Discussion

MILLION DOLLAR ARM

One major criticism against Disney’s Million Dollar Arm is that it should have focused on the two Indian characters, Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh (portrayed by Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal), rather than white sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm). After all, the real story there is that two young foreigners won a reality show and in turn experienced the American Dream by coming to the U.S. and signing to a major league baseball organization. Focusing on Bernstein has the stink of the “White Man’s Burden” trope, as if he’s a hero for discovering and then saving them from a life of poverty more than they’re heroes on their own for being talented — and, yes, lucky to a degree, but mostly for their own athletic achievement. If only there was a documentary version. As I looked into the making of Million Dollar Arm it made me even more disappointed that one didn’t exist. The project began with sports television producers Neil and Michael Mandt filming Patel and Singh during their 2008 tryouts after they arrived in America. The result of that shoot was a nine-minute short/trailer they sold to the studio. I don’t know that we’ll ever see that footage (maybe on the DVD?), but it’d be great to eventually see it combined with material from the Indian reality show (also called Million Dollar Arm) and news reports and segments like the one from ESPN’s Outside the Lines program below plus proper interviews with the real main characters of this story, which I’m certain would be better told […]

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Godzilla Through Goggles

“Let them fight.” As we see in the “Asia trailer” for Godzilla, at some point Ken Watanabe’s character says the above line, and it’s definitely a meta moment for a monster movie featuring a ton of human characters. Godzilla in action is what audiences are most interested in seeing. But is it the only thing? Do they want a human angle, too? What if there were no people in this new reboot, or at least none that had any narrative arc or dialogue? Would we be interested in a nearly “silent” film in which the King of Monsters destroys cities for our enjoyment while ant-like military men shoot at him anonymously? What if another monster is thrown in there so there’s some discernible “plot” entailing a battle between the giant beasts, both of them just roaring and screeching at each other? Unfortunately, I don’t think Hollywood would ever allow for a blockbuster that doesn’t have movie stars spewing worthless words or at least a voiceover narration providing exposition. Yet a lot of moviegoers tend to agree that the humans in movies like Godzilla just get in the way and slow the thing down. Why must we care about a handful of characters when thousands of unnamed other people are stomped on and we aren’t meant to bat an eyelash for them? And who cares why the monster is heading toward San Francisco? These rhetorical questions fit with a discussion prompted by David Ehrlich on the latest episode of the Fighting in the […]

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The Hangover Part II

I love when Jeffrey Katzenberg has predictions about the movie industry. Here’s a guy who thought 3D was going to change everything. I mean, it could have, and I was with him back in 2006, but that got ruined fast (don’t even get me started on how bad The Amazing Spider-Man 2 looks, especially in the first two action scenes). He’s also a guy who seemed to have it all figured out about revolutionizing the feature animation game when he left Disney, but now of course he’s losing money on one bad idea after another (not that I ever though Shrek was a good idea). Now his latest prophecy is as silly as they get: the DreamWorks Animation head thinks by 2024 we will be paying variable prices for movie content based on the size of the screen. Yep, that would mean your Netflix subscription would monitor whether you were watching on a phone, tablet, laptop, modest size TV or big screen TV. Who knows what the deal would be on monitor and projector hookups to your computer, the latter potentially blowing up your picture to fill your wall, but then he also rattles off prices as if movie theater tickets will still only be $15. Katzenberg’s idea came up during some panel about entrepreneurial leadership on Monday. Variety quoted him as saying, I think the model will change and you won’t pay for the window of availability. A movie will come out and you will have 17 days, that’s exactly three […]

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Amazing-Spider-Man-Curt-Connors-DNA-Experiment

When Francis Crick and James Watson famously published their article “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” in Nature magazine 61 years ago, they didn’t reveal a discovery of DNA nor did they introduce the concept of genetics to the world. Their main contribution to history (with help from Rosalind Franklin) is in the illustration of the double helix model of DNA, which means they gave us a visual for a science that beforehand was only pictured in an abstract manner. Is it fair to say the double helix is an iconic image? That’d be like claiming cels and rocks and fire are iconic. DNA is just a part of life, and the double helix is what it looks like. Still, it is in most forms an illustrational icon rather than the real deal, and few sciences have such a distinctly recognizable visual representation, one that has made genetics a very cinematic area of study. Movies involving experiments and testing involving DNA would still exist without that imagery, but as you can see in the still from The Amazing Spider-Man above, they’re better for having something so easily rendered in CG form. The double helix shows up on computer screens and holographic displays of scientific plans and even in cases where it’s not a literal illustration of DNA, as in the case of the spiral staircase in Vincent/Jerome’s home in Gattaca. Occasionally DNA itself is depicted, though not always correctly, as in the case of the opening credits sequence of […]

