Friday, March 30, 2012

Film Friday: Clash(es) of the Titans (1981) & (2010)

The 1981 version of Clash of the Titans really was an inspired movie. Clash 2010 wasn’t. In fact, it stank. And what better way to explain why it stank than to compare the two?

** spoiler alert **

Clash 2010 has better production values. Its costumes are more realistic. It has better scenery and thus feels more real than Clash 1981. The supporting actors are better too. Mads Mikkelsen is excellent as Draco, as are Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes as Zeus and Hades. After that, however, things gets sketchy. . .

Surprisingly, the effects in Clash 1981 are better, not in the technical sense, but in the sense of enjoyability. The effects in Clash 1981, done by legendary special effects man Ray Harryhausen, feel more lively and maintain the spirit of mythology which surrounds Ancient Greece. You know these characters when you see them in Clash 1981. By comparison, the effects in Clash 2010 are dreary and nondescript -- you’ve seen them in a dozen other recent films and wouldn’t spot them as Ancient Greek creatures. If you were asked to draw or describe the creatures in each movie, you could easily describe the creatures in Clash 1981, but those in Clash 2010 would end up just as blurs. And that makes a huge difference in how memorable these films are.

The lead actors in Clash 1981 are better as well. Harry Hamlin portrayed the heroic young Perseus perfectly. He had enthusiasm, brashness, and was clearly captivated by Andromeda, whose life he must save. He also let the character be just naive enough that we could discover the world with him, which pulls the audience in, without making him stupid. Judi Bowker similarly gave Andromeda a regal dignity and a flirtiness in her interactions with Perseus, which made her worth saving.

By comparison, the lead actors in Clash 2010 are crap. Sam Worthington gives his usual lifeless effort. He’s dull and dumb and stiffer than a board. He whines. Even worse, his character is impossible to like. He lacks initiative. He’s not clever. He doesn’t want to be the hero, as he keeps telling us, yet for some reason he just keeps moving right along with the plot. It’s like he just had nothing better to do. He also cares so little about Princess Andromeda that you wonder why he’s bothering to save her.

Andromeda is just as bad. She’s played by Alexa Davalos, who you might remember as Olivia Wilde or Emily Blunt or Megan Fox. She’s as lifeless as Worthington and basically just mopes and occupies space. We are given no reason to like her other than her being smarter than the hillbillies around her. Frankly, by the time the mob gets her, it’s really hard to care. Heck, she doesn’t even seem to care.

But where Clash 2010 really falls apart, compared to Clash 1981, is in the substance. Clash 1981 may not have been authentic Greek mythology, but it gave you the sense that it was. The characters, the creatures and the gods all acted correctly according to what we know about them from mythology. Clash 2010 is too modern to make that claim. Consider the gods. Greek gods were flawed because they had (near)absolute power combined with the worst of human traits. They were petty, vengeful, jealous, vain, deceitful, etc. They were narcissists of the highest order, and Greek mythology crawls with their misdeeds.

Clash 1981 captured this as the story revolves around a series of characters who get caught up in the petty quarrels and sexual trysts of the gods. Indeed, the primary story involves vengeance on the people of Joppa for offending the vanity of the goddess Thetis. These gods lie and cheat and abuse their power to get their way, which is how Greek mythology paints their gods. By comparison, the gods in Clash 2010 are a reserved lot. They are mostly caring and largely passive until they are forced to act -- except Hades who has a grudge against Zeus. Indeed, they only punish the city of Argos because the people of Argos declared war on the gods first. In effect, Clash 2010 has Christianized the gods, and rather than being a gang of ultra-powerful but petty thugs, Zeus in Clash 2010 is more like the Christian God of the Old Testament and Hades is like Satan. In fact, Zeus is so caring that the thrust of his story is Zeus trying to reconcile with his bastard son Perseus. Huh?

Along similar lines, the people of Argos don’t make any sense either, and this leads to a larger point. They have declared war against the gods, but for no apparent purpose. There is no indication what they hope to achieve, nor is it ever clear if this is a philosophical issue or something else? In other words, is this a declaration of atheism or do they just want to be rid of these gods? At times the story seems to be crawling with atheistic messages, but it always undercuts itself. For example, Perseus whines repeatedly that he has no need of the gods and he’s his own man. Only. . . he’s not. In almost every scene he’s helped by the gods while the writer pretends Perseus “does it himself.” He gets magical gifts. Zeus gives him tokens he will need. The gods send an advisor/guardian angel who tells him everything he needs to know. His strength and fighting skill come from the gods. He is even told that it is his destiny to free man from the gods? Think about the ludicrousness of that statement – the mythical force of destiny has chosen Perseus to free man from mythical forces? So is this film about atheism? Who knows? The film sure doesn’t.

The problem here is that the writers never bothered to fundamentally understand the nature of the characters. Are these gods or just foreign tyrants? Are the people of Argos declaring atheism or just swapping gods? And if they’re just swapping gods, what are they seeking instead? There’s a big underwear-Gnome-class hole there. Is Perseus a hero or not? Everyone treats him like a hero, yet he achieves nothing on his own -- he is always relying on others to win his fights or tell him the way to go. Etc.

Even the mythical creatures don’t make sense in Clash 2010. Pegasus, the winged-horse which cannot be tamed, simply comes to Perseus like any other horse -- he doesn’t have to find it or tame it (nor does he really need it). Calibos, the man Zeus twisted into a wretch for killing all the winged-horses except Pegasus and who pines for Andromeda, is now little more than an animal who attacks Perseus because Hades tells him to. The deceptive and cryptic witches are neither deceptive nor cryptic. And Medusa is little more than a tall snake.

Moreover, the writers keep undercutting the story. Perseus needs to save Andromeda because. . . well? He doesn’t live in Argos and he can leave any time. He doesn’t love Andromeda either -- halfway through the film it is imply he kind of digs the girl the gods sent him (Io). So why is he trying to save Andromeda? And she doesn’t really want to be saved either. So why should we care? In Clash 1981, Perseus loved Andromeda and she really seemed to want to live. That made sense. In Clash 2010, that’s gone.

They keep undercutting the tension too. For example, Clash 2010 tells us Perseus is a poor “everyman” -- a fisherman who’s never even held a sword (what Greek male never held a sword?). But then we’re told he’s the bastard son of Zeus, and he has special powers. And when he picks up a sword for the first time, he proves to be the ultimate swordsman. . . so much for our everyman. Think about what this does to the rest of the film. With Hamlin’s Perseus, you never knew how he would do in any fight. He got gifts from the gods to help him, but he had no extraordinary skills with which to use them. Perseus 2010 does, thus with Worthington, there’s no suspense. He will win every sword fight. Yawn. Similarly, in Clash 1981, Perseus needed to figure out the puzzles himself. In Clash 2010, Perseus is given advisors directly from the gods to make sure he figures it out. Yawn. We’re even told it’s Perseus’s destiny to win the movie. Yawn.

Clash 2010 is the perfect example of what happens when you take all the “things” out of a movie but none of the substance, and then remake the movie using those things. What you get is a truly forgettable, generic film.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Guest Review: Innerspace (1987)

By ScottDS

When Steven Spielberg was at the height of his powers (and still had talent to match), his production company Amblin Entertainment cranked out family-friendly hit after hit, including the masterpieces Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Amblin also produced several other fun films we still fondly remember today, like The Goonies and Gremlins. My personal favorite of those is Joe Dante’s underrated sci-fi comedy Innerspace, starring Martin Short, Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, and a menagerie of character actors.

Dennis Quaid is Lt. Tuck Pendleton, a fun-loving test pilot who is participating in a top secret miniaturization experiment. He’s supposed to be injected into a rabbit but the lab is raided during the process. The scientist in charge escapes with the syringe into which Tuck’s submersible pod has been transferred. He makes his way to a nearby mall and, after being fatally shot, manages to inject the syringe into the ass of Jack Putter (Martin Short), a hypochondriac grocery clerk. Using the pod’s technical capabilities, Tuck is able to make audio and video contact with Putter. At first, Putter thinks he’s crazy but Tuck convinces him otherwise. His oxygen supply is running out and they need to find one of the microchips needed for the re-enlargement process – one is in the pod but the villains have the other one. With Tuck’s investigative reporter girlfriend Lydia (Meg Ryan) in tow, they manage to find the bad guys, steal back the chip, and get back to the lab so Tuck can be restored to his original size.

