Saturday, January 24, 2009

No thanks – I’ll just have the one.

Film sequels. Not many in the cinemas at the moment, but in the next few months we will see sequels to Underworld, Transporter, The Punisher, The Pink Panther, Night at the Museum, The Terminator, Transformers and Ice Age, – not to mention spin-off prequels of franchises such as X-Men and Star Trek, and another chapter in the Harry Potter series.

Why are sequels made? Sometimes it’s not correct to call them sequels – Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, for example, are more like chapters; they’re part of a longer story that has to be chopped up rather than an addition to a single stand-alone story. Or the James Bond films, which are individual adventures with recurring characters.

Other films, on the other hand, exist purely because the success of their predecessors inspired someone to decide that it would be worth re-using some (or most) of the elements to make another film. The figure that gets thrown around is 100 million US dollars; there are, however, films which have made less than this and still spawned a successor, and films which have made more than this but have not been profitable enough to warrant a sequel.

Anyway, enough on the technicalities. What I really want to do is bitch about sequels I do and don’t like. Just to note: I won’t judge films I haven’t seen.

First on the list, and especially ironic, is Highlander. Why ironic? Because the catchphrase from the film is ‘There can be only one.’ And there really, really, really should have been ‘only one’. There are few movies I hate more than Highlander 2: The Quickening. Actually to say I hate it is an understatement; I loathe it to the point where thinking about it actually irritates me.

Admittedly, the original isn’t exactly great cinema – you’ve got Sean Connery playing a Spaniard/Egyptian, and Christopher Lambert playing a Scotsman. But it’s a good movie; lots of action, great swordfighting, the soundtrack is Queen at pretty much their rocking best, and Clancy Brown has the role of a lifetime as The Kurgan.

The sequel wasn’t just bad – it was appalling. It seemed like whoever wrote it hadn’t actually seen the first one. It basically took the original concept – a few humans are born immortal and are drawn to fight and kill each other to claim a prize – and retconned it to imply that all the immortals were really aliens sent to earth as punishment. How perfectly wretched.

A work of such determined awfulness actually has the power to weaken my liking for the original.

Other sequels fail because they are an attempt to stretch a story. The Matrix is probably the best example of this. The first movie was brilliant, not only because it is a good, well-made action film, but because it had a great concept behind it. But that concept was only enough for one film. Not two – and definitely not three.

I find that character-driven films have problems stretching as well. Characters in films are created to be outlandish, often silly – but falling short of the point of stupidity. However, it’s a very fine line. The problem then is that, when it comes time to make a sequel, the characters tend to be pushed over that line, beyond acceptable believability and into intolerable, irritating silliness. Films falling under this category include Bad Boys 2 and Ace Ventura 2.

Other films just lack the same punch – Hellboy 2, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Oceans 12 and Underworld 2 being good recent examples. Not necessarily bad films, but the drop-off in quality from the first is more than expected.

Die Hard 2 was pretty good, though Die Hard 3, while a good film, loses points for going against the spirit of the first two by being more of a buddy film and having an uncomfortable-looking Jeremy Irons play a German. Beverly Hills Cop 2 - not too bad; Beverly Hills Cop 3 - terrible. The Lethal Weapon series went to a tolerable third, but the fourth pretty much sucked.

Then there are those that just keep on going: Police Academy, Scary Movie, Rocky, Rambo, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Star Trek, Jaws and so forth. Fortunately, most of these have stopped entirely or a getting 'rebooted' - a phenomenon which I'll probably comment on another time.

There are, of course, those sequels which are better than the original. Blade 2 (but not Blade 3) and X-Men 2 are good examples. Shrek 2 – not entirely awful. I haven’t seen any of the Godfather films, but Godfather Part 2 is often cited as the poster-child for the better-than-the-first film contingent. The last Batman (in the revamped series) probably counts as well, though I’m not a huge fan of either (though I thought Heath Ledger was brilliant).

You’ve also got sequels which are so distinctly different from the first that it’s almost impossible to compare the two – simply because, to use a well-known analogy, what was an orange is now an apple. The best example of this is Alien and Aliens. Alien is a sci-fi suspense horror while Aliens is more of a sci-fi action. It’s very difficult (in my mind) to try and decide which of the two is ‘better’. They’re both great, but for vastly different reasons.

Which leads me to my final sequel comparison, and one on which I appear to be one of very few people to hold this opinion. So, brace yourself for what I’m going to say now:

The Terminator is a better film than Terminator 2.

