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The Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale and the summer movie season

The Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale and the summer movie season (photo)

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Movies are fixed (for the most part) but our opinions of them are fluid. You might see a movie and hate it, then see it again five years later and love it. Maybe your tastes changed, maybe the context changed, but for whatever reason the exact same movie generated two wildly different reactions. One common factor in these divergent opinions are sequels: a great sequel casts a rosy light on a predecessor (think “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”) while a crummy sequel retroactively diminishes our feelings about the original (think “The Matrix” and “The Matrix Revolutions”).

To measure the impact of sequels on their franchises and our opinions of them, Nick Fortugno created the clever Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale. It’s an effective way to pinpoint the degree to which one film reflects positively or negatively on the rest of a series. It’s named, of course, for the “Star Wars” prequels, which introduced all sorts of dopey retroactive continuity, most infamously the idea of “midi-chrlorians,” microscopic blood-dwelling organisms that were revealed in “Episode I” to be the source of Jedi’s magical powers. As Fortugno puts it:

“I’m sorry, the Force comes from bacteria?!? That’s just stupid. And not only is it stupid, it makes Jedi, some of the coolest warriors in all of science fiction, completely lame. Can you even WATCH the first three movies anymore? All I see when I look at Luke is a guy with a really rampant infection, and that’s not heroic or cool. It’s just embarrassing, and I would argue that thanks to midi-chlorians, so is admitting to liking ‘Star Wars,’ anything of ‘Star Wars,’ now that the later movies exist.”

According to Fortugno, that would make the “Star Wars” prequels a -6 out of -6 on the Midi-Chlorian Ruination Scale (MCRS), because “the later content destroys the narrative such that the early work, which was widely loved, is no longer even passable in quality. The brand is completely and irreversibly destroyed.” That ranks it above (or below, I guess) “The Matrix Revolutions” with an MCRS of -5 (“it is possible to respect the original property, but only by utterly ignoring the bad material and treating it like it doesn’t exist in a willful violation of the truth of the imaginary entertainment environment.”) and “Alien Resurrection”‘s MCRS of -3 (“The brand is effectively dead from that point on. Once the changes have been established, you can’t go any further, because it’s all become too lame. But this doesn’t ruin earlier instances — they can remain cool in isolation from later work.”).

Fortugno’s highest grade is a 0, which he gives to sequels that have no negative impact on previous films; his examples are the many “Star Trek” sequels. I do think the MCRS should be revised to allow for positive scores for rare movies like “The Godfather Part II” which provide interesting and beneficial retroactive continuity (like De Niro’s sequences as the young Vito Corleone). But overall, I really like this rating system.

In fact, I dig it so much I thought we should apply the MCRS to some of this summer’s franchise tentpoles. I say some because according to industry experts, every single movie released in the last fifteen weeks was a sequel or a reboot or a prequel or a remake or a prequoot (otherwise known as a simultaneous prequel and reboot) of some kind. Rating them all would take days, but here are a few notable ones. I’m maintaining Fortugno’s 0-6 score, but I’m going to note the instances where I think a positive MCRS score would be applicable. For instance:

“Fast Five”
MCRS Score: 0

Here is a sequel that definitely improved its previous films in retrospect and deserves a score better than 0: not only was it absolutely the most satisfying film in the series since the original “The Fast & the Furious” but it also made me truly excited for a “Fast Six” that continues the film’s numerous plotlines. The final post-credits teaser retroactively made the big plot twist in the earlier “Fast & Furious” more intriguing, and the seamless incorporation of characters from previously disparate installments of the franchise (Roman from “2 Fast 2 Furious,” Han from “Tokyo Drift,” and so on) created a sense of this giant mythos that didn’t exist before.


