Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving, Pilgrims

I love the holiday season because it's a good time to focus on the things we tend to forget about during the rest of the year. This is a great time to think about our friends, our families, and everyone we hold dear. It's time to think about this great country in which we live and all who help keep it that way. It's time to think of those who invent, who create, and those who provide. It's time to think of those who protect us, those who enrich our lives and those who enlighten us. It's time to be thankful just to be alive and to experience the beauty that is the universe in all its splendor, from the fantastic colors in the trees this time of year to the stars above. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Thanks for being part of our community! :D

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Toon-arama Thanksgiving Special: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

by tryanmax

“We've got another holiday to worry about. It seems Thanksgiving Day is upon us.”

So says Charlie Brown near the beginning of his Thanksgiving special, and it pretty well sets the tone for the show as Charlie tries to cope with the demands of the holiday wedged neatly between Halloween and Christmas. I think it’s fair to say that, of all the holidays we celebrate, Thanksgiving is regarded as more of an ordeal than any others. A quick mental inventory of every Thanksgiving movie or special I’ve seen seems to confirm this. So while the Peanuts gang may be a cynical bunch, it seems to fit with the general outlook regarding this holiday.

Charlie Brown’s ordeal is this: Peppermint Patty has invited herself over for Thanksgiving dinner along with her friends Marcie and Franklin. The trouble is, Charlie already has plans to visit his grandmother for dinner, and he can’t cook. Linus suggests having a separate dinner beforehand. Enlisting the help of Snoopy and Woodstock, they prepare a feast of buttered toast, popcorn, pretzels and jelly beans. Patty is not impressed and demands to know where the turkey and mashed potatoes are. Charlie Brown is thoroughly humiliated. Marcie takes Patty aside to remind her of the reason for Thanksgiving, giving thanks. Patty apologizes to Chuck and, with amends having been made, Charlie calls his grandmother to explain he will be late and she invites the whole gang over. They pile into the back of the station wagon, singing “Over the river and through the woods,” despite Charlie’s misgivings that his grandmother lives in a condominium.
True to form for a typical Peanuts special, original strips do the work of storyboards and are strung together to form a loose narrative. Even if you don’t remember the original strips, the regular pattern of set up and punch line makes it pretty clear what’s going on. The Thanksgiving special is a close echo of the Christmas special that preceded it by a number of years. Linus’ table grace might not have the same impact as his nativity soliloquy, and Marcie tag-teams on driving the moral of the story home, but all the parts are there. It’s a neatly packaged, simple story leaving little to discuss.

What makes A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving worth talking about, honestly, is the filler. Of all the Peanuts specials, this is likely the most puffed up. Not only are there the usual gags we expect to see, like Lucy and the football and Sally flirting with Linus, but there is a ton of time devoted to Snoopy and Woodstock’s high jinks. Really, this is the story of how Charlie Brown’s dog single handedly prepares a Thanksgiving meal, sort of.
In a series of sequences that would normally be skimmed over via montage in almost any other show, we actually watch Snoopy go through all the steps of preparing his feast. We start with him digging through the garage for a table, only to get sidetracked by basketball, ping-pong, and literally wrestling with a lawn chair. The Vince Guaraldi tune “Little Birdie” which plays over this sequence, is still one of my favorite jazz tracks.

Then, Snoopy is off to the kitchen. I remember as a kid being fascinated by this scene for the various styles of toasters. Later, a remarkably inordinate amount of time is devoted to Snoopy plating up each of the guests. And, in a final gag, as Charlie Brown and the others head toward grandma’s, Snoopy and Woodstock return to the doghouse to feast on the turkey and pumpkin pie that Snoopy had been holding back from the rest of the gang. Thanks to Snoopy’s dominance, this Peanuts holiday special feels a lot more “cartoony” than many of the others.

What do you think? Is A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving just a nice story? Or did I miss something? Did I leave out any of your favorite bits? And while you’re at it, tell me some of your Thanksgiving horror stories.
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Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 101

Memories are made of this... movies!

What is your favorite movie-going memory?

Panelist: AndrewPrice

I've got quite a few actually, but nothing beats the day my friend and I stood for four hours in a line that wrapped completely around the mall to see The Empire Strikes Back. It was one of those fascinating moments where you could literally feel history being made and it was great to be with that many people all talking happily about what they thought the movie was going to be. Enthusiasm is contagious. And the movie delivered!

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

It is hard to top memories from one's childhood. Among my best were when our mom's would take my friend and myself to matinees at the big movie palaces in downtown Philadelphia. Ben-Hur in 70mm and Around the World in 80 Days in Cinerama were favorites. But to pick one that stands out above all else, my dad took me to dinner at a great Italian restaurant in Philly, followed by How the West Was Won which was, as I remember, also in Cinerama.

As an adult, I think my favorite memory was taking out oldest son to see the premier of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film had not been heavily marketed as films are today. There was no Internet to release trailers, etc. No, there was a relatively modest ad in the Philly Inquirer cinema section stating "starts Saturday." There was the poster with Harrison Ford, and names like Steven Spielberg. After that first scene, we were off to the races, and my thought was, "Wow, an old fashion Saturday matinee barnburner made with state of the art special effects. Yee-hah."

Panelist: ScottDS

I can tell you what should have been my favorite movie-going memory but I wasn't, uh, assertive enough. Having said that, shortly after moving to LA, my roommates took me to the Nuart Theater on Santa Monica Blvd. for a midnight screening of Clue, done in the style of Rocky Horror Picture Show with actors performing to the film live on stage. Audience participation was encouraged!

Panelist: Floyd

First, I'm assuming almost everyone around my age (I'm 44) will say "Star Wars -- Imperial Star Destroyer rumbling from the top of the screen." So setting that one aside... I have a couple... I was the ne plus ultra U2 fan when I was in high school/college in the late 1980s -- as much as a kid living in West Texas where they never toured could be. So I was pumped to see Rattle and Hum in fall of 1988 -- and it did not disappoint. Was it hubristic? Aren't most documentaries prideful on some level? The music was fantastic (I still love that album and my Blu-ray gets played every so often as well), the black and white cinematography was gritty and fitting as was the red backdrop in the opening of the color section (cliche now, but not so in 1988). Two: Shortly after law school (1994), my Mom, sister, brother, and I went to see Dumb and Dumber. During the infamous Jeff Daniels "Turbo Lax" bathroom scene there was this sweet blue-haired grandma type in the theater who looked she should have been offended but was instead beside herself with uncontrollable laughter. I'm an eternal 14 year old so I still think the scene is funny... but we all still talk about that Grandma blowing a gasket in Dumb and Dumber. It's become one of our stories. OK -- one more... Getting to see both Patton and Ben-Hur on a 70mm screen in (for late 1980s) Dolby sound... amazing spectacles.

Panelist: T-Rav

I don’t remember which movie I went to watch—I was just a kid — but we got there 45 minutes early, and I drank a bunch of soda while waiting for it to start, and I got sick and ended up going to the bathroom and throwing it all up through my nose. I didn’t know that was physically possible, but apparently it is. Okay, maybe that’s not my “favorite” movie-going moment, but it is my most memorable.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

I know you won’t believe this, but it was seeing Gone With The Wind for the very first time on the big screen with my mother when they re-released it in the ‘60’s. I didn’t know what I was going to see, but it was magic.

Second would have to be spending the summer between my junior and senior year in college at the drive in movie seeing really bad horror films like Dracula’s Dog, Piranha, and Alligator, and Zombie! To this day, Zombie is the only movie I have ever left. I just couldn’t take it. It was gory and just plain bad.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, November 22, 2013

50th Anniversary: Doctor Who (1963-2013)

Doctor Who is perhaps the greatest science fiction show of all time. It’s also so amazingly unique that nothing has even come close to copying it. And on Saturday, it turns 50 years old. Who would have guessed?

An Inauspicious Start

Imagine you are tasked with starting a new series. You are sent off to the hinterlands and the worst studio facilities. You are given actors who don’t want to play the parts. Your main actor is “difficult,” and will eventually become a depressed alcoholic who needs to be retired. Your script is nonsense. Your budget is so low you can’t afford props. Nevertheless, you finish your show and it gets scheduled... for the night after JFK gets kill. That’s an inauspicious start for a show. Incredibly, that same show is still running 50 years later with only a short break in the 1990s.
Who is Doctor Who?

