Trailer of the Week — “The Tale of Princess Kaguya”

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Kaguya

What does Japanese animation offer that American and European don’t? The space to breathe. The space to exist in a world not made for the screen, but for its characters. American animation stresses constant motion. Visual cleverness is prized.

Anime, on the other hand, stresses the moments in between the action. A moment so still you can close your eyes and feel the breeze on your face, that a character’s contemplation will spark your own…that, you’ll only get from anime.

Beauty will often be found in background details, while the motion of the wind through an entire field might be represented by a single, black line and a soft sound. It’s this artistic restraint and reliance on the power of suggestion that makes anime so unique and powerful, that lets viewers access the otherworldly and surreal where Western animation would add fidelity to the point of overexplanation.

Western animation is often so detailed and action-packed, characters barely get to breathe. It can be beautiful in its constant motion, and it certainly lends itself to humor, but it always leaves us keenly aware we’re watching a movie.

Because anime is so based on suggestion, it can often give us that feeling of remembering a dream upon waking up. Our brains might scrabble for the details for a moment, but it’s the impression we’re left with that’s important, the unique feeling we can only access in that moment of opening our eyes, reminiscing about something that never existed.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is told in a boldly illustrative style, and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since it opened to rave reviews in Japan a year ago. Even in a one-minute trailer, you can see the sheer power of performance in its hand-drawn style, the birth of resolve in a character’s eyes, the absence of detail in a moment of anger reflecting what that panic and vengeance really feel like.

The Homesman
Hilary Swank. Tommy Lee Jones. Meryl Streep. Miranda Otto. Hailee Steinfeld. John Lithgow. Tim Blake Nelson. James Spader. William Fichtner.

It’s like the Western drama version of The Expendables, but I’ve already checked – Annette Bening’s not acting lead in anything this year, so it’s unlikely Swank wins an Oscar for this.

If there’s an American corollary to anime, it’s probably the Western. After the days of actors like John Wayne and Gregory Peck saving the girl, Italian director Sergio Leone took Japanese samurai narratives and filmed them in Spain as American westerns. He took the cinematic tendencies for stillness, introspection, and a uniquely Japanese form of postwar regret from directors like Akira Kurosawa and translated them into a Eurocentric perspective that took everything inward and painted it onto the landscape. He created a Purgatory for lost souls, the outward projection of self-punishment for characters whose ethical null-states didn’t allow them to feel penance.

The Western never looked back and, if you think it’s dead today, when was the last time you watched a post-apocalyptic movie or TV show?

Some Westerns still take place in the Old West, though, and that makes me happy, because they give actors a chance to stretch their wings. The Homesman is still unique among them, however, because Westerns typically involve men who haven’t bathed in a week shooting and beating the snot out of each other. I can drive down to Tully O’Reilly’s any Saturday night for that.

No, what makes The Homesman unique is that it’s centered around women in the Old West. Quick, name the last Western you saw dominated by female characters. Yeah, neither can I, and that’s a problem.

It’s directed by Tommy Lee Jones, whose debut, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, was overlooked several years ago.

Congratulations!
The trailer for Mall premiered recently. One of our contributing writers, S.L. Fevre, appears in the film, and it looks like it has potential. Congratulations!

Others
Wetlands looks too consciously gross to be my kind of movie, but the NSFW trailer is rather brilliant, and the film’s been heaped with critical praise on the festival circuit. The Canal is a promising trailer in a year starved for good horror movies. While it looks visually interesting, it’s going to live or die on the predictability of its story. Finally, Kelly and Cal looks like it could be something of a comeback for Juliette Lewis, as a suburban housewife who develops a relationship with a wheelchair-bound neighbor half her age.

Worst of the Week
I suppose this is becoming a tradition, and there are a lot of contenders this week, but if we’re going to do this, let’s be fair about it.

While internet thriller Open Windows looks like it’s never actually seen anything resembling the internet in its life, it does feature a pair of actors in Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey who remain intriguing.

Wood has shown generally good taste in independent projects – even when they aren’t successful, he’s interesting in them. Regardless of Grey’s past in adult film, her work with Steven Soderbergh in The Girlfriend Experience is a triumph of Hal Hartley influences, sexual psychology, and cinematic language displaced from the early 1990s. Wood and Grey are interesting because they’re both actors who became icons of very different industries, and are largely hamstrung in their future careers because of it. That alone makes a movie with the celebrity stalking premise of Open Windows intriguing, even if the trailer is a complete disaster.

So this week, it’s Drive Hard, which stars John Cusack and Thomas Jane in the only roles I’ve never wanted to see them in – Cusack as a race car driver/bank robber (this cliché is being done to death right now, and no one’s going to do it as well as Ryan Gosling) and Jane as…his driving instructor? Chaffeur? It’s hard to tell what exactly, because the trailer communicates very little actual story, focusing on the movie’s comedy instead. Except there are no laughs, and the audio is so off (I’ve checked different versions; it’s definitely the trailer cut) that their lines sound mumbled and unimportant.

And in case you’re sad that this isn’t a sequel to Nicolas Cage’s Drive Angry, first of all, what’s wrong with you? Second of all, don’t worry, the man’s still at work – you can always check out his starring role in the long-awaited film adaptation of Left Behind. Yes, you just read that right: binging, boozing Nic Cage is the star of Left Behind. Come to think of it, that’s probably why he gets, you know, left behind.

Propping Up a Corpse — “The Expendables 3″

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Bad Grammer

There stood their names, 20 feet tall: Stallone. Li. Statham. Grammer. Snipes. Schwarzenegger…wait. Back up a few. Grammer? Kelsey Grammer?

That’s when my hopes for a franchise in its death throes were renewed. Maybe we would finally get the chance to see Frasier lay the smackdown on Rocky and the Terminator, as the gods of 80s and 90s action never intended. Alas, it isn’t meant to be.

