Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Weekend Box Office

Good news/bad news for executives!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Star Wars 40: The Franchise Re-Awakens

I recently posted a link or two on social media to a post I wrote five years ago about the 35th anniversary of the release of the first Star Wars movie. An interesting read, a take in a very specific moment. One that requires an update!

This was the last effort of
George Lucas's Lucasfilm.
Five years ago Lucasfilm was still in the hands of creator George Lucas— and it was looking sad. In some sort of last-ditch effort to keep the whole franchise relevant he re-released Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 3D, and it was met by remarkable indifference. Part of it may well be the fact he was trying to push the least popular movie of the series, and the audience was having none of it. part of it was how uninspired an idea it was in the first place: by putting 3D lipstick on the Phantom Menace pig he was signaling that he no longer had any new ideas for his creation.

That 35th post reflected this sense of despair, of the ending of things. It was the slowly dawning realization that we were going to move past Star Wars being a current, active franchise and more an artifact of past film glory. Back to the Future? Great Franchise. So was The Thin Man. Throw Star Wars on that old pile.

But less than five months after I wrote that post, the unthinkable happened: The franchise fired George Lucas. He was the immovable object: as I said in a post on the subject,

It's obvious that the rock in the road in terms of the last three Star Wars films has been George Lucas himself— his feeble kiddie-pandering, his dull political pontificating, and his peculiar and depressing take on morality. His decisions were impediments that prevented the second three films from reaching the heights of the first three.

Kathleen Kennedy shows us where her heart is.
Lucasfilm was sold to Disney without George being any part of it, veteran Lucas and Spielberg producer Kathleen Kennedy took over production for Lucasfilm Ltd., and she immediately started making brilliant decisions. She hired Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan to write the next episode of the main franchise, and attached JJ Abrams to direct it. Soon after Kennedy let ILM head John Knoll develop a standalone story and brought in Tony Gilroy to write it.

This Vanity Fair excerpt tell you everything you need to
know about why Kathleen Kennedy is running
Lucasfilm now. (h/t Tadd Schellenbach)
The aspect that Kennedy brought into the franchise was more than the removal of the dead hand of Lucas’s faded imagination: she showed amazing respect for the both franchise and the audience. She realized something Lucas forgot: Star Wars was partly owned by its fans, and that base stretched back 35 years. Any new effort required fealty to that canon.

The results exceeded all expectation: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015, right on schedule) was a exciting new installment which introduced new characters while keeping the main protagonists of the franchise— Han, Leia and Luke— front and center as well. Sure, the story was variation of Episodes IV and VI (Death Star, Starkiller Base, same diff) but it was tightly written, full of humor and surprisingly positive dialogue (after a while, you really start noticing how much all the protagonists complement the efforts of the other protagonists: it's kinda weird). The production was both spectacular and felt materially substantial, utilizing as many practical sets and effects as possible. Episode VII was critically acclaimed, very successful and sent out a tremendous message: Star Wars is back, and we went out of our way to respect the franchise and you, our fans.

With the triumph of Episode VII still hanging in the air like a rainbow Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was released one year later. This was a remarkable film in that it featured no Jedis, no lightsabers and (almost) none of the Skywalker clan. It was a completely standalone story, a bold experiment to test the ability of the Star Wars universe to support completely original characters and story forms. Rogue One also celebrated the ordinary people in the Star Wars universe, those struggling under the yoke of the First Galactic Empire-- it shredded David Brin's objection of the franchise, which he saw as anti-democratic and focused on elites. It was nearly as successful as Episode VII, and many critics (me among them) proclaimed it one of the finest entries in the canon.

Teaser one-sheet: a bit of Episodes
IV, V and VI all mooshed together.
Here are how things stand mid-2017: Lucasfilm under Kathleen Kennedy has successfully revived a dying franchise. Disney/ Lucasfilm is 2-0 so far, with two more in production: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi opening in December and an as-yet unnamed Han Solo standalone film, due out next year. Of these two, I think we can count on one more solid win with Episode VIII. The “Young Han Solo” movie? Not so sure. It has a solid director team (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) and Lawrence Kasdan wrote the script-- but there’s such a whiff of “Disney’s Star Wars Babies” to it that it has the possibility— a slight one, but it’s there— of this anthology entry landing with a thud.

I’d say the pessimism I have had over a beloved movie franchise five years ago is pretty much gone, and I’m one happy Star Wars fan. But when you live in golden times (I’m talking about the franchise, not the larger world, which sucks right now) you are constantly searching the horizon for storm clouds. This re-awakening can only last as long as it is led by executives who both love it and know how to make it profitable, and in Hollywood this is always a balancing act.

