Friday, December 21, 2012

A Very Linky Christmas

Today we begin our Christmas Break... time to impersonate Santa. Look for big changes when we get paroled starting January 2. We'll be adding a regular Thursday post to discuss Bond... James Bond (and rank the films). We'll be mixing up the questionable articles on Tuesdays for greater variety. Scott will examine some disaster films and defend a film many consider a disaster. Naturally, we'll continue with the Toon-arama series and the Sunday Debates and the Friday reviews and watch for an interesting change in the link articles. So be sure to tune in! Meanwhile, to keep you busy over the holidays, here are some links from Scott.

A shot-by-shot analysis of the latest Star Trek teaser

You can find a link to the teaser in the opening paragraph. In short, I'm excited. However, it would be nice to see a new Star Trek film that didn't feature a megalomaniacal villain out to destroy Earth. We've had that twice in a row, plus it's pretty much the plot in every other superhero movie that's out there now. And if the villain does indeed turn out to be Khan, then color me disappointed. Why bother rebooting the franchise if you're just going to re-use old characters? Having said that, I'm sure this will be a lot of fun, and the effects wizards at ILM seem to have outdone themselves once again. But this all brings me to...

Are all franchise films essentially the same now?

It's hard to argue with this: "In the first Star Trek episode ever, “The Cage” a race of aliens called the Talosians is introduced. These guys got so into creating illusions with their minds that they forgot how the technology of their ancestors even worked. They forgot how to be original and grew bored and warped and immoral. Are the big-franchise filmmakers of today like the Talosians? Giant pulsing brains who’ve created the same illusion over and over, reusing the same formulas so often that they have forgotten how to be creative? How to take a risk?" Also, the author's comment on Tim Burton's Batman is spot on!

A look at the 2012 Black List

No, not that Black List. This list is the annual list of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, though a few of them are currently in some phase of development. I've perused the loglines and, while some of the films are your standard TV-movie "Guy/girl returns home to reconcile with family" routines, there are some really cool stories here. My favorites are, without a doubt, Seuss, Wunderkind, If They Move... Kill 'Em!, Man of Tomorrow, Untitled Cops Script, and Hibernation.

Geek culture has gone mainstream but at what cost?

A TV writer recently compared nerds who like The Bang Bang Theory to black people who like Amos 'n' Andy. Okay, so all things geek are now mainstream but has this damaged the "geek" label, or is it much ado about nothing? After all, history has shown that once something becomes popular, it often gets diluted. And our 24/7 media-saturated culture hasn't helped: "Armed with Wikipedia and an Idiots or annotated guide to just about everything, the average citizen can, in minutes, discover the tantalizing bits of canonical knowledge it once took years to accumulate - years in which some of us clung to our semi-secret predilections for fantasy or science fiction, playing Dungeon and Dragons instead of dodgeball."

With 35mm film dead, will classic movies ever look the same?

This could turn out to be a big problem. A.) companies that deal with film - suppliers, labs, etc. - are shutting down, B.) while (most) classic films will always get much-needed restorations, what about that B-western no one but your father remembers?, and C.) people now expect older films to look like new ones which is why too many Blu-Rays technicians pump up the color and try to get rid of the grain, usually with awful results. There are plenty of folks in Hollywood who value the industry's legacy but that and five cents will get you a cup of coffee and at the end of the day, it's about the bottom line and demographics. Or maybe I'm just a pessimist. [smile]

The terribly true story behind the Super Mario Bros. movie

I remember seeing this in the theater. I was a Mario-loving 10-year old and I enjoyed the movie (for what it was). Looking back on it almost 20 years later, I'm literally ashamed of myself! Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo have both said how much they hated making the movie and it seems no one knew how to adapt a video game, because it had never been done before. The problem with video game movies is that watching one is like watching your sibling play a video game - you don't want to watch, you want to play! And for some reason, they changed the locale from the Mushroom Kingdom to a Blade Runner-esque alternate universe Manhattan. The film has developed a cult audience (size: unknown) and after reading this article, I kinda want to see it again.

Searching for the real movie Lincoln

"Sources agree that Abraham Lincoln is the president most often represented on film, though an exact count of portrayals is difficult to determine. The editors at Guinness list 136 featured roles in films in The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats, but that doesn’t include television and shorts. The Movie List Book estimates over 150 films, but that reference was published in 1990. Internet sources such as Suite 101 and Great weigh in at over 200 film portrayals, though I fear they inflate in order to push their point that Lincoln is our most iconic president. The popularity of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis’s magnetic interpretation of the 16th president has inspired bloggers to recount the portrayals and mine them for best performances, historical accuracy, and bizarre depictions."

Celebrating 50 years of James Bond title design

As a preamble to our new James Bond series in 2013, I've included this piece which takes a look at each and every Bond title sequence, featuring work by Maurice Binder, Robert Brownjohn, Daniel Kleinman, and the studio MK12. "As with the films themselves, most Bond titles draw from a self-governed set of themes, but they are also liberal in their application of them. Female forms, stylized violence, implied danger, guns, imaginative photography, motion graphics, and academic typography are paired with a billboard anthem and presented through the thematic lens of the film itself - as in the underwater ballad of the Thunderball titles or the cosmic backdrops of Moonraker."

Last night's listening:

There's a good chance that if it's mentioned on this list, I was listening to it! (My last purchase included the second, third, and fourth items in the La-La Land Records category.)

Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah everyone!
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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Toon-arama Christmas

by tryanmax
Christmas time is a season of traditions. Some are very old like decorating trees and exchanging presents. And there are some traditions that have come more recently. Clearly one of my favorite traditions of the modern age is the annual lineup of animated Christmas specials that fill up the primetime TV schedule like a stocking stuffed with trinkets. Most of the classics have been around since before I was born. I can’t imagine a world without A Charlie Brown Christmas, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, the Grinch, “The Chipmunk Song,” or any of the dozens of Rankin-Bass Productions.

