Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!!

This is always a great time of year to thank God that you're not a pilgrim. Just kidding, pilgrims. But seriously, this is a great time of year to think about what you should be thankful for. We live in the greatest, most free, most productive country in the world. We are surrounded by genuinely good people who believe in community, charity, and fair play, and millions of people work tirelessly to make everything a little bit better every day. Who can beat that?

Besides that though, we should all be thankful for our friends and family and for the chance to make their lives better as they've made ours better. It's a great time to remind them that you love them, isn't it?

Personally, I'm thankful for my wonderful parents and my great sister, my incredible wife, and my amazing kids. I'm thankful to be alive. I'm thankful that I get to see and experience everything this world has to offer. I'm thankful for e-meeting all of you. And I'm thankful that we can experience things like joy and happiness and contentment.

So what are you thankful for?

Click Here To Comment at CommentaramaPolitics

[+]

Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Thoughts on Ghostbusters III

by ScottDS

If there’s one question that seems to be on the minds of geeks everywhere, it’s “So when are going to get another Ghostbusters?” followed by “Wait, do we really need another one?” It took five years to release a second film and we’re now 25 years later. The wheels seem to be in motion, albeit in super slow motion. But is it too late? Should sleeping terror dogs lie?

[long sigh] Okay, here it is. In the 90s, Dan Aykroyd (“the heart of the ghostbusters”) wrote a draft for a third film that involved a parallel version of Manhattan dubbed “Manhellton.” From what I recall, Hell was overcrowded and only the boys in beige could stop the incoming tide of undead. Pretty neat idea, and some of it was used in the 2009 video game. This movie would also involve a younger team of ghostbusters and names like Will Smith and Chris Farley were bandied about. The studio was interested, but Bill Murray was not. (This is going to be a running theme here!) Having expressed his disappointment at how Ghostbusters II came out, and with sequels in general, Murray said he’d only do it if he could be a ghost. To this day, the enigmatic Murray has been nothing but reticent: never saying “yes,” usually saying “no,” sometimes offering a cautious “maybe.” This hasn’t stopped Aykroyd, who’s been talking up a third film for the last decade and a half. (Not to mention Aykroyd doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to making sequels without important co-stars!)

This entire time, Ivan Reitman was still attached as producer/director. A few years ago, he was developing a script with two writers from The Office (yay!) who also wrote Year One (boo!). Meanwhile, Murray was still waffling, Aykroyd was still promising release dates, Reitman decided he wouldn’t direct it after all, and even semi-retired Rick Moranis said he’d do it if the material was good. And then Harold Ramis, who had been collaborating on and off with Aykroyd, passed away. At this point, people rightfully asked, “Is it time to shut it down?” For the studio, the answer was an emphatic “No!” As of this writing, Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids and The Heat, has signed on to direct and is developing a script with writer Katie Dippold (The Heat, Parks and Recreation). It’s said to be a remake, featuring an all-female group of busters.

[longer sigh] This is… not a... hoooorrible idea... Feig loves the movies and doesn’t want to stomp all over them, which is why they’re doing it as a remake instead… but then why call it Ghostbusters? (That was a rhetorical question!) Or better yet, why couldn’t they simply have another group in another part of New York City that just happens to be all-female? Every sequel idea that’s out there seems to include the Ghostbusters as a large corporation, so it’s only logical that there would be other offices. As for the female thing, despite Feig’s comments, I think it comes across as a gimmick. It’ll inspire a thousand think pieces from the bloggers of the world and it’ll be the only thing people talk about. And it’s not as if their gender will be relevant. We’ll still get a smooth-talker, and a brain, and so on. Or maybe I’m wrong and the fact that they’re all female will be relevant to the plot, but wouldn’t that undercut the entire idea? The gender shouldn’t matter at all, hence my use of the “gimmick” label. Yes, women can be funny, and maybe if we stop asking the question, it’ll go away! And I understand the need for representation, but then why make them all female? How about a mix? And I’m sorry but there’s no story they could write that will satisfy everyone who’s angling for the all-female thing. “This movie is too feminist!” “This movie isn’t feminist enough!”

The story? I have no idea. Feig wants to make something scary but there’s definitely a template at work. Will we simply get another underdog story with a love interest and a powerful force trying to break through to our world and a climax involving a large, walking object? Given that this is a remake, it seems highly likely. And how do you redesign iconic props and vehicles? The designers of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films have done a decent job in my opinion, though more tech-oriented fans have completely excoriated them. Will the new proton pack look like something from the Apple Store, or will they continue with the homemade, jury-rigged look that made the first film so relatable? (It was a going into business story after all!)

As for actors, it’s anybody’s guess. I’ve seen a lot of names mentioned: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Emma Stone, Rebel Wilson, etc. I have no wish list but only one request: get great actors who can do comedy. Don’t get comedians who happen to be good actors. I don’t want to see Melissa McCarthy doing the uncouth slob thing again. I don’t want Tina Fey playing just another version of Liz Lemon. And I don’t want to see Aubrey Plaza do… that thing she seems to do 90% of the time. You know what? I’d love to see someone like Cate Blanchett in something like this! Or Amy Adams! That’s the other thing… will the film feature actual adults, or 20-somethings… you know, for the millennials?!
My other thoughts are just nitpicking. The previous films are great-looking films, lensed by award-winning cinematographers. Will the new film have a distinctive look, or will it look like every other sterile, overly-bright comedy out there today? And the music… who will be the lucky musician to contribute an original theme song? (Anybody but Kanye!) Bear McCreary has my vote to do the music score. He was a protégé of the late Elmer Bernstein, who scored the first film (and almost every other classic 80s comedy) and his geek credentials are second to none. And in an effort to up the ante and compete with the superhero films, will the ending involve the leveling of the city in an orgy of CGI? Or just one building? (If there was any film where the makers could indulge in old-school techniques like cloud tank photography, this would be it!)

If I were president of Hollywood, I’d use a story I read about five years ago on an architecture blog. The writer came up with an idea involving NYNEX, the old New England telephone company (the “X” even stood for the unknown future, or the “uneXpected”). What if the ancient cables and trunk lines were actually the embedded nervous system of a fallen angel? The film would end with a climactic confrontation at the old AT&T Long Lines Building, a Brutalist-style structure at 33 Thomas Street. Pretty cool! But I’m not the president of Hollywood, just a geek.

