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Movie Review: Iron Man 2 (2010)

They forgot to make the final boss fight the hardest and most dramatic one.

That’s the simplest way I can sum up why the movie feels “okay” instead of excellent. I loved the beginning of the movie, the way it set its own pace and tone very deliberately, with a long, dialogue-heavy Senate committee hearing — essentially a small one-act play at the start of the movie, carried entirely by the performance of long pages of dialogue. The director, Jon Favreau (whose cameo role extends to an extended brawl of a fistfight with an anonymous guard stooge at the climax of the movie), surprised me again in the middle of the first act by setting up a classic, static proscenium frame and letting Downey and Paltrow tear into their dialogue, uninterrupted by cutting.

So engaging is the well-paced dramedy of Tony Stark’s life that the Iron Man scenes feel like an interruption. It tends to make me think that this really needs to just become a television series. That way, relationship arcs can take a whole season to play out their twists and turns, rather than having to happen in the space of two hours.

It reminds me of a side thought, that I wonder why it is that some of these Marvel movies get propelled with A-list talent, and some of them have to make do with less than stellar actors and directors. For example, the Fantastic Four movies basically used television actors. The guy playing Victor Von Doom could have easily shown up as a Star Trek: Deep Space 9 bad guy. And could easily go back to playing the equivalent now after having done those movies. Why does it seem like the FF always gets treated poorly when it should be the flagship, as it was originally, for the entire Marvel Universe?

Sam Rockwell, playing the corporate villain of this movie, busts out the Guy Fleegman goofball smarm, and at one point trots out the same dance moves he used when playing the villain of Charlie’s Angels. He manages a thing where we instantly know the character is the antagonist, but he’s also a cartoon, and doesn’t seem very threatening. Mickey Rourke is in there playing his role like he’s in an Oliver Stone prison movie, and Rockwell is acting like Daffy Duck. It kind of works because every once and a while in the same movie there’s a red and yellow suit with repulsor rays blowing things up and clanking. Scarlett Johansson is the only one definitely playing a comic book character. As an undercover shield agent, she gears up in a superspy catsuit (nice outfit, btw) and mows down a bunch of guys in melee combat, which I see has been perfected since The Matrix first pointed the way how to do it. The choreography of how she takes the bad guys out is smartly smack on, each move in it a superhero pose. I didn’t quite like the decision to use the Saving Private Ryan strobe-frame effect — in a way, it emphasizes the drawn-pose-ness I was just describing — because I found it distracting. I wanted to see the motion be fluid, not halted. It dampened the awesome for me, which was a little frustrating.

SPOILER WARNING. Spoilers for the end of Iron Man 2 follow.

Getting back to the ending, I thought that the script suddenly started skipping and dropping out, like a signal that was getting lost in noise. The script was good, it was fairly tight, it had a logic to it, and it had just the right sense of humor about when to wink at something preposterous it had just done to move things along. (“Well, that was easy.”) At the end, Iron Man has to deal with an army (and navy, and air force, and marine corps) of remote-drone iron men, as well as his friend in a bulked-up rogue suit, as well as the supervillain Mickey Rourke is playing (the final boss guy). The problem, script-wise, is that in the preceding scene, Sam Rockwell had just berated Mickey Rourke (who was building the fleet of drones for Rockwell) for not holding up his end of the bargain with the drones. But since there was a finished platoon of drones ready to go, I don’t know what he was talking about.

Of course, the end of the movie is 18 minutes of solid action. The problem is it doesn’t feel particularly imaginative. There’s also a little too much in the stew. There’s a lot of spatial confusion, with everything taking place in one Expo park. By the time Tony Stark says, “We gotta lead these things away from the expo park,” he’s been flying with them in chase long enough to be 300 miles away.

He dispatches the drones here and there, then there’s a fairly good fight with the two good guys against a ring of drones. This fight had imagination to it, was well thought-out. For example, they showed a couple of examples of the good guys trying to do the sensible thing and fly out of there, and they were each thwarted by an attack or a grapple. Then Tony busts out something cool, and just before I could mutter it to myself, his buddy Don Cheadle says, “Next time, my advice is use that first.” And then Tony has a response to that, one that videogamers are likely to follow the logic of. You don’t waste your super-bomb, you hold it until it can do the most damage, or a now-or-never moment when you’re overwhelmed.

Then you’re screwed, though, because now the boss guy is going to show up, and you won’t have it to use on him.

Videogames have a lot to teach the movie guys now about final boss fights. This fight should have taken the last 10 minutes of the last 18 minutes of action, with full choreography that told a story and had a beginning, middle, and end. And it should have been tied into the story and the plot and the character development. It has no resolution whatsoever for the character that Mickey Rourke has been playing. It has no resolution for that character vis-a-vis Tony Stark. I don’t know, did they write that and then cut it, or did they never write that?

And there’s always a trick to defeating the boss guy, because he’s just too tough to go down by ordinary means. They did come up with something along these lines, and it was okay. (This is why we leave the theater thinking, “That was okay.”) It just wasn’t really satisfying. It followed too much mess, and it was too short, and it was disconnected from the plot. Rourke should have first taken out Don Cheadle, raising the stakes for Tony Stark, because Cheadle is only there as a result of Stark’s stupid, selfish actions earlier in the movie. You know? And Tony should have figured out something clever to do in defense against those electro laser whips, having already encountered them once and seen how they work.

And, totally, totally, there should have been a deal where the new super power source Tony has created and installed in himself is the key to defeating the super bad guy, because it’s something the bad guy has not anticipated, and it means he’s less powerful than he thought. I mean, if you think about it, it’s weird that they didn’t do anything more with that.

Wait, I just thought of something even more weird. The scene in all the previews and trailers, where Gwyneth Paltrow kisses his helmet and then throws it out of the plane and he dives after it, isn’t in the movie! Bizarre. Instead, we get another scene of puffy Garry Shandling. (He’s good, but gosh he’s puffy these days.) Oh well.

There is an after-credits teaser. As you might guess from various hints along the way, it takes place in the New Mexico desert. I was so sure it was going to be a Hulk cameo (another set-up for the Avengers movie), but it wasn’t.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johannson, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Jon Favreau, and Mickey Rourke.

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Pro-fic and fan-fic

After spending most of the last week steeped in Series 4 of Doctor Who (a birthday present from my brother), that thing happened in my brain where it wanted to celebrate being flooded with tasty input by outputting something in kind. It just does this. It’s like an egg timer going bing and announcing a delicious meal is ready in the oven.

I had noticed, as I moved from watching the 13 episodes to listening to selected commentaries and watching the podcast documentaries, that my ears were attuned to scraps of information, juicy tidbits hungrily picked out and devoured, about the craft of writing for this particular series in the present incarnation. Just little things that Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat happened to say in passing, usually while other people were talking over them, that lit up a pathway for how you actually put a Who script together. It makes them less mysterious, less products of pure imagination and more about a couple of good idea seeds wonked into shape as a job you have to do. It’s a job I could now fully understand, suddenly, thanks to these morsels of information.

It was a lot of input. 13 hours, stretching to 20 with the supplemental materials. Steven Moffat’s 2-parter about the library had such a good script, was written so dazzlingly well, that I actually hopped up and down with joy at it when the episodes finished. “That man is the one to beat,” I said, or at least, match. That would have to be the goal, to write an episode as good as that. As wobbly as my self-esteem is, my sense of my abilities as a writer give me the gumption to believe that I actually can write an episode at that level of quality.

So yesterday, I had to go ahead and see what would happen if I wonk an idea of mine into shape as a Doctor Who episode. Extremely tentatively at first, I didn’t want to even write “The Doctor” or “sonic screwdriver” because it felt too much like writing fanfic, an activity that I tend to sniff at, because coming up with your own original characters and adventures for them to have seems like a better use of one’s abilities and time on the whole. In fact, I stole the seed ideas from another project I’ve been working on since this past spring. One or two times at least I paused while writing it to notice that parts of it seemed very Doctor Who episode-like.

I started with those and decided to see what it would all look like if I intentionally steered it towards being Doctor Who on purpose. It developed rather quickly and surprisingly from there, with ideas I couldn’t quite get to work together before now chunking together logically, and new ideas appearing every minute that made it all work better than it ever had in the original project, and a sense of “this feels really right” pervaded everything I wrote. In treatment form it seemed short, and yet in my mind I could see it like a whole episode on fast forward.

I wrote it in a blur in the morning then had another look before I went to bed, and I liked what I saw. There was a lot of snappy dialogue and a lot of Doctorish racing about, and some scary bits and some funny bits. There was a bit that reminded me of Russell T. Davies’s writing, and a bit that was very Steven Moffat, and even a bit that stuck out a little because it sounded like Douglas Adams. Picturing it in my head as a finished episode kept me sensibly in mind of the usual budget per episode, how many characters in how many costumes in how many sets, how many special effects would need to be done, and how expensive those might be. It was a bit dodgy on certain specifics, because essentially I was writing for a Doctor who has since been replaced by someone whose take on the character I haven’t seen yet, and for an unknown assistant. “Assume a female companion” I wrote in the upper margin, as a note to… nobody.

Well, right. Of course, what use is it to write this at all, even as a treatment? This is about the seventh time this year, about once a month since March, that I’ve cooked up something that I had virtually no hope at all of selling to the person or market it was aimed at, but I couldn’t help myself and I created it anyway, only to tuck it on a shelf and sigh. There are people around me who go mad when I tell them that I spend time and effort (and love) on projects that just go on the shelf, but imagine how I feel.

I mean, I have to be realistic. Along with my understanding of the craft of writing and storytelling — which I would love to demonstrate to such a high degree of professionalism that Steven Moffat (now the executive producer of the series) would exclaim, “I don’t know how it is that some guy in Texas of all places knows how to write for this series this well, but we’ve got to get some more scripts out of him!” — is an understanding of how they hire writers for Doctor Who. I believe that the proper way to go about getting that job is to live in the UK, have a UK agent, spend 12 or more years working your way up and writing for various BBC series, become known as someone reliable and a good bloke to work with. Then, if there’s an opening, which there are fewer of now that they’re going to a different format of a few movie-length episodes per season, perhaps the Doctor Who production office will give my agent a call and ask if I’m interested in writing for Doctor Who, and if I have any ideas.

Which I suppose would be a cool thing to do with my life, if I’d thought of it 12 years ago. Unless someone hands me a paycheck it’s just fanfic, and the world is full of people writing Doctor Who fanfic. They don’t take spec scripts for Doctor Who because they’d be inundated with well-meaning but unfilmable material. Moffat’s a geek himself, but he’s also a highly disciplined writer who’s earned his way into his current position the proper way, the way I just outlined. He doesn’t write fanfic, he writes real fic; he writes real episodes.

And so, on the shelf it goes. In a way, it helped me with the other project — if I remove everything I carved out to put into the Doctor Who treatment, the remaining ideas go together better, as if they had been wedged apart with things that only sort-of fit. So there’s a certain point to having gone through the exercise. Yesterday, my head was full of those words intended for that particular bit of writing, and now that they’re printed on paper those neurons that were all excited by it are resting again.

Actually, what’s in my head today are these words, for this meta-analysis of yesterday’s work, for whatever that’s worth. Had to get these down, too, so that tomorrow something else can shove its way to the fore.

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Movie review: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock (2009)

Directed by Ang Lee. Starring Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Eugene Levy, and Liev Schrieber.

I’m not sure what they were thinking, but I thought that opening this movie on the weekend after the Woodstock concert anniversary was one of the worst scheduling decisions I’ve seen in a while. Not the weekend of, the natural choice, or even a week or two weeks beforehand, but the weekend after the anniversary, after it had been hyped up and picked over and commentated upon and it had gotten really old even for the people who thought that the defining concert of the free-love era was worth commemorating. It’s like opening a Christmas movie a week after the holiday — hey, we’re really over that now, the moment passed, and I don’t want to see it.

So, I didn’t go to Taking Woodstock when it opened, even though as a new Ang Lee film I had some interest earlier in the summer in doing so; I’m also a mild fan of Demetri Martin and his stand-up comedy (though I was not enthralled by his short-lived Comedy Central series, despite how very earnest it was in its intent to entertain), so having him in the lead role was not in itself a deterrent. I was just so tired by the hooplah surrounding the 40th anniversary that I didn’t feel like it, and I’m sure the vast moviegoing public shared my sentiment, which is too bad, since the movie is rather low key and sweet and deserved a more fitting opening weekend than it got.

The story is told around the fringes of the festival itself, and doesn’t get any closer to the central stage of the concert than a grassy hilltop so distant that the performers are, to paraphrase a lovely line of dialogue that I wish I could remember precisely, no more than tiny ants making musical lightning down below.

The first half or two-thirds of the movie concerns a Jewish family running a motel in a small dairy farming town near the Catskills, and the role they played in making the epic hippie music and love event happen at all. The concert, which had been denied permits in two other counties (including the eponymous Woodstock, NY, which is not where the event was held after all), is in danger of not taking place for lack of location, until Elliot (Martin) realizes he (as the leader of the local Chamber of Commerce) has the ability to set up the Woodstock Concert Promotions corporation in his parents’ motel as headquarters, and convince his dairy-farmer neighbor (a winningly canny Eugene Levy) to open his pasture land as the concert site.

There are a ton of side and supporting characters, all portrayed as gently comical, that flit in and out of the movie. An acting troupe full of zany performance artists in love with free expression is holed up in Elliot’s barn, and they take a couple of opportunities during the movie to throw off all their clothes and race around naked, which is a minor spectacle that (as you can tell from my Oh, Calcutta! review) I enjoyed seeing. I was left a little disappointed that some of my favorite wacky side characters (including Levy, the acting troupe, and Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing Korean War vet) didn’t get a final appearance at the end of the movie to round their subplots out, but by then the story has narrowed down from the chaos of setting up the concert to its very individual effect on Elliot himself.