“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”
MCRS Score: -1

The third “Transformers” film introduced a ton of heretofore untold backstory for the perpetually feuding Autobots and Decepticons, including a previously unmentioned (but apparently vitally important) alien ship crashed on the dark side of the Moon, a previously unmentioned (but apparently vitally important) former leader of the Autobots, and a previously unmentioned (but apparently vitally important) weapon that could turn the tide in their war. Most of these elements were fairly dumb, but then most elements of every “Transformers” are fairly dumb, and the ones in “Dark of the Moon” did little to harm the ongoing continuity of the “Transformers” franchise (it is really hard, by the way, to write the phrase “ongoing continuity of the ‘Transformers’ franchise” and not burst out laughing). Still, “Dark of the Moon” would surely rate better on the MCRS than its predecessor, “Revenge of the Fallen” which introduced its own set of characters and MacGuffins, most of whom were borderline racist stereotypes.


“X-Men: First Class”
MCRS Score: -1

This is a tough film to grade. “X-Men: First Class” was one of my favorite films of the summer, but there’s no denying that it featured a lot of borderline absurd retroactive continuity. How does Cyclops have a brother who’s at least thirty years older than he is? If Emma Frost was around in the 1960s, who was the teenage girl that was introduced as the same character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine?” And if mutants got involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, how did they keep their existence secret from the public for another thirty years? That’s why I’m giving the movie a -1; these things are undeniably dumb but, as Fortugno puts it, they’re “trivial enough that it doesn’t effect your view of the series as a whole” and I “still wholeheartedly like the originals and continue to like the brand.” “Wolverine,” though, would have to rate at least a -2 or maybe even a -3.


“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
MCRS Score: 0

Like “Fast Five,” this is another example of a sequel that improves upon the fictional universe built by its predecessors. The origin story of the Planet of the Apes provided in the original ’60s and ’70s films was convoluted to the point of unintentional humor. In contrast, the revisions offered by “Rise” were clear, believable, and scary. The plot machinations of prequels often feel awkward and forced — things happen not because one beat follows logically to the next, but because the demands of previous films require them to — but that wasn’t the case with “Rise.” Almost everything felt believably motivated by the actions of Caesar, the leader of the ape rebellion. Maybe that’s why “Rise” has surprised a lot of people at the box office. It’s a prequel prequoot that feels like an original film.

What MCRS scores would you give to the rest of this year’s sequels?” Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!

Underworld

Under Your Spell

10 Otherworldly Romances That’ll Melt Your Heart

Spend Valentine's Day weekend with IFC's Underworld movie marathon.

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Photo Credit: Screen Gems/courtesy Everett Collection

Romance takes many forms, and that is especially true when you have a thirst for blood or laser beams coming out of your eyes.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a werewolf, a superhero, a clone, a time-traveler, or a vampire, love is the one thing that infects us all.  Read on to find out why Romeo and Juliet have nothing on these supernatural star-crossed lovers, and be sure to catch IFC’s Underworld movie marathon this Valentine’s Day weekend.

1. Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine, X-Men series

The X-Men franchise is rife with romance, but the steamiest “ménage à mutant” may just be the one between Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Their triangle is a complicated one as Jean finds herself torn between the two very different men while also trying to control her darker side, the Phoenix. This leads to Jean killing Cyclops and eventually getting stabbed through her heart by Wolverine in X-Men: The Last Stand. Yikes!  Maybe they should change the name to Ex-Men instead?


2. Willow/Tara, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Joss Whedon gave audiences some great romances on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — including the central triangle of Buffy, Angel, and Spike — but it was the love between witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) that broke new ground for its sensitive and nuanced portrayal of a LGBT relationship.

Willow is smart and confident and isn’t even sure of her sexuality when she first meets Tara at college in a Wiccan campus group. As the two begin experimenting with spells, they realize they’re also falling for one another and become the show’s most enduring, happy couple. At least until Tara’s death in season six, a moment that still brings on the feels.


