Steven Moffat Exits the TARDIS

By Tom Holste

Jan. 28, 2016

Wow! A huge tremor in the Force … um … Whoniverse! Current head writer Steven Moffat announced he’s leaving Doctor Who; Chris Chibnall is taking over in that role; Moffat will still produce one more season before the transition; and there won’t be any new episodes until this year’s Christmas special.

http://comicbook.com/…/steven-moffat-leaving-doctor-who-aft…

I seem to like Moffat’s writing more than most people, but I’m OK with this. This show thrives on change, and it’s always interesting to see what a new showrunner will do with the mythology.

moffat-tardis-rt15-300x180

The soon-to-be-no-longer-current head writer Steven Moffat

In fact, ironically Moffat’s departure will probably make people like his writing more, since there’s always nostalgia for whatever version of the show goes away. There were a lot of fans harping on Russell T Davies’ run on the show from 2005-2009, who then promptly started ragging on Moffat as soon as he took over and asking why things couldn’t be more like they were in RTD’s day.

(Mind you, that’s not every fan. And certainly Moffat isn’t perfect. The 2011 season was pretty incoherent, and the non-50th anniversary episodes in 2013 were pretty dull. I’m not saying it’s never okay for one to say that they don’t like Moffat’s writing. I’m specifically thinking of people in forums I no longer visit, and on podcasts I no longer listen to, whose default position is that whatever is new is automatically bad.)

It was hard guessing who would ever take over if Moffat left. When RTD was in charge, Moffat was winning all the awards for writing on the show. Since Moffat took over, he’s still been the one winning all the awards. The exception was Neil Gaiman for “The Doctor’s Wife,” but no one liked his follow-up “Nightmare in Silver” nearly as much, and at any rate, Gaiman has no experience running a TV show.

Mark Gatiss has actually worked side by side with Moffat for years, co-producing Sherlock with him, but Gatiss’ DW episodes have not been among the best. His most recent, “Sleep No More,” is one of the lowest-rated episodes of the entire modern series.

I don’t see a whole lot of classics in the list of episodes that Chris Chibnall wrote, but there aren’t really a lot of clunkers either. I like most of them. Chibnall also was essentially the showrunner of the first two seasons of Torchwood; while I don’t like that show very much, he wrote some of my favorite stuff that was on it.

Also, he wrote the beautiful “P.S.,” which caps Rory and Amy’s time on the show, and is one of my favorite DW things ever.

And even though Chibnall hasn’t won any awards for DW writing, he has won awards for his police drama Broadchurch (which has featured many DW alumni). So that, plus his overall TV producing experience, plus the fact that he’s a lifelong Doctor Who fan — yeah, I’m on board with this.
I’m not so happy about having to wait another full stinkin’ year for new episodes, but hey, the BBC didn’t ask me. At least there’s the upcoming spinoff Class to look forward to, and I still have a lot of classic episodes that I can watch for the first time to help fill the void.

 

Brief FORCE AWAKENS Review; Spoil the Movie, I Will Not

By Tom Holste

Jan. 2, 2016

Most of my friends know what a huge Star Wars fan I am, so it won’t be a surprise to most of them that I saw the movie on the Friday that it opened.

After seeing the film, I realized that I needed to immediately see it again (although I probably won’t be able to until home video). The first time, I was holding my breath without realizing it. Would the filmmakers be able to pull it off? Yes, they would. It wasn’t until the end credits were rolling that I could finally relax enough to say, “Yes. This is a quality movie. It’s no longer embarrassing to be a Star Wars fan.”

vanity-fair-star-wars-the-force-awakens-large

The filmmakers missed an opportunity to name this film RISE OF THE MIDICHLORIANS.

Despite my own repeated statements before the release that the movie wouldn’t be able to make me feel like I was 8 years old again, some part of me still hoped it would. But at the end of the day, it’s just a movie, albeit a very entertaining one.

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are both great in their roles, and the droid BB-8 is cute without being cloying. Harrison Ford is this movie’s MVP, though. He brings such fun and energy to the role of Han Solo, it’s like the character has never been gone. Watching him was my favorite part of this film.

However, I was surprised at how much more somber the movie was than I was expecting. I thought that this would be a lighthearted romp along the lines of the original 1977 movie, or even along the lines of JJ Abrams’ two Star Trek films. But this is the first part of a trilogy, and our characters have to be in some pretty sad, dark places in order for the story to have somewhere to go. If there’s no conflict for the characters, there would be no reason for them to be in this movie.

I was also surprised because I was expecting answers to a lot of my questions from the previews, but instead, I find myself with even more questions. Again, this makes sense. The filmmakers already know that they have 3 films with which to tell their story. It wouldn’t work to tell us everything right up front. Where would the trilogy go from there?

One more concern I had, which seems to be echoed by a lot of other people, is that there was an over-reliance on ideas seen in the other movies. Since Lucasfilm had previously announced that the Expanded Universe (the various Star Wars novels, comics, video games, etc.) were no longer canon, I thought that they intended to go in a bold, fresh new direction that couldn’t be accomplished with the old continuity. Instead, the filmmakers puzzlingly decided to do a retread of what we’ve already seen, and tell a story where many of the previous tales didn’t need to be jettisoned.

In short, what I came to the theater to see was familiar characters in new situations. What I instead got was (mostly) new characters in familiar situations.

Having said all of that, my teenage stepson came out of the theater totally energized. He had never had the chance to see any Star Wars movie in a theater before, and it blew him away. He declared that The Force Awakens was not only his favorite Star Wars movie, but also his favorite movie ever, period!