Elliot is a sweet, even-tempered, introverted, nice young man who has emotional-distance issues with his parents, which at this point is starting to seem like a stand-in for Ang Lee himself, since most of his movies have a central character like this. I was struck during this movie that it seemed to be crystalizing exactly what makes an Ang Lee movie an Ang Lee movie, re-exploring all of the themes that interest him time and again, and allowing him the opportunity to make some of the same formal experiments with visual storytelling that he’s dabbled with before. Many times the movie breaks up its frame into overlapping split screen frames of simultaneous action; it’s something Lee used in his Hulk movie as an interpretation of side-by-side comic-book panels, but here it’s also an evocation of the Woodstock documentary movie and its use of split-screens. It also slowly begins to dawn on one, when two of the characters meet at a turntable not to discuss rock and roll, but instead begin a shy, earnest discussion of the pleasures of listening to Judy Garland, that we realize there’s some Brokeback Mountain revisitation going on here, too.

The movie evokes one of the cultural conflicts of that era in a way that can’t help remind one that the exact same conflict is happening in the news this summer, forty years later. The conservative older folks in the town aren’t happy with all of these young wacked out liberal kids getting together to destroy their homogenous little town with their drugs and orgies. They start with freezing out Elliot with icy looks and barbed remarks, and move on to strikes and angry protests, none of which do the slightest thing to stop from happening a happening that cannot be stopped. Commenting on the pinheadery of his WASPy neighbors, Eugene Levy remarks that he’s heard more pleases and thank-yous and witnessed more conscientious good manners by these crazy hippie youngsters than he’s heard in 20 years from these supposedly upstanding but incredibly closed-minded townsfolk.

The use of soft drugs (excepting what I describe below) is mostly shown as a part of the counterculture but not all there is to it. There is, once again, a scene in keeping with the renewed mainstream trend of showing the effects of marijuana ingestion to be unthreateningly mild — Transformers 2, e.g. — where eating pot brownies by mistake gives somebody’s parents a temporary case of the sillies. A dubious and harmful suggestion, as I maintain that you have to eat them on purpose and know what you’re in for to enjoy it; if you have no idea, you’re almost guaranteed a paranoid freaky bummer of an experience. (I note a recent news item where several people checked in to an emergency clinic feeling poisioned and traumatized after eating what they thought were normal brownies.) In any event, it’s especially dubious over-selling of the notion for the movie to say that Elliot’s parents ate “four each.”

As the film starts winding down in its final third, Elliot is encouraged to leave the motel and go enjoy the festival. He’s given a motorcycle ride by a state trooper who says he expected to come down and crack his baton over the heads of rowdy druggies, but instead he’s changed his attitude after witnessing how well behaved and well intentioned these kids are, en masse and individually. This is a sentiment among the state police who helped coordinate traffic and do general peacekeeping for the festival weekend that’s been documented. Even 40 years later, some are still willing to go on record as saying it was the best behaved crowd they’d ever seen. Once at the concert site, though still a mile away from the stage, Elliot meets some kids with a van, climbs in with them, takes a tab of acid (not the brown stuff that’s going around and sending people to the come-down tent) and has one of the more realistically depicted trip experiences I’ve seen in a movie, from the initial anxiety-inducing intensity to the post-peak elation of stumbling around under the stars and seeing things in a new way.

The movie ends on a strange note, with the main concert organizer riding away from the muddy trash-strewn pit left in the wake of the event, and telling Elliot to come West to help him with an even greater happening they want to do, with the Rolling Stones at Altamont. If you know the history, this Stones event was a disaster, with the Hell’s Angels who are enlisted to provide security ending up stabbing someone to death. We’re left with Elliot determined to go find a better future for himself, but what he’s apparently heading for is a major bum trip. I suppose there’s something of the story of America and what the baby boomers of the Woodstock weekend did with themselves after that remarkable peaceful weekend encoded in that, but the movie doesn’t spell it out. Like I imagine Ang Lee himself to be, his movie is a little too polite and introverted and nice to be overt about it.

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DVD review: Oh, Calcutta!

Oh, Calcutta! is one of those Age of Aquarius theater experiences I’ve known about for some time. One comes across references to it when one delves into the 60s and 70s or the modern history of theater. I never knew exactly what it was about or why it had that peculiar title. Its main claim to fame was that it featured a lot of onstage nudity, but claims like that always tend to fall short of the hype. As an experiment it seems never to have been revived or repeated, so I never got much of a sense that it was interesting as a show apart from the surprise of seeing naked actors.

Recently I found a copy of Oh, Calcutta! at the video store. I didn’t realize any document of it existed, but apparently it was videotaped in 1971 for television. (I have to imagine this was a Canadian television outfit, because no American network would show anything like it, not without censoring adult themes, language, and nudity, without which there isn’t much show left to air.) I was mildly curious to finally see it, not realizing I ever would, and the credit for John Lennon as a writer pushed me over the edge. I didn’t know he had anything to do with it, but it was around the time he first moved to New York City. There’s no mention of what exactly he contributed, and I figure all of my speculations are probably way off the mark; if I were to learn what Lennon added to it I’d most likely say, “That? Huh.”

In any event — there were a couple of things that made it worth watching, but for the most part, it is a collection of sketches, comic and serious, that are completely dated satires on the expanding sexual mores of the time. A young couple answers a swingers ad to find out what that’s all about, and some unappealing oldsters arrive to get it on. There’s one about a confused young girl who wants to be all free love but is actually really uptight and insecure about sex even with a steady boyfriend, who turns out to be into all sorts of wacky things that she won’t let him do. A victorian sleaze invites a haughty dame over and tries to ensconce her in his custom designed sex traps, but she turns out to be not quite as pristine as she seemed. A weird bit where a man and a woman are dressed as children for some sort of roleplay, and after some teasing and flirting, he rapes her. That one was really disturbing, of course, but intentionally so. It came at the beginning and nearly made me stop watching.

There’s an inane “wacky doctor” sketch where everyone mugs and rolls their eyes and leers and none of it ever produces a laugh. A good looking redhead does disrobe, which is something. More on that in a minute.

There was one skit where two country hicks are sitting in rocking chairs. The joke is that one of the hayseeds spends two minutes drawling about paintin’ the fance [sic], makin’ a rock garden with them rocks he collected, and other bumpkin affairs. Then the other fella, after a long pause, starts talking in the same slow drawl about frank sexual experiences, favorite sex positions, and other explicit admissions (and emissions). Then, after a long pause, the first guy falls out of his chair. It wasn’t really that funny, but I understood what they were going for, and it made me want to put on my director hat and restage it so it worked better, probably by having the second guy start talking earlier, and the first guy attempt to keep talking about nothing in hopes of getting the other guy to change the subject, with rising unease. Although, I guess if you do it that way he can’t fall out of the chair at the end, because his shock has already registered. Ah well.

At about that point in the show, I turned off the DVD and thought about returning it with the rest unseen. Then I played the rest of it the next day and saw something worthwhile. It was a dance, a ballet, performed by a lithe young woman and a muscular young man. It’s basically just a dance evocation of a sort of archetypal meeting and mating ritual between male and female. Both dancers are nude, but it would work the same in leotards. I’ve been thinking about dance lately, in that it’s an art form I read about (in the New York Times arts section), and have developed an intellectual respect for it and what it takes to choreograph it well(the obits for Jerome Robbins and Merce Cunningham were both fascinating to me on a certain level), but I have basically zero ability to watch it with any sense of appreciation. From classical ballet to the idiotic spread-leg humping of music video dance, or even the dances in West Side Story, I’m bored by it, I don’t get it, or it just looks dumb. About the only dance I like is watching Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, but a lot of that is about the percussive syncopation of their feet and the sound it makes, and not so much about them waving their limbs around.

Well, so, finally, this one naked dance appealed to me. It’s funny when I say it that way, but at least with this dance I understood the story it was telling and the way that the choreography was designed to tell it one symbolic move at a time. There are times when they split apart, and times when they fall back in synchronization. Moves when she makes a ripple with her body and it jolts him. By the time I finished watching it, I was thinking, “Well, a lot of this show looks kind of amateurish in a way, but somebody hired a professional choreographer to work out this dance. Even I can see that.” I watched it again the next day, then looked up on the web who the choreographer was, and it turns out to have been the woman in the dance, Margo Sappington. She is still a working choreographer, and Oh, Calcutta! was her debut as a choreographer.

I started wondering if you asked her about that dance today (titled, according to the DVD chapter menu, “One on One”) she’d be embarrassed and dismissive. Not because of the nudity, but just the perspective an older artist has about the work they did when they were younger. “Oh, it’s too blatant, it’s too direct. I’d do it much more subtly now. It’d be the same but much more effective.”

Anyway, I was forced to think that this dance number alone made it worth renting.

The show ends in a bright exuberant display of full frontal nudity from the entire cast. The nudity turned out to be appropriately hyped after all, at least for this one number, anyway. The cast assembles after all the skits are done and appear to be just in street clothes talking amongst themselves as if we were eavesdropping on their backstage chat. Then a few of them start singing, and then dancing. Then Margo Sappington, who I was looking at already, gets a spotlight shined right on her. She beams a big smile, then tears off her one-piece jumpsuit. At once, the rest of the cast all rip off their clothes and run around with joyful smiles for a minute, happy in their immodest and unembarrassed freedom. All in all, I wish I could see more happy nudity like this, but it really isn’t what you get from any pornographic or erotica source, which is generally where nudity is to be found in the marketplace.

The cast is half male and half female. The women in the show are all pretty, which is nice. The downside in terms of the men is seeing Bill Macy, best known for playing the husband of Bea Arthur on Maude, just a few years after he did Oh, Calcutta! Seeing Bill Macy naked is only a few places removed at the bottom of my wish list from seeing Bea Arthur naked, but suddenly there he is. Although, if you’ve ever been to any kind of clothing-optional beach or park most of what you see there are guys who look like Bill Macy. It becomes tolerable for its ubiquity. So, I guess I’m at the point with male nudity (which seems to be on an upswing, so to speak, in Hollywood movies lately, for some reason — it seems to be something Judd Apatow brought to the table, unasked) where it’s like, okay, whatever, just don’t stand in the way too long. (Also, apparently Bill Macy married one of the women in the cast of Oh, Calcutta!, so I guess he must have a great personality. Or he made her laugh.)

Female nudity, of course, never loses its inexhaustable and enduring appeal. So from that standpoint, Oh, Calcutta! is worth a look, if only to see Margo Sappington dance.

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Art and Tarantino

Art and Tarantino

Thoughts Above and Around Inglourious Basterds

by J. Robinson Wheeler

It’s kind of weird to watch the Weinstein brothers, who are bound together tightly to Tarantino — Miramax was the house that Pulp Fiction built, as the legend goes, and in order to sustain the complete creative control and freedom every artist desires, Tarantino relies on Bob and Harvey to fund and promote all of his films — be crossing their fingers that Basterds would be a moneymaking hit, one their company desperately needed. Even before seeing this movie, and concluding that Tarantino was an Artist with a capital A, I was saying to myself, “Tarantino makes art films.” Yes, he does think about entertaining audiences, delivering payoffs, and so forth (though he will always make the quirky artistic choice if his muse says he must, which is partly what allows me to define him as an artist), but if you look at all of his movies, they’re quirky art films, not pack-em-in-seats blockbusters. He has this huge reputation, still partly from Pulp Fiction — which was a huge hit in one of those concoctions of timing and public taste where something new was embraced for being new, rather than rejected for being new — for being an exciting filmmaker, someone whose releases are highly anticipated. However, I hang around in a film geek crowd in a city with a thriving film-fan culture, so of course it tends to feel to me like his releases are anticipated. Yet, there’s a huge audience out there that is just people who go to see the latest thing at the mall every week before renting it again a few months later on DVD. They are fine with McMovies. Then here comes chef Tarantino with his five course platter of weird foods.

Tarantino’s movies are weird. His tics and obsessions are on full display. He returns to the same wells over and over again, doing variants on the same ideas. He throws in references that even people who have taken film school classes are likely to miss half the time. The violence in his movies is bloody, huge, and gross. His sense of humor is mischievous and geeky and as apt to unsettle and audience as make it chuckle. By all rights, he shouldn’t be as famous as he is, shouldn’t have the clout he does, shouldn’t have the budget to indulge himself that he’s given. It’s pretty shaky to build a career on catering to a small audience of super film geeks like yourself; the economics just shouldn’t sustain it. But he does. And he’s built his career from the ground up, by following his muse and doing his quirky art. There’s no cheating or short cuts, although there is luck.

I remember seeing Pulp Fiction when it came out. I remember seeing it with a big audience. I remember taking my Dad to see it, and he was blown away by it from the moment Amanda Plummer swung that pistol around on her bony arm and screamed profanities, until the lacerating chords of surf music cut her off and the title came up, big and fat and yellow like a young lion pouncing. It was the kind of moviegoing experience where you’ve never seen anything like it and you wanted to shout, “Hot damn!” It was like a slug of adrenaline right in your chest, just like the one Mrs. Marcellus Wallace got, watching Pulp Fiction when it was brand new. It also had the benefit of Sam Jackson as the anchor man, racing the baton home in the last scene. There’s a lot of lowlifes in Pulp Fiction’s gallery of characters, but there’s two who make moral choices: Butch (Bruce Willis) and Jules (Jackson). So the movie ends on this positive note, on this right moral choice. So after taking this long, bizarre ride, you step out of the theater feeling like maybe it was worthwhile, as bizarre and as long as it was. A year earlier, we saw Jurassic Park for the first time, and we were like, hey, dinosaurs, cool. Never seen dinosaurs not move like clunky claymation creatures before, that’s neat, that’s kind of new. Then here comes Pulp Fiction, and it was a new kind of storytelling altogether. Dialogue like that was new. The disordered chronology was new. Seeing someone get an andrenaline shot in the heart was new. Seeing a wad of bills five inches thick was new. And somehow, the public was ready for all this.