3. Selene/Michael, Underworld series

The Twilight gang pales in comparison (both literally and metaphorically) to the Lycans and Vampires of the stylish Underworld franchise. If you’re looking for an epic vampire/werewolf romance set amidst an epic vampire/werewolf war, Underworld handily delivers in the form of leather catsuited Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and shaggy blonde hunk Michael (a post-Felicity Scott Speedman). As they work together to stop the Vampire/Lycan war, they give into their passions while also kicking butt in skintight leather. Love at first bite indeed.


4. Spider-man/Mary Jane Watson, Spider-man

After rushing to the aid of beautiful girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst), the Amazing Spider-man is rewarded with an upside-down kiss that is still one of the most romantic moments in comic book movie history. For Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), the shy, lovable dork beneath the mask, his rain-soaked makeout session is the culmination of years of unrequited love and one very powerful spider bite. As the films progress, Peter tries pushing MJ away in an attempt to protect her from his enemies, but their web of love is just too powerful. And you know, with great power, comes great responsibility.


5. Molly/Sam, Ghost

When it comes to supernatural romance, you really can’t beat Molly and Sam from the 1990 hit film Ghost. Demi Moore goes crazy for Swayze like the rest of us, and the pair make pottery sexier than it’s ever been.

When Sam is murdered, he’s forced to communicate through con artist turned real psychic, Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg in her Academy Award-winning role) to warn Molly she is still in danger from his co-worker, Carl (a pre-Scandal Tony Goldwyn). Molly doesn’t believe Oda is telling the truth, so Sam proves it by sliding a penny up the wall and then possessing Oda so he and Molly can share one last romantic dance together (but not the dirty kind). We’d pay a penny for a dance with Patrick Swayze ANY day.


6. Cosima/Delphine, Orphan Black

It stands to reason there would be at least one complicated romance on a show about clones, and none more complicated than the one between clone Cosima (Tatiana Maslany) and Dr. Delphine Cormier (Evelyne Brochu) on BBC America’s hit drama Orphan Black.

Cosima is a PhD student focusing on evolutionary developmental biology at the University of Minnesota when she meets Delphine, a research associate from the nefarious Dyad Institute, posing as a fellow immunology student. The two fall in love, but their happiness is brief once Dyad and the other members of Clone Club get involved. Here’s hoping Cosima finds love in season four of Orphan Black. Girlfriend could use a break.


7. Aragorn/Arwen, Lord of the Rings

On a picturesque bridge in Rivendell amidst some stellar mood-lighting and dreamy Elvish language with English subtitles for us non-Middle Earthlings, Arwen (Liv Tyler) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) bind their souls to one another, pledging to love each other no matter what befalls them.

Their courtship is a matter of contention with Arwen’s father, Elrond (Hugo Weaving), who doesn’t wish to see his daughter suffer over Aragorn’s future death. The two marry after the conclusion of the War of the Ring, with Aragorn assuming his throne as King of Gondor, and Arwen forgoing her immortality to become his Queen. Is it too much to assume they asked Frodo to be their wedding ring-bearer?


8. Lafayette/Jesus, True Blood

True Blood quickly became the go-to show for supernatural sex scenes featuring future Magic Mike strippers (Joe Manganiello) and pale Nordic men with washboard abs (Hi Alexander Skarsgård!), but honestly, there was a little something for everyone, including fan favorite Bon Temps medium, Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis).

In season three, Lafayette met his mother’s nurse, Jesus, and the two began a relationship. As they spend more time together and start doing V (short for Vampire Blood), they learn Jesus is descended from a long line of witches and that Lafayette himself has magical abilities. However, supernatural love is anything but simple, and after the pair join a coven, Lafayette becomes possessed by the dead spirit of its former leader. This relationship certainly puts a whole new spin on possessive love.


9. Nymphadora Tonks/Remus Lupin, Harry Potter series

There are lots of sad characters in the Harry Potter series, but Remus Lupin ranks among the saddest. He was bitten by a werewolf as a child, his best friend was murdered and his other best friend was wrongly imprisoned in Azkaban for it, then THAT best friend was killed by a Death Eater at the Ministry of Magic as Remus looked on. So when Lupin unexpectedly found himself in love with badass Auror and Metamorphmagus Nymphadora Tonks (she prefers to be called by her surname ONLY, thank you very much), pretty much everyone, including Lupin himself, was both elated and cautiously hopeful about their romance and eventual marriage.

