Monday, February 23, 2015

The Best of Reality TV

On several occasions, I've reviewed shows that are essentially classified as "reality TV," even though they are anything but what people think of when you say "reality TV." Today, I'm going to give a quick rundown of some of the best shows out there that might interest you.

Alaska State Troopers... This show is somewhat similar to COPS, only it includes the added challenges of being in Alaska. The result is a fascinating look into law enforcement in some of the harshest terrain in the world. What's more, the officers they follow really prove themselves to be some of the best examples of how law enforcement is done right. These are not badge-heavy gunslingers, they are true professionals who spend as much of their time helping people as they do stopping criminals... or angry moose.

Booze Traveler... This is a surprisingly interesting show. Boston drunk Jack Maxwell travels the world looking for interesting local drinks in various countries. In the process, we learn a bit about the history of alcohol, we learn a lot about the culture of the countries he visits, and we see some really cool drinks that get you checking out the internet to see if you can order them... and I'm not even a drinker. Hmm.

Chopped... This is one of the best cooking shows in a long time. Essentially, host Ted Allen pits four chefs against each other as they cook meals using mystery baskets of food items. Sometimes, these items are normal, like chicken cutlets. Other times, they are things you (and the chefs) have never heard of. The coolest of these episodes, by the way, involves a series of episodes using children and then teenage chefs. These kids are amazingly talented and they really represent themselves in a way that should make everyone proud.

Underworld/Drugs Inc.... I have no idea how National Geographic Channel gets their access, but these two related shows are amazing. They literally ride along with drug dealers, drug kingpins, cartel killers, guys looking to rob drug dealers, cops, DEA and anyone else who is part of the story of the underworld of drugs, people smuggling, gun smuggling and counterfeit products. The reality presented by these people is amazing, especially as it differs so much from the official story. If you want to understand what is really going on in the war on drugs, watch this show.

Carnival Eats... This show is amazing. More so than any other show on the Food Channel, this show highlights the amazing combinations of food that you've never thought of before, but which you now cannot live without trying. "They deep fried what???!!! How far is the Alabama County Fair from my house?!" This show is the ultimate in food porn.

Buying "___"... This is a real estate show, but so much more. Coming in several flavors like "Buying the Beach," "Buying Alaska," "Buying the Bayou" and "Buying Hawaii," this show gives you a really cool sense of what the real estate is like in other "exotic" parts of the country. This is where I learned that Cajuns drink out of dirty rivers, Alaskans are nuts... they use outhouses and need to fend of f**ing bears, and Hawaii is INSANELY expensive. This show provides an interesting perspective. As an aside in a similar genre, Celebrity House Hunting is not only a guilty pleasure but it shows you what a couple million can get you. You see some pretty amazing homes.

Hotel Impossible... Anthony Melchiorri has a well-deserved reputation for turning around some major New York City landmark hotels. He now roams the country offering advice to struggling independent hotels. What makes this show so interesting is that it's honestly like a master class in hotel management. Seriously, if you are in the hospitality industry and you haven't watched this entire series to see all the ideas he shares, then you are negligent.

These shows really are worth checking out. They provide lots of interesting insights and give you a cool perspective on the world around us and in particular our own country.

Anything I missed?
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Friday, February 20, 2015

Film Friday: Transcendence (2014) vs. Lawnmower Man (1992)

ed. ScottDS reviewed this film (LINK), but I wanted to add my own take. I recommend reading his take as well.

Perplexing. That’s what Transcendence is... perplexing. I don’t mean that the film weaves questions and concepts into a riddle that will leave you perplexed. No. I find the film perplexing because this should have been a better film than it ultimately is and I don’t entirely know why. But I think I know how to figure it out. Let’s compare this film to The Lawnmower Man.

The idea of our technology racing beyond our limits to control it and then enslaving the human race is an old one. The first time it appears on film, of which I’m aware, is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Over the years since, this theme has repeated itself in many films, in everything from the disturbing Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) to The Lawnmower Man (1992) to... well, Transcendence. In each case, the formula remains the same, it’s only the technology that changes.

Transcendence begins with an anti-technology terrorist group killing a group of scientists who are working to build the first true artificial intelligence. In the process, Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is shot, but appears to be ok. Unfortunately, the bullet is poisonous and Caster is given only a few weeks to live. In his last few days, he works with his wife Evelyn to try to finish the AI. He fails and dies. But as he lays dying, his wife comes up with a radical idea. Rather than build an AI, she records Will’s brain inside the computer. Caster has done this already with a monkey and his wife thinks she can do it with him.
Despite the odds, Evelyn succeeds with the help of family friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany). However, Max immediately recognizes that what they’ve created is not Will... it is something else, something dangerous. The grieving Evelyn dismisses Max and flees with the new computerized Will to where they can be safe. Will then begins to grow. Indeed, unfettered by the limitations of the human brain, the computerized Will soon becomes super smart and quickly learns to reach out to other computers everywhere to increase his power.

