Tag Archives: Hollywood

Why the classic movie DUNE is a hot mess

I remember watching DUNE in the theater and thinking, “Whoah.”

Then again, I was a whippersnapper with no taste when it first came out. So on Old Movie Night, we popped in DUNE and fired it up.

Oh my.

There’s no doubt that DUNE is a hot mess. The question is, why?

Suspect No. 1: Horribly Cheesy Special Effects

This is a good place to start. You can’t excuse David the Lynch for not having access to better special effects, not when this movie came out after all three of the original STAR WARS movies were out.

Check out the trailer and tell me the effects are up to snuff, even for the era.

So, the effects in DUNE are Dr. Who-level lame. You expect the rocks to some styrofoam they bought off the old Star Trek set.

But bad effects aren’t the main reason this film is a hot mess. An audience will forgive bad effects if the story and characters are compelling.

Suspect No. 2: All Kinds of Crazytown

You don’t hire David the Lynch to direct a normal movie. You hire him to spice things up and go a little nuts.

Being absurdly weird can earn your movie cult status, with college kids playing it simply for the biggest excesses and worst moments of wackadoodle.

Moderately good or bad things are mediocre and boring. Give me stuff that's horrifically good or amazingly bad, then we'll talk. Kthxbai.

Moderately good or bad things are mediocre and boring. Give me stuff that’s horrifically good or amazingly bad, then we’ll talk. Kthxbai.

Then again, the tough part is once you base-jump off the Cliff of Normalcy, there’s no guarantee your chute will open.

And this film sprints away from Normal, stiff-arms Edgy and slides right into Bizarre.

This is half of the reason the film is a hot mess. You’re constantly distracted, sometimes by the bad effects, but more often by the weird, bizarre and gross sideshows that don’t truly move the story. The Baron Harkonnen’s massive zits get a ton of screen time. The Guild Navigators are grotesque. The bad guy troops have reverse mohawk hairdoes while the good guys wear surplus World War II uniforms. It’s constantly and consciously odd, which pulls you out of the story.

But if the story kept moving, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on all the weirdness.

Suspect No. 3: Ponderously Beating the Audience with the Cudgel of Pretentiousness

This is the true culprit.

Audiences will believe in sorcerers and elves if you don’t explain them. They’ll buy lightsabers and aliens who are into M & M’s — but not if you get pretentious and deep trying to explain all those things.

See, audiences want to believe. If you set things up from the start, they’ll stick with you. What you can’t do is (a) switch mid-way though a normal book or movie to say “Hey, actually the hero is a vampire. Surprise!” (b) commit the Hollywood sin of double-mumbo jumbo — trying to have a story that’s about dragons and trolls … plus space witches with lightsabers or (c) constantly stop the story to intrude with pretentious narration and dialogue that’s on the nose.

It’s that last sin that DUNE commits right away, with a long narration setting things up following be another and another and another.

Every time the story moves forward two inches, somebody has to stop to explain it to the audience for three minutes, as if we aren’t smart enough to watch the story and understand.  It feels less like a movie and more like a lecture. Then the credits roll.

I bet there’s a supercut of DUNE somewhere, a lot like STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM EDIT where some kind person sliced out all the boring nonsense, like Jar Jar Binks and all the talkative scenes where George Lucas is patiently over-explaining things to you and ruining the Force forever by saying it’s caused by space bacteria or whatever. No.

DUNE breaks new ground with the Unnecessary Voiceovers by having every actor whisper a voice-over of what they’re thinking, which is usually stuff the audience already knows, but hey, beat them on the head with it again.

Which is too bad. There are great actors in here like Kyle MacLachlanPatrick StewartSting and Jürgen Prochnow. A less wacky, less ponderous film with the same cast would have been awesome, even with the same cheesy special effects. It would also be far shorter and more watchable.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Why THE LEGO MOVIE works like magic

Movies based on toys, or cartoons from the ’80s designed to sell toys, tend to suck like Electrolux.

THE LEGO MOVIE is a happy exception to this rule. It’s worth talking about how they accomplished that trick.

