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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Problem With Sequels

    Every year seems to bring with it at least a handful of sequels/reboots/remakes of old (and sometimes beloved) film franchises.  I’m not talking about sequels in the vein of Dark Knight Rises, which are planned from the getgo.  I mean the sequels that are tacked on after a film succeeds in an effort to repeat its success, or remakes/reboots with the same intent.  This year’s crop has included such films as The Amazing Spiderman, Ice Age: Continental Drift, Men in Black III, and Madagascar III. 

    For the record, I have not seen any of these films, and, quite honestly, I do not plan to.  I am aware that these films have gotten fairly decent reviews, and were box-office successes (all four currently rank among the 10 highest-grossing films of 2012 thus far).  Plenty of my friends saw them, and liked them.  I am still not going to see them. 

    Why?  Not so much because of the films themselves, but rather because of what they represent.  All are part of the unique trend to art forms specifically involving stories and entertainment- the desire for repetition.  People tend to want (and will pay money for) something they’ve already seen. 

    No other forms of art are treated this way, not quite.  Imagine if painting was treated the same way as video games- if Da Vinci pulled a COD and just painted the Last Supper over and over again, would he be hailed as the genius and visionary that he was?  We all remember Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, but how many of us remember the 12 other composers who, upon its release, promptly wrote their own symphonies with the exact same chord structure, themes, and instrumental/choral breakdown, but in a different key?  If they did write them, no one remembers, and rightly so. 

    A creation of art, like the creation of a child, is a singular act.  Although the act itself can be repeated again and again, the products of each act, though often similar, can never, ever be duplicated.  Books and movies are, in this regard, no different from paintings, sculptures, music, or any other form of artistic expression.  Each movie made has a story and existence all its own, and it is my firm belief that this individuality of every film, book, and piece of music should be celebrated every bit as much as the individuality of every human life. 

    Why, then, do movies seem to be victim to such constant repetition?  Men In Black as a film franchise floundered years ago when the second film bombed.  Ice Age was a fantastic, funny film the first time around, and offered no avenue for a sequel.  The previous Spiderman trilogy barely finished, and Paramount made it clear that this new film was made solely to maintain their rights to the franchise.  Even the FIRST Madagascar wasn’t that great a film, and yet, somehow, it’s already become a trilogy.  That there will be sequels is inevitable, but why THESE franchises? 

    The cynic in me would like to respond with a single word- “money.”  But, while that is clearly a factor (sometimes more so, sometimes less), that would be rather harsh of me, not to mention naive.  However I might wish it otherwise, money-making and the arts have always been rather intricately connected.  Many great masterpieces of film, literature, and music had their origins in a desire to make it big (Apocalypse Now and most classic rock, for example).  The impulse to create genuine art and the desire to make malenky craptons of money will probably always go hand in hand.  It’s the simple nature of the beast. 

    I must remind myself every so often that this should not be cause for despair.  Many profit-driven enterprises have resulted in great strides throughout history, in all areas of human society.  And plenty of sequels and remakes done for Geld have had their own merit.  And even though they aren’t always good, they can still be enjoyed.  So perhaps I’ve a bit harsh on the offspring of shameless coin-grabbing by the studio execs in Hollywood.  Just as the poor shall always be among us (according to Jesus anyway), so shall the soulless Boardroom Director.  And as long as some people find enjoyment in these movies, I suppose there’s no harm done.  Or at least not *too* much harm.  Probably.   

    So I guess I should rescind my earlier statement.  Perhaps I will see some of these movies one day.  Or maybe just Spiderman.  As long as I don’t have to pay for it. 

-Judge Richard

Monday, August 13, 2012

Batman Begins vs. The Dark Knight

**note** I wrote the following essay about a year ago, before the release of Rises.  A reflection on Rises and Nolan's trilogy as a whole is in the works.  Until that is complete, enjoy!

Before I delve into my reflections on these two films, I would just like to state for record that these are both great films.  Both are among the best comic-book films ever made, let alone two of if not THE two best Batman films ever made.  They are both favorites of mine, films I love every time I see them.  I say this just so that everyone reading this knows that the critique I am about to level at them both comes from a place of love, like a parent pointing out where their children make mistakes.

