Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Star Wars 7. How I would've done it.

Title: Star Wars Episode VII.
Subtitle: The best of all possible worlds.

John Williams' theme perforates your eardrums in THX surround sound. And we --

Open with the usual crawling crawl. The reborn Republic is doing battle with the fallen Empire's last batch of die-hard bitter-enders on some forceforsaken moon or whatever. This is a last ditch stand. The refusniks got their hands on a doomsday weapon which could destroy the whole galaxy, blahblah.

Go to --

Battle sequence, nail-biting stuff. Looks bad, folks. Everything that could possibly go wrong does. The Dark Side's going to win this time. But, boy howdy, at the last possible second, the good guys win against all odds!

Said heroes cheer and congratulate themselves, just like they did at the end of Return of the Jedi. Abruptly, they pause in mid-cheer -- a high-def freeze-frame. Off-screen, a woman's voice says, "The Battle of Krylon-4 closed the dark chapter of the Empire's abominations. Throughout the galaxy, darkness turned to light."

The dark moonscape becomes a white shiny classroom -- the Second Republic equivalent of middle school. A wide-screen rectangle floats at the front, our cheering heroes frozen inside. We've just seen a propaganda video.

Now we also see the chirpy teacher who's been slinging that darkness/light jive. Pretty, smiling, a little too damn perfect.

"The battle was won," she says.

Cut to a bitter-looking kid at one of the high-tech desks. He sits there, just looking at his happy teacher. But he's not happy.

Back to the teacher --

"Thanks to the Force and the wisdom of the Jedi Knights, the Second Republic triumphed."

Back to the sulking kid. His wounded eyes are pools of hate and knowing.

Then a few frames of the teacher --

"Now, today ..."

Back to the brooding adolescent. 

Off-screen, the teacher says --

"We're living in the best of all possible worlds."

The bitter kid mouths her words as she says them.

Class ends, the kid hits the hallway. A hologram pops up in front of him. It informs the kid that his Jedi guidance counselor senses a disturbance in his mind and wants to discuss it tomorrow during home room period. He waves the hologram away.

The kid goes home. Not a palace. But his widowed father has a get-rich-quick scheme. Something involving a not entirely legal exploitation of a slightly more primitive intelligent species. An ethical grey area, OK? But it's a victimless crime. And the money could save what's left of the family.

Dad's scam unfolds over the next sequence. The kid helps.

Elaborate set-up, lots of hard work and risk. Just when it looks like the pay-off is coming, a Jedi pulls the rug out from under them. Dad gets community service -- designed to make him a better person, of course. But it still breaks up the family. The kid gets a foster home --

But he runs away.

A few parsecs yonder, the Jedi Council celebrates VE (as in Victory over the Empire) day. A merry band, these Jedi Knight. All smug and self-congratulatory, telling war stories, tales of the Empire's stupidity, Only one party-pooper in the bunch -- the battle-scarred, 70-something Luke Skywalker. Jedi Whoever asks him what's the problem.

Luke: You don't see the problem?

Jedi Whoever: No, I don't.

Luke: That's the problem.

Luke tries to explain that this is what happened the last time. The last time? What are you talking about? First Republic, that's what I'm talking about. And ... what happened? We dropped our guard, that's what happened. That's why we fell. Hmm. An interesting perspective. Insincere this statement is. Truth be told, the Jedi Knights don't need his stinking thinking. They humor Luke, deflect him, shut him up. The party goes on.

Meanwhile, in the ruins of some Empire installation, the kid meets up with various conspirators. Four or five of them. They huddle around a fire. Above their heads, a shattered slab block the eyes of satellites. They're going to hear the truth at last. If the mythical "Leader" ever shows up ...

He does. Appearing out of nowhere, then hunkering down with the rest.

The fire reveals the scar running down his face. The slash of a light saber, obviously. Nobody brings this up. They just wait for him to talk. Then he finally does.

The scar-faced Leader points out that the Light side is really the Dark side. According to him, the Jedi are friendly fascists. (Or whatever word they use for "fascist" in this stupid universe.) Nobody gets away with anything these days. That's what's wrong with the world. 

The kid nods. Yeah, I know. These Jedi bastards nailed my dad for a victimless ...

But the Leader isn't taking questions. He continues his rant, paints a picture. We get the picture.

We see that the Second Republic became a weird combination of Minority Report and With Folded Hands. A republic in theory, a police state in fact. The goody-good Jedi Knights weren't exactly in charge. But they were. Said knights were telepathic, telekinetic, clairvoyant, and precognitive, after all. Predicted crime was usually prevented. Jedi mind-control made utopian schemes work -- whether they really worked or not. In a nutshell, the Jedi forced rotten human beings (or rotten aliens) to play nice. Rotten sentient beings hate that.

And the Leader shouts ...

I'm sick of being nice! Ain't you sick of being nice?

