Building Your Characters

 

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Last week, Batman v Superman was released to mixed reviews.  The bad reviews have focused mainly on the choppy plot and overuse of CGI (and rightfully so).  But I have noticed that there hasn’t been nearly as much talk about the lack of development of the female characters.  I think one of the huge problems with this movie is that Wonder Woman, a very strong and rich character, was not developed or defined, yet she largely contributes to the third act, and her appearances are peppered throughout a lot of the movie.  Seeing as how there has recently been a large demand for more prominent female roles in movies, I am surprised there has not been more criticism on this.

If I were a Wonder Woman fan, I would be upset.  The trailer leads me to believe that she is going to be part of the center piece to the film.  But, the point of her appearance seems to amount to nothing more than DC being able to say, “Look, we have a female superhero!”  Bravo, guys!  This was done fifty years ago with Batgirl in the 60s Batman show.  Not only is Wonder Woman just senselessly in this movie, but also she is as bland as Marvel’s female characters.  They act all the same (granted, so do all of the male characters). 

It would have been cool if Wonder Woman was a third party contestant.  She is out for Superman’s blood because her sister, who moved to Metropolis, died in Superman’s fight with Zod.  I would have loved to see her as the main villain of the movie.  This would have made for a much juicier role, and would have been one hell of a bold introduction for a decades-old character into the film medium.  As it is, though, you are left wondering why Wonder Woman would work with Superman.  Wonder Woman, being an ageless Amazonian, would be a perfect tie-in to the first main villain, Vandal Savage (who is also immortal).  That said, I think it’s a real shame that such a classic character was sidelined in her introduction.

I felt the same way with Black Widow.  It has taken six years to learn anything about her.  And I’m not asking for a lot of character development.  Black Widow would work just fine as a basic character, but she needs to be more than “I’m a woman who can also fight”.  You know who also could fight?  The bride in Kill Bill, and she had much more personality.  I’m not a fan of the movie, but admit that it is intriguing to see Uma Thurman own the character as the vengeful swords woman.  Look at Michelle Yoeh’s character in Supercop.  Not only is she awesome as a fighter, but also she is Jackie Chan’s character’s superior, who forgets to enjoy life sometimes.  That is simple but effective, unlike more modern, big-budget films.

Batman and Superman have been done to death in films, so I think that starting a DC universe with those two is a very uninteresting move.  What would have been interesting is starting the universe with a Wonder Woman solo film; in other words, something we haven’t seen before.  If we’re going to be introduced to such a character, I expect to be given a cohesive view of the character, and not just see a faceless fighter for two hours.  Sure, WW is not a bonafide box office draw (yet), but neither was Iron Man before 2008.  In our pro-diversity climate, DC could have one-upped Marvel by making the first successful solo female superhero movie.  Unfortunately, it seems like they were more interested in making the eighth Batman movie.

Don’t Believe the Hype! – The World of Warcraft Movie

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

Sometimes a trailer does not indicate the quality of a movie, but other times you just know when you’ve seen the trailer that the movie just isn’t going to be good.  Such is the case with the upcoming Warcraft.  “World of Warcraft” is one of the biggest games ever, and its developer, Blizzard, is one of the biggest names in gaming.  I’ve talked to several peers about the upcoming film adaptation. They told me the film would look sweet if it were done in the same style as the cinematic cut scenes from the game.  If you’ve never seen one, then pause for a moment and watch.  The cut scenes are amazing!  They’re also animated.  The trailer, of course, clearly shows live action footage.  Well, barely.  We actually see the classic mishmash of garish CGI and badly colored live-action footage.  This movie looks exceptionally bad, so I decided to make a complaint/remind you that this movie is happening.

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When The Hobbit films came out, people were furious that the movie was mainly CGI.  Why were they mad?  Not only were The Lord of the Rings films made with mostly practical effects, but also because the filmmakers meshed the practical and digital effects together seamlessly.  Despite the backlash, the filmmakers of Warcraft decided to go for The Hobbit look.  Why?  Don’t you want more people to go see your movie?  In the trailer, there are cuts from CG orcs to actual actors.It’s very jarring because of how different the live-action footage looks when compared to the CGI.  These type of shots are the worst shots because most of the CGI looks like a dang PS2 cut scene!  If you want the movie to be dominated by CGI, why don’t you just make an animated film instead?

