Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 94

A guilty pleasure film is one you don't want to admit liking... but you do. You're addicted, baby!

What is your guiltiest guilty pleasure film?

Panelist: AndrewPrice

Predator 2. Talk about a bad film. Bad acting, bad writing, stupid characters, nonsense throughout. Still, very, very watchable.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

I think I'll do a slight cop out and go with one "oldie" and one more recent. The "oldie" is Towering Inferno from the early 1970's. Made at the height of the disaster film genre, this one is as cheesy as they come. Actors do their part to camp it up (intentionally or not) with the cliche dialog coming thick and fast. I enjoyed it because it used state of the art effects at the time, and because I had just started my career in the insurance industry and was learning about life/ safety codes in modern skyscrapers at the time. As such, some of the bullshit they pulled was readily apparent to me, such as having Steve McQueen and O.J. Simpson set off C4 in a fire tower to blast open a stuck door. Hilarious!

Another guilty pleasure for my wife and I is Sweet Home Alabama. Incredibly cheesy to be sure, but it was a perfect vehicle for Reese (she had great chemistry with Josh Lucas), and captures just a little of how southerners often feel about New Yorkers.

Panelist: ScottDS

I've mentioned it before and I'll mention it again: Congo. Based on the Michael Crichton novel and starring Dylan Walsh, a then-unknown Laura Linney, and Ernie Hudson, this film tells the story of an expedition to the Virunga region of the Congo. Linney’s character works for a telecom company and has been sent by her boss to search for a rare diamond but she’s also on a mission to locate her missing fiancé. Meanwhile, Walsh’s character, a primatologist, is attempting to take his sign language protégé gorilla Amy back home. This movie never - and I mean NEVER! - takes itself too seriously, Tim Curry and Joe Don Baker chew the scenery - Curry plays a Romanian philanthropist, Baker plays Linney’s boss - and the gorilla effects, courtesy of the late Stan Winston, aren’t bad. There’s some downright ridiculous dialogue in the film along with some entertaining cameos from Joe Pantoliano, Delroy Lindo, and Bruce Campbell as the aforementioned fiancé. Whenever this film airs on TV, I know to clear my schedule for a couple of hours. “Stop eating my sesame cake!”

Panelist: Floyd

Pee Wee's Big Adventure. It wasn't such a guilty pleasure until his arrest for another big adventure in a Florida porno theater in the early 1990s, but dammit it is a funny movie... great script, great score by Danny Elfman and a great story (quest narrative). Second would be You've Got Mail. Rom-coms done well... what can I say? Guilty.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

I have three movies that I watch…no four movies that I must watch whenever they are on t.v. – National Treasure, Rudy, It’s A Wonderful Life... and okay, I have to admit it, and Fun With Dick & Jane.

Panelist: T-Rav

Er, Enchanted starring Amy Adams. Sure, I feel a little metrosexual when watching it, but it’s a fun story and it just works for me. And I swear to God, you people better not give me any crap about this, or I will shoot a kitten in the face.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, September 27, 2013

Film Friday: Total Recall (2012)

Sometimes, I don’t even know where to begin when talking about a film. Colin Farrell’s Total Recall is one of those films. Should I tell you about the pointless and nonsensical plot? How about the fact this is just a long chase scene? The bad science? The bad acting? Ug. This film sucks.

Total Recall is ostensibly a remake of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1990 Total Recall, but it really isn’t. In essence, they took the key moments from Arnold’s film, stole images liberally from Minority Report, I Robot and Phantom Menace, and then mixed them with a generic chase film about a nondescript right-wing government wanting to kill immigrants for no apparent reason. The result is painful to watch. Arg.
The story involves Douglas Quaid (Colin Farrell), a worker in a dead-end factory job making police robots. Each morning he travels from “the Colony” (Australia) to “the United Federation of Britain” which are the only places on the planet that somehow survived a chemical war. To commute back and forth, Farrell takes a gravity elevator which moves between the two countries.

Bored with his job, Quaid goes to an Oriental Masseuse Chinese Restaurant Rekall, a place-thingy where they implant memories into your head, unless you lie or ask for memories that are like your real life memories because then somethingsomething. As Quaid gets his new memories, a SWAT team bursts into the place and kills everyone but him. Quaid goes all super-spy and kills them and then races home to his wife (Kate Beckinsale), who tries to kill him. It turns out that she’s a spy who was assigned to watch him, but apparently doesn’t know who he really is... for no apparent reason. Who is he really? Why, he’s a terrorist or double agent named Carl Hauser, who may know a kill code for all the police robots. And why is he living as a factory worker with no memory of who he really is? Who knows, who cares?
Anyways, no sooner does Kate try to kill him than Jessica Biel shows up and the chase scene commences. About an hour later, we are told that Quaid led the bad guy, Cohaagen, the Chancellor of Britain, right to the rebels... all five of them. Now that he’s caught the rebels, Cohaagen can finally send an army of killer robots to the Colony to kill everyone... so he does, but Quaid stops him. At that point, the first thing you actually care about in this film happens: the credits start rolling and you can leave.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger did Total Recall in 1990, I found myself quite impressed. Not only was Total Recall a competent action film, but it was also an excellent science fiction film which left you with lots of things to think about. What is memory? And how can you tell hallucination from reality? What would colonizing Mars really be like? Will we find massive machines left by ancient civilizations?

These were all fun questions that you could debate for hours or even days after you left the theater. And debate you did: did you notice that the false memories the Recall guy discusses match what happens in the film exactly? Don’t you remember the Recall guy saying, “Blue sky on Mars? That’s original.” But wait! Why would that guy sweat if it was all a dream? Or was that just Arnold’s mind trying to preserve the illusion? And if they could put him into Arnold’s dream, couldn’t they do something else that Arnold would know for sure is not real? Or would Arnold just assume that anything they do was a trick?

Good times.
None of that is true with this film. This film posits no questions... except “why did they make this?” It leaves nothing to the imagination. Quaid IS a rebel spy. Biel IS his girlfriend and he’s been seeing her in his dreams before he even goes to Rekall. There is zero sense that Rekall put these thoughts into his brain. In fact, when the film has Quaid look at a Rekall sign at the end of the film, it just serves to remind you that they really mishandled the whole idea of confusing reality with fantasy.

But even that could be forgiven if this was a decent film, only, it’s not. This film is one long pointless chase scene that makes little sense and to which there is no sense of a solution except “wait for the chase to end and then the cliché ending to sort everything out.” Indeed, at no point do you feel like anything is happening in this film except time passing as you wait for the ending. Moreover, little about the film makes sense. If the bad guy really wants to invade the Colony, there’s no reason he couldn’t do it with or without first stopping the resistance, so the plot is a pretext. There is no point in making Quaid hide as a factory worker with no knowledge of what he really is either, nor is there any reason Beckinsale wouldn’t know who he really was.

Even worse, to pass the time, this film is jammed with all kinds of political stupidity. Obama’s face on their currency? Give me a break. That’s not even clever if we’re talking about the future USA, and we’re not – this is a future Britain. I wonder if Putin is on their coins or Bobo the Clown. How about the idea that Britain wants to kill their workforce for no apparent reason? Talk about stupid. That only makes sense in the paranoid delusions of leftists.
In any event, this film raises a couple issues that merit mentioning. First, this film continues to make me wonder about Colin Farrell. Farrell showed such promise early in his career that it seemed he would soon be considered one of the best actors of this generation. But after films like this and the remake of Fright Night, the bloom is off the Farrell rose. He’s fast becoming a harbinger of failure.

