Saturday, May 14, 2005

Star Wars Prequels Reconsidered, Part the Second

Welcome to Part 2 of this very special Star Wars column. For those of you who missed Part 1, in which I reconsidered the overall atrociousness of The Phantom Menace, feel free to peruse its contents right here.

Several people commented to me that Part 1 of this column was very long, and that this, by extention, proves me to be some kind of massive uber-dork, such as would write a tremendously long column on their blog about a film wherein the main character was an obnoxious pseudo-Rastafarian reptile man. So, okay, I'm a nerd. You got me. But I grew up with these movies (okay, not these exact movies, but you know what I mean), and I'm sorry if I feel the need to pontificate on their significance and overall quality at length.

Okay, putting the outside commentary out of mind, let's take another look at Episode II: Attack of the Clones. When it was first unveiled to the world three years ago, the reception was considerably warmer than Phantom Menace. Fans enjoyed the little details and references thrown in for their benefit (culminating with the big Yoda fight), everyone enjoyed the mercifully faster pace, and even allowances were made for the cheesy romantic storyline.

At the time, I felt certain that, while still not a good movie by any means, Attack of the Clones was at least superior to its predecessor. And, to be honest, after taking another look at the film on DVD (for the first time!), I'm not sure it earns its reputation. Though I can say I was somewhat more entertained by Clones than the often-slack Phantom Menace, I don't think it's a better film.

It's a messier film, that's for certain. These's a schizophrenia to Lucas' direction here, and also a good dose of confusion. I couldn't shake the feeling throughout the movie that we were never focusing on the most salient parts of the story. Everything important happens off-screen, every major plot development occurs behind-the-scenes, so very often as viewers we find ourselves playing catch-up. Even at the very opening of the movie, we know very little...Attempts are being made on Padme's life, an unseen guy named Count Dooku's, something...and Anakin's upset about some stuff that happened between Phantom Menace and now.

Why would Lucas design his prequels this way? It still makes no sense to me. We could be watching such a sensible, straight-ahead adventure film storyline. A story about a child slave who learsn about The Force, who loses control of his powers and falls to the Dark Side, and who ends up destroying everything he once prized and held dear. Instead, we get a slog through trade negotiations, pod races, pointless mysteries about clone armies, arena battles with oversized insects and endless, soft-focus "romp in the grass" love sequences.

Honestly, the second half of Attack of the Clones is the most nonsensical, choppy and muddled of Lucas' entire directorial career. It feels as if he was desperately throwing stuff into his script and hoping it would add up in the editing room.

I'll give you an example. Anakin and Padme have decided, against the orders of the Jedi Council, to go to Geonosis to rescue Obi-Wan, who has trailed a bounty hunter named Jango Fett there. Okay, fine so far. When they arrive, they realize it was a trap set by the villainous Count Dooku. He takes them into an arena where they are to fight beasts, gladiator-style, for a bunch of indistinctly-animated insect aliens.

First off, this whole scenario comes out of left field. We have no grounding here. Who is Count Dooku? How does he relate to the action we have seen thus far? Who are all these people with him? We understand they are "The Separatists," but the movie hasn't adequately explained their connection to one another, what they hope to get out of "separating" from the Galactic Federation, and most of all what they have to do with Anakin, Padme, Obi-Wan and the action of the movie.

So it's already too muddled to be dramatically interesting. Okay, fair enough. But it gets even more strange.

During the battle against the monsters, heroic Jedi Mace Windu arrives to save the heroes. A few moments later, when his life is threatened, an entire clone army, led by Yoda, literally drops into the arena to save the day. And once all the heroes escape the arena and head out into the world, they see that an entire massive battle is underway. This is the beginning of the Clone War, we are to understand.

But what is actually going on? Why is there a battle? What is the strategic purpose of taking Geonosis? Where is Geonosis, what's there, why does it matter?

Does Lucas even understand how wars are fought? He's currently set to premiere his sixth film with "wars" in the title, but this story is barely coherent. I can understand Yoda showing up with some troops to save the Jedis who are trapped in Dooku's net. But why bring all these battallions, and start fighting droids on the planet? What's he hoping to do?

After the main action of this section of the film is complete, with the requisite indecisive lightsaber duels, it is simply announced that the battle has been won, and that the Clone War is underway. What happened? What has been accomplished? Anything? And don't these brilliant Jedis think that a mysterious, unexplained Clone Army that has just been given to them might be a little too convenient?

So, okay, the movie's all over the place at once. It's a jumbled, confused, plotless fiasco on almost every level. But is it entertaining? Does it work as a Star Wars film?

Not really. There are two action sequences that come together well. The first comes early - a flying car chase through Couruscant, the planet that's just one massive city. The effects are terrific during this scene, which really captures the fantastic speed of the chase and the improbable physical dynamics of the flight. The sequence also highlights Anakin's growth as a Jedi, which will be essential if we are to believe in his transformation into Darth Vader, the universe's largest badass.

The second great action set piece occurs when Obi-Wan trails Jango Fett through an asteroid field. Fett makes use of a truly interesting weapon - sonic charges. Everything goes silent for a moment as they explode, and then a massive sonic wave proceeds to shatter everything in its path. This whole segment is a triumph of sound design and CG effects work. Brilliant stuff. It's the best material in the entire movie.

Much has been made of the terrible dialogue, and some of it is truly atrocious, but I think if the entire film was telling a more interesting, passionate story, the actors would have an easier time expressing some of these sentiments. Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen don't generate any genuine sparks, but their love story is so tortured, it would take a miracle to make it work anyway.

I mean, think about it. They're asked to play a couple who haven't seen each other in a decade, since one of them was a small child. They have to go from awkward half-conversation to unrequited affection to full-on passionate true love in a matter of a few scenes, while reciting dialogue along the lines of the following:

"I hate sand. It's rough and course, and it gets everywhere. Not like you. You're soft."

Ugh and double ugh. So, yeah, getting any Han-Leia style chemistry is just not going to happen. Honestly, I think too much has been made of this particular downfall of the movies. The love story's not really crucial. These aren't movies about Anakin-and-Padma and weren't they a cute couple...They're about Anakin the Jedi and how he became Darth Vader the Sith, and if that storyline holds up, the others will fall into place. Just like Luke's transformation from country boy to Jedi overshadows some of the weaker aspects of the original trilogy. Like Ewoks.

But the Anakin material here's just kind of desperate. You sense that they want him to have gravitas, to believably be powerful and tempted to use his power for evil. But, as played by Christensen, he's far too petulant and whiny to be intimidating. And his grudge against Obi-Wan seems more than a little inflated for the actual situation.

I think Lucas just has trouble getting too dark on us. Whenever Anakin and Obi-Wan are together, he wants to give them funny, riffing kind of comic dialogue, to inject some sense of fun into the movies. And that's fine. Admirable, even. But then, he wants to develop this tension between the characters as it suits the story. Is Obi-Wan really holding Anakin back? How? He seems pretty supportive during the movie. Again, we can assume this stuff is happening off-screen, but why not show it? That's the material the whole movie's supposed to be about.

Oh, and one more major point I need to make before shutting this thing down...Lucas needs to stop violating the rules he set up in the initial films when it suits him. I just spoke in my White Noise review about how agitated it makes me when filmmakers violate the rules of their cinematic universe for the sake of convenience. In White Noise, the ghosts develop different abilities depending on their situation and the needs of the story. In Attack of the Clones, Jedi and their opponents become more and less powerful in different situations.

Sometimes they have phenomenal psychic powers, seeing things happen in different rooms or even far-flung reaches of the galaxy. And sometimes they can't tell when major things are happening in the next room. Sometimes they can knock an entire group of droids off their feet using only a wave of their arm, whereas other times they have no defense against two droids with blasters drawn on them.

But most obnoxiously, Lucas breaks the rules of The Force he established long ago in A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. Most egregious? Yoda's abillity to move objects with his mind.

In Empire Strikes Back, an older and weakened Yoda on Dagobah lifts Luke's X-wing out of a swamp with relative ease. When Luke asks how such a thing is possible, Yoda reminds him that "size matters not."

