Thursday, July 29, 2010

Underrated Movie #88: Hamlet 2

Our Shakespeare mini-unit concludes!
Title: Hamlet 2
Year: 2008
Director: Andrew Fleming
Writers: Fleming and Pam Brady
Stars: Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, Amy Poehler, Elisabeth Shue, Melanie Diaz, Phoebe Strole

The Story: A deranged public school theater director decides to save the drama program by writing and staging “Hamlet 2”, a highly-personal musical saga involving Jesus, time travel and daddy issues.

How it Came to be Underrated: This got good reviews and a big sale at Sundance, which predictably caused a backlash when it got its wide release several months later. This time, the critics trashed it for no good reason. That’s a shame, because it’s wild, smart and hilarious.

Why It’s Great:

  1. It’s hard to make a good comedy about bad art without being overly-snotty towards your characters. You’re laughing at them for doing the same thing you’re attempting. But this movie succeeds by respecting his process, as terrible as it is. His saving grace is that he listens to every criticism and begs his critics for help.
  2. Coogan ultimately discovers that creating crappy art is still a valuable process because it works a lot of your own crap out of your system. This leads to some tricky areas for comedy, like a song about molestation. There’s been a lot of “anything goes” comedies recently about uncomfortable subjects, but I rarely find them funny. Coogan makes it work by allowing his character to feel sympathetic pain beneath the surface of his outrageous behavior.
  3. The critics who turned on this movie preferred a different take on the same topic: Synecdoche, NY, which was also about a delusional theater impresario in the sticks, (Catherine Keener plays the exact same part in both movies!) but I thought this one rang truer, even though it was much zanier. It’s definitely funnier-- I don’t usually laugh out loud while re-watching comedies for this blog, but I kept chortling uncontrollably while I was re-watching this.
  4. The movie also works as a wicked parody of “inspirational teacher” movies, which are usually based on a fundamental contempt for minority students and the public school system. This movie acknowledges that the kids and the schools are in trouble, sure, but saviors riding in on white stallions tend to be part of the problem, not the solution. This time the students are allowed to save the teacher.
  5. I haven’t even gotten into how hilarious Elizabeth Shue and Amy Poehler are in the movie. I can’t even do justice to it. Watch the movie.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Fleming has made a series of excellent indie comedies without ever getting much recognition. Threesome was a bluntly honest look at love in college, and Dick was a surreal satire about Nixon’s dogwalkers.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with a chatty commentary by Fleming and Brady and sing-a-long versions of the deliriously funny songs.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Haunted Hamlet!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #38: How Do You Cope With Remake Fever?

So there’s a writer and he thinks he’s pretty good. He’s got great ideas for original stories—some horny kids get lost in a spooky forest, a father and daughter survive a shipwreck, that kind of stuff —but his producers don’t want to hear them. They only want two things: remakes and adaptations. Why not remake that Danish revenge thriller that came out a few years ago? People have forgotten the details, but they remember the name, so it’ll be easy to sell. The writer protests: you want to do remakes of stuff that’s not even twenty years old?? Why can’t we tell original stories for once? But, as usual, he loses the fight. He puts his originals back in the drawer for another year and goes to work on the pre-digested stuff, re-telling stories that people already know.

The writer, of course, was William Shakespeare, who found himself in the same position that screenwriters face today. Writers get sick of remakes and adaptations. Why can’t we create value instead of merely recycling it? But producers love pre-sold material. Unlike most of today’s rewriters, Shakespeare rose to the task. He achieved every rewriter’s dream—he did work so good that everybody forgot about the originals. (Who stages Thomas Kyd’s 1589 version of Hamlet today?)
He did this by overcoming a mental hurdle that stands in the way of most writers. There are two ways to evaluate your writing, but they often get confused with each other. You can judge what it’s about, or you can judge how well it’s written. But it’s very hard to keep these things separate. It’s hard to say, “this is beautifully written, but the idea doesn’t work.” Or, even worse: “This is a great story! Unfortunately it’s not well written.”

