Sunday, September 25, 2011

Burke and Hare (2011)

Burke and Hare (2011)
Dir. John Landis

3 out of 5

How the medical profession acquired its modern shape is one of the headier topics tackled by Burke and Hare, a based-in-fact black comedy about 19th century grave robbers William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis) and an infamous series of murders that sated the demand for experimental cadavers in the renowned surgical schools of Edinburgh, Scotland. When a skilled doctor (Tom Wilkinson) is blocked from acquiring legal corpses by a regressive rival (Tim Curry), he welcomes the sudden influx of bodies brought in by the Williams - even though he's well aware that there is nothing natural about the causes of death. Soon enough the authorities start noticing the epidemic of missing persons, putting Pegg and Serkis' enterprise in the criminal crosshairs as they try to help advance the medical field.

Yet it gradually becomes clear that Burke and Hare isn't a movie about medicine, but economics. In quite a literal way, it comments on the selective amnesia that often accompanies societal sea changes. It's easy to forget how some lives are thrown in the grinder (or onto the operating table) in the name of progress. The movie even seems committed, however modestly, to providing a little historical perspective. An oddball subplot about the development of photography and its role in advancing the understanding of human anatomy underscores the film's surprising level of detail.

However, the rest of the movie doesn't successfully build upon these vague thematic notions, or make them terribly funny for that matter. Pegg and Serkis' first few misadventures in murder-for-hire are amusing but become nothing more than a wacky diversion once Isla Fisher is introduced as Pegg's love interest, a former prostitute who dreams of finding a wealthy patron to finance her all-female production of Macbeth. Pegg's horniness suddenly supplants economic desperation as his main motivation, and his questionable romance subjects the audience to heavy-handed parallels between Shakespeare's Scotland-centric play and the situation at hand.

Burke and Hare splits the difference between charming throwback and antiquated museum piece. It's a glaringly unsubstantive film, a mixed bag of slapstick and consequence-free comedic setups that's more at home in 1985 than 2011. But there's something comforting about a movie that doesn't ask you to do much more than spot the trademarks of a Landis-directed comedy - memorable bit players and director cameos and a conflict that escalates into a wry, matter-of-fact brand of mayhem. Burke and Hare might not be a truly hilarious or original comedy, but it's definitely cornered the market on affability and nostalgia, right down to the freeze-framed snippets of the principal cast right before the end credits roll.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Moneyball (2011)

Dir. Bennett Miller

4 out of 5

For more than a decade, the pride of the Oakland Athletics hasn't been a slugger or a hurler, but a general manager. In
Moneyball, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) inhabits the mantle of perhaps the unluckiest man on the face of the earth - the steward of a poorly-equipped and poorly-funded franchise consistently outbid by cash-rich clubs like the New York Yankees for the services of Athletics-bred stars, with the same attendant pressures to field a competitive team. It's the story of how Beane tried to minimize the effects of that bad luck by employing sophisticated statistical analysis and unconventional thinking on a heretofore unseen scale in the romantically regimented world of professional baseball. Based on a nonfiction bestseller by business writer Michael Lewis, the film dramatizes a long, gradual philosophical schism that spanned several years and involved dozens of individuals.

Is this sounding cinematic yet? Sony Pictures didn't think so in 2009, when it pulled the plug on a Steven Soderbergh-helmed adaptation that reportedly included documentary-style interviews with the book's subjects and a cartoon version of Bill James, the real-life pied piper of the new statistical revolution. Ironically, but unsurprisingly, the project had to take a more conventional approach to the story by spinning it into a tale of personal redemption. Enter Brad Pitt, without whom
Moneyball probably wouldn't exist, and another in a recent run of laudable performances. Exuding both fatherly consternation and adolescent arrogance, Pitt plays to many more facets of the boss than you'd expect, and not all of them rosy.

He has a capable foil in Jonah Hill, displaying impressive dramatic chops in a revelatory turn as the Ivy League number-cruncher who turns Pitt on to a world of talent buried by the doublespeak of old-line baseball scouts. Indeed, Beane was once a can't-miss prospect who had his dream nurtured by men who gushed about his "tools" and then bounced around the big leagues as a casualty of inflated expectations and reliance on unempirical observations. The flashbacks to a young Beane are the film's most affecting sequences, a novelistic rise and fall of a kid whose only failing was looking too much like the perfect athlete.
Moneyball is fortunate to have Wally Pfister, the photographer who has done such arresting work for Christopher Nolan, who stages the baseball scenes like black-box theater. He captures not the Athletics' heroic calm but the many levels of pain, worry, and fear in modern pro sports. Even though Pitt and Hill have total confidence in the way they've built the team, each victory is as much a surprise as a validation.

