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What I’ve Watched In… December 2016


Favorite of the Month: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. I Am Santa Claus (2014), A
  2. A Christmas Carol (2009), B-
  3. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983), B+
  4. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), D; RiffTrax Live Riff, B
  5. The Night Before (2015), B-
  6. Santa Claus (1959), F; Rifftrax Live Riff, B
  7. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987), A
  8. Snow (2004), B
  9. Snow 2: Brain Freeze (2008), B
  10. Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978), A
  11. Christmas With Rifftrax: Santa’s Village of Madness, B
  12. The Shop Around the Corner (1940), A
  13. Trans-Siberian Orchestra: The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (1999), B+
  14. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998), D
  15. Christmas Eve (2015), A-
  16. Scrooge (1970), B+
  17. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), A-
  18. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), A-
  19. Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979), B-
  20. Trading Places (1983), B
  21. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), A
  22. A Very Murray Christmas (2015), A-
  23. Marvel Super Hero Adventures: Frost Fight (2015), B
  24. The Ref (1994), B+
  25. An American Christmas Carol (1979), B+
  26. Popeye’s Voyage: The Quest For Pappy (2004), C
  27. Ebbie (1995), D
  28. Scrooge and Marley (2001), C-
  29. Die Hard (1988), A
  30. Home Alone (1990), A
  31. Santa’s Christmas Circus (1966), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  32. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), A+
  33. Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), A
  34. Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A
  35. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A+
  36. A Christmas Story (1983), A
  37. In the Good Old Summertime (1949), B
  38. Captain Phillips (2013), B+
  39. Hail, Caesar! (2016), B+
  40. Life of Pi (2012), A-
  41. 12 Years a Slave (2013), A
  42. Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016), C
  43. Night Shadows (1984), D-; RiffTrax Riff, B
  44. No Country For Old Men (2007), A-
  45. Keanu (2016), B
  46. 12 Angry Men (1957), A+
  47. Wild Things (1998), B
  48. The Sting (1973), A-
  49. Singin’ in the Rain (1952), A+
  50. The Jungle Book (2016), C+
  51. For the Love of Spock (2016), A
  52. Ghostbusters (1984), A
  53. Ghostbusters II (1989), B

Learning the wrong lessons from The Lone Ranger

Lone Ranger Movie PosterAllow me to preface this by saying I have not yet, as of this writing, seen Disney’s The Lone Ranger. I probably will eventually, but it’s looking increasingly like the sort of movie I can wait to get from NetFlix, one I’m not particularly looking forward to anymore. I love the character, though, and in my capacity as a fully-accredited Geek Pundit, I sort of feel obligated to see the movie in order to completely analyze what’s wrong with it.

That said, this article is going to tell you what’s wrong with it. Well… not with the movie itself, I’ve got no intention of discussing the plot or performances beyond the snippets revealed in the trailers, but I’m going to discuss what I think went wrong in the production of this $215 million film that, in a five day opening weekend that included the Fourth of July holiday, only managed to scrape up $49 million. (It came in second to Universal’s Despicable Me 2, a $76 million film that pulled in $142 million in the same frame.) Most importantly, I’m going to talk about how the Disney studio is going to look at the weak performance of this movie, analyze the problem, and as they have done so often in the past, completely misunderstand what they did wrong.

I’m going to pick on Disney here because they made this movie and they make these mistakes a lot, but to be fair I should point out most of these problems apply to any major movie studio, where decisions are made by people with business degrees and not anybody with the first idea what makes for an entertaining motion picture. I’m talking about the Disney that could only bring in $104 million for a wonderful movie like The Princess and the Frog — a charming fairy tale with classic Disney charm and, four years later, persistent popularity among fans. They took a look at the film’s underperformance, decided that the problem is that “boys won’t see a movie with Princess and the title,” and forced their upcoming sci-fi epic to change its title from A Princess of Mars to John Carter of Mars, then cutting it to the unbearably bland John Carter under the logic that girls wouldn’t want to see a movie with Mars in the title (because Mars Needs Moms tanked in-between the two films). John Carter, of course, has been marked as a cinematic blunder of Hindenburg-level proportions, but it was a strong, deserving film that got sunk because the Disney suits played musical chairs with their marketing department and didn’t know what the hell to do with it. The Princess and the Frog and John Carter were both good movies that could have had success at the box office if they’d found their audience, but Disney insists on trying to make the box office audience for their movies “everybody on the planet.”

