Raptors in the Forest

Over a hundred years of cinema history and people still ask “what is your favorite movie?” as if it’s nothing but mindless chit-chat or a way to break the ice on a first date.

The question drives cinephiles crazy because it should be impossible to answer, but the truth is everyone who loves movies always knows their answer. Maybe they keep a rotating list of five or ten so they can switch it up at a party and seem smarter/funnier/cooler/sexier than they really are, but in your heart of hearts you only have one answer, no matter how dumb or pretentious or pop.

I’ve known my answer since 1993, when I was watching TV cross-legged on the living room floor and a commercial for Jurassic Park changed the course of my entire life.

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The things that came after — leaving Washington State for Los Angeles, ridiculous amounts of school debt, ten plus years of struggling to make rent as an underpaid production assistant on such gems as Ninja Cheerleaders —  weren’t a reality yet. In the spring of 1993 the whole of life was just a twelve-year-old boy experiencing joy to a degree he didn’t know was possible, leaping off the carpet and running through the house yelling and leaping in big arcs like a maniac.

Nostalgia distorts this moment into a perfect movie scene. My mother’s potted plants draped beside the television like jungle vines. Floating dust highlighted streaks of sunlight from the windows. The shot of a t-rex in a side view mirror infused me with adrenaline and propelled me weightlessly down the hall.

Retrospect is what reminds me of the bemused look on my father’s face and the frustrated confusion from my grandmother — who was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s — as she tried to wrap her mind around the quivering, wide-eye little geek who wanted desperately for her to share his enthusiasm.

With her disease this was just one of many times this scenario played out, though it’s the one that sticks with me the most. The uncrossable distance between us was of course age and dementia, made worse by my chaotic rambling, but in truth that same disconnect was always present when I tried to talk to others about movies, stories, and art.

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Like everyone who identifies with so-called “geek culture” it was late night zombie movies and Mystery Science Theater 3000 that called to me as a child. Though I was raised blue collar, movies and TV were never a reward at the end of the day for a job well done, they were simply everything that I cared about and consumed my mind every waking hour.

I feel like lots of people care about the rules of prose, but few look at film and television as a sort of language and try to process what they’re watching on any kind of critical level. But I always learned best through story. And given that I was homeschooled up until I went to college, I had an enormous amount of free time to watch movies and television.

As a result, I thought in movie shots. I intuited film grammar from an early age and could pick out jarring edits before I could knew what to call them (the first time I learned about “crossing the line” I was so excited that I wasn’t the only freak who cared about these things!).

My parents tell stories of me pausing a movie, standing up in front of my friends, and getting angry at them for not understanding what the scene was really about. When it came to movies I could find lots of folks who enjoyed them, but no one who understood them or why they were so important.

It was a seemingly impossible divide, whether with peers or my aging grandmother.

That film obsession came to a head with Jurassic Park. From the opening THUD of brand new surround sound technology, that entire theater was as reverent as a church, faces forward, minds and souls open to whatever flashed on screen.

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When I walked out of the theater, my life had changed. I’ve experienced religious and romantic and self-induced highs in my life since,  but I’ll be damned if that brightly-colored dino thriller didn’t match them all in its own way.

I’ve read a lot about the incredible audience reactions to Star Wars and Jaws — two movies I adore but was too young to experience in the theater — but the awe in the cineplex for Jurassic Park was stunning, and all I knew was that I had to see the movie as many times as possible.

Every day I scanned the newspaper until I found the t-rex skeleton logo in the movie listings whenever the film played at the local second-run theater.

Luckily, tickets at The Liberty were about a buck, so it was possible to scrounge up enough loose change during a long summer day, pillaging couch cushions and scouring the parking lot of our apartment complex.

After the third or fourth viewing, when those jeeps stopped in the rain my friends and I would rush through the aisles into the lobby and up the stairs to the bathroom where we’d watch the mirror shake as the t-rex approached, our reflections quivering like those famous cups of water.

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Soon I had every line memorized and once recited the film beginning to end, complete with proper inflection, gestures, and dramatic pauses, totally unaware that my infatuation was inadvertently preparing me for a future career in screenwriting.

About the time I placed my first ever pre-order for the VHS release in October of ’94 (a mind-blowing new concept at the time), my parents got word that they lost their job.

They managed our apartment complex, but that task was being farmed out to a nation-wide leasing company. And since part of their salary included free housing, this also meant we were out of a home. They quickly lined up another management job with onsite housing, but it was still under construction and way behind schedule.

Luckily, my folks had recently purchased a tiny piece of wooded property near the town of Elma, Washington. It was intended as an investment, but we now found ourselves living in the woods on an indefinite vacation.

Days were spent fishing and swimming and riding bikes on dirt trails. After dark we’d play cribbage and UNO around the campfire while my father read aloud from the highbrow works of Patrick McManus, and we’d close out the evening listening to Jim French on the KIRO Mystery Playhouse.

But evenings grew colder and the weather got worse. Nighttime in my tent brought the sounds of creaking trees that reminded me of dilophosaurus calls, the thunder in the hills of a hunting t-rex. And after a while, imagination gave way to worry.

Slowly it dawned on me that my family was essentially homeless. The daytime fishing trips weren’t just fun, they were functional, producing many of our dinners. Suddenly the nighttime trips to the local Lake Arrowhead Community Clubouse to take showers seemed less adventurous.

Finally October rolled around and my parents drove me to Suncoast Video to pick up my VHS of Jurassic Park. We had no television, let alone a VCR, so it lived in my tent safely under the pillow, where I’d pull it out and study the case with a flashlight.

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I memorized the crew listed on the front, the still images from the movie printed on the back, and I’d project the entire movie in my own mind. Lips whispering dialog, visualizing every edit, until we moved into our new home where I could finally press play.

The mid-‘90s were a watershed time for cinema, often overlooked. The end of New Wave in the late ‘70s lead to the corporate blockbusters that we still see today, and in many ways Jurassic Park marks a more subtle cinematic shift from personal to impersonal blockbusters.

Just look at the other top-grossing adventures and thrillers for 1993: The Fugitive, The Firm, Indecent Proposal, Cliffhanger, and The Pelican Brief. They have varying degrees of budget but all of them share a very personal scope that we rarely see these days. They are movies about one person or a small group fighting for survival.

The next year brought us True Lies and Speed and Clear and Present Danger, all “small stakes” blockbusters in their own way, but steadily growing larger. And then in 1995 we got the return of James Bond with Goldeneye and the end-of-world scope of Waterworld.

But the tide turned in 1996 with Independence Day, where old-school flying saucers threatened to destroy the whole of Earth.

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The next year brought us The Lost World, where Spielberg’s dinos set foot in San Diego and destroyed the surrounding architecture, and then in 1998 — with the trifecta of Armageddon, Godzilla, and Deep Impact — mainstream Hollywood movies officially shifted to the so-called “disaster porn” that we see so much of today.

Compared to what we get now with D.C.’s heroes demolishing entire cities and Marvel flicks threatening the destroy the known universe, Jurassic Park’s simple little story about a handful of people trying to escape an island and save their own lives seems almost quaint.

And yet it holds up surprisingly well.

The film industry may have evolved, but Jurassic Park remains a perfect specimen in the fossil record. At over 800 million dollars in 1993 (more now thanks to inflation and the 3D re-release), it was at the top of the boxoffice food chain.

Sure it owes a lot of its success to the groundbreaking VFX, but more than that it was a primal little story about the importance of  living and re-producing. Remember that life finds a way not only through gender-bending dinos but also Alan Grant’s eventual acceptance of children, shifting him from a lone hunter to a nurturing father figure.

