Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Weepy Ain't That Great

It’s time to earn an Oscar. “Why!! Why!! Why did little Commentarama Jr. have to catch inoperable lumbago?! And now of all times as the main site just lost its job at the blog packing plant and the bank is threatening to foreclose on our e-home. There is no Gaaawd!” Solid.... gold. Remember that when it comes time to vote.

I’ve been thinking about acting lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about something that has always bothered me. Have you ever noticed that when people talk about great ACTING! they always talk about someone doing a scene where they are depressed and angry. You know exactly what I’m talking about. The actor clenches their fists and stumbles against something and proclaims that all hope is lost because little Jimmy wasn’t found at the bottom of a well after all, and now their sham marriage will fall apart. End scene. Critics applaud like trained seals and actors tear up and start gushing about how brave the actor was for making it through that scene.


Look, these people are handing you a cliché. Somewhere along the way, probably in 1934, some actor came up with this routine. They used it in some movie that everybody saw... The Maltese Lupus. By 1935, it was all the rage and everybody was doing it on screen. Since that time, everyone has done it and only it. It’s become the go-to way to handle drama. So whenever drama is called for, the actors don’t summon some knowledge of human nature from within, they just copycat... this... same... damn... scene. There’s no skill in that. There’s no talent required. It’s impossible to do it better than anyone else either. And yet, they get praised for it like they just invented acting. It’s a massive Hollywood circle-jerk.

If you really want an acting challenge, then convince me you’re in love. And I don’t mean doggy-style love... “oh boy oh boy, the master’s home!”


Something about that doesn’t sound right. Let me try again.

If you really want an acting challenge, then convince me you’re in love. And I don’t mean the meeting of lost lovers scene where everyone jumps into each other’s arms. No. I don’t mean the post-sex scene where someone says, “I love you.” No. And not a “you saved me from that giant robot, I love you” moment either. I’m talking about two characters minding their own business with nothing special going on at that point in the film... just two people hanging out (in a fully clothed way), and make me believe that those two people love each other in that moment.

That’s a real challenge.

It’s the same thing with comedy. Comedies never win awards because they get looked down upon by critics. But comedies require skill. They require timing. They requiring aligning your behaviors with the need to hit the right comedic notes. I would suggest that few actors can do comedy. Yet, weepy gets the awards even though everybody can do weepy.

I think back to Ayn Rand at times like this. Shut up, yes I do. As I read The Fountainhead, Rand is talking about “those who cannot” and how they creep into positions of authority like professorships and regulatory positions. Then they warp the rules to punish the true creative geniuses so their own flaws can’t be exposed. Basically, since they lack genius, they redefine the rules to declare what they can do as genius and to stop geniuses from showing otherwise.

I suspect there is something similar going on here. I suspect that most actors in Hollywood can do the cliché weepy stuff, but they would be completely lost in things like comedies and where genuine emotions like love need to be shown. The result is that they look down on the things they cannot do as beneath them and they instead elevate the things where no real talent is needed and no true distinction is possible. Call it the tyranny of the mediocre. They essentially make themselves gatekeepers of legitimacy by telling you to look down on the things where people with superior skill can shine.

That’s how I see it.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Questionable Jones No. 12

You know what? That dude has some awesome stories to tell, they should make a movie about him!

Question: "What minor character captured your imagination and deserves a spin off?"

Andrew's Answer: The character who absolutely caught my attention was Katanga, the captain of the freighter upon which Jones and Marion try to escape Egypt with the Ark. This guy is a borderline pirate prowling the seas at an interesting time. I'll bet his story would have made a heck of a film... much better than The Shadow or The Phantom.

Scott's Answer: I'd love to see the early years of Henry Jones Sr. (Paging Daniel Craig?) Then again, considering Lucas' track record with prequels and spinoffs... perhaps not. If not Jones Sr., then perhaps Wu Han, Indy's ally at the beginning of Doom. "I've followed you on many adventures... but into the great unknown mystery, I go first, Indy!"
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Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 87

What a wonderful wiz he was...

Let’s assume we remake The Wizard of Oz, who should direct and what do you hope they do differently?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

Michael Mann has to direct and Jan Hammer would do the film score. Move it to a good blue state city like New York City, and above all get rid of the WASP-like family value Republican characters. I'm kidding of course, but seriously, don't remake it. Why do that when it stands up so well after all these years? (See the GWTW post.)

Panelist: ScottDS

As we speak, Sam Raimi is actually directing a prequel film titled Oz: The Great and Powerful. But when it comes to remaking the original, I would suggest either Alfonso Cuarón or Guillermo del Toro. I was tempted to suggest Tim Burton, who would no doubt use visual effects to have Johnny Depp play the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man. (I bet you can see it in your head now!)

Panelist: T-Rav

Okay guys, let’s be honest—you know this movie is just screaming for a Tim Burton remake. And in that case, I want a more prominent role for the flying monkeys.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

NO!! Let’s not assume this. If someone actually tries to remake The Wizard of Oz I will personally go to their home and slap them in the face. They will probably cast Lindsay Lohan as Dorothy and make it “multi-cultie” and I will have to do bodily harm to someone. ‘Nough said about that!

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Johnny Depp with a dead Munchkin on his head... Jerry Bruckheimer... fighting robots. Just kidding. How about Quentin Tarantino doing a nonlinear version like Pulp Fiction. "You know what they call a Big Mac in Oz?"

