Friday, August 31, 2012

Labor Day Break

With Labor Day coming up Monday, we're taking the weekend off (be back Tuesday morning). You should too. Get some sun, you all look so pale! But before you go, tell us some of your favorite films about the common man. You know the one... the guy who gets hassled by the striking union labor as he tries to make a living.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Scott's Links August 2012

Scott roams the internet far and wide to ply his trade as a link dealer. Fortunately, Scott provides links free to us. Check these out. . . share your thoughts! And away we go. . .

Did 12 Angry Men get it wrong?

Andrew, this one's for you. I know the subject has come up before and I'd love to get your take on this (LawHawk's, too). This article suggests that, among other things, there are just too many coincidences, not to mention Fonda's character would've been disqualified for having done his own independent research (the business with the knife).

How appeasing a global audience is making Hollywood movies weaker

I rarely care about Hollywood politicking but this trend disturbs me. "And it all gets back to like they always say this about foreign [audiences] – ‘don’t put a black person on the poster because they won’t sell in Germany.’ And you’re like, well what does that say? Are we saying it’s okay? We really want to sell in Germany so let’s not put black people — what does that mean? Are we just willing to make the buck and sell it to racists? Well, yes..."

The frustrating thing about Hollywood remakes

"Remakes won’t erase the original, and even if they change the context in which the original is viewed, there is great merit in remaking films. [...] There’s less merit in relying on them more and more, but what’s truly frustrating about the Hollywood remake trend is the sheer amount of potential that will never be given a second look, let alone a chance to flourish." Oh, and I just read Universal is gearing up for a remake of Cronenberg's Videodrome. If they get Katy Perry to play the Debbie Harry role, I'm in. Otherwise, meh...

10 literary devices and where you can find them in sci-fi

This article doesn't talk about setups and payoffs; it uses sci-fi to explain heady concepts like "bathos" and the "pathetic fallacy" which, coincidentally, was my nickname in high school.

Examples of ensemble movie posters

Even within the "ensemble" category of movie advertising, there are still sub-categories. I for one miss the "retro montage." You'll know it when you see it!

Celebrating 35 years of The Kentucky Fried Movie

I don't think The Kentucky Fried Movie is as funny as its reputation suggests (though the DVD commentary is hilarious) but it did begat Animal House and Airplane! which, in turn, begat countless other movies and TV shows, including The Blues Brothers, The Naked Gun films, and more. It was the big break for a young director named John Landis and a young team of sketch comedians named Jerry Zucker, David Zucker, and Jim Abrahams: these guys helped shape my childhood!

Star Trek facts

Another day, another mention of Trek. As a Jew, I'll share credit for Nimoy's "Live long and prosper" salute. [smile] Also, did you know James Doohan is missing a finger? Despite trying to hide it all those years, you can see it in Star Trek V when Uhura brings him a meal on the bridge.

100 wonderful and terrible movies that never existed

I love articles like this, which give us a peak inside a parallel universe where these movies existed: Watchmen by Terry Gilliam, Fahrenheit 451 by Mel Gibson, Total Recall by David Cronenberg, I Am Legend by Ridley Scott... and it gets weirder: Oliver Stone's Planet of the Apes, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian, and the infamous Starfleet Academy. I do wish they'd get to work on a Roger Rabbit sequel but it would probably cost too much money.

Why Rotten Tomatoes is bad for film criticism

In theory, I like what Rotten Tomatoes does, but I can't disagree with this article: it's bad science to reduce a movie to an algorithm. The author then compares Rotten Tomatoes to a political website that plays to an echo chamber while offering nothing new. (I can think of one or two of those.) Not to mention the mistake many people make: film criticism and discussion is not a binary equation!

Breaking down the new definition of movie star

I know people complain about the lack of "stars" today but I think it's time to get past that type of thinking. To quote the article, "Rather than an A-list, it might be better to think of a 'hot list,' in the words of one mega-agent: 'That's what it is -- the guys you hope will last because nobody's shown they can do that just yet.'" I think Channing Tatum and Jennifer Lawrence have broken through, but the Twilight kids? Nope. Stardom is a fickle beast indeed, and "Perhaps the very idea of being a star has become outmoded [...] Social media and tabloid ubiquity have helped to bring these stars down to earth."

53 Arrested Development jokes you might've missed

Along with Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development is one show that I'm not sure I can ever watch again. As entertaining as it is, it's near-perfection, and deep down I know I'll never make anything as good, in any medium, ever. Having said that, enjoy a look back at some jokes you might've missed the first time around. (I am, however, looking forward to the show's return next year on Netflix.)

Tony Scott: a brief career retrospective

Sadly, we end our link page here. I was shocked when I heard the news. While I rag on his Pelham 123 remake, the man was responsible for Top Gun, Enemy of the State, Crimson Tide, True Romance, and Man on Fire, along with several others. I wish he would've reigned himself in a little bit (Domino is a rather unpleasant experience) but the man was one of the good ones. He will be missed.

Last night's listening:

Intrada recently released Bernard Herrmann's famous score for Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 classic North by Northwest. The previous 1995 CD release used damaged sources but this CD comes from restored elements. There was an excellent re-recording released in 2007 (featuring Joel McNeely conducting the Slovak National Symphony) but sometimes there's nothing like the original. And if we have a Commentarama Secret Santa thing this year, I'll take one of these.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 24

Not everyone can afford the best locations and the best sets like George Lucas can. Sometimes, you just gotta turn that spot behind the dumpster into an exotic world.

Question: "What was Star Trek's cheapest moment?"

Scott's Answer: Given the realities of TV production, it's inevitable that some things will fall through the cracks. The one thing the creators never managed to do well was painted backdrops. You've seen them before: a set can only be so big so they use fake backdrops to fill in the rest. But look at this! I mean, who were they trying to fool? Even Star Trek: Nemesis which, was, in theory, a big budget movie, had the same problem!

Andrew's Answer: Oh, there are so many! So many cheesy sets, so many reused uniforms, so many reused effects, so much cheapness. But the thing which stands out to me the most is actually an entire movie: Star Trek V. The opening scene at Yosemite is great. You've got great scenery, excellent effects and they clearly dropped some coin on getting that done. But then they board the Enterprise and everything changes. It felt like this was the moment they ran out of money, so they created three or four very small, dirt cheap sets and everybody acted like this was a real starship. I think the original Enterprise interiors from the series were more convincing frankly.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 51

You don't have to be a romantic to enjoy a good romance film now and then. . . but it helps.

What is your favorite romantic film?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Sweet Home Alabama. Hey I'm married to a Tennessee girl! :) Reese is at her best in this genre. Fred Ward as her Civil War re-enactor dad is classic.

Panelist: ScottDS

I always felt Charlie Kaufman was overrated, and then I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Holy crap! Thought-provoking without being pretentious (unlike his other films), well-acted, and totally, unapologetically romantic. It's hard to find good romantic movies nowadays since they're either completely cliched, or they try to circumvent the criticism by purposely pointing out the cliches. "Meet me in Montauk."

Panelist: AndrewPrice

My all-time favorite is a Korean film called My Sassy Girl. Yes, there's a Hollywood version, but I wouldn't waste my time with that. But since you're probably looking for an American film, I offer Clueless. Based on Pride and Prejudice, this film was all kinds of warm and fuzzy.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Gone With the Wind. Okay, I know you know that I would say this, but let me tell you why. It is a classic Southern Gothic romance. Scarlett O’Hara is a pampered daughter of Tara plantation and the most beautiful belle in three county at the cusp of the Civil War. As the story progresses, the life of this classic Southern Belle is slowly destroyed. Torn between the old world she misses and the reality of a new world order, she does whatever she has to do to save her beloved Tara including marrying men she does not love. Unable to convince her childhood crush Ashley Wilkes to leave his wife, she finally agrees to be married for the third time to the scoundrel Rhett Butler “just for fun” (and to pay the back taxes on Tara). When the woman that has kept Ashley and her apart finally dies, she realizes that she has outgrown Ashley and the man she really loves is Rhett, the only man who has truly understood her. But is it too late? The movie leaves the most romantic question hanging in the air for all eternity. Will Rhett return?