Because nothing was real in The Hobbit, none of the action scenes were cool, or could ever be believable.  You also never get magical moments in those films.  Many of the actors spilled blood when filming The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it shows.  The only thing that was spilled in The Hobbit was the tears of Ian McKellan, who was so sick and tired of standing in a studio, in front of a green screen, saying lines to people who weren’t there.

And don’t even get me started on the lighting!  Well, actually, I’ll discuss it, because it’s important.  When everything in a movie is dark (in both lighting and color), that is a sign that the filmmakers are trying to hide their substandard CGI.  Just look at how most movies with terrible animation look dark.  Sadly, the attempt to mask it usually fails.  Look back at Harry Potter 5.  I remember watching it in theatres and laughing out loud when they showed the giant.  That was nine years ago, and today the same strategy is being used.  No longer can they be out in the sunlight thanks to us making fun of the fight scenes of The Matrix Reloaded.  Now, everything is dark!

So, should you care?  No. The trailers don’t make me want to view this movie at all.  But, some good could come from this movie.  It could be such a colossal failure that we’ll stop getting video game adaptations once and for all.

When the Budget Counts

By: Matthew J.R. Kohler

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Fan films are growing like wildfire.  I love the idea of fan films.  I think it’s cool that you want to share your version of something that you love so much.  But that doesn’t mean you should be sloppy about it.  A couple of weeks ago, a Darth Maul fan film came out and I criticized it in my weekly podcast (Episode 3 of “The Good, The Bad, The Action”).  For all of its production value, I found the film to be very unprofessional.  So how do you make your budget count on a movie?  How do you make it more than just something that “looks” professional?  The answer is simpler than you think.

The Darth Maul short film is almost 18 minutes long, yet I have no idea who any of the characters are.  As far as I know, they are just random Jedi.  Although the action “looks professional,” the story is non-existent, which causes the fight scenes to suffer (just like the Nightwing web series).  The biggest, and most common, problem with fan films is they assume you know who everyone is.  Sure, 90 percent of your audience will know who the characters are, but you should still introduce your story as if it’s a completely new idea.  Remember: nobody has seen your version of the universe, so you should build it up. 

When I watched the Nightwing series, I saw characters who added nothing to the show, such as Joker, Barbara, Bruce Wayne, and Tim Drake.  In a fan film, less is more when it comes to story.  Since your budget is low, you should not make a series with so many characters that none of them have a story.  The Maul film makes that mistake.

For the entire movie, we see Maul fight random Jedi henchmen.  I remember Savage Oppress, in season 3 of Clone Wars, being built up as a brute.  Then, he was assigned to take down a small Jedi fortress in two minutes by himself.  Each time I watch that scene, I am left wanting more. 

Back to the fan film.  Darth Maul is a dominating Sith, but in this universe we do not know that.  The filmmakers should have given a more detailed introduction to Maul, by showing him watching his prey.  By spying on them, we would have been introduced to the Jedi as well.  Anticipation would have been building as we became oriented with the universe.  Therefore, it would have made the first fight scene much more exciting.

The excuse I hear too much about fan films’ overall lack of quality is “it’s low-budget”.  Here is the thing: you don’t need any money to have a good story and interesting characters.  It’s funny that as movies became more expensive, their quality dropped.  Can you honestly say that the $200 million dollar Force Awakens had a better story and characters than any of the original three Star Wars, which were each budgeted between $10 million and $32 million?  Can you honestly say that the $230 million-dollar Amazing Spider-Man had a better story and characters than the $140 million-dollar Spider-Man?  Remember Kevin Smith—the rebel filmmaker?  His first film was Clerks, which cost $27,000.  The movie is in black and white, barely changes angles within its scenes, and features only a handful of characters.  And you know what?  That movie is considered a landmark in independent filmmaking, not because of its technical professionalism, but because of its creative professionalism. 

