Monday, March 2, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: Cannon Films

by Jason

In the 80s, Cannon Films was the undisputed king of the action B-movies. Much like Carolco, Cannon knew its audience and went for it, only Cannon turned out many more films, with budgets that weren’t exactly top-dollar, and the movies could be pretty bad, if not trashy. They made big explosive action films that also played well in international markets, while occasionally pursuing prestigious projects. The same studio could put out Runaway Train, an acclaimed action film based on an Akira Kurosawa script, or it could release a flick about Kathy Ireland falling into the depths of the Earth to find an underground civilization in Alien from L.A. Today, Cannon is pretty much a memory, but a fond one for many moviegoers of that era.

Who Were They?

Cannon started out in 1967, founded by Dennis Friedland and Chris Dewey. In the 1970s the studio mostly put out foreign films, comedies and exploitation flicks. The studio hit hard times and in 1979 the duo sold Cannon to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, two Israeli-born cousins who were also filmmakers. Golan and Globus then proceeded to turn Cannon into a B-movie powerhouse with a few deft moves. Paramount had released the Charles Bronson revenge flick Death Wish, but Cannon decided to turn it into a franchise, so they signed Bronson for what became four sequels. The studio also collaborated frequently with martial arts star Chuck Norris and struck gold with the Missing in Action series and the original Delta Force. The cousins also got Sylvester Stallone for the hit movie Cobra. In all, it added up to a successful combination.

What Were They Known For?

Action B-movies, mostly featuring Norris and Bronson, and on a few occasions Stallone. But text can’t capture what Cannon was about better than this rockin’ promo: LINK.

Still, that may be selling Cannon’s catalog short, for they also had a good repertoire of comedies and even musicals. Ever wonder where the weirdly-titled Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo came from? Both Breakin’ movies were released by Cannon. The studio also released the teen cult classic The Last American Virgin. Cannon also had its share of prestige movies. Runaway Train was a big hit and snagged Oscar nominations for stars Eric Roberts and Jon Voight. The studio also distributed a number of foreign-made films like Otello, some of which would go on to critical success.

The Studio’s Peak Moment

Arguably 1984-early 1986, when many of their bigger hits were released, such as the two Breakin’ movies, the Chuck Norris headlined Missing in Action flicks, up to Norris’ Delta Force. After DF, the studio’s fortunes started plunging.

The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie

Superman IV. Cannon had scored a big coup in getting the film rights to Superman after Superman III underperformed, and even better in getting Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman back to do the film. Unfortunately, the end result was a mess, as Cannon robbed most of the film’s budget for its other projects, leaving sub-par special effects and a movie that was severely cut down.

Robotech fans may count the very limited release of Robotech: The Movie as their pick for Cannon. The original series was a splice of three anime shows produced by Harmony Gold, and the same company attempted to adapt a straight-to-video anime called Megazone 23, but the studio ordered more changes and cuts, and the result was a disaster that disappeared from theaters quickly and today still has no VHS or DVD release.

Over the Top raises eyebrows because it’s a Stallone movie about…arm wrestling.

Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo is notorious for just its perplexing title.

The Studio’s Up and Comers

Jean Claude Van-Damme. The “muscles from Brussels” got his film career launched thanks to Cannon. The studio had planned to make a sequel to their Masters of the Universe film by setting it on a post-apocalyptic earth. At the same time, the studio was planning a Spider-Man film, to the point that costumes and sets were built for both movies. However, both projects fell apart, and director Albert Pyun quickly wrote a script based on the props and materials created for the two movies, and the result was the Van Damme vehicle Cyborg. Cannon would also release the Van Damme martial arts flicks Bloodsport and Kickboxer. In fact, Van Damme had an uncredited role as a dancer in Breakin’.

Michael Dudikoff may count if you consider the American Ninja flicks, but he pretty much stayed in the B-movie ghetto and never became a major star.

Movie tough guys Danny Trejo and Tommy "Tiny" Lister also made their feature debuts in the critically acclaimed Runaway Train. These two would have a long trail of credits to follow.