The other concern is more philosophical: Sure, a huge number of people love the franchise, and some have for 40 years: but being given more quality installments is like going to a huge chain restaurant that always serves everyone their favorite food. You never get tired of it, but after a while you wonder: Are better and newer restaurants being crowded out? How long can they keep serving this great stuff before everyone gets sick of it, even though the quality has never flagged? And how long can this fabulous chain go on before new management decides to cash in-- and steak and Stag’s Leap Malbec 2011 becomes saltines and tap water?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Alien: Covenant as a Weyland-Yutani Investment Prospectus

The corporate logo as it appears in the era of
Alien: Covenant, showing the influence of
Ancient Egyptian mythology.
Every Alien movie is another chapter in the long history of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, a powerful British-Japanese conglomerate specializing in advanced technology, mostly space exploration, extraterrestrial colonization and robotics. In terms of sheer size and scope of operations, W-YC is a formidable, well-funded corporate entity.

The corporate logo as it as it appears later in the Alien
fictional universe, around the time of Aliens.
But with the evidence of all the Alien movies— the four main sequence films, the AVP prequels and the two newer prequels— one would come to the inevitable conclusion that Weyland-Yutani is not that successful at basic core competency. Colonization Division has a number of outstanding failures (Aliens, Covenant). The loss of large, expensive spacecraft (The Nostromo, Auriga and Prometheus) is constant and horrendous. And Robotics Division’s track record of creating helpful, useful, trustworthy cyborgs is not stellar. For every helpful synthetic (Call from Resurrection and Bishop from Aliens) there is a deceitful, untrustworthy model (Ash from Alien and, as it turns out, David from Covenant).

So I need advise all that Weyland-Yutani may not be a good long-term investment.

On to Alien: Covenant, the second Ridley Scott prequel. this latest prequel franchise installment-- occurring after the events of Prometheus but before Alien-- involves the crew of the colony ship Covenant being awoken by an interstellar storm and, during repairs, they catch a faint signal from a nearby planet. Bound by Weyland-Yutani’s rules about such things, they change course and investigate the signal. Yes, this exact same thing happened in Alien, but this world is much prettier, with big redwood trees and shimmering lakes. However, again like the first film that big horse-shoe Alien vessel is there, and the well-armed but non-space-suited crew of the Covenant are in for an unpleasant surprise…

Danny McBride's character is called "Tennessee."
Gee, I wonder why.
As far as the story goes, Covenant hits nearly identical notes as the first Alien film: the crew is picked off one by one by various manifestations of the Alien life-form, sometimes in pairs. The cast is great: Katherine Waterston (Shasta from Inherent Vice) is the Ripley analogue, Billy Crudup is the feckless, fundamentalist captain, and Danny McBride probably turns in the best, least self-aware performance of his career so far. Michael Fassbender is sublime in a dual role as David, the cyborg from Prometheus, and Walter, a slightly updated model.

The thing Ridley Scott is interested in— aside from fascination over David and Walter— is explaining the origin of the Alien life-form. It is indeed compelling, the effort that goes into outlining and detailing this drawn-out exegesis. it's like watching a steel rail being heated and bent into a circle: a lot of effort, serves no real purpose, but it is still interesting to watch the process.

Covenant puts out a strong Aliens vibe in places.
The Alien life-form does not need a backstory. It is, like Ash called it in the 1979 original, a perfect organism. It is pure aggression, unknowable and mysterious and always deadly. We do not need know how it came to be: it represents the danger of the unknown, the fact that if we reach out into the dark universe and look hard and long enough we will eventually discover something that will kill us.

Nonetheless get a more-or less whole Alien creation story out of Alien: Covenant, which is much more than the plot gives us in terms of interest. Like the movie Alien, we start with a good dozen or so humans who manage to blunder or become enticed to planet where they meet their untimely ends in various violent ways. After a while the film devolves into a pastiche of haunted house/ teen slasher film tropes. The Alien is Mike Meyers, the crew are dumb teenagers who are killed off randomly, and we even have a nice Crystal Lake that they get murdered on. Actually, it’s the saving grace of Alien: Covenant and the original Alien that the grisly body count does not respect gender: men and women are killed off randomly. The ending is depressingly predictable, with a dull twist that will fool nobody: unlike Prometheus, which was weird enough to be mysterious, Covenant is too conventional to be all that surprising.

Like I said, it might be time to liquidate those Weyland-Yutani stocks. Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems, however, is still a blue-chip stock— or it would be if they ever went public.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Greetings from Vegas and now the news!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Monday, May 8, 2017

Weekend Box Office

I guess we're ALL Groot, more or less.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Weekend Box Office

How to be a Latin Lover? Practice man, practice.