I write this not to bitch, but to ponder. There are only a handful of franchises that I’m passionate about and this is one of them. And yeah, if they screw it up, we’ll still have the untouched originals (not even Star Wars fans can say that!). I remain cautiously neutral. What say you?
[+]

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Lorax Teaches The Wrong Lessons

I had the misfortune of watching The Lorax (2012) the other day. In particular, I found myself shaking my head at the lessons it imparts. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it still annoyed me. What lessons? Read on...

Throughout my life, I’ve discovered something interesting about the human race: we are a bell curve in all things. I’ve seen this over and over in every field I’ve encountered. I’ve seen it in early adopter rates, grade distribution, IQ distribution, and even advertising theories on how to influence the public. It’s everywhere. And where it has been most interesting to me is in the discovery that the human race can be broken into three groups when it comes to societal benefit, for lack of a better phrase. The theory works like this:
● 10% of the human population are good people who drive humanity for the better. The most obvious example of these people are inventors, artists, writers, and others who provide things that enrich or improve other people’s lives. But this category isn’t limited to those people. It also includes people who start businesses, early adapters, the rare teachers who inspire their students, and even just average people who become mentors to others and make the world a better place. Big or small makes no difference, these are just people who make things better.

● At the other end, 10% of the human population are malicious people who do bad things. Interestingly, only some of these people realize that they are villains. The majority of these people think of themselves as the good 10%, even though their instincts are malicious and their actions and ideas are highly destructive. You can see an example of this, believe it or not, with Hitler. If you ever see interviews of his staff, you will be shocked to learn that Hitler genuinely thought he was the good guy. You see this sometimes with serial killers too, who think they are doing God’s work, with busy-bodies who delude themselves that their desires to control others come from their “deep sense of caring” about others, and with people who just get off on causing problems.

● The other 80% of the human population are essentially sheep. They do what they are told by the people they recognize as authority figures. Interestingly, however, these people often think of themselves as independent thinkers who “make up their own minds,” and they react very poorly to any suggestion to the contrary, even though they never actually think for themselves... as an aside, these people are the reason so much advertising simultaneously combines the ideas of keeping up with the Jones while ridiculously claiming that buying certain mass-produced products is only for “people who think for themselves.” Disturbingly, these people have a hard time spotting the difference between the good and bad 10%ers and will just as slavishly follow a vicious negative 10%er as they would a good 10%er if they come to see them as the authority.
So what does this have to do with The Lorax? Well, The Lorax very clearly demonstrates these groups and how they work. Unfortunately, it presents the wrong lessons in doing so.

The Lorax is the story of a 12 year old Ted Wiggins. Wiggins lives in a walled city made of plastic and metal. It contains no trees. The reason it doesn’t have trees is that the mayor, Aloysius O’Hare, sells bottled oxygen. He knows that trees provide oxygen for free, so he works hard to make sure there are none in the city. What destroyed the trees originally was a man called Once-ler. He was an entrepreneur who cut down the trees to make his product. In so doing, he ignored the objections of the Lorax, which was a being who protects the trees. Once-ler didn’t intend to cut down all the trees and he came to realize his mistake, but he did it nevertheless... all except for one seed. He gives that seed to Ted, who tries to plant it.
As Ted tries to plant the seed, the mayor tries to stop him. The mayor even warns the people that what Ted is trying to do is dangerous because trees produce sap and other pollutants. Upon hearing this, the public turns on Ted and essentially forms a lynch mob. But then Ted denies the charge and one of the locals decides that Ted is right. He states his support for Ted. Suddenly, the mob declares Ted to be right and turns on the mayor. The story ends happily.

Here’s are the problems.

First, this film clearly breaks into the three groups. Ted is a good 10%er who wants to make the world better. He sees a way to improve it and sets out to do so. The mayor is a bad 10%er. He knows he’s the villain and he thinks nothing of using evil means to get what he wants, which is profit and control. Once-ler is also a bad 10%er, though he is one who doesn’t understand his own evil. He thought he was the good guy, making use of the trees in a way he thought was responsible to produce a product that people wanted and employ people who needed jobs. It was only later that he learned his mistake. Finally, the public are exactly what the 80% are like: fickle, stupid, and mindless followers of whomever they see as the authority figure in their lives.

It is interesting to see a film break down these groups so clearly. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t know what to do from there. Thus, for example, rather than pointing out that Once-ler is a villain, it essentially sells him as a victim. It shows him suffering at “the mistake” he made and being imprisoned for what he has done. It also let’s him protest over and over that he never intended to kill all the trees, without ever requiring him to explain why he ignored the obvious warning signs and took no care to prevent the problem that was so obvious. In effect, it removes his villainy and makes him a helpless victim of a mistake and thereby forgives his villainy without true remorse or even understanding. This teaches the wrong lesson as it eliminates the element of personal responsibility so long as you had good intentions. But good intentions are not and should never be considered an inoculant to criminal or evil or immoral or stupid behavior.
Compounding this, the film then sells the audience the standard comfortable view of evil through the mayor. Essentially, the film tells the audience that evil is easy to spot because it knows it is evil and it knows that it’s actions are wrong. This is absolutely the wrong lesson to teach. Basically, rather than teaching kids that you need to watch all of your actions regardless of your intent, lest you act in an evil or rotten manner, the film sends the message: “Don’t worry, evil is obvious and unless you set out to be evil, you’ll be fine.”