As movie fans, we should look past the surface of costumes, makeup, (both of which were nailed by the Maul film), and the fact that it was shot with a RED camera.  We need to think more critically about the movies we are being given, by both fans and Hollywood alike, because story and characters are everything.  Try this on the next hot fan film: instead of just clicking the “like” button, view it for what it is and critique it for its story and characters.  In the end, you will actually be helping out the filmmakers, instead of patting them on the head for serving you mediocrity.

Choreography 101: Flips Hurt the Fight

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by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

I don’t know when this trend started, but every movie now has characters who know Parkour.  As Captain America and the Transformers have demonstrated, somehow Parkour is very easy to learn.  It CAN be used effectively, and I’m here to tell everyone how to use this dangerous tool.

People doing aerials: I’m all for that.  Over the last year, I’ve been learning more acrobatics to increase my falling dynamic.  But, sometimes Parkour is used so much that it stops becoming special.  When you give away the kitchen sink in the first scene, the character’s maneuvers become less special.  A good example is Captain America in The Winter Soldier.  We see what he is capable in the first ten minutes of the fight, so there are no surprises in the rest of the film.  Every time I watch Police Story 2, I’m blown away by the showdown in the park.  Jackie Chan is fast, but this might be some of his fastest choreography.  When Chan uses the pipe, he is quick.  I would have loved to see more diversity instead of the occasional flip.  If you want to talk about realistic, then let’s discuss Parkour’s biggest problem.

            -Watch closely, these are TRAINED warriors

How many times have you seen someone flip, and their opponent just watches them?  Why doesn’t the opponent just kick the flipper in the face?  It’s such a boneheaded choreography mistake that upsets me not only as a martial artist, but also as an action fan.  I want to be in the universe, but if you keep having choreography errors where one just watches the other guy do something cool, then I’m going to lose interest.  “Daredevil” the show is guilty of what I just described.  The fight scene between Nobu the ninja and Daredevil was a fight between two great martial artists.  Yet the fight suffers at the hands of Parkour.  Several times Daredevil throws a corkscrew kick or a “high risk” move, and the NINJA just stands and takes it.  Now, I know if you can get the move off then the speed of the flip is fast, but the ninja’s reflexes should be too.  It would have been great to see Daredevil paying for doing these childish moves on him.  Instead, they both do childish moves!

Flipping makes no sense when someone is critically injured.  Unless you are a superhuman, “Daredevil” the show is about an ordinary human (with insane athleticism).  So how is a man, whose body is downright shredded, able to still do kip ups and handsprings?  He is bleeding a lot, AND he is injured in vital areas, which should prevent him from moving that way.  In the final fight of Romeo Must Die, Jet Li’s fists are burnt.  Then, the villain peels flesh from his hands.  Li is not able to use his hands for most the fight, and he has to protect his hands.  This told a story.  Daredevil didn’t do any of that.  The fight scene could have showed Daredevil understanding that his battles have to be shorter.  Otherwise, his injuries will catch up to him one day.

The concept of involving gymnastics in a fight scene is exciting.  Jackie Chan used them for falls and Tony Jaa used them to showcase his skills.  Which one is right?  Both are; they just have to be used in the right way.  I think fight scenes fall flat when they try to be flashy.  When you are just showing moves on the screen that don’t mean anything and do not advance the story, then this is how you lose your audience.

 

Don’t Believe the Hype! – The Civil War Trailer

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by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

Well, Marvel had been teasing that Spider-Man would be in the new Civil War trailer, and you know what?  It happened!  That’s right, everyone: we finally saw a glimpse at the third iteration of Spider-Man within nine years.  But, honestly, who cares?  Here’s why you shouldn’t.