They didn’t do it with snazzy special effects and big-name actors. Just about every film based on toys has great CGI explosions and big actors who aren’t so big that they won’t cash a giant check: BATTLESHIP had Liam Neeson, TRANSFORMERS had Megan Fox, G.I. JOE movies have had the Rock and Bruce Willis.

What makes this movie about interlocking bricks any different?

Reason Number 1: The Humility to Make Fun of Yourself

You don’t see the other toy movies doing this. They try hard–too hard–to be serious, and real, and only tangentially related to all the toys they want your kids to buy.

THE LEGO MOVIE has the guts to poke fun at itself, not once or twice, but during the entire film. Relentlessly. Brutally. Hilariously.

Reason Number 2: Subverting and Smashing Conventional Storytelling

This is the real secret. THE LEGO MOVIE picks up typical Hollywood structure by the throat and body slams it to the asphalt.

A normal action movie features a cartoon hero (Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Bruce Lee or Bruce Willis) who’s tough and cool in Act 1 and doesn’t change by Act 3. In fact, this hero doesn’t change, suffer or grow in any of the sequels.

Instead, the writers of this movie picked a hero who’s an Everyman that the prophecy says will become great and powerful, and save the world … except he never really gets those powers, and the prophet (Morgan Freeman!) admits in the end that he made it all up. There is no prophecy.

In parallel, the screenwriters take Batman, who stands in for your typical cool/tough hero, and show that he’s actually a hot mess. Is he still tough and capable? Sure. But you see the real man behind the façade, and it’s funny and insightful.

The villain is where the writers truly nail it.

In a typical action movie, there’s a cartoon villain doing evil things for no apparent reason other than he’s a villain and that’s what they do. Then in the finale, the hero kills the villain in a dramatic one-on-one gunfight, swordfight or fistfight.

Not this time.

The villain in the Lego world is President Business, whose secret identity is Lord Business, and his evil plan is to freeze the Legos into position with his super weapon, the Kragle (Krazy Glue) while the hero is the only one who can stop him with the Piece of Resistance (the cap to the Krazy Glue).

The writers make the bold choice to break POV here, to switch over to the real world for the first time, showing a little boy playing with a city of Legos in the basement. It’s a museum that his father set up, with signs everywhere warning against not touching what has been perfectly constructed based on the exact instructions.

These aren’t toys, his father tells him. They’re interconnecting plastic construction modules.

In real life and the Lego world, the hero doesn’t win by killing the villain, who has the upper hand. There’s no miracle comeback by the good guys.

The Lego hero echoes the language of the little boy and convinces Lord Business / Dad in Real Life that he doesn’t have to do this, that he’s the most amazing and talented person, who could build anything, and that it doesn’t have to be this way.

There’s an acid test for any story, when you’re trying to figure out who’s the hero. Sometimes, it’s not obvious.

In this movie, the person who makes the biggest leap is the villain, who gains insight and makes the decision to reverse course and allow his son (and daughter) to play with what had become a Lego museum, a no-fun zone.

A brave and brilliant choice, and to me, that’s what makes the movie different.

Bonus featurette:

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Why WORLD’S END ended with a wimper

On four different British Airways 747′s to India and back, I watched many, many movies. And it’s worth talking about them not in a “hey, this is out on DVD, so should you fire up Netflix?” kind of way, but in a storytelling way.

Did it work? Why or why not?

WORLD’S END proves that talent doesn’t always equal success. This is a movie with great comedic actors, yet a structural problem kills it. Because it’s truly two different movies slammed together.

The first movie is a comedy about five mates in England getting back together for an epic pub crawl they didn’t finish as college kids.

The second movie involves robots from space, which comes as a huge surprise, and not a good one.

Simon Pegg is brilliant, and he teams up with his sidekick once again, like in SHAWN OF THE DEAD and HOT FUZZ. Brilliant!

This movie had potential but is not up to Simon’s usual snuff. The thing is, fixing this film wouldn’t take much.