Finally, you have the 80%ers. This is the truly obnoxious message. These people mindlessly followed the mayor for years. Once someone pointed out his crime, they absolutely failed to rationally assess the claim and to decide if they had been mistaken in supporting him. Instead, they turned into a lynch mob, determined to silence the dissident. This failure should have been highlighted in a major way to the audience. But the film didn’t do that. To the contrary, it excused the 80% by having them switch sides moments later when the worker announced that he had decided to back Ted.
But this represents yet another horrible lesson. Whether Ted was right or not, the 80%ers undertook no independent investigation. They never thought through what he said, looked at his claim or even demanded answers. They simply switched sides because they felt the herd had changed horses when the workman announced his decision to switch his support. This is a horrible lesson. The 80%ers need to be taught to conduct an actual analysis, not merely to follow whomever they see as the most authoritative person at the time. For all they know, Ted is an even bigger villain or fool and they are about to make things much worse. They don’t know because they never stopped to investigate. And the film rewarded this kind of false reasoning by letting audience know that Ted is right. Essentially, the message remains: just make sure you follow the nicer guy, when it should be to truly think for yourself for once. That’s how Hitlers get made, because evil, which is never bounded by reality or reason, makes much better promises.

This is my problem with this film. The film correctly identifies these groups but then acts as a sedative to calm the 80% into thinking that evil will be easy to spot and fixing evil is as easy as watching to see whom the crowd prefers. These are ridiculous messages to send.

[+]

Thursday, October 30, 2014

No article tonight.

Folks, sorry, but there won't be an article tonight. It's been a long week medically and I'm having problems getting anything written. I hope to be back to a normal schedule soon though. Thanks for your understanding and for hanging in there.
[+]

Friday, October 24, 2014

Film Friday: The Family (2013)

Many critics anointed Robert De Niro as the greatest actor of our time. I never bought that. I thought he was great as a gangster or a cop, but that’s about the extent of his range. That said, I really wanted to see his latest film, The Family, because it seemed like one of those perfect setups for De Niro to do what he does best. It wasn’t. This film could have been hilarious, but the tone was all wrong.


Written by one of my favorite directors, Luc Besson, The Family stars Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as a married couple who just moved to France. It also happens that De Niro is a mobster (Giovanni Manzoni) who has turned states evidence against his entire gang and is now in the witness protection program. Dianna Agron and John D’Leo play their children and Tommy Lee Jones plays Robert Stansfield, their frustrated contact person with the FBI.
The problem is that while De Niro has given up his mobster connections, he hasn’t really given up his mobster ways. Thus, he is being moved from town to town until he blows his cover and needs to be moved again. In this instance, we see this right away as De Niro beats up a couple locals who refuse to address his concerns about water quality and about his plumbing. The rest of his family is no better. His wife sets fire to a store which offends her and her kids set up various scams at their school.

All of this is being done under the noses of the FBI agents who watch the family to make sure they stay out of trouble. That said, however, Jones knows the family is doing these things and he keeps threatening to end their government protection if De Niro doesn’t stop. De Niro responds by agreeing to stop causing problems and instead sets out to write his memoirs... memoirs the FBI cannot let De Niro publish.
With De Niro masquerading as an author, he gets invited to participate in a book discussion at the town hall. In the meantime, his son has published an innocuous saying in the school newspaper, which finds its way to America, where it is seen by the mob, who send killers to get De Niro and his family.

A bloodbath ensues.

Why This Film Didn’t Work

The most critical aspect of making any comedy work is tone. No matter how good a comedy may seem on paper, if the tone of the film isn’t right, the overall feel of the film won't be right. And this can be tricky. Indeed, the landscape of films is littered with “dark comedies” that couldn’t quite find the right tone. Even Ghostbusters would have come across as a weak horror film that couldn’t decide if it would rather have been a comedy if it been just a little more serious – much as Frighteners comes across.

At first glance, this film appeared to be another Midnight Run, a brilliant comedy that plays like a drama but keeps you laughing by hitting the right tone at the perfect moments. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even close. The problem with The Family is that it never once comes across as a comedy.
The problems begin with the characters. To make characters work in a comedy, you either need some funny characters or you need serious characters who can be dumped upon at key moments. What De Niro did so brilliantly in Midnight Run was to play the role super seriously as he took sucker punch after sucker punch from the world around him. He doesn’t do that here. Here, De Niro plays a character who is smarter than everyone and knows it. His family is much the same. No one gets the drop on them and there is nothing they can’t handle. The end result is that they are incapable of providing anything funny to the script because you can't laugh at them.
Then you have the problem that everything else in the film is far too serious. The minor characters all act depressed and helplessly become the victims of whatever abuse De Niro chooses to heap upon them. The comedic value in that type of relationship is always how the minor characters fight back, something they cannot do here. Nor is there anything abnormal going on that could produce something unexpectedly funny or strange to make you laugh. The few interactions De Niro has with the locals, which were supposed to be funny, e.g. beating up the plumber, come across as cruel rather than funny. Tommy Lee Jones, who should play the “Droopy Dog” type character who gets roundly abused, doesn’t accept any abuse from De Niro and instead reacts as if this were a serious film. And none of the characters is inherently funny.

Even when something seems kind of funny, the film never follows up on it. For example, I did laugh when Michelle Pfeiffer set fire to the store as revenge; it was very unexpected and opened all kinds of doors of comedic potential. But rather than make this the focal point of the story, perhaps with De Niro freaking out about what his wife has done and trying to cover it up from the FBI, they just take it in stride. De Niro barely even mentions it. The locals never investigate. The FBI doesn’t find out about it. And the film just drops it. Ditto on the water system guy and the plumber. Not only is it not credible that there would be no consequences, but these are the extreme moments that are supposed to make us laugh and they just get dropped by the film. Even the manuscript De Niro is writing is tossed aside and never goes anywhere.
Perhaps the biggest sin tone-wise comes at the end. This was supposed to be a comedy, but once the mobsters show up in town, they slaughter the FBI agents, slaughter some locals, and come after the family. Obviously, dark comedies will have some darkness, but as I said, the tone is key. This bloody moment, which is entirely unlike everything else in the film, just doesn’t fit any sort of comedic tone. It's too serious, too bloody, and the consequences are disproportionate to what the film has prepared us for.

So what you have here is a film that may have looked great on paper. You can see how the setup alone is appealing, as it appeared in the trailers. The actors seem perfect for the role. The story contains many of the elements a comedy should. But in moving it from paper to film, this one fell apart because it never came near projecting a comedic tone. At best, it comes across as a weak action film with a few outrageous moments that may have been intended as humor. In fact, if you didn’t tell people this was meant as a comedy, I doubt the audience would have known.