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, July 26, 2013

Film Friday: Lost in Space (1998)

Arg. This film frustrates me on so many levels. So much potential. So much wasted potential. Yet, despite the overall lousiness of this film, it’s still disturbingly better than 90% of what Hollywood is making today. That’s really frustrating.
The Plot
Lost in Space is the big screen adaptation of the 1960s television show of the same name. The film involves the Robinson family who are shot into space aboard the Jupiter II spacecraft with the goal of reaching a nearby planet and creating a hypergate which will allow people to travel back and forth. The reason they want to do this is because the Earth’s resources are exhausted blah blah blah. Anyway, some mutant terrorists (“Global Sedition”) pay scientist Dr. Zachary Smith to sabotage the Jupiter II. But Smith ends up stuck on board when it happens. And when the robot he programmed to destroy the ship lets loose, the whole ship ends up shot off randomly into deep space. Now the Robinsons are lost and they have no idea where they are or how to get home.
Arg Will Robinson, Arg
This film is so wrong on so many levels. Consider the acting. The film stars William Hurt as Prof. John Robinson and Gary Oldman as Dr. Smith. That’s good. There is real talent there. But then they cast fricken Joey from Friends as Major Don West. Joey? Give me a break. Who thought putting Joey into a film was a good idea? The guy should be waiting tables.

Opposite Joey is Heather Graham, who plays the older daughter Judy. She’s pretty pointless, as are the other women, and she has zero chemistry with narcissist Joey. Unfortunately, their “relationship” forms a big chunk of the dialog. Even worse, the youngest son Will is played by Generic Child Actor-bot, and rather than focus on Hurt or Oldman, he becomes the central focus of the film. What a waste.
The writing is awful too. It’s full of first-grade dialog and stolen clichés: “Your father’s battle strategies were required reading at the Academy.” Ahhh! I swear I am going to punch the next person who puts that line into a film. Seriously. Stop. And the dialog in the “touching” father-son scenes, the point to the story, is as bad as anything Lucas scribbled together in his prequel romance scenes... “Sand. . . it gets in stuff. I hate my coworkers. You smell perdy.” //rolls eyes

In fact, this whole focus on the father-son relationship is a plot killer. Rather than being a story about the Robinsons encountering some new and fantastic worlds or alien terrors, the story devolves into a time-window story where older Will Robinson must come to realize that his father does love him. And to make this happen, work-obsessed William Hurt must realize that he actually needs to speak to his son once in a while. Arg. The whole thing feels so trite, so cliché and so unreal and it drags the ending down. Well, not the “ending” ending, as that’s about Joey flying them through a planet... duh, me no understand physics... but it does wipe out the thirty minutes before the ending.

Arg.... arg.

When this film came out, I hated it. It felt like such a wasted opportunity. It was poorly written with a weak plot and it felt stupid. It compared so poorly to then-recent films like Dark City, Star Trek VI and First Contact, Fifth Element, Event Horizon and others, with The Matrix coming out a few months later. But you know what? As bad as this sucker seemed at the time, it’s actually better than most of the science fiction put out since.
It’s got some good actors. The effects are very good; I would say they rival anything you see today in the age of CGI. The spaceships look good. The aliens look good. There are some cool technological advances, which always make these stories feel complete. The robot is impressive. The sets are believable. The costumes are good too. And parts of the plot are quite fun.

For example, the setup is a good one and moves well. It’s enjoyable. After they get lost in space, they come to an alien spaceship, and that’s enjoyable too. Indeed, that whole scene is very satisfying, even if it is stolen from several prior films. The way they approach the ship, stolen from The Black Hole, has a great feel to it and comes across as realistic science fiction. The discovery of a ghost ship is always exciting. The mixing of time zones, with a message from the future is a good one too. It adds solid depth to the story. Then the scene with them fleeing the spiders and the use of the robot to fend off the spiders is excellent... if also rather cliché, but it’s done well.

The rest of the plot is weak, but it doesn’t offend you or anything, and it has a science fiction flavor combined with enough action to keep your interest; basically, 50% of the film is a fairly decent science fiction film and the rest is just a lifeless-but-watchable father-son drama set against a science fiction backdrop. Sadly, that makes this film more enjoyable than so much science fiction that came after: Mission to Mars, Planet/Rise of the Apes, the Star Wars prequels, Terminator 3/Salvation, the Matrix sequels, I Am Legend, etc. Oh, the pain... the pain.
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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0017 Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

Let’s continue our journey through the James Bond films with No. 0017 of 0023: Diamonds Are Forever. This is a real disappointment. After quitting the series, Sean Connery returned for this film, only he clearly didn’t care, and the rest of the film just didn’t work. This feels like a low-budget, campy James Bond farce rather than a James Bond film.

Plot Quality: Diamonds Are Forever starts with something that could actually be a solid James-Bond-grade idea: someone has stolen enough diamonds to destabilize the diamond market if they release them all at once. This opens the door to a look at high finance, corporate espionage and the possibility of someone like SPECTRE seizing control of large parts of Africa. That could make a top notch story.
Only, none of that happens. Instead, Bond merely follows some stolen diamonds until the second plot emerges, which involves Blofeld using the diamonds to create a high-powered laser he’ll use to blackmail the nuclear powers “with nuclear supremacy going to the highest bidder.” Not only is this plot far less interesting than the one this film could have had, it struggles with legitimacy and it feels like it was tacked on because the writer didn’t know how to make diamond smuggling interesting and just wanted a big ending.

Unfortunately, this plot is threadbare and it’s made all the worse that Bond simply moves into each part of it rather than doing any actual work to earn it. For example, he’s told to go replace Peter Franks, who is smuggling the diamonds. This causes him to stumble upon the plot because the head bad guy scientist just happens to pick up the diamonds himself and take them right to the lab. From there, Bond goes to see the owner of the lab, who turns out to be Blofeld, who has imprisoned famous billionaire Willard Whyte, who is based on Howard Hughes, so he can use his satellite building facilities and his ties to NASA. Bond then “escapes” when Blofeld’s henchmen don’t bother killing him. He returns to have Blofeld’s number two tell him where to find Willard Whyte. Whyte then tells Bond where Blofeld is after Bond randomly mentions some of Whyte’s properties and Whyte shouts, “Baja?! I don’t have anything in Baja!” Good grief. Bond does no work at all throughout this movie. All of this gives the film a pedestrian, lazy feeling, like Bond is just going through the motions.
The film is beset by other bad choices too. For one thing, this film suffers from poor location choice. South Africa could be exotic, but we never see it. There are no grand vista shots, no cityscapes, no skylines, and not even an industrial shot setting up the mines. It’s just closed sets and one brief shot in a desert environment that could be outside Vegas. Then the film goes to Amsterdam, where we see a few seconds on the famous canal and then just inside sets. Finally, the film goes to Vegas. Only, whereas modern Vegas is amazing, Vegas in 1971 looked like a dirty, small town and this film makes it even worse. Again, you see no cityscapes or skylines. You basically see one block on the strip, a car chase in a parking lot, Bond hugging the side of a blue-screen building, and a few standalone buildings. The place looks like a dump. You also have Bond shooting craps in a casino where he definitely does not belong – he’s the only one in a tux and the locals dun look at him funny when he starts betting more than the $2 table limits. This is not an appropriate setting for jet-setting James Bond, and it feels like the director is mocking the city.

