Thursday, February 28, 2013

Questionable Bond No. 1

Bond, James Bond. The most important thing in any Bond film is James Bond. And not every actor can do it.

Question: "Rank the Bond Actors."

Scott's Answer:
1. Connery
2. Brosnan
3. Craig
4. Moore
5. Dalton
6. Lazenby
I want to be clear that I like them all. Connery is the man - no doubt about that. My first theatrical Bond experience was GoldenEye so I guess it’s only natural that I would rank Brosnan higher than other people might. The problem is that he got better while his films got worse. I enjoy the hell out of Craig but one wonders what he could do if the producers wanted to go in another direction (i.e. less "edgy"). I like Moore but The Man with the Golden Gun is my least favorite Bond film and I think he stayed on for one film too many. The one actor whose Bond films I enjoy in toto (probably because he only did two) is Dalton. Yes, I like License to Kill. For a first-time actor, Lazenby wasn’t too bad. Unfortunately, he didn’t want to do any more Bond films so we’ll never know how good he could’ve been.

Andrew's Answer:
1. Connery
2. Craig
3. Brosnan
4. Moore
5. Lazenby
6. Dalton
Connery is obvious. Craig has really won me over and has proven to be an excellent Bond. Then it drops off a lot. At one point, I would have ranked Moore next, but in hindsight, his films really just get worse and worse. Brosnan was a better Remington Steele, but he’s solid as Bond. Lazenby was just too flat. And Dalton? Yeah. Bad choice, bad films.
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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Guest Review: This Means War (2012)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

February is, among other things, the month we celebrate Valentine’s Day, and it occurred to me that Romantic Comedies rarely get much mention around here. Often referred to as rom coms, date movies, and chick flicks (though the latter two likely encompass a slightly larger category), the last one I can remember seeing was a vehicle for one of the current leading practitioners of the genre, Reese Witherspoon, as well as the up and coming young star Chris Pine. The film was received poorly by the critics, but scored somewhat higher with audiences. I won’t pretend its good, but am closer to the audience reaction than the critics. Let’s review some of the strengths and weaknesses of this production, and consider what characteristics most likely impact whether a romantic comedy hits or misses.

** spoiler alert **

Plot Synopsis - In the opening sequence, we find two CIA operatives, “FDR” Foster, (Pine) and “Tuck” Hansen (Tom Hardy), on assignment high atop a skyscraper in Hong Kong. Their mission is to stop the sale of a “MacGuffin” like secret weapon to the North Koreans, apprehend the seller, international arms dealer Karl Heinrich (Til Schweiger) and obtain the “weapon.” The parameter of the mission requires it remain strictly covert. The sale is broken up, the money scattered to the winds, and the “weapon” falls off the roof of the skyscraper (never to be mentioned again.) Heinrich’s younger brother is killed, but Heinrich himself escapes and vows vengeance against FDR and Tuck who are placed on “inside” status as a result.

Back in L.A. we are introduced to Lauren Scott (Witherspoon) who is chief product tester at Smart Consumer, Inc. a fictional “Consumer Reports” type company. While out walking, she runs into her ex-boyfriend who induced her to move from Atlanta. He introduces her to his new fiancee, so Lauren pretends she is meeting her (fictitious) new guy for dinner. When they later stumble across Lauren dining alone at a sushi bar, she is humiliated. Lauren’s best friend (Chelsea Handler) decides to sign her up with an on-line dating service (it’ without her knowledge.

It turns out FDR is quite the ladies man around town, while Tuck is separated from his wife (Abigail Spencer) and seven year old son. Tuck is never home, and his “cover” is that he is a travel agent who actually travels all the time. The double “meet cute” goes down like this. Tuck happens to sign up for the same dating service and gets paired up with Lauren. F.D.R. insists he hang out nearby for their first meeting at a sidewalk cafe, so he can “coach” Tuck. Lauren and Tuck hit it off exceedingly well, and he promises to call her for a date. Lauren happens to stop by a video store around the corner, from where FDR was stationed to “help” if needed. FDR hits on Lauren who quickly sizes him up as a horn dog, and blows him off, but he uses CIA resources to find out who she is. He attends her focus group product testing the next day, and bullies her into a date for that night. Soon after the date begins, Lauren leaves, but again runs into her “ex” and his fiancee, and begs FDR to pretend to be her boy friend. He agrees, but demands an explanation, then takes her for pizza, where she begins to see him in a different light. Tuck and FDR quickly learn they are interested in the same lady, and the “war” begins.

They agree they will “compete” for Lauren and set up ground rules that they will not let her know they are best friends, will not spy nor interfere with each other, and that neither will sleep with her unless and until and she chooses one over the other. Naturally, the competition escalates, and their friendship is strained to the breaking point. Lauren, of course, really cares for both of them, and much of the remainder of the movie is devoted to determining which one she will choose, and includes both of their numerous and humorous attempts to screw up each other’s overtures to Lauren using the best technology the CIA has to offer. Lurking in the background, naturally, is the villainous Heinrich who quickly tracks down the two agents who killed his brother, and is ready for payback.
So What Does or Doesn’t Work?

The story takes a fairly traditional rom com storyline, and pairs it with an action/adventure super spy genre for, hopefully, a fresh approach. The two operatives are clearly more from the Ethan Hunt Mission Impossible School of super agents. Both the opening and closing sequences are complete with slow motion floor slides with automatic pistols blazing or back flips while tossing a spare clip to one’s partner. This is a big budget production, so the effects are just what one might expect. The question is, whether we have seen so much of this kind of scene, it no longer seems particularly special. This all leads to characters and premises to which calling them unrealistic would be an understatement. On the other hand, if one realizes it is a rom com parodying action/adventure, it doesn’t seem quite so lame. Plausibility is not always mandatory in this genre.

The second issue is quality of jokes and laugh-lines. To be honest, I am somewhat split on that issue when it comes to this film. Many of the lines (Reese stating she doesn’t want to end up as some mad man’s “skin suit” or FDR’s denigrating women who sign-up for on-line dating by stating “half of them pee standing up”) are just dreadful. This kind of dialogue is sophomoric to be charitable, and makes me wonder how these particular screen writers sleep at night. At the same time, many of the devices used by FDR and Tuck to mess up the other guy’s dates are genuinely hilarious. In particular, there is a scene where FDR kidnaps a group of actors hired by Tuck to portray his family, and replaces them with his own set of impostors that truly is laugh out loud funny.
The third, and possibly most critical, aspect of a successful rom com is CHEMISTRY between the principles! Bogart or Tracy and Hepburn; Doris Day and Rock Hudson; Julia Roberts and Richard Gere; Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan all had that certain something that made audiences root for the couple to overcome the obstacles and get together (or back together.) Sadly, the chemistry between Witherspoon and Pine is nothing special. But, this is a threesome, and part of the set-up is to keep the viewer guessing which one Lauren will choose. Maybe, just maybe, the actors did a better job than we initially realize given that particular aspect of the script. I will also admit to being a long time fan of Reese Witherspoon. As such I’ve seen most of her films, many of which don’t match up to her skill. I’ve enjoyed watching how she works with lesser material, and believe she almost always makes the most of any acting situation, even one that is less than great. There is ample opportunity to see that at play here.

