Category Archives: Daily Reviews

Day Four: “The Almighty tells me he can get me out of this mess, but he’s pretty sure you’re fooked”

After two decades of indifference… I FINALLY “get” war paint.

DAY FOUR: Braveheart
QUICKIE DESCRIPTION: True epic
LESSON OF THE DAY: What makes a film big.

I’m pretty certain that the only people in the world who could possibly hate Braveheart are English historians. Braveheart is an extremely liberal interpretation of the First Scottish War of Independence that centers on Scottish hero William Wallace. I don’t want anyone to think that me saying that is passing any kind of quality judgement on the film, because the story Braveheart tells is amazing. It’s so easy to see why this movie pervades our popular consciousness as much as it does. The writing, production and directing all work together to make an epic so damn good I’m a little surprised it wasn’t made in the sixties.

Even the child actors in this movie kick unprecedented amounts of ass. Everything you need to care about William is beautifully set up before Mel Gibson ever rears his squarish mug.

Braveheart is an epic, and it’s important to understand that epic is more than just a synonym for awesome. Wikipedia defines epic poetry as “a lengthy narrative, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation” and that’s a pretty good summation. Braveheart is a serious movie about loss, betrayal, revenge, and yearning for freedom, as it plays out over the backdrop of Scotland maneuvering for independence. Troy/The Iliad deals with hubris and rage in the most famous of the Greek-Asia conflict myths. You can see the same setup in The Ten Commandments and Lawrence of Arabia. Epics have a sense of scope that the wannabe McEpics we’ve been drowning in lately don’t even come close to achieving. Without getting too bogged down in it, I want to try to explain why this movie has the sense of size it does that Clash of the Immortal Barbarians of Mars completely fails to achieve.

I believe it really boils down to the shape of the story. Everyone remembers that godawful plot triangle that’s been shoved down their throat since middle school:

Gustav Freytag came up with this triangle as a model to analyze old Greek and Shakespearean plays. Like Joseph Campbell, it’s been perverted into some kind of all-knowing doctrine that explains the only possible way to tell a story.

But of course, the triangle we’re all familiar with has far less words. Beginning, Initial Incident, Rising Action, Climax, Denouement. What nobody realizes is that this is supposed to line up with a five-act structure – as in, the climax happens halfway through the play. For example, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play and the death of Polonius, or when Macbeth has Banquo killed. It’s an entirely different meaning of climax then we tend to use today, but for some reason we still cling to this triangle for dear life. Thinking that the only high point in the movie should be at the very end is why so many movies fail to make you care about the characters and only invest you in the “and next, this happens” events plot. But if all we cared about were events, documentaries would reign supreme. Movies have to be about character. This movie is as much, if not more, about William and the affect he has on people, mainly the next Queen of England and the Scottish noble Robert the Bruce, than it is about the battles that make up the war. For contrast, Clash of the Titans is just about Perseus’ totally internal journey bringing him to the point where he is able to pull off the final battle. That isn’t why the movie is bad, mind you, just why it isn’t an epic, and would have done better if it had abandoned the world-at-stake thing it sucked at and been a little more earnest about the sword-and-sandal adventuring.

I think what best fits the “initial incident” is this scene. 45 minutes into the movie. Everything before this just makes you care more and more. You’re hooked before the first action scene even happens.

Braveheart has very clear ups and downs that don’t conform to these stupid  “strip everything away until you have the simplest plot possible” analysis formulas that lead to unimaginative, simple plots. (What did you expect?) And these aren’t just things that slow down the race to the finish. There’s wins, losses, reversals of fortune, when we say rising and falling action we totally miss the far more interesting words on those lines: complications and unravelling. The most basic plot description is: A character wants something badly… but something is in the way of him getting it. This something is the complications. In Braveheart the primary complication is King Edward Longshanks who just doesn’t want to leave Scotland alone. Longshanks complicates William’s journey of fighting for freedom through waging war on all sorts of fronts. Contrast with movies where shit gets summoned up to fight, gets defeated, and then the movie moves on as if nothing ever happened. Every action William takes is met by complications from the Scottish nobility and countermoves by Longshanks. Sometimes King Edward seems to be winning. Sometimes William seems to win. I started thinking the movie was over at least twice before it actually did, because so many movies just cut win and loss into black and white. And what happens after the last big action climax? What felt like a good half hour at least of things unravelling before the emotional resolution and end of the movie. So that’s my message today. Don’t just keep building up to a solitary high point. Sometimes, build your story down.

