Posts Tagged Movies

Accolades with an Asterick

 

The Black Luigi

Andre 3000’s hit single “Hey Ya!” is a gleefully hyperactive song, fusing a classic rock sensibility with a modern, funky chic. It exploded on the scene in 2003, in a strange moment, when Outkast, a duo with a string of underrated, entertaining albums from  Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to Stankonia, decided to release separate ones. They weren’t splitting; they were exploring different things. Speakerboxx/The Love Below was the outcome. At the time, critics marveled over Andre 3000’s The Love Below’s eccentricity and random energy, and casually accepted Big Boi’s Speakerboxx. What makes this particularly weird is that Speakerboxx was inherently the better product, a fact that’s much more obvious today by most mainstream musicphiles. The Love Below is a nifty experiment, but there’s a really blatant truth here, which is most obvious on “Hey Ya,” but has yet to be quite understood: Andre 3000, while a great rapper, isn’t a good musician.

“Hey Ya” bounces and rolls with the immensity and grandeur that a great pop song can be. It works well in clubs and parties, and brightens the spirits as it bounds through its synths, basses, and fake guitar/xylophonist melodies. It’s great as a wonderful 50s-esque rock homage; not so much as a modern rock song. Andre 3000 cut his teeth as a rapper, so his voice is barely registering in this song (mainly due to the fact he can’t hit the notes, choosing to drown his voice out instead). I don’t hate “Hey Ya” (although I never loved it). It’s good, but it’s good with an asterisk.

The middle of aughts was a really, really strange period. It was around that time that Youtube REALLY hit its stride and entertainment across the board started to pick up. Artists were finding success in niches, and it seemed that executives were trying to find the formula for recapturing the splitting markets. Options? Catering to new demographics was an idea – Desperate Housewives, The Sex in the City movie. Another option was experimentation. It worked in the early 90s, when animation ripped into the TV landscape with new, bold stuff. And in desperate times, why not try it again?

Lost was such an experiment, the ABC, 6-season mindfuck that, well, didn’t turn out to be a mindfuck. A moment in time, the perfect moment for a drama to break the landscape for what could be shown on TV. It was, essentially, an art film as a TV show. Expertly acted, crafted, designed, and displayed. A buffet of skilled workmen behind the scenes, who, despite what the most hardened critics say, left viewers and audiences unsatisfied. Period.

What happened in the post-Lost TV world was, well, nothing. The real TV-game changers were The Office, Adult Swim and 24. The Office defined Thursday night comedy for NBC, and while not a ratings-smash, defined new niche comedies that a network could expunge. Adult Swim opened the niche of singular voices in animated and non-animated comedy. 24, while ridiculous, pretty much defined serial television, showcasing the ability to not possess self-contained shows to be a hit. In the advent of DVRs, Netflix, streaming, and torrents, it seems strange that television is still marred in the classic mode of storytelling. Although, it is starting to break.

The truth is, Lost did not end well. It failed to tie in its plot lines, it failed to define a followup (some people suggest Fringe, although that’s more akin to X-Files), and, well, even as a casual fan of the show, there’s no desire to go back to it. The strange thing is, Lost, like “Hey Ya,” had so much raw impact at an individual level, but came to mean nothing in the end. “Hey Ya” falls in being sung by a not-good singer on a weird but not-that-great of an album. Lost, with no strong narrative and no real endgame, failed as a TV show. Good, but with asterisk.

I also humbly submit Pan’s Labyrinth as the film equivalent of good, asterisked media. Guillermo Del Toro is an craftsman director, a visionary into the heart of creations and monsters – a modern day Henson, more or less. And while Pan’s Labyrinth had the rich fairytale rhythms and acting that hit all the right notes, it was a not-so-consistent story. The “fairytale” theme became more of a gimmick, an excuse for characters to randomly act out of character. Looking back on the question of its dream/non-dream settings, I keep wondering why and how the film managed to get to certain points without acting wildly out of sync. I can’t imagine re-watching this without a rub of the chin and a cock-eyed expression. Who has it in their top fifty films? What did we really like about this again?