I think that was the ultimate goal of the filmmakers: to show modern kids what it was like to watch Star Wars for the first time in a theater, and to create a new generation of fans. Those concerns trumped all others for the filmmakers, and they seem to have succeeded admirably.

So, again, it was a very entertaining movie and I had a really good time. But I immediately wanted to see it again because I had some different (and perhaps somewhat unrealistic) expectations of the movie going in. I want to see it again with revised expectations, and I think I’ll enjoy the movie even more then.

Lights, Camera, Insert Coin

By Tom Holste

Nov. 10, 2015

Recently, a small independent movie company called Rainfall Films released a short 10-minute film called Metroid: The Sky Calls, based loosely on the Metroid video game series that started on the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1987. This isn’t an official production, but a fan-made film.

“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Sakamoto.”

Metroid: The Sky Calls is the latest attempt by someone in Hollywood to tackle a challenge that has largely proved insurmountable: how to make a good movie out of a video game.

When video games were simpler, consisting of only a single screen, and with no actors or story, they must have seemed too primitive to make the jump to film. Sure, Space Invaders seemed influenced by Star Wars, Pitfall! took a page from Indiana Jones’ playbook, and Donkey Kong probably wouldn’t have existed without (of course) King Kong. But one would be hard-pressed to identify, for instance, exactly why Pac-Man needed to eat the ghost monsters, or where the game took place. (Yes, there have been fan films attempting to answer those questions, too — such as this and this. And there were Saturday morning cartoons with those characters, but the characters were shoehorned into rather generic cartoon plots.)

But as the years progressed, game developers were able to make the games longer, and eventually add voices as provided by the actors. The graphics grew more realistic; the music went from non-existent to repetitive to actually evoking mood from scene to scene; and the storylines and themes became more complex and sophisticated. In nearly every way, video games had become like movies. So why couldn’t video games actually make the jump to the big screen?

One of the first attempts was called The Wizard, which featured Fred Savage of The Wonder Years in a plot weirdly ripped off from Rain Man, just more family-friendly. Savage’s character traveled across the country to help his savant brother win a video-game championship (since his brother was a “wizard” at video games). Ultimately, the movie is now most remembered for a laughably bad line where an all-too-smug competitor expressed his admiration for Nintendo’s new game peripheral. “I love the Power Glove,” he cooed. “It’s so bad.” (“Bad” in this case means “cool,” for us old-timers out there.) The line launched a thousand Internet memes:

PowerGlovePowerGlove2PowerGlove3Apparently, the powers-at-be at Nintendo thought that this movie was a bit silly. (I can’t fathom where they got that idea from.) So they decided that their next movie, based on Super Mario Bros., would be a lot more serious. And it was. In fact, it was way more serious than any movie based on Super Mario Bros. had any right to be. Instead of the brightly beautiful Mushroom Kingdom from the games, the filmmakers inexplicably gave us a dark, post-apocalyptic looking world that looked like rejected sets from Blade Runner. The story was incomprehensible, giving us Bob Hoskins as Mario, and John Leguizamo as his adopted younger “brother.” Princess Peach was nowhere to be seen; instead we got the unmemorable Princess Daisy. In the games, Bowser is a giant dragon. In the movie, Bowser is played by Dennis Hopper, looking like Dennis Hopper with a few bumpy ridges on his head and a long tongue.

Critics rightly lambasted the film, and baffled audiences stayed away. Attention, people of Hollywood: This audience accepted a series of games where a plumber heroically fought against turtles before donning a raccoon suit that allowed him to fly. When this same audience says that your movie is too confusing, you really haven’t done your job right.

Bowser

We got from this to … well, that (see following image).

to that

“Pop quiz, hotshot. You’re stuck in a lame video game adaptation. What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?”

Further games based on movies came out, but nearly all have been critical failures, and most have been commercial failures as well. Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, Doom, Wing Commander … the list reads like a Hollywood hall of shame. The Resident Evil series is the only set of movies based on games that I can think of with more than two entries, and even those movies not held up as any kind of cinematic classics.

The Godfather is a very well made movie even if you don’t like gangster movies; The Wizard of Oz is very well made even if you don’t like fantasies. But where’s The Wizard of Oz or The Godfather of video game movies – the movie that would appeal to someone who doesn’t even play games? Since modern video games seems so much like movies, why is it so hard to make a good movie out of a video game?

I think the answer lies in the types of experience that audiences and players look for in their respective entertainments.

Video games are very much about letting the player enter the world as the character. When a player wants to be Sonic the Hedgehog, for instance, he or she wants to imagine himself or herself in the role of the little blue critter that runs fast and jumps on little robots. In contrast, a movie invests us in characters that have very specific personality traits and specific histories. In order for a Sonic movie to work, the filmmaker would have to create a deep psychological background for Sonic. However, if the writers and directors make Sonic too strange, with a shattered psyche, then audiences would reject the film because it’s not how they always imagined Sonic themselves (with everyone pulling from their own personality traits). But if they keep Sonic as generic as possible to fit everyone’s interpretation of him, then the movie will be suffocatingly dull.

Also, the pleasure of a game comes from overcoming a challenge after multiple attempts. There doesn’t need to be anything more in terms of conflict for a Super Mario game than simply executing a series of increasingly difficult jumps. The variety and style of the jumps creates an exciting challenge for the player. But how could one watch two hours of “Mario jumps, then he jumps again, and this time he has to jump a little bit higher”?

