeaway from this film is that you can wrap your hero in some rather unappealing personality traits so long as they project the right values through their actions and so long as you have an actor people are inclined to like no matter how much they misbehave.


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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

I Need Your Help! :)

Folks, I need your help. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve written two books, and now they are available at Amazon on the Kindle and in paperback. You could all really help me out by buying them and then posting reviews at Amazon, because more than anything else, reviews make books successful these days. Please do me this favor! I’ve even discounted them this week as a blog-buddy discount.

The two books are legal thrillers (the conservative film book will come later in the year). I’ve priced both books on the Kindle at $5 for the next couple days so you all can get them cheaper. Sometime this weekend the prices will go up to $7.99. The paperbacks are $14.99 because of their pricing rules.

If you don’t have a Kindle, you can turn your computer/tablet/phone/etc. into one with a free app from Amazon (HERE) or you can read it at the Amazon cloud.

Thanks for your help everyone! Here are details on the two books:

The first book is Without A Hitch. It’s a story of a government attorney who comes up with the perfect crime, but things go wrong in a rather unexpected way. I don’t want to say too much more because I don’t want to ruin the surprise. But I’ve had several people read it and they’ve all been amazingly positive in their reviews.

Here’s the Kindle link: Without A Hitch. You can get to the paperback through my author page here.

The second book is Wrongful Death, it’s a crime story wrapped up in a medical malpractice case. Again, my readers were exceedingly positive.

Here’s the Kindle link: Wrongful Death. Again, you can find the paperback at my author page here.

I’ve also set up pretty cool websites for each: Without A Hitch, Wrongful Death and an author blog AndrewPriceBooks. Please check those out too! Thanks everybody!

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 16

It’s easy to criticize, but much harder to create. We’ve criticized the Star Trek movies a good deal, so maybe it’s time to offer some tips on how we would improve them?

Question: "Andrew, How would you improve Star Trek III?"

Andrew’s Answer: How would I fix Star Trek III? Hmm. This one needs serious reconstruction. The main point to the film is to find a way to bring Spock back. The rest is kind of filler. Oh, and somebody needs to kill off Kirk’s annoying, whiny, pathetic son so Kirk doesn’t end up tied down to this dork in future films.

Let’s start.

First, Kirk’s son: The film should start with a security crew meeting the Enterprise as she returns to port. They are here to arrest Dr. Marcus and son for the high crime of using an illegal substance in the Genesis device. . . flubber. Kirk wants to help them, but he gets called away to a special de-briefing, where he is told Starfleet intends to destroy the new planet. They don’t tell him why. He’s ordered to remain silent about the mission and told all mission logs have been classified.

Next, we need a way to make the McCoy split-personality problem compelling. One of the problems with the split-personality problem in Star Trek III was that there wasn’t really urgency on McCoy’s end. And having him wandering around muttering like Spock once in a while isn’t enough. Instead, McCoy needs to really go crazy. So as Kirk leaves the briefing, worrying about his soon-to-be-dead gay son, he learns that McCoy grabbed a phaser and shot his way off the Enterprise. Once in space dock, he steals a small starship and leaves the planet. This starship belongs to a mobster type (named “MacGuffin”), who immediately sends two ships after him.

Kirk asks for permission to find McCoy, but Starfleet refuses. So Kirk and the other officers steal the Enterprise without telling the crew what they are doing. They chase after McCoy, who needs to stop somewhere on route to let his ship’s engines recharge. This gives Kirk the challenge of tracking him down, before the other bad guys find him, while Starfleet sends the Excelsior after Kirk.

When they come to the first planet where they think McCoy will be, they find a ship which matches the description of the one McCoy took. They board it and encounter the first team of mobsters. This is when Kirk learns of the danger McCoy is in from the mobsters. He also learns that McCoy landed here, that he had burned out his engines to get here so fast, and that he stole a new ship and left.

