Friday, July 30, 2010

The End of Toontown

I’m a big fan of cartoons. Done right, cartoons are the purest form of escapism. They are also a fascinating storytelling medium because they literally have no bounds. You can use any type of characters, any style of drawing, and any storylines. The story need not even make sense or follow conventional story-telling techniques, and deus ex machina reigns supreme. At least, that’s how it was. Modern cartoons depress me because they’ve surrendered their unreality and they replaced it with an uncomfortable mimicking of the real world.

Now before I start, let me say that there are a handful of amazing cartoons today. For example, Up and Wall-E are incredibly subtle and intelligent movies. And South Park is the best social satire since Rocky & Bullwinkle, and Futurama is what The Simpsons once was. But then it starts to get a little iffy.

The problem with so many modern cartoons is that they’ve discarded the very things that made cartoons such a wonderful medium. They've tried to grow up, and in the process they lost the fairy dust. Consider what modern cartoons have lost:

1. Cartoon Physics: The biggest loss to the cartoon world is the loss of cartoon physics. What is cartoon physics? It’s the physical reality in which cartoons used to operate. In other words, this is what let toons run off a cliff, but not fall until they became conscious of their mistake. This is why traps never sprang on good guys, only bad guys, why good guys could pass through solid walls painted to resemble tunnels, but bad guys couldn’t, and so on. This was the innocence of their world.

(FYI, many of these rules are on display in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, an excellent film that really shows a love for its subject matter. . . “You could [escape from those handcuffs] the whole time?!” “No, only when it was funny!”)

Unlike cartoons of yesteryear, today’s cartoon characters live in a world that largely approximates our own. The physics of their world is slightly exaggerated, but not by much, and certainly nowhere near as much as it used to be. If you run off a cliff, you fall. If you walk into a wall, you hit the wall. Thus, many of the most memorable moments from cartoons of old could not be repeated today. But more importantly, this has made modern cartoons much more “real-world” in their look and feel, and this has killed their essence. Indeed, there is little distinction today between cartoons and live-action movies.

In addition to the sadness of this loss, there is a danger element as well. If we take at face value the complaint people used to make about kids not being able to tell the difference between cartoon violence and the real world, what should we make of modern cartoons? In the past, when you smacked a cartoon cat in the face with a frying pan, something unreal happened: its face took the shape of the frying pan before it returned to normal. Nothing similar happens today. In fact, the outlandishness of the violence is gone today, i.e. it is much more real. But since cartoon violence still doesn’t result in realistic injury, are we not sending a worse signal today than we were in the past?

Also, doesn’t the violence seem a little more disturbing? When Jerry smacks Tom with a hammer, we laughed. But would we laugh if someone smacked Dug from Up with a hammer or would we recoil?

2. Indestructibility: By the same token, cartoon characters have lost their indestructibility. I’m not saying modern cartoon characters can be killed, but you certainly get the feeling they could. Think about it. In the past, you could blast a toon full of holes and water poured out when they drank. They could take an explosion, a shotgun to the face, a dissection from falling knives or any one of a dozen other Rube Goldbergian deaths. . . but they never died. They weren’t even hurt.

Yet, today’s characters get hurt when they are assaulted. They scream and try to avoid the danger, rather than facing the inevitable with a sarcastic stoicism and a sign that reads “Help!” Modern cartoonists even wrap their injuries in bandages and let them express the pain they’ve endured. Seriously, think about this: is there anything you can think of that could kill Bugs Bunny? Now, what about Buzz Lightyear?

Once again, the problem here is that we are wiping out the consequence free world that makes cartoons so escapist. In their place, we are seeing real world consequences, that change the look, feel, spirit and purpose of cartoons. Indeed, rather than dealing with fantasy, cartoons now become nothing more than live action films done on the cheap with computer graphics instead of film and sets.

