Wednesday, January 30, 2013

MacGuffin With Cheese

All right, I’m going to upset Scott a bit. Sorry, my friend. I’m going to talk about MacGuffins and why the Sankara stones in Temple of Doom are not a good MacGuffin.

You may have heard the term “MacGuffin” bandied about at the site or at other film sites or even in interviews with directors or writers. The term is generally attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, though it actually is older than that. A MacGuffin is the object that motivates the characters’ actions in a story. In a heist film, it’s the money the heroes want to steal from the bank vault. In a spy story, it’s the film the hero needs to retrieve. But there’s more to it than that.

Being a MacGuffin also implies that the object itself is actually irrelevant to the story. In other words, it doesn’t matter what the object is, all that matters is that it motivates the characters. Indeed, most MacGuffins could actually be swapped out for something else without a change to the plot. For example, in a heist film it doesn’t matter if the characters are trying to steal cash, or diamonds, or an envelope or a giant poodle; all that matters is that the protagonist is interested in the object enough to steal it.

Quentin Tarantino made great use of this idea in Pulp Fiction, when he made the film about the pursuit of a briefcase but never let the audience know what’s in the briefcase. That’s actually the ultimate MacGuffin because it doesn’t even exist, yet it’s driving the story. Another good example is “the process” in David Mamet’s Spanish Prisoner. All you know is that this is something secret and scientific, which will bring tremendous opportunities to whoever has it. It is important enough that an elaborate scheme is created to steal it. . . yet, you never even get hints about what it is.

Both of those examples prove what Hitchcock said about the MacGuffin because they motivate the plot but the fact we never even find out what they are proves that they are actually meaningless.

Interestingly, the Maltese Falcon is a MacGuffin, so is “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, so is the nuclear weapon in Thunderball. Again, in each case, those objects motivate the characters to act but what they are is irrelevant to the plot itself. Some have suggested that the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders is a MacGuffin. I don’t agree with that, however, because the Ark eventually kills the Nazis and frees Indiana Jones, i.e. it causes plot apart from the characters’ motivation and thus cannot be a MacGuffin.

That brings me to the Sankara stones in Temple of Doom. Are these a MacGuffin? Yes, but they’re not a good one. The problem with these stones is that while the nature of the MacGuffin doesn’t matter, it is important that a MacGuffin seem important enough to motivate the characters’ actions. Thus, for example, a heist for an undisclosed amount of money makes sense to us, but a heist for $1.50 or for a wallet full of bills does not make sense to us. The Sankara stones are that $1.50.

If Indiana Jones doesn’t retrieve the stones. . . well, nothing really horrible happens. According to Jones himself, these fabled stones promise fortune and glory, and we don’t care if the villain has stones giving him vague promises of greater wealth and success. We also know Jones isn’t interested in that either, so what does he really care about retrieving the stones for a meaningless village in the middle of nowhere? In other words, this doesn’t seem like a worthy goal to motivate his actions... “kin you get my lucky rabbit foot back from them thieves?” In fact, I suspect Spielberg recognizes this because he also gave Jones a secondary motivation of freeing all the kidnapped children to motivate him. So while this is technically a MacGuffin, it’s not a good one.

So what are some of your favorite MacGuffins? And do you think the Death Star plans are a MacGuffin?
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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Questionable Star Wars vol. 7

This week, we go back to Star Wars. Science fiction often becomes reality because if you can dream it, you can make it. . . like a dragon made of chocolate fondu who shoots laserbeams out his butt. Star Wars is packed with things science should be turning out for consumers.

Question: "What one technological advance would you like to see for real?"

Andrew's Answer: Lightsabers would be totally cool, but they would probably go the way of the lawn dart after hillbillies started poking each others' eyes out. :( So I'm going with something more practical. . . hyperdrive. Who the heck wouldn't want to be able to move across the galaxy in a matter of hours rather than eons?

Scott's Answer: I don't know how practical lightsabers would be in the real world - they seem a bit dangerous! - but when it comes to less fanciful things, it'd be cool to finally have holographic displays. Every now and then, I'll read about some breakthrough but an actual consumer-friendly and affordable holographic device for the home has yet to materialize.
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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 69

Run for your lives!! Actually, hold on, this is kind of fun to watch.

What is your favorite disaster film?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

The Towering Inferno. As a rookie commercial property and casualty underwriter, I loved spotting all the inaccuracies. Plus, O.J. in his second greatest role?

Panelist: ScottDS

If parodies count, then Airplane! But if they don't count, then John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday, featuring Robert Shaw as a badass Mossad agent tasked with stopping a deranged Vietnam vet (Bruce Dern, who else?) and a Palestinian operative (Marthe Keller) from killing everyone at the Super Bowl. Truth be told, I suppose it's more of a thriller than a disaster movie. Incidentally, it's based on Thomas Harris' only novel not featuring Hannibal Lecter.

Panelist: T-Rav

Hmmm... can’t go with zombie apocalypse flicks... don’t want to go with the predictable “Roland Emmerich franchise” answer... oh, you’re all reading this. Eh, I’ll say The Poseidon Adventure with Gene Hackman. Well-acted, lots of tension, and also it’s an upside-down cruise ship.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Okay, I have three – Piranha and Alligator and Zombie I guess they would be considered “disaster movies”. They came out in the late ‘70’s during the disaster movie craze.

Piranha starts out with the requisite “teenagers” who break into a “secret lab” and accidentally release a school of deadly “experimental” piranhas into the local water system. They first attack an innocent group of children swimming at a summer camp lake and it goes downhill (or uphill) from there.

Then there’s Alligator. Who doesn’t like a 40 foot alligator bursting of the New York sewer system and wreaking havoc on a paralyzed city?

But, Zombie is my all time favorite. It starts off with “hikers” trying to escape some jungle hijinks, and moves on to car wrecks, the sweet young thing with a sprained ankle, and zombies attacking the group in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. It has every classic horror/disaster movie element. Though it is very graphic and lots of fun. By the way, this is the movie where I learned that you can take a zombie down by popping it with a wet towel. You don’t kill it, but you can stop it long enough to escape as long as you are there to further the plot. Lord help you if you are just a bit player or a sweet young thing with a sprained ankle hobbling around in your underwear!

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I should probably say The Poseidon Adventure, but I'm going with The Core. No, I can't tell you why. It's cheesy and stupid and weak, but it's still enjoyable.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, January 25, 2013

Film Friday: The Dead Pool (1988)

The Dead Pool is the last Dirty Harry movie. As cop movies go, this one is ok, but as Dirty Harry films go, this one stinks. Believe it or not, the reason is political. By the time The Dead Pool was made, there just wasn’t that much left for conservatives to complain about in the criminal justice system. And that left this film rudderless.
The Plot
The Dead Pool begins with Det. Harry Callahan, aka “Dirty Harry” (Clint Eastwood), being attacked by men working for a mobster Harry put in prison. Harry survives. He is then assigned to investigate the death of rock singer Johnny Square (Jim Carrey). Harry learns that the director of Johnny’s music video, Peter Swan (Liam Neeson), had put Johnny’s name into a dead pool – a game in which each participant picks celebrities who they think will die and the winner is the person with the most dead celebrities by the end of the game. Swan’s list also included other celebrities who had recently been killed, and it included Harry’s name.
As Harry investigates the case, he destroys a news camera when the news crew gets in the way of his investigation. To get the news crew not to sue the city, Harry is ordered to agree to a dinner/interview with reporter Samantha Walker (Patricia Clarkson). Low intensity sparks fly and she and Harry begin to fall for each other. After another attack from the mobster, she comes to see that the media does sensationalize crime and she learns she doesn’t like it very much when the cameras are turned on her.
Where This Film Goes Wrong
It’s hard not to like a Dirty Harry film. Not only does Eastwood have a great screen presence, and these films tend to be very well written, but Harry’s an iconic conservative hero. Indeed, Dirty Harry is an attack on the liberalism that infested the criminal justice system in the 1960s, which elevated the protection of the guilty above the protection of the public. Dirty Harry also slammed politicians who were more concerned with image than with actually protecting the public. This was a welcome message in an age when society seemed to be falling apart and when liberals kept telling us there was nothing anyone could do about it.
The sequel, Magnum Force upheld the idea of rule of law, which is a rare message in cop films, which usually are closer to revenge fantasies than anything else. The Enforcer went after politicians who tried to make politically correct policies without regard for who got hurt, and it even added a nice little message of judging people on their own merits rather than their identity groups. . . very conservative.

