Sunday, February 25, 2018

Movie Review: '2001: A Space Odyssey'

Pros: Good, if sometimes flawed, visuals; nice mix of sound and image; not kid stuff

Cons: Slow-paced; no stereotypical space battles; no easily-interpreted ending

It's hard to believe that 50 years have passed since Metro Goldwyn Mayer released director Stanley Kubrick's enigmatic-yet-somehow-captivating science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a serious (if not very prophetic) look at a future that could have been but wasn't.

Conceived by Kubrick and inventor/author Arthur C. Clarke as the "proverbial good science fiction movie" in 1964 and involving a long production process that lasted nearly three years, 2001 tackles several Big Topics, including the notion that human evolution may have been given a boost by extraterrestrial intelligence, the dangers of mixing national security interests with scientific exploration, and the strange double-edged sword of humanity's dependence on technology (a theme Kubrick also tackles in Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb).

And though its gross, in 1968 terms, was not breathtakingly huge ($56,000,000 in the U.S.), Kubrick's film not only marked a departure from the more Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon-styled space films of the early Space Age (1957-1975) by attempting to foresee what our future would be 33 years hence (in '68) based on how technology was progressing, but it also was a harbinger of today's whiz-bang special effects movie franchises. 

Many of the production crew, including cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, production designer Colin Cantwell, makeup designer Stuart Freeborn, and special photographic effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull would later work on Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Superman: The Movie (1978) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), just to name the most famous such oeuvres.

The Film

 Like most movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey is divided in three acts, but unlike most films, where the division is somewhat subtle (unless you know screenplay structure), the story's arc is clearly delineated into three distinct parts.

The first part is set tens of thousands of years in Earth's past.  Humanity as we know it doesn't exist; instead, we're shown our ape-like ancestors as they must have lived in the dusty plains of east Africa before they learned how to use rudimentary tools...and weapons.

The film's first 20 or so minutes is devoted to the travails of a small group of man-apes loosely led by one the novel (written by Clarke) identifies as Moon-Watcher.  They have three problems to tackle - a leopard is stalking them, they're hungry but can't figure out how to kill a delicious-looking tapir, and a rival band of man-apes controls the local waterhole.

Things look grim for Moon-Watcher and his little band of proto-humans...until one morning the overly curious leader wakes up and finds a strange black monolith, some 40 feet tall and perfectly smooth.  We're never shown how the darned thing got there, but to the accompaniment of some strange classical music ("Atmospheres" by Gyorgi Ligeti), we do see Moon-Watcher and his followers touching its surface and somehow...becoming smarter.  (No, they don't suddenly start talking in English a la Planet of the Apes, which inexplicably beat out 2001 for best makeup effects.)

The upshot of what the monolith does to our African ancestors is nicely summed up in the scene where Moon-Watcher, to the now-famous strains of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarazustra" (the Theme from 2001), picks up a bone, starts toying with it gingerly, then more forcefully uses it to smash a bleached white skull.  Kubrick then shows us that the monolith-instructed ape-men then learn to hunt, and then, in a sequence that leads to one of the coolest transitions in cinema history, learn how to wage a primitive but effective war against the "others" that control the waterhole.

The second part of 2001 abruptly takes us forward to 1999 (Moon-Watcher tosses a bone up into the air, and in a quick-jump shot, it becomes a laser-armed satellite in Earth orbit), where we're shown a Pan Am space liner making its way to a spinning double-donut space station, to the lovely strains of a Kubrick favorite, The Blue Danube Waltz.

Aboard the space liner is Dr. Heywood Floyd (character actor William Sylvester), the head of the U.S. National Council of Astronautics (NCA). Ostensibly heading to the Clavius moon base to deal with a medical crisis, Floyd is really on a top-secret mission to investigate the discovery of a strange black monolith buried deep beneath the crater known as Tycho.

Dr. Floyd: [upon learning about the monolith while on the moonbus] Deliberately buried. Huh!

There is some dialog between Floyd and his Soviet counterparts on the space station centered on the secrecy of his mission (apparently, in this version of the future, the Cold War is sort of still going on), but the payoff for this sequence is where Floyd and a group of American scientists, all in spacesuits, go to inspect the black monolith code named TMA-1 (Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One). 

As in the Moon-Watcher sequence, there are no blinking lights or bizarre space rays that zap the humans.  Instead, when Floyd places his gloved hand on its smooth surface, the monolith emits a strong radio-like signal toward Jupiter, largest of the planets in our solar system.