In this way he survives not only the dangerous Isla Nublar but his own evolutionary cul-de-sac of personal growth. By protecting the next generation, he’s no longer obsolete.

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As a kid I didn’t think much about why I was so obsessed with Jurassic Park. It had sci-fi dinosaurs and I was a teenage boy, enough said. It just made perfect sense to spend days daydreaming about it, to re-read the book until the cover fell off, to sleep with the VHS cassette under my pillow.

But thinking back on our lives in the Fall of ’94, when the campfire wasn’t just about roasting marshmallows but also about keeping us warm, I realize that it was really all about our survival.

A well-made blockbuster will hit the pause button on your life, allow your mind to soar, and help you connect the dots of a much larger picture. There’s a reason Hollywood was dubbed a “dream factory.” Well-made big-budget Hollywood fare is a salve for the subconscious, working just like dreams to help you process the real concerns of life.

When I decided to move to Los Angeles and make movies, like so many others I tried my hand at esoteric art films and preachy independent dramas that mistook earnestness for drama. It took a while to shed pretension and understand that creating or enjoying escapism doesn’t need to be mindless and is in fact essential to how we function as people.

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For me, Jurassic Park is more than fun dialog, incredible special effects, and the stunning wonder of dinosaurs. It’s about heroes who used their brains and wit and could still barely survive.

Their noble achievement was to keep going, endure, and just get out of that damn jungle. Just how, in the end, my family made its own way out of the forest. In a world of hungry beasts and violent storms, we found a way.

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Film Review: Space Station 76

Try to quantify a feeling that makes you want to laugh, cry, cringe, and swoon all at the same time.

Now give it a name and tell me what it is so I can use it to describe Space Station 76, a movie that boldly eschews classification to be exactly what it was meant to be.

76-4Chances are, if you’ve heard about this movie at all you’ve heard about the fact that it’s set in deep space in the 1970s or that it’s kind of a comedy but kind of not, or that it’s “weird.”

All of these things are very true. But they’re really not the point.

Certainly the weirder elements will make or break the movie for a lot of people, but given how odd the movie can seem on paper (Critically acclaimed dramatic actor in a silly mustache? Check. Lots of digital asteroids? Check. Robotic hand masturbation? CHECK!) the movie itself is remarkably even-handed and tonally consistent.

Director/co-writer Jack Plotnick shows a mastery of mood that’s impressive for anyone, let alone a first time feature director. In a way it’s reminiscent of Ti West’s films, but where West deals in the simplicity of dread, Space Station 76 takes dark comedy, pratfalls, heart-wrenching drama, borderline spoof gags, and the awe of classic space films and weaves them into a cohesive whole, striking complex emotions that defy classification almost as well as the movie itself.

The opening moments show a little girl named Sunshine stepping lightly down a stark white space station hallway.

Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 2.53.45 PMAt first the muted colors and use of white negative space might feel like nothing more than a Kubrick homage, but when Sunshine begins to drag a crayon across the wall, leaving a vibrant purple streak in her wake, it becomes clear that even though this (post-)modernist film is completely dependent on many films that came before, it’s still using those elements to make something original.

Even the little girl’s name, Sunshine, at first seems like a simple “hey look it’s the 1970s!” gag, but as she develops not only as a bright and irrepressibly hopeful character but also as a gravitational point for the various other storylines — all set in the sunless depths of deep space — her name takes on a whole new meaning.

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As the film introduces character after character in seemingly random comedic situations, a theme of deep emotional repression begins to develop. Manifested primarily through sexually, these emotions, juxtaposed with the social niceties on display in the space station’s public areas, create a kind of hierarchical Upstairs, Downstairs dynamic within the psyches of all the characters.

In the sexless bedrooms and darkened, tryst-filled supply closets they are one person, but the plastic smile they put on at that evening’s cocktail party suggests someone else entirely.

76-5It might be assuming too much of the text, but given the primary storyline revolving around Captain Glenn’s hidden homosexuality and Plotnick (who is openly gay) growing up in the 1970s, it’s not surprising that the crayon that’s used to dash color across the sterile walls happens to be purple.

And regardless if the color was intentionally symbolic, the image of an innocent child nonchalantly defacing the cold, colorless exterior of an endlessly rotating hallway is just great cinema. It perfectly sets up the rest of the movie while the odd tone and familiar genre elements help ease the metaphor, which could easily be far too preachy.

A032_C007_0914INLater in the film we see one of the space station’s robots methodically erasing the crayon marks. This dynamic sums up the movie in just two beats. The childlike desires we express are tidied up and washed away by machinations of our world.

Still later,  a similar robot, who throughout the movie serves as an automated psychologist, is revealed to be a fraud, simply programmed to spew out catchphrases when it hears key words. This allows its patient to project whatever faux persona they want and keep their hidden desires buried away, further driving home this theme.

In an interview on The Nerdist Writers Panel, the film is referred to as “Space 1999 meets The Ice Storm” and the description is apt. Despite the injections of comedy and the Sci-Fi setting — which influences the plot at a few brilliant moments but otherwise serves simply as metaphor — this is largely a movie about the the secrets we keep from ourselves and others, how we suppress so much of our humanity for the sake of perceived social values, and how that harmful act is in itself deeply human.

It’s that very paradox that generates the extreme swells of sadness and humor and empathy. Despite the odd setting, it’s possible to see so much of oneself in this film.space-station-76

Space Station 76 is a movie all about people who don’t know who they really are, and ironically Plotnick has crafted a gem of a film that knows exactly — almost profoundly — what it is … even if no one else does. It never stops to explain itself with a wink at the audience that says “don’t worry, we know we’re different.” It simply exists without apology, despite existing in a pop culture that often treats art as an absolute and anything that seems different with moralizing disdain.

There’s going to be some film historian or better-than-average movie blogger that will pinpoint the exact moment when we quit loving movies that evoked profound emotions and started demanding that movies tell us how to feel emotions.

That’s not a dig at modern blockbusters or the pre-packaged quirk of “indie” movies, just a realization that while drama demands clarity of character and plot we’ve somehow confused that with the clarity of our own emotional response to the art itself.

And as of writing this, I can’t tell you exactly what I felt while watching Space Station 76, but I can tell you that I felt and what I felt was amazing.

What makes Space Station 76 work so well is not just the long list of fun, surface-level oddities that will keep you standing in front of your DVD collection, wondering if you should file it under Sci-Fi, Drama, Period Piece, or Comedy. What makes it work so well is the powerful human quality that Plotnick and his co-writers brought to the coldness of space and the emptiness of those rotating white hallways.

Space Station 76 is available on iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix DVD.

Next Stop FURY ROAD – Part Two: The Road Warrior

I moonlight as a writer over at Movie Moron, and when I found out my pal and fellow writer David Williams (DNWilliams) hadn’t seen the original Mad Max trilogy, I shot him in the heart I insisted that he watch them so we could geek out together.

Now he’s racing to finish them before the fourth installment FURY ROAD (all CAPS mandatory) hits theaters this Friday. This is the result. Enjoy!

(for part one of this series, CLICK HERE)
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DJ:  Still waking up.
(Sent at 5:04 AM on Sunday)

DNW:  I’m not a morning person, I sympathize.

DJ:  Plus I’m doing a diet so I’m calorie starved and grumpy as hell.

DNW:  I should be watching my food right now, trying to hit the gym a bit, I suck at it.

DJ:  Gotta be lean and mean when the Pockylypse happens (a reference you’ll get when you watch Thunderdome).

