Most Disappointing Films of 2014

Happy New Year, everyone!  I hate to start 2015 with a negative post, but since I recently wrote about my most anticipated films of the year, I thought I would share a few 2014 titles that didn’t live up to my expectations.  (I’ve excluded Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” since I already wrote about my disappointment with that film.)

“The Rover”

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This one may or may not have been on your radar.  It’s the second feature from David Michod.  His first, “Animal Kingdom,” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (Jacki Weaver), and it was one of my favorite films of 2010.  It’s a masterclass in the slow burn.  “The Rover”…not so much.  It’s hard to imagine a film with so many graphic headshots could be so dull.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Guy Pearce plays Eric, a man bent on retrieving his car from a trio of thieves.  In an effort to find the three baddies, he kidnaps one of their brothers, Rey (Robert Pattinson).  There’s clear conflict, one man holding another against his will.  There’s a certain level of intrigue — we don’t know why, at least not right away, but Eric is fixated on getting this particular car back and there’ll be hell to pay if he doesn’t.  Yet it feels so tedious.  It’s the type of film that’s filled with silences and close-ups of weathered faces, which might speak volumes if we had any sense of what was driving these characters.  Instead, we’re subjected to one grisly encounter after another without any real sense of forward movement or stakes.  It just feels as though we’re perpetually circling the drain.  I really liked the final reveal, when the reason for Eric’s dogged determination becomes clear, but it comes way too late.  Instead of bringing the water to a boil, Michod leaves us with limp noodles.

“Begin Again”

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Here’s another follow-up to a promising debut: John Carney’s 2007 musical, “Once,” was the little indie that could, earning an Academy Award for Best Original Song.  Based on the strength of his first film, I was really looking forward to Carney’s next, “Begin Again.”  Positive buzz out of the Toronto Film Festival did nothing to diminish my excitement.  But sadly, this film is the antiseptic cousin to “Once.”  Gretta (Keira Knightley) is a singer-songwriter who recently left her cheating rockstar boyfriend.  Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a music executive separated from his wife and struggling to adapt to the changing industry.  Like “Once,” both are artists aspiring to be more, informed by their relationship baggage.  The film is frontloaded with drama…tired and stock drama, but drama none-the-less, but the second half is marked by an almost complete lack of it.  Once the two commit to an artistic partnership and decide to record their album in locations throughout New York City, everything is sunshine and roses.  For example, Dan visits one of his old clients, a superstar now.  He pitches his idea, and tells the client that he needs drummers.  “I’ll find drummers for ya.”  But Dan can’t afford to pay them.  “Shoot, I’ll pay for them out of my own pocket.”  This scene takes all of 30 seconds.  “Once” had genuine struggle and melancholy, which made the ending so gratifying.  I really liked the music in “Begin Again,” but it forgets that you need darkness to appreciate the light.  The film feels like 100 minutes of characters playing in a nice, safe sandbox.

“Inherent Vice”

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During an interview for “Insomnia,” a film about a detective suffering from sleep deprivation, which might just be the least of his problems, director Christopher Nolan talked about the importance of communicating sleepiness without making the audience tired.  Now, I think Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer and director of “Inherent Vice,” is one of the most talented filmmakers working today.  Much too talented to make a meandering and directionless film just because it’s about a meandering and directionless character…but that’s what we got.  Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a Private Eye searching for his ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend.  It would take way too much real estate to go into the rest of the plot, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  From “The Big Sleep” to “The Big Lebowski,” I’ve enjoyed a number of gumshoe detective movies with convoluted plots that I could scarcely recount.  The performances here are all very strong, particularly Phoenix, Katherin Waterston as his ex, Josh Brolin as a policeman with a twinkle in his eyes that “says civil rights violation,” and Martin Short (!) as a dentist, but at two-and-a-half hours, this film is such a slog.  It’s intermittently funny, but most of the humor is pretty sophomoric. In an early scene, Brolin’s “Bigfoot” Bjornsen slowly eats a banana on a stick.  It looks like this macho officer of the law is performing felatio!  Get it?  Get it?!  It’s not particularly funny the first time, and then we return to the joke, not once, but twice.  I’ve seen a number of people defend the film, “Just go for the ride,” but does the ride need to be so damn long and aimless?

What were your most disappointing films of 2014? Comment below!

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The Force Awakens

Unless you were vacationing on a swamp in Dagobah over Thanksgiving, you probably know that the teaser for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” landed.