Doing something new can get you drummed out into the street and your career destroyed as it’s getting started. There’s been more of a history of that in the history of art than the reverse. And if you do manage to create a breakout success, then comes the burden of following it. Do you have the goods? Can you keep doing it? Will anyone care when it’s not new any more? That’s destroyed quite a few artists as well.

And now I’m sitting here in this all-night cafe pondering Quentin Tarantino’s career and his status as an artist who has managed to keep the conditions alive for creating the art he wants to create, because I consider myself an artist, too. I’m nearly 40 years old, though, and have yet to find much of any audience for what I do. That doesn’t stop me from doing it, it never has — and my inability to stop creating what I consider to be creative works of art, despite all financial, social, psychological, and practical impediments to doing so is part of why I easily identify myself as such. I am quite simply compelled to.

What I grapple with, of course, is what to spend my time working on, which projects to throw energy and time into completing, which to let lie fallow, which to reject, which to play around with until it seems like it’s going in a better direction. Sometimes, there’s something that I just feel like I have to get done, so I do that. Other times I can dither around with a project for years. I can throw everything I have into something that’s totally not commercial or perhaps so self-indulgent there’s no reasonable way that anybody but myself is going to like it. I can scrap things because I am full of endless anxieties about whether anyone will like them or not, or because my strongest suspicion is that they won’t, so I don’t bother. It is very perplexing, most of the time.

When I was a kid and didn’t have much invested in my own ego, I proved to have a knack for writing stories that had an audience appeal. There were all these little ideas I’d scooped up from various places, from things that had pleased me — from comic books and from Spielberg movies and from young adventure novels and such — that I was able to sort of stick in at the right moments to thrill the little audience of my classmates and my writing teacher. By the time I was finishing college, I was preoccupied with delving into my own private angst and finding some way to express it, and pleasing an audience was pretty low on my list of artistic prioirities. Then I sort of moved out of that into a phase of trying to reclaim those earlier sensibilities, but I was still not the best judge of what projects would find a receptive audience and which wouldn’t. My artistic ambitions were enormous by that point.

It’s all still in flux. I still wonder, of course, whether I’ll ever make a movie again, or if The Krone Experiment was it. I was watching Tarantino expound upon his own oeuvre, as he called it, to Charlie Rose, and about how one watches the development of a unique voice over the course of a career. He said something interesting, which is that being a writer-director, as opposed to a director who is happy to pick up scripts written by other people and develop them, necessarily means you’re not going to make as many movies, partly because you have to start from scratch at the bottom of Mount Everest every time, facing the blank page and scratching something onto it that hopefully will be a movie three years later. I am now aware that I may be lucky to make three movies in my life, and that would be better than making one, but it’s too bad I won’t get to make ten or twenty, because I’d be very interested in seeing what my gimmick is, what my voice sounds like, what my themes are that I go back to over and over again, what is a Rob Wheeler movie (or a J. Robinson Wheeler movie, or a John Robinson Wheeler movie — I’m kind of schizo on the whole naming thing right now, which is a whole other deal), and what isn’t. Back when I was making Krone, I remember saying that it would be great if my partner, Ben Pascoe, ended up making a lot of movies on his own, and so did I, so that later we could look back and see how Krone was, indeed, a collaborative mix of two distinct filmmakers. With just the one movie, it’s a little harder to tease out the difference.

Of course, the other thing is, that unlike Quentin Tarantino, I have never exclusively been a film artist. I have lately been making serious plans to take some movie scripts I’ve written, that I might have to admit I will never be able to produce as movies, and draw them as webcomics (serialized graphic novels, basically) instead. I think this is a great idea and I’m very keen to do it, but it’s turning out that drawing comic pages is an incredibly labor-intensive activity, and one of the things I’m slowest at, just as I’m reaching an age where I can feel myself slowing down. So then it starts looking like it’ll take three years to do each of these comics projects, about the same amount of time it would take to make them into movies. The main advantage is economic, of course.

These days, it can cost nearly nothing to make a movie, unless you really want to rent some equipment, pay actors and crew for their time and talent, and need anything special in the way of costumes, props, or special effects. I have a lot of confidence in my talent as a filmmaker, but I have zero skill and experience at raising money. The main trick of doing Krone was figuring out a way to do it without raising any money at all, and I did, but I don’t think I can or will do that again. What I have to spend on any project is my own time, which is a limited resource, and my own energy, which is renewable but also limited.

Thus it does all come down to trying to choose every day which project to invest in. Every now and then someone will poke me with a request to finish something I started that they wanted to see more of, and they probably wonder why I don’t do so. It’s not necessarily that I don’t want to, but when a project cools off, it takes an extra investment of energy to heat it up again, so that, in a way, it’s more expensive than a newer project, which is hot to start with. The energy economics don’t make sense, and there’s no money economics to balance it out.

I’ve drifted far away from Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds, I know, but this wasn’t supposed to be a review of that. It was my own situation that was on my mind, but seeing that movie and thinking about Tarantino and his situation brought it into focus.

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Creativity Void: Terminator 4

Terminator Salvation (2009)

Directed by McG. Starring Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Helena Bonham Carter.

One of the movie critic blurbs for this latest Terminator movie called it “The perfect summer movie!” I suppose that I should consider this a matter of arguable opinion, but I feel more inclined to instigate a lawsuit claiming that it is factually false advertising. Star Trek is currently the one to beat in terms of delivering the summer movie goods, and while pointing out that movie’s minor flaws with friends was another rich vein of entertainment, at least it had a story to pick apart, characters who were fun to root for, and its numerous action scenes all had a reason in the story for existing. (Even the one that seems the most irritatingly arbitrary, the giant bug thing that chases Kirk on the ice world, ultimately serves to move the plot along.)

Whereas, Terminator Salvation cannot reasonably be considered a perfect summer movie because it has no coherent story to tell, is composed of abitrary and ear-crushingly noisy action scenes, spends a lot of time failing to be about interesting characters, and, to borrow a line from Annie Hall, is really superficial, has no ideas, and nothing interesting to say. A perfect summer movie can be superficial, but even audiences who want spectacular escapism like to escape into a story with characters that sustain their interest and do amusing things. A sense of humor or at least occasional comic relief also helps.

There’s one big overall problem with the movie, though; it is an utter creativity failure. Epic fail, as they say these days.

Most people will just think Terminator Salvation is boring, but it’s much more insidious than that for not being obvious in how void it is, for hiding its evil in banality and cliche. It is destroyingly atrocious. It is as if it were created by machines rather than human beings with organic minds. Its conception of salvation is also utterly wretched, as if evil itself, not comprehending what sacrifice and salvation even mean, tries to soullessly depict what it thinks it is.

Before I get into this, I want to take this opportunity to mention something that I meant to blog about back in March but didn’t get around to. It would have been titled “Creativity Fail,” and concerned a certain demo session I attended at the Game Developers Conference. The problem with what I saw and heard didn’t even occur to me until I thought about it later, but then it really bothered me. There was a videogame music competition: to write the background music for a post-apocalypse shooter game, with the following strict restriction: the only audio samples you could use had to be recordings of the human voice.

The four finalists introduced and played their tracks. They were all audio professionals working in the game industry, and very fond of the gear and equipment they had access to. Often their presentations involved them telling the audience, “If you guys aren’t using the [thousand-dollar audio gadget make and model number], you should be, because it’s awesome!” Lots of Langstrom 7-inch Gangley Wrench talk, to put it another way.

Guy #1, last year’s winner, did some reasonable sounding things. Guy #2 had music that sounded the most like a real game, very polished, like it came from Fallout 3 or something. Guy #3 had some shaky sounding things that didn’t have enough polish. Guy #4 was this dude from Australia whose true calling is being a salesman, and probably has the job he has because he sells himself and his work all the time. Practically jumping up and down with enthusiasm, he spoke very quickly and energetically and rousingly. A winner was decided by audience applause, and I think most of the people in the audience weren’t fooled by the charisma of the pitch, and it seemed to me that Guy #2 got the most applause. However, the panel moderator had a favorite, and said, “Sounds like Guy #4 wins!” and so it was.

That’s not the problem, though. What I realized later was that all four of them completely failed creatively, and in exactly the same way. Starting with the “human voice only” premise, all four of these guys immediately broke down the challenge into 1) digitally manipulating samples of voices so that they sounded like drum kits, strings, keyboards, and the other instrument samples they usually use, and then 2) composing the same old stuff they usually do. There was a way in which everyone in the audience, including me, started judging the results as a matter of how closely they managed to get the voice samples to sound like other things. “Wow, that really sounds like a high hat and a kick drum!” That shouldn’t have been the point of the exercise at all.

Starting from the rule that they “use the human voice,” all they could think of to do was make the voice sound like something else, so that they could work rotely and mechanically the way they always do, and make tracks that sound generically just like all videogame music sounds. Now, these were the finalists — I’m sure a lot of the rejects actually used human voices that sounded like human vioces, and these four were chosen because their output sounded like normal videogame music. Something about it seemed so bankrupt in terms of creativity, such an utter disregard for the opportunity to be creative, that I got very upset about it. Something can be slick and professional and polished and yet be completely mediocre, creatively empty, and worthless.

Which finally brings me back to McG and Terminator Salvation.

There are several problems I had with this movie, but they probably all boil down to a sense of creative emptiness. The film has the appearance of being imaginative, largely because it is a derivative work of an artist of genuine imagination. James Cameron is one of my favorite filmmakers, and someday I’ll write a book about why that is. For now, though, it is enough to say that my interest in what is now the Terminator franchise ended with Terminator 2.

The Terminator was an imaginative and original science fiction time travel romance — a plot perhaps not completely unfamiliar to serious science fiction fans, but new to general movie audiences. Terminator 2: Judgment Day was a marvelous, well-thought-out follow-up story by its original creator, and a better extrapolation on the characters and the central premise than anyone else could have come up with. They were delivered with the confident, fluid skill of a natural cinematician. When I think of film in terms of language, I find that Cameron speaks in long, flowing paragraphs of coherent thought, delivered with the confidence of a native speaker. There are plenty of movies I see that seem to be speaking fractured, pidgin dialects; the formalized stupidity of text messaging and its abbreviations and misspellings; if not complete gibberish.

Terminator 3 I didn’t bother seeing until parts of it rolled across my eyeballs on cable some afternoon. It added nothing to what had been done before, more or less repeating Terminator 2 and all of its gags “only it’s a chick.” It raises into relief Cameron’s great skill at integrating action set pieces into his overall story structure. As thrilling as Cameron’s action work always is, every action scene in the first two Terminator movies:

  • moves the plot forward
  • deepens the relationship between the characters
  • appears at the right time to give the audience a jolt of fun
  • escalates the speed, size, and stakes from one to the next
  • delivers the goods

It’s clear that the action scenes in Terminator 3 don’t do half of these things, and they all feel like action scenes we’ve seen before; minor variants at best, just like the movie as a whole. The most positive I can be about is: it’s watchable.

So now to Terminator Salvation, which reaches a new level of arbitrariness. Worse than that, though, is this sense that there is no sense. Something can have the surface appearance of being very shiny, fast, loud, cool, and inventive, and yet actually have not a single creative spark driving it. It’s not particularly watchable, in the sense that it doesn’t seem to have tried very hard to come up with a story, doesn’t seem to care very much about telling that story, doesn’t seem to care about its characters, and doesn’t even follow the right ones around for most of the time.

This McG character managed to make the first “Charlie’s Angels” entertaining, but it was largely a sketch comedy movie, and didn’t require storytelling skills. It seems like he could have a wonderful long career directing television ads, where he can play with all his toys and only has to give a shorthand version of cinema, which is what he knows how to do. He doesn’t seem to have any of the chops to be a feature filmmaker, at least not one you’d trust to tell a 90 to 120 minute story. Story just does not seem to be on the man’s mind at all, or he’d make a lot of different choices.

A central point comes back to me over and over again whenever I try to write this review. I know it’s long after the moment to strike on a review of this movie, but now I’m writing about something else — about the difference between genuine creativity and what seems to me not just bad creativity, but void creativity, something that creates a vacuum that leaves less creativity in the world for having been introduced. I guess that’s a fancy way of saying that it sucks, literally.

Which is a rather strong point to make, and was too much of a cannon barrage to inflict on this one poor little movie, which seems like it invites a certain amount of snarky remarks, but not that much annihilation. Thus, I went to see it again, and scrawled notes in real time as the movie unspooled. Fortunately, the Alamo Drafthouse theaters come equipped with a desk and sheets of loose paper, so I was all set.

My first note was about the first printed credits as the movie starts. “[Unknown name #1] and [unknown name #2] present” is what we get, followed on the next card by “A McG Film”. I went to IMDB just now to try to look up those unknown names, and the “Produced by” section of the full credits list has 16 names. So right away, the fact that this movie has 16 producers should tell you something. Mario Kassar, who used to own Carolco (which produced the original movie in 1984), is the only name I recognize.

I pause to make a big deal about this because I have to wonder about the ego of the two guys who put their names even above McG’s, because McG has no shortage of ego on his own. For example, his official “Directed by McG” credit comes a couple of minutes later, alone on a pure white field that fills the screen, stopping the movie in progress to appear. But these two guys with unmemorable names want us to know that they come first. Credits like these aren’t for the benefit of regular moviegoers, clearly, but they must have a lot to do with Hollywood jockeying and politics. Those names are there so that people who read the trade magazines and follow who’s up and who’s in and who’s rising see their names. Maybe it helps them get a table in a certain restaurant in a certain hotel. I don’t know. It bothers me because it’s all about things that have nothing to do with making movies, and everything to do with how Hollywood runs itself. Ah well.

Oh, brother. Look how long this review is and I’m still only 22 seconds into it. Here we go again.

The name “Michael Ironside” came up in the credits and my initial reaction, the first time I saw it, was “Aw yeah, Ironside!” If you use this guy right — I guess most people don’t, they just kind of plug-and-play him in generic villain roles — like in Starship Troopers, he can be a lot of fun in a movie. Alas, he’s mostly shafted to the side and used very generically as an angry obstacle character. He isn’t allowed to make the movie more fun, a wasted opportunity.

