Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.

16Dec/160

A Slightly Longer Time Ago…

"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." says the familiar graphic, and then we're back in the Star Wars galaxy. Everything feels a bit different, except nothing has changed.

I have no interest in spoiling Rogue One for you--that's the full on-screen title--because its pleasures deserve to be discovered in situ. What I will say is we know the plot already, for the most part, assuming we've seen a heist film like Ocean's Eleven or a Mission Impossible before. That's not where the special treats lie. Rather, this is a basket of Easter eggs for fans both casual and obsessive. We're talking deep, old-school geekery here.

The movie has two flaws, both of which are significant but neither of which are utterly damning. One is the repeated use, dare I say overuse, of cameos from the Holy Trilogy of 1977-1983. ILM deploys cutting-edge effects wizardry to make this happen, and it works more often than not. Still, I bet there will be at least one occasion, perhaps in Jedha City, when you find yourself wondering, "Was that callback really necessary?" The other flaw, at least as many viewers will perceive it, is the pacing of the first hour. I should point out the original Star Wars is paced rather slowly in its own first hour, more like a Western than an action movie, but The Empire Strikes Back accelerated the pace to a clip seen as impatient by critics of its day but expected by popcorn blockbuster audiences now. Let's be gracious and call the pace of Rogue One's first two acts "leisurely."

I don't want to mince words here: The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite movie of all time. I couldn't tell you how many times I've watched it, but I can promise you that number will go up. Empire expanded on its fairy-tale predecessor by enriching the dialogue, finessing the cinematography, and upping the stakes for its characters. At the age of 12, I perceived the movie as more "grown-up" than "A New Hope." And when Return of the Jedi was released three years later, I loved it, of course, but recognized it as a retreat to Toys 'R' Us immaturity. In The Force Awakens, cowriter-director J. J. Abrams nailed Star Wars' wide-eyed innocence. Rogue One steps deep into Empire's moral complexity and more stylized cinematography. You might expect, then, that I enjoyed Rogue One even more than the giddy degree to which I loved The Force Awakens, but that wasn't the case. Both films are deeply entertaining, but I suspect I'll rewatch The Force Awakens more often. You may disagree, but I found Rogue One rewarding, exciting and tense without always being...well...fun.

It's a war movie. People get killed. Actually, a lot of people (including nonhuman people) get killed, though I don't recall a single drop of blood. The good guys don't always hold the moral high ground. The baddies are at times sympathetic. I admire that. Is that Star Wars? Is it a family film? I don't know. I suspect we'll be debating that for years.

Because the rest of Rogue One is so Star Wars! If you love this stuff at all, the last half hour will make you wriggle in your seat. I heard grown men gasp and commend the action on the screen. (True confession: I was one of them.) The last word of dialogue and crash to end credits earned a round of enthusiastic applause. Online chatter from critics and fans alike would have us believe Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie since 1980; I'm afraid I can't go that far, but it is very, very good, in exactly the Empire vein adult fans have been craving. I don't think there's any denying this is a better film all over than Return of the Jedi. Without all the clumsy fumbling of Episode III's final minutes, Rogue One transitions perfectly into Episode IV--so neatly, in fact, that the Holy Trilogy can now be said to comprise four films.

There are three characters at least that you'll fall in love with, including protagonist Jyn Erso (played impeccably by Felicity Jones). Rogue One's scale and spectacle are jaw-dropping, its action scenes tense and geographically clear. I'll happily buy it on video and pore through every arcane bonus feature. It seems clearer than ever that Star Wars is in good hands at Disney's Lucasfilm, respectful of fans but eager to please the movie masses. Grade: A-.

Now bring on Episode VIII !

Print This Post Print This Post
24Dec/151

There Has Been an Awakening

Have you felt it? I ask because there's a good chance you haven't yet. IMAX screenings have been sold out since Thursday, and some folks hate standing in line or dealing with crowds even if tickets are available. Some people have, I don't know, other obligations. In any case, about half my friends still haven't seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even friends who really want to, so I will tell you right now there will be a point in this update where I throw up a huge spoiler warning. If you don't want to be spoiled, you'll be safe reading up to that point, but then all bets are off. You have to be strong here! Turn away when I tell you to! You've done it for a week, so I know you can handle it now.

First, my non-spoiler thoughts. In the months leading up to The Force Awakens, any number of fellow geeks asked me if I thought it'd be good. It made me realize we have to be very clear on what constitutes a good Star Wars movie. There are people for whom Star Wars is inextricably linked with the best parts of their childhood. They still haven't forgiven George Lucas for releasing three kids' movies bearing the Star Wars label after those poor fans grew up. Of course Jar Jar is silly. So was C-3PO. So is the whole concept of the saga, for Pete's sake. It's well documented that Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon serial, but was unable to get the rights. Instead, he mashed up Dune and the Lensman series with old Westerns and Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. It's as simple and brilliant as that. The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite movie and probably always will be, but it still includes phrases like "scruffy-looking nerf herder" and "alluvial dampers." (Is there a problem with the flow of river soil in the Millennium Falcon? How would people in a galaxy far, far away know what a falcon was anyway?) We have to accept that part of Star Wars's essential charm is it's for the kid in all of us. Don't be surprised or put off when it seems a bit childish. No one's claiming this is Shakespeare. So if it sounds like I'm willing to overlook a bit of childishness in The Force Awakens, I am. J.J. Abrams and company make no secret of the fact that they were aware of and trying to duplicate the "goofiness" (their word) of the Original Trilogy. I don't mind it; if you do, however, I can't really argue with you. The point is, it's unfair to demand that The Force Awakens be as good as your favorite movie of all time. No storyteller can simply decide to make a classic. It doesn't work that way. You can only aspire to please most of the people most of the time, and then hope for the best.

See, it's like I've been saying about Star Wars for the last year: everything people say about Star Wars is true. It really is that bad, and it really is that good. I'm on record as saying I don't think much of Return of the Jedi as a movie. People blame the late '90s "Special Editions" for mucking it up, but it was never very good. As my sister observed during a recent viewing, it doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be or whom its primary audience is. The plot is a beat-for-beat outline of the first Star Wars (later tagged A New Hope), but with a flippant air of what-the-hell-ever. There are great moments, of course, which is why we still watch Return of the Jedi all these years later, but as a whole I find it comparable to the much-derided Episode I. So believe me when I say if you find fault with The Force Awakens, that fault was in the Star Wars saga all along.

Just as Jurassic World was a beat-for-beat homage to Jurassic Park and Creed was a beat-for-beat retelling of Rocky, The Force Awakens hangs on the outline of an Original Trilogy Star Wars film. Certain things you expect to happen will happen. But y'know what? There's a reason for that. Lucas likes to say his episodes "rhyme." For years I thought of that as an excuse for unimaginative writing. Now I view things a bit differently. A Star Wars movie is not just, or even primarily, a movie. It's a social event, like a holiday. When you wake up Christmas morning, don't you have a set list of moments and activities you demand every year? Have you ever said "it wouldn't be Christmas without" them? I do, and I wasn't even raised celebrating Christmas. So when certain things happen in Episode VII, they happen because it wouldn't be Star Wars without them. I'm not saying they're good or bad. I'm saying they're part of the ritual. Abrams knows that ritual, and he follows it to the letter. To an adult, does it seem unimaginative? Yes, at times, but I also wouldn't have it any other way. Now that we're back in the flow of the story, it'll be up to Rian Johnson, the director of Episode VIII, to take more interesting narrative risks.

In short, as I watched The Force Awakens, my heart lifted. I flew along with the Falcon. I adore the new characters, especially Rey. I love the fact that she needs friends, not saving. She never whines. She never complains. She just gets her stuff done, and it's everyone else's tough luck if they can't keep up. I think Kylo Ren is a more interesting antagonist in some ways than Vader. BB-8 is a star on arrival. And let's not forget, we've known of these characters for a year now. It's easy to forget this over time, but writing new characters is hard. Abrams and his cowriters, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, deserve a galaxy of credit for what they've accomplished here. As you weigh the pluses and minuses of the new film, don't gloss over how amazing those characters are just because we got used to them months ago. They're one of the two best things about the new movie.

The other is this. As I came out of our Thursday night screening, I passed a friend going in. I told him he'd love it. "It does many things well," I said, "but what it does best is make you rabid for Episode VIII." And that's the truth. They should've allowed us to buy tickets as we walked out. I'd have reserved the whole theater. Folks who resent cliffhangers can rest easy; this episode tells a complete tale. But it also finds a closing note that promises vaster adventures to come, and that is also a very high tightrope to walk.

Now.

Here we go. It's spoiler time.

Did you hear me? I said it's

SPOILER TIME.

If you don't want to read details of a movie you haven't seen, this is your cue to hit the back button and get the hell out of Mos Eisley.

Okay.

You've been warned.