I’ve been a fan of the franchise since early 1997.  That’s right, my first exposure to the galaxy far, far away was the theatrical release of the Special Editions.  (I promptly purchased the original trilogy on VHS, so I have seen it unaltered.)  When I say “first exposure,” I mean I knew nothing about George Lucas’s universe.  I’d seen a picture of Darth Vader somewhere, and having been a fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I assumed he was some sort of futuristic depiction of Shredder.

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I remember going to “Star Wars” with a friend, not entirely certain what I was seeing.  Is this a sequel?  A remake?  The effects looked modern, but the haircuts did not.  Like much of my generation…and previous generations…and generations since…I was excited by the expansiveness of the world, the memorable characters and the simple yet resonant themes.

But I’ve got no love for the prequels.  (Controversial, I know.)  I find them dramatically inert, despite material that’s actually pretty compelling.  I’m often drawn to stories about good people going bad.  Paging “The Godfather” and “Breaking Bad.”  The prequels also look very…plastic.  I watched the original “Star Wars” prior to the teaser release, and a couple days later, I watched the duel between Anakin and Obi-Wan in “Revenge of the Sith.”  The attack on the Death Star is still exceptional, with just a couple inserts that don’t hold up.  The duel, on the other hand, is only a few pixels shy of a video game.  Stunning when you consider the nearly 30 year difference, the larger budget for “Sith”, and that the Death Star sequence is more complex.

One of the things I appreciate most about the teaser is that it looks to return to the “lived in” science fiction universe that “Star Wars” popularized in the first place.  There are some great tactile details, like the water vapor surrounding the X-Wings as they roar across a lake.  The locations feel real, like the snowy forest featuring what might be the film’s antagonist.

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Admittedly, the teaser is scratching some nostalgic itches.  Stormtroopers?  Check.  Lightsaber?  Check.  Millennium Falcon and John Williams’s fanfare?  Double check!  I don’t imagine it’ll sway anyone who’s altogether disinterested.  Then again, these films are so steeped in our culture, it’s one of a few franchises — maybe the only one? — that probably doesn’t need to worry about educating the masses.

Within the signposts, there are some interesting twists.  I especially like the first image:  an empty desert expanse, then actor John Boyega pops into frame in what seems to be a nod to Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”  Dressed in a Stormtrooper outfit, he’s clearly concerned.  Whoa, a Stormtrooper!  Is he our main character?  And how great is it to see a person of color featured prominently in the first trailer for what will likely be the biggest movie of 2015!

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Then there’s the lightsaber hilt (pictured above), which has caused an uproar in parts of the fan community.  C’mon!  Technology in Star Wars has only ever been functional insofar as it looks used.  These films are as soft as science fiction gets — more fantasy, really — and everything is designed toward that aesthetic.

Where’s the practicality in having a cockpit inside a glass bubble that hangs off the side of a spacecraft?

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And what’s logical about invading a snow planet with large walkers that can sink or, ya know, trip?

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Besides, how many hands would a hilted lightsaber save?

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Finally, there’s the voice-over, delivered by Andy Serkis.  He describes an awakening in the Force, both the Dark Side and the Light.  What the hell happened?  What does it mean for Luke?  Have his powers been dormant?  The desert location featured in the teaser looks like Tatooine.  Did Luke seclude himself there like Obi-Wan?  I also thought it was pretty cool that they didn’t feature Mark Hamill or any of the original cast members.  No doubt they’ll show up in the first full trailer, but for now, the marketing is focused on new characters.

Given the prequels, I was pretty skeptical about another run of Star Wars movies, but Disney and Lucasfilm have gone a long way in reigniting my excitement.  J.J. Abrams is a solid if safe choice to direct Episode VII.  And I’m a big fan of writer-director Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”), so I’ll be excited to see where he takes Episode VIII and IX.  Of course there’s Gareth Edwards, director of this year’s “Godzilla,” currently working on the first spin-off.  And they’ve assembled a great group of performers for this first film.  I’ve mentioned Boyega, Serkis and the original cast, but there’s also Max Von Sydow, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaacs and Lupita Nyong’o.  With the strength of the teaser and the franchise’s new pedigree, the Force may have indeed awakened.

In the not-too-distant future: A Guide to MST3K

As I’ve written before (and before that), one of my great pleasures is watching “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K).  Created by Joel Hodgson, it’s a TV series about a man shot into space – initially Joel, then Mike Nelson in later seasons – and forced to endure the worst movies imaginable.  He builds two robots, Crow and Tom, to help him cope.  The three of them spend their time on the Satellite of Love mercilessly making fun of bad films.

