Goodbye to Jon Stewart

On August 6, legendary The Daily Show host Jon Stewart will step down from the show that made him an American icon.

This shouldn’t be a big event. People retire all the time, leaving behind holes that may never be properly filled. It’s happened on TV shows, it’s happened in bands, it’s happened at your job.

But Stewart wasn’t just that receptionist that got transferred to a new department. Since 1999, Stewart had been the yard stick by which our greatest cultural and historical moments were measured. His voice came through our TV screens, condemning politicians and celebrities for their deaf ear to the world. This seems like nothing revolutionary now – every talk show includes segments about political figures who are so hopelessly out of touch that they may as well be living on a different planet.

But Stewart was the first person to really give a sense of desperation to that humor. He was not just content to point and laugh at the politicians who insisted that God hates gay people. He was pointing to us as a society to allow such a person to be placed in the seat of power. Stewart, along with the rest of us, watched as the nation went mad and became increasingly obsessed with trivial matters and was one of the few who could make you feel just as worried as he always was.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Stewart. I think it was around the time Ohio congressman James Traficant was expelled from the House of Representatives. (Thanks to Comedy Central’s extensive archives, you can see a clip here) Most people probably don’t remember who Traficant was or why that expulsion mattered.

I didn’t really know the full extent of Traficant’s corruption either. But Stewart managed to make me care in three minutes. It was so simple and depended on such basic sound bites. (Of course, a Congressman from Youngstown, Ohio will offer you a lot of bizarre sound bites.) But it was also such an indictment of a man who should not have been wandering the halls of Congress. He did it without words. Look at Stewart’s gestures as he becomes increasingly befuddled by Traficant. Listen to his tone in that clip. Watch Stewart’s gestures as he tries to find something to compliment the disgraced Congressman.

That was the core of what made The Daily Show work. There was spoken comedy there, but it was almost overshadowed by what Stewart wasn’t saying. He was crying out for help in the middle of a storm. And, despite what his critics at Fox News say, it was a storm that reached both sides. Stewart was equally willing to criticize Democrats when he felt they were in the wrong.

He could also be a sober voice of reason who knew when not to make jokes. The best example is this speech that needs no introduction.

Many people are surprised that Stewart was sometimes informally voted the most trusted news person in America.  I’m really not. I grew up in an age where news seemingly didn’t matter as much as punditry. It didn’t matter if people spouted facts. It mattered if they sounded good doing it. Take a look at Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Rachel Maddow. They are people who have built multimillion dollar empires without ever being honest with their audience. Stewart was both honest and had material to back up what he was saying. He wasn’t some huge talking head. He was like a funny dinner guest who had bothered to read the news before spouting off about the day’s events. I always had the feeling he was honest His protegé Stephen Colbert came close, but was always stuck behind a mask. Colbert the character overshadowed Colbert the man. Stewart was always himself, never bothering to hide behind a character to make his point.

Stewart was an important man for people my age. He was our nightly voice of reason, whose bug-eyed, silent gestures spoke volumes in ways that other talking heads could not equal. Stewart was our voice of reason, the man who would always be there to try to make sense of our world. I sound like I’m eulogizing the man. That’s not fair. Stewart will hopefully return with a new movie he’s directed or a cameo that he will make on some sitcom or on some other talk show. Maybe he will return to stand up and continue to entertain smaller audiences with his unique insight. I’m sure he will have no trouble finding something he wants to do. But it won’t be quite the same for the millions of people who used Stewart as the barometer for their own sanity. In an age where cultural experience has been hopelessly divided, Stewart was one of the few uniting forces left. I’m not sure if there will ever be anyone who can replace him as a cultural icon. Maybe that’s as it should be. There was only one Johnny Carson and, for the people who laughed at his antics while depending on him to say what they could never articulate, there will only ever be one Jon Stewart.

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A Review of Wet Hot American Summer

We’re deep in the middle of summer, which means everyone’s staying inside watching Netflix to beat the heat. Which means, to respond to the increased demand, Netflix is launching new shows.

One unusual pick for development is a revival of Wet Hot American Summer. The film is gaining a Lebowski-esque cult following but is still a risky gamble for anyone to resurrect. The film was critically savaged and bombed. The creators (Michael Showalter and David Wain) are veterans of The State, an amazingly funny 90s sketch show. However, follow ups to that film have ranged from spectacularly funny hits (Reno 911) to the quickly cancelled TV oddities (Stella and Michael and Michael Have Issues) to unfunny messes (Balls of Fury, aka that dumb ping-pong movie that had Christopher Walken).

Maybe Netflix sees something in Wet Hot that demonstrates a revival? Whatever it is, it’s not something I saw rewatching the original film.

Now, the film was a lot funnier than I remembered. I don’t understand why it was roundly dismissed as completely unfunny, especially when grotesque sex comedies like Van Wilder were all the rage. But don’t expect me to join the cult.

The biggest problem with the film is that it never finds the appropriate tone or style of humor. It’s ostensibly a parody of Meatballs (which, excluding Bill Murray, was a much worse movie than this one) but seems to have anticipated the sweeter, gentler comedies that Judd Apatow would start making four years later.

This is where the film is at its funniest. One scene has Michael Ian Black walking into the booth where the child is delivering the morning announcements on the last day of summer camp. (The film takes place over the course of one day during the summer of 1981.) He orders the kid, repeatedly, to take a shower.  It’s a scene with two lines, but the delivery makes it hilarious. Black is increasingly aggravated by the kid as he repeatedly promises to bathe himself. It’s obvious that this tension has been going on for a while and what’s unsaid makes it work.

That’s the sort of humor I liked in Red Hot American Summer. It’s simple but also honest about the sort of people who went to summer camp in the 1980s – or, these days, about the kids who are watching Ernest Goes to Camp while their middle-aged parents remember their sexual escapades from 1981.

The film, as it must, explores the fact that getting teenagers together in such close proximity is bound to lead to all sorts of sexual tension and soap opera like declarations of love. I don’t fault the dumb dialogue during the scenes where counselor Coop (Showalter) declares his love for Katie (Marguerite Moreau). It leads to a great payoff where Katie declared she’d rather be with the hot guy than with the love struck loser. This was such an obvious joke that I’m surprised it had never been made before.

I also admires that the film never devolved into a T & A affair that was less interested in exploring adolescence and more interested in bikini tops and the taking off of same. In a movie that is meant to satirize those teens movies that hire nubile stars just so we can see their breasts, that would have ruined the joke. There are plenty of counselors who are at the camp to make out, but they’re the object of mockery. Elizabeth Banks’ Lindsay was my favorite. She was a character so desperate to make out with Paul Rudd she didn’t care about the fact that her face was covered in barbecue sauce. She also doesn’t seem to notice that two young campers manage to take a motorboat while she’s on the dock with Rudd.