That’s right. But don’t get me wrong; I love Terminator 2. It’s an awesome, iconic, groundbreaking film. But, while all that money, all those special effects, the cool liquid-metal, Robert Patrick being creepy, and even the Guns & Roses song on the soundtrack made T2 an awesome film and one of the best sci-fi/action films of all time, it doesn’t make it better than its predecessor. A more spectacular film and a bigger adrenaline rush? Hell yes. But that’s not everything.

I like the originality of the first one. The dark, gritty feel. The suspense and the storyline and the understated humour of Arnie’s wooden (well, metallic) performance; a far cry from the second which was written with his delivery one-liners for comedic effect in mind. Yes, T2 was funny – but instead of the incidental humour of the first, it was more polished, felt more contrived.

When it comes down to it I guess it’s that (seeming more contrived) which makes the difference. The Terminator felt more like it was made because they wanted to make a movie, tell a story. T2 set out to do those things - but they also wanted to make themselves a shitload of money doing it, and that affected many of the decisions that they made. I’m pretty much an indie at heart, and that affects my opinions; I don’t ever try to hide it.

Anyway, I’ve gone on far too long as it is. Got any comments? Any of your own sequels to add? Want to list the top ten reasons why T2 is a better film?

Go for it.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Super-short fiction #2

Two more from the archives. The second one continues beyond the first sentence; just click on the 'read more' link. I've rejigged the layout so I can fit more posts on the page.

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Michael hated going to the Doctor.

His earliest memory was of having his head stitched after his brother Ron had knocked him down the back stairs. It hadn’t been deliberate; in fact, Ron had seemed more upset about it than Michael did - at least, he did until the doctor took out the needle and thread. That needle seemed at least a foot long to the not-yet-three year old and he started screaming even before the thread went through the eye. It had taken all the strength of both of his parents to hold him down while the doctor sewed him up.

He’d made very few visits to the doctor since.

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Joyce viewed every meal she sat down to with a certain amount of suspicion, for she fully believed her children were going to poison her.

She felt it would provide her with a certain satisfaction if they did, for she knew they would expect to reap the financial rewards of her estate they would be surprised to find that that amount was, in actuality, so little that, as it was, she could hardly afford to support her current extravagant lifestyle for much longer.

Her three children - Alan, David and Miranda - had indeed considered poisoning their elderly mother on more than one occasion. It was one of the few things they had in common. But, despite the desire, they had abandoned the plan some time ago, for they felt, as Miranda had rather aptly put it, ‘The old bag is probably so poisonous that she’d be immune to anything we could slip into her sherry anyway.’

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Best. Episode. Ever.

C’mon. You know what I’m talking about, right? The phrasing should have given it away. Say it out loud and, while doing so, imagine you’re a fat, male comic-book-store owner with an overdeveloped sense of cynicism, a penchant for Star Trek, and reddish hair in a ponytail. I’m talking about The Simpsons. And my favourite ever episode is Bart the Fink. 3F12, Season 7, episode 15.

You might think it would be a tough decision, seeing as there are a lot of episodes to choose from and there are so many good ones. But, despite there being other episodes that I love – Marge vs. The Monorail, The Springfield Files, Mother Simpson, Brother from Another Series, Homer at the Bat, A Streetcar Named Marge, Whacking Day, Rosebud, Bart After Dark (and that’s just to name a few), there’s just something special about Bart The Fink.

So, to the specifics. Why do I like this episode so much? Warning – contains spoilers. Oh, and despite my ├╝ber-fandom, I don’t own the series on dvd and I take full responsibility for misquoting lines.

Value for money (so to speak)

I’m aware of no other episode that has such a high proportion of quality material throughout the entire episode. From the very start: the Simpson family at a funeral where Homer is alternately crying and whispering ‘woo-hoo’ because they know they’re due to inherit something from Great-Aunt Hortense’s estate – to the very end: Krusty faking the death of Rory B Bellows for his ‘surprisingly large’ insurance policy, it’s just packed full of great lines, scenes and wacky stuff.

Laughs

I’m fairly sure I laugh more at this episode than any other. It just seems to be written specifically with things I find funny in mind – an offbeat storyline with twists and turns, obscure references, and blacker-than-usual humour.

Dialogue

There are some absolutely priceless lines in this episode, mostly from the minor one-off characters. The lawyer with his evil laugh, the bank employee with his attempt to convince Bart that saving for his future will be more thrilling than any rollercoaster, and that filling out the form will be more interesting than a weekend with Batman – all delivered in a dull monotone. The Casablanca-esque Cayman Islands guy accidentally revealing Krusty’s secret, illegal account. Bob Newhart’s involuntary eulogy. However, the regulars don’t miss out , with Krusty in particular getting a few good rants in.

