Thursday, June 30, 2011

Guest Review: Gettysburg (1993)

By Tennessee Jed

Whatever else I may think of Ted Turner, I owe him a debt of gratitude for spending a fortune producing historical films like Gettysburg. Adapted from Michael Shaaraʼs 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Killer Angels,” Gettysburg effectively conveys the horror of combat, while still laying out the strategies, tactics and motivations of the commanders by following several key participants in the battle. While not perfect, this remains the best depiction of civil war era military action to date.

Authenticity - What sets Gettysburg apart from prior Civil War films is the impact of the re-enactors. When casting calls went out for extras, the “hard cores” responded en masse. These guys have a passion for historical accuracy that borders on obsession. The most serious refer to themselves as “super hard core” and even soak the brass buttons on their uniforms in urine to gain an authentic “worn” patina they claim cannot be otherwise achieved. Their leader, the late Brian Pohanka (a nice cameo as General Webb, the Brigadier in command of union troops at the “angle”) was able to convince filmmakers of the wisdom of doing things accurately. Thus, virtually all pan shots down the lines, all marching shots, cannon fire, rifle volleys, and drum and bugle calls are as authentic as possible. When you see the strain of battle showing on the faces of members of the 20th Maine, you feel as if you are majestically transported back in time and plunked down inside the action. The director even does a wonderful job of creating the passage of time as they beat back attack after attack.

Where the film comes up a bit short is its inability to convey the magnificent sweep of the action. Made before CGI, it was just not possible to show a three day action involving over 150,000 combatants and 300 artillery pieces, and which produced over 50,000 casualties. Nevertheless, Director Maxwell did the best he could to frame shots to minimize the problem. Look closely at the forming of the ranks for Pickettʼs charge and you will see the nature of the problem and can judge how well it was handled. At Gettysburg, there were 150 artillery pieces in the “pont au feu” preceding Pickettʼs charge. “Pont au feu” is a term coined by Napoleon for one of his favored tactics. Literally meaning “bridge of fire” it refers to withering artillery bombardment focused on the point of attack to break up the defense preceding an infantry advance. It lasted over an hour and was heard as far away as Lancaster. They only had about 30 guns available for the film, but when you listen on a great surround system you can get at least some idea of what the 150 would have sounded like. Imagine, the terror of 150 pieces firing at you continuously for over an hour and knowing “luck” was the only thing keeping you from literally being blown to pieces.

The Story - The screenplay does a nice job adapting the novel. This was the largest Civil War action in terms of combatants and casualties, and to many, represented the Confederacy's best chance to win their independence. Thanks to Lincoln’s address, no Civil War battle is better known, and most Americans are aware of the names “Gettysburg” and “Pickettʼs Charge.” But surprisingly few beyond historians or “buffs” know many of the battle details. Gettysburg achieves a good balance between filmmaking and providing a historian's level of knowledge. Indeed, rather than trying to capture everything in the battle, the film follows a handful of key participants. There is nice coverage of critical moments, such as the role of Union Cavalry Commander General John Buford in holding back the enemy long enough to save the favored union position on day one, but the storyline primarily pivots around three individuals:

General Robert E. Lee, Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, is one of the best, most beloved military leaders ever produced in America, a true legend. After the war, some southern historians adopted a theory known as the “lost cause,” part of which assigns an unrealistic infallibility to Lee. As such, any failures had to be due to either impossible circumstance or the failure of subordinates. The person most often blamed was Lt. General James Longstreet, Lee’s most valued and senior Corp Commander. He is the second key character. Indeed, Gettysburg fairly accurately depicts the relationship between the two and the tension that created at Gettysburg. It also does a credible job of outlining tactics such as the “left oblique” utilized in Pickettʼs charge (masking the specific target point of the attack.) Longstreet did disagree with much of Lee’s strategy at Gettysburg, and he did fail to execute his orders in a timely and, in some cases, effective manner. Although his “certain knowledge of futility” is perhaps overplayed, the facts and the film tend to support Longstreet rather than his detractors. Certainly, other subordinates also made mistakes and random chance played a huge role as well. Lee, ever the gentleman, appropriately took bottom line responsibility for the failure of the campaign.

The third key character is Lt. Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, commander of the Union’s 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Just as they reached the field, it was discovered the left side of the union line had mistakenly been moved forward leaving the flank “in the air” with the tactically crucial position known as Little Round Top left unoccupied. The regiment is rushed to the top just in time and becomes the flank of the entire Union Army. They are ordered to “defend against all hazards,” in essence a fight to the death.

Despite continuous assault by elements of Hood’s Division, the line holds. Attackers from Col. William Oates 15th Alabama try to turn his flank. Chamberlain employs the tactic of “refusing the flank” (bending the line back at right angles to itself in order to prevent becoming outflanked.) Overcome by fatigue and running out of ammunition, Chamberlain orders a pinwheel pivot bayonet counter charge since he really has no other option. Flank secured, army and union saved; hurrah! Chamberlain is not a professional soldier, rather a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College. Awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his defense of Little Round Top, he would be wounded no less than six times later in the war, including a grievous wound through both hips. Thought dead, he miraculously survives and eventually returns to active duty. Promoted to Major General and a position of honor at Appomattox, after the war he becomes Governor of Rhode Island and president of Bowdoin -- a true American hero.

The Cast - Mixed results. Jeff Daniels is nothing short of superb as Chamberlain in what may be his best role. As evidence, I offer the speech he gives to the “deserters” early in the film. Almost worth the price of admission on its own. Despite being entirely too short for the role (not an insignificant problem) Sheen did a good job conveying Lee’s nobility and grace. When he finds Harry Heth has engaged Buford without knowing the extent of enemy strength, Lee is furious with him. Without raising his voice, Lee literally cuts him to shreds. Masterful! Tom Berenger is nicely cast as Longstreet. Big and raw boned, he accurately conveys the larger than life presence of Lee’s second in command.

Sam Elliot is made for these kinds of films and does a great job as Buford. The late Richard Jordon in his last role before succumbing to a brain tumor seemed a tad over the top as General Lewis Armistead. Brian Mantle, also suffering from a lack of physical stature, was unconvincing as General Winfield Hancock. As evidence, see the dialog when an aide tries to convince him to be less of a target (sounds like a high school play dialog.) Kevin Conway is his usual professional self as the fictional “Buster Kilroy.” Likewise, Cooper Huckabee did an interesting job as Harry Harrison, Longstreet’s Shakespearian actor turned master spy. Former James Bond actor George Lazenby has a great scene where he tries to present his academic treatise on artillery to Longstreet as they go into battle. Longstreet jokes that “he doubts he will have time to read it today.”

Other Factors - At over 4 hours, this is a long film. In its defense, it was originally intended to be presented as a mini-series on TBS, but Turner was pleased enough with the result to put it into limited theater release first.

The storytelling technique sometimes resembles a Shakespearian play. Major characters are permitted to launch into speeches that seem out of synch with modern conversational style. I understand how this can be somewhat off-putting, however, people actually did engage in more flowery rhetoric back then as normal course. The speeches also tend to serve as a device to convey deeper motivations of the combatants.