Sudden Impact is where things started to go wrong. This film really was just a revenge film. What’s worse, Harry was nothing more than a passenger in the revenge plot and his role in the film was just to bail out the vigilante.

Then along came The Dead Pool. In some ways, The Dead Pool was an attempt to go back to the original Dirty Harry formula of attacking some bit of leftism that was causing society problems. Unfortunately, the target they chose wasn’t really a good one, and the reason was that the things Dirty Harry attacked had all pretty much been removed from the criminal justice system by 1988. Indeed, by the time this film was made, many of the Supreme Court’s most egregious decisions from the 1960s had been overturned and obviously guilty criminals weren’t getting off on technicalities anymore. Moreover, police officers had come to be seen as heroes by most parts of society. Thus, nothing of which Harry complained in the past was an issue anymore.
So what liberalism does The Dead Pool attack? First, it starts by giving Harry an Asian partner. This harkens back to him being assigned an Hispanic partner in Dirty Harry and a seemingly unqualified female partner in The Enforcer. Both films made the point that liberals are assigning people by race or gender rather than ability. But here, no such message is given. There is no suggestion Harry’s partner is a political statement meant to benefit liberal ideology over rationality.

Secondly, the main thrust of this film is Harry’s relationship with the media, which is where this film goes wrong. In the prior films, Harry criticized something directly related to his profession. He criticized a legal system that let obviously guilty people go free for meaningless procedural mistakes. He criticized people who suggested that the cops should act like death squads. He criticized politicians who didn’t care about how many people were hurt so long as their own careers were protected or their own ideologies could be implemented. These were things which really bothered people because these things flew in the face of common sense, they exploited the public for personal reasons, and they got people hurt. That made those films resonate with people.

This time, it’s different. The message here is that the media is evil for sensationalizing crime. But this is problematic. For one thing, these reporters aren’t nearly as bad as other reporters shown on film. Indeed, it’s hard to see these reporters as particularly bad at all. So essentially, the film criticizes the existence of the press, which is an awkward message at best. For another, this isn’t something which affects the public. In other words, it may stink for Harry or the people who draw the media’s interest, but it doesn’t hurt the rest of us, not like a system that turns killers free. Thus, it’s hard for the audience to sympathize or feel this film applies to them in any direct way. An attempt is made in the film to argue that it does matter to everyone by showing a man who tries to set himself on fire to get media attention, i.e. the media causes us problems by encouraging these people, but even that doesn’t really affect us as he would only end up killing himself.
Then the message gets muddled because Harry and the reporter quickly fall for each other and they both agree that the other is right. Huh? Could you imagine Harry and Mrs. Gray from the personnel board in The Enforcer deciding that the other was right? Hardly. When Harry decides that journalists are just doing their job, he literally wipes out the entire point to the film. It’s like they couldn’t really find an issue for Harry to object to, so they came up with this one, but then weren’t sure they really believed it. And when Walker then says that Harry is right and that she now sees how bad journalists are, she converts her entire side into a straw-man argument, i.e. something that was created only so Harry could knock it down. Both of these points seriously undermine the film’s message and leave the film as little more than a cop film.

And as a cop film, The Dead Pool is an ok. . . not great. It’s got a decent if unsurprising mystery (prior Dirty Harry films were not mysteries), it’s got some action here and there, and it’s competently shot, though it’s not a very beautiful or creative film. Unfortunately, Eastwood seems to be on autopilot in the role and Harry largely spends the movie walking around acting like a grumpy tough guy/caricature of himself. The film also succumbs to big-gun = small-penis syndrome when Harry uses a harpoon cannon to finish off the villain. I guess the .44 Magnum just wasn’t big enough anymore. Still, as cop films go, this one was ok. It probably wasn’t as good as The Presidio or Black Rain, and it certainly wasn’t Die Hard, but it was better than Red Heat.

But unfortunately, this wasn’t just a cop film, it was also a Dirty Harry film. And as a Dirty Harry film, this one is truly disappointing. It lacks the bite of the other films. It lacks the sense of right and wrong. It lacks the sense of us the common people versus them the nutty elites. In essence, this is a cop movie staring a Dirty Harry caricature, not a Dirty Harry film.
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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Guest Review: Sound of My Voice (2012)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed
Last May, I reviewed Brit Marling’s first feature, a low cost, independent production titled Another Earth in which she both co-starred, and co-wrote. At the time I concluded that while flawed, it generated sufficient interest to recommend, and that Marling exhibited definite potential as both an actress and writer. Her second film shares similarities with that earlier effort, but reveals a stronger storyline. It deals with the paranormal, presents a more unified, clearly defined theme, while providing a somewhat easier concept for viewers to grasp. Marling, who partnered with different writers/directors for each film, is likely the dominant creative force behind both.

It’s the kind of story that in a more condensed format, might just have worked as an episode from The Twilight Zone. When considered in such light, how does one resist? Like any story offering a decent twist not visible from miles away, it’s best enjoyed without knowing the ending so this review’s purpose becomes twofold. Let readers know it’s worth watching, and second, generate enough interest to whet one’s appetite without spoiling the experience by revealing everything that’s coming. A spoiler alert is nonetheless warranted for anyone who might prefer to watch it cold.

** spoiler alert **

The Story begins with a young couple, Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) driving through the San Fernando Valley. Following a set of instructions, they pull into the attached garage of a house, are met and led inside, given gowns, and instructed to shower and change. They are blindfolded, flexcuffed, and driven to a second house where they are met by an older man named Klaus (Richard Wharton) and several others dressed in similar attire. Klaus and Peter share a laughably elaborate “secret hand shake,” an evidently bizarre ritual of a secret society or cult.

The leader, known only as Maggie (Brit Marling), makes an appropriately dramatic entrance with a veil over her head, while she breathes bottled oxygen from a portable unit she wheels along beside her. Maggie explains great changes are coming; civil war and societal breakdown. But, she will guide the chosen few along a path toward survival, and a better more simple life. So what’s the “kicker?” -- Maggie claims she knows all this, not because she’s a visionary, but because she has actually traveled back in time from the year 2054.

Unlike some infamous real-life cults, these potential initiates don’t live segregated from the outside world. While returning to their own home, Peter and Lorna reveal themselves not as true devotees, but want-to-be documentary film-makers intent on proving the cult is a hoax by using a micro camera embedded in Peter’s glasses. Is Maggie the real deal, a time traveling messiah? Is she merely a talented grifter, or perhaps an unstable zealot who poses danger to followers and outsiders alike? Such questions form the central thrust of the film.

