Monday, February 27, 2012


(This piece was originally published on

I don’t know how to do a spoiler warning for this, so while I will be as vague with plot specifics as possible, I will be talking about a certain type of ending. Just naming the films will give away something about them. I’ll try to stick to general statements about well-known movies, but I will also be specifically spoiling the ends of The Descent and Brazil, so fair warning.

The most important part of a story is the ending. A great one can elevate a good movie to classic status, whereas a bad one can render that same good movie completely forgettable. One of my favorite endings is Brazil’s, which features an elaborate fantasy sequence that takes place entirely in the protagonist’s mind. Another recent one is Inception, whose final sequence is designed to raise the question of whether it is all taking place in the protagonist’s mind. These are powerful, provocative endings to visionary pieces of cinema, which cemented their respective places in the film canon for decades to come.

Still, if the end of your movie takes place or even suggests that it takes place in the protagonist’s mind, it would probably be improved by just cutting that shit out.

In the last few years I've noticed “it’s all in the protagonist’s mind” becoming an increasingly popular interpretation of any ending that is slightly ambiguous, or unexpectedly upbeat. And while everyone is entitled to their own take on a movie, I find that for most of them this only lessens the impact of the ending and makes the whole endeavor feel slighter and less imaginative. As far as “twists” go, this is about the cheapest one there is, and rather than introducing ambiguity, it can all too easily make it feel like the film simply lacks the courage of its convictions. This is why I don’t like the fantasy take on the ending of Taxi Driver or its pseudo-remake Observe and Report, and why playing up the ambiguity at the end of the film version of American Psycho actually makes its satire less pointed*. If you want to present the audience with the idea that the world is fucked up enough that these protagonists could thrive in it, then present the world as actually that fucked up. Don’t raise the possibility and then pull the punch by suggesting that maybe it isn’t, really.

The movie that specifically inspired these thoughts was The Descent, a very good horror movie that peaks well before it ends. Its most controversial aspect is the ending, or rather endings. In the American version, our heroine escapes from her underground ordeal and, well, is probably still pretty ruined from the experience, but also going to live for the immediate future. The original/international ending has this escape revealed to be a hysterical fantasy on her part, and she remains stuck underground and horribly doomed when the credits roll. Most horror fans think the original ending is clearly superior and the American ending is a cop-out attempt at salvaging a happy ending (which, in fairness, is exactly what it is). But I’m one of the few who thinks it is superior, even if it exists for the wrong reasons. It might be a chickenshit move compared to the original, but I don’t like it when a movie has a twist that amounts to yelling “psych!”

The problem with ending a movie like The Descent with a fantasy sequence is that it was not a movie about hysterical fantasies until one turned up in the waning moments. Brazil’s ending plays out almost exactly the same, but it also opens on a fantasy sequence, and was about how that was Sam’s only respite from the oppressive bureaucracy that rules his life. Inception is all about the ability of fiction** to provide real catharsis, so while it ends by questioning the reality of the final scene, it is simultaneously stating that the answer doesn’t matter. When a film is about the power of fantasy from the very first frame, ending with a fantasy sequence can be the only fitting way to go.

The Descent
does not have these thematic concerns, so its ending functions only as a twist. And the fantasy sequence is a terribly lazy one. The Sixth Sense was a smash not just because it surprised the audience, but because it did so by manipulating their assumptions without resorting to showing them things that were later revealed not to be true. Any movie can surprise me by lying to me, which is what a fantasy sequence does (and why I’ve never been a huge fan of The Usual Suspects). I’m impressed when a movie surprises me with something I should have already known, not when one surprises me by showing me that it previously showed me something that wasn’t “true”. It’s not as if I don’t know that movies aren’t real in the first place, so when a movie shows me something and I “believe” it, I don’t exactly feel stupid when it’s later revealed that it wasn’t “real”. And I want to feel stupid that I didn’t see a twist coming. I want to be made to see an angle I had previously ignored, not to realize that I had overestimated the level on which the storyteller was communicating with me. It’s the difference between a really good, well-crafted joke, one that makes you see things from a slightly different angle, and “guess what? Chicken butt!”

That movies are all elaborate lies is something any 10 year-old understands. But we choose to believe them for an hour or two. We’re buying into the Big Lie up front. My feeling is that if, as a filmmaker, you can’t tell the Lie without also “lying” to me, you’re probably doing it wrong.