Soon, Will is creating amazing inventions, but using them to enslave the humans he helps as he builds a massive base in the desert. Eventually, the government realizes the danger and they struggle to defeat Will. The only option they have is to unplug the entire internet and in the process destroy all of modern society because everything is networked now.
Lawnmower Man is rather similar. Lawnmower Man begins with Pierce Brosnan as Dr. Angelo, a pacifist scientist who’s researching using virtual reality to enhance human intelligence. Like all good scientists, Pierce decides to experiment on his retarded gardener Jobe. Jobe responds quickly to the treatments and soon becomes normal. Then he becomes super-smart. Then he becomes so smart he transcends the limits of the human form and can begin manipulating computers and then even molecules themselves. He soon threatens to take over the entire world.

Why Transcendence Didn’t Work

Let me start by saying that it’s perhaps unfair to say that Transcendence didn’t work. My viewing experience was decidedly mixed. I began by almost turning off the film at the intro, which felt so derivative I felt offended. But I persevered and soon found a functioning, though hardly enjoyable film. Depp’s character is unlikable. Depp’s wife is bland. Paul Bettany is excellent as always, but gets sidetracked and removed from the film for too long. Morgan Freeman is solid, but is barely in the film. The plot is so predictable that it feels like the characters are rolling their eyes to pretend they don’t know what will happen next. And the pacing is very, very slow. But I will admit that the film offered just enough to make me curious to see how it all played out, though it felt like a chore to watch it.
I think what went wrong can best be demonstrated by a comparison to Lawnmower Man. Lawnmower Man offered nothing special. The actors are nothing special. The story is hardly unpredictable or creative. And the effects, while cool when released, felt old within a month of release and feel positively stone-ageian today. But what the film had going for it was three things: (1) the pacing kept the movie zipping along, (2) how each scene would turn out was unpredictable, and (3) you sympathized with the characters.

Consider the pacing. In Lawnmower Man, the film does a lot through montages. It skips ahead from key point to key point with only a few character development moments interspersed. Each scene moves swiftly and efficiently and you never feel like time is being wasted. By comparison, Transcendence wastes a ton of time. Its scenes are drawn out with huge pauses and long moments of reflection. This is how bad directors think they can fake drama when the screenplay itself lacks drama. Unfortunately, doing this robs Transcendence of any sort of rhythm and it leaves you feeling like the movie could be cut in half without missing a beat.

Moreover, the scenes in Transcendence all end the way you would expect. There is little in the way of drama or surprise either in the overall story or in the individual scenes. Even scenes like Johnny Depp being shot are so telegraphed that you never once feel an ounce of surprise. What made films like The Forbin Project work was that you never knew exactly how things would go. Was the good guys’ plan working? You didn’t know. In Lawnmower Man, you have all these moments where you just don’t know how they will play out, even if you know how the film must ultimately end. In Transcendence, nothing happens that you don’t see coming a mile away.
Finally, as lame as Lawnmower Man can be at times, you do come to sympathize with the characters. Jobe is a nice kid who twists into something evil because of the twisted logic of absolute power. Pierce is kind of an ass who starts to realize the mistake he’s made and you begin to pull for him, especially as the powers that be try to stop him so they can exploit Jobe. In both instances, it is the growth within the characters that causes your emotional reaction. Jobe is a good kid destroyed and Pierce is an ass redeemed, and it forces you to care about what is going on.
In Transcendence, there is no growth whatsoever. Depp is an arrogant ass from the first frame and he stays that way. His wife is bland and stays that way. Paul Bettany is the hero who is right from the opening and never needs to redeem himself or prove himself... nor does he ultimately do anything. The other characters are pointless. So ultimately, there isn’t a character journey in this entire two hour film even as nothing else happens except “character building” moments. This just reinforces the idea that the film is just wasting time.

