Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 21

Ok, Patrick Stewart, aka Gurney Halleck, was a solid choice for Capt. Jean Luc Picard. But what if he wasn't available? I understand he didn't even particularly want the role.

Question: Who would you cast as Jean Luc Picard other than Patrick Stewart?


Scott's Answer: This was a tough one for me but after doing a little thinking and digging, I came across Patrick Bauchau, a Belgian actor best known in this country for his work on The Pretender and Carnivàle. He's one of those guys who's not a Movie Star, but an actual Actor. I've seen him many times (Panic Room, A View to a Kill, etc.) but I just didn't know it was him. Ironically, a cursory glance at his IMDb page reveals that he played a character with the last name "Picard" in the awful movie 2012. Small world!

Andrew's Answer: I'm going to go with an actual Frenchman for the role of our French captain, and a personal favorite of mine, Tchéky Karyo. Karyo was excellent in the otherwise silly The Core and in the excellent Luc Besson film La Femme Nikita. And my favorite role for him, oddly, was in Wing Commander. He's French, which is a plus when playing a Frenchman, he's got solid screen presence, and I think he would have brought the right combination of Earthiness, likeability, and sophistication.

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Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 47

The universe is packed with aliens. Fat aliens, skinny aliens, aliens who climb on rocks. Tough aliens, sissy aliens, even aliens with chicken pox.

What is the coolest alien on film?


Panelist: AndrewPrice

I gotta go with the Mangalores from Fifth Element. They're one of the few aliens on film to actually show emotion. Granted, they're borderline retarded, but they're still pretty cool.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

I know that it’s may not be the most effects-filled alien movie, but I really think that ET was the coolest alien film. It was one of the first alien movies that I have seen where the alien was harmless and benevolent rather than a psychotic killing machine.

Panelist: T-Rav

I'm going to say The Thing. Okay, maybe "cool" isn't the right word for it--that creature didn't scare me so much as make me want to throw up, and I'm sure you can guess why. But if you think about it, this is possibly the perfect life-form. There's practically no sure-fire (get it?) way to completely eradicate it, it doesn't have to go to great lengths to perpetuate itself, and it can shape-shift into whatever will allow it to survive in its surroundings. Actually, come to think of it, it is kind of scary, but you have to admire how well-suited it is to launch an invasion, one Will Smith and his spaceship would be powerless against.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

The original GORT. Why? the language . Alright, he's a robot so . . . . those cool aliens from Close Encounters. Bah, Bah, Bah, Bah, Bah ;)

Panelist: ScottDS

In terms of execution, definitely the Predator. It was designed by Stan Winston and played (in the original films) by Kevin Peter Hall. What can I say? It's a badass!

Comments? Thoughts?


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Friday, July 27, 2012

Film Friday: Contagion (2011)

Contagion begins with one person passing a disease to another. They spread it to others. All these people die within the first couple minutes of the film. The next few minutes involve CDC members trying to track down where the disease began. From there, the film becomes the disjointed story of several individuals who really don’t do anything, nor are they interesting. Indeed, nothing about this film is interesting.

** spoiler alert **

Though critics fawn over him, Steven Soderbergh is hit or miss as a director. For every Sex, Lies and Videotape and Ocean’s Eleven there’s a Solaris and The Informant!. When he hits, he’s provocative and stylistic. When he misses, he’s predictable and boooring. Contagion is a “realistic” portrayal of a highly contagious and lethal virus spreading through the modern world. “Realistic” is in quotes because the film takes itself very seriously, but there’s no substance behind the air of realism. In this regard, Contagion is like Soderbergh’s Traffic: polished, serious, and intensely shallow.

Contagion acts like it’s presenting a scientific and non-fictiony view of virus-events, only it really isn’t. There’s almost no science presented and the serious tone masks the fact that the story is nothing more than a couple characters making uninteresting personal decisions. We do see the virus pass from person to person, but only for a minute or two -- Outbreak did this with much greater tension, as have most zombie films. They also try to track down the first person to get the disease, which could be interesting, except it gets resolved almost instantly and they don’t even tell us why it matters. At one point, they seal off Chicago, which could be interesting, except you don’t get to see it happen.
So what do we get instead? Instead, the film is about bureaucrats harassing Kate Winslet for no reason, Laurence Fishburne agonizing over bringing home one CDC employee when two million have already died and calling his fiancé to tell her to leave Chicago, which briefly becomes a scandal that goes nowhere. We also see Matt Damon agonize that he can’t open the door to his house to let his daughter’s boyfriend in for a quickie, and Marion Cotillard makes an appearance as a doctor, though I honestly can’t tell you why. Elliot Gould appears too for some reason. Yawn.

The only thing this film really offers that’s somewhat original is Jude Law as Alan Krumwiede, an anti-government, conspiracy-theory blogger who sells his soul to a hedge fund and tells people they can cure this disease with snake oil. This is about as close as the film gets to an interesting storyline. Yet, while the film spends a lot of time on his character, you are never once shown any effect his actions have on anything. He just talks about getting a lot of page hits and the CDC people are upset at him. But it’s never even clear if he’s lying or what motivates him, nor do you ever see a single person get hurt following his advice.
So how could this film have been improved?

Well, for one thing, it needs focus. The Andromeda Strain created a compelling plot by focusing on whether or not the disease would escape the lab. Quarantine focused on a small group of people trapped with the infected as the government tried to bury the problem. The Crazies showed a group of uninfected trying to escape a town the government sealed off. Zombie movies, like Pontypool and Day of the Dead, thrive in portraying the early moments before the public is aware what is happening, and in showing the exponential math of infection. The Stand took another approach and built around the survivors, even as the virus was only starting. Twelve Monkeys showed mankind trying to rebuild afterwards. In each of these instances, the film followed characters whose survival was important. Their stories became the story of how the disease either spread or was stopped. As they learned information, you learned information, as they lost friends, you felt the loss. This pulled you in to the story.

Contagion isn’t like that. None of the characters in Contagion actually matter. If they all died in an industrial blender the moment the film began, not a single thing would change in the virus portion of the story. Even worse, these characters never learn anything they can pass on to the audience. Instead, the information is presented over radio broadcasts or it appears on the screen like an update. Thus, there’s no mystery and you have little actual connection to the virus story, it just seems to be going on in the background, even though these characters are presented as the most relevant characters to watch. That makes the film feel somewhat fraudulent bereft of drama.

Compare this film to Outbreak. Outbreak fell apart when it did the “crazed soldier” thing toward the end, but until that point the film was quite strong. Outbreak followed one character who had the ability to discover, diagnose and treat the virus, and it became the story of his race against the clock and the seemingly real hurdles he faced. Throughout the film, we knew little more than he did, and when we did it was used for dramatic effect. By comparison, in Contagion information gets handed out regularly and with little drama. For example, you will suddenly see the words, “2.3 million dead” written on the screen, which should be horrific except it’s just a number the way it gets presented. Moreover, in Outbreak, people close to the hero died, people we got to know. In Contagion, you almost never see anyone die and when you do, they are typically introduced as they are dying. So they’re all strangers.
This is why Contagion went wrong: it pretended it was a realistic portrayal of the spread of a deadly virus, but it gave us no realism, no science, no mystery, and no characters who mattered to the virus story. And the personal stories of the characters we were given just weren’t interesting, nor did they ultimately feel particularly relevant to anything. This was how Traffic felt. That was a film that seemed on the surface to be a serious exploration of the drug trade from Mexico to the United States, but there was no depth and nothing we hadn’t seen before. And the characters you did follow weren’t relevant to the larger point of the film, except that they were all anecdotally touched by the drug trade. It’s the same thing here. These characters don’t drive the story, they are passengers, people who kind-of-sort-of relate to the spreading of the virus.

