Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Film Guide

I've decided to release the film guide. It's called "The Conservative Guide To Films" and it contains a ton of information that will absolutely surprise you, as well as some hopefully insightful discussions of liberal and conservative films. You can buy it at Amazon here: LINK! (Paperback to come.) Enjoy!

Hollywood defines modern American culture, and culture defines "normal." It is through our culture that we pass our values and our beliefs from one generation to the next. By shaping our culture, Hollywood influences the way people see the world, how they solve their problems and to whom they look for solutions. It tells people how they should live, how they should act, and what they should believe. It is the parent so many parents are not, and unless conservatives want Hollywood raising a generation of reflexive liberals with no sense of personal responsibility, conservatives need to depoliticize the film industry to re-establish a cultural balance. That's where this book comes in.

"The Conservative Guide To Films" will help you understand what makes a film conservative or liberal. It will help you understand how the two ideologies present themselves and how to spot them. It will debunk a great many liberal boogeymen and it exposes Hollywood liberal hypocrisies. This is a book for anyone with an interest in films, culture, and politics.

Chapter 1: Why Political Messages In Films Matter

Chapter 2: Defining Conservatism & Liberalism

Chapter 3: How To Spot A Film's Ideology

Chapter 4: Conservative Myths: It's Not As Political As You Think
Is The Evil Corporate Villain Really Anti-Capitalist?
Are Missing Parents Anti-Marriage/Anti-Family?
Why Are There No Islamic Terrorists?
Is Gun Violence Anti-Gun?
Is Anti-War Always Anti-Military or Unpatriotic?
Chapter 5: Debunking Liberal Boogeymen
The Bloodthirsty Military
The Evil Businessman
The Republican Lobbyist
The Unreality of Guns
The European/Christian/Military Terrorist
Fascist Capitalists
Japanese Internment
Domestic Violence Demographics
The Southern Death Penalty
Chapter 6: Discussing Liberal Films
In Time (2011)
John Q (2002)
Norma Rae (1979)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The China Syndrome (1979)
Erin Brockovich (2000)
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Battle for Terra (2007)
Avatar (2009)
The Abyss (1989)
The Golden Compass (2007)
Do The Right Thing (1989)
Thelma & Louise (1991)
The Green Mile (1999)
12 Angry Men (1957)
Chapter 7: A Note On Liberal Sucker Punches
Paul (2011)
The Invention of Lying (2009)
Machete (2010)
The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009)
Happy Feet (2006) & Happy Feet Two (2011)
The Other Guys (2010)
Source Code (2011) & Flightplan (2005)
Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Chapter 8: A Note On Backfiring Messages
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Wall Street (1987)
Chapter 9: Discussing Conservative Films
Brazil (1985)
WALL-E (2008)
Rollerball (1975)
The Incredibles (2004)
Gladiator (2000)
Dirty Harry (1971) & Magnum Force (1973)
Blade Runner (1982)
Drumline (2002)
The Blind Side (2009)
Battle: Los Angeles (2011)
Smokey And The Bandit (1977)
Adventures In Babysitting (1987)
Ghostbusters (1984)
Harry Potter (1997-2011)
Chapter 10: Compare And Contrast: Conservative vs. Liberal Films
Dirty Harry (1971) vs. The Star Chamber (1983)
High Noon (1952) vs. Outland (1981)
Platoon (1986) vs. We Were Soldiers (2002)
Apocalypse Now (1979) vs. Apocalypse Now (Redux) (1979/2001)
Star Trek (1966-1969) vs. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
Chapter 11: Hollywood's Liberal Hypocrisy
Anti-Gun Hollywood Promotes Gun Violence
Feminist Hollywood Is Sexist
Hollywood Environmentalism Isn't So Green
Hollywood Racism
Political Correctness Goes Awry
Chapter 12: What Do We Do Now?
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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Summer of Films: Odd Thomas (2013)

When I ran across Odd Thomas the other day, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. Marketed as a mystery-thriller by horror author Dean Koontz, it struck me right away that this didn’t appear to be a horror movie. It wasn’t a mystery either. Nor did it look like a thriller. It obviously wasn’t aimed at the tent-pole crowd either, or the film-snob crowd. So what was it? Well, perhaps the best way to describe it is as a quirky film about a likeable guy in a quasi-horror-comedy.


Like the kid in The Sixth Sense, the hero of this film, Odd Thomas (Anton Yelchin), can see dead people. Only, in this film, Thomas is an adult and he uses his abilities to catch the people who killed the dead people: “I see dead people, but then, by God, I do something about it.” Helping him in this regard are his supportive girlfriend Stormy (Addison Timlin) and the Chief of Police (Willem Dafoe), who knows about his abilities and trusts him completely – this thankfully avoids the “the police think I’m the bad guy” cliché.
As the story opens, Thomas captures a killer. He then tells us about something he calls “bodaks,” which are like shapeless, see-through creatures that feed on upcoming horror. Thomas can see these too, but he warns us that if they know that you can see them, they will kill you. He tells us that there is usually only one bodak at a time and that he rarely sees them, typically less than one per month. As he tells us this, a man walks into the diner where Thomas works. This man is surrounded by bodaks and more are coming all the time. This means the man will do something truly horrible.

As Thomas investigates the man, who Thomas nicknames Fungus Bob, he uncovers a plot to kill a lot of people, which meshes with a dream he has in which he sees a bowling team get murdered. As he investigates, Thomas discovers that the plot is larger than he originally expected.
Why I Recommend This Film

In the opening paragraph, I called this a horror-comedy, but that’s not really all that accurate. For one thing, this film isn’t scary. There are a few moments where some tension is created, but that’s about it. Instead, the film goes for tense and even that is alleviated by the comedic overtones of Yelchin’s narration and the utter lack of fear displayed by the supporting characters. That said, the film isn’t a comedy either. There are a few moments that might make you laugh, like how Willem Dafoe seems to be having sex every time Thomas calls him, but it’s nothing that will make you laugh out loud and there aren’t any jokes you will recall.

