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Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
“We've got another holiday to worry about. It seems Thanksgiving Day is upon us.”
So says Charlie Brown near the beginning of his Thanksgiving special, and it pretty well sets the tone for the show as Charlie tries to cope with the demands of the holiday wedged neatly between Halloween and Christmas. I think it’s fair to say that, of all the holidays we celebrate, Thanksgiving is regarded as more of an ordeal than any others. A quick mental inventory of every Thanksgiving movie or special I’ve seen seems to confirm this. So while the Peanuts gang may be a cynical bunch, it seems to fit with the general outlook regarding this holiday.
Charlie Brown’s ordeal is this: Peppermint Patty has invited herself over for Thanksgiving dinner along with her friends Marcie and Franklin. The trouble is, Charlie already has plans to visit his grandmother for dinner, and he can’t cook. Linus suggests having a separate dinner beforehand. Enlisting the help of Snoopy and Woodstock, they prepare a feast of buttered toast, popcorn, pretzels and jelly beans. Patty is not impressed and demands to know where the turkey and mashed potatoes are. Charlie Brown is thoroughly humiliated. Marcie takes Patty aside to remind her of the reason for Thanksgiving, giving thanks. Patty apologizes to Chuck and, with amends having been made, Charlie calls his grandmother to explain he will be late and she invites the whole gang over. They pile into the back of the station wagon, singing “Over the river and through the woods,” despite Charlie’s misgivings that his grandmother lives in a condominium.
What makes A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving worth talking about, honestly, is the filler. Of all the Peanuts specials, this is likely the most puffed up. Not only are there the usual gags we expect to see, like Lucy and the football and Sally flirting with Linus, but there is a ton of time devoted to Snoopy and Woodstock’s high jinks. Really, this is the story of how Charlie Brown’s dog single handedly prepares a Thanksgiving meal, sort of.
Then, Snoopy is off to the kitchen. I remember as a kid being fascinated by this scene for the various styles of toasters. Later, a remarkably inordinate amount of time is devoted to Snoopy plating up each of the guests. And, in a final gag, as Charlie Brown and the others head toward grandma’s, Snoopy and Woodstock return to the doghouse to feast on the turkey and pumpkin pie that Snoopy had been holding back from the rest of the gang. Thanks to Snoopy’s dominance, this Peanuts holiday special feels a lot more “cartoony” than many of the others.
What do you think? Is A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving just a nice story? Or did I miss something? Did I leave out any of your favorite bits? And while you’re at it, tell me some of your Thanksgiving horror stories.
Sunday, November 24, 2013
What is your favorite movie-going memory?
I've got quite a few actually, but nothing beats the day my friend and I stood for four hours in a line that wrapped completely around the mall to see The Empire Strikes Back. It was one of those fascinating moments where you could literally feel history being made and it was great to be with that many people all talking happily about what they thought the movie was going to be. Enthusiasm is contagious. And the movie delivered!
Panelist: Tennessee Jed
It is hard to top memories from one's childhood. Among my best were when our mom's would take my friend and myself to matinees at the big movie palaces in downtown Philadelphia. Ben-Hur in 70mm and Around the World in 80 Days in Cinerama were favorites. But to pick one that stands out above all else, my dad took me to dinner at a great Italian restaurant in Philly, followed by How the West Was Won which was, as I remember, also in Cinerama.
As an adult, I think my favorite memory was taking out oldest son to see the premier of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film had not been heavily marketed as films are today. There was no Internet to release trailers, etc. No, there was a relatively modest ad in the Philly Inquirer cinema section stating "starts Saturday." There was the poster with Harrison Ford, and names like Steven Spielberg. After that first scene, we were off to the races, and my thought was, "Wow, an old fashion Saturday matinee barnburner made with state of the art special effects. Yee-hah."
I can tell you what should have been my favorite movie-going memory but I wasn't, uh, assertive enough. Having said that, shortly after moving to LA, my roommates took me to the Nuart Theater on Santa Monica Blvd. for a midnight screening of Clue, done in the style of Rocky Horror Picture Show with actors performing to the film live on stage. Audience participation was encouraged!
First, I'm assuming almost everyone around my age (I'm 44) will say "Star Wars -- Imperial Star Destroyer rumbling from the top of the screen." So setting that one aside... I have a couple... I was the ne plus ultra U2 fan when I was in high school/college in the late 1980s -- as much as a kid living in West Texas where they never toured could be. So I was pumped to see Rattle and Hum in fall of 1988 -- and it did not disappoint. Was it hubristic? Aren't most documentaries prideful on some level? The music was fantastic (I still love that album and my Blu-ray gets played every so often as well), the black and white cinematography was gritty and fitting as was the red backdrop in the opening of the color section (cliche now, but not so in 1988). Two: Shortly after law school (1994), my Mom, sister, brother, and I went to see Dumb and Dumber. During the infamous Jeff Daniels "Turbo Lax" bathroom scene there was this sweet blue-haired grandma type in the theater who looked she should have been offended but was instead beside herself with uncontrollable laughter. I'm an eternal 14 year old so I still think the scene is funny... but we all still talk about that Grandma blowing a gasket in Dumb and Dumber. It's become one of our stories. OK -- one more... Getting to see both Patton and Ben-Hur on a 70mm screen in (for late 1980s) Dolby sound... amazing spectacles.
I don’t remember which movie I went to watch—I was just a kid — but we got there 45 minutes early, and I drank a bunch of soda while waiting for it to start, and I got sick and ended up going to the bathroom and throwing it all up through my nose. I didn’t know that was physically possible, but apparently it is. Okay, maybe that’s not my “favorite” movie-going moment, but it is my most memorable.