The plot is simple but the above paragraph doesn’t do it justice. We complain today about convoluted plots, redundant characters, and unnecessary twists, but it’s a credit to Joe Dante that everything is managed. There are so many characters and ideas on display but we’re never lost. Tuck is working for Vectorscope Labs. Dr. Ozzie Wexler is the scientist in charge and he’s not even played by an actor – he’s played by John Hora, who was Dante’s director of photography on previous films. Character actors Mark Taylor and Harold Sylvester play project leader Dr. Niles and government official Pete, respectively. Putter works at Safeway where his ditsy co-worker Wendy is played by Dante regular Wendy Schaal and his manager Mr. Wormwood is played by the late Henry Gibson. His physician Dr. Greenbush is played by William Schallert. Lydia’s editor is played by Orson Bean.

And now, the bad guys. The late Kevin McCarthy plays Victor Scrimshaw, a man with a criminal past and no principles: he’s only in it for the money. His scientist Dr. Canker is played by Fiona Lewis and their one-handed hit man Mr. Igoe is played by Vernon Wells (who played the villain in Commando), complete with swappable hand accessories. There are a couple of unnamed henchmen who get a couple of funny moments and I haven’t even gotten to the weirdest character yet: a Middle-Eastern terrorist who deals in stolen technology yet loves American culture. He’s known as The Cowboy and is played by Dante regular Robert Picardo. There are also cameo appearances from Kathleen Freeman, Kenneth Tobey, Chuck Jones, Short’s SCTV cohorts Andrea Martin and Joe Flaherty, and Dante perennial Dick Miller.

Scrimshaw needs to get the microchips to The Cowboy so he can sell them overseas. They have photos of Jack and a hitman almost kills him in his apartment. To say Jack is timid would be an understatement but Tuck manages to help build his self-esteem as the film moves along. They make it to the lab where Niles and Pete mention that Tuck only has a limited supply of air. When Pete asks why Tuck couldn’t take the pod down to Jack’s lungs, Niles reminds him that the change in pressure would cause the pod to explode. Their only opinion is to get the chip back. Tuck tells Jack to meet with Lydia. She believes Jack, who’s been ordered by Tuck not to tell her the whole truth. (Things are complicated between the two.) Lydia already has Scrimshaw and The Cowboy on her radar and they follow The Cowboy to a dance club he likes to frequent on his trips to the U.S. Lydia decides to go with The Cowboy back to his hotel room and Jack is to follow. Once there, Jack knocks out The Cowboy and ties him up.

Now here comes the weird(er) part. Tuck is able to alter Jack’s facial nerves, in essence, restructure his face to look like that of The Cowboy’s. What makes this scene work is simple: Tuck puts on reading glasses and looks at an instructional manual – little touches which make the science and technology much more plausible. For the next scene in which he needs to convince Lydia, Jack is played by Robert Picardo with Martin Short dubbing the voice. When they meet with Scrimshaw and Canker, it’s still Picardo but with his own voice, doing a bad Martin Short impression doing a bad Cowboy impression. Scrimshaw shows them the chip but, suspicious of his real identity, Igoe threatens him with his blowtorch hand. This wreaks havoc on Jack’s nervous system and, in a show-stopping display of animatronic effects, his face reconstitutes itself.

They decide to inject Igoe into Jack so he can get the chip out of Tuck’s pod, a process that will most likely kill them both. Lydia overpowers the group with a fallen henchman’s gun and orders everyone into the miniaturizer. (The bad guys’ tech is much more advanced than the good guys’ tech.) Jack and Lydia escape with the chip but not before Igoe is injected into Jack. Scrimshaw and Canker are miniaturized as well, but only by half. After a bizarre car ride in which a pint-sized Scrimshaw tries to get the upper hand, they make it back to Vectorscope. Tuck kills Igoe by dropping his pod in Jack’s stomach acid and Jack manages to sneeze Tuck out onto Niles’ glasses. The scientists re-enlarge Tuck and everyone lives happily ever after. The film ends at Tuck and Lydia’s wedding. Jack now has a much healthier self-image and he’s no longer in need of his doctor’s services. He quits his job and, after seeing that the newlyweds’ limo is driven by The Cowboy, he takes off: “Jack Putter to the rescue!” Sadly, this open ending never led to a sequel.

Wow, what a movie! Despite all the bells and whistles, there’s a genuine heartfelt story here. Tuck is a drunk and he screws up the one night he spends with Lydia at the beginning of the film. At one point, Jack and Lydia kiss and Tuck is thrown into Lydia’s body where he comes face to face with his future child. Jack becomes a better person by virtue of being forced out of his comfort zone and Tuck realizes what he has in front of him as he sees Jack interact with Lydia. We also have a supporting cast of veteran character actors, all of whom have at least one memorable moment. The technical aspects of the film are top-notch. ILM’s Dennis Muren won his fifth Oscar for producing visual effects so realistic that Roger Ebert thought they had put a miniature camera inside Martin Short. Jerry Goldsmith’s score combines elements of romance, sci-fi, Americana, and every time The Cowboy shows up, we get a comical twang.

I’m thankful that I grew up in the late 80s and early 90s. It might be my rose-tinted glasses but I’m beginning to believe that movies were simply more fun back then. I realize many people blame Lucas and Spielberg for the commercialization of movies but even 25 years ago, it wasn’t as bad as it is today, where your film won’t get made if the marketing flunkies can’t picture the poster in five seconds… and if you can’t sell it to China? Forget it! While Joe Dante was never an A-lister, Spielberg is still cranking out hit after hit, but would you rather watch Transformers and Cowboys & Aliens, or Gremlins and Back to the Future? At some point, he went corporate and all of his productions today come across as pre-packaged concepts that play it safe. With the movies in the 70s and 80s, there was a certain “devil may care” attitude on display. Also, filmmakers didn't see the need to put kid sidekicks in a lot of their films. The thinking today is, “Kids need someone in the film they identify with.” Bullshit. When kids saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, they wanted to be Indiana Jones! They didn't need an on-screen surrogate! And as I mentioned in my last review, political correctness hasn’t done film any favors. Even leprosy patients have their own lobby now!

Two quick items. . . there’s a scene a third of the way through the film which doesn’t move the plot, but it’s a nice relationship scene where Jack and Tuck get to know each other. Tuck wants a drink, which means Jack needs to drink. He downs a bottle of Southern Comfort, gets drunk, and dances around Tuck’s apartment to Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away,” as only Martin Short can. (There may or may not be a home movie of my brother and I re-enacting this scene!) And sadly, co-writer Jeffrey Boam passed away in 2000 at the young age of 53. Here are some of his other credits: The Lost Boys, Lethal Weapon 2 and 3, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. I always wondered what he could do with a Star Trek film but let’s face it: today, he’d be working in television!

P.S. I know I've been on an 80s kick lately but for my next review, we're off to the 90s!

“When things are at their darkest, pal. . . it's a brave man who can kick back and party.”

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Politics of Trek: “This Side of Paradise”

Some claim Star Trek presents a communist utopian view of the world. That is true of the Next Generation, where they pretend to have fundamentally changed human nature to the point of eliminating greed, jealousy, and the other human vices. But it’s certainly not true of the original series. To the contrary, Episode 24: “This Side of Paradise” is a fundamental repudiation of the idea of the communist utopia.
The Plot
As our episode begins, the Enterprise makes orbit around Omicron Ceti Three. They are on a grim mission: to collect the remains of a 150 federation colonists who built a colony here before they realized the planet was exposed to Berthold rays, a newly-discovered deadly form of radiation which destroys living tissue. But as the crew beams down, they discover that the colonists are very much alive. The colonists have been given immunity from the radiation by spores from a seemingly harmless flower. The spores also give anyone they infect perfect health and happiness. But in exchange, people lose their own ambitions and become part of the collective community. Soon, the Enterprise crew is infected and Kirk must save them from paradise.
Why It’s Conservative
There are several ways you can look at this episode. The most obvious would be as a repudiation of hippy drug culture. The hippies saw hallucinogenic drugs as a way to escape reality and find utopia. This episode rejects that. Spock even refers to the spores as “a happy pill.” But there’s something more interesting going on in this episode.

