Saturday, February 15, 2014

My 5 Best/5 Worst Cinematic Experiences

In this age of instant streaming and personalized media consumption, it's sometimes refreshing to be reminded that, as a film lover, there is no substitution for the experience of seeing a new or favorite film in a dark theater on a huge bright screen with booming sound, and to know that as you take in the film you are sharing a moment of discovery with dozens of complete strangers that have come together to share in a moment. On the other hand, there are few things as disappointing as going out of your way and putting your hard earned money down in the hopes of seeing something worth while, and then having your hopes ripped apart over the course of two hours.

I think we can all remember at least one or two great times and at least as many bad times at the theater. These are my top five and bottom five movie-going experiences over the years.


5. Horton Hears a Who (2008)

This entry requires some context. I had a weekend day free so I made the terrible choice to go see Roland Emmerich's 10,000 B.C. with about two other people in the theater. I was so mad at it that as I was leaving I decided I had to wash the taste of such an awful film, so I ducked into a screening of Horton just as the opening credits were rolling. Assuming that it would be just another bastardization of a Dr. Seuss classic, I only intended to stay for a few scenes. But between Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Amy Poehler, this movie had one of the finest comedic casts I had ever seen. One 2D animated segment had me taking off my coat, and a second one had me laughing so hard I didn't catch any of the action immediately following it.

Perhaps being the only single adult man in a movie for children didn't help my position, but the film was so well crafted that I left the ending of it having turned around what could have been one of my worst film-going experiences into one of the best.

4. King Kong (2005)

Peter Jackson fell in love with the original Kong as a kid and used his capital following the Lord of the Rings Trilogy into making his version. The film has its flaws, including some questionable CGI, humor that falls flat, some weird creature design, and a running length that would challenge most viewers. But for everything wrong with it, the film makes up for it by making full use of the cinematic experience. Sitting in a full auditorium, the brass-heavy score shook my entire body, the T-Rex fight and the (now mocked for its green screen acting) Brontosaurus stampede had so much kinetic energy, weight, and force that I was gripping my seat to keep from falling off of a cliff. The shared experience of seeing Kong first appear, seeing him lower his guard with Ann, and finally his cruel capture and downfall was one of the best treatments of a character I had ever seen. I left the theater thrilled at having been able to see the film, as it was intended, on the big screen.

3. United 93 (2006)

Alongside World Trade Center, the question going into this film was, "has enough time passed to present one, let alone two dramatizations of 9/11?" At least for United 93, the answer was yes. Enough time had passed to enable viewers to relive that day, but with nerves still raw enough to understand its magnitude. For its part, the film is an entirely objective account of the event, with some artistic license to suggest the actions of the people involved where there will never be a record. Plunging the theater into the grip of absolute terror the passengers on that flight would have felt, my heart was pounding as the action escalates to its inevitable conclusion, coming to a close without giving you the luxury of time to process what you have just seen. The film has no message besides describing what actually happened, and while the WTC Memorial in Manhattan is poignant, this film stands as the definitive memorial to the victims of 9/11. I was emotionally shaken and glad to have come together with strangers to remember that tragedy.

2. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928/1994)

The story behind this film is almost as fascinating as the film itself, having been thought lost for decades until a copy was discovered in a mental institution in 1985. Coming from the near-end of the silent era, the film broke new ground in acting and cinematography, employing numerous extreme close-ups on actors whose lack of make up added realism.

Today the film is often set to an original score written in 1994 by Richard Einhorn. When I saw it, the music was performed live with a full string orchestra and men's and women's choirs. The music is at once epic and dramatic, fitting for a film that strips the context of the event away to its core: the trial and persecution of a remarkable, vulnerable woman for political reasons. People exited the theater in tears; I was choked up. The film is presented in this way sporadically in different places, so if you ever have the chance I highly recommend the experience.

1. Jurassic Park (1993)

Peter Jackson had King Kong, I had Jurassic Park. When this movie came out I was the ideal age for it, as young as the character Timmy and just as fascinated by dinosaurs. I could go into a whole lecture on how the paleontologists being replaced by technology in the film mirrored the displacement of traditional film techniques to CGI, but all that was subtext to me when I first saw what seemed to be real dinosaurs come to life before my eyes. The effects for the most part hold up so well that as a child I was extremely disappointed to find out not all of the shots were created with giant robots. Compare that to the countless examples of terrible computer effects that have followed.

Even as a child I embraced the lengthy amount of time between the beginning and when the story gets moving and the dinosaurs escape because I understood it added tension and suspense, which heightened the movie experience. Compare that to the idiot child who apparently wrote David Koepp complaining that it took too long to get to the dinosaurs, resulting in the pacing in the far inferior The Lost World: Jurassic Park. This is where I fell in love with the movies, and legendarily (at least for me) I managed to see the film approximately eight times during its long theatrical run (Going to see The Fugitive, mom and dad? Great, you can drop me off to see Jurassic Park again!), which was a victory for me because initially my parents refused to let me see it for fear of its violence, telling me I could watch it when it was shown on television (when, 1998???).

But you can't have sweet without the sour, so here are my top 5 worst film-going moments.


5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

Nobody likes feeling dumb. I consider myself an intelligent person, and I enjoy challenging films, but this particular film stretched that to the breaking point. This spy thriller did not hold your hand at all as it unravelled the story of a British secret agent tasked with uncovering the mole in his agency. Every character he interacts with could be the double-agent, and so deciding to trust anyone with information is inherently risky.

Unfortunately when the audience is told to not trust anyone, any action the main character does has ambiguous consequences and therefore nothing he does seems to matter to us even if in his mind he is figuring out what to do. Since the mystery is solved in his head and not revealed until the end, for the entire duration of the film the audience is merely a hapless bystander with no indication of what is happening or why. Oh, it was that guy? Great, I had no reason to think so or not think so. Some hand-holding would have been appreciated in this situation! The movie looked great and the actors were terrific, but what does it matter if you can't follow the damn thing? I left this movie feeling snubbed.

On a plus note, this is where I learned Benedict Cumberbatch is a thing!

My lips are sealllled.

4. Super 8 (2011)

For the remainder of films on this list the main factor for my negative opinion was disappointment. Such was the case with this film which followed on J.J. Abrams strong deliveries with Mission Impossible III and Star Trek, and which promised to be a throwback to Spielbergian wonderment and adventure such as E.T. and Close Encounters. Unfortunately, that homage was all style and no substance.

For one thing, the central MacGuffin of the Super 8 camera that the children use to film home movies is discarded pretty immediately, and has no real significance to the plot. What remains in the plot is a parade of half worked out ideas and visual effects that seem important but are never explained. Despite being credited with only a thanks, the imprimatur of con-artist Damon Lindelhof seems prevalent throughout the film, much as it would be later in Prometheus.

Fuck this thing.

Abrams is too in love with his ode to Spielberg and his own childhood experience making movies that he doesn't realize that nothing makes sense, and the attempt to build complexity by setting up ideas and not following through ruins the plot. Regardless of who is responsible for the story, the tone of awe the film attempts to build in the end is completely undeserved, and as the credits rolled the entire audience rose quietly to leave, only to be shown the children's film footage over the credits. As one audience member mumbled, "I wish we had seen that movie instead." Well played, sir. Well played.

3. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Hey, look! Benedict Cumberbatch again! 

When I heard The Hobbit would be released in two parts, I thought that made sense, even though the book itself was about half the length of any of the Lord of the Rings books. When it was announced it would actually be made into three parts, I thought that was an excessive cash grab. But after seeing An Unexpected Journey I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps there was enough material to fill three films.

And then I saw part two, and it was confirmed that the three films was just a cash grab. For about the first two hours nothing of substance happens. In fact, one segment culminates with the company being given ponies to help them on their journey; then not one minute later they reach the edge of a woods and send the ponies back. I think that could have been left out.

I don't care.

Finally the film arrives at the den of the titular Smaug, and for a few minutes there is some hope that something could be salvaged from this waste of time. However it runs amuck from there, with the dwarves hatching an elaborate, complex plan that ultimately yields nothing. That was your plan?!!

But perhaps the most insulting moment comes at the very end, which cuts to a cliff-hanger in the middle of action. Not between actions, during the middle of action. As in, the dragon is in mid-flight and villagers are loading their defenses with arrows. This might fly in a television episode, but not the season finale and certainly not in a film with a year interlude before the resolution! I cannot imagine how part three could jump right into the middle of an action set-piece with absolutely no build up, so presumably they'll end up backtracking instead.

This ended up being a middle finger rather than a middle part, and there was an audible groan from the entire audience as the film cut to black.

2. John Carter (2012)

I've looked forward to few movies as much as this one, which I was anticipating as much as four years before its release when it was still called John Carter of Mars and was going to be made by Pixar. Add to that the director of my two favorite Pixar films and this couldn't miss.

But problems started arising that foreboded doom. Someone at Disney must have noticed that films set on Mars don't do well and so the name was changed to the decidedly generic John Carter. When the trailer was released I thought it looked pretty good, but apparently negative word of mouth was spreading fast, possibly because Disney had no idea how to market their notoriously expensive creation. But the film was finished by then, so it shouldn't have mattered.

But then I saw the film, and it was apparent from the beginning that it had been ruined by committee. Return of the King has been criticized for having too many endings; John Carter had no less than four beginnings: a cold open on Mars, a bookend with Edgar Rice Burroughs reading John Carter's journal, John Carter as an outlaw in the West, and finally crash cutting to John Carter on Mars. The film could have started right with the final beginning and spent time setting up its world. Instead Willem Dafoe performs a voice over like there's a gun to his head at the very beginning (not a good sign) and tells us all about Therns, Tharks, Barsoom, Jeddaks, Helium, and Zodanga. Since this is not a season of Game of Thrones and we don't have time for this, it might be helpful to just translate into English, but no.

The problems don't stop there. Upon meeting a green alien, John Carter becomes exasperated rather quickly that it thinks his name is Virginia, not that he's from Virginia. He's immediately made out to be a kind of superhero, which I get is because he's faster and stronger in the weaker gravity, but that doesn't make the tensile strength of materials any weaker, right? Then, in the middle of a scene where we're supposed to feel our hero's pain at having lost his family years before, I found myself laughing inappropriately at the sight of a cartoon salamander-dog that looks like that cat bus from My Neighbor Totoro running at Mach 10 to his rescue.

Finally we are subjected to the embarrassment of the movie setting up the sequel which we all know is never going to happen, which makes me feel like a jerk for some reason. I left the theater laughing, which is all I could do to stop the tears, at what a train wreck they ended up making.

1. Star Wars: Episode I (1999)

Of course this is #1, what else would it be? Seeing this film introduced me to an entirely new concept: that movies can be huge let-downs.

Just like with Jurassic Park, I should have been the perfect age for this one, having replaced my childhood love of dinosaurs with my love of science-fiction in my teenage years. I had become a Star Wars fan around the time the Special Edition films were released and like the rest of the world I was eagerly awaiting the experience of being in a generation that got to live through a new Star Wars being introduced. I caught one of the first screenings at a suburban cinema. There was none of the fanboy dressed up as Jedi and Stormtroopers, but expectations were high and the theater was packed.

