3rd Act Problems Theater

My two most recent visitations (The court orders say I can show up as long as I don’t start any riots.) to movie theaters have been quite enjoyable and I would recommend 21 Jump Street and The Cabin in the Woods quite heartily. Unfortunately, both films have the dreaded “third act problems.” The snake that kills many a promising screenplay and the most common complaint of a Hollywood exec, especially if they haven’t read the script (possibly because of illiteracy). So there might be some value to see how these movies lose their ways for all you promising film students out there before you discover your biggest problem is getting financing from a guy who owns a fast food chain and doesn’t understand what Kurosawa has to do with anything and why is everyone so damn sad in your screenplay (C’mon guys, not every indie film needs a super-sad ending. At least have one character get a puppy or something.)?

21 Jump Street

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are a pair whacky cops: one smart, one very large who have to go to undercover in a high school. Hijinks ensue. That’s it. That’s the agony and ecstasy of the whole thing. But after rocking the comedy for an hour, the movie suddenly decides to slow jam its way out to the credits. Suddenly we have to pretend to worry that Hill and Tatum have been taken OFF THE CASE. And they’re fighting! What will happen? Well, they’re going to get back together and take down the bad guys natch. What I’m wondering is what happen to jokes. Were they murdered off-screen? There must be 8 hours of deleted scenes. It’s the Lord of the Rings of buddy cop comedies. We barely get to see Rob Riggle’s take on the gauche gym teacher, Elle Kemper’s attempts to bang Channing Tatum, Chris Parnell’s pitch perfect theater teacher, or Jake M. Johnson’s sad-sack principal. I’m suppose to care about Hill and Tatum’s breakup when I know they’re less than 10 minutes away from rekindling their bromance with some stale Hollywood action scenes? The 5 minutes of unimaginative car chase could have been replaced by, I dunno, something funny. By following the classic 3 act structure of a Hollywood screenplay they miss out what was so goofy and fun about the first 45 minutes.

The Cabin in the Woods

If 21 Jump Street’s problems came from following the buddy cop rules too closely, The Cabin in the Woods lost its 3rd act when Abrams could no longer follow the regular slasher structure.  Now, as you probably have been told, it’s best to enter Cabin blind. Now, the whole experience is still a full “hoot” and dare I say “enanny” if you saw the trailer ahead of time but the less you know the more fun you’re gonna have. So everything after this is SPOILERS. Cabin in the Woods caught me off-guard, even for a metacommentary of the horror genre. I actually liked the kids, I invested into them. And if you invest in the characters in a slasher film, you’ll probably get scared when they get threatened. So the first two parts above ground were great. But it was rushed, the whole scary movie had taken place. What were they going to do now? There’s nothing left to mock, nothing to satirized. Releasing the monsters back on their creators might seem like a natural decision but it takes away from the comedy and any sense of drama the film has. The revenge is incidental for Dana and Marty who have no idea they’re getting back at their tormenters. For all the film’s jovial sniping against the horror genre, there’s no bigger point about the whole thing. No lesson needed to be learn about making people scared. And while that’s perfectly satisfying when you’re dealing with an Abrams metacommentary take on horror, it does make a 3rd act action set-piece boring as all get out.

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A Field Guide to the Mitt Romney Job Interview

Watching Mitt Romney finally sewing up this pathetically long primary season has made many pundits comment on how terrible a politician Mitt Romney is. This is rather unfair to Romney considering that the political primary might be the only place Romney could get away with his nonsense. Just imagine how a job interview would go…

Scene- Mitt Romney enters a small office and after shaking hands sits across from the desk of a mustachio, balding man.

Interviewer: Hello Mr. Romney. I just want to say we’re all very impressed by your resume.

Mitt Romney: Thank you.

Interviewer: I would guess this interview will just be perfunctory so let’s just get it over with some basic questions. What would you consider your biggest accomplishment in your professional life?

Mitt Romney:  When I saved the Olympics.

Interviewer: What?

