Monday, August 6, 2007

The Bourne Factor

With The Bourne Ultimatum reporting an amazing $70 million take this past weekend, a look into the secret of the Bourne series’ success is due. I mean, what is it exactly about Bourne that keeps the crowds coming back for more? Surely, there is no shortage of spy thrillers or fight movies. No, the marketplace has been inundated with assassins, ninjas, super agents, and the like slicing and dicing, shooting, impaling, pummeling, torching it out since, well, probably the Schwartznegger/Stallone action era. Like Bourne himself, three things set this trilogy apart from the pack: 1) its stripped down, no frills approach; 2) a conscience; and 3) a refusal to compromise with the competition.

1. No Frills – Watching Jason Bourne scrap it out tooth and nail with any of a slew of would-be assassins, one can’t help but feel a certain primal stirring within. A stirring that says, “Man, is this real? Did he just…? I can’t believe he just…! These guys are for real!” In a world of ridiculously stylized fight scenes, the bastard children of the Matrix-wrought martial arts revival, where fighters can remain suspended in the air indefinitely with time to pose, grimace, admire their flowing leather trench coats, and ricochet off each other like racquetballs, everything about the Bourne trilogy takes us so far back that it feels fresh.

I would argue that Bourne takes us back to the brutal reality of our first schoolyard fight, the jarring impact of a real car crash, and the sobering finality of a single bullet meeting its mark. Gone are the slo-mo, bullet time shots, the sneers and one-liners, and the physics-defying wire-fu acrobatics that ultimately separate us from the action. In your face are grown men clawing at each other, trying to strangle the life out of each other, wielding whatever weapon they can get their hands on (a pen, a rolled up magazine, etc.), silent, stone-faced hitmen closing in with trained disregard, all filmed in unnerving, handheld normal speed. No one flies. When people fall, they fall hard. No pounding industrial metal soundtrack here. Just the disturbing sound of bone striking flesh punctuates this fight.

Bourne does the same with car chases. Take Supremacy’s Moscow tunnel car chase, for instance. Slo-mo shots of muscle cars flipping ridiculously through the air and exploding in ridiculously large clouds of orange flame are replaced by claustrophobic hand held shots of junky European mini cars sideswiping and ramming each other into oblivion in a cramped, dark tunnel. Pieces are flying off, most too wildly to be choreographed. The entire scene is an exercise in capturing chaos. And we find ourselves breathing heavily, sweating even in the protected darkness of the theater.

This property is the very essence of what makes action cinema great. It doesn’t fantasize or try to wow us with its next overly stimulating gimmick. It puts us directly into a life-and-death struggle, in all of its excitement, fear, and moral implications, in which we civilians wouldn’t or shouldn’t find ourselves. This is exactly what makes it a transporting medium, a vehicle for greater awareness. This mature, intelligent approach to action is exactly what transforms Bourne into cinema art.

2. Conscience – Even as a moral awakening propels Bourne into his adventures and sets him apart from his hunters, so is a conscience what gives the Bourne series its soul, setting it far apart from its largely amoral or immoral competition. Consider most of our cardboard action heroes. Usually, after finally impaling, incinerating, electrocuting, dismembering, or otherwise dispatching of a foe, the “hero” walks away in slow mo, bad to the bone, flame and wreckage in his wake. We think, “Wow, that’s one bad dude. Those villains had it coming. Serves them right!” But with Bourne, we find ourselves troubled. Every time he has to murder an attacker, Bourne’s disgust and loathing of the deed is plain on his face. He is fully aware of the contradiction that he is: he kills to put killing behind him. He apologizes to the daughter of one of his past kills, painfully aware of the central moral truth that he can’t bring them back. We may gasp and exclaim as he fights for his life, but we find it difficult to celebrate and cackle with delight.

Most other action films have not figured out how to do this. The strategy most follow is to just make the bad guys as despicable and filthy as possible and then the hero can dispose of them with as much blood-soaked relish as needed. They do not consider what such barbarism does to the hero, that it kind of makes him not a hero anymore. For instance, the trailer for the upcoming Rambo update is a classic example of this. A bunch of filthy, third-world rebel military types brutally slaughter a team of humanitarians/missionaries in Southeast Asia. That’s enough for hero John Rambo. So what does he do? He grabs the ol’ hunting knife, drapes himself with bullets, and proceeds to behead, make sloppy joes of, or tear out the larynx from any rebel he runs into. And this is all just in the teaser trailer (seriously, I don’t even want to put a hyperlink out for this trailer). And get ready for more of the same, where revenge and self-determined justice are sufficient to ignore the implications of killing.

So, in this time of war, of casualties adding up on our TV screens on a daily basis, thank goodness for films that acknowledge what an awful, disturbing, arresting thing it is to end a human life, whether good or bad.

3. Refusal to Compromise – While the rest of actiondom is largely stuck in the aforementioned rut, Bourne keeps its artistic vision. Everyone else says, “More bullet time. More special effects. Bigger explosions. More improbable set pieces. More one-liners.” The makers of Bourne say, “No, let’s stay small, personal, in survivor mode. Less dialogue. Tighter tension.”

The good news is, some filmmakers appear to be taking notice. Much ado, for instance, has been made over the recent overhaul of the Bond franchise. It was interesting how, after the success of The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy, James Bond suddenly became much more Bourne-like. The story? Smaller, personal, in survivor mode. The usually eloquent, wisecracking Bond was suddenly less talkative, more grunting. The fight scenes had an unmistakable hint of Bourne, much more physical, sloppy, claustrophobic, and- bingo!- no slo-mo. Laughable villains with razor top hats and impervious metal teeth were replaced with steely eyed assassins equipped only with machetes and frighteningly fast hands. Moreover, the new Bond was surprisingly human, romantically attached to one woman, so attached in fact that he was emotionally shaken by her betrayal and then her demise. Critics hailed the move as a genius revival of a flailing franchise. I say they stole a page or two from the Bourne playbook. Not that I’m complaining.

Obviously I think Bourne rocks! I hope we see more like it. What do you all think about Jason Bourne? Love him? Hate him? Who will take his place when he’s gone? Chime in…

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Sci-Fi Anthology Revived?

This past Saturday night, I was flipping through the channels looking for something to numb my brain... America’s Got Talent... America’s Funniest Home Videos... Then, suddenly, a commercial for an upcoming series caught me half-conscious. I wouldn’t have even paid it any of my waning attention were it not for John Locke’s (a.k.a. actor Terry O'Quinn’s) familiar cranium filling the screen. Thinking it was something Lost-related, I instantly snapped out of my coma. Various sci-fi-esque images followed. Shots of Cancer Man (from the X-Files) and Anne Heche. Another shot of John Locke. Something about the greatest sci-fi writers of all time. Stephen Hawking narrating. Then finally the title: Masters of Science Fiction.

I wanted to grab the delightfully surprising teaser and hold it in my hands, but, alas, it was gone as fast as it had appeared. I almost wasn’t sure if I had heard correctly: the return of the sci-fi anthology show? Could it be true? In this summer of throwaway, reality shows and American Idol voting competition clones, nothing would be more welcome. Finally, some relief from glorified prime time soap operas and comedy-less sitcoms.

Just to put this in context, I ate, slept, and breathed The Twilight Zone as a child. Other shows made their stabs at the sci-fi anthology (i.e. The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, The New Twilight Zone, The New Outer Limits, The New, New Twilight Zone, and maybe even Tales from the Crypt if we want to get really broad), but none achieved the same style, chills, gravitas, and stark sci-fi speculation of the original Rod Serling show. For at least the last ten years, the sci-fi anthology show has been pretty much extinct, especially on network television.

What a surprise then to find that ABC is making a move to bring it back. And not just with some promised thrills and chills, but with a bona fide sci-fi pedigree and some real star power to back it up. Just for the first episode, writing credits include John Kessel (Nebula Award winner), Hollywood Blacklist writer Howard Fast, sci-fi founding father Robert Heinlein, and Harlan Ellison (seven-time Hugo Award winner, three-time Nebula Award winner and Science Fiction Grand Master Laureate). I don't even know what that last title means but it sounds tantamount to something like "I'm-the-real-deal-in your-face-king of science-fiction-and-I-will-blow-your-mind-into-next-millenium." Starring will be Sam Waterston, Anne Heche, Terry O’Quinn, Malcolm McDowell, and John Hurt among others. Honestly, this probably has more potential than any anthology that has been released since the Twilight Zone update that aired briefly in the 80s.