So, where exactly does the film go wrong?

The biggest problem was that there was no straight character to play off. In a camp where everyone is independently weird, there is no one to ground the audience.

The camp director Beth (played by the insufferable Jeanne Garofolo) comes the closest to being a voice of reason.  But she’s just as obsessed with a crush as any of her teenaged employees. She breathlessly follows the professor (the far funnier David Hyde Pierce) on whatever nonsense he spouts. What’s odd is that she repeats it with the slight whiff of sarcasm, as though she wants to point out how insane he is. One scene late in the film involves the professor trying to save the camp from a crashing Skylab. It’s as nonsensical as it sounds. But Beth still follows him to see it through.

She’s an inconsistent character, but at least she’s developed as a character. Several of the more interesting characters are not even given names. The kids suffer the most, which is bad for a movie about summer camp. One kid, introduced at the beginning as a huge Dungeons & Dragons fan, but he’s only listed as ” boy with cape” in the credits. Doesn’t he have something he wants from the camp? Does he get tired of living in a fantasy world? The movie never says anything about most of its characters.

Also, the comedy changes on a dime when the scene requires it, especially in the third act. The Skylab plot point is a good example. It could be a nice isolated moment of comedy and drama. The whole point seemed to be to give the misfits of the camp something to do. But the thing is, they’re correct and Skylab nearly DOES destroy the camp.

It doesn’t work as comedy because it feels far too fantastical compared to what came earlier. There is a way to make it work, of course. It could be a hoax that brings the misfit kids together, and the end could be that their friendship is more important than their being duped. That would fit in the “stupid teen movie trope” parody the film was going for, especially if the kids decide they hate each other after all.

It also makes no sense for one kid to create a hurricane at the climactic talent show. Equally nonsensical is the talent show’s emcee, who tells bad jokes and gets huge laughs. Is that meant to be the joke? I hope not because that’s pathetically stupid. The film started off doing so much right but ended up doing wrong.

Wet Hot American Summer is neither the unfunny mess it was labelled upon its release nor the spectacular gem that many cult fans would have you believe. It exists somewhere in between as a film that would be fine to fill time on Comedy Central but not something necessarily worth celebrating. Still, there are some good ideas here and maybe the Netflix revival will focus on those and ignore Skylab.

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A Review of Terminator 2: Judgement Day

It’s strange.

Even with a new Terminator film released, no one seems to care. It’s not like Jurassic World, which despite being the cinematic equivalent of a reheated Lean Cuisine has grossed almost $1 billion so far. No one seems to be clamoring for a new Terminator film. Genysis is being trashed critically and the studio had so little faith that anyone would actually see it that they spoiled the big plot twist in their marketing campaign. Even those who like it clarify their reviews with, “it’s not as bad as it could have been,” which really isn’t praise. A near fatal car accident isn’t quite as bad as a fatal car accident, but neither is something that should be experienced.

What’s also strange is that, despite Genysis being wholly dependent on nostalgia, there has been no usual re-examination of the first two Terminator films. No blogs written, no home video re-release, nothing. Part of the reason is the fact that it’s unnecessary. Genysis seems to recreate all the big moments of the first Terminator and Terminator 2.

But it needs to be reexamined. Terminator 2 was among the most popular films of its time – and all time for a while. It seemed to be the last real gasp of the ’80s style of filmmaking, where auteur directors were given an opportunity to make large budget blockbusters based on their unusual premises. (Jurassic Park may be the very last example.) Now, most auteurs settle to scrape together funds for personal projects while big budgeted directors are forced to follow specific formulas. 

Terminator 2 is a sequel that does nothing you would expect.

Taken without any knowledge of the plot, everything about it is a surprise. It’s not even the same genre as the previous entry. While The Terminator was a horror/slasher film, Terminator 2 is a cyberpunk western featuring the traditional white hats, black hats, and the normal townspeople caught up in the game.

This time, one of the most fearsome villains in cinema is the stoic John Wayne character. He can only speak in short sentences and, in what becomes a plot point, does not shoot to kill. The new terminator is an even more fearsome creature who more easily blends into a crowd than a hulking Austrian. The T-1000 talks even less than his counterpart and moves like a bird of prey. He’s the sort of character Lee Van Cleef would have played. 

The T-1000 has traveled back in time to assassinate ten year old John Connor (Edward Furlong) the future leader of the human resistance against the machines. Arnold Schwarzenegger (do you care what his character name is?) has been sent to protect him. John uses Arnold to rescue his mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) from a mental institution and to try to stop the end of the world and the rise of the machines.

Right away, we see the change in scale for this film. Director James Cameron, for once, was not content with repeating old stories. He expanded his scope, first with his effects, and then with his story. 

I’m usually very bored with special effects. They don’t do anything in relation to the story. Terminator 2 is one of the few films where the effects are not only necessary, but awe inspiring. The T-1000 is a creature that could not exist without CGI, and this is a film that still heavily relies on practical effects.

What’s also fantastic is just how I feel like the intense action matters. It’s not because we get to see clean up crews putting out fires caused by Arnold. It’s also because I feel for the people as they are harmed by the carnage around them. 

This increases the stakes for me, on both fronts. It’s not only about watching Arnold mow down police cars with a minigun. (Although this is a great image.) I need to care about the protagonists and what they’re doing. I was tense as I heard Sarah talk about how “she was bleeding, bad” and understand why John would teach Arnold not to kill people. 

It reminded me again of the great revisionist westerns of the past. The characters were more morally ambiguous, but that meant their decisions to be the hero meant something for them. Arnold didn’t have a choice, but John and Sarah did in whether or not they would risk their lives, knowing that another killing machine (not to mention the cops) were after them. 

Also, I admire the changes in scope to the story. It is not just a retread of the slasher tropes that built The Terminator. Terminator 2 takes the Blade Runner approach towards machines and androids. But unlike Blade Runner, the machines actually seemed more mechanical. Could Arnold actually learn to be human? In the theatrical version, this is haphazardly handled as a natural progression in his character. (One line has Arnold saying that he learns naturally, and that’s it.) The vastly superior director’s cut adds even more Phillip K Dick to the film, in which the decision to become more human is a conscious choice made by Arnold. Even the ending is reminiscent of the final speech by Roy Batty. But Arnold does it with only two sentences, saying far more about his programming and his perception of the world as he realizes he (and other machines) can’t feel sadness over the loss of someone they know. 

It’s a fantastic moment of acting and writing from the last place I expect. And it was something that was not possible in the first film. Terminator 2 is full of moments like that. I didn’t expect this to actually be skillful, subtle filmmaking using a huge nonactor and one of the largest budgets in history. 

But there are two huge problems with the film that prevent it from being one of the greatest blockbusters ever made.