Ultimately, a genuine story about the spread of a disease could be a fascinating film, but it needs to offer more than a glossy version of every other virus story. It needs to connect to the real people who make decisions so the audience can see how the important people would respond and the challenges they face, and it needs to connect us to the scale of death in a very personal way. Simply reading numbers of dead is not enough. Contagion does none of this.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guest Review: Act of Valor (2012)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

To my knowledge, this is the only movie ever to use active duty Navy SEALS in major roles, although they are not even individually identified in the credits. But, their participation permits a degree of realism not attainable with actors such as Charlie Sheen or Demi Moore. What the film may lack in budget, “name” actors, or production values is more than offset by authenticity. This alone makes Act of Valor virtually mandatory viewing for fans of the military film genre, and highly recommended for anyone who simply wants to better understand and appreciate the ethos of these rare and special people whose job it is to constantly risk their own lives to protect us.

The production is the brainchild of Michael “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh who co-produced and co-directed. McCoy, a former dirt bike champ and film extra, developed The Bandito Brothers production company along with fellow stunt man Waugh. The movie’s genesis may be found in a short feature they produced for the Navy in 2007. During filming, they got to know several SEALS. Conversations with that group led to the citing of numerous true acts of heroism, some of which were chosen as the basis for a possible future feature film. The producers hired screenwriter Kurt Johnstad to develop a screenplay that would contain these specific actual acts of valor.
The Plot

The story follows seven of the members of the fictional “Bandito” platoon from SEAL Team 7 based at Coronado Island in San Diego, and includes four separate but interrelated military actions. After a brief introduction, the film grabs your attention with some great footage of the team conducting a training HALO jump near San Diego, then quickly switches to Manilla where we witness a suicide bombing that kills, among others, the American ambassador and his son. The mastermind, Abu Shabal, a Chechan jihadist, escapes. The scene again shifts-- this time to Costa Rica where CIA covert operative Lisa Morales is posing as a pediatrician while investigating drug smuggler Mikhail “Christo” Troykovich. Recent communication intercepts have indicated a possible relationship between Christo and Abu Shabal.

Morales’ cover has been compromised, however, and she is kidnapped, and her colleague murdered by Christo’s thugs. The mission becomes one of “personnel recovery”, and the team prepares for deployment (referred to as “going down range”) by assessing intelligence, tactics and contingencies. The platoon is lead by Lt. Rorke, and his platoon chief, Steve. Members are “Weimy” (the sniper), Ray (communications), “Sonny,” “Mikey,” and “Ajay.” They work with
Senior Chief Miller, the operations officer. After a hotly contested, ultimately successful action, the team gathers sufficient intelligence to tie Christo to Abu Shabal, and Christo is subsequently taken down on his yacht by SEAL team 4.Through interrogation, specifics are revealed of a plan to smuggle terrorists onto U.S. soil through a tunnel provided by Christo’s smuggling connections. The team enters into a desperate race against time to intercept and stop them.

So What Really Makes It So Authentic?

The decision to use active duty SEALS works well on many levels. Like the re-enactors in the film Gettysburg, the group insisted on accuracy above all else. This resulted in two key elements impacting the film making process. First, the SEALS planned the actual operational tactics used in the fictional engagements just as they would in real life. Second, they literally reworked significant amounts of dialogue so that the spoken words were more reflective of what might be expected of actual participants.

Much of the “Costa Rican” fire fight was filmed on the “live round” range at the John C. Stennis base in Mississippi. The filmmakers were initially scared to death, but eventually agreed it created a level of intensity or adrenaline rush that could not be otherwise duplicated. By working with the actual team, the latest in weapons technology is fully displayed. The viewer cannot help but be awed when viewing the sniper, tracer, and artillery fire instantly turning bad guy’s pick up trucks into swiss cheese. Watching the SEALS silently rise out of the water, rifles at the ready is a thing of beauty as is the night HALO jump into Costa Rica. In another film first, two of the Seals who are headed to Somalia to monitor Abu Shabal’s movements get picked up by an actual active duty nuclear submarine.

The Theme

The point of the film is to more closely explore the bond of brotherhood, code of honor, and sense of duty developed by these guys. They are completely squared away and the very best in the world at what they do. In an “extra” feature from the Blu-Ray disc containing interviews with the SEALS featured in the film, the individual who played “Lt. Rorke” makes a statement that really stood out to me, and is extremely telling. During the all too frequent funerals he has attended for lost comrades, there is always a small part of every survivor that is secretly a bit envious of their fallen brothers because there is no more honorable way to meet one’s death. Much of this is stated quite eloquently at the end of the film in a quote from the great Tecumsah about the code of the warrior, and was touched upon in my earlier review of the film The Duellists.

So Why Did Some Critics Pan It?

The film received numerous negative reviews from the “mainstream” reviewing community. A quick stroll through Rotten Tomatoes yields a 4.5 of 10 rating although 76% of readers liked the film. The consensus comments from so called “big name” reviewers such as Richard Corliss, Peter Travers, and Roger Ebert are couched in terms of cliched script, stilted acting, and jingoistic or non-nuanced point of view. Others called it nothing more than a recruiting film. That kind of comment more likely masks an anti-military orientation or a given reviewer’s personal political agenda. Perhaps they were happier with anti-war films such as Rendition, Lions for Lambs or In the Valley of Elah all of which bombed at the box office.

How far Hollywood seems to have fallen from the days of support for the troops in WWII. This story moves along at a brisk pace, and I cannot really think of any wasted scenes. It seems absurd to complain about a script being a cliche when it is taken from a composite of real events, and there was not one point in the film where I felt like any of the lines being spoken were awkward, cheesy, or stilted. In fact, using real SEALS to speak them makes scenes with family and friends all the more touching.The people who made this film truly deserve our thanks and I highly recommend it.


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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 20

In honor of the release of the Blu-Ray version of Star Trek: The Next Generation, we decided to come up with a list of George Lucas like changes that could be made to the series to make it the way the creators always envisioned it. Please add anything we missed.

Andrew's Answer:

1. Short answer, Picard shoots first.

2. All phasers replaced with foam pointer fingers.

3. They really do need a conference table on the bridge.

4. Wesley replaced by Jar Jar Binks.

5. Worf digitally moved to the left three paces in all scenes for no reason whatsoever.

Scott's Answer: Since you mentioned it, the Blu-Rays won't have any George Lucas-style changes. The show has been reconstructed from scratch using - get this - the original effects shots, using CGI only when the original elements are MIA. (Paging Mr. Lucas...) The company line is that they are being faithful to the original broadcasts, but I do have a few items on my geek wish list:

1. Please replace this oft-used matte painting!

2. Paint out the guy with the glasses.

3. Extend these sets so we don't see the soundstages: click here and here.

4. Yeah, this is obviously not Patrick Stewart - it's his stunt double. They can fix this now!

5. I know this sounds totally fanboyish but it would be nice to see some new ships. Due to the exigencies of TV production, they often reused the same models but now they can create a few new ones.