Overall, though,
Moneyball is more of a sliding triple than a home run. Pitt's arc with his daughter (Kerris Dorsey) feels shoehorned in and calibrated for maximum female swoonage. Their scenes are oddly strained, as if playing the good twin of the father figure he portrayed in Tree of Life bores Pitt to death. Philip Seymour Hoffman is also underutilized as the A's combative manager. The script prefers to match Pitt with his straw man scouts in arguments that are too on-the-nose and laughably direct. It muddles the message of a story that's really about resistance to change and frailty of the human ego, just couched in baseball's philosophy du jour. When one scout snaps that you can't build a winning team with computer formulas, Pitt counters, "Adapt or die!" He's a pragmatist or, at best, a bemused pioneer. Moneyball loses that thread at times, maintaining that Beane revolutionized the game, when it's really the game and the numbers and the circumstances that have changed him. That's a story more compelling than any ragtag quest for a championship ring.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Drive (2011)

Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

5 out of 5

Let's get this out of the way - there isn't all that much driving in
Drive, at least not of the sort promised by a film about an unnamed mechanic and stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a wheelman-for-hire. He's an agent of shadow, not a speed junkie, who clings to anonymity as a sound strategy for survival. His favored vehicle is the one that will blend in the most. He utters, at most, a few pages worth of dialogue. It's a part that fits the luggish, taciturn Gosling like a second skin, a electrifying performance that's made in the subtle manipulations of his supine temperament. As such, Gosling stands out as the only element of Drive that's not crying out for attention. Luckily it deserves every ounce of attentiveness its audience is willing to give.

Drive is a film that communicates through mood rather than plot. Combining expressionistic visuals with an angular synth score that evokes Risky Business and Chariots of Fire, director Nicolas Winding Refn lends a bit of magic to the mundane and suggests a timelessness in the film's examination of what compels people to endure risk to their lives, their hearts, and their identities. In this sense, "drive" refers not to Gosling's occupation but his raison d'etre, his intractable nature that strictly governs his choices but leaves more than enough tolerance for uncertainty. Such is his dalliance with Carey Mulligan, the loyal wife of jailbird Oscar Isaac, that also sets the gears of the story in motion. Though Isaac returns before anything untoward can happen between the new romantic pairing, Gosling's affinity for Mulligan and her young family pushes him deeper into the Los Angeles criminal underground that he's worked so diligently to keep at arm's length. Here Drive hammers home the loneliness and impersonality of Gosling's labors, as he seems duty bound not to fight for a love of his own, but to fight on behalf of love in general.

Drive is as much a genre film as it is an oblique commentary on the archetypal quest narrative of a Clint Eastwood-style stoic. It has the requisite cuddly mentor in Bryan Cranston's wizened mechanic/capo and a stylish, against-type turn by Albert Brooks as a weary crime boss who commits violence with the same resignation he projects in corralling his uncouth partner played by Ron Perlman. There's also plenty of Refn's trademark gore, often accompanied by his incongruously heroic use of slow motion, smash cuts, and the pulsating soundtrack. But don't get the wrong impression - thanks to Gosling, the movie is decidedly laconic, a slow-burning powder keg that compresses tension to a fine point and releases it in exhilarating, symbolic bursts of action. Most decent movies have to strain to make even one shot or sequence feel iconic. Refn's effortless combination of restraint and release, as well as the film's complex understanding of human motivation, guides Drive toward a poetic perfection. Let other films worry about delivering action beats and star-driven fireworks - Drive's triumph is in its substitution of horsepower with humanity.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Dir. Rupert Wyatt

3.5 out of 5

Parlaying low expectations into a sneakily effective action thriller, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the rare prequel that can justify a return to a decades-old premise. It's a classic exercise in the cinema of exceptionalism, with one man and one monkey setting in motion an utterly unthinkable premise - the ascent of our simian cousins into a fully-formed society centered on a complex forms of representative government and horseback riding. Knowing it can hardly be derided for attempting to explain ideas it did not invent,
Rise tackles the assignment with aplomb, stacking as many references to Apes lore as possible. Though this lends the film an air of inevitability, it's executed with a playful single-mindedness that makes even the most groan-inducing homage easy to swallow.

