The Best Characters of 2009: Part Six

Charlie Frost


I was a big Irwin Allen fan growing up. The Towering Inferno playing on the local UHF station was just about the best way I could imagine spending a Sunday afternoon. Or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Or The Poseidon Adventure. You would think this would make me an automatic Roland Emmerich fan for all that he’s made the genre his own, but I’d have to go all the way back to Stargate for an example of a movie of his that I enjoy on repeated viewings. I didn’t even bother to go see The Day After Tomorrow (for reasons obvious and non), and I could probably write a lengthy essay on why Godzilla makes my head hurt.

Now that I have this blog, I might just do that, though it would mean actually watching it again. I’m not sure I can hack that. But I digress.

Charlie Frost

Don't look! Quick! Think of a yellow rubber duck!

Anyway! I had some hope for 2012. It had all the appearances of not having any of the baggage of some of his previous films while really capturing something over-the-top epic. For the most part, it paid off. I could’ve done with about 45 minutes trimmed off- here’s where Cameron’s often risky ‘lets cut subplot’ technique would’ve come in handy- and maybe not quite so much strict adherence to genre trope, but it certainly delivers on scale and grandeur.

Part of me is glad he didn’t go cutting subplots, though, as it probably would’ve cost me time with the best character in the film, whackjob Charlie Frost. This is a case where I can honestly say neither writer nor director had anything to do with why I think the character’s great. It falls squarely on the shoulders of Woody Harrelson, and I don’t think the performance would’ve come together as well being played by anyone else.

Frost is all the best parts of Art Bell and some of Bell’s best callers wrapped into a single person. He’s also partially The Truth from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (who was voiced by none other than Peter Fonda). Harrelson’s performance is certainly a stereotype- the movie essentially demands it!- but he’s obviously not treating it as such. He also roams the country in a sweet RV that has, among other things, a self-contained radio station. It’s the kind of setup even Mother from Sneakers would love.

Woody Harrelson plays the paranoid conspiracy theorist with a crazed lust for the surreal out of all proportion with what’s around him. The results are some of the most entertaining moments of the movie, and I was genuinely sad when his time on screen was done.

The Best Characters of 2009: Part Five

Back to the movies. I wanted to get this one in before the week ended, and before we get too far from the implausible ending of this year’s Golden Globes.

Sgt. Matt Thompson


This is a tough one. Not because it’s going to be difficult to express my opinion on the matter, but because Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is an embarrassment of riches. I could populate half of this list with characters from this movie and walk away feeling justified. That wouldn’t be any fun, though, and Janice would probably kill me if I don’t leave her a space to eventually write down her own thoughts about Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of SSgt. William James.

"C'mon, it's my dick."

Luckily, there was one aspect of the film that, after several viewings and some time to let it all sink in, really stood out to me. Guy Pearce plays Sgt. Matt Thompson, the nominal leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team stationed in Iraq in 2004. These are the guys defusing roadside bombs, a job that’s equal parts mundane and high tension. It’s the polar opposite of the love affair the American Action Film has with the Navy SEALs, a role perfected by Michael Biehn (and I say this out of love, Navy SEALs being one of my cherished guilty pleasures).

What does Guy Pearce do here that’s so amazing? It’s not like any of the press about the movie has focused on him. It’s a sensation I can relate to, working in VFX. When you do your job well, no one notices. His character quietly and expertly establishes the groundwork for the entire movie. He shows what he does, what his team does, and how they interact with each other. He establishes the mindset of the job, then sets a solid granite bedrock of expectations for the audience that SSgt. James later comes in and dances on.

Emphasis on ‘shows,’ too; much to Mark Boal’s credit, there’s barely a lick of exposition in the scene Pearce is in. He’s got maybe 15 lines of dialog, one of which is making a snarky reply about the one line of obvious exposition that is in the scene. By the time he’s done, not only is he a fully-fleshed character, he’s also shown us everything we need to know to understand the rest of the film.

And he does all of this in 8 minutes. You barely hear about him again for the rest of the film, but his actions define the rest of the tale. The sureness of execution only becomes more astonishing in subsequent viewings. That scene can just about stand on its own as a short film- indeed, in the promotional push before the limited release, they did just that, releasing almost all of it as a preview.

Keeping all that in mind, I am perplexed at The Hurt Locker‘s loss at the Golden Globes. Avatar is a lot of things, but it’s not the best film of the year when compared to work like this. I fear a similar fate at the Oscars, but I can at least hold out hope that all the attention will bolster Kathryn Bigelow’s career and allow her to continue making great films about great characters.

