Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Rainn Wilson turns manboy avenger in “Super”

Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson in "Super"My generation is obsessed with the idea of bringing comic book heroes into the adult world, forever trying to mix childhood power fantasies with adult realism.

GenX moviegoers are themselves a curious mix of light and dark. On one hand, we long to lose ourselves in fantasy, immersing ourselves in films like “Avatar” and “Lord of the Rings.” While on the other, we revel in darkness and depravity, struggling to redeem dark themes and anti-heroes with touches of absurdity and humor.

I’d say Quentin Tarantino is the ultimate GenX filmmaker. “Pulp Fiction” is a perfect mix of light and dark — adult sleaze delivered in a candy coating of pop culture and noir clichés.

Super” is another attempt to mix comic book idealism with real world angst. When Frank D’Arbo’s wife leaves him for a smooth-talking drug dealer, he decides to find a comic book solution to his real world problem.

Inspired by a TV hero named “The Holy Avenger” (played by an awkward, dreamlike Nathan Fillion) Frank decides to sew a costume and become “The Crimson Bolt.”

Anyone who tried this in real life would quickly become The Crimson Stain, but this isn’t a genre tribute like “Kick Ass.” This is a surreal fairy tale about loss and desperation, told through the eyes of an emotionally-shattered beta male.

The film is hard to love because it can never quite decide what kind of film it is. It’s too serious to be funny and too funny to be taken seriously.

“Kick Ass” tried the same trick and succeeded only because it abandoned realism in the third act and went full comic book for the finale.

“Super” never goes full-on superhero, it’s just mildly improbable throughout. Frank suffers random beatings and gunshot wounds, only becoming bulletproof for the triumphant (and disturbing) finale.

The film has its own kind of integrity because Frank really is mentally ill. He spends the whole movie walking the line between heroism and sociopathy, proving that every Batman must have a little Joker in him as well.

This is particularly well done in the film’s finale, when Frank does “the right thing” in a very bad guy way. A tonal failure if you’re trying to appeal to a GenX audience, but wicked fun if you’re trying to provoke them.

“Super” is constantly pushing and pulling on our expectations, veering wildly between slapstick comedy and buzzkilling gore. Most superhero films pander to the audience. This one seems calculated to provoke them.

The most provocative element for me was how the film used Ellen Page. Libby starts out as a screenwriter’s fantasy, an emotionally-retarded geek girl who works in a comic book store. If they’d cast a plainer actress it might have worked, but Page is way too hot for the role.

This is a shame because her performance was amazing. Libby is exactly the kind of thrill-seeking comic book geek who would fall for Frank, but Page is so pretty her looks seemed to be fighting against her dialog.

Wilson hits a dozen strong emotional notes in the film, but his treatment of Libby was my favorite bit. He insisted on treating her like a kid sidekick, while the audience was seeing a young woman.

In this sense, Frank’s mental illness gives him a kind of purity. He’s not merely pretending or lying to himself. He’s so in love with his wife, so blinded by religious conviction, so committed to his own insane course of action, he can’t see Libby as an adult, even when she forces the issue.

“Super” gives us one of the hottest cosplay seduction scenes ever filmed and then ruins it, almost immediately, with a terrible scene of realistic violence.

The scenes are framed so you can’t remember one without the other, so your brain gets stuck in a quantum state, constantly switching back and forth between brutal realism and sexy costumed fun.

I think this is the real point of “Super.” The film isn’t trying to teach us or entertain us; it’s trying to confuse us, to screw with our expectations and intentionally dredge up conflicting emotions.

This isn’t a dark morality tale or a costumed romp. It’s a little bit of both, swirled in a bowl but never quite mixing together.

I can’t say I enjoyed “Super” but I’m going to remember it. I’ll remember the sharp cuts between fantasy and realism, and I’ll remember the angry, queasy feeling it left me with, as I tried to fit the story into a clean narrative box.

“Super” was funny, dark, violent and confusing. With any other film those shifts in tone would be a kind of failure, but with “Super” I think they were the whole point.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 5, 2011 at 02:27

Posted in Comics, Culture, Movies

Kevin Smith uses podcasts, Twitter to prosper in the age of niche marketing

I’ve never really been a Kevin Smith fan.

Kevin Smith is a director, responsible for some of the most influential films from my youth. “Clerks“,”Mallrats,” “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma” – his Jay and Silent Bob characters are cultural icons, but I never really drank the Kool-Aid.

Smith is a stoner icon, and while I’m cheerfully libertarian on paper, I’m incredibly conservative in my private life. I was born a 50-year-old man, so now that I’m 40, I feel like I’m finally growing into my age.

So yeah, I’m not his target audience, but I’ve heard Kevin on a couple podcasts lately, and I can’t help but admire his honesty.