What does this really mean? It means that The Force is about a level of concentration and mental strength, not about the size and shape of the objects being manipulated. So Yoda could move anything, provided he could quiet his mind sufficiently and had a close enough bond to The Force.

But in Attack of the Clones, he's struggling to keep objects afloat during his fight with Dooku. He's able to flip around, defying gravity, with a lightsaber, which certainly seems impossible because of his limp and constant use of a cane, but he can't manage to keep machinery afloat that Dooku fires off at him. It just doesn't add up, and it's representative of Lucas playing fast-and-loose with the rules of his universe to suit his needs.

I realize that makes me sound like a dork to even be thinking about these movies on this kind of a level, but I mean this as an indication of a larger problem, not a problem in and of itself. I don't really care if Yoda can lift heavy things with The Force or not, if the rest of the movie is working. But Lucas seems to no longer care about the original trilogy and its precepts - he's become so involved in the virtual CG universe of his prequels, all consideration of character and thematic consistancy have gone by the wayside. If the movies no longer link up, he'll just manipulate the old ones to bring them up to speed.

In the Star Wars chronology, what comes next is the Clone Wars, where Anakin will prove his mettle and become closer to Palpatine, who will become the Emperor. It's material that has been animated on Cartoon Network's "Clone Wars" TV series, and it's infinitely more interesting than what we actually get to see in Attack of the Clones. Then, it's only the third movie and the cycle is complete.

I'm hopeful for Episode III, if only because I'd like to see at least one good Star Wars movie come out of this prequel experiment. But I have my doubts. Can any film be good enough to make these two previous efforts truly worthwhile? Can 2 hours of film do justice to the sheer amount of narrative that Lucas has left over after Episode II. Will Anakin ever believably inhabit the black cape of Vader? I'll have to wait and see. But rewatching Clones has not made me hopeful, as I kind of hoped it would. It makes me afraid.

And for those obsessively in need to star ratings to make sense of movie reviews, here you go.

Initial viewing: **1/2
New viewing: *1/2

Yeah, that's right, worse than Phantom Menace. I'm telling you, some minor bits of Clones may be better, but as a movie, it's an absolute catastrophe. Flame on.

White Noise

People really do believe in this EVP stuff. I looked it up. EVP means Electronic Voice Phenomena. Here's the theory: ghosts are made up of energy, and sometimes this energy can actually be picked up by current recording technology, like tape recorders or VCR's. So, theoretically, if you record static on a television or press record on a tape recorder in an empty room, you can actually hear messages from beyond the grave.

Yeah, it's stupid. Maybe not ouija board stupid, but still pretty stupid. I mean, I don't believe in ghosts at all, so there goes the whole theory right there. But even if you do believe in an afterlife, or in some sort of human form that remains on Earth even after the body has died, do you really think it would try to communicate with the living through a VCR?

I mean, people who have expereinced EVP say they can "hear" messages from their dead relatives, and even "see" images of the dead on television screens. But after your body has died, would your voice really sound the same? I mean, if ghosts are composed of energy, or souls, or whatever, why would they retain the same vocal pattern as their human selves? Because your voice is just the combination of your throat's acoustics and the properties of your vocal chords.

Also, isn't this a really dreary, uninteresting idea about the afterlife? I mean, you die, your soul remains here on Earth, and then you...weakly try to chat with the family members you just saw when you were alive? I mean, if I was an ethereal spirit trapped in this realm, I think I'd do something I've never done before, like fly around the Grand Canyon or spy on supermodels in the shower or haunt Zach Braff. I wouldn't enter my dad's computer and tell him "everything's gonna be alright."

So, anyway, it's obviously not a real scientifically observable thing that's happening, but just another crazy superstition. Which doesn't neccessarily mean it couldn't make for a cool horror movie. Unfortunately, White Noise is a totally crummy horror movie.

The whole "loved one dies and then communicates with the living" idea has kind of been done to death. Most famously, high-powered banker Patrick Swayze (chuckle...) remained behind on Earth to pitch woo and his still-alive girlfriend Demi Moore in the reprehensibly overpraised Ghost. You'll recall, Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for that movie...

And there was also the immensely forgettable Costner stinkeroo Dragonfly, in which his dead wife commanded a group of children to draw pictures of dragonflies for his benefit. And, I mean, there's about a hundred billion more. It's a scenario that makes a lot of metaphorical sense...They have a love that is truly "powerful." It can escape the most powerful force on the planet...Death.

It just usually makes piss poor movies, and White Noise is no exception. I think the biggest problem here isn't so much the familiarity of the subject matter, but EVP itself. It's just not a very cinematic situation. Instead of heart-pounding action or slowly-building dread, the movie's filled with shots of a man sitting around a bank of monitors scanning them for any signs of supernatural life. Yawn.

The man in question is Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton), whose pregnant wife Anna (Chandra West) has died under highly mysterious circumstances. She was changing a flat tire by a cliff, you see, when she fell down onto the craggy, sharp rocks below, dying instantly. The police rule it an accidental death but...hmmm...I don't know...

Anyway, Jonny starts receiving messages from his dead wife on his cell phone. He's told by an EVP expect (Ian McNeice) that Anna's trying to contact him, so of course what else can he do but buy a bunch of TV's and VCR's and keep them recording static at all times, in the hopes of finding a message from Anna.

In Screenwriting 101, they teach you about something called a "pregnant moment." This is the event in your screenplay that spurns on all the action. In other words, what happens that causes the action of the script to happen now, as opposed to any other point in history. Scripts without a pregnant moment tend to seem aimless or inconsequential. Well, White Noise has a very pregnant moment - a man's wife, who is with child, dies in a horrible accident. Unfortunately, it has nowhere to go from there. It's a premise in search of a story.

Director Geoffrey Wax and screenwriter Niall Johnson do what they can to fill in the gaps. They come up with some stock twists and turns, including an indication that Jonathan's messages may not actually come from the dead, but the about-to-die, but these zig-zags only serve to complicate things without ever making them more dramatically satisfying. There's an abortive relationship with a fellow EVP experimenter (Deborah Unger), a strained relationship between Jonathan and his son from a previous marriage, and even a late-developing hunt for a serial killer in White Noise, but it never really adds up to much.

Finally, the film breaks down completely in the climax, breaking all of the rules it had previously established during the first two acts. I hate hate hate when movies do this. I can suspend disbelief pretty far. I mean, I'm watching a movie about ghosts appearing on people's TV screens, which is pretty far-fetched to begin with. But when a movie sets up parameters and then proceeds to violate them, well it's cheating and it's cheap and it ruins the experience of watching the film.

I'm disappointed in White Noise not because I expected anything much from it, and certainly not because I feel EVP is a worthwhile subject for an entire horror film, but because it once again proves Michael Keaton can't get a break in Hollywood. What the hell is going on? This guy is talented, funny, and people genuinely like watching him, so why does he get saddled with shitkickers like this and Jack Frost and Desperate Measures? Haven't you people seen Beetlejuice? Did you know he improv'd almost all his dialogue in that movie? Keaton will next be seen in this summer's Lindsay Lohan vehicle (double chuckle...) Herbie: Fully Loaded. Oh, joy.

Hitting the Links

I have this cool new counter called the CQ Counter on the blog. You can find it by clicking that little CQ Counter button thinger at the bottom of the sidebar.

It's way nicer than my old counter, which didn't do anything but roughly tabulate the web traffic to my site. This new one gives me all kinds of useless statistics about all the people who check out the blog, including what Operating System they use, their IP Address, even their choice of web browser.

But my favorite item to check out on the CQ Counter is the link information. You see, I can see the last 20 or so visitors that I've had, and what website linked them over to Crushed by Inertia. So, if someone did a Google search for something interesting, and that led them to a page on my blog, I'll see those Google results. Or if my blog is on another blog's "links" page, I'll just see that blog's name.

