Friday, November 30, 2012

Film Friday: Alien Resurrection (1997)

Poor execution will ruin a great concept every time, and no film highlights that better than Alien Resurrection. Alien Resurrection is a film that must have looked fantastic on the drawing board, but it fell apart completely because of the lousy, lousy choices made throughout the production. Observe.

Imagine this. . . even though Ellen Ripley died at the end of Alien 3, the government found a way to secure her DNA, only it had mixed with the alien inside her before it was secured. Now the government is running illegal cloning experiments to try to recreate the alien so they can study it and turn it into a weapon. But the government’s experiments get discovered, and an android is sent to sneak aboard the ship on which the experiments are being conducted and destroy the alien and the DNA. To sneak on board, the android will hide among the crew of a ship that is delivering kidnapped humans to the lab. Those humans are to be exposed to the alien. Once on board, however, things go wrong and the alien gets loose.
That sounds like a pretty darn solid film, doesn’t it? Now add Joss Whedon as the writer, that’s the same Joss Whedon who did such fantastic work on Buffy, Speed (uncredited), and Firefly, and who co-wrote Toy Story. Add producer Walter Hill, who rarely misses. And add a cast that includes Sigourney Weaver, Dan Hedaya (Usual Suspects, Clueless), perennial sci-fi favorite Brad Dourif (Dune, Lord of the Rings), and Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman. Not too shabby.

All told, this sounds like all the makings for a heck of a movie, doesn’t it? Well, not quite. See, a great concept also needs solid execution, and this thing had anything but solid execution.

Interestingly, the “production” itself was fine. The sets are nicely done. The actors did their parts. French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s camera work is competent, though hardly inspired. The effects were probably some of the best in the series. Yet the film stinks. And the reason the film stinks is because of a series of horrible choices made along the way.

Let’s start with the way they used the actors. Brad Douriff is wasted. He has less than two minutes of screen time. Ron Perlman is solid as always, but the film doesn’t focus on him until near the end, choosing instead to give equal time to each of the pirates. Hence, he’s largely wasted as well. Wynona Ryder is not credible as an android come to kill anyone. Sigourney Weaver’s character has lost all of her energy. She’s not spunky Ridley anymore, she’s super-monster killing-machine Ripley, and that makes her uninteresting. Also, the director seems incapable of deciding if she’s siding with the monsters or the humans, so her expressions are largely incomprehensible. Then there’s Dan Hedaya. . . yeah.
See, Hedaya is the first clue that something is seriously wrong here. He’s the general in charge of the facility. That means, he’s the guy who sets the tone for the “army guys” (I guess the Colonial Marine Corp went out of business). And what tone does he set? He’s un-funny comic relief. That’s right, he slouches around the facility like a caricature of a villain. He also does a lot of what appears to be physical humor, except it’s not clear it’s meant to be funny. For example, to enter secret rooms, he needs to breath into the security panels, which is ludicrous looking and reminds one of Bill Shatner in Airplane II who “shushes” the doors. When he goes to hit a button to activate a grenade, rather than just hit it, he does this cartoon-like routine where he holds the button as far away form himself as possible, as if the button will explode. And when he blows up an escape pod containing several soldiers, he does this laughably stupid looking salute, followed by the very tired routine of turning his eyes to the side as he realizes the alien is standing behind him. Was this parody? You can’t have a serious film where an important character acts like he’s in a cartoon.

Then you look at the writing. The scenes barely connect. Indeed, they feel more like vignettes strung together by walking scenes. Basically, they had a great idea in principle but never used it as more than back-story for a slow-motion chase film.

Beyond the lack of plot, the dialog is exceedingly poor. Indeed, Alien Resurrection includes one of the worst moments of exposition ever, as one of the soldiers explains to us who Wynona Ryder’s character is. See, exposition is a dangerous thing. There is an old rule in writing called “show, don’t tell,” because the best story telling involves letting the audience see something for themselves rather than just being told what the should know. Exposition flies in the face of that, and is therefore a dangerous thing to include in any event. And when exposition is too obvious, it makes the audience groan because they see it for what it is. It is not natural conversation, it is a character speaking directly to the audience to tell them exactly what they need to know.
In this case, the soldier (whose name is as irrelevant and as forgettable as the rest – another sign of horrible writing) first tells us that he has no idea who or what Wynona Ryder could possibly be, even after it’s revealed she’s a robot. Total blank. Then he says, “Wait a minute, I remember everything now!” This is perhaps the most ham-fisted way to say, “I am about to engage in exposition!” There should be a red flashing light whenever this phrase is uttered on film. Then he basically tells us Ryder’s entire backstory in excruciating detail. And how does he know all this? Because, he tells us, the story of the group of robots to which Ryder belongs is basically a passion of his “but I never thought I’d actually meet one!”

Now think about this. Ryder is a part of group that appears to be something he has a passion for studying. He knows everything about them. Yet, he doesn’t remember that he knows anything about them until it’s his turn to speak. This is a bizarre moment and it’s indicative of the writing here. When something needs to happen, it does. When some bit of information needs to be passed along, it is simply spoken after an “oh yeah.” There is no subtlety. There is no attempt to provide information through the story or to let it come naturally out of the dialog. That’s poor writing.