Finally, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of arguably the defining period in our nation's history thus far, I urge people to see this film. I guarantee it will increase your appreciation the next time you hear Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address . . . “from these honored dead, we take increased devotion to that cause to which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

P.S. When I visit Gettysburg, I stay in the “Lee Suite” at the Cashtown Inn featured in the movie and in the painting by Mort Kunstler in this article. In the actual historical battle, it served as General A.P. Hill’s headquarters. During filming of Gettysburg, it served as Sam Elliot’s lodging. The second painting, also by Kunstler, depicts Chamberlain’s counter charge on Little Round Top.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Not All Publicity Is Good Publicity

Advertisers are a strange group. For supposedly being so deeply in touch with people, they really don’t know us at all. Ads in general are hit and miss and more often miss than hit. Most are entirely pointless, i.e. wasted money. And some are actually harmful. Indeed, advertisers subscribe to an axiom that couldn’t be more wrong: there’s no such thing as bad publicity. This is something I’ve literally heard from dozens of advertisers -- in classes, in person and in interviews, and it's just delusional.

Here’s the thinking. Getting the audience’s attention is a win no matter how you do it because people aren’t smart enough to remember why they remember your product. Thus, the next time they need a motor oil or a grave liner, your brand name will pop into their heads and they won’t think twice about the offensive ad that put it there.

But that’s not how reality works. In reality, people mute offensive ads or change the channel long before they even figure out what the product is. And if they do figure it out, they store their anger right next to the product name in their minds. So whenever the product comes up, out pour the words "oh, I hate them." I literally cannot tell you how many times I’ve held an ad against a company and how many times people have proudly told me in line at a store, “I’m buying this one because I hate the other company’s annoying ads.”

The latest example of this woefully wrong philosophy comes from an advertisement for an AT&T/Samsung Infuse (which appears to be a phone for assh~les). This ad begins with some indifferent “business people” sitting around a table in a restaurant when Jerk No. 1’s phone suddenly shows an image of a spider. Jerkette No. 2 starts screaming at the top of her lungs. Jerk No. 3 then starts beating the phone with his shoe, presumably because he doesn't like the product either. The rest of the commercial is irrelevant because by that point I’ve either hit mute or changed the channel (I actually had to watch the ad through just to find out what the product was to write this article). I can’t tell you how offended I am to have a woman screaming at me at full throat during a commercial break. Whining babies get the same response, as does rampant liberalism. . . if that’s not redundant.

This ad has cost the company severely. By forcing that ad upon me, they have generated such ill will that their product now has a huge hurdle to overcome before I would even consider it. Without this ad, I would consider this phone along with all the others. Now, this one falls into the "no, I hate them, and unless they're super special I won't reward them" category. And AT&T ain't special.

So it seems that not all publicity is good after all.

What commercials anger you and why? What commercials do you like? I find myself very impressed with a recent Heineken advertisement called “the entrance,” where the guy enters a party and interacts with several guests before getting his beer. It’s a clever ad. And the most interesting man in the world ads are kind of fun too. . . no screaming.

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Film Friday: The Rite (2011)

Exorcism has become big business since The Exorcist scared audiences to their immortal souls. In fact, these days, you can’t swing a demonic cat without hitting a would-be exorcist. Hollywood has dutifully exploited this craze by turning out about two exorcism-related films a year. Unfortunately, Hollywood fears diverging from formula, so it keeps. . . remaking. . . the. . . same. . . film. And no exorcism film shows this more than The Rite. Is it the exact plot of The Exorcist? Not quite, but it might as well be.

** spoiler alert **

Few exorcism films diverge very far from The Exorcist formula. Some priest who has lost his faith ends up doing an exorcism with an old priest who has been doing exorcism for decades. Something happens in the young priest’s personal life that gives the demon “an in” and the young priest struggles against “his inner demons.” Then the old priest steps out for ice cream or gets hit by a bus and the young priest must step up. Only then does he realize that he does indeed have faith and he saves the day. Roll credits. . . collect gate receipts.

The Rite is no different. Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue) went to seminary because he didn’t know what else to do with his life and he wanted a college education. At graduation, he announces that he intends to return to civilian life. Naturally, the head of the school sees something within Michael that will drive the plot, so he convinces Michael to attend a class on exorcism in Rome. . . all expenses paid. In Rome, Michael is assigned to help Father Lucas (Anthony Hopkins) with an exorcism. Hilarity ensues.

Hopkins provides a fine performance, as usual. O’Donoghue is adequate. The direction is adequate as well, and the film uses very few special effects, which I found a refreshing change of pace. Beyond that, there is nothing to commend this film because it just won’t diverge from formula. Consider this:
● Father Damien Karras from The Exorcist was a trained psychiatrist who saw exorcism as Dark Age mysticism. So is Michael. In fact, psychology was his best class and he keeps whining about getting the exorcee psychiatric help.

● Father Damien lost his faith. Michael never really had much and has lost what he had.

● Father Damien was haunted by his mother dying alone in what appears to be a mental hospital or a public clinic. Michael is haunted by his bad relationship with his father (Rutger Hauer), a mortician, who lives alone.

● Father Damien’s mother dies during the exorcism, which allows the demon to speak to Damien in her voice. Michael’s father dies during the exorcism, which allows the demon to speak to Michael in his voice.

● Father Merrin dies in The Exorcist and Damien must continue without him. Father Lucas is incapacitated and Michael must continue without him.

● Both demons prove their existence by speaking in languages the possessed cannot know, and both times that proof is dismissed. Etc. etc.
The few differences aren’t noticeable either. To give the story a semi-love interest, Michael is befriended by a reporter (Alice Braga) who is taking the exorcism course to write a scathing expose on the practice. She ends up assisting in the exorcism, but is really a non-entity. Unlike The Exorcist, The Rite involves two separate exorcisms, but this doesn’t really add much either. And there is a problem with Father Lucas, which I guess is the real twist but adds nothing that feels the least bit new. Beyond that, there isn’t much difference.

It’s frustrating that Hollywood has once again set out to just photocopy a previously successful film. This may make watchable films, but they are intensely bland and there’s no reason to see them if you’ve seen the original. It’s like a boy band remaking another boy band’s hit song.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Consider two independent films. The Last Exorcism (2010) was an interesting concept that fell completely apart near the end. . . seriously fell apart (this is not a recommendation). But before that, it was interesting. That one involves Reverend Cotton Marcus, a man who fakes exorcisms for cash. Only this time, he’s in over his head as the family turns out to be certifiable, the area seems to be crawling with a cult, and the demon might actually be real. Or how about The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), which involves a criminal case against a priest who performed an exorcism on a patient who dies. And even beyond this, there are a million variations they could try. Change the religion. Give the demon a purpose. Twist the whole story around. Come on people. The short-lived BBC series Apparitions had all kinds of neat twists, with opposing priests, a Satanic cult, a Saint who possesses a child, a Muslim who was told to convert, etc.

Everything was technically right about The Rite and yet it was dull. It was dull because we’ve all seen this a dozen times. Maybe Hollywood needs the exorcism?

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Why I've Quit Sitcoms

Sitcoms are dead to me. They weren’t always, but then two sitcoms destroyed the entire industry. What two sitcoms? Friends and Roseanne. In truth, it’s probably not fair the blame these two specifically, so much as it is to blame the way everyone in Hollywood copies whatever was successful last. But I’m not feeling particularly fair.

What has me specifically upset can best be summed up in this way. Prior to Friends and Roseanne there were hundreds of unique and interesting sitcoms. After Friends and Roseanne, there were only Friends and Roseanne clones. . . over and over and over again.