Even worse, as Bond wanders this barren, plotless landscape, he keeps running into people who try to kill him. But unlike prior movies where he saves himself or gets saved by some ally, here Bond is repeatedly saved by the villains themselves. The Slumber Mortuary guys have him dead, but they let him go because the diamonds aren’t real – something the film implies Bond did not know. The mob guys could have killed him too, but they let him go because they just wanted him to sleep with St. John. Blofeld could have shot him, but instead sends him packing in disgrace. But then he double-crosses Bond for no apparent reason except a desperate plea for drama, and he sends Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd to kill him, but they just put him into a construction pipe to sleep. Oddly, Bond doesn’t have Blofeld arrested at that point either. The film is littered with implausible non-killings and non-actions.

Finally, the film devolves into a circus-style ending with a helicopter raid on an oil platform. This comes from out of the blue; it feels like it could be the ending to another movie that was just tacked onto this one. It wasn’t earned.
Bond Quality: This is Connery’s final film, unless you count Never Say Never Again... which I don’t. And while it’s true that Connery at his worst was better than most of the others at their best, this was a little worse than Connery at his worst; this was Connery treating the role with contempt. His behavior swings between indifference and mocking throughout the film. He barely interacts with the other actors, and when he does, it’s usually just to look bemused at the other actor as if he were saying, “Are you’re really taking your role seriously?” At no point do you think he cares about the women he meets. At no point does his job seems to matter. He treats old acquaintances like Q and Felix like annoyances. And you never once feel from Connery that Bond’s life is in danger. As much as I’m willing to be an apologist for Connery, I just can’t here: he sabotaged this film.

The Bond Girl: As with other Bond films, this one has two Bond girls, though one is only in the film very briefly. The short timer is Lana Wood as Plenty O’Toole. She’s a gold-digger or a shill for a casino who latches onto Bond when he wins a lot of money in the most boring gambling scene ever in a Bond film. She will then be thrown out the window of his hotel room into the pool below by mobsters so that Bond will spend time with the other Bond girl. She makes a brief reappearance in a nonsensical way as she is found drown in a swimming pool when she apparently came to someone’s house looking for Bond. I suspect a scene hit the cutting room floor that would explain this. But without that, she seemed to know where the bad guys were and went there for reasons unknown, only to be mistakenly killed. That doesn’t make any sense.
The main Bond girl is Jill St. John, who plays Tiffany Case. She’s the Amsterdam connection of the diamond smuggling ring Blofeld uses. She comes with Bond when she thinks he’s a smuggler named Peter Franks and then decides to help Bond to see if she can avoid going to prison. St. John is not a bad choice, though she lacks the class of the prior European Bond girls and she comes across as “the ugly American” because she nags Bond constantly. And truthfully, she doesn’t seem interesting enough that Blofeld would have kept her in the end, where she turns into comic relief. She’s not great.

Villain Quality: Not good. It’s just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right... right into camp. Charles Gray who is best known for explaining “The Time Warp” in the campy The Rocky Horror Picture Show plays Blofeld. Gray plays the role for camp. Not only is he over-the-top British, but he doesn’t seem to care about his own plan. He just spends time hiding with a double he’s had made through plastic surgery and playing the narcissist; this is Mini Me played seriously. He even does a little pointless cross-dressing. His plan is generic, his means are weak, and almost everything he does is poorly explained and poorly fleshed-out.
Working for Gray, apparently, are Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd. They’re camp too. They’re homosexual killers who have been hired to kill off everyone involved in the Rube Goldberg diamond smuggling network. They’re probably the best thing about this film because they are creepy. But like many Bond henchmen, they’re stupid too. Instead of shooting people, they find elaborate ways to kill people, like dropping a scorpion down a shirt or leaving Bond in a sewage pipe to presumably die of boredom. In the end, they try to kill Bond with an exploding cake when they could have just shot him. Some of this comes with the territory, but in this case, it just has the feel or an uncaring director.

In the end, this film has the elements of a Bond film, they’re just used indifferently. You can almost hear the director saying, “Yeah, sure, whatever,” at every idea. And if it wasn’t for the cache Connery brings to the role, this could easily be one of the worst early Bonds ever – I suspect Lazenby in this film could have killed the franchise – but the film is saved by this being the last hurrah of Connery and probably our nostalgia for seeing early Vegas. . . even if you don’t see it here. Is this an acceptable Bond film? Yeah. It’s just not a good one. That’s why this film is No. 0017 of 0023.
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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Why They Couldn't Make Blazing Saddles Today

They couldn’t do Blazing Saddles today. I’m sure of that. But the reasons might surprise you. It’s not because of political correctness as you might think. Let’s discuss.

Blazing Saddles is truly a classic comedy. The film stars Cleavon Little as a black railway worker who is sentenced to hang for punching a white man. Before he can be hung however, he is saved by the evil Hedley Lamarr, the attorney general, who appoints Little as Sheriff of Rock Ridge in an effort to annoy the crap out of the locals (who are all named Johnson) so they won’t defend their town from an army of villains Hedley has commissioned to destroy the town so he can buy the land cheap before the railroad comes through. Little must overcome the racism of the locals with the help of his drunken deputy, Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid.