Grammer works as the on-screen casting director of The Expendables 3, an intelligence operative who finds a bevy of younger, one-lining toughs to replace Sylvester Stallone’s rag-tag mercenary outfit of older heroes as they set out to assassinate an arms dealer. Needless to say, nothing goes as planned, and old and young eventually have to work together.

While I never truly anticipated seeing Grammer throw down, it’s a disappointment that so many of the names advertised are barely in the movie. I expected not to see much of Schwarzenegger or Harrison Ford. Arnold chews through all of his best catchphrases from other movies – and I do mean ALL of them – in about 10 minutes, while Ford alternates between downright feisty and like you just caught him sleepwalking.

Expendables 3 Banderas

What isn’t expected is that franchise regulars pumped up in the advertising, like Jet Li and Terry Crews, only appear in glorified cameos. Jason Statham gets a lot of screen time – he has the best chemistry with Stallone – but he’s pushed to the side most of the film, as are Dolph Lundgren and Randy Couture. Replacing them are Antonio Banderas and Wesley Snipes. While they’re both riots in their scenes, it’s disconcerting that the comic relief is chiefly left to the Hispanic and African-American characters. In particular, Snipes’s routine most closely echoes Robert Downey Jr.’s satirical blackface performance in Tropic Thunder. It feels like too much of a “down-home” put-on for an actor who’s proved he’s capable of so much more.

As fellow critic Justine Baron points out, it’s also odd that Snipes joins the team just as Crews is laid up. Is there only room for one black action hero at a time? We barely get to see them share the screen together.

That youthful team that Grammer helps Stallone recruit? It’s not strong on the acting chops, though Kellan Lutz is very likeable. One person makes up for it, however, and that’s mixed martial arts star Ronda Rousey.

For an 80s-style actioner, the film gets bogged down most when it’s just lines of people shooting at each other. Throw in a car chase or some hand-to-hand combat, however, and the movie energizes. Snipes and Jason Statham, the only other two actors with truly extensive martial arts training, each have their moments (MMA star Victor Ortiz co-stars, but is largely left off the screen). Yet it’s Rousey whose fistfights own the screen. Her punches are the only thing more painful than her dialogue, but in a movie like this, the punches matter more. It’s to the film’s credit that it allows Rousey to be the toughest actor up there, where other movies might shy away from having her outshine the men.

Expendables Ronda Rousey

As for the villain, how do you solve a problem like Mel Gibson? The guy’s a legend on-screen, but a disaster off of it. He acts circles around everyone else involved in this, but when the inevitable throwdown with Stallone happens, it’s difficult not to recall that these are the two actors in this whole thing who’ve had major domestic abuse issues. I’m trying hard not to judge – they both had rough upbringings which themselves may have included abuse, but our awareness of these facts marks how differently we watch movies today than we did back when Stallone and Gibson together would’ve guaranteed the biggest movie of the summer. Truth be told, I’m out of words after addressing what happened to my friend last week.

That’s a lot of issues in one movie and I haven’t even mentioned the plastic-looking visual effects, but I’d still give it a light recommendation. Gibson and Banderas carry the dialogue, Rousey and Stallone carry the action. Everyone else is just passing through.

It’s not for everybody, but if you’re at all a fan of the action franchises like Rambo, Blade, and The Transporter that helped get these actors here, you should enjoy it. Guardians of the Galaxy remains by far the best blow-em-up for your buck in theaters, but this Expendables hits the spot if you’re looking for something a little more traditional.

The Expendables 3 is rated PG-13 for violence and language, though it’s on the harder side of that rating.

If Only She’d Had a Gun

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On Tuesday, I wrote about a friend who was beaten and stabbed by her ex last weekend. It’s been suggested to me from several sources that if she’d had a gun, her beating could have been wholly avoided.

I’d like to think these suggestions come from places of concern, and not from the navel-gazing urge to use another person’s tragedy as an opportunity to spout one’s political viewpoints.

Let’s address guns first. Perhaps if she’d had a gun, she could have shot her abuser the moment he broke into her house. If someone you were in a relationship with barged into your home, would you shoot them off the cuff, no questions asked? Probably not.

Domestic violence escalates through phases. There’s no way to tell if this is the time someone’s going to apologize, say they didn’t know what they were thinking, and leave; or if this is the time they’re going to beat and stab you.

The simple fact is that the presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the likelihood of a woman being killed by 500%. That means a woman is five times more likely to die if there’s a gun in that house than if there isn’t.

Who’s to say, if there had been a gun in her home, that an earlier instance of abuse wouldn’t have turned into his using the gun on her?

When people speak for some level of firearm regulation, it’s not because guns in themselves make someone violent. Violent people will find ways to be violent no matter what. Guns just make that violence far easier and more efficient. Where before you could maim, now you can kill. Where before you could kill someone in particular, now you can kill a dozen or more. He was always the violent one, during and after their relationship. If a gun had ever been present, I guarantee you that he’d have been the one more likely to use it at some point.

If only she’d had a gun? She might be dead, instead of in the hospital.

Furthermore, the idea that all that’s needed to fix the situation is a gun ignores the cause of domestic violence. It treats an effect of domestic violence, a symptom, and it does so about as well as applying leeches treats a flu. The problem isn’t that women aren’t armed to the gills, the problem is that men are brought up to understand that violence is a proper solution when they’re confronted or rejected.

Someone gets in your face? Violence. Someone challenges your authority? You’ve got to out-man him, be bigger and stronger and tougher. Someone rejects you? You’ve just got to push harder and be more relentless. It’s ridiculous. There’s always got to be a winner. Compromise isn’t something we’re brought up to value.

I say this as a 6’3” black belt in taekwondo, who’s also trained variously in ninjutsu, aikido, and kickboxing: I’m far prouder of the fights I’ve avoided than the ones I’ve had. Believe me, there are times I wish the world were run on Conan the Barbarian levels of violence. I’d do pretty well and those loin cloths look damn comfortable, but the problem becomes that the more violent a world is, the more it’s being run by those who lack control and can think of no other way to regain it.