The Verdict - Everyone, at times, sees a romantic comedy. It is generally a lighthearted affair, meant to be fun, and not at all taken too seriously. This is not anywhere near the best of the genre, but is enough good to proudly proclaim “it doesn’t suck as much as Roger Ebert claims!" If you miss this, rest assured you can still sleep soundly knowing so. But if you are a rom com fan, or a Reese Witherspoon fan, or your date is either of those things; you can probably view it, get through it, and even enjoy several laughs along the way.
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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Questionable Jones No. 5

Perhaps we are a bit Lucasian here, but we like to change things.

Question: "How would you change The Last Crusade?"

Andrew's Answer: I have some problems with this film. For one thing, I don't really care for the intro. I paid to see Harrison Ford, not some kid pretending to be Harrison Ford. I also don't like the cutesy moments, like when he meets Hitler or when the fighter plane slides through the tunnel. I hate that they made Marcus Brody into a fool. And honestly, let him keep the cup.

Scott's Answer: I love this movie - it's perfect summer entertainment. However, I think turning Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) into a bumbling fool was a mistake. Granted, we had only seen him in Raiders for ten minutes but he came across as a knowledgeable professional, not a stumblebum. The interplay between Ford and Connery was funny and entertaining enough that the filmmakers didn't need an "extra" source of comic relief on top of that.
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Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 72

It's like the sound of one hand clapping. . . deep man. Uh, wait, no it's not. It's just pretentious!

What movie isn’t as deep as people think?

Panelist: ScottDS

It would be easy for me to pick any number of indie or foreign films that I've Netflixed over the years but I will go with Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, a film I was dragged to see which stars Jeff Daniels, Laura Linney, and my on-screen alter ego Jesse Eisenberg. It tells the story of two boys in 1980s Brooklyn dealing with their parents' divorce. This is one of those "We get it, you're all miserable" movies. On one hand, families can be a source of both comfort and pain... BUT on the other hand, characters can only do stupid and mean things for so long before I start to lose sympathy. Great actors but if I want to watch a movie about a disintegrating family, I'll watch Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums instead. (Anderson is also a producer on this film but I don't know the extent of his involvement.)

Panelist: T-Rav

V for Vendetta. It’s not a badly-made movie, don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed it while I was watching it, and I can understand why some people think it’s a great philosophical look at liberty and tyranny. But honestly, everything it has to say is pretty much right there on the surface. Authority is evil, multiculturalist intellectuals are awesome, especially if they can throw knives. The only thing I was left pondering was whether the Wachowskis are really a one-hit wonder. That, and why they felt the need to have a bald Natalie Portman.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

I never understood why on Earth The Kids Are All Right got nominated for an Oscar. At best, it was a good made for TV afternoon special. But the nominating committee must have seen something that I didn’t.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Probably the most obvious answer is Pink Floyd's The Wall, which fans think can only be understood when you're high. Hardly. Even short-bus high schoolers get that one. But I'm going with another film. Traffic. Seriously, this was supposed to be part opus, part expose. . . a no-holds barred upturning of the drug trade to show all the horrors none of us knows. Uh. Sadly, the film was pretty much an episode of Miami Vice without the cool. It exposed nothing that everyone didn't already know. It broke no new ground. It didn't even tread old ground all that well.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

I'd say Psycho. Nothing all that deep there. Anthony Perkins played a fruit loop named Norman Bates with a fixation on a domineering mother. Too bad for Janet Leigh, great for shower scenes.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, February 22, 2013

Toon-arama: Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)

Usually, tryanmax does the Toon-arama articles around here, but this one needed to be done. . . grrr. If you’re like me, and I know I am, then you enjoy a good Superhero cartoon now and then. Justice League: The New Frontier is NOT such a cartoon. To the contrary, it’s vile leftist crap flung from the bowels of a fetid monkey. Do not see this film. Do not let your kids see this film.

Justice League: The New Frontier tells the story of how rotten the racist police-state known as America is. It is the story of the various well-known superheroes and how they struggle against the oppressive American state in the 1950s. For example. . .
● The film begins with a tirade against humanity and nuclear weapons.

● We are told that the Korean War was not worth fighting.

● We arrive in Indochina, where we learn that Superman and Wonder Woman were made to sign “loyalty oaths,” because they are suspect.

● The police are omnipresent and spy on average citizens. The government also rounds people up and makes them disappear to keep them quiet.
● There is a lot of talk about McCarthy and we’re told that the country “needs a leader” to set us free. . . a very leftist way of thinking: only an all-powerful leader can free us from the oppressive all-powerful state.

● We are shown a television news broadcast which informs us that a black vigilante had kept “white supremacists at bay” until he was “caught by a mob and killed,” because no doubt mobs of whites get incensed when blacks defend themselves against white supremacists. Naturally, the cops “have no suspects,” because no doubt white cops would look the other way. The Flash then uses this news broadcast as a backdrop to tell us that the world needs more vigilantes like the dead guy and that he’s quitting being a superhero because the government is hunting him like a criminal and he doesn’t want to see his family hurt. Funny, I don’t recall our government ever rounding up family members of criminals.

● In the most obnoxious moment in the film, Wonder Woman returns to her homeland and is asked by one of her people “tell us about America.” To this, Wonder Woman responds, “It’s changed since the war. Back then, we were in the right. They still say they are in the right, but they don’t always act that way.” Uh huh, like when they make lying cartoons like this perhaps?
● Frank Sinatra is presented as a coward.

● Our government decides they want to commit genocide against Mars because the Martians might be dangerous.

● And obnoxiously, after the good guys defeat the evil creature which wants to wipe out humanity, the film ends with Kennedy’s New Frontier speech and we’re all supposed to cheer because America has found a leader who would stop the mass arrests, would never send US troops to somewhere like Indochina, would never support an invasion of Cuba, would never threaten the world with nuclear annihilation, and would never be seen with shallow posers like Frank Sinatra. Yep.... that Kennedy.

Even beyond this, this cartoon is despicably cynical and it’s definitely not for children. The film begins with a rather graphic suicide as the narrator shoots himself. It then moves to the end of the Korean War where Hal Jordan (aka the Green Lantern) is forced to kill a North Korean soldier in hand to hand combat. After he shoots the soldier in the head, you see blood splatter all over Jordan’s face. The introduction of Wonder Woman a minute or two later involves her discussing what sounds like mass rapes in Vietnam and how she disarmed the Vietcong rapists and then let the women of the village “extract justice.” Batman at one point tells us that he has a piece of Kryptonite so he can kill Superman, just in case, and he threatens to kill another ally by setting his house on fire. He must be fun at parties. It goes on like that.
This cartoon stinks.

This is evidence of why you can’t just assume that cartoons are safe for children. It also shows you the bizarro world in which liberals live. Indeed, focus on the key moments of hypocrisy here. The film tells you that the all-power government is evil because it uses violence and terror to control its people (something which never happened). They even add fake ideas like the government rounding up family members and making people “who know too much” disappear. . . whoever that is. Yet, the solution, offered is to find “a strong leader” who will bring vigilante justice, i.e. violence and terror. Does that seem sick to anyone?
Think about this. You constantly get beat over the head with this idea that violence is evil. BUT at the same time, we’re told that violence is great when it’s done for a reason the leftist writer believes is appropriate. That’s called the ends justify the means. And don’t forget, these same hypocrites who are decrying violence are exploiting violence by creating a very violent cartoon to milk your wallet.

