Category: Trenchant Movie Commentary

Zero Dark Thirty, or, How Not to Make a Movie About Torture

By Shawn

Head Torturer Guy: Hey, Jessica Chastain, do you know what’s totally a great way to get information from detainees? Torture.

Jessica Chastain: That’s totally true. But let’s not come out and say that torture actually produced useful intelligence that led to bin Laden’s capture, because that’s a problematic claim that’s been debunked repeatedly. Instead, let’s just strongly imply it.

Head Torturer Guy: That sounds good. Also, it’d be great if we could spend a few scenes developing our characters in ways that humanized us, without any corresponding attempt to challenge our audience by asking them to recognize the humanity of the detainees we’re torturing.

Jessica Chastain: You know what would help with that? Lots of montages of brown people looking around as though they might be up to something, with ominous brown people music playing.

Head Torture Guy: Perfect. Let’s just grab the first thing we find on YouTube:

Jessica Chastain: That’ll do, pig. Let’s also have a scene in which Obama’s on TV condemning the CIA’s torture program, but let’s not engage that in any way beyond rolling our eyes.

Head Torture Guy: That sounds like a truly terrific and lazy way to deal with a troubling episode in our nation’s history.

Jessica Chastain: Ready?

Head Torture Guy: Ready.

Obama: (on TV) I think that probably torture is bad and hurts America’s image. Not that I’m going to punish or hold anyone accountable for it—that might make David Brooks sad.

Jessica Chastain: (eye roll) Obama, gosh!

Head Torture Guy: (eye roll) Yeah, pssh, Obama!

Jessica Chastain: The best part about how we just implicitly criticized Obama is how it positions the national security debate as though it were between liberals who aren’t willing to do what it takes to make the nation safe and conservatives who are. But in fact, people who are genuinely concerned about civil liberties and want to place limits on the way the national security establishment deals with terrorism have almost no influence on anything the government does, and Obama and the Democrats seem to have no problem assassinating American citizens abroad, violating the territorial sovereignty of other states to capture or kill high value targets, and allowing the CIA to operate a clandestine drone program with minimal oversight.

Head Torture Guy: Yeah. Pssh, Obama! So weak on national security!

Jessica Chastain: Pssh!

Head Torture Guy: So far I think we’ve got a pretty good movie going here. There’s just one thing I’m worried about. What happens if people who know something about what actually happened criticize our account?

Jessica Chastain: Oh, that’s no problem at all. We’ll just say it’s fictionalized.

Head Torture Guy: But if it’s fiction, won’t audiences who want to know what really took place be less interested in seeing it?

Jessica Chastain: That’s why we’ll say it’s a fictionalized account “based on real events,” and then provide the audience with no information about what actually occurred versus what we made up.

Head Torture Guy: That sounds like a perfect way of handling our obligation to deal with this subject matter responsibly.

Jessica Chastain: Yep! So, just to review—we’ve successfully created a fake account of a real event with minimal character development that depicts torture without providing any analysis; implies that it led to the capture of bin Laden; and barely even bothers to bring up in passing the argument that torture is immoral and outrageous, and that whatever modest intelligence gains it might have produced aren’t nearly enough to justify the harm it inflicted on the bodies and minds of the victims, the tremendous cost to this nation’s reputation, and the damage it’s done to our collective moral compass. In fact, practically no one in this movie will make any arguments at all or engage in any critical reflection to speak of.  And when people call us on that, we can just say that all we wanted to do was depict what actually happened, even though that’s not what we did.

Head Torture Guy: Not too shabby! I just have one last concern. Won’t people be put off unless there’s at least a token acknowledgement of the moral ambiguity of the events that transpired in the film, and won’t that require us to critically reflect on what took place in some way?

Jessica Chastain: Don’t worry about that. We’ll just show a scene of me getting into a plane and crying at the end.

Head Torture Guy: What will that mean?

Jessica Chastain: Nothing at all. Or everything. Who knows?

Head Torture Guy: Wow. That’s so profound.

Jessica Chastain: Absolutely. Also:

Head Torture Guy: My gosh, brown people music is ominous! It’s like, what are they planning?

Jessica Chastain: Well, there’s only one horrible way to find out! Think about that, opponents of torture.

Head Torture Guy: Anti-torture arguments, pssh!

Jessica Chastain: Psssh!

Head Torture Guy: Pssssssh!