These differences are key. Because of these differences, Lawnmower Man (which I repeat isn’t a great film, but is enjoyable in a B movie sort of way) comes across as a shallow film that holds your interest with decent action and an unpredictable story throughout, even though you know the ultimate ending. Its characters aren’t great, but they are interesting enough to keep you invested. Transcendence, by comparison, feels like a forced march. This is a long and needlessly dull film because it never once challenges or surprises you. Its characters are one-dimensional and indifferent; you won’t feel anything for any of them. So while the film appears like it should have worked, it really never does.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: New Line Cinema

by Jason

New Line Cinema was, in a word, awesome. This studio put out some of my favorite movies growing up, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mortal Kombat, and Blade. New Line seemed to be tops at creating movies that teenagers and young adults enjoyed. Sometimes they were hits like the aforementioned three movies, other times they would go on to be cult favorites, like The Cell, The Lawnmower Man, or Dark City. Then New Line struck box office gold by adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy into three hit movies, with the third film earning over a billion dollars worldwide and netting 11 Academy Awards. How could a studio with such a track record possibly fail? Just read on...

Who Were They?

New Line Cinema was created in 1967 by Robert Shaye as a film distribution company that supplied foreign and art films for college campuses in the United States. One of the company's early successes was its distribution of the 1936 anti-cannabis PSA film Reefer Madness. Starting in 1976, New Line started making its own movies, but it wasn’t until 1984 that it released its first big hit, A Nightmare on Elm Street. New Line earned the nickname “The House That Freddy Built,” as further sequels fueled the studio’s coffers. The studio scored another big win with the smash hit Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990). From there, New Line just took off.

What Were They Known For?

Movies that appealed to teens and young adults, mostly horror, martial arts, comic book or video game-inspired flicks, comedies, and some offbeat cult hits. In its later years, the studio would also distribute some critically acclaimed films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

The Studio’s Peak Moment

Arguably the release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. For sheer prestige and box office success, it was hard to beat. However, for regular studio output, I’d probably nominate the mid to late 1990s. This was the era where the studio was releasing big hits like The Wedding Singer, as well as Blade, Austin Powers, Rush Hour, with successful sequels to follow.

The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie

North. New Line co-produced it, so it gets a share of the blame.

For movies that the studio is solely responsible for, Son of the Mask may be the top contender. A Jim Carrey-less sequel to The Mask, is considered one of the worst follow-ups ever made.

The Studio’s Up and Comers

Quite a few, actually.

First, although New Line didn’t actually produce the film, it did distribute director Sam Raimi’s cult hit The Evil Dead, which would launch his and star Bruce Campbell’s careers.

Second, Jim Carrey. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective launched him into superstardom, but his next two movies, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber, were made and released by New Line Cinema. Their successes proved that Ace Ventura wasn’t a flash in the pan. The Farrelly Brothers also count, as Dumb and Dumber was their first directorial credit.

New Line also launched Jackie Chan’s American film career. Chan had tried to break into American films before with The Big Brawl and The Protector, to no avail. But he scored big when New Line distributed Hong Kong-made Rumble in the Bronx in the states in 1996. The film was a big hit and began the flood of Chan’s Hong Kong output into the states. New Line would give Chan an American-made hit two years later in Rush Hour.

The studio also boosted the directorial careers of two guys named Paul Anderson. First, there was Paul W. S. Anderson, (he of the Resident Evil films fame) who got the director’s chair for Mortal Kombat, his second picture ever. Then there was Paul Thomas Anderson, whose breakout film Boogie Nights was distributed by New Line, and later the studio would release another movie directed by Anderson, the ensemble cast film Magnolia.

Finally, the studio also rescued director David Fincher’s career from the ashes of Alien 3 by making his sophomore effort, Seven.

Notable Movies.

The original Nightmare on Elm Street series plus Freddy v. Jason, the Critters movies, the Lawnmower Man films, the first three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pictures, the Austin Powers trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Blade trilogy, the Rush Hour trilogy, the Hobbit trilogy, the Mortal Kombat films, the Sex and the City films, the Final Destination films, Drop Dead Fred, Seven, The Mask (and its prequel), Dumb and Dumber (and its prequel), The Cell, Spawn, Dark City, Lost in Space, Pleasantville, Rumble in the Bronx, Elf, the Final Destination movies, Wedding Crashers, Snakes on a Plane, About Schmidt, Magnolia, Mr. Deeds, Hairspray, We’re the Millers, and Horrible Bosses.

What Killed the Studio?

After bankrolling a lot of movies the public wanted to see, New Line started bankrolling a lot of movies the public stayed away from.

Town and Country. A Warren Beatty-starring flick that ended up making just 10 million worldwide, yet cost 90 million (!) to make.

Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd. At the time, Jim Carrey wasn’t interested in doing sequels to his old works, so New Line tried the prequel route. Manages not to count as a total flop because it barely cost anything to begin with, but it made nowhere near the money the first one did.

Son of the Mask. Again, no Jim Carrey, so we focus on a different character played by Jamie Kennedy, who sires a baby that ends up born with the powers of the mask. The result was the scariest film baby since the babies from Superbabies: Baby Geniuses.

The Last Mimzy. An E.T.-esque sci-fi family flick directed by Shaye himself that tanked even after a lot of studio spending on marketing.

Rendition. Because anti-Iraq war movies were proven box office gold. Really.

Snakes on a Plane. Believe it or not, creating a Samuel L. Jackson internet meme actually does not result in box office dollars.

Semi-Pro. One Will Farrell sports comedy too many.

The coup de grĂ¢ce finally came in 2008. The studio, pressured by its failures and the need to recreate the success of Lord of the Rings, sought out another fantasy franchise to fill its coffers. Hey, this looks promising. A best-selling fantasy trilogy written by a British author? Sold! Let’s option the His Dark Materials trilogy!

Hey, did I mention the series is a blatant screed attacking theism and specifically the Catholic Church?

Yeah, this was not going to end well.

Desperate to recreate the magic of the LOTR adaptations, New Line sank about 200 million dollars into the movie and nabbed Christopher Lee for a cameo role and cast Ian McKellen as the voice of a drunken bear (I’m not joking). To even get the movie financed, New Line presold the foreign rights to the movie in advance, which effectively dug the studio’s grave. The movie would bomb in the U.S. but make over 300 million overseas, money that New Line would never even see because it went to foreign distributors instead.

Warner Bros, which by now owned the studio, had finally had it and absorbed New Line into the company. Almost all of its employees were summarily fired.


New Line Cinema is still around, but as an imprint of Warner Bros; its days as an independent studio are over. Its biggest successes so far have been the three Hobbit movies, although they haven’t been as acclaimed as the LOTR films. They’ve also done well with comedies like We’re the Millers and Horrible Bosses, so New Line is at least enjoying a good second life, even if it isn’t the scrappy indie studio that we remember.

The failure of New Line stemmed from expensive investments in very bad movies and it seemed the studio just forgot its roots. It seemed to be on the cutting edge for so long that the fall it took is all the more astounding. At its best, the studio made modest but reasonable investments in cool pictures that either showcased up and coming talent or in the case of Mike Meyers, Burt Reynolds and Jackie Chan, reinvigorated existing talent. But once the studio got the taste of big success with Lord of the Rings, they wanted it again too badly and paid dearly for it.

So what is your favorite New Line Cinema picture? What do you think of the studio? Any other thoughts?
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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Film Friday: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Hollywood has been on a science fiction bender of late. Unfortunately, the films it’s made have been super-mediocre despite the high production values and interesting concepts they embrace. Indeed, Oblivion, After Earth, Elysium and Gravity all underwhelmed and disappointed. Even Prometheus didn’t live up to expectations. So imagine my surprise to find that Edge of Tomorrow was truly an excellent film!


Based on the Japanese novel “All You Need Is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow takes place in a world in which an alien race has landed in the heart of Europe and driven the humans back all the way to Russia in the East and Britain in the West. Until recently, the humans had been unable to put up even token resistance against these creatures, which look like car-sized octopuses made of flailing razor sharp arms. But things are about to change for the humans with the invention of battle suits. These suits give humans a chance to win hand to hand combat, which is how the humans won their first battle at Dunkirk. Now the military (the United Defense Force) plans an invasion of France.
As the story opens, the General in charge calls Tom Cruise into his office. Cruise is a Major in public relations, and he’s an unlikable coward. The General orders Cruise to accompany the invasion and take pictures so he can sell the invasion to the public... and defuse any negative publicity in the event the humans lose. Cruise panics upon hearing this and tries to escape this duty. When the General leaves him no choice, Cruise threatens the General and ends up under arrest.

When Cruise wakes up, he finds himself inserted into a combat unit. The other soldiers are told that he’s a private and a deserter who tried to impersonate an officer. He is given no choice but to join the invasion as an ordinary soldier.
When Cruise lands on the beach, he realizes that the invasion is chaos and the humans are getting slaughtered. He has no idea what to do. Before he can make up his mind, however, he is killed... yes, killed. Only, Cruise doesn’t die. To the contrary, he wakes up to discover that he has moved backwards in time to the point where he first woke up under arrest. And every time he gets killed after that, he comes back to that same point to relive the same day. If he wants to live, he’ll need to figure out how to win the war.