Along with the classics, the networks throw some new stuff our way each year. Most of these don’t have much staying power. The He-Man & She-Ra Christmas Special just doesn’t jingle many bells these days. But every now and then, something new comes along that manages to capture the Christmas spirit in a way that earns it a spot on the nice list for years to come. It may be too soon to tell, but I’d like to share with you a couple of more recent Christmas specials that just might make the cut.
Shrek the Halls (DreamWorks, 2007)

If you don’t know the lovably uncouth ogre named Shrek by now, you’re probably living deeper in the swamp than he is. And while he and his interminable series of films are not for everyone he appears to have left a mark on the culture at least for a generation. As for me, I actually enjoy watching the grumpy green giant anachronistically deconstruct beloved children’s tales in his antisocial way. But, surprisingly, Shrek doesn’t give Santa Claus for a sardonic makeover—at least not directly—and that’s a good thing.

The limited action of the special focuses on Shrek trying to prepare the “perfect” Christmas for his wife Fiona and their infant triplets. The problem is, being an ogre, Shrek has never celebrated Christmas before. So the fairytale characters encountered in the films offer to help out, much to Shrek’s chagrin. This leads to lots of gags related to the characters’ stories and conflicts between their different personalities, including plenty of slapstick.

Amid the chaos, Shrek attempts to read “A Visit from St. Nicholas (The Night Before Christmas)” but is interrupted by Donkey, Gingy, and Puss in Boots who each have their own version of the tale rife with hilarious idiosyncrasies—but I leave those for your viewing pleasure.

Eventually Shrek grows impatient with all the commotion and orders everybody out in a fit of anger. Naturally, Fiona and Shrek talk it out and Shrek apologizes to everyone in a scene that isn’t nearly as schmaltzy as it could have been. Finally, Shrek gets the chance to tell his version of the story, not about Santa, but of Ogre Claus.

This Christmas special hits a lot of the right notes. For starters, it’s just fun. I think the producers did a very smart thing by keeping it simple rather than setting Shrek off on an epic Christmas Quest. (Though there is a hint of that as Shrek quickly treks to Far Far Away to pick up a copy of Christmas for Village Idiots.) Much of what made the Shrek films so popular is the social awkwardness of the main character, so a Christmas gathering provides more than ample fodder on its own.

Also, good parody has inherent longevity, especially when the source is long-lived as well. The alternate takes on “A Visit from St. Nicholas” are highly imaginative, memorable, and comprise the bulk of the special. More importantly, one does not need to be very familiar with the Shrek franchise to get the humor. The stories that Puss and Gingy tell are simply from the perspectives of a cat and a cookie, respectively, and one only need know that Donkey is a goofball to understand his oddball rendition.

Marks against Shrek the Halls are few, but those who don’t enjoy gross-out humor simply do not enjoy it. This is not for them. I have a hard time imagining anyone being offended by this special otherwise—the most irreverent gag is a choir singing “Waffle Santa” to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus. Finally, deconstructing classics is a bit of a fad right now. As such, Shrek is at risk of simply fading away. However, his films and Christmas special may be enduring enough to be a perennial reminder of this time rather than a relic of it. We’ll see…
Prep & Landing/Prep & Landing: Naughty vs. Nice (Disney, 2009/2011)

Where Shrek keeps it simple, Prep & Landing goes in the other direction by adding a brand new element to the Christmas mythos that is stylish and hi-tech. Normally I would say that is a recipe for dating a program and making sure it slips right away, but not in this case. I’ll elaborate in a bit.

The story follows Wayne and Lanny, a pair of Christmas elves who are part of an elite squad known as “Prep & Landing.” They are basically Santa’s advance team whose job it is to ensure that the children are snug in their beds and not a creature is stirring before the big guy arrives. To accomplish this task, they are equipped with loads of high-tech gear (cleverly disguised as Christmas novelties), direct two-way communication with the North Pole and a dictionary of holiday-themed code words.

But all is not well with the P&L crew. Wayne is disgruntled at having been passed over for a promotion after 227 years of faithful service and has become disenchanted with the job. As such, he is less than a perfect mentor to the rookie, Lanny. Wayne slacks off, leaving the inexperienced Lanny to do all the work. It’s a disaster. So much so that it looks like Santa will have to cancel the landing, something never done before. Of course, the dire prospect causes Wayne to pull himself together and save the landing, Mission Impossible style!
The sequel, Naughty vs. Nice, introduces the “Coal Elf Brigade,” the rehabilitation arm of Santa’s gift program. Their job—you guessed it—is to deliver coal to the children on the Naughty List…along with encouraging notes such as, “Try Harder Next Year.” In this episode, Wayne and Lanny are called upon to perform a special mission: to recover classified North Pole technology that has fallen into the hands of an unknown hacker. For this mission, the pair have been assigned to work with the foremost expert on naughty children from the Brigade, Wayne’s younger (but bigger) brother Noel.

The hacker, a girl by the name of Grace Goodwin, is intent on removing herself from the naughty list, believing herself framed by her little brother. Their sibling rivalry parallels similar tensions that persist between Wayne and Noel. When Grace hacks into the “Fruit Cake” (a sort-of elfin iPhone) the device malfunctions threatening to put the whole world on the Naughty List. Wayne and Noel must resolve their issues and work together to execute a risky operation which will save Christmas.

As cheesy and predictable as both of these storylines sound, they actually work pretty well in context. This is because they present appropriately high stakes without ever getting too serious about it. Of course we never really doubt that Christmas will be saved in the end, either.