That being said, the front end could use some work. This human-centric part of the story finds a scientist (James Franco) who makes a last-ditch effort to resuscitate his research into an Alzheimer's-curing virus by bringing home a laboratory chimp for surreptitious testing, and finds that his treatment has given the animal a staggering capacity for intellectual development. The chimp, named Caesar by Franco's Alzheimer's-afflicted father (John Lithgow), is a computer-generated character (motion-captured in his various states by Andy Serkis) yet gives a more convincing performance than any flesh and blood entity. It's telling that the film marginalizes Franco and the rest of the human cast once Caesar is transferred from his care into the sadistic arms of Brian Cox and Tom Felton at a shady ape sanctuary. And though the film improves the more it affirms that this is Caesar's story, the conflict at the shelter at times verges on the histrionic.

All bets are off, though, once Caesar goes Ape Guevara on the human race. Rise could have transformed into fan fiction by this point, but avoids it by triggering its biggest emotional payoffs during Caesar's stint in the shelter. At some point the movie becomes a PETA-certified inversion of the monster narrative. Eventually, Felton's cruelty and Franco's impotence set up a fevered pillaging of San Francisco by all manner of chimps, gorillas, and orangutans - all enhanced by the super-serum developed by Franco - that feels more like a documentary of a social uprising than a terrifying conquest. Rise is ultimately all in good fun, but also dares to take account of the shared animal intelligence that makes Caesar such an affront to the human race. As a supposed inferior, it's too dangerous to keep him on a level playing field even after he's grown accustomed to it. His loyalty, cunning, and sense of justice are cute until they inspire action against us. In other words, we're fine with letting monkey see but rue the day that we let monkey do.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure (2011)

Shut Up Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure
Dir. Matthew Bate

4 out of 5

The thin line between love and hate was obliterated in the late 1980s by Peter J. Haskett and Raymond Huffman, two alcoholic pensioners sharing an apartment in San Francisco's Lower Haight district. This would be of little consequence to our world if not for their neighbors, a pair of young punks calling themselves Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitchell D. who heard Pete and Ray's drunken bickering through their eggshell-thin walls and began surreptitiously recording their absurd banter. The Australian-produced documentary Shut Up Little Man!: An Audio Misadventure chronicles how Eddie and Mitch's audio vérité project quickly took on a life of its own in underground comedy circles, then blossoms into an unexpected examination on the ethics of entertainment and the very definition of art.

Shut Up Little Man also illustrates how a prank is all about perspective. The film catches up with Eddie and Mitch in the present day, and while they reminisce fondly about sleepless nights recording the verbal warfare next door, they keep a small yet perceptible distance from each other. The popularity of the recordings created a cottage industry of Peter and Ray, and the fallout was surprisingly tumultuous. Mail-order tapes, magazine articles, tribute comics, and eventually a stage play are developed from the raw audio footage. Competing movie projects are launched. Egos are bruised. At one point, a rival playwright echoes one of Ray's hateful screeds when he claims that Eddie is "not a decent human being," the irony resting thick like early morning fog over the Bay Bridge. Funny how a youthful lark can quickly turn into serious grown-up business.

Even juicier than all the professional sniping is the investigation into the mysterious nature of Pete and Ray's relationship. Director Matthew Bate cleverly feeds the audience little giblets of information about the famous ex-roommates while he searches for Tony, a mutual friend of Pete and Ray's with similar demons who appears on some of the recordings. This is where Shut Up Little Man may give some pause. Mitch and Eddie don't seem to have any qualms about the exploitative nature of their masterpiece - especially Eddie, who carries it like an artistic burden, tossing around terms like "urban folklore" and making Shut Up Little Man something resembling his life's work. Tony, when finally located, provides a brief jolt of reality as he speaks with candor about his late drinking buddies. They were friendly when sober, or at least functionally co-dependent, and none of them were ever aware of their cultural infamy. You get the feeling that this was for the best, particularly when Tony expresses macabre satisfaction upon hearing of Pete's passing.