The first is Edward Furlong’s John Connor. Put simply, he’s an annoying little SOB who makes me root for the machines to destroy us all. He acts like an entitled ten year old who is obnoxiously grounded in early 90s slang. (The film actually takes place in 1995, but you wouldn’t know it from how the characters looks and talk.)

I don’t blame Furlong for this. Newt from Cameron’s Aliens was equally insufferable – he was likely just doing what Cameron told him to do. But Cameron has set up this character to be the most important human being in history. Do I have to listen to him explain the linguistic usage of “no problemo?” I don’t think that someone like, say, Winston Churchill talked like Bart Simpson when he was younger.

What’s also strange is how the theatrical version of the film eliminates the great character arc moments. One of the best scenes is when John prevent Sarah from smashing Arnold’s CPU. It’s the time that she realizes that he needs to be the leader of men and he realizes that it is possible to convince people of his point of view. It’s an important scene and its absence means that John remains an average ten year old delinquent who is insufferable to listen to.

The second is how many plot holes are introduced in the third act with the attempts to destroy the machines and prevent humanity’s extinction. By preventing judgement day, John Connor is negating his own existence. No one will come back from the future to father him. Of course, if that doesn’t happen, that also means that no one will prevent the world from getting destroyed. Which means Connor will still exist, but the still won’t get destroyed.

And so on and so on.

How does time travel work in this universe? Terminator 2 doesn’t say. Now, this wasn’t an important question in the first film. In fact, the bizarre nature of cause and effect was just one of the clever touches The Terminator had. Terminator 2 introduces the possibility of an alternate future, which also introduces all these paradoxes. I’m also receptive to any explanation the creators may have about this. But, in Terminator 2, there were no explanations.

Of course, no one cares about the moments when that internal logic screws up. For example, late in the film Arnold’s arm is crushed in a steel factory. He removes it to keep on going. This is EXACTLY the piece of the first Terminator that was left behind in the first place and inspired the creation of Skynet. But no one notices. No one also cares about the fact that there is now a photographic record and witnesses of the Terminator (do you think that psychiatric hospital didn’t have security cameras?) that could also inspire all sorts of computer scientists. Heck, considering what Cyberdyne is involved in, maybe they already had a prototype of the liquid metal?

Maybe that was their way of setting up the film for another sequel in which Sarah and John realize that their destiny is inevitable and they will have to fight the machines after all. Otherwise, the film makes no sense. But this is the exact opposite of what everyone says in this film, which eliminates any impact it may have.

And the sequels we’ve received a limp mush. Terminator 3 is basically a remake of 2, with a female terminator and an adult John. Salvation, which takes place entirely in the future, is a train wreck of story telling. Genysis, which I admittedly haven’t seen, looks like a way to somehow reboot whatever life is left in this franchise. But even that looks disastrous, with Schwarzenegger showing up and John Connor being recast as the villain of the piece. It also further messes up the timeline. Is there even cause and effect in this universe? How does point out A lead to point B? Is it all just a bunch of wibbly wobbley, timey wimey stuff? It’s been 24 years and we still don’t have answers to these question.

There has been one good continuation of the Terminator franchise and that’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Airing on FOX for two seasons, the TV show answered a lot of questions and closed a lot of plot holes. First, it’s the only story where they acknowledge a time machine exists. Skynet didn’t just make two attempts to save the future – it sent back numerous Terminators to kill John Connor and help stock pile supplies and ensure things happen they way they’re supposed to. It acknowledges some version of alternate timelines, where two people from the same future have different memories of events. Finally, it really explored the familial relationship between John and Sarah. They have moments where they act like mother and son. They also have moments where they secretly grow frustrated with each other and wish to cast of the shackles both are placing on each other. It was a fantastic drama series that was the proper continuation the franchise deserved.

So of course it got cancelled after thirty episodes, just as we entered a future where no one has ever heard of John Connor.

I guess the ultimate lesson of Terminator 2 is that, no matter how good your film is, its going to look bad if you try to start a franchise. Terminator 2 is filled with spectacular moments, but some pretty big plot points collapse if you put too much thought into them. (Especially if you’re not watching the director’s cut.) The film needed a sequel to fix numerous plot holes that were created in the story. There have now been three film sequels. One was a mediocre rehash, one was abysmal, and one I haven’t seen but which does not look the least bit encouraging. The one time we got a good continuation to the story was so wonderfully received that it was barely watched and cancelled on a cliffhanger. It’s obvious that creating a long running franchise from this material was impossible. Maybe it should have just ended after the second film.

Or maybe we should have ended with Sarah Connor’s drive into the sunset, letting the fans speculate instead of having Hollywood producers spend hundreds of millions of dollars to show us nothing.

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A Review of Jurassic World

The original Jurassic Park, 22 years later, is now an official cinema classic. Not only is it a superior thriller with lots of great action sequences and special effects the revolutionized the summer blockbuster,  it contains a lot of unexpected commentary about the folly of man and what happens when they try to play God.

Jurassic Park was mostly built around character arcs. It was not a film about a T Rex eating people. It was about John Hammond watching his lifelong dreams turn to dust. I’ve made jokes about how incompetent inGen is not to perform background checks against a guy heavily in debt with access to their system, but that’s part of the point. inGen didn’t know what it was doing and innocent people paid the price.

It’s also about Dr. Alan Grant realizing just how foolish it is to be stuck in the past. He was obsessed with his fossils and discovering what these animals were like. It was to the exclusion of all else, to the point where he was unable to really relate to Dr. Sattler, hated children, and unable to use the technology that was revolutionizing his field. Once he found out that dinosaurs were alive again, he began to explore more options and was finally able to realize that the living people around him were the most important things in life.

That’s why the film works – because the characters actually have arcs. “Well, obviously,” you’re saying. “All great stories do.”

Someone should have told that to the creators of Jurassic World.

Absolutely none of the characters undergo any sort of change based on what they experience. They are convinced that either they were entirely right or the dinosaur attacks were not their fault. They have no new bond with anyone else and no new insight into the world around them.

The creators do try to introduce concepts that may be used to help characters develop, but even then nothing is ever done correctly. If I were to ask you how a Jurassic Park sequel would open, you would probably guess there would be some little teaser about a civilian seeing a dinosaur or being attacked by one. Jurassic World opens with a Christmas song playing as two kids prepare to go on vacation. The kids – who are so memorable and noteworthy that I’ve completely forgotten their names – are the nephews of Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) who are going to Jurassic World. Claire is a workaholic inGen executive at the park who meets with investors so the facilities can open (I swear this is true) a Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant along main thoroughfare of the park. The whole point is that Claire would discover that work is not everything in the world and would bond with the two kids and discover her love of family. This doesn’t work because a) the first Jurassic Park already explored that theme and b) it’s the same problem with Aliens in the fact that it suggests women are only fulfilling their roles in society when they bond with children. Claire seems like she has a great career to me and nothing that happens in the film actually is her fault. Besides, she never actually does bond with those kids in any meaningful way. The most we get is a scene of her taking off her business suit top to venture into the jungle to save them, but still runs around in heels during the entire movie.