So if this isn’t a horror-comedy, and it’s not a mystery or a thriller or a tent-pole film, what is it? Well, I’d say this is a quirky film along the lines of the original Fright Night or An American Werewolf in London. This is a film that thrives by giving you an unusual character you like, who goes through an adventure involving something unnatural and they must use their unusual traits and their ingenuity to solve the movie. And while you know the film will definitely end well for the hero, what holds your interest is the steadily rising challenge the character faces, the odd twists and turns along the way, and the fact you like the character and the world they inhabit.
Fortunately, that works out well here. Thomas is very likeable and his narration makes him even more likable, it gives the film a comfortable feeling like a friend is telling you a story. The other characters are likeable as well. Importantly, this film has none of the unpleasant ideas often tossed in to ratchet up the drama, e.g. the fight with the frustrated girlfriend, the unbelieving police deciding to arrest the hero, the insanely angry boss, the lost best friend, etc. Thus, there is no phony unpleasantness tossed in to damper the flow of the story. Instead, the film focuses on the plot itself. In that regard, the story moves well and proves quite surprising despise your knowledge that Thomas will solve the film. In fact, the film is full of little surprises throughout as things you expect to happen one way happen another way or don’t happen at all, and I can say that I was not able to guess where the film was headed at any particular moment, even though I knew how it needed to end. All of this makes for an engaging and enjoyable film, and that is the best way to describe this film: it is entertaining. It isn’t much more than that, but that’s enough to make a film worthwhile.

That said, I should provide a note of caution. Films like this tend to be cult films. Either you have a taste for this type of film, or you don’t. Either you get the humor, which is quite subtle, or you don’t. Either you can stomach the ambiguity throughout, or you can’t, as the film does not force-feed you everything you need to know. The critics hated this film, giving it a 34% rating, but I suspect this film will find its audience and will be recognized as a cult classic within a decade.


** As an aside, this one may be difficult to find. It's on Netflix and DVD, but legal issues apparently kept it out of theaters.
[+]

Friday, August 22, 2014

Margin Call (2011) v. Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

Wall Street was an amazing film. Yes, it was Oliver Stone’s attempt to slander the 1980’s and Reaganism, but Stone misfired and what he created instead was a film that captured the thrill of the 1980’s and sent a generation of kids to finance school to become his villain Gordon Gekko. Since that time, Stone’s ability as a filmmaker has faded. In 2010, he went back to Wall Street to see if he couldn’t steal some of his prior glory. He couldn’t. The movie he created was overly complex, meandering and stupid. It stood for nothing really. The movie he should have made was Margin Call.

Margin Call is one of those financial films that will scare most people away just by its description: “Huh, some guys who create something called asset-backed securities find out their assets are worthless and they don’t know what to do about it. Shoot me now... let’s watch Transformers.” In reality though, this is an excellent film that is worth seeing, even for people with no idea what an asset-backed security is. Moreover, this film very simply explains what happened in 2008 and how the financial world came crashing down.
Margin Call begins when junior risk analyst Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) discovers that a group of assets the firm holds are worth far less than they paid for them. They are worth so little, in fact, that the losses on these assets alone (which are bought on margin) would bankrupt the firm if the world knew their true value. And in that regard, Peter and his boss (Paul Bettany) realize that the world will discover the truth within days. They tell the firm’s higher ups.
This sets off a series of events as senior firm personnel are called in even though it’s late night to come up with a strategy to deal with this crisis. A strategy is slowly developed to dump as many of these assets as possible at the opening of the trading day, no matter what the loss on these sales. This will destroy the firm’s reputation and the reputation of its traders, but it is the only way the firm will survive. In the process of developing this strategy, the film does an excellent job of explaining what asset-backed securities are how the firm was blindsided by their collapse in value, and you see a good deal of infighting, moralizing, struggling with hard decisions, and the lining-up of fall guys and scapegoats. The end result is a surprisingly gripping film, driven by a strong cast: Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Simon Baker, Demi Moore, etc., which gives you a fairly accurate insight into how the financial crisis of 2008 began and how it played out at its very beginning.
By comparison, Money Never Sleeps is convoluted fantasy. It is Oliver Stone’s attempt to make you hate Gordon Gekko the way he wanted you to hate him after Wall Street. Essentially, the story of Money Never Sleeps is that Stone resurfaces from prison and finds his estranged daughter (Carey Mulligan). He claims he wants to rebuild his relationship with her. Coincidentally, she’s dating Shia LaBeouf, who is a trader at an investment firm. Shia is trying to raise money for a nuclear fusion project which would provide the world with massive amounts of clean energy. Unfortunately, Shia keeps getting blocked by Josh Brolin, who runs another Wall Street bank.
Gekko comes to Shia’s aid by telling him that Brolin is the enemy. Brolin, coincidentally, profited from the collapse of Shia’s old firm, which also led to the suicide of Shia’s old boss. Shia seeks revenge by spreading rumors he thinks will hurt Brolin’s firm. Brolin is somehow impressed by this and bizarrely hires Shia. Shia takes the job because he wants to avenge his boss’s suicide. He then uses his new position to get the Chinese to finance the fusion project. Everyone is happy.