Why This Film Worked

I wasn’t expecting much from this film. Tom Cruise has not exactly been hitting them out of the park lately, and I’m dubious about Hollywood’s ability to do science fiction well. Moreover, the concept behind this film is one that I’ve seen done a million times by every science fiction series ever, so this seemed like it would be highly derivative. But, much to my surprise, I really enjoyed this film. In fact, I would say this is an excellent film.

What made me like this film was that it did everything right for a change. First, the film had very, very high production values. The effects are great and they aren’t overused... this is not a fighting robots film. To the contrary, this is a smart film and it handles the concept very well. The "reliving the day" story concept typically involves the main character being put into a position where they must relive the exact same events over and over, learning little bits each pass through until they are able to overcome all the hurdles they face to doing whatever it takes to stop them from repeating the day. But many directors get bored of the concept and all but abandon it a few minutes in, with the exception of the inevitable montage of the main character repeating some specific moment over and over. Even worse, most directors abandon the rational world and allow their character to get away with impossible and unbelievable things just to make the story work.
This film doesn’t do that. This film maintains the concept throughout and it actually presents an interesting twist on the character’s desire to relive the day. Usually, the main character struggles to end the day. That is their goal and the story is focused on them figuring out how to do that. In this case, Cruise actually has to fight to make sure the day does not end before he can solve the mystery they face or else he will die on the beach. This adds interesting drama later in the film. Moreover, the director becomes more sophisticated in his use of this element as the story moves forward. Indeed, after a few standard shots, the director begins to stretch his creativity and the shots of Cruise reliving the days become more unexpected and more interesting. Then, at the ending, we are shown a final battle which must be waged with the knowledge that this time, there will be no reset.
At the same time, you never feel like Cruise does anything impossible – he does, but it never feels that way. What’s more, you feel throughout that Cruise earns every advance he gets. Highlighting this is the fact that we often see Cruise fail, and doing so in expected ways. This gives the film a strong “what will he do now?” feel. And strengthening this is the fact the challenge Cruise faces keeps getting bigger as the film proceeds. So as he conquers each hurdle, his victory is often the discovery of an even larger hurdle. This raising of the stakes helps elevate the intensity of the film throughout.

All of this makes for a very solid, smart, traditional science fiction tale done right. That makes this a rare film.
But there is one more aspect of this film which helped make it an enjoyable film: excellent acting and excellently written dialog. Science fiction dialog tends to be either clunky or filler. Indeed, much of it is just meant to pass the time between the various technical revelations related to the concept. This film was different. Cruise’s character has a bit of a silver tongue and he spends the film trying to talk various characters into believing him. Blunt’s character maintains a mysterious background that feels quite rich and she teases us with only hints about it. Finally, there is Bill Paxton, who plays Master Sergeant Farell, who has been assigned to guard Cruise and make sure he ends up on the beach. Paxton’s portrayal reminds me of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket mixed with a pirate, and every moment he’s on screen is entertaining. All told, the characters are richly drawn and the dialog is strong and pulls you into the film. I was not surprised to find writer Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspect, Valkyrie) as the writer.
All told, I came into this film without much in the way of positive expectations. What I found was a very entertaining film that held my attention with excellent characters, strong dialog, excellent effects that weren’t overused, and mastery of a strong, smart science fiction concept. This film isn't 2001 or Star Wars, but it is the best science fiction film to come along in a very long time.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Biopics: Why Some Work and Some Don't

I watched the Steven Jobs biography Jobs a few weeks ago. Jobs is a fascinating person, even if he was a turd. Ashton Kutcher did an amazing job playing him as well. And the script was really quite good. But I didn’t enjoy the film at all. This got me wondering what the problem was. Then it struck me: I don’t like biographies!

Actually, my revelation didn’t last very long. Indeed, as I thought about what it is that I don’t like about biopics, it suddenly dawned on me that there are many biopics that I do enjoy a great deal. Take for example, Goodfellas.


So here is what I realized. The problem with biopics in general is that they lack the elements of storytelling that draw us into a story. Typically, stories move in a particular pattern, with the story slowly revealing itself as the conflict builds. Each scene feeds that conflict. There is a climactic confrontation and then some ending that either wraps up the story nicely or provides a nice twist.

Biopics almost never have any of this. To the contrary, most biopics are simply a series of vignettes from the subject’s life. Basically, the writer picks a few highlights from the person’s life and the actors play out the key moments of these highlights. The result may well accurately portray the subject’s life, but it hardly makes for a compelling story. Indeed, in many instances, these vignettes aren’t even connected in any way, which makes the biopic less like a story and more like a series of short stories. So unless you are entertained by the individual vignettes, then the overall film will drag and feel disconnected.

