Saturday, May 30, 2009


And remarkably, but not surprisingly, Pixar does it again. Just as WALL•E was equally masterful as character study, hard science fiction, and Charlie Chaplin-esque romantic comedy, Up is a sublime mixture of whimsy and wonderment, rollicking adventure, and, for a family animated feature, surprisingly poignant human tragedy. With a small cast of central characters, a streamlined story with a few twists, and plenty of humor and excitement, they've made yet another animated film that far surpasses nearly all of the trite kiddy crap it shares a medium with. As much of a cliché as Pixar-fellatio has become, it's inevitable. Just give in to the goodness.

Unlike WALL•E's two cleanly divided halves, I see Up as having three parts. The first ten or so minutes are a marvel of compact, economic, and emotionally resonant storytelling. With a bare minimum of dialogue, just visuals and music, the film manages to tell and reveal more about our main character Carl's life and why his personality and dreams are exactly what they are than 95% of other films can do with paragraphs of monologues. These ten minutes have a three-act structure all of their own and could almost be a complete short film (although it'd be the most goddamn depressing short film ever).

I'm not spoiling anything the trailers and poster don't to tell that the next part is about Carl tying hundreds of balloons to his house, lifting it into the heavens, and flying off to fulfill a longtime dream of adventure. It all reminded me of the whimsy and creativity of Hayao Miyazaki's films and was quite charming and beautiful. But the real meat of the film occurs when Carl finally lands in South America and the movie turns into an adventure in the finest tradition of Indiana Jones, complete with staggered action set pieces, colorful sidekicks, and a dastardly villain. This is where the film gets just a little more conventional, a lot more jokey, and it's where younger kids will probably find the most joy, but it's still executed with extremely rare panache and moves confidently towards an exciting climax.

Although I do think this is probably the first Pixar movie that isn't upon release the best-animated CGI cartoon ever made (nothing for me can match the desolate and haunting beauty of WALL•E's post-apocalyptic earth or the charming perfection of the robot himself), Up's sweeping vistas of nature are every inch as gorgeous as you'd expect, and Carl's house floating beneath the enormous rainbow of balloons is an instantly iconic image. It's often the little details that count: as days pass in movie time, increasingly coarse white stubble grows on Carl's face and chin. I love those meticulous touches.

Although Carl Fredericksen may not be as cuddly as the robots or fish or living toys in the Pixar films that precede him, in our youth-dominated fiction he is in his own cantankerous way just as exotic a protagonist as any of them - out of the last several hundred movies I've seen, Gran Torino is the only other one I can come up with with a septuagenarian protagonist. Presenting Carl as a lead character along the unusual emotional brutality of his backstory proves that Pixar really has abandoned any and all shackles of feeling like they need to pander to kids. I mean, once you've had a miscarriage in your Disney movie, it all seems to be fair game.

So although just about any other studio announcing that they're dusting off a beloved old property for a third go-round would make me preemptively cringe, the one-two-three punch of Ratatouille-WALL•E-Up has made me a true believer. I can't wait to see what unexpected directions Toy Story 3 takes.

4 Stars out of 5

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Observe and Report

Observe and Report is the most relentlessly fascinating movie of 2009, a bleak and abrasive character study on par with that of Randy 'The Ram' Robinson in The Wrestler or Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. There's plenty to laugh at amidst the doom and gloom but it's miles beyond the gross-out comedy the ads attempted to portray, let alone the the fucking "Paul Blart knockoff" that the odious and intellectually lazy dismissed it as. It's an intoxicating examination of the latent sociopathy of the "hero," not quite Taxi Driver, but probably the most entertaining portrait of a fascist since the first Dirty Harry circa 1971.

The man is Ronnie Barnhardt, gun fanatic and head of security at Forest Ridge Mall. Where others see a banal string of shoe stores and fast food joints, Ronnie sees a battleground of good and evil, his iron rule the only thing standing between order and chaos for the smallfolk that go obliviously about their shopping. When a trenchcoat-clad flasher emerges, haunting the mall's parking lot and striking at random, it's all that's needed to push Ronnie to seek turning his fantasy of vanquishing evil and finally being acknowledged as a hero into bloody reality.

Although the flasher is the initial impetus that unites and introduces the major characters, he takes a frequent backseat to myriad subplots: there's a secondary crime spree, a burglar hitting the mall after dark. There's Ronnie's leering fixation on Brandi the makeup-counter clerk, an early victim of the flasher who Ronnie feels he must protect at all costs; this movie's stand-in for Taxi Driver's Jodie Foster. There's Ronnie's friendship with Nell the coffee girl. There's his efforts to join the police academy and become a true member of the force. And there's his struggle with bipolar disorder. The stories drift lackadaisically in and out of the narrative forefront through the flash-in-the-pan 86-minute runtime, but in a careful and calculated way that forms a very rich tapestry of the individual at their center.

In Ronnie's mind, he is a hero, and by natural extension, anyone who opposes him is a villain who must be punished with swift violence. This includes not just the usual suspects of drug dealers, thieves, and perverted flashers, but as his life spirals further out of control, loitering skateboarders, rude coworkers, parking violators, and eventually the police in an increasingly dark third act that flouts every convention of modern comedy. When you see the lengths that Ronnie will go to to become a "hero," you may find yourself disquieted by what you laughed at or even rooted for in the film's first act, which is nothing short of applause-worthy in a wide release Hollywood comedy - if the film can truly be called that.

