Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)




This thing has an almost mythological status. Most have heard of it in some capacity, but for those who haven't, here's the short version:

It's 1978. Star Wars made a lot of money at the box office that no one expected it to make. Someone (maybe George Lucas, maybe not) signed the rights over to a company that produced variety shows. And The Star Wars Holiday Special was birthed in all of its horrid, mind-achingly insane glory. Afterwards, like popping a chub at the Thanksgiving table, everyone quietly agreed that it had never happened. But this is the internet, and nothing disappears completely. Even if it was made almost 40 years ago.

After all, this thing is still around.


With the rumors of how badly this show made the audience want to pluck out their own eyes, and how it makes fans of Star Wars wish they could sand-blast part of their brains after seeing it, I had to watch. But what it did to my sense of reality can never be undone. Sadly, the best I can do after having seen this thing is walk you through it step-by-step. I'm hoping that this approach will help me piece together what I've witnessed, and that large chunk of my sanity that shattered along the way.

So, let's talk about the beginning. Things start off in less than promising fashion with Han Solo and Chewbacca heading back to Chewbacca's home planet for "Life Day" (which is really just Christmas without calling it that). There, we meet Chewbacca's family...because remember all those times you thought to yourself, "That hairy dude who only Han Solo can understand is pretty interesting, I wonder what his family is like." No? You never wondered that? Well, I can't imagine why not.

The Wookie "homestead."

Neither, apparently, could the people who put this thing together. Because it turns out, this "Wookie" family pantomimes their way through family arguments, conversations, or whatever the hell you'd call an eternity and a half of growling at one another and waiving their arms around.

Eventually, there's a holographic dance number on one of those tables C3P0 and Chewbacca play chess on in the Millenium Falcon (this is called fan-service). Your guess as to why this happens is as good as mine since...you know...all the "characters" do is grunt and growl at one another.

It's like some version of Cirque-de-Soliel as envisioned by whoever wrote that Willy Wonka tunnel speech.

"There's no Wookie way of knowing, where our sanity is going..."

Chewbacca's family is worried, so they Skype-dial Luke Skywalker.

Who....somehow, looks more like plastic than I remember.
 
And then, things keep going along on that path. Chewbacca's family Skype-dials up some variety scene. Something ridiculous happens (barely within the realm of "story"), and then on to the next. All of it Star Wars-themed in the barest sense of the word.

Take this scene of an Imperial "Lord Helmet" with Art Carney in a Han Solo vest as an example.

Art Carney...for those of you who don't know who I'm talking about...is the one in the hat

The Wookie family isn't too worried though, because there's a moment where Chewbacca's...urm, kitchen-person-wearing-an-apron partner figure (I mean, I don't KNOW if it's a male or a female or some other gender-identifier) watches a Bantha cooking show.

Yep, and this scene lasts for a full five minutes.

Finally, we get back to Han and Chewie. Or rather, we get back to them in a cardboard mock-up of the Falcon's cockpit with inter-cut shots from Star Wars as Tie Fighters attack.



Art Carney brings over some gifts because that's what you do on "Life Day" and then the old codger Wookie jumps into a virtual reality machine to watch some other culturally-prescient person from 1978.

Seriously, who IS this?? And why is she so....70s!?!?

And, again, we get a momentary appearance from an original cast member. Princess Leia Skypes in alongside C3P0 because she (along with everyone watching) is looking for Han and Chewbacca. Though, so is the Empire.

Blah, blah, blah...[insert Carrie Fisher drug reference].


There's also a Jefferson Starship musical number....because someone wanted to make this thing age terribly on top of all its other problems.

I swear, this isn't what it looks like.

The overall point here is that there's not a single bit of this show that is more than tangentially connected to Star Wars.

Those are the clothes alright, but that's where it stops.


Well, back to the "plot," I guess. That super-hairy-family is raided by the Empire. Of course, (because Lucas wants to make things for the children) the little one turns on his Skype-machine and tunes into a cartoon. Wait, what?!!!?!

Apparently, no one cares that the audience can't read "Wookie."