This cartoon really highlights the unprincipled nature of liberalism. Everything they decry is only bad so long as the wrong people do it, but once the right people do it for the right reasons, suddenly it becomes a good thing. In essence, this belief system is a form of the ends justifies the means, combined with a caveat that people we like are presumed to have good ends.

The left is sick.
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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0023 Die Another Day (2002)

We begin our countdown at the bottom... the very bottom. Die Another Day is a repeat of Diamonds Are Forever and it jumps so many sharks they should have called this film James Bond: Shark Jumper. It’s just awful and that’s why it sits at the bottom of our list at No. 0023 of 0023.

Plot Quality: The plot to this one is simple. A villain gets gene therapy to turn himself from a Korean into a British person because he has daddy issues. Said villain buys “conflict diamonds.” Boo hoo. He uses those diamonds to create a satellite which somehow converts sunlight into energy to be used on Earth. He and Bond fence. Bond escapes an ice palace in his invisible car. This now Caucasian villain orders the North Korea military to invade South Korea. The satellite turns out to be a weapon that puts the Death Star to shame, but can’t blow up a plane it hits with a direct shot. The film ends. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? (if you’re an idiot)
Where to begin? James Bond does not get captured and held prisoner for 14 months only to be retrieved in a prisoner exchange. And what prisoner exchange? Why would North Korea spy on Britain? Why would anyone? Koreans cannot turn themselves British/Caucasian with gene therapy. And even if they could, no one goes to Cuba for gene therapy. An ice palace? An invisible car? John Cleese as Q? WTF? Let me repeat. . . an invisible f*cking car designed by Monty Python. Also, James Bond does not surf. North Korea is not an imposing military power that deserves to be on film. Someone who turned himself into a honkey cannot start giving orders to the North Korean military after killing his father the general. A satellite sending out a flame-like beam that could consume miles of the Earth at a time is beyond ridiculous. That such a weapon could hit an airplane and not cause it to disintegrate immediately is ridiculous. That you can sword fight on a transport plane for twenty minutes as it burns to pieces all around you is ridiculous. You cannot drop a helicopter out the back of a transport plane and start it in mid-free fall.

And that’s just for starters.

This film was a joke. It was ridiculous. It was clearly an attempt to piggyback on the success of XXX and to dumb that film down, and everyone associated with this film should be ashamed. . . and shot.

Bond Quality: This was Brosnan’s final film and I don’t think that was a coincidence. The film made a ton of money, but after turning Bond into a cartoon, Brosnan had no credibility to move back to a more serious Bond. Thus, they needed to start over. Hence the reboot of Casino Royale.
Even setting aside the ridiculousness of the film, this was a difficult Bond to like. He was angry and depressed throughout. He’d lost the suaveness, the inner calm and the sense of humor he had finally developed in Tomorrow Never Dies. Indeed, Brosnan is so indifferently angry in this one that he comes across like a man making the film under protest.

The Bond Girl(s): As usual, there were two Bond girls. The main Bond girl is Halle Berry, who plays NSA agent Giacinta “Jinx” Johnson. She’s investigating a North Korean terrorist with links to Gustav Graves, the villain. Beyond that, it’s not really clear why she’s in this film except to have sex with Bond. She is attractive and has decent chemistry with Bond, but she’s ultimately just a forgettable extra.

The other Bond girl is Miranda Frost, played by Rosamund Pike. She’s an undercover MI6 agent who also happens to be a traitor. She has infiltrated Graves’ organization and works as his assistant, but in reality she’s working for Graves. She doesn’t move the plot either and, like Jinx, she lacks motivation and pretty much could have been deleted from the film.

Villain Quality: Imagine your daddy is a general in the most repressive, backwards insane dictatorship in the world. Imagine you are a colonel in his army. Imagine you are trading “conflict diamonds” for weaponry. But daddy doesn’t understand you. He doesn’t like that you’re a nutjob. What do you do? What do you do?
Apparently, you move to Britain, turn yourself into a honkey using gene therapy, and become a billionaire industrialist named Gustav Graves. You build an ice palace and invent a death ray that can destroy the planet in mile-wide increments of walls of fire. Why do you do this? So you can wipe out American landmines so the North Korean military can invade South Korean. And while you do this, you somehow take control over the North Korean military without daddy the top General finding out and with no one questioning why the British honkey is issuing orders.

Did an idiot write this?

Really, the only good thing about this villain is a fencing scene between Graves and Bond, which is pretty well done. But that’s also before we realize just how retarded a villain this guy is.
Beyond that, there is literally nothing I can praise. His backstory is impossible. His satellite is impossible. Turning himself white is impossible. His controlling the North Korean military is impossible. His plan is impossible. Indeed, his plan is retarded. If they want to clear the area of mines, just drive a bunch of peasants across the area or shell it. And if you have such an amazing deathray, hold the world hostage like Blofeld did in Diamonds Are Forever. Destroy some mines? Give me a break.

Even the choice of making him North Korean is suspect. North Korea and Britain have no connection whatsoever. So using North Korea is difficult to begin with. Secondly, North Korea is not intimidating to the world. They are a forgotten menace, a third rate joke at best. Third, this film crawls with a politicized agenda – opposition to landmines, conflict diamonds, green energy and making Cuban medicine look advanced? Really? The Bonds films have historically avoided politics entirely, so throwing this in is downright offensive.


This film is a disgrace to the series. That’s why it’s No. 0023 of 0023, and it’s a distant No. 0023 at that.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

What Makes A Good James Bond Film

Because my life isn’t busy enough, tomorrow, we’re opening a new day at the site. . . Thursdays. And we’re going to use Thursdays to honor James Bond turning 50 this year. We’ll do Questionable Bonds, a little analysis here and there, and I’m going to rank the films from worst to best. And trust me, there were some worsts. Anyway, let’s kick things off with a discussion of what makes the Bond films work. James Bond films have three vital elements: James Bond, the Bond Girls, and the villain, and each needs to come together for the film to succeed.

What Makes A Good James Bond

Ian Fleming’s James Bond is one of the most iconic characters of all time. He’s known the world over. The reason for this is that Bond is the perfect mix of all the elements we prize in masculinity. He’s suave and confident, the kind of man who dominates a room. . . the kind of man women are drawn too. Yet, at the same time, he’s absolutely ruthless and cold-blooded. . . the kind of man men respect. He’s also hot-blooded and fiercely loyal when it comes to people he’s decided are worthy of his protection, which makes us like him.

This is why it’s so difficult to portray Bond, because any actor doing so must be able to project all three characteristics without coming across like someone in the middle of a multiple personality crisis. This is also why so few actors have been able to play the role well and why some of the men chosen just weren’t right. Roger Moore, for example, started well, but as he got older, his suave shifted into snooty. Also, the humor they gave him made his cold-bloodedness sound snippy. Brosnan, by comparison, was too aloof and you never got the sense he could be hot-blooded and loyal. Plus, they made his character conflicted and tortured which destroyed his confidence. Lazenby lacked gravitas, and Dalton. . . well, he just lacked. So far, only Connery has projected each of these qualities seamlessly and Craig has come close.

