Thursday, May 21, 2009

Calling Shenanigans on Fake IMAX

I should've written about this sooner, but, well, I forgot. But now, since there is a new IMAX film opening this weekend (NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN), please allow me to present the following very troubling diagram that compares the IMAX screens at the Loews Lincoln Square and AMC Empire theatres here in NYC:

Quite a difference, right? The Lincoln Square screen is what should spring to mind when you hear the word "IMAX" -- a giant screen that offers a truly immersive movie-watching experience. But lately, more and more of these smaller IMAX screens have been cropping up, as theatre chains have realized that they can simply convert existing screens to IMAX-quality without actually increasing the size. Yes, you are still getting pristine picture & sound, which IMAX will now tell you is "technically" what they are all about. But if you ask me, the whole point of IMAX -- the real reason you'd want to spend upwards of $18.50 on your ticket, not to mention the company's main selling point for however-many years -- is so you can be blown away by the MASSIVE screen. Instead, theatres are now charging higher prices for something that is not that much better, quality-wise, than a regular digital presentation on a standard screen.

This, my friends, is BULLSHIT.

I've attended the Lincoln Square IMAX theatre many times over the years, and it never ceases to amaze me. I attended the AMC Empire IMAX theatre once, and will never go back again. I strongly urge everyone to check with your local IMAX theatre to make sure it is LEGIT before giving them your money. On a proper screen, IMAX is the most awesome movie experience available today -- it can make a bad movie watchable, a good movie great, and a great movie a veritable visual orgasm! But if the screen is not substantially bigger than usual, then it's just not worth the extra cost. Consider yourselves warned!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ten Years Ago in a Movie Theatre Not Too Far Away....

Believe it or not, it was 10 years ago today that many of us lined up at movie theatres for hours, some dressed up in costumes, some wielding lightsabers, others just giddy with 16 years' worth of excitement, for a film that was, is, and likely will always be the most anticipated movie of all time.....


After RETURN OF THE JEDI concluded the story of Luke Skywalker in 1983 -- I was not even 6 years old, but can vividly remember watching it in the theatre with a sense of pure awe -- the STAR WARS saga entered a long dormant period in the consciousness of the general public. But for us die-hards, our fervor never abated. We watched the Holy Trilogy countless hundreds of times, consuming it, embedding every detail into our very lifeblood.

Then, in 1991, the first post-JEDI novel, HEIR TO THE EMPIRE by Timothy Zahn, was released, launching the "Expanded Universe" that generated a new level of interest. In 1997, Lucas released the STAR WARS TRILOGY: SPECIAL EDITION, utilizing new technologies that allowed him to tinker with the films and "fulfill his original vision." Reviews were mixed especially by die-hards (myself included) who took issue with many of Lucas' alterations -- but there can be no denying that the thrill of seeing the Holy Trilogy back on the big screen was an overwhelming religious experience. Finally, in the late '90s, the announcement was made that a trilogy of prequels -- the missing Episodes I thru III -- would, in fact, be coming soon, chronicling the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker.

This announcement was followed by many months loaded with speculation, spoilers, photos, teaser trailers, posters, casting announcements, action figures, Pepsi can promotions and more. I will never forget cutting class to see the horrible Brad Pitt/Anthony Hopkins film, MEET JOE BLACK, specifically to see the debut of the first Episode I teaser before the movie. I then sat through the 3+ hour movie, because the theatre promised to show the trailer AGAIN! It ruled. And finally, on May 19th, 1999 -- one week after I graduated college -- the moment we thought we may never see was finally upon us.....