How profound of a relationship can Link have with an Octorok?

How profound of a relationship can Link have with an Octorok?

Let’s look at another example: The Legend of Zelda, a sword-and-sorcery series starring Link. In the games, Link usually travels alone while attempting to rescue Zelda. It’s a terrific series of games. But in a movie version of this game, who would Link talk to for two hours? Would he only talk to the bad guys just before killing them? Or would the filmmakers have to invent an annoying sidekick for him? There was a short-lived cartoon series where Link hung out with Zelda, and the two of them did lame romantic comedy-style bickering. Indeed, Link has an obnoxious catchphrase from the cartoon: “Excuuuuse me, princess!” As you can probably guess, there are memes galore for that too.

For another example, let’s go back to the 1987 video game classic Metroid. (Spoilers ahead for a 28-year-old game, and for the aforementioned fan film.)

Players found themselves on an eerie distant planet as a character named Samus Aran, an intergalatic explorer who had to fight off some nasty aliens. Throughout the game, players couldn’t see Samus’ face, as Samus was in a large space suit. When players successfully completed the game, Samus retired from duty by taking off the suit. That’s when players learned that Samus had, in fact, been a woman all along.

“Hello, my 8-bit avatar. How YOU doin’?”

It’s a great twist that no one saw coming, which is a good reward for finishing the game, and the twist nicely challenged our preconceived notions of who our video game heroes should be. So how does one capture that in a movie?

If one hides Samus’ face until the very end of the movie, as in the original game, audiences might be unable to connect with a character whose face they can’t see. Besides, millions of gamers already know that twist. But if the filmmakers get rid of the twist, what’s left to surprise the viewer?

Interestingly, the makers of Metroid: The Sky Calls show Samus as a woman right up front, but then do a story all about exploration. Weirdly enough, Samus never fights any aliens in the short film. Apparently the filmmakers were deliberately going for a 2001: A Space Odyssey tone, which is kind of neat. It’s certainly effective for 10 minutes. But would audiences accept a full-length movie where Samus never blasts any of the aliens from the game?

(Here’s a link to the movie, btw.)

(Spoilers end here.)

So as you can see, what people want when they play video games – to immerse themselves as the main character, to overcome hurdles that are physical instead of psychological, and to often explore the game area alone – are often the opposite things of what people want when they watch movies – to get to know unique characters, to watch those characters overcome complex challenges, and to watch them do it surrounded by other interesting characters.

Mind you, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to do a really good video game movie. I’m just saying that it hasn’t been done yet, and outlining what the challenges are for any filmmaker. If someone figures out how to crack the code, I’ll be first in line.

In the meantime, we have to continue to live in a world where, oddly enough, The Wizard remains the most memorable video game movie made to date.

And how can we not love it? It’s so bad!

Return of the R Rating

By Tom Holste

Oct. 15, 2015

THE HOBBIT may be the first adaptation where it takes longer to watch the movies than it does to read the book.

THE HOBBIT may be the first adaptation where it takes longer to watch the movies than it does to read the book.

On Wednesday, Warner Bros. released an extended cut of The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies to theaters, with a video release soon to follow.  The studio promises an additional 20 minutes added to Peter Jackson’s final installment in his Hobbit trilogy.

Having an extended edition is nothing new for Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies. What makes this release unique, though, is that it’s the first and only installment to receive an R rating from the MPAA.

It will be interesting to see if the extended cut improves the final film in the eyes of the moviegoing public. Five Armies has a 7.5 rating out of 10 based on voters’ rankings on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). A 7.5 is a respectable rating, but it’s by far the lowest-ranked out of all of Jackson’s films based on the books. Notably, the highest-ranked installment is Return of the King, the previous “final” installment in the film franchise. While fans thought that the franchise originally went out on top, they now feel that its final film is the least impressive. Perhaps the added footage will change that.

One might reasonably ask (I certainly have) if an extended cut is really necessary for one book already stretched out over three movies. At 2 hours and 24 minutes, Five Armies is the shortest of the films so far. The 20 extra minutes will push the film closer to the on-average 3-hour mark of the other films. Still, it’s worth keeping an open mind to see if the new footage adds anything of value.

If the new version of the movie is well-received, it could be a further indication of a trend in moviegoing that suggests that audiences are more likely to embrace R-rated action movies in the theaters again.

The MPAA created the ratings system in 1968, and during the 1970s and 1980s, R-rated movies frequently were the highest-grossing movie of the year. From The Godfather to Rain Man, from Blazing Saddles to Beverly Hills Cop, R movies often ruled the roost. But with the introduction of the PG-13 rating in 1984, R-rated movies became big hits less and less often. Action movies became increasingly centered around comic books, video games and toys, which attracted kids, while the PG-13 rating assured parents and older siblings that they weren’t going to be forced to watch an overly cutesy kids’ film that’s more common with a PG or G rating. In other words, studios had found a way to have their popcorn and eat it too.

Before last year, the last time an R-rated film was #1 for the year at the box office was in 1998 (for Saving Private Ryan). (More on last year in a couple of paragraphs.)

It would be grossly inaccurate to say that no R-rated movie has been popular in the intervening years. In particular, comedies seem to be skewing away from the PG-13 rating as more of them find success again with the restrictive rating. And the Oscars often honor dramatic films (usually biographies) that have an R rating. (Indeed, the awards trend has been the reverse of the box office trend. The last time a PG-rated movie won Best Picture was when Driving Miss Daisy won in 1989.) Still, PG-13 or lower-rated movies tend to dominate the most. As recently as 2010, the G-rated Toy Story 3 topped the box office for the year.

