Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Good, The Bad, The Crazies

| by Allan Stackhouse |

I've never seen the 1973 The Crazies so I cannot speak of it. Normally, I would absolutely detest the idea of a modern day remake of a classic horror. In this case, no one seemed to care or had even heard of the original. This was of no further consequence considering that The Crazies surprised me with its high quality. The trailer certainly looked very good but it didn't get me in theaters, but if you're keeping track, only two movies have managed to get money out of my pocket since the beginning of my time here at Cosmic Toast Studios: Toy Story 3 and Inception. With its recent release to Blu-ray and DVD, the bar for this year's horror roster has been set. Horror movie vets Timothy Olyphant (Scream 2) and Radha Mitchell (Silent Hill) lead this frightening tale of what could be our government's response to a horrifying outbreak.

While the movie was not perfect, the cinematography, especially for a horror movie was very good. The majority of the first act's shots were done in long focus. Showing this amount of distance and openness gave me the fear that something was just around the corner waiting to attack. Horror movies too often rely on close ups to convey a sense of confinement. Those are all well and good but the screenwriters and director played on the idea of the scariness of farmland. If you aren't scared of farmland, great. For those of us who are, this adds a layer of fear that's similar to the one found in Jaws.

Watching a pregnant woman in danger is frightening. There's just no getting around the innate fear of a person carrying the unborn life of another being attacked. George Romero, in his horror wisdom, understood this in 1973 and it still holds its power today. Horror violence against anyone doesn't exactly make me comfortable and it definitely doesn't make me comfortable watching a pregnant lady fight for her life. If this was the intention of the director and writer, it was a brilliant tool in scaring the audience and raising the stakes of danger. The role does not rest on its circumstances, however. Judy empowers herself, pregnancy and all, to protect herself, her unborn child, and those around her.

The screenwriter and director completely understand the value of foreshadowing and the power it can have in horror films. After Rory is fatally shot by David, a satellite's view of the town says, “Initiate Containment Protocol.” This informs us that someone is watching and it asks us to make the connection as the appearances of the army become more frequent. David picking up the lighter at the truck stop was also very nice. The scene might have held on him holding the lighter a little too long but it still foreshadowed the handiness of his last minute selection. Some might call it a plot hole but I saw David's potential infection from stabbing one of the crazies with the knife stuck in his hand as a clever ruse from the screenwriters. For those of us that were paying attention and worried for David, he turned out to be fine. There's nothing wrong with a little cinematic bait, especially for someone like me who was taking notes during the film.

The emphasis of visual storytelling and almost complete lack of exposition was so admirable in this film. In an early scene, Judy reaches across the bed. David isn't there. He is working on shaving a piece of wood, a completely monotonous task, to get his mind off of having to shoot and kill somebody. This visually communicates the torment David feels and the concern Judy has for her husband. In this same sequence, another nice use of visual storytelling occurs when Judy passes by a room whose door is open. The crib is empty. She goes down to meet David who puts his hand on her stomach. It might have saved the movie a lot of time to simply cut to Judy exiting the doorway and David saying something about her pregnancy but the results are visual puzzle pieces for us to put together, a form of storytelling that I was not at all expecting out of a horror movie. Perhaps that's not good of me to be stereotyping what horror films lack but it's nonetheless appreciated because it communicates the emotion the characters are feeling in a genre where the default is fear communicated by screaming. In a slightly even more complicated bit of visual storytelling, David's face starts out as clean shaven. Then, throughout the film, it grows and grows. This firstly speaks of stress and then secondly of his obvious inability to groom himself due to killing crazies.

There are classic horror movie moments though. Namely, “You stupid, b-word” moments. The first notable one was when Sandra, alerted by the noise coming from the barn, stands in front of the menacing hay tiller with blades upon blades just feet away from her. I absolutely love these moments because they are the kind at which my dad would angrily yell, “Stupid.” Immediately after Sandra turns off the hay tiller, she drops her flashlight upon hearing her son's yells. Seriously. She just drops it on the ground as if it won't come in handy after hearing someone scream. Even our fair and brave heroine isn't immune to stupidity. After Judy packs, she passes by the nursery and hesitates. She enters and everything is set up for her to have a sentimental moment with the last time she will see this room but in the corner, at the end of the scene, a crazy stands in waiting. We know from her hesitation that Judy shouldn't go in there yet she does. That stupid, b-word.

It wouldn't be a good horror movie if I didn't scream. In a particularly scary scene, David uncovers what is stirring underneath a sheet on a gurney: a man whose mouth has been sewn shut. When David removes the stitches, the man on the gurney utters two frightening words, “Behind you.” Behold the infected coroner who swings at David with a motorized bone saw. I don't want to give all of these moments away but trust me in that there were a few choice moments at which my neighbors probably thought I saw a spider or something with wings.

Rounding up the integral types of scenes are the “F*ck yeah!” moments. Russell, after saving David and Judy, shoots both of the infected on the floor multiple times in the head because he's “making sure.” I, as a zombie movie freak, know the importance of this and it's nice that Russ has this bit of common sense even though he himself is going crazy. A lesser so “F*ck yeah!” moment would definitely be when David rescues Judy from the crazies in the school. He asks her, “Are you okay.” She replies, “No, not really.” Of course she's not but that's an awesome answer. This, besides having already saved her friend, solidified her character for me. While she's not a tough chick, she's got her head on straight and we can tell that she's going to make it to the end of the film.

The unfortunate thing about The Crazies is the pacing. Whereas the movie's conflict is set up swiftly enough, the movie loses steam in the second and third acts. It may have been said in the film that the goal is to escape the area but the result seems to be the main characters walking around aimlessly. Not enough is drawn for me to care about David or Judy other than the fact they survive the longest. The circumstance of Judy's pregnancy successfully did make me fear for her safety but the second and third acts play out so slowly. Scary as they were, I thought there was a lack of connection between the scenes in these particular acts as well. It felt like, “Okay, now they're going to go here and something scary happens. And now, they're going to here and it's going to be even scarier.” That sort of set up is fine when I'm watching the scenes but the result from me watching the parts in between is boredom.

The survival aspect was very similar to 28 Days Later, which I believe was done better than The Crazies. While I did enjoy the film, I don't think a sequel is necessary. You're probably screaming “Saw 3D” at me, which is your right, but unless it's another entity, I'm not entirely interested. 28 Weeks Later was good but essentially the same move as its predecessor. The film had many things that I liked about it but I would have liked the pacing to have been kept at the rate set in the first act. All in all, definitely worth a watch.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sins of the Father: The Empire Strikes Back

| by Justin Thomas |

Are you annoyed with the frequent hints of anger directed at George Lucas dropped in these posts now and again? Are you annoyed with how an attempt to build suspense, to get people saying, “Wow, he really hates that guy, and I’m very interested to know why so tell me already,” completely failed? Are you annoyed with the shoehorning of vitriolic prose directed at the man responsible for two of the largest film franchises in history into essays where it decidedly doesn’t belong? Do you wish I’d just get on with it or stop dropping the not-so-subtle hints?

Wait for it...

Let me tell you, dear reader, what I’m annoyed with, and that’s two little boys who demand a Star Wars movie be on the television at all times of the day and night. Oh, it started out pretty cool, “Hey, look, there’s a bit of nature and nurture in how well they’re taking to Star Wars.” That remained for a month or two. Then I desperately wanted something else to do than watch a Star Wars movie. Anything else. I’ve even worked on some writing, which is something I’ll do anything to get out of up to and including buying a movie theater 500 miles from where I currently reside. Then the questions started. “Daddy, why is the top of Luke’s fighter pilot uniform a different orange than the bottom?” “Daddy, where did Wedge go to college?” “Daddy, what is the socio-economic system of the Wookies on Kashyyyk?” You know, stuff absolutely no one ever needed to know, or wondered about, when it comes to the Star Wars movies.

At this point I feel it necessary to apologize to the dozens of people I know who have been subjected to any thought, question, idea, feeling, rant and/or terse e-mail sent regarding the Star Wars film franchise. If I was as bad with the questions, I’ve really annoyed a lot of people.

But let me tell you something else that annoys me and that’s the continual defiling of the Star Wars film franchise by the man responsible for its existence. “Here we go, more Lucas bashing...” Yes and no.
Mostly yes. Okay. Completely yes.

The most-recent viewing of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back Version 2.4 got me worked up. During Vader’s teleconference with the Emperor, the newest version of the movie would make one believe Vader was on the hunt for Skywalker but didn’t know he was the Son of Skywalker. I need to break that down a bit.

Someone named Skywalker blew up the Death Star.

The Empire completely mobilized its fleet to find the Rebels and, specifically, someone named Skywalker.

Darth Vader said something like “the Rebels are there and I’m certain Skywalker is with them” so finding Skywalker was of greater importance than finding the Rebels.

But it wasn’t until after the Battle of Hoth when the Emperor informed Darth Vader that Skywalker is the Son of Skywalker. We are to believe everything up to that point was just Darth Vader searching for someone named Skywalker without knowing Skywalker was someone’s son even though every male in that universe, save Anakin Skywalker, had a father and was therefore someone’s son. Vader expresses amazement during the conversation as though he had no idea and the Emperor advises him to search his feelings. Then we get the if he could be turned, he’ll join us or die, blah, blah, blah father-son crap to end the conversation.


Just how stupid is Darth Vader? If the entire saga is watched Episodes I-VI, as I believe we’re to watch them, then Darth Vader is a complete moron. Look, Chief, the dude has your name and was raised on your familial farm by your half-brother and his wife! How can those dots not be connected?
Or how stupid does George Lucas think we are as an audience? Do we really need such a ham-handed handling of the reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father in the same movie an hour before the reveal of the single-greatest bombshell in the history of the movies? Are we that dumb that if we’ve watched the movies in order, we won’t know the kid named Luke, born to Padme, fathered genetically by Anakin Skywalker, isn’t Darth Vader’s son? Is that telling of something already shown quite clearly in the other movies necessary? Set aside for a moment the new conversation is nowhere near as good as the original nor is matching the Emperor in Episode V to the Emperor in Episode III any more necessary than having Ewan McGregor reshoot all the Alec Guinness scenes to match. It’s absolutely terrible storytelling and illustration of nothing but contempt for the audience and its intelligence.