Don't misunderstand; Ronnie's dense nature, social obliviousness, and the profane and vulgar world he exists in are much funnier than the vast majority of what Hollywood shits out en masse. But far more importantly, Observe and Report is a deconstruction of the manchild protagonist that dominates contemporary cinematic comedy.

We find it easy to laugh at the heightened absurdity of most of the protagonists played by Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler, or even Seth Rogen's dirty cop in Superbad, but the actual existence of someone so imbecilic, so immoral, so quick to anger and violence, and with such a black-and-white worldview would be immensely disturbing, which Ronnie Barnhardt is. To put it in nerdy Dungeons & Dragons terms, Ronnie is lawful evil, a fascist with profound delusions of grandeur, and Seth Rogen does a great job with the material. I wouldn't call it his funniest performance - that's probably still Knocked Up - but I do think it's probably his best, with Rogen nailing not only the unconventional punchlines but the violent and disturbing material as well.

He's surrounded by a mixture of some actors who play to the comedy, including Crash's melodrama king Michael Peña letting joyously loose, Celia Weston as his alcoholic mother, and Anna Faris as Brandi, and some actors who play things astoundingly straight, most notably Ray Liotta as the police officer who Ronnie gradually comes to see as his archenemy. Collette Wolfe is also utterly adorable as Nell the coffee girl and steals every scene she's in. I hope to see her in many future films.

Now, critics are not only lazy but proud of their laziness when it comes to reviewing comedy, and it goes without saying that lots of them missed the point, some even laughably complaining that Ronnie is disturbing to watch or a bad role model for kids (gee, ya think?!). But I don't blame them for the movie's soft box office reception - a comedy this black comes built with a very limited audience. But I found Observe and Report absolutely fascinating. It has a surefire spot on my top ten of 2009, and while I know it's not something everyone will enjoy, it's something wholly unique I think everyone should at least watch. It's a future minor classic.

4 Stars out of 5

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Star Wars Character Coolness: Before & After

Ten years ago on May 19th, 1999, Star Wars again became part of our lives with the theatrical release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. That's right, the prequel trilogy is now officially retro.

In the decade since, Star Wars fans both casual and hardcore alike have been disgruntled by the treatment that these three films gave to beloved, timeless characters and storylines. I would say there's been strife and debate, but that wouldn't exactly be true - it's wide and essentially universal consensus that the prequel trilogy was a disappointment (although many including myself will argue that Revenge of the Sith was a substantial step up from the first two), flawed and easily overshadowed by contemporary genre fiction like The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, even the new Star Trek.

But as much as we may wish they did in light of midi-chlorians, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith don't exist in a vacuum, and by the nature of their existence color our perceptions of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Both the mythology - when Obi-Wan discusses "the Clone Wars" in A New Hope, we now know he's talking about a Saturday morning cartoon - and perhaps even more so the characters.

It's not an opinion but simple fact that the original trilogy has many of the most iconic characters in the history of the cinematic medium, sixteen of whom by my count also make appearances in the prequel trilogy. So I'm going to examine these characters one at a time and analyze how the coolness of each character stands up in the original trilogy while taking their actions and characterization in the prequels into full account. They will be graded on an eleven-point scale of +5 to -5, with -5 being a character that seems profoundly stupider and less respectable in light of their origins, and +5 being a character who is substantially enriched and deepened. We will start with the de facto central character of the entire saga:

Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader

In the original trilogy, before: Baddest motherfucker in the galaxy, more machine now than man, twisted and evil. He compensates for his no-doubt burnt dick by wielding a badass red lightsaber, Force chokes his underlings like he just don't care, and busts out awesome lines like "The Force is with you, young Skywalker. But you are not a Jedi yet," and "Apology accepted, Captain Needa." Although he turns to good just before his death, few non-lamers would debate that he's one of the most imposing and iconic villains in all of film.

In the prequel trilogy: An adorably floppy-haired little boy who hits on a girl twice his age by asking if she's an angel (they live on the moons of Iego, I think). After the cringe-inducing revelation that he's the product of a virgin fucking birth, he accidently flies a starship and ends a war in a madcap comic routine that plays like a Charlie Chaplin-Star Wars crossover while shouting "WHOA! THIS IS TENSE!"

In the next two movies his brash, cocky, and entitled personality has nothing to do with the little boy from Episode I, which makes you wonder why he couldn't have just been the age Luke was in Episode IV from the beginning so they could have had one actor and a non-creepy love story with Padmé, but whatever. He stalks and seduces Padmé, whines and cries about Obi-Wan not respecting him, and finally goes evil and becomes marginally cool half an hour before falling into the lava. There's also an asinine, out-of-nowhere, totally unnecessary, and completely unresolved three-movie subplot about how he's the "Chosen One." Yikes.

In the original trilogy, after: There's a lot to interrogate George Lucas about here: why did Vader have to be from Tatooine, making the theoretically vast Star Wars universe seem about as small as your high school? Why in god's name is he a virgin birth? Why did Obi-Wan describe him as the greatest starpilot in the galaxy? Why are angels from the moons of Iego, I think? Why is he the "Chosen One?" In retrospect, Jake Lloyd's Anakin is probably worse than Jar Jar, because at least Jar Jar's awfulness was self-contained and didn't bleed over into one of the greatest characters of all time.

