Sunday, March 30, 2014

My Favorite Films: Disaster Films

In honor of the latest LA earthquake and that Noah thing (cause... effect... cause), let’s talk about disaster films. Here are my favorites:

1. Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea (1961): This is one of those films I can watch over and over and over. When the Van Allen belt, which surrounds the Earth, catches on fire, the planet starts to bake. The experimental submarine Seaview must launch a missile to detach the Van Allen belt from the Earth, but it seems that everyone wants to stop them. Staring Walter Pidgeon, Barbara Eden and Kane from Buck Rogers, this is a fun film.

2. The Last Voyage (1960): This is probably the best shipwreck movie ever. Staring George Sanders and Robert Stack, this is the story of the SS Claridon, which begins to sink when one of her boilers explodes. Awesome effects (because they really sank the ship) and solid drama combine to blow the doors off Titanic.

3. Airport (1970): I know they claim they used Zero Hour, but this film IS the serious version of Airplane and it’s a really good film too. Basically, anything that can go wrong will go wrong on this snowy night at the Airport Burt Lancaster operates... with help from an all-star cast.

4. The Crazies (2010): A remake of a George Romero film, this one stars Timothy Olyphant as a local sheriff who finds his whole town going crazy because a military plane crashed while carrying some bad stuff.

5. The Poseidon Adventure (1972): What a cool idea! A rogue wave knocks a cruise ship completely upside-down. Now the survivors must race to the bottom of the ship, which is now the top, to survive.

6. The Core (2003): Imagine if you will, that Stanley Tucci stopped the Earth’s magnetic core from spinning and now Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo, and Bruce Greenwood need to save us by setting off nuclear bombs. It’s an entertaining if entirely stupid film.

7. Knowing (2009): This film scores on two points in a big way. First, the way Nicholas Cage discovers what is going on is very smart, especially for a modern film. Secondly, the effects in the minor catastrophes throughout are impressive.

8. Outbreak (1995): I hate the “evil military” aspect of this film, but the virus stuff is top notch as Dustin Hoffman roams far and wide to try to stop a killer virus on the loose in the US of A.

And if you want a refresher of others you’ve seen and long since forgotten, here’s a pretty decent list: LINK.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Film Friday: Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

I am generally a fan of remakes of The Wizard of Oz. There is something universal and compelling about that film which almost invites people to remake it in different contexts or settings. That said, few (read: none) of the remakes have been very good. So I was intrigued to hear they planned to do the prequel to The Wizard of Oz. This sounded like it could hook into the desire to see a good remake while avoiding the pitfalls of actually remaking a great film. Unfortunately, Oz The Great and Powerful was doomed by a series of bad choices which just made it excessively dull.
The Plot
Oz The Great and Powerful is the prequel to The Wizard of Oz. The story begins with the Wizard (James Franco) a carnival magician, being sucked into a tornado. He is in a hot air balloon for reasons that take fifteen minutes to develop and which you absolutely don’t care about. Naturally, he crashes in the Land of Oz. Once there, he runs into Theodora (Mila Kunis), a naive girl with hidden witch powers. She immediately thinks that Franco is the wizard of a local prophecy: one who will come and free them from an evil witch. Theodora believes the evil witch is Glinda (Michelle Williams) because that is what her not-very-nice sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) tells her.
Franco is a conman with a heart of gold, of course, and he embraces the prophecy as a means to get his hands on Oz’s massive treasure... or to help them, it’s not clear. He befriends a flying monkey who becomes his sidekick and a China doll whose legs he repairs. He then meets Glinda and learns that she’s actually a good witch and that she protects a city of Quadlings, Tinkers and Munchkins.
Meanwhile, Evanora tricks her sister, who had fallen in love with Franco somehow, into believing that Franco is two-timing her with Glinda. In her anger and sorrow, Theodora takes a green apple from Evanora. This apple withers her heart and makes her evil. It also turns her green... like Kermit the Frog. And let me tell you, it ain’t easy being green. Anyways, the two now-evil witches decide to eradicate the plague of Quadlings, Tinkers, Munchkins and Francos, and the other side fights back. The whole thing ends in a surprisingly entertaining battle of wits.
Bad Choices
I said in the intro that Oz The Great and Powerful was doomed by its choices. What choices you ask? Well, let’s discuss.

Misfired Opening: The film opens in black and white. It involves a carnival in Kansas and it has all the actors you will see in Oz playing real people here. There’s even a girl who looks like Dorothy. This is all meant to remind you of The Wizard of Oz. Even the aspect ratio changes once we hit color footage. Unfortunately, rather than being clever, this is a huge mistake because this opening is so oddly similar to The Wizard of Oz that it immediately blurs the question of whether they are doing a prequel or a remake of The Wizard of Oz. Yet, it is also so different that it feels like a truly sloppy remake. So as you find yourself watching this, you feel confused and you feel underwhelmed by their attempt to “retell” The Wizard of Oz, even though they aren’t actually retelling that story. It was a bad choice.

And that choice was made all the worse by the length of this portion of the film. The opening is just longer than 15 minutes and the problem here is that none of this is all that interesting and none of it will matter in the rest of the film. In fact, you know that nothing you are watching will be the slightest bit relevant, so it’s hard to care about the first 15 minutes of the film. So basically, the film gets off on a very wrong foot and leaves you struggling to care about the story before it even begins.
Casting.. or perhaps direction: The next problem was casting, or at least direction. Rachel Weisz does an excellent job as the evil witch. She’s a solid actress who brings just enough menace, believability, and style to the role to make her everything you need in a villainess. The only problem is that she fades into the background too often and is overshadowed by everyone else. She also turns into a generic Raimi witch at the end (something we’ve seen throughout the Evil Dead series and in Drag Me To Hell).

Michelle Williams is adequate as Glinda the Good Witch, although she’s not daffy enough to ever grow into the Glinda from The Wizard of Oz without first suffering senility or some sort of stroke.
Both of those actresses are fine, except that while they are playing the story straight, Kunis and Franco are engaged in melodrama. Kunis goes through wild mood swings that aren’t really rooted in her character and then, when she turns evil, she does her cackling best. I actually like what she does a lot. In fact, she breathes life into the role of the witch. But it doesn’t mesh with Weisz or Williams, who apparently didn’t get the memo that this was to be a melodrama.

The real problem, however, is John Leguizamo James Franco. Franco plays the Wizard somewhere between melodrama and a Sesame Street appearance. The result is that many of his actions feel like he’s acting – such as when he screams to himself “I can’t swim” when he crashes in a pool of water and he thrashes around until he realizes he can just stand up. It feels like he’s doing a routine... a routine we’ve seen done a million times. Moreover, because of the Sesame Street angle, his misbehaviors are never real, i.e. you know he’s a good guy no matter what he does, so his conversion to good is kind of meaningless. And his choice of melodrama throughout means he has no chemistry with any other character and it becomes impossible to believe that anyone would actually put their faith in him.
Take No Chances: An even bigger problem with the film is that there isn’t a single moment where the film takes any chances. Everything is exactly what you expect and there isn’t a surprising moment to be had. Even the magic trick Franco does in the intro has appeared in better films and was done exactly the same way. He claims to be the best fake magician around, couldn’t they at least give us something we haven’t seen before to help us believe that?