It's pretty cool. First of all, it lets me know that, by far, more people link to me from this page than any other. Interesting thing about that? It's a Mexican music blog. Written entirely in Spanish. Yet somehow, they have found and linked to my page. I mean, I get traffic from these guys every single day. They clearly have a much larger following than I do. It's really cool, and my only wish is that I could read and understand their blog.

I mean, maybe they're goofing on me over there and I just can't tell because, despite 8 years of Spanish-language education, I can't really speak Spanish. Oh, I can get by. If they were saying "Crushed by Inerta esta muy tonto," I'd get their meaning. But they're using big words I don't understand. And probably the past participle and the future imperfect. Here's a sample:

De ahí, trás una de las llamada estratégicas de Tony, conectamos pari por la salida a Aldama. ¿ la encontramos? Ni de puta madre. Después de meternos en dos calles ( es un decir, eran mas bien cicatrices marcadas por las incesantes trocas que no han de parar de pasar por esos terrenos áridos) cerradas, Toni volvió a hablar y le dijeron que se iban a ir a otra granja de las cercanías. ya más al rumbo de la ciudad. Llegamos a la mentada granja y no había nada.

I might very well agree with that, if I could understand it. I see something about "puta madre," which I think I know because it means "your mother's a whore." But other than that, I got nothing.

Also, big ups to PSoTD, a great political blog that sends me a whole bunch of traffic all the time.

It's also really fun to note what Google searches send people to Crushed by Inertia. Now, bear in mind that any and all articles I publish here on the blog get referenced by Google. Google tends to archive the blog by week, so if you put in a keyword search for two words, the blog will come up eventually providing I have used both of those words within a single week. Which leads, as you can imagine, to my page coming up even when I've never written anything about the subject in question.

For example, some highly questionable person out there did a Yahoo search for the following: "Kidnapping girls using sodium pentathol." And Crushed by Inertia comes up as one of the first responses because, in a single week in March, I wrote the following two sentences in different posts:

"This would be a case of the government coming in and kidnapping a woman because they disagree with the treatment agreed upon by her husband and doctors." (This article was about the Terri Schiavo case)

"You meet people like this once in a while. People who don't have the social grace to realize you would rather peel the flesh off of your bones with a rusty pocketknife than converse with them. People who like to brag incessantly about things they haven't even done yet and probably never will do. People obsessed with telling you more about their lives than Dave Eggers on a Barbra Walters special under the influence of sodium pentathol." (This was an article about an annoying, porn-obsessed customer who comes into the video store).

So, anyway, because of this phenomenon, and just because I write about a variety of topics here on the blog, there are many interesting Google searches out there that lead people to Crushed by Inertia. Here is a random sampling of some that I have found through CQ Counter recently:

"elf inertia"
"devil went down"
"art linklater"
"make it to a gas"
"The Great Gonzo"
"pen island" (I'm sorry...that was months ago, and that still makes me laugh...)
"masturbating with icy hot"

Those are all real. There's others, too, but I have forgotten some of the best ones. I should be writing all of these down.

Kicking and Screaming

Los Angeles really is the worst place in the world. Comedians and cultural critics really aren't just saying that. It's a cliche for a very good reason. There are about 100 times as many people in this city as its facilities can possibly handle, so you wind up spending a lot of time in gridlock/overcrowding/clusterfuck kind of situations.

Tonight I had to endure The Grove, a massive superstructure that includes department stores, a Farmer's Market, a huge movie theater, a Barnes & Noble and several hundred thousand attractive young girls wearing Ugg boots and fur-lined coats despite the fact that it's 90 fuicking degress outside every day in Los Angeles.

You have to buy your tickets way in advance if you want to see a Friday night movie at The Grove. Shows tend to sell out early...typically around the time the film wraps principal photography. And because Friday night shows are already overpriced, by the time you've completed your online order, you're down $13.50.

Then there's arriving at the theater on a Friday evening. There's no good way to approach The Grove between the hours of 3 and 11 pm on a Friday. Unless you have the facilities and nerve to actually parachute into the center of the shopping complex, or live within walking distance, expect a several-hour long commute just to arrive at the parking lot. And then the adventure's just beginning.

And even if you get to the theater in time and see the movie, there's still the matter of extricating your automobile from a parking structure clearly designed by evil Nazi scientists to determine how long subjects will spend driving around in a circle before going insane and murdering several innocent passers-by.

So, what I'm saying is, I went through a lot of bullshit just to be here tonight to review the new Will Ferrell soccer comedy Kicking and Screaming. So I hope you lousy ingrates appreciate it.

I'm fairly certain Kicking and Screaming will stand as one of the most oddball mainstream movies of 2005. It's staggering, really, some of the places the film goes for a laugh. Usually, I'd find the sheer audacity of the enterprise invigorating, and I am inclined to give the movie a pass just because it's so unexpected and, well, strange. But I can't deny that the film's an entirely lackluster affair. It's peculiar and unique, but not really in a funny or entertaining way.

But I'm being vague. I'll start with what's disappointingly standard about the film: the story. What we have here is an incredibly formulaic family comedy, a movie in the grand tradition of The Bad News Bears, Ladybugs and The Mighty Ducks. A ragtag bunch of misfit kids participating in extra-curricular sports (in this case, pee wee soccer) finds themselves under the watchful eye of an inappropriate and unseasoned coach (in this case, Will Ferrell). Though initially, coach and team have a standoffish or even hostile relationship, eventually they warm up to the old man, and even start winning some games.

Kicking and Screaming does attempt to throw in a twist of sorts - it gives Ferrell's coach a nemesis in the form of his controlling, aggressive and ego-maniacal father, competing soccer coach Buck (Robert Duvall). Unfortunately, it kind of blows a great comic opportunity by overplaying Duvall's character. He's supposed to seem like a competitive, difficult dad but winds up as kind of a monster. In one scene, he's showing off to his family by beating his son at the most violent game of tetherball of all time. Seriously...Ferrell finishes out the scene with welts all over him. It's too much - disturbing, but not funny.

And this keys into where Kicking and Screaming leaves all logic and reason behind. For a light PG family comedy, this is a movie with some serious anger issues. It's one of the more mean-spirited movies in recent memory, a story about a father who's endlessly disappointed with his son, and a son filled with near-homicidal rage about a neglectful and verball abusive parental relationship. Oh, yeah, and it's also horribly racist, scores cheap points against gays and has a bizarre, unexplainable problem with coffee.

You see what I mean? Weird stuff for what should be a relatively simple story. This material is so familiar, it's easy to see why director Jesse Dylan (son of Bob, by the way) and screenwriters Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick would want to mix things up. I'm sure they started by merely injecting a bit of personality and individuality to their script. But things get way way out of control really fast.

I will attempt to catalog the strange, unneccessary or otherwise idiosyncratic facets of the film Kicking and Screaming in bullet form, as paragraph form would simply take too long:

  • Chicago Bears ex-coach Mike Ditka plays himself in a major supporting role. Despite a clear awkwardness on camera, Ditka has the film's third largest role behind Ferrell and Duvall.
  • Two Italian soccer prodigies join the team and are portrayed in an offensive and stereotypical manner. They speak only in "guido" catchphrases like "mamma mia!" and "gratzie." Their strict uncle makes them work at his meat market. Ditka keeps calling them Eye-talians. Sometimes they play soccer while tarantella accordian music plays on the soundtrack. My friend Cory and I repeatedly looked at each other, as if to say, "What the hell were the filmmakers thinking?" during these scenes.
  • A young Asian boy is the constant subject of mockery, both for his diminutive stature and his hard-to-pronounce name (it's Byong Sun). Ditka refers to him more than once as "Bing Bong."
  • Rachel Harris and Laura Kightlinger play a stereotypical "lesbian couple" who have adopted the Asian boy.
  • Ferrell's character becomes addicted to coffee, causing him to slowly go insane, and even turn violent against the children.

I'm not sure what the hell was going on here. I mean, look at that stuff. Would you expect to find all of that kind of material mixed into what purports to be a genial family-appropriate comedy? Some of the Italian stuff in particular struck me as offensive, not only because it's incredibly stereotypical but because of the sneering tone that's implied. This isn't light "let's-laugh-at-our-differences" material.