Kevin Smith has no illusions about who he is or what he’s here for. He makes no apologies and wears no masks. He’s been incredibly forthright about his successes and failures, and he doesn’t hide from his mistakes.

He wears his mistakes like NASCAR racing endorsements, plastered in plain sight, as if he’s daring the world to notice them.

I admire this because Smith is not your standard bulletproof celebrity, divinely aloof from all criticism. He’s naturally touchy and oversensitive, but he confronts critics head-on, effectively leading with his chin.

He’s got one of the most popular Twitter feeds on the Internet – 1.8 million followers at the moment – and he posts to it constantly, presiding over an army of rabid fans.

Smith made news last year when a major airline declared him “too fat to fly” and forced him off a plane after he was (comfortably) in place with his seatbelt on.

Smith told the story on Marc Maron’s podcast back in January. He got bumped from the plane and begged the airline management for help. When they were condescending and unhelpful, he basically said, “This is your last chance to do the right thing. If I walk away now, in 30 minutes you’re gonna come looking for me.”

Smith was already a “Twitter millionaire” by that time, and he decided to put his fans to good use. He began tweeting like a madman from the airport waiting area, liberally copying messages to the airline’s public relations address.

Thirty minutes later, the manager tracked him down and offered him anything in the airline’s power to give, if he would just stop tweeting.

Don’t you wish you had 1 million Twitter followers?

A cautionary tale about customer service in the Internet age, but there’s a bigger point here, too. When the entertainment press turned on Smith for “bullying” the airline, he realized that a man with a million Twitter followers doesn’t really need the entertainment press anymore.

These days Kevin Smith is truly a “citizen of the Internet.” He’s on tour now, promoting his film “Red State,” but the core of his business is the close relationship he’s built with his fans.

He’s never going to make a Michael Bay blockbuster, but he’s not trying to. I think Kevin Smith is the first of many artists who are going to triumph in the age of niche marketing.

Kevin Smith isn’t making films for “everybody.” He’s found a core audience of fans who love his work and they generate enough revenue to keep him working. In 20 years the whole industry will be like this.

We’ll always have blockbusters, but increasingly, the Internet and alternative media will allow artists to create things cheaply and distribute them directly, bypassing traditional gatekeepers — forcing distributors to come chasing after them.

You don’t need a contract. You don’t need an agent. Just start throwing stuff on YouTube and see what sticks. You won’t get rich overnight, but you’ll be working. You’ll be making art for people who “get you” and that audience will grow every day.

Kevin Smith is exactly the kind of artist who will succeed in the new model. He’s brash with critics and humble with fans. He’s working on a personal level, telling stories that come from his life. He’s a one-man marketing machine who engages with his fans on a level that would terrify a traditional director.

But there’s one more thing that makes Kevin Smith special. Since 1994, he’s been working with Jason Mewes, a self-confessed drug addict who’s using the power of podcasts and public confession to stay sober.

Mewes works with Smith on the podcast “Jay and Silent Bob Get Old,” where he regales the audience with hilarious (and harrowing) tales of drug abuse and recovery. Oversharing as rehab? Not a treatment for the shy or faint of heart, but it’s working, and when you’re playing on the edge like this, results are all that matter.

I’ll never be a Kevin Smith fan, but I think he’s a good person, and the Internet rewards people who tell the truth and play it straight. I think Kevin Smith has stumbled onto a business model for the new millennium, and that a thousand directors will follow in his wake.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 24, 2011 at 05:24

Posted in Movies, Podcasts, Twitter

MST3K guys riff on Christmas Shorts

I’ll admit I was skeptical when I went to their first show back in August. It sounded like a scheduling nightmare, organizing a live satellite broadcast that would play simultaneously in hundreds of theaters nationwide.

But the broadcast was a hit, and the live audience added an element of random fun – like watching TV with a hundred close friends. As audiences go, this was a very easy room; loyal MST3K fans who knew what to expect and came ready to laugh.


Written by Michael B. Duff

December 10, 2009 at 14:30

Posted in Movies

Twitter tried to kill Patrick Swayze today

Fortunately, it failed.

A hubbub broke out on cyberspace earlier in the day after a Jacksonville, Florida radio station sent out an instant message on the popular Twitter social-networking site saying the 56-year-old actor had lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. 97.9 KISS-FM, sent out a Twitter message about Swayze to its 309 followers after seeing a report on another Web site. The report spread like wildfire across the Internet as concerned cybercitizens forwarded it to their friends.

I found a Twitter site for 97.9 but I found no reports of Swayze’s death and no report of injury to any member of the “Dirty Dancing” cast.

Did they remove it? Are they innocent?

Either way, Swayze is one of the hottest topics on Twitter right now.

As a fan of the movie “Roadhouse” I would like to start the counter-rumor that although Swayze was stalked in the woods and attacked by cancer, he was able to use advanced Taoist martial arts techniques to rip its throat out and deliver a righteous beating to the evil corporate land developers who tried to infect him.