This has been my problem with director Sam Raimi’s post Army of Darkness career: he gives you exactly what you expect and never challenges you or gives you anything more. Essentially, he is a technician, not a creative type, and his films lack those “wow” moments, and that’s on full display here again.
An Incongruous Costume Choice: There is one costume choice I need to call out as well. Overall, the whole film has a 1930’s art deco style. Everything fits that perfectly, from buildings to costumes, and it gives the film a definite style that works really well. However, in the middle of this world of tuxedoes, bellhop costumes, decorative soldiers and evening gowns, they choose to put Kunis into black leather pants. Not only does this not fit the 1930’s style at all, but when she turns into the Wicked Witch, it makes her costume different than the one that would eventually be worn by Margaret Hamilton. It is a minor point, but it is noticeable, especially as this issue was easily avoidable.

The result of the above is this: you have a film that loses you in its first 15 minutes. The next hour and fifteen minutes are visually stunning, but emotionally empty and struggle to win you back. The characters go through the motions and you really just don’t care. There are tonal problems and the writing doesn’t impress. There are no memorable moments and nothing you will take with you once the credits roll. You will find yourself looking at your watch a lot.
At the hour and a half mark, however, the film finally kicks into gear. This is the point where good and evil prepare to square off against each other and then proceed to do battle. From this point forward, the film has a solid pace, some fantastic imagery (even if it is very similar to Curoscant from the Star Wars prequels), and a plot that becomes quite fun to watch. The story is somewhat unpredictable at that point and even the moments you can predict are so well done that you will enjoy them.

So is this worth seeing? Well, if you’re at all a fan of the Wizard of Oz remakes and homages out there, then I would say yes. Visually, the film is stunning. The last twenty minutes are truly fun to watch. The first part is dull, but you can get past that. I would recommend, however, adjusting your expectations to seeing the film as essentially a quasi-melodrama aimed at kids. So if that’s cool for you, then see it.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Noah... This Is God. Riiiiight.

That's a Bill Cosby reference for those who don't know. Anyways, it looks like Hollywood has done it again. After Mel Gibson showed them that there are billions of dollars waiting for anyone willing to make religious films, Hollywood set out to exploit this market. But their efforts haven’t been well received. Why? Because they keep messing with the message.

The latest example of this is the film Noah, which is making the rounds now. This film has pissed off bunches of Christian and Muslim groups – Muslims apparently consider Noah a prophet. It’s gotten so bad actually that the film team has sent out their cast to do damage control.

This may sound familiar. Whenever a film angers people who love some “property,” they trot out the actors to assure everyone that they have stuck strictly to the source material, and those complaining are just crazy whiners. Hence, the cast and crew of The Lord of the Rings ran around swearing that they all carried copies of The Lord of the Rings with them on set and that if there was some dispute about how the book went compared to the script, they would sit down and make sure they followed the book precisely. Yeah, that was a lie.

When Nicole Kidman starred in The Golden Compass, she actually ran around telling people how Catholic she was and how she would never ever ever do any film that was anti-Catholic or which promoted atheism. That was a lie too. In fact, while she was saying this, the writer-director was busy assuring the atheist community that he would not water down the book’s anti-Catholic, pro-atheist messages. And indeed, he didn’t.

There are many other examples, particularly involving religious films, where Hollywood puts out a film that is so not what the Bible says or what Christians believe yet they swear on their dark little hearts that those people complaining are the crazies. And that brings us to Noah.

You know the story of Noah, right? Noah was a meek man who was contacted by God to build an ark. I believe he sold insurance. Humanity had gone awry and God intended to wash the evil out of them with extreme prejudice. Noah was told to build an ark and fill it with heterosexual livestock. Noah was in a bit over his head, but he managed. He also tried to warn those around him, but they wouldn’t listen because they was busy fornicatin’. Then bamo! God goes all Erwin Allen! Rain, floods, evildoers washed away... the slate is wiped clean. Finally, the waters recede. Noah lands his Ark in Turkey and he opens the doors to release the animals and the people to go forth and never do evil again.

That’s basically the story that billions of people know and believe. That’s the story you get from the Bible and the Koran (with a few “dirty infidels!” thrown in). But that’s not the story Hollywood made.

From quotes gleaned from people who’ve seen the film and from the cast, this Noah is a Biblical grade ASSHOLE. Seriously, he’s a monster. At one point, his son even rebels against him, saying, “I thought you were chosen because you were kind.” To which, Noah like the Dark Knight responds, “I was chosen because I can get the job done.” Seriously, could anyone in their right mind picture Noah as the Dark Knight? He’s supposed to be meek and kind. He’s supposed to be out of his league. He spends his time trying to warn all the people who mock him as if he were in Revenge of the Nerds. That's part of the message -- that God picks people you overlook to deliver his message. Noah is not a bad-ass action hero. Nor is he a colossal jerk. Interestingly, they also never use the word “God” in this film.

So why would Russell Crowe act the character this way? Why would director Darren Arnofsky allow/choose this? Because to them, these stories are fiction. To Christians and Muslims, they are fact. And that difference is key. If these stories are fiction, then you can improve them and make them more entertaining. Sure, let’s make Noah into a warrior or King of the Assholes, it will add some great fight scenes when he holds off the Orc invaders and it will add dramatic gold when he reconciles with his gay son... I smell an Oscar. But if you see these stories as fact, then any change is an affront to reality. Making changes or filling in the gaps with obviously fake “interpretations” is as fraudulent and insulting to you as it would be to liberal Baby Boomers to add a gay sex shower scene to a JFK biography or have Obama selling crack out the back of the White House in his inevitable biography.

That’s really what’s going on here. When Hollywood has made religious films that stick to the material, no matter how messed up that material may seem to nonbelievers, the believers have responded with an outpouring of love and cash. But when they’ve treated these stories as fiction to be massaged, they’ve failed.

And then to send out the cast and lie about what they’ve done just adds insult to injury.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Toon-arama: Samurai Jack (2001-2004)

You’ve probably never heard of Samurai Jack. Samurai Jack is a cartoon by Genndy Tartakovsky that appeared on the Cartoon Network between 2001 and 2004. It’s brilliant. But I’m not entirely sure if I should recommend it. Why not? Well, let’s discuss.

