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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Paging Alan Smithee

Part One in a series If I Ran Hollywood

"You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy"

You have to understand that I was a film and television fed child. While my parents did not let the "babysitter" raise me, it did serve its purpose as would reading the sports page to an athlete in training. From a wee age, I was convinced that I ought to be in pictures. I was going to be the next George Coppola Spielberg. I never made it past Ohio in my quest for Tinseltown. However, like an armchair quarterback, I am convinced that I could make the world Hollywood a better place without using enough plastic explosives to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Let's start with movies themselves. In the golden years of MGM and Warner Brothers, the premiere of a movie was an event. The quality of work that went into a One Sheet was regarded with as much respect as a Picasso or Van Gogh. Film was a medium in which master artists like John Ford and Orson Welles crafted tales of depth and breathtaking scenic beauty. That luster is now gone and Hollywood has been reduced to a machine which churns out crap like a foreign supplier to a Dollar Store. Movies were a place for the public to escape the world around them and live life through someone else's eyes on 15 foot screen. Nowadays they are a cell phone ringing, incessant talking, overpriced, hell hole that most people find a burden to patronize. Why deal with the crowd and high prices when it will be on DVD in two weeks.

The problem with Hollywood is that its run more like a business and less like the industry it once was. Too many people with their hands on the money and not enough artists with creative control have reduced it to a shameful place. Of course, the artists are no better themselves. Perhaps they tired of fighting the machine. They've been worn down to the nub creatively and just see a paycheck instead of a legacy.

Here are five ways I think Hollywood and the film industry could be better.

1. A Real Competition
At the beginning of the new millennium, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck started Project Greenlight. This was a competition by where novice screenwriters and directors could submit scripts and ideas to be judged by their peer members in hopes of landing a movie deal. The winning submission would be made for a million dollars. Great concept, but who wants to see a movie made by an unknown for a million dollars? This is a safe bet for producers because it's a win-win situation. If they get The Blair Witch or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, they get a huge ROI from the deal. If they get Freddy Got Fingered or Ishtar, it's only a million bucks which is a small loss in scheme of things. I say get your best and brightest filmmakers and give them a million dollars each. Have them go out and bring you an Oscar, if they can. I'd love to see what Spielberg or Singer could do if they had to rely on story and vision instead of actors and effects.

2. CGI is not a creative crutch
There are certain movies where CGI is acceptable as replacement for actual physical elements. There are even certain films or genres where CGI is acceptable as a style. However, Hollywood has become too complacent and lazy when it comes to filmmaking. Actors emote against a green screen rather than a real King Kong. Breathtaking stunts no longer require oxygen masks to drop from the ceiling of the theater when it's obvious that the actor is no danger of being injured by that explosion. At one time, John McClane jumped from the top of a building secured only with a fire hose. Now, he's walking on the back of a jet. One of the elements that made movies great in the olden days was the ability to pull off stunts and tricks without the use of computers to do all the work. This is one of the few reasons why I am hopeful with the new Indiana Jones movie. The film team has promised to limit the amount of CGI use in the movie to elements such as backdrops. Remember the heedful words of Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park "Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." For every 300 or Sin City you get Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

3. Get a New Shtick
There are a few players in the game who have actual talent and appeal. Their problem is that they've gone to the well one too many times. While Elf and Old School were great outlets for Will Ferrell to use his man child look of awe and simple view of the world, Semi Pro and Talladega Nights are tired cookie cutter versions of the same formula, regardless of their appeal. Adam Sandler grew up and did Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish. Don't forget, the original class clown, Tom Hanks went from Bachelor Party and The Man With One Red Shoe to Philadelphia and Road to Perdition.

M Night Shyamalan is another example of an extremely creative director who needs to explore new ideas. Hire a screenwriter to do the translating and shoot a film that captures your storytelling style without the need for a "twist" Granted, Lady in the Water did not have a "twist" but it was still didn't hit the mark very well. It was one part Pirandello, two parts Neverending Story. He needs to do a straight forward, non supernatural or fantasy themed movie. Perhaps a comedy would suit him. Experiment and find another outlet for that wonderful storytelling and directional style.

4. Stop Remaking Things
Let me repeat that! STOP REMAKING THINGS. This goes for television shows from 20 years ago, movies from 20 years ago, and Japanese Horror flicks. We have The Ring, The Grudge, some weird thing called One Missed Call which I called The Ringtone, Pulse, and Shutter. These are all based on Asian horror films. Guess what? They're all the same damn movie. Every one of those movies either have or will have a sequel to them and that is just as bad as remaking the original in the first place.

Also, stop remaking zombie movies for the sake of having zombies. George Romero made three great and one not so bad "Dead" movies that weren't about zombies. Did you understand that statement? I'll explain. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Land of the Dead were commentaries and critiques of American Culture. With, Night, he goes after the late 60's critique of American capitalism during the Vietnam War. In Dawn, he attacks American consumerism in a place that has become the Mecca of this idea, a shopping mall. Day goes on a rampage against Cold War and military mentality. We are not safe from ourselves. The real threat isn't a zombie horde, but the fact that two sides of our culture can't coexist together and will ultimately let the horde in to finish us. While Land was not as well crafted as previous installments, Romero takes on modern day America. The rich live in their ivory tower, shun the poor, and begin to forget what has happened outside their comfy walls. The marauding Dead Reckoning with its blazing fireworks depicts the "Shock and Awe" invasion of Iraq. Zombies may be dead and can be dangerous, but we are the bad guys here. The fact that these movies have the Living Dead as an antagonist is simply a device that embodies Romero's commentary. Remakes and Re-Imaginings are just out for the gore and horror and end up being identical to every single other zombie movie. The only film I consider a commentary on the commentary is Shaun of the Dead.

5. Where have you gone, James Cameron?
Seriously, where is this guy? He hasn't been around for a decade. Yeah, he produced that Solaris movie, but then he slid off the face of the Earth. Perhaps he fell into the deep of the ocean. His visuals in Aliens, Terminator, T2, and even Titanic were amazing. This guy took risks and it paid off in spades. The fact that he received so much criticism for his "King of the world" line at the Oscars is ridiculous. How would you feel if you were making the most expensive movie at the time and every one was convinced that it would sink just like its titular character? The fact that he came out on the other side smelling like a rose, no pun intended, would give me a great feeling of accomplishment. Having all that heaped on you, you would feel like you were standing on the bow of the greatest ship, near weightless, flying into the horizon. Then he just up and vanished. He's got two movies coming out, but it seems like we've been hearing about this Avatar forever. Actually, Jim Cameron is just a face for the old school director or filmmaker that seems to be missing from today. There has been a slew of bad, bad, films that have come out in recent years and it's high time the masters of the craft take control again and bring Hollywood back to its glory. Just as long as they abide by rules 1-4 we're ok.

I'm not saying I could direct a film better then Uwe Boll. I just think that Hollywood needs to stop thinking of itself as a way to suck every last dollar out of the American pocketbook. If you do your job well and with conviction, the people will come and plunk their money down. So, take notice Hollywood. The country is headed for a recession. The one place we had to escape these problems is quickly becoming part of the problem. Why not figure a way to get back in our good graces instead of causing your own demise? Do I have the answers? Maybe not, but I know the problem. Don La Fontaine. "In a world where quality cinema is slowly becoming extinct, one man tries to make a difference. That man is Mongo." Now that's a film I'd pay $10 to see.

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