Reflections on Cloud Atlas, the Movie

By Shawn

Major intended lessons of Cloud Atlas, the movie:

(1) Love unites the weak. Our individual efforts are but a drop in the ocean, but together are able to stand up against the strong in a pattern that recurs throughout history because “we keep on making the same mistakes.” Or something


Major unintended lessons of Cloud Atlas, the movie:

(1) Never put a white actor in yellow face.

(2) Tom Hanks can act, but he really doesn’t want to, and will revert to being Tom Hanks if you drop your guard for even a second.

(3) Hugh Grant’s idea of putting on an American accent is just trying to sound like even more of a dick.

(4) Halle Berry. I don’t know what I think of you. But I am pretty sure you had no idea why you were speaking gibberish to Tom Hanks in a post-apocalyptic setting. I don’t blame you. No one else did either.

(5) Jim Broadbent is the only one in this cast who’s really trying. Put him in more things, Hollywood.

(6) Well, let me amend that. The guy who played the aspiring composer was trying too. Nice work, that guy.

(7) For all of its flaws, Cloud Atlas does demonstrate that it is possible, albeit very difficult, to make a movie without Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This is an important thing formovie executives to remember. You don’t have to cast him. He is optional.

(8) Seriously, I was reading somewhere that they even tried to cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Django, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt had a scheduling conflict, probably because he was too busy appearing in everything. Why are we doing this? I mean, I like him as much as the next guy, but did he really need to be in Lincoln?

(9) Well, actually, scratch that. Joseph Gordon-Levitt probably would have been way better than Tom Hanks or Hugh Grant or Jim Sturgess. They should’ve cast him.

(10) Yeah, upon reflection, I see why this happens now. You’re casting the film, and you get to thinking, “I could cast so-and-so, but why not Joseph Gordon-Levitt? He’d do a solid job. He’s a good ensemble player. Everybody likes him fine.” Alright, I’ve made my peace with this.

(11) Seriously though, NEVER put a white actor in yellow face. Not even if he’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt. All anyone can think of is Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. No one needs that flashback.

The Incomprehensibles, Part II

By Shawn

In response to a previous post, The Incomprehensibles, my friends Lucy and Cameron e-mailed me a proposal for a sequel, which I thought I’d share:

“So, on the way to campus this morning, Cameron and I managed to come up with plot for Incomprehensibles 2: The Elocution.

The villains are the Elocutioners, a group of British aristocrats who develop the Enunciator 5000, a weapon that forces people speak properly and behave with decorum — they wish for a civilized world, and see their neo-colonial mission as one of mercy. – The leader of the Elocutioners is Henry Higginsdeath, an twisted professor whose favored weapon is a hammer made from the OED.

Maggie Smith should also probably be involved.

In a key scene, the Incomprehensibles realize that they must infiltrate the Elocutioners’ headquarters. This leads to a stunning montage in which the Incomprehensibles must learn to speak and act properly. Hilarity ensues. So do distressingly tight breeches.

There may also be a way to combine this with Step Up 5, in which a group of misfit street kids manage to turn a stately Elocutioner ball into a free-wheeling dance-off, breaking the spell of the Enunciator 5000.

And there you go. Cinematic gold.”

Cinematic gold is right. Make it happen, Hollywood.

The Incomprehensibles

By Shawn

The other day, I saw a trailer for The Expendables 2, and I found my thoughts drifting fondly back to the first film. I don’t know how many of you saw The Expendables, but, basically, Sylvester Stallone wanted to pack as many action heroes as he possibly could into a single movie, and he managed to do so without even attempting to employ what screenwriters have traditionally considered a “plot.” Now, many parts of that film were rather implausible. But by far the most unrealistic part of the whole thing was the other actors pretending they could understand anything Sylvester Stallone was saying:

Jason Statham: Sylvester Stallone, we better blow that bridge.

Sylvester Stallone: Guhbuhbleg, uhbuhbubhbleg buhbubhbleg.

Jason Statham: Hahaha, that’s right, old friend. Exactly like that time in Nicaragua.

This gave me an idea. Why not make a film that brings together all the unintelligible action movie actors? I call it: The Incomprehensibles.

Sample scene:

(Night. Two Russian Nazi-Muslims are standing guard outside a building that Sylvester Stallone needs to enter because who knows. They speak to one another in Geruskabic.)

Nazi-Muslim #1: Happy Murder-Ramadan, comrade.

Nazi-Muslim #2: Happy Murder-Ramadan to you as well.