Shia then learns that the Chinese (through Brolin) have betrayed him by investing in solar panels and fossil fuels instead of fusion. He is sad again. Gekko then proposes an alternative plan. All Shia needs to do is to convince Gekko’s daughter to give Gordon access to the $100 million trust fund he left her in Switzerland, and they could fund the project themselves. Naturally, he agrees because this is for a good cause. Of course, the daughter agrees too... and then Gordon steals the money and re-establishes himself on the street as a hedgefund manager. This was apparently the plan all along, no matter how Rube Goldbergian it was. Gordon won’t even give the money back in exchange for normalizing his relationship with his daughter and his new grandson because HE IS EVIL, people!!! (“F*** you idiots need to finally see that! He used his daughter!! How much more obvious can I make this?!!” – Oliver Stone)
As this story stumbles along, we are told that the collapse of Shia’s firm started the financial crisis. This led to a bailout of Brolin’s firm, which Brolin got because he dines with the regulators. But don’t worry, Gekko’s daughter runs an obscure website and she publishes the story of how Brolin caused everything, which causes Brolin to give back $1.1 billion and puts him under scrutiny by the government. Then Gekko gives the $100 million to the fusion people and they all reconcile. Yay.

These movies couldn’t be more different. Margin Call is accurate. It is cutting. It is dramatic. You don’t know what is going to happen, but you can’t pull your eyes away from the screen as these people, who seem decent in good times, turn into sharks when things go wrong and they find themselves balancing their own futures, the existence of the firm, the welfare of the employees, the welfare of the market, and the harm to the country. Each of them handles this differently, and that makes them fascinating to watch as they struggle with how to survive this likely career-ending crisis.
Most interestingly, none of them were villains when they caused this crisis, but some now become villains... or are they? Indeed, while it is easy to see them as rotten, the real question you keep asking yourself is if you would actually do anything differently at this point. That idea makes this a truly soul searching, gripping story as you place yourself into the shoes of these characters and you wonder how you would handle being them. Would you be more noble? Is there even anything more noble you could do? What could you live with? What could you ask of others? These are all fascinating questions which are brought on by this film.
Wall Street, by comparison, is a joke. It has zero accuracy in terms of the financial crisis. It feels like Stone took a couple contradictory paranoid ideas, invented a villain, and then spun a fantasy which he thinks is damning but comes across as fringy and silly. He seems to suggest that the financial crisis is the result of a villain or two spreading lies about other company’s assets and thereby causing a panic. That’s ridiculous. At the same time, the story meanders on this point as it is only told to us in asides to the Shia v. Gekko story, and that story is ridiculous. The idea that Gekko orchestrated a plan which involved people being framed and fired and committing suicide and a nation-threatening financial crisis just to get at his daughter’s trust fund through her boyfriend is ludicrous.

The long and the short of it, is that I had no idea what to expect when I watched Margin Call and I found myself glued to the screen. This film felt like a mix of the best parts of Wall Street and Glengary Glenn Ross. It was tense, interesting, and informative. You feel like you understand the financial crisis so much better by the time the film is over and you find yourself both despising these people but wondering if you would have acted any differently. It is a brilliant film.

Money Never Sleeps, on the other hand, is a film you should skip. It is only a reminder of how much Stone has lost as a storyteller.

[+]

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Guest Review: Transcendence (2014)

by ScottDS

What happens when you take an A-list cast, a tantalizing concept, and an Oscar-winning cinematographer making his directorial debut? Unfortunately, you get Transcendence, a dull-as-dishwater thriller that opened to tepid reviews earlier this year. Loathe as I am to agree with the critics, they were right about this one.

Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall play Will and Evelyn Caster, scientists working on the world’s first sentient computer. Will predicts such a computer will eventually create a singularity (the hypothesis that artificial intelligence will one day exceed human intelligence). During a presentation, Will is shot by a member of an anti-technology terrorist organization (RIFT, or Revolutionary Independence from Technology). With only a few weeks to live, Evelyn decides to upload Will’s consciousness into the neural network they’d been working on. Will’s best friend and fellow scientist Max (Paul Bettany) protests: “It won’t be Will… humankind isn’t ready for this…” Max is subsequently captured by Bree, leader of RIFT, and eventually joins their crusade. The government is also suspicious of the Caster’s situation.
Evelyn and Will – now in virtual form (à la Max Headroom) and connected to the Internet – build a techno-utopia in the small desert town of Brightwood. Will seeks to improve humanity and is able to use nanoparticles to improve the health of Brightwood’s residents, even restoring one man’s sight. But Evelyn soon has misgivings when she finds out that these people are now “networked” and can be controlled by Will. As his influence grows, RIFT develops a virus that can shut him down – the downside is that it will destroy any and all networked technology. The characters are presented with a choice: destroy Will, or risk being “assimilated” even as he improves the world. Evelyn carries the virus to Will, who has now reconstituted in human form, but she’s fatally injured during a RIFT attack. Now Will has a choice: let her die but continue to infect civilization, or upload her consciousness and the virus along with it. He chooses the latter: they both die and the technological world as we know it collapses.
This movie just… sits there. It’s not terrible but it’s not very good, either. The script (by first-timer Jack Paglen) raises some interesting questions and there are a few sparks of creativity, but what this film really needed was what I call the “conference room scene.” The characters speak in clichés and “movie speak” and what was missing was a serious philosophical discussion, or a series of such discussions, the kind Michael Crichton was so great at writing. (I’ve always said I’d love to see a stage version of Sphere, with the characters just sitting around a table debating science for two hours.) The topic of artificial intelligence has been done so much better elsewhere. I’ve read comparisons to The Lawnmower Man but I’ll also throw in the Star Trek: TNG episode “The Nth Degree.” Hell, this movie is pretty much a dramatic re-telling of the third act of Superman III, with Depp playing both the Richard Pryor and Robert Vaughn roles!