I don’t know much more about this series other than what I discovered on the ABC website, which I recommend you check out here. But I can assure you that, come 10 pm next Saturday night, I will be tuned into ABC to give this potential beauty a chance. What do you all think? Is this the start of something good? Am I the only one out there who craves my sci-fi dark and thoughtful? Check out the website and give us your take…

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ratatouille, Warts and Paintball Welts

While the rest of the nation simply watches their summer drift away, waiting for Labor Day, Utah celebrates Pioneer Day on July 24th. The holiday plays almost like a repeat of Independence Day, with barbeques, fireworks, parades, and other forms of summer recreation. At any rate, it’s another great excuse to get out of work and do crazy stuff before the summer is finished. This year’s Pioneer Day was no exception.

I started off by catching Ratatouille, which, if you’ve been following my blog since June, I predicted would be the best movie of the summer, you might remember. In short, I was not disappointed, my prediction affirmed. This movie is flat-out gorgeous. With the barrage of movies that have hit the cinema this summer, overblown, F/X epics, pea-brained animated flicks, and unfunny comedies, Ratatouille is a huge breath of fresh air, so far away from its so-called competition in quality, maturity, and richness that to classify it as one of the summer breed would just seem… wrong.

That’s not to say that Ratatouille is without its flaws. It is not better than, say, The Incredibles, in terms of character, humor, or mad-cap action. The characters do not blend into each other or attract us as effortlessly as past Pixar creations have. But what it lacks in characters it makes up for in pure, infectious love for its subjects: namely, cooking, Paris, and rats.

This love literally resonates from every meticulously rendered surface, from every carefully animated movement. No CG animation studio out there even comes close to this kind of atmosphere. In one scene where Remy, the main protagonist, scurries through a Parisian apartment and emerges at the roof, bursting onto a stunning panorama of night-time Paris, my jaw literally dropped. And the film never relents in its pursuit of that same rich vibrance.

Honestly, there are very few laugh out loud moments, the interests are mundane. But just from the sheer daring of Pixar in creating something so lovingly crafted, so mature, so not Surf’s Up or Shrek, without annoying jabbering sidekicks, mind-numbing potty jokes, or over-reliance on pop culture satire, I left the theater with a smile on my face and an inexplicable fondness for fine cuisine and Paris (this is a miracle in and of itself: I am not a French fan at all. Got a D- in high school French…). A few people with me complained that it was not as good as Incredibles or other Pixar films. Personally, I think it’s unfair to compare it to other Pixar films. Not every movie can be The Incredibles. That’s like saying that Kobe Bryant isn’t any good because he isn’t as good as Michael Jordan.

Rather, we would do well to compare Ratatouille to its current competition. There can be no denying that Ratatouille, as genuine movie magic art, rises and shines above anything else in current release. I still say it’s the best movie of the summer.

Anyway, after catching Ratatouille, I went paintballing with some crazy farm kids, hardcore paintball fanatics. In short, I rarely got a shot off on anyone else, but I did walk away with some of the best injuries of the game. The first came as a paintball from a high-powered gun found its way under my mask and tagged me on the chin. Blood and yellow paint splattered all over the inside of my mask, which, I imagine, must have looked pretty cool. In a later round, a ball found that soft spot on my inner thigh, leaving a plum-colored, “O”-shaped bruise. It was beauty, but I was just glad I hardly felt it. The last came in our last round of play. I was out of balls. My buddy was waiting behind me, ready to fire. I spotted a ball on the ground, made a dash for it, bent over to pick it up, and POW! I got stung right up where no paintball should ever go. So I turned around, loaded, and nailed my buddy from 5 yards away. I’m sure he felt that… Male bonding is a strange thing.

After going home and licking my wounds, I concluded the holiday by getting five warts on my right foot cut or frozen off. Let me tell you: it hurt like a mammajamma! Everything hurt, from the anesthetics to shaving off the tops of the warts with a scalpel to searing them with a pressurized stream of liquid nitrogen. The bright side of it all: I get to wear flip flops to work. My office mates are all envious. The down side: I have to tell everyone I had warts. Nobody wants to touch a guy with warts. I think deep down inside, they still harbor that schoolyard stigma that warts come from frogs or being dirty or whatever. They can think whatever they want. At least I get to wear flip flops…

How was your weekend? Anyone catch Ratatouille? Anyone out there celebrate Pioneer Day? Anyone out there have warts? If you do, don’t touch me…

Friday, July 20, 2007

Stars and Dogs of the Dog Days of Summer

Every year, the summer movie season peaks at about July 4. From there, the magnitude and marketing barrage of movie releases gradually tapers off until the end of August, when movie releases have been toned down to a mere whisper. Gone are the glittering fireworks extravaganzas of the highly anticipated event movies. Done is the child-like counting down of days until the release of a movie for which you saw the teaser ten months ago. Here are the long, drawn out summer days where indie flicks, comedies, second-rate animation, and, the studios hope, the occasional sleeper hit get their time in the sweltering hot sun. It’s a funny time of year where you may just find the worst movie you’ve ever seen or be surprised to find you’re new all-time favorite.

This year, Transformers represented the peak. Harry Potter 5 officially marked the end of the big summer blockbusters and the beginning of the dog days of summer. Ahead of us lies a month and a half of possibilities. Judging by the oncoming roster of late summer releases, we are in for more of the same stars and dogs. Fortunately, the studios have sprinkled in more blockbuster-tier fare than usual. In anticipation, I predict the five top stars and five dogs (and some that could swing either way) for the dog days of summer 2007:

The Bourne Ultimatum – If you’ve seen its two prequels, I don’t need to explain why I think this is going to be a ride well worth the price of admission. If I also told you director Paul Greengrass, who added such a raw, tooth-and-nail survivalist intensity to the Bourne Supremacy, was helming this third outing, you’d push me out of line and steal my ticket. Ultra-assassin amnesiac scrapper Jason Bourne goes globetrotting one more time and brings it home to the U.S. to finally uncover his past and undoubtedly unleash cold, ballpoint-pen-wielding justice on the guilty… ‘Nuff said!

2) The Invasion – Nicole Kidman returns to the thriller genre in this remake of the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If you’ve seen The Others (as in the movie, not the odd, secret-hoarding meanies of Lost), you know that Kidman’s crystal blue peepers were made for thrillers. If you’re familiar with the noir original, this is exciting enough. If you know that the Wachowski brothers had to finish this film after the first director dropped out, you’re probably as eager to see it as I am. I am like a pitiful canine just waiting for any possible scrap that may fall from the Wachowski table. For a bonus, Daniel Craig (a.k.a. the new James Bond) co-stars. The trailers look sufficiently creepy.

3) The Simpsons Movie – Not all irreverent TV cartoon series have successfully translated to feature length film (i.e. Beavis and Butthead Do America). However, if there was ever a writing team witty and knowing enough to make the leap, it was Matt Groening’s. For nearly two decades, these guys have managed to pack half-hour shows with more intelligence, satire, candor, and just plain laugh-out-loud slapstick than most sitcoms can fit into a whole season. They have more than enough ammo to fill an hour and a half. Will it meander from one tangential subplot to another without an apparent main plot? Maybe. But Groening’s team has almost made that their hallmark, their format for presenting their view of America. I say, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”

4) Stardust – For those with their fantasy sweet tooth unsatisfied thus far, this film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel may be just the fix you’re looking for. It’s about as fantasy as you can get and doesn’t look too bad doing it. Claire Danes plays a fallen star (I told you it was fantasy), Robert DeNiro plays a pirate, and Michelle Phieffer plays an evil witch. The F/X look decent.

5) Hot Rod – If you’ve seen the trailer, you know this one looks drop dead hilarious. I’m not expecting any enlightenment whatsoever from this newest in the long line of SNL alumnus comedies, just some good, nutty Happy Gilmore-esque laughs.

1) Bratz – They shouldn’t have even been a toyline, much less a motion picture. The dolls that took girls from idolizing shallow beauty queen Barbie to idolizing shallow go-go dancers and low rider models are coming to the big screen. Their plot: “Four teenage girls from different backgrounds empower themselves by rejecting their respective high school cliques.” Probably by dressing like they should be standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine at one in the morning. Expect this one to be full of trite “empowerment” mantras for young girls to adhere to that will fundamentally conflict with the message of materialism and superficiality conveyed by the characters’ wardrobes.