This method also leaves gaps with audiences as the characters seems to move forward in time without much rhyme or reason except that these are the moments of the subject’s life the writer has chosen to show you.

In Jobs, this manifested itself in the form of things happening with little or no set up, no build up whatsoever, and they were often immediately glossed over. For example, when Jobs’ investors turn on him, it is was kept a secret from Jobs (and the audience) until it happened and it was presented so factually that it totally lacked suspense. Instead, the suspense we got (if any) came from Jobs’ reaction to the event, and that just wasn’t very satisfying from a storytelling perspective.

So what is different about Goodfellas and a film like Amadeus? Well, Goodfellas presents itself more like a story. It treats the early portion of the biography as mere background which the narrator tells with aplomb as he sets up the story. Then the film essentially “begins” by launching into the core of his life, which it presents as the story of the buildup and collapse of the Lufthansa robbery. This gives you the sense that you are watching a single story rather than a series of vignettes, even though you are in fact still watching the vignettes, because you are given a fairly standard storytelling formula.

Moreover, once the Lufthansa storyline plays out, the story seems to take on a faster pace... a concluding pace... as it presents the ending as the fallout from the Lufthansa chaos, with a clear driving theme now being that our hero is slowly being isolated and will soon be hit by his friends. Again, this ties everything together and feels like a continuation of the same story even though it isn’t.

Amadeus is another example of a great biopic. Like Goodfellas this one ties the whole story together as the ongoing (invented) struggle between Mozart and Salieri, and it fits each scene into that story through Salieri’s narrative... just as Henry Hill’s narrative in Goodfellas makes you think he is telling you a single story. The result is a film that does everything a good story does without suffering from the sense that the scenes are unrelated. To the contrary, they are related as part off Salieri’s grand scheme to undo Mozart!

Based on this, it strikes me that the key to making a biopic into a good film is finding a single story narrative that can be imposed on the person’s life. That element is what turns the typical unconnected series of vignettes that comprises most biopics into a film that pulls audiences in and gets them interested in the story.

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Friday, February 6, 2015

Film Friday: Divergent (2014)

The formula for success in Hollywood (and the publishing industry) is simple: when you find something that works, do it over and over and over until it stops working. The Hunger Games worked. So what happens when you apply the formula from above? You copy it. That brings me to Divergent. I actually liked this film a good deal better than The Hunger Games even though it was clearly a knock-off. Let’s discuss.

The Plot

As with The Hunger Games, Divergent is the film adaptation of the first book in an international best selling young adult science fiction series. Also like The Hunger Games, Divergent is the story of a reluctant heroine living in a dystopia who gets called upon to save her people. There are key differences however. For example, in Divergent, the government isn’t evil, like it is in The Hunger Games. For another, the heroine, Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), isn’t presented as a hopelessly naive outsider who struggles even to grasp the world around her. Instead, Beatrice is a rather savvy young woman who understands the world around her, but just hasn’t found her place in it yet.
Indeed, the reason the film is called Divergent is because Beatrice has divergent traits from the rest of her society. In the future in which she lives, the world somehow has been destroyed and the survivors now live in Chicago, behind a massive electrical fence. Their society is organized into different factions, based on different dominant personality traits: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the soldiers), and the Erudite (brainiacs).

When a child reaches their appointed age, they are tested to discover which faction fits them best. Then they are asked to declare which faction they choose for their affiliation for the rest of their lives. Most people have the traits of their parents and go into their parents’ factions. But some small percentage have the traits of other factions and switch factions when asked to choose. Still a smaller percentage are what is called “divergent.” Basically, these people have different traits than everyone else and they don’t fall into any one group when tested. These people are considered threats to society because they are independent thinkers.
Beatrice’s parents are part of the Abnegation faction and it’s expected that she will follow them. But when she gets tested, she learns that she is a divergent. Fortunately for her, this is kept secret from the government. She is then asked to choose a faction and she unexpectedly chooses Dauntless.

Following the selection process, Beatrice joins her new faction and must pass a series of tests to be accepted. In the process, she meets another divergent who guides her and she uncovers a conspiracy that threatens her entire society.
Why This Worked Better Than The Hunger Games

This film was a total knock-off of the Hunger Games formula, but I liked it a lot better than The Hunger Games. Why did I like this better? A couple things come to mind.

