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2008 At The Movies

January 7th, 2009 No comments

Another year, another movie wrap-up. Here’s the list of all 2008 releases I tramped down to the multimegaplex to watch. As always, films are listed in terms of domestic box-office because I’m lazy and therefore cribbing from the yearly summary at Box Office Mojo.

  • The Dark Knight
  • Iron Man
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  • WALL-E
  • Quantum of Solace
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • Get Smart
  • Tropic Thunder
  • Cloverfield
  • Hellboy II: The Golden Army
  • Forgetting Sarah Marshall
  • Baby Mama
  • Burn After Reading
  • Speed Racer
  • Star Wars: The Clone Wars

That’s fifteen, two down from last year. And only five of the top 10, also down two. Maybe I should’ve seen Hancock and Madagascar 2? Eh, maybe not.

Going into 2008, a lot of folks–including myself–were seeing the potential for another 1982, a banner year for filmic geekdom. Certainly, there were a great many prominent genre efforts, despite Star Trek and Harry Potter being pushed back into 2009 for reasons known only to movie marketers.

I suspect that for many geeks and geeks-in-training, it was every bit as big as ’82. Theater clean-up crews are still wiping up the spooge deposited at screenings of The Dark Knight, the bestest movie EVER. Similarly, Iron Man had folks falling over each other on the way to the microphone to proclaim its sublime charms.

For me, 2008 was a little bet “meh.”

First, let’s get The Dark Knight out of the way. It’s telling that I not only didn’t run out and buy the DVD on its day of release (which you can damn well bet I did for Speed Racer), but I didn’t even put it on my Christmas list. Ultimately, I did receive a copy as a holiday gift, and I do intend to give it another whirl.

My relative lack of enthusiasm for The Dark Knight is for much the same reason as my muted reaction to the regenerated James Bond series: it just didn’t give me what I wanted from the franchise. Like Quantum of Solace, I respect the level of talent involved, as well as the need to curb the excesses of the past, but at the end of the day I guess I’m just not ready for a complete reinvention. For me, Dark Knight was only a superhero movie in that someone wore a cape; it was closer in feel to a modern crime drama or even a Silence of the Lambs-style thriller. And I’m sorry, but Heath Ledger is my fourth favorite Joker.

Iron Man was another one that had both fanboys and regular critics touching themselves, but again I struggled to see what the fuss was about. I did actually ask for this one at Christmas, and watched it a second time over the holiday break. And don’t get me wrong, it’s an enjoyable film. Robert Downey Jr. is having fun, and it shows. On a second viewing, I still found it to suffer from a relative paucity of Iron Man; there are long stretches in which not much happens, and even the final fight is fairly brief. I actually found The Incredible Hulk a bit more satisfying as a superhero film.

The “meh” continued with Indiana Jones and Hellboy II. I enjoyed them, but neither knocked my socks off. I do think that public reaction to Indiana Jones was a bit harsh in that everyone seemed to be anticipating another Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than another Last Crusade. And all the indignation about “nuking the fridge” seemed more about trying to invent a new “jump the shark” meme than a legitimate criticism of a series that has always reveled in unbelievable moments. Back in the day, my dad complained mightily about Indiana Jones getting pulled under that truck in Raiders, and I recall similar audience reactions to Indy using a rubber raft to escape a crashing plane in Temple of Doom. The real problem with Crystal Skull was that damned crystal skull.

Another Lucasfilm release was Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which amounted to little more than a cash-grab culled from the weekly animated series. One thing that has become clear is that for as much bitching as we old-school fans do about the prequels, for today’s kids this is Star Wars, and they love it.

The other entry in the computer-animated space robot sweepstakes was WALL-E, which was a sheer delight, start to finish. I don’t go to enough movies to confidently claim that any of them is the “best of” a given year, but WALL-E was the best that I saw.

Long-time readers will of course know that I absolutely loved Speed Racer. And hey, there are at least two of us: Richard Corliss over at Time magazine put it on his top 10 list. It reminded me of another film I adored, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, not only because of its entirely green-screened sets and hyper-unreality, but because in both cases audiences just didn’t seem to care. A lot of folks who were perfectly okay with the likes of Transformers suddenly demanded complex plots and realistic characters from their popcorn flicks. Whatever. I think that blogger Chris Sims summed it up best when he chalked up its poor reception to people who actively hated joy.

Cloverfield was another movie made expressly for me. Despite my ongoing hassle with Hasbro over my duplicate Cloverfield monster, I really liked this modern take on the venerable giant monster movie subgenre.

