Monday, August 26, 2013

Read Stuff, You Should

Happy Birthday to Chris Pine, 33. He's okay as Kirk, I suppose; not bad enough to keep the first movie from being quite entertaining, but certainly not even remotely good enough to rescue the disaster of the second movie. You know what? I definitely at this point hate Star Trek Into Darkness a lot more than I dislike Phantom Menace. And it's not because I'm going soft on Phantom Menace.

Okay, enough of that: much better to think about the good stuff:

1. Joshua Foust on Glenn Greenwald.

2. Are national security types entering electoral politics? Dan Drezner goes with the "three makes a trend" and gets a worthwhile post out of it.

3. Andrew Sprung says the time for Democrats to force a budget confrontation is sooner, not later.

4. Getting ready for Obamacare: more implementation reporting from Sarah Kliff.

5. Fred Kaplan on Syria.


  1. Did I miss the floppy-eared pseudo-Jamaican cliche stepping in CGI droppings in Into Darkness? Because only a scene like that can truly drop a film into Phantom Menace territory...

  2. Yeah, I have to say you're totally off on comparing STID to Phantom Menace. Phantom Menace is a really terrible film with some good effects and lightsaber fighting. Jar-Jar? Anakin? THREE laps of the pod race? The entire battle scene is comic relief, but it's not funny. Ugh.

    Into Darkness was a fine movie. It was an action movie, not really a good Trek piece, but if you take it as an action movie, it was a fine action movie. The worst part about the movie was going back to's been done, move on JJ.

    1. If we're just looking at action, the portions of SW:tPM with lightsabers blow any action in STID away.

      Meanwhile, STID is confusing as heck. The plot is incredibly thin, and so little of it seems to have even internal-meaning. Khan is incredibly poorly handled, from the whitewashing, to the rehash, to the fact he doesn't make sense a character except to the audience, and not within the film. Khan is vulnerable to Scotty's phaser, but not Uhrua's, and can withstand all of Spock's punches, except the last one, because either Spock really meant it, or else the film just had to end somehow, and they couldn't think of anything better.

      I mean, Jar-Jar and the kid are annoying, but STID just really offends any sense of logic or storytelling. And since the action doesn't have actual story or emotion behind it, it's just not that good.

    2. Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

      I'm not quite saying that Phantom Menace is a *better* movie, or even a *less awful* movie. No interest in arguing that. Just that I don't hate it as much.

    3. I haven't seen either of the Star Trek reboots yet, but as far the question of how awful TPM is, I usually think of it this way: it's hardly the worst movie I've ever seen (frankly, I still class it as mediocre rather than terrible), but it's one of the biggest cinematic disappointments of my life. I remember eagerly awaiting it for years, and while I realized it might turn out to be subpar (I had my doubts from the moment I heard an 8-year-old was being cast as young Anakin), I never really anticipated the extent.

      What shocked me was how lifeless and dull so much of it was. The original trilogy, even in its worst moments, was generally frolicking and fun. I got the first taste of this problem when I saw an early trailer in 1998, which showed Samuel L. Jackson uttering the most grave and wooden lines I could ever have imagined coming from his mouth. To drain the life out of an actor like Sam Jackson is quite an accomplishment.

      I do differ with many of the film's detractors, however, in the importance of Jar Jar in ruining the film. The first time I saw the film, Jar Jar was hardly at the forefront of my complaints. I was far more bothered by the dullness of the humans than the silliness of the CGI creatures.

      I happen to be the author of the imdb's most popular negative review of TPM (now the imdb's most popular review of that film, period). My primary aim in that review (which I put off submitting until after the prequel trilogy was complete) was to explain why TPM sucked without once mentioning Jar Jar, because I felt, as I do now, that people who focus on that element are sort of missing the point.

      After all, the next two prequels, apart from some improved pacing and an occasional good line, were really almost as bad as TPM, even though Jar Jar was hardly in them at all. (In some ways they were worse--at least TPM had the cool light saber sequence with Darth Maul. None of the action scenes in the later films matched up to it, in my opinion.) My theory about why the prequels failed is that prequels, by their very nature, are tricky to do well. Instead of trying to tell a story on its own terms, and follow it where it leads, you're trying to "explain" how everything from the original story came to be, and this is a recipe for heavy-handedness and lack of focus.

      In particular--and this is something I especially think messed up Revenge of the Sith, despite its surprising critical acclaim--Lucas was forced, in telling the story of Anakin's descent to the dark side, to show a transition from good to evil, and I just don't think he's remotely sophisticated enough to deal convincingly with something like that. One of the most laughable moments was his transparent swipe at the Bush Administration, when Anakin says "you're either with me or against me" and Obi-Wan replies "only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes," as if the Star Wars universe were a model of moral nuance. (I don't think Harvey Dent's transition in The Dark Knight was convincing, either, but at least the rest of the film was cool.) I wrote more on this issue later, reflecting on the prequel trilogy as a whole.