The third act of the film is the best known and most maddening of the film.  Set 18 months after the second human-monolith encounter, it takes place aboard Discovery One, the first manned spaceship to be sent into Jovian orbit.  With five humans (three of them in hibernation) and one HAL-9000 computer, Discovery is on a top-secret mission that only Hal (voice of Douglas Rain) has been fully briefed on, which is one of the big problems that will ensue for Mission Commander David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and astronaut Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood).

What happens next, I'll leave for the reader who hasn't read any of the other reviews or seen the film to discover.  Suffice it to say that it involves one of Kubrick's main concerns (humanity's love/hate relationship with technology) and the classic science fiction exploration of what is Out There and how we might have been helped up the evolutionary ladder by superior beings, whether they be aliens or a manifestation of a Higher Power.

My Take

While I don't remember when I first saw 2001 - I'm not sure if it was ever broadcast on network TV - I do remember that the movie's deliberately slow pace and its sparse dialog (the commentary track on the 2007 DVD points out that there are only 37 minutes' worth of spoken lines in 2001) put me to sleep.  It might have impressed me visually at the time - it had, after all, made Star Wars possible - but when I was young I wanted zap guns and John Williams music in my space-faring movies, not some cold, scientifically possible ruminations on the Great Cosmic questions about life, the universe, and everything.

And to many people who have grown up in the post-Star Wars era, 2001 will probably not be their cinematic cup of tea.  The score is not a unified group of leitmotivs like Williams' music for the Star Wars series, and because much of the visual magic is there to make the movie realistic, there are none of the clich├ęs from either George Lucas's "galaxy far, far away" of people casually hopping on spacecraft without thinking about what they're doing or Star Trek's transporters or faster-than-light warp drives.  In some parts, people float or are kept from floating in zero-g, and in the outer space sequences, we don't hear roaring spaceship engines even when there are space pods literally a few feet away from a character.

Kubrick and Clarke also do not spell out the meaning of the movie's ending, which is fine for many of the film's fans (of which, I hasten to add, I am one) but not for lots of viewers who like their stories to be handed to them all nicely wrapped and tied with ribbons.  Kubrick probably had no clear definition of the film's meaning, though in his co-writer Arthur C. Clarke's literary sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two, some of the questions were given partial answers.

The 2001 that never was: Maybe one of the reasons 2001 is worth watching 50 years after its release is that it offers a wistful look at a tiny window in time when everything we see in Kubrick's operatic riff on the future looked possible. 

Obviously, as prophecy, 2001 clearly didn't get things right.  The fast pace of space exploration of the mid-1960s petered out after Apollo 11's historic moon landing in July 1969.  The Vietnam War and the U.S.-Soviet arms race, like today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were draining our nation's financial resources, which meant cutting back on space exploration programs.  Thus, there were no double-donut space stations or moon bases by the time the real 2001 rolled around.  Pan Am and the Soviet Union ceased to exist a decade before the 21st Century dawned, and the International Space Station and the aging space shuttle were the only manned programs going strong during that fabled titular year.

2001 also got computers wrong.  Sure, they did become part of daily life a bit before 2001 A.D. and some of the features of the World Wide Web and 21st Century tech were foreseen, such as video phones and web cams of some sort, but today's computers are much smaller than HAL-9000.  (There is a myth, which Arthur C. Clarke always denied, that posited the notion that HAL was a clever poke at IBM; each letter of the paranoid computer's name is one that precedes the initials of International Business Machines.)

Nevertheless, for all its gaffes (Earth from space is something that Kubrick also didn't quite get's too pale!), 2001 is a thought-provoking and visually stunning film. It features one of the most carefully-conceived matches between special effects and classical music in movie history, and for those who like "grown up space movies," 2001: A Space Odyssey remains, even 50 years after its release, a mind-blowing and unforgettable experience.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Movie Review: 'Hot Dog....The Movie'

  • Pros: Nice views of Squaw Valley and naked actresses
  • Cons: Bad, predictable script.
If you came of age - or were the parent of a teenager - between the late 1970s and mid-1980s, you probably remember the romantic-comedy sub-genre known as the "Horny Teens Movies."  These were usually low-budget projects that married bare-bones plots centering on sports, cars, or any other male-oriented activity with a story which provided a bevy of hot-looking young women to shed their clothes and grant all kinds of erotic favors to even the nerdiest of the men.

Most of these "Horny Teens Movies" were variations of themes explored in such efforts as Private Lessons, Meatballs, Porky's, and My Tutor, in which guys - most of them virgins and labeled by the hot chicks as "nice" or "nerdy"  - simply had one goal in mind: to get laid.