Panelist: T-Rav

Bleh. So I don’t watch a lot of romance, because I have a Y chromosome, but of the few I have watched, I think A Walk to Remember (based on the Nicholas Sparks book) was probably my favorite. I don’t remember why, really; there just seemed to be a sincerity and a sweetness (not to mention tragedy) to the lovers, and I bought it. Plus, Mandy Moore was cuter at that age.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Film Friday: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

When a film appears with a fantastic concept, a solid cast, and a great look. . . and then it bombs. . . you know something went very wrong along the way. That’s the case with Cowboys & Aliens. Only in this instance, everything went wrong. Put simply, no one associated with this project had any idea what to do with this concept.

** spoiler alert **

Directed by Jon Favreau, Cowboys & Aliens is the story of some people in the old West who battle aliens who are faster, stronger and can’t be killed by human weapons. . . except when they can. That’s all you need to know because everything else about this film fails. Let’s go through the list of failures:
The Actors: The actors seemed lost in this. It’s like they didn’t realize they were in a Western. Daniel Craig plays the lead. He did an excellent job eliminating his English accent, he just didn’t know what to replace it with. So he ends up kind of mumbling English words that don’t really fit in any dialect and certainly don’t fit in the American West. Olivia Wilde, who plays the required female character, may not even have read the script for all she brought to her role. Harrison Ford wasn’t great either. He plays a bad guy with a heart of gold, only he was never able to find that line where we actually like him. The supporting actors never clicked either. It’s like no one explained to anyone who these people were before they began shooting.

The Director: It’s often difficult to separate the writers and the director, but here it was easy. Few scenes made sense from a visual perspective, and it was almost impossible to care about what was happening on the screen.

The perfect example of this is the scene where the aliens first attack the town. The aliens have come to grab townsfolk, but there’s no reason to do this. Indeed, while we’re later told some vague garbage about the aliens studying the humans, there’s no evidence the aliens are doing that and there’s no reason they would need to. It would be like studying ants to learn their military weakness. Not to mention, the townsfolk are eventually found stored in some cave rather than being examined, which calls into question why they were taken at all. Moreover, when the aliens attack, they blow things up all over town for no reason whatsoever. They are more than capable of just flying overhead and grabbing people -- no one can stop them -- but they instead choose to blow up buildings for no apparent reason. In effect, the raid is pointless nonsense.

Further, while the aliens are blowing things up and taking people you don’t know, the camera follows the action almost randomly. Basically, you see people running back and forth until they get taken while the heroes shoot at the alien ships, and all of this is done in the dark by similarly-dressed characters that we don’t know. So throughout this scene, the audience has no idea what happened or who did what, nor does any of it matter. In effect, it’s ten minutes of pointless explosions with no substance. That’s on the director.
Even worse, this becomes the pattern for the film as things happen for no logical reason, as you are incapable of following which characters are doing what or why, and as nothing really interesting happens in any scene. “Stuff blows up” pretty much describes the whole film.

The Writers: The writing is horrid. To explain this, let’s continue with the first raid by the aliens. I mentioned above that the raid was pointless, but that’s not entirely true. The raid was conducted for two obvious purposes: (1) so the hero, who was about to be killed by the townsfolk, could be saved and his importance to the rest of the story affirmed by those same townsfolk, and (2) so that the loved one of each main character could be taken by the aliens so they would all have a reason to begin the movie. That’s horrible writing when the only purpose to a major scene is to establish plot points. Not to mention that wipes out all the conflicts except one -- retrieve the loved ones. But that’s just the beginning of the problems with the writing.

The story begins with a mystery: who is Daniel Craig. Craig wakes up with an alien device on his arm and no memory. He makes his way to town, where everyone else seems to thinks he’s a criminal. The writer carries this mystery on for about an hour, way too long given that the mystery is neither the point to the film nor all that interesting. Indeed, once you learn that everyone wants him dead, solving the rest of the mystery becomes pretty pointless, but the story continues to act like it matters. Conversely, while the mystery is quickly solved, it simultaneously leaves too many details unsolved for too long. Consequently, the audience is repeatedly left in the dark for the first thirty minutes or so as characters talk knowingly about things we know nothing about and plot points happen which make little sense to us because we don’t understand the background.

The next problem is that after the aliens raid the town, about twenty minutes into the film, the rest of the film becomes a series of random and deeply clichéd scenes. It feels like the writer came up with a list of things which could happen in a western and just inserts those one after another. There’s also never a sense that the scenes really relate in any meaningful way.

The motives for the aliens are rather stupid too and show that the writer has no scientific background. The aliens apparently want gold because it’s valuable, even though the creation of gold would take less energy than bringing their spaceships to Earth in the first place. The aliens round up people to experiment on them to “test their weaknesses” even though we’re also told the aliens are so far advanced that they see humans as “insects.” And then we’re told the aliens plan to destroy the planet for no reason whatsoever except to jack up the significance of the attack on the aliens.
Finally, there is one huge problem which falls on the writers and the director equally: there isn’t a moment of this film which varies from expectations. That’s a cardinal sin in any film and especially in something as supposedly unique as this. To give you a sense of this problem, consider that there isn’t a single scene which doesn’t end the way you expect from the moment the scene first begins. You know who will save whom and how they will react. Moreover, you will have seen this moment coming from the moment the characters met because EVERYTHING in this film is telegraphed in the most ham-fisted way. When two characters dislike each other, you know right away they will save each other and become friends. A character who can’t shoot will of course make an impossible shot to save the day. When a character mentions a knife, not only can you be sure that it will save that character, but you will know at roughly what time in the film that will happen. And when that scene comes, you’ll know it because the director will point the camera at the knife to open the scene, then will show you where the events will take place, then the characters rush to that location so the alien chasing them can do something incredibly stupid and SURPRISE the knife saves the day!! Yeah, this film is like that. . . repeatedly.

Cowboys & Aliens began with a great concept, but no one involved with the film knew how to handle it. Indeed, there isn’t really a competent element of this film. The actors didn’t know how to treat their characters, the director couldn’t compose a single interesting scene, and the writers were just guessing about what a science-fiction Western would include. And that caused this excellent concept to be wasted.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Toon-arama: The Incredibles (2004)

by tryanmax

By the time PIXAR Studios released its sixth feature-length film they had already secured a reputation for instant classics. The Incredibles proved to be no exception, combining family-friendly adventure with enduring themes of proud exceptionalism and the importance of family and teamwork. Because it champions these ideals, it has proven to be a perennial favorite amongst conservatives, and rightly so. On top of that, it is a smart and sophisticated film which proves that children’s entertainment need not be trite. And it hopefully goes without saying that the PIXAR animation team builds a vibrant and exciting world with all the visual panache that a cinema experience should have.
The Story
The world has fallen out of love with superheroes and forced them into hiding. Bob Parr (formerly Mr. Incredible) and his wife Helen (f. Elastigirl) are two such heroes trying to live the typical suburban life, albeit with more than a few hiccups. Their two oldest children, Violet and Dash, also have powers, but they have never been allowed to use them. Their youngest, Jack-Jack, seems to have no powers, but he is only a baby…
All of this changes, however, when Bob is lured to a mysterious island, tempted by financial rewards and — more importantly — the chance to relive his “glory days.” The opportunity turns out to be a trick, however, devised by a spurned fanboy turned nemesis named Buddy, now calling himself Syndrome. Unwittingly, Mr. Incredible has helped Syndrome to perfect an unstoppable doomsday robot which he plans to release on the public. His goal is to stop his own robot, which he controls, and establish himself as a new superhero. The plan goes awry, however, and Buddy bails leaving The Incredibles to stop the unstoppable robot.
Why this movie is so darn good
The Incredibles is a movie that fires on all cylinders from beginning to end. Great characterization, tight script, timeless themes, compelling story, gripping action, fabulous visuals, engaging soundtrack, and family-friendly to-boot!