So here are things I didn't like about the movie. Did we really need not one but two instances of "we've got company?" Is there any bigger cliché in modern screenwriting? It was probably overdone back when A New Hope used it in '77, let alone now. How many people had eyes on this script before Abrams shot it? Was it not glaringly obvious in the editing bay that they'd used the same line twice? It's indefensible. I mean that. There's no way anyone can tell me that wasn't a blunder. I know it's minutiae, but Star Wars doesn't have minutiae. We fans memorize each line over the years. We kind of need them not to match so damn often. I'll allow, even encourage, another recitation of "I have a bad feeling about this," but "company" just plain has to go.

I wish I'd felt more after the major third-act development. The movie telegraphs its haymaker, then blows past it without the funerary grief other such moments have been granted. Leia frowns; Chewie goes kill crazy. That's about it. It's never even mentioned again. We've loved this character since we were kids, J.J. He deserved better. I don't mind the way he died or who killed him or why; I hate the short shrift the emotions of that moment were given in the context of the movie. My friend Eric told me he was genuinely hurt when that character passed. It was like he'd lost a well-liked family member. Others have told me the same. I think The Force Awakens will be remembered for a long time, and not fondly, as the episode that pulled its biggest gut punch. What a missed opportunity. I cried hard at a similar development in Creed. I shed nary a tear for the death of one of my all-time favorite literary characters. That, too, is pretty hard to forgive.

I realize the Millennium Falcon is a tough old bird, but can it really be bounced around like two drunks playing Frisbee? Especially when the shields aren't even on? My friend Michael complained that you can't fly the Falcon on its side because "that's not how repulsorlifts work." While I get that, I would also point out that repulsorlifts don't work. Much like the Falcon's hyperdrive or, I don't know, alluvial dampers, they're magical objects. They can do whatever the movie needs them to. I can think of plenty of other times the Falcon has been flown on its side; and besides, I've seen The Force Awakens twice and both times the audience went bananas when the Falcon took off.

I've read complaints that Rey is a type of fictional (originally, fan-fictional) character called a "Mary Sue," essentially an author's wish-fulfillment persona presented as a female character with a superhuman range of abilities. Look, no one complained when an archaeology professor suddenly knew how to fly a plane. No one gripes when Bruce Wayne is both a master criminologist and a martial artist, all while running a multinational corporation. Superheroes are part of how we tell stories, and they have been for millennia. Rey's a kick-ass character who also happens to be female, and God love her! I'm beyond thrilled that this new Star Wars trilogy centers around a female orphan and a black ex-stormtrooper. That's fantastic. It's as good as it can be. It means so much for kids growing up right now. I resent any effort to minimize how wonderful it is, so let's just take a moment to celebrate every proud little girl who lugs her Rey and Finn lunchbox to school.

Others have complained that, as with Abrams's 2009 Star Trek reboot, the entire plot of The Force Awakens hinges on galactic-scale coincidences. Yes. It clearly does. Also, in the Original Trilogy, our hero, a foster child on a desert planet deep in the Outer Rim, turns out to be the son of the worst guy in space, the very guy he's been fighting all along. Oh, and a princess and senator from an entirely different planet turns out to be his sister. And the weirdo living two canyons away turns out to be his father's former best friend. So who are we kidding here? The Star Wars universe is one of those fantasy realms (like certain religions I could name) in which it's assumed there is no such thing, really, as a coincidence.

In Episode VII we visit a desert planet, a jungle planet, and an ice world. Sound familiar? One of my favorite moments in the prequel trilogy was that Order 66 montage in Epsiode III, in which we visit a variety of diverse planets like the psychedelically glow-in-the-dark Felucia. The Force Awakens stayed true to Star Wars's roots by presenting environments you could locate on Earth. Even the closing moments, on a craggy island bluff, are clearly in Ireland. I didn't mind that, but I would like to see more inventiveness in upcoming installments. I've been looking through The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Phil Szostak, and it's obvious the designers are capable of grander ideas.

All in all I found The Force Awakens a joyous return to form for the series. In some ways it's my third-favorite Star Wars movie. In fact, we can all but ignore the prequels now. New viewers should regard the prequels as this saga's equivalent of Tolkien's Silmarillion, an ancillary backstory you don't need to experience unless you feel driven to. I can't wait to see what awaits us in years to come, and how great is it that we only have to wait a mere year and a half for Episode VIII? Don't forget, the standalone film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story arrives even sooner, less than a year from now. I'm rooting for new heroes and intrigued by the return of Luke Skywalker. I suspect all the box office records this movie is setting will shatter in May of 2017. (Incidentally, let's take a moment to consider the fact that Episode VIII comes out only three weeks after Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2. What a month!) I'll be seeing The Force Awakens again tonight, and I'm looking forward to it just as rabidly as I awaited last week's premiere night. I love watching people my age introduce their kids to a saga they adore. Star Wars has become part of America's positive impact on the world. The advent of a new trilogy is a holiday we all share. So Merry Christmas, my friends, and may the Force be with all of you.

Print This Post Print This Post
17Nov/150

Home

My work for the educational game company has been delayed for a day by minor pipeline issues, and I'm fielding additional emails before penning a Weekly Volcano Gift Guide story. That leaves me with unexpected time on my hands. I decided to use this time to write about something I love. This has been a month of things I hate, frankly, with school shootings and Russian Metrojet Airbus bombings and a series of attacks on the city I love most in the world, Paris. On the other hand, it's also been a time of promising changes for my wife and me, as she starts an amazing new job and I extend my daytime contract into game testing and final revisions. We've had our first read-through on The Credeaux Canvas, a play I'm directing as a labor of love for next March, and we'll block the show tonight and next Monday so our actors can memorize their roles over the holidays. Some nights my wife and I are tired and upset beyond words, not at each other, but at a world where bullets tear through French restaurants and our "leaders" are actually, can you freaking believe this, debating whether or not to take in Syrians fleeing for their very lives from our mutual murderers, Daesh. (Daesh, in case you haven't heard, is the Arabic acronym for ISIS. Apparently Daesh members find acronyms dismissive. Also, if you say it just right, da'esh sounds like the Arabic word for "trampler," which is PERFECT. I intend to use it exclusively from now on and encourage you to do the same.)

[P.S.: in the first draft of this blog post, I quoted from mainstream news sources who said da'esh sounds like the Arabic word for "bully." From sources I'm reading today, it appears that may have been false. I don't speak Arabic at all, so I rely on people who do when I say da'esh sounds like (but isn't, quite) the word for "trampler." I hope I'm right now.]

We've shed a lot of tears over the state of the world, and now, more than ever, we need something to cheer us up. That something, for me, is a goofy 1977 kids' fantasy, the British-American space opera commonly referred to as Star Wars. I saw it with my family at the Ventura Drive-In when I was nine, then again I-don't-know-how-many times with my mom on Saturday afternoons, usually at the late, lamented Old Towne Mall in Torrance, CA. It became our thing. First we'd eat lunch at Denny's, which offered kids' menus with built-in, perforated robot masks, then hit a Star Wars matinée and thrill to the adventures of Han Solo and Company. (Han was driving the boat, after all. Luke and Leia were basically luggage.) In the late '70s and early '80s, if you were a boy who wasn't good at sports, chances are you lived for Star Wars. I could probably recite the Holy Trilogy from memory. I won't. But I could.

I probably won't. Probably. Don't push your luck.

Carv at 9ish

This kid sure did like Star Wars. And bowl cuts.

Anyway, I'm not a prequel hater. I dig Watto and Darth Maul and Boss Nass and kendo Yoda and that ominous scene at the Coruscant Cirque du Soleil. Episodes I through III were beautifully designed and boasted at least as many interesting moments as most summer popcorn extravaganzas. Were they Star Wars, though? No. Not the Star Wars I knew. They were shiny, not lived-in. They offered wooden performances of terrible dialogue in front of greenscreens, not wooden performances of occasionally terrible dialogue in front of actual sets. They gave us a lead couple, Anakin and Padmé, with all the sexual chemistry of day-old peanut butter and jelly, a Gungan doofus who somehow made baby talk sound racist, and the backstories of characters whose later-stories were far more interesting. About the best one could say about the prequels was they tided us over. Were they as good as the original Matrix or Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films? Of course not. And that rankled. As I entered my forties, Star Wars became something I had mixed feelings about. We all did, I guess.

Until.

I greeted the news that George Lucas sold Lucasfilm and his rights to all things Star Wars to Disney with mixed emotions. It made me feel old, I think, seeing the Flanneled One fade into the double Tattooine sunset of retirement, but I respected Disney's oversight of recent acquisitions Pixar and Marvel. Could they do the same with Star Wars? I dreamt of a Return of the Jedi sequel directed by Brad Bird (who passed on it to finish the just-okay Tomorrowland) or Jon Favreau (whose live-action reboot of The Jungle Book, due next April, looks fantastic). The reins were handed to J. J. Abrams instead, but I was fine with that, as I loved Abrams' jump-starts of Mission: Impossible (III) and Star Trek. J. J. Abrams is good at restarting things. He's less good at continuing them, sure, but that was producer Kathleen Kennedy's job. The franchise was in capable hands.