While the stories are solid enough for 20+ minute specials, the real entertainment comes from exploring this previously unseen aspect of the Santa story. As I said before, throwing hi-tech at the Santa myth has usually been a disservice to the story. That’s because in most cases, it gets shoehorned in as Santa receives a mid-movie makeover and it serves more as a punch line than a plot point. But in Prep & Landing the tech is integral to the story from the very beginning. It is, in fact, what makes events seem plausible.

Furthermore, the tech doesn’t strike me as the sort that will become dated in any bad way. Rather, it is more like the tech seen in Bond movies or, perhaps more similarly, The Incredibles. Little of it is realistic in the first place, but it bears a rough similarity to tech we know and understand. Plus, much of the humor takes place at the North Pole Christmas Eve Command Center, which is a healthy mix of Christmas puns and timeless office humor.

If I had to give one more reason why I think Prep & Landing will stick around, it’s because it has the Disney marketing machine behind it, which will certainly help, but in this case it’s a good product worth promoting.

What about you, have you seen any recent Christmas specials that you think will stick around for years to come? What about your favorite forgotten specials that have gone away? And feel free to discuss the perennial favorites like those I mentioned at the beginning, too. Merry Christmas!
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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Questionable Star Wars vol. 6

The Millennium Falcon is the definition of a “cool ride.” But not everyone can win one in a card game. So maybe you should look at getting something else the next time you’re in the market for a spaceship.

Question: "Other than the Millennium Falcon, what is the coolest ship in the series?"

Scott's Answer: I suppose X-wing is a cop-out answer so I will say the star destroyers (another cop-out answer!). In terms of physics, their shape serves no real purpose but, in terms of design, they're great. The first shot of the first film tells you everything you need to know about what's going on and the overall shape and dimensions of the star destroyer play a part in that.

Andrew's Answer: For comfort and ride, nothing beats a star destroyer, but man, I love the tie fighters. The way they scream through space, proving that in space, people can hear you scream! They are just all kinds of awesome, especially Vader's model with the bent wings. What a fantastic spaceship!

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 65

Who doesn't love movie posters? Commies, that's who! But who cares about them.

What is your favorite movie poster?

Panelist: BevfromNYC

The poster for Jaws. It's simple yet effective; the picture tells you everything you need to know about the movie, while instantly conveying the scariness of it all.

Panelist: T-Rav

I don't really pay attention to movie posters. Never have. I guess that's sort of a generational thing (that's only a dig at your age if you make it one, people). But the poster for the original Star Wars has become pretty iconic, so I guess I'll go with that.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Lots of great ones. How about this one for Sunset Blvd.? (LINK) I love how just her face is outlined in red.

Panelist: ScottDS

I'm going to break the rules and list a few posters. [smile] Despite my feelings for the film itself, I always enjoyed the teaser poster for The 5th Element which features a starfield and the cryptic phrase "It Mu5t Be Found" - candy for a 14-year old geek. Also: the poster for Manhattan featuring the iconic image of Woody, Diane, and the Queensboro Bridge. I'm also a huge fan of Drew Struzan's work (who isn't?). There was also a cool retro poster for Captain America which was produced as a gift for the cast and crew - I love it!

Panelist: AndrewPrice

The Star Wars poster. I grew up with this one on my wall... and my lunchbox. :)

Comments? Thoughts?

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Friday, December 14, 2012

Film Friday: The X-Files (1998)

I’ve been a fan of The X-Files from the beginning. What a great show! And believe it or not, when I heard they were making a movie, I was kind of excited. Yeah, I know that movies made from television shows usually stink, but I had hope. And ultimately, this film did a great job of bringing the series to the big screen.

** spoiler alert **

Starting in 1993 and running through 2002, The X-Files was an amazingly original series. It starred David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Mulder worked in the basement of the FBI building on something called the X-Files. These were unsolved crimes involving claims of strange or paranormal activity. Because of their nature, they were considered a joke and the fact Mulder refused to abandon the X-Files was an embarrassment to the FBI, which wanted them forgotten.

The series began with Agent Scully being assigned to assist Mulder. Scully is a straight-laced scientist and skeptic, and her real assignment was to debunk Mulder’s findings and to discredit him so the FBI could justify shutting him down. Over time, however, Scully came to realize that Mulder really was onto something and a relationship developed between them. . . though the writers teased the heck out of the audience with that!
In addition to this dynamic, the series developed a deep mythology. Mulder uncovered a number of conspiracies, but never could quite get to the bottom of them. These revolved around secret groups who had a hand in alien abductions, cloning experiments, and anything else the writers could come up with. They were both outside of and controlled the government. Making these conspiracies work were a series of recurring characters like Cancer Man, a cigarette smoking man who occasionally aided Mulder with information but just as often sabotaged him. They gave the audience just enough to tease them, but never even to solve the riddles. Moreover, it soon became clear that the FBI was under the control of these groups, except for Mulder’s boss Assistant Director Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), who did his best to secretly help Mulder and Scully.

So along comes the film.

When you’re turning a television series into a film, the biggest problem you face is decided how deep to get into the mythology. Most of the audience you’re hoping to attract haven’t watched the series and know almost nothing about it. If you don’t feed them a lot of basic information to get them to understand the players and the motivations, they will be lost and won’t enjoy the film. But at the same time, your guaranteed core audience are people who love the series, and they won’t be happy if the film spends its time acting like a primer for the series. They want a continuation of the series exactly where it left off, only bigger in scope. . . something to move the series to the next level. There may be no harder balancing act in filmmaking than solving this contradiction.