I know you won’t believe this, but it was seeing Gone With The Wind for the very first time on the big screen with my mother when they re-released it in the ‘60’s. I didn’t know what I was going to see, but it was magic.
Second would have to be spending the summer between my junior and senior year in college at the drive in movie seeing really bad horror films like Dracula’s Dog, Piranha, and Alligator, and Zombie! To this day, Zombie is the only movie I have ever left. I just couldn’t take it. It was gory and just plain bad.
Friday, November 22, 2013
An Inauspicious Start
Imagine you are tasked with starting a new series. You are sent off to the hinterlands and the worst studio facilities. You are given actors who don’t want to play the parts. Your main actor is “difficult,” and will eventually become a depressed alcoholic who needs to be retired. Your script is nonsense. Your budget is so low you can’t afford props. Nevertheless, you finish your show and it gets scheduled... for the night after JFK gets kill. That’s an inauspicious start for a show. Incredibly, that same show is still running 50 years later with only a short break in the 1990s.
The Doctor, we never do find out his real name, travels around the universe in a stolen time machine called the TARDIS, which stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. This time machine can go anywhere and anytime. It is also vastly larger on the inside than it is on the outside. In theory, it can blend into the background wherever it lands, but that circuit is broken, so the Doctor’s TARDIS looks like a blue British police box wherever it goes.
When the story began in 1963, William Hartnell played the Doctor. He was old and nasty. He traveled the universe with his granddaughter Susan and two of her teachers who end up stuck aboard the TARDIS: Barbara and Ian. Their episodes were plodding and unfocused, but were enough to attract attention. After awhile, Hartnell needed to be retired for personal reasons. But how do you replace the main character for whom the show is named?
So what is Doctor Who? Well, it’s a kids’ show that also pulls in adults by being much smarter than it deserves to be. It’s the kind of show you can’t help but like if you can get over the cheap effects and low budgets. It’s a solid action show in which the Doctor is called upon to save someone from catastrophe each week. It’s a solid science fiction show which deals with an amazing array of aliens and ideas. It’s a philosophical show where the Doctor will constantly be forced to ponder whether or not he has the right to take some action.
Despite spanning 50 years as of tomorrow and despite the feel of the show varying greatly over the years, the show has retained its core throughout. That core is this: the Doctor comes from a corrupt but brilliant race of people known as “The Time Lords.” They (falsely) claim noninterference is their highest rule. The Doctor wanted to help people, but was told he could not interfere. So he stole the TARDIS and fled Gallifrey (the home world of the Time Lords). Now he goes around the universe helping people who need it.
The purpose of the show is to tell interesting stories. Sometimes there is a moral, sometimes there isn’t, but there’s always a bad guy who needs to be stopped. Indeed, the Doctor has amassed an amazing array of enemies and he has taken on whole civilizations at a time, such as the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Sontarans. The Master is his nemesis.
Philosophically speaking, I can’t tell you that the show is conservative because it’s not specifically. There are some elements that are, like a strong libertarian streak, an opposition to man playing God, and an opposition to tyranny. But there are just as many moments that feel standard-liberal. For example, the third and fourth Doctors were insultingly anti-military. The seventh Doctor was deeply politically correct. The Ninth Doctor was pro-gay. But these issues tend to be rarely raised and they tend to involve just moments rather than being the point to plots. Indeed, the main thrust of the show, philosophically speaking, has always been a combination of a respect for the sanctity of all life (no, it’s not about abortion) and an opposition to tyranny
But the older episodes really are meant as a series. You need to get to learn who the characters are and what their histories are for the shows to have their full impact. By comparison, the reboot episodes work much better as standalone episodes. And in that regard, you can find some amazing stories: “The Empty Child” is unbelievably creepy. “The Girl in the Fireplace” is a heartbreaking romance. “The Satan Pit,” “Blink,” and “Silence in the Library” are amazing horror films. “Midnight” is an intensely strong drama about how people behave when they are scared and under pressure from those around you. “The Time of Angels” is a heck of an adventure story. And so on.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Top 5 Most Believable Schemes
1. From Russia With Love: The idea of getting your hands on a decoder device from a defector from the enemy camp is classic spying. Adding the bit about using this as a trap to kill Bond and collect the device is the larger-than-life cherry on top. This is perhaps the most fitting scheme ever for a Bond film.
2. For Your Eyes Only: Again, the idea of spies going after important enemy technology is classic spying. Here they’ve added the idea of salvage, which is again very realistic. This is something you can imagine happening all the time, with the balance of power shifting with the outcomes.
3. Live and Let Die: First one’s free kid. Kananga’s plan is actually brilliant. He’s going to dump heroin on the market for free. All it will cost him is lost profit and a heavy fertilizer bill. But the benefits... oh, the benefits! This will drive out his competitors, solidifying his power as the drug dealer of choice in the US. Meanwhile, with heroin being free, he will hook tens of millions of newly-minted addicts. In effect, he will spur a junkie epidemic and then profit immensely from it. This is actually Google’s sales strategy for Android.
4. Thunderball: Although this plot has been copied repeatedly and greatly mocked by people who want to poke fun at the series, the reality is that if you could steal two nuclear bombs, you could hold the US hostage for a BUTTLOAD OF MONEY!!! The key is getting your hands on the bombs, which isn’t all that easy. But the method they use here is pretty ingenuous by substituting a visiting military observer who hijacks the flight.