[+]

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Film Friday: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011)

I despise the hillbilly slasher genre. Seriously, it’s always the same thing: some college kids stumble upon an inbred, deformed hillbilly who starts killing them for no apparent reason. These films traffic in mindless violence and clichés, and they are duller than dirt. In fact, they are so bad they can’t even be parodied because they are themselves parodies. Well, actually, it turns out they can be parodied. That’s what Tucker and Dale vs. Evil does, and I was really surprised by this film.


When I first heard of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, I had no idea what it was about. This is one of those films with little marketing muscle and no box office reach; if you want to see this one, you need to go find it, so finding out what it is about is not easy. Even the description at Netflix wasn’t particularly helpful. But I liked the title and I decided to give it a chance.

The story opens by introducing some generic a-hole college kids. We then meet Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), hillbillies from West Virginia. As this film appeared to be setting up a hillbilly slasher film, I almost turned it off at that point. Fortunately, I didn’t.
Within a minute or so, things change and it becomes obvious that Tucker and Dale are not quite what you expect. Yes, they are “country,” but they are also strangely urbane in many ways. In particular, they are clever. They converse at the level of college graduates. They express complex psychological and logical ideas. Their hillbilly background seems to have given them an inferiority complex, which they discuss openly. And they are headed to a “vacation home” they just bought in the backwoods to do some fishing and relaxing. These are not normal hillbillies.

As they stock up on provisions, like a six pound jar of pickled eggs, the group of college students pulls up at the same gas station and tries to buy beer. This leads to a series of accidental confrontations which freak out the college kids, making them think that Tucker and Dale are hillbilly rapist/killers. When Dale then approaches the group to speak to one of the girls, things go wrong because he’s holding a scythe and makes the mistake of following horrible advice about laughing at whatever they say. The college kids freak out and flee the scene.

A few minutes later, we discover that the vacation home is a fixer-upper which needs a lot more work than they originally expected. It also seems to have been owned by a mass murderer as the place is decorated in bones and there are newspaper clippings of killings on the wall. Tucker and Dale don’t seem to understand the significance of this, however, and they go fishing.
While they are fishing, they come across the college students again and they scare one of the girls who is trying to climb into the lake from a rock. She falls into the water and hits her head. They save her, but her friends, seeing this from a distance, believe Tucker and Dale have knocked her out and are kidnapping her. When they yell, “We got yer friend,” that seems to confirm the college students’ worst fears. They vow to get her back! This begins an amazing series of accidents in which most of the college kids end up dead in ways that hillbilly killers have used in other films, but which are purely accidental here.

I’ll leave the rest to you to discover.

Why This Film Worked

Parodies may seem easy because there are so many of them, but few of them are very good. This is because parody is actually quite difficult. The goal of a quality parody is to find some truth within the thing being parodied that the audience normally overlooks and then exploit that truth to poke fun at the original property. Some films are fairly good at this, like the first few Scary Movie films, which mocked various iconic horror scenes while telling their own story. Ultimately, those films weren’t particularly logical or realistic, but they were funny because they put their finger on flaws we overlooked in the iconic films they were parodying. Other parodies have been less successful. Take, for example, Meet the Spartans or any film from that set of filmmakers. These are putrid parodies because they simply repeat a story and throw in whatever gag they can think of into each scene whether they are connected to the scene in any way or not. Hence, most of the jokes were random, low-hanging fruit that just weren’t funny or relevant.

I had little hope for Tucker and Dale vs. Evil on the parody front. For one thing, the hillbilly slasher films are so poorly done as a group that they already operate as parody. Indeed, there’s very little left to laugh at in those films because you’ve already rolled your eyes at everything that can be parodied as you watched the originals. Moreover, it’s just not clear how you could make a hillbilly rapist funny or likeable enough to get you to invest in the character as an object of humor.
But Tucker and Dale vs. Evil did something fascinating. Rather than try a traditional parody, they flipped the story on its head and, in the process, created a heck of a parody that mocked all the usual silliness you find in hillbilly slasher films while simultaneously creating a film that was clever and funny in a totally unexpected way.

Indeed, this film gives you all the scenes you’ve come to expect: the hillbilly sodomy, the wood chipper killing, the chainsaw attack, the dead cop who failed to call for backup, the digging-your-own grave scene, etc.... but each of those scenes is twisted around in ways that are clever, strangely believable, and hilarious. Adding to this are the reactions of the hillbillies, which are polar opposites of what we’ve come to expect. Indeed, rather than being cold-blooded, inbred killing machines like a moonshine fueled T-900, Tucker and Dale are soft-hearted, sensitive, and terrified at what is happening. Dale doesn’t even like fishing because he doesn’t want to hurt a fish.
To give an example of what I’m talking about, consider the wood chipper incident. I can’t count the number of times some hillbilly tossed his victims into a wood chipper in other films. It happens here too, but not at all the way you expect. Here, Tucker is working with the wood chipper when the college students finally decide to “fight back.” To that end, one of the college kids charges Tucker, whose back is turned. Tucker bends over at the perfect time to pick up the next log for the chipper and the college student trips and flies right over his back into the chipper. Hilarity ensues as Tucker turns to discover the body and freaks out, and as the college kids entirely misinterpret what has happened as further proof that the hillbillies are intent on killing them.

Not only does this entire scene work perfectly in the sense of making total sense as to how it plays out and how each side reacts, but it’s also such an intensely clever and unexpected twist on a common scene from hillbilly slasher films that you can’t help but burst out laughing throughout the scene. Making this even funnier though is the priceless reaction of Tucker, who freaks out.

In fact, what really makes this film work are the hilarious reactions of Tucker and Dale throughout as they find themselves in a truly surreal situation with which they are ill-equipped to cope. Tudyk, who is one of the best voice actors ever (e.g. King Candy from Wreck-It-Ralph) and has played wonderfully enjoyable characters in shows like Firefly and films like Dodgeball, plays another gem of a character here. He’s the smart one of the two and he does indeed manage to grasp 99% of what is happening. Unfortunately, that last 1% is the killer as the conclusions he draws in each situation are simply dead wrong. This makes you laugh at everything he does.
Labine is new to me, but he plays Dale as a teddy bear with a crush on the college girl they save. He’s truly genuine and sensitive and it makes him incredibly likable. And the little romance that brews between him and the super sexy Allison (Katrina Bowden) is downright sweet.

