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Monthly Archives: August 2011

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Is ‘R’ the New ‘NC-17’

A lot of factors are getting the blame for Conan’s failure, but an obvious point is its R rating. The day of the R rated action movie when out with Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis. They still get made, some even do acceptable numbers, but they usually don’t have 90 million dollar budgets.

The R Rated movie is still around, but as comedies, where the grossout is the new joke. Or the old joke, ever since the Farrelly Brothers helped turn comedies into a race to put the most disgusting bodily function possible on screen. And that’s where the R rated box office still hangs out in movies like Hangover, Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher. And the Apatow class stoner comedy.

In the distance is teenage horror, which is not exactly on fire lately, movies like Fright Night, Final Destination 5 and Scream 4. The rest don’t even show up. The occasional artsy pic can still be R rated, but they’re not much of a risk, and The King’s Speech, which was a big box office hit still got recut later to bring in more audiences.

Making Conan an R-Rated movie wasn’t much of a risk back in 1982. Making the sequel to it anything less than an R was the bad idea. But an R-rated 90 million dollar action movie is a major risk today. 300 pulled it off and Conan was hoping for some of that same box office.

R Rated movies still get made, but they’re usually a lower risk and a smaller investment. If they go big, they go big. If they don’t, money isn’t lost.

More Blade Runner

Assuming the Ridley Scott helmed Blade Runner isn’t a reboot or a remake, then it might be one of the more palatable of these projects. Unlike Alien, Blade Runner wasn’t mined to death in multiple sequels. But is there room for a sequel?

Purists might say no, but the K.W. Jeter novels were loosely plausible ways to keep the story going. Those aren’t a factor without Harrison Ford and even in Ford’s career state now, he’s not too likely to sign on for this. And even if he did, age would be an issue.

That means a story set in the same universe. Also doable. The challenge would be making it work in the present day movie environment. No one’s putting up money to make another Blade Runner, a surreal chrome edged noir. Scott will be working from an action movie script, and if Prometheus turns out to be a disaster, he’ll have even more people looking over his shoulder.

So can a Blade Runner movie deliver action and a compelling story? Maybe. Depends on the script. Ridley Scott isn’t at the top of his game either. And the only reason a Blade Runner movie is being made is because it’s a name people have heard of. Still it’s not the worst idea ever. We have Battleship to thank for that.

Underwhelmed by Skyrim

Why can’t the company that published Brink and acquired Id trot out an Elder Scrolls game that looks good? The one thing that the Skyrim previews show is that the faces have improved, but Bethesda is still way behind the technology. Skyrim promises a lot, but so did Oblivion. And it looks like a slightly shinier version of Oblivion.

Story and gameplay could still save Skyrim. You never know. And it’s hard to imagine them completely blowing the icebound setting. But there’s no real reason for optimism. Not after Oblivion. And not after footage that looks a lot like Oblivion did, boring landscapes, whack and smash first person battles, poor animation and everything so shiny you could see your reflection in it if the engine were better.

The engine is a major barrier. But so is Bethesda. Oblivion and Fallout 3 were weak in the story and world building departments. Even 15 mins in Fallout New Vegas shows that even with a clunky engine, a great game can be made. If Obsidian were writing Skyrim, the clunky engine wouldn’t be that much of a negative.

The 90 Million Dollar Jason Momoa Mistake

Can you blame Conan the Barbarian failing on Jason Momoa? Not all of it. August is not the best time to release movies and the box office was overcrowded with movies aimed at young adult males already. That let The Help sweep past them to the top, while movies like Fright Night, Captain America and Cowboys and Aliens fought over the winnings.

But you can blame some of it. If you’re going to cast a barbarian, he should be well… barbaric. Schwarzenegger projected the thug with a sword because it wasn’t too far off from what he was. A relentlessly ambitious bodybuilder willing to do anything to get to the top. Jason Momoa recalls The Rock, a nice guy who happens to be big. The Rock at least came out of wrestling and knew how to put on some attitude. Momoa can’t even seem to do that much.