Nazi-Muslim #1: It is a good thing that Sylvester Stallone cannot enter this facility, is it not?

Nazi-Muslim #2: Indeed. For without access to whatever is in this facility, he cannot stop … ZE PLANZ!

Nazi-Muslims #1 and #2: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

(Just then, from behind them, Sylvester Stallone emerges and knocks their heads together.)

Sylvester Stallone: Uhbuhbuhbleg, buhbuhbleg.

(He is immediately joined by Christian Bale as Batman.)


Sylvester Stallone: (nodding) Uhbuhblegblegbuhbluh!

(Not seeing a way into the building, they pause, only to be joined by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brad Pitt as his Gypsy character from Snatch.)


Brad Pitt: Blartatar, ah-wahrtatar.

Sylvester Stallone: Uhbuhbleg!


(Suddenly, the building’s main gate opens, to reveal Thomas Hardy as Bane.)

Bane: Germanydumblydoo, Batman! Germanydumblydoo!



Sylvester Stallone: Buhbleg!

And so on. It basically writes itself.

Every Batman Movie in Thirty Seconds

By Shawn

Every Other Protagonist: Christian Bale, this city is in trouble. What this city needs is a symbol.

Christian Bale: That symbol can only be me in a bat costume.

Other Protagonist: Have you thought about whether that’s really what this city needs?

Christian Bale: Not carefully, no. But that’s what I’m doing.

Other Protagonist: I have reservations about that, and will express concerns about your safety. But go ahead.

(Christian Bale does, and encounters setback.)

Christian Bale: I’ve encountered a setback, and now I’m not even sure I should be Batman.

Other Protagonist: I also have doubts about whether you should be Batman. AND here’s troubling information that affects the non-Batman parts of your life.

Christian Bale: Then I guess I have no choice but to be emo in exotic locations.

(Villain does evil things.)

Other Protagonist: Things got worse while you were being emo in the sands of/jungles of/waters of wherever-the-hell. In hindsight, I think you should probably be Batman.

Christian Bale: But I can’t be Batman. I have “I’m letting myself go” facial hair and I desperately need a training montage.

Other Protagonist: I think the real issue is that you haven’t confronted whatever’s stopping you from being Batman, which is probably linked to the issues that first made you decide to be Batman. Also, I still have doubts about whether you should be Batman. But you should be. Probably.

Christian Bale: This conversation is for whatever reason all the motivation I need to confront my fears and be Batman.

(Christian Bale defeats villain.)

Other Protagonist: Wow, you really beat the crap out of whomever. I guess it’s good that you’re Batman. Maybe.

Christian Bale: Yes, now certainly is an appropriate time for some vague reflections on the moral complexities of law enforcement/being Batman. But one thing’s for sure. After this, I’m definitely not going to be Batman again. Unless, of course, this scenario WERE TO REPEAT ITSELF EXACTLY OVER AND OVER AGAIN.

“You Got Serbed”

Shawn: So, I have a new film idea. It’s one of those dance-off movies, except it’s about the war in Bosnia, and it’s called You Got Serbed.
Ann: Shawn.
Shawn: I’ve also worked out one of the dance numbers. It’s entitled, “I’m a Slav for You,” and the whole thing kicks off because the Serbs want the Croatians to stop dancing and focus on their math homework, but the Croatians—
Shawn: Yes, Ann?
Ann: You’re just so upsetting.

Boardgame Movies

By Shawn

Apparently, the newest cinematic trend is to adapt boardgames into films. There is, for example, going to be a movie version of Battleship, and also apparently an adaptation of Candyland starring Adam Sandler. Some might see this as a brutally stupid and lazy attempt to exploit the affections of present-day movie-goers for various things from their childhood. And that may be. But as a general rule, whenever American popular culture hits a new low, I think the best strategy is just to go all out with it. In that spirit, I’d like to suggest a few boardgame movie ideas I’d love to see made.

Big “Trouble” in Little Chinese Checkers – An evil Chinese guy turns Kim Catrall into a marble and Kurt Russel has to rescue her with the aid of the legendary Pop-O-Matic Bubble. (Extra points for this movie for getting two in one.)

Wes Andersen’s Sorry! – Being sent back to Start is just a chance to start again. Starring Jason Schwartzmen and Bill Murray as two pieces whose marriage isn’t working, with Owen Wilson as an insecure Advance Three Spaces card. (“How can I tell you where to go when I don’t know where I’m going myself?”)