On the surface, the film is packed with racist comments and was, thus, controversial... “Hey, where the white women at?” But only an idiot would see the film as racist. To the contrary, the film is a parody of the subtle racism inherent in many old westerns. To that end, it makes Little smarter than the racist locals and they come to love him as he saves them. The film then shifts from parodying westerns to parodying Hollywood itself, with a particular emphasis on gays in Hollywood.

Three things made this film work, but they wouldn’t work today:

Mel Brooks: “Piss on you! I work for Mel Brooks!” That’s the most telling line in this film. Brooks was known as an irreverent comedic genius who could parody anything, even taboo subjects, and make it funny. That made Brooks the perfect man to make this film because he had the clout to do what he wanted and the reputation that people would know to accept outrageous ideas without being offended. There's no one with that kind of public trust today. To the contrary, all the people who would touch such a project are either hard-core ideologues like Michael Moore, scared light-weights like Judd Apatow, or people who use shock as a substitute for skill like Seth McFarlane or Sasha Cohen. Thus, the film would generate enemies before it even hit theaters.

Timing: The timing was perfect on this film. By the 1970s, the age of the great western was over and we had entered the cynical period of deconstructionist westerns. This was the era where John Wayne’s hero gave way to Robert Redford’s sniveling bank robber. And because of that, Blazing Saddles fit right in as it essentially deconstructed and parodied the tropes of the 1940s and 1950s westerns. Had Blazing Saddles been released in the 1950s, it probably would have felt like a nasty attack on a beloved genres. But coming out in the 1970s, amidst so many malicious westerns, it came across more as a loving summation of the now-dead western era.

Remaking Blazing Saddles today would run into a timing problem. The tropes of the 1940s and 1950s westerns are largely unknown today. Instead, the westerns that are known today are films like Unforgiven and Cowboys & Aliens. These films never exhibit “casual racism.” To the contrary, when they talk about race, and they always do, they make racism a cause worth fighting for the heroes and only the villains will display racism. Thus, to modern audiences, the idea that average locals would treat a black character in a racist manner doesn’t make sense because it’s not something they see on film anymore.

Further, in the 1970s, the idea of a black sheriff was a novel idea. It wasn’t that there hadn’t been such people, they just weren’t part of the popular culture. In fact, films like Smokey and the Bandit made a point of having an “old school” character run into just such a black person and then struggle with how to reconcile that with their worldview. In that regard, Blazing Saddles was very much on the edge of the culture when it made Little the Sheriff of Rock Ridge, i.e. the idea itself was shocking to audiences. Making it the old West was the joke.

Today, no one thinks anything of seeing black cops. So a story about a black man being appointed a sheriff wouldn’t strike the public as novel, or edgy, or outrageous. Even the historical aspect of making him a sheriff in the old West wouldn’t shock people because we regularly see black heroes injected into westerns now: Will Smith, David Keith, Danny Glover, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Mario Peebles, and more have all been accepted with open arms by “westerns” as if they were white, with only the villains themselves making a point of them being black. So making a black character into a sheriff in the old West just doesn’t shock anyone anymore. Hence, the very foundation of Blazing Saddles would fall flat on its face today.

The Perception of Racism Has Changed: Finally, we come to the big one: the changing perception of racism. Despite the use of racist words, Blazing Saddles is not a racist film. Consider this line: “I extend a laurel and hardy handshake to our new... nigger.” Is that racist? Well, it depends on the context, doesn’t it? It’s certainly meant to show that the speaker is racist. But the film never agrees with those sentiments. To the contrary, the film shows Cleavon Little to be by far a superior person to the racist townsfolk and they quickly come to love and respect him. The message of this is that racism is the product of ignorance and once the ignorance is overcome, the racism vanishes. The film also suggests that racism isn't as deeply ingrained as people think. Indeed, these people flip pretty easily from being racists to loving their black sheriff. It also softens the racism in a way by showing how it was not just anti-black racism, but anti-everything-different-ism: “We’ll take the niggers and the chinks, but not the Irish!”

In the end, what this film suggests is really positive. It suggests that racism isn't an inherent personal feeling akin to hate, but is really only fear of the unknown. And it mocks racists not as evil, but as just stupid. And it suggests that if we all get to know each other, then our racism will vanish and our better instincts will prevail. That is a very optimistic view of racism and it fit the era, when people thought racism was being put behind us. But this view of racism is no longer accepted by the public. Once the next few decades after the 1970s, the racism industry became particularly vile.

Starting in the 1970s, black race hustlers began to spew victimization and to claim that all whites were secretly racist. Things that had nothing to do with race were called racist and demands were made for a special set of rules that would apply only to blacks. Meanwhile, their opposite numbers in the white race baiter ranks spewed their own victimization and claimed that blacks wanted to oppress whites. These two groups poisoned the issued so that no one wants to talk about it. And because of them, if Blazing Saddles were made today, average people would not go see it because they simply don't want to deal with the issue of race. In the 1970s, people did want to deal with it because there was a moral basis to the discussion and good will among the participants. Today, there is neither, there are just screams of racism and victimization. No one wants to deal with that. And that is why this film simply could not be made today: there is no audience for it.

This is the key. Whereas 1974 Mel Brooks tapped into an issue people wanted to discuss and he offered something they wanted to believe – that we could end racism by getting to know each other, Mel Brooks 2013 would find himself smeared as a propagandist by both sides and ignored by the public. That’s why this film simply could not be made today. Not because it’s politically incorrect to make such a film, but because there’s no audience left for these ideas. And since the rest of the film wouldn't speak to audiences either, this film could not be made today.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Questionable Jones No. 11

As with Star Wars the Indiana Jones series really isn't a comedy and there is little in the way of comic relief characters... until they messed up Marcus Brody. Still, it has hilarious moments.

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

Scott's Answer: Probably in Crusade (which can be a little too lighthearted at times) when Indy finds out he and his dad slept with the same woman. Spielberg films it wonderfully and Ford and Connery both have some great reactions.