What Makes A Good Bond Girl

Bond girls are a different story. The primary role of the Bond girl is to add a sexual tension to the film and to give Bond a reason to care personally about his fight against the villain. In essence, they need to be someone who triggers Bond’s “white knight” sense while simultaneously proving sexually irresistible to him. But this is trickier than it sounds because to be irresistible, they also need to be quite independent before they meet Bond. This creates a delicate balancing act between fiery independence and damsel in distress, but the best Bond girls pull it off, the worst don’t. . . the worst Bond girls tend to be the ones who just get dropped into the plot like luggage for Bond to carry.

What Makes A Good Bond Villain

The villains are as important as Bond, or possibly more so. The villains need to be beyond typical bad guys. They need some scheme that is worth the attention of the world’s top spy, and they need to seem capable of pulling it off. They must be intelligent, ruthless, and determined. They must seem ruthlessly insane without crossing the line into just insane. They also need credibility. This is where several villains have left the audience scratching their heads. . . a moonbase huh? Oh, you’re a drug dealer, got it. . . whatever. Villains are key.

Beyond these points, Bond films typically have distinctive henchmen, a plethora of gadgets, a catchy theme song, and a cool title, but none of those things actually make or break a movie, though the invisible car kind of jumped the shark.


By the way, as I ranked the films, I found quite a few surprises. Rather than just rank them in total, I ranked each according to its parts – Bond’s performance, the plot/scheme, the villain quality, and the Bond girl quality. Then I added up the points to get the overall rankings. Interestingly, the new list did not turn out as I would have expected, but in hindsight, I agree completely with the way the list turned out. I guess we’ll find out soon what each of you thinks starting tomorrow when we talk about the worst. . . Bond. . . film. . . ever!
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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Questionable Jones No. 4

The hero get the glory, but the supporting cast makes a film work. And Jones has a heck of a supporting cast in his adventures.

Question: "Who is your favorite supporting character?"

Scott's Answer: There aren't that many to choose from, but I'll go with Sallah. John Rhys-Davies is always entertaining to watch and the character is just a decent family man. He also gets one of the best lines: "Asps. Very dangerous. You go first."

Andrew's Answer: I wanted to say someone other than Sallah, as he is the obvious choice, but he's just such a fantastic character, played so well by an excellent actor, that it's impossible not to pick him.
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Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 71

Motion to get a better film! Granted!

What film offers the best courtroom drama?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Presumed Innocent, by a wide margin. Second place is The Verdict.

Panelist: ScottDS

A Few Good Men is certainly up there but I'm going with the third act of Oliver Stone's JFK in which Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) attempts to prove that the assassination of President Kennedy was a conspiracy spearheaded by New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw and several others. Say what you want about Stone but this film represents the sum total of his talents. The Oscar-winning editing and cinematography are first-rate, Kevin Costner has never been better, and the line "Back, and to the left" became part of our pop culture lexicon.

Panelist: T-Rav

I liked the book better than the movie, but still, definitely To Kill A Mockingbird. It's got great acting and handles the pre-civil rights South with a far defter touch than more recent courtroom films (i.e., any of the John Grisham movies, or anything else) have done. Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch equals awesome.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

My favorite is actually Judgment at Nuremburg with Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, and a host of unexpected dramatic star turns as witnesses like Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift. And Burt Lancaster’s performance was just breath-taking.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Presumed Innocent is easily the most realistic legal drama on film and I think it's a great film too. So I would go with that. BUT, there is a close second too which I really like: Breaker Morant. That's another one that's surprisingly realistic about military justice and how easily justice can be perverted for political reasons. It also has the benefit of being a true story. Big thumbs up.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, February 15, 2013

Film Friday: Speed Racer (2008)

You may, or may not, have heard of a little bomb called Speed Racer. Directed by the Wachowski “brothers,” this film is a live version of the 1960’s Japanese cartoon of the same name. This film lost $27 million of its $120 million investment and it was widely panned by critics. But I’m gonna tell you, I like this film. What the critics hated about the film is that they couldn’t relate to it. Why couldn’t they relate to it? Because it’s an un-cynical film aimed at young boys.

** spoiler alert **
Speed Racer follows Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch), a teenage Formula One racer. Speed drives the Mach 5, a white Formula One car with some special features. The car is owned by Racer Motors, which is an independent racing company owned by Speed’s parents Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon). Speed has a girlfriend named Trixie (Christina Ricci) and a little brother named Spritle, who happens to have a monkey. Speed is also possibly the best racer ever, but he’s not quite there yet because he still lives in the shadow of his older brother, Rex Racer, who died after standing up to race fixers. . . his name was smeared in the process too.
The plot of this one is simple. Speed is an excellent driver. He’s so good that he’s caught the eye of E.P. Arnold Royalton, owner of Royalton Industries, an evil conglomerate which dominates the racing world. Royalton sees racing as being only about money, whereas Speed sees it as being about glory and challenging yourself. When Speed rejects an offer to sell out to Royalton, Royalton sets out to destroy Speed. He even tries to have speed killed in the Casa Cristo 5000, a notoriously violent off-road race. Helping Speed is a mysterious figure called Racer X (Matthew Fox), who appeared right after Rex died and who drives exactly like Rex used to. wink wink

Over the course of a few races and the attempt by Royalton to get Speed to sell his soul, the story revolves around questions of honor, integrity, money versus sportsmanship, race fixing, cheating, and the importance of families. Naturally, the movie comes down to a final race between Speed and a childhood hero who is exposed as rotten, with Royalton’s company, Racer Motors, Rex’s reputation, and Speed’s life all on the line.
Just Kick Back And Enjoy It
Oh, where to begin. . . let me start by saying that in a technical sense, this movie is positively brilliant and it achieves its purpose perfectly. The idea is to take a rather stylized cartoon and turn it into a live action film without losing the spirit of the cartoon, but simultaneously creating a movie worth watching. The film does that perfectly. In fact, this is easily one of the best adaptations of a cartoon on film. Not only does this movie capture the heart and soul of the original, but it manages to bring the cartoon’s stylized ways to real life actors. This is the movie Dick Tracy wished it had been.
The film also wants to pull you into a totally unreal world and make it real for you. The film achieves that too. Indeed, this film is a virtual assault of color and sound and action. It’s so overpowering to your rational mind that it literally forces you to accept its reality. Its scenery is beautiful too, as are the sets. These are the kinds of locations you wish could be real so that you could live there. Additionally, the action is just stylized enough to feel real, yet unreal enough that your mind never doubts the physics of what you see because you know the physics are only suggestive. This allows the races to be exciting rather than boring because the cars achieve all kinds of interesting stunts that would never work in real life, but which you can accept because you understand this isn’t meant to be real.

Sounds great, right? So what’s the problem?

Well, that depends on who you ask. According to the liberal critics, the problem with this film is that it has “nothing of interest to anyone over the age of 10.” They also described the film as having an “undreamed of level of narrative incoherence.” In other words, they didn’t get it. Conservative critics attacked the film for being anti-capitalist. This is all wrong.

