Friday, May 31, 2013

Film Friday: The Big Lebowski (1998)

Few people are indifferent when it comes to the Coen brothers. Most people either love them or hate them. Personally, I find their films to be either brilliant or completely flat, though even the brilliant ones are rarely satisfying. The Big Lebowski sits in the brilliant category. Interestingly, what makes this film work is that it provides compelling moments and it strings them together in a unique way.

** spoiler alert **
The Big Lebowski is a sort-of-comedy centered around Jeff Lebowski aka “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges). He’s a slacker who lives in Los Angeles. Bowling is the only thing that matters in his life. The Dude becomes a pawn in a kidnapping plot when he is mistaken for another Lebowski and some thugs appear at his house and threaten him. In the process, they urinate on his rug. This upsets him because “the rug really tied the room together,” and he decides to see the Lebowski they were really after to get compensation for his rug. In the process, he and his bowling buddies run into a veritable freak show of characters.
In its initial run, the film faired poorly with critics and audiences alike. It brought in only $17 million. Over time, however, this film has attained cult status. Indeed, there are festivals to the film and there’s even an online religion (Dudeism) with 130,000 members. The film is now also widely regarded as genius by the same critics who panned it originally.
What Makes This Film Work
So what made this film work? Well, ultimately, what really works here is that the Coen brothers created a film which draws you in. It does that with strange characters who make you curious and by making each scene compelling. To do that, the Coens do something interesting. They abandon the traditional mechanics of plot, i.e. each scene must efficiently convey the next plot point, with each step in the plot being shown, each scene logically following from the last, and nothing irrelevant being included. Instead, the Coens make each scene its own fantastic little moment which only vaguely makes sense in the overall plot, and they tie all these scenes together with themes.
Thus, for example, the Dude constantly mentions his rug, which we are repeatedly told “tied the room together.” This becomes the seeming motivation behind each scene even though none of the scenes have anything do with the rug and none of the characters care about it. Similarly, each character talks about “the money” to make it seem like the story is focused on the kidnapping plot, even though most of the characters don’t really care about that either. And everything always comes back to bowling even though none of the characters involved in the plot have anything to do with bowling. By constantly mentioning these things, the Coens manage to make each of the scenes feel completely related and like they are all working toward a single plot point, even though only a handful of the scenes really matter to the plot. This results in a fascinating bit of misdirection as it keeps you thinking the plot is moving forward when it really isn’t.
So why do this? Well, it allows the Coens to build each scene independently and to maximize the punch because they don’t need to worry about tying each scene into the plot story-wise. It also allows them to skip the transition scenes/“workman” parts of the plot that move the story along, but which hold little real interest. Thus, for example, we don’t need to watch the character do research or acquire a weapon or warn his girlfriend about what he’s doing. There are no montages as the characters get ready for a confrontation and there’s no scene where the characters are shown sneaking around. Instead, scene after scene is basically its own self-contained vignette of things that happen to the Dude during this period. Each is stylish, incredible, and unexpected. Ultimately, that gives each scene more punch and it makes each scene more interesting because, unlike other films, there are no points where you can tune out because you know what’s about to happen during the upcoming scene.

That’s half the puzzle. That allowed the Coen brothers to make a more interesting film because each scene feels more like a highlight with it’s own build up and climax, and there are no “down” parts of the film. But that alone would not be enough to make a good film without them also filling the scenes with memorable images. That’s where the film really shines. Consider these characters and their moments:
Jesus (John Turturro): Jesus has NOTHING to do with the plot. He’s a convicted child molester who is now the world’s most bizarre bowler. You can’t help but watch this guy like a train wreck. And the use of the Gypsy King version of “Hotel California” as he licks his bowling ball is the kind of image you never forget (LINK).

Walter (John Goodman): Walter is the Dude’s best friend and teammate. He turns everything into some point about Vietnam. He’s converted to Judaism, and clearly misunderstands it. Bowling is his real religion. He’s also intensely hotheaded. He causes trouble constantly. He also gives us the great image of himself bullying a twelve year old, destroying a car (it’s the wrong car), and a scene involving some ashes you have to see to believe.

The Nihilists: The people who supposedly kidnapped Bunny are a gang of German nihilists. It turns out they are really a new wave band – Autobahn. The lead singer Uli Kunkel (Peter Stormare) appeared in a porno film with Bunny as Karl Hungus. And they don’t even have Bunny. They just want money, but aren’t competent.

Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston): Lebowski is a wheelchair-bound millionaire... sort of. Bunny is his trophy wife. He’s insulting, condescending and talks about his success. He comes across as part general, part madman, part villain and God knows what else. He and his butt-kissing henchman Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman) pull the Dude into the kidnapping plot.

Maude (Julianne Moore): Oy. She’s a feminist, avant-garde artist who describes her work as “strongly vaginal.” She’s Lebowski’s daughter and she’s the one who really owns the money. She introduced Bunny to Uli, and she decides she wants to have a child with The Dude... but wants nothing else to do with him. This results in memorable scenes like the obnoxiously laughing David Thewlis and a naked painting session that involves a harness and two musclemen dressed in leather.
Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara): Treehorn comes out of nowhere in the film. He’s a pornographer and loan shark and Bunny owes him a lot of money. His scene leads to the film’s strange but fascinating dream sequence (LINK).
This is a wild collection of characters. They are fun to watch, shocking and memorable. Each is also set free to roam the scenes in which they appear. They aren’t bound by the plot or the need to give plot points. If something has to be said, it will be said, but not before you get to see them do their thing, and not before the scene leaves you with a couple memorable moments and images. These scenes also expertly incorporate a strong, but eclectic soundtrack.

This is why this film stands out. It stands out because it delivers punch after punch and it does so without all the usual necessary-but-uninteresting scenes that other films employ. It’s an interesting way to make a film actually. It’s kind of a cross between the avant-garde films of the 1960s, which stink, and modern films. And in this case, it works really well.

All of that said, there are two things I don’t like about this film. The narrator (Sam Elliot) lends the film an unreal feeling which detracts from a film which is already right on the edge of believability. The film would be stronger without him. Secondly, while the film is fun and the scenes are great, the film ultimately feels unsatisfying to me because it doesn’t wrap up. It just kind of ends. This is a direct result of the film not having the normal narrative structure and I think the Coens failed to compensate for that by not giving the film a definite climax. Still, it’s absolutely worth seeing.
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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Questionable Bond No. 7

Do you expect me to talk? No, I expect you to die... but I’m not counting on it.

Question: "What was the stupidest attempt to kill James Bond?"

Scott's Answer: In Thunderball when Count Lippe tries to kill Bond by cranking the spinal traction machine up to 11. Seeing Bond flail around on the table is a flat-out cringe-worthy moment in an otherwise fine film.

Andrew's Answer: The killer hockey players in For Your Eyes Only are pretty stupid. So is leaving Bond to the alligators in Live and Let Die. But for my money, the dumbest attempt to kill Bond is leaving him in a pipe in the desert in Diamonds Are Forever. Did they just forget to shoot him?
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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Cynical World

There’s a strong argument to be made that films reflect culture as it stands at the time. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t resonate with audiences. Thus, you can understand the values of a generation by watching their films. Nothing highlights this better than war films, which changed dramatically over the years as society changed. And watching Battle of the Bulge this weekend made me realize something interesting about the biggest problem facing the world today: cynicism.

There is a huge difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism is a great thing. It is what allows us to change the world for the better because skeptics challenge all of our beliefs and demand proof to keep believing them. That allows us to unearth our mistakes and to improve our world. It was skepticism which got someone to doubt the conventional wisdom that the earth was flat or that no one would ever need a computer. In questioning these things that “everyone knew to be true,” these skeptics unearthed hidden truths that allowed society to take its next leap forward.

Cynicism is not skepticism, though its adherents think it is. Cynicism is bad faith. In its mildest form, it is negative desire looking for validation. In its worst form it is obstructionist and deceitful. Whereas the skeptic says, “I will not believe it until you can prove it,” and thereby creates a stronger belief or disproves a false one, the cynic says, “I will find a reason to disbelieve it,” and thereby establishes a false truth. What’s worse, modern cynicism has warped itself into a reflex which sours everything.

