Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 86

Likeability is as important to actors as lickability is to ice cream.

What actor comes across as most likeable?

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Obviously, Tom Hanks comes across as the most likeable man in Hollywood. And since I actually met her and worked with her, Valerie Harper is THE most likeable actress I ever worked with. She is just the nicest lady and a truly generous spirit.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

This is an interesting question because it can be interpreted in multiple ways. Here are two who can and have played menacing characters as well as extremely likable characters. Both of them come across as very likable in their real personna. They are Denzel Washington and Gary Sinise.

Panelist: T-Rav

Gary Sinise. I don’t know if it’s his actual on-screen work, all his off-screen work for the troops, or the general lack of a “diva” air about him, but Sinise just seems like a genuinely nice guy.

Panelist: ScottDS

Bryan Cranston. He isn't Walter White in real life, he just plays him on TV! I've seen him in interviews and he seems quite friendly and, dare I say it, almost normal. I was even an extra on a TV show where he was the guest star and, unlike so many others, he actually turned to us and asked how we were doing.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

There are quite a few actors lately who come across as rather nice. Perhaps they've learned again just how important that is? Sinise is probably my choice, but since everyone else likes him and I want to be different, I'm going with Hugh Jackman. Not only do you always hear how nice he is, but he's never played an unlikable character. When it comes to actresses, I have to say that Sandra Bullock comes across as really, really nice.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Film Friday: Presumed Innocent (1990)

Presumed Innocent is the best legal thriller ever filmed. It’s gripping, it’s tense. It’s incredibly realistic. It’s populated with real characters with real motivations. It’s unpredictable. It’s thoroughly enjoyable. Needless to say, I recommend it.

** Major Spoiler Alert **
Presumed Innocent is a legal thriller that revolves around the murder of an assistant district attorney a few weeks before the district attorney must stand for re-election against a challenger who is proving to be more than a match. Desperate to get the murder solved immediately, the district attorney assigns the top prosecutor, Rusty Sabitch, to investigate the murder. Unfortunately, Rusty was having an affair with the victim and soon becomes a suspect. As the story twists and turns, it becomes a courtroom drama that leaves you more and more convinced that Rusty did it.
Why This Film Works
Legal thrillers are one of the more popular genres. Sadly, most legal thrillers are garbage. Whether it’s cardboard characters or plots that are laughably fantastic, few legal thrillers are more than generic action films where the heroes wear suits instead of guns. Some even rely on chase scenes to create drama. . . lookin' at you Grisham. So when you come across a legal thriller with brains and integrity, it’s pretty impressive. Presumed Innocent is such a thriller. And what makes this film work is the complexity of the characters and how their motivations drive their actions which in turn drive the plot, rather than the plot dictating their actions. Indeed, this film is driven by the conflicts that arise when characters with different motives clash and when their own internal motives conflict. This creates uncertainty for the audience as to how events will play out and it gives the film a natural and real feeling as the plot springs from the consequences of the actions of the characters rather than from abstract plot points.
Consider for example, the main character: Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford). On the surface, Rusty is a hard-nosed prosecutor. He’s a bit of an idealist who has lost his idealism and never quite made it to the top because he lacked the ambition to be the top dog. He makes up for that by drowning his time in minutia. He also has a lovely wife and son, who he seems to love. But as we scratch the surface, we learn that there is another side to him as well. This side had an affair with a woman at the office, Carolyn Polhemus, and he became obsessed with her. Even now, long after the affair has ended, he still seems obsessed.

Rusty’s character will be tested when he is asked to investigate Polhemus’ death. Can he overcome his obsession? Will his affair with her come out? Hiding it goes against his duty to his boss and will hinder his investigation. Taking on the assignment also will alienate him from his wife. All of this causes tremendous drama throughout the film. Adding to that drama, by the way, was the brilliant casting of Harrison Ford. Ford brings so much confidence and good will to the role that we find it hard to believe that Rusty can be so weak and obsessed as he seems, and that makes these revelations shocking for us in a way that casting someone more malleable would not. Indeed, it’s jarring to think of Ford as obsessed and that pulls us into the character in a visceral way and unsettles us.
Rusty alone would have been great drama, but he’s just the beginning. Conflicting with Rusty, you have Rusty’s boss Raymond Horgan (Brian Dennehy). Raymond is a friend of Rusty, but he’s also a politician with questionable integrity, and as Raymond slowly loses his bid for reelection as the District Attorney, he starts to lash out at Rusty. When he loses, he even decides, out of spite, to drag Rusty down as punishment for his own failures. This adds massive amounts of drama to the story, which is then made all the stronger in that the winner of the election, Nico Della Guardia and his underling Tommy Molto, both dislike Rusty. So when the evidence points toward Rusty, they run with it and spin everything against Rusty. Even the characters Rusty encounters while doing his job, like Dr. Kumagai, are in divided camps over the election and may or may not be helping or hindering the investigation. All of this gives the sense of Rusty being under siege both from without and within as he races against the clock on a doomed mission that will blow up on him much more spectacularly than you ever could have guessed.
At the same time, you have Rusty’s wife (Bonnie Bedelia), who is a desperate housewife. She feels like her world has collapsed, as she’s blown her chance at a career because she can’t finish her dissertation and her marriage is a failure as Rusty had the affair. And while Rusty is in the middle of being prosecuted, he needs to work to repair his relationship with his wife, or at least not make it worse.

All of this makes for a deep, deep film because each character feels real, i.e. they don’t just exist to make the plot work, and because most of them are unpredictable because their motives conflict with their obligations to Rusty, so you don’t know which way they will go until they finally act. Further, since these conflicts drive their actions and therefore the plot, the story feels tight. It doesn’t feel like a plot with characters jammed into it. This is excellent writing, and it continues even beyond the main characters. Indeed, you have fantastic characters throughout this film. Think about Polhemus, who uses men to work her way up the ladder and throws them away the moment she spots weakness within them. She plays with fire by building up insecure and weak men and then ripping away the security she has given them the instant she realizes they are weak. In this way, she causes them to feel deeply insecure and brings about their obsessions with her, which will ultimately be her undoing. Alternatively, consider Sandy Stern (Raul Julia) whom Rusty hires to defend him. Stern comes across as part oracle part statesman. He is easily one of the most impressive attorneys ever presented on film and the scenes with him are a joy to watch – made all the better by the truly solid acting of Julia. I know many attorneys who said they went to law school because they wanted to be Sandy Stern. Consider also Judge Larren Lyttle, who is one of the most realistic judges you will find on screen. He’s commanding and professional before the jury, but funny and friendly in his private conferences. He’s thoughtful and tempered and fair, yet no nonsense. He also has a complex past.
And that brings us to the legal aspect. As a lawyer, I pull my hair out when I see films make a mockery of the legal system: impossible computer searches for information that doesn’t exist and wouldn’t be kept on computer if it did. Juror misconduct. The famous “that’s highly unusual, but I’ll allow it” from judges who seem to start and stop their trials randomly to allow the plot to work. Rulings that make no sense. Attorneys who break all the rules of procedure and ethics as their opponents inexplicable sit on their hands. These things are cheating by lazy writers. Yet, Presumed Innocent never falls for that. The reason this film feels so well constructed is because it stays true to the characters and it stays true to the law. Presumed Innocent follows real trial procedures and uses rulings that would actually be issued. This was a fantastic decision because it imposed a sort of discipline on the writer (Scott Turow), which forced him to really think through how everything needed to happen for his story to make sense. In other words, he doesn’t fake it, i.e. this story happens the only way it could in real life. That is perhaps the greatest thing you can say about a story, that the writer presented a story which simply could not have worked in any other way, and that is the case here. Not only was this an excellent and entertaining story, a creative story with an original, unpredictable and twisting plot-line acted out by deep and complex characters, but in the end there is no other way this film could have gone given the underlying facts. That is evidence of truly inspired writing. It’s also no coincidence that Presumed Innocent, in my opinion, is not only the most realistic, but also the best legal thriller out there.
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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Hollywood Will Implode!!! Or Not

A week or so ago, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg both predicted that the film industry would “implode.” That drew a lot of attention, but honestly, I think they are mistaken.