So what ruined it all? Was it Jar Jar Binks, a character that seemed to combine Roger Rabbit with Howard the Duck? Was it baby Anakin Skywalker? Art direction that, while visually amazing, was unrestrained and bore little resemblance to the original trilogy? If I had to put my finger on the moment that ruined the film forever it would have to be the midichlorians scene, but it wasn't just that. With my teenage brain still developing, I initially wrote off the confusion that set in after the film concluded by deciding that it must have been too complex for me to understand. Certainly in that brief window of time word of mouth was decidedly mixed and the public at general could not yet conclude whether it really was that bad. But hindsight has revealed that, no, the film is not complex, it is simply confused. The cause of the confusion seemed to be a rushed script that got none of the polish that the original Star Wars and its multiple drafts were given. So there I was, wandering around in a daze for weeks, thinking that the film wasn't the problem, I was the problem.

I'm the only good thing in this movie.

The Phantom Menace made me think I was dumb, and then taught me that sometimes things you look forward to would be hugely disappointing. This film made me lose my innocence, and from then on my relationship with films was forever changed.

So how did you like these films? What were the best and worst film-going experiences you've had?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Muddled Politics of Star Wars

High up on the typical list of complaints about the Star Wars prequels is that they were saddled by the amount of boring, verbose politics in them. Nevertheless, they were essential to the telling of the story, which was always going to be twofold: first, the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader; and second, how the peaceful Republic fell and the Evil Empire rose. That second story, detailing the end of one political system and the beginning of another, was arguably more important to the overarching story of Star Wars.

The problem isn't that there was politics. The problem is that, like most of the other elements of the story, the politics were clearly written backwards from the events of Episode IV, and made so that all things lined up to lead to that conclusion. The execution of this, besides being clunky, was also unfortunately laden with problems of logic and rationale. In this post I will attempt to illustrate the largest problems with the politics in the Star Wars prequels.

For the purpose of this post, I am disregarding any supplementary, "expanded universe" sources that might explain some of the politics that are not spelled out in the films. As always, if it's not in the films, it is not explained to the audience.

To begin, let's simply remind ourselves of what the major political plot points were in the prequels.

First, every revolved around the political machinations of Senator/Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious, and the story of the fall of the Republic is the same story as the rise of Emperor Palpatine.

In Episode I, Palpatine is the Senator from Naboo, and as Darth Sidious engineers a crisis between the Naboo and the Trade Federation. This allows him to be elected Chancellor after a no-confidence vote in Chancellor Valorum. Meanwhile the Naboo defeat the Trade Federation in battle.

10 years later, Palpatine is still Chancellor, and Amidala is now Senator. Separatists begin leaving the Republic and the threat of war is in the air. The Senate debates the creation of an army, which Amidala opposes, but the threat of assassination forces her to go into hiding. Palpatine manipulates Jar Jar Binks, who serves in her stead, into proposing that the Senate give Palpatine the emergency powers he needs to create an army, which is then sent against the armies of the Separatists, beginning the Clone Wars.

With the wars dragging on, and the Separatist leaders elusive, Palpatine holds onto his emergency powers until confronted by the Jedi. After fighting them back and ordering the Separatist leaders killed, Palpatine announces the treason of the Jedi to the Senate and declares himself head of the Empire.

The problem with this is not that Palpatine successfully accomplishes all of this against all odds, under the nose of characters that should see it coming. After all, history is replete with examples of men rising to power by similar means. The problem is that the levers of power that he pulls would often seem to accomplish the opposite of what he intends to do, and yet things tend to fall into place despite this.

Case in point, the inciting incident in Episode I: the Trade Federation blockade of Naboo. Despite the opening crawl and ensuing plot, not much is explained about the motives of the Trade Federation. It is obvious that Darth Sidious has employed the Trade Federation to do his bidding, but it can also be assumed that blockading the planet would also directly benefit the Trade Federation in some way anyway, or else they would have nothing to show for their actions in the end. So what were they after?

According to the film, the crisis began with taxation that originated in the Senate. If that's the case, what issue does the Trade Federation have with Naboo? Assuming that the Trade Federation is against taxation because it would hurt their profits, then they really should be pursuing their agenda in the Senate to end the taxation. Instead they surround the planet of Naboo with their war ships. Are they trying to circumvent the taxes by forcing the Naboo to sign a treaty that would do just that? If so, wouldn't they need to do the same with every planet they do trade with? And even if that were the case, any contract that they sign would be in violation of the law, bringing both parties into conflict with the Senate anyway.

Meanwhile, Queen Amidala escapes to present her case directly to the Senate. As Senator Palpatine explains, the corruption in the Senate blocks Chancellor Valorum from taking any action. Whether or not the Chancellor is willing to do anything, I would assume that as a democratic body the members of the Senate should be able to enact action through a majority vote, which they actually do by invoking a vote of no-confidence in the Chancellor. This begs the question: if the Senate had the votes to remove the Chancellor from office due to his inaction, shouldn't they have had the votes to respond to Queen Amidala's call for help? It seems that Amidala had the support of the Senate anyway. This would have eliminated Palpatine's opportunity to seize the Chancellorship.

But for whatever reason Chancellor Valorum is removed from office and Palpatine is among the nominees to succeed him. Why is that? Part of the reason for removing Valorum from office was because he was biased by too much influence, which caused him to side with the Trade Federation. Presumably the best choice for Chancellor would be someone that is unbiased and able to judge issues on their merits. Instead, Palpatine is elected, despite the fact that as the representative of one of the warring parties, any actions of his would clearly be in favor of Naboo. If a majority of the Senate elected him Chancellor, knowing he would rule in Naboo's favor, why wouldn't they just skip the election of a new Chancellor and just take action to help Naboo?

Despite the fact that Queen Amidala's own Senator has a strong chance of being elected Chancellor and resolving the crisis, she chooses to return to Naboo, encourages the Gungans to fight on her behalf, and defeats the Trade Federation. This renders the election of Palpatine moot. With the Trade Federation is evicted from the planet, who the Chancellor of the Senate is makes little difference to the situation. In addition, by abandoning the political process prematurely, the Queen's actions seem inpatient and needlessly brash, and by convincing the Gungans to fight for her people's freedom she pointlessly lets hundreds of them die over a matter that was a few votes away from resolving. Given her anti-war position in this film and the next ones, this seems entirely out of character.

Another thing: the idea that Palpatine is the elected Senator from Naboo is highly questionable. Was he born and raised there? While the idea that an evil person could come from such a small, peaceful place is not totally out of the question, in this case it seems highly improbable. Naboo is modeled after Venice, and as such seems remote and unconcerned with the machinations of the rest of the galaxy. It just seems bizarre that such an idyllic location would be the origin of the galaxy's most ambitious and evil villain.

Alright, so by being elected Chancellor, Palpatine should have no interest in the resolution of the crisis on Naboo. I suppose he would hang on to the Viceroy of the Trade Federation as long as he was useful, but after the Battle of Naboo, what would the Viceroy have to gain from serving him? In Episode II, he seems fixated on assassinating Amidala purely out of revenge. While that motive is not entirely beyond belief, by this point in the trilogy the Viceroy has pooled his Trade Federation troops together with the rest of the Separatist members and seems to be preparing for war. Amidala, meanwhile has become Senator and has been working to oppose the Military Creation Act, which would create an army for the Republic. So why would the Viceroy want to assassinate the one person who could prevent the Republic from raising an army that would oppose him in battle?

Why indeed would Amidala be against creating an army, besides the obvious appeal to liberal sensibilities against fighting? After all, by resolving the crisis on Naboo with arms, she of all people should understand the benefits to responding to threats with a military. Instead for no apparent reason, she is against resisting the Trade Federation and Separatists with an army, and again the Senate is blocked from action because of opposition.

The assassination attempts against Amidala's life seem to be a clear indication that someone is trying to silence her opposition, which leads to the plot of Episode II of the Jedi's unraveling of who her assassin is. Bowing to pressure, Amidala agrees to retreat to Naboo to avoid her attacker, but instead of having one of the seemingly endless numbers of decoys stand in for her, so as not to alert her attackers to her absence (Rose Byrne could have done the job), she instead appoints Jar Jar Binks to represent her in the Senate. So, as far as she knows, her attacker should notice her disappearance, and would presumably look for her on her home planet (luckily for her, they don't seem to try).

This is where Jar Jar Binks is manipulated into voting the Chancellor emergency powers. Now, it's well established that Jar Jar is an idiot, but so far in the films he's just been depicted as annoying, clumsy, and goofy. But still, he should have the ability to reason. So when the film tells us that he's been under Amidala's employ, and stressing the point that she has spent the entire last year fighting back the creation of an army, you would assume that Jar Jar is fairly familiar with her position. Yet, at a crucial moment when it's discussed that the Chancellor can authorize the army's creation if he is given emergency powers, Jar Jar is swayed into proposing them based on the suggestion that Amidala would have done so, despite it being the exact opposite of her position. It would be as if Obama was incapacitated for a day, and as acting president someone said to Joe Biden, "If only Barack Obama were here, he would have the courage to repeal Obamacare." And then, based on that one sentence, Joe Biden were to go, "You know, you're right. I'll do it for him!"

I mean, Jar Jar is goofy, but even a complete idiot would know not to do the exact opposite of what was expected of him. If he were, then Amidala is pretty stupid to have given him that power in the first place.

And again, we have to ask, if there were enough votes to give Chancellor Palpatine emergency powers, wouldn't there have been enough votes to just create the army? Both votes accomplish the same thing, only if anything it should take more votes to grant one person such sweeping powers.

Even if the creation of the army was somehow blocked because of Amidala, her absence should now allow a normal vote to take place. So again, Palpatine's rise is possible because of politics that make absolutely no sense.

Years later, Palpatine still has his emergency powers and remains in office beyond his normal term because the Clone Wars still rage on, and as long as they do he can expect to continue to do so. As secret leader of the Secessionists, he is in a position to know exactly where to position all his forces to stretch the war into eternity, cementing his grip on power. Yet by the middle of Episode III, Palpatine gives away the positions of all the Separatist leaders and brings the war to an end, and in doing so brings to an end any excuse to stay in power. Then, he reveals the Jedi attempt on his life and declares himself ruler in perpetuity. Even if the Senate were to condone his campaign against the Jedi, it seems that they would still ask him to give up his emergency powers since the war is over. We don't even know when the Rebellion begins; it could be years from then. Would the Senate really allow Palpatine emergency powers during a time of peace?

So, in sum, Palpatine began his career on a planet that should never have produced an evil warmonger; he was elected to Chancellor despite being too biased to serve in that position thanks to more votes being cast for him than there were cast to just resolve the crisis; he was then granted emergency powers by the one representative that shouldn't have wanted to, with more votes than there were to just create the army and resolve the crisis; and then he cemented his grip on power by ending the war that justified his grip on power.


Of course, this can all be explained by Palpatine using force influence to induce the entire body of the Senate into doing these unexplainable things. But if that's the case, there is no drama. The entire Prequel Trilogy is basically one long deus ex machina.

So while politics in Star Wars could have been effective, they were instead muddled by multiple plot holes and lapses in logic. Had they been better written, the politics could have been a major strength in the story.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Short Eulogy for "Yeah, It's That Bad"

The internet lost a great show last week when the movie review podcast Yeah, It's That Bad (or YITB to those in the know) went dead. Its website, YouTube catalog, and iTunes feed, along with all archived files just suddenly vanished. It lasted 2 1/2 years, 129 official episodes, 9 "After Dark" bonus episodes, and 4 Premium episodes.

