Monday, May 28, 2007

Thirty Years of the Force

Star Wars turned 30 this weekend.

Wired's Luddite saw it for the first time recently and didn't like it. It is impossible for me to judge the original movie, I've seen it too many times. I know that at the time I loved it as did the rest of the world. The Luddite's reaction is not uncommon for people who did not see it when it was new. This is partly a measure of its success.

Here's a list of everything released in 1977. There are several memorable films. Anne Hall won best picture and influenced fashion for years. Close Encounters cemented Speilberg's reputation as a populist director. Still, Star Wars is the one remembered thirty years later.

I will admit that some of the dialog is bad. We could forgive it then because people expected bad dialog in science fiction movies. The fact that we expect more from science fiction now is part of Star Wars' success.

If you look over the list of movie from the 1970s, you find a few things:

  1. Most science fiction was poorly done. The movies were slow and unapproachable.
  2. Special effects were poor.
  3. Action movies in general were at a low point. Most featured a single anti-hero and a lot of car chased. Examples are Smokey and the Bandit and The Gauntlet.

Star Wars was a throw-back to a style of adventure movie that vanished in the 1960s - a clearly defined fight between good and evil with a lot of action thrown in. To this classic formula it added a level of special effects never seen before.

Star Wars made a lot of money. Studios noticed and tried to copy it. Most attempts in the 1970s and early 1980s flopped. There is a lot more to making a good adventure movie than special effects.

Eventually a new generation of directors figured it out. The current blockbusters, movies like Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean exist because of this.

That's why it is so hard to judge the original Star War now. It no longer stands out. It redefined the adventure movie but many of its successors hold up better.

But, how many of them will be noticed when they turn 30?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Third Time's the Charm

After the disappointing Spider-Man 3 and Shrek the Third, I was worried about Pirates of the Caribbean 3. I shouldn't have worried. It was much better than Pirates 2.

There is a good reason for this. Spider-Man and Shrek were made as individual movies. The writers and director threw everything they had into the sequel without worrying about holding back for a third movie. Pirates 2 and 3 were made as a package.

The original Pirates had a strong back-story even if it was only hinted at. By the end of the movie, there was no back-story left to draw on. The solution was to use the second movie to create a new back-story to be resolved in the third movie.

The result was that the second Pirates felt light-weight. Plot was replaced with complicated fights and set-pieces. Also, Jack's character never seemed quite right. Depp went through all the right motions but it just didn't quite take. I think that the problem was that we always knew Jack's motivations. He was betraying everyone in an effort to save himself from Davey Jones. This is in contrast to the first movie where he always seemed to be trying to do right by Will and Elizabeth, as long as he ended up with the Black Pearl.

Jack is back to normal in the third movie. Of course, for him normal means off-kilter. At minimum he is occasionally delusional but he is still functional. As in the first movie, he is helping Will and Elizabeth, even if he has ulterior motives.

I'm not sure if this is as good as the original Pirates. I'll probably have to see it again to decide. It is slower at spots and much darker. The body count in the first few minutes is higher than the first two movies added together. Some principals die, also.

By the end of the movie things have been wrapped up pretty well. Depp has allowed as how he would be interested in doing a fourth movie although it will have to be without Knightly or Bloom. Both of them have other projects. That's ok. Will and Elizabeth may have been integral to the trilogy but it wouldn't be a Pirates movie without Jack.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Heroes wrapped up their first season last night with a strong ending. I've been watching it since the beginning and I saw many of the episodes again over the weekend during a marathon on the Sci-Fi channel.

It actually had a shaky start. The people they focused on were not all that pleasant. We had a loser cop who started reading minds, a cab-driver from India who was trying to figure out what happened to his father, a cheerleader who kept trying to kill herself and failing, a junky who painted the future, and an internet stripper with a second personality who tore people apart. There was a lot of blood - especially after they did an autopsy on the cheerleader. The only bright spot in those early episodes was a Japanese office worker who managed to stop a clock for a second.

The show improved a lot. By the second episode we had an idea of what the show (or at least the season) would be about - stopping New York from blowing up.

Other things improved. The gore level dropped. The scary guy in the horn rim glasses warmed. The cheerleader stopped trying to hurt herself. People met each other. Coincidences abounded. Through it all, the Japanese office worker, Hiro, remained the center of the show. He was the one who knew that there was a mission - save the cheerleader, save the world.

After the Christmas break the show shifted into high gear. Some of the less sympathetic characters either moved into the background or became more likable. The cheerleader was saved but we didn't know if the world could be saved.

Interestingly, they dropped a clue that the future could be changed in the second and third episode. In the second episode, Hiro called his friend Ando who said that he had disappeared weeks ago. But Ando accompanied Hiro on his quest starting with the third episode. The future had already been changed.

By the end, the writers were juggling nearly every character as they converged on the Kirby Building (named for Jack Kirby, the creator of the Fantastic Four and other?). Each of them had different motivations and they switched groupings several times. The whole thing was carried off quite well. They even worked in that serial-killer Sylar came to the plaza to stop Peter from blowing up, not to blow up the city himself.

They also left plenty of plotlines dangling for next season. Sylar survived, we now know that there is someone worse than he is out there, and Hiro is in the 17th century.

As endings go, it makes burning a raft or imploding a hatch seem second-rate.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Shrek and Sequels

Shrek the Third did great business its opening weekend, taking in more money and drawing slightly more people than the second movie and doing a lot better than the original.

