The Business Of Being Funny and Some Questionable Priorities

Questionable priorities first.  PricewaterhouseCoopers has hired bodyguards for accountants Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, the unfortunate pair who were responsible for handing over the Academy Award envelopes.  PwC is taking very seriously death threats the pair have received because of the mix-up with the Best Picture presentation.

That's right, death threats.*  Apparently the most crucial issue facing the nation today, the one that requires immediate, violent resolution, is the incorrect dissemination of envelopes at an awards ceremony.**  Now you know.

Speaking of movies, you're probably aware that I'm in the finishing stages of a board game involving a movie theme.***  The scripts, directors, and actors in Film Tycoons are parodies of real films and people, and two weeks ago I went through all the cards (300 of them) to try to ensure they were a) funny but b) not offensive. 

Possibly the best advice I've ever received.

Possibly the best advice I've ever received.

The scripts were hard enough.  It's amazingly difficult to be funny 110 times in a row in four sentence increments.  Remember the quote, "Sorry I wrote such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one?"****  It's certainly a true phenomenon in humor -- it's much easier to be funny when you've got more words/time to do it.  That's especially true when you're taking care not to be mean.  In Film Tycoons we only included actors and actresses we like, so we wanted to keep the humor good-natured.  Not surprisingly, it's much easier to make some of the audience laugh when you make another part of the audience cry. 

Years ago I saw an interesting summary of the creative process for Mystery Science Theater 3000.  The crew described sitting at a conference table as they watched a movie, everyone throwing out random lines that came to mind.  Someone would track all the brainstorming, then they'd organize, decide to eliminate some options, and do it again.  And again.  And then refine.  And then polish.  By the time they actually recorded the show the creative team (which included the live actors) were probably awfully tired of the film they were panning.  I imagine they also started second-guessing the lines that seemed funny five days earlier, before they were repeated twenty times.

Overall, being funny isn't always fun, and at some points it feels like solving quadratic equations would be more entertaining.  But at least there's the occasional no-brainer when a movie like Avatar makes the parody process almost criminally easy.

Avatar: the extremely rare element is called "Unobtanium?"  How do you come up with this stuff?

* I don't think there's any way I would have believed this if I hadn't seen the movie The Accountant, which made me realize exactly how devious these people are.  But it also begs the question, why do they need bodyguards?  Apparently ninjitsu and explosives are required training for accountants.

** Why the need for violence?  I have a kinder, gentler proposal: track down the ancestry of the two accountants, identify the countries whence they came, and build a GIANT WALL to keep any more of these nefarious people from entering the United States!  That'll protect our awards shows!

*** Since you're reading my blog and I won't shut up about it...

**** Like many pithy quotes, I've seen this one attributed to a bazillion people: Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill...the list goes on.  Apparently Blaise Pascal is the earliest actual attribution.  That's right -- math geeks are funny!

Crappy Endings and The Best Movie Ever Made

In the past two weeks I've seen three movies.  Small perk of being "between opportunities" or "impacted."*  My severance package doesn't include movie tickets, but it does enable me to take long lunch breaks every once in a while.  Since this is the 75th anniversary of Casablanca it's showing on the big screen, and there's no way I'm missing an opportunity for that.

I think even Christopher Walken is creeped out by Mr. McAvoy here.

I think even Christopher Walken is creeped out by Mr. McAvoy here.

Of the two new releases I saw: the first was a fairly mediocre movie but the final 30 seconds made me overwhelmingly glad I'd seen it and eager to see a follow-up.  The second was a brilliant, magical story, beautifully done, and the final 30 seconds almost completely ruined my enjoyment of the previous two hours.  The first movie was M. Night Shyamalan's latest effort, "Split."  I won't name the second movie because I don't want to dissuade anyone from seeing it; you may find the ending enjoyable. 

Incidentally, I didn't say the ending was BAD.  I said it ruined my experience.  Considering that I'd been enraptured by the movie until that last bit, that's a bad thing.

There are dozens of things that make Casablanca the Best Movie Ever Made.  Give me a call if you want to spend three or four hours discussing them all.  Here's the relevant one for today's blog: the ending was almost impossible to write, yet came out brilliant.