And that gets us to the root of Disney’s problem. In the last two decades, they have become increasingly identified as a studio that produces content that is more appealing to girls than boys (the various princess films, for instance, or the avalanche of girl-led sitcoms on the Disney Channel). There’s nothing wrong with making content that appeals to girls, of course, but all Disney sees is a gaping black hole where the money they want to get from boys and their parents should be. They’ve tried to combat this in multiple ways — changing their Toon Disney network to “Disney XD” and loading it with sitcoms starring boys, turning their 80s sci-fi film Tron into a modern franchise and, of course, purchasing Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm to exploit their superhero lines and Star Wars, respectively. The thing is, Tron: Legacy wasn’t a blockbuster either, and although the Marvel films have done extremely well, the general public didn’t walk out of The Avengers satisfied that they had seen a great Disney movie. Marvel has its own brand, and while Disney is perfectly happy to rake in the money from that success, they want a property they can put their own stamp on.

Pirates 1Arguably, the biggest success of Disney proper in the past decade has been its Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. To the Disney suits, this is a movie that has everything: swords and fighting and monsters for the boys, dreamy hunks like Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp for the girls. (Note for the benefit of readers who happen to be my fiance: I’m not saying I personally believe in this incredibly sexist attitude. I’m saying that this is what a Hollywood suit sees when he tries to determine why a movie has made money.) What this exec fails to see is that the Pirates movies… well, the first Pirates movie, and to some degree the fourth one… are actually good movies. They’re fun, full of energy, exciting, and for the most part deliver what you expected when you saw the trailers. Monsters were abundant, adventure was had, swashes were buckled. Great.

Compare this, if you will, to the major complaints I’m hearing about The Lone Ranger. Most people who have been dissatisfied (and even many of those who liked it) have reported a long, dull stretch in the middle and a surprisingly violent climax, neither of which is something you would expect from the trailers, which show trains blowing up, Helena Bonham Carter shooting a gun out of her garter belt, and Johnny Depp unforgivably mugging for the camera. People don’t expect excessive violence out of the Disney brand. (Even the fights in the Pirates franchise are largely cartoonish, without showing the real consequences of such action.)

However, such violence is in keeping with The Lone Ranger. On the other hand, Depp seems to have imported his Captain Jack Sparrow shtick into Tonto, a character that traditionally is rather solemn and wise, and turned him into just another facet of the same clown Depp has been playing in assorted movies since the first Pirates film. So Disney took a franchise with an 80-year history, tweaked it enough that longtime fans won’t like it, but failed to change it enough so that the four quadrant “family” audience they keep chasing will buy into it. The result of Disney trying to make a movie that appeals to everyone is a movie that appeals to no one.

Pixar notwithstanding, it’s virtually impossible to make a movie that will appeal to every possible demographic. In truth, it’s not even smart to try. Invariably, something that appeals to one group will turn off another group, so by trying to make something that everybody likes, you have to cut out pretty much everything that makes something interesting, original, or worth watching. This is why so many cookie-cutter action movies, romantic comedies, or brainless horror movies keep getting turned out over and over again. It’s the reason you can watch a brand-new movie and feel like you’ve seen it a thousand times before.

The Lone Ranger could be an excellent movie if made properly: that is to say, made in a way that appeals to the existing fanbase and a potential new audience that would be into a western adventure. In the same way that some people try to argue that Superman is a character who no longer matters, some say the same about the Lone Ranger. These people miss the point — properties don’t last for three quarters of a century or longer if there isn’t something about them that matters in a timeless way. The Lone Ranger is, in fact, rather timeless — a man whose family is murdered and left for dead, then uses the anonymity of his “death” to seek justice. In many ways, characters like he and Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel are all prototypes for the modern superhero, and superheroes are huge at the box office these days. Why can’t they make that work?

