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.