While the Simon Pegg character is talking his buddies into returning to their home town for the crazy pub crawl, he could’ve dropped hints about drunken fights in pub bathrooms with possible robot imposters. A single line like that could’ve saved this movie.

But instead, we get an orphaned payoff with no real setup.

Bonus: Simon continues the stunt casting of former James Bonds with facial hair playing villains. Timothy Dalton with a Tom Selleck mustache was in HOT FUZZ and this time we’ve got Remington Steele with a goatee. Loved this.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Billy Squire wrecks his career with ROCK ME TONITE

If you don’t remember Billy the Squire, probably because you weren’t born yet, he was kind of a big deal for a while. A rising star.

Then this video came out and smooshed him faster than you can say Milli Vanilli.

And yes, he started out by getting creative with the spelling of “tonight,” because that’s the revolutionary rebelliousness of a true rock star, though he didn’t go as far as Prince, who uses an entirely different alphabet.

Let’s ask ourselves, for the sake of history: Why was this music video so deadly?

It’s not the music. This isn’t some 11-minute long art film with a soundtrack that some rock star thought would be a killer idea. And yeah, that happens. Somebody gets famous and they think every idea that pops into their head is brilliant.

Close your eyes and listen to the song. It’s not terrible. A decent rocker with nothing to really complain about.

The lyrics aren’t inspired, but they aren’t completely insipid, either. Let’s go with banal.

Here’s the problem: people didn’t have their eyes closed. If this song simply hit the radio, Billy might have kept on rising up and making scads of money.

The visuals are simply awful.

Billy oozes uncool out of every pore. If there’s matter and anti-matter, there’s cool and uncool. Billy does not come off as cool in this video. He doesn’t seem like a cocky, confident rock star. It feels like he’s trying too hard, and failing.

There aren’t that many rock stars who look good dancing. The smart ones keep it low key. Billy Idol doesn’t dance — he pouts and pumps his fist. Bruce Springsteen never really dances. Bono, Sting, even Mick Jagger doesn’t really dance. He does a funky chicken and that’s about it.

Billy the Squire kept trying aerobic instructor moves, which did not look good on film.

When his band finally showed up, I kept swearing they cloned Billy, or shot multiple takes with him playing all the instruments. Every band member but one dude had the same outfit and over-permed hair. IT WAS CONFUSING, and not in a good way.

So all in all, this is an epic train wreck of a video.

Also: Bonus points to whoever digs up what happens to Billy Squire.

Related posts: Music Video Monday’s Greatest Hits

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller (FREEDOM, ALASKA) that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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What are your evil plans for 2014?

2013: better than Orwell's 1984, but not quite a party like Prince's 1999--though we have great hopes for this new 2014 thing.

2013: better than Orwell’s 1984, but not quite a party like Prince’s 1999–though we have great hopes for this new 2014 thing.

Writers and editors, screenwriters and playwrights, poets and scribblers — what are your writerly plans for this new year of 2014?

Also: what were the greatest hits and misses of 2013?

SOCK IT TO ME.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller (FREEDOM, ALASKA) that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, 6 Friendly Friday, Fiction, Thrillers and mysteries

A montage set to music: The best movies of 2013

Movies are all around us. Kind of like the Force, before George Lucas ruined it with all that claptrap about midichloridians or whatever.

Films live inside your TV, your iPhone, your laptop. They’re sitting on shiny metal disks and even being celebrated in these insanely large and dark stadiums where you pay $12 for popcorn and a Diet Coke that costs 20 cents.

And if you’re anything like me, movies are something magical.

So there’s this professional movie critic, David Ehrlich, a man you’d think only takes joy in ripping apart SMURFS 3: ARE WE THERE YET, PAPA SMURF while praising some black-and-white existential French movie where the hero finally kisses the girl and promptly gets hit by a bus–well, you’d think critics like him wouldn’t create something so joyful and beautiful as this.

Except of course he would. Why does anybody become a movie critic, book reviewer or rock journalist? Because they love nothing more than movies, books and making fun of Axl Rose and Vanilla Ice trying to stage a comeback.

