Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Witches Review

Freaking Roald Dahl.

This article could be focused on any of a few potential rants about this writer.  It is no secret that children’s authors always seem to end up being very . . . difficult people (for lack of a better term), and in a way, Dahl was to Henson what Travers was to Disney.  I could just give Dahl a hard time for being a pain to poor Jim, but that’s not good for a review.  I could instead choose the more obvious rant about how awful it is to make a profession out of terrifying children, but the problem with that is simply that children sometimes like to be scared.  I think it was Walt Disney who said, when accused of making the villains in his animated films to scary,  that children enjoy it if they can peek through their parents’ fingers.  For this reason, I am not against putting a good scare in a children’s film.

My bone to pick with Dahl is a problem with a particular type of scare that is not necessarily limited to stories for children (although that is the genre in which it’s most common): The Awkward Terror.  The Awkward Terror is what I call those moments when there is a misunderstanding concerning the way one should respond to a bad scenario, but rather than making it into awkward comedy, it’s played as horror.  Don’t get me wrong – discomfort has an important place in storytelling: when done in comedy, it leads to the awkward realization that the character forgot to wear pants, and when done in drama, it leads to a good scare when the shadow of a man with a knife is on the shower curtain.  However, when an uncomfortably awkward situation (one in which people can’t figure out how to respond appropriately) meets the uncomfortably chilling spook, I have found that the different types of enjoyment that come from these discomforts cancel each other out, leaving me only uncomfortable with no element of fun.

Now it’s example time.  In an episode of R. L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour, a boy finds himself in a circus tent dressed as a clown, unable to remove his makeup or attire.  As several other clowns surround the boy (who has always had a fear of clowns) he finds his parents there, and rather than displaying the appropriate response of feeling bad for him, they gleefully take off their human disguise to reveal that the boy and his family have always been members of the clown species.  This is terribly awkward as there is no comprehensible response to someone realizing he’s turned into a clown, just as I would not know how to react if someone standing in front of me were to suddenly become a fruit.  There is no reaction to such a bizarre, unnatural phenomenon, and one would be foolish to expect people to enjoy seeing  a spectacle like someone turning into a fruit.

Roald Dahl is stupid enough to turn someone into a fruit.  Not in The Witches, of course, but in his more famous book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which Violet memorably becomes a giant blueberry.  If everyone in the scene responded with sheer terror and tried to save her right away, perhaps the scene could have worked better, but the way people just stand there confusedly as Wonka remains calm and the Oompa Loompas sing in a circle around her makes me squeamish to this day.  Not in a fun, spooky way – in a way that’s just nauseating.  This is the kind of thing Dahl does often that rubs me the wrong way, so I should have known I would dislike the film adaptation of his book that’s practically an ode to the Awkward Terror, The Witches.

Imagine if a whole movie was centered around something as awkward as a person turning into a fruit, but instead of being in a setting of fantasy (in which it might almost be permissible), it’s set in a realistic, normal, everyday place.  That is what Witches is all about: a boy goes to a hotel where he is turned into a mouse.  When different characters see these mice that used to be the boys they loved, their reactions are inevitably incorrect no matter what they are since there cannot be a realistic reaction to such an intangible scenario, which is a clear sign that this whole concept should have been avoided altogether.  It makes the entire film both uncomfortable and unbelievable, without offering a strong plot, strong characters, strong dialogue, or strong morals to make up for it.

To get to the point of this review, the film is a waste of time.  It seems that there are some Henson productions that Muppet fans joke about because of how odd they are, and others that we simply do not address.  Although this is the last film for which Henson was a producer of any sort, he’d had so little involvement in the story that he couldn’t save it, so we Henson fans honestly never give it as much thought as we give The Jim Henson Hour, or even his failed Little Mermaid series.  I cannot fathom how anyone could enjoy a film so tedious that it doesn’t get to its inciting incident until halfway through the running time, so dull that it makes Rowan Atkinson’s character a bore, and so idiotic in theme that I cannot believe it was ever released.  If this flick is watched for any reason, it should be watched for the puppetry, effects, and other excellent elements of the visual style that make this film wickedly impressive as visual art (which is what earned the film as many stars as I’ve given it).  While critics may praise it on the grounds that it will give children quite a scare,  I berate it because it offers a big scare instead of a good scare.  If a movie wants to scare people, it should make sure the emotion it’s grabbing is fear, not disgust.