Jonah HexWhat’s more, the story is primarily one about a man’s search for justice, which is a major theme in many of the greatest westerns ever made. But westerns are an entire genre that, like the Lone Ranger himself, constantly struggle to prove they still matter. Every time we get a great western like True Grit, Hollywood has to balance it with a movie that feels like it has to “justify” the western by combining it with something else. Take Jonah Hex, a comic book western about a Confederate soldier that turned against the south, was hideously scarred, and now makes his way as a bounty hunter. It’s grim and gritty and, when played properly, enormously engaging and dramatic. But when Warner Bros decided to make a movie out of the character, they decided a solid western wasn’t good enough and instead threw in a bunch of stupid supernatural elements ripped off from The Sixth Sense and The Crow, tossed out some steampunk weapons that didn’t belong there at all, and wound up with a film that ranks somewhere between X-Men: The Last Stand and Halle Berry’s Catwoman on the scale of comic book movies that are an utter disgrace to the source material.

The Lone Ranger couldn’t “just” be a great western. It had to be a western that looked like a family comedy. And also had that dreamy Johnny Depp in it to get the girls to come.

Let’s talk about Depp, by the way. It could be easy to get the impression, from this piece, that I hate Johnny Depp, and that’s simply not true. He’s a talented actor and he’s made some great movies. I’m just getting a little sick and tired of seeing him. He doesn’t have to be in every movie, and he sure as hell doesn’t need to play Tonto. Reportedly, when this film began having budget problems and was almost derailed, he took a big pay cut to ensure it got made. Good for him. He still shouldn’t have been cast as Tonto in the first place. Honestly, I’m of the opinion that most cases where an actor is cast against the usual race of an established character it’s something of a stunt, but there are times when it can be made to work. Laurence Fishburne as Perry White in Man of Steel, for example, was no big deal because Perry’s ethnicity isn’t really of any importance to his role in the story. Tonto, however, is a Native American Indian. This is vital to the character. And casting Johnny Depp in the part makes you unable to see Tonto at all — all you see is Depp in that goofy makeup he insisted on wearing, contrary to pretty much every interpretation of Tonto ever.

Even if Depp had played the character completely straight, even if he’d done a remarkably faithful interpretation of Tonto, do you honestly mean to tell me that Disney couldn’t find one Native American actor in the country who could do the part just as well, if not better?

Of course, then Disney couldn’t have promoted the film on Depp’s “star power.” Which of course, makes all the difference. Just look at the raging success of last year’s Dark Shadows, in which he turned a supernatural soap opera into a goofy 70s comedy. Smash hit, right?

(Side note: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Tim Burton all need to take a break from each other. They’ve made great movies in the past, but their routine has gotten really old. The three of them need to pledge to stop working together for at least 10 years, and which point we’ll have forgotten why we got sick of them and they can come back with a triumphant “reunion” movie. Probably a slapstick reinterpretation of Creature From the Black Lagoon.)

What should Disney take away from this? They should learn to make a good movie first, one that appeals to existing fans but also has the potential to grow the fanbase, and that they should make a movie that will be successful with a smaller group of people instead of a movie that fails across the board. They need to properly identify the audience that will enjoy this film and target it instead of trying to cut trailers that make the movie look like something it isn’t. They may not do Avengers numbers that way, but they could make  movie that’s entertaining, profitable, and will have longevity.

What lessons will they likely learn? “People don’t like westerns or the Lone Ranger. What’s the next classic franchise we can try to homogenize into a mass market hit?”

