Friday, July 29, 2011

Film Friday: Outland (1981)

Outland is one of my favorite science fiction films. It’s gritty. It’s realistic. It’s got cool characters, memorable dialog, and an as~kicking Sean Connery. What could be better? What’s more, Outland turns a certain commie western on its head.

** spoiler alert**

To satisfy the resource hungry earth, Con-Amalgamate, i.e. “the company,” has set up mines all over the solar system. These mines are like mining towns in the old west, complete with bars, prostitutes, and federal marshals, though it's all contained within a single station. The marshals rotate between stations every year or two and the newest marshal on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, is Marshal William T. O’Neill (Sean Connery).

It doesn’t take O’Neill long to discover the miners are taking a drug called polydichloric euthymol, which makes you work like a dog and then makes you psychotic. The thing is, O’Neill isn’t the best or the brightest and he has a fairly poor reputation. So everyone assumes he’ll take some money and look the other way. But he doesn’t. And when he doesn’t, the mine’s General Manager Sheppard (Peter Boyle), decides O’Neill must die. Soon, everyone at the mine is waiting for the arrival of the next shuttle. . . which carries two hired killers who are coming for Marshal O’Neill.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Outland is essentially a science fiction remake of High Noon. Though there is a key difference.

High Noon was written by communist sympathizer Carl Foreman. Foreman intentionally wrote the sheriff character (played by Gary Cooper) to be weak and anti-heroic: Cooper was a tough and brave sheriff until he got married to a Quaker who hates all violence, no matter what the reason. This puts Cooper in an awkward position when he learns that some criminals he sent to prison are returning to town to seek revenge. In the past he would have stood against them, but now he’s afraid to because he doesn’t want to risk losing his wife. He tries to unload his duty on the townsfolk, but they are cowardly and hypocritical, and they even angrily blame him for bringing the bad guys upon them. In the end, he has no choice but to fight. And the lesson Foreman hoped to impart from this was there is no place for heroism in Cold-War America.

Outland starts with a similar set up. Connery is neither morally strong nor imbued with a sense of heroism. His wife wants him to quit and go home to Earth; she even leaves with their son to force Connery's hand, leaving Connery a ticket to join them. And all the people he meets are as corrupt, cowardly and hypocritical as the townsfolk in High Noon.

But then something changes. Unlike Cooper, who stands alone, Connery finds an ally and she is one heck of an ally! Frances Sternhagen plays Dr. Lazarus, a cranky, nasty, old company doctor. She doesn’t like Connery. In fact, she likes no one. But after she realizes there’s more to Connery than meets the eye, she decides to help him. Of all the mine employees, she’s the only one who lifts a finger to help Connery and she does it because it’s the right thing to do. And that makes her the exact opposite of the message Foreman was sending in High Noon. Her actions tell us that heroes make a difference and anyone, in any profession, at any stage of their lives can be a hero.

There’s another key difference too. Unlike Cooper, who is afraid and conflicted and only fights because he must (in fact, you get the feeling he’s just too afraid to run away), Connery fights to prove to himself that he’s a better man than he and everyone else thinks. This leads to what I think is one of the finest acting moments in Connery’s career, as he explains:
They sent me here to this pile of shit because they think I belong here. I want to find out if . . . . well if they're right. There's a whole machine that works because everybody does what they are supposed to. And I found out . . . . I was supposed to be something I didn't like. . . . That's what's in the program. That's my rotten little part in the rotten machine. . . . I don't like it, so I'm going to find out if they're right.
Connery needs to prove to himself that he's a decent man. That is a powerful motive. It also makes him the anti-Cooper. Whereas Cooper is the perfect man fallen, Connery is the imperfect man rising. Cooper teaches that it’s pointless to fight evil, Connery teaches that it’s essential to our very beings.

It is through these two changes that Peter Hyams, the writer and director of Outland completely flips the intended meaning of High Noon. And interestingly, as something of a final slap, right after Connery’s motive for staying is revealed, Sternhagen tells Connery, “your wife is one stupid lady.” This is a total repudiation of the wife who wanted him to flee. . . the same wife who stole Gary Cooper’s courage. Was this intentional by Hyams? I can’t say that it was, but it sure sounds like it.

Beyond this, the rest of the film is quite good too. The effects are gritty and seem very real of what mankind’s first true commercial venture into space will probably be like. The treatment of zero gravity and zero atmosphere are accurate and excellent. The mine itself is no-frills and exactly what you would expect. Living quarters, dining quarters and the police station all feel genuine. The characters are likable too. And the dialog is excellent. For one thing, you get the kind of dialog you would expect. The characters all seem competent in their careers and talk shop except when the plot intrudes. Much of the dialog is highly quotable, such as almost anything Sternhagen says (“I’m unpleasant, I’m not stupid”) or some of the policing moments (“They’re still sponging him off the walls” and “you don’t just lose nuclear detonators and then find them”). But my favorite line comes from Connery telling Sternhagen that she needs to provide him with a report:
“I’d like a report of all the incidents in the last six months. I’d like it soon, or I might just kick your nasty ass all over this room. That's a marshal joke.”
That line has come in useful more than once.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why Modern Hollywood Villains Stink

Originally posted at Big Hollywood: LINK

Modern Hollywood villains stink. You know I’m right. They’re dull and played out. They’re always the same guy. They’ve all become cartoon villains. . . psychopathic Snidely Whiplashes. I’m sick of it. And you know what’s to blame? Liberalism.

Here’s the problem: the most important aspect of any film is the motivation of the characters. Motivation is what we use to decide whether a character is right or wrong, good or bad, justified or not. It is what makes us sympathize with some and repulses us from others. It is what defines the conflicts of the film. Change the motivation and you change the whole meaning of the story. No other story element is as important as motivation.

"What's my motivation again?"

Consider a story about a businessman who kills someone. Suppose he kills for money. Clearly, he’s a villain. But what if he kills because he likes it? What if he kills in self-defense or by accident? Changing his motivation fundamentally changes the nature of the character and thereby the central conflict of the story. All his other traits can be changed with little effect on the story. For example, it doesn’t matter that he’s a businessman or rich or even male. These may seem important at first glance, but they are just details and like Hitchcock’s MacGuffin can be changed without affecting the story. But motivation is different. Motivation is the key factor. It defines the characters and generates the story. Change it and you change everything.

That’s why it’s vital to give a villain a proper motivation. The villain sets everything into motion. If the villain’s motives are pedestrian or nonexistent, then the story is handicapped from the get-go.

But Hollywood has abandoned the idea of giving villains motivations because motivations are complicated and easily confused. Instead, it substitutes blatantly obvious villains who ooze evil from their cardboard pores. They prance around ranting and raving, kicking puppies and shooting uppity henchmen, and they make actual cartoon villains like Snidely Whiplash and Wylie E. Coyote appear to be paragons of depth, sanity and wisdom by comparison. And in those rare moments where the writers feel they must offer a motivation, the villains mumble something about power or money like so many beauty queens babbling on about world peace.

A veritable Socrates among modern villains?

But it wasn’t always this way. At one time, villains had genuine, interesting motives. Consider some of the great villains of the past:
• Darth Vader (pre-whiny Hayden Christensen) was defending the Empire against rebels bent on destroying it.

• Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty could stand no disrespect because he was insecure.

• Sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett in Unforgiven wanted a quiet life.

• The Terminator relentlessly followed its programming.

• Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest despised the people under her care.

• HAL 9000 in 2001 couldn’t resolve a conflict in his programming.
Do you notice something about this list? It isn’t what the characters did that made them memorable, it’s why they did it. When you think of HAL or Vader, you don’t think “oh yeah, he killed that guy,” you think about their mental states and their motivations. And their motives weren't necessarily evil. Their actions were, but their motives weren't.

In fact, that's what's really interesting: none of these villains actually thought they were evil. That’s the creepy part. It’s also very human. Indeed, few people see themselves or their actions as evil or wrong. To the contrary, we are good at justifying our behavior to ourselves so we can maintain the belief that we are doing the right thing. Even truly evil people rarely think of themselves as evil. Hitler never thought of himself as the bad guy, he viewed himself as the savior of the German people and justified everything he did through his twisted racial theories. The Soviets justified their purges by believing they were only eliminating traitors. East German guards justified killing their own people by believing they were just doing their duty. Some do evil because they feel aggrieved or threatened. Some just think their ends outweigh their means. This list goes on. They’re all wrong, but they all think they’re in the right.

"No Lord Vader, we're the bad guys. Go kick a puppy, you'll feel better my young apprentice."

Yet, Hollywood doesn’t get this. It has decided instead that evil characters must revel in being evil, even though that’s cartoon villainry. And why does Hollywood do this? I blame liberalism. Beginning in the 1960s, liberalism adopted the idea that individuals are not responsible for their actions, i.e. don’t judge someone on their actions, judge them on their intentions. That’s how they could excuse the crimes of terrorists (SDS), cop killers (Black Panthers), rapists (Polanski) and even murderous dictators (Mao): because they looked past their deeds and saw only their intentions.

In other words, whereas conservatives first look at the person’s deeds to decide if they acted in a good or bad manner, and only rarely go into intent as a possible extenuating circumstance (like erroneous self-defense), liberals typically start and stop at intent. And if the person had a “good motive,” then liberals will excuse their acts no matter how heinous. Conservatives don’t buy that and except for a small set of defenses (e.g. justified self-defense) don’t care what the person’s motive was.

That’s also what leads to our present problem. When you can only judge someone on their intent (i.e. motivation), then logically, you can only define someone as evil if they intend to do evil. Thus, if you want an evil character, the liberal mindset tells us they must see themselves as evil and must intend an evil motive. Hence the prancing. Blech.

This is a shame and a crime against storytelling. Come on Hollywood, wake up. . . this isn't that hard.

So who are your favorite villains and why?

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Scripting the Final Frontier: Star Trek Generations

by ScottDS

Star Trek Generations was released on November 18, 1994 to mixed reviews. It was the seventh Star Trek film and the first to feature the TNG cast. This film was seen as an opportunity to “pass the baton” though the results are less than satisfying. I saw the film when I was 11 (my first theatrical Trek experience) and I thought it was the bee’s knees. Not so much today. It’s beautifully shot and the cast gives it their all but it’s often awkward and the script leaves much to be desired. As you’re about to find out, the writers feel the same.

For the Special Edition DVD, Ron Moore and Brannon Braga sat down for a surprisingly candid chat. The two had never written a film before and, with the benefit of 10 years’ hindsight, both wish they could have another crack at it. Paramount had approached Trek overlord Rick Berman with the idea of producing a TNG film. Two scripts were commissioned and the studio went with one by Moore and Braga. They ended up revising the script at the same time they were writing the TNG series finale and both admit the finale should’ve been the movie instead. Braga partly blames this on having too much time to develop a film, whereas they had no time to think when writing the episode, proving Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

The creative process of turning a television show into film. . .

As you can see, the process went wrong from the very beginning. The studio presented a list of “requirements” that the film had to have, including: TOS characters could only appear in the first fifteen minutes (Chekov and Scotty appear only because Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley weren’t interested), only Kirk could return later in Act 3, the film needed a larger-than-life villain (“à la Khan”) and Klingons and a Data comedy subplot, etc. These restrictions made writing the script difficult. Incidentally, Braga initially had a great poster image in mind of the two Enterprises locked in battle (“Kirk versus Picard!”) but that concept went nowhere.

Also, in a true bit of irony, compare these requirements to the restrictions in the TNG series bible, a list of concepts created with the express intent of avoiding (these stories/concepts “don’t work well for us”): mysterious psychic powers, the crew acting as the galaxy’s “policemen,” original Trek characters, treating space as a local neighborhood, war with the Klingons and Romulans, anything with Vulcans (“We are determined not to copy ourselves. . .”), mad scientists, villainous technology, and jeopardy being created from the breakdown of technology or characters doing something stupid. Over the course of 178 episodes, the various writers and producers broke every single one of these rules. . . but that was 178 hours. Star Trek Generations broke most of these in two hours! (Truth be told, the fast-paced nature of TV production usually prevents strict adherence to what is basically a reference work.)

Moore explains that, ultimately, the theme they wanted to explore was “death.” Sure, Spock died in Star Trek II but then he came back. Through the death of his brother and nephew, Captain Kirk, and the Enterprise-D herself, Picard would come to terms with his own mortality. But it didn’t entirely work. Moore: “In my opinion, our reach sort of exceeded our grasp on that level.” Thanks to the studio’s list and all the things they couldn’t do, Braga replies: “I don’t think it coheres into anything. It’s a little all over the place, but interesting nonetheless.”

Even the TNG crew’s introduction was difficult to establish. They were to take part in a big action scene with the Romulans. Moore and Braga showed the script to TNG writer/producer Jeri Taylor who said, “It’s been done a million times.” Her idea for how the crew should be introduced involved Picard rolling an egg along the floor of Ten-Forward (the ship’s bar) with his nose. When asked what that meant, her reaction was, “I don’t know, but it’s an interesting image. . .” (I almost wish they had done this!) They started thinking about other unusual things and eventually settled on a holodeck scene aboard the 19th century sailing ship Enterprise. Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone at the studio understood the holodeck or any other Trek jargon. Star Trek film writers always had to walk a thin line between catering to fans – who would nitpick every detail – and the general public.

The temptation to make changes. . .

Braga mentions what is probably an antiquated concept nowadays: when you’re writing a TV show, you don’t want to make any radical changes because the viewer enjoys visiting the same family every week. But for a film, “you want to do bigger things.” That’s why they introduced Data’s emotion chip. According to Moore, the Data humor in this film received a mix of “groans and laughs” in theaters (I think it works). In any event, the addition of the chip basically ends Data’s character arc and the later films more or less do away with the concept entirely. In the next film, by way of comparison, they give LaForge ocular implants, replacing the VISOR. According to Moore, LeVar Burton had complained for years that it robbed him of a legitimate acting tool: the eyes, and the film gave them the chance to remedy that.

Writing themselves into a corner. . .