Indeed, cynicism infects everything today. Cynicism sits at the root of conspiracy theories and makes it impossible for people to enjoy life. For cynics, there are no accidents. Everything is by design and evil motive. Everyone lies. Everyone is always self-motivated in the worst possible way. Give to charity... you must want publicity. Do it secretly... you must be trying to atone for something evil. Want to work with kids... you must be a pedophile. Blow the whistle on some crime... you must be dirty too. Deny a crime... you must be lying. Refuse to deny a crime... you must have something to hide.

What cynicism has done is it assumes the worst in all instances. It also has taken minor points of logic, like discounting evidence provided by biased persons, and it has fetishized it by making it absolute. Hence, if you can find a personal motive (or just assume one) then you not only wipe out the evidence that biased person offered, but you wipe out the theory they supported even if there is independent evidence for it. This is logical crap, but cynics mistake it for wisdom.

Think about the effect on our political system. For one thing, this has destroyed political discourse. Nothing anyone says is relevant anymore because once the other side says it, it is automatically disbelieved, whether it’s true or not. It’s also created a form or paralysis by tautology: all ideas are bad because no one would suggest an idea unless it benefited them personally, and if it benefits them personally then it cannot be trusted, hence all ideas are bad. Moreover, to get any idea implemented requires both sides to approve of it, but the moment the other side agrees, then our side turns against it... after all, they wouldn’t agree unless it helped them! The result is a society of people who cannot agree on anything because they have made the very act of having ideas and reaching agreements suspect.

Ironically, these cynics think their cynicism protects them from “the powers that be,” but the truth is that it plays into the hands of the system. Basically, these cynics struggle to stop all change and, in the process, they work hard to preserve the very system they claim they are opposing. Seriously, Orwell and Huxley had nothing on the power of cynics to enslave themselves and yet think they are setting themselves free.

So what does this have to do with the Battle of the Bulge? Well, everyone thinks our cynicism is the result of Watergate. That is the moment we supposedly lost our innocence. Yet, films tell us that’s not true.

As I noted above, films reflect the mindset of the generation who made them. Whether they lead or follow the mindset is a question for debate, but either way, by the 1960s, films were deeply cynical. Battle of the Bulge is the perfect example. War films made in the 1950s often had ironic twists or characters who groused and felt a bit abused by the system. But nowhere in the 1950s war films will you find the likes of the characters in Bulge. In this film, every main character knows “the truth” which “the system” won’t admit. They know the Germans are coming even though Army intelligence refuses to see it and even though their commanders try to shut them up – at once point, Fonda is even threatened with being transferred away for sounding the alarm because he was making the commanders look bad. This is pure cynicism. Even worse, the German commander isn’t looking to win the battle so he can win the war. No. His goal is to allow the carnage to continue forever. Think about this. Somehow, it’s not bad enough that the Nazis were fighting to preserve an evil ideology. Instead, the film needed to invent a new motive, a villain who wanted perpetual war rather than victory. In each case, the film presents motives that only cynics would believe – personal desires masquerading as official policy.

Nor is this the only cynical film. The Guns of Navarone (1961) was about an American soldier who didn’t know why he was fighting, a British counterpart who was openly cynical and disloyal, and a Greek people who were rife with traitors and opportunists. Doctor Strangelove (1964) showed us generals who wanted war because it was good for their careers or their impotence. The spaghetti westerns told us there were no heroes, only self-interested murderers. Ocean’s Thirteen (1960) was the first film I could find where the bad guys were treated as the heroes and even the good guys were self-interested. Planet of the Apes was the ultimate slap in the face to religion and humanists, with the main character being a cynic who knew humans would blow themselves up because we’re all so self-interested and the apes were even more cynical. Interestingly, Apes purports to attack self-interest, but it’s really an ode to cynicism, which worships self-interest by demonizing other people’s self-interest.

Anyway, each of these movies and dozens more took place before Watergate. Many took place before Vietnam really took off or even Kennedy’s assassination. So clearly, the deep cynicism of today was already in place by that time. I see no evidence of it in the films of the 1930s, the 1940s and the 1950s however – if anything, those films held up naiveté as the American ideal. So somewhere in the late 1950s and early 1960s, we became cynical people.

Why does this matter? Well, if you want to cure something, you need to understand it first. Knowing that our cynicism is not what liberals claim, i.e. a response to Nixon and/or Vietnam, tells us to look elsewhere.

And why do we want to cure it? Because it’s bad for us. Cynics think they see some hidden truth, but all they’re really doing is inventing ways to justify their biases. All around us, truth is vanishing... worthwhile analysis is vanishing... and community is vanishing. We’ve created a dark world in our minds where we assume good people are secretly evil. And we’ve made it impossible to fix our system, which very much needs fixing. Also, on a personal level, cynicism isn’t healthy. It’s akin to paranoia and it would behoove us all to examine ourselves and see if the skepticism we think we have isn’t really cynicism. Losing your cynicism will probably make you happier and help you live longer. And no, the Anti-cynicism Council didn’t pay me to say that.

So tell me, what do you think caused this outbreak of cynicism and how do we cure it?
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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Questionable Jones No. 10

Great stunts make a movie great. Bad stunts, stunt growth. And the Indiana Jones series, like all films, has both good and bad stunts.

Question: "What was the best and the worst stunt?"

Scott's Answer: Best stunt? The truck chase in Raiders. It's absolutely perfect and I don't want to know how many bumps and bruises Harrison Ford and his stuntman (Vic Armstrong) suffered. Worst stunt? I won't count Shia of the Jungle since that was mostly done with visual effects. Now that I go with it, there aren't really and bad stunts, per se. Sure, there's the "Nuke the Fridge" sequence which might've been ill-conceived but there was nothing wrong with the execution.

Andrew's Answer: Yeah, the best stunt is the truck chase. You just can't beat that. It's so perfect it's iconic. I give an honorable mention to when Jones falls to the floor in the temple and ends up face to face with the cobra. Sadly, this stunt has been ruined a bit by the ability of people to go frame by frame as this allowed people to see that there is glass between Jones and the snake. For worst, I have to go with the whole chase through the jungle in Crystal Skull because it's just ridiculous. The whole concept is ridiculous in fact -- the speed with which they are cutting down trees, how smoothly the whole process goes and how the vehicles are driving along like they are on a highway, how they are jumping back and forth because there's no more jungle anymore, etc. Ahhhhh!! My disbelief!
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Friday, May 24, 2013

Memorial Day - Open Thread

Thanks to everyone who has sacrificed for this country.

(We're taking off until Tuesday.) Click Here To Comment

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Prometheus (2012) redux

When I first reviewed Prometheus, it struck me that the film wasn’t saying anything. The film made a big deal of religion versus atheism, but it never went beyond some ham-fisted “is true” “is not” dialog that didn’t seem to add up to much. Recently, I’ve given this film a lot of thought however, and I’ve concluded that Prometheus is actually an attack on militant atheism.

Interpreting a film is always difficult because you end up reading a lot of tea leaves the writer may not have intended. In fact, the writer here may have intended nothing more than to throw in some pro/con-religion dialog just to make you think the film is deep. But I have noticed several things that create a consistent pattern, and patterns usually mean intent. What I found is the consistent message that militant atheism is rotten. Observe:

Who Survives: Sometimes the most obvious example of what the writer favors comes from which characters survive the movie. In fact, this touches on a well-known theory that characters who behave morally survive slasher flicks and those who don’t die. Here, two characters ultimately survive. One is Shaw, the only openly religious character. The other is David, the android, who is religious as well (discussed below).

Further, the first to die, and die most horribly, are the two scientists (Millburn and Fifield) who openly mock Shaw for going against Darwinism. The next to die horribly is Shaw’s boyfriend Holloway, who also mocks Shaw’s faith and tries repeatedly to get her to abandon it. The last two to die in highly visible and ignoble ways are Vickers, who shows utter disdain for “true believers” and can’t even tolerate the Captain putting up a Christmas tree, and the Engineer, who is the most militant of the atheists (discussed below). The Captain, who honors the symbols of Christianity (like putting up a Christmas tree) but only expresses limited faith, dies nobly to save humanity. The rest die off screen.