What Spielberg said was this: it is inevitable that there will be a year where half a dozen $250 million movies will flop at the box office. Those losses will cause a “meltdown” which will change the industry forever by changing the way they handle films. In his view, the end result will be that the film industry will split into two parts. The first part will make only true blockbuster films, like the superhero films today, and those tickets will cost a bundle. He said they would likely cost $25 – George Lucas upped this to $150 and compared it to sporting events or concerts. The other films, like his Lincoln, would remain with $7 tickets or, more likely, would end up being made for HBO.

I don’t think so.

What Spielberg has said is simultaneously not at all shocking and simultaneously rather bizarrely doomsday-oriented. On the one hand, it’s not at all shocking that Hollywood would like to charge more for films if it thinks it can get it. So I would expect ticket prices to continue to rise. I also suspect $25 tickets are coming soon enough no matter what happens. Nor is it unlikely that theaters would discount less popular films. It’s also not shocking that a lot of films will drift to television. For one thing, television provides a lot of positive aspects that cinema doesn’t. It provides the chance to go well beyond two hours. It seems to be a lot cheaper too as audiences aren’t expecting huge CGI-extravaganzas. Not to mention that television has taken on a new level of sophistication and respectability. Even more importantly, older audiences have abandoned cinema for home theater, and that is the audience for things like Lincoln. So what Spielberg says makes sense and isn’t all the shocking.

What’s doomsdayish about this is the idea that he thinks it will take a near-bankruptcy level disaster to cause what is already happening (Lucas’s idea of a $150 ticket is similarly doomsdayish, but Lucas is a fool – no one will pay that for a movie). But let’s assume we do have such a summer. Assume that this summer half the films fall flat. What would be the likely response? Would it be an abandonment of the theaters for all but big tent pole films and massive ticket price increases for those? I doubt it because that doesn’t make sense – why repeat what just failed while trying to drive away your audience by pricing your product so far beyond the substitutes?

So what would Hollywood do instead? They would do what corporations always do: cut costs. First, I think studios would buy CGI firms and bringing them in-house so they could essentially get their work at cost. You would probably see a lot of film production moved to places like Romania and India. You would probably see a concerted effort to reduce what all but the top actors get paid. You might see films made in bunches so as to share the costs of sets, costumes, and extras.

There would be an outside chance you might also see more innovation, such as alternate endings to create country-specific films. For example, the Chinese character might win the day in the Chinese version, the Mexican character in the Mexican version, and the American in the American version. You might see more tie-ins to merchandise and games as well – “Defiance” tried this, but it sounds like they just didn’t do well with either the show or the videogame. You might even see things like season passes for movies to get people to pay for bad films as part of the season as the cost of seeing the good ones.

Sadly, you will also probably see more remakes and reboots, as those are the safest bets out there.

The one thing I think you won’t see is ticket prices increasing to $150.

Thoughts? What would you expect?
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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Tuesday Top 5

The one called Smelly Hippy is right: this is good music! Oh man, is that Freedom Rock?

Question: It's like the Top 5 Songs of the 1960s, Man!

1. "One" - Three Dog Night
2. "Somebody to Love" - Jefferson Airplane
3. "I Can See For Miles" - The Who
4. "You Really Got Me" - The Kinks
5. "A Hard Day's Night" - The Beatles
Andrew: I'm saving the Beatles for a future question.
1. "Bus Stop" - The Hollies
2. "Sympathy For Obama" - The Rolling Stones
3. "Time of the Season" - The Zombies
4. "Midnight Confession" - The Grassroots
5. "Last Train To Clarsksville" - The Monkeys
Peace. . .
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Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 85

Children should be see and not heard and in some cases they shouldn't even be seen.

Most obnoxious kid on film?

Panelist: T-Rav

Definitely Ralphie in A Christmas Story. I don’t know what exactly it is about that kid that annoys me so, but I don’t think that by halfway through, I was supposed to be rooting for the BB gun against the protagonist.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Well, he is not a kid anymore, but Shia LeBeouf was about as obnoxious as it gets when he was a kid.

Panelist: ScottDS

I would say the kid in Problem Child but I've actually never seen those movies. I'm also tempted to say Jaden Smith just on principle. Instead, I will say the pint-sized drug dealer in RoboCop 2: Hob, played by Gabriel Damon. I know he gets his comeuppance in the end but he's so annoying! You just want to see RoboCop cuff him and haul him away in the first scene!

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Jed wins this one right out of the gates, but I won't copy him. So I will go with the whole fricken cast of Goonies. So many bad cliches. Does the fat kid need to stuff his face constantly? Does the Asian kid need to speak pidgin English? Seriously, Spielberg... you, Sir, are an ass.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, June 21, 2013

Film Friday: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

Sometimes a box office bomb is actually a gem. Indeed, even great films can get lost when the marketing goes wrong or when the general public just doesn’t get it the first time through. More often, however, a bomb is just a bomb. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a bomb.

“Final Fantasy” is a video game franchise developed by Square Enix. First published in 1987, the franchise now consists of fourteen games, most of which are quite good. Over time, these games have obtained an amazing quality in terms of animation, video and music. In 2001, Square Enix decided to see if they could adapt their franchise to film using computer-generated characters. They spent $137 million and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was the result. They made $85 million.
FFSW takes place in post-apocalypse Earth in 2065. The planet has been ravaged by alien beings called “Phantoms.” These are energy creatures in any number of shapes, and when they come into contact with living beings, they basically rip the soul out of the living being. To protect themselves, humans have huddled into a small number of barrier cities, which are protected by energy barriers the Phantoms cannot penetrate. To stop the Phantoms, researcher Dr. Aki Ross and Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) are trying to develop a weapon which uses living energy to negate the Phantoms. The living energy comes from certain plants, animals and people. Needless to say, the military types like General Hein (James Woods) don’t cotton to this tree-hugger crap.

As the story opens, Aki needs to be rescued by a team of soldiers who include Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Steve Buscemi, and Peri Gilpin. She had been running around collecting spirits for her weapon when the Phantoms appeared - they are drawn to life. As they return to the safety of the city, we learn that Aki is infected by a Phantom and is slowly dying, though Sid has managed to contain the Phantom somehow. Because of this, Aki experiences a recurring dream which will explain who the Phantoms really are. Meanwhile, General Cliché is upset that the council won’t let him fire his new weapon, the Zeus Cannon, because they are worried about damaging the Earth’s (Gia) spirit. Like all military men would do, he sabotages the city shield, allowing the city to be destroyed, so he can fire his gun. Oh no!
How To Do It Wrong
This thing is a turd. They went so wrong in so many ways. Indeed, right out of the gates, the first problem was that they dumped their franchise except in name. The “Final Fantasy” franchise is a fantasy. It takes place in strange worlds where all kinds of amazing things are possible. There are beautiful vistas and fantasy worlds you wish were real (see image below). Setting this film on Earth was downright stupid, especially a grim apocalyptic Earth which lacked all the grandeur and majesty of the series, because it wiped out the essence of the game. Just as stupidly, they lost the sense of the characters. The characters in the game are anime characters who have just enough reality to them to be recognizable, but enough unreality to let you accept the things they can do, like flying and summon magic. The film dropped this and tried to use realistic, dull humans. The end result was an immediate disassociation of the very thing they claimed to be making, a disassociation which stripped you of the “Fantasy” part of “Final Fantasy” and just left you with another apocalypse film.
Even in the spirit of apocalypse films, this one stinks. For one thing, while the film does provide excellent apocalyptic imagery, like a skeletal worker still sitting at their desk in a skyscraper, the whole story comes across as dull and indifferent. What happened to these people happened so long ago that they seem to have become comfortable in their existence and it wipes out the tension and the horror. Moreover, there is no real risk to them because the Phantoms can’t break through the barriers. Thus, turning the story into a race against the clock is misguided because the humans really have all the time they need. And trying to inject a ticking clock by having Aki and Sid race to build their weapon of love before the evil General can fire his weapon of evil feels manufactured.