I saw a few good comedies this year. Forgetting Sarah Marshall had a lot of good moments–especially the climactic Dracula puppet musical–but I could’ve done without having to see Jason Segal’s junk. Tropic Thunder was ridiculous fun, with Robert Downey Jr. once again the big draw, though no moment was funnier than one featuring Ben Stiller and his would-be adopted “son”. Despite my well-documented love of Tina Fey, I felt that Baby Mama went a bit flat, and wasn’t nearly as good as Mean Girls. Get Smart managed not to tread upon my affection for the original TV series, and I felt that both Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway acquitted themselves in the roles created by Don Adams and Barbara Feldon. Finally there was Burn After Reading, which alternated between hilarious and too weird for words.

Can’t say that there’s a lot I’m looking forward to in 2009, aside from the aforementioned Star Trek and Harry Potter (and it must be said that this is my least favorite story in the Potter series). Land of the Lost is on my radar, though the inclusion of Will Ferrell makes me wonder what they’re going for; at least it appears to include old-school Sleestak. Terminator: Salvation has my interest, if only because it’ll finally pay off the future war we’ve been promised since the original film. And the new Wolverine flick looks promising; while I don’t have the Wolverine love that most comics fans do, I’ll admit that Hugh Jackman was a lot of fun in the previous X-Men films. Oh, and Watchmen, assuming it actually comes out.

Lizard Poisons Spock

November 18th, 2008 No comments

After last night’s episode, I think that I’m going to be adding CBS’ The Big Bang Theory to my not-a-TiVo queue. I’d largely avoided it during its first season, but it’s winning me over. It’s the accurate geek references that put it over the top.

Exhibit A: “I am not going to watch the Clone Wars TV series until I’ve seen the Clone Wars movie. I prefer to let George Lucas disappoint me in the order he intended.”

Exhibit B: A lengthy argument over which movie sucked more: Star Trek: The Motion Picture or Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

(I did take issue with Sheldon’s contention that only parts of STV sucked while everything about ST:TMP was uniformly awful, including the music. Dude, that’s Jerry Goldsmith you’re dissing there. Besides, I believe that Sheldon would’ve appreciated the ST:TMP score for introducing what eventually became the main title theme of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I tried explaining this all to Vic, who told me that it was just a sitcom.*)

Exhibit C: The gang’s expansion of Rock-Paper-Scissors with the inclusion of Lizard and Spock.

  • Scissors cuts Paper
  • Paper covers Rock
  • Rock crushes Lizard
  • Lizard poisons Spock
  • Spock smashes Scissors
  • Scissors decapitates Lizard
  • Lizard eats Paper
  • Paper disproves Spock
  • Spock vaporizes Rock
  • Rock crushes Scissors

My favorite: “Paper disproves Spock.”

* I would further argue that Sheldon himself would nitpick the point if he’d heard it on another sitcom.

Update: Okay, turns out that Lizard and Spock have been around for a while.

Force Majeure

October 12th, 2008 No comments

Star Wars are breaking out all over with a pair of recent projects further expanding the scope of George Lucas’ private universe.

The weekly, computer animated Clone Wars series has begun airing on Cartoon Network. It’s much like the recent theatrical film: it’s impossible for me to become invested in the characters, but at least there are lots of pretty things blowing up.

The most recent episode was rather neat in a way that only old-school fans would likely appreciate, at last paying off a design concept from more than thirty years ago.

In the original Star Wars, one of the Rebel ships was the “Y-Wing fighter” (below, left) which got its name because the top view resembles a capital letter Y. The craft was given a “stripped-down” look, in part to appeal to Lucas’ love of hot rods. The idea, as related in books of the day, was that the Y-Wings were originally sleek spaceships that were such a pain to maintain that the Rebel techs removed their outer plating.

I had thought that we might eventually see these sleeker Y-Wings in the prequels, which very deliberately started out with a design aesthetic emphasizing smooth lines and unbroken surfaces. The idea there was that with each subsequent film, the ships would come ever closer to the angular, utilitarian look of the original trilogy. I was sure that Y-Wings would make an appearance in Episode III, and disappointed when they didn’t.

As you can probably gather from a couple paragraphs above, Clone Wars stepped in to complete the circle, with Anakin Skywalker leading a Y-Wing squadron (below, right) in a bombing run on General Grievous’ battle cruiser. It was a nice Easter Egg for us old-timers.

The other recent attempt by Lucasfilm to milk the cash Bantha is the long-gestating The Force Unleashed video game/comic book/novel/toy line. The game was delayed several times, coming out nearly a year after its initially announced due date. (The toy tie-ins arrived on the shelves eight or nine months ago.)