With that being established, I am just going to come right out and say it.  I think Batman Begins is better than The Dark Knight.  The Dark Knight made more money, was far more well-known, well-publicized, and is lauded by critics and film lovers as the greatest Batman movie ever made.  Being someone who is never afraid to hold controversial opinions or go in the face of conventional fads and what's popular (see my thoughts on Inglorious Bastards and Fight Club for further details), this would not bother me except for the fact there seem to be an inordinate number of people who have either not seen Batman Begins or aren't even aware of its existence.  Now, this is obviously just opinion after all, so while I am going to argue why I feel Batman Begins is the better film, my intentions for this article are not so much to alter people's opinions, but to simply make the case that it deserves a lot more attention than it gets.

I'm going to start off by talking about what's right with both of these films.  Since these are both Chris Nolan films, both of these films have great writing, great acting, great characters, great action, great filming, great music, and are just all-around great.  Nolan really knows how to draw people into a story and present great, memorable characters, and both these films show off his skill at this.  He is also a fantastic writer, able to blend great, exciting action with deep, philosophical reflections, and these films are shining examples of this as well.  In addition to the strong writing, filming, and casting, Hans Zimmer, who I still maintain is the next John Williams, provides fantastic and atmospheric orchestral scores for both films.

For me, the divergence really boils down to the plot, and there are three main things that, for me, set Batman Begins above Dark Knight.  The first is that, unlike any other Batman film in existence, Batman Begins actually shows the story of how Bruce Wayne, orphaned rich boy, becomes Batman, ass-kicking vigilante.  How he goes off to find answers and purpose, ends up in an Asian prison, and is released and then trained in the Himalayas by Ra's al Ghul, who later becomes the villain.  This takes up the entire first act of the movie, with the second act detailing how he returns to Gotham and establishes himself as a vigilante, slowly putting together the technological capabilities and police/business contacts to be a legitimate crime fighter.  Batman, in his "final form," doesn't appear until about halfway through the movie.  As a result, this is the Batman film that almost isn't a Batman film, and that makes it stick out a lot more in my mind.  More than any of the other films, you can really grasp Bruce as a human being and not just a character archetype.  Now, I realize a lot of people tend to scoff at the film for having so little to do with the Batman world (Bruce Wayne and NINJAS?), seeing the first act as a little too fantastic.  But, let's be honest folks, this is Batman we're talking about.  A millionaire dressing up as a bat and fighting crime.  That, in a nutshell, is this entire franchise.  And Nolan takes this admittedly silly premise and makes it about as realistic and believable as one possibly can by showing us the exact reasons why Bruce decided to use bats as his symbol, and it's pretty believable.  

The second point of difference between the two films is that Batman Begins is just more tightly written, whereas Dark Knight suffers from a number of plot holes, some small, some major, that only become more and more prevalent as the film goes on.  A prime example of this is the party scene.  Remember that?  Where the Joker is trying to kill off Harvey Dent and invades Wayne's party? Yep, that one. The first problem with this scene is the fact that Batman and Rachel fall off a massive building, hitting a taxi cab to break their fall, and yet neither of them have so much as a scratch. I couldn't buy that the first time I saw it, and I still can't. There are any number of ways Nolan could have had them be saved that would have worked better. Also, ever notice how we never see what happens at the party after that? The Joker is still in the room with all those innocent people, but it just cuts to the next day without resolving whether he leaves or stays and kills anyone else. Not a major point, to be sure, but still one that bugs me, and there are a number of them throughout the film (which, for brevity's sake, I will avoid here). 

The next major problem is the Joker himself.  The Joker always claims that he doesn't want money and that he doesn't have any sort of plan. However, pulling off the crazy hijacks he and his henchmen perform, especially at the end of the film, would require both ungodly sums of money and an incredibly detailed, well-drawn out plan that depended on huge numbers of henchmen and incredible luck. He suddenly decides to blow up a hospital. Within an hour. How does he manage to get past security and wire a massive hospital to be completely demolished within one hour? And, while I understand his little mind game to get people onto the boats, not only did he have no way of guaranteeing that one of them would be filled entirely with criminals, but how did he get enough materials, time, and security access to fully rig up both of those boats in addition to the hospital? And for that matter, why the hell does a massive city like Gotham only have two major ferries? That seems a little low for a city that's supposed to be such a huge metropolis. There's actually a video from the Youtube music video parody group Key Of Awesome that specifically points out the flaws in this part of the film (type in "Batman Is Confused").

