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Posts Tagged ‘review



While watching Moana, I felt there was a problem, but the film is the very definition of entertaining. It draws you in, takes you on a journey through a whole new world, and leaves you with a smile on your face. In other words, it leaves you no time to think while your watching, but once the lights come up, it cannot stop the brain from doing its job.

So there’s a problem with Moana. I’m not sure what, but I’m going to try to figure it out.

Moana is made up of two parts. There’s the setup, then there’s Moana’s hero’s journey. I have the feeling that there’s some kind of barrier between the two that separates them, like the barrier reef that separates Moana’s island from the larger world. Perhaps the film’s problem is simply a lack of unity between these two parts. Let’s see.

  1. Setup. The situation is this: the islanders have used too many resources. Fish have disappeared; coconuts are rotting.
  2. Solution: fish beyond the barrier or leave the island for a new one
  3. Problem: the King says no. His reason is simply personal: a personal tragedy makes him stand firm
  4. Solution: get rid of the King. Replace the absolute (but benevolent, of course) monarchy with some kind of democracy. That is, revolution is the logical solution to the problem depicted in the story’s setup.

But for some reason the story goes in an entirely different direction: it turns into a single hero’s journey. In the discussion after the film at my screening, the two directors and screenwriter specifically referred to the hero’s journey and Joseph Campbell. Like so many Hollywood creators nowadays, they know the hero’s journey template backwards and forwards. And they wanted this story to follow that template even though the logic of the story as they set it up did not lend itself to this type of story.

So what did they do to get it going in the direction they wanted it to go? Well, the film doesn’t actually begin by depicting the situation. It begins with a myth, the story of a Hercules/Prometheus type figure, Maui, and he is blamed for the “darkness” falling on the land, the reason why the coconuts are rotting and the fish have vanished. What did he do? He stole the heart from a goddess. Why? Who knows?

What this does is shift the blame for the ecological catastrophe the islanders face to a mythical demigod and therefore the solution to the problem is also placed in the realm of magical thinking.

The solution to a real world problem is shifted into the realm of fantasy. This division in the film’s structure is actually quite common in Hollywood films. But this film makes the division even more blatant than it usually is.

More problems:

5. Why is Moana chosen by the Ocean? Because she saves the baby turtle. She shows empathy for other creatures and therefore passes the Ocean’s test to become the Chosen One. Such a low bar test , however, implies that the other islanders are all unworthy because they all lack basic empathy. They just don’t care about other living beings, and this sort of fits the situation: they’ve used up resources, killed off all the fish. But the film does not have the courage to depict them as lacking empathy. Once again, the natural causes of their problem are bypassed and the demigod Maui is blamed. Before we meet him, we expect him to be a badass evil guy. He turns out not to be evil, but it’s never explained why he stole the heart of the Goddess other than getting carried away. Something like: he did it because he could. In any case, blaming him lets the islanders of the hook. But it also produces a film that lacks unity.

6. Perhaps the greatest problem with the film, however, is that it is formulaic. I’ve already said that the filmmakers referred to Joseph Campbell and his hero’s journey. But other screenplays gurus seem to be in control of their minds, too. Every time Moana saved a turtle or the chicken, it made me think: “How many copies of Save the Cat by Blake Snyder does the screenwriter ownThe topper may have been this, said by the screenwriter during the post-screening discussion: “The audience has expectations for these types of films that they want fulfilled, but in a new, surprising way.” “Expectations” = formulas.

This film never had a chance to be as good and original as it could have been because the filmmakers felt they needed to take the story down the well-trodden road of the hero’s journey, and it lacks unity because they could not or would not risk offending people by showing the islanders themselves as the cause of their environmental problem. Given that our own, real world faces a problem similar to the islanders of Moana, is this really the type of story we need?

Bottom Line:

Application of the formulas: B+

Originality: C

Clear Thinking: F



Written by David Kilmer

December 10, 2016 at 9:19 am

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Cinema of Wong Kar Wai (Large)

I’m not going to spoil this book by posting any of its many, splendid pictures or attempting to describe what you’ll find inside.

All I should need to say is this:

If you’re a film fan, you need this book. You need THE CINEMA OF WONG KAR WAI by Wong Kar Wai and John Powers. Just buy it!

However, for those who need a bit more, I’ll say this:

Cinephiles often dream of a book by their favorite filmmakers in which the filmmakers do not shy away from any subject. In this dream book, the filmmakers talk freely, about the meaning of their films, how they did certain tricks, and even their personal lives.


In it Wong talks personal, he talks meaning, he talks shop. Wong himself says he has not previously been willing to talk about most of the things in this book. Why the change? If you take the journey with Wong and John Powers from cover to cover, something I recommend, you will come to an end where Wong explains why he decided to open up and you will be moved.

To say more will spoil the book. Even to flip through the pages will spoil it. So save up your pennies (it ain’t cheap), buy it, tear off the cellophane, open the book to page one, and start your journey with Wong Kar Wai and John Powers. You won’t be disappointed.

9/10 stars (At least one star off for numerous typos. I counted four typos in Young Orson by Peter McGilligan (yes, I’m one of those people), but four was enough to drive me nuts. I don’t know if there’s even a word to describe what all the typos in the Wong book did to me.)

FYI: I paid for my copy. It was NOT a free review copy.

