Interest in Reviews?

Now, keep in mind Mike can’t control when movies begin or end…

Someone asked me last week if I’d be reviewing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I didn’t want to see the movie much less review it. But if you guys would be interested in reading them, I’ll take that bullet.

I’ll try to work more in should you want them. I’ve actually been toying with reviewing Hannibal from the beginning to gin up interest in the show before Season 3 starts in February. I may eventually review Twin Peaks episode by episode, too, but again those projects were meant to be on my own time, at my own pace.

Let me know in the comments (or on Facebook) if anyone would be interested in more reviews, both movies and TV, on here.

 

Batman v. Superman – Dark Knight Details? (Spoilers)

A storied career

Some details about the characterization of Batman in Batman v. Superman may have come out in a few reports originating on BadassDigest.com and perpetuated on Ain’t It Cool News and IGN.com. They’re encouraging! At least I think so.

Devin Faraci’s reports:

…when BvS opens Batman has existed for close to thirty years, which would place Wayne in his 50s (which is why I expected more grey in Affleck’s hair). In this version Batman is still an urban legend, a creature of the night, and no one has ever taken his picture. But he’s had plenty of adventures, and the Batcave includes a memorial centered around a tattered Robin costume.

It goes on to note similar information about Wonder Woman in that she has also been operating in the world already. There is no timeframe indicated for her, though. It does say that she is known in the world in some way while Batman has been under the radar.

This information gives me hope. I stand by my criticisms of DC and Warner Bros. bungling of its cinematic adaptations, but this report is nothing but good. For years, I’ve argued that we need to stop with all of the damn origin stories for Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man. We get it. Batman’s parents were killed, Superman is from Krypton, but grew up in Kansas, and Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben died because of his carelessness. Established.

Instead, tell good stories about these characters and broaden the universe. Go deeper. Batman is a good example of this. Not all of Batman’s stories need to be a full-blown action-drenched ride with car chases and explosions and the fate of Gotham at stake. Those stories are good, don’t get me wrong, but The Dark Knight can play in a few genres. For example, you could make a psychological thriller where Batman hunts a serial killer like Mr. Zsasz or the Holiday killer. Or you could tell a horror story where Batman hunts a creature like Man-Bat or one of the many supernatural creatures against which he’s faced off. Or you could do a straight-up mystery where Batman’s detective skills get put to good use. Unfortunately, we never see these kinds of stories in movie form because the damn franchise reboots every 10 years.

So, while I recognize that Batman v. Superman is, again, going to be another action-packed, blockbuster, “the world is ending” type story, I appreciate that we’re not starting Batman at “square one” again. He’s been Batman for 30 years and he’s had adventures and fights and investigations. In fact, I rather dig the “urban myth” aspect of his back story. That’s how Batman wants to work–in the shadows, under the radar, as something dark and terrible for criminals to fear.

I’m still not completely sold on this movie, or on DC’s ill-prepared plans, but news like this is more encouraging than not.

Also, in the time it took me to write this post, Warner Bros. announced that Batman v. Superman is moving its release date up to March 25, 2016. That also moves it away from Captain America 3, which is a good idea. The last thing Warner Bros. needs is a black-eye by releasing their massive, franchise-inducing tent-pole movie and having it be defeated at the box office by Marvel’s 13th movie.

Marvel’s “Villain Problem”

I’ve had a vision of a world made free from magic tricks.

*LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD*

Marvel Studios, for all its great decisions and fantastic vision, is not doing its villains justice. It’s the only area where DC is supreme.

Mike Cecchini at Den of Geek has written a fantastic piece, with which I completely agree, about how Marvel’s cinematic villains aren’t up to snuff. There have been 10 Marvel movies now and, of them, only one memorable villain who headlined in two of those films. I’m referring to Loki, of course, in case you’re blind. Mr. Cecchini even makes the rather damning point that Captain America: The First Avenger wasted Hugo Weaving as Red Skull. He’s right.

Alternatively, the Warner Brothers’ DC films have done its villains justice. Of course, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were great for their characterization of the man himself, but the villains were also given a great deal to do. Even Man of Steel, which I’ve criticized in another post, has a formidable villain in General Zod played by Michael Shannon. Zod has real motivation and a point of view, that while we don’t necessarily agree with it, we can understand. Plus, since his goal (essentially terraforming Earth into a new Krypton) is something that Superman struggles with as one of the last beings of his race in the universe, the conflict between them takes on added weight.

In Batman Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul wasn’t just a monologue spewing evil machine — he had real objectives and beliefs and the threat of force behind his actions that challenged Batman physically as well as philosophically. In many ways, Ra’s and Batman have the same objective. They just have radically different methods for attaining it. The drama of their conflict is borne out of their similarities and, indeed, the bond of mentor and student shared at the beginning. It also doesn’t hurt that Liam Neeson is amazing.