Secondly, this film shows exactly what’s wrong with modern Hollywood. This film stole the key moments from the 1990 version of Total Recall, which should have been enough to give the film at least some of the same appeal as the original. But they mishandled those by turning them into nothing more than speed bumps in the chase scene... moments that appear, resolve, don’t affect the plot, and then are forgotten as the film races on to the next videogame level. I lay the blame for this firmly on studios who are so out of touch with the public that they don’t realize that in a film about the reliability of memory and the blurring of reality with fantasy, audiences expect the story to have something to say about those things rather than just watching our hero run around blowing up police robots and Froggering his way across an unrealistic elevator system... the Big Shiny. Sadly, this is how studios think now and the result is a film that has better effects, better actors, better sets, a bigger budget, and the benefits of hindsight, but can’t hold an LED candle to the original.
Finally, I need to point out that, once again, we are dealing with a film adaptation of a novel by Philip K. Dick. And once again, we are looking at a film that underwhelms. It continues to surprise me how hard it is to put Dick’s ideas on the big screen in an interesting and watchable way. Fascinating.
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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0014 Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

Tomorrow Never Dies holds a lot of promise. The plot is Bond-like. Teri Hatcher is beautiful. Pierce Brosnan was a solid James Bond. And Jonathan Price is an excellent choice as a villain. Even the idea of a newspaper man manufacturing news to manipulate the world is a great idea. But the film never fully achieves its promise, which is why it’s only No. 0014 of 0023 on our countdown.

Plot Quality: Tomorrow Never Dies is essentially You Only Live Twice with media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) replacing SPECTRE and a stealth ship replacing the volcano lair. Unfortunately, even though the plot is less fantastic than You Only Live Twice, it is actually less credible. Still, the story is quite decent.

The story begins with Carver sending the British frigate H.M.S. Devonshire off course into Chinese waters by manipulating their GPS signal. They think they are in international waters. This provokes a Chinese military challenge. As that is on-going, Carver uses a secret stealth ship to sink the British frigate. He then films his own crew shooting the survivors in the water and he uses a missile obtained from the frigate to shoot down a Chinese jet fighter sent to investigate. Carver then uses his media empire to drum up the claim that the Chinese sank the frigate and shot the survivors. His goal is to start a war between Britain and China, which would result in the Chinese government being replaced by one willing to give him exclusive rights to the Chinese media market.

On the surface, this sounds good. The sinking of a naval vessel in what the aggrieved side believes to be international waters and the cold-blooded murder of her crew is certainly cause for war. But there’s a problem: Britain. I’m sorry to our British readers, but Britain is just not a credible military power and it is inconceivable that Britain would (or could) actually go to war with China. To non-British audience this sounds a bit like Belgium planning to invade the US. Also, Bond is given 48 hours to stop the war, which stretches credibility again because there is no way the Royal Navy could be assembled and shipped to China in anything under a couple weeks. Still, if you can overlook the British hubris of this entire idea, the idea of starting a war is a solid one.
Bond then travels to Hamburg to investigate Carver because Carver released details of the attack before they were even known and because MI6 noticed strange signals on one of his communications satellites when the frigate was sunk. In Hamburg, Bond discovers that Carver’s wife (Teri Hatcher) is an ex-girlfriend of his, and she helps him steal the GPS encoder Carver used to divert the H.M.S. Devonshire. Naturally, she is killed for her troubles and Bond escapes with the help of a remote control BMW. This produces one of the better moments in the Brosnan Bond films as he navigates the BMW through a parking garage.

Bond next travels to the South China Sea to investigate the wreckage. He is captured by Carver, along with Chinese spy Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), and taken to the Carver Media Group tower in Saigon. This results in an escape down the outside of a glass high-rise and a chase scene with Bond and Lin handcuffed together on a motorcycle as they are chased by a helicopter. For all the skill involved in the stunts in this chase, the chase feels remarkably pro forma and staged, and there’s never any real sense of danger.
Bond and Lin then attack Carver’s stealth ship. They need to stop Carver from firing a stolen British cruise missile at Beijing. Bond damages the stealth ship, making it visible to radar, and allowing the British navy to sink it as Bond stops the missile and kills Carver. Unfortunately, before this climax began, the filmmakers made a strange mistake. They allow Bond and Lin to explain to their governments what Carver had done. This effectively sucked the drama out of the ending and, to fix this, the filmmakers create fake drama by presenting the Royal Navy as bloodthirsty fools who are unwilling to wait to hear what Bond has discovered. This needlessly makes the ending a mess.

All in all, this film is enjoyable. The plot is sufficiently fantastic to be worthy of James Bond, yet it’s also grounded enough that the audience can see how the plot would work and why a villain would do this. The writers made some mistakes which kept the film from hitting its potential, but this is a worthy Bond film.

Bond Quality: This is Brosnan’s best performance. He was comfortable in each aspect of the role by this point and he could easily be both suave and cold-blooded. Moreover, he’d developed a sense of humor which comes out at the right times to enhance his sexual appeal and to soften his brutality without losing the seriousness of it. At this point, Brosnan is the equal of any of the others at their best.

The Bond Girl(s): The Bond girls are a different story. The primary role of the Bond girl is to add sexual tension to the film and to give Bond a reason to care personally about his fight against the villain. That didn’t happen here. Indeed, the Bond girls were a weakness in this film as neither proved to be very sexual.
Teri Hatcher played Paris Carver, the trophy wife of the villain and a former girlfriend of Bond. Hatcher was pregnant when she played this role and apparently that limited her, and it shows. She’s also rather cold. A better choice would have been Monica Bellucci, who was turned down for the role – she oozes sexy. Hatcher seems more trouble than she is worth as a trophy wife. Also, Brosnan proves incapable of selling the idea that he cares about some forgotten ice queen girlfriend, and she is forgotten so quickly after she is killed that her inclusion in the film almost seems like an afterthought.

The main Bond girl is Michelle Yeoh, who played Chinese spy Col. Wai Lin. A former Miss Malaysia, Yeoh starred in several Jackie Chan films before this. At this point in her career, she honestly lacks the sex appeal to be a Bond girl. Indeed, she treats the role more as a buddy cop story, which is what she played with Chan, and she never develops more than a “pal” chemistry with Bond. She and Bond don’t even compete effectively, like Barbara Bach did in The Spy Who Loved Me. She also lacks a personal motive which would give her character fire. Essentially, she becomes a sidekick rather than a Bond girl.

Villain Quality: The villain quality here is difficult. Jonathan Pryce is an excellent actor and he’s extremely well-suited to play a Bond villain. And on the one hand, Elliot Carver sits among the greats. He is ruthless. His scheme sounds intelligent and is grand and is certainly worthy of the attention of Mr. Bond. His acting is also the perfect pitch to give the character the right amount of credibility that he got to where he is and the right amount of ruthless insanity to make his villainy believable.

But on the other hand, the flaws in his plan are what doom the film. For one thing, his scheme is about securing ratings for his news empire. But it’s not clear how ratings will translate directly into anything the psychopathic Carver would care about. In other words, how does this plan really help him personally? We can infer that he would gain influence or become richer as his company’s share price goes up, but that’s never explained nor does it seem to be a fitting motive for a megalomaniacal psychotic.
And as an aside, as so often happens, if the writers had answered this motive question fully, they may have found a much more interesting film. Indeed, it’s within the idea of a media man manufacturing his own news to reshape the world where a truly inspired tale lies, not in him gaining ratings for some nebulous profit motive.

The other problem with the plan is that it’s ludicrous to believe that Britain could be a credible opponent for China. They have no ability to project power around the world. Indeed, a war between Britain and China would go like this: Day One, Britain declares war. Two hours later, Hong Kong surrenders. Britain sends its tiny fleet as a show of impotent rage. China showers the fleet in missiles. China sends the survivors home on a China Air flight after Britain agrees to pay the airfare. That’s the best case for Britain. More likely, Britain would demand an apology, China would laugh, and the whole thing would be forgotten. And audiences know that, so the stakes of Carver’s scheme never feel real because no one really believes a war would erupt. It would have added a lot to the film if it had been an American frigate or if it had been a Chinese frigate and China threatened an invasion of Hong Kong in retaliation. But the idea that Britain could threaten China militarily just doesn’t wash.