But then in 2014, the R-rated American Sniper had the biggest box office. It’s perhaps not entirely surprising, as the film was based on a best-selling book, and like Saving Private Ryan before it, the movie appeared to honor American soldiers, which resonated with a huge portion of our nation’s population that’s still deeply patriotic. (Whether or not the films are actually patriotic is a complicated question, one that I don’t have the answer to, and one that’s beyond the scope of this article anyway.) Still, for the film to be so successful was a little unusual for this day and age.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD wouldn't be an unusual success story for 1985, but it's pretty unusual for 2015.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD wouldn’t be an unusual success story for 1985, but it’s pretty unusual for 2015.

Then came Mad Max: Fury Road. A sequel that came 20 years after the last installment, with a recast lead, didn’t seem like it was destined to be widely accepted. Even having the original films’ writer/director, George Miller, back at the helm, didn’t guarantee acclaim. (Just ask George Lucas.) But fans and critics thoroughly embraced the film. The movie has an 8.3 out of 10 rating on IMDB, a staggering 97% positive out of 100 rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and an 89% rating on Metacritic. It’s not the highest-grossing film of the year – it ranks at a modest but still successful #15 – but this level of acclaim for a sequel so many years after the original film is practically unheard of.

The makers of the Die Hard, Terminator and Alien franchises have not been so lucky. When Bruce Willis returned to the previously R-rated film series with the PG-13 rated Live Free or Die Hard in 2007, critics and fans mostly rejected it. Many were frustrated that even John McClane (Willis)’s character’s famous expression from the movies – “Yippie-ki-yay, mother…” – got deliberately obscured by a gunshot. While I actually found the movie kind of fun, I couldn’t deny that a friend of mine had a point when he asked why the studio (Fox) felt the need to make a John McClane movie for kids in the first place. Similarly, audiences turned their noses up at the PG-13 rated Alien vs. Predator and Terminator Salvation. (To be fair, Alien vs. Predator did make a lot of money, but it was widely reviled.)

Here’s the thing, though: The R-rated follow-ups didn’t save the franchise. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem was even less well-liked than the previous entry, and the sort-of prequel Prometheus (with the original director, Ridley Scott) got a middling reception. (It’s getting a sequel, but the studio – Fox again – almost went in a completely different direction for the next film.) Meanwhile, A Good Day to Die Hard (a film with a title that seems to have been written by a Klingon from Star Trek) is widely considered to be the worst in the series, and likely the final nail in that franchise’s coffin. So when Mad Max: Fury Road debuts to near-universal acclaim, one has to note how very unusual that is.

(The producers of Terminator Genisys announced their original intention to get an R rating for the movie, but the final film ended up getting a PG-13 anyway. Whether the rating was a factor or not, Genisys failed to bring audiences back into the fold.)

With stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and even Dolph Lundgren, the only thing missing from EXPENDABLES was a VHS release.

With stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and even Dolph Lundgren, the only thing missing from EXPENDABLES was a VHS release.

In fact, a big part of the appeal for the fans of the recent Expendables film series starring Sylvester Stallone is that it feels like a total throwback to the R-rated action movies of the ‘80s. Interestingly, the PG-13 rated Expendables 3 made significantly less money than its predecessors. Ditto for PG-13 reboots of Robocop and Total Recall.

Going back to The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies – Since the original novel The Hobbit actually skews toward a younger audience than The Lord of the Rings, it’s actually amusing that any film based on it would get an R rating. However, the MPAA says that the rating is for violence, a mainstay of these movies, so it’s good to know that Peter Jackson didn’t feel the need to add sex and profanity into a series for which such things would be an odd fit.

At any rate, I certainly have to wonder if Jackson and company would have even considered releasing a retooled Five Armies with an R rating without recent success stories like American Sniper and Fury Road. If the new version greatly improves fans’ perception of the film, look for the trend of more R-rated movies to continue. (In fact, the trailers alone for next year’s comic book-based Deadpool and Suicide Squad look like they’ll almost have to accept an R rating.)

Is this trend good thing or bad? I don’t know. It’s too early to say. While many conservatives like myself have seen films that we thought had gratuitous sex, language or violence, most of us would also say that the use of the rating for such films as Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and The Passion of the Christ was valid and worthwile, as they depicted real-life violent historical events in an unflinching manner. Big-budget popcorn movies don’t really fall into that category, but since some PG-13 movies marketed to kids push the upper level of that rating, it might be useful to parents if some blockbusters had a more informative, restrictive rating.

On the other hand, the notion that only adults watch R-rated movies is largely just a myth. Even 30 years ago, while attending a private Christian grade school, I would be regaled with the plots of slasher movies by my classmates during recess, movies which they had apparently seen the night before on HBO. (To be fair, none of them went on to be serial killers themselves, at least as far as I’m aware.) I’m not saying that all entertainment needs to be exclusively suitable to little children. In fact, I don’t know what all the answers are. I’m just offering what I’ve observed, for whatever it’s worth.

At any rate, time will tell if the recent success of a few R-rated action films will be just a blip in the popular culture or a continuing trend. For the last 20 years or so, the PG-13 rating has been insurance for film studios to guarantee a return on their investment. But the pendulum may be swinging back the other way.