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Sherlock Jr 1924

Many people watch movies as a form of escapism, and it makes sense that those people wouldn’t like movies that involve reflexive techniques that address this fantasy element. For at least 90 years, as of today’s anniversary of the release of Buster Keaton‘s Sherlock Jr., there has been a lot of evidence to indicate that such meta cinema is not popular with American audiences. At the start of 1924, Keaton was riding a wave of success following his two hits of the previous year, Three Ages and Our Hospitality. But Sherlock Jr. was his first real critical failure, and as a result it was also a box office disappointment (outside of Soviet Russia, that is). Not the flop that many have labeled it as — in fact its final gross was really close to that of Three Ages, and technically it made a bit of money — but in terms of Keaton’s trajectory until then, it was definitely a blow. The issue noted at the time was simply that viewers didn’t find it to be very funny. Humor can be either very dependent on an escapist mindset or the very opposite. Laughter is a diversion, much like fantasy, though it also often requires an understanding of what is actually going on. For instance, for slapstick and other comedy involving bodily harm, the awareness that the pain is fake makes it funny rather than tragic. For satire and spoof, the latter being part of the comedy of both Three Ages (which parodies D.W. Griffith’s […]

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TRANSCENDENCE

In a misleading article on CNN.com this week, Americans were said to be “excited” and “upbeat” about the way technology will improve our lives in the future. The headline of the piece, though, claims it’s about Americans being “wary of futuristic science, tech.” The article reports the findings of a telephone survey that surprisingly wasn’t tied to the release of the movie Transcendence, which seems at first meant as a promotion of the real possibilities of artificial intelligence, mind uploading and nanotechnology. Misleading in its own way, the movie begins with optimism about advances in A.I. research and then by the end has shown us the dangers of a self-aware omniscient computer that can create super soldiers, controlled via wifi and repaired via tiny, quick-acting robots. Audiences don’t seem to be walking away from the movie actually wary of this futuristic science and tech, though, because it plays out so far from believable that at many moments viewers are straight-up laughing at the way both the plot and science progress on screen. But should the science of Transcendence be believed? And if so, should the movie have been more clear and genuine regarding the plausibility of what all occurs? 

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Beasts of the Southern Wild Fantasy

Jim Henson has been dead for almost 25 years. Hayao Miyazaki is retiring. And Carl Rinsch may have single-handedly killed all hope for anyone getting a lot of money from Hollywood for an original live-action fantasy film for a while. His 47 Ronin was only partly original, too, since it was based on a historical legend. Still, it was a fresh take on the true story with additions of magical and mythical creatures. The movie wasn’t just a flop; it broke the record for biggest box office bomb of all time (maybe even when accounting for inflation). So don’t expect to see any more epic entries into the genre unless they’re sure things with a built-in audience. Do we need original fantasy films, though? On TV, we have Game of Thrones, which has plenty of imagination in spite of being adapted from the novels of George R.R. Martin, and which is now back on HBO for its fourth season. And there are occasionally great movies sourced from previously written material, as well. For instance, out on home video today there’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of the Smaug, a highly entertaining installment of Peter Jackson’s second (and by most accounts lesser) Tolkien-based trilogy. Occasionally is key, however, as that was one of only three titles on my list of the best sci-fi and fantasy movies of 2013 that didn’t have sci-fi elements.

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Pulp-Fiction-Diner

We all love to quote our favorite movies. Even my one-year-old son just started uttering “I’ve got it!” all the time, having picked up the phrase from his most-watched movie, Dumbo. I don’t know that it’s the most original or noteworthy piece of dialogue, but he hasn’t seen much yet. Usually the lines we remember and recite are those that stick out for a reason. They don’t always have to be something never heard before, as the quote’s notability could be all about the way it’s delivered by the actor saying it, though most of the time it’s a line specific and exclusive to a certain movie. Even if a hundred scripts since have borrowed “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” we all know it comes from The Wizard of Oz. Aside from the fact that it gives us something with which to represent our fandom or appreciation of a movie, though, original dialogue isn’t that important. A lot of the time it’s really clever and stylized and therefore wouldn’t likely be found in a film with characters intended to sound natural. Imagine a serious realist drama where someone suddenly said something like “Fasten your seat belts… It’s going to be a bumpy night” or “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” or “I feel the need — the need for speed.” Sometimes original, quotable dialogue is so unnatural that it makes some people cringe, as in the cases of Juno and Napoleon Dynamite. Other times it might […]