So much has been said about Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight that I can hardly say anything new. He was brilliant and terrifying and funny. It was the ultimate depiction of the character on film because everything he did, he did through action and motion and violence or the ever-present threat of violence. You cringe to watch him in some scenes while not daring to look away. Performance aside, the Joker is the yin to Batman’s yang. And in The Dark Knight that was literally true because, thematically, the Joker was a consequence of Batman’s escalation against criminals. The Joker even thanks Batman for it. While he claims to have no motive and no goal, that’s not true and we see it play out over the course of the film. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Ledger’s performance as Joker and of his role in The Dark Knight, is that a truly good villain truly shows us the hero in a new light. The Joker tests Batman and tests the police and forces them to stand by their morality or not. Because of Joker, we learned a great deal more about Batman’s character and his resolve than we did in the previous film.

Finally, in The Dark Knight Rises, realizing that no one could compare to Heath Ledger’s psychological performance as Joker, Nolan and team went a different way: position Batman against a foe that’s not just a philosophical threat, but one who can physically match and surpass him: Bane. While lacking some of the thematic value of Ra’s and Joker, Bane’s presence as a physical threat played into the idea of a Batman past his prime who could no longer cut it. Bane was young, muscle-bound, and powerful, while Batman had been off the streets for years, walked with a cane, and was unbalanced. Again, it was another prism through which to see Batman and bring out more aspects of his character. The film is not nearly as perfect as The Dark Knight, but still a pretty satisfying portrayal of Batman as well as a villain with real menace.

Unfortunately, none of the Cinematic Marvel villains have the weight of the DC villains — even Loki. He’s a great foil and is a good villain, but Tom Hiddleston’s performance is 99% of the reason that is the case. What does Loki tell us about Thor or the Avengers? Nothing, really. He’s just a foe, presenting a challenge, which the heroes must defeat. It’s a shame because in the comics Marvel villains are usually more nuanced and human than their counterparts in the DC Universe (Batman’s rogues aside, of course).

I can hardly fault Marvel for putting so much love and attention into their protagonists because we are seeing some really good comics-to-screen adaptations. But I can’t help but think that Iron Man and Thor (as well as the actors who portray them) would be better served by facing off against fully-realized villains that challenged their very souls as opposed to just some scheme or plan or MacGuffin that everyone is after.

Mr. Cecchini gave faint praise to Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its villains. I’d like to respectfully disagree and say that those villains were worthwhile foes that presented a genuine threat to Captain America as not just a challenge to overcome, but they made him confront who he is, what he is doing, and in what he believes. I suppose that the overall situation provided this threat, but even still, Captain America is a “white bread,” boy scout. He’s immovable in his honor, courage, and beliefs, so to wring drama out of him you need to put him against a philosophical threat that doesn’t neatly slot into “good” or “bad.” Plus, the Winter Soldier provided a physical challenge to the Cap that not many villains faced thus far have as well as emotional resonance in his relationship to him. Think of how successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier was — I would argue that it was great for its rich story and compelling villains as much as the spectacle of its set pieces.

Overall, Mr. Cecchini’s article is spot-on. Marvel is clearly building towards Thanos as the super villain our heroes will have to face either en masse or through proxy battles (probably both) and he deserves respect. They’ve already cast Josh Brolin to play him–which is a good start to invest in talent–but if all Thanos is going to do is make menacing faces and give monosyllabic responses, Marvel may be building up to its first genuine disappointment in an otherwise masterful cinematic adaptation of its properties.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Another Marvel Win

“Real” heroes.

I won’t bury the lede: Guardians of the Galaxy was everything I wanted it to be and more; it’s a solid, good, enjoyable movie. It’s a contender for the best Marvel Studios movie yet — and yes, I realize that pits it against Iron Man, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It doesn’t matter because Guardians can take the heat.

Guardians of the Galaxy grabs you right at the start, with a surprisingly emotional scene, and is pure joy for every moment afterward. In fact, was this Marvel’s first “cold open?” I don’t think any of the movies before Guardians started before the Marvel Studios logo. Feel free to gut check me on that.

The story is very simple — a decidedly good approach — and I’ll save major spoilers for a later post, perhaps. Peter Quill, aka: Star Lord (his self applied nickname), played by Chris Pratt, is a “ravager,” essentially someone who hunts down and finds (or steals…) valuable items for payment via the network of ravagers that abducted him from Earth as a boy. He’s after an orb on a beaten down, faraway planet. Think: sci-fi Indiana Jones, but without the moral compass. Bad guys are after the orb, too (because it’s part of a significant piece of Marvel canon), and they try to take it back from him. He escapes with the orb and the rest of the film is, architecturally, a “chase after the MacGuffin” story leading to a final confrontation. But really, it’s just a vehicle for Writer Nicole Perlman and Director James Gunn (who also wrote a script draft) to spend time with our main characters, Star Lord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel, collecting an easy paycheck), and Drax (Dave Bautista).

The script does a fantastic job of giving every character numerous chances to shine. Quill is undeniably the film’s lead, but the ensemble runs the show. And how often can you say you watched a movie where a walking, talking Raccoon and a tree are a movie’s emotional center?

There is so much to like. The pace is perfect. The movie is laugh-out-loud funny consistently throughout. This is certainly Marvel’s most comedic movie yet, but that doesn’t downplay the action, adventure, or the threat behind the villains and their motivations. The character, gadget, and set designs are all superb — they give this world a vibrant, lived-in feel very much like Star Wars though I’m not the first to make that comparison.