Malcolm McDowell plays the villainous Dr. Soran (with no subtlety whatsoever). The central plot device is a ribbon of energy called the Nexus. Soran had briefly experienced what it was like inside the Nexus – a paradise where a person’s thoughts can shape reality and where time has no meaning – before his ship was rescued by the Enterprise-B. (Future TNG bartender Guinan was on that ship as well.) 78 years later – the timespan between TOS and TNG – we get the plot: Soran is destroying stars in order to alter the trajectory of the Nexus so he’ll be able to re-enter it and achieve immortality. It’s up to Picard and Co. to stop him before the shockwave of one particular star destroys a civilization. The writers admit the mechanics of this were too convoluted but they never hit on the film’s real plot hole: Picard asks why Soran couldn’t simply fly a ship into the Nexus, to which Data replies, “. . .every ship which has approached the ribbon has either been destroyed or severely damaged.” But how did Soran get to it in the first place?

The Nexus was a problem, too. Moore says they were looking for a way to bridge the two generations without resorting to time travel again. That’s how they chose the Nexus but the concept, Braga admits, “was never properly conveyed or exploited enough.” At one point, Picard finds himself “inside” his own Nexus fantasy in which he has a family. While Moore believes this Victorian scene is true to the character, Braga points out that it’s difficult for viewers to watch their captains – who are usually one step ahead of things – be one step behind. They discuss how difficult it was to make Picard realize he was in a fantasy – he ends up noticing a Christmas tree ornament that reminds him of an exploding star, an idea that Moore wonders if people ever understood. And yes, they debated whether or not Christmas still exists in the 24th century. (Moore wanted Picard’s fantasy to be a “Roman orgy.”) Picard then encounters Guinan who had previously entered the Nexus along with Soran, but this isn’t Guinan, only her “echo.” After the film was released, fans started asking, “. . .is there an echo of Kirk in the Nexus?” To this day, neither writer has an answer.

However, one scene they did like. . .

The Nexus plot and Data’s emotion chip subplot both lead to what the writers think is the best scene in the film: Picard and Data plotting the course of the ribbon in the ship’s stellar cartography lab, complete with a beautiful wall-sized projection of space. This scene is, in Moore’s words, “most true to what the series was” given that the other three films would turn out to be big action adventures (of variable quality). A scene like this would cause the writers to ask, “What’s a map in the 24th century?” On that note, Soran carries an antique pocket watch and the writers found themselves asking if pocket watches would even exist in the 24th century and, if so, where would he get one?

Other long-standing problems were never quite resolved either. . .

Neither Moore nor Braga knew what the hell Guinan’s powers were, nor for that matter, what Troi’s powers were. Braga labels Gene Roddenberry’s idea of perfect humans a paradox: in this utopian world, “Why is there a therapist on board? What hang-ups do they have?” Fellow writer Joe Menosky felt the presence of a therapist – sitting next to the captain – would date the show as a relic of the 80s. Moore admits they ended up turning her into a glorified cruise ship social director. During a scene with Troi, Picard grieves over the death of his brother and nephew and starts to cry. Both writers cringe, especially given that it’s Picard’s big-screen debut. They also wonder why there are no seatbelts and why the crew cabins have pictures depicting space hanging on the walls!

“Techno-babble” was always a struggle and Braga – whom some fans label “Public Enemy No. 1” for various reasons – admits they frequently went too far. Moore recalls script conferences with “other seemingly intelligent people” arguing about what the warp drive could or couldn’t do. Here’s what a typical script page would look like:
LaForge: “Captain, I’ve TECHed the TECH but it’s not working. But if I TECH the TECH in a TECH direction, maybe we can TECH.”
Picard: “Very well. TECH the TECH, Mr. LaForge.”
The script would then be handed over to the science consultants who would suggest various options for the TECH placeholders. Braga: “Our show at its worst.”

Kirk’s death(s). . .

The death of Kirk is still controversial and Moore admits to getting misty-eyed as they wrote it (Kirk had been his childhood hero). In the final cut, Kirk is mortally wounded from the wreckage of a collapsing bridge. In the original script and rough cut, Kirk is simply shot in the back by Soran in a rather anti-climactic fashion. Moore says “it was expected” that Kirk would die on the bridge of his ship so they wanted to go in another direction. He cites Sands of Iwo Jima in which John Wayne is shot by a sniper at the end of the film. He also enjoyed “the irony of it.” After a poor test screening, the studio ordered changes. The “Oh, my” was Shatner’s idea. Braga: “I think about the fans and I don’t know that there’s anything we could’ve done to make everybody happy.”

Moore and Braga are actually somewhat disheartened by the meeting of Kirk and Picard. Braga feels they didn’t do enough to exploit the pairing and the only conflict comes from Picard trying to convince Kirk to leave the Nexus to help him stop Soran. He acknowledges the classic time-travel cliché: Picard and Kirk leave the Nexus and reappear just moments before Soran destroys the star. Braga: “Go back a couple years. Get Soran when he’s in the bathroom!” (Plus we don’t see Picard from before he enters the Nexus.) The scene in Kirk’s Nexus fantasy – at a cabin in the mountains – continues to disappoint them. Braga: “This is just painful!” They admit they wanted to do something charming and offbeat but failed and that Kirk’s speech to Picard about making a difference is nice but really doesn’t fit with anything else in the film.

As an aside, meeting William Shatner was a nervous experience, especially after he looked at the two writers and said, “They’re so young!” Moore mentions “The Kirk Moment” in which they were trying to convince Shatner of some plot point, to which he replied, “He is not! In fact! Integral! To the plot!”

Believe it or not, no one consciously sets out to make a bad movie. While filmmakers are limited by the time and resources available to them, they strive to do their best. Only with the benefit of experience and retrospection can artists look back on their work and see where they went wrong. To use William Goldman’s popular phrase: “Nobody knows anything.” Sometimes they do. . . 10 years later.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Film Friday: The Green Hornet (2011)

The Green Hornet is a great example of what not to do when making a comic book movie. In fact, it’s a great example of what not to do when making any movie. It’s unpleasant. It’s stylistically confused. It suffers from horrid writing and confused direction. And it relies entirely on the comic talents of a man with no talent and less than no charisma.

** spoiler alert**

Bad Acting: Just about everything is wrong with The Green Hornet, but the biggest problem starts right at the top with Seth Rogen, who both stars as Britt Reid (The Green Hornet) and is a co-writer. Rogen is an awful actor. He has no charisma, no charm and no comedic timing. He roams this film acting either like a very unfunny, unclever, unlikeable Rodney Dangerfield or like he’s staring in Hot Tub Bachelor Party II: Maximum Jerk. Basically, he provides a machine-gun-like stream of whiny, selfish, angry, obnoxious and self-pitying dialog in every scene. No one else gets to finish a sentence before he interrupts and he never once says anything you will like or could possibly care about, much less respect. And he’s the hero.

There are other actors in the film as well, but not that you will notice.

Worse Writing: Rogen the writer is perhaps even worse than Rogen the actor. Despite Rogen’s intent to write Reid as a “loveable loser,” he is a worthless piece of sh~t. He fires people at a whim, he abuses his power, he is an idiot, he is an arrogant braggart, he all-but sexually assaults his secretary, and he treats his underlings and “friends” like they are garbage. Yet, as can only happen in a B-movie world, everyone continues to look up to him and wants to be his friend because that’s what the script calls for.