Finally, Morgan Freeman, two years before his breakout roles in Driving Miss Daisy and Glory, received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for his role in the 1987 Christopher Reeve headliner Street Smart.

Notable Movies.

Cobra, Death Wish II-IV, the Missing in Action films, the Ninja films, Delta Force, Masters of the Universe, Cyborg, Superman IV, Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Breakin’, Breakin II: Electric Boogaloo, The Last American Virgin, Exterminator 2, Robotech: The Movie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Kinjite: Forbidden Objects, Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, Invaders From Mars (1986), Runaway Train, King Solomon’s Mines (1985), Firewalker, Invasion U.S.A., Lifeforce, Alien from L.A., Behind Enemy Lines, Otello, 52 Pick-Up, The Hanoi Hilton, Appointment with Death, The Assassination, Hero and the Terror, and Platoon Leader.

What Killed the Studio?

Making too many movies.

Cannon put a lot of projects in the pipeline. In 1985, Cannon released 16 movies. In 1986, 15. For 1987, they released 23. It got to the point where they were releasing films week by week. From January 30, 1987 to February 13, Cannon released a movie each week.

Cannon had so many movies in production that it started choking off their finances. This came at a horrible time, as Cannon had just secured the rights to make a fourth Superman movie. Cannon partnered with Warner Bros to make the movie, and WB put in around 37 million…which Cannon promptly took, distributed most of it to other projects, and left Supes with just 17 mil. The financial drain also impacted shooting of the final battle sequence in Masters of the Universe, causing it to shut down before it could be completed; it was finally patched up two months later on a different soundstage. The impact also destroyed a proposed Spider-Man adaptation, although we can be thankful it went nowhere as Golan and Globus had no idea what the character was really like and thought it was about a giant tarantula.

Cannon was on the verge of entering the comic book movie market and had it succeeded it could have saved the studio. Instead Cannon choked on too many projects. The failure to create a breakout hit plus the cooling of the film market took its toll. The action B-movie was beginning to wane, and with the rise of straight-to-video, making cheapies for the big screen wasn’t as practical any more. Add to that, Norris and Bronson had been playing more or less the same roles for too long, and audiences weren’t as interested any more, going instead to see newer guys like Willis and Seagal. Ironically, Cannon’s television division would help transition Norris from the big to the small screen by producing the first three episodes for Walker: Texas Ranger before the company went under.

Cannon was taken over by the Italian company Pathé Communications, allowing the studio to continue into the early 1990s, but the studio was a husk of its former self. Their releases barely made a blip; most of them didn’t break a million at the box office, and some just went straight-to-video. By 1994, the studio was dead.


Menahem Golan continued making movies post-Cannon, including Bronson’s final theatrical movie, Death Wish V. Golan died in 2014. After Cannon folded, Globus returned to Israel and has worked in that country’s film industry since.

The studio is still fondly remembered today. With costs of filmmaking having risen so high, ironically it has helped resurrect B-movie making in certain quarters with the use of “found footage” flicks or CGI effects to help shave down costs. And the growth of the international film market has caused many studios to gear their own releases for what foreign audiences want as much as Americans’. Current mini-major giant Lionsgate has recently released a number of Stallone-Schwarzenegger flicks like Escape Plan and the Expendables franchise, serving a niche action market much the way Cannon did with Norris and Bronson.

So what is your favorite Cannon picture? What do you think of the studio? Any other thoughts?
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Monday, February 23, 2015

The Best of Reality TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything I missed?
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Friday, February 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Transcendence Didn’t Work

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: New Line Cinema

by Jason

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

Who Were They?

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

What Were They Known For?

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

The Studio’s Peak Moment

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

The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie

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

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

The Studio’s Up and Comers

Quite a few, actually.

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

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

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

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

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

Notable Movies.

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

What Killed the Studio?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, this was not going to end well.