Sadly, the pair met a tragic ending when both were killed by Death Eaters during the Battle of Hogwarts, leaving their son, Teddy, orphaned much like his godfather Harry Potter. Accio hankies!


10. The Doctor/Rose Tyler, Doctor Who

Speaking of wolves, Rose “Bad Wolf” Tyler (Billie Piper) captured the Doctor’s hearts from the moment he told her to “Run!” in the very first episode of the re-booted Doctor Who series. Their affection for one another grew steadily deeper during their travels in the TARDIS, whether they were stuck in 1950s London, facing down pure evil in the Satan Pit, or battling Cybermen.

But their relationship took a tragic turn during the season two finale episode, “Doomsday,” when the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose found themselves separated in parallel universes with no way of being reunited (lest two universes collapse as a result of a paradox). A sobbing Rose told a holographic transmission of the Doctor she loved him, but before he could reply, the transmission cut out, leaving our beloved Time Lord (and most of the audience) with a tear-stained face and two broken hearts all alone in the TARDIS.

“Blitz,” reviewed

“Blitz,” reviewed (photo)

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It’s not a cinematic adaptation of the classic arcade football game, sadly, but Jason Statham‘s new movie “Blitz” provides about as much cartoonishly manly entertainment as a couple hours with Midway’s long running NFL franchise. The tagline of the film reads “Killer-cop versus cop-killer,” and it’s very possible that is an unabridged copy of the screenplay as well. This is not a movie about dialogue, but about good and bad man alternately glaring at and chasing after each other, and then sitting down for drinks before they get up and run around all over again.

Statham stars as Sgt. Brant, a loose cannon of a cop with a reputation for excessive violence and brutality on the job. He drinks too much, he curses too much, and when he catches some goons jacking a car, he beats them all to within an inch of their lives with a field hockey stick (I’m just going to assume Statham is currently out of the country, otherwise the London riots would never have gotten off the ground). Brant’s tedious routine is doubly shattered by two major developments on the force: his boss, the Chief Inspector, retires after his wife’s death and is replaced by a new man from another district (Paddy Considine) and a mysterious hooded figure (Aidan Gillen, a.k.a. Mayor Carcetti from “The Wire”) is bumping off cops one and a time. Statham and the new man in charge have to figure out who’s killing policemen and why before they wind up on “The Blitz”‘s (his preferred nickname) target list.

Directed by Elliott Lester and written by “Moon” screenwriter Nathan Parker from a novel by Ken Bruen, “Blitz” does, in fact, provide a few clever twists on the psycho cop killer genre. Maybe most interesting and least explored is the fact that Considine’s character is openly gay, and Statham’s character doesn’t have the greatest reputation for, let’s say, sensitivity to those with views on sexuality different from his own. A buddy cop movie with one straight partner and one gay partner is a great idea, and in the one scene Statham and Considine get to flesh out their relationship, they’ve got great chemistry. Sadly, the movie is just 97 minutes long, and way too busy with Gillen’s character to really let that dynamic blossom to its full potential.

Gillen is good, though, as your garden variety sociopath. He’s certainly having a lot of fun dressing in hideous track suits and neon green sunglasses and running through the streets of London topless. He’s pretty obviously guilty from the first moment the police interrogate him, but the film repeatedly insists that there’s no evidence to convict him, which enables The Blitz to continue his crimes, and forces Statham and Considine to try to figure out a way to catch their mad killer in the act. It’s an enjoyable trope of loose cannon cop movies in the style of “Dirty Harry,” but in this case it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I’m no expert on the English judicial system, and the legal requirements to charge someone with a crime. But I have to imagine that if someone was murdered while in possession of a manilla envelope stuffed with £50,000, and then a suspect turned up with the exact same manilla envelope with the exact same amount of money, that’s probably enough evidence for an indictment. Evidently not; the gloating Blitz walks out of the police station waving his pile of money for all the media cameras to see.