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MST3K aired on Comedy Central for a time, and during Thanksgiving, the network celebrated Turkey Day by running back-to-back episodes.  The last two years, these marathons have streamed on the web.  So what better time to talk about some of my favorites!  I’ve even roped in a couple friends of the blog, Ben DeLoose and Ben Raymond, to share theirs as well.

First, you’ll hear from me.

The Giant Spider Invasion

Season 8, Episode 10

Host: Mike

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I joke with my wife that the best MST3K episodes have titles that sound like they belong on the show.  And that’s certainly true of “The Giant Spider Invasion.”  From its title onward, it’s B-movie goofiness (C or D even).  We’ve got a “wisecracking” sheriff who takes calls about strange occurrences and conveniently repeats them for exposition.  A dysfunctional couple living in squalor — “You want a piece of milk?” — who discover coconut-shaped rocks containing spiders from outer space.  Two scientists, who occasionally roll on each other, attempt to unravel the mystery.  There’s giant spider that looks like a prop from a bad high school play.  “A spider the size of a Buick’s attacking his Buick.”  And a riot that ensues after the spider’s appearance, because…why not?  “Packers won the Super Bowl!”

Time Chasers

Season 8, Episode 21

Host: Mike

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What I find most endearing about “Time Chasers” is that it’s really striving to be a major Hollywood production.  It’s high concept, telling the story of an inventor who creates a time-traveling airplane and sells it to a corporation with nefarious plans.  There’s adventure and romance, one-liners aplenty.  “You wanna fly?  Let’s fly!”  And it even manages some setup and pay off involving skydiving grandmas.  Mike and the bots spend a lot of time ribbing the low budget and unappealing characters.  We’ve got a Jay Leno-chinned hero who’s a poor man’s Richard Dreyfuss, a marbly mouthed villain, and a love interest with no fashion sense.  “Two different kinds of plaid?!  Man, I’m a naked robot and even I know that’s a no-no.”

The Final Sacrifice

Season 9, Episode 10

Host: Mike

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Ah, “The Final Sacrifice”…or as I like to call it, “Star Wars in Canada.”  A young man finds a map that belonged to his late father.  He’s pursued by a cult leader clad in black, and he even has a mentor of sorts named Obi Wa–I mean, Rowsdower.  Zap Rowsdower.  Yep.  Wow.  An overwhelming amount of the episode is spent making fun of our ineffectual hero -– “I haven’t read Tolkien in weeks!” — and his hilariously named cohort.  “Rowsdower mobile away!”  I could fill this space with just jokes about the character’s name.  Oh there’s also a fugitive who sounds like Yosemite Sam!

Now let’s hear from Ben DeLoose.

Manos: The Hands of Fate

Season 4, Episode 24

Host: Joel

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If there’s one MST3K episode in the public consciousness, it’s “Manos: Hands of Fate.”  It is the perfect bad movie.  Crummy camerawork, bad dubbing, no discernible plot progression, excess characters, and a nonsense ending — a storm of terribleness.

It’s daunting to write about this one, as so much has already been said, so here’s a new take: “Manos” is not the be-all end-all of MST3K.  There’s not a “before Manos” and “after Manos” in the show’s run.  It’s not the most essential episode.  It’s not the best episode to show a new viewer.

Fanboys love to scream and shout about their shiny toy of an episode, “This is the one, this is the one!”  But they’re usually wrong.  “The X-Files” has “Home,” “Buffy” has “Once More with Feeling,” and “Doctor Who” has “Blink.”  MST3K has “Manos.”

And “Manos” is certainly hilarious.  It’s a top ten episode for sure, but free your mind and consider other gems MST3K has to offer…

Pod People

Season 3, Episode 3

Host: Joel

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There are no pod people in this movie.  There really aren’t any pods.  And I’d hate to classify the characters in it as people.  I don’t know where to begin with this, much like the film doesn’t seem to know either.  There are three concurrent and uninteresting plots — each highlighted by uninteresting people doing uninteresting things, dubbed by uninterested voice actors.  When the threads collide, it’s not a revelatory narrative experience, but rather an eye-rolling collapse into tedium.

