Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Man versus Flu (Round 3)

There won't be a post tonight. As frustrating as it is, I'm on my third bout with this killer flu, which just keeps coming back as different members of my family catch it and hand it back to everyone else. I've never dealt with anything this hard to kill off. So sadly, I just don't have the energy to write anything. Sorry folks.
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Sunday, April 13, 2014

My Favorite Films: Comedies (non-1980's)

Last week, we were shocked to find how the 1980’s dominate comedy. This week we remind ourselves that others eras did comedy too. Here are my favorite non-1980’s comedies. Filling this list with comedies I enjoy was actually a lot harder.

1. Silver Streak (1976): Gene Wilder at his best, along with popular side kick Richard Pryor, this is a strong romantic comedy about a man who keeps getting thrown off a train that he needs to be on.

2. A Night At The Opera (1935): More than any other of their films, A Night At The Opera highlights the wide talent abilities of the brothers as well as their comedic genius. Combining both verbal humor with slapstick, this film works on so many levels.

3. Hot Shots (1991): The heir to the Airplane! franchise, this film ripped a huge hole in all the action tropes of the 1980s and it’s just hilarious.

4. The Muppet Movie (1979): The Muppets have a miserable history with films in that almost all of them suck pretty badly. This is the one time they really captured the essence of the Muppets and what we love about them.

5. Office Space (1999): Dude, this film speaks to my generation.

6. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997): Not only are this and the sequel the perfect parodies of the James Bond franchise, but they gave us unforgettable characters like Mini-Me and an amazing amount of quotable dialog.

7. Not Another Teen Movie (2001): Yet another parody film, this one actually rises head and shoulders above the rest. This film is not only hilarious, but it hits its targets perfectly.

8. Duck Soup (1933): Like Night At The Opera, this film lets the Marx Brothers roam free and do what they do best. Ultimately though, this is Groucho’s show as he drives an insane, but also insanely funny plot.

9. Blazing Saddles (1974): This film is hilarious on so many levels. Not only does it parody all the western tropes, but it does so while poking fun at Hollywood and delving heavily into the issue of race in a way others haven’t been willing. Those things raise this film just slightly above Young Frankenstein in my book.

10. Animal House (1978): Not only is this the film that started the entire college movie genre, but it actually does it better than all the copies to come. That’s pretty impressive. Also, it’s full of iconic moments.

11. Rat Race (2001): This is a fun movie that doesn’t pretend to be anything more than that. Well written, well acted, funny and entertaining, I find this to be a good deal more enjoyable that the film it’s copying: “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” which I find to be too dry and too reliant on having a famous cast.

12. Scott Pilgrim v. The World (2010): This is definitely a niche film, but it’s really amazingly funny if you’re in that niche.

13. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944): A dark comedy by Frank Capra, Cary Grant learns on his wedding day that his aunts are insane.

14. Those Magnificent Men And Their Flying Machines (1965): This is one of those comedies that relies on a large group of comedians to come play out various national stereotypes under the guise of engaging in an airplane race. Good fun and clever at times, this is a bit of a nostalgia trip.

15. Africa Screams (1949): I list this one because it’s the one I remember the most, but honestly, all of Abbott and Costello’s films kind of run together. That said, they had their moments!

Thoughts?
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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Down With Film!

No film tonight. The feds... er, the day job caught up to me and I had to leave my hideout office for a few days.
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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Guest Review: JFK (1991)

by ScottDS

[sigh] I won’t lie – I love this movie. As an accurate record of the facts, it doesn’t pass muster. But as an engrossing conspiracy thriller-slash-whodunit, it is superb. Brilliantly crafted, beautifully-shot, well-acted, miraculously-edited… Oliver Stone’s 205-minute magnum opus never lags, never bores, and continues to polarize – 51 years after the tragedy that precipitated the whole thing.

November 22, 1963: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his team investigate some local connections but shortly thereafter close the investigation when assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) is killed by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Three years later, after an encounter with Senator (and Warren Report skeptic) Russell Long, Garrison re-opens the investigation. They interrogate disgraced pilot David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), male prostitute Willie O’Keefe (Kevin Bacon), and many others, including local witnesses who claim there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll. O’Keefe claims he was at a party with Ferrie and some anti-Castro Cuban exiles where a conversation about killing Kennedy took place. Also at the party was a man O’Keefe was involved with named Clay Bertrand, who turns out to be New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones).
The trial of Clay Shaw finally takes place in 1969. Garrison, who at this point has managed to alienate many of those closest to him, attempts to debunk the “single bullet theory” and proposes that Kennedy was killed by elements within our government, including members of the FBI, the CIA, and the military-industrial complex. Why? Because Kennedy wanted to withdraw from Vietnam, which would’ve meant reduced profits for the military’s hardware manufacturers. Kennedy also wanted to transfer covert operations to the Defense Department, which would’ve diminished the CIA’s power. Shaw is found not guilty, though the jurors admit they believe there was a conspiracy – they just couldn’t find a way to link Shaw to that conspiracy. (These two paragraphs don’t do the sprawling narrative justice at all – I need to stay within my 3-page limit!)