5. Quantum of Solace: Controlling natural resources has always been a colonial game and to have a group of villains using their financial muscle, combined with threats of violence, to corner those markets and thereby control countries is actually highly credible. It’s also pretty dangerous if they start controlling enough things around the planet. This is basically the Soviet “client state” model privatized and done on the quiet.
Top 5 Least Believable
5. The Spy Who Loved Me: A nutjob billionaire wants to blow up the world so that the survivors will turn to him to rebuild the planet. Uh, yeah. Forget that he will have no ability to reach the survivors or to do any rebuilding. The problems here start with his plan to have a Russian submarine blow up New York and an American submarine blow up Moscow... and a British submarine hanging around so Bond can stage an escape. If two submarines each fire one missile, does it seem likely that the Russians and Americans will just start shooting wildly or is it more likely they have already discussed what to do when their missing subs suddenly turn up?
4. Diamonds Are Forever: Rather than just launching his own satellite into space, Blofeld engages in a Rube Goldberg scheme just to get NASA to launch his satellite for him: “Nah nah! Fooooled you!” That satellite then uses a “laser” which doesn’t exist to blow up targets he could never find to blackmail the world. It’s a good thing the CIA can’t find him hidden away in the hotel in which they know he’s hiding.
3. You Only Live Twice: I love the idea of stealing spaceships, but this just wasn’t possible. You can’t launch a space mission without the world knowing where you came from. Meeting something in orbit is a lot harder than it looks. And nothing in the 1960s was capable of landing again in a reusable shape.
2. Moonraker: So we build a secret space launch facility that we use to build a space station the size of an NFL stadium in space, which we somehow hide so no one can see either the launches or the station. And why do this? So we can drop five snow globes into the atmosphere to poison everyone on Earth. Uh huh. Never mind that 6,000 nuclear missiles fired at once wouldn’t wipe out humanity. Never mind that falling snow globes is not a delivery system for poison gas or that gas is notoriously impossible to use even at ground level, much less from high altitude. The logistics are just laughable... might as well be wishing humanity into the cornfield.
1. Die Another Day: Let’s see, the North Koreans, who struggle to build mud huts, build a satellite that emits more power than the Starship Enterprise, allowing them to send down a wall of flames a mile wide. Any why do this? So they can blow up some landmines they could blow up just as easily with a small artillery barrage. Whoever came up with this idea should be savagely beaten with the script.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Let me start with the setup. General audiences love new movies, but they actually seem turned off by older movies, and the older the movie, the harder it is to get them to watch. For example, you would have no problem convincing people to watch a movie from 2012. A movie from 1992, however, would be a different matter. And forget a movie from 1962 or 1952. In fact, if you took a room full of people and you asked them which movie they would like to watch, even if you told them the 1962 and 1952 movies were the best, they would still overwhelmingly choose the 2012 movie. Fascinating.
So what is going on?
Well, tryanmax came up with some excellent ideas, which I will address as they arise, but let me start with this. Choosing a newer movie is the rational choice. Why? Quality assurance. Seriously. Humans can minimize their chances of making a wrong decision by going for the newest possible product that is available. I think similar logic applies to their selection of films. Consider the following three reasons why people view "new" as an indication of quality.
(1) Depreciation: Think about cars. People prefer new cars to older cars. We know this because new cars cost more. In fact, take the extreme example. You have a brand new 2013 Ford POS with less than 10 miles on it. By happenstance, the dealer just happens to have an identical unsold 2012 Ford POS with less than 10 miles on it. The 2012 will be worth significantly less than the 2013 even if it has the same body, color and options. Why is that? Because people assume the new car is of a higher quality, even if they are identical. Does this make sense? Well, yeah. The 2012 has a year's worth of corrosion on it. Its rubber is a little more brittle. Its paint is a little more oxidized. And if you try to sell it down the road, the buyer won't care that you bought it new in 2013, they'll only see that it was made in 2012. This is the same reason you pick out milk or fruit with the newest date on it, even though you plan to eat it long before the date passes: products depreciate over time.
But do films suffer from depreciation? Yes, they do. Like cars, films "age." And by age, what we mean is that everything about the film becomes less relatable in the present. The clothing, the dialog, the slang, the types of cars and homes, the things that matter to the characters. Tryanmax called this "creating a temporal distance," and I think that's very accurate. And the further back in time you go, the greater the temporal distance and the harder it becomes for modern audiences to relate. Thus, for example, if you don't own a leisure suit (or even know what one is) or if gas is plentiful, then a film set against the fuel shortages of the 1970s have a hard time feeling real to you. In the modern world of the US's dominance, a 1960s thriller about the Soviets taking over the world might be hard to care about. A 1930s film about a floozy in a speakeasy might seem like utter nonsense to you.
Films age because society changes, and the more society changes the harder it will be for most people to put themselves into the world they are watching, and that means they will enjoy those films less. By picking a new film over an old film, the average person all but guarantees they won't encounter this problem.
(2) Innovation/Improvement: People also prefer new things because new things are more innovative and tend to be technologically superior. Consider medical books or science books. Those depreciate in value very quickly as human knowledge grows and these books become outdated. Products experience this too. Older sports gear is heavier and less protective. Older computers have less power. Older houses don't have all the modern features. Older dogs are harder to train, as are older foster kids. Everywhere you look, older is lower quality, and our society reinforces this idea in our idioms, in how we sell things to each other, and in what we value.