All of this conspires to make me wonder if someone, most likely the director, didn’t decide that he wanted to make this film a parody and just missed the mark. Each of these moments seems like it is intended to be humorous or poke fun at the way these films normally work, only none of them rise to the obvious level of making you laugh. It’s almost like the director wanted a comedy but no one else did, so you end up with an unsatisfactory and strange mix.

And in any event, the bigger lesson is that even when you have an excellent concept, it’s very easy to squander that with poor implementation.
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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Scott's Links November 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. . .

Creating better villains

Andrew has spoken multiple times about Hollywood's penchant for two-dimensional villains who are evil for the sake of being evil. "The cackling villain in his dark fortress should be shut up and discarded. We are better than this, which means our villains can be too. This also need not mean they’re no longer evil or bad, but their evil and their badness becomes somewhat worse because we understand why they do it. Yes, evil we can’t understand is also horrible – senseless murder, pack rapes, etc. – but we have enough of those in reality." Part 2 of this article continues here.

Indie video stores in the age of Netflix

It's comforting to know that there are still independent video stores out there in this age of streaming wonders. I miss them myself. More than an outlet for movies, video stores were a place to go... if only to briefly hang out with friends whilst perusing the shelves. On one hand, I don't exactly miss going to the store only to find out that the new release I wanted was out of stock. On the other hand, it felt good when I managed to snag the last copy!

The tyranny of cultural choice

I always play the "paradox of choice" card when friends ask me why I order the same two meals at restaurants. This article discusses something slightly different: the author asks "...Does manically devouring as much culture as possible make me a better person or just a better [game show] contestant? I think I know the answer to that one." I've often mentioned how being obligated to see a film or read a book simply makes the process less fun and fulfilling. And as a film school grad, people just assume I like certain movies when the truth is that I like what I like and no one should feel "required" to see something, critical praise be damned.

Why doesn't SyFy have a show like Battlestar Galactica anymore?

It isn't just Galactica, it's any show that takes place predominantly on spaceships. Unfortunately, despite the popularity of comic book movies and the rise of "geek chic," shipboard shows are still considered by some to be just too dang nerdy. And no doubt, budgets play a role, too. "'s kind of sad that Syfy is never mentioned in the same breath as HBO or AMC as the home of really stab-in-the-gut, thought-provoking programming. Because, after all, science fiction is the genre of big ideas, and it's a genre that allows for huge, sweeping storylines and extreme situations. Syfy really ought to be the channel of television with literary aspirations. So what happened?"

Dawn of the Dad: Fathers are the new videogame superhero

One area in which I am in complete agreement with my conservative friends (uh, I guess that would be you guys!) is the negative portrayal of fathers in pop culture. Thankfully, it would appear, videogames are now starting to feature heroic father figures as protagonists. Perhaps it's due to the aging videogame audience. Or maybe it's because game producers are attempting to bring more meaning to their work. In any case, this is a welcome development.

Why growing up in the 80s and 90s was the best time for cinema

[sigh] Yes, I know I frequently compare today's movies to yesteryear's movies and the rose-tinted glasses accusation is more than appropriate... but one glance at this article brings up some fond memories. You had John Hughes, Steven Spielberg in his prime, kiddie movies that could be legitimately scary, original concepts by Tim Burton, the birth of the action hero, freakin' Christmas movies (!), and another concept that I've had trouble articulating: personality. Even movies that were mediocre or merely okay had personality and memorable moments. You might hate Short Circuit but you remember Johnny 5 and maybe even the Indian guy, too. [smile]

Reasons why you'll always wrongly think your era is the best in cinema

Having said that, maybe it's all bull----. I have to agree with the part about the media: they're incredibly short-sighted (no kidding) and many of today's media personalities grew up in this era so there's an air of generational superiority. And truth be told, the good stuff rises to the top: there were plenty of awful movies made in the 80s but no one remembers them. I must disagree, however, with the author's last point: while we're prone to romanticize the past, there are plenty of "classic" 80s films I saw for the first time in this century but they still worked for me. I watched The Goonies and The Princess Bride in college and they were just as effective as they were 15 years earlier.

10 comedies that tackled serious issues

I hated The Invention of Lying but the rest are pretty spot-on. Comedy is often the best way to explore serious and complex issues. And in the case of truly horrific things like Naziism and fascism, the best way to explore the subject is to simply mock it.

The westerns of Barbara Stanwyck

I love Barbara Stanwyck, specifically circa 1941 when she did The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire. This article focuses on some of her western movies. I vaguely recall Annie Oakley and mainly because Miss Stanwyck couldn't completely hide her New York accent! "Despite living in a post-feminist age, today’s actresses struggle through careers that are erratic and short-lived. They lack an understanding of how a star image works and what it can represent to audiences, especially female viewers. They are subject to the whims of studio execs more interested in the teenage male demographic than in women viewers... By comparison, Stanwyck experienced a career that lasted from the early talkie era to the 1980s."