That means all the aggressive atheists die horribly, whereas those who express some faith die nobly or survive. That suggest meaning. Specifically, in film speak, it suggests that the aggressive atheists are bad and the believers are good.

Who is right?: Another way to tell what a film is pushing is asking which characters are right. Shaw represents religion and the other scientists represent militant (mocking) atheism. They claim that she’s a fool to believe that humans were “created.” She’s proven right, however.

What does the neutral observer say?: When a film involves competing sides, there is often an unaligned observer who suggests which side is supposed to be right. In this case, we have David the android. We are told that David cannot appreciate the concept of God because he’s not human and cannot take things on faith. Yet, we get two interesting moments on this issue from David.

First, before David poisons Holloway, he and Holloway have a quick discussion about what Holloway hopes to discover from meeting his creator. Holloway says he wants to know why they made us. David then asks Holloway why humans made David and Holloway says, “Because we could.” Interestingly, David, who is supposed to have no ability to appreciate the idea of God, notes that this answer would be really disappointing to hear. Translation: David is disappointed because he sees something sacred about life, even his own.

Secondly, when the Engineer kills Weyland, his dying words are, “There is nothing,” meaning there is no God. David responds with “I know. . . have a pleasant journey, sir.” This is fascinatingly contradictory. On the one hand, David is agreeing that Weyland is right that there is no God. But then he wishes him a pleasant journey in the afterlife, which wouldn’t exist without a God. To understand what this means, you need to realize that David humors the humans throughout. Whenever they give him an order he doesn’t agree with, he says “yes” and then does his own thing no matter what they told him to do. I think this is the same here. Weyland is telling David, “There is no God,” so David responds like a good android and confirms what he has been told to believe. But once David has humored him, he acts according to his own belief and he wishes Weyland a pleasant journey on his way to meet his maker in the afterlife. That makes David religious, and that means the neutral observer says the religious side is right. It also means David is treating Weyland, who is now an atheist, like a fool.

Hypocrisy: Beyond how they die, Prometheus also shows the atheists as hypocrites. Take the case of Holloway. He keeps telling Shaw that she needs to abandon her faith because there is no God. Yet, Holloway also argues, “God does not build in straight lines.” So he’s a hypocrite because while he wants everyone to be an atheist, he still accepts the idea of God.

Millburn and Fifield are another example of hypocrisy. They claim to be rational thinkers who accept Darwinism because of the evidence. Yet, when they are proven wrong about Darwinism when they find the body of the Engineer, they don’t act like rational thinkers. To the contrary, despite being confronted with clear evidence that would wipe out Darwinism and necessarily lead to a re-alignment of science, these two scientists refuse to examine the evidence and don’t even talk about its implications. . . instead, they talk about tobacco. They are hypocrites in their claim to be rational thinkers.

There’s another aspect to Holloway as well. At one point, Holloway tells Shaw that the fact that the Engineers made humans means there is no God. This is logically false and Shaw calls him on this by saying God made the Engineers. Holloway doesn’t respond by telling her there no God, which would be the true atheist position. Instead, he agrees with her (“Exactly”), but then wrongly says that because of this, we can never know anything about the nature of God. He then uses that assertion to tell her that she should stop worshiping God because we can’t know anything about God. His position is logically wrong, but more interestingly, think about what his position says logically: there is a God, but let’s ignore him. This fits Holloway’s attitude throughout the film. What bothers him isn’t that others believe in God, it’s that they worship God. In effect, he’s not anti-God, he’s anti-worship. . . the same characteristic of militant atheists who’s real beef isn’t that people believe in God, but that they act on that belief.

Who is the bad guy?: Finally, we need to ask who is the bad guy. In this case, the bad guy is the Engineer. . . and he is the most militant atheist. It’s true.

When the film begins and the Engineers create humans, the whole thing appears religious in nature. They are wearing robes and the whole event has a ceremonial feel to it. This is how movies convey religion. So the Engineers, when they are good guys, were religious.

By the time we find the dead Engineer, things have changed. At first, I was confused by the giant statue of a head they seem to be worshiping in the pyramid. This struck me as evidence they were still religious. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that worshiping a statue of your own head is not a symbol of religion, but is a symbol of atheism. It is basically a declaration that man has thrown away God and now worships himself. And now that they are atheists they have decided to kill off the human race. That makes them bad guys. Translation: atheists are bad, genocidal people.

But there’s more.

For one thing, we need to ask why they wanted to kill off the humans. The film doesn’t seem to answer this, but there is a huge clue I missed the first couple times. When they carbon date the dead Engineer, they place it “around 2,000 years ago.” Think about what 2,000 years ago means in popular culture... Christianity. And don’t forget, they find the Engineer on Christmas Day, according to the Captain. In movie-speak where everything in a film is relevant, this tells us the Engineers were happy with us for tens of thousands of years when we worshiped them until Christianity came along. Once we found God, the Engineers because so angry with us they decided to kill us all. Basically, they are so militantly atheistic that they decided to wipe out humanity just because they didn’t want us believing in God.

Even the scene with the living Engineer suggests this. He doesn’t freak out and attack the humans when he first sees them or even when Weyland’s guard roughs up Shaw (the religious believer). He’s fine with those things. He only freaks out after David tells him that they have come looking for their creator. Now, we don’t know what David told him exactly, but he does use the word “Creator.” Translation: once David tells him they have come seeking God, the Engineer attacks them and decides to carry out his mission to wipe out humanity. I think it’s very reasonable to believe from this that the Engineer wants to eradicate the humans because they are religious, i.e. he’s a highly militant atheist. What’s more, in the final scene of the movie, the now-dead Engineer spawns the evil alien creature, which looks suspiciously like Satan.

All in all, I think this adds up to the film’s message being an attack on militant atheism. I don’t see an attack on atheism per se, but definitely the militant variety.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

My Book: How Conservatism Can Rise From The Ashes

FYI, I published the Agenda 2016 book I've been promising. . . here ==>LINK. Please buy it. You can read about it here: CommentaramaPolitics
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How To Outsmart Your Audience

Modern audiences have become too sophisticated to be surprised. They know all the clichés and they understand the mechanics of storytelling on film too well. But there are some tricks you can use to create genuine mysteries which will keep your audience interested.

Here’s the problem. Audiences understand movie mechanics. If you see something, it matters at the end. A gun in the first frame means someone dies later. When a character tells you something, it will become relevant. If the hero’s father vanished when he was young, you know there will be a mystery old guy who just happens to be the father. Characters also have stereotypical motivations. A businessman will always go for money. A mother will always go for family. Ghosts want their remains given a proper burial. Cocky jocks are cowards or gay. And if a character has a flaw, they will need to overcome that particular flaw to win the movie. . . every single time. This is how films work and audiences know it. That makes it hard to surprise audiences because they can pretty much outline your movie the moment they see the setup.

So how do you get around this? The most obvious solution is to create something new that audiences haven’t seen before. Most of the great films of recent vintage involve new storylines that haven’t been done before. But originality is tricky and dangerous. Audience cling to the familiar even as they claim they want originality. So how else can you surprise your audience? How about this:

A Genuine Twist: Probably the best way to turn a predictable film unpredictable is to give the film a genuine twist. I don’t mean a stupid twist. . . “the bad guy is really your boss! Oh my!” No. Instead, a genuine twist is something that fundamentally changes the nature of the narrative of the story.

Think about what made the twist in Sixth Sense or Fight Club or Usual Suspects so effective. In each instance, the twist change the way the story needed to be viewed at a fundamental level by changing the nature of the character through whose eyes we saw the film. Basically, everything we knew up to that point was suddenly cast in doubt and a whole new meaning was attached to every minute of the film. So long as the story works under both realities (pre- and post- twist), this is the perfect way to create a genuine surprise.