EXTRA: When a book is as expensive as the Wong Kar Wai book, why not treat it nice? First, if it has a dust jacket, Brodart it, that is, put a plastic cover on the dj. Second, to avoid bending, or even cracking, the book’s spine, do this:


Finally, I recommend putting the book in a plastic bag. Books hate dust, but plastic will keep them safe.

Maybe you think plastic bags are a bit much. Maybe you think it’s all a bit much. But do you really want your beautiful copy of The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai to end up like this?


If you say, “Yes!,” please don’t try to borrow my copy. I won’t answer the door when you knock and I’ll hide in the dark until you go away.


Written by David Kilmer

May 20, 2016 at 2:41 pm

Marvel’s The Avengers: Some Thoughts

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PART 1: Why do reviewers treat Joss Whedon as if he were the primary creator of The Avengers?

1. People who read the mainstream press reviews of the film who know nothing about the origin of the film might be forgiven for thinking that the film is the sole product of Joss Whedon’s imagination because these reviewers never mention the primary creators, who are primarily Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and Joe Simon, who co-created, with Kirby, Captain America.) Why do these reviews give this false impression? Although the primary creators are mentioned in the film’s credits, their absence from 99% of the reviews suggests that Marvel’s PR pushed Whedon as the creator. That’s quite an achievement for someone who had yet to be born when The Avengers #1 appeared on the newsstand in 1963. Marvel could have emphasized the primary creators, and this emphasis would have been echoed in the reviews. But they did not. So instead of coming away from the film thinking what a great imagination Lee and Kirby had, movie-goers are more likely thinking about the “genius” of Whedon.

The film’s credits are also part of the problem. While the names Kirby, Lee, and Simon, as well as others such as John Buscema, Jim Starlin, and Roy Thomas, do show up during the seemingly interminable credits scroll, their lack of prominence clearly gives the impression to viewers that these creators were no more important to the film than someone such as Robert Downey, Jr.’s hair stylist. (Note, however, that none of these names are included in the full credits section for the film on imdb. Why is that? Perhaps because Disney or Marvel supplied these credits.)

Update, May 4, 2012: Kirby and Lee’s name now appear on IMDB, but in the writing credits section rather than as creators of the characters, which is how the names appear in the film’s actual credits. Other names are still missing. Guess how many credits IMDB does list for the film? 2001! Yet, there’s no room for people such as Joe Simon, Roy Thomas, or Jim Starlin, who are, as I already said, actually in the film’s credits. Whether or not they magically appear someday, the fact is that more than two weeks after the film’s release in the USA, they are not on the IMDB page for the film.)

But perhaps, despite not creating any of the film’s main characters, Whedon’s story is so original that he deserves the star auteur treatment. Let’s see if that’s true.

2. I’ve already pointed out that the comic book appeared in 1963 before Whedon was born (in 1964), so he certainly could not have created the concept of The Avengers as a team of super heroes. In fact, the team superheroes concept was not even new in 1963. Marvel itself had already begun publishing Fantastic Four in 1961.  But the first superhero team was created long before that: Justice Society of America appeared for the first time in All Star Comics #3, dated Winter 1940. In any case, this film was setup by Marvel at the end of the first Iron Man film. Whedon was hired to make an Avengers film. He did not go to Marvel and suggest that they should do an Avengers film.

3. But if Whedon did not create the team superhero concept, perhaps he had the idea to team up characters that no one else had thought to team up before. Unfortunately for Whedon, most of the primary Avengers, the ones who had films named after them leading up to this film, were already on the team in the first issue in 1963: Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man, although Hulk’s membership was temporary. And Captain America joined the team a few months later, in issue #4. Even the film’s major villain, Loki, was in issue #1 as a villain. The film’s other team members, Hawkeye and Black Widow, were also Avengers long before Whedon was hired by Marvel. At best Whedon can be credited with going back to the first Avengers comic, but this is more of what an editor, as opposed to a creator, does. But it’s more likely that he was handed the membership list and told that this is what he had to work with.

4. Now we come to something that seems to depart from the early comics. In the film, Nick Fury, who works for the US government, forms the team. The team is his idea. The original Avengers form after fighting a common enemy (Loki) when one of them, Ant-Man, suggests they form a team since they fight together so well, and the Wasp christens them, “The Avengers.” The original team had no government connection.

In the film, it appears that since the government forms The Avengers, the funds to operate the team also come from the government. Not so in the comic. Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, is the team’s benefactor and funding comes through a non-profit organization set up by him.

However, Nick Fury was already shown recruiting Iron Man for the Avengers Initiative at the end of the first Iron Man film. Once again, Whedon had nothing to do with this.

It appears that the general plot of the film is derived directly from The Ultimates comic books written by Mark Millar. There is already an animated version of that story called Ultimate Avengers: The Movie. It’s likely the decision to use this material for the film was made by Marvel before Whedon even signed on as director/writer.

The source for the most iconic moment of the film appears to have been Bryan HItch’s cover for The Ultimates #1.

5. American film critic Andrew Sarris is the one most responsible for introducing the idea that a director is the author of a film to America. He called it the Auteur Theory, as opposed to Auteur Policy, the term used by the French who were the true originators of the approach. I wonder if he thinks when he sees someone such as Joss Whedon hailed as a genius for a film like The Avengers. Does he have any regrets? Or is he simply proud for changing the way the public sees films?