When Toy Story 3 writer Michael Arndt dropped out due to accelerated production timetables, Larry Kasdan took over as screenwriter-in-chief. That was excellent news, because Kasdan is the guy who wrote The Big Chill, Silverado, Body Heat, and oh yeah, Raiders of the Lost Ark and...wait for it...The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Yeah. That guy. Writing a direct sequel to Empire and Jedi. With the original trilogy cast. Shooting in actual locations. With working robots. On the Millennium Falcon. So when Han Solo growls, "Chewie, we're home," yes, it does feel exactly like that. There's a reason why grown people cried when they saw that early trailer. It took them, and me, back to being nine years old again. It's Christmas morning. The gifts have been placed beneath the tree. All that remains now is to sip eggnog and let the kids open them.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens one month from tonight. It is not just a movie. I mean yes, it will take exactly two hours and fifteen minutes to see the thing, a longish movie length, in movie theaters as we plow through buckets of movie popcorn and pay inflated 3-D IMAX movie prices. But it's also an international holiday. Call it Life Day, assuming that doesn't make you, my fellow Star Wars nerds, cringe. It's a day when America gives the world something magical. We Americans know we can be childish. We can also be childlike, in the sweetest possible way. A new Star Wars movie is one of those rare times we come together to share something earnest, exciting, and wonderful. It's an event packed with all our goofy optimism and humor, a John Williams-backed binary sunrise heralding grander adventures to come.

Print This Post Print This Post
5Jun/150

We Spared No Expense

When Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park appeared on shelves in November of 1990, I was already a fan of his work. I plowed through The Andromeda Strain and Congo in one sitting each. I'm not saying his character development or environmental politics are worth emulating (State of Fear, Mike? How could you?), but in the late 20th century, he was the master of cutting-edge technological thrillers. I was an undergraduate with a lifelong passion for dinosaurs. Oh, trust me, I knew my apatosaurs from my ankylosaurids--big Tim the human piece of toast had nothing on me--so I devoured Jurassic Park. You remember where you saw the movie, perhaps, but can you remember where you read the book? I can. I was living in the so-called "Big House" in Ada, Oklahoma. I read the novel twice in a row.

When it was announced that Steven Spielberg, my idol, would be directing the movie, I was over the moon. (I would also have been fine with potential directors James Cameron or Joe Dante.) But it got even better. The movie would be released in June of 1993, a week after I graduated from ECU. In fact, it would come out on June 12th, my 25th birthday! My stars were aligning! I made plans to see the flick at Oklahoma City's General Cinemas Penn Square 10, the only theater in the state that'd install the new DTS digital surround sound system in time. With the understandable hoopla over the advent of photorealistic CGI, we tend to forget Jurassic's revolutionary soundscape. Gary Rydstrom's distinctive sound effects brought those creatures to life, and DTS deployed them around us in the dark. Did you know the original Star Wars was most people's first experience of Dolby stereo in a cinema? This would be the second time a revolution in visual effects was accompanied by a commensurate improvement in sound design and quality.

In May of 1993, my then-girlfriend and I went through a nasty breakup. In defiance of all common sense, I elected to take her back three weeks later. (We can chalk that up as one of my all-time worst decisions.) By way of re-earning my good graces, she volunteered to take me out for dinner and Jurassic Park at Penn Square on opening night. I said yes and looked forward to a night on the town.

Remember, this is a few years before Netscape Navigator made the Internet public. I'd never heard of email, the World Wide Web, or movie spoilers. Ain't It Cool News wouldn't go live for another three years. So when my good friend Shawn Martin came bursting into my house a few days before my birthday, he brought earthshaking news: Penn Square would open the movie a night early, around 7 p.m. on June 11th. Shawn wanted to attend the 9 p.m. screening and invited me to go with him. I mean--how could I say no to that? Shawn Martin is my brother in geeky arms. I'd rather see Jurassic Park with him than a barely-a-girlfriend any day of the week, even if she did pay my way in. "But there's a problem," I said. "We can't tell [name redacted: the girlfriend] we're going. In fact, we can never divulge I saw it with you a night early. It'd break her heart." In public, at least, I held fast to that agreement for 22 years. The statute of limitations has finally run out.

I remember the night of June 11th, 1993, like it was yesterday. Ada didn't have a Chinese buffet in those days (not that Oscar Chinese ever shorted anyone on food), so we drove to our buffet of choice in Oklahoma City. Fortified by egg rolls and sweet-and-sour pork, we arrived at Penn Square around 8. Our friend Rick was in the 7 o'clock screening, still in progress. Shawn and I were first in line for the 9 p.m. showing. (Imagine that! We were only an hour early but still first in line. That never happens anymore. Thank the movie gods for reserved seating.) Alive with anticipation, I drifted down the hall and hovered close to the door. I could hear violent animal screeches clear as a bell. I came running back to Shawn and said, "Oh my God, it's like they're right there in the room." Even the popcorn tasted better.

Rick came out with his jaw dragging the carpet. "That's the coolest movie I've ever seen," he stammered. Whoa, Nelly.

As in Jaws, the creatures are revealed only slowly, when an attack victim gets yanked around with superhuman power. The first CG dinos don't appear till minute 20. But the science seems plausible, the characters are stronger than in the novel (again, as with Jaws), and John Williams's score is among his most breathtaking. Then, when the tyrannosaur snaps through the fence an hour and three minutes into the film, the movie goes to a whole other level. Watch that scene again. It's a masterpiece of suspense and primal terror. Not since the Star Destroyer had movie audiences been so floored by technological innovation in the service of visual storytelling. I'm not sure they ever would be again, frankly, at least not to that extent. We're impossible to wow these days. We've gone past the event horizon. It was obvious Jurassic Park would be the biggest moneymaker of all time before the T. rex even claimed its first human victim. When it did, snapping lawyer Donald Gennaro off a roadside toilet, Shawn jolted to his feet with his fist in the air. "Yes!" he cried joyfully. "Take no prisoners!"

The next night, it took all of my acting and improvising skill to pretend I'd never seen the film before, but I didn't have to fake my enjoyment of it. For the generation after mine, it's easy to see why Jurassic Park holds the same place of reverence as Star Wars does for Gen-Xers. I've seen Jurassic dozens of times over the years, including its 2013 re-release in 3D. It still holds up like a champ. I'll watch it with friends again tonight. Hold onto your butts!

I'm thrilled, of course, about the upcoming release of Jurassic World. It too has an official release date on my birthday, and yes, it will sneak a night early. I, sad to say, will not be able to attend either night. My wife and I have roles in Tartuffe, which, heavy sigh, opens June 12th with a sneak the night before. Am I tempted to see Jurassic World at midnight Thursday or early the next day? I am. Of course I am. I'm a geek. Trouble is, so's my wife, and I'm devoted to her. She has actual work during weekdays, and has to be up by 7 a.m. So instead, I'll be seeing it Saturday--with, you know, the riffraff, meaning folks who have jobs and lives and probably children to boot. But at least there'll be popcorn and egg rolls, and really, when you get right down to it, it's only a movie. Did I just say that? Ye gods, I don't know what I even stand for anymore.

I guess, in the end, this is a story about how grown-up lives change our priorities. I miss my friends in Oklahoma. I do. I miss the days when my most crucial appointment was a dinosaur movie. I traded those commodities for a life I enjoy more, with another hand sharing my popcorn. It's an adventure 22 years in the making.

Print This Post Print This Post
Filed under: Movies No Comments
27Mar/142

Favorites

What's the best movie you've ever seen? Now: what's your favorite?

If you were to ask me about the best movie I've ever seen, my off-the-cuff response would be Citizen Kane. I've seen Citizen Kane upwards of a dozen times, and I've enjoyed it immensely each time. That's the mark of a great movie. Same goes for The Silence of the Lambs, another strong candidate for "best movie I've ever seen." But my favorite? That's a whole other story.

Suppose for the sake of discussion we were to define a person's "favorite movie" as the movie he or she would be interested in watching the greatest number of times. In that case, I've seen The Empire Strikes Back over a hundred times all the way through in my life, and I'm probably down for a few more. The Empire Strikes Back is by far my favorite movie. Other finalists include Aliens, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the original Star Wars, each of which I've seen dozens of times and will likely watch again.