As a kid, I loved sci-fi and comics, so I wanted to write my own, but I was always disappointed by so-called “Creative Writing” classes. All they wanted me to write about was my happiest memory or my saddest day. Who cared about that stuff? I was there because I had ideas! Ideas about spaceships and evil computers! I dropped those classes.

I wish now that I’d stayed and learned how to write about my own life. But I also wish that they had re-named the classes, so that I wouldn’t have been so disappointed. These were, in fact, non-creative writing classes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They wanted us to write about our own life not because it was such interesting material, but because they wanted us to learn how to tell a true story well, before we took on the extra burden of making up stories from scratch. Sure, nobody cared about my saddest and happiest days ...yet. That was the whole point. I was supposed to learn how to make people care, which is a very valuable skill to have. I didn’t get that. I thought that the way to make people care was to pick more interesting subject matter.

Eventually, I would find classes where they let me write made-up stories, but I quickly discovered that having good ideas and writing well were two very different things. Luckily, Shakespeare was able to accept that. He only wrote four originals, as opposed to thirty-four remakes and/or adaptations. He may have been disappointed by this ratio, but he didn’t let it affect the quality of his work.
(Yes, folks, it’s unofficially become a psuedo-Shakespeare week, which psuedo-concludes tomorrow)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #37: Why Do Hamlet and Batman Delay?

Last week, I talked about how hard it hard it is to get the hero and villain to both try to kill each other in thrillers, then I talked about how creature features actually make more sense. But there’s yet another extension of this problem that I haven’t covered yet, so allow me one final column on this topic--

The big difference between a murder mystery and a thriller is the amount of time that your hero and villain are openly confronting each other. In a mystery, the villain keeps a low profile and there’s usually not a confrontation until the very end. In a thriller, the thrills have to start by about 30 minutes in, so by that point the hero and the villain usually have an open antagonism.

So why isn’t the movie over ten minutes later?

The answer is the that the hero and villain confront each other, then take some time off, then confront each other again, then cool off some more, then finally gather for their final showdown. Sometimes, in more ambiguous thrillers, this wavering makes sense, but just as often, both hero and villain know right away that only one of them can remain standing, so why do they keep disengaging? Why don’t they finish each other off the first time?

The most famous example of this, of course, is Hamlet. Why does Hamlet delay? There are several reasons given in the plot: First he wants to get more evidence, then he has religious doubts, then he spends two acts extricating himself from an elaborate death trap. But ultimately, Shakespeare never really explains it, so this is considered to be the key question that the director and actor must answer for themselves.

But ultimately we trust Shakespeare, so we give him the benefit of the doubt. If we can’t find enough justification for Hamlet’s delay in the text, then it must be our fault. But we don’t give as much leeway to the people who write Batman comics, who face this problem month after month. In almost every single issue, Batman confronts the villain inconclusively a few times before they finally have it out. And this is the hardest thing for me about writing thrillers: How do you get out of these early action scenes in inconclusive ways? Why would either side walk away without killing or arresting the other? I’ll tell you how: you write a bunch of scenes like this one, from Detective Comics #437:
I myself have written variations on this scene: “Villain throws hero out of a window, can’t check to see if he’s dead, villain is gone before the hero comes back.” It’s better than “Villain puts hero in a death trap, assumes that it works, doesn’t bother to check.” But it only buys you a little time until you have to write your next inconclusive confrontation.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Underrated Movie #87: 49th Parallel

Title: 49th Parallel aka The Invaders
Year: 1941
Director: Michael Powell
Writer: Emeric Pressburger, story co-written with Rodney Ackland
Stars: Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Anton Walbrook, Eric Portman, Glynis Johns (The Court Jester)

The Story: A Nazi U-Boat crew, after getting bombed in Hudson Bay, must smuggle themselves across Canada, seeking the safety of neutral America across the titular line. What they haven’t counted on is the bravery of the Canadian people. One by one, the crew gets picked off as they flee through a series of Canuck communities.