Subsequent scenes tend to keep viewers guessing. An assistant takes Lorna to a pistol range to learn to shoot. Does this suggest more of a militia like agenda or merely a means to survive the coming period of civil unrest? Whether con artist or time traveler, Maggie displays enough charisma that neither Peter nor Lorna remain unaffected. Each carries their own emotional baggage. Peter, a substitute teacher at a school for young girls, is forced to confront the loss of his own mother (herself a cult member) in childhood, while Lorna, a daughter of Hollywood celebrities, suffered from substance abuse. As Peter is drawn deeper into Maggie’s orbit, Lorna exhibits signs of jealousy, potentially jeopardizing both their relationship and the project.
Maggie asks to meet one of Peter’s school students, Abigail Pritchett (Avery Pohl). He reluctantly agrees, but refuses to bring her to the house, insisting the meeting take place during a class trip to the La Brea tar pits. Meanwhile, Lorna has been contacted by a woman from the justice department who is tracking Maggie. In what is becoming a Marling trademark, the final scene ends rather suddenly, without explicitly resolving the question of Maggie’s true identity. Viewers are left to ponder that answer for themselves.

Themes - The film deals with issues of what is real, what is appearance, and how people’s lack of emotional fulfillment might cause them to willingly participate in their own manipulation. To that end, Marling has created an extraordinarily difficult role in which she must sell a character who is charismatic, mesmerizing, and reasonably believable in order to make the story work. It’s a tall order, but Marling manages to pull it off rather well.

There are other interesting threads impacting the story. As a teacher, Peter represents a kind of guide as well, and one who also would know something of manipulative behavior. There are hints the young girl Abigail is without a mother, suffering from apparent narcolepsy, and possibly a victim of abuse by her father. Peter admitted earlier, during interrogation by Maggie, to having similar childhood experiences, although he subsequently denied it to Lorna.

Weaknesses - To begin with, the entire notion of a cult is a bit creepy or off-putting to most people. There’s a scene in which members are given apples to eat and compelled to vomit them back up. In another scene, after fasting, everyone is offered earth worms to eat, apparently an allusion to a future when food becomes scarce. Cinematography and production values are rough, at times appearing amateurish. Sets clearly reflect an extremely low budget. The screenplay is dialog driven and a bit slow developing, and one can imagine some giving up after about fifteen minutes claiming it’s either too weird, too slow paced, or both.
Strengths - What makes the film ultimately worthwhile, though, is that Marling has raised some very interesting questions about a rather dark subject, and come up with a “Serling like” twist that leaves viewers alternately wondering about the apparent lack of resolution while still shaking their heads in appreciation at the cleverness of her ending. The cast unifomly does a decent job of realistically portraying their characters, particularly Marling, who continues to impress in a very challenging role.

While far from polished, Sound of My Voice can be intriguing if you get past the sluggish start. When I think of what is mainly coming out of the big studios these days (Expendables 2, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, 3-D), I increasingly prefer these more sparse, modest films that are willing to tackle bigger ideas, and often pleasantly surprise. If you choose to see this one, I think you will be ultimately rewarded, perhaps in ways you didn’t expect. It’s a film that should, at minimum, cause you to think about it after the credits roll. I’ve come to my own conclusions, but would love to hear what others might think.
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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Questionable Jones No. 3

Spielberg is a talented storyteller. . . usually. That said, the man can do a whole lotta wrong.

Question: "What was the cheesiest moment in the series?"

Scott's Answer: I know I'm preaching to the choir but Shia swinging on the vines in Crystal Skull... but it isn't even that, it's the presence of his new CGI monkey friends. I'm not a Shia hater but it just reeks of "The kids will love this!" and "We have CGI now!" Thanks to the Star Wars prequels, some people have a tendency to blame everything bad in this movie on Lucas but I'll go ahead and blame Spielberg, too. [smile] Also, Marion coaching him on his fencing skills as he duels with Cate Blanchett whilst standing on top of a moving car, all thanks to some awful bluescreen work. ILM must've taken the day off!

Andrew's Answer: I should say the moment Indiana Jones meets Hitler. It's no surprise they got to Berlin on a motorcycle because this was a shark jumping moment and you need a motorcycle if you're gonna jump a shark. Seriously! Why do this? You have a perfectly decent serious film going and suddenly you inject this level of "look at me, I have no one supervising me" directorial moment? Steven, just because you can do a thing does not mean you should do a thing. BUT that's not my pick. I will go with something else from Crusade, which is the stupid moment when the library clerk looks at his stamp because Jones somehow coincides the noise from his smashing through the floor with the moment this guy stamps books. This is cartoon moment deserves to be removed from the culture.
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Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 68

From banana peels to falling anvils to pies in the face, nothing satisfies our need for seeing others in pain like a great physical gag.

What is the funniest physical gag on film?

Panelist: ScottDS

This might be the toughest question I've had to answer (which is saying a lot). It would be too easy to mention the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges (or Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Peter Sellers, Leslie Nielsen, etc.). This scene from The Patsy featuring Jerry Lewis is a work of genius. It's easy to break everything in a room but I swear I've never seen someone almost break everything in a room. As an aside, the actress in the scene is the lovely Ina Balin who passed away at the young age of 53. Man, she was a looker!

Panelist: T-Rav

I think it’s pretty hard to argue with the scene in Dr. Strangelove where Slim Pickens is straddling the nuclear bomb. “Ride ‘em, cowboy!”

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Okay, don’t hate me for this, but watching Jim Carrey in Fun With Dick and Jane when he hears that he is going to be indicted just sends me into hysterics! He’s running around yelling “INDICTED?? INDICTED??”
Sorry, it’s a scream.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I actually don't like physical gags. But one film stands out to me: Scary Movie 3 and the abuse Cody takes in the basement when George tries to save him with the baseball bat.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Hard to choose just one, but you know what popped into my head first? The scene from Men At Work where the dork bicycle cops are handcuffed to a teeter totter in a rather compromising position while clad only in their tidy whiteys and knee socks. Of course the entire Peter Sellers film The Party is basically one of the greatest feature length sight gags ever.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, January 18, 2013

Film Friday: Stargate (1994)

Every time I see Stargate, I wonder why I don’t like this film more than I do. I love the idea. The actors are perfectly cast too. I even love the television series that followed. Yet, after a good start, the film very quickly leaves me cold. Ultimately, I think the problem is this just isn’t a smart film.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Stargate begins with the introduction of Dr. Daniel Jackson (James Spade). He’s an Egyptologist and linguistics professor with a strange theory about the Egyptians not building the Great Pyramids. He doesn’t know who did build them, but he’s sure it wasn’t the Egyptians. Jackson is asked by the Air Force to join a secret project. The Air Force has in its possession a device, found in Egypt, which they are trying to understand. Jackson solves the riddle the Air Force team couldn’t and they learn the device is a stargate, which lets you transport almost instantly to the location of any other gate in the galaxy.
A reconnaissance team is sent through the gate, led by Col. Jack O’Neil (Kurt Russell). They end up inside a pyramid on a planet that looks a lot like Ancient Egypt. To return, they need to find a cartouche containing symbols that tell them how to operate the gate from that side. As they search, they meet a group of humans who are slaves to Ra, the Egyptian god. Ra, it turns out, is an alien creature who occupies human bodies to live forever. The reconnaissance team has brought a nuclear bomb with them with instructions to blow up the gate if they find life. Ra takes the bomb and plans to blow up the Earth with it, but the team saves the day.
The Problem
Stargate is one of those films that starts strong and leaves you impressed with the overall idea of the stargate. But actually watching the film turns out to be a pretty darn dull experience. This is because the film just isn’t a very smart film.
Consider the plot. The plot starts strong with the introduction of a mystery. You have an unknown device that must be decrypted. You have the mystery of who built the pyramids. You have a secret military project hidden in a missile silo. This is all very exciting and offers much potential. Unfortunately, it only lasts about five minutes. Jackson solves the mystery and they open the stargate. Everything you have seen up to this point is now finished and a new movie begins, a movie based on what is on the other side of the gate. Still, that sounds like it has a lot of potential, right? Sure, except at this point, the film runs out of ideas. On the other side of the gate, the reconnaissance team finds a desert and a hostile alien, and the rest of the film is little more than an action film where a small band of soldiers must defeat the god-like Ra. There is no mystery, no intrigue and no more ideas to make you think.