Now, in regards to this aspect of the movie, one could make the argument that the Joker as a character is less of a man and more of a force, a manifestation of the darker side of human nature. As such, he is just sorta able to be anywhere he needs to be and do anything he needs to do to push people to the brink. This would make the Joker's attacks seem less like coordinated, planned efforts of a single, human terrorist and more like a force of nature deliberately concentrating its fury on a specific group of people. While I could certainly buy that (it actually makes the Joker seem even more unstoppable and terrifying than he already is), I don't feel that that entirely saves the movie from itself because of the fact that one of the strengths of these films are how realistically gritty and visceral Nolan has been making them, turning the occasional campy-ness of the earlier films (even the Burton ones, let's be frank) completely on their head.  Dark Knight was actually that rare film that emotionally unsettled me the first time I saw it. However, these particular these flaws, while they never stop me from enjoying the film whenever I watch it, sort of detract from that by making it just a little too unrealistic, even for a Batman film.  Say the Joker is a force, okay, but that would mean letting supernatural forces enter into a world that's "supposed" to be based in reality.

One last point; another reason why I like Batman Begins more than The Dark Knight is what I call Sequelitis, or "Godfather Part II" Syndrome. This is what happens when two movies use the same characters and take place in the same universe, but are not necessarily connecting or dependent story lines (as opposed to the LOTR or Harry Potter films), where each of the films can be considered and enjoyed separately from the other film. The Godfather films are examples of this. Both of the Godfather films (the two that matter anyway) can be watched and enjoyed separately, and judged on their own merits. However, although they are both great films, it is not possible to enjoy Godfather Part II as much unless you see the first one, which sets up the main characters and their relationships with one another.

The same principal applies here to the Batman films. While the actual events of each film are not directly connected to each other, the characters and relationships are the same. As a result, while The Dark Knight can certainly be enjoyed on its own, unless you see Batman Begins first you can't appreciate the relationships or characters quite as well, since Batman Begins is where they were all introduced and established. This one is not so much a case of Batman Begins inherently being better so much as it is a case of order. Batman Begins came first and built the universe of the new films, Dark Knight came second and provided a continuation of them. As a result, when it comes to picking favorites I'm inclined to pick the one that came first and created the universe, like with The Godfather.

I realize it might sound like I'm being overly nit-picky with my criticisms of The Dark Knight, but understand that, if anything, this shows just how much I love the film. I only notice this many flaws or ask these many questions if a film has impressed or affected me enough to get me thinking. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are both fantastic movies. And as I said at the beginning, I'm not writing this out of some fanboy anger that people have the BALLS to like Dark Knight more than Batman Begins, just because it really bothers me how many people still have not seen this film. I'm working on that though. Batman Begins is on the list of films I am constantly promoting to people who haven't seen them (also known as Noah's "Movies I Never Shut The F*** Up About" List).

That being said, of course, Batman Begins is far from perfect itself.  The bit in the beginning with the ninjas does stretch itself a tad, and it's certainly a slower film as well.  Dark Knight is a lot more fast-paced and intense, and took the realism and grittiness of the franchise to new heights, painting the world of Batman in darker tones than ever before.  However, a lot of that intensity the film provides comes from the uncertainty of not knowing quite where the film is going to go next, with both the Joker and with the story in general (Rachel's death, for example, I did not see coming).  Erego, once you've already seen it and know what will happen, it loses a bit of its edge.  Things like the pencil trick drew a nervous laugh from me the first few times I saw it, but after the first 3 or 4 times it's just not as shocking.