He at least becomes marginally interesting in the last half of the third movie. Some might have trouble with the fact that Anakin turned into Vader for a woman, but it's a common motivation, so I can accept it. I have a lot more of a problem with the fact that he goes from troubled if roughly goodhearted Jedi Knight to murdering a room full of babies in about an hour. I mean, I've had some bad days, but jeez. Anyway, his slight improvement in Episode III barely saves him from the worst grade, but knowing what's behind Darth Vader's mask is ultimately rather unfortunate. -4

Obi-Wan Kenobi

In the original trilogy, before: Badass warrior monk and first Jedi Master of Luke Skywalker. He dies fairly quickly, as all mentors and father figures must, but lines like "That's no moon," and "Who's the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?", not to mention his casual de-limbing of a rowdy bar patron, solidified him in the pop culture lexicon. Alec Guinness was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

In the prequel trilogy: Surprisingly, although he has to wrestle with plenty of shitty dialogue ("Good call, my young padawan!") and act across from bad CGI, the younger version of Obi-Wan the badass warrior monk is more or less a badass warrior monk. His nadir is probably his conversation with a shit-colored CGI monstrosity called Dex in a 1950s American diner, a scene that makes you feel as shocked, embarrassed, and vulnerable as getting walked in on whacking off, but Ewan McGregor muscles his way through with a surprising amount of dignity intact. Not to mention he defeats Darth Maul, General Grievous, and Darth Vader.

In the original trilogy, after: Nothing about Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi really makes me like hermit Old Ben Kenobi any less, although I admit slight confusion as to why he lies about not knowing R2-D2. When he cuts off Ponda Baba's arm in the cantina, I can't help but wonder if he has a brief-yet-fond flashback to removing all the limbs of his old apprentice with the very same lightsaber. Ah, sweet nostalgia. +0

Luke & Leia Skywalker

In the original trilogy, before: Central characters, children of destiny. Everyone shifts uncomfortably in their seats when they kiss in The Empire Strikes Back.

In the prequel trilogy: A pair of twins born to Padmé Amidala on the asteroid Polis Massa, before being split apart and sent into hiding on Alderaan and Tatooine.

In the original trilogy, after: You may be wondering how a pair of infants who show up at the very end of the movie and have a couple minutes of mostly not-bad screentime could drag down their adult counterparts. Well, I'll tell you. I have no children myself, but I understand that for normal mothers seeing your newborn infant for the first time produces a monumental rush of love and protectiveness. But not for prissy Princess Padmé! Nope, she saw her two babies, born without a father into a universe torn apart by war, bloodshed, and totalitarianism, but her boyfriend had choked her before, and she was so brokenhearted that she had lost the will to live, so she decided to die. That's right, baby Luke and Leia, you were so unimportant that you weren't worth staying alive to care for. Shitty mother, shitty babies, or shitty writing? You decide! -1

Uncle Owen & Aunt Beru

In the original trilogy, before: Luke Skywalker's caretakers. They're pretty weak and demure and get killed fairly quickly, but to give all credit where it's due they are among the four or five people in the universe to know that Darth Vader is Luke's father from the beginning of A New Hope - even Vader doesn't know yet - so there's a little more than meets the eye.

In the prequel trilogy: "Owen Lars. This is my girlfriend, Beru."

In the original trilogy, after: Did you miss what I just typed? "Owen Lars. This is my girlfriend, Beru." UGH. -2


In the original trilogy, before: Han Solo's wookiee co-pilot and sidekick, and proof that at some point in his life George Lucas could do comic relief with some degree of competence. He has no character arc but he's widely beloved all the same.

In the prequel trilogy: For some godforsaken and incomprehensible reason, Chewie is a friend to the Jedi Order, Yoda's buddy and bodyguard (?) on Kashyyyk in the waning days of the Clone War. Yoda tells Chewie that "miss you I will" before he goes into exile, seemingly implying that they're old drinking buddies and they play poker together and everything.

In the original trilogy, after: Having Chewbacca be Yoda's best friend is possibly the single stupidest decision in the prequel trilogy, even worse than midi-chlorians. Chewbacca is best known as Han Solo's sidekick. You know, noted and vocal Force agnostic Han Solo, a skeptic who does not believe the Force exists and mockingly commiserates with Chewie about how Obi-Wan Kenobi is "an old fossil." So at no point in all the years they know each other could Chewie have turned to Han and roared, "Actually, Han, the Jedi and the Force do exist. I fought alongside the Jedi Order in the Clone Wars."

So now I'm sitting here questioning whether Han and Chewie are even that close, if Chewie couldn't inform Han about this simple and basic aspect of his background. Impressive that the character of Han Solo is damaged in a movie in which he doesn't even appear. Even worse is the fact that this bullshit is sitting in the middle of and infecting otherwise the best movie in the trilogy by a mile. Chewbacca shouldn't have been in the prequel trilogy. -3


In the original trilogy, before: A homosexual protocol droid who accompanies R2-D2 to Tatooine in A New Hope, joins Han and Leia's party in The Empire Strikes Back, and convinces the Ewoks that he is a god in Return of the Jedi. Some people found him annoying even in the original trilogy, but Jar Jar Binks showed those people just how good we had it. He has the first line in the saga: "Did you hear that? They've shut down the main reactor!"