The truth is violence comes from one place – Panic. When you resort to violence, it’s because you’ve lost control over something or someone other than yourself – a relationship, someone’s opinion of your manliness, even something as simple as how your day turned out – and you can think of no other way to regain that control but through exerting your will over someone else.

The problem isn’t that women and others who are put in subjugated or subservient positions in our society aren’t well armed. The problem is that too many of us are very well armed, and have it in our minds that our superior firepower – be it through guns or fists – is all the license we need to utilize it. The better our firepower, the more we rely upon it to resolve our problems.

It’s systemic, it’s cultural, and we see it in every level of our society. We see it in our militarized police forces, such as the one that recently fired on unarmed civilians in Ferguson, MO. We see it in administrations so fearful that public opinion will view them as weak that we send in troops again and again where we once would have exhausted diplomatic compromise. And we see it in the plague of domestic abuse cases, the vast majority of which involve men who feel they’ve lost the control they had or imagined they had over a woman.

I was lucky – I had an instructor who drilled into our heads that the fight was the last solution, only to be used when cornered and no other options were available. To fight without exhausting every other solution was deeply shameful. If it didn’t get you kicked out of the school, he’d work you class after class until you wanted to quit. The better trained we were, the more responsibility we had never to exert that training on someone else unless absolutely necessary. In other words, it’s sometimes better to lose control of something outside yourself than it is to lose control of what’s inside yourself.

But we raise a culture of men trained to never admit defeat. It’s intrinsic to the American spirit – Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone wouldn’t stop, so why should I? All the sidekicks on TV get the girl after years of rejection, just by virtue of staying dutifully obsessed (and showrunners running out of other ideas). That’s what we’re raised to do. Be relentless, not listen, and value rejection and pain as signals that we’re on the right path to getting what we want. One day, rejection will be a story we both laugh over, that pain will be a battle scar we pridefully show off as evidence of how relentless and unforgiving we were in pursuit of our prize. If it weren’t so real, it’d be hilariously absurd.

What I’ve just described is not assertiveness, by the way. Some will tell you it is, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. What I’ve just described is addiction.

Men need to understand that losing isn’t just what happens externally, what other people see. Losing can be internal, too, and it can do far more in damaging who we become. When we control ourselves, our own decisions, when we don’t panic in the face of adversity, when we calmly seek solutions, that’s assertiveness. When we have so little control of ourselves, we seek to control others to compensate, when panic overtakes us so much that our most immediate reaction is violence, we’re just seeking a quick fix, another hit to numb our real loss of control.

Yeah, if only she’d had a gun… How about if only someone had taught him that no means no, that over means over, that women have a right to their own lives, that it’s OK to admit defeat so long as you don’t lose control of yourself, that a relationship means compromise and not control, that rejection at most deserves, “Can we talk about it,” and not broken bones, broken teeth, ruptured organs, and hundreds of thousands in medical bills?

If only she’d had a gun. If that’s what you take away from this, if that’s the lesson you feel you need to impart on others who are going through pain, then you are not part of a solution. You are part of an arms race.

On Beating Women

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Stop Violence Against Women

I learned late last night that a friend of mine was beaten by her ex this last Friday. She was beaten so severely she has 20 broken bones, lacerations and penetration wounds, and a ruptured liver. She only escaped out her back door when the blade he used to stab her broke off its handle, and he left the room to get another one.

I was going to work on an article today about how women in B-films get treated differently from men, how an entertaining but decidedly one-note comedian like Will Arnett gets a pass for falling flat in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while Megan Fox is reviled and critically downgraded for it, how Robert Pattinson, Michael Sheen, and Taylor Lautner get off Scot-free for the Twilight series while Kristen Stewart is held uniquely accountable for production failures beyond an actor’s ability to control. Their careers are somehow defined in a way the others’ aren’t. The Rock can make a dozen awful B-movies and we admire him for his muscles. Actresses like Fox and Stewart can make a handful and the media criticizes them for their looks. Now, that seems like an inconsequential piece of writing. I realize it’s not, that how our media trains us to look at and criticize men and women is the foundation that opens the door to later blame and hatred, but Jesus, I’m incapable of writing that article today.

Paramedics use a mnemonic acronym to help them learn how to evaluate a patient: DCAP-BTLS. It stands for, “Deformities, contusions, abrasions, punctures & penetrations, burns, tenderness, lacerations, and swelling.” It’s useful in describing the results of an injury and isolating a treatment. It’s not meant to describe a bad breakup.

My friend is missing teeth. She cannot chew. She cannot see out of one eye. She makes her living as a model. I fear that’s done with.

She is nothing but bruises now. I’m tempted to make a metaphor about how the physical ones will go away, while the emotional and mental ones will be the work of a lifetime. But the truth is many of the physical ones won’t go away either, not after how badly she was beaten, and they will be constant reminders of how someone else felt he had the right to take away her power, her livelihood, and her ability to make her own choices about her life.

I have no ability left to perceive or process this.

It happened on the other side of the country, and it’s easy to think this is somehow isolated, but the truth is that movements like the Men’s Rights Association – which teach men they are held down by women’s freedoms that still don’t measure up to theirs – plague the upbringing of young men in this country. We’re taught to assert ourselves by owning and possessing women, that dating is a competition for a prize, and that rejection or loss is only the go-ahead to aid your relentless pursuit with the tools of manipulation, drugs, and violence.

It’s not isolated. There was an afternoon this May when, between four friends: one was intentionally hit in the head by a man on the street, and later confronted by a man on public transit who asked to touch her. A second was followed to an appointment by a stranger who stared at her the whole way. He waited while she conducted her appointment, and then followed her home. A third wasted the afternoon talking to a string of photographers who treated booking her not as a professional photo shoot, but as an opportunity to ask her out on dates. The fourth was followed by a car whose driver asked her where she was going, if she needed a ride, and then repeatedly threatened her if she did not get in the car.

I have friends who are stalked. I have friends who’ve been beaten and raped. I have friends who have been drugged and raped. I have friends who were drugged and raped with the assistance of third parties. I have friends who were drugged and raped and kept in a house for days on end. Most of the rapists never went to jail, or even before a jury.