Here's the gist: Rick and Ilsa meet in Paris shortly before the German occupation begins.  Ilsa believes her husband, Victor, was killed by the Nazis.  She and Rick have a whirlwind romance.  When the Germans roll into town they need to flee -- but Ilsa finds out at the same time that Victor is still alive, so she leaves Rick hanging at the train station. 

Rick sets up shop in Casablanca and tries to forget about Ilsa.  A year later, she and Victor show up, still on the run from the Germans.  Ilsa was unaware Rick had moved to Casablanca.  Other important details: Rick still loves Ilsa.  Ilsa loves both men.  Victor can only be safe if he can get to America, and Rick is the only person who can get Victor out of Casablanca. 

Turns out Rick can choose how the story ends.  He and Ilsa can flee together, leaving Victor to a death sentence, or he can send Ilsa and Victor away together. 

The studio dilemma was pretty straightforward.  In 1942 there was no way a censor board would allow Rick and Ilsa to stay together without Victor dying.  (In fact, they had convulsions over Rick and Ilsa having their Paris affair; it was only allowed because she thought Victor dead.)  Leaving Victor to the mercy of the Nazis certainly wasn't an acceptable thing for our hero to do in '42, either.  The writers had to figure out an ending that would leave audiences happy despite Bogie being left with a (second) broken heart.  And they managed to do it perfectly.

How do you measure "perfect?"  Start with this: no remakes in 75 years.  Even fantastic movies like From Here To Eternity have suffered from the remake plague.  Not Casablanca.  Studios consider it "untouchable," as Madonna found out when she tried to remake it with (wait for it) Ashton Kutcher as Rick. 

Yeah.  Ashton Kutcher.  Sorry, kid.  You'll never have Paris.

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

*You have to see the humor in your tough situations, and a favorite of mine is the tendency for people to use euphemisms instead of saying "laid off."  We're the "impacted."  It sounds like the name of a TV series.  The AfflictedThe InfectedThe Impacted.**

**I realized I could name an awful lot of movies with "Impact" in the title.  Deep ImpactDouble Impact (with Jean-Claude van Damme!).  Sudden Impact.  Deadly Impact.  Final Impact.  That last one had Lorenzo Lamas.  Do you remember Lorenzo being in Grease?  I sure don't.


Running Time: In Search Of...

Hello, 1970's!  For Christmas someone sent me a box set of EVERY EPISODE of In Search Of, a documentary-ish series that ran from 1976 to 1982 and was hosted by Mr. Spock, er, Leonard Nimoy. I've run through six episodes so far.  The episode lengths are perfect for running; at 22 minutes each I can do an easy weekday morning run of 2.2 miles or the two-episode runs of 45 minutes for a nice 4.5 miles.  (When watching episodes 1 and 2 on weekdays I just ran an extra three minutes each time to get to a nice, even 2.5 miles.)

It's a fun series to watch, if you can avoid getting into the "40 years later we know better" mindset.  So far I've viewed topics such as plant empathy, the Nazca Lines, the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot, and killer bees.  First thing that struck me was the disclaimer at the beginning of each show -- the producer points out that this show is only meant to introduce a few possibilities, not back any particular theory or claim to know fact.  I thought it funny that that seemed important to do, given that today people make whatever moronic claims they want on TV without the slightest concern of veracity.  Go figure.

Second thing I noticed is that a lot of the clothing reminds me of my childhood.

Although you have enjoy the series while keeping in mind that forty years have passed (much like watching Ray Harryhausen special effects and still loving Perseus taking on the Kraken) one more serious lesson did occur to me while watching the episode on Bigfoot.  One segment includes an anatomist who has viewed the Robert Patterson Bigfoot film in "minute detail, frame by frame."  He swears that the film must be authentic and goes into great scientific detail about why Patterson couldn't have faked the film.  You've got to believe him, right?  After all, this is the specialty he's studied for decades.  Of course, in 1998 a fellow named Bob Heironimus admitted to being the man in the Bigfoot costume and other evidence surfaced to show that the film was entirely faked.  Sorry, Science.