The formula created by Friends was simple. Take a bunch of attractive, ultra-lazy, neurotic 20-somethings. Give them a multimillion dollar loft in New York City and no visible means of support. Let them sit around moaning about how horrible the world is and having sex with anything that moves. . . or doesn’t. This pathetic formula has now been adopted by about half of all sitcoms and the only thing that differs between these shows, shows like How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory, are the names of the actors and the pretentious titles. These shows are entirely about sex and all of their jokes are “written” at a high school locker room level.

The other annoying formula used by sitcoms today was derived from Roseanne. Take an obnoxious, unpleasant mother and her smart-ass, undisciplined kids. Give her a fat, useless, stupid eunuch for a husband. Place the family somewhere in middle America and let the kids skool the old people about things like gay marriage and the pros of premarital sex and drug use. Unlike the Friends clones, the jokes in the Roseanne clones aren’t all about sex. . . some also poke fun at fatherhood.

That’s all you get these days and I am done with the whole industry because of it. Even when they pretend to diverge from one of these two formulas, it doesn’t take long before they drift right back into it because that’s all they know.

Now compare this with the incredibly diverse world of television sitcoms in the past. Here are some of the great sitcoms off the top of my head:
Addams Family/Munsters
Barney Miller
Gilligan’s Island
Get Smart
Beverly Hillbillies
Brady Bunch
Hogan’s Heroes
Night Court
Mork and Mindy
Three’s Company
My Favorite Martian
Notice that none of these involve the Friends or Roseanne set up and none of them (except Three’s Company) traffic in sex jokes or denigrate fatherhood, motherhood or even anyone else really. These sitcom simply involved funny people in funny situations, and the humor was written by actual comedians who were skilled at finding humor within characters and their situations. That made these shows fresh and hilarious, and often so memorable that we still remember their greatest moments today: “what does a yellow light mean?”. . . “I didn’t know turkey’s can’t fly.”

Where are these memorable moments today? They don’t exist because sitcoms now are written by hacks who can’t think above the high school level. . . I guess Beavis and Butthead found jobs after all.

This is a failure of both management and talent. Management has made the mistake of fearing risk taking. Everyone in TV land wants to copy the most successful show because they think that gives them the best chance of being a success. Thus, they all make the show. Yet, sitcoms are no more successful today than in the past (in fact, I’d say they are less successful looking at how audiences are fleeing the networks). This is a failure of “talent” because they are putting their names on products that are shamefully bad, and yet they are proud of their “achievements.”

This consumer is done with the lot of you.

So what are your favorite/most detested sitcoms?

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Film Friday: Pontypool (2009)

Today’s film is Pontypool (another Canadian horror/science fiction film: Cube and eXistenZ), and odds are you’ve never heard of it. Pontypool is a truly unique zombie film. Indeed, it’s more of a psychological thriller akin to Hitchcock's The Birds than it is a zombie movie. And if you love zombies, talk radio or smart horror films, this film is for you.

** spoiler alert **

Based on the Tony Burgess novel “Pontypool Changes Everything,” and inspired by Orson Welles's radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, Pontypool combines two modern crazes -- talk radio and zombies. The film centers around Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a shock jock who lost his job in the big city for pushing things a little too far. Mazzy has a new job in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario, where he and his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) don’t see eye to eye on how to run his broadcasts. As they argue their way through his first broadcast, they start getting reports of a riot at a local doctor’s office. The nature of the riot is unclear as the rioters seem to be shouting gibberish about the disappearance of Honey the cat. Soon the reports get more ominous until they find themselves under attack.

Pontypool differs from every other zombie movie because it disdains what has become the standard zombie formula. Almost without exception, zombie films involve a small group of people trapped by zombies, who shoot their way out and try to find somewhere safe. These films invariably turn into gross-out fests and shooting galleries almost from the opening scene. Pontypool doesn’t. You don’t even see a zombie for a long time and you never see a gun. Instead, you watch Mazzy and his staff of two (Sydney and Laurel Ann) struggle to make sense of what is going on based on the sketchy reports they are getting. And it is gripping.

With Pontypool the infection process itself becomes a mystery to be solved: why are people acting so strangely? How is this infection spreading? Can it be stopped? Zombie films never go into this except in the most cursory of ways because they are really action films. But Pontypool isn’t an action film, it’s a genuine psychological drama. The tension here does not come from close calls in fight scenes, but from things like the characters returning to their broadcast, when you know they should be focusing on the real problem, from the descriptions they get of what is happening, from characters suddenly acting strangely -- are they infected or just strange -- and from the sense of the ticking clock as they must solve this mystery before the zombie mob gets them. That’s what makes this film tense and interesting.

Also, the interactions between the characters are smart and well within character. There are no stupid characters, no Hollywood-type Rambos or people falling apart, and no one declares themselves king of the post-apocalyptic world. This is just normal humans responding to a crisis and it feels real. Plus, the strong performance by McHattie as Mazzy (who plays the first believable talk radio host I’ve seen on film) keeps your eyes glued to the screen.

Moreover, Pontypool has an interesting take on the creation of the zombies. In general, the zombie genre has been stale for some time. Night of the Living Dead essentially started the genre in 1968, after converting the ghoul into what we think of as the modern zombie -- mindless corpses that roam the earth looking to eat braaaaains. In 2002, 28 Days Later introduced fast twitch zombies -- infected humans, rather than animated corpses, who are faster than normal humans because of mega doses of adrenaline and are intensely, mindlessly violent. But that’s been it by way of zombie innovation. Sure, sometimes the zombie-ism is caused by a meteor or a virus or spoiled milk, but in each case, the effect is identical: the person becomes infected. . . dies. . . and wakes up as a mindless killer hungry for the great taste of human.

This film is different. The zombies here are normal seeming people who fixate on particular words once they become infected. This sends them into a sort of waking catatonic state where they become violent as they spout nonsense (like Progressives). I won’t say more because I don’t want to ruin the mystery. But the infection agent and mechanism in this film are not like anything you’ve seen in any zombie film before.

Finally, a word on politics. This film is Canadian, which doesn’t insulate it from politics, but I found the film to be refreshingly free of liberal messages. Sydney shows herself to be a liberal in one scene, but McHattie counters her with conservatism, though it’s never clear what his leanings are. There is some French Canadian v. English Canadian politics going on, but that means nothing to Americans. So ultimately, conservatives won’t feel like they’re being pounded with liberalism during this film.

Pontypool is unique within the genre. It’s extremely well-done. It’s got great acting and excellent writing. There's limited violence, limited gore, and the story doesn’t fall apart or become an excuse for a twenty minute bloodbath at the end. I highly recommend it.

Know any other cool zombie films?

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Early Western Stars of the Small Screen

By Tennessee Jed

After Andrew’s Top 25 Westerns, Andrew and I decided to do an ongoing series about the western genre, looking at actors, bad guys, TV and film. Since westerns on television were pretty much children of the 50ʼs and 60ʼs, it seemed appropriate for me, as a certified geezer, to take the first crack at it. This “sub-genre” of the western lasted pretty much from 1949 to 1973, actually peaking in 1959 when as many as 25 prime time shows were traditional westerns as were many of the top 20 shows in the Nielsens in any given week.

In this article, we explore those individual actors who became larger than life as the indisputable stars of their shows. No attempt is made to rank them. And several of the best western series ever made will be excluded because they were anthologies or feature ensemble casts where the show was not carried by a single actor, and as such, are better suited for a separate article. Without further fanfare, here is one man’s list of some of the very biggest stars of the small screen in the western genre and why they mattered.