As Vanessa Tottle pointed out a few weeks ago, regarding the four writers of our music video countdown, “All four of us have taken a friend who’s suffered sexual assault to the hospital. Two of us have taken a friend who’s been rufied to the hospital.”

This is not isolated. Vanessa defined it after the Isla Vista shootings as a war, and it’s one that is severely underfunded and under-reported. After those same shootings, Chris Braak defined the reason they happened in an argument far better than I’m capable of making right now.

This Tuesday slot is ordinarily reserved for our trailer of the week article. I had picked The Theory of Everything, a biographical movie about wheelchair-bound astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. You know what I’d written after first seeing it?

“There come times in human history when we are blessed with gifted people whose minds we wholly don’t deserve. It is these minds alone that drive us forward more than anything, that give us the only hope we have of making it as a species. It is the responsibility of the rest of us to stumble after them and, in our best and most selfless moments, to push ourselves beyond what we knew how to be an instant before. It is the only real payment we can make on the huge debt we owe to them.”

I meant it when I wrote it. I’ll mean it again, in a few days. Today, however…today I have no way of believing we have it in ourselves to repay that debt. I have a friend in the hospital 2,600 miles away, the man who nearly killed her on the loose. The perceived transgression she made against him was to end a relationship in which she was abused. For this, he broke into her home, stripped her naked, beat, kicked, and stabbed her.

In a few days, I’ll go back to tilting at windmills and having hope it makes a difference. Today…today I just want to tear down everything I know.

If abuse is something you yourself live with, please ask for help. It’s there for you.

If there are other good resources, please mention them in the comments.

National Domestic Violence hotline: 800-799-7233

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network online hotline
Resource number: 202.544.3064

Family Violence Prevention & Services Resource Centers
National Resource Center: 800-537-2238
Indigenous Women’s Resource Center: 855-649-7299
Battered Women’s Justice Project: 800-903-0111 x1

Floating Belly Up — “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”

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I’m not convinced Megan Fox is a bad actress. I’m not convinced she’s a good one either. She’s never been given much to do aside from scream and run in slow motion. I can’t think of another actor, outside motion capture, who’s spent as much time opposite green screens and cars and so little time opposite other actors.

For that tough job alone, she’s got my respect. Unfortunately, as reporter April O’Neil, she’s the only part of the rebooted Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that does. If you’re sitting down to see a story about four 6-foot tall, walking, talking, sewer-dwelling turtles who use their ninja skills to combat a crime wave in New York City, you’re probably there for cartoon action and zingy one liners. TMNT will get to these, but not before bending over backwards to create a murky origin story about how O’Neil and the Turtles are connected since childhood by a mystery surrounding her researcher father.

Coming out the week after Guardians of the Galaxy, which gets its origin story out of the way in a few minutes so it can jump into the action when everyone’s already blasting away at each other, TMNT feels especially old-fashioned in its tedious obsession with origins. We’re told the Turtles’ origins in an opening animation, again by the Turtles themselves, a third time by O’Neil herself, once more by their ninja master (a mutant rat named Splinter), and finally by the villain’s billionaire accomplice. Perhaps they think if they repeat it often enough, we’ll forget their laboratory-based origin story is lifted wholesale from The Amazing Spider-Man.

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The action itself is a mixed bag. Early fights are filmed in so many shadow and strobe effects, and cut so quickly, you can’t tell what’s happening. An all-out battle in the sewer waffles between tracking shots where you can’t distinguish what’s happening to whom, and slow-motion shots that are actually very well orchestrated. It’s annoying to switch back and forth between seeing things clearly and being in the dark every other second. Later action, including a clever mountainside chase and a rooftop fight scene, fix these problems with brighter lighting and more slow-motion.

The big bad in TMNT is a ninja named Shredder, whose evil plan is the lousiest I’ve seen in two years, three months, and three weeks. How can I be so exact? I looked up when The Amazing Spider-Man was released, because the climax of TMNT steals it beat for beat, detail for detail. Are you noticing a pattern?

It’s one thing to deliver an underwhelming film, it’s another to steal large chunks of someone else’s movie and pass it off as somehow original. I’m sure enough details are changed to avoid a lawsuit, but this is as egregious a job of legal plagiarism as I’ve ever seen. More importantly for the viewer, the laziness shows in the final product.

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The visual effects are passable. The Turtles look pretty good and Shredder, for all intents and purposes, is a mini-Transformer. There’s energy to the action when you can tell what’s happening. Splinter is a complete disaster, however, looking like someone left a giant, rubber Halloween mask out in the sun so long it’s half-melted and doesn’t fit right. I don’t know what they were thinking.

Fox herself is wasted. Her strength has always been as the comedic “straight man.” She can look a babbling Shia LaBeouf or a raving John Turturro or a giant, mechanical alien in the eye and deliver a measured reaction. She doesn’t create the comic beats so much as she makes sure the foundation under them is stable. Giving her world-renowned comedians, like Whoopi Goldberg (The View) as her editor and Will Arnett (Arrested Development) as her cameraman, is actually a very good idea. They’ve been baptized by the fire of live crowds and sitcom production schedules…so it’s not just a bad idea to make them the unfunny straight men to Fox’s comedic stylings, it’s downright disastrous. At least the Turtles themselves, particularly Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) are pretty funny.

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Like I said, I don’t blame Fox (or any of the other actors) for how bad this film turned out. I blame the writers and filmmakers, especially for how blatantly (and badly) they ripped off a two year-old Spiderman movie. To make matters worse, the whole effort is drowning in some of the worst hidden product placement I’ve seen. You’ll be yearning for subliminal advertising by the end of this.

Trust me, go see Guardians of the Galaxy instead. If you’ve already seen Guardians of the Galaxy, then you’re probably planning to see it again anyway. Stick with that choice.