Visual impact

This episode contains, as far as I’m concerned, the single best-drawn shot in the history of the show. Bart, having ruined Krusty’s life, is sitting in his room (where everything is a Krusty product – wallpaper, lamp etc.) looking more unhappy than I ever thought it was possible for a 2-D animated character to look. Homer comes in and makes it even worse (‘Why, you could wake up dead tomorrow!’) and turns off the light. Bart’s look of abject misery is simply stunning.

The scenes from Krusty’s post-IRS takeover show are also hilarious. He wants a banana cream pie and, offstage, the IRS guy gives him the ‘think about the money’ rubbing-forefinger-and-thumb-together gesture; Krusty begs him to throw something so the IRS guy flings his briefcase at him, striking him in the head (with the corner) - and then quietly sneaks onstage, grabs the briefcase, and sneaks off again.

It gets censored

Another of my favourite scenes is where the IRS auction off Krusty’s possessions to help pay his tax debt. In the standard version the auctioneer calls out that the next item is some astonishing number of boxes of ‘Krusty’s pornography’. Jasper (the old bearded guy often seen with Grandpa) wants to bid for it, but, as he says, ‘I only brought ten cents. I didn’t know there was going to be pornography’.

This scene is cut from what they call the ‘syndication version’ – ostensibly for length, but it also allows the episode to be shown earlier because of the diminished ‘adult content’.

Also cut is the bit where Krusty, having been zapped by his GPS machine, throws it into the ocean yelling ‘tell me where you are now, bastard!’.

Sheer volume of crazy, random shit
  • Comic-book guy with a wheelbarrow full of tacos (from the Tacomat, who have a special - 100 tacos for a $100; this is what Bart intends to spend his inheritance money on) which he considers to be ‘adequate sustenance for the Dr Who marathon'.
  • Homer telling Bart that Krusty would be ‘up in heaven, with all the other celebrities – Josef Stalin, John Dillinger and Ty Cobb’ – three people known for their unpleasantness in real life – and then wishing he, himself, was dead.
  • Bart’s Hindenburg disaster ‘Oh the Humanity’ chequebook.
  • Sideshow Luke Perry is at the funeral, as is Kermit the Frog.
  • Troy McLure’s references to Andre the Giant in his eulogy.
  • Captain McAllister’s references Moby-Dick: ‘call me back, Ishmael’.
  • The law firm ‘Dewey, Cheatem, Howe & Weissmann’.
  • Krusty Burger becomes IRS Burger; Homer orders items such as a FICA-chino, Tax-burgers, an IRS-wich (withhold the lettuce) and dependent-sized sodas.

And that’s probably only half of it. It’s one of those episodes where each time I watch it I find something else good about it. I could write at least a couple more pages of rapturous praise about dozens of otherwise insignificant details.

But enough about what I think of it. I want to know what other people think of it – or, if it isn’t your favourite episode, which is?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Super-short fiction #1

Over the years I've written hundreds of what I call super-short stories; most of these during the time I worked in a call centre and wrote to maintain my sanity - what little of it there is left, ha ha. This was all done on what I suppose you'd call A5 paper which we used as notepaper. I still have all of them and will, from time to time, transcribe (and probably edit slightly) and then post them on the blog.

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It was Michelle who started it.

‘Frank’s very tall isn’t he?’

The others all stopped what they were doing to ponder what she had said.

‘I suppose he is, isn’t he?’ said Tom, a look of bafflement crossing his features, furrowing his brow and casting his pale blue eyes into shadow, ‘I’ve never really thought about it.’

The others murmured their assent. Frank was very tall. They thought they’d probably always known he was very tall, but it wasn’t until it had been brought it up in conversation that they really put a lot of thought into the matter.

‘How tall is he?’ piped in Denise, her brown eyes sparkling with excitement.

Another few minutes of murmuring ensued before Michelle, relishing the attention she’d received earlier, broke in with the suggestion that, when Frank arrived – he was due anytime – they should all have a good close look and see for themselves just how tall he was. They all agreed this was a good idea.

Poor Frank didn’t know what hit him.

As soon as he opened the door he found a room full of his giggling, wild-eyed friends, who insisted on taking turns on being measured against him, marking the heights against the wall with a stub of lead pencil Dorothy had produced from the bottom of her voluminous handbag. Frank, knowing his friends' tendencies towards eccentricity, bore this with good grace, but felt obliged to point out that they could have just asked him his height and saved everyone the bother. He was rather dismayed when they erupted into fits of laughter.

It was time for a drink.