This was an enjoyable film with the potential to be one of the best, but a couple mistakes stopped that. The Bond girls were miscast and the villain was mis-written. Essentially, you have a potentially excellent villain played by an excellent actor whose plan doesn’t really pass the sniff test because it doesn’t fit his psychosis and because it can’t really happen the way they’ve outlined it. A couple of tweaks would have made a world of difference. And even more to the point, if they had answered the question of what a psychotic would really do with near-total control over the media, they may have discovered a much stronger film. Unrealized potential is why this film sits at No. 0014 of 0023.
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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Is Superman v. Batman Impossible To Write?

Let's discuss an interesting article from Scriptshadow which claims Warner Brothers is making a mistake trying to do Batman v. Superman. It wasn’t that the author (Carson) didn’t think the movie would make money, but he thought it was an impossible film to write and that it would likely “kill the Golden Goose” and could leave both franchises “catastrophically injured.” Interesting.

Carson makes some really good points and I absolutely respect his analysis, but I think there are solutions to each. Let’s see what you think. Here are his reasons why this film is impossible to write and my workarounds:

It’s a gimmick. This movie is a gimmick. It’s being done for all the wrong reasons. Rather than telling a good story, this is “fan-fiction” meant to answer the “geek question”: “who would win?” Says Carson, that automatically wipes out any chance to have an interesting script. Basically, rather than having a wide open script, you end up with a script which is geared toward setting up the reason these two would fight and then pushing everything toward that fight. That will create an unnatural feeling story because whatever happens, you know it’s been written to have only one solution.
o My solution: A good writer can easily hide the unnatural parts of the story or make them feel natural. And if people expect a fight, then play with their expectations. Personally, I think the best solution is to move the fight to the opening of the film. That gets it out of the way and disarms the expectation. Then you can fill the middle of the film however you want because there is no need to build to a second fight. Then you finish with a surprise second fight.
Tone Mixing. Superman and Batman come from different worlds with very different feels. Batman’s world is darker, more cynical and more gritty. Superman’s world is more fantastic, being a world of superpowers and aliens, and he's more idealistic and more sentimental. Those two worlds don't mix.
o My solution: This is a great point, and this one bothers me too. In Superman’s world, he has largely cleaned up crime except for the super villains. Batman, on the other hand, lives in a sewer. Having them exist in the same world makes Superman out as a lie because he’s cleaned up Metropolis of even petty crime, yet he lets Gotham rot. Still, I have a solution: set the film in the 1950s. If this film takes place in 1957, then the audience will focus on your recreation of 1957 rather than whether the tone of the city is Gotham or Metropolis. And if Superman is FOB (fresh off the boat), then he hasn't had the chance yet to clean up the world, so him ignoring Gotham is forgivable. Thus, he and Batman can happily co-exist in a city that is halfway between Gotham and halfway between Metropolis but isn't really either yet.
Neither character can win. Both characters are too big and too important to the studio for either to end up losing this fight. That means they need some sort of tie. Only a tie will feel like a cop-out.
o My solution: Yeah, this is a problem. Your best bet here is probably that Superman fights to the death, almost kills Batman, and then snaps out of it at the last second... just as Batman manages to escape undetected during an explosion. That way you get the full on fight to the death, only Batman retreats because he realizes he needs a stronger secret weapon than the one he used. This leave the right order in their world: Superman is confirmed as stronger and a good guy, but Batman is confirmed at more sly and a good guy willing to kill to defend himself... it fits both worlds mythos.
False Character Motivations. There is no motive you can give either character to motivate them want to kill the other. That means the fight can’t be a “to-the-death” fight, which means the whole thing will feel staged and fake, i.e. it will have low stakes and be disappointing.
o My solution: There are two solutions here. First, by placing this story in the past before the characters know each other, they can mistake each other for villains and fight to the death. Alternatively, the better solution is to give Superman some sort of mental block so he attacks Batman all out. Batman will fight to the death to defend himself... which is why he needs to defend himself (Superman wouldn't). He is also capable of cheating and of running away, which Superman is not, which is why Superman needs to be under mental control of some sort.
This isn’t a fair fight. It’s obvious that if you take Superman’s powers literally, there is no way a mere mortal, no matter how talented, could kill Superman. That means Batman can’t win. Hence, the writer will need to invent a way to make the fight fair, but that will feel like a cheat to the audience.
o My solution: In a straight-up fight, yeah... but since when does Batman fight fair? Give Batman an advantage that looks strong enough to let him defeat Superman, but then Superman overcomes the advantage at a critical time, causing Batman to escape. That way Superman's strength and straight up fighting ability prevail, but so does Batman's cleverness, and it leaves you in a position where Superman is recognized as the bigger dog, but Batman is left thinking he knows how to beat Superman next time. Both win.
So based on all of this, Carson concludes that they will probably invent a villain that requires Batman and Superman to team up. They will disagree about the approach to fighting the villain, probably contrasting Superman’s good guy-ism versus Batman’s propensity to go too far. This will result in the fight, which must end in a draw.

Carson is probably right that this is what they will do and he’s right that this will be “stupid and cheesy and forced.” I personally would go a different way however.

I would start by setting this in the past and opening with the fight ongoing. Superman is new to Earth and is under the control of something like a virus that makes him murderous. He and Batman (who doesn't know much about him) then engage in the plot, with Superman barely retaining control over his mind as they work their way through the plot... always ready to pop. Doing this means the fight could restart at any point... which it does near the end and Batman escapes a moment before he would be killed, but he cures Superman in the process. This solves the problem and starts their relationship with suspicion.
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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Toon-arama: Futurama (1999-2013)

Not only is Futurama the namesake of the CommentaramaEmpire, but it is(was) a heck of a cartoon. This was a cartoon the way cartoons are meant to be: irreverent, clever, funny, and doing things you could never do in a live action show. If you haven’t seen this show, you should give the old episodes a try.
The History of Futurama
Futurama was born in March 1999 as an offshoot of the Simpson’s. It was created by Matt Groening, who developed it with David X. Cohen for Fox. Unfortunately, Fox put it on at the end of football games, which meant that it was pre-empted or started in progress more often than not. And so, for four years, the show limped along with episodes being shown in parts, out of order, or not at all. Still, the show found an audience. Thus, when the show was essentially killed when Fox refused to pick it up again in 2004, Comedy Central picked it up for four direct-to-video films, which would then be broken up into episodes. Those proved so popular that another 26 episodes were made to take the series through 2013 before it was cancelled.
What Is Futurama
Futurama is the story of Philip J. Fry, a pizza delivery boy who delivers a pizza to a cryogenics lab and ends up accidentally frozen for a thousand years. He emerges to find a completely unexpected future. All of humanity has been brought together under one government... an incompetent government run by the head of Richard Nixon. Humans and robots and aliens live side by side in harmony... with periodic bouts of belligerence and tons of crime and other vices. And little else has changed.
Fry becomes a delivery boy for a company known as Planet Express, which is owned by his nephew Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, who is 160 years old. The Professor is brilliant, but insane and extremely forgetful. Working with him are a series of colorful characters like a cycloptic pilot (Turanga Leela), Hermes the Jamaican Bureaucrat, Dr. Zoidberg the incompetent alien doctor, Amy Wong the spoiled rich girl from Mars, and Fry’s best friend Bender, a robot designed to bend things... who has become a criminal and moral menace.
The show is episodic in nature but cumulative, as it builds its world and the characters show by show. And what a rich world this is.
Why This Cartoon Rocks
Futurama works on so many levels:

● At the top level, it’s a cutely drawn cartoon with funny robots and creatures, lots of comedic punch lines, and cartoon-violence. The kids will love it, even though the show is probably too adult for kids in its themes.
The show also introduces some unforgettable characters, such as Mom, who appears to the public to be the sweetest little old lady in the world, but who is really a ruthless, chain-smoking, tyrannical industrialist with the power to control all the robots on earth. Or characters like Nibbler, who appears to be a cute kitty-like thing that is really a super intelligent being observing the earth... he poops dark matter. Or Zapp Brannigan, a parody of James T. Kirk in the worst possible way. Or Robot Santa, who makes X-mas a terrifying experience. Or Lrrr or Morbo.
● At the next level, you have a great “fish out of water” story where 20th Century Fry finds himself living in 30th Century New New York. In episode after episode, Fry runs into dozens of things he never would have encountered in our time and he is forced to deal with them. Here, the writers have a great sense of humor in picking which will be meaningful to Fry and which won’t, and how he will react. This is made all the better in that the writers always play with expectations and they fill Fry’s world with strange characters who make it even harder for Fry to figure out what is “normal” for this world. Fry too pollutes this by giving everyone a completely wrong view of the past.