Moreover, at this point, all the writing becomes exposition. . . blatant exposition. For example, rather than showing the audience why Earth can’t turn on the gate from their end to let the recon team return, the writers have a soldier ask the question “Why can’t Earth just turn it on” and another soldier responds, “Haven’t you heard? It doesn’t work that way.” Exposition stinks. It’s poor writing. It saps a film of the scenes that make the film memorable.
In this case, it would have added a lot to the film to have Earth turn on the gate and have a team member try to walk though, only to have the guy disintegrate. That would have given the audience a visceral, memorable moment. Instead, it becomes a forgettable line of dialog. Making this failure even worse, it’s not like the film was packed with so much that there wasn’t more time for another impactful scene. To the contrary, about 90% of the film was quite dull, with the recon team befriending the natives, falling for the native girl, or just walking around in the sand.

Unfortunately, the entire film after they open the stargate is like this. Who are these humans on this new planet? Their leader tells us. Who is Ra? Ra tells us. How do we know Ra is an alien? He tells us. He has a device that lets him resurrect the dead. How do we know that? We’re told. Nothing in the second half of the film is shown to the audience, it’s all just told to us through exposition.
Now compare that to the first part of the film. How do we know Jackson’s theories aren’t accepted by the scientific community? He’s giving a lecture and people start walking out. They mock him. How do we know he’s a genius? He arrives at the project and within seconds fixes a mistranslation the team has been working with for months. A few minutes later, he solves the mystery of the stargate and he finds the missing symbol the rest of them didn’t see. In truth, these are fake achievements and the more you think about them, the dumber they become – for example, the translation isn’t really relevant since they have the gate and it’s not like anyone with a brain would need “gateway to Heaven” to be re-translated into “stargate” to get the meaning – but the point is that you are shown actions which show you what you need to know, you aren’t just told.

Here’s another example. Col. O’Neil is messed up because his son accidentally shot himself with O’Neil’s gun. How do we know this? When O’Neil is introduced to us, we see him sitting on his bed holding his gun, looking at a picture of his son, as his wife tells the MPs that he won’t talk to anyone. Yes, the MPs tell the audience what happened to O’Neil’s son, but not until after we figured it out. Again, the difference is huge. By seeing this, we understand viscerally what is going on in O’Neil’s mind. If we were only told, then it wouldn’t really sink in.

So why don’t we get to see Ra steal his latest body? Why don’t we get a real mystery of who the people on this new planet are? Because the filmmakers either weren’t very bright or they got lazy. Fixing this issue alone would have made this movie an order of magnitude better by giving us three or four more truly memorable scenes. Right now, there aren’t any after the opening of the gate.
Another problem with this film, is that everything in it is cliché. That’s more evidence of lazy writing. For example, why would Gen. West give the reconnaissance team a nuclear bomb? Well, because he’s a soldier and the Hollywood trope has it that soldiers want to blow up what they don’t understand. But this nonsense. No one would blow up a find like the stargate. Moreover, why even send the reconnaissance team? Why not just send the bomb? The whole concept is clichéd and stupid. The film is packed with moments like this: the stupid science team awaiting the genius, the soldier who will throw aside his orders to save a kid, the native girl who falls for the hero, the villain with no purpose other than being villainous.

Stargate could have been a top five science film in my opinion if the writers had given any thought to turning all the exposition into scenes to let the audience discover what is going on. Stretch out the mystery of who built the Great Pyramids. Introduce us to the alien Ra by showing him switch bodies and seeing the horror of both humans as it leaves the old body and takes over the new. And find non-cliché motives for Gen. West, Jack O’Neil, and Ra. But the writer’s didn’t do this, and what could have been a great film ended up a pretty darn dull film to watch.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Guest Review: The Dark Knight (2008)

By: T-Rav

The Dark Knight is my favorite superhero movie ever. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s as close to perfect as any of the big players in this genre, and in many ways transcends the superhero format altogether. And, of course, it’s often thought of as a deeply conservative movie. I agree, but for somewhat different reasons than the oft-cited ones.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
Hopefully the basics are known to most people here. In the second part of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the Caped Crusader (Christian Bale) is waging his battle to clean up Gotham and its criminal underbelly, with the help of Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) and D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). In retaliation, the mob enlists the maniacal Joker (Heath Ledger) to take our hero out (read: the plot of every ‘90s Batman movie). What seems like a straightforward conflict, however, quickly takes on much larger stakes as the Joker takes control of events, overthrows the mobsters, and wages war on Gotham, with an agenda that only gradually becomes clear. Batman and his allies are pushed to—and beyond—the limits of their endurance to prevent Gotham from descending into total chaos.
Why It’s a Great Movie
I was blown away by this movie the first time I saw it, and that impression hasn’t changed. The cinematography and well-paced musical score were many people’s first introduction to Nolan’s technical genius as a director, which Inception subsequently confirmed. An interesting point made before is that for a Batman movie, most of the action takes place in the daytime; yet there is a certain quality to it that makes it feel like night, all the time. A clever element in this is the way in which the film closely mirrors the post-9/11 world, given its terrorism allegory. We have warnings of mayhem broadcast, a suicide bomber of sorts, and even a shot of the aftermath of an explosion that resembles the World Trade Center rubble. The subtext is clear without being ham-fisted.
The acting is similarly great. Heath Ledger’s show-stopping performance as the Joker has been exhaustively discussed on five hundred other sites, so I won’t say anything more about it here; rather, I want to point out the ensemble work you see here with the actors. In addition to those already mentioned, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are great as always, and Maggie Gyllenhaal—well, I thought she was a step or two up from Katie Holmes as the love interest, for whatever that’s worth. Even the minor supporting characters are surprisingly well drawn. Also, given that this is a Nolan film, it goes without saying that The Dark Knight is about as far from the campiness of the Schumacher era as you can get. This is gritty, grim realism all the way through (though not entirely without humor—the scene where the Joker destroys a hospital is chilling and laugh-provoking all at once), yet nonetheless ends on a ray of hope.

The only flaw of sorts is the plotline involving Dent/Two-Face, whose character was not fleshed out as well. I would have suggested saving him for the third movie, except the way things played out in the movie there’s no other obvious way he could have gone. (If you have thoughts on this, by all means suggest alternatives in the comments.)
The Dark Knight and Conservatism
After the movie came out in 2008, there were a lot of commentators at National Review and elsewhere who argued that it was clearly conservative, mainly because Batman’s struggle against the Joker mirrored the military/law enforcement’s fight against terrorism; ergo those who want to stop terrorism are the good guys. One guy—I forget who—went so far as to call Batman a stand-in for George W. Bush. Before Andrew’s head explodes, I want to say that while there’s some truth to this, it’s a bit superficial and needs some digging into.