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Day Three: “Maybe on their planet ‘responsibility’ just means ‘asshole’.”

I didn’t mind the Ring Constructs the way a lot of people did. It just kind of makes sense to me that in the heat of the moment you’ll go more for familiar things than imaginative ones. And that’s the only nice thing I have to say about this movie.

MOVIE: Green Lantern
QUICKIE DESCRIPTION: I want a refund
LESSON OF THE DAY: You can’t fix the script in post, stupid!

I decided after two glowing reviews I should try something I knew was bad. And sweet baby Jesus in the manger is this movie bad. I spent a good forty minutes after the movie ended just trying to figure out what overall lesson I could pull from Green Lantern. Since it so closely matches why I didn’t like the movie, I don’t think I’m going to separate the two today. Let’s just dive into it.

When I say “you can’t fix the script in post” what I mean is that this movie should have never been made. The script is full of holes so big you can fly a giant space rasta monster through them. I almost feel like I should do a Red Letter Media-style video review, because that’s how I felt through the entire movie – you ask questions that don’t get answered because somehow somebody decided this cavalcade of nonsense was a good final draft.

The first problem I’m going to talk about is the huge missteps Green Lantern makes in how it handles its characters. Hal Jordan’s character arc is the laziest Zero-to-Hero story I’ve yet to see. The writers put the smallest amount of effort possible into the journey Hal is supposed to be taking. He just sort of stumbles into the end where this cocky irresponsible fighter pilot is suddenly a real boy. What propelled him there? Well, Mandatory Love Interest saw courage in him. That’s all it took to conquer his supposedly crippling fear. A god damned pep talk.

Although a pep talk from Blake Lively could quite possibly motivate any male to do anything.

The issue is that Hal is secretly afraid. Which is why his entire family thinks he has a death wish. (uh….) What never gets explained to us is what it is that Hal is afraid of. Fear is distilled into a canon sin of the Green Lantern Church. Which is why when the best Lantern suggests weaponizing fear for their own purposes, the immortal Guardians instantly agree. (uh…) The only real instances we have where Hal is supposed to be afraid is when the Medusa-picture of his dad in his cockpit makes him freeze up and crash his plane (which leads to the question of how did he not notice this BSOD-inducer before? How did his love interest wingman who’s known him since childhood not stop to go “by the way Hal, take that picture of your dad out of your god damned cockpit so you don’t look at it at the wrong moment and crash like a god damned idiot”?) and when Sinestro kicks his ass in training (though apparently getting teamed up on by five guys behind a bar didn’t give him pause? Does Hal have a phobia of the color of sunburn? Or swords? Then why did he pick swords to fight with in the first place?)

WAIT NOTHING ABOUT THIS FILM MAKES ANY SENSE

Every character who isn’t Hal doesn’t even get the dignity of an honest fracking introduction. The fairly important fact that Blake Lively is an old flame of Hal’s doesn’t come up until about halfway through the movie, where, after yelling at him for being late for the flight demonstration, getting screwed over by him in the middle of the flight demonstration, then ripping into him for completely botching the flight demonstration and potentially having completely ruined her father’s company, she shows up for drinks so they can flirt. (Uh….) In case you were wondering, no, she doesn’t have anything properly resembling a character arc. Hal’s best friend, who might not have even been named, is basically the audience stand-in who gets to cheer at inappropriate times. There’s a senator who does everything and Blake’s dad/Hal’s boss, who I honestly mixed up more than once because there’s nothing that stands out about either of them. And the villain…. oh, let’s talk about the villain.

