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The Worldbuilding is Not Enough

The Worldbuilding is Not Enough (photo)

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I have two New Year’s Resolutions for 2011.

1. Eat fewer donuts.
2. Stop giving films credit for worldbuilding.

I am sick of worldbuilding. For too many filmmakers it is no longer an aspect of their job, it is the only aspect of their job that matters. The growing emphasis on worldbuilding, the invention of elaborate, fantastical settings for films, speaks to the worst impulses in modern Hollywood and to some directors’ backwards approach to their work. They put the world before the people in it, and spend more time crafting background imagery than foreground characterization. They create the mythology before they create the story. That approach simply cannot work. And if audiences and critics keep giving passes to films that put all their creative eggs in the worldbuilding basket, we will never be rid of them.

The reasons for the rise of worldbuilding are the same as the reasons for the rise of 3D. Movies are under assault from television and ever improving home theater experiences. To put asses in theater seats, movies have to offer something that television (or movies watched at home) can’t, and that’s spectacle. I get all that. And I enjoy a good spectacle as much as the next guy; who doesn’t love watching Paris fold in on itself in “Inception,” or a dragon take flight in “How to Train Your Dragon?”

But the pleasures of spectacle are incomplete: without a character to follow through a spectacle, the entertainment value of that spectacle is cheap, hollow, and easily forgettable. The Death Star’s explosion at the end of the original “Star Wars” is a great image but what makes it memorable is Luke Skywalker’s perspective on it. Without “Use the Force, Luke,” that scene is nothing. If you don’t believe me, try to remember the Death Star explosion at the end of “Return of the Jedi.” Luke, Han, and Leia were elsewhere. So you don’t remember it as well even though the actual explosion was way cooler.

With television drama — and television characters — growing ever more sophisticated, I have begun to wonder whether many filmmakers have simply ceded character-driven storytelling to television. A 100 minute movie can’t really compete with a 100 hours of television for sheer depth of exploration of character. So why try?

You try because otherwise you get “Tron: Legacy,” a movie whose adventures inside a dazzling computer world are limited by the vision of its blank, stupid characters. That includes a hero who can’t bring himself to have a meaningful conversation with the father he’s been searching for for decades, and a villain who wants to take over the world by dropping a couple thousand guys with glowing frisbees into an arcade in Los Angeles. You try because otherwise you watch as the delightful “Iron Man” become the tiresome “Iron Man 2.” While the former focused on a complex character and his quest to create something amazing, the latter shoved him to the side to introduce plot threads from future movies like “Thor” and “The Avengers.” The creation of that Marvel movie world was kind of impressive to watch on a technical level, but totally boring to watch on an entertainment level, and it came at the cost of our connection to Tony Stark.

In 2010, I found myself marveling at the worlds created by movies like “Inception” and “Alice in Wonderland” while feeling totally disconnected from the characters inhabiting them. And while I applaud the ideas and the visuals in both movies, I can guarantee I won’t be returning to them very often in the future. Because characters are what bring me back to the movies I love. Sure the ghost effects are cool, but I’ve watched “Ghostbusters” a hundred times because I love Peter Venkman and Egon Spengler and Louis Tully, not Slimer or Marshmallow Man or Ghost With Claws #2.

And just compare those guys — Venkman, Spengler, Tully — and the idiosyncratic actors who played them with the guys in these recent worldbuilding exercises. Men like Sam Worthington and Garrett Hedlund are chosen, I guess, for their good looks, and for their nondescriptness. Just give an audience someone to imagine themselves as. After all, it’s not about character; it’s about projecting yourself into another world (3D and worldbuilding go together all too well in this regard). But you know what I think when I see one of these bland actors? I think nothing interesting is going to happen to them to make me want to imagine myself as them.

Worldbuilding can be, and still occasionally is, done well. Look at “Toy Story 3” or the recent “Star Trek” remake. But we love those movies as much for the characters as the worlds. As technically impressive as it is, the prison break finale of “Toy Story 3” is worthless if we don’t care so much about Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the toys. It’s the same reason that moment when all the toys take each other’s hands inside that trash incinerator is so powerful. Similarly, look how much energy and screentime director J.J. Abrams invested in the relationship between Kirk and Spock in his “Star Trek.” It’s as much or more than he gave to the fights between the Enterprise and the Romulans. Abrams and the Pixar guys know the audience cares about the action only when they care about the characters involved in the action.

So I’m starting 2011 fresh. No more validating the dumb pretty ones. Because watching one of these movies is the cinematic equivalent of eating one of my donuts: the immediate pleasure of a big fat sugar rush followed by an overwhelming sense of self-loathing. A couple of cheap thrills aren’t enough. It’s time to stop making the movie donuts.

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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