Category Archives: untimely reviews

Untimely Reviews: Fanboys Hate George Lucas, Apparently

This documentary lost me less than half-way through. The entire movie is a kaleidescope of sound bites from random fanboys who appear to have no particular expertise or social capital required to keep my attention. At one point, one of the random people says something like, “Our opinions don’t matter anymore. We are old and paunchy!” As an aside, there is a clinically big difference between paunchy and morbidly obese. The increased mortality of these fanboys means that in another 20 years, they won’t be around to complain about George Lucas. 

Age is most certainly a factor to the viewpoint of this documentary. Fictional character Barney Stimpson calls May 25, 1973, Ewok Line. If you born after the Ewok Line like me and my children, you find the Ewoks funny and cute. If you are born before the Ewok line, like all of the fanboys in “The People Verus George Lucas”, then you think the Ewoks are stupid. Full presentation available here

Perhaps the opposite is also true; folks born after the Ewok Line may be more likely to find complaints about “Star Wars” to be overly cynical and pointless. 

There is also, in my mind, the myth about “The Empire Strikes Back” being great because it was the darkest movie. First off, hardly anyone dies in “The Empire Strikes Back”. None of the main characters die and Luke even gets a robot hand to replace his real hand. By comparison, the original “Star Wars” had a huge body count: hundres of dead Jawas, the crispy corpses of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, and the billions of Alderonians exploded into space. The “I know” line is also misinterpreted. Many think of the line as a kind of an F-you. Earlier in the film, though, Han impishly tries to goad Leia into admit that she loves him. The “I know” line is comparable to the mom’s monologue from “Terms of Endearment”. Just listen to Harrison Ford’s voice. His tone is comforting, not bitter. Then “The Empire Strikes Back” ends with everybody safe and ready for the next adventure. This ending was hardly the portent for the bummer endings demanded by today’s portly fanboys. 

Criticism of the Star Wars prequels and “The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” are fair in their own right. All four movies suffer from over use of computer generated effects and clearly George Lucas was past his creative prime at the time these movies were made. And I do mean George Lucas was past his creative prime. I remember seeing “The Phantom Menace” on opening day. There were waiting lines of excited young fans in costume, giddy as all get out. (Because the prequel was showing on so many screes, the lines were in fact unnecessary. I just walked right in and bought a ticket). Everyone was yelling with excited joy as the scrawl started. Then everyone fell silent as they read the words “The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” This is not how you open a movie in your creative prime. (My kids have not seen it, and without an understanding of tax law, perhaps they will love it.) But the prequels and “The Kindgom of the Crystal Skull” were not made by Lucas alone. And now George Lucas has sold the rights to Star Wars. From here on out, the fans cannot blame him for anything. 

Maybe my problem with this documentary is the sole focus on fan opinion.  “The People vs. George Lucas” needed the insider-outsider’s perspective. William Shatner made the wonderfully entertaining “The Captains” and “How William Shatner Changed the World“. Shatner, of course, is not a fan. His connection between the success of a Star Trek spin-off and how positively it portrays technology is particularly hilarious and insightful. Fans tend to polarize to admiration and loathing, making their opinions rather pointless. If “The People vs. George Lucas” had someone like Shatner to give it focus, I might have watched all of it. 

 

 

Pacific Rim

“Pacific Rim” is a movie made backwards. This is not a story that happens to have giant robots and giant monsters. The giant robots and giant monsters come first. The rest of the movie, including the story, was made to support the admittly awesome premise. Hence, the movie itself is pretty awful. 

Imagine a world beset by enormous 250 foot tall monsters. Considering the monsters are enormous un-missable targets, you might think the best way to defeat them would be dropping laser guided bunker busters from high altitude. Even better for us humans, all the monsters come out of the same hole on the ocean floor, so perhaps parking a destroyer over that hole and bombarding it with depth charges would be the most efficient method of monster disposal. Eventually, the monster hole would be so full of carcasses that no more monsters could crawl out. In the world of “Pacific Rim”, however, the most efficient way to dispose of a giant monster is by punching it in the face with a giant robot fist.

Let’s back up here. In our regular word, people have fought with vicious animals such as sharks, lions, and bears. Over the centuries, we have discovered that the most efficient way to deal with these regular sized monsters is to shoot them dead before they come into punching range. In all credulity, the giant robots in “Pacific Rim” should at least carry proportionally enormous guns. As for the giant robot versus monster fights in the movie, you have no sense of the enormous scale in the middle of the ocean during a rainstorm at night. Just sayin’.