Which one could possibly be the bad guy?

About three or four appearances in we finally discover that people we are supposed to give a single solitary shit about actually know the guy who did the autopsy on the dead Green Lantern and got infected with fear, and over the course of the film turns into a swollen-headed rage monster (Uh…) and even then it’s the barest lip service. He’s supposed to have some kind of history with Blake and Hal. I don’t know if this is intentional but Blake seems to do the whole staring-at-your-face-for-an-awkward-30-seconds-before-even-remembering-your-name bit, and Hal basically just says hi to him because it would be impolite not to. What kind of villain could this guy possibly be? In case you haven’t guessed yet, he’s the Buffy-famous Monster of the Week. Did I mention one of the writers was responsible for a good third of the first season of Smallville? It’s okay for tv characters to barely interact with the bad guy of 1/24th of a tv season, but there should be some sort of quantum of depth to a big budget superhero movie villain.

Beats like the one where Hector gets mad at his dad’s pulling strings to make him the first scientist to ever study a life form from another planet (other scientists are more qualified!) just… stupify me. That’s not as much about characterization though, it’s more of the whole “things in this film just don’t make logical sense” category.

The Green Lantern Corps is another joke. None of them do anything except Sinestro, who basically suggests they forget everything they stand for (and that he personally preached to Hal while kicking the snot out of him) to fight their enemy. But Hal makes a stand for the green power of will or whatever, kills the space rasta Difference in Apparent Position (a name that truly does strike fear into the hearts of first-year astronomy students) and in doing so… decides to take his place in the Corps that sat around and did nothing? Also in a middle-of-the-credits scene Sinestro throws the yellow ring of fear on, for shits and giggles I guess. At the end of the movie, Sinestro was all humbled by Hal’s being right about will being stronger than fear, so it’s this totally nonsensical “Sinestro is a villain so we have to show that for the sequel” hook that just further drives home that whoever is holding the reigns for this monster doesn’t know what they’re doing at all. You can’t just copy what Marvel is doing at face value, guys. Come on.

“Mister Jordan, I’d like to talk to you about the Super Friends Initiative.”

I think the main problem with the script is that is just isn’t clear what the point is. Movies need themes, and this movie doesn’t really have one. Things happen because they are supposed to happen, not because they are building up to some sort of climax. My friend Evan calls it a “paint-by-numbers” movie and I have to agree with him – on the whole this movie is uninspired. It’s a recreation of superhero movies, a back-engineering.  But it’s a damn lazy one that forgets everything these guys really ought to know about filmmaking. That the man who directed Casino Royale thought this script was good enough to start shooting is frankly baffling and makes me wonder if this is one of those “screwed by the executives” kind of film. So to whoever makes the reboot: Ask yourself why the audience should care about what they’re seeing at any given time, and how this scene is taking you to the next step of not only the plot, but whatever personal thematic journey the protagonist is taking.

And for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Rasta, that jumping between scenes bullshit needs to never happen again.

There’s this great moment where Blake Lively almost got crushed to death and Hal puts her on her feet after saving her all hero like, and she’s acting “dazed” but it just looks like she’s grinding against him. It’s hilarious.

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Day One: “When I’m around you, I kind of feel like I’m on drugs. Not that I do drugs. Unless you do drugs, in which case I do them all the time. All of them.”

His life is an arcade game. Need I say more?