Then you add the politics. The “Final Fantasy” series has never really been about politics. They do have a Gia-centric worldview, but they don’t really beat you over the head with it. Here they do, and that is annoying. But that’s just half the problem. See, the writers have such little confidence in whatever their message is that they beat you over the head with it savagely and then let it kick you when you’re down. Even worse though, they aren’t quite sure what their message is. Seriously, this is what Aki spouts: something something, the Earth is alive, don’t hurt the Earth, something something, don’t fire space weapons at the Earth, something something, use love to kill aliens. . . “Eat more Chikin!” Talk about a rebel without a clue.
To make up for not having anything to say, they use the old Hollywood proxy of simply making the General odious and obviously wrong, while making Aki angelic and obviously right. This then becomes a proxy for the confused message and it reeks of propaganda. Basically, the message is, “See how evil the people who disagree with us are? Support our cause-thingy!”

Ultimately, though, the real problem is that this just isn’t a good movie. The effects are ok, but nothing special and they feel really dated (something you never feel with classic animation). This could have been avoided if Square Enix had done something unique and fantastic rather than trying to create realism. Moreover, the plot and the characters are highly predictable and not very interesting – a tired cliché at best. Ironically, Square Enix does better all around with their videogame storylines, so they would have been better off running with one of those. In a way, making FFSW the way they did was like hiring the world’s greatest football coach and asking him to coach your basketball team.
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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Questionable Bond No. 9

A bad villain is like a box of sugar-free chocolates, which sends you the can. And the James Bond series has had some bad villains.

Question: "Name the five worst Bond villains."

Andrew's Answer: Uh... yeah.

1. Gustav Graves - Die Another Day
2. Georgi Koskov & Brad Whitaker - The Living Daylights
3. Elektra King & Renard – The World Is Not Enough
4. Max Zorin - A View to a Kill
5. Hugo Drax - Moonraker

These villains are a collection of stupid, small-minded plans combined with heavy doses of ridiculousness. Fools and lunatics. None of them was worth Bond's attention.

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

1. Blofeld - Diamonds are Forever (hammy Charles Gray isn't nearly as good - or bald - as Telly Savalas and Donald Pleasence)
2. Elliot Carver - Tomorrow Never Dies (Jonathan Pryce is an excellent actor but is weighed down by a ridiculous plot)
3. (tie) Karl Stromberg and Hugo Drax - The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker (two sides of the same coin and pretty forgettable)
4. Max Zorin - A View to a Kill (only memorable because of Walken)
5. Gustav Graves - Die Another Day (whatever...)

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Guest Review: Side Effects (2013)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

Since his arrival in 1989 with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, celebrated director Steven Soderbergh has been nothing if not prolific in his output. Critics argue with some justification that his work is best described as uneven or inconsistent. Though hardly an expert on his career, as a fan of independent, low budget films, I owe him at least a debt of appreciation for his notable contributions in that regard. To be sure, this director has made many complete stinkers, but he’s also made several films I have truly enjoyed. Side Effects, fortunately, falls into that latter category.

Soderbergh films seem to fall into several loosely defined buckets, often spilling over into more than just one. It turns out this film is a suspense thriller in the manner of the great Alfred Hitchcock. Although admittedly a fan of that genre, I think one reason it seems to work so well is its ability to hide that fact by sending up false signals that it would be primarily an “agenda” film exposing the evils of “Big Pharma.” The fact this director has made that type of film helps in the set-up. Let’s consider both its highs and lows.

** spoiler alert **
Plot Synopsis - Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) visits her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) who is finishing up a four year prison sentence for insider trading. Although outwardly supportive, she apparently had lost more than her incredibly exalted financial status; she seems to be suffering from significant depression.

After Martin’s release Emily purposely crashes her car into a parking garage wall. In the ER, she’s interviewed by psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He reluctantly agrees to discharge her if she comes back for further treatment, and he prescribes one of the SSRI anti-depressant drugs. Emily tells him she was previously treated for depression by Dr.Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Banks consults Siebert who suggests he consider one of the brand new drugs, the fictional Ablixa. When Emily suffers a melt down while attending a business function with Martin, Banks agrees to prescribe Ablixa. It appears to significantly help, but carries its own unique set of side effects.

Martin awakes to see Emily setting the table for three in the middle of the night while the stereo blasts music. It seems one of Ablixa’s side effects is sleepwalking. They both meet with Dr. Banks, but Emily refuses to go off Ablixa, and he agrees to let her continue with the drug, using other treatments for the sleepwalking. One night, as Martin returns to the apartment for dinner, he finds the table again set for three. Confronting Emily, she turns and stabs him to death. Dr. Banks is recruited as an expert consultant by both prosecution and defense. A plea bargain is reached in which Emily is not guilty of murder, but must be institutionalized. Future release is subject to a doctor’s sign-off.

Dr. Banks finds that he has received tremendously unfavorable publicity as a result of the trial. As the A.D.A. points out, Emily is either a murderer or a victim of her medical treatment, and either way, someone has to pay. He begins to lose patients, is forced to resign from a lucrative consulting gig, and ultimately is forced out by his partners. Even Banks’ wife begins to doubt him. As his career and marriage rapidly disintegrate, he finds evidence that perhaps a murder was committed after all. Banks becomes obsessed with proving the wrong person has been “made to pay.” When he presents his concerns to the A.D.A., he is reminded double jeopardy applies, and he should just walk away. To reveal exactly what happens, who was involved, and how it resolves would seem a dis-service to potential viewers.
Why Does The Film Work So Well?
First and foremost, it is an excellent tight script. This film is only an hour and forty-five minutes, and the writers keep the story moving despite a lack of real action. Every scene is lean and purposeful with key information being disseminated just by visuals and mood creation. More importantly, it is a suspense movie that manages to disguise where it is heading for a long, long time. One reviewer even labeled that disguise as the “twist” itself. The story actually touches on some interesting issues regarding “big pharma” and the reliance of modern medicine in this country to depend so heavily on prescription drugs. That is not the true focus of the film, however, and that issue functions, in a way, almost as a kind of MacGuffin. Secondly, the soundtrack by Thomas Newman is extremely compelling and well matched to the scenes in which it is used.