Yet, The X-Files did it. And to do that, the The X-Files chose an interesting route. Let’s start with how they satisfied the fans.
To satisfy the fans, the film digs deeply into the mythology and it actually does an amazingly strong job of bringing together many of the conspiracies Mulder uncovered throughout the series. Essentially, the film involves a virus fans have seen before, which is uncovered in Texas when a boy falls through the ground into a cave. A shadowy organization moves in and covers up this virus by burying the bodies of the infected in the rubble of a building they explode. This is the same shadowy organization which Mulder has been chasing throughout the series and they are represented here by many of the same actors we’ve seen in the series. Moreover, the film doesn’t annoy the fans with exposition scenes or flashbacks that explain who these people are or what their relationship is to Mulder. In effect, it treats the audience as if they are all fans. . . though there is a catch I will explain in a moment. The film then provides a truly credible answer to what this conspiracy has been up to and why they’ve been so obsessed with Mulder. This does exactly what the fans want: it takes things to the next level and expands the mythology.
Aside from that, the film also mentions much of the mythology, like references to Mulder’s father, who is a key figure in the series, the presence of Cancer Man, the well-manicured man, the Lone Gunmen, the sexual tension between Scully and Mulder, and seeing Skinner doing his best to protect Scully from the FBI. This is more than enough to convince the fans that the film was made for them without a thought given to the newbies.

Yet, the film was also made for the newbies. Consider this.

While normally the use of something like the conspiracy would require too much background information for casual fans to absorb, no outside knowledge is actually needed here. After the opening, the character Kurtzweil (Martin Landau) provides a quick background on the scope, reach and methods of the conspiracy while showing them in action. This is an excellent way to introduce the concept – he also acts as a way to connect Mulder to the conspiracy without Mulder needing to stumble upon them and learn who they are, which would upset the fans.
Further, as the story progresses, the film actually explains both who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. Indeed, we learn that the conspiracy is in contact with aliens who plan to colonize the planet by infecting humans with the virus found in Dallas. They had been led to believe that the virus would make humans into a slave race. Since they can’t fight the aliens, they are collaborating to buy time so they can develop a vaccine to the virus. But when they see that the virus has mutated, they realize that they have been deceived by the aliens. They also realize they can’t let the aliens know this or the aliens will strike now and ruin all their plans. Thus, they need to stop Mulder from exposing this virus to keep the aliens from knowing what they have discovered.

Moreover, while the film does make repeated references to the series mythology, the way it makes those references is likely to go right over the newbies’ heads. Things like the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully and Skinner’s role in helping them with the FBI are only hinted at – enough for the fans to see it and add that element to the meaning of the events in the film, but not enough for the newbies to notice that they are missing anything. Even the mention of Mulder’s father is done with enough information that the newbies will feel like they understand the complete reason for him being mentioned, even as they miss the entire connection between his father and the conspiracy. Basically, each of these things is mentioned in such a way that the newbies will feel like they know what they need to know, but the fans will be able to add their own outside knowledge to make the film more meaningful.
That is where the film’s success lies. This film allows both audiences to walk away satisfied that their own interpretation of the film, based on their level of knowledge, was the one to which the film catered and they will never realize that the film works for both audiences. The newbies get an entirely self-contained plot, needing no prior knowledge, and have no sense of what they are missing. The fans gets a film that delves deep into the mythology, moves things to the next level and doesn’t seem to stop to get the newbies up to speed. This is like a template for how to adapt something like a comic book, a television series, or even a series of books.

Finally, let me point out that this goes back to an idea that is a constant favorite at this site, the idea of letting the audience do your work for you. As we’ve noted many times, films that leave things to the imagination are better films because they let the audience build their own worlds and their own stories. That personalizes the film and allows millions of people to each see what they want in the film, which makes them happier with the meaning of the film and gives them a stronger attachment to it since they helped to create it. It’s the same thing here. At its core, the film is quite basic, but it hints at some many things (without ever saying them) which allowed each fan to add layers and layers of meaning to the film according to their own level of knowledge and interpretation. That’s actually pretty brilliant.

In the end, I’m not labeling this a great or inspired film because ultimately the plot does feel somewhat derivative – in fact, I can point to parts that feel downright stolen, like the alien having a distinct The Thing feel to it. But if you look at the mechanics of how they assembled this film, it is quite brilliant.

So the next time you watch this film, ask yourself how much your understanding of the film is from what you see and how much is from what you assume.
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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Guest Review: Die Hard 2 (1990)

By ScottDS
Most sequels aren’t as good as the originals and that holds true here. While Die Hard 2 isn’t nearly as good as its predecessor, I’ve always been a fan. It’s wonderfully entertaining in its own right, even if it personifies the “Make it bigger!” ethos that has permeated genre filmmaking ever since.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is at Dulles Airport waiting for his wife’s plane to land when the airport is taken over by terrorists led by Colonel Stuart (William Sadler), formerly a U.S. Special Forces operative. He and his men hack into the air traffic control system in order to intercept General Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), former dictator of Val Verde, who is being extradited to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. McClane gets involved after spotting two of Stuart’s men acting suspiciously. None of the airport authorities believe him at first but once again, McClane manages to save the day and his wife.
This film has one of the greatest teaser trailers of all time, in which McClane wonders how the same thing can happen to the same guy twice. Indeed, you’ll be asking yourself the same question during this film. McClane just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Holly (Bedelia again) just happens to be on one of the planes, all of which are running low on fuel as they circle the airport. Even reporter Dick Thornburg (Atherton again) just happens to be on Holly’s plane! But I’d be lying if I said this film wasn’t genuinely entertaining. It literally has more of everything: more gunplay, more chases, more violence (including a cringe-inducing death by stalactite), more explosions… you get the idea. On the other hand, it doesn’t have the same sense of style that makes the first film so distinctive. Like the first one, this film is also based on a novel, 58 Minutes by Walter Wager, though I couldn’t say how faithful it is to the text.