2 in 1 Showcase Episode 286: A Weekend at the Movies

showcase logo full black2I don’t always post my pop culture podcast here at Reel to Reel, but when I do, you can bet it’s because there’s a lot of movie talk. In this week’s episode, my fiance Erin gives her opinion of the new 3D re-release of Jurassic Park, then I talk about the remake of Evil Dead and the DVD release of the horror/comedy John Dies at the End. If you enjoy my movie punditry, give it a listen!

And if you, like me, have a lot of overlapping fandoms in your personal geek wheelhouse, the rest of the episode concerns such subjects as the newest episode of Doctor Who, the upcoming Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, and the passing of comic book greats Carmine Infantino and George Gladir.
2 in 1 Showcase Episode 286: A Weekend at the Movies


If I was making the Justice League movie…

Justice League V2 1Fans of DC Comics’s Justice League franchise saw what seems to be another setback this week, when word leaked the script that has been in development is being scrapped entirely. For those who just want to see the damn movie made already, this is obviously distressing news. But my approach is slightly different. I absolutely want to see a Justice League movie, but I want to see a great movie. So if Warner Bros recognized that the script they’re working with is crap, by all means, start over and do it right.

Earlier this week over at CXPulp, I wrote about how Disney seems to be planning to apply the lessons of Marvel Studios to their recently-acquired Star Wars franchise. (For those of you who may not follow this stuff the way I do, let me briefly explain that Disney bought Marvel in 2009 and that Marvel and DC have been the two biggest publishers – and therefore the two biggest rivals – in American comic books for decades). Marvel created films for several of their characters, brought them together in their mega-hit The Avengers, and are now breaking them off into smaller films again before the next combined go-around. Comic book fans, delighted with what Marvel is doing, are asking why the hell the movies based on DC Comics – the Justice League, Superman, Batman, and many more — can’t do the same thing. Although DC Comics, for a long time, had properties with more mainstream recognition than Marvel, in the past decade Marvel has dominated superhero movies. The only hit from the DC Universe in recent years has been Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, while Marvel’s X-Men, Spider-Man, and Avengers-related films have become legitimate powerhouses.

The reason for this, I believe, goes back to the late 90s. Marvel, at the time, was still an independent company, although one reorganizing after a bankruptcy. DC, however, has been wholly owned by Warner Bros for a very long time. That means Warner Bros is the only game in town to make a DC movie. If Warner Bros isn’t interested, it won’t happen, and if Warner Bros doesn’t understand what makes the property work, we get crap like Steel and Catwoman. Marvel, on the other hand, had the freedom to shop their properties around. Universal doesn’t have the right feel for Spider-Man? Take it to Sony. Paramount can’t give us a decent X-Men film? Bring them to Fox. Granted, this system turned out its share of clunkers too (let’s not forget that some genocidal maniac gave approval to not one, but TWO Ghost Rider movies starring Nicolas Cage), but their batting average over this period, beginning with Blade in 1998, is pretty damn good.

Things are different now, of course, since Marvel is owned by Disney. But by the time of that purchase in 2009, Marvel had already launched their own film unit to make movies with the characters other studios didn’t have – Iron Man and Incredible Hulk had both already come out and production was underway on Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. By the time Marvel was a Disney property, they’d proven that they could make great films on their own, and Disney has wisely stayed the hell back and let them do it, the way they did when they bought Pixar in 2006. (Disney seems to have a three-year cycle for buying other companies, they got Lucasfilm in 2012. That means I have until 2015 to create a franchise with lucrative enough IPs that I can sell them to Disney and retire in luxury.)

This, more than anything else, is what Warner Bros needs to learn in regards to any DC Cinematic Universe. It’s not about copying Marvel’s storytelling or casting tricks or format. It’s about letting the people who know the characters do what they do best and getting out of their way while they do it.