What’s going on here is that the critics couldn’t relate to the movie. They are cynics, and they are politicized to boot. Thus, a film that is entirely lacking in cynicism offends them. They cannot relate to a world where the good guy wears a white helmet and stands for loyalty, family and sportsmanship. They need corruption and anguish, which they mistake for drama. To them, the idea that a hero would have no flaws is just anathema.
Moreover, let’s be honest, most film critics are not really nice people. They make a living off of trying to be “bitchy.” So the idea of a feel-good film offends them – think of the last feel-good film they didn’t pan. Even worse, center that feel-good film around traditional male values, which are disdained in the media culture, and you have a film which is easy for these bitchy-boys to hate. To them, Speed Racer is the family friendly version of 300, a film which Roger Ebert dismissed because all the actors had muscles and they were “fascists.” They don’t like Hollywood putting out films with these kinds of messages where people are loyal, where young men are unapologetic heroes, and where sports and competition are seen as a worthy pursuits in and of themselves. Their world is the world of Friday Night Lights, where abusive coaches milk athletes for all they are worth for cynical reasons as the young heroes struggle against a fate that has doomed them to a life of despair... or the world of The Devil Wears Prada where vile hags snipe at each other as Roger Ebert touches himself.

At its core, Speed Racer is a true feel good story. Every time someone good is challenged, they overcome that challenge with the strength of their character and the help of their friends. These people are struggling to make a better world, a less cynical world free of rigged races, where races are raced for the thrill of the challenge to prove your own skill and mettle, not to make a quick buck or to try to live up to the abusive demands of failed parents. And Speed’s family is loving to the point of being downright corny. And you know what? It’s great to see that. These people are all capable, decent people without the slightest hint of an evil side, and that makes them easy to like. . . unless you’re a jaded media-type.
What about the complaint that the film is anti-capitalism? Give me a break. The villain is Royalton Industries, a conglomerate and a monopolist. Monopolies are not capitalism in action, they are the same thing as government power. Moreover, like most monopolists, this one got there by rigging races, cheating investors, and sabotaging competitors. They use connections with the government and threats of frivolous legal action and flat-out cheating to maintain their power against the nimble small business Racer Motors, which cleans their monopolist clocks. Royalton represents anti-competition, and his defeat is more an ode to free markets and competition than anything anti-business.

So here’s the bottom line. This film is not Citizen Cane. It’s not deep. It’s not nuanced. It’s not complex. It’s not Star Wars and won’t spark an entirely new genre. But this film deserves a second chance. Turn out the lights, put it on the biggest screen in your house, put all your cynicism aside, and just enjoy this film for what it is – it’s a film about a young man in an amazingly frenetic and flashy world who wants to make the world a better place. That make him a real hero.
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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Guest Review: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

By ScottDS
I watch Live Free or Die Hard and I can't help but feel disappointed afterwards. It’s an action film that just happens to have Die Hard in the title. It’s better than it has a right to be but it doesn’t make for a satisfying experience. The goodwill garnered from the first three films can only help so much.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) is ordered to escort young hacker Matt Farrell (Justin Long) to Washington D.C. for questioning after the FBI’s system briefly shuts down. It turns out that the shut-down was the fault of Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), an ex-government security expert who was fired after warning his superiors about America’s cyber-security vulnerabilities. He’s after the country’s financial information, which is stored in a secure NSA location. McClane quickly becomes a thorn in Gabriel’s side but Gabriel eventually gets the upper hand, kidnapping McClane’s college-age daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a.k.a. the ex-Mrs. ScottDS). McClane makes it to the NSA facility where Gabriel attacks him from behind, which allows McClane to shoot himself in the shoulder which kills Gabriel.
[sigh] As I said, it’s better than it should be, but not good enough. Director Len Wiseman (best known for Underworld and the Total Recall remake) knows how to make a stylish movie… but it’s almost too stylish. There’s a gloss to this film. It doesn’t take place in our universe. It takes place in Michael Bay’s universe where everything is shiny and the action (as good as it is) is perfectly choreographed. The PG-13 rating doesn’t help. Not every film needs an R but robbing McClane of his ability to curse is a huge mistake. For better or worse, it’s part of his character. The DVD (but strangely, not the Blu-Ray) includes an “unrated” version with some CGI blood and a few alternate takes with more profanity. But even then, some of it sounds like it was looped in after the fact. The other films had a gritty, down-to-Earth quality that this film sorely lacks. Just like Indiana Jones in his fourth film, McClane takes a licking and keeps on ticking. In the other films, we saw him bruised and beaten – here he manages to last almost 72 hours yet we never see him take a break!

Willis does what he does best though he’s kind of on autopilot and if it weren’t for the name, I’m wondering if he’d be recognizable as McClane. I also have to point out an interesting comment I once read. An action film scholar and author named Eric Lichtenfeld (who contributed extras to the DVD of the first Die Hard) was once asked about this film. He said he knew it would be disappointing when he saw that McClane had a shaved head. His reasoning was that the bald look might work for Bruce Willis but it’s not something McClane would do. Interesting…
Justin Long actually isn’t bad as Farrell. He represents the audience, witnessing McClane’s exploits with utter disbelief. There’s a scene where he asks McClane why he’s doing what he’s doing and McClane replies: “Because there's nobody else to do it right now, that's why. Believe me, if there were somebody else to do it, I'd let them do it, but there's not. So we're doing it.” That’s what makes McClane “that guy.” It’s a nice sentiment and I wish the film explored it further. Winstead is a chip off the old block as Lucy McClane. Despite not getting along at the beginning, she respects her father and has learned a few tricks herself. Cliff Curtis plays FBI Deputy Director Bowman and I guess he’s okay but he doesn’t have much of a personality. Same goes for the other supporting actors, with one exception and that’s filmmaker Kevin Smith as a hacker known as the “Warlock.” Despite what you may think of his other work, Smith is a fun presence, though I imagine playing a rotund Star Wars geek isn’t much of a stretch for him!

As good as he is in other things, Timothy Olyphant doesn’t make for a good villain. He isn’t nearly as threatening as he should be, he spends most of the film scowling, and he dresses like a hip bartender. His henchwoman Mai Linh is played by Maggie Q and she actually gets some good fight scenes. It’s too bad the filmmakers killed her off when they did; she might’ve come in handy at the end. This film was released in 2007 and even by then, computer hacking had become a cliché. We had seen The Matrix films and The Net and at this point we saw this sort of thing every other week on the various CSI shows. There is nothing exciting about watching people type and it takes a skilled filmmaker to make it even remotely interesting. Not to mention all the usual problems with computers in films, from unrealistic interfaces to incorrect jargon.
Like most movies made today, the tech stuff is near perfect. Oddly, they still haven’t figured out effects for driving scenes. The aforementioned “That guy” scene takes place in a car that was obviously shot in front of a green screen – millions of dollars and they still couldn’t make it look realistic?! The cinematography and art direction are pretty damn good, but as I said, there’s a sheen to this film that doesn’t belong. Everything just looks too perfect. In the Die Hard 2 commentary, Renny Harlin talked about action movie clichés circa 1990 and this film still managed to include many of them 17 years later! Composer Marco Beltrami picks up where Michael Kamen left off (Kamen passed away in 2003) and his score is serviceable but forgettable though I noticed a couple of Kamen flourishes. No classical music this time. Instead, we get “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. But I guess that can work, too. [smile]

As of this writing, a fifth film, titled A Good Day to Die Hard is slated for a February release. (Tomorrow, actually.) I’m sure it’ll be fun but ultimately forgettable. In this one, it’s McClane and his son… in Russia. It’s directed by John Moore whose credits include Behind Enemy Lines, the Max Payne adaptation, and the remakes of Flight of the Phoenix and The Omen.