DNW:  Pockylypse sounds pretty freaky

DJ:  You know who doesn’t diet? Mad Fucking Max.

DNW:  Everything is pretty scarce in his world as it is.

DJ:  In the space between movies they’ve gone from “terrible recession full of nutjobs” to “scavenging in the desert for oil” and they justify it with a little intro montage with voice-over.

DNW:  That info dump is perfect.

DJ:  It’s a jump that confused me a bit when I was younger, honestly, but that’s because I saw Thunderdome on TV first then went back and watched the first two. But yeah, I love the idea that each time you tune in to a new Mad Max film you’re going to see the next stage of a falling society.

DNW:  If it weren’t ostensibly a sequel they could dump you right in, but they have to present that connective tissue really, because it is quite a departure. Like I mentioned last time around though, the expository montage at the beginning really helps The Road Warrior to work as a standalone movie.

DJ:  But yeah, Road Warrior reminds me of Evil Dead 2 in that regard. They have that great intro to catch you up … and flat out lie to you about the first one to retcon the details. I wonder if that’s a bit what happened here. “I wonder if we can sell them on the fact this is the same world …”  They do say in the intro that Max wanders into the desert, so maybe the original idea was that the desert was worse and it was hard to travel into the city areas.

DNW:  I feel like with Mad Max, because of how self-contained they seem to be, you can pretty much get away with it. But yeah, the tonal shift and the change of setting makes The Road Warrior jump up notch right away.

DJ:  Instead of slight western influence they almost go full Western. After the intro we jump into the story mid-chase, which is great.

DNW:  Speed! Dog! Coolness!
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DNW:  I really like Max’s character design, we’re getting the Asymmetrical 80s to the max.
(that to the max pun was unintentional, if you can believe it).

DJ:  Keep it. Own it.

DNW:  And you’re right, there’s the sense that what happened in the previous movie has had a lasting effect. I also enjoy the fact that he’s picked up a dog, not just because dogs are great, but because the fact that he lost everything and picked up a companion signals that he’s that same guy, somewhere.

DJ:  Yep. It’s a simple, subtle stroke of genius. He wants to be good. You also see it later with the feral kid … he shows compassion but in a  gruff way … so I was looking up the mohawked villain’s name on IMDB and I found this DVD cover photo with the dumbest quote line ever:

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DNW:  Brilliant. “Apocalypse Wow” was right there, but this guy was like “no, I’m better than that.”

DJ:  Hahahaha, villain’s name was Wez, by the way.

DNW:  Not as great a name as Toecutter, is it?

DJ:  But Wez is basically Toecutter on crack, with an ’80s punk hairdo, and Max just stands up to him like he’s nothing. It’s Miller going “trust me, this ain’t the same movie, shit’s gonna go down before that last fifteen minutes.”

DNW:  I love his look. My appreciation of these films is mostly on a visual level, and whoever decided a mohawk, part of an American Football uniform, and feathers was the way to go has my respect.

DJ:  Wez backs down while Max collects gasoline in a bike helmet that failed to save anyone’s life. I love the stories and character work in these films (surprisingly subtle and done with absolutely no back story which is astonishing)  but yeah the look and general vibe really make them the most memorable.

DNW:  It’s a bit New Romantics as well, like if Adam Ant and Tim Tebow had a baby. Probably not a great reference, but he’s one of the few American Football players whose name I know.

DJ:  And I only know his name and there was some controversy that he prayed or something like that … I have no idea what he did or who he plays for. Also, I have no idea what New Romantics is or who Adam Ant is … so pretty much total fail on my part to get that reference. And you tried so hard!

DNW:  I think these films live and die on their worldbuilding and atmosphere, which I’m totally cool with. The plots are minimal, but that minimalism works with the right approach, and this film is more interested with capturing your imagination than anything else.

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DNW:  I think it’s great that on the one hand you’ve got these crazy, wild thugs, but they care a lot about their appearance, and there’s a degree to which it’s pretty flouncy.

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DNW:  Sorry if I’m derailing the convo: but they contrast incredibly well with the mostly-white and tan clad good guys too.

DJ:  Agreed on the color contrast with the good guys. I think the wild costumes are an outpouring of the craziness. They’re similar enough that it’s kind of tribal, but different enough to know they put a LOT of thought and effort into how they come off to new people. Mostly to strike fear … but also bright and colorful and kind of dandy-ish almost.

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DNW:  Really sells the tribalism, yeah.

DJ:  So after the Wez confrontation, we follow Max to meet another iconic character: The Gyro Captain. Who is so awesome and iconic, when the same actor shows up in Thunderdome, also with a flying machine, but playing a completely different character you’re going to be VERY confused. I sure was.

DNW:  Max does the impressive snake-snatch thing, and then yeah, we meet this guy. I love him, he’s such a zany presence. I retroactively recognized him as The Trainman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xGl_W_7tfNI) from The Matrix – he’s WAY too distinctive to play multiple roles

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 DJ:  He’s also the Mouth of Sauron in the extended version of The Return of the King. And they actually CGI’d his mouth larger.

DNW:  Dude was also in Star Wars, so you know he makes a mint signing a whole bunch of stuff on the convention circuit. The Gyro Captain owns though, not to harp on the costumes again but he has a very iconic look. Also, he manages to stand out as the guy that looks like he walked in from a cartoon in a movie filled with characters that seem to have walked in from a cartoon. The lankiness, the goggles, everything.

DJ:  Yep. And even though he’s kind of a buffoon you also get a sense that he’s smart enough to survive. The snake thing would work with anyone but Max.

DNW:  You just have to assume that everyone in this movie has a a skill set of some kind, or else they’d be dead or will die.

DJ:  And I love that Max treats him like a dog, even putting him on a leash, but treats his dog more like a friend.
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DNW:  That dog is cute, man.

DJ:  So cute, it has to die.

DNW:  Didn’t even have a name, poor thing. It’s so weird that I saw The Rover before either of these films, because the Mad Max influence is so strong.

DJ: Yeah, pretty much all Ozploitation owes something to Max, especially ones about a rogue dude in a post-apocalyptic world.

DNW:  Right, I can’t claim to have been exposed to that sub-genre really, but it’s striking how much that movie is like Mad Max 2.5.

DJ:  Then we get a long sequence where our hero camps out on mountain and watches a new movie unfold on the valley before him, with huge well-orchestrated action scenes that we see in wide screen that makes me shudder when I think about what a nightmare it must have been to organize for those filmmakers.

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DNW: I like the bit with the binoculars and the telescope in that scene.

DJ:  It’s surprising that it works at all, to sideline your hero like that … but it does. And these character moments like the binoculars and the tin of dog food are totally part of the reason why.

DNW:  I like that Max can be along for the ride, as opposed to always the driving force. It seems like Fury Road is going to be that way to an extent. It’s also a smart thing to do, the crazy world Max lives in should throw him into situations.

DJ:  Even though he’s so capable he’s still out of his element.

DNW:  Is there anything better than a hero being in over his head? Indiana Jones style.

DJ:  I was just gonna say Indiana Jones

DNW:  So there’s this post-apocalyptic gated community that Max finds himself in, are we there yet?

DJ:  Yep. And shit is so terrible that Max is willing to make a run for it through all that insanity just go fill up his gas tank. And his mad dash gets some folks killed. No one trust him of course. Not even the hot Amazon lady.

DNW:  This whole setup is not like anything you’d have seen in the first movie.

DJ:  It feels right but it’s a whole new plot structure.

DNW:  It’s a strikingly different vision of the future that feels like it was borne out of what was setup previously, but when you think back to Max’s virtually contemporary home life in the last movie you realize what a strong move away from that all of this is.