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HER

There are two things that are probably beyond contestation about Spike Jonze’s Her: It’s a critical darling (as evidenced by its many rave reviews, its presence on end-of-year lists, and its continued haul of awards season recognition), and It has an immersive, thoroughly realized vision of an unspecified near-future. It’s hard to think of a science-fiction movie in recent memory as invested as Her in what the future will look like, feel like, dress like, and what effects this will have on something as intrinsic and everyday as human relationships. But beyond these two points, there is much to be found that’s worth debating in Jonze’s film. Her diverts from science-fiction’s tradition of painting an overtly dystopic future of constant surveillance and centralized control familiar to any Philip H. Dick fan, yet as sleek, inviting, and even beautiful as the film’s immaculate surfaces and evolving technologies are, there seems to be an insidious coldness and emptiness that lies beneath the surface, a sense that something is lost between the glass walls and mobile devices that separate people in Jonze’s Los Angeles.

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francesha03

I spent 30 minutes last night watching Frances Ha before I turned off the movie. I wasn’t into it. I just didn’t care for the characters or story I was watching. I appreciate that it’s considered a great film. I even enjoyed little bits, namely Adam Driver seemingly transformed into Jean Paul Belmondo (with a touch of Stranger Than Paradise‘s John Lurie and Richard Edson) simply by putting on a hat. The cinematography is terrific. Maybe it is a great film. Because I didn’t finish it, I can offer no criticism of the whole value of Noah Baumbach’s latest. I am only at liberty to state that I gave it a shot and didn’t like it enough to continue. That’s my prerogative, right? Given that a lot of the basic praises the movie is receiving in terms of people loving it, regardless of whether it’s a great film or not, I feel okay putting it out there that I just don’t. Still, I wonder if it was too easy for me to walk away — or “walk out,” if we want to make it about the movie experience. It’s hard to believe that I would have enjoyed Frances Ha any more if I stuck with it the remaining 50 minutes, but at least I could be better qualified to discuss it as a work of art. After Tweeting that I turned it off because I didn’t like those 30 minutes I felt like I had judged the Mona Lisa after only getting […]

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Fay Grim Scene Still 027

In the history of indie film, sequels haven’t been very common. If we exclude horror movies, that is. And now documentaries. There’s Clerks II, S. Darko, John Duigan’s Flirting, Wayne Wang’s Blue in the Face, Lars von Trier’s Manderlay, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? and I guess The Road Warrior (and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). There tend to be weird circumstances and technicalities for a lot of them, too. One of the purest examples of an indie sequel is, of course, Before Midnight, which is even rarer for being a third part. It’s possibly the most beloved and critically acclaimed film of the year, and it could very well lead a new wave of follow ups to indie favorites and cult classics that aren’t necessarily easily banked genre flicks. Back in May we learned of another indie threequel in the works, Hal Hartley’s Ned Rifle. The sequel to Henry Fool and its first follow up, Fay Grim, will complete a trilogy about the Grim family with stars Liam Aiken, Parker Posey, James Urbaniak and Thomas Jay Ryan all returning. And the means to finance this film, which is highly anticipated among Hartley’s core 25-year-strong following, has now been announced as falling on the shoulders of that fanbase. The Kickstarter campaign began yesterday with a goal of $384k. And it’s already taken in 10% of that amount. Apparently some of his devoted — of which I was once a huge one — weren’t as turned off by the second installment as […]

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cornish monsters

After the terribly disappointing Star Trek Into Darkness, there may be hope for the next installment in the very good possibility that Joe Cornish will direct Star Trek 3. Yesterday, Deadline exclusively reported the rumor, whatever that really means, and ever since I’ve been trying to imagine what this development could mean. A lot of fans of both Cornish and Trek have been debating the pros and cons of the pairing. Cornish is too inexperienced as a director, some say. He shouldn’t waste his time with a franchise threequel, others argue. Well, I am optimistic for a few reasons. One is that we’ll probably get more Simon Pegg‘s Scotty, because Cornish and Pegg go way back — he helmed behind-the-scenes docs for Pegg and Edgar Wright films and also scripted The Adventures of Tintin, which featured voice work from the actor. And maybe he could find a role for Pegg’s buddy Nick Frost, who acted in Cornish’s sole feature directorial effort, Attack the Block. Mostly, though, it could be a lighter, more humorous episode. Not just if that reunion happened, but because of the Star Trek stuff Cornish has done in the past. Namely the TNG parody from The Adam and Joe Show that you can watch after the jump.