As an aside, the problem with lousy twists like making the main character’s boss be the bad guy is that this does nothing more than solve the supposed mystery. It doesn’t change the narrative in any way that requires a re-examination of what the audience believed to be true.

Twist the Mystery: Unfortunately, coming up with a genuine twist can be difficult, especially in less fantastic genres. So a second alternative would be to start out creating a particular mystery, but then twist that into a second mystery. And example of this might be uncovering a larger force behind the one your characters are initially investigating.

The benefit here is that this adds a surprise to the film right at the point where the film normally has worn out its interest factor. It also lets you raise the stakes, which always helps. Moreover, because this happens later in the film, you can introduce the evidence to support this mystery quicker because you have less run time to fill, which makes the story feel faster paced.

All in all, this doesn’t have anywhere near the power of the genuine twist, but it gives you a way to mislead your audience into thinking they didn’t see the ending coming because they will perceive both mysteries as the same mystery even though the second doesn’t actually begin until late in the film.

Delay: A related version to the idea of twisting the mysteries involves delaying the introduction of the mystery. This is probably best done in comedies where you can roam for a while before you need to start zeroing in on the storyline; in other genres, you run the risk of making the story feel rudderless. Alternatively, you can keep a mystery fresher by delaying the most obvious clues until very near the reveal. This will keep the audience from piecing everything together too quickly, but it runs the risk of making the feel audience cheated because they will feel they weren’t given a fair chance to figure out it.

Twist the Clichés: Finally, we come to one of the easiest ways to make a story feel fresh: embrace the clichés that normally fill your genre, but twist them. An example of this might be to use the gun from the first frame in a completely unexpected way, like having the characters discover that it has no bullets and that they need to find some other solution, or having the obnoxious jock turn out to have the heart of gold, not the hooker. This works because it takes the expected and makes it unexpected. It unsettles the audience’s ability to rely on things they’ve seen in the past as a way to judge how this film will turn out and it puts them in uncharted territory right at the point where they feel they’ve solved the film and will lose interest.

This is one that surprises me that more films don’t do it. It’s a really easy way to both give an audience something familiar but then to surprise them in the end.

Anyway, if you ever do some writing or you want to think about how to improve films that just don’t quite get there, here are some ideas.

Thoughts? What would you add?
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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Questionable Jones No. 9

We all know Raiders is just a mess of a movie, right? It needs a lot of changes before audiences will want to watch it.

Question: "How would you change Raiders itself?"

Scott's Answer: I hate to give such a vague answer but I'd trim it by five to ten minutes. I feel it drags a little at times, but only a little, and I don't feel that way about Doom or Crusade.

Andrew's Answer: Huh. Hmm. I can't think of anything, really. Hmm. Ok, how's this. I would change the submarine to a destroyer so people would stop saying Jones would drown. That's really all that comes to mind.

Looks like we need some help with this one!
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Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 81

You know, there's always that moment where you just go too far.

What “shark jumping moment” ruined a film for you?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

If the question was phrased as "prevented you from seeing a film," I'd say Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer or Cowboys and Aliens. As it is, I guess the first time Roger Moore got to go into space and do battle on a space station. Talk about killing off respect for a franchise.

Panelist: ScottDS

Probably the awful CGI surfing scene in Die Another Day. To be fair, I haven't seen the film in years and I'm usually pretty forgiving with this stuff but my God, what an awful sequence, in both concept and execution (mainly the latter). It's not Pierce Brosnan's fault, though, but it's easy to see why the creators went in a completely different direction with the Daniel Craig films. [This was written before we started the Bond retrospective, but it's still my answer!]

Panelist: T-Rav

Okay, so despite The Day After Tomorrow being totally hackish leftist propaganda and everything, the disaster-movie element of it managed to keep me interested and involved in the action part of the movie—until about two-thirds of the way through. The people at that point are trying to actually run away from the wave of super-cold air like it’s an army or something, which kills you the moment you come into contact with it—that’s not how it works. Then, they’re shouting “Run! Shut the doors!” and then “Burn more books!” Agh. This offends my intelligence on every level.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

I still haven’t seen the 3rd Back to the Future movie because I felt Spielberg just jumped the shark for me. I felt cheated into having to pay for a third one.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Honestly, Fonzy jumping the shark never bothered me. Anyway, so many sharks, so much jumping... most action films do it in the last twenty minutes. If they did a fourth Indiana Jones movie, I'm sure they would have jumped the shark. They probably would have dropped a nuke on a fridge or something. So what film did I enjoy until it jumped the shark? How about Eraser when Arnold's boss, turns out to be a traitor for no reason that makes any sense. Or even better, Magnolia. It's raining frogs? Are you kidding me?

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, May 17, 2013

Film Friday: The Woman in Black (2012)

Every once in awhile, a movie surprises you. I can definitely say that’s the case with The Woman in Black. Let’s see, we have a low budget, clichéd, Victorian Era haunted house film staring Harry Potter and directed by a newbie. Yeah. This thing had “weak” and “derivative” written all over it. So imagine my surprise to find one of the best horror films in a very long time.

** spoiler alert **
The Woman in Black stars Daniel Radcliff as Arthur Kipps, a junior lawyer in a Victorian Era law firm who is about to be fired. His wife died giving birth to his son and he’s spent the next five years living aimlessly and distracted. As a last chance, his boss sends him to some podunk village in the middle of nowhere to handle the estate of a woman name Alice Drablow and to sell her house, a creepy place called the Eel Marsh House, which is situated in the middle of a marsh. She had just died.
When Kipps arrives in the village, he finds the locals to be extremely hostile. They all want him to leave immediately. But he needs to finish his job or he will be fired, so he proceeds to Marsh House. As he looks through Alice’s papers, he learns that Alice had a sister named Jennet Humfrye. Jennet was mentally disturbed and blamed Alice and her husband for her son dying in the marsh. They never found the body.

As Kipps works, he starts seeing signs of a young woman. For example, he sees a hand on a window and a shadow run across a room. Doors open and close and a rocking chair moves itself. He then returns to the town for the night. When he gets back to the town, a young girl dies in his arms. She poisoned herself. He then learns that most of the children in this town have died, always of suicides, and the townsfolk hate him because they think he’s started the wave of suicides to begin again. Kipps ignores them and returns to Marsh House where he soon finds himself playing cat and mouse with the ghost of Jennet, who seeks revenge against all she encounters by taking their children from them.
What A Well Done Film!
Ok, here are all the warning signs with this film: Radcliff was still fresh from Harry Potter, and it wasn’t clear he was up to anything else. The film was produced by Hammer, who make cheap and generally kitsch films. Never heard of the director. The critics called the film “traditional to a fault,” which reeks of clichés, and they said it wasn’t scary enough for modern audiences. The Victorian-Era setting also sounded like it would be a problem because we don’t relate to the way they handled their fears. But none of this turned out to be a problem because the director made some brilliant choices.
This film was directed by James Watkins who gets a ton of credit for taking the “creepy imagery” horror story we first saw with the wave of Japanese films like The Grudge and adding a layer of creep to it. He did this in two ways that I think merit discussion. First, he understood that distance adds to the creep factor. Most of the “creepy imagery” horror stories try to scare you by showing you creepy images, like undead kids standing in your living room. But after a quick scene or two, the directors invariably hike up the shock value by having the creature touching the hero or jumping in their face to scare them. While this is effective in stepping up the shock, it simultaneously wipes out the fear-of-the-unknown factor because now we see the thing and we know its intentions and the limits of its powers. All that creepy ambiguity and dreaded potential vanishes. Emotionally, this is the difference between being handed a wrapped gift and being handed an open box.