A related point is that the newest products generally have their kinks worked out. Always skip the first model year of a new model. Why? Because they haven't worked out the kinks yet. Wait until they fix the problems they discover. Similarly, most people are slow to jump on new products until the early adapters have helped work out all the glitches. This may be behind an issue I've noted with books too. If you are selling five books and they came out one per year from 2009 to 2013, you would be amazed how many people will happily grab the 2012/2013 books, but will flat out ignore the "old" 2009/2010 books. Why? Well, I suspect they realize that most authors need time to hit their stride. So if you want to get the highest value for your buck, you pick up the books that are likely to be the highest quality, and that would be the most recent because logic suggests that you need time to refine your craft. Practice makes perfect, after all.
Is the same true of films? Absolutely. Knowledge is cumulative. And over time, film techniques, special effects and story telling techniques have improved. The reason for this should be obvious: each generation of filmmakers essentially can take the best of the past and recreate it while adding their own innovations. For example, while it may have taken a real breakthrough for Orson Wells to decide to put ceilings on his sets, every filmmaker knows to do this today. Steven Spielberg taught us in Jaws that delayed gratification can increase drama. Quentin Tarantino opened the door to strong nonlinear storytelling. And so on. Each innovation goes from unique risk to just another tool in the toolbox. So if an average person wants a film that is most likely to be based on the highest amount of quality engineering and is most likely to have the kinks worked out, then a more modern films is logically your better choice.
And just a few quick examples can show why this is reasonable. Which has better special effect? Harry Potter or a horror film from the 1960s? Which has more realistic dialog? A film from the 1980s or a film from the 1940s? Which has a stronger score? A film from the subtle 1970s or a film from the 1950s where bombastic was the word of the day? Even story telling has improved because there are so many more tools now. Again, by picking the newest films, the person improves their chance of getting the most value for their dollar.
(3) The Herd: Finally, there's another aspect of the human condition that gets us to buy new things: the herd instinct. In fact, this is the most common form of advertising pitch - "Don't you want to keep up with the Jones? Celebrity X owns one." What this does is play on the human instinct to not get too far from what the rest of the herd is doing. This instinct exists in all aspect of consumer behavior, so it's logical that it exists in the selection of entertainment too.
Tryanmax made this point: "everybody just wants to see what their friends are seeing." Said differently, people may see entertainment more as a form of "keeping up with the Jones." That would mean that people are drawn to current films not just because they think they might enjoy them but so they can maintain their place in society by talking intelligently about the latest films and thereby demonstrating their herd-savvy. Consequently, since the rest of the herd isn't racing out to see Risky Business, there is a low value placed on seeing that film, certainly a much lower value than seeing the current blockbuster. And since human activity time is limited, older films tend to lose out because the time allotted to watch films is being absorbed by herd-fare.
Now obviously, the above ideas don't apply to everyone. Some people are contrarians and will actively avoid herd-fare. Some people are nostalgic for an era. Some people are film buffs and like different films for different reasons. But for the vast majority of people, films are not something they want to develop as a hobby. So when they decide to see a film, they simply want the film that is most likely to provide them with the best value for their time. In that event, it is logical for them to assume that a modern film will likely be more relatable, will be made with higher quality techniques, and will deliver a bigger social payoff. So it makes sense that they would pick the more modern films.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
Unlike The Flintstones, who deal with a great many universal themes which are true generation after generation, Popeye doesn't. When you watch Fred and Wilma, you are getting a comedic look at the classic nuclear family, an arrangement that has existed long before the nuclear age and, barring a dystopic future, will likely continue forever. Humans just seem prone to coupling and they tend to want to raise their kids in families. The Flintstones speak to that in an entertaining way. They are also deeply "middle class," in the sense that Fred "works for a living," i.e. he does not invest or run his own business or live on welfare. They aren't social outliers either and they don't advocate crazy ideologies or religions. They are society's bedrock... pardon the pun.
Popeye is not that.
Popeye no longer resonates with modern audiences because he doesn’t project values modern audiences share. For one thing, Popeye is low class. In fact, he comes across pretty much as a drifter. He doesn't work. He doesn't raise a family. He's not capable of leadership. He doesn't contribute to society in any meaningful way. He has no sense of real responsibility. And he finds his courage in a can... sure, it's "spinach" (wink wink). Those aren't great values. To the contrary, those are the values average American look down upon.
Moreover, Popeye comes from a time when America had an inferiority complex and wanted to prove to the world that what we lacked in stale sophistication or in spiffy fascist uniforms, we made up for in being scrappy. Indeed, Popeye is a dated "ethnic" stereotype: the tough Brooklynite with little man syndrome who was inserted into every war film made in the 1940s, i.e. the unshaven thug who may or may not have a heart of gold somewhere inside, but who has no problem-solving skills and who wants to impress us with his "moxie" as he repeatedly uses violence to stand up to people we're suppose to dislike.
These characters were everywhere in the films of the 1940s/1950s. Indeed, Popeye was no different than Animal from Stalag 17 or Cagney in The Fighting 69th. Echoes of him can even be seen as late as Popeye Doyle from The French Connection in the 1970s, who responded to any insult with violence. But this isn’t someone who appeals to us anymore.
Modern action heroes use violence as a last resort after trying to fix the problem in some other way. Only when the villain refuses to change and then continues to use violence will the hero use violence himself. In effect, they fight reluctantly and when they do, they fight in self-defense and for justice. Popeye, by comparison, uses violence when he reaches the end of his patience, not because it's the only solution. That difference is key because it represents a fundamental shift in how our society views the acceptability of violence, and Popeye simply doesn’t fit in today’s society.
And the reason society has changed, I think, is because we’ve met too many people like Popeye in bars or at sports events, and we’ve seen them on Cops. These people think they are heroes and that people love how they “put bullies in their place,” but the reality is they are more often than not just belligerent a-holes. They get into fights over “points of honor” like disrespectful looks or “stolen” parking spaces or their kid’s playing time, and they engage in domestic violence when they get spinached-up. Even worse, they think “everyone” fights over those things and those who don't are somehow losers. They are a menace. Those are the values Popeye projects when translated to real life, and that’s not something people view favorably anymore.