It isn’t nitpicking because it’s a huge deal. In the context of the saga it’s a huge moment and one that sabotages the contract between the filmmaker and his audience where one side doesn’t care for the other. How on Earth can someone think it’s an improvement by spoon feeding information a three-year-old already knows if they’ve watched the saga in order?

It’s the right of the artist to finish a work when the artist feels it’s finished, but being the audience of this work of art and seeing it continually changed by someone who has lost sight of what the art means and how to execute that art is difficult. The dude’s done. He has no idea what he’s doing and is so wrapped up in “Well how did Vader know Luke’s his son” that he has lost sight of how asking that question of one moment in one film completely ignores whether the arc of the saga answers it.

The version of The Empire Strikes Back released in 1980 was perfect. There isn’t a single problem with it, it’s a gorgeous movie, there isn’t a single boring shot and it’s an incredible Act II in the three act Original Trilogy. It made the Star Wars franchise. I really wish George Lucas would watch the damn movies before deciding to change something like The Empire Strikes Back.

And I totally know I overused the word “annoy” in this post.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Fond Welcome to My World: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

| by Allan Stackhouse |

It can be a struggle for me to keep a fresh perspective on films. If I don't watch something opening weekend, the reviews following a film's release inundating my brain can be like a dark ink that taints a jar of water. Luckily, I had the opportunity to see Edgar Wright's newest venture, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, last weekend. After seeing it, I now liken Edgar Wright as the Pixar of live action motion pictures in his ability to consistently produce high quality films. Justin Thomas has broken down the high marks of Shaun of the Dead and the sheer perfection of Hot Fuzz. It is my pleasure to say that Edgar Wright has done it again. The film most unexpectedly embodied some of my favorite things: kung fu, fabulous gays, and hipster bashing.

I imagine that the majority of people who see the film will be unfamiliar with the source material as I was. The funny bits in the trailers and some nice fight scene clips stirred interest but much unlike The Last Airbender, the movie actually delivers in visual effects and story. There's a million things that are funny, the fight scenes are thrilling, and the characters are so juicy I can't stand it. I can unequivocally say that this movie is for everyone. There's fight scenes for the boys (and girls), a love story for the girls (and boys), and dazzling visual effects and humor for the masses.

Michael Cera. If the discussion on Michael Cera's acting ability was not yet over, let it be over with Scott Pilgrim. The character he portrays is another departure from the awkwardness of George Michael Bluth. Just as with Francois Dillinger in Youth in Revolt, he personifies a lady killer. Not an unlikable one though, he's someone who we can get behind, despite him, at 22, dating a 17 year old private school girl. He may not make the best decisions but he's bright eyed and a good person. The decisions he makes throughout the film prove that he is a flawed character but, with the counsel of his sister, played by the amazing Anna Kendrick of Up in the Air, he maintains an air of determination for what he wants out of life.

Bradley James Allan, fresh off his work on Kick Ass, gives us more of the amazing high-flying stunt work that makes my heart race. Those of us who grew up with anime and video games are more familiar with these standout characters who perform quick and devastating moves. We've seen it on Dragon Ball Z, now we want more movies to do it with real people. Edgar Wright and maybe Hollywood too understands that this kind of martial arts is cool, when done right, f*cking cool. Bradley worked and studied under the Jackie Chan stunt team so he knows what he's doing and how to take it to the next level. Wushu is simply beautiful to watch and these moves in tandem with a brilliant new property AND special effects produced visually dazzling results. As someone who's grown up with Jackie Chan's films, the throwbacks to Jackie's moves in old movies were so appreciated: notably, the boob punch from Armour of God and the girl-assisted fight from one of the three Police Story movies, I don't remember which one.

My absolute favorite fight, even though all of them were terrific, was Scott and Ramona versus evil ex number 4, Roxy Richter. In the scene, Ramona decides to take Roxy on herself, a ginormous hammer that would make Thor's jealous versus a vicious battle chain. The rules of the match requires Scott to defeat her himself and, in a beautifully choreographed scene, Ramona physically controls Scott's body to help defeat her. This kind of choreography not only looks challenging but it adds layers into the story, informing the viewers that 1, Ramona is a skilled fighter herself and 2, she cares enough about Scott to help him defeat Roxy.

Especially pleasing to me was a positive portrayal of a gay character, personified by the third, and nonetheless talented Culkin brother, Kieran. Some might argue that the character of Wallace being so promiscuous does not accurately represent all gay men. To that, I argue that every gay person has a promiscuous friend or at least knows of a slutty gay friend. These people exist and I was thrilled that the movie so accurately and unashamedly included this character as a positive influence on Scott's life. He provided an enormous amount of humor and I'm so grateful that this film exposed fans of comic books and action movies to a gay character that wasn't tokenized. These characters are oft found in chick flicks that and they are often anecdotal. Wallace is caring, honest, sexually selfish, and fabulous. I absolutely adored this character.

If you happen to be a hipster, I'm sorry but I hate you and your kind. I don't appreciate the rags you wear, your lack of hygiene, the veganism pedestals from which you look down upon others, your vocally challenged singers in your bands, and your incessant depressed attitudes. Thankfully, Edgar Wright feels the same way I do. The hipster demon chicks made me laugh so hard and so loudly. The scene in which Scott must pass through the hipster security to get to G-Man's lair was almost too much. To send me even further over the moon, this was done TWICE.

What does work in particular for the film that would not work for the graphic novel was the music. I'm not the biggest fan of bands but this music completely made the film. Sex Bob-Omb is a genuinely good band with a good sound. Selling one's sound to an audience with scenes that are so integral to the film was not an easy task yet it was executed expertly. I wanted Sex Bob-Omb to absolutely destroy their competition. This competition entwining with Scott's quest to defeat the League of Evil Exes was a stroke of brilliance on Brian Lee O'Malley, the graphic novel's writer. Two conflicts are always better than one. Film wise. In real life, that's not so fun.

In this film in particular, the constant vignettes made the film feel more like a video game. I found these additions to form an immersive experience. The pee bar was on screen for all of three seconds yet it serves as another indication to the audience of what is going on in the scene while obviously also providing another layer of humor. Edgar Wright is a master of adding these details and layers into his films and it is something I cannot get enough of. Let this prove as an example that an immersive experience can be created without depending on 3D cameras or 3D conversion.

Unfortunately, in contrast to Justin Thomas' view of Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim is not perfect. Like Shaun of the dead, there is just one particular part that doesn't really make sense. Scott's lack of decision between Ramona and Knives is not only frustrating but did not play out well in the last scene of the film following G-Man's defeat. His decision to be with Knives instead of Ramona was left a little too ambiguous for me. Scott, having fought so hard for Ramona, ends up choosing Knives, and then, not a minute later, Knives encourages Scott to go to Ramona, who we want him to be with and was the point of the film. Indecision at the point of resolution was a really poor choice and ultimately an unfortunate way to end such a great film.

As I'm finishing my edits on this, I find myself wanting to watch the film again. Besides embodying some of my favorite things, the film had a great story, was visually immersive, and had some amazing action scenes. The ending really could have been better but this being its only flaw doesn't make me love the movie any less. I don't have money to be spending on entertainment but I think I may have to buy that set of Scott Pilgrim books that's yet to be released.

Aw, Crap: Hellboy and Hellboy II

| by Justin Thomas |

Raditude and porn are similar. I don’t know how to define either but I know them when I see them, and I know Ron Perlman doesn’t have raditude. Before 2004, I would have said he didn’t have the chops to anchor a $66 million picture, but then Hellboy hit the screens and I have to admit I completely underestimated the raditude-free actor.

How in the world did Hellboy get made with Ron Perlman heading the cast? Who in their right mind thought Ron Perlman would be strong enough to make back the budget and provide some sort of profit? Is Hellboy evidence that people go to see movies, not stars, or is it evidence adapting a property virtually guarantees success of the property even though there are examples where mining comic books failed? Is it evidence everyone involved slightly lost their mind and from the insanity came a movie worth watching? Or am I way over thinking Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army?

It might sound ridiculous but there is courage in how Hellboy made it to the screen. It’s a weird property and one with a narrow target; I just don’t see much in there for fourteen-year-old girls. It has a cast completely free of A and maybe B list actors. It was directed by a director known in certain circles but by no means a household name. Did I mention it stars Ron Perlman? Somehow this seemingly standard Hollywood practice of adapting properties with only known audiences also shows what can happen when risks get taken.

Perlman, under all that makeup and costume, not only brings a character to life but gives a compelling performance in the process. Hellboy doesn’t fit in but wants to when we meet him in the first film and by the end of Hellboy II he’s decided to stay with the freaks. The man-boy nature of Hellboy comes through it all and that’s the strength of Perlman as an actor. Does he pull off Hellboy so well because he can identify with being not normal in appearance? Is Perlman actually a freak who ages emotionally at a much slower rate than normal people? I don’t think that’s the case but he connected with something in the character. Hellboy is a difficult character to pull off convincingly but Perlman does and his performance is proof movies can exist, even higher-cost adaptations, with someone other than Nic Cage as the lead.

What would Hellboy II be if Guillermo del Toro hadn’t made Pan’s Labyrinth between the two movies? Hellboy II has such a different feel, it’s far more grounded in fantasy than Hellboy, and I can’t watch it and not think, “This is del Toro completely unleashed and, if nothing, else it’s visually interesting.” Hellboy is more for the fans; there are elements of other geek films in it and some of those elements feel like nods to the audience. The entire opening sequence is there for geeks to geek out about. Hellboy II feels more like an examination of the collision of the natural world versus the technological and self-identification, which I wouldn’t anticipate from a movie with the word 'Hellboy' in the title.