And honestly, watching the creative ways the college students kill each other off by accident as Tucker and Dale try to stop them, only to be seen as having caused the deaths, is just consistently hilarious throughout.

This is one of those films that I expected to hate. I assumed it would be stupid and pointless and offer little more than a disguised slasher film. But it wasn’t. Instead, I found a film that is clever, engaging and hilarious. This is a film with characters you will like. This is a film that relentlessly mocks the hillbilly slasher films, but does so in such a good-natured, innocent way that you can’t help but enjoy the film.

I absolutely recommend this one.

[+]

Friday, October 10, 2014

Film Friday: 47 Ronin (2013)

47 Ronin bombed... to put it mildly. Generally, films need to make twice their budget to cover all their costs. 47 Ronin cost $175 million to make, but made only $150 million worldwide. In the US, it grossed just over $20 million. Clearly, audiences stayed away in droves. But why? Was it because the movie sucked? Well, not really. You might find this interesting.

When 47 Ronin was marketed in the US, it was presented as Keanu Reeves leads a small army of samurai against a magical army of demons. Kind of a samurai version of The Matrix. Indeed, it had all the hallmarks of anime. In reality, however, this film is definitely not any of that. What this film is, is a retelling of the classic story of The 47 Ronin with hints of magic added for flavor.
Perhaps a brief history lesson is in order? The 47 Ronin (known as Chushingura in Japan) is a tale from Japanese history which defines the ethos of the samurai warrior code (Bushido). The story takes place in 18th Century Japan and it centers around 47 samurai who find themselves unemployed when their lord is forced to kill himself. Their lord had been tricked into this by a court official who made it appear their lord had done something shameful. This resulted in the emperor ordering the lord to kill himself and forbidding the samurai who guarded him from seeking revenge.
The result of this was that these 47 samurai became what was known as Ronin... lord-less samurai. This is a shameful thing because it means they have failed to protect their lord or that they bear his shame as well, neither of which is a good thing. Thus, their status in society has collapsed from the top (samurai) to the bottom (mercenary). It’s a bit like being forced out of the SEALs to find yourself working as a mall cop.

Despite being forbidden from seeking revenge under pain of death, these Ronin felt such a strong sense of duty to their beloved dead lord that they planned to avenge his death against the emperor’s orders. To that end, they waited one year. Then they met up, infiltrated the castle of the offender, and killed him. More importantly, once they had satisfied their need to fulfill their duty, they satisfied their honor by gathering in the courtyard and committing ritual suicide to comply with the emperor’s order.
Their example of duty over all else and the importance of honor over life defines the Bushido code by which the samurai lived and, consequently, this story became central to the mythos of the samurai warrior. In fact, this story is so central that it's been told many times in many forms, including plays, wood prints, dramas and films. And here it is again.

As I said above, Keanu’s 47 Ronin sounded like anime when it was marketed. It was sold as some battle for survival against a supernatural army. But that’s not at all what the film is about. To the contrary, the film was simply a retelling of the 47 Ronin story. So needless to say, that was the first huge problem audiences encountered – misguided expectations.
The second problem was that this film has the typical pacing you find in samurai films, which is much slower that modern audience like. It deals with the same themes of honor and duty, which also don’t resonate with modern audiences. The characters tend to be one-dimensional because they are obsessed with their mission. The dialog is minimalist, but philosophical, both of which run contrary to general audience preferences. And finally, the action is very, very deliberate and precise. This is not shiny Transformers; here, a single perfect sword strike has much greater value than a loud, obnoxious fight scene. The result was that this film was anathema to modern audiences.
So it sucked, right? Well, no, not at all. If you enjoy samurai films like those by Kurosawa or others, then you may very well enjoy this film. I love samurai films and have seen dozen and dozens... but they are an acquired taste. They tend to be slow and contemplative. They offer little dialog and less explanation. They are not action packed. What they offer though, is a beautiful look into the psyche of Japan just as some of our best Westerns offer a beautiful look into the American psyche. I doubt very many people in the current theater-going world will enjoy such films. But there are a great many fans of the genre.
On the issue of magic, by the way, the film added three magical elements to the traditional story. Reeves is a half-breed who may or may not be part demon. This, however, ultimately means nothing to the story except as a vehicle to get Reeves into the film. The film also has a dragon, but the fight scene with the dragon lasts about two minutes only. The biggest addition is that the evil lord employs a shape-shifting witch to carry out his dirty work. As with the others, this has limited impact on the story. Indeed, each of these elements, while no doubt reviled by purists, struck me as adding tiny amounts of flavor to the story and made it feel even more "cultural"... so to speak. Each is consistent with Japanese fantasy, each fit into the film rather than making the film fit around them, and none of the three took the story beyond its natural boundaries. So while this made the story more fantasy than history, it left its essence entirely intact while giving you some nice surprises.

All told, I recommend this film if you are into samurai films. I thought it was well done, well shot and well told. The actors were good. The dialog was decent. The story was well-known, but also added fresh elements. I would rate this as an above-average samurai film. But if that isn’t your thing, then by all means, stay away because the film offers nothing beyond that... this is a niche film, and that's why it bombed at the theater.

[+]

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

TV Review: The Strain (2014-)

Non-network television continues to score really great series that show the extraordinary power of television compared to movies. The latest example is The Strain. I can’t say that The Strain is the equivalent of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones, but it is one heck of a series and I’ve enjoyed it very much.

The Strain is a television horror series that premiered on F/X this year and it’s now completed its first season. You can still catch it on demand, however, and I believe Hulu has the whole thing at the moment. Created by Guillermo del Toro and based on a trilogy of novels of the same name, The Strain follows a CDC doctor named Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather. Eph is extremely talented, but not the best team player. He tends to take his job very seriously and he doesn’t care much about things like the economic effects of shutting down an entire airport, so his boss don't care much for him.
As the story opens, Eph and his team are called to JFK Airport in New York City because an airplane has landed and it’s sitting on the tarmac with no signs of life aboard. A disease of some sort is suspected. When Eph and his team board the plane, they discover four survivors who are only asleep whereas the rest are all dead. They isolate the survivors and send the bodies to the morgue.
At this point, the show feels a lot like the opening of a zombie movie... a high quality zombie movie, but a zombie movie. It’s not, however.