ULTRON is Not an AGE-less Film

By Tom Holste

Oct. 8, 2015

DAREDEVIL is one of the more satisfying productions from Marvel.

DAREDEVIL is one of the more satisfying productions from Marvel.

When I first started this blog, I wrote an article about how people might be becoming overwhelmed with all the latest superhero movies. Since that time, I’ve caught up on a lot of Marvel films and TV shows, and for the most part, Marvel has anticipated viewer fatigue and responded by making each project unique. I thoroughly enjoyed the dark and grim Netflix series Daredevil; despite my initial reservations, Ant-Man turned out to be hilarious and inventive; and the ABC TV series Agents of SHIELD, which got off to a rough start two years ago, has thoroughly come into its own.

I’ve liked almost everything I’ve seen, with one exception – ironically, this year’s flagship installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The movie isn’t outright bad; it’s a respectable effort. But it’s the least interesting thing that Marvel has done since the inception of the MCU. Since writer/director Joss Whedon was again in charge of the production, as he was with the first Avengers, it was surprising that this film missed the mark. But here are the reasons why I think it did in fact miss.

“Second verse, same as the first! I’m Ultron the Eighth I am, I am…”

A weak villain. A key problem is Ultron. He’s a villain who can be killed over and over again and not die. The Terminator handled that concept well, but in that film, there was only one nearly-unstoppable robot. Ultron has thousands (millions?) of bodies, so destroying any one of them is meaningless. His bodies are so worthless that at one point Ultron himself destroys one copy just because it’s a slightly older model. How can there be any dramatic tension when “destroying Ultron” is such a pointless goal? There’s a moment when thousands of Ultrons (all clearly CGI) are descending upon our heroes. Rather than being a moment of terror and dread, it looked like nothing so much as a cheap video game.

A lack of urgency. If the first Avengers film had failed, the grand MCU experiment would have ended at that point. There was some sense that this could be the end of the journey, and that maybe one of the major characters would die. As unlikely as it might be for that to happen in a major summer tentpole, there was at least the possibility, particularly with Whedon’s well-known propensity for killing beloved characters. (A semi-important character does die, and it actually elevates his participation to something more memorable than any of his previous appearances.)

But in an age where Avengers movies are super-profitable, we know that the train is going to keep rolling. In fact, Marvel released all of its plans for Phase 3 of its film universe, which includes two more Avengers movies before 2019. What this means is that there’s no sense that anything too important can happen here. This movie is just a placeholder until the next one. By the time those films come out, Marvel will probably have already announced its plans for Phase 4.

One semi-important character does indeed die, but that death hardly registers. The only suggestion that we might not see all our favorites back in the next installment is a moment that indicates that some of the C-level characters will become the new stars. Since we care so little about them, this moment fails to engender any excitement.

Too many characters. In the first Avengers, Whedon deftly balanced its huge roster of characters so that everyone got memorable screentime (Hawkeye was the only one who got a little shortchanged). But the task of giving good moments to all the returning characters plus having to introduce new heroes and villains proves to be overwhelming for even someone with Whedon’s skills. Everyone is shuffled onscreen quickly and then shuffled off again to make room for somebody else. The character who gets the most shortchanged is Falcon, who was great in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and in Ant-Man but shows up for two scenes here and never does any actual fighting. (Ironically, the best-developed character in this film is Hawkeye, who finally gets some backstory.)

There’s also a new character called the Vision, played by Paul Bettany, who had previously appeared in the MCU as a different (but related) character. (I can’t say more for those who haven’t seen the film yet.) His new character is actually less interesting than the old one, and I missed Bettany’s presence as the other character for most of this movie.

On the note of too many characters…

Peter and Wanda in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. Their characters never even meet.

Wanda in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST.

Peter

Peter in FUTURE PAST. He and Wanda never even meet.

The needless appearance of X-Men characters. Marvel made headlines when it got in a very public legal war with Fox over the use of two characters named Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. These characters have been on both the X-Men and Avengers teams; the problem is that Fox owns the rights to make movies based on Marvel’s X-Men characters rather than Marvel Films proper, which produces the Avengers movies. Rather than figuring out a scenario that’s mutually beneficial and pleasing to the fans, both studios stubbornly moved forward with conflicting interpretations of the characters. Fox used them in X-Men: Days of Future Past while Marvel used them in Ultron.

Pietro and Wanda in AGE OF ULTRON, who are brother and sister.

Pietro and Wanda in AGE OF ULTRON, who are brother and sister.

Peter (Quicksilver) made a memorable appearance in Future Past, while Wanda (Scarlet Witch) was a non-entity. I don’t think anyone even said her name in that film. (Strangely enough, neither production uses their superhero names.) Pietro (instead of Peter) and Wanda both have things to do in Ultron, but due to the overstuffed nature of the film, even a crucial, emotional moment near the end left me totally cold. In other words, the fight was largely over nothing, as the characters that were so fought over hardly made an impression (although I think I’ll give a slight edge to X-Men).

An unbelievable romance. When Agent Romanoff (Scarlet Johannssen) is introuced in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark flirts with her. In The Avengers, she and Hawkeye seem to share a special bond. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, she kisses Steve Rogers. So who does she end up with romantically? Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk – who she mainly seemed afraid of in the first Avengers, leaving with the audience with the general feeling of “…Huh?”

Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff -- the romance that no one asked for!

Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff — the romance that no one asked for!