While he utilizes CGI, del Toro doesn’t completely walk away from the world of practical effects, and while both are noticeable, I don’t think of them as “CGI movies” or “old-fashioned effects movies.” It’s a good blend of both techniques and utilizing practical effects kept the CGI from being overbearing. The blending isn’t seamless but it’s a lot better than other films. When Professor Broom tells the young Hellboy his story about the Golden Army, the young Hellboy is clearly just a person in makeup. The movements of the mouth aren’t overly convincing but they aren’t overly convincing with Yoda in Empire, either. Would CGI have been able to precisely replicate what a demon’s mouth looks like when a demon speaks? Probably, but I appreciate del Toro’s use of people in actual costumes when others might animate the character entirely because it feels more real.

These aren’t great movies. They’re fun and probably a little disposable, but they also aren’t a run-of-the-mill execution of a comic adaptation. Even with something as safe as going the adaptation route, risks can still be made. Courageous filmmakers can still execute some sort of vision and not fall prey to the big explosions, big CGI, big box office mandates from the dudes worried about shareholders more than character development. If the Original Idea is as dead as it appears to be, at least let people who can execute an unoriginal idea interestingly have a film or two. It has worked with Hellboy so far.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review: Youth in Revolt

| by Allan Stackhouse |

If you were curious as to whether Michael Cera could do anything but that awkward mumbling character, let Youth in Revolt set your curiosity aside. I recall seeing C.D. Payne on a late night show some time ago and laughing to the point where usually only the likes of younger comedians could make me laugh. I put the book on my Amazon Wishlist and it got lost in limbo but I remember being excited about Michael Cera's casting. Now, with its recent release to Blu-ray, I decided to give the movie its due.

The movie delivered. It had humor, hysterics, and material that harkened to my youth. I don't know if women or people who didn't grow up in the Northern California Bay Area will get as much out of the film as I did but it's such a treat when films are about where you're from. The film accurately encapsulated the charm and slower feel that the Bay Area has and the subsequent feeling of needing to escape it. The only issue I have with the cities' depictions is Ukiah. It is not beautiful there. Nothing is there. I recall the people being actually very unpleasant. Maybe they're nicer by the beach. As far as Berkeley, I really enjoyed the small town depiction. Before I was old enough to get into bars, I remember walking around Berkeley with a friend or two and just soaking up the scenery. It does have slow college-town elements that the adventurous Nick Twisp sought to escape.

Michael Cera's performance as Nick Twisp was not the most confident of characters, similar to his previous roles, yet his character was determined and never mumbled. I don't think I ever was so curious about Michael Cera's acting ability that I wondered if he could do anything else. Since everyone else was so spiteful and curious about it, a spark of a question did grow in me but it was answered with Francois Dillinger. Francois Dillinger never mumbled. He was the ultimate ladies man who knows exactly what to say to get what Nick Twisp desires. Such a far reaching departure from George Michael Bluth was a welcome surprise.

The supporting cast was a little hit and miss for me. The normally likable Steve Buscemi was kind of just blah to me. I did enjoy Adhir Kalyan, Fred Willard, and Ray Liotta but Justin Long and Zach Galifianakis' characters were rather there just to be there. With their notoriety, I felt more could have been done with them. Again, this could be attributable to the need for the focus to be on Nick Twisp but it would have behooved the movie to develop these side relationships so that they would not seem so anecdotal.

The story is somewhat of a coming of age story but in a less obvious vajayjay Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and less over the top than American Pie Vol. 1-11. Coming from the perspective of a young boy whose desire is to lose his virginity, the default method seems to be slapstick. Youth in Revolt goes the route of determination, transpiring in the form of realistic challenges rather than the “You Laugh Now” type. While the goal of losing ones virginity is the same as other less intelligent films, the film rides more on the coming of age wave instead of the in your face sexual wave.

The stakes were constantly raised higher and higher in the film. When Nick's scheming come to a head, they really come to a head. After destroying part of Berkeley, Nick successfully gets himself sent to his father's in Ukiah to be with Sheeni Saunders. Sheeni, upon her grandfather's hearing of Nick's dangerous history, gets sent to a French boarding school hundreds of miles away in Santa Cruz. He drives to Santa Cruz and Nick comes close to his goal but is interrupted by the headmistress. With the plan of going to her foiled, Nick manipulates one of Sheeni's classmates to get her sent back to Ukiah. The plan is successful but the deceit is revealed upon Trent's, Sheeni's unseen until that point boyfriend, return to Ukiah. Nick's initial freedom from his crimes in Berkely catch up to him and he is eventually arrested, though not without a last ditch attempt to fake his own death. As you've read, the lengths that Nick will go to lose his virginity are quite lengthy. These alone are interesting enough but the constant decisions that Nick goes through draws intrigue to his quest.

While perhaps unable to draw the cult following of the book, Youth in Revolt as a film is still worth a watch. If you happen to enjoy Michael Cera at all, you will enjoy this film. His unexpected character departures were brilliant. He may not be in the market to be cast in the next Cameron Crowe movie but I for one am glad he found a role that proved his acting chops.

Hot Fuzz Day Four: Edgar Wright There

| by Justin Thomas |

Hey, Rocky, watch me get from Weezer to Edgar Wright in two paragraphs.

Ooh, how I’ve gone bananas for the Blue Album and wish I could borrow a time machine, skip back to 1994, give my 18-year-old self a copy and say, “listen to this you f-ing moron because it’s going to be important down the road and you might as well learn it now because it might help.” All of this contemporary geek ruling of the world can be traced back to the Blue Album and its message of being okay with who you are. “In the Garage?” That’s where I feel safe even if I’m listening to Kiss and playing D&D while ogling panel after panel of Kitty Pryde. That’s a life-altering message for anyone who remembers a time when there were scary things on the other side of the Berlin Wall and personal degree of popularity to worry about.

Flash forward six years post Blue Album and the Web explodes with a bunch of Comic Book Guys writing about movies and how they remember that one packet of Junior Mints they ate during Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and how it changed their world view.

Continue on as Hollywood abandons the original idea to adapt anything filed under “C” for “Comics” and Geekdom rewards Hollywood with the annual shattering of the previous year’s box office record.

Observe as Geekdom seeks out its Chosen One.

Watch as we go gaga for the films of Edgar Wright.

Damn. It took more than two paragraphs. Sorry.

If you’re with me, you doubt whether Edgar Wright will make a modern-day Bridge on the River Kwai or Taxi Driver. I can’t see him attempting to reinvent himself as the Modern Day Hitchcock even though we were wrong about the real Modern Day Hitchcock and said position remains open. It’s also highly unlikely he’ll be tapped for Sex and the City 4.

An attempt to peg Edgar Wright down might be to say he’s going to be a good Michael Bay, and that is absolutely a compliment. We all want to like Michael Bay but his movies are such crap you have to shamefully admit you like them just like in 1993 when you shamefully admitted to a kid one year your junior that yes, we were playing Risk at Burger King, and that kid announced to the rest of the Burger King, “Let’s go, there are only losers here.” That type of shame. So Wright might be a good Michael Bay and, for that, we should all hug him or embrace his work if suggesting a literal hug is creepy.

Bay shows the same action from multiple angles, insanely quickly, because he thinks it looks cool. Wright must think it looks cool, too, but he attempts to make it serve a storytelling purpose. In Hot Fuzz, Nicholas and Danny hop in their car for the high-speed pursuit we get three insanely quick cuts punctuated with Nicholas screaming, “Punch that sh*t.” Tied to the dialogue the quick cuts of hitting the lights, slamming home the seat belt and punching the gas to the floor serves a purpose and is more interesting than seeing it from a wider angle in one shot. Bay doesn’t put that much thought into his quick edits.

It’s not just the quick cuts where Wright reminds me of Bay and suggests he might improve upon Bay. Wright makes movies for people to enjoy, which is what Bay tries to do. Not every single reference to Shaun in Hot Fuzz is there because Wright thinks it’s cool but because he wants to care for his audience while tying together the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy. The video game noise just before Nicholas and Danny attack the pub? That’s for the fans. The bit of Cornetto wrapper tossed on the counter at the service station? That’s for the fans, too. He’s not pandering to his audience but caring for it, and that’s a breath of fresh air when people exist who hold contempt for their audience. Yep, I’m looking west at Skywalker Ranch with that one.

Wright uses a lion roar sound effect for Frank in the aftermath of the pub battle and gets away with it. Is that him being self-indulgent? Yeah, maybe. A more interesting way of asking the question and illustrating the idea would be to ask, “Do you think Wright giggles when he sees Nicholas write the word ‘cock’ in his official report of the shoplifting sequence,” and the answer is probably yes. That’s okay. It is funny.

If style were the only thing that mattered, Wright and Tim Burton would be fine bedfellows. If making movies for his specific audience were the only thing that mattered, Wright and Kevin Smith are buddies. If self-indulgence were the only thing that mattered, Wright and the Coen Brothers might as well move in together. But those aren’t the only things that matter and Wright shows he’s got the basics down too. Hot Fuzz has a lot going on in it. Not only do we have to learn the complexities of the red herring plot but we have to see the real reasons why the murderers happen and both have to be plausible and not get in the way of developing Nicholas and Danny. It’s all understandable, doesn’t require repeat viewings to figure out and is light years away from whatever the incomprehensible mayhem of Transformers was and how it was filmed, particularly the last battle. He better handled the Hot Fuzz plot than he did the Shaun of the Dead plot and it’s refreshing to see a director growing and not regressing.

You bet I’m silly excited for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Three times in the first 10 seconds of the first trailer, the camera closes in on the characters after a person walking in front of the camera serves as a wipe. And each wipe includes Wright’s signature “whomp” or “whoosh” or whatever it is, and any doubt as to who was responsible for that trailer is erased 10 seconds into it. That’s the mark of a director with a mark or maybe I’ve seen Shaun and Hot Fuzz way, way too many times. I don’t know Scott Pilgrim but I do know Wright’s two movies and I know Scott Pilgrim will be cared for well. Waiting for Edgar Wright’s next movie is like waiting for Christmas morning and August 13th can’t get here soon enough.