UPDATE: MAY 24, 2012

In an interview on Hero Complex, Avengers production designer James Chinlund says:

I found the Marvel Studio to be an incredibly supportive and positive environment to work in, I have so much respect for the Marvel tradition it was an absolute thrill to step in and carry the baton for a while and help execute the design for “Avengers.” The process at Marvel is a very inclusive one, lots of voices and opinions, but all focused on a singular goal. In the early days there were epic roundtable presentations where we would present the work and discuss it with the Marvel team. I found these meetings to be always productive, Kevin [Feige, producer], Jeremy [Latcham, executive producer] and Victoria [Alonso, executive producer] all have amazing taste and such a profound understanding of the path they are on, I felt that every time I left the table the ideas were that much more focused.

This description of the filmmaking process as a collaborative art may seem obvious, but it nevertheless is not the image one comes away with from the reviews by critics brainwashed by the “auteur theory” who pin all of the credit for the film on one man, ie Whedon. Chinlund speaks of an “inclusive process” and “the Marvel team.” Although he mentions Whedon elsewhere in the interview, he does not feel the need to mention him in this paragraph.

Has the “auteur theory” gotten out of hand?


For what it’s worth, I wrote the above before even seeing the film at a free screening hosted by HeroComplex. I also see that I’ve mentioned Whedon far too many times, doing the same thing that I said mainstream reviewers did. So to make up for it:

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Avengers.

UPDATE: JUNE 14, 2013

Lego Batman The Movie2

The above are the character creator credits for Lego Batman: The Movie. Not only can you read them, but they are placed prominently: first credits at the end of the movie; before the film’s director’s credit and before the film’s writer credits. That’s how you do credits for a comic book movie! (Lego Batman, by the way, is pretty good.)

PART 2: The Film

What the film does right

1. The interplay between characters:  Thor and Iron Man beating the crap out of each other; Hulk  unexpectedly punching Thor; Iron Man’s wisecracks at the expense of Captain America. The characters are neither campy nor overly serious and grim. Whedon (I’ll give him the credit)  gets the balance just right. He captures the Marvel style almost perfectly. No surprise, Whedon having written Avengers comics before this movie. So many superhero team stories are like this: the team gets together, then the team breaks up and fights their separate fights, then they come back together in the end. This film is not like that. It knows that the best way to bring out the characters is by having them play off each other more so than play off their opponents. Loki is the official antagonist, but in a way his role is no different than any of the official Avengers. The heart of the film is the characters’ relationships with each other rather than their fight against space invaders. Loki is part of that and that’s why he’s treated at the end more like a naughty boy than a “war criminal.”

Stan Lee, in an interview done in 1967 for Castle of Frankenstein #12 (the issue is dated January 1968), cited the character interplay as one of the innovations Marvel brought to the superhero genre:

By getting this right, Whedon shows that he understands what made Marvel Marvel.

2. This is the first movie where they get Hulk almost perfectly right. But I think the secret to this success was to simply go back to the comics. For whatever reason, the people who made the first Hulk movies did not want to make the character in the comic books. Whedon and his team did. Kudos to them. (Lou Ferrigno, who played Hulk in the TV series, provided Hulk’s voice for the movie.)

3. The scale of the plot, like so many of the post-Jack Kirby Marvel comics, is cosmic. Big heroes need a big canvas against which to act, and there are fewer canvases bigger than an invasion of Earth by aliens from another dimension. (However, they should have been Skrulls, the default alien race invaders in the Marvel Universe. Is it true that Marvel could not use Skrulls because the rights to them are owned by another studio?) Super hero comics should stimulate our imaginations, and make us think big thoughts. A team of super heroes fighting off an alien invasion is at least a step in the right direction. It sure took a long time to get here, though. Remember the big fight scene in the first Hulk movie where Hulk fights off those most cosmic of all cosmic villains: dogs? Remember when Galactus was transformed into a cloud in Fantastic Four 2, thus proving that alien invasion plots can be screwed up.

It should be pointed out, however, that the alien invasion plot, despite having taken so long to find its way into these movies, is already becoming something of a cliché . Transformers: The Dark of the Moon movie as well as the upcoming Battleship both use similar plots. But it’s worth remembering that the aliens were invading Earth in The Avengers comics long before any of these movies way back in the Sixties.

4. The biggest surprise of the movie was neither Harry Dean Stanton, who, in a bit part, gets to ask Bruce Banner if he is an alien; nor the appearance in the post credits teaser of the Jim Starlin created Thanos. (Hero Complex has an interview with Starlin related to the film and this character. Finally, someone acknowledges that the film is based on work done by people other than Whedon and his crew, as well as pointing out that Jack Kirby is not the only creator to get screwed over.) The biggest surprise of the movie was seeing Polish film director Jerzy Skolimowski play a Russian general early on in the movie. Did anyone else notice him?

What the film does not do right

1. The plot is confusing. Critics talk of refrigerator logic: the kind that gets you through the film, but makes you wonder later what the hell was going on. Well, I didn’t have to wait for the refrigerator because I kept wondering what the hell was going on throughout the film.

2. Some of the dialogue, especially in scenes with Loki, is atrocious. However, the truth is that it’s no worse than many of the comics that inspired this movie. So if the goal was to mimic those comics, mission accomplished.