Spider-Man is one of the most popular characters in the Marvel universe. However, in the films, the only story that he really has is “Do I stay Spider-Man or not?”.  We have had five films, and all of follow this same question.  The only legit Spider-Man story is “Kraven’s Last Hunt”, about the black-suited Spider-Man, which was tarnished by the lackluster Spider-Man 3. Spider-Man is a classic character, and he did have an interesting and prominent role in the “Civil War” comic book.  In this upcoming movie, though, Marvel has already said that Black Panther would fill this role.  Whatever Spider-Man’s role is in this film does not seem essential, seeing as how this is Captain America’s movie, and Spider-Man’s getting his own solo film next year.  So, from a story standpoint, what’s the point of including him?

Financially, we all know the point of including Spider-Man.  In the trailer, we see him grab Cap’s shield and say a canned line.  That is sure to draw fans of Spider-Man into the theater, but  the point remains that trailers nowadays should be less about gimmicks and action, and more about content.  With how much money Hollywood is pumping into movies now, there is no way the action or costumes shouldn’t look professional, nor should it be surprising that a certain character owned by a separate company is appearing in a Marvel movie, so let’s just get over it!  Story is the missing piece in most things now, and it is something that can’t be purchased the same way that a visual effect or costume can be.  The proof that this film is just another cash grab is illustrated by how this movie is straight-up ripping off the Civil War comic, and relying on every superhero and his brother to bring home the bacon.

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            -Why are they posing like models?

How many heartless movies have you watched that have budgets of over $100 million?  There are the Transformers series, G.I. Joe series, the new TMNT series, Iron Man 2 and 3, Thor 1 and 2, Captain America 1, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Amazing Spider-Man 1 and 2, Ant-Man, Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand, Wolverine 1 and 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel, Green Lantern, Fantastic Four 1, 2, and the reboot, Ghost Rider 1 and 2, all of the Punisher movies, and Daredevil.  A couple of these movies some could consider fine, but most are terrible.  Notice that the last three Spider-Man movies were part of that list.  That means the last time Spider-Man was cool in a movie was twelve years ago.  Back then, Hollywood had less control over the content of superhero films, because it was a new, largely unproven, idea.  But, as the films became more profitable, that all changed.  Spider-Man 3 and Amazing Spider-Man 2 were less about the titular character and more about the villains; and Amazing Spider-Man was a product of Hollywood’s insistence on rehashing the original Spider-Man—the top-grossing movie of the franchise.  True fans of Captain America, perhaps the most popular character in the Marvel universe next to Spider-Man and Wolverine, have not been happy with his less-than-accurate films courtesy of Marvel.  I don’t even like the Thor character, but I was still amazed by how awful his character has been handled by Marvel.  That said, if you are a true fan of Spider-Man, then you should be scared that he’s in Marvel’s hands.

As I mentioned, there are too many characters in this movie.  So, how much screen time is Spider-Man really going to have?  Not a lot.  Again, what’s the point of him being in it?  Why should we care?

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Now, go buy “Kraven’s Last Hunt” and read it.

Choreography 101: Emphasis on A LOT

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

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Not many times do I appreciate constant action scenes in a film.  The main reason being that I don’t have enough time to process one action scene, let alone anticipate the next.  Ideally, plot and character development should take place during the “breathing room” between the action scenes.  It’s a problem all too common in recent action movies (Winter Soldier, Mad Max: Fury Road).  But, the focus of my article is not movies of today.  Instead, this is about a movie from the 90s that gave us a perfect balance of abundant action, and plot and character development.  That movie is Terminator 2.

T2 does an amazing job of keeping the audience engaged.  The first thirty minutes set up all the characters, making the audience wait and wait for that first explosive action scene.  During this build-up, it is hinted that the T-1000 is not the only villain.  Within the first act, we see the arrival of the machines, their hunt for John Connor, and the big chase scene.  After that, we only see the T-1000 in two small scenes before the climax.

Writer and director James Cameron knew that the more you show your emotionless villain, the less that people care.  What Cameron does is establish how awesome the T-1000 is, then waits for an hour and some change to reintroduce him.  And you do get to see some impressive action with the liquid-metal assassin.  Not only does he smash up a semi-truck, but also he morphs into John’s foster parents—something the first terminator couldn’t do.  Plus, what crippled the T-800 in the first one does not even faze this villain.

