Category Archives: Movies

Movies I’ve enjoyed (or not) or am anticipating (or not).

What’s Wrong with the Star Wars Prequels?

This was in response to a question by my brother Tim on his Facebook feed. Putting it here because it should be somewhere more permanent than a Facebook comment. Here’s his post:

I don’t get why the Star Wars episodes 1-3 are so frowned upon. I honestly loved them and thought Hayden Christensen did a good job as Anikin. However I totally understand the annoyingness of Jar Jar Binks and a few other cheesy qwerks but in all, I’ve always enjoyed them. I mean I was born just a couple years before The Phantom Menace was released… so I grew up with the originals and the prequel influencing my imagination and it was all fun. But of course nothing beats the originals.

Okay, so here’s the deal, to me. The original Star Wars certainly had its share of bad actors (I’m looking at you, Mark Hamill) and a few groaners of its own. But the story, and the universe, was completely unique, and compelling, and often kept you guessing at what would happen. It might not be the best story ever, but it’s damn good anyway, and when you throw in jaw-droppingly good production values (especially considering when it was made), it puts it well out of orbit. Nothing else could even remotely compare with how great Star Wars was, for _decades_.

And it had mystery, and a space-age version of an age of samurai, and the mystery and power of the force.

As to the prequel trilogy, where to begin? The story, you could pick a random junior higher who could tell a story about as compelling, and with the same competence.

The production? Despite vastly more resources to spend, and decades of progress in technology, most of the special effects are clearly _inferior_ to what was in the original trilogy. If the original trilogy was well past state-of-the art, the prequels were well under the line. Before it came out, I’d _already_ seen much better production than they offered me, and had been seeing it for years. CGI in those years was popular, but still not really ready yet for something like this, and it showed. And there were people doing it better than Lucas did. Maybe not by much, but at any rate, it didn’t have the jaw-dropping factor the earlier stuff did, relative to what else was available at the time. Hell, the original trilogy _still_ looks amazing to me (and would look better still if Lucas hadn’t tried to add all those other effects in after the fact. :-P)

I’ll skip over the acting, and just talk about the characters. NO depth whatsoever, especially for Anakin, who is literally a bag full of teen angst, hormones, and NOTHING else. Well, okay… midichlorians, too. So many situations were so cliche, and EVERYTHING, you just see EVERYTHING coming miles and miles and miles away. Except maybe for his sudden rampaging, against the sand people and those in the Jedi Academy, and the fact that there was no real hesitation in either case… he went from angsty and manipulated to purely and devotedly evil so fast it made my head spin. He never, at any point in the second and third movies, showed even the barest ounce of self control in anything he did, which just makes him one of the douchiest protagonists I’ve ever seen. And completely prevents me from ever feeling any real empathy for him, which is a pretty major flaw in a series that seems to at least be trying to drum that up.

You lose both the samurai feel of the Jedi, and the mystery of the force. It’s just “weird science” now, the super-powered micro-cells in your body exerting their supreme influence over the rest of the universe. Seems decidedly less universal (must not actually bind all things together if it’s only concentrated in those things that contain blood that could have midichlorians), and completely kills the mystery (especially since they don’t explore it any further than that, where you could doubtless find more mystery again). Also, something of a rip-off of both Madeleine L’engle’s “A Wind in the Door” (well, a bit anyway), and (especially) Square’s “Parasite Eve” game, which had already explored the “the separate cell-like organelles known as mitochondria in your body are really super-powered alien creatures whose full potential has yet to be discovered” theme in detail.

Forget Jar-Jar. Sure, he’s annoying, but he’s just a mildly sloppy attempt at slapstick humor. Far more grating to me, was C-3PO, particularly in the far-too-many-close-calls-to-be-credible-OR-funny factory, there and directly after, where he lets loose a string of the WORST puns ever, without even pausing long enough between them to let them breathe.

To be fair, by this point, the original Star Wars is put on too high a pedestal, and probably can’t get a fair treatment or critical eye. It’s far, far less compelling a story when you take away the brilliant production values… but it’d still probably be up there thanks to how much they lucked out with Harrison Ford, and also due to the fact that the characters themselves are written with at least some modicum of depth. The relationships have complexity, especially the love-triangle-light that Han, Luke, and Leia present. And the differences between how they view themselves, the masks they present to the world, and what they really reveal themselves to be, make them far more interesting than any given character in the prequel series, every one of whom is exactly who they appear to be at a glance.

The Golden Compass… The Movie

Saw the movie with my daughter, Joy. She loved it, which is great for her. I positively hated it. As much as I found the book to be fairly blah, the movie is positively wretched. A cast loaded with stars could not even begin to save this nightmarishly ill-done movie. The film was quite grainy in parts, and felt like a jarringly disjunct collection of scenes—there was no flow to it at all. The acting was terrible, and since I have a lot of respect for some of the actors within it, I can only assume the directing (as well as the script) are to blame. This conclusion is all the easier to arrive at, as they both originate from the same person (Chris Weitz). I have not seen his other movies (which include American Pie), and after seeing this one, I doubt I’ll be rushing to do so anytime very soon.