Where does Hot Fuzz shake out against the movies to which Hot Fuzz is the two-hour love letter? I don’t really know. It’s a good borderline great example of the genre. I know it’s the best movie Edgar Wright has released to date and raises expectations for his subsequent films. With an Edgar Wright movie comes expectations and so far he’s met or exceeded them. He is the filmmaker I’m most excited about because he makes movies I enjoy and he makes them incredibly well so there’s reason to get jazzed.

Oh, and go listen to the Blue Album. It’s good, too.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Hot Fuzz Day Three: Crockett and Tubby

| by Justin Thomas |

Hot Fuzz wouldn’t work if it were set in small-town Middle America because everyone and their mom packs heat and the cops are armed to the teeth to take down would-be evil doers and their moms. Here in the States, we seem to love our guns and our Second Amendment so a movie like Hot Fuzz isn’t as funny just for the setting if it were Kirksville, Missouri, and not Sandford, Gloucestershire, because it could happen in Kirksville. That’s not entirely true. Nothing fun happens in Kirksville, Missouri, but if it did, then Hot Fuzz could be set there.

Is something lost in translation by Hot Fuzz being a British movie and not an American movie? Probably. People in the know as to who British actors are love that cast – many straight reviews of the movie mention how deep the cast goes with good British actors – but most of them are lost on me. Most, but not all.

Jim Broadbent I remember from the colossal failure Gangs of New York. His Frank Butterman is akin to the juxtaposition of violent American action in a rural English village: Frank is nice almost to a fault but a murderer underneath. I’ve twice seen Paddy Considine but both were heavy dramas so his Andy Wainwright, and the timing necessary to pull him off, came as a surprise. Timothy Dalton I knew because I’m a huge Bond guy but I simply wasn’t prepared for his Simon Skinner and how he could ooze the slime necessary to pull it off. If you’ve ever wondered what the British version of William Shatner would look like, you needn’t look beyond Timothy Dalton in Hot Fuzz.

The rest of the cast? Well, I’d never be able to forget what Paul Freeman did in Raiders but without IMDB I probably wouldn’t know his name. If there is a God, I hope he’s Bill Nighy. That’s all so I have to take someone at their word when they say it’s an insane cast. As good as the supporting cast appears to be the real story is Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and their characters.

Nicholas Angel is the flip side to the Shaun coin: not only is he not a slacker, the job is all he has. When we meet him we’re told, at length, how great he is but then learn he’s lost his relationship and lives with police recruits. When he moves to Sandford, he attempts to perform his job as though it were still London, but it’s not. Then he starts to change. He and Danny find common ground after confiscating Webley’s arsenal so he concedes to a night at the pub, which leads to intoxication and an unanticipated friendship. The deeper he gets into Sandford the more faith he loses and he changes again. Early in the movie, he doesn’t drink but he deals with Leslie Tiller falling on her shears by drinking alone. He stops wearing his bullet-proof vest because the town is starting to get to him. Little visual clues to the changes happen, and when the sh*t gets real, he’s ready to turn into the super cop Danny saw him as at the beginning.

What Simon Pegg does is play Angel as he needs to with procedural correctness in the execution of proper moral authority being the only goal. It’s a narrow scope, but he pulls it off so I don’t question his focus being more on the crime scene than the final break up with Janine because I already know, through the character and performance, that’s just Angel. When he turns into super cop, his voice deepens, his lines become less complex and procedural correctness goes out the window until it’s time for the paperwork. Pegg pulls that off, too. It’s not a great performance, but it’s what Angel needs.

It’s Nick Frost who turns in the show-stopping performance of a complex character and it is, hands down, the surprise of Hot Fuzz. Everything turns on Danny. Not only does he need to be who he is – which is a loveable oaf who never gets to be an actual cop so he turns to the movies to find it and thinks it’s real – but he doesn’t lose sight of wanting to be a real cop. He’s also intelligent enough to pay attention because he says he wants to do what Angel does, which isn’t proper action and sh*t, but doing the cop grind. Then he starts doing it. Watch how Danny changes his lingo after the traffic collision when he refers to how his mom died, from which the death until that moment would have always been, “My mom died in a traffic accident.” He immediately changes it to “collision.” He flips through a police terminology book to get things right. He starts wearing a vest. He pays attention to Angel, wants to be as good a cop as Angel and has the ability to get there. The complexity comes from Danny’s need to remain true to his dad and the lie of Sandford while knowing he can’t, and he earns the moment of firing his gun into the air.

What does Frost do? He acts, I guess, because Danny certainly isn’t Ed from Shaun nor is Danny how Nick appears in interviews. He catches everything Angel says and it comes from listening, which he does well during the first night at the pub. Danny needs to have a sweet and curious way about him for it to work, and Frost can contort his face enough to make it appear as though he’s genuinely hanging on Angel’s every word. Before the showdown, when Danny sits in his car not knowing how things are going to turn out, Frost taps his fingers on the wheel and the anxiety is visible. I wouldn’t have anticipated him having an ability to turn into a man-child and have it work, but he does.

Most of the Neighborhood Watch Authority members have names that describe what they do, and it’s necessary because they don’t each have a great deal of definition. Normally I’d say that’s a problem but in this case they need to be part of a whole and we something to ground them, but it’s really about setting up all the little people just enough for Nicholas and Danny to knock them down later. It’s less about who Mr. Treacher is and what drives him, specifically to the insanity of pursing Village of the Year, but that he’s in the N.W.A. and he needs to be taken down. The N.W.A. is the plot, not the story.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hot Fuzz Day Two: Welcome to Sandford

| by Justin Thomas |

While I’ve never wet myself while laughing, I came close during Hot Fuzz on opening night. Frank and Skinner have hopped into a police car and are attempting to make their escape with Danny and Nicholas firing their guns whilst in high-speed pursuit. A swan suddenly appears in the road. Frank pulls the wheel hard to the right, the car lifts into the air and flies over Sandford in slow motion. Aaron A. Aaronson looks up in amazement. The car crashes past the Model Village. My bladder remains intact but I can barely see through the tears I’m laughing so hard.

Afterward, it bothered me because the first viewing convinced me I’d just seen a well-constructed movie with the exception of the Model Village. I didn’t get why it was there. It was a surprise and I thought they’d missed something even though everything else was so tightly wound. Subsequent viewings showed me Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright set up the joke just fine in the screenplay but I missed the clues.

In the whirlwind trip from Nicholas Angel’s going-away party to his entry to the Swan – the hotel, not Sandford’s Most Wanted, – there’s a quick road sign indicating the direction to the Model Village. It’s not a “Welcome to Sandford – England’s Model Village” but an actual model village. That’s clue one. Clue two comes when one of the Andys tells Nicholas, “If you want to be a big cop in a small town, f*ck off up to the Model Village.” Again, the actual model village. It’s hidden well but if I had really been paying attention I wouldn’t have been so surprised when it happened, and it’s precisely what makes Hot Fuzz work so well in terms of storytelling.

The story, even with its layered absurdity, absolutely works. As with Shaun of the Dead, the screenplay is constructed in such a way the payoffs, both in the jokes and in the story, are established well enough that everything is earned. There are no cheats and it avoids Shaun’s sticky wicket. It is not boring. While the screenplay is the easy target when a movie doesn’t work, typically everyone up to and including the best boy gets the credit before the screenplay when a movie does work (generalizing, I know, but it feels that way). Hot Fuzz is so tight there is no way the movie could work if it didn’t start from a perfect screenplay. (I know, I know, the hoodie infestation subplot fell to the floor in editing, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work at the writing stage.)

I kinda like it here

I’ve tried to sniff out the influence of Monty Python on Pegg and Wright, and I believe I found it in Hot Fuzz. For you heathens in Buford Abbey who might not know, Monty Python wasn’t about jokes but about setting utterly absurd situations in normal, everyday life. Why were there Vikings in the shop selling Spam? Because they didn’t belong there and it was funny. Why set that very American genre of the buddy cop/action movie in a quaint English village? Because it doesn’t belong there and it’s funny. Why have Angel uncover the sinister plot of land speculation, murder and baked beans when the Neighborhood Watch Alliance actually killed people for trivial reasons such as building a house that hardly kept with the village’s rustic aesthetic? Because it’s absurd and, consequently, funny. That’s a direct line back to Flying Circus.

But the sinister plot of the N.W.A., whether it’s what Nicholas and Danny uncovered or doing the necessary things to win Village of the Year, isn’t the story. Hot Fuzz is about getting Nicholas to the point where he says “I kinda like it here,” and everything else is just the MacGuffin. It’s a really fun MacGuffin, but all the sinister plot does is get Nicholas interacting with Danny and Sandford to the point he learns he doesn’t need to be the Sheriff of London. Danny’s a huge part of that but so is the rest of the crew at the Police Station, and once they stop being blinded by Frank, they get in line, become police officers with whom Nicholas would be proud to serve and the put an end to the N.W.A. All the mechanics of the plot do is serve to tell the story of how Nicholas gets comfortable living in Sandford.

Everyone and their mums is packing ‘round here.

Nothing comes out of left field in Hot Fuzz. Everything is set up early and, if necessary, often, so that when the payoff hits the payoff is earned. There are no points where everything gets bogged down for the heavy emotional moment from which the movie can’t escape. It’s similar to a house of cards in that every moment is there for a reason; if one were removed, or altered, the entire thing might come falling down.

The movie opens with a massive amount of information as to why Nicholas Angel is a super cop, but the first time we learn about who he might be as a person comes when Janine accuses him of being unable to switch off. It happens again when Danny tells him to switch off that big melon of his. The payoff happens when Nicholas finally switches off and lets Sandford’s Finest know that, even though manpower might be a bit sexist, he knows Doris doesn’t mind a bit of manpower. It’s mostly character development but it also illustrates how the change didn’t happen for no reason (an example where that occurred would be Norm in Avatar).