Best Movies Never Made — “Gladiator 2″

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Gladiator 2 lead

Everyone writes Throwback Thursdays, and there are some great ones out there. They’re all kind of exclusive, though. They only review films that actually exist. What about all those Thursdays that never happened?

From Alfred Hitchcock’s nudie flick Kaleidoscope to David Fincher’s Rendezvous with Rama, we’ll cover everything from the biggest movies never made (Steven Soderbergh’s Cleopatra, anyone?) to long-forgotten treasures (Clair Noto’s sci-fi masterpiece The Tourist). The stories behind them are as interesting as the films themselves. Some were killed for their budgets, some for their politics. Many sank when their auteurs foundered, others were sabotaged by affairs, and still more fell victim to studios unwilling to take risks.

We’ll start with one of the biggest sequels never made: Gladiator 2.

BACKGROUND

The release of Gladiator on May 5, 2000 was considered risky. Back then, the summer movie season didn’t start until June, when schools let out (now it starts in March). The story of Roman general Maximus – who is enslaved as a gladiator and challenges a corrupt emperor – harkened back to sword-and-sandal classics like Spartacus.

The $103 million Ridley Scott film, aside from giving us the confusing gift of Joaquin Phoenix, made $457 million worldwide. Before the advent of streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, it also did terrific business on DVD.

It also won Best Picture, rare for a film released so early in the year, especially in such a contentious field: its competition included Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Steven Soderbergh twin threat of Traffic and Erin Brockovich. Though many felt Wonder Boys or Almost Famous (really, people?) deserved its spot, count me as one of the lonely voices that favored Lasse Hallstrom’s dark horse Chocolat over the whole bunch.

Gladiator nabbed Russell Crowe an Oscar in the second year of three straight he was nominated, upsetting early favorite Tom Hanks (Cast Away). The film also picked up Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound.

THE PITCH

Gladiator was in the unique position of being both a Best Picture winner and a financially successful summer action movie. It’s not as if you could make American Beauty 2 (although it was discussed) or An Even More Beautiful Mind. There was only one problem, and this is where the spoilers start: Crowe’s heroic General Maximus dies in the end.

A prequel was the most obvious way to bring back Crowe and Maximus. His history of Roman conquests could provide the action while building his loving family (which the audience knew was doomed) could provide the poignancy. It didn’t stick, though – all these things had been established in the first movie. So far, it sounded like a direct-to-DVD affair.

Original writer John Logan shifted gears to a sequel that could take place years later and feature the nephew of corrupt Emperor Commodus – the innocent young Lucius, who becomes emperor at the end of the first film.

One version got rid of Crowe entirely, while another crammed together both the past and future – half prequel covering Maximus’ rise through the ranks, half sequel regarding Lucius’ own fight against corrupt politicians. (The approach has been compared to that of The Godfather Part II.) Both versions revealed that Lucius was the secret lovechild of Maximus and Connie Nielsen’s Lucilla, a needless contrivance that could have seriously undermined too many emotional beats in the first Gladiator.

These approaches all sound pretty ho-hum, don’t they? They’re all too safe. Since when did Russell Crowe, in the middle of Oscar nominations and his Fightin’ Around the World tour, do safe? So Crowe asked a mate of his, Australian goth rocker Nick Cave, to take a stab at Gladiator 2. Between leading bands The Birthday Party, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and Grinderman, Cave is arguably goth music’s single most influential artist. Crowe asked Cave to research the Roman afterlife and look into ways Maximus could be brought back to life via the gods. What did Cave do?

He went certifiably batshit.

Forrest Gump

If you can imagine What Dreams May Come smashed together with The Crow and an ultraviolent Forrest Gump, you might begin to grasp at what Cave delivered. In his version, Maximus is offered a deal by the dying Roman gods to hunt down the traitor Hephaestus. Maximus, of course, finds him – Hephaestus is on his last legs, and resurrects Maximus to serve penance as an immortal who walks the earth.

The bulk of the story follows Maximus defending early Christians and his resurrected son Marius from the bloodthirsty Romans under the command of a Lucius so malevolent, they could have stuck Phoenix back in the role and no one would’ve blinked. He’s aided by his occasional spirit guide Mordecai.

Maximus survives to see Christianity take hold, later fighting in the Crusades, leading a tank charge in World War 2, and unleashing a flamethrower on the Vietcong. Wait, what? Yes, Maximus essentially turns into Highlander for the Tea Party. In the end, we see Maximus in the Pentagon. Mordecai’s last words – depending on your interpretation – imply that either the world is about to end, or that Maximus is doomed to continue fighting into eternity.

And the whole movie is spliced together with footage of a dying deer and visions of Maximus’ wife, doomed to Purgatory.

WHAT WENT WRONG

The studio balked. There was no way they’d spend $150 million to make an esoteric art film that would’ve risked the loyalty of the fans. Gladiator possessed no supernatural or divine elements, and to make a sequel based solely around these additions felt too mad.

The strange thing is, according to all accounts, the screenplay was a work of genius. Crowe stood by it tooth-and-nail, and it was eventually the ONLY sequel to Gladiator that Scott might have returned to direct (although this may have been Scott’s polite way of saying he wouldn’t return for a sequel.)

Cave’s script was leaked years ago – reviews were unanimously favorable. You might find that hard to believe, but try watching the next film Cave scripted, The Proposition, and then tell me the man can’t write.

Gladiator 2 cap

THE FALLOUT

Russell Crowe continued delivering Oscar-worthy performances, but in this humble critic’s opinion, his best performance stands as his most overlooked – he wasn’t nominated for his role as Captain Aubrey in Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World. Despite widespread reports that he’d fought with Scott incessantly during the making of Gladiator, the two reunited for four more films (A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies, and Robin Hood).

Ridley Scott himself enjoyed a sort of golden era. He pumped out eight major films in the next eight years, and the production company he’d started with his brother, director Tony Scott (since deceased), took off. In its 20 years of existence before Gladiator, it had produced 10 films. In the 14 years since Gladiator, it’s produced more than 40.