Dopey stuff like that, and a pointless subplot involving a friend of Statham’s on the force who’s a recovering drug addict, keep “Blitz” from entering the pantheon of greatest Jason Statham vehicles (a distinction I would bestow on the first and third “Transporter,” “The Bank Job,” the two “Crank” films, and “Killer Elite,” even though that last one isn’t even out yet). Still, all three leads give strong performances and Parker’s screenplay has enough twists and turns (including a good surprise ending) to make “Blitz” a solid thriller. It’s going straight-to-DVD in the States today, but I’ve seen much, much worse movies in theaters than this one. And recently too.

“Blitz is available now on DVD & Blu-ray. If you see it, we want to know what you think. Tell us in the comments below, or on Facebook and Twitter.

Five ridiculous studio mandated endings

Five ridiculous studio mandated endings (photo)

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Most Hollywood movies are products of collaboration and compromise. Unless their directors have the contractual right to select their own final cut, the ultimate decision on the content of the film belongs to the studio that distributes it. Occasionally, this process can produce a stronger movie than one made in a creative vacuum. Other times, the results can be disastrous. Just recently, I watched two films whose endings had been radically recut by their distributors in last ditch attempts to lighten up uncommercial material. When test audiences found 1972’s “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” too dark for their taste, an unmotivated reconciliation speech was hastily and awkwardly woven into existing footage. “Conquest” is a famous example of studio intervention; 1997’s “Mimic” is not. But as I sat and watched a character heroically sacrifice themselves and then magically reappear alive a few scenes later, I could just tell I was watching a resolution other than what director Guillermo del Toro originally intended. A little research confirmed my suspicion.

Those movies got me thinking about the most ridiculous studio mandated endings in history, and by ridiculous endings I mean the ones that deviate in the most extreme ways from the directors’ and writers’ original intentions. Ridiculous means tragic becomes comic, sad becomes happy, and dead characters get a new lease on life. There are many, many examples of this phenomenon. Here are my picks for the five most flagrant. And given that this is an article about endings, you should know that the SPOILER ALERT is in full effect throughout.


“Suspicion” (1941)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

“Suspicion” was based on a 1932 novel called “Before the Fact,” notable for its story of murder told from the point-of-view of the victim. Hitchcock’s big-screen adaptation was notable for the fact that its studio, RKO Pictures, demanded an ending that totally reversed the original novel’s intent. In both versions, Lina (Joan Fontaine) falls for Johnnie (Cary Grant), but begins to suspect after their wedding that he is not an ideal husband. She learns about secrets in his past and trouble with money, and eventually comes to suspect he is plotting to kill her. In “Before the Fact,” Lina’s suspicions are entirely correct; Johnnie poisons her and she goes to her death willingly because despite his flaws, she loves her husband. But because Johnnie was played in “Suspicion” by Grant, who the studio believed the audience could never accept as a murderer, the film’s ending — and its entire meaning — was changed. Instead of Johnnie trying to kill Lina, he’s actually trying to kill himself. It’s an absurd reversal, but it’s one that actually plays to Hitchcock’s strengths; it turns a novel about love in dark extremes into a film about a wrongfully accused man and a paranoid leading lady, two of Hitchcock’s most popular themes.

Watch more about the end of “Suspicion” in this making-of documentary:


“The Last Laugh” (1924)
Directed by F.W. Murnau

There is just one intertitle in all 101 silent minutes of F.W. Murnau’s “The Last Laugh.” It is placed shortly before the end of the film, according to Roger Ebert, “almost as an apology,” because the title marks the moment when the films slips from Murnau’s control. Apparently the German studio UFA demanded Murnau’s tragic tale of an old man (Emil Jannings) who loses his beloved job as a hotel doorman conclude happily to improve its box office potential. Murnau obliged, in a fashion; he gave his doorman a happy ending, but chose one so absurdly upbeat that it became what Alyssa Katz describes as “a grotesque parody of a happy ending.” And he gave the audience a taste of his displeasure with that one intertitle, which reads: “Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue.”