The film follows no-talent musicians on a camping trip, two evil poachers, and a barely-functioning family living in the middle of nowhere — with a newborn alien thrown into the mix.  Joel and the bots try to keep track of what’s going on in Movie A and Movie C, but the real fun is when they (especially Crow) mock the titular pod person/E.T. rip-off, Trumpy.  The long stretches of quiet in the creature’s scenes provide a canvas for the Satellite of Love crew to blurt out anything they can to fill the silence.  And it’s genius.

Soultaker

Season 10, Episode 1

Host: Mike

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One of the constant fears in television production is extending a show past its shelf life: dramas with recycled plots or comedies with stale humor.  But that was never the case with MST3K.  The writing staff’s riffing and the characters’ rhythm came to a boiling point of excellence in the last two seasons, and thus we have the final season premiere: “Soultaker.”

This might be the funniest episode of MST3K.  Truly.  Other episodes have a higher joke count, but the belly laughs I get from “Soultaker” are immense.

And I think that’s partially because this is not a terribly-made movie.  Many of the films in the MST3K oeuvre are 50’s B-schlock, poorly dubbed Japanese imports, or shoddily made cash-grabs.  But what happens when they tackle a film that could have easily been good?  It forces the comedy to come from a deeper place than “Oh look at the crappy ____ the filmmakers did.”

And finally, Ben Raymond.

Space Mutiny

Season 8, Episode 20

Host: Mike

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Splint Chesthair.  Thick McRunfast.  Punch Rockgroin.  Big McLargehuge.  These, friends, are the many nicknames of Dave Ryder, a squealing bicepted pilot/stool pigeon who quells Calgon’s poorly-planned but chisel-jawed mutiny aboard the Southern Sun spacecraft.  At the behest of the holly-jolly Commander Jansen and his slutty grandma-daughter Lisa, Ryder punches henchmen in the mask, neck, chest, and frequently groin before throwing them off a shaky railing and saving the day.  Shot on-location in an abandoned factory not at all festooned to look like a spaceship, “Space Mutiny” boasts some of the absolute finest intra- and extra-filmic humor in MST3K history.  Some jokes tell themselves, and Mike and the boys take care of the rest.  When it comes to the best episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I put my faith in Blast Hardcheese.

Werewolf

Season 9, Episode 4

Host: Mike

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With the possible exception of William Sylvester (“Riding with Death,” “Devil Doll”), Martin Sheen’s less talented and creepier cousin, Joe Estevez, is the Satellite of Love’s favorite pin-cushion.  Exhibit A: the atrocious and endlessly re-watchable “Werewolf.”  Some Guy digs up a werewolf skeleton in Arizona.  Another Guy punches him in the face.  Some Guy cuts himself on the skeleton and is escorted to the hospital.  While Some Guy begins lycanthropizing, Some Guy and Another Guy’s boss, Boss Guy, enlist a fellow archeologist, Eastern European Titty Bar Girl, to help uncover the secrets of the exhumed werewolf skeleton.  Boss Guy and Eastern European Titty Bar Girl meet Hero Guy, who is writing a book and wants to bang Eastern European Titty Bar Girl, who’s also pursued by Another Guy.  When Hero Guy and Another Guy fight, Hero Guy is transformed into a werewolf, who then, of course, gets Eastern European Titty Bar Girl in the sack, lycanthropizing her as well.  And Joe Estevez.  He’s there, too.

Make sense?  Course not.  Fuck cares!  See it.

The Touch of Satan (1971)

Season 9, Episode 8

Host: Mike

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“This is where the fish lives.”

I must call upon the American Film Institute to rethink its list, “100 Years, 100 Movie Quotes.”  With all due respect to “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” the single greatest line in the history of cinema came not from the sprawling epic “Gone with the Wind,” but the inane and noxiously ‘70s “The Touch of Satan.”  Jodie Lee Thompson doesn’t care for the “Lee” part of his name and stumbles upon a nice piece of bucolic ass in Melissa Strickland, who turns out to be a 300-year-old witch and caretaker of her decrepit, homicidal child-grandmother, Lucinda.  When Lucinda’s rampage of violence nearly costs Jodie Thompson his life, Melissa must make the fateful decision to save her beloved grandma-sister, or the man she loves and met 36 hours ago.

Spoilers: We never know how the fish came to live there, his name, his goals, why there is only one of him, or why there’s so much palpable sexual tension between him and Melissa.

Big thanks to Ben and Ben for helping me out this week!  Are you fan of “Mystery Science Theater 3000?”  Comment below with your favorite episodes.