    4. Kylopod, you make an excellent point in the imdb review: why in the world were Yoda and Obi-Wan handled so perfunctorily in the first three films, TPM in particular?

      When you meet a little ancient green alien dude in a godforsaken swamp, you could be forgiven thinking that it was really interesting how he got there. Or an old guy in a hologram. That's about what I was expecting out of TPM.

      I'm not just referring to scenes showing Yoda as "formerly important dude" - you knew that immediately in Episode V. I imagine the following with Lucas and his "team", planning TPM:

      LUCAS: I think this movie really will work if we employ as a major plot device the character development of a anthropomorphic, lizard-like creature.

      FACELESS ASSISTANT: How about Yoda?

      LUCAS: Hm, hm, that's interesting, Yoda....let me see....I have a better idea, I'm going to invent a rastafarian dipshit creature instead! Who's with me?

      FACELESS ASSISTANTS (to each other): Will we still get paid for this if we tell the truth?

    5. Kylo,
      I'm not sure that JarJar is missing the point.

      Yes, TPM isn't very good without JarJar, and his absence doesn't really improve the other prequels.

      But, an important part of making movies is getting the audience to want to take the journey with you. In SciFi movies particuarly, we often talk about "willing suspension of disbelief" (laser swords, etc.) But I think that's only part of it. Sometimes, its characters that one can identify with (and Lucas TOTALLY butchers Anakin's transformation, along with Padme's seeming INCREASE in affection for him after he clearly demonstrates himself to be a psychopath). To that end, JarJar really took me out of the movie. I found JarJar to be so offensive that I couldn't remain in the movie. Once JarJar comes on screen, the viewer is led to look for things that are wrong; JarJar makes us all critics instead of viewers.

      As you note, the pacing in TPM is just dreadful, and, for me, the only real redeeming feature of the prequels was making jedi and sith into rather impressive figures (Lucas just couldn't do that in the late 1970s...I think sometimes we forget how much better fight choreography is in the last few years compared to the old days). The Darth Maul battle is just plain good.

      But, even though JB claims to not want to get into which movie is better (just that he hates one more), I still think STID is better. I never found myself going "OK, there's the video game tie-in" like with TPM. The pacing was far superior in STID.

      When FX starts playing the heck out of STID, I'm going to rewatch it a few times. I can't say the same about Spike's reruns of TPM.

    6. @Matt Jarvis

      It's just my opinion that Jar Jar's role in ruining TPM has been greatly overstated. For many viewers, he stood out in badness; for me, he did not. That doesn't mean I liked the character, but I just didn't react with the same level disgust that so many other viewers did. The first time I came out of TPM, my thoughts were "Boy that was disappointing!" but Jar Jar hardly figured into my complaints at all. I was thinking far more about the pacing, the wooden dialogue, and Jake Lloyd's godawful performance.

      On another note, I cannot agree with your statement that fight choreography has improved over time. I think that when it comes to traditional cinematic swordfights, there's been a definite downgrade in the last two decades. As a rule, the fencing scenes in older films such as the 1947 version of Three Musketeers with Gene Kelly, or even The Princess Bride, run circles around more recent stuff like the Pirates movies, where I often get the subtle feeling I'm not "seeing" the entire fight, that quick edits are being used as a substitute for making the actors learn the moves. (The swordfights in Game of Thrones, though, aren't half-bad.)

      Now, light saber fights are a different matter. The very first one between Obi-Wan and Vader in A New Hope looks almost stupid today, but you have to consider the novelty of it at the time; no one had ever seen a light saber fight before, and so it didn't need to be elaborate to get the needed oohs and ahs. Obviously, Lucas put more effort into the ones in Empire and Jedi (many people aren't aware that isn't Prowse but a stunt double in the Vader costume during most of those scenes), and it paid off. By TPM, he took some influence from martial-arts films to create the Darth Maul fight, and it resulted in the best-choreographed light-saber battle the world has ever seen. Not only were the two later prequels unable to match it, they weren't even much compared with the Luke/Vader fights in the original trilogy. Part of the problem, I think, was an over-reliance on CGI. (I agree with Roger Ebert when he described the Yoda/Dooku confrontation in Clones, so beloved by fans, as looking like a "bouncing blob of Yoda-ness.") By Sith, the interminable fight over lava made me feel like I was watching a very monotonous Star Wars video game. Whatever Lucas was able to achieve in that one cool scene in TPM, he had long lost by the end of the prequel trilogy.

      In some ways, I found Sith even more disappointing than TPM. With TPM, I at least had some advance preparation; for reasons I still can't fathom, Sith was generally well-received by critics, most of whom had panned the first two prequels. So I went into the theater expecting that Lucas had finally gotten his act together and made a good new Star Wars movie, only to be faced by yet another mediocrity that didn't come close to capturing the magic of the original trilogy.