Running Time: You Only Live Twice

Since I have nearly all of the James Bond movies on DVD now (I used to have them on VHS.  I haven't been using the VHS player for a while) I realized I could run about ten marathons while watching my way through the entire collection.  And that's even skipping the truly crappy films.  This last week I hit You Only Live Twice, mainly because it's one of those that I haven't seen for years.  Keep in mind that Bond movies are LONG.  This one clocks in at three minutes less than two hours, so I ended up watching it in four runs: 3 miles, 2 miles, 4 miles, 3 miles. 

It's also one of the worst-written Bond movies.  It's overly fantastic, even for a Bond film.  Yeah, normally James gets a metric crap ton of the old willing suspension of disbelief, but this one defies all boundaries.  Worse, though (and what relegates this to the ranks of lesser Bond films) is that the believable parts of the script just don't make sense.

Ignore the fact that SPECTRE has perfected a VTOL spaceship that can capture other spaceships and bring them back to Earth, without either the Americans or Soviets able to track it.  We'll just let that go via "it's a bond film."  More annoying is that to "infiltrate" this small Japanese fishing island, Bond must a) be made up to pass as a Japanese fisherman, b) marry a local villager to establish bona fides and c) train to be a ninja.  All in three days, no less.

You know who the least Japanese-looking man on the planet is?  Sean Connery-san.

Of course, none of this subterfuge is really necessary because SPECTRE apparently knows where Bond is all along.  He's attacked twice at Tiger Tanaka's secret home and ninja training ground, so why he needs to marry a local woman to gain access to the volcanic island base is beyond me.  Not to mention that Tiger manages to infiltrate a hundred commando ninjas onto the island without marrying them off to the locals.  Apparently SPECTRE will be alerted by a Single White Male setting foot on the island, but 100 strangers in a village of 50 people doesn't raise an alarm.

Here's the one thing I really like about You Only Live Twice: it was written by Roald Dahl.  That's right, the same Roald Dahl who wrote Matilda and The BFG.  I looked up Roald after watching and found his story far more entertaining than the movie.  He was also a World War II fighting ace in the Royal Air Force, but this came after he'd already crashed one plane in the African desert and severely injured himself.  Guess there's always a chance to rekindle your career.

Running Time: The Man in the High Castle

Specifically, season 1, episodes 1 and 2.  The introductory episode runs 61 minutes, while the second brings you back to even with 59.  I watched "The New World," episode 1, in two runs on the same day; 30 minutes in the morning, wanted to see the rest enough to watch during another three mile run late that afternoon.  Episode 2, "Sunrise," was also a two-run view, but it was forty minutes in the first run and just a two mile finisher the next day.

(I also watched Episode 3 while sitting on the couch one night this week.  The whole series doesn't have to be viewed from a treadmill.)

I'm loving this.  I've been a big fan of Philip K. Dick for years, and The Man in the High Castle was one of my favorite of his novels.  Despite that, I'm pretty certain this is going to be one of those rare occasions where I find the film better than the written story.  Sacrilege, I know, but it happens.  Face it, Bladerunner was a much better film (and comprehensible story) than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a book. 

The quick synopsis: it's 1962 and the Allies did not win World War Two.  The Pacific States of America are occupied by Japan, the eastern seaboard is under control of the Reich, and a thin band of mountain and desert states in between are an uneasily free Neutral Zone.  Although people have settled somewhat into a new way of life, tension is already mounting between Germany and Japan, with heavy foreboding that Hitler's death will result in new conflict as Germany completes its quest for global dominance. 

Add in an American resistance network and you've got a great background for very compelling stories, not the least of which is the Man himself.  The Man in the High Castle is a semi-mythic figure who's distributing film -- newsreel footage which shows an alternate history of the Allies winning the war. 

It's not the same story as the Philip K. Dick novel.  IMDB's message board is full of purists and trolls bitching about how different the story is, or nitpicking the least essential details in an effort to show off to the one or two other people who care.  (It's called "film adaptation," kiddos.)  So far it's a great show, though, and pleasantly surprising from a production point of view; I didn't know Amazon Studios had this good of filmmaking in them.  Go figure.