Andrew's Answer: For my money, there is nothing funnier than when Jones shoots the swordsman in Raiders. When that happened, the theater erupted and I still chuckle whenever I see it today.
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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Film Friday: Ted (2012)

Ted sucks. I could stop the review right there and that would sum up Seth McFarlane’s film pretty well. But I watched this turd and I want my pound of flesh. So I’m doing a full review to tell you exactly where Mr. McFarlane went wrong.
Ted is a “fairy tale gone crooked” about a boy who wishes that his teddy bear was real and gets his wish. Instead of being a touching story about a little boy who finds a special friend who teaches him some lesson, the story focuses on what happens after the boy and the bear both grow up and become typical Boston racist potheads. That’s the joke... all two hours of it. The plot, which is filler in this case, centers around the “difficult” choice the boy (Mark Wahlberg) must make between becoming something less than a total ass so he can keep his girlfriend (Mila Kunis) or sticking with his dope smoking, trouble causing bear. You can figure out the rest – boy loses girl, boy gets girl back with a “one last chance” proviso, boy loses girl when he abandons her at a business function so he can attend cocaine party with bear, contrived kidnapping-of-bear subplot brings boy and girl back together. Pathetic.
Why This Film Sucked Haard
This film stunk. Essentially, it was a vehicle for McFarlane to remind you repeatedly of the concept of the film and to relive his childhood. None of it worked. Observe:

Seth McFarlane Director: McFarlane wrote, produced and directed this film himself. That’s usually a sign of trouble, as proven here again. As a director, McFarlane simply isn’t any good and producer McFarlane should have canned him. He had no sense of how to convey the story with the camera. Outside of maybe two scenes where Ted acts lewdly, there is nothing in the visuals of this film to tell you what is going on; it’s just a collection of shots of people standing around. And in many shots, the actors were too far beyond the field of vision to pull you in to give the scene much meaning. They were lost in the shot. Moreover, every... single... gag ran twice as long as it should have. Thus, you keep finding yourself saying, “Yes, I get it, now move on.”

Seth McFarlane Writer: The writing was horrible too. Putting aside the jokes for the moment, what I’m talking about is the characters, the plot and the dialog. The plot, what little there is of it, is pathetically weak. It’s “below formula” in its sophistication, and it exists mainly to set up the comedic situations we’re supposed to laugh at. The characters are deeply unlikable and totally cardboard. You can’t feel for them. If they were all suddenly mowed down by a garbage truck, your response would have been to feel hopeful that we would now follow the intrinsically more likable garbage truck. Wahlberg’s Boston-trash pothead tries to get around being a genuine ass by constantly telling the audience he wants to be better than he is and by acting cute about his misbehavior. It doesn’t wash. Kunis is wallpaper. I don’t even recall if she speaks. The relationship scenes between them were written at the fifth grade level: “Ha ha, you’re hot, which is why I like you. I just farted.” I kid you not. Ted himself is interesting, because he does unexpected things, but he’s not likable. He’s a racist, a misogynist and a waster. And the only reason he seems likeable is because he’s been designed to look harmless and because all the other characters claim to like him. Cast Biff from Back to the Future instead of a CGI bear and audiences would have hated him. Seth McFarlane the producer should have fired McFarlane the writer too.
Seth McFarlane Joke Maker: All of the above could be forgiven if this movie had you rolling in the aisles. But it doesn’t. You laugh for the intro, then the laughing stops. Sure, there are some individual jokes that make you laugh, but the frequency is very low. What McFarlane is doing is basically writing the dialog using the following pattern: fart joke / racist joke / fart joke / dope joke / gay joke / creepy guy moment. He then mixes these with a constant stream of references to things McFarlane watched on television growing up and celebrity cameos. And he separates all lines with swearing. That’s his formula. And it’s tiring.
Even worse, as has become the norm among so many modern comedians, it’s all mean-spirited. All the jokes are aimed at other people and then the punch line is them acting helpless to respond to the insult. At one point, Ted even pretends to be mentally retarded after a life threatening injury just to watch Walhberg look on with horror. Very funny. There’s a manager who bizarrely thinks that being insulted is grounds for promotion – that’s nonsense. There are a number of characters who are too dumb to realize they’ve been insulted. There’s a businessman who nonsensically screams in a restaurant about his dinner being ruined because “[he’s] a businessman” and “someone farted!” And so on.

Moreover, if you’re going to make controversial jokes (e.g. jokes involving racism, religious bigotry, gays, the disabled), you better make sure you make good ones. McFarlane doesn’t. “Thank you for 9/11,” said to an Hispanic woman Ted has wrongly called a Muslim is not funny. A Chinese man with a duck screaming gibberish is not funny. Making a Brandon Routh was a gay Superman joke is not funny seven years after the film ended. The problem is McFarlane lacks courage -- his targets throughout the film are Hollywood has-beens and long-dead controversies. If you want to tell a racist joke, you need to accept the fact someone will get upset. That means you pick a side and you tell it; you either make fun of the racists, as Blazing Saddles does, or you speak some truth that is normally off limits, as many stand-ups do (Chris Rock: “Books is like Kryptonite to n*ggas.”). What you cannot do is what McFarlane does, which is suggest a racist joke, but then make it clear that he doesn’t really mean anything by it. That just makes people wonder why you brought it up in the first place.
The perfect example of this is when Ted suggests they will one day open an Italian restaurant but insists they allow Jews to dine there. This seems like the beginning of an anti-Semitic joke of some sort. . . but it’s not. Instead, Wahlberg responds, “Of course we would, why wouldn’t we?” and Ted then acts embarrassed for bringing it up. The joke stops cold. So what is the joke? It sounds like a joke about Italian anti-Semitism, but it’s not. We know this because Wahlberg responds in a shocked way, which suggests Ted is the one being racist. But Ted is trying to be anti-racist, so that doesn’t work either. In the end, what you get is “Ted wrongly thinks Wahlberg is anti-Semitic because he’s Italian.” That’s not funny, nor does it make a lot of sense. Perhaps if Ted had been openly anti-Semitic, then it would have made sense. Or if it exposed some truth about Italians or Jews or both, then it would have made sense. But it doesn’t. It ultimately makes no point at all. In fact, the only reason I can see for this joke is that McFarlane wants to trick the audience into thinking he’s being “edgy” by suggesting anti-Semitic jokes. All of his “edgy” jokes are like this: aimed at the wrong people, never actually insulting, and only suggestive of some bigotry. It’s symptomatic of a man who lacks the courage to say anything daring.