2) Underdog – Someone saw the recent live-action incarnation of Garfield and the recent superhero craze and decided they could make some cash off that old, forgotten, very 2-dimensional cartoon series Underdog. What they didn’t realize is that no one gave a rat’s rear end about the Garfield movies (yes, there was more than one) and that no one extends their enthusiasm for comic book heroes to the old Hanna Barbara cartoons. This one will be forgotten before it even hits theaters, only to be remembered on the Wal-Mart bargain shelf.

3) I Know Who Killed Me – If you do, I’d like to shake their hand and thank them for doing us all a major service. But, seriously, is anyone just getting sick of seeing Lindsay Lohan? I honestly find it difficult to sympathize with any of her characters anymore. Onscreen, she’s a middle class brat, another Disney factory teen who talks too fast and is way too “savvy” for her own good. Offscreen, she’s a drunk, out of control, upper class brat who is too inebriated to even talk but still thinks she’s savvy. I really could not care less to find out who has her or her lost twin sister captive. There are people in this world more deserving of our collective attention (and their names aren’t Paris, Nicole, or Britney).

4) Skinwalkers – I really love werewolf lore. That’s why it pains me to see all of these Sci-fi channel-quality movies that just turn them into sex-hungry, bloodthirsty guys in sucky latex costumes. Expect nothing fresh or engaging out of this one, which should have gone straight to DVD to the horror-porn section at Blockbuster. Expect boring tough guys on Harleys fighting boring psycho tough guys on Harleys and lots of explosions, big guns, and empty sex scenes. My question: when will someone get the werewolf and vampire legends back on track in Hollywood?

5) Daddy Day Camp – Cuba Gooding, Jr. hasn’t been funny since Jerry Macguire, and he was only funny there because he wasn’t trying to be. Sled Dogs made me openly weep for Cuba, who has so much more potential than that but seems dead-set on shortchanging himself. Now, to think of him stepping into the comedic shoes of Eddie Murphy for another sappy family comedy makes me want to shout, “Cuba, show me the talent! Show me the common sense to run far away from sugary family fare and return to your dramatic roots!”

1) The Last Legion
2) Rush Hour 3
3) Balls of Fury
4) Penelope
5) Death Sentence

Well, anyway, it's looking to be a long summer. Let's hope one of these movies comes through for us. What do you think are going to be the stars of the late summer? What will be the dogs? Chime in...

Friday, July 13, 2007

Harry Potter 7 Predictions (and Hopes)

The film incarnation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix released this past Wednesday and is apparently doing well at the box office. That’s all good and well- I’ll probably see it sometime before the summer is up-, but let’s face it: all eyes are on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Yeah, we all know what will happen in the fifth movie. Harry will get some lip action. Umbridge will take over Hogwarts and be expelled eventually. Harry and the DA will race to the Ministry of Magic for a funhouse showdown with the Death Eaters. And then we will finally see Dumbledore unleash some serious magic on Voldemort. Yes, as excited as I am to see these familiar scenes brought to life, my attention is focused like a laser beam on that seventh and final chapter in which all questions (hopefully) will be answered. HP5 will just have to wait.

So, not to deter from HP5, I would like to present my predictions (and some desperate hopes) for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. After riding with the boy wizard for six large novels and about a decade, we all have set in our minds where we would like Harry, Voldemort, Hermione, Ron, the host of other supporting characters, and the wizarding world at large to end up once we turn that final page. Here are my predictions:

Harry triumphant! – The Order of the Phoenix prophecy regarding Harry and Voldemort’s fated fight to the death has thrown a lot of fans into predicting that Voldemort will kill Harry, since Harry killing Voldemort just seems too predictable and Rowling has been known to deliver some twists. However, let’s look at this from a practical perspective. The prophecy says only one can kill the other; if Voldemort kills Harry, that means no one else can kill Voldemort.

Of course, if we throw the possibility of Neville being the One into the mix, we’re looking at a scenario where Voldemort kills or doesn’t kill Harry, and then, by some stroke of luck, Neville kills the Dark Lord. But how anticlimactic would that be?

No, the only outcome that will reward the fans will be one in which Voldemort and Harry, these two characters that have been so inextricably linked the entire series, have the mother of all wizarding duels and Harry finally puts him down. To have Neville suddenly step in and be the one would be a betrayal of destiny. It would be tantamount to Princess Leia stepping in for Luke for the final battle with Darth Vader- totally non-cathartic, not to mention unlikely.

Plus, if Harry gets killed, that’s just plain depressing. The Potter line would be finished, all of the sacrifices made by his parents, friends, and guardians to protect him would be in vain. We have witnessed Harry slog through a pretty crappy childhood; he deserves some good times now and a peaceful, normal life. So, my first prediction: Harry survives and defeats Voldemort!

Either Ron or Hermione or both bite the dust – Not only will one or both of these characters bite the dust, but they will die at the Dark Lord’s hand trying to save Harry. My rationale for this prediction is thus: the two friends have finally embraced their feelings for each other. The good old hand of fate just can’t help destroying happy couples. On top of that, Harry will need something that just completely pushes him over the edge to go after Voldemort with all of the fury and courage he will undoubtedly need to succeed. True, he’s seen Cedric murdered (a mere acquaintance), Sirius killed (a surrogate father figure), and Dumbledore betrayed (another father figure), and, with each death, he has gotten more and more furious toward the Dark Lord. But you take out one of his close friends, one of his homies, and watch out! It will be Harry like we’ve never seen him before, like Luke hacking off Darth’s hand, like Rocky pulling logs through snow up a frozen Russian mountain. Yes, Ron or Hermione or both will be to Harry what Apollo Creed was to Rocky Balboa, the breaking point, the straw that broke his inhibitions.

Hagrid bites the dust - I know, this would be really sad, but, the way I see it, the big loveable lug, with the way he's always in the thick of danger and his sub-par magic skills, never really stood a chance of lasting the series. Plus, he's the perfect character to knock off. Everyone loves him, which would really pull at the heartstrings. Ultimately, though, he is not vital to the plot or to victory, which makes him dispensable. Loveable and dispensable? Sounds like the perfect casualty to me.

Harry and Ginny live happily ever after – What good is a hero who doesn’t get to hook up with his lady love after the dust settles. Plus, their romantic relationship is still so unexplored, so new; it would just seem pointless and even sadistic for Rowling to put an end to it now. Plus, this opens the door for other series: The Adventures of the Young Potters!

Snape double-crosses Voldemort – It should be obvious to everyone by now that Snape is on his own side in this conflict, with his ultimate goal being usurping all power, including Voldemort’s. Snape is, in effect, a Columbine-like outsider. He’s been picked on. He’s a mudblood, which makes him inferior in the eyes of his fellow Death Eaters. He took on the alias of the Half-Blood Prince, which, in my mind, indicates that he is proud of his half-blood status and considers himself noble, perhaps even the rightful ruler of the wizarding world. He has been amassing powerful spells on the sly. Like so many persecuted high school nerds, Snape wants the world that has teased and tortured him at his feet. And he will burn anyone to do it.

Harry goes international – More a hope than an expectation, I want to see Harry leave the British Isles for once. We have seen and heard of witches in the U.S., Egypt, Africa, France, and elsewhere, but we are yet to travel beyond England. Surely, if this is to be our last outing into the wizarding world, I want to see how this conflict is affecting wizards in other countries. I want to learn about them. The hunt for the horcruxes is a good reason to do this. My fingers are crossed.

Battle royale ensues between the forces of good and the forces of evil – Really, I think this is inevitable. The only real question is, how will Rowling stage it? Will we get more wizards sneaking around castle passages or chases through funhouse sets? Or will we be treated to a real field battle with Harry, the DA, the Order of the Phoenix, and the Ministry on one side and Voldemort, the Death Eaters, the Dementors, the werewolves, and the Inferi on the other, the two sides clashing in open combat in a display of magic and brawn worthy of Middle Earth? Here’s hoping for the latter. I think Rowling owes us this much.

Dumbledore returns – Much has been made of Dumbledore’s similarities to Gandalf. Gandalf seemed to meet a premature demise, only to rise again in the Fellowship’s hour of need. I am hoping that Dumbledore does the same, that we will find in all of Dumbledore’s past lectures to Harry on death and the phoenix itself a clue on Dumbledore’s own rebirth. I think this is unlikely, but here’s hoping. The Order and the Ministry are severely outgunned; they could sure use Dumbledore’s help.