I put character first because all the rest would be for naught if it weren’t for that. Bob may be the character who gets things rolling, but the focus of this film is the family as an ensemble. To that end, each member of the family has their own personal issue to resolve which they do with each other’s help. And, like all good superheroes, their abilities echo their personalities:
• Super-strong Bob considers himself a solo act, but realizes that he is stronger as part of a team.
• Rubber-band-like Helen learns that she has perhaps been too flexible in accepting a status-quo that discourages excellence.
• Invisible Violet is very much of the shrinking variety until her family’s encouragement gives her confidence to use her gifts.
• Super-fast Dash gets his first chance to cut loose, which slows down his headlong behavior.
But great characters aren’t limited to the family. All the characters are imminently knowable. Buddy/Syndrome is not a motiveless villain; he is driven to take revenge on the boyhood hero who rejected him. In essence, he was created by Mr. Incredible. Villains don’t often have that level of complexity even in adult-oriented films. Even supporting characters Edna and Frozone allude to their pasts and aspirations.

So how do you go about resolving four catharses, establishing a fifth for the villain, and pack in no fewer than five actions sequences in under two hours? You make every second count. Absolutely nothing is wasted in this film. The characters are built through the action, even the heavy, explosion-laden action where other films phone it in. Effective use of montage shows how Bob’s superhero “job” improves his self-image, his relationship with his family, and his lifestyle. A particularly humorous scene with Helen and Edna not only packs in some visual dazzle, it also connects two major plot points: Helen’s discovery of Bob’s secret and the transformation of the family into a superhero team. And every major development is foreshadowed, the most important being Edna’s refusal to add a cape to the new Mr. Incredible costume.
As far as aesthetic goes, I cannot praise this film enough. Digital animators seem to have settled on mid-20th century as a preferred style. This movie capitalizes on the look to great effect, first placing the family in a placid, idyllic suburban setting, then overlaying a spy-thriller feel on the superhero genre with a villain lair to make Dr. Evil blush in envy. The soundtrack emphasizes the spy movie feel a la tones of 007 and Peter Gunn. After a fresh viewing, I feel I ought to seek it out on CD. And the jungle scenes. . . oh my goodness! Some moments could make you forget you’re watching a cartoon they are so lush and vivid!
Conservative Themes
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget. I saved these for last as a segue into the comments section. There is more conservatism on display in this movie than you can shake a stick at, so I know I’ll leave some stuff out.

Plenty of people have already devoted many words to the film’s dual themes of exceptionalism and teamwork as separate concepts, but rarely are they discussed as working together. At first blush, they might seem like opposing concepts: individualism vs. collectivism. But within a conservative framework, both are pulled away from those extremes and brought together. Exceptional teams are built of exceptional individuals, and that is what this movie demonstrates as each character accepts his or her own uniqueness while accepting the unique contributions of the others.
The contrast within the film is anti-exceptionalism. Syndrome is the proxy for a society that turned on the once beloved supers. He reveals his ultimate aim is to use the inventions creates to defeat the supers and then make every normal person super, thereby making no one super. The irony is that Syndrome is so envious of the supers for what they have that he fails to recognize how his own exceptional talent as an inventor sets him apart.

Appreciation over envy is a very strong theme throughout the film. As cheesy as it sounds, the entire film turns on the family realizing how much they have always had to be grateful for. It was Mr. Incredible’s failure to appreciate Buddy’s adoration ultimately spawned a nemesis. But true to the conservative notion that each person is responsible for their own decisions, he is not blamed for Buddy making himself into Syndrome. Syndrome’s conversion isn’t really real, either. He has dressed himself in the trappings of a superhero, and the phony trappings are his ultimate undoing, cape and all. . .

As I said, there are conservative themes galore in The Incredibles, and I know I’ve left many out. Which ones stand out to you?
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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 23

Sometimes you just gotta geek out when you start talking Star Trek! And there's nothing more geeky than comparing starships!

Question: What is the coolest ship other than the Enterprise?

Scott's Answer: To the franchise's credit, there have been so many cool-looking ships over the years but, for me, I think the Borg cube represents sheer elegance in its simplicity. I know I've said it before but, all too often, designers look at the "evil" villain and decide that their ship must look "evil," too, even though this makes absolutely no sense. The eeriness of the Borg cube comes from its geometric perfection.

Andrew's Answer: Arg! Did we really ask this? Apparently, we did. I suppose I can't just pick another version of the Enterprise? No, that would be cheating. So I'm going with the Klingon battle cruiser from Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture! Sleek, impressive and sporty, this improved version from the original series will go from standing still to Warp 7.9 quicker than gagh will give you worms!

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 50

Today's question is brought to you by the Happy Bunny Munitions Company. Kill happy!

What is the most obnoxious product placement you recall?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

It's TV but the blatant Government Motors on Hawaii Five-O really pisses me off. Disgusting act of thievery by B.O. & union cronies.

Panelist: ScottDS

I remember watching Michael Bay's The Island where the product placement really jumped out at me. If I recall correctly, Scarlett Johansson's character in the film is a clone of a model and we actually see a real perfume ad starring her in the film. Or, to quote another website: "The Island took a real Calvin Klein commercial starring Scarlett Johansson and made the commercial a major part of a fictional film in which Scarlett Johansson plays an actress who isn’t Scarlett Johansson but stars in the same CK commercial."

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Wayne's World when he holds up the bag of Doritos! Talk about obvious! Oh... wait, they did that intentionally? Never mind. How about Mac and Me? Was that a movie or an ad for Coke and McDonalds? I'm still not sure.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Unlike many of you, product placements do not bother me. From a producer’s standpoint, they just mean money in the bank.

Panelist: T-Rav

Okay, I really like Fringe and everything, and it's a struggling show so maybe this is understandable, but it has to have some of the most obvious placement I've ever seen. A couple times this season, the actors have practically advertised in their dialogue a new car or phone or something. Especially Sprint phones, which get shown off repeatedly for some reason. If it saves the show, fine; but I still find it annoying.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Guest Review: Back to the Future Part III (1990)

by ScottDS
As I mentioned in my last review, I watched the Back to the Future films in reverse order, so Part III was my first glimpse inside the universe created by filmmakers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. I don’t remember how I stumbled across it one Saturday night in the early 90s but something about it kept my interest and two hours later, I was a fan.

1955 Doc (Christopher Lloyd) has just sent Marty (Michael J. Fox) back to the future when, all of a sudden, Marty re-appears! Marty from the second film, that is, with news that the DeLorean was struck by lightning, zapping Doc back to 1885. From the Western Union letter, we find out that Doc has been doing fine, working as a blacksmith in Hill Valley. He buried the DeLorean in a mine, along with repair instructions, so Marty can take it back to 1985. Doc also warns Marty not to come get him, lest the space-time continuum get disrupted again. While retrieving the DeLorean, they stumble across Doc’s tombstone. It turns out that, one week after writing the letter, Doc is shot in the back by Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), the great-grandfather of Marty’s nemesis Biff Tannen. Marty decides to go back and rescue him.
Marty, dressed in a ridiculous faux cowboy outfit, arrives in 1885 in the midst of a Cavalry charge. He hides the DeLorean in a cave but discovers that an Indian’s arrow has punctured the fuel line. He takes off and falls down a hill, where he’s awakened by his great-great-grandparents, Seamus and Maggie McFly (Fox and Lea Thompson). The next day, he makes it into town where he’s accosted by Buford and his goons who try to hang him, but is rescued by Doc. While figuring out how to get the DeLorean up and running again, they notice an out of control buckboard and rescue it’s driver: the lovely Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen). It’s love at first site for Doc and Clara. That night, Buford tries to kill Doc but Marty intervenes – he’s ready to leave well enough alone but Buford calls him “yellow” which Marty can’t deal with. Buford challenges him to a duel the next morning.