Also, I'd be remiss not to note the film's sloppiness. It seems to me, this is becoming a larger problem for mainstream Hollywood comedies. Up-and-coming comic directors don't really seem to be taking the craft of filmmaking very seriously. This is Dylan's third film, and it's still lazily edited, visually muddy and uninteresting, and filled with continuity errors and poor framing.

I'll give you an example. It's a brief scene in which Ferrell gathers his team around a set of benches following a big game. We get a shot of some of the kids running up to the benches, including the team's goalie, who runs and grabs a spot up front. We cut to a shot of Ferrell holding a clipboard. We cut to another shot of kids taking their seats at the tables, except we see the same goalie come running up to sit down in the same seat as before, for the second time.

This is a multi-million dollar production, okay? There's no way no one noticed that the same kid runs up and sits down twice. That's just lazy filmmaking, and they think they'll get a pass because it's just a silly comedy. And if it were really funny, maybe they would get a pass, but I found myself noticing several errors like this. I mean, is it too much to ask that amiable comedies from major Hollywood film studios be directed with the same level of professionalism as other genres?

So, yeah, Kicking and Screaming is a mess. I wouldn't bother with it, despite Ferrell doing all that he can with extremely thin material. The fact that the movie has any big laughs at all is a testament to this guy's talent and charisma. I mean, he's just so dynamic a performer. He commands your attention when he's on-screen, and he has such a natural, easy charm, it's easy to overlook how hard it must be to try and keep this kind of movie aloft. The guy's giving his all, and you can't really fault him for this movie's shortcomings. I'm sure his career will do fine, though I definitely think Ditka should limit himself to "Saturday Night Live" walk-ons and commercial work.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Feel feel feel feel feel...Feel My Heat

It's unbelievably hot in my apartment. I have a fan on a few feet away from me and it's still hot. The fan is actually blowing out hot air, which doesn't seem possible, and yet there it is...Perhaps I'm inside the Matrix and the laws of physics have lost all meaning...

I know there is a good reason for my room to be so hot. I'm on the second story of this apartment building, and we all know that heat rises, so that has to be part of it. (Actually, I had to look that up...) We have no centralized air conditioning, so that's definitely a factor. But it's so much hotter inside my room than outside! That's what makes no sense. How is the sun managing to hit the 3-square-foot area by my computer where I'm sitting and not the parking lot that's clearly outside, unfettered even by shade?

It makes it hard to do anything when your room is so hot all the time. Every time I want to motivate to write or clean up or do laundry, I get overwhelmed by the humidity factor in here and wind up watching another DVD instead. Okay, so that would probably go down even if I lived in Oslo, but you get what I'm saying.

Fortunately, I'll be leaving my apartment in about a half hour for the movie theater, a destination that's far cooler, and with potentially fewer of my undergarments strewn about the floor haphazardly.

You Tell Me That It's Evolution know...

This will be a blog post about the Kansas Board of Education and how they want science teachers to have to instruct students about "intelligent design." As such, it will be filled with a good deal of the following:

  • Mild profanity
  • Not mild profanity
  • Authoritative writing about science education from a guy who regularly failed high school chemistry exams
  • Fundamentalist-baiting
  • The implication that, yes, douchebag, you really are related to a with it...

So, if that's gonna stick in your craw, why not check out some movie reviews? Or, better yet, go read Zach Braff's blog. I hear he directed some movie that he's trying to promote.

Okay, so back to Kansas v. Common Sense and Reason.

A 6-4 voting majority of the Kansas State Board of Education wants to force high school science teachers to deal with "intelligent design." What is intelligent design? It's a code word for creationism. It's basically the philosophy that the world is so durn complex, it must have required a God or some similar intelligent being to create it. Because nothing this complicated could have come about on its own.

You're probably expecting a high degree of snark from me here, but you're not going to get it, because I don't think intelligent design is inherently that dumb of an idea. Now, bear with me, here...I don't personally believe in any God at all. I think it's unexplainable how matter came to be in the first place, but once that matter existed, and you have an infinite timeline for it to develop, anything is possible, including human life on Earth.

But if you believe that it's not possible without some sort of God thing, hey, go for it. I don't think that makes you an idiot or that it's not a reasonable-enough thing to believe. I just don't happen to subscribe to your theory.

It's something that makes "irrational sense." You get what I mean? It's like, most things we see and experience make rational sense. If I drop a ball, it will fall to the ground because of gravity. Water evaporates into the atmosphere, forms clouds, which then grow dense and saturated and spill rain water back into streams and rivers, where it then funnels back into the ocean and re-evaporates. Right? Rational, reasonable, logical, verifiable sense.

But there are things about the universe that make irrational sense as well. Things like Murphy's Law. When there is the potential for something unfortunate to happen, it usually happens. There's no way to prove that, it's not something scientifically observable, but anyone who has tried to get to a movie when you're running a few minutes late will tell you...all kinds of things are going to happen on the way to that theater to make success unlikely. That's why we have a cliche for it: Murphy's Law.

Also, let's take anxiety and panic disorder. I'm occasionally prone to anxiety attacks, as are millions of other neurotic, somewhat excitable Americans. Now, when you're having an anxiety attack, the properties of the world around you seem to shift. Everyone seems less friendly, every task seems more arduous, and every minute seems to linger for an hour. In short, things stop making rational sense. You begin to behave irrationally.

And that doesn't mean there's no room for your experience, or that you're deranged or in need of medical assistance. It just means that you've ceased to function on an entirely rational level, and are instead dependant on irrational reasoning.

I don't think we need to outlaw irrationality. It's just that you can't teach it. Teaching kids things you believe instinctually but have no proof for (like that a God created the world) don't have a place in school. You need to teach kids the stuff we know for sure, and let them figure out how to interpret the mysteries on their own.

Which brings us back to the evolution-intelligent design debate.

Let me be perfectly clear...The school board in Kansas is not having a philosophical debate about whether or not it is healthy to tell kids about the variety of interpretations of the descent of man. They are stupid fundamentalist/theocratic yahoos who want to impose their bullshit religious doctrine on innocent Kansas schoolchildren. Okay? Despite the mild ecumenism voiced above, I think that stuff is ridiculous and un-American.

But the thing about it that I don't get is the religious hatred of all things evolutionary. I mean, if Darwin's theory had a syllogism about there not being a God, if it represented the ultimate atheist philosophy, I could see parents getting all fired up about teaching it in school. But it doesn't. It doesn't really have any attitude about whether there is a God. It just relates the process by which life on Earth develops.

Evolution requires a single-celled organism to get started. There's no theory beyond that. It says that at first there were single-celled organisms, and over time they mutated and became more complex, until they formed into algae and bacteria, and then plants, and then simple animals, and then more complex animals, and finally people. It doesn't say these cells appeared out of nowhere. Who knows? Maybe a God created them.

I mean, Darwin famously believed in God, right? He didn't think the theory he'd developed meant that human beings were all alone in the universe. Maybe he just figured out God's plan for the development of the human race. I mean, Genesis says "And God Created Man," but it doesn't say how. (Oh, sure, it says he molded him out of clay, but that's obviously metaphorical. I mean, we're not made of clay, we're made of flesh and bone). Maybe he created algae and then he created the concept of mutation, so that algae could become man.

When you think about it, evolution itself is kind of spiritual. It says that we're all connected, human beings are in the same family with every other form of life on Earth. Isn't that what all this religious stuff's about anyway? A "culture of life," in which we recognize that all the phenomenon of the world derives from a single source of power and energy?

So, really, the debate in Kansas makes no sense. Intelligent design and evolution can easily co-exist (though they obviously shouldn't in public schools) and the religious nutjobs just want to win this case in order to win one for their side. It's all about getting them one step closer to what they really want, which is total domination of American culture and life by super-religious Christian zealots. Don't believe me? Check out this quote from Salon:

A principal aim of the creationists is to scrub the definition of "science" from Kansas classrooms -- now described as "human activity of systematically seeking natural explanations" for phenomena -- and to replace it with a more general definition lacking the words "natural explanations." If that sounds like an innocuous change -- well, that's the aim. By removing the notion of "natural explanations" as part of science, the creationists aim to give religion a foothold in the classroom, in the name of scientific balance.