The writers also bring in lots of familiar ideas from the present, which one would think wouldn’t make it to the future, such as the idea that a condo being in New Jersey rather than New New York makes it as bad as a condo into which sewage leaks, or Atlanta (which sinks into the ocean) being an airline hub, or rap music being “the classics.”
● At the next level, you have a strong and interesting social commentary. Excluding the last couple seasons, the show was largely conservative/ traditional and very subversive to modern elitist thinking. Indeed, whenever it poked fun at our conventions, it typically punished the people poking the fun in some ridiculous manner. Thus, for example, a hippy peacenik who claimed we could make peace with a hostile alien race led by Lrrr just by giving off good vibes, and who frees an ape that is being fed to Lrrr as an offering, gets eaten by Lrrr, which solves the crisis... and give Lrrr gas... and makes him high. In another example, Fry is lectured about our primitive morality and how wrong we are to oppose public nudity, only to have the Professor strip naked and everyone cringe and demand that he get dressed again.

In episode after episode, liberal sacred cows get slaughtered. The UN (now DOOP) proves to be cowardly, incompetent, and wrongly conquers a planet. Bureaucrats are brought down by their own obsessions with procedure. Environmentalists and vegetarians are idiots and hypocrites. Etc. Leela too is constantly trying to be a good liberal, but gives it up in every episode when it interferes with her ability to solve problems.
(As an unfortunate aside, this is not true with the last two seasons which dealt heavily with pushing liberal propaganda in episodes dealing with environmentalism, animal-rights and gay marriage.)

● Next, there is a strong emotional layer in this show. There are episode, like the one where Fry’s dog dies waiting for him, which will make you cry.

● Finally, you have the heart of this show... the nerd jokes. Futurama is crawling with scientific and philosophical jokes as well as references to nerd culture, such as science fiction and Dungeons and Dragons. Whole episodes are based around these nerd jokes. And these are subtle; they are not explained. For example, in one episode, Bender is describing a nightmare he had:
Bender: Whoa, what an awful dream. Ones and zeros everywhere. And I thought I saw a two.
If you don’t know that machine language is limited to ones and zeroes, then you won’t get this joke, because no one will explain it. In another rather famous episode, Fry becomes his own grandfather despite the paradox. In another, our universe ends up inside a box in our own universe. In another, the Professor complains that the result of a race was changed by the racetrack observing the ending with a quantum finish. All of these jokes and many, many more come straight from quantum physics and philosophical principles.

This is why this show works: it offers something at every level – from childish humor, to more clever humor, to social satire, to truly deep jokes that require some knowledge to fully understand. But since each level is presented with equal earnestness, this show can be enjoyed by anyone. It is unique, it is clever, and it has strong characters. It's also amazingly quotable.... "I know where you live!"... "I'm gonna buy you so many lizards!"... "Bite my shiny metal ass!"... "How can the power go out? I live in the future!"... "Death by snu snu!"... etc.
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Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 93

All good things (and bad things) must end... especially on television.

What was the best/worst television series finale?

Panelist: BevfromNYC

The Best series finale ever hands down was the ending of Newhart (the one in Vermont). When he woke up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette in the bedroom of the The Bob Newhart Show and said he’d had the strangest dream that he had owned a Inn in Vermont. It was gold!

Worst finale – The end of The Sopranos. Do I really need to explain why?

Panelist: T-Rav

Although its later seasons weren’t anything to write home about, I’d have to say M*A*S*H for best series finale, as it just wrapped everything up in a very satisfying and bittersweet manner. As for worst—yeesh. I know a lot of people go with either Seinfeld or The Sopranos, but I haven’t really watched those, and anyway I have a better one. Roseanne. If you don’t know what I mean, look it up. What a mindf**k.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I’m going with The Sopranos for best because in that last four minutes you get to look through Tony’s paranoid eyes as you watch, thinking each person in the diner will off him, and you get to see the side of him you never saw before and what his life was really like. It gives you a new perspective on the whole series.

Worst is Babylon 5 which did some sort of lesson about how bad people are and it just p*ssed me off.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

I thought Dallas was unsatisfying. That whole Devil and J.R. thing. The series was originally great fun as a "guilty pleasure" over the top prime time soap, and J. R. Ewing a great character, but it went on too long and became a parody of itself. I was a big fan of the final Soprano's episode because the viewer is required to imagine what happens for themselves. They may have hoped by leaving options open to have a reunion film down the road, but, alas, that option is gone forever. The other finale I really enjoyed was J.A.G. That series was originally pitched as a marriage of "Top Gun meets A Few Good Men". Over time, it became a classic sexual tension format with romantic undertones between the male and female leads (David James Elliott and Catherine Bell.) It became clear that those two had to get together, but only at the end of the series. That scenario is a bit of a cliche, yet J.A.G. handled it in a nice, classy way.

Panelist: Floyd

I didn't watch much of the show, but the Newhart finale was the best. In the final scene, Bob Wakes up from a dream rolls over, turns on the light, and Suzanne Pleshette (from the 1970s Bob Newhart Show) is in the bed and bedroom from the Bob Newhart Show set. That the second show had all been a dream by the 1970s Bob Newhart was genius -- straight up. In a drama it would be a cop out that would hack off millions of viewers. Given the nature of Bob Newhart's comedy -- it was pitch perfect. This answer is contingent on the upcoming Breaking Bad series finale.

Worst... I don't know if I have a worst either. Any show that just fizzles out like Star Trek: The Original Series...

Panelist: ScottDS

Given that most of my favorite shows never had a proper "finale," I would say The Larry Sanders Show had the best one. The show was on my radar but I might've been too young to appreciate it at the time. Worst finale would be the one that aired around the same time: Seinfeld. A glorified clip show, with the gang acting somewhat out of character. I feel bad for folks - mainly non-fans - who tuned in just because of the hype. Thankfully, Larry David and Co. rectified this on Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which one of the plotlines was a Seinfeld reunion.

I won't even give the Star Trek: Enterprise finale the dignity of a response.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, September 20, 2013

Film Friday: Soylent Green (1973)