Jumping ahead now — to the completely unncessary Christ imagery. This death row prisoner named Marcus is strapped down for the lethal injection, his arms splayed like a cross, as the table is raised vertically for no reason other than to display him as crucified. My note says: “At least one hopes it’s unncessary. Good Lord, what if they meant it?” Which is to say, if McG thought it was necessary imagery to use for this character, then there really are deep problems here. I guess it is called Terminator Salvation for some reason.

Ok, then we get the white-out with the “directed by McG” credit. After the crucifixion comes the blinding white light with the director’s name on it. Oy vey.

Then, after that, we get a long text scroll explaining the plot of the backstory of this world, as once created by James Cameron, and now mulched through this mulching process that produces sequels. So there’s been a nuclear armageddon, launched by SkyNet, and then the machines arose to destroy all humans. We are told by this text summary (and how weak is this, that they feel like they have to write all this text for us to read before we watch the movie, instead of movie-ing the information to us?) that John Connor is thought by some to be a “false prophet.” Apparently Connor hasn’t been quiet about the fact that he’s known since he was a kid how the future would unfold. When the movie starts (laughably, the movie purports to take place in 2018, hardly far enough ahead to be plausible, especially when time travel needs to be invented a couple of years after this), Connor is close to running out of knowledge about how things will go and just living in the present.

Connor is revealed to be not the dynamic single rebel leader uniting humanity and leading the successful war against the machines we, the audience, have heard prophesied in Terminators 1 and 2, but just one more soldier working for some quasi-military organization run by an angry obstacle guy who lives in a submarine. They like to yell at him for disobeying orders and trying to inspire hope in the wasteland masses, when not sending him on dangerous missions.

The first shot in the movie that’s any fun at all to watch is basically a direct borrowing from a shot in The Empire Strikes Back, one of many filmic quotations that start to seem like someone copying from another guy’s test paper rather than knowing the answers himself. We’re looking out a windshield that’s skimming low over a blanched wasteland, rolling up and down over the topology.

And then, bang, boom, one explosion and a dead terminator, first thing. I have another note about this that explains why I call attention to it, but I’ll come back to that when I get to it.

We’re in the beginnings of the movie’s first action set-piece, where Connor and his unit infiltrate some machine outpost, which involves rappelling down into a large underground silo or something. There’s some dialogue here that’s an empty filler of space, comprising cliches and nothing more. “It’s almost too quiet,” for example, followed by, “It’s like they’re waiting for us.” You think? Maybe you could use those bits of dialogue to let us know who the characters are. Except that would mean that the characters were important, and they’re not. Even the writers don’t know who they are, and don’t care. That’s what’s especially lame, the writers don’t even care, and you can tell they don’t.

There’s a nice shot that, hello, I did like. Connor tries to flee this area in a helicopter, and the copter is shot down and crashes. This is handled in a (simulated, using digital effects) single long take, seen from a locked camera position inside the copter behind the pilot’s seat. After the crash landing, we are unaware that the copter has landed upside down until Connor releases his safety belt and falls upwards to the ceiling of the cab. I liked that.

I have a note here: “What was that mushroom cloud?” Apparently some atomic device was detonated, and after two viewings of this movie I have no idea what bomb went off or why, or whether the machines or humans were responsible. The movie itself never bothers to explain. Maybe it just “looked cool” so it went in.

Connor, after the crash landing, has a two-minute fight with a T-600 terminator. Two minutes, and he kills it, its little red eye lights going dark. These things used to take a whole movie to take down.

How can this movie work when the terminators are such a small threat compared to what they used to be? However, James Cameron himself dealt with the same creative challenge when he made Aliens, in which the single monstrous unstoppable threat became multiplied into an entire colony of the things, which had to be destroyed in great numbers at a greater frequency. There is a way to do it, but you have to grapple with it intelligently and find new creative avenues out of the new situation. I’ll get back to the Aliens factor at the end of the movie, too.

Note: “Like McG is still in film school. Can’t believe he used the ‘camera mounted on actor’ thing for Connor.” That was referring to an early scene, when Connor first walks into his home base. It’s that effect where the camera is bolted to the actor, so the background sways around with the slightest body movement but the actor is fixed in the frame, sort of giving a first-person perspective on the character’s delirium or confusion. There’s got to be a real point to using a shot like this, like the character being heavily drugged or having a psychotic episode. Here, as usual, there’s no reason for it, and it’s jarring because it’s wildly different than the rest of the sequence that it’s cut into.

Moving on, leaving Connnor behind, introducing new characters. My note says: “You know all those elaborate spring traps Will Smith had rigged up in that one movie? Kyle Reese has the exact same ones.” I was referring to I Am Legend, and not exaggerating.

A teenaged Kyle Reese (the same character Michael Biehn played in the original Terminator) has a small mousy mute child as a companion. Basically like Newt from Aliens, I guess, speaking of that movie. They meet this guy Marcus, who is the guy we saw getting lethally injected at the beginning of the movie. He’s dazed for some reason, or just stupid, not knowing to get out of the way when a metal endoskeleton starts tromping towards you firing a rotating mini-cannon.

There’s a moment between Kyle Reese and Marcus, where Reese points at the coat Marcus has borrowed from a dead resistance member, and says, “See this red?” What red? I said. The movie has been treated with that blanching process Spielberg liked in the late 90s and early 00s, so that saturated colors like red show up as brown or gray or something. Honestly, I couldn’t tell what red Reese was talking about. I know my color vision is a little tricky, but I can see red, and I couldn’t see red. Was it the whole coat? A band on the coat? A stain on the coat? His shirt? What was supposed to be red?

This is in the first of several scenes where Marcus acts like a total jerk to Kyle and Newt, and comes across as suspicious, villainous, dark, dangerous, crazy, untrustworthy, and vague. In other words, completely unsympathetic and unlikeable. I was okay with this (well, not really, I prefer it when I like all the characters, including the villains) the first time, until I realized that the movie thought that Marcus was the main character. I thought I was watching the adventures of John Connor in the age of the machines, that interesting world just hinted at in a brief flash-forward in the original movie, of a square-jawed, facially-scarred, super-soldier with a righteous bearing, the survivor of many hard-won battles for freedom. A movie about that would be a good place to start, and yet this movie isn’t that, in some sort of crappy bait and switch. It’s yet another indictment of its overall creative failure, I guess, but it’s like they weren’t up to extrapolating a movie out of that scenario and had to make up some whole other thing to fill out their threadbare ideas. And the whole other thing is just composed of bits they’d seen in other places.

At some point, I was moved to wonder: Is there, in fact, one single actual creative idea in this entire movie? Because I think the people making it thought they were being creative, yet I don’t see anything original at all. Creativity in its pure form is a brilliant white spark. I just see dull rocks when I look at this movie closely.

This is turning into that other essay anyway, it seems. Maybe I should take back what I said at the start about this movie not deserving the full treatment I was subjecting it to. It keeps inviting it every time I look at it again.

So after being a dick all night long, Marcus hotwires a jeep and says he’s leaving Los Angeles to head north. Kyle whines, “So you’re just gonna LEAVE US?” And this is after — oh brother. Why in the world would they want to go with him? They’ve got a whole existence they’re eking out just fine without him, and he’s clearly not friendly, and he’s pointed their own guns at them more than once, and he attracts bad machines to them, so — whatever. Where does the movie go if Kyle and Newt don’t go with him? Nowhere. So, okay, they whine about not going with him, even though they know that going towards San Francisco means going into the death nexus of SkyNet central.

Whatever. The writers don’t care, the director didn’t care, so screw it, I don’t care either.

Three more notes:

“Why is everything in San Francisco now?”

“Apparently it only takes 30 seconds to escape Los Angeles heading north from Griffith Observatory.”

And:

“Where the hell is the radiation?”

There’s not the slightest mention of radiation even though they’re living in the ruins of a city that was nuked. You’d have to actually think things through in order to have that pop into your head, so that probably explains why there’s no radiation in this movie.

The next action scene — oh, sorry. There was a perfunctory (my notes said “peremptory” — which maybe is what I meant, in an interesting way) motorcycle chase. Apparently there are terminator motorcycles. No robot, just a motorcycle that drives itself, and has that terminator-eye-view of the world.

The next action scene has more motorcycles, which shoot out of the legs of a giant 35 foot tall Transformer robot terminator.

“If they have 35 foot tall Transformers what is the point of humanoid robots? It’s ‘cool’ or whatever but a total misextrapolation that makes utterly no sense.”

I suppose when kids today (including Arnold Schwarzenegger’s children, I read) say that this movie is more awesome than the original two movies, they might be talking about the fact that there are giant robots in it. No, there’s no multilayered story about fate and characters with complexities, but there are giant robots. Yes, that is true.

Then there’s this truck chase. Marcus and Kyle and Newt get in a truck, and then motorcycles shoot out of the giant robot’s legs to chase the truck.

“Of course a truck chase, since there’s always one,” I wrote. Indeed, Terminators 1 through 3 all had a truck chase scene. It was the big chase at the end of the first movie, which had a small budget. It was merely the first warm-up chase of many in the second movie — oh wait, there was actually one at the end of the movie, too, mirroring the first movie’s climax. And there was one in the third movie, which was just a copy of the second movie, only instead of Robert Patrick there was tits and ass.

Where was I? “Since there’s always one. But why?” Does the truck chase actually add anything or do anything to the movie? Does it propel the story along? Is it interesting or thrilling or fun? Why are there only negative answers to these questions, when I answer them myself?

“And why the hell isn’t it John Connor in the truck chase, the guy we actually care about?”

It does kill me to think of Christian Bale, acting his little cheekbones off, trying to give a good performance in this movie, not having any idea, I don’t think, that McG was making a movie about this character Marcus and didn’t care about John Connor particularly, and had no idea what to do with Connor except grudgingly cut back to him now and then. For long stretches I’m wondering, where the hell is John Connor? The one character I have any chance of actually latching onto and emotionally identifying with.

Someone or another says the line, “They never come this deep — they’re looking for something!” I thought they were looking for Kyle Reese? Or what was that earlier exposition about? Ironside ended that early scene of chewing out Connor by saying that Kyle Reese was being hunted for, or they needed to find him, or — oh bother. Twice I watched this movie and twice I paid no attention to that dialogue. Or couldn’t pay attention to it even though I was trying to.

Moon Bloodgood, the movie’s hot babe (Megan Fox was busy elsewhere), appearing finally, more than a half hour in. Notes: “This jet fighter girl — why didn’t they introduce her earlier, when I would have cared? [She] should have been in scenes with Connor since the start. Dumb.” By this point in the movie, which has so many characters I don’t care about or are too generic to care about, I don’t really want another one, especially one that the movie force-feeds me. It says to me: YOU WILL LIKE HER. SHE IS SPUNKY AND TOUGH FISTED AND TOUGH TALKING AND IS REALLY HOT AND WEARS TIGHT CLOTHES WHICH SHE WILL UNZIP A LITTLE BIT AS A TEASE. YOU LIKE BEING TEASED DON’T YOU. HELL YEAH ME TOO.

“Soldiers in 2018 have access to top tooth whitening technology.” Moon Bloodgood came straight from the dentist to the set, apparently. White teeth are nice looking, yeah, but they can be so white that they’re a distraction, and downright wrong for the time and place the movie’s set. Unless you really don’t care about any of that, of course. Meaning she’s just there to be a hot chick.

Note: “Still don’t understand why people are being imprisoned instead of destroyed.” Yeah, since I thought the whole point of machines in this movie universe is that they want to eradicate all humans. That’s why they (once upon a time) invented terminators, to infiltrate hidden enclaves and destroy every living thing. But in this movie, when that sort of eradication should be at its height in the scheme of things, humans are being stockpiled in cages at SkyNet headquarters instead of killed.

The movie… sort of explains later that there’s an elaborate trap planned for John Connor. But when you think about it, it has little or nothing to do with caging people instead of killing them on sight. So I still think it’s unexplained. Nobody bothered to ask themselves the question when they were making it, I guess; or lacked the intellectual rigor to answer it satisfactorily.

“Still wondering why it’s all about this boring untrustworthy guy with attitude problems [Marcus] instead of John Connor.”

Oh, here’s a cogent note: “The movie presumes I care instead of engendering my caring instincts.” Yeah, that’s a big problem. A very big failure.

Here’s some snark: “The women characters seem to be written by guys who have heard of them, maybe read about them in comic books.” Ouch. Not exaggerating, either.

Someone just said, “We’ve never been this deep before.” Yep, that’s the second time they’ve used this line in the same movie. The first time, it was the machines that were never this deep, and this time the humans are deep…er…ish-ness-ing.

John Connor has Star Wars binoculars of course. You know the ones I mean, with the overlaid — yeah you got it.

Okay here’s a cute thing, and maybe is something original. The resistance uses hobo markings. That hobo pictograph language. Robo hobo signs.

Note: “Don’t get me started on Bryce Dallas Howard.” Seriously, don’t.

The movie says Marcus was born in 1975. So the prologue scene when he’s in jail happened when? Bah, never mind.

John Connor appears again, listening to a tape with a cameo appearance by the voice of his mother. Except what she says is, “When you’re unsure, just follow your heart.” GAG! That’s not a message from the Sarah Connor I know and love.

Heh, I’m not sure what this note was remarking on, but it’s funny: “Looks like someone’s watched Children of Men.”

Then Marcus does the motorcycle leap from The Great Escape, another of its many borrowings. Need an idea? Borrow an idea.

Moments later, there was a quote from Apocalypse Now. “The quotes keep coming,” I note, before wearily writing, “Another helicopter crash scene. How is that any fun? Have another truck chase while you’re at it.” Seriously, how is a second helicopter crash in the same movie going to provide any thrill we’re not numb to?

It occurs to me that I mentioned earlier that Terminator 2 had two truck chases in it. However, I have no complaints about that, but each one is different, and each one advances the story and deepens the character relationships. Characters in a James Cameron movie who are in a chase of some sort are forced by the situation to deepen their trust in each other as they confront the threat together. Good luck finding anything like that happening in this movie.