The Doctor, we never do find out his real name, travels around the universe in a stolen time machine called the TARDIS, which stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. This time machine can go anywhere and anytime. It is also vastly larger on the inside than it is on the outside. In theory, it can blend into the background wherever it lands, but that circuit is broken, so the Doctor’s TARDIS looks like a blue British police box wherever it goes.

When the story began in 1963, William Hartnell played the Doctor. He was old and nasty. He traveled the universe with his granddaughter Susan and two of her teachers who end up stuck aboard the TARDIS: Barbara and Ian. Their episodes were plodding and unfocused, but were enough to attract attention. After awhile, Hartnell needed to be retired for personal reasons. But how do you replace the main character for whom the show is named?
This is where the show found its genius. They killed the Doctor, but rather than dying, his character magically regenerated into another version of himself... the second Doctor (Patrick Troughton (above)). Troughton took over the story until he retired, at which point he was replaced by Jon Pertwee (below). Troughton played the Doctor as a bumbling professor. Under Pertwee, the series took a different turn. The episodes switched to color. His Doctor also was banished to Earth and more often than not used an old yellow car to drive around than the TARDIS to travel. He ran into any number of creatures who were trying to take over the Earth. He was also a very physical doctor, being more than willing to knock people out with a little alien judo. He was a bit like an alien James Bond.
His replacement is the most famous Doctor in the US, Tom Baker, because he ran the longest and because his shows were the ones imported by PBS for years. Most Americans (until recent years) will list him as their favorite. He also traveled with the most beloved of companions: Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen). Following him were Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. Then the show stopped in 1989 for lack of interest. In 1996, a movie was made starting Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. The idea was to revive the series, but the film bombed. The series seemed dead.
Then in 2005, Christopher Eccleston (above) rebooted the series as the Ninth Doctor. His episodes were much more modern. Gone were the cardboard sets, the BBC rock pit as a background, and the Shakespearean dialog. Instead, a modern sensibility was brought to the show. And let me tell you, it was a heck of a reboot. I’ve seen all the old episodes (had them on VHS) and I loved them, but the reboot won me over almost instantly. David Tennant (below) followed Eccleston and Matt Smith followed Tennant. Each was better than the last, and these shows have been really high quality all around. Indeed, these shows have featured amazing horror stories – inventing truly unique monsters, solid dramas, touching love stories, and all of this was done while carefully walking that balance between a kids’ show and something adults would love just as much. This is top notch science fiction.
What is Doctor Who?

So what is Doctor Who? Well, it’s a kids’ show that also pulls in adults by being much smarter than it deserves to be. It’s the kind of show you can’t help but like if you can get over the cheap effects and low budgets. It’s a solid action show in which the Doctor is called upon to save someone from catastrophe each week. It’s a solid science fiction show which deals with an amazing array of aliens and ideas. It’s a philosophical show where the Doctor will constantly be forced to ponder whether or not he has the right to take some action.

Despite spanning 50 years as of tomorrow and despite the feel of the show varying greatly over the years, the show has retained its core throughout. That core is this: the Doctor comes from a corrupt but brilliant race of people known as “The Time Lords.” They (falsely) claim noninterference is their highest rule. The Doctor wanted to help people, but was told he could not interfere. So he stole the TARDIS and fled Gallifrey (the home world of the Time Lords). Now he goes around the universe helping people who need it.
Traveling with the Doctor are usually one to three companions who act as assistants or foils. These are people who end up onboard by choice or accidentally, and since the Doctor isn’t great at operating the TARDIS, they often end up stuck with him for some time because he can’t take them home again easily.

The purpose of the show is to tell interesting stories. Sometimes there is a moral, sometimes there isn’t, but there’s always a bad guy who needs to be stopped. Indeed, the Doctor has amassed an amazing array of enemies and he has taken on whole civilizations at a time, such as the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Sontarans. The Master is his nemesis.
Prior to the reboot, the show was generally broken into 30 or 40 minute segments which would fit together to form longer stories that are anywhere from 40 minutes to three hours in length. The reboot shows are standard one-hour long episodes that sometimes spill over into multi-part episodes. Each story forms part of the history of the character and is considered cumulative even if it doesn’t form a direct story.

Philosophically speaking, I can’t tell you that the show is conservative because it’s not specifically. There are some elements that are, like a strong libertarian streak, an opposition to man playing God, and an opposition to tyranny. But there are just as many moments that feel standard-liberal. For example, the third and fourth Doctors were insultingly anti-military. The seventh Doctor was deeply politically correct. The Ninth Doctor was pro-gay. But these issues tend to be rarely raised and they tend to involve just moments rather than being the point to plots. Indeed, the main thrust of the show, philosophically speaking, has always been a combination of a respect for the sanctity of all life (no, it’s not about abortion) and an opposition to tyranny
At many points, the show has had brilliant moments. In “The War Games” you get humans who think they are fighting in wars such as World War I, only to discover they are on an alien planet and are being studied (like Dark City). The fourth Doctor has an amazing episode in which he goes far back in time and discovers how the Daleks were created in “Genesis of The Daleks.” Does he have the right to kill them before they grow? “Robots of Death” is my favorite. The fifth Doctor saves the Earth from a space freighter and discovers what killed the dinosaurs in “Earth Shock.” And so on.

But the older episodes really are meant as a series. You need to get to learn who the characters are and what their histories are for the shows to have their full impact. By comparison, the reboot episodes work much better as standalone episodes. And in that regard, you can find some amazing stories: “The Empty Child” is unbelievably creepy. “The Girl in the Fireplace” is a heartbreaking romance. “The Satan Pit,” “Blink,” and “Silence in the Library” are amazing horror films. “Midnight” is an intensely strong drama about how people behave when they are scared and under pressure from those around you. “The Time of Angels” is a heck of an adventure story. And so on.
If you’re at all into science fiction, then you really should know Doctor Who. The new shows are very modern and very entertaining, and I highly recommend them. But I also recommend going back and watching the rest too. Do not start with the first Doctor, however. Your best bet would be to start with the episodes that involve multiple Doctors: “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors.” Otherwise, start in the Tom Baker era (fourth Doctor) and see if you like something like the episodes I mention above... start with “Robots of Death.” Then try the fifth and third Doctors. You’ll find that each is different, but also enjoyable in their own way. It’s the kind of show where your favorite Doctor ends up being whichever Doctor you watched last.
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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Top 5 Most/Least Realistic Bond Villain Schemes

One of the keys to a good James Bond film is having a believable, yet larger-than-life scheme for the villain. Here are my Top 5 most-believable larger-the-life schemes... and my Top 5 most ridiculous schemes.

Top 5 Most Believable Schemes

1. From Russia With Love: The idea of getting your hands on a decoder device from a defector from the enemy camp is classic spying. Adding the bit about using this as a trap to kill Bond and collect the device is the larger-than-life cherry on top. This is perhaps the most fitting scheme ever for a Bond film.

2. For Your Eyes Only: Again, the idea of spies going after important enemy technology is classic spying. Here they’ve added the idea of salvage, which is again very realistic. This is something you can imagine happening all the time, with the balance of power shifting with the outcomes.

3. Live and Let Die: First one’s free kid. Kananga’s plan is actually brilliant. He’s going to dump heroin on the market for free. All it will cost him is lost profit and a heavy fertilizer bill. But the benefits... oh, the benefits! This will drive out his competitors, solidifying his power as the drug dealer of choice in the US. Meanwhile, with heroin being free, he will hook tens of millions of newly-minted addicts. In effect, he will spur a junkie epidemic and then profit immensely from it. This is actually Google’s sales strategy for Android.

4. Thunderball: Although this plot has been copied repeatedly and greatly mocked by people who want to poke fun at the series, the reality is that if you could steal two nuclear bombs, you could hold the US hostage for a BUTTLOAD OF MONEY!!! The key is getting your hands on the bombs, which isn’t all that easy. But the method they use here is pretty ingenuous by substituting a visiting military observer who hijacks the flight.

5. Quantum of Solace: Controlling natural resources has always been a colonial game and to have a group of villains using their financial muscle, combined with threats of violence, to corner those markets and thereby control countries is actually highly credible. It’s also pretty dangerous if they start controlling enough things around the planet. This is basically the Soviet “client state” model privatized and done on the quiet.