If you’ve seen the film, I doubt anything I say will change your mind. We can debate history in the comments. (Most of this is above my pay grade!) If you haven't seen the film, it’s definitely worth watching once, though it might require two or more viewings to take it all in. The film is a kaleidoscope of new footage shot in 35mm, vintage news footage, amateur newsreel footage, new footage made to look like vintage footage, re-enactments, cutaways and inserts that last mere seconds, a dozen different film stocks – hell, the true heroes of this movie are Pietro Scalia and Joe Hutshing, the editors who won a well-deserved Oscar for their work! The film is well-shot by Robert Richardson who also won an Oscar for his work. I couldn’t even imagine some of the setups: the filmmakers re-created the assassination in the real Dealey Plaza, which had to be restored to its 1963 look. They were even able to spend a limited amount of time in the actual Book Depository. Today, this would all no doubt be shot in some European country with nice tax incentives… but Oliver Stone goes for broke.
Yes, Oliver Stone. Look, I’m no expert. I’ve only seen three of his films, including this one. The man has a reputation which pretty much started with this film (and it has affected critical views of his work, unfairly or not, ever since). He has his opinions and I guess the phrase I’m looking for is “true believer,” though I have to give him credit for being somewhat consistent: he’s one of those left-wingers who hates the “mainstream media” as much as right-wingers do, but for different reasons. (The corporate influence, no doubt.) His filmmaking career has been on the wane for a while, but JFK was made in his prime. Stone has total control, manipulating pieces like a master chess player. The film is infinitely detailed and never boring but, while it’s complicated, it’s not too deep – you don’t need a poli-sci degree to understand it. There's also a lot of world building – little details in the margins that add verisimilitude: non-sequiturs like the maître d with the weird mustache who sits Garrison and his team at a restaurant, and a lot of the homespun bon mots uttered by the characters (“I mean, how do you know who your daddy is? ’Cause your mama told you so.”)

At this point in his career, Kevin Costner had perfected the stoic Gary Cooper everyman thing and it serves him well here, though the real Jim Garrison wasn’t quite the Boy Scout we see in this movie. Coster’s Garrison comes across as the ultimate patriot/father figure, ubiquitous pipe and all. Sissy Spacek plays his wife Liz. I can’t complain, but reviewers seem to be split: they either enjoy her, saying she helps humanize the movie… or they say she’s drags the film down, a case of a talented actress saddled with the clichéd “housewife” role. Garrison’s team includes Jay O. Sanders as Lou Ivon, Michael Rooker as Bill Broussard, Laurie Metcalf as Susie Cox, Gary Grubbs as Al Oser, and Wayne Knight as Numa Bertel. (Knight would later parody this movie in a famous Seinfeld episode.) Sanders and the always-entertaining Rooker get most of the meat: the former resigns on account of Garrison’s obstinance; the latter apparently sells out to the Feds. The real Jim Garrison appears as Chief Justice Earl Warren.
Gary Oldman does his usual excellent job disappearing into the role of Oswald. Kevin Bacon plays Willie O’Keefe (a composite character). Bacon is clearly enjoying himself and he gets one of my favorite lines (NSFW!!!). Joe Pesci cranks it up to 11 as David Ferrie. Ferrie suffered from alopecia areata, so Pesci shuffles around with an obvious wig and ridiculous eyebrows. Tommy Lee Jones was nominated for an Oscar for playing Clay Shaw. While Stone clearly portrays him as a villain, he’s just too… nice! He lies through his teeth to Garrison, but he comes across not as a criminal mastermind, but as a perfectly charming citizen. Liz even reminds Garrison that they once met Shaw at a local fundraiser. Jack Lemon shows up as Jack Martin, a paranoid drunk who helps implicate Ferrie and Shaw. He works for New Orleans PI Guy Bannister, played by Ed Asner. I have to say that the villains aren't as effective as they should be. Jones is too congenial, Pesci and Bacon are too over the top, and Asner is just a grump. You want a scary Oliver Stone villain? Watch Sam Waterston as CIA director Richard Helms in Nixon.