Mitt Romney: When I saved the Olympics

Interviewer (looks downs at his notes): Wait… I mean, that looked like some sort of summer job on your resume. We called you in more about your business experience and time as the governor as Massachusetts.

Mitt Romney: I’m very proud of my time at those jobs.

Interviewer: Tell me about your greatest failure at those jobs.

Mitt Romney: Uh er… I could… I feel that I might have misstated concepts and beliefs that I deeply feel strong about during those times. Concepts like how great I would be at this job, a job I would be great at.

Interviewer: Okay… maybe that’s a good segue to questions on to the job you’re applying for. Why would you be the best person for the job?

Mitt Romney: I am an excellent manager.

Interviewer: And…?

Mitt Romney: And what?

Interviewer (tone becomes more agitated): Well, it’s a management position but there’s a lot more to it; you’ll have to work well with your others, come up with imaginative solutions to problems, and be able to make quick and well thought-out decisions. We expect strong ideas and beliefs. Maybe you would be more comfortable talking about yourself. What motivates you?

Mitt Romney (tone remains unchanged): My main motivation is to do well for this company. I spend a lot of – most of my time thinking about this company.

Interviewer: You don’t even work here yet! Don’t you care about your family or dog or something?! Look… uh… maybe I should have dug a little deeper on your talk about management. That seems to be your wheelhouse. What kind of supervisor are you?

Mitt Romney: I would expect my employees to get along with others, to be creative in their problem-solving ability, and to make good impromptu decisions.

Interviewer: You’re repeating what I said earlier.

Mitt Romney: No I didn’t, you used the word “diplomatic,” my friend.

Interviewer: You know what, just one more question. Something VERY basic: What is your greatest weakness?

Mitt Romney (For the first time of the interview, a contemplative look appears on his face. He pauses before his answer.): My greatest weakness is that I try too hard.

Interviewer (sighs and rubs his eyes)

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Nick Markakis

Nick Markakis is the right fielder of the Baltimore Orioles and the very soul of baseball (with all apologies to Joe Posnanski and the late Buck O’Neil). He’s nothing too special as a player though he’s above replacement level and would serve as a useful cog on many teams. I live neither in the Baltimore area and I’m no Orioles fan- I know next to nothing about the man though I doubt he’s despicable. He hasn’t been arrested for murder or caught drinking and driving on some warm night down Florida.  With my lack of knowledge I can project whatever I want onto him and that’s the fun. That’s one of the joys of being a fan.

Baseball is now a white collar game, long forgetting the ethnic roughnecks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who found their way out of the mines and off the farms by playing a child’s game with a sort of violence only found now in football, rugby, or YMCA intramural basketball. Now baseball is a sport for the water cooler set. Where George Will and a bunch of white sportswriters can write epic poems about the American spirit supposedly found in the hidden layers of the game. Under 2nd base is Entrepreneurialism, behind the home plate umpire is Democracy, and somewhere in the outfield grass is Can-Doism or maybe that’s Cheating. The last fellow goes by a lot of names. There’s Joe from accounting who enjoyed reading Moneyball and now thinks of graphs to explain how right-handed power hitters are underestimated in today’s market and ways to utilize that information for his fantasy league. While in the next cubical Mark has no need for numbers. He SEES players, can read them as men. He writes crass comments on some of the local team’s blogs and enjoys getting slightly drunk at games.  And for such a sport Markakis is the perfect representative. He is not among the elites nor is he scraping by. He’s a middle-class guy for a middle-class sport.

I know there will be many more Markakises as I grow older. Dependable, memorable in their own way but not enough of a character to be recalled often in baseball literature. The player who will be quickly forgotten by the next baseball generation with only his statistics to prove he once roam the field. There’s the eternal bond of baseball- a thousand Markakises played before him, a thousand will play after. I shall remember some of them fondly and others will agitate me with their ill-time swings and miss catches. The dependability of baseball is based around there will always be super-stars and scrubs but there will also be some outfielders with some pop, pitchers who throw strikes, and those feisty defensive catchers. The game smells of clichés like a garbage dump of Michael Bay movies because roles will be repeated. Baseball is a song which always returns to the chorus. I’m sure this all sounds very boring but boring people must be amused as much as the next person, it’s just that they’re never going to return that favor but they’ll do your taxes for you. Isn’t that enough for you people? Let me enjoy by little banal paradise and the place where Nick Markakis can live out a dream of glory without being a star.