In the prequel trilogy: To the aghast horror and near-universal denial of the world, it is revealed that Darth Vader built C-3PO when he was just a wee a little boy. I mean, why make the dozen or so central characters of your sci-fi/fantasy saga come from diverse backgrounds across the galaxy, reflecting the vastness of your universe of quadrillions of beings, when you can have everything as compact and insular as your junior high social circle? He then proceeds to do nothing for the rest of the trilogy, making you wonder why he couldn't have just had a cameo in the final minutes of Revenge of the Sith, which would have actually been cool. He has the final line in the saga: "Oh no!"

In the original trilogy, after: I say again, Darth Vader built C-3PO when he was just a wee little boy. Why. Why would you do this George. -5


In the original trilogy, before: Beginning as C-3PO's counterpart and transitioning into Luke Skywalker's droid sidekick, R2-D2 was universally beloved for his adorable squeaks and whistles as well as being the MacGuffin that drives the plot of A New Hope. It was kind of funny when, with the entire Galactic Empire pursuing him, he just spent an hour chillin' on the side of the Death Star's hangar, not givin' a fuck.

In the prequel trilogy: Artoo works on Padmé's ship in The Phantom Menace, then becomes Anakin's droid for the rest of the trilogy, including after Anakin becomes Darth Vader until he falls into the lava, which I guess means R2-D2 was technically on the side of evil if only for a little while. He also, in another head-slappingly retarded moment, busts rocket jets out of his legs and starts flying around like fucking Superman in Attack of the Clones. Jesus Christ.

In the original trilogy, after: Unlike Chewbacca and C-3PO, R2-D2 being in the prequel trilogy doesn't bother me that much. No, there's no real REASON for him to be there, other than helping pilot starships around, but George Lucas claims that the saga is to some extent all seen through the eyes of Artoo, and I can accept that. Plus, unlike the prissy and annoying Threepio, Artoo is actually cool and cannot deliver shitty dialogue. However, giving him the power of flight out of nowhere is profoundly stupid, calling immediately into question why he rolls around Tatooine at 2 MPH in A New Hope and topples off Jabba's sail barge into the sand in Return of the Jedi. A continuity nightmare. -2

Mon Mothma

In the original trilogy, before: Mon Mothma is the leader of the Rebel Alliance, briefly seen before the final assault on Emperor Palpatine's fleet and the second Death Star. Many Bothans died to bring her this information.

In the prequel trilogy: Most people are probably unaware of Mon Mothma's role in the prequel trilogy, because Lucas decided to delete her scenes from the final cut (although YouTube can help), but Mon Mothma was a Senator who along with Padmé Amidala and Bail Organa quietly began the rebellion when Palpatine refused to give up his sweeping emergency powers after the end of the Clone Wars.

In the original trilogy, after: Unlike Darth Vader being a virgin birth and building C-3PO, Chewie being pals with Yoda, and R2-D2 flying, Mon Mothma starting the rebellion against the Galactic Empire actually makes total sense and logically informs her being the leader of the Alliance in the original trilogy era. Yeah! You go, Lucas! That's how you do it! Except, wait, you deleted her scenes. So close. +1


In the original trilogy, before: Yoda is a 900-year-old Jedi Master and badass little wizard who fills the role of Luke Skywalker's mentor in The Empire Strikes Back and briefly before dying from old age in Return of the Jedi. Despite only having about thirty minutes of total screentime, his diminutive stature, lifting of an X-Wing with only the Force, bizarre grammar, and the line "Do, or do not. There is no try" made him one of the most iconic characters of the trilogy, possibly behind only Vader himself.

In the prequel trilogy: In Episode I, Yoda is basically like we remember him, although the puppet that looked fitting in the dank, foggy swamps of Dagobah looks extremely bizarre and off-putting in the brightly-lit, pristine chamber of the Jedi Council. But you don't know what you have until it's gone, and in Episode II and III the wizened little Jedi Master we knew and loved as a puppet turns into a CGI frog leaping around with a lightsaber like Sonic the Hedgehog. Okay then. Palpatine defeats him in a lightsaber duel and so Yoda announces that he must go into exile for no particular reason, leaving behind a newborn Rebel Alliance that probably could have used his guidance and skills so he can go live in a swamp.

He's also a little asshole: when Anakin comes to him for guidance and shares his private fears that someone close to him (Padmé, although he doesn't name specifics) will die in childbirth, Yoda tells him that the dead are not to be mourned because they are merely becoming one with the Force. "Mourn them do not. Miss them do not." Well gee, thanks, shithead. I just can't figure out why Anakin turned to the dark side.

In the original trilogy, after: Nothing about Yoda's prequel trilogy appearance contradicts anything about him in the original trilogy, everything checks out logically, but basically every moment he's onscreen makes you like and respect him a little bit less. In the end I wonder why he cares about the Rebel Alliance at all. After all, if all the rebels and all Alliance planets die, they're just becoming one with the Force, right? Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. -3

Boba Fett

In the original trilogy, before: Boba Fett is the badass and semi-mute bounty hunter who tracks down and captures Han Solo for Jabba the Hutt, helping Lord Vader set a trap for Luke Skywalker in the process. He dies a stupid death at the hands of a blind Han and a Sarlacc pit (yeah, I know, in the Expanded Universe he goes on to escape the Sarlacc and become an anti-hero, whatever), but he's still one of two villains to give Vader lip without getting Force choked. Even Emperor Palpatine was promptly killed when he cheesed off Vader, so that puts Boba in elite company.

In the prequel trilogy: Boba Fett is a little boy who giggles with pleasure whenever his father Jango does anything evil.