Its last episode, The Mummy Returns, was released right on schedule, on a Tuesday, just as the show had consistently done just about every week. However, it began with an unfamiliar opening disclaimer by hosts Joel, Martin, and Kevin (no last names, as always), who came right to the point and explained that the show may soon be at its end. Beyond that, no explanation was offered. Martin insisted that there was a good reason for the vaguery, and that the issue somehow personally affected one host if not more. Soon afterwards, that episode and all previous episodes were yanked off of the web. Attempting to visit left you at a Blogger "access restricted" page, and the updated feed on iTunes was suddenly and somewhat ominously renamed "Dead Air."

The show had, over its life, grown a moderate following of dedicated fans, who in the confusion or frustration of the past week gathered in the last bastion of YITB fandom that remains online, the show's Facebook page. Under the last group post, which linked (now broken) to the last episode on iTunes, the hosts had referred to the important announcement in the audio file. Fans soon began commenting on the post with their reactions, rangeing from confused innocence (Hey, I can’t access your site), to anger (What’s going on? We deserve an answer!!). But mostly fans wrote in to express their gratitude to the show and hopes that whatever was behind the end of it, it wasn’t too serious.

Within the same post, almost lost in the throngs of comments, the official YITB page then commented on its own post, seemingly confirming that the shutdown was for good and that, contrary to initial speculation, they were not being sued. Beyond that there was no further explanation as to the cause, whether they shut themselves down voluntarily or not, whether the show had affected their work life or personal life, or whether we would ever hear from them again. In the absence of answers, fans milled about the page over the next few days, airing their grief or saluting the show by quoting running jokes. Whatever the cause, we were suddenly and very personally reminded of how much we had invested ourselves in the show, many professing very strong degrees of sadness and the impression that they had literally lost some good friends. It is only right and proper that we should reflect back on the show and discuss why, to a select group of followers, it was so important.

There is no current lack of podcasts about movies out there, but I tend to lump three different shows together that stand out from the pack: How Did This Get Made?, Half in the Bag, and YITB. Each first appeared around the same time in early 2011, routinely discuss and review bad movies, relish in sneering at their worst elements, and are hosted by a group of close personal friends who are extremely funny, often by being shamelessly hyperbolic, ironic, occasionally scatological, and hypercritical. After that the differences and idiosyncrasies of the shows start to emerge, and you will permit me to compare and contrast them.

How Did This Get Made? is based out of LA and hosted by professional comedians and actors Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas. Paul Scheer is perhaps the best known of the three from his TV roles, such as on Human Giant. Their show is released biweekly, with a “mini-episode” in between revealing what the next episode will be. In full episodes they dive right into the plot of the movie, go over the main plot points, and highlight especially bizarre or confounding scenes, interjecting jokes and humorous commentary. They also invite a guest comedian or celebrity on for each full episode, usually someone they have worked with, but sometimes an actor or director involved with the film they are reviewing.

This is the show’s strength, as comedy nerds come for the distinct personalities and comic sensibilities of the hosts and guests, and movie nerds get some insider info on Hollywood. This also leads to the shows main weakness, which is that by being tied to the Hollywood system, the show’s hosts seem to self-censor themselves so as to not offend friends or associates who have worked on the movies they might review. Indeed, they steer clear on a lot of crap that are fodder for other podcasts because of this, instead directing their jokes at untouchable, A-list celebrities they would never be allowed to work with anyway, like Will Smith, Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, and Jennifer Lopez, or choosing safe films from the 80’s like Howard the Duck, Superman III, or Mac & Me.

They also tend to favor movies that are ridiculous or over-the-top, rather than just flat out bad (Gary Oldman played a dwarf in a movie called Tiptoes?!!). And while they have good rapport (Scheer and Raphael are married) and distinct individual personalities, episodes can sometimes get bogged down in minutiae as the hosts struggle just to agree between themselves what actually happened in the films, and occasionally there will be an episode where, if you haven’t personally seen the film in question, you might have no real idea what it really was about after an hour straying from the topic. The bi-weekly schedule of the full episodes also makes it fall behind the standards of many podcasters, though the difficulty of scheduling three or four professional television actors and comedians must be considerable. All in all, though, a great show for movie and comedy lovers.

Half in the Bag is actually a web video series rather than an audio podcast, based out of Milwaukee and hosted by the independent filmmakers Mike Stoklasa, Jay Bauman, and Rich Evans, all of Red Letter Media. The company and the filmmakers first gained internet fame from their analyses of the Star Trek movie franchise and especially the Star Wars prequels. Half in the Bag puts the hosts in front of the camera, where they review new releases, though sometimes thematically pairing them with an older, usually low budget film. The production value of the reviews is fairly high, with excellent lighting, sound, and camera work, and tightly written comedic sets that serve to frame the extemporaneous film reviews.

Coming from an independent background, the movies they review tend to be high-budget Hollywood blockbusters and comedies starring A-List actors. The films are not preselected for being bad films, but rather as typical films from the Hollywood system. Thus, they tend to subject the films to criticism of being “shlock,” dumbed down to appeal to a broad audience, or cynical in their effort to bring in big money rather than aim for quality storytelling. Though they can project a snobby, film-school air, they usually make valid points, and it is often hard to defend the products and practices of the megalithic studios they criticize. Far from them being elitist film scholars, however, they are obviously film geeks that love low-budget, so-bad-it’s-good movies, frequent comics and sci-fi conventions, and have a soft spot for auteurs like Sam Raimi and John Waters.

Scornful of Hollywood, and with no need to pander to it, they don’t hold punches like How Did This Get Made? does, yet as filmmakers they are still able to share insight on the movie-making process. And despite not being professional comedians, they have distinct personalities, are whip-smart, irreverently funny, and satirical. They are also lovably un-telegenic as far as Hollywood is concerned. However, they play the role of hosts well enough to rarely offer personal details about themselves. And rather than having a set schedule, episodes are released when they are released, though given the high-production values and the gaps in when notable film are released, this is understandable.

Fittingly, Yeah, It’s That Bad was geographically distinct from the other two shows, as it was based in New Jersey where the hosts live and grew up in. It was also distinct for being the show with the youngest hosts, and I think this slight generational difference is part of why the show has become so important to a select group of people. While How Did this Get Made?’s hosts range from their mid-thirties to early forties, and Half in the Bag’s hosts seem to be in around their mid-thirties, YITB’s crew was in around their late twenties, going on 30. This gave them a boyish air, while still being articulate and worldly enough to know what they were talking about.

Besides their ages, other information about their identities were released piecemeal through clues scattered throughout the course of the show. This getting to know them little by little allowed the listeners to feel as though they were meeting them personally, and their positions as young graduates transitioning into their professional lives made them especially kindred to the first generation of Facebook users. The perception of knowing them as close friends was magnified in other ways, despite how much of an effort the hosts made to keep a lid on details that would reveal their true identities.

Unlike the other two shows, YITB was created without much of a plan. Joel, the main host of the show, came across some audio equipment that he had intended to use for creating YouTube videos but had found to not be adequate, and rather than letting them go to waste he decided to host a podcast, despite having no experience doing so. Martin, who Joel had met and befriended in college, agreed to give it a go with him.

It is interesting to go back and hear the first couple episodes, which were noticeably ad-hoc, had no established format, and did not yet even have a name for the show. The guys knew enough that they liked talking about movies, so they picked some DVD’s lying around Joel’s apartment that had been picked up for cheap at a Blockbuster closing, and chose some to talk about. This included the somewhat obscure The Unborn, The Uninvited, and Whiteout (Joel must have started at the end of the alphabet at that store) as well as Vanilla Sky and Freddy Got Fingered. The dialogue between Joel and Martin was certainly friendly but somewhat unfocused, with them basically asking each other what they thought of the movie and then laughing at each other’s comments. Later listeners to the podcast would be surprised to hear the sub-par audio levels, gaps in conversation, lack of background music, and minimal editing that were typical of the first half dozen episodes. I must admit that having become an avid listener of the show once I discovered it, I took the hosts’ advice and skipped over most of these episodes.

Despite these early growing pains, a few elements that would persist throughout the show were introduced, including Joel’s gregarious, manic energy, contrasting with Martin’s more measured tone (given additional gravitas by the lower octave of his voice) which belied his somewhat obscure video game and Anime references, Joel’s infectious, hearty laugh, the evident familiarity between the two hosts and their mutual references to eclectic pop-culture, and their tendency to punctuate their conversation with somewhat juvenile jokes in a self-aware manner.

Once the concept of the show focused on re-evaluating movies that got a rotten consensus on Rotten Tomatoes and the show was given its title, its format gradually began to take form. Comedies were banned with the theory that something so subjective as comedy could not be adequately judged. Shows began by introducing the film with its principal actors and a brief synopsis of the plot and ended with their definitive evaluation of the film compared to the critics’ reviews, complete with a 1-5 score system borrowed from Netflix. But for a little while YITB was still finding its legs. On the Episode 5, Vanilla Sky, the guys were joined by Carissa, who later was revealed to be a girl Martin was dating at the time. Unfortunately, it seems that not everyone enjoyed the experience, and she would not appear in any other episodes (nor did the courtship last).

The turning point turned out to be Episode 7, Gamer. This particular episode became infamous within the YITB community for apparently being so unfocused, vulgar, replete with “hootin’ and hollerin“, and so perceived as being chauvinistic, that it was panned by listener reviews and made Joel genuinely take a good look at his process. In fact, for a while there Joel completely removed the offending episode from the archives, until its notoriety outgrew its offensiveness and it was re-released. Honestly, after the initial uproar passed, it’s hard to see what the big deal is about.

In any case, Joel and Martin returned with Episode 8 committed to improving the show’s quality and gain back the respect of their listeners. They had previously announced the next film to be London starring Jason Statham, Dane Cook and Jessica Biel, but apparently changed their minds to review Twilight instead. Their choice was an inspired one and resulted in the tradition, starting with Episode 50, of reviewing each Twilight sequel every 25 episodes, effectively once every six months. Getting to the next chapter in the Saga became a kind of milestone, in which new announcements for the course of the show were announced, and it certainly provided some closure to fans that they managed to complete the Saga in Episode 125, four episodes before the show ended.

The Twilight episode contained a higher level of criticism of the film’s characters and plot, and went further into evaluating the actors than previous episodes. Their analysis of the character of Bella Swan and the theory that she acts as wish fulfillment character to author Stephenie Meyer and represented what in literature is called a “Mary Sue,” an overly idealized, flawless character, was particularly enthralling. And recapturing some respectability lost in Episode 7, they approached the subject of their review by acknowledging that they did not belong to the tween girl demographic that it was targeting, and treated their review with that knowledge. That made their subsequent ripping apart of the film that much more effective. They took a movie that I have never seen, and managed to talk about it so vividly that I felt as though I could see it play out in front of me in all its terrible glory.

In addition, Joel showed the first signs of streamlining the show through the use of tight editing, and the two hosts possessed more of a sense of command in their voices, confidence with turns of phrase, and other overlooked aspects of spoken language important to broadcasting. Joel also began involving the listeners more, inviting them to write in emails with their opinions and suggestions for future episodes, and demonstrating a seriousness in the show by promoting the use of iTunes ratings and Facebook likes. In addition, Joel announced that iTune’s had placed them on their “New and Notable” podcasts list, greatly expanded YITB’s listeners. The hosts themselves consider this episode to be the official beginning to the real show.