After loading the DeLorean onto a rail spur (only a train is fast enough to push the car to 88 m.p.h.), Doc tells Clara the truth but she doesn’t take it too well. The next morning, Marty finds Doc, who falls unconscious after one swig of whiskey. Buford shows up but Marty wins the duel, thanks to the metal firebox door he has strapped to his chest (this was nicely set up in the previous film). Doc and Marty then take off for the train, hijack it in the name of science, and use it to push the DeLorean to 88 m.p.h. Clara discovers Doc’s model of the time machine in his workshop and catches up with them. Doc uses the hoverboard (which Marty had kept in the car) to rescue Clara from falling off the train as Marty is sent back to 1985, where the DeLorean is quickly destroyed by a passing train. It turns out everything is okay, with alternate 1985 having returned to normal. On the way back to the wreckage, he and Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue) run into Needles (Flea), who challenges him to a street race. Marty thinks for a moment, having learned his lesson, and reverses instead, avoiding a terrible accident. Jennifer opens the “You’re fired!” note she kept from 2015 and the words vanish.

After checking out the wreckage, a time-traveling train appears, manned by Doc, Clara, and their two kids (Jules and Verne). Doc gives Marty a framed photo of the two of them that had been taken in 1885 in front of the new town clock. Jennifer inquires about the “You’re fired!” note but Doc reminds them that their future hasn’t been written yet. “No one’s has! Your future is whatever you make it! So make it a good one!” The train then takes off for the friendly skies as the words “The End” appear on the screen. Cue the ZZ Top song and away we go…
I’m sorry but I can’t stress it enough – I love these movies. They’re not perfect, mind you, but taken together as a whole, they don’t get much better than this. As far as this movie goes, it’s... good but not great. The love story between Doc and Clara is sweet and I always liked the idea that the thing that brought them together was their mutual love of all things science and science fiction. It was geek love before geeks became a pop culture thing. Oddly, this is the second time Mary Steenburgen fell in love with a time traveler, having fallen for Malcolm McDowell’s H.G. Wells in Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 film Time After Time. As per usual, the visual effects and other technical details are more or less top-notch. A couple of split-screen shots don’t hold up but the art direction and costume design are excellent. This was, for all intents and purposes, my first western. I even refer to this film as a “gateway western” for parents who want to introduce their children to the genre without going straight to John Wayne and Gary Cooper.

Speaking of John Wayne, the filmmakers used this opportunity to pay homage to him and John Ford. Marty’s arrival in 1885 was shot in Monument Valley, which you’ll recognize from many John Ford/John Wayne westerns. John Wayne stock company regular Harry Carey Jr. appears in the saloon, along with Dub Taylor and Pat Buttram, with Richard Dysart playing a barbed wire salesman who tries to console Doc, and whose small talk on the train tips off Clara that Doc still loves her. This film has what the second film lacked, which was colorful supporting characters and a sense of fun. The second film has its fun moments, too, but with a very dark and serious second act. Mention also needs to be made of Tom Wilson’s performance as “Mad Dog,” which is an absolute tour de force!
I want to use this opportunity to mention Roger Ebert’s review. He gave the film a marginal thumbs down, claiming that the Old West of this film was the “sitcom version” – he preferred a more realistic portrayal, citing McCabe and Mrs. Miller as an example. For what this film is and for what it sets out to accomplish, 1885 Hill Valley is just fine. It’s a family movie from the Spielberg/Amblin Entertainment factory (back when that meant something) and a dark, gritty setting wouldn’t have been appropriate. Plus the filmmakers were huge western fans and simply wanted to pay homage to their heroes. I also learned that, since westerns were mostly out of fashion by this time, every stuntman in Hollywood wanted in on this film since so many of them grew up on the genre and you don’t get to do horse falls every day.

Now… here’s where I give this film a thumbs half-mast: while Doc’s story is sweet, Marty’s is kind of frustrating. His Achilles’ heal was set up in the second film and, once again, if he didn’t care about people calling him “chicken” or “yellow,” it would’ve made things so much easier for everyone. There are so many close calls and a few dei ex machina, that after watching this film so many times, one begins to see the wheels turning. To be fair, you can watch any movie enough times and start to see the flaws, but with any story dealing with time travel and paradoxes, either the science needs to be perfect, or the film needs to be so damned entertaining that we don’t have time to think about the problems. The first film is borderline perfect but the sequels, not so much.

I also had a recent epiphany which explains why I prefer the second film to this one. In Part II, the major conflict is caused by character: Marty buys the sports almanac, thinking he can cheat the system by placing a few bets in 1985, knowing he’ll win since he has all the scores. This is a perfectly understandable and human thing: greed is something we all have to deal with and it makes you wonder, what would you do if you had access to forbidden knowledge? However, in Part III, the conflict is caused by an Indian’s arrow. The reason they can't go back to the future is because a random arrow, shot by a random Indian we never actually see, causes the DeLorean’s fuel line to leak. If only the DeLorean had been a few feet to the left or right, everything would’ve been fine. I understand why they made this choice but it’s just one of those forehead-slapping moments. Also, the second film has so much going on with it, that the viewer is left with much to ponder, whereas this film is more of a straight western/romance, with all the clichés thereof.

As of this writing, the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios has been replaced, but the actual ride footage can be found online and on the latest DVD/Blu-Ray releases. There was also a Saturday morning animated series, of which I have fond memories. There was also a recent video game, though I don’t know much about it. I’ve remarked on more than one occasion that I wish these films had a series of novels to go with them. There is so much backstory and so many alternate universes and “what-if” scenarios that I’d love to explore one day. If seemingly every background character from the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises can get their own backstories, why not this one?

Lastly, I have to give props to co-writer/producer Bob Gale. While he’s mostly been working in the comic book world all these years, he’s been a great steward of the Back to the Future legacy. He’s there to supervise DVD and Blu-Ray transfers, he’s there to contribute to audio commentaries and documentaries, he’s available to consult whenever a company makes a licensing deal, and don’t worry, as long as he and Robert Zemeckis are still standing, there won’t be a fourth film! (I only wish certain other filmmakers cared that much.)

“You're just not thinking fourth dimensionally!”

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Guest Review: Back to the Future Part II (1989)

By ScottDS
Ah, there’s nothing like the Back to the Future trilogy. These films are staples of my childhood and I still watch them every couple of months. Funnily enough, I originally saw them in reverse order but by the time I got to the first film, everything made sense. While the original 1985 film is rightfully considered a modern masterpiece – the perfect alchemy of characterization, smart writing, and summer spectacle – the sequels continue to get a mixed reaction. Some folks love the second film and hate the third and vice versa. Me? I love ’em both... but I give a slight edge to Part II.