Connect 4: Salvation – The red pieces and black pieces have been at war for decades, but the red pieces finally come up with a plan to get their enemies diagonally. Can a mysterious stranger help the black pieces stave off defeat? Starring Sam Worthington as a half-red, half-black piece with no memory or acting ability.

Mousetrap – Based on the Agatha Christie play, except the murderer is a lunatic who habitually dives into an empty tub.

Hungry Hungry Hunger Games – “Twelve districts. Four hippos. One survivor.”

Horton Hears a Guess Who? – An elephant thinks he’s discovered a tiny civilization, but identifying their mayor proves trickier than it seems; does he wear glasses or not? Starring Jim Carrey in every role.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mastermind – Can Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet rekindle their tumultuous romance? Only if Jim Carrey can guess which four colored pegs will unlock their memories of one another. Starring Jim Carrey in every role, including Kate Winslet’s.

“Stand Up For America”

By Shawn

Shawn: I have a new short film idea.
Ann: Oh, God…
Shawn: The idea is, FDR goes to complete in the 1936 Olympics so that he can get a chance to assassinate Hitler. I call it: “Stand Up for America.” Get it? It works on a lot of levels. ‘Cause FDR–
Ann: –can’t stand, yes, I got it.
Shawn: I’m thinking that when FDR wins the pole vault competition and Hitler comes over to shake his hand, FDR should spear him through the chest and yell, “Hey Hitler! Looks like there’s nothing to fear but spear itself!”
Ann: You’re really unacceptable.

Confession time. In a fit of whatever the hell it is that makes me do these things, I did draft a screenplay for this. Here’s a sample.

FDR: Members of the cabinet, I have called this meeting today because I wanted to discuss a matter that concerns all of you. Hitler’s Germany grows in power every day, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world suffers the consequences. I propose we stop the threat here and now before it’s too late.

SEC. WAR: Mr. President, the American people won’t support involvement in any European conflict, much less one we initiate!

FDR: I understand that, George. Which is why I’m going to take care of Hitler myself.

SEC. WAR: Mr. President . . . ?

FDR: My plan is to infiltrate the 1936 Olympics. They’re being held in Berlin in exactly one month, and Hitler will personally shake hands with all the gold medalists. That means all I have to do is win first place in the pole vault, and I’ll have a shot at taking him out.

SEC. WAR: Uhh . . . couldn’t we send someone else? Someone whose . . . um . . . legs work?

FDR: No, it has to be me. I couldn’t ask any other man to take that risk.  Which means I need to spend every second of every day between now and then training my body and mind to become the ultimate pole vaulting/killing machine. And you gentlemen are going to help me.

SEC. WAR: But Mr. President, you’ll be recognized! Hitler will see right through you!

FDR: (taking out mustache) Not if I don this clever disguise. With this gigantic mustache, Hitler is sure to take me for an Italian.

It pretty much keeps going downhill from there. This is why it’s important to listen to Ann sometimes.

Five Simple Rules for Making a Movie with Sam Worthington

By Shawn

Sam Worthington is an Australian actor with the personality of a mollusk and the charisma of off-brand toilet paper. Despite this, he’s managed to star in a number of major motion pictures. The most noteworthy are probably Clash of the Titans, Terminator Salvation, and Avatar, in which he plays, respectively, a soldier-guy, a soldier-guy, and a soldier-guy. I have seen all three of these films, and I’ve discovered that there are five simple rules to making a Sam Worthington movie. I will explain them in detail below.

File photo of Sam Worthington, in his role as the blue thing that's going to sky-rape that red thing.

Rule #1: There Has to Be a Battle Between Two Sides, and Sam Worthington Must Be Part Bad Guy, Part Good Guy

A Sam Worthington film, to be a Sam Worthington film, must feature a conflict between two sides, one of which is a sympathetic underdog, and the other of which is a senselessly evil and seemingly omnipotent force whose motives are nonsensical. The twist is, Sam Worthington must somehow belong to both sides, which he will eventually realize in an underwhelming voyage of discovery. That voyage should run roughly as follows.

Sam Worthington: I’m just an everyday Joe. I’d make a pretty unlikely hero, given that I’m an orphan/a criminal/crippled.

Good Guys: Holy shit, adversity!

Sam Worthington: (does something everyday Joes can’t do in the face of adversity)

Sam Worthington: Oh. I guess I’m also a god/robot/magic leader of the blue people.