Following hard on the heels of such a good episode, Episode 9, Lost in Space was released and gave us our first introduction to Kevin. Kevin was originally intended to be something of an understudy to Martin, filling in when the latter was unavailable, but it soon became obvious that the new guy was as indispensable to the show as anyone else. In this episode, the boys furthered the tradition of giving some background about how they first became familiar with the movie in question, while simultaneously providing some interesting information on the relationship between Joel and Kevin, which goes even further back than that between Joel and Martin. Lost in Space was actually a rather important movie to their budding relationship in high school, being one of their first man-dates outside of class, and the oddities of the film left them equally befuddled and left them a kind of bad-movie blood brothers.

Kevin’s contribution to the podcast was immediately clear. Despite coming in several episodes into the show, he demonstrated a naturality with the format and revealed the long-standing rapport he had with Joel. Whereas Joel is the instigator and the more hyper of the three, with Martin the more dignified, cocky and judgmental, Kevin is the more skeptical, understated, and realistic voice of reason. He has a tendency to interject incredulously when the topic turns to something so stupid or without logic that it has to be brought up.

Thus the triumvirate was formed, though unbelievably it wasn’t until Episode 37, The Mummy, that the three would appear all together in one episode (it is therefore altogether fitting that their final episode was The Mummy Returns). Until then the show seemingly operated as it had originally intended to, with Kevin filling in when Martin was unavailable. From Episode 37 on, though, it was rarer that one would be missing than when all three were together. The unvarying constant was always Joel, who helmed and edited every episode.

Once they were all together, it was perfectly clear that instead of crowding the show, they checked and balanced each other perfectly. Joel was the snickering smart-mouth, preferring to goad his co-hosts into reacting to some absurdity he said and then laughing like a madman at their reactions. At other times he would challenge them on their statements, pressing for them to defend themselves. Martin mostly kept his cool with short, pithy declarations or dismissive remarks, which made it all the more gratifying when he would lose it and loudly vent his frustration, all while Joel cackled with delight. Kevin was always the most subdued, but when he chimed in he always made a good, though sometimes fussy, point. His pronounced stance against what he considered to be absurd and his tendency to get flustered at some perceived mistruth or injustice left him prone to Joel and Martin, whose mischievous attempts to level against him some unfounded claim would invariably get a rise out of him, at which point Joel would again cackle like a madman. Somewhat unfairly, Kevin would turn out to face the brunt of the listeners’ mockery, perhaps being perceived as a weak, weak man for his higher-pitched voice and stated commitment to monogamy with his wife.

Along the way YITB would increase their listener participation. A very old-school method that Joel set up early on was a voicemail number that listeners could call into and leave their opinions. Joel would then broadcast a compilation of different callers at the end of a review. I have no idea how much work Joel went into cutting together these calls. There was also a web poll that allowed listeners to vote between two different movies that were offered to them. Thus the majority got to decide to have the guys review Armageddon rather than Deep Impact, and Dante’s Peak rather than Volcano. While these features eventually fell to the wayside, listener emails were a regular staple that provided some terrific material to the mix, creating along the way a few semi-celebrities such as Myles, whose expert firearms knowledge proved a reliable source of Mythbusters-esque information whenever the guys had a gun related question about the films. The most successful listener interaction to take place was “Sponsor an Episode,” where Joel, who had spent a small fortune in time and money creating the free podcast, offered to review any (within reason) movie of the sponsor’s choice for a mere $50. The promotion was such a success that after the donations deadline passed after a few weeks in mid-2012, there were enough sponsored episodes to last for nearly a year. They were barely completed by the time the show came to an end. I myself put down $100 for them to review both Point Break and Art School Confidential.

As the show continued, it also breathed life into an ever expanding vocabulary of inside jokes and recurring jokes. The fact that these appeared naturally on the show, and that the hosts would never laugh between themselves at some personal inside joke that was unfamiliar to the audience, allowed the listeners to feel very involved with the hosts and as part of the group. Indeed, listener mail was often peppered with instances of these jokes. These included increasing levels of hyperbole (That car was going one thousand miles an hour/ten billion miles per second/one hundred trillion light years per nanosecond), alliteration (Piss poor performance perpetrated...), a beef-o-meter, weak weak weak men, ringing a bell, extremely high temperatures in YITB world headquarters, reverence for patron saints such as Nicolas Cage and Dennis Quaid, “Huh! It was you!”, “Pin me, pay me,” “Follow the money,” etc. etc. Detractors of the show usually pointed to the copious laughter as their reason to being annoyed. That same laughter, however, was a favorite of most fans, who found it demonstrated the genuine rapport between the hosts, while making the listener feel like part of the gang.

Besides these recurring sources of laughter, as time went on certain offhand remarks or references became spontaneous points of question or serendipitous causes for delight. One of these occasions was Kevin flippantly saying that he didn’t like The Pirates of the Caribbean for some unspecified reason. Listeners would periodically hound him for answers, until a sponsored episode reviewing the film was released this past May, and it was revealed to great groaning that the point of contention was the mere placement of a boat in a pivotal scene. In another case, Joel listed shaving as a hobby of his, and thus a running joke amongst listener mail was born that never really petered out.

Other factors that made the show so appealing was their ability to seamlessly transition from joke mode to seriousness so as to avoid offending any listeners. Otherwise, reviewing a movie like The Perfect Storm would have been impossible to tackle, given the true origin of the film. But in this case, they deftly persuaded the listener from the beginning that the parts they would be laughing about (piss-yellow beards, bad Boston accents, shooting sharks in the head with shotguns) were the results of choices made by the filmmakers, and not about the people they were portraying. Their ability to casually trade barbs and quips, while showing a sufficient amount of restraint to see that their jokes landed with the right effect on the right targets, demonstrated just how naturally gifted the guys were comically. Likewise, accusations against them of sexism, racism, homophobia, chauvinism, and snobbery were completely unfounded if you listened to what they actually said and what tone it was said in.

It is worth noting that none of the hosts of YITB are actually in the movie industry, unlike How Did This Get Made? and Half in the Bag. According to the hosts, Kevin is in accounting, while Joel and Martin took art courses in college and are now employed in some capacity in a design related field. Their experiences with movies were completely as spectators and fans, though they could still offer some helpful insights (don’t obsess over movie details before they come out; do not go into a movie having built it up in your mind, it will not live up to your expectations).

It’s also fair to point out that unlike the other shows, fans of YITB could claim that they were brought into the hosts’ lives as they went through somewhat momentous life changes. Over the course of the show, girlfriends were broken up with, jobs were changed, engagements were announced, then bachelor parties, weddings, pregnancies, and births, Wall Street was occupied, and heat waves and hurricanes were survived. Periodic “After Dark” episodes (recorded in broad daylight, naturally) were released, giving further details into the hosts personal lives and explaining things that were alluded to or winked at expectantly in earlier episodes. All in all, listeners were given an intimate and somewhat inclusive look at the men behind the show.

Which is amazing, given the levels of privacy that were built up by the hosts to preserve their actual identities. This particularly seemed to drive certain fans crazy, as they refused to believe that any damage could possibly be done in this day and age by letting people get a look behind the mask. From the get-go, we never learned the surnames of Joel, Martin, and Kevin. Besides learning they were from New Jersey, no specifics were given as to where they live (though one enterprising listener came spookily close to pinpointing their whereabouts based on slight nuances in their accents), and most importantly, they never showed a glimpse of their faces. This led to dozens of pieces of fan art and elucidating descriptions submitted via email, which the hosts delighted in sharing with their listeners, each depiction of course being one billion percent accurate.

In addition to protecting their identities, they also went to great lengths to protect their show from legal complications. Unlike other shows, they refrained from including audio clips in their reviews, at times doing dramatic re-readings instead. Presumably, including clips of the films could be defended as fair-use, but they avoided any entanglements nonetheless. Likewise, they only used free royalty-free music from musician Kevin McCloud at to supply background accompaniment. Their website alone featured images from the films, merely to serve as cover art for each post.

Despite all these lengths, apparently something so dramatic occurred that it forced them to all but wipe away all traces of their existence from the internet. Left to speculate, questioning fans have come to some immediate theories, although each of these poses even more questions.

My first thought and others’ was that they were being harassed by a patent troll. The company Personal Audio has harassed podcasters such as Marc Maron and How Stuff Works, along with presumably hundreds of other notable podcasters. It’s possible that they targeted YITB for compensation for money the podcast made through donations and premium episodes, and that rather than pay for licensing fees or fighting back, the hosts simply sought to remove their presence from the web. However this seems to have been refuted by the hosts themselves.

Another theory that was shared on show’s Facebook page is that somebody who recognized the identity of the hosts heard the show and revealed their identities in a review on iTunes, where their reviews are still visible. The scuttlebutt is that some listeners saw the review, which has since been deleted. Obviously there is no proof of that now, but we must also ask why a listener would feel the need to expose them online if they knew them, beyond mere dickishness.

Along these lines, some speculate that by being recognized, one or more of the hosts was in danger of getting in trouble with their employer or with someone in their personal life. However it’s hard to see what they would be accountable for besides enjoying themselves in their spare time. It’s possible that one of them is running aground of some particularly intrusive company policy, seeing how corporations have shown their willingness to do so before. If pressed, I believe Martin once said he watched a movie for review at work. Would that be enough to spell trouble for him? As far as personal attacks go, there have been instances where Joel has referred to his old group of friends as “the tools,” and he insulted the maid-of-honor’s toast from Kevin’s wedding reception in one episode. But if these offending episodes were the case, why wouldn’t they just remove those specific episodes?

Others suggested that one was quitting the show or moving, but that obviously does not explain the suddenness of the departure or the need to remove all evidence of the show’s existence. Maybe the most outlandishly wild theory is that they personally offended one of the people working on a film in their review. But we of course have the First Amendment, and nothing they said could possibly be called libel.

Perhaps their decision to close up shop is related to one of these theories, but compounded by other factors that would make continuing the podcast more difficult. As a new father, it is probably very difficult, though not impossible, for Kevin to find time to complete his duties for the show. And all hosts have made it known that if one of them were to move, the show would effectively be cancelled. So there might have been multiple issues that collided.

In the end, though, until the source of their demise is revealed, us listeners will be left with nagging questions, which by themselves are almost as bad as the reality of not being able to hear one of our favorite shows again. This is one of the true mysteries of the internet age. Not to be melodramatic, but it’s the same human drive for closure that makes a relative of a person lost at war never relieved, even if they have accepted that their loved one has died, until they receive their remains, no matter how much time has gone by. We are plagued by the need to know, just to put our minds at ease.

While we can accept the passing of the show with gratitude for the countless hours of free entertainment it offered us, it was also comforting to know that it would always be there when we wanted to revisit it, or that we could share it with friends who hadn’t heard of it. For now, though, that no longer seems to be the case. Among other things, they inspired me to create fan art, write emails, sponsor episodes, and, despite not having any hope of creating any product nearly as good as theirs, they even inspired me to create my own podcast.