To answer this question, let us begin with a more basic question: what is Samurai Jack? Hm. Good question. Here’s the backstory. Jack is a young prince and Samurai from Feudal Japan. Jack’s father’s empire is destroyed by a demon named Aku. Jack takes his father’s magical sword and defeats Aku. However, before Jack can kill Aku, Aku sends them both through a time portal to a dystopian future ruled by Aku. Jack must now battle his way until he can find and kill Aku and find a time portal home. Aku, meanwhile, is hoping to see Jack killed before they fight again.
So if that’s the backstory, then what is the show about? Well, that’s where this gets a little hazy. In each episode, Jack fights robots, aliens, gangsters, demons, ghosts, an evil himself or whatever Tartakovsky felt Jack should be fighting that week. And although each of the episodes is ostensibly part of the same story, they bare little connection in that they are rarely episodic. So for the most part, it doesn’t actually matter what order you watch them in, though over time, they do kind of add up to a mythology.

This is both a problem and a moment of genius. The problem is this: when you start watching the show, little of it makes sense. There does not appear to be a purpose, i.e. no overriding story. The episodes don’t seem to contribute to “the story” either. Things happen too that don’t seem to relate to anything or that aren’t explained. And they are rarely addressed in the following episode. So unless you have an extremely high tolerance for ambiguity, you are going to hate this show and will probably quit after a couple of episodes.
But if you can stand the ambiguity, then one day you will have an epiphany: even though they have never once laid out the story... even though none of the episodes contribute to the story... even though nothing in the show seems to be related, you will one day realize that you have a total grasp of the storyline and you know exactly what is going on. It’s almost bizarre when you realize that you know this, because you have no idea how you ever learned it. That’s a pretty special feeling. And more to the point, at that point, you come to see just how brilliant this storyline is and how it has built.

And that brings us to the second issue. Like the first, this issue is a major strike against for most viewers, but a huge selling point for the others. This issue is that most of the episodes are essentially knock-offs of something else. For example, you may have an episode that mirrors A Fistful of Dollars one week, and then you get Pulp Fiction the next. It’s never that blatant that you feel like they are copying those films, but what you get is a visual style, pacing and “mood” that mirrors those films. In effect, Tartakovsky has stylized these films, distilled the style into its most potent form and then written that as an episode of Samurai Jack. The result is absolutely brilliant for film buffs. Indeed, it’s totally fantastic to tune in to each episode and see something completely unlike anything else you’ve seen in the series and then spend your time trying to figure out what Tartakovsky has done this time. Hurray!
But on the other hand, this will also be totally disconcerting to the vast majority of people. One of the things most people crave in a television show is consistency. Even something like The Twilight Zone which presented a wild array of unrelated storylines each week still made sure to provide key anchors to create consistency: Rod Serling’s introduction, similar film styles, similar costumes, similar actors and acting styles, consistent writing. Without those things, people quickly become confused about what exactly it is they are supposed to be watching. Samurai Jack really dances along that line with different storylines seemingly set in different worlds and different film styles, e.g. shooting in frames versus traditional setups versus color-coding your scenes, etc. The only consistency is Jack, and he’s largely mute with little in the way of character. In fact, there's almost no dialog.
This is why I struggle to recommend this. Personally, I think it’s brilliant. I loved seeing what Tartakovsky could come up with each week, especially after it all started to make sense to me. But for most people, this will be beyond their tolerance for ambiguity, and I can’t say that they are wrong. In many ways, Samurai Jack is an experimental cartoon and for some it will have worked swimmingly. For others, it was a total loss.

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

My Favorite Films: Foreign Films

I look for three things in a foreign film: (1) a film that gives me a feel of having been to a foreign country, (2) a film that gives me something Hollywood never could or would, i.e. the "stranger" the better, and (3) a film that holds my interesting throughout. With that in mind, here goes:

** this list does not include Anglo-countries.

1. Hero (2002): A love story pretending to be a martial arts film, this Jet Li film boasts amazing scenery and imagery, strong characters and a strong story. Watch this on a big screen.

2. Diva (1981): This is a fascinating film about an obsessed French mailman who steals a dress from a washed up Opera singer and then returns it to her while he finds himself being chased by the mob and corrupt cops. Of all the films on the list, this one feels the most foreign and it's kind of the most interesting... in an odd sort of way.

3. Tampopo (1985): Done in the style of a spaghetti western, this film involves a truck driver who comes to town and teaches a woman to make the best noodle restaurant in the area. This is another one of those films where you get real cultural differences and a surprisingly funny and heartwarming film. By and large, this film is very accessible, though there is a narrator (a hedonistic gangster and his girlfriend) who feels very out of place.

4. Ikiru (1952): Akira Kurosawa is perhaps the greatest director of all time and this is his most touching film. This is the story of a lowly bureaucrat who learns he is dying. He decides to do what he can to get a playground created against the wishes of "the system." His funeral is infuriating. The film quality is really poor because this was filmed in low quality black and white in post-war Japan, but this one is absolutely worth seeing.

5. Das Boot (1981): Starting life as a miniseries, this was recut into an unmatched film about the realities of submarine war. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring Jurgen Prochnow, you can't help but feel the pride, joy and ultimately horror these men experience as they struggle to survive impossible odds. If you ever want to imagine how it would feel to die at the bottom of the ocean, this is the film for you.

6. High and Low (1963): I could fill this list with Kurosawa films, but I'm refraining. Apart from Ikiru, this is my other personal favorite. Toshiro Mifune, one of the best actors ever, plays a shoe company CEO who learns his son has been kidnapped. Things change for the worse when he learns that it was actually the son of his employee who was kidnapped and everyone still wants him to pay a ransom that will bankrupt his company.

7. Lola rennt (Run Lola Run) (1998): Starting Franka Potente as Lola, this film involves Lola receiving a call from her boyfriend, who is desperate for cash and is about to rob a grocery store to get it. She runs to stop him. She fails. So the film resets and she tries again. With each pass, we see alternate histories for the characters presented in a series of snapshots. This is a fascinating and bizarre film. Unfortunately, there are some serious mistranslations in the film that might confuse you (it's best to speak German), but it's still well worth seeing.

8. Jean de Florette (1986): Gérard Depardieu plays a likable man who moves his family to the country only to have a rotten neighbor sabotage his efforts at farming. Yeah, that doesn't sound like much, but the film really works.

9. My Sassy Girl (2001): You know how in every rom-com the heroine will be a bitch (in a very safe and cliche manner) and drive away the male love interest, only to have him return when he realizes that he does love her and that he accepts her the way she is? Aw. Oh course, we also learn that the heroine is not really a bitch because no American starlet would accept such a part as they all want to be "America's sweetheart," so her bitchiness is written off as a mistake or misunderstanding. Well, not here. What I love about My Sassy Girl is that for once, the heroine really is being a bitch and she's trying hard to drive away this guy. He just won't leave and they fall for each other. The ending is heartbreaking too.

10. La Femme Nikita (1990): It's hard to say if this should be included because, while it is French, director Luc Besson would soon make it big in America and this film feels very Hollywood. This idea was also imported here for a film and a television series. Still, the original is quite good.