First, unlike The Hunger Games, this film doesn’t feel like it’s merely setting up sequels. Throughout The Hunger Games, I felt that much of what I saw had no real purpose in that film, but would become relevant in some future film. This wasn’t as bad as other films, such as The Golden Compass, where they introduced characters and story arcs that vanished from the present film with the narrator all but telling you that they would matter in the sequel, but The Hunger Games still felt like an introduction only to the real story. Divergent does not. Up until the very ending, Divergent feels like a complete story. It’s only in the last few minutes that you get the sense they are setting up for a sequel.
Secondly, I like the fact that Beatrice takes control over her own destiny from the beginning and never chooses to give up that control. Katniss from The Hunger Games, by comparison, is essentially a passive heroine who only responds to everything that happens and never chooses to take control over her own life. To me, this makes Beatrice a genuine heroine whereas I see Katniss as simply an accidental heroine. I prefer Beatrice for two reasons.

First, it makes the character feel more worthwhile that she is charting her own course because it means that she is showing traits like courage, strength, nobility, compassion, etc. because they are part of her nature. By comparison, a reactive heroine shows none of those things as she acts mainly out of fear and the need to survive, e.g. any bravery she shows is forced upon her events. Moreover, it gives the story a much stronger adventure feel because the heroine is out looking to achieve her goals. This brings a level of excitement and enthusiasm to the story which makes you interested to see what will happen next and what hurdles Beatrice must jump. A reactive heroine, by comparison, is merely pushed by the waves and the story has a rudderless feel to it. Indeed, a reactive heroine gives you little to cheer about because the heroine tends to wait helplessly as crises toss her where she needs to go to win the film.
The third thing I liked better about Divergent was the messages it sent. Some have argued that The Hunger Games is a conservative political tale about an oppressive, tyrannical central government, with Katniss playing the macho-Libertarian heroine who stands up to the elite of her world. As I’ve noted before, this is largely wishful thinking as none of that can really be found in the film. And even if it can be read into the film, contrary messages can be read too. Not to mention that this muddled message has rather limited application, especially combined with her being a passive heroine.

Divergent, on the other hand, has a clear message throughout: it is better to be a truly independent, free thinking individual than it is to be part of the herd. That’s a vital message to send and makes an even stronger, more useful libertarian message than the idea of bringing down a corrupt government through revolution. Indeed, this is the kind of message that leads people to demand greater and greater freedom from their governments, and it provides support to the very people who will make the world better, whereas the idea of finding oneself leading a revolution by chance is a pipedream.

Ultimately, these differences raise Divergent head and shoulders above The Hunger Games. These differences give the story more life, more philosophical punch, and made the story stronger.

Lastly, by way of clarification, let me point out that while this was a film I enjoyed, I can’t say this is a fantastic film. It is exactly what it appears – a Hunger Games knock-off aimed at teens. But is a better film than The Hunger Games.

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: Carolco Pictures

by Jason

Welcome to the debut of a new series of articles I call “Mini-Major Discussion.” These articles will look at film studios that aren’t one of the “major” studios (Warner Bros, Fox, Paramount, Disney, Universal, Columbia) but independent studios that once were big enough to be called “mini-majors.” Mostly, I’m looking at past studios that have for one reason or another gone under, although I plan to look at a few still-active ones, too. And what better pick to kick off Mini-major Discussion than Carolco Pictures. Think of some of the greatest blockbusters of the 1980s and 1990s. Chances are they came not from Paramount or Twentieth Century Fox, but from this independent outfit. This is the studio that gave us Rambo, Terminator 2, Basic Instinct, and Total Recall. So…how did Carolco crash and burn so badly?

Were They?

Carolco Pictures was founded in the late 1970s by two foreign-born film producers, Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna. After a few forgettable outings, the studio scored its first big hit with First Blood, an adaptation of David Morrell’s novel of the same name. Kassar and Vajna secured a loan from a European bank on the power of Sylvester Stallone’s name to finance the project. However, Carolco really took off with the megasuccess of the Rambo sequel, First Blood Part II, released on the tenth anniversary of America’s pullout from Vietnam. Critics hated it, but audiences loved it, and Carolco was on its way.

What Were They Known For?

Huge-budgeted action and sci-fi movies that audiences love to this day. Carolco knew what the movie going public wanted (well, mostly, we’ll get to that later) and gave it to them. The studio cannily outbid the major studios in getting big stars like Stallone and Schwarzenegger and directors like Paul Verhoeven and James Cameron. Kassar and company raised a lot of dough for their films by going to foreign distributors and pre-selling the film rights in those territories. Basically, Kassar recognized the power of the foreign film market and played it to his advantage in financing his films, and in making movies that would play well worldwide.

