Monday, December 22, 2014

A festival of Rewatch

10 Things I Hate About You -- 1999, d. Gil Junger (DVD)
Scrooged -- 1988, d. Richard Donner (Netflix)
Back to the Future -- 1985, d. Robert Zemeckis (TV)
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace -- 1999, d. George Lucas (DVD)
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones -- 2002, d. George Lucas (DVD)
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith -- 2005, d. George Lucas (DVD)

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I like many romantic comedies and certain teen comedies, but I wasn't always so open and welcoming of these genres of film making.  As a teen and 20-something, romantic comedies were "girl stuff"(obviously overlooking the fact that seeing them with girls was totally the point), while teen comedies seemed so crass and patronizing.  As I matured in my film viewing, embracing indie, foreign, horror, short, documentary and other marginalized genres, I came to accept that even rom coms and teen movies in the right hands can be quality viewing.  Of course, quality instances are few and far between... and to actually wade through all the bad ones to discover the good ones is a special circle of hell (or perhaps fodder for a Satellite of Love? Teen Rom Com Theatre 3000 anyone?)

10 Things I Hate About You I passed up in a big way back in 1999.  I was 23, so a teen romantic comedy just didn't seem made for me.  Looking at its promotion, poised around its handsome young star, Heath Ledger, you could tell he was being poised as the next teen heartthrob (and it worked).  No, this wasn't something for me at all.  Years later, an ex-girlfriend put it in the DVD player, and I, being a good boyfriend, didn't object (I was learning), and to my surprise found myself invested and amused, but the experience was largely forgotten.

Years later, my wife (not that same ex-girlfriend) requested a copy of it.  I puzzled as to why until she clarified that it was an adaptation of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, and she's a bit of a Shakespeare nut.  Having since seen at least one or two other performances of Taming of the Shrew, the film does indeed take on additional relevance, but I also appreciate it for a few other things, primarily the strong-willed sisters Kat  (Julia Stiles) and Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), although quite differently so.  Kat is very intelligent, headstrong, a proto-feminist, and confidently against-the-herd, leaving her a bit of an outcast in high school and apathetic about it.  Bianca on the other hand is the pretty, popular, boy-crazy cheerleader type who feels under her sisters shadow, largely because her overbearing single father holds Kat up as an example to live by.  Despite Bianca's rebellion and her animosity towards Kat, I see either of them as role models for my own daughter.

The film doesn't shy away from frank sex talk, although the relatively sterile upper-class high school environment the film is set in is probably its biggest weakness.  But then again, Shakespeare didn't really dabble in much class clashing in his original play, so it's mainly the source to blame.  The culmination of the film at the prom or spring formal or whatever it is is such a hoary teen movie staple, but at the same time, the film rather works by playing into conventions (the egregiously 1990's live band excepted).  There's some solid laughs as well as some incredibly forced ones (most delivered either David Krumholtz's dialogue or physical comedy), which should be awful but remain kind of charming, just like the entirety of the film as well as its cast.

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Oh, the holiday season is upon us.  I don't have many holiday films that are a must watch each year... in fact I don't think I have any.  Most of my "must see" of the season stem from television.  My wife and I run through all the Community Christmas episodes on Christmas Eve, and I try to plug in Father Ted's "A Christmassy Ted" most years too.  I have to get the Muppets Family Christmas in as well (thanks youtube), but no film has endeared itself to me as a "must watch" every year.

Scrooged I've seen a handful of times over the years, like 10 Things I Hate About You, it's a "modern" adaptation of a classic story ... Dicken's A Christmas Carol if you hadn't guessed.  I put "modern" in quotes, because, well, 1988 hasn't aged very well.  Within Richard Donner's Scrooged is a skewering of 1980's entertainment and big commerce, but its skewering is so broad and cartoonish that it extends beyond reality.  The film opens with a fake-out, an absurd production where Santa's North Pole workshop is under attack by a black-suited swat team, only to be bailed out by a rugged Lee Majors.  The fourth wall is broken and the soundstage is revealed.  It's a pretty ridiculous and sharp opening which summarizes the excesses of '80's entertainment quite well, but it falters beyond that.

Bill Murray plays Frank Cross, a programming executive at a fictional major network.  He's solely numbers focused -- viewership and money -- and he doesn't take well to contrary opinions.  As Christmas approaches his network is prepping a live rendition of A Christmas Carol (starring Buddy Hackett, Jamie Farr, and Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim) which takes a charming air of prescience with NBC's now annual foray into live musicals.  I don't know if it's 80's film stock, costuming, or just the overall atmosphere, but the film is grimy from head to toe.  For a holiday film it's dark, dark, dark, but it's not a dark comedy, it's just gross looking.