And maybe I’ll finally get a copy of Strange Days on blu-ray in the process. One can dream.

The Best Characters of 2009: Part Four

This list is certainly movie-heavy, so let’s look at one of the comic characters that really stuck out in my mind.

Archibald

kyeh kyeh kyeh!

When I started working in VFX, I spent a lot of time on the night shift. It was the nature of the beast back when actual film was still a major part of the process. Work had broadband internet long before I had it at home, though, so I always had something readily available during those long nights of watching numbers tick by. This was during the heyday of UFO and conspiracy websites, thanks to the popularity of X-Files. It wasn’t as easy back then to tell reputable sites from a crackpot GeoCities page, and as such the entire affair had a patina of plausibility. Put a little Art Bell on in the background, and it made for many a night’s entertainment.

I think I knew the party was over when Robert Patrick replaced David Duchovny, which is a shame because I like Robert Patrick, and I hate to have the death of a pastime forever tied to him. It wasn’t long before Art was retiring from radio every 6 months and you could hear more about the drama of his personal life than the drama of his callers. I’ll do the occasional google trawl on the old topics; MAJESTIC-12, Bob Lazar, Aurora. It’s diverting for a while, but it’s just not the same now.

All those nights on the web honed my observational skills, though, so as I walked down the new comics rack last March, I wasn’t surprised that I instantly twigged to the cover of IDW’s Groom Lake(written by Chris Ryall and art by Ben Templesmith). I’m easy when it comes to taking a risk on a comic. If you can sell me on one thing, be it good art, a name I know attached to something new, or even just an interesting premise, I’ll probably bite. (This occasionally draws interesting reactions from Janice, who’s my firewall for such impulses. My penchant for pretty art can usually be put down with a quick “Oh, god, not that writer.”)

When I flipped through Groom Lake, reading random panels to get a sense of it, Archibald sold me– every out-of-context action made me giggle out loud. He’s a captive Grey alien with a penchant for novelty t-shirts, human genitalia, and smoking three or four cigarettes at once, sort of an R-rated Invader Zim. Templesmith’s habit of drawing him in trucker hats for cover art didn’t hurt, either. Much like Steve from Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, when Archibald talks, it doesn’t seem like he’s saying much, or making much sense, but he’s more consistently on-point than most of the other characters in the series.

I can’t call Archibald a moral compass, unlike Steve, because his motivations basically come down to “chocolate” and “the desire to watch humans copulate in new and interesting locales (that aren’t Area 51’s underground base).” He’s endearing all the same, and he earns a spot on this list for not only getting me to buy all four issues of the series, but for making me downright giddy every time a new one appeared in the store.

The Best Characters of 2009: Part Three

Christopher Johnson


Prawn of the Year

Contrary to what you might think, working in visual effects since 1996 hasn’t ruined the movies for me. As far back as grade school, I had a basic understanding of how the magic worked, and I’ve generally been able to partition that knowledge away from my enjoyment of the end results. The only place it breaks is when the craft is bad; even then, I can give it a pass if storytelling redeems the effcts, at least until I hit the parking lot.

While I was watching District 9, probably right when the second act is giving way to the third, I had an epiphany. I realized, at the risk of summoning the dread ghost of Warren Ellis, that I was witnessing a sort of VFX-geek Singularity. It’s a moment a lot of people sitting in front of a lot of computers for a lot of years have been working towards.

I hadn’t just suddenly stopped thinking of Christopher Johnson, the movie’s alien co-protagonist, as a CGI construct. In that moment of minor awe, sitting in the dark, I came to the realization that I’d never thought of him as an effect. He was, to me, just another character, and the character I came away liking the most to boot. There’s not even a voice actor to take credit, given the way the alien language works– there’s just that model, and the artists behind it, creating the entire performance.

There’s a sequence in the movie where Christopher and Wikus (Sharlto Copley) have to work together to advance their separate goals. It comes off, if you take it out of context, as an oddball buddy cop story, a human and his bug-like, clicking partner. A well made sequel of a buddy cop movie, even, where the audience is already familiar with the characters, the characters are comfortable with each other, and you can just sit back and enjoy watching it all work. If only all human actors were so immediately engaging and memorable as the ones we cook up in the lab.

The Best Characters of 2009: Part Two

Here’s part two, and nothing to spoil this time. Enjoy!