How it Came to be Underrated: Though it did win a screenplay Oscar, Americans aren’t big fans of movies that imply we’re a bunch of Nazi-loving shirkers who lack the courage of our neighbors to the north. As a result, this hasn’t been re-run anywhere near as often as other WW2 classics.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Powell’s more personal movies, like Black Narcissus, were bizarrely expressionist, but he was equally good at making straightforward nail-biters. Of course, they always reflected his ear for ironic dialogue, his love for quirky personalities, and his flinty humanism.
  2. Since it was a good script for a good cause, this attracted an all-star line up both in front of and behind the camera (it was edited by David Lean and shot by his future collaborator Freddie Young) Olivier was the biggest star at the time but he gives the weakest performance, chewing the scenery as a broadly-sketched French-Canadian trapper. He doesn’t stick around for very long, though, as there’s still a long parade of heroic Canadians to showcase.
  3. Though the Nazis were bombing the hell out of Britain and the writer was of Hungarian Jewish extraction, they still choose to create three-dimensional villain-protagonists. How better to condemn villains than to humanize them? Monsters can’t be blamed for their actions, but humans who choose to do evil are fully culpable.
  4. In one neat little scene, the Nazis have taken refuge with an unsuspecting community of Hutterites. One complains to a local about the terrible bread, which leads to an explanation of how work is assigned on the commune, each according to his ability. And what do you do? Well, the local admits with some embarrassment, I’m the baker. It’s a nice reminder that each bit of dialogue can have its own beginning, middle and end.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: In rapid succession, Powell and Pressburger made four crackerjack thrillers about the courage of various peoples that were standing up to the Nazis in the early days of the war. The other movies were Contraband (the Danes), The Spy in Black (the Scots), and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (the Dutch). This is the best but they’re all great.

How Available Is It?: It’s got a Criterion Collection DVD and it’s available to Watch Instantly (as are most of Powell’s films!).

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Nazi on My Back!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Underrated Movie #86: Kiss Me, Stupid

Title: Kiss Me, Stupid
Year: 1964
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond, based on the play “L’Ora della Fantasia” by Anna Bonacci
Stars: Kim Novak, Dean Martin, Ray Walston, Felicia Farr, Cliff Osmond

The Story: When the famous singer “Dino” passes through the tiny town of Climax, Nevada, two would-be songwriters decide to keep him there long enough to hear their work. At first, Walston is afraid that Dino will want to steal his wife, but they decide to hire the town hooker to pose as his wife, so that Dino can have his way with her. If you think it can’t get any more dirty-minded than that, you’d be very wrong.

How it Came to be Underrated: This is what career suicide looks like. Wilder (like Hitchcock and Michael Powell) spent the ‘50s pushing the boundaries of propriety, but gradually lost his audience when standards started to loosen faster than he could push them. This was Wilder’s attempt to get back out in front and obliterate the line entirely. Instead, it destroyed his reputation, which isn’t hard to understand. It’s great, but this material would have been too dirty for 1974, but less ten years earlier!

Why It’s Great:

  1. Wilder wanted the songs the characters wrote to be awful, so he asked Ira Gershwin if he and his late brother George had ever written any songs they weren’t proud of. Ira handed over all their stinkers, like “I’m A Poached Egg”, and Wilder loved them. It’s just a shame that we never actually get to hear to the lyrics to “I’m Taking Mom to the Junior Prom Because She’s a Better Twister Than My Sister”
  2. Can we talk about how daring Dean Martin is here? To play any character this callous and depraved is brave, but to do it as himself— using his real nickname, doing his own act, name-checking his real friends, then demanding another character’s wife in tribute as if he were the bad guy in Braveheart?? This was one ego-less actor! He twists his persona into something so casually monstrous that it’s terrifying. You can’t get your jaw off the floor as you watch it.
  3. But this is Novak’s movie. She’s funny, sexy as heartbreaking, giving the movie a surprising amount of heart and soul. Her performance couldn’t be more different than her equally great work in Vertigo, even though the roles are bizarrely similar: In both movies, a man hires her to impersonate his wife and then seduce another man!
  4. Peter Sellers was supposed to play Walston’s part, but he showed up on set and immediately had a heart attack. Walston does a great job in a rare leading role, but it’s hard not to imagine what could have been.
  5. Felicia Farr had just married Jack Lemmon at the time and she now survives him after a long, happy marriage. She didn’t make a lot of movies, which is a shame, because she’s really wonderful here. Novak steals the show as the bawdy hooker with a heart of gold, but Farr arguably has the tougher job of being perfectly sweet and likable even after she turns out to be just as deliriously dirty-minded as the rest of them.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Like most of Wilder’s later movies, the biggest flaw here is that it’s overlong. But Wilder was just as funny as ever if you’re will to forgive the slack pacing. The two movies he made before this are similarly overlong but still underrated: Irma La Douce and One Two Three.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD, which has a lone special feature: a much cleaner ending. They don’t explain whether Wilder was forced to shoot it, then discarded it, or whether it was his idea in a moment of panic. For better or worse, he stuck to his guns.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Careless!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #36: ...But Creature Features Make Sense