So tell me, peoples of the Series of Tubes: which movies in 2013 make your top three?

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

 

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THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2 skips right to three villains, which is nuts

So, it’s the second movie in the series that already had three movies in its previous incarnation. So let’s skip the usual insane pattern of having two villains and go straight to three: Electro, the Green Goblin and Rhino. Seriously?

This is getting a smidge ridiculous. Will we see four villains in the third movie and five in the fourth? The original trilogy of Spiderman movies starring Tobey Maguire went like this:

SPIDERMAN: one hero, one villain (Green Goblin, played by Sergeant Elias from PLATOON). Well done.

SPIDERMAN 2: one hero, two villains (Doc Octopus and James Franco, who likes to write novels while going back to college, plays the angry Son of Green Goblin by using all of the acting range of that dude who played Anakin Skywalker).

SPIDERMAN 3: one hero, three villains (Sandman, Venom and grumpy Son of Green Goblin).

THOR also followed this silly formula, with one villain in the first movie (Loki) and two villains in the second (angry pasty space elf plus Loki again).

The first movie that started our current comic-book movie craze, the original Batman directed by Captain Crazypants (love you, man), had one hero (the Batman, by Michael Keaton when he had hairs), one villain (the Joker by that dude from THE SHINING) and Alec Baldwin’s ex-wife No. 2 or whatever as the girl for Batman to kiss.

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MISSING YOU by John Waite teaches us all about subtext

Here’s a classic song with a video that proves singers should sing, and actors should act.

What’s not to love here?

John Waite‘s hair is pure ’80s gold, with feathery blow-dry action in the front and a sneaky pseudo-mullet in the back. It’s a Don Johnson-punk mullet. Plus he rocks the standard One Dangly Earring look that every lead singer was required to have for about two years.

Adam Ant with the Mandatory One Dangly Earring

Adam Ant with the Mandatory One Dangly Earring

HOWEVER: What’s most interesting to me is how the lyrics clash with the video.

The lyrics avoid being “on the nose,” which is Hollywood screenwriter slang for people saying, or singing, exactly what they mean. Nobody in real life does that. It’s not realistic, not good for a story and not fun for the audience.

People avoid coming out and saying directly what they truly feel.

A hero doesn’t say, “Hey, I’m really scared, and I don’t want to die, so maybe you could drop that gun and let me handcuff you, seeing how I don’t want to get shot or get stuck with piles of paperwork if I shoot you first.” He says, “Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?”

A villain doesn’t say, “Being locked up in this dark basement next to low-level lunatics is beyond boring, and I would rather stick needles in my eye than communicate with these beasts, but pretty young FBI agents are something I never get to see, so I hope you stick around and talk to me for hours, Special Agent.” He says, “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

So while the acting and the visuals in the video are completely on the nose, with zero ambiguity or subtlety, the lyrics are great and full of subtext.

John Waite misses his girlfriend / lover / wife, but he doesn’t say, “Hey baby, I miss you a lot, and I’m a wreck, and I wish you’d come back.”

He sings, “I ain’t missing you” and follows that up with “I ain’t missing you at all” and seven other variations of the same thing.

But we know he’s lying.

And that’s what makes this song a classic.

Related posts: Music Video Monday’s Greatest Hits

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller (FREEDOM, ALASKA) that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 2 Music Video Monday, Red Pen of Doom, The Big Screen

Mixed Writing Arts is to writing as MMA is to fighting

Since the dawn of time, writers have spent their lives toiling in their own secret tribes and guilds, each clan claiming to have mastered the One True Art.

  • Copywriters swore their kung fu was far more powerful than that sissy screenwriting nonsense, because if you can’t sell tickets to a movie, the movie doesn’t get made.
  • Working journalists cranking out two stories a day scoffed at poets spending all week on five hippie lines about trees and clouds, while poets saw the mass-production lines of the Priests of the Inverted Pyramid as lacking any sort of soul or art.
  • Romance authors gathered in huge, organized conferences while mystery novelists gathered in small secret groups to put a dent in the global bourbon supply while trading secrets and lies.
  • Speechwriters clutched their tomes with 2,000-plus years of wisdom from Plato, Aristotle, Burke and countless other giants, who were inventing rhetoric and drama and comedy long before Syd Field arrived in Hollywood and Blake Snyder started saving cats.