This episode makes a fundamental point about human nature, and in the process, it rejects communism. To understand this, let’s examine the choice Kirk faces. The spores promise absolute health and a leisurely life where all of Kirk’s needs will be met. They even promise a deep sense of happiness. That sounds pretty good. But there’s a catch. The spores cause you to lose your own personal ambition and become part of the collective. Indeed, when Spock becomes infected, his new girlfriend Leila says, “Now, you belong to all of us and we to you.” This is collectivist dogma, the elimination of private property and the idea that the individual exists only as part of the collective. And later on, colonist leader Elias Sandoval tells McCoy that he’s been “thinking about what sort of work I could assign you to.” Notice that McCoy is not being offered a choice, he will do what the collective deems best. Again, this is a command economy.

Kirk rejects this paradise for the world he knows, a world where people must earn what they desire. His world cannot guarantee happiness or remove sadness, as the spores can, but Kirk believes it offers the one thing human nature requires: ambition (translation: individual achievement). Here’s the key dialog explaining this choice, as Sandoval and an infected Mr. Spock try to sell Kirk on the idea of joining them:
SANDOVAL: In return, [the spores] give you complete health and peace of mind.
KIRK: That’s paradise?
SANDOVAL: We have no need or want, Captain.
SPOCK: It's a true Eden, Jim. There's belonging and love.
KIRK: No wants. No needs. We weren't meant for that. None of us. Man stagnates if he has no ambition, no desire to be more than he is.
SANDOVAL: We have what we need.
KIRK: Except a challenge.
Notice that the spores promise the humans will no longer have needs or wants, and they promise a sense of belonging, love and contentment -- all things humans claim to want. But Kirk rejects this, claiming that “we weren’t meant for that.” In other words, that’s not real paradise. Why not? Because “man stagnates if he has no ambition.” This is the truly inspired point. Kirk is getting to the heart of human nature and the meaning of life: man has wants and desires because he is meant to strive to achieve those, he is not meant to merely exist. In fact, Kirk will go further at the end of the episode and actually reject the idea of paradise itself:
MCCOY: Well, that’s the second time man’s been thrown out of paradise.
KIRK: No, no, Bones. This time we walked out on our own. Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through. Struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can't stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.
Kirk believes that humans can only achieve true happiness by striving to overcome challenges. It is in the struggle itself where humans find happiness. This is the conservative understanding of human nature and it’s similar to the Ancient Greek view that you cannot pursue happiness directly, but can only find happiness as a by-product of some other pursuit. This is the opposite of the liberal view. Liberals believe the struggle to satisfy wants generates unhappiness, and they believe that if you could give people everything they need, then they will be happy.

Now consider this in economic terms. Kirk advocates a world where people work to achieve their individual desires (“ambition”) rather than just satisfying the needs of the collective. That’s capitalism. And in his mind, a world where people only satisfy their needs and then turn to leisure is not a paradise but is instead a dystopia where the human spirit stagnates. But that’s exactly what the spores are offering. The Sandoval/spore position is the people will be satisfied once their basic needs are met and they can turn to leisure. This is Marxism: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Marxism does not recognize wants because those are considered consumerist and generate unhappiness because they inspire disparity. Even non-Marxist liberals actively disdain individual wants and try to stifle attempts to satisfy those wants through high taxation of success and regulation to bar things of which the collective does not approve.

Kirk rejects this communist paradise in favor of capitalism. And he does so not because he thinks communism won’t work -- it absolutely will work in this unique case as has been shown by Sandoval’s group -- he rejects it because he believes it is fundamentally at odds with the human spirit. In other words, Kirk believe capitalism is necessary for the human spirit to find happiness. That’s a ringing endorsement.

Naturally, the show agrees with Kirk. Once the colonists are freed of the spores’ influence and can make up their own minds, they immediately realize that their drug-induced happiness was fake, i.e. that the human spirit needs more than an illusion of contentment. Says Elias with a great deal of dismay: “We've done nothing here. No accomplishments, no progress. Three years wasted. We wanted to make this planet a garden.”

And therein lies the conservative message, that the socialist/anti-consumerist doctrine of fulfilling needs and then living in leisure may seem appealing at first glance, but it is destructive to the human spirit. Man is not meant for a world in which he only works to satisfy his needs and not his wants. Man must strive to fulfill his individual dreams.

Finally, it should be noted that this episode is Brave New World distilled down. In Brave New World, a world government controls people by offering them so much pleasure that they abandon their personal ambitions and become satisfied with what they are given. In exchange, the government gets to continue its existence. That is what the seeds are doing here. These seeds can only live inside a human host and they are offering happiness in exchange for their existence, but the cost is a fundamental loss of humanity. Kirk, like Huxley, grasps that a gilded cage is still a prison because it destroys the human spirit. Liberal don’t get that.

Indeed, one of the more disturbing moments in the Next Generation series involves every time questions come up like what humans do now that they no longer need money, i.e. now that all their needs are met. Picard and crew always mumble something about “self-improvement.” But they define this narrowly as essentially having “the freedom” to pursue hobbies. They live in Huxley’s Brave New World and they don’t even realize it. It’s no wonder they ALL keep volunteering for suicide missions.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 31

If Hollywood were real life, there would only be three professions: cops, doctors and lawyers. And what a sad world it would be.

What other occupation would you like you see more of on film?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Recognizing insurance men won't fly, I'll go with firefighters.

Panelist: ScottDS

It might sound corny, especially coming from someone with a retail / clerical / film background, but I'd like to see more blue-collar jobs on film. Just today, I was watching an episode of Modern Marvels and they were talking about how olive loaf is made. When was the last time you saw a movie where the lead character did anything like that? (Okay, maybe not that!)

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I guess "pirate" isn't a genuine profession, so I'm going with teachers... or stockbrokers. Tomato... tomaHto.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Bloggers! There needs to be a “blogger” comedy on television!

Panelist: T-Rav

Truth be told, I don't have a huge problem with the over-representation of those occupations. The studios do have to pick (supposedly) action-packed jobs to keep audiences interested, and those are easier than others. To go along similar lines, though, there haven't been a lot of good movies featuring firefighters in recent years (Ladder 49 being a notable exception), and we could use more of those.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Film Friday: Green Lantern (2011)

This may surprise you, but I did not hate this film. Don’t get me wrong, Green Lantern is an awful film: generic pointless plot, bad acting, bad effects. . . but somehow, I didn’t hate it. And in today’s Hollywood, that’s a pretty big victory.

** spoiler alert **

Based on the comic book series of the same name, Green Lantern is the origin story of the Green Lantern. . . shocker, right? In this version, Hal Jordan is an irresponsible slacker who just happens to be a supposedly great test pilot who can’t show up on time, can’t follow instructions, uses his wingman as bait, and crashes multi-billion dollar jets because he freezes up whenever he thinks of how his father died as a test pilot. Yeah, right. As Hal waits for the movie to start, a big purple alien crashes on the planet. . . we’ll call him Barney. Barney is a member of the Green Lantern Corps, a group of galactic do-gooders who possess rings which tap into the “willpower” energy generated by all living things. They use this power to conjure stuff to fight bad guys. Coincidentally, if you ever find yourself unable to summon the willpower to resist a donut or cookie, this is why. . . they’re stealing your willpower. . . like a neighbor running an extension cord to your house.