Two hours later, when the lights came back on and the crowds filed out of the theatres, the reaction was... well... mixed. By my estimation, there were two types of people: Those who hated the movie outright and were bitterly disappointed... and those who were blinded by excitement and unconditional Star Wars love, and enjoyed the movie in spite of everything. As you might expect, I fell into that latter category. Sure, I realized and even acknowledged its flaws, and spent that summer dissecting and discussing them with my friends at great length. I knew that Jar-Jar Binks was a terrible character, and Jake Lloyd was probably one of the worst child actors in history, and the concept of midi-chlorians was pretty stupid, and it certainly didn't match up with ANY preconceptions I may have developed over the previous 16 years. Still... it was a NEW STAR WARS MOVIE, and I couldn't get enough. I saw the movie a total of NINE times on the big screen (including three times that opening weekend) -- the most I have ever seen a single movie in the theatre.

As the years ticked by, my stance on THE PHANTOM MENACE went through a rollercoaster of emotions. It wasn't long before I went through a period of backlash in which I ripped the movie for its flaws and came perilously close to joining the anti-prequel geek battle cry, "George Lucas raped my childhood!" -- a sentiment not helped by the release of the truly awful ATTACK OF THE CLONES in '02, the one STAR WARS movie I actively dislike. Then one day, I watched Episode I again, and had an epiphany: Yes, there are some things wrong with the movie, and yes, it is a far cry from the original trilogy. But you know what? There's a lot of stuff to like, too. All things considered, it's really not half bad, and much better than it is given credit for. Over the past 10 years, so much has been said about what's wrong with Episode I... but let's take a look at some of the GOOD things:

• Jar-Jar sucks, yes. But you know the scene where he's talking to Padme about "da brisky mornin' munchin'?" That shit cracks up me to this day. I won't try to defend Jar-Jar overall (though he does provide interesting proof that poop and fart jokes exist in the Star Wars galaxy -- they're not so different from us after all!), but even he has his moments. I also maintain that if Lucas had only shown some chutzpah and, say, had Jar-Jar die in EPISODE III while trying to protect Padme or something, thus giving him a complete & tragic character arc, we'd probably look at him in a very different light!

• Casting Liam Neeson as a Jedi Master in his prime may have been one of the great decisions of the entire production. As Qui-Gon Jinn, Neeson brings a sense of nobility to the Jedi order that we had never seen before. Sure, we had Obi-Wan and Yoda in the original trilogy, but they were old and past their prime -- Qui-Gon represents what the Jedi meant to the galaxy and how they were viewed for the past 10,000 years. Plus he just kicks serious ass. (God, if only they could've gotten Neeson to come back for that one scene at the end of Episode III!)

• Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan Kenobi was equally ingenious. Ewan actually provides by far the best acting and arguably the most interesting character development throughout the trilogy. He invokes Alec Guiness with almost eerie precision. He's a mere Padawan in Episode I, but it's clear that he is going to be awesome when the shit hits the fan later. Plus, the "Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi" moment should be pretty spine-chilling for even the most cynical Star Wars fan!

• One of Episode I's biggest crimes was that it grossly underused one of the best Star Wars villains ever: Darth Maul. With his scary painted face, startlingly suave voice, and now-iconic double-bladed lightsaber (goddamn, I'll never forget the moment we first saw him extend that second blade in the first teaser), Maul is as cool as he is evil. He didn't appear on screen much, but when he did, he was a commanding presence. Of course, his three-way duel with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon is one of the best in the entire saga. (Unfortunate that he died like a punk... but then again, Obi-Wan was pretty badass himself!)

• The plot, as a whole, is far more interesting and complex than people give it credit for. Yes, there's a lot of seemingly-boring talk of politics and tax policies and trade routes and stuff, which on the surface doesn't seem very Star Wars-y -- but shit, these are all seeds sown by Palpatine to reach his ultimate goal! It's genius, really. The Padme/Amidala/decoy stuff is handled poorly with the deeper voice and whatnot, but at least it makes sense. (Besides, it's clear that Qui-Gon knows who she really is from the beginning, so it's like, who does she think she's fooling?) The fact is that, story-wise, Lucas did a masterful job of setting the stage for Palpatine's eventual takeover -- if only those intricacies weren't overshadowed by bad acting and dialogue!