OH, GOD...It's suddenly a cartoon!! Because, that's cheaper. Let's be honest. I mean, the Wookie-family story structure really didn't hold things together half as well as that cocaine-minded producer imagined it would. And it's a good thing too because it gets us back to what makes Star Wars the Star Wars we know and love. That element of nostalgia (before he was nostalgia) is Boba Fett...as he beats his burden animal.

*THWACK* Boba Fett, ladies and gents!!

Mostly because our main characters needed to stay in "character stasis" until the next movie, this part of the Holiday Special focuses on Boba.

One more time...because this is the only part of this two hours that people won't talk about derisively forty years later.


So, anyways. Boba Fett, the bounty hunter, is searching for Han Solo. He dials up Darth Vader, just to fit him in for about 10 seconds. All this happens as that Wookie dude is watching on his Skype-machine-thing because the Empire is searching his treehouse home for signs of Chewbacca.

I guess they're searching because the Rebel Alliance blew up the Death Star in the first (FUCK YOU...the FIRST) Star Wars Movie? Seriously, I'm so confused at this point.

Anyway. The cartoon continues...horribly. I mean, there's stylized, and then there's Han Solo looking like this...

Style should not trump substance to this extent.

Afterwards, we're returned to that hairy-family. Mostly to question our sanity as the story is pantomimed out for the audience in terribly inexplicable bits and parts that are like something out of the worst improv comedy. Because it is not funny AND it doesn't make sense...but it only exists because some asshole said, "Oh, it's a 'galaxy far, far away' so we CAN DO ANYTHING and it'll be alright."

And by "anything," I mean include a scene on the Skype-thing with Maude running a bar in Mos Eisley.

"Hive of scum and villainy" apparently also means, "place where a Golden Girl serves a guy a drink...

...and then he pours it into the top of his skull.

And then we have a bit of back-and-forth between those two. Because, you know, variety show. Seriously, these producers could have put anyone into Star Wars robes and drapes and plastic, white and black armor, had them play out a random assortment of high school single-act plays, and still have gotten the SAME end result. 

I mean, who other than some teat-milking producer could think it's a good idea to have Maude break out into song after the Empire closes down her bar for curfew? It boggles the mind.

To make matters worse, the scene inexplicably shifts back to the Wookie family and more growling. But just before the viewer can explode in their futile attempt to put it all together, Han and Chewie show up to save the child-Wookie from a Storm Trooper by throwing him off the treehouse (mostly to remind us again that this is tangentially connected to the Star Wars movie).

Then, there's one last scene with the movie-cast where Princess Leia sings.

Roll credits...no, seriously, PLEASE ROLL THE CREDITS.


By the end, I questioned the concept of sanity itself. Bea Arthur singing, Art Carney in a Han Solo vest, Wookies playing out some crude, pantomimed family scene while growling their lines, and barely the string of Star Wars to loosely tie it all together.

Truly, in a world where this was made, can such a thing as rationality exist? Surely that thin veneer of an ordered, structured, coherent world can crack like an eggshell when closely examined.



I certainly don't recommend watching The Star Wars Holiday Special, but if you MUST (as I mistakenly thought for myself) then do yourself a favor and watch it with the RiffTrax guys.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Godzilla (1998) VS. Godzilla (2014)

VS. 


Two Hollywood movies enter. One leaves. Through the doggy door.

After reading this, and because I know my shit, I thought it might be helpful to detail exactly some of the things that made this newest version of Godzilla awesome instead of just another pile of rotting tuna. In the past, I've considered reviewing the 1998 Godzilla film. But as I've attempted to re-watch it, I realized that it was just plain bad. Not enjoyable. Not really even ridiculously hilarious to tear-down. So, this is the what I chose instead. A good movie set alongside a terribly, terrible movie.

With that said, I'm positive that almost everyone with half a brain came away from this movie feeling that it was pretty damn kickass, but solidifying why could be useful. So, major spoilers to come if you haven't seen the new film...