Honorable mention to Black and White in Color, in which a bunch of bumbling colonialists decide they need to go to war since Europe has gone to war, to all the Japanese horror films that got copied and became The Grudge, The Ring, and Dark Water, and the Korean The Wishing Stairs, which is a horror story in a girls school but strangely ends up as a solid lesbian romance movie. Yeah, weird. You can't go wrong with Godzilla either.

I do wish I liked Lost in Translation better.

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Film Friday: The Last Stand (2013)

For the second week in a row, we talk about a film that I expected would stink. Today’s film is The Last Stand, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to the big screen. I did not expect anything good from this film, but it turned out to be quite an entertaining ride.


Our story opens with an introduction of someone we all know very well: Sheriff Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold is the Sheriff of sleepy little Somerton Junction, Arizona, a town that sits on the border with Mexico, just across an impassible ravine. Arnold was a big shot LAPD super cop until he walked away from it all after his team was all but wiped out in raid-gone-wrong. Now he lives the quiet life in podunk.

As Arnold prepares for vacation, we learn that almost everyone in town is leaving for a football game. As they go, the Mayor parks his Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 in a fire lane and tosses Arnold the keys just in case Arnold needs to move it... or needs it to catch an escaped drug lord. Arnold also discovers that another local, Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) just happens to own a “museum” of high powered weapons... which could come in handy against an army of mercenaries looking to help a drug lord escape. Just sayin’. And in his drunk tank is a combat trained soldier who could be helpful, I guess.
Meanwhile, drug lord Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) escapes from FBI custody in Las Vegas using magnets and smoke and mirrors. He takes an FBI agent, Ellen Richards, hostage and he takes off south down the highway in a stolen Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1... not a Camaro ZL1 like the one Arnold has the keys to.

Anyways, as the FBI, led by Agent Forest Whitaker tries and fails to recapture Cortez, Arnold realizes that something is up and begins to prepare for an invasion of Cortez’s men... who just happen to be building a bridge over the ravine to Mexico. The rest of the movie is chase scenes, fight scenes, shoot outs and one-liners as Arnold and his ragtag band of misfits do what the FBI could not: stop Cortez.
Why This Film Worked

Before I talk about what worked with this film, let me start with what didn’t. The film opens with a fairly standard opening for any film: it introduces the characters by showing you a slice of their lives in which they and the characters around them give you a thumbnail sketch of the elements of each major character. This film does that and it does it in a painfully obvious manner. Indeed, the opening few minutes are full of dialog like, “Gee, we’re lucky to have a sheriff who has fought real crime and could protect us if a drug lord escaped the FBI and came racing through town.”
At the same time, the film ham-fistedly shows you the three elements Arnold will need to solve the movie. First, the unlikable Mayor parks his high-powered car in a fire lane. He even tosses Arnold the keys so that Arnold can move the car if it helps the movie. Now we have a powerful car. Next, Arnold goes to the drunk tank, where we meet the good-guy ex-soldier who just happens to be locked up for a minor charge. Now we have the deputy Arnold really needs. Finally, Arnold learns that one of the locals has a legal, but way over the top arsenal of weapons, which he claims is a museum. Now Arnold has all the fire power he needs to match the professional mercenaries he will face.

At this point in the film, I was ready to quit. This was so blatantly obvious as setups for what was to come that it made me doubt this film had anything to offer. In fact, it felt like the director was a beginner who was following a checklist with no sense of subtlety at all, and he put a huge red arrow on each item and wrote the word “FORESHADOWING!” on the screen. It was insulting.
But then the film became more interesting. First, you have an over-the-top “break our boss out of jail” moment, as Cortez’s people free him from the FBI. This wasn't clever, but it was fun to watch. And as Cortez races away down a darkened highway at high speeds, the film took on a pretty decent cat and mouse feel. This moment did several things well. First, it sets Cortez up as something special, i.e. a true challenge even beyond the power and expertise of the FBI. This sets Arnold up to do his larger-than-life thing because he must do what teams of the FBI’s best have been unable to do. Secondly, it establishes a ticking clock, which gives the film a sense of urgency as Arnold and his rag-tag gang of misfits must prepare for the defense of their town.

Next, the film does what all the good Arnold films do, and it was an excellent decision: it made Arnold the focus and let Arnold be Arnold. Thus, for the rest of the film, you have the still charismatic Arnold roaming the town, looking tough but always with a sense of humor, spewing one-liners as he kicks the butt of various Cortez mercenaries who come to town.
Even better, the director made sure that these mercenaries were simultaneously highly professional, while being led by eccentric characters. This breathed life into a very familiar concept and it kept the danger feeling very "real world" while simultaneously making it larger-than-life. This helped boost the film and made up for some of the spunk Arnold has lost over the years.
Finally, as the film zeroes in on the ending, it actually becomes rather unpredictable. You know there will be a car chase because the two cars have been shown to the audience and the idea of a car chase has been sold throughout. But when the chase actually happens, it takes a bit of a twist, which makes the whole ending feel fresh. Then, at the very end, the film ends with Arnold demonstrating both his sheer strength, and thereby confirming that he still has it, and a great sense of humor that reminds you why Arnold caught on so well with the public when other muscle men struggled.

Ultimately, this isn’t a film that is going to set the world on fire. You’re not going to walk away feeling like you just saw Conan or True Lies for the first time again, but it will make you happy. This film is a total throwback to the kinds of films Arnold made in his prime updated for modern film styles. The end result is a good time, with traces of nostalgia, but with much more to sell than just nostalgia. To value this film another way, it’s not as good as Arnold’s best, but it’s better than most every other action film made today. Not bad for a washed-up actor who spent the last decade getting flabby working for the government.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

An Update

We're still deciding what to do on Thursdays now that the James Bond series is over. We're leaning toward a Steven Spielberg series, but other suggestions would be appreciated. In any event, give us a couple weeks to prepare.
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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Guest Review: Miami Connection (1987)

by ScottDS

According to the American Film Institute, Citizen Kane is the best movie ever made. According to the British Film Institute, Vertigo is the best movie ever made. And according to the fickle users of the IMDb, The Shawshank Redemption is the best movie ever made (as of this writing). But let me tell you: none of those films can compare to the experience that is Miami Connection.

Watch this (slightly NSFW) trailer. I’ll be right here.