Top 5 Least Believable

5. The Spy Who Loved Me: A nutjob billionaire wants to blow up the world so that the survivors will turn to him to rebuild the planet. Uh, yeah. Forget that he will have no ability to reach the survivors or to do any rebuilding. The problems here start with his plan to have a Russian submarine blow up New York and an American submarine blow up Moscow... and a British submarine hanging around so Bond can stage an escape. If two submarines each fire one missile, does it seem likely that the Russians and Americans will just start shooting wildly or is it more likely they have already discussed what to do when their missing subs suddenly turn up?

4. Diamonds Are Forever: Rather than just launching his own satellite into space, Blofeld engages in a Rube Goldberg scheme just to get NASA to launch his satellite for him: “Nah nah! Fooooled you!” That satellite then uses a “laser” which doesn’t exist to blow up targets he could never find to blackmail the world. It’s a good thing the CIA can’t find him hidden away in the hotel in which they know he’s hiding.

3. You Only Live Twice: I love the idea of stealing spaceships, but this just wasn’t possible. You can’t launch a space mission without the world knowing where you came from. Meeting something in orbit is a lot harder than it looks. And nothing in the 1960s was capable of landing again in a reusable shape.

2. Moonraker: So we build a secret space launch facility that we use to build a space station the size of an NFL stadium in space, which we somehow hide so no one can see either the launches or the station. And why do this? So we can drop five snow globes into the atmosphere to poison everyone on Earth. Uh huh. Never mind that 6,000 nuclear missiles fired at once wouldn’t wipe out humanity. Never mind that falling snow globes is not a delivery system for poison gas or that gas is notoriously impossible to use even at ground level, much less from high altitude. The logistics are just laughable... might as well be wishing humanity into the cornfield.

1. Die Another Day: Let’s see, the North Koreans, who struggle to build mud huts, build a satellite that emits more power than the Starship Enterprise, allowing them to send down a wall of flames a mile wide. Any why do this? So they can blow up some landmines they could blow up just as easily with a small artillery barrage. Whoever came up with this idea should be savagely beaten with the script.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why People Prefer New Films

A good question came up Sunday asking why audiences prefer new films to older films. For the vast majority of people, if a film isn't truly fresh, then they aren't interested, even if they haven't seen the older movie. Why are people like this? Let's discuss some possible answers.

Let me start with the setup. General audiences love new movies, but they actually seem turned off by older movies, and the older the movie, the harder it is to get them to watch. For example, you would have no problem convincing people to watch a movie from 2012. A movie from 1992, however, would be a different matter. And forget a movie from 1962 or 1952. In fact, if you took a room full of people and you asked them which movie they would like to watch, even if you told them the 1962 and 1952 movies were the best, they would still overwhelmingly choose the 2012 movie. Fascinating.

So what is going on?

Well, tryanmax came up with some excellent ideas, which I will address as they arise, but let me start with this. Choosing a newer movie is the rational choice. Why? Quality assurance. Seriously. Humans can minimize their chances of making a wrong decision by going for the newest possible product that is available. I think similar logic applies to their selection of films. Consider the following three reasons why people view "new" as an indication of quality.

(1) Depreciation: Think about cars. People prefer new cars to older cars. We know this because new cars cost more. In fact, take the extreme example. You have a brand new 2013 Ford POS with less than 10 miles on it. By happenstance, the dealer just happens to have an identical unsold 2012 Ford POS with less than 10 miles on it. The 2012 will be worth significantly less than the 2013 even if it has the same body, color and options. Why is that? Because people assume the new car is of a higher quality, even if they are identical. Does this make sense? Well, yeah. The 2012 has a year's worth of corrosion on it. Its rubber is a little more brittle. Its paint is a little more oxidized. And if you try to sell it down the road, the buyer won't care that you bought it new in 2013, they'll only see that it was made in 2012. This is the same reason you pick out milk or fruit with the newest date on it, even though you plan to eat it long before the date passes: products depreciate over time.

But do films suffer from depreciation? Yes, they do. Like cars, films "age." And by age, what we mean is that everything about the film becomes less relatable in the present. The clothing, the dialog, the slang, the types of cars and homes, the things that matter to the characters. Tryanmax called this "creating a temporal distance," and I think that's very accurate. And the further back in time you go, the greater the temporal distance and the harder it becomes for modern audiences to relate. Thus, for example, if you don't own a leisure suit (or even know what one is) or if gas is plentiful, then a film set against the fuel shortages of the 1970s have a hard time feeling real to you. In the modern world of the US's dominance, a 1960s thriller about the Soviets taking over the world might be hard to care about. A 1930s film about a floozy in a speakeasy might seem like utter nonsense to you.

Films age because society changes, and the more society changes the harder it will be for most people to put themselves into the world they are watching, and that means they will enjoy those films less. By picking a new film over an old film, the average person all but guarantees they won't encounter this problem.

(2) Innovation/Improvement: People also prefer new things because new things are more innovative and tend to be technologically superior. Consider medical books or science books. Those depreciate in value very quickly as human knowledge grows and these books become outdated. Products experience this too. Older sports gear is heavier and less protective. Older computers have less power. Older houses don't have all the modern features. Older dogs are harder to train, as are older foster kids. Everywhere you look, older is lower quality, and our society reinforces this idea in our idioms, in how we sell things to each other, and in what we value.

A related point is that the newest products generally have their kinks worked out. Always skip the first model year of a new model. Why? Because they haven't worked out the kinks yet. Wait until they fix the problems they discover. Similarly, most people are slow to jump on new products until the early adapters have helped work out all the glitches. This may be behind an issue I've noted with books too. If you are selling five books and they came out one per year from 2009 to 2013, you would be amazed how many people will happily grab the 2012/2013 books, but will flat out ignore the "old" 2009/2010 books. Why? Well, I suspect they realize that most authors need time to hit their stride. So if you want to get the highest value for your buck, you pick up the books that are likely to be the highest quality, and that would be the most recent because logic suggests that you need time to refine your craft. Practice makes perfect, after all.

Is the same true of films? Absolutely. Knowledge is cumulative. And over time, film techniques, special effects and story telling techniques have improved. The reason for this should be obvious: each generation of filmmakers essentially can take the best of the past and recreate it while adding their own innovations. For example, while it may have taken a real breakthrough for Orson Wells to decide to put ceilings on his sets, every filmmaker knows to do this today. Steven Spielberg taught us in Jaws that delayed gratification can increase drama. Quentin Tarantino opened the door to strong nonlinear storytelling. And so on. Each innovation goes from unique risk to just another tool in the toolbox. So if an average person wants a film that is most likely to be based on the highest amount of quality engineering and is most likely to have the kinks worked out, then a more modern films is logically your better choice.

And just a few quick examples can show why this is reasonable. Which has better special effect? Harry Potter or a horror film from the 1960s? Which has more realistic dialog? A film from the 1980s or a film from the 1940s? Which has a stronger score? A film from the subtle 1970s or a film from the 1950s where bombastic was the word of the day? Even story telling has improved because there are so many more tools now. Again, by picking the newest films, the person improves their chance of getting the most value for their dollar.

(3) The Herd: Finally, there's another aspect of the human condition that gets us to buy new things: the herd instinct. In fact, this is the most common form of advertising pitch - "Don't you want to keep up with the Jones? Celebrity X owns one." What this does is play on the human instinct to not get too far from what the rest of the herd is doing. This instinct exists in all aspect of consumer behavior, so it's logical that it exists in the selection of entertainment too.

Tryanmax made this point: "everybody just wants to see what their friends are seeing." Said differently, people may see entertainment more as a form of "keeping up with the Jones." That would mean that people are drawn to current films not just because they think they might enjoy them but so they can maintain their place in society by talking intelligently about the latest films and thereby demonstrating their herd-savvy. Consequently, since the rest of the herd isn't racing out to see Risky Business, there is a low value placed on seeing that film, certainly a much lower value than seeing the current blockbuster. And since human activity time is limited, older films tend to lose out because the time allotted to watch films is being absorbed by herd-fare.

Now obviously, the above ideas don't apply to everyone. Some people are contrarians and will actively avoid herd-fare. Some people are nostalgic for an era. Some people are film buffs and like different films for different reasons. But for the vast majority of people, films are not something they want to develop as a hobby. So when they decide to see a film, they simply want the film that is most likely to provide them with the best value for their time. In that event, it is logical for them to assume that a modern film will likely be more relatable, will be made with higher quality techniques, and will deliver a bigger social payoff. So it makes sense that they would pick the more modern films.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Good Riddance Popeye

A couple weeks ago, we talked about why The Flintstones seem to be disappearing from the national consciousness. I pointed out that this struck me as strange because The Flintstones seemed rather iconic. Another iconic character is disappearing as well, if he isn't already gone, and this time I say good riddance: Popeye. Here's the difference in my book.