But don’t worry, all is forgiven because Seth offers us this cliché at the beginning: when Reid was a child, he stood up to a bully to help someone. Thus, we're supposed to accept that Reid is kind-hearted even though he never once acts like it.

The other characters are even more poorly drawn. Shortround, er, Kato is taken directly from Stephen Spielberg's Book of Acceptable Racism and constantly makes gadgets. . . like all Asians. He becomes Rogen’s houseboy. Edward James Olmos is in the film, that’s about all I can say for his character, as is Cameron Diaz. Rogen gave them nothing to do except smile as Rogen tears them to shreds with his red-rubber-ball sharp comedic wit.

As for the plot, well, Rogen couldn't think of much there either. It's pointless.

Confused Direction: Even worse than the pointless plot, however, this film is utterly confused about what it wants to be. It’s labeled an “action comedy,” but it starts as a very poor drama as we spend about an hour establishing Rogen’s dislike for his rotten father and seeing Rogen and Kato decide to become super heroes. This includes ten minutes of watching these two idiots test Kato’s gadgets in a 1980’s montage gone wrong.

About an hour into the film, we finally come to the first scene I don’t dislike. Hurray! This scene introduces Cameron Diaz and seems to promise that what had been an angry, tension- free, interest-free drama will now become a comedic farce. (The film should have started here.) But it’s a fake out. The rest of the film lurches from scene to scene drifting back and forth between being a second rate action film, an unfunny comedy, and a horribly dull drama about a character from Frat Boy Office Party the Revenge. The film then ends when they run out of bad guys, and we are told the father is now redeemed. Why exactly he is redeemed isn’t clear. Apparently, we are to excuse his years of lack of integrity as a newspaper owner because he was being threatened by the DA. The decades of bad fathering? Well, forget those, the film does.

As an interesting aside, the final few minutes, easily the best and most coherent part of the film, are stolen from an episode of the 1966 television series.

Horrible Villains: And that brings us to the villains. Did I give something away when I told you that the DA is the bad guy? Rogen might think so, but you’d have to be pretty slow not to see that one coming. Rogen gives us all the cliché signs, right down to the actor coming across as a jerk. It is basically impossible to see him as anything other than a villain. But he’s not THE bad guy in any event. He’s just a subplot tacked onto the movie to give the story something to do while Rogen craps on his friends.

The real bad guy is named Chudnofsky, and therein lies the joke. . . no one can pronounce his name! Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Don’t you get it? Come on, that’s comic gold. No one can pronounce his name and that makes him insecure. You’re not laughing? Apparently, you outgrew that one on the school yard? Rogen didn’t.

Eventually, the Chudster gets so insecure that he changes his name to Bloodnofsky and comes up with some really long-winded thing to say before he kills people, I’d tell you what it is, but I honestly wasn’t listening. Indeed, the character and the actor (Christoph Waltz) are a waste. And for the record, like all modern cliché villains, the Chudster lets us know he’s evil by prancing around and killing henchmen because Rogen doesn't know any other way to let you know that he's evil.

Bad Everything Else: Everything else about this film stinks too. The action sequence are uninteresting and disconnected from the plot. They also reinforce how unfunny Rogen is, as he spends his time whining until Kato whips all the bad guys. Then Rogen goes around and maturely kicks them in the groin when they are down. Grow up Seth. The CGI is horribly misused too, like when we follow two beer bottle caps flying across the room, or how each fight scene freezes so Kato can scan whatever weapons the bad guys pulled as if he were the Terminator. This was misplaced and obnoxious.

Missed Opportunity: Finally, let me point out a true irony here. “The Green Hornet” came before “Batman,” but it feels like a “Batman” rip off. And in this day and age of the dark, vigilante heroes like Batman in The Dark Knight, the Green Hornet had an obvious path to take. The Green Hornet character, who pretends to be a bad guy while fighting crime, is tailor-made to repeat the Dark Knight formula. Alternatively, it could have been played as a farce or parody of the Dark Knight formula. Either would have made a memorable and entertaining film. But the one thing no one should have done is try to combine a dull son-hates-father drama with a bland action film and Hot Tub Office Party. What a waste.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Guest Review: In Bruges (2008)

By Tennessee Jed

Despite being nominated for several golden globes and an academy award, In Bruges flew under viewersʼ radar, generating only about $33 million at the box office. I might have missed it myself, if not for a positive review in a magazine skimmed in a dentist’s waiting room. Directed by first-time Irish filmmaker Martin McDonagh In Bruges is a black comedy and a real hidden gem. Think of it as something of a European version of Pulp Fiction.

** spoiler alert **

The screenplay, also by McDonagh, was inspired by both Harold Pinter’s 2005 play The Dumb Waiter and the McDonaghʼs first trip to the city of Bruges, a canal city in northwest Brussels that has been called the “Venice of the North.” Bruges is known for its medieval architecture, which has survived to this day, and its world class beer! McDonagh says he was struck by the city’s beauty, but was nonetheless bored. So he wrote this film.

The Plot - The plot revolves around two hit men in the employ of a British crime lord. The film opens with Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and his rookie partner Ray (Colin Farrell) already in Bruges, having just completed a job which did not go smoothly. The two have been ordered by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to lay low while he cleans up the mess. For a hit man, Ken is highly cultured. He looks forward to spending his “vacation” checking out the historical and artistic aspects of the city. Ray, on the other hand, has no such interest. He views Bruges as a “sh**hole,” and is only interested in finding a bar and getting laid. Making matters worse, it’s Christmas and only one room with twin beds is available. Funny scenes abound and Ray delights in kiddingly ordering “a straight beer for me and a gay beer for my gay friend” at a local pub.

Through their interaction, we gain insight into what went wrong on the last job. This was Ray’s first job. He did the actual shooting and is extremely depressed about the unintended consequences of what he’s done.

That evening, Ray happens upon the set of a film being shot in the city. He meets Chloe (Clemence Poesy), a local drug dealer currently supplying the film crew, and Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), one of the actors who also happens to be a bigoted American dwarf (think about that for a second). At dinner the next night, Ray and Chloe are surprisingly open with each other about who they are and what they do, considering it is their first date. Their honesty appears to create a bond between them, laying groundwork for a potentially real and redemptive relationship considering Ray is starting to become suicidal.

To absolutely no surprise, Harry is depicted as a brutal man with a peculiarly strict moral code, albeit one not altogether uncommon among gangsters. He loves his family (all children actually) and accepts zero tolerance for violence that spills outside the “business.” In Harry's view, anyone violating this code deserves to die, no exceptions, and should willingly kill himself as atonement. This view becomes critical to the story as Harry decides Ray must die for violating the code. What happens going forward will not be revealed here, however. The synopsis to this point merely tees up the core of the film, and having read it should hopefully not spoil your enjoyment of the movie.

Themes - In Bruges delves into the murderous, profanity laced, drug infested world of organized crime. It deals with its subject matter in a darkly comedic manner much reminiscent of Pulp Fiction. While the dialog can at times be hilarious, the underlying theme actually aims a bit higher and is perhaps best summed up by a question: Is it possible for those who commit unspeakable acts of violence for a living to be sufficiently dynamic persons to also be capable of qualities such as love, loyalty, and responsibility? Can this be said of all the central characters? A secondary theme relates to the concept of perception as reality; one man’s heaven is another man’s hell. Wonderfully subtle dialog and imagery support this theme throughout.