As for this film, it looks pretty and I confess it’s fun to see Bruce Willis kill bad guys but it’s all rather generic. A Die Hard film shouldn’t be just another action film, just like a Star Trek film shouldn’t be just another sci-fi film. But if you want a good fourth film in a franchise with lots of action, check out Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol instead!

“You're a Timex watch in a digital age.”
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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Questionable Star Wars vol. 9

So they filmed number four first.... but it’s probably the best. Or maybe five is number one? Confusing. One thing is for sure, number two is a whole bunch of number two.

Question: "Rank the movies from best to worst."

Scott's Answer:
The Empire Strikes Back
Star Wars
Return of the Jedi/Revenge of the Sith (tie)
The Phantom Menace
Attack of the Clones
We'll discuss it more in the comments but Jedi and Sith both have some good stuff in them and some tedious stuff as well. The Phantom Menace has Liam Neeson (who brings authenticity to everything he does - even this) and, in retrospect, there's a certain amount of nostalgia that I have for it, what with it having been the first new SW film in many years and all the marketing hype. For better or worse, it was an Event with a capital "E." Attack of the Clones, on the other hand, is weight down by the poorly-written love story and a finale which is all over the place. "Begun, the Clone Wars have." Really, Yoda? Are wars always named in the first five minutes of fighting? [smile]

Andrew's Answer:
Star Wars
The Empire Strikes Back
The Phantom Menace
Return of the Jedi
Revenge of the Sith
Attack of the Clones
I love Empire, but Star Wars holds a special place in my heart. Jedi, honestly left me cold. Clowns sucked. I have to admit that despite its massive flaws, I want to like Phantom Menace. I love Neeson and the feel of the first half of the film, even if the plot sucked Bantha doodoo.
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Monday, February 11, 2013

Free Again...

I'm making Without A Hitch free again on Kindle for the next two days. So go download it if you haven't already and please leave a review.
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Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 70

Sometimes you just need more... more cowbell, more beef, more movie.

What movie do you most want to see a sequel/prequel to?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

I would like to see a sequel to the movie Tai Pan in which a young Keira Sedgewick played the young Tess Brock. She marries Cullam Struan who dies and she becomes "The Hag" one of the early and most critical Tai Pan's of the Noble House. This story was never developed in any of James Clavell's Asian series of novels. Kyra is the perfect age to do that story :)

Panelist: ScottDS

It was actually rumored for a long time but I'd like to see James Cameron return from Pandora and make True Lies 2. There is certainly plenty of material to work with, especially now in our post-9/11 world and I'm sure Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Tom Arnold would be game to return. They could even take advantage of Arnold's age and make more of a Cold War thriller-type of film about a retired agent called in for one last mission. Or maybe he's the chief (replacing the late Charlton Heston) and he has to train a new agent. Cliched? Sure. Potential? You bet!

Panelist: T-Rav

Probably The Incredibles. It was such a good (and conservative) movie, and there is such potential for a sequel there, or maybe even a franchise; given Pixar’s general history, I have to believe they’d do better with such a thing than the usual studio bigwigs. Here’s hoping.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

I really, really want to see The History of World, Part II which Mel Brooks never made. I mean, Jews in Space? How can you NOT want to see that?

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Hands down, Ronin. That film had everything -- great chemistry between the actors, a great story, great atmosphere, and characters you really wanted to see more of. I would love to see a prequel with the same cast or even an alternate story that lets them repeat what they achieved.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, February 8, 2013

Film Friday: I, Robot (2004)

I was pretty psyched when I heard that I, Robot was coming to the big screen. It was (very, very loosely) based on an iconic book. It starred Will Smith, an actor I like a good deal. It was directed by Alex Proyas, the fantastic director who gave us the incredible Dark City. What could go wrong? Uh, yeah. Was I ever disappointed when the film hit theaters. In hindsight, however, I’ve come to like this film as just mindless fun.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
The year is 2035 and anthropomorphic robots are everywhere. They do all the dangerous and dirty jobs humanity won’t. Everyone except the really poor have robot servants. But robots are faster, stronger and smarter than humans, and if they were so inclined, they could take over in a heartbeat. Fortunately, robots can’t do that because they’re programmed with three laws which require them to protect human beings and to follow the orders of human beings, except when those orders would involve hurting another person. So everything is fine.
But all of that changes when Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) is called in to investigate the apparent suicide of Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell). Cromwell is the founder of US Robotics and is, basically, the inventor of the robot. Spooner soon suspects that a robot killed Lanning, but no one believes him because everyone assumes robots can’t hurt people because of the three laws. They dismiss Spooner’s claims because he’s the one guy on the planet who doesn’t like robots because of an incident when he was younger. So they write this off as paranoia. Nevertheless, Spooner continues and soon he uncovers a plot by robots to take over the planet.
The Good And The Bad
When I first saw this film, I was disappointed. By and large, it’s nothing more than a generic action film using robots instead of aliens or hired thugs. The thing is awash in product placements too. Moreover, for a science fiction film, the plot lacks depth.
The story is about robots trying to take over the world. The robots aren’t actually malicious, they’ve just misinterpreted their orders. Basically, like liberals, they think that humans are self-destructive and they want to save us from ourselves. And the best way to do that would be to enslave us and then take care of us.

That actually opens the door to several ideas. For example, you could use the robots as an metaphor for liberals and point out that saving us from ourselves is a bad thing. . . “Welcome to Obama-Clinton 2035!” But the film never really shows why people would be unhappy or why the human spirit would die in such conditions. Alternatively, you could point out how we are already dependent on machines, and how that’s getting worse, and you could ask what would happen if we suddenly found ourselves without our machines. But the film doesn’t do that either. To the contrary, it makes no real references to the present. Instead, the film just sticks with the top line idea of “what if we had robots everywhere and they took over!” That’s not particularly satisfying.
The film also seems to rely on a premise that is, at best, naive. Everyone except for Will Smith seems to genuinely believe that robots somehow could never harm a human being. Indeed, we are told constantly, that they are all programmed with these three laws which prevent it. And it comes as a total shock to the humans when they discover that someone found a way around this. Give me a break. Are we really to believe there no hackers who could reprogram a robot? That their software never goes wrong... blue screen of murderous death? That China isn’t turning out knock-off robots with 2.5 laws? Or that some evil company isn’t selling robots without the laws or an after-market kit to remove them? This is just not credible. Heck, US Robotics itself is said to have military contracts, do robot soldiers follow the three laws as well or did everyone somehow just forget about those whenever they think about how robots could never harm us?