Unlike The Flintstones, who deal with a great many universal themes which are true generation after generation, Popeye doesn't. When you watch Fred and Wilma, you are getting a comedic look at the classic nuclear family, an arrangement that has existed long before the nuclear age and, barring a dystopic future, will likely continue forever. Humans just seem prone to coupling and they tend to want to raise their kids in families. The Flintstones speak to that in an entertaining way. They are also deeply "middle class," in the sense that Fred "works for a living," i.e. he does not invest or run his own business or live on welfare. They aren't social outliers either and they don't advocate crazy ideologies or religions. They are society's bedrock... pardon the pun.

Popeye is not that.

Popeye no longer resonates with modern audiences because he doesn’t project values modern audiences share. For one thing, Popeye is low class. In fact, he comes across pretty much as a drifter. He doesn't work. He doesn't raise a family. He's not capable of leadership. He doesn't contribute to society in any meaningful way. He has no sense of real responsibility. And he finds his courage in a can... sure, it's "spinach" (wink wink). Those aren't great values. To the contrary, those are the values average American look down upon.

Moreover, Popeye comes from a time when America had an inferiority complex and wanted to prove to the world that what we lacked in stale sophistication or in spiffy fascist uniforms, we made up for in being scrappy. Indeed, Popeye is a dated "ethnic" stereotype: the tough Brooklynite with little man syndrome who was inserted into every war film made in the 1940s, i.e. the unshaven thug who may or may not have a heart of gold somewhere inside, but who has no problem-solving skills and who wants to impress us with his "moxie" as he repeatedly uses violence to stand up to people we're suppose to dislike.

These characters were everywhere in the films of the 1940s/1950s. Indeed, Popeye was no different than Animal from Stalag 17 or Cagney in The Fighting 69th. Echoes of him can even be seen as late as Popeye Doyle from The French Connection in the 1970s, who responded to any insult with violence. But this isn’t someone who appeals to us anymore.

Modern action heroes use violence as a last resort after trying to fix the problem in some other way. Only when the villain refuses to change and then continues to use violence will the hero use violence himself. In effect, they fight reluctantly and when they do, they fight in self-defense and for justice. Popeye, by comparison, uses violence when he reaches the end of his patience, not because it's the only solution. That difference is key because it represents a fundamental shift in how our society views the acceptability of violence, and Popeye simply doesn’t fit in today’s society.

And the reason society has changed, I think, is because we’ve met too many people like Popeye in bars or at sports events, and we’ve seen them on Cops. These people think they are heroes and that people love how they “put bullies in their place,” but the reality is they are more often than not just belligerent a-holes. They get into fights over “points of honor” like disrespectful looks or “stolen” parking spaces or their kid’s playing time, and they engage in domestic violence when they get spinached-up. Even worse, they think “everyone” fights over those things and those who don't are somehow losers. They are a menace. Those are the values Popeye projects when translated to real life, and that’s not something people view favorably anymore.

This is why I think Popeye is vanishing from the landscape, because Americans no longer relate to or like the person his is. This is why he's different than hard-working Mickey Mouse or family-man Fred Flintstone.
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Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 100

Wow, we've hit the big 1-0-0. So let's do something different today. Today, we turn the question over to you. What questions do you have? What have you always wondered about Hollywood? What are some of your favorites, or not so favorites? Tell us what you would like to talk about!
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Friday, November 15, 2013

Film Friday: The Master (2012)

I’m going to save you two hours of your life: don’t see this film. This isn’t a film, it’s an exercise in acting. It’s a meandering biography of an unlikable fictional character and it tries to explain its own indulgences as being an examination of post traumatic stress syndrome. It’s critic bait.

** Spoiler Alert **

The Master was marketed as being a thinly-veiled, warts-and-all unauthorized biography of L. Ron Hubbard. Actually, let me rephrase that. The Master was marketed as NOT being a thinly-veiled, warts-and-all unauthorized biography of L. Ron Hubbard... wink wink. They even went so far as to mention at every turn that Scientologists were upset about what this film would reveal and the director personally screened the film for Tom Cruise as a peace offering. Essentially, they sold this as a Scientology exposé by denying that’s what it was.

Well, I don’t know if the character of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is anything like L. Ron Hubbard, but it doesn’t really matter. He never purports to run a religion. The film doesn’t delve into whatever Scientology is really about. And the film only focuses on Dodd tangentially.
What this film is about is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a sex-obsessed, alcoholic World War II vet. The story opens with Freddie in the Navy where he seems like a weirdo who humps a sand sculpture. Quell gets discharged and we’re told he has been diagnosed with a condition that the public will consider “cowardice.” They are talking about post traumatic stress syndrome, though they don’t name it. Quell then gets a series of jobs and ruins them all with bizarre acts like picking a fight with a customer in a department store. He romances a couple women and leaves them. Then he kills a Mexican farm worker in Salinas with bad moonshine, and he hides on a ship to escape.
It turns out this ship is being captained by Lancaster Dodd, who runs a sort of cult that seems to be based around garbage psychology. In fact, the way Dodd comes across is as a caricature of a Hollywood Psychiatrist who does bizarre things like ask the same question twenty times just to test your answer and then asks you how you feel. It’s nonsense.

Dodd befriends Freddie and takes him in. Freddie then repeatedly defends Dodd from disloyal followers and outside skeptics by beating them up as Dodd moves pointlessly through the plot. If he’s building a church, you don’t see it. All you see is the interaction of Dodd and Freddie and Freddie fighting people who denigrate Dodd. Eventually, the film ends at an arbitrary point in Freddie’s life.
Why This Sucks
Let me start by telling you how most critics responded, because that might tell you what the problem is here. No doubt they watched this film having no idea what was going on. Little is explained and the focus of the film is on Freddie’s erratic behavior, which is basically the entirety of the plot. Then the credits start rolling. The critics look around and see the angry looks on the faces of the proles, so they instinctively jump up and applaud like Ruby Rhod’s sycophants in The Fifth Element:
“Oh my! Now I know what anguish feels like!” gushes one critic.

“I have truly learned something about the human condition!” gushes another.

“Yes, I am a better person for watching this film,” replies the first.
Meanwhile, the actors are giving interviews in which they all say, “I wanted to do this because this is a real actor’s film.” Translation: It’s melodrama pretending to be insightful. The public? Well, this $32 million film grossed all of $28 million and it wouldn’t have done that without the deception of the supposed Scientology exposé.

Here’s the thing. Biographies are often lousy films because a human life is not amenable to compelling storytelling. Sure, there are parts of our lives that would make excellent stories, but not our whole lives at once. So from the get go, this is problematic being essentially a biography. Director Paul Thomas Anderson tries to fix this by limiting the film to a small time period in Freddie’s life: the relationship between Freddie and Dodd. Unfortunately, Anderson still fails to give us a compelling storyline. Instead, we just see a series of five or six minute long incidents that involve Freddie misbehaving and Dodd responding to that. So again, there is no real plot... it’s just an outline of moments, and the moments are so small and insignificant that they don’t form a plot, just a picture of Freddie as pathetic.
This is a real lost opportunity given the suggestion that the film was a thinly-veiled exposé on Scientology. If the film had been about Dodd or the construction of his cult, then it might have been interesting. You could watch step by step as the group is formed, expands and corrupts. But it’s not. To the contrary, you barely get a sense that Dodd is anything more than a blowhard surrounded by a handful of friends. You get a couple hints that he’s a fraud, but nothing clear. You learn nothing about his organization or its scope. Instead, you just get the biography on a fictional person who is only tangential to the exposé.

Even worse, the film tries a couple times to wedge in this idea that the reason Freddie is so pathetic is that he’s suffering from his exposure to war. This is a popular theme in Hollywood right now and they are trying to work it into films, particularly films about World War II. Thus, characters periodically say things like, “The war taught us to fight, and now that’s all we know.” But see, here’s the problem: (1) we never get a baseline to tell us that Freddie wasn’t pathetic before, and (2) his only evidence of having mental problems is that he’s a belligerent assh*le. So that doesn’t wash. Nor is any real point made about this, e.g. there’s no solution offered, so it feels gratuitous.
To add insult to injury, the film ends in a way which implies that the whole thing was a dream Freddie had as he humped a sand sculpture... clearly an analogy of what the film is doing to the audience.