After reading this article, it’s clear that something was lost along the way. Paglen’s original script was on the Black List (no, not that list – this Black List is a yearly compilation of the best unproduced spec scripts). It featured some cool action set pieces with nano-engineered “super soldiers” as well as a love triangle between Will, Evelyn, and Max. The final film features no love triangle, and no big set pieces. Sure, there are some pyrotechnics courtesy of the RIFT goons… and that’s it. No super soldiers, just modified humans who don’t do much of anything. Since Will’s intentions were only benign, I suppose the filmmakers were hesitant to have him kill anyone. And if this was supposed to be some kind of twist (he’s not evil, he’s good!), then it was completely lost on me. At no point did I think Will would turn to the dark side. This film takes such a microscopic view of things – there’s no sense of dread or impending doom. We see nano-particles traveling along wind currents and forests re-growing and it’s like, “Gee, Will’s plan doesn’t sound so bad!” We also get a flash-forward at the beginning where we see Max in a tech-free future. So there… now we know how it ends, thirty seconds after the opening logo. What a horrible miscalculation!
Believe it or not, Depp can play regular people. He’s done it before. In this movie, he’s just dull. Truthfully, he’s better at playing the AI than a flesh and blood human being. Rebecca Hall is even worse as Evelyn. I couldn’t recall seeing her before but after looking at her credits, it turns out I’ve actually seen her in several movies. She’s either so good that she blends right in, or she’s so terrible that I am incapable of remembering her! She is also dull. Paul Bettany probably makes the best impression as Max, but how much better would this movie be if he were actually in love with Evelyn? Morgan Freeman sleepwalks through this movie as a friend and colleague of the Casters. Cillian Murphy is wasted as an FBI agent. Kate Mara is a non-entity as Bree. As mentioned in the previously-linked article, all the actors play the same emotion. Everyone here has one mode: dour. There’s no Spielbergian sense of discovery or creativity, and no humor.
Wally Pfister is a cinematographer by trade. He’s shot all of Christopher Nolan’s films since Memento and won an Oscar for Inception. Even with Nolan on this film as an executive producer, Pfister doesn’t contribute anything unique. Anyone could’ve directed this movie and while watching it, I couldn’t help but think what David Fincher would’ve done with it, or even Nolan himself. (I imagine a Nolan-directed version of this film would be equally dour, but there might be a few more sparks of genius within.) To be fair, there have been cinematographers who’ve successfully crossed over to directing, including Barry Sonnenfeld and Nicolas Roeg. Even Jan de Bont hit it out of the park with Speed… then he had to go and make Speed 2. Perhaps Pfister was ill-suited to the material. Or maybe he should’ve made his directing debut with something smaller. In fact, considering how they revised the original script, this movie could’ve benefited from being a smaller-budget B-movie. Perhaps we should wait for the inevitable SyFy Channel version with Lorenzo Lamas and Traci Lords!

As per usual, tech stuff is all top-notch. The Brightwood facility looks pretty cool, all sterile white and endless corridors. The cinematography is pleasant, though Pfister relies a little too much on “artsy” shots of water droplets and dewy windows, as if to say THIS MOVIE IS IMPORTANT! The score is droning background noise. The CGI nano-particles are petty neat, though. At the end, Bettany visits the Caster’s old house and notices a drop of water falling off a flower petal and into a puddle of oil… which is instantly cleansed. All of this takes place underneath Will’s home-made Faraday cage (a copper mesh which blocks electromagnetic fields). So perhaps there is hope after all?

Not for this movie.
[+]

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Summer of Films: WALL-E (2008)

WALL-E is a great film. On the surface, it’s a cartoon about a silent robot which falls in love with another robot. But it’s really so much more. In fact, WALL-E is the first Pixar film to truly show me the depth of their storytelling prowess.


Here’s the plot. In 2105, the Earth is ruled by a single corporation, Buy-n-Large Corporation (BnL). Because of pollution and garbage, the Earth has become uninhabitable. To solve this problem, BnL shoots the population of the Earth into space aboard luxury starliners, where they live in great comfort and happiness. Unfortunately, having nothing to do, as the starliners are automated and robots wait on their every need, the humans become morbidly obese and essentially incapable of movement as they become dependent on the machines.
Meanwhile, robots like WALL-E are left behind to clean up the garbage as everyone waits for the Earth to become habitable again. BnL, however, concludes that the Earth cannot be saved and it orders the automated starliners to take care of the humans in perpetuity.

WALL-E takes place seven-hundred years after the Earth was abandoned. WALL-E is one of the garbage robots, and the story begins when WALL-E discovers a small seedling on the Earth. He nurtures it, only to have it found by EVE, a robot sent from the starliner Axiom to search the Earth for signs of life. She reports her discovery, but when she does, the ship’s automatic pilot Auto, suppresses her discovery and tries to have her reprogrammed. WALL-E, who has fallen in love with her tries to save her, and she, WALL-E and the figurehead human Captain must fight Auto to free the humans from their gilded cage. At the end of the movie, they return to Earth where they discover millions of seedlings, and like Noah, they set about rebuilding the world.

Why This Film Excels

WALL-E is an amazing story. Why? Because it’s really several different stories, all told simultaneously and beautifully. For example, on the surface, WALL-E is a love story in which a robot which cannot even talk thoroughly convinces the audience that it has fallen in love with another robot. This is truly an impressive achievement. Having an audience believe that two characters are in love is already a difficult challenge. Making them cartoons doubles the challenge. Making one of them mute ups the challenge exponentially. And putting them into a story that is not a love story makes this a nearly impossible task... yet, Pixar pulls it off without a hitch or hiccup.
Next, WALL-E is an allegorical version of the story of Noah’s Ark from the Bible, but that’s just the beginning. Consider that Noah’s story is not exactly a strong story when it comes to filmability. Not to mention that Pixar doesn’t even get to use the spectacle of the flood to pump up the story. Further, the film takes place in the future, and it cannot be overtly religious. Again, these are serious hurdles that make Pixar’s ability to pull this off pretty incredible.