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White Man’s Tears

Though I’ve belted you and flayed you / By the living God that made you / You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. – Rudyard Kipling, of course.

There’s a horrendous meme picture surfing the tubes which compares the picture of a recently dead celebrity (Steve Jobs, Whitney Houston, etc.) with the caption “one dies, millions cry” with a picture of a small African child with the caption, “millions die, no one cries.” My instant reaction first seeing it was, “What about their fucking families? Or do they not count because they’re not white Americans?” I think Teju Cole would have a similar reaction on the picture but with a far more sharp prescription that the kid is far better off if American’s didn’t care.

Twitter which is no place to make an eloquent statement but a grand place for snark has led Cole to write a beautiful, concise, and unpersuasive essay on the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”  While watching the social media new darling Kony 2012 Cole wrote several tweets going after not only Invisible Children but Kristof, Oprah, and any white dude who thinks they got Africa problems down cold after watching a 30-minute video. As way of explanation Cole writes,

“Those tweets, though unpremeditated, were intentional in their irony and seriousness. I did not write them to score cheap points, much less to hurt anyone’s feelings. I believed that a certain kind of language is too infrequently seen in our public discourse. I am a novelist. I traffic in subtleties, and my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn’t have a point.”

I’m interested in Cole’s opinion on twitter in general, which strangled subtly in the crib with Zach Snyder filming it but that’s an issue for another time. Let’s keep our eyes on those suddenly caring about Africa.

There’s all sort of arguments if the inside man or the outsider understands and fixes problems better. If a new, neutral position can lead to better solutions than those who have lived it and the greatest drive to solve it. Naturally the argument tends to focuses on the specific circumstances of the situation. Now here Cole understands Africa to a near infinite level higher than me. And the Western World in general has dug a strip mining-size hole when it comes to Asia, Africa, Australia, indigenous people, well you know pretty much everyone else and I shall not dream to lecture Cole on the issue, I do think there’s something I could write about human nature.

Where Cole sees a nuisance, a savvy politician would see clay for the art of the possible. People enthusiastic to save the world should be recognize as dangerous but it should also be recognize as a great tool. Short of demanding complete inaction, a very difficult solution to push as any realist arguing against humanitarian solutions can tell you. Instead, Cole suggests a course correction based around “the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy” which is as simplistic as anything suggested by IC. Cole is a novelist and not someone who is theoretically wiling to lead a crusade against crusades. His weariness is probably best served with this essay and maybe future writing. But I have a hard time staring at such a potential force for good without dreaming someone has to take them seriously and make some use of them. Hell, a babysitter is at least needed to keep them out of trouble. Asking them to keep out of the cookie jar has never stopped an Empire before, I’m hard-pressed to believe asking it snarkly was the secret.

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Boogie Nights (1997)

Boogie Nights is somehow both a quirky character study and a sprawling epic. Covering a decade of gross excess and tragic heights, P.T. Anderson’s ode to movies understands that moviemaking is boring but sex, drugs, and John C. Reilly are not. The trials of Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) the greatest porn star who’s name just pops off the marquee as he enter the banal world of porn-making to his fall, to his redemption covers the decade of banal excess- 1980s. We meet his new porn family (to say there are incestuous undertones sells the point rather low) director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) older co-star Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), younger co-star Roller Girl (Heather Graham), a sidekick Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) alongside hangers-on (Don Cheadle, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Thomas Jane). Diggler goes from soft-spoken bus boy to self-aggrandizing drug addict before fulfilling his call to be the prodigal son. It’s more than a monument to a fictional porn star but to the filmmaker who made it.