This film goes wrong on so many levels. For one thing, it never builds a plot. It wrongly assumes that a series of five minute vignettes is good enough. And while that can work if the vignettes are interesting, these aren’t. Rather than being mini-stories, these vignettes are just moments of Freddie misbehaving. It doesn’t help that Freddie isn’t a real person either or that he ends up being tangential to the thing that was used to hook people into seeing the movie. Even worse, little is communicated to the audience. There are long periods without dialog, the characters don’t explain what is going on around them or in their lives, and even the relationships of the characters aren’t clear. Nor does it help that all this craziness Freddie does might have been shocking to an audience in the 1950s, but reeks of Oscar-bait acting today.

Unless you need to see an example of crazy, say to help you fail a disability test, then avoid this film.
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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0011 Quantum of Solace (2008)

Quantum of Solace is a much better film than people believe and, over time, I predict it will rise up the rankings. It will eventually be seen as a better movie than Casino Royale. Why? Because this film has a great Bond, great supporting characters, the most believable “larger-than-life” criminal organization in the series and a truly strong story. But for now, the film still suffers from misperception. That’s why it’s only No. 0011 of 0023.

Plot Quality: Quantum of Solace picks up where Casino Royale left off. Bond is being chased through Italian mountain roads. In his trunk is the man he shot at the end of Casino Royale. He is taking the man to an MI-6 safehouse where he will be interrogated. However, the man will escape with the help of M’s bodyguard. Bond kills the bodyguard and learns the man has a contact in Haiti.
Bond goes to Haiti where he discovers that internationally renown environmentalist Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) has hired a man to kill his girlfriend Camille (Olga Kurylenko) and that Greene is connected to the man Bond shot in Casino Royale. Bond saves Camille and trails Greene to Austria. In an excellent bit of spying, Bond discovers that Greene is running, or helping to run, an organization called Quantum. This is a collection of industrialists who use their multinational companies to control countries. Among this group is a bodyguard for an advisor to the British Prime Minister, which suggests the advisor is part of the group. Bond kills him, which causes M to cut off his passport and send people to get him.

Bond, meanwhile, gets Réne Mathis to help him follow Greene to Bolivia. When they arrive in Bolivia, Bond is detained so M can take him back to Britain. Bond, of course, evades detention and goes after Greene. He then discovers that Greene is trying to gain control over all the water in Bolivia by replacing the current government with a military coup who will give him the water rights. Mathis is killed and Bond is blamed. He is now hunted by the British, the Bolivians, and the CIA, who have cut a deal with Greene to turn a blind eye to his activities in exchange for what they believe are oil rights. With the help of Felix Leiter, however, Bond escapes and finds Greene at a desert resort, where he is meeting with coup leader General Medrano.
Having learned that Camille is an agent of Bolivian intelligence and has a personal grudge against Medrano for killing her parents and her sister, Bond and Camille attack the resort and kill the General and his security team. They capture Greene and Bond strands him in the desert to die. In a final scene, Bond catches the lover who betrayed Vesper Lynd, Yusef Kabira, in Russia, completing Casino Royale.

This film is beautifully shot. It has the travelogue feel too. Austria is opulent, the Bolivian desert is desolate, the Italian alps are amazing and even Haiti is compelling. Bond is fantastic as the relentless, cold-blooded killing machine; this film feels like Taken before Taken. Greene is a fantastic villain. Mathis is a compelling and likeable character, as are Camille, M, and Felix Leiter. The plot is very strong, being a focused revenge film combined with a film in which Bond must actually spy. The stunts are realistic. The action is brutal. Some have described this as the most violent Bond film ever, which is possible. The film is clever too. The dialog is sharp. The meeting in Vienna is highly original on an order we haven’t seen since 1970’s films like The Conversation or The French Connection. This is a great film.
So why isn’t it ranked higher? Perception. For one thing, the film was beset by problems. It was made in the middle of a writers’ strike and Craig and the director finished the script themselves. Unfortunately, both Craig and the director then attacked the film because of the problems they had. They are wrong, but it’s hard to shake that kind of reputation once you create it. Also, a lot of people don’t like the way this film continues Casino Royale, a first for Bond films. What I think really bothers people, however, is the lack of an over-the-top ending. A lot of people expect a big, stupid ending on each Bond film and this film doesn’t have that. There are no exploding space stations or blimps crashing into bridges. Instead, the film opts for an ending similar to Taken or Gladiator, with some explosions, but where the character’s drive for revenge is satisfied in a personal and visceral way.
I would also suggest that this is the first “cult” Bond film. In every Bond film before this, everything is perfectly explained. At each phase of the movie, the villain gloatingly brags about his plan as Bond explains the plot to the audience while ostensibly talking to the Bond girl. This film doesn’t do that. For example, we watch Greene grab water rights, but he never lays out the scheme or the implications, i.e. he’s dominating countries. You have to deduce that from the General signing an agreement he rejected only moments before and that Greene can control the CIA and MI-6 and apparently has people directing the British Prime Minister. Greene also never tells you what Quantum is or does. Again, you need to assemble this yourself from the importance of the men Bond identifies in Austria. Things like that will confuse some people, but delight others, and this is the first time a Bond film has done this in a script. I suspect that’s a big part of the problem: the film traffics in ambiguity.

Bond Quality: This is Craig’s second outing as Bond and he’s excellent. The Bond character generally requires a combination of suaveness, cold- bloodedness, and humor. Few Bonds had all three. Craig does lacks the humor, but he makes up for it with a plot that puts the focus entirely on his cold-bloodedness, something he excels at. Indeed, his Bond is a relentless killer who will do whatever he needs to do to complete his mission. This is something we haven’t seen since Connery.
Craig also brings back something else we haven’t seen since Connery: he’s a jerk to the women he runs across. As with Connery, Craig enjoys the women he encounters, but he doesn’t think twice about using them. To him, sex is a game; he doesn’t fall in love and he doesn’t act like he wants to be anyone’s husband. This was a problem with prior Bonds who all started falling for their Bond girls. Connery and Craig couldn’t give a damn about these women (with the exception of Vesper Lynd, which is the one big flaw in Casino Royale). What this gives Craig is what it gave Connery, it makes him “the bad boy.” There is a real appeal in that type of character, especially when you believe that deep down, there is a heart of gold. By comparison, Moore came across as pissy with the evil women and clingy with the good women, Dalton was the earnest white knight, Lazenby was struck by love at first sight, and Brosnan was the hurt lover. Only Connery and Craig managed the playboy aspects right.

The one flaw with Craig is that he’s never jovial, as Connery often was. But with this being a darker plot, you don’t miss that aspect... plus you see hints of it with his relationship with M, with Mathis, and with Leiter.

The Bond Girl: This one has an unusual Bond girl. Olga Kurylenko plays Camille, who is a Bolivian Intelligence agent with a vendetta against General Medrano. Kurylenko handles the role well and has strong chemistry with Craig. What makes her unusual is that she has no love scene with Bond, yet you don’t miss it. Indeed, this seems to make her a stronger companion for Bond than other Bond girls because they are bound together by their mission rather than Bond’s sex drive. All in all, she’s probably the best companion Bond has ever had. (Gemma Arterton is a Bond girl in this too, but she’s pointless.)
Villain Quality: The villain is fantastic. For the first time since the end of SPECTRE, there is an evil organization confronting Bond: Quantum. And unlike SPECTRE and their volcano lairs, Quantum is highly believable. In fact, most people already believe oligopolies of amoral multinationals like this are already out there doing exactly this. And they represent a true threat to the world too – they aren’t just drug dealers or crazed misanthropic billionaires with fantasy plans. Their methods are clever too, being wrapped up in the world of finance, and holding meetings in public places that can’t possibly be bugged. They represent a true challenge to Bond.
Even better, the specific villain given to us is one of the strongest Bond villains we’ve been given. Dominic Greene is a cold-blooded killer. He doesn’t rant and rave and dream up elaborate Rube Goldbergian ways to kill Bond. He is a ruthlessly efficient businessman who sees killing and extortion as part of his toolbox. In one of his best moments, we see him threaten General Medrano. He doesn’t whine or prance around or kill the General because he tweaked his ego. No. He calmly tells the General that should the General kill Greene or refuse to do exactly what Greene says, Quantum will kill the General in a most vicious way. There is no passion in this statement and no ego, it’s just a statement of fact. And in delivering this threat in that manner, Greene shows that he’s an immensely powerful and confident man who doesn’t have a single insecurity. He’s not Scaramanga looking for Bond’s approval, Red Grant who lets his ego trump his judgment, or cowardly Blofeld scurrying away as Bond chases him, or any of the insane villains. He is the world’s worst nightmare: a smart, powerful and super-competent man who has no morals and decides to take over the world without anyone noticing.
Greene’s scheme is excellent too. Unlike other Bond villains whose schemes often made no sense, Greene’s scheme is to gain the power to control countries by controlling their leaders and their vital resources. Here, he’s taking control of the water Bolivia needs to survive, and one can assume they are doing similar things in other countries. In effect, his ultimate goal is world domination through the control of puppet states. This is both possible and scary. Compare this to Elliot Carver’s nonsensical quest for ratings or a contract in China, Blofeld’s simple extortion, or Zorin’s plan to destroy Silicon Valley to somethingsomething profit. This is a real threat because it involves genuine power and it’s something you believe can happen.