(Special thanks to Ex Astris Scientia for the background info and stills.)

Thoughts?

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Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 46

Everybody loves sports! Bowling, badminton, hot dog eating, and all those other minor sports. And Hollywood is quite good at capturing sports on film.

What is your favorite sports film?


Panelist: ScottDS

I was never into sports but one of my favorite films growing up was The Sandlot. It's a quintessentially American film and I'm pleased that my generation can still quote from it. "You're killin' me, Smalls!"

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I'm going with Major League. Sure, it's a comedy and not a true "sports" film, but it's still one of the best sports films of all time. It's got all the elements of a great sports film, including the underdog, the guys everyone counted out, the drama of the final game and the final pitch, and you feel it like your team just won the game for real.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Rudy, Rudy, Rudy!!! This is one of my favorite genre of film. The running theme in most of these kinds of film is someone overcoming some great odds to achieve their goal (literally and figuratively) In Rudy, Rudy Roettiger’s dream was to play football for Notre Dame. Everyone told him that he was too small, too dumb, too something and it would never happen, but he never gave up. Though he did not play as a regular player, he made his dream come true. There is something always uplifting about real people making real dreams come true.

My second favorite has to be The Blind Side. Though not specifically about sports, it is about a real sports figure who gets to realize a dream he never even knew he could have – a supportive adoptive family. It is just a great heart-warming tear-jerker of movie.

Panelist: T-Rav

The Sandlot. Because a), it's set in the early '60s, when everything was still good ol' Americana and the hippies hadn't ruined everything yet; b), it's a baseball movie (see point a), and c), it's got James Earl Jones in it. Plus it's about friendship and growing up and all that. Perfect ingredients for a great sports movie.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Eight Men Out edges out Hoosiers. My rationale is most sports films are feel good stories. 8 Men was a great depiction of a real event, and there was no happy ending."

Comments? Thoughts?


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Friday, July 20, 2012

Film Friday: Bridesmaids (2011)

Bridesmaids was a monster hit in 2011, raking in $288 million. So when it came to HBO, I decided to check it out. How bad could it be, right? You might be surprised. And while humor is subjective and people’s opinions can vary, here’s why you shouldn’t like this film.

** spoiler alert **

Written by Kristen Wiig and produced by Judd Apatow, Bridesmaids is the story of the miserable and unredeeming existence of Annie Walker (Kristen Wiig), an intensely unlikeable woman who has been tasked with planning the wedding of her friend Lillian. . . sort of. The film never pins down her exact role, so I can’t give you more precision, except to say that she’s the maid of honor and she’s supposed to come up with ideas to entertain the bridesmaids. But Lillian has another friend, Helen (Rose Byrne), who seems to be doing the same thing plus whatever else is needed to make the jokes work. The rest of the story is Annie ruining all the wedding preparations as she alienates everyone in her life because she is, for lack of a stronger word, an asshole. Naturally, in a film this poorly written and conceived you know the ending already – it all works out, everyone becomes friends again, and Annie finds the perfect boyfriend.
The first problem with this film, the one which makes it so darn boring, is that it lacks a story arc. All good stories involve an arc, i.e. some journey where the characters begin at one place and make their way to another. This can be a physical journey where they change locations, an achievement journey where they try to accomplish some goal, or an emotional journey where the characters either resolve emotional needs or grow as people. Bridesmaids has no such arc. It thinks it does, but it doesn’t.

What the film thinks it’s doing is taking Annie on an emotional journey where she begins with a messed up life because she’s self-centered and she ends up winning her happiness by becoming a better person. Only, that’s not what really happens. Annie is a character who thrives on nastiness, self-pity, and jealousy. She should be primed for growth, but she never grows. Instead, she goes from scene to scene offending people without ever learning. Yet, the film isn’t smart enough to recognize this failure, so it has the other characters pretend that she’s grown, even though she hasn’t. That makes the whole thing feel faked.
What’s worse, she becomes even more unlikable after she’s supposedly had her epiphany moment. After losing her job, her apartment, her friends and her boyfriend, she finally declares that she has hit bottom. A scene or two later, her nemesis Helen comes to her for help. Helen is very upset that they can’t find the bride, but also begins to pour her heart out to Annie about her own life being miserable, BUT the supposedly reformed Annie mocks her. This was pure cruelty and it made me angry. Oddly, Helen seems to think she deserves to be mocked. Then Lillian forgives her for destroying the wedding shower, her boyfriend forgives her for things she’s done to him, and all the other bridesmaids forgive her for everything. And what has she done to earn this forgiveness? Nothing. They just decide this abusive jerk is someone they can’t live without.

This is nonsense and it’s deeply unsatisfying. This film went through the motions of a story arc to make her a better person, but didn’t bother improving her and yet still acted like she was a new person. This makes the film feel like a rip-off.

But even beyond that, Bridesmaids suffers from an all-too-common problem with Apatow-related films: it’s not funny. And the reason it’s not funny is the way it handles its characters. Specifically, the film is packed with so many whacky characters that they become distracting. In fact, almost every character in the story can be considered a whacky character. Yet none of them pay off.

Whacky characters are comedic gold. But they need to be used correctly. Typically, whacky characters introduce specific traits into a film which then become relevant in the plot at some point. Horrible Bosses and Dinner for Schmucks are excellent examples of this, as both introduced a small number of truly strange characters whose quirks would shape the plot throughout. Bridesmaids doesn’t do this. Annie lives with a freakish, incestuous brother and sister from England. Most of the bridesmaids are oversexed in the extreme. She sleeps with a man who openly uses her for sex. Her mother is crackpot who uses AA as a way to meet people. But not one of these characters ultimately affects the plot. Basically, their wackiness is gratuitous, as these characters are stand-alone jokes whose sole purpose is to show you something wacky. You could actually strip every single one of them out of the film without missing a beat -- compare that to Dinner for Schmucks which ends in a mind-control duel which provides a tremendous payoff for several of the characters. Even worse, these characters aren’t funny. The brother and sister are creepy. The bridesmaids are unoriginal. The mother’s lines are nonsense. They are jokes without a punchline.
The result of this combination of a story without a genuine arc and characters with no purpose except to be self-contained jokes is a movie that isn’t very strong and which relies entirely on the ability of Wiig to pull you in and make you feel the plight of her character. But since her character is malicious and oozes self-pity throughout, there’s little to like. In fact, the only character I truly liked was Annie’s eventual boyfriend, a Wisconsin State Trooper (Chris O’Dowd) who is inexplicably (again with no payoff) from Ireland. His story at least had an arc and his character seemed to have genuine feelings.

In many ways, Bridesmaids reminds me of The Green Hornet. You have a main character who is a total ass with a cruel streak, but we’re supposed to like them just because they’re the lead character. You have an assortment of strange minor characters, but they don’t contribute to the story, their purpose is just to be stand-alone jokes. And you end up with a film which feels flat and unpleasant. Clearly, a lot of people liked this film, but I think it benefitted from name recognition and the dearth of female-led comedies, and I suspect this film will ultimately lack staying power, like so much else associated with Apatow.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Guest Review: The Room (2003)

By ScottDS
Because no one asked, I decided to review The Room. This is a real movie, starring real people, that briefly played in a couple of real LA theaters where it was laughed off the screen. It shortly thereafter turned into a cult sensation, with midnight screenings, audience participation, and the requisite stage show, videogame adaptation, and Internet memes. This movie is so bad it’s good. Actually, it’s pretty bad but it’s fun to dissect. The acting is mostly amateurish, the script is horrible, the music is straight out of Skinemax, and there are several bizarre non sequiturs and continuity errors. Don’t look for substance here – you won't find it. Welcome to... The Room!