The heart of the Ghostbusters.

I was surprised by how much I responded to Rocket and Groot. Rocket is a lot like a more aggressive, violent raccoon George Costanza with a heart (so, maybe not like George Costanza). Groot can only say “I am Groot,” but he gets a lot of mileage out of it and he’s an endearing character for a tree voiced by Vin Diesel. The movie invests a lot of time with them and their relation to the rest of the team and it all works. I don’t know how James Gunn did it, quite frankly — having Rocket and Groot be weird and schlocky was the more likely outcome. Bradley Cooper deserves a fair share of the credit because his performance imbues the animated creature with real personality and emotion.

All of the characters are out for themselves, Rocket most of all, and the movie does a great job of putting everyone together and working together in an organic way. In fact, the story makes getting all of the characters together look easy. The MacGuffin is what everyone wants and the story wastes no time putting everyone after it and mixed in with the others.

From a writer’s perspective, I’m impressed with how stories unfold. In my own writing, I’m always concerned with showing all of the setup to events. It’s just how my mind connects. This movie makes it look easy. The characters’ actions and motivations all come from real, natural places and yet the pace never lets up. Plus, since this story takes place in the same Marvel Universe that all of our other heroes inhabit, there might have been a concern with establishing alien world and situations, but no — Guardians dives right in. Aliens exist. There are other worlds and spaceships and crazy gadgets and powerful enemies; this is the world our heroes inhabit and that’s how it is — accept it. And we do! The Thor films and The Avengers only hinted at the larger universe that exists elsewhere and Guardians makes it real, lived in, and matter-of-fact. Given how Tony Stark had a nervous breakdown over the Chitari and the Tesseract portal in The Avengers, I wonder how he’ll react to what’s really out there?

I’m dressed in black and I have a deep, terrible voice. I’m the bad guy.

I had to look hard to come up with a criticism. It’s actually a familiar Marvel complaint — the chief villain, Ronan, is not very compelling. He’s got reasonable motivation, I guess. He’s pretty tough and menacing and gives our heroes a good fight. In fact, given how capable they made him, I genuinely wondered how the Guardians would actually defeat him (not that I ever thought his defeat was in doubt, of course). Other than Loki, Marvel films have had a recurring problem creating good villains that aren’t just seething, stomping, fonts of evil, and unfortunately, as good as Guardians is, it didn’t clear this hurdle either.

I can’t wait to see Guardians of the Galaxy again. I’m excited about what I hope it means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and by that I mean I hope the films only get bolder, brighter, and more daring. This film is unabashedly open about what it is — and that’s a comic book superhero movie which is also a comedy, an adventure, and a science fiction saga.

I’m not sure what problem Edgar Wright had with Marvel Studios regarding Ant-Man because Guardians of the Galaxy is unlike any Marvel movie you’ve seen before and is full of James Gunn’s spirit — and is the better for it! I wish Wright luck, but I think he made a bad miscalculation in dropping out of Ant-Man because he and us missed out on a unique experience. I’m always suspicious of creative people who won’t compromise (see George Lucas) because out of process and feedback ideas only get better.

In any case, go see Guardians of the Galaxy and have a really good time. It’s fun, entertaining, and inspires me to create something great just like it.

Marvel vs. (Batman vs. Superman)*

Marvel is so dominant that even footage of Ben Affleck as Batman facing off with Superman and Wonder Woman costume photos don’t make much of an impact.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Please don’t construe my statement to say it made no impact, it’s just that I found myself more excited by what was going on in the Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man panels than in the Batman vs. Superman panel. It kills me to say that, too, because I love Batman. He’s my guy. When someone asks me “who’s your favorite superhero” my answer is always Batman.

But this isn’t a piece about why Batman is awesome. This is about how DC is “Johnny Come Lately” when it comes to making good superhero movies aside from Batman films.

Think about what we’re discussing here: they’re finally making a Batman vs. Superman film and it’s not the biggest, most exciting news out of Comic Con. In what universe is Ant-Man even come close to Batman and Superman finally appearing in the same movie? With Wonder Woman (and every other DC character, apparently), too!!

Well, this universe apparently, because DC and Warner Brothers have dragged their feet, unwillingly, into the Cinematic Universe business and it shows. I have to give DC credit for finally doing it, but that’s the only credit I’ll give them because they’re doing it the wrong way. It’s sloppy, it looks sloppy, and there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny and cynicism going into Batman vs. Superman that need not be there.

The biggest problem, unfortunately, Man of Steel is our entry point into this universe and it’s not as strong of a film as 2007’s Iron Man was for Marvel’s universe. Hell, it’s not even as strong as Thor, which I consider to be the weakest of the 9 Marvel movies released to date. Because the Nolans were involved, everything was focused on “realism” and “grounding” the story. Now, given what happens in Man of Steel, it’s not very grounded. But it is a largely humorless film that seems to take no joy from reintroducing Superman to film audiences. And I liked it! It’s not a bad movie. It’s not X-Men: The Last Stand or Spider-Man 3, but it felt like there was disagreement on what kind of Superman story to tell, so they just threw everything into the movie. The problem with going that route is, as is often the case, trying to please everyone usually pleases no one.