Hang in there, Patrick. Nobody puts Swayze in a corner.

UPDATE 5-20: Our sister paper in Jacksonville has more detail on this story, although they can’t confirm or deny the role of WFKS KISS-FM in the rumor.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 19, 2009 at 18:13

Posted in Movies, Twitter

Bioware moderator stirs controversy in game forum

The High Secret Order of Forum Moderators had to issue an emergency alert this week when one of our brethren exceeded his authority on the Bioware forums and accidentally challenged 30 years of Star Wars history.

I was leafing through our secret newsletter and saw the sad story of Bioware community manager Sean Dahlberg sandwiched between “Ten ways to abuse your power” and “Five new slang terms that are actually obscene.”

Like most forums, Bioware’s system automatically catches and censors keywords that contain profanity and explicit language. Their system was set to automatically censor the words “gay” and “lesbian” since they are frequently used as insults.

But as is so often the case, rules that were meant to prevent discrimination are now having the opposite effect.

This was a minor incident until Mr. Dahlberg tried to defend the policy with a most unfortunate choice of words. Instead of just dismissing the issue or declaring the subject off-topic, Dahlberg said, “These are terms that do not exist in Star Wars.”

It’s hard to say if Dahlberg took his logic too far or simply not far enough. He could have declared the topic inappropriate or gone one step further and made the case that there is no sexuality in Star Wars.

The latter statement is kind of sweeping but I think it would be easy to defend. There is passion in Star Wars. There is romance in Star Wars, but the series has always stopped short of addressing adult sexuality.

That would have made for an interesting discussion but it wouldn’t have made headlines or set off any kind of Internet firestorm. Instead, Dahlberg’s statement was interpreted as a declaration that there is no homosexuality in the Star Wars universe – a dangerous statement to make on any fan forum.

To understand why, you have to understand the psychology of a dedicated Star Wars fan. Fans of these forums don’t just consume Star Wars material, they study it the way theologians study the Bible, searching for hidden connections and undiscovered nuances in the text.

In this context, Sean Dahlberg wasn’t just making a statement about his forum, he was questioning the meaning of scripture, bringing up a question that may require a Star Wars Council of Trent.

The resulting firestorm inspired press releases, blog posts and a good deal of original scholarship, as fans scrambled to provide examples of homosexual relationships in the Star Wars universe.

Game designers dismissed one example as a “scripting bug” while a well-known Star Wars author declared that a pair of Mandalorian soldiers in her work were more than just friends.

Most of this is just standard Internet contrariness. The Internet can turn anybody into a rebellious teenager. A forum rule is like a closed door. It’s not enough that there are thousands of blogs and forums where this discussion would be welcome, people want to talk about it in the one place where it’s not.

There’s also a larger issue here, a tendency that has come on very strong in my generation. Where baby boomers and their parents were content to grow up and leave their childhoods behind, Generation X seems determined to hang onto its childhood and bring it into the adult world.

You can see it in our entertainment, as comic book movies rule the silver screen and books like Harry Potter cross over to an adult audience. But we’re not just trying to extend our childhoods, we’re trying to project adult values and adult flaws onto our childhood heroes.

My favorite example is the recent “Iron Man” movie where the fight scenes and special effects are merged into the context of a real human life. Robert Downey Jr. portrayed Tony Stark as a real person who built fantastic things.

In this case, the mix of childhood memories and adult storytelling worked. Other films have missed the mark. Bryan Singer tried the same trick in “Superman Returns” but didn’t quite pull it off.

The original “Superman” film was classic family entertainment. Audiences went to the new one expecting an ordinary comic book movie and found themselves watching a kind of Greek tragedy. Singer’s Superman was brought down to Earth in a way that made a lot of fans uncomfortable.

This forum incident was blown out of proportion because Star Wars is like the last holdout against this trend. Fans walked into “The Phantom Menace” expecting a Star Wars film aimed at the adults they had become. Instead, George Lucas went the other way, abandoning adult fans in his quest to sell toys to children.

But fans are still hungry to see adult stories told in the Star Wars universe. “Revenge of the Sith” was dark and violent, but it lacked the emotional complexity that fans were waiting for.

Early reviews say that J.J. Abrams has successfully moved Star Trek into an adult context. Hopefully the Star Wars reboot won’t be far behind.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 1, 2009 at 18:21

Posted in Columns, Movies

Swedish government busts Pirate Bay file source

Last Friday, Swedish police confiscated 65 TB (that’s terabytes) of files connected to one of the world’s largest pirate sites.

The site is called The Pirate Bay — an infamous group of media pirates who, until recently, were protected by a loophole in Swedish law. The Pirate Bay is famous for writing sarcastic replies to legal threats and mocking lawyers who demand the removal of copyrighted work.

