Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Movie Griping #5: Serenity (2005)

There are two main themes in this movie.

The first is that we all need something to believe in.  I accept that premise.  Speaking for myself, I believe that it I am obligated to use whatever talents I might have to improve the well-being of those around me.  At the climax of the movie, Malcolm asserts that he believes in spreading the information about the reavers.  This is supposed to represent the culmination of his character’s journey; at the beginning he cuts an innocent lose to be eaten by the reavers, then he decides not to abandon River, then he is willing to sacrifice himself to broadcast the information.  That looks like an actual character arc.  The only problem is that it’s not clear to me why he makes those changes.  People nag him periodically that he needs to care about other people, but nothing happens that seems like it would change his mind.  His mind just changes.

The second theme is that the rough parts and the misbehaving that’s in life is essential to life.  I have a problem with this.  Fans of the original Star Trek series might recall the episode “The Enemy Within” in which Captain Kirk is in a transporter accident that splits him into two people: one who has all of his virtues, the other who has all of his vices.  The characters come to realize that it is the process of Kirk’s virtuous self taming his base self that allows him to realize his full potential.

“Serenity” acknowledges no such nuance.  The movie takes the attitude that behaving badly is virtuous in and of itself.  I don’t want to preach, and I don’t even want to pretend that I try to be virtuous all the time.  But I’m objective.  And when I get drunk and flirt with all four bridesmaids at a wedding, I don’t pretend that there’s anything noble about that. 

I’m a pretty harsh judge of people and situations (and movies…har har har).  As long as I channel that tendency through my empathy for others that potentially negative trait can be used productively and virtuously.  But if I just shrug and say that it’s good to be bad sometimes I end up just tearing people down (I’ve done it, and regretted it).

But all of that’s pretty abstract and heady.  Let’s get down to brass tacks: River cannot possible be that effective of a fighter.

Professional mixed martial arts has a new weight class every 10-15 pounds.  That’s because if you outweigh your opponent by more than that it’s not a fair fight.  Hell, if you’ve ever known someone who wrestled in high school you know that if they’re even two pounds too light they worry that they’ll be overpowered.

This emphasis on weight exists because you overpower your opponent by effectively applying violent force against them.  As we all remember from high school physics: force equals mass times acceleration.  Yep, mass.

Summer Glau (and thus, River Tam) weighs about 50 kg.  Jane is going to be closer to 100 kg.  For her to strike him with the same force that he can strike her she needs to get her arm accelerating twice as fast as his.  But how do we accelerate parts of our bodies?  With muscles.  And muscles have mass.  Since River has little mass, it means she has little muscle.  Which means she can’t accelerate her fist as quickly as Jane.  So…at best, her acceleration is slightly less than that of Jane (or any burly man, for that matter) and her mass is half that of Jane…so how is she supposed to beat him?  Sure, she’s super-skilled and that will let her get her hits in but the hits won’t even hurt a big guy.  He just needs to absorb some blows and take her out.

But, apparently fanboys have a weird fixation on bad-ass fighting pixies.  So I would advise you all to go out to your local S&M club and find a dominatrix there.  She’ll give you the treatment you’re looking for.  Enjoy.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Movie Griping #4: Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Wow…this movie is so ridiculous I don’t know where to start.  I think that it would be wise to only address internal inconsistencies and ignore the absurdities of the world the characters inhabit.  After all, movies are supposed to be escapist.  So it doesn’t matter if there’s no way in hell that there would exist a well-funded assassination team staffed entirely by runway models, right?

Those corporations are run by the dumbest people on the planet.  They really are.  The goal of each Smith’s company is to take him/her out because they don’t like that he/she is fraternizing with the enemy.  So they decide to tell the Smith’s most trusted colleague that he/she is a traitor and needs to be assassinated as quietly as possible.  Wait, they don’t do that?  They conspire with their competitor while contriving an expensive target and then hope that the married couple will kill each other instead of talk it over and work out their differences?  Holy shit!  That’s the kind of plan that makes a Bond villain brag to his friends, “You know, I’ve made some mistakes…put some lasers on some sharks…but at least I never did that!”

Both these companies seem highly funded and they seem to be trusted with important jobs.  But then, when it’s time to assassinate a competent target (the Smiths) they send their crack squad of Cobra Soldiers to get slaughtered in the way guaranteed to generate the most publicity possible.  I mean, I’m sure the Smiths are the best at their profession, but there have to be others employed by such well-funded companies who know how to work quickly and quietly…right?

I know it’s just a stupid action movie and that Jolie and Pitt are very pretty and that’s why the movie exists.  But it really does affect my ability to enjoy the movie if, as I’m watching it, I’m thinking, “All these characters are brain damaged.”  Why should I root for them to kill dozens of faceless soldiers when it should be a cat-and-mouse game between them and other elites?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Based on a True Story

When true events are the inspiration for a movie it’s almost always trumpeted in the preview.  It sounds like bragging: “You will feel even more drawn into the story since it really happened!”  I see it more as an excuse.  “You might think this movie is boring, but it’s not our fault; it just happened this way.”