Zod, kneel before Son of Jor El.

I’ve said, and I stand by it, that it was a ballsy creative decision to go so full-tilt into Superman’s extraterrestrial origins with the war on Krypton and the “science” of Kryptonians and whatnot. I liked that. I thought it was really cool, too, to talk about some of Krypton’s internal politics with regards to its caste system and even a subtle commentary on the morality of cloning. I even defend the film’s ending where Superman makes a very tough, moral decision that, traditionally, comic book Superman hasn’t made (that’s as specific as I’ll get to avoid spoilers). But the film was trying to be part origin story, part mystery, part disaster movie, with maybe a smidgen of romance and it only partially succeeded at any one those categories.

Let’s be clear: I loved the Christopher Nolan Batman films. I think they represent the definitive version of the character in film to this point. But I always criticized the hyper-realistic world that Nolan’s Batman inhabited. First and foremost, it eliminated the possibility for other superheroes like Superman to exist. But more relevant to Batman’s world, it precluded villains like Mr. Freeze or Clayface from appearing. Regardless, that trilogy has ended and we now have the Man of Steel universe.

I’m Batman.

I’ve dreamed of seeing Batman and Superman together in a movie since I was a kid. Batman: The Animated Series spawned a Superman: The Animated Adventures series (as well as Justice League) and put these two titanic heroes together in a pretty definitive way. I have lofty expectations. When the film was just Batman and Superman, I felt more optimistic. However, DC keeps adding more characters in an already bloated cast that wasn’t really developed even in the first film. The relationship between Batman and Superman (to say nothing of fights between them) is complex and needs screen time. How do you service that if you’re also servicing Lois Lane, Perry White, Jenny (?) Olsen, Lex Luthor, Alfred, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and all of the other 40 characters they’ve thrown into the film?

Get her

 

Marvel figured out how to service all of its characters by not putting themselves in an untenable situation. You don’t put everything into one movie all at once, you build a universe, establish individual heroes and stories, and then you start to cross-pollinate. That’s why The Avengers works. We don’t care about Pepper Potts or Rhodey or Jane Foster or Betty Ross or Peggy Carter because those characters and stories have been given their due. Even the comics that all of this is based on did that! When the Justice League gets together, who cares about Alfred? He belongs in Batman’s world and since he lives there and inhabits that place, if he doesn’t appear or appears briefly in another property we don’t notice.

But now DC and Warner Brothers have decided to reboot their Batman character within their Superman property as well as every other DC character that’s ever existed. I’ll definitely see Batman v. Superman and I certainly don’t wish it to be terrible, but I’m giving as much thought to the franchise as DC has — not much. Sure, they paraded out some thematically cool looking footage that gave us our first good look at Ben Affleck’s Batman, but it feels like pandering. Even the Wonder Woman reveal leaves me feeling… meh.

Meanwhile, Marvel Studios wowed convention attendees with its Avengers 2 and Ant-Man panels because they’ve established a relationship with the audience. They’ve proven they respect the material, the characters, and how to depict it. Because Marvel’s done the hard work of building this world and the characters’ relationships, Joss Whedon can craft a party scene in Avengers 2 with everyone screwing around trying to lift Thor’s hammer. Doesn’t that sound great??

The crew… oh, crap! That’s Rhodey!

Again, I’ll see Batman v. Superman (how could I respect myself otherwise?), but I pledge, here and now, that I’ll see Captain America 3 first.

 

*I thought I should represent the conflict in proper SQL syntax.

Let the “Bad Guys” Win

Turtle Power

TV is really good now. Let me begin with that central point. Yes, there are still terrible things on TV like the “Kardashians” and “Survivor,” but we’ve also gotten really amazing TV like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Lost, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, House of Cards, and the list goes on. The reasons for this ascendance into TV’s golden age are varied and detailed by people far more in the know than me, so I won’t go into all of that here.

But I will note one thing that was really cool when I was a kid, which has become almost commonplace today: the bad guys sometimes won.

If you know me at all, or have read any of my other pieces, you know that I am something of a TV aficionado. Self-proclaimed, if nothing else. Without giving you my whole life story I watched a lot of TV and movies as a kid and spent a fair amount of time by myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t crouching in a basement, friendless, and writing a manifesto. I had a sick family member that took up a lot of my parents’ attention, so I learned to play by myself and immerse myself in other worlds. It actually helped me develop my fantastic imagination.

In any case, like many kids my age I watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles almost daily. Back in the 80’s, the show (and kids cartoons, generally) followed a pretty basic formula: the Turtles and/or April O’Neil are living large, eating pizza, loving life, Shredder and Krang (or one of a handful of other sub-villains like Rat-King) come up with a scheme, the Turtles find out about the scheme, there is a fight, bad guys sort of hold them off or beat the turtles back, turtles rally and win the day. Exciting stuff (and no, that’s not sarcasm).