If music be the food of love, write on…or something like that

Lately I’ve been struggling with screenwriting, so I thought I’d take a break from that to write about part of my process.  If that doesn’t sound like a fledgling, wannabe writer, I don’t know what does.

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I’ve been working on a feature-length script…and it doesn’t always come easily.  I’m a fan of outlining, but it’s a rabbit hole I tend to tumble down — I just keep outlining, sometimes the same thing, ignoring scenes that are actually giving me trouble.  At the moment, I’m trying what Darren Aronofsky calls the “muscle draft.”  Get it on paper, quick and dirty.  Truth be told, it’s a lot dirtier than it is quick.  (Perhaps I’m neglecting the positives of this approach.)

Anyway, one of the things I’ve found helpful is music.  Not just any music, but a collection of songs curated to the tune of my project.  A few months ago, I finished a coming-of-age script, and I spent a lot of time listening to songs I hadn’t heard since middle and high school. I wanted music that made me feel like I was in that time and place. (Teenage Garrett cringes at the thought.)

But the project I’m working on now is a creature-feature. I’m not gonna delve too much into plot description, but it probably wouldn’t surprise you to know it’s a horror film. Here’s what I’ve been listening to…

1.) “The Passage” from “Alien” soundtrack

2.) “Love” from “Under the Skin” soundtrack

3.) “Above Earth” from “Gravity” soundtrack

4.) “Symphony No. 3: Passacaglia – Allegro Moderato” by Krzystof Penderecki

5.) “The Church” from “28 Days Later” soundtrack

6.) “Down the Pipe” from “The Descent” soundtrack

7.) “Crossing the Crevasse” from “The Descent” soundtrack

8.) “Debris” from “Gravity” soundtrack

9.) “Hyper Sleep” from “Alien” soundtrack

10.) “There Will Be Blood” from “There Will Be Blood” soundtrack

11.) “Car Crash” from “Collateral” soundtrack

12.) “Flight to Compound” from “Zero Dark Thirty” soundtrack

13.) “Agnus Dei” from “Alien 3” soundtrack

14.) “Vincent Hops Train” from “Collateral” soundtrack

15.) “Gravity” from “Gravity” soundtrack

I’ve ordered the mix so that it kind of follows the structure of my script.  (I know the story’s signposts at least.)  “Love” is very sad, designed to evoke my main character.  It’s placed where it is to coincide with her introduction in the script.  “Car Crash” sounds introspective, complementing the lull before the third act.  The marshaling of forces, the calm before the storm.  And “Vincent Hops Train” is heavy on percussion, very action-oriented, representing a climax for both the playlist and the script.

I often listen while I’m writing, but sometimes I take a walk and play it on my iPod.  Generally, I try to avoid music that I’m really familiar with.  There are some scores and films I know a little too well. I can’t be writing a scene, hearing a music cue, and thinking, “Now the shark’s surfaces, Brody jumps back and slowly walks into the cabin.”  That’s why you won’t find any “Jaws” on my mix, even though scary creature-features don’t come any better…obviously.  For a while, a track from “The Social Network” (“Hand Covers Bruise”) had the place of “Love,” but I removed it.  That’s another one I’m just too familiar with.  Wouldn’t want Mark Zuckerberg finding his way into my script.

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What are some of your writing strategies?  How do you get inspiration?  Comment below.

Start Them Up!

It’s Friday!  And for many, that means payday!  If I may be so bold, I encourage you to use some of that hard-earned cash to support a pair of filmmakers, Ben DeLoose and Matt Chilelli.  Full disclosure: these guys are my friends.  But they’re also expert cookie bakers, wielders of puns, and talented filmmakers.

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Those of you who’ve been following the blog since the beginning might remember that Ben and I have known each other for over seven years.  We met through an internship program in Los Angeles.  Matt and I both went to Ithaca College, but we didn’t connect until I moved to L.A. in 2009.  I’ve helped them out on a number of sketches and shorts, and we collaborate on a Youtube channel, 3byThree.

Ben and Matt are making their first feature…provided they meet their fundraising goal.  The premise is an intriguing spin on the haunted house genre.  While working on their Kickstarter video, I remarked that their apartment was ideal for a horror film.  There are so many corners and hallways.  Standing in one room, you can’t see into the next.  Their response: “We wrote our script around that!”  And of course they did.  Like any good low-budget filmmaker, they’ve designed this project with the resources already at their disposal.  (Why write the splitting of the Red Sea if you can’t afford a bathtub?)