(I suggest you take advantage of the embedded YouTube links. My words can't do the film justice!)

The Room was written, produced… executive produced (?!)… and directed by Tommy Wiseau, whose nationality remains a mystery. Oh yeah, he also stars in the film. His accent was described by one critic as “Borat doing a Christopher Walken impression.” He’s not a good actor, he has an annoying laugh which pops up at inappropriate times, and he has a habit of greeting everyone the same way: “Oh, hi [name here].” He plays Johnny, a banker who’s engaged to Lisa (Juliette Danielle). We never see him at his job but we’re to assume he’s good at what he does, despite being passed over for a promotion. They appear to get along but Lisa admits to her doting mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott) that she doesn’t love him anymore. Claudette reminds her that financial stability is important. Meanwhile, Lisa has an affair with Johnny’s best friend Mark (Greg Sestero), a likeable schlub who attempts to resist Lisa’s advances, yet gives in every time. By the end of the movie, Lisa has turned into a sociopath, telling everyone that Johnny hit her and claiming to be pregnant. Everything comes out in the open at Johnny’s birthday party. Later, Johnny wrecks his apartment Citizen Kane-style and kills himself. The end.
Thank God I got that out of the way! While the “plot” is rather conventional, there are several supporting characters and subplots that mostly go nowhere. Johnny and Lisa are friends with Denny (Philip Haldiman), a college student whom they treat like a son. While Wiseau claimed in an interview that Denny is mentally handicapped, there is no such hint in the film, which portrays Denny as a simple idiot. He’s oblivious when Johnny and Lisa tell him they’re going upstairs, presumably to have sex. He confesses to Johnny that he loves Lisa, but Johnny is unfazed and tells him that Lisa loves him, too, but as a friend. Denny has a run-in with a gun-toting drug dealer but we never find out what precipitated the conflict, the drug in question, or anything else. I assume Wiseau wanted to have a character in the film who was an innocent but Denny just comes across as a whiny pervert who’s unfamiliar with social norms, and whose hairstyle belongs in 1995.

We also meet Peter (Kyle Vogt), a psychologist friend of Johnny and Lisa’s. He makes no impression whatsoever and Vogt actually quit mid-production… which is why we’re introduced to a new friend (Steven, played by Greg Ellery) 20 minutes before the end of the movie. He makes as much of an impression as Vogt. Johnny and Lisa also have two other friends, Mike and Michelle (Mike Holmes and Robyn Paris). Since the door seems to be unlocked all the time, they sneak into Johnny’s apartment to have sex but are caught by Lisa and her mother. At one point Mike refers to his underwear as “me underwears.” Ya know, I don’t see that catching on. Oh, and there’s a scene where Johnny, Mark, Denny, and Peter play football… in an alley… dressed in tuxedoes. Denny mentions wedding photos but we never see this happen, and there’s never a wedding! Peter takes a dive and the scene is over as soon as it begins. But before this, in order to guilt trip Peter into playing, Johnny, Denny, and Mark do a weird chicken impression. To quote Arrested Development, “Has anyone in this family ever even seen a chicken?”
Speaking of bizarre dialogue, this film has it in spades, and Wiseau’s weird accent doesn’t help. He tells Lisa that he didn’t get his promotion: “They betrayed me, they didn’t keep their promise, they tricked me, and I don’t care anymore.” It’s like an elementary school student who has to write a report that’s a certain number of pages long so he uses filler to bump up the word count. When Denny tells Lisa that he owes the drug dealer some money, Lisa asks, “What kind of money?!” Uh, the green kind? When we first meet Peter, Johnny asks him about Lisa: “But you’re a psychologist. Do you have some advice?” And later in the scene, he yells, “Peter, you always play psychologist with us!” Huh? Lisa and Claudette have the same conversation about Johnny three or four times. “I don’t love him anymore.” “Why not?” “I don’t love Johnny!” “Can you tell me why?” and so on. At one point, Johnny is talking to Mark about work and suddenly shifts gears and asks, “So how’s your sex life?” Hell, Claudette says she has breast cancer and it’s never mentioned again!

The film itself definitely looks like a low-budget affair. Legend has it Wiseau raised the money by importing leather jackets from overseas. (I’m not joking.) Since he was confused about the technical details, he shot the film in both 35mm and digital, which raises the question, “With two camera images, could we get a 3-D version?” The film was shot in LA but takes place in San Francisco. There are some nice 2nd unit shots of the city, though some look like outtakes from Full House. However, the rooftop scenes look terrible, with some of the worst greenscreen I’ve ever seen (and, oddly, no wind). The main set is Johnny’s apartment, which looks like something we might’ve built for a student film. One piece of set dressing sticks out: next to the couch, there’s a table, and on the table are framed photos of spoons. Yes, spoons. At midnight screenings, audience members throw spoons at the screen!
There are three sex scenes in the first 30 minutes, though I’m pretty sure the third scene just uses alternate angles from the first one. The music is straight out of softcore, the scenes take forever, and, while the sex is obviously simulated, it definitely doesn’t look right. To put it mildly, there’s a serious alignment problem! To top it all off, we get to see Wiseau’s ass, which belongs on Easter Island. During the aforementioned tuxedo scene, Mark shows up, now clean-shaven. The camera pushes in on him and we get a whimsical music cue but the significance of this is never explained. At one point, Johnny buys flowers for Lisa but the scene is ridiculously rushed and the dialogue makes no sense at all. The woman behind the counter says she doesn’t recognize Johnny at first, and then says he’s her favorite customer after he's already halfway to the door. It’s like they cut out every other line! And remember the annoying laugh I mentioned? Mark tells Johnny about a woman he knew who was beaten and ended up in the hospital. Johnny’s reaction? He laughs!

I can go on but I think I’m going to stop right here. I apologize if you were looking for a serious analysis. I read about this movie a few years ago but I only recently became part of the cult, so to speak. There are plenty of bad movies that are completely forgettable and not worth watching, which kinda makes me appreciate this one. It takes a special kind of alchemy to make a bad movie that people actually want to see. The film is currently playing the midnight movie circuit and I’d love to go one day. It’s not some ironic hipster thing either. I imagine it’s just a fun communal experience (with spoons!). From what I understand, Wiseau seems to be enjoying his newfound fame (such as it is) and Greg Sestero (Mark) is even writing a book about the making of the movie. (To be fair, the actors seem like a likable bunch and most of them are willing to talk about the experience.) Now… who’s up for a sequel?

“You don't understand anything, man. Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!”

To see The Nostaliga Critic’s (NSFW) review, click here.

To hear excerpts from the Rifftrax commentary, click here.