We pick up with Marty (Michael J. Fox) and Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue replacing Claudia Wells) about to share a kiss when Doc (Christopher Lloyd) suddenly pulls up in the DeLorean. Clad in a futuristic raincoat and transparent necktie (which I love), Doc tells the two lovebirds that the future of their future family is at stake: “It’s your kids, Marty!” The car takes off to the rainy skies of 2015 where it turns out that Marty Jr. will get involved with some local thugs led by Griff (Thomas F. Wilson), the cybernetically-enhanced grandson of Marty’s nemesis Biff. This event will cause a chain reaction that will destroy the McFly family, so Marty takes the place of his future son so he can refuse Griff’s invitation. After an exciting hoverboard chase (sorry, they’re not real!), Marty purchases a copy of Gray’s Sports Almanac, which includes sports scores for the latter half of the twentieth century. He intends to place a few bets but Doc is horrified by this, explaining that the purpose of time travel is not to win at gambling. Meanwhile, the police have picked up Jennifer (who was left by Doc and Marty, unconscious, in an alley) and take her home – her future home. Marty and Doc pursue, but Old Biff gets his hands on the almanac (which Doc had thrown out) and follows them.
Doc and Marty eventually pick up Jennifer, who’d fainted after encountering her future self. They make it back to 1985 but some things have changed. The neighborhood looks like a demilitarized zone, a different family lives in the McFly house, and there’s now a gaudy skyscraper in the middle of town, owned by Biff! We learn that Marty’s dad is dead and his mother (Lea Thompson) is married to Biff - now a corrupt multimillionaire - instead. Doc realizes that Old Biff must’ve stolen the DeLorean while they were rescuing Jennifer in the future and given the almanac to himself at some point in the past: November 12th, 1955 to be exact – the date that Marty went back to the future in the first film. They travel back to 1955 where Marty eventually trails Biff to the school dance. After several run-ins with Biff, Biff’s goons, and a car/hoverboard chase, Marty destroys the almanac, causing the future to return to normal. However, the DeLorean is struck by lightning, zapping Doc back to 1885. After a Western Union man (Joe Flaherty in a fun cameo) shows up with a telegram – written by Doc in the past – Marty realizes there’s only one man who can help him: 1955 Doc. “To Be Concluded...”

Man, that was confusing to write! You can't imagine how confused I was after watching this film. I had just seen the third film yet it didn’t occur to me to rent the first film and work my way forwards. Instead, I rented this film and worked my way backwards. I’ve always been a fan. I love what they came up with for 2015, from flying cars to hoverboards to some of the more ridiculous fashions. God, 2015 seems so close now, doesn’t it? Of course, some of it is pretty dated now, too. The movie is a lot of fun just like a good 80s summer movie should be, though it’s also very dark. The alternate 1985 scenes almost come across as something shot for another film entirely. Director Robert Zemeckis rightfully compares this film to It’s a Wonderful Life and alternate 1985 to Pottersville. Oh, and I love the central gimmick: the idea of going back and revisiting the first film from a new perspective. I imagine it takes most people a few viewings to soak it all in and get all the subtle connections. ILM’s Oscar-nominated visual effects are 98% top-notch, along with the other various technical details. Christopher Lloyd is excellent as usual and both Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson (mostly) do a good job playing various generations of their characters. Tom Wilson gives an absolute tour-de-force performance as alternate 1985 Biff, who’s just a total psychopath.
[Sigh] However, the film is definitely flawed, and repeat viewings haven’t helped one bit. When I said Fox and Thompson mostly do a good job, I meant that their acting in 1955/1985 is fine but 2015 is a different story. Fox plays future Marty (who’s only in his late 40s) like he’s at least twenty years older and Thompson does the same with old Lorraine. The make-up effects guys, who did such a great job on the first film, don’t help them – the old-age make-up is cranked up to 11 and it just becomes a distraction. Then there are the usual plot holes inherent to any time travel story. I could go on ad infinitum but the few issues that have always stuck with me are: 1.) When Old Biff comes back to 2015 with the DeLorean, shouldn’t it be an alternate 2015? (The filmmakers speculate that the infamous “ripple effect” may not have happened yet.) 2.) When Marty and Doc leave 2015 for 1985, they don’t notice that the “last time departed” display on the time circuits reads 1955. 3.) All of a sudden, the time circuits are malfunctioning, causing the 1885 date to appear out of nowhere. There are several deux ex machina moments, not to mention Marty goes from smart to stupid to smart again, sometimes in the span of one scene.

To be fair, the development and production of this film was quite hectic. The ending of the first film was done as a joke – there was never a sequel planned, and the words “To Be Continued” were added for subsequent video releases. After all, says Robert Zemeckis, if they’d planned for a sequel, they never would’ve put Jennifer in the car! The original idea involved Marty and Doc going back to the 60s where Marty endangers his own conception. There would be hippies and flower power and protests, etc. However, this idea felt like too much of a retread and Zemeckis and co-writer/producer Bob Gale hit upon the idea of going back to the first film, which is what really sets this film apart in my opinion. I can’t even begin to imagine the logistical nightmare this entailed, from recreating sets and wardrobe, to scheduling and continuity. This film was originally written as one long movie with a fourth act set in 1885 but the studio took the bold move (now commonplace) to split it in half and shoot two movies simultaneously.
However, this leads me to what I think is the film’s biggest problem: Marty’s Achilles’ heal. Apparently, he hates it whenever people call him “chicken.” Fair enough, but since a sequel was never planned, the filmmakers never thought to set this up in the first film… and since this film ends on a cliffhanger, it doesn’t get resolved until the next film. In 2015, we meet future Marty’s boss (played by Flea of all people, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers), who involves Marty in some kind of shady business deal. None of this works on its own and it’s not until the last five minutes of the third film when it’s all resolved. The problem that Gale and Zemeckis faced was this: in the first film, Marty doesn’t change – his dad does. For the sequel, Marty would have to change, but it’s introduced in a somewhat awkward fashion, and if it wasn’t for this whole “chicken” thing, the movie could’ve been wrapped up in 20 minutes! Speaking of Marty’s dad, the reason why he doesn’t play a more prominent role in this film is because a deal with Crispin Glover couldn’t be made. That’s actor Jeffrey Weissman as future George McFly, where the make-up (and futuristic upside-down back brace) help disguise him.

At the end of the day, I find this film endlessly fascinating. Even now, there are so many little details to pick up on. The Café 80s scene in 2015 is pretty fun with the Max Headroom-style “Ronald Reagan” and “Ayatollah” video waiters and a young Elijah Wood (in his film debut!) who’s disappointed that an arcade game requires actual tactile contact. A few of the split-screen shots with multiple actors don’t hold up but many of them do, including a dinner table scene with Michael J. Fox playing three roles. Robert Zemeckis says this might be his most interesting movie and I’m inclined to agree. I look forward to showing these films to my future kid(s) – they still manage to hold up after all these years, and that’s the true test of any film’s success. “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

(Ironically, I had intended to review both II and III in one article but the first part got too long, so, just like the filmmakers did, I’m splitting this in two. Find out why I prefer this film to the third one on Friday.)

To Be Concluded...

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Politics of Trek: “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