At the end of each year, we're often asked which pieces of entertainment we enjoyed most from that year. Our responses often depend on which way the question is asked. What was the best movie I saw last year? Keep in mind I haven't seen Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave yet, but the best film I saw in 2013 was probably Captain Phillips. I was really impressed by it. But my favorite movie last year, meaning the one I've seen the most times? There wasn't a single movie I saw twice in the theater (kind of unusual for me), but I ran out and bought Frozen the first day I could. My wife and I loved that picture, and I think it's a safe bet it'll be remembered as our favorite movie of 2013. It did win Best Animated Feature (and Best Song) at the Oscars, but was it nominated for Best Picture? Not even close.

I thought about that this morning as Frozen kept getting mentioned on Facebook. Frozen was the #3 box office hit of last year, and it's still making money in theaters even as people snap up the Blu-ray and DVD releases. The highest-earning Best Picture nominee was Gravity, at #6. Below that, American Hustle was way down at #17, The Wolf of Wall Street at #28, Captain Phillips at #32. To find 12 Years a Slave, you'd have to go all the way down to #62. What we love and what we respect are often two different things.

So I tried something. I listed all the years from 1927 to 2013, the years for which the Academy has named Best Pictures. Then I pulled up the IMDB Top 250, which charts IMDB users' rankings of the movies they most admire. Best? Favorite? I guess it's a little of both. For each year, I listed the highest-IMDB-ranking movie for that year. If a given year had more than one such movie in the Top 50, as often happened in the 1990s (there are a lot of thirtysomething IMDB users), I listed all of those in order and separated them with single dashes (/).

Since many years contributed zero movies to the IMDB Top 250, I typed "NONE" in their spaces. Then I looked at the top 200 box-office successes, adjusted for inflation. If the biggest hits for a given year weren't already on the list, I added them after a double dash (//).

One thing we learn from compiling a list like this is that some years (1939, for example) were much better movie years than others (I'm looking at you, 1970). You also learn people didn't spend a great deal of money on movies throughout the 1930s, Snow White notwithstanding. I've read many times that King Kong was a massive success in its day, for example, but it turns out it was only the third-biggest hit of 1933.

If a given year was still blank, I typed a triple dash (///) and looked up the biggest hit for that year. That happened a lot from 1928 to 1938. I can certainly understand why people didn't have a lot of disposable income back then...but seriously, why were the movies so damn bad?

Finally, I marked a movie "(N)" if it was nominated for Best Picture, and "(W)" if it won. Here's the completed list:

1927: Metropolis
1928: NONE /// The Singing Fool
1929: NONE /// Gold Diggers of Broadway
1930: NONE /// All Quiet on the Western Front (W)
1931: City Lights
1932: NONE /// Shanghai Express (N)
1933: NONE /// Queen Christina
1934: It Happened One Night (W)
1935: NONE /// Mutiny on the Bounty (W)
1936: Modern Times
1937: NONE // Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
1938: NONE /// Alexander’s Ragtime Band (N)
1939: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (N) / Gone With the Wind (W) / The Wizard of Oz (N)
1940: The Great Dictator (N) // Pinocchio
1941: Citizen Kane (N) // Fantasia
1942: Casablanca // Bambi
1943: NONE /// For Whom the Bell Tolls (N)
1944: Double Indemnity (N)
1945: NONE // The Bells of St. Mary’s (N)
1946: It’s a Wonderful Life (N)
1947: NONE /// Unconquered
1948: Bicycle Thieves
1949: The Third Man
1950: Sunset Boulevard (N)
1951: Strangers on a Train
1952: Singin’ in the Rain
1953: Roman Holiday (N) // The Robe (N)
1954: Seven Samurai / Rear Window
1955: Diabolique
1956: The Killing // The Ten Commandments (N) / Around the World in 80 Days (W)
1957: 12 Angry Men (N)
1958: Vertigo
1959: North by Northwest // Ben-Hur (W) / Sleeping Beauty
1960: Psycho
1961: Yojimbo // 101 Dalmatians
1962: To Kill a Mockingbird (N)
1963: The Great Escape // Cleopatra (N)
1964: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (N) // Mary Poppins (N) / Goldfinger
1965: For a Few Dollars More // The Sound of Music (W) / Doctor Zhivago (N) / Thunderball
1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
1967: Cool Hand Luke // The Graduate (N) / Jungle Book
1968: Once Upon a Time in the West
1969: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (N)
1970: NONE // Love Story (N) / Airport (N)
1971: A Clockwork Orange (N)
1972: The Godfather (W)
1973: The Sting (W) // The Exorcist (N) / American Graffiti (N)
1974: The Godfather, Part II (W) // Blazing Saddles
1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (W) // Jaws (N)
1976: Taxi Driver (N) / Rocky (W)
1977: Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (N)
1978: The Deer Hunter (W) // Grease
1979: Apocalypse Now (N) / Alien
1980: Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark (N)
1982: Blade Runner // E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (N)
1983: Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
1984: Once Upon a Time in America // Ghostbusters / Beverly Hills Cop
1985: Back to the Future
1986: Aliens
1987: Full Metal Jacket
1988: Cinema Paradiso
1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade // Batman
1990: Goodfellas (N) // Home Alone
1991: The Silence of the Lambs (W) / Terminator 2: Judgment Day
1992: Reservoir Dogs
1993: Schindler’s List (W) // Jurassic Park
1994: The Shawshank Redemption (N) / Pulp Fiction (N) / Forrest Gump (W) / Léon: The Professional // The Lion King
1995: Se7en / The Usual Suspects
1996: Fargo (N) // Independence Day
1997: Life Is Beautiful // Titanic (W)
1998: American History X / Saving Private Ryan (N)
1999: Fight Club / The Matrix / The Green Mile (N) // Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
2000: Memento / Gladiator (W)
2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (N) / Spirited Away
2002: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (N) / City of God / The Pianist (N) // Spider-Man
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (W)
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind // Shrek 2
2005: Batman Begins
2006: The Departed (W) // Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
2007: Like Stars on Earth (Indian)
2008: The Dark Knight
2009: Inglourious Basterds (N) // Avatar (N)
2010: Inception (N)
2011: The Intouchables (French)
2012: The Dark Knight Rises // Marvel’s The Avengers
2013: The Wolf of Wall Street (N)

I went to all this trouble in the hope that your favorite movie of all time is on that list somewhere. Did it work? If so, did your favorite win Best Picture that year? Probably not. Was it a huge box office success? Maybe, but not necessarily. According to IMDB users, The Shawshank Redemption is the greatest movie ever made--an assessment that leaves me baffled, honestly--but it isn't one of the thousand biggest box office hits of all time, even before inflationary adjustment. It made a mere $28.3 million in its domestic run. Even the Robocop reboot made more than that, and it's probably terrible.

There's a disconnect here. A lot of IMDB users are about my age, so of course we contributed our favorite 1980s movies to the Top 250 list. Yet the Academy didn't like our favorite movies, so huge box office hits like Empire or Back to the Future weren't even nominated. Should they have been? You tell me. If our collectively favorite movie of 2013 was Frozen, didn't it deserve a nomination? One could argue that many box office hits (Independence Day or The Phantom Menace, for example) are so bad it proves we have awful taste and should listen to the Academy, but Frozen is a really well-made movie with terrific songs, strong performances, jaw-dropping production designs, and one hell of a third-act plot/thematic twist. I submit to you that it deserved to be a nominee. It's just hard for Academy voters to take animated films seriously, a problem they've also had with comedy, fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Romantic comedies sometimes get a pass.

This becomes especially relevant as stage troupes plan their upcoming seasons, which many are in the process of doing right now. If you ask people at the end of a season to choose the finest play they saw, it's usually a well-acted drama. But if you ask them which show they're most excited about from the upcoming season, it's usually a musical. And if you ask specifically, "What was your favorite play from last year," then the answer will often be a comedy. That's why it's so important for theaters to select plays from each category. It's also important they pick scripts you may never have heard of, because most people pay little attention to new dramatic plays. Furthermore, once you've found a theater you like, it's vital that you trust that company's play selection committee and artistic director. Go see their picks even if they're obscure or sound "weird." Live a little. I mean, how attractive a title is Frozen? A cartoon about two sisters who can't interact, set in frigid Scandinavia...ugh, right? Sometimes, our favorite entertainment comes clean out of nowhere.

What's the best movie you saw last year? If it was an Oscar nominee, there's a strong chance you'll never, ever sit down and watch it again. But your favorite movie? In many homes, your kids are watching it even as we speak.

Print This Post Print This Post
26Aug/130

A Healthy Reminder

I want you to think back and remember a verb you once used with no irony or self-judgment: enjoy.

Here are things I used to enjoy: Star Wars. Burritos. Pinups, burlesque, and other pretty girls in minimal outfits. Comic book movies. Billy Joel. Pizza. Hard rock. Ender's Game. Music videos. Indiana Jones. Battlestar Galactica--the 2004 version, natch. Wine coolers. Standup comedy. I still enjoy all those things now, but in each case, I've been told my affections are silly, perhaps even misguided. Well, maybe the killjoy crowd does have a point or two. It's hard to knock Jar Jar without noticing what an effeminate prat C-3PO was from an adult perspective, so maybe all six of those movies were stupid. They are stupid. But I enjoy them. I've watched each of them dozens of times and I'm probably nowhere close to finished. I like Citizen Kane and The Godfather, too, but not as much as The Empire Strikes Back or Aliens. Pop culture talked me out of loving some of my favorites for a while, but now I've reached an age where I just want to be happy and love the things I love.