DJ: Around here we get our first close up look at Lord Humungus, who is just so freaking awesome, and the first of the masked villains (who we’ll see again in Thunderdome and Fury Road).

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DNW:  I think they went a bit too Sex Dungeon with this guy, if I’m honest.

DJ:  NO. UNACCEPTABLE.

DNW:  😦
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But he’s so iconic he inspired glorified fan films!

DNW:  I was more impressed with the stuff around him than I was by the character himself. the people-strapped to the front of cars, the weird and wonderful gang members…

DJ:  The bean-counter dude who gets his fingers sliced off by the Feral Kid and everyone laughs at him.

DNW:  Yes, that! What a dumbass. The boomerang was lodged in someone’s head MOMENTS before.

DJ:  I love the sex dungeon vibe though … there is a sexual undertone to all of these hyper violent male tribes though (hence why Miller is addressing it head on in Fury Road): Toecutter gets super touchy feely, Wez has his bleached blonde boy toy, Humungus has his tight abs and leather speedo.

DNW:  Maybe I shouldn’t have said “too Sex Dungeon”, but more “only Sex Dungeon”. It’s the range of influences working together that makes the other stuff work for me, whereas this wouldn’t feel out of place in a gay panic scene from a 2000s teen sex comedy, it’s Sex Dungeon and only Sex Dungeon.

DJ:  I can see that. But it also makes him stand out. Everyone else is eclectic, he’s a single driving force of muscle and greased-up sex.

DNW:  Right, he needs to be separated in some fashion, sure.

DJ:  Just watching that clip it’s easy to see what makes this movie stand out. The plot is so simple: 1. good guys have oil, bad guys want it. 2. Max can help them escape with fuel. 3. Max helps but gets wounded. 4. Max helps them escape again. END. But all the moments are stretched out and filled with little beats.

DNW:  That’s part of the reason I find it hard to talk about in anything other than aesthetic terms. The plot is 100% in service of the vibe.

DJ:  When Humungus threatens them you’ve got the little bits where Wez kills a rabbit for no reason. Then the feral kid kills Wez’s boy toy, which leads to this little dark comedy break where the bean counter gets his fingers cut off and everyone takes a break to laugh at him … including himself. This is a lived-in world, with all these character dynamics behind the scenes.


Uh oh. Someone took Mel Gibson’s rant and put it over Lord Humungus’s dialog. And it’s creepy how well it works.

DNW:  Of course they did. It’s actually a better villain speech. “THE GAME IS OVER, LET THE NEW GAMES BEGIN!”

DJ:  So Max sneaks out of the compound to steal the tanker truck he found earlier, returns, and there’s a big battle where Wez gets trapped in the compound and no one is able to kill him. A scene that was totally stolen by Waterworld. Then Max tries to flee (again, a more brutal version of him fleeing his destiny with his wife in the first one) and gets his ass kicked and his car blown up. Then the cool helicopter shot.

DNW:  The “Max gets wounded” part gave me my favorite part of the whole movie, which is that shot of him flying with the landscape moving beneath his head. It’s SO cool, it’s artistic as hell in the midst of all this straight-forward action stuff, you’ve got this really abstract moment, it’s portraying the reality of the situation, but it reads like a dream sequence.
 
DJ:  Yep. And it works because he’s so dazed. And the audience is taken aback because he’s been so capable up til now and just got his ass handed to him.

DNW:  Rock bottom for Rockatansky.

DJ:  He’s got no other play. He’s forced into being a hero.

DNW:  I’m re-watching it now, it’s really great. Miller really isn’t a afraid of having a lot going on visually, it’s the polar opposite of what he’s doing with narrative.

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DJ:  It takes all the brutal real crashes from the first movie and throws more money at them.

DNW:  Trucks, bikes, flying machines, explosions, crashes, feral kid having to grab a bullet from the front of a vehicle…

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DJ:  He keeps plot simple and goes deep into the design, character moments, and weirdness. It’s all the brutality of the first one with a lot of grandness added.

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DNW:  Doesn’t get more ostentatious than this.

DJ:  The real reason all the action works so well is that they carry through the character stuff. When the feral kid is going for the shotgun shell, that’s not just a random plot moment, it calls back to the music box when he’s scared of it. He’s a wild child, buthe’s totally still just a kid.

DNW:  The 80s loved that kid sidekick thing. Newt, Short Round…

DJ:  There’s like ten kid sidekicks in Thunderdome.

DNW:  Haha. George “Double Down” Miller.

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DJ: Then we get the final chase scene to end all chase scenes. How do you feel about the final reveal at the end. The “ole switcheroo”

DNW:  The reveal that the kid is the narrator you mean?

DJ:  That the oil was in the school bus.

DNW:  Oh, that was of less consequence to me, the oil is the MacGuffin here, I’d stopped worrying about it by that point.

DJ:  But it plays into Max’s character, right?

DNW:  How so?

DJ:  I mean, if he knew about it than he’s super selfless and a “good man” again. If he didn’t, they totally screwed him over. I think the idea is that he knew about it (it’s been a while since I’ve seen that part).

DNW:  Huh. I’d need a re-watch to look at it from that perspective, I think. Either way, he’s putting himself out there to help these guys, I don’t think his heroism is in much doubt.

DJ:  It’s got some issues plot-wise for sure (why replace it with sand when that would just make them go slower … but that cinematic reveal of the sand pouring out is fantastic). But he could just be putting himself out as a Hail Mary. What else choice does he have, to sit there while they leave and let Humungus come get him?

DNW:  Fair point.

DJ:  I need to watch it again, but that’s been my take on it for years, that Max knew about it and it was sort of his redemption. I’m totally gonna watch all three again this week before Fury Road. Best week ever.

DNW:  I’m glad I’m catching  up on these, because I’d probably have skipped Fury Road in theaters otherwise, and it looks like a treat.

DJ:  Yay! I’ll take the honor of forcing you to watch them.

DNW:  Haha, it’s one of those List of Shame movies that I feel like I should’ve checked out long ago. But yeah, credit goes to you for kicking it up to the top of the list.

DJ:  Any final thoughts?

DNW:  Well I kind of ruined my take on these films up to this point by opening with it in the last recap, but this works for me as a film all on its own, with or without being part of a series, and it’s a notably stronger vision from Miller, who had a pretty strong vision to start with. It’s also the movie I wanted/expected the first film to be. It’s almost the sequel to a film we didn’t quite see.

DJ:  Yep, I think that’s the general take from most audiences as well. And it looks like Fury Road is the movie we’ve all built Road Warrior up to be in our nostalgic minds in a lot of ways.

DNW:  Excellent dude, thanks. Will let you know when I’m beyond Thunderdome.

Next Stop FURY ROAD – Part One: The Original Mad Max

I moonlight as a writer over at Movie Moron, and when I found out my pal and fellow writer David Williams (DNWilliams) hadn’t seen the original Mad Max trilogy, I shot him in the heart I insisted that he watch them so we could geek out together.

Now he’s racing to finish them before the fourth installment FURY ROAD (all CAPS mandatory) hits theaters this Friday. This is the result. Enjoy!

MMfinale
DNWilliams:  Hey dude! I didn’t get a chance to check out Beyond Thunderdome yet.

DalmatianJaws (me):  No worries! That can be its own thing or we’ll make a joke about refusing to talk about it.

DNW:  I actually watched a little clip or two, and I really like the aesthetic progression of this series based on what I saw of Beyond Thunderdome, but we’ll get to that. It’s a shame to hear it doesn’t quite deserve to look so good by most people’s estimation.