William Boyd - Hopalong Cassidy was created in 1904 as a pulp novel character who was a vulgar, hard drinking, fighting, cattle wrangler. When a film was made in 1936, Boyd was asked to read for a minor role. Instead, he requested to read for the lead and won the part. Dressed in fancy all black costumes, Boyd changed the character to a much more likable and moral figure and starred in over 60 matinee films. Early recognition of TV’s potential caused him to purchase all rights to the Hopalong character, netting him a fortune, and on 6/24/49, Hopalong Cassidy became the very first western series broadcast on television. NBC used edited versions of his feature films while waiting for new episodes to be produced. The success of the show quickly prompted similar shows for other stars of the “B” western film genre that had become popularized during the late 30ʼs and 40ʼs.

Jack Carlton Moore - Under his stage name “Clayton,” Moore is best known for portraying The Lone Ranger on television and in two feature films. The Lone Ranger, originally broadcast as a serial radio drama in 1933, followed the exploits of John Reid, sole survivor of a group of six Texas Rangers who were bushwhacked by the outlaw Cavendish gang. Left for dead, Reid is found by the Indian Tonto (Jay Silverheels) who nurses him back to health. Together, they dig six graves, and Reid wears a mask to disguise his true identity. The show ran from 1949 to 1957. Moore was a model with only a couple of bit roles in “B” films when he was spotted by a coproducer of the series. He trained his voice to resemble that of the radio character. The Lone Ranger character is trademarked by his mask, powder blue suit, silver bullets, horse silver, and of course, the William Tell Overture, which became mega-famous by its use on the show. Moore was replaced briefly by John Hart after a contract dispute, but had become so entrenched in the role that audiences rejected Hart despite the mask. The rights to the show were sold and Moore was rehired. Moore and his character remain one of the most iconic in the history of westerns.

The Singing Cowboys - Driven by the success of Hopalong Cassidy, the two unrivaled box office champions of “B” movie westerns in the 40’s quickly jumped aboard TV’s western bandwagon. We’re talking about none other than Orevon Grover Autry, aka “the Singing Cowboy,” and Leonard Franklin Slye, better known as Roy Rodgers, aka “King of the Cowboys.” Gene, as he became known, was 4 years older than Roy and their careers were eerily similar. Both started out as recording artists before breaking into western matinee films in the mid-thirties. Throughout the forties, they became the biggest draws in “B” westerns (or “horse operas” as fellow practitioner John Wayne called them), where they were known for featuring their own ballad singing in their films. In the 1950s, they moved to TV, where their half-hour shows were aimed at the youth market (such as myself). Master marketers, these two did wonders for 50’s children’s fashions (known today as “retro” western shirts favored by country rock artists), plus lunch boxes, action play figure sets, cap guns, and the like. Both men are hall of famers with Hollywood stars, and could never be left off a listing such as this -- another singing cowboy, “Tex” Ritter, was father of the late actor John Ritter, but he never achieved the mega star status of Autry and Rogers.

Autry may be as well known for his Christmas songs such as “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” and later ownership of the California Angels baseball team as his acting career. When Autry joined the service in WWII, Rogers became the undisputed champ of the genre, retaining the title even after Autry returned. In addition to acting, Rogers worked as a migrant farm laborer and founded the legendary western vocal group “The Sons of the Pioneers.” Rogers was paid a nice tribute in the Bruce Willis film, Die Hard.

Richard Boone - Boone starred in the western drama Have Gun Will Travel, which aired from 1957 to 1963 on CBS -- usually ranking either third or fourth in the Nielson’s. Based in San Francisco, Boone’s character is known only by the name “Paladin” (a play on words derived from the name given to the top knights of Charlemagne in the “Chanson du Roland”). Essentially, he was hired muscle for those in need (much like Edward Woodward’s The Equalizer). A former Union officer in the Civil War dressed in all black, Paladin would resort to violence only as a last resort, and in more than a few instances, ended up siding with the target if his original “client” was found to be in the wrong. What made this show special was that Boone played what amounts to a 19th century James Bond, being intelligent, witty, urbane, and well educated in addition to being deadly fast with a pistol. One of the main writers was a young Gene Roddenberry, and this show was in my view, along with Cheyenne, the best written of all the television westerns. Boone, who was related to frontiersman Daniel Boone, was a good enough actor to star in areas well beyond westerns. As such, he and his character Paladin probably do not reach the iconic status of the others mentioned, but personal prejudice requires his inclusion. As a l.o.l. aside, I was young and naive enough at the time to think the character’s actual name was Wire Paladin, admittedly a first name I had not heard before. Look at his card (above), damn it!! Was I not just being logical? . . . and the theme song . . oh my, best ever.

Clint Walker - Walker is best known as “Cheyenne Bodie” in the television series Cheyenne, which ran between 1955 and 1963. The show was the first to be developed from scratch by a film studio, i.e. it was not developed from pre-existing film or radio properties. Orphaned as a boy and raised by Cheyenne Indians, Cheyenne was a drifter, allegedly looking for a place to settle down, but usually needing to keep on the move to find work. He often worked as a civilian army scout, cattle boss or farm hand. Trouble had a way of finding Cheyenne, and like some 19th century Mary Worth, he always seemed to find people to help. Tall, dark, handsome, soft spoken and brooding, Walker was in the mold of Gary Cooper’s “strong silent type.” A sample of dialog I still remember to this day-- Bad guy: “blah, blah, blah, what do you say to that, Bodie?” Cheyenne: “I say I think you’re trying to talk me to death.” Like others, Cheyenne was loathe to use violence, but was as adept with his fists as with his gun. The show had surprisingly complex plots for its time and featured future stars like Angie Dickinson, Dennis Hopper, and James Garner, who appeared numerous times as different characters before getting his own Warner Brothers series Maverick -- I would argue for Garner’s inclusion on this list were it not for the fact he became so well known later in non-western roles, plus he shared the Maverick franchise with Jack Kelly and Roger Moore. As such, he was perhaps slightly less iconic in his role than Walker. He did create a new approach to the western lead character, however: the ramblin’ gamblin’ slightly “bad” boy who uses his charm and brains rather than his brawn or gun skills to win the day. For that, I thank him.

There are numerous others that easily could be included on this list. James Arness (Gunsmoke), Hugh O’Brian (Wyatt Earp) Chuck Connors (The Rifleman) John Russell (The Lawman) and Michael Landon (Bonanza) quickly come to mind. Why I didn’t include them essentially boils down to either of two reasons. First, in the case of Gunsmoke, Bonanza, or even Rawhide with Clint Eastwood, the series had enough of an ensemble cast that the show itself became the star rather than any individual lead actor. Secondly, if I included all the stars that belonged, there simply wouldn’t be enough space. This, more than anything, is why I didn’t include Connors, O’Brian, Steve McQueen (Wanted Dead or Alive) or even James Drury (The Virginian).

That’s the list. It may be far from perfect, but of course, I never claimed it to be definitive. I would certify everyone on it to be worthy of special status within that deliciously delightful sub-genre, the TV western. Hopefully, going forward, Andrew and I can come up with more articles on westerns, be it a look at stars of the silver screen, bad guys (my man Morgan Woodward, of course) and more. What do you folks think? Who qualifies for “how did you leave him out” status?

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Friday, June 10, 2011

Film Friday: Adventures in Babysitting (1987)

I love Adventures in Babysitting. It’s a funny film with a great story and great characters. It also does three things you just don’t see very often in Hollywood: (1) it perfectly captures real suburban angst, (2) it sends all the right messages, and (3) it has the rarest of rarities in Hollywood, a “strong” female role. They don’t make them like this anymore. . . notwithstanding rumors of a remake next year.