This is why I think Popeye is vanishing from the landscape, because Americans no longer relate to or like the person his is. This is why he's different than hard-working Mickey Mouse or family-man Fred Flintstone.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
Friday, November 15, 2013
** Spoiler Alert **
The Master was marketed as being a thinly-veiled, warts-and-all unauthorized biography of L. Ron Hubbard. Actually, let me rephrase that. The Master was marketed as NOT being a thinly-veiled, warts-and-all unauthorized biography of L. Ron Hubbard... wink wink. They even went so far as to mention at every turn that Scientologists were upset about what this film would reveal and the director personally screened the film for Tom Cruise as a peace offering. Essentially, they sold this as a Scientology exposé by denying that’s what it was.
Well, I don’t know if the character of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is anything like L. Ron Hubbard, but it doesn’t really matter. He never purports to run a religion. The film doesn’t delve into whatever Scientology is really about. And the film only focuses on Dodd tangentially.
Dodd befriends Freddie and takes him in. Freddie then repeatedly defends Dodd from disloyal followers and outside skeptics by beating them up as Dodd moves pointlessly through the plot. If he’s building a church, you don’t see it. All you see is the interaction of Dodd and Freddie and Freddie fighting people who denigrate Dodd. Eventually, the film ends at an arbitrary point in Freddie’s life.
Why This SucksLet me start by telling you how most critics responded, because that might tell you what the problem is here. No doubt they watched this film having no idea what was going on. Little is explained and the focus of the film is on Freddie’s erratic behavior, which is basically the entirety of the plot. Then the credits start rolling. The critics look around and see the angry looks on the faces of the proles, so they instinctively jump up and applaud like Ruby Rhod’s sycophants in The Fifth Element:
“Oh my! Now I know what anguish feels like!” gushes one critic.Meanwhile, the actors are giving interviews in which they all say, “I wanted to do this because this is a real actor’s film.” Translation: It’s melodrama pretending to be insightful. The public? Well, this $32 million film grossed all of $28 million and it wouldn’t have done that without the deception of the supposed Scientology exposé.
“I have truly learned something about the human condition!” gushes another.
“Yes, I am a better person for watching this film,” replies the first.
Here’s the thing. Biographies are often lousy films because a human life is not amenable to compelling storytelling. Sure, there are parts of our lives that would make excellent stories, but not our whole lives at once. So from the get go, this is problematic being essentially a biography. Director Paul Thomas Anderson tries to fix this by limiting the film to a small time period in Freddie’s life: the relationship between Freddie and Dodd. Unfortunately, Anderson still fails to give us a compelling storyline. Instead, we just see a series of five or six minute long incidents that involve Freddie misbehaving and Dodd responding to that. So again, there is no real plot... it’s just an outline of moments, and the moments are so small and insignificant that they don’t form a plot, just a picture of Freddie as pathetic.
Even worse, the film tries a couple times to wedge in this idea that the reason Freddie is so pathetic is that he’s suffering from his exposure to war. This is a popular theme in Hollywood right now and they are trying to work it into films, particularly films about World War II. Thus, characters periodically say things like, “The war taught us to fight, and now that’s all we know.” But see, here’s the problem: (1) we never get a baseline to tell us that Freddie wasn’t pathetic before, and (2) his only evidence of having mental problems is that he’s a belligerent assh*le. So that doesn’t wash. Nor is any real point made about this, e.g. there’s no solution offered, so it feels gratuitous.
This film goes wrong on so many levels. For one thing, it never builds a plot. It wrongly assumes that a series of five minute vignettes is good enough. And while that can work if the vignettes are interesting, these aren’t. Rather than being mini-stories, these vignettes are just moments of Freddie misbehaving. It doesn’t help that Freddie isn’t a real person either or that he ends up being tangential to the thing that was used to hook people into seeing the movie. Even worse, little is communicated to the audience. There are long periods without dialog, the characters don’t explain what is going on around them or in their lives, and even the relationships of the characters aren’t clear. Nor does it help that all this craziness Freddie does might have been shocking to an audience in the 1950s, but reeks of Oscar-bait acting today.
Unless you need to see an example of crazy, say to help you fail a disability test, then avoid this film.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Plot Quality: Quantum of Solace picks up where Casino Royale left off. Bond is being chased through Italian mountain roads. In his trunk is the man he shot at the end of Casino Royale. He is taking the man to an MI-6 safehouse where he will be interrogated. However, the man will escape with the help of M’s bodyguard. Bond kills the bodyguard and learns the man has a contact in Haiti.
Bond, meanwhile, gets Réne Mathis to help him follow Greene to Bolivia. When they arrive in Bolivia, Bond is detained so M can take him back to Britain. Bond, of course, evades detention and goes after Greene. He then discovers that Greene is trying to gain control over all the water in Bolivia by replacing the current government with a military coup who will give him the water rights. Mathis is killed and Bond is blamed. He is now hunted by the British, the Bolivians, and the CIA, who have cut a deal with Greene to turn a blind eye to his activities in exchange for what they believe are oil rights. With the help of Felix Leiter, however, Bond escapes and finds Greene at a desert resort, where he is meeting with coup leader General Medrano.