Evolution is just the first step in this process. They want to overtake the very definition of science in order to better suit their fascist ends.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Legalize It

I just wrote a post before work about how The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington's new celebrity-and-insider group blog, was getting an unfair rep. And now, I have just returned from work and found a cool post on there I want to link to. So I'm concerned that you'll all think I'm shilling for Arianna Huffington for some bizarre reason.

But I'm not. It's just a coincidence. I have no reason to say nice things about Arianna Huffington, actually, because I went to a job interview at her house some months ago and did very well, I must say, and then failed to get the job. And, I mean, it wasn't even a really hard job! I mean, come on!

So, you see, I have no interest in getting you to check out Huffington Post. I'm just trying to find stuff to write about so Crushed by Inertia doesn't go on the semi-permanent hiatus that so often infects newbie blogs.

Anyway, Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group committed to alternatives to the drug war, made a fantastic post to the Huffington blog today that basically sums up my position on the drug war. Basically, that it isn't effective, that it's corrupt, that it is applied discriminatorily, and that it violates the basic freedoms at the heart of the American way of life.

I realize that, despite having had this blog for months and months, I've never written in-depth about my passionate distaste for America's ongoing War on Drugs. This was the sort of thing that, during The Clinton Years, occupied my mind quite frequently. It was my favorite political cause in, say, college (for obvious reasons). But ever since a certain misguided Texan and his merry band of sycophantic psychopaths invaded Washington and a few Middle-Eastern nations, I guess I've been distracted.

But Nadelmann makes an excellent point early on about how devastating our War on Drugs has become:

The United States ranks #1 among all nations in per capita incarceration. The number of people behind bars has increased from roughly 500,000 in 1980 to over 2 million today. We have roughly 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population.

I almost feel that I should re-paste that paragraph, as it's so mindblowing. Are you people reading this? We have 25% of the world's prison population in this country. Now, do you think that's reasonable? Do you think we have 1/4 of all the evil in the world right here in America. (Well, actually, now that I really consider it...Americans are pretty vile...) But, no. That's stupid.

So what conclusion are we left with? That we have the most backwards, randomly-applied laws? I guess so. Which is kind of hard to swallow, when you think about it. I mean, our laws are more randomly applied than...Saudi Arabia? North Korea? Iraq?

I don't know...maybe those guys didn't participate in the survey. But still, we like to think of ourselves at the top of the heap, civilization-wise, but that doesn't read like a stat sheet for even a First-World Country. I mean, come on, Honduras is kicking our ass in per capita incarceration? Chad? This can't stand. Where's our national pride?

And, of course, you know the reason for this nonsense. It's our drug laws.

Roughly 500,000 people are behind bars today for violating a drug law – an almost tenfold increase since 1980. Most are poor as well as black or Latino. Drug law violations account for 25-35% of all felony convictions, and for 25-35% of the roughly 5 million Americans who cannot vote today because of a felony conviction. An additional 10-15% are incarcerated for non-drug violations associated with drug market violence or acquisitive crimes motivated by illicit drug addiction.

25% of all felony convictions. Unbelievable. Half a million people in jail because of drug laws.

To my mind, there's no good, solid reason for drugs to be illegal. I say, we legalize them all. Every one. All of it. No more "prescription-only" painkillers, no more anti-steroid PR campaigns, no more Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and no more looking around nervously for a cop before you light up a doob in the passenger seat of your idling car in the parking lot behind the store where you work. Or have I said too much?

The most common response I get to this statement?

"But, making drugs legal is like telling people that they are okay...We have a responsibility to protect people."

And to this, I say, "bullshit." There's nothing in the Constitution about the government helping people make smart health-related decisions. All kinds of things that are really really bad for you are thankfully extremely legal, from Big Macs to cigarettes to booze to rifles to Creed albums. Why do I want the government deciding what's right for me, when I can fuck up my life perfectly well on my own?

Here's the second most-common anti-legalization argument:

"But if you make drugs legal, so many more people will try them, we'll have a much larger drug problem in this country."

Okay, see, no. Because people who want to do drugs already do them. They are illegal and yet entirely available. In high school, I never did drugs once. Seriously. I'm not kidding. I thought they were bad. I had always been taught that drugs dulled your mind and made you stupid, and as a child, I didn't have much self-worth associated with anything but my intelligence. So I felt drugs weren't for me, and avoided them all throughout my youth.

But that's not to say I wasn't aware of their existance, and extremely able to obtain them should the notion appeal to me. In college, drug availability increased exponentially, and now I would find it far far easier to find any number of illcit drugs than many perfectly legal commodities, such as brass brads that will actually fit into the three holes punched in the sides of my latest screenplay. Seriously, I have been to four different office supply stores, and no one has large, long brads such as would fit into a script. Is this not Los Angeles? Does everyone not have a screenplay which requires brads? What the fucking hell?

But I digress. I'm saying that drug people find drugs, period. If drugs were suddenly legal, I would think we would see a three-to-five year bump in drug use, followed by a falling-off to levels below today's. And here's why...

For a few months, people who never did drugs because they were illegal (I'll grant there are some people that fit this description) would try it. Most of them would probably find it distasteful and would give it up forever. Some would get addicted. Those addicts would clean up or die. But the thrill of the new would rapidly go away, and drugs would lose one of their main appeals in today's marketplace: illegality.

Drugs have gained a certain cachet because they are outside the law, particularly in terms of the rebel outlaw 60's counterculture. Strip them of their glamour and mystery, and I suspect most people would see hardcore drugs for what they are - hardcore. As in, way way too much for most people to handle, dangerous and best avoided except for extreme circumstances, like, say Burning Man or Coachella.

The side benefit? Oh yeah, none of that black market street crime gang activity that seems to worry people. No more American taxpayer being left out of one of our largest American industries. No more addicts having to hide out, not getting the medical help they need for fear of arrest or disenfranchisement.

Not to mention that you could finally go to a rock concert and sit on the open-air lawn and enjoy a joint with some friends without having to hide it behind your hand. How can we continue to deny our fellow citizens the legal right to such a simple pleasure?

I'm so just scratching the surface of this debate here. Seriously, I could prattle on about this issue all day, I feel so strongly about it. And not just because I think I should have the right to recreationally use drugs without fear of social and legal repercussions (although I do!), but because of the obstacles to civil liberty that these laws represent, and because these laws are simply not pragmatic. Perhaps, once, anti-drug laws were designed out of some pure and noble motivation, to protect fellow citizens from ruining their lives and bodies with chemicals. But today, these laws represent a more odious and negative influence on our society than the initial abuse which spawned them.

The Huffington Post

That's Arianna Huffington's new celebrity-and-journalist group blog. Find it here.

There's been a lot of talk about Huffington Post on the 'Net all week, mainly negative, but I only got a chance to check it out for myself yesterday. I'll be honest: the format sounded like something that would be amusing but not neccessarily useful.

Arianna has gathered hundreds of her cool, insider-y friends, ranging from witty celebrities such as John Cusack and Larry David to actual politicians to political commentators and even the occasional random humorist (like Greg Gutfeld, editor of Maxim UK). And she just opened up a blog for them, and encouraged them to write whatever they want.

You hear something like this, and immediately think it's wrong as a blog. I mean, the whole point of blogging is that people with an inordinate amount to say about the world have a place to just speak their minds, and others can come and puruse what items they find interesting. So having celebrities and writers, people who are afforded the chance to speak their mind 24 hours a day anyway, writing seems like a waste. I don't need to read Huffington Blog every day to find out what Greg Gutfeld finds interesting...He edits a whole magazine I can read for that.

So it's a mixed-bag kind of deal. Some of the stuff is really stupid, like John Cusack's Hunter Thompson obit (which essentially reported that John Cusack knew Hunter Thompson), or Greg Gutfeld's instructions on how to turn your SUV into an ice cream truck.