Walter Matthau plays Senator Russell Long, all bow-tied and dignified. We’re inclined to believe him when he talks about Oswald’s skills with a rifle, even though we really have no reason to. “Average man would be lucky to get two shots off…” Is this true? I have no idea, but Garrison just accepts it. (It’s far from the only blind assumption in this film!) John Candy plays lawyer Dean Andrews, who was allegedly called by Clay Shaw to represent Oswald. He’s only in a couple scenes, claiming that everything he told the Feds was a figment of his imagination. (Man, I miss John Candy.) Brian Doyle-Murray plays Jack Ruby and Beata Poźniak plays Marina Oswald. For research, Poźniak actually lived with the real Marina Oswald for a while.
And then there’s Donald Sutherland. He plays “X,” based on Air Force Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty. Garrison travels to Washington D.C. to meet with this mysterious figure, who reveals that he was sent to Antarctica by his superior officer shortly before the assassination. X later realized this was because one of his jobs back home would’ve been to arrange for additional security during Kennedy’s visit to Dallas. While on a layover in New Zealand, X reads about Oswald in the paper, hours before he’s charged with a crime. This leads him to believe that a cover-up is taking place. Garrison is skeptical but X reminds him that war is a historical constant. “Kings are killed, Mr. Garrison. Politics is power, nothing more.”

This sequence is a tour-de-force of editing, camerawork, and sound design… even if a lot of it is bullshit. It almost works as a short film in and of itself and it also features one of my favorite John Williams cues: “The Conspirators,” which makes great use of woodblock and metronome ticking. Williams was actually busy working on Steven Spielberg’s Hook so for this film he didn’t compose a score in the traditional sense. Instead, he saw some footage and went ahead and composed several different themes, which Stone and his team used when necessary, sometimes even editing the film to fit the music. To see (hear?) the power of music and sound design, watch the deleted scenes on the DVD/Blu-Ray, most of which are presented in rough form. No ambient music, no added sound design – just dialogue, and it’s all pretty lifeless.
Clay Shaw’s trial takes up the latter fifth of the film. Costner gives what might be his best performance as he implores the jury to do the right thing. It’s quite riveting, though there are a couple of false notes. Stone and Co. go overboard with the literary allusions, with Garrison referencing “an English poet,” Kafka, Tennyson, “an American naturalist,” and Shakespeare on more than one occasion. The deification of Kennedy is also evident – Garrison, continuing his Shakespeare analogy, refers to the slain president as a “father leader” and begs the jury to not forget their “dying king.” It’s… a bit much. Actually, it’s a lot much! But it happens in the right place. This stuff wouldn’t work in the first act – sometimes you need to “earn” dialogue like this.

Now take Kennedy and Oliver Stone out of it for a second. I must admit, to my amateur Independent ears, some of this material sounds downright Tea Party-friendly: the idea of a government that is reckless, that hides tax-funded information from the American people, government officials that treat regular citizens like children, incompetent bureaucrats, and overbearing security measures? Why does this all sound so familiar? (I’ve said this to Andrew before: the line between liberal film and conservative film is often just one or two degrees). On the other hand, it's worth asking: at what point does a movie become propaganda? How many facts are the filmmakers allowed to fudge before the point is lost?

So who killed Kennedy? If you believe the Warren Report, it was Lee Harvey Oswald. If you believe Oliver Stone, it was a group of militant right-wing homosexuals, in collaboration with the FBI, the CIA, Cuban exiles, the Mafia, and… oh hell, maybe I was there, too! (20 years before I was born – why not?!) For many people, it’s easier to believe in a conspiracy. It’s almost reassuring. After all, the idea of one lone nut changing the course of history is much more disconcerting. Oliver Stone’s JFK is part of our pop culture and if you bring up the subject of the assassination, many people – for better or worse – immediately think of this movie. In any case, its message is clear: never stop questioning authority.

“Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left. Back, and to the left.”
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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

N...n...nuance

It’s funny to me how liberals like to think that they understand nuance. In my experience, you can hit a liberal over the head with a whale or a hammer and they couldn’t tell the difference. Conservatives (most at least) actually tend to be the ones who grasp nuance. And one area where this is clear is in older cartoon.

You probably realize this, but it bears pointing out: cartoons thrive on disabilities. Every single cartoon character of note from the birth of the toon age until the 1970s had a disability of some sort. Elmer Fudd has a speech impediment, plus he rode the short bus. Daffy, Donald and Porky also had speech impediments. Daffy had syphilis too, but that’s not widely known. Droopy Dog suffered from extreme depression and maniacal pessimism. Bluto and Grape Ape suffered from gigantism, also known as Andre the Giant’s Disease. The Tasmanian Devil was the first reported case of ADHD. Popeye was a meth addict, as was Speedy Gonzalez. Wimpy was addicted to hamburger. Olive Oil was anorexic. Yosemite Sam was a dwarf. Goofy was a functional retard. The Roadrunner is mute. And so on.

Of course, liberals took offense to these things and they whined about it for decades: how dare you insult retarded kids or midgets or anorexics!! Sadly, Hollywood tends to take the path of least resistance... and most obnoxiousness, so they responded by making modern cartoon characters rather bland and physically perfect.

But is this right?