80 The Witches

150 Movies in a Year

I’m curious about something: I wonder what the ratio of the number of movies someone watches to the number of ideas for movies that person has would be on average (per year).  For me, that ratio is about 1:3 – I’ve watched about 52 movies within the past year, not including movies I re-watched, and in that time I’ve had 150 ideas for movies.  I’ve been keeping track of all the movies that I’d really like to see, if they only existed.  The odd thing is that this wasn’t a goal of mine.  I never decided that I needed to think of at least 150 movies by the time one year had passed; it just happened, even though I’d never had so many ideas in such a short time before.

In autumn of 2014, I took a class on how to write for television, film, and radio.  One of the required readings for the class was a book called How to Get Ideas.  This book explains that an idea is “nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.”  At the time, I had been focused on ideas I was having for films I could write, and I was pleased to see that, after reading a bit of the book, the number of ideas started increasing.  It was very enlightening to learn to be on the lookout for elements I could combine.  At a certain point, I had to write a list to keep track of all these ideas.

The fascinating thing is that the list actually helped increase the number of my ideas even more than the book did.  Why?  Basically, I developed a new instinct.  Apparently, when I keep a list, there is some part of the back of my mind that is always scanning my thoughts for possible additions to the list, and it notifies me when something matches the list’s criteria.  (I have seen this happen with my list of my favorite movies, because I usually can’t think of any movie at all without getting a notification from my subconscious that reads, “Should that be added to the list?”)  I have become intuitively, constantly, and inevitably alert for elements that can be combined into new ideas.

It’s funny how it started so simply: exactly one year ago today (well, not at this time of day, since I think it was just before my 11am class) I noticed that I was forgetting the ideas I’d thought of earlier that month, and I decided to take a couple little notes on my iPhone.  Once I had done that, the switch in my brain was flipped, and it was a Movie Idea Factory.  The iPhone notes eventually had to be moved to Google Docs because it became too hard to navigate through the list once I had over 30.  Once I reached 100 ideas, I made a separate document (in Microsoft Word) for the second 100.  I also added a list for the ideas I’d had before I started keeping a list, which has less than 30, revealing just how unfruitful that part of my brain had been throughout my lifetime until a year ago today.

However, the factory’s rapidity has slowed down over the past few months (with only one movie idea in all of October), which is to be expected.  I have spent most of my time over the past year with the same people, in the same places, enjoying the same entertainment, and walking the same streets.  This means I have already used up all of the elements that surround me regularly, and if I want to have a lot more ideas again, I need to change my environment.  I don’t think the decrease is a bad thing though, partly because I could never actually get 150 screenplays produced, and partly because I have been getting several ideas for songs this month (to an extent I’ve never seen before).  I do look forward to changing jobs and locations soon, because I really think that would spark my imagination, but for now, I’m content with the number of ideas for movies I’ve already had.

Oh, wait, I just had #151 . . . .

Movie ideas 101-151.
Movie ideas 101-151.

Hotel Transylvania 2 Review

This sequel feels very sequel-ish.  In spite of the fact that this storyline is refreshingly different from that of the first Hotel Transylvania,  most of my feelings towards this movie are exactly the same as my feelings towards the first.  It feels like an extension of the same film, with a story that shows what would inevitably follow the events of the first film, and a script that relies heavily on its predecessor’s running gags.  This one does seem slightly lacking in the cleverness and creativity of the first film, but it has the added bonus of a good Mel Brooks character.  I certainly did enjoy watching the movie, and I laughed out loud at Drac’s description of using FaceTime, but since my count of predictable moments reached 18 (if memory serves), I can’t pretend it was a fabulous film.  (I suppose I was impressed with a lot of the visuals – particularly when it comes to classic cartoon animation styles – but this is also something that can be said of the first Hotel Transylvania.)  Aside from thoughts I already described in my review of its prequel, I really don’t have much in the way of strong thoughts or feelings about this movie at all.