Eph is soon distressed to learn that the CDC has chosen to blame the airline for negligently allowing a gas leak on the plane to kill everyone and they release the four survivors from quarantine. Meanwhile, some key cargo from the plane is stolen, i.e. a massive carved box filled with soil.

The next few episodes follow Eph as his personal life falls apart (fortunately, this ends quickly in the series) and as he continues to fight with the CDC and continues to try to solve what really happened. In the meantime, we follow the four survivors as they become increasingly sick. Specifically, they begin to crave blood and their bodies begin to change in ugly ways. We also learn that the cargo was stolen by a rich man who is working for a German who is the agent of someone called “the Master.” These men have corrupted a great many people and in the first few episodes you see them call in favors. For example, they contact the CDC and get the investigation stopped. They hire someone to shut down the internet. And they have someone on Eph’s team under their control.
Soon enough, you discover that the four survivors are turning into vampire-like creatures. Moreover, the bodies in the morgue all come to life and vanish. Soon, this vampirism is spreading around New York City like a plague.
All told, this is an excellent series. It has high production values, solid writing, surprising twists, and great effects. The characters are compelling. Eph is a very likable hero. Prof. Abraham Setrakian, a Holocaust survivor turned pawn-shop owner, is fascinating, and his backstory (told in flashbacks) really adds to the story – something flashbacks often don’t do. The German villain, Thomas Eichhorst, a Nazi commander turned undead servant of the Master, is an excellent, creepy villain. And many of the minor characters have the kinds of moments that make the story feel rich and realistic, such as when henchmen realize they’ve made a mistake and they turn against their bosses.
The show isn’t afraid to kill main characters either, which is much appreciated in a show like this. The show takes its time too, which is also appreciated. In shows like this, there seems to be an impulse to get to the full on plague as quickly as possible, but that sucks the life out of those shows as it rushes all the high points and leaves little left to do except engage in fights. This show has resisted that and is building very slowly... steadily, but slowly. That leaves it lots of room to tell stories.

I highly recommend this one. It’s not Shakespeare. It doesn’t break all that much new ground, except the viral take on vampirism is pretty fascinating. What the show does do, however, is engross you with great characters and compelling storylines that will make you wish each episode was much longer than it is.

[+]

Friday, October 3, 2014

Film Friday: Riddick (2013)

I’m a huge fan of Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick. Though different, both are excellent. I love Vin Diesel too. Hence, I had a lot of hope for Riddick, the third in the series. Unfortunately, try as I might, I just can’t like this film and I’m not surprised the film bombed badly.

The Plot

Before I outline the plot of Riddick, it’s worth revisiting the prior two films. Although both were written and directed by the same man, David Twohy, and both star the same actor playing the same character, they are remarkably different films. Pitch Black is more traditional science fiction with a narrow story taking place in a confined area. It is a character study as a handful of stranded characters struggle against an enemy that exists only in science fiction – a flock of blood-drinking, flying creatures who live in the dark, with the first half involving discovery of the creatures and the second half escape. This story was well written, well acted, well shot, and all around created a truly immersive experience for the audience, who had no problems believing what they were seeing.
The Chronicles of Riddick, by comparison, was a much more expansive tale. This one involved a marauding army of religious fanatics who want to wipe out or convert every non-believer the universe, and they do it by destroying planets. In this story, Riddick travels to multiple planets, engages in any number of fights or battle scenes, and ultimately destroys or saves millions of people. There is little introspection, no mystery, and less science fiction than action. Nevertheless, this film too was well shot, well acted and well written, and the result was a different but nearly equally enjoyable film.

As these two films were so different, the question became: would Riddick be more like Chronicles or more like Pitch Black, or would it be something else entirely?
Well, the story opens with Riddick getting betrayed by the Necromonger army he conquered at the end of Chronicles. He finds himself stranded on a desolate, hostile planet as a result. At first, he works to heal his significant wounds and master his environment. He befriends a dog creature. Then he essentially summons mercenaries (bounty hunters) to the planet so he can escape. Two different groups arrive, and when they do, Riddick warns them to flee, but to leave him one of the ships.

Naturally, they refuse.

From there, the film turns into a three-way struggle as the two groups of bounty hunters compete to get Riddick for their own reasons and Riddick works to eliminate them so he can take one of the ships and leave... at least until they realize that a storm is coming and once the storm comes, blood-sucking creatures who live in the rain will come try to kill them. Sound familiar?
Why This Film Didn’t Work

On the surface, I should have loved this film. The story itself was well written, the design of the film is excellent, and it was all well shot. Diesel remains an excellent actor and Riddick remains an excellent character. Yet, somehow, the more I watched this film, the less I liked it. And by the time the ending came, I really had come to dislike this film. But why?

I think the ultimate answer to why I didn’t like this film was that it felt like a cliche of the entire franchise. No new ground was broken anywhere and, to the contrary, everything you saw was stolen from one of the prior two films. For example, the set up for this film mimicked that of Pitch Black, with bounty hunters replacing the random passengers of Pitch Black. The monsters who attack them in the end are virtual clones in every substantive way of those in Pitch Black. The bounty hunters feel like total knock-offs of the bounty hunters (minus the charismatic Toombs (Nick Chinlund)) from Chronicles. What's worse, none of these characters had a real personality. They just stood around acting tough by standing very still and whispering death threats at each other. That got old fast.
More fundamentally, however, Riddick featured a change in Riddick's character that suddenly made him very hard to like: he became arrogant.

When Riddick was first introduced in Pitch Black, he blew me away. Here was a character who made the toughest of tough guys look soft, but at the same time, he was awash in traits we like. For example, Riddick never blew his own horn by telling us how tough he was. Instead, his nemesis Johns told us how tough he was. For his part, Riddick downplayed his own toughness. Riddick also demonstrated right away that he wasn't the cold-blooded killer his character was presented as. To the contrary, he offered help, guidance and moral support to the other characters. Indeed, he quickly became their leader because he had such strong leadership traits. Combining this with his desire to remain isolated and the other characters' fear of him created a wonderfully ironic situation where they needed him on many levels, but no one knew if he could be trusted except you the audience. That built a lot of trust and pulled you into the character; it made you like him a lot.