The worst parts of Prometheus as explained in the original script

I still haven't read Jon Spaihts' original draft of Prometheus so I can't say which was better: his version or Damon Lindelof's revision. One thing is certain: after listening to the audio commentary (with the two writers recorded separately), it's clear both versions had their own unique flaws and many bits that might've explained or motivated certain things were either unfilmed or filmed and left on the cutting-room floor. Consider this article full of spoilers!

Last night's listening:

It's that time of year, then the specialty labels bring out the big guns. Lately, I've been listening to Varese Sarabande's remastered, expanded release of Michael Kamen's action-packed score for Die Hard 2. Not to be outdone, La-La Land Records announced a remastered, expanded release of Kamen's score for Die Hard with a Vengeance, which features one of the best recordings of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" I've ever heard. Just to give you guys a hint of things to come, these two films (and the two that bookend them) are going to get much more attention 'round these parts in the next month or so. It is the holiday season, after all!
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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Questionable Star Wars vol. 3

Every movie extra dreams about stealing the show. They want to get noticed and get their own show! Aliens are no different.

Question: "What minor character most captured your imagination and made you want to see their story spun off?"

Andrew's Answer: I would have picked Boba Fett, except Lucas ruined him. Lando Calrissian would have been cool too. But I’m going a different direction. I want to see Captain Needa. I’d love to see things from the Empire’s perspective, and Needa is trapped in that rough spot between an impossible job and a difficult boss.

Scott's Answer: If Lucas hadn't used the characters in the prequels, I would've said Boba Fett. So instead I will say Admiral "It's a Trap!" Ackbar. Now that I think of it, it's too bad the prequels didn't include a young Ensign Ackbar on one of the hero ships! He just shows up in Return of the Jedi - no fanfare, no mention of him in the previous two films... he's just there, commanding a fleet of ships against a technologically-advanced and determined enemy. Who wouldn't want to see HBO's Band of Squid Aliens with Ackbar and the rest of his company? [smile]
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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Holiday Season Is Upon Us!

As we begin the holiday season, i.e. Turkey Day and Santa Day, it's time we ask everyone to share their favorite holiday films with us! Is it Christmas Vacation? Elf? Die Hard? Ghosts of Mars? Well, probably not, but you get the point. Tell us your favorite holiday films and tell us what makes them so special!

P.S. We're taking off until next week. Enjoy your holidays everyone!
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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Fateful Moment In Star Wars

Since we're doing Questionable Star Wars these days, I decided to revive this article.

Today, I want to talk about one little scene at the beginning of Star Wars. It’s not a scene most people remember, and the two characters involved don’t even have names. But it presents us with an amazing “what if” scenario.

As I'm sure you know, the movie opens with an Imperial Star Destroyer attacking a rebel ship, supposedly a diplomatic shuttle from Alderaan. On board this ship is Princess Leia with stolen plans for the Imperial Death Star. On board the Star Destroyer is Darth Vader. After stopping the rebel ship, Imperial Stormtroopers board the rebel ship and capture the crew. During these events, Leia puts the plans to the Death Star into R2D2, and he and C-3PO head for an escape pod. Our scene takes place right after they launch the pod.

As the pod leaves the rebel ship and heads toward Tatooine, an unnamed Imperial trooper notices the escape pod and asks his commander if he should destroy the pod. The commander, in a decision that will bring down the Empire, decides that they don't need to bother because they scan no life signs in the pod.

If those two bozos had destroyed the pod, R2D2 would have been destroyed along with the plans that eventually allow the rebels to destroy the Death Star. Even more significantly, had R2D2 not reached the surface, there would have been no reason for Stormtroopers to kill Luke’s family, giving Luke no reason to leave Tatooine or to fight the Empire. Moreover, there would have been no reason for Ben Kenobi to begin training Luke -- seeing as how he never bothered to contact Luke until he tried to take R2D2 to Anchorhead to have his memory erased.

Thus, by not destroying the pod, these two unnamed troopers allow to be set into motion a series of events that will eventually bring down the entire Galactic Empire.

What’s even more interesting is that if Vader had not pursued Leia in the first place, there also would have been no reason for them to go to Tatooine and to bring Luke into the story. And since Luke is the one guy in the universe who can destroy the Death Star and ultimately bring down the Empire, Vader essentially sets into place the chain of events he's trying to prevent.

Cool huh?

Lots of movies have little moments like this that often go unnoticed, moments where some minor action on the part of an insignificant character either causes a series of events or fails to prevent a series of events that have galactic importance to the story, or moments where a character’s actions bring on the very events they are trying to stop.

I think it’s a clever bit of writing that inserts these sorts of moments into films because it adds a sense of irony and raises questions of fate. How would things have gone if these two troopers had fired? What if Vader hadn’t decided to chase Leia? What if these weren't the robots you are looking for? I think these are interesting questions for us because we are very good at seeing our mistakes in hindsight, but we're very bad at seeing the future consequences of our actions. Seeing this in film is a way to live vicariously. . . to wonder if we shouldn't have shot down a few more pods in our lifetime, or if maybe we aren’t causing our own problems?