Steve


Yellow!

Let me make one thing clear right up front. Had this been any other year, I would be sitting here telling you about how awesome Dug was in Pixar’s Up. Don’t get me wrong, he is. “It is funny because the squirrel is dead” is now shorthand around Department H for ’ha ha only serious.’

Up is also a wonderful movie- certainly one of Pixar’s finest- but Sony’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is refreshingly easy to watch. It’s wacky from end to end, the entire cast is great, and there’s not a single ironic bone in its narrative body. There’s no clumsy pop culture references that won’t make any sense in 10 years. It’s just a lot of fun.

Steve, Flint Lockwood’s talking monkey companion, is the movie’s id. This is a pretty mean feat for a movie that is 99% id, 1% ego, and only trace amounts of super-ego. Steve is somehow the film’s comic relief, even though it never really stops being funny. He’s also Flint’s unintentional moral compass, a Jiminy Cricket with aphasia and impulse control problems. In many cases he is the narrator, the flashing applause/laughter/cheer light for the live studio audience (“Excited! Excited!”). And he’s mad crazy for Gummi Bears.

Throw in that he’s voiced by the talented Neil Patrick Harris, and you’ve got the perfect comic foil. He’s got maybe 15-20 words total, and they’re mixed down to where you can barely make out that it’s Harris at all. That’s part of the joke, though, much like George Clooney’s performance of Sparky in South Park. Sony’s missing the boat if they don’t produce a Steve short to run in front of their next animated feature. If they can keep making movies like this, I’ll be there to see them.

The Best Characters of 2009: Part One

We saw a lot of movies in 2009. It was the first year in a while where we managed to make it to 99% of the movies we wanted to see. Ironically, working in movies sometimes makes actually going to the movies a pain in the ass. We persevered, though, and what a year for going to the movies. For the most part, anyway. We read a lot of comics, too, as can be evidenced by the minor explosion of bags, boards, and comic boxes currently residing in my living room.

Considering this at the turn of the new year, Janice suggested I write up my 10-ish favorite characters of the year. It was, in fact, one of many motivating factors to setting up the blog in the first place. I’ll drive myself nuts trying to assemble one shambling 4,000 word post, so I’m going to spread the fun into bite sized chunks.

One word of warning: There might be spoilers. I’m going to try not to, but some characters, including the one I’m starting with (hint, hint), are hard to talk about without involving their entire character arc. I’ll do my best to forewarn when I do so.

Onward!

Nero


I'm running away with your wife

Ahhh, Star Trek. A movie both Janice and I were convinced was going to be awful while we were working on it that then turned out to be awesome. There are many great things about it and it’s filled with great characters. Karl Urban’s Bones tickled me especially, so perfect was his balancing act of bringing himself to the character while still staying faithful to the original.

Nero, though. Here’s the one player who we don’t know, who we don’t have any expectations from. Furthermore, he’s the catalyst, the driving force that gets us from the old to the new, and the chaotic ying to the yang of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock Prime. He’s got a hard job here. He’s got to be threatening enough to put all this in motion, but not so overwhelming that he drowns out the other players. He can’t be Montalban, not when we have to be utterly and completely sold on the shell game that is making the audience accept the new cast.  To paraphrase Rusty in the 2001 Ocean’s Eleven, we’ve got to hate him and then forget him the moment he’s sucked into an artificial black hole. He’s got to be a whackjob, but not so memorable that geeks are quoting him instead of Zachary Quinto in 20 years.

“Hi Christopher, I’m Nero.”

Eric Bana attacks the role with gusto. He drives Nero from the creepily nonchalant line quoted above to Jeff Bridges-as-Obadiah Stane spittle-slinging levels of psychotic raving, and Nero moves us merrily along to his ultimate doom. Once he’s gone, he no longer matters, and our seat-filling butts are on board with the revised crew of the USS Enterprise. I could argue that it could’ve been anyone, any random player running any random character, and that might be so. But Nero owns his fate, both onscreen and off, and I don’t think we would have come out of last summer loving the ride so much otherwise.

(As an aside, I picked this specific picture because a) it’s a decent picture and b) it’s the single remaining shot of an entire sequence that haunted Janice’s nightmares during post production. Many weeks were spent going over Eric Bana’s naked, sweaty, lens flare-enhanced head and torso pixel-by-pixel, all for naught, though you can see it in the deleted scenes on the DVD/BRD.)