P.T. Anderson starts his mastery of tension building, the beautiful art of suspense in the film. Considering the slow simmer found in Magnolia and There Will Be Blood (originally wrote There Will Be Love as I’m a romantic at heart), the bad drug deal in Boogie Nights is a one-scene wonder. The second Dirk, Reed, and Todd get out of the car to when Dirk barely escapes without getting shot in half has been correctly recognized as a short film in itself. Watching Rahad Jackson play Russian Roulette with his Vietnamese boyfriend sets off firecrackers should be too ludicrous to work, it brings far too much attention onto itself but by catching the tone of the film’s comedic tragedy it’s not only successful but the most endearing payoff in any of Anderson’s films. (As we shall see in the next few reviews.)

Calling Boogie Nights the most cinematic of Anderson’s works which seems odd considering the biblical levels of There Will Be Blood and the sprawling heights of Magnolia but when Anderson finds the Greek tragedy of Boogie Nights. Shakespearian hubris might seem ridiculous talking about 80s porn but not when the inherent ridiculousness of every scene is admitted. When Todd starts laughing during the botched robbery that even in this unbelievably tense situation is sublimely ridiculous. The film naturally can’t take the characters seriously as they do themselves, topping such narcissism was not meant for mere man. No matter how awful the situation becomes, it’s obvious these characters have only themselves to blame for getting into the situation.

None of them know what they’re selling. At his job at a stereo store Buck has no idea what Hi-Fi has to do with audio equipment and drives away customers by playing country music full blast. Jack Horner thinks he’s making cinema where the sex is at most just a marketing tool.  Amber Waves thinks she’s a great surrogate mother for the porn stars while introducing them to cocaine. And Dirk Diggler thinks he can make it in the music industry. These flat-out delusional figures can more or less survive together but have little hope when they have to step-out into reality. A bubble of dream covers them until they make steps out in the real world.  The only violation of Horner’s home is Little Bill’s murder-suicide. Otherwise, the worst events all happened somewhere in the California nightscape. After their trials in the wilderness, like an Amish teenager on Rumspringa, each character returns to the Horner house wiser and sadder but with an understanding that they can only be happy in their dreamland. Why work when you can fuck for a living?

 

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“That samurai honor is nothing but a façade.”

A great Samurai house in the early days of the Shogun’s rule and the French army during the 1st World War would tend not to be compared even by the most dexterous history student. Yet in Harakiri and Paths of Glory two of the finest anti-authoritarian films ever had those two as their subject. The Realpolitk principles of institutions are not constrained by time or borders.

Both films are stories about men injured by institutions for crimes they not commit with the protagonist being an advocate who goes against the organization. In Paths of Glory, Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) is ordered by Gen. Mireau (George Macready) (as he was asked by Gen. Broulard [Adolphe Menjou) to lead his army in a suicide attack. After the attack fails, Mireau demands 3 scapegoats (haggled down from 100) to put in front of a kangaroo court. Dax defends his men in front of the tribunal. Harakiri tells its story more indirectly with multiple flashbacks. A ronin Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) wanders into the Iyi house- a feudal home of the 1600s asking for a place to perform seppeku (that’s ritual suicide for you American speakin’ folks). The chamberlain Kaegyu Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) senses a scam and tells a story about what happen when a young samurai made the same offer earlier in hopes of getting a bit of money and being shown the door. Instead, the House forces the young samurai to perform the ritual with a wooden sword (the young man must pawned his steel) in brutal fashion. Hanshiro turns out to know the young man- knew him very well and he’s here for an apology and more.

Authority’s main interest is always appearance over substance. When Saito orders a cover-up for Tsgumo’s massacre at the end, it is so the house would not admit a ronin can killed members of his house. Of course, the facts declare the opposite but Saito understands appearing weak matters more than being weak. Being weak doesn’t lead to being attacked, others knowing you’re weak does. The French Army is attacking German positions not out of any military logic but to keep criticism away from them. A French officer’s career ends when the blame falls on them not when the Germans win. Gen. Broulard cannot comprehend Dax acting on principle instead of pragmatism, it would be like finding out someone refuses to eat.