Harry becomes new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher – Come on, we can all see this one coming from a mile away, especially with his chances as an auror being nil and all of the hoo-hah made of his teaching skills and qualifications in Book Five. Plus, this would be the best way to bring the series full circle, from student to teacher, passing on the torch, as it were.

Harry gets a permanent father figure – Whoever destroyed the horcrux and left the note in Book Six will join Harry and eventually become his permanent mentor and surrogate. One of Harry’s key drivers has been his desire to belong to a family and to enjoy parental bonds. The series would not be complete if Harry did not finally get to enjoy this type of relationship. I also predict that this person will be a relative of Sirius Black, but that’s just because B is his last initial and a relative of Sirius would have some kind of motivation to take on the Dark Lord.

Well, those are my predictions. If they are not met, I sure hope Rowling exceeds them and surprises us. We’ll see in a matter of days. What do you think? How will the final volume play out? Who will live? Who will die? Will we be satisfied or left to wallow in what could have been? Chime in!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Inner Child vs Inner Adult on Transformers

I finally saw Transformers. Last week, I carried on in an ode to summer event movies- Transformers, in this case. I also noted my normally high movie standards and how I would put them on hold for this single frolic in childhood memories. As I sat down in the theater and the opening sequence rolled, however, I found myself a dual being: one part the child eating up the unprecedented eye-candy filling the screen and the other part the critical, earth-bound adult painfully aware of the rickety frame of a story along which these images were strung. To enjoy the film, I literally, consciously had to keep telling my inner adult to pipe down and enjoy the ride- not vocally, of course (I kept it in my head so as not to disturb my neighbors). Even now, as I write this entry, the two voices are grappling. I will, therefore, write my feedback on the film as a dialogue between the two sides:

Inner Adult: Okay, so everything is black and then Optimus’ voice fills the room, except that no effort has been made to tone down its cartoon melodrama. The result, cheesy from the start.

Inner Child: Uh, hey, big guy! You’re watching a movie about Autobots and Decepticons from a planet called Cybertron. We’re not exactly in Serious Land here. Try to just relax and take it for what it is.

Inner Adult: Whatever… Okay, so that helicopter robot that just unleashed hell on that military base, that was bad. Even by my lofty adult measuring stick, that scene was awesome.

Inner Child: I concur. Decepticons are coming out big and bad, like I expected they would.

Inner Adult: I’m liking the build up with Sam, his parents, the girl, and his new car. This is proven Spielbergian characterization, and I’m liking it. The girl’s character doesn’t have much pop, she’s kind of just eye-candy, like her CGI co-stars. Why she needs to be here is beyond me, other than that she’s nice to look at. I smell Michael Bay’s influence here. The man is all about images, pretty pictures, big Western sunsets, muscle cars, dirty, sweaty armed servicemen, strong men standing majestically on high places as the camera whirls around them, or strong men walking in a line in slow mo toward the camera; any kind of story is subservient to the image.

Is it just me, or did that scene with the crazy cop exist only to keep the audience laughing during a slow point in the story (by the way, I think Michael Bay hates cops and is infatuated with servicemen). We never saw him again. This isn’t the first scene we’ve seen like this.

Inner Child: Oh, boy! That police car Decepticon is one bad dude. Wait! Yes, Bumblebee to the rescue! This is a great scene, so great, in fact, that I forgot that slow part. This is what I like to see. Rumble, young Bumblebee, rumble!

Inner Adult: Wow! That fight rocked, and those mid-air transformations were tight! I’m glad that girl finally came in handy cutting that stupid, Jar-Jar Binks-like robot to bits. I hope to see more of these battles. They almost make me forget some of the other shoddy story bits we’ve seen so far.

Inner Child: That’s the spirit! Ooh, look! Comets blazing down through the atmosphere and, yippee, slamming right down into the greater LA area!

Inner Adult: Uh, yeah, Bay is infatuated with asteroid-like projectiles. Why did the Autobots need to come down as asteroids? Where have they been? Why haven’t they been there with Bumblebee? Why did the Decepticons get there before them? Why did Bumblebee and the kids go up to Griffiths Observatory only to have to go all the way back down into downtown to meet up with the other Autobots? Again, looks like Bay just wanted to get a cool shot of the meteors streaking over the top of the iconic observatory and also the kids looking at the smoking crater. These looked good in the trailers- it almost seems now that they were created expressly for the trailers and then crammed into the actual film, even though they didn’t necessarily make any sense.

Inner Child: What is with you?

Inner Adult: I’m old and disenchanted.

Inner Child: Obviously. Here they are! The whole band of our favorite Autobots, larger than life, textured, hundreds of little gears and pistons clicking and whirring under their armor. That’s hot!

Inner Adult: The F/X get an A+. However, I don’t remember Jazz talking like some forced hip-hop artist stereotype. I also don’t remember them being hostile to humans at all. Looks like Bay is injecting some of his testosterone juice into our beloved characters- to no good effect. In the cartoon, they were noble, loyal, and even a little child-like. Bay’s just turning them into more of his roughneck, bad-as-I-wanna-be jarheads.

Inner Child: At least they look great!

Inner Adult: Whatever… Thank goodness for those funny parents! At least they have something to do with the story. And the girl used to be a car thief? Oh, now she has a personality because she’s a bad girl- NOT! Sector 7? Cool, X-files-type stuff but not really part of the core mythology. I mean, honestly, why throw in all this military, government conspiracy crap? And they keep Megatron disabled with ice? Since when was that a way to disable these super-robots capable of traveling for millennia in the extreme cold of space? And just as a side note, is Bay incapable of building suspense? He has the scenes set up for such suspense, but he just seems to be in such a hurry to hits us over the head with the next amazing shot that he never dwells on those great little moments. I can’t believe Steven Spielberg sat down in the screening room and said, “This movie is ready for theaters!”

Inner Child: I can’t believe you’re still talking. Can we just watch the movie please? I mean, check out this shot of Starscream transforming in mid-air and flipping up onto the dam. You have to admit, that was tight!

Inner Adult: Yes, it was tight… a month ago when I saw it on the trailer.

Inner Child: I hate you. You’re ruining this.

Inner Adult: Don’t blame me. Blame it on the Bay. Okay, so Megatron is now thawing, and those nameless measuring guys are still just hanging around, waiting to get creamed. Ouch! That had to hurt. Oh, and they have a plan to take this cube, which is pretty much blood in the water for the vicious Decepticons, into the heart of a major metropolitan area where there will be lots of helpless civilians in the line of fire. By car, the trip will take at least 4 hours, but we’ll never see a sign a Starscream the whole trip, even though he’s a jet, capable of flying at supersonic speeds. Why the long trip to LA? Because Mr. Bay thought it would look cooler if they were bashing into skyscrapers. It’s probably as simple and ridiculous as that.

Inner Child: You have to admit, though, it does look cool, kind of taking us back to those old Godzilla vs. Mothra movies, eh?

Inner Adult: But it doesn’t make sense.

Inner Child: Transforming robots from a planet named Cybertron don’t make sense, period.

Inner Adult: Okay, yeah, it would look cool if the guy holding the handheld camera were sober. I can’t even tell what’s happening. I think the guy was just stumbling down the street in a drunken stupor. Bay called it artistic and went on to the next shot. And you gotta be kidding me: the Autobots are getting trashed. They need the military to save them? This is sick and wrong. Anyone who watched the cartoons knows that the Autobots were always tougher than the Decepticons. The Decepticons talked a big game but always turned tail when the Autobots pushed back. What’s this getting-saved-by-Marines stuff? Retarded! Bumblebee getting dragged around on a tow truck, looking like Lt. Dan? The horror! And now I’m getting too motion sick to even complain…

Inner Child: Listen, I don’t care what you say! That fight between Optimus and the big construction vehicle thing was awesome. We’ve never seen anything like that on film ever. And his battle with Megatron was crazy-big and bad.

Inner Adult: Except that Megatron is making him his monkey, his plaything! This would never happen on the cartoon. Optimus was the most formidable warrior. When he fought with Megatron, it was tooth and nail, to the death. None of this stupid Optimus-getting-tossed-around-helplessly-like-a-rag-doll crap! And this tops it all: Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots, getting saved by the Disney Channel kid??!!!

Inner Child: Whoa! You’re really, uh, uptight. Why can’t you just enjoy the good stuff? It’s just a movie, after all, a form of entertainment.

Inner Adult: And why did Bumblebee get his voice back all of the sudden? Why is Optimus holding up Jazz’s mangled remains like a trophy or something?