So, how does it compare? Like Spider-Man 3, I thought that it was better the the first but not as good as the second. The first was a children's story with a light plot. Dreamworks added in some topical references and a Disney parody. More than one critic described it as an extended "Fractured Tairy Tail". The second movie upped the anti. Shrek moved on to a bigger kingdom with a larger cast and a more complex plot. For the third movie, the plot is simplified. Instead of a new kingdom we get a couple of scenes in a high school. We got a few new characters - mainly some princesses and a slightly boring Arthur.

It's not unusual for movie franchises to bog down after a while. There are exceptions. Movies based on book series do well. The Lord of the Rings probably doesn't count but the 3rd Harry Potter movie was a significant improvement over the first two. Of all the James Bond movies, Goldfinger was one of the best. The first two were smaller, the following ones were over the top. In many ways, Son of Frankenstein was the best of the series. Of the Star Wars movies, Return of the Jedi was not as good as The Empire Strikes Back but Revenge of the Sith was the best of the prequel trilogy.

Often, when a successful movie is adapted from a single book or character, it starts to run out of steam by the third installment. Both Superman and Batman were showing signs of wear by the third movie and died after the fourth installments. X-Men 3 was better-plotted than X2 but the high body count left a bad taste in my mouth.

We are not finished with the 3s yet. Pirates 3 starts Friday and Rush Hour 3 comes out next month (to say nothing of Harry Potter 5). We will see how these hold up.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Spider-Man 3

I'm going to assume that anyone reading this has already seen Spider-Man 3 or at least has heard all of the plot elements. I'm just going to comment on some themes that the reviews I've seen missed.

Primarily this is a movie about facing your dark side. Peter does it through the black costume. Granted, the costume brings out the worst side of him, but he puts it on knowing this will happen. As Dr. Jekyll is drawn to the freedom of being Hyde, so is Peter drawn to the black suit.

That much is obvious about the movie - it's a major plot. But the villains have to face the same choice. Near the end of the movie, Harry has to face the fact that his father despised him and was responsible for his own death. Considering what has happened by that point, can he forgive Peter?

At the beginning Sandman says that he isn't a bad person but then we find out that he killed Uncle Ben. Not to mention that he is a rampaging pile of sand. He faces what he has done at the end.

Finally, there is Eddie Brock. It turns out he likes being mad. Out of the four, he is the one who fails.

So, was it a great movie? It wasn't bad. I didn't like the Green Goblin in the first movie. The costume and the solid helmet just were wrong for the character. On the other hand, I really liked both Doc Ock's personality and upgraded tentacles in the second movie. Given that background, I would put Spider-Man 3 somewhere in-between. I liked it better than the first but it wasn't as polished as the second.

My main complaint is that they stuffed so much into the movie. Three different villains plus the black suit was a lot. Some characterization got skipped - especially on Sandman and Venom.

I suspect that Sam Raimi assumed that this would be his last Spider-Man movie so he stuffed it full of his favorites. He could easily have paced the Venom plot and saved it for the next movie.

That said, I have to give him credit for not turning the movie into a mish-mash like Batman and Robin.

Since Spider-Man 3 has broken all previous box office records, there will be a lot of pressure on Raimi to do Spider-Man 4. Good thing Spider-Man has a richer group of villains to choose from than many heroes.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Lost in Purgatory

Are the people in Lost actually in the afterlife instead of being on an island? They dropped a couple of strong hints that this is the case. Locke's father said that his car was rear-ended and he was put in an ambulance. The next thing he knew he was on the island. Plus, the survivor of the helicopter crash said that flight 815 had been found at the bottom of the ocean. Remote cameras showed that everyone was on board when it went down.

This is a red herring. Ben's people caused the car wreck, drugged Locke's father, and brought him to the island under anesthesia. They did the same thing with Juliet. The difference was that she knew she was taking sleeping pills and they allowed her to wake up as the sub landed. We don't know why they went to so much trouble for Locke, but they did.

As for the plane wreck - it's pretty convenient that it was found in a location so inaccessible that nothing could be recovered from the plane. Any other crash and investigators would pull every scrap of metal out of the ocean and reassemble it. And, of course, rescuers would keep searching for a long time unless the plane was found. So Ben's people faked finding the plane. That shows that they are high-placed and powerful.

One other observation - this episode's flashbacks were just days earlier. It gave the show an almost continuous narrative. Contrast this with most episodes where the "A" plot is either the flashback broken up by current time or current time broken up by flashbacks. The flashbacks and the current plotline seldom work together to form a tight narrative like we saw this week.

I've been saying most of this season that the flashbacks were a good device the first season but they get in the way more often than anything else now.

Rumor is that five people will die in May. That's one down. This is their chance to kill of the characters whose backgrounds have been plumbed too deeply. That would be Jack, Sawyer, Kate, Charlie, Sun, and Jin. We haven't learned anything new about these characters in over a year. Any future flashbacks would be a waste of time.

Of course the producers think that Jack, Sawyer, and Kate are a lot more interesting than I do. They devoted half the season to them to the exclusion of the rest of the cast.

So what's coming? The first season was about building the raft and they burned it at the end. The second season was about the hatch and they imploded it at the end. The third season has been about the Others so Ben had better look out.