Meanwhile, McCoy is starting to get his head together. But he won’t turn around because he’s driven to find Spock. This is an instinctual hold-over of the mind meld. But he doesn’t know he’s being followed, so he slows the ship to prevent burning out the engines. This will allow the mobsters to catch up to him. And since he doesn’t know who they are, this puts him in a lot of danger.

Kirk, meanwhile, is racing to find him and encounters the Excelsior and another Enterprise class ship (the Commentarama). He needs to decide if he’s willing to fire on them or not and what he will tell his crew if he does. Kirk comes clean with his crew and tells them he will surrender, but the crew decide they want to save McCoy. So they pull a trick and escape. While this is going on, we get interspersed scenes of McCoy being found by the mobsters. McCoy convinces them there’s a huge secret on the Genesis planet and they decide to check it out before they kill him.

McCoy and the mobsters arrive at the Genesis planet first and find a three ship blockade blocking the planet, with orders to kill anyone who comes near the planet. They are preparing a second Genesis device which they think will explode the planet. Kirk arrives just in time to save McCoy and the mobsters as their ship is blown to pieces. Kirk then confronts McCoy and McCoy tells him he’s drawn to where Spock is. Kirk says, “He’s dead Bones.” And McCoy says, “Don’t you get it Jim? I’m drawn to where is he is because he’s alive.”

Kirk then talks his way to the planet, where they realize that Spock is indeed alive because the material used in the Genesis Planet rejuvenates life and heals animal tissue. He’s just in a coma because McCoy has his consciousness. That is the secret Starfleet is trying to protect because Starfleet doesn’t want anyone knowing that flubber can keep anyone from dying because if no one died anymore, the universe would become a horrible place.

When McCoy finds Spock, Spock is magically restored and McCoy is healed. Then Kirk is taken into custody. The last line in the movie would be something like, “sometimes the needs of the one. . . or the two, outweigh the needs of the many.”

Then Star Trek IV can start with Kirk and the other officers aboard a prison shuttle on their way to Earth, rather than the Klingon cruiser.

Scott's Response: Not bad. Some of what I have to say is simply window-dressing, though. Who exactly are these mobsters and why is their ship parked in a Starfleet facility? Perhaps McCoy could instead beam down to Earth and get involved with some shady characters (smugglers or something), stealing their ship and promising to pay upon his return. And I assume Lt. Saavik is still on the Enterprise? Without her to "help" with Pon Farr, the Spock they find on the planet might be a wreck, whether he's conscious or not. Assuming he isn't affected while he's unconscious, he'd definitely have some wild oats to sow once he's back!

While I understand the reason, I'd hate to just drop Carol and David in the first five minutes, never to revisit them or their crime. That's a talk Kirk needs to have with them at some point. I'm glad you still worked in the theft of the Enterprise (arguably the best scene in the film). It wasn't clear from the description but I assume Kirk still blows it up in this version? I only ask because, while you and I are working in a vacuum, this film did set up a lot of stuff for later films (Kirk's attitude towards the Klingons, getting a new ship in the next film, etc.).

Lastly, David Marcus wasn't gay though the actor playing him might've been. But your comment reminded me of a line in Heathers: "I love my dead gay son!" Then again, since he's arrested at the beginning, does he still die in this story?

Andrew’s Reply: Scott, let's see what the readers think about those questions. . . and what else they would add?

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 40

Sometimes you can't top perfection. Sometimes you can. Maybe Star Wars could have been better with a little tweak here and there?

If you were going to recast Darth Vader as a female character, who would you choose?

Panelist: BevfromNYC

I am not sure, but I bet Angelica Huston might be evil enough. There’s always Glenn Close or Meryl Streep. And if you want to recast Spaceballs, then I would choose Linda Hunt!