MOVIE: Scott Pilgrim Vs The World
QUICKIE DESCRIPTION: Nerdgasm
LESSON OF THE DAY:  Cause and Effect

I feel bad starting off with a movie that I wound up loving so much, but it’s too late for that now so let’s just ride through the gush-fest and I promise we’ll be out the other side before we know it. Scott Pilgrim uses the day-to-day life of an awkward, careerless, directionless twenty-something still-teen that so many of can instantly empathize with to craft an action movie that puts most modern action movies to shame. The narrative is kept very tight throughout the entire film. Unlike so many other movies, Scott Pilgrim never hits one of those points where it’s so obviously coasting through a formula scene (a perfect example being the romance arc bits in the otherwise amazing Thor) that you know you can start checking your phone, go to the kitchen for nachos, etc. without missing anything – but we’re straying into Lesson of the Day territory. This is one of the rare films where very noticeable editing and cinematography are a good thing – and I’m not just talking about the fight scenes.

Scott’s awkward first attempt to impress Ramona with a Pac-Man anecdote is perfectly framed to make the protagonist we already relate to feel small.

Edgar Wright is a master of perspective, shooting a tiny room in such a way that we don’t see somebody standing two feet away from Scott until he turns and notices her. There’s an amazing sequence where Scott is walking through his day in a daze with time-skip jump-cuts that he rides with the audience – where another movie might just show a bunch of shots of the protagonist just moping around out of it, Scott’s perspective is matched with the camera’s. He hasn’t noticed the time go by that the camera didn’t see. It’s one of those things I’ll struggle to explain that make perfect sense on film. I could probably go scene by scene talking about how well done this movie is for hours – and these would still just be the things I liked about the movie. But we should move on.

But first, a gratuitous photo of Chris Evans. He’s in this film too, ladies! He fights Michael Cera in front of the X-Mansion.

For Lesson of the Day I put “Cause and Effect” and this movie really is a perfect example of how you should logically progress a story. To borrow from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, there is never a true “and then this happens” moment. The flow of the narrative is incredibly organic. Sometimes the logic of reality is totally crushed to bits but the cause and effect never swerves. There’s a great bit they introduce early in the movie where as soon as Scott decides he is going to do something, his roommate blabs to Scott’s sister, who immediately calls to give advice. This whole process takes two seconds at most. It’s unrealistic, and the movie knows this. But it doesn’t hang you up for a moment because it takes you to the next step of the story – Scott getting a second opinion. Every decision in the movie is like this. Choice-action-consequences-new choice-action and so on. It’s really a breakneck pace but you never feel rushed because the progression is logical throughout. You never get stuck going “Wait, why is this happening and how does it connect to the main plot” or “Hold on a minute, when did this giant fighting robot cross six city blocks to get to this side of the battle?”

You might say I’m missing the “and then an Evil Ex shows up to fight” moments but it isn’t the same thing. Every moment can’t be directly controlled by our hero’s actions, but the film has to make sure to build up to these ambush moments – and it does. It’s hard to explain – really, it’s worth its own article.

The only real times something “just happens” in an “and then” fashion is when Scott and Ramona run into each other in a coffee shop and during a fight when Scott performs an off-screen slight of hand trick. The first one is such a small thing there’s no need to question it and the second one – which could normally cause some issues with a fight’s cause and effect – turns into the set up for an amazing joke I don’t dare spoil for you. And there’s something else you should take from this – there can be small coincidences if they serve a purpose for that scene. But you can’t build the entire plot on coincidences. The plot should be what happen because of your character’s actions, not your character’s reactions to things that just happen for no reason. And Scott Pilgrim does things happening for a reason exceptionally well. In fact by the end of the movie it becomes pretty clear that everything that has happened to the Scott and Ramona is their “fault”. It’s no coincidence that a big theme of this story is baggage. Traits we see these two characters displaying in the present created problems (or are creating problems) that have to be dealt with. And this is what drives the entire plot of the movie. Not all plots all character-based, but this level of cause and effect should be present in any plot. Let the things your characters are doing or have done to each other be what moves the plot forward. Don’t just make an endless barrage of “and then this happens.” That will only lead to one thing.

KSSHHPOW!

BAYSPLOSION!!!

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