As good of actors as Johannssen and Mark Ruffalo (who plays Banner) are, there’s no chemisty onscreen between them, in part because this romance seems completely out of left field. Also, a lot of viewers (myself included) liked the fact that Romanoff hadn’t been subjected to the cliched romance subplot until now. (Ironically, one of the late Roger Ebert’s criticisms of the first movie is the lack of sex in it. Perhaps this review stung Whedon to make changes, which sadly backfired.)

The final scene between Romanoff and Banner, which is supposed to be touching, instead simply creates the feeling of, “Oh. I guess we’ll find out more later.”

A mildly anti-religious theme. Ultron doesn’t have much motivation for his world-destroying ways, except when he mentions being inspired by the story of Noah. I don’t want to dwell on this aspect of the film too long – this is a free country, and Whedon is free to make the movie how he pleases. And the scene doesn’t go on and on. Plus, in reality, we’ve all seen people misuse their religion for violent ends. Still, in a film that was already lacking in other respects, this proved to be one less thing that I enjoyed or that had resonance for me.

A lack of connectivity to earlier installments. (Spoilers for the first Avengers and Iron Man 3 in the next paragraph.)

In the first Avengers movie, the group was disbanded and everyone went into hiding. In Iron Man 3, Tony blows up all of his suits and retires from being Iron Man. But in this film, everyone is back together right at the beginning, and Tony is already back in the suit without explanation. For a series of films that take pride in how well they connect to one another, seeing everyone already like this is rather jarring and confusing.

__

Ultimately, what it boils down to is this: Marvel needs to care more about telling each individual story well rather than focusing its attention too heavily on building the MCU. When characters come first, the projects thrive, as they did in Daredevil and Ant-Man. But Age of Ultron feels less like a movie and more just like a series of boxes being checked off. (“We introduced new characters? Check. We set up the next movies? Check…”)

Perhaps the most telling part of the movie is when my parents went to see it. A couple of weeks later, they couldn’t even remember what they had seen. When they finally remembered, they said that they enjoyed it.

But the part of the experience that they really remembered? Eating their Sno-Caps.

McDonald’s Meets its Arch Nemesis

By Tom Holste

Sep. 4, 2015

(Taking a break from film writing to talk about another area of pop culture for a moment…)

Apparently, McDonald’s does not have a fan in Bill Oakley.

Oakley, a former Simpsons writer, made headlines this week when he took to Twitter to post a roughly 30-post rant about ways that McDonald’s needs to fix its franchise. Oakley is a smart guy and a good writer (he was a co-showrunner on The Simpsons for Seasons 6 and 7, two of its best years), so I have respect for him. But he shows a surprising amount of ire on this subject.

I can hear Bill Oakley saying:

I can hear Bill Oakley saying: “Hello, my old foe. We meet again.”

Oakley made his statements after another bit of news surfaced that McDonald’s had fallen slightly in its lead over fast food chains. It fell by 0.7 percent in the last quarter. That’s less than one full percent, folks. This should hardly be reason for anyone to panic. McDonald’s still significantly outpaces all of its competitors. It could just be an aberration that self-adjusts by next quarter. But Oakley foresees this as the beginning of the end, and so he took to Twitter to lay out his 95 theses against the burger chain.

Partly in response to the slightly falling sales, McDonald’s is making a small improvement: Soon, breakfast sandwiches will be available all day long instead of simply ending at 10:30 am. Not only is this extremely sensible on their part, but considering that there’s a darkly satirical scene in the 1993 movie Falling Down where Michael Douglas pulls a gun on a fast-food worker for not being willing to serve him breakfast at 10:31 am, it’s only surprising that McDonald’s didn’t take the hint sooner.

However, Oakley doesn’t care for this idea. “Oh man McDonald’s is the drunk guy at party at 2:45 am staggering around desperately hitting on every last girl with this breakfast stunt,” he tweets. Yet later in the same multi-post Tweet, he says that “innovation” is the key to getting the franchise back on track.

Oakley criticizes McDonald’s most recent additions to the menu and adds, “@CarlsJr is the one to emulate here.” He’s probably right, but McDonald’s distances Carl’s Jr. by a significant degree. What possible incentive could McDonald’s have to make themselves more like a less popular chain?

Oakley insists that “this ‘quality’ burger you introduce MUST be at least as flavorful at the @CarlsJr Six-Dollar burger and as easy for the franchisees to make.” But then, later he says: “No items over 4$. Who the (heck) is going to pay over $4 for a McDonald’s burger?” So McDonald’s is supposed to make a burger that costs six dollars but then only charge $4 for it? In order to pick up business, they should take a $2 loss on every burger sold? Again, what possible incentive is there?

For Oakley, scaling back massively is also the name of the game. Citing nostalgia as another necessary virtue, Oakley tweets: “This American Classics (better name to come) Menu will emulate the original menu served at the first McD’s … The mini-menu will have 4-6 items MAX and not allow for too much variation so as to avoid clogging up the drive thru as dummies make choices.”

So to review what we’re looking at so far, Oakley wants all McDonald’s to cut back their menu so that they only serve burgers that are too expensive for them to turn a profit while selling them.

“It’ll be a copy basically of the In & Out Menu,” he writes. Um, there’s already a place for that. It’s called In & Out.

If you see this very dangerous man, report him to Bill Oakley immediately!

If you see this very dangerous man, report him to Bill Oakley immediately!