**SPOILERS AHEAD...YOU'VE BEEN WARNED!!!!**



1) Godzilla means something



This newest version of Godzilla isn't the embodiment of America's nuclear testing/use of the 1950s. Instead, we have creatures from a bygone era which mankind attempts to control and subvert to its will. The creature itself here is not the message. Instead, it is how the people of this film react to these creatures that sends the message. Humanity is still guilty of attempting to control forces of nature without thought to what that control will mean. The hubris of humanity in the film is in hoping to destroy creatures that it does not understand with bigger explosions. It's a twist on the origin of Godzilla, but one that works because there's some stuff of substance to it.

On the other hand, 1998's Godzilla was an excuse to put the best CGI effects of the time into a Hollywood blockbuster film with big explosions and very little in the way of heart. It was an exercise in technological prowess that put almost no thought into compelling the audience with anything other than a flashy giant mutant lizard that wants to lay its eggs in the most populous city in the United States. Why does it choose this hostile environment when even the most rudimentary animals would have instinctually avoided such a poor spot for a nest? Don't ask, because there is no answer other than an excuse to see the giant lizard traipsing around and through skyscrapers and scenic landmarks. There's no weight behind this CGI creature because he's just a big dumb animal. Nothing more.

There is timelessness to substance. Messages about humanity carry across eras. Special effects will always be dated in ten years. The seams of CGI crack and splinter as time goes on. But threads of the human condition, humanity's place in the world, and our relationship with technology carry across generations because they're always relevant.

2) Godzilla saves the children



There's a moment on the bridge when the military is going nuts because Godzilla has surfaced. They're firing salvos of missiles and inadvertantly put a bridge-full of evacuating civilians, including a bus full of annoyingly screaming children, in danger. Godzilla steps up out of the water just in time to block the handful of missiles that were sure to destroy the bridge and kill everyone on it. The children in the bus escape with a close-up look into the eye of Godzilla, but otherwise are unharmed.

This is important because many of the Godzilla films that you think of when you think of "Godzilla film" were aimed at children. The big G transformed from lumbering symbol of man's nuclear hubris (in the 1954 film) to defender of Japan and friend to children (arguably before, but solidly in 1964's Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster). This was the 60's era when the fighting between two men in rubber suits looked more like a wrestling match than a battle of titans.

The 1998 Godzilla film had no equivalent scene or sentiment.

3) Godzilla is both terrifying and a saviour

Exactly what your face would do if you saw Godzilla.
That's not to say that Godzilla is present to spread his graces upon the human population of the earth. Far from it. For if there is thought (and outrage) put into the destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel, the same thought experiment must hold true for Godzilla's rampage as well. Meaning, as Godzilla is driven by nature to tear into the M.U.T.Os, he is also stepping on and killing a LOT of people. But, unlike the 1998 Godzilla, he is doing so for the benefit of the human population. A lot more people will live because of this destruction, but it is still terrifying destruction. We see this perspective from the human side of the film, especially from Elizabeth Olsen's point-of-view because she's a healthcare worker left with those that couldn't evacuate.

Not so for the 1998 Godzilla. GINO (Godzilla In Name Only) is tearing through New York's streets, the subway system, and even (oddly) creating a hole in a building, all while the Army is firing missiles into skyscrapers (the ones that miss have to go somewhere, right?). All of this will result in loss of human life. But GINO's motivation is procreation. Nature again, but nature of another sort. A more selfish form of it. The violence that GINO inflicts upon the city of New York is cartoon-ized most effectively by that single shot of Hank Azaria with the camera almost getting stepped-on. But we have to assume that kind of luck didn't befall all New Yorkers.


4) Get the scientist right(-ish)

Ken Watanabe plays Dr. Serizawa in 2014's Godzilla. Serizawa inhabits two important character perspectives from the original 1954 Gojira. He is the embodiment of both Professor Yamane's compassion for the monster and desire to study the unknown (on the M.U.T.O team), and also the original Dr. Serizawa's respect for man's disregard for the balance of nature (his father's watch from Hiroshima). He's a three-dimensional scientist with a complicated relationship with the giant, prehistoric beasts he studies.