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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Best Father in Star Trek

By Big Mo
One of the best parts of the entire Star Trek franchise is its portrayal of fathers and fatherhood. Whether by accident or design, the mixture of good, strong, weak, so-so, bad, clueless, stupid or tyrannical dads was well done, both among main characters and the “alien of the week” episodes. There are many fathers worthy of discussion in the Star Trek series (Sarek, Rom, Kirk, Mogh (the long-dead father of Worf and Kurn), and even Gul Dukat) and perhaps they can be the subject of another essay. But I want to focus on the man I consider Trek’s best father, DS9’s Benjamin Sisko (the superb Avery Brooks).

Even though I was still in college and years away from marriage and even further away from having kids, I was immediately drawn to the character of Benjamin Sisko when DS9 premiered. In “The Emissary” — the best pilot episode of all Trek shows — he loses his wife, reluctantly takes command of a battered space station, even more reluctantly assumes the unwelcome role of “emissary” for the recently liberated Bajorans, considers resigning from Starfleet, and carries a huge chip on his shoulder against Captain Picard because of Jennifer Sisko’s death.

Yet Sisko never displays any of this to his son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton). Sisko remains Jake’s father. He never uses his son as an easy, convenient target for his frustrations and anger. He does his absolute best to make a new home for his son on a decrepit, cold and foreboding space station at some far-off world that’s a long way from Earth and the rest of the wider Sisko family.

Now, the children on Picard’s Enterprise generally were an irritating bunch, especially Wesley in Seasons 1 and 2 (though he is quite good in the Season 5 “The First Duty”); Worf’s son, Alexander; and the annoying episode where Picard and other officers are turned into children. (Exceptions are the episodes “Family,” with Picard’s nephew Rene, and “Disaster,” in which Picard led three kids to safety up an elevator shaft.) But Jake Sisko was different. It became clear early on that he was his father’s son. Essentially, Sisko raised Jake to show proper respect to adults, elders and other authority figures, and to learn from their experiences instead of being the typical punk-ass kid who acts like he knows far more than his father — or any adult — ever possibly could. (As I did in my early college years; thinking you know far more than your parents must be some sort of unwritten right of transition to adulthood.) The only Trek equivalent I can think of is Spock’s relationship with Sarek.

Sure, Jake is aware of how unhappy his father is, but throughout the rest of DS9’s Season 1 and into Season 2 he does his best (not always successfully) to avoid becoming a burden to Sisko. He often gets into trouble with Quark’s nephew, Nog, but that’s more out of boredom than disobedience or rebelliousness. And even though Jake doesn’t follow Sisko’s Starfleet path and instead becomes a writer/journalist, he continues to learn from his dad, take advantage of the unique opportunities he has and make the absolute best life he can on the station.
Several episodes contain scenes that highlight the fatherhood — the truly manliness — of Ben Sisko that he imparted to his son, including “Explorers” from Season 3 and “The Visitor” from Season 4.

The one that stands out most to me is “Homefront” (part 1) from Season 4. In this episode, we finally meet the man who instilled such strong values in Sisko, especially 1) respect and honor for parents, and 2) respect for civilian and military authority — both in following the law and challenging boneheaded decisions.

The primary story of “Homefront” involves the shape-shifting Founders of the Dominion infiltrating Starfleet Command. Sisko and Odo, with Jake in tow, travel to Earth to help Admiral Layton and his team deal with the situation. At this point, the only way to uncover a shape-shifter in disguise, other than seeing him change, is to do a blood test to see if the blood changes form. I could do a magazine-length essay on how the blood tests relate to TSA, but that’s a whole other issue.

The back story – the best part of an already strong episode – revolves around Sisko and his father, Joseph Sisko (played by Trek veteran Brock Peters (ST IV and VI), otherwise best known as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird). Joseph is a stubborn man quite set in his ways. He’s the owner/operator of the finest Creole restaurant serving non-replicated food in New Orleans. (It’s a place I’d love to patronize — mmm...) He welcomes his son and grandson for their stay, with Jake helping in the restaurant. But Joseph refuses to slow down, see his doctor or even take his medication, which of course greatly concerns Sisko. But like Sisko does with Jake, Joseph does not lay his problems on his son’s shoulders. However, like Jake, Sisko feels the burden anyway.

Now comes the powerful scene, which provides one of the finest moments in all Trek (and also one of the franchise’s best explorations of the price of freedom, but that’s a whole other story). (CLICK) Joseph refuses to cooperate with the mandatory blood screenings for all Starfleet personnel and their families. “It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Joseph says. “Do you believe that?” Sisko says he gave the order himself, and the incredulous Joseph rebukes his son: “Now why would you go and do a stupid thing like that?” he says.

He soon turns to Jake, “Do you think I’m a shape-shifter?” Uncomfortable, Jake protests, “Come on, Grandpa ...” And Joseph says sternly, “Answer the question!” Which Jake does immediately—and respectfully.

Sisko unsuccessfully tries to reason with Joseph, and even threatens to get a warrant. The scene climaxes when Joseph cuts a finger while chopping vegetables. He goes to wash the finger, telling Jake to get a medical kit, then turns around to see Sisko looking warily at the discarded knife to see if the blood changes. Truly shocked, Joseph angrily lays into his son: “Benjamin Lafayette Sisko. What the hell has gotten into your head?! You actually thought I was one of them, didn't you!”

Suddenly unsure of himself and unsettled that he could think his father was a shapeshifter, Sisko says weakly, “I don’t know ... I wasn’t sure...” And the strong and powerful man that is Benjamin Sisko crumbles before his father.

The scene ends suddenly when the elder Sisko suffers a mild heart attack. At the beginning of part 2, Joseph is back on his feet and has taken a blood test because of events at the end of part 1. I think Joseph acquiesced too quickly — the only unsatisfying portion of this otherwise stellar episode.

Think about this, though: Could anyone else have told Sisko that something he did was “stupid”? Could anyone in his command or with a lower rank defy him like that? Probably not — at least not without repercussions. You can’t buy the kind of deference and loving respect that Jake and Sisko give to their respective fathers. Sons must be raised in such a way that fosters that respect through childhood, the teen years and into young adulthood. And if you engender that respect in your sons based on your love and authority, they will reflect your values when they’re on their own. Such is the case with the second episode I’m highlighting here.

At the same time, both Jake and Joseph show proper deference to authorities—which includes Joseph’s challenge. It’s clear he’s willing to accept the consequences of his refusal, and has the presence of mind to not just challenge his son, but also something he firmly believes to be wrong in a free and open society.
Another standout episode is “Valiant” from Season 6.

I look on this episode as the ultimate payoff where the son reflects the father’s imparted lessons and wisdom. Sisko barely appears in person in this episode, but we feel his presence through his son.

Jake and Nog stumble across the Valiant, a Defiant-class ship crewed by cadets of the elite Nova Squadron (last seen in Homefront). The ship’s regular officers are all dead, and the highest-ranking cadet, Watters, is acting as captain. Nog is thrilled to be among Nova Squadron and eagerly joins the crew. But Jake is uneasy. He begins to think Watters is unstable and foolish, especially when Watters announces that they will attack a huge and powerful Dominion battleship by themselves. The battleship easily outclasses and outguns their tiny vessel — kind of like an elephant vs. a flea. Jake thinks that the Valiant should take the intelligence about the battleship back to Starfleet, but Watters is full of himself and completely delusional about the abilities of the still wet-behind-the-ears cadet crew.