DJ:  Yeah, I actually love Thunderdome, it has some flaws that people cling to because they stick out in comparison to Road Warrior, which is nearly flawless. But taken on its own it’s quite good. I have theories about why it is the way it is, but that’s down the road.

DNW:  Okay, interesting. There’s every chance I might like it quite a bit then.

DJ:  It’s this franchise’s Return of the Jedi. Amazing parts strung together in a clumsy way. Still awesome, but not as finely tuned as the first two. And all the fans hate the cuter aspects of it.

DNW:  I’m down for some cuteness after the harshness of these first two! Hopefully I haven’t spoken too soon…

DJ: You ready to talk about Mad Max … who doesn’t become Mad Max until the last fifteen minutes of the movie?

DNW:  Yes, let’s talk Mr Rockatansky. I feel like the name of the character is a pretty clear indicator of the kind of movie Miller is interested in making.

DJ:  Yep. Right away this movie is set in a world that makes no sense to the audience’s real life experience, but makes sense in its own right. People call this a “post-apocalypse” movie but it’s not. It’s a world on the brink of apocalypse, and society is fraying so everyone’s a little bit bonkers.

DNW:  That term rarely makes sense, we should really be calling them “apocalyptic” movies for the most part, but yeah. We’re immediately greeted with a bunch of weird stuff, which is the kind of plunge-you-right-in world-building I tend to enjoy. There’s just a barrage of off-key things that pretty much no other movie would present you with unexplained: Anarchie Road, a sniper looking at a couple having sex in public, and then there’s the police. These are like no police you’ve ever seen in anything, ever. I mean, I’m sure it has its influences but these are like … how would you describe them? Biker-gang/greaser cops? Sorta?

MadMax_GooseDJ:  It’s weird, but weird in a way that feels purposeful so you trust the movie knows what it’s doing. It’s not just that the world is weird and the cops are weird, you get the feeling the cops are that rough in response to the roughness of the world, so you sense a cause and effect. Helps you accept it as real. At least it seemed that way to me. To an Aussie audience it probably felt less sci-fi. In an interview, Miller talks about how the movie was inspired by all the brutal road fatalities in Australia at the time.

 DNW:  What you’re saying regarding “it seems like a dystopian future, but also kinda just…Australia”, I totally see where you’re coming from.

DJ:  Haha, yes. There’s a brilliant Australian movie called Wake in Fright that feels like it could take place in this first Mad Max movie almost. During the first screening someone stood up and yelled “that’s not us!” And one of the actors stood up and yelled back “shut up mate, it IS us!”

DNW:  That recent Guy Pearce movie The Rover went for the same thing, where it evoked a hellscape by just finding the most dilapidated and unwelcoming things that exist today and portraying it as the totality of society. It’s something similar to what I love about Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, where his version of this shiny awesome future is just all of the most modern buildings in Paris.

DJ:  That’s a great comparison!  And just as you’re going “WTF is going on!?” then we get the wonderful, controlled calmness of Max’s intro. Don’t worry audience, here’s your hero. Who we are going to totally destroy at the end of the movie.
MadMax_Nightrider
DNW:  He gets the long, extended, mysterious figure that you know is cool and important intro too. Very Bond. It did surprise me watching the film just how functional “Mad” Max was.

DJ:  Very sure of itself considering it came from a young filmmaker too.

DNW: And Mel Gibson sounds Australian, which is just surreal. He doesn’t even sound Australian in real life anymore.

DJ:  Yep. This movie did well internationally, but in the States it didn’t do so hot. They dubbed over all the Australian accents to make them sound American. I’ve seen clips of it, it’s awful. Anyway, two years later that’s why they took the “Mad Max 2” title and turned it into Road Warrior, because of us dumb Americans. Everyone went nutso over Road Warrior but never saw the first one. Years later home video goes boom, people rent it, and go “what the hell is all this lovey dovey stuff with the wife and kid?!”
MadMax_JessieDNW:  The Road Warrior deserves its own title honestly.

DJ:  DISAGREE

DNW: It doesn’t rely on the original movie to be enjoyable at all.

DJ: Well, enjoyable … I can totally get that. But there is a LOT more emotional resonance if you know what he used to be and what he lost.

DNW:  I dunno, it feels almost like a prequel, it’s backstory stuff for a character who’s cool in the next movie because of this aura around him. We know everything has been taken from him in that movie, but I don’t feel like it’s necessary to have seen it all unfold. The Road Warrior is fairly standalone, and Max in that movie is very reminiscent of The Man With No Name.

DJ:  I was just about to make that reference!

DNW:  This first film is more Mann than Leone, with a protagonist that’s a gruff beast of a man when he’s out doing his thing, but he has this really stable home life that anchors him. Until, you know, it doesn’t.

DJ:  But I still think you’re wrong. It couldn’t be a prequel, otherwise why is he soft in Mad Max? The greatest thing about the two is that you start him off a softie, make him hard and brutal … then in the next movie he’s gone too far down that road and by the end he’s redeemed himself by helping strangers.

DNW:  He’s not really soft through and through though, there’s just a duality that evaporates.

DJ:  This is one of my favorite franchises because the character evolves but the plots are totally new. But I agree on the duality.

DNW:  I get that. I’m not claiming there’s no benefit to having both movies exist the way they do, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that people were satisfied by The Road Warrior alone. The Road Warrior is more immersive too, in that it’s even less recognizable as our world than Mad Max is.

DJ:  Absolutely, you’re totally right about that. It obviously did just fine on its own. In talking about this it’s so clear to see the Western influences on these movies. Mad Max has a lot of High Noon, Road Warrior has a lot of Sergio Leone.
 
DNW:  The impression I have of this series (having seen half of it, and seen footage from the next two installments) is that George Miller made Mad Max and was like “well, I can do that better”, so he had a sequel that refined what made the original work, and did it with more flare. The visuals of Beyond Thunderdome signal the same approach, whether he was successful or not. The steps moving from the overcast skies, green roadsides, Hot Wheels-looking cars and tarmac roads of Mad Max to the arid landscapes, ever-more outlandish fetish gear and monochromatic production design of Fury Road make it seem like Miller treats each Mad Max movie as some kind of do-over.

Mad-Max-Fury-Road
DJ:  Absolutely. Things get bigger in each one. And they actually acknowledge the evolution in the story directly, because in each one the world gets harsher and deeper into the apocalypse (nukes go off between Road Warrior and Thunderdome, for example).  So I’d say less of a do-over and more of “how can I get this next one closer to what’s in my head?!”

DNW:  Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m trying to get at.

(*Editor’s Note* So was Miller, per this interview in Heavy Metal back from 1985.)

DJ:  Maybe that’s why Fury Road looks like the Mad Max we made up when we played with our G.I. Joes after watching the first three movies. He’s finally got the things he needs to get to that absolute HOLY SHIT stuff he’s been building towards.

DNW:  It’s interesting, because it’s within the one franchise. It’s like if the Wes Anderson of Grand Budapest Hotel were still telling stories about the characters and situations of Bottle Rocket.

DJ:  Yeah, totally! So after that great slow reveal of Mad Max we get more awesome crashes. Let’s talk about those crashes a bit.

DNW:  There’s some really good stunt work at play here.

DJ:  Yeah, they’re so small by today’s standards, but so obviously real that they’re way more gripping in a lot of ways. It might be later in the film, but at one point a biker eats it and his bike rolls over him in slow motion and he bashes his head on a curb … watching it bend his neck and knowing it’s real … just so intense. You can’t fake that.

DNW: Because this movie doesn’t really live or die on its plot. It’s very streamlined.