    7. I've seen some people credit much of the Darth Maul fight to the stunt man who played Darth Maul, who the interwebs tell me is Raymond Park (also played Toad in X-Men and Snake Eyes in the GI Joe movies).

      I think, though, that that was part and parcel of the one GOOD idea Lucas did have for the prequels, which was to make the jedi and sith actually impressive. Luke blocks a few laser bolts, and does a few superhuman jumps....that's about it in the original trilogy. (Even defeating the Rancor was just something an athletic person could do) Vader just force chokes (and really kinda lumbers around), and the Emperor just has the one lightning-fingers ability.

      Fencing could be quite good in older movies, but it often seems to lack creativity to me. Fight scenes, too. My memory tells me that action movies in this century have just had better fight choreography overall. Unfortunately, we've also seen the rise of the directors that believe that quick cuts, handy cams, and tight zooms make action sequences more exciting, so there's been a lot of bad that's come along with it. But, I really do have this sense that fight choreography is taken much more seriously in Hollywood these days, even if a number of directors are seemingly intent on obscuring as much of these cool fights as they can!

  3. Phantom menace was amazingly terrible.

    Glenn Greenwald, I can't really understand why such a big deal is made about him, by his supporters or his detractors. Yes he gives no ground, and seems to consider that anyone who disagrees with him to be ipso facto evil... but he has that in common with a lot of people in politics and journalism. I'm just glad at The Guardian he's finally being copy-edited. Somewhere in their offices lies a vast and growing pile of hyphens.

  4. ...Muphry's Law 12,807 - Me 0

  5. I enjoyed Into Darkness. But I don't have much background with Star Trek (I'm a bad sci-fi geek). I guess I can see how there would be issues for Trek fans. Even then, I'm not sure how it can come close to being as bad as Phantom Menace, which is completely irredeemable.

  6. I've seen Darkness once, and also experienced a downward evaluation of it as time went on, but...hate it? I'm wondering why. Also whether it's on the basis of seeing it more than once.

  7. Whoa, worse than Phantom Menace? Let's not say things we can't take back!

  8. Regarding Greenwald: It's interesting that, so soon after Democrats were winning elections in opposition to the Bush Agenda, he would be such a lonely voice on these issues. Obviously, a large part of it is that Team Blue is now in charge of the Security State. But still, you'd think there would be more opposition than we've seen. Instead we're at the point where Assange is saying that Rand Paul is the only hope for America. Statements like that should be a wake-up call for true liberals everywhere. We'll see.

    1. Hmm; I don't accept "lonely voice." I think you mean something like "lonely voice from the left," but I don't accept that version either. Leave aside the "is-he-even-a-liberal" question: He's hardly alone, although it seems to make him and his fans feel special to pretend that's so.

      I think "true liberals everywhere" have better things to worry about than what Julian Assange thinks, and people concerned about national security should avoid these blowhard poster boys.

    2. Statements like that show that Assange is a ridiculous buffoon, if there wasn't already enough evidence of that.

    3. Anon,

      Yes, there are plenty of liberals (and non-liberals!) who agree with Greenwald. Polling shows a significant increase in public concern for civil liberties. Most people support what Snowden did. But these voices are politically irrelevant if people in positions of influence don't amplify them. Hence, we have the current administration not only lying about the extent of electronic surveillance, but attempting to prosecute the whistleblower who exposed the lie. With so many people who are , by their silence, giving Obama political cover to do this, I have to admire the few loudmouths like Greenwald.

  9. Bitter Fig:

    "Khan is incredibly poorly handled, from the whitewashing, to the rehash, to the fact he doesn't make sense a character except to the audience, and not within the film.

    "Khan is vulnerable to Scotty's phaser, but not Uhrua's, and can withstand all of Spock's punches, except the last one, because either Spock really meant it, or else the film just had to end somehow, and they couldn't think of anything better."

    I'm amazed at how many people (including critics) missed this. Khan was not knocked out by Scotty's phaser. His eyes were not fully closed. When he was hit, he figured out what happened (probably anticipating it) and took a dive. Then he struck at his leisure.

    In the fight in SF (which IMHO was too long, and could have been done otherwise), Uhura had to shoot him several times, and then Spock had to bludgeon him with a piece of metal. That finally took him out.

    As for the character, Khan was well inserted, and made perfect sense - not to the other characters, of course, any more than he did in TOS at first.

    1. Continuing....

      They inserted him well; he showed up 'early' because history had been changed. The reason he was found fit in well - the Federation was sweeping areas they hadn't in TOS, because of the destruction of Vulcan made them worried about threats; that was the reason for the crash military program. At the start of the movie, Khan had been awake for a year or more, which meant that he already had figured out what was going on, and his plan were well underway.


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