The acting is uniformly excellent. To be sure Law, Mara, and Zeta-Jones do the heavy lifting, and all do it well. Mara has the biggest challenge being alternately sympathetic and a bit creepy. But I couldn’t help noticing just how good some of the actors were in minor roles. Most notable to me were Ann Dowd (Compliance) as Martin’s mother, Polly Draper (Thirtysomething) as Emily’s boss, Michael Nathanson as the A.D.A., and veteran character actor Peter Friedman as the senior partner in Banks’ practice.
Are There Any Negatives Or Is It Really All That?
For this plot to work, the viewer is asked to stretch the bounds of credibility, particularly regarding certain key relationships, and motivations of characters to act in a particular way. Specifically, questions of how Emily develops her relationships with Martin and Dr. Siebert may leave viewers scratching their heads. But, if one looks at most films of this genre in retrospect, almost all present certain facts that just don’t seem to quite make sense realistically. Even if we look at a classic such as North By Northwest, we can easily question the plausibility of some of the events required by that plot. And, what Side Effects does quite well is present its own inconsistencies in a manner that still permits you to enjoy the ride.
So Is This A Must See?
Well, yes, at least in my book. In an era of Man of Steel and Promised Land, damn right it’s worth it to see this one now, and not wait until it comes to MGM Classics. This is particularly true if you like the film noir suspense genre.
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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tuesday Top 5

The world is a sight to see. Or more correctly, there are many sights to see in our world.

Question: What are the Top 5 tourist locations you want to see?

Andrew: "They ain't got nuthing over there we ain't got here." Heard that a lot in West Virginia.
1. Space, baby!... I want to see this big blue ball from the great beyond.
2. Rome... Never did get to see the home of the Pope.
3. Hong Kong... Not to be confused with King Kong, Hong Kong looks incredible, but I'd like to do it in style.
4. The American Southwest... I need to do that tour again. I love the West.
5. London... I've seen most of Europe, but not London. I hear it's nice, if you like Indian food.
1. Easter Island (it's always fascinated me)
2. London (much to do and little time to do it)
3. Sydney (to see the toilet flush in the opposite direction... and other things, too)
4. Las Vegas with a side trip to the Grand Canyon (but I am NOT going on the Skywalk!)
5. Russia (most likely Moscow and Saint Petersburg but I'd love to investigate my family's roots in the neighboring regions)
Don't forget to book your tours through CommentramaAir!
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Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 84

Taking a date to a movie is an American tradition... like drag racing or watching football or polo.

Best date movie?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Well, You've Got Mail has the requisite amount sappiness, but I'm going to go with a surprise choice . . . the recently released This Means War with Reese Witherspoon and Chris Pine is excellent in this regard. A little Bond, a little Reese, a little tenderness, a little sex. It's all there folks.

Panelist: ScottDS

Anything by Richard Curtis a.k.a. the man who makes it all look easy. Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually, not to mention the underrated Pirate Radio. Needless to say, he seems to have cracked the code AND he once said something that's still relevant today: "If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it's called searingly realistic, even though it's never happened in the history of mankind. Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you're accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental."

Panelist: T-Rav

Raiders of the Lost Ark. I don’t know of another movie that gives such a prominent role to the nutritious date, and what better figure to advertise the fruit than Indiana Jones?

Panelist: BevfromNYC

From a woman’s perspective, any movie that is scary enough to make you want to “clutch on” to your “very strong and protective” date, but not so graphic and gross to be sickening.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

An Inconvenient Truth. It's dull enough for interests to turn elsewhere... fast. It's scary to be surrounded by zombies, so you get the whole scary movie effect, which works well on dates. And it's just pure fantasy which is great for sending the mind to creative places.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, June 14, 2013

Film Friday: Cop Land (1997)

Imagine a film staring Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Robert Patrick and a dozen more people you’ll recognize. Now imagine if the thing is really well written. Yet, few people know about it. That’s Cop Land, and this is truly an excellent film.

** Major Spoiler Alert **
Across the Hudson River from New York City lies Garrison, New Jersey. This is a town populated by NYPD cops who found a way around the NYC residency requirement. As the story open, one of these cops (Murray “Superboy” Babitch) kills two thugs on the George Washington Bridge. To save him from arrest, and from questioning by Internal Affairs, a group of these Garrison cops, including Superboy’s uncle Ray Donlan (Harvey Keitel), try to cover this up. In the process, Superboy jumps off the bridge.
This begins a chain of events that slowly spin out of control. And as Ray tries to solve the problem created by Superboy, Internal Affairs is watching in the form of Lt. Moe Tilden (De Niro). Stuck in the middle of all of this is the local Sheriff (Stallone), through whose eyes we see the story.
Why This Film Works
Cop Land holds your attention throughout and pulls you into its world by constantly throwing the unexpected at you. Indeed, the main story keeps twisting as the plot evolves in unexpected ways at each turn. What starts as the story of a guy jumping off a bridge quickly turns into a battle with Internal Affairs as the plot digs deeper. Did he really jump? Is the mob involved in all of this? Who is a good guy and who isn’t? Why won’t Ray look at the picture of a murdered cop? Who tried to kill Figgsy (Ray Liotta) or did anyone? What is Stallone going to do as things get worse and worse all around him? Almost every scene adds some new piece to the puzzle and moves the plot in a different direction. The end result is a story that simply cannot be predicted and which builds tension moment by moment as you approach the ending. . . which is itself unique.

Adding to this are some surprises in the characters. I’ve said several times in the past that one of the best ways to give your audience something unexpected is to take a cliché and twist it. Another good way is to play your characters or actors against type. Cop Land does this extremely well.
One of the early scenes in the movie demonstrates this perfectly. We all know that Stallone is a hero. He’s always a principled hero who stops misconduct no matter where he sees it and no matter what the consequences, right? Well, early in the film, we see Stallone and his deputy pull over Ray for speeding. Ray is abusive to the deputy. So naturally, we expect Stallone to put an end to this and to slap Ray down. Only, he doesn’t. He doesn’t because this Stallone is useless and pathetic. He’s stupid and cowardly and easily pushed around. Indeed, the other cops constantly push him around and even mock him as “not a real cop.” Stallone is even too pathetic to pursue the woman he obsesses over, and in a very un-hero-like moment, he tells us that he wouldn’t repeat his sole act of heroism today if he had to do it all over again. Stallone even put on forty pounds of fat to look less effective in this role. And the result is that you simply can’t predict what he will do. There are several plot points where you know what the hero Stallone always plays would do, but you have no clue what Sheriff Freddy Heflin will do.

Or consider Robert De Niro who always plays the most street smart guy in the room. This time, he plays a guy with no power to solve the problem he faces. He’s not the tough guy with the heart of gold either, he’s just an Internal Affairs cop with a problem he can’t solve.
Even a character like Ray, which Harvey Keitel plays to form, shifts enough throughout the film that he remains a constant surprise. At first, he seems like a good cop who wants to protect his friends. But that fades little by little as you learn about his connection to the mob and the people he’s killed. By the time you see him let a cop die to settle a score over an affair, he’s become something you never would have expected when you first meet him, but which you can absolutely see in hindsight. That’s excellent writing and solid acting, especially as Keitel never changes the way he portrays the character as his character seems to change.

Beyond the surprises, the film is also extremely well-written. The dialog is strong. It doesn’t give away anything too quickly, but it doesn’t hide anything either – this actually makes the film highly re-watchable because the meanings of the characters change once you know their true motivations. The characters’ actions make sense in the real world too. There are no phony film moments here. The film is also full of the kinds of touches that make films like this feel worthwhile, like teaching you new things about being a cop, such as the diagonal rule and that “it’s just as easy to tail a man walking in front of him.”
Lastly, the film does a great job of making the characters complex by giving each multiple motives for their actions. For example, does Ray save Superboy because he’s a relative and wants to help him? Or does he save Superboy just to keep Internal Affairs from getting him? He must have known what would need to happen with Superboy eventually. Does Ray let Randone die because he’s become a problem in the Superboy affair or because he knows about the affair with his wife? Is Stallone finally doing something because he’s a wants to do the right thing or because he hopes to prove his own worth to himself or does he want to prove himself to Liz? Is Figgsy helping Stallone to help him or to use him against Ray. . . to come at Ray sideways? And so on. Almost every action taken in this film can be interpreted in one of two ways.