With John McTiernan busy hunting for Red October, the directing baton was passed to Renny Harlin, a Finnish filmmaker best known at the time for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane (which was released one week after this film, with Harlin having edited both simultaneously). I’ve always defended Harlin, even though his career never quite recovered after the one-two punch of Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight (the latter is actually pretty good; the former not so much). The man knows how to stage an action scene though he admits in his DVD commentary that he’d never make the film the same way today. He’s genuinely surprised by the amount of profanity and blood in the film, which perhaps proves that we soften a bit as we get older (I’m looking at you, Spielberg!).
Like in the first film, geography and spatial relationships are all well-established and I have to say I’m thankful these films were made before the era of shaky-cam and ADD-riddled editing. Many of the clichés we complain about today appeared in this film (and the first one) when they were still relatively new: I’m referring to elements like smoke and steam, industrial fans, blue and orange lighting, hanging from catwalks, etc. It’s hard to believe there was a time when the action genre wasn’t replete with these things. Volumes have been written about this but many believe it’s mainly due to the influence of television and the influx of music video directors. Video killed the radio star but MTV may have just killed the coherent action sequence!

Willis is in his element as McClane, though I sympathize with the criticism that he comes off as too “movie star” with a few too many well-placed one-liners this time around. William Sadler is Col. Stuart and while he’s a great actor, he isn’t given much to work with. He’s quite sadistic and in fact, the most controversial scene in any of these films is when he decides to crash a passenger jetliner with over 200 innocent people on board. (This scene went on much longer in the rough cut – thank God the studio put the kibosh on that.) Stewart’s henchmen are all drones and, unlike the first film, they don’t have any distinctive personalities. One of them is played by Robert Patrick, just a year before his breakout role in Terminator 2. Another is played by John Leguizamo, but the filmmakers didn’t use him as much as they wanted due to his height (or lack thereof).

Dennis Franz chews the scenery as Captain Carmine Lorenzo, head of Dulles’ police force. He has no love for McClane, despite “that Nakatomi thing.” And oddly, he comes off as more of a New York cop caricature even though they’re in DC! Fred Dalton Thompson plays Trudeau, head of airport operations. He has the perfect air of authority and makes everything (almost!) believable. Art Evans plays Dulles’ engineer Barnes, and for some odd reason, I love that his first name is Leslie. I can’t explain it. [smile]
The supporting cast is rounded out by Sheila McCarthy as a reporter who actually does some good; Robert Costanzo as Sgt. Vito Lorenzo (Carmine’s brother!) who has McClane’s car towed away in the opening; Tom Bower as an eccentric janitor who helps McClane when no one else will; and John Amos as Major Grant, head of a Special Forces team sent to take back the airport… except it turns out they’re on the same side as the bad guys! Seriously, this film has more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan film, though this particular reveal is pretty cool. McClane discovers that Grant’s men are using blanks and then demonstrates this to great effect by “shooting” Captain Lorenzo.

However, this all brings to mind a common complaint: by putting McClane in a larger area (an airport and its environs), the film is less effective. The first film was successful in large part due to its use of confined space, but this film throws that out the window. McClane can go anywhere he wants – he isn’t confined. On the other hand, maybe we're too quick to judge. This was only the second film. There had only been one film previously so who was to say what worked? Sometimes I think franchises need two films to work out all the kinks… but if that were the case, then every third film in a franchise would be great, and that obviously doesn’t happen all the time! Also, I think it might've been a mistake to make the plot "international" with talk of dictators, foreign countries, etc. I think these films work better on a "local" level, so to speak.

On a technical level, this film is very good, but there are some noticeable flaws. It takes place at Dulles, yet there’s a conspicuous Pacific Bell logo. Harlin may not have been familiar with the intricacies of the Bell system but someone should’ve pointed this out to him! The visual effects – this time by ILM – are fine though the famous shot of McClane in an ejector seat wasn’t done very well, but it’s so over the top that I can forgive it. The pre-CGI airplane effects are state of the art for their day, with models being crashed onto a small airstrip covered with fake snow. The final shot – a wide vista of the airport with crowds, planes, vehicles, etc. – was one of the first digital matte paintings in a motion picture. Michael Kamen’s score is, like the film, bigger and bolder. This time, instead of Beethoven’s 9th, it’s Jean Sibelius’ “Finlandia.”
By the way, it’s probably best not to analyze this film’s portrayal of airport operations – no film can be 100% authentic but if the actors look like they know what they’re doing, then we believe them. On the other hand, Stuart’s team cuts off communications but the planes could’ve easily communicated with other airports! The climax involves an exciting fight on the wing of a plane between Grant and McClane, and then Stuart and McClane, and is topped off by a ridiculous gag in which McClane lights a trail of leaking jet fuel on fire that manages to make the bad guys’ plane explode from several feet away! To be fair, if the film were made today, this sequence would be in the first five minutes!

Die Hard 2, while not as artistically successful as its predecessor, is just a lot of fun. It’s a bit muddled at times and McClane manages to get himself involved with people who really have no reason to talk to him, but it works. I know it sounds like damning with faint praise but this is one of the great “If it’s on TV, I need to watch it” movies.

“This is my mother-in-law’s car. She's already mad at me because I'm not a dentist!”

P.S. For a good laugh, check out this montage of TV-friendly edits. Holy [crap]!

P.P.S. Reviews of the third and fourth films will be coming in 2013!
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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Questionable Star Wars vol. 5

Mark Hamin? Carrie Frisher? Harry Ford? Who are these people? Get me some real actors.

Question: "Recast Luke, Leia and Han Solo."

Scott's Answer: Assuming we're casting the film in the 70s and not today... For Han Solo, I will go with an actor who actually auditioned for the part: Kurt Russell. He's certainly got the lovable rogue act down pretty good! For Princess Leia, either Jodie Foster or Debra Winger. For Luke Skywalker, I actually struggled with this one but I will suggest Bruce Boxleitner.