This is the seamier side of Shut Up Little Man: laying bare the pain, hatred, and despair of two broken men so that the rest of us can have a good laugh. That's not entirely a criticism - there's a weird humanity in Pete's disjointed ramblings and his confidently indignant response to Ray's virulent homophobia (the project's title comes from one of Pete's oft-used bitchy retorts). Bate's film leans toward reverence for the recordings themselves but takes a more nuanced view of their creators, if you can call them that. He does not spare us the discomfort of watching Mitch and Eddie trying to justify not only why they recorded their neighbors' private conversations, but also why they are still so proud of it after all these years. Indeed, the film's great unspoken revelation is that this experience has finally exposed all the unflattering baggage of their lives, too. Can you imagine if they had been able to film their version of Shut Up Little Man? Would we get any sense of Pete and Ray beyond the two angry men on the tapes? Thank goodness for this documentary - the real life story is much more compelling.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Rush Hour (1998)

Rush Hour
Dir. Brett Ratner

3 out of 5

Is there a more unlikely movie franchise of recent vintage than Rush Hour? Its sheer familiarity seems like a drawback in a world where it could easily be mistaken for a latter day Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon sequel. This time it's Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan playing mismatched constables who navigate their cultural differences and a lack of respect from the higher-ups. Rush Hour is a textbook buddy cop movie, right down to the central crime that involves a foreign diplomat (a Chinese consul general whose daughter is kidnapped by a Hong Kong crime syndicate). It's a slick, fast-moving caper that never underestimates the audience's desire for comfort food - not to mention its appetite for comic stereotyping.

Yet Rush Hour has a certain charm that's tied up in the unique talents of its leads. Chan has an undeniable charisma even his first non-dubbed English role, a redoubtable kung-fu jester who's one part Bruce Lee and one part Buster Keaton. Tucker, for his part, brings a bizarre screen presence that's far more valuable than his hit-or-miss improvisation. A mewling, high-pitched bullshit artist, he seems like a bigger fish out of water as a proud, hard-driving cop than Chan does as a native English speaker. Their affable animosity softens the tone of a surprisingly violent film, at least when measured by the film's exorbitant reliance on gunplay. Tucker and Chan draw their weapons - often on each other - at the slightest provocation but to little effect. By my count, the grand total of pre-climax handgun casualties numbers two unnamed police officers, one limo driver, and one tire. It's a bullet-to-injury ratio that only the A-Team would appreciate.

Despite capably menacing performances from Tom Wilkinson and a pre-Lost, bleached-blond Ken Leung, Rush Hour is a daffy, all-ages Chan project through-and-through. It's commendable as most of America's introduction to one of the world's singular screen talents (and less commendable as a launching pad for Tucker, who inexplicably became one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors despite a resume comprised exclusively of Rush Hour films since 1998). There are glimpses of Brett Ratner's tone-deafness, who seems to regard the cast's diversity as his free pass for unflattering exhibitions of Asian singing voices, but there's nothing excessively embarrassing here. That's mostly a testament to Chan's ability to sell the material with the same aplomb he brings to martial arts, using everything but the kitchen sink to get the job done, effortlessly turning a likely disaster into an unexpected success.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Help (2011)

The Help
Dir. Tate Taylor

2.5 out of 5

The pie is mightier than the sword. That's an actual object lesson in The Help, a fictionalized melodrama about the peculiar intimacy of black domestic workers and their white employers in civil rights-era Jackson, Mississippi. It's a film that tries hard to be serious but can't help sticking out its tongue every now and then, as if desperate to break the monotony of all this grownup stuff.

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer star as two hardworking maids who reluctantly agree to let Emma Stone's plucky college graduate chronicle - anonymously - the juicy details and shocking revelations common to Jackson's black domestics, hoping it will draw greater attention to their plight. For a while, the film successfully toes the line between the joy of this unlikely sisterhood and the despair of three women who try to fit the roles defined for them with varying degrees of discomfort. Davis is the least feisty of the trio, but projects a convincing weariness when expounding on her lot in life. When she tells Stone in their initial interview that her mother was a maid and her grandmother was a house slave, it's clear that to her the terms are practically interchangeable.