This movie is not an easy movie for general audiences. It takes its time to explain everything that is going on and to work you into the plot. It relies on you to remember what you’ve seen. It relies on context more than exposition. (Surprise, surprise, Ebert gave it 2 stars.) It also twists expectations in ways that will feel disconcerting to those expecting to see the same thing they’ve seen over and over. You will not, for example, see Judge Dredd or Rambo make an appearance. But that is what ultimately makes this film shine: you’ve never seen this story before and you can’t guess the twists and turns before they happen. Combine that with solid dialog and strong acting and you get an excellent, gripping film.

Finally, as an aside, while both De Niro and Keitel are strong actors in this film, Stallone is the real gem here. This was the first film where I really felt like Stallone proved he could act.
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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Questionable Bond No. 8

Is it just me or does it seem like they haven’t really found anyone good to play the role of James Bond?

Question: "What other actor would you cast as James Bond?"

Andrew's Answer: There have been a lot of good names floated. Brosnan was interesting because he was the first guy who seemed like he should be Bond even before he was considered. There’s no one else like that at the moment. But I’ll tell you who I would really like to see, as odd as this may sound, is Hugh Jackman. Alternatively, James Caviezel.

Scott's Answer: In the 60s, either David Niven (who later appeared in the spoof Casino Royale) or Michael Caine (who played spy Harry Palmer). In the 80s or 90s, either Sam Neill, Liam Neeson, Charles Dance (who played a henchman in For Your Eyes Only), or Paul McGann. And today? Only one actor comes to mind and that's Clive Owen.
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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Star Wars VII by JJ Abrams

“I think that the thing is so big and so massive to so many people that the key to moving forward is honoring but not revering what went before.”

– JJ Abrams about Star Wars

That’s great thinking JJ and I’m sure you’ll honor Star Wars just like you honored Star Trek by pretending none of it happened. Anyway, as most of you know, we at CommentaramaFilms are “connected” and I’ve secretly obtained a copy of JJ Abram’s notes for how he plans to handle the new Star Wars script. I think you’ll all be impressed. I was.

Act I: Start with Rebel ship chasing Star Destroying ship. Think of cool intro shot. Maybe copy shot from Original Star Wars (Note: put in agreements crew must call this ‘an homage’). Add lensflare. Rebel ship fires “time distortion weapon.” Explain that timeline changed and everything is now different.

Introduce Darth Vader (cast 18 year old actor), a young podracer hotshot. He goes by “Vade.” He is getting ready for a race when he runs into middle age (maybe 24 year-old) Ben Kenobi (call him “Ken”) who is a Jedi Master. They do kungfu with lightsabers that actually shoot lasers... lots of lensflare. Ken knocks Vade down and says, “Hey, I’d like to train you. You have a lot of potential.” Vade says, “No way.” Ken tells him, “You’re a reckless young man who drives too fast and will drive off a cliff one day. Come with me to see Moses Eisley. We can give you a future. Be all you can be. Join the empire.” Vade says, “I’ll go to humor you, but I won’t actually sign up.” Ken says, “Cool.” They leave.

Training montage.

Vade and Ken go to the Death Star for Vade’s first assignment. As they approach the Death Star, it explodes!!!! (MEGA LENSFLARE). Vade is instantly put in charge of the Empire because everyone sees in this reckless young a-hole a true leader.

Vade gets drunk and fights some aliens in a bar.

Meanwhile, Ken finds Luke (cast 18 year old actor) who is Vade’s son, but is the same age as Vade – (Note: tell the writers to STFU, there’s no conflict because there was a time distortion... goddamn nerds). Luke’s a reckless farmer who just happens to be a hotshot podracer. Ken tells him he needs to stop Vade and stop the Death Star from being destroyed so he can save his home planet of Earth. Only, this is Ken from the future in an alternate reality – psych! (Note to writers: don’t explain, leave this a mystery.)

Luke flies to Dagobah to meet “Yoda.” Yoda is this hot chick (cast 18 year old actress) who trains Jedi. She’s never seen anyone like Luke and they get naked. Ken finds them and he gets all pissed and they chase each other around Yoda’s bedroom. “You’re not taking this job seriously” and crap like that. Ken tells Luke he can’t command the mission. Luke says he will no matter what Ken says.

Big lensflare fade.

Vade tracks the killer (cast 18 year old actor) who blew up the Death Star to Earth. So Vade intends to skydive onto the Earth and land on top of the killer so he can stop the destruction of Earth. He knows the killer is going to blow up Earth because the killer knows that one day Vade in the old timeline would have ______ Earth and ______. (Note to writer: fill in.) Vade gets there, but it’s too late. So Vade’s second in command is C3-PO (the PO stands for “pissed off” and everyone should call him “PO”) (cast 18 year old actor with lots of tats). He’s a combat droid who looks human and decides to strand Vade on Earth because he’s reckless. But Vade outsmarts him and sneaks onboard as PO and this like hairy dude who farts all the time (R2-D2) (cast 18 year old actor) who is PO’s assistant helps Vade get to the bridge. Then Vade tells PO “count to infinity droid and beyond” and that freezes PO’s processor.

Luke and Yoda suddenly show up with these two chicks – Hana Solo. She’s fat and funny as crap (cast 18 year old actress). She should be a brainiac too, but like bumbling if you know what I mean. Oh, and she’s lesbian (Note: More demographics can we get some blacks in this thing???? Maybe make Vade black? ... it works, alternate timeline). Also Lee Princess (cast 18 year old actress)is with them. She’s this hot black chick who strips to her underwear in every scene and has a thing for Luke and Vade.

Luke and Vade fight with their lightsabers. They’re basically moving around this big room full of boxes shooting their lightsabers at each other. Lots of lensflare. Meanwhile Luke’s ship is blowing up all around him and the others are dodging and screaming and saying, “Give us a command sir!” Do a flashback of how Ken told Luke to “fight the force” when he got in trouble. Luke looks at Vade and says something snappy like, “It’s over, Vade,” and shoots Vade with his lightsaber pistol sword.

Everyone thinks Vade is dead, but he isn’t. His dying words are “Luke, I’m your father.” And Luke gets all choked up. As he tells this to the others, Vade escapes. They see his body is gone and the fat chick (make her Scottish) says something really funny. Then Luke and Yoda go at it. (Note: Yoda needs to get naked to punch up the movie.)

Lensflares. Big ceremony. Luke is appointed emperor for beating Vade, but Vade’s not dead. This is when the two Ken’s meet. They’re like, “Hey, you’re me.” And the other is like, “Yeah, wasn’t that awesome what just happened with Luke and Vade? You’re an awesome f**king person and any stories you’re in in the future are going to seriously f**ing rock!” And the first one is like, “Yeah, if we were like in a movie, I would plan to see them all and then buy them on BluRay. (Audience will dig self-aware humor). I would also visit the website to buy the merchandise.” (Note to writers: Don’t give the website name in the dialog, cause that’s not cool, but stick the name everywhere like on some boxes or something where people can read it throughout the movie.)