The Cast - While the plot is solid and writing excellent, it is the acting which lifts the film to loftier levels. Colin Farrell (Tigerland, Phone Booth) won the golden globe for best actor, beating out co-star Gleeson. (He won $20 from him in a friendly bet.) The character Ray is quite complex and Farrell plays him just right. While I usually enjoy Farrell anyway, this just may be the best work of his that I’ve seen. Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, Harry Potter) as Ken, is every bit as good in an equally complex role. Ralph Fiennes (Schindlerʼs List, Harry Potter, English Patient) as Harry Waters does “menacing and evil” about as good as anybody around. I’ve never seen him mail in a performance and he certainly does not disappoint here. Clemence Poesy (Harry Potter), Jordan Prentice (Howard the Duck) and Thekla Reuten (The American), as the proprietress Marie, are all convincing in secondary roles.

Other Factors - While acting is central to why In Bruges works so well the writing, cinematography, and plot development are all actually quite good as well, especially for a first time director. The score by Carter Burwell, who has done most Coen Brothersʼ scores, is also excellent. The plot takes a bit long to hit its stride, but even the distractions serve specific purpose. As it winds toward the climax, the action becomes truly riveting to watch. One key scene involving Ken and Harry in the bell tower is particularly well shot and scored. The scene utilizes to magical effect the song “On Raglan Road” by the Dubliners (one of the great love ballads of all time) as viewers realize what is occurring and why.

As far as negatives, the language is truly atrocious, if not strictly speaking gratuitous, given the characters portrayed. Between language and violence, it is not a film most would feel particularly comfortable viewing with a mother or daughter. That apart, it remains a film I can unhesitatingly recommend.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What Constitutes A Conservative Film?

Originally posted at Big Hollywood: LINK

It may sound strange to assert that many conservatives don’t understand what makes a film conservative, but the evidence is all over the web. More and more conservative websites are listing their top conservative films, but few of the films they list can actually be considered conservative. It’s as if they just picked films they like and then struggled to find something. . . anything they could call conservative within each film.

Indeed, you’d be amazed how many people identify leftist propaganda as conservative because “that film rocked” or because it has a tough guy or advocates revenge. When was conservatism ever about revenge? And many are mistaking errant lines of dialog for conservative themes. . . a serial-killing, eco-terrorist Marxist does not become a conservative hero just because he spouts off that he doesn’t trust the federal government to provide quality health care.

“I’m just not sure ObamaCare will work?”

So what are conservative values?

Well, surprisingly, this is where people get lost. Many simply want to attribute everything good to conservatism and everything bad to liberalism. Others claim things like patriotism, bravery, and even religious belief as conservative values. But these aren't uniquely conservative values. Indeed, many liberals have fought bravely and died for this country, and there are even leftist churches, and the truth is that both sides claim to believe in these things. . . they just see them differently. It's in that difference where we need to look to decide whether a film is conservative.

To bottom-line it, conservatives believe in the individual over the collective but temper their belief in individuality by requiring people to act according to a code of conduct based on traditional morality. Liberals believe in the collective over the individual and, where they allow individuality, they disdain traditional morality or personal responsibility. Thus, uniquely conservative values tend to be centered around:
(1) faith in individual rights over collective rights,

(2) an acceptance of cause and effect, and a willingness to let people bear the good and bad consequences of their actions,

(3) an unwillingness to excuse misbehavior as something beyond the control of the individual, i.e. society made me do it,

(4) the idea that respect and dignity are earned, not a right, and must be maintained through appropriate behavior,

(5) a belief that truth is absolute, not relative,

(6) an acceptance of human nature as it is and not as something that can be changed by government tinkering, and

(7) support for rule of law over nebulous concepts of supposed “fairness.”
Hence, a film that advocates individual rights over collective rights will generally be conservative (e.g. 1984 or 1975’s Rollerball.... yes, Rollerball), as will films where characters learn they have to earn the respect of others (Drumline??) or where they accept individual responsibilities (The Blind Side).

But don’t look for just one aspect in isolation. To be a conservative film, a film must have conservative values deeply ingrained throughout the film. The positive characters must act according to those values and they must be rewarded for it. The film can’t mock conservative values or treat them as social outliers, and it can't reinforce the leftist propagandized view of the world, e.g. minorities can’t succeed without the government, religion is a tool of oppression, capitalists are evil, etc.

And the key to deciding if a film does this is to look at how the film defines good and bad, i.e. what gets rewarded, what gets punished, and what does the film say about how we are supposed to solve our problems.

For example, a film about a character taking responsibility for their own life is probably conservative, especially if they are breaking out of a history of dependence on government to regain their lost human dignity. That’s a pretty powerful conservative message. But if the form of “responsibility” they choose is to become a thief, and the film rewards that behavior, then it’s not a conservative film. Even a film about a pedophile priest can be conservative, if they do the right thing with it. Showing how the priest has betrayed the true meaning of his religion could send a powerful conservative message, but slandering the religion because of the conduct of the priest would not.

Liberal films, by comparison, tend to be anti-conservative-bogeyman films (Avatar) or involve characters pushing for collectivist solutions (Norma Rae), usually government intervention (Erin Brockovich), and will excuse personal failure as somehow the result of societal pressures (Friday).

And don’t be fooled by the packaging. Liberal films often blur what their hero really wants to make their goals seem more conservative because audiences would react poorly to a character who is simply trying to get the government to step in. Hence, they present their heroes as brave individuals struggling single-handedly against all-powerful organizations (The China Syndrome) and they end the film the moment the hero is told they have won (Philadelphia). Yep, a real triumph for the individual! Only, what the victory actually entails (the part they don't show) is that swarms of government bureaucrats will now descend and regulate the "all-powerful" organization. Thus, what they sell as David beats Goliath, is really David calls in Super Goliath to control Goliath.

“Help! My antagonist is winning!”

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of this issue. Hollywood defines modern American culture. There’s no escaping that. It influences the way people see the world, how they solve their problems and whom they look to for solutions. It is the parent that so many parents are not. And unless conservatives want Hollywood raising a generation of reflexive liberal thinkers, we need to depoliticize the film industry. The only way to do that is to support conservative films and reject liberal films to re-establish a balance. To do that, we must understand when a film is or is not conservative.

So what are your favorite conservative films? And what makes them conservative?

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Film Friday: The Shining (1980)

You would think I wouldn’t like The Shining. Why? Because I don’t like Stephen King. His work is formulaic and stolen. Also, I respect Stanley Kubrick much more than I like his films. So I should hate The Shining, right? Well, no. At one point, King was a talented writer and The Shining was his high-water mark. And while I find Kubrick’s work lifeless, his casting of Jack Nicholson made this film great. Plus, there’s a lot more to this film than at first appears.

