Summer Movies: What Happened to Happy?

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

I love dark, complex movies.  I’m a big fan of cable TV anti heroes.  I think hiring Bryan Singer, the director of that clever little drama The Usual Suspects to direct the big budget superhero movie The X-Men was a masterstroke, and popcorn movies have been the better for it since then.

And yet.

While I’ll always love The Dark Knight trilogy and all the other descendants of the mutants, two movies this year have made me quite mad (and sad) by going super-dark (death of a main character) in what was otherwise a very fun, pretty light ‘good time’.

‘Good times’ used to be what summer movies were all about.  They were somewhat brainless (as a whole) and their characters usually lacking, but the whole idea was to pull yourself out of the heat for a couple of hours (that’s two, modern directors, just 120 minutes please) munch of some fun snacks, watch things blow up, and generally not think too hard.  To me the quintessential summer movies were the back-to-back years of Will Smith — Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997).  Fun, sweet, and giving you no reason in the world to cry.  Oh, Mad Men it was not, but then, Mad Men hadn’t been invented yet.

Then in 2000 The X-Men came along.  Along with The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The X-Men helped swing the pendulum back toward quality, director-driven action and adventure movies, like those of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and away from the increasingly dumbed-down cops-running-with-guns-towards-aliens cinema of the late 80s and 90s.

The other things these two early 2000s film ushered in was a massive resurgence in fantasy.  Aliens had been big, but now anything under the sun was possible, from frying someone with a lightening bolt to using one ring to rule them all.  And in the hands of a new generation of indie film artiste, these movies (largely) were the best of both worlds — big beautiful spectacle with a surprisingly satisfying, very human center.

Now though, I wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung too far.  Directors are now pushing the ‘realism’  of life into summer movies not just by having flawed characters and complex situations, but by actually, actively seeking to make their audiences sad and possibility heartbroken.  There’s a great piece of writing advice (I wish I could remember who said it) that goes — ‘You can tell the reader the world is good or that the world is bad, but not that the world is shit.’  To me, this means you can look at the mud or the stars, and you can show corruption and death and sorrow, but within an ethos, within a frame.  The feeling should be that even if this character’s life has gone terribly wrong, somewhere out there, someone is still having a good life.

The ‘Life is shit’ mentality sort of shows that all always comes to naught, good deeds are always rewarded with unjust desserts, and everything we love always dies.  And I feel these happy, popcorn movies, are starting to be more about pain and loss than about fun and adventure.  I’m all for dark dramas that leave you spent and shaking, wiping tears from your eyes.

Requiem For a Dream — don’t go into this one expecting a lot of laughs

But with movies that are sold (in their advertising) as fun, light, or family-friendly, I don’t expect to need to use my popcorn bucket to catch my tears.  Exceptions are when an entire movie hinges on a death, say The Lion King, though that film’s message is certainly not ‘Life is shit’.  The Dark Knight movies were sold as adult tales and everything in their aesthetic told us that death and loss could be part of the package.  Now, they weren’t ‘feel-good’ movies, but never promised they would be.

Perhaps to me that’s the greater sin — not the sadness and death, but the unexpected nature of it.  In both of the movies that disappointed me this year, I had thought earlier in the films ‘This is the best movie ever! (or at least for the year).”  They were funny, light-hearted, clever, romantic, and exciting — and then they both did unforgivable things.  The ‘Life is shit’ option.  Oh, sometimes life is shit, people die, and there isn’t always a happy ending (at least for a while).  But isn’t that more of an exploration for a drama to cover?

The thing is, these disappointments weren’t just good movies, they were potentially great movies.  And for some people, they are great still.  But for me and a lot of others, we won’t be able to enjoy them as fully as we’d hoped.  When Diane Disney, Walt’s little daughter saw Bambi for the first time, she was upset by the death of Bambi’s mother.  Walt told her that was just what happened in the story.  “No Daddy,” she said, “You could have made her live.”

In the end, great power does come with great responsibility.  Dark storytelling brings a level of reality to fantastical summer fare and summer films return the favor by bringing popularity and high stakes to human drama.  But for this writer, I just keep thinking ‘You could have made them live’.