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wwz07

Spoilers Ahead: This article contains advanced talking points for Marc Forster‘s World War Z. We recommend reading it after you see the film. I know. It’s pretty futile starting up a list of unanswered questions regarding a popcorn flick about vaguely defined zombies co-written by Damon Lindelof. But just because something is futile doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. I haven’t read the original book by Max Brooks, which apparently doesn’t matter given how little the movie resembles the text. I also haven’t followed every little piece of the production, but that shouldn’t matter either since the movie on screen should stand alone. However, where there is some relevance to explaining something on screen by the issues of the rewrites and reshoots and such, so I do try to mention it if I’m aware of it. Speaking of the infamous production problems, they do tend to factor into narrative flaws and holes and confusion like those I raise below. Additionally the expectation that the story of World War Z will continue in sequels means the filmmakers might be choosing to flesh out some stuff later on. And of course, as usual, some of the questions are not answerable at all because they’re more criticisms in the form of a hypothetical query or simply disagreements with how the movie was plotted or how the characters thought or acted. All in all, let these talking points first and foremost serve as a means to discuss the movie in full without concern for spoilers.

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vaughn_bestof

In honor of the release of The Internship being the largest release upon the masses this weekend, we’ve got it in our heads that we should talk about the film’s biggest star, arguably Vince Vaughn, and try to settle the question of his best performance. Known mostly for more recent comedic work in things like Dodgeball, Wedding Crashers, Old School and the like, the Minneapolis, MN native has had a fairly long and interesting career. From his early work in television (he once had a guest roles on Doogie Howser, M.D. and 21 Jump Street) to his breakout performance in Swingers, he’s been around for a while and he’s done more than just speak jokes written by Adam McKay. With that in mind, we put the entirety of our career to our panel of writers, asking simply: what is Vince Vaughn’s best performance to date. Their answers (and a place for your own) can be found below.

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last stand 23

You probably missed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback. Most people did. The Last Stand was supposed to be the former Governor’s mighty return to movies, but instead it grossed a paltry $12 million domestically and now marks Schwarzenegger’s lowest grossing movie ever (factoring inflation). It’s a shame, because those who (really should) take the opportunity to give The Last Stand the second chance it deserves on video will discover that it’s not just an enjoyable burst of Golden Age action cinema filmmaking, but a meta narrative that makes it far more intriguing than it appears. Most comeback movies dutifully pander to fans’ nostalgic expectations by just giving them more of what ain’t broke. Exhibit A: The Expendables series, which recreates for its actors (including Schwarzenegger) the roles they’ve always inhabited while exhibiting an “Oorah! We still got it!” enthusiasm about bringing back its aging heroes. The Last Stand, however, isn’t interested in simply rebooting its star into his old plot and character archetypes. Instead, it offers Schwarzenegger a comeback movie with a character — Sheriff Ray Owens — with a comeback narrative of his own. What’s more, because it biographically grafts Ray to Arnold, The Last Stand turns its fictional character’s journey from former to restored hero into one that parallels the very re-ascension Schwarzenegger is undergoing with this film.

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sw7_header

During the production of 2008′s Star Trek, director J.J. Abrams was quite determined to keep as much information about the film from the public as possible. This included tactics on set such as putting actors under blankets to hide their costumes, additional security on set and limiting (until the last moment) how much information was distributed to the press. He loves this game, as evidence by the even more secretive Cloverfield project and his extensive talk about his mystery box. He enjoys the fun of not knowing everything that’s going to happen next. As a longtime Star Trek fan, I found myself alright with his stance. Even though knowing a great deal about the film would fulfill some part of my devilish curiosity, the moments of discovery that occurred during that fateful first screening of Star Trek in 2008 were more than worth the wait. In that case — as it has many times — J.J. Abrams’ mystery machine worked. So now that he’s signed on to bring Star Wars back to life for new owner Disney, will Abrams toy with Wars fans as he did his Trekker brethren? And would you want him to play things close to the chest? This is the subject of this weekend’s big discussion.