** spoiler alert **

Babysitting is the story of Chris Parker (Elisabeth Shue), who agrees to babysit Brad and Sara Anderson and Brad’s friend Daryl Coopersmith, who decides to stay over. While the night initially appears like it will be uneventful, things change when Chris’s friend Brenda calls. Brenda has run away from her home and needs Chris to pick her up from a bus station downtown. And thus, they are off to THE CITY.
The Angst. . . The Angst. . .
The first thing that makes Babysitting a special movie is that it perfectly captures suburban angst. No, I’m not talking about the laughable oppression and desperation of literary fiction angst, I’m talking about genuine angst: everyone who grew up in suburbia knows there be monsters in THE CITY: gangs, criminals, car thieves, perverts, rapists, rats, and nobody will lift a finger to help you. If you get a flat tire in the wrong neighborhood, you’re dead! This film plays on all of that.

Indeed, just as they enter the city, Chris’s car gets a flat tire and she has no spare. This puts them at the mercy of a tow truck driver who naturally looks like a pirate and has a hook for a hand. When he stops briefly at his home to catch another man with his wife, the kids find themselves in the middle of a shootout. This leads in short order to being chased by car thieves, a tour of the seamy underbelly of Chicago including a hilarious stop at an all-black blues club, and finding themselves in the middle of a gang fight. Along the way, Chris learns something about her boyfriend, they end up at a frat party, they meet Thor (Vincent D’Onofrio), and they top it all off with a wild chase scene on top of a skyscraper. Can they make it home before the parents?

This is exactly what white suburban kids fear is going on in the city at night, and what parents fear will happen if they get the wrong babysitter. That’s why this film speaks to so many people -- it gently pokes fun at our overblown fears and we're laughing at ourselves as much as the characters.
All The Right Messages
Babysitting isn’t a message movie. It does not beat you over the head with any trendy social theories or any obvious philosophy. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a meaningful message. Indeed, what it does do is at every turn, the film supports the right kinds of messages. Consider these:

● We learn not to judge people based on our preconceived notions when tow truck driver Pruitt turns out to be a good guy who wants to help them, when car thief Joe turns out to save them, when the seemingly angry blacks at the blues club warm to the white kids once the kids make an effort to fit in, and as the kids show themselves to be mature and possessing of moral courage you never would have guessed they have.

● The bad guys don’t prosper.

● Chris does the right thing helping Brenda and gets rewarded at the end with a happier life. But she does the wrong thing by taking the kids, which causes her problems.

● Brenda learns that running away from home is a mistake, and she pays a price.

● Chris learns not to stick with cheating boyfriend Mike, and is rewarded when someone better (frat guy Dan) comes along.

● Dawson/Thor does the right thing by helping the kids even though they don’t have enough money, when he realizes he’s a role model for Sara.

● Car thief Joe shows us that life is more important than property.

● Brad and Sara show us that we should care for our siblings and our friends.

● Brad learns not to be obsessed with Chris and to be happy for her happiness.

● Frat guy Dan wins Chris by being a gentleman and defending her against his friends who see her as a centerfold and by going out of his way to return Sara’s skate. Dan also clues us in that real life beauty beats airbrushed beauty every time.

These are all solid messages -- good deeds/traits are rewarded, bad deeds/traits get punished. This is very refreshing as most movies today don’t consistently provide such positive messages and they rarely do so in a seemingly “message free” environment, i.e. most films today are heavy-handed about what you’re supposed to “learn.” It’s nice to see a movie that doesn’t preach, but also isn't morally vacant.
Strong Female Role
Finally, I’ve spoken before about the problem Hollywood has with women. Generally, actresses have been relegated to only a couple types of roles, none of which are all that flattering or interesting. In recent years, many actresses have claimed to find “strong roles” in over-sexed cartoony dominatrix killers, but that’s ludicrous. In fact, it makes me wonder what these actresses really mean when they say “strong roles”? Personally, I’ve always considered a strong role to be any character you would respect in real life. And that is Chris Parker.

"Don't f*ck with the babysitter!"

There is nothing Chris cannot do. And she does it with her wits, her will power, her courage and whatever authority she can muster. In many ways, she’s the civilian version of the young lieutenant in a war film who earns the respect of his troops and leads them safely through difficult odds. Consider that she is in the nightmare suburban scenario, a world of hidden dangers with which she is entirely unfamiliar. Yet, she finds a way to get her car fixed, get Brad medical treatment after the gang fight, avoid the car thieves, rescue Brenda, and still get the kids home on time.

Even better, at no point does she use sex to solve her problems (the typical Hollywood solution for female characters). This is significant for two reasons. First, a “strong woman” would never use sex as a bargaining chip. The leather-clad dominatrixes and slinky spies are not demonstrating some strength of character within themselves, they're acting out a male sexual fantasy. Secondly, you can’t be a strong character if you don’t have a moral code because strong characters must stand for something and you can't pull that off when you don’t believe in anything. Chris has a moral code, as she demonstrates repeatedly. There are many times she could easily make the kinds of “deal with the devil” Hollywood favors to get out of the situations she finds herself in, but she doesn’t. Instead, in each case, she finds a way to solve her problem while still maintaining her self-respect.
This is what makes Adventures in Babysitting such a special film. The individual incidents are funny, but nothing special. Where they become special is in seeing a group of kids doing the right thing in the face of the ultimate suburban nightmare. And topping it all off is the performance of Elisabeth Shue who nails the Chris character as she grows and matures on screen and proves that not all female characters need to sell their bodies to the audience. Strong characters in general are hard to find in Hollywood, but strong female characters are nearly impossible.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

TV Review: Fringe (2008-)

By T-Rav

Fringe is, in my opinion, the best show running on network television (an important qualification, as I don’t wish to offend cable viewers; yes, there is some truly great stuff on AMC.). This FOX series does what only the best sci-fi shows can do; it has character-driven plots rather than a string of simple “freak-of-the-week” episodes, and not only makes viewers use their noodles but invests them emotionally in the events on the screen. As Andrew has alluded to in reviews of past programs such as The Twilight Zone, this simultaneous appeal to the brain and the heart is critical for the genre, and Fringe pulls it off in style.

For those who are unfamiliar with it -- which based on the Nielsen ratings, is probably a lot of people -- the show takes its title from a clandestine FBI division of the same name, established to investigate a series of bizarre incidents around the country that test the known laws of physics. Headquartered in Boston -- specifically in the basement of a Harvard laboratory -- the organization's three core members (and the show's three core actors) form a dysfunctional, humorous, and often touching team as they investigate the weirdest of the weird. I would say that it's like "The X-Files," only good, but then I might get smacked. So I'm not saying that.

To briefly recap: FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), a conventional law enforcement official, is investigating a mysterious pathogen that killed everyone on a passenger jet when her partner and lover is struck down by the disease. Desperate to find the perpetrators, Dunham seeks out two unusual civilian specialists: Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), a roguish but gifted tech contractor, and his -- "eccentric" would be putting it mildly -- father, Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble), a brilliant scientist who has spent most of the past two decades in the loony bin. Together, the trio begin cracking not only this but a string of other cases normal sleuth work is hard put to understand, much less solve: mind control, instantly lethal bacteria, teleportation, shapeshifters -- and that's just the first season.