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I don’t want to spoil the intricacies of their plot, but you can get a taste of what they’re after in the Kickstarter video itself:

By the number of set ups and lighting conditions, it’s clear Ben and Matt don’t do anything half-assed.  I can tell you first hand that this video took a lot of man hours.  These guys set the bar high.  The pitch is a great sampling of their humor, sensibilities and how they construct a scare.  You can see that they’re dedicated to using the properties of moviemaking — frame and camera movement, light, sound, etc. — to tell a story.  It’s an exciting project, and I’m really looking forward to the full feature.

I hope you’ll consider donating…$5 or $125, it all helps!

A Cabinet of Curiosities

I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work since 2006, when I first laid eyes on “Pan’s Labyrinth.”  As big productions become more and more homogenized, he remains one of Hollywood’s true (and truly eccentric) visionaries.

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I just finished Marc Zicree’s “Cabinet of Curiosities,” which is a book done in the vein of Francois Truffaut’s “Hitchcock,” in that it’s a long series of interviews with the filmmaker himself.  Zicree, an accomplished television writer and big-time nerd, delves into the things that make del Toro tick.

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The book offers a pictorial tour of Bleak House.  The director’s self-described man-cave is home to an astonishingly large collection of comics, props, art and other memorabilia.  Del Toro even has a storm room – not for emergency evacuations, this is actually a room that simulates a rain storm.  Gloomy clouds and rainfall are projected on a window to the tune of a thunderous soundtrack.  Another of my favorite details is the eerily life-like replica of H.P. Lovecraft that stands guard over his horror library.  In a section devoted to del Toro’s favorite authors, he lists Lovecraft as an all-timer.

The real highlights are pages from del Toro’s notebooks, which he keeps while working on projects.  Offering some insight on Captain Vidal, a monstrous character from “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Del Toro writes that the Captain is consumed by legacy, and his obsession is embodied by his father’s watch.  Throughout the film, we spend a lot of time with the Captain in a mill on his estate.  Its many angles and gears connote watch imagery, but del Toro also intended it to be an illustration of the character’s unerring expectation that everyone follow his orders.  His is a very regimented existence.

Del Toro typically fills his notebooks with story and design ideas, but they contain everything from fantastic illustrations to his thoughts on art and life.

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“Judging a movie after one viewing seems strange to me.  The conscious mind absorbs every image, which took hours of work to create, in a matter of seconds.  But if the image is powerful, if it speaks to the viewer’s soul in some deep way, then those few seconds are enough for love to take shape.”

Though del Toro isn’t all lofty proclamations.  I got a kick out of a passage where he was carefully monitoring the “Pan’s Labyrinth” ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.  One of the things I appreciate most about him is his lack of ceremony.  “I’m not a candy-ass Teletubby,” he tells Zicree.  Actually, I’ve witnessed del Toro’s informality first hand.  At a Q&A he moderated with Christopher Nolan, he applauded the filmmaker for achieving mainstream success while maintaining his strangeness.  Del Toro playfully warned, “That makes me want to kill you…a little bit.”

Something I love about books like this — I’ve already mentioned Truffaut’s but Cameron Crowe’s “Conversations with [Billy] Wilder” is a good one, too — is the way they get me excited about work I haven’t seen.  I’d watched all of del Toro’s films, but this book inspired me to read my first Lovecraft novel, “At the Mountains of Madness.”  [He’s been trying to adapt it for 20-some years.]  It’s rewarding to be exposed to what inspires your favorite artists and entertainers…no better way to understand what makes their creative hearts beat.

Rest in Peace, Summer 2014. You Deserved Better, Box Office-wise.

Personally, I had a great time at the movies this summer.  Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” bucked the trend of prematurely blowing its action/monster/explosion load.  I enjoyed “Edge of Tomorrow’s” original concept and snappy script.  And it was great to see Marvel inject its cookie-cutter formula with a little personality for “Guardians of the Galaxy.”  Nothing disappointed me on the scale of last year’s “Man of Steel” or “Stark Trek Into Darkness.”

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And I’m not alone.  According to Entertainment Weekly, critics preferred this summer’s crop, and audiences only marginally preferred last summer’s.  Sure, 2014 didn’t have any Dark Knights or Avengers, but that didn’t stop last year’s record number of moviegoers.

Still, the summer box office suffered tremendously.  Why, after a summer of good movies, did The LA Times report that domestic ticket sales were down 15%?  Actually, 2014 was the worst summer since 2006…1997 if you consider inflation.