Tuesday is Soylent Green day... and I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, Soylent Green is a fantastic dystopian film about a world destroyed by overpopulation and pollution. Unlike its contemporaries, it is a shocking, visceral film that can bring real emotion. On the other hand, it’s an unpleasant film to watch with unlikable characters, lousy ideology, and the surprise has long been spoiled.
Soylent Green takes place in 2022. The world is massively overpopulated. Forty million people crowd into New York City alone, and the film suggests that the East Coast cities at least have grown together into one huge mega city. Overpopulation has caused the world to collapse as people now live in overcrowded dilapidated apartments. The homeless crowd into churches. The government has no control and can’t even begin to stop crime. Making this all the worse, pollution has destroyed the land and food is scarce. Humanity now depends on processed plankton for food. That plankton is processed by the world’s food company, called the Soylent Corporation, which provides Soylent Yellow, Red and now Green to the people through the government. The story takes place against this backdrop.
Charlton Heston is NYPD detective Robert Thorn, a “good” cop. He’s called in to investigate the murder of a rich man named William R. Simonson. Simonson was a director of the Soylent Corporation, but political pressure is soon applied to make Thorn drop the investigation. Thorn refuses to stop and soon learns that before his death, Simonson told something to a priest, which the priest says is “destroying him” – he seems almost delusional by the time Thorn speaks to him. Thorn then gives his friend Sol (Edward G. Robinson) a book he discovered in Thorn’s apartment titled: “Soylent Oceanographic Survey Report, 2015 to 2019.” He wants Sol to examine it. When Sol grasps the conclusion in the book, he decides to end his life, so he goes to a euthanasia center. Thorn races there when he finds out what Sol is doing. He is too late to stop the death, but Sol tells him what he learned and he tells Thorn to get proof and expose this. It is a horrifying moment. Thorn then follows Sol’s body to discover the horrible secret.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
In some ways, this is easily the best of the 1970s dystopian films. Indeed, where this film succeeds and so many of the others fail is in making the overpopulated, overpolluted world feel real. The writer very smartly draws constant references to the details that give you a visceral feeling for what this world is like: a horrible uncomfortable world of absence and want. Society has exhausted its resources, so things like cars (and even buses and trains) are a thing of the past. Food vendors hawk crumbs and broken bits of house wares on the street. The apartments look like slums and seem to have been furnished from garbage dumps. We are constantly reminded of the heat wave, the poisoned air, and the fact that most people have never even seen the foods we take for granted. For example, Heston compares a pair of breasts to a grapefruit, only to be reminded he’s never seen a grapefruit. He needs Sol to taste a spoon to tell him what the little bit of food he’s found on it is – strawberries. He hasn’t had a hot shower in living memory. And when he sees the short film showing the images of the world long gone, e.g. trees, animals, fields, he breaks down and weeps because he wasn’t even able to image what the world had been like.
This is where the film excels, and where you feel the oppressiveness. The government is brutal, murderous and oppressive (though it still wants to pretend to follow procedures) and it has absolute power over all aspects of society. The cops are like Gestapo agents in a way, that they can simply walk into your home and take what they want. Yet, society is also beyond the control of the government. There are too many people to police. There are too many people to control... to protect... to feed. This is a world without freedom or safety or order. It is oppressive in other ways too. There are so many people that life is intolerable. In what is truly a great scene, you see Heston struggle to chase a man who has shot at him, but both are barely moving as they force their way through the crowd. As you watch this scene you feel physically sick knowing this feeling of being caught in a crowd and how confining that can be, and then you realize... that is life in this world every day for these people.
This is a polluted word too where the air is dirty and green, and where a constant heat wave burns your body up. And there is no escape. You can’t go home to escape this because you live in abject poverty, without electricity or water and with almost no food... yet, you need to lock your doors and be careful not to venture out alone because someone will attack you to take the almost-nothing you do own.

Three things make this world completely believable and make you cringe watching it. First, there are constant references to these conditions. This isn’t a film that mentions this and then forgets about it to tell its story. Every single character in every scene makes some reference to the conditions under which they live, and that keeps it constantly on your mind. Secondly, everyone accepts this reality. The government admits that it’s incapable of changing things, the people take the world as normal, and even the rich live in somewhat similar conditions. Yes, they have running water and air conditioning and modern apartments, but those things are minor. They have no cars, no estates, and not much more food than everyone else. That’s actually the key point to selling this. No possibility of escape is shown because there is no other world to escape to: this is not a tale of two worlds, nor is this a world caused by a villain who can be defeated and the world freed... this is the world.

Finally, the most important piece is Sol’s death scene. Up to this point in the film, everything has been grim and dystopian except the luxury apartment where Thorn spends a couple days with the concubine (something which suggests a very different set of morals in this world, by the way). What this has done is adjust your expectations so that you see the luxury apartment as the ideal world compared to the horrible world outside. Then Sol is shown the video of our Earth and nature in all its glory, and it strikes you how horrible this world really is that the tiny, sparse luxury apartment is viewed as paradise. This is enhanced by the death of Sol, who is the one character who gives Thorn hope. (As an aside, this is a powerful scene made all the more powerful in that Edward G. Robinson was dying of cancer when he filmed it – it was his last scene – and only Heston and Robinson knew about this. Heston claimed the scene haunted him for years and it really is easy to feel the emotion within the scene.)
Then the other shoe drops. Having had your eyes opened by the short film, you are suddenly shown the secret. Not only is this secret horrible, but even worse, you realize right away that knowing it changes nothing because there is no other food supply... this is their fate. At that moment, you truly realize what genuine dystopia is. No other 1970's dystopian film comes close to this. To the contrary, all the others, like Logan’s Run are about worlds where people seem happy until they learn they aren’t truly free. That’s kind of a piddly complaint compared to the hell on Earth that is Soylent Green. Even something like Planet of the Apes lacks the punch of this film because it seems so implausible and like it can’t happen to us. Soylent Green feels like it can. And that makes this a special film.

Ok, but that brings up a couple problems. First, this film feels like it rambles. Had this film been made with modern storytelling techniques, it would have been a much stronger film... think the style of Minority Report. Secondly, this is a hard film to enjoy. Heston is not a likable character; he’s an abusive cop. It is an ugly film to look at. And it posits a horror, but without a solution so it is frustrating to watch.

Further, the film is ideological crap. This film was made in the 1970's when Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” was the big seller among liberals. They were convinced that humans were going to breed themselves into a polluted, overpopulated, starving world. But their ideology was deeply flawed. They ignored the fact that population growth, like other growth, is not straight-line growth... it peaks and then falls again. They wrongly assumed that “overpopulation” leads to poverty – to the contrary, some of the richest places on earth are the most densely populated (Tokyo is as large as the nightmare city in Soylent and is one of the most prosperous on the planet). And they utterly failed to grasp how vast the Earth really is. That makes the message here of culling the population before the peons breed rather obnoxious.

If you can set those things aside, however, this is a super smart and well-made film. It is one that everyone should see, even if you know the ending. Just try to forget the ending and imagine the shock of realizing the twist for the first time... and that there isn’t a thing those people can do about it.

In any event, remember that Tuesday is Soylent Green Day. Yummy.
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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Questionable Bond No. 13

Sometimes you just can’t find good help. That’s when you call EZ Hench and you take what you can get.

Question: "Name the worst Bond henchman."

Andrew's Answer: It’s hard not to say May Day (Grace Jones) from A View to a Kill. Of course, it’s just as hard not to name the henchmen in the Timmy Dalton films. . . except I can’t remember their names. But I’m actually going with someone who many people like, but who I think is just awful: Jaws. Let’s see, a tall man with dental problems who finds love in outer space. Uh... no.

Scott's Answer: Believe it or not, no one immediately comes to mind. But I will go with May Day (Grace Jones) from A View to a Kill. She's... well, she has presence. I'll give her that. Oh, and then there's the diminutive Nick Nack (Hervé Villechaize) from The Man with the Golden Gun. Ya know, I can't put my finger on it but I just can't take him seriously as a henchman. And you lose your henchman credentials if Bond can put you inside a suitcase!
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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Good Does Not Mean Simple

Last week we talked about how Hollywood only shows one kind of racist: the neanderthal. Our general conclusion was that Hollywood lives in terror of being misunderstood. Today's article relates to that, as you'll see. Today's article is about the way "good people" are portrayed by Hollywood. It irritates me.

Have you ever noticed how good people (other than the hero) get portrayed by modern Hollywood? You know who I'm talking about. These are the people the hero must defend, the people the villain slaps around, the people we will see in the happiness montage when the film ends... salt of the earth types. These people are typically older whites, with a rainbow of color mixed in behind them. Their leader is a man in his 50s who has gone gray. They keep their heads down and smile softly. They are childlike. They keep their hands clasped before them like they are praying. They move slowly... shuffling. They speak in short, simple sentences that are packed with gratitude, hope and helplessness. Yep. Awww.