I talked yesterday about how nobody would actually try to fight back if they were in an actual thriller-type situation. In real life, everybody calls the police. Every time.

But the irony here is that supernatural-jeopardy movies are actually more realistic than normal thrillers. In the real world, no one has ever been attacked by a supernatural monster, but it’s easy to imagine that, if you were, you might respond by trying to kill the monster yourself. In this case, it makes no sense to call the police—they actually wouldn’t believe you. And in most supernatural horror movies, only the hero knows how to kill the monster anyway. It just makes sense to take care of it yourself.

So if you want to make your thriller more realistic, add a supernatural element. Wait-- Huh? This is an example of how believability isn’t the same thing as realism. As a classmate once said: “Just because we accept that Superman can fly, doesn’t mean that we’ll accept it when he turns on the TV and they just happen to be showing the news story he wants to see.”

Monday, July 19, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #35: Thrillers Are Nutty...

I’ve been writing a lot of thriller treatments for production companies recently. The more I write, the more I worry that the genre just doesn’t make any damn sense. Movies about cops or private detectives who get mixed up with murderers are logical enough, but those sub-genres are considered box office poison these days. What production companies want are Hitchcockian thrillers, about normal people who get thrust into deadly situations with another human being.

But it’s almost impossible to get these stories to make sense. Like any good writer, you try to start with three-dimensional, realistic, organic characters. Then you have to make those characters try to kill each other. But the more realistic they are, the less likely they are to do that.

It makes more sense, of course, if only one of them actually tries to kill the other, and the other one runs and hides, but that breaks the rules of the genre. They have to fight back. In Strangers on a Train, It’s not enough to have a crazed killer like Bruno go after a nice guy like Guy. If Guy runs and hides and calls the police, like any reasonable human would do, then you have no movie. Like any good movie hero, Guy has solve his own problems, which means stopping Bruno himself. Which is crazy. Has there ever been a real case, even once, in the history of the United States, that a serial killer targeted someone and that person responded by killing the serial killer himself? Ever? Well guess what? In thrillers, it happens all the time.

Getting your villain to try to kill somebody is hard enough. Still, we all know that psychos occasionally kill people, so at least it’s not outside the realm of possibility. The problem comes when you try to get the hero to respond in kind. Granted, they have a much better reason, the villain tried to kill them first, after all. But still, killing is so extreme. And it’s a dumb idea. If the cops find a bunch of dead bodies, and you’re there with a smoking gun in your hand, they’re not going to want to hear that one guy killed all the rest and so you killed him in self-defense. That leaves the DA with no one to prosecute. They don’t like that. Their incentive will be to disbelieve your story. Then they get to hang all the bodies on you.

In Collateral, Jamie Foxx, a black cab driver, kills Tom Cruise, a white man in nice suit, but wait, he’s got a perfectly good explanation... Good luck with that. A dead white guy in a suit is always going to look pretty angelic to the police. But if he’s a cackling psychopath and you manage to keep him alive, then maybe he’s going to start saying evil stuff and hang himself. Whatever you do, don’t kill him!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Underrated Movie #85: Waterland

Title: Waterland
Year: 1992
Director: Stephen Gyllenhaal
Writer: Peter Prince, based on the novel by Graham Swift
Stars: Jeremy Irons, Ethan Hawke, Sinéad Cusack, Cara Buono, Lena Headey

The Story: One day in 1973, a high school history teacher in Pittsburgh gets tired of lecturing about the French Revolution and instead starts telling his students about his own coming of age amongst the eel fishermen of the English Fens: a painful tale of sex, murder, and buried secrets.