The Force Unleashed is a more ambitious effort than Lucas’ first attempt at building a multi-media event around a non-movie storyline: the ill-fated Shadows of the Empire. This time, the setting is between the two film trilogies, a couple of years before Luke Skywalker’s battle against the Death Star. Luke’s nowhere to be found, though; instead the main character is “Darth Vader’s Secret Apprentice.” In another fan-friendly nod to us old-school fanboys, his nickname is Starkiller, Luke’s original surname in the early script drafts.

Starkiller isn’t just some punk farmer whining about his moisture vaporators. Don’t get me wrong, he is a whiny punk, but he’s also the baddest-assed bad-ass that ever swung a lightsaber. The game amps his Force powers up to absurd levels; Episode III Yoda’s got nothing on this emo kid.

The storyline (which is presumably fleshed out in the novelization) has an interesting core, with Vader sending Starkiller out in search of the remaining hidden Jedi Masters, all the while plotting to use his apprentice to overthrow the Emperor. (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD: skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know.) The twist is that the entire thing is an elaborate plot orchestrated by Vader (with the Emperor’s blessing) to lure the Empire’s enemies into open rebellion. Starkiller is tasked to found the Rebel Alliance so that Vader can capture the lot for public execution. Naturally, the apprentice turns on his masters and frees the prisoners at the cost of his own life. I don’t know that I find it necessary for the Rebel Alliance to have a secret origin story, but I can appreciate the irony of the Emperor setting into motion the army that eventually brings down the Sith. (END SPOILER.)

In Entertainment Weekly’s review of the game, they compare it to the Grand Theft Auto series, something I hadn’t considered. However, it makes a lot of sense; in both games, you play a morally-challenged character who kills hundreds, possibly thousands of sentient beings. And like GTA, I’ve found it quite impossible to NOT accidentally kill innocent bystanders. When our emo boy starts whipping out his Force, he wrecks pretty much everything in sight.

One difference here, though, is that in The Force Unleashed, you’re supposed to be the good guy. Sort of. When you start out you’re very much in full-on Sith-wannabe mode, not letting anything stand between you and the Jedi you’re hunting. But as the story progresses Starkiller goes on a familiar redemptive path…except that the murder rate never decreases. Sure, most of the time you’re Force-choking stormtroopers or (my favorite) tossing them into the Death Star’s planet-destroying laser, but there’s almost no one, friend or foe, that you don’t wind up either trying to kill or claiming as collateral damage.

Not saying that I’m not enjoying it. I especially like the visceral feel of the Wii version, in which you literally punch the air to create your Force blasts. And throwing stormtroopers into bottomless chasms never gets old. But, as was the case when Darth Vader’s one redemptive act in Return of the Jedi somehow washed away twenty years of sins, it’s a little hard to swallow that I’m getting away with being the hero after my epic mass murder spree.

Clone Of Silence

August 18th, 2008 No comments

According to Box Office Mojo, The Clone Wars brought in only about $15 million this weekend, landing in third place behind the Dark Knight cash machine. That’s still five million better than The X-Files managed, but just the same, I doubt anyone at Lucasfilm is all that happy about it.

And yes, that total includes my own five bucks.

Oh, don’t look at me like that. Like I wasn’t going to go. Grow up.

It was strange to attend a Star Wars flick that began without most of the traditional trappings: the familiar theme music, the receding logo, the expository crawl or the 20th Century Fox fanfare. The latter is considered so much a part of the Star Wars experience that most of the soundtrack CDs begin with it.

Still, I got about what I expected from The Clone Wars: lots of glorious eye candy and things exploding. Since the droids and vehicles were built from the same digital assets as those used in the real Star Wars films, the battle scenes were on par with the prequels. One action set-piece arguably exceeded anything from Episodes 1-3: a spectacular sequence in which Ashoka the Jedi padawan rode atop the windshield of a Republic walker as it climbed up a mountainside.

The human characters were, as reported elsewhere, surprisingly stiff, springing into action only during the lightsaber duels. Digital Padme, I must note, did have a nice ass.

I found that I didn’t miss the original voice actors much. The guy that played Obi-Wan channeled Ewan McGregor, just as McGregor had previously channeled Alec Guinness. And at least Christopher Lee had a fair amount to do reprising his Count Dooku role.

I did find myself questioning one character choice: the decision to play the villainous Ziro the Hutt as a gay stereotype dolled up with feathers and given a Truman Capote voice. Like Jar Jar Binks–a character in the Stephen Fetchit tradition who was cast with a black voice actor encouraged to perform with a rasta accent–it’s one of those “what were they thinking?” things. Note to George: making him an alien doesn’t help.