Notes:

“Lots of wet floors. Like soaking wet. Star Trek too — what’s with that?” Remember how Nero’s ship, where they were holding Pike, had like 2 inches of water on the floor? This movie has that, too, for some reason.

Ironside and Connor are fighting. They have this dialogue: “No! You stay the course!” “If we stay the course we’re all dead!” Stay the course, stay the course. E-gad. I’m led to wonder whether we could pinpoint the year — wait, perhaps even the month — when these lines were first written into the screenplay, back during the last presidential administration. I think they were hoping to get it in theaters when that was still au courant.

Note: “Earlier this cycle-bot calculated the trajectory of rolling vehicle debris precisely enough to avoid all collision, but it’s somehow dumb enough to fall for the old rope strung taut across the road trick.”

What’s happened at this point in the movie is that Marcus has promised to make a deal with John Connor, to get him inside SkyNet central so he can find Kyle Reese. I’m not sure what Marcus gets out of the deal, except for John Connor not to kill him. Marcus has now been revealed to be kind of like a Terminator robot, except he seems to have a beating human heart in his chest, and human memories (except that he has amnesia). So Connor lets Marcus go to get inside and figure out where Kyle Reese is being held, and then follows him there, which is why Connor wanted a motorcycle. Because, as we know, nobody’s ever been that deep before.

Wait, I just thought of something. The whole reason the rope-across-the-road trick works normally is that it whipsaws the human rider off the bike. That doesn’t work when the motorcycle is being driven by a robotic brain built into itself. You’d have to damage the machine itself so that its brain didn’t work, but would that leave a ridable functioning cycle? Not only that, but if it’s meant to be autonomous and riderless, why is it designed at all to support a human rider? Why would it have anything like handlebars, a seat, pedals, brakes, and other controls that a human would need to commandeer it? Geez, none of this stands up to the merest challenge, the barest application of thought to the process. Any of dozens of designers and effects planners, let alone the writers and the director, should have asked at least one of these questions months before they were even shooting. Maybe they were asked, but I really am at the point of believing they were not.

There’s about a half hour more of stuff that happens, but I shortly stopped bothering to write notes. Part of what an audience presumably is paying for is better ideas than they themselves could think of, and the climax of the movie is where the movie’s total lack of ideas at all becomes most glaringly apparent. Again, not bad ideas, but no ideas. Okay, they had one idea, which was to use a nude body double, and computer trickery on digitized scans of footage from the first (or first two?) movies to make it seem like an Arnold-model T-800 appears on screen for 30 seconds. Then it gets all its skin burned off and it’s the titanium Stan Winston (R.I.P. Stan) skeleton again. Everything else is just a copy of an idea we’ve seen before.

I’ll give you my last two notes then wrap this up with all the complaints I have left, which are numerous. And my ideas about what ideas they might have tried out, instead of not having any.

“Flame factory. Actually a factory for making terminators — and a more wasted opportunity I haven’t seen in this movie. Steal from Aliens as long as you’re at it. Nope, just one more terminator, but we’ve killed a dozen easily already, so not a very big deal or much of a threat, surprise, or thrill.”

They’ve been building up the idea throughout the movie that the Arnold-model terminator, the T-800, is a new piece of technology that SkyNet is about to roll out. The other ones we see stomping around are T-600s. In the original movie, Kyle Reese tries to fill in Sarah Connor by telling her that the first terminators “had rubber skin, we spotted them easy” — but the new ones had actual flesh and blood, making them disastrously good infiltrators.

“And the mastermind plot makes absolutely no sense whatsoever if you spell it out.”

This movie is not about Marcus being the first of these to successfully infiltrate human enclaves, he’s apparently just some special one-off model with a beating heart and a chip in his still-human brain, someone who was killed by the state and then “resurrected” with a special mission.

The mastermind plot seems to be that Marcus was created to be the one special machine that, by having no idea what he was doing or who he was except for a burning desire to get into SkyNet so he could confront “whoever did this to him” he would meet Kyle Reese by chance, drive him north until Reese was captured, randomly meet a parchutist who lived in the camp with John Connor, get inside the camp, be revealed to be mostly a terminator robot when he steps on a magnetic landmine, so that John Connor would not trust him and want to destroy him, so that the lady with the white teeth that SkyNet could not have predicted would be involved would let Marcus go free, so that Marcus could tell John Connor he could tell him where Kyle Reese was, while promising that he wasn’t out to kill Kyle Reese or John Connor because he would have done so already, when actually he was fulfilling the purpose he was designed for, to get to John Connor, earn his trust, and lure him into a special trap where no other machine could do this that he has now done, as Marcus learns when he gets John Connor into SkyNet and tells him where Kyle Reese is.

Okay, so the most obvious thing in the world for the trap to be, leaving aside the fact that the plan to get John Connor inside SkyNet is complete unreliable random nonsense as far as plans go — is that John Connor shows up looking for Kyle Reese, and surprise, it’s a factory full of the new 800 model terminators, dozens of them, all bearing down on him at once!

Ha ha, yeah, isn’t that obvious? That’s so obvious. Especially since terminators in this movie aren’t that hard to kill, the only way to make the climax big enough is to have a lot of them, just like Cameron did when he extrapolated from the one alien threat in Alien to the colony full of them — and a queen! — in order to beef up the thrills and action of Aliens. As long as the only ideas you have are just lame copies of Cameron’s seminal ideas, steal that one, too, because it’ll get you over the hump even if you can’t plot out an action scene to save, uh, John Connor’s life. Mentioning the idea of a queen alien now makes me think, you know, maybe I wouldn’t have minded a 35-foot tall giant transformer terminator robot if it had been saved as a surprise for the end, a threat one ramp up from having to deal with dozens of regular terminators all bearing down on you. You know, build, build, build. One of the reasons James Cameron is a great artist in the medium of action movies is that he knows how to make every action scene seem huge and fantastic and thrilling and yet deliver another one that tops it, and another one that tops that one, all the way up to the end, where he saves his biggest ideas.

After I came home feeling empty and somewhat poisoned by this movie, I turned on the TV and Cameron’s True Lies was on, and it was a thorough refreshment. It turns out I wrote a thorough review of that movie once upon a time, and it’s worth reading as an antidote to this review, which I know isn’t that much fun.

But none of that. It’s just one more terminator, no more powerful or crafty than any of the other terminators. At one point, John Connor falls into a roomful of terminator skulls, ready to be welded onto terminator bodies, but it’s just this one robot. Which of course they melt with molten metal and freeze with liquid nitrogen, because those are the ideas they saw used before, and use them again.

Oh wait, there is one last hilarious thing. Marcus gets into a fistfight with the terminator, determined to be a free man (he tore the chip out of the back of his head with his bare hands and came to help John Connor). The terminator uses its terminator-o-vision on Marcus and its readout goes “vulnerability sighted” or something, keying on Marcus’s beating heart. So the terminator punches him so hard in the chest that Marcus drops dead. That’s not the funny part.

The funny part is that John Connor crawls over to him a few minutes later and, screaming, “Live! Live!” in a cliche taken from medical dramas, he attempts to resuscitate him. Guess how?

My very last note: “Punching a guy who died by being punched in the chest — in the chest.” He whales on Marcus’s chest, beating it for all he’s worth. I mean, you have to assume there’s some kind of cardiac tissue damage already.

This is even funnier when you realize that John Connor is injured in the escape and is going to need a heart transplant from guess who. Maybe you want to look for a different donor, eh?

You know, I didn’t want to get into the tabloid story that went along with the making of this movie, but I almost wonder now, sympathetically, if Christian Bale’s explosion of temper on the set was in large part due to pent-up frustrations about how shitty the movie they were making was to what he thought he’d signed on to do. It would make sense to me if that were the case.

Okay.

The obvious plot of this movie, even if you’re not being original, you’re just following the pattern of the other movies in the series.

My goodness, it’s so obvious. Here it is.

The machines attempt to erase John Connor, their greatest enemy threat, by sending a terminator to kill Kyle Reese as a teenager, long before he can ever grow up to become John Connor’s father. John Connor must therefore risk life and limb to find and protect Reese, just like Reese once protected his mother Sarah.

Ta-da, there. That’s the least it should have been. Then you expand that with whatever new inspiration you get that expands on the formula and takes it into fresh places that derive from the environment the characters are trapped in, and all the threats and dangers and sanctuaries and help and obstacles they might find in it.

They’re called ideas. Movie directors and screenwriters are supposed to have them. It’s part of the job.

Or so I used to think.

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short movie review

The Hangover (2009)

Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, and Heather Graham.

I enjoyed this comedy, which lived up to the expectations of word of mouth and its sustained box office appeal during this crowded peak of the summer movie season. There are many reasons to like it, concocted as it is of strings of witty moments building to larger comic situations. Its main strength is a fresh, intelligent script that has the benefit of being original; secondarily, its characters (each very well cast) are all likeable and intelligent, although we happen to catch them on a very stupid weekend.

One thing I particularly thought was fun about it was that it had a premise and plot something like an IF game. Three guys wake up in a hotel room filled with peculiar objects and animals and a sense of a lot having gone on, but no memory of the last 14 hours whatsoever. Everything is either a puzzle or a clue to a puzzle, and the dudes set about trying to figure out where everything that’s missing (including one of their friends) is hiding, and where everything that shouldn’t be there really belongs. They also have an overriding goal of some urgency: getting to a wedding on time the following day, with the groom intact. The groom is the guy that’s missing, of course. By the end of the movie, all the puzzles are solved, and the ones that aren’t are explained outrageously in a montage that roll during the end credits, almost like an Easter Egg.

The gist of the set-up is that the groom is taking his two best friends and his brother-in-law-to-be to Las Vegas for a debauching bachelor party weekend. We see all four of them take a celebratory starting shot of Jaegermeister, and the next thing we or they know, it’s the hangover morning.

This movie stayed with me in my head for a day or two after I saw it, like the way a catchy song does. I wanted to replay fun moments from it to enjoy them all over again. No doubt the movie is fun to see a second time, which explains some of its box office legs.

When I got analytical about the script, there were a few nit-picks I came up with, but they’re really minor and far between. Some of my grumbles were when I wished the movie had reached a little farther for a truthful moment, rather than falling just short of it; it’s an odd complaint, but so many of the enjoyable moments in the film are because the movie is riffing off of reactions that seem to ring true. It tends to let actions and dialogue grow out of the characters naturally, and keeps them grounded as human beings reacting to extraordinarily demented situations. Overall, a very smart script that’s well executed. It should probably, in some just world, be nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

Hmm. Actually, they never do explain the chicken, do they?

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Fallout 3

What an amazing, thought-provoking experience this game was. It’s been months since I finished playing it, but all of the following is still on my mind at the level of detail you see here. A lot of it has to do with what I brought to the experience of playing it, but that’s what’s good about an interactive storytelling medium. It did allow me to bring a lot to it, to find my own story, and play a particular character that I created through the act of playing the game over a long period of (game and real) time.

On October 20, 2008, I started playing Fallout 3. Several months later, on October 20, 2277 in the world of the game, I was escorting a band of freedom fighters on a long and dangerous path through the post-apocalyptic wilds around what once was the District of Columbia, on a symbolic mission to replace the head of Abraham Lincoln on the statue still sitting in its memorial.

October 31, 2277, in the dead of night under a bright moon, I won a community of ghouls the right to live alongside smooth-skinned humans in civilized housing. I could feel the end coming.

I had put the main plotline on hold for some time, determined to see as much of the world as possible. It shortly turned out that the main mission I put on hold some weeks before was the start of a fast-track to wrapping up the game, something I must have intuitively sensed when I decided to deviate from it. Integrating the ghouls was the last thing on my list of private missions to complete as I finished my wanderings.

It was around that time that I stopped leveling up. I’d maxed out at level 20, while still having a list of abilities and feats I intended to get when I leveled up a little more, but there was no more leveling up. I returned to my private residence in Megaton with a feeling of melancholy that was deeper than just this game. Actually, this was all happening to the Lone Wanderer, not to me, but I was deeply immersed in role-playing this guy’s existence. However, I had to separate myself back out of the equation and reflect on my own life. As the Lone Wanderer returned from his travels and put away his saved-up possessions — I had large stashes of food and medicine, extra weapons and ammo, and collections of stuff that could be traded for bartering to buy things. I was saving them all up, conserving resources, for some imagined future need. Some great series of trials that would use up all of these stored reserves. It was the same theory as worrying so much about leveling up, so that I’d be strong enough for some eventuality I was fearing lay ahead. But instead all that lay ahead seemed to be the end of the road. What use was all of this saved up stuff? By the standards of these ravaged peoples of the wasteland, I was dazzlingly rich. I was also rich in karmic terms, so rich that these poor people were giving me gifts from their meager stores every time I came into town.

Having nothing else to spend my stored up wealth on, I splurged on a laboratory workbench. I set an experiment to bubbling that was going to create some new item, and left my home. I, the Lone Wanderer never returned to find out how it turned out. Everything I’d stored for a rainy day was still neatly stored around the house, untouched.

A few days later, I freed an intelligent super-mutant named Fawkes from his cell in an underground laboratory. The date, appropriately enough, was the fifth of November, 2277. There was a trap waiting for me, so before it sprung, I sent away my invaluable, trusted companion, Paladin Cross of the Brotherhood of Steel. She said we’d meet again, and we did not. I looked for her, when I finally was able to escape the Enclave and return to the headquarters of the Brotherhood, but she wasn’t there. The Brotherhood had one more mission for me, and told me to let them know when I was ready.

I led the Lone Wanderer outside to the courtyard, then up onto a balcony deck that had a view of the setting sun. Poignantly, I just let him stand there and watch the sunset. It was the last he’d ever see. Then I played cameraman and did a lot of neat cinematic crane shots starting high above him and sweeping into a closeup on his face, then finishing with his silhouette looking into the distant fading sun.