The asterisk is there because I want to be clear: this is different that the typical cultural embarrassment that we’re usually engaging in. This isn’t the Macarana, 80s power rock ballads, bland raunchy comedy, 60s animation, or other forms of entertainment that was terrible content-wise AND media-wise. “Hey Ya,” musically, is solid, just as Lost was masterful television and Pan’s Labyrinth visually arresting. But as “music,” as “game-changing TV,” as “the cinematic experience,” these three mid-2000 reeked of some missing element, a lack of commitment to the real core issue – entertainment that was aggressively “forest for the trees.” In other words – Andre 3000 can’t sing, Lost failed to have an endgame, and Pan’s Labyrinth’s characters made too many uncharacteristic decisions.

Today’s entertainment seems to have taken the lessons ultimately learned from this and created… well, not better-quality material, but better contained material. Although if Terra Nova, the DC comic reboot, and Thundercats (more on this later) are the norm, then we may just be coming back full circle.

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED: CASPER

Casper Screenshot

Child porn and necrophilia all in one, kiddie-friendly package!

Casper – (1995)

Director: Brad Silberling
Starring: Bill Pullman, Christina Ricci, Malachi Pearson
Screenplay by: Sherri Stoner, Deanna Oliver

Cartoonists Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo created a phantasmagorical little boy in the 1930s named Casper, a friendly ghost who refuses to eschew the rules of the metaphysical, opting to try and befriend the mortal instead of haunting or scaring them. First as a children’s book and then as an animated cartoon, Casper’s foibles center around his attempts to communicate with people who consistently, automatically freak out and run for the hills. It’s a simple enough premise, mixing the whimsy of idealized Halloween with the creepy comradeship that the macabre can bring, all presentable for the young. And it worked; cartoons of the youthful spirit were created well into the 60s; even today, there are a ton of direct-to-DVD and simple cartoons out there. All of which were more or less spring-boarded by the 1995 film. Hope the re-watch won’t be horrifying! Etc.

NOSTALGIC LENS: I was quite effected by the film when I originally watched it, and I remembered it being surprisingly dark. It’s a difficult line to walk, trying to make a film about death and “what happens next” for kids, who certainly don’t do too much thinking about it. Still, I remember it being fun and chilling, impressed by the ghost effects, and quite enamored by the story. Boy, was I in for a trick-or-treat! Okay, I’ll stop.

DOES IT HOLD UP: When I re-watched this, my immediate first thought was, “This HAS to have been written by two writers.” Sure enough, two names appeared under the Written By credit, and it makes sense. It’s was like watching 2 separate movies in one, barely connected by a thread. One wanted to write a goofy kids film about a young specter wanting to meet a real girl and go to a school dance. The other wanted to write a dark tale of a loss, control, obsession, and shades of abuse. Instead of trying to fuse these ideas together, they just mixed and matched sections of each screenplay and plopped out a finished product. Scenes are starkly black and white in tone, instead of the smooth gray it should be.

Widower doctor (Bill Pullman) and his daughter (Christina Ricci) constantly move from place to place as the former seeks to “communicate” to his deceased wife, and the latter rolls her eyes, or something. Meanwhile, lonely ghost Casper tries desperately to befriend anyone brave enough to enter his haunted mansion, only to be scared off by his triple ghostly companions (or more accurately, owners) of Stretch, Stinky, and Fatso. MEANWHILE STILL, Cathy Moriarty and Eric Idle are two typical corporate-types who want to destroy the mansion for generic money-making scheme #8, but end up discovering a secret within the house, so they switch to generic money-making scheme #14.

Sounds messy, right? It is, but not overly so. It’s more or less three ideas told in five-to-seven minute chunks, and the ideas themselves are simple enough so it’s easy to follow. Also, the direction and editing is clean and straight-forward. Nothing special, nothing exciting, but just passable enough so as to not call anything into question – if you’re a kid.