Even better, unlike the villains of the past, Greene has the perfect cover: he’s a renown environmentalist! When was the last time you saw one of those as the bad guy? Further, this is the kind of character detail that makes his scheme seem so dangerous because no one will believe that a man who wants to help the world is really trying to dominate it through a succession of puppet regimes. What’s more, his plan is working. Look at how he plays the CIA and the British with promises of oil – they don’t even comprehend what he’s doing. Greene is perhaps the most real, and yet most powerful and most cold-blooded villain Bond has ever faced, and he’s the perfect match for Bond.

All in all, this is an excellent film that deserves its high rank and which I think will one day be higher ranked. Right now, it falls in the category of misunderstood, but as we’ve seen with cult films (of which this has many attributes), they have a way of becoming understood once they find their audience. With the Bond franchise (and public tastes) headed in the direction of smaller, darker, more visceral action films, I think this one will eventually find its audience. In the meantime though, the public perception that this was a let down from Casino Royale will keep this one at only No. 0011 of 0023.
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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

In Cars

You know what they don’t make anymore? Car movies. Does this say something bad about America? It might. It certainly says something bad about Hollywood.

Yeah, they don’t make car movies anymore. What do I mean by car movies? Well, I’m not talking about Cars or Cars 2, which could just have been called Toy Story 4/5, and I definitely am not talking about Transformers. God no.


What I’m talking about are Vanishing Point. . . Smokey & The Bandit. . . Cannonball Run. These weren’t car movie so much as flipping the bird at the man and hitting the gas movies. These were westerns on speed. These were movies about “the last American hero” who would not conform to the dictates of the nanny state.

They don’t make movies like American Graffiti anymore either, movies about American youth in their natural habitat.

They don’t make movies like Corvette Summer. . . uh, never mind on that one.

They don’t make movies like Vacation anymore, about the Odyssey so many Americans take with their families: the family road trip vacation.

They don’t make movies like Duel, which speak to our love with road rage or Death Race 2000 which had everyone I know looking for points.

Look, Americans and cars go hand in hand. They define us, we express our individuality through them. They set us free. And you don’t see that anymore. When you see “car” films today, they are really just heist films that involve cars, like Fast and Furious or The Italian Job. Or they’re nostalgia pieces like Deathproof. Or, God help us, it’s spoiled rich girls taking daddy’s BMW on the road to find get attention.

What you don’t see anymore are films about the connection between average Americans and their cars. You don’t see films about our love for cars... about us defining ourselves through our cars... about the freedom our cars give us.

There are several possible reasons for this. It’s possible that car movies have just become that much harder to make since cops are more sophisticated now in stopping scofflaws... though that doesn’t stop the heist films. It’s possible that we aren’t as interested in cars since we’re more urban, but anyone who has looked at our busy highways and the love affairs Americans still have with cars knows that’s not true.

I think this is another example where Hollywood has lost touch with America and Americans. Hollywood still realized that American’s love cars - indeed, they use cars to make their heroes stand out by giving each a classic car - but they don’t seem to understand the connection. They don’t seem to understand that a car in not like a jacket or a watch, it is a much larger symbol of who we are, it is a member of the family, it is one of the few things that give American’s total control over their destinies. . . cars are a part of us, not just an accessory.

Maybe it’s time for the next great car film to remind Americans of personal freedom. Thoughts?
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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Toon-arama: Oliver & Company (1988)

by tryanmax

What if I told you that a cartoon starring a lovable talking kitten and a rag-tag bunch of dogs who all sing and dance and discover the meaning of friendship wasn’t just run-of-the-mill Disney but was actually one of the most important animated features ever produced?

You’d probably think I was being silly. Or making outrageous claims for attention. (In fairness, I do do that a lot.) At a glance, Oliver & Company looks like just another formula piece—nothing special. But what you may not realize is that, at the time this film was produced, the formula had been forgotten.
By the mid-80s, to put it mildly, the Disney animation studios were in a slump. Not only had the pace of production fallen off considerably since Walt’s passing 20 years earlier, but the studio hadn’t had a big hit in nearly a decade. One by one, the fabled Nine Old Men, the original core of the Disney animation team, had retired or passed away and the best of the new crop, Don Bluth, had taken off to form his own studio. By all accounts, things had settled into a dismal state at the Disney animation studios. The cobwebs definitely needed dusting.

Cues from the classics

Enter the newly-appointed head of the film department, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Of the animation projects in queue when he took over, only one was early enough in development to make any significant changes. But when Katzenberg declared they would radically alter a proposed sequel for The Rescuers to become a singing-and-dancing Dickens adaptation, it was seen as a huge shakeup, even by Eisner-ian standards.

It was the choice to adapt Dickens’s Oliver Twist that would have the most profound effect. Upon announcement, the project was criticized as tackling too complicated and dismal a storyline—an ill-conceived effort to appeal to too many age groups. Since then, attitudes have changed and a children’s feature is blasted if it isn’t sufficiently complex.
[Brief synopsis: Oliver, an orphaned kitty gets taken in by a pack of stray dogs and a homeless guy in New York City. The guy is in deep to a loan shark, so the dogs try to pull a con to help him out. The con backfires, however, and Oliver ends up adopted by a poor little rich girl. Some stuff happens and the loan shark ends up kidnapping the little girl in an attempt to make his debtor pay up. But in classic Disney fashion, he gets his comeuppance and everyone (else) lives happily ever after.]

The other lasting effect of Katzenberg’s decision was that, when Shakespeare’s Hamlet was transported to the African savannah, The Lion King was billed as an original tale. It wasn’t until The Hunchback of Notre Dame that Disney dared to openly tackle adapting something not commonly regarded as children’s fare—to a strikingly similar effect.

Sing a song

The more obvious effect, however, was the return of the musical format. In the 1980s, the musical was so dead that even Disney had diminished or completely removed the musical aspects of its animated features. There were no songs at all in The Black Cauldron. To ensure favorable reception of Oliver, current pop musicians were cast, including Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and Ruth Pointer.
Oliver also features the first Howard Ashman lyrics written for a Disney film. Ashman would go on to write lyrics for the next three Disney features. The success of the Oliver & Company soundtrack apart from the film itself allowed for the revival of the musical format in Disney animation and led to future collaborations with famous artists such as Elton John, Phil Collins, Randy Newman, and Alan Menken.

The wave of the future

Everyone knows Toy Story ushered in the age of CGI animation, right? Not so fast. While The Black Cauldron is officially the first animated feature to incorporate CGI, Oliver was the first to use it extensively. Skyscrapers, automobiles, a bridge and a scooter were all animated by computer and featured prominently onscreen.

A few criticisms

For all that Oliver revived, there are some aspects of that are decidedly un-Disney. Of all the films considered “Classics” this one has the shoddiest animation by far. The motion is often sluggish and the characters strike baroque poses more than just occasionally. It has an uncharacteristic “flatness” as well; one is very aware of watching moving drawings. In terms of quality, it is more on-par with Disney television animation—which is not terrible—than with other cinematic releases.

Taking on Dickens, while ambitious, was maybe too big a bite. The story takes precious little time for character development. Even so, the film feels rushed, especially when squeezing in those musical numbers, catchy as they may be. At the climax, one feels a tad confused about how everything arrived there.