In terms of quality, 2010 was undoubtedly the best year for Fringe thus far; the second half of Season 2 and the first half of Season 3 were together one of the best sequences of episodes you will ever see in any series. To explain why, I need to deviate onto another series for a minute. Fringe is produced by J. J. Abrams, the mind behind Lost. While the latter phases of the show were ripe for ridicule -- I'll have you know I was one of those who teared up at the finale, thank you very much -- it's important to remember how much that show changed the TV landscape. In the past few years, there have been any number of sci-fi shows trying to reproduce the phenomenal success Lost had at the beginning -- Threshold, FlashForward, The Event, a lot of others I’ve already forgotten -- and most have been failures. The reason for this, as I see it, is that they focused too much on the mystery side of the equation, setting up grand head-scratchers and then trying to explain every detail as quickly as possible. While Lost itself certainly had that component, I don't think that was its main element. The main element was the characters and the situation they found themselves in, acting as a metaphor for the human condition. The mysteries were a backdrop for the drama, not the drama itself, which may be why I didn't see the finale as a cop-out (No, I don’t want to rehash this argument, I’m making a point, darn it!).

This is important, because it is in this field of character development that Fringe has established itself as the worthy successor of that other J. J. Abrams production. Turning away from the overly complex and somewhat poorly received freakishness of the early days, the second season focuses more on the often twisted connections between Olivia, Peter, and Walter, and their implications for the fate of the world -- or worlds. We learn that there is a parallel universe, very similar to our own, and that most of the disturbances the Fringe Division investigates are the indirect results of the weakening of the space-time fabric separating the two: a weakening that occurred back in 1985, when Walter found a way to. . . well, without giving too much away, he saved his son’s life, but as a result shattered literally thousands of lives, permanently strained and twisted the relationship between the scientist and his son, and is ultimately responsible for many of the events under investigation. Moreover, Walter also touched and/or scarred Olivia's youth, when he experimented on her and other children with a drug that gave them superhuman abilities. In addition, Olivia and Peter move into a romantic relationship, thus creating a bizarre bond between the three, fraught with emotional land mines. Clear enough?

The revelations of these recent episodes sound muddled the way I've written them, but the show itself pulls them off very well, because of the superb acting of the key players. John Noble, whom those of you of a more geeky persuasion than myself (and I know they're out there) may remember as Denethor in the third LOTR, is simply a delight to watch. His eccentric-minded Walter, tripping acid for inspiration and finding childlike pleasure in practically anything (especially pudding), has also become the heart and soul of the show, as a once-prideful scientist broken and humbled by his own hubris -- more on this in a minute. Joshua Jackson as the clever, wisecracking, and insightful Peter adds another lighthearted touch, and Anna Torv, who was criticized early on for being too cardboard an actress, has given Olivia an increasing amount of depth and emotion over time, resulting in a character as complex as the others. Everyone's acting abilities were tested this year when the show began spending time in the other universe, where different versions of their characters existed and had to be made believable: a test they passed with flying colors and made Fringe that much more mesmerizing.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the various philosophical/psychological themes Fringe visits in its episodes. One borrowed most clearly from Lost would be the conflict of faith and reason. Although a sci-fi show through and through, for which it makes no apologies, Fringe does not neglect the intangible aspects of existence, such as the human psyche and the seeking of the divine. The characters are driven by the idea that there is a right and wrong, a good and evil, however vague or confused their grasp of these concepts might be. Walter says it best in Season 2's "White Tulip," for most fans one of the greatest episodes of the series, when he begs a time traveler not to try to change history, citing his own bitter experiences with Peter as proof of unexpected consequences and the rebuke from one's own conscience: "I never believed in God, but when I looked at my son, I realized that I had broken his laws... I have traveled through madness to figure this out. So will you." Modern television being what it is, of course, the show does not argue from this for a specific religious belief, but it does imply the necessity of a transcendent moral code and respect for the dignity of human life. And frankly, aren't all the great TV shows those which uphold this idea, however abstractly?

But I've rambled on too long. And I haven't even mentioned the importance of The Observers, The Pattern, "Massive Dynamic," or the supporting characters also played superbly by Lance Reddick, Blair Brown, and Jasika Nicole. So I conclude this part-review, part-paean to one of the best shows on television by urging you to check it out for yourself. Having wrapped up its third season (with an ending I still haven’t figured out), Fringe shows every sign of continuing the mix of appeals to head and heart.

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Film Friday: The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a top-notch fantasy action/ adventure and I absolutely and unequivocally recommend it. I own each film and have seen them many times. So if you love these films, let's stop there, mehl-on (that’s Elvish for “friend”). But if you want to see what’s wrong with these lifeless, shallow films and why they never came anywhere near their potential, then read on.

** spoiler alert **

Let me start by saying my criticism IS NOT that the films aren’t identical to the books. The Lord of the Rings trilogy are my favorite books, but I understand that books need changes to become effective films. My criticism IS that Peter Jackson made too many of the wrong kinds of changes, and thereby turned a nuanced, meaningful story with characters we care about deeply into an emotionless plot-driven film that's hard to care about.

Characters Lost: The first clue that something was going wrong with the characters occurred even before the film was released. One of the actresses gave an interview in which she repeated the marketing line that they were staying 100% faithful to the book, except where they absolutely had to make changes -- which is, of course, a lie. She then ominously said they had to change the characters because “the book doesn’t really have a lot of characterization.” This was a sign Jackson didn't understand the books and was about to strip the characters of their character to "Hollywood" them up. Consider these:
Frodo: In the book, Frodo resists leaving the shire. He’s not mentally or emotionally strong and he’s certainly not ready for an adventure, nor is he particularly mature. This makes his journey all the more impressive, as he must grow into the role thrust upon him. This is also why his decision to leave the group after Gandalf’s death is such a strong moment. He realizes he is endangering his friends and he chooses to leave them to save them. This is THE moment Frodo finally accepts his responsibilities, but we’re not sure he’s up the task.

Jackson tosses this away and turns Frodo into the modern fake-reluctant hero. While Frodo professes not to want to the responsibility, he is shown to be mature, competent and ready for the challenge, and he volunteers easily. Thus, there is no moment where Frodo grows up. There is never any doubt he would continue the journey with the ring after Rivendell. There is almost no motive for him leaving the group after Gandalf’s death, except that Boromir made him think his friends were becoming dangerous to him. Even the Nazgûl chasing him don’t seem all that dangerous because the film leads us to believe that he’s a competent adventurer ready to meet the challenge.

These are dramatic changes that rob the character of growth, the story of uncertainty, and the scenes of emotion. One of the key points in the book is that the least likely people can play vital roles in saving mankind. This is lost in the film because Frodo is set apart from the very beginning as a special character who is up to the task and only needs to be shown the direction to march. This cheapens his victories and lessens the drama of his choices.

Gimli/Legolas: Friendship Devalued: What Jackson does to Gimli is an atrocity. Book Gimli is a headstrong, excellent warrior who butts heads with the other companions. Moreover, as a Dwarf, Gimli dislikes and distrusts Elves, because of conflicts between the two races that go way back. This matters because it establishes the relationship between Gimli and Legolas, and sets up the group dynamic. Indeed, the ring companions don’t trust each other. They all have different motives and ancient grievances and this makes it hard for them to work together. But as they prove themselves to each other, they slowly earn each others’ trust and respect. Nothing shows this change more than the growing friendship between Gimli and Legolas, the most unlikely friendship in the group -- they don’t actually become friends in the book until Gimli greets Galadriel kindly, something he doesn't do in the film. Jackson throws this away and makes Gimli into pure comic relief. He also makes Gimli and Legolas into almost-instant friends.