Lord Acton famously said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is the point behind the second pilot created for Star Trek the original series, which was shown as Episode 3: “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” It is also a deeply conservative point and it sets the tone for the whole series.
The Plot
As the episode begins, the Enterprise is planning to pass through the barrier that rings the galaxy to see if this is possible. As they approach the barrier, they find an old-style ship recorder from the SS Valiant, a ship no one knew had been out this far. The recorder reveals that the Valiant tried to pass through the barrier and was damaged. The captain then began a frantic search related to ESP, extra-sensory perception, in the ship’s library. Soon afterward, he gave the command to destroy the ship. Despite this, Kirk gives the order to enter the barrier. The Enterprise is severely damaged and loses its warp engines. Several crew members are injured, including Kirk’s friend Gary Mitchell and the ship’s psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner. Mitchell soon begins to show growing psychic powers. As the ship limps to Delta Vega, an unmanned lithium-cracking facility where Kirk hopes to repair the Enterprise, Kirk struggles with what to do about Mitchell and his growing mental powers.
Why It’s Conservative
This episode tackles the conservative belief that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Conservatives understand that human nature is flawed and that human beings simply cannot be trusted with unchecked power. That is why conservatives advocate limited government, rule of law, and limited discretion. Liberals, on the other hand, advocate powerful government with the belief that if the right people are put in charge, they will use that power for the good of all. Conservatives reject this because they don’t believe the right people exist. Star Trek also rejects this for the same reason. Indeed, not only does Kirk come straight out and quote Lord Acton in this episode, but we are shown that someone as unassuming and carefree as Kirk’s best friend Gary Mitchell will be corrupted by power. Here is Kirk trying to convince Dr. Dehner to help him defeat Mitchell:
MITCHELL: I've been contemplating the death of an old friend. . .
DEHNER: Stop it, Gary.
MITCHELL: Morals are for men, not gods.
KIRK: A god, but still driven by human frailty. Do you like what you see?
MITCHELL: Time to pray, Captain. Pray to me.
KIRK: To you? Not to both of you?
MITCHELL: Pray that you die easily.
KIRK: There'll only be one of you in the end. One jealous god. If all this makes a god, or is it making you something else?
MITCHELL: Your last chance, Kirk.
KIRK: Do you like what you see? Absolute power corrupting absolutely.
By this point, Mitchell has fully come to believe that he is a god. But the episode showed this transition from unassuming crewman to faux god quite gradually, and each step made sense given his newfound powers. First, Mitchell became bored with the rest of the crew because his intellect grew far beyond their level. Thus, he lost his desire to be among them. Then he became angry and looked down upon his friend Lt. Lee Kelso because Kelso had failed to spot something which was obvious to Mitchell. Soon, Mitchell began giving orders and countermanding orders he didn’t like. Then he started calling himself a god and likened the crew to insects: "You fools! Soon I'll squash you like insects." Finally, he began killing people who got in his way, even though he clearly had the power to use less violent means to achieve his ends. Their lives simply didn’t matter to him.

And why does this happen? As Kirk explains it, it is because humans are flawed:
KIRK: Did you hear him joke about compassion? Above all else, a god needs compassion.
DEHNER: What do you know about gods?
KIRK: Then let's talk about humans, about our frailties. As powerful as he gets, he'll have all that inside him. . . . You were a psychiatrist once. You know the ugly, savage things we all keep buried, that none of us dare expose. But he'll dare. Who's to stop him? He doesn't need to care. Be a psychiatrist for one minute longer. What do you see happening to him? What's your prognosis, Doctor?
“He doesn’t need to care,” is the very heart of the problem with absolute power and Kirk puts his finger right on it. Moreover, notice that this is an indictment of all humanity, not just Mitchell, and that Kirk is saying that humans simply can’t be trusted with immense power because it is in our nature to abuse it. This is a conservative point. Had Kirk been a liberal, he would have tried to convince Mitchell to use his power for good because liberals believe that absolute power used benignly can achieve wonders. A liberal Kirk never would have suggested that it is simply beyond humans to use absolute power wisely, he would have tried to ensure that Mitchell was the right person to wield it or to convince Mitchell to use it wisely. But Kirk is no liberal and he makes no attempt to change Mitchell’s heart because he knows this isn’t possible. Instead, he tries to prevent Mitchell from being able to use the power.

Kirk’s understanding is the conservative understanding of human nature and of power. This is why conservatives are wary of liberal attempts to hand massive, unchecked power to governments or persons. . . because there is no human who would not misuse it eventually. That is the point of this episode and it will become a recurring theme throughout the series, and that will keep Star Trek on the conservative side.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 49

Uh. . . what?

What film struck you as most confusing?

Panelist: BevfromNYC

The Kids Are Alright – first I was confused as to how this was Oscar worthy. And then I was even more confused by what the writer was trying to say with the film. All I can say is that this must have been written by a man because all it said to me was that lesbians hate men, but even the most hard-core lesbians can’t control themselves when a man is in the room doing he-man kind of stuff. That is kind of a misogynist message to me.

Panelist: T-Rav

Donnie Darko. I’ve seen some really bizarre stuff—well, bizarre by my standards—but I still don’t understand that movie. They say it was about time travel and existentialism and blah blah blah, but I sometimes think the producers thought if they just put someone in a giant rabbit suit, the rest of the movie would seem deeper than it really was. Or maybe I just wasn’t sympathetic to the protagonist because he was a Dukakis supporter. Who knows. All I know is, I didn’t understand it.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Inception comes to mind, although Tinker Tailor would be right there if I hadn't known what was going on beforehand.

Panelist: ScottDS

I've only seen it once and I never read the original book but David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch definitely left me scratching my head. From what I understand, the book (by William S. Burroughs) is a series of loosely-connected, non-linear vignettes and, for the film, Cronenberg combined it with elements from Burrough's own life. I don't remember much from the film, other than Peter Weller's typewriter turning into a giant insect which talked out of its rear end.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

The Exorcist 2 haunts my dreams, and not in a good way. So let me get this right. Richard Burton becomes obsessed with Linda Blair. So he hangs out with her and they hypnotize each other. Bam! He's in some fake place in Africa telling everyone he's a devil worshiper. Moments later, he meets Darth Vader's voice, who is a scientist and laughs at the stupidity of the movie. Then Burton's back in a trance for no reason whatsoever. So he and Blair travel to DC to re-enact the ending of the original movie. W.T.F.? Nothing in this film means anything. It's just pretentious garbage strung together almost randomly.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Film Friday: Pitch Black (2000)

Despite being advertised as a horror movie, Pitch Black is high quality science fiction. It’s also one of my favorite science fiction films. What makes it high quality is both the scope of the world described in this film and the fact it’s a character drama rather than an action flick.

** spoiler alert **

Sadly, most science fiction produced today is little more than action films set in the future. Typically, you have a hero who uncovers a vast conspiracy, who will be chased, and who ultimately must turn from prey to predator to end the movie. The science fiction elements are little more than bells and whistles added to the film to separate it from all the other action films. No effort is made to present the viewer with a realistic glimpse of the world presented and the characters are little more than throw-away pieces meant to hit certain plot points to justify the explosions.
At first glance, Pitch Black falls into this all-too-familiar pattern. Pitch Black is the story of a group of passengers stranded on a desolate world when their intergalactic transport ship crashes after passing through the tail of a comet. This planet appears to be a desert with three suns, which bathe the planet in perpetual light. As the survivors look for water, they come across an abandoned research station with a functioning escape craft. They are saved. All they need to do is get power cells from their crashed ship to recharge the escape craft. But within minutes of this discovery, they learn that when the planet’s moons align perfectly, they will block out all three suns, plunging the planet into darkness. When that happens, bloodthirsty light-sensitive creatures will come pouring out of the ground and kill anyone who isn’t standing in light.

Sounds like an action flick, doesn’t it? Well, Pitch Black isn’t really an action flick. What it is, is a character drama taking place in a science fiction setting. Moreover, the universe in which this takes place is richly detailed even though you never see anything but this single planet. Observe.
The real story of Pitch Black is how this group of survivors cope with each other. Among the group, you have a hard-working prospector (Claudia Black), a effete merchant, a Muslim Imam (David Keith) and his two disciples, a young boy named Jack with a secret, the ship’s pilot Carolyn Fry (Radha Mitchell) posing as the captain after she tried to jettison all the passengers to save herself, a bounty hunter named William Johns posing as a cop, and Richard B. Riddick (Vin Diesel), the baddest human being alive.

With these characters, the story quickly becomes whether they can work together to get off this desolate world before the monsters eat them. More specifically, the story centers around each of them trying to maintain their secrets and struggle against their own flaws, while the entire group worries about what to do about Riddick, who may or may not be planning to kill them or abandon them. The result of all of this, is that Pitch Black gives you a strong story with an intriguing mix of personality conflicts as the characters are forced to trust people they cannot trust in the hopes of saving themselves.
Moreover, to challenge them, they are given the time limit that once the moons align, the world will go dark and the monsters will be free. They are also presented with various mysteries along the way before they can even learn about this challenge. For example, they need to discover the creatures and learn that the planet will go dark. They find these clues within another mystery of what happened to the scientists who set up the abandoned station. Each of these mysteries is done gradually with clues piled up before any solution is reached and makes for a satisfying story against which the character drama plays out.