I don't care how much you hated Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I really don't. You thought that monkey scene was stupid? So did I. I physically cringed. You embraced the phrase "nuked the fridge?" Can you think of a better way to survive a 20-megaton bomb blast? You thought the aliens came out of left field? I submit to you: magic rocks. A wooden cup that makes you live forever if you drink out of it. A fancy gold box God uses as an apartment. Okay, you hated those things. Y'know what? Good for you. Aren't you smart? It won't affect my enjoyment one little bit. You go, Dr. Henry Jones...Junior.

I also want you to know that while I do think it's great women have breasts and look pretty and smell like vanilla sometimes, I also recognize they have minds and desires of their own. I consider them every bit as valuable as myself, and I can't imagine why anyone would think anything else. My unabashed heterosexuality does not impede my political or moral judgment. I support equal rights for every American citizen and wonder why it's even debatable in 2013. It saddens me that some young women feel their best way to get ahead in life is to get naked on the Internet, but that's their choice and I'm not gonna lie, nude women are beautiful. I'm not somehow unaware of that just because I'm a feminist.

I know pizza is bad for me. I've paid for my transgressions vis-à-vis the mozzarella arts with a thicker midsection, higher cholesterol levels, and countless nights interrupted by heartburn. I still like it. I try to enjoy it in moderation these days, but your definition of moderation and my definition of moderation are probably two different things.

I don't care what you love, as long as it doesn't hurt another unwilling person. If you like getting high on a Friday night and watching reruns of Futurama, then knock yourself all the way out. If you think the Transformers franchise is on a par with the collected works of Sidney Lumet, then Godspeed, my robot-loving friend. You have at it. I don't understand this Gen-X insistence on crapping on the things we used to love. Sadly, it's a cancer we've passed on to Generation Y. It must be killed now before it hardens into a permanent part of the American psyche.

If you'd asked guys of my generation two years ago who their favorite young movie directors are, among the top three picks would be J. J. Abrams. We loved that guy. We loved his show Lost till we decided it was cooler to act like we were over it. We loved his revival of Star Trek so much we couldn't even pretend we were too hip to like it. And then...he was given the reins of Star Wars. Suddenly we couldn't dump on him fast enough. And that doesn't hurt him, it hurts us.

Only us!

Last night, I've come to understand, a 20-year-old woman ground on a 36-year-old man for the MTV Video Music Awards, an evening of light entertainment with a title not only redundant but also oxymoronic and on the wrong channel. Be that as it may, the man in question is famous for a song about how a particular woman is "the hottest bitch in this place," meaning sexually attractive. The young woman is famous for having a dad who wore a mullet and for singing a song about how dancing to pop songs is popular across the USA. Together, the two are often seen on a channel devoted to older men capitalizing on the looks (and sometimes talents) of younger people. I didn't see the act, being otherwise engaged at the time (I was watching Breaking Bad like an adult), but I gather from EVERYTHING I LOOK AT THIS MORNING that she wore a pair of shorts so tight they somehow bifurcated her entire midsection. The Internet has gone crazy. This lowbrow dance number was the top story on CNN.com this morning. The top story! It was more important than anything else that happened yesterday anywhere else on the planet! Take a step back, Mumbai and Damascus!

Now, when I was close to this woman's age, we made more sensible choices. We went to nightclubs in timeless fashions like jeans with suspenders or blazers pulled up to our elbows. We ground on each other's midsections like intelligent people, to a song called "Rump Shaker," by a group whose name was spelled Wreckx-N-Effect. Now, even I can't bring myself to reproduce the lyrics to "Rump Shaker" here, but I invite you to Google them for yourself. That song was all the rage in dance clubs in 1992, when I was 24 years old, and it's about a man telling a woman he simply wants to penetrate her in, shall we say, the back 40. Most of the women I knew loved that song, even after they noticed its lyrics. I wasn't fond of it myself, but I did enjoy the consequences of DJs playing it in dance clubs: namely, women would back into me and pretty much do exactly what Hannah Montana did to Growing Pains Jr. last night.

I've seen the dance act called, not just embarrassing, but an all-out career-ender. I've seen it called a minstrel show. That's right, it destroyed equal rights for black people, who apparently have an ethnic monopoly on simulated rear entry. And what all these people are forgetting is it took place on MTV, where Beavis and Butt-Head are now regarded as elder statesmen.

Set aside the question of why Miley Cyrus is said to be acting "slutty" and Robin Thicke isn't. Set aside the repercussions of moving your lower back that fact. (You're only given one spine, kids. Use it wisely.) The real question is, why can't we just admit that sometimes pop music is sexy and fun and ridiculous and all of that is perfectly okay? She's of legal age. Let her dance in a teddy bear hat. Who gives a rat's ass in latex panties? (Fun fact: I couldn't wear those. I'm allergic. The result might be a party in the USA, but not in my pants.)

So just enjoy what you freaking enjoy. Quit trying to act above it all or contextualize it or make it more politically correct or pretend it has apocalyptic impact. Just enjoy it. Recognize Star Wars was a movie for nine-year-olds, and so were all its sequels and prequels. If seeing a Star Wars movie or TV show or even that godawful holiday special makes you feel young again, great. If it doesn't, no big deal. If you like singing along with the radio, sing. Don't get embarrassed if that hipster on his recumbent bike sees you jamming along with "Sweet Cherry Pie." Of course it's a terrible song. So what? It won't change the course of modern feminism. It doesn't mean you consider women equivalent to a tasty dessert. It just means it's Monday and you needed a pick-me-up and that's what came on the stupid oldies rock station you like because it reminds you of easier times.

From now on, I intend to quit second-guessing the things I enjoy. I encourage you to do the same. If Zack Snyder wants to cast Ben Affleck as Batman, let him do it and stop all the faux-entitled whining. It's his franchise now. He may very well have a good reason, same as Tim Burton did for casting Beetlejuice and Christopher Nolan did for casting that guy who played Snowy Bowles on Sweat. He may not. Will it ruin your enjoyment of Batman if Zack Snyder turns out a bad movie? My DC-enraptured friend, may I gently remind you of pretty much every other Batman movie ever made?

For the love of God (and by God I mean Steven Spielberg), can we please remember what it felt like to unironically enjoy things? Would it really be so damn difficult? I plan to be first in line for Star Wars, Episode VII, and in the meantime, how long as it been since you listened to The Bangles' Greatest Hits? Well, mister, that's too long.

Print This Post Print This Post
8Apr/132

The Man of Tomorrow, Yesterday

It may be that you've never seen the 1978 big-screen Superman, aka Superman: The Movie. It is, after all, 35 years old, and some of you are not. Suffice it to say it was the first time a comic-book superhero had ever been given a movie (or TV) adaptation with an actual budget or scope. When it went into production, the Batman TV series was still in daily reruns, so most filmmakers were tempted to approach it with a similar attitude of camp.

I hate camp! Luckily, so did Richard Donner, who jumped at directing the film after William Friedkin and Sam Peckinpah passed. It was only Donner's third feature, though he'd directed popular TV shows for years. Anyway, if you are one of those folks who's never seen Superman, you may want to skip this blog entry and add Superman to your Netflix queue instead, because these were my thoughts as I rescreened it last week.

The film is dedicated to its cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, who died before it was released. As you watch the film, it becomes more and more amazing that Unsworth wasn't nominated for his efforts. Donner was incensed, doubly so because production designer John Barry was left out in the cold. The film was nominated for its film editing (Stuart Baird), sound editing (Gordon K. McCallum, et al.), and unforgettable score (the one and only John Williams). Donner would later point out that Williams's score all but yells "SUP-erman!" each time the mighty caped hero appears.

My God, I miss cinematic overtures. After a short prelude that recalls Superman's debut in 1938's Action Comics #1, this movie opens with a great one. We're whisked through the stars courtesy of visual effects that seem slightly cheesy now, but were jaw-dropping at the time--if only because it was rare for so lavish an effort to be expended on mere opening credits. When I was a kid, one of my bucket list items was to see my name WHOOSH! out of a screen the way Superman's did. (Y'know, actually, it kind of still is.) And then, after a three-note crescendo that recalls Thus Spake Zarathustra, we arrive on the planet...