Another example would be when in Roper’s shop, Danny tells Roper they’re just looking for the one swan. Later Danny has to tell Roper they’re just looking for the one killer, which is the clue Nicholas needs. Both shots are set up identically with virtually identical lines to allow the audience to make the same connection.

In Shaun, Ed describes to Shaun what the events Z Day will be in drinking terms. Bloody Marys in the morning, a bite, a couple, a little princess and stumble back to the Winchester for shots. “Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?” “Have you ever fired one gun whilst jumping through the air?” “Have you ever fired your gun whilst in high-speed pursuit?” “Have you ever fired your gun up in the air and gone ‘ah?’” Danny describes everything that will eventually happen but it’s not forced or out of context because he’s happened across the super cop and wants to know about proper action. And sh*t.

One more for the road, and it’s a doozy: in the pub, Nicholas wants to know who’s packing, one of the Andys says farmers, who else, the same Andy says farmers mums. Hot Fuzz is so well put together the first person in Sandford to pull a gun is the farmer’s mum.

I think you would have made a great Muppet...

Hot Fuzz picks a moment to get heavy just like Shaun did, but how Hot Fuzz handled it could make a case for Pegg and Wright knowing they made a misstep in the first movie. Nicholas and Danny have that heartfelt scene where they get down to brass tacks as to who they are. Nicholas used to drive around his pedal car and arrest his friends, which built his sense of right and wrong and rule of law. Danny listens, is concerned and knows Nicholas needs to learn how to switch off. It’s a heavy moment because not only are they connecting, they’re connecting over why they became police officers and they both have something ugly in their backgrounds that caused it. Nicholas had a bad uncle and Danny lost his mom. It slows down, the music goes soft, then Danny stabs a fork into his eye with blood splattering everywhere. He reveals the joke and they get back to drinking while Nicholas switches off. Finally. The scene gets heavy but doesn’t last long and the heaviness is countered with a laugh. There in that scene, dear reader, is Pegg and Wright learning.

Morning, Sergeant

During his first run through the village everyone greets Nicholas with, “Morning, Sergeant.” Later in the movie, at least a solid fifteen minutes later, Nicholas chases Peter Cocker through the village and we get one last “Morning, Sergeant,” which adds a layer of humor to the excitement of the chase. It’s so slight it might be easily missed but it also illustrates how nothing was left to chance. It helps make Angel just running through a bunch of gardens more than a boring run through the gardens.

There are two massive sequences of information dump: one when Nicholas and Danny attempt to solve the crimes and one when Nicholas finally meets up with the killers. Both could be squashed by the amount of information but by adding layers of humor and style Hot Fuzz gets away with it. While going through those murdered and the Sandford Bloody Citizen, each character murdered has things that can get a laugh while also describing why the N.W.A. decided to kill each one. Eve Draper had an appalling laugh, the cause of her death sentence, but Danny gives the “fingers...” to provide one for the audience. Martin Blower wasn’t necessarily a bad driver but was unquestionably a bad actor. And the payoff comes in after identifying a plausible plot, Danny gives up and says maybe they weren’t murdered.

And the midnight meeting of the N.W.A.? The chanting of “the greater good” substituted just once with “crusty jugglers” does it. It’s long but there’s a good, non-boring laugh in there supporting the insanity of them killing people because of reasons they think might prevent them from winning the all-important Village of the Year award.

Pack it in Frank, you silly bastard

Wow. I’m sorry about the length of that. I’ll get out of here in a moment.

There are too many things in Hot Fuzz that match too well for them to be happy, on-set accidents. Please note that Frank and Danny wear the same cowboy outfits at the fete they wore in their photo with Danny’s mum. That one might be easy, but the farmer’s mum one isn’t. Pulling off the scenes of exposition isn’t. Establishing a character so well that we absolutely buy that he’d stop during a high-speed pursuit to grab the escaped swan, because that’s also his duty, can’t happen on set. Or maybe it can, but maybe not leaving it to chance by starting with a solid blueprint might help a movie’s chances.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Review: An Unmastered Inception

| by Allan Stackhouse |

This is going to be a long one…

In effort to preserve a fresh perspective, I avoided all reviews for Christopher Nolan’s newest film, Inception. The trailers were all I needed to fan the flames of interest in the film. Killer cast, not a sequel, interesting concept, etc. While scrolling through the Facebook status updates of the Cosmic Toast Studios friends, I came across one on Friday: “Inception was life-changing.” The string of updates that sprouted over the weekend were ones of minds being blown and dreams being amazing. However, I successfully forgot about that update when I watched the movie and Inception, while good, was definitely not life-changing.

A film, in most cases, is supposed to capture your interest and attention at the fifteen minute mark. In some, it could take as little as one (Kill Bill), some as long as twenty (Percy Jackson), and in some, they can happen as late as thirty or even not at all (see any movie about horses or talking animals). My biggest problem with the film was that this moment where stakes are raised and interest is established did not occur until the eighty minute mark. I pulled out my phone at that exact moment in the Arclight in Hollywood because I couldn‘t believe it had taken so long for the film to get going. A film’s set up is integral and Christopher Nolan does this well in all his previous films -- Insomnia, The Prestige, The Dark Knight -- yet fails to do so in a concise or interesting manner in Inception.

Prior to this, the only established motivations are for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb, the main character, to perform the inception that will secure his freedom to be reunited with his two children and Ken Watanabe‘s Saito to make sure he follows through on their deal. I waited and waited for close to the length of a feature film to find out the motivation of all the other well-casted supporting characters and I never found it. Their dialogue toward one another is entirely professional and this did not provide any indication to me to care about these characters or their relationships with one another. Having a professional investment to the point where they would risk their minds is common amongst assassin films but these people aren’t trying to kill anyone.

As a literary piece or a play, exposition is expected and integral. In film, it needs to be done sparingly and intelligently. Inception pays no regard to this and explains not only the endless mythos of entering and manipulating dreams but the story and motivations themselves. Ariadne’s introduction into the team, Saito convincing Cobb to join the team, practically all scenes within those first eighty minutes, and even here and there during the action packed last sixty-eight minutes were long sequences of dialogue and explanations.

The main conflict was Cobb doing what he needed to get back to his kids. I'm afraid I don't care. For not only himself but a group of other people who are not his friends, family or war buddies to take it upon themselves to help him makes no sense. There is no reason given as to why these characters care. It would have behooved the movie to have one thirty second scene in which they were presented with a briefcase of money, a pot of gold, or something to provide them some sort of motivation but this never occurred. Among the wonderfully talented Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, and Dileep Rao, a driving force within all of them was never even so much as hinted at. Even motivating them with the sense that this was a street cred building challenge would have sufficed but we, as an audience, are not presented with any kind of solid driving force until the eighty minute mark when sh*t starts hitting the fan. The overt lack of character development in anyone besides Leonardo DiCaprio and Ken Watanabe was very frustrating especially after coming from such memorable characters such as Heath Ledger’s Joker. I believe Mr. Nolan got the performances that he wanted out of the actors yet there was no reason for me to care about anyone other than they were helping the main character. Which is nice of them, right?

When sh*t does start hitting the fan, the movie does find some of its footing. The last hour of the film did provide action-packed, suspenseful, visually stimulating ride. The characters, whose original assignment was to navigate the uncharted land of inception, turns into a life-threatening race against time. Unlike when under regular anesthesia, the special anesthesia they are under will not allow them to wake up if they happen to die in the the real world. Ellen Page’s Ariadne must navigate the fine line of keeping Cobb’s secret and protecting the others in the dream. Saito just tries to stay alive. Arthur must protect his team. Eames is just there to kick people’s asses and blow things up. Cobb’s motivation, to me, is not motivation. Instead of a staircase, I see more of an onion whose layers are peeled away which is fine for a mystery film but the setup, when finally established, is a survival/action film. Attempts to be both a suspense/action film in the past may have been successful but for Inception, the film flounders as it tries to figure out what kind of movie it is.

Some of the performances, in the few parts where actors were able to perform, were great. Cillian Murphy’s arcs in particular were highly captivating. I do not care for Marion Cotillard. She’s kind of just another pretty faced actress to me and this fact in tandem with her ability to act so convincingly as a villain made me absolutely detest her. I liken her to a Decepticon. It’s somewhat difficult to tag her as a villain since she was not real but she did pose a nice amount of interesting conflict to the team.

This movie did have some wonderful location shots. After hearing that Christopher Nolan insisted on filming in as many different countries as possible, I was practically already in line to buy tickets. Filming in Paris’ amazing architecture and building off of it was simply brilliant. Set design and location scouting is clearly not a problem for Christopher Nolan but these are not enough to support a movie of such great length.

The dreams within dreams storyline did get a little muddy. Since so many other things were explained to me through dialogue, I would have liked more to have been explained as to why the sense of synchronization of escaping dreams was so important to the characters. The limbo level dream’s time seemed infinite yet it and the other three dreams end come at the same time. I understood that this was important to wrap up the story but everything seems to get tied up in a nice bow even though the dreams within dreams are supposed to have slower time than the last.

Hans Zimmer's score completely outshined the film. I'm not a sound person but there were plenty of opportunities in the film where I wasn't paying attention to what I was watching and just soaked up the music. If you happened or happen to enjoy the film, the music in tandem will likely provide you a great movie watching experience but I, as a viewer, cannot depend on a supplementary element to fill the gaps of less than spectacular performances and a story that I did not care about.

Some sequences that I did particularly enjoy were the hotel scenes. As the van freefalls, gravity is jeopardized in the dream in the hotel. Joseph Gordon Levitt masterfully dispatches guards in a tumbling room like a gorilla in a young man‘s frame. The scene looked physically difficult for the actors and stuntmen and complicated for the crew to shoot. But the end result wound up being my favorite parts of the film.

The resolution at the end of the film is so much bigger than the initial conflict that was set up in the film. The idea of their lives being in danger literally does not come until the eighty minute mark. Have I told you that enough times? 80 WHOLE MINUTES!!!! For a lot of films these days, that's right about when films end. The length of Christopher Nolan's movies have this air of indulgence that I absolutely detest. Two hours and twenty-eight minutes is simply too long to tell a story that includes no side character development and a weak motivation for the main character. I walked away from the film knowing absolutely nothing about the supporting cast other than their professions.