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Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 62

Wouldn't it be great if fictional characters were real? Yeah, imagine how great it would be to meet James T. Kirk, Bugs Bunny, Bill Clinton, or Godzilla!

What film character would you most want to meet in real life?

Panelist: ScottDS

My stock answers are usually heroes like Captain Kirk, Indiana Jones, James Bond, etc. However, for this question, I will say HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I find the idea of conversing with an artificial intelligence fascinating. (For the purposes of this question, let's assume I'm not on a spaceship!)

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Keyser Söze! Not only is he an incredible story teller, but there's an outside chance that he's actually Satan! I'd love to find that out.

Panelist: T-Rav

Depends on the circumstances. If I'm in a jam and need help fighting my way out of a tough spot, or just want some adventure for a while (the circumstances in which I would most want to meet a film character), then probably Han Solo. Or Mal Reynolds. One of the two.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Why Mr. Spock, of course. I mean, come on, meet a Vulcan? Who wouldn't . . . .

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, November 16, 2012

No Film Today... (no refunds)

Sorry folks, there will be no film today on account of the attempted murder of the site's founder by a cold bug. Rest assured that the bug has been apprehended and is currently being Robitussin-boarded in the hopes of finding all of its accomplices.
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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Rex Reed: Not Enough Hate In Lincoln

I wonder about liberals sometimes. This time I’m wondering about liberal movie critic Rex Reed. He just wrote a review of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln which pans the movie for being “sanitized and sentimental.” That’s liberal code for “doesn’t fit my worldview of how evil these people really were,” and that’s exactly why Rex doesn’t like this film. Oh, and he’s an idiot.

Rex’s review of Lincoln is rather an interesting read. For one thing, it’s full of politics and it’s laughably ignorant. To start, Rex tries to basically claim Lincoln for liberals and accuse the Republicans of being pro-slavery by claiming that the Democrats of the era were “rabid right wing conservatives in those days” and he calls the Republicans “liberal, left-wing.” This is untrue, but typical of Democrats. Somehow, in their world, all good deed were done by leftists and evil regimes like the Nazis and the Soviets somehow were conservative/libertarians.

He then refers to the screen play negatively as “a whopping drag” whose “verbosity does to movies what a House filibuster does to action on a health-reform bill.” Well Rex, filibusters occur in the Senate, not the House, which is really basic civics. . . even for liberals. And the House didn’t stop the health-reform bill, that’s only in your twisted liberal imagination. Indeed, when it was passed, the Democrats controlled the House. . . and a supermajority in the Senate. That means it couldn’t be filibustered, Rex. I guess liberals don’t know that though as they keep blamed Republicans for somehow interfering with Obama passing Obamacare. . . which never happened.

He also points out that the film is based on a book by “historian Doris Kearns Goodwin,” and he describes it as “noble, civic-minded, [and] exhaustingly researched.” He does not mention that Goodwin is a liberal sycophant with a real love for the Kennedys and a close relationship with the Democratic Party. Indeed, her husband was a speechwriter and advisor to Kennedy and Johnson, both of whom she’s also written biographies for. Nor does he point out that she’s been accused of significant plagiarism. Nope, she’s just identified as an “historian.” Do you think he would be as neutral about a conservative? Doubtful.

Finally, we get this ironic ending: “In a divisive election year when the Sunday morning pundits knock themselves out debating whether the political system still works, it’s a good time to revisit a year when it did.” Yes, the Civil War was indeed a time when the nation’s political system worked. Idiot. Even if he’s just talking about Lincoln affording blacks legal protection, it would take another 100 years before that actually happened. What did you think those Civil Rights marches were about in the 1960s Rex?

Anyway, let’s get to this idea of the film being “sanitized and sentimental.” Rex points out that the following bad things are in the film. Thaddeus Stevens, the passionate abolitionist, is presented as having a secret black mistress, and his “personal motives don’t always extend to the country’s best interests.” And Lincoln “threatens his wife with the madhouse” over her grief over the death of their son. But then our political and historical genius Rex mentions some things that don’t get included:
(1) “In reality, Lincoln believed in equality under the law, but not racial equality; he had no use for blacks and maintained a strong personal belief that whites were a superior race.”

(2) “Honest Abe was not so honest either. He and his cabinet of rivals were not above bribery, lies, suspending habeas corpus or bending the Constitution to break the South’s economic infrastructure. These are facts Spielberg conveniently overlooks.”
There you have it. This film was evil because it didn’t show Lincoln as a deeply corrupt white supremacist. Because of this, Rex calls the film “Spielberg’s bloated $50-million history lesson” and “a colossal bore” and “so pedantic, slow-moving, sanitized and sentimental that I kept pinching myself to stay awake—which, like the film itself, didn’t always work.”

This really highlights the problems with liberals. For one thing, Rex doesn’t know jack, yet he’s smug enough to try to give a history/civics lesson. Consequently, anyone who reads Rex’s review and believes any portion of it, will basically be a dumber American than when they started. Nice work, Rex.