Scott himself returned to the sword-and-sandals genre in 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, and the upcoming Exodus: Gods and Kings. On a critical note, the theatrical release of Kingdom of Heaven was a mess; the director’s cut is Scott’s best film. Combined with Blade Runner, Scott now boasts the two films most heavily screwed over in the history of Fox Studios.

And Nick Cave? In a broad sense, facets of Cave’s screenplay were adapted – or at least echoed – in The Proposition. The 2005 Australian period piece is both brutally nasty and philosophically haunting. Its monologues stay with me even all these years later. Guy Pearce and Emily Watson delivered two of the best performances of their careers, and it helped introduce director John Hillcoat (who later directed The Road and Cave-scripted Lawless).

As a musician, Cave’s made some of the best albums of recent years – Push the Sky Away was one of my top 5 albums of 2013, and you can’t go wrong with Grinderman 2.

Gladiator 2 will never be realized. It remains a film that I’d very much like to have seen not just for its novelty, but for how bravely it might’ve turned the original film’s formula on its head.

ADDED BONUS

An Historian Goes to the Movies recently wrote two articles regarding the historical accuracy of Gladiator. You might be surprised how well many of its details hold up:

Gladiator: Why Did Commodus Become Emperor?

Gladiator: Just How Bad an Emperor was Commodus?

“The Strain” — The Full Autopsy

Standard

Strain hi would you like to buy some encyclopedias

Congratulations, Eph Goodweather, you’ve just beaten to death the creature that will prove to the CDC all your claims about outbreak and contagious, little wormy things. What will you do now?

“Well, you see, I’d like to perform a secret autopsy in the basement before destroying all the evidence that will prove what I staked my career on in the first three episodes. Furthermore, as these little wormy things have proven highly contagious, I’d like to use no real protective gear while – instead of cutting the body apart – I just kind of tear at it with my bare hands. My hope is that possibly contagious bodily fluids fly EVERYWHERE. I’m kind of into that. Then I’ll burn the evidence that supports my theory of outbreak afterward, and we can toss a little bleach around. Above all, don’t tell anyone we just coated the storage basement (of this hospital full of sick people) in outbreak fluids. Trust me, I’m a doctor.”

Look, I don’t want to keep on kicking a dead horse’s bridges while they’re down, but…who wrote this crap? As I continue to watch and review The Strain, FX’s expensive new vampire series created by horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro and Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse, I find myself repeatedly asking a single question:

What the hell went wrong?

The blame lies in a few different places:

1. AIMLESSNESS
Too Many B-Plots

The show’s not wanting for good characters, it’s just that the good characters don’t get much screen time when they have to share with so many bad ones. Even when they do get screen time, they find themselves in a sort of Sisyphean acting hell, in which they have to repeat the same scenes opposite the same foils over and over again.

Let’s take these one-by-one. The badass vampire hunter Abraham (David Bradley) has only had a handful of scenes thus far. Across four episodes, all but two of these scenes have involved our protagonists from the CDC telling him to shove off. Sometimes they even go out of their way to seek him out, ostensibly to hear his advice, but really because it’s just a more creative way of telling him to shove off.

How does this happen, by the way? Do CDC doctors really hop on the Red Line to Jamaica Station to catch the Orange Line that gets them the C-train on the Blue Line at Penn in order to have a 2-minute conversation, the only purpose of which is to inform the person they just traveled two hours to see how much they don’t want to talk to him? Did they lose a bet with another doctor?

We need one scene in which our protagonists inform Abraham they don’t believe him. We don’t need one per episode.

Or take Puerto Rican ex-con Felix (Pedro Miguel Arce), who transports the ubervampire across the city in the first episode. It pays so much, it’s the last job he’ll ever do, which is why he’s inexplicably so hard up for cash by episode 4 that he’s stealing SUVs. I get recidivism, but he’s two days off beating up his brother for stealing a clock. There’s no consistency or sense of motivation offered to us. Furthermore, the SUV theft takes up a big chunk of episode 4, along with such critical scenes as insisting the building’s super be nicer to his mom, and arguing over who’ll take out the recyclables. That’s a total of three scenes in one episode. They’re not relevant to anything else. You know how many the main plot gets? Two.

I have news for you: I don’t care who takes out the recyclables. Jesus, I’ll take out the recyclables, just cut to the next scene.

Strain Vasiliy

There’s even a city health inspector/exterminator named Vasiliy (Kevin Durand). He’s passed through the same restaurant as another character, and he’s noticed rats are being chased out of the sewers by something sinister. Aside from these fairly circumstantial connections, however, there’s no reason yet given why we’re watching anything he does. Don’t get me wrong – Durand’s portrayal is the definition of charming and I’d gladly (rather) watch a show about him catching rats for a living, but while Vasiliy is completely unconnected to the larger story, he gets more scenes in episodes 2 and 3 than anyone but the main character. Then he doesn’t appear at all in episode 4. Good job, whoever made that call.

The biggest problem with The Strain is that there are so many B-plots, and we’re so focused on them, that the main plot is often only addressed in the opening and closing scenes. Furthermore, the B-plots have to be put on hold for episodes at a time so other B-plots can be introduced or continued.

HOW TO FIX IT?

Lost made a lot of mistakes as a TV show, but it handled the biggest ensemble on TV with a deft hand. Sometimes that meant being forgiving – Matthew Fox’s Jack was meant to die at the end of the first episode, a victim to the mysterious smoke monster, but producers liked him too much to kill him off. He became the beating heart and moral compass of the show for 7 seasons.

And sometimes that meant Lost had to be unforgiving – killing off characters whose actors broke the law outside the show, for instance; diminishing the screentime of actors whose characters proved unpopular; and even cutting ties with Dominic Monaghan, whose name helped launch the show but who wanted to be more of a central figure in it (and who runs his own awesome, globetrotting, nature show on BBC now).