As for the story…well, it was more a series of events than a story, which befits its origin as several kludged-together episodes of the forthcoming TV show. And I couldn’t get very invested in it. Will Anakin come to accept his new padawan pupil? Of course he will, until he kills her. Will the Republic convince the Hutts to permit military supply lines through their territory? Could I possibly care less?

Supercollector Adam Pawlus over at Galactic Hunter appears befuddled by the poor reception of the new film by Star Wars fans, but I think it’s pretty obvious. For one, this was more obviously kid-focused than the live-action films. (Indeed, virtually everyone at the 4:00 pm Saturday show I attended was a young child or a parent.) I would also point to the backlash against Lucas not only for the prequels but for the recent Indiana Jones feature.

But more important, I think, is that the fans could smell that there was no movie here. Lucasfilm has tried similar tactics before: the first Clone Wars cartoon was originally conceived as little more than a series of one-minute toy commercials until animator Gennedy Tartakovsky lobbied to make them longer and more elaborate. Prior to that was “Shadows of the Empire,” a between-the-movies, multi-media project that involved books, comics, toys and even a soundtrack, but no film. I believe that the fanboys saw that Lucas wasn’t even trying, so why should they bother?

And honestly, while I can’t say that I disliked the “movie” or felt that I wasted my money, neither can I recommend it to anyone who isn’t a diehard fan in it to see Shit Blowing Up. Or digital Padme ass.

Bye, Bye, This Here Anakin Guy

August 13th, 2008 No comments

Two hundred eighty-nine figures. Nineteen vehicles. Grand total: $1,040.84. Packages going to Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Germany, Australia, and Urbana, Illinois.

While I certainly didn’t make back what I initially spent on all these toys, neither did I merely make pennies on the dollar, as I’d feared. I believe that all the homework and sorting helped goose the sales.

The new Clone Wars “movie” opens Friday, and I believe that its impending release and the associated hype provided the tipping point that led to my personal Order 66. In large part, that’s because I see it as a cynical cash-grab: it’s literally three episodes of the upcoming TV show strung together. That sort of thing is nothing new; it used to happen all the time back in the ’50s and ’60s. But I find it a bit more galling in that we’re getting all the usual pre-release parties and Happy Meal toys that would’ve accompanied a “real” Star Wars feature, only this time without the actual film. Heck, with the exceptions of Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee and the omnipresent Anthony Daniels, they didn’t even bother to hire back the original actors to provide the voice-overs. What, Hayden Christensen was too busy?

In the end, though, I think that my lack of enthusiasm about all things Clone (which I’ve previously discussed here) comes down to this: while a tragedy of a fall from grace that ends in betrayal and murder is a perfectly legitimate story, it’s a hell of a thing to base a franchise around.

“This fall, on Cartoon Network: Titus Andronicus, the animated series!”

Outside of the visceral, visual thrill of droids and starships in combat (which I’ll admit is considerable), I’ve got no real stake in the Clone Wars. Who am I rooting for? The clones who eventually turn on their masters and bring about the Empire? The corrupt Republic and its puppeteering Sith Lord? The hapless Jedi, who foolishly fall into the elaborate, and at times obvious, trap?

Besides, we know how it turns out. All those nifty Jedi? Dead. That cute, little female padawan who features so prominently in the trailers? Dead. (And probably killed by her own master, Anakin Skywalker.)

Would you like apple fries with your Happy Meal?

Updated: Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik blogs about this very issue.

The Jedi Purge

June 22nd, 2008 No comments

Last week, I made a major lifestyle choice. No, not what you’re thinking, though it’s now legal in California. Rather, a few days back I decided that enough was at last enough. It was time to stop the madness, and take back the toyroom.

As you know, I’ve been collecting Star Wars toys since they first arrived on store shelves in 1978. Back then, I idly thought one day that eventually there might be as many as sixty or seventy different action figures based on the promised nine films, and that it would be fun to set them up in little dioramas.

I had no idea what I was getting myself in for.

By the time the original Kenner toy line ended in 1985, 96 different figures had been released. (The most figures to come out in a single year were the 17 that accompanied the premiere of Return of the Jedi.) That was more than I had originally expected, but still a pretty reasonable total. With extra “army builders” such as stormtroopers, I had perhaps 130 total.

And indeed, I did follow through with my grand plan of collecting them all and setting up my little scenes. There were usually two reactions to my display: visitors were either impressed or frightened. (Vic was unusual in that she didn’t react at all.)