I echo the thanks and concerns of most listeners in wishing Joel, Martin, and Kevin the best, and the hope that we can hear them again one day. They made us feel welcome, included us, and got us through hours of drudgery, traffic, and work-outs. They reminded many of us, in our post-graduation diaspora, of the joy of being with a group of good friends. And they made us feel glad that such talented, funny, and good people could be out there creating joy not for money or for fame but just for fun. I always thought that if some savvy producer came across YITB, they would be stupid not to create a show for them in a heartbeat.

Here’s hoping for the best. Yeah, it was that good.


Further explanations to the ending of the show can be found in the comments section.


On August 13, the guys broke their radio silence to give a farewell address, which can be found here: In it they did not identify their reason for leaving the show, only to say that an event had occurred which made the show conflict with their personal and work lives. This suggests the explanations in the comments section are correct. While it was good to have closure and hear the guys' voices again, I was once more surprised at the emotional impact I felt after they signed off for the last time. I'll hope to hear from them again someday, perhaps in some other form, just to hear how things are going for them. Until then, they deserve to have their lives back. Thanks again, guys!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why the Hobbit is the Perfect Movie to See in 48FPS

I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey this weekend.

Of all the controversy over this new franchise, second only to its being cut into three separate films, is that it the first major film to be shot in 3D at 48fps. Most of the noise is from detractors, whose complaints can all be summed up as this: it somehow feels less cinematic. It takes you out of the film, makes you more aware of it's nature.

Over the last decade we've experienced similar reactions to new film technology. Ten years ago Star Wars Episode II was the first major motion film shot in Digital. The rise of 3D technology peaked with Avatar, ensuring its place in cinema. Allow me to argue that these particular films, and now The Hobbit, are the best venues to introduce these technologies.

I saw the film in 3D at 48fps, rather than in 2D 48fps, so I cannot attest to that format. The viewing experience may be very different, and the "soap opera effect" may be very hard to overcome indeed.

What I can tell you is this: the first thing about 48fps you notice is that you notice it. There is definitely a learning curve to seeing it in the first minutes of the film. People have described it as seeming to be in fast motion even when things are moving at normal speed. This is very noticeable in the first shots of the film: Bilbo walking about his home, close ups of his hands, and overhead tracking shots of fantastic vistas. If you look closely nothing is sped up, but the movement is almost dizzying, as if you were fast-forwarding a DVD.

This is simple to explain: at 24fps there is half as many frames as 48fps, and each frame, depending on shutter speed, takes in an image for nearly twice as long. Thus fast moving objects will be seen in more than one position in-frame, and you get motion blur. Motion blur has become established as a comforting feature in films to the point that movies that need not have it, such as CG animations that can capture any object in it's exact position perfectly, nonetheless use it to convey speed. Look at Ray Harryhausen's motion capture animated skeletons in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad: they swing their swords with perfect clarity, each position of the limbs having been shot completely still and moved incrementally for each shot. The effect looks primitive and herky-jerky today.

So, in The Hobbit, when Bilbo reaches into a chest to pull out a parchment, each frame picks up a more accurate position of the hand and shows it with much less motion blur. In effect this makes it look as if the hand was filmed moving in slow motion, and then the motion was sped up with undercranking. This is why people insist the action looks fast-paced when if you were to see it in a traditional, 24fps version, it should clearly be normal.

Now, I cannot attest to the 2D version of the film, but in my experience in 3D, this sensation diminishes as the film runs. I'd say after no more than 15 minutes, my brain accepted what it was seeing.

There is one other side effect besides the "fast-forward syndrome," and that is the clarity of the frame picks up tons of detail on the settings and props. I've seen a film set up close, and noted how fake the props and construction looked. Clearly, in a production where thousands of props are created, the prop makers have to skimp on some details. 24fps filming is very forgiving, though, and if done well enough you will never notice.

In The Hobbit, though, you can clearly see the seam in Gandalf's hat. Yes, Ian McKellen is wearing contacts. And some sets come in so clearly that rather than accepting it fully as the real thing I had the sensation that I was standing in a recreation of the scene at an amusement park. Such things can take you out of a film. Thankfully, the crew on this film were well aware of the situation, and extra efforts were taken to ensure each prop was built and each prosthetic was applied to the highest quality, so that nothing shouts "FAKE!"

So now that I've defended the "demerits" of 48fps, let me get to the benefits. First of all, the frame rate makes the 3D way, way better. You can easily compare it to the trailers that precede the movie, all at a normal frame rate. Even the animated movies, created in a completely digital 3D space, betray the faults of 3D up until now. They're dim. Fast moving things kind of flicker. The colors suffer. The effect is conspicuous.

Now, at 48fps, depth and form are much more defined. Close-ups of characters faces can be studiously observed. The picture is much brighter, and the colors are vivid. I found that I could follow fast movement without getting a headache. And I noticed how gorgeously the rack focus worked to change the depth of field.

All in all, the increased frame rate vastly improves the appearance of the 3D, and nullifies many of the detractors' complaints about the format. I found that, as I have previously experienced, I started to not notice the 3D consciously, and sometimes had to look for it to make sure that, yes, I am still watching something in 3D. It's just that it was much more natural and easy to this time around.

Before seeing the film, and deciding which of the five, count them, FIVE different formats to see it in, I was wary of the warnings that I had heard about, afraid that the viewing experience could ruin the movie I was going to see. On the other hand, I had seen the lukewarm reviews, and my expectations weren't stratospheric, so I decided to roll the dice. It was a decision well worth it. Not only did I enjoy the format, I enjoyed the film quite a bit, and will now think twice before seeing another 3D film at 24fps.

Lastly, it is worth pointing out the obvious: our initial aversion to this new technology is purely based on our conditioning to see films at the arbitrary frame rate of 24fps. Like scratches in a record, we've learned to appreciate the defects of the format as pure and comforting. It doesn't matter if the technology is better to us, if it somehow feels less magical. Of course, these are fallacious reasons. Simply put, if this was the format you were accustomed to all your life, it might be very difficult to put up with the old format.

 It is a bit sad, really, to think that a hundred-plus years of cinema history would be fated to be seen as quaint by some future standard. But it's not enough of a reason to embrace the future. Supposedly after 60fps the eye cannot detect a difference, and I've heard Avatar II will be shot at that frame rate. That is yet to be seen, but that film, just like this one, would be great candidates to try the format with. After all, these are adventure stories, which we enjoy so much to hear. It would be hypocritical not to embrace that spirit.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Breaking News: George Lucas Digitally Replaces Ian Holm with Martin Freeman as Bilbo in Crucial "Lord of the Rings" Scene


Kinoflim has learned that Lucasfilm founder George Lucas and a team of digital artists have completed work replacing Ian Holm with a digital Martin Freeman as a young Bilbo Baggins in a key scene in Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." The scene in question takes place in the opening prologue of the 2001 film, where Bilbo discovers the One Ring in Gollum's cave. Lucas apparently took the task up on his own, without permission from Jackson.

Kinoflim reached out to Lucas for comment. "When I saw the trailer for the new film [The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey]," Lucas explained, "I realized that they were going to use a different actor for the same character from the first films. And to an audience in a movie that can be very confusing. So I took it upon myself to make the changes to the first film in order for the franchise to maintain continuity."

"I ran into the same problem myself with [Return of the] Jedi," Lucas continued, "where Anakin's spirit appears before Luke at the end. Of course in the prequels I had cast Hayden [Christensen] as Anakin, so I needed to go back and replace the first actor, I don't recall who that was, and replace him with Hayden so that the audience would know who was who." Shakespearean actor Sebastian Shaw depicted the aged father of Luke Skywalker in that film.

It is unclear whether Lucas had sought permission for the edit from Jackson, who directed the Lord of the Rings films and the upcoming Hobbit films. Jackson has since filed a restraining order and threatened legal action if Lucas goes through with the release of the edited film as "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings: Special 11th Anniversary Director's* Edition." The title includes a footnote: "*a director."

"When it became clear to me that Peter would not make the edit himself," Lucas explained, "I got my team together, which was assembling for the next Star Wars. There's gonna be more Star Wars, you know."

Going further into his motivation for the change, Lucas described his personal philosophy of filmmaking. "Cinema is like poetry, in that it rhymes. But sometimes you use 'orange' in one line, which doesn't rhyme with anything. So then in the next line you just have to go with 'apple', and then go back to the first line and change 'orange' to something that rhymes with 'apple.' Otherwise the poem falls apart."

Kinoflim pressed Lucas for an example. "Grapple," he responded, after a pause. "Snapple?"

To achieve the edit, Lucas's team had to superimpose the face of Freeman, who plays Bilbo in the Hobbit trilogy, onto the face of the older Holm, who played Bilbo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Lucas did not have access to Freeman for the footage he needed, so the team spliced together shots from different angles from some of Freeman's prior work, including "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," "Hot Fuzz," and the British version of "The Office."

The team then had to adjust the intensity and direction of lighting on Freeman's face from the compiled shots in order to achieve a semblance of consistency. This required over 8,000 hours of painstaking rotoscoping and digital painting.

Next, the team had to digitally manipulate the actor's lips in order to sync them with the character's line, again a composite of different lines of dialogue from Freeman's career. "What's this? A ring!" Bilbo says.

"Oddly enough, we couldn't find one instance of [Freeman] saying 'ring' in his filmography," Lucas recounted. "So we had to cut the end off of 'blathering,' which he said once somewhere."

The edit comprises a 12-second shot in which Holm was originally filmed made up in a wig and make-up to appear younger. Editing the footage was completed with a team of 300 artists at an estimated cost of $40 million.

Asked if he would continue to revise other directors' works to match their later work, Lucas affirmed in the positive. "I can't tell you how many times I've seen a movie in a series and thought, wow, that role used to be played by someone else, and now it's played by this guy, which is really confusing for me in the audience. James Bond, for instance. Or Batman."

"It's really confusing," Lucas reiterated. "So as long as no one else is taking responsibility for their own work, I'll be there to fix it."

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Reaction to the Lucasfilm/Disney Announcement: Why We Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself (And Snakes)

By now the internet has had a chance to collect itself from its collective "WTF?" at yesterday's news that not only is Disney purchasing LucasFilm for $4 Billion, but that they promise to release a whole new Star Wars trilogy. I myself felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in angst that their childhoods had AGAIN been raped. But after shaking my wooziness and regaining my faculties, it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, we're overreacting to this news just a bit.

Consider the following arguments:

1. We're too old and wise to be fooled again

I recently just happened to have watched Patton Oswalt's bit about time travel, wherein he proclaims that if he could use a time-machine to travel into the past and right any wrong, he would use the opportunity to go back to 1993 and murder George Lucas. This is a typical hyperbolic sentiment of the generations that grew up having loved the Original Trilogy and experienced the unthinkable let-down that was the Prequels. Even young'uns like I, born after ROTJ, couldn't help but fall madly in love with the first films. They were just so magical, so perfect and iconic, that they almost seemed to be ordained to exist by the cinema gods just for their sheer awesomeness. When we found out there'd be more, we instantly reverted to a childhood innocence, unable to wait to see a new Star Wars despite how perfect the OT was on it's own.

Then we were splashed in the face by the cold water of reality, and as Episodes I, II, and III rolled out in succession, we came to realize that these movies were made not by gods, but by men, fragile and fallible as any of us, and perhaps they made them not because inspiration had struck again, but because that is what filmmakers do.

