catching up

First, a few links and things that I found interesting during the week but didn’t get a chance to post (some of these thanks to rre):

Second, a few capsule movie reviews from my week of seeing lots of movies:

  • Minority Report: I’ve seen plenty of negative reviews of this one, many of which seem pre-occupied with the product placements and otherwise “selling out” of Steven Spielberg. But face it: product placements are part of any movie these days, and I think critics are too quick to dismiss the movie as a commercial sell-out. In fact, it’s easy to interpret the movie’s “commercials” as ominous privacy-invading spectres (they appear as holographic advertisements that know a mall visitor’s identity and speak directly to individuals, increasing tension when one is a wanted man). Action sequences are a little hokey; Tom Cruise may be an action star, but Spielberg isn’t an intuitive action director, especially in the jetpack scene, which is too often comical. Nonetheless, the movie is good science fiction the way science fiction is supposed to be: highly speculative about the form of future technology (who says modern computers have to be like linear descendants of today’s? Not William Gibson, that’s for sure, but people seem to like his crystalline cyberpunk technology); a provacative plot that, even with some derivative elements (the Blade Runner references are clear), is remarkably relevant in the age when “what makes us safe makes us free;” and even a pretty solid performance from Tom Cruise. A good amount of credit for the film must go to Philip K. Dick, who wrote the original short story, of course, but props to the filmmakers for putting together a well-rendered science fiction universe that is driven by ideas, not gimmicks and action set-pieces. My biggest criticism of the movie is that, like pre-director’s cut Blade Runner, important segments of the film (especially the climax and conclusion) have excessive voice-over narration that takes away some of the drama and spoon-feeds the missing pieces of the story. I hope that, per Blade Runner, the voice-over reflects the studio’s concerns, rather than Spielberg’s, and that it will be eventually removed for video or DVD.
    Undercover Brother: Holy cow, this movie made me laugh and laugh hard. The opening sequence is magical, and aside from a few moments of doldrums, the movie rolls right through to the end. The script skewers both white-minority relations and action/spy movie conventions. The casting was good, particularly Patrick Harris as white-as-can-be intern (“affirmative action”) for the underground Black-power Brotherhood. Dave Chappelle is good as Conspiracy Brother, but occasionally too whiny, and I’ve never been a fan of Chris Kattan, whose stupid contortions just distract me on SNL, and here. If you need a couple of smart hours of comedy, try the movie.
  • Star Wars: Episode II: This is supposed to be the one that restores the faith, but it left me feeling flat. Not crushed and insulted, like after Phantom Menace, but rather uninspired and unprovoked. Accepting the problems of directing actors in front of a blue-screen (actors who are often talking to thin air), most of the movie feels like the actors are going through their paces, perhaps because they are thinking, “why am I uttering this ridiculous dialogue?” As noted virtually everywhere, Lucas can’t write. Why oh why, in a world literally infested with creative folks who grew up on Star Wars, can’t Lucas find someone who can write a good script? Episode II tells a whole boatload of backstory to the original Star Wars trilogy, and explains much of it pretty well—unlike Phantom Menace, which felt like a trailer to what would be an actual story, Episode II actually has a storyline that generates much of the Star Wars universe. But I’m distracted by Lucas’s short cuts which make an already-complicated story hard to follow. Characters like Count Dooku (“Dooku?” Is this a Korn album?) are brought in without any introduction and left without any motivation. Is he just nasty? What’s his relationship to prior generations of Jedi? It’s suggested that we should care, but we aren’t given enough to go on, so it’s just a mystery with no interesting hook. The love story between Anakin and Amidala is bumpy, and excruciating to watch in the beginning, when Anakin is arrogant and nothing more. To the actor’s credit, by the end of the film he has begun to seem a little more conflicted in his role as Jedi-Apprentice-Lover-Hero, which actually serves to make his ultimate downfall more dramatic. Still, Hayden Christensen for the most part looks like he should be in a boy band instead of a Star Wars movie. Part of the movie are neat: The glimpses of Imperial Guards in Senator Palpatine’s chamber are an ominous visual, as are the legions of Clone troops boarding star destroyers, and the Tilt-a-Yoda whirlybird light saber duel is fun (one knows that Yoda is about to get all kinds of badass when he holds his cloak to one side and quickdraws his light saber). But for an action movie, much of Episode II’s action is mostly boring—and not just boring, but gratuitous. The asteroid belt dogfight is, well, boring, except for the gigantic mines shredding asteroids; the robot factory set-piece is boring and entirely unnecessary—as one of my office-mates suggested, the whole scene seems generated solely for inclusion in the soon-to-follow video game; and the Gladiator-style stadium battle is mostly boring, even though I know I should have been exhilirated by the sight of two dozen whipping light sabers. The whole scene is un-motivated: why are they being executed? Who the heck are the winged nasties in the audience? To make it worse, the scene extends essentially to the end of the movie in one long, vitually dialogue-less battle punctuated only by the half-ripping-off of Amidala’s tank top and Yoda’s kung-fu skills. And, my final criticism of Episode II: Jar Jar. We were told that his role would be small and insignificant, but if you indexed the importance of any character’s individual action and divided it by screen time, Jar Jar has a value of well over 1.0, far more than any other character. SPOILER: In mere minutes of screen time, Jar Jar is the one who, acting as senator in Amidala’s absence, is duped into proposing to give Palpatine emergency powers, thus giving birth to the Empire. It may not be particularly dramatic, but in the big scheme of things, that makes Jar Jar the individual most responsible for the entire first trilogy of movies! Holy crap! To conclude: While the special effects are neat, they lack heart and mostly seem gratuitous. Episode II fills in a lot of plot holes, and is sometimes exhilirating, but is mostly mediocre.

Whew! If you read this far, buy yourself a lollipop. “Capsule reviews,” my tuckus.