But there were a couple of episodes where things didn’t quite work out that way and my interest level piqued when the bad guys won. It’s not that I wanted the turtles to lose exactly, it was just really interesting when the villain succeeded in their plan. Think about how all of these stories rolled out: “We can’t let Shredder get the MacGuffin or he’ll destroy New York City!” Because the turtles always won, we hardly ever saw what happened when Shredder actually got the MacGuffin or him get ready to destroy New York City.” On the few occasions when that finally happened, it was exciting.

It was also annoying how Shredder’s minions, BeBop and Rocksteady, always shot at the turtles with laser weapons and couldn’t hit them. I can’t remember the name of the episode and I have looked (believe me), but one time Bebop and Rocksteady lured the turtles into a trap and shot them!

That’s right. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got shot! Of course, it was with lasers and the turtles were only slightly burnt and smoking, but they were hit and down for the count. They later came back and won, but it was still a cool moment.

There was also an episode where Shredder and Krang’s massive, super-tank fortress, the Technodrome, finally got enough power or something and made its way to the planet’s surface and started tearing up New York City. In fact, I believe that was a 2-parter wherein the turtles technically lost in the first part because they couldn’t stop Shredder from powering up the Technodrome in the first place.

The most famous example of this is probably when Optimus Prime died in the original Transformers cartoon movie (featuring the voices of Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles, BTW…). As a kid, we were used to our heroes always winning out in the end. If there was a fight and they were injured, they’d get better or something would heal them. Not this time. No, after Prime’s all-out attack on the Decepticons and Megatron, he was mortally wounded and he died for real.* He passed on his “Matrix of Leadership” or whatever to Hot Rod, but the being Optimus Prime was dead as in “he wasn’t in the movie anymore.” As kids, we weren’t used to seeing that.

Lil’ Power Rangers

Hell, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers ended with them losing! The kid phenomena, Power Rangers, which sold a gazillion toys and sparked a live show, then a movie, actually ended with a big loss for the rangers. Lord Zedd and Rita (who had gotten married by this point (WTF)) figured out a way to reverse the rotation of the Earth, which (as we all know) reverses time. The rangers tried to stop it, but were held off (for probably the only time ever) by Goldar and whatever goons they were using. When time reversed, the rangers became kids again and, apparently, they could not morph when they were kids. Lord Zedd and Rita grow big and start trashing Angel Grove. THE END. It was all subterfuge for the next series, which would necessitate another ranger team coming to help them with different powers and zords (read: toys) but the rangers were beaten. Let’s call it what it is.

As a slight addendum to that, the Rangers also “lost” at the end of the series that followed MMPR, Mighty Morphin’ Alien Rangers. Lord Zedd and Rita found a way to smuggle a bomb into the rangers’ Command Center and blew it up. Power Rangers Zeo rather cheaply retconned its way out of it, but still rather shocking.

Of course, there is probably the greatest downbeat ending of all time: The Empire Strikes Back. Our intrepid hero, Luke Skywalker, was handed his ass by the Dark Lord (of the Sith) Vader, Han Solo was frozen in carbonite, and the rebels were in flight across the galaxy having been driven from their base. Things were pretty dire and it wasn’t very uplifting. Audiences loved it and, to this day, it’s the gold standard in Star Wars storytelling.

Utter defeat

What this is all leading to, is the storytellers and creators of TV and movie content realized that having everything work out and be wrapped up neatly isn’t very dramatic. We like to see our heroes win, but it’s truly only satisfying if there are actual stakes–and actual threat that they might lose. But more and more shows have connected around the “anti-hero” or the just plain bad guy (see: Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey). That’s why fans are so mad about Han Solo not shooting Greedo first — it’s not about Han being a cold-blooded killer as George Lucas vainly asserts — it’s a character trait that shows Han is a man of action who will not be walked into a corner

It used to be that the audience had to identify with the main character. He had to be moral and make good decisions. He may not always win, but he always did his best. Both Tony and Vic showed us that our main character doesn’t need to be good — in fact, he can be downright loathsome as long as he is interesting to watch. Walter White is a great example of this; he started in a place where people could identify with him and understand his choices (to an extent), but as Breaking Bad went on, Walt started to go off the rails. He really went from “Mr. Blue Chips to Scarface” as creator Vince Gilligan envisioned.

It’s not exactly a new or foreign concept. The Godfather depicted protagonists as bad guys doing bad things, but we generally rooted for them. Or at least we were fascinated to watch. The slasher film craze of the 80s works into this, too. The movies started out as being innocence against violence and evil, but gradually characters like Jason, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers became the stars. Audiences turned out to see Jason get those immoral kids doing drugs, having sex, or just generally being mean. They were taking authoritative action — not action we would take necessarily, but these are movies; we want our characters doing interesting things.

Consider Hannibal Lecter. Really think about who he is and what he does. He kills people and he eats them. In some cases, he tortures them before he kills them. He made one guy cut off his face and feed it to dogs. But we like him. He’s a gentleman, he’s got a great accent, he’s smart, he’s witty, and, generally, he goes after people that we don’t really like. At the heart of it, though, are Hannibal Lecter’s contradictions. We’re mesmerized by this character who does such terrible things, but on the surface is really quite interesting. He’s affable (to some), he tells great stories, and he seems to know more about you than you do.