Watkins does it differently. He spends a lot more time with things happening at a distance. You will see a hand across the room against a window for a brief moment or an empty rocking chair at the other end of the room. You will see a shadow move across the other end of a hallway, a ghost walking toward the house from a grave, and a face appearing a few feet over Kipps’ shoulder. What this does is it gives you a sense that things are closing in on Kipps. That’s ominous and it keeps you thinking, “Run for your life before it’s too late!” By comparison, in The Grudge, your “flight instinct” never activates because you know she can’t escape the thing. Moreover, because of this approach, Watkins never gives us a good look at anything nor do we get a sense of its intentions or its powers until late in the film. That keeps the fear of the unknown running strong within us because we don’t know what the danger really is or how bad it could be. That’s instinctively horrifying to us. Lesser directors simply aren’t willing to be this patient.
Watkins also uses motion very effectively. Strangely, this is something you rarely see in the “creepy image” movies. I think the reason is that those directors focus on creating horrific single images for you to examine and they want you to think about that image, not the action of the scene. Watkins, by comparison, uses motion to show how Kipps is being surrounded. For example, you get to watch a ghost walking toward the house from a grave at one point; you are watching this from the second floor. Think about the horror of knowing that thing just entered the downstairs. Is it coming up the stairs? Has it blocked the exit? That is so much stronger than just seeing an image of the ghost somewhere in the house because it makes you feel that you are now trapped. Remember, when it just appears in the house, you invaded its turf, but seeing it enter the house means it’s hunting you. . . and it’s now between you and the door.

Another shot involves Kipps resting his eyes while he sits in a chair. As he does, we see a long hallway over his shoulder and we see a ghost start down the hallway toward him. . . and us. This is a great idea which builds terror with each passing second and it stuns me that you almost never see anyone do this on film. I don’t know why not. The one complaint I do have about that scene, however, is that Watkins changes the perspective very quickly from watching over Kipps’ shoulder to seeing from the ghost’s perspective. It was an effective scene, but it would have been so much more effective if you had been left to watch helplessly as the thing approached you.
Beyond the creeps, the other thing Watkins does is to keep the film from feeling like a giant cliché. I’ve said before that there’s nothing wrong with clichés if they are handled right. Clichés give us comfort. They are like sign posts of the familiar and they only become a problem if a film merely repeats the cliché as if this is somehow worthwhile. But so long as something new or different is done at critical moments, then the cliché works fine. That’s the case here.

For example, one of the oldest clichés in the book is the outsider who comes to the small village and is accused of bringing evil with them. This film starts that way as well with the villagers shunning Kipps as they believe he has restarted the wave of suicides. The cliché tells us that they will attack him at the worst possible time and thereby ironically help the ghost. Only they don’t. And when they don’t, it feels refreshing because you feel like the director isn’t just going to feed you clichés. The film is full of moments like this, where the cliché doesn’t happen.

Ok, let me add to the ** spoiler alert ** ... I’m going to discuss the ending now. Skip to the conclusion if you haven’t seen the film.

One of the biggest clichés in these films is that when you have a woman ghost, it’s because something happened to her child(ren). And once you reunite the ghost with the body of her missing child, everything ends happily. Of course, that’s after the titanic struggle where the hero gets knocked around by the ghost until the ghost sees the dead body and then rainbows appear. This film starts down that road, but it doesn’t turn out that way. In fact, one of the most refreshing aspects of this film is that it doesn’t devolve into a typical Hollywood CGI-extravaganza at the end. To the contrary, it keeps the feel of the film up to that point, with a low-key ending.
Moreover, I really liked the ambiguity at the very end of the film. My first thought on the ending was that Kipps had failed to solve the problem with Jennet. After all, getting killed along with your son sounds like a loss no matter how you score it. But then I began to wonder. Maybe he actually succeeded. It strikes me that the ending was meant to be positive because you see the family reunited. So either Jennet took her revenge but her revenge was ineffective because she inadvertently made him happy. . . or maybe this was Jennet’s way to reward Kipps? We know that Kipps’ life was meaningless without his wife, so maybe Jennet thought she would reward him by reuniting the family? Keep in mind that Jennet is a bit mental, so this might make more sense to her. Granted, that’s kind of rough on Kipps’ son, but I can’t say that he seems all that unhappy. So I’m left to wonder what the ending really means, but I suspect it means he did solve the problem. In any event, finding that kind of interesting intellectual twist at the end a movie that was much better than I expected, was quite a pleasant surprise.
All in all, this was an excellent film. It looked like it would be a poor film based on a cliché with bad acting and a high chance of a poor director, but it really didn’t turn out that way at all. I enjoyed this thoroughly. It gave me something to think about. It creeped me out at times. And I never once felt bored or disinterested. Is it the best horror film ever? No. But it is one of the best in a good long while.
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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Questionable Bond No. 6

What good is a villain without quality henchmen? Everybody needs good staff.

Question: "Name the Top 5 henchmen!"

Andrew's Answer: In particular order...

1. Red Grant - From Russia with Love
2. Fiona Volpe - Thunderball
3. Baron Samedi - Live and Let Die
4. Oddjob - Goldfinger
5. Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd – Diamonds Are Forever

Scott's Answer: In no particular order...

1. Red Grant - From Russia with Love (Robert Shaw in total badass mode)
2. Oddjob - Goldfinger (iconic and still effective)
3. Jaws - The Spy Who Loved Me (until Moonraker turned him into a damned cartoon)
4. Fiona - Thunderball (hot and knows how to ride a motorcycle!)
5. Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd - Diamonds are Forever (these two are more interesting than anything else in the film, John Barry and Ken Adam's work notwithstanding!)

Honorable mentions...

6. Xenia Onatopp - GoldenEye (this was my first Bond film so call it nostalgia)
7. Baron Samedi - Live and Let Die (featured in the best closing shot in any Bond film)
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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Deep Impact (1998) vs. Armageddon (1998)

By ScottDS

In 1999, we had two CGI bug movies. In 1997, we had two volcano movies. And in 1998, we had two “killer asteroid” movies: Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact and Michael Bay’s Armageddon. They both have their good qualities and bad qualities. While the former is a heartfelt, human story set against the backdrop of impending disaster, the latter is… well, it’s what Michael Bay does best – it’s the id to Deep Impact’s superego!

In Deep Impact, Elijah Wood plays high school student Leo Biederman, who discovers a comet that appears to be on a collision course with Earth. Cut to one year later as reporter Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) investigates what she thinks is a sex scandal. However, the mysterious “Ellie” in question is actually “E.L.E.” – extinction-level event. Her investigation forces President Beck (Morgan Freeman) to make his announcement earlier than planned: in short, a comet the size of New York City is heading towards Earth. A joint U.S.-Russian spacecraft – the Messiah – has been constructed to intercept the comet and destroy it with nuclear weapons. Leading the mission is veteran NASA commander Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall). Unfortunately, one of the astronauts is killed and the mission fails: the comet splits into two smaller pieces, both on a course for Earth.
President Beck reveals that the US has been building giant underground “arks” and that 800,000 Americans have been randomly selected to join 200,000 pre-selected scientists, engineers, etc. Leo and his family are selected but Leo’s girlfriend Sarah (Leelee Sobieski) and her parents are not. Leo and Sarah get married so that she can come along but her parents are omitted from the list and she decides to stay with them. Jenny gives up her seat on an evac helicopter to a co-worker and visits her estranged father to reconcile. Upon reaching the ark, Leo goes back for Sarah and her family and manages to catch up with them. The smaller comet fragment impacts near Cape Hatteras destroying much of the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, the Messiah crew sacrifice themselves to destroy the larger fragment and the pieces break up in the atmosphere. President Beck appears in front of the damaged Capitol building and urges us to begin again.

This is a good movie. At times, it’s a very good movie. The “Ellie”/“E.L.E.” mystery is deftly handled, the characters are decent and likeable people (some more than others), and the pacing is spot on: we’re in and out in two hours. Above all, it’s a human story and the visual effects are the supporting player, not the leading man. This was the second film for TV veteran Mimi Leder, whose previous film The Peacemaker had been released a year earlier. She handles the small moments as well as she does the big ones, ably assisted by executive producer Steven Spielberg who reunites with his Jaws producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown. Unlike today when all the big genre movies seem to share the same half-dozen writers, this movie was written by two guys known for much smaller work: Michael Tolkin (The Player and Rapture) and Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder) – not exactly regulars on the Comic-Con circuit.

