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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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.