Indeed, just as Dennis Miller makes himself seem erudite by referencing things everyone knows but rarely discuss in daily conversations (rather than referencing things average people might not know), McFarlane makes himself seem edgy by suggesting that he’s telling racist, sexist, etc.-ist jokes, but doing so in a way that never actually lands a punch.

This is the problem with this film. You have a funny concept that McFarlane doesn’t know how to exploit. Rather than making a story involving Ted or the relationship between Ted and Wahlberg, he makes a stoner comedy with mean-spirited, cowardly jokes, unlikable characters, and a worthless plot. And he wraps all of this in enough fart/scat jokes to make you wonder if a twelve year old didn’t write the thing.

Totally... wasted... idea.
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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Guest Review: Identity Thief

By Koshcat

I watched Identity Thief with my wife a few weeks ago. It stars Jason Bateman as Sandy Patterson, an accountant for a large investment company located in Denver. This is a light comedy that is worth checking out despite a few flaws.
The story begins with Jason Bateman discovering that he has been lied to by his company. They’ve claimed they can’t afford bonuses or raises because of the recession, but Bateman finds himself called upon to print out large bonus checks for a few of the executives. This angers him, so when he is asked by some of his colleagues to leave the company and start a new firm with them, he decides to go for it even though this is a big risk for him because he is only just getting by with a pregnant wife and two kids.

After they leave the company, they seek to arrange a loan to capitalize the new firm. When they apply for the loan, however, they discover that Bateman’s credit is worthless. He also finds himself arrested on an outstanding warrant. It turns out that right at the same time Bateman left the company, a woman in Florida had stolen his identity and was living large off his credit. She had even gotten arrested under his name, which leads to the warrant.
Bateman is released when the arrest records show that the police are looking for a woman. But without clearing his credit, the new company can’t get the loan they need to get started, and returning to his old job is an impossibility. He has one week to clear everything up to save the company. Unfortunately, the police advise him that it will probably take months to resolve this matter. Needing to solve this crisis within a week, Bateman makes a deal to go to Florida, find this woman, bring her back, and get her to admit to the crime. The movie then becomes about his attempt to pull that off.
What Worked, What Didn’t
The movie itself is entertaining. It is kind of a rom-com but not exactly as there isn’t any romance between the two but they do become friends. Melissa McCarthy plays Diana, the thief in question. Melissa is a stand-up comedian and the chemistry between her and Bateman from their first confrontation to traveling across country to the end is pretty good. She is quite funny but I will warn you that this is not for children. Bateman plays the straight man well and he is very likable.
Bateman: You’re diabolical.
McCarthy: Thank you.
Bateman: That’s not a compliment.
McCarthy: I know.
In some ways, the film’s heart is in the right place too. The funny setup helps you forgot that a regular guy is trying to apprehend a woman larger than him and force her across the country in violation of all kinds of laws. He has found himself in a deep hole and only he can dig himself out. This is a standard idea in films. For her part, when Diana gets to know Sandy and his family she realizes that what she did wasn’t a victimless crime and she decides to do the right thing... eventually. I see these as conservative ideas or at least ethical principles; only you can really help yourself out and when you make a mistake and hurt someone you should accept the punishment. I found that pleasant.
That said, I do have a couple reservations, however. In particular, there were several issues I found to be quite irritating. First, they made Diana into an innocent victim of her childhood. She doesn’t know her real identity and she doesn’t like who she really is so she uses others’ identities. See, it isn’t her fault. It was her mother’s. Such crap. There are plenty of criminals from both good and bad backgrounds and just because you’ve had a hard life is no reason to hurt other people. She is choosing to steal identities, she is not forced to do so. And while she may feel like this is a “victimless” crime because she doesn’t know or see the victims, that’s just an excuse to justify this to herself.

Secondly, I have met people like Diana and generally they are sociopaths. They cannot be trusted and they do not feel that the regular rules apply to them. They can be nice and even help you at times but only if it is in their best interest. As soon as they can they will screw you over and run. There will never be a true epiphany where they change who they are, yet this film, as Hollywood always does, implies that people like this can be made to go straight if they just realize who they’ve hurt. That’s simply not true.
Another issue that bothers me is that the film justifies Bateman’s crimes. Basically, they do a great job making Bateman out a regular up-standing guy. But then they have him perform a crime that he gets away with to make the story work. And rather than pointing out how wrong this is, the film sends the message that his crime was excused because the victim of his crime was his ex-boss, who is a complete a$$hole (this was another issue, making all the upper executives greedy a$$holes, but this is so common in movies it’s par for the course so this didn't bother me too much). Again, crimes are crimes and we should not be suggesting that a crime is only wrong when it’s done to the wrong people.

Finally, I struggled a bit with the setup itself. This new company is trying to capitalize with millions of dollars. If you’re talking about that much money, why not spend a few thousand dollars on a top notch lawyer or bounty hunter to fix this without having a civilian illegally force a person to come with him across the country. Of course, that would have made for a boring story, but it always made the story feel a little contrived.

Anyhow, if you are in the mood for a relatively light comedy, especially if you like the kind with comedy duos, I think you will enjoy this movie.
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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Scheduling Note: No James Bond This Week

Sorry folks, but I'm really under the weather... "doctor visiting under the weather" so I can't get the James Bond article done this week. It will be back next week for sure.
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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Mockery = Failure

With an opening weekend that was only a few dollars better than Battleship, White House Down is a certifiable flop. So is The Lone Ranger. After Earth was a financial turd too. So what happened? Well, I saw an interesting dissection of why White House Down failed and I think it makes some valid points that apply to all three.