• The concept of Anakin as "the chosen one" adds a sense of religion to the Jedi order that had never really been explored, outside of a couple of throwaway references in A NEW HOPE. Along those lines, finally getting to see the Vatican-like Jedi Council in action is awesome. Sam Jackson may have been a bit miscast as Mace Windu, but you could tell he was having fun. And Yoda gave us some new, classic wisdom with his "Fear leads to anger... anger leads to hate... hate leads to suffering" speech.

• Pod racing may have been a marketing ploy for toys and video games, but what a ploy! The race was fun as hell, and the Pod Racer game for the Nintendo 64 was awesome!

• Though George Lucas proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has become completely detatched from humanity with his wooden dialogue, borderline racist characters (Watto as a Jewish used car salesman, anyone?), and complete inability to properly direct his human actors... there can be no doubt that he remains a visionary filmmaker and a pioneer when it comes to technology and special effects. THE PHANTOM MENACE was the first film to be projected digitally, as well as the first film with 100% digital characters. I'd go as far as to say that TPM was as important to the progress of movie technology over the past decade as the original STAR WARS was to the sci-fi/fantasy genre in general.

• Lastly (but certainly not least -- I've just written more than enough already), one of the most spectacular things about the movie has to be John Williams' soundtrack. "Duel of the Fates" is one of the best themes in the entire saga. Anakin's theme is clever with its subtle nod to "The Imperial March." Memorable cues are scattered throughout the soundtrack -- my personal favorites are when the Trade Federation deploys its droid army against the Gungans, and the fanfare at the beginning of the Pod Race. It is easily the best and most memorable of the prequel soundtracks.

In the decade that followed, plenty of other big movies and franchises have come and gone. Everyone was psyched for THE LORD OF THE RINGS and SPIDER-MAN and THE DARK KNIGHT. We'll all be buzzing for HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS when it comes out in 2010. Peter Jackson's THE HOBBIT will generate tons of excitement if & when it ever comes to fruition. But regardless of how you feel about it, in terms of sheer, rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth anticipation, STAR WARS: EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE will always be king... and I, for one, believe that May 19, 1999, is a day worth recognizing. In the immortal words of young Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and scourge of the Jedi order........ "YIPPEEE!"

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Goodbye, Creamy Girl....

Just had to take a moment to bid a sad farewell to my family's cat, Cream.  She died on Saturday at the ripe old age of 15, almost a year after the death of her sister Peaches.  Though this isn't entirely unexpected (she hadn't been well in recent momths, and did not look very good when I last saw her a couple of weeks ago), it's another blow to the family and, really, the end of an unexpected era.

See, we were a tried-and-true dog family for the first 16 years of my life.  But after Smokey (the greatest dog of all time) died in 1993, we decided that our dog days were done.  A year or so later, despite some skepticism from my dad and myself, the decision was made to get a cat.  My sister, Jackie, picked out a little cutie named Cream, and we were talked into taking a second one, too (my mom chose Peaches, the runt of the litter).  Thus began the feline era in the Deutsch household.

Though they were sisters, Peaches and Cream couldn't have been more different.  Whereas Peaches was round and roly-poly, Cream was lean and powerful, able to swat birds out of midair and outsmart rodents of all kinds.  And whereas Peaches was very personable and always craved attention, Cream didn't really much care for such things.  Not that she didn't like it -- she just didn't seek it out.  She was content to lie there minding her own business, and if someone happened to come over and pet her, she'd be into it.  It's also worth noting that whereas Peaches would occasionally lose her temper and scratch you, Cream never -- I mean, not ONCE in 15 years -- used her claws on a human being.  It was kind of bizarre!  Sometimes I would take her paw and put it to my face and say, "SCRATCH ME, JUST TO PROVE THAT YOU'RE A REAL CAT!"  But she never would.  She was also kind of neurotic, enjoyed jumping on the kitchen table, eating human food of all kinds (like, pretty much anything), and had the weirdest "meow" when she was hungry.  All of these things were part of her charm.