Secondly, he’s so blinded by his need to see the past as full of evil people that he's incapable of enjoying a film about someone unless it shows their dark side. Talk about cynical! Not to mention, consider his inability to separate out his political views from the review. He can’t enjoy the film for what it is, he attacks it for what it is not, and what it is not is cynical enough to suit his view of history. This is why you can’t trust liberals, because they are incapable of separating their beliefs (unfounded or otherwise) from everything else they do.
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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Questionable Star Wars vol. 2

You know what Vader needed? A catch phrase... "I'm going to get all Forcey on your ass!" Yep, that would have made the whole six-ilogy more interesting. Don't you agree? No?! I find your lack of faith disturbing.

Question: "What was the best/worst line of dialog in the Star Wars series?"

Andrew's Answer: Wow! There are so many good lines! But for the original series, I'm going with the one that I think captures the spirit of the original films (which gets lost when it turns out the Force is nothing more than Type III Diabetes): "The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together." Awesome! You can hear the music too, can't you?

Try as I might, I just can't think of a good and memorable quote from the newer films, but I can certainly come up with about 150 worst quotes. But let's be honest, the worst of the worst by far is pretty much every... single... syllable... spoken by Jar-Jar Binks, like "Ye gods, whatta meesa sayin'?" Don't know, don't care, Mr. Binks. Actually, now that I think about it, the best quote from the crap films was when "Kungfoo Fighting" breaks out as soon as cartoon Yoda whips out his lightsaber and attacks Count Dookey.

Scott's Answer: For the original trilogy, I honestly can't think of a bad line. However, if we can count subsequent revisions, then Vader's "NOOO!" that Lucas added to the end of Return of the Jedi certainly fits the bill. For best line, there are so many to choose from but I think I'll stick with a classic: "Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid."

And now the prequels. Best line? I'd say most of Liam Neeson's dialogue in The Phantom Menace. Why? Because it's Liam Neeson and he can sell anything. Worst line is (too) easy: 98% of Hayden Christensen's dialogue in the subsequent two films. I hate to jump on that bandwagon but it's all there on the screen. His lovey-dovey dialogue with Natalie Portman... "You are in my very soul..." and "I don't like sand. It's coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth." Yikes!!

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 61

Americans are big into recycling, at least they are with sitcom stars.

There are actors who are permanent fixtures on sitcoms (like Ted Danson), who is your favorite?

Panelist: ScottDS

I'm not much of a sitcom guy nowadays but my answer would have to be Kelsey Grammar, hands down. He's one of our most dependable actors and can do both drama and comedy with equal aplomb. I don't think about Frasier that often but when I do, I realize how much I miss it.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I am not a fan of sitcoms anymore, so this is a hard one for me. But I'm going to reach into my bag of blah and pull out John Goodman. He's just hard not to like and I think he does a heck of a lot better "fat guy" than any of the guys who replaced him over the years.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

The permanent fixture I miss the most is Bob Newhart. I was just watching a marathon of The Bob Newhart Show, the one where he is the psychologist and what a great show that was. It was entertaining and funny with classic quirky characters and situations that the whole family can watch and with the extra added bonus of being timeless. Of course, now that I am able to revisit old sit-coms on stations like Antenna TV, it is interesting how many of the old shows are timeless and still as funny and entertaining today as they were when they were originally broadcast.

Panelist: T-Rav

I haven't watched many sitcoms in several years, so this is going to be a little '90s-centric. Within those bounds, I would have to go with Jerry Stiller (Seinfeld, The King of Queens, probably some others I don't know about), although Everybody Loves Raymond's Doris Roberts would be a close second.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Art Carney as Norton on the Honeymooners.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, November 9, 2012

Film Friday: True Lies (1994)

True Lies fascinates me. When it came out, the action genre was played out. Spy movies, like the James Bond franchise, were mired in mediocrity. Schwarzenegger had come off his first true failure in Last Action Hero. And Tom Arnold was intensely disliked. This thing had all the hallmarks of being a dud. Yet, it proved to be one of the best action films of all time.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
On the surface, True Lies is a Tom Clancy-like action film. It centers around Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger), a member of an elite agency charged with protecting the world from terrorists. Harry is the best of the best and is capable of an amazing number of borderline-impossible physical tasks. He’s James Bond on steroids. His partner Gib (Tom Arnold) is the typical sidekick one finds in these stories, who does all the leg work to allow Harry to be the hero. Together they need to stop an Islamic terrorist who has gotten his hands on two nuclear bombs.
But that’s not really what this film is about.