He's pointing at the kid. For awhile. The kid finally realizes he's supposed to reply ...

Uh ... yeah, says the kid. But what choice do I have? 

Right now, none, says the Leader. But we can change that.


Yeah, says the Leader. Us ... and a few new friends. Thing like this, we're going to need help. 

Who could argue? But the punk kid doesn't drop it.

What friends are you talking about?

I was getting to that.

The Leader pulls out a piece of paper.

Look at it quick, he says.

The huddled conspirators study the paper. The kid gasps.

The paper turns to dust and blows away.

And we go on from there.

OK. A heartbreaking work of staggering genius this is not, I know. The classroom gag in the opening is a rip-off of Serenity. I know, I know -- though it only occurred to me after I wrote it. But at least it's a new direction ...

We've seen the plucky rebels on the run from the Evil Empire. We've seen the rebels win. Now what? Well, in Abrams' new timeline, a new Evil Empire takes over five years after the rebel victory. (Lousy track record, huh?) Abrams now shows us a new batch of plucky rebels fighting a new Evil Empire. F@#* that. I've seen that movie and it was bad the first time.

Abrams rehashes the same old crap. This is new crap. I show you why the Republic fell. Essentially, because the smug, self-righteous folks in charge let their guard down.

Much like certain formerly promising filmmakers, eh?

Friday, December 18, 2015

Review: In the Heart of the Sea

Big Blubber is watching you.
Arrrr, mateys. Ron Howard just harpooned a movie called In the Heart of the Sea. It be a whale of a ...

Christ, I can't keep this up. I don't have the heart.

Let's just get this over with, OK?


Howard based his beached whale of a movie on Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Longwinded title, decent book, so the reviewers say. Non-fiction. The  factual disaster behind Herman Melville's fiction. Seriously. Real whale. Sank a real ship in 1820. You'd figure that'd make a good, movie, right? Somebody did. Howard actually made the damn thing. But somebody figured wrong.

Wow. What a wasted opportunity. Or series of wasted opportunities.

122 minutes worth.

Let's list them, shall we?

Not a comprehensive list. Just a few big ones ...

Fact vs. fiction
Moby Dick was a mad, longwinded allegory. Allegory of what? Well, some damn thing or other, your guess is as good as mine. The good ship Pequod was destroyed by a giant, white Symbol, OK? That's the Cliff Notes takeaway.
Melville's novel was rambling, elegiac, pseudo-Biblical, faux Shakespearean, occasionally journalistic, never realistic, and dense with dark meaning. As Philbrick noted, all that artificiality had a real world source.
The great American novelist based his book on an actual whale attack on the whaling ship Essex. Yep. As previously noted, a real damn whale sank a real damn boat. X people died. Y people survived, after 90 days at sea and a cannibal diet. A harrowing story. A very different story from Moby Dick.
I assumed Howard would draw a contrast between raw, real history and clotted, symbolic fiction. You've read the fiction. Now here's the truth! I figured if the novel's characters spouted iambic pentameter, the people in the movie would talk like people. (Like the denizens of Deadwood, say.) If the novel was a mind game, the movie would feel like a you-are-there documentary -- the camera constantly fighting to keep up with the action. So I assumed. But that's not what Howard did. 
The dialog is ponderous beyond belief.
Along with the direction, editing and camerawork. 
You see what a big-ass whale this is, thanks to computer-generated fakery. Some images are spectacular. But they feel artificial. 
Every scene screams: "This means something. This is important."
Howard's real life story looks, sounds and smells like bad historical fiction. It's as phony and false as a Classic Comic.
It never feels like reality for a second.

Cut to the Chase
The existential stand-off between the whalers on the ship and the inhuman thing under the water trying to kill them is the heart of the movie. Howard takes his sweet time getting there. Like 40 minutes or so. You find out how the first mate got his job, what his wife thinks, and ... all kinds of other stuff that makes your eyes roll to white. Who cares?

Literally literary
Melville's research is the frame story. Tell me what happened on the Essex, old timer. Yeah. Just that on the nose. Just that bad. It's the oldest, lamest gag in the book -- the filmmaker's equivalent of training wheels. I kept thinking ... What would Terry Gilliam do? What would Quentin Tarantino do? Tell the movie out of sequence. Start with the trial, then go backwards. Make the novelist a pain in the ass. Make you doubt you'll ever know what really happened ...
But that's not Howard's style.
Each scene delivers its point like a FedEx messenger.

Burying the Lead ... at Sea!
The great white whale in Melville's novel was an inhuman Other killing humans for no reason. Assuming that real life whales were sentient ... or at least semi-sentient ... they had very good reasons to smash whaling ships. The movie's hero presumably realizes this at the end. The whale doesn't smash his lifeboat; he doesn't harpoon the whale. This undersea entity has a mind; it ain't no Moby Dick. Big moment, or it should've been. But Howard doesn't build up to the epiphany; he doesn't sell the epiphany; he buries the lead. The scene is beautifully filmed and looks great in the trailer. It falls flat when you actually see it.

