22 January 2010

Formulaic Film Trailers

Four reasons I stopped going to the cinema:

1) Fellow patrons who have forgotten their manners completely if they ever had them to begin with. Mobile phone users this means you.

2) Commercials before films. I'm hardly the first to say it but the idea of paying to watch ads is the kind of marketing-run-amok madness that brings together the worst excesses of commercialism: loud, scatterbrained and abusive of its captive audience's intelligence. The PSAs are worse with their herky-jerky camera and hackneyed nu-metal music.

3) The films themselves. There are supposedly creative people producing, directing and acting in films; we are told this every year during award season. Why, then, are there so many remakes, sequels and shameless ripoffs? 'Reboots' are a hot trend - granted it's interesting to see how different filmmakers present already-familiar stories (mostly of comic book superheroes) but if you know the origin of a hero then you already know most of the film's plot. Political correctness has all but killed the entire comedy genre - the only individuals allowed to act like buffoons and suffer injury or humiliation are young white males.

4) Finally there are the trailers. After you have been assaulted visually and audibly by commercials the trailers come on. There must be some sort of unspoken competition between the editors of these previews to see how many cuts they can insert into a 30- or 60-second spot. It's the cinematic equivalent of an epileptic seizure. I daresay a trailer editor could make a Merchant-Ivory period drama look like a Michael Bay smash-em-up. The over-the-top husky-voiced narration has been parodied mercilessly for years yet they continue to contract with the same voice talent regardless of studio or film genre.

These days the trailers are also spoilers. In an effort to pique audience interest those making the trailer can't resist inserting some of the impressive effects shots from the film's climax. But in doing so they make it very easy for experienced (if cynical) audiences to deduce the protagonist, antagonist and plot. If I can watch the film in a minute why would I sit through two hours of it?

But the worst part of the trailers are the zinger lines. In the context of a complete film they are glaringly obvious when suddenly there is a pause in the action or the dialogue and Character X utters the zinger line. It's usually generic i.e. not a reference to any character or situation within the plot of the film and it's usually a pathetic attempt by the screenwriter(s) to coin a catchphrase. In part I blame Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose wooden 'acting' had his various writers scrambling for something he could deliver in deadpan style since he had no other style to offer. Hence 'I'll be back' went from a throwaway line in the first Terminator film to a touchstone in T2 and the rest of the franchise. The zinger line is generally placed at the end of the trailer or just before the end when split-second of action (a vampire or zombie alighting on a character's neck, an explosion triggered, a shot fired, etc.) is shown with an immediate cut to a black screen. These aren't clever lines like 'We're going to need a bigger boat' (which was an ad-lib anyway), they are simply pointless momentary ego trips for the actor, writer and director.

One could probably invent a party game (and maybe someone already has) with real and fictional zinger lines from films. Let's play!

"Here we go!"
"You can't do that here"
"Hang on!"
"Where is your brother?"
"Where did they go!?!?"
"I can't believe it!"
"Full power now!"
"This is what it's all about"

Which are real and which are fake? It doesn't matter - and that's the point. They are cheap irrelevant throwaways employed by 'creative' people who should know better. The game of oneupmanship may be fascinating to them but it has driven me from the cinema completely.

21 January 2010

Why 70s Kids Appreciate The Internet

To those who lived it, the elementary and secondary education system in the 1970s was one continuous flow of urban myths occasionally interrupted by classes, recess and vacations. Forget about weak tea like Richard Gere or Jamaicans breaking into houses and photographing their exploits in the master bathroom - in the 70s urban myths were invented, repeated, reinforced and in too many cases completely believed by the young and relatively innocent.

Inquisitive minds were hardly sated by schoolwork and youth's appetite for adrenaline still meant kickball, basketball, '500' (semi-brutal football game in which a dozen or more vie to catch a thrown ball), bike rides and front lawn activities such as tag and statues. In the downtime that accompanied these activities a kind of communal flight of fancy would take place. 70s decadence was a bit of a puzzle to the average square suburban kid who couldn't figure out why Dad suddenly got his hair permed or why Mom went with the gold reflective wallpaper in the family room. In response to this crazy quilt of images from posters, record album covers, comic books and Tolkien-inspired fiction and games, myths and legends began to flow freely long before MSNBC got in on the act.

Did you hear about Rod Stewart? Did you know Elton John has a pair of glasses with windshield wipers? What about that creepy house down the street? What about that kid who drowned at the high school in a neighboring suburb? Did you know if you lay down and I rub your temples for 5 minutes you will start to hallucinate and act like a madman? Do you know what the symbols on Led Zeppelin's 'Runes' album (aka LZ IV) stand for? Did you know that Gene Simmons of Kiss had his own tongue removed and had a much larger cow's tongue transplanted? It's why he can pierce it without pain every night to draw the blood he spits out during concerts!

The 'big kids' never seemed to run short of these Believe It Or Not stories nor did they tire of telling them in dramatic fashion - their reward was a string of gasps, open mouths and of course the 70s refrain of 'No Way!'

Of course, expressing disbelief or even suspicion was usually considered bad form and the assembled throng would beat you down verbally for daring to question such a fascinating, if far-fetched, tale!

Back then computers were huge things your dad worked with (for unknown purposes) and they involved punch cards and reel-to-reel magnetic tape. If you were lucky your local TV market had three network affiliates, a UHF station and possibly an independent that expended the minimal amount of effort possible to bring you cartoons and reruns of The Brady Bunch and Hogan's Heroes. Is it any wonder so many can effortlessly recite dozens of Brady episodes and lines verbatim?