** spoiler alert **

You all know the story. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) gets a job as the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, where he and his family will be snowbound during the winter. He plans to use the time to finish his book. But things don’t go as planned as he and his son Danny start seeing ghosts. One thing leads to another and Jack goes insane and tries to kill his family. That sounds pretty straight forward. . . but is it?
Before we get into the story itself, let me point out that the single most important element in this film is Jack Nicholson. Without him, this film would be a dud, and I mean that. As I’ve said before, Kubrick’s style is sterile and his characters are lifeless. They are not people you can care about. . . they are merely cardboard images that work the plot. But Nicholson is anything but cardboard. Nicholson is like a live grenade packed with the most excitable of human emotions. He is the kind of man who puts you on edge constantly. Even when he’s being nice, you watch him out of the corner of your eye for fear he may explode. He is the definition of “volatile.”

And that is exactly what the role of Jack Torrance needed. Torrance is an ex-alcoholic who seems to be falling into a “dry high.” As he falls, he gets increasingly paranoid and volatile. His paranoia is fed by the idea his wife and child are conspiring against him to blame him for being a failure as a father. This is the result of prior incidents where Jack lost his job for injuring a student and then injured Danny while he was drunk. Jack thinks his wife Wendy has never forgiven him for this and is poisoning their son’s mind. However, as written and filmed the role simply doesn’t have enough dialog to provide this information and its impact to the audience. That’s where the inner turmoil of Jack Nicholson comes in. He manages to convey all the instability, the paranoia, the repressed rage and the panicky instant-regret to tell you what you need to know about Torrance, even if the script doesn’t. Without Nicholson, Jack Torrance would be a boring man who inexplicably turns murderous.

Let me also add that Shelley Duvall is brilliant as the “abused wife” (Wendy). She is truly believable as she walks on eggshells around the explosive Jack and then shows genuine terror as he worsens.
Who Is Jack Torrance?
So, aside from Torrance’s inner nature, what isn’t so straight forward in this film? Well, let’s start with the ghosts. Are they real? If you read the novel, you might be surprised to discover that it’s very likely the ghosts aren’t real. Torrance is suffering the hallucinatory effects of a dry high and there is no evidence the ghosts exist. Even the injuries Danny sustains are likely caused by Torrance himself (interestingly, Wendy never does see the ghosts, only Jack, who is high, and Danny, who is abused). In the film, it’s more clear that the ghosts are real. In fact, in one instance, they actually help him in the physical world by unlocking a food locker and letting him out. So that kind of kills the mystery, right?

Yes and no. In its place you are given something much larger to consider. Who are these ghosts and what is their connection to Torrance? Obviously, they are haunting the Overlook and with Torrance being the caretaker, they have set their sights on him, right? Well, not so fast. In the scene in the bathroom between Jack and Grady, Jack identifies Grady the butler as the caretaker who killed his kids. But Grady denies this and responds, “You’re the caretaker, sir. You’ve always been the caretaker.” What does this mean? It could just be the ghost trying to trick Torrance, but there is one more piece of evidence to consider. At the end of the film, after Torrance dies, the camera pans in on a photo of a July 4th party at the Overlook in 1921. There, right in front, is Jack Torrance (see below). So how do we interpret this?

It’s possible the Overlook simply sucked him into its history and this is where it deposited him. But that’s unsatisfying as nothing else in the plot hints at people turning into photos. Where, for example, is the "new" picture of Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers)?

Could Jack be THE caretaker as Grady claims? It’s possible that Jack has reincarnated repeatedly and each time comes back as someone whose destiny is to become the caretaker and murder his family. This would be consistent with Grady’s statement that Jack has “always been the caretaker.” Interestingly, it would also be consistent with another piece of evidence. We are inclined to dismiss this idea because Jack points out that the butler is Charles Grady, the prior caretaker who killed his family. But the butler denies any knowledge of this and actually identifies himself as Delbert Grady. So it’s possible this man is not the Grady who was the caretaker. Does that make it Jack?

Maybe, except there’s a problem with the reincarnation theory. Charles Grady was the caretaker the year prior. That means Charles Grady and Jack Torrance were both alive at the same time. Thus, Jack could not be the reincarnation of Charles. It could be that both Jack and Grady are trapped in some sort of reincarnation circle, one after the other, but that would be kind of a new theory on reincarnation and there’s no evidence for it in the film. Thus, it’s unlikely this is what was meant. It could also be that Grady is simply lying, trying to manipulate Jack into following his lead. But then, how do we explain the 1921 picture?

We can’t discount the possibility that Kubrick simply threw in clues that make no sense, this wouldn’t be the first time (see the second black obelisk in 2001). But what about this: what if Jack isn’t really ever alive? What if Jack is a ghost. What if Jack did something in 1921 that trapped his soul at the Overlook, just like all the other ghosts, and now he’s destined to live out this nightmare of going insane and killing his family over and over and over again. One of the many views of hell or purgatory involves the person being forced to live their crimes/sins over and over forever. Maybe that’s what’s going on here? That would explain why he supposedly goes insane slowly over time, yet he started writing "all work and no play" instead of his book the moment he arrived at the hotel.

Sadly, there isn’t enough evidence to piece this together. But maybe that was intentional? Maybe the inexplicable aspect of this film adds to its terror? We honestly don’t know what is going on with Jack or why the ghosts have targeted him or why he’s so open to them. We don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. Who is Delbert Grady? Who is Jack? We see a wall of blood coming down the elevator, dead girls in the hallway and a woman turn into a rotting corpse, but is any of it real? We just don’t know. But maybe not knowing is more terrifying than knowing for sure -- it’s the fear of the danger yet to come as compared to knowing the extent of your trouble.

Also, maybe this is part of Kubrick’s plan to disorient us. He does this masterfully throughout the film. For example, he constantly switches back and forth between huge cavernous rooms that make us feel insecure, unprotected and exposed, and the cramped family quarters and narrow curvy hallways that make us feel claustrophobic. He gives us the promise of help, only to take it away the moment it arrives. He makes the ghosts unreal, only to let them do something in the real world (yet Wendy still never sees them, so are they really real?). He tells us Jack is slowly going insane, yet he started writing “all work and no play” in his book from the moment he arrived at the Overlook. Doesn't that mean he was insane before he got here? None of this adds up and as a consequence, we can never get a single point of reality onto which we can grasp. We are thus disoriented from the start, and we can never get our bearings. So maybe the fact that we can’t explain exactly what Jack is just adds to the terror because maybe he’s a real guy being haunted, or maybe he's just going insane, or maybe he’s something much worse that we can’t quite understand.

Interesting isn’t it?

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

TV Review: The Walking Dead (2010-)

By T-Rav

AMC’s The Walking Dead was a breakout hit last fall, which might not surprise you at first glance. I mean, come on. It’s ZOMBIES, people! Zombies which have to be killed using violence; lots and lots of violence! And the network gave it a Halloween premiere date, perhaps the most obvious marketing ploy in the history of television. What could go wrong? Actually, a lot could have, and the fact that it didn’t speaks to the ways in which it was designed as something more than your standard gorefest.