This: Yamane (Gojira 1954)
Plus this: Serizawa (Gojira 1954)
Equals this: Serizawa (Godzilla 2014)

On the other hand, Matthew Broderick's Nick Tatopolous is a bewildered nerd stereotype who is utterly incapable and/or simply a buffoon. He's juggling his relationship issues while also giving pregnancy tests to GINO. He brings almost no specialized knowledge to the situation that any other placeholder scientist couldn't have also contributed. He's brought onto the scene because he studies genetic mutations caused by radiation, but there's nothing about GINO's behavior or physiology which requires this specialized knowledge.

Matthew Broderick in a backwards hat with a dumb look on his face.

We have to operate on movie-level logic here. Matthew Broderick fails this test as a scientist within the universe that the 1998 film creates. On the other hand, Ken Watanabe is a good actor whose persona and motivations contribute to the overall crux of the main conflict, calls back to two characters from the 1954 film, and actually feels like a logical scientist character within the movie's world.

5) 2014's Godzilla breathes fucking blue fire

2014 - Atomic Breath
1998 - No Atomic Breath


'Nuff said.

6) Godzilla fights something

Last, but not least, we need a rival to Godzilla. The viewer has to emotionally invest in the giant monster fight enough to feel some triumph when Godzilla inevitably wins. That means he needs something that actually threatens him because if there is no actual threat, there's no drama, and if there's not drama, there's no payoff when our main character wins (this is also the problem with Wolverine and Superman movies, but that's something to discuss in some other post).

1998's GINO battled the military, but was eventually bested by a bridge.

Need I say more?

The Godzilla of 2014 has a pair of adversaries that are a real threat. They endanger the human race as well as the big behemoth. The final kaiju battle clearly illustrates that Godzilla is not a clear-cut, easy winner. Sure, he triumphs in the end, but there are a few palpable moments where the audience feels that this might actually not happen, where maybe it will be up to the human characters to win with their plan instead. Ultimately, we cheer Godzilla on against these antagonists. We pump a fist when cracks his tail like a whip into one of the M.U.T.Os and shoves it against the "ropes." And we cheer (as the audience did in the screening I attended) when Godzilla breathes his blue, atomic breath into the mouth of his final adversary.

In the end, there's not much of a comparison beyond the title of the film. If you're a fan of the Godzilla series (Newsflash: there's 28 films, no matter what you may have read...re-editing a film doesn't make it a new film), then you'll appreciate how this new film handles the Big G. And if you just like good movies, you'll feel satisfied with this one on a visceral level because, at the very least, it doesn't scrape its fingernails across a chalkboard of cartoonish emptiness.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)



With the news that Michael Bay has produced another version of my childhood to be released in theaters this summer (and the controversy that's already swirling), it seemed "relevant" to take a look back at the first big-screen appearance of the Teenage Mutant Not-So-Ninja Anthropomophized Animatronic-Faced Nightmare Fuel.

We all look like this on the inside.

Let's get this out of the way before we take a look at the 1990 film. This type of recycling will happen again, and again, and again, and again. Just as it happened before, and before, and before, and before. One might make some commentary about how the last go-round was centered on old television shows while this one seems all about old toys and games. But that "one" won't be me. I will simply say that Hollywood is a regurgitation machine, spitting pre-chewed ideas onto movie screens like a mother bird treating us as its baby birds in the nest. Open wide, and wait for next meal, little baby birds.

Gimme.

No. I have a larger task - providing you, dear reader and internet at-large, with a psuedo-review of what some may call the harbinger of this toys-and-games-to-film era. Of course, there were other big-screen versions of toy lines before it (notably, Masters of the Universe). But none had yet attempted to cleave to the source material so closely.

Dolph Lundgren would've looked awesome in a pink shirt.

If you don't know the origin story of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, let's just say that they are basically four turtle-variations on Marvel's Daredevil except they didn't go blind, and they're not lawyers. Also, they basically jumped into the vat of radioactive stuff and started making "snow angels." It didn't fall on them in a horrible accident. Whatever. You get the idea...probably.

Not the best role models for children.