Téa Leoni is okay – neither bad nor great – as an MSNBC reporter, back when that network was in its infancy. Morgan Freeman fits the role of president like a glove. Sure it’s a cliché now for Freeman to be “The Authority Figure” but I imagine there was still some novelty to it back then. No doubt more than one comedian has joked about the fact that “we finally get a black president and the world goes to s---!” Elijah Wood is fine as a high school astronomy geek (why do geeks in movies all have Jewish last names?) and, watching the film for the first time in years, I’d forgotten how little he’s actually in it. He disappears for large sections in the middle, but such is life in an ensemble. Robert Duvall is a warm presence as Tanner, nicknamed “Fish.” He’s tough when he needs to be, but also a surrogate father figure for the astronauts under his command.
Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell play Jenny’s divorced parents, Robin and Jason. This is the kind of subplot that would be non-existent in a movie like this today. Robin is lonely and depressed and Jason is remarried to a much younger woman. Since the aforementioned lottery doesn’t include anyone over 50, Robin kills herself. The reconciliation scene on the beach between Jenny and Jason is nicely done. The Messiah astronauts feature some familiar faces, including Blair Underwood, a young Jon Favreau, and Ron Eldard, who unfortunately is saddled with the arbitrary ageism conflict with Duvall. Admittedly, the scene in which the astronauts say goodbye to their families for the last time brings a tear to one’s eye. Omnipresent character actors like Kurtwood Smith, Richard Schiff, and James Cromwell also make appearances.

Unfortunately, the first adjective that came to mind after finishing this movie was “slight.” Certain things are either rushed or never seen. We never see the construction of the arks, nor do we see the last-ditch effort to destroy the comet with missiles: we only hear about it on the radio after it fails. They can’t show everything but in a movie about the end of the world, sometimes it’s nice for the audience to actually see how we prepare for it. James Horner’s score is treacly to say the least, and ILM’s visual effects are okay. The killer tidal wave (seen in the trailers) hasn’t aged very well. The best effect might be the real traffic jam staged by the filmmakers on Virginia State Route 234, though I could NEVER believe that Leo would actually find Sarah and her family in the middle of it!

And then... Armageddon! There once existed a geek-friendly magazine called Cinescape, before the Internet rendered it obsolete. One issue featured a chart comparing these two movies: Deep Impact was labeled “A sci-fi version of On the Beach” while Armageddon was labeled “Con Air meets The Rock in outer space!” And it is. An asteroid the size of Texas is 18 days away from colliding with Earth. NASA decides to bury a nuclear device inside the asteroid that will split it in two, with each fragment flying safely past the Earth. Since it’s apparently harder to train astronauts to drill than it is to train drillers to be astronauts, NASA director Dan Truman (Billy Bob Thornton) decides to hire the world’s best oil driller: Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), who brings along his crew of numbskulls. Harry’s daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) just happens to be in love with one of the roughnecks, A.J. (Ben Affleck). The crew undergoes a short and rigorous training program and after an asteroid fragment destroys Shanghai, the plan is revealed to the public.

The crew takes two shuttles – the Freedom and the Independence – and after a seizure-inducing side trip to the Russian space station, Freedom lands safely while Independence is presumed destroyed. Long story short, A.J. and the surviving Independence crew use their mobile drilling vehicle (the “Armadillo”) to reach Harry’s team. During a subsequent rock storm, the bomb’s remote trigger is damaged which means one man has to stay behind. (Naturally.) A.J. picks the short straw but Harry pulls his air hose and shoves him back inside the shuttle. After Harry and Grace say their heartfelt goodbyes, he blows up the asteroid, which indeed splits in two with both pieces dodging the planet. The film ends with home movie footage of A.J. and Grace’s wedding. And, uh... America!! [smile]
Allow me to quote from the Criterion DVD booklet (yes, this movie has a home in that exalted collection). This is Jeanine Basinger, film historian and Michael Bay’s professor at Wesleyan: “It is true that Armageddon, a perfect example of Bay’s work, illustrates his ‘take-no-prisoners’ form of storytelling, in which he trusts an audience to figure things out. (One of its strengths is its minimum of dreadful exposition that over-explains the inevitable pseudoscience.) Yes, it gives audiences a lot to absorb. Yes, it cuts quickly from place to place, person to person, event to event. But it is never confusing, never boring, and never less than a brilliant mixture of what movies are supposed to do: tell a good story, depict characters through active events, invoke an emotional response, and entertain simply and directly, without pretense.”

To quote Jack Benny, “Well!” Truthfully, this movie is Citizen Kane compared to some of Bay’s subsequent work. At this point, he still had Jerry Bruckheimer to keep him under control. Bay’s style might be filmmaking on steroids but in 1998, he was only just starting to overdose! Bruce Willis can often be on autopilot, but here he’s the consummate everyman-turned-hero. Ben Affleck knows exactly what this movie is and he even asked Michael Bay why they couldn’t just train astronauts to drill. Bay’s response? “Shut the f--- up!” This film was also my first exposure to Michael Clarke Duncan and Owen Wilson, who are seen here in their “purest” form: the gentle giant and the likable bumpkin. Peter Stormare is a blast as Lev, the loopy Russian cosmonaut who hitches a ride after the space station is destroyed. Will Patton is Harry’s “aww shucks” sidekick. I used to think Patton was naturally like that but after watching The Postman and No Way Out, I realize he often overacts and this movie is the outlier!

On the Criterion commentary, two NASA gurus spend most of the time nitpicking the scientific flaws, which are many and varied. My biggest problem is this: so the asteroid is the size of Texas but what if a fragment the size of, say, Rhode Island hits the Earth? It’d still be an extinction level event! Oh, and we still have the clichéd scientists versus the military conflict as General Kimsey (Keith David) initiates “secondary protocol” to detonate the bomb remotely, much to the chagrin of Truman. This leads to the requisite bomb defusing scene and shuttle pilot Sharpe (William Fichtner) just happens to have a gun... in space! There’s something to be said about getting the most out of your premise but in a movie about the possible end of the world, these subplots are rather unnecessary. Seriously, a good 20 minutes could’ve been cut from the movie with little to no effect! Technical aspects are top notch all around, including the Oscar-nominated visual effects by the late Dream Quest Images and Trevor Rabin’s “America: F--- Yeah!” score.
This brings up another issue. There’s nothing wrong with blue-collar working-class heroes… but Bay doesn’t have to denigrate scientists to make the blue-collar guys look good. Here’s action movie scholar and author Eric Lichtenfeld: “How hard would it have been to craft a scene where those ideas are introduced, and for logistical reasons, none of them are tenable, and then Bruce Willis and his team are the only option, as opposed to showing why all those ideas are ridiculous? It’s not that the movie can’t have a butch hero stopping the [asteroid]; the problem is that you don’t need to make Bruce Willis look good by making the smart people look bad. It’s a very cynical view of the audience, and it’s a view of science and intellectualism that is full of contempt, but that’s what Michael Bay does when he talks about critics, or his education.” No argument from me!

So what do we have? Two movies about a similar subject, with large ensemble casts, and some heartfelt moments. Deep Impact isn’t exactly subtle but I give 1st place in manipulation to Armageddon. The shot of the kids running with their toy space shuttles past an old poster of JFK? Just... wow. The former was smaller than I’d remembered while, oddly, the latter was just as entertaining (and dumb) as I’d remembered. Deep Impact is the better quote unquote “film” while Armageddon is glorious junk food... and admittedly, 90s nostalgia plays a part here, too.

“The fate of the planet is in the hands of a bunch of retards I wouldn't trust with a potato gun.”
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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Questionable Jones No. 8

According to the new Fairness Laws, Harrison Ford has starred in more than his fair share of popular roles. So he needs to give some up.

Question: "Recast Indiana Jones himself."

Andrew's Answer: I can think of a bevy of similar actors from the time (Pullman, Boxleitner, Bridges, Quaid, etc.), but none of them would be right. I like the idea of Liam Neeson, but he didn't get his gravitas until he was too old for the role. Even standby Hugh Jackman just wouldn't be right. So I'm going with a surprise. . . George Clooney. I think he's one of the few actors who can mix arrogance with innocent and tough with struggling and still have the audience really like him.