Well, let’s start with the obvious. Did any kid ever see Daffy Duck and think, “I need to go make fun of some kid with a syphilis-induced speech impediment!” Hardly. Kids, who are generally smarter than liberals, saw the nuance. They weren’t laughing at kids with speech impediments, they were laughing at Daffy’s funny mannerisms... all of them. They were laughing at Daffy for being a fool, an arrogant duck who caused himself a world of hurt because he was a jerk. They may also have made fun of the kids who were different, but it wasn’t because they saw Daffy as giving them permission to do so.

In fact, it’s not even like only the villains had these flaws... all cartoon characters have flaws! Popeye mumbles, Mickey Mouse sounds like he’s been hitting the helium... or lost his testicles in ‘nam. Scooby never once spoke clearly, and Shaggy spoke hippy. Speed Buggy spoke with a stutter and smoker’s cough. Half the heroes were dumber than rocks too.

The point is this: the funny voices, the speech impediments, the crazy shapes and bizarre traits were never meant to be taken as insults to anyone. They were meant as a way to make these characters unique... something Hollywood no longer knows anything about.

This is what liberals don’t get. Just because you point something out does not mean you are making a point about it. If my villain is fat, it’s because a fat guy looks cool in the suit, not because I’m making some statement about people with Type 2 diabetes being evil. If my villain stutters or smokes or has only one hand, it’s just a way to make the villain stand out. It’s not an attempt to offend people, and if people are offended by the simple inclusion of such a thing, then they are fools. Would you rather live in a world where you fit into any film or a world where you become the dirty secret the human race pretends doesn’t exist?

What liberals need to learn (and a few conservatives at places like BH), is when that line gets crossed and something becomes a statement. Where does something go from incidental flavoring to political statement? Well, that all depends on the behavior. Behavior is what matters. Are these traits simply part of the character or do you mock them for those traits? Do you suggest those traits make them inferior? Do you suggest that those traits are things to be ridiculed? Do you treat them as second class citizen, by perhaps acting that they are so hypersensitive that they can’t see their traits portrayed on film?

People need to learn the difference between a statement for/against something and the simple inclusion of something to add depth and interest.

Thoughts?
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Sunday, April 6, 2014

My Favorite Films: Comedy Films From The 1980’s

I was going to do comedies but as I thought through my list, I realized that the 1980’s dominate this list, so I’m breaking out the 1980’s. What an amazing period for comedy! This list could be triple its current length.

1. Ghostbusters (1984): This is probably the top comedy film of all time. It does everything right, from having a great story to great characters to great dialog to great jokes.

2. Clue (1985): Vastly underappreciated at the time, this cult classic is both hilarious and one of the most clever comedies out there.

3. Airplane! (1980): This is one of the few movies that will have you laughing out loud from the opening frame until the ending and somehow it never gets old. This film is a real tour de force of screwball and verbal comedy.

4. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988): This is one of those rare films that just surprises you with how much you enjoy it as it twists and turns. It also combines the great Michael Caine with Steve Martin in the perfect role for him.

5. Trading Places (1983): This film feels like it captures everything you need to know about the 1980s and it’s just hilarious.

6. Police Academy (1984): I saw this last week again actually and I’m just amazed how well this film holds up. It’s characters are perfect, it’s situations are hilarious, and it’s jokes are hilarious.

7. Strange Brew (1983): What can I say except that this movie is all kinds of awesome. Seriously, a plan to take over the world from a brewery. Fantastic!

8. Naked Gun (1988): This film was like Airplane! with a plot and Leslie Nielson is perfect in this.

9. The Blues Brothers (1980): Great actors, iconic moments, amazingly quotable dialog and excellent music. What more can you ask for?

10. Coming to America (1988): Eddie Murphy was huge in the 1980s, but this was the one time he played a character with heart and it really pays off.

11. Fletch (1985): Chevy Chase at his best, as reporter Fletch, causing havoc as he solves an incredibly convoluted plot.

12. Spies Like Us (1985): This one kind of came out of the blue and it was just hilarious. Even today, with the Soviets no longer a threat, this film still feels somehow topical and funny. Chase and Akyroyd show real chemistry together.

13. Beverly Hills Cop (1984): Super well written story staring Eddie Murphy at his peak.

14. A Fish Called Wanda (1988): A sort of follow up to the Monty Python films, this was one of those films that won you over with some truly original characters and some hilarious twists.

15. Weekend At Bernie’s (1989): Movies like this never work, and yet this one works perfectly and it's got an amazing ironic-comedic feel.

Thoughts?
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Friday, April 4, 2014

Film Friday: Boiler Room (2000)

You’ve probably never heard of this film. Few people have, but it’s an excellent film. It’s got a strong (soon-to-be famous) cast, a topical story, a strong, sharp, colorful script and a driving pace. Also, we lament formula, but this one is anything but formula. Oh, and it has Vin Diesel before he was famous.