I could go on. But let's wrap this up. I know you've got things to do.

Where did Howard go wrong?

The seduction of reality, maybe. "This really happened" isn't enough. The real story isn't always an interesting story. Even if it is ... so what? Truth or fiction, an interesting story is boring if you tell it badly. And that's what you'll do if reality sweet talks you. The true tale grips, interests, involves and mesmerizes you. You're so wrapped up, it never occurs to you that the folks in the seats might not share your enthusiasm. Great story! Yes, it is. But you still have to sell it. If you're pre-sold in your own skull, you won't. And that's where Howard went wrong. The man was seduced, plain and simple. 

That's my take. Sorry Opey. Your movie died at sea.

But I want to read Philbrick's book. Arrr.

Every dead, multi-million dollar flop has a silver lining.

Monday, December 14, 2015

TV Review: "The Leftovers" Season One

720 viewing hours ... and I still don't get it!
Stop me if you've heard this one: On a fine October's day, 2% of the world's population vanish -- poof. No, it's not the Rapture -- it's the premise of The Leftovers. This HBO series is the brainchild of Damon Lindelof (the co-creator of Lost and co-screenwriter of half of the decade's major sci-fi movies) and Tom Perotta, the author of the novel the series loosely adapts. What do I think?

I'm lost, people. Just plain lost.

On the one hand, the series honors my big rule for decent sci-fi: Take your premise seriously. Imagine a situation and ask yourself: What would actually happen? Then seriously try to answer that question. The series does that. The picture it paints ...

Most people try to get on with their lives, as most people usually do after bad stuff happens. They deal with the loss by ignoring it, or paying $40,000 smackers to outfits that create exact replicas of departed loved ones so survivors can bury 'em and get closure.

Other people just get crazy. A host of cults spring up, straight out of Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. The Guilty Remnant is the worst of the bunch -- or at least the most irritating. They dress in white, don't talk, and smoke like fiends -- because what's the damn point of good health in the apocalypse? Their mission in life: Don't let people get over what happened. They fulfill their mission with sick mind games that make the Westboro Baptist Church look like the Welcome Wagon.

The government responds by forcing grieving survivors to answer an irritating questionnaire before getting benefits and turning the ATF into the cult-exterminating ATFEC -- namely the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives and Cults. Plausible enough, I guess. 

Against this wacky backdrop, the action unfolds in parallel storylines involving assorted characters. (Exactly as it did on Lost -- and a thousand other shows.) There's the sheriff, his bratty daughter, his missing son, his estranged wife who left him for the chain-smoking cult, the leader of another cult who hugs the pain out of you when he isn't impregnating Asian teenage girls, a reverend who points out the sins of the vanished people to prove the event wasn't the Rapture, a guy who shoots dogs, you get the picture. Well-drawn characters, decent dialog, no sneer intended. It's a quality show. On the other hand ...

It's so damn depressing. The show gives you the bad news -- and it always turns out to be a segue to even worse news. Your dog died. Because your daughter ran him over. Right before she crashed into the kindergarten killing herself and setting all the little kids on fire. That's the basic dynamic, folks. I'd throw in Louis CK doing a few comedy routines. But that's just me.

Hey, a show has every right to be depressing, just so long as it's compelling. The Leftovers usually is. What's compelling is the post-apocalyptic freak show -- and the implied detective story. But that mystery turns out to be a cheat -- in the Lost tradition.

In case you've blocked that painful memory, here's what I'm talking about ...

Lost seemed so ground-breaking at first. Then it didn't. Following in the footsteps of Chris Carter's X-Files, Lindelhof wrote himself in a thousand corners and then distracted you with manic hand-waving. Lost isn't purgatory, I tell you. Actually it is purgatory. Critics and formerly fanatic viewers excoriated Lindelof for Lost's logic holes, rabid Maguffins and bogus answers. The Leftovers is Lindelof's response.

You viewers hate my bogus answers? Fine. How about no answers?

Lindelof is clear on that point: The show will never give you answers. You'll never find out why all those people disappeared. What counts is the reaction of the people left behind. Hey, how often in life do we ever know what the hell happened anyway?  

OK. It's a legitimate, if infuriating artistic, stance. After all, Stanislas Lem's Solaris never told you what the sentient planet was up to; Peter Weir's The Picnic at Hanging Rock never revealed what happened to the two vanished girls. Yeah, yeah. Fine. The promise of an answer is missing here too, though the tease remains in various Twin Peaks-style ghost whispers, visions and crazy coincidences. This feels less like arty cleverness and more like lazy writing. (Connecting the dots is hard, after all.) The show tells us we'll never know the truth -- then dangles the carrot of revelation. I don't want to bite ...

But I'll probably watch the damn second season anyway.