One thing leads to another and Hal is transported to the homeworld of the Green Lantern Corps, which is called CGIbluescreenica. There he meets Barney’s cousin Sinestro, some midgets, and the aliens from the Star Wars Cantina. Meanwhile, some blobby thing attacks the Earth because that’s what the plot calls for. Hilarity ensues.
Problems, Problems, Problems
Oh where to begin. The acting. I like Ryan Reynolds, though this was not a strong performance. He had no real screen presence and didn’t seem to know if he’s supposed to be the bad boy, the misunderstood hero, or Butthead. . . or is it Beavis? Blake Lively, uh, well, she was miscast because they asked her to speak.

The characters. Even beyond the bad acting, the characters just didn’t make sense. No one as irresponsible as slacker-boy Hal will ever be made a test pilot. It just isn’t done. He never would have made it through the military to become a pilot and no one would have hired him. And they certainly aren’t going to hand him an expensive plane. Lively’s character Sweetcheeks doesn’t make sense either because she’s a little too Buckaroo-Banzai-like: hot chick who provides Hal’s conscience, who just happens to be a top fighter pilot and an incredible businesswoman who somehow saves the company from Hal’s mistake, and is a villain magnet. This was too much to pack into one character and Lively certainly wasn’t up to the task of carrying it off. And most of the other Green Lanterns were CGI-thin and their training program was incompetent to say the least -- ten minutes of hazing followed by the head guy whining that your SATs aren’t high enough.

The effects. I was expecting cool effects, but it was not to be. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen in made- for Sci-Fi Channel films. And CGIbluescreenica (the Green Lantern Homeworld) frankly sucked. In fact, this was less impressive than things I’d seen in videogames five years ago.

The plot. That’s funny, they’re dusting plot where there ain’t no plot. Let’s just say they photocopied well from every other origin story.

The writing. There was dialog, but none of it stuck with me. To paraphrase a quote about Praxis, “while I can confirm the location of the dialog, I cannot confirm the existence of the dialog.”

So basically, what you have is a story that is entirely a regurgitated version of every other origin story: hero discovers his power as does villain, hero has to decide if he wants to be a hero, bad guy attacks Earth and kidnaps hero’s girlfriend, they fight and then set up a sequel. The acting was atrocious, the characters unbelievable, the effects dull, there was nothing memorable at all.

Yet. . . I didn’t hate it.

What makes this movie work is that it isn’t actually an effects film in the modern sense. Yes, every single scene relies on effects. His powers are all about effects. The villain is a giant effect. Even the Lantern’s very cool suit is an effect. But they are small effects and the scenes aren’t there to show off the effects. To the contrary, most of the scenes involve real people talking to each other or punching each other or chasing each other. Even the big fight scenes don’t involve lots of CGI things duking it out. To the contrary, all the fights are basically one on one and the “effects” largely involve people getting shoved into walls or dropped from heights. Punches are thrown. There’s very little wire-fighting. All of this gives the film a human touch which many of the modern Superhero films are missing. Even when he’s fighting in space, it feels human.

Mark Strong also does an excellent job of making Sinestro a real person. And I have to credit Reynolds with bringing a genuineness to his character Hal. While Reynolds seems confused about the nature of Hal’s character, this oddly works to his benefit by resulting in a rather believable portrayal because he’s not an archetype like most film superheroes -- he’s not obsessed like the Dark Knight or perfect like early Superman or a conflicted metrosexual like more recent Superman. He’s not angry, hopeless, torn, complicated or anything else. He’s just a guy. And that makes him rather unique and easy to relate to -- though I wish they had dropped the idea that he’s irresponsible, which doesn’t make sense and which wasn’t necessary for the story.

The director also does an excellent job of pacing the film. The scenes don’t drag. The story moves effortlessly between a variety of scenes. There is nothing in the story which feels gratuitous. And there aren’t forty-minute effects scenes or fight scenes meant to numb your brain so you can’t tell your friends how bad the film was. Don’t get me wrong, the director stunk, but he didn’t turn the film over to CGI-autopilot.

So what you have here is a story that is objectively awful, but by comparison to what is out there and what our expectations have become is actually rather decent. It’s hardly great cinema nor is it something you’ll remember after watching, but it’s a fun way to kill a couple hours. As I said, I did not hate this film.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Scott's Links March 2012

Scott roams the internet far and wide. Because of this, he supplies interesting links to Big Hollywood every day. I've asked Scott to give us a list of the best links he finds each month and a quick synopsis of what's behind each one. Check these out. . . share your thoughts! And away we go. . .

How Parks and Recreation manages to avoid partisan rancor

I enjoy Parks and Recreation very much and it's nice to see the creators intend on keeping it bipartisan, or rather, not very partisan at all. Oh, I almost forgot: Ron Swanson. [smile]

A real Navy SEAL rates the authenticity of 10 Navy SEAL movies

Military life is something Hollywood gets wrong for one reason or another, however some movies are more accurate than others. By the way, I haven't seen Act of Valor yet but I'm looking forward to Netflixing it.

15 minutes of Star Trek: TNG's Lt. Worf getting shot down by everyone

Watching this hilarious montage, it's amazing the writers did anything with Lt. Worf considering how many times he would make a suggestion only to have Picard immediately reject it.

Why world leaders call on celebrities to do their dirty work

I don't get on the celebrity/politics bandwagon but this is an interesting look at the thought process that determines why Jeff Spicoli makes a good spokesman for your cause. (Well, not your cause. . . someone else's!)

A guy rewrites The Phantom Menace so it makes sense

Deconstructing the flaws of the Star Wars prequel trilogy seems to have taken on a life of its own. This guy explains what he would've done and while I'm not familiar with every nook and cranny of the SW universe, he seems to have some good ideas.

Wanderlust and the rise of the counter-countercultural comedy

This movie seems to have disappeared from theaters already, however I can safely say my generation doesn't give the slightest s--- about hippies or the hippie movement. I can appreciate the history (and the music) but, come on, they're fair game, man!

"Homer at the Bat": the making of a classic Simpsons episode

I can't believe it's been 20 years since this episode aired. I honestly don't remember when I started watching The Simpsons - some time in 1993 or 1994 - but I enjoy watching this one on DVD. "Mattingly, get rid of those sideburns!!"

Hollywood's obsession with Mars

I truly believe the definitive Mars film has yet to be made. I wish James Cameron would direct it, instead of going back to the bioluminescent well with Avatar sequels. I haven't seen John Carter (neither did most of America) but I believe it deserves better.

As Lethal Weapon turns 25, we ask, is Richard Donner underrated?

The Omen. Superman. The Goonies. Lethal Weapon and its sequels. So why isn't Richard Donner a household name like Spielberg? Perhaps it has to do with his style, which is really no style at all. Or should I say, it's not "obvious."

10 cancelled sci-fi shows Netflix should bring back before Terra Nova

As of this writing, Netflix is in negotiations to pick up the cancelled Fox series Terra Nova. The writer of this article thinks Netflix should focus on some other shows, including a certain beloved space western. [smile]

Last night's listening:

I downloaded Michael Giacchino's score for John Carter. I don't have much to say about it since I haven't seen the film, but I'm enjoying it! Some romance, some action, and some sweeping Lawrence of Arabia-style cues, which are always appreciated. And per usual, many of Giacchino's track titles are pretty funny, in a corny kind of way.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 7

We all love a good mystery and Star Trek: TNG has done several over the years.

Question From Andrew: "What are your five favorite TNG mysteries?"

Scott’s Answer: Repeated viewings have obviously lessened the initial impact but I still enjoy watching these plots slowly unfold. We begin with the aptly-titled. . .

"Clues" - The crew encounters a Spatial Anomaly (TM) and is rendered unconscious, except for Data who revives everyone. As Picard and his officers attempt to solve the mystery, it becomes disturbingly obvious that Data is not telling the truth about what happened. It turns out the crew had encountered a xenophobic race called the Paxans and the crew's memories of them were erased, however the Paxans had never before encountered an android. Picard asks them for a second chance and this time the crew does a better job of hiding the clues that had been left behind. The cast and crew do a great job of creating a mysterious atmosphere and a sense of foreboding about Data's motives, which turn out to be completely benign.