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So what gives?

At a quick glance, the season was pretty overcrowded.  Between the beginning of May and the end of August, theaters saw ten major releases plus five high-profile projects with comparatively modest budgets*.

That’s a lot of movies…particularly in May and June.  Of those ten major releases, seven were out by July.  Not the greatest scheduling.  But the good news is that 2014 marked a shift in the release dates for tentpole productions.  Outside “Guardians,” the year’s biggest hits — “The Lego Movie” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” — came out in February and April, which isn’t typically when films of that size hit theaters.

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Studios are learning from this summer’s shellacking.  Rather than go up against the third Captain America in May 2016, Warner Brothers recently announced “Batman v Superman” would move to March.  Legendary also declared plans to release a sequel to “Pacific Rim” in April 2017.

While overcrowding might be responsible for lower box office receipts, I don’t think it accounts for such a steep decline.  Something should have been sucking up the dollars.  What say you, loyal readers?  Did you find yourself going to the movies more or less often this summer?  Why or why not?  Comment below.

*Here are the ten big-budget (i.e. comfortably north of $100 million) releases with five additional high-profile projects that had comparatively modest price tags:

May
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Godzilla
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Maleficent
Neighbors
A Million Ways to Die in the West

June
Edge of Tomorrow
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Transformers: Age of Extinction
The Fault in our Stars
22 Jump Street

July
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Lucy

August
Guardians of the Galaxy
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

“They don’t make movies…they make fun of them!”

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of seeing a screening of “Godzilla” (1998) Rifftrax Live.  For those who don’t know, Rifftrax is from some of the stars of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” specifically, Mike Nelson (below left), Bill Corbett (below center) and Kevin Murphy (below right).  Though “Mystery Science” is certainly a niche show, it’s one of my favorites.  My wife and I actually played the show’s theme song at our wedding reception.

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Rifftrax is a project very much in the vein of MST3K, as Mike, Bill and Kevin offer humorous commentary during movies.  Customers download the commentaries online and sync them to their disc player.  This allows Rifftrax to tackle larger movies, like “The Dark Knight” or “Avatar,” without infringing on copyright laws.

Occasionally, Fathom Events hosts screenings of their work, which is how I came to see “Godzilla” on the big screen. I’m a huge fan of the original Japanese character, but Roland Emmerich’s take on him was truly deserving of the Rifftrax treatment.  Apart from being an abominable adaptation, jettisoning essential elements of the character, it’s just an outright terrible film.

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I mean…Matthew Broderick as a scientist/action hero!?  Oscar-nominee Michael Lerner plays Mayor Ebert, a corrupt politician who looks suspiciously like Roger Ebert and whose campaign slogan is a thumbs up.  No lie.  He even has an assistant named Gene.  Undoubtedly a petulent “screw you” on the part of Emmerich, as Ebert was not a fan of his previous films, “Stargate” and “Independence Day.”

Characterizations are similarly poor, with the filmmakers succumbing to the most crass stereotypes. The film opens with a Japanese fisherman watching sumo wresting and eating noodles, at which point Mike Nelson quipped, “I don’t think they’ve established his ethnicity enough.” French special agents are obsessed with coffee, cigarettes and croissants, and the New Yorkers are doing their worst Ratso Rizzo impressions.

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The attempts at humor, of which there are many, are likewise…poor.  If you made a drinking game out of the number of times someone bungles Broderick’s character’s last name, Tatopoulos, you would be hammered by the end of the first act.  The sad thing is, the joke isn’t funny the first time.

Finally, the sense of scale here is non-existent.  Godzilla’s size is completely dependent on the needs of the script.  He should be menacing and imposing, make him bigger!  Okay, now we need to be able to hide him.  Better slim him down, so he’ll fit in a subway tunnel.  If there’s one thing you want missing in your giant monster movie, it’s a sense of…scale…???

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Rifftax did not disappoint despite an interminably long running time.  There’s about 100 minutes of story in this 140 minute slog. There’ll be an encore presentation this Tuesday, August 19th, and I hope some of you will check it out!

Oh, there you are, Robin!

I first became aware of Robin Williams when my parents took me to see “Hook” at the age of six. I adored the film, watching it over and over again on video. Williams plays Peter Banning, an adult Peter Pan. Bogged down by the pressures of being a parent and a professional, he has no recollection of his time in Neverland. During a pivotal scene, the Lost Boys try to reinvigorate his memory. One boy pokes and prods at Banning’s face until he finds Pan. “Oh, there you are, Peter!”