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

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


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

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

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

Film Friday: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

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


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

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

Why This Film Worked

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

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

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

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Biopics: Why Some Work and Some Don't

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, February 6, 2015

Film Friday: Divergent (2014)

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

The Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Mini-Major Discussion: Carolco Pictures

by Jason

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

Were They?

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

What Were They Known For?

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

The Studio’s Peak Moment

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

The Studio’s Most Notorious Movie

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

The Studio’s Up and Comers

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

Notable Movies

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

What Killed the Studio?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

So what is your favorite Carolco picture? What do you think of the studio? Any other thoughts?
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Friday, January 30, 2015

Film Friday: 12 Years A Slave (2013)

12 Years A Slave is an historical drama based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a New York-born free black American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South in 1841. Like Lone Survivor, this is an excellent and intense film which I would prefer never to see again.


12 Years A Slave begins by introducing Solomon Northup’s life in New York. This moment of the film is perhaps a little idealized with the whites around him being too colorblind compared to their historical counterparts, but the film nevertheless conveys the foundation of a smart, talented and competent man -- a man who would in other contexts be considered the type of solid American who made America great – who has established a happy, respectable family life in New York. Helping this presentation is the truly compelling screen presence of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. Ejiofor is an actor who easily conveys emotion and inner thoughtfulness.
Northup is a musician and finds himself approached by two men who claim to be looking for a musician to accompany them to Washington. Northup could use the money and it’s only for two weeks, so he agrees. Things appear to go well until Northup wakes up in a cell in Washington, D.C. He has been drugged and he wakes up with several other blacks who appear to be runaway slaves or, like him, kidnapped freemen.

Helpless to free himself, Northup is smuggled to Louisiana where he is sold to his first slave master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Northup is forced to go by the name Platt, and has been warned never to share the truth of what happened to him or he would never escape.
Northup impresses Ford with his intelligence and wins him over. He tells Ford what has happened, but Ford is unable to free him because of debt concerns. Unfortunately, Northup also makes an enemy of a white plantation enforcer (Paul Dano) at this point and Ford is forced to ship Northup to another plantation to hide him. He believes he has chosen well, but the new owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is a sadistic owner who believes that he has a Biblical obligation to own slaves.

On the surface, Epps seems respectable, but things are not as they seem. He repeatedly rapes one of his slaves and eventually has a child with her, despite the fury of his wife. He also abuses the other slaves out of frustration at his inability to stand up to his wife’s abuses of the slave with whom he is sleeping.
Finally, Northup meets a Canadian builder (Brad Pitt) who convinces him that he can contact Northup’s friends in the north and have him freed. I’ll leave the rest up for you.

Why This Film Works

This film works on many levels. It is an excellent period piece, done in such a way that it truly feels like you are getting a glimpse into a world long gone. It has beautiful cinematography. Indeed, some scenes are shot as beautifully as if you were watching a National Geographic Channel travelogue. It has an excellent ensemble cast who actually fit their roles for once, rather than being wedged into roles just to get their names in the credits.
What ultimately makes this film work, however, is the excellent way this film presents its material. First off, there is nothing in this film that anyone who is aware of slavery doesn’t already know. So the film is not relying on presenting something new or fresh. What it does instead is present things we already knew about in a way that is both realistic and graphic, and thus very visceral. However, the director also smartly uses cutaways to shield the audience from much of the horror. This makes the horror more palatable.
In fact, these cutaways are genius. By cutting away at these points, the film seems to spare the audience by telling the audience that they don’t need to see this play out to understand how horrific it was. Yet, at the same time, cutting away openly reminds the audience of how horrible this was and it is essentially telling the audience that what they would see would be too graphic for them to take. In effect, in appearing to spare the audience and avoiding a charge that the violence was gratuitous, the director actually ingeniously highlights the violence and makes it seem all that much stronger. Indeed, as an aside, while the film doesn’t show much of the horror, you still hear it and will see it your mind. We’ve noted before how powerful this technique can be.