There were several parts that were rather poorly explained; at one important part, where the girl Lyra and her daemon (a physical manifestation of her soul) were to be severed, so little information was given as to what was going on, that I doubt I’d have even known what was taking place, if I hadn’t already read the book.

I was also disappointed to find that the few characters in the book that had some small portion of depth to them, were made entirely one-dimensional in this movie. Probably the particulars of this depth would have been difficult to make work for the film, but at any rate it removed much of what small charm the book had. For instance, in the book, an attempt is made to poison Lyra’s “uncle”, Lord Asriel, by the schoolmaster of the scholarly university where Lyra has been raised, and who is something of a father-like figure to Lyra, which causes her some conflicting feelings about him. Later, a hint of the weighty decisions that would conspire to influence him to do such a thing is revealed, and indeed he is somewhat vindicated in the end for having made the attempt. However, in the movie, the schoolmaster is an entirely benevolent character, who righteously refuses to stoop to any such treachery, and so the attempt is made instead by a high-ranking official of the Magisterium (the “church-like” religious order, whose malevolence and self-servingly intolerant views and behaviors are the reason why the trilogy has garnered so much negative publicity from certain religious groups).

I had read that the film’s producers had decided to tone down any anti-religious establishment sentiments from the book, caving in to pressure from religious groups. However, I was surprised to find that, rather than this being the case, if anything it was more direct in its opposition to the story’s “church” than the book ever was (see above, for example). Perhaps they actually increased the “antagonism” against religious views in response to the disproportionate outcry against it.

The script was absolutely lacking in imagination. Most of it flowed from the book… exactly, except that the better parts were removed. One spot which I loved in the book, but was disappointed to find in place and untouched in the movie, was the fight between two anthropomorphic bears. It was a scene which involved a bit of deception on the part of the hero, Iorek, who pretended that his arm was injured so that he could use it in a surprise attack, finishing his enemy, Ragnar, with a strong blow that knocks his lower jaw clean off, to dribble blood from the neck as he dies in agony. The deception is made all the more impactful by the reader’s knowledge that, under normal circumstances, a bear can never be deceived, and so the fact that Ragnar could have fallen prey to it was proof of his demented reason. The fact that the “injured” arm, isn’t really, is completely lost in the movie, and one gets the impression that he simply “managed” to strike a savage blow with an actually severely-injured arm; and since both the deception and its underlying revelation are completely lost, it should have been removed entirely.

As for the jarringly grisly sight of Ragnar sans lower jaw… it was an inappropriately violent one. Shocking, not so much owing to its own violence, as to the fact that there was no other violence in the movie that came even remotely near it. Such a jarring contrast shouldn’t “just appear”, to no purpose other than to follow what was in the book; it should be used to some effect. The only possible resulting effect of this scene would be parents wondering why this image has now been unsanctimoniously slapped into the minds of its younger, more impressionable viewers.

The conclusion? As much as the world might really be able to use a new tale to capture the imagination of young ones, filled not with veiled religious allegories, but with notions intended to promote freethought and question religious ideology, Pullman is certainly no C S Lewis, and the world will, in my opinion, need to continue to wait for such an arrival. And thank God he’s not (hee hee), as a more laudable literary basis for this supremely unremarkable movie could only have made it the more tragic.

Ironically, rather than make good on the “clear threat” to religion and godliness that churches across America seem to believe it poses, this movie is unlikely to do much other than to strengthen the faith of their parishoners, by fulfilling their prayers that God would keep people out of the theaters, and allow the movie to suffer an abysmally disappointing economic defeat.

Darwin Awards on DVD

So… it looks like they’re releasing a movie on DVD based on the famed Darwin Awards. Winona Ryder co-stars. Should be interesting…

If you’ve been living in a cave and haven’t heard of the Darwin Awards before, it’s an honor bestowed upon people who have selflessly (if inadvertantly) removed themselves from the human gene pool through acts of sheer stupidity, and are therefore doing the human race a service by presumably decreasing, if ever-so-slightly, the quantity of genes in the pool that result in stupid people. There are a few rules that must be met in order to qualify for a Darwin Award, the most important of which (IMO, at least) are:

  1. The victim/awardee must have displayed an “astounding misapplication of judgment”, and
  2. The victim/awardee must have removed perself from the gene pool; that is, phe must no longer be capable of procreating. The usual way this is accomplished is via the removal of oneself from among the living; however, it is sufficient to have damaged one’s reproductive organs in such a way as to meet this requirement. 🙂

Beauty and the Beast

The family has started watching the late 80s television series, Beauty and the Beast, seasons one and two of which are currently available on DVD, about a female news reporter whose life is saved by a man who is part lion and is part of a small society that lives in secret far below the streets of New York city, and share an empathic bond from that moment forward. Sara and I both loved the series growing up, but then it just sort of quietly disappeared; I don’t know if the series finished up or it was cancelled, but they didn’t play any reruns, and I barely heard a whisper about it until I happened to notice season 2 available at my local Fry’s Electronics store.