In the original trilogy, after: There was absolutely no reason for kid Boba Fett to appear in the prequel trilogy. It's stupid, it doesn't make any sense, I hate it, and it makes me hate Boba Fett. -5

Emperor Palpatine

In the original trilogy, before: The ultimate evil looming over the entire trilogy; a mad, cackling Sith Lord who rules over the galaxy with the iron fists of Death Stars, Star Destroyers, and the dark side of the Force - until Darth Vader chucks him into a chasm for trying to kill his son Luke Skywalker, that is. The scenes between Palpatine, Vader, and Luke are probably Return of the Jedi's finest, although the character has absolutely no arc or backstory whatsoever.

In the prequel trilogy: Palpatine lives a double life as a humble Senator from Naboo and Darth Sidious, a Sith Lord who commands the assassin Darth Maul and orchestrates the Separatist movement and the Clone Wars. In the guise of Senator Palpatine he engineers his election to Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic, and by attacking his own Republic with terrorism and war as Darth Sidious, he allows the position of Chancellor to be granted more and more emergency powers, eventually suspending democracy and taking direct command over the army of clone troopers, i.e. Stormtroopers. He eventually seduces Anakin Skywalker to the dark side of the Force, frames Mace Windu for an assassination attempt on his life, puts out an execution order on all Jedi Knights, and declares himself ruler of the first Galactic Empire.

In the original trilogy, after: Along with John Williams' score, the most successful element of the Star Wars prequel trilogy is the arc of Senator-turned-Chancellor-turned-Emperor Palpatine. It does exactly what George Lucas failed to do with almost every other character: presents a cohesive, logically sound, narratively strong, and fascinating story that substantially enriches and deepens the cackling and entertaining but ultimately shallow cipher of evil that appeared in Return of the Jedi (without robbing the character of his fundamental mystery either). It actually makes Return of the Jedi a better movie.

Oh, sure, he has plenty of bad moments (the CGI flips during his duel with Mace Windu are pretty embarrassing), but the big picture is a good one. It's a grand stroke of fortune that they cast the thirtysomething Ian McDiarmid to play the Emperor in Return of the Jedi rather than a geezer closer to the character's age, because it allowed the same actor to return and give one of the most entertaining performances in all three prequels, particularly Revenge of the Sith. All in all I give prequel Palpy a big thumbs up. +3

Grand Moff Tarkin

In the original trilogy, before: Grand Moff Tarkin is commander of the Death Star and the highest-ranked non-Sith Imperial in the trilogy, with enough authority to make the call to destroy major civilized planets and boss Darth Vader around with no fear of being Force-choked in retaliation. Luke Skywalker kills him when he blows up the Death Star. Due to his ordinary human appearance Tarkin never became quite as iconic a pop culture villain as Vader, Palpatine, Jabba, or Boba Fett, but he's ruthless and badass all the same.

In the prequel trilogy: A younger Tarkin makes a wordless five-second cameo in the final montage of Revenge of the Sith, speaking to Emperor Palpatine on the bridge of the Star Destroyer overlooking the first Death Star's construction. Darth Vader approaches and Tarkin takes his leave.

In the original trilogy, after: There's something relatively subtle going on here - in Episode III, Tarkin immediately walks away when Vader moves to the front of the bridge to stand by Palpatine's side, which says to me that Lord Vader is clearly ranked well above Tarkin and Tarkin has to show respect and submissiveness. However, by the era of Episode IV, Tarkin has enough authority to command Vader: "Enough of this! Vader, release him!", and "Terminate her! Immediately!" This shows that Tarkin must have done exemplary work in the eyes of the Emperor in the two intervening decades, and increases my respect for him. +1

Jabba the Hutt

In the original trilogy, before: The galactic crime lord and gangster who puts out a bounty on Han Solo's head for dumping a shipment of Jabba's spice (Star Wars code for "drugs") he was smuggling. This hit dogs Solo for the entire trilogy and eventually coincides with the motives of Vader and the Empire when they need Solo to set a trap for Luke. 

Jabba also sticks Princess Leia in a gold bikini, which is objectively awesome. Sure, Leia kills him later, but she does it while wearing the bikini. So in a way they both win.

In the prequel trilogy: Hanging out on a balcony overlooking the Boonta Eve Classic podrace in all his Playstation 2-era CGI glory.

In the original trilogy, after: Like Chewbacca and C-3PO and Boba Fett, there's no real reason for him to be in the prequel trilogy and I kind of wish he wasn't, but it at least makes sense that a Tatooine-based crime lord would be present at one of the galaxy's major gambling events taking place on Tatooine. Now, if we were grading how his godawful appearance in A New Hope's special edition effects my view of him, he'd probably get a -5, but his Phantom Menace cameo is, like your first girlfriend, disposable and harmless enough. +0


In the original trilogy, before: An amateurish bounty hunter who tries to collect the score on Han Solo in the Mos Eisley cantina. Han promptly shoots him dead.

In the prequel trilogy: Baby Greedo hangs out with baby Anakin while the latter builds his podracer.

In the original trilogy, after: Out of respect for you the reader's intelligence I decline to elaborate on why that's stupid. -2

In conclusion, the character who emerged from the other side of the trilogy the most improved is without a doubt Emperor Palpatine, although Grand Moff Tarkin and Mon Mothma also came out okay and I have no problem with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Darth Vader, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Boba Fett all took a real beating though. Who would have thought when watching Episode I that the political subplot would ultimately be the trilogy's strongest element (beyond perhaps the expectedly outstanding musical score and ninja lightsaber battles)?