To me, with a foot in all of these worlds, it felt false.

I got started in journalism and speech, my sister is a screenwriter and I have a great literary agent (Jill Marr!) after writing a novel that won some award.

It hit me, again and again, that I got better as a writer not when focusing like crazy on one thing, but by being exposed to other aspects that often would never have entered my mind as an option. Like hanging out with romance authors and editors, who have made me 100-times stronger as a writer. NOBODY COULD HAVE PREDICTED THAT.

Hear me now and believe me later in the week: There is no one supreme writing art.
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Why Hollywood is plagued by The Invincible Hero problem

Now that the Avengers have assembled into a giant machine that prints dollar bills, the X-Men are getting rebooted and Batman/Superman are teaming up to create billions more for an entirely different set of studio executives who live across the street from the Marvel folks, there’s something we need to discuss.

Because there’s a common problem with all of these movies–except for Batman, and we’ll get to that.

The Invincible Hero problem.

I’ve seen all three movies involving Thor and his hammer, and yes, the hammer has some crazy Norse name, and even though I’m a Swede nobody knows how to really pronounce the thing. IT’S A HAMMER.

Those movies are fun, and great, but tell me this: how do you hurt Thor, or kill him?

Because I don’t have a clue.

So there’s hundreds of millions of dollars in CGI explosions happening, and Iron Man grabbing Thor to fly him into trees and a cliff and such, but all amazing special effects that cost more than my house and your house and every dollar we’ll ever make in our lifetime, well, they don’t really move me, because I’m never worried about Thor being injured or killed.

You can throw the man around, blow him up, stab him with Loki’s sneaky dagger, punch him with the Hulk, and none of that really matters. The only proven way to hurt Thor is to remove Natalie Portman from the picture. 

The first Thor movie was better than the sequel because for a good chunk of it Thor didn’t have his powers. He was just a man who could get hurt, lose a fight or even die, and it was his willingness to sacrifice himself and die that made Odin restore his powers.

See, when a hero is invincible, you don’t worry about them. And when you don’t worry about them, you stop caring about bullets and thugs and whatever else the villain is throwing around.

Superman is the worst offender. When you look at heroes on the screen like Wolverine and Captain America, they don’t seem to get hurt, since both guys regenerate and such. But they’re powers aren’t crazy like the boy from Krypton, who can (a) run faster than a speeding bullet, (b) fly, including going into space without needing to breathe, (c) shoot heat rays from his eyes when they’re not (d) busy taking x-rays of your bones, (e) ice anything with frost breath, (f) move so fast he GOES BACK IN TIME and (g) 17 other powers I don’t have time to list.

When you’re so powerful and invincible that tank shells bounce off your skin (Superman, Hulk) or armored suit (Iron Man), it’s hard to ramp things up without jumping the shark. Should we have Hulk get hit by a comet, or throw Superman into a black hole to see what happens? Also, no barber could cut Superman’s hair or trim his beard, right? He’d look like the lost fourth member of ZZ Top.

Batman is a better, more interesting hero because he’s simply a man. You know his bones can break, that the villain can truly hurt or kill him. It matters.

Hollywood could fix this problem, if it cared to, by setting up in each of these bazillion-dollar stories not just how cool the hero is and what amazing things he or she can do.

Tell us, up front in Act 1, what the hero can’t do. Show us a few weaknesses and how they can get hurt or even killed. Because then in Act 2 and 3, we’ll care a lot more about those CGI explosions and bullets as part of the story instead of eye candy that doesn’t really affect the story.

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award and is represented by Jill Marr of the Dijkstra Literary Agency.

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Filed under 3 Tinseltown Tuesday, The Big Screen