3. The weakest members of the team are Hawkeye and Black Widow. Hawkeye may have come through better if he had not been reduced to a zombie for much of the film. If he had not been a zombie in the employ of Loki until the climax, he could have benefited from being at the receiving end of barbs from Iron Man, just as Bruce Banner and Captain America benefit. But the real problem is that neither Black Widow nor Hawkeye  fit with the team, despite being on the team in the comics, is because they don’t have super powers. They begin as members of Nick Fury’s spy team, S.H.I.E.L.D., but eventually end up as Avengers. I’m not sure how that happens, but  if  some of the real super heroes in the Marvel super hero bullpen, such as the Vision and Scarlet Witch, could not have been used instead of them, then perhaps the fact that Hawkeye and Black Widow don’t have super powers should have been played up. Perhaps something like this: they never expect to be on the team, but they become members by accident because the moment demands their participation, and they perform above and beyond what, as mere mortals, was expected from them and become the equals of the real super heroes. This would have fit because the film already has Iron Man and Captain America questioning the hero credentials of each other. However, the film shows Hawkeye and Black Widow doing things that you would expect only from a true super hero without acknowledging that they are not really super heroes. (The same is true for Nick Fury. For example, one wonders how he, or anyone else, could survive the first scene of the film, let alone the rest of it.)

4. The aliens: Are they robots or organic beings? Or were they alien Iron Men, that is, organic beings in metal costumes? Whatever they are, they are a bore because they are something that someone such as Willis O’Brien, especially, or Ray Harryhausen would have been ashamed to have committed to film: monsters without personality. We don’t even know their motivation. (Yes, a hint of one is suggested in the post-credits teaser, but that’s something that should have come first, not last.) Doesn’t anyone know how to make good monsters anymore? CGI makes it too easy to create hordes of cookie cutter villains who all look and act the same. It’s rather sad to look at the hordes of artists who were enlisted to create these boring monsters. Did Whedon reject the use of Skrulls thinking that he had a better idea? If so, he was very wrong.

On the other hand, boring aliens help keep the emphasis on the superheroes and the relationships between the team members, which is what the film is really about. The aliens function as a foil and little more. Once the team comes together, the aliens literally vanish, their plot function completed. However, now that the team is formed, the next opponent cannot be similarly faceless. The Thanos teaser suggests that this will not be the case.

5. Loki. For the most part, he’s a cliché . He’s the villain who wants to rule the world and have everyone in it bow down to him. He should have more of the trickster about him, like the original Norse god from which he derives. There’s some of that in this film, but it’s not his primary trait. More of the trickster would separate him from the already overcrowded field of super villains who want to be world dictators, with still more coming soon such as General Zod in Man of Steel (Superman) and Khan in Star Trek 2.

6. Did we really need to see another villain, in this case Loki, turning people into zombie slaves? Is Loki’s mode of operation any different than that of the villains in countless TV cartoons and comics where villains turn people into slaves by controlling their minds? And just like many of those TV cartoons, the fate of the world in the end depends on one of the characters, a non-superhero scientist, somehow partially escaping Loki’s mind control to install a safety override on the device that creates the portal. This is the best that Whedon and his team could come up with?

Nevertheless, despite these major complaints, the film did a decent job translating what I loved about Marvel comics into a live action film. My ten year old self would have gone gaga for it.


1. To what an extent is The Avengers, as a team, a stand-in for the United States as Earth’s sole super power and police force? The plot of the film centers on a cube of cosmic power that the government wants to use to develop advanced weapons system. The Avengers are created instead, but their purpose is pretty much the same. However, the relationship of the team and the government is not exactly smooth. Only Nick Fury knows their whereabouts, and refuses to divulge it to government representatives. We of course side with Fury at this point against the shady government figures. However, it should be remembered at this point that they are elected officials in a democracy, whereas Fury is part of a secretive organization that can override orders from democratically elected officials. In fact, in the film these government figures order the nuking of Manhattan. In other words, democratically elected officials are bad guys; unelected figures who are part of a secret, para-military organization are good guys. Let me say it again: the members of government who have been democratically elected want to nuke Manhattan, but the members of an unelected, secretive, paramilitary organization are the ones who save the day. The fascists, not the democrats (with a small “d,”)  are the good guys!

Of course, this is the standard mode of operation not just for comic books of the superhero sort, but of American pop culture in general where the heroes often are in conflict with the law and its representatives as much as the villains who operate outside the law. The masked superhero with a secret identity may be the perfect realization of the ideal American hero because he is part bad boy, outside the law and, in fact, untouchable by any law enforcer; part cop, upholder of the law. The Avengers end up being where most American heroes end up: neither completely part of the official law force, nor completely outside it. Of course, the home of the film’s producers, the United States, often operates in a similar way, sometimes ignoring, sometimes honoring international law, depending on its purposes. But don’t we all have ambivalent relationships with authority? Such is the world we live in. And that may account more than anything for this film’s popularity.

2. I grew up reading the comics this film is based on, alone in my bedroom. None of my friends read comic books, and comic books were considered just another weird subculture, despite the presence of Hulk and Spider-Man on TV at various times. In the Fifties they burned comics, and even decades after that it seemed that burning comics was the only use most people had for them. So it’s more than a little surreal to wake up in a world where a film that features superheroes that most people had not even heard of until a few years ago is setting box office records throughout the world.