This film is beautifully shot. It has the travelogue feel too. Austria is opulent, the Bolivian desert is desolate, the Italian alps are amazing and even Haiti is compelling. Bond is fantastic as the relentless, cold-blooded killing machine; this film feels like Taken before Taken. Greene is a fantastic villain. Mathis is a compelling and likeable character, as are Camille, M, and Felix Leiter. The plot is very strong, being a focused revenge film combined with a film in which Bond must actually spy. The stunts are realistic. The action is brutal. Some have described this as the most violent Bond film ever, which is possible. The film is clever too. The dialog is sharp. The meeting in Vienna is highly original on an order we haven’t seen since 1970’s films like The Conversation or The French Connection. This is a great film.
Bond Quality: This is Craig’s second outing as Bond and he’s excellent. The Bond character generally requires a combination of suaveness, cold- bloodedness, and humor. Few Bonds had all three. Craig does lacks the humor, but he makes up for it with a plot that puts the focus entirely on his cold-bloodedness, something he excels at. Indeed, his Bond is a relentless killer who will do whatever he needs to do to complete his mission. This is something we haven’t seen since Connery.
The one flaw with Craig is that he’s never jovial, as Connery often was. But with this being a darker plot, you don’t miss that aspect... plus you see hints of it with his relationship with M, with Mathis, and with Leiter.
The Bond Girl: This one has an unusual Bond girl. Olga Kurylenko plays Camille, who is a Bolivian Intelligence agent with a vendetta against General Medrano. Kurylenko handles the role well and has strong chemistry with Craig. What makes her unusual is that she has no love scene with Bond, yet you don’t miss it. Indeed, this seems to make her a stronger companion for Bond than other Bond girls because they are bound together by their mission rather than Bond’s sex drive. All in all, she’s probably the best companion Bond has ever had. (Gemma Arterton is a Bond girl in this too, but she’s pointless.)
Even better, unlike the villains of the past, Greene has the perfect cover: he’s a renown environmentalist! When was the last time you saw one of those as the bad guy? Further, this is the kind of character detail that makes his scheme seem so dangerous because no one will believe that a man who wants to help the world is really trying to dominate it through a succession of puppet regimes. What’s more, his plan is working. Look at how he plays the CIA and the British with promises of oil – they don’t even comprehend what he’s doing. Greene is perhaps the most real, and yet most powerful and most cold-blooded villain Bond has ever faced, and he’s the perfect match for Bond.
All in all, this is an excellent film that deserves its high rank and which I think will one day be higher ranked. Right now, it falls in the category of misunderstood, but as we’ve seen with cult films (of which this has many attributes), they have a way of becoming understood once they find their audience. With the Bond franchise (and public tastes) headed in the direction of smaller, darker, more visceral action films, I think this one will eventually find its audience. In the meantime though, the public perception that this was a let down from Casino Royale will keep this one at only No. 0011 of 0023.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Yeah, they don’t make car movies anymore. What do I mean by car movies? Well, I’m not talking about Cars or Cars 2, which could just have been called Toy Story 4/5, and I definitely am not talking about Transformers. God no.
What I’m talking about are Vanishing Point. . . Smokey & The Bandit. . . Cannonball Run. These weren’t car movie so much as flipping the bird at the man and hitting the gas movies. These were westerns on speed. These were movies about “the last American hero” who would not conform to the dictates of the nanny state.
They don’t make movies like American Graffiti anymore either, movies about American youth in their natural habitat.
They don’t make movies like Corvette Summer. . . uh, never mind on that one.
They don’t make movies like Vacation anymore, about the Odyssey so many Americans take with their families: the family road trip vacation.
They don’t make movies like Duel, which speak to our love with road rage or Death Race 2000 which had everyone I know looking for points.
Look, Americans and cars go hand in hand. They define us, we express our individuality through them. They set us free. And you don’t see that anymore. When you see “car” films today, they are really just heist films that involve cars, like Fast and Furious or The Italian Job. Or they’re nostalgia pieces like Deathproof. Or, God help us, it’s spoiled rich girls taking daddy’s BMW on the road to find get attention.
What you don’t see anymore are films about the connection between average Americans and their cars. You don’t see films about our love for cars... about us defining ourselves through our cars... about the freedom our cars give us.
There are several possible reasons for this. It’s possible that car movies have just become that much harder to make since cops are more sophisticated now in stopping scofflaws... though that doesn’t stop the heist films. It’s possible that we aren’t as interested in cars since we’re more urban, but anyone who has looked at our busy highways and the love affairs Americans still have with cars knows that’s not true.
I think this is another example where Hollywood has lost touch with America and Americans. Hollywood still realized that American’s love cars - indeed, they use cars to make their heroes stand out by giving each a classic car - but they don’t seem to understand the connection. They don’t seem to understand that a car in not like a jacket or a watch, it is a much larger symbol of who we are, it is a member of the family, it is one of the few things that give American’s total control over their destinies. . . cars are a part of us, not just an accessory.
Maybe it’s time for the next great car film to remind Americans of personal freedom. Thoughts?
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
What if I told you that a cartoon starring a lovable talking kitten and a rag-tag bunch of dogs who all sing and dance and discover the meaning of friendship wasn’t just run-of-the-mill Disney but was actually one of the most important animated features ever produced?
You’d probably think I was being silly. Or making outrageous claims for attention. (In fairness, I do do that a lot.) At a glance, Oliver & Company looks like just another formula piece—nothing special. But what you may not realize is that, at the time this film was produced, the formula had been forgotten.
Cues from the classics
Enter the newly-appointed head of the film department, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Of the animation projects in queue when he took over, only one was early enough in development to make any significant changes. But when Katzenberg declared they would radically alter a proposed sequel for The Rescuers to become a singing-and-dancing Dickens adaptation, it was seen as a huge shakeup, even by Eisner-ian standards.