The real lesson we (and hopefully George Lucas) can take from all this is that we don't need to know every fucking detail of every fictional character's life. We don't need to see them as little kids. We don't need to know every detail of how they were built or conceived. It's a narrative structure that can sometimes work - we know every detail of Bruce Wayne's life in Christopher Nolan's Batman series, which was executed well enough to be effective, but is anyone really chomping at the bit to see James Bond or Jack Sparrow or Frodo Baggins in preschool?

I'm sure there'll be another live action Star Wars movie one day, maybe not this year, maybe not this decade, but one day. All we can hope for is that, one, John Williams is still around to score it, and two, George Lucas or whoever is at the helm on it takes the lessons of the prequel trilogy to heart. I for one will be willing to give that movie the benefit of the doubt when it is inevitably announced, so long as no little kids or Gungans come within fifty light years of the main cast. May the Force be with you.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Fast & Furious

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift was the best of the admittedly low-aiming car porn franchise for two reasons: One, the unexpectedly gorgeous Tokyo location photography, and two and more importantly, the fact that it adopted the Crank / Transporter 2 philosophy of dialing its hypermasculinity to ludicrous levels and embracing its own inherent kitsch value, tongue planted firmly in cheek. If you can't make a legitimately good action movie, which the first two Fast and the Furious flicks weren't, turning it into a testosterone-fueled comedy is the quickest and most reliable solution.

So imagine my disappointment to find the fourth installment, Fast & Furious, reverting the series back to its old folly. Dominic Toretto and Brian O'Conner return and team up to bust a drug lord who uses street racers to ship heroin from Mexico to the U.S. And don't get me wrong, the return of Vin Diesel's Toretto is welcome (Paul Walker somewhat less), but there are painstaking minutes-long sequences of what feels like the filmmakers making a straight-faced effort at a serious cop movie, complete with detectives discussing evidence around tables, sting operations, and halfhearted plot twists. You could remove the one drag race and occasional fetishistic car photography and you'd just have a crappy CSI episode.

It's a shame because Fast & Furious shares director Justin Lin with Tokyo Drift, where I thought the series had found its calling. The action scenes and chase sequences aren't particularly better or worse but it regresses from exotic nighttime Tokyo to eye-rollingly cliché Los Angeles settings and the dialogue isn't a tenth as absurd or funny. The moments of attempted character angst are Eragon-terrible. Also, while I normally avoid marching with the P.C. police, I can't help but point out the hilarious fact that every single black person in this movie is a drug dealer. All in all, a skippable action clunker.

Of course, everything I just said means jack shit in light of the fact that when the credits rolled, the cross section of American moviegoers I shared my theater with fucking burst into applause. So I guess I'm the jackass here. Put a bullet in my head, I'm done.

2 Stars out of 5

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Willow 2: The Reckoning

Pop quiz, hotshot: what do Fast & Furious, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Angels & Demons, Terminator Salvation, Land of the Lost, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra all have in common? If you said "summer movies," you're only half right - despite widely disparate plots and genres, not to mention quality, one and all of this summer's big-budget wannabe blockbusters (save Pixar's Up) are continuations or reimaginings of preexisting franchises.

With budgets shooting north and the economy spiraling south, you can hardly fault the studios' hesitance to gamble on pricey new ideas - established franchises make money, which greenlights more franchise movies. It's a vicious cycle, and whether it's the fourth or sixth or eleventh film in an elderly series or a toy movie or a straightforward remake, long ago seems the era of a fresh high concept hitting the screens with the verve and confidence of Star Wars or The Matrix. But if that's the way it's gonna be I must venture a suggestion: one golden property primed for sequel magic sits on a shelf at MGM, gathering dust when it should be flying high in theaters. I speak, of course, of Ron Howard and George Lucas's Willow:

Willow, as all non-retards know, is probably the greatest movie ever made. Or at least the greatest high fantasy of the 80s and probably the best one preceding The Lord of the Rings. (The Princess Bride is the greatest low fantasy and arguably better than either of them, but that's a debate for another day.) It's got dragons, knights, brownies, trolls, good wizards, bad wizards, fairies, wicked swordfights and special effects, awesome music, a likable everyman protagonist, and uses a goddamn baby as a MacGuffin.

Willow is about a Nelwyn (aka hobbit) called Willow Ufgood who has to escort the infant Elora Danan to the kingdom of Tir Asleen, where she is destined to rule and defeat the evil Queen Bavmorda. Bavmorda sends her armies and monsters to rape and pillage the land and recapture the child, but Willow teams up with the barbarian Madmartigan, the sorceress Fin Raziel and eventually Bavmorda's turncoat daughter Sorsha, and they fight back. Armies clash, villains die, and Willow outwits Bavmorda into accidently sending herself into the netherworld. Good triumphs, the rain stops, the black castles turn white, Madmartigan and Sorsha get married and adopt Elora Danan, Willow returns to the Nelwyn village, and all is well. The end.

Yeah fuckin' right the end! Last I checked the prophecy clearly states that Elora Danan is supposed to defeat evil - not Willow and Fin Raziel! It's pretty straightforward about this! And in this movie all Elora Danan does is wiggle around and coo and drink milk and get her diaper changed, because she's a goddamned baby. The grownups do all the work. So way I see it this prophecy isn't even close to fulfilled, and that's where Willow 2 comes in (although in actuality it would probably need a more clever and mellifluous title than Willow 2).