79 Hotel Transylvania 2

Edward Scissorhands Review

Ah, now this is a movie for Halloween season.  It’s a classic tale of a man-made monster, and like most good monster stories, it shows us that the real monsters are always people.  Naturally, I was very excited about seeing this movie, and I had high hopes because it’s a Tim Burton film.  Burton was, visually speaking, the best director out there (until he abused his CG privileges), and Edward Scissorhands is as gorgeous as one could hope.  Between the unique setting, the strong characters, the delightful soundtrack, and the perfect cast, it really has an atmosphere of its own, making it entirely unforgettable.  I was pleased by the superb performance by Johnny Depp, and thrilled to see Vincent Price in the role he was born to play.  Everything is just for the story being told.

If only the story itself were better, this would be an excellent motion picture.  Alas, the story is almost entirely lacking in conflict or plot (a.k.a. “story”) for the first half.  It takes a very long time to get going, and once it does, it’s rather cliché and predictable.  The pace is absurdly slow for much of the film, with only some scenes toward the end feeling particularly exciting, and the ending is not entirely satisfactory.  However, we do see the main villain defeated, and we do learn the lesson that we all knew from the get-go we were going to learn, so I suppose the movie offered everything it promised.  Because of the issues with the screenplay, however, it just didn’t offer everything I would have wanted.

78 Edward Scissorhands

Dr. Strangelove Review

For October, I decided I would review only scary movies, or at least films with monstrous or otherwise Halloween-related themes.  The problem is that I didn’t think of this until I’d already watched Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a film that isn’t really about Dr. Strangelove, and that never explains how anyone learned to love any bombs.  In a way, this is still fitting for a time focused on scary themes since the threat of being nuked was arguably the biggest scare of the twentieth century.  For me, however, the most frightening element of the movie was knowing who directed it . . . Stanley Kubrick.

Kubrick and I have a history.  Many years ago (actually it was about a year and a half ago, but that doesn’t sound as dramatic), I was taking a history of film class,  when all of the sudden . . . Kubrick.

Evil Kubrick Devil
This image has been stolen from the good people at Channel Awesome, who used this graphic in this excellent video:

When I expected a thoughtful science fiction film that would make me re-think life, humanity, and the universe, what I received was a headache.  I expect it’s only a matter of time before I put together some sort of video, article, or other presentation on what it is about 2001: A Space Odyssey that I find terrible, but I’ll try to express it briefly here: if a work of media tries to talk about ideas for the audience to consider, it should use complete sentences.  In other words, it should explicate the ideas thoughtfully rather than gesturing towards potential ideas and interpretations that an audience member might project onto the work.  After all, if an artist’s work is ambiguous enough, it’ll have all the depth that the individual viewer chooses to see in it, but if the work is detailed enough, its depth will be undeniable.  While 2001 is certainly visually detailed, its story is deliberately vague in all of the areas where it should be most expository, making the “storytelling” resemble interpretive dance more than it does narrative.  My brain was desperately trying to find meaning throughout where there was none, and since I am not the type to put my own thoughts into the storyteller’s mouth, I found myself bored to tears (not figuratively – literally) and forever terrified of the Dumbfounding Devil.

Then, on one fateful night not so long ago, I dared to watch another of Kubrick’s films – this time the famous comedy Dr. Strangelove – and to my shock I found . . . it was okay.  Strangelove is certainly no Python or Brooks film, but it has its moments that really do delight.  I was a bit disappointed that there are no noticeable jokes (not in any conventional sense, that is) for the first 35 minutes, but the movie can get away with it because it keeps the audience in suspense concerning what’s going to happen with the bomb.  I could still see the Dumbfounding Devil up to his usual tricks again though, including a tedious story, ignorance of the audience’s investment (or lack thereof) in the characters, and a somewhat ambiguous, unsatisfying ending.  This isn’t even mentioning that the movie is centered around a fear that is largely intangible to viewers who did not experience the cold war, or the politics of the 1960s, which limits the film’s appeal severely by keeping it from being timeless.

As much as all that bothers me, I think I had a generally good experience watching Dr. Strangelove, and because of a few good laughs and some strong performances by Peter Sellers, I’ll concede that this movie is good.  However, I must remain alert, because while Krubrick and I may have had peace this time, we’ll meet again . . . don’t know where, don’t know when.  *Maniacal laugh.*

77 Dr. Strangelove