Look, your life is boring.  Not for you; you’re living it.  I like playing golf on a sunny day; I don’t like watching golf.  I like solving potentials for the Schroedinger equation; watching someone else do so would be like scraping sandpaper over my face.  We intuitively know this.  And sometimes extraordinary things happen and it’s a story worth telling.  But telling that story is hard.

Take, for example, “Tora! Tora! Tora!”  The movie is an extremely faithful recreation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  And it’s kind of excruciating to watch.  The movie is less a coherent narrative filled with characters worthy of our empathy and more a string of events held together not by structure but by a history that exists outside the movie.

The same is true for bio-pics (this post was inspired by watching “The Aviator”).  Though they’re better at establishing connections with their characters than “Tora! Tora! Tora!” could be, their downfall is trying to cover too much time.   Events follow events and scenes follow scenes and none of it draws me in.  It’s been five years since the last scene…are the characters even the same people?  If I met myself five years ago one of us would punch the other in the face we’re so different.

That’s why the best movies based on true stories are loosely based on true stories.  Look at “The Social Network.”  I don’t know what the truth of the situation was.  But I’m positive that it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the movie.  And I don’t care.  I didn’t watch the movie to get a history of Facebook.  I watched the movie to be moved and how small emotions can inspire great deeds.  If the movie showed a socially awkward Mark Zuckerburg sitting and programming and occasionally saying his roommate wasn’t a skilled Dungeon Master it wouldn’t be any good.

“Braveheart” won a slew of academy awards for infusing human drama into a story of political independence and it was almost entirely made up.  “Amadeus” is an extraordinary story about jealously and a misplaced feeling that everything should be fair; Mozart is a crass buffoon with talent literally coming out of his ass and Salieri is a humble slave to his muse who toils in obscurity.  In reality, if Mozart was The Beatles then Salieri was the Small Faces.  And they respected each other.  Mozart drank himself to death.  But would you watch a movie where two musicians calmly respect each other for two hours and then one of them dies of alcohol poisoning?

Of course there are exceptions.  “Pearl Harbor” chronicled the same event as “Tora! Tora! Tora!” only with a lot more fiction and a lot more “oh, dear god, why does this movie suck so much.”  And “Patton” was basically two hours of real life quotes from the general and it’s breathtaking to behold.

Like always, it comes down to story.  And when all else fails you can just make it up.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Movie Griping #3: Batman Begins (2005)

Funny story with me and Batman Begins: When the movie came out, I was studying abroad in China.  But I really, really wanted to see it.  So I tried to talk with my language partner about where I could go to see it.  He said that people were very excited about the movie coming out and said where and when I could go to it.  So me and my friends got together on a Friday night and went to the movie theater with the big Batman poster out in front….and we walked into this movie.

It turns out that I didn’t effectively convey the idea that I wanted to see a specific movie, not just a movie in general (hey, Chinese is not my native language).  So finally I found out that Batman Begins was coming out in two weeks and it would be subtitled in Chinese (meaning English audio!).  Opening night, we all got together again and went to see the movie.  The movie that was dubbed into Chinese.

Yes, I was a student of Chinese language.  Key word: student.  I couldn’t understand Chinese!  I literally understood two lines of dialogue through the entire thing.  (“Where are you!?!?”  “Here!” and “This is his called card.”)  But I still enjoyed myself.

The rest of my semester there I spent my free time trying to procure a bootleg of an English version of the movie on DVD.  I finally got one…with the first 20 minutes missing.  So finally, when I got back to America I saw it in the dollar theater.

What’s the point of that story?  It’s that I feel like I have a relationship with this movie.  I tried very hard to see it, and I failed multiple times.  But I enjoyed every failure.  And I enjoyed watching the movie every time.  So this is a movie that’s close to my heart.

That being said…the ending.  Oh, the ending.  The first problem is a minor one but harping on minor points is literally the entire purpose of this blog.  When Batman shots his grappling gun at the train, he is able to hang from the train and be pulled through the air.  So, the train is holding Batman up.  But what's holding the train up.  Scaffolding!  Scaffolding that will get in the way of the grappling gun's tether and hit Batman over and over and over again until he's too punch drunk to even scare people away from his own mansion.

But that’s not the worst part.  The worst part is that it’s explicitly stated that if the train gets to Wayne Tower the entire system will blow…and the train gets to Wayne Tower!  There’s a pretty spectacular visual where we see the train skidding through the parking garage.  Did Batman disarm the microwave before this?  No.  By the reasoning within the movie, the system should have blown.  This is like seeing the bomb timer hit zero and then the bomb not detonating.  Surprise!  The hero’s efforts meant nothing!

Oh, and this is all aside from the fact that the gas was released in the narrows (read: where all the criminals and armed police are) and also all the way from the narrows to Wayne Tower.  So, even if the entire network didn’t blow, we’re talking about a Manhattan-sized-area where everyone is destroying themselves through fear.