Andrew's Answer: Unlike Scott, I'm not casting in the 1970s. For Luke, I'm going with one of my favorite actors, Colin Farrel. For Leia, I'm going with Katherine Heigl. And for Han Solo, I'm going with Hugh Jackman. My bonus pick is Geoffrey Rush as Obi Wan.
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Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 64

I can't believe we haven't asked this before? Well, here goes... an impossible question:

What is your favorite science fiction film?

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I hate giving this answer because it's so expected, but it's probably Star Wars. That's just awesome on so many levels. BUT I don't like being predictable, so I'm going The Fifth Element! Ha! It's hip! It's stylish! It's got emotive aliens! And it's just all around a freakin' good time.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Is Fahrenheit 451 considered “science fiction”? Yes, of course it is. To me, the film is the perfect representation of the ‘60’s sci-fi film genre and as a lover of books, the most frightening premise ever.

Panelist: T-Rav

Back to the Future counts as science fiction, right? Time travel, personal growth, sort of a love story--what more do you need?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

When it came out, I thought 2001: A Space Odyssey was as good as it gets. That is a somewhat more serious film. For fantasy sci-fi, opening night of Star Wars in Wilmington, N.C. was and is hard to beat.

Panelist: ScottDS

Gee, this isn't difficult at all! [sarcasm off] At the end of the day, it would have to be Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I know we've talked about it on this site ad infinitum but it still remains the best Trek film. All the pieces click together seamlessly and nearly every subsequent Trek film would try to duplicate it. (By the way, I have about a dozen runner-ups but we'll leave those for later!)

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, December 7, 2012

Film Friday: John Carter (2012)

Based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel “A Princess of Mars,” John Carter is a fascinating film in a way. There’s really nothing wrong with it in a technical sense -- the effects, the acting, the plot (what there is of it) are all very standard for modern Hollywood films -- but the film stinks. How badly? How about $161-million-loss-and-the-Disney-studio-head-resigned bad. Let’s talk about why this film failed.

** spoiler alert **

John Carter ultimately fails for two reasons. For one thing, it’s entirely derivative. It offers nothing you haven’t seen done before, and done better. But more importantly, this film just has no hope of connecting with modern audiences.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fans are probably thinking of killing me for calling the film derivative, but it is. You’ve seen everything in this film before. The film looks just like the four-hour pod race in the middle of The Phantom Menace. The fight scenes come straight from the remake of Clash of the Titans, and Carter himself looks suspiciously like Conan. There is not a single original element or image in this film. This robs the film of any sense of grandeur, surprise or uniqueness, and in a summer tent pole film, that’s about all you have to offer.
Indeed, what this film feels like is Cowboys & Aliens, as both films are eerily similar in terms of look and feel and level of indifference. They both take place in the American West (though John Carter calls this Mars), they both feature Olivia Wilde as some alien princess who stands apart from her people (though the version in John Carter calls herself Lynn Collins), both have American Indians (though the John Carter version are green and hate the oppressive “Red Man”), both have a hero with a sort-of unexpected-by-him superpower which sets them apart from the other locals, and both pretend to have convoluted plots which really just boil down to “walk from point A to point B until the final fight. . . all dialog is gratuitous.” Both films even use nearly identical flashbacks to dead wives/girlfriends to try to create something for us to like about the duller-than-dirt heroes.

Now, to be fair to Burroughs, his novels came first. So all those other films stole from him, but that doesn’t help this film feel any fresher. And that is a problem. But the real problem with this film is actually a little more fundamental: this film just can’t connect with modern audiences because Burroughs wrote “A Princess of Mars” in 1917, and many of the ideas in it are anachronistic to us today because we know so much about Mars and because our view of alien cultures has morphed so much. Thus, a straight adaptation of the book simply won’t work today.
For one thing, the idea of an advanced culture where cities float on weightless platforms is something we have seen often by now, BUT it doesn’t make sense to us that the people who would build such wonders would live in primitive Roman-like conditions, with mud streets, togas for clothing, swords for weapons, and a complete and utter lack of any other technology. This worked for people in 1917, when the world longed for a return to a more primitive “enlightened” age, but not today when we love our conveniences. So right away, seeing people who are fundamentally more primitive than ourselves yet simultaneously have much more advanced technology strikes a modern audience as phony. They should have created a genuinely advanced society.

There are questions of physics as well. This film relies on the idea that Carter is basically a superhero on Mars because its lower gravity allows him to leap tall buildings in a single bound. BUT we’ve all seen the astronauts on the moon, which has even less gravity. Sure, they could hop around like children, but we never saw anything that would let them make laughably stupid beyond-the-horizon jumps like the ones the Incredible Hulk made in his last cartoon movie. Carter can, and that just isn’t believable to us. Not to mention that if this were the case, the people of Mars wouldn’t be shaped like us because their muscles would be about 1/100th the size, and Carter should be able to crush them with his hands. Yet, his strength seems to come and go depending on the needs of the scene. And this isn’t nitpicking, these are things that modern audiences will immediately see as fake and will have a hard time suspending their disbelief because they know better.
And while we’re talking about audience expectations, I am left to wonder why they didn’t make Mars appear red in John Carter. To the contrary, it looks like Utah. I think this was a mistake as well. For while we know that Mars does not appear red if you are standing on it, modern audiences really have been conditioned to see Mars as “the red planet.” Making it look just like Earth stripped the film of some of its uniqueness and turned the story of “Mars” into just some fantasy world, which made the references to Earth incongruous. It should have been red.