The movie was most focused on the characters connecting or reconnecting with each other, while preparing for battle.  Act II is where this focus is most prominent, hence the lack of action for over an hour.  During this time, John tries to reconnect with Sarah, who struggles to regain her humanity.  Intertwined with those characters’ goals is John’s relationship with the T-800, to whom John tries to teach what it means to be human.  He also looks up to the T-800 as his first real father figure (something that Sarah observes and points out to the audience).  What results is a famously robotic character gradually humanizing its mannerisms, speech, and even emotional understanding.

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Honestly, the villain of Act II is Sarah.  The scene that demonstrates this best is when John wants to allow the T-800 to learn.  To do so, he and Sarah need to take out his chip and switch it from read-only.  Sarah, being the machine that she is, wants to destroy the chip while they have the chance, because she doesn’t trust that the T-800 is actually on their side.  What ensues is her and John arguing about whether or not to trust the machine.  Not only does this show how much Sarah has changed since the first film, but also how much compassion John shows, just like his mother did.  In the next few scenes, we see just how emotionally distant Sarah is from John, because she is obsessed with stopping Judgment Day.

Cue the focus shift to Dyson.  After learning from the T-800 that Dyson is responsible for creating Skynet, Sarah abandons the T-800 and her son to kill him.  Naturally, it is up to John and the T-800 to find her and stop her.  They are too late, so it is up to Sarah to stop herself from pulling the trigger.

            Arnold doing what he does best

Clocking in at two-and-a-half hours, this movie, like the T-1000, is relentless.  Yet, it never feels rushed.  Cameron takes time with developing the characters, and letting them speak.  That’s why when action scenes do happen, they don’t feel rushed.  Our heroes’ next mission is to take out Cyberdyne, the place that holds all of Dyson’s Skynet research, as well as the arm and broken chip of the first terminator.  Instead of running from the villain, like in the first one, our heroes are going straight to the source, to take it out once and for all.  Once again, the movie doesn’t focus on solely the T-1000.  That doesn’t take anything from the villain, though, because every time he appears, his actions are catastrophic.

The climax perfectly pays off the build-up from the first two acts.  The action continues to expand, but at a slow pace.  The movie knows to ask you to focus on only one exciting moment at a time.  When Arnold uses the mini-gun, that is all you are watching.  When Dyson gets whacked, that is all you see.  There is no intercutting with other equally crazy action scenes.  And, there is no constant cutting to make the action look “good.”  T2 works so well because the shots linger on the action, thereby emphasizing it to the level of amazingly awesome.

To their credit, most action films today do have some cool action, but a lot of it is very rough around the edges.  I just re-watched the elevator fight from Cap 2.  While I love the idea of the fight, I wish the execution of it was not rushed.  It’s funny how inspirational T2 is to modern movies, yet they generally forget what made T2 such a masterful action film—its fast-moving slow-burn that allows you to see the full potential of all of its key scenes.  There’s not much that beats the final grenade blasting the T-1000’s upper torso in half, or the 100% real explosion of the 100% real Cyberdyne building.  By simply focusing on one spectacle at a time, said spectacle becomes a lot more iconic, because it is more memorable.  It’s not drowned out by twenty other spectacles happening at the same time.  What makes matters worse in modern action films is the constant cutting and the shots are too shaky and up-close to fully immerse the audience in the action.  I would like to see more movies stop trying so hard to impress me, and return to the largely forgotten simplicity of less is more.

 

 

The Dark Knight Rises: How Not To Do Fight Scenes

by: Matthew J.R. Kohler

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In my time in watching movies, I have never seen such a popular movie that has terrible fight scenes.  By this point, everyone should know that Christopher Nolan does not have an eye for fight choreography, and that Christian Bale and Tom Hardy are not fighters.  Instead of breaking down this terrible flick, I’m going to break down what could have been interesting fights.

In the first movie, Batman is trained by the League of Shadows (ninjas!).  Like I have said before, effective fight scenes are more than just action; they are part of the story.  In the fight, you should show the character’s transformation.  When Bruce Wayne first returns as Batman, it was fine.  But his first fight scene was pitiful.