With a cast this big, you’ve got to choose your champions early. Forgive them, be heartless with anyone and everything else. The choices of how to spend screen time in The Strain are the worst I have ever seen made in narrative TV. There have been worse shows, sure – The Strain‘s budget, cast, and production polish are enough to let it get away with a handful of mistakes – but there have been few shows so aimless and easily distracted.

Strain Abraham

2. DISTRACTIONS
10-Minute Castrations

Yes, you have unfortunately read that right. The third episode focuses half its time on the survivors of the airplane outbreak as they turn vampire. We get slow, languorous shots of one drinking blood from a steak. We spent several minutes with the rock star survivor washing his face, taking out his contacts and wig, even peeing (yes, peeing) just before his genitalia fall off.

These are scenes that have been covered in countless vampire, werewolf, and zombie movies. They’re staple, we know them by heart, and unless you’re really introducing something new into the mix, it makes no sense to spend half of each episode on these rote mutations, certainly not at the expense of your two dozen other main cast.

It’s not difficult to realize that watching a man flushing his blackened, detachable genitalia down the toilet doesn’t justify 10 minutes of watching him scrub his face beforehand. In fact, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t justify much of anything.

That rocker with the detachable…you know…we follow so closely in episode 3? Not to be seen in episode 4. In fact, three of the four survivors of the initial outbreak are heavily featured in the third episode. We have no clue what the fourth survivor, presented as the most consequential one starting out, has been up to since credits rolled in episode 2.

Unless the mutations are that special, or the make-up is that revolutionary, handle them in 30 seconds. This is a place where genre shorthand is immensely valuable. The craziest details of the mutation are already handled in the autopsy. This may shock the show’s producers, but watching a man’s hair fall out for 30 minutes? Not nearly as compelling as the giant, bloodsucking leech that grows in his chest cavity and shoots out his throat. Prioritize, people!

But don’t worry, a new character’s just been introduced – a hacker who can singlehandedly shut down New York’s internet without touching anyone else’s. Never mind that this isn’t even how the internet works, or that you’d need a coordinated effort from multiple sources attacking multiple providers to accomplish anything resembling this (this is 80th on the list of things this show didn’t bother to research), but the hacker serves no storytelling purpose. If that’s all she does, don’t waste the scene where we meet her and learn her life details and the vampire goes, “Oh, I’m such an a-hole, I didn’t even expect you to be a woman.”

I already know the vampires are a-holes. You know how? They’re vampires. Just have one vampire turn to the next and say, “Hey, shutting down New York’s internet? Totally nailed it, bro.” Then move on.

HOW TO FIX IT?

Ask yourself a few questions:

Is this necessary to the main plot?

Is this notably different from what other TV shows have done?

If the answer to both is “No,” then either cut it entirely, or edit it down so that it’s handled quickly. When you can’t get to the main plot because you’re drowning in B-plots, and you can’t even get to the B-plots because you’re distracted by moments that don’t even belong to a plot, you’re in grave trouble. It’s like watching characters twiddle their thumbs for an hour. It’s a disaster. Cut, cut, cut – be heartless. Which brings us to our next problem:

Strain Have I Told You About My Divorce Today

3. SELF-POSSESSION
Adapting Your Own Work

I suspect the weaknesses of The Strain are in large part due to Guillermo Del Toro’s involvement in adapting his own series of novels. Yes, Del Toro is one of the most important filmmakers working today; he has reshaped the face of modern horror. Yet while he’s successfully written original and adapted material for the big screen before, he’s never before been asked to either adapt his own work or write for TV.

When you’re adapting your own work from one medium into another, you have to treat it with a certain dispassion – scenes you loved writing might not work on TV. They might need to be stripped down and rewritten, combined with other scenes, or even excised entirely. You need to recognize where 30 pages can be condensed into a single shot and where a lone paragraph can evolve into the basis for an entire episode.

I haven’t read the novels, but The Strain shows a great many of the hallmarks of too forgiving an adaptation – too many scenes double and triple each other or play too long, communicating information we already have or can readily infer. Still other scenes occur too late, bending the logic of the real world in order to justify their placement. Characters make decisions based not on any logical, internal consistency, but rather on where they need to be for the next scene.

HOW TO FIX IT?

Again, be heartless. You need someone to be able to supersede Del Toro and tell him what will or won’t work. That should be Cuse’s job – he’s got far more experience in TV storytelling than Del Toro. You need a showrunner with enough creative control to reinterpret and rewrite the story, to eliminate entire characters and plot lines, and who can do so free from the worry that it will upset Del Toro.

When you lack that oversight…well, the extreme example is George Lucas, pod races, and Jar Jar Binks. I wouldn’t say The Strain is that far afield, but it’s certainly doing its best to get there.

4: GENRE
Do Your Research

I’m not talking about horror. The Strain sits in that groove comfortably enough. Although I haven’t found a moment that’s really scared me, it has a morose tone that certainly makes those moments possible…one day.

Most commonly used in cop shows, which are all about following a series of steps through to expose the solution to a mystery, The Strain follows what’s called a procedural format.

The issue is that procedurals require at least a passing knowledge of the procedures being followed. Look to the naval codifying and informational hierarchy in The Last Ship or the elimination-based investigations and bureaucratic politics of The Closer and Major Crimes to see what I mean. As a writer, you need to do your research.

Even if what you’re researching doesn’t exist in reality, as in the newer Battlestar Galactica, then you need to make it up and then research the hell out of what you just made up to make sure it’s leak-proof. Even CSI, which completely invents how police actually investigate a crime, at least does its research when it comes to the forensics at the core of the show.

Strain 2 goop

The Strain‘s CDC methodology is a joke. Doctors argue patients should be quarantined while standing unprotected, shoulder-to-shoulder with them. They put research on hold for most of a day while skipping in and out of a hot zone to take care of personal matters. Sean Astin’s Jim is a CDC videographer who has no medical or security expertise, yet he’s left in charge of deciding what passes in and out of an airport-wide quarantine. New York City’s ME’s office goes dark for a day before anybody notices. A patient infested with vampire worms is being treated as if for a disease and is “going in for surgery” that’s never specified, when all research would in reality center around what the worms themselves are sensitive to so they could be poisoned without harming the host. Surgery wouldn’t do crap.