Let me describe this another way: they are f**ing useless. They are neutered and passive. They are the definition of meek. They are so meek that I honestly find myself wanting to smack them around on principle. It's no wonder films are full of so many villains. These people are sheep, and as Eli Wallach says in The Magnificent Seven, "If God did not want them sheared, He would not have made them sheep." I hear ya, Eli, I hear ya.

Look, here's what bothers me. First, "good" does not mean "simpleton." It does not mean "meek." Those are not even synonyms for good. There are many simpletons who do evil things, just as people who are meek are typically passively aggressive... not good. Good is about doing the right things, caring about those around you, standing up to evil. Good is not about shuffling your feet or weeping that you need help from a hero. That's pathetic, not good. In fact, people who are good are typically a hell of a lot stronger and more confident than those who aren't because being good requires you to stand up for what is right, not succumb to what is easy. Being good is anything but being passive. In fact, I would argue that you can't be passive and be good. If you are passive, the best you can be is neutral.

It frustrates me that Hollywood is misrepresenting what it means to be good and selling it as such an unpleasant thing. It also frustrates me that the whole idea is rather fascist. Yeah, fascist. Superman saving good people from a power they struggle against but cannot defeat alone is cool... it makes him a superhero. Superman saving people who are too fricken timid stand up for themselves is a tale about how useless the public is and how they need superior men to lead them. That's a creepy, fascist message.

You know where I think this comes from? Did you ever seen Willem Defoe play Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. He started this. He presented Christ as a meek simpleton... and everybody ran with this. Since that movie, so many people really have come to think of Christ as a man who never raised his voice, never complained, and never spoke back to anyone. And since Christ is considered the model for good, that has become the model they use when they want to show these "good people". Grrr. For the record, that wasn't Jesus. How do I know? Because I've read the Bible. Christ was passionate, with a gift for oratory. He was aggressive. He called a spade a spade. He attacked the money changers in the temple. He stood his ground against the Romans. Those aren't things these meek, pathetic creatures Hollywood is selling as "Christlike" could ever do.

Hollywood isn't good at portraying subtlety anymore. So when they portray villains, they make them cartoon villains so everyone knows what they mean. And when they portray the "good people" the hero needs to help, they go in the other direction. They try to make them Christlike so no one could possibly think they are anything but good (as an aside, making them useless also makes the superhero seem stronger by comparison). But they are using the wrong model. They aren't making them good or Christlike. No. They are making them useless. They are making them the kind of people who deserve the blame when evil prevails because they don't stand up to. That's not "good." "Good" is people who are confident in their convictions and stand up for them. They don't allow evil to control them or others around them. Meek is people who are too afraid to speak their minds.

You know what else is interesting? I've been watching a lot of Gene Autry films lately. It's fascinating to me that in the supposed age of "black and white simpleton thinking" (i.e. not the modern sophisticated world), things were much more nuanced. The public in Autry's films weren't helpless. They weren't pathetic. To the contrary, they were a little hot-headed actually. They had had enough and they were looking to set things right on their own. It took Gene to come into the picture and to calm everything down to make sure everyone acted correctly. When I look at old Superman shows, again, the public was doing their best to solve the problem. They didn't have the firepower to defeat the bad guys, but they were trying. No one stood by helplessly wishing to be saved. That's a twisted stereotype modern Hollywood inflicts on the past in a sneering way, but it's really modern Hollywood that it applies to.

I think this tells us something worth noting about Hollywood. Hollywood today doesn't seem to get the difference between good and meek, and they see the public as meek, helpless, and unwilling to help themselves. I find this frustrating because it flies in the face of reality. The American people are action oriented. They stand up for what they believe. They help those in need. They try to stop evil where they see it, and are constantly working to make the world better. Why does none of that appear on film anymore?
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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How Cartoons Are Judged

An interesting issue arose in response to tryanmax’s Toon-arama article last week and I think it’s worth discussing. The question was this: if Wreck-It Ralph had focused more on a videogame narrative instead of shifting to a fairytale princess narrative, would that have turned people off? I think the answer is no. Here’s why.

In the adult world of films (not be confused with adult films), people select films based on the specific genres and subgenres that interest them. If you like burly muscle men (no, we still aren’t talking about adult films), then you will grab an action film. If you’re into drama and court rooms, then a legal drama will appeal to you. Sounds simple. But what if you like spaceships?

Well, this is where it gets tricky. If you like your science fiction to be more fantasy, then you gravitate toward something like a Star Wars, where fantasy worlds collide and people with superpowers lightsaber it out as totally unrealistic spaceships scream by overhead. But if you prefer your science fiction “hard” (stop thinking about adult films) or more cerebral, then you gravitate toward something like 2001 or Apollo 13, where the premium isn’t on the action but on the correctness of the technical specs of what is going on. And fans of these two subgenres, often don’t like each other or each other’s films (seriously, nerds, get a life).

So when these films go looking for an audience, there is a serious problem that audiences quickly self-select. Hence, a remake of 2001, let’s call it 2001.1, automatically loses anyone who isn’t a science fiction fan the moment the trailer begins, and it loses the fantasy nerds the moment they don’t see a blobby thing spitting fire. And if the film doesn’t stick to their genre conventions... and only those genre conventions, then they get angry... Green Hulk Angry. You would like them when they’re angry, and have access to a keyboard from an anonymous location.

Anyway, cartoons aren’t like that.

Cartoons are a genre unto themselves. They have their own conventions, which will be employed no matter what type of story is being told. Whether the story takes place on a spaceship, in a castle, in a forest, in a sewer, in the past, in the present, or in the future, and whether it involves people or aliens or rabbits or roadrunners, you will get the things you expect from a cartoon.

Because of this, it is the rare film-goer who will decide that a cartoon doesn’t appeal to them because of the genre supposedly being depicted. In other words, few people will avoid Bambi because they don’t like nature films, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame because they don’t care for that period in French history, or Duck Dodger because they prefer their science fiction to be “hard”. People don’t judge a cartoon the same way they do a normal film... they judge it on its merits as a cartoon.

Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some cartoons that won’t interest people or that somehow people are incapable of distinguishing between cartoons. People still look at the animation style, the history of the company, and the story itself to see if it will interest them, but they aren’t judging the film by the conventions of genres outside of cartoons, they are judging the film on whether or not they think it will be a cartoon they find appealing.

This actually raises an issue that I see with a lot of modern cartoons. I struggle to enjoy modern cartoons. In fact, it’s the rare recent cartoon that I find at all entertaining. To me, the problem is exactly this: these cartoons are abandoning the conventions of cartoons in the name of realism. They are trying to tell live-action stories that have been animated rather than making cartoons.

Hence, when you smack a modern cartoon rat with a frying pan, he screams and the person who smacked him (accidentally of course) apologizes profusely. Blech. That’s not how “cartoons” work. When you smack someone in a cartoon, their entire body should deform, they should see stars, and the being that hit them should display maniacal glee. Cartoons are about cartoon physics, which mocks the normal laws of physics, not about real life physics. They are about fantasy problems, not real life problems. They are about larger-than-life villains who get their comeuppance in insane ways.

Even more realistic films like the Disney films still follow these rules. Their stories may be animated versions of classic tales, but they still use cartoon physics and rely on larger-than-life melodramatic actions.

Modern films don’t do that, and this trend toward making animated life-action films rather than cartoons throws away the very thing that keeps people from judging cartoons on the basis of their plots and settings... like regular movies. In fact, the reason I liked Despicable Me was that it was a good Steven Carrell films, not because I thought it was good cartoon. As a cartoon, it was a waste. As a comedy that competes against Get Smart and Dinner for Schmucks, it was top notch. Similarly, the reason I couldn’t give a rats ass about Ratatouille is because I have no interest in a story about a French sous chef who wants to prove his worth. Perhaps, if the film had been a cartoon instead of an animated film, I would have cared. But as it wasn’t, so I didn’t.