A movie relying so heavily on exposition was quite unexpected out of Christopher Nolan. I have seen and enjoyed all of his films since 2000’s Insomnia which all had refined action, suspense, and darkness. In an attempt to veer from the darkness yet still create a mentally and visually stimulating film without the darkness, you would think that I would have responded better to the film. However, relaying information -- and therefore significance -- to the viewer through dialogue displayed such a surprising lack of mastery of the medium. Assuming that I'd be willing to wait the length of a film for the movie to gain my attention and interest was assuming way too much despite a likable last sixty minutes.

PS. Watch Satoshi Kon’s Paprika. Dream crime played out better for me in that.

Hot Fuzz Day One: The Gush

| by Justin Thomas |

Do any defenders of M. Night Shyamalan remain other than his parents and M. Night himself? Can any defense be presented to make a case that his films post The Sixth Sense sniff the brilliance of that picture? Unbreakable isn’t The Happening bad, but it certainly isn’t The Sixth Sense good and each new film gets him one step closer to sinking into oblivion. How close is he to the point where no one gives him a budget to make a movie ever again?

There’s a fair bit of Hitchcock in The Sixth Sense and it isn’t simply the suspense. I sometimes imagine Hitchcock going to screenings of his movies and watching the audience – observing them experiencing his movies – where he does nothing but sit back and laugh because the audience is being played and there isn’t a damn thing they can do about it. That’s The Sixth Sense. That secret is right there the entire time but so many couldn’t see it. M. Night played the audience the way Hitchcock did, but it didn’t take long for him to jump the tracks and at this point I have no idea how he’s going to get back.

Shaun of the Dead and The Sixth Sense have in common being debuts, or virtual debuts, that gave me an insatiable appetite for more. From Shaun came a desire to see what else Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright could do because they came out of the gates with something so well done and so fun, and not long after seeing Shaun, I decided I’d be there on opening night for everything even if they did a live-action adaptation of Angelina Ballerina.

I am glad they didn’t do a live-action adaptation of Angelina Ballerina for their second movie.

Hot Fuzz forces fans of Pegg and Wright to do almost the unthinkable, which is say what they like better, Shaun or Hot Fuzz. They stayed true to what made Shaun successful and accounted for the one misstep in the debut with the result being absolutely pitch-perfect from the sirens over the production logos to the film title at the end. If perfection is the goal – and make no mistake, over the next 3,500 words I will do everything possible to argue Hot Fuzz is perfect – then Hot Fuzz hits it while Shaun can only ever be near perfect.

Maybe they didn’t risk much by staying true to the “formula,” which is making a love letter to a genre while also lampooning it just a bit with the result being a fine example of the genre. How do they get away with ragging on the buddy action movie while making an incredible buddy action movie? They’re learning, that’s how. They’re not running to something else and learning from missteps when they happen. While it might not be as admirable as making near perfect movies across several different types of film, it does let them become very good at what they do. How many filmmakers start well but eventually allow the quality to slide? Why don’t filmmakers get better with experience? Wilder, Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, Shyamalan: their great movies – the ones that will eventually reside in the National Film Registry if they don’t already – came early in their careers and their later work isn’t of the order of their early work.

So shut it, yeah? Stop going on and on in an ambiguous manner and actually say something about Hot Fuzz. You asked for it.

The story? Completely absurd, which Simon Pegg's Nicholas Angel says when he squares off against the Neighborhood Watch Alliance, but it’s also a direct descendant of Monty Python where the situation is the joke. It’s set up, developed and concluded, and there are no cheats. It’s absurd, and that’s inarguable, but it doesn’t cheat. The storytelling? Setting up everything early and continuing throughout the movie where nothing cheats at the end while keeping the audience engaged the entire time is a clear indication of good storytelling. While the Andys continually bust Angel’s chops at the pub, they’re being interesting but they’re also giving insanely important information necessary later in the movie. The quickest way to say it: the story and storytelling work if Danny firing his gun in the air and going “ah” does something other than induce eye rolling, and it was the first time I ever cheered during a movie.

Hot Fuzz might not work if the characters are anything other than completely fleshed out and alive, and the characters might not work if they weren’t performed by a Who’s Who of British Actors. Neither happened because Angel and Danny have textbook character arcs and the supporting cast includes Bill Nighy, Timothy Dalton, Jim Broadbent and Paddy Considine. No Alec Guinness? He was unavailable. Angel and Danny alone are worth multiple viewings to see how characters change over the course of a story.

Edgar Wright twice now has wrangled a Penn/Wright screenplay and made a good movie and it’s not necessarily something he could phone in. He’s developing a style, and it appears as though he wants to have a dash of Michael Bay but actually have it, you know, work in context. He gets something out of his actors because Danny Butterman is not Nick Frost, and Nick Frost wouldn’t appear to be an actor particularly with his penchant for flushing cakes down toilets. There’s so much going on in Hot Fuzz that a less capable director might not have been able to have it make sense, but Wright does and with Shyamalan completely destroyed Wright is the one young working director I need to keep watching because he makes good movies. Good movies, good movies, find a different phrase, but in a world where someone thought a sequel to Daddy Day Care was necessary, the conversation needs to start at good movies.

Ha, ha, I didn’t really say anything about Hot Fuzz, did I? It’s impossible to just cover what makes the movie in a few sentences about story, another two or three about character and maybe five on why Wright’s quick edits don’t make me want to punch someone, so there’s more to come about Hot Fuzz.

There is no doubt in my mind people exist who don’t like Hot Fuzz and I understand. It’s not art and it justifiably was not included among Best Picture nominees when two of the five were No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Pegg and Wright are self-indulgent, but in Shaun they also made the only character defining fart joke I’ve ever seen so for me it’s less a matter of taste and more a matter of ability. If you’re okay with the Buddy Cop and okay with Pegg and Wright, then Hot Fuzz doesn’t need to be The Seventh Seal.

So that’s the opener to a week of Hot Fuzz. Next week I promise I’ll look at as much Igmar Bergman as I can, which is a total lie because that won’t happen. But I’ll get this out of my system. I promise.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Slight Case of Visual Storytelling

| by Justin Thomas |

Want to hear the best feedback I ever received about a screenplay I wrote? Oh, I know you do, so here goes:

“I think if tightened to about thirty minutes the story might make a better radio play.”

That’s totally a compliment if I had attempted to write a thirty-two minute radio play, but after writing a two-hour screenplay, I didn’t take it as a compliment and ran away from my desk crying. It led to an afternoon of soul searching where I decided I wanted to be anything else from a Park Ranger to a botanist. Then, if I remember correctly, I might have spent the evening with a malted beverage and I finally came back around the next day.

What did the comment mean?

First and foremost, that particular attempt at writing a screenplay was a complete and utter failure because a radio play is missing the key element that makes a movie a movie: visuals. Strip away all the other problems with the screenplay, which the reviewer accurately sniffed out, and what was left wasn’t a movie. In its brutality the comment was pointing me to where I needed to go if I truly wanted to be a writer of movies because I wasn’t there at the time.

Somewhere along the line I read a quote from Hitchcock but haven’t been able to find it since, and it goes something like, “anything told to the audience is lost on the audience.” It’s a more elegant way of saying “show, don’t tell” and what it actually does for the audience. In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the characters spend the majority of the movie explaining something to other characters. The exposition never ends. I haven’t seen the movie in years and while I can tell you a few cool visuals, I cannot tell you a single thing about the complexities of the plot because they were all told to me. It is as precise an example of my remedial understanding of Hitchcock’s idea as I can give.

This week I went through four movies and three of the four all have examples of a visual telling a story that a line of dialogue wouldn’t do service. In American Graffiti, John gets pulled over by a cop and they have a little conversation before the cop gives him a ticket; John hands it to Carol and tells her to file it in the glove compartment and when she opens it we learn a lot about John because it’s full of tickets. We learn that he’s always getting pulled over and the conversation just heard was one of many. We learn that he has no interest in obeying the law because he hasn’t paid them. We learn that he’s so disinterested in the tickets he can’t even be troubled to throw them away. Yes, it’s a joke and a good one, but it’s also a visual telling us a story about John. Carol could have said, “wow, you’re a real hardass bad boy because you always get these tickets and never pay, you must have a real problem with the law,” or some snappier variation of the idea, but it’s unnecessary because the visual did the work.

Lex Luthor sends his henchmen to get a Russian rocket in Superman Returns. They do their job and come back but there’s clearly been a problem because their van is riddled with bullet holes. Lex says something like, “trouble?” and a henchman, not Kal Penn because he didn’t have a single line, responds with, “you should see the other guy.” That bullet-riddled van tells a great story about the trouble the henchmen had when they got the Russian Rocket, cutting the need for an unnecessary scene and keeping the movie going. Would it have been a great scene? Maybe, but in my mind it’s better than what they could have shown me just as the shark in Jaws was always scarier when it wasn’t shown.

There are two insanely long shots in Shaun of the Dead where Shaun walks from his flat to the shop. In the first, we see the world as it is before Z Day: there’s a kid outside his flat kicking around a soccer ball, there’s a jogger, there’s a car outside the shop and there’s a beggar with a dog when Shaun makes his way home. All are normal. None have been bitten. The next morning, Z Day, Shaun goes back to the shop and everything has changed. The kid still kicks the soccer ball but he’s a zombie. The beggar walks pretty well as he did before but he’s looking for brains, not money. There’s a hole smashed through the windshield of the car and the jogger doesn’t jog past but sprints past because he’s being chased. These are all stories in and of themselves – how did these things happen, what were those moments when they changed like that we get to imagine – and they serve a purpose in telling Shaun’s story. The world has changed. They aren’t silent moments because Shaun does have a line or two, but the lines punctuate the visuals.