Older viewers, however will call shenanigans on the parts that seem especially off-putting or nonsensical. For example, an early sequence has Pullman fighting the goofy ghosts with a plunger and vacuum cleaner. Funny, silly kids’ stuff, right? Well, after trapping the ghosts in the vacuum, the following scenes act as if THAT NEVER HAPPEN. Stretch, Stinky, and Fatso are suddenly freed and out and about – without any indication on how or why they were released. The idea, that Pullman is trying to talk these ghosts into “moving on,” is never exactly relayed to the trio of spooks. We’re supposed to assume this.

Balancing the dark with the goofy is never easy, but in Casper, the “dark” borders on horrifying territory. Watching Casper being physically abused by Stretch, Stinky, and Fatso comes off disturbing, not cute. A scene where those three basically ridicule Pullman’s dead wife is starkly cold. The worst thing, though, comes from the film’s attempt to utilize a piece of dialogue that works in the thematic sense throughout the film. The line? “Can I keep you?”

My “rival” is dead correct – that line is just fucking creepy. It doesn’t even really make sense. Part of me thinks its a child’s mistaken approach at romantic terminology (he sees it like one sees a pet or a toy), but the line directed at a young Ricci by a DEAD thing makes it come off much more terrifying.

There are some really nice moments, though. Casper recounting how he died is pretty heartfelt, an interesting approach to something that probably didn’t matter to the original run. And these final scenes are surprisingly dramatic: live-Casper and Ricci’s dance is cheesy good in the 90s sense, but Pullman’s revisit by his wife is actually quite powerful:

Beyond that though, there’s a lot of random moments, including the stuff with Moriarty and Idle, which doesn’t serve too much purpose, and is resolved in a silly way (there’s actually a weird moment where Casper and Ricci run from the ghost version of Moriarty, only to come back. Inexplicable.) Casper’s dual-narrative doesn’t exactly fuse together all that well, but it has moments of liveliness to combat the incomprehensible dread.

Oh, and Dan Aykroyd makes an early appearance as a Ghostbuster. That was kinda cool.

NEXT UP: Heavyweights

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Smurfs, Hollywood, and the Nature of “World-Building”

Hollywood will be smurfing our theaters with the new Smurfs movie, released on August 3, 2011:

The Smurfs Rocking out with Neil

It's kinda like this.

I’m no longer the type of person to decry the end of Hollywood’s creativity or bitch about the onslaught of lazy slop of reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels, “re-visionings,” and poor adaptations. I’ve heard all the complaints, whines, eye-rolling comments, and exasperations. Don’t get me wrong, I agree. But there’s no point complaining, since Hollywood and the rich executives who run them will continue to produce them. Marmaduke. Underdog. Yogi Bear. Alvin and the Chipmunks. They’re just gonna keep coming.

And why not? People go and see them. And the public isn’t exactly running to the original stuff – Inception being the exception (and even that has its problematic justifications). Besides, beyond the lame premises, people do work on these films, and arguably a few of them actually work hard on their respective roles. And, I’ll be honest: on a slow day in the future, when it’s on TNT and I’m bored and have time to kill, I may watch an hour of one of these films. Hell, I saw twenty minutes of Underdog while at the gym. Stupid, but hearing Patrick Warbuton say “Dogfish” while wearing a too-tight stocking cap was damn hilarious. (Does the context even matter?)

This write-up isn’t about the hack-work of the Hollywood system (it’s always been there, from the lesser studio system works of the 50s, to the trash-exploitation films of the 70s, to the early TV-show-turned-films of the 90s). This is actually about an interesting set of comments concerning these types of stories and attempts to wrap one’s head around the premises in question. People seem more willing to explore the fringes of a concept a lot more than usual; in other words, they seem to want more “world building”.

In effect, people wants to see characters inhabit their own existence, and the logic in which that existence came to be. Why couldn’t the Smurfs exist in their own world? Why make them interact with humans? The same could be said with Hop. Couldn’t he just be a Easter bunny in an… I don’t know, an Easter bunny world? Or, take Cars – a film which has been sarcastically befuddling people: who built these cars? Why are there sidewalks? And so on.