At its core, True Lies is a romantic comedy about the relationship between Harry and his wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis). Harry cannot tell Helen what he does for a living, so he pretends to be a boring computer salesman. He is so dull that Helen has become bored and finds herself enticed into considering an affair. . . sort of. . . with “Simon” (Bill Paxton), a sleazy used car salesman who pretends to be a spy to trick Curtis into coming to his home. Harry discovers this and abuses his power with the agency to uncover what is going on and then to make an attempt to win back Helen. But things go awry as his day job stumbles upon the game he is playing with his wife. Soon, Helen learns the truth and the rest of the film is about them resurrecting their relationship in light of the lies Harry had been telling. Oh, and they need to stop Miami from going up in smoke and save their daughter.
What Drives This Film
True Lies should be a template for how to make an effective action film. First, you have all the usual bells and whistles – exotic locations, amazing stunts, fantastic effects, and huge stakes between the bad guys and the good guys. Indeed, the explosion of the bridge is perhaps one of the best effects/scenes in action movie history, and the fight scenes are executed brilliantly. But what sets this film apart is not the action scenes, it’s what happens between the action scenes.
For one thing, the relationship between Harry and Gib is fantastic. Like all sidekicks, Tom Arnold is here to provide comic relief. But unlike most sidekicks, he’s got a strong character himself. In many ways, he’s more capable and more rational than Harry. He’s the guy who really makes the team click. And that allows their banter to be that much more fun. In effect, their relationship is that of any standard buddy film, where the two characters are equals who get along well despite their differences, and it is because they are equals that the relationship is simultaneously frustrating and rewarding. This choice makes their moments together so much stronger than most hero/sidekick moments, where the sidekick does little more than set up the lines for the hero.

Secondly, the entire subplot between Harry, Helen and “Simon” gives this film heart. Name another action film that takes forty minutes out of its plot to do something that isn’t related to the bad guy’s scheme? There isn’t one because that rarely works. But it works here because this subplot is brilliantly woven into the main plot because of the ironic coincidence of “Simon” pretending to be a spy while Harry is pretending not to be a spy and because of the way it pulls Helen into Harry’s real life. It also smartly lets the plot develop without the filmmaker needing to show every aspect of the bad guy’s plan. Instead, the bad guy’s plan advances while you are watching the “Simon” story and you pick up right at the exciting parts.
Third, you have the romantic aspect of this film. In this case, Cameron brilliantly plays upon the most common complaints of both men and women when it comes to relationships. For men, you have the “my wife doesn’t understand me” aspect of Harry not being able to convince his wife that he’s not boring. For women, you have the escapism of wanting to find a romantic-hero, like a spy, when you’re married to a dull, but decent man. Moreover, the film resolves perfectly as both get exactly what they want. Harry’s wife realizes he’s not dull and actually takes an interest in his life, which makes him happy. Meanwhile, Helen discovers that her “dull and safe” husband really has an exciting hidden side, which makes her happy. And to cap it all off, they both realize that they really do love each other no matter what. Each of those ideas taps directly into the needs of men and women in relationships and makes the film fulfilling to both genders.
Finally, this film is a brilliant comedy. This film is awash in humor that arises out of the story and which is organic to the characters. There is no forced humor here, nor is the humor assigned to just one character. To the contrary, each character has ample moments to deliver humor and almost all of those moments are things to which you can relate. And that is a key point because it keeps the humor fresh year after year because it doesn’t rely on punch lines, it relies on you relating to those same moments in your own life. That’s very well done.

True Lies is a film that blew me away the first time I saw it, and it’s proven to have amazing staying power. It’s also a film that just doesn’t grow old. And the reason for that is that this film focuses on the relationships of the characters, not on the plot. They need to make more movies like this.

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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Guest Review: Batman Returns (1992)

By ScottDS
Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was a huge hit and ushered in a wave of superhero films, which, despite several peaks and valleys, shows no sign of stopping. It was inevitable that one of those films would be a Batman sequel and in 1992, Tim Burton and Warner Bros. gave us Batman Returns. This film was criticized for being too dark, too violent, and too focused on the villains. As a Batman film, I can see how it might disappoint people. As a Tim Burton film, I think it’s great.

A deformed penguin-like man, Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito), blackmails crooked industrialist Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). They arrange to have the mayor’s child kidnapped so Cobblepot a.k.a. the Penguin, can come to the rescue and look like a hero to the citizens of Gotham City. Meanwhile, Shreck throws his meek secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) out a window after she discovers that his proposed power plant will actually drain power from the city. Selina survives the fall and, after a psychotic meltdown, takes on the identity of Catwoman, hellbent on revenge.
While Shreck tries to have the mayor recalled and the Penguin elected in his place, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) and Selina share a fractured romance, despite the fact that Catwoman's in league with the Penguin to rid the city of Batman. After Batman ruins the Penguin’s political ambitions as well as his plan to kidnap all the first-born sons of Gotham, the Penguin decides to destroy the city using penguins armed with missiles. Batman diverts the missiles to the Penguin’s secret lair. Catwoman unmasks herself and kills Shreck (and presumably herself) via electrocution. The Penguin succumbs to his injuries and his emperor penguin troops carry him to a watery grave. The film ends, like the first film did, with the flash of the Bat-signal, only for Catwoman to appear instead…