I don’t get Kevin Smith. Never have, never will. I don’t find him to be funny and I don’t care for his filmed conversations, which are different than movies. Dialogue in a Kevin Smith movie all sounds like different characters speaking for Kevin Smith in different voices. I cannot give you a single visual from a single Kevin Smith movie that I remember for its beauty or for what it did to provide information or drive forward the story. There are many, many people who disagree with me and among his fans might be some that say, “Kevin Smith writes incredible dialogue.” To that I shrug my shoulders and say our subjective opinions will never match, but objectively, even conceding he might be good at writing his dialogue, he doesn’t make particularly strong visual movies. Please argue the toss and give one example, give me one example, because I can’t remember them.

Writers of good dialogue can be good visual storytellers and Billy Wilder and The Apartment illustrate how this can happen. Baxter has a key, we frequently see the key, and we see the lengths to which he must go to get the key to the people using his apartment for their ring-a-ding-dings. When Sheldrake confronts him we see it, the figurative key unlocking his future, and we finally see a key at the end when Baxter becomes a mensch. The key is the movie’s road map. Want another example? His bowler hat. Once he started his climb he bought the hat because it showed status. He wore it on Christmas Eve to illustrate he might be a powerful junior executive but he’s a powerful junior executive who’s alone. When he quits, he ditches the bowler to visually show he’s ditching his pursuit. Little things, but those little things are there and they tell visual stories or give visual cues and are from a writer better known for his dialogue.

It seems the pendulum has swung from visual storytelling to filming dialogue with action sequences that look cool with at least one thing blowing up. A way to test it is watch on mute a movie unknown to you and see whether you can follow the story or watch on mute a movie known to you and see what else you learn. Yes, it’s a generalization, but visual storytelling seems to be a lost art and filming dialogue doesn’t fully realize the potential of the medium.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

New Kid on the Block: Percy Jackson

| by Allan Stackhouse |

Since Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Hollywood has become the land of multi-book properties. This year's newest incarnation comes in the form of Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. It definitely follows suit with the long title rule: more words = epic. Hollywood is just going to keep rolling these out. We've got wizards, vampires, werewolves, dragons (even though that's a really hard property to make any money out of in live-action), and now we've got the Greek gods. Sometimes I wish I was astute enough to predict what the next thing will be but I'm sure I'll be doing a big “Oh yeah” for whatever happens to be next.

Percy Jackson is by no means spectacular. Its story is not gripping in the Harry Potter sense but it does tell a light-hearted adventure story about a boy with learning disorders who, upon discovering his father is Poseidon, must rescue his mother after being accused of stealing Zeus' lightning bolt. The film takes its time to get going. My suspension of disbelief did not kick in until the first half hour but when it did, I found myself really enjoying the story. I was expecting to be put off by the idea of Greek gods in present day but the story did not rely too heavily on any previous knowledge of them. The focus remained on the human characters and their roles. It established interest with a rescue story compounded by a specified and limited amount of time.

The unrest that's caused by this theft in the world of the Greek gods is believable but the film fails in putting any sort of weight in the human world. Perhaps the significance was worth being downplayed in favor of other events but, with scenes that tell us the world is in danger, I was left disappointed when the world's rescue comes off as a bonus after Zeus' bolt is returned. Swirling clouds and raging waters are a default modern day option when conveying earthly danger. How about some sinkholes? Earthquakes? Wildfires? Anything that doesn't swirl? These are all small additions that could have visually indicated the significance of Percy's quest.

Logan Lerman's role as a hero was slightly a shock to me. I am more accustomed to his performances as characters with a dramatic edge. In 3:10 to Yuma, he played a kid desperate to help protect his father. In Gamer, he played a hot shot video gamer with a handful of nice arcs. And in My One and Only, he was a curious young artist who was trying to keep his family together. I found his role in Percy more of a Peter Parker type of character but his youth definitely helped sell the idea of his character being in high school. As much as I love Tobey Maguire, Logan Lerman at 18 just sells it better than Tobey at 28.

The Las Vegas scene was completely unexpected and utterly brilliant. Some might view it as a narrative pit stop yet it's helped along with ideas of mystery and indulgence. It held up to the adage I've made that any movie featuring Las Vegas will more than likely be good. Examples: The Hangover, Casino, Vegas Vacation, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Ocean's (all except 12). Debauchery amongst youngsters may not be the best message to convey to today's youth but it is a real one and I'm glad this film had the balls to portray it accurately. The scene made me think about the stuff I was doing when my friends and I were 17 and 18 and it made me laugh.

One thing that I definitely did not enjoy is the hint of tokenism in the film. It wasn't at the Song of the South level but it's unmistakeably present in Brandon T. Jackson's Grover Underwood. There will never be an adequate explanation for me, or anyone with common sense, as to why Percy and Annabeth, the white cast leads, speak proper English but Grover, the black lead, says things like “Ohhhh, what's crackin' y'all?” While this did not happen frequently, it happened once; after that first time, I found myself looking for it and finding it. In the year 2010, this is where we're at as far as portraying black characters to children and the rest of the world? I could go on and on about that and in fact, I likely will in a future editorial.

I was largely pleased with the visual effects of the film. I really can't get enough of watching a wound healing. It seriously gives me chills because it looks so realistic. One thing in particular that I was definitely not pleased with is the hair on Grover's goat legs. If it's going to look that fake, I don't know why filmmakers bother when a costume would have been suitable OR they could simply keep his hooves out of frame or at least make the cuts a lot quicker so I'm not completely turned off by CGI hair. The technology is simply not there yet and I wish Hollywood would realize that and stop cheating the shots. The early shot of Poseidon was an early shot that I was bothered by. You would think that someone would have figured out how to make a giant man walking out of the ocean look realistic but no. It was reminiscent of the original Clash of the Titans.

If you're looking for a movie to stand up against the likes of Harry Potter, you will likely be disappointed by Percy Jackson. However, as far as a stand alone, the movie is pretty good. It might have more to offer to kids rather than adults but, as a man-child, the movie was an enjoyable adventure.

Have You Ever Seen Shaun of the Dead?

| by Justin Thomas |

Mention the Zed Word around me and it becomes difficult, borderline impossible, to get it out of my brain. While I am no zombie movie aficionado, zombie movies became so much more interesting after viewing Shaun of the Dead for the first time in 2005 and now I’m hooked.

I really don’t remember watching Shaun of the Dead for the first time as I watched it three times that first day because I tend to go overboard with things. Shaun deserved the attention then and deserves the attention now as I don’t remember the last time I had such a gosh-wow, what was that reaction to a movie. It was so unexpected, so tight, so funny I had to watch it again to catch things I thought I missed. That type of reaction happens so infrequently with contemporary movies I tend to go really overboard when a movie causes that type of reaction.

What do I mean by tight? There are few wasted things in Shaun. Everything that appears does so for a reason: to provide information, to develop a character, to set up a laugh, to get a laugh or to get the movie going to the next point. “You’ve got red on you,” “the next time I see him, he’s dead,” “that’s the second album I ever bought,” all set up a later laugh or later sequence. When Shaun becomes the running buffet (all you can eat) he makes a promise that he’ll return, further developing his change from slacker to hero while setting up a laugh because he might return and he might be the hero, but his survival idea will consist of eating peanuts while sitting in the dark. No bit is wasted and everything happens for a reason and I can’t describe them all so you might as well watch the movie.

The best example of how tight and well thought out it is happens with how much mileage Shaun gets out of the flowers: Shaun’s relationship with Not My Dad is established when Philip goes around the electronics store to remind Shaun to buy the flowers, when he purchases them Shaun sees one more clue about the Apocalypse, when he gives them to Liz he gets busted because she knows they’re not for her to hope her make her decision, when he tosses them into the garbage to show that he’s done with Liz, and when his mum gets them when they finally arrive at the Winchester thus showing Shaun actually does love her. All of that out of a bouquet of flowers. All indications Pegg and Wright knew exactly what they were doing.

Up to a point. It devastates me to report Shaun of the Dead is not perfect, and the little wart continues to grow with subsequent viewings because the movie breaks down at the end of Act II after Liz pulls Barbara aside and sees the bite. This happens during the first-person shooter/Star Wars bit when the zombies start to break through and the pause afterward, while the zombies should still be breaking through, gets too heavy and is too long. At this point, we see that Barbara still remembers Shaun’s real dad thus further defining Barbara, Barbara and Liz have their moment since they didn’t have one in the previous three years, Shaun and Liz have a necessary but brief moment, Shaun and David have it out, David and Dianne have it out, and the catalyst for Act III happens with David’s death all while Shaun is nearly overcome with emotion over his mother’s death and what he knows he has to do. There’s just too much happening with the walls crashing in and the tone gets way, way too heavy compared to what came before for it to work for as long as it is.

The mistake, even though I don’t know if I should call it that, is having left too many things to resolve at once without having the ability to get away from it with a laugh, a trap they avoided earlier in the movie. After Philip becomes a zombie and is locked in the Jaguar, Shaun and Barbara deal with losing him. “He’s not my dad, oh, stop it, Shaun, no I mean he was but he isn’t now.” There’s the confirmation of that relationship and acknowledgment that someone important is now dead. It’s heavy but not too heavy and they have a wonderful escape in saying there’s nothing left of the man you once loved in there just before Zombie Philip reaches forward and turns off the radio. They punctuate the heavy moment with a laugh and get out of Dodge, which they didn’t do during the standoff at the Winchester. I don’t know how to fix it given how much needed to be wrapped up, but Shaun bogs down at the end of Act II for just a few moments while it had been absolutely pitch perfect up until that point.