Obviously, much of this movie revolves around the clash between Batman and the Joker, who represent two ways of looking at the world. The Joker is a nihilist. He informs Batman that morality is a social convention, “a bad joke—to be dropped at the first hint of trouble.” Push people hard enough, he claims, and they’ll forget all about ethics and fight like animals for survival. Batman, on the other hand, stands for the idea that people can stand up for something good outside of themselves, rather than act selfishly. True, the men and women of Gotham haven’t been very encouraging in this regard, but that’s why he’s doing what he’s doing—to awaken them to the better angels of their nature. Seen in this light, the fight between Batman and the Joker is not a matter of one person beating the other, but a struggle of opposing philosophies.
This complicates Batman’s task because he can’t simply dispense vigilante justice and kill the Joker. He’s never been a fan of that method anyway, but it becomes awfully tempting given this anarchist’s crimes and the fact that he’s constantly daring Batman to “break your one rule” and kill him in cold blood. Arguably, this would save a lot of lives, but it would also be an affirmation of situational ethics and the notion that the ends justify the means, which is what the Joker is claiming—and which is also, incidentally, a very liberal belief. In order to defeat the Joker and what he stands for, Batman must therefore fight within a constrained morality. The constant debate over the extraordinary measures he takes is evidence of this; for example, he creates a machine that conducts surveillance of the whole city and then hands it over to Freeman’s character, the one man who expresses misgivings about it, destroying it after the Joker is located and put away. Nolan doesn’t come down squarely on either side of the “security vs. civil rights” debate; what he does clearly say is that power must be handled carefully and sparingly; the lengths to which Batman goes are a case of extreme circumstances, not day-to-day affairs. This is all very conservative.

And then there’s the movie’s finale, which needs explaining in some detail.
The Joker sets up one last conundrum for the defenders of Gotham: Two ferries are rigged with explosives, and the people on each are given the detonator for the other boat. One is filled with criminals, the other with ordinary citizens. The people on each ferry are told if they blow up the other boat, they will be allowed to live; if nobody on either boat has pressed the button by midnight, they all die.

Now, what we don’t get here is a deus ex machina of any kind. Batman can’t come in the last minute to save everyone; he’s tied up fighting the Joker. The cops are too far away. The choice comes down to the people on the ferries. In each case, we see them come to the very brink of blowing each other up. The convicts, as might be suspected, nearly stage a riot, wanting to take the detonator from their guards by force; but what happens on the civilian boat is even more telling. The impulse is to kill the criminals, who after all “deserve it” because of their crimes, and they hold a vote which overwhelmingly decides to do so. Here we see the democratic process put to perverse ends: under direct pressure, the people have voted to commit murder.

But in each case, something happens. One of the criminals steps up and tells the guards to give him the detonator; he then promptly throws it into the water, and he and others gather to pray. Meanwhile, none of the civilians want to be the one to actually press the button. A man who was pressing for the decision finally takes the detonator, prepares to trigger it—and after a long moment, can’t bring himself to do it. It’s at this point that Batman is finally able to beat the Joker and prevent him from blowing up the ferries himself, but really, he’s already won. Faced with the prospect of certain death, unless they chose to blow up other people—a literal “kill or be killed” situation—the people of Gotham, after a moment of desperation and readiness to do the deed, made the choice to sacrifice themselves in the name of what’s right.
This is an obvious rejoinder to the Joker’s version of morality, and the fulfillment of what Batman has been seeking all along. His goal, as he explained as far back as Batman Begins, was never to just beat up criminals, but to inspire the people he protected to believe that they, too, could make the right decisions. Batman isn’t a vigilante; he’s a symbol for good and people’s capacity to choose it. Seen in this light, this scene is the climax of The Dark Knight and indeed the whole trilogy. It also makes a deeply conservative point: Our institutions, as excellent as they might be, can only carry us so far. Ultimately, a society depends on the behavior of its citizens, not the structures we’ve put in place, and on the recognition of an objective morality, whether it derives from religion or natural law.

Conservatism sees human nature as fixed and flawed, and I generally have an especially dark view of it. People will be selfish a great deal of the time, as we see over and over. But that’s not the same as saying that human nature is irredeemably evil. Equally fundamental to our beliefs is the existence of an objective good, one people can aspire to, however short they may fall. That’s the broader argument The Dark Knight makes about the human condition, and that's why this is not only a great film but a great conservative film.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Questionable Jones No. 2

According to eBay, the Ark of the Covenant is worth the most, but it’s got a heck of a shipping charge and you’ll never get it through customs. Maybe it wasn’t worth pursuing after all. And what about that sippy cup you can’t take with you?

Question: "Rank the artifacts Indi pursues by coolness."

Andrew's Answer: I put the Ark at the top of my list because it’s just all kinds of cool. Not only does it have a cool history, but it would be highly useful if the bad guys got their hands on it. Believe it or not, I’m going with the Crystal Skulls next. They symbolize the modern Holy Grail, if I may say so, because they tie in the whole alien subculture. Then I rank the Holy Grail. Yes, I know the Holy Grail is considered THE thing everyone quests after, but if it’s just a cheap wooden cup that you can’t even take with you, then it’s not that exciting. Finally, we come to the rock collection. Yeah... painted rocks. To quote Wayne’s World. . . “we’re not worthy!”

Scott's Answer: The Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail both tie for first, if only because we're all somewhat familiar with them and the mythology behind them is a little more... relevant to some people, at least in this country. Next would be the Sankara stones. Not as relevant or meaningful for some folks, but still interesting. And like I said in my defense of the film, if Indy is interested in them, then we're interested in them as well (at least until the movie ends!). The same can not be said for the Crystal Skulls. I don't even have a problem with the idea of Crystal Skulls - I think my problem is simply, of all the cool artifacts Lucas could've chosen, he went with this? But like everything else, had the film been better written I'd have no problem.
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Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 67

Eat a great tasting Hostess Twinkie, Luke! It will give you the Force!

What is the most effective product placement you recall?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Cars, computers, and soft drinks come to mind. Reese's Pieces in E.T. is one memorable placement. Bond's Aston Martin from Goldfinger, and Steve McQueen's Mustang GT from Bullitt are the ones that most made me want the car. Later, the BMW placements seemed lame by comparison.

Panelist: ScottDS

I'm a Coca-Cola fan so this didn't exactly work... but the one bit of product placement that makes me smile is the "Pepsi Free" reference in Back to the Future. Truth be told, the only reason the filmmakers went with Pepsi is because their labeling changed between 1955 and 1985 whereas Coke bottles looked the same. Honorable mention goes to Taco Bell in Demolition Man, the sole survivor of the "franchise wars."

Panelist: T-Rav

As a rule, I don’t notice product placement unless it’s blatant, and if it’s blatant, it’s just going to annoy me. So little that was effective comes to mind. However, I remember that in the Spider-Man films, Peter Parker was occasionally shown drinking Dr. Pepper, and that was appealing. Mind you, I was already a fan of the Pepper, but seeing it reinforced on film by a superhero confirmed my loyalty to the brand. So I guess it sorta worked.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Okay, who did NOT go out and buy Reece’s Pieces after seeing “ET”?

Panelist: AndrewPrice

If it was a real brand, I would say the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, but it's not. So I'm going with a tie. First, the BMW Z3 from Goldeneye. When that came out, everybody wanted one. Unfortunately, BMW was also willing to sell one to everyone. Those things became more common that Ford Escorts. Secondly, Doritos from Wayne's World. The brilliance here was that you were laughing at them laughing at the product placement at the very moment you were thinking about the product. Nice!

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, January 11, 2013

Film Friday: 13 (2010)

I’m going to recommend a movie to you, but I’m not completely sure why -- I’m not even sure I enjoyed it. The movie is 13 and I’m recommending this film because it feels unique. In the modern world of highly-packed films with formulaic plots, this is not that. This is no smooth Hollywood production. It’s not clever. It’s not pretty. What it is though, is interesting.