The plot of this epic sequel practically writes itself. Basically, we open on the peaceful and prosperous kingdom of Tir Asleen twenty to twenty-five years later, still ruled by Queen Sorsha (Willow seems to be almost entirely matriarchal societies, so I'll just stick with that assumption), with King Madmartigan and our protagonist, the restless Princess Elora Danan, living in harmony in the castle as well. But all will soon be woe, for Bavmorda is doing like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings and manipulating monsters and the will of evil men from her prison in the netherworld.

Perhaps Bavmorda just wants to cause all the chaos she can, perhaps she has some MacGuffin to obtain that will grant her corporeal form again (maybe Elora Danan's death?), but either way she attacks Tir Asleen with soldiers and devil dogs in a badass opening battle scene just like in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, and Elora Danan finds herself on the run along with Madmartigan and Sorsha. Or if they wanted to up the stakes first thing Sorsha could die in the first twenty minutes. Sorsha obviously has to have a heroic sacrifice at some point in the film to make way for Elora Danan to become queen in the end, so it might as well be now.

What happens next is Ron Howard's call: either Elora Danan meets up with Willow (now a skilled sorcerer) early on and they go on their entire adventure together, or the movie has split parallel storylines ala The Lord of the Rings or The Empire Strikes Back where Willow sets out from the Nelwyn village and we follow his party and Elora Danan's party in alternating scenes for them to meet up to join forces in the final battle. Personally, I think the the former method could work better because we could have a badass scene where Elora is surrounded by monsters, doomed, when suddenly deadly magic rains down on the villains and they run away. She calls out to know who it is, and the wizard steps out from the fog: it's motherfuckin' Willow Ufgood, bitch.

Either way there's lots of epic action scenes with cool special effects, they battle trolls and another dragon (three-headed this time!), and they meet brownies and fairies as they're pursued by the forces of Bavmorda. Elora also has a love interest because this is a mainstream Hollywood movie and there always has to be a goddamned love interest. Elora is forced to mature on her journey and finally accepts her destiny and leads the armies of good in the final battle (during which Sorsha will die if she didn't at the beginning). And just like how Willow was forced to face Bavmorda by himself at the end of Willow, Elora's friends are incapacitated or otherwise preoccupied and she's forced to face the final confrontation alone.

She wins, obviously, killing Bavmorda for good this time, and evil flees the land forever. Elora Danan, now a confident and self-assured hero, is crowned Queen of Tir Asleen as Willow and Madmartigan look on with pride. Applause sweeps through the audience, women and babies cry, the movie makes $250 million at the box office.

A minimum of four actors from Willow would need to return to make this glorious dream into celluloid reality. First off, the titular franchise hero, Warwick Davis as Willow Ufgood, Elora's magic instructor. Although he hasn't quite become a household name, Davis has more than kept busy: he's going to be in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in July, he was in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian last year, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix the year before that. He's still working, and beyond that he specifically said in an interview as recently as last summer that he'd be happy to play Willow Ufgood again. No problem!

And we need Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley back to play King Madmartigan and Queen Sorsha.

Val Kilmer is of course still a household name, and although I assumed Joanna Whalley had dropped off the map having not heard from her lately, seems I just don't know my shit well enough. She's acted all the way up to this very day and has no less than three projects in development right now, including one with John Hurt and Ray Winstone. She still looks pretty good too! Sign these two up and give them their black and red wigs, because it's time to rock Willow 2 style!

There's also Jean Marsh as Bavmorda, who's in her seventies but to my surprise has continued working right up through this year. I don't know if she would actually appear onscreen or just do a voice, but still, gotta get her. Patricia Hayes has long since passed away, which can be explained by merely saying that Fin Raziel has too, which leaves the one true acting wild card being Julie Peters as Willow's wife Kaiya. She seems to have long since dropped off the face of the earth, so she could be recast or written out, but if they could track Peters down and throw a paycheck in her direction it'd be nice to complete the ensemble.

The big remaining question mark is of course the lead role of Elora Danan, princess of Tir Asleen. First, we'll throw away the usual suspects of Scarlett Johansson, Kirsten Dunst, and Keira Knightley, because I'm sick of them. Here's my top five:

5. Emma Stone - She's actually the closest to my ideal casting age and has natural red hair, but she's primarily a comedic actress so far and who knows if she could anchor a whole epic.

4. Mary Elizabeth Winstead - Pulled off spunky hellraising really well in Live Free or Die Hard. Also looked good as a redhead in Death Proof. Definitely a top contender.

3. Amber Heard - Looking at her huge number of in-production credits, she's definitely a rising star, and I loved her in Pineapple Express. Dye her red, give her a sword, and throw her in there.

2. Gemma Arterton - Her relatively small part as Fields was a highlight of Quantum of Solace. She's also in Prince of Persia so she's obviously on her way up to bigger blockbuster opportunities.

In the end, though, I think I might have to encourage Ron Howard to go for pure nepotism:

1. BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD - Ron Howard's daughter is five or six years older than I would ideally like for Elora, but she's a mega-hot natural redhead, she's magnetic and charismatic onscreen, she'd look great wearing Renaissance faire clothes and swinging a sword, she has no problem doing summer blockbusters, and she's not yet a hot enough commodity that it'd be too hard to get her. I think she's Elora Danan! (Although feel free to debate me on the subject if you feel differently.)