Inner Child: Just calm down, calm down, ssshhhhhh…

Inner Adult: I’m really angry about this movie. I just want you to know that.

Inner Child: Your opinion is noted.

Inner Adult: It’s not an opinion. It’s an expert diagnosis.

Inner Child: Whatever…

That was therapeutic and about sums up my take on Transformers. Did anyone else experience this same schizophrenia? I loved the graphics but had major issues with the story and characters. Tell me what you thought. Chime in!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Transformers and the Real Event Movie

I have a confession to make: Two days have passed since the release of Transformers, and I am yet to see it. On Tuesday, I began immersing myself in all of the reviews filling the web. Yesterday, I napped and hung around until the evening, went to an embarrassingly gluttonous barbeque, shot off some outstanding illegal fireworks, disappeared before the cops showed up, and watched one of the nation’s best fireworks shows from a nearby hilltop. Yes, I let the entire holiday pass without so much as considering purchasing a ticket for this movie, which I have been awaiting since gluing my peepers to the TV set every afternoon as that much-reverenced cartoon series unspooled episode after great episode. I feel a certain sense of embarrassment in admitting this, but my abstinence is not without purpose. I have a good reason…

You see, Transformers, in my mind, is an event movie, the likes of which we have not seen for a while. Not one of those media-forced “event” movies that get crammed down our throats every summer. No, I mean a real event movie, a film that somehow electrifies our collective social consciousness, taps into some force deep in our social psyche. The buzz generated by a real event movie is not created by quantity of commercials or product placements or good reviews. Real event movies build like a storm over society, condensing all of our fears, anxieties, and values until ready to burst. And then burst they do, like Niagara they pour down on us and change us. ET was a movie like this. When the Death Star finally exploded on Return of the Jedi, the whole of humanity seemed to exclaim with Lando as the Empire was finally stomped. Independence Day, in its day of renewed interest and paranoia regarding alien invasion and mysterious region-wide blackouts, was a real social experience; we had undergone and proudly survived a seemingly unwinnable war. Armageddon, drawing on growing apocalyptic anxieties, turned the end of the world into a mass religious experience.

Real event movies are almost a religious experience and so must be entered into with preparation. In my case, I knew I could not just see this movie by myself or with my wife or my kids. Transformers means the resurrection of my and my friends’ long-lost playtimes. Therefore, I knew I had to see this movie with my buddies, my brothers from other mothers. Yes, we had to engage in this communal activity, this renewal of our childhood fantasies together. We are all grown now, some married, some not, some employed, others not, some happy, some not. However, for two and some odd hours this coming Saturday, we will gather for the first time in years, sit down in a theater together, and re-experience our childhood fantasies, except now in new millennium, CGI-enhanced, THX-fueled glory. We will drop all of our grown-up responsibilities, our failures and successes since leaving childhood behind, remove our adult facades, and we will become those boys with their toys again.

Usually, I am very hard on movies. I demand a high standard from most films I see. But event movies are always a different story, for their relevance and impact supersede what you see on the screen. The critics say this movie is made for kids and kids at heart; I say perfect. They say it is shallow but fun and that the action sequences are amazing but that there isn’t much depth beneath the surface action; I say perfect. This isn’t about creating the next Best Picture-winner, nor is it about just blowing up a lot of stuff and having a bunch of cheap one-liners, although it is sure to have those thrown in. No, this is about seeing Optimus and Megatron clash, about seeing 3-story-tall robots barrel through buildings, cars, overpasses, and tanks, about seeing these formerly flat, 2-D characters enter our 3-D world. This about making our toy battles real.

There are hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of people like me out there. They have been waiting, like my friends and me, for over twenty years. The mythology of Transformers has been floating on our lips. After seeing one great F/X spectacle after another, all of us have had the thought at one point another: “Man, I bet the Transformers would be great in CGI!” I even wrote my own treatment of a possible Transformers script. And now, the event is finally here. And an event it truly is. So, pardon me if I take my time and do it right. Yes, I will enjoy this realization of so many years of playtime, imagining, and wondering with those who I know will be experiencing the same thing. And that demands some bargaining with wives or girlfriends and careful scheduling to bring us all together.

Anyway, you know where I’ll be this Saturday afternoon. I will not be wearing an Optimus mask, but I wear the Autobot badge on my heart with pride. Tell me what you all think about Transformers. Have you seen it? Are planning to see it? What do you think of it? Is it a true event movie or just another over-hyped ride in the long line of so-called summer blockbusters? Who will you be seeing Transformers with? Chime in!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Adaptations, Updates, and Just Plain Acts of Desperation

The new Live Free or Die Hard comes out today, 12 years after our last outing with John McClane. Critics have been unable to resist comparing this oddly timed update of the Die Hard franchise with the recent return of Rocky Balboa (17 years after Rocky 5) and the upcoming (ultra-bloody) return of John Rambo (almost 20 years after Rambo 3). Now, if we could just get Commando 2, Delta Force 3, and Red Dawn 2, we could call this a real ‘80s action reunion!

But seriously, the studios have been quite unabashed recently in digging back into their winning franchises of the past. Examples of this include the Charlie’s Angels duology, the Mummy duology, Superman Returns, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, all of the recent John Carpenter remakes, Will Smith’s upcoming I am Legend, Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor, Adam Sandler’s The Longest Yard, the upcoming updates of Clash of the Titans, Escape from New York, Transformers, GI Joe, and He-Man, and many, many more. This coming fall on TV, we will see souped up reincarnations of the Bionic Woman and Flash Gordon.

I have commented a lot lately on Hollywood’s inclination to mine the past, whether it be adapting works from novels, short stories, comic books, amusement park rides, or video games to the screen, reviving existing silver screen franchises, or just plain pillaging the vaults of the great films of the past. In other businesses, this is called harnessing your core competencies or getting behind a tried and true product. It works for Coca Cola and Cadillac and General Mills. In the entertainment industry, however, it just signals a gross shortage of original ideas.

Now don’t get me wrong: not all of these have been bad. Some may have even outdone their predecessors. Peter Jackson’s King Kong, for instance, paid respectful homage to the original but breathed new post-modern life into it technically, dramatically, and artistically. It will not be hard to outdo the laughable production value or the rickety stop-motion creatures of the original Clash of the Titans. I predict that Will Smith will easily outperform Charlton Heston’s Omega Man, which strayed far from its own source material and drowned itself in ‘60s psychadelia and religio-phobic social commentary. Indeed, great movies can come from this revival of past material.

Nevertheless, some attempts have just been plain shameful. The John Carpenter remakes, for example, have basically proceeded in this fashion: “Remember that Carpenter flick. That movie rocked! But just imagine if they did the same movie with new CGI. Hey, wait a minute… What if we did the same movie just with new CGI?! Oh, man, this is going to make a fortune. Hand me that original script and I’m just going to add in more violence and more chances to show off those digital effects.” Other attempts, like the Charlie’s Angels movies, have taken this tack: “Remember that good old TV series about those hot chicks who solved crimes for that old guy they never saw. That was so funny but also so hip, what with all the girl power messaging and retro fashions. I bet that would have some good audience recognition value. But, man, no one would ever want to see a movie about three women who were just plain detectives. I mean, how could we ever do any ridiculously distracting, unbelievably choreographed visual tricks and fight sequences with such a boring bunch of characters… Wait a minute! A lightbulb just came on! Why don’t we call it ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ but then insert three totally different girls, ditsy girls with inexplicable kung fu skills, heavy weaponry experience, and a massive wardrobe. They’ll still talk to that old guy through the radio but that’s about it. When we aren’t thrilling the audience with wire-fu acrobatics, we’ll keep them hooked by blasting pop tunes and making fun of the original series. Oh, that’s ironic and sassy. Audiences love ironic and sassy. It’s genius!”

So what’s the deal with Hollywood? Why are they unable (or unwilling) to create original characters and stories for film and TV? Obviously, they want something with a proven track record and a fan base. I get that. But shouldn’t they also be seeking to create the next great franchise, the next Star Wars, the next Matrix, the next Die Hard? The truth is simple: adaptations and updates = low risk investment; completely original = high risk investment. That’s why the studios reserve their gambles on original content for low budget comedies and dramas. Yes, my friends, the accountants are holding the staff of power here. Unfortunately, these accountants have no eye for a good investment or a bad investment, only for high or low risk. And that’s no way to invest in any business.