Contradiction is dramatic. It creates story where the script doesn’t explicitly depict it. “Clarice Starling is bright, young, and innocent. Hannibal Lecter is incisive, brilliant, and dangerous.” What happens when these two forces meet? As they talk and interface, that story plays out in the actors’ performances while the overt plot comes through in their dialogue and revelations. Plus, try to remember that when Silence of the Lambs came out, other than book readers and the 13 people that saw Manhunter, no one really knew what Hannibal Lecter was. Other characters told us he was dangerous and Clarice, herself, says it to his face when she notes that he “ate” his victims instead of keeping parts of them as trophies. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the amazingly charismatic and charming Anthony Hopkins played Lecter. Until the 3rd act, when Lecter escapes in traumatic and explosively violent fashion we didn’t really know what he was capable of doing. There’s probably even a few people that silently cheered his escape because Lecter’s captor, Dr. Chilton, is so slimy and loathsome.

Anyway, to bring this long-winded piece back to something resembling a point, in Silence of the Lambs, the bad guy wins after a fashion. The primary antagonist, Jame Gumb, is killed by our fledgling hero, Clarice Starling, but Hannibal Lecter escapes. AND as we now now, Lecter is certainly more dangerous than Gumb. Frankly, Lecter emboldens guys like Jame Gumb and makes them worse. The audience is really the winner in this scenario. It’s just watched a taut, well-executed story where the bad guy wins. It can’t wait to see more.

Similarly, rather than be angry or downcast because the Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers lost, I was jazzed up. The story was excited. What would my heroes do now? As exciting as heroes are when they’re winning, they’re more interesting when they’re losing. How will they react? Can they turn things back in their favor?

Think about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The most common criticism of Captain America is that he, like Superman, is too perfect. He’s bland. He’s a boy scout. Those things are true. But what does the bland, boy scout do when the ground fall out from underneath him? What does he do when everything he believes is called into question? He’s named “Captain America” for goodness sake. What does he do when the United States he’s fighting for tries to kill him and is responsible for some really heinous stuff? TWS was a great movie and while (spoiler alert) the good guys prevail in the end, it was a Pyrrhic Victory. Many are dead and one of the bedrock foundations (so we thought…) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shattered to pieces. The bad guys sort of won and that movie was the better for it (so is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).

I’m sorry for the somewhat meandering piece. I used to get these thoughts out with my friends at my old job and since I don’t have easy access to those fine minds anymore, this is the medium I must use. And, I ask you, if random thoughts about TV shows and movies don’t belong on the Internet, where do they belong, huh?

Oh yeah, and watch Hannibal (1st Season up on Amazon Prime and 2nd season on Amazon or iTunes or whatever digital medium you prefer). It’s really good.

Enjoy

Transformers: Age of Extinction – A Contrarian’s View

The tag line doesn't really seem to reference anything in the movie...
The critics have savaged Transformers: Age of Extinction. Even people like Harry Knowles of Aint It Cool News, who once wrote that Star Wars: Episode I was great, has ripped it apart. I haven’t read a single positive review of the film.

I kind of liked it.

And here’s the thing: I don’t necessarily disagree with any of the negative reviews, either. Contradictory? Maybe, but not quite. The only criticisms I have, which I hold against the movie are two-fold:

(1) The length; Transformers is not The Dark Knight — it doesn’t need 2 hours and 45 minutes to tell its story. Consequently, it also doesn’t need the myriad plots and sub-plots on top of sub-plots. The movie definitely needed some judicious cutting. And…

(2) *See “The Plot” section.

Yet, I was entertained. Maybe a movie is a movie and there are common criteria and judgments you should use to evaluate one. The problem is, I don’t do that. I don’t think it’s an accurate way to review a movie. If I was to do that, this movie absolutely fails. No question. But movies are supposed to be, I believe, first and foremost, entertaining, and second, provoke emotion. It’s not written anywhere that the emotions have to be “transcendent awakening;” they can be dumb excitement, too. That’s what this movie provides. It also provided a good opportunity to check off items on this list of things that all women in Michael Bay movies do.

THE PLOT

There are a million things going on in this movie, so I’ll stick to the main(?) through-line, such as it is. I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers, but let’s be honest, I doubt anyone will care. Despite being positioned as a “reboot,” the movie depends a great deal on the previous entry, Dark of the Moon. It featured Earth’s leaders (read: the US) kicking the Autobots off of Earth because they believed that the only reason the Decepticons were still here is to continue their war against them.

Of course, that was dumb and the Decepticons were really trying to resurrect their dead planet, Cybertron, in Earth’s atmosphere and use humans as a slave workforce. The Decepticons ran an all-out attack on the planet, Chicago, in particular, and went for broke. The Autobots didn’t abandon Earth, of course, but they let Chicago get ravaged so we’d understand that the Decepticons really are the assholes we knew they were. They came in and saved the day — after thousands(?) were slaughtered and the city was decimated. Not the most heroic plan… but… well, but nothing, that’s actually kind of terrible. In any case, the Autobots helped the military retake Chicago and killed most of the Decepticons on Earth in the process. Shia LaBeouf’s annoying character, who (despite our protestations was at the heart of all of these films) is recognized as the hero he always aspired to be (I guess?) and hugged his girlfriend who was 10 times hotter than the previous girlfriend who was still really hot and out of his league. The Autobots are heroes and Optimus Prime, following the formula of the previous 2 movies (and the new one, too), gives us his big narrated speech at the end and says (this is a direct quote):

In any war, there are calms between the storms. There will be days when we lose faith, days when our allies turn against us. But the day will never come, that we forsake this planet and its people.