Plot

At its core, Boiler Room is the story of Seth Davis (Giovanni Ribisi), a 19-year-old failure who operates an unlicensed casino in his own apartment. He has a horrible relationship with his father (Ron Rifkin), a federal judge in New York City, bad judgment and bad choice in friends. One night, however, he gets an opportunity to turn his life around. Into his little casino stumbles a stock broker from the brokerage firm of J.T. Marlin, and this guy is flashing cash like you wouldn’t believe. He tells Seth to come work for J.T. Marlin. It begins.
The next hour or so involves Seth being immersed in this world of J.T. Marlin. Marlin is a “chop shop,” a brokerage firm which plays in the “over the counter” / bridge financing world (i.e. the penny stock market). These guys run a cold calling telemarketing brokerage operation in which they do their best to trick and manipulate people into buying the stock of companies you’ve never heard of on the basis that these companies just issued IPOs. And if that isn’t bad enough, this firm is even worse than the rest in a way I won’t reveal. Anyways, Seth is taught to lie, to break the law, and be utterly heartless. Of course, things eventually go wrong for Seth.
Why This Film Works

This is a surprisingly strong film. It suffers from the occasional amateur mistake, like an obnoxious soundtrack early in the film and some over-the-top characterizations here and there, but all told this film produces both a fascinating tale and an emotionally satisfying film. Here’s why this film works.
Let’s start with the characters. This is one of those rare films where the characters are real human beings. Not a single character is an archetype. For example, the main villain actually seems like a decent guy, even though he’s stealing from people on a massive scale. Ben Affleck is in this too. He’s a piece of sh*t. Man do you hate him. But then you see him at his house with the guys and he seems like a fun guy who cares about his friends. And so on.

Seth himself is very complex. He seems like a good guy and you’re sure he’ll do the right thing. But then he’s also not that smart and it takes him awhile to realize that the things going on around him are wrong. But by the time he realizes this and he wants out, he also finds that the respectability he’s gained from his father for having become a successful broker makes quitting impossible for him. But then he loses that and he needs to find a solution to his problems. But his innate stupidity and poor judgment arise again and he flails about as he simply can’t figure out a good way out.
Vin Diesel plays another fascinating character. Does he know what they are really doing? The film doesn’t say that he does or he doesn’t. He kind of knows some things, but does he know the full truth? We don’t know. But in the meantime, we are presented with one of the most likable guys in the film even as he’s doing things we know are really questionable. But he does have a heart of gold ultimately, right? Are you sure? I love the fact that even when the film is over, you still can’t really explain his character definitively, yet you know you would have liked him if you met him.

Speaking of Diesel, he first got spotted in Saving Private Ryan in 1998. He first became famous in 2001 when both Pitch Black and The Fast and the Furious hit theaters. He made this film at the same time he made Pitch Black in 2000 before he hit it big, and he already shows a tremendous amount of acting skill and charisma in the film. Seeing his early performance here alone is worth catching the film.
The film is also full of little lines that crystallize so much of what is going on, the characters, the nature of the firm, etc. For example, when the film opens, Seth tells us that people like him get rich with a jump shot or “slinging crack rock,” only he doesn’t have a good jump shot and he’s not black so he can’t sell crack, so he decides to do the white boy version of selling crack... white collar crime. When we see Affleck’s house, Seth tells us, “These guys had all the money in the world, but no idea what to do with it,” and it’s hilarious to see a huge mansion with only one couch and a big screen TV inside... but it feels real. It makes you feel like you really know these guys inside and out. This isn’t just some silly cliché like giving your hero a classic car or talking about what kind of drinks he likes. You see these guys talk about money when they obviously have no idea what it really means, they quote the whole movie Wall Street and hero worship Gekko, they compare themselves to real brokers, and they lose a verbal beat down with a gay guy they thought would be an easy target. All of this tells you exactly who these guy want to see themselves as and how far away from that they really are.
The second thing that works is that like Glengarry Glenn Ross or Wall Street, this film pulls back the curtain and lets you see how the scam works from the inside. When you are done with this film, you feel like you actually learned what it’s like to have worked in one of these environments. As an aside, Boiler Room is inspired by the true story of Jordan Belfort and the firm of Stratton Oakmont, which has now been made into the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, so there is a good deal of truth here. Indeed, the director interviewed many of those brokers before he wrote the script.
Third, the other thing which works is the subplot of the relationship between Seth and his father. Usually, this feels like filler to me, but here it really weaves so well with Seth’s character that it’s indispensible. His father is a turd. You see fathers like this all the time, fathers who think that anger and disdain will toughen up their sons. And you see the consequence in Seth. Seth is trying desperately to please his father but has no idea how. So he does stupid things, which only makes everything worse. His bad decisions then spiral out of control, and the ones he’s making in this film are huge. But in the process of it all swirling down the drain, there is a sort of reconciliation which is actually pretty powerful. More importantly though, it gives this film its heart, which it would not have gotten from the stock story alone. It is in the father-son story that you get to see the real Seth and where you can see Seth doing his best to do the right thing despite never really knowing how. It also helps you understand why it’s not so easy for many people to say, “Hey, I should just call the cops.”