“Third tenet of the plan is INNOVATION,” Oakley continues. “What the (heck) are you doing sitting on your a– while Taco Bell introduces a new menu item each week?”
So, apparently McDonald’s should scale back and only serve burgers to prevent long lines, but then they should be introducing a new sandwich every week? This is completely contradictory. McDonald’s got to the point that it is now, with so many different options, because it listened to customer demands to add new items. What Oakley is demanding is for McDonald’s to be what it already is. You can’t condemn them for having too many items and then insist that they constantly add new items. There is no logic to this argument.

“Launch a destination Mega @McDonalds or two or three,” Oakley further suggests, “One in Times Square, one in Vegas, one in Orlando. Each one is an ultra-cool big Super McDonald’s and THERE you serve a selection of the coolest best McDonald’s items from all over the world. From the US, the Mc Lobster. Some of those wild ones from Japan and India and Malaysia and France. Serve beer too. A ‘Royale with Cheese,’ etc., etc.”

That all sounds well and good, Mr. Oakley. But where do I go if want to eat a Filet-O-Fish? Remember, you took away everything but simple burgers from the main restaurants. I have to fly from Chicago to Times Square or Orlando to try these glorified novelty stores. Where do I go to get a McChicken?

“You will get SO much press.” I don’t doubt that they will. Headlines everywhere will read: “McDonald’s Discontinues All of Your Favorite Sandwiches.”

Oakley concludes by bragging: “I suspect you’d pay some consultant a million bucks for that plan and you just got it for free on Twitter.”

But the summary of Oakley’s advice is: Go bigger, but go smaller. Live in the past, but give us a bunch of new stuff. I think this free advice is pretty much worth what we paid for it.

Coming soon: A McDonald's that's completely different, yet totally the same.

Coming soon: A McDonald’s that’s completely different, yet totally the same.

Nonetheless, fans of Oakley took to Twitter to praise him. One wrote: “Twitter: where a Simpsons writer (@thatbilloakley) can drop a rant on McDonalds’ business plan that is likely better than their actual plan.” There were many others like that. But what substantively did Oakley offer that isn’t already being done by McDonald’s, or would make no sense for them to do?

Mr. Oakley is likely a very nice man. Maybe he just had a really bad week. But I think we need to stop praising people who throw brickbats without strong ideas behind them. Oakley’s comments are just symptomatic of a larger problem. We have to stop believing that anyone on the Internet automatically knows more than the people who are actually doing the hard work of trying to please people with conflicting interests.

On a certain level, I don’t blame all the Internet sites that turned this rant into a news story yesterday. It’s a bit amusing and entertaining to read, but not very practical. If Bill Oakley dislikes McDonald’s this much, then I recommend that he simply stop going to McDonald’s.

In the meantime, I’ll be getting in line for a Sausage Egg McMuffin at 3 in the afternoon.

Source: The AV Club

STAR WARS and the Art of Managing Expectations

By Tom Holste

Aug. 5, 2015

Coming this Christmas (Dec. 18, to be precise), a little, obscure independent film is going to be released, even though you haven’t heard of it. It’s called Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Luke_and_R2

“Star Wars Episode VII” will finally tell us whether or not Luke ever got to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.

I’m kidding, of course. Probably every man, woman and child in America, as well as most of the rest of the world, has heard about the upcoming Star Wars movie. Indeed, there might be people in Third World countries who have heard of The Force Awakens. The return of classic movie characters like Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia – characters who many of us grew up with – is creating a fever pitch of excitement. This may be the most highly-anticipated movie of all time. It certainly is for me.

And that’s why I’m now trying to do everything in my power to make myself less excited for the film.

The last time I was this excited for a film was before the release of the first of three Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace. I was a bit excited after that for the next couple of films in the series, hoping that the series would recover and return to form, but I was a bit more wary each time. Nothing matched my excitement for the first prequel  – and nothing matched the extreme letdown that I felt.

While I believe that my criticisms against the more recent films are valid, I’ve come to realize that it would have been impossible for anyone to make a movie that fulfilled all my wildest dreams. I wanted movies that would affect me in the same way that the originals did, but I was no longer the same person that I was the first time around.

In the first place, I was a child when the originals were released. And children don’t really “watch” movies so much as they experience them as important life events. I wasn’t analyzing the script or the acting or the filmmaker’s choice of camera angles. The original Star Wars movies happened to me the same way that “going to preschool for the first time” happened to me. By the time I saw Phantom Menace, I was no longer that person. I was someone who could note that Ewan MacGregor did a mostly good Alec Guiness impression and that George Lucas was really pushing “You assume too much” to be the next big catchphrase like “I have a bad feeling about this.” (It didn’t happen.)

While I like the analytical person I’ve become, and it would be unhealthy to try and stay in the same emotional and mental place for all of one’s life, part of me really wants the new films to make me an 8-year-old kid again – and that’s something that the new movies can never do, because I’m not a kid. I’m an adult with responsibilities and concerns, among them figuring out how to take a family of four to see the movie in December without breaking the bank. The best that any movie can do is entertain its audience. It can’t take away all the years that happened in between installments.

Secondly, the original 1977 movie was a surprise. Released at a time when no one expected outer-space films to do well, comprised of a largely unknown cast, it was expected to sink into obscurity. But then word of mouth got around and people found out that it was a really fun film. Sci-fi films of the era tended to be (in the eyes of many) boring, pretentious and overlong. No one had ever seen a sci-fi film that had so much humor and heart, or that moved at such an incredible pace.