How does the other big star, Chris Pratt, fit into the film? He plays a game warden named Owen who seems to have discovered a way to train the velociraptors to obey commands. He also is tasked with using his training technique on a new species of dinosaur, which inGen created in order to help boost visitor interest in the park – some sort of cross between a T Rex and several lizard species. Of course the specimen escapes and wrecks havoc, killing many park staff members and trapping those aforementioned children in the jungle after they don’t follow the specified tour route. Owen and Claire do team up to go find the kids, but that’s not really any sort of great character change on his part. How does he feel about the dinosaurs being alive and his employer for thinking they can control them? I honestly don’t know. He has many one liners about how what they’re doing is wrong, but I’m never convinced Owen actually feels that way. Mostly he exists so that the film can show Chris Pratt in a leather vest carrying a Winchester rifle around. He certainly doesn’t undergo any deep revelations about the park or humanity playing God.

So what we’re left with is a movie that’s mostly about the attractions at a theme park turning a dream vacation into a nightmare. It’s a sound idea – showing Jurassic Park as a fully functional amusement park with all of the state of the art technology to give the 20,000 visitors to the island a once in a lifetime experience that quickly turns into a nightmare could lead to all sorts of wonderful moments. But it never does. By the time we get to the second act, the film almost becomes a parody of itself, with elaborate death sequences that undermine the tragedy of what’s happening and bad action one liners. While watch the pterodactyls attack park guests, I kept thinking about how much overtime the inGen lawyers would have to put in to settle the lawsuits. That’s not a good a sign.

Even the references to the original Park fall flat  Mr. DNA, the animated character from the original who famously pronounced the name “dinosaurs” as “dihno-sahrers” does make a brief appearance in one of the exhibits and there is a bronze statue of John Hammond shown in the main visitors’ center of the new park. Dr. Henry Wu shows up again to give the lecture about how it’s wrong to turn nature into a commodity. (He goes on at length about how splicing DNA can lead to unexpected mutations – even though he was completely ignorant about this fact in the first film.) And inGen’s lack of corporate morality is still a plot point. Vincent D’onofrio plays a man named Hoskins who is convinced the raptors could be used as weapons for the military. But this never leads to anything worthwhile (unless you count raptors going on a “hunt” in the jungle) and just demonstrates inGen shares a board of directors with Weyland Yutani.

By the time the film ended, I was not sure what I had experienced. The pacing was very unusual and I could not think of a great sequence that stuck out for me. Still, the film is not aggressively bad. The special effects are decent – there’s a fairly good scene with Owen comforting a dying Apatosaurus that is filmed with an animatronic figure. And I did like the product placement at the park. I talked about Margaritaville showing up – and it’s played as a deliberate joke that reflects the overpriced themed restaurants at any number of amusement parks. I also liked the Sea World – esque sequence in which a shark is fed to a giant aquatic dinosaur. But these sequences were too small and don’t compare to, say, the T Rex attack or the first scene where we see an apatosaurus in the original film.

It really looks as though the artistic success of the first Jurassic Park will never be replicated. It is a much better film than Jurassic Park III, but that’s not saying much. World feels like a missed opportunity. It is a sequel content to hit the same notes as the original film and didn’t seem to care about its characters. The film could have been worse, but I wanted more. I know many are probably excited to watch it, but if you want me advice, just rewatch Park and know that filmmakers still don’t understand what makes that one good.

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A Review of Mad Max: Fury Road

The Mad Max franchise has achieved that rarest of all things. It’s a series of films that not only pleases whatever crowd watches it and has been cited as one of the best film series of all times. In the same way John Ford invented a genre while pleasing a mass audience, Mad Max director George Miller created a slew of imitators all based on a simple idea about the open roads and fast cars.

Miller’s been trying to make Fury Road for almost 15 years. By all accounts, the production was a disaster, suffering from budgetary overruns to reshoots to recasts. This is normally an indication of an epic disappointment in the making. Disregarding those problems, there was no artistic reason for a Mad Max sequel. The films have been imitated so many times that everyone would assume a new Max film is part of worn out genre.

But Fury Road is incredible.

It is one of the few films that creates an entire self-contained world with only the simplest of ideas. Fury Road has one question – what would actually happen if the entire world collapsed and the only people left were a group of Jodorowsky-esque creatures who are trying to find some sort of hope? There is no attempt to reconstruct what is lost and there is no attempt for anyone to be morally good. Despite its bizarre characters and over the top set pieces, Fury Road comes across as incredibly realistic. I have a feeling that, if human society were to collapse and we found ourselves slowly returning to nature, the “might makes right” attitude of the characters in Fury Road would be exactly what humanity would face.

And the action sequences are exciting and exhilarating.

That idea is used as a subversion for every trope about post-apocalyptic fiction, even in the way that Max (Tom Hardy, replacing series mainstay Mel Gibson) is characterized. He is not a typical postmodern hero that has to have a quip about his situations in order to lessen the impact on the audience. He’s not even a hero, really. As he explains, his existence is based only on his own survival.

At the beginning of the film, Max is captured by the tribe of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), an old man who has drilled down into the earth to bring the increasingly rare water to his people. They worship him as a god and his warriors, including Nux (Nicholas Hoult) dream of dying for him so they can go to Valhalla. He also keeps female slaves to bear him children.

So, does Max see these women in peril and spring into action? No. That falls upon Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who is the true main character in the film. She’s the one who steals a truck to take the brides to “the green place.” Max, as usual, is an ancillary character to the proceedings. He spends the first act as Nux’s blood bag (tied to the front of Nux’s car with his blood being fed into Nux’s veins) and is only introduced to these characters when he tries to shoot one in the leg and steal their truck for his own getaway.

What’s interesting is how Miller changed the characterization of Max. This is not really a sequel to the second or third film, but wants to take Max back to the beginning. He’s haunted by very abstract images of his dead family, but doesn’t fight for them. He’s running from them and doesn’t care about anything that could remind him of his past. Max doesn’t even like saying his name. That obsession with the world as it was before (as Furiosa demonstrates) is more insane than grabbing a gun and hoping you can kill the warrior tribe before they kill you. Even the wives, at times, are desperate to turn around and beg forgiveness from Joe rather than keep going into the unknown. It’s all handled quite well because the actors make it believable.

But that’s not what makes Fury Road so incredible. The characters are almost ancillary to the breathless action sequences. I said that, after Furious 7, Fury Road had a lot to live up to. I was completely wrong to assume that Miller wasn’t up to the challenge.