So the plot that fills the cracks in-between references to other movies and 90s pop culture revolves around a group of teens and pre-teens who have joined a gang run by Bad-Guy-Shredder because they've been "rejected by society" and whatnot. They steal stuff for him to "build his empire" and otherwise just hang around to play video games and smoke cigarettes and play poker while drinking Pepsi Cola in a warehouse. In their spare time, the kids train in the martial arts until they've reached a high enough level to join the Foot Clan...which, if you've seen the old cartoon, is a joke of a training regimen since they're just fodder for Ninja Turtle weapons, kicking, and punching. Eventually, we're told that Bad-Guy-Shredder killed Good-Guy-Mentor-Splinter's master (still keeping track of this? well, okay, I'll continue...we're almost done) over a woman. Since Splinter trained the Turtles with the fighting style he learned while being a rat in a cage as his master practiced, Shredder wants to kill them too.

video


The Turtles spout classic exclamations throughout the film like "bodacious" and "cowabunga" and "tubular." No doubt, this was an executive-level attempt to make their dialogue transcend time itself. Surprisingly, it did not work. Instead, every word written in the script, article of clothing, and cultural reference (Stallone and James Cagney impersonations? Domino's Pizza 30 minutes or less guarantee? April O' Neil's hair and clothes?) hardens like a cocoon around this fossil, preserving the mummified remains within. Making it a "thing" that existed in 1990...

Those are some serious shoulder pads.

Unfortunately, the entire film isn't so much a film of its own, but is simply a pastiche of tropes (the loner Raphael, the bad guy's inextricable connection to the good guys, training montage, Han-Leia  love stuff between Casey and April, revenge for the trainer/master/father-figure, etc.), and the tapestry it weaves with these pieces was thin to begin with, but it has become utterly transparent over the past twenty-four years. Take for example, the flashback scenes. Some of us fondly remember a time before "dark and gritty" were subsitutes for actual character development and depth. Don't get your hopes up for those brighter days if you choose to rewatch this movie. Dark and gritty were heavily employed here, far before they were in vogue. But in this case, they were mostly used to mask the horribly inept special effects.

I can't be certain of anything in this scene.

Another example is the characterization of the Turtles. Raphael takes most of the "characterization spotlight" (meaning, the others are simply two dimensional character stereotypes: Leonardo the Leader who stands guard over his injured compatriot, Michaelangelo the Party Guy who always wants pizza, and Donatello the Genius who helps fix a car) by going to a movie and saving some lady's purse from a snatching and getting angry and then hurt so bad that he needs to be healed slowly at a farm house.

Bathtubs are the best kind of medicine.

No one expects great depth. Just give them each one emotional anchor that might help an audience see them reach towards the upper levels of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This issue became clear to the writers right about the time that the Turtles stop fighting for about ten minutes half-way through the film, and the story simply abandons the concept of making these large green things relatable. Instead, it shifts to focus on a Casey Jones and April love-hate story rather than the Turtles' singular revenge/rescue motivation. It's a silly transition 45 minutes in, but we're quickly distracted and re-routed back to the rescue/revenge by Splinter's Jedi-like appearance in the fire.


The blue flame means Splinter is safe to drink.

There's a lot of problems here other than the story and the special effects and the mystical ninjitsu, is what I'm getting at. Regardless, there are devotees to this film and the cartoon series that preceeded it (little to no mention, however, of the deviations they both took from the original comic).

Aw, man. I can barely tell who's who without the colored masks.

Some people love the idea of their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They don't want it changed. They figure, "There's only one version of the Turtles...MINE."

And they're right...right? Just like there was only one Batman in the last 20 years...



And Spiderman too...



Well, some timeless things don't change ever. Like...Shakespeare's Hamlet!



These same people say: "MY things are real, and they are one way. And they are MINE, so you can't change them. They should never be changed."

Get shut of that idea. I understand that it's a lot of fun for everyone to nit-pick the things they really like. I certainly do it. That's part of the joy of being a "geek" about whatever you're a geek about. But keep some perspective. In a long enough timeline, the things that you get pedantic about will evolve and change many, many times. New people will interpret them and add to them and alter them. That's the point. Staying static means that no one is into [insert name of thing you love] enough to bring a different point-of-view into the mix. No one ever retroactively goes back to change the things that you once loved. (Well, mostly never.) They are still there for you to enjoy.