If this is how the CDC operates in the real world, then please go have a nice conversation with your loved ones, because we’re all going to drop dead of Ebola tomorrow.

More damning than not researching the procedures on which it hangs its hat, The Strain doesn’t seem to have researched the elements it’s invented. Everything feels off the cuff, like a campfire story being made up on the spot. That’s fine for 15 minutes at a campfire, but not through four-plus hours of television. I brought up Battlestar Galactica earlier. Yes, everything’s invented in that show – none of it exists in the real world – but the religions, political structures, and technology that were invented were clearly vetted extensively by the creators. They had their own logic.

Even the villains’ logic in The Strain makes little sense: The four surviving passengers are at the core of the second and third episodes – will they be released into an unsuspecting populace or should they be quarantined? It’s posed as the core element to the vampire plan, and yet there seems to be no difference between these four survivors and the 206 dead people the vampires already have hold of. They all feed on blood, and kill, and pass on their little, wormy brethren to make more vamps. In fact, the dead ones seem far more efficient – they’ve already infested others while the survivors are still going all emo about their mutations.

Media snap in and out of existence to harrass CDC officials, veritably stalking one meaningless survivor while paying no attention to the surviving pilot on whom the entire disaster is blamed.

As a viewer, that lack of reliability makes you distrust the story. If the narrator can just change whatever he wants whenever he feels like it and break his own narrative rules when they’re too inconvenient, then where’s the tension? Moreover, if the narrator doesn’t even seem like he’s paying attention, why should you?

HOW TO FIX IT?

The Strain can’t function as a procedural if there are no procedures to follow. Period. It may’ve worked better in any number of other narrative formats. Lost‘s philosophy of focusing on one character’s emotional state per episode while folding them into the group’s overall narrative could’ve worked well, but you have to start combining the characters into larger groups to make this function. Doing so boils down the number of plots you have to follow at once.

If you’re going to maintain such a large ensemble without grouping any of them together early, the smartest way around that is to hold off on introducing the new characters of the second, third, and fourth episodes until later, when they can link with the core ensemble and tell their story at a pace of more than one appearance every other episode.

Above all, don’t make episode 2 about the ratcatcher and episode 3 about the videographer and episode 4 about the ex-con to the exclusion of scenes that actually have something to do with your main plot – you know, the one about that whole vampire outbreak you’re supposed to be having.

Strain 2 where is the coroner

We were swamped with protagonist Eph Goodweather’s divorce and custody battle in the first two episodes. Not that I’d like to see anything else having to do with that subplot, but its complete disappearance is scarier than any vampire that lurks in the shadows. Like so many other pointless B-plots in The Strain, it’s just waiting out there somewhere, and when you least suspect it, that’s when it’ll pounce on episode 6, or episode 10, sinking its nasty teeth into the fleshy bits of the main plot. All that will be left of that episode will be the skeletal remains, a fleeting reference to the vampire outbreak in the opening and closing scenes, while the monstrous, bloated B-plot itself takes over the 40 minutes in between and hypnotizes you with its twin powers of utter meaninglessness and pure boredom.

That, my friends…that is evil in its purest form.

Look, if you’re making a series about the experiences of the average person who brushes past this complex, secret plot but knows nothing of it, then make that show, lend us their perspectives, and make that secret plot an actual mystery to us. Give us the viewpoint of the hapless citizens on the ground, coping as best they can with the hellish unknown. If characters must argue about the recyclables, make the argument about trying to keep their grasp on a semblance of normalcy, not about – you know – the actual, damn recyclables.

If you’re making a series about a disease, the procedural investigation of it, and the strategies vampires use to foster an outbreak, then do some medical research and make that show. Give us doctors, and those CDC suits we haven’t seen since the first 10 minutes of the first episode, and people panicking, and arguments about who screwed up which procedure, and long gazes as doctors grimly utter, “You just cost this patient his only chance,” and bureaucratic blame games, and vampires going all President Bartlett on some familiar when he insists he didn’t think the CDC could possibly identify the isomorphic biopolymer streptomashugana so quickly.

And if you’re making a series about the vampire hunter who can’t hunt vampires because all of his scenes are being wasted contemplating restraining orders against CDC employees who track him halfway across the city so they can tell him why he’s stupid and they don’t believe him, then make that show, but please go watch some Night Court and Boston Legal first.

The Strain may have worked best in an epistolary format – in literature, this means stories told entirely through letters, diaries, and newspaper articles (as in Stephen King’s novel Carrie). On TV, I think this could be extended into the visual equivalent – personal narratives, survivor recountings, recollections, found footage, and in-person reports by CDC personnel.

But the procedural? As much as it gets knocked, perhaps no other TV format requires a greater degree of initial research to get a story off the ground. Combine it with sci-fi horror, which requires its own invented consistent logic, and if you’re not willing to do the work in research, in adapting, and in managing your narrative delivery properly, you’ve annihilated your story from the word go.

Strain Airplane

It may be too late to fix, but figure out quickly what the hell this show is about. It can still include elements and characters from the other strands of plot, but they’ve got to be supporting aspects to something core.

Make it about the vampire hunter assembling some of this crew to hunt down vamps while the CDC races to solve the issue medically, or make it about the political contest to control how the outbreak occurs. Make it about the people on the ground stuck in the middle, or make it about those who are tooth-and-nail against the vamps. Make it about how families are coping with those who are mutating into vampires, or make it about the regret of those who’ve made the outbreak possible in the first place.

But don’t make it about all those things at once. That’s what later seasons are for. Don’t tackle 10 things when you can only realistically address one or two per episode. Make it about one central concept. There’s nothing stopping the other concepts from dropping by and sharing a beer now and then, but the house they’re visiting – the show itself – needs to belong to a single, driving force. You can’t have 10 things living under one roof – that’s how you end up with drama about who takes out the recyclables.