Twelve Lessons from the Movies of 2012 – Part 1

So here we are in 2013! Time to reflect back upon all the films we saw last year. For most bloggers this’ll take the form of a best-of list and maybe a worst-of list too, but we’re real writers, and supposedly video game developers, so we’re gonna try to be a bit more constructive than that. One of Logan’s close friends studies cinema, and he’s always said you can learn something from any film, good or bad. I’m not sure if that applies to George Lucas movies, but luckily he didn’t release any movies this year.

Without further ado, let’s see what we can learn from the films of 2012.

1) Follow Your Own Rules – Looper

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“Do I have something on my face?”

Rian Johnson’s Brick is a fantastic indie crime flick, and with a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and great reviews flying all over the internet I had high hopes for Looper. What I didn’t expect was a slapstick comedy full of Mazda Miatas, green-screened hover bikes, Super Saiyans, and plot holes. When writing science fiction, you’ve gotta be pretty meticulously careful, or you anger nerds like me. Chances are you’re going to have to set up a series of rules for your sci-fi world. If you don’t, that’s science-fantasy. Which is fine. I love Empire Strikes Back as much as the next. But Looper’s major rule was given to us at the very beginning of the flick.

“It’s nearly impossible to dispose of a body in the future.”

I know I’m not the only one who shrieked in rage when the Mafia’s future thugs burst into Bruce Willis’s house and casually gunned down his wife. What!!? If you’re going to define the rules of your world, you can’t just toss them aside halfway through the movie. And you especially can’t do it in such a blatant way that your audience catches you at that very moment in the theatre, index finger jutting from pulsating, vein-ridden forearm and screaming mouth twisting and frothing. “But it says ‘nearly impossible’,” the fans cry out. Yeah, yeah. Your entire premise hinges on this. Do a rewrite.  It can’t be that hard to make a credible science-fiction movie, can it? Sigh.

Extra Credit: Don’t try to make an actor up to look like another. All I wanted to do the entire movie was to hand JGL a handkerchief to get that crap off his face. Plus, it’s a sci-fi movie. You’re asking me to believe in time travel and telekinesis. The hairline check in the mirror would’ve been plenty to convince me he was young Bruce Willis.

Extra Extra Credit: Why couldn’t the Mob just transport people back into the middle of the Pacific Ocean?

II) Setting, Not Plot – Beasts of the Southern Wild

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Beasts remembers that the most effective special effects are often the simplest.

The best science-fiction and fantasy films are small, human stories set in science-fiction and fantasy worlds. Alien is a survival horror film, Blade Runner is a noir crime drama, and Moon is a murder mystery set on… well, the moon. These stories aren’t about the strange worlds they occupy, they simply exist in them – a high-level story-telling decision that too few directors make. Benh Zeitlin does it, and does it so well that he successfully creates a world of pure fantasy in the backyard of modern-day Louisiana. We see the world through the mind of a child raised to believe in monsters and scientists from the future, and so a simple Budweiser beer bottle suddenly becomes an object of pure mystery as we wonder just what the connection with our world is – or if indeed we even are in that world.

At every turn in Beasts we’re presented with visuals, characters, and story elements that are strange and fantastical – but because they each truly and unapologetically inhabit their environment we too are forced into that world. We experience the story as a resident of the Bathtub – rather than a consumer watching a movie – and any necessary exposition is handled effortlessly by superb writing and acting and a rare masterful voice-over (yes, I constantly say no movies should have voice-overs – but the best movies always break the rules). Beasts gave us something truly new and unique in an age of too little creativity, and in this way it’s the best fantasy film of the year.

Extra Credit: As much as I can figure, to make the Aurochs you put big fur coats and fake horns on some wet black pigs and ran them through sets of miniatures. You have no idea how much I love you for this. Thank you.

Extra Extra Credit: Quit it already with the shaky cam. For action? Fine. For scenes of dialog or like, just walking? Unnecessary and distracting. Stop it.

III) Give Your Audience a Foothold – Holy Motors

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Some people see artistic expression in an erect penis. I just see an erect penis.

Widely lauded by critics as one of the best movies of the year, Holy Motors struck me as more of an art experiment than a film. Indeed it’s chock full of memorable imagery, sports a phenomenal performance by Denis Lavant, and may be worth viewing just for the amazing accordion interlude – one of the best scenes filmed all year. But the movie has no story, no narrative to speak of, no actual characters, and ultimately nothing in which to get invested as a viewer. If you’re like me, you’d appreciate replacing a few minutes of creepy motion capture sex with some explanation or some actual character development. A plot point maybe. Really just any solid ground to stand on. About halfway through, when you realize that Carax is not in fact going to give you anything of the sort, the remainder of the movie becomes a bit of a chore. Especially when he does attempt to give some exposition in the third act, when it’s too late, and entirely too little.