The Prisoner of Azkaban — dark done right. Thanks Alfonso Cuarón!

 

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A Writer’s ‘Most Enjoyable’ TV Shows List

I put the question of this ‘top ten’ to my sister, with the stipulation of ‘most enjoyable’.  The reason was not to exclude hard-to-watch dramas but rather to alleviate the fears that one would have in creating a BEST list.  So this is really about my favorites, not the ones I believe should be on display in the Smithsonian or that we should force schoolchildren to watch.

WARNING: Tiny spoilers within.

And so without further ado —

The Nominees

(basically shows I’d seen at least one season of and could imagine making it into the top ten)

Parks and Rec

The Sarah Conner Chronicles

30 Rock

Quantum Leap

Royal Pains

Simpsons

X-Files

Justified

Deadwood

Glee

The Vampire Diaries

Nip/Tuck

The West Wing

True Blood

Boardwalk Empire

The Glee Project

Spongebob Squarepants

American Dad

Family Guy

Rocky & Bullwinkle

Being Human

House

Life on Mars (UK)

Life on Mars (US)

Sherlock (Granada)

Sherlock (BBC)

Doctor Who

Mad Men

Walking Dead

Breaking Bad

South Park

Lost

Firefly

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer

My So-Called Life

24

Freaks and Geeks

Coupling (BBC)

American Horror Story

Girls

And now, the WINNERS —

No. 15 —Mad Men

Mad Men has been a giant influence for years now, from the amazing characters like Peggy, Don, and Pete, to its beautiful, restrained look at a bygone era.  Its only not higher on my list because it’s become too restrained for my case — I just want to have my favorite characters in the same room talking about things that matter and yes, I’ve watched for hours waiting for Pete and Peggy to talk to each other.

No. 14 — Justified

An odd choice, since I’ve only seen the first two seasons so far, but the quality of dialogue and the acting is transfixing.  “I don’t think of myself as an angry man.”  “Raylan, you’re the angriest man I’ve ever known.”  Shivers.

No. 13 — Nip/Tuck

Now with this one, I’ve only seen the first few seasons but I’ll never forget them.  This show is classic Ryan Murphy — funny, daring, heartfelt, cold, warm, and with lines and characters you can’t stop thinking about.  Other Murphy shows just missed the cut.  Christian is a character for the ages, and the way he’s subverted by his experiences makes you rethink human nature.  He’s a bit like a Damon Salvatore as explored by Ryan Murphy — to which I say ‘Oh hell yes!’

No. 12 — Life on Mars (UK)

This is one of those perfect series, a phrase that you rarely hear on TV.  The American version was good too — but this one’s great.  This is another era done right; its version of the ‘70s is letting it all hang out, with the clothes and lingo taking a back seat to the sexism, racism, and the police’s occasional brutality.  But at the heart of all that is a hero who wants to get home and wants to discover the childhood (and father) he never really had.  Heartbreaking and awesome — can you dig it?

No. 11 — Sherlock (BBC)

Another near-perfect series.  I had my doubts about this one (and had always only been a light Sherlock Holmes fan) and yet it’s been fantastic, shaking the source material up and turning two of our best British actors loose to charm the pants off the audience.  The creators said they only do three episodes every few years because they want to only have the highest quality of writing — and it shows.

Sherlock Holmes: Punch me in the face!

Dr. John Watson: Punch you?

Sherlock Holmes: Yes, punch me in the face! Didn’t you hear me?

Dr. John Watson: I always hear “Punch me in the face” when you’re speaking but it’s usually subtext.

No. 10 — Doctor Who

Doctor Who is the ‘It’s so fluffy!’ line from Despicable Me turned into a series: you simply can’t deny that much excitement, passion, and joy.  It makes you glad such things exist in the world.  And yet it has a profound heart, and a real understanding of humanity that makes this such a long-running favorite.  The Doctor loves the human race in a way we ourselves often can’t, and yet at the end of the day he must stand apart from the things he loves.  Also, probably the best idea ever for a TV show.

