My Week in Movies: Sept. 23-29

Copyright Criminals (2010) I went into Copyright Criminals hoping for a healthy debate over the pros and cons of music sampling – or, at the very least, a greater understanding of the reasoning behind a process that at worst is songwriting laziness but at best can create amazing art through inventive collage. However, the film avoids subtlety and focuses entirely on the basic arguments. Sampling is either soulless theft or a modern art form beyond the realm of current copyright law, with the movie mostly siding on the side of the hip-hop and DJ communities. The anti-sampler interviewees are presented as fuddy-duddies who can’t see the beauty of the art form and corporate goons who only see monetary value in demanding compensation for every drum beat used. The pro-sampler crowd, meanwhile, is allowed plenty of leeway, with many flimsy arguments never being challenged. (One proponent fails to see the differences between recording a cover of a song and simply lifting the original recording; another suggests the sheer popularity of the musical genre makes it ethically allowable; many insist sampling an entire, recognizable chunk of a song – say, a famous chorus or instantly recognizable eight-bar riff – should be treated the same as sampling a single one-note sound.) The film also shows too little interest in following up some fascinating statements, such as when one artist states it’s easier to use someone else’s record than it is to record a similar sound or beat, press it to vinyl, and use that – which some artists do, but we never get into that process because the filmmakers would rather move on. The same goes when mentioning the court case involving Biz Markie’s use of “Alone Again (Naturally),” a case which forced major changes in the sampling world, most of which go ignored here, because that, I suppose, would involve a more complex discussion of the issues. The movie does go deep just once, in a piece involving James Brown’s drummer, where it’s lamented that while rights holders get compensated for sampling, the actual musicians who created the drum beat or bass line usually do not. More moments like that, time consuming and rich with complication though they may be, would’ve gone a long way to make Copyright Criminals more compelling as a film and more convincing as an argument.

The Living Daylights (1987) The new James Bond Blu-ray set and upcoming Skyfall have put me in another of my frequent 007 moods. I’m sure I’ll plow through the whole series once I nab those Blus, but for now, it’s a revisit with the Timothy Dalton era on DVD. I’ve had a theory rattling around my brain lately that suggests if not for the Whitaker subplot, The Living Daylights just might’ve been the best Bond movie. As it stands, it’s merely a damn great franchise entry but a little shy of the top tier; the script is cluttered and the story complicated enough without adding Joe Don Baker as a comical arms dealer into the mix. To be fair, the screenplay does elegantly weave all its elements together, and Baker is a blast to watch in the role, but it’s just one character too many, and he’s the most superfluous. (Runner up: a farewell for General Gogol, who fit well into the Roger Moore films but whose presence here isn’t necessary for continuity.) Meanwhile, everything else clicks, and how. The action is brisk and sometimes brutal, the intrigue engaging, the performances rich and exciting. Even the few jokier moments that approach camp (leftovers from the Moore days, I assume) are enjoyable. And, of course, there’s the music, three great songs supporting John Barry’s final – and best – Bond score.

Hotel Transylvania (2012) I’m not going to pretend Mad Monster Party is great by any measure, but at least it’s not lazy, not like Hotel Transylvania, which takes the same classic monster shindig premise and sets out to pummel it into the safest, most familiar, most inoffensive offering imaginable. Any imagination sparked by the nifty visual design is squashed by a screenplay that feels Frankensteined together from seven or eight other, too-similar kid flicks, resulting in a plotless jumble of tired story beats (including “we have to rush to the airport!”, “I’m an overly protective dad!”, “I’m a guy who doesn’t know how to have fun suddenly learning to have fun!”, and even the dreaded “I’m lying to everyone for no sensible reason because we need the scene where everyone finds out I lied and now I have to make everything better!”), underdeveloped characters (when two leads fall in love, we have no reason why other than “um, because?”), and flimsy humor (oh, the fart jokes in this thing). The third act throws us a catchphrase suddenly vital to the story and a completely unexplained – and immediately ignored – “uplifting” moment, as if somebody started a rewrite working back to front only to give up after twenty pages, forgetting to plant the seeds for payoffs which have no reason to arrive. After seeing something as fresh and bold as ParaNorman, it’s depressing to see the year’s second Halloween-y animated film turn out so flat.

Licence to Kill (1989) And back to Dalton Bond. The best Bond movie ever made, at least unless I’m watching On Her Majesty’s Secret Service or Goldeneye or Casino Royale and I want to call one of those the best Bond movie ever made. Licence to Kill falls in a weird zone where it’s the least like the Bond films, in terms of plot and tone, but most like the Bond novels, in terms of brutality. This is a dark picture, Bond at his roughest, but it’s not without its lighter moments (the opening airplane stunts, anything with Q in it, the romantic subplot, Wayne Newton). It’s also packed with some of the franchise’s most impressive stunt work, with the final truck sequence being a mind boggle of practical effects and daredevil insanity. (The truck-on-side-wheels bit gets all the press, but how’s about the plane that flies under a truck on fire that’s jumped off a cliff?) The story is obviously inspired by 1980s pop culture obsessions with drug lords and Miami Vice, but it maintains its 007 sensibilities, filling the plot with plenty of spy trappings, doublecrosses, and other convolutions worthy of a Bond picture. The script also has a personal edge that continues a pattern started in Living Daylights, making Dalton’s Bond a richer, more compelling, and more complex character than we’d seen from Bond in ages.

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