What’s even more interesting is how rich the universe is that these characters inhabit. At no point does the film leave this planet to show you the rest of the universe, but you get an incredibly layered picture of what the universe is like from these characters. Riddick suggests a rather brutal criminal justice system, with prisons sunk into darkness. Indeed, his eyes have been shined by a surgeon he found just so he can see in the dark. Johns shows us that drug abuse continues to plague the future. He also shows us that bounty hunters continue to exist, meaning law enforcement is very similar to the modern United States. Black tells us that mankind (or womankind) still treks off to the wild looking for riches. The merchant lets us in on the fact that wine and antiques are still valuable. And Keith presents us with the idea that Islam continues in the future, though it’s still only a small portion of humanity, and his version of Islam is nonviolent and more like Buddhism. He was actually traveling to New Mecca and he cannot drink alcohol, even though that’s all they have to drink.
Enough detail is given by these characters, their traits and their words that, by the time the film is over, you truly have enough information that you know what the rest of the universe looks like and acts like. That’s really impressive when you consider that most science fiction films today give you little more than a quick CGI glimpse of a futuristic city and then one or two new technologies to represent “the future.” The audience is never given a sense of what people do for a living, what their religious beliefs are like, what their leisure habits are like or what they value. But each of those things is made clear in Pitch Black. And consequently, the film feels very immersive because it is easy to lose yourself in their world.

This is why people wanted a sequel to Pitch Black, because the world it shows the audience was so rich that people wanted to see more of it. Compare that with films like Green Lantern or Star Trek or Pandorum, where you knew nothing beyond what was on screen and you really couldn’t care less about their universe. It’s too bad that more science fiction films don’t take a lesson from Pitch Black.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Advertising Ourselves

I’m always fascinating by advertising because it gives you a clear indication of the state of the culture. How? Simple. The job of an advertiser is to make their product appeal to people who are likely to buy the product. To achieve that, they do a careful analysis of who their potential customers are, and then they try to produce ads which get those customers to associate the product with the good things about their lifestyles. For example, products aimed at blacks or women or fundamentalist Christians or farmers or children will try to determine what it is that appeals to each of those groups and will then use that to make their product seem like it belongs. The result is that advertises have provided us with a continuing treatise on the various segments of society.

This treatise is better than any polling, any study, or any expert analysis. We know this because advertising only continues so long as it works. If the targeted consumers don’t respond with their dollars, the ads stop and are changed until something is found which does work, which then gets copied. And how people spend their money is a much more accurate measure of what they are thinking than how they respond to polls, which requires no actual commitment. Consequently, advertising gives us an incredibly accurate look into the mindset of various segments of society.

So what can we say about society? Everyone wants to have fun. The middle class is looking for value. The rich want subtlety in their products. Women trust other women more than they trust men. Youngish white males belong in frats. Kids are obnoxious, but not as obnoxious as they were a decade ago. Americans of all stripes are deeply patriotic. Socialism doesn’t sell. Older people care about the longer term, which is actually why they’re more conservative, and young people care about fitting in. And the herd instinct is not only alive and well, it dominates consumer behavior at all levels. . . you just need to know what herd you’re in.

Movie trailers are the same. We like emotional extremes. It’s not enough just to succeed, you need to be beat all the odds for your success to be worthwhile. We’re big on sex, no matter what kind of movie, explosions and one-liners. Most importantly, however, our values remain deeply conservative: self-help, honor, loyalty, and a healthy distrust of government.

What are you thoughts about some of your favorite (or least favorite) ads and what they tell us?

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Questionable Trek vol. 22

Last week, we tried to recast Jean Luc Picard. This week we're headed straight into the land of sacrilege.

Question: Who would you cast as James T. Kirk other than William Shatner?

Andrew's Answer: Adam West. Just kidding. To me, this is WAY harder than last week because William Shatner made James T. Kirk into a true icon. But do this we must. I considered three choices originally, but only one of them ultimately worked. My first thought was William Holden, who is just all kinds of tough-guy awesome. But Holden’s kind of a loner, so he doesn’t work. My next thought was Jeffrey Hunter, who was excellent as Capt. Christopher Pike. But I think he’s too angry for a full series. Then it hit me. In the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Kirk ends up killing best friend Gary Mitchell, played by Gary Lockwood, who has the distinction of being killed by two icons: Kirk and HAL in 2001! He’s got the right mix of strength, compassion, brains and seat-of-the-pants leadership. He’s not a sexy choice, but he’d be a good one.

Scott's Answer: This might sound like a bit of a cheat and I'll explain why but I would have to say Leslie Nielsen. Originally, I had considered Nielsen's Airplane! co-star Lloyd Bridges but he was a decade too old. Before Nielsen became a comedy icon, he was actually a serious actor and the reason this answer could be considered a cheat is because Nielsen had already played a Kirk-esque spaceship commander in the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet, which was one of Gene Roddenberry's inspirations for Star Trek. But he was a handsome leading man, with an air of authority, whom you could see leading a crew into battle. And whenever they encountered a weird space anomaly, he could say, "I haven't seen anything like this since the Anita Bryant concert." (That was an Airplane! reference.)

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Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 48

Dana Barrett of Ghostbusters fame once said that Dr. Peter Venkman was "more like a game show host" than a scientist. And, for $200, just what exactly is wrong with that?

What is your favorite game show?

Panelist: T-Rav

Wheel of Fortune. It's a family thing; I've watched it with my mom and grandparents since I was five. Used to be pretty good at cracking the puzzles before anyone else, too. Also, I hear Pat Sajak is a conservative, so that just makes it better.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Jeopardy, hands down. Watched it at my fraternity house at lunch every day 40 years ago. Great then and still is.

Panelist: ScottDS

I'm not a regular game show viewer but I would have to say Jeopardy. I enjoy playing along if it's on TV and I'm often surprised by how much I actually know. On the other hand, I once took the online test for contestants... and failed miserably.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

The Running Man. Ok, that's not real. I'm going with Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego. This was a fun and interesting show. It taught you geography. It had good music. Plus, Carmen was pretty hot... if you could find her.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Define “game show”. If you consider them to be skill shows like Top Chef and American Idol, then I am not sure. But as a pure old style game show, then Jeopardy – even though the questions have gotten easier over the years, it is still a big test of obscure trivia. And though you didn’t ask, my least favorite.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, August 3, 2012

Film Friday: X-Men: First Class (2011)

I’ve generally enjoyed the X-Men films. The third wasn’t nearly as good as the first two, but was still quite watchable. The first was rather good and I thought the second was even better. When I heard they were making X-Men: First Class about the origin of the X-Men in the 1960s, I was fairly enthusiastic. Now I’ve seen it. Meh. It’s ok. It’s also obnoxiously political.

** spoiler alert **

Directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Bryan Singer, X-Men: First Class is a prequel to the other X-Men films. This film takes place in the 1960s when Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lensherr (Magneto) are in their twenties and just starting out. The whole film is set against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis, as villain Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) tries to get the Russians and the Americans to blow each other up because he believes the radiation resulting from a nuclear war would kill humanity while allowing mutants to thrive.
As films go, this one is entertaining enough to watch if you’re looking to blow a couple hours, but don’t expect to be impressed or to remember anything about it. Ultimately, this film proves little more than a series of scenes where the mutants show off their powers and then blow things up. There are several of the inevitable training scenes all these films require and a plethora of ironic moments where future bad guys start as good guys and then change sides. If you’re in love with these characters, those scenes may make you happy, but if you’re not in love with them, then these scenes are at best weak and feel pointless. Don’t expect much from the acting either. McAvoy is so sedate you often think he’s asleep. Michael Fassbender couldn’t control his accent and has no gravitas. January Jones and Rose Byrne were awful. Kevin Bacon was ok, only he didn’t really have much to do despite being the villain. In fact, the only truly charismatic character (and the film’s best moment) came when they went to recruit Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). His strong screen presence really contrasted sharply with the weakness of the others.

