The Fantastic Snore: Why comic book movies leave me feeling empty inside.

Tonight, the guy sitting behind us in the cinema caught some Zs while we were watching The Fantastic Four. At the end, his friend nudged him awake and the napper asked, “What happened?”

Well, gee, I thought, where do I start? There were boring characters, a boring plot and a lame climax…oh, wait, he never made it that far? What a tragic loss.

Not wanting to be a total buzz-kill, though, I said to my girlfriend, “at least they killed the bad guy.”

storiesbyphil copywriter film reviewAs we lapped into silence, struggling to digest the giant popcorn salt-bomb that was now gestating in our guts, I wondered, “Was I thinking right? Do most comic book movies let the antagonist live?” I know I’m over 40 and in need of ginkgo, but I really had a sense that that was the case. Once home, I parked the car, took some ginkgo, chased it with a shot of vodka and asked Google.

Turns out of course, I’m right and wrong. The bad guys in The Hulk, Captain America, Thor and some others get to walk away, but just as often, they do not. So why did I think most of them do (besides being senile)? I poured another vodka and pondered this.

I think it’s because the antagonists are so often poorly developed. They are so forgettable that I have forgotten whether they lived or died in this movie or that. My memory, and level of ‘give-a-shit’, tends to degrade when I’m watching a movie like Man of Steel, where two seemingly immortal beings bang each storiesbyphil copywriter screenwriter film reviewother over the head with skyscrapers. I’m thinking, “Neither of them can die, so what’s the point?” Even a famous actor like Ben Kingsley couldn’t save the Mandarin from being a joke (even if it was on purpose). Then I see Loki escape, and the Winter Soldier and Nebula and blahblahblah..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Look, I wasn’t too happy when Luke Skywalker didn’t outright kill Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars (ep4), either. I was outraged, actually. Evil personified had been allowed to live! How could this be?! It did leave me mad, but it also left me hanging for the next chapter. But why was that really? Because Darth was a well developed, three dimensional character with a clearly defined outlook on the world and a compelling goal.

That’s what you should do with your antagonist. Something you shouldn’t do? Don’t wait until the middle of the film to introduce your antagonist like Fantastic Four did! It sucks the drama and stakes out of the entire story.

This is the first in a trilogy you say? Don’t care. I paid to see THIS movie.

MY GRADE: 4/10

Director: Josh Trank Writers: Simon Kingberg, Jeremy Slater, Josh Trank, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

Sydney Film Festival – film #9: The Lost Aviator – hero or murderer?

Did he kill his lover?

That’s what the filmmaker sets out to discover about his great uncle, Captain Bill Lancaster, the infamous heroic failure of British aviation. His family is not too pleased about it, they’d rather dead dogs be left dead, but all the more reason to dig up his memory and make a show out of it.

The director has done a great job of painting a portrait of the era and circumstances surrounding his uncle’s life. Imagine trying to fly from London to Australia, hop-scotching across the globe, only to balls it up within spitting distance of his goal.

To make matters worse, the socialite he took along for the ride, the one paying his expenses and the one he taught to fly, was destined to eclipse him as a famous flyer.

For some, that might have been enough to drive them to murder, but enter, stage right, a mysterious stranger and a twisted love triangle! The hot nights in Miami were going to get very hot indeed.

This documentary is heroic, epic, farcical, tragic and ultimately, very entertaining, even more so because the filmmaker’s family didn’t want him to make it and he bravely put them on camera saying so. Suddenly I have this image in my head of the Soup Nazi yelling at the filmmaker, “No Christmas presents for you!”

One note – I assume the famous WWII British plane, the Lancaster bomber, was named after this guy, but it was never stated in the film. Curious.

GRADE: 7.5/10

(Australia) Dir./ Writer: Andrew Lancaster

Sydney Film Festival – film#8: Victoria- worst night on the town EVER?!

Admittedly, the list of German films I have seen in the last 20 years is short…

  • Das Boot
  • Downfall
  • Ron Lola Run.

Based solely on that list you’d think I would be more of a fan, those are all amazing films. Well, after watching Victoria, the time has come to start digesting more German cinema I think.

This was a fantastic movie on many levels. For the first half of the film the tension was almost unbearable for one reason, and then suddenly everything changed, and the tension was again unbearable but for completely different reasons. It is engaging and gripping stuff, shot supposedly in one long two hour non-stop shot, which makes it feel like you are watching things unfold in real time. It’s an emotional roller coaster, from loneliness to love to violent crime and finally to…well, I won’t give it away. Suffice it to say, the director manages to avoid expectations and hands out lots of energetic surprises. This was definitely time well spent.

GRADE 8.5/10

(Germany) Dir: Sebastian Schipper; Writer: Sebastian Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Elke Schulz

Sydney Film Festival – film#7: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Scientology is a tabloid curiosity for many people because of the celebrities they actively recruit into their pseudo-church, and I’m no different.

Like those many people, I wonder HTF uber-successful people like Tom Cruise can be suckered into a bunch of self-help rahrah codswallop.

This documentary reminds us that Dinaetics (the bible of Scientology) was like the Da Vinci Code of it’s day; it was everywhere. People came in droves looking for a self-help savior in the post-WWII conservative years in America.

Hubbard’s message must have resonated with a lot of people, but it was a fad, and like most fads, it started to die out, until he sprinkled it with a bit of marketing genius and turned it into a religion. The sinister part though, is the Nazi-like fear tactics Scientology uses to silence their critics from within and from without.