The most inescapable flaw is how dated the film is. Sure, every Disney cartoon conveys a sense of when it was released, but generally they strive for the timeless and do quite well. Oliver is absolutely entrenched in the 1980s, from the visuals to the soundtrack to the dialogue. It may come to pass that, as we move further from the 80s, the dated effect will wear off as it has for films like 101 Dalmatians. Still, it remains an outlier among its peers.
So what happened?

Given Oliver’s relative obscurity in the Disney Classics lineup, one might think it was a flop. In reality, it had a very respectable box office performance. However, it was beaten in the same opening weekend by Bluth’s The Land Before Time. As history and 12 direct-to-video sequels have shown, baby dinosaurs have incredible appeal. (To Oliver’s credit, all the sequels were musicals, while the original was not.) A year later, The Little Mermaid’s opening figures dwarfed those of Oliver, cementing Mermaid’s legacy as the dawn of the Disney Renaissance and ushering in the age of the Disney Princess.

But imagine how different it and subsequent films would have been if, instead of following in Oliver’s footsteps, they instead traced the paths of Robin Hood or The Rescuers? It wasn’t just Disney films that were affected, either. Bluth, Fox, Dreamworks, and others released popular musical animated features in response, some of which are still mistaken for Disney films today. While I would never contend that Oliver & Company carries the importance of a Snow White or Pinocchio, Disney may not have ever returned to similar heights if this unassuming film hadn’t come first.
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Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Great (film) Debates vol. 99

Good guys are chumps... villains are where the real action is! But some just seem like bad company. Seriously, Vader looks like a jerk... lack of faith disturbing my butt, and I can’t imagine Hannibal Lecter would make a nice dinner companion... not to mention the Blob.

What villain did you find most likable as a person?

Panelist: Tennessee Jed

This is probably a stretch, because the character is actually the protagonist of the film, so he is not a classic villain. However, Richard Farnsworth, in the 1982 film The Grey Fox does play a gentleman bandit who had been sent to prison for robbing stagecoaches.

After his release, he returns to what he knows how to do by heading to Canada to rob trains. As often happens in Hollywood, that same year, a very similar theme was on display in Harry Tracy starring Bruce Dern and Gordon Lightfoot. Tracy, a member of the wild bunch, is tracked by Lightfoot who was either a U.S. marshall or Pinkerton agent. The point is, the villain is romanticized and the law enforcement officer becomes the bad guy.

Panelist: ScottDS

Hands down, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in Die Hard. Suave, well-read, well-dressed... you just want to sit down with him and talk about art or history or business. [smile]

Panelist: Floyd

Obadiah Stane from the first Iron Man. His nickname was Obie and he brought pizza! What's not to like? He went bad as opposed to being bad from the get-go. I guess Harvey Dent fits that description too.

Panelist: BevfromNYC

Vincent Price! He was the creepiest villain/monster, but in interviews he was so charming and I hear he was a really great chef. Boris Karloff comes in a very close second. He could be so creepy, yet so endearing and so not scary in interviews.

Panelist: AndrewPrice

This one was surprisingly easy: Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint aka Kaiser Soze! Seriously, the guy is one hell of a story teller and I would love to hear more about what really happened in San Pedro. Good friend to have too.

Comments? Thoughts?
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Friday, November 8, 2013

Film Friday: Better Off Dead (1985)

With the holiday season upon us, it’s time to talk about one of my favorite movies that takes place during the holidays: Better Off Dead. Written and directed by Savage Steve Holland and staring John Cusack, Better Off Dead is a teen comedy kind of like those put out by John Hughes... only very different. And to me, this is one of the funniest movies you will ever see.

Here’s the story: high-schooler Lane Myer (John Cusack) is in love with his girlfriend Beth. Beth, however, doesn’t love Lane, and she dumps Lane for Roy, the captain of the school’s ski team. This causes Lane to become suicidal. Fortunately for him, his half-hearted attempts to kill himself fail. Soon enough, he meets the foreign exchange student who is staying with his neighbors. They fall in love. And when Roy insults Lane’s new girlfriend, Lane decides to defend her honor with a ski race. Sounds like a Hallmark film, doesn’t it? Yeah, it’s not.
See, what John Hughes did so brilliantly in his films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club was that he identified the things that cause teenage angst and he told the audience that everyone feels this stuff, even the kids who otherwise seem to have such perfect lives. This was reassuring. It made kids feel less alone and less freakish. He also told them that everything would be all right eventually. These messages resonated.

Steven Holland’s approach was a tad bit different. Like Hughes, Holland isolated the things that cause teenage angst: getting dumped, having uncool parents, competing with a sibling, being shown up in competitions, getting bullied, and generally feeling inferior. Unlike Hughes, however, Holland did not reassure us. No. To the contrary, Holland amplified the hell out of everything... to the point of unreality. Indeed, let’s go through the plot again and you might see what I mean.
High-schooler Lane Myer is in love with his girlfriend Beth. Only, it’s not love... it’s obsession. Lane is obsessed with Beth to the point that he has hundreds of photos of her around his house. Then she dumps him. And this isn’t a John Hughes dump where the deed happens in a brief-but-respectful scene and then the main characters finds solace with their friends. No. This is a never-ending horrific dump. First, she dumps Lane for the captain of the school’s ski team, Roy Stalin. Stalin is a bully who will periodically show up at the worst possible moments to add to Lane’s humiliation. If there is a moment that Lane will end up covered in garbage or falling on his butt or getting fired, Roy and Beth will happen by and Roy will mock him.

Further, once she dumps Lane, everything will remind Lane of this fact, like the radio playing a continuous loop of breakup songs on every channel. Moreover, as Lane moves throughout his day, his teacher will actually ask Lane if Beth is available... as does Barney Rubble of all people.
Because of this, Lane becomes suicidal and he sets out to kill himself. Fortunately for him, he proves to be utterly incompetent at this, as he is in every other aspect of his life, and we see him try various things only to have them fail. Interestingly, whereas Hughes would choose this moment to have someone from the main character’s life come assure them that everything would be all right, Holland goes the other way: each of Lane’s friends and family either ignore his attempts or actively encourage them.

Family is another area of angst for teens. Specifically, you see a lot of teen films about competing with a superior sibling or teens who struggle with having uncool parents who don’t understand them. Holland gives us this in spades. For example, Lane’s little brother can build a spaceship and pick up trashy women. Lane’s mother does insane things (note what she’s cooking in the image below). And Lane’s father sets Lane up with the most hilarious blind date. Again, each character is so far over the top that they become ridiculous.
A lot of teenage angst also comes from a feeling that the teen can’t compete with those around them. Better Off Dead really excels here. Lane is constantly made a fool by two Vietnamese brothers who learned to speak English by watching Howard Cosell and who keep challenging him to races. When Lane finally stands up to Stalin, he hopes to keep the issue quiet. Instead, it gets announced over the school loudspeaker. And how does he stand up to Stalin? By challenging him to a race down the K-12, a ski slope that we are told will kill even professional skiers. Whoops.

The whole film is like this. Everything that happens in Lane’s life is exaggerated. Whereas John Hughes tried to downplay people’s angst and make people realize that it wasn’t as big of a deal as they thought, Lane lives in a world where his insecurities are in fact huge threats to his very existence... bizarre unrealistic threats, which make you laugh. This makes for a strong film which forces you to laugh.
Moreover, the film is packed with memorable characters. His best friend Charles de Mar (Curtis Armstrong) is a drug addict and a freak, who wonders about the street value of all the “snow” on the mountain. His neighbor Ricky is... well, God knows, and Ricky’s mom is the nightmare over-protective mother who has raised an adult infant. Lane’s boss is a vile caricature and humiliates him. The paperboy stalks Lane for $2 (something I can sympathize with being an former paperboy). Each of these characters is strong enough that you could see them as the standalone “interesting character” in a modern film, but here they are all assembled in this one story and they work because Lane’s world is just unreal enough that these people can inhabit it.
This much alone would make Better Off Dead an excellent film, but Savage adds a very strong romance to the film too. In the middle of all of this, Lane meets Monique, the foreign exchange student. She had been brought to the US from France by Ricky’s mother and apparently was brought over as girlfriend material for Ricky. She’s held a virtual prisoner in Ricky’s house and she pretends she can’t speak English so she doesn’t have to talk to them. She sees Lane’s attempts to kill himself and she takes an interest in him. Little by little she decides to build his confidence by helping him overcome his insecurities by challenging each of them head-on. Eventually, she will awaken within him his lost confidence and he will beat Roy on the slopes and then defeat Ricky in a sort of swordfight for Monique.
This is a really effective love story because it goes beyond two characters doing the love at first sight thing. Instead, these two are friends who grow to love each other as they realize that they make each other better people. In effect, they are perfect for each other.