Spot the dwarf. (click to enlarge)

This has several nasty consequences. First, it sucks out the very characterization Jackson claims is missing in the books because it denies Legolas and Gimli the chance to grow. Secondly, it eliminates an important dynamic within the group -- the need to come together. Third, it trivializes what they are doing. The world is facing its end as Sauron's rise is at hand. These people are fighting for their lives and the lives of all the other members of their various races. But Jackson’s decision to turn Gimli into comic relief turns this whole thing into a joke. Indeed, Jackson even has them engage in a counting game throughout the battle scenes, which makes their actions seem like a light-hearted videogame rather than the murderous struggle against desperate odds that it is.

Gandalf: When Gandalf dies in the book, it’s a shocking, weepy moment. In the film, not so much. Why? Because Jackson fails to connect us to his character. One reason is that his importance to the group isn’t obvious in the film because the group are already friends. Thus, nothing will change after his death. In fact, the group doesn’t even stop to mourn except that Boromir thinks the Hobbits need a break. The message: Gandalf is just an expendable member of the group. By comparison, in the book, Gandalf holds the group together and there's a real chance the group will fall apart after his death.

Also, the film never addresses what Gandalf means to the others personally. For all his skill, Aragorn is a lost soul. He literally roams the wilderness afraid to face his responsibilities, i.e. returning to Gondor and claiming the throne. Gandalf is the conscience trying to get him to face his responsibilities. Frodo has been manipulated into this quest by Gandalf with the assurance that Gandalf would always protect him. When he dies, Frodo must fend for himself and his will comes close to breaking. None of this makes it into the film. Aragorn is presented as a single-minded, determined hero, and his issue with reclaiming the throne is given short shrift in one quick scene with Liv Tyler. Frodo is the volunteer who is ready to take on the world. Because Gandalf’s importance to these people is lost, his death has little personal meaning. His death is no longer the death of a friend, a mentor, and the guiding hand that held them all together, he's just another member of the group. . . and one you don't even see that often.

Since he now means so little, his death means little to us. Since his death means so little, his resurrection means just as little. In fact, his resurrection isn’t even a resurrection in the film, it’s more of a reappearance. In the book, it’s clear Gandalf died and was reborn as Gandalf the White. In the film, he just sort of shows up again. Thus, the significance of his self-less act is cheapened, i.e. he goes from sacrificing himself for the group to just getting into a very hard fight.
CGI Stupidity: This is one of the most visually beautiful films of all time. They found incredible natural scenery in New Zealand, used fantastic costumes, and had stellar effects. Things like the city of Minas Tirith were flawless and amazing. But like children who can’t help themselves, they had to abuse the CGI:
Significance Diluted: Part of what makes the humans in LOTR The Book so heroic are the dire odds they face. The fact they stand their ground against these odds demonstrates their courage. Moreover, because of the small number of defenders, each death is tragic and costly. The film throws that away because Hollywood can’t stop itself from filling every millimeter of screen. Instead of the 2,000 defenders in Helms Deep mentioned in the book (including Jackson's gay hairdresser Elves) compared to Saruman’s 10,000 Orcs, or the 9,000 defenders at Gondor against Sauron’s 250,000 Orcs, the film creates a battle of millions on each side. Suddenly, the importance of any particular defender disappears. In other words, gone is an army of precious individuals and in its place the audience gets two giant CGI blobs slamming into each other. How can you feel any sense of loss for that? Not to mention, this makes some of the dialog pretty silly, like when King Théoden says, “so few came.” Really? There's no room for more on the field!

Not to mention this kills the realism. No battle in history, not Waterloo, Verdun or anything in World War II had anywhere near the number of troops shown on the field. This is probably more people than were alive in all of Medieval Europe. Thus, by trying too hard, they not only reduce the significance of each defender, but they create a battle that just doesn’t look real.

Moreover, even beyond the numbers, the CGI is downright stupid. Why does the movie begin with a line of Elves all the way to the horizon doing what appears to be a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader linekick in perfect formation? Why is everyone wearing identical uniforms? And why are all the humans’ uniforms freshly laundered and their armor undented and shiny? Why are Orcs, an undisciplined army of thugs, standing in perfect Napoleonic squares? Why? Because everyone in Hollywood apparently suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder combined with a uniform fetish. This is stupid and it sucks the realism right out of these battle scenes. Can I overlook it? Sure, just like I could overlook a cartoon rabbit defecating in the background of each scene, but that doesn’t excuse its inclusion in the film.

Realism Denied: Finally, even in up-close battles, the CGI people still go too far. Legolas in particular is subject to this. As he’s fighting the Orc Warg (wolf) riders in Rohan, he looks more like Rubberband Man than anything solid as he slides around the wolves and jumps from one to another to kill them off. Why are the war elephants at Pelennor Field 50 feet tall? It doesn’t make any sense or add anything. . . except that it lets the CGI people have Legolas swing from elephant to elephant like digital Tarzan, which they no doubt thought would be cool -- but just looks bizarrely unrealistic. These things detract from the realism the film otherwise works so hard to achieve. It’s literally like adding Roger Rabbit to Saving Private Ryan. And why include a fake-looking, comic-y “cave troll” in Moria in the middle of one of the most serious battles in the book? Because they couldn't stop themselves.
So let me finish with this point: my complaint is not that the movie is not the book (though I am offended they kept proclaiming they followed the book). My complaint is that the characters are lifeless and the story lacks any sort of emotion because every decision Jackson made reduced our emotional investment in the characters, reduced the reality of the film, and reduced the stakes for which they were fighting.

These things may not have interfered with your enjoyment, but you’ve got to admit that if Jackson had kept with what I say, this would have been a much stronger film.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Guilty Pleasures: The ScottDS Edition

by ScottDS

Wikipedia defines a guilty pleasure as “...something one enjoys and considers pleasurable despite feeling guilty for enjoying it.” At the end of the day, my personal definition of a guilty pleasure, as it relates to films, is: “A movie that, if I mention to a friend that I like it, will elicit a reply to the effect of, ‘Really? That?’” Some of this might have to do with my film school background and we all know film students are only supposed to like little indie films and dark dramas about tortured artists. [sarcasm off]

I like all of these movies. Some I own, others I haven’t seen in years, but the mere thought of them never fails to bring a smile to my face. Away we go...!

Congo (1995) – Based on the Michael Crichton novel and starring Dylan Walsh, a then-unknown Laura Linney, and Ernie Hudson, this film tells the story of an expedition to the Virunga region of the Congo. Linney’s character works for a telecom company and has been sent by her boss to search for a rare diamond but she’s also on a mission to locate her missing fiancé. Meanwhile, Walsh’s character, a primatologist, is attempting to take his sign language protégé gorilla Amy back home. This movie is a blast! It never takes itself too seriously, Tim Curry and Joe Don Baker chew the scenery – Curry plays a Romanian philanthropist; Baker plays Linney’s boss – and the gorilla effects, courtesy of the late Stan Winston, aren’t bad. There’s some downright ridiculous dialogue in the film along with some entertaining cameos from Joe Pantoliano, Delroy Lindo, and Bruce Campbell as the aforementioned fiancé. Whenever this film airs on TV, I know to clear my schedule for a couple of hours. “Stop eating my sesame cake!”