While watching the initial credits, I noticed that Vincent (the lion guy), is played by Ron Perlman, whose name rang a familiar bell, so I looked him up in IMDB. Turns out, there’s a reason I recognized that name: he’s been in several movies, some of which you’re sure to have at least heard of. He’s been in Hellboy, Highlander; several notable video games including Fallout, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, and Forgotton Realms: Icewind Dale. The most striking to me (but one you’re probably not as familiar with), is the french film The City of Lost Children, which is a really well-done, artistic and charming (and surreal and bizarre and disturbing) movie, co-written and co-directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who also brought us Amélie, the delightfully twisted cannibalism-themed Delicatessen, and… Alien Resurrection!

No Earthsea From Ghibli Until 2009?

Japanese poster of “Tales from Earthsea”A year ago I posted that Studio Ghibli was doing another of their legendary animations for 2006, to be based on Ursula K Le Guin’s The Earthsea Cycle series of books. Studio Ghibli is famous for producing very excellent animations, usually under the masterful direction of Hayao Miyazaki, including Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.

Well, here are some updates regarding that. The movie was indeed released in Japan last year, but it was not directed by Hayao Miyazaki, as I had expected; it was actually directed by his eldest son, Goro. I’ll note that it took roughly half the time (8½ months) to complete as Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle did (16-17 months), and this is Goro’s first-ever animation production. Combining these things with the fact that Goro probably (hopefully?) lacks the obsessive personality of his father, I have some small doubts as to whether its quality will hold up to those pieces. Still, his initial artwork was impressive enough to win the approval of the head animators of Evangeleon and the Lupin series, and it’s still been made by the excellent Studio Ghibli animators, so it ought to be better than anything we tend to see produced over here.

More depressingly, though, is that the movie’s FAQ mentions that the US won’t see a release of this movie until at least 2009. Why? Because the SciFi Channel still has the movie rights to the series thanks to their crappy miniseries, which had been a disappointment to Le Guin. So that would make a new reason to hate that miniseries (and I’ve never read the books, so I can only imagine how incensed the fan base must be!).

The Power of the Dark Crystal

Holy. Freaking. Crap.

They are making a sequel to one of the best fantasy movies ever made, Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. Brian Froud, the conceptual artist from the original (and really, the reason why The Dark Crystal ever existed in the first place), and David Odell, the writer of the original, are back to work their magic in The Power of the Dark Crystal, joined by the director behind all of the shows on Cartoon Network that are at all decent, Genndy Tartakovsky, and of course Jim Henson’s daughter, Lisa Henson.

These guys are going to totally make my quarter-century. Now, if only someone would pick up the live-action remake of The Last Unicorn, I could die a happy man.

My Favorite Kids’ Cartoon

I’ve been a fan of Studio Ghibli (スタジオジブリ) and Hayao Miyazaki (宮崎駿) from the moment I first saw Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫). For some time now, Disney has been releasing Studio Ghibli productions in the US.

Just this week, I had the opportunity to watch Pom Poko (平成狸合戦ぽんぽこ). It’s about a clan of tanuki (tah-noo-key [狸] raccoon dogs, frequently mistranslated as “raccoons”) who are troubled by the humans who are tearing apart their forest in order to make new suburbs. These tanuki possess powers of transformation, so they use these powers to try to scare the daylights out of the humans.

The movie has terrific animation (if rather Japanese-culture-oriented enough to seem bizarre to most western eyes), and the unfolding story is captivating to watch for both adults and children, but that’s not what I’m gonna talk about.…

A lot of the fun of watching this movie is the fact that, at all times, the male tanuki’s testicles are clearly visible. Not only that, but the male tanuki actually use their scrota to great advantage, by transforming them into weapons, or boat sails, or picnic blankets, or parachutes. (The Japanese are much, much more tolerant of anatomical references in literature and movies [including kids’ stuff]). Disney adds some western grace to it by consistently referring to them as “pouches,”, and the animation in most cases is not as obvious as you might think (at least, for kids), so there are some who have watched the movie without actually realizing what specifically was being used.

You’ve gotta love a kids movie with balls (pun intended). And the fact that Disney produced this in the US… that’s awesome!

Tales From Earthsea by Ghibli

I just found out that there’s another great animation due out from Studio Ghibli this July. Unfortunately, that date’s the Japanese release; I’ve got no idea when Disney will release this in the States. Anyway, the movie’s Tales From Earthsea, based on the books by Ursula K. Le Guin. The SciFi Channel recently made a miniseries based on these books, but it was very poorly done. I have every confidence that Miyazaki‘s version will be a significant improvement.

BTW, I myself have never read the books. Just seen the miniseries (and seen about everything from Miyazaki that I can get my hands on).