Krypton! Later, Superman, played by 26-year-old Christopher Reeve, will remind us it's spelled "with a K-R-Y." I have no idea why that should be, unless the spelling is a tribute to the noble gas with atomic number 36; but then, I also have no idea why some newsmagazines spelled "Gaddafi" with a Q. Doesn't matter. Regardless of how Krypton ever looked in the comics, this is how it looked and will always look to my generation of fanboys. We go straight to the sentencing of a trio of supervillains, General Zod and his sidekicks, already chosen as the antagonists of Superman II. In fact, Superman and its immediate sequel were shot all at once...but more on that later.

It appears political correctness will never come to Kryptonopolis, even if Greek root words have. Non is introduced by Jor-El, Superman's birth father, as "this mindless aberration." That's just mean! And he's up for "eternal living death" in the Phantom Zone to boot! Jor-El goes on to introduce Zod's other crony as "the woman Ursa." Hel-lo, patriarchy! I mean literally: we see dozens of Kryptonian elders, and only one of them is female. Adding insult to injury, she seems to be the only one who doesn't get to wear her family emblem as a black decal on her glowing white robes. Even more surprising, it appears Kryptonian justice has no interest in defense attorneys. "GUILTY!"

Jor-El tells the ruling council, "This planet will explode within 30 days," then adds redundantly, "if not sooner."

And he's right. The council teleports an investigator to Jor-El's house to make sure he and his wife Lara have honored their word to remain Krypton-bound, but he never arrives. Instead, Jor-El delivers a long farewell speech before sealing his only son in a crystalline starburst spacecraft. Lara, on the other hand, just lays her head on Jor-El's shoulder, content to let him do all the talking. And why not! Marlon Brando earned a record $3.7 million for his ten minutes on screen, so make him talk! He refused to learn his lines, reading them instead off baby Kal-El's diaper, and pestered Donner with suggestions that Jor-El should look like a glowing green bagel instead of Marlon Brando in a spit curl. After profit participation, Brando wound up earning tens of millions of dollars for only 12 days' work.

The scene in which Krypton is destroyed, particularly the shots in which bodies plummet into burning chasms, haunted my dreams for years.

BLAMMO! Krypton goes bye-bye, and Kal-El is launched on a journey through six of "the 28 known galaxies." Does screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz mean "star systems?" I have to assume he does, though the confusion of "galaxy" for "stellar system" is repeated several times throughout the course of the movie. Jor-El electronically lectures his son for the entirety of a cosmic voyage we assume takes several years, continuing an explicit allusion to Christian "Father and Son" themes.

The spaceship crashes into a grain field outside Smallville, Kansas, and out steps toddler Kal-El, thus revealing the most memorable peepee in comic-book cinema (Dr. Manhattan's in Watchmen notwithstanding).

Young Clark Kent outruns a train, which kinda puts the kibosh to the whole "lay low" approach. Young Lois Lane spies the feat and reports it to her parents, played by Noel Neill and Kirk Alyn. Neill played Lois on the old TV show; Alyn played Supes in a series of cliffhanger short films. Young Clark is played by Jeff East, but all his lines were looped by Reeve--a fact East discovered, to his vast displeasure, at the premiere. Unlike the ADR in Star Wars, for example, this looping sounds pretty good. It's another feather in the sound editors' cap.

Glenn Ford plays Clark's adoptive father. As he dies, I find myself tearing up. What the hell? I've always been a sucker for good dads in movies, though, and Ford's performance still strikes me as iconic.

Superman leaves home, wanders north to the Arctic, and uses a Kryptonian crystal to build his beautiful Fortress of Solitude. This really was a triumph of production design, so much so that it deserved a nomination all by itself. Jor-El continues his Brando-y lectures, including the following remarkable statement: "This year, we shall examine the various concepts of immortality, and their basis in actual fact." It strikes me at this point that "Jor-El" sounds kind of like "Jehovah."

Upon graduation from Brando University, Clark Kent moves to Metropolis, New York, gaining a job at the Daily Planet newspaper with what must have been the most bullcrap curriculum vitae in the history of printed communications. Clark and Lois (Margot Kidder) exchange pleasantries with Rex Reed, possibly the most recognizable movie critic in America in 1978. Currying favor, were we?

Even lowlifes are remarkably well-dressed in Metropolis. Lois's mugger wears a sport coat. Lex Luthor's numbnuts assistant Otis favors a suit and tie. We follow Otis into Luthor's subterranean lair, apparently a repurposed subbasement of Grand Central Terminal. Again, props to John Barry. This set is fantastic. Echoing generations of Superman fans, however, I have to ask: why Otis?! Why in the 28 known galaxies would Lex Luthor, the self-described "greatest criminal mind of our time," ever saddle himself with such a vapor-brained yutz? Luthor, like Zod before and after him, appears to crave the company of hot chicks and large men with learning disabilities.

We add another feminist check mark in passing against costume designer Yvonne Blake, who can't seem to dress Valerine Perrine in anything that doesn't reveal at least eighty percent of her admittedly astonishing rack.

Poor Lois runs afoul of what has to be the least competent chopper pilot of all time, which prompts the classic exchange: "Easy, miss. I've got you." "Y-you've got me? Who's got you?!" That might be my mom's favorite movie dialogue ever. I didn't realize until years later what a celebrity crush she had on Christopher Reeve. And who could blame her? For me, even all these years later, after Brandon Routh, Dean Cain, and several other worthy portrayals, Christopher Reeve IS Superman, and that makes him immortal.

After a police car chase that would've been the climax of almost any other '70s action movie, Superman helps a little girl retrieve her cat from a tree. She runs inside to tell her parents about the encounter, and we hear, "Haven't I told you not to lie? (*SMACK*)" Ah, child abuse. Funny then, funny now.

The Man of Steel meets Lois at her penthouse apartment for an interview and impromptu date. "Nice place," he says, and indeed it is. One wonders what Lois earns per word at the Daily Planet, especially the many words she's unable to spell. Superman gives his vital statistics as 6'4", 225 pounds. Wait--didn't Jor-El say he'd have a "dense molecular structure?" What's he made of, then? Balsa neutronium? Is that how he flies? Not to put too fine a point on it, Lois makes it very clear throughout the interview that she has Kryptonian schlong on the brain. And how exactly did she know about Superman's X-ray vision? She must have read Action Comics.

In the course of that interview, the Man of Tomorrow looks Lois dead in the eye and vows, "I never lie." It's a motto that stuck with me for life. Say what you will about me, I do tell the truth, at least as well as I know it.

The Great Blue Boy Scout takes Lois out flying in a scene that starts out deliriously wonderful but quickly turns to embarrassing mush. "Can you read my mind?" I don't know, Margot Kidder. Can you stop reading that godawful poem? It's the bane of boy-movie screenwriters, isn't it? Romance, I mean. I don't know if anyone other than Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark) has gotten it right in my lifetime.

As he does in The Empire Strikes Back, John Ratzenberger makes a surprise appearance as a USAF radar officer. Cliffy!

For the first time in the movie, the effects team runs out of gas, and Christopher Reeve is frequently surrounded by coloring-book matte lines. It's the only time we don't believe that man can fly. Incidentally, Zoran Perisic and company won a Special Achievement Oscar for "Zoptic," their state-of-the-art system of rigging and flying effects.

Just before the climactic earthquake begins, Lois's car radio plays "Give a Little Bit" from Supertramp, a subtle in-joke. The song, a bona fide classic, was only a year old at the time.

Weirdly, Superman keeps calling Jimmy Olsen "son," though the actors were only five years apart in age. Marc McClure, aka Superman's pal Jimmy, went on to play Marty McFly's unreliable older brother in the Back to the Future movies. He's still working, though his last film was a dog movie with the unpromising title Hercules Saves Christmas.

That Lois: what a screamer. Deduct several more feminist happy points, or just go ahead and bury her alive as the movie does. That scene appeared in my mother's nightmares for decades. But Superman hears her dying gasps--the score whispers "can you read my mind"--and off he goes to save her by whipping around the planet and somehow undoing time. It's ridiculous, of course, but I guess it's kind of like that old cliché: "I would move heaven and earth for you." Superman does.

Superman patches up the San Andreas Fault, resurrects Lois Lane, and deposits Lex Luthor in Sing Sing. "This country is safe again, Superman," the warden announces, "thanks to you!" And so it is.

After Superman premiered as a massive hit but while Richard Donner was in post on Superman II, the movie's colorful, irascible nutjob of an executive producer, Alexander Salkind, decided to dump Donner in favor of Help! director Richard Lester. To this day, no one seems to know exactly why that happened. Some say it was because Donner objected to Salkind cutting Brando out of Superman II to save money. Others say Donner hated co-producer Pierre Spengler. Salkind said Donner went over-budget and over-schedule. Donner said he was never given a budget or a schedule. Whatever the case, scenes for the sequel were reshot in an attempt to meet guild stipulations that unless 75% of the film was shot by Lester, it wasn't a Richard Lester film. Donner's footage sat in European vaults until editor/producer Michael Thau convinced Warner Brothers to authorize and release Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut to home video in 2006. It's the version I own now, and if you're a fan of Donner's work, then it's well worth the cost of a rental or purchase.