** heavy spoiler alert **

Note the spoiler warning. This film isn’t full of twists and it’s not packed with surprises, but it’s one of those films where the drama is best when you learn what is happening as you watch.

13 is a remake of the French film 13 Tzameti and it has quite a cast. It stars unknown Sam Riley as Vincent, an electrician from Ohio. He learns that a man who has just died had some sort of high paying job he was to perform. Vincent decides to take this man’s place and hopes they let him do the job instead, whatever it is. Others in the cast include Alexander Skarsgard, who becomes Vincent’s contact, Ben Gazzara, Ray Winstone, Mickey Rourke, who was recently broken out of a Mexican jail, 50 Cent, who can’t act to save his life, Michael Shannon, who defines overacting in this film, and Jason Statham who becomes the antagonist.
As the story progresses, Vincent is given a train ticket which he uses to head north. He’s being followed by the police and is told to evade them. Then he’s picked up and taken to an old, abandoned mansion, where a contest is to be held. The contest involves a form of Russian Roulette, where the competitors stand in a circle and fire on the person before them as rich people bet on them. This contest combines the random element of not knowing if the gun is loaded along with a speed element as anyone shot cannot discharge their own weapon.

This is an interesting film on many levels. In some ways, I hate it. It’s an ugly film. It feels like it’s shot on low grade film stock. It’s dark. The actors are all kind of ugly. The setting is nasty, it’s not anywhere you would have a picnic. The story is really dark too, and keeps getting darker. These things make the film unpleasant, but they also work in that they make the film much more real than most modern movies. Even the unreal idea of organizing something like this contest is easy to accept since this is done in a dank old mansion with ugly people rather than some ritzy studio set. Indeed, throughout, the film has a quality to it which makes you believe this is really happening, something you never get in the glossy films Hollywood normally makes.
I’m also not sure I like the acting. It’s either horrifically bad or strangely brilliant. Again, it’s hard to tell. Riley can’t maintain his accent and periodically fails to sound American. Mickey Rourke is a walking cliche of Mickey Rourke on film. 50 Cent looks scared of the camera. Michael Shannon is clearly trying to get noticed so he gets more roles. Ben Gazzara, well, he's very likeable, but you get the feeling he died three days before filming began. The only actors who really prove to be competent are Statham, Winstone and Skarsgard. Yet, somehow, the acting works. Each of these characters stands out in a way which the writing itself doesn’t merit.

The other thing that’s interesting about this film is the simplicity of the plot. These days, films like this are typically made to be so hip and stylized that you expect double-crosses and triple-crosses and some amazing reveal at the end where you realize the whole thing was a quadruple-cross from the get go. But this film doesn’t do that. This film moves from scene to scene with a strange sort of simplicity and that makes the story stronger. Now, that’s not to say the film is predictable. To the contrary, you never really know what will happen next because the film keeps throwing unexpected things at you. These aren’t big things, they are things like a player asking for a chair or a player having a problem loading a gun, but they are enough to keep you from ever feeling like the plot just moves smoothly to preordained points. Instead, it feels like the film is being made up minute by minute and that adds a real sense of unpredictability to a movie even though the story itself is very predictable.
I think there are several lessons here. For one thing, realism can sell even an unreal movie provided all of its pieces feel real. The moment you start adding glitz, the unreality gets highlighted, but so long as you stay true to the more gritty way reality is, the more believable the film will feel. Secondly, this film shows how much minor disruptions, like a player asking for a chair or a janitor picking up garbage, can help make a film feel more real. These aren’t moments that you would consider “plot points,” but they injected moments of the unexpected into the film which made a predictable plot feel unpredictable.

As I said, this is a fascinating film because none of the elements are very good -- the visuals, the acting, the writing, the plot... all second tier. But all together, they seem to rise above their defects and create a movie that is compelling, even if it wasn’t a movie I liked per se. I recommend giving this one a try.
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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Toon-arama: Brave (2012)

Let’s do a little thought experiment. If you wrote for Disney and wanted to produce a truly stand-out animated script, what are some things you would avoid? Princesses would probably top the list. Of course, if you went with a princess anyway, you could always just make her a “free spirit.” Oh, but that’s been done before. Still, you could likely think of something more original than having her betrothed to someone she doesn’t even like and trying to avoid marriage. No?Anyhow, you would certainly avoid witches casting spells with unintended consequences. And if you can’t do that, for heaven’s sake, avoid bears. (Giant, buffoonish father figures are okay, though.) In any case, if you do decide to go with all those tropes at once, don’t call it anything like “Courageous” or “Daring” or anything like that. Oh, crap.

** spoiler alert **

The above spoiler alert is merely a formality because, odds are, you’ve seen this movie before... even if you haven’t. But, just in case the introduction doesn’t paint a clear enough picture, here is a synopsis in one sentence: Merida, a Scottish princess, is betrothed to whichever clan’s firstborn son can win her hand in an archery contest, but would rather continue her carefree life of horseback riding in the woods than get married to an unknown suitor, so she employs the services of a witch who casts a spell to change her mother into a bear that can only be reversed after everyone involved becomes enlightened and better people. That was depressingly simple.
Still, I could get past the fact that Brave is almost entirely recycled—many excellent stories are built from recycled elements—if there had been a better attempt at masking it. Alas, there really is nothing to do that. Character development is non-existent; everyone is introduced as a fully-formed archetype or, more aptly, stereotype. Many of the comedic elements seem like shoehorned afterthoughts. But the ultimate failure of Brave is that there is never a moment of uncertainty in the film. The stakes never feel high because the film constantly assures us that everything will work out.

Of course, audiences do expect a happy ending from a children’s picture, but Brave doesn’t even allow a sliver of doubt to creep in. In that way, it couldn’t be any more cautious.

The tone is set in the opening scene at young Merida’s birthday. As the family celebrates, the pastoral moment is suddenly broken when the demon bear Mor’du (actually kinda cool) attacks. But then we immediately cut to several years later. Everyone is fine. We only learn that Merida’s father Fergus lost his leg to the bear through exposition. The audience never had opportunity to wonder about his fate. And this occurs over and over throughout the film. Merida climbs a cliff and drinks from a waterfall, but we only learn this was dangerous afterward. She misses a crucial message from the witch, but she ultimately receives it anyway. And every time she enters the woods—which is like, all the time—there is not even the worry of getting lost because the magical “wisps” provide a glowing trail. Once this pattern is established, we no longer wonder how things that are not immediately resolved will end. The message is clear: everything will be just fine. And while assurances are nice, it’s no way to keep one interested in a movie.

It’s worth mentioning the wisps again, because after I had seen them a couple of times, I couldn’t help but think of them as markers in a video game. I don’t think of video games as mindless, stupefying entertainment in general, but the bad ones can be. And the bad ones tend to include glowing trails like those provided by the wisps. In that sense, the way they led Merida along, without her having to find or discover anything on her own, was emblematic of what is wrong with the movie.
Still, my mother raised me that if I can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all. (Incidentally, that line is also in the movie.) Besides, I’ve already said the worst I can, so there’s really nothing left to talk about but the good.

I’d be a liar if I told you the film was anything less than gorgeous. If the story is (severely) lacking, it may be because Brave is really a vehicle for Pixar’s new software (which they failed to promote). Sadly, too few people appreciate the complexities of animating an unruly tangle of curly red hair from polygons, let alone the painstaking subtleties of painting digital moss. Still, most people can and do appreciate the beauty of the Scottish highlands and so can admire the faithful reproduction by Pixar’s computer artists. The only drawback is that the awe only lasts for the first few scenes of the movie as nothing is brought later to revive that initial wonder.
Similar statements can be made about the vocal performances. A Scottish tale is a perfect excuse to assemble a primarily Scottish cast, whose natural brogue is entertaining in itself. If you can speak in your normal accent after 93 minutes of exposure, you’re a stronger man than I. On the other hand, the performers breathe an uncommon verve into these characters which, frankly, is necessary to keep one engaged in the picture. This is no mean feat, considering the aforementioned lack of character development. Truly, the character performances are the saving grace of the movie, being simultaneously a cast of clowns as well as reminiscent of folks we likely all know. Or maybe I can only say that because I possess a bit of Pictish heritage.