Frank is visited by his dead mentor (John Forsythe) who warns him of impending ghostly visitations.  Through manipulations of the plot he gets back in touch with his ex-girlfriend of 15-years past, played by the always radiant Karen Allen.  She still seeds the seed of humanity in Cross' dead heart, but he's unable to see it himself.  The ghosts visit, starting with a grimy cab driver Buster Poindexter (ahem David Johansen) taking him through his past sad Christmases.  Carol Kane turns up as the sadistic fairy of Christmas present, and steals the entire movie.  It's a short journey through the present day, but Kane's cartoonish, Bugs Bunny-esque performance is howlingly funny still (did this inspire Harley Quinn from Batman?).  Finally it ends with a grim reaper like ghost who takes Frank on a brief journey to his morbid future where he comes face to face with his own death which turns him around immediately, and unbelievably.

There's no real excuse for Frank to become the man he is (particularly when we see how well-adjusted his brother is) so our sympathies never lie with him, which makes his turnabout even more unbelievable. Add to it Frank's interruption of the live performance so that he can wing a feel good speech at the audience which gets even his irate boss dancing in his living room, and it becomes one of those unearned, saccharine endings that the 80's often would deliver.  The cartoonish levels of absurdity are hard to let go of.  The ghost are an expected suspension of disbelief, but Bobcat Goldthwait's one-day descent into misery and attempted murder is problematic, particularly in Frank's subsequent manipulation of this character into taking hostage the control booth.  There needs to be a film documenting the fallout of Frank's actions, starting with his career suicide, followed by his accessory to kidnapping.

I don't hate this film, not by a longshot, but wow, is it ever a product of its time.

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Even though Scrooged time-traveled with the Ghost of Christmas Past bringing Bill Murray to his 1950's childhood and 1970's early adult life, but it never felt production-wise or stylistically that it left 1988.  Back to the Future, on the other hand, lives in two eras, 1985 and 1955 and at once feels at home in both and yet makes them both its own.  The 1985 Marty McFly starts the film in is identifiably 1985 in many respects, but there's also hints of another reality at play, making Back to the Future a universe of its own: Doc Brown's place with it's Rube Goldberg dog food dispenser and his cuckoo clock collection and his giant speaker system are utterly surreal, but from the onset they inject us into the fantasy of the film, that there's something other going on here.

Marty is your average 20-something-looking teenager who is best friends with the town's resident nutball, has a solid relationship that's going to the next level (sexually), and, despite his size, he's not afraid to stand up to bullies (probably after watching his nerd/wimp father be oppressed for so long).  Michael J. Fox seeps both charm and confidence as Marty, he's such a winning protagonist.  Nobody else could wear his "life preserver" vest.

Christopher Lloyd's Doc Brown, meanwhile, finds the perfect balance between genius and lunacy, ably providing comic relief without making the character the film's jester.  Likewise, Crispin Glover's George McFly provides the perfect blend of helpless, nerdy pathos and weirdness that he transcends being a punchline.  Even Tom Wilson's singularly one-note bully Biff embraces the cliche and embodies it fully.  Then you have Lea Thompson, so fetching as young Lorraine, with wide, batting eyes that betray her lack of innocence.  The uncomfortable ease with which she seduces Marty is perfect for the film, and Fox's awkward reactions in those moments is so note perfect, conveying surprise (because in the future his mom is such a prude), horror at his mother's romantic advances, and even a little confusion over it all (because she is indeed so alluring).

Sure, it's a film from 1985, and yet, its adventure remains timeless.  It subtly addresses sexuality, bullies, rape and racism without ever patronizing, and there's nary a note wrong throughout the entire picture.  Its effects are so deceptively simple that they have barely aged, and it's so easy buying into every conceit the film presents.

I hadn't seen the film since the early 1990's, and I'm a dozen years into swearing off Robert Zemeckis films.  What Lies Beneath, Castaway, Forrest Gump and so many other Zemeckis pictures are so cloying, obvious, manipulative, and patronizing that I just couldn't take it anymore.  I had written Back to the Future off.  But, having just rewatched it on a random TV airing, none of those Zemeckis-isms are present in Back to the Future; it's virtually flawless.  I was drawn in by nostalgia at first but very, very quickly the film's sense of spirit, humor, adventure, and sheer wonder absorbed me completely.  It's so entertaining.  If there's one flaw, and it is a minor one, it's the 1985 make-up job to make Biff, George and Lorraine look 30 years older.  Aging make-up today is rarely successful, so 1985 aging make-up is pretty crummy.  But, again, it's such a small, small thing to quibble about over an otherwise pristine production.