3. That’s “Daffy,” Not “Stupidy”: Something else that really bothers me is the change in the kinds of defects cartoon characters display. It used to be that toons suffered from a variety of defects, all brought about by “bad” characteristics. In other words, their flaws were the result of inflated egos, hubris, obsessions, and other negative human traits. This made them daffy, and it made it easy to laugh at the egotistical jerks as their elaborate schemes blew up in their faces.

But modern cartoons are different. Now villains all suffer from megalomania and sidekicks all suffer from low self-esteem. Gone are the overly-elaborate plans, the Yosemite Sams who blinded themselves with anger, and the Elmer Fudds who could always be talked into making a huge mistake. Gone are the "tragic" villains, in the classic sense of having a tragic flaw. In their place are characters who are simply stupid, pathetic or rotten. Consequently, the very nature of the characters has become more nasty and less interesting.

4. Voices In My Head: Modern cartoons also have given up on finding talent like Mel Blanc. Instead, they now use famous actors to play the majority of the parts. This is done to help market these cartoons. But in the process, we’ve lost the believability of the characters. Indeed, you no longer see Bullwinkle or Scooby Doo, you see Robin Williams, Dan Aykroyd or a dozen pop stars. It’s like hiring Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger to star in Star Wars just because they’re famous, not because they fit the part. This makes it so much harder to “get into” the cartoon. Also, doesn’t this just reinforce our vapid celebrity culture?

5. $$$$: Finally, we come to the blatant commercialization. In the past, cartoons were drawn to satisfy the creative process. Animators created what they envisioned and they pioneered various interest techniques to improve their processes. Today, cartoon characters are designed to make merchandizing easier. When sales considerations trump creative considerations, we all lose.

That’s my problem with modern cartoons. At one point, these were pure escapist fun, though they often held interesting satire and hidden meanings. But today, they’ve mostly become disturbingly realistic and bland. In fact, part of what made cartoons so fun in the past was seeing how creative the cartoonists could be. But today’s cartoons are so restrictive that they might as well shoot them as live action films and just convert them to cartoons with a paint program.

To me, this represents a real loss of innocence and creativity.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Film Friday: Smokin' Aces (2007)

Smokin’ Aces fascinates me, but for the wrong reasons. On paper this movie must have looked great. You’ve got a solid cast, a director with a hip style, and a downright clever script. But something went wrong on the way from paper to film. As I see it, the director worked too hard to be clever and not hard enough on getting control over his film reality.

** spoiler alert **
Problem No. 1: Script-Abuse
If you just consider the script itself without paying attention to the final film product, you would think this would be a pretty good movie. For one thing, the story has an interesting premise: Buddy “Aces” Israel (Jeremy Piven) is a Vegas magician/mafia associate, who wants to turn informant. As Piven waits in the penthouse of the Nomad Casino in Lake Tahoe, while his agent negotiates a deal with the Department of Justice -- headed by Andy Garcia, the mob puts a massive bounty on Piven's head. This gets half a dozen assassins racing for the million dollar prize. Sounds like fun.

Further, script-wise, everything ties together nicely. Everything that needs to be foreshadowed is foreshadowed. All the motivations make sense. The dialog fits the personalities. The characters are interesting and there are dozens of moments of cleverness, both verbal cleverness and plot cleverness. But something has gone wrong from script to screen.