Casting him in Game of Thrones was a mistake. But putting him in Conan, that was a 90 million dollar mistake. Stick a wrestling star in there and the movie might have worked. It wouldn’t have been good, and it probably wouldn’t have passed 20 million, but it wouldn’t have been flat. Ron Perlman channels the savage early on, and that’s what Conan needed to be. But Momoa’s Conan just goes through the motions.

Holmes and Yo-Yo

What do you get when you create a parody of Dragnet using classic slapstick and set around a SciFi premise? You get Holmes and Yo-Yo where Joe Friday is a bionic robot named Yo-Yo with a Polaroid camera in his mouth and a tape recorder in his chest. A bionic robot played by John Shuck.

Holmes and Yo-Yo was an experiment six years before Police Squad and ten years before Sledge Hammer. Like them it did badly. But unlike them it didn’t go for the surrealism. Holmes and Yo-Yo was pure slapstick. It didn’t bother setting up a leading man police officer to mock the way they did. Holmes and Yo-Yo were both aging, overweight and out of shape. Their rapport was natural and the comedy was pure vaudeville, without the surrealism that Police Squad and Sledge Hammer added to their physical comedy.

Holmes and Yo-Yo wasn’t great television, but it was entertaining, especially if you thought that everything else on television was just as dumb, but didn’t know it. Which might be why Holmes and Yo-Yo was hated so much. You won’t find a TV critic then or now with a good word for it.

In the year of Baretta, Welcome Back Kotter, Kojak, the Bob Newhart Show, Chico and the Man, and the Rockford Files, there was no room for a show that mocked the cop show and the blandness of television. It was a little too close to mocking the viewer. Police Squad and Sledge Hammer got by on including the viewer in the joke. Telling him that he was intelligent if he watched it. Holmes and Yo-Yo didn’t pretend to be smart. Like a clown they were ridiculous. Shamelessly ridiculous, gloriously lame and enjoying every minute of it.

The Spirit movie review

The Spirit film posterThe Spirit is one of the odder comic book movies ever made, but its spirit is much closer to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again. It’s one of the few comic book movies that actually is a comic book, not just in the way it looks, but in its crazy energy, unfulfilled ambition and pulp traditions.

Sit through the whole thing and you come away with a completely different experience than the modern comic book superhero blockbuster. The Spirit has nothing in common with Nolan’s Dark Knight or Bryan Singer’s X-Men, the movies that define the 21st century comic book blockbuster. It does its awkward horrifying best to be a comic book on film. And it’s the closest thing to seeing Frank Miller on film.

Like most first time directors, Miller is way over his limit and doesn’t realize that he hasn’t yet learned how to tell a story. But there are glimpses among the ruins of what The Spirit might have been if Miller had been given a reality check by a producer who knew his stuff.

The worst thing about The Spirit is Samuel L Jackson as The Octopus, a monster of crime who’s all Id with no Superego. It’s not Jackson’s fault that he’s been set loose with no tether and mugs for the camera like mad. What else is he supposed to do. Especially when he’s being dressed in a Nazi uniform or a Samurai scalplock. There’s nothing Jackson could have done to fix this mess. That was Miller’s responsibility and he blew it.

But the best thing about The Spirit is the Spirit himself. Macht isn’t a great actor, and the narration is usually over the top, but the Spirit’s mad race through the city, his pratfalls and escapes, capture the pulp energy that once made comics so exciting to generations of kids. There’s a freedom here that’s completely missing from the summer blockbusters. A freedom that goes beyond the panels. That says anything is possible.

The encounter with Sans Serif in her hotel room, The Spirit riding up in a transparent elevator past falling snow and gargoyles captures the quintessential urban pulp noir feel. But Miller doesn’t know when to stop. Most scenes with The Spirit’s allies go on way too long. The Octopus is so far over the top that it’s unwatchable. There are too many women around The Spirit and all of it runs in a comic book story which doesn’t work on film.