Conspicuously absent was much in the way of Scottish-sounding music, a real no-brainer given the film’s setting as well as the current popularity of Celtic and Gaelic folk music. This is surprising given that Scottish composer Patrick Doyle was on the job. Certainly the music never seemed out of place, but the thing lacking was a discernible and hummable theme. A couple of vocal pieces overlaid some montages, but I can’t say they stuck with me. Pixar has yet to do a musical. This may have been an apt place to start.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Questionable Jones No. 1

Indiana Jones films are truly a wretched hive of scum and villainy... or they wouldn't be any fun.

Question: "Who was your favorite villain?"

Scott's Answer: Believe it or not, I don't really have a favorite villain. Belloq is the best-acted and best-written villain but I think Mola Ram is the most impressive from a visual (or "cinematic") perspective. I'll pick the safe answer and go with Belloq. He was also the only villain with whom Indy was already somewhat acquainted.

Andrew's Answer: I'm going to go with Major Toht (Ronald Lacey). He's the black-leather coated Nazi who has them digging in the wrong place. :) Remember this? "Shoot zem. . . shoot zem bos." I love his ruthlessness. And even more, I love that he's no fool. He is a worthy challenge for Indi, which makes Indi's victory all the more impressive.
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Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 66

Reach for the sky, mister! The western is perhaps the most uniquely American of all forms of storytelling, and it's one of the most enduring.

What is your favorite western?

Panelist: T-Rav

Okay, well, westerns aren’t really my thing. I don’t have anything against them, I just can’t get into that genre. So, I haven’t seen a lot. But of the ones I have, the movie Tombstone with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer was pretty good, especially Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holliday. “I’m your huckleberry” is no doubt the most memorable line he’ll ever have.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

The Big Country is the most epic and had a great cast. I do love Guy Madison in The Charge at Feather River, though.

Panelist: ScottDS

I haven't seen enough westerns to give an intelligent answer - it's the one genre where I'm lacking in experience. I did like Tombstone, though. The first 90% of the film was good but the final scenes made it great. Kilmer might be an oddball but he can bring his A-game when he wants to! I'm also partial to Kurt Russell's dialogue in this scene - it hits rather close to home.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

There are a lot of westerns I’ve really come to love, but without a doubt my favorite is The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. This is just such a perfect film. Everything from the idea to the epic scale to the twists and turns to the amazing soundtrack to having the perfect actors makes this film just stand head and shoulders above the rest.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

This is not my favorite genre, but I really loved “True Grit”, the John Wayne version, not the new one. Glen Campbell was just terrible, but since he dies a hero, you can forgive him. And John Wayne is just John Wayne! And whatever happened to Kim Darby?

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, January 4, 2013

Film Friday: Silver Streak (1976)

Silver Streak is one of my favorite comedies. This film is funny, clever, thoroughly enjoyable, and timeless. And it’s the timelessness I want to talk about, because this film again shows us how to do a comedy that lasts: tell a compelling story first, add the jokes later.

** spoiler alert **

The Plot
Silver Streak is the first collaboration between Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, who would go on to make three more film together. It’s the story of George Caldwell (Wilder), a man who edits books for a living and his attempt to take a train from Los Angeles to Chicago for his sister’s wedding. As the story begins, Wilder meets a man named Bob Sweet (Ned Beatty), who claims to be a vitamin salesman, and he ends up romancing a woman named Hilly Burns (Jill Clayburgh). Hilly is the personal secretary of a Professor Schreiner, an art historian who has just written a book on Rembrandt.
When George takes Hilly back to her compartment, George sees the professor’s body dangling from the train outside the window. This starts a chain of events which gets George thrown off the train by the men who killed the professor. George then works his way back onto the train, with the help of an old woman with a biplane. Once onboard, he discovers that the professor was killed by a man named Roger Devereau (Patrick McGoohan), an art dealer who would be embarrassed by the professor’s latest book. Then he gets thrown off a second time.

George seeks the help of the police, only to learn that he is now suspected of murdering Sweet, who was actually a federal agent. He flees the police and boards the train again with the help of Grover Muldoone (Richard Pryor), a small-time thief, after they steal a Jaguar and catch the train in Kansas City. Once onboard, he discovers that Devereau is holding Hilly hostage. Once again, he ends up being tossed off the train. This time he and Grover are found by the feds, who are after Devereau, which leads to a rather well-done final conflict.
Why This Film Works
Silver Streak is an interesting movie because it’s a great comedy, but it’s not hilarious. It has lots of lines which will make you laugh out loud and quite a few inspired situations, but ultimately, the vast majority of this film is quite serious. Indeed, the plot itself is serious – there is a murder to prevent a multi-million dollar mistake from being exposed. The villain is quite serious – Devereau never tells a joke or even becomes the subject of a joke. He is quite nasty and could easily be the villain in any serious action/suspense film. Hilly too is played seriously. The feds don’t joke around either. Beyond this, all the jokes tend to be one-off lines delivered by minor characters, like the porter, whose hilarious line consists entirely of “damn hippies.”

Even Wilder’s character is played seriously except for a couple moments which count more as tension breaking than humor. For example, Wilder has a great line about “having met some dumb bastards in my time” but this is in response to difficulties he is having with a brainless sheriff. Really, the only “funny” scene involving Wilder is when Wilder tries to sneak past the police onto the train in blackface with Grover’s help.
The only exception to the above involves the moron sheriff and the old woman with the biplane, both of whom are played as ridiculous characters. But honestly, those scenes fall flat and just aren’t very funny. . . they detract from the film.

The lesson here is the same as with Ghostbusters, that a film can be hilarious without being a series of comedy sketches and without setting up a series of jokes. In fact, when I look back on most of the great comedies, the thing they all have in common is a solid, serious story which acts as a backbone upon which the jokes are added – the jokes then arise from the natural actions of the characters as they move through the story. Now clearly, there are exceptions, but how many of those are there? Airplane and its cousin The Naked Gun, Blazing Saddles, the Marx Brothers and the Stooges, but what else? Compare that to dozens of the comedies which dominate the AFI’s Top 100 comedies, including The Blues Brothers, Animal House, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, etc. Most of these films are surprisingly serious, even though we remember them as hilarious.

This is also why these films have staying power, because you can keep watching them long after the jokes have gone stale because you’re watching them for the characters, for their relationships, and for the plot itself, and not the jokes. Indeed, what this suggests is that if you want to write a comedy with staying power, write a serious film first and then add the humor where it fits rather than setting out to write an intentionally funny film.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Movie Rewind: Where Were You in ’83?

by ScottDS

1983 might not be quite the banner year that 1982 was but there are still some classic films to be found, along with a few merely average films we still remember, and a couple of bombs best forgotten. (The following list – heavy on the genre stuff – in no way constitutes a “best of” compilation!)

Twilight Zone: The Movie – I’ve had a morbid fascination with this multi-segmented film for years. Steven Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” is cheesy, Joe Dante’s “It’s a Good Life” is bizarre but effective, and George Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” might be a mini-masterpiece, though the original episode on which it’s based is more ambiguous regarding the nature of the creature on the wing. And then there’s John Landis’ “Time Out,” based on his own original story. Actor Vic Morrow and two child extras were killed when a helicopter crashed on the set. Landis and four others were found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in 1987. See more here. “You wanna see something really scary?”