But there’s more... WALL-E is essentially Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” brought to film. Yes, it is. Whereas Orwell warned of a brutal, oppressive government crushing freedom, Huxley provided a similar warning in “Brave New World,” only he pointed out that government need not be heavy-handed to be insidious. Instead, it can use hedonistic pleasure to control the people just as easily as it uses violence. WALL-E delivers this identical message. Consider this:
On the surface, the humans seem happy. They have food and entertainment. They want for nothing. Notice also that the “government” is not inspired by evil. Indeed, Auto genuinely believes he’s looking out for the welfare of the people. His job is to protect the humans by keeping them on the ship, and that is all he wants to do. There is no better example of a benign dictator on film.

But first impressions are misleading or at least incomplete. The idea that the humans are happy is shown to be a mirage when they realize how helpless and dependent they’ve become. This awakens something inside them, something which drives them to regain their freedom despite everything they will lose.
The idea of Auto as a benign dictator falls apart as well. First, note that Auto suppresses information which runs counter to his mission. His motives may be good, but this is tyrannical behavior which strips people of the freedom to make their own choices. He even tries to destroy EVE, because he sees her as a danger to his mission. Suddenly, Auto’s methods are those of dictators the world over. Then, when the Captain orders Auto to set the humans free, Auto ignores his orders and fights the Captain to keep the humans prisoners. Essentially, in the name of doing good, Auto hides the truth, eliminates those who know the truth, and use his power to deprive the humans of their independence.

This is a truly subtle and difficult story to tell, yet Pixar does it and it does it without any false shortcuts, such as making Auto defective or secretly programmed to be evil. Evil just becomes natural to him because he has absolute power. Pixar lays this out without adding fake motives to try to explain away difficult truths. That's a hard sell for a cartoon. Add in that at the same time it does that, Pixar tells the Noah story and the love story, and you have a true achievement here.

Truly impressive.

[+]

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Summer of Films: The Grey (2011)

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from The Grey. Would this be a pointless action film? Would it be a weepy “buddy” film? I wasn’t sure. One thing I did know was that this one would be a tricky film to get right. So imagine my surprise to find a very enjoyable film. I can’t call the film “great” because there just isn’t enough to it, but it certainly was a top notch film that will hold your interest and keep you waiting to see what happens next.


Liam Neeson works as a hunter for an oil company of some sort. He works up near the arctic circle, and his job is to shoot wolves before they attack the company’s workers. His tour of duty has come to an end, however, and it’s time for him to fly home. Hence, he and about a hundred others board a plane for the civilized world.
It crashes.

Waking up in the freezing wilderness, Neeson realizes very quickly that they will never be found. Thus, he tells the other survivors that they need to walk their way out of the wilderness. They don’t really agree... not until one of them gets eaten by wolves. See, it turns out that they have landed in the hunting grounds of a particularly vicious pack of wolves, run by a massive gray alpha wolf, and these wolves have a taste for human.

The rest of the story is simple: as Neeson and the rest make their way through the wilderness, the wolves hunt them and pick off the stragglers.
Why This Film Works

Films like this are difficult because they don’t give the director much to work with. On the one hand, you have “facing the elements,” fighting exhaustion, and fighting off the foe who can attack at will. That may sound like more than enough, but it’s not. The reason is that all of this has been done so often that it’s frankly rather dull. How many ways can you show wanting to fall asleep or freezing in the snow or doing the same things we know they must do to survive? The attacks are obviously more interesting, but they are necessarily rare or the film becomes a bit of a joke. So how do you fill in the rest of the film in a way which keeps the audience’s attention?
That’s where the other hand comes in. On that other hand, you have some personal drama that can be used to fill the time. This can include a dispute or tension or conflict between the survivors as they try to make their way to safety. The danger here, however, is that the drama will feel fake. Sure, some people don’t like taking orders or they may not trust someone else, but the further you go with this, the less believable it becomes because it starts to seem like the characters care more about fighting than they do the danger they face. Indeed, this is one of those moments where no matter what your differences are, you still stick together until it’s over.
The alternative is some sort of internal monologue where the main character does his best to keep himself motivated as his body slowly begins to fail. The danger here is that the audience may not like the main character enough to care about his plight. Moreover, directors often fall prey to the idea of trying to tell a completely different movie through the flashbacks, which hurts the pacing of the main film.

Director Joe Carnahan gets around these issues by embracing them all, but only in tiny amounts. Essentially, we are shown enough conflict to know that the men are scared, but not enough to see them as stupid. We are shown enough flashbacks to know what the men have to live for, but not enough to weigh us down or slow the story. We see Neeson’s story in flashback too, but it isn’t much longer than the others, though it has a strong punch. And we get an inner monologue from Neeson which is credible, intense, and gives us genuine insight into his character.
What really makes all of this work, however, is Neeson. Like so many other characters in this type of situation, Neeson has a tragic past. I won’t tell you what it is, but it builds expertly and when you find out the kicker, it may bring a tear to your eye. That gives you a strong reason to feel for him. But even without that, Neeson does several things that strike you throughout – things that are normally missing in films like this. For example, after the plane crash, when most characters are proving their macho cred so they can lead, Neeson takes charge because his personality is so strong and then he stops to console a dying man. And the way he does it is unique. He tells the man honestly that he will die, and then he calms him to the prospect. This is a powerful moment that sets Neeson apart from anything you've seen before and it turns him into the man you want with you in the event of a disaster. You also learn that he was suicidal the night before and his reason was philosophically inspired: “I’ve stopped doing this world any good.” He also has a fascinating moment where he calls out God: “Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now. Not later. ... I’m calling on you.” Throughout, his character surprises with clever moments like this.

The one downside... or maybe not... is the ending. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that it’s not a traditional ending and some people won’t like it at all. I personally wanted more at first, but felt satisfied as I thought about the meaning of it all.