I want to make a couple things clear: 1.) Despite being a member of the demographic, I’m not a comic book reader, so I have no idea what I’m missing or what the filmmakers should or should not have done, and 2.) I can accept the film on its own, without going back to any source material. (This doesn’t work all the time, though.) I like this film. In fact, there are even days where I like it better than the first film. I’m sympathetic to the criticisms and I wasn’t surprised when, during the DVD retrospective, screenwriter Daniel Waters - who rewrote Sam Hamm’s original script and whose script was, in turn, rewritten later - admitted to not being concerned with the mythology or what fans might want. In fact, the studio managed to persuade Tim Burton to sign on only when they promised him that he could make “a Tim Burton film starring Batman” as opposed to simply “a Batman film.” Burton has since justified some of his decisions. For instance, he always felt that the nature of Batman was such that he wouldn’t go around making grand speeches and other PR-friendly displays of superheroics. He’s a creature of the night and would prefer to stay in the shadows, being seen only when necessary.
I was only six when the first film was released so I wasn’t aware of the “How could they hire Mr. Mom?!” controversy, but Michael Keaton acquits himself nicely. He has an easy-going personality and brings just the right amount of neurosis to Bruce Wayne and toughness to Batman. I absolutely love his reveal in this film: the Bat-signal comes on and we see Bruce in his study. What’s he doing? Sulking in the darkness. It’s like the man has no purpose, except when the city’s in trouble and in that regard, he’s very much like Sherlock Holmes or Captain Kirk, both of whom would cease to function without the Call to Action. And as much as I enjoy the Christopher Nolan films, it’s nice to have a balls-to-the-wall film where there is no “prophecy” or “chosen one” or any of those mythic tropes. This film gets down to brass tacks and is, in fact, the only Batman movie where the murder of Bruce’s parents isn’t mentioned.

Many reviewers seem to love Catwoman and hate the Penguin, or vice versa. I love ’em both. They’re almost sympathetic: the Penguin (at first) only wants what we all want, a normal life. He wants to find out what happened to his parents and why they felt the need to throw him into the river as an infant. Catwoman might be a villain but she’s not “evil.” She doesn’t want to watch the world burn; she only wants revenge on the man who killed her. (Yes, I’m simplifying a bit here!) Christopher Walken is at his slithering best as crooked industrialist Max Shreck, who only lives for power (literally and figuratively). Batman veterans Michael Gough and Pat Hingle return as Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, respectively. The rest of the supporting cast is rounded out by Michael Murphy as Gotham’s beleaguered mayor, Andrew Bryniarski as Max’ son Chip, and the late Vincent Schiavelli as a member of the Penguin’s gang of circus freaks. Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger (of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) briefly show up in the opening as the Penguin’s parents.

Like the other Batman films of the period, the story itself is more or less window dressing for the characters and their bizarre antics. However, in this film, there actually is some semblance of a story. Shreck wants a power plant but the mayor tells him he’ll have to go through “the usual channels.” Shreck threatens a recall and later finds in the Penguin a perfect candidate and willing accomplice, but only after the Penguin blackmails him. It turns out the sewer-dwelling Penguin has been collecting some very important waste throughout the years, including some shredded documents with Shreck’s name on them. It’s not exactly front and center but at least these guys have some kind of motivation – respect for the Penguin and a legacy for Shreck – whereas too many villains are just evil for evil’s sake. (As much as I enjoy the first film, does anyone really remember the subplot involving the Joker’s poisonous beauty products?) There are some witty lines of dialogue in this film and a macabre sense of humor on display.

It’s not all roses, however. I can’t buy Catwoman’s origin in the film. I understand being driven to the brink of insanity but she’s pushed out a window, falls a dozen stories to her death, and is brought back to life by… cats? And once she starts prancing around in her slinky leather get-up, she’s suddenly athletic? She can do cartwheels and back flips and this all came from… where, exactly? In any movie like this, there are certain leaps in logic to be expected but a film still needs to play by its own rules. Oh, and Batman manages to foil all the Penguin’s plans with relative ease, to the point where the climax isn’t nearly as exciting as it should be. The Penguin’s mayoral ambitions? Thwarted with a convenient audio recording. The kidnapping plot? Batman appears just at the right time. The penguins armed with missiles? Diverted via frequency jamming.

And there are some minor inconsistencies with the Batmobile. Early in the film, Batman activates a hydraulic “foot” which lifts the car and spins it 180 degrees… except there doesn’t appear to be any room in the car body for the foot when its not in use, not to mention Batman manages to punch a hole through the bottom of the Batmobile later on, and he even activates the “Batmissile” mode in which most of the exterior parts are jettisoned, making the car small enough to fit through a narrow alley… so where did the foot go?! Also, unlike the Nolan films, this film portrays the citizens of Gotham City as mindless drones, gullible and easily led astray. Nothing wrong with that per se but it's a bit cynical, and even worse than that, a bit lazy.
Like every Tim Burton film, the technical aspects are top-notch, but with one caveat. Gotham City looks awfully cramped in this film. Why? Because the first film was shot at the famous Pinewood Studios outside London where Gotham City was erected on the backlot. This film, however, was shot at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank where Gotham City was a smaller indoor set... and it looks like one at times. The interior sets look great, though, especially Shreck’s conference room and the Penguin’s lair in an abandoned zoo. (As an aside, I guess I should mention that Anton Furst, the genius production designer who won an Oscar for the first film, jumped to his death in 1991. Sad but true.)