Even in Chronicles, where they raised Riddick's profile by declaring him a sort of dark messiah as the last of the Furian race and as the one destined to destroy the Lord Marshall and bring down the Necromongers, Riddick still remained self-effacing. In comment after comment, Riddick disclaims any desire to be involved, points out his own lack of education and his lack of ability to change the world. And the few times he was called upon to prove his toughness, he did it with his actions and a minimum number of words. This gave him a sense of humility and continued his reluctant hero character, both of which are traits we like in our heroes.
This made Riddick really easy to like. You knew he was tough, and the fact he didn't need to tell you how tough he was only made it all the stronger. You also laughed at his jokes and you smirked when the stupid bad guys took his self-effacing comments as an invitation to test him. But in Riddick, that character is gone. In Riddick, Riddick is presented as essentially invincible and he knows it. He comes across as a predator who spouts off smug one-liners and spews arrogance. There is no humor in his approach to others. There is no sense that he wants to help others who find themselves in trouble. To the contrary, his motivation seems to be revenge. He even plays with the main bounty hunter's emotions when he discovers that the man is here to find out what happened to his son, Johns from Pitch Black. This is a cold-blooded Riddick who is very hard to like and who offers little to liven up the story.

This is why I couldn't get into this film. The story and set up are entirely stolen from the first two films; there is nothing original. And what they have copied, they copied in style only but without the critical substance which made it all such fun. Add the lack of any goodnatured bad guy for you to sort-of cheer for along with Riddick, and Riddick changing from self-effacing, funny and misunderstood superhero into cold-blooded, smug predator, and you have a film that lost everything that set the first two film apart. It's no wonder the film made less than a third of the others and just over a third of its budget.

[+]

Friday, September 26, 2014

Guest Review: The Parallax View (1974)

by ScottDS

In the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and several assassinations, Hollywood films began to reflect a more cynical and paranoid culture, where the enemy was often not out there but perhaps right next door. Thus was born the conspiracy thriller. People often mention Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and Marathon Man, along with lesser-known films like Executive Action and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. But for me, the most unsettling film of the bunch is The Parallax View.

Presidential candidate Charles Carroll is assassinated at the top of the Space Needle. An armed man is chased and falls to his death, but another armed man gets away. A Congressional committee determines that the assassination was the work of a lone gunman. Three years later… one of the witnesses, TV reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), visits her ex-boyfriend, newspaper reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty). She explains that a number of witnesses to the assassination have died under mysterious circumstances – she fears she’s next. A short time later, she’s found dead and the police label it a drug overdose. Frady decides to investigate and finds himself in the small town of Salmontail where the sheriff tries to kill him near a dam as its floodgates open. Frady gets away and discovers documents in the sheriff’s house relating to the mysterious Parallax Corporation. Their stock in trade: recruiting assassins. Frady also talks to Carroll’s aide Austin Tucker but the boat they’re on explodes. Frady, presumed dead, applies to Parallax under an alias.
Frady is accepted for training at Parallax in Los Angeles. Apparently, he’s just what they’re looking for: a social malcontent with a chip on his shoulder. He’s shown a montage juxtaposing imagery (Americana, dictators, presidents, children, etc.) with words like “love,” “country,” and “enemy.” In the lobby of the building, Frady spots the gunman from the Space Needle and tails him to the airport. The man checks a suitcase but doesn’t board the plane. Frady manages to get aboard and slips a note to the flight attendant hinting at a bomb on board. The plane returns to the airport… as Frady and the other passengers walk away, all we hear is an off-screen boom. Frady’s investigation finally takes him to a political rally for candidate George Hammond. From the rafters, he spots several Parallax men disguised as security personnel. Shots ring out, Hammond is killed, and Frady is spotted. He makes a run for it but is killed by an unknown silhouetted figure. A Congressional committee pins Hammond’s murder on Frady.
There is a palpable sense of dread that surrounds this movie. It’s based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, who was inspired by the allegations of suspicious deaths of witnesses connected to the Kennedy assassination. The film was produced and directed by Alan J. Pakula who had previously directed Klute and would later direct the aforementioned All the President’s Men. (He also produced To Kill a Mockingbird.) I admit this film has lost a little bit of its impact in subsequent viewings, but the first time I watched it, I thought it was very effective. (It pretty much still is.) It does require some suspension of disbelief and if you’re looking for answers, you won’t find any. Only the political assassinations occur on-screen; we never see the other deaths. We also never get an official explanation about the Parallax Corporation and its activities. What are their goals? How do they get paid? Were they on to Frady the whole time? Who the hell knows? It’s all very… minimalist.
In Directing 101, they tell you that every element – art direction, cinematography, music, etc. – is there to serve the story, and this is one movie they can use as an example. The film was shot by Gordon Willis, who was known as “the Prince of Darkness.” (He also shot President’s Men and The Godfather trilogy.) This film has a naturalistic, moody style, with Beatty frequently dwarfed by his surroundings. There are shots toward the end of the film… mundane things like escalators and tile ceilings, but they way they’re framed (in full anamorphic widescreen), they take on a slightly more sinister appearance. Michael Small’s sparse score contributes to the uneasy feeling. There’s a theme, which works as a twisted anthem. The assassinations aren’t scored at all, nor is the sequence on the plane. And then there’s the Parallax test, which is given a folk melody with a male hum. The test took four months for the filmmakers to research and edit and it’s simple yet a little unnerving. (In the novel, the lead character simply reads words while his reactions are monitored with a special eyepiece.) And the first time I watched this, I nearly jumped out of my seat during the dam scene when the floodgate alarm goes off.
The acting is top-notch all around. This was Beatty’s first film after dabbling in politics (he worked on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign). I’m no Beatty expert – aside from Dick Tracy – but he’s very good, appropriately low-key and schlumpy. The doe-eyed Prentiss is only in the movie for ten minutes but her tragic performance certainly makes an impact. Frady’s ill-fated editor is played by screen veteran Hume Cronyn, Frady’s Parallax rep is played by stage actor Walter McGinn, and Anthony Zerbe and Kenneth Mars both make brief appearances. William Daniels plays Austin Tucker and he’s nothing but paranoid. A brief note: like many 80s/90s kids, I grew up watching Daniels as Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World. In addition to his voice work on Knight Rider, he was a prolific character actor. I particularly enjoy his appearances in two other Paramount films from the period: The President’s Analyst, in which he plays a liberal suburbanite, and Black Sunday, in which he plays a VA bureaucrat.