I highly recommend this film. It’s not the slickest film nor does it have the highest production values. This won’t be confused with either Glengarry Glenn Ross or Wall Street, but it compares favorably in my opinion. It’s a strong film that immerses you in a very real world you will not see anywhere else and it takes you on a wild ride that is worth taking. It has complex characters, each packed with tragic flaws, and a storyline that will more than hold your attention.

Thoughts?
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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Screw The Cat, Save The Film

Have you noticed that most films are starting to feel eerily similar? There’s a reason for that. Some years back, a man named Blake Snyder wrote a book about screenwriting called “Save the Cat”, and many people blame that book. This has resulted in a specific problem that drives me nuts. Let’s discuss.

From the things I’ve read, “Save the Cat” proved to be an incredibly successful screenwriting book because it took a novel approach. Whereas most screenwriting books talk about things like how to develop characters, how to weave themes into your story, and the importance of crafting a climax, “Save the Cat” was different. “Save the Cat” laid out the specific formula the writer could follow to make a competent movie, everything from what elements each film must include to the order of the events and the number of pages each element should take in the screenplay.

Many people say this book caught fire in Hollywood and most films since 2006 have been written using the formulas and models include in the book... everything from romances to action films to science fiction films. Hence, many people blame this book for the increasing formularization of films.

Anyway, one of the ideas buried in this formularization is that the writer should always increase the challenge to the hero at every possible step. Unfortunately, while this sounds like good advice, it rarely is. In fact, what you end up with are films filled with scenes like this:
Step One: Villain escapes hero, runs into street, carjacks a car, and drives away.
Step Two: Hero chases villain. Hero also carjacks a car to catch villain.
Step Three: Hero discovers that the person he threw from the car took the key. Hero must stop and hotwire car.
Step Four: Hero starts driving. Now hero discovers that he has a flat tire. Hero must fix tire or steal another car.
Step Five: Luckily, the villain is held up in traffic.
Step Six: Hero fixes tire issue and starts moving. Engine starts smoking. Hero opens hood and see engine is dead. Must now get another car.
Step Seven: Villain now delayed by some new event.
Step Eight: Hero races after villain, but drawbridge goes up. Hero cannot jump bridge and must steal a boat.
Step Nine: Hero races boat out into water, but boat is out of gas. Hero must now swim. Hero reaches other side of river.
Step Ten: Villain sees hero and drives on sidewalk to get away from hero.
Step Eleven: Hero chases villain on sidewalk. Two guys with pain of glass walk in front of him, as does woman with baby carriage, and three nuns on a mercy mission, and falling meteorite.
Step Twelve: Villain barely escapes.
Exciting, right? Ha. Hardly. This is crap. Observe the audience’s thought process. They are excited by the chase to come. They love the idea that both have carjacked cars and will now race through the streets of Paris. They expect an exciting chase. Now the hero runs into “the key issue.” This actually adds to the suspense because it causes the audience to worry that the hero can’t make it.

Then it starts to go wrong. The hero has the flat tire. Suddenly, a hint of unbelievability enters the audience’s mind. Rather than seeing this as a tension raiser, they realize that it is highly unlikely that the key and the flat tire will occur at once. Now comes a real sin: the villain is held up in traffic. We know this was a fake decision by the filmmaker to keep the hero competitive in this race.

And that’s not the end. Nope. It keeps coming. Now we have the engine trouble. The odds of adding engine trouble to a missing key and flat tire are unbelievable low. And having the villain now delayed by some new event is simply not credible. Then the hero runs into the drawbridge issue and you suddenly realize, “This is nonsense. This is just the writing throwing up any challenge they can think of for the hero, whether it makes sense or not.” And it doesn’t stop there, it just keeps coming and coming.

By the time this sequence is over, you feel like the writer thinks you’re an idiot. You are bored to tears by the banality of the obstacles and you’ve completely lost your suspension of disbelief because the odds of this sequence of events happening is close to 0%. It feels like an unfunny comedy routine.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a theoretical issue either. I’m seeing more and more movies that feel this way. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was a huge offender in this regard, as was A Good Day To Die Hard. In both movies, you had these never-ending chase scenes where the writer simply threw up one obstacle after another at every single step. I’m sure they thought they were making it more dramatic, but after the first couple obstacles, it just became torture.