"Schisms" - Riker is having trouble sleeping, Worf reacts strongly to a sharp object, Geordi's VISOR is malfunctioning, and various crewmembers are missing. The crew investigates and determines that an alien race is creating a pocket of our universe within their own subspace domain, which allows them to perform medical experiments on victims taken from the ship. Riker is fitted with a homing device and sent into the domain to retrieve the missing crewmembers. This episode delves into the world of alien abductions and features a great scene in which Riker and Co. re-create their strange visions on the holodeck. We also get treated to some of writer Brannon Braga's best work: Data's "Ode to Spot."

"Ship in a Bottle" - In a popular second season episode, Data activated his Sherlock Holmes holodeck program and matched wits with Professor Moriarty who became self-aware. Well, Moriarty is back, requesting that Picard grant him the freedom he was promised in the previous episode. While the crew investigates, Moriarty miraculously walks off the holodeck and later takes command of the ship. In a wonderful twist, Data determines that he and Picard never left the holodeck - Moriarty had created his own Enterprise simulation within it. He eventually allows Picard and Data to leave (after being fooled into thinking he's in the real world thanks to Data's reprogramming) and Data saves the Moriarty program so it will run forever. This might be the Inception of Star Trek episodes. [smile]

"Parallels" Worf is on his way back to the Enterprise after winning a bat'leth tournament but, after he arrives, strange things begin to happen: a painting in his quarters changes, people suddenly shift their positions, and he remembers things that no one else does. The facts are these: Worf's shuttlecraft passed through a Quantum Fissure (TM), which Data describes as a "keyhole" which intersects other realities, and Geordi's VISOR amplified the effect. Worf has been shuffling between different realities (parallel worlds). This might be the best episode of the otherwise okay seventh season. It's neat to see all the subtle changes that occur as Worf goes from one world to another and the climax features several hundred (!) Enterprises converging in one spot as Worf attempts to shuttle back to his own universe. I believe this episode was the start of the Worf/Troi romance subplot. (Don't worry, it didn't take.)

"Genesis" - Dr. Crusher actives a dormant T-cell in Lt. Barclay (popular guest star Dwight Schultz) which will help him combat an alien flu. The crew soon begins to de-evolve and Data must race against time to synthesize an antidote. It turns out the T-cell is responsible for the mutations - it interacted with an anomaly in Barclay's genetic structure and the resulting disease went airborne. This horror show should've been a two-parter - the story resolves itself in literally the last two minutes, but I enjoy the hell out if it! The make-up effects are excellent: Riker turns into an Australopithecus, Barclay into an arachnid, etc. Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher) made her TV directing debut with this episode and she is quite adept at creating a haunted house atmosphere.

Andrew’s Response: Those are all good episodes, though I found the Spot poem cloying. I would add "Future Imperfect", where Riker wakes up as Captain of the Enterprise. He’s lost 16 years of memory and has a son, but things aren’t quite what they seem and he has to solve what’s really going on.

Scott's Reply: I thought about "Future Imperfect" though, for some reason, I find that episode frustrating. SPOILERS: I think the difference is, unlike the other episodes where some spatial/medical/holodeck anomaly is at fault and the crew actively tries to solve the problem, this episode is just one big ruse and it's frustrating to watch Riker portrayed as a victim of circumstance.

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 30

Nothing defines a character more than the kind of car they drive. Cars is cool!

What is the coolest car on film?

Panelist: T-Rav

The Thunderbird in Grease. Seeing that and the people around it just screams "quintessential '50s" to me; and let's face it, the '50s were awesome. I think it did as much to make that movie what it was as John Travolta did.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Intellectually, I guess Bond's Aston Martin from Goldfinger which I once saw in person along with the Black Watch {think about that for a minute :) }Still, the very first car that came to mind was Steve McQueen's Mustang from Bullitt.

Panelist: ScottDS

The Bluesmobile, as seen in The Blues Brothers. It was actually a 1974 Dodge Monaco. We never find out how the car gets its "magical powers" but the extended version of the film includes a scene where Elwood parks it in an electrical substation underneath the L train. It was Dan Aykroyd's idea that the car would absorb the electrical energy but when the film was running long, director John Landis cut this scene, knowing the audience wouldn't quite understand (nor would they need to). "Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration, don't fail me now!"

Panelist: AndrewPrice

This is really a very hard question as there are so many. There's the Challenger from Vanishing Point, the DeLorean from Back to the Future, there's Christine. . . the list is endless. But in the end, nothing beats the 1967 black Camaro from Better Off Dead.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Film Friday: After.Life (2009)

I’d never heard of After.Life until the other day. The film bombed in theaters, making only $3.2 million on a $4.5 million budget, and that’s a shame. This is a fascinating movie and is well worth watching. I can’t call it a great film, but it is an interesting film.

After.Life stars Liam Neeson as Eliot Deacon, the owner of a funeral home, and Christina Ricci as Anna, an unhappy school teacher. After a quick intro where we learn that Ricci and her boyfriend Paul Coleman (Justin Long) don’t really get along, Ricci wakes up on Neeson’s embalming table at the funeral home. She’s had an accident and has been pronounced dead. Neeson’s job is to prepare her for burial. But here’s the thing, she’s pretty sure she’s not dead. Neeson assures that she is. He explains that she had a car accident and was pronounced dead by the coroner at the scene. He shows her the death certificate and the wound on her head. She also suffers from periodic paralysis, which Neeson attributes to rigor mortis. But how can Neeson speak to her if she’s dead? He claims he has a gift which lets him speak to dead people.

The big thing this movie has going for it is mood. The whole film is creepy and you never once doubt the possibility that Ricci could be either dead or alive. And best of all, the film achieves this as a genuine psychological thriller, not a modern horror movie. Indeed, it rarely sinks to cheap scares or gross outs.

Neeson gives a strong performance, as I’ll discuss below. Ricci is quite good as well. Long is weak as the boyfriend who can’t shake the idea that Ricci might be alive, but he’s a sideshow. The real heart of this film lies is the question of whether or not Ricci is really alive or dead. And in that regard, this film is thought provoking. Why do we cling to life? Or do we? What would it take to convince us that we are dead? And how would you prove you wanted to live? I would have preferred a little more depth on the answers provided here, but the film certainly raises the questions well.

Beyond that, there’s nothing I can say without giving you a major spoiler warning. This film’s ambiance comes from trying to understand what is really going on and I’m about to tell you, so don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film.

** Spoiler Alert – I recommend seeing this film before continuing. **

Let’s talk about Neeson. Neeson gives a spectacular performance in this film. About three-quarters of the way through the film, it becomes fairly clear that Ricci is in fact alive and that Neeson is some sort of twisted serial killer. What’s interesting about Neeson’s portrayal up to this point, is that you can absolutely believe both scenarios. On the one hand, he comes across as exactly the kind of respectable man who would be a funeral director. He also plays the idea of the “gift” of being able to speak with the dead perfectly and you never doubt that it’s possible he is telling the truth. At the same time, he shows these moments of intense-but-controlled anger, which give you the sense that he could easily build up enough rage to be a killer.

But even more importantly, he gives a genuinely believable motive. I’ve discussed this before, that bad people rarely think of themselves as evil. To the contrary, they think of themselves as justified or even doing something noble, and that’s the case here. Neeson believes that people who don’t value life don’t deserve to have it. And if you listen closely, you will hear Neeson on several occasions offer Ricci a chance to prove she values life by walking out the door to freedom. This is her trial and she is judging herself, only she doesn’t know it.

This is such a strong motive that it both makes the character instantly credible and it helps you understand his methods. He’s not some standard psycho who tortures people because it gives him pleasure. In his mind, he’s executing people who judge themselves unworthy. His fake-death game is the trial. And interestingly, he seems willing to let himself get caught if the person does in fact walk out the door. That is a fascinating motive and it’s highly believable. Not only does this make his insanity “rational,” but it adds the element of risk which serial killers and gamblers view as such a turn-on. Indeed, this feels like a much greater risk than any other movie serial killer has taken because he puts his fate in the hands of his victims.