The next time I played the game, he died and the story ended. As the epilogue recapped his story for me, I saw an image of Lincoln’s restored statue at the memorial, something I’d waited around to see when I brought the freedom fighters there, but they didn’t work on it while I was loitering.

The adventure with the statue head was the emotional and gameplay climax of the story for me and my gruff little wanderer. He had a violent launch into the world. The day he left Vault 101, he shot the father of his dearest childhood friend in the face with a pistol, and he fled as she screamed and wailed over the body. A couple of months later, with stories of his adventures starting to spread around the wasteland, and having worked hard to be karmically noble in all situations — he began to carry around clean drinking water specifically to be able to give it to the decrepit and thirsty, not to drink it himself — he returned to Vault 101. His former friend was in need, and was strangely welcoming. However, when a peaceful resolution of the situation (a parallel to the first crisis that made him a murderer) proved impossible — I tried to find one, tried several different ways, but none worked — he was banished forever from Vault 101, by the woman I suspect he loved.

We’d been to the Lincoln Memorial, cleaned it out of mutants, slavers, and other evils. Stared at the headless statue, wondering at what had become of the head. It was ages later when I came across the people holding the head safe, somewhere in the middle of the badlands. I told them I’d cleaned out the mutant problem at the memorial, and that it was safe to put the head back on the statue. They thanked me and told me they’d meet me there at the memorial, and I saw them head out. I ran ahead and arrived at the memorial, waiting most of a day, many hours after they promised to be there. Where are they?

Time rewound. Different choice. I walked with them a little bit, and they seemed to be on their way, so I jumped ahead again, and they didn’t arrive. I realized, then, that they would not survive the journey unless I protected them every step of the way. Very well.

Time rewound again, and instead of agreeing to meet at the destination, I became their escort. The journey was long and meandering, veering off from what started out as a direct line to the national mall at the river, and curving back into the empty wasteland. Not empty — full of scorpions, mutants, Enclave soldiers, wild animals, and general bad guys of the Mad Max variety. They had to be constantly watched, like children. There was no ducking out for a nap, or to trade in resources, or do anything, day or night, for most of a week, but keep an eye on this small party of people, a beast of burden carrying the statue head, and a dog. I worried that they might never get there, with the route they were taking, but I decided I would keep trying. They walked slowly, too, but that allowed me to run on ahead. I took to looking for high ground, so I could get a better view of what was around the next bend while still keeping an eye on the group, because sometimes danger snuck up from behind or from the sides. I became more and more serious about this mission, and what it meant to make sure none of them were hurt or lost. It required a lot. Patience, and genuine care, and real tactical ability. There were some really nasty predicaments, where danger triangulated.

In the end, with it finally accomplished, I genuinely felt heroic.

Right after that, in the far northlands, I found a hidden forest, where once again I was given gifts, including a special cloak with a hood, hand-made, far from the usual wasteland clothing. My character, who had for some time run around encased in armor and a head-concealing helmet, looking like a soldier-warrior, now looked like a mystic, a bit like a Jedi. I began to play him more and more like what he seemed to be becoming.

So when the last choice of the last mission came, where the Lone Wanderer had to sacrifice himself to save everyone else, it was a pretty easy decision to make. I tried to cheat this death, wearing a full radiation suit and swallowing large preventative doses of Rad-X and RadAway, but when the compartment flooded, that was it for him. It was fitting. It was the end of the story. I wish I could have had him live to see another day, but after everything that had led up to that moment, including taking the moment to let him gaze in silence at his last sunset, nothing else would have been as appropriate.

The Lone Wanderer at sunset

http://pics.livejournal.com/jrw/pic/00002ezt

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Thoughts on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

A tangential introduction concerning credit size

I’ve been reviewing a lot of movies from the 80s that I liked then, to see if I still like them. One thing I’ve observed that I hadn’t realized before is that credits were enormous in screen size in 1980s. If the current style of title typography for acting and production credits is something like a 24 point font, in the 80s they were using a beefy 60 or 72 point font. The name of the movie maxes out in width, and the starring actors get similar status.

The style now, of course, is also to have no credits until the movie is over, something that used to be disallowed by Guild rules. George Lucas had to pay an enormous fine for the Star Wars credits to be at the end of the movie, and it led to his dropping out of the Directors Guild. This prevented Steven Spielberg from directing Return of the Jedi or any other Star Wars film, because as a DGA member he is barred from working on a non-union movie.

I actually wanted to bring up the subject of Lucas and Spielberg, whom I hate apologizing for, even though I end up doing so a lot of the time. These strange two cursed talents, found in the perplexing situation of making movies that millions upon millions go to see, but that apparently “everybody hates.”

I recently heard a friend of mine describe them both as “hacks,” which is a dreadfully ignorant caricature. Knowing their careers and lives in some detail, I suppose I regard their output firstly from a position of respect instead of with contempt.

These two guys have utter creative freedom like no one else in the movie business, and a century or more of filmmaking experience between them. Then they made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

This movie has got a number of inherent flaws.

Okay, first of all, this is an even-numbered Indy film. That means, primarily, it’s about paganism instead of Judeo-Christian mythos. Not going to be as resonant or captivating right off the bat. And now it’s set in the 1950s. Indiana Jones is a pulp hero, and some of those original pulp figures started having their published adventures in the 1930s, and continued through the 1950s, requiring the plotlines to adapt to current fantasies. Okay, so we can talk about the atomic bomb and, maybe, UFO relics. And yet, somehow, the ending of the movie which [spoiler] reveals aliens is a stupid letdown, as well as being corny and done-to-death.

It was instructive to watch the DVD documentaries about how this movie came to be. Lucas proposed Indy-meets-aliens way back in the 80s, and Spielberg said, “No! No more aliens! I’m sick of aliens! We’ve both done aliens!” This was rather sensible of him. However, the tale goes, Lucas simply refused to let go of this idea. He kept bringing it up every time. Finally, he said, “They’re not extraterrestrials, they’re extra-dimensionals.” And somehow, Spielberg (as well as everyone else, like Harrison Ford, who also objected for years), possibly tired of fighting the idea so that they could get a script and make the movie, relented and said, “Okay, that’s more interesting.” Except functionally this makes no difference, and the aliens are still aliens. The thought goes through the audience’s collective mind: “Indiana Jones is not supposed to have aliens. There are no aliens in Indiana Jones’s reality. They do not fit.” And the audience is right.

It makes me wonder what was driving Lucas’s obsession with the idea. He wanted to do it so much that he didn’t see that it didn’t fit.

There are myths about crystal skulls that involve great mystery and magic and seem like they would have been a promising place to take Indiana Jones. When I heard the title, that’s what I thought of. Unfortunately, they thought of the title long after they’d already put the movie into the works.

The other problem with the aliens is that revealing them adds nothing and explains nothing. It just kind of dumbs things up right when we want a smart resolution.

So, conceding the point that the movie starts with this flawed notion as the starting inspiration, there are ways I can appreciate what happens in the movie — and, as per the Ebert formula — how it goes about doing it.

The upstream struggle to like anything about it

One of the problems I have with this movie is that everything I like is a qualified like.

I like Indy being in the predicament of being caught in an atomic test. There can be mushroom clouds in Indiana Jones’s world. But I don’t like the solution to the predicament, mostly because he’s shown to be thrown in a lead-lined refrigerator (which would have enormous mass) a distance and velocity that would shatter every one of his bones on impact, killing him instantly. The protection from radiation doesn’t enter into it. The man is nimble and can survive scrapes, but he’s never supposed to be superhuman. The appeal of his adventures in Raiders of the Lost Ark was that he was all too inexpertly human at times. He can’t survive things that would kill a normal person. That’s why he scrambles so hard for his life when he’s clambering around on that Nazi-driven truck, because falling off would kill him. The refrigerator solution to the atomic bomb makes him into a cartoon character that can just go “Boing!” after an incredible fall.

It’s like you can see them planning out the previsualization on the visual effects for the fridge gag and setting that in motion instead of having the conversation where they say, “That’s not realistic enough for Indy.” You know what would have been more plausible? He finds an atomic bunker in the backyard just in time. Just as suspenseful as climbing into the refrigerator. Do the same bit where he has trouble shutting the door because crap is in the way. Somethin’.

I like them going into the big government warehouse where the ark is stored. I like recognizing that this is that warehouse because John Williams reuses his musical cue from that scene at the end of the first movie. I don’t like the fact that this is “Area 51.” I hate to break this to you guys, but Area 51’s been done to death. Every single show with the slightest toe in sci-fi waters going back 25 years has done an Area 51 episode. Another thing about Indiana Jones is that he has his own mythology and his own stories. Area 51 comes with its own mythology by now. You had an original idea for a big government warehouse of secret stuff, that was great. That was mythic. Oh, but now it’s just Area 51? Weak. I mean, it’s so they can have Roswell aliens in there, even though that doesn’t make sense with the aliens at the end, which have been in suspended animation for millennia.

I also don’t like that Indy’s plan for how to find the right crate defies physics; or, having established these different physical properties, they make no attempt to apply this consistently. If you’re going to say the skull is so magnetic that it can attract gunpowder from dozens of yards away and pull the hanging lamps in its direction, then nobody in the building would be able to hold onto their machine guns, especially not when they’re standing around it, or not without fighting against the attraction every moment. The magnetism returns and fades and wanes later in the story, only for some individual whim of an effect as suits the mood of the director. I guess all these guys studied was movies, so all they know is movie-physics, but I find it puts me in a bad mood. It also probably has the effect of making me inured to any sense of peril, because apparently no rules apply and we are watching a cartoon.

As someone who has an artistic inclination, it disturbs me how one can remain completely ignorant as to the whole point of what it was that people liked about something you created.

The movie is ending now, with a giant whirl of wind carrying away the ruins of a pyramid. I was just thinking this isn’t so bad, and then you see a flying saucer. They do a spectacular thing with giant rocks floating in a dust-hazed sky with light streaming through the debris, but one fails to completely enjoy it because of the flying saucer in between the two nice looking bits.

Yes, I kind of get the idea behind it. 1950s pulp instead of 1930s pulp. There was some other way to do this that they didn’t do, and that’s what lingers for people, I think. It’s a tough job, competing against the imaginations of everyone in a very large audience, but supposedly that’s what we’re paying for, right? Better ideas than people can think of themselves? One feels like there are a range of Indiana Jones stories to tell that would be better than this one. I’ve got one, that I thought of about five years ago when I was in L.A.: Indiana Jones and the Garden of Eden. He finds it! I thought that was a cool idea. The big flaming sword guardian would have been cool. I remember I had just read at the time that George Lucas “had a really neat idea” that he wanted to use as the basis for another Indiana Jones film. I liked my idea; even though it was only a title, it was a title that promised an interesting archaelogical adventure into Judeo-Christian mythology, which sounded like a good start. I liked my idea so much I allowed myself the vanity of thinking, gee, I wonder if George Lucas is thinking of the same neat idea when he says he has a neat idea.

And on that note, the movie is over (technically, I was liveblogging it just now), and I’m out of here.

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Notes on “Coupling”

Thoughts on “Coupling”

Well, it started with Doctor Who, and Steven Moffat. He’s the writer who, following the submission of a script a year for each of the four new seasons to date, all of them quite well received, is taking over executive producer and show-runner duties from Russell T. Davies from now on.

Having watched some of those Moffat episodes again recently, I decided to also look at “The Curse of Fatal Death”, another script of his, and then look up what else he’d done before all this Doctor Who business. In one of the Dr. Who dvd commentaries, someone tells him, “Well, Steven, you come from sitcoms, so…”

Sitcoms, eh? Well, that explains “Curse”, I guess. Which sitcoms? Oh, “Coupling.” I’ve heard of that, but never seen it. I’m led to believe it has a bit of a following, or else I wouldn’t have heard of it. I did a little pre-briefing research. Moffat had first written a series called “Joking Apart,” a semi-autobiographical spin on the break-up of a relationship he’d had. This was followed by “Coupling,” a semi-autobiographical spin on the new and lasting relationship he subsequently found.

I was more interested at first in the former than the latter, for various reasons that are completely obvious. Alas, though the two seasons of that series were released on DVD (by some fan of the show who bought the video release rights to the series from the BBC, when the BBC weren’t doing anything with them — kind of interesting), they weren’t available at my favorite local video shop.

They did have “Coupling,” though. There were four seasons (or four series, to use the proper term for a BBC program; or programme, to use the proper term for that as well), and my local video shop had all four of them. Right, let’s give them a whirl.

Summary

The show is about this group of 30-something friends: three ragingly heterosexual men, and three women, also ragingly heterosexual with one exception. They don’t do much except go to their mostly off-screen jobs and then hang out after work. The women drink wine and talk about sex and guys and relationships. The men drink beer and talk about sex and women and breasts and bottoms and panic attacks and how freakish women are about everything.

At the core there’s Steve and Susan, named after Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue, the show’s writer and producer, respectively, who are also the real-life couple whose relationship some of the material is drawn from. Moffat describes them as being the most ordinary and normal of the characters, with the other four exemplifying extremes of (male and female) anxiety and (male and female) self-confidence. Sally is a tight pill of worries about looks and age and weight and the inexorable slide that takes place; of course she worries about ending up a tragic spinster. Jeff is a manic nervous wreck, a freak with an overactive libido who has experienced nothing but humiliating shame because of it, a paranoid who keeps numbered lists of the different types of fear and embarrassment that can befall someone, and who never fails to say the worst possible thing at the worst possible time, especially when trying to chat up a good looking woman. At the other end is Jane, a kind of flaky nymphomaniac whose wacky thoughts seem to come from some other planet entirely, making her a reliable source of absurd non-sequiturs; she also claims to be bisexual. And then there’s Patrick, a serial womanizer who breezes through life and sexual encounters with a relaxed self confidence and a lack of self-examination or reflection that sometimes comes across as dim-wittedness, but which is mainly just an inexperience at ever having to actually consider anything deeply.