Ah, but then there's that pie. We have to go back a few steps to The Help's big bad, Bryce Dallas Howard, the queen bee of Jackson's insular group of bored, moneyed housewives. Her character oscillates between cloyingly inconsiderate and virulently racist as the plot dictates. Howard manages to pull this off without much affect (inescapable as Jim Crow was in the deep South, it might actually be accurate), but you have to feel for her and the other actors when the script takes them into movie-of-the-week territory, manipulating the audience with thuddingly obvious emotional cues. Sometimes this is done with a modicum of tact. But mostly it's along the lines of Spencer's relationship with a flighty bombshell (Jessica Chastain), full of wacky misadventures in housewifery one minute and sobbing admissions of miscarriages the next. The nadir is the ubiquity of the aforementioned pie, which satisfies the apparently generous number of people who were craving scatological humor in their civil rights dramas.

At a robust two and a half hours, The Help is helplessly overstuffed. Stone receives a worthy foil of her own in her matrimony-obsessed mother (Allison Janney), but she also gets stuck in a subplot with a tepid love interest (Chris Lowell). The latter is the annoying kind of character that appears in movies solely to remove all doubts about the heroine's sexual orientation. Not that The Help needs to address any more burning issues. In fact, the film deserves credit for being far less sanctimonious than it could have been, and for attempting to frame the story as the maids' and Stone's shared triumph. You will notice, however, that Stone is the only one with a snowball's chance of getting out of Jackson. The rest are left to hope that someday equality will exist at home - a difficult prospect when the home where you spend most of your time is not your own. The Help gives us a pretty good idea of the frustrating realities for black women at the time; it's just ironic and a little dispiriting that the movie is padded with equally prominent instances of white girl problems.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

sex, lies, and videotape
Dir. Steven Soderbergh

4 out of 5

Those with prurient interests will be disappointed in
sex, lies, and videotape, Steven Soderbergh's smart, skinless meditation on eroticism and infidelity. In a performance that simultaneously defines and subverts her type, Andie MacDowell plays a repressed Baton Rouge housewife who's unaware of the affair occurring between her philandering husband (Peter Gallagher) and her bartender/artist sister (Laura San Giacomo). MacDowell has a sexual awakening in the form of the moody, nomadic James Spader, who we meet while he's grooming himself in a gas station bathroom. A old college buddy of Gallagher's, he moves into a fleabag apartment and continues the pursuit of his fetish (and apparently the only demand on his time) - videotaping women talking candidly about their sex lives.

I will take a moment here to point out that many consider
videotape to be an "erotic comedy." The big joke, of course, is that MacDowell spends hours with a professional therapist with no discernible improvement to her frigidity, but within minutes is chatting up a mumbling loner with probing questions about his sexual history. The filmmaker's cliche about therapy that numbs rather than heals didn't start here, but it has a nasty effectiveness when Soderbergh uses the audio of MacDowell on the doctor's couch to soundtrack scenes of her sister and husband in her marital bed. The funniest character, however, is Gallagher, a sort of proto-Patrick Bateman who complains about the many (unseen) clients he must reschedule to make time for his trysts. Sexually dominated by San Giacomo and intellectually cowed by Spader, his insistent machismo does a poor job of masking his status as the film's most impotent agent.

Gallagher's simmering rage explodes just in time for the film's bravura sequence - a real-time account of MacDowell's decision to be interviewed and taped by Spader. The scene underscores the film's sympathy for well-meaning misfits. Surveying the damage of MacDowell's marriage (the jig is most definitely up for Gallagher by this point), Spader proposes that his acceptance of his own sexual foibles makes him the healthiest of the entire lot. He's got a point. People like Gallagher are not-so-secretly threatened by the self-assurance that often accompanies obsession; even the sweet MacDowell is initially repulsed by Spader's pathetic straits. Soderbergh - save for an ending that feels tacked-on - is equally assured in rejecting the shameful associations of Spader's fetishism. Showing an early aptitude for slick, thought-provoking juxtaposition of imagery, the director creates an arresting first statement with
videotape while slyly letting on that his freak flag is only beginning to unfurl.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Wide Angle: George Lucas, Godzilla, and the Good Old Days

An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'

There are many things about George Lucas that make it difficult to empathize with him. His cloistered existence. His gazillions of dollars. His insouciant attitude toward his numerous critics. But if you asked most people, they'd probably cite his inability to leave their memories well enough alone, raising their ire with his incessant changes to Star Wars - the most recent ones revealed in leaked footage of changes to the original trilogy’s upcoming Blu-Ray release.

They're wrong. The best thing about George Lucas is that he isn’t swayed by nostalgia.