The writer was also smart to expose this motive slowly. You start to get a sense for it early and with each passing scene it becomes more clear. This makes for a more fascinating film than those where you have a cliché scene where the otherwise-normal killer suddenly rips off their mask and spews their motive in a melodramatic speech because this film lets you discover the motive as you would in real life -- through small hints.

Now, I’ve said this is an interesting film, not a great film. There are several reasons for that. The story itself is great, as is the struggle between Ricci and Neeson, but Long is a rather poor distraction -- he is a standard, irrational “movie” character. But the bigger problem is that while you watch the film, lots of things don’t make sense. In particular, this seems like a rather impossible way for a serial killer to work. He’s basically relying on people to be injured and then for the coroner to mistakenly declare them dead. That’s a hard bit of disbelief to overcome. But here’s the thing, the film actually answers this, it just doesn’t do it clearly enough that most people will realize what is really going on.

When Ricci has her accident, she is actually forced off the road by a white van, not the truck which Neeson tells her killed her. The white van is the same white van Neeson drives at the end of the film when Long has his accident. What is going on is that Neeson picks a target. He causes them to have an accident. Then, because he’s at the scene, he gives them a shot of Hydronium Bromide, which mimics death and fools the coroner. This explains all of the seeming coincidences, like how he gets his victims. It also explains the coincidence of Jack being Neeson’s son and yet being in Ricci’s class and then getting to know Long -- it’s no coincidence at all, he was sent to target both. If the film had given just a little more hint of this, then I think it would have been better received because, as it is, I suspect most people left the film feeling this was all too coincidental to be real.

I also would have liked to see the film explore a bit more into the question of why Ricci wants to live. This started well, but I think the writer didn’t quite have a solid answer other than “because the plot needs it.” So there is a missed opportunity there.

In any event, the interesting take away from this film is Neeson’s character, who is one of the most convincing serial killers in a long time because he truly seems motivated by a twisted sense of righteousness, rather than the usual “just because I’m evil” attitude most serial killers display. And it’s fascinating to watch him toy with fate by offering to let these people leave and then simultaneously letting them judge themselves. It’s an interesting way for him to wash his hands of his dirty deeds.

There is much here to like and to think about. I definitely recommend this film.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Guest Review: License to Drive (1988)

by ScottDS

Corey Haim and Corey Feldman – a.k.a. The Coreys – were, for better or worse, an 80s pop culture juggernaut. They appeared in several films together, most famously 1987’s The Lost Boys, but it’s 1988’s License to Drive from which I will remember them most fondly. The story of a teenager who tries to get his license in order to attain independence and impress a hot girl is a childhood favorite of mine. It’s fun, it’s rebellious, it’s even a little scary at times. . . and I continue to enjoy every second of it.

Les Anderson (Haim) is 16 years old. He has a twin sister (Nina Siemaszko), a younger brother, and two loving parents (Richard Masur and Carol Kane). He has a crush on Mercedes (a young Heather Graham) and can’t wait to get his license so he’ll be able to take her out for a night on the town. Unfortunately, he fails both his exam and his driver’s test but do you think he lets that stop him? Nope. He steals his grandfather’s Cadillac (which is being kept at the house) and with Mercedes, and later his friends Dean (Feldman) and Charles (Michael Manasseri), takes part in a wild comedy of errors, as only a teenager could do in 1980s America.

I’ve loved this movie ever since I first saw it on television as a kid. There are so many little touches that can be appreciated. For starters, Les and his younger brother actually get along – usually younger siblings in movies like this are annoying brats but not here. Masur is, in my opinion, one of the all-time great movie dads. He’s supportive of his son but strict when the situation calls for it. He doesn’t try to act “cool” nor does he needlessly embarrass his son. He’s also not oblivious, which is one of my pet peeves when it comes to movie/TV parents. Kane is probably remembered for playing Les’ mom thanks to a dinner scene where she scoops a comically-oversized portion of mashed potatoes onto her plate and douses it with ketchup (she’s pregnant, hence the weird diet). Siemaszko plays Les’ twin sister Natalie: an intellectual who’s dating a Communist (Karl, naturally, played by Grant Heslov). This is played for laughs and we see the inevitable results of their relationship when she finds herself participating in a protest which quickly escalates into a riot.

When I mention the film is a little scary at times, I don’t mean in a traditional sense. I would watch it as a 10-year old and think to myself, “Oh, man. I’m gonna have to take a driver’s test one day!” The test sequence is a highlight of the film. Stage actress Helen Hanft plays the instructor – the aptly-named Ms. Hellberg – with an evil grin and garish make-up (the wide angle lens helps, too). We see Les at his computer terminal where he gets nearly every question wrong. Thankfully, he’s off the hook due to a sudden power surge that erases his grade. He’s allowed to take the driving test where his instructor is played with maniacal glee by James Avery (best known as Uncle Phil on The Fresh Prince). Avery’s unnamed character doesn’t use a clipboard or a checklist – he uses a cup of coffee, filled to the brim. If any coffee spills on him, Les fails. Thankfully, Les manages to make it back to the parking lot without scalding his instructor. Unfortunately, in the time he’s been gone, his grades have been retrieved and his license is torn up.

So what’s Les to do? He has a date with Mercedes, who only decided to go out with him in order to make her (much older) Eurotrash boyfriend jealous. He gives her a call and she asks him to pick her up later that night. From this point on, the film becomes a classic comedy of errors and we’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. Les manages to sneak the Cadillac out of the garage, where it plows through some bushes. He picks up Mercedes, who spots her boyfriend at a club with another woman. The Cadillac is towed away and Les gives the tow-truck driver all his money in order to release the car. Broke and embarrassed, he takes a sympathetic Mercedes to a hill overlooking the city, where she gets drunk, and insists they dance on the hood of the car. Les had brought along a mix tape (remember those?!) but the tape player eats it up so he uses one of his grandfather’s Sinatra tapes to great effect. (This film may have been my first exposure to The Chairman of the Board.) Mercedes prematurely ends their make-out session when she passes out, a condition in which she’ll remain for most of the film.

Les takes the car back to Dean’s house where he fixes up the hood (by bashing the underside of it with a hammer). Charles takes a photo of Les and his new “license” (his school ID) and Dean wants Les to take them to a drive-in burger joint called Archie’s. They have an unfortunate run-in with some tough guys (straight out of every other 80s teen flick) and make a break for it. They put Mercedes in the trunk and end up driving though the aforementioned riot where Les’ sister recognizes him. Eventually, they’re pulled over at a DUI checkpoint where Les is forced to admit he doesn’t have a license. In a wonderful use of deux ex machina, the cops are called away to the riot and all seems well, until a stumbling drunk who had been pulled over takes the Cadillac, mistaking it for his own car. The three guys (with Mercedes), in turn, steal the drunk’s car. They eventually catch up with him and Les crawls out one window and through the other and manages to hit the breaks just before the road ends.

I doubt the scenes with the drunk would make it into a film today. Political correctness has robbed audiences of that familiar character archetype: “the lovable drunk.” The man drinks while driving, even cutting up lime wedges on the dashboard, all while the Sinatra tape plays “That’s Life.” What redeems this whole sequence is Dean, who throws the man’s keys away because, after all, “friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” Eventually, the sun comes up and Les drops off Charles and Dean. He carries Mercedes to her door. She thanks him for a nice night and apologizes for being drunk. She can barely remember anything that happened; only that it was like a bizarre dream. Les promises to tell her how it ends, if he survives.

Throughout the night, the film cuts to Les’ parents. Les’ mom is approaching her due date and without the Cadillac, they have no way to get to the hospital. (A friend of mine ruined this for me when he asked, “Why couldn’t they just call 911?”) At one point, Les’ dad goes to the garage but Les had taken out the light bulb and Dad is called away before he can finally see that the car is missing. Les returns the car in the morning and, in one of my favorite movie monologues, Dad just whales on him: “We had a college fund set aside for you! That’s gone now! You had free room and board, two trusting parents, and a social life. All gone! You had a TV, a stereo, a baseball, a tennis racket, a skateboard, a bicycle – all gone! You even had sunlight and a window in your room!”