Executive Decision (1996) – Produced by action maestro Joel Silver and directed by former (and current) editor Stuart Baird, this film is probably more relevant now than when it was released. It involves the hijacking of an international flight by Islamic terrorists and the Special Forces team that’s sent to retake the plane. Kurt Russell is David Grant, a think tank expert who doesn’t quite get along with the mission commander, played by Steven Seagal (this conflict comes to a rather abrupt end). This film is fun and, despite the real-world nature of the plot, it’s not dreary or depressing to watch. The characters are likable, the flying effects are near perfect (though some of the model work at the end is a bit shoddy), and I admire any film with the guts to show the lead character learning how to fly in the first act. What do you think will happen at the end? The film does a few things that most films today probably wouldn’t do, including mentioning Islam and Allah by name, as well as crediting Israeli intelligence for their help. “If you screw up, you’ll never know it.”

Dick Tracy (1990) – I remember dressing up like Dick Tracy for Halloween that year (despite not yet having seen the film) and buying the making-of book at the 2nd grade book fair. Warren Beatty directs and stars in this big-screen adaptation of Chester Gould’s comic strip. I saw the film once when I was younger and didn’t appreciate it. I watched it again years later and thought, “This is pretty good!” It’s as much an ode to old Hollywood – complete with dance numbers, stylized matte paintings, and obvious studio backlot locations – as it is a loud 90s-era blockbuster, complete with Oscar-winning make-up effects, a heroic Danny Elfman score, original songs by Stephen Sondheim, and a design aesthetic that uses only seven colors. Beatty acquits himself nicely here, despite looking nothing like the original illustrated character. Glenne Headly is charming as Tracy’s girlfriend, Tess Trueheart. I’m indifferent to Madonna but she’s just fine as nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney. The supporting cast steals the show, starting with an Oscar-nominated Al Pacino as crime boss “Big Boy” Caprice. Add to that Seymour Cassel, Charles Durning, William Forsythe, Paul Sorvino, and cameos by James Caan and Dustin Hoffman, and you have yourself an underrated film that managed to create a comic book world without CGI. “You are not out! When you are dead, then you are out!”

Brain Donors (1992) – Directed by Adam Sandler regular Dennis Dugan, executive produced by the Brothers Zucker, and written by their Naked Gun collaborator Pat Proft, this film is a screwball comedy loosely based on the 1935 Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera. The jokes and physical gags fly by at a mile a minute and the actors are perfectly cast, including John Turturro in the Groucho role of an ambulance-chasing lawyer, British comedian/filmmaker Mel Smith in the Chico role, and prop comic Bob Nelson in the Harpo role though, unlike Harpo, he gets to talk. Rounding out the cast is the late Nancy Marchand playing the Margaret Dumont dowager role. The story is typical latter-day Marx Brothers, including a young couple in love and sleazy villains who are after the dowager’s money. It’s a shame this film isn’t better known, having bombed miserably at the box-office. It manages to take some great Marx Brothers-style set pieces and mix them with some sexual innuendo that went completely over my (then) 9-year-old head. They throw everything in, including the kitchen sink (really!). “You can have my children. In fact, they’re out in the car if you want them.”

Trapped in Paradise (1996) – Or, as co-star Jon Lovitz refers to it, Trapped in S---. Written and directed by George Gallo (best known for writing Midnight Run), the film tells the story of the Firpo brothers – restaurateur Bill (Nicolas Cage) and his two recidivist brothers just out of prison, Dave and Alvin (Lovitz and Dana Carvey) – who rob a bank on Christmas Eve in the town of Paradise, PA. Due to a snowstorm, they find themselves stranded and treated wonderfully by the townsfolk, including the bank manager and his family. There are some twists at the end and it seems everyone is after these guys, including the feds and a couple of escaped cons that also want the money. The cast includes some familiar faces, including Donald Moffat, the lovely Mädchen Amick, and a hilariously deadpan Richard Jenkins as a harried FBI agent. Dare I say it, this film is something Frank Capra might’ve made 70 years ago. It’s not perfect and the romantic subplot is a bit ham-handed but there are some fun gags and Cage’s mannerisms are in fine form here. It’s also nice to see a well-shot comedy that takes advantage of the widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio. “Four lefts is a circle, you idiot!”

Alien 3 (1992/2004) – I’m biased because I saw the extended “Assembly Cut” on DVD before I saw the theatrical version. To this day, director David Fincher (this was his feature debut) disowns the movie and, despite being approached, refused to have anything to do with the new cut and declined to be interviewed for the 2004 DVD and 2010 Blu-Ray sets. As for the new cut of the film, in a word: wow! I was floored. I’m no sadist but I love the feeling invoked by the first frame: you’re f---ed. The acting is exemplary. While there are some conceptual flaws and character inconsistencies, these guys could’ve made their money by performing the film on stage. I think this is the best looking of the Alien sequels, thanks to the late Alex Thomson’s stark cinematography. Much of the sets (which consist of two colors: rust and gray) were constructed for a previous draft of the script but they add to the foreboding atmosphere with darkness lurking around every corner, large (and lethal) fans, and shafts of light. The visual effects are fine but the rod-puppet aliens are not up to par, despite being state of the art for their time. Elliot Goldenthal’s score is wonderfully melancholic. I should qualify for affirmative action because liking this film (in any version) puts me in a minority. “...we tolerate anybody. Even the intolerable.”

Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) – This dark comedy, shot in mockumentary format (which wasn’t as common then as it is today), chronicles the contestants in the Sarah Rose Cosmetics Mount Rose American Teen Princess Pageant in the fictional town of Mount Rose, MN. It features some familiar faces, including Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, Ellen Barkin, Amy Adams (in her film debut), and Kirstie Alley as Richards’ mother and pageant organizer. (Plus a cameo by Adam West!) The film isn’t nearly as mean-spirited as you’d think but it doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at small-town life and it also has a nice un-PC streak as well. One of the pageant judges is clearly retarded and another might be a sexual predator. One contestant is being raised “Asian American” by adoptive Asian parents who neglect their own Asian daughter. Another is anorexic and needs to be wheeled around in a wheelchair for her talent portion. On a slightly political note, I’m glad no one knows about this movie because, if the media did, we would’ve seen footage from it airing non-stop in late 2008. (Take a guess.) “I’ll be doing a dramatic monologue. Right now, I’m thinking Othello. Or Soylent Green.”

Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) – I think this film is a masterpiece but, considering how well it didn’t do at the box-office, I’m probably alone. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley (who would later adapt Congo) and starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in their first of three on-screen pairings, this film tells the fairy tale story of Joe Banks, a hypochondriac who is diagnosed with an incurable “brain cloud” and, in exchange for being able to briefly live like a king, is sent to the island of Waponi Wu where he will jump into a volcano, sacrificing himself to appease the gods. Hanks is his usually everyman self, Meg Ryan is hilarious in three separate roles, Dan Hedaya steals the show as Hanks’ dyspeptic boss, and Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, and Ossie Davis all lend solid support (per usual). This film is unique and downright odd at times but it all works, thanks to Shanley’s vision and steady hand at the wheel. I saw this film during a rather unpleasant time in my life and fell for it instantly. If I ever meet Mr. Shanley in person, I owe him a big hug. “Dear God, whose name I do not know… thank-you for my life.”

There’s more, but I’ll spare you. That means my piece on Weekend at Bernie’s will have to wait till next time!

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