So, at this rate it seems that great original blockbusters will be a once-in-a-decade phenomenon. Expect to see every TV show, movie, book, video game, consumer packaged good, or song you ever even thought might make a decent film make it to the big or small screen. And expect those movies you love today to be recycled as many times as they possibly can to turn a profit. Some will be good; some will be desperate, blood-sucking pieces of no-good commercial trash.

So, is there any hope for great original blockbusters in the near future? Is Hollywood so caught up in risk and marketability that a glimpse of one of these might be as rare as a sasquatch sighting? Should I just be happy with those great adaptations and updates that come our way- just put up or shut up? Chime in and throw in your two cents!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Superhero Overload?

Since the box office success of the first X-Men movie back in 2000 (which was in turn made possible by The Matrix), we have been treated to an unparalleled smorgasbord of superhero cinema. Like most smorgasbords, some offerings have been incredible, some have been mere filler, and some have made us want to run to the restroom to relieve ourselves of their weight. With Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight slated for next summer, more helpings are on the way. One of my fellow Extralife Forum-ites recently posted the following gripe:

“Ok, we get it. You can shoot a movie about a comic book hero and make almost a billion dollars. Now stop. In the past decade, there have been TWO "good" superhero movies, and only one I enjoyed (Batman Begins). Everything else is complete crap that is obviously a marketing decision rather than an artistic choice.”

Now, you must realize, I have been a comic book fan since I was old enough to read. Throughout the eighties and nineties, I endured through the obvious disparity between the rich, utter coolness of the comic books and their embarrassingly campy TV and movie counterparts. Then, finally, after keeping the faith, we came to a window in history where unprecedented interest in comic book material converged with advances in special effects. Finally, superhero movies could be produced that actually did justice to their source material from both a F/X standpoint and a dramatic standpoint.

Since 2000, there have been some bombs (i.e. Punisher, Elektra, Catwoman). There has been a lot of filler (i.e. Daredevil, X3, Spiderman 3, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Fantastic Four). These have had some great moments in and of themselves; more importantly, though, they have advanced filmmakers’ superhero instincts, helped them to see what works and what doesn’t. For instance, it’s obvious that filmmakers are moving away from mindless action and explosions and delving instead into their characters core struggles; dramatic substance is moving up the priority list.

Most importantly, this rush to produce superhero films has given birth to arguably the greatest films of the genre, films that not only master the source material, but also the medium. I speak of films like Spiderman 2, Batman Begins, Hellboy, and even X-Men 2 that have been successful critically, commercially, and in regards to their contribution to their source material. I would argue that these films would not have been possible without the other lukewarm eighty percent of superhero films, that it was the trial and error- the synergies of all of these projects, if you will- that created the right environment for these films to be produced so well.

So, with so many superhero films in theaters and on the way are we suffering from superhero overload? No. I think we could stand to do away with some crap (Please don’t ever allow another Zoom: Academy for Superheroes to ever be made… e-v-e-r). But for the most part, superhero fans are finally getting what we have waited for. We are seeing justice done to our most beloved characters. True, we have to expect that not every filmmaker will get it right. But with each Ghostrider and every overly metaphysical outing with the Hulk, Hollywood gets better at bringing our heroes to life. Suffering through these experiments is worth it when we get to see Batman or Spidey done right.

Stop making superhero films? Not on your life. Bring them on, I say!

What do you say? Too many superhero movies got you crying, “UNCLE”? Or are you loving this downpour of super-movies? Chime in and put in your two cents!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Why Ratatouille will be the best movie of the summer

At risk of sounding overly simplistic, I want to predict that Pixar’s Ratatouille (coming to theaters this Friday, June 22) will be the best movie of the summer simply because it is a Pixar movie. Okay, not just because it’s a Pixar film. It’s helmed by Incredibles director Brad Bird. Now that pretty much seals the deal. You see, in my thirty years of being a film nut, I have learned that, almost without exception, actors will let you down, special effects studios will disappoint, and screenwriters can be pretty inconsistent. But you follow directors, and you can be pretty sure of what you’ll get. Take, for instance, Brad Bird: directed the underrated Iron Giant and then (que fanfare…) directed The Incredibles, one of the greatest superhero movies of all time.

I became an instant fan after stumbling out of the theater, mumbling, “That was the freakin’ awesomest movie ever.” Or so my wife says. I can’t be sure, my mind was blown. The movie was an astounding technical achievement, a touchingly believable family story, and a rocking, high-octane action trip. All of that wrapped into a PG-rated “kids” movie. Basically, I went home and made a secret oath to Mr. Bird: “Brad Bird, I will follow you to any movie theater. If you make a movie about talking pretzel crumbs who inhabit a truck driver’s seat cushion, I will be there. If you make a movie about grass growing, I’ll be there.” Suffice it to say, Brad Bird propelled himself to the pantheon of great directors in my book, to sit alongside the likes of Spielberg and Peter Jackson.

Is it any wonder then that I am so quick to bestow the title of best summer film on his next release, without even having seen it? Maybe. Call it faith. Call it some kind of connection to the way the man thinks. If you’ve seen his featurettes on the Incredibles DVD, you get a feeling for the way he takes a story and characters, breaks them down, understands them, puts them together, and fine tunes them into one hotrod of a story. He is a disciplined, empathetic storyteller, first and foremost, unlike so many of the other animators inhabiting the marketplace today who are mere vendors of cheap, loud, and quick gags and clichéd characters. Because of that discipline, that attention to the process, Brad Bird cannot create the same kind of crap that recently washed up on shore. He is simply above it.

A look at Ratatouille’s trailers shows only more of the same original, rich, envelope-pushing magic from Mr. Bird. I love the fact that he didn’t go for another slam-bang action story but that he has chosen instead to turn his disciplined eye on a smaller tale about rats and fine cuisine. It assures that his attention is on what matters- the story and the characters-, not on delivering a bigger explosion or a more eye-popping special effect. That’s not to say that Ratatouille will be without Bird’s inventive action scenes; in fact, early reviews report that it has plenty of awe- and laughter-inducing action. It’s only to say that Bird will deliver on all fronts.

Does that seem like too simplistic a way to evaluate movies, especially before they’re released? Not in this case. There are very few filmmakers nowadays in whom we can rely for a winner every time; I believe that Brad Bird is one of those.

Do you think that Ratatouille will be the summer’s best film? Can we tell without even having seen it? Have you also taken the Brad Bird oath (please tell me I’m not alone)? Throw in your two cents!

Friday, June 15, 2007

Long Live Sci-Fi!!!

Fellow sci-fi lovers, ALERT!!! According to one apparently high-brow writer, Bill Gibron, we don’t really love sci-fi- we love actioners, dramas, thrillers merely posing as science fiction. True, intellectually stimulating, speculative science fiction is all but extinct, according to Gibron. I quote:

“There are several villains in this creative cabal, elements and individuals that want to see the motion picture category cater to fanboys, geeks, and the easily entertained. But it seems a real shame that the one literary ideal best suited for the most visual of all mediums is constantly countermanded by issues that have nothing to do with either artforms’ visionary nature… Instead of reaching for intelligence and stretching the boundaries of imagination, it [sci-fi film] decides to take hoary old clichés, lots of narrative formula, and one man’s [George Lucas’] F/X laced legacy, and completely rewrite the rules of acceptability. Where once the speculative spectacle questioned the existence of man within the cosmos, today it’s all Westerns with robots.”

Gibron defines “serious” science fiction thus: “Serious science fiction questions and speculates…” (for his full text, click here)

Which causes me to ask, “Are our current science fiction pictures void of that questioning, speculative spirit? Are they all robots, mutants, spaceships, and big guns with no scientific backbone?” I would state that speculation and questioning have never been more present in sci-fi films than they are now. Despite the obvious pulp posers, sci-fi films have not ceased to explore, to envision, and to question our world. In any great science fiction work, going back to H.G Wells and Jules Verne, speculation has never taken precedence over story and character. Regardless of genre, story and character drive any great film, not mere visionary ideas. Moreover, spectacle is the instrument of speculation in science fiction- it always has been, from Metropolis to The Matrix.