And once again, it is the flaw of the shortcut that exposes the problem with the rest of the movie. If the writers have not used this bit of fakery as a shortcut to explaining why people would be surprised by robots, they might have had to deal with the question of the missing point to the film. In other words, if they hadn’t use this crutch about making everyone hopelessly naive, then they would have needed to explain why people would willing allow their potential murders into their lives. That would have raised all the issues that get ignored in this film about human laziness and dependence.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this and I think it’s starting to highlight a very valid point – when you gloss over something in writing your story, you often end up cutting out the need to discuss the things that make the movie interesting. Short cuts make for uninteresting stories.
Now, despite what I’ve said above, I have to admit that I’ve really come to enjoy this film. Will Smith is his usual self. He’s charismatic, funny and very likable. He’s someone you definitely want to know. The story is well paced and doesn’t reveal its plot points too quickly. There are a couple interesting mysteries that help drive the plot – who killed Dr. Lanning, who made Sonny, why is he different, did Sonny kill Dr. Lanning, who is behind the robot conspiracy? The film uses smart foreshadowing too, where the director actually waits to let things pay off later in the film, which always makes a story feel smarter, e.g. Sonny blinking. There are some insightful moments too, like when we’re told the internet destroyed the libraries and a very brief statement (far too undeveloped) about machinery destroying jobs. That’s enough to like the film if you weren’t expecting more.

Ultimately, this film is fun and I like it, I’m just disappointed that the film wasn’t any more than it was.
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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Guest Review: Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

By ScottDS
Now that we’ve discussed the first two films, let’s take a look at Die Hard with a Vengeance. I’ve always felt this film was underrated and, in fact, it’s probably one of the last “analog” action films. It’s also a lot of fun.

In New York City, a terrorist bomber known as Simon (Jeremy Irons) demands that John McClane (Bruce Willis) stand on a Harlem street corner wearing an offensive sandwich board or he’ll blow up another building. Shopkeeper Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to get him off the street before he’s killed. After being ordered to play along, McClane – with Zeus in tow – is put through a series of games before it’s revealed that Simon is actually Simon Peter Gruber, brother of Hans Gruber whom McClane killed in the first film. Like his brother, Simon is after money, this time the gold in the Federal Reserve. Simon and his men are using dump trucks to transport the gold and McClane and Zeus are caught after tracking them down to a tanker. They escape before the tanker explodes but McClane theorizes that Simon must’ve absconded with the gold to Canada, per the address label on the aspirin bottle Simon gave to him earlier. They raid Simon’s hideout and McClane shoots a power line, which causes Simon’s helicopter to explode.
I’ve always liked this movie. The pacing feels a little off at first, like there was something cut except there wasn’t anything cut. Also, the helicopter climax almost feels like it belongs in another movie. This is, in fact, the only Die Hard movie based on an original screenplay, though it wasn’t intended to be a Die Hard movie. It was originally titled Simon Says. Screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh once asked himself (I’m paraphrasing), “What would happen if, when I was younger, I hit a kid with a rock? The kid wasn’t killed but the grudge he held against me completely warped him and he spent the rest of his life trying to get back at me?” The first half of the film resembles that script, with the Gruber connection signaling the transition to Die Hard territory.

This is a buddy cop movie, with Willis paired with Samuel L. Jackson. Willis is in fine form here. McClane is a borderline alcoholic and he and Holly haven’t spoken in months. I understand why the filmmakers made this choice but I can't help but feel that their marriage troubles almost negate everything that was accomplished in the first two films, where the relationship was what kept everything grounded (more or less). His humor is a little darker and a little more sly, with less one-liners this time around. Jackson is excellent as Zeus, who becomes a reluctant participant in the proceedings.
There is a racism subtext but it’s mostly played for laughs. Zeus clearly has a problem with white people and only saved McClane because he didn’t want the neighborhood raided by “white cops, all with itchy trigger fingers.” McClane calls him out which leads to one of my favorite bits when Zeus thinks McClane is gonna call him the n-word but he wasn’t. “What were you gonna call me?” “A--hole!” Willis and Jackson have great chemistry and, like partners in every buddy cop movie, they eventually learn to get along.

John McTiernan returns to the director’s chair and while this film isn’t as stylish as the first one, there is an authentic look to this film. It’s New York as New Yorkers see it. In the opening montage, you see city streets, pedestrians, food carts, etc. You don’t see the typical New York movie landmarks: there’s no beauty shot of the Empire State Building or Grand Central Terminal. There’s a real gritty feel to this film. One thing I appreciate is the extras. Look at the people in the background – they all look the part, complete with trademark NYC indifference. Another quick gag I appreciate is the harried 911 call center supervisor whose shirt is three sizes too small. McTiernan applies many of the same tricks to this film as he did to the first one including full use of the widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio (these films look awful in pan and scan) and establishing characters through camera movement as opposed to cutting.

Jeremy Irons is clearly having a blast (pun intended) as Simon. We only hear his voice for the first act but his physical introduction is quite memorable. From an extremely high angle, we see the various police and government officials spread out to find the latest bomb. The camera pulls up and turns around to find Simon on a rooftop. He has only one line: “They bought it.” He's all business but he manages to do it with a smile. Admittedly, most of his henchmen don’t make much of an impression, save for Nick Wyman as Targo, a giant of a man, and the lovely Katya, played by rock singer Sam Phillips. Ironically, she’s mute in the film but she is an imposing presence, slitting throats like nobody’s business in one wonderfully-choreographed shot. Just imagine a fascist Mirror Universe version of Rosie the Riveter.
The supporting cast features some familiar faces. Soap opera actor Larry Bryggman plays McClane’s superior, Inspector Cobb. He’s soft-spoken but very direct and you believe he can boss around Bruce Willis. McClane’s fellow detectives are played by Graham Greene (as Lambert) and Colleen Camp (as Kowalski). McTiernan regular Anthony Peck plays another detective, Walsh. (Peck also appeared in the first film as a cop and Red October as the executive officer of the Dallas. He sadly passed away in 1996.) Kevin Chamberlin plays Charlie, the geeky bomb expert who is ready to sacrifice himself to save hundreds of schoolchildren.

Man, even the character names are spot-on: Cobb, Lambert, Kowalski, Walsh. I know it’s trivial but I’m a stickler when it comes to this stuff and some names sound more authentic than others. I also appreciate the teamwork aspect of this film. While McClane and Zeus are hunting down Simon, the other cops are searching schools for a bomb. At the time, Willis felt he should’ve been the one on the scene defusing the bomb but the story simply didn’t lend itself to that. Like the second film, the canvas has expanded once again: from one building to one airport to one city. If you compare it to the first film, then you might be disappointed in that regard but I believe it stands on its own. In this case, McClane and Zeus are given a specific set of tasks – they might be in NYC but they can't exactly go anywhere they please.
Again, tech aspects are mostly top-notch, though there are a couple of wonky effects shots. I’m not familiar enough with every part of NYC but I do know that you can't access the subway simply by picking up a grate from the sidewalk! For this film, Michael Kamen eschews European composers and goes with something a little more American: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” which could be a reference to McClane being on his home turf but is also a nod to Dr. Strangelove. I also need to mention the car chase through Central Park, with McClane driving a cab to the Wall Street subway station before another bomb goes off. As one critic said, “Only John McTiernan could make a car chase exciting with only one car!” This film was made when cell phones were becoming ubiquitous and screenwriter Hensleigh admits on the DVD commentary that this aspect of the film embarrasses him. Sometimes you need to make your hero unable to contact his superiors and nowadays that means bad reception!