Reactions

Series 1. I didn’t like it at first. I kind of folded my arms and waited to laugh, but no laughter came until five minutes before the end of the third episode. Jeff finally said something so screwy and outrageous that I couldn’t hold it in, and made a “Bweh-heh!” noise. Then I laughed once during the 4th episode, again at something Jeff said. The fifth and sixth had intermittent but more easily won chuckles.

For something that I could have sworn I wasn’t enjoying, I was eager to start watching series 2 as soon as I finished series 1. Hmmm.

Moffat, the sole writer for all four series, takes these characters and, having established them and the show’s basic format, begins to have a lot of fun with them in the second and third series. There’s the rearrangement and swapping around of them to find new frictions and bounces in different pairings, notably the discovery of sparks between Sally and Patrick, and the dedication of episodes to exploring each of the characters a little more probingly to find new insights into their back-stories and facets to their already-defined personalities.

That’s pretty standard. Then there’s the continual effort to make the show work as a modern farce. The best of the farce episodes hurl these characters into mad situations at breakneck speed, culminating in a final scene where all the different threads that have been spinning in parallel all dovetail into a single shimmering explosion of comedy. Writer, cast, and director all know their jobs, and it’s terrific to see done properly, of course.

There’s another experiment going on, which is a playing with the format itself, and of place, time, and perspective. In retrospect, it makes Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes — and their intriguing exploration of what traveling around in time can look like if you take a step sideways from it and watch it going on from a different perspective — seem obviously a product of the same mind. (Though actually, it’s more proto-spect, since he wrote those later, but I saw them first; See also: Time, Ball of, Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.) In the first series, there’s an episode where Jeff tries to ask out a woman who speaks only Hebrew. He has an entire conversation where they each speak different languages and don’t understand each other at all, but seem to be making some kind of connection. Then the videotape literally rewinds, and we watch the scene again, this time with the woman speaking English and Jeff (and everyone else) speaking Hebrew. Moffat says in an interview that he meant to write a conventional series, but this experiment was so well-received that he allowed himself the license to get more creative about his storytelling.

So, in the second and third series, these formal experiments continue. There’s an episode where we watch the same events two or more times from differing perspectives, a split-screen episode where we watch the two sets of characters simultaneously in different places, and an episode where we see a past event as remembered differently by people; an episode where the screen flashes and announces that an auto-translation will now show us what the characters are really saying to each other as they purport to discuss something mundane; and of course the usual assortment of flashbacks, fantasies, and dream sequences.

The best episodes are where the formal experiment and the farce are both flying at the same time and working with each other to make something that feels original and fresh, and is genuinely funny. Probably the height of this is the end of series 2, which ends with everyone (the main six, plus an extra seventh) loudly declaiming that they’re either an Australian named Dick Darlington or a French woman named Giselle, a situation we the audience understand only because we’ve seen everything leading up to it from all the different points of view.

In fact, it’s clear that the show peaked in series 2, although series 3 is quite good and has some favorite moments in it. It goes a little deeper into the characters, which sometimes tames down the comedy, but keeps you interested. The show had the standard six episodes in the first series, an incredible nine in the second, seven in the third, and then six again at the fourth, which makes you feel the waning interest and energy of everyone involved.

Series 4

In fact, the fourth series is a little disappointing. Probably famously so, though I haven’t researched it, but I can intuit this just from watching it. Most importantly, it lost one of the main cast members — Richard Coyle, who played Jeff.

This actually didn’t surprise me. Somewhere on the first series disc, there’s an incredibly brief interview snippet with Coyle, who was the only one in the cast who seemed 1) completely unlike their character, and 2) completely reticent to talk about the show or their work in it. Unlike manic Jeff, Coyle was reserved and sober and I immediately recognized the fact that this person was first and foremost a serious actor, and this role was just a job he got, and that this is all it is. I was not the least surprised to then read that he was classically trained as an actor, and probably equally capable of playing Hamlet as he was this insane breast-obsessed Welsh bloke. Further, everyone in the cast contributed to recording commentary tracks to episodes that centered on their characters — except for Coyle.

As soon as I looked at the fourth series dvd cover and did not see Coyle on it, I easily imagined that he had grown tired of playing this character and wanted to move on with his career. Three years is a lot, and the character (while growing a little) wasn’t that deep; the challenge of it had probably waned, and there was the danger of casting directors not taking him seriously because they assume he’s going to be like this character he’s famous for playing. I haven’t looked it up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he next went on to play a steely, cold-eyed killer or some other type of villainous sod after he declined to reappear in the fourth season.

So, the whole fourth season is thrown off by having one of its linch-pins knocked out. I can sense the scramble. Some of the episodes bear the marks of having originally been plotted out with Jeff being there, only to be re-tooled to remove him (or to insert a replacement character called Oliver, who is as disastrous as Jeff when talking to women, but not quite the same nervous wreck otherwise). It puts me in mind of negotiations going on, trying to convince Coyle to stay on and give it another go, and him finally putting his foot down and saying, sorry, can’t do it — even while preparations are underway for the fourth series. The removal of Jeff also removes a fair amount of random comedy, as the character was known for launching into a bizarre monologue full of weird stuff from his brain, usually winding up with a memory of his chastising, castrating mother expressing her shamed disappointment with him. Sometimes these monologues were tied into a conversation the guys were having, and sometimes they interrupted these conversations as non-sequiturs, which Moffat admits at one point as being a little lazy: there hadn’t been enough jokes on this page, so it was time for Jeff to spout off about whatever. Still, they were funny, and now there was no Jeff.

He was also trying to explore the insecurities hidden within the crazy exterior of Jane, that her strange self-confidence was masking a frightened loneliness, but this made Jane considerably less funny as well. In some scenes in the fourth series, she’s the straight man, where she had been the equivalent of Jeff for the women: the one who could be relied on to say mad things when the scene hadn’t been funny for 30 seconds. So with neither Jeff nor Jane saying random mad things, the whole series feels a little off-balance and empty. Moffat feels like he’s running low on inspiration, and there’s a general sense that, while everyone seems to enjoy doing the show, and that doing another go-round made sense because of the show’s popularity, that they might all have rather been brave about it and stopped after the third series.

It’s the sort of reasoning that kept John Cleese from doing a third round of Fawlty Towers, I suppose. And he was right.

Thus

So, after watching all that, I went back and looked at the Moffat episodes of Doctor Who again. Now they very obviously sounded like the work of the same writer. It’s the same sense of humor, especially when the characters engage in light-hearted banter or act slightly crazy. It’s funny, because I had been associating the Moffat episodes with fright and horror, since they had that unnerving, make-the-kids-hide-behind-the-sofa quality to them. But it’s also true that they are playful, and crack jokes. It’s kind of like how after watching a ton of Buffy and Firefly that you easily recognize a line as being Whedonesque; there’s dialogue in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink” that’s obviously Moffatesque. (Side note: there was a line of dialogue in Dr. Horrible that I laughed at and tagged as being particularly Whedonesque, only to learn in the commentary tracks that Joss Whedon’s brother had written that particular line — although, since he’s also named Whedon, it can still be called Whedonesque, I suppose.)

In general, though, a series with justifiable fan following. Good characters, funny jokes, well-executed farce, and enjoyable formal experiments in storytelling. Moffat is clearly a prolific writer who writes top-quality stuff; it’s not easy to single-handedly write a series, and he’s done it three times now. But secretly, he’s always been what he calls a “tragic” Doctor Who fan, and has now been given the keys to the Tardis, as it were. As his first act, he cast the youngest actor ever to play the Doctor, and I hope that works out. But it does make me look forward to the upcoming fifth series of the reincarnated Doctor Who.

Coupling: Series 2 and 3 recommended; series 1 probably a good idea to watch to get into the swing of things; series 4 a disappointment, but an interesting one and Oliver’s not that bad a character really, plus there’s a documentary on the bonus disc about how the series is produced from script to screen that I found quite interesting.

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movie reviews

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Directed by Jake Kasdan, Produced by Judd Apatow. Starring John C. Reilly, Raymond J. Barry, Kristen Wiig, Tim Meadows, Chris Parnell, Jenna Fischer, and cameos by an assortment of Judd Apatow regulars.

Capsule verdict: Disappointing misfire, eliciting a smattering of chuckles at best.

Ten minutes into the movie, nobody in the audience had laughed yet. Full crowd, too. Probably full of people who have seen the other two Judd Apatow movies this year, Knocked Up and Superbad. Maybe even people who saw and liked Talladega Nights and Anchorman and The 40 Year Old Virgin, which all have more or less the same pedigree as well as cast. There were jokes, but nobody was laughing.

They were a peculiar, particular kind of joke. It was sort of the joke style for the whole movie, so if you didn’t like that kind of joke, you weren’t in for a treat. I spent a lot of time engaged by the mental exercise of trying to nail down what this kind of joke was so that I could write about it later. It’s a kind of joke writing that felt really familiar — that I knew from somewhere else, but not movies, exactly. What was it? I had a lot of time to think, and the audience was nice and quiet, which was conducive to long stretches of rumination.

About an hour and 15 minutes in, I laughed out loud, surprising myself. It was the last joke in a montage of not very funny shots of Dewey Cox (whose name was chosen to be funny, but never quite is) destroying things in his house because he’s feeling very emotional. It was the one joke that got a laugh, and I’m not sure why, and that was just as fascinating — although I can tell you it was a different type of joke. It was a sort of truthful human moment that slipped in by accident into the contrived script. Having overturned his piano, sawn his sofa in half, broken his sinks, smashed his guitars, Dewey doggedly keeps destroying everything he can, finally having to settle for smaller and pettier acts of destruction, grabbing spoons out of his drawer and bending them. “Rrrr!” he says, bending a spoon. He grabs another. “Rrr!” he bends that one. There’s a dissolve, showing some amount of time has passed. He’s seeing through his intention to the bitter end, looking a little fatigued by the tedium of it, but he’s clearly bending every last spoon he owns. He sighs instead of growling as he bends another spoon.

As stupid as that is, that’s what I laughed at, in this whole idiotic movie. Somehow that moment looked like actual human behavior. Exaggerated for comic effect, but yes — sometimes you get wound up and commit to some silly course of action, and the emotion that prompted it runs out but there you are, still seeing it through, just because. So I recognized something of my own foibles in that, and so I laughed.

Now the rest of the movie, I finally figured out, is written in an internet style of making fun of things. It’s a lazy form of satire, a style I think is really weak and never find funny. In fact, I maintain an active dislike of it and make gripey noises when people foist URLs on me. But it gets traded around and is popular in its own way, probably because it’s easy to write. Non-writers can write it. You just have to be snide and obvious.

It is usually found in fake-script form, making fun of movies. It is thus a written form of humor, and I can’t recall having seen this kind of material actually made into a movie, let alone by professionals (as opposed to some sort of youtube skit).

Allow me to contrive an example. Suppose you wanted to make fun of Spider-Man movies. You would write something like this:

Peter Porker is talking to his Uncle Joe.

PETER: Hey aged father figure that I'm too self-absorbed to listen to, I need to go exploit my secret super pow-- I mean, uh, I have to study at the library. Yeah.

UNCLE: Just a second Peter. Now as an aged father figure to
you I need to tell you something important.

PETER: (not listening) Yeah yeah whatever.

UNCLE: Hold on sport. In case I suddenly die and the last thing I tell you becomes suddenly poignant, you better listen.

PETER: What, are you going to tell me that with great power comes great responsibility or something?

UNCLE JOE is suddenly killed by a crook!

PETER: Nooo, Uncle Joe! If only I'd listened, and now it's all my fault and I'll be haunted by your last words forever!

Okay, you get that? You’ve seen that, right? That style of comedy? It’s almost like watered down 1970s MAD magazine writing, now that I think about it. It seems juvenile and uninspired to me. It’s like notes for jokes, placeholders where actual jokes should be, without actually being funny. Well, Walk Hard is about 85% made up of scenes that are written like that. Yes, literally, just like that. The remainder is songs written in various styles, but which also aren’t funny.

And through it all, they neglected to make it actually hang together like a real movie. It wanders, getting lost in the 1950s for quite a long time, before rushing through the 60s and 70s and skipping the 80s entirely. Strange, since if the conceit is that Dewey Cox lived through all of these musical eras, you could get a lot out of doing an 80s pastiche, but it’s like it didn’t even occur to them to do that. There’s one moment earlier when somehow Dewey starts to get addicted to cocaine, but way too early, like in the late 50s or maybe early 60s, and they nearly make a joke about him inventing punk rock, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and doesn’t make any sense. Then by the time they get to 1978 they don’t even have any more music ideas for their musical lead character, and have him doing Sonny & Cher-style variety television.

That reminds me of another complaint. It’s like they didn’t bother to do any research about any of the eras they were going through. Oh, I guess the costume department did. It seems like they missed a lot of opportunity for comedy by not knowing enough about anything to actually mine it for humor. The Beatles show up in a cameo that seems to be written by, and for, people who have never seen the Beatles before, just heard other people referencing them second or third hand. They bring on the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly and I was sure they were going to go for a joke about Dewey Cox failing to get on a plane with them after the show because of some amusing reason, but they didn’t do that. Instead they end the scene with a guy doing a cliché parody of 1970s Elvis while dressed as 1956 Elvis, throwing karate chops and calling himself The King. I dunno, is that the joke, that 1956 Elvis would act like 1976 Elvis? Maybe they thought that was funny.

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I am completely mystified insulted by the casting of Jack Black as Paul McCartney.

Geek pedant complaint: So Dewey complains to his manager that his variety show is getting trounced in the ratings every week by The Incredible Hulk. Okay, that works if it’s 1978. Then they talk about a supposed recent episode of Hulk, where he has an evil twin who’s red instead of green. There’s no such episode, so is that the joke? They made up an evil twin episode that doesn’t exist. Did somebody sitting there typing the script think that was funny for some reason? Suppose they assume most people in the audience won’t know that there wasn’t an episode like that. Is that why it’s funny? Anyway, they talk about helping the ratings by plugging the variety show on a news interview, and Dewey practices saying that it comes on “Thursday evenings, right after the local news.” That’s my geek pedant complaint: Hulk was on Friday nights for its entire run. You know, right before The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas.