The Force Awakens cannot surprise us like that. It comes after nearly 40 years of other filmmakers trying to make films exactly like Star Wars to duplicate its success.  Not only that, but we now have certain expectations of this specific film series created by all the other films. Perhaps the trickiest part for the filmmakers will be knowing how much to echo things that have already happened so that it feels like a Star Wars film without hearing complaints about the story being clichéd or the filmmakers giving in to manipulative “fan service.” There’s very little way that The Force Awakens can take us off guard the way the original Star Wars movie did.

Indeed, the only way that Awakens really could take us off guard is if it showed itself willing to shake up the status quo. There have been rumors of one of the characters from the original trilogy dying, or another character possibly having switched sides to fight with the bad guys. If either (or both) of these things happen, that would be the gutsiest thing that the filmmakers could do – and it would probably also be the point met with the most negativity.

Han_and_Chewie

Don’t call it a comeback. Chewie’s been here for years.

Lucasfilm already has a cautionary tale like this under its belt. In the late ‘90s, fearing that the Star Wars books had become too safe and predictable, the publishing team decided to shake things up by having Chewbacca heroically die saving Han and Leia’s kids. On paper, it’s a smart move dramatically, and it freed up writers from having to deal with a character that didn’t work very well in prose (“Chewbacca growled angrily,” “Chewbacca moaned softly,” etc.). But the fan reaction was livid and never-ending.

After being bought by Disney, one of the rules established by Lucasfilm is that there would be a new canon, and that none of the earlier events portrayed in the books or comics had actually happened anymore. Sure enough, the trailer released in April shows Chewbacca alive and well. But how much suspense can there be in a story if certain beloved characters are always safe? The very thing needed to make the audience react with the same shock that they had when they saw Ben Kenobi get killed in the original film is probably the very thing they can’t do for fear of ticking off the audience.

So the new movies can’t make us kids again, and they probably can’t surprise us in the way the others did. But they could still possibly be very good movies. And I need to prepare myself for the fact that this is the most I can reasonably expect from them.

If the film is the best it could possibly be, it could be like Toy Story 3, which revived a beloved franchise many years after the original movies, and did so to great success and acclaim. It was the biggest box-office hit of the year and it won an Oscar for Best Animated Movie. (I was thrilled when Michael Arndt, who wrote Toy Story 3, was brought on board for Ep. VII, and a bit worried that he was removed after writing the first draft.) If the film is as bad as it could possibly be, it could be like The Phantom Menace, a boring slog that’s illogical beyond even reasonable suspension of disbelief, with terrible dialogue and rotten acting (although the excellent director JJ Abrams has never created anything as bad as that).

But there’s also the possibility that it could be middle of the road, like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Needlessly Long Title. The acting, dialogue and pacing were much better than Phantom Menace, but there were time-wasting subplots, needless politicizing, and new supporting characters that failed to resonate. And this was made by many of the same people who had done the original movies.

LawrenceKasdan

Can Lawrence Kasdan save the STAR WARS franchise? Difficult to say. Always in motion is the future.

So, on the one hand, I’m excited that Lawrence Kasdan is on board for the new movies. Kasdan wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark) but was absent from the prequels – and it shows. Kasdan seems to be the one largely responsible for giving the original trilogy characters much greater depth and complexity than they originally had, while expanding the mythology and fleshing out the universe. Yes, he was building off of Lucas’ ideas, but Lucas seems to work best when collaborating with others, like Walt Disney. Lucas suffers when trying to do everything on his own.

(In Lucas’ defense, he did ask Kasdan, as well as Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, to be involved in all the prequels, but they all turned him down, subscribing to the auteur film theory that says that the movies would be better if Lucas did everything himself. If ever a series of movies existed to smash the auteur theory to pieces, it was the prequels.)

So, as I said, I’m excited that Kasdan is involved. But I’m also a little nervous that he might actually be the weak link in the chain. Just as Lucas and Spielberg didn’t have enough distance and perspective to make Star Wars and Indiana Jones what they needed to be again, perhaps Kasdan has the same problem. He also hasn’t had a non-Star Wars critical or commercial success in years. Fanboys have been endlessly complaining about the choice of Abrams as director, but I think Kasdan might actually be the bigger wild card.

At any rate, having huge expectations has never worked for any movie-going experience that I can personally recall, or that I’ve seen in others. Being a huge fan of the Narnia book series did not make me more receptive to the recent films; it made me more frustrated about the changes. Guardians of the Galaxy was so heavily hyped for me that by the time I saw it, my initial reaction was: “Yeah, so what?” (I’ve since warmed up to it.)

The_Amazing_Spiderman_2_poster

A plus of this movie that it is absolutely 100% Jar Jar Binks-free.

Conversely, I spent a year hearing horror stories of how bad Amazing Spider-Man 2 was, but when I finally saw it, I was actually pleasantly surprised. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s the only Spidey film so far to really capture the character’s sense of humor, a much-needed trait for us to like the character when he reverts to whiny Peter Parker. There were perhaps too many villains, but there was a point to each of the villain subplots that actually affected the characters and stories as a whole. And the death of a major character near the end of the film – which I had been told was handled laughably – was actually portrayed with great poignancy.

The difference between ASM2 and the other films I mentioned? I went in with rock-bottom expectations for ASM2. I had stratospheric high hopes for the others – and those hopes were crushed, as they only could be.

So I’m allowing myself to be excited for various things about the new movies, but I’m trying (some days without much success) to avoid getting myself too excited. The only way I can really enjoy The Force Awakens is if I don’t pin all my hopes and dreams on it. It’s a movie – no more and no less. Expecting anything else is just a path to the Dark Side.