No. 9 — Lost

This is my love it/hate it entry.  The series went on a bit long, I abhorred ‘sideways world’ and yet . . .  Great writing makes me say, “Oh!  I’m so jealous — I wish I’d written that!” And I went around all the time I was watching seasons 2 and 3 thinking that.  It wasn’t perfect, but man, it was on SO much of the time, and it brought adventure and mystery to the small screen in a way I’d never seen before or since.

No. 8 — The West Wing

I just started watching this show this year and it’s already made the top ten.  I mean, come on!  How couldn’t it?  It’s Lincoln meets The Social Network.  The characters (and actors) are some of the best ever put together (and they are so often together, in the same room talking about important things).  And the story lines make you remember what HBO made you forget: that great dramas don’t need violence and sex to have truly great drama.  This show has actually made me a better person who cares more about her world.

No. 7 — Spongebob Squarepants

‘Who lives in a pineapple under the sea?’ And so starts some of the funniest, sharpest writing anywhere on TV (I recommend seasons 2 and 3 for maximum laughs).  Spongebob must be a spiritual sibling to the Doctor, because they both live life to the fullest.  The number of quotes that are still spoken daily by me attests to its staying power.  “I’m ready!  I’m ready!’

No. 6 — My So-Called Life

This show was a couple of spots higher and I had to move it closer to number one.  I had heard about it for years and figured I’d like it, but it was just such a perfect dream of character, identity, growing up, and remaining a child that I liked it even more than I thought I would.  And that last scene with Brian — wow — it pretty much influences me (and my writing of Fall Street) to this day.

No. 5 — Firefly

This is the perfect Joss Whedon show in my mind (I’ve only seen one season of Buffy so that might change).  It has it all — super original characters, a great setting, well plotted episodes, and the best funny dialogue written possibly ever.  Come for the charming captain, and stay for his shiny crew.

No. 4 — The Vampire Diaries

I know, I know.  Believe me, I get it.  For a long, long time I never watched a Vampire Diaries even though I like Jane Austin, romantic comedies, and supernatural stories.  I figured it would be vapid, dumb, cruel, and just about guys walking around with their shirts off all the time.  On top of that, I hadn’t thought Ian Somerhalder was that great on ‘Lost’, so who would want to see him as a lead?  How wrong I was.  The Vampire Diaries turned out to be a perfectly plotted show which teases you AND builds over each season.  It is that rarest network show that is going somewhere with its lead characters.  And Elena is a Harry Potter not a Bella and her friends and family mean everything to her.  And Ian?  He blows the doors off the place as Damon and makes him one of the most compelling, most misunderstood anti-heroes in modern television.  Even if he does walk around with his shirt off a lot.

No. 3 — The Simpsons

I did a list like this many years ago and The Simpsons was number one — it says a lot that I watch it much less now and yet it still looms so large.  The show would win awards from me based only on the volume of great TV it’s given — the sheer number of lines, gags, and firsts make it the great elder statesman of today’s cartoon families.  Don’t like The Simpsons?  “Release the hounds!”

No.2 — Deadwood

Some people started with the Sopranos or OZ as their gateway drug into cable drama.  For me, it was Deadwood.  I knew it as ‘That show that won awards and everyone was always cursing’.  Then I sat down with the first season DVD and was awestruck — this was TV, not as I’d grown up with it (TV comedies and stalwart 10:00 pm dramas), but exciting, masterful, and so funny.  Not every story line later on was a winner, yet still, taken together I never saw a world like Deadwood, SD, and never again have met people like Al, Jane, or Trixie.

No. 1 — True Blood

Once upon a time all I knew of Alan Ball was American Beauty and all I knew of the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries was their bright, cartoony covers on book shelves.  Then all that changed.  Bon Temps and its residents came into my heart full force and the romance, humor, humanity, and magic of the place can never be forgotten.  When I watch True Blood (I’ve only seen through season 4) I see so many great things that I want to learn to do in my own stories — and having a kick-butt heroine like Sookie is at the top of the list.

It’s worth clicking on to read it 😉