As always with these kinds of postmortems, the analysis I read took great pains to talk about competition, blah blah. But the truth is that movie dollars are not limited. If five great films come out at once, audiences will see all five. So “competition” really is just an excuse which translates into “people didn’t think ours was worth seeing.” So let’s ignore that.

There was also the issue of the movie being hard to describe to us peon audiences. Was White House Down a political thriller? An action film? A father-daughter drama? Whatever. Audiences don’t look at a single trailer and dismiss a film because they aren’t sure what it is. To the contrary, some of the greatest marketing campaigns involved total confusion... teasing. The real marketing problem is that even a glitzy campaign can’t hide a bad film. Not to mention that once the word of mouth kicks in, the advertising means nothing. And let’s be honest, while I do believe that the marketing hurt Scott Pilgrim by warping people’s expectations, White House Down is clearly nothing more than a generic action flick and the possibility of confusion is pretty close to zero.

So what did hurt White House Down and how does that relate to the other films? How about this: alienation.

Look at who is involved in White House Down. First, you have anti-American director Roland Emmerich, who was last seen pissing on conservatives, Fox News and Dick Cheney in The Day After Tomorrow. Emmerich is also a Hillary Clinton fundraiser who likes decorating his home with murals of communist figures and who likes collecting art that mocks Jesus, the Pope and Princess Diana. The film stars Jamie Foxx, whose stock and trade now is black racism, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is an open advocate for leftist causes.

Then it gets worse. Foxx plays a Barack Obama-like character who finds himself under attack in the White House. Choosing to model your hero on a divisive figure like Obama is simply foolish. He’s one of the least popular presidents ever, and even suggesting his name is enough to turn off about 50% of the country. What’s more, the audience for this film should have skewed toward white males, the very group Obama lost by around 65%. Adding insult to idiocy, all the villains were conservative white men.

When a film sets out to offend its core audience, it will fail.

Now look at The Lone Ranger. Westerns are a specialized genre with a sizable audience, but little crossover from the general public. In other words, fans of westerns like westerns, but the rest of the country doesn’t. So the last thing you want to do when you make a western is to insult fans of westerns. Yet, that is exactly what this film apparently tried to do. A Texas Ranger who doesn’t like gun violence? A sidekick who spends the film mocking the hero? Those are not things fans of westerns will take kindly too. Add in what are apparently attacks on American industry and the American military, again the target audience for westerns, and you have a problem. Unless you can swing enough other people into a genre they generally don’t like, you will fail. They couldn’t and they failed. By comparison, serious westerns like the remake of True Grit respected their core audiences and they got rich.

Finally, consider After Earth. Right before After Earth came out, there was a lot of talk that this film was Scientology propaganda. Science fiction audiences tend toward agnosticism or the light version of something like Christianity. The last thing they want is a film based on dogma – not Christian dogma, not Muslim dogma, not Scientology Dogma. And they really don’t like the idea that a film was trying to slip such dogma past them.

This is the lesson Hollywood needs to learn: people don’t like being mocked. And if you can’t look your audience in the eye and tell them honestly what your intent is, then you probably aren’t going to win them over with the finished product.

By the way, as an aside, this same lesson applies to pretty much any industry, including politics.
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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Tuesday Top 5

Ben Franklin said, "America, loveth it or leaveth it." And with July 4th coming up just over, let's talk about America!

Question: Who are your Top 5 favorite figures of American folk lore?

Scott: I think I'll go broad with this answer (written after Andrew's intro)!
1. Jamestown... upon further review, I think I meant to say Roanoke [smile]
2. Daniel Boone & Davy Crockett... basically anyone who had a Disney show produced about them
3. Johnny Appleseed... first thing that came to mind
4. Roswell... still fascinating after all these years
5. Bigfoot... to quote the late creature FX guru Stan Winston: "It's a guy in a bad fur suit. Sorry!" (Or is it?!)
Andrew: I think I'll follow Scott's lead and define folk lore broadly!
1. Roswell... proving that even aliens can't drive.
2. The Alamo... Americans don't give up.
3. Washington chopping down the cherry tree... It's fitting that our first leader was known for honesty and physical labor.
4. The Gunslinger... mediation with extreme prejudice.
5. Santa... yeah, we didn't invent the idea, but we refined it and the world adopted it.
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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Patriotic Films Open Thread

With Independence Day coming up, it’s time to revisit an interesting topic from the past: patriotic films. This is something we talked about when the blog first started and I think the article is worth revisiting.

You Say You Want A Revolution. . .

When I first began looking for patriotic films, I assumed there would be dozens of films about our founding. There weren’t. Hollywood has made fewer than a dozen films that deal with the American Revolution. The most famous of these are Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Howards of Virginia (1940), 1776 (a musical) (1972), Sweet Liberty (a comedy) (1969), Revolution (1985), and The Patriot (2000). Hardly an inspiring lot.

And this isn’t just an issue of recent Hollywood cynicism either. Even during Hollywood’s most patriotic era, between World War II and the early struggle against communism, few such films were made. Why?

Some say that audiences can’t sympathize with characters who wear powdered wigs and knee breeches, who use formal speech patterns and write with quills. But this hasn’t stunted the popularity of Shakespeare, or films about the British Kings and Queens, or even movies like Dangerous Liaisons or Sleepy Hollow. And surely civil war characters speak as formally and look as strangely. Not to mention, the public responded very well to the 2008 mini-series about John Adams. So why nothing about the founding?

I think there are two reasons why the founding rarely gets touched. For one thing, our founding isn’t very telegenic. The issues involved started in the 1730s, the war didn’t start until 1776, it lasted five years and didn’t really include a lot of American victories or much in the way of popular support. And even after the British surrendered, that still didn’t lead to our country, it led to the Confederated States, which took thirteen years to implode. That’s not a very attractive story to tell.