Moreover, while we’re on the issue of Earth, John Carter makes a mistake keeping the film set in the 1870s. There is simply no point to doing this because the technological or historical state of Earth is irrelevant to the film. Indeed, the introduction to the film feels like an unneeded period piece, particularly as it is entirely forgotten once he gets to Mars. And while I know some people are saying that’s who Carter is in the books, the point is that this is not made relevant to the movie and it only serves to make Carter less relatable to modern audiences, especially as he ends up looking like Conan for most of the film and never once acts like we have come to expect characters from that era to act. If he had acted like a Southerner from the Civil War era, then it might make sense to do this, but since he doesn’t, it only adds confusion and makes it harder for audiences to climb into his head. They should have made him modern.
So what you have here is a physical image of Mars that modern audiences don’t accept, a futuristic society that strikes modern audiences as laughably false, and a hero they cannot relate to because he comes from a period piece that has nothing in common with the modern world and then his period is jarringly thrown off so he can become a fake Conan. This is filmmaker negligence. This is why this film simply doesn’t resonate with modern audiences, and that’s even before you add the boredom factor of every single scene reminding the audience of some other film they’ve seen.

I’m sure there are people for whom John Carter was a great adaptation of a book they loved. But for everyone else, the film just doesn’t work. This is not a concept that will resonate with modern audiences. It is a niche film. Moreover, it’s a niche film you’ve already seen a dozen times and done better every time. That’s why this film failed.
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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Guest Review: Die Hard (1988)

By ScottDS
I spend Chanukah with my family but I spend Christmas with John McClane. What more could possibly be said about Die Hard? It’s a modern action classic – my generation’s equivalent of a John Wayne movie. To the best of my knowledge, it does everything perfectly, so much so that it spawned an entire subgenre: “Die Hard on a [blank].”

NYPD detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives in LA to reconcile with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) who works for the Nakatomi Corproation. The building is soon seized by a group of terrorists led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman in his American film debut). In a twist, it turns out that they’re nothing more than simple bank robbers who are after the $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds in the company vault. McClane – who had been in the bathroom during the initial melee – is left up to his own devices to save the day. He’s assisted on the outside by LAPD Sgt. Powell and is encumbered by several others, including a deputy police chief in over his head, a couple of cowboy FBI agents, and an overzealous reporter. Ultimately, McClane manages to rescue his wife and save the day, killing Gruber by dropping him off the building.
With the exception of some hairstyles and a couple effects shots, this film has aged remarkably well. It’s based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorpe, which tells the story of a cop named Joe Leland who visits his daughter who works for an oil company which is soon taken over by a German terrorist group. Director John McTiernan – who has since run into some unfortunate legal problems but managed to give his A-game here – wanted to give the film a sense of “joy” which is why the terrorists in this film are merely bank robbers. In his view, terrorism isn’t fun and movies about terrorism (at least back then) were more often than not dreary and needlessly violent affairs. But with bank robbers, the audience could sit back and enjoy the film without feeling bad. After all, people love a good caper and there is comic relief to be had among the villains. Also – and this is something I’ve said before – with terrorism, you’re often forced to go political. McTiernan had no interest in the characters’ ideology; he simply wanted to craft a great piece of summer entertainment.

I feel bad for young people who watch it for the first time, having been exposed since childhood to all the clichés pioneered by the filmmakers. The craftsmanship is top-notch and European cinematographer Jan de Bont (who would later direct Speed and Twister) gives the film a wonderful sense of style. Geography and spatial relationships are clearly established and the camerawork actually helps to create a psychological reaction: the camera closes in on Willis at just the right time (usually when it appears he’s doomed), the exteriors actually feel more cramped than the interiors thanks to the use of long lenses (which compress the foreground and background), and there’s a great use of triangular composition, with the camera for instance starting on a henchman, then moving to the henchman’s gun, then to McClane in another area of the shot. We understand everything in one shot with no dialogue. That’s direction.
At that point in his career, Bruce Willis was best known for ABC’s Moonlighting. He’s perfect as John McClane who, at the time, was a new kind of hero. He was a blue-collar working stiff as opposed to a muscle-bound superman like Arnold or Sly. His relationship to his wife is what grounds the movie and according to McTiernan, they finally managed to get a handle on the character when they realized that McClane doesn’t really like himself very much… but like all of us, he does the best he can. He’s an underdog and people love to root for an underdog. Everything you need to know about him can be summed up in one shot. The company has sent a limo to pick him up at LAX. He meets his driver, Argyle (De'voreaux White), and decides to sit in the front with him instead of the back – a genuinely human moment. I’m not familiar with much of her work but Bonnie Bedelia more than holds her own as Holly (Gennaro) McClane. After Gruber kills her boss, she becomes de facto leader of the hostages.

Hans Gruber, as played by Alan Rickman, will go down in history as one of the best movie villains of all time. He’s ruthless but he’s also stylish, well-spoken, and clearly the smartest one in the room. His fake American accent is not great but his voice is positively mellifluous. He’s accounted for every possible contingency and even has some fun at the government’s expense when it comes to his fake demands (“Asian Dawn?”). His team consists of some familiar faces including the late Alexander Godunov (Witness) as Karl and Andreas Wisniewski (The Living Daylights) as Karl’s brother Tony, whom McClane kills early on, seriously pissing off Karl who is hellbent on revenge. Another familiar face is Al Leong (as Uli). You’ve seen him before: the Asian guy with the big forehead who showed up in seemingly every Joel Silver action film in the 80s.