As many of you probably know, TWD began several years ago as a graphic novel series by Robert Kirkman, before being adapted for television by Frank Darabont (The Mist). There are over a dozen installments in the series, but don’t just run out and grab some to read if you want to know what the next TV season will bring; TWD has already diverged from its written predecessor in certain ways, and the producers have indicated it will do so again. The main protagonist is Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who has a typical small-town life in the South before getting badly injured in a shootout and spending quite some time in a coma-like state. When he emerges—in a very 28 Days Later-esque fashion—the zombie apocalypse has struck, and he must do all he can to find his family and keep them alive. In following this plotline, the story deviates from the rest of the zombie genre in several important ways.

Most zombie movies have pretty shallow content; plus, they’re a very paint-by-numbers affair, with the same subplots and conflicts recycled over and over again. You have the living dead striking out of nowhere, people freaking out and then quickly rallying to exterminate their foes in lots of inventive ways. Often you’ll see our “heroes” make a game out of it, seeing how many corpses they can destroy at once, preferably with a few comedic touches as well. There’s one or two people trying to enrich themselves in the middle of the crisis (how much sense does this make…oh forget it, it’s not like logic is a big element in these stories). Minorities are well represented, and of course they’re all strong, wise, born leaders, all those other positive connotations. And you’ll usually have a few identifiably bad guys, representing every negative stereotype Hollywood can think of—especially cold, manipulative corporate types—who you’re happy to see wind up as a fresh meal in short order. If the script is in the hands of a talented director, these villains may also serve to turn the film into some kind of broader social commentary. But it’s still made very clear who you should be rooting for and against.

Up to a point, this is okay, because most of the time, you’re watching precisely because this is such lightweight, superficial entertainment, and not social commentary. (Come on, you know you are!) But this doesn’t really work for a long-term television series, which depends on character development and so forth. What TWD has done to stand out is create interesting, realistic characters, characters we’re interested in watching even when there are no ghouls around. Also, they react to the events around them in more believable ways -- if a zombie apocalypse were to actually occur, people would not be imitating Dawn of the Dead, because that’s not realistic.

First, the realism. There are a lot of good examples of this, but there’s a couple in the pilot episode which I thought really set the tone for the show. The more shocking instance is in the opening scene: The very first zombie we see killed is a child, an eight- or nine-year-old girl with blond hair, wearing pajamas and clutching the remains of a teddy bear. This in itself indicates a more somber tone than is often the case in the genre. Those semi-comedic killing games I mentioned earlier? Yeah, not really comedic when a kid is the target. But the more stirring incident, in my opinion, occurs later. In it, Rick Grimes has been rescued by father-and-son team Morgan and Duane, had the crisis explained to him, and is setting off to find his family. But first, he sees a legless, decomposing zombie crawling through the grass. Instead of whooping it up and seeing if he can get the creature with one casual shot, Rick walks up to it, says “I’m sorry this happened to you,” and only then blows its brains out. Coupled with simultaneous shots of Morgan’s internal struggle as he tries to shoot his dead-and-turned wife, this scene made it clear the show was not to be a festival of guns and gore.

At other times, of course, we do see zombies dispatched in a more lackadaisical manner, but rarely if ever does it come across as sadistic. To me, this also seems truer to life. It couldn’t be easy, even knowing a zombie had to be killed, to put a gun to what was once somebody’s parent or child or spouse, an innocent human being, and pull the trigger. Maybe you’d get more jaded about it over time, but then TWD isn’t far along, either. It just seems to reflect more accurately how real people would behave when placed in that situation.

This realism is reinforced by how the characters themselves are developed and deepened. While there are several people we think we can describe as “good guys,” there really isn’t anyone so far that can be described as a clear-cut villain. Take the character of Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker), who appears in the second episode. When we first meet him, he appears to be another mindless racist Southern redneck, hoisting his gun and making slurs against a black member of the group. This, incidentally, became Commentarama Reason #389 To Bash Big HollywoodTM, which BH earned for running an atrocious piece bashing this episode. According to BH, this was a classic example of left-wing Hollywood perpetuating Southern stereotypes. That happens, of course, but it almost certainly was not the case here. Had the author given the episode more than a superficial viewing, he would have noticed that Dixon had no problem teaming up with said black member as long as it served “our common interests,” and beyond that, the man displays a wide range of genuine emotions, from fear to anger to regret to determination and so on. The character is not a stereotype, but a unique individual—a deeply flawed one, to be sure, but a unique one nonetheless. Again, this contributes to TWD’s simulation of reality, because we can feel like these are real people we’re watching. In fact, the episode generally seen as the weakest of the season, “Vatos,” includes a tough-talking Hispanic gang, which we quickly find out have hearts of gold and are charitable and so on. This feels formulaic and predictable—aka, not real.

Finally, I must mention the metaphorical meaning of the show’s title. The Walking Dead does not refer, primarily, to the zombies. Remember in The Terminator, when Kyle Reese stressed the need to “stay alive—in here [the head] and in here [the heart]”? (Did he say that? Ah, screw it, work with me here.) That’s really the struggle the characters in this series face; traveling through some of the most brutalizing, dehumanizing conditions imaginable, they face a daily struggle to hold on to their reason and their compassion, and to avoid becoming as cold and soulless as the corpses they flee from. It is they who are, or at least are in danger of becoming, “The Walking Dead.” Their efforts to avoid this fate are at the heart of the graphic novels, and will surely continue to be at the heart of the TV show, too.

TWD hasn’t been perfect. Some of its characters need fleshing out, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the writers can continue to keep the audience so engaged in the show in upcoming seasons. But so far, it’s off to a good start, thanks to rising above mindless gore and giving us realistic characters and plot lines and making us feel connected to the drama on the screen. Hollywood, please take note.

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Friday, July 8, 2011

Film Friday: Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

I enjoyed Resident Evil. It was unoriginal, but it was a competent mix of action and horror. Resident Evil: Apocalypse, not so much. Resident Evil: Extinction stank. Now we have Resident Evil: Afterplot. This turd is so bad I wasn’t even going to review it, except I feel I’m entitled to a little payback and I want to highlight what's wrong with modern Hollywood bad guys.

** spoiler alert **

Resident Evil: Afterplot was incompetently directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. Anderson is so bland and lifeless as a director that he makes Michael Bay look like Fellini by comparison. In fact, looking over his resume reveals a list of films I truly wanted to like but whose pointlessness and sheer direct-by-numbers blandness was so high I left cursing Anderson’s name: Mortal Combat, Death Race, Alien v. Predator, Pandorum. This guy could ruin a birthday cake. Retire Paul.

Resident Evil: Afterlife is no different. Everything about it is bad:
● There is no plot. The film is a series of fight scenes held together with travel montages between the fights.

● The fight scenes are shamelessly ripped off from The Matrix. And I don’t mean a piece here and there, I mean all of it. Even the costumes are stolen.

● The fight scenes are done in annoying slow motion to highlight how close the actors come to getting a CGI knife or CGI bullet in the face. It's CGI Paul! We're not stupid and we're not impressed.

● The wire fighting is beyond ridiculous. Apparently, if you clap your hands together like an idiot, these characters can fly like Tinkerbell. And they can survive a ten story fall by rolling onto a knee when they hit.

● The music is stolen from various metal bands.