A Christmas Story – A modern classic that was mostly ignored upon its release, this film tells the story of 9-year old Ralphie who just wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. It’s mainly a collection of vignettes set around the holidays in 1940s Indiana, based on the autobiographical short stories of Jean Shepherd who also narrates. Darren McGavin steals the show as “the Old Man” and many gags have now entered the pop culture lexicon, from the leg lamp to “Fra-JEE-lay” to “Fa-ra-ra-ra-ra…” I can see why this film might grate on people (the repetitive TV airings don’t help) but it’s all harmless fun. “Oooh fuuudge!” (Sadly, director Bob Clark and his son were killed by a drunk driver/illegal immigrant in 2007.)

Jaws 3-D – This film might’ve had potential had the studio gone ahead with its original plan: a spoof titled Jaws 3, People 0. Instead, we got this film, directed by Jaws production designer Joe Alves. It was one of many films in the 80s to revive 3-D technology and the results are laughable at best. A baby shark is captured at Sea World, but unfortunately the shark’s mother is after it. Dennis Quaid (!) plays Mike Brody (son of Roy Scheider’s character) and Bess Armstrong plays a marine biologist, but really, who cares? Louis Gossett Jr. chews the scenery as park manager Calvin Bouchard and be on the lookout for Simon MacCorkindale (Manimal himself) as a shark hunter and a young Lea Thompson as a water skier. “You're talkin' about some damn shark's mother?”

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life – For some reason, this seems to be my favorite Monty Python film. It begins with Terry Gilliam’s short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance and along the way, we meet (ugh) the ridiculously fat Mr. Creosote, the Grim Reaper, the machine that goes “bing!” and we sing along to “Every Sperm is Sacred” and “The Galaxy Song.” Like any sketch film, some segments are funnier than others – if you’re not laughing, just wait five minutes. “Englishmen! You're all so f---ing pompous! None of you have got any balls.”

National Lampoon’s Vacation – The classic comedy that introduced us to the Griswold family, directed by Harold Ramis and written by John Hughes, based on his National Lampoon short story "Vacation '58." Clark Griswold is hellbent on getting his family to Walley World and he’s not going to let anything stop him, including vandals, a lack of funds, a dead dog, a dead aunt, and a park that ends up being closed for repairs. Chevy Chase is excellent in one of his signature roles, Beverly D’Angelo gives as good as she gets as Clark’s long-suffering wife, and Randy Quaid and Imogene Coca steal the show as Cousin Eddie and Aunt Edna, respectively. “This is no longer a vacation. It's a quest. It's a quest for fun.”

Never Say Never Again – James Bond’s unofficial brother from another mother. The story behind this Thunderball remake could fill several volumes. In short, Ian Fleming had once collaborated with writer/producer Kevin McClory who later claimed rights to certain elements. Sean Connery was convinced to return as Bond and he seems to be enjoying himself. Barbara Carrera is a blast as femme fatale Fatima Blush while Kim Basinger is merely okay as Domino. Klaus Maria Brandauer plays the villainous Largo but comes across as more of a middle manager at Initech. The film is… okay, but it looks bland. Hard to believe it was directed by Irvin Kershner who directed the best (and best-looking) Star Wars film just a few years earlier. “I hope we're going to see some gratuitous sex and violence in this one!”

The Outsiders – I wonder if English teachers still show this film to students. I must’ve seen it three grades in a row. Francis Ford Coppola directs this adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s novel (written when she was in high school). Amazingly, he was compelled to direct it after a group of Fresno middle school students wrote to him about it. It tells the story of two gangs: the rough and tumble Greasers and the wealthy Socs (pronounced “sowsh-es”). This film is notable for its cast of young up-and-comers, including Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, and Diane Lane. “Let's do it for Johnny, man!”

The Right Stuff – If there’s such a thing as a quintessentially “American” epic, this is it. Adapted by Philip Kaufman from Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction book about the early days of our manned space program, this film features two plots running in parallel: the early adventures of the Mercury Seven and the trials and tribulations of Chuck Yeager. The all-star cast (including Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, and Sam Shepard) is excellent, many of the flying effects still hold up, and there’s just a wonderful old-fashioned sense of bravado and derring-do on display. “No bucks, no Buck Rodgers.”

Return of the Jedi – The final Star Wars film, at least until George Lucas started work on the prequels a decade later. Looking back, this film is certainly better than its reputation suggests though all the warning signs were there, too, including a few too many “cutesy” moments and a preponderance of critters for the kids. It also drags a bit in the middle. However, the Luke/Emperor scenes are still some of the best in the saga, the visual effects are excellent for their day, John Williams’ score is perfect, and at the end of the day, the father is redeemed by the son. “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.”

Scarface – I finally watched Brian DePalma’s Grand Guignol story for the first time in film school… and I liked it! It tells the story of Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who comes to Miami in 1980 and becomes a drug kingpin during the cocaine boom. This movie… it’s over the top and decadent but in the end, Tony reaps what he sows. Al Pacino is a force of nature and the rest of the cast (including Steven Bauer, Robert Loggia, F. Murray Abraham, and a young Michelle Pfeiffer) is pretty good, too. This film has since taken on a life of its own and is very popular among the hip-hop community. (God, I’m so white.) “Don’t get high on your own supply.”

Superman III – For whatever reason, this film is still fun to watch, though the opening slapstick montage is just ridiculous and the final battle is even weirder. Christopher Reeve once again gives it his all as both the Man of Steel and Clark Kent, who goes back to Smallville for his high school reunion and spends time with Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole). Margot Kidder only appears in the opening and closing ten minutes but the film is probably best known for Richard Pryor’s role as schlub computer programmer Gus Gorman who is blackmailed by his new boss, evil industrialist Lex – I mean, Ross Webster (a slithering Robert Vaughn). The fight scene between “good Clark” and “bad Superman” is probably the best part and Gorman’s embezzlement scheme was later used in Office Space. “Never underestimate the power of computers.”

Sudden Impact – Clint Eastwood directs the fourth film in the Dirty Harry franchise which features his then-girlfriend Sondra Locke as a rape victim exacting revenge on her aggressors in the town of San Paulo. This is actually my favorite Dirty Harry sequel and Eastwood gives it a nice stylistic touch. Some familiar face show up, including Pat Hingle as a police chief who knows more than he lets on and this film introduced us to Dirty Harry’s other signature line: “Go ahead. Make my day.”

Curse of the Pink Panther – As talented as he was, I don’t think I can forgive Blake Edwards for continuing the Pink Panther series after the death of Peter Sellers. The previous film consisted of Sellers outtakes from the other films and in this one, we’re introduced to bumbling American detective Clifton Sleigh (Ted Wass) who is hired to find Clouseau and the illusive Pink Panther diamond. This movie just isn’t funny but then again, I’ve always felt the other films tended to grind to a halt whenever Sellers or Herbert Lom weren’t on the screen. Brief highlights include appearances by series veterans David Niven and Robert Wagner along with the score by the ever-present Henry Mancini, not to mention a bizarre Roger Moore cameo.

Also: All the Right Moves, The Big Chill, Blue Thunder, Brainstorm, Christine, The Dead Zone, Doctor Detroit, Easy Money, Flashdance, The Hunger, Krull, Octopussy, Risky Business, Valley Girl, Trading Places, WarGames, Zelig, and Terms of Endearment.

Will 2013 prove to be as memorable? We’ll see…
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