Then there’s the mismatch of art styles, a problem that crippled The Dark Knight Strikes Again, it’s not as bad in The Spirit, but it’s a major problem. Playing with art styles in comic books is one thing for a pro like Miller looking to test the boundaries of the medium, but Miller doesn’t realize that he’s not a pro here. He’s an amateur director and when you’re an amateur, you need boundaries.

There are some beautifully lit and shot moments, but the movie feels like browsing through DeviantArt at random. There are some gorgeous scenes, and plenty of amateurish ones, and none of it hangs together as a consistent whole. The Spirit needed dramatic reediting and a few reshoots. Had Lionsgate done that, The Spirit wouldn’t have been a major success, but it wouldn’t have been a punching bag either.

Still what The Spirit has is valuable. In a summer when there are a ton of comic book superhero blockbusters that all feel the same, it’s a reminder of something undeniably different. The spirit and energy of the comic book living faithfully on screen.

Are Comic Books Dead?

Sure the theaters are plastered with comic book movies. The Marvel and DC line are being thrown out into theaters all summer. But that’s just Hollywood’s desperation for IP’s to build blockbusters around. When WB bought DC and Disney bought Marvel, it was an IP sale. The studios would get properties. And what happens to DC and Marvel?

The comic book industry has been shaky for a while. And it’s only getting shakier. The average age for comic book readers is climbing. Many of the major titles are just not that accessible to younger readers. One in four comic book readers is over 65. Not exactly the image of the kid grabbing a comic from the rack and consuming it along with soda pop. Those kids are sometimes still reading comics, they just happen to be a lot older now. And the actual kids, much less so.

The industry is blaming the usual suspects. Piracy. Which might be a factor, but piracy hasn’t stopped the movie industry and games from having booming sales. But it doesn’t take much to see the real problem.

Comic books have the same problems as books and TV shows. Competition. Back when comic books emerged as a powerhouse, its competitors were black and white movies and radio shows. Now they’re competing against games and the mobile life.

Top that off with an industry that’s oriented to middle aged men. Comic books are expensive and involved. They cater more to older audiences than younger ones. Think of JMS’s bright idea to have Superman address the economic recession or the whole insane Batman Inc thing.

The levels of violence have been climbing, the dark stories and the gimmicks. Kill Superman, kill Batman, roll back Spiderman, then kill off Spiderman. It all smacks of desperation.

Comics connected with large audiences because they offered escapism and adventure. Now they offer addicts another issue to buy, read and then complain about.

Gene Roddenberry Would Be So Proud

So let’s say your country has high unemployment, poverty and a king/dictator who is facing major popular protests. What do you do?

A. Give away free stuff to everyone

B. Send in the tanks

C. Build a 1.5 billion dollar Star Trek theme park

Guess which one a Middle Eastern dictator/king who appeared on an episode of Star Trek Voyager picked? That’s right, Jordan is getting a 1.5 billion dollar Star Trek theme park. Because when food prices are high, you don’t give out bread, you give out Star Trek themed circuses.

We used to think Libya’s head nut was the looniest dictator in the region, but the Jordanian royals are trying to give him a run for his money.

“In the overall picture of things it’s not a huge investment,” she said. “If you want to do a Disney or a Universal, that amount would be just for the licence fees.

“The whole resort for profitability requires 480,000 people a year. Typical theme parks require millions of people to pass through in a year to start breaking even.

Yeah. Except 480,000 people is like 10 percent of the population of the country. And most of the tourists are coming for archeology or Saudis who want to kick back in a country with looser morals. How many of them are into Star Trek?

Star Trek is almost dead. It only lives on as a video game license and a series of action movies that use some of the characters from the original series. Does being used as a prop in a dictator’s circus to avoid reforms mean the end?