The Netflix synopsis might do the best job of describing this wonderful mid-80s time capsule: “A martial arts rock band metes out crime-crushing justice to the motorcycle ninjas who have seized control of Florida's narcotics trade.” The band is called Dragon Sound, and its members are played by Y.K. Kim (as Mark), Vincent Hirsch (as John), Joseph Diamond (as Jack), Maurice Smith (as Jim), and Angelo Janotti (as Tom). In addition to the band, these guys are UCF students and black belts in taekwondo… and they’re adult orphans who all live together. The main villains are Yashito (Siyung Jo) and his second-in-command, whose exotic ninja name is… Jeff (William Ergle). Jeff doesn’t appreciate the fact that his sister Jane (Kathy Collier) is dating Dragon Sound’s John. Meanwhile, a rival band asks Jeff and his gang for help in getting rid of Dragon Sound. Blood is spilled, songs are sung, and Jim even manages to locate his long-lost father along the way. The film ends with a climactic battle in a park between Dragon Sound and Yashito’s goons. Mark kills Yashito, Jim is reunited with his father, and they all live happily ever after.
Okay… I see the looks on your faces. This requires an explanation. Miami Connection is a real movie. It was filmed in and around Orlando in the mid-80s. Y.K. Kim, in addition to playing Mark, wrote and produced the film and it was directed by the late Korean filmmaker Woo-sang Park (using the American pseudonym Richard Park). Y.K. Kim was (and is) a taekwondo Grandmaster. He emigrated from Korea to the U.S. in 1984 without a nickel in his pocket. Today, he makes his living as a motivational guru, publisher, and martial arts promoter. His sole goal in making Miami Connection was to promote taekwondo in America. By all accounts, he had no idea what the hell he was doing. The film opened in only a few Central Florida theaters – one local paper labeled it the worst movie of the year – before it went into obscurity...

...until a man named Zach Carlson discovered it in 2009. Carlson is an employee of the Alamo Drafthouse movie theater chain and was looking for movies for their new Drafthouse Films distribution division when he stumbled across Miami Connection on eBay. Someone was selling a print of the film for $50. Carlson purchased it sight unseen, despite a warning from the seller asking if he was serious. A 2010 screening at the Drafthouse went over like gangbusters and the rest is history. They reached out to Y.K. Kim, who assumed it was a joke and hung up several times. Eventually they made a deal and they even got the whole band back together for a screening at the Drafthouse’s Fantastic Fest event. (Most of the guys still live in Orlando and teach at Kim’s school.)

And now, I’m going to get a little post-modern. My friends and I saw the trailer online... and we assumed it was a joke. A movie made today, but in the style of an 80s martial arts flick, complete with film grain, faded colors, bad wigs, and copious amounts of CGI tinkering to restore the Orlando skyline to its 1980s look. This had to be a wonderful parody – after all, there was no way any of us would’ve missed this movie had it actually existed in the 80s! So I sat down with two like-minded (read: warped) friends and watched it. For the first 30 minutes, we were looking for anything anachronistic: a modern car in the background, a building that didn’t yet exist, etc. There’s a scene in a UCF computer lab and we assumed it was mostly stock footage with the actors shot separately in front of a bluescreen.

But no... this was real. We figured it would’ve taken too much time and cost too much money to make a movie today that looked this authentic. Not even Spielberg or Zemeckis could get it this perfect! And if they did, they’d be showered with every tech award out there: visual effects, costume design, art direction, etc. So we admitted we were wrong. This was a movie made in the 80s and forgotten about. And not just a movie made in the 80s, but made in a city where I actually lived on two separate occasions. The club that Dragon Sound performs at is on Church Street – I was just there two weeks ago! It’s still paved with cobblestones, too.
As for the movie, it’s awful... and awfully wonderful. The acting is amateurish at best but considering none of these guys are actors (and only Angelo Janotti is a musician), I can’t really nitpick. In a world of talkers (and hack bloggers), these guys actually went out and DID something. Kim spent everything he had on the movie and was heartbroken by the negative press and lack of box-office success. Like most amateur movies, there are shots that cut away too quickly, shots that last too long, shots that simply don’t belong, odd framing, awkward character blocking, muddled sound, and a general lack of polish. But this movie is so sincere and the guys are so likable and innocent – one of them refers to the bad guys’ “stupid cocaine” – that you can’t help but like it.

Ah, the guys. We see Dragon Sound perform their signature tunes (“Friends” and “Against the Ninja”) and it’s obvious that only one of them is playing an instrument correctly. Jim gets a letter about his father and delivers a heartfelt monologue that has to be seen to be believed. Jim’s father is played by a guy who’s younger than the guy playing his son! And for some reason, most of the guys walk around shirtless. When Jim gets a letter in the mail, the guys rush outside in various states of undress and I think one of them is just wearing a towel. At one point, Mark feeds two of the guys grapes… by hand. In another scene, Jack tells Mark and John about his idea of taking Dragon Sound around the world to promote peace and goodwill. “We’d visit all the countries where our parents came from. We’ll play in Israel. That’s where my parents are from.” You know Israel, the taekwondo capital of the world! And the villains… they’re so over the top, it’s amazing. You’ve got Yashito’s ninjas and Jeff’s redneck goons, who have nothing better to do than stand around goofing off. And bikers. Lots of bikers.
I’m not sure I have anything more to say. It’s a miracle this movie came back from the dead. Not every movie that’s made is released, let alone remembered years later. For every scrappy indie movie like Clerks (for example), there are dozens of others that languish in obscurity. I have to admire the makers of this movie: despite an obvious lack of filmmaking skills, they forged ahead and made something people seem to like. I’ll end with a quote from Zach Carlson:

“Eighty percent of movies that come out are pretty much lousy by some barometer, but some are found and championed. Why does a movie like Troll 2 bring people back? It's not because it's the only shitty movie that's been made in the last decade. It’s because there’s something charming about it. I think there’s now such an awareness of the possibility of irony that you can’t easily get a movie like this. You need somebody who’s on a different plane than the rest of us.”
Friends through eternity /
Loyalty, honesty /
We'll stay together /
Through thick or thin.
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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Cartoons and Satire

by tryanmax

It’s no mystery that television writers will often promote their own values through their shows. It’s less of a mystery that Seth McFarlane uses his highly successful show Family Guy to that end. In fact, the only mystery is why there is still anyone who doesn’t realize that. What I didn’t realize until lately, however, is how absolutely simple the Family Guy formula is. And once I saw it, I started noticing it in almost every sitcom as well as shows in other genres. But before I discuss the formula, let me lay some groundwork.

Since before the days of animation, cartoons have been an ideal medium for satire. There are a multitude of reasons, but the foremost is that they make an obvious break from reality. We talk a lot about “cartoon physics” here in the Toon-arama articles, where humor is achieved by divorcing events from their consequences. Satire in comics is achieved by a similar mechanism we might call “cartoon psychology” where characters’ words and actions are divorced from their social ramifications. But unlike cartoon physics, cartoon psychology doesn’t just protect the cartoons, it also makes cartoons safe for the audience and the satirist.
What makes cartoons safe for the satirist is fairly obvious. Something about cartoons causes people to immediately let their guard down. This frees the satirist to broach taboo subjects, say politically incorrect things, and deliberately commit faux pas. Cartoons also remove the need for subtlety, which can be a hindrance to live-action or written satire. Where cartoons can be as outlandish as they need to be with little risk of being dismissed, other mediums need to walk a fine line between being outrageous enough to not be taken seriously, but not so outrageous as to be dismissed as absurd.