On June 12, I'm turning 45. I'm not so happy about that, to be honest, so I'm distracting myself two nights later by catching the new summer blockbuster, Man of Steel, in the biggest, loudest format I can find. Care to join me? I'll be happy to share my popcorn, but the Dibs are all mine.

I may be all grown up now, but every kid still grows up needing his Superman.

Print This Post Print This Post
Filed under: Movies 2 Comments
29Jan/130

Near Future

As I look ahead to the year in movies, I'm struck by how thoroughly we geeks have inherited--some might say infested--the media. When I was a kid, we could count on less than half a dozen respectable genre entries per year. As for TV, Star Trek reruns were pretty much the best we ever got, though the Saturday morning cartoon spinoff of that series attracted surprisingly hardcore science fiction writers (Larry Niven and DC Fontana, to name just two). The pickin's were so slim many of us actually paid to see David Lynch's miscarriage of Dune (a classic novel Hollywood has yet to get right). Now, thanks to the Lucas-Spielberg era and its spiritual heirs, erstwhile B-movie space operas and sci-fi head-scratchers have been elevated to the status (and budgets!) formerly reserved for epics by Fleming and Lean.

Well, let's be honest: that's a mixed blessing. For every tech-friendly James Cameron epic, there are dozens of brain-dead genre reboots, remakes, refluxes, and regurgitations. This year will be no different. Though I have warm nostalgic feelings for their predecessors, it's hard to work up too much excitement for A Good Day to Die Hard (Feb. 14), Oz: The Great and Powerful (Mar. 8), The Wolverine (July 26), and so on. One senses these movies were made primarily for almost-guaranteed financial returns, not because anyone involved had a necessary story to tell.

Still, there's plenty of smart fare on the menu for discriminating nerds this year. Granted, I'm the guy who got his hopes up for Prometheus, so what do I know? Well, I know that wasn't an entirely unworthy effort, and I'm hoping for better from the next wave. I think Shane Black, now enjoying his career resurrection after self-imploding the most lucrative screenwriting résumé in Hollywood, has a lot to prove with Iron Man 3 (May 3), a franchise he inherited from Jon Favreau. Hopefully it'll feel more like the first Iron Man movie than its overstuffed sequel. My fondest hopes for 2013, however, are pinned on JJ Abrams, the TV wunderkind (Alias, Lost, Fringe) who graduated to big-budget wonderments (Mission Impossible 3, Star Trek (2009), Super 8). I saw eight minutes of his Star Trek Into Darkness (opening May 17) projected with the HFR release of The Hobbit, and I'm desperate to see the remaining 112 or so.

A further word about Abrams. As most of you know by now, Abrams has (after flatly denying this would happen a mere two months ago) accepted the reins of Star Wars, Episode VII, which Disney is producing to milk the Lucasfilm cash cow they bought for four billion dollars last fall. I'm all for this selection, and, back in November, so was every other Star Wars fan on Earth. Then, mere minutes after somebody leaked that Abrams was taking the job, the Interwebs exploded in outrage. "He's Mr. Lens Flare!" was the common refrain. "He has no original ideas! Just look at Super 8!" Yes, please do. It's a Spielberg pastiche, to be sure, and there are plenty of lens flares. Hey, you know who else used plenty of lens flares? Steven Spielberg! Go back and watch any of his 1978-1993 output. Until Schindler's List, it was kind of the Great One's stock in trade. And who cared? We geeks certainly didn't. So why the boohoo and brouhaha now?

It's because somewhere along the way, my fellow geeks decided it was cool to crap on entertainment we love, and frankly, I'm effing sick of it. Listen, hipsters, it's okay to simply enjoy things, even silly things, and the nerd gods won't hand you bonus health or extra lives for acting as if you're above it all. I love Star Wars. I just do. I know it's silly. So what? Is it any sillier than huge, aggressive dudes in tight pants and spherical helmets beating the snot out of each other to move a pigskin back and forth on a field? Is it sillier than telling your kids the presents you maxed out four credit cards to buy were delivered by an obese Scandinavian elf on a sled pulled by magic flying reindeer? Is it sillier than Heaven and Hell, or pretending every bride is a virgin and every groom is James Bond? Who are we fooling? The best stuff in life is ridiculous.

So yeah, I like superhero movies, which is why my birthday celebration will be seeing Man of Steel on June 14. I like promiscuous superspies and Eiffel-Tower-sized robots made of guns who still fight with karate. I like space opera--or, as a family member once memorably referred to it, "gay-ass rockets 'n' shit." (Sorry, gay friends. It was 2004, a much snarkier time.) I like all of that CG-splattered nonsense. And if somebody like Abrams or Cameron can make it look pretty and pretend there's some kind of microscopically-plausible scientific rationale for invisible aircraft carriers or faster-than-light travel or werewolves, then so much the better. I'm tired of defending what I love against charges that it's childish. Of course it's childish. That's exactly what I love about it. When I start chomping at the bit for Star Wars VII, what I'm really drooling for is that rush of exhilaration I used to feel behind a silo-sized bucket of popcorn at an epic sci-fi eyeball-exploder. I want that feeling again. I think most geeks do. Maybe that's why they try so hard to act superior now in their fat years; they've been chasing that dragon so long they're weary of pursuing it in vain.

Well, cheer up, fellow dorks. Against all odds, we grew up and married pretty girls in spite of our parents' predictions, and the jocks who gave us wedgies are now working at Jiffy Lube. Meanwhile, guys like Abrams and Cameron and Favreau and Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson and on and on and on, folks who grew up loving the same geeky spectacles that we do, invaded the movie business. Consequently, we can look forward to mecha vs. kaiju fisticuffs in del Toro's Pacific Rim (July 12--and if you know what either "mecha" or "kaiju" means, Gentle Reader, congratulations: you're one of us). I'm intrigued by Elysium (Aug. 9), the new film from Neill Blomkamp, the Kiwi who gave us District 9. Perhaps this summer we'll also get Alfonso Cuarón's slow-shooting Gravity, a hard (meaning scientifically accurate) SF epic which promises new verisimilitude in depicting a zero-G environment.

My admiration for Sin City knows no bounds, so I'm hoping Robert Rodriguez will recapture that sheen of graphic magic in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Oct. 4). Failing that, perhaps the long-awaited movie adaptation of Ender's Game, a certified classic and thematic precursor to The Hunger Games, will deliver (Nov. 1). If not, there's always the Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire, opening a mere three weeks later (Nov. 22). Closing out the year--almost--is the epic halfling-dragon confrontation of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Dec. 23). I say "almost" because, by Great Odin's beard, I'm downright turgid for the return of Ron Burgundy in Anchorman: The Legend Continues. Don't act like you're not impressed.

Writing sci-fi is tough in 2013, perhaps tougher than ever before. See, we caught up to the future. Granted, Marty McFly's hovering skateboard or time-skipping DeLorean failed to exist, but we did get email, cell phones, the Internet, home computers, pocket computers, dashboard computers, computer games, virtual identities, and Craigslist casual encounters. What cyberpunk authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson once called virtual reality, we're about to call the movies. The 3-D HFR (high frame rate, or 48FPS) release of The Hobbit had some problems, sure, but that was its debut attempt. In the next decade, movies and even TV will achieve a level of realism comparable to looking out a window, the only difference being that instead of my own parking lot, I'll see a sandworm or Coruscant or the Justice League of America. A generation from now, we might log onto the Web merely by thinking about it. Like Jason Bourne, we'll have multiple identities, but some of them will only "live" online. It's an exciting and, from a career standpoint, terrifying time to be alive, because the changes soon to come will be so bizarre and unpredictable that no sci-fi writer could anticipate or even describe them. That's why all this geeky bedazzlement is so important.

Genre entertainment, especially serious science fiction, prepares our minds to be boggled. It reminds us we live on a planet, not a color on a map. It gives us hope when that seems foolish. You say, wait, that's religion's job, and maybe you're right, but science gave us the iPhone. It yields results. The Bible, by contrast, hasn't developed a new app since 90 A.D. (I mean, come on, give us PowerPray, Angry Jews, something!) Sci-fi warns us away from looming dystopias and gene-altered nightmares. It keeps our brains young and agile and ready for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the nanotech era to come. Sci-fi turns awkward adolescents into astronauts and nerds into billionaires. I can't wait for this year's fresh round of fictional futures...and I'm all done pretending I'm not rabid for more.

Print This Post Print This Post
Filed under: Movies No Comments
31Aug/120

Fall Movie Preview 2012: Memoirs of an Invisible Obama!