Watters announces his intentions before the assembled crew. Having had enough of Watters’ rah-rah talk, Jake attempts to appeal to the common sense of the crew and convince them to leave the area with the new information. He draws upon what he has learned from his father and everything that has happened in the previous five years. Trusting in his assessment of his truly heroic and brave-beyond-brave father, Jake goes for broke:

“You probably all know who my father is: Benjamin Sisko. So you know I'm not exaggerating when I say that he's considered to be one of the best combat officers in the fleet,” Jake says. “And I'm telling you right now that even with the entire crew of the Defiant with him... My father would never try to pull off something like this. And if he can't do it... it can't be done.”

Unmoved, Watters claims, “We're Red Squad! We can do anything!” He soon throws Jake in the brig. And the cadets cheer Watters — right up until the moment that the enemy battleship kicks their asses and kills them all except Jake, Nog and one cadet.

Look at that scene this way: My USMC step-dad considers Chesty Puller as the Marine of all Marines, and if Chesty Puller’s son (himself a Marine) had said that his father wouldn’t do something, that’s pretty much gospel.

So, in the first example, we see deference and respect at play — earned respect for familial authority and deference to public authority, which includes standing on principle and being willing to accept the consequences. In the second, we see Jake Sisko assessing how his father would handle a dangerous situation and then being unafraid to stand before a bunch of peers and tell them that their foolishness and bravado will get them all killed.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 45

Life is full of drama. And television is full of dramas. Some are quite good actually.

What is your favorite television drama?



Panelist: BevfromNYC

Well, right now it’s Mad Men. The writers and designers have captured the ‘60’s in all of its glory right down to the way women were treated in the workplace.

Panelist: T-Rav

Although I’ve only seen one season of it, I think I have to go with Breaking Bad. Originally, I didn’t want to watch because I thought it was glamourizing meth dealers, but it’s not that at all. It’s a fascinating look at how an average, decent guy gets corrupted by power and an ends-justify-the-means philosophy, and winds up committing every sin in the book. Plus, the acting from Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul is just phenomenal. It’s the one good series AMC has cranked out (Mad Men is just okay, in my opinion).

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Soprano's - Bada Bing; it was just so, so good. Lighter fare guilty pleasure division. J.A.G. Had to love Harm and Mac. The show actually tackled some difficult issues without politicizing them.

Panelist: ScottDS

When all is said and done, probably Star Trek: The Next Generation, which edges out DS9 only for sentimental value. I actually don't watch many "straight dramas" on TV, mostly because I have no interest in partaking in someone else's misery. My favorite current drama is Fringe.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I'm going to go with Game of Thrones. A year ago, I would have said Sopranos or Carnivale, but Game of Thrones has really won me over. It's the kind of show where the hour can pass before you even know it and you desperately want to know what happens next.

Comments? Thoughts?


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Friday, July 13, 2012

Film Friday: The Thing (1982) & (2011)

John Carpenter’s The Thing is a classic in the world of science fiction/horror. It’s tense, it’s creative, and it’s solidly acted. In 2011, they remade The Thing. . . sort of. The remake is an ok film, but doesn’t hold a candle to the original, and it’s the “sort of” which becomes the real problem.

** spoiler alert **

Carpenter’s The Thing is the story of a small group of scientists at an American research station in Antarctica. As the story opens, an Alaskan Malamute rushes into the camp where the Americans are gathered. The dog is being chased by two Norwegians in a helicopter, who are trying to kill the dog. They fail and are killed in the process. After this, helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and Doctor Copper (Richard Dysart), fly to the Norwegian camp to learn what happened. Everyone at the Norwegian camp is dead, but MacReady and Copper discover that the Norwegians found what appears to be a spaceship in the ice, and they brought its occupant back to their camp.
MacReady and Copper return home with the alien, where they examine its body and discover that the cells in the dead alien are still alive. Moreover, these cells attack any cells they come into contact with and duplicate them perfectly. Soon it becomes clear that one or more of the Americans has been duplicated by the alien, and the group struggles with not knowing who is human and who is now an alien.

Although the critics hated this film when it was first released and it barely made its money back, this version has withstood the test of time, and for good reason. This version is tense, interesting and eminently rewatchable, and the reason is that the story isn’t about these scientists being chased by a monster, it’s about them turning on each other out of fear. Indeed, the monster is rarely seen in the film and it only exposes itself when it is discovered. It doesn’t run around stalking the other characters. Instead, they fight amongst themselves.
The heart of The Thing is its characters, who are all uniquely written and uniquely acted. Russell play MacReady in the mold of all antiheroes. He’s quiet, detached, and yet highly aggressive when needed. Besides him, you have a group of actors who are easy to tell apart – some are short and fat, some are tall and thin. Two are black, one small and one muscular. You have a hippy/UFO nut, an armchair warrior, a simpleton, an old guy, etc. They all dress very differently. They all wear their hair differently. They speak in unique styles, using unique words and phrases. They have unique personalities.

Indeed, their personalities are key. These people act like people who’ve been cooped up together long enough for personality conflicts to abound. They don’t all like each other, their quirks annoy the others, and they know that not each of them can be trusted in a crisis. All of this causes them to struggle to work together, which is what gives this story it’s true tension: waiting to see if someone is an alien is tense, but not knowing who to trust with the gun to shoot the alien is inspired tension.

And that brings us to the remake. If I’d never seen The Thing before, then this remake would have been a decent if forgettable movie. It’s not stupid or nonsensical. It’s well-enough shot, though it uses the shaky cam for no apparent reason. The story itself doesn’t hold together nearly as well as the original as there are too many “yeah, but” moments, but all in all, this is better than a lot of the indifferent garbage that passes for science fiction horror today.
Still, this film doesn’t hold a candle next to the original, and I think there are two specific and related reasons for this. The first is the cast. Whereas the actors in the original really stand apart, these actors and their characters don’t. There’s the chick (two actually) and the black dude floating around somewhere, but beyond that you’ve got 8-10 middle age white dudes. They are all the same size and shape. They have the same blondish-brown hair, all cut to the same length. They are all unshaven and wear the same clothes. And even worse, they are almost all Norwegians, so they all have nearly identical accents and inflections. You won’t be able to tell these people apart easily, nor will you catch their names.

Moreover, the main characters, Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Dr. Havlorson (Ulrich Thomsen) and Carter (Joel Edgerton) are all outsiders, so this cast lacks the interpersonal relationships which drive the original. We don’t know who has gotten on whose nerves, who they have all recognized as a hothead or useless or as their natural leader, and we see no sense of any friendships. Because of this, this film is little more than a monster chase movie rather than a psychological thriller like the original.

Secondly, the main actors simply don’t compare to the originals. Kurt Russell brings an incredible intensity which tells you that he will make it through the film alive. That gives the film energy as you watch him struggle to overcome the hurdles in his way. It also gives you a shock when the film ends. By comparison, Winstead is a cutie, but you know this little girl would never survive ten seconds of a monster attack. She also never radiates leadership and she doesn’t even seem to know what she’s supposed to do -- she just looks pensive a lot.
Or compare Childs (David Keith), who was Russell’s foil in the original, against helicopter pilot Carter. Keith commands respect with his deep voice and his violent presence. He seems like a man on the edge, torn between wanting to lead and being terrified of this creature. He is tightly wound and ready to explode at any moment. Carter is a wimp who never really does anything, least of all challenges Winstead. The other foil they give Winstead is Dr. Halvorson, but he’s a wimp as well, and he’s snotty about it. He’s the type of whiner who sends sternly worded letters, not lead flying downrange.