All told, this is a film where you all know the plot, you all know what will happen, and you can guess most of the characters. Nevertheless, the film feels fresh and it will pull you in and hold your interest. I definitely recommend this one.
[+]

Friday, August 8, 2014

Summer of Films: Argo (2012)

Argo is one of those film. If it had been released in the 1990s, it would have been dismissed as pointless, predictable and dull. But in our current age of dumbed down filmmaking, Argo is seen as something of a decent and interesting film. In fact, the critics gave it a 96% score. It deserved a 60%.

** Spoiler Alert **
Argo is based on the real story of the CIA’s efforts to rescue a handful of American Embassy personnel from Iran during the evil Carter years. The story begins with the Iranians storming the American Embassy in Tehran. As they do, six Americans escape out the back of the Embassy. They make their way to the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor. From there, they call home for help.
Back in Washington, the various agencies feud about who will run the operation to rescue these six. Eventually, the CIA takes charge and they float a number of operations. None of them are good options. The one they ultimately choose involves a CIA operative (Ben Affleck) going to Iran, pretending to be a location scout for a movie company. The movie they are making is a bizarre and pathetic Star Wars knock-off called Argo, and they claim they want to film in various parts of Tehran and the surrounding country. The real plan, however, is to pick up the six, who will pretend to be part of the film crew and then leave Iran under Canadian passports.

Naturally, the plan runs into complications throughout and they barely escape.
This film is a lost opportunity.
This film has serious potential. For one thing, you have a truly interesting setting. Not only is this an interesting historical moment, but it’s a fascinating location to set a film as few other Western films have ever been filmed in Iran. For another, you have a series of fascinating storylines that are ripe for exploitation. For example, you can explore how to set up a genuine film company as they need to set one up to support their story in the event the Iranians do any investigation of who they are. Then you have the question of how they navigate the Iranian government, which was awash in revolutionaries. Finally, you have the escape plot itself, which calls out for dramatic near-misses. Each of these aspects should make for an excellent and interesting film if done right.
Unfortunately, the film fails to exploit these things because the film is lazily written. Indeed, the biggest problem with the film is that it never digs into the details of what happens. For example, we are never told how they really escape. We are never told how Affleck can fly in as one person and leave as seven without this raising huge red flags. We get hints of Iranian interference, but there is never a sense given of how systematic this is, whether the interference is getting worse or better, or even if the Iranians are really aware of the true identity of the six or are just being difficult. The result is a film that plays out only on the surface and, consequently, never gives us enough information to know when the characters are in danger and what things would increase their danger. As a result, the film struggles to create the tension and angst that should be inherent in its theoretically provocative storyline.
In fact, where this really comes through is at the end. As the six try to make their way through the airport and onto the commercial jetliner waiting for them, we see other Iranians racing to the airport to stop them. But we don’t really have an idea who these Iranians are or if they represent a true threat. We’re not even sure what they will accuse the six of, or if the six have a reasonable defense. We don’t know how long it will take these Iranians to get to the airport. We don’t know where in the airport the six are at any particular time. We don’t know if the Iranians can stop the plane or if the six are safe once they board. The result is that we are basically told that the law of films will apply, which means we will be shown a series of fake near misses as the characters make a hair-splitting escape in the final frame. But since we know they will escape, and we have no way to track how finely the hair is being split, all we can do is watch indifferently as things happen that feel meaningless and fake to us as the film drives toward an inevitable and obvious ending.
Moreover, adding things like some random airport guard deciding to call the Argo production company to verify their credentials doesn’t add any tension because this feels like a film gimmick to raise the level of tension, which tells us right away that nothing will come of it. Having the Iranians race out onto the runway doesn’t add tension either because, again, this feels like a film gimmick. Indeed, a more realistic ending would involve the tower cancelling permission to leave or the Iranians blocking the runway...not racing alongside the plane.

Argo is a story with true potential, but the film underwhelms at every turn. This is a film that doesn’t care about its characters and which prefers Hollywood gimmicks to the solid drama available to it. In a way, it’s as if Affleck (the director) just didn’t care enough to learn the story except at a surface level and he plugged the holes where the tension was missing with chase movie tropes. That makes this film really hard to like.

[+]

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Summer of Films: F/X (1986)

Last week, I mentioned that Body Double was one of a group of films from the 1980’s that weren’t famous or influential, but which were nevertheless quite good and which found long lives with audiences. F/X is another of those films. F/X had no bankable star, no big name director, did not come from a book, and had a budget of only $10 million. It doubled its money, but can hardly be called a hit. Yet, it spawned a belated sequel and a television series, and it continues to find an audience today.
Roland “Rollie” Tyler (Bryan Brown) is the best special effects man in the movie business. He’s so good that the Department of Justice asks him to help them. They are holding a mobster named Nicholas DeFranco (Jerry Orbach), who is turning state’s evidence against the mob. To protect him, they want to stage a fake assassination so everyone thinks he’s dead. For that, they need Rollie’s help.
Rollie agrees to help, but things go wrong when he finds himself double-crossed by corrupt DOJ agent Martin Lipton (Cliff De Young), who causes Rollie to really kill DeFranco... or does he? Rollie flees and must now figure out what really happened and expose the truth as he is hunted by the corrupt agent. Meanwhile NYC police detective Leo McCarthy (Brian Dennehy) doesn’t believe DeFranco is dead and he begins investigating the Department of Justice agents involved.
What Made This Film Work
Directed by theater director Robert Mandel and starring barely-known Aussie Bryan Brown (Breaker Morant), F/X began life as a proposed low-budget television movie, but was upped to a feature film by producer Dodi Fayed, of Princess Di fame. Fayed made the decision to hire Mandel to direct because he was looking for someone other than an action director because he wanted a film in which the audience cared about the characters...

...he wanted a film in which the audience cared about the characters... Imagine that!