Panelist: T-Rav

I'd have to pick Tilda Swinton, in light of her work in the Narnia movies, Constantine, and a couple others. There's a vague creepiness in her characters, combined with an ice-cold demeanor and a hidden ferocity, which I think would work very well for a female Vader. She does the villain thing very well.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Darth Vaderess? Look, I so want to put in Barbra Streisand who is one ugly woman with a good voice who had the clout to cast herself in romantic leads with Redford and Kristofferson (I can almost visualize the hurl leaking between my fingers as I furiously try and hold back the enevitable tide of spew just thinking about her. Besides, she has the morals of a pig. Alas, this is a serious question and deserves an equally serious answer, so I'll go with Grace Jones.

Panelist: ScottDS

I'll say Louise Fletcher, best known as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Kai Winn in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I realize this may be a cop out answer for people familiar with those two characters but if Fletcher can do one thing, it's evil... and not just evil, but the ruthlessly efficient banal brand of evil which is much harder to pull off. (Incidentally, a cursory glance at her IMDb page reveals a lot of guest starring roles on TV but only a handful of memorable films. I guess this proves winning an Oscar doesn't guarantee immortality.)

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Julie Andrews. Wait, I'm kidding! My choice is Joanna Cassidy. She was the girlfriend in Roger Rabbit, replicant Zhora in Blade Runner, and has had numerous other "tough guy" roles. She's very able to project strength and strength of personality.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, June 1, 2012

Film Friday: Dreamcatcher (2003)

I’ve soured on Stephen King over the years. He steals his ideas from movies and his writing has become pedestrian and packed with nonsense and stereotypes. His movies are worse. Dreamcatcher is a good example of this. Indeed, despite being well-shot by Lawrence Kasdan and packed with solid actors like Morgan Freeman, Tom Sizemore, Timothy Oliphant and Thomas Jane, Dreamcatcher really highlights the shortcomings of King’s work over the past few decades.

** spoiler alert **

Dreamcatcher is the story of four friends who go to a cabin in Maine to relax. Unbeknownst to them, a hostile alien spaceship has crashed nearby and the Army has come to kill the aliens. While the Army is busy doing this, one of the aliens takes over the body of one of the friends and sets out for Boston to put worms into the water supply. These worms would infect the entire population and produce millions of aliens. But the four friends have a secret weapon. . . they had a retarded friend as a child, and as we all know, retarded kids have special powers. Here’s where this film fails:
The Tired Formulas: Right out of the gates, Dreamcatcher presents us with the incredibly-tired, standard King formulas. You’ve got the evil, out-of-control military commander who decides to needlessly murder people. You’ve got the alcoholic. You’ve got the four friends who’ve been friends since childhood in their idyllic small town just like in Stand By Me and It. And the coup de grace, you’ve got the retarded kid who needs to be saved from the bullies, who then turns out to have special magical powers which are needed to solve the movie.

The Rip-Offs: As you watch the film, you will get a strange sense of déjà vu, like you’ve seen everything in it before. This has become a standard feeling in King movies. Indeed, it seems that the way King writes books now is to rent all the popular movies on a particular topic, e.g. zombies, and then steal the best scenes from each movie and string them together in a new book. For example, when you watch something like Rose Red you can literally call out the movies he’s stealing from scene by scene. Dreamcatcher isn’t as bad as most of his recent work in this regard, but there is absolutely nothing original about the film at any point. King also seems determined to strew this film with references to better movies, like calling the alien virus “Ripley.” And to add insult to injury, he actually has Morgan Freeman tell you, “the men call the red stuff ‘Ripley’, after the broad in the Alien movies,” because you stupid viewers might not get such an incredibly obvious reference.