From Shaun, one can expect a funny movie, a well-constructed movie and a movie from which aspiring screenwriters can learn not only due to the strengths but the one weakness. Story, storytelling, character development and how to tell a joke are all included and beneficial even with the pacing issue. What I’ve never understood is how filmmakers tend to have brilliant beginnings to careers while losing their way later on, but Pegg and Wright learned from Shaun because they did not make the same mistake twice nor did they suffer the sophomore slump as we shall soon see ad nauseam.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

That’ll Do, Pig: Superman Returns

| by Justin Thomas |

Remember the Cola Wars? Remember a world so utterly cool we had things called Cola Wars? Weren’t they lightyears better than the current Mobile Technology Wars and Cable Company Wars raging across the globe? Weren’t the Clone Wars as depicted in the Prequel Trilogy complete shite? But back to the Cola Wars, weren’t they cool?

Remember the greatest “misstep” in the Cola Wars? I’m addressing the introduction of New Coke on April 23, 1985, where the Coca-Cola Company “improved” the world’s greatest soft drink because that soft drink clearly wasn’t popular enough when it was the second-most-recognizable English word on the planet behind “okay.” Oh, what a blunder! Suddenly, the Coca-Cola Company was the number one story on each and every newscast across the country. For Pete’s sake, a proclamation was made on the floor of the U.S. Senate praising the launch of Coca-Cola Classic! Wilde had it down pat: the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, so stick that in your next generation pipe and smoke it, Pepsi.

For just a second I’ll go with the idea the New Coke thing wasn’t the single most brilliant marketing stunt in history or a clandestine way of replacing cane sugar with high-fructose corn syrup in Coke and say they actually thought the formula for Coca-Cola needed improving. For just that one second, some wonk in Atlanta decided to change the direction of the entire company and “improve” the best-selling soft drink in the world. Why would anyone break something so completely not broken? Conspiracy theories aside, Coca-Cola’s declining marketshare had nothing to do with its taste and was not a key indicator of what was broken with the brand.

The question I ask is if the Superman story has worked since 1938, wouldn’t a departure from the generally accepted story be as moronic as changing the formula for Coca-Cola? I would posit “as American as apple pie” should be extended to “as American as apple pie, Coca-Cola and Superman” so changing Superman for the sake of relevancy to modern society is as ridiculous and stupid as changing Coca-Cola, but for years, they tried.

Between Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) and Superman Returns (2006) some insane ideas were floated for Superman’s fifth cinematic outing. Rather than describe each of the failed ideas in turn you can find all the aborted projects at this Wikipedia entry. Idiots. There’s no other word for them based on those ideas. To those who don’t like the look: if you don’t embrace the suit and want to Edward Scissorhands it, you’ve got no business even thinking about Superman because you misunderstand the property at an elemental level long before you add a mechanical spider.

Want to know why I’d hug Bryan Singer if I ever got a chance? Superman Returns is watchable. It’s not dark and brooding because Superman isn’t dark and brooding. Over him isn’t hanging the path of choosing something bad because there might be good in it. He’s not conflicted, a relic of Generation X or hip like Homer’s Poochie the Dog. He’s just Superman and, for what he could have been given, I’d say a massive bullet was somehow dodged.

I’m not saying Superman Returns is perfect. Introducing the son might help Superman realize he’s no longer alone, but any story continuing from Superman Returns absolutely has to deal with the issue because it’s too big, and for a property so challenged to get right what already exists, adding something so unnecessary is like trying to swim the Channel with Australia tied to one’s back. Kevin Spacey playing Lex Luthor could have been great, but Kevin Spacey playing Lex Luthor as channeled through Gene Hackman multiplied by 10 is excruciating. And, come on, yet another real estate scam? Is that the best storyline more than sixty years of history could provide?

It’s watchable, not perfect and it gets some things so very right that I wish the powers that be would watch only key moments when determining where they go next with Superman. During the plane sequence, Lois looks out the window and sees something blue streak by and it’s just enough out of Kate Bosworth to know she’s terrified but aware something is there to save her. Brandon Routh is Christopher Reeve’s equal as Superman but he’s better as Clark Kent: Routh’s Kent is mild mannered as per the character while Reeve’s Kent was a schmuck and save your cries of blasphemer for when I decide to destroy the Prequel Trilogy. The movie gives a sense of a world that understands what Superman means and how things are better because he’s there even if he’s a fascist in blue tights or, more succinctly, the movie gives us Superman.

Superman Returns is not the Superman movie to end all Superman movies nor is it the Superman movie we waited for all those years. It is a Superman movie that’s watchable if they insist on giving us a Superman movie, and that works fine for me. Now we’re four years past, at some point realizing how much money is left on the table by not having Superman in theaters will get someone jonesing to go at it again and it will be the lost-in-the-woods misunderstanding of Superman that occurred before Superman Returns because the world post-Superman Returns includes The Dark Knight. If anything, I’m glad there will be time between the next Superman movie and The Dark Knight because that formula might work for Batman but it’s not Superman and it shouldn’t be forced on him.

A simple request of anyone wanting to wade into the storm of bringing Superman to the screen would be read the comics before you get going. Know what you’re working with before you work with it. It’s Superman. The property is owed just a little more respect than slapping him in a black suit, filming it in 3D and expecting it to be successful. People take Superman seriously. Well, not everyone.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Where Were You in ’62? American Graffiti

by Justin Thomas

A funny thing happened along my way to giving George Lucas his daily throttling: I watched American Graffiti again and decided against bashing in his brains.

Allow me to explain.

Even though I believe nostalgia is mistaken for belief in the quality of American Graffiti, I’m less inclined to berate the fans of the film or really take Lucas to task for it because of what it is. Nostalgia for that particular time – between the death of Buddy Holly and the death of JFK – seen on screen at the time of American Graffiti’s release – 1973 – would have been understandable and entirely welcome. But before the weighing in of why people should like American Graffiti even though it has more in common with a student film than Best Picture, a few reasons why American Graffiti smells of a student film.

Anyone spending any time watching movies knows precisely what will happen to Curt and Steve after their introductions. Steve is gung ho to go “back East” to school while Curt cannot decide whether he wants to go to school or not. Got that? One wants to go, one wants to stay and character arcs demand they change. I wonder how those storylines might conclude... Actually, I never wondered. That Steve would stay while Curt would go is practically tattooed on their foreheads in their introductions, regardless of what they say, and I knew it not because I have some sort of sixth sense but because they are hard stances early on and the demand they change leaves only one possible conclusion.

To get to their resolutions, we have the inevitable driving around of high school students where they have those insanely important conversations at those incredible locations where high school students have them. (Mine happened in corn fields but they were monologues, not conversations, because I had no friends.) While Curt and Steve do this, we know everything that happens will weigh on their eventual decision: Steve thinks he’ll be okay with leaving Laurie while Curt wants to experience Modesto not to say goodbye but to decide whether he’s okay staying there. It turns out Steve isn’t okay losing Laurie, and Curt loves Modesto, but the adventures of the night will be fodder for his future writing, not the thing to keep him home. There really are no surprises along the way with Steve and Curt.

There is terrible dialogue along the way, though. It’s doubtful the obituaries will list the dialogue writing ability of George Lucas in their leads because, well, he’s just plain awful. George Lucas' dialogue ideas through the pen of Lawrence Kasdan? Awesome. Like, totally. George Lucas dialogue on his own? Not awesome. A few choice examples, ripped out of context, for your enjoyment:

Why don’t you go kiss a duck?

You just can’t stay seventeen forever.

You grungy little twerp.

Well, get bent, turkey!

Your car is uglier than I am!

Okay, that last one is brilliant, but there are real dogs in the film. You know the score: you can type that sh*t, George, but you just can’t say it. Not for one second do I believe a high school student would use, “go kiss a duck” even in 1962. I understand replacing the “D” with the intended “F” would have ducked around with the film’s rating, but even then, find a replacement that can satisfy the ratings board while not sounding ridiculous.

At this point, we have American Graffiti featuring a story as subtle as taking a sledgehammer to a discarded toilet in a junkyard and pretty awful dialogue. In a nominee for Best Picture.

Curt and the woman in the white T-Bird is Lucas making movies, meaning Lucas hitting those magical movie moments certain to delight and entertain. We see her confessing love for Curt, then we see Curt chasing her for the rest of the night. The white T-Bird comes and goes, sometimes Curt sees it, sometimes he doesn’t, but it’s like a huge, huge shark Hooper chases but can’t catch to remind us, visually and blatantly, there’s something out there he wants. And naturally when the phone call happens after Curt’s visit with the Almighty Oz, I mean, Wolfman Jack, he never gets her name or any type of explanation. It’s precisely what a writer needs on his last night in his hometown. On my last night in my hometown, I ate at KFC and got sick.

American Graffiti, from a quality of story and storytelling perspective, is nothing more than a collection of a writer’s memories strung together through a pretty tame and overused story that utilizes movie making tricks rather than movie making technique. It’s not bad but it lacks any type of sophistication and is a film expected from a filmmaker not long out of film school, but that’s not the point with American Graffiti.

It evokes very well 1962 and hit screens in 1973. 1962, for the Baby Boomers, is their time when they came of age one year before JFK and three years before Vietnam. That’s the end of whatever innocence they were going to have, and in 1973, they’d been dealing with Vietnam for eight years and were still two years away from its conclusion. They were still decades from actually coming to terms with that conflict. Even though I wonder why people thought it was a good movie I do not wonder why they liked it, and that’s why American Graffiti will have significance so long as the Boomers survive.

George Lucas had an insane decade. In 1973, he made American Graffiti, in 1977, he made Star Wars, he was responsible for The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 and Return of the Jedi in 1983. For those ten years, he could spin an idea and have it strike the movie-going audience more consistently than anyone else at the time. He was the one on the top of the mountain and it has to make one wonder what happened because he’s no longer there even when he spins out a new Star Wars property. My theory: Lucas was better when he didn’t have complete control and once he retreated to his ivory tower all was lost.

It’s a shame because there was a time when there was a way to get really magical things out of George Lucas. Magical and important things, but it appears as though that particular George Lucas exists, like the Vietnam War, only in the pages of history.

Oh, what a load of crap. He was good, now he’s not and I refuse to say anything positive about the Special Editions. Han shot first, dammit. It completely destroys Han’s arc for the sake of what? What the Hell were you thinking, George?

Where’s the Tylenol?