I wanted to quote it directly, because the plot of this film features a secret CIA unit hunting down all transformers, Autobots and Decepticon, alike because of the “Battle of Chicago” and Optimus Prime forsakes this planet and its people. Yeah, you read that right.*

*(2) Second criticism resumed: The plot of the 3rd movie had mankind coming to understand that the Autobots are our allies, they should be trusted, and will never abandon us. Literally, everything learned and achieved in the 3rd film has been negated before this movie starts AND Optimus Prime, our immovable symbol of bravery and honor, is deeply resentful and willing to abandon Earth to its fate. I’m OK with the overlong running time, the endless slow motion sequences, etc. but don’t negate earned plot developments for the sake of new plot just because. It’s like killing off Michael Biehn’s character from Aliens between that movie and Alien 3 because you don’t want to pay Biehn to come back or having Michael Stivic (aka: Meathead) from All in the Family leave his family to join a commune in California just because Rob Reiner won’t do the role anymore. I’m not suggesting that the Transformers plot developments are that offensive, but it’s the same concept — otherwise, why did we watch the 3rd movie? Nothing the characters did there mattered, in effect. Anyway…

Frasier and the Man in Black from Lost (or maybe you know him as the evil 1st officer of the USS Equinox from Star Trek: Voyager?) run this secret CIA group and have partnered with a transformer called Lockdown, who more than anything is after Optimus Prime for reasons that are murky at best. This spills over onto Mark Walberg’s farm. He’s an inventor (??) who sucks at it and is about to lose his house. Why an inventor has a farm that he doesn’t use is one of the questions I chose to ignore for my movie-going enjoyment. He claims he just needs to make one thing that matters (spoiler alert: he doesn’t and the movie never really apologies for not paying that off…) He has a hot daughter played by Nicola Peltz, who dresses hotly and has a secret boyfriend because Michael Bay. Walberg’s business partner and friend is played by the guy who plays “Erlich” on Silicon Valley on HBO. He’s moderately funny here. Anyway, Marky Mark finds Optimus Prime and restores him (sort of). Obviously, OP is pissed off about being hunted and attacked by humans because he gave that speech at the end of the last movie and now he looks like a jerk.

Bad guys show up and things blow up. Marky Mark’s hot daughter’s race car driving boyfriend shows up to save them (sort of… Optimus Prime did the heavy lifting) and they escape. Erlich dies and no one much cares. Stanley Tucci is in the movie, too, as another inventor who’s profiting from the transformer bits that the government gives him.

There’s actually a lot more, but I promised to limit spoilers, so suffice to say there are 28 hundred more transformer fights, car chases, nonsensical screaming matches, and action poses. And I was along for the ride (excepting my criticisms). The movie is certainly not boring. And, big plus, there is zero percent Shia LaBeouf in this movie. He’s not even mentioned. No one else from the previous trilogy of films appears (or is mentioned) either. I’m grateful for the lack of Shia, but some acknowledgement of the history there might have been nice. Or maybe even from Josh Duhamel’s character. Maybe he would have had something to say about the Autobots being slaughtered, for example. Just sayin’.

WRAP UP

It’s a Transformers movie. I mean, you have to enter it expecting a known quantity. In fact, dare I say, this one improves upon the previous three in two big ways:

(1) No Shia LaBeouf. Or his parents’ characters. Or the humping dogs. This kind of contradicts my issue with continuity that I cited earlier, but he really was annoying. I’m willing to forgive it here.

(2) One of the biggest criticisms of the earlier movies, Parts 1 and 2 in particular, was the lack of Transformer screen time. You can’t say that about this movie at all. In fact, this has probably the most Autobot screen time out of the whole series. They flipped the quotient between the human and robot characters here — whereas there was way too much Shia and anything the robots did in the first trilogy was always through the prism of the humans. In this film, the Autobots are given a lot to do and they interact with each other a lot. In the case of the Autobot John Goodman voices (IMDb tells me his name was “Hound”), that’s a good thing — he’s moderately amusing. In the case of the green Autobot, less would have been more. In the first movie, the limited screen time was somewhat understandable given how they told the story, but the Autobots didn’t really have any time for characterization. Even Optimus Prime was barely given a chance to say or do anything. Part 2 is just terrible. It spent way too much time with humans we hated and two racist-stereotype bots that are cousins with Jar-Jar Binks in terms of annoyance and loathing. In this movie, I didn’t mind Mark Walberg’s character too much (I definitely didn’t mind his daughter), but the humans here were really just connective tissue to jerk the plot forward. And the movie is called Transformers; it definitely delivered.

I realize that this all comes off as really negative despite my assertion that I was entertained. I really was. It’s entertainment like watching two people argue over a fender-bender on the side of the road as you drive by. An interesting diversion.