The Nonsense: Where Dreamcatcher really underwhelms, however, is in all the nonsense at the heart of this film. Consider Duddits, the retarded kid. It’s rather asinine that King always pretends that retarded kids somehow have special powers. It’s like the racist portrayal of the “noble savage” (renamed “the magic negro”), where these non-mainstream individuals are presented as non-threatening, simpletons with a special gift of insight. King is famous for this, but that’s just the surface problem here.
The real problem is that Duddits isn’t human at all, he’s an alien in disguise, but no one seems to realize this -- including his own mother. Huh? The mother, by the way, lets one of the friends take cancer-stricken Duddits away to hunt the bad alien because she’d rather he died somewhere unknown rather than at home. Huh? Worst of all, for this movie to work, Duddits needs to misunderstand one of the other friends (as a kid) when he says “save the world another day.” Duddits hears this as “save the world from Mr. Gray.” So Duddits gives them all special powers which they will need 30 years later to fight against Mr. Gray himself, who crashes on earth by accident. In other words, Duddits knew that the four friends would go on vacation in 30 years near the crash site of an alien ship that just happened to be carrying Mr. Gray, and which would crash unintentionally, and that Mr. Gray would just happened to stumble upon the four friends in the vast Maine wilderness. Yeah, no coincidence there.

This is so far beyond the level of believable coincidence that you have to assume Duddits can predict the future. But if that’s the case, why not just visit them at the cabin and save them? Or tell them what they need to know. Also, how in the world can Duddits be portrayed as a genuinely retarded kid and adult, yet he ends up being more than a match for the highly-intelligent and maniacal Mr. Gray?

Then you have the relationship between Freeman, who plays Colonel Curtis, and Sizemore, who plays Owen, his second in command. These two guys are tight friends who have been fighting aliens together long enough that Curtis plans to retire after this mission and hand over control of the unit to Owen. Yet most of their conversations are spent with Curtis explaining to Owen what the aliens are, what the virus is the aliens spread, and how to combat it. Wouldn’t Owen know this? Why does he treat Owen like he walked in off the street? Curtis even has to tell Owen the name of the virus, even though Owen says he just came from a briefing about it.
At the same time, Owen’s character is given a generic King-style conflict. He has been approached by the General in charge who thinks Curtis is needlessly killing civilians. Being a General, he could pretty much do what he wants to fix that. So he chooses to confide in Curtis’s best friend and send him to spy on Curtis? Huh? Owen, of course, immediately confesses this to Curtis and they share a touching moment of derision for their superiors. Owen specifically tells Curtis that he thinks the General’s theory about the virus “is crap.” Before the scene even ends, however, Owen completely changes positions and tells Curtis that the General’s theory is accurate and neither of them seem to notice this about face. He then betrays Curtis on the word of a guy claiming to be a psychic (Thomas Jane as Henry) after about twenty seconds of convincing. This leads us to another stupid scene where Owen tells Curtis he should come listen to Henry, and Curtis agrees, only to decide he’d rather go secretly shoot Henry for no logical reason whatsoever. Moreover, Henry is warning them that an alien got away. Why in the world would this cause Curtis to shoot him? It’s nonsense.

Then you have the virus. The aliens spread a red powder all over the place. This powder infects people causing worms to grow inside them. Those worms shoot out their rear ends, creating thousands of little aliens. All it takes is a little red dust to make this happen and that dust is everywhere. Yet, to eradicate this threat, the Army sends in 3-5 Apache helicopters to blow up the alien ship with what appear to be anti-aircraft missiles and mini-guns. And to make the viewer think this is effective, they talk about quarantining the area until they can blow up the ship. But think about this. If a single alien is away from the crash site, taking a leak for example, the Army’s plan will fail. And with this virus infecting every animal in the forest, there is simply no conceivable way to quarantine the forest and stop these worms from spreading everywhere short of a nuclear blast. In effect, King has created an unstoppable alien, but then tells us bullets can stop it.

Nothing in this film makes sense. And that’s become the problem with King’s recent works. The scenes play out fine, but the way he combines them is utter nonsense. Moreover, so many of his stories now depend on the most bizarre string of coincidences to put the heroes in a position to win the movie. This is just bad writing.

Finally, it should be pointed out that this film did a lot of damage to Lawrence Kasdan’s career. He admitted that in 2012 and said that several movies he was planning fell through immediately after this one failed commercially. I’m not surprised. Other than Kubrick’s The Shining, how many other directors launched or saved their careers doing a Stephen King film?

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