For the audience, the safety comes from being able to like characters without having to identify with them. That’s because cartoons deal almost exclusively in caricatures and stereotypes and, because they are drawn, there’s absolutely no confusing them with real people. Thus, where saying you like a bigoted character from a live-action show could be construed as liking him for his bigotry, saying you like a bigot from a cartoon says that you like the way he lampoons bigotry.

All these factors come together to make cartoons an excellent medium for spreading social and political messages, especially in narrative forms like an animated sitcom. While satire is certainly an art form, there are also methods to it. These methods aren’t exclusive to cartoons, but when applied to them, they can be more effective. On the other hand, because cartoons don’t worry about subtlety, they can also make the methods more obvious, which is what inspired this piece.
Remember what I said about cartoons dealing mainly with caricatures? Well, what I started noticing as I was watching unhealthy amounts of Family Guy is that the main characters all serve as double-caricatures. They are first “the lazy husband,” “the nagging wife,” “the smug liberal,” and so on, but these are all different covers for the same underlying caricature, which is “regular Joe.” This shouldn’t be surprising, really, but with so much else going on, it becomes easy to overlook the storytelling basics.

The purpose of “regular Joe” is to first be stubborn in his ways about some issue that arises, and then ultimately change his ways. For example, he might oppose gay marriage at the beginning, but ultimately embrace it by the closing credits. But where a live action show would have to aim lower to show a more plausible change, a cartoon can shoot for the moon without losing credibility and hammer home a message in one episode which might take another show its entire run to deliver. Furthermore—dare I say?—the genius of a show like Family Guy is that it has been set up in such a way as to let the writers pick one of four or five regular Joes to deliver the message based on which over-caricature seems most likely.

Now, I don’t want to leave anyone thinking I’m claiming that a formulaic cartoon can brainwash people. I’m not. But for those who are receptive to the kinds of messages injected into popular TV shows, cartoons are like a catalyst. They have the ability to go further and faster in making a persuasive case to such people than a similar live-action program.

As a counterpoint, let me close with an illustration of where the formula has been misapplied and ultimately failed. Mike Judge has had some hits that also land some social/political punches. His show The Goode Family about a clan of fastidious environmentalist liberals was not one of them. That’s because none of his main characters had a “regular Joe” underneath. They were only the obvious caricatures. Thus, when the show’s liberal characters came to any sort of realization, it wasn’t a shared experience with the audience. Instead, it merely provided schadenfreude to one part of the audience and disgust to the other.
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Sunday, March 16, 2014

My Favorite Films: Superhero Films

Truth, justice and the American way, that’s what superheroes are about... except when they aren’t. I do love me some good superhero films though when they are well done. Here are my favorites:

1. Hellboy (2004): How can you not love Hellboy? This is just a great character with a great sense of humor and a great supporting team. This and the sequel are films I always enjoy.

2. Superman (1978): This film did everything right. This is also the best origin film ever because it doesn’t feel like an origin film. This film stands alone in feel and quality.

3. X2: X-Men United (2003): This is easily my favorite X-Men film. This one is well shot, smart and packed with great actions and great character interaction.

4. Batman (1989): This was the first “dark” superhero movie and really changed the expectations. The real gem in this film was Jack Nicholson as the Joker.

5. Scott Pilgrim v. The World (2010): Yeah, I count this as a superhero film. This thing is just amazingly clever.

6. Batman (1966): Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb. This was the film version of the series and it played like a long episode. It was all kinds of fun.

7. Kick-Ass (2010): A fun twist on the idea of the superhero.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Film Friday: The Expendables 2 (2012)

I expected nothing good from The Expendables 2. I didn’t really care all that much for The Expendables and sequels are almost always crap, especially sequels of actions films. So yeah, I was pretty sure this was going to suck eggs. But do you know what? The Expendables 2 turned out to be very entertaining film. In fact, it was considerably better than the first one!


The plot isn’t really all that relevant. In fact, you probably won’t even notice it because you aren’t watching this film for the plot: you’re watching for the actors. In any event, the film opens with the Expendables conducting a hostage rescue mission in Nepal. They pull off the rescue and rescue Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in the process. After this, they return to New Orleans, where they are forced by Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) of the CIA to accept a mission.
Soon, they are flying to Albania to retrieve an item. They get ambushed by an international arms dealer named Jean Vilain (get it?) (Jean-Claude Van Damme). He lets them leave after disarming them and killing one of their members. Naturally, the remaining members want revenge.

The rest of the story involves Stallone, Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and Yu Nan chasing Van Damme, who is using slave labor to try to dig weapons grade plutonium out of a mine, where the Russians stored it at the end of the cold war.
Eventually, Chuck Norris, Arnold, and Willis join the fight and a massive shootout occurs at an airport as Van Damme and his army tries to get the plutonium out of the country. I’ll leave all the twists and turns for you to discover.
Why This Film Worked
I said at the intro that I didn’t really care for the The Expendables. That’s true. I loved the idea of all these 1980’s action stars getting together and making an action movie together. I also loved the idea that it was more like an 80’s action film than a modern film. The idea of those things rocked...

...but the execution left me cold.

When I watched the film, I felt that they made poor use of all these action stars. Some were only on screen for a few minutes and most didn’t do much. There was no “Battle Royale” so to speak either, where they all came together for one massive fire fight. Moreover, while the film had a bit of an 80’s feel to it, it wasn’t that different from modern action films. The ultimate problem was that the film took itself too seriously as an action film.
So what makes The Expendables 2 that much better than the original? Yeah, you guessed it: this movie doesn’t take itself seriously. In fact, this film is almost a loving parody of the entire 80’s action genre. For one thing, the action is much more over the top. There is a scene involving Chuck Norris that is just ridiculous and yet gets your fist pumping in the air.
The ending scene is another example. This scene takes place at the airport and it involves each of the guy from the 80’s shooting it out with Van Damme’s ever growing army. In fact, what seemed like Van Damme and about 20 guys quickly morphs into hundreds of guys armed with machine guns. Naturally, none of them can hit a thing and our collection of action heroes plow through them in rip-roaring 1980’s style cough cough Commando, Terminator, Rambo cough cough. In many ways, this scene is a parody of those old shootouts, and it is played very tongue in cheek, but that doesn’t keep it from being awesome to watch. Indeed, playing this as a bit of a parody keeps you from rolling your eyes at the way over-the-top action occurring on screen. And what makes this even better is that this shootout is CGI free. This shootout involves real extras and real stunts, and that gives it a level of reality you just don’t get from CGI, even as the action itself is ridiculous. This is a heck of a way to end this film, and it’s FAR superior to the 45 minute CGI cartoon fight scenes that end most action films today.
Ultimately though, there’s one more key that really makes this film work: the relationship between the action stars. Throughout this movie, they joke and play around with each other. They act like old friends. Arnold and Sly compete throughout. Norris is his old likable self and plays the lone wolf, but still is loyal to his friends. None of them, except Van Damme, come across as jerks or Prima Donnas. What’s more, throughout the film, they steal each other’s most famous lines. But they don’t just steal them, they do it at the right times for maximum relevance, which makes the film feel clever and funny and gives you constant reminders of who these guys were, and they do it with the other guy standing there so he can fire back one of the other guy’s lines. This makes you feel like you’re with old friends trading good-natured barbs or like you’re on the inside of an inside joke.