Act II: Introduce trailer for The Empire In Darkness, story about cloud city full of ice creatures, space worm, asteroid chase scene, Vade betrayed by Hana Solo as he confesses love to Lee Princess who digs this Asian guy Bo Bo Fat. (NOTE: Get crew to sign agreements to claim this has no so similarities to Empire Strikes Back).

Start filming. Details to be worked out as we go.

Yep, don't feel suicidal at all... feel homicidal though. Thoughts?
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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Tuesday Top 5

You have a history project due at San Dimas High in 20 minutes... and access to a phone booth.

Question: Who are your Top 5 Most Interesting Historical World Figures?

Andrew S. Preston, Esquire:
1. Jesus... I have some questions.
2. Confucius... the sound of one hand clapping my butt.
3. Akira Kurosawa... possibly the world's greatest filmmaker.
4. Brutus... the world's first Tea Party figure.
5. Socrates... kind of the inventor of logic.
Scott "Theodore" Logan:
1. Leonardo Da Vinci - the original Renaissance Man
2. William Shakespeare - I'm sure his friends called him Bill
3. Albert Einstein - "Imagination is more important than knowledge."
4. Winston Churchill - "If you're going through Hell, keep going."
5. Napoleon Bonaparte - "Do the chickens have large talons?"

Most excellent!
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Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 83

Will our seven-legged green friends be covered by the Rubio bill? Don't know.

What is your favorite alien on film?

Panelist: ScottDS

We already did "coolest alien" for question #47! My answer is the same: In terms of execution, definitely the Predator. It was designed by Stan Winston and played (in the original films) by Kevin Peter Hall. What can I say? It's a badass!

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

If I could include t.v., it would be the Horta without question. Since that doesn't count, I'll go with the Alien from Alien. I kind of like the nasty guys in Battle: Los Angeles as well.

Panelist: T-Rav

Not being an alien connoisseur (that sounds wrong, somehow), I’m going to go with the creature in Virus, which starred Donald Sutherland and Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s not a well-known—or great—movie, but it features an alien with an electrical, rather than physical, makeup, and the concept was so cool to me I never forgot it.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Mangalores. No doubt. They're one of the few aliens to show emotions... and they're rock stupid. They are pretty unique on film. (Also, ignore Scott, he's feeling feverish.)

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, June 7, 2013

Film Friday: They Came To Cordura (1959)

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about cynicism and how the age of cynicism began at least as early as 1960 rather than after Vietnam and Watergate. They Came To Cordura adds a great deal of support to that argument. This film stars Gary Cooper as Major Thomas Thorn and it makes Platoon look like an Army recruitment film.

Gary Cooper makes me uneasy. I know he was a staunch Republican. I also know he testified against the communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a friendly witness. But when I see his films, something always “feels” wrong at a fundamental level. Indeed, his most famous role, that of Marshal Will Kane in High Noon, was written by communist Carl Foreman as an attack on the American people in light of the HUAAC. Foreman wrote Will Kane as a cynical takedown of heroism. He is a once-great man, who fights because he is now too afraid to run away. And the fact he won’t run away exposes the townsfolk as selfish, cynical cowards who don’t care about right and wrong. The message was clear: don’t be a hero, it’s not worth it and the American people don’t deserve you.

In fact, this meaning was so clear to John Wayne that he called the film “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” and he and Howard Hawks produced Rio Bravo as a direct response. Said Hawks, “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken... asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.”

Admittedly, the interpretation of High Noon has changed over time and people now see it more as an ode to the individual standing alone against great odds to do the right thing. So if that was the only time I questioned Cooper, it would be easy to dismiss my nagging feelings. But then you run into a film like Cordura – one of three films produced by Cooper’s own company.
Cordura is the story of Major Thomas Thorn (Cooper) of the United States Cavalry. The year is 1916 and the cavalry is fighting Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. As the story opens, the cavalry charges a ranch occupied by Villa’s troops. The charge is reckless and results in a lot of dead American soldiers, but Villa is routed because of the brave acts of four soldiers. These soldiers are observed by Cooper, who decides to put them up for the Congressional Medal of Honor. Cooper is then assigned to return with those four soldiers and a female prisoner to the Texas town of Cordura. Things go wrong along the way and the other soldiers turn on Cooper. That’s the basic plot and it doesn’t sound so bad, but just wait for the details.

Right out of the gates, we learn that Cooper is a coward. In a prior attack, he hid in a ditch. No one denies this and this isn’t some mistake you discover later in the film which redeems Cooper. Further, Cooper’s commander Col. Rogers knew about the cowardice and did nothing about it. Why? Because Rogers knew Cooper’s father and wanted to protect the father’s reputation. Further, Rogers knew it would come in handy because Rogers, who is 63, thought he could hold this over Cooper’s head so Cooper would recommend him for the Congressional Medal of Honor, which would get Rogers promoted to General. In fact, when Cooper refuses to put Rogers up for the medal, Rogers becomes irate, threatens Cooper and sends him away with the other soldiers as punishment.

Notice right away that the message here is that the U.S. Army, and by extension American society, is sick. Its leaders are cowards and opportunists. They ignore their duty to help friends, they hold each other to a lower standard than they do average people, and they turn on each other when they won’t return a favor. This will be reinforced by the other officer, Lt. Fowler, who also turns on Cooper when he won’t do a favor for Fowler. Fowler even tells Cooper, “an officer’s duty is to protect his own kind,” but he won’t help Cooper.

Adding to the negative critique, Cooper blasts the attack itself as disorganized and pure luck. He says the soldiers chased into the attack “like a gang of Don Quixotes” (meaning crazy, delusional and recklessly). He blasts the commanders for not having a plan and acting without intelligence or knowledge of the terrain, and he notes that if Villa had automatic weapons the cavalry would have lost. Essentially, the U.S. Army gets lucky.
As the journey begins, they take Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth) with them. She’s an American who has been helping Villa. At first, the film makes it clear that Rogers only arrests her because he’s angry with her. And when she demands to know what she’s charged with, Cooper tells her but she instantly proves how she can’t be charged under the law he cites. He doesn’t care. The implication is that the Army sees itself above the law and will fit the law to its needs. Then, as the story progresses, she proves to be smarter than all the soldiers about military matters. Meanwhile, we learn that Cooper is obsessed with finding out why these four men did such heroic acts. What he discovers is another kick in the teeth: these heroic men acted out of fear, ambition and racism. In effect, the film says that those are the things that drive bravery. Then it gets ugly.

Almost from the first step of the journey, the men snipe at each other and at Cooper. Once they learn that they are to receive the highest award the nation can give, three of the four want Cooper to take them off the list. Why? Because one is wanted for murder and doesn’t want to get spotted. One doesn’t want to help the Army; he wants a transfer away from combat to “let the young ones do the fighting.” Fowler thinks it will ruin his career to standout too early – he thinks it will make him a target for “jealous superiors.” Also, the one who does want the award only wants it because it means an extra $2 a month. Notice that these men are cynically held up as the example of heroes in the military, yet none of them are worthy - they are cutthroats, liars, cowards, opportunists and malingerers (we’re even told, “The Army don’t ask no questions,” when it recruits). And “held up” is the right way to say it because Cooper makes a point that, no matter how rotten these men really are, they need to be given these awards because the Army needs heroes to show everyone else “how to act.” Think about the cynicism here. The writer basically claims that the Army uses the fraud of phony heroism to inspire its soldiers, even when it knows the kind of rotten people it is propping up as heroes. Then it gets worse again.
No sooner do the troops start to rebel about being made heroes against their will than they decide to rape Hayworth. This forces Cooper to disarm them and he essentially takes them to Cordura as prisoners. As they walk (they lose their horses to the Mexicans), they keep wanting to quit and lie down and die. They keep attacking Cooper. They try to blackmail him and threaten him. They become increasingly murderous. Only Cooper’s gun keeps them going. One of the men even becomes ill with typhoid and Cooper must force them to carry the man - the others want to abandon him. This, by the way, is only a two-day walk.