But some of the posts are really great. Like Dennis Miller's CNBC producer posting the e-mail he received announcing that his show had been cancelled, or Larry David sympathizing with nominee John Bolton's desire to harshly chastize underlings. All in all, the thing is a lot more satisfying, entertaining read than I had expected, and I'll probably be checking in with it semi-frequently for cool bits to post here on The Inertia.

Also, Arianna has a news section modeled on The Drudge Report, with little links all over to interesting or bizarre news stories. And I can always use another one of these, the better to find goofy news articles to mock for your entertainment and edification.

Inland Empire: The New David Lynch Film?

Aint It Cool News reports rumors and scuttlebutt from Cannes that there may be one or even two (gasp!) new David Lynch films premiering in the coming months. Holy crap, but that's good news. For those of you who are keeping score, and despite what pedantic naysayers might have you believe, Lynch has made approxmiately no bad movies ever.

His 2001 triumph Mulholland Drive ranks among my favorite films of the decade, and anyone who doesn't appreciate the deft humor or remarkable craft of Wild at Heart doesn't understand my individuality or my belief in personal freedom.

Anyway, here's what one AICN reader has to say:

Today on his daily report [Lynch] announced he has a new film coming out called INLAND EMPIRE, and that is has been being worked on for two years. It is shot on DV, and that he is finished with shooting films on celluloid.

On May 12th he is suppose to announce this to everyone officially.

Another filmmaker fully embracing DV technology...Weird...

Is it time for those of us who cherish old-fashioned celluloid filmmaking to grow concerned? It seems that a number of young and/or influential filmmakers are turning to DV and not looking back - Lucas, Cameron, Rodriguez, Soderbergh...I keep waiting for the counter-movement to come along, a bunch of moody Scandanavian Lars von Trier types who will only shoot on real film in natural light with the blessing of a rabbi, but so far, I haven't heard about anything like that. And the real Lars von Trier kind of bums me out.

Anyway, AICN had even more to say about the possibility of a new David Lynch contribution.

French sales and distribution company StudioCanal is backing the upcoming project from David Lynch titled "Inland Empire," sources in Cannes confirmed Wednesday. StudioCanal, a division of Vivendi Universal's French pay TV company Canal Plus, declined to talk about the project, which it has been trying to keep top secret. Even posters for the film on the Croisette and around the Cannes market have been covered until a grand unveiling scheduled for Thursday.

Well, it's Thursday, so hopefully there will be more news tonight.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Star Wars Prequels Reconsidered, Part 1

I'm hard on the Star Wars prequels. Too hard, some have said. There is a notion out there that criticism of Episode I: The Phantom Menace and Episode II: Attack of the Clones is an insult to George Lucas, coming from a undue sense of ownership. Lucas owns Star Wars, this reasoning goes. He's spent 30 years of his life working on it, and the films have delighted audiences around the world ever sense. The man doesn't owe his fans anything - he should be free to complete his story as he sees fit.

That's all well and good, I suppose. It's essentially the opposite view of filmmaking from my own, though. I think of a man like George Lucas as incredibly lucky. He has crafted a story that has touched millions, and the fame and fortune from his initial work has entitled him to fashion a six-volume body of work unparalleled in film history. No, he doesn't "owe" his audience anything, in the way that your roommate might owe you $5, but you'd think he'd be guided by a sense of immense humility. To be given the job of storyteller to the world has to be a heady experience.

So, anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying that, though I bear George Lucas the man no ill will, and though I enjoy his initial three Star Wars films a great deal, I have been intensely disappointed in his present work and have felt no need to remain silent on the matter.

It occured to me recently that I have not seen either of the two prequels in quite some time. I saw Phantom Menace on its opening night, along with several thousand other people at the Fox Village Theater in Westwood. It was a midnight show, and the place was so full of energy, so crowded and vibrant and exciting, it was hard to concentrate on the movie as a movie. The whole thing felt more like an event. So I chalked up my intiail disappointment to a distracting environment, and went back to the theater two weeks later (or so) to formulate a real opinion on the film.

My reaction the second time around was no better. In fact, it was worse. Aspects of the movie that had felt merely irritating during the first go-around now felt ludicrously out of place, amateurish at best and insulting to the intelligence at worst. What's more, I found the pacing deathly dull. This was supposed to be an adventure movie, after all, so why did it feel like sitting through an economics lecture? Where was the fun, the zeal, the exuberance that had defined A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back? Who were the new icons of Star Wars? Please tell me it's not the calypso-talking fish guy and ponytailed Liam Neeson...

Anyway, I never bothered to see Episode I: The Phantom Menace again. I just stopped caring. I figured George hadn't actually directed a film since 1977, with the release of Episode IV: A New Hope, and he'd stumbled coming out of the gate. No matter...if Episode II ruled, this unpleasant opening would be quickly forgotten.

Regrettably, Attack of the Clones hit in 2002 and provided little hope for the future. I knew once again during an opening night screening that it was not up to snuff. It was overlong, tedious, based around a love story with no personality or chemistry whatsoever, and it was intentionally vague and obtuse. I hated the feeling all through the film of Lucas holding back, of waiting forever to reveal small details and never getting around to paying anything off, because he wanted the final chapter to be a surprise. I knew Episode III is coming, sure, but did that mean that I had to sit through two movies merely as a teaser? Why not just make one prequel if there isn't enough quality material?

And that was the only time I have ever seen Attack of the Clones. Seriously. I never went back, I have not rented the film, nothing. It has been 3 years.

So, I currently own a ticket to the Pacific Culver 12 Theater for a screening one week from tonight. The film will be Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I have heard that this film is all the things the other two were not: gripping, exhiliarating, solemn, intense, satisfying. I am more than a bit excited.

I felt it would be unfair, however, not to revisit the previous two episodes. Mainly, I am concerned that I will have forgotten something significant that is paid off in Sith, as Lucas I'm sure considers his fanbase to be up-to-snuff on their Star Wars minutae. Also, I'm hoping to see something that I missed before, during those emotionally-charged first-time viewings. Certain movies definitely improve with repeat viewings, and it seemed churlish of me to insist that Lucas' new Star Wars films must be taken strictly at face value.

So, this will be the first of two columns, revisiting and reconsidering the two Star Wars prequels, leading up to a review of Episode III that will appear on the blog in about a week. In Part I, we'll look at 1999's Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

In this entire project of making a three-movie trilogy to explain the backstory to the 70's and 80's Star Wars trilogy, one of the hardest decisions must have been where to begin. From the original three movies, we get a good deal of the actual plotting of the prequels, but what we don't get is a distinct starting point. There was a Clone War, that we've heard, and Obi Wan trained Anakin, we knew that also. Plus, Anakin had to have twins with some girl, and then he had to turn evil, and Yoda had to end up on a swamp somehow.

But when does the story actually start? What is the origin of Star Wars? It's almost an unanswerable question. Lucas wisely evaded it in 1977 by starting his movie in the middle of an ongoing saga. I think the major problems in Phantom Menace, and there are many, probably started with the decision to make Anakin a child in the story.

Mainly, it robs him of a personality. The original Star Wars trilogy was filled with likable, colorful characters, from Han the hotshot smuggler to Chewbacca to Princess Leia, Darth Vader and R2D2. In the prequels, our heroes are mainly Jedi, solemn, monklike men for whom levity and, well, humanity is discouraged.

Now that might have worked out fine if our Anakin was an exciting protagonist. If we watched a brash adolescent come into conflict with these uptight defenders of an ancient power, there might have been some spark to Episode I. It might have some of the original films' outlaw spirit. Remember, they are movies about young people attempting to violently overthrow the galactic government.