Specifically, the film feels gimmicky because the director ties together each scene by having the first line of dialog in each scene reference the last line of dialog in the prior scene. Thus, one scene might end with a character saying: “what time it is?” and the next scene would begin with a character in a different scene saying something like: “Five o’clock is when it happened.” This was used incredibly effectively in The Fifth Element, where multiple scenes were sometimes combined into one through interlaced dialog. It allowed the director both to speed up the story AND to bring the characters together -- giving the movie a more tied-in feel. But in Smokin’ Aces, this was done in a such a heavy-handed, obvious and unrelenting way that it screams: “look how clever I can be!” It's like giving the punchline to a joke in the middle of the next joke, and while that can be clever if done sparingly, it becomes unpleasant done constantly. Indeed, it quickly becomes tiring trying to sort out the double meanings of each scene transition.
Problem 2: Too Many Lead Actors
The next problem comes from the use of the cast. The cast is very large and mostly famous: Ben Affleck, Common (Terminator Salvation), Alicia Keys, Jason Bateman, Ray Liotta (Goodfellas), Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal), Chris Pine (Star Trek), Matthew Fox (Lost), and a couple more you’ll recognize. And it’s hard to complain about this group as they all do a pretty good job. But the director decided to give them all “a moment.” Thus, the film starts to feel disjointed as each character is given time to do their “shtick,” whether it helps the movie or not. And some scenes do nothing but distract from the film, e.g. Jason Bateman's scenes could be removed entirely.
Problem 3: Loss of Control
But the real problem with this film is that the director loses control over the film’s reality. Smokin’ Aces feels like the director shot seven or eight distinct stories with each character eventually ending up in the same place, then cut each film into equal length segments and assembled the movie by alternating these segments starting from the end of the film and working his way to the beginning without regard for how they fit together. This causes an amazing amount of time distortion in the film.

For example, one character starts up in the elevator toward the penthouse but somehow doesn’t reach the top floor before another character can drive from across town to the casino, interview staff members about the assassin in the elevator, get into a second elevator, and meet the assassin at the penthouse. In the same amount of time, another character flies from Los Angles to Tahoe and still arrives only a few seconds after everyone else. In another egregious example, one character actually gets shot in the parking lot, dumped in Lake Tahoe, finds his way out, runs into a stereotype white trash family, takes a bath, borrows a gun, returns to the hotel, hops in the elevator and rides to the penthouse in the same amount of time that the guys who shot him take to make it from the parking lot to the penthouse.

The director also lets characters see things and know things they couldn’t possibly see or know. Thus, one character in a hotel 1000 feet across the street can shoot through walls that she can’t see through and hit specific targets in the main hotel without wasting a shot. Others seem to know where their competitors are, even though they don’t actually know there are competitors. Characters also seem to be able to suddenly appear wherever they are needed to make a scene work. Moreover, the ending makes no sense except to allow for a dramatic conclusion.

These are the kinds of problems that really make the film feel unbalanced and strange, and keep you asking “when did he have time to do that?” and saying “that doesn’t make sense.”

In the end, this was a clever script and a solid cast ruined by a director who never had control over his sequence of events and who tried to substitute hip for smart. And that’s why I find this film so fascinating. If you had looked at this project before it was shot, this movie must have appeared like it couldn’t fail. But it did.

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Friday, July 16, 2010


A lot of people talk about the blurring between news and entertainment. That’s certainly a problem because it’s led to the dumbing down of the news to a point where you need attention deficit disorder just to watch it. But I’m more concerned about the blurring of news and advertising. I see this as a very serious problem.

I first noticed this phenomenon when a free subscription to Entertainment Weekly appeared in my mailbox. Not only was this turd of a “magazine” written at the first grade level, but it didn’t take long to realize that this “magazine” was nothing more than one giant ad for the movie industry. Page after page were “stories” whose sole purpose was to get me to go see various films. Even when they panned a film, they still somehow managed to suggest that I see it. . . just not in the first week.

Soon I realized that the entertainment “news” presented on the nightly news was no different. The days of a reviewer cautioning you to avoid a lousy film were gone. In their place were pretty boys and ditzy girls who showed you promotional clips and gushed about every film; they even developed ways to sell the bad ones. . . “so bad it’s good.” And when they weren’t selling the movie directly, they did stories hyping these films as “events,” and encouraging you to take part in the “excitement” leading up the film. Basically, they ceased being reporters and became salespeople.

Then they added “gossip.” But there’s something you need to know about this gossip: most of it is manufactured to promote a film. It’s no coincidence that you will see a “random” story about Actor X’s new house or some “funny moment” Actor X had at a night club, the week before Actor X’s new film hits the screen. This is all intended to create a buzz. . . which will, of course, lead to stories about the buzz. That's called marketing, not reporting.