I take some great examples of this from Gibron’s list of the last surviving sci-fi movies. 2001: A Space Odyssey, perhaps the film paragon of science fiction, was a wonderful display of mind-blowing ideas. However, the engine that kept that story moving was essentially a thriller template. That engine allowed the audience to stick around long enough to enjoy the meatier speculation taking place. Did this diminish 2001’s “serious” sci-fi status? No, it propelled it to the upper echelons of both film and sci-fi. Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a story of a midlife crisis and discovery; one might even label it escapist. Was it lacking in spectacle, just OMG moments of pure awe? Certainly not. The Mothership (as long as we’re discrediting F/X) blew every young child’s mind and had us watching the skies for years to come, questioning and wondering. As in 2001, the story, characters, and the spectacle drove us forward to those visionary moments.

Without spectacle and human characters and stories, the audience is alienated. And it’s not because we are afflicted by some mass plague of ADHD. It’s because we demand a human connection with our films; we want our sci-fi to show us something un-thought of, unseen. Think, for instance, of the beginning sequence of 2001, with the ape-men and the flying bones. Even to this day, as a mature appreciator of film, I have a hard time digesting that scene. It’s not until we get to that core conflict of Dave and HAL that I become invested enough in the movie to care about the other ideas. The Matrix, on the other hand, has me by the throat from the get-go because it hits us right away with a critical human conflict, a lone female freedom fighter running from the Man. Kung-fu, F/X, and some of the biggest shootouts we’ve ever seen don’t detract us from its incredibly transcending themes- they illuminate and enhance them.

I believe that these same principles live in other films and TV shows that did not make Gibron’s list. I believe that true sci-fi is not dead. Serenity’s premise of the origin of the Reapers was as speculative and searching as any great sci-fi. Minority Report’s questions regarding intrusion of justice into privacy (as well as its myriad of tiny speculations on marketing, identity issues, and manufacturing) are the stuff of the best sci-fi. Terminator 2 raised important questions regarding artificial intelligence and artificial ethics. And let us not forget that subtly sci-fi treat which is Lost, especially with its recent launch into space-time issues created by the Island’s unique magnetic properties. Even the recent flood of zombie films and literature are speculative science fiction at heart.

Yes, true science fiction lives. As in any time, we have our films that are merely gratuitous (I’ll be the first to denounce Aliens vs. Predator as true sci-fi). The genre will continue to evolve, to absorb properties of other genres, and to produce its winners and losers. But that quality will always be present in a great many of them either explicitly or implicitly. Long live science fiction!

I recommend reading Gibron’s article and then tell us what you think. Do you side with Gibron? Is science fiction on its deathbed? Or does it continue to thrive? What movies or TV shows (if any) carry on the sci-fi legacy?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Top 5 New Occupations for Reed Richards

In preparation for the release of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, I will be highlighting a member of the team every day this week. Today’s FF spotlight is on Reed Richards.

I’ve never liked Reed Richards (aka Mr. Fantastic). I say it without reservation. Think about it: out of all of the Marvel headliners, Reed Richards, because of his “super” power, is the dorkiest-looking character. The forever gray temples don’t help. I mean, look at the Thing- big, covered with rock, virtually unstoppable, bad to the bone. Sue Storm Richards: hot as all get out, pretty decent superpower (for a female character), looks great in a blue FF uniform. Johnny Storm: turns into living white-hot flame, flies, shoots jets of flame, has cool catch phrase, bad to the bone.

But then you have Reed: old guy, skinny, can stretch his body in cartoony ways (like Plastic Man), pretty much the smartest guy on the planet. Super-smart, I can work with that. But stretchy powers equals weak, vulnerable, maybe good for itching that one spot right between the shoulder blades, and visually comedic. Honestly, I can’t see a picture of the FF together without humming the song, “One of these kids is doing his own thing…” It’s like, “Hmmm. He’s bad, she’s hot, he’s bad… WHOA! Who let that Looney Tune in here?” Even the movie-version has not been able to escape this (Ex: Reed using his powers to grab another roll of TP, Reed stretching his neck out ET-style as he proposes to Jessica Alba).

Therefore, I am recommending that Reed find another occupation and stop embarrassing his family with his goofy-looking self. My Top Five New Occupations for Reed Richards are:

5. Holiday Inn Maid – Think of all the rooms he could clean at one time with his ability to stretch up to 1500 feet. And with his ability to narrow his body (narrow enough to fit through the eye of a needle) he could really get at those hard-to-scrub areas. Heck, he could even double as a plumber. Of course, he would need to use his super-intelligence to learn a second language.

4. UFC Grappler – Look out, Sean Sherk! Here comes Reed “The Rubber Band” Richards. Eye-gouging? Not a problem. Reed can bounce bullets back and contain explosions. With his elastic appendages, Reed could administer, or break, the meanest holds with ease. Let them laugh at his Looney Tunes-like appearance; they would soon feel the sting of this “Rubber Band.”

3. “Just For Men” Haircolor Model – So Reed has had gray temples for the last 46 years. That certainly makes him someone the “graying hair” community can relate to. The commercials would go something like this: “My teammates used to leave me out when they went to clubs or showdowns with supervillains. I just looked too old, they said. My wife used to leave me like every five years and sneak around with Namor. Then I decided to give Just For Men haircoloring a try.” This could be a great opportunity for Reed to improve his marketability and get Sue hooked for once.

2. Jim Carrey’s Understudy – If he’s gonna look goofy, why not make some dough off of it? And my number one new occupation for Reed Richards is…

1. New Microsoft CEO – He’s applied his genius to fending off alien invasions, nefarious plots by Dr. Doom, and even crossed the threshold of Heaven itself. But can he help Microsoft create a product that actually makes things easier. Now there's a challenge worthy of this super-prodigy mental faculties. Reed, I recommend that you take the current management, lock them in the Negative Zone, and hire a bunch of Apple programmers.

Hope no one out there is a big Reed Richards fan! You gotta love that wacky guy.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Is Stan still the Man?

The headline caught my attention: “STAN LEE SIGNS DEAL WITH DISNEY.” After all, this is Stan Lee, father of Spiderman, X-Men, Hulk, and countless other iconic Marvel comic superheroes. Superheroes, I should mention, that have ultimately defined modern comics and summer blockbusters, making a lot of sweet moola in the process. Indeed, aside from Bob Kane, Joe Shuster, and Jerry Siegel, nobody has left their footprint on the superhero world like Stan Lee. But then I wonder, If Stan’s most notable characters are owned by Marvel and the media companies, what is he bringing to Disney (I’m also asking, Disney, of all places?). So, by this point very curious, I read the article (see link below).

Turns out Stan won’t be bringing any of his Marvel characters to Disney, but a bunch of new characters he has been concocting at his company Pow! Entertainment. Obviously, Disney is trying to compensate for the foolish mistake they made when they let billion-dollar money machine Spiderman go to Sony Pictures, or blockbusting X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises to Fox, or even the Hulk to Universal. A little slow on the uptake (“Hey, maybe there is something to this comic-book-superhero-movie thing?”), Disney is willing to settle for characters that have not been tested and, therefore, have no core fan base. They’re probably saying something like, “Well, they’re superheroes, aren’t they? Made by that same Stanley guy, right? Well, just throw ‘em out there. The money will come rolling in, right?” Wrong, Disney.

Not all of Marvel’s superheroes have turned into successful franchises. Even those with sizeable fan bases (i.e. Daredevil, Captain America, Punisher), have had a tough go at it. Those that have been successful had a few ingredients in common: massive (and I mean, massive) fan bases, competent directors who respected the material and the fans, and a genuinely solid end product, from script to acting to FX to marketing. Apparently, when it comes to superhero films, fans fuel the movie; the larger majority will buy in if it has the best quality. So, this then begs the question: will Stan’s relatively obscure characters make bank without the necessary fan base?

I stopped by Stan’s Pow! Entertainment website to check out some of his new characters. One character is a warrior with a Cable-like cybernetic arm from the future named “The Drifter.” Another called “Stripperella” (“stripper by night, superhero by later at night”) will probably not make the Disney cut but already has her own show on Spike TV. One superhero named Lightspeed, an agent with superpowers, apparently has a Sci-Fi Channel movie in development. I recommend going to the Pow! website to take a look at some of the others. Most of them are still in development and don’t have much information provided.

If you couldn’t tell, I am skeptical that these characters will reap any real rewards for Disney. I doubt they will result in anything more than a few straight-to-DVD features or Sci-Fi miniseries, maybe a Disney Channel original movie. You’ve gotta admire Stan’s creativity, the gifts he gave us in the X-Men, Hulk, and Spiderman. But let’s face it: these franchises have grown beyond him, fueled by a long legacy of gifted writers and artists and loyal fans. You can’t just toss a product into the market with the Stan Lee name on it and expect the same return. Not going to happen.