The other thing the film does, and perhaps the most important point, is that it seems to make no comment on what is going on. The film tells the story as it happens, lets each character speak his or her mind, and then leaves it up to the audience to decide whether what is going on is evil or justified, and whether these people are good or bad. Even with the slaves, the film doesn’t do the Politically Correct thing and make them all angelic as it demonizes the whites. To the contrary, the film makes it very clear that there are good and bad people all around and that, many times, those people get swept up in events.
The end result of this approach is a truly gripping and compelling film. As with Lone Survivor, this film produces an incredible array of strong emotions. You feel true hatred for the people who have done this and anger that they did this in our country. You feel despair for the hopelessness of some people. You feel contempt for some who would not do what they could to help. And in the end, you feel a great deal of pride that Northup survived this ordeal, that others did stand up to help him, and that we went to war to end slavery.

All that makes this film worth seeing: great actors, great direction, gripping emotional script, and a film that rises far above the generic crap being put out today. But again, as with Lone Survivor, this is a difficult film to watch because it is so disturbing to think this really happened and that people can treat each other this way, and I would not like to see the film a second time.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Film Friday(-ish): The Gathering Storm

by Kit

The Gathering Storm, a depiction of Winston Churchill during his “Wilderness Years” of the mid-30s as he attempts to warn Britain about the impending danger of Germany, produced by HBO, and starring Albert Finney as Churchill is flawed masterpiece. What is fascinating is how it overcomes its massive flaw, which could have easily been avoided, through use of a stellar cast of recognizable faces, especially Finney, giving us one of the most accurate and authentic portrayals of an historical figure I’ve ever seen in a film.

WARNING! The flaw is in the Third Act so there will be MAJOR SPOILERS HERE!

The Story

The genius of the movie's portrayal of Winston can be summed up in the first ten minutes, by the way. A car arrives at a place of the Battle of Blenheim and Winston, darkly dressed in suit and hat with a cigar in his mouth, steps out of the car to swelling music, giving us. Walks up to a hill and imagines of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, on horseback leading the British army amidst all the battle’s horrors to the stirring strings of "Rule, Britannia”. As cannon balls explode around him, Marlborough turns his head to Winston and they make  —and Winston wakes up nude at his Chartwell home in 1934 and waddles to his restroom (still nude) to take a pee reciting a speech about why giving India its independence would "mark the downfall of the British Empire."

And we get a glimpse of his bare buttocks as he walks over to the restroom. It's not the prettiest sight. Winston Churchill is at the nadir of his political career. His position on his party’s India policy has made him politically isolated, his finances are in trouble due to the loss of much of his wealth in the Stock Market Crash of 1929, his relationship with his older children is strained and his wife Clemmie seems to be barely keeping the family together, and he suffers commonly from what he and his wife call his “black dog days”. His primary joy seems to his current book about the aforementioned Duke of Marlborough that he dreamed about. And painting watercolors.

Winston is in this state when Desmond Morton, a civil servant at the Foreign Office, arrives at Chartwell with information on Germany’s rearmament. Winston, equipped with this information begins making speeches to Parliament on the issue. Morton also brings in a young man working at the Foreign Office with access to much better information about Nazi Germany than him named Ralph Wigram. Wigram, who despises the Nazi ideology due to having a son with cerebral palsy, reluctantly agrees to break the law by “stealing classified documents and giving them to someone who has no right to use them.”

The second act takes the following course; Clemmie soon departs on a safari leaving Winston to run the house alone. A task to which he is not as well-suited, struggling to deal with family issues and problems with a landscaping project at Chartwell.

Winston uses the information from Wigram well, building opposition to the appeasement policy despite attempts by Stanley Baldwin to undermine him by getting people in his constituency to attack him.

Wigram, however, who in one scene admits to Winston that he is a “worrier” who is concerned about his job and his family, which is dependent upon his job, slowly begins to despair as he sees the Nazi’s building continuing unabated and feeling stress about the possibility of losing his job over what the help he is giving to Winston (which would trouble for his family). He begins to have doubts about what they are doing and whether or not it will work at all. Th stress of it all is clearly building upon him.