The Studio’s Peak Moment

Terminator 2. One of the best sequels ever made, a landmark in computer-generated special effects, and perhaps the height of Ah-nolddom. T2’s production budget was also the highest up to that point.

The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie

Showgirls. Although in development by Carolco, it was later sold off to MGM with Kassar maintaining producing credit and a chunk of the profits when Carolco was starting its death throes. Basic Instinct may qualify as a runner-up, as might Cutthroat Island, mostly because it was such a colossal flop that killed its studio.

The Studio’s Up and Comers

Screenwriter Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich. The duo worked on their first major studio film under the Carolco aegis, the Jean Claude Van-Damme/Dolph Lundgren sci-fi action vehicle Universal Soldier, written by Devlin and directed by Emmerich. Later, Kassar produced the duo’s sleeper hit Stargate, one of the last films to be made under the Carolco umbrella. Had Carolco survived, Independence Day might have been made at Carolco and not Twentieth Century Fox.

Notable Movies

The first three Rambo pictures, Extreme Prejudice, Angel Heart, Red Heat, Total Recall, Terminator 2, Basic Instinct, DeepStar Six, Jacob’s Ladder, L.A. Story, Air America, The Doors, Chaplin, Universal Soldier, Stargate, Cliffhanger, Showgirls, Cutthroat Island.

What Killed the Studio?

Spending too much, making too many smaller films that lost money, and in the end making a really stupid choice to finance a movie in a genre that was pretty much dead by that point.

Mario Kassar definitely lived large. On top of personal spending and big salaries for big stars and directors, Kassar indulged in hefty favors for his pals, like giving Schwarzenegger a 17 million dollar jet as a gift during the making of T2 on top of Arnold’s 14 million dollar salary. But while Carolco made the crowd-pleasing blockbusters, they also made a lot of movies that didn’t make back their budgets. One of them was Robert Downey Jr.’s Chaplin, a critically acclaimed biopic of silent screen legend Charlie Chaplin, but projects like these began taking their toll, plus a lack of spending control on the part of Kassar and pals, all of which sent Carolco spiraling into financial oblivion. It got so bad that while the 1993 Stallone-staring actioner Cliffhanger was a big hit, Carolco took in virtually none of the proceeds because they had to sell most of the distribution rights to Tristar Pictures just to get it made.

The killing blow came when Kassar was faced with a decision to finance one of two films. One was a Paul Verhoeven-helmed flick set to star Arnold called Crusade. This is a pretty famous film in the annals of development hell legend, a medieval war film that would have featured Arnold as an imprisoned thief who has a cross burned onto his back, which would convince his jailers that he had received a sign from God and allow him to join the Crusades. Would the movie have been any good? We’ll never know, as Kassar didn’t have enough faith in the project and turned to a prospective pirate flick named Cutthroat Island. With Michael Douglas looking at the script, Kassar seemed to have the star power to make it work, even if pirate flicks hadn’t been hot in ages.

However, Douglas ultimately bowed out, and producers scrambled to find anyone to take the primary male lead. It would finally go to B-lister Matthew Modine, but the movie’s focus grew to encompass its female star Geena Davis so it hardly mattered. The film’s budget wound up at $98 million. It made $10 million. And with that, Carolco went on the chopping block.


Post-Carolco, Kassar and Vajina teamed back up to make Terminator 3 and Basic Instinct 2 under the new aegis of C2 Pictures, but neither film recaptured the duo’s glory days. T3 was a modest hit, but BI 2 bombed.

Carolco arguably pioneered the art of making big budget pictures that would not only play well in America but throughout the world. At the time, those pictures were still dependent on big stars, but today the FX-driven Transformers, the Marvel pictures, etc, really don’t rely on big name stars any more. There were signs that Carolco could have easily transitioned into the modern era of blockbuster filmmaking. Kassar had tried to acquire the rights to Spider-Man for Cameron to direct, and had he succeeded, Carolco could have kicked off the Marvel superhero craze. Likewise, if Carolco had made Independence Day or possibly even Cameron’s Titanic, it could still have existed to this day.

Finally, Carolco’s success in an encouragement that an indie studio can make a hit as big as a Paramount or a Universal can produce. The fact that Kassar and Vajna could operate outside the studio system and produce such memorable films proved that you don’t need to be one of the “Big Six” to create great, big-budgeted entertainment.

So what is your favorite Carolco picture? What do you think of the studio? Any other thoughts?
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