Miller creates an entire world using his action sequences, from Joe’s war rig that includes drummers and a guitarist to play his war cries and the acrobatic drivers who use trapeze style maneuvers to yank people from moving vehicles. I’ve already mentioned the fact that Max is used as a blood bag for a warrior. This is because everyone seems to be suffering from a deadly illness, including Nux and Joe. A lot of the drama and tension comes from the necessity to cool engines and use winches.

None of this is really explained by anyone. These are characters who have been inhabiting their world for decades. (Furiosa mentions being away from home for 7,000 days.) And the sequences themselves are handled very well. The editing is rapid, but that’s an artistic point rather than a standard. There are beautiful shots of the vehicles as they pursue their prey. And above all, there is a sense that the heroes may not survive. It stirs the imagination as you see warriors descending from vehicles on long poles and snatching someone. Who are these people and how did they arrive at this point?

It’s exactly what made The Road Warrior so unique. That film ended with a fifteen minute car chase filled with a great deal of bizarre characters who were fighting out of duty and their beliefs.  Fury Road is almost nothing but car chases – and it finds something new and unique to do each time. There are so many moments that stay in the imagination that I have a feeling I’ll need to re watch it in order to capture everything.

Fury Road, like The Road Warrior, is one of those films that no one would expect to set off a revolution. It’s an energetic ride that takes the simplest ideas and uses them to create something new. Miller could have easily just remade The Road Warrior and made fans complacent. But Miller wanted to show a new generation WHY The Road Warrior was so widely beloved and why imitators still pop up. It’s about showing the same passion you had about the films that inspired you. That’s a lesson that Kurosawa knew, that Spielberg knows, and that Miller demonstrates perfectly with Fury Road.

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A Review of Avengers: Age of Ultron

The first Avengers wrote the current Marvel movie formula. It’s something they’ve stuck to very carefully since then. From a monetary standpoint, it’s been highly successful.

But from an artistic standpoint, it’s been a case of diminishing returns. The new Avengers movie shows why. Marvel and Disney seem so stuck in the formula that they’re unable to break it using the very series that should break the rules, no matter how many talented people they hire.

I want to emphasize that I didn’t find Avengers: Age of Ultron to be an outright disaster. It’s well-directed (particularly the opening scene) not badly written (although some of the jokes, such as the one involving Captain America scolding Iron Man for bad language, isn’t funny the first time and goes downhill from there) and does have a few good moments with its characters. But it’s not as good as the first one and it seems rather disinterested in explaining itself.

I’ll tell you what I mean. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr once again) and Ultron (James Spader). In Iron Man 3, Stark destroyed all of his suits and renounced his identity. But he still appears here in his Iron Man role with no explanation in the context of the film.

They do try to explain more of Tony’s motivations with the creation of Ultron. Ultron started out as a program Tony designed so the Avengers could retire and the world would still have protectors. Stark finally cracks the secret of this new program when the Avengers recover Loki’s staff at the start of the film. Of course, within ten seconds of going online, Ultron decides that humanity must be destroyed and that the Avengers are the true enemies of the world, based mostly on their recent actions in the fictional country of Sovokia (where Loki’s staff was being held) that harmed many civilians. That would definitely be an interesting dynamic and, indeed, many superhero stories discuss how the heroes attract the villains and may be causing more harm than good to society.

It is not handled well in Ultron because Ultron remains a cypher. We never understand HOW he came to this conclusion or whether this is a choice he’s making or some sort of suicide desire that Stark secretly had. It would be great if he had more scenes with Stark alone to explain what’s happening. The most we get is Ultron singing “I’ve Got No Strings” from Pinocchio. In addition, nobody on the Avengers team seems to care that it was Stark who unleashed this entity that may destroy the world. Even his attempts to fix the problem (I will say no more to avoid spoilers) don’t address this failing. All of the Avengers yell at Stark, it still gets done, and then everyone forgets that Stark once again went behind their backs.

I’ve often singled out Stark as  my favorite character in these films, but this time I found myself drawn more toward Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) who is slowly falling in love with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). It’s the sort of dichotomy that made The Hulk such a popular character. Hulk himself even gets a few moments of humanity when he sees the people who are afraid of him after his rampage. Banner wants to feel love but knows that such a relationship could prove dangerous to the world. I also liked Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) victims of violence in Sovokia who realize that the Avengers may still be the heroes after all. I wanted to know more about their past and more about their relationship.

It would have been more interesting to focus on one character and see what motivates them and how they overcome their own demons. But Avengers once again tries to shoe horn as many characters in as possible. This means that no character is given prominence – everyone is given equal time. It’s a shame because some of the Avengers are boring. Captain America (Chris Evans) once again is obsessed with the past and the fact that he outlived the love of his life. (Agent Carter, of the vastly superior ABC tv show, makes a small cameo). Thor is stuck doing nothing while Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) reveals his secret family. It’s just too much for an action film. I found myself distracted trying to keep up with everything to the point I was unable to get emotionally invested in anyone.

Are there good things here? Of course. I liked the scene when, as a party game, each Avenger tries to lift Thor’s hammer. The opening action sequence is well done and I also liked the Hulk/Iron Man fight from a technical standpoint. There’s nothing about The Avengers that really feels incompetent and I can see why a mass audience who wants a brief distraction or brief entertainment will like it. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen everything the film had to offer before and in this age of sequels, I’m tired of properties unable to take risks. You laugh, but the first Avengers was a huge risk. I wanted that feeling back.

I said in my review of Guardians of the Galaxy that Marvel could find itself in real trouble down the line if it doesn’t change. I see that trouble brewing with Age of Ultron. There’s no longer any thrill in this sort of film – we know what the ending will be, we know that the characters are not in any danger, and we’ve seen everything the actors can do with the characters. I will not say that Avengers is poorly made, but frankly I’m bored. Daredevil just got a show on Netflix that’s an absolute joy. Avengers, no matter how well made it is, just feels limp.


 

Postscript: Normally I would not address something like this, but one aspect of the film has attracted some attention from those annoying “social justice warriors.” For some reason, they feel Black Widow’s kidnapping in the film is “degrading to women” and demonstrates Whedon (who created one of the strongest modern female superheroes in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is a “sexist pig.” This is absolute nonsense in terms of the plot and in terms of the character.

I find it ironic that such individuals seem to promote minority viewpoints but cease looking at characters like Black Widow once they find she’s a woman. To them, her womanhood is all they need to see. There’s no need for nuance and no need for strength or figuring out what she does in the story. They see her in mild peril and decide that it’s degrading just because her character happens to be a woman. That’s unfair and, if I may be blunt, dumb.

The scene involves Black Widow being kidnapped by Ultron as she is trying to recover something for the team. (Again, avoiding spoilers here.) Ultron wants to use her as leverage against the Avengers.