3. The biggest lesson? That the best guy to make this type of film is someone who knows and loves the comics on which it is based. Of obvious as this may seem, it, sadly, is not always the case. I’m thinking especially of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Isn’t it obvious that the people who made that film had little to no love for the original comics, Fantastic Four 48-50, the Galactus Trilogy? They just didn’t get it, and it’s hard to make a good film about something you don’t get. Whedon gets it. That’s the difference.

4. One of my first thoughts walking out of the theater was that the words “Avengers assemble!” are never uttered. However, it’s clear that they don’t belong. We see the heroes assemble on their own and it’s the best moment of the film. If someone had shouted just before that moment, “Avengers assemble!,” it would have weakened that moment because it would be as if someone had ordered them to assemble. By coming together in a circle formation of their own volition, and without the benefit of someone uttering the famous catchphrase, the moment becomes an image of people with differences coming together despite their differences to unite against a common foe, Loki. Loki, in contrast to the way the Avengers are brought together, creates his team by turning people into zombies that work for him because they are controlled by him. When the Avengers assemble, making it seem as if they come together of their own free will creates a contrast with the formation of Loki’s team. It’s the difference between a volunteer army and one that is drafted.


5. I’m not the only one who thought the above “Avengers circle” moment was a highlight of the movie. However, I can’t keep myself from asking: Who would you rather have at your back, Hulk or Black Widow? There’s no denying that Black Widow and Hawkeye are weak links in this chain. If the same actors had been playing Scarlet Witch and the Vision, this moment would been a lot stronger. But as is, it does not survive “refrigerator logic.”

Related posts:

Every one of us is Jack Kirby

Written by David Kilmer

May 2, 2012 at 11:29 am

Hollywood’s Really Big Themes: Freedom and Survival

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This is something that requires a book, so it’s going to be a bit rough because I’m not going to waste my time writing a book that no one will read anyway. (You would have thought that someone would have written a book, but as far as I know there is no book on this subject.)

So, here goes:

Am I the only one who sees the themes of freedom and survival everywhere in Hollywood movies? In film after film, we see a hero fighting to free himself or others from some type of enslavement, fighting to stay alive, or both.

But why are these themes so common? Is life really nothing but an attempt to stay alive? That is, is everything we do nothing more than maintaining the status quo of our existence? There’s another type of story which used to be more common. The hero attempts to get ahead, to improve their status in life, only to find out that they were better off staying where they were. This is the plot of films such as The Wizard of Oz and Damn Yankees. Even Citizen Kane can be categorized with these films. However, it seems that this type of story today is much less common than stories in which the hero merely fights to stay alive. There’s no longer any question of improving their lives when their life is under attack. Often, it’s not just the hero’s life, but  the life of the entire planet that is at stake. Perhaps this shift is the result of the decline of our society.

Then we have stories about the fight for freedom. This usually takes the form of an Robin Hood type outlaw fighting a corrupt government. An early example is Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood (1922). But these stories about the fighting for freedom never explore the concept of freedom, and more or less assumes that everyone already knows what “freedom” is and that it’s worth fighting for? For example, there’s never any question that “freedom” means something different to a factory owner than it does to a factory worker. By ignoring these differences, the films preserve an illusion that “freedom” is universal. The result is that these stories ultimately reinforce the society that made the films, a society which is based on inequality and therefore lacks of freedom.


A) In what sense can it be said that watching stories in which characters battle for their freedom, frees the people sitting watching the screens that display these stories? Although the spectators are not chained to their seats, the end the result is the same as it would be if they were. That is, they remain tied to one place, dreaming of a virtual world acted upon by virtual characters, therefore reduced to being non-actors in their own world. At least while they are engaged with the story. But nowadays, films don’t necessarily end when the end credits role. The fan does not leave the fictional world when the film or book ends. Thanks to facebook, twitter, discussion groups, etc the fan can remain in their chosen fictional world practically forever.

 Is this truly the life we dreamed of when we first began to dream?

B) The Hunger Games, released today in the USA, is an especially obvious example of a film about freedom and survival. And of course these themes are present in the earlier films and TV shows that are similar to it.

This is a very brief list of some of those earlier works, limited to TV and films:

1. The Most Dangerous Game (1932). The film was based on a short story (1924) by Richard Connell, and there have been numerous remakes and reworkings including Hard Target, John Woo’s first American film. Shipwreck victims on an island are given the choice of being killed immediately, or entering a game in which they are hunted by the island’s proprietor. If they last till dawn, they win their life and freedom.

2. The Tenth Victim. Based on a short story by Robert Sheckley. This story is different from all the others on this list in one important aspect: the game is to the death and for the benefit of a TV audience, but the players enter the game voluntarily.

3. The Outer Limits: Fun and Games. Adapted from a short story, “Arena” (1944) by Fredric Brown. This story was also used as the source for Star Trek’s “Arena” episode.

3. Star Trek: “Bread and Circuses,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “Arena.” Superior beings force the Star Trek characters to battle to the death.

4. Death Race 2000 (1975). Death sports as mass entertainment.

5. Rollerball (1975). A roller derby type game, but to the death.

6. The Running Man. Based on a short story (1982) by Stephen King.

7. Battle Royale. Not a Hollywood movie, but a Japanese film based on a Japanese book. Teenagers forced to fight to the death to provide entertainment for the masses.