I have no doubt Carax created exactly what he wanted to with Holy Motors, and for that I commend him. It’s a singularly unique experience if nothing else. But it would make an excellent thirty-minute exhibit in an art museum – not a two-hour feature film. When I put two hours into a film, I expect at least some story arc. And I expect some sort of resolution. Not the kind of silliness… agh, I guess I shouldn’t spoil it outright. Watch if curious, but if you decide to imitate, please just have some sort of plot, and throw us a damn bone.

Extra Credit: Flaccid penises are awkward enough to look at. Do we really need a full two minutes of prosthetic erection?

LIGHTNING ROUND!!

Mini-lessons about what not to write from movies I turned off in the first five minutes
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I didn’t make it to this scene. I’m quite happy about that.

Perks of Being a Wallflower – High schools don’t have shop class. Jocks don’t hate nerds. Students don’t destroy the school hallways. They don’t imitate their teachers by drawing beards on their faces. They don’t use No. 2 pencils. Fathers don’t call their sons “champ” or tell their daughters they’re “crusin’ for a bruisin’”. If you write any of these things into your script, let alone your first five minutes, you should quit writing now.

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Did Laurence anyways? I’ll never know.

Laurence Anyways – Loud, obnoxious characters being loud and obnoxious? Not a great way to get me to stick around. So I didn’t.

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I didn’t even see this part. Seems if I’d stuck around there was even more bush to come

Killer Joe – I managed to make it through the hairy bush intro, but McConaughey’s cutting-off-of-genitals story was just too much genitals. Just a too-high concentration of genitals for me. A movie should really only have one or two percent genitals, if any.

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This poor girl will forever be remembered for this shot. And this vomit.

Pitch Perfect – CG vomit anywhere in your movie is a sure sign of incompetence, but in the first five minutes? Way to put a sour taste in our mouths.

IV) Hacking is Dumb in Movies – Skyfall

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“I love gooooooooooooooooold.”

Though it’s far from a perfect flick, in Skyfall I very much respect the filmmakers’ desire to do something different for Bond’s twenty-third outing. They tried hard to give us a bit more character development, story, and emotion than we’re used to. It still had its big action set-pieces, but it also had a damaged Bond, an old and vulnerable M, and even a bit of insight into how MI6 operates over there across the pond. It also had a great villain portrayed by our favorite Mr. Bardem.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bardem had to be playing a hacker.

The way the still-even-in-2012 elusively cool “hacking” is used in films seems to be as some sort of magical virtual “do-anything” master key. We’re in the 21st century, the century of technology, so the villain can access any system, any infrastructure in the world instantly, because he’s a hacker, and hackers can do that. It doesn’t take days, weeks, or months. Being chased by a man with a gun like, right now? Just hack the subway systems on your iPhone and explode the gas lines running the fifty feet between you and him. Easy.

Not only is hacking a stupid action element, it’s also boring to look at. You know what hacking looks like? It looks like DOS. Low-resolution white text on a black background. Or maybe red text if you have elite hacker skills. What it doesn’t look like are swirling, tunneling high-definition clouds of mint-green text and graphics that decipher into an actual map of London. Yes, I understand that you have to make it look like that so the dumb masses know that we’re “hacking” now. So instead, just don’t do it. Instead, try to actually write something. What about a guy who’s just like, scary, and charismatic, and trains a small military? You know, write something.

Extra Credit: How does Bond crack the elite hacker’s encryption in like sixty seconds when the guy who supposedly created the encryption method can’t even do that?

Extra Extra Credit: Yes, there’s a bit of hacking in The Wharf. That’s different.

Extra Extra Extra Credit: No, really. It is.

V) Fuck you – Wreck-It Ralph

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Just like Wreck-It Ralph’s video game, he wasn’t the main character of his movie, either.

Don’t market your movie with a charming teaser of gaming’s most favorite villains in a group therapy session when it’s actually about some D-Rate Strawberry Shortcake eating Mentos in Candyland. Fuck you.

Extra Credit: Assholes.

VI) Subtlety Trumps Heavy-handedness – Oslo, August 31st

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August 31st? February 31st? I imagine Oslo looks like this on most days

Where most films about drugs will put the substances at the forefront with heavy-handed scenes of characters having bizarre breakdowns, psychedelic hallucinations, inflicting bodily harm unto themselves, or being horribly raped in a club, Oslo, August 31st defies convention.

As we follow Anders through a day in Oslo two weeks out from finishing his rehab program, we’re subjected to very few actual scenes of drug use. But those that do exist are so poignant they’re worth ten visions of babies climbing on the ceiling. A scene in which Anders stops by a friend’s party and routinely fetches a glass of Brut is done so subtly I nearly missed the significance of it. This same subtlety continues through to the end, with more expertly crafted scenes and writing I won’t spoil for you here, because this is one of the best of 2012 and you should go watch it.

Extra Credit: Don’t do drugs. Just weed, and alcohol. And maybe a pill or two if you’re going to a club. And a bump of coke or a speedball can’t hurt once every couple months. But that’s it.

That wraps up the first six lessons! Check back next week for Part 2, where we’ll learn six more, have another lightning round, and maybe even see some top ten lists because, well, why the hell not!

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