Flash forward to 1995, when the line was relaunched. While the early releases were absurdly beefy, with time the sculpts improved and they began to replace their so-called “vintage” counterparts in my scenes. Eventually, I purged most of my original figures, partially because I wanted to take advantage of their escalating secondary-market value, and partially because the plastic used to make them was getting tacky with age.

When the first of the prequels premiered in 1999, I had a choice: should I continue my collection with the new characters, or just stick with the original films? I thought “Do I really want to spend another eight years incessantly running to toy stores?” But I thought “At least then it will be over.”

Hah, hah, hah.

Nine years later, the line is still going strong. Too strong. The allegedly final film was released in 2005, but there are dozens and dozens of Star Wars toys planned for the next several months alone. Some of that is due to new media projects in the works, some due to the mature collectors market which allows the creation of ever more obscure characters to serve in “exclusive” boxed sets, and some due to what I believe to be sheer cussedness on the part of Hasbro.

The latter has manifested itself in a never-ending, rainbow coalition of droids in new paint schemes. Hasbro learned that people such as myself would buy R2-D2 dozens of times over if each was a different color. (And of course, the same trick was used for the many “astromech” droids seen in the films.)

The clone troopers have been even worse. Unlike the stormtroopers of old, which came solely in white, the many squadrons of clones seen in Revenge of the Sith each had their own unit colors. (The better to market to you, my dear.) There were orange clones, red clones, purple clones (yes, really)…

Then someone got the bright idea that the ones from the film weren’t enough. It was child’s play to create brand new clone squadrons. Bring on the “exclusives!”

The poster child for this trend was last year’s 14-figure set of repainted clones and Boba Fett knockoffs. Fourteen figures–nearly as many as the most prolific year of the original Star Wars toy line–and ten of them couldn’t even claim a tie to an “official” film, comic, novel or videogame.

I surprised myself by not being suckered into buying them for the sake of completism. It was harder than it sounds; I sometimes think I’m borderline OCD. But once I passed on those, it became just a little easier to avoid other “exclusives” of similarly dubious provenance.

Still, the toys piled up, and spilled off the overcrowded shelves onto the floor. It was a mess, and the collection was becoming harder to manage. It was starting to become more frustrating than fun.

Plus, I got fucking sick of this face:

It’s what you see every time you look under a clone trooper’s helmet. Naturally enough, as they’re all meant to be identical. But still, what’s the joy of an action figure with a removable helmet if it’s always the same damned face underneath? And now they’re even giving us classic trilogy stormtroopers with that same head!

As I sat in a movie theater a few weeks ago watching the trailer for the newest Star Wars media project, an animated film based on the Clone Wars, I realized that George Lucas had learned his lesson. Last time a Star Wars trilogy ended, it was a mere two years before the merchandising empire died out. He’s not gonna let it happen this time. After the Clone Wars cartoons there’s going to be a multi-season, live-action series set in the time period between the trilogies. And of course, an endless supply of spin-off stories spinning off an endless supply of figures…and on and on and on…

So, as I said, enough is enough.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I won’t buy any more Star Wars toys. And I’m not saying that I’m getting rid of all the ones I’ve already got. But what I am doing is getting back to my roots, and as a consequence, giving up any pretense of completism.

The truth is that while I’ve made my peace with the prequels, I’ve never really loved them the way I do the original trilogy. What I’ve decided is that all those Jedi, battle droids and especially those thrice-damned clones need to go.

And so, last week I began to cull my toyroom on a larger scale than ever before. In honor of the secret command that led to the purge of the Jedi in Revenge of the Sith, I’m calling it “Order 66.”

I tore down the displays and rebuilt them from scratch with a sole focus on the original films. No more scenes with fifteen guys in identical brown robes. No more Creamsicle colored clones. And no obligation to buy every damned thing that comes from Hasbro even if it did show up in a comic book once.

The toyroom now looks great. Most everything is off the floor. And losing the prequel displays gave me more room for Lego models. I even completely reorganized the closet. It’s very satisfying.

I did keep some prequel figures: background aliens, astromechs, and the various Sith lords. Also a few favorite items, such as General Grievous’ wheel bike and the vicious Acklay beast.

As for the rest…well, that’s phase two. The next step is to sort several hundred action figures and vehicles into lots, and to dig out their respective accessories. Then, it’s on to eBay!

I know that you probably don’t realize how big a step this is for me. I’ve been collecting this crap for thirty years, and whatever frustration I and my wallet have been feeling lately, there was a lot of inertia willing me onward. I’m not exactly Rosa Parks on the bus here, but I am taking back at a little piece of my life, and it feels good.