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thesixthsense1999720pbr

Less than two years ago, scientists at UC San Diego made the “discovery” that spoilers don’t matter. Not only did they find that stories aren’t ruined by knowing the ending but that people prefer stories when they know the ending. That sounded like hogwash to a lot of us, and to a degree the study was faulted. For one thing, it doesn’t really apply to anything but short stories, as that’s the only medium employed. And on top of that, these short stories weren’t of much significance to the participating subjects. The people weren’t invested in the stories, which makes a huge difference according to a more in-depth look at spoilers in a new article at The Atlantic. Change the studied medium to a series finale of a TV show the subjects had been watching for years (or at least many seasons’ worth of episodes), and you’ll surely see different results. Even then, there are always a number of factors to consider. One thing the UCSD study got correct, not that it was a revelation, is that good storytelling throughout is more important than plot, especially a plot’s conclusion. That is what matters most to enjoyment, regardless of the medium, and what makes us return to certain stories over and over. But if you consider the way we relate to stories, the return to some works can also be more akin to revisiting our past, thinking back on a memory or watching an old home movie. Even if you’re re-reading […]

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SNITCH

Editors note: this discussion features spoilers for the movie Snitch. Read at your own discretion.  When you sit down to watch a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson action vehicle like Snitch, you generally expect the film’s crosshairs to be sighted on fictional bad guys, not the real world United States government. But as it turns out, Snitch’s action-film ready “How far would you go to save your son?” conceit is less a narrative gimmick than it is a point of departure to dramatize a social issue. The film isn’t ultimately propelled by the urge to flip semi-trailers but by the desire to criticize the problematic mandatory minimum sentencing laws the government wields to fight the war on drugs. Snitch’s social conscience is the offspring of the activist mandates of Participant Media and the same-named episode of PBS’s Frontline. The investigative report shed condemning light on how some of the United States anti-drug tactics – mandatory minimum sentencing and conspiracy charges – breed an environment where big fish get lighter sentences by informing on smaller (or non) fish. Snitching may be the documentary’s hook, but its core criticism is how in the government’s singular mission to win against drugs, it will unjustly, indiscriminately and indifferently ruin people’s lives to achieve its goals. As one interviewee put it: “It’s no longer about protecting people who are innocent. Now it’s part of the casualties of the drug war.”

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warm bodies guys

Warning: the following post contains a bit of a spoiler about the end of Warm Bodies. Read on at your discretion. With a decent opening weekend gross mostly attributed to young, female moviegoers, Warm Bodies is supposedly confirming its status as the new Twilight. Of course, the vampire love story made a lot more money and received mainly negative reviews, while this new zombie romantic comedy (or zom-rom-com), is certified fresh at Rotten Tomatoes and received a B+ CinemaScore grade but only earned about a third of what it cost to produce. There’s an expectation for Warm Bodies to have strong legs, however, through word of mouth. And hopefully that buzz extends to more male viewers, who should appreciate that it’s not as sappy as it seems, even though its main message is the cheesiest of cheesy: “love conquers evil.” Sure, we’ve seen the power of love employed as a weapon by The Beatles and to turn Darth Vader and to keep The Princess Bride‘s Westley alive, but over time the idea that “all you need is love” has become corny enough to ruin the ends of Ghostbusters II and The Fifth Element, among others, with too much sentiment.

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AMC Comfy Chair

“Movie Houses of Worship” is a regular feature spotlighting our favorite movie theaters around the world, those that are like temples of cinema catering to the most religious-like film geeks. This week, we don’t have a theater to share so I’m writing about comfort at the movies instead. If you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email our weekend editor. It used to be that movie theaters tried to compete with home viewing options by offering amenities you couldn’t find in your living room. But bigger screens, gimmicks and special menus are no longer enough. Or maybe even a draw at all. Now it seems the theater industry is out to accomodate us in ways that mimic our experience at home. They want us to feel as comfortable as we would had we never even gone out. That has to be the reason that AMC Theatres has introduced to five of its locations across the country new “comfy seats,” plush power recliners with footrests that are just like (or for some us better than) our favorite movie-watching chairs at home. Do we need such comfort at the movies? Can we take our shoes and pants off, too? Hold a cat on our lap? Can we all have remote controls so we can pause the screen if we have to go to the bathroom? Presumably theaters will keep the line drawn at decency and personal conveniences that don’t infringe on others’ comfort and enjoyment. […]

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