DJ:  So, after this opening where Max and his crew take out this nutso driver called Nightrider, we’re treated to a little break with our friend Toecutter, the first of incredibly memorable Mad Max villains.

MadMax_Toecutter1
DNW:  One-eyebrow dude.

DJ:  Played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who is also Immorten Joe in Fury Road only with a mask on so we don’t recognize him.

immortan-joeDNW:  You know, for a guy with one eyebrow to be called Toecutter, and for the name to stick, there’s got to be a serious story there because surely the go-to would be Left Brow or something similar.

DJ:  I love character names like that, especially when the go unexplained. Even if it’s not a name … I love the idea that Brad Pitt’s character in Inglorious Basterds has a noose scar on his neck but never talks about it. Anyway, Toecutter and “The Acolytes” come riding into a railroad town to get the dead body of their friend Nightrider … it’s right out of a Western!

DNW:  Totally.

DJ:  They see a young couple drive away because they’re scared and the gang goes after them. Almost like wild animals. Move slowly you might be alright, but if you run it triggers their chase instinct and they take you out. SO TENSE!

DNW:  It’s the logical extreme of these leather-clad gangs that have been seen onscreen since at least The Wild One.

DJ:  Yep.

DNW:  The results of this pursuit though… I feel like the narrative doesn’t really take care to address it, it just kind of happens and is horrific.

DJ:  Isn’t it a major plot point though? They rape the girl, the cops arrest the guy … but the town is so scared that no one shows up for his trial so they let the rapist go? And this sets the cops off on their mission on the roads to take the gang out?

DNW:  That’s what I mean, it’s a motivating factor for our heroes. When something this brutal is used in a story, it’s just more palatable when it’s not presented so graphically.

DJ:  That’s why Max’s cop buddy (named Goose in a prescient steal from Top Gun) pulls out the Supercharger! Iconic ride, yo!

MadMax_gifDNW: When something like this is presented graphically, I feel like it needs to be more than a plot device.

DJ: So you mean it needs to create a thread that carries through the movie? Like the movie becomes about avenging the girl?

DNW:  It’s not just a gender thing, they rape both of them, right? Or at least I thought that was implied when the guy was running away with a bloodied rear (hope I’m not confusing scenes). But yeah, there’s something inherently more personal about this kind of of thing when depicted to this extent. It’s the face vs statistic thing. I think this is why Miller pulled in Eve Ensler of Vagina Monologues fame to consult on Fury Road, because he’s concerned with things like this, but I don’t know how naturally handling it all comes to him as a storyteller

DJ:  That’s a fascinating point, actually. If it happened off screen it’s kind of like marking it off a list, but by making it more personal it’s more powerful, but somehow feels off when they just move on from it? I have to say I agree, even though it didn’t bother me when I watched it. Although using rape (especially the rape of women) to motivate men to action is bothersome.

DNW:  Coming at it with fresh eyes, having little idea about the content of the movie doubtless had an effect on my perspective.

DJ:  Absolutely. Then we get into this back and forth between cops and gang … until the gang sabotage’s Goose’s motorcycle, which leads to his terrible disfiguring death.

DNW:  Some of the lead-up to that is my favorite stuff in the film. There’s the line “so long as the paperwork’s clean you boys can do what you like out there” which is so defining of the whole status quo, I love it. Then we get that pier scene with the gang that’s just chilling. When the camera is looking out over the water it feels otherworldly. Goose gets that nightclub scene too.

DJ:  Yep, this movie slows down for tone, tension, and world building. It’s not all adrenaline. This whole sequence leads to that powerful scene where Max looks at the disfigured face of Goose.

DNW:  The Max looking at Goose in the hospital thing is over the top in the best possible sense.

DJ:  Then he totally runs away! And then quits his job! And then runs away even more to get ice cream with his wife!

DNW:  That sequence of events totally deserves an exclamation point after each moment. It’s the not unfamiliar “you killed my partner” moment (though I struggle to think of where I’ve seen it elsewhere, it’s just ingrained) amped up.

DJ:  How about that scene where he quits? Staging it in that rotting stairwell, with his boss shirtless and watering tiny plans while that music plays … so genius. So weird. I’ve heard a lot of conversations about whether or not his boss is gay, and I just read online that his name is Fifi … so I think that decides it. But I love that they never talk about it, it’s just there (and the actor talks about the audience reaction to that scene in this reunion video).

DNW:  His orientation never occurred to me. There’s just so much fetish and sado-masochistic iconography in play I didn’t really think of it in terms of character as I probably should have. I just figured it was era-appropriate.

           MadMax_Fifi “They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore.
Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!”

DJ: Amazing line of dialog. And he’s totally right and totally wrong at the same time.

DNW:  That line – you mean he’s right and wrong in terms of the lack of purity/righteousness in the hero, or something else?

DJ:  They totally give the world a hero, but he’s damaged and terrible and not heroic at all at the end. And in terms of cinema as a whole, the movie starts out building a true hero and then totally blow him up into cinema’s most iconic anti-hero. I think it’s why the ending is so powerful and spawned three sequels spanning decades. The irony is that Max totally wins and finally defeats the gang, but the world totally wins because it destroys him in the process.

DNW:  He’s a terminal crazy with a bronze badge to say he’s one of the good guys.

DJ:  So the rest of the movie is pretty simple. Max sees where his life is headed so he quits and runs off with his wife.

DNW:  Having him quit is an interesting move.

DJ: He doesn’t feel like a coward, he feels smart. But at the same time you want your action! But that sequence works because you know all that time that something’s gonna happen. Something terrible.

DNW:  Really reminded me of Michael Mann’s Thief, where James Caan has this dream life for one brief sequence. It’s a departure from the story that’s been told in a way that makes it foreboding.

DJ: I haven’t seen Thief, if you can believe it, but that sounds about right.

DNW: You’d love Thief. Have you seen Manhunter? There’s commonality with the beginning of that film too. Only without the tragic element.

DJ: All this time with the wife works for me too. There’s good chemistry. It’s super hokey and a little dated … but let’s face it most guys want this at the end of the day. It’s totally not true to life (she’s always happy and gorgeous, the kid’s never crying) but with all the talk of heroes and all the nutso stuff we’ve seen out in the world, you know it’s all just glamor.

DNW: Max’s wife, Joanne Samuel, is pretty good. The ‘crazy about you’ callback works, and the fact that they went with the word crazy there is cute.

DJ: And I love that instead of just running afoul of the gangs, she encounters them, gets away, and THEN they track her down again. They just keep ratcheting tension.

DNW: Fills you with dread, for sure. It makes the “victory” feel so hollow too, with the loss coming so late in the game. It’s so brutal.

DJ: Yeah, it’s really not a revenge film, it’s a weird mix of Western, cop drama, and action flick that coalesces into a fifteen minute revenge film that everyone remembers. I love the shot when they kill Max’s wife and child …

MadMax_wifedeathDJ: … but it makes no sense that they could do that on motorcycles without falling off. Also, why didn’t she run into a field where she’d have a better chance.

DNW: Yeah, I think they abandoned logic a little there, but it’s an okay point to abandon it at. Like we said, the focus is already on the dread of the situation, how it’s executed is less consequential, at least for me.

DJ: Agreed, it was powerful when I first saw it and it’s only on re-watches that you think about it.

DNW: Right, I can’t claim either was a concern for me having only seen it once. And it’s so late in the story, there’s not really anything left afterwards for it to undermine.

DJ: After that I love  just how dark they go and how clever they get. Max just destroys this gang in a long sequence. And Toecutter’s not last either. He goes out with a great eye-popping moment …

MadMax_eyesLiterally.