Sounds like a “damsel in distress” scenario where Black Widow waits for the menfolk to come rescue her. But it doesn’t play out that way at all. First, the kidnapping is a random event that could have easily happened to another character. She was not targeted for being a woman. Second, it makes sense to target her; she doesn’t really have any superpowers and thus would not put up as much of a fight against Ultron. And she doesn’t just sit back and wait – she uses the limited resources to engineer her own escape and absolutely does not act helpless. It’s also not a major plot point and is resolved in five minutes or so. This is not a depiction of a woman in peril. This is something that happens to a character to further the plot and get the team to where Ultron wants them to be. That’s it – no theme about the subjugation of women, nothing that take’s Black Widow’s strength away, nothing. It was a narrative choice using a character that made the most sense. Think about it this way – do you think The Hulk is someone who could be kidnapped?

There are a lot of real issues facing the world today about violence against women. Stop trying to win your moral credits and pretending like you’re helping people by being offended by a five-minute scene in a movie that you are either unable or unwilling to examine in its proper context.

You’re not helping your cause.

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A Review of Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind

Most people are probably going to spend the weekend talking about The Avengers.

But I’d rather talk about something nearer and dearer to my heart – The Other Side of the Wind. I’ve never seen it, and neither have you. But it still occupies an important place in cinematic history for those increasing few that like to keep track of that sort of thing.

The Other Side of the Wind was supposed to be what finally revived Orson Welles. In the decades after Citizen Kane, Welles was viewed as a one hit wonder who took whatever project he could as long as the check could clear. He still directed other films. Some of theme are amazing. But none of them were completed in a manner Welles approved of. They were recut, redone, redubbed, and failed to find an audience.

Welles tried to take control of his work by financing everything on his own. The Other Side of the Wind was shot over the course of five years and was never released, owing to legal issues related to the Iranian revolution (Yes. Really.) and Welles inability to pay anyone involved. Producers promised money and rescinded at the last possible moment. The negative is locked up in a Parisian vault. To date, only two scenes from it can be seen – they’re available on the documentary Orson Welles: One Man Band. Others have been leaked, but are buried just as quickly.

Last year, the New York Times announced that the film would finally be released in May 2015, to coincide with Welles’ 100th birthday. As I write this on May 1st, and I have not seen anything from The Other Side of the Wind. No release date, no premiere, no trailer, no new stills, nothing. It will probably remain lost in the wind, the same way Welles’ career has been outside of people who love to imitate The Brain.

But still, in April, Josh Karp’s exposè on this lost masterpiece was released. It’s the first “making of” book about The Other Side of the Wind in existence. Karp, who previously wrote a book about National Lampoon its effect comedy, seemed well versed to expose forgotten pieces of pop culture. I read it with great anticipation, hoping to get new insight onto the work – perhaps even new footage or descriptions of new scenes.

It doesn’t. If you search The Other Side of the Wind on Wikipedia, you’ll find out everything the book reveals about Wind’s production. There is nothing really revealing about the content of the work. Nor is there anything revealing about how Welles tried to find money to finish it, sneaking onto backlots with crews posing as amateurs.

This was an incredible disappointment to me. I know most of what happened during Wind. I also know about Welles’ money troubles and how he loved to lend his voice to whatever he can. I also know how Welles was inspired to make it and why he felt it would revive his career.

But Karp lends an incredible voice to the proceedings. There’s a sense of urgency about Welles and how much hinged on this film. There’s also an emphasis on how inadvertently original the making of Wind was. At the time Welles was shooting, there was no such thing as “independent film making.”  Welles (along with John Cassavetes), inadvertently created a revolution. Karp’s work gives a sense of that accomplishment – and helps us lament the loss of how sad Welles’ situation has become.

There are numerous descriptions about how Welles was being given life time awards – which were meant as an insult. It confirmed that Welles deliberately didn’t attend the Oscar ceremony and the only reason he attended the AFI ceremony was to raise funds for his films. But Karp offers a unique perspective about how Welles still inhabited that larger than life figure. It was the classic Norma Desmond syndrome – Welles is big, as he called up his crew at 7 in the morning after four hours sleep and lived with Peter Bogdanovich. It’s the pictures that got small.

Because of this, the book is never boring. Karp frames the book as a Orson Welles work, including the opening death scene (I take it that Welles’ death in 1985 won’t come as a surprise to anyone) and the italicized opening narration that Karp invites us to imagine in Welles’ voice. The third act is a little clunky and has no resolution, but that’s only because the story of The Other Side of the Wind remains incomplete and unreleased. Still, we do hear about how the film evaporated as money disappeared and Welles alienated those he was working with. His sad death is described as the sort of Shakespearean tragedy that would have appealed to Welles.

But, overall, Karp’s work is just another brick in the gigantic The Other Side of the Wind road. There will be no end to that road until the film is finally released. Until then, we are stuck with glimpses like this. The film may very well exceed all expectations, but if this scant information is all someone like Karp has to work with, then maybe The Other Side of the Wind is doomed to remain a footnote.

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A Review of Furious 7

I know that I am ridiculously hard to please, which is why I had avoided every single Fast and the Furious film after the first one came out in 2001.

The first film was like a compilation episode of an incredibly bad soap opera on MTV. It was poorly written, had bad characters, bad dialogue, and absolutely no originality. (It was pretty much an unauthorized remake of Point Break.) The one thing that did work were the race scenes that were featured so prominently in the trailer.

So, somewhere along the line, the producers said to themselves, “Screw it. You people want cars and action scenes? We’ll give you the most ridiculous ones we can think of.”

And, judging by Furious 7, this is entirely the correct approach. Furious 7 is what The Expendables was meant to be – an action film so over the top it almost becomes a Zucker/Abrams/Zucker deconstruction of the genre. Furious 7 uses every single action film clichè you can think of, and then adds in a few more for good measure.

It stumbles out of the gate. After a fantastic credit sequence that sees Jason Statham (his character has a name, but who cares what anyone’s names are in this movie?) walking through a destroyed hospital and vowing revenge for his brother, we get Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez driving to a drag race that has Diesel trying to help Rodriguez get through her amnesia. It’s the sort of dumb soap opera scene that killed the original film. To its credit, Furious 7 still stands up on its own even if you haven’t seen the previous entries, so there isn’t a lot of focus on this plot point. But these scenes at the beginning are mostly pointless. After that opening, it was pretty obvious that Furious 7 was never going to be a character drama, so why bother talking about how Walker’s character is not enjoying family life as much as he should be? The drag race scene also displays every problem I had with the first film, with it’s objectifying of women, it’s sickening rapid pace editing, and the complete lack of tension.

Iggy Azaela even shows up to congratulate Rodriguez, which nearly gave me a brain hemorrhage.

Who dat, who dat, who dat on the right? Dat is someone who reminds me just how much we’ve failed as a species.

Luckily, Furious 7 abandons this format very quickly. The film is two hours, but the second and third acts just fly by after Diesel and crew are hired by a government agent (Kurt Russell in an inspired role) to track down a surveillance system called “God’s Eye” that will allow them to find Statham before he finds and kills them. Flimsy? You bet, but that doesn’t matter at all.