It was the choice to adapt Dickens’s Oliver Twist that would have the most profound effect. Upon announcement, the project was criticized as tackling too complicated and dismal a storyline—an ill-conceived effort to appeal to too many age groups. Since then, attitudes have changed and a children’s feature is blasted if it isn’t sufficiently complex.
The other lasting effect of Katzenberg’s decision was that, when Shakespeare’s Hamlet was transported to the African savannah, The Lion King was billed as an original tale. It wasn’t until The Hunchback of Notre Dame that Disney dared to openly tackle adapting something not commonly regarded as children’s fare—to a strikingly similar effect.
Sing a song
The more obvious effect, however, was the return of the musical format. In the 1980s, the musical was so dead that even Disney had diminished or completely removed the musical aspects of its animated features. There were no songs at all in The Black Cauldron. To ensure favorable reception of Oliver, current pop musicians were cast, including Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and Ruth Pointer.
The wave of the future
Everyone knows Toy Story ushered in the age of CGI animation, right? Not so fast. While The Black Cauldron is officially the first animated feature to incorporate CGI, Oliver was the first to use it extensively. Skyscrapers, automobiles, a bridge and a scooter were all animated by computer and featured prominently onscreen.
A few criticisms
For all that Oliver revived, there are some aspects of that are decidedly un-Disney. Of all the films considered “Classics” this one has the shoddiest animation by far. The motion is often sluggish and the characters strike baroque poses more than just occasionally. It has an uncharacteristic “flatness” as well; one is very aware of watching moving drawings. In terms of quality, it is more on-par with Disney television animation—which is not terrible—than with other cinematic releases.
Taking on Dickens, while ambitious, was maybe too big a bite. The story takes precious little time for character development. Even so, the film feels rushed, especially when squeezing in those musical numbers, catchy as they may be. At the climax, one feels a tad confused about how everything arrived there.
The most inescapable flaw is how dated the film is. Sure, every Disney cartoon conveys a sense of when it was released, but generally they strive for the timeless and do quite well. Oliver is absolutely entrenched in the 1980s, from the visuals to the soundtrack to the dialogue. It may come to pass that, as we move further from the 80s, the dated effect will wear off as it has for films like 101 Dalmatians. Still, it remains an outlier among its peers.
Given Oliver’s relative obscurity in the Disney Classics lineup, one might think it was a flop. In reality, it had a very respectable box office performance. However, it was beaten in the same opening weekend by Bluth’s The Land Before Time. As history and 12 direct-to-video sequels have shown, baby dinosaurs have incredible appeal. (To Oliver’s credit, all the sequels were musicals, while the original was not.) A year later, The Little Mermaid’s opening figures dwarfed those of Oliver, cementing Mermaid’s legacy as the dawn of the Disney Renaissance and ushering in the age of the Disney Princess.
But imagine how different it and subsequent films would have been if, instead of following in Oliver’s footsteps, they instead traced the paths of Robin Hood or The Rescuers? It wasn’t just Disney films that were affected, either. Bluth, Fox, Dreamworks, and others released popular musical animated features in response, some of which are still mistaken for Disney films today. While I would never contend that Oliver & Company carries the importance of a Snow White or Pinocchio, Disney may not have ever returned to similar heights if this unassuming film hadn’t come first.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
What villain did you find most likable as a person?
Panelist: Tennessee Jed
This is probably a stretch, because the character is actually the protagonist of the film, so he is not a classic villain. However, Richard Farnsworth, in the 1982 film The Grey Fox does play a gentleman bandit who had been sent to prison for robbing stagecoaches.
After his release, he returns to what he knows how to do by heading to Canada to rob trains. As often happens in Hollywood, that same year, a very similar theme was on display in Harry Tracy starring Bruce Dern and Gordon Lightfoot. Tracy, a member of the wild bunch, is tracked by Lightfoot who was either a U.S. marshall or Pinkerton agent. The point is, the villain is romanticized and the law enforcement officer becomes the bad guy.
Hands down, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in Die Hard. Suave, well-read, well-dressed... you just want to sit down with him and talk about art or history or business. [smile]
Obadiah Stane from the first Iron Man. His nickname was Obie and he brought pizza! What's not to like? He went bad as opposed to being bad from the get-go. I guess Harvey Dent fits that description too.
Vincent Price! He was the creepiest villain/monster, but in interviews he was so charming and I hear he was a really great chef. Boris Karloff comes in a very close second. He could be so creepy, yet so endearing and so not scary in interviews.
This one was surprisingly easy: Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint aka Kaiser Soze! Seriously, the guy is one hell of a story teller and I would love to hear more about what really happened in San Pedro. Good friend to have too.
Friday, November 8, 2013
Here’s the story: high-schooler Lane Myer (John Cusack) is in love with his girlfriend Beth. Beth, however, doesn’t love Lane, and she dumps Lane for Roy, the captain of the school’s ski team. This causes Lane to become suicidal. Fortunately for him, his half-hearted attempts to kill himself fail. Soon enough, he meets the foreign exchange student who is staying with his neighbors. They fall in love. And when Roy insults Lane’s new girlfriend, Lane decides to defend her honor with a ski race. Sounds like a Hallmark film, doesn’t it? Yeah, it’s not.
Steven Holland’s approach was a tad bit different. Like Hughes, Holland isolated the things that cause teenage angst: getting dumped, having uncool parents, competing with a sibling, being shown up in competitions, getting bullied, and generally feeling inferior. Unlike Hughes, however, Holland did not reassure us. No. To the contrary, Holland amplified the hell out of everything... to the point of unreality. Indeed, let’s go through the plot again and you might see what I mean.