Mom goes into labor and wants Dad to ride in the back with her. Begrudgingly, Dad tells Les to drive them to the hospital. The gear shift gets stuck in reverse so Les is forced to drive backwards. He even has a run-in with his driving instructor who can’t believe what he sees and spills his coffee. They make it to the hospital and Dad tells Les he’s proud of him and that they can get the car fixed, until a nearby construction crane malfunctions and drops an I-beam on it! Fade to black and pick up a couple weeks later: Les’ mom has given birth to twins and Grandpa shows up. He sees the remains of the Cadillac and laughs. A tow truck shows up with the remains of Dad’s BMW: “I had a little trouble with your car, too!” Dad gives Les his keys: “You always said you wanted a BMW.” Les, of course, prefers a Mercedes, who drives up at that moment. Les gets behind the wheel and they drive off into the sunset.

While the film is not meant to be taken too seriously, we still sympathize with the characters. Yes, some of the events are over the top but everyone is relatable and we can all remember our first driving experience and our first high school crush. While recounting all of the ways Les’ big night is screwed up, I kept saying “Naturally,” to myself. The script isn’t exactly high art but it’s a good example of setting up a basic plot and exploiting the hell out of it. Also, unlike many 80s films, it isn’t too dated. Sure, some of the clothes and hairstyles may elicit a reaction but I believe any teenager could watch the film today and feel right at home. This is also one 80s film where computers and cell phones aren’t missed – at no point are the characters desperate to call someone or look up information!

As an aside, the Commie boyfriend Karl hates cars, believing them to be tools of Capitalist oppression. Dean, on the other hand, gives Les a speech about the importance of a license and the freedom it represents (underscored with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). I must admit, even though I’m a bit of a public transit geek – I find the NYC subway system fascinating – when I was living up north, I sometimes longed for a car. “Who would’ve thought a Mercedes could fit in the trunk of a Cadillac?”

Rest in peace, Corey Haim.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 6

Did I say that even at their worst, Star Trek films are still worth watching and they have a lot of good things going for them. I probably overstated that.

Question From Scott: “You ranked Star Trek: Insurrection as your least favorite Trek film. Give me five good things about it.”

Andrew’s Answer: Arg. Everything was wrong with this movie from stunning plot holes to just senseless action sequences to the inexplicable conduct. Finding five good things may be impossible. But I’m up for the challenge.

1. I like the casting with a caveat. F. Murray Abraham is always a great villain. Anthony Zerbe should have made a good Admiral. And Donna Murphy could have made an excellent romantic counterpart for Capt. Picard. But there’s a caveat -- they were all wasted by horrible, horrible writing.

2. I like that they filmed part of this outside. The Next Gen always felt too stage-bound to me in that they rarely went to planets and, when they did, they rarely ended up outside in natural light and with cool scenery. This film has some great scenery.

3. I like the huskier design of the Enterprise itself, though I don’t care for the inside and I really dislike the bridge which looks setup for a rock band with competing synthesizer players.

4. I do like the scene where Picard feels younger, as evidenced by his dancing briefly. It’s about time one of the Star Trek films was about the joy of life rather than the agony of feeling old and winding down their lives.

5. I like F. Murray Abraham’s couch instead of a captain’s chair. It’s hard to imagine that in a vast universe everyone is going to buy their chairs and desks from the same Federation Generic Plastic Works. I felt this made the culture seem more real. . . provided you ignore everything else about them.

Ow my brain.

Scott’s Response: I completely agree with you on #1. The supporting cast is way too good to be starring in a second rate Star Trek film like this one.

On your second point, while it is nice to see the crew outside, the Ba'ku village simply looks like a slightly larger version of every stage-bound alien village set we saw in the series: a central building, a few support structures, and a garden. Big freaking deal. Sadly, all the location shooting caused the budget to skyrocket which meant they couldn't outfit the Ba'ku actors with alien prosthetics - it would've been fiscally and logistically impossible, which is why they all look like us. Mr. Plinkett talks about this in his Avatar review - the tendency of an audience to side with the more attractive people in a conflict.

Yeah, the Enterprise looks very good. I have no problem with the bridge, however I do have a problem with the fact that, despite being a big movie with a budget, they still had to redress most of the sets: the crew quarters, sickbay, and the library were all recycled Voyager sets. This film also introduced new dress uniforms... white tunics which make the crew look like waiters!

Oddly, I've never had a problem with Picard dancing to the mambo music. So many fans hate that scene but it's only ten seconds long! Sadly, for all of the other instances of the crew getting younger, they resorted to cheap zit and boob jokes. Yikes. On the other hand, the scene where Geordi sees the sunrise for the first time with his real eyes is nice, if a bit implausible. (Would his eyes really grow back? What happens to his occular implants?)

Ah, the couch. I can tell you're grasping at straws with this one but I'll buy it! Interestingly, one of the original designs for the Enterprise-D bridge on TNG had no captain's chair - it featured a conference table instead.

Andrew’s Reply: Yeah, the waiter outfits are horrible. You would think somebody would have realized that and scrapped them. The village is rather generic and doesn't look particularly lived-in, but then, their culture is phony as well. Plinkett does a great job taking this film apart (NSFW LINK). A conference table instead of a captain's chair? Good grief.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 29

Science fiction is about dreaming big and looking to a better tomorrow, but it's not often very realistic.

What film do you think gives the best representation of the future?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

I guess I'd have to go with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We finally have extra-terrestrials visit . . . and they are friendly! Certainly, as a franchise, Star Trek is very positive, but more so in the television shows than in the films, I think.

Panelist: ScottDS

If we're talking about technology and other "cool" stuff, then I would have to say Minority Report. Spielberg and his team really did their research even though some of it still seems a little far-fetched. On the other hand, if we're talking about culture, then I would have to say Star Trek, minus some of Gene Roddenberry's more ridiculous ideas. Humans are out exploring the universe and, while some of our neighbors haven't quite learned to behave, Earth is more or less a paradise. Who wouldn't want to live in a world free of poverty, war, and disease? (Of course, they never tell us exactly how we arrived at that point; only that it took another world war to get there.)

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I'm going with the world of Outland and Alien, which are very similar. I think these films show what the "near-future" will be like, where space is industrial rather than poetic because that's what is likely to happen long before we end up with Earth-like off-world colonies.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Any of the Star Trek-related movies or television shows. Gene Roddenberry came pretty close to what our world is becoming. When anyone says that Steve Jobs invented the Ipad, they are wrong. It was Gene Roddenberry or at least he invented idea.

Panelist: T-Rav

Maybe it's my natural pessimism showing, but I tend toward Blade Runner more than anything else. Modern society seems hell-bent on dystopia more often than not, and the portrayal of a run-down, decaying civilization in Ridley Scott's film seems to me like a preview of where we're headed with our current leaders and attitudes--a former Soviet republic writ large. Not to mention that at the rate we're making increasingly sophisticated robots, Replicants may make an appearance sooner rather than later.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, March 9, 2012

Guest Review(s): The Latest from ElfFlix

By the Boiler Room Elves

Along with the majority of people on the planet, the Boiler Room Elves have been on the verge of cancelling their ElfFlix subscription. Before doing so, however, we decided to nestle in for three nights and get our money’s worth.

The first evening, naturally, we watched Gnomeo & Juliet. There’s nothing quite like watching the great gnome actors at work. Truly, they are masters of the craft. But we digress. We are happy to report that Gnomeo & Juliet was light-hearted entertaining fare. (We’d warn you about spoilers, but we’re guessing that you, too, can assume that no modern children’s cartoon is going to end the with 6 corpses littering the celluloid. There is one death, in a duel, but, it’s really kind of funny.) Gnomeo generally follows the classic tale of star-crossed lovers from different gardens. And although it takes some liberties with the plot line, the elements of Shakespeare are all there. In fact, if you know your Bard, keep your eyes peeled for plenty of enjoyable hidden references.