I know that Fury Road isn’t going to be released until next month, but it has a lot to live up to after Furious 7. The chase scene in the second act, which sees the gang rescuing a hacker that has access to God’s Eye, is incredible. It’s long, but then the end chase of The Road Warrior went on for almost 20 minutes and the climatic chase of Stagecoach lasted 15 minutes. What works is whether or not we respond to those chases. And Everything about that scene in Furious 7 is engaging. The stunts (including the one where Paul Walker has to run along side a bus falling off a cliff) are incredible, and there is actual tension in them about whether or not they’ll succeed.  Action directors – you want a template for how to create pacing and spectacle? Furious 7 provides it for you.

The film also does something I had thought no mainstream film would do – show us something new. There’s a scene in the second act where the crew has to steal a car (and the surveillance device) from the top floor of the famed Etihad Towers in Abu Dubai. It’s a spectacle that would make James Bond proud – Diesel and Walker drive the car through three buildings, causing havoc. It’s a scene that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – why does a billionaire keep a car that’s locked in a vault stocked with a full tank of gas? Who cares? It’s another opportunity for the film to do something unique and cool when there was absolutely no expectation that it would.

Furious 7 goes completely for broke and lets nothing hold back its desire to create an amazing spectacle. On that level, it’s impossible not to like. I know many who will complain about the numerous plot holes, the choppy editing, and the nonsensical characters. They’ll be right. But I still want to have fun something and unlike similar blockbuster films, I found myself not caring about Furious 7’s flaws. It’s an easy film to get lost in once you realize what Furious 7 is trying to accomplish. On that level, I wanted to highly recommend everyone see it at least once.

And then….the film had the postscript that nearly destroyed it all.

Many of you probably know that Paul Walker died in a car crash before this film was released. I expected the filmmakers to pay some sort of tribute to him. But the way they do it is the tackiest way possible, considering what we’ve just seen.

The scene is Diesel doing a monologue while a bad rap song (surprisingly not Puff Daddy’s “Missing You”) and clips from the previous films are played. It ends with Walker and Diesel driving their separate ways, which could work if that was meant to an important plot point. But, the plot has already been resolved.

There is no emotion in this scene at all and no reason for it to be included.

Second, and this is most important: it’s a reminder of the real life and the consequences that Furious 7 had spent two hours ignoring. Again, Paul Walker was killed in a car crash. Over the course of Furious 7, I watched hundreds of car crashes and spectacular stunt driving that the characters walked away from with barely a scratch.

It was a reminder of how those scenes would play out in real life. If people didn’t die, they would be crippled and forced to undergo years of therapy. We see numerous cars exploding – some with people clearly in them, including a police officer trying to pull over the crew- and no acknowledgement is made of the carnage. That’s standard action fare and Furious 7 is far from the only film to ever treat wanton destruction so callously. Yet to remind me of a very real person who was killed in something that Furious 7 lovingly showed made me think of the moral failings these characters must have in order to walk away from everything they did.

In order for Furious 7 to work, there needs to be a level of fantasy in the proceedings. It’s that way for all films. But Furious 7 destroys what it had built up for a tacky tribute that does nothing to honor Walker or the way he died.

It’s an epilogue, so I don’t want to say it completely destroys the film. Walk out after the jail scene and you’ll have witnessed a film I recommend. Stay for the epilogue and you’ll end up with a bad taste in your mouth. This is probably a case where that “For Paul” interstitial was enough.

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Retro Review – Air Force One

Air Force One is a film that almost exists out of time. It was released in 1997 but seemed to predict a lot of issues the world would face. It was part of the unusual trend of portraying the President of the United States as an infallible hero before George W. earned that (incredibly bloated) reputation after 9/11. In fact, this film and Independence Day seem to acknowledge our nation’s love affair with movie stars more than politicians.

These are not really critiques. If anything, that’s what makes Air Force One such an effective action movie. And Air Force One embraces its premise to a degree that Michael Bay never has.

Harrison Ford plays James Marshall, a popular president who assists Russia in removing General Radek, the dictator of Kazakhstan, from power. Gary Oldman plays the head of a terrorist group loyal to that dictator who hijack Air Force One to get Radek released.

Now, I could be reading that plot synopsis with the deep, gravelly voice that we still hear whenever we think of “movie trailer.” It’s schlock. But director Wolfgang Peterson and the rest of the filmmakers manage to get a lot out of that premise.

For example, one subplot of the film is an enormous Constitutional discussion about the transfer of power when the president is incapable of acting in the best interests of the United States.  According to IMDB, these scenes are a reference to former Secretary of State Alexander Haig attempting to assume control of the government after Ronald Reagan was shot. How often do mainstream blockbusters do any sort of “ripped from the headlines” references like that, especially in an era where practically everyone pretends to know what the United States Constitution actually says? But it’s integrated seamlessly into the plot.

But the main reason the film works is because of the performances by the two main leads. Harrison Ford has the appropriate presence of a U.S. president. He is also able to examine the human aspects of such a man, demanding that people on the plane not spoil the outcome of a football game that he is hoping to watch in his office. He also breaks down when he sees his family being threatened. Un-presidential? Maybe so, but the president is still a human being. I’ve always enjoyed films that explore the little hobbies of powerful people. It makes them seem like the rest of us, which means their plight is that much more incredible. I mean, surely President Obama enjoys watching March Madness? For some reason, we never see that in reality. Films have to provide that for us.

Marshall doesn’t even really work as the stereotypical Hollywood action hero – which makes the film better. He’s a very scared individual who doesn’t know how he’s going to resolve the problem. In fact, he’s not the person that saves the hostages. I can’t imagine anyone else taking on this role. Ford is so perfect for the superhero president the film called for. He’s capable of beating the bad guys but at the same time he does so without arrogance and without pride. Marshall acts like he never wanted to be the center of an action film.

But it’s nothing compared to Gary Oldman. He never tries to be human – which is what the movie required. Even when he’s caught in a private moment, it’s all about his love for Mother Russia and the strong men who can lead her. I probably laughed at this in 1997, but today it sounds like a Putin speech. Oldman is completely ruthless – I began to believe he was willing to kill for Mother Russia as I watched the film.

The performances are great, but there are also many great moments in the film. One that stuck out to me was a tribute to the unbroken shot in John Woo’s Hard Boiled. Marshall looks around Air Force One to see what sort of damage the terrorist have caused. The scene in which the national security adviser is executed is also great. It’s a very fearful scene, in which Oldman demonstrates his commitment to his cause.