DJ: … but the last and most brutal death is at the end with Johnny.

DNW: The hack-through-your-own-leg-or-explode kill?

DJ: Max could just kill him, but instead he gives him a “choice’ which really isn’t a choice at all. He just gets the dude to torture himself before the car blows. Freaking incredible scene. It would fit right in with Road Warrior.

MadMax_Johnny
DNW: I don’t have a huge bloodlust or anything, but I could watch a whole movie of Max just giving scum horrible ultimatums like that. And it’s not something they had to show to sell. It’s damn gruesome in my mind alone. The finale of this film is essentially an extended prologue to The Road Warrior.

DJ: I think it sells because of how much time you’ve spent in the world and with Max and family. A lot of people call this first film “boring” until the end, but don’t realize the whole ending works because of all the “boring” stuff.

DNW: I see where people are coming from though, just looking at the poster for Mad Max – that could be a poster for The Road Warrior rather than this movie.

MadMax_posterDNW: It looks like it’s going to be a more Awesome with a capital A film than it is. JJ Abrams had a similar feeling about the Escape From New York poster- that film never shows you the Statue of Liberty’s head in the middle of the street despite the really iconic imagery the movie was sold on, which is why Cloverfield gives us that visual. I think if you saw The Road Warrior first as well, that would mess you up. Mad Max is so procedural by comparison.

DJ: I can totally get that. I had a similar issue with Escape from New York … only I thought it wasn’t just misleading but also boring (there’s that word again).

DNW: It’s like the poster artist got closer to where Miller’s head was at than Miller did, but like you said, this movie functions

And that’s about it! Later this week I’ll post our conversation about The Road Warrior.

Length Matters: A Response to Total Film’s “Fifty Movies That are Longer Than They Should Be”

Back in August, the website Total Film posted a list of “Fifty Movies That Are Longer Than They Should Be.”

It’s not a new idea to segment complicated arguments into bite-sized chunks before feeding them to your audience. As Mark O’Connell pointed out, it’s been around since the Ten Commandments, and Don DeLillo decried the current trend in pop culture during an interview with The Paris Review back in 1993:

 “Lists are a form of cultural hysteria.” – Don De Lillo

Despite their popularity, there’s something off-putting about this Total Film list that seems rampant in this sort of internet writing. A lower word count can sometimes lead to concise and thoughtful insights, but more often than not it leads to oversimplification and reductive thinking.  And sometimes things get downright nasty (watch the movie Heckler on Netflix streaming for proof of this).

I’ve found this to be true in my own writing. While in the case of my magnum opus “Top Ten Vampire Movies” things remained relatively positive, my lesser masterwork of “Ten Worst Sequels to Great Movies” got snarky in a hurry (part of the reason I no longer write these sorts of lists). They may be fun to write, but I no longer want to reduce a complex cinematic experience into a three-sentence blurb.

This is not to say all internet movie lists are bad. Movie-Moron.com often publishes lists with a positive tone that are a great gateway for folks to discover new movies.

But what makes Total Film’s list stand out to me is that it dabbles in proper film criticism. Not only does it highlight perceived flaws in fifty films, it also offers suggestions on how to “fix” them … and most of the suggestions are terrible. I’ve selected thirteen that seem to highlight a worrisome trend in the blogosphere where modern film critics don’t seem to understand even the basic tenants of dramatic storytelling.

This is not to belittle their hard work or question their intelligence. Drama, especially drama that’s filmed and edited, is a very complex thing. I’ve worked in the film industry for over ten years and I’m still surprised by the craft on a regular basis. But a respect for this complexity – and the blood and sweat from all the artisans involved – is what’s missing from a list like “Fifty Movies That Are Longer Than They Should Be”.

So, risking hypocrisy, here is my response, a list of “Thirteen Movies That Total Film Thinks They Can Fix.”

NOTE: The film title, length, explanation of the problem, and proposed solution are presented in blue text and are pasted directly from the Total Film website.

1. The Chronicles of Riddick

Length: 119 mins

Why That’s Too Long:Pitch Black succeeded so well because it was lean, mean and focused. The Chronicles of Riddick did the complete opposite, pumping so much space opera, melodrama and superfluous characters into the mix that it drastically missed the point of why fans had loved Riddick in the first place.

How We’d Fix It: Remove all the additional characters and sub-plots who brought nothing to the table (Judi Dench, as much as we love you, we’re looking at you). So, in other words, a movie that looks pretty darn similar to forthcoming threequel Riddick….

Response: Ignoring the fact that the film runs under two hours (the “normal” length of most feature films), their proposed “fix” would cut out the heart of what Twohy was trying to achieve. Love it or hate it, the idea was to turn Riddick into a sort-of Conan in space. The “space opera” elements are the entire point of the film; it’s campy to the core. It even features a scene where a vicious, blood-drinking antihero kills a man with a tea cup.  Obviously this is not to everyone’s tastes, but this critic’s issue is that he wanted an inherently different film, something that running time won’t fix. Then again, I’ve expressed my love for the Riddick franchise before, so maybe I’m just biased.

2. Empire

Length: 485 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Andy Warhol’s silent black-and-white film is eight hours and five minutes of continuous slow motion footage of the Empire State Building. And, well, that’s it.

How We’d Fix It: Admittedly, he was probably going for more of an art experiment than coherent narrative, but surely *SARCASM ALERT* four hours would’ve served as perfunctorily as eight?

Response:  I’ve never seen all of Warhol’s Empire. You can find clips on Youtube to get a taste, but simply getting a taste is counterpoint to the entire purpose of the film.  Warhol slowed down the frame rate to make the film last eight hours and make the passage from darkness to daylight imperceptible. In his own words the point was to “see time go by.”  While Total Film is obviously trying to be funny, their final snarky comment betrays a complete misunderstanding of what the film is and bears the trademark flippancy of a playground bully taunt.

3. Independence Day (1996)

Length: 145 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Global warfare or not, this is still a sci-fi flick about alien invasion. Most manage to tell that story in around 90 minutes.

How We’d Fix It: Edit out some of the character backstories. We don’t need to get to know Randy Quaid and we certainly don’t need to give two hoots about dog Boomer.

Response: There’s one thing that Total Film neglects to mention about Independence Day: despite its long running time, the film passes by in an instant. I’ve re-watched this movie many times and I’m always surprised to see how well it flows. It’s not high art and it’s probably one of the movies responsible for the downward slide of modern blockbusters, but it’s wildly successful because of how well it holds your attention. One of the reasons is that you love all the silly interwoven stories, including Randy Quaid’s molested pilot revenge storyline. Removing his backstory takes all the punch out of the climactic battle and the gloriously insane anal rape metaphor that made 12-year-olds around the world snicker into their 32-ounce Pepsi cups. The fact that there are tons of characters, all with ridiculous storylines, is the entire point of the film. To simply trim some of that out to make the movie “better” according to some screenwriting guru’s made-up guidelines would be to miss the purpose of the movie.

4. As Good As It Gets (1997)

Length: 139 mins

Why That’s Too Long: It’s an oddball romantic ‘dramedy’. Not a war-torn love story.

How We’d Fix It: Tighten up the plotting and keep things snappy. Everyone gives great performances but the film ambles along at too a leisurely a pace to ever be smart and snappy.

Response: I don’t have a lot to say besides the fact I never knew As Good As It Gets was so long, partly because I find it so smart and snappy.  And as far as I know, most folks feel the same way, considering its huge financial success and critical love.