 

**PS: Only at the end do I realize that I have completely omitted mention of the Dinobots featured so prominently in the commercials and trailers. They were almost omitted from the movie, too, because they appeared at about the 2 hour and 30 minute mark and are akin to a Deus Ex Machina. They don’t have personalities like the cartoon characters did (a point which Harry Knowles rails against in his review) and exist solely to give our heroes a boost over the villains at the end. They were cool and made for great action, but were pretty peripheral to the whole thing and then they just run away at the end of the movie.

Will we see them again?

Where are they going?

No one thought to explain.

Harold Ramis

Egon cuts loose.
When I was a kid, I cannot remember how many times I watched Ghostbusters. Some good friends at work commented recently that their kids watched some movies over and over again. If I remember correctly, the movies were Madagascar and Wreck It Ralph. For me, that was Ghostbusters (and Jaws, if am being honest). I watched it again and again and again. I’m surprised that my VHS never burned out. Ghostbusters is one of those movies that I will watch to the end no matter at what point I find it playing on some cable channel.

Harold Ramis’s Dr. Egon Spangler could almost go unnoticed in Ghostbusters. In fact, when I was a kid, he did. Bill Murray soaks up all of the attention, Dan Akroyd bats clean-up, and Sigorney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and William Atherton scramble to take what’s left. Ramis’s portrayal of Egon is so dry and subdued that to a 5 or 6-year-old kid, I barely knew he was there. I knew he was weird and he was the smart guy, but nothing much registered. In fact, on the Full Screen version of the movie (no black bars at the top and bottom for the uninitiated) Egon is cut out of the walk and talk with the hotel manager of the Sedgewick—he’s too far over on the left.

Bill Murray gets all of the praise for Ghostbusters and rightfully so. He is charismatic and off-putting all at once. In some ways, he speaks for the audience—because he hasn’t really been paying attention (or caring, really) Murray’s Dr. Venkman is almost a passive character in a movie where he’s the star. And, at the end, when finally Dr. Venkman is invested and he says, “Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown.” The audience rallies behind him.

As I grew up, though, I started noticing Egon more and more. The bit where Peter gives him the chocolate bar (“You…you’ve earned it.”) and the look on Egon’s face is priceless. His exchange with Janine where she’s clearly coming onto him and he is so focused on setting up the computer that he can barely be bothered to speak with her is only funnier each time I watch it. Akroyd and Ramis wrote the script and they gave Egon the most ludicrous things to say:

“Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.”

Venkman: “Egon, this reminds me of the time you tried to drill a hole through your head. Remember that?”
Egon: “That would have worked if you hadn’t stopped me.”

Venkman: “You’re gonna endanger us, you’re gonna endanger our client – the nice lady, who paid us in advance, before she became a dog…”
Egon: “Not necessarily. There’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.”

And my favorite is actually from Ghostbusters II:

“Psychomagnatheric. Negative human emotions are materializing into a viscous psychoreactive plasm with explosive supernormal potential.”

Oh, psychomagnatheric, right. I give the man credit for learning and memorizing the line. I mean, I have, but I’ve watched the movie 500 times.

Harold Ramis breathed life into this character. It’s an old cliché now to say “There are no small parts, just small actors.” Harold Ramis was never the star. Probably the closest he came was in Stripes. But no one ever said, “Hey, let’s go down to see that Harold Ramis movie.” He didn’t need to be the star. He played every role with dry, off-color humor and humanity. Even Egon, for as strange as he is, has humanity. I always remember his very small part in Knocked Up as Seth Rogen’s dad; he’s on screen for maybe 5 minutes total, but he brings such gravitas.

Arguably, Harold Ramis was a bigger director than actor. Lest we forget: he directed Caddyshack. Name a funnier movie, I dare you.

He also directed National Lampoon’s Vacation. He also directed Groundhog Day, which while not my favorite is a cult hit. Hell, he directed several very funny episodes of The Office (Example: the one where Michael decides to teach the office about depression by fake committing suicide by jumping onto a trampoline from the roof. After testing this, he decides a moon bounce is a better idea. This also features the Dwight “Un-shun/Re-shun” scenes with Andy).

Movies have been a big part of my life. So much of my childhood was spent watching movies. Harold Ramis was a big part of that. He figures into the formative years of my psyche. Creepy, right? I remember Ghostbusters so fondly because a.) it’s an amazing movie, and b.) its universe was a funny, terrifying, and exciting place. Caddyshack only gets funnier on repeat viewings.

Death is a strange thing. I’ve been thinking lately about how if there isn’t a God what happens to us when we die. If that’s the case, hopefully we’re remembered by our friends and our family. Maybe if we achieved something big, we’ll be in history books. Or maybe we could make three decades’ worth of iconic movies and characters and generations of people the world over will remember us. I hope that’s not the case, but if it is, I think Harold Ramis left a mark.

I’d be happy if even a small fraction of the people who Harold Ramis’s movies had an impact on remembered me as I’m sure he’ll be remembered.

Another favorite?

Egon: “I’d like to perform gynecological tests on the mother.”
Venkman: “Who wouldn’t?”

The punch line wasn’t his, but the setup was just as funny.