In any event, two things struck me about this film. First, the film does a very poor job of recreating the 1960s. Secondly, this film is incredibly heavy-handed with its pro-gay message.

Setting a film in the past can pay huge dividends when done right. Humans are interested in the past and want to see how we lived during certain eras. Thus, a film set in the past can give audiences the dual experience of seeing a good film and feeling like they’ve gotten a window into the past. Moreover, Hollywood has the benefit of not needing to be entirely historically accurate. Thus, it can create stylized versions of the past which are essentially the fantasy worlds that are so popular in science fiction, only these come with the stamp of being “real.”

X-Men: First Class tries the stylized approach, but it never really works. For one thing, despite the setting, everything is simply too modern. For example, the dialog has a modern feel. Indeed, the film kept using words and phrases that struck me as distinctly modern. The costuming didn’t feel genuine. And much of what they presented never felt realistic. For example, Sebastian Shaw is a mix of Hugh Hefner and Bruce Wayne, and the CIA had more of the feel of In Like Flint than any real government agency. The Pentagon also came across more like a knock-off of Dr. Strangelove than anything we know to be true. Ultimately, this film didn’t feel like it was set in the 1960s, it felt like it took pieces out of 1960s films, stylized them, and placed them in the present.
The actors didn’t help this either. It was nearly impossible to see James McAvoy as a young Patrick Stewart because he seemed to mistake depression for wisdom. Michael Fassbender was even harder to see as Magneto because he looks nothing like a young Ian McKellen and the entire second half of the film he kept slipping into an out-of-place Irish accent. The other actors didn’t help either as none of them acted at all according to the social norms of the 1960s.

The most annoying part of the film was actually the politics. I don’t personally care about gay issues one way or the other, and it doesn’t bother me if a film wants to include a pro-gay message. Whatever. But I am bothered by a lack of subtlety, and this thing wasn’t subtle. In scene after scene, the characters used gay slogans (e.g. “mutant and proud”) or made direct references to things gays consider discriminatory. For example, one character says, “you didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell.” Then they have a couple minute love-in where each of the characters tells this character how great he is and how he shouldn’t have to hide. This is obnoxious. It’s ham-fisted and obvious. Think of it this way. Flip the ideology around and imagine that every scene contained a character telling you, “You know, Jesus offers us salvation” or some similar slogan. How long would it take before this really got on your nerves? It’s the same thing here. If you are aware of the slogans and symbols the gay movement has used, you will see them used blatantly and repeatedly in this film.
Here’s the thing. If you’re going to inject a political message into a non-political film, then it needs to be subtle. It needs to make your point without huge flashing lights that scream at the audience, “MESSAGE COMING IN. . . MESSAGE”. When your characters spend their time repeating slogans that didn’t exist for another forty years and then each scene ends up an After School Special, where the characters hug and pledge solidarity to the cause, you’ve gone too far. And since this film offered little else by way of plot, this really stuck out.

So all in all, I can’t recommend this film either way. I enjoyed it enough that I didn’t regret watching it, but I won’t watch it again because it offers nothing that could interest me a second time. It’s competently done in all the technicals, but flat in the story and very weak in the writing. It’s annoying at time and just dull at others, but it’s also got just enough interest to it to keep me from turning it off. Make of that what you will.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Scott's Links July 2012

Scott roams the internet far and wide to ply his trade as a link dealer. Fortunately, Scott provides links free to us. Check these out. . . share your thoughts! And away we go. . .

5 leadership lessons from Captain James T. Kirk

I believe this is the first time I've linked to a Forbes article. The author certainly isn't the first person to find inspiration in a Star Trek captain but (for the most part) I can't disagree with any of these, especially the reasoning behind #2.

The sociopolitical message of Spies Like Us

I'm not a political wonk so much of this article went over my head, though I'm heartened that someone felt the need to write it in the first place. I've been a fan of this film for years and it's nice to see someone treat it seriously. I was especially impressed with the article's use of the phrase "ordinary-schmuck amateurism" to describe the antics of Chase and Aykroyd's characters.

The importance of critics

We often think about critics in a less than positive light but do they serve a useful purpose? According to this article, the answer is yes. Not only do they provide basic consumer advice, but, "When something new and startling comes along, it often baffles us, and we are tempted to drop it, pained, for easier cultural lifting. A great critic can help us to figure out what it going on, and to appreciate it in a richer way."

10 classic movies that critics hated

Having said that, the only true test of a film/TV show/album's success isn't money or awards or critical accolades - it's time. Here are ten films that are considered modern (cult) classics that many critics hated the first time around but have since found their audience. On that note, I had forgotten that Stanley Kubrick was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Director for The Shining!

How does the film industry actually make money?

Fascinating article. "All business requires guessing, but future predilections of moviegoers are especially opaque. If a large company wants to introduce a new car, it can at least base its predictions, in part, on factors like where oil prices are headed. Movie executives, on the other hand, come up with a host of new theories each summer about what audiences want, then, sometimes over the course of a weekend, ricochet toward a new theory."

What will happen to special features in the era of streaming movies?

I'd like to think that special features (deleted scenes, documentaries, etc.) will still be around in one form or another. Even iTunes introduced "iTunes Extras" which includes many similar features in an otherwise virtual environment. Or maybe physical media will simply become a niche thing, like laserdiscs used to be, where the creators can put a little more tender loving care into creating prestige items.

The 20 most pro-American movies of the last 10 years

Yes, I know what you're thinking: "They found ten?!" Needless to say, you're mileage may vary though most of the selections seem to be in the ballpark.

Why can't the War of 1812 have its own blockbuster?!

Uh... good question! Maybe HBO or the History Channel can make this a reality one day.

Does Hollywood hate adults?

This is a complicated question and it has nothing to do with politics. "It’s a symptom of the fact that Hollywood remains trapped in an old, inflexible business model based on Gigantor-size spectacles - in an age when everything else about the culture has gotten more niche-oriented and individualized - but hasn’t yet faced a big enough crisis to force major change."

In praise of red matter

Usually, I would agree with the author of this article - it doesn't matter how Superman flies, it only matters that he can fly. But in the case of Star Trek, previous TV shows and films have at least tried to maintain a modicum of scientific accuracy, the same accuracy that has led countless fans to become scientists and engineers. Then we get the reboot with red matter... what is it? Who cares?!

Batman and Gotham City: a deeply dysfunctional love story

I'd never heard it phrased this way but the author is correct. "'It’s the Don Quixote desire he has of going out every night to keep what happened to him from happening to anyone else, and knowing he’s going to fail.' Batman, in other words, believes in Gotham City more powerfully than any other Gothamite. That's why the best Batman stories are the ones with an existential threat to the city and only the city. Superman saves planets; Batman saves downtown."

Why do supervillains fascinate us?

Speaking of superheroes (and in light of recent unfortunate events)... I believe there is a certain wish fulfillment fantasy at work here, though, like everything else, it can be channeled positively or negatively.

Last night's listening:

More Batman! La-La Land Records recently followed up their superlative 2008 release of music from Batman: The Animated Series with Volume 2: a 4-disc set of even more music from the series, featuring variations of Danny Elfman's theme and episode music by Lolita Ritmanis, Michael McCuistion, Carl Swander Johnson, and of course, the late, great Shirley Walker who left this world much too soon. Listening to this music makes me want to watch the show again - I haven't seen it since my elementary school years!

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