Which leads us to the films biggest flaw. He cracks and dies suddenly on New Year’s Eve and it is heavily implied to be a suicide. The scene and the following two at the graveyard where Churchill comforts Wigram’s widow Ava and the scene at Churchill’s house between Winston and Clemmie talking about the future are well-done and the movie could’ve stopped there, ending the movie on an ominous note.But instead we skip ahead 5 years rather abruptly to September of 1939 when Neville Chamberlain is announcing the beginning of the war against Germany and Winston Churchill is appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. This creates quite a drag despite giving us a rousing coda where Churchill arrives at the Admiralty.

In the opening minutes the movie gives us the stout and heroic Churchill we all know from childhood and promptly tosses it in the rubbish bin by showing us this rather pathetic and pudgy man, who in his words is “witnessing my own demise”. The rest of the movie takes us on a slow course of subtly showing Winston steadily gain the confidence and spirit needed to be the savior of Britain —5 years before the advent of Second World War. A sort of “superhero origin story”, if you will with the Wigrams seeming to serve as a sort-of stand-in for the British people he would later inspire.

This also allows us to feel like we know Winston Churchill better. We see his bullying of his servants but also his compassion. We watch him struggle with despair and climb out of it (albeit subtly). And since much of the movie is of him at home it seems as if we are living at Chartwell with him. By seeing him at his home during one of the worst times of his life we feel like know him better. The result is that by the end I was kind of sad to see it end, I wanted to spend more time with Winston.

When a biopic makes you feel like you have actually spent time with him and you actually want to spend more time with him, even if it is more out of perverse fascination as in Downfall, and if it is at least fairly accurate, then it has accomplished the important task of putting the person onto the screen.

And the cast supporting Finney is amazing. I did not mention them in the story summary because it would’ve dragged the story with parenthesis in every other sentence so here is a list of persons you might recognize (aside from Albert Finney): Vanessa Redgrave (Guinevere in Camelot and lots of other movies) as Clemmie Churchill, Jim Broadbent (Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge!, Slughorn in Harry Potter) as Desmond Morton, Linus Roache (Thomas Wayne in Batman Begins) as Ralph Wigram, Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones) as Ralph’s wife Ava, Derek Jacobi (Henry V, Hamlet, Gladiator, and the upcoming Cinderella) as PM Stanley Baldwin, Tom Wilkinson (Ben Franklin in John Adams) as Sir Robert Vansittart, Tom Hiddleston (Loki in Avengers) as Winston’s son Randolph, Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey) as Baldwin’s lackey Ivo Pettifer, and Gottfried John (General Ourumov in Goldeneye) as a visiting German official. And there are others I’ve probably neglected but those are the ones I’ve recognized from other movies.

So with a cast like that you can imagine the result: Great performances all around. This is a movie where there is not a badly written character.

What Doesn’t Work and How it Could Have Been Fixed

The problem is in the Third Act. Despite attempts to build up Ralph’s despair the death feels abrupt. Now, his death really did happen on January 31, 1935 and, despite being listed as pulmonary hemorrhage, it is widely believed to have been a suicide.
Perhaps a bit more time could have helped. The review at the expressed dismay that Churchill’s “Munich” speech was not in the movie. The movie was only 90 minutes and primarily covers only 1934 to 1935 so maybe expanding it to 110 or 120 might or making it a 2-part, 4-hour miniseries have helped it. Perhaps doing this, maybe as a 120+ minute  movie or as a 4-hour mini-series, would have allowed them to move Wigram’s suicide to after the capitulation at Munich. Film adaptations are allowed to make changes for the benefit of story. Or they could keep it accurate and keep Ralph’s death by putting it in 1935 would’ve made a great point to end Part 1. Or covering all the period between 1935 and 1939. adaptations are allowed to make changes for the benefit of story.
Or, finally, they could have cut the last 5 minutes out altogether. Shorter movie, yes. But the shot of Winston Churchill looking out from Chartwell into the night sky after Ralph’s death is a great one and, as I said above, would have made a great moment to end the series. A bit too abrupt, maybe, and it would’ve cut the rousing scene where Winston arrives at the Admiralty to swelling music we heard at the beginning but it would’ve helped.