So not only does the remake lose the interpersonal struggles which define the characters and make the original so tense to watch, but it gives you characters you can’t care about -- an indifferent girl with no heroic traits, a wimp, a jerk and some Norwegian red-shirts.

And all of this comes from the second failure. What failure? Well, I said above that this film was “sort of” a remake. As you’re watching this film the first time, you’ll notice that it basically tracks the original by and large. That makes it feel like a weak remake. But once the ending credits begin rolling, you are given a glimpse of how the story continues. This includes a new Norwegian arriving by helicopter, finding a survivor and finding a dog, realizing what it is, and chasing the dog in their helicopter. In other words, this is how the original opens and we are now led to believe that the remake is in fact a prequel which tells the story of what happened at the Norwegian camp MacReady and Copper find.

This is a mistake for two reasons. First, this feels like a gimmick since the entire film felt like a generic remake of the original. It feels like something that is tacked on to the end to give the audience something to take home, because the rest of the film had nothing to offer. Secondly, this forced the filmmakers into using the Norwegian camp as the setting, and that led to the problem of these characters being too alike. Then adding the outside Americans as the leaders feels fake, disrupts the personalities (if there are any), and probably seems a little insulting to anyone in Norway who watches this. All in all, this was a truly unwise decision, especially as it had no real payoff.

So I absolutely recommend the original and I think the remake is worth wasting some time on, but the remake ends up being a truly wasted opportunity because it failed to build on what worked so well in the original.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Remake Review: Anastasia (1956 / 1997)

By tryanmax
At the beginning of the Russian Civil War, Czar Nicholas II, along with his family, was assassinated by the Bolsheviks. However, there were rumors that his daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia, had escaped. As years passed and rumors intensified, several women came forward claiming to be Anastasia. These rumors serve as the backstory for two very different films about the legendary princess.

The first film is a fairly straightforward historical drama, based loosely on the real life Anastasia-imposter Anna Anderson. The remake is a fantastic animated musical adventure designed to vie with Disney’s pantheon of princesses. If it is dubious that such a wildly divergent interpretation could be considered a remake, one need only look to the film credits where it claims a basis in the 1956 Arthur Laurents screenplay. Who am I to argue?
The Plot
It is ten years since the fall of the House of Romanov, and rumors of Anastasia’s survival are on everybody’s lips. It is in this atmosphere that a group of men intend to present an imposter to the Dowager Empress, Anastasia’s grandmother, in hopes of attaining a significant financial reward. The men take in a young vagrant woman bearing a resemblance to the princess in hopes of passing her off as the real thing. The woman suffers amnesia, affording convenient pretense for the conmen as well as legitimate questions about her true identity.

The woman agrees to join in the men’s ruse if only to gain an identity for herself. In the course of her Pygmalion-esque training, she becomes more and more convincing as the princess Anastasia, causing even her handlers to wonder if she could really be the lost heiress. At the same time, she and her instructor begin to fall for one another. Still, their relationship remains distant and strained, both knowing that if their ruse pays off, they cannot be together.

Anastasia ‘56
Driving the original is the ambiguousness about identity of the young woman called Anna. Is she the Romanov princess, or isn’t she? For the most part, Ingrid Bergman convincingly vacillates between doubt, confusion, and certainty over her identity as Anastasia. To pull it off, she starts her performance from a place of extreme vulnerability with occasional flashes of regality and moves toward a mostly confident demeanor, albeit with a grand chink in the form of needing acceptance from the Empress.
This ambiguity is never resolved. It comes to a head when Anna and the Empress (Helen Hayes) meet in a rather unconvincing scene where the Empress’ stubborn skepticism is suddenly broken by a peculiar mannerism of Anna’s. But even then, the old woman begs Anna, if she is not in fact the princess, to never tell her. And so the question hangs there and, although it is no longer a threat to her or anyone else’s plans, it remains a point of intrigue until the end.

Yul Brynner’s typically stoic performance as General Bounine makes for believable cynicism that Bergman can play against as she becomes more convinced of her identity as a Romanov. However, in all honesty, the same stoicism does not lend itself to portraying a budding romance between him and his pupil. Nor does it lend credence to his necessary change of mind about her identity. So, even though it is hinted at in various scenes, the romantic subplot feels like something of a surprise when one moment the two are sniping at one another and then next they are running off together.

There is no doubt that this is a high-quality film, with lavish sets and costumes galore in addition to the estimable talent. Bergman even won her second Academy Award for the role, though I don’t think she was as deserving here as she was on the other occasions. All the same, the moments of greatest anticipation never really pay off and the reason for the rather lengthy third act doesn’t become apparent until the final moments. I can’t help but think that a different actor in Brynner’s role could have clarified that.

Anastasia ‘97
In the remake, there are no doubts about the identity of Anastasia (voiced by Meg Ryan). Though she does not remember her past, the audience is clued in via prologue that she is, in fact, the real Anastasia. What’s more, she seems largely unfazed by her amnesia and from the outset displays an anachronistically feminist attitude typical of films from (but not limited to) the late 90s. In fact, this Anastasia doesn’t display a single moment of vulnerability in the entire film, robbing her of almost all of her emotional journey. That’s too high a price to pay to portray a “strong female character.”
Because of this, the eventual meeting with the Empress (Angela Lansbury) holds no anticipation or impact. Either it is a foregone conclusion that the Empress will recognize her granddaughter, or Anastasia will be self-assured enough to go one without recognition. The only saving grace is that the actual moment of recognition comes off a little more plausibly, perhaps because the rewrite included some props, i.e. physical evidence to bolster Anastasia’s claims.

Furthermore, since Anastasia doesn’t seem to care whether she is the real princess, the life is also sucked out of her interactions with Dimitri (John Cusack) and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer)—a splitting of the Bounine character. Their training is just a game and has no impact on her psyche, which isn’t fragile anyway. Finally, what the original romantic subplot lacked in believability, this one lacks in subtlety. That Anastasia and Dimitri fall in love is just another forgone conclusion.

Having neutered all the points of interest inherit in the story, it actually seems necessary to inject the evil undead villain Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) and his talking-bat sidekick, Bartok (Hank Azaria). Sadly, despite being added to increase kid-appeal, they just don’t make up for the aforementioned losses. Instead, they mainly serve as comic foils and an occasional excuse for some action. The bottom line is, this story was never suited to adaptation for children and the Rasputin character underlines the fact.
Final Thoughts
One tangential remark I feel compelled to make is that the 1956 live-action version, bereft of special effects and comic relief, is the faster-paced of the two films. Not only does it move at a better clip than the film that came 40 years later, it seems to move at a break-neck pace compared to most of its contemporaries. Still, I would only recommend the original if one is particularly interested in the Romanovs and the remake I would only suggest to animation buffs (like myself).

FYI: Andrew has asked me to contribute articles devoted to animated features, which I gladly intend to do. Strictly as an animated feature, there is much more to be said of 1997’s Anastasia, and I am inclined to revisit it as such. Stay tuned!