The common element of these stories, man forced to fight man, can, of course, be traced to the gladiator games in the Roman Coliseum which of course has produced films such as Spartacus and Gladiator. (Some might point out that horseracing today, especially in the USA, resembles the world of The Hunger Games because horses are forced to race against each other. Although it’s not a race to the death, quite a few of the horses end up dying due to racing. Of course, any situation in which soldiers are placed and told kill or be killed is also pretty much it.)

C) In my post about Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, I asked, “Are revenge narratives merely the means to provide the hero with a circumstance in which he or she can kill with impunity and justification?” The Hunger Games suggests a more general question: are stories of any kind merely what Freud called Secondary Revision, that is the work of the Unconscious by which primal desires that are unacceptable to the conscious mind are altered in such a way that they are presented in a disguised, but acceptable, fashion. In the case of The Hunger Games, the primal desire would be murder. So we create a story which allows a good hero to kill others. The story protects us in a number of ways. First, it’s the character, not us, who does the actual murder, meaning we cannot be held accessories to murder. Second, the story provides clear justification for the hero’s killings, ie. a license to kill. Third, the fact that we it’s a mass phenomenon is probably important. We get reassurance from the fact that we are not the only ones attracted to this.

Don’t think this is remotely true? Check out this quote:

Nearly two dozen teens bite the big one in The Hunger Games, sure to be cinema’s most popular source of adolescent bloodshed. There’s no darker vicarious thrill than watching someone perish on screen, as many an action junkie will certainly tell you. (Source.)

Is the secret behind The Hunger Games‘ success a dark view of human nature?

D) As some have pointed out, the world of Hunger Games doesn’t quite make sense. If a government does not want its citizens to rebel, why give them even more reasons by forcing them to sacrifice kids? Instead of forcing tributes, perhaps a more sensible setup would be for the government to offer payment to volunteers. You can be sure that in a world of poverty, there would be no shortage of volunteers. Then create an additional incentive to play the game by providing the winner a huge prize. But the real kicker would be to offer betting on the outcomes. Why? Because instead of rooting for the home team, everyone who bets would be rooting for the one they think will actually win. And make the betting free for everyone. This creates the possibility of a hero whose own district does not support because they think he or she has no chance of winning. But, of course, they are wrong.

E) Like many artists, author Suzanne Collins appears to have constructed The Hunger Games out of bits and pieces from her favorite books:

Are there books you’ve gone back to and read over and over again?

It’s embarrassing to admit how many times I’ve reread the following: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1984, Lord of the Flies, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Germinal, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and A Moveable Feast. (Source.)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: girl’s coming of age story

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: ditto

1984: Authoritarian government

Lord of the Flies: kids killing kids because at heart, by nature, man is evil. (Which, of course, is an argument that can be used as a justification for an authoritarian, 1984-like government: i.e. such a government is necessary to protect man from himself.)

Germinal: exploited working class miners

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, who, of course, also wrote “The Lottery,” which I would guess is also a Collins fave.

Written by David Kilmer

March 23, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Posted in Films

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The Adventures of Tintin’s Nose

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Tintin’s nose

While watching Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin, one thought kept flashing through my mind: why does Tintin (and Snowy) have cute little noses, while everyone else have noses that one must describe with words such as bulbous, hooked, huge, unsightly. This is the kind of nose for which the word “proboscis” was no doubt coined.

So here it is, The Adventures of Tintin’s Nose:

Will Tintin and Snowy's cute little noses survive their adventures intact?

The big nose threatens the little nose. Bystanders' noses add to the threatening atmosphere.

Tintin's nose meets Captain Haddock's nose. No contest. Even Snowy seems impressed.

The first mate, despite having an admirable nose himself, appears none too keen to gaze upon his captain's mighty proboscis.

Bad guy nose vs bad guy nose. Which one will win? Tough call!

Imagine this shot in 3D! Tintin appears to be doing just that.

The big unanswered question is this: What would Freud have said about this game of nose vs nose which Tintin’s nose is forced to play? Of course, to pose that question is tantamount to answering it. The same could be asked of one of my favorite films, The Nose by Alexander Alexeïeff and Claire Parker. It is about a man’s quest to find his nose. If you want to watch an animated film about noses, this is the one to watch. Here it is:


You have been reading my review of The Adventures of Tintin directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wrighy & Joe Cornish, based on the comic book series “The Adventures of Tintin” by Hergé.

Thanks for reading.

Written by David Kilmer

December 19, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Rewrites: J. J. Abrams’ Super 8

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Spoilers ahead!

Last night I had the good fortune of standing in line with my wife, 14-year old son, and more than 200 other people to see J. J. Abrams’ new film, Super 8, at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. The film is about a group of kids in 1979 making a George Romero-inspired zombie film with Super 8 film, the home movie format of the time, and I was especially interested in the film because one of my undeveloped ideas is about a father and son making, or failing to make, a monster film together in the Sixties with Super 8 equipment.