How it Came to be Underrated: Gyllenhaal’s own kids (young Maggie shows up here for two seconds) have gone on to become movie stars, but he’s been content to work in TV for most of his career. He’s become a star director there, but this was a rare venture into the feature world. His work might be a little modest for the big screen, but he does a great job with the period detail and the emotional pain of the subject matter.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This was a great debut for 19-year-old Lena Headey but she disappeared into minor roles for many years thereafter. The one good thing that came out of 300 was that it finally got her some more attention, and she’s been getting better roles ever since.
  2. The flashbacks that overwhelm Irons are elegantly constructed, compressing a sprawling family saga into a few powerful scenes. The trouble all begins with a swimming contest, and it shows that a contest is a great way to begin a story: It defines everybody very quickly-- It gives each character a chance to show what they want and ranks them according as to how badly they want it.
  3. David Morrissey is great as the older brother in the flashbacks. There had been a plague of movies at the time about mentally challenged people that treated them like sagacious advocates of a simpler existence, rather than complex adults who, like everybody, want more things out of life than they’re ever likely to get, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Understanding that is the beginning of real respect.
  4. Gyllenhaal was no doubt influenced by British TV miniseries “The Singing Detective” which told a similar story about a haunted Englishman interacting with his own past, but used its much longer running-time to delve deeper than a feature can.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Hawke and Irons were both churning out a lot of solid arthouse movies at the time, most of which are long forgotten today. Hawke got some war wounds of his own in A Midnight Clear and Irons was even more irresponsible in Damage.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and available to watch instantly on Netflix, but it’s slightly “panned and scanned” which is not very fair to Robert Elswit’s beautiful cinematography. That's probably all we're going to get though, because it's a pretty forgotten movie.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Luckily, the aristocrat, the football player, the witch, the caveman, and the knight got away. Wait, what the hell is going on here?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Next Week: All Killer No Filler!

Coming tomorrow: No post!
Coming Sunday night: The new Cockeyed Caravan!

Okay, it won't be that different, but I've been obsessed with not missing a day, even if it means giving you guys a lot of filler, and that attitude has gotta go. Starting next week, you'll see a new focus on quality over quantity, so that means 4-5 posts a week, and some new features that will maybe spend a few days looking at one movie rather than feeling like I have to start from scratch every day. I also feel like I wanna be a little less didactic. More questions, fewer answers, that sorta thing.

Please please please keep coming around! I know my numbers will take a big hit if I forgo the "reliable daily fix" aspect of blogging, but I still plan on having content several times a week, and from now on I'll won't just fill the hole unless I think it's worth your time. Don't nobody move!

Friday, July 09, 2010

Great Moments in Comics #17: The Adventures of Two-Gun Bob

I’ve talked a lot about Robert E. Howard this week, creator of Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, and many more adventure heroes. But Howard is also the star of a non-fiction comic strip that runs in the back of all of the Dark Horse comics that are licensed from Howard’s properties. An old English major / history buff like me loves the idea of turning an author’s bio into a comic and parceling it out in neat little half-page vignettes that often feel like zen koans. The strip is beautifully done by Jim and Ruth Keenan, who also have a blog. They don’t collect all the strips there, though, and for some reason they get left out when the comics themselves are reprinted. Track down the individual issues to enjoy this neat look at a fascinating, ornery guy. Here's a few of my favorites from the early days of the strip:

Yeah, those lucky New York guys sell everything...

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Underrated Movie #84: Demolition Man

I told you I could go lower! The grand finale of Cheesy Movies Week!