Finally, as they near Cordura, Hayworth falls for Cooper and she declares him to be a great man. At that point, the film treats her as redeemed. Only, her version of redemption doesn’t involve renouncing her prior treacherous aid of the Mexican raiders; it just involves liking Cooper. And the reason she likes him is the “moral courage” he shows in being determined to get these men the Medal of Honor despite all they have done. That is twisted nonsense, that the coward is the hero because he blindly follows his orders, no matter how wrong. Adding insult to insult, she then has sex with one of the soldiers to distract him to help Cooper. Essentially, this representation of American womanhood is portrayed as someone with easily shifting loyalties who doesn’t think twice about using her body to get what she needs. She’s also a major alcoholic.
Films like this make me wonder about Cooper. This film characterizes the military, American heroes, and all aspects of American society as rotten to the extreme with no redeeming values. Our people are savages, held in check only by the guns of our leaders who are cynical hypocrites. There is no redemption. There is no moment where these rotten soldiers show they are better than they have behaved to that point. They don’t even help Cooper when they realize they are near Cordura after they tried to let him die. Cooper is never redeemed either. There is no moment where he shows that he can be a better man. He just does his nonsensical job like an obsessed bureaucrat or automaton. The closest we get to redemption is when the soldiers act surprised to see that Cooper wrote some nice things about them in his diary (which of course they should already know). Then Cooper writes, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” as if that makes it all better. So don’t judge the cowardly rapists or the guy who wants to turn them into false heroes because you’re probably just as bad? Do you see the cynicism? I don’t know how Cooper could have looked at this script and not seen all of this?

This is the kind of film I was talking about when I spoke of cynicism. If I described this film to you without the name of the actor or the year, I doubt anyone would have guessed this film was made in 1959. This is the sort of thing you expect from an Iraq film or a Vietnam film. Yet, here it is... with Cooper’s name on it.
[+]

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0018 The World Is Not Enough (1999)

Today we continue our journey through the James Bond films with No. 0018 of 0023: The World Is Not Enough. Bond films always seem to have a theme. . . sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. The theme in this film was “confused.” The motives, the plot, and even the action were all confused. This film probably should have been lower on our countdown except for the stiff competition it faced.

Plot Quality: The plot stinks. World revolves around the assassination of a billionaire oil tycoon by KGB agent-turned-terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle). This turns into a scheme to trigger a nuclear explosion near Istanbul so that a Russian oil pipeline would be useless, which would increase the value of a competing pipeline. The plot is hatched, possibly, by Renard. I say “possibly” because the film isn’t all that clear. It might also have been hatched by the billionaire’s daughter Elektra (Sophie Marceau). She was a kidnap victim of Renard who now seems to be his lover and his boss, though she also answers to him. . . depending on the scene.
Anyhoo, the story begins with Bond and the billionaire visiting a Swiss banker to buy a report stolen from MI-6. The banker gets killed. Why? Something to do with the plot. Then Bond and the banker return to MI-6 Headquarters, where the billionaire gets blown up by booby-trapped money – this is one of those booby traps which takes precognition to work. Bond, of course, sees the killer, who just happens to be hanging around outside in the Thames river waiting to be spotted. A boat chase ensues, which results in a hotair balloon escape... because those are fast and agile escape vehicles.

Bond then flies to scenic Upper Krapistan (f.k.a. Azerbaijan) where villainess Elektra tries to convince him that he’s got nothing to worry about. She then has him attacked by winged monkey, i.e. guys on paraglider-equipped motorcycles, which kind of contradicts her plan of telling Bond there’s nothing to worry about. Bond then discovers that Elektra’s head of security is linked to Renard. Oh no!

Bang! We’re off to scenic Lower Krapistan (f.k.a. Kazakhstan) where we meet silicon-based ditz Denise Richards who is actually playing nuclear scientist Christmas Jones. Bond and Renard fight and everyone gets trapped in a nuclear silo. Bond escapes and goes back to Krapistan, where M gets kidnapped by Elektra because she’s angry at M as well. Bond is then attacked by helicopters with tree-cutting blades because that looks cool. He is captured by Elektra, but freed by a Russian mobster, and kills Elektra and saves M. Eventually, they all end up on a submarine where Renard intends to inject plutonium taken from the missile in Lower Krapistan and blow up Istanbul. Good riddance, I say. Of course, Bond saves the day.
Bond Quality: This was Brosnan’s third film and overall he was a decent Bond. He was always suave and, once his confidence grew, he handled the other aspects of Bond quite nicely as well. Unfortunately, he probably peaked in his prior film, Tomorrow Never Dies, and this was not his best outing. For one thing, Brosnan was stuck with some very poor material. By and large, he was just a tourist in his own movie as he rarely drove events. Even worse, he seemed to struggle with his chemistry with the Bond girls. Elektra was too much in control of their relationship for him to come across as Bond and he seemed too uninterested in Jones. In fact, the only person he really had solid chemistry with was M (Judy Dench).

The Bond Girl: This film has two Bond girls, but I’m only going to talk about Denise Richards here. Casting Richards as anything more than a stripper or cheerleader is a stretch and casting her as a nuclear scientist fell flat. She’s a ditz who adds little to the film. Most Bond girls add a sense of glamour, she didn’t. Most Bond girls add a high degree of sexual tension with Bond, Richards didn’t. Most Bond girls present a challenge for Bond; they are always involved some way in the scheme and they either need to be won over, controlled or killed. Not Richards. She’s just a bystander Bond runs across. If most Bond girls are on unobtainable object of desire wrapped in a dangerous package, Richards is a stripper looking for a ride home.
Villain Quality: There are two villains in this film, if you exclude the writer. Unfortunately, neither is all that great. On the one hand, you have Robert Carlyle as Renard. He’s an ex-KGB agent who has become a world famous terrorist. The other is Elektra, the daughter of the dead billionaire.

The problem here is that the relationship between the two isn’t clear and it appears contradictory. Renard kidnapped Elektra at one point and they became lovers. Yet, Elektra kills her father as revenge for using her as bait to catch Renard. That is a confused motive as one would assume that she would feel happy to have found Renard. Moreover, as the plot moves forward, it is implied that Renard is taking orders from her. I say “implied” because the film is never clear, but the film basically shifts midway through from having Renard driving the scheme to having Elektra driving the scheme. At one point, Elektra even seems happy to let Renard die. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. If he’s the evil terrorist mastermind, why is he taking orders from his former victim? I suspect we’re supposed to believe that Elektra is a psychopath and Renard fell for her in some sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome, but the story just never makes any of this clear.

Moreover, Elektra’s revenge motive doesn’t mesh with her motive being economic, which is the motive driving the main plot. According to the main plot, Elektra wants to blow up Istanbul to destroy a Russian pipeline. She wants to do this to raise the value of her own pipeline and she’s clearly been planning this for months. But think about that. Until she killed her father a few days ago, she didn’t own the pipeline, so why is she so obsessed with coming up with insane ways to improve its value? That doesn’t make a lot of sense. You would think she would own it for a while and see how it works before she decided her best plan was to set off a nuke to destroy a competitor.
Further, the scheme itself is bizarre. Bond schemes always need to be larger than life, but they simultaneously need to sound plausible. This scheme sits on the border of plausible. The problem here is the proportionality. There are easier ways to increase the value of a pipeline. And even if she pulls this off, she still won’t even own a monopoly as there are other pipelines and thousands of tankers that could be used as alternatives. Nor is a monopoly all that great in this instance because she doesn’t own the oil, she just transports it, and with oil being a commodity, there no chance she can demand more than market prices.