Let me reach into a different “genre” to complete the point. The greatest audience tease in the history of the world was Hulk Hogan. Hogan did the exact same routine in show after show, yet you fell for it every... single... time. And having seen him live, I can tell you that I’ve never seen another human being having more control over an audience than Hogan. What he understood, i.e. why this worked, was exactly how much abuse the audience could watch him take to get the maximum anguish from the audience without losing them to boredom. THAT is what filmmakers need to grasp. They need to understand that there is a point with an audience where all the frustration reaches its peak and you must let the hero prevail. If you don’t, then you go from an asskicking moment to a moment where the hero feels bumbling.

The problem with the formula is that it ignores this vital point. It just wrongly assumes that the more obstacles you can create, the higher the tension. That’s just not true, just like it’s not true that all stories can be told using the same formula. Hollywood needs to stop relying on theory and start relying on feel. No more stupid chase scenes where random things keep happening. No more final fights that last so lost most people are praying for it to end. No more wedging every round and oval and star-shaped peg into the same square hole.
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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Toon-arama: The Real Ghostbusters (1986-1991)

by Jason

Harold Ramis’ recent passing prompted me to go back to my introduction to the Ghostbusters franchise. I was born in 1981, so I was too young to see the 1984 live-action Ghostbusters movie. I had to wait two more years until the debut of the animated show, The Real Ghostbusters. This show definitely belongs in the pantheon of great television cartoons…at least the first season does.

The cartoon picked up largely where the first movie left off. Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler, and Winston Zeddemore have resumed their ghostbusting gig after taking down Gozer, with their dry-and-wry secretary Janine Melnitz answering the phone “Ghostbusters” in her Brooklyn accent. Each episode saw the Ghostbusters encounter different spooks, specters and phantoms, like the ghost of Casey Jones, gremlins, trolls, Greek goddesses, the Bogeyman, Babylonian gods, a sandman, pirate ghosts, the ghosts of Doc Holliday and the Earps, Lovecraftian magic and gods, and various demons.
Starting out, the show managed to preserve much of the spirit of the first movie and the personality of the characters. Maurice LaMarche, the voice of Egon, basically does a Harold Ramis impression. Frank Welker makes Ray sound a bit more childlike but preserves the enthusiasm of the character very well. Arsenio Hall still keeps Winston as the everyman of the group, but he’s acclimated to the others and doesn’t sound as confused by the technical jargon. Lorenzo Music, however, made Peter more laidback and dry, a change from Bill Murray’s portrayal. It still works well, and many fans liked Music’s portrayal. Other supporting characters made sporadic or no appearances at all: Walter Peck just showed up for one episode, Louis Tully came on board around the time Ghostbusters II premiered, and Dana Barrett never appeared at all.

But no discussion of the characters would be complete without mentioning Slimer. The producers thought the show needed a mascot that kids would like, and the green ghost that slimed Peter in the first movie seemed like a good choice. The movie’s producers dubbed him “Onionhead” for the movie, but he was rechristened “Slimer” for the show. He was also lightened up from a mean ravenous glutton (the f/x puppets gave him a cross look) to a happy overeager puppy…and also a ravenous glutton. Egon decides that having a ghost to experiment on would be pretty neat, so the guys decide to keep Slimer around the firehouse, although Peter has problems warming up to the floating spud.

The Ghostbusters film is often cited as a great comedy, and it is, but it’s largely due to the banter between the main characters and the occasional irreverence toward the supernatural happenings around them. The ghosts themselves are typically done seriously and scary, and even with the laughs, the movie manages to maintain gravity. The first seventy-eight episodes - 13 episodes for ABC Saturday morning and 65 for first-run syndication - are done in a similar style. A pre-Babylon 5 J. Michael Straczynski served as story editor and kept the show funny and serious in all the right places.
It’s hard to pick just one great episode from the first season. One of my favorites, “The Devil to Pay,” featured a devil (“a minor demon” Ray corrects) placing the Ghostbusters in a demonic game show. In “Take Two,” the guys head to California to consult on a movie made about their lives. Peter thinks he’ll get Robert Redford to play him, but Winston takes a look at the cast list: “Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis? What's that, a law firm?” In “Night Game,” Winston participates in a baseball game played by specters who regularly duel between good and evil sides. “Who're You Calling Two-Dimensional?” puts the Ghostbusters in a world populated by Looney Tunes-esque cartoon characters. When paranormal activity hits a dry spell, the Ghostbusters turn to busting crime in pre-Giuliani New York in “Ghost Busted.” Another one of my favorites, “Doctor Doctor,” sees the Ghostbusters stuck in the hospital with brownish slime that clings to them and starts to manifest big body parts like an eye, an ear, a nose, etc. Finally, in the dramatic and pretty dark “Ragnarok and Roll,” a man saddened by his recent breakup finds a flute that when played will bring about the end of the world. At one point, the Ghostbusters consider igniting their proton packs to destroy the demon that’s about to end the world – and themselves along with it.