There’s no point in them actually researching when Hulk was on, since it doesn’t make it any more funny to get it right. But why get it wrong? I really don’t see why they couldn’t look it up and write Friday into the script instead of Thursday. It’d take 20 seconds. It just seems lazy. They didn’t look up anything, they didn’t think through anything. How can you be funny when you’re just faffing around like this?

It seems, ultimately, like they had an idea for a movie. And they thought that was enough to get started. Lots of wheels to get spinning to do a movie like this. You have to write a bunch of songs, pre-record them. You have to get all those period costumes made. You have to order some Yellow Submarine-type animation. It’s like they were so focused on all this business that they went into production with a first draft. One with lots of ideas for scenes but no actual scenes. Lots of ideas for jokes but no actual jokes. Or jokes that exist just to narrate themselves.

Very weird. I remember I had trouble with Anchorman too, for what seemed like different reasons at the time, but I think underneath there is a related problem. However, that movie was way funnier than this, and I think it’s because of Will Farrell being able to riff while the cameras are rolling and make things funnier. I’m not a really big Will Farrell fan, but I recognize that he has this ability to funny things up.

I couldn’t help but think the entire time that they wanted Farrell to play Dewey Cox, and he either couldn’t do it because of other commitments, or he was wise enough to turn it down. Or, he said to them, “Hey, get Reilly to do it. He was hilarious in Talladega Nights. He’s your man.” So they said, yeah, Reilly’s a hell of an actor, and he’s funny, too, and he can sing. So we’ll do that, it’ll be great.

Only it’s not great. And as flabby and pasty as he is, he’s not funny running around in tighty whities the way Will Farrell is.

Oh yeah, about a half hour in, a completely naked woman walks across the screen. It wasn’t funny, but it was pleasantly distracting. Then they showed a giant close-up of a penis. Twice. Three times if you count the recapping montage at the end of the movie. I think they thought that was funny, too, and I guess from a certain perspective it is.

Cox. Get it?

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Less Ordinary: Behind the scenes

lo_logo.jpg

Appendix A: The Making of Pages 1-24

First of all, I have to say that writing and drawing this
comic has been the most satisfying creative project of the
year for me. It demanded a lot from me, and that’s partly
why it ended up being somewhat thrilling. Keeping on my
self-imposed schedule (aiming to be done with each page
at 12am each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) was a crazy
high-wire act with a lot of frenzy behind the scenes that
I deliberately didn’t mention was going on most of the time.

I say this because I want people to know that I’m having an
enormous amount of fun making Less Ordinary, so I do
intend to start cranking out pages again soon. Posting this
is not a replacement for that, it’s just extra stuff. And
I have in fact been sketching new pages lately.

The Tools

Currently, I’m using a Sawtooth model Macintosh G4 minitower
from the mid-90s, at a screaming 400MHz with 768MB of RAM. The
computer cost $100, give me a break. The monitor is a huge monster
I got at a Goodwill computer store, also for $100. I’m using version
3.0 of Photoshop, which I got as an extra with a scanner I bought
in 1997 for an incredible $300. It was like 2 feet long and had
heavy solid glass and weighed 8 pounds, and it broke during a
move and I threw it away. But the Photoshop was a full version,
not that LE business, and I’ve never been able to afford to
upgrade it, so I’m still using it. Fortunately, version 3.0 is
when they standardized the PSD file format that is still in use
today. I do have to run it under OS9-Classic (under OS X 10.3.9),
but it behaves well. One limitation that has a significant
impact: one level of Undo only. If I make one stroke I don’t
like, I can get rid of it. If I make a stroke I don’t like and
then accidentally touch a dot of digital ink somewhere else a
second later, I’m committed. Or I have to go back to an earlier
saved version. Personally I look at this as a heroic and very
manly way to work, without all those effete and foppish 99+
levels of Undo people think they can’t live without.

The drawing tools: Cross ballpoint pen (blue medium),
Strathmore sketchbook, Wacom tablet, chair, desk, mouse, keyboard.
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The Process

I invented the process of turning out pages of this comic while
doing it, seeking always to make it more efficient. It does end up
being kind of a factory assembly line kind of operation, taking
several weeks to produce the first page, but able to churn out a
page every two days on schedule when it got up to speed.

The basic workflow goes like this:

  • Pre-Production
    • Sketching
    • Scanning
    • Preliminary Page Breakdowns
    • Page Layout, Composition and Editing
    • Pre-Ink Prep
  • Production
    • Inking
    • Dialogue and Sound Effects
    • Coloring
    • Finishing

The Pre-Production phase happens on multiple pages at a time, so
that a whole sequence is prepped for production at one time. It is
more efficient that way, and helps for planning ahead in terms of
storytelling.

Production is one page at a time. I start and finish one page
before even thinking about the next, because it’s all I can handle.

Now that you have the broad idea, I’ll take each step at a time
so I can talk about each part and show some art examples. I didn’t always
save copies of the intermediate stages — too busy trying to get the
page done to worry about documenting the process — but every now and
then I remembered to do that.

Pre-Production

Sketching

The stage wherein I draw several pages of “pencils” in my sketchbook,
in a fast and loose style. I’m aiming to get down the next few pages of
ideas all at once, usually in one sitting. It’s almost like I’m just
jotting notes for what I’d like to do, except that I actually use these
drawings as the basis for the final art. Even though these are much rougher
and sketchier than ink-ready pencils usually are, they are not cleaned up.

This is somehow working beautifully for me. For years, my
main sketching/doodling medium has been ballpoint pen
in an artist’s sketchbook (11×14). I get a really fluid
line out of a ballpoint, and it can sometimes feel
effortless. It often looks messy if I can’t quite get
a line in the right place, because I can’t erase, but
a lot of the time I will draw a breezy stroke that
somehow captures something perfectly — a look on
a face, the body language of someone in motion.

I used to have a very hard time with the fact that I
couldn’t use these ballpoint sketches as the basis for
a real piece of finished artwork. I would have to, at
best, laboriously re-draw the sketches in pencil, and
then ink, and I’d lose that ineffable something that I
really thought the fast first sketch had.
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I got a Wacom tablet about three years ago,
but after multiple experiments with it I still had never
become comfortable with drawing with it directly — ie,
digitally “pencilling” — or even with inking over scanned
drawings. However, a lot of other artists digitally ink
over scanned pencils, so I figured there had to be a way
to make it work for me. This comic gave me an opportunity
to experiment.

In fact, it started just as a quick and dirty experiment
I was doing purely for research purposes. I had been planning
to do a webcomic of my own for a full year, and by September
2007 I was very busy trying all sorts of experiments with different
real and digital drawing tools, trying to figure out what
would be efficient and reliable for turning out pages on
a regular schedule. Traditional pencil, pen and ink were
looking good but incredibly slow. I knew I’d be lucky to do
more than one page a week like that, and that just wasn’t
good enough. I had to try doing more of the work in the
computer itself.

So when I got the idea for the first 8 pages, based on a
real-life incident, I figured this was a chance to try out
any techniques I wanted. I drew some fast sketches,
took pictures of them with my digital camera, and pulled
them into Photoshop. I lowered the contrast and brightened
the page, making the ballpoint look faint. I chose one of
the drawings from the page, traced over it with the paintbrush
tool with black “ink”, and hey — I liked the result.
23_orig.jpg

Since then, I have continued to do all the pencilling
work as crazy-fast sketches in my sketchbook, making often
very little effort to draw them cleanly or what you might
think of as being a sound basis for finished work. But
it somehow works! Mostly because I’m finally getting to
work from the intuitive strokes that manage to get the
bold ideas down, because I’m drawing in the way I’m
absolutely the most relaxed, comfortable and confident.
04_preink-1.jpg

04_intermed.jpg
04_final.jpg

Scanning

Getting the sketches into the computer.

As I said, I started with just a digital camera, because
I was scanner-less. (My old scanner didn’t have a driver for
OS X, and UMAX refused to ever make one, for some reason.)
I’d take one picture per sketched panel, several per
sketchbook page, often ending up with dozens of pictures.
I’d capture them in iPhoto and use that to brighten them up
a bit, because the camera was always making the sketchbook
paper come out as 50% neutral gray instead of white.

It eventually became clear that using the digital camera
and was adding a lot of steps to the process of getting them
assembled as ink-ready pages, and whacking those few steps out
of the process was going to be a big time and energy saver.
Anything to make it faster and easier to turn out new pages
was my guiding principle. So, I bought a new scanner, I think
around the time I was working on page 10.
10_NEW_preink.jpg
10_NEW_intermed.jpg
Because it costs a stupid amount of money to get a scanner
that can take an 11×14 image, I have to scan each sketchbook
page in two overlapping halves. At first, I fell back on my old
habit of scanning at 300dpi, but the scanner was especially
slow at this. I realized that high resolution didn’t matter,
because I was resizing the artwork so much anyway during the
layout and composition phase (see below) that the starting
resolution was largely irrelevant. Once again, speed was better,
so now I scan them at 75 dpi. I take the two scans,
bung them together in Photoshop, collapse them into one image
file and save that.

Preliminary Page Breakdowns

Where the sketches get reorganized into comic pages.
I take all of that newly scanned material and make a
preliminary best-guess at breaking it down into 11×17
comic pages in a rough form.

Industry standard art boards for illustrating comic
pages are now 11 by 17 inches, so I decided it would be
smart to use that size of virtual paper, at 300dpi, for
drawing this comic. My sketchbook pages are 11×14, though,
which means that there is not a complete correspondence of
sketchbook page to comic page.

The extra 3 inches vertically are a little annoying to
deal with, actually, because it’s not enough height to
add another row of panels to the artwork, but pulling
all of the panels apart with more room can leave things
looking a little empty. I approach this problem anew for
each one; it’s the initial challenge that gets me engaged
in the activity of deciding what, in fact, will happen
on this page.

Page Layout, Composition and Editing

In this stage, the sketches are treated as mutable
independent objects that can be rearranged on the page,
with an emphasis on the visual flow of the whole page
and telling the story.
08_layout_raw.jpg

It was when I was working on page 1 that I began to see
the potential of working in the digital medium at this early
stage, before I start inking. I can take a sketch for a panel
and combine it with another panel. I can mirror flip a drawing
if it makes the visual flow of the page work better. I can
stretch a small panel to be really large, and I can shrink
or crop a large panel to be small. I can grab drawings I
assigned to future page breakdowns, and I can throw away drawings
completely, because I’ve figured out how to tell the story
without them, probably by beefing up the role of a different
panel. This phase is where I look hard for what I
can cut, that I don’t need to tell the story on
that page. I think it’s strengthened the visual
impact and the storytelling to have made some
bold choices in this regard along the way.
08_p1-3_orig.jpg
08_revisions_dem.jpg
08_OLD.jpg
08_NEW.jpg
The first dramatic breakout was on page 6, which
originally was laid out like pages 1-5, with a lot
of little panels and a lot of dialogue balloons.
But by that point, I’d realized that drawing one
small panel takes about the same time as drawing
one big panel. And drawing two big panels to do
a page takes considerably less time than drawing
four to seven panels to do the same work. And so
when I stretched the second panel (see below) to cover everything
and realized that one image told the whole visual
story for that page — Mr. Glasses’s incredulous
reaction to what was happening on the other side
of the table — I knew I had a lot more storytelling
options than I was originally assuming.
06_preink.jpg
06_OLD.jpg
06_NEW.jpg
Sometimes discarded material is saved
to be used in upcoming pages. Other times, I may decide it
just doesn’t work — there is one sequence of sketches
I did that I liked a lot, but I tried twice to prep it for
inking — spending several hours trying to put the
pieces together — and it never came together as a solid
layout. The layout has to feel firm, because it’s the
foundation level, and something was always too wonky
about this sequence of drawings, and so I had to leave
it out.

The dramatic example of this was the “Timequake” sequence,
which started as eleven pages of sketches, was broken down
into eight pages of preliminary page layouts, and then
ended up being slimmed down and reorganized (one page
decided at a time) to just five pages of the final comic.
lo_0003.jpg
21_color.jpg
22_NEW_preink.jpg
22_NEW_color.jpg

Pre-Ink Prep

This gets everything all set for the inking to begin.

After I’ve got the composition and layout pretty much
finalized, the page is massively reduced in contrast and
raised in brightness. You may not have noticed this, but
the background is never true white, it’s always a very
faint off-white, a sort of yellowish gray. (Only the
dialogue balloons are pure white, which makes them pop
out.) The main point of doing the contrast and brightness
alteration is to make the ballpoint sketches turn a very
faint, light purple that can be drawn over and also erased
by a paint bucket fill with a moderately high tolerance (52).
It can look faint in a thumbnail or zoomed out, but zoomed
in it is still highly legible throughout the inking process,
so that I don’t find myself losing track of the underlying
sketches.

Lastly, the panel borders for the page are set by drawing
with the straight line tool and filling with black ink. I
might still move panels around after this point — some of
a trickier pages require rethinking and tweaking even after
inking has started — but the general rule is that the
artwork and layout are now “locked” and I can move
on to the next task with a clear head and confidence.
lo_scan_0018.jpg
16_orig.jpg
16_color.jpg

Summary

This Pre-Production process is, in my mind, highly analogous
to working on a film: sketching is like shooting raw footage, the page
breakdowns and rearranging of panels is like editing the footage
to a rough cut, then down to the final cut. In movies, you then
“lock the picture” (stop changing any of the editing or timing),
and then you go into post-production to sweeten it all up and
polish it (ie, add music and special effects, do the sound mix,
and so forth). Except, for the purposes of doing a comic book, that next
bit is the Production, not the Post-Production.
11_dialog_fix.jpg
Next: The Production stage: Inking, Dialogue, and Coloring

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