But in Phantom Menace, look at the heroes George has given himself to work with. There's Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor), two stone-faced Jedis of the monotone variety. Then there's Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), a monarch who appears in pancake make-up and speaks like Vicki from TV's "Small Wonder." Then, there's the spazzy 8 year old Anakin (Jake Lloyd). Lloyd gives a treacly, over-rehearsed "child actor" performance, and it basically killed his burgeoning career dead, but it's not his fault. There's not enough material there to make him the focal point for an epic 2 hour science fiction adventure. He may grow up to be a powerful Jedi, and finally the Right Hand of Imperial Doom, but in Phantom Menace, he's just a kid, and a rather irritating one at that.

And then look at the conflict he's placed these characters in. Because Anakin's just a kid, and we can't deal with any material about the formation of the Empire (because the film is set too early in the Star Wars timeline), the story centers around a dry trade negotiation dispute.

Now, I have read long, well-conceived defenses of Lucas' films as political metaphor. I know people who think of these films as adult thrillers, struggling with issues of government, fascism and the nature of control. I don't really see the depth here. To me, it feels like a filler kind of plot, a random notion Lucas came up with to explain away a few battles and instigate a conflict he had no intention of resolving for two more movies. Again, he couldn't deal head-on with the most interesting interpersonal material in the trilogy (like the love of Anakin for Padme, the internal conflict in the Senate driving Palpatine to power, the rise of the Imperial Army, the turning of Anakin) because he had made the hero too young.

So, in order to keep his movie entertaining in the least, Lucas is forced to overplay his hand, to fashion some sort of "comic relief" to take the dour edge off his film. And it's here that he makes his most greivous errors. And I'm not just talking Jar Jar Binks (although I am talking about him). I'm talking about all the ethnic stereotypes, which I suppose are meant to be funny and engaging but which are only childish and mildly offensive. (The trade federation's officials are so obviously pained Asian stereotypes, it's utterly unbelievable to me that Lucas even tried to get away with it. Aren't there any Asian people at LucasFilm who could have alerted him to this problem?)

I'm also talking about the droids, C3PO and R2D2. In the original film, they are humorous characters, but they are also characters dealt with in a sincere manner. They are beings, they have feelings and emotions, they are "friends" with the heroes and not possessions.

Think of the scene in Jabba's Palace at the opening of Return of the Jedi. This is a sequence I come back to a lot in discussing Star Wars, because I feel the Jabba sequence in Jedi is among the entire original trilogy's best and most iconic mateiral. Anyway, in that scene, the hologram message from a newly Jedi-ed out Luke informs Jabba that he presents Threepio and R2D2 to the crime boss as "gifts."

And Threepio seems genuinely hurt by this news. He's taken to a junkyard where Jabba's droids are refitted and reprogrammed, and he's afraid, dejected, miserable. There's pathos in this scene. And that's the power of Star Wars - it's pure imagination and fantasy, and the level of compassion, personality and detail is unrivaled. We're asked to sympathize with a robot who has been given away.

Now think of how that same robot is depicted in Phantom Menace. As a sideshow, as a joke, as a deliverer of cheesy one-liners. I understand Lucas' intention - he needed something to lighten up his movie, which is a few set pieces and quips away from being a thoroughly dreary, maudlin affair about imminant worldwide war.

Okay, so that's my take on where the movie goes wrong. As I said, all based around one initial decision to make Anakin a kid. You start with Anakin as a troubled teen, already studying to be a Jedi, you open up an entirely new world for the movie. Episode I would have been like Episode II, which in its own way felt like a gear-up, prologue kind of movie itself. Episode II would have been the material currently found in the Cartoon Network Clone War cartoon series, about how Anakin becomes simultaneously more powerful and more dangerously angry during the conflict. Finally, you'd have the same Episode III, with Anakin turning and a dark cloud passing over all that is good and hopeful in the universe.

But this article is called "prequels reconsidered," and I do have some reconsideration to explain. Upon first seeing Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, I declared it a bad film, and have stated this as fact ever since. In truth, after rewatching it the other day, I don't think it's a terrible movie at all. In fact, it's rather enjoyable, for what it is, when given some distance from the emotional connection I feel towards the original trilogy.

For one thing, it looks terrific. It's colorful, detailed, polished and stylish. When I first saw the movie, I found the final battle between CG Gungan warriors and CG battle droids cold and unengaging, but on DVD, the entire sequence kind of came alive. Sure, the lame attempts at comedy still don't play, but it is kind of interesting to see this battle, which feels like Star Wars and yet is so unlike anything else in any of the other movies. It's rural, for one thing, and it involves no humans whatsoever, which is fairly unprecedented. If not for the intrusion of the lame device involving Anakin destorying a space station on accident, this battle might rank as one of the prequel's best.

Another set piece that worked better for me this time around was the pod race. I still feel that the excuse for getting Anakin in a pod race feels labored and overlong, but once the action really gets going, it's quite exciting. And the other racers do provide brief glimpses of the kind of far-out sensibility Lucas used to employ all the time, particularly the villainous, four-armed Sebulba.

Finally, the character of Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) comes across fantastically well in this initial chapter. I can't believe I didn't pick up on this more during my first encounters with the film. McDiarmid is playing the Man Who Would Be Emperor as not just fiendishly clever or mysterious, but as defiantly, enthusiastically evil. He doesn't toy with the Jedi and plot against them as a way of seizing power - he genuinely enjoys lying, cheating and ordering out death.

A scene with him and his apprentice, the underutilized Darth Maul, sets up the dynamic of the remainder of the prequels exceptionally well. We see that these are not simply madmen who have discovered a way to unseat the center of power. They are creatures of darkness who have waited in the shadows for literally hundreds of years, setting up an intricate web that will at some undetermined point ensnare the forces of good. Seeing this material makes me very excited to see what Lucas and McDiarmid can put together for Episode III.

So, there you have it, Phantom Menace reconsidered. I'll rent Attack of the Clones and review it in a few days. I work tomorrow, so maybe then, if there are any copies left in the store.

One final thought: In Phantom Menace, we learn that Anakin's mother has no idea who fathered her son. In fact, she says "there is no father." There was no mention of this at all in Attack of the Clones. Is Lucas really going to leave such a blatant and cheesy Jesus reference unexplained at the end of the trilogy? If you have read the script or seen Sith, don't bother answering, as I've attempted to avoid spoilers, but I have a hard time with leaving this plot point open. But I can't imagine any satisfying way to explain it. Could it be that Qui-Gon is secretly Anakin's father? Or Palpatine? Or Dooku? Or Anakin was a product of The Force, manifested within Shmi Skywalker's womb?

Knowing GL's fondness for twist endings dealing with paternity, should we expect some late-in-the-game turnabout in Revenge of the Sith? I kind of hope not...

Monday, May 09, 2005

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang

There is only one mode in this movie, and that mode is despair. Things don't ever get better for our hero, James Allen, a hard-working and forthright young man who has just returned from the front lines of WWI. They get progressively worse and worse, driving him from one hopeless situation to another. Even a lucky turn only sets him up for a greater fall.

This nihilism, I suppose, reflected the audience's similar desperation. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang debuted in 1932, a scant three years after the stock market crash, at a time when many formerly successful, stable people were plunged into economic turmoil. But it's not just social problems that attack Allen; he's getting it from all sides. He's harshly judged by his brother, mistreated by a friendly stranger, set-up by negligent cops, poorly advised by his attorneys, and even blackmailed by his girlfriend. And at the end of every road, the only future he can see is a life on the chain gang, a life of endless toil, torture and inhumanity.

It sounds depressing, and it is. Shocking, too. This film is widely credited with the abolition of the chain gang as an institution in Southern punishment. Though this level of influence is certainly questionable, the movie does make a strong case for forced labor as a cruel and unusual form of punishment, and likewise one that's unfairly and randomly applied.

Allen (Paul Muni), unlucky bastard that he is, winds up on the chain gang merely by accident. Returning from WWI, he expresses to his preacher brother and mom a desire to become an engineer, to achieve something greater than the factory job which satisfied him before the war. But, unable to find work, he eventually becomes a drifter, and after that a hobo. One night, while following a fellow drifter around in the hopes of a hamburger, he unwittingly takes part in an armed robbery, and winds up sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.