*I like all these movies, btw, it’s just that I think they are striking for being difficult and this interpretation only serves to make them easier

**Sure, it calls them dreams, but given how minutely crafted and rigidly rulebound they are, they bear little resemblance to what we actually experience when we go to sleep

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


 (This piece was originally published on

We live an incredibly derivative cinematic time. It often seems that everything is a sequel to a reboot of a remake of an adaptation of an existing property. Some of these are good (one of my most anticipated films of the year is an 8th Batman movie, so I’m at least a part of the problem), many more of them are not. When I looked in the mirror this morning I saw reflected back the deep, horrible certainty that if I live to see 40 it will be in a world where a sequel to a Children of The Corn reboot was released in theaters. If God has utterly abandoned us and we are all truly damned, it might even be a prequel to a Children of the Corn reboot. Nothing I can do will change that. But I have hope today. For I see the opportunity for the blossoms of originality to take new root in this incestuous, creatively fallow environment. I see board games being adapted into movies.

This may be the ravings of a madman.  It’s possible that I have stared into the depths of Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy for long enough that I’ve come to embrace my most heinous tormentors simply for making me feel something.  But consider a few things.   For starters, game adaptations actually have a better track record than about any genre you could compare it to. I base that claim on questionably scientific criteria that the only one I can think of is Clue, and Clue rules. Sure, the genre is unlikely to continue to bat a thousand as more get made, but from time to time it’s important to remind people that Clue still is, and is awesome.

But Clue is really a bad example of what I’m getting at, because it actually has an unusually defined cast and plotline for a board game. Most games have nothing but the vaguest bit of a concept and (more importantly) some name recognition that can maybe help a skittish studio stooge greenlight what is essentially an original script, by letting him pretend it’s an adaptation of a known property. I’ve seen plenty of people laugh off the trailers for Peter Berg’s upcoming Battleship movie as the height of Hollywood hackery, but to me this is essentially an original sci-fi flick.

And that flick might very well suck, but it won’t be because the source material is irredeemably bad. It’s neither good nor bad, because it’s so slight that it can hardly be said to exist at all. The most striking thing about the movie so far is that the villains are aliens, and aliens aren’t even a part of the Battleship mythos, assuming there is such a thing. I’m up for a navy vs. aliens movie, whatever they call it. In the absolute worst case scenario, it still can’t be half as shrill and aggressive in its stupidity as Michael Bay’s similarly themed Transformers series (rumored to be getting rebooted with Bay himself at the helm in a year or two, which is a recipe for originality if ever I heard one), which has much more substantive source material to draw from and therefore be constrained by.

A board game movie has the potential to surprise me in a way that something like The Avengers, where I have actual enthusiasm for the property and which will almost certainly be better, simply can’t. Will it deliver on that potential? Probably not. Most movies that get made are nothing special (that’s basically the definition of “special”) so you can’t go wrong betting on any one movie to disappoint. But there’s nothing about this premise that’s stopping it from being great and original; I can be pretty sure that the aliens won’t win in Battleship, but other than that anything could happen. Whereas when you’re remaking The Thing, as much as I love the original I pretty much know what has to happen.

Case in point:  did anyone ever think a person could be coked up enough to pitch a Candyland movie as an action epic, a “Lord of the Rings in a world made of candy”?  Of course not, because that’s more insane than making a Candyland movie about absolutely anything else.  But because someone did that, I have come to the conclusion that Candyland could very well be parody that Epic Movie should have been.  The concept is just too slim to get in the way of that if it’s what someone wants to do.  Then I start thinking that Boardwalk Empire wouldn’t be any less great if it were called Monoply: The Show, or that in the hands of Terry Gilliam, Chutes and Ladders could be a brilliantly surreal, existential allegory. And that I want a Hungry, Hungry Hippos movie. Because the only thing that title tells me is that at some point the film will feature Nature’s biggest assholes eating a person, and of course I want to see that.

So bring on the board game films. Hell, I’d like even less coherent ideas to get adapted. Let’s see Tallness: The 3D Experience or a TV show based on a man’s struggles with the different possible shades of purple or Big League Chew! The Musical. Because when the thing you’re “adapting” isn’t a story or a character and may or may not even qualify as a concept, you’re essentially producing an original script. And that’s not easy to pull off in the Prebootquel Era, so I say slap whatever title on it you have to if it means getting one through.