Again, this film is seriously underrated. It made a ton of money but as we look back through time, it’s been lost in the shuffle somewhere, having come out a year after Speed and True Lies and a year before Mission: Impossible and The Rock – all entertaining action films from the 90s that are still talked about. It was also the third film in a series, though the law of diminishing returns doesn’t apply since many people prefer it to the second one. I like them both just fine!

“As I was going to St. Ives / I met a man with seven wives / Every wife had seven sacks / Every sack had seven cats / Every cat had seven kittens / Kittens, cats, sacks, wives / How many were going to St. Ives?”

P.S. To hear more about John McTiernan’s filmmaking philosophy straight from the horse’s mouth, click here.
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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Questionable Star Wars vol. 8

Rumors of the prequels being an ironic joke are greatly exaggerated, but that doesn’t mean the Star Wars saga didn’t have its funny moments.

Question: "What was the funniest moment in the series?"

Andrew's Answer: Han Solo definitely had the best lines, though interestingly, he’s not really comic relief. In fact, I can't think of anyone else who said anything funny. One of Han's best comments was: “Who's scruffy lookin’?” I love this line because he's clearly focusing on the least offensive thing Leia said and he really seems offended by it... this was just one of those hilarious moments.

Scott's Answer: It's interesting... there are funny lines we all love to quote but no inherently funny scenes or situations, except one: Han Solo's "...we're fine. We're all fine here now, thank you. How are you?" scene from the first film. I'm pretty sure it was mainly improvised by Harrison Ford on the set and it's hilarious.
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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Question: Favorite Sports Moment?

In light of the Super Bowl being today, let's take a break from the regular film debate series and ask a simple question: What is your favorite sports moment on film?
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Friday, February 1, 2013

Film Friday: The Island (2005)

The Island is an odd film. It’s shiny and pretty with a story that moves along nicely and which raises some interesting philosophical questions. Yet, it’s also strangely lifeless. . . welcome to the world of Michael Bay. . . look, shiny! I say strangely because a film about the harvesting of human being for their organs should have a much stronger emotional impact than this film does. Ultimately, I think this is the result of several bad decisions.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
The Island is the story of a group of people who think they’ve survived a contamination holocaust. They live in a sealed community and are taken care of by an all-powerful government which controls what they wear, what they eat, and what they do - the government seems obsessed with their health and diet. Every so often, the government runs a lottery. The winner of the lottery is allowed to leave the compound to live on “the island,” the last uncontaminated paradise on Earth. That sounds great, only the truth is somewhat less pleasant.
One of the survivors is Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor). He’s sort of restless. Indeed, he raises complaints about the food and the lack of color in his clothing (everyone wears white), and he goes to places he shouldn’t. Because of this, he one day ends up outside the compound. What he finds is a medical center and the latest winner of the lottery is there being cut open so they can remove his organs. Lincoln Six and his quasi-girlfriend Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) then escape the compound. Naturally, they are pursued. As they flee, they discover that the world is fine and they are not survivors of anything, they are clones who have been grown so their organs can be harvested.
Why The Film Feels Hollow
If you’re looking for a mindless way to blow a couple hours, you’ll probably like The Island. After a bit of a science-fictiony start, the film quickly devolves into one long chase scene. It’s not bad in that regard. But if you’re hoping for more, you will likely be disappointed. What makes this strange is that the film is set up to deliver so much more, but it just never does. Indeed, it’s very hard to care about the characters or to feel their plight. And for a film about humans being raised on an organ farm just to be parted out when they are needed, there’s remarkably little outrage or revulsion to be had from the film because the film never hits you in the gut or makes you uncomfortable. Here’s why:
Mistake No. One: The film is too clean. Indeed, there isn’t really a moment that shocks us. The compound is nice. The people are friendly. The bad guys seem apologetic, and the one scene that should be grotesque, when Michael Clarke Duncan accidentally wakes up as they are removing his organs, is more comedic than ugly. Indeed, there’s no blood and there’s nothing to make you sick. It would have been much more powerful if you had been slapped in the face with something graphic to give you a sense of the immorality of what was going on. For example, a pile of corpses would have been good (e.g. The Running Man) or a scene where you watched helplessly as Duncan awaited his death. As it is, the viewer is never really confronted with the true nature of what is happening.

Mistake No. Two: The characters are less than human. It’s very hard to care about the characters in this film. Part of that is that they aren’t really presented as complete human beings. They have no hopes and no dreams and no family. They don’t even have boyfriends/girlfriends because they have no sex drive – it’s been removed from their programming. This makes it difficult to “feel” how their deaths are all that sad because there is no loss for you to consider.

Mistake No. Three: The film itself shuts down most of the debate. For example, the film points out that clones don’t know what God is. This essentially stops any discussion of the human soul. The film points out that only rich people can afford this, but then it doesn’t show any poor people suffering because of it, so that issue is for naught. The film says that the reason these clones are conscious (the corporation lies to the world and says they aren’t) is because they found the body dies without consciousness. What does that say about the meaning of life? The film doesn’t address it. Instead, it buries the point in talk about losing military contracts. All the interesting issues are one-liners which get left undeveloped on the table.
Mistake No. Four: Finally, we come to the big mistake: the film lets the audience off the hook. The film does this in several ways. First, it makes the people who guard the clones jackasses. It’s therefore easy for the audience to disassociate themselves from these people. Disassociation allows the audience to ignore the moral question by thinking that it doesn’t apply to them because they don’t see themselves as being like the jackasses.

Then we learn that what they are doing is either illegal or quasi-illegal. Indeed, we are shown how the company lies to regulators and investors alike by telling them that the clones are never allowed to become conscious. This makes it even easier for the audience to disassociate themselves from this. Instead of needing to face the ugly reality that society accepts harvesting human organs and wondering how we would feel in that world, this decision to make this a rogue corporation tells the audience this is not something society accepts - it’s just another villain. This means our morality is never questioned. Even the hired killer assures us that this is wrong, and if the most immoral parts of society agree that this is wrong, then it becomes impossible for the audience to feel threatened that this might one day become reality.
The final error in this regard was the happy ending. The heroes escape from the clutches of the farm and then return to free their fellow livestock. Presumably, this will end the practice. Everyone lives happily ever after and the audience never needs to worry about finding themselves in a world where humans are grown so we can harvest their organs because this was just an aberration. Whew!

This is why this film looks pretty, but feels hollow. A film like this should be a deeply uncomfortable experience that leaves people questioning their own morality and wondering if their own world could following the same path. This film never achieves that. In fact, it never tries. To the contrary, all of the philosophical/moral points the film sets up get neutered before they can be developed, and the film keeps assuring the audience that what they are seeing could never really happen. Essentially, the film keeps telling the audience, “Don’t worry, this doesn’t concern you,” when it should be telling the audience, “This could be you already!” Even on a character level, the film takes away our ability to care by stripping out any real sense of loss if these clones die. In the end, what should have been a gripping, horrifying philosophical-thriller turned out to be just an action film involving clones.
[+]