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Oh boy, here we go.  The Star Wars prequels.  *deep breath*
I don`t hate these movies.  I never have.  They`re incredibly flawed, unbearably so at times, but at the same time, I genuinely love elements of the films.  I love how they expanded the Star Wars universe without necessarily doing so in telling a story that advances anything.  There were drawbacks to those universe expansions, so many limitations the films were bound by since they had a predetermined ending, in some respects they`re just filling in the blanks.  But those blanks, they did not exist before.  We had no real concept of what the republic looked like before A New Hope.  We only knew the Empire.


With The Phantom Menace we were introduced to a galaxy of politics, a counsel of Jedi Masters, and all manner of new space ships, alien creatures and weapons technology.  We were also introduced to George Lucas' inability to get a good performance out of his actors, but at the same time the incredible advances in CGI and blue screening make a galaxy teem with life, where it seemed pretty cold and desolate before.

Of the three, The Phantom Menace is the weakest.  Lucas' first directorial effort in decades finds a man unsure of how to negotiate characters with story, and it's evident his interest was far more in using the technology to tell the story than the people.  His story outline isn't the problem, but his execution of it is dire.  All of the actors in all three of the prequels I give a pass to, because it's quite clear that Lucas just didn't care about how they were delivering their lines, instead more focused on ensuring they find their marks and that they get the words right, not the tone.  Actors like Ewen McGregor and Liam Neeson are people that can carry films in spite of their directors, they know what they're doing.  Natalie Portman, though already a veteran by this point, needed guidance, and young Jake Lloyd absolutely needed some.

The thing about The Phantom Menace I realized in this latest watching is it's a kids movie.  My daughter was already a Jar Jar fan before even seeing the film, and upon seeing the podracing sequence, we watched it four times over before advancing to the rest of the film.  The larger political ramblings are a drastic misstep for a kids movie, but the bulk of the action (a bloodless CGI war of clumsy battle droids versus clumsy Gungans is totally meant to appeal to children).  I was 4 or 5 when I first saw Star Wars, and I watched it dozens of times on video before I was 10, so it's always had that appeal.  Childhood nostalgia carried my, and many others' interest in the original trilogy and its off-shoots for decades, so why would it not stand to reason that a new generation's Star Wars should do the same?

Watching The Phantom Menace with my daughter, watching it as a kids movie, it made it much easier to forgive it for its tepid adventure, and to see someone actually appreciate Jar Jar made me dislike him and the Gungans quite a bit less.  Still its fatal flaw still is supremely irksome, the introduction of "midichlorians" demystifies the Force in a manner that continues to slap any fan in the face every time it's mentioned.


Episode II: Attack of the Clones is leaps and bounds a better film than its predecessor, for two acts at least.  The film opens with an attempted assassination that eventually leads to a dynamic chase sequence through the city-planet of Coruscant.  Obi-Wan dons his noir-ish detective hat as he tries to track down the bounty hunter, which leads to the discovery of a missing planet in the Jedi archives, which leads to the discovery of the cloning facility secretly building an army for the republic.  It's an incredible journey with fantastic set pieces, and McGregor own the role and delights in the task before him.  The cloning facility, its exotic operators,  and its rainy, watery planet provide one of Star Wars' most unique environments, the perfect setting for a face off between one of the galaxy's preeminent Jedi and likewise preeminent bounty hunters.

At the same time, Anakin (now played with dead-eyed, monotone anti-charisma by Hayden Christiansen) is assigned to protect Senator Padme Amidala, the older woman he was crushing on 10 years earlier as a mere boy.  The age disparity seems far less than it did in Episode I but at the same time Portman had advanced in prominence as an actress and held some weight in her role, while Christiansen desperately needed direction and received precious little.  The flurry of confused emotions and all the manipulation Anakin faced needed far more nuance than Christiansen provided (and nothing I've seen him in since even indicated he was capable of it).  Christiansen does nail the odd scene, as when he's meant to provide arrogance or menace, he does it ably, but it's the softer touches that escape him.  His romance with Padme is stillborn, there's absolutely no life.  He creeps her out initially, and with good reason.  How he ever wins her over is never satisfactorily shown.  The film tells us she has feelings for him, but we never clearly understand why.  When they go to Tattooine in search of Schmee, Anakin's mother, Christiansen does an admittedly decent job of conveying not only his stress but outrage at her passing, but Padme's consolation after he murders an entire clan of Tusken Raiders seems off.  Where there should be more concern, there's only sympathy, and it doesn't ring true.