Marvel needed to raise the profiles of their lesser-known characters or Avengers never would have been the hit that it was. DC has a different problem. Ten years ago, nobody who wasn’t a comic book fan knew who Iron Man or Thor were. DC’s problem is that everybody knows many of their characters – Wonder Woman, Aquaman – but they fundamentally misunderstand them. Aquaman is a punchline, he’s “the guy that talks to fish.” But as writers like Geoff Johns and Peter David have shown us, he can be so much more than that – a tragic monarch, a man who struggles with the responsibility of protecting two-thirds of the surface of the Earth… not to mention the fact that the physical changes necessary to allow a person to survive on the ocean’s floor would make them pretty strong and otherwise badass on land. Putting Aquaman in a movie doesn’t necessitate that you explain who he is, it necessitates you explain what makes him awesome.

So if I was in charge of the Justice League movie, this is what I would do.

First, start with this summer’s Man of Steel. The film is generating some positive buzz and I’m excited about it. I’d work in a small reference to a larger DC Universe – have some news report about Green Lantern in the background, or a page of the Daily Planet referencing the chaos in Gotham City that happened during The Dark Knight Rises. Nothing that would really influence Superman’s story, but enough to nod at the fact that he’s not – as Nick Fury said in the first Iron Man – the only superhero in the world.

Then, I’d work on putting together a phenomenal Justice League story. I wouldn’t start with the big bad that was in the previous script, Darkseid, for two reasons. First, Marvel is already using Thanos in their movies, and although Thanos was largely a Darkseid rip-off when he was created in the comics, movie fans won’t get that and will think it’s the Justice League that’s being derivative. Second, he’s too big for the first movie. Where do you build from there? You need a threat big enough to justify bringing all of these characters together, of course, but they shouldn’t go up against the biggest threat in the universe their first time out.

Next, get the recognizable aspects from the current DC films and put them together: Henry Cavill as Superman, build off the end of The Dark Knight Rises (as a spoiler consideration I won’t be more specific than that), and yes, I’d get Ryan Reynolds back as Green Lantern. That movie had problems, but his casting really wasn’t one of them. Then I’d add the characters that the public has heard of but doesn’t understand – Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash. Use this movie to showcase them the way Avengers suddenly turned everyone in America into fans of the Hulk for the first time in decades.

Don’t bother with everybody’s origin. It’s a convention of the superhero genre, true, but it’s often the least exciting part of it. You don’t need to know why John McClane became a cop to enjoy Die Hard, so why do I need to see Barry Allen get struck by lightning when I’ve already accepted a world with a man from Krypton and another guy with a magic ring? After Justice League, we’ll start spinning the other characters off into their individual movies – if necessary, work in the origins there. There’s no rule that says they have to take place after the Justice League movie just because they’re made in that order, although even then, I think a quick flashback would probably be more than sufficient in most cases.

Finally, make it clear that the Justice League isn’t the be-all and end-all of the DCU. Marvel can’t reference Spider-Man, the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four, because the rights to those characters are still tied up with other studios thanks to deals they made before they were purchased by Disney. DC doesn’t have that problem. Guillermo Del Toro is working on a movie featuring some of DC’s supernatural characters like Swamp Thing and Deadman – a Justice League movie could drop in a reference to them. Give us veiled hints or rumors about other Leaguers from the comics like Zatanna, Plastic Man, Firestorm… characters that have potential for their own films in the future, assuming of course that they’re done right. Even better – if you have some sort of huge battle for the end piece, the sort of thing that the public can’t help but notice (like the battle of New York in The Avengers, and it just shows how great that movie was structured that it keeps being the best analogy), give us glimpses of some of these other heroes fighting their own battles while the League takes on the Big Bad, whoever it happens to be.

And most importantly, make sure that the story is one that satisfies the fans but is broad enough to grab people who don’t know all of the characters. This is what Marvel has done brilliantly and what Warner Bros has prevented DC from doing for years. If you can pull off that trick, we’d have a movie that could launch not just one franchise, but an entire universe.

Of course, that’s what I would do. But what do I know? I’m just a guy who reads comics and watches movies. It’s not like I’ve got the pedigree of the man who gave the green light to Jonah Hex.

(If that line isn’t enough to convince people I should be running the show, nothing will be.)