There might be a 70s vibe to the movie at times – the plane/bomb scene might be the most dated for obvious reasons – but it still holds up, though it’s not mentioned nearly as much as similar films from the period. I have no idea why. It’s very low-key, the character relationships are all very understated, and there’s no partisanship. (Frady doesn’t place blame on our government or any particular politician, and the Parallax Corporation goes after people of all stripes.) Pakula’s stated intention wasn’t to trash America but to simply ask what happened to it.

“We're in the business of reporting the news, not creating it.”

(Special thanks to Film Score Monthly’s online liner notes by Scott Bettencourt and Alexander Kaplan for the behind the scenes trivia.)
[+]

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

TV Review: Once Upon A Time (2011 - ???)

Once Upon A Time is a television series beginning its fourth season on ABC. The first three seasons are currently available for binge-watching on Netflix. I’m actually not 100% sure I should recommend Once to you. Let’s put it this way, while I do enjoy the series a great deal, it has all the weaknesses that are typical of broadcast network productions and those rob the show of its punch. In effect, they prevent the show from feeling real enough to grab you or fantastic enough to be a wild ride.

The premise of the show is genius. Imagine if every storybook character you can think of, from Snow White to Captain Hook to some major surprises in between lived in the same enchanted forest and basically knew each other. Now imagine if all those characters were suddenly transported to our world, to live in a town named Storybrooke in Maine. Only, none of these characters has any memory of who they really are. The one exception is the evil Queen who cast the curse which brought them all to Storybrooke. She's made herself the mayor.
That has serious potential.

The story is largely presented through the eyes of Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), who is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. She was sent to our world to avoid the curse and save the rest of them. She, however, has no idea about any of this, nor does she believe it when she is told. Her only concern is Henry. Henry is the son she abandoned when she was young, and he lives in Storybrooke. He tells Emma about her destiny and shows her a book of fairy tales as proof that everyone in Storybrooke is from a fairy tale. Incidentally, he has been adopted by the evil Queen, who is raising him as her adopted son.
The episodes themselves involve Henry’s attempts to get his real mother to help him break the curse and free the people of Storybrooke so they can return to the enchanted forest. Each episode typically involves two stories being told simultaneously. The first is the advancement of the story in Storybrooke. The second involves the telling of some character’s backstory. If this sounds like Lost, that’s because Once was created by Lost writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz.
The backstories are interesting for several reasons. First, they tell you who the characters in Storybrooke really are. Secondly, they tend to take the stories we all know and twist them around. For example, we learn that Red Riding Hood is really a werewolf. We learn how Hook lost his hand. We get the story of who Prince Charming really is and how he came to marry Snow White, and we learn the sad fate of Stealthy the Dwarf... the eighth dwarf. Moreover, these stories are all intertwined and that intertwined thread is largely told backwards as we discover how Rumpelstiltskin manipulated each of their histories for his particular purpose. This makes for some nice twists.

All told, each episode is entertaining, though some are better than others. Several of the characters are really quite excellent as well. In particular, the evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) is excellent. She’s complex and interesting and you never quite know when she will be evil or when she will try to be good. Parrilla does a great job too of portraying a woman who is simultaneously wildly out of control and incapable of taking NO for an answer, and yet a woman who desperately seeks affirmation from other people. Even better, noted actor Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting) plays Rumpelstiltskin, who is the heart of this show. Rumpelstiltskin is the evil force behind everything that has happened. He is a joy to watch as he manipulates everyone and demonstrates an utter lack of conscience. Minor characters like Grumpy the Dwarf and Hook are excellent as well, as is young Henry (Jared Gilmore).
Unfortunately, the show does have some problems. Some of the actors simply aren’t strong enough to carry the roles they are given. For example, the actor playing Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) is a lightweight who doesn’t come across as a capable leader. Emma, the lead, isn’t all that interesting either. She’s largely a placeholder to let the other characters do their thing. Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), another lightweight, is hard to believe too the way they present her.
Even worse, the show suffers from being produced for broadcast network television. Because it is being made for ABC, the production values are low. The CGI looks horrible on a big screen. Most of the sets feel like television sets rather than real places. Little in the show feels like it actually exists. Further, the show still panders to the broadcast view that each show must be broken up into acts, which are then separated by television commercial breaks. Thus, the demands of the story often feel like they are subsumed to the medium and each commercial break ends on a phony cliffhanger.

If you compare this to the better network productions, like those made by HBO or AMC, you will be struck immediately by the higher production values on cable. The film quality on those shows is that of film stock rather than the made-for-TV video like Once uses. This makes a huge difference in the “real” feel of the productions. Further, the cable networks rarely let commercial breaks dictate the pace of the story, and they will simply stop for a break rather than forcing in an unnatural cliffhanger. The result is that the cable shows feel more realistic, like they involve real people rather than actors. Moreover, the other networks aren’t afraid to interject more complexity. People die every episode on HBO. Lovers have sex and betray each other. Evil people do evil things which hurt people. And good characters are routinely presented with complex and difficult moral choices that rarely offer easy solutions.
Once has none of that. To the contrary, Once plays by network rules which tell you that main characters cannot die, evil must be cartoonish and incompetent, moral questions need to be obvious with easy solutions, and life’s underside has no place on screen. At times, I really wonder what HBO would have done with this amazing idea.

So ultimately, I would say that Once is an entertaining show that leaves a ton of potential on the table. It’s still worth watching, but it could have been awesome if it had been freed from the restrictions that still seem to haunt network broadcast television.
[+]