As for the behind-the-camera crew, well, we all know George Lucas is still alive and swimming in money, and not only is Ron Howard still working, he was nominated for Best Director last year and his new summer blockbuster is coming out this very Friday! He's still red hot! Get him his director's chair and some craft service, this bad mofo is directing Willow 2. Beyond that, he still works up through Angels & Demons with the same production designer and same two editors who worked on Willow back in 1988, so get those cats back too.

And the final piece of the puzzle, composer James Horner, not only still alive but still active in the industry, must return to remix his classic themes from the first film and create some new ones.

That is my proposal to Hollywood. Get this script hammered out, assemble that cast and team, $140 million budget, make it happen. Otherwise risk humiliation, because everyone who can read the opening text in Willow knows damn well that Elora Danan did not defeat evil and the story isn't over. And America won't accept a lying prophecy. Ball's in your court, MGM!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Star Trek

J.J. Abrams' Star Trek is 2009's answer to 2008's Iron Man: no one will mistake it for intellectually profound or thematically ambitious science fiction, but what it is is action-adventure spit-shined to Hollywood summer movie perfection. Like Iron Man it's stuffed with cool action, likable characters, gorgeous special effects, loads of comedy, and (although no single performance can hold a candle to Downey Jr.) a memorable ensemble with solid chemistry. It's pure popcorn fun that seamlessly joins Batman Begins and Casino Royale in a string of terrific reboots that brought fresh verve to lagging franchises, and I enthusiastically recommend it.

First, as all hack reviewers must, I'll recount my own personal history with the Star Trek franchise: I have none. I was raised on a diet of Star Wars and James Bond and before this year the only Trek I'd ever seen in my life was the utterly insipid Star Trek: Nemesis. A couple months back I watched five or six episodes of The Original Series along with Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to get finally acquainted with the original characters, so although I can identify Vulcans and Romulans I have no emotional investment in the franchise whatsoever.

I don't care about its original intent. I don't care about Trek mythology. I don't care about canon. I don't care about flaws in ships or races or planets. I don't care. I was going into this geek movie for once as a non-geek, a totally objective filmgoer who wouldn't have had the slightest qualm calling a shitty movie a shitty movie. And it hooked me within two minutes.

J.J. Abrams paces this movie like greased lightning, opening with one of the decade's most impressive cinematic space battles and following it up with a deft two-hour juggling act of rapid-fire character development and eye-popping effects and stunts and battles. It's wildly kinetic, and although you can easily imagine the callous hand of the studio dictating strategically-placed action scenes every ten to fifteen minutes, they're handled so well I couldn't mind less. One extended sequence involving base jumping, giant space drills, black holes, swordfighting, and an unfortunate redshirt near the movie's midpoint is one of the most drunkenly entertaining movie sequences since the train battle with Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2.

Chris Pine's rendition of James T. Kirk retains the swagger of William Shatner while making it less about scenery-chewing and more the symptom of a general cocky attitude, but it's Zachary Quinto's Spock who steals the movie as surely as he steals the increasingly dire Heroes every week as Sylar. He calls Leonard Nimoy instantly to mind while doing a superb job with Spock's classic human-Vulcan dilemma, and as far as I'm concerned Pine and Quinto are essentially co-leads.

Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy has a hugely entertaining alpha male presence although Trekkies may be disappointed with him taking a backseat to the action in the film's latter half, while Zoe Saldana (clad in classic Trek miniskirt), John Cho, and Anton Yelchin get a big scene or two each to shine as Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov even as the movie leaves their backgrounds as ambiguous as ever. Beyond Quinto the film's highlight is probably Simon Pegg - Shaun of the Dead himself! - as Scotty, predictably hilarious and with one of the most amusing non-English-speaking science fiction sidekicks since we met Chewbacca thirty years ago.

Of course, Star Trek ain't perfect. In fact, keeping with my opening analogy, the only two blemishes reflect the same two I found in Iron Man exactly a year ago: the music and the villain. Michael Giacchino does good work with the subtle underscoring music in Lost but his haphazardly loud and generically grandiose score in Trek shows him not to have a tenth the grasp of epic bombast that John Williams does. The music isn't terrible but it fails to produce a single memorable theme. Similarly, the villain, Eric Bana's Nero, is serviceable and gets the job done but he's really just the token opposition to give our heroes something to unite against. A totally generic genocidal Romulan, he won't ever be making anyone's favorite villains list.

But Giacchino and Nero are my minor gripes about an otherwise grand entertainment. As a lifelong Star Wars hardcore and ally of the Force in the eternal Wars vs. Trek debate I'm embarrassed at how much more wit, energy, and a muscular sense of pure fun this movie has than the entire prequel trilogy put together. Comedy that's legitimately funny instead of limply geek-funny! Tributes to nostalgia and classic iconography that totally work in contrast to the horror of kid Boba Fett! And to compare the epic drill bit action sequence at the movie's midpoint to Episode I's midmovie pod race simply makes me cringe.

In fact, to sum up, I'll go so far as to say that Star Trek might just make little kids out there feel similarly awed and transported to the way I felt when I first saw the original Star Wars trilogy way back when, and I don't say that something like that lightly. It's awesome, and for once I can't wait for the inevitable sequel.

5 Stars out of 5