Are there flaws? Well, everything has flaws and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention them. For one, there was a fourth act in the film that was completely worthless – something about Air Force One crashing after the terrorists had already been defeated. For another, certain characters are worthless. William H Macy plays a major who is on board. He quickly is set up as someone important for reasons I can’t explain. And yes, the film is cloying at times, especially through Glenn Close’s vice president. There are also scenes that make no sense – like when a refueling tanker blows up after a minor malfunction. I would hope the Air Force has a few more safeguards than “leaky fuel = everyone dies.”

But these flaws never outweigh the whole. Air Force One remains a great action movie that pays debt to the past and puts its fingers on a pulse of America that beat very briefly. I wish influenced more filmmakers. You don’t need to insult our intelligence  just because someone on screen fires a gun. We can still follow more complex issues about the nation while explosions happen.

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A Review of Tommy Wiseau’s Neighbors

Even more than The Room, Neighbors feels like a huge passion project for the enigmatic Wiseau.

After The Room was certified as an official cult success, Wiseau began thinking about his next steps. He wanted to conquer another medium and began dreaming up a television series about a bunch of doofuses in a shabby apartment building. It would be called The Neighbors  and would conquer American TV.

There was a trailer with a cast attached to it…and that was pretty much all anyone knew.

I remember (as longtime readers might) going to see Wiseau at a Q & A and The Room screening in 2010. I asked him about The Neighbors and the trailer I had discovered on YouTube.  He liked the question so much he brought me onstage and hugged me. Then he told the crowd about how it was a sitcom that he was developing and hoping to get picked up as a series on Adult Swim.

Five years later and we finally get to see four episodes of whatever Wiseau was dreaming up at that moment. Better still, he’s skipped the old media entirely and gone straight to Hulu.

Always an innovator, that Wiseau is.

The Disaster Artist, the wonderful book written by The Room costar Greg Sestero, recounts how that wondrous film came to be. On the surface, The Disaster Artist paints Wiseau as a control freak who has no idea how to interact with other people, much less write a movie or act. Now, all film directors are eccentric to a certain degree. The best directors have even been tyrants to ensure their vision makes it to audiences worldwide. But they at least deliver the goods. Wiseau started off in the wrong direction and refused to let anyone stop him. That’s what made The Room so special. What made it even better was the fact that it seemed to be Wiseau chasing his version of the American dream, with all the glamor and fame that comes with it.

It lead to something that, really, can only happen once. If Wiseau tried anything else without improving his craft, it would demonstrate he’s incapable of learning anything and come across as a very sad attempt. But if he did try to improve, he would just be another bad filmmaker without the passion and downright insanity that drove The Room and lose his audience.

Well, honestly, Wiseau does not seem to have learned his lesson. I was expecting ineptitude. But The Neighbors lacks the passion that The Room had. There are no quotable quotes, no amazingly wrong performances, nothing that suggests the misguided soul that wants to be a big shot. In his own way, Wiseau had succeeded. I guess the sophomore slump was inevitable.

The Neighbors seems to take place in some low rent apartment project in some random west coast city. Wiseau plays Charlie, who appears to run the apartment building and, like some sort of lazy Greek chorus, responds to everything that happens to him with, “What a day!” He works in the office with Bebe, who may be his secretary, his business partner, or his romantic partner. The pilot episode features all the residents in the apartment coming into the office and back to their rooms to engage in wacky shenanigans. And these are some incredibly Lynchian tenants. There’s a Lindsay Lohan lookalike named Philadelphia who’s always wearing a bikini that’s far too small, a woman named Cici who’s constantly screaming about her lost pet chicken, a stoner named Troy who’s quite violent as he throws his rent money at Charlie, busty roommates who try to use their sex appeal to get out of paying for a pizza (and somehow this isn’t a porno), and a guy named Tim who constantly loans $20 from Charlie so he can pay off Bebe and vice versa. Also, that aforementioned pizza guys decides to move in to the building. I guess this is meant to be the big dramatic payoff of the episode, especially because Bebe decides to approve him without checking his credit score out of laziness.

Does any of this sound funny? Because it’s not.

The pilot feels like it was made by a group of people who knew better, but just didn’t care about the quality of their product. The picture quality looks like it was shot on an iPhone running low on batteries. There was even a visible error on the picture that was kept in. The lighting is amateurish and seems to change from shot to shot. The costumes are ridiculous. (In one of the most bizarre examples of cinematic homage, Tommy Wiseau’s name appears on a brand of underwear worn by the building’s maintenance man.) There are flubbed lines that are left in. The sets are all wrong – I never once thought I was looking at a functioning apartment building.

That’s not even getting into the script. Nothing that happens seems to be connected to anything else. We get no sense of the people in that live here outside of their skin color or their prominent breasts. As you can guess from that last sentence, racist humor and poor taste are a problem. (“Why can’t you get along? What is this, the nineties?” Wiseau asks a black and Asian man as they argue over a disrupted internet connection.) The jokes seem to be based around dumb running gags, like the previously described $20 loan. There’s no punchline to accentuate comedy, no arc for any of the characters, no conflict that needs to be resolved, nothing – just a lot of grotesque set pieces. One very bizarre sequence has another young lady in a low cut shirt “hypnotize” someone into giving her a gun for free. The scene ends with a girl getting a gun for free and the guy cursing at himself for being so stupid. Ha…ha?

These are all problems that were present in The Room, but they’ve been celebrated by fans as perhaps the definitive example of cinematic outsider art. Neighbors just comes across as sad and lifeless, like you’re watching a home video production by your uncle who still refers to women as “doll face.”

The Neighbors is not really unique. There have been a ton of anti-comedies that still live on networks like Adult Swim. They take the same broad approach to stereotypes and often are filled with equally dumb jokes. Tim and Eric come to mind, as does Rob Choddry’s Childrens Hospital. But unlike The Neighbors, the creators of that fare inject an ironic knowledge about their tropes and their humor comes from the fact they are making fun of all the stupid stuff a mass audience watches with enthusiasm. The joke is that American media usually appeals to the lowest common denominator and keeps our perception of the world skewed. The Neighbors contains no more stupid moments than, say, 2 Broke Girls or Two and a Half Men. Had The Neighbors rose to that level of anti-comedy, I would be praising it.

But I never got the feeling that Wiseau was thinking along those lines. I got the feeling he thinks such racial humor was meant to be funny on its own. Without that knowledge, Neighbors was doomed to fail.

I ended the experience by watching a Bill Hicks documentary so I could remind myself what comedy really was and how it works. The Neighbors sure wasn’t going to do that for me. I didn’t laugh once. I was filled with a sadness. Maybe Wiseau is trapped and is giving the audience what it wants. But it was just ineptitude that made The Room special. It was a passion and the fact that Wiseau was in over his head. Along the way. He stumbled into greatness and what now seems like a deliberate deconstruction of turgid Oscar fare that hits the audience of their heads with its message. The Room will undoubtedly live on. I don’t think The Neighbors will survive even for a season.

What a day.

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