Further, once she dumps Lane, everything will remind Lane of this fact, like the radio playing a continuous loop of breakup songs on every channel. Moreover, as Lane moves throughout his day, his teacher will actually ask Lane if Beth is available... as does Barney Rubble of all people.
Family is another area of angst for teens. Specifically, you see a lot of teen films about competing with a superior sibling or teens who struggle with having uncool parents who don’t understand them. Holland gives us this in spades. For example, Lane’s little brother can build a spaceship and pick up trashy women. Lane’s mother does insane things (note what she’s cooking in the image below). And Lane’s father sets Lane up with the most hilarious blind date. Again, each character is so far over the top that they become ridiculous.
The whole film is like this. Everything that happens in Lane’s life is exaggerated. Whereas John Hughes tried to downplay people’s angst and make people realize that it wasn’t as big of a deal as they thought, Lane lives in a world where his insecurities are in fact huge threats to his very existence... bizarre unrealistic threats, which make you laugh. This makes for a strong film which forces you to laugh.
All of this adds up very nicely. The romance is strong and heartwarming. The problems Lane runs into are hilarious. The supporting characters are unique and fascinating to watch. The dialog is perfect and very quotable:
“Two dollars!” “A car is not a toy!” “Sorry your mom blew up, Ricky.” “He keeps putting his testicles all over me.” “Do you mind if I take out Beth?” “This... was your assignment.” “What’s a little boy like you doing with big boy smut like this?” “Everyone will be wearing them.” “You like raisins.” “Didn't ask for a dime.”The acting is understated for a teen movie, but sells the movie perfectly. Moreover, Holland was smart enough to make the world just unreal enough to be truly funny, but grounded enough to keep us from seeing this film as a parody, and he did that by telling us that we are basically seeing the world through the exaggerated, blown-out-of-proportion world of an angst-ridden teenager.
This is why this film works so wonderfully. And if you’ve never seen this one, then I absolutely recommend that you do. This one is brilliantly funny in a way you just don’t often see and haven’t seen in a long time.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
Plot Quality: As a film, this one is pretty decent. The film begins with Bond and Agent 006 Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) breaking into a Soviet chemical weapons plant to blow it up. Alec is caught and a gun is held to his head by Colonel Arkady Ourumov in an attempt to get Bond to surrender. Of course, it doesn’t happen that way. Ourumov shoots Alec, Bond shoots his way out and blows up the plant, and Bond escapes in an impossible to believe airplane stunt.
Bond, of course, quickly realizes that this was a setup and they identify a survivor, Natalya Simonova. He is sent to St. Petersburg to investigate. There he fights with Onatopp and discovers that Alec faked his death because he had some Rube Goldberg plan to get revenge against Britain for the death of his parents during World War II. Bond escapes and ends up racing a Russian T-55 tank through the streets. Bond then learns that there is a second satellite facility in Cuba. He and Simonova go to Cuba where they fight Alec and Boris to the death and save the day.
Bond Quality: This is Brosnan’s first outing as Bond and he’s not horrible. He’s not great either. What keeps him from really being a great Bond is that the writers injected a morose element into the character; this is not a Bond who ever enjoys himself and that makes this film feel darker than it should. Another part of the problem is that Brosnan doesn’t project as a cold-blooded killer, particularly as his character is bereft of joy, and his cold-blooded lines don’t work. Brosnan would improve with each film as Bond, though sadly his scripts tended to get worse at the same rate. Still, he was an improvement of dour Timmy Dalton and the aging Dame Roger Moore.
The other Bond girl, who is more of a henchman, is Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp. She’s an over-the-top sex fiend and killer. Janssen is a quality actress and she adds some life to the film. She particularly manages to liven up Brosnan during a scene in a steam bath, so she definitely adds value to the film. She is a bit “too much,” especially for such an otherwise staid film, but she works.
If you don’t use your brain, then this is a decent motive and plan. Alec seems cold-blooded enough to really do the damage he’s threatening. His plan is well above the level of a common theft, so it is worthy of James Bond, and there is a strange revenge element, which gives the story a bit more heart. Add to this that Sean Bean does an excellent job in terms of displaying menace and hatred of Bond and Britain, and the whole character does manage to come alive as a real threat. That makes him a decent villain and the film enjoyable.
Unfortunately, there is some silliness here. By tying Alec, the crime syndicate, the GoldenEye device and Alec faking his death together, you end up with a plan that feels like Alec set it up before he would even have known the GoldenEye existed or that his Colonel buddy would have been promoted to become the head of Russia’s Space Division. It also makes you wonder how MI-6 didn’t realize that their own 006 was running this massive crime syndicate which apparently had tentacles deep into the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. They would have been better off leaving out the opening scene. Still, you can overlook this because it just muddies things, it doesn’t actually make the film nonsense.
In the end, this is a solid enjoyable movie that is definitely better than its screenplay because of solid acting by a few talented actors, a couple of great images like the EMP pulse blasting the Severnaya facility and the tank chase, and solid cinematography which brought places like St. Petersburg to life. All of this makes for a high rating. Unfortunately, these positives are also weighed down by Brosnan not feeling like Bond yet, particularly as the writers made him morose, and the overall scheme never feeling like much of a threat because it wasn’t fully developed how this would hurt people in the audience... some bank records vanish, big whoop -- they should have really talked about electric grids, food distribution, loss of data, etc., but they didn’t. Hence, while this one is good, it’s not good enough to beat the competition. Ergo, we rank this one No. 0012 of 0023.