But, on the whole, the film is indeed a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one, and worth a watch. The performances are excellent and Finney is so good that I have actually had trouble watching other  portrayals of Winston Churchill because they do come even close to what Finney accomplishes in The Gathering Storm.

Especially the sequel, Into the Storm, with Brendan Gleeson as Winston Churchill. Which I had to quit watching out of a disinterest due to its episodic script ( compared it to a “Greatest Hits of World War 2”) and uninteresting portrayals of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin.

So, I say watch it. 4 out of 5 stars.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Guest Review: Samurai Cop (1991)

by ScottDS

In 2012, I invited you all to The Room. In 2014, we made the Miami Connection. And now, in 2015, I will introduce you to the Samurai Cop. Directed by Iranian expat Amir Shervan, this is one of the most inept films ever made... and it’s a riot! Ever since the Red Letter Media (Mr. Plinkett) guys mentioned it, I’ve wanted to see it. And now I have. Fasten your seatbelts.

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

Pretty crazy, huh? The, uh, plot involves… oh, f--- it. What plot? There’s a Japanese gang, known as the Katana Gang. They’re expanding their turf and our hero cop – the titular Samurai Cop aka Joe Marshall – is brought in from San Diego to kick some ass. The end. Seriously, that’s it. The gang is led by Fujiyama. He has some henchman. Marshall has a wise-cracking black partner, Washington. They have a grouchy captain. Marshall hooks up with a hot lady cop as well as the villain’s hot lady friend. Plenty of guns are fired, though with one or two brief exceptions, I’m not sure there’s any actual Samurai on display. If there is, it’s not from Marshall, who we’re told is a master yet he looks like some surfer dude. Seriously, this is one of the great “so bad, it’s good” movies and I highly recommend watching it with some friends. Smoke ’em if you got ’em!
To the best of my knowledge, Amir Shervan was kind of a big deal in his native land and when he made it to our shores after the Revolution, he directed one schlockfest after another. It’s interesting to watch this movie: it really is a foreigner’s idea of what a “typical” American action film (circa the late 80s, early 90s) should be like. You have the cop, the partner, the love interest, the superior, the villain, and the henchmen. What else do you need? Oh yeah, how about an actual grasp of American culture? Or at the very minimum, a grasp of the English language? The dialogue (such as it is) is so ridiculous and stilted at times, you’d think the film was made by aliens. I kid you not – at one point, Marshall addresses the villains as “You son of a bitches!” The actor tried to fix it but Shervan (who also wrote the film) wouldn’t have any of it.