Scott's Answer: It would be easy to pick Tom Selleck, who would've been Indiana Jones if it weren't for his TV commitments. Instead, I'll go with Kurt Russell. He definitely could do the action adventure stuff, though he may have been a little too young to be believable as a bespectacled college professor. (Maybe if the films were released five years later.)
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Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 80

Everybody need a mulligan sometimes.

What movie needs a reboot?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Immediately jumping to my mind is Lincoln by Steven Spielberg. The sooner the better, please. Also, the remake stinker version of The Manchurian Candidate. I have a simple fix for that one, though. Burn all existing copies including digital versions, and replace them with the wonderful original starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury.

Panelist: ScottDS

I'd love to see Get Smart given another shot by someone who is actually familiar with the series (and comedy for that matter). I have my own wishlist of things I'd like to see but I'll spare you! I Am Legend also deserves another shot. The Will Smith movie was a colossal disappointment. Fourth time's the charm?

Panelist: T-Rav

I don’t like the idea of reboots on principle. All Hollywood does nowadays is make endless sequels; reboots just encourage them. But if I have to go with one, I would say The Hulk. The Eric Bana one was so bad, and they’ve changed actors I don’t know how many times, so why not? Especially given that character’s renewed popularity since The Avengers, I don’t see how they could possibly do worse.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

I am not sure there are many movies outside the Science Fiction that actually NEED a robot except… oh, you meant REBOOT. Silly me. But more importantly why does the Hollywood brain trust feel the need to “reboot” classic movies? Mildred Pierce was just fine as is. True Grit? Please! Who could do it better than John Wayne?

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I suppose the obvious choice is Star Wars, but they'll probably ruin it. Personally, I'd love to see them do Prometheus again, but this time do it as the story of the engineer they wake up.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, May 10, 2013

Film Friday: Looper (2012)

Rotten Tomatoes gives Looper a 93% fresh rating and describes the consensus thusly: “As thought-provoking as it is thrilling, Looper delivers an uncommonly smart, bravely original blend of futuristic sci-fi and good old-fashioned action.” Well. . . no. Yes, it is “as thought-provoking as it is thrilling,” but that’s because it registers close to zero on both counts. It’s not uncommonly smart either, nor is it original. Still, I’m going to recommend you see it. Why? Allow me to explain.

** MAJOR spoiler alert **
Looper takes place in 2044 in what appears to be Robocop’s Detroit moved to Kansas. Crime and drug use are common and people get paid in silver and gold bars for some reason. The story follows a “looper” named Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). A looper is someone who kills people for the mob. Apparently, in the future, it will be nearly impossible to get rid of a body. Why? Who knows, that part of the film isn’t developed. Fortunately for the mob, one-way time travel has been invented. So they send the people they want killed to the past and the loopers shoot them and get rid of the bodies. They are called “loopers” because at some point each looper will be sent their future selves to be killed. At that point, they get a bunch of money and can live happily for thirty years until they are sent back to be shot by themselves. That’s called “closing the loop.”
Joe is a looper and one day he is sent his furture-self (Bruce Willis), but Bruce-Joe gets the drop on Joe-Joe and escapes. So now the mob tries to hunt down both Joe and Bruce while Joe hunts down Bruce to redeem himself with the mob. In the meantime, Bruce is trying to stop a mysterious and powerful person from taking over the mob and closing all the loops, which will result in Bruce’s wife being killed by accident. As Joe hunts Bruce, Joe discovers this mob boss as a kid who comes across like Damien Thorn. Some stuff happens.
Um. . . Yeah
This movie has lots of problems. It is a plodding predictable film that takes place in a bleak but uninteresting setting. Joe is not an interesting or likable character either. Bruce is more interesting, but the film barely delves into his story. There’s no tantalizing look into the future either, and most of what happens in the film feels like it was inserted just to make the plot work. For example, the film is set in 2044, but it might as well be 2012 since the clothing, the buildings, and the cars all look like 2012. BUT, one character just happens to buy a hovering motorcycle. This bike totally feels out-of-place in the film because it is the only “futuristic” vehicle in the film - everyone else drives circa-2012 cars, with Chevrolet’s Silverado featuring prominently. Nor is the bike new, it looks ancient, so there should be others, but there aren’t. So why include the bike? Because a character will need it later in the film.

Similarly, for no reason I can see, the loopers are given guns called “blunderbusses” which are shotguns that only shoot about twelve feet. The other mobsters carry chunky home-made looking revolvers called “gats” which have longer ranges but aren’t accurate - no one in this film can hit the broad side of the barn. It’s never explained why anyone would use these guns instead of the much better guns we have today, but the reason appears to be that the film needed to limit the range Joe could shoot at the end and the accuracy with which Bruce could shoot. That’s it. And don’t think it’s because our guns don’t exist anymore because they do. We know this because Bruce just happens to find a couple (Herstal P90) when he needs a machine gun to take down a bunch of mobsters. Again. . . because he needed it.
Much of the film feels this way, with things getting tossed in only because they make a plot point work. Why does Joe have a drug habit? So the woman he meets will sympathize with him. It’s then forgotten. Why do the loopers kill themselves rather than sending them to another looper? Just to cause the movie. Damien’s powers are the same thing. It’s enough that he grows up to be the guy who causes Bruce’s wife to be killed, so he doesn’t need unique special powers to make the story work. . . but they make the ending work, so he gets them.

It feels like the writer wrote the film backwards. It’s as if he wrote the ending and then decided to plant things in the story to make the ending work: “Hmm, if Joe can shoot farther, then he can stop Bruce. . . better give him a gun with limited range. Ok, so the loopers get guns with limited range. Problem solved.” When a film is full of things that only exist to make the plot work, then you’re dealing with a writer who doesn’t have a firm grasp on his story. Heck, they don’t even need the “close the loop” idea, not with Bruce’s motive to change the past, because Bruce could just hijack the time machine to carry out his mission.

As if that wasn’t enough, the film isn’t thought-provoking either. The film thinks that telling you that time travel can create paradoxes should impress you. Good grief. It also commits the cardinal sin of doing something that’s been done before without adding a new twist. In particular, we discover that Bruce’s wife gets killed because Damien sees Bruce kill Damien’s mother, which starts the circle which leads back to Bruce’s wife being killed, which leads Bruce back to killing Damien’s mother. This is Twelve Monkeys, only not as clever.
The film also tries the “If you met Hitler as a child, would you kill him?” routine, but it adds no new twist. Even worse, it’s mishandled because we’re never sure what is really happening. Joe tells us that Bruce killing Damien’s mother will make Damien evil. Thus, stopping Bruce will stop Damien from becoming Damien. But Damien is pretty clearly already evil. And Bruce’s wife was killed by accident when thugs came to close the loop, which would have happened whether Damien was in charge or not. So the whole thing feels like a fraud. It would have been interesting if the film had played up this uncertainty, but it didn’t. Instead, it basically said, “Look, just accept this, I don’t want to bother explaining it or exploring it.”

What bothers me even more though is that the writer constantly tries to cover the films flaws rather than correct them, i.e. he’s LAZY. For example, the film “cheats” by breaking the paradox so the film can be solved. This is done by showing a guy losing his limbs as his younger self gets dismembered. This should change the guy’s past, but it doesn’t. That means the paradox is not real. YET, the writer has a character tell the audience at that moment that they can’t kill the younger guy because that would change the future. . . as if dismembering him wouldn’t. Basically, the writer is trying to sell you on the false idea that the paradox is still real, even though it can’t be, because without the paradox the ending is nonsense.

If the writer did this only once, then it could be forgiven, but it happens over and over. When you notice that 2044 looks a lot like 2012, a character says, “All you kids today copy the old styles, you should do something original,” as if the set design was the result of some stylized choice rather than budget. When you ask who in their right mind would become a looper knowing they will need to kill themselves, Joe suddenly mentions that “this job doesn’t tend to attract the most forward thinking individuals,” as if anyone lacked that much foresight. The whole movie feels like this. Every time you stumble upon a problem, there is some character there to try the Jedi mind-trick on you. . . “Pay no attention to the fact this is nonsense.”