No More Unholy Offline Play

That’s the message from Blizzard which is showing every sign of going as evil as Bioware, the other formerly creative company bought up by a mega publisher.

Want to play Diablo III as a game? No thanks. You’d better have an internet connection online all the time. Otherwise it’s not sacred.

During an interview at last week’s press event, Alex Mayberry, senior producer on “Diablo 3,” discussed the required connection. “You can play by yourself but your character is going to be saved on our servers. You have to authenticate through our servers to be able to play the game. I think it’s not just ‘Diablo 3’ but with our games as a whole we’re tying everything into Battle.net these days…We can provide a much a much more stable, connected, safer experience than we could if we let people play off-line.”

Why would we let people play off-line? Next thing you know, they’ll get the idea they own the game.

Forcing people to have an online connection to play is a more stable experience? How, when you can’t even play your game on a laptop without access.

Safer? From what. Being able to play your own game.

Oh and Alex. I remember when Battle.net was a good thing. A model for the industry. Now you just turned it into something people curse. Congrats.

“I’m actually kind of surprised in terms of there even being a question in today’s age around online play and the requirement around that,” said Bridenbecker.

Most games can still be played without an internet connection, even in this day and age when PC game companies think in console terms.

When you look at everything you get by having that persistent connection on the servers, you cannot ignore the power and the draw of that.”

What’s the power and the draw of it… I mean for the player, not the company.

Also if the draw is so powerful, why not let end users make the choice?

“Internally I don’t think [DRM] ever actually came up when we talked about how we want connections to operate. Things that came up were always around the feature-set, the sanctity of the actual game systems like your characters. You’re guaranteeing that there are no hacks, no dupes

No hacks and dupes of what? If people want to change their offline play, what’s the problem? Oh right, sanctity. The Church of Activision doesn’t want you to control your own experience.

But if there’s a compelling reason for you to have that online connectivity that enhances the gameplay, that doesn’t suck. That’s awesome.”

He used suck and awesome. So in touch with the youth culture this one is. Know what’s really awesome? Not being able to play your own game! High five?

So basically Blizzard has decided to force people who want to play their game without being forced to be online all the time to download cracks. And then a month from now they’ll complain about it. Awesome!

So if piracy and DRM never came into the decision, why not just offer an offline mode for those that want to use it? “Let’s say we want to create an offline capacity,” he explained. “You’re introducing a separate user flow, a separate path that players are going to go down. And, at the end of the day, how many people are going to want to do that?”

Uh people who don’t work for Activision? People who don’t have online access? People who play on a laptop when they’re not connected? People who don’t have a stable internet connection. People who don’t want to be forced to link up to Blizzard’s servers just to play a damn dungeon crawler.

You know, people. People who are going to buy Torchlight instead.

Battleship, What the Hell. No, Seriously. What the Hell?

Maybe Battleship isn’t the movie that will be remembered for killing Hollywood, but maybe it’ll be remembered as an example of the bottom of the heap.

There was no reason to attach the name Battleship to this movie. It has nothing to do with the game, except for being set on the water. But some idiot decided to cash in on an IP, even though the only IP here is the name of a game that kids used to play before video games got good enough and family time got rare enough.

There was a 5 minute brainstorm. How do we make this into a movie. They could have made a movie about a naval battle, but that doesn’t have enough appeal. “You know what guys, what about a movie where there’s an alien battleship.”

Thoughts? This is proof that you don’t need Michael Bay to make a Michael Bay movie. This is proof you don’t need a story to make a movie. Or anything.

Hollywood is making movies now the way they used to make cereal. Just stick a cartoon character on the box and give it a catchy name.

The worst part is this thing will make money. So will Monopoly. And by 2015, every obscure board game will have a movie deal. And WB will buy Parker Brothers, or whatever conglomerate owns it and Hasbro now. And we’ll be watching a trailer for Krull, not based on the movie, but on the board game that was based on the movie.

By then hopefully a meteor will hit the earth or Hollywood will go bankrupt.

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