So…that was a happy ending, right?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Movie Griping #2: 12 Monkeys (1995)

A recent comment inspired me to tackle this movie.

First off, the movie is about fate and inevitability; time travel is merely used as a device to explore that idea.  I chose to look at the movie optimistically: Cole wishes to stay in a world he knows will end so that he can be with the woman he loves, which is a symbol for how we need to cherish the present since death is unavoidable for all of us.  If you prefer, you can look at it cynically: we are all stagnant and miserably chasing our own tales and no matter what we do we cannot avoid suffering and destruction.

These important themes of the movie are firmly established when the audience realizes that Cole cannot prevent the catastrophe and that he has, in fact, already witnessed his own failure.  This is a “Slaughterhouse Five” view of time travel in which all events happen more or less independently from each other and Cole has simply become “unstuck” when he travels backwards.

And it’s with that approach to time travel that the movie establishes its theme and provides an entertaining, exhilarating experience.  But all this generalization and appreciation is getting in the way of my nitpicking: the characters suck at time travel.

First Cole is 6 years early and then he’s 80 years early!  He loses the ability to distinguish between temporary trips to the past and the present.  He’s a convict.  Remember, when we’re dealing with time travel, you are in a situation in which you literally cannot fail.  The scientists screw up and send Cole back 80 years too far?  No problem!  Just go back in time yourself and fix your calculation error.

What the ruling council needed to do was wait longer until the time travel technology was perfected and then send back the best and brightest in a team to prevent the release of the virus.  In fact, after the events of the movie, they might have done that exact thing!  They can just keep trying until they get it right, and with 5 billion lives at stake, they should definitely keep trying.

I try not to hold this against 12 Monkeys because its depiction of time travel is absolutely fundamental to the themes of the movie.  This isn’t like Star Trek or Harry Potter where it’s only part of the plot.  If they indeed keep trying until they get it right, the movie loses its power and meaning.  So I just try to appreciate the emotion the film evokes in me and I worry about time travel mechanics later when I’m at the bar trying to impress chicks.  Because that’s what impresses chicks, right?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Plot Mechanic Fail #1: Time Travel

The idea of time travel is seductive.  Who doesn’t agonize over that one thing they said that blew their chances with that one girl that one time and how if they could have changed it their life would have been awesome?  So time travel shows up in movies.  A lot.

Let’s ignore the mechanics of time travel for a minute.  Whether an alternate universe is created by going back in time (Star Trek) or it’s part of the same continuity that can be changed (Back to the Future) or it’s part of the same continuity that can’t be changed (implied in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

But no matter the mechanics* there is a universal feature of time travel that can ruin the movie: time travel literally solves every problem in a completely stress-free way.

*The one movie with acceptable time travel mechanics is “Primer”, a movie which will definitely get its own post soon.

Without a time deadline, there is no pressure.  When was the last time your boss or teacher said, “Yeah, just get it done whenever” and you actually cared about getting it done?  This is what it’s like in all time travel movies.  In “Azkaban” the protagonists travel back in time and are rushing to save Harry’s uncle.  But…what’s the rush?  If they’re late, they just go back in time again!  They are quite literally in a position in which they cannot fail.  Not bad.

But, wait, it gets worse.  Remember in the fifth book when Sirius dies?  He dies because Harry misinterpreted telepathic signals from Voldemort and his allies were ambushed.  So…I’d say it’s time someone went back in time to stop the ambush…right?  Time travel clearly isn’t a one-time thing; Hermione had been using it to take a double-load the entire school year.  So, every time an ally is killed, they should be able to go back in time and prevent it.  That they don’t either means the characters decided that letting a 14 year old get to class on time is the only thing important enough to justify time travel or J.K Rowling realized after the third book that time travel is too powerful a mechanic to have.  The latter?  Yeah, I think it was the latter.

The entire Star Trek franchise also has a problem with this.  It’s established multiple times with the original cast that if you slingshot around a gravity well (like a star) you can go back and forth through time.  That’s not actually how relativity works, but fine.  Let’s say you can do that.  Then use that to solve every problem that comes up!  Is Captain Kirk pitted against an enemy far more technologically advanced than himself?  Go forward in time, get some swell technology, and then use it to defeat the opponent!  Or go back in time, give the technology on your ship to the people in that time, and then go forward again and enjoy the benefits of a society 200 years ahead of where it would otherwise be!  A combination of these last two techniques (depending on your perspective) is actually done in the series finally of Voyager.

Also, consider the Terminator franchise.  The machines go back in time to kill the leader of the resistance whom they can’t kill in the present.  The rebels go back in time to stop them.  Why don’t the rebels go back in time to stop skynet from becoming sentient?*

*Yes, this ends up happening in the second movie, but it wasn’t the plan.

There are more examples (12 Monkeys, The Butterfly Effect, TimeCop, etc).  But I’ll stop here and just say that time travel in movies gets on my nerves.  The power of the mechanic is so great that the limitations on it are never internal to the story; they’re imposed arbitrarily by the narrator in such a way as cheapens the struggle of the characters and inhibits our ability to empathize with them.