Ultimately, these things make this movie really enjoyable. This film absolutely captures the spirit of what this type of movie needs to be: a friendly trip down memory lane as you get to see all your old heroes joking around and having a good time as they have some fun with the excesses of their prior work. So is this a great movie? No. But it is a fun movie and it will leave you smiling. I definitely recommend this one.
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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Bond-arama: Final Ratings/Final Thoughts

Today we conclude the James Bond series, all of which can be found at our Bond-arama page(LINK)! We’ve examined all the movies and ranked them. We’ve talked about what worked and what didn't and how they could have been made better. Now it’s time for some finishing thoughts.

The Rankings I: While many of you made very persuasive cases for why From Russia With Love (or even Thunderball) should be the number one movie, sadly, I think the public continues to see Goldfinger as the top Bond film. That’s the one that wins the polls and which people talk about the most. That’s the one people use to introduce people to the series too and it’s the one characters in other films (e.g. Trainspotting) talk about as the pinnacle of the series. So here are the final rankings for the top three:
Goldfinger (1964)
From Russia With Love (1963)
Dr. No (1962)
The Rankings II: That said... if I were rating the films on how much I enjoyed them, they would be ranked differently. They would be ranked differently too if we went by Box Office numbers. How differently? Check out this chart and you can compare all three sets of rankings. The first list is the Box Office results in 2012 dollars. The second list is the one we created here as an “objective public list.” The third list is how I would rank them in terms of how much I enjoy each film personally.
Click to Enlarge
Click to Enlarge

Notice a couple things. First, there are some real anomalies in the Box Office numbers. For example, Dr. No is near the bottom even as we ranked it near the top. For Your Eyes Only also sits nine spots lower than we ranked it. And somehow, Die Another Day moved up from the bottom to 12th place, i.e. the top half. What this suggests is something we already knew: Box Office results are not a guarantee of quality.

Notice too that the “big” films did better than the smaller films. Indeed, most of the top nine are all about volcano lairs, undersea bases, space stations, and nuclear weapons. Clearly, that is what draws people to the theater.

Also, look at how close the series apparently came to dying at the end of Roger Moore’s era through the Timothy Dalton’s films. The lowest performing films, by far, are the four films of that era.

Final Thoughts: Finally, I found it fascinating writing these. It was interesting to see how many really weren’t that great even though we tend to think of the series as generally superior to other films. It was even more interesting to see how easily so many of these films could have been dramatically improved with only minor tweaks. It struck me too how many of these films were copies of prior films.

Ultimately, what I found most interesting was that the elements that we think make Bond films (larger than life villain with big scheme, strong Bond girl, and complete Bond) are not what made the best Bond films. To the contrary, the elements that made the best Bond films seem to be the presence of a strong male relationship for Bond (Kerim Bey, Felix Leiter in Dr. No, Casino Royale and Thunderball, Rene Mathis, Tiger, Kristatos), a smaller but more clever threat/scheme (FRWL, Casino Royale, FYEO), and a complex rather than a larger-than-life villain (Dominique Greene, Red Grant, Le Chiffre, Columbo).

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the series!


(P.S. Feel free to share your own rankings!)
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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Toon-arama: Why Scooby Doo Worked

I’m a big fan of Scooby Doo. There’s just something about that show that really works, and none of the copycats (e.g. Jabberjaw, Josie and the Pussycats) had it. So what made Scooby so special? Here are my thoughts.

The Strong Relationship Between Scooby And Shaggy: The biggest point is perhaps the most obvious: like so many other human-dog relationships, Scooby and Shaggy love each other unconditionally. They also have become very much like each other, sharing the same traits and same hobbies. This makes them the best of friends. And the best moments in the series are those where Scooby or Shaggy sneak off to eat or are scared out of their minds and yet rise up without a second thought to save their friend who they believe is in danger. None of the copycats ever had similar relationships.
Diversity: When you look at the original gang the way they are written, what you will see is a diverse swath of high school cliques gathered together. Fred is the athletic preppy. Daphne is the hot chick. Velma is the science nerd. Shaggy is the skateboarding dope smoker. The message was clear and powerful: it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, you can still be great friends.

I find it interesting that such an emphasis has since been placed on including this message in things like Disney and Nickelodeon television shows, but they mess the message up. Rather than showing across-the-school diversity like this, in modern shows, you tend to see the nerds banding together with the minority kids. Thus, these modern shows that are meant to encourage diversity are actually encouraging the opposite, sending the message that blacks and Asians and Hispanics should hang out with white nerds, but rich, good looking, popular white kids should still hang out separately.

In fact, if we were going to squeeze Scooby Doo into the modern “diverse” formula, Fred and Daphne would need to be assh*les who are constantly competing against Velma, Shaggy, and GenericBlackCharacter.
Culturally Significant Monsters: One of the things Scooby is totally known for is the wide swath of monsters. They cover everything that Leonard Nimoy would soon be covering in In Search Of: aliens, pirate ghosts, the Yeti, haunted mines, ghost towns, vampires, werewolves, witches, swamp monsters, etc. In effect, Scooby zeroed in on the cryptid and alien crazes that were about to hit and would continue through the present day... they were riding a rising wave of exactly the types of things that would come to dominate American culture.

The copycats tended to use generic power-mad villains with no cultural resonance.
The Fake Monsters: One of the comforting aspects of Scooby Doo was that at the end of the day, all the monsters were fake and the villains surrendered easily once they were exposed. In fact, they were typically quite ashamed of what they had done and apologized. This is a reassuring way to end each episode because it sets the world right again: there are no monsters and good will end evil. The copycats, on the other hand, typically ended with the villains being hauled off screaming about coming back and doing it again. The message there was, the monsters are real and they can only be contained, they can’t truly be defeated.

The Adventurous Human Spirit: Finally, Scooby Doo tapped into the human instinct to investigate anomalies and things we believe can’t be true. This is the impulse that draws us to detective stories, draws us to science, and makes us want to know how the magician did his tricks. The copycats never got that and they took the approach of having their characters accidentally pulled into an evil plot. That makes them reactive, which doesn’t trigger our sense of adventure or discovery, but instead triggers our sense of self-preservation. By comparison, Scooby and the gang actively investigate, which triggers all kinds of good impulses on our part.