The infamous intertitle, and the “Wayne’s World”-ready mega happy ending, can be found starting at 12:09 of this embedded clip.


“Brazil” (1985)
Directed by Terry Gilliam

Yes, Terry Gilliam directed “Brazil,” but he almost didn’t choose its ending. The film was distributed by Universal Pictures, and the studio’s chairman at the time, Sid Sheinberg, so disliked Gilliam’s preferred finale (in which the hero Sam’s mind is destroyed by the totalitarian regime he’s been struggling against) and ordered the film recut. His so-called “Love Conquers All” version took a portion of Gilliam’s ending — — Sam flees from the city to a beautiful countryside which is actually a figment of his catatonic imagination — and removed the framing scenes that revealed that Sam’s escape was all an illusion. As Sheinberg had it, Sam didn’t dream of freedom, he actually found it. Fortunately, Gilliam was able to leak his cut to the press, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave this “Brazil” their Best Picture award of 1985. Rising critical sentiment finally convinced Sheinberg to release a modified (but Gilliam approved) 132 minute version. For once, love didn’t conquer all.

Excerpts from Sheinberg’s “Love Conquers All” ending. You can also find comparison stills of the various editions here:


“The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942)
Directed by Orson Welles

Fittingly for a movie about a young man who finally gets his comeuppance, “The Magnificent Ambersons” was the place where boy genius writer/director Orson Welles’ luck ran out. He lost his right to final cut after “Citizen Kane” and then he lost his follow-up film altogether. According to editor Robert Wise, audiences in 1942 were too concerned with World War II to care about a story of a wealthy family’s gradual fall from grace. So with Welles out of the country and unavailable for reshoots and edits, Wise himself oversaw the removal of several dozen minutes of footage and the shooting of an entirely new, far more upbeat denouement (for a full accounting of the changes, read the “Ambersons” page on Filmsite.org). The young man, George (Tim Holt), gets his comeuppance and then a manufactured happy ending. Welles got a manufactured happy ending and, whether deserved or not, a big dose of comeuppance of his own. It would not be the last in a career marked by struggle and studio intervention.

“Ambersons”‘ original ending is considered lost along with the rest of the deleted scenes from Welles’ cut. You can see Wise talk about his work on the film at TCM.com.


“Little Shop of Horrors” (1986)
Directed by Frank Oz

“It’s pretty dark, in a nightmarish way,” says “Little Shop of Horrors” director Frank Oz on the commentary track to his film’s original ending. Brother, he ain’t kidding. Oz’s adaptation of an off-Broadway musical initially maintained the play’s bummer of a finale: greedy Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) and his girlfriend Audrey (Ellen Greene) are eaten by the flower shop’s star plant (really an evil alien from outer space), who continues to grow into an enormous monster and then takes over the world. The off-kilter wrap-up may have played well off-Broadway but when “Little Shop” was tested for preview audiences, Oz says they “just hated” the fact that they killed the adorable and charming Greene, and that in turn killed all the film’s momentum before the big show-stopping final number. Oz reshot the ending so that Seymour triumphed over his extra-terrestrial foe and lived happily ever after with Audrey, a total 180 from the scripted conclusion. That meant scrapping a massive special effects sequence where the plant takes over the island of Manhattan; it also meant losing some of the story’s intended value as a cautionary tale. Suddenly Seymour was standing triumphant, with sweet understanding that off-Broadway plays can take chances that multimillion dollar films cannot.

Embedded below is the first part of the original ending, along with Oz’s commentary. To find the rest of the twenty minute sequence, go to YouTube.


What’s your pick for the most ridiculous studio mandated ending of all time? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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