This was a hard lesson to learn. In fact, some among us may not yet be over it. This is where the claims of childhood destruction emanated from. Yet, despite all the trauma endured, one of the most respected badges of devotion to Star Wars is owning a VHS collection of the classic, un-edited Original Trilogy. That is because those films still retain their worth when taken on their own. They remain untarnished by the legacy of Expanded Universe comics, young adult novels, video games, cartoons, and yes, the Prequels themselves.

Somehow, they hadn't been ruined. And we learned from this. For all the hue and cry, we came out of the situation somehow more mature. We are able to appreciate the finer things in life more. So, yeah, there will be more Star Wars, and they might be terrible. But we're prepared for it now. We remember. And what more, however bad Disney makes them, we know they can't destroy the OT.

The worst is over. We will never again be so young and naïve. As the old adage goes: fool me once, shame on... shame on you. Fool me twice.......the point is, you can't get fooled again! A wise man once tried to say that.

That being said, I feel for the Millennials that grew up on the Prequels who don't know what they're in for. Or maybe I don't. I dunno.

2. We should have seen it coming

Honestly, right?

This is another lesson that has taken time to learn. It wasn't exactly a coincidence that after the first Star Wars was so successful, it was followed by five more films, countless more content, action figures, video games, Legos, puzzles, pajamas, full scale replica models, and on and on.

These things springed not from their inherent worth and desirability, but because that desirability was worth $$ Money $$. From the very beginning, the wild profitability of the franchise drove its expansion more and more into new products and markets to meet the demand from the hard-core audience. Eventually the Lucas properties shed any semblance of a creator-driven studio and became a corporate empire. At that point it existed not simply to craft stories, but first and foremost to make profits and meet payroll.

This is what drove the Prequels to be made. Yes, Lucas had gone on record years earlier to state that he had always planned on making Episodes I-III. But the reason they actually made them was by that point the company required growth in order to make money. And that required new content.

And that's where they're at now. There's still plenty of money to be made off of merchandise and content, but the Lucas companies have expanded so much over the last decade that for them to not generate billions of more dollars by creating new titles would be managerially irresponsible to themselves, their partners, and their employees.

And guess what? Lucas had also gone on the record (before talking it back) to state that he also intended to make Episodes VII-IX. We had written that off until now, figuring that the backlash to his work had soured him to the prospect. But guess what would make making more Star Wars worth it? Billions and billions of dollars. Which, by my reckoning, is what we all spent on the "worthless" Prequels, and what they're sure to get out of us again. And, hey, c'mon. I know I'll be there opening day. And you will be too.

It was always the money driving everything. Just follow the money.

Still not convinced? You're one of those die-hards, huh? George Lucas really did sexually molest your childhood? Okay, well, this one's for you...

3. No more George Lucas!

Did you read those headlines? Disney is paying George Lucas $4 BILLION for LucasFilm.


There you have it. Yes, George has made some remarks about staying on a bit as advisor to the stories. He's apparently even provided some treatments of how the films could play out. But his involvement seems non-committal at best. It honestly looks like he could just take the money and run.

If that's the case, then you can let the healing begin. There will be no more bad man to ruin the things you like so much. I mean, yes, there will likely be more bad men to take his place, but better the devil you don't know than the devil you know.

Wait, that's not how that goes? Oh.

Well, that's all I have to say about the subject. It's just a shame that we can kiss all that promised productivity goodbye for all the speculating we'll be making over the next decade over these films. Nuts! And we were just getting out of that recession!

Oh, well. See you opening night.

Oh wait... that thing about the snakes

Right..... in all the commotion we nearly forgot about the other elephant in the room. You remember Indy, right? That guy that's already "nuked the fridge?"

We can all look forward to more of that. But with Shia LaBeouf.


Saturday, February 4, 2012

Alternate Star Wars Prequels: First Draft

Alternate Star Wars Prequels: First Draft

I've recently noticed a lot of bloggers are saying f- it and putting out their own alternate visions of the Star Wars prequels. Even after 13 years it seems us Star Wars fans still can't get past our disappointment. So I want in.

Let me say first though, that this is not an attack on George Lucas. It was inevitable that after such a build-up of expectation a lot of fans would have been let down by anything, as we all had a unique idea of what we were about to see. I applaud Lucas for blessing his fans' adoptions of his ideas for formation of their own offshoots, so I would hope that he would at least permit these fans their thought experiments with good humor. In fact, one might argue that since Lucas has taken such liberties with his films with each new release, that he would consider them to be "living documents," free to be amended.

That said, here's my perspective. I'm not going to dwell too much on the many problems that the prequels suffered from, as others like Red Letter Media have already done a much better job of it than I ever could. Like Plinkett, though, my primary point of concern for judging the prequels is how faithful they are to the Original Trilogy (OT), both in style and continuity. Things like having Anakin building C-3PO strain this. I also don't care about being faithful to the "Expanded Universe" canon of books, comics, games and television. All I care about are the films. For example, the Sith are never explicitly mentioned in the OT, though they have overwhelmingly been established as canon by Episode I, so in my interpretation I could choose to either abandon or accept them for the sake of convenience. All I care about is setting up and not conflicting with the stuff we know from the OT, OK?!

So what the f- do we know about the back story to Star Wars
from the OT? Well, not much in terms of detail, it turns out. Here's whatta we know:

-The Jedi were guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.
-The Republic was replaced during the "dark times" by the Empire.

-Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi were good friends.
-Anakin Skywalker was a great pilot
and strong with the force.
Obi-Wan tried to train Vader but failed because Vader was seduced by the dark side of the force.

-Vader "killed" Anakin Skywalker (though we know they are both one and the same).
Obi-Wan was trained by Yoda, a Jedi Master, and was a General under Leia's father in the Clone Wars.

-At one point Obi-Wan calls himself reckless in his youth.

-Vader helped the Emperor by hunting down the Jedi.

-Luke and Leia, Vader/Anakin's children, were put into hiding by Obi-Wan.

-Leia has some memory of her real mother, but Luke does not.

-Luke is raised by an aunt and uncle who have some knowledge of his father (and are therefore concerned that he turn out like him).

So that's what we have to work with. Acknowledging these facts and being faithful to them is one of my goals. The other is to have my series of three films prefigure and follow the structure of the OT, which is essentially this:

Episode IV: Luke learns about the force, leaves home, goes on an adventure and saves the day.
Episode V: Luke leaves his friends to train as a Jedi. He has to choose between continuing his training or saving his friends, and in doing so tests his resolve. After discovering Vader is his father and after crippling attacks by the Empire, he and the Rebel cause, respectively, are at their lowest.
Episode VI: Luke faces his father and nearly succumbs to the Dark Side, but chooses the right path. The Emperor is killed and the empire falls, allowing the restoration of the Republic.

Therefore I've broken down the prequel trilogy to fit the following structure:

Episode I:
Obi-Wan meets Anakin and teaches him about the Force. They go on an adventure that simultaneously sets the stage for the Empire. Anakin saves the day and commits to being trained by Obi-Wan.
Episode II: Anakin leaves his old life to train with
Obi-Wan. Much of the film is about this training. However his attachments cause him to break from Obi-Wan which leads to a confrontation. Obi-Wan fails in training him and Anakin begins an existential descent. The Empire is formed.
Episode III: Anakin sides with the Emperor to combat the newly formed Rebellion. In his fight he fully embraces the Dark Side and begins to purge the Jedi.
Obi-Wan faces Anakin but fails to redeem him. However, the Rebels survive, giving hope to the future.

The set-up is crucial. Siding with almost unanimous consensus, we start with Anakin much older than in The Phantom Menace
(TPM), focusing much more on his character development. The OT was all about the characters’ exploits against the backdrop of the larger conflict. The prequels should be as well.

So, here we go again...

Episode I: The Clone Wars

The second you heard Luke say "The Clone Wars" in A New Hope
(ANH) your ears perked up and you were like, what's that? So we have to cover that in this first film. Also, the clones as they were interpreted in Attack of the Clones (AOTC) were sort of disappointing, and as David Christopher Bell points out, implied that the Jedi condoned human slavery so long as it helped them kill robots. So let's turn that on it's head, shall we?

Ep. 1 (25 years before ANH) can start exactly as ANH did: a blockade runner is pursued by a military battleship. Only this battleship belongs to the Republic and is rather small, and instead of being aggressive it is firing warning shots across the bow of the runner in search of illegal contraband as they orbit the planet Kessel.

Upon boarding the ship, they discover that it is transporting an illegal cargo of slave clones
in direct violation of the law. Before he can be arrested, the owner of this ship, Maul, seems to use the Dark Side of the Force to kill the boarding party and then turns on the starship with his ship's guns. Before the ship is destroyed, the co-pilot, Amidala, escapes in a pod to the planet below and sends out a distress signal. Maul pursues the pod to capture the occupants. This sets us up for a classic "damsel in distress" plot point.

On Coruscant, the widening rift within the Republic is made clear. This necessitates a bit of the political mumbo-jumbo that made TPM so dull, but the issue will be a bit more important, so that will help (besides, ANH had some political dialogue on the dissolution of the Senate, so there’s a precedent).

The rift is between the industrial Inner Core planets and poorer Outer Rim systems. The industrial planets are served by droids, but the Outer Rim systems depend on humanoid slaves cloned to be servile.

The Chancellor, Qui-Gon Jinn
, is an avid abolitionist but needs the support of a divided Senate to enact change. Outer Rim senators defend the issue by insisting that the clones are as soulless and mindless as their droid counterparts. To champion his cause, Qui-Gon introduces to the discussion an ex-slave and impressive orator, Palpatine, who is disfigured and hunched by mutation but clearly demonstrates his humanity. He's the Frederick Douglass of Star Wars, and his eloquence is without question. In a surprise move, Qui-Gon appoints him Vice Chancellor to further serve his agenda. This act infuriates the Outer Rim planets, who see the writing on the wall and secede from the Republic. Now we have a cause for war that as an audience we can root for, and an allusion to the American Civil War to give us context.

Now we meet
Obi-Wan (40 y.o.). As a Jedi Knight, he's sort of a wandering monk, sought after for his insight and advise, but beholden to no man. There are no massive Jedi academies in any form.

Qui-Gon and Palpatine’s Jedi counselor, Yoda
, refers them to
Obi-Wan. They ask him to lead a special mission. They have received the distress call and believe that capturing Maul could strike a blow to the slave trade and lead them to the Secessionist leaders. Palpatine in particular impresses on Obi-Wan the importance of this task. Obi-Wan accepts but requires a pilot and a contingent of commandos (they are in the white uniforms of Stormtroopers but are made up of humans and many species of aliens).

Obi-Wan first consults Yoda, his mentor. He then goes to the flight academy to choose a pilot. In Anakin (20 y.o.) he finds someone cocky and unconventional, but intelligent and with good marks. Obvious comparisons to Han Solo. He's hired for the mission.

En route, Obi-Wan and Anakin get to a-talkin'. Anakin is loyal to the Republic but sees some hypocrisy inherent in it vis-à-vis droids. So there're hints of moral ambiguity but loyalty is his top priority. In contrast, Obi-Wan has very conservative viewpoints but is somewhat anti-establishment. It's sort of a healthy disagreement of opinions, and they each kinda respect the other for it. Obi-Wan also senses the Force flowing through him and tells him a little about the Force.