Then Hollywood hit upon a brilliant stroke. You know those interviews where some reporter sits down with Actor X to "discuss" their new film? Do you know how those are done? It's not actually a one on one experience. Instead, a slew of reporters show up to a pre-set location. Actor X sits in front of a blue screen as each reporter is cycled through. Each reporter is usually allowed only a couple questions, so they know to stay on script. And what's really key is that the actor will pretend to know the reporter. Thus, each reporter gets to look like they are “players” in Hollywood because their viewers think they managed to finagle an interview with a busy actor that they know personally. In exchange, the studio gets a couple hundred free ads on the local and national news. This is a quid pro quo, and reporters aren’t supposed to do that.

And it’s not just Hollywood. Sports “news” also has entered the pimping world. For generations, sports news meant providing a box score, a quick description of the key moments in the game, and a few quotes from one side or the other. No longer. First, they added highlights, which is understandable as television is a visual medium. But then they started adding “top ten hits of the week” and other segments that look an awful lot like advertisements for the league.

Then the NFL hit upon a great idea: use the promise of access to control the media. In exchange for locker room access and press access to Super Bowl week, the NFL began telling the media what they could or could not report. This included, for example, removing the journalistic “credentials” of people who criticized the NFL, and it included limits on what kinds of videos the media could use and for how long they could use them (nothing longer than 45 seconds and must be removed from websites in 24 hours). The media caved without even a whimper. Soon, the NFL was providing canned “news” stories to the media, which the media dutifully reported without change. Suddenly stories about brain damage resulting from concussions, drug use, arrests and labor unrest disappeared or became dismissive. In their place were NFL-approved stories about “the NFL experience,” the importance of new stadiums to cities, and NFL efforts to make sure that merchandise was high quality. . . usually accompanied with a mention of where you could buy said merchandise.

And lest you think, “well sports and entertainment people really aren’t journalists,” it’s hit the business news as well. CNBC doesn’t send reporters out to uncover news and report upon it. No, they let the "news" come to them. Thus, their programming days are packed with fund managers who come to say something generic about the market as they pimp their funds. They bring in CEOs to talk about new products or their latest books. And they’ve become a vehicle for damage control. Whenever a company gets caught doing something it shouldn’t, you can bet the CEO will appear on CNBC within a couple days to provide a whitewash version of what happened and to tell us about all the great things the company is doing. And don't think the reporters use this moment for a couple of hard-hitting questions. No, they put on well-practiced stern looks and then pitch a few softball questions before concluding: “I’m glad to hear you’re fixing this.” Then they trot out an analyst to tell you that now (or maybe in a week) is the time to buy the company’s stock, right before they cut to commercial, which (purely by “coincidence”) will be a paid ad for the company. Finally, they take the segment highlights and replay them ad nauseum.

Even the “regular” news is slowly giving way to product tie-ins and segments that look like sponsored ads. That story about how hard it is to find certain toys? That was suggested and assisted by the marketing department at ToyCo. That story about which national chain has the best fries or “will Company X’s new product sell”? Ditto. The story about the new healthy menu at Restaurant Z, or the new innovations at Tech Company A? Same thing. The story about the “latest trend” that just happens to tell you what brand you need to buy and where to buy it. . .

In each instance, what you have is a symbiotic relationship between the media and business. Business has learned that it can use the news to advertise its products. It offers ready-made stories and incentives to the media to report these “stories,” and the reporters accept them because it makes their jobs easier. . . just sit back and a script will come to you.

So why does this bother me? Two reasons. First, I want news that I can trust, and that requires an impartial media that seeks out the truth, rather than just passing along marketing-department-created propaganda.

Secondly, I hate sounding like the left, but I am concerned about the effects of this on society. Science has shown that humans are very susceptible to the cumulative effects of advertising; and the effects are much stronger when the advertising comes from a trusted source. I suspect that advertising is largely responsible for driving consumers to the point of bankruptcy, increasing patient demands for drugs, increasing obesity, and a host of other bad behaviors. But as bad as this is, at least with advertisements, people know that Madison Avenue is attempting to brainwash them. That’s no longer true when “the news” starts telling you what to buy and where to buy it. And that is truly insidious.