That decision is what made F/X what it is, which is a film you like because the characters interest you and you want to see what happens to them. Indeed, these are very richly drawn characters with lots of relatable traits. What’s more, the film is very smart in how it imparts these character traits in that it never once stops the plot to share them with you.
For example, the film spends considerable effort letting you get to know Rollie. You learn what motivates him and how his own pride can be used to manipulate him. You learn how amazingly talented he is and how good he is at thinking on his feet. You see his passion for special effects, and you learn both how he could be taken in so easily and how he could be such a formidable opponent when things turn. You meet the love of his life. And so on. In fact, the first fifteen or twenty minutes are really spent telling you everything you need to know about Rollie to really like and respect him, and to earn the credibility to achieve everything he does.

BUT... none of this is done in the usual action-film manner. There are no flashbacks. There are no ten minute weepy asides. There is no five minute saccharine sweet snapshot of the lead character’s life which finishes as the kids hug him and his wife kisses him goodbye for the day. Instead, you watch the plot unfold, and as you watch the plot, you learn all these things about Rollie from watching his actions, his responses, and how others respond to him. Essentially, you are awash in characterization, but you don’t even realize it.
You get to know Detective McCarthy the same way. McCarthy also presents values we truly embrace: tenacity, honor, a sense of duty, and a disdain for politics. And he comes across as someone you want to see succeed. To pull us in even more, as with Rollie, the film then puts various obstacles in McCarthy’s path to give us a need to cheer him on as he tries to find Rollie and solve the mystery. In fact, what’s really interesting here is that McCarthy and Rollie don’t even meet until the end of the film. No blockbuster could have resisted a series of chase and fight scenes between the two, but this film does because that would be fake drama.
In addition to the two main characters, the supporting characters too are given substantive roles that are strongly written even when they are very minor characters. There are no clichés, no cardboard, and no plot convenience characters, even among the guys who only show up for a minute or two. Consider, for example, McCarthy’s contact in the police records department, Marisa. She’s barely in the film, yet we know that she has strong feelings for McCarthy which she realizes will never become reality. We see that she is bright, dedicated, and not above going around the system for a good cause. You have McCarthy’s boss, who we see can no longer defend McCarthy, but still defends him personally. You have loyal secretaries with clever lines, dedicated police, not so dedicated police, a bad guy you really dislike and a bad guy you almost feel sorry for... neither of whom is a maniacal puppy kicker – they earn their bad guy status through their deeds. Each of these characters has as much, if not more, characterization built into them than the main characters in most blockbusters today. And as with Rollie, this characterization is presented in their words and deeds and interactions, i.e. they never stop the plot to force feed you character moments.
The end result is this. You have two leads showing you the film from two different perspectives. You like both and you want to get to know them and you want to see them both succeed. They are both very interesting. They are also surrounded by a world of characters that are likewise interesting in their own right. The writing is solid. The dialog is smart and feels realistic. The characters are believable. The film doesn’t make huge logical jumps. It doesn’t rely on chance or coincidence to work. No character does things they don’t seem trained to do. Likewise, the action scenes are really good. They tend to be short and believable. There are no drawn out fight scenes. The film isn’t unnaturally butcherous, but it’s also not unnaturally pacifistic. Rollie will kill because he needs to. He doesn’t whine about it and he doesn’t gloat about it or glory in it. He does what a desperate, but determined man would do. This lends a real sense of reality to a film.

Ultimately, this all makes for solid, enjoyable film with a high degree of re-watchability.

[+]

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guest Review: Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia and its sequel are like nothing else Disney, or any other major American studio, has ever made or attempted and is today widely hailed as a pinnacle in animation. However, when it was released, though the critical reception was mostly positive, audiences were less than thrilled, in fact Walt Disney later said in an interview that Fantasia “nearly broke us”, but defended it as an “artistic masterpiece”. He is right.

Fantasia is an art film. There is no other way to describe it. It has no overall story, linear or non-linear, instead it is a series of vignettes with each one centered around a particular piece of music, each introduced by Deems Taylor with the music performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. They are, with summaries, in order:
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach:
The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky:
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas: A sorcerer
Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky
Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig von Beethoven
Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli
Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky & Ave Maria by Franz Schubert
The first two feature absolutely no plot or story and are largely images to fit the music, especially Toccata and Fugue, which is here played on the strings rather than the usual organ, where the visuals can only be described as “impressionistic” in that they give a visual “impression” in animation of the music you are hearing. You “see” the violin strokes, you “see” the music played. In The Nutcracker Suite you have mushrooms and flowers dancing to the various tunes you hear in the suite.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is the most famous, with Mickey Mouse as titular apprentice to the sorcerer, Yen Sid (Hint: spell “Yen Sid” backwards). You probably know the story, the sorcerer having told the apprentice to fetch pales of water goes to bed leaving his magic hat behind. The apprentice then uses the hat to make the brooms do it for him but soon finds he can’t control it.
Rite of Spring uses Stravinsky’s most famous ballet, and one of my personal favorites, to tell the story of Earth from its birth in the cloud of dust around the sun and the volcanic eruptions of its early days to the ultimate rise and eventual extinction of the dinosaurs.

Pastoral Symphony features various “pastoral” creatures of Greek mythology such as centaurs and faun dancing and frolicking with the Greek god Bacchus in the day until Zeus appears and scatters the partying flock with his thunderbolts. This one is mostly light-hearted after the dark Rite of Spring.

Dance of the Hours, famous for providing the music for Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” is even more light-hearted and comical with dancing ostriches, hippos, and an alligator chasing his hippo, not because he wants to eat her but because he has fallen madly in love with her.
A Night on Bald Mountain & Ave Maria is the final one and tells of the slavic god Chernabog (read: Satan) calling the ghosts and demons to Bald Mountain where he holds a terrifying black mass until the morning church bells chase him away. Fantasia then ends on a chorus singing Schubert’s Ave Maria.
What is Good About It
The animation and the music. Each one is genius in its own way and will have you watching and re-watching again and again. From the stunning strings of Toccatta and Fugue in D Minor to the beautiful chorus at the end the music is fantastic and needs little praise. The presentation is fantastic whether its the dramatic death of the dinosaurs, the terrifying demon Chernabog on Bald Mountain, or the hopeful, heavenly chorus of Ave Maria that closes the movie out.