‘Going Clear’ lays it all out, with the help of celebrities who have left the church and footage from Scientology meetings that most of us have never seen. It’s frightening, fascinating and ultimately, head-shakingly sad. I wonder though, have not other religions of the world used similar tactics of fear to control their believers in the past?

GRADE: 9/10

(USA) Dir: Alex Gibney; Writer: Alex Gibney, Lawrence Wright (book)

Sydney Film Festival – film#6: Black Souls – a real Mafia film?

As an American raised on a Hollywood model of storytelling, I’m often frustrated by the languid pace of many European films. Not that I want the abhorrent ADHD pacing of a Michael Bay film, but I believe that every scene needs to have some element of conflict, a purpose, an arc and should come in late and leave early in the action.

With Black Souls, my patience was tested from the very first scene. This continued until what seemed like the middle of the film when we finally got what amounted to an inciting incident. The problem was it happened to a character that seemed to be of minor importance. It was hard to tell in general who the focus of the story was on.

However, I think that was part of the point. The film is a statement on violence and its destructiveness, a de-glamorizing of the Hollywood mafia movie. It tears apart families and communities and leaves no winners behind. Despite its problems, once I understood what was at stake and who I should care about emotionally, it was worth watching, even it it dragged at times. The ending is particularly shocking and unexpected.

GRADE: 7/10

(Italy) Dir: Francesco Munzi. Writer/s: Francesco Munzi, Maurizio Braucci, Fabrizio Ruggirello (novel by Gioacchino Criaco)

Sydney Film Festival – film#5: Sherpa – death in real-time!

“Can’t their owners control them?” says one cashed-up American climber whose attempt to scale Everest is thwarted by striking Sheraps.

The audience gasped, hurling insults at the screen. As an American, I was embarrassed for my people, even more so when he referred to the sherpas as terrorists.

Here was a prime example of somebody with too much money and not enough sense. True, he was pissed after having spent a bucket load of money to summit the mountain, twice, only to be denied, twice, but his complaints came just after 16 sherpas had died in an avalanche on Everest. He was showing no humility, no respect for the dead, and he deserved only scorn, which the audience gave him.

Go see this documentary. It was remarkable for its insights into the sherpa side of the Everest story, even before tragedy struck while the crew were there and so many died. It reveals the toll that climbing Everest has on sherpas and their families. I was surprised by the fear and unease exhibited by the wives and parents of sherpa guides. I naively thought sherpas had been doing this kind of thing since the beginning of time. Isn’t mountain climbing for them the way water is to a duck?

How wrong I was. The real history and emotions behind the sheraps, the work horses of Everest, is fascinating and surprising.

GRADE: 8/10

(Australia) Dir: Jennifer Peedom

Sydney Film Festival – film #4: Tehran Taxi – you’re bleeding all over my cab!

Filmmaker Jafar Panahi has made another underground film despite being banned by Iranian authorities from making any in Iran.

In this reality-film, he sticks a swivel camera on his dashboard and starts out to film a day in the life of a cab driver in Tehran. I’m never quite sure what is scripted and what is not in this film, which keeps it fresh and unpredictable.

There are some very funny moments, even in the face of near death and a bloody trip to the hospital, but the tone and purpose of the film tends to drag and veer off course later in the piece as we are introduced to friends and family and the whole off-the-cuff feel we had with Joe Public becomes something else.

It is painfully slow at times and a bit forced at others. I feel it could have been shortened by 25% and been a more enjoyable experience. By the end, the comedy and freshness of the experiment are lost and I had no idea what was going on.

Here’s to hoping they re-edit the film to give it some life. Having said that, it won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale, so WTF do I know.

Grade: 7/10

Sydney Film Festival – film #3: On The Rim of the Sky – big showdown in a little part of China

I love documentaries that give you a peek inside a part of the world you’ve never heard of or have always wanted to know more about. This story falls in the former category.

This story is about a village isolated by its geographic inaccessibility, a plateau on the side of a cliff, a thousand above the mighty Yangtze River. It’s a perilous place to live your life. During the film, every time a little kid bounced a ball over a fence, you held your breath hoping he didn’t go chasing it over the side.

What seems like a delicate but wonderfully simple and peaceful existence, with one tiny school run by one teacher for nearly 30 years, is ripped apart by the arrival of young volunteer teachers who want to bring the village into the 21st century. The village will never be the same again.

Conflict erupts, pitting the old school thinking against the new. Allegations of corruption abound. I found myself torn between rooting for the underdog and wondering if the underdog was actually a crook. This film kept me guessing, kept me interested and made me examine my own prejudices about my complex life and naïve yearning for a more primitive life, one that is actually hated by the ones living it.

I guess very few are happy with what they have, but you’ll be glad you went and saw this documentary. It’s not perfect, but it’s a world you’ve never seen before.

GRADE: 7.5/10

(China) Dir/ Writer: Hongjie Xu

Sydney Film Festival – film #2 – Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon

I didn’t grow up reading National Lampoon magazine or listening to their radio show, but after watching this documentary, maybe I should. I vaguely remember seeing the mags on the newsstand. They always seemed to be covered with boobs, so the chance are I peeked inside one at some point as a young man. Learning about their unrestrained satirical comedy made me think of Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine (which I only know from recent tragic headlines, so I may have that comparison completely fucking wrong). I know NL from their films, but there were things I learned here about Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, John Belushi, and Chevy Chase that I never knew before. It was like an insider’s look at a comedic Rat Pack, a time of unadulterated drugs, booze, women and comedy, when comedians lived and were treated like rock and roll stars. The documentary is good for laughs, insider secrets, shit you never knew before and some eye-popping shenanigans. If you grew up on the magazines, you’ll love it even more.

GRADE: 7.5/10