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Friday, July 9, 2010

Films: Down With The Apocalypse!!

There was a time when I used to enjoy a good end of the world movie. But I’ve gotten to the point where I really can’t stand them anymore. This has me a little perplexed. What’s changed my opinion about these movies? After careful deliberation, I’ve concluded that the nature of these films has changed: they no longer have a point except to present grotesque imagery. And that makes them kind of sick.

Apocalyptic films trace their history way back. Indeed, the term “apocalypse,” a Greek word meaning “lifting the veil,” derives from the Bible’s Book of Revelations, though every culture had its own version of the end of the world story. It seems that as a species, we are fascinated with our own demise. And I suppose that’s natural because humans are social creatures and we’re big on trying to control our own destinies. Apocalyptic stories sit at the crossroads of these two impulses, as they are warnings about what can go wrong if we let society do the wrong thing.

This, I think, is what made the early apocalyptic films so interesting: they were warnings, i.e. message movies. The writers/directors saw something in our world or in our behavior that troubled them, and they created their movies as a warning about what they saw. Hence, you had films warning about everything from the dangers of nuclear/biological/chemical weapons to the dangers of robots and automation to the dangers of not being able to cooperate to meet challenges to the dangers of divine retribution for our sins. And because these were message films, the majority of the film was about showing us both how we could avoid such a fate or, alternatively, how we could end up rushing head-long into it. In other words, they were lessons.

Now let me be clear: I am not saying that these films were all great or that I believed the messages. In fact, most of the messages were laughable, e.g. their “science” was usually truly awful, and the apocalypts’ interpretation of human nature was pathetic, they seem incapable of grasping that there is a good side to human nature that balances and checks the bad. But at least these films were working on exploring something worth exploring, and the themes were interesting: will weapon X be our undoing? If we give in to our darker sides, what kind of damage can we cause? How will humans respond to such horrors? Etc.

But today, this has all changed. And nothing shows this more than the change in what causes our demise in the films. In the past, our demise was always caused by something that society found acceptable, like our own chemical or nuclear weapons, or science that we marveled at even though we were not yet ready to control it. Because of this, these films always gave us something to think about. When Chuck Heston cursed us all in Planet of the Apes, we wondered if we could really knock ourselves down the food chain if we pushed the button. When we saw humanity enslaved by a computer in Colossus: The Forbin Project, we wondered how far we should trust computers to control our weapons. When Matthew Broderick nearly kill us all in War Games, we wondered how secure our weapons really were? And so on. In each instance, our comfort with the status quo was questioned, and we were asked if we really felt comfortable with things as they were.

Conversely, today the causes are either beyond our control (like an asteroid) or they are the result of criminal behavior by clichéd bad guys. Consequently, there is nothing for us to consider anymore. Indeed, while we may have wondered about the wisdom of hording nuclear weapons after seeing Fail Safe, no one thinks “gee, maybe we should make it more illegal for corporations to make killer, mutant viruses” after watching Resident Evil.

Thus, the nature of these films has changed before a single frame of film is even shot: modern apocalypse films all but wipe out the social commentary aspect of the genre.

Moreover, the focus of the story has changed. The older films dealt mainly with the events leading up to the disaster, with the intention being to warn us of the dangers we supposedly faced and how we could bring about our own demise as a result of those dangers. Even when these films did deal with the after-effects, it was done mainly to add emphasis to the story. By comparison, today’s apocalypse films are all about the after-effects. Indeed, whereas the older films were intended as critiques of human nature, the new films are slick CGI snuff films showing the many ways the film crew could come up with for killing human beings.

What this means is that whereas the older films served a purpose, the newer ones are purely gratuitous. In the older films, the slaughter, when shown, was intended to heighten the drama or to heighten the impact of the consequences of ignoring the director’s warning. But in the new films, the slaughter is what is being sold to you. It is the backdrop for an otherwise bland action story, and it is the action itself. The difference between these two approaches is the difference between a treatise on humanity and a book of gory pictures.