They review the distress call in an homage to ANH and Anakin is clearly struck by the beautiful Amidala and her visage of strength in peril.

Upon exiting hyperspace, they unexpectedly find themselves surrounded by the Secessionist Fleet, which has gathered around Kessel. Clearly Maul is bigger game than they took him for. Taking evasive action, Anakin pilots them through a hail of fire. His actions seem almost impossible (perhaps his sensors or even he himself is temporarily blinded by something). Obi-Wan realizes that the Force had guided Anakin through the danger (this would nicely warrant Obi-Wan's training exercise with Luke years later).

On the planet, Maul's men have finally tracked down Amidala. They plan on killing her to keep her silent. In a bold raid,
Obi-Wan and Anakin lead their troops to confront Maul. However, in a rare disregard of orders, Anakin insists that he rescue Amidala no matter what. Reluctantly, Obi-Wan allows this and takes it on himself to find Maul.

Obi-Wan encounters Maul and discovers he has dark powers. As Anakin saves Amidala and prepares the ship for escape, Obi-Wan and Maul duel. Obi-Wan is outmatched and wounded, but Anakin shows up in the ship. Maul tries to crash the ship with the force, but Anakin somehow counters this. As Maul runs, Obi-Wan insists that Anakin go after Maul, but Anakin remains to save Obi-Wan. However, Anakin somehow plants a tracking device on Maul's ship.

As they leave the planet, they are attacked by Secessionist fighters. Manning the guns, Amidala takes them out and proves her mettle. They escape into hyperspace, and the Secessionist fleet flees to a new hiding spot.

Back on Coruscant, they track the fleet to its location in a new star system. Qui-Gon assembles a fleet to combat it and capture Maul and the Secessionist leaders. The pilots refit for the attack, but by now Obi-Wan has seen Anakin’s potential as a Jedi. He pulls some strings to have Anakin released from service in order to train him. Anakin accepts, but insists that he complete this one last mission.

Before the fleet leaves, Anakin confronts Amidala, who is still recuperating, and admits that he had remembered her from training from years ago and hadn't forgotten her. Their romance starts to bloom.

As the fleet comes out of hyperspace, the large ships use tractor beams and ion cannons to hold the Secessionists from further escape. It becomes a battle of fighters versus fighters.

At one point, Anakin is almost killed, but Amidala, who has joined the pilots after all, saves him. They knock out the ships and take them prisoner, ending the Secessionist momentum.

With news of the victory, Qui-Gon prepares for an address to mark the end of the conflict. He first tells Palpatine of his intentions to make peace with the captured leaders and to restore unity, combating slavery only through legislation. Palpatine, unsatisfied, uses the Force to have Qui-Gon declare himself unfit for service in front of the Senate, then throw himself to his death (this can be done in sort of a clumsy way, as if Palpatine is just learning how to wield his power). With Palpatine now Chancellor, he commits to unceasing war with all disloyal systems
(not just slave systems).

Palpatine then orders the captured leaders detained indefinitely on Mustafar
to extract information, and he faces Maul in isolation. It is revealed that Maul, obsessed with the Dark Side of the Force, was a former Jedi who had cloned Palpatine to experiment with its power. Palpatine decides to leach knowledge of the Force from him.

The mood is lightened a bit with a triumphal parade, in which Anakin, Amidala and
Obi-Wan take part. Anakin recommits himself to training, and Obi-Wan, leery of Anakin's fondness for Amidala, cautions him on all attachments. They receive their medals and everyone's happy.

This establishes our characters as important players in the larger story, though by no means does anything center on any of them. No prophesy, no dire warning about Anakin’s inner darkness, and no convoluted machinations involving a Sith plot. Just characters reacting to events beyond their control.

Episode II: Rise of the Empire

22 years before ANH. Under the banner of abolition, Chancellor Palpatine continues to prosecute the many wars against the remnants of the Secessionists. However, his zealotry starts to ride the line between fighting slavery and fighting for fighting's sake. For a former slave, the power is just too tempting.

While Anakin had been allowed to leave service to train with
Obi-Wan years ago, he nonetheless has continued to volunteer on the side of the Republic periodically as the wars expanded, and has built a name for himself in doing so. He values his Jedi training and fighting alongside Amidala almost equally. Their mutual attraction has become hard to ignore. While they're stationed at a forward base planet, Obi-Wan arrives by transport and gives Anakin an ultimatum: choose his former life or the way of the Jedi. After a difficult decision, Anakin chooses to follow Obi-Wan. They leave Amidala behind as the Republic prepares for a new offensive. To them, it seems unlikely they'll ever see each other again.

Obi-Wan brings Anakin to the alpine heights of Alderaan, a fitting locale for his intensive training. Obi-Wan, becoming the guidance figure, tries his best to impart on Anakin the wisdom that Yoda bestowed on him. The frigid environment gives him opportunity to test Anakin's stamina and self-control. His envelopment by nature brings him closer to the flow of the Force. Specific attention is given to the dangers of attachment.

Anakin is disciplined and introspective, and challenges Obi-Wan on some issues. While Obi-Wan tries his best, at times he struggles to address every point adequately. He finds he may have bitten off more than he can chew, and starts to question his own abilities.

Meanwhile, the Republic offensive begins. It targets a Secessionist stronghold, Geonosis
. Amidala serves admirably, and the invasion of the planet is a success. With the successful operation, millions of clone slaves are liberated. Their sheer numbers inundate the ill-prepared army, and they wonder what can be done about them.

Back on Alderaan, Obi-Wan tests Anakin in a similar way as Yoda's test of Luke in The Empire Strikes Back (TESB). Anakin is confronted with the fact that the Force can be wielded for good or for evil, and that such extremes do exist in the universe. He is forced to confront the possibility that he could be led down the wrong path. It is a breakthrough in his training, and he begins to accept Obi-Wan's teachings without question.

On Geonosis, as the Republic prepares to evacuate the freed slaves, a massive Secessionist counterattack comes out of nowhere and annihilates the Republic fleet. It leaves Amidala, her small contingent of troops, and the slaves completely cut off on the barren planet. They immediately become a target for this massive army, hell-bent on recovering their lost property.

Just as Anakin's training nears him towards enlightenment, he suddenly senses a great disturbance. He is unable to pinpoint the threat, but he fears it centers on Amidala.
Obi-Wan cannot sense it, and cautions Anakin to control his feelings. Anakin begins to lose track of his training.

On Coruscant, Palpatine learns of the plight of Geonosis. He is furious at the setback, and orders the planet retaken before the slaves can be recaptured. He also rails against the weakness of the Republic fleet. His advisers caution him that their military is stretched dangerously thin. He therefore orders the conscription of soldiers from every star system and the building of an Imperial Navy (this is the first use of the word Imperial and its use is noted apprehensively). Yoda, as his Jedi adviser, urges him to control his emotions and gives him advice that he does not like. Palpatine begins to discount Yoda’s opinions, judging the Jedi in the same light he judges Maul. The order is sent out across the galaxy and the recapture of Geonosis is stepped up.

On Alderaan, Senator Organa requests the presence of his old friend
Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan orders Anakin to remain behind and continue his training while he goes to the planet capital. There he learns of the Conscription Order. Senator Organa is opposed to sending his peaceful citizens to fight in an ever more nebulous war, and calls for a plebiscite to refuse the order. He asks for Obi-Wan's guidance, and asks if he would defend their cause. Obi-Wan realizes the threat but believes it is the right thing to do, and valiantly offers his sword.

An emergency vote is had, and the planet decides to defy the order. Anticipating trouble,
Obi-Wan is assigned as a general in defense of Alderaan. Word quickly reaches Palpatine, and the infuriated chancellor orders a detachment of his forces re-routed to occupy the rogue planet. This divides his advisers into hard-liners like Admiral Tarkin and those opposed to the attack of a peaceful planet, like Yoda and Mon Mothma. Yoda and Mon Mothma resign their posts, further cementing Palpatine's ire of the Jedi. Tarkin volunteers to rein in Alderaan.

Anakin, being suspicious of Obi-Wan's departure, uses his powers to infiltrate the capital and learns of the Conscription Order and of the Battle of Geonosis. When he encounters Obi-Wan, he asks him for his permission to let him go to help save Amidala. Obi-Wan refuses on the grounds that Anakin is too emotionally invested in Amidala and that they must defend a helpless people. Obi-Wan reminds Anakin that he has pledged to give up his old life. Anakin is torn between two noble yet completely conflicting causes, but his old soldierly loyalty wins out and he decides he must side with the Republic. Having reached an impasse, Obi-Wan rolls the dice and gives Anakin one last test: if he can be defeated in a lightsaber duel, he'll give Anakin his leave. Fully resolved, Anakin submits to the test. In the hallowed halls of Alderaan, the two have at it.

The fight is less emotional than it is a proving of each other's wills; it's more technical than anything, like a fencing match. Anakin continues to seek a compromised solution and promises to return to his training after saving Amidala.
Obi-Wan's hardened stance is that it must be one or the other, the path of light or the path to darkness. This confuses Anakin, who still sees the righteousness in his mindset. Obi-Wan continues to challenge Anakin on letting his affection for Amidala influence his judgment. To him, defending Alderaan is the moral path. Pressing his master on his intransigence further, Anakin demands an explanation. Reaching the edge of a precipice, Obi-Wan relents. He explains that he knows the risk from experience: he had once yielded to temptation and fallen off the path for a lover. In doing so he had committed a crime against the Force: he had fathered a child, creating a presence in the Force that was not his to create. The Force chooses who it does, and it is not to be meddled with by mortals.

Anakin cannot believe that his stodgy old master could be capable of this, but
Obi-Wan continues with his revelation: it's true because Obi-Wan is Anakin's father! Anakin becomes flooded with emotion. It can't be! Obi-Wan insists it’s true. After he was born, Anakin was placed where Obi-Wan could watch him from afar. He was pushed into the academy to be watched over by trusted friends, and was never destined to become a Jedi. However, when Obi-Wan saw his potential, he took the risk of training him. Anakin becomes enraged. How could Obi-Wan have fathered and abandoned him? How could he lie to him all this time? Anakin sees the hypocrisy that even his steadfast master is guilty of.

The fight becomes more heated. Obi-Wan genuinely cannot understand where this anger is coming from. He is backed to the edge of the precipice and Anakin uses the Force to disarm him of his lightsaber. Poised to finish him off with both sabers, Anakin, shaking, backs off. Around them the Republic invasion force begins their landing. Anakin tells Obi-Wan that next time he will kill him. He drops Obi-Wan's saber and runs off to leave the planet. Obi-Wan watches him go, then runs off to Senator Organa, lightsaber in hand.

As the people flee the coming army, Anakin faces a group of approaching Imperial Walkers
led by Tarkin. When a squad of Stormtroopers tries to arrest him (despite his insistence that he is on their side), he turns on them. Even after his exhausting duel, he has no problem mowing down these inferior soldiers. Tarkin, recognizing him, halts the fighting and allows Anakin a ship if he submits then and there to serving his forces. Anakin does, and in doing so Tarkin becomes his new master. He takes a Republic fighter and joins the fleet heading for Geonosis.

In the capital, Obi-Wan valiantly defends the huddled people of Alderaan, fighting off Stormtroopers with his lightsaber and their small volunteer home guard. In the end, though, they are no match for the Republic's waves of walkers. Organa and Obi-Wan retreat to a mountain stronghold.