It’s difficult for me to acknowledge this, but these films are the now-equivalent of the 2D-live action films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam. Unlike today’s CGI/live action films, however, Roger Rabbit and Space Jam at least tried to contextualize their worlds. In Roger Rabbit, cartoon characters were “actors” of their own right in 1940s America; in Space Jam, the animated world, underneath our own, was about to be invaded by aliens. It doesn’t make “full” sense in closer inspection (do animators exist in Roger Rabbit? why would aliens really need to play basketball to global domination?), but there’s enough content to keep our focus and suspend our disbelief.

The problem isn’t really the writers, but the base material and the intended audience. Yogi Bear and the damn-near full gamut of Hanna-Barbara cartoons place animated characters among humans. Looney Toon shorts did too, so it isn’t Cartoon Network’s fault per se that the upcoming cartoon randomly places Bugs and Daffy among a world of humans. They ought to take lessons from Lauren Faust, whose reboot of MLP seem to establish a fully-fleshed world in which the characters can thrive, without falling into the two traps of over-explaining or under-explaining their worlds.

Over-explaining puts -too- much detail into the world, focusing on the excessive details without providing a solid story to work with. Heroes fell into this trap, Final Fantasy games and most JRPGs are notorious for this, and Sonic the Hedgehog fans seem enamored with the details of everything Mobius instead of the story of the comic run (comics, with their constant need for retconning, seems to be the biggest culprit in over-explaining). By contrast, under-explaining creates a broad world without fleshed out rules that fail to stay consistent with the various stories being told. Heroes did this (yes, somehow a show both OVER and UNDER explained its world), and recent shows like V apparently has been throwing a ton of ideas to the wall without anything in place.

Bottom-line: good world building is hard. It takes planning, a dedication to understanding the types of stories you wish to tell, and the surroundings in which you wish to tell it. The characters must be beholden to this world you create, and the audience should be drawn into it. Showcase this world, and let the characters thrive in it, and let the audience figure out where the limits of this world go. Sure, some forms of entertainment can be looser in this regard (take Spongebob, where fires burn and electricity flows freely underwater), but the basis is there (all the characters are underwater species, and mammals need aquatic suites to breath.)

So, really, it’s not a BIG surprise that films like the Smurfs, Hop, and Yogi Bear tosses its characters in the real world and let them do whatever. Why bother to put much thought into the world of such films if their mostly for kids, kids who care very little about “where the sidewalks in Cars” came from? Good world building is better for long-term venues, like television, books, and video games anyway; films, as great as they can be, are difficult to justify in several months of rules, laws, social hierarchies, status quos, and so on. Not to say they can’t exist in cinema, it’s just harder to make it work in three hours or less without over or under-explaining everything.

Towing the line between “but how?” and “who cares?” is a tricky one, especially pushing into sci-fi territory. In a certain way, not only does one have to create a certain level of plausibility in the self-created world, but – and here’s the key – work to deny further inquiry. The limits are not only what the characters can do, but what the audience is willing to believe. Yogi Bear is a good example. He’s a talking, walking bear, so why aren’t they other walking, talking animals? If there were at least 2 or 3 other talking animals, then the audience wouldn’t be so hard-pressed in wondering about Yogi. (In effect, the later Hanna-Barbara crossover films, which contained a number of the talking animal characters, was an easier pill to swallow).

Films are better served to KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) in their worlds unless we’re entering trilogy territory; even then, there’s shaky ground. Both the Matrix and Star Wars were straining by the third film, the former more so than the latter, and the less said about the Star Wars prequels, the better. Books, games, and TV have more time to share their environments in detail, but even they can be over and/or under achieving.

My advice in the art of world building is to let your characters and story define the world, and not the other way around. The goals should reveal the strengths and limits of the environment, no more, no less. Build your conflict, understand your tone and genre, and from there, the rules should automatically come. Don’t force your beliefs, ideologies, or philosophies into the world until and unless they are emphatic to the development of the story or character. And above all, know when to stop. Let the fans fill in the details.

I’m sure all five Smurf fans in existence have already nailed the lore down, so they should be the only ones truly angry come August first.

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