Actually, on that note, while I like Batman Begins more in almost every way, there is one, single, glaring exception to this:  Rachel.  I do not like Katie Holmes.  I do not find her attractive in the slightest, and her acting in Batman Begins was unconvincing at best.  The absolute nadir of the entire film for me is the end, where she's talking about hoping there could be something between her and Bruce, and the look on her face is just flat-out dead (don't even get me started on the nipples shot).  Maggie Gyllenhaal is a better actress by leaps and bounds, making Rachel more serious and believable, plus she's a hell of a lot more attractive than little Miss Holmes.  But anyway.  That's really the one "bee in my bonnet" when it comes to Batman Begins.

In the end, of course, all of this is my opinion.   There are people who love both films, and people who love neither.  It's all good.  I don't care what your opinion is as long as you can explain it well.  And like I said at the beginning, if you see both films and still think Dark Knight is better, that's fine.  But if you haven't seen Batman Begins, do yourself a favor; hold off any declarations on Dark Knight being the greatest Batman film 'til you've seen them both.

Well, that's it for my rant on these two films (very good) films.  Please read, comment, and let me know your own thoughts on the franchise!  Full franchise review to follow!

-Judge Richard

Monday, August 6, 2012

Brave New Film

   Brave is the 13th feature length film from Pixar Animation Studios, and the first original film by the studio since the masterful Up left many of us in tears (literally) back in 2009, the last two films (Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, respectively) being sequels to earlier Pixar features.  Not only was it the first such film in several years to have an original storyboard, it was also the very first time that a Pixar film would feature a female protagonist, specifically a female protagonist struggling to overcome restrictive social constraints in a particular location and time in history when women were not exactly considered worthy of much attention etc. etc. etc. (in this case, the ancient Scottish highlands).  If this sounds like a standard Disney/Dreamworks trope to you, you’re not alone, because in most ways, the film is exactly that, and the trailers effectively reveal as much.    

    As such, it’s easy to understand why there seemed to be a lot of high expectations for the film.  Pixar, finally taking on the standard princess-and-castle fairytale archetypes Disney has dominated for decades?  Surely they’ll find some way to give it a fresh twist, make it something totally new!  It’s Pixar, and that means that every film they make has to elevate and redefine it’s given genre, right?  Right? 

   That, more or less, seems to have been the general expectation people had for this film, which is the only reason I can come up with for the particular type of criticism it’s been receiving.  Not that the film is bad, because it isn’t.  The animation for both the world and the people themselves ranks as some of Pixar’s best, firmly advancing Pixar’s reputation for technical perfection.  It’s a ton of fun to watch, has moments of genuine emotional and visual beauty, and is absolutely worth taking the time to see. 

    However, positive reactions to the film have been rather muted.  The film only holds a 74% percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, significantly lower than ratings for The Incredibles, Toy Story, Wall-E, Up, and most of Pixar’s other features.  Many of my friends who saw it before I did said to me afterwards, “Yeah, it was good.  Just don’t expect a Pixar film.”  A comment that I found to be odd.  Why should it *not* be considered a Pixar film just because it doesn’t cause an artistic revolution?  People tolerate the Cars franchise well enough, and this film stands head and shoulders over both of those incidents put together.  Those were more or less my thoughts as I initially sat down to watch the movie. 

   Okay, I’m digressing.  I should probably go over the story now.  Brave opens with a montage of, honestly, some of the most beautiful animated landscapes I’ve ever seen (think Princess Mononoke), and a narrative voiced by a young scottish girl discussing the nature of fate.  We soon find out that the girl is Merida, the daughter of a Scottish King, Grupel (voiced by the indefatigable Billy Connelly), and his Queen Elinor, voiced by Emma Thompson.  It would also be remiss of me to not mention Merida's grown-up voice, done by Kelly MacDonald (from No Country For Old Men), giving way to her normal Scottish accent for a change.  After the opening montage, we see Merida as a little girl receiving her very first bow from her father as a birthday gift, which she promptly falls in love with (to the clear disapproval of her mother).  However, the party is soon interrupted by an attack by an immense bear, who Grupel fights to allow his family to escape. 