Thoughts? Did I miss anything?
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Sunday, March 9, 2014

My Favorite Films: Courtroom Dramas

As a lawyer, I find it rare that I enjoy a legal drama. Most legal dramas are so unrealistic as to be truly annoying. But there are some gems. Here they are:

1. Presumed Innocent (1990): This movie has the most realistic trial and trial procedures ever. It also has a fascinating story that weaves local politics, obsession, and revenge, and you have no idea what really happened until the end. Harrison Ford plays against type here as the pathetic, obsessed adulterer and possible murder, and Raul Julia plays Sandy Stern, the guy who made me want to be a lawyer.

2. Breaker Morant (1980): Based on a true story, this is an amazing courtroom drama about Britain trying to use a handful of scapegoats to cover up what it did during the Boer War. Well acted, gripping and emotionally frustrating, this is a strong film. It will make you angry.

3. The Caine Mutiny (1954): Another military courtroom drama, this one involves a court martial for mutiny, but who was really to blame for what happened? This one has an amazing performance by Humphrey Bogart as the insecure Lt. Cmdr. Queeg and one hell of a speech by José Ferrer.

4. My Cousin Vinny (1992): A surprisingly accurate courtroom comedy, this one involves the unlicensed Joe Pesci travelling to deep Alabama to defend his young cousin who was driving the wrong car at the wrong time in the wrong place.

5. Sergeant Rutledge (1960): No film that I’ve seen handles race and justice better than this John Ford film in which Woody Strode stands accused of a heinous crime and his race interferes with his ability to defend himself. Complex all around with amazing nuance, I highly recommend this one.

6. Anatomy of a Murder (1959): Directed by Otto Preminger and starring James Stewart, Ben Gazzara and the mayor from Jaws, this is a complicated film that deals with some really troubling subjects and results in an uncomfortable but excellent film.

7. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962): Lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in the South. This was a gripping book and the film does it justice.

Note the lack of Grisham films. Also, note the lack of 12 Angry (Straw)Men, which smears our justice system and manipulates the audience so openly that this film should be considered propaganda.

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Friday, March 7, 2014

The Shadow (1994) v. The Phantom (1996)

I want to like The Shadow. I also want to like The Phantom. But I can’t. I don’t dislike them per se, they just disappoint me. They are indifferently made, squandered potential.

The Shadow is the story of Lamont Cranston (Alex Baldwin). Cranston set himself up as a brutal warlord in Tibet after the First World War. He is abducted by a holy man who wants to train him to become a force for good. This holy man trains Cranston for seven years in the power of hypnosis. Cranston then returns to New York City, where he lives as a wealthy playboy. What no one knows, is that Cranston is secretly “the Shadow,” a crime fighting superhero of sorts who has the ability to seem to vanish.
Cranston will be challenged by Shiwan Khan, another student of the holy man, who possesses even greater powers. Khan is, of course, the last descendant of Genghis Khan and has plans for world domination. Those plans include kidnapping the father (Ian McKellen) of Cranston’s fiancée so that he will build an atomic bomb Khan will detonate in New York City for reasons not well explained.

The Phantom, by comparison, is the story of Kit Walker (Billy Zane). Walker is a superhero called “the Phantom,” who lives on Bengalla Island. “The Phantom” is a position passed down from father to son and Walker is the 21st Phantom to hold the title. They apparently fight pirates. In this case, Walker finds himself fighting a mercenary named Quill (James Remar), who is a member of something called the Sengh Brotherhood (even though he’s white), and he’s searching for the Skulls of Touganda, which give the owner of the skulls a tremendous power which looks suspiciously like a laser.
Walker returns to New York City where he meets his ex-girlfriend, who happens to be a journalist. She’s investigating evil businessman Xander Drax (Treat Williams). Drax, of course, is the one really after the Skulls. He kidnaps the ex-girlfriend and takes her to Begalla Island, where Walker chases Drax and his men through the jungle until their final confrontation. And there are pirates.


The potential of these two films is really rather high. The 1930’s is a cool period and can make for an excellent setting. Look at films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hudsucker Proxy as prime examples where the period itself drives much of the film and pulls you into the film. Superhero films often rock as well. Noir films are great too. So a film noir, superhero film set in the 1930’s should have major potential. But neither film comes close to exploiting that potential.

The first problem that both films succumb to is that neither ever makes you feel like you’re in the 1930’s. Raiders, Hudsucker and L.A. Confidential all transported you to the era in which those films took place by immersing you in the eras. The clothes, the buildings, the cars and all the little props all fit the era. The eras were meticulously researched and they wanted you to know that.
The Shadow and The Phantom, on the other hand, feel like the 1930’s era is just a veneer. For starters, neither does much more than show you a couple sets. They fill the sets with the same old cars you see every time they make a film like this. And even then, they are shown in such a tight angle that you never see more than a couple vehicles. The main characters are given fancy 1930’s clothes, but there’s no variety of costumes. The result is that unlike the better films where you get a glimpse into an entire world, here it feels like you are seeing a small soundstage that includes only a few props from the era. There is no sense that any of this is real.

Moreover, the characters are era clichés. Both of these films are populated with only a handful of standard characters you see in every 1930’s - 1950’s period piece: the taxi driver, the journalist girlfriend, the chief of police, the supposed playboy who is really a superhero, and the evil business mogul. These are the characters you’ve seen time and again in every period piece set in the 1930’s – 1950’s, they are in every comic book of the era. You see nothing else. Indeed, neither The Shadow nor The Phantom ever go beyond and show you people you haven’t seen before.
The bigger problem with these films, however, is that their plots aren’t very tight. Specifically, they are packed with nonsense and filler. Consider this. How does an American make himself a warlord in Tibet after the First World War, which wasn’t even fought in Tibet. Why would a holy man pick a brutal drug addicted warlord to make into a hero? Why send him to New York City after training him? What a coincidence that Lamont just happens to be dating the daughter of an atomic scientist who also happens to be telepathic. Why does Khan want to blow up New York City anyway? None of these things hang together. They feel like ideas tossed in to make the film interesting rather than legitimate parts of the plot.
At the same time, The Phantom is full of coincidences and its premise is frankly stupid. In an age when the forces of darkness were the Nazis or the communists, when the Japanese were raping Nanking, “the Phantom” fights generic pirates near some nonexistent island. Oddly, “the Phantom” is the 21st in a long line of father-son teams, which means they’ve been doing this longer than America was even a country, yet the film and the character are both American-centric. The story moves back and forth between New York and the island for no believable reason except that the filmmakers wanted to show the Phantom in New York and wanted to finish in the jungle. Even worse, this film gives off the distinct feel that they simply took the “cool” visual elements from Raiders and just tossed them all together into a meaningless jumble.

Ultimately, I find both films to be very frustrating. Either easily could have been the next Raiders of the Lost Ark, but both cut so many corners and were made so indifferently that it just wasn’t possible. These films are all about the veneer and they completely lack substance. That is frustrating.
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