Farewell, Creamy girl -- we miss you, but we take some solace in knowing that somewhere, somehow, you and little Peaches are playing & frolicking together again....

1994 to 2009

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Force is with STAR TREK


I saw the new STAR TREK and my first thought was that it was f'ing awesome, exhilarating, totally lived up to the hype and was easily the best TREK film I've ever seen. But my second thought was that, damn, there sure were a lot of familiar homages in the film... and I'm not talking about old school TREK references. I submit for your approval:

• TREK opens with Nero's Romulan battleship attack on the much smaller U.S.S. Kelvin ←→ A NEW HOPE opens with Vader's Star Destroyer attack on the much smaller Tantive IV.

• A Romulan superweapon destroys the planet Vulcan while Spock is forced to watch helplessly ←→The Death Star destroys the planet Alderaan while Leia is forced to watch helplessly.

• Kirk is stranded on a frozen planet and attacked by a huge ice creature ←→ Luke is stranded on a frozen planet and attacked by a huge ice creature.

• The Enterprise's hyperdrive conks out when they first try to go to warp ←→ The Millennium Falcon's hyperdrive conks out at numerous critical moments in EMPIRE.

• Kirk grows up as a rebellious Iowa farmboy and gets accosted in a local bar ←→ Luke grows up as a whiny Tatooine farmboy and gets accosted in a local cantina.

• In a picturesque scene, Spock's mother wears a flashy dress & headgear and somberly stands before an open window in a castle on Vulcan ←→ In a picturesque scene, Luke & Leia's mother wears a flashy dress & headgear and somberly stands before an open window in a castle on Naboo.

• Kirk hangs onto a ledge for dear life while a tattooed Romulan stands over him and taunts ←→ Obi-Wan hangs onto a ledge for dear life while the tattooed Darth Maul stands over him and taunts.

The list goes on and on. Clearly, J.J. Abrams figured that the only way to really make a great Trek film was to basically model it after that OTHER space saga, of which he himself is an ardent fan -- and in doing so, settle the long-standing WARS vs. TREK debate once and for all. Take that, Trekkies!

Okay, okay, I'm kidding (mostly)... but the STAR WARS influences are definitely there, and the end result is nothing short of spectacular. Don't worry, I wont be turning in my lightsaber and donning a Federation uniform anytime soon.... but damned if this battle-hardened STAR WARS geek didn't enjoy the hell out of what was, believe it or not, my first big screen STAR TREK experience.

The great thing is that while I'm sure it appeals to die-hard TREK fans on many deep levels, it is also perfectly suited for novices such as myself. I know Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Bones and Co. and I know their catchphrases and things, and they're all there. I admit, I geeked out a bit when Bones gave us his first, "Dammit, I'm a doctor not a physicist!" and Scotty exclaimed, "I'M GIVIN' HER ALL SHE'S GOT, CAPTAIN!" and Spock used the Vulcan Neck Pinch. The first meeting of Kirk and Spock was cool to see and the first shot of the Enterprise was appropriately grandiose. Basically, everything you could possibly want to see in a TREK film, regardless of the extent of your fandom, is there.

It helps that the cast is pretty incredible. Chris Pine is no Shatner, but he's great as a rebellious, hotshot James T. Kirk, giving him a Han Solo attitude that works wonders. Zachary Quinto's Spock is full of depth and emotion vs. logic conflict. (Whether or not Pine & Quinto will be as perfect for each other as Shatner & Nimoy remains to be seen, but they're off to a damn good start.) Meanwhile, Zoe Saldana is smoking hot as Uhura, though I preferred her slutty green-skinned roommate. Rounding out the Enterprise crew, Karl Urban, John Cho, Anton Yelchin and the great Simon Pegg are all friggin' awesome as Bones, Sulu, Chekov and Scotty, respectively, and they all have their moments in the spotlight. Eric Bana chews the scenery with gusto as the evil Nero. And of course, it's cool to see a certain original cast member join the fun.