The first season was just a blast. I could probably count on one hand the episodes that didn’t work. Unfortunately, the first season would also be the series’ high point. As the first season came to an end, ABC hired consultants to examine the show and come up with ways to “fix” the series. And they did. Oh they did.

First, kid characters called the junior Ghostbusters were to be brought in, because supposedly, kids want to watch kids on cartoon shows. Slimer was brought more to the foreground, given more intelligible speech, and went from being like a pet to like the Ghostbusters’ adopted son. The four Ghostbusters were given clearly defined roles: Egon the “brain,” Ray the “hands,” Peter the “mouth,” and Winston was…the driver. If the stupidity could not get worse, they demanded Janine be changed to a more demure lady, remove her sarcastic wit, drop her Brooklyn accent, dress her up in longer skirts, and make her glasses round because they claimed “sharp objects frighten children.” And how many cartoons at the time featured characters with long pointy swords?

They took a series that played brilliantly to both adults and kids and lobotomized it with the same cartoon formula you could find on many other shows. Since the show was such a huge hit, the property had to be protected, and by protected, I mean have all the edges sanded off and turned into something as inoffensive as possible so the gravy train doesn’t stop. Straczynski refused to be a party to it and quit.
The second season opener, “Baby Spookums” showed the problems right off the bat. A “baby” ghost wanders into the living world and the Ghostbusters decide to keep it around for a while. Then the parents show up from the same alternate dimension, but will the Ghostbusters recognize they’re just looking for their baby and not bust them? Will Slimer get along with baby Spookums? Will they find baby Spookums when he runs away from the firehouse? Having seen this plot so many times before, do I even care?

The second season was also marked by Lorenzo Music’s departure from the role of Peter. Apparently, Bill Murray was puzzled why they didn’t just use someone that sounded like him and not like Garfield, so Dave Coulier came on board and did basically a jocular Bill Murray impersonation for the rest of the series. Unfortunately, it also took away the cynical edge Music gave the character. The antagonism between Peter and Slimer also evaporated, as Peter began calling Slimer “spud” and acted just like an older pal to him.

This is where the show mostly died for many fans. It became more of a typical Saturday morning cartoon, for good or ill. That means kid characters get to help save the day, as the Junior Ghostbusters did in “Halloween II 1/2” and “The Bogeyman is Back.” We even get stories featuring babies, as in the aforementioned “Baby Spookums” and “Three Men and an Egon.” (Cartoons sometimes do “baby” shows, don’t ask me why) The show’s producers also tried introducing a big bad overlord for the guys to fight called the Ghostmaster, but he was written out after two showings. “Jailbusters” has the guys put on trial by ghosts, but a great premise is undone by too much silliness. Even bringing back our favorite environmental bureaucrat Walter Peck was a flop, as the episode “Big Trouble With Little Slimer” ended up focusing on his efforts to capture Slimer, with an ending that had the Ghostbusters mourning over a possibly destroyed Slimer (He gets better). A sentimental ending over Slimer is definitely not what I look for when I want to watch Ghostbusters.

Still, the later episodes weren’t all bad. One of my favorites was the third season “Flip Side,” where Peter, Ray and Egon get sucked into an alternate dimension inhabited by ghosts, and it’s the living who get busted! In “Standing Room Only,” the gang has to confront a giant ghost-eating entity named Mee-Krah that is headed for New York City. There were also funny spoofs of the Simpsons in “Guess What's Coming to Dinner” and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in “Mean Green Teen Machine.” “The Halloween Door” has Peter get some humorous revenge on Slimer for all the slimings he’s endured. The shows’ producers also convinced Straczynski to contribute a few scripts, which he did provided he could write the show again on his own terms. He even explained Janine’s abrupt change in character as the doings of a ghost disguising itself as a fairy godmother who altered Janine’s appearance in “Janine, You’ve Changed.”

The Real Ghostbusters was one of my earliest regular appointment viewings on weekday afternoons. It was funny, adventurous, scary, and sometimes even touching. I could not recommend the first season more wholeheartedly. It’s ironic that the series got crippled by bureaucracy, the same nemesis that plagued the Ghostbusters in the first movie.
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Sunday, March 30, 2014

My Favorite Films: Disaster Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts?
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Friday, March 28, 2014

Film Friday: Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts?
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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Noah... This Is God. Riiiiight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts.
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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Toon-arama: Samurai Jack (2001-2004)

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

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

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

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

Thoughts?
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Sunday, March 23, 2014

My Favorite Films: Foreign Films

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

** this list does not include Anglo-countries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

I do wish I liked Lost in Translation better.

Thoughts?
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Friday, March 21, 2014

Film Friday: The Last Stand (2013)

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

Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts?
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Thursday, March 20, 2014

An Update

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