More importantly, our founding isn’t easy to characterize as one thing. As wrong as it may be historically, it’s easy to see the Civil War as being about slavery only. World War II was only about wiping out the Nazis. The Cold War was all about Khrushchev and Cuba. Vietnam was about Tet. And so on. In fact, every single historical period that gets a lot of play in Hollywood has been condensed down to one single theme, which appears over and over and over in those stories. What is the theme of our founding?

Everybody’s Got An Opinion. . .

Anyway, moving on, Blockbuster Video commissioned a poll a few years ago... before they died... which asked Americans what they wanted in their patriotic movies. Sixty-three percent wanted America or Americans portrayed as the underdogs. Forty percent felt that the President should be a main character. Thirty percent wanted the movie to involve a war hero. And here are the top ten movies they choose as patriotic films:
1. Independence Day
2. Born on the Fourth of July
3. Yankee Doodle Dandy
4. Air Force One
5. Forrest Gump
6. Glory
7. Patton
8. Apollo 13
9. The American President
10. The Longest Day
Meh. A patriotic film should make viewers feel good about being American. It should highlight their country at its best. It should put forth a vision as to the meaning of the country, particularly one such as ours, which was formed intellectually rather than by historical accident. We exist as a nation because our founders thought about how we should live, not because we all fell out of the trees together 50,000 years ago. The films above don’t really convey that all too well. For example:

Independence Day fits. This is a story of American resourcefulness and determination, of a group of average Americans that answer the call of duty to defeat an all-powerful enemy. This film reminds us of the promise of our country, the goodness of our people, and the greatness we can achieve as a nation. This film reminds us that Americans rise to meet all challenges and it highlights the self-sacrifice so often repeated in our history. I’ll tell you what though, I would substitute Battle: Los Angeles, which is a tribute to our military. It shows these people as the dedicated professionals they are who fight for love of country. Moreover, it’s not packed with the usual tropes about evil CIA types and suggestions that the most un-American of us will prove to be our saviors.

Born of the Fourth of July is a horrible choice. One wonders if people watched it, or just chose the title. Many people argue that a film can be patriotic if it rallies the country to a cause. Born on the 4th of July fits that category, as does All the President’s Men, which is also often named as a patriotic film. But rallying people to a cause smacks of propaganda, not patriotism. It is one thing to highlight the best in our country and to take pride in our achievements, it is quite another to suggest that people must adopt a certain position to be patriotic.

So let us substitute How The West Was Won. This sprawling epic tells the tale of how America grew from a small nation of eastern states to became the America that we know today. This movie shows the hardships they overcame and the sacrifices they made, and it does so without idealizing its characters. These people are quite real - some are good, some are bad, some are heroic, some are cowardly or rotten. Mistakes are made, but successes are had. And in the end, we see the American spirit writ large in the drive of our ancestors to always seek the better America that lies just over the next hill.

Air Force One is a popular movie, but it’s not an interesting one. The President fights terrorists. Ok, cool. But patriotic? Hardly. Below the surface, this is just an action movie. Remove the President and this becomes Die Hard 2.1. Let us substitute an equally unbelievable action movie, but one with much deeper patriotism: National Treasure. Sure, National Treasure is crawling with conspiracy theories and unbelievable secret societies and hidden puzzles and treasures, but that’s on the surface. Underneath, this movie reveres American history, our founders, and the words (and spirit) with which they founded our nation. And more importantly, the movie manages to pass that pride along to the audience.

Forrest Gump is not a patriotic movie, it is more of an historical curiosity. It is Dead Me Don’t Wear Plaid done seriously. Let’s substitute To Have And Have Not. To Have and Have Not finds Bogart living on the Vichy-French Island of Martinique. He is a symbol of America and Americans at the time. On the surface, he is neutral in the world, concerned primarily with his own business. But he is disturbed by what he sees around him. And beneath the surface, his strong moral code and deep-rooted patriotism, lead him to take a stand, at great personal risk, to do that which he knows to be right. This movie provides both an interesting view of how American attitudes and policy changed at the beginning of World War II, as Americans abandoned their isolationism and took a stand against tyranny, and it is a study in the classical view of American patriotism.

Glory was a good movie, but it was limited. A much better choice would be Gettysburg. Whereas Glory involved a small battle, Gettysburg involved the battle that transformed New Yorkers, Marylanders and Mainiacs into Americans. It also ensured that the Union would survive. Moreover, Gettysburg does something truly rare in film, it does a tremendous job of honoring both sides in the conflict by letting each side fairly explain their beliefs and by showing that both sides genuinely believed they were fighting for the good of their country. And in so doing, this movie makes us proud of both Northerners and Southerners, and it humbles us with what they endured for their beliefs. Glory kind of makes both sides seem rotten.

Patton is a popular choice, but Patton is the story of a man who considered himself something more than just an American and it comes across in this movie, as he is portrayed as an arrogant man who cares more for his own glory than his country or his men. Sergeant York is better choice. York is a pacifist who is called to action. He is humble, heroic and likable. He is the idealized American every-man. He makes us proud, just as he makes the people at home proud. And even better, everyone around him is portrayed positively as well. His fellow soldiers are brave, competent and honest. His family and friends are decent. Even when he is brought to the “big city,” the people he meets are neither shallow nor cynical. This movie represents the best that America has to offer.

The American President??? WTF? No, no, no, no. A movie about an American President who takes a sharp left turn when he falls in love with a lobbyist? In the immortal words of Sergeant Carter, you have got to be kidding me Pyle! How about Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. This story, about a naive and idealistic man appointed to the United States Senate, shows American government at its idealized best. As Smith discovers the shortcomings of the political process and fights his way through them, we are shown how good American government can be, when its participants act in good faith. It is a hopeful and patriotic film.

So after a little re-ranking for most patriotically inspiring, here is your Commentarama certified list:
1. Gettysburg
2. How The West Was Won
3. The Longest Day
4. Sergeant York
5. National Treasure
6. Battle: Los Angeles
7. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington
8. To Have And Have Not
9. Apollo 13
10. Yankee Doodle Dandy
Thoughts? Additions?

Anyway, treat this as an open thread. We’ll be back next Tuesday.
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