What do you think? Anyone think that this is just the most spectacularly brilliant strategy Disney has ever devised? How will Stan’s new characters fare in the marketplace? Chime in.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Coming Soon: The Glory Days or Gory Demise of '80s Cartoons?

First off, I want to thank everyone who has posted comments so far. Keep them coming! Now on to my rant...

It should be obvious to anyone that ‘80s cartoons are making a comeback in a big way. Everything from vinyl baseball caps with Autobot iron-on logos on teenagers who are way too young to remember to the recent CGI reincarnation of the ninja turtles. Yes, since the golden ‘80s, the faithful have grown up and kept the faith, hoarding action figures, creating comic books and TV series to keep their favorite cartoons in the collective consciousness. Recently, however, we have seen a surge in the hunger for our childhood heroes to return. Hollywood and the media machine have smelled that hunger and are licking their chops. What does this inevitable feeding frenzy bode for our favorite cartoon heroes?

Of course, most prominently, I am referring to the upcoming Transformers extravaganza from Spielberg and Michael Bay. I am also referring, though, to talk of upcoming live-action versions of GI Joe and He-Man (see links below). A while ago, there were even rumors of Voltron and the Smurfs making their big-screen debuts. Lesser known is the live-action Underdog feature releasing later this summer. ALERT!!! Hollywood has discovered the mythological, merchandising, and loyal fan base gold mine that is ‘80s cartoons!

Honestly, I am torn concerning this development. On one hand, I have been waiting to see big-screen, big budget treatments of these stories and characters since watching and playing with them as a child. I realize that only the big studios have the deep pockets to do justice to these characters. On the other hand, however, imagining the many ways in which the studios, in their paranoid scramble to make a movie that “everyone” can relate to, will completely desecrate my cherished childhood memories makes me cringe. Just seeing the Autobots mutated into a bunch of pimped out auto show entrants (Bumblebee as a muscle car?) worries me.

He-Man is a tragic example of this. On the eve of the Transformers' live-action debut, well do I remember what the Hollywood machine did to poor He-Man when they released Masters of the Universe. In an age when regular actors didn’t get buffed up, they picked Dolph Lundgren… DOLPH “IVAN DRAGO” LUNDGREN!!!... to play our beloved He-Man, complete with a very un-Eternia-ish Russian accent. That faithful Orko was nowhere to be seen, replaced by some dwarven wizard played by Billy Barty. Teela was nowhere near as hot as she was in the cartoon. To add insult to injury, a great deal of the story was taken away from He-Man’s crew and centered instead around a couple of angst-ridden earthling teenagers. Oh, the horror!

Note that this pattern has not seemed to affect cartoon incarnations of our favorite shows. For instance, the animated Transformers movie completely rocked. The animated GI Joe movie (released straight to video) also rocked. Where Hollywood has faltered, the true faithful at Cartoon Network and other great animation studios have kept the heart of our heroes alive.

At any rate, only time will tell how much of our beloved Transformers has survived when it releases July 4. I don’t think I can, now in my less tolerant, more crotchety stage, tolerate another Masters of the Universe. I love what I’ve seen so far of Transformers (except for those suspicious, angst-ridden teenagers… grrr). The most recent preview, I swear, was pulled straight from my wildest dreams. I hope they have respected the characters, honored the story, and picked the right players. If they can do for ‘80s cartoons what Jackson did for LOTR, they will have my loyalty. If they don’t, I’m afraid it will be war.

Which side do you fall on: optimistically hoping the studios will respect the territory or fearfully waiting for the inevitable sacrilege? Does anyone else out there remember the disgrace that was Masters of the Universe? Everybody weigh in! Let us know what you think!

Also, check out the links below to find out more about the upcoming He-Man and GI Joe films:


GI Joe:,,20014165,00.html

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

First Ocean's 13 Review

Although I've never been a big Ocean's fan, Steven Soderbergh' smooth, witty style is always a welcome break from the summer barrage of high intensity, high stakes, drama-heavy offerings. It's nice to go to a place where nothing of real importance is at stake every now and then. You've got to admire the Ocean's franchise, if only for its untouchable sense of cool.

At any rate, Variety has released the first review of Ocean's Thirteen and it sounds favorable. Click the following link to check out the review: // Variety puts out some good reviews, to the point and usually spot on.
Tell me what you think. Will 13 outdo 11? Who do you think is the coolest of the eminently cool Ocean's crew? Will this franchise ever over-cool its audience into a freeze?

Monday, June 4, 2007

On being unimpressed...

Call me picky. Heck, you can even call me high-minded, artsy, or overly critical when it comes to movies and TV. For some it's just entertainment. That's fine. For me, however, when you sink hundreds of millions of dollars into production and then hundreds of millions more into convincing the world that it will be worth it, make sure the movie you make is worth it, for pete sake! Way too many movies as of late fall far short of their expected return.

Although the majority of summer movies could fall into this sad category, I am speaking specifically of those two most recent megaliths: Spiderman 3 and Pirates 3. Their budgets eclipse those of the last Star Wars movies or Titanic, which, for its time, was borderline insane. Why is it that they can buy the most elaborate special effects sequences known to man in post-production but seem to skimp on the screenplay in pre-production? The result is like a body builder's muscles on a weak, brittle-boned skeleton.

Don't get me wrong- I ooh and aah at those mindblowing sequences that every now and then take us somewhere we haven't been before. Peter Jackson has a knack for conjuring those kinds of images. Spielberg does, too. The Wachowski's took a quantum leap with a single new shooting technique. These images summon those feelings of awe, dread, or glory that the best movies have always delivered. But it isn't the high-technology of the shot alone that conveys those feelings- in fact, it mostly isn't. The effects have to sit squarely on an awesome story. Honestly, the most expensive FX sequences have failed to deliver.

One glaring example of this was the crane disaster sequence in Spidey 3. It was bigger than any building rescue scene we've seen so far in the trilogy. The FX were more seamless than ever. Spidey had more obstacles to surmount. There were people screaming and webs slinging. So why did it feel so empty? Because it existed for its own sake.

What does this imply about the studios' opinion of their audience? I can picture those studio execs sitting in the screening room, chomping on the finest Cubans, saying, "Oh, yeah, the story! I heard those are good to have. But what I think people really want to see is bigger explosions, bigger dinosaurs, bigger tidal waves." That's when another exec guffaws, "People aren't patient enough for a story. Hurry throw another FX scene in there before they realize we don't have real characters!" Moviegoers want a longterm love affair with their movies; the studios are giving us one night stands. Dramatic drops in ticket sales after opening weekends indicate this.

So pardon me if I seem unimpressed. It's not just because I am becoming prematurely crotchety. Occasionally, movies do come along that still blow my mind. Return of the King blew my mind. Spiderman 2 took me for a ride. King Kong blew my mind. Some parts of War of the Worlds blew my mind. I have every finger crossed that Transformers blows my mind. Will I be disappointed? Only time will tell. Given Michael Bay's record for visuals and ADHD editing before story and characterization, I may need more fingers to cross. As far as satisfaction, I am betting on Pixar's Ratatouille to give me the most bang for my buck.

Calling all film and TV geeks, filmmakers, and fakers...

Around the world, after the late night show or matinee, groups of film-philes inevitably congregate in diners, fast-food joints, or cafes to re-experience, analyze, extrapolate, debate, and otherwise immerse themselves tirelessly in those collective communions we all know as moviegoing and TV-watching.

This blog is dedicated to those stalwart souls at that corner table at one o'clock in the morning, neglecting their Moons-Over-My-Hammy to defend Empire Strikes Back as the single greatest space fantasy movie ever... period.

It's dedicated to those troops slamming down another cup of joe to valiantly fend off suggestions that the Lost Island is actually purgatory.

It's dedicated to that brave upstart who dares challenge Citizen Kane's supposed title of best movie of all time.

Whether you are a fan, a critic, a filmmaker, or a faker, this table is reserved for you. Have a seat, order some dessert, and make yourself comfortable.

Seeing as we are already knee-deep in the '07 summer movie season, we have so much to discuss in so little time. So many so-called blockbusters to dissect and discredit ... or appreciate and laud (I do give props where props are due).

Coming tomorrow: an intense throwdown on the twin goliaths Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End and Spiderman 3 and prognostications on what the rest of the summer season will bring! (I predict a rat will outdo an army of two-story tall robots...)