But computers, of course, went from oddities seen in a science or children's museum to becoming conduits for information every bit as crucial and addictive as that old color television set (to quote Greg Brady).

(By the way, what constitutes a television 'set?' There's only one television and it is a self-contained unit. Is the tube, tuner, speaker and antenna considered a set? Could any of these function without the others in terms of delivering sound and vision? Granted the term 'set' has all but vanished but it stuck around for many years.)

The Internet came along with those mysterious-but-powerful search engines (remember Webcrawler?). In true 70s kid form we ignored topics like genetics, the reign of Louis XIV, the Civil War and the history of smallpox and instead scrutinized every corner of cyberspace for answers to the burning questions of our (younger) day. Some set up sites like http://snopes.com to help those similarly afflicted with urbanmythitis. In true support group fashion we shattered as many myths as we could for each other and for our own sanity. Did we feel relief? Of course. Anger? A bit perhaps, directed at ourselves for being so gullible for so long or even for repeating the lies. But mostly we felt a sense of relief and completion. We finally walked by that creepy house down the street - at night! - and lived to tell the tale.

It's just too bad there aren't any 'little kids' left to impress with our 'courage' - they all have the Internet too.

08 January 2010

Is that all there is?

The BCS Championship Game was a damp squib thanks to Colt McCoy's early exit from the game although Texas showed a bit of spirit and got it close.

The satellite was already in the network-affiliate neighborhood so I punched down to the next channel which was the CBS affiliate and was treated to the, er, spectacle of Rachel Maddow appearing on David Letterman's show.

Speaking of spectacles, Maddow had chosen a none-more-hip pair of bowling-ball blue Buddy Holly frames that had either cost a fortune or had been stolen from the science lab at PS 143.

I admit that I'm an MSNBC neophyte strictly because there's no legitimate reason to watch it is there? As such I hadn't been exposed to Maddow before but she was unleashing such a nonstop stream of nonsense that I was fascinated in a train-wreck sort of way.

Her delivery and message were hardly unique; we've seen the same smug eye-rolling from dozens of others especially before and after the most recent election. It was the usual dorm room boy-aren't-these-right-wingers-evil stuff. Forget the content for a moment - is something this redundant worthy of a nightly show?

You will all be relieved to know that Maddow has declared the recession over, the economy sound and every single Obama policy an unqualified success. Maddow seemed unable to deliver any sentence without a smirk so I'm not sure if she was pulling our leg but she certainly seemed in earnest. According to her 'even conservatives are admitting the stimulus worked' which is four lies in one short sentence - surely some kind of record. I know of no conservative in favor of the plan before, during or since. I have heard no 'admission' from anyone because there are no facts that would support such an admission. The term 'stimulus' has joined 'change' as a misnomer and a punchline avoided even by most loyal Obama supporters. Finally, as the so-called stimulus was designed strictly to toss more cash into the governmental abyss claiming it 'worked' is a dubious honor at best.

Even the Eleanor Clifts of the world have cancelled their order to place Obama's face on Mt Rushmore but in Maddow the president still has one true believer. Even Copenhagen had a positive outcome (?!) because, according to her, 'the US will make a gesture.' One can only imagine how many billions that 'gesture' will require.

Letterman was eating it up and chuckled through Maddow's declarations although not a single drop of humor was contained therein. The chat-show Casanova did have the presence of mind to point out that things got really grim in 2009 (remember, it's just ducky now in 2010) and that unemployment was still at 10% or higher. Mere details according to Maddow who trotted out the old 'lagging indicator' line but enunciated it as if she had worked out the formula for Coca-Cola. No mention was made of the obvious fact that this 'lagging indicator' has been worsening after all the wonderful and effective Obama policies were enacted. Maddow looked out at the audience when delivering this line as if she expected gasps of wonder at her brilliance but said audience, probably already disappointed that they got a mousy policy wonk instead of an actress or a musician, were singularly unimpressed. Could it be because they have familiy and friends out of work at present?

Letterman, dutifully feeding lines as if to a visiting comic, then turned to Dick Cheney of all people. Cheney is obviously driving them crazy because every criticism he levels at Obama is hitting its target dead center. Cheney is a man running for nothing and needing nothing from his party or politics in general. At present he's simply a prominent private citizen demonstrating, once again, that The Truth Hurts. Even Maddow had nothing when it came to Cheney. The best she could muster was that Cheney said very little publicly while in office as Vice President but he seems quite garrulous today (damn him). That's pretty weak tea from any liberal given a free pass to rip into their bĂȘte noire but it was reassuring in a way because it demonstrated that apart from petty ad hominem attacks they have absolutely nothing when it comes to the former veep.

In the end it appeared to be nothing more than a run-down of liberal talking points but the dynamic was quite interesting. Rachel Maddow has obviously been built up as the anti-Coulter - a polar opposite in sexuality, appearance and of course opinion. But whereas Coulter's humor is predicated on holding up a mirror to the lefty circus (no funhouse distortion required) and their never-ending parade of sleaze, Maddow really had nothing more than stock-standard Air America we're-smart-and-they're-dumb haughtiness with some nervous laughter posing as wit thrown in.

Rachel Maddow seems to have much in common with tourist traps like The Blue Hole or The Thing?: relentlessly promoted, claimed to be seen by everyone and a reputation wildly out of proportion to reality. Like a family in a hot car trudging towards their beach rental and desperate to distract their bored kids, I admit I stopped and looked but at least I know now that I wasn't missing anything.