This is something Hollywood should consider. The further they drift from cartoons being cartoons and toward just being films that saved a ton on sets and costumes by animating their characters, the more they run the risk of being judged by different standards... the same standards that have led to fragmented, fickle adult audiences... no, not that kind.
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Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 92

We live noble lives so that history will remember us... then they'll make movies about us that we'll never get to see. :(

What is your favorite film about an historical figure?

Panelist: T-Rav

It's not a "film," strictly speaking, but the best presentation of a historical figure I have seen has come from HBO's John Adams miniseries. It's a lesson in how to do these things right: Work closely with a scholar who knows his stuff, balance the personal and the public sides evenly, don't gloss over the flaws but show things from the subject's point of view as closely and sympathetically as possible. Few regular-length films have accomplished all this, with the Thomas More study A Man for All Seasons being one of the exceptions.

Panelist: Floyd

Patton, hands down. I've read the biography (by Ladislas Farago) on which Francis Ford Coppola based his screenplay and Coppola did a great job of capturing the essence of the man and George C. Scott should get a lifetime Oscar achievement based solely on that performance. Yes it's a hagiography of sorts and they even manage to throw in some anti-Establishment themes to hit the times in which it was released (1970). The real Patton was a complicated man and the film captured that perfectly in my book.

Panelist: ScottDS

At this point, probably HBO's epic John Adams miniseries. Of course, it's a miniseries so it has time to breathe. As far as films, maybe Schindler's List, though it's hardly a movie I'd want to watch every day (which one would presumably want to do with a "favorite.")

Panelist: AndrewPrice

The Doors. More than any other film, this one feels to me like you really are watching the life of the protagonist – Jim Morrison. Not only does Val Kilmer do an incredible job as Morrison, but the film is very entertaining and has a heck of a soundtrack. Runner up is also musical: Amadeus.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

“The Story of Will Rogers” made in 1952. Actually his son Will Rogers, Jr. played his dad and it was just charming and enlightening. Some of Rogers’ favorite routines about the government were wonderful and certainly timely for any age.

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

I would say off the top of my head, my favorite film in this category is A Man for all Seasons. This 1966 film adapted from Robert Bolt's play was about Sir Thomas More played on stage and screen by the great actor Paul Scofield. The film and Scofield won the academy award for Best Picture and Best Actor that year. The film certainly does not have the benefit of film techniques developed in the nearly 50 years since, but I thought the acting was superb, AND it gave me more insight into a historical character I did not know that much about when I first saw it. It was also Basil highly praised for the creative use of lighting to deliver a desired mood.

I was tempted to mention Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp. Costner is much maligned, but I thought this film was a reasonable and full portrait of one of the great larger than life figures of the old west. The film was long, but it held my attention.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, September 13, 2013

The Shiny Turd List

No review today as I haven’t had a chance to watch anything. So let’s do this. A couple weeks ago, we listed some hidden gems. Those were films that were largely overlooked or even panned, but turned out to be inspired. Today’s list is... uh... similar.

Today’s list comes from the world of direct to video... garbage time... the world of the Corman-esque. Bad production values, unworkable ideas, poor writing, horrible acting. These things are just plain wrong. Yet, sometimes, these films actually turn out to be quite entertaining. They aren’t hidden gems, but they are at least shiny turds. These are worth your time:

Splinter: This film is shockingly good. It stars Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) as a nasty convict on the run who carjacks Jill Wagner (the Mercury Girl) and her weenie boyfriend. As they stop to get gas at a local gas station, they encounter an oozing black creature that was once human. This creature was created when the human became infected by a parasite from deep within the forest. They must now escape the gas station. This film really feels like a legitimate A-movie. It helps that Whigham is a solid actor, the creature is creepy, the effects are good, the direction is solid, and the film doesn’t try to do more than it is capable of doing. I highly recommend this one.

Ghost Shark: This is one of those films that knows not to take itself seriously and it hits the right amount of “stupid funny” to keep you staring at the screen throughout. The story is this: a couple rednecks kill a great white shark. Unfortunately for them, the shark’s corpse sinks into a cave that has been cursed, which curse resurrects the shark as a ghost. It can now hunt anyone in the water... any water... ANY water... like when the shark kills a guy from the inside out when he drinks a glass of water or when it sucks a carwash girl into a bucket. The story is ridiculous, but charming. The acting is earnest. Richard Moll as Finch is particularly good. And the shark’s revenge killings are laugh-out-loud stupid. This one is fun.
Route 666: This is a surprisingly decent film. Lou Diamond Phillips and Lori Petty are US Marshals who need to get Steven Williams to a court in Los Angeles. They are being chased by the mob and a corrupt sheriff, so they decide to take a shortcut across the old Route 66, which has been closed for reasons unknown. They discover those reasons when a ghostly chain gang rises out of the road and starts killing them. This film is adequately shot, written, acted and directed. What makes this one worth seeing is the relationship between Williams, who is funny as hell, and Petty and Phillips.

Category 6: Day of Destruction: There are a lot of disaster films and most of them are crap. This one is surprisingly good. It starts with tornadoes in Las Vegas, a heat wave in Chicago and snow in Illinois. This is a riddle to the people who monitor the weather as none of this should be happening. As they struggle to solve the riddle, a killer storm is forming and bearing down on Chicago... will they spot it in time? Starring Brian Dennehy, Randy Quaid, and a couple dozen more actors, this is a very earnest attempt at a disaster epic. To pass the time, the film is mixed with interpersonal stories, like the couple having an affair, jealous assistants, and some punks with a gun. And in the end, this all works pretty well. Is it full of clichés? Yeah. Are the effects great? No. But unlike other disaster films, this one feels pretty credible.

Swamp Devil: Melanie Blaime returns home to Gibbington to discover that her father (Bruce Dern) has disappeared into the swamp because he’s wanted for multiple murders. On her way into town, she runs across a childhood acquaintance. This acquaintance promises to help her and her father. But all is not what it seems. It turns out that a swamp monster is on the loose and that is what has been killing people. I won’t give any more away because this has a bit of mystery in it. It’s well shot, earnest and all-in-all a pretty good movie. It’s honestly as good of a “Swamp Thing” movie as you’re ever going to get.

Rise of the Gargoyles: Eric Balfour is Professor Jack Randall, a discredited expert on gargoyles. He’s called in to investigate an attack on some people who are digging beneath the Saint Jean André Church in Paris. Add in a skeptical journalist and a police inspector who now suspects Jack of being involved in several murders and you get a pretty decent film.

Ghouls: William Atherton is evil, I’m pretty sure of that, and this film strikes me as home video. The story involves Jennifer, who joins her father (Atherton) in Romania for the funeral of her mother. The locals are kind of strange, but hey, dad would never lead you wrong, right? Yeah, not unless he’s trying to open a vortex to the spiritual world to let in a bunch of ghouls... but William Atherton would never do that, would he? This one is all around kind of average for these films, but the story is more solid than usual, there is a good mystery, and Atherton brings a solid level of acting that’s normally missing in these films.

Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God: Earnest, my Lord, earnest. In 2000, they made a Dungeons and Dragons film staring Jeremy Irons and Jimmy Olson. It sucked dragon tuchus. At no point did that film either capture the spirit of the game or feel like anyone in it bought what they were doing. This film does. This film is right out of the game manuals and involves very earnest acting. Add in some nice inter-character conflict and you get a rather enjoyable film.

Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus: Forget the movie. The movie is utterly ridiculous. I think Hawaii gets destroyed at one point. What makes this movie work is the dysfunctional acting relationship between Gary Stretch (as English hunter Nigel Putnam) and Steven Urkel as some Navy scientist who keeps talking about adjusting his balls so they do something that makes no sense. Short answer: a giant nuclear-submarine-eating shark squares off against a giant crocodile, as Urkel talks about his balls and some lecherous English hunter hits on a lesbian. What could possibly go wrong here?