Title: Demolition Man
Year: 1993
Director: Marco Brambilla (who?)
Writers: Peter M. Lenkov, Robert Reneau, Daniel Waters
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Sandra Bullock, Nigel Hawthorne (!), Benjamin Bratt, Denis Leary, Andre Gregory (!), Jesse Ventura

The Story: By 1996 (3 years later??), Los Angeles has been turned into a smoking ruin by out-of-control crime. When a rogue cop named Sgt. John Spartan (Stallone) goes all out to arrest a gung-ho hostage-taker named Simon Phoenix (Snipes), the hostages end up dead, so both the criminal and the cop get put in a new cryogenic prison. Cut to 2032, when Phoenix escapes to wreak havoc on the politically-correct utopia of San Angeles. The goody-goody cops of the future realize that the only way to stop him is to unfreeze Sgt. Spartan, too.

How it Came to be Underrated: This movie isn’t just underrated, it’s thoroughly despised. The critics hated it at the time, and still do. Most of my own like-minded friends hated it, and still do. But I find it to be wildly enjoyable. Your mileage will probably vary.

Why It’s Great Cheesy Fun:

  1. Remember when our country had so few problems that our worst-case-scenario for a dystopian future was an excess of political correctness? Even the near-future fears about an excess of street crime now seem quaint. The long-lost Americans of the ‘90s had no idea how good they had it.
  2. This plot description may sound knee-jerk right-wing but it actually plays out in a remarkably evenhanded way. Stallone really is too reckless and the future really is safer and rather idyllic even though they did it by outlawing weapons, alcohol, caffeine, contact sports, meat, bad language, chocolate, gasoline, uneducational toys, abortion and pregnancy without a license. The re-liberation that Stallone brings to the future is frankly shown to be a risky trade-off.
  3. The same critics that hated this movie were busy overpraising Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-violent futuristic epics. Some of those movies weren’t bad, but I always found Verhoeven’s satirical elements to be juvenile and simplistic in movies like Robocop and Starship Troopers. By contrast, I find this movie’s satire, while very silly, to be far more clever and amusing. Too many satires make the mistake of painting all of their targets as disingenuous hypocrites, but it’s far more interesting if there are some true believers on both sides.
  4. This was Bullock’s first widely-released movie and she’s already stealing every scene as a perky future cop. I remember hoping that I would see her again. It’s nice when these things actually work out. Only Bullock is plucky and guileless enough to pull off malapropisms like “He’s finally matched his meat. You really licked his ass!” (Yes, that’s the general level of the humor. I never said that the movie wasn’t crude.)

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This movie forms an informal trilogy with two other Andre Gregory movies, My Dinner With Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street. Actually, that’s not true at all. But you should watch those anyway. Then watch this one. When you’re drunk.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with commentary (which I sadly have yet to listen to)

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Forever Machine!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Underrated Movie #83: The Scorpion King

Day three of Cheesy Movies Week, featuring the most disreputable movie I’ve ever recommended on this site. Can I top it tomorrow? Surely not…
Title: The Scorpion King
Year: 2002
Director: Chuck Russell
Writers: Stephen Sommers, Jonathan Hales, William Osborne, David Hayter
Stars: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kelly Hu, Michael Clarke Duncan, Grant Heslov (yes, the co-writer of Good Night and Good Luck)

The Story: In times of yore, a charming mercenary rescues a sorceress and kills a tyrant.

How it Came to be Underrated: This movie had no right to be any good. It’s a prequel to a pretty bad movie, The Mummy 2, and it was the first starring role for a WWE wrestler, still acting under his ring name! But the reviews were surprisingly positive, so I gave it a shot, with very low expectations. I’ll be damned if I didn’t think it was the best sword and sorcery movie I’d ever seen. Every time I re-watch it, I expect to finally become embarrassed by it, but I love it more and more each time.

Why It’s Great Cheesy Fun:

  1. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, even the recent Mummy movies... What do they all have in common? Well let’s just come right out and say it: They were all pretty blatantly racist. The sword and sorcery genre has always had an unfortunate racist subtext, even on those rare occasions that they aren’t overtly racist. That’s why its so cool to see such a well-made movie that passes the heroic mantle on to people of color. This is the best Conan-type movie we’re ever going to get, but I don’t mind at all that it would have made Howard himself roll over in his grave.
  2. Of course the whole movie rests on the Rock’s shoulders and he turns out to be even more charismatic on the big screen than he was on TV. He swagger is like a cross between Burt Lancaster and Burt Reynolds. I declare him to be an honorary Burt! Here he is, buried up to his neck in an ant mount, crushing an ant with his chin. Tell me that isn’t bad ass.
  3. I simply love the nuts and bolts of this movie. Each scene and sequence is cleverly constructed, with its own set-up and pay-off. The Rock is in better fighting shape and more agile than Schwarzenegger ever was, but he finds, time after time, that he has to rely on cleverness, not brawn, to triumph over each mini-challenge. The sequence where he outwits his foes by luring them into a sirocco is simply stunning.
  4. One of the reasons why prequels always suck is because we know how they have to end, right? But that’s what I love most of all about this movie! This was supposed to tell the story of how the Rock became the titular monster who had menaced Brandan Fraser in The Mummy 2. But then, at the end of this movie, the Rock avoids that curse! Even Hu is shocked. She reminds him that he’s destined to end up cursed, but he just cocks his trademark smirk and assures her: “Then let’s make our own destiny.” What a great testimony to free will! The hero not only triumphs over fate, he triumphs over continuity itself!

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Before I saw this my favorite sword-and sorcery movies were those made in the ‘60s by Ray Harryhausen: Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. They’re still a lot of fun today, but Harryhausen had a weakness for bland leading men, who failed to, shall we say, bring it.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD with a fun commentary.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: Sentenced to the Vat!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #34: Movies Never Allow A Hero To Keep His Cool

Like our president, I love Conan comics. And, like our first lady, I also love comics about the Punisher. (Okay, I’m just assuming that she loves Punisher comics, because, c’mon, who doesn’t?) But I don’t love movies about either character. They’ve rebooted the Punisher movies twice in the last ten years, and both times it was a flop. They’re making a new Conan movie now and it looks like it’s going to be bad.

On the surface, Conan and the Punisher seem like ideal candidates to make the leap to the big screen. Neither wears bright colors. They both exist independently of other heroes, with self-contained adventures and at least thirty years of great stories to choose from. They both have strong motivations and compelling personalities. That’s why Hollywood keep going back to those wells. But the wells are dry. What Hollywood is missing is that the fundamental appeal of both characters is one quality that movies are particularly bad at portraying.

As a teenage boy, I enjoyed each issue of “Conan” or “The Punisher”, but what I really loved was a whole stack of Conan or Punisher comics. The more you read, the cooler they became. To me, the appeal these characters was the quotidian nature of their adventures. The Punisher’s family was killed by mobsters. He hunted down and killed the mobsters. That’s very cinematic, in the blandest possible sense of that word. But that’s not why people read Punisher comics. He never even did that in a comic book. By the time we met him, his family was long dead and long ago avenged. What made the Punisher interesting was that he kept at it, long after his personal investment was satisfied. Likewise, Conan would rescue a terrorized village from an evil wizard, but he wouldn’t then ask the damsel on the sacrificial altar to be his bride. He would just move on to another village to casually do it again.

What was so cool about these guys is that they were so dispassionate. They were doing the sort of the things that other men do on a wild revenge trip, but they weren’t wild at all. They were calm, even bemused. They had turned their crusades into everyday jobs, complete with sandwich breaks. They would patiently make their plans of attack and dismissively dress down any revenge-seeking allies who got too hot under the collar. These guys had sang-froid.

But movies are terrible at showing dispassionate heroes. It’s been said that every movie has to be about the most important two weeks in a character’s life. When they make Conan movies, he has to have his own life ruined by the wizard and his own community has to be at risk. When they make Punisher movies, he has to let down his icy exterior and finally start to care again, dammit! And thus the whole appeal of the character is lost. Movie stars love to be cool, until they get on screen, when they love to lose their cool. (James Bond used to be the one exception, the one hero who was allowed to not get very upset by anything, but in the recent Daniel Craig movies even he has to doubt himself and cry. Not that I didn’t love Casino Royale, but still, can't anybody just be cool anymore?)

But… tomorrow… I’ll cover the one movie that gave us the closest thing we’ll ever get to a good Conan movie, even it was about another character entirely… when Cheesy Movies Week continues!