The non-giant robot parts of the movie are just plain terrible. The scale of the fights is countered by the claustrophobic sets lit like a TV movie. Most of the actors look identical, particularly the protagonist apart from his Iceman like rival. The protaganist’s accent was puzzling. Was the character supposed to be American? I think the dramatic force of the movie was supposed to emanate from from the protagonist’s relationship with his new partner. He likes her immediately (as in at first sight) and she gladly becomes his partner. Dramatic force neutralized. Giant monsters defeated. No need for a sequel.

The Amazing Reboot-Man

Amazing Spider-Man poster“The Amazing Spider-Man” is a re-boot of a movie franchise that should never have been re-booted. Like anyone who saw Sam Raimi’s great 2002, “Spider-Man”, I wonder why we have “The Amazing Spider-Man” instead of “Spider-Man 4”? The newer movie is fine looking and fairly fun in its own right. Yet to us, the entirety of “The Amazon Spider-Man” is an affront to the Spider-man mythology we know and love.

The greatest affront is the apathy towards Spider-man’s cultural influence. When I was in law school, I was sworn in as a trainee attorney for my law school’s legal clinic. During the swearing in ceremony, the district judge quoted the first Spider-man story in Amazing Fantasy #15, “With great power there must also come – – great responsibility!“. This one quote pretty much defines the character’s reason for fighting crime and risking his life to save others. We hear it uttered with gravitas in the 2002 film. We never hear it in the “The Amazing Spider-Man.

The second greatest affront is the good looks of actor Andrew Garfield, who plays Peter Parker. The great trick of the Spider-Man comic is making the story about Peter Parker as a kid with superpowers who fights crime as Spider-Man. Unlike Batman, Green Arrow, or Superman, Peter Parker does not come outfitted with a huge bank account and a secret fortress. He has to make the rent like the rest of us, only he has the added and uncompensated responsibility of saving the world now and again. Peter’s average looks reflect his social status. Andrew Garfield, on the other hand, looks like a male model, like an actor, and like someone who is popular. (He also looks like someone much too old for high school). Just to nail this point home, in “The Social Network“, he is very natural as the outgoing and popular Eduardo Saverin in contrast to Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg as a social pariah.

The third greatest affront is the reason Peter Parker dresses up as Spider-Man. In the original story, Peter Parkers wants to use his powers to become famous. He is shy, so he creates a costume that covers his face. Famous but anonymous. Stan Lee knows how teenagers think. In the “Amazing Spider-Man”, we see Peter Parker dress up as a Spider-Man to protect himself from recrimination. The important point in the original story is that Peter Parker was not original interested in becoming a crime fighter. This set-up was the perfect counter to superheros such as Batman, who live for nothing but fighting crime. Peter Parker has other things going on in his life, such as science, photography, and girls, and he thus a much more interesting character. At least, he used to be.

Regardless of these affronts to Spider-man lore, “The Amazing Spider-Man” unravels as a movie around the one hour mark. The movie falls off the web after a confusing set a sequences where Peter Parker can walk into nearly any room and start a conversation with anyone. His conversations are also uncomfortably upfront about plot details. Just as confusingly mysterious, the bad guy finds easily finds Wi-Fi  and blankets to cover his naked body. Just imagine the smell of a sewer blanket. The bad guy also gets a lucky break with label makers. Then the writers simply give up and have both the bad guy and Spider-Man escape SWAT teams using the same lame playing possum tactic. The movie then ends with an audience friendly swapping of colors.

Considering how poorly the movie was put together, the supporting actors are surprisingly excellent. Anyone who happened to be reading Spider-Man comics in 1970 may love Dennis Leary’s portrayal of Captain Stacey and Emma Stone’s portrayal of Gwen Stacy. (I was not born yet, so I am assuming). Seeing Sally Field as Aunt May and Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben is a fantastic update for Spider-Man. The comic portrayal of these characters shows them as withered old folks with one foot in the grave. The new Aunt May and Uncle Ben are are lively and interesting. The supporting cast is just enough to turn “The Amazing Spider-Man” from a lackluster two web movie into a decent three web movie.

By the way, in case anyone is interest in following Peter Parker in the comic books, you are out of luck. In Marvel Comic’s marketing brilliance, they killed Peter Parker shortly after the release of “Spider-Man”. If you want Peter Parker stories, you have to stick with the movies. Maybe that is the plan, as these days the movies make far more money than the comics ever did.

Argo ____ Yourself

Argo Movie Poster“Argo” won an Oscar for best picture last spring. Knowing this, I watched “Argo” with the expectation that it was better than any other movie from 2012. It is not the best movie of 2012, although it is a good movie and it’s Oscar win is understandable.