The two-headed giant in Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor

Abrams’ film has many good points, but it ultimately comes across as a monster with two heads that do not get along with each other. On the one hand you have the kids and their adventures making a film and defeating a monster. On the other hand, you have a melodrama which attempts to reduce these adventures and monster into some kind of externalization of the kids’ problems with a big catharsis at the end. I didn’t feel anything for these characters at that point probably because the film loses its focus on the way to that ending. I think that the best element of the film is the kids and their attempt to make a film, but this is not developed as much as it could be because the film drifts away from the kids to change into a film about family reconciliation.

The film should have been better, and so this is not a review, but a rewrite or “re-imagining” of Super 8.

As I said, the film resembles a two-headed monster with warring heads. One of the  “heads” must go. Here are the possibilities:

  1. Cut the army and “real” monster stuff and stick to the story about a group of kids making a monster film. Contrast the genre horror in their film with the real-life horror of their home life. You don’t have to change much. It’s more a matter of cutting and emphasis. Instead of The Goonies meets E.T. meets Ed Wood, it would be The Goonies or Little Rascals meet Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. The important thing is to provide the kids with a sense of empowerment by means of the making of a movie. Abrams’ film ends up doing the opposite. The kids’ movie can never stand up against the production values of the blockbuster Hollywood  movie. So of course the movie that the kids make produces laughs. It’s a bit like Burton’s Ed Wood, actually, except since they are kids, not much is expected from them. But we still laugh at their film, a film that is not supposed to be a comedy, and they are denied a sense of empowerment through something that they do. Instead, they are reduced to standing still in awe at the special effects of Abrams’ movie. My re-write fixes that.
  2. Cut the melodrama. In fact, get rid of kids’ backstory and get rid of the adults. Make it a bit like Peanuts where the emphasis is almost 100% on the kids without any adults to get in the way of their fun. The kids are making a classic monster movie, not a zombie movie, when they run into a real-life monster. They are not scared in the least, and take it as an opportunity for adventure. The conflict would be more with the army than the monster. Once again, it’s more a matter of cutting and emphasis than any major change to the film. All of these elements are there in Super 8, but are diluted by the backstory and the conflict with and between parents. The scenes with Charles, the kid director, and his family is the way to go if you must show parents in action. Show them as being more or less oblivious to what’s going on with their kids. By the time comes when the kids succeed in helping the misunderstood monster escape the army, the adults are still in the dark about everything that happened.
  3. This is more of an alternative ending than a rewrite and does not involve cutting off one of the “heads.” There is a clear falling out between Joe and Charles over Alice. Charles says something like, “She only likes you because she feels sorry for you because of your mother.” The monster needs the kids’ help to complete its spaceship (it involves the piece of the spaceship that Joe took from the wreck), so Joe makes a deal with the monster that involves the monster agreeing to “act” (it could be nothing more than letting Joe know what’s going to happen so the kids can be prepared to film it) in Charles’ film in exchange for the kids’ help. Joe makes the deal without Charles even knowing about it until it happens. It’s Joe’s way of making up for “stealing” Alice from his friend. This ties things together better than the original ending and Charles gets his production value in spades!

So, those are my ideas for a rewrite. Here are some additional comments about the film:

  • I’m curious about why the script has the army call what they do to the town, Operation Walking Distance. “Walking Distance” is the title of one of the earliest Twilight Zone episodes. It is about a man who travels back in time to his childhood where he meets his father and younger self. Is Super 8 Abrams’ version of traveling back to his childhood? If so, did his childhood really resemble a Spielberg movie? I suspect that Abrams identifies more with Charles, the filmmaker, than Joe, the best friend who steals the girl that Charles likes.
  • The presentation of the film included a short clip at the beginning in which Abrams more or less says that he hopes that the people watching like his movie the we were about to see. This was amusing because Super 8 ends with Charles, the director of the film-within-the-film, addressing the camera just as Abrams did, saying more or less that he hopes that the people watching liked his movie that we had just seen.
  • Am I wrong thinking that the kids in the movie watch the Army footage about Project Belttrap that they find in their teacher’s locker is Super 8 format film and that they watch it on a Super 8 projector? The date of this Army report is April 8, 1963. According to Wikipedia, Super 8 format film was not released to the market by Kodak until 1965. Of course, Kodak would have used the army to give it a test first by using it to document such secret projects such as Operation Belttrap. Much better to use an untested product on a top secret project than the familiar 16mm format. So I’m sure there’s no real error here on the part of the filmmakers. I suppose they can always say that the guy transferred 16mm originals to Super 8. I’m sure he would do that.
  • The kids break laws. Alice drives a car without a license; Charles steals money from his mother to pay for film; Joe takes his father’s camera without his father knowing, etc. Is Abrams saying that making a film, or, perhaps, doing anything worthwhile, requires breaking society’s rules?
  • The kids cooperate awfully well while making Charles’ movie. My experience as a kid with projects involving other kids was nothing like this. We always ended up fighting and yelling at each other, assuming I could even get a bunch of kids together in the first place. What we see in the film of the kids working together to make a film seems to me to be as much of a fantasy as the zombie film they are making. If only it had been like that!
  • The audience reaction at the end was somewhat subdued, perhaps a bit less energy than the filmmakers would have liked for this kind of film. It seemed to me that the train wreck near the beginning was received with more enthusiasm.