Most firms issuing these citations either don’t know or don’t care about the laws in Sweden, so they write as if every country in the world is subject to U.S. law.

This makes them objects of ridicule at The Pirate Bay. Here’s one example, written in reply to a 2004 demand by Electronic Arts:

“Hello and thank you for contacting us. We have shut down the website in question. Oh wait, just kidding. We haven’t, since the site in question is fully legal. Unlike certain other countries, such as the one you’re in, we have sane copyright laws here. But we also have polar bears roaming the streets and attacking people.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 12, 2009 at 05:15

Posted in Movies

Red Raiders rock ESPN front page at halftime

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 1, 2008 at 21:02

Posted in Humor, Movies, Polls, Warcraft

Diablo Cody is better than you

I’m so late to this party I had to help them clean up, but I can’t resist this post from Diablo Cody.

Here’s a quick summary for people who aren’t celebrity-obsessed 12-year-olds.

1. Diablo Cody has a blog.

2. Diablo Cody sells a script.

3. Important Movie People make Juno.

4. Juno explodes all over pop culture, bringing new slang and a newfound respect for reproductive rights to college campuses and junior high schools across the country.

5. Everyone on the Internet loves Diablo Cody for ten minutes.

6. Ten minutes expire, and the entire Internet turns on Diablo Cody like mama wolf consuming a diseased cub.

7. Hating Diablo Cody becomes the Next Great Internet Bloodsport, allowing the “Leave Britney Alone” guy to finally relax and put his phone back on the hook.

8. Diablo Cody proves she’s better than you by LEAVING THE INTERNET for a few months.

9. Diablo comes out of exile and returns to face a mob of jealous fanboys who hate her guts.

10. Diablo executes a flawless Mortal Kombat fatality move that spontaneously decapitates everyone who ever posted anything mean about her. Her rebuttal is so magnificient (and so obscene) that I can only post a little bit of it here:

I may have won 19 awards that you don’t feel I earned, but it’s neither original nor relevant to slag on Juno. Really. And you’re not some bold, singular voice of dissent, You are exactly like everyone else in your zeitgeisty-demo-lifestyle pod. You are even like me. (I, too, loved Arrested Development! Aren’t we a pretty pair of cultural mavericks?

I’m a 30-year-old woman with a dwindling interest in blog culture, and I don’t have time to address this ******** every time one of my projects comes out. I’m in love, I just bought a house, and my boss made E.T. I kind of have to focus on reality.

I almost jumped on the “Diablo Cody is lame” bandwagon a month ago, but I’m kind of in love with her now. I have a thing for angry, eloquent women who have just made millions and millions of dollars.


Don’t look at me like that.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 2, 2008 at 17:22

Posted in Movies

A Beginner's Guide to Hating Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson in Lost in TranslationMost geeks cannot imagine hating Scarlett Johansson. At first, the concept is absurd, unthinkable — like making a Star Wars movie without CGI or eating a pizza with vegetables on it.

But geeks are quirky, contrary creatures. They love hating things that everybody else loves, and there is no hatred quite like the hatred of a film geek. To back up this assertion, I direct you to a brilliant piece of digital brutality written by Alex Carnevale.

At first, I couldn’t believe it. I was so bewildered by Alex’s post, I misreported his gender in my first draft, assuming that any writer who hated Scarlett Johansson (affectionately abbreviated “ScarJo”) had to be female.

Hating Scarlett Johansson, it’s like hating sunshine, or rainbows, or ponies. But here he was, Alex Carnevale, drinking the blood of unicorns and enjoying a big fat pony sandwich.
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 10, 2008 at 15:19

Posted in Movies

Ghostbusters, baby!

Who you gonna call? Sierra games has announced Ghostbusters: The Video Game — a beautiful series of words. Strikes that perfect note of nostalgia and anticipation. Ghostbusters was one of the best movies of the 80s, a great idea that quickly lost steam in the sequel and died an early death.

Now it's back, on the only platform that might be able to handle it, with a story written by its original creators.

One can't help but wonder, what other Bill Murray hits might make good games? I want to play Rushmore: The Video Game — managing a massive aquarium project while dodging cruel traps from my teenage rival.

Or how about The Game Aquatic with Steve Zissou? Lots of action in that one. Shooting pirates, tracking sharks, equipping speedos with different stat bonuses.

Or even Lost in Translation: The Video Game. Work your way through a minefield of dialog as you manage a platonic love affair with Scarlett Johansson. Too cold and she'll wander off. Too hot you'll come off like a creepy old man.

I'm picturing a relationship temperature graph with warning animations at both ends. Manage it right and the game will grant you a no-fault divorce.

Written by Michael B. Duff

November 19, 2007 at 12:46

Posted in Games, Movies