Matt Hannon plays Marshall. He looks the part but he’s not a great actor. The only remotely recognizable face in the film (emphasis on “face”) is Robert Z’Dar, who plays a henchman named Yamashita, despite being very much American. Z’Dar suffers from cherubism, which is why he looks the way he does. From watching the film, it’s clear the B-movie favorite is having a blast. His is an imposing presence and he takes the material completely seriously. Another henchman is played by Gerald Okamura, an actual martial artist who’s appeared in several films and TV shows. I can’t say I’m familiar with the rest of the cast: Fujiyama is played by Cranston Komuro and Mark Frazer plays Washington. He and Hannon have good chemistry, though you get the impression that the two guys made up all their schtick on the spot. The hot lady cop is played by scream queen Melissa Moore. Uh, she does good work. [smile]
If you watched the trailer linked above, you may have noticed that the color timing is inconsistent. That’s not just the trailer – the tint often changes in the same scene, from one shot to the next. Hot to cold to hot again. The editing is horrible: there’s a noticeable lack of establishing shots, some shots are cut off too early while others linger for several seconds, and the dubbing... oh God, the dubbing. Not only are there frequent sync problems, but Shervan himself dubbed several of the actors. It’s quite obvious, especially when the lines are delivered back to back. Were the actors so busy that they were unable to come back and loop their lines? Or did Shervan finally realize he needed a modicum of story so he decided to dub in lines he felt were necessary for exposition?
I haven’t even talked about the wig yet! So the film wrapped and several months go by. In the interim, Hannon cut his hair, only for Shervan to ask him to come back for re-shoots. Horrified with Hannon’s new haircut, Shervan made him wear a wig. Fair enough. Well, the reshoots must have taken a long time because Hannon spends half the movie wearing this ridiculous mop! It changes from shot to shot and even slips off in one fight scene. It’s un-effing-believable! Let’s see… what else. Oh yeah, the locations. The locations look like the filmmakers just happened to stumble across them. Multiple inserts were filmed in Shervan’s office and one backyard fight scene looks like it was shot in three different places! Poor Mark Frazer (Washington) has several scenes where he isn’t acting with anyone – the director simply told him, “Make a happy face. Now a sad face.” The film cuts from a two-shot of Hannon and another actor to Frazer and it’s obvious his close-ups were filmed out of context. There’s a scene in the police captain’s office where both Hannon and Frazer were filmed separately for their close-ups and it shows. To be fair, this is often SOP when it comes to filmmaking but, you know, most filmmakers try to make the shots match!
The film came and went. There was no premiere, no theatrical release, and the home video rights were snatched up by some company in Europe. So we must ask: who grieves for Samurai Cop? The good news is the film has since been re-discovered (or, rather, discovered by the first time). I don’t know where the existing print came from but for the last several years, it’s been playing the midnight circuit to sold out crowds. Not only that, it was recently released on Blu-Ray with extras. And not only that, there was a rumor that star Matt Hannon had died. His film student daughter found out and Hannon recorded a brief YouTube video explaining that he’s very much alive. And not only that, currently shooting in Los Angeles: Samurai Cop 2!! That’s right – the original gang is back together for a sequel!! I’m not familiar with the filmmakers but they promise to make a real movie this time, but with some inside jokes for fans. Hannon and Frazer are joined by a trio of porn stars (whose names I may or may not have recognized)... actress Bai Ling... The Room’s Tommy Wiseau (!)... and George Lazenby (!!). I don’t know what to expect but I’ll be there on opening night!

If you love bad movies, I can’t recommend this highly enough. If you value things like story and character, not to mention semi-decent camerawork and sound, then maybe it’s not for you. Hannon was recently interviewed by the RLM guys and he comes across as a cool guy who’s just as baffled about all this as I am. I wish him the best of luck.

“What happened? Are you out or in?”
“Baby, I'm always in.”
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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Kubrick: Will Dr. Strangelove Survive The Test Of Time?

Some time ago, I ran across an article which opined that Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic Dr. Strangelove would remain popular forever. I don’t buy it... not at all. To the contrary, I think Dr. Strangelove and Kubrick are both fading fast.

The article in question begins with the author stating that Dr. Strangelove is now 50 years old and just happens to be a film the author “constantly revisits” as a “favorite cinematic exercise in Kubrick’s storied career.” The author then notes that the purpose of their article is to “highlight those elements” of the film which provide the film with “its continued relevance to a post-Cold War society” and basically to explain why this film will remain popular forever.

Ultimately, however, the author comes up with little to nothing. Indeed, while at first glance the author appears to identify several elements which could arguably support the idea that the film could remain relevant and funny to future generations, it quickly becomes obvious that the author has simply repeated one idea over and over and over: this film will last forever because Kubrick used dark humor to parody something which scared the author and his friends... the potential of nuclear war being caused by crazed (American) leaders. But that point is a faulty point.