5. Cast Away (2000)

Length: 143 mins

Why That’s Too Long: We love Tom Hanks, but this is an awfully long film for any one man to shoulder completely by himself.

How We’d Fix It: End the film as he gets off the island. That’s the real story after all – we don’t need to see the aftermath.

Response: The aftermath is arguably the entire point of the movie, without it we don’t see the drastic character change which is the only thing that raises the movie to a higher level of meaning. A big clue here is the title. There’s a reason they broke the term “castaway” into its two parts, they are highlighting not only the inciting incident but also all the things Hank’s character must cast away (his hope of rescue, Wilson, his love for Helen Hunt’s character) in order to survive. His evolution is only truly evident once he arrives back at home.

6. Zodiac (2007)

Length: 157 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Based on real events it may be, but this is still a very simple murder mystery at heart.

How We’d Fix It: Focus on the mystery and cut down the personal lives of the people involved. It IS sad that Jake Gyllenhaal’s wife leaves him over his obsession but really, we just want to know who did it. And quickly.

Response: Zodiac was never really about the “simple murder mystery.” It’s about capturing the tone of a certain place and time in California’s history, the main character’s slow descent into true obsession, and a meditation on our human need to eradicate mystery. Also, the duration is a key component to Gyllenhaal’s obsessive behavior, since the Zodiac Killer remained a mystery for so long. The claim of “we just want to know who did it. And quickly” is utterly false, especially considering it’s based on true events that can be easily Googled.

7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Length: 165 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Ok, so Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman is as far removed from ‘comic-book’ as you can get, but c’mon – kids are still going to see this film too.

How We’d Fix It: It takes almost an hour before we even see Batman on screen and that’s far too long in our book. Maybe the film should just start from there?

Response: I also think The Dark Knight Rises is too long, but I think that’s the symptom of an undercooked script and not something that can be rectified by hacking off the film’s intro. Such a simplistic explanation for the film’s flaws betrays a huge misunderstanding of how screenwriting and editing work. A properly set-up first act, even if it runs a bit long, can be the key to empathizing with characters later in the story as well as properly understanding the dramatic gravity of later plot points. Imagine how the rest of the film would be even more confusing without that long set-up, or how packed with exposition it would be in order to get the audience up to speed.

8. The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001)

Length: 178 mins

Why That’s Too Long: This is just the introduction of a story covering three films – we don’t need to get to know every single character in the Shire THAT well.

How We’d Fix It: Cut down most of the Shire scenes. If this is a trilogy about a lot of walking, it’s almost an hour before Frodo even takes his first step.

Response: It’s essential for the audience to fall in love with the Shire in the same way the Hobbits love the Shire. That love carried the audience through seven more hours of storytelling (with two one-year-long breaks in between).  If the entire trilogy was just three hours long, you wouldn’t simply hack thirty minutes out of the opening to make it shorter. The overall flow of a movie is far more important than simply counting the minutes of its run time.

9. The Master (2012)

Length: 144 mins

Why That’s Too Long: We were all expecting a film exploring the question “Why Scientology be crazy”? and we figured there’d be a simple answer like: “Because all Scientologists be crazy”.

How We’d Fix It: The film really only hits its stride when Freddie meets Lancaster Dodd, so all of the scenes at the start establishing his fragile state of mind can be cut down. It’s already immediately obvious that he’s not quite stable.

Response: If you “expecting a film exploring the question ‘Why Scientology be crazy’” then you were expecting a terrible, preachy, uninteresting film. The Master is exquisite and meandering and impossible to really judge by standard three act Hollywood structure. Part of what makes the meeting of Lancaster and Freddie so potent is that the film sets up Freddie’s violent insanity so well that you’re terrified when the two will explode. To cut out that lead-in would likely sap all the dramatic tension out of that meeting.

10. Skyfall (2012)

Length: 143 mins

Why That’s Too Long: In the recent tradition of making Bond a more relatable, grittier secret agent with problems and concerns, we really just want to see him back at his best badass self.

How We’d Fix It: A little too much time spent at Bond’s Scottish home for the Home Alone-style ending. Given the spectacle of some of the earlier stunts, this ending already seems a little anticlimactic anyway.

Response: While this proposed “fix” breaks Total Film’s trend of wanting to edit out the entire first act, it creates the same problem in reverse. The Home Alone-style of the final act did seem a little odd to many folks, but the idea of creating a smaller,  personal ending is not only a fresh idea for a Bond flick, it’s also the entire thematic point of the film. Ironically, one could actually make a strong argument for editing out Bond’s existential crisis in the film’s first act, which he gets over rather quickly with the help of a dangerous tequila and a beautiful girl … though such is the case with things like this, you could also argue that it needed to be longer as well.

11. Man Of Steel (2013)

Length: 143 mins

Why That’s Too Long: Supes may be gritty and sad in this film, but he’s still a comic-book character who needs to deliver fun and excitement and little else.

How We’d Fix It: Cut the final showdown with Zod right down. Not only would it shave about 20 minutes off the total running time, it would save the lives of thousands of Metropolis residents in the process.

Response: The climax of Man of Steel was gorgeously photographed and the closest the film came to being cohesive.  A re-structuring of events, clarification of character drive, and a clear sense of the villain and hero’s ultimate goal would go a long way to make this a better film, even if they made it longer. Simply trimming the final battle doesn’t solve the other problems. And the reference to saving the lives of fictional characters is a knee-jerk reference to a trendy critique rather than a real thought.

12. Australia (2008)

Length: 165 mins

Why That’s Too Long: We realise that Australia is a huge country that deserves an epic movie to do it all justice, but really a lot of it is just open country with nothing much to see…

How We’d Fix It: There’s really a lot of set-up in this film establishing the relationship between the “whites” and the Aborigines, let alone Lady Sarah’s relationship with Drover. Surely this can be chopped down and we’d all still get the subtext?

Response: Australia suffers from its length, but only in that it’s too short. The relationships between Lady Sarah and Drover, as well as the tension between the Aborigines and white ranchers, is not subtext, it is the main plot of the film.  The drastic time jump and tonal shift after they get their cattle to the port, which arrives smack dab in the middle of the movie, is a key indicator this film wanted to be in two parts. It’s as if Baz Luhrman wanted the film to be a classic, sprawling epic and should have slapped an intermission in the middle. Allowing each half proper elbow room could actually make it a stronger film. Certainly it has other flaws, but in terms of length I think Total Film offers advice that’s exactly opposite to what would make the story better.

13. The Pianist (2002)

Length: 150 mins

Why That’s Too Long: It’s a harrowing tale of Holocaust-era tragedy. Powerful it may be, but we can only take so much…

How We’d Fix It: Adrian Brody’s Szpilman spends so much time in a big almost-empty house hiding from the outside world that it starts to feel like… um… nothing much is happening.

Response: Here’s the real kicker to end this list.  Just look at the paragraph above and really let it sink in … this is a complaint that the audience felt constrained and frustrated that the film’s hero was constrained and frustrated by the holocaust. This is inane criticism. There are a lot of responses that could be made, but I’ll focus on the definition of “nothing much is happening.” While yes, the protagonist is confined to a tiny apartment, there is actually a LOT happening both within his own head and in the world outside his window. We see his intense, dramatic descent into near madness due to his confinement. This is when he deals with his guilt, his sense of self worth, the eternal question of “why me?” I saw The Pianist one time, over ten years ago, and despite the fact that “nothing much is happening” I remember this section in vivid detail, a key indicator it might very well be the most powerful section of the film.

Certainly, all of my responses to the above list are completely subjective and I welcome anyone to counter-argue in the comments below.