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There’s movie magic in that scene, as there often was when Robin Williams was on screen. Yes, Dean Cundey’s golden hour lighting is evocative. And yes, John Williams’ score is beautiful. But it’s all on Robin Williams’ face. Through that dour façade, we capture brief glimpses of mischief and youth. For me, Robin Williams will always be the man caught between childhood and adulthood.

Most known for his comedy, Williams certainly gave us reason to look closer. Perhaps a gloomy comparison, but he’s like the inverse of Philip Seymour Hoffman. My kneejerk reaction to Hoffman’s death was to recount his various dramatic roles. I momentarily forgot how funny he could be. Robin Williams spent so much time making us laugh, and he was so good at it, that it’s easy to forget “The Fisher King,” “Good Will Hunting,” or “Dead Poets Society.” Or go a step further and look at his villainous work in “Insomnia” and “One Hour Photo.” Those characters are so lacking his manic energy, so certain that they’re of sound mind, that they’re doubly frightening.

A year after “Hook,” there was “Aladdin.”  The next year, “Mrs. Doubtfire.”  Robin Williams became the first entertainer I ever looked forward to seeing on screen.  He may have solidified for me, at an early age, that movies are stories unspooled, and that their creators’ lives extend beyond that canvas.

I’ve spent the last couple days laughing harder than I have in months, as I revisit clips from his movies and stand-up routines. Thanks for the laughter and tears, Robin.

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What you can expect from this blog

I wanted to give you an idea of what you can expect from me when I’m evaluating a film.  There are a lot of theories about what constitutes criticism, but for me, it comes down to this: a film is a film.  And I’d love to expand on that… 

A movie needs to stand on its own.  Deleted scenes, early drafts and on-set drama are all well and good – I get a kick out of that, myself – but 30 years from now, most of it will be forgotten.  All that will be left is the film, so it better work.

Conversely, a movie is not a book or a comic or a video game.  An adaptation isn’t a failure if it doesn’t rigidly adhere to every detail of its source material.  Don’t get me wrong, if a filmmaker is going to adapt a piece of work, s/he should maintain its essence…otherwise, why bother adapting? If Harry Potter isn’t an orphan, is he really Harry Potter?  Of course not, but what I’m talking about are the little things: “That line doesn’t belong to Harry!  It belongs to Hermione’s second roommate’s sister’s boyfriend!”

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I’m not a fan of the following argument:  “You just don’t understand Y movie, because you’ve never been exposed to X thing that happened in it.”  X could be any number of things — divorce, being a parent, a particular occupation, etc.  One, that argument is inherently condescending.  Two, when we take that line and run with it, the whole argument is invalid if Joe Movie-Goer has experienced X thing and still didn’t respond to Y movie.  It’s great when you can look at a film and smile or frown knowingly at a particular plot development or character quirk, but that alone does not a good film make.

Films set up their own rules, and they set up their own means through which they should be evaluated.  Broadly speaking, if you don’t laugh during a comedy, that’s a problem.  It might not be a big problem, if the characters are vivid or it’s thematically resonant, but it is a problem.  Along the same lines, a heavily plotted film, to my mind, is under a greater obligation to feel cohesive and held together than a film that isn’t so heavily plotted.

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Films aren’t under any obligation to tell stories or certainly to tell them conventionally.  Granted, a film should engage its viewers, but it should not be confined to the small box of traditional narrative structure. If Woody Allen wants to offer a 90-minute personal essay of sorts on relationships, more power to him.  If Terrence Malick wants to spend 150 minutes ruminating on man’s place in nature, so be it.

And finally, I’m going to end on a quote from Roger Ebert.  “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.”  Thousands upon thousands of decisions go into making a motion picture.  What color should her shirt be?  What lens do you want on the camera?  Should we trim four frames off this shot?  How are those decisions working on you, the viewer, to produce a reaction?  You may have a preference for a film that makes you feel good or a film that makes you feel bad or a film that embraces one philosophy or another, but that doesn’t make all other films inferior.

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It’s not as if I have a checklist when I sit down to watch a film.  I’m not arguing that you can’t just enjoy a movie, and I’m certainly not trying to prove or disprove anyone’s taste.  As I’ve discussed film with friends over the years, these are some of the arguments that have reared their heads. So if you want to talk constructively about movies, I feel this is a pretty good framework.