As you might expect from a guy who went straight from playing Claudius in Hamlet to directing a show forty minutes from home, all while holding down a near-full-time job, I've been rather swamped. Meanwhile, however, one of my most faithful Gentle Readers has been prodding me to update this blog, often with tempting suggestions. For example, I could talk politics, but honestly, what's the point? If you don't know whom to vote for by now, for Pete's sake, stay home on Election Day. And if you have picked a candidate, what're the odds I'm gonna talk you out of it? All I'll say is, I wish two things. One, and this goes out to all my registered-Republican-but-claiming-they're-libertarian friends, please please please take over the GOP. You have a lot of compelling points, my stingy friends, while the neocons, Tea Partiers, and Jesus freaks have none. We need you front and center in the national dialogue, not another argument about whether prayer should be mandatory in science class or birth control constitutes a sin. Two, if you're a faithful Republican through and through, thank your lucky stars Saturday Night Live hasn't come back from summer hiatus. You thought the SNL writers had a field day with Palin! Oh, my god, can you imagine what they'd do with Clint Eastwood haranguing an empty chair?

Anyway. The fall movie season is upon us! I wasn't crazy about this summer's crop of prequels and sequels and threequels and requels. None of them seemed to know how to stick the landing. The only summer movie I'm even tempted to buy on video is Prometheus, and that's more for its behind-the-scenes features than anything else. The plot itself made little sense. I liked The Avengers, but geez, how little did you find yourself caring about that wormhole over Manhattan? You were content to watch the Ruffahulk pound stuff, on which desire it didn't disappoint. Similarly, The Dark Knight Rises was all sound and fury, with the muddiest of plot outlines stringing it together. The Amazing Spider-Man and Men in Black 3 were pleasant surprises, but I forgot them ten minutes after they ended. I found myself craving something smarter, even if it meant slashing the CGI budget.

Such is Looper, we're told, which opens September 28th. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Bruce Willis from the future, so I guess that means Emily Blunt portrays Bonnie Bedelia, and Piper Perabo is the new Alan Rickman. Or something. I know the trailer looks knuckleheaded, but Willis says it's the best script he's ever seen, and he's seen Die Hard and Pulp Fiction. (And North, so let's not lose our minds here, but still.) Gordon-Levitt plays a Mafia hit man assigned to kill his much older self, rather like I did with Domino's Pizza in the early '90s. I'm a sucker for time travel stories, and writer-director Rian Johnson wrote Brick and directed one of my favorite episodes of Breaking Bad, "Fly." He could be the real deal.

Speaking of Bryan Cranston, he's the new Giamatti, by which I mean he's in every movie. If he didn't impress you in Red Tails, John Carter, Madagascar 3, Rock of Ages, or Total Recall, perhaps his turn in actor-director Ben Affleck's Argo (Oct. 12) will evoke that Heisenberg magic. Argo is the story of an outlandish "exfiltration" plan to rescue Americans trapped in the Iranian hostage crisis. Affleck's proven to be a skilled movie director, and if Plan A fails, he can always distract the Iranians by flailing around in a red vinyl suit.

Of course, if you still haven't forgiven Mr. Affleck for Daredevil (or Pearl Harbor, or Gigli, or for being Ben Affleck), you can always catch a bizarro dream cast in Seven Psychopaths, the latest from crazed Irish theatre freak Martin McDonagh, opening the same day. McDonagh's first movie effort, In Bruges, is a minor masterpiece, and his plays The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman are unforgettable horror stories. Now he makes like early Tarantino, which is better than late almost anyone else.

Every movie geek who isn't me is stoked about Cloud Atlas (Oct. 26), a collaboration between Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame) and the Wachowskis (of The Matrix and crashing-and-burning infamy). Why am I unconvinced? Four reasons. First, I saw the Wachowskis' Speed Racer, which was exactly like spending 90 minutes inside the piñata at an ADHD kid's birthday party. Second, Tykwer's made at least half a dozen features since Lola, and only one, Perfume, got any traction. Third, Tom Hanks is an icon, but I've never really bought him as a character shapeshifter. (Meg Ryan managed it better in Joe and the Volcano.) And fourth, I've seen Amores Perros, which is waaaay better than any film since (including Crash) that attempted to copy its intersecting storyline structure. Still, the trailer impresses.

Unless by some miracle you've missed me pimping Ernie Cline's un-put-down-able debut novel Ready Player One, you're aware I get off on '80s nostalgia porn. Ergo, holy cats, do I love the concept of Disney Animation's Wreck-It Ralph (Nov. 2). John C. Reilly plays Ralph, a console video game villain who travels through other games on a quest for redemption. Q*bert costars! Squeeee! If you've ever danced a triumphant moonwalk after dispatching an eight-bit dragon that looked more like a seahorse, then this is the movie for you.

Opening the same day--why do you taunt us, O Hollywood?--is Flight, the first live-action movie in fifteen years from Bob Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Contact). It stars Denzel Washington as an airline pilot who may have saved all his passengers from a crash he may also have caused in the first place. Before you ask, no, it's not a good idea to fly a passenger jet upside down, no matter how much of it is on fire at the time.

Two big films open Nov. 19. One is Spielberg's Lincoln biopic starring Daniel Day-Lewis, which still has no trailer. Instead, I did some historical research, by which I mean glanced at Wikipedia, and it turns out our sixteenth president may not have slaughtered vampires after all. (Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin insists he fought only the South and chupacabras.) In close-up fighting, you'd face better odds standing behind Mr. Bond, James Bond. Agent 007 is back yet again in Skyfall, directed by unlikely pick Sam Mendes (American Beauty). This time Bond must hunt down a bottle-blonde villain played by Javier Bardem, plus find an affordable Valtrex prescription.

I read Life of Pi (Nov. 21) and enjoyed both its magical realism and the nostalgic way it rounded its title character to three and a seventh. Many considered the novel unfilmable, an attitude which seemed all the more reasonable after The Square-Root-of-1700-Year-Old Virgin bombed a few years ago. We like our fall movies rational, thank you very much. Still, I'm a fan of director Ang Lee; and if you must make a movie about math, your best choice is clearly an Asian. Ha! It's funny because it's racist!

Can I tell you I'm probably the only movie geek in the world who's having doubts about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Dec. 14)? First of all, it should be called An Interrupted Journey, because somehow the Weta folks expanded a simple children's book to three full-length movies. Hell, the Rankin-Bass TV cartoon version managed to finish it in 77 minutes, leaving time for commercials. Second, the tone of the book is so much lighter than that of The Lord of the Rings, yet the trailers feel the same. Maybe that's deliberate, I don't know, but it needs to be for kids and I'm no kid. Still, I'm sure I'll be first in line, especially if there's a theater showing it anywhere near me in the brand-new 48-frame-per-second 3-D format. I want to feel like I could reach out and touch Gollum's wireframe.

In one of the most spectacular movie collisions of all time, The Hobbit goes halfling head to shorn head with the at-long-long-last movie version of what might be our greatest stage musical, Les Misérables. The trailer makes me cry gloppy tears. The waify picture of Cosette on the T-shirts makes me cry. Anne Hathaway's haircut makes me cry. I may be suffering from a vitamin deficiency.

I'm intensely curious about Zero Dark Thirty (Dec. 19), Kathryn Bigelow's fact-or-fictionalized version of the lethal raid on Osama bin Laden's hideout. You may never have heard of it, partly because it doesn't have a trailer yet, but also because in red states the studio's releasing it as George W. Bush's Legacy, We're Serious, That Kenyan Had Nothing to Do With It: The Movie.

Finally, Dec. 25, esteemed historian Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Volumes I - XII, Inglourious Basterds, Sweet John F. Kennedy's Baadasssss Song) stuffs our Christmas stockings with the story of a mercenary slave and Belgian jazz guitarist, Django Unchained. Say what you will about QT, I'll follow his megacephalic imagination wherever it takes me. (Seriously, I've met the guy and his poor neck was given the job of supporting one truly enormous head. He looks like a were-lollipop. His Marvel superhero name would be the Flabbergasting Forehead. His skull has its own Van Allen belt.)

Oh, plus Frankenweenie and Taken 2 "debut" Oct. 12, but geez, haven't we seen those already? I could've sworn we had. I'll see you at the movies, but first, don't forget! Sherlock's Last Case debuts Sept. 14 at Lakewood Playhouse and runs for a month. You should see it if you live anywhere close to Lakewood, Washington, because otherwise it's pretty clear you're a bad person.

Print This Post Print This Post
Filed under: Movies No Comments
13Jun/121

Big Things Come in 23-Minute Packages

As promised, here's my quick review and somewhat deeper, (mostly) spoiler-free analysis of Ridley Scott's Prometheus. I like that there's so much to say about the movie, but I also wish less of it were legitimate complaints.

P.S.: My wife just pointed out to me that I linked to Part 2 twice instead of linking to Part 3. How annoying that must have been for you! Sorry about that. The glitch is now repaired...

Print This Post Print This Post