And I that’s why I don’t like apocalyptic films anymore. Even though I disagreed with the older ones (and found many of them laughable) at least they were earnest and the drama was interesting. They had a purpose. Today films have lost all of that. They have instead become mass snuff films, whose only purpose is to satisfy our bloodlust.

I guess I just don’t find that cool.

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Characters Who Are Too Stupid To Live

I’ve mentioned several times the importance of maintaining enough realism within a film that the audience can suspend its disbelief and accept the story as true. And there are many things that can kill the realism of films, everything from continuity errors to stunts that don’t seem real to plot points that don’t make sense. But the crème de la crème is the character who is too stupid to live.

The character who is too stupid to live is a character who does stupid, inexplicable and/or dangerous things apparently just to advance the plot. Examples abound. In fact, if you are a movie character, you might be too stupid to live if:
• You go skinny-dipping right after finding your friend chopped to pieces by the indestructible serial killer the radio keeps talking about...

• You knock down the evil kickboxer and then turn your back to do a victory dance, even as the crowd points to the villain as he rises up after grabbing a weapon...

• You hand over key evidence for safekeeping to the guy who is laughing manically...

• You and your ninja friends surround the hero, but then you all wait your turn to fight the hero...

• You are a villain who chooses the Rube Goldberg method for killing the hero and then leaves before the job is done...

• You overcome the first armed guard with an incredible combination of luck and stupidity on the part of the guard, but then you don’t think to pick up his gun to help you in the rest of your escape...

• You see your friend’s body ripped apart and covered in werewolf hair, but you decide there is no danger because there’s no such thing as werewolves. . . as if that somehow invalidates the fact that something used your friend as a chew toy...

• Ditto on those of you who think that zombie that used to be your friend Rick is coming to pick your brain, rather than eat it...

• You say the words: “let’s split up” for no apparent reason when people around you are disappearing...

• You’ve ever said the words: “Turn around? I’m not falling for that!” when there are dinosaurs or purple people eaters in the ‘hood. . .
I can accept characters with poor judgment and people who make mistakes in the heat of the moment. Indeed, stress causes people to do stupid things. Some get confused, others are overcome by fear; some freeze, some run, some do stupid things. Indeed, they have found that in true moments of crisis (like an airline crash) a small percentage of the population will do truly bizarre things like collecting their luggage or picking fights.

But when you’re talking about people in films who have time to think, you need to make sure the characters act with some sense of self-preservation. And if they don’t, then you need to explain why not and you need to lay the ground work for that.

In that regard, the one thing I have never bought into is “the jerk” as explanation. You know the guy, he’s introduced as the conservative businessman who yells and screams and talks about his worship of money from the opening frame. When he’s confronted with danger, he decides to ignore all good advice and do something incredibly stupid because. . . well, he’s a jerk. . . he’s like that. That doesn’t make sense. Even the biggest jerk has a sense of self-preservation.

An offshoot of this, which I also don’t like, can be seen in the Ron Weasley character in the Harry Potter books. By the third book, Weasley had really stopped acting like an independent human being with his own personality and life. Instead, he became a vehicle to move the plot. If Harry was too close to doing something that would solve the puzzle, Ron would appear, encourage him to act irresponsibly, and then leave. If Harry needed a push in a different direction, Ron appears, gives the push, and then leaves. Basically, whatever needed to be done to keep Harry moving forward with the story, Ron would provide it whether it made sense or not. Indeed, many of the things he did made no sense except as ways to move Harry through the plot.

I am a firm believer that every character in a movie or book should stand on their own. They should have their own motivations, their own desires, and they should act accordingly. If that means it takes a little more thought to get them alone with the werewolf or to get the hero to the next plot point, then so be it. Audiences see through characters who are merely plot convenience devices.

That’s my thinking.

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