    The fight cuts away to the opening title shot, immediately followed by another montage/narration showing us pieces of Merida’s childhood in her castle in the faraway region of......something Scottish, I’m sure.  This establishes the major figures in her family, along with the core conflict of the film- her father is the gruff and rough yet warm-hearted and fun-loving fighter, her mother the upright (and a little uptight) authority figure in both the house and the kingdom, determined to turn her daughter into a shining example of ladylike virtue, and her three younger brothers are the reasons why Speedy Gonzalez and the Tasmanian Devil should never be allowed to mate. 

    Most of the scenes show her mother furiously trying to instill a sense of genteel queenliness in her daughter, and Merida’s voice tells us how much these efforts infuriate her.  The montage concludes with a scene depicting what is, ostensibly, Merida’s only real desire- hurtling out of the castle gates on the back of her faithful horse, brandishing her bow, with her astonishingly well-animated red hair streaming out behind her, hitting her favorite arrow targets with embarrassing accuracy, and climbing a cliff face alongside a stunning waterfall.  Set to a song that is *just* Nordic enough to avoid being mistaken for a Dreamworks cover, the scene is a visually stunning opening, bringing to mind thoughts of ancient castles, heady action, and adventure. 
    The entire first part of the film after this mostly follows this pattern.  We see Merida interacting with her family, her anger at having to choose one of the sons of the three clans to marry (one of which, to my delight, is named MacGuffin).  As part of a long-standing ritual, she must marry whichever of the sons can “prove their worth,” but, given that each of the three sons epitomize the highest levels of incompetence, the audience is compelled to share her disgust at the prospect. 

    The film is, in my opinion, strongest through this first part.  The ritual (centered around archery) ends with Merida stepping in and utterly humiliating each of the sons in turn (or at least the fathers- the sons seem rather indifferent to the whole affair).  Afterwards, Merida and her mother have a huge fight about the expectations for Merida as a princess and her anger and resistance to the idea that she has to conform to such old traditions.  The fight itself is another highlight of the film.  The voice acting in the entire film is top of the line, and the passionate emotions driving this scene in particular are bitterly palpable. 

    It’s after this, however, that the film takes several strange turns, and where the main issues with it begin.  It’s like the movie suddenly jumps from The Incredibles to Brother Bear, and does so with an almost audible thunk.  Due to a significant plot twist that I won’t spoil here, Merida and Elinor are forced to resolve their differences before a certain misunderstanding results in the destruction of both her family and the fragile peace between the clans.  This is more or less the focus of the remainder of the movie, but even this plot turn gets split up with the introduction of another side story: an ancient legend that may or may not have something to do with their own predicament.  Whether or not that is the case, though, is something that even the film itself seems uncertain about, as the story is thrown in and out of the film almost at random.   

    And that is, ultimately, the biggest problem with the film- it’s schizophrenic.  The film is solid and cohesive through the first 30-40 minutes, but once the major twist comes in to play, the atmosphere and tone of the film begins to shift back and forth dramatically.  Yes, the film continues to look great, all the major plot points are resolved (more or less), and it does end on a good, emotional high note, but by that point many people may feel a bit bewildered, like they aren’t really sure what they just saw. 

    I later found out that this film suffered from production issues unusual for Pixar films, with the production and writing team being almost completely replaced halfway through the making of the film.  A total of 5 different people are credited with writing and directing the film, and it shows.  It certainly explains why the whole product feels like several different films spliced together, and ultimately mutes the emotional impact the film does occasionally have. 

    Because of this, much of the criticism directed at Brave is justified.  As good as the animation and voice-acting is, the writing and direction simply isn’t tight enough to place it on par with Up or The Incredibles.  However, I could not disagree more with the notion that this makes Brave “less” of a Pixar film than the studio’s earlier works.  Saying that every Pixar film has to redefine the world of American animation to be good is like saying that every “good” Miyazaki film has to have the masterful depth of Princess Mononoke, or that every decent Scorcese film has to involve gangsters and gritty violence. 

    What Brave lacks in narrative cohesion it makes up for with the imagination, passion, and quirky eccentricity that are just as much hallmarks of Pixar’s works as their top-notch animation.  While perhaps not the best animated film I’ve seen this year (Arrietty still holds that title), it is fun, funny, and memorable, and I look forward to watching it again.  When it comes out on DVD. 

-Judge Richard