That seems odd to write about the man who almost single-handedly created the modern nostalgia business with American Graffiti, but Lucas has long been defined by his contradictions. He is a technical wizard who fancies himself a great storyteller, not to mention a crass commercialist who has crusaded against tampering with cinematic treasures. The latter particularly drives people nuts. A old video clip or speech excerpt surfaces every time Lucas tinkers with his own films, as if they reveal something about the principles he has betrayed when nothing has really changed at all.

George Lucas’ lifelong nipping and tucking of Star Wars is the mark of a man not only unencumbered by the good old days, but contemptuous of them. As a teenager, Lucas miraculously survived a high-speed car crash that should have killed him. As a young filmmaker, he exhausted himself at the beginning of what he undoubtedly saw as his magnum opus, then watched others finish what he started and gradually gain nearly all of the credit for any part of it that was deemed good. Now, I wouldn’t say that the absence of nostalgic feeling in Lucas’ creative life has necessarily led him to make the best decisions, but it has been instructive to how I’ve approached his films and many others as a viewer – or, rather, a re-viewer.

Take one of Lucas’ grandest follies – the Star Wars prequel trilogy. When I went to see The Phantom Menance in 1999, my past experiences with the stories and characters of the 1977-1983 cycle of films was an asset, not a liability. What could be more appealing to a 12-year-old than more Star Wars? Yet I came to realize that my nostalgia was also insulating me from The Phantom Menance’s obvious flaws.1 People want to believe that Menace and the other prequels have some how diminished the Star Wars movies that they actually like, but they are unaware that their pain for the past has led them astray. Nostalgia can’t be used a defense when you’ve been tricked into caring about bad movies.

Something similar happened a year earlier with the Roland Emmerich-helmed 1998 version of Godzilla, a movie that constantly thumbs its nose at starry-eyed nostalgic mollycoddlers – and is a perfect example of how you can’t beat them, either. Nobody thought that the man behind Independence Day was going to make a movie respectful of the terrible lizard’s long and storied cinematic heritage.2 But instead of appreciating Godzilla for what it was obviously going to be – a vehicle for massive explosions, landmark destruction, and oddball-for-a-blockbuster humor (Jean Reno’s French commandos spend more time complaining about coffee than commando-ing) – audiences and critics alike unsheathed their knives and proclaimed it not merely a flop but a travesty and a desecration.3

I rediscovered Godzilla years later on VHS (warm memories of the ludicrous and sublime soundtrack album trickling through my consciousness) and couldn’t understand why everyone was suddenly so embarrassed by its existence. Yes, much of it is hackery, but it’s inspired hackery, devoid of the pitfalls of so many other movies that assume a slavish nostalgia will substitute for actual entertainment. It’s not enough that the audience is reminded of things that were cool; getting people to look backwards is an easy cop-out. A movie that aspires to spectacle should focus on things that we have not foreseen, things we could not have conceived. And Godzilla brings the goods, whether spontaneously propelling the monster through the roof of Madison Square Garden, or (1998 spoiler alert) trapping her in the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, a bizarrely spectacular ending on par with Superman turning back time by flying around the world really, really fast.

What Godzilla illustrates is the reason that George Lucas remains a fascinating presence in cinema – unorthodoxy. There is a definite exhilaration in creativity that chooses its own starting point. We may despise this quality in Lucas because he exploits it so poorly and often with misguided intentions, but without it we would might have R2 or Chewie or Yoda, no Indy or E.T. or Doc Brown, perhaps no Harry Potter or live-action hobbits. Indeed, nothing to be nostalgic about, nor anything to compare it to as we fitfully try to convince ourselves of how good things really were way back when.

9.3.11.George Lucas

1 I was very, very much taken in by the fanatical atmosphere in the summer of ‘99. Lucas could do no wrong. On the car ride home, one of my friends professed his love for the film’s sinister henchman, braying “Darth Maul all the way!” I immediately countered with “Qui-Gon Jinn all the way!” I was a dumb kid.

2 As long as I’m feeling iconoclastic, I will posit that Emmerich was one of the most influential directors of the 1990s and early 2000s, both in a slightly despondent look-at-all-these-annoying-blockbusters kind of way and an impressive look-at-how-he-transformed-the-marketplace kind of way.

3 Lost in the furor was the fact that Godzilla was a top-ten grossing movie for 1998, and cracked $125 million when that still meant something. Not that all those “Size Does Matter” bus ads and Taco Bell commercials didn’t eat into the profits.