Ultimately, everything here is confused. Is her motive personal or business? And if it’s business, why be so psychotic about a business she didn’t own until a couple days ago and without more reason to believe it will really benefit her? The whole relationship with Renard feels like an add-on just to give the plot a “big reveal” halfway through as Bond discovers she’s the real villain. Beyond that, their relationship is simply confused and inconsistent. Why she thinks she can get away with playing innocent as she has Bond attacked and then kidnaps M isn’t clear either. And if she really wanted to kill Bond, why not just shoot him on one of their dates? Why try any number of low-probability-of-success attacks? It feels like the writer was writing a caricature of a James Bond story.

All in all, the film has the elements of a Bond film, so you can’t complain about that. It just doesn’t use them very well. It’s not that the film ever insults you, it just doesn’t quite come together. That’s why this film is No. 0018 of 0023.
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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Why World War Z Is Probably Doomed

There have been quite a few articles warning us that Brad Pitt’s World War Z will be a dud... a bomb... a flatulent schnauzer. It wouldn’t surprise me. What’s interesting though is the reason they think it will be a bomb compared to why I think it will be a bomb. They are, of course, wrong.

WWZ is a zombie movie. It’s based on a novel by Max Brooks and the story is basically about the UN trying to stop the outbreak. Yeah, I know there’s more to it... ask me if I care and you can find out all you want about it here => LINK. Seriously, aren’t we done with zombies yet? There’s a million fricken zombie movies already and they’re all the same! A retarded chimpanzee with a camcorder can made a zombie movie these days! Why make another one? &^#%$%$! I am looking forward to it.

Anyhoo, Brad Pitt is producing this turkey and it’s been a mess. In particular, the ending as originally shot was considered abrupt and incoherent and it left the studio in shock. Paramount Studio President Marc Evans described it thusly, “It was like, ‘Wow, the ending of our movie doesn’t work!’” So they went about re-shooting it. They spent between $15 and $20 million to re-shoot the ending and now production costs have blown past $200 million into Battleship and John Carter territory (another $125 million will be spent on marketing). Sadly for them, most everyone apparently agrees that they made the ending worse.

As an aside, they say they needed to re-shoot “the ending,” but they apparently re-shot 40 minutes of film. That’s more than just the ending, that’s a whole new film!

So now Wall Street thinks the film is doomed because it had production problems which caused cost overruns. Hence, no one will see it. Hollywood types think the film is doomed because it now has a reputation for being a bad film. Hence, no one will see it. Personally, I don’t buy it. The public doesn’t care about production management, they just care about the quality of the film. As for the perception of the film being lousy, that won’t kill the film either... if it’s good. What that will do is cause audiences to move slowly and to wait to hear word of mouth. If the film passes that test, it will do well. If it doesn’t, it will bomb. In fact, they can probably save the advertising money because studio ads won’t matter at this point.

Anyway, I think the film will probably bomb. And what tells me that is this one idea that keeps popping up about why they needed to re-shoot the ending. Said one insider on the topic:
“The original ending was meant to launch a trilogy, but it took Pitt’s character down an obvious hero path — battling zombies mano-a-corpse in Russia — and it was implausible and unsatisfying.”
Do you notice any key words of doom in that? How about “was meant to launch the trilogy.” Yep. Screwed. When you set out with the idea of using your current product as a means to sell people more stuff in the future, you are asking for trouble. People go to movies because they want to see stories, they don’t go because they want to be prepped for future shakedowns.

This reeks of Golden Compassism. That was a film that (putting aside all its other garbage) failed at a fundamental level because the story never engaged the audience because it was constantly setting up sequels. . . sequels that never came, mind you. It constantly felt like they were showing you things and telling you, “Ok, well, that doesn’t matter now, but remember it for the sequels, will ya?” Forget it! Audience want everything in a movie to wrap up in that movie. Yes, your villain can escape in the sequel and start over again, but he needs to be stopped in this film. Yes, sometimes like in Empire Strikes Back, your resolution can call out for a sequel. But you can’t treat a film as a primer for future films. Audience’s don’t want to feel like they just paid to see part of a film. And if that’s the case with WWZ, then audience will stay home.

Indeed, I am hard-pressed to think of a single time when this model has worked where a film is merely a set up for future films. Perhaps, the only time it’s worked is Back to the Future II and that not only angered many people, but it was already a sequel working with characters the audience had learned to love in the first film, so it wasn’t as jarring to be told there would be more. The Lord of the Rings worked too, but that seems like it’s a special case as that’s a widely beloved trilogy of books that just contain too much to do as a single film. I don’t see WWZ having that kind of cache with the public, nor do I see what can’t be done in two hours in a zombie film.

If Team Pitt set out to make a third of a film and pass it off as a complete film (with two sequels coming) then he’s a fool. He should have made this a television series where people look less for a complete story and instead look for relationships with characters.

Thoughts? Zombies, sequels?
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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Tuesday Top 5

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

Question: What are your Top 5 Country Songs?

Scott: I'm not a country music guy at all so I apologize for the, uh, obvious nature of these answers. [smile]
1. "Crazy" - Patsy Cline (popular in my family!)
2. "Stand By Your Man" - Tammy Wynette
3. "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" - The Charlie Daniels Band
4. "Ghost Riders in the Sky" - various
5. "Ring of Fire" - Johnny Cash
Andrew: We got both kinds [of music]... we got country and western!". That said... arg... too too too much to choose from.
1. "The Master's Call" - Marty Robbins
2. "Smokey Mountain Rain" - Ronnie Milsap
3. "When You Leave That Way" - Confederate Railroad
4. "Guitars, Cadillacs & Hillbilly Music" - Dwight Yoakam
5. "Just Call Me Lonesome" - Radney Foster
Not much to add, is there?
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Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 82

Yes, robots take our jobs (and our women) and I'm sure the robot holocaust is going to suck, but some of them are cool!

What is the coolest robot on film?

Panelist: AndrewPrice

So many great robots! Everything from R2D2 to Crow T. Robot. But when it comes to robots, there's only one... the king of all robots... the bending unit from Mexico: Bender. He's maniacal. He's petty. He's a thief. He smoke and drinks. He is the ultimate robot.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

I thought there was a robot question! I have always had a great fondness for Robot from Lost in Space and Rosie from The Jetsons. Those weren’t actually in “films”, but they were still cool. I still long for the day that I can actually just enter a tube and my hair/makeup/clothes will just be done. Maybe one day...

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Not my strong suit with this question. I guess I'll go back to the original Gort in Stood The Day the Earth Stood Still. "Gort, Verada Nictu," as spoken by Michael Rennie, sealed the deal for me.

Panelist: ScottDS

Technically he's a cyborg but it doesn't get any cooler than RoboCop: "Part man, part machine, all cop" according to the poster. They're currently filming a new "reboot" which I am preemptively labeling as the most useless movie ever made. "Serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law"

Panelist: T-Rav

As a kid, I was a big fan of R2-D2. Unlike C-3PO, he doesn’t whine about everything—he actually had an upbeat personality that was very expressive; and he was always useful in a fight or to jack into an electronics system and open a blast door or something. And since the Terminator, as Kyle Reese explained, is a cyborg and definitely not a robot, R2 it is for me.

Comments? Thoughts?
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