On Geonosis, Amidala and her troops struggle to hold off the advancing army on the surface. They arm some of the clones themselves, who prove capable defenders. Anakin arrives as the Republic reinforcements battle pell-mell with the Secessionist fleet. The battle is intense but Anakin fights his way through to get to the surface. As the battle in space tilts in favor of the Republic, Amidala is overrun in the battle on the ground and is captured by one of the Secessionist leaders, Jango Fett
. Sensing the war is lost, though, he takes Amidala hostage as a bargaining tool. He steals her away in his last group of ships and takes off.

As Anakin descends he spots the departing ships. Concentrating intensely, he's able to tap into Amidala's mind and pinpoints which ship she's on. One by one, he takes out the other ships, until it's just Jango’s ship. However, he can't do any more without risking her life, and, facing his limitations, backs off. Amidala communicates to him that she will hold on strong until they meet again. Helplessly, he watches as Jango’s ship escapes the planet and goes into hyperspace. The rest of the troops break through and retake the planet. Despite the victory, Anakin is at a low point.

In the mountains of Alderaan, Organa is prepared to give up.
Obi-Wan knows what he risks, and implores him to save himself by blaming the planet's defiance as being the work of Obi-Wan using Force influence. Reluctantly, he agrees, and Obi-Wan escapes on a ship into space and into hiding.

Palpatine personally oversees Organa's surrender in the capital of Alderaan, with Tarkin and Anakin in the ranks. Palpatine generously spares Organa's life but forces him to resign from the Senate. Instead, he appoints him King of Alderaan to act as his puppet, with his wife, Lady Organa
, serving in obedience to her husband as Senator. Strike one for Alderaan.

When the discussion among him and his advisers turns to the status of the freed clones, Tarkin remarks that they proved to be capable defenders when faced by foes. Palpatine therefore orders that they be "offered" recruitment into the military, paving the way for a massive, all-humanoid force of Stormtroopers.

Anakin recommits himself to the two crusades at hand: rescuing Amidala while finishing off the Secessionists, and tracking down Obi-Wan.

This naturally sets up both the rise of the Empire and Anakin's seduction to the Dark Side for morally ambiguous reasons. With real people and not battle droids as the enemy, we are truly emotionally invested in who will win. Also, a revelation on the scale of the one in TESB catches us by surprise, yet is entirely compatible with the OT and in fact allows us to see it in a new light. The fact that
Obi-Wan doesn’t reveal this later to Luke is plausible since there were other things he kept secret from him.

Episode III: The Fall of the Jedi

20 years before ANH. As the last remnants of the true slave-owning Secessionists are wiped out and their clones liberated, the continuing wars have blurred completely into a war against all disloyal systems. Frightened systems kowtow in fealty to the new Emperor, while dissenting systems are increasingly harassed. A bold few have secretly begun to form in secret a Rebel Alliance, focused not on secession but on saving the galaxy from tyranny.

On the remote planet of Utapau, Amidala is still being held captive by Jango, but hasn't given up hope. This is the last haven for the retched Secessionists. Having discovered their location, Anakin infiltrates the base disguised as a sympathizer. Upon locating her, he wipes out the Secessionists and frees her, leaving only young Boba Fett alive (even he wouldn’t kill a child!). Anakin and Amidala finally embrace.

Back on Coruscant, Palpatine reveals to his council the growing threat of the Rebel Alliance. The end of the Clone Wars makes little difference to his warmongering. It is agreed that the Jedi are in collusion with the rebels. Palpatine, sensing Anakin's betrayal by Obi-Wan, draws him close. They both want him found; Anakin so he can confront him, and Palpatine to locate the Rebels. While Anakin is loyal to Palpatine, he still has conflicting feelings on Obi-Wan. After all, he is his father.

Around the planet Dantooine
, the Rebel Alliance assembles in preparation for the coming war to decide where to move the fleet. OWK, Yoda, Lady Organa (still defiant), and Mon Mothma are present. They agree to rendevous with Admiral Ackbar's hefty fleet at Mon Calamari (essentially Kamino from AOTC). Despite the coming storm,
Obi-Wan still feels he must seek out Anakin, who he still feels is good at heart and can be turned. Yoda cautions against this.

After her lengthy ordeal, Amidala has become very fragile. She reveals to Anakin that she is pregnant. Anakin is overjoyed, but given what he learned from Obi-Wan, is concerned over the implications of the birth. His drive to find Obi-Wan intensifies. Acting as now Grand Moff Tarkin’s agent, he pursues known Jedi and has them sent to Tarkin's special forces to be pressed for information.

Palpatine senses Anakin's frustrations with his own limitations. If he had been stronger with the Force he might have prevented Amidala's kidnapping. The two can relate: both are unholy products of meddling of the Force. Palpatine tempts him with access to the knowledge he's gained from Maul. Anakin pledges his loyalty, and Palpatine reassigns him temporarily from Tarkin to himself. Palpatine informs him that he need not look too far, for Obi-Wan will seek him out.

Confronting Maul on Mustafar, Anakin learns how powerful his offspring will be. Despite his years of solitude, Maul's twisted obsession with manipulating the Force is invigorated by Anakin’s situation, and he toys with Anakin's emotions. Foreseeing Anakin’s child will be his own downfall, he refuses to teach him anything. With rising hatred, Anakin uses Force choke to kill him. Nearby, Palpatine reveals his secret: this, the power of hatred, can unleash such strength.

Anakin is paranoid that if Obi-Wan discovers the pregnancy he will spirit the child away to a secret location, as he did to Anakin. He orders that Amidala be brought to him at the secure base on Mustafar to be protected.

Obi-Wan is smuggled into Coruscant by Lady Organa and seeks out Amidala. As she leaves for Mustafar, he stows aboard her ship. However, Lady Organa's involvement has been discovered through Admiral Tarkin’s torture of the Jedi. This is strike two for Alderaan. Lady Organa faces a choice: give the location of the Rebels or be killed along with King Organa. In a moment of weakness, she reveals their location. A massive navy of Imperial Star Destroyers under Admiral Ozzel is assembled to wipe out the Rebel Alliance in its infancy.

Arriving in Mustafar,
Amidala and Anakin meet and he urges her to remain there to have the baby. Obi-Wan appears from the depths of the ship. Nervous to see him, Anakin nevertheless seems willing to settle their differences if Obi-Wan stays away from the child. Learning of the pregnancy, Obi-Wan's heart sinks. He had yet to reveal the full truth to Anakin. As a result of his birth, his mother had been drained of life force, and this fate undoubtedly awaited Amidala. Anakin breaks down. His hatred swells. If Obi-Wan had revealed this truth sooner, Amidala's life could have been saved. Obi-Wan argues that the important thing now is to keep the child safe. But Anakin has entered a fugue state, advocating for a scorched earth and proclaiming that if Amidala should die then the child deserves to as well. Amidala, overhearing this, is distraught, and maternal instinct tells her to leave. Obi-Wan intervenes to protect her escape, and the two of them fall into battle.

Meanwhile, the Rebel Fleet, led by Mon Mothma and Yoda, enters the Mon Calamari system and links with Admiral Ackbar. No sooner had they arrived, then they encounter the Imperial Navy, which had been waiting to finish them in one blow. It's a trap! An epic battle ensues for the future of the galaxy. Entire starships are blown to pieces and plummet to crash into the ocean surface below.

Back on Mustafar, Obi-Wan continues to try and turn Anakin. However, he senses both hatred and his inability to see past his emotions to the big picture anymore. Amidala makes her way back to her shuttle with her guards, but is stopped by Stormtroopers. They fight their way to the ship to attempt to escape this domain of evil. From his bunker nearby, Palpatine becomes aware of the happening and draws up reinforcements to assist Anakin. He orders the Secessionist and Jedi prisoners eliminated just in case.

Above Mon Calamari, the fate of the Rebels looks grim. They are no match for the Star Destroyers and TIE Fighters. In desperation, Yoda draws up all his strength and uses the Force to cause two destroyers to collide. The engulfing fire forces the Star Destroyers to back off, and the Rebels disappear into hyperspace, narrowly escaping annihilation. The Rebels live to fight another day.

Obi-Wan finally gives up on Anakin. Summoning all his strength, Obi-Wan severs Anakin's arm and disarms him, taking his lightsaber. Disowning Anakin, he leaves to help Amidala. Awakening from his rage, Anakin realizes what has just happened. As the Emperor's reinforcements arrive, he refuses help. Instead, with nothing to live for, he walks to the mouth of a volcano and self-immolates. Bathed in flame, he destroys himself. In horror, Palpatine calls off the pursuit and has his troops recover Anakin and rush him to the bunker.

Obi-Wan catches up with Amidala and with his help they fight their way through to the shuttle. Escaping the planet, Obi-Wan attempts to save her by inducing the labor; perhaps no one need die after all.

Back at the bunker Palpatine utilizes technology and the Dark Side to revive Anakin. It works, but he is mutilated and no longer himself.

In transit, they try to save Amidala by inducing labor. However, they discover she is carrying twins, and the drain on her life is much stronger than they realized. Upon delivery, they keep the newborns nearby to keep her strength up. She asks who Anakin's mother was.
Obi-Wan answers Leia Lars. Amidala names the girl Leia and names the boy for her father, Luke. She slips into unconsciousness.

Protected in his hermetically-sealed suit, Anakin renounces his past and declares himself Darth Vader. He’s accepted Amidala’s death, but vowed to win back his offspring. Palpatine has salvaged his strongest partner in the war against the Rebels and the Jedi.

Yoda leaves the Rebels at Dagobah
. Though his power is an asset, his presence is too risky to the fleet, but he'll be needed again someday.

Amidala's ship slips into Alderaan where they leave Amidala and Leia under the care of the Organas, believing hiding the girl in plain sight is the best. Despite Lady Organa's betrayal of the Rebel cause, they vow to bring up the girl when her mother passes, as she is sure to.

For Luke the risk is too great to take any chances.
Obi-Wan takes him to a place so remote he can never be found. On Tatooine, Obi-Wan arrives at the Lars homestead with Luke. There he meets Owen Lars, the son of Leia Lars from another father. Owen despises Obi-Wan for being responsible for his mother's death and then abandoning him there. However, his wife, Beru, takes pity on the child, and they agree to raise him. Obi-Wan retreats into the desert, once more the wanderer, to watch over his grandson from afar.

This gives us a chance to see the beginning of the Rebel Alliance, another point of interest to fans. And the continued attention to Alderaan, an important Planet in Star Wars, adds poignancy to its ultimate destruction in ANH, while further illuminating Tarkin's decision to destroy it as punishment towards three disloyal Organas.

Although Anakin has fallen, we understand why, and we can still accept his eventual redemption. Obi-Wan’s actions make sense, but he is tragically flawed as well. Thus we have been faithful to the style and structure of the OT while illuminating things the OT referenced and adding new and interesting elements.

Again, this is not a perfect version, and it may ignore certain requirements to the story or contradict something. The characters motivations might be tweaked. This is of course what new drafts are for. But it’s a strong start, and maybe as valid a version as any out there. What we got instead was an imperfect version as well, and though it doesn’t amount to much when we re-imagine what it could have been, what the f-! It’s still fun to do.