The costumes are quite beautiful, especially Catwoman’s outfit which (for obvious reasons) is one of the more memorable costumes in film history. And Christopher Walken’s cuff links are actually human molars... naturally. Danny Elfman’s operatic score reprises the famous Batman theme from the first film and features two new themes for the Penguin and Catwoman, both full of melancholy. The Oscar-nominated visual effects still hold up (mostly), including some early CGI, beautiful matte paintings of Gotham City, and animatronic penguins by the late, great Stan Winston.

Like I said above, I understand the problems that Batman fans have with this film. I even got into a brief argument with a friend (a big Frank Miller fan) who simply could not understand what I saw in this film. After all, how could I possibly like a Batman film where Batman barely shows up? Well, I just do. And I’ll watch it a hundred times before most of the generic cookie-cutter superhero movies we get today. (I'm looking at you, Green Hornet!) Sadly, I’ll also watch it a hundred times before Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows - it’s time for Burton to disengage the autopilot!

“You're just jealous, because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!”

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Questionable Star Wars vol. 1

Let's shift gears and talk about Star Wars! Like Trek, Star Wars changed the world. It became a pillar of our culture, as influential as that Shakespeane dude or Max Twain. It also dominated so many of our childhoods. And in light of that. . .

Question: "What was the best moment in all of the Star Wars films?"

Scott's Answer: The best moment for me is the asteroid chase in The Empire Strikes Back. It's a perfectly-executed self-contained sequence in a film that already has a lot going for it. It's a wonderful melding of sound design, music, editing, witty dialogue, and amazing visuals courtesy of ILM. And this was pre-CGI - each asteroid had to be constructed and photographed separately. Also, a few years ago I was able to see "The Asteroid Chase" music performed live by an orchestra... simply amazing.

Andrew's Answer: I'm going to the same place, but a different direction than Scott. The best moment in all the films is indeed in the asteroid field, but it's after the chase, when they are fixing the Falcon and Han and Leia have their big scene together... right until C-3PO interrupts them. What a great moment which gives the films real heart, and it pays off so incredibly well about an hour later with, "I love you"... "I know." :)

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Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 60

Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn about the cast. . . do it again!

Recast Gone with the Wind with current actors.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

This is a tough one since the original stars so own the visual rights. Scarlett: Mila Kunis, Emma Stone, Eliza Dushku, and Jennifer Lawrence get brought in for a screen test, but Emma Stone is my likely pick. Scarlett with red hair damn it! Rhett Butler: Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama), Henry Cavill (The Immortals, the Tudors), Alex O'Laughlin (Hawaii 5-0) or Anson Mount (Hell on Wheels) could all qualify visually. Melanie Wilkes: Emma Watson, Keira Knightly. Ashley Wilkes: Ryan Phillippe or Barrack Obama. Mammy: Octavia Spear or even better Queen Latifah.

Panelist: ScottDS

I still haven't seen it [dodges thrown object from Bev] so I'll do the best I can. Christian Bale as Rhett Butler, Emmy Rossum as Scarlett O'Hara, Guy Pierce as Ashley Wilkes, and Gemma Arterton as Melanie Hamilton.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

This one is much more difficult than recasting Star Wars, but we can't shirk the hard ones! I'd cast Stephen McHattie (Pontypool) as Rhett Butler. I'd go with James Caviezel as Ashley Wilkes, Rosamund Pike as Melanie, and Mary Winstead as Scarlett O'Hara.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Aw, you put this one in just for me! But this is a really hard question because there are just no replacements for the original cast. I happen to think that every casting choice made was perfect and there are no modern equivalents to Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel, Leslie Howard, Butterfly McQueen, Olivia DeHaviland et al. There are just no actors who can measure up. However, if I must ponder the unthinkable, I will give this one a lot more thought and prepare to defend or debate others obviously wrong choices!

Panelist: T-Rav

This may sound weird, but I would kinda like to see Robert Downey Jr. as Rhett Butler. I mean, if he can do a convincing Sherlock Holmes, why not? For Miss Scarlett O'Hara, hmmm. If it was 20 or 30 years ago, I might have gone with Stephanie Zimbalist (yeah, I can do obscure people too), but no one really strikes me as well for it today. Maybe Kate Beckinsale? She has a pretty wide range. I would also like to see Guy Pearce as Ashley. Kind of a British-heavy cast, but if they're going to be playing all our superheroes, oh well.

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Feedback/Open Thread

No film review today. Instead, I want to know two things. First, what films are you excited about seeing this coming holiday season? Here's a list: Upcoming Movies. Just don’t pick something stupid or you will be ridiculed. . . mercilessly. Secondly, tell us what you’d like to see more of at the site. Would you like us to post on more days? Do you want more news? More reviews? More stuff? Help us. . . to help you!
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