As is the original Turtles movie...if you're into that sort of thing.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Karate Kid Part II (1986)



This film seems like an odd choice to pull double-duty. Any double-duty, but especially the two jobs of pulling me back to posting about bad movies and holding a spot as Memorial Day post.

Let me explain the first part. Briefly. This movie is another bit of nostalgia. A call from the past when anything that had something to do with karate was automatically awesome. It didn't hurt that the main character is an inept kid who's more goofy than kick-ass. Really, just watching Daniel LaRusso stand is a lesson in how not to carry your posture. He holds himself awkwardly slack-jawed and crooked throughout the film, taking up shelter in his clothes like a homeless man wrapping himself in bed-sheets.

But he's my Ralph Macchio. He's the Daniel LaRusso from the time before I was old enough to be Daniel, yet I could see that's where I was headed.

More importantly, though, this film compelled me to post on Memorial Day specifically. Strange, you say? Let me expound upon my reasoning:

This film completely represents America and all of its freedom. It packages everything that our troops have fought for in just under two-hours of running time. 

Perpend:

First, it represents our freedom to make absolutely any piece of crap that we want. The film still exists. Any self-aware culture would have wiped it from the slate long ago. Erased its existence with a governmental decree denying all knowledge and setting dark-suited men with slicked hair to the task of disappearing those who dared mention it in casual conversation.

"I keep getting jobs because I can erase your memory of how bad my films are. You might remember my partner, Nic Cage. But if not, we're doing our job right."
Secondly, this film captures our economic model while pandering to the people who will stoop to watch it. See, it's not enough to simply tack a "Part Two" onto a sequel, knowing that those who enjoyed the first will have a demand for the second. The filmmakers instead chose to re-hash almost every story-cue from the first film and basically feed us the same meal on a bed of rice.

Here we, again, get Daniel LaRusso sucking at karate and then becoming triumphant.

Awesome!!!
Now wait just a minute...
And again we get an emotional center of Mr. Miyagi grounding us with his heart-felt performance while Daniel LaRusso annoys the ever-living piss out of the entire audience and gets the girl.

Seriously, the kid doesn't close his mouth throughout the entire film.
Essentially, it's more "fish-out-of-water" with LaRusso substituting the "water" of New Jersey (LaRusso moves with his mother to California in Part One) with "America" in the second (as they move the action to Okinawa, Japan). One could have only hoped for the more appropriate sequel, "Daniel LaRusso in Space" instead of what we got.

So, basically, the movie convinces its audience that it is something new while giving us the exact thing that the previous version mostly already provided (See: any technology gadget "upgrade" of the past 7 years, romantic comedies, or government officials as further evidence).

If that's not American, then I don't know what is.

And finally, "The Karate Kid Part II" appropriates another culture for the entertainment of Americans. To be fair, the movie doesn't create laughable situations at the expense of Japanese culture. But it does use the unfamiliar setting, customs, and cultural standards to wring-out whatever use we can from it. The situations in the film generally don't represent opportunities to learn about the "others," but instead offer Americans a chance to see how different they are in some instances (fighting for honor to save a village, tea ceremonies) while illustrating similarities as punctuation (the inclusion of a rock-and-roll music club blasting Elvis).

If there's anything that Americans do best is amalgamate other cultures into what works well for them (See Cinco De Mayo, Toyota SUVs, and the horrid, vapid Godzilla film that made millions at the box office).

But really, the thing to focus on is that America hasn't been LaRusso's wimpy under-dog from the first film for quite a while. We live in a different American Century - American Century Part II. Where it's all about getting our hands-dirty in some other parts of the world by showing that we have what it takes to save little girls during hurricanes.

He's hydrating and saving that child...at the same time.
With that said, this film does a few important things that the first didn't. It gives Miyagi time to shine (seriously, that guy could act). It has a stronger emotional-center than just rooting for some stupid kid who's a dork and overcomes the odds. And finally, it is obviously AMERICA.