Here are the arguments given by the author:
(1) Kubrick’s use of humor and satire to tell a Cold War story was bold and innovative... a Cold War story, people!... a scary Cold War story about nuclear war!!... told with humor!! That’s fricken BOLD!!;

(2) Kubrick did this when Cold War saber-rattling was at its worst and terrified us all, ergo it was SUPER BOLD;

(3) the book this film was based on was a serious book, but Kubrick turned it to satire... a BOLD choice!!!; and

(4) Kubrick pokes fun at the military’s “mindless patriotism” and suggests that “warmongering is the business of men with sexual inadequacy issues,” thereby turning an anti-military indictment into a parody!
As I noted, however, each of these arguments is ultimately the same idea, that Kubrick was brilliant to use parody to address a topic which scared us then and continues to scare us today. But that’s wrong. Indeed, for his thesis to work, the author assumes that we are all terrified by the idea of crazed, incompetent Americans starting an insane nuclear war with the Russians. But that’s just not true.

The Cold War is dead and gone and younger generations don’t care about it. It is ancient history to them. They do not hate or fear the Russians, they never saw a Soviet, they don’t understand the ideological goals of communism nor have they seen it backed by military muscle, and they never grew up worrying about a nuclear exchange. Even my generation didn’t see nuclear war as something to worry about. We didn’t see it happening and if it did, there was nothing we could do about it. So at best, we were fatalists – something you see reflected in much of 1980's culture. And few Americans ever bought into the idea that our military is bloodthirsty or wants a nuclear war. So the author's premise that these issues resonate with us all is flat out wrong.

Nor can I say that Kubrick has done anything uniquely interesting in attacking a serious subject with satire. The author seems amazed by this, but I can name a dozen earlier films that did the same thing, like Chaplin’s The Dictator. And there have been others that followed, like Spies Like Us. So Kubrick’s film hardly stands out as unique in that regard. Moreover, Kubrick’s parody feels dated today as the modern military simply doesn’t look or act like the one being parodied, as the Russians are no longer the threat they were – in fact, nothing has replaced their omnipresence as an existential threat, and as many of the gags feel like they would no longer work in the age of computers and cells phone and live-satellite surveillance.

All in all, when I look at Dr. Strangelove, I see an interesting historical curiosity that was well done and deserves to be seen as a classic, but has no punch today. There is nothing about this film that feels the least bit relevant today, the gags feel dated and oft-copied, and none of the key elements that make this film work feel like they could happen today.

Moreover, I am starting to see Kubrick’s star fading. Indeed, while Kubrick was once seen as having entered the pantheon of eternity as one of the greatest directors of all times, since his death, he seems to be slipping fast into the ranks of good, but not-divine directors.

Why do I say that? Well, one way I judge longevity is by paying attention to how often films end up on television and how often they get referenced throughout the rest of the culture. A decade ago, Kubrick was everywhere. His films were a regular staple on various channels... A Clockwork Orange, 2001, Spartacus, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, etc. were on every week. Sitcoms, other films and politicians referenced them. They were parodied by other films. New films by Kubrick were an event. And Kubrick’s name automatically came up without dissent in discussions of the best directors ever.

None of this is true anymore, however. Outside of The Shining, few Kubrick films get much play these days. I can’t think of the last politician or political cartoon to mention his films. No one parodies his films anymore. And, since his death, he seems to be increasingly forgotten in the discussion of the great directors ever, with people being more interested in discussing whether Christopher Nolan and James Cameron should be on the list.

Now don’t get me wrong, as I’m sure some are already planning, but I’m not saying that Kubrick has been excised from the culture or that Dr. Strangelove will never be seen again. I’m sure he will always remain on the lists of film buffs and his films will continue to find a home on “classic” channels. But what really I’m saying is that Kubrick seems to have fallen a notch from the eternals to the really good, and his films now seem like a thing of the past rather than an influence on the present and something to be passed on to the future. And like it or not, I just don’t see Dr. Strangelove continuing to relate to future generations as it has no relevance to their lives.

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