All of this feels like cheating to me. It feels like nothing in this film is thought out. Nothing in this film is original and nothing will surprise you. Nothing rises to the level of making your brain say, huh, that’s neat. Nothing gets your heart pounding in suspense. Too much time is wasted on passing time. They don’t even handle the few good ideas they have well – there are about three good lines of dialog and five interesting moments and the director fails to exploit all of them. This is a really hard movie to like.
Bonus Round: Why You Might Want To See This Film

Ok, so why am I recommending you see this turkey? Well, there’s an interesting moment in the film. After Joe fails to kill Bruce, the film suddenly and inexplicably shows Joe killing Bruce, and then you follow Joe’s life until he becomes Bruce and gets sent back to be shot. My first thought was that this is just a lousy writer trying to show us Bruce’s story in some cool way that doesn’t actually make sense. But it could be more than that.

Consider this: it is impossible for Joe to solve the paradox the way he does unless there is no real paradox, because otherwise, Bruce would vanish, Joe would have no reason to do what he does, and the whole thing would start over. . . they are called paradoxes for a reason. Anyway, what if the point to the film was that you can’t change your history, but you can change your future. Thus, both Joe and Bruce can alter their own futures, but Bruce’s past can’t be changed. In other words, anything done to hurt Joe would affect Bruce from this point forward, but wouldn’t have affected him in the past. This would fit with the dismembered man. As the young man is dismembered the older version notices the changes in real time, even though they should just have been part of his past. His past also clearly should have changed, but it doesn’t. Perhaps that is the idea hidden inside this film? If so, it is an interesting and original idea.

Sadly, however, I doubt this was the film’s intent. For one thing, it’s not developed or discussed in the film. For another, the evidence upon which this is based could just as easily be more evidence of lazy writing. And since the writer has proven himself to be lazy, it is more likely that he just didn’t have a handle on the loop idea. Still, it’s an interesting possibility. That’s why I recommend at least seeing the film.

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Thursday, May 9, 2013

How Diverse Could James Bond Really Get?

Whenever they cast a new James Bond, there is always speculation that this time they’ll pick someone other than a white male Brit. Yet, they keep going back to the same formula. Could there be a black James Bond? How about a chick? What about one with an Indian accent? Good question.

From a story telling perspective, there is no reason that Bond couldn’t be replaced by pretty much anybody. It’s not like the role requires a person of a particular race or gender. The only requirement seems to be nationality because he is a British secret agent. So presumably, anyone could play the role if they brought enough of the other traits. But therein lies the rub.

When you look at what James Bond is, Bond is more than the storylines he tells. Bond represents the masculine ideal. He is essentially everything men aspire to be wrapped up in one stylized package. That suggests that certainly things can’t really be done with the character. For example, you can’t really cast a female James Bond. Sure, in the modern world of action heroes, you get lots of scantily clad females bouncing across the screen. But let’s be honest, those films are aimed at young males who see these women as eye candy. Bond isn’t that. Bond is meant to have broad appeal across age groups and genders. Bond is a hero that males are supposed to see themselves as. If they cast a woman to play Bond, they would lose most of the male audience except for the eye-candy set. They would also lose the female audience who see Bond as the ideal man. They might turn out for the first film with Jane Bond out of curiosity, but they won’t come back for more.

The same problem arises if Bond is made gay. Even fewer men will see the film if Bond is gay because they get no role model and no eye candy. And women may have gay friends, but they aren’t going to see an action film staring a gay hero. . . they don’t really watch action films in the first place.

The other thing Bond represents is an idealized view of Britain. He’s what Britain wants you to think the country is about... ignore the binge drunk girls lying on the sidewalks please. He represents the British upper class if they had balls the way the British upper class like to think they would wage war. This means they can’t cast someone who doesn’t reek of “Queen and Country.” That means no white trash, no foreigners, no one without a stiff upper-lip and the right accent, and no Muslims.

What does this mean for ethnic minorities? Well, right now, Britain is in a tizzy over Poles and Romanians, and seems to see them as some alien “non-white” invaders who are destroying Britain, so I get the feeling that casting anything other than a whiter-than-white James Bond wouldn’t sit too well in Britain. But outside of Britain, I think the world would be pretty accepting of a black James Bond, so long as he seemed upper-crust enough.

In fact, let me suggest a guy who I think would have made an excellent James Bond: Colin Salmon (pictured above). You might know him from Resident Evil, Alien v. Predator and even a couple of James Bond films -- Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day. He’s got the right accent, the sense of class and he’s very, very British. Would he play in Britain? Not sure. Would he play in the “racist” US? Absolutely.

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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Why Defiance Sucks

There’s a new show on the Sci-Fi Channel called Defiance. Yawn. Sorry. As I was saying, there’s a new show on the Sci-Fi Channel called Defiance. It sounded like an interesting premise when the ads first appeared for it, but it’s not. It’s missing the one thing that really matters: a story. In fact, this is the real problem with most science fiction shows these days.

There are many ways you can put together a television series. And often, the approach you pick will depend on your genre. Doctor shows are soap operas, and the degree of outlandishness will very according to how dramatic the show wants to be. Cop shows are episodic mysteries. Lawyer shows straddle the line between soaps and episodic mysteries. Science fiction tends to be episodic or they involve the telling of a particular story arc.

The story arc shows are usually remembered as the best, though sometimes episodic shows can break through. Story arc shows are things like Babylon 5, Lost, Heroes, Carnivale and (eventually) The X-Files. Game of Thrones is like this too. These are shows where the writer has a particular story they are telling, and the episodes typically advance the story to some degree each week. What makes these types of shows so strong is that the story arc gives the show a purpose and a focus and keeps people tuned in to see what happens next. Meanwhile the episode format allows the writers to explore a great many ideas while telling the bigger story. That’s a great combo.

Episodic shows are different. Within the episodic show category, you have two types. You have the morality-tale shows like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone and you have soaps. The morality-tale shows can be really good as they offer the best platform to develop a variety of science fiction and philosophical ideas. Basically, each week you can reach for some new idea and explore it. That can make for excellent viewing.

Then you have the soaps. Yeah. Well. . . at least they’re easy to write.

This is the problem with Defiance. It’s a soap and it follows a formula that promises it will be nothing you haven’t seen a million times. The setup begins, as always, with “the outsider” who arrives in “insert strange setting.” He is the supposed fish-out-of-water who finds himself put into a position where he meets all the movers and shakers in town and must mediate between them. This is a writing crutch for weak writers. It basically makes the outsider into a narrator who can interact in the story. That’s about as easy a way to write a story as humanly possible and it typically means you’re dealing with a writer who is neither creative nor courageous. It also tells you that the series is likely to be worthless. Why? Because rather than telling some story, this setup involves throwing characters together with supposed pre-built conflicts who then repeat generic storylines from prior shows like Eureka week after week as the writers hope that the actors can win over the audience with their own personalities. Basically, they are selling you the actors. It’s hard to like a show like that.

I truly wish that someone would start producing real science fiction -- either with genuine story arcs or in the smart episodic format. Science fiction needs to drop the soap format. . . it’s killing the genre.
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Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Tuesday Top 5

More stuff ranked just because we can! Let's do another Top 5!

Question: Who are your Top 5 Historical American Personages?

Scott: In no particular order...
1. Teddy Roosevelt -- "A typical vice of American politics is the avoidance of saying anything real on real issues."
2. Abraham Lincoln -- "Be excellent to each other... and party on, dudes!"
3. George Washington -- "It is far better to be alone, than to be in bad company."
4. Ben Franklin -- "Hunger is the best pickle."
5. Thomas Edison -- "I never did a day's work in my life. It was all fun."
Andrew: Interesting. We didn't really define this so I'm taking it as people I'd want to meet.
1. Ronald Reagan -- Our greatest President.
2. Mark Twain -- Our greatest wordsmith.
3. Teddy Roosevelt -- American's Blowhard in Chief.
4. Steven Spielberg -- I'd ask what happened... you used to be cool!
5. Abraham Lincoln -- Our greatest vampire slayer.
There you go... the definitive answers. No doubt, you agree.
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