Batman and Catwoman team up to take on Bane’s henchmen.  The fight scene could have been fun, but half of the dang men fall without being hit.  Literally!  The camera is fairly far away, and the lighting is too dark, so it’s hard to see anything.  Maybe that is for the best because twice do you see men run up to Batman and fall (without getting hit).  How can this be in your film?  Your movie cost hundreds of millions of dollars!  Why didn’t you at least shoot it like the terrible fight scene from Batman Begins?  Sure, that’s camera cuts galore, but at least we aren’t watching the equivalent to tortoises slugging it out.

Slow and steady should have been the theme for this movie, because that’s all the fight scenes amount to.  The first Bane versus Batman fight is a prime example.  This is the first scene Batman and Bane face off.  Now, remember: both of them are trained “martial artists” and this is what happens.  Sure, the final bout of Batman Begins was cut a lot to appear to be faster, but at least someone had their hands up!  Why does Batman think he should be crotch-forward with his hands down?   There should be continuity within the fights.  Yet there’s Batman going from simple, close-quarter knockdowns to wide arm throws.  The fight is laughable, and every second falls flat.  It starts with Bale swinging (in a shot that is angled to where you can’t even see Bane getting hit).  This continues to happen later when Bane throws a turnaround punch.  The blow completely misses Batman, but because this is the Nolanverse, he goes a-tumblin’.  I think the only part of the fight that works is when Bane briskly climbs down a chain.  Although, that little moment represents the horrible truth about this movie: it’s more interested in showing you physical feats that the characters can do (like pull-ups!) than actually showing them perform cool, useful fight moves.

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When a protagonist is beaten in a fight, a film will logically show him or her train for a rematch.  Training in this film, though, is nothing more than Bruce working out.  How do push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups prepare you for the fight of your life?  What if Batman had to learn a new style, or instead of heading directly for Gotham after rising from the prison, he travels to a new teacher?  Either of those would have made his return much less lame.

Batman’s first fight back from the pit is saving JGL.  Once again, Nolan did not understand how to use Batman in action scenes.  Several times the henchmen are holding guns and not using them.  Why?  Earlier in the film they were going to kill everybody because Batman said, “They just don’t care.”  So why didn’t they just fire while Batman is fighting them all?  Another thing— Batman is a ninja, so why didn’t he throw a flash bomb to blind them all, before knocking them all out?  Then, you could have JGL open his eyes to him finishing off the final opponent.  That way, this movie would have one less stupid scene.

Speaking of stupid scenes…of course it had to happen: the rematch between Batman and Bane.  Against the backdrop of Gotham’s police and thugs “duking it out” (or clearly pretending to hit each other, rather) our main protagonist and antagonist engage in one final bout.  This fight is supposed to be the climax of Bruce’s “training” for 30-plus minutes in the pit.  And, the first thing we see is…him throw the exact same punch at Bane from the first fight…???  Holy Cannoli is this sad.  This fight is also pathetically slow with the added minus that Batman, for some odd reason, has forgotten how to fight.  Just like their prior fight, mistakes occur left and right.  Bane throws a sidekick at Batman with his right leg.  When it shows Batman react, Bane is recoiling his left leg.  Nolan forgot the 180 rule that day I guess.  What turns the tide in this fight is that Batman punches Bane’s mask, which apparently makes Bane blind.  I’ll say it again: Batman is a detective and a trained fighter, so why didn’t he try this earlier?  I would like to have seen Batman try to break it in the first fight.  Bane would have then had to defend himself.  That way, Batman would know Bane’s weakness, but would need to figure out a strategy to take him down

The biggest problem of this movie is the action.  Nolan never new how to show action or tell a story through it.  This film is perhaps the worst example of that.  With glaring errors with the fighting, continuity errors, and henchmen just falling, it’s a shame that this movie cost so much.  My advice is, never watch this movie.  This movie is a crime against what I’ve been working on and many others before me have been working on: to tell stories through action.  Nolan is an embarrassment to fight scenes and action storytelling.  Hopefully, the passage of time will bury this film.

Rating: 3/10