Mega Piranha: Paul Logan is the ultimate uh... commando, secret agent, pilates instructor. Whatever. He’s a Navy SEAL. And he travels to Venezuela to investigate giant piranha that keep getting bigger. Helping him is Tiffany. Opposing him is the Venezuelan Army. By the time the piranha are big enough to take down a battleship, Greg Brady needs to get involved. This is a mockbuster aimed at Piranha 3-D and, frankly, I like it better than Piranha 3-D because it never once believes anyone is taking the movie seriously.

Those are some shiny turds. Any I missed?
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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0015 The Man With The Golden Gun (1974)

Too high, right? You think The Man With The Golden Gun should be lower than No. 0015 of 0023? Honestly, that would have been my gut feeling too, until I started to think about the film and how it really compares. And in the end, this is where it belongs. Observe.

Plot Quality: The plot to Golden Gun stands out rather uniquely among the Bond films. The film begins with Bond being pulled off his mission to recover a stolen device that transforms sunlight into highly concentrated energy: the Solex agitator. He’s been removed from the mission because MI-6 has received a golden bullet with Bond’s 007 number on it. This golden bullet means that the mysterious Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee), the world’s greatest assassin, intends to kill Bond. M suggests that Bond go into hiding. Bond instead decides to track Scaramanga down. This is perhaps one of the strongest ideas to power a Bond film as, for once, the story isn’t about Bond’s duty, it’s about Bond hunting a man to save his own life. This is Bond versus the anti-Bond, mano-a-mano.
As the story unfolds, Bond traces the golden bullet to Macau, where he sees Scaramanga’s mistress Andrea Anders (Maud Adams) collect the bullet. He tries to follow her, but is blocked by the agent sent to assist him, Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland). Bond eventually makes contact with Andres and discovers that she sent the golden bullet to MI-6 because she wants Bond to kill Scaramanga. In exchange, she will give him the Solex MI-6 has been looking for. Bond agrees, but Scaramanga kills her before she can deliver. This begins a chase scene which eventually leads Bond to Scaramanga’s private island where he and Bond hunt each other in an elaborate funhouse Scaramanga has set up to practice his craft. Bond kills Scaramanga, rescues Goodnight, retrieves the Solex, and sails for home.

Honestly, the above is a top James Bond plot. You have a strong villain with extraordinary skill, unlike many of his predecessors who are merely rich. His motive is unique. This is a dark, visceral story of a contest to the death between the world’s two greatest hunters supported by a lean plot that makes sense throughout. You have a strong Bond girl who drives events, exotic settings and even the travelogue feel. These are things the lower-ranking films simply cannot boast, not with their bland or cartoonish villains, their nonsensical or pointless plots, and the indifference with which so many of them were approached. That’s why this film isn’t rated lower.

So why isn’t this film rated higher?

Well, therein lies the problem. For while the structure of this film is fantastic, the execution isn’t. In fact, the film kept undercutting itself. For example, whereas Live and Let Die was a blaxploitation film, this one borrows heavily from martial arts films, yet Moore feels out of place in that environment. This also led to the regrettable decision to have Bond let two young girls do his fighting for him in one scene... something which feels embarrassing; not to mention, the scene is ridiculous as these two small girls kick in the general direction of supposedly trained martial artists only to have them fall down unconscious from blows that would be unlikely even to slow a grown man.
This awful scene then leads directly to one of the worst moments in a James Bond film, as we are reintroduced to Sheriff J.W. Pepper (played by Bufford T. Justice Jar-Jar Binks Clifton James). Pepper is the fat, obnoxious, racist Southern cop from Live and Let Die. Here he’s playing the ugly American on vacation in Thailand as he complains about the “little people” in their “pajamas” and tells us loudly how he does it better in Louisiana. The portrayal is offensive and reeks of anti-Americanism – in fact, this is the third of three films written by Tom Mankiewicz, each of which contains whiffs of anti-Americanism.

The one good thing to come out of this painful scene was an incredible stunt where Bond jumps an AMC Hornet over a broken bridge while doing an aerial twist. The stunt is fantastic... but the filmmakers ruin it by mocking it with a slide-whistle noise.

I think the problem was this. As Lawrence Meyers noted at BH, each Bond film takes on a theme and runs that theme throughout. The theme here was a circus theme. Hence, Scaramanga’s story starts with him shooting an elephant trainer. He uses a mirrored funhouse as a hunting ground. The Solex is hidden in a bag of peanuts. Henchman Nick Nack (Hervé Villachaize) dresses more like a ring master than a servant. They use the Queen Elizabeth as a setting for MI-6, which is built at a diagonal angle. Etc. In effect, they took the absolutely worst possible theme, a comedic circus theme, and they interwove that with the strong, serious plotline discussed above. That’s why this film sits in the middle... its plot deserves to be near the top, but the stupidity from the circus-comedy they interwove with the plot deserves to be near the bottom. Essentially, this is two incompatible films rammed awkwardly together.
Bond Quality: This was Roger Moore’s second Bond film and already there were warning signs. In Live and Let Die, Moore played the role fairly seriously. In this film, the lounge lizard personality he would come to embody began to appear at times. He comes across as less physical and foppish; Moore apparently looks sufficiently strange running that they hired a stunt man to run for him. There are few fights and Bond even lets young girls do his fighting. He seems indifferent or standoffish to the women he encounters too. And he ultimately has a hard time showing that he believes what is happening to his character. This only gets worse from hereon out for him.

The Bond Girl: Maud Adams plays Scaramanga’s mistress. By all rights, she should be the Bond girl here, but she gets killed midway through the film. It is great that her character is the reason for the film, having tried to trick Bond into killing her lover, whom she fears, and being the driver of the stronger portion of the film. That said, like Moore, Adams is a cold fish and does not project emotion or urgency onto the screen. Still, she is adequate and her character is great. The other one is the problem.
The real Bond girl here is Britt Ekland as Mary Goodnight. She has been heavily criticized for this film, and deservedly so. She has zero sex appeal or chemistry with Bond. Her character has been described as “an astoundingly stupid blonde British agent.” She is constantly doing things that only happen in sitcoms, like locking herself into the trunk of a car or using her butt to accidentally start a laser. She inhabits the comedic portion of this film and everything about her and the character was the wrong choice.

Villain Quality: Finally, we come to the villain. In a vacuum, Scaramanga is one of the top villains the series has produced. Indeed, even critics who have panned the film have called him one of the best villains in the series. He’s Bond’s equal as an assassin; he has skills, which most of the others don’t. He’s cold blooded and ruthless, yet Christopher Lee also injects joy and likeability into him. He is compelling. He even has the strongest back stories of all the villains. His story begins with him killing a man who killed an elephant he cared for - this is something many people can sympathize with and makes him understandable. But from this, he finds he has a talent for killing and he decides to make use of it. Eventually, he becomes a KGB assassin, but then goes independent and is now considered the best in the world. This is real depth and compares very favorably to the dull misanthropic billionaires Bond usually fights.
He’s also one of the more complete villains. Many of the others seem to have no purpose in life except to plan some scheme and then wait to see if Bond stops them. Scaramanga is different. He’s going about his normal business as an assassin, having been contracted by billionaire industrialist Hai Fat. He has a relationship with Maud Adams. He seems to enjoy life. Bond doesn’t obsess him, which really makes him feel like a “whole character” who has an existence outside the plot.

His weak spots really are the comedic elements that are thrust upon him at times, though he largely inhabits the serious portions of the story. It also seems strange that he kills Hai Fat and takes over his business, as that contradicts his character. I also would have preferred it if he didn’t own a private island, but there seems to be no escaping that in this series at this time... at least it’s not crawling with jumpsuited henchmen! All told, he is a great villain.

What you have here is two films laying on top of each other. The film involving Scaramanga, Bond and Adams is a serious film with a fantastic plot, a solid Bond girl and a great villain, which deserves to be considered a top Bond film. The film involving the other characters is a lousy comedy that mocks the film and deserves to be ranked at the bottom of the Bond films. This combination makes the film much better than it deserves to be, but nowhere near what it should have been. And that is why this film is No. 0015 of 0023.
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