All of this adds up very nicely. The romance is strong and heartwarming. The problems Lane runs into are hilarious. The supporting characters are unique and fascinating to watch. The dialog is perfect and very quotable:
“Two dollars!” “A car is not a toy!” “Sorry your mom blew up, Ricky.” “He keeps putting his testicles all over me.” “Do you mind if I take out Beth?” “This... was your assignment.” “What’s a little boy like you doing with big boy smut like this?” “Everyone will be wearing them.” “You like raisins.” “Didn't ask for a dime.”
The acting is understated for a teen movie, but sells the movie perfectly. Moreover, Holland was smart enough to make the world just unreal enough to be truly funny, but grounded enough to keep us from seeing this film as a parody, and he did that by telling us that we are basically seeing the world through the exaggerated, blown-out-of-proportion world of an angst-ridden teenager.

This is why this film works so wonderfully. And if you’ve never seen this one, then I absolutely recommend that you do. This one is brilliantly funny in a way you just don’t often see and haven’t seen in a long time.
[+]

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bond-arama: No. 0012 Goldeneye (1995)

From hereon out, the films are all pretty good and the competition gets stiffer, and that makes this the perfect place to put Goldeneye. Goldeneye is the best of the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films. It’s a complete film with an engaging plot, a decent villain made better by the actor, some nice cinematography, and some good action. It does have some problems, but it’s worthy of being ranked No. 0012 of 0023.

Plot Quality: As a film, this one is pretty decent. The film begins with Bond and Agent 006 Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) breaking into a Soviet chemical weapons plant to blow it up. Alec is caught and a gun is held to his head by Colonel Arkady Ourumov in an attempt to get Bond to surrender. Of course, it doesn’t happen that way. Ourumov shoots Alec, Bond shoots his way out and blows up the plant, and Bond escapes in an impossible to believe airplane stunt.
Nine years later, Bond is following Xenia Onatopp, a Russian woman suspected of being part of a crime syndicate. She murders a Canadian admiral and steals a prototype Eurocopter which can withstand an electromagnetic pulse. Xenia takes the chopper to Severnaya, where the Russians put the control center of a satellite weapon called GoldenEye, which just happens to fire an electromagnetic pulse. This facility is under the command of now-Gen. Ourumov, who is commander of Russia’s Space Division. In reality, however, Ourumov works for the crime syndicate. Thus, when Onatopp arrives, she, Ourumov and a traitor computer programmer named Boris Grishenko massacre the staff and fire the weapon at the facility. This causes everyone to think the ability to control the satellite has been lost. They then escape in the chopper, which isn’t damaged by the EMP blast.

Bond, of course, quickly realizes that this was a setup and they identify a survivor, Natalya Simonova. He is sent to St. Petersburg to investigate. There he fights with Onatopp and discovers that Alec faked his death because he had some Rube Goldberg plan to get revenge against Britain for the death of his parents during World War II. Bond escapes and ends up racing a Russian T-55 tank through the streets. Bond then learns that there is a second satellite facility in Cuba. He and Simonova go to Cuba where they fight Alec and Boris to the death and save the day.
All told, the film is nicely shot. The travelogue feel is back. There are some good moments of humor. The fight scenes are excellent and the finale is up to the level one expects from a Bond movie. Joe Don Baker plays a surprisingly likable CIA character, Jack Wade. And the tank chase through St. Petersburg is really top notch.

Bond Quality: This is Brosnan’s first outing as Bond and he’s not horrible. He’s not great either. What keeps him from really being a great Bond is that the writers injected a morose element into the character; this is not a Bond who ever enjoys himself and that makes this film feel darker than it should. Another part of the problem is that Brosnan doesn’t project as a cold-blooded killer, particularly as his character is bereft of joy, and his cold-blooded lines don’t work. Brosnan would improve with each film as Bond, though sadly his scripts tended to get worse at the same rate. Still, he was an improvement of dour Timmy Dalton and the aging Dame Roger Moore.
The Bond Girl: The Bond girl was Izabella Scorupco as Natalya Simonova, a computer programmer and the only survivor of the attack on the GoldenEye facility. She knows the system hasn’t really been destroyed and she saw the villains behind the attack. As Bond girls go, she’s cute, but bland. She fits the Bond-as-depressed-monogamist theme that the producers were trumpeting at the time as their response to the AIDS epidemic. She also shows some feminism, which was something else the producers tried to inject into the film. Unfortunately, most of the scenes involving her amount to padding.

The other Bond girl, who is more of a henchman, is Famke Janssen as Xenia Onatopp. She’s an over-the-top sex fiend and killer. Janssen is a quality actress and she adds some life to the film. She particularly manages to liven up Brosnan during a scene in a steam bath, so she definitely adds value to the film. She is a bit “too much,” especially for such an otherwise staid film, but she works.
Villain Quality: There are technically two villains here. The first is Gen. Ourumov, who is the commander of Russia’s Space Division. He is also secretly an agent of the crime syndicate Janus, who run a huge mutual fund. There isn’t much to him because aside from betraying the Russian government, he’s basically just a henchman for the syndicate, which is run by Alec. There are problems with his character, like how he ever got involved in this in the first place and what his motives are: he kind of implies a nationalist motive when confronted by the Minister of Defense (Tchéky Karyo), but his real motive is probably more like money. But since he isn’t really the focus, you can overlook that and just go with it.
The real villain is Alec. Alec begins the film as 006 and a friend of James Bond. But then Bond learns that Alec lived through the mission on which he appeared to die. In fact, he faked his death. Why? Well, Alec’s motive at first appears to be revenge against the British. But upon closer inspection, Bond learns that Alec’s real goal is to steal money from the Bank of England before erasing all their financial records by blasting Britain with an EMP blast. This will cover up the theft and ruin Britain’s economy in the process.

If you don’t use your brain, then this is a decent motive and plan. Alec seems cold-blooded enough to really do the damage he’s threatening. His plan is well above the level of a common theft, so it is worthy of James Bond, and there is a strange revenge element, which gives the story a bit more heart. Add to this that Sean Bean does an excellent job in terms of displaying menace and hatred of Bond and Britain, and the whole character does manage to come alive as a real threat. That makes him a decent villain and the film enjoyable.

Unfortunately, there is some silliness here. By tying Alec, the crime syndicate, the GoldenEye device and Alec faking his death together, you end up with a plan that feels like Alec set it up before he would even have known the GoldenEye existed or that his Colonel buddy would have been promoted to become the head of Russia’s Space Division. It also makes you wonder how MI-6 didn’t realize that their own 006 was running this massive crime syndicate which apparently had tentacles deep into the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. They would have been better off leaving out the opening scene. Still, you can overlook this because it just muddies things, it doesn’t actually make the film nonsense.
What really lifts Alec above the writing, however, was Sean Bean who is an excellent actor. He has a way of coming across as likable, interesting, and yet menacing all at once, and it feels like his rage at Bond is real in this film. That helps you buy into the character in ways that many Bond villain actors simply aren’t able to achieve. Indeed, too often, Bond villain actors feel like they are phoning in their roles, but Bean is the first to make you feel like he really got his hands dirty and really, really means it. It helped that he and Brosnan had excellent chemistry too as friends turned against each other.

In the end, this is a solid enjoyable movie that is definitely better than its screenplay because of solid acting by a few talented actors, a couple of great images like the EMP pulse blasting the Severnaya facility and the tank chase, and solid cinematography which brought places like St. Petersburg to life. All of this makes for a high rating. Unfortunately, these positives are also weighed down by Brosnan not feeling like Bond yet, particularly as the writers made him morose, and the overall scheme never feeling like much of a threat because it wasn’t fully developed how this would hurt people in the audience... some bank records vanish, big whoop -- they should have really talked about electric grids, food distribution, loss of data, etc., but they didn’t. Hence, while this one is good, it’s not good enough to beat the competition. Ergo, we rank this one No. 0012 of 0023.
[+]