The rest of the supporting cast is filled with some great “Hey, it’s that guy!” character actors. Reginald VelJohnson lends humor and heart to the film as Sgt. Al Powell, who has his own character arc that is resolved at the end. He would go on to play a cop on TV’s Family Matters. The late Paul Gleason plays Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson the same way he played all of his other characters back then: as a total prick! He and McClane get to spar over the walkie-talkie as Powell just watches in amusement. Hart Bochner plays Holly’s coked-up co-worker who soon regrets getting involved with the situation. James Shigeta plays Holly’s boss Joseph Takagi, a dignified and accomplished man who sadly becomes Hans’ first victim.
The Agents Johnson are played by Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush. They’re overbearing and irresponsible, bringing to mind the old line “We need to destroy the village in order to save it.” (Some have theorized about the Vietnam subtext in this film but I’m not qualified to do so.) Reporter Dick Thornburg is played by William Atherton and after the crap he got for playing a dick in Ghostbusters, it’s amazing he agreed to play another one! He gets his comeuppance in the end and the media actually plays a minor role in the movie, with McTiernan cutting to news reports featuring know-nothing anchors and clueless talking heads. As I said, the film has aged quite well. [smile]

The Oscar-nominated visual effects – supervised by Richard Edlund of the late Boss Film Studios – still hold up for the most part. It’s not an “effects movie” per se, but the filmmakers obviously couldn’t blow up parts of the building. The Nakatomi building seen in the film is actually Fox Plaza in Century City, which was brand new at the time and, in a typical display of Hollywood accounting, the studio actually charged itself rent! (Funnily enough, I had a job interview in the building when I lived in LA. I didn’t get the job but it was still worth the trip!)

The Nakatomi lobby is a replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater and on the DVD commentary, production designer Jackson De Govia mentions the subtle political subtext: that a Japanese corporation (this was the 80s) had the nerve to purchase Fallingwater and re-create it in the lobby, ironically presenting it to people who would never otherwise see it. As I said, the attention to detail is immaculate. Even the Playboy centerfold taped to the wall in a stairwell serves a purpose: as a “breadcrumb” so to speak, helping McClane get his bearings in this densely-packed industrial jungle.
And yes, the music. The score by the late Michael Kamen pays homage to both Christmas and Kubrick. In addition to the bells, there are references to “Singin' in the Rain” and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, both of which were used to great effect in A Clockwork Orange. The Beethoven music is mainly used as a theme for the villains and both Gruber and his hacker Theo (Clarence Gilyard) hum it during the film. This all goes back to McTiernan’s wish for joy in the film. After all, the final movement of the 9th Symphony is “The Ode to Joy.”

I always enjoy revisiting the world of Die Hard. There’s nothing like a well-executed action film. Not to get all mushy but when I think of films like this, I think of my dad who, as I type this, is sitting in the TV room watching some action flick on Spike, and my late grandfather who had a large picture of John Wayne mounted in his pool room. Hopefully this tradition (for lack of a better word) will continue for a long time… if Hollywood doesn’t screw it up.

“Yippee-ki-yay, motherf---er!”
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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Questionable Star Wars vol. 4

Sometimes, even perfection can be improved. . . think about it.

Question: "Name one thing you would change about each of the original Star Wars films if you could."

Scott's Answer: I've actually never given this much thought. The first two films, for better or worse, are near-perfect as it is. I suppose I'd go back and account for certain things that Lucas changed along the way. Leia kissing Luke in Empire, for instance - I assume this was done before they came up with the idea of them being related. (I don't wish to open this can of worms but there are various accounts as to who came up with what and when.) For Jedi, I'd go back to their original concept and change the Ewoks to Wookies. I'm sure I'll think of more in the comments below. [smile]

Andrew's Answer: This is a toughie! Who came up with this question! Star Wars and Empire are essentially perfect. But I am always up for a challenge, so. . . for Star Wars, I would add more of Ben training Luke. I think that's the philosophical core of the film and another five minutes of "feel it flow through you" would have been great and would have explained more how Luke was able to harness the Force so suddenly. For Empire, more cowbell! Just kidding, I would remove Ben Kenobi actually. I don't think he adds much and he ends up detracting from the myth of the Jedi with his talk about something being true "from a certain perspective." And for Jedi, I'd actually break the film into two. Right now you have this story of the rescue of Han Solo followed by a totally separate story about the destruction of the Son of Death Star. I would make those into separate movies and give them the time they deserve.

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Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Great (film) Debates vol. 63

I'm told that directors have some influence on how films turnout. Frankly, I can't see it. But let's run with this silly idea.

Who is your favorite director?

Panelist: T-Rav

I have to go with the Coen brothers. Some of their stuff I really like (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and some of it I don't (Burn After Reading), but I'm willing to give them credit for making their movies in an outside-the-box kinda way. And at least they manage to avoid being obsessed with huge explosions and other distractions (*cough* Michael Bay *cough*).

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

All time is Hitchcock. I can't think of a bad film he ever did. I suppose I am partial to the genres he tended to use. Current crop would be a tie between Scorcese and Tarantino. Scorcese may be the "best" ever, but since the question is favorite, the other two are in definitely in play.

Panelist: ScottDS

I'm tempted to say Spielberg but, while I absolutely love at least six of his films, I just don't know if he's my favorite. At the end of the day, my favorite director just... might... be... Tim Burton. He was the first director whose name I could identify not to mention the idea that films are "directed" by people who can have their own unique style (this blew my mind as a kid). Even his lesser films feature interesting visuals and ideas. But when he's on, there's no one like him. I consider Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Ed Wood to be modern classics and Sweeney Todd might just be his masterpiece. On a personal level, while Spielberg is the nerd who made it big, Burton is still the shy geek and I guess I identify with that on some level. (P.S. I don't blame Burton for his imitators or the Hot Topic merchandise.)

Panelist: AndrewPrice

This is really difficult because sometimes the best directors don't make the best films. David Lean is awesome, and his films are great, but they aren't my favorites. Spielberg deserves a nod for making very enjoyable, but never great films. In the end, I need to go with Quentin Tarantino. He's had a couple serious misses, but he's also had a strong series of really top notch hits that were both great films and enjoyable.

Comments? Thoughts?
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