The scenes that follow are the film's most powerful. For a middle-class man like Allen to suddenly find himself shackled to convicts, breaking down rocks in a blazing-hot valley while being berated and even whipped by guards, is a stunning turnaround and Muni's very effective at expressing a kind of hopelessness mixed with a bit of dazed bemusement. It's utterly incomprehensible to him that he must ask permission to wipe the sweat from his brow, or that he's asked to eat grease and hog fat for breakfast.

The film moves along at a brisk pace, and this sense of gallows humor really helps to maintain interest and build an affection for Allen. And you'll need it, because this movie really puts him through the wringer. There's a thrilling escape sequence in which Allen employs a clever trick that would be borrowed by a generation of Looney Tunes creators. (Okay, I'll tell you...he slips underwater and breathes fresh air clandestinely through a reed). There's the sham marriage to the evil golddigger who has found out James' little secret. And there's even a trial and the promise of a lenient sentence that goes horribly awry.

The idea here isn't just that chain gangs are a social evil (although that concept is quite clearly expressed). There's also the notion of an entire society getting together to punish one man. Allen quite clearly hasn't done anything wrong, but protestations of his innocence only seem to make the authorities more angry. Now, they're upset not only that he escaped the chain gang, but that he had the gall to complain about the style of his imprisonment. And more complaining will only cause him more grief.

So what's the answer? The only way out for James is to "take it on the lam," run away and drop off the map entirely. The final sequence finds him a desperate man once again, constantly on the run from the law, unable to settle or work or love or live his life.

What are we to make of such a story? I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is based on the true biography of Robert Burns, a man who really did get sent to a Georgia chain gang for 10 years, who escaped and fled to Chicago and started a new life as a businessman, only to be recaptured and sent back to the chain gang. Burns' story has been altered in two major ways.

1) Muni's character in the film doesn't want to steal the hamburger, whereas Burns in real life did steal $5 from a diner in order to obtain food.

2) Burns was eventually pardoned with the help of several lawyers, and went on to write the book that became this film.

So, Hollywood changed the ending to make it...less hopeful. They took a story about a man who had risen up above a crooked system and eventually aided in its downfall, and made a movie about a man who is driven to homeless, insanity-fueled criminality by a corrupt and unfair social system. It's certainly atypical.

Interesting, as well, that Chain Gang was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who's also responsible for the harsh Little Ceaser. Both films share downbeat conclusions, but whereas Ceaser alters history to make it more palatable (evil is punished in an immediate and clear sense, when Rico dies in the street), Chain Gang changes the verifiable truth to make a more resonant movie for a dire age. It's an interesting choice, and one that provides the film with some really taut, gripping material in its second act.

This is a film not to be missed, full of intrigue, surprises and even comedy. Muni's just an enjoyable, charismatic presence, and he thankfully has infused Allen with a wry sense of humor that makes some of the film's more unpleasant passages easier to take. Though he gets a little hammy in the final moments (the image on the cover of Warner Brothers' new DVD depicts him bugging his eyes out like Peter Lorre), it's overall an exceptionally strong, unmannered central performance.

Whacking My Flak

You may not know this, but in addition to a published blogger, I'm also a published unpaid writer of brief articles for an unknown Internet entertainment and news website. That would be Flak Magazine. You may find my first article for Flak here. It's about the TV show "South Park."

Basically, I have been reading a lot online about theories tying the TV show "South Park" to the neoconservative movement in America, and have noticed myself that the show seems to lean more to the right than it did at one time. So, I wrote a brief little piece about it for Flak. It's called "Is South Park Right?" (Ha ha!)

Now, no offense to Flak, which is a nice little magazine kind enough to print something written by yours truly, spelling errors and all. But I didn't really think it had what you'd consider a high level of readership. So I was quite surprised to receive an e-mail today from my friend Jason, informing me that my article was being reviewed rather unkindly on the blog Scrubbles.Net.

Here's what main Scrubster mhinrichs had to say about my writing:

This article amounts to making something out of nothing (or, if your're feeling generous, very little). It appears the author of a new book wants to make the phrase "South Park Conservatives" into a byword for a certain kind of political body, like the Silent Majority or Soccer Mom Voters. That's a stretch.

Okay, okay, Hinrichs, let me stop you right there. And let me also note that your vaguely German screen ID makes me slightly uncomfortable.

You start off by saying that my article tries to make something out of nothing. Then, you proceed to reply to the main issue raised by my article ("Is there a right-leaning philosophy behind TV's 'South Park'"?)

By actually taking that idea and providing your own opinion about it in an article, aren't you in fact simply repeating what I have already done? Therefore, wouldn't it be fair of me to say that your blog post "makes something out of nothing"? After all, if I start with nothing, and then you reply to nothing, aren't you still left with nothing?

The fisking continues:

I'd characterize the SP episodes from the new season as vaguely right-leaning in the same way The Daily Show skewers ever-so-leftward, but essentially both are equal opportunity offenders.

Here, hinrichs continues to critique and comment on my article that had nothing to say. He also ends up essentially agreeing with my viewpoint, that "South Park" leans to the right in the same way as "The Daily Show" leans to the left.

What they don't mention in the article is how South Park's writing staff includes Norman Lear, who is far from politically conservative. I can't picture Trey Parker and Matt Stone as conservatives, so whatever.

What? TV legend Normal Lear writes for "South Park"? Really?

Um, no. The reason I didn't include this information is because it's totally not true. Here's a quote from a real newspaper, The New York Times, about Lear's involvement with the "South Park" guys:

It was Mr. Lear who came up with the idea for the giant talking taco and the reality television theme during a three-day retreat for the show's writers in February in Scottsdale, Ariz., a session that Mr. Lear said was unlike any writers meeting he had ever been to.

"These guys are nuts," Mr. Lear said during a conference call with Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone. "But they're also very, very smart. They throw out a lot in very little time."

Okay, so Norman Lear hung out with Matt and Trey for 3 days and imparted some of his wisdom. That's cool. He respects them, which is great. I, too, greatly respect them. In fact, the whole reason I wrote the article in the first place is because I care so much about "South Park." I think it's a great show, a classic, even, and so I think it is worthy of discussing as political satire, not just as an amusing cartoon show.

But does Lear's 3-day stint as mentor to Matt and Trey mean that they neccessarily share his politics? Of course not. And does he have any real involvement with the subject matter and tone of the show? No, no, clearly no. At the end of every episode of "South Park," there's always a credit: Written by Trey Parker. So, there you go.

You've got to love hinrichs closing out with a " whatever." You've got to finish strong! That's the secret of good blog writing.

But if only that were all, dear readers! Mr. Hinrichs had a comment on his post! A guy who had this to say:

The Flak Magazine article about SOUTH PARK is strange and schizophrenic.

It starts out as an attempt to thrash the show with snide phrases like "narcissitic apathy"(sic)...
But then it ends up calling SOUTH PARK "among the bravest, most outspoken and most politically aware shows on television."

Earth to Flak: Make up your minds already!

Okay, the spelling error? He got me. I'd love to blame Flak's copy-editors, but I'm sure that's an original Lons typo. It happens. Oops.

Everything else, though, is totally stupid. Did this guy even read my article?

First off, it's not schizophrenic, it's balanced. Now, I know that in today's media, an article that doesn't stridently take one side and then make up arguments out of thin air to support that side doesn't really have any place. But, what can I say, that's the kind of journalism I dig.

I begin by presenting my view of "South Park" - that the only solid philosophy presented is one of essential apathy and disregard for current affairs. Then, I provide a counterargument, that "South Park" aligns with a youth movement in conservatism, one that is pro-war and anti-PC. Then, I provide a possible compromise position - that the show is too complex and nuanced to summarzie as right or left-wing.

I think it makes total sense. Maybe you find it convoluted. That's fair enough. But schizophrenic? It's written like I have multiple personalities?

Also, I dig the little Earth to Flak comment. As if the article was written by some creature named Flak with his own magazine. My name's right there under the headline, jagoff.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Happy Mom's Day

That's the weird thing about Moms...Everybody has one...