The two threads merge in the third act, as Anakin and Padme set out for an ill equipped rescue of Obi-Wan on the planet Genosis.  This leads to a painful video-game challenge sequence in the battle droid factory (with banal physical comedy from R2-D2 and C-3PO) and ultimately Anakin and Padme's capture. They're left strung up in a gladiatorial arena (again, the film noir, the gladiator sequence... Lucas overtly displays his homages and influences) where giant creatures are pushed out from behind gates to go and eat them.  But the Jedi prove to be more of a challenge, and then the cavalry come to the rescue, first a couple dozen Jedi knights and masters, and then the Clone Army.  The fighting is dull, poorly staged, and tedious.  The actors look like LARPers more than skilled warriors as they square off against green screen constructs.  The closing duel between Count Dooku, Obi-Wan, Anakin, and, most surprisingly, Yoda, is better, but still has its share of problems.

Most of Attack of the Clones' first two acts  is on par with the best Star Wars has to offer, Christiansen's awkward delivery, and bland romantic chemistry with Portman notwithstanding,  It leads into the Clone Wars cartoon which manages to redeem Anakin as a character (the voice performance giving the character much more nuance and even making him likeable, something Christiansen never achieved).  In fact, Clone Wars in many ways validates and redeems the trilogy by expanding the galaxy even further, giving the background Jedi more prominence and even introducing some new characters that never appear in the films (Ahsoka, Rex, Ventress) that make Star Wars a better place.  By bridging the second and third movies, the Clone Wars actually make Episode III even more engaging viewing.


Revenge of the Sith opens with a fantastic and dizzying space battle the likes we haven't ever seen in Star Wars (or, really, any other sci-fi to that point).  There's all manner of ships of all different sizes engaging with one another, and it's just inspired.  Lucas' characters may often fall flat, but he knows how to stage sequences like this extremely well.  Anakin and Obi-Wan, more partners than master and student now, five years later, are on a mission to rescue Chancellor Palpatine, who has been kidnapped by Count Dooku's droid army leader, an asthmatic cyborg called General Grievous. The repeat showdown between the Jedi and Dooku displays Anakin's growth in skill, but also his embracing of the Dark Side, with Palpatine goading him on.  Not the kiddie fare of the first film, nor the uneven tone of the second, Anakin has Dooku at his mercy and takes off his head, with Palpatine grinning as he looks on.  The conflict with Grievous that follows is tremendous fun...I have a lot of affection for the wheezy robot man.  The R2-D2 antics that occur concurrently fall too close to unnecessary slapstic, though not the painful comic relief of Jar Jar in the first film, or C-3PO in the second.

Episode III is a lot darker and a lot more nuanced than any Star Wars film before it.  With the Clone Wars cartoon backing it, one understand the dynamic between Dooku, Grievous, and Palpatine much more, and Palpatine's manipulations, his long con, bear the fruit he's sought all along.  There's actually an epic story in the fall of the republic at the hands of a maniacal scheming Sith lord, it's just unfortunate it takes back seat to the inevitable and largely mishandled fall of Anakin to the dark side.  Episode III negotiates this unevenly, but at times believably.  The additional attention to Palpatine's manipulation of Anakin was sorely missing in prior films (and even doesn't have enough prominence in The Clone Wars) but a valiant effort to make up for it here is made.  While the fall of the Jedi at the hands of the Clones ("Order 66") is such utter poppycock and a brutal shorthand to force the story to wind up where it has to by the end of movie, the climax of Obi-Wan and Anakin's showdown is heart-rendering, with McGregor's aching disappointment the most tangible feeling of any of these three films.  Obi-Wan, for his often cold exterior towards Anakin, had such love, hope and promise for him, that his betrayal, one which he had desperately been trying to avoid, hurts tremendously.  He can't bring himself to kill him outright, nor can he in good conscience save him.

The closing moments, again, shorthanded to get the film to a place where it needs to be for the original trilogy to start, are clunky and take away from a largely well made film (it seems any time a montage is used in Star Wars, it's always unnecessary and always poorly done).

For a lot of people, the Prequels were not just hugely disappointing, but soul crushing.  Years of investment were destroyed by some very poor choices on the part of its creator.  But I can't help but see the positive elements through the weaker ones.  I can't help but marvel at some of the lavish settings and costuming, admiring those actors able to shine in the face of an apathetic director (Ian McDiarmid is great as Palpatine throughout, and McGregor rarely has a false move), and enjoy all the universe expanding bits that get lost amid the cartoonier parts of the films.