Now I’ll use the excuse of the FTC guidelines regarding endorsements to shamelessly drop some names while saying a bit about my “connections” to Super 8.  I was in film school at the same time as one the producers of Super 8, Bryan Burk. Everyone said that he looked like someone who spent most of his time in a tanning salon. Perhaps his family had one in their Bel Air home. One of my teachers showed his film, Stop Light, a 310 (a short film without dialogue made with a student crew of two) which he had made in that teacher’s class the previous semester. It was about a guy stuck in the middle of the night at an intersection with a red light that will not change. It was funny. I was also in a class in which he was production manager on the 480 (a short film with dialogue and a student crew of 8, only four of which were chosen to be made per semester) directed by James Gray, Cowboys & Angels. I saw Burk a couple of times when he visited the set of the 480 I was crewing on. (He was a friend of the director, Erik Fleming.) The following semester he directed his own 480 which starred Robert DoQui, a member of the cast of Nashville, one of my favorite films, and DoQui was the only good thing about it. I haven’t seen Burk since then, and I doubt he’d remember me.

While I’m at it, I might as well say something about James Gray, who, as I just wrote, was at USC when I was there. (This is the same James Gray who directed Little Odessa, etc.)

1. I saw Gray’s 310 which, I think, was called Territorio. At that time, a 310 at USC was an 8 minutes long film or video without synchronized dialogue. Gray’s film was about a homeless guy fighting other homeless guys for territory. (Homelessness seemed to be the subject of every other student film at the time.) Although I know of at least one person who saw it and was impressed, and the fact that it got Gray a 480 directing gig means that more than one person was taken by it, the film did not make much of an impression on me. However, there was one memorable scene. That would be the one in which the main character jerks off. Seriously.

2. I was in the 480 class in which Gray directed Cowboys & Angels (written by John Albert), a 12 minute film with sync dialogue, although I crewed on another film in the class, Joel Was Here. Once again, the film did not make much of an impression on me. It was more or less the Jodie Foster storyline of Taxi Driver, about a guy hired to track down a runaway teenage girl. The original grade Gray was given for the film was an “F” because he broke a class rule by setting a scene in a club which included a very visible topless dancer. But Gray appealed the grade, got an “A,” and the film was a hit at First Look, the USC student film screening. Lesson? It pays to break the rules, especially when it comes to nudity. Put simply: boobs work. Also, it doesn’t hurt to imitate Scorsese (or whoever is hot at the time).

3. Gray also broke at least one other rule on his film. Each 480 was supposed to have two crew members who did everything on the film that involved sound, from boom operator to sound design to final sound mix. The director is not supposed to intervene except to offer ideas and provide a general idea of what he wants. He is not supposed to literally do the sound design himself. However, during the shoot one of the sound guys, Bryon, was seriously injured in an auto accident. (He did not return to school for at least a year.) This allowed Gray and the film editor to take over the sound design. Todd, the official sound guy, did not really do the sound on that film. (I wish I had had this arrangement on my 480, Shadows on the Wall.)

4. I remember talking to Gray only once, when he visited the set of the film I crewed on that semester, Joel Was Here. Godfather III had been recently released, and most critics had trashed it. Going against the prevailing opinion, Gray told me he had been moved to tears by the ending of Coppola’s film and did not understand how anyone could not be similarly affected. I had been unfortunate enough to have seen the film when it opened, Christmas Day, but declined to express my opinion. I’m not entirely sure how this conversation arose, but I’m pretty sure that Gray, seeing me fiddling with my sound boom with little else to do while  the DP set up the next shot, just started talking to me about the film out of the blue.

5. I was visiting the roommate of Shane, the DP on Gray’s film, when Shane played for the first time a message Gray had left on her answering machine. The message was pure verbal abuse of a kind that I had not heard before, and, luckily, have not heard since. Later, I asked her if she would work with Gray again. Despite the abuse, she said she would because he knew what he wanted. This was a funny thing to say because the final version of the film was very different from the script because the film changed a lot during the editing process. Not exactly the sign of someone who knows what they want, but typical of how most of us actually work.

Update (6/10/11):

In an interview at /Film, Abrams says:

But there was a kind of movie that I loved when I was a kid where I would be laughing one minute, crying the next minute, I would be amazed the next, and scared the next.  And by the time the movie is over I felt like I had been through this sort of roller coaster of various emotions and it was a wonderful, satisfying thing. The goal of Super 8 was to try to make a movie that was not just a comedy, not just a horror movie, not just a science fiction film, not just a love story, not just an emotional family trauma or a weird sort of paranoid thriller, but all of them.

In other words, the two-headed nature of Abrams’ film that led me to rewrite it is exactly what Abrams wanted. This is also an example of what I think, despite my rewrite, is the best way to make a film: create a list of things that you like, then create a framework that links them together. It’s like a variety show, but the more you emphasize plot and the logic that links events in the plot, the more limited you become in what you can include in the story. I do not know if Abrams’ began his film with a list, but his description above suggests that this was his method. Doing it this way may produce a film that lacks the power that can only come from a united front where all elements build to a climax, but such an emphasis on unity often leads to something bland. Whatever Super 8 may lack, it’s not blandness. Hardly any film is satisfactory to everyone, but it usually has at least one or two elements that you like. Perhaps the ideal film is one that combines your favorite bits and pieces of your favorite films. When are films going to be interactive?

Update (6/14/11):

Turns out that “Walking Distance” is Abrams’ favorite episode of The Twilight Zone.

Written by David Kilmer

June 9, 2011 at 9:14 am