Good Guys: (suitably impressed)

Rule #2: Everyone Else Must Do the Work of Establishing Sam Worthington’s Character

You can’t make Sam Worthington act. No one can. Maybe because he can’t; maybe because he doesn’t care to. Regardless, it’s necessary for all the other actors to help Sam Worthington establish the character he simply will not on his own. Hence Sam Worthington films must heavily feature dialogue like this.

Other Character: Your parents/loved ones/non-crippled twin brother are dead, Sam Worthington. How does that make you feel?

Sam Worthington: Bad.

Other Character: That sure makes you a compelling protagonist whose struggles are relatable.

Sam Worthington: Maybe.

Other Character: I bet you’re prepared to make many sacrifices over the course of this film.

Sam Worthington: Can’t talk. Staring at a bug.

Rule #3: A Woman Who Should Know Better than to Help Sam Worthington Must Help Sam Worthington

At some point in the film, Sam Worthington must encounter an uninspired, one-dimensional heroine who, in spite of herself, comes to love Sam Worthington. He will win her over with scintillating dialogue like this.

Heroine: Just who exactly are you, Sam Worthington?

Sam Worthington: Dunno.

Heroine: I was initially suspicious of you, but now I think you’re here to help me and the group to which I belong.

Sam Worthington: Maybe.

Heroine: God I love you. Let’s share an awkward sex scene that forces everyone in the audience to look away in embarrassment.

Sam Worthington: Okay.

Despite the fact that the heroine has reason to distrust Sam Worthington, she must wind up helping him, and her assistance will prove critical for whatever dumb thing Sam Worthington is trying to do. He must then crush the heroine’s dreams by getting her killed/getting himself killed/getting her father and her giant tree house killed. You can love Sam Worthington. But you’re gonna pay for it.

Rule #4: The Plot Must Culminate in Sam Worthington Facing a Dramatic “Identity Crisis” that Lasts All of Two Seconds

In the climax of the film, Sam Worthington has to come face to face with a representative of the evil thing with which he partly identifies. This representative will try to tempt him and fail. Example:

Villain: Sam Worthington, you don’t want to help those humans/humans/blue people. Look deep into your heart. You’re really one of us gods/machines/humans! Join us, and together we’ll do something evil for no reason!

Sam Worthington: I dunno.

Villain: Hahaha, you’re tempted, aren’t you Sam Worthington? You’re tempted to help me achieve my senseless objective!

Sam Worthington:No. I’m going to do the opposite of that.

Villain: But—but why?!?

Sam Worthington: My burgeoning love for Representative from Underdog Group.

Villain: Curses! Love! An emotion I do not understand, because I’m a god/a robot/in the military!

Rule #5: The Main Villain’s Plan Must Make No Sense and Have No Room in It for Sam Worthington Doing Predictable Things

Another rule of Sam Worthington films is that the villains must never take into account the simple things Sam Worthington might do to stop them. It should go something like this.

Villain: My plan is perfect. First, I’ll use Sam Worthington to accomplish a goal I could achieve without the convoluted use of Sam Worthington, such as luring my enemy to my headquarters or convincing blue people to die! Second, in the course of doing so, I’ll perfectly position Sam Worthington to thwart me by obvious means! Hahahaha!

Sam Worthington: (does predictable thing)

Villain: Curses and drat! I wasn’t at all prepared for this readily anticipatable setback! Nevertheless, I highly doubt the love Sam Worthington feels for Representative from Underdog Group will give him the strength to triumph over this monster/robot/guy inside a robot!

Sam Worthington: (does)

Villain: Nooooo, my plannnnnssss, my stupid, stupid plllaaaaaannnnssssss…

And there you have it. Now you’re totally prepared to go out and write your own Sam Worthington screenplay. If it’s greenlit, all I ask for is a shout-out. And that you make Sam Worthington something awesome, like half-salmon, half-bear maybe.


Just to get you started, here’s a little sample dialogue for that last movie idea, which I am tentatively entitling, “Clashatar of the Salmon/Bears Salvation.”

Male Protagonist Who Takes Needless Dislike to Sam Worthington But Will Later Respect Him as a Brother: We can’t trust Sam Worthington! He’s part bear! We have to kill him!

Assembled Crowd: (aggressive jeers, rumblings of agreement)

Heroine: Yes, he’s part bear. Which means he’s the only one of us salmon who understands the way they think.

Assembled Crowd: (hushed silence as weight of this sinks in)