● It’s a given that heroes and heroines will still look well-kempt in Hollywood land despite an apocalypse. But it’s never this glaring. Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter and Spencer Locke apparently found the only beauty salon to survive the apocalypse and spend most of their days there. Indeed, commercials for hair and makeup products don’t have models this highly made up and coiffed. This is beyond the point of just noticeable and reaches the level of distracting.

● The evil Hollywood producer character is such a tired and unrealistic stereotype he’s insulting, but not as insulting as the racist stereotype that is his gay Asian houseboy. I guess you can still hate Asians in Hollywood?

● Why fly over the ruined Hollywood sign? So the retarded audience will recognize the city? Keep clapping people, this plane needs more pixie dust to stay aloft!

● There are a million practical questions too, like where does Jovovich get the fuel for an around the world flight? Why are the oceans and trees back when the planet turned to dust in the last film? Where do they get all the ammo? They fire more bullets than the A-Team, yet never run out of bullets except when it’s time for a dramatic slow motion weapon change. They don’t even seem to be carrying extra ammo. Why are a million dead trying to get into the prison in which they are hiding, but once the gate is down only small groups actually enter? Is there a hidden turnstile? Do they need tickets? Why does the speed with which the dead move keep change depending on the needs of the scene? Why the hell is everybody whispering?
But what really kills me is the bad guy. In fact, he’s a classic example of everything that’s wrong with modern Hollywood villains.

For starters, his motivation makes no sense. Corporations seek profits. There is no profit in making the world end. There just isn’t. And at one point, we’re told the bad guys are continuing research into the T-virus to make it more effective. Why? What purpose could that serve? Who do they think is going to buy this new weapon?

Eventually, the main bad guy does get a motivation that makes sense. He becomes infected, so he wants to capture humans to drink their DNA. BUT why would the corporation support him in that? He’s got teams of security personnel running around kidnapping and killing the humans that are left, but what security guy in his right mind would follow these orders? “Gee, the boss says to kill everyone, I guess I should do that?” This is ridiculous.

What’s more, during the opening in Japan, he does the clichiést of clichéy things and shoots his second in command when the man warns that blowing up the base will kill the loyal troops still defending the base. And nobody blinks. Give me a break. Even cultists aren’t going to follow this reckless, bloodthirsty monster -- and these guys aren’t cultists, they’re just corporate employees. "Well, I don't like his shoot the employees policy, but he did promise that 5% raise?!"

Further, this guy is all kinds of lame masquerading as cool. He whispers everything and spends his days sitting in a chair in a white room with nothing to do. . . live the high life! His dialog is pointless, bizarre and substance free. He says things like “you’ve become a real inconvenience to me” which makes no sense except that it sounds like something a bad guy might say. He has super powers but doesn’t use them to kill his enemies -- only to play with them and act smug. Indeed, he's ultra-smug, just so the audience hates him. But his smugness makes no sense. He's not smug about winning his fights, indeed, he loses all his fights, usually gets killed and always ends up having his base blown up. Yet, he acts all smug as we see him escape. Why would that make him act smug? “Ha ha! I showed you. . . I’m not-permanently-vincible!” Good grief.

This guy is the model for what is wrong with modern Hollywood villains: all style, zero substance. His motivations make no sense. His mental problems would make it impossible for him to ever rise to control a corporate empire. No henchmen would follow him. To the contrary, they'd shoot him long before things got out of hand. He spews clichéd nonsense just because it sounds hip. He dresses like a gay rock star. And he's comically unlikeable. Compared to him, cartoon villains like Snidely Whiplash and Wylie E. Coyote are paragons of depth, sanity and wisdom.

You have to be an idiot to accept villains like this guy as being even the slightest bit real. And I don’t like being treated like an idiot. That's why I don’t like this film and why I'm really at the end of my rope with Hollywood's lifeless villains. Ug.

So who's your favorite villain of the past? And where are you getting your hair done after the apocalypse?

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why Superhero Films Are Failing

Over the holiday weekend, several articles appeared wondering why superhero movies aren’t doing all that well this summer. They’re making money, but they’re experiencing severe drop offs and each film has made less than the prior one, and none of them are on track to approach what superhero films used to make. Any number of explanations have been given, with one glaring exception: plot.

The offered explanations range from ticket price to the current crop of films involving "second tier" superheroes, i.e. superheroes who aren't famous enough to have entered the public consciousness. Forget the ticket price argument though because other films charge the same prices and aren't having similar problems. Forget the "second tier" garbage too. Indeed, does anyone really think the X-Men or Iron Man (both big hits) weren’t second tier before they struck it big at the theater? And nothing is more first tier than Superman or the Incredible Hulk, yet both have struggled -- not to mention Wonder Woman, who can't even get a series off the ground.

Another explanation is over-saturation, i.e. the idea that there have just been too many of these films running back to back and people are getting burned out. But that’s pretty much garbage too. Most summers are packed with identical films starring different actors and yet people keep seeing them -- and look at slasher flicks which consistently make the same amount of money despite being the same film over and over. What’s more, these movies have built in fanboy-bases who will see these films repeatedly until their eyes bleed.

So what's really going on? Hollywood has got its hands on a bad formula.

Hollywood is trying to appeal both to fanboys and the public at large while also setting up the franchise for future films. This is an impossible task as these three things call for mutually exclusive requirements. The fanboys want more depth than the comic books. The public doesn't want a learning curve. And nobody wants to feel like they're watching two hours of "this will pay off 2-3 films down the line."

What's more, the way Hollywood handles this formula is horrible. The first half of these films introduces the hero/heroine and the villain, and usually condenses decades of comic book history into a few minutes of vignettes. This would be like condensing the Lord of the Ring into "a midget tosses a ring into a fire." Even worse, these vignettes are usually heavily clichéd and manipulative to force you to like the hero and dislike the villain. Then the film picks one or two highlights from the series and tries to make a functional plot around those two moments, with the caveat that 90% of this plot must be CGI fighting. In the end, this results in a jumbled, plot-less movie that feels like its main purpose is to give you a thumbnail sketch of a set of comic books.

Think of this in Star Wars terms. Luke Skywalker: Curse of the Jedi Storm Monster's Vengeance would waste the first third of the film with Luke Skywalker bumming around until he discovered Jedi skills, which he would use to amuse the audience. . . “heh heh heh, he can make the droid fly.” Then you would suddenly find yourself in a shallow, angry drama as we meet young Darth Vader, a rich corporate titan who loves to kick puppies. The entire backstory of his life, i.e. the three prequels, would be condensed to about two minutes of whiny exposition. Then suddenly Vader would find plans for a Death Star, would build it, and would decide to hunt down Luke’s sister for no reason whatsoever. This would result in a 40 minute death struggle between Luke and Vader in outer space as Megan Fox does a stripper dance. Roll credits.

Does that sound like anything anyone would want to see? No. Well, this is what you get from the comic book films these days, and that’s the problem. These aren’t films, these are unfunny skit comedy, with key moments from a comic book series mindlessly strung together and cemented in place with heavy doses of cliché glue. You would literally be better off watching an acted-out documentary (i.e. docudrama) about the comic book!

If Hollywood wants to make a successful superhero movie, it needs to abandon this formula and put their hero into an actual story. Sadly, that's beyond Hollywood's powers.

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