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Politics of Trek: “The Enemy Within”

Liberalism and conservatism fundamentally disagree about human nature. Conservatives believe human nature is fixed and cannot be changed, though it can be controlled by the individual. Liberals believe human nature is malleable and can be changed to eliminate negative traits. Star Trek comes down on the conservative side in Episode 5: “The Enemy Within.”
The Plot
As our episode begins, the Enterprise is orbiting Alpha 177, conducting geological experiments. When an injured crewman is beamed up covered in magnetic dust, the transporter begins to malfunction, but this is not discovered before Kirk beams up. This malfunction splits Kirk into two separate people, one containing only Kirk’s good side and one containing his evil side. Separated from each other, the good Kirk become indecisive and the evil Kirk becomes purely impulse driven and maniacal. Eventually, the two begin to die without each other and they need to be sent back through the transporter to be spliced back together.
Why It’s Conservative
“The Enemy Within” is about the duality of man. Each of us has two halves, a good half which strives to behave nobly and a darker half dominated by rotten and unhealthy desires. It is the combination of these two sides which make us who we are, and both sides are necessary. That is the point to this episode and it’s ultimately a very conservative point.

When Kirk is split into two parts, we quickly see that neither part can function without the other. The evil part lacks self-control and acts in irrational, destructive and even criminal ways. He is incapable of living among others because he has no ability to respect their rights or to treat them in a manner which would allow society to foster. Nor is he capable of choosing his own long-term good over immediate gratification. This isn’t really all that surprising as both liberals and conservatives would agree that a person who acts purely on their base instincts would end up like this.

Where the episode takes a surprising turn, however, is that the good half fails too. That half of Kirk proves to be indecisive and incapable of making decisions. Specifically, he’s incapable of making the command decisions needed to guide the ship because he’s afraid those decisions might be the wrong decisions and because he no longer has the strength to send people to their possible deaths. Here Spock makes this very point, that both halves of our personalities are needed to be fully functional:
SPOCK: Judging from my observations, Captain, you're rapidly losing the power of decision.
MCCOY: You have a point, Spock?
SPOCK: Yes, always, Doctor. We have here an unusual opportunity to appraise the human mind, or to examine, in Earth terms, the roles of good and evil in a man. His negative side, which you call hostility, lust, violence, and his positive side, which Earth people express as compassion, love, tenderness.
MCCOY: It's the Captain's guts you're analyzing. Are you aware of that, Spock?
SPOCK: Yes, and what is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it's his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength. Your negative side removed from you, the power of command begins to elude you.
Notice Spock’s point that it takes both sides to make a person complete. The good side makes the person wise. The bad side gives the person strength, i.e. the power to be decisive and make hard decisions. Spock also observes that the evil side must be tamed and control: “his evil side. . . properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength.” This is a key conservative point.

Conservatives believe that all humans have a good side and a bad side, and that it is impossible to eliminate either from our natures. In other words, human nature is fixed and cannot be changed. Yet, they also believe the individual is capable of taming their bad side and keeping it under control. This is why conservatives do not accept policies which are intended to change people, but they instead advocate policies which are intended to give people an incentive to control their bad sides and to punish those who fail. This is exactly the point Spock is making. He notes that not only do we have these two halves, but that it requires both sides for us to be fully functioning, and even more importantly, we must control our evil side to harness the benefits it provides.

Liberals disagree with both points. Liberals believe that humans are malleable and that human nature can be changed with education or through peer pressure. This is why socialist states sent people to camps for re-education. This is why liberals seek to criminalize “hate” rather than the actions resulting from that hate. This is the premise of political correctness, that the negative parts of human nature will simply vanish if no one is willing to admit they exist. This is the theory of thoughtcrime and newspeak.

Liberals also, paradoxically, believe that it is beyond the ability of an individual to control their dark side. They believe that our instincts are taught to us by our experiences and, once learned, they overwhelm us and force us to act. That’s why they excuse crimes as being the result of cycles of violence or being the result of root causes, because they think it is simply beyond the power of the individual to overcome what they’ve been taught.

Thus, a liberal Spock would have held up the good Kirk as the model of what liberals hope to achieve for all of mankind and he would have spoken of rehabilitating the evil Kirk. He would have been aghast at the idea of returning the evil portions to the good Kirk, because that is exactly what liberals hope to achieve with humanity. And he certainly wouldn’t have suggested that Kirk could control his evil side.
Interestingly, to show you how much liberalism has changed since 1966, even the show’s liberal voice McCoy agrees with Spock this time, noting that: “We all have our darker side. We need it! It's half of what we are.” He doesn’t seem as convinced that the darker half is necessary for all of us, but he accepts that it is what makes us who we are and he notes that Kirk at least needs it to command a starship:
MCCOY: Yes, human. A lot of what he is makes you the man you are. God forbid I should have to agree with Spock, but he was right. Without the negative side, you wouldn't be the Captain. You couldn't be, and you know it. Your strength of command lies mostly in him.
I can’t help but wonder if a modern McCoy would be so ready to agree with Spock?

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

They Say It's My Birthday!

Hey folks, just dropping in to say I'm enjoying my vacation and to let you know that contrary to rumors I have not joined a monkery, and I will be back soon with all new thoughts. And for those in the know, I am officially 42 (click me) today! Yep, it's my birthday. And yes, I have a towel. Leave your thoughts as to the meaning of life below! :)
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Monday, July 2, 2012

Taking A Holiday!

With the Fourth of July coming up this week, we're not going to post anything new until Tuesday July 10th! Feel free to leave your thoughts here. Have a happy and free Fourth!
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Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 44

Comedy comes in two forms and ONLY two forms. We've already asked about physical comedy. Now let's talk about verbal comedy.

Who is the best comedic actor for verbal jokes? (and what is their best role)

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

I'd have to say a dead heat between Groucho Marx (Duck Soup) and Bob Hope (the Road franchise.) Both had absolutely perfect comedic timing, and Hope is probably more my favorite. I almost picked W.C. Fields, but never really saw enough of his films compared to the other two.

Panelist: ScottDS

After all these years, Groucho Marx is still the master. Jokes, puns, innuendos, songs, monologues... he could do it all. I once showed a friend of mine Duck Soup which is considered their masterpiece. My friend thought Harpo and Chico were crazy and sadistic (in this film, they terrorize an innocent lemonade vendor, unlike their other films where they only terrorize people who deserve it)... but he thought Groucho was ahead of his time and that, if he were alive today, he could be performing the same material on stage. I'd call that a great testament to his talent. "You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, which doesn't say much for you."

Panelist: AndrewPrice

When it comes to verbal comedy, nobody beats Nancy Pelosi, but she spends too much time in dramas. So I have to go with George Carlin. Carlin had tremendous insight into the use and abuse of the English language. Unfortunately, he too often got political, but when he stuck to comedy, like his seven words routine or the difference between football and baseball, he was among the best.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Eddie Izzard. He is a wonderful actor, though the only movie I’ve seen him in was My Super Ex-Girlfriend and in The Riches on television which is more of a “dramedy”. His many one-man shows are fabulous. I mean, this guy does an entire riff about the French Revolution that had my doubled over!

Panelist: T-Rav

For sheer volume of self-deprecating humor (often the best kind), I guess you have to give it to Rodney Dangerfield. His "no respect" line is still a part of popular culture. I don't know if it's his best, but certainly Caddyshack would be his biggest hit.

Comments? Thoughts?
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