Tell you the truth, I'm not even sure what didn't work. Trekkies surely have more to say on that matter, but it was pure entertainment to me. The whole time-travel thing can be a slippery slope, because it's kind of a cop-out (Kirk even points that out during a key scene, in a clever bit of self-deprecation by the writers). However, it worked in SUPERMAN, and it works here. I guess STAR TREK is lucky in that way -- every 20 years or so, when things start to get stale, you can just fuck around with the time-space continuum and make it interesting again. Pretty ingenious, really -- though from what I understand, it hasn't always worked quite so well in previous films!

(Also, I'm sure there will be people who will say, "This movie is what the STAR WARS prequels should have been!" and perhaps there is some truth to that. I've never been a huge Abrams fan -- I've never watched LOST and I thought CLOVERFIELD was a steaming pile of shit -- but it's clear, even in a TREK film, that he puts the Holy Trilogy on a pedestal and you can't help but wonder what he might've done with, say, ATTACK OF THE CLONES. But what can you do... faults and all, the prequels hold a special place in my heart and I don't want to get into THAT debate right now....)

Suffice to say, with his vision of STAR TREK, J.J. Abrams has indeed boldly gone where no man has gone before, and I am psyched to see where he takes the crew of the Enterprise from here. Until then, may the Force be wi... er, I mean, Live Long and Prosper! :)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Whole Lotta Boring + Dash of Fun = WOLVERINE

The problem with X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE is not that it is a completely terrible film. It has some good things going for it. Hugh Jackman is fantastic in the lead role, which he officially owns for life. He does the absolute best he can with the material he has been given, and he has to get some props for that. Liev Schreiber, also, chews the scenery like nobody's business and his Sabretooth makes for a formidable brother-at-arms-turned-adversary. The action sequences are almost all entertaining, with the Wolverine vs. Sabretooth duels, in particular, kicking things up a notch. There are plenty of cameos from other mutants and X-Men notables, which may or may not please die-hard fans, but was perfectly suited for my far more casual interest. When the dust cleared, yes, I mostly enjoyed what I got... but at the same time, I was all too aware of what went wrong.

For one thing, the special effects are HORRIBLE. For a movie with a $140 million budget, it looks like something out of a cheap fan film. It seriously features some of the worst green screen work I've ever seen -- at times I could've sworn that characters were just hastily Photoshopped into scenic backgrounds. Plus, Wolverine's digital claws are flat awful. Though Jackman does his damnedest to help distract us from this problem, it's still painfully obvious that the claws are, in effect, cartoons. I can't recall if the claws were fully CGI in the original X-MEN trilogy, but even if they were, they just looked a hell of a lot better then.

More importantly, for an origin story, the movie sure does skimp on Wolverine's actual backstory. It's cool to learn that Wolverine has actually been around since the 1800's, and that he and Sabretooth were recruited by the U.S. government to fight in every war since then. But aside from an opening montage that shows them in action in those wars, pitting their mutant powers against increasing technologies, this point is grossly underused (also, while pretty cool on its own, this sequence suffers in comparison to the far superior through-the-years opening montage in WATCHMEN). I could've watched an entire movie based on their experiences in those wars. Then, by the time Wolverine gets fed up and ditches the army, he easily embeds himself into "real life," with a house and a job and a hot girlfriend. We don't get so much as a brief flashback to show how the heck he managed all this. Even the core of the plot, the relationship between Wolverine and Sabretooth, suffers from ebbs and flows -- as if the filmmakers occasionally forgot about it and then threw in a new fight scene.

Basically, the movie is a plodding mess punctuated by two legitimately good performances and a bunch of cool action sequences. Which is all well and good for a run-of-the-mill action film, but it would've been nice to see more for this character, especially since Jackman gave it his all. Fortunately, my expectations were pretty low to begin with, which probably allowed me to enjoy it more. I won't go as far as to condemn the film... but see it at your own risk!