Dax thought himself clever for finding a political trump to play against the general staff to do the right thing. Dax miscalculated though as General Mireau can be sacrificed as easily as any of his men. The institution will survive because always be ready to lose any one man and continue to work. The Iyi house can lose its three best swordsman without a great deal of care as long as the façade remains. The beauty of the system is that while everyone looks out for themselves and feed the organization to continue its existence, their selfishness means not one of them is important enough for the machine to care if they leave. What Ayn Rand never understood is that Capitalism laughs when John Galt leaves the system. He doesn’t want to play by the rules, well there’s someone out there who’s just as good who will. The popularity of Atlas Shrugs comes from the idea that one person can fight the system; that the reader really can change the world if they’re talented enough. Paths of Glory and Harakiri do not have time for such fairy tales. No one man can move the world, no matter how desperately the world needs them to do so.

“Many of us will be joining you soon.” The injustice this kangaroo court will be repeated many times over the rest of the war. Just as Iyi erasing history will continue ignorance and injustice, the French army will retain its power. There will be more foolhardy attacks against the German army, more men will die in vain, and the army’s authority will remain unchallenged. However, these institutions will be finally destroyed by powerful forces. The Iyi will have centuries of success ahead of them until the Meiji Restoration knocks them out of existence. The old nemesis Germany will mauled the French Army in the 2nd World War. Yet, they’re only replaced by different hierarchies with their own sins. Nazi Germany is far worse than the stuffed-shirts of the French military. The criticism made by the protagonists is true but will never change the deficiencies of systems. Systems are created to protect these deficiencies of the human spirit. These films are power by Hobbesian logic where cruel, greedy men will destroy the earth unless constrained by customs, laws, and organizations that can work as counterweights.

“The World does not bend to sentimental tales,” says Tsgumo. A friendly little comment on these types of films. Institutions have always won these fights and when they’re put out of business, it’s by a different institution. General Broulard isn’t scared of Dax, he’s worried about “the newspapers and the politicians.” More so than any threat the Germany army holds. Both films end on futility because their own efforts were obviously going to be futile. However, Harakiri allows a more satisfying if very bleak ending for its protagonist of what society has done to him.

While the ending satisfies the anti-war message of the film, Dax’s journey ends in a lurch. He has seen the system failed only to return to the job to do the best he can. While this might be the realistic outcome where the victims spit out by authority has nothing better than to return to it, there’s something to say for Harakiri’s call for personal honor even if it will be forgotten. After showing an institution’s hypocrisy the protagonist can show he still has personal dignity. Futile effort can still have a meaning if it’s literally the only thing you can do to stop the machine.

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Sunday Short: The Room without Tommy Wiseau

When asked about income inequality in the United States Mitt Romney called critics of the rising wealth gap “envious” and that any decisions about the issues should be made in “quiet room” What’s surprising is not that Romney blundered into saying decisions should be made in quiet rooms but that he only did it once. Romney has complete faith in his abilities and the people he recognizes as peers. Everyone else: Obama, his GOP competitors, the American public are suspect. Pulling them into the discussion would only make them emotional, much better to solve their problems without their help or knowledge if the case may be.

All frontrunners suffer from coronation disease where the team is up 30 points with 3 minutes left on the clock and you just have to waste time till victory is yours but Romney is a special case. He expected this win from college and has been getting antsy since. Mormonism and his father has gave Romney the confidence to do anything and the few setbacks he’s dealt with from the car crash in France to his defeat in the 2008 race has not shaken his deep belief in himself. Unfortunately, the confidence means Romney has entered politics with no fixed or established beliefs in governance besides that he has the ability to solve any problems. He can promise anything, demand everything, and understand nothing about people because when the time comes to make the decision Romney knows he’ll make the right decision. A confident leader would make a great selling point but the story Romney could relate to it would not. While George W. Bush’s “decider” persona came from his belief in god and Teddy Roosevelt had his endless energy to drive his leadership, Romney can neither point to his disliked religion nor the “daddy-told-me-so” background.

So what do we got? A rich dude who think he can cure what ails America- if they weren’t just so stupid to vote against him. And a guy like that can awaken anyone’s inner-populist supporter of democracy.

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