But splendid animation and music does not a great film make. The true genius of the movie is that it never tells you what to take from it. There is no dialogue and Deems Taylor’s narration only gives a basic outline of what you are going to see, so the interpretation of it is largely up to you. You are never told how to feel about the events of the movie. You are never explicitly told how to feel about the dinosaurs dying out. It is shown, it happens, and the emotional response is up to you.

This means you cannot watch it like a normal movie. You can’t listen to dialogue and say. You have to free your mind and let the movie, and its images, music, and emotions wash over you. You can’t watch it, you have to experience it.

If Snow White is prose, this is poetry.

I will acknowledge, however, that certain moments are rather dull, for example, the Nutcracker Suite can drag on too long. And the movie, as you might have guessed, may be too adult for young children. But its an “artistic masterpiece” and one that is definitely worth checking out.
[+]

Friday, August 1, 2014

Summer of Films: Premium Rush (2012)

Premium Rush is one of those minor films that few people notice when Hollywood makes them. It wasn’t a blockbuster. It wasn’t aimed at all audiences and blanded-down accordingly. It didn’t have a hundred million dollar budget. It didn’t have a huge, bankable star. What it did have was solid actors, an interesting story with a compelling set of stakes. The result is a very enjoyable film.
Premium Rush stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee, a law school graduate who has decided he would rather be a bicycle messenger than a lawyer. As a bicycle messenger, he flies around New York City on his bike, weaving in and out of traffic to deliver packages. In so doing, he competes with other bicycle messengers for assignments, which is how they get paid. He has recently run into a rough spot with his girlfriend, who is also a messenger, because she sees him as irresponsible for not becoming a lawyer and because he rides recklessly. He doesn’t even have brakes on his bike.
As the story unfolds, Wilee is sent to the university to pick up a package. He must deliver it to Chinatown by a certain deadline. He collects this package from a girl he knows named Nima. He believes the package belongs to the school. As he goes to leave the university, however, he is approached by a man demanding the return of the package. Wilee refuses and a chase begins.

At this point, the story flashes back, a technique which will be used repeatedly to tell the story in a slightly non-chronological manner. Through the flashbacks, we learn that the package belongs to Mina, not the school and we learn that the man is trying to steal it from her. As the chase continues, we learn that the man is Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon), a gambling-addicted New York Police officer with little in the way of self-control. He owes lots of money to a local loan shark named Mr. Lin. Lin tells Bobby that he can pay off all his debts if he grabs the package from Mina. This now becomes a matter of life and death to Bobby. Meanwhile, as Wilee finds out what is in the package, it becomes equally important to him to get the package where it needs to be.
Why This Film Works
Let me start with this: this film is not a hidden gem. This is not The Usual Suspects or Triangle. You aren’t going to add this film to your list of best ever films. But Premium Rush doesn’t try to be that either. What Premium Rush tries to be is simply an enjoyable film that tells an interesting story, and in that regard it succeeds completely. Indeed, this is akin to so many of the secondary movies of the 1980’s which never had a chance to be Raiders of the Lost Ark or Back to the Future, but which found good-sized audiences and have continued to be shown on television today because they were genuinely good films.
And what makes this film work is actually very simple: you are interested in the characters and what happens to them. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is very likeable as Wilee. JGL comes across as someone you want to spend time with and know more about. At the same time, his story is full of conflict and mystery which attracts our attention. For example, you have the mystery of what’s in the package and you have the question of whether or not he will succeed with delivering the package. What’s more, these issues are unveiled bit by bit, with the level of challenge or intensity or mystery growing as the story moves forward. What starts as a simple package delivery, becomes a contested package delivery, becomes being chased by a stranger, becomes being chased by a madman... a madman cop, becomes a life and death delivery for a very good reason. Thus, as the story progresses, your interest grows as the intensity of the challenge and the stakes keep rising.
Next, you add Michael Shannon. Shannon is another compelling actor and, here, he is given tremendous freedom. Not only is he allowed to play the type of psycho he excels at, but the film lets him build up to it. In fact, just as Wilee’s character builds throughout, so does Shannon. When you first see Shannon, he’s just a guy. Soon you learn his occupation, which proves a problem for Wilee. Then you learn why he wants the package and you see his story slowly start spinning out of control at the same time he’s making Wilee’s life spin out of control.

All of this results in very relatable and very interesting conflicts, which keep this film interesting in a way that something like Green Lantern simply does not. What you have here are two characters who are inherently interesting even apart from the plot. Both have things they must achieve due to flaws in their characters. Then they are put in direct conflict because of their competing missions – deliver the package versus intercept the package. At the same time, they are surrounded by obstacles. The result is to multiply our interest in the story by each of these conflicts and obstacles.

By comparison, a film like Green Lantern relies entirely on the promise of one huge fist fight to make the film pay off. They typically add some generic “need for self-improvement” in the main character to fool you into thinking the character grows, but there is no real conflict apart from the forty minutes of punching you will endure. The result is a film devoid of interesting conflicts.
That’s why this film works: because the actors imbue the characters with life and the characters are engaged in an ever-increasing series of conflicts which make you more and more interested as the film progresses.

So in the end, I would describe this film this way: this is a very enjoyable film that will grab and hold your interest. It is a good film and it is an excellent way to spend two hours. You won’t feel like you’ve seen the next Star Wars or Maltese Falcons, but you will be happy that you watched it. And that makes this film worthwhile.

[+]