One of the major plusses for Gnomeo, particularly in light of it being a modern children’s tale, is that it did not fall into the trap of including heavy-handed liberal messages. It’s refreshing to see a movie aimed at elflings that not only sets out just to entertain, but to introduce them to the wider world of literature and does so without any sort of indoctrination. With great music by Elfton John and Lady Elf Elf, we Elves can heartily endorse this one.

The next evening we watched a little documentary called Being Elfo, err, excuse us -- Being Elmo. This was an uplifting story about following your dreams and finding success in doing what you love. It tells the life story of Kevin Clash, the man behind the Elmo muppet from Sesame Street. (We know, we know, Sesame Street does the exact opposite of Gnomeo in terms of liberal dogma, but just put that aside for a few minutes.)

Clash grew up poor in Baltimore and was fascinated by what he saw on Sesame Street. As a child, he was already building his own puppets and making up stories with them. As a teen, he endured the ridicule of his peers. But he stuck to it, because he had a talent and a passion for it. Eventually he finds his way to Captain Kangaroo and then to NYC and Jim Henson.

Clash ended up with the Elmo muppet when another puppeteer was tired of it and couldn’t make a workable personality for Elmo. Clash realized that Elmo needed to embody love. Hence, as a forever-3-year-old, Elmo loves nothing better than hugs and kisses. And the world responded in droves.

Ok, fair warning, there is a clip in which the grand Lady O appears. (Ugh.) But there are also wonderfully touching scenes such as when a Make-A-Wish child comes to the set because her wish was to meet Elmo. This had even the hardest, boilerroom-iest of us Elves in tears. The politics of Sesame Street really do not come out in this documentary, and if you can leave it aside, you’ll find a great story about believing in yourself and love.

On the third night, we finished watching Lilyhammer, which is ElfFlix’s first foray into making its own programming. It’s a show about a mobster who goes into the witness protection program and manages to get sent to Norway. (Ahhh, the sweet winters of the north!) We’ve seen people raving about what a “conservative” show it is. We wouldn’t go that far - it does paint a horrifying picture of life in a state-controlled, socialist country, and our hero does exemplify the American free-wheeling, can-do attitude. But ultimately, are our conservative ideals flagrant disrespect of society and law, blackmail, coercion, womanizing, and theft? We thought not. Still, that didn’t stop us Elves from wishing Tony Soprano would just show up and take care the problems in his own special way.

So now, back to the real question - to keep ElfFlix or not? Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous price hikes, or take arms and by cancelling end them. . . to die, to watch no more. . .

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Twelve OʼClock High (20th Century Fox - 1949)

By Tennessee Jed

Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, this is one of the most highly regarded films to come out of World War II. Nominated for four academy awards in 1950 including best picture, lead and supporting actor, it was selected for preservation in 1998 by the National Film Institute of the Library of Congress for being culturally or historically significant. The production has relatively little in the way of “action” sequences, and what there is consists of actual battle footage from the Air Force and Luftwaffe, creating something of a “newsreel” flavor. Exterior scenes were mainly filmed at Elgin Air Force base in Florida, or Cairns Airfield in Alabama. Ostensibly part of the military genre, Twelve OʼClock High is clearly an unconventional war film. Letʼs take a look at how that helps make for a fascinating movie.

** spoiler alert **

The Plot chronicles some of the activities of the U.S. Armyʼs 8th Air force Battalion that flew bombing raids into occupied France and Germany during 1942. The screenplay was developed from a novel by Sy Bartlett, aide-de-camp to Major General Carl Spatz during the war. Bartlett was heavily involved in the screenplay, providing an insiderʼs view of people and events that adds to the filmʼs credibility. Most major characters represent composites of actual officers from the Battalion.

In the opening sequence, former officer Major/Lt. Colonel Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) is in London post-war when he notices a battered old toby jug (philpot) of Robin Hood in an antique shop. He immediately purchases it and carries it on his bicycle to a fictional abandoned airfield at Archbury where he served with the equally fictional 918th Heavy Bomber Group stationed there during the war. This permits him to “flashback” to the events portrayed in the story.

We witness the crash landing of a B-17 “flying fortress” returning from a mission, and find the 918th has suffered high casualties as a result of a strategic command decision to conduct daylight bombing strikes. While this strategy makes it easier to successfully hit targets, it also greatly increases the risk to the bombers from anti-aircraft fire.

Morale is low and performance poor in the 918th, and Group Commander, Colonel Keith Davenport, (Gary Merrill) may be a contributory cause. Although respected and well liked by his subordinates, he has come to over-identify with the men, losing sight of the mission due to his concern for their safety. He complains about his newest orders to his friend, Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck,) a staff aide to Battalion Commander, Major General Pat Pritchard (Millard Mitchell.) Pritchard re-assigns Davenport to his staff, replacing him with Savage as new leader of the 918th. He is tasked with “finding out just how much a man can take” in order to obtain “maximum effort” from the men.

Upon arrival, Savage finds his new command in disarray with discipline virtually nonexistent. Setting out to reverse the situation, he focuses first on Air Executive Officer, Lt. Colonel Ben Gately (Hugh Marlowe.) Gately is not only a West Point graduate, but also son of a famous general. Gately is demoted and given “command” of a plane named The Leper Colony, assigned to those who donʼt meet expectations. He is replaced as Air Executive Officer by Major Joe Cobb (John Kellogg.) The other pilots all request transfers, but Savage convinces Stovall, the Group adjutant, to “delay” the paper work, buying him time to win them over. The unit resumes flying missions and the new discipline begins to pay off in improved performance.

After Savage personally leads them successfully on a dangerous mission without suffering any casualties, the men begin to think differently about their commander. Savage is chewed out by his boss because he claims “radio malfunction” as a flimsy excuse for ignoring a recall order during the attack. Savage convinces Pritchard to award a citation to the group. Lt. Jesse Bishop, (Robert Patten) a medal of honor nominee is enlisted to convince the others to cancel their transfer requests. As longer flights continue to become increasingly dangerous, the likable Bishop is killed, followed by Cobb. Savage reinstates Gately as Air Exec., but then slips into his own stress induced disorder as the airmen leave on their next mission.

The Leadership Theme - At itʼs core, this film is actually an examination of leadership style. It has been used by the military and numerous corporations (including the one for which I worked) as a popular case study during seminars on the topic. Most modern academic theories categorize leadership into three broad styles; authoritative, collaborative, or delegating. No single style is always best, and effective leaders must blend different styles based on a variety of factors including the leaderʼs personality, the experience or skill level of the subordinates, and the source from which the leaderʼs power is derived. That source can be formalized organizationally, informal or both.

For obvious reasons, the military is based upon a strict, formalized, authoritative chain of command. General Savage stresses this authoritative style in order to restore discipline, but it is worth noting he wins respect and support from his people through leading by example, a more informal source of “personal” power. Collaborative is a style best utilized when the need for “buy-in” is paramount between parties where no direct subordinate relationship exists (such as between the President and Congress.) The delegating style is often seen where a leader enjoys an advantage of trusted, experienced subordinates.

Another theme expressed is the debilitating impact of extreme combat stress on individuals. Stress can take both a physical and emotional toll, ultimately changing or limiting the effectiveness of even the strongest leaders. In the book The Killer Angels, General Lee tells General Longstreet of the great trap of military commanders. Paraphrasing, he states {to be a good soldier, you must love your men, but to be a good officer, you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. No other profession requires it. That is why there are many good soldiers, but so few good officers.} Many individuals who served in the 8th battalion have commented on the authenticity of this film, claiming most of the scenes and events occurred at one time or another, although not all within a single battle group.

Conclusions - For those interested in World War II, or merely the nature of leadership, this movie is highly recommended, perhaps even a “must see.” At times, the pace is a bit slow, but itʼs lessons are applicable well beyond the military, and create an opportunity for viewers to consider any leader in a somewhat different light.

As an aside, Twelve OʼClock High is an actual term used by military aviators who are communicating the position of enemy aircraft during an engagement. The position is described as the face of a clock with twelve oʼclock being directly in front, while six oʼclock would be directly behind. The “high” would indicate the enemy is at higher altitude. The film was converted to a popular television series which ran for four seasons between 1964 and 1967 and utilized the same characters.

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