Once I was at a train museum and I asked one of the volunteers if he has seen the movie “Unstoppable”. He enthusiastically responded, “Only about a dozen times!”. Train enthusiasts like movies about trains. Movie critics who write for a living like movies about writers. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences likes movies about movies. Henceforth, it is understandable why they chose to award “Argo” over “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Lincoln”, “Django Unchained”, and “Life of Pi”.

“Argo” is without argument one of the best movies of 2012. The 1979 to 1980 setting is authentically awful. I was just a wee little kid at the time, and I do remember terribly bushy facial hair and gigantic glasses. Sesame Street did not cover the Iranian revolution, but the news segments in “Argo” look real enough. For a historic thriller, authentic history is half the battle. The tension in the movie is also well done, perhaps too well done.

Amazingly, the carefully planned CIA operation was executed only by 4 simultaneous chance events, all occurring in the nick of time. According to Wikipedia, many of the historical looking events in the film are fictional. Well duh. I am getting near middle age, and I have seen just about every trick of suspense ever used. Consider this, Iran’s time zone is about 12 hours ahead of Los Angeles, California, making a couple of last minute phone call very improbable. The credits, though, show an effort on the part of the filmmakers to at least cast actors that looked like their real life counterparts, and this sincerity is rare even in historical thrillers.

Perhaps not the best movie of 2012, “Argo” is a great movie, and its historical setting means it is timeless, and should have a life well beyond this decade. I give it 4 out of 5 bushy mustaches.

The Perks of Being a Coming of Age Story

★★★

There are some genres that draw my skeptical gaze. Coming of age stories and stories about budding writers are near the top of the list. Personally, I believe the whole concept of coming of age in one year, one summer, or one crazy weekend is total bunk. As for stories about writers, well, they are written by professional writers and can be more than a little self serving.

Other than my distaste for the genre, one quibble to address is the time period of the movie. The music, cassette tapes, and vinyl records in the film are from the early 1980s, the clothes are from the mid-90s, and the haircuts are from 2012. As I myself graduated high school in 1992, I found the anachronisms distracting. Perhaps the film intentionally mixed time periods so the nostalgia factor could spread across several generations (marketing!). Let's make this two quibbles: all of the actors were too old to play teenagers. Perhaps the intent was to portray the movie from the perspective of a high school freshman, in which case a high school senior might as well be played by a wrinkle faced twenty year old. On the other hand, the high school freshman in question is played by a 21 year old man, so I cannot really buy into any of it.

Now that the quibbles are behind us, let us discuss my distaste for the entire genre. The trope of a precocious young writer in this movie is presented as the usual fragile sad sack with no friends. This is very familiar to movies such as “Almost Famous” which was about a precious teenager who dreamed of becoming a professional writer and learned a bunch of life lessons from a group of newly obtained older friends. Much as “Avatar” was a rehash of the adventure tropes, “Perks” is a rehash of the regularly released young writer coming of age movie. The protagonists in these movies are presented as blank slates with no history or personality, yet a self aggrandizing awareness. There is a mental health subplot that dredges up the protagonists distant past for a rather sad and touching moment near the end of the film. Yet I have trouble reconciling the protagonist's troubling distant past with his complete absence of a recent past. Near end of the film, I would not have been surprised if the entirely film was revealed as a lonely kids fantasies, and flashbacks from another point of view would show a disturbed youngster talking to himself in the halls of his schools and explaining the complete and total alienation of his peers. The film doesn't even explain the perks of being a wallflower. The older kids that our protagonist befriends all participate in school dances and are literally not wall flowers. Instead, we see the perks of having friends who are older, more confident, and ultimately more interesting.

Following “Perks”, my wife and I had a discussion about the merits of coming of age stories. My wife tells of a dramatic senior year of high school that failed to provide meaningful life lessons. I remember my five year high school reunion where one of my former classmates made a point of showing me the senior picture I signed for him. I had written something about him achieving more than he thought he could (or something like that). He told me this message spurred him to become a medical professional, which led him to traveling the world and meet his future wife. Maybe he was being generous for my benefit. If true, though, his coming of age moment was solely based on his own desire to better himself, and not a serious of meaningful experiences. Life changing events are not reserved for youth. Former U.S. president George “Dubbya” Bush stopped driving drunk and started taking life seriously after his 40th birthday. Robert Downy Junior also stopped abusing substances in his 40s and became box office gold. Plenty of other people made their mark later in life, and not after a defining moment in their youth but after half a lifetime of experiences. And then you have the new parents who are never the same again. Coming of age is a muth and “Perks” is nowhere near as good as “Almost Famous”.