Written by Mike Marvin and directed by Peter Markle (Bat 21), Hot Dog...The Movie is a 1984 teen sex comedy that is typical of its era and genre.  Starring David Naughton, Patrick Houser, Tracy Smith and Playboy Playmate of the Year (and current significant other to Gene Simmons) Shannon Tweed, it's a somewhat cheesy hybrid of ski comedy and soft-core porn flick.

As someone who doesn't have much of a fascination for skiing,  I have to admit that when I saw this during its theatrical run in 1984 I went to see the sex of the sex comedy elements.   I was not quite 21 and was a "dateless wonder" at the time, so I was one of those "geeky, girl-shy" young men Hot Dog...The Movie is made for.

The plot, of course, is thinner than a Trojan condom wrapper.  Hot Dog...The Movie's  main character, Hardin Banks (Houser) is an up-and-coming but not especially wealthy competitive skier who wants to win a World Championship Freestyle Ski competition in Squaw Valley, California. 

Talented and ambitious, Hardin is determined to beat Rudi Garnisch, a snobby and wealthier ski champion from Austria.  Played by former news anchor John Patrick Regan as an obnoxious piece of supercilious Eurotrash, Garnisch will not only be Hardin's rival on the ski slopes but also for the hearts (and everything else) of both Sunny (Smith), a girl Hardin saved from freezing out in the highway after she was dumped from a boy's car because she wouldn't perform a sexual favor, and the older but still way hot Sylvia Fonda (Tweed).

Just as World War II-era war movies had certain conventions (such as the ethnic make-up of a Marine or an Army platoon), sex comedies of the era tended to be ridiculously formulaic.  Here, Markle has Houser's Hardin (a name with a double entendre if there ever was one) teaming up with a group of misfits to challenge Rudi and his bevy of groupies, the Rudettes.   Starting off with top-billed David Naughton as a washed-up "hot dogger" named Dan O'Callahan, Hardin's misfits include a Japanese guy named "Kamikaze" (James Saito) and a grab-bag of hottie girls and low-rent Jeff Spicoli wannabes who manage to get a lot of sex while challenging some heavy European-sponsored skiers  in a clearly-rigged competition.

While the ski footage is interesting and the views of the many bare breasts are breathtaking, Hot Dog...The Movie is one of those films that's best watched once and then forgotten.  I'm not a prude nor do I have anything against movies about teenagers who want to get laid.  However, in the case of Hot Dog...The Movie,  I do object to its tedious plotting in the second act, as well as its script's lazy predictability.

The acting here takes a huge back seat to the film's two chief concerns, the T&A factor and its sometimes thrilling, sometimes repetitive ski footage.  When I saw this at the age of 20, the former was all right; none of the actresses/starlets were shy about baring their hot bods and at that age, that's basically why I had gone to see Hot Dog...The Movie.

Nevertheless, I also wanted to laugh and be entertained as well as get my quota of "eye candy" - and in this the film fails miserably.   The pseudo-Japanese antics given to Saito's character were not at all funny, and the non-sex-scenes parts were so predictable that I was always one step ahead of the writers.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Book Review: 'Star Wars: Return of the Jedi - The Illustrated Screenplay'

(C) 1998 Del Rey/Ballantine Books and Lucasfilm, Ltd. (LFL)

Pros: Contains the entire screenplay by Kasdan and Lucas; storyboards are included

Cons: None.

Luke Skywalker has returned to his home planet of Tatooine in an attempt to rescue his friend Han Solo from the clutches of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt.

Little does Luke know that the GALACTIC EMPIRE has begun construction on a new armored space station even more powerful than the first dreaded Death Star.

When completed, this ultimate weapon will spell certain doom for the small band of Rebels struggling to restore freedom to the galaxy....
-- Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas, Return of the Jedi

When George Lucas set out to create a youth-oriented "modern myth" set "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" in the mid-1970s, his first script was so large that he had to break it down into three smaller 120-page screenplays. No, they weren't fully fleshed out, at least not enough to go from the written word to studio sets and special effects departments, but the basic framework for the Classic Star Wars Trilogy and even the backstory that would become the Prequel Trilogy had been laid out in that rough first draft that Lucas was forced to edit and restructure so he could go ahead and make Star Wars (which would later become known as Episode IV: A New Hope.)

With the success of 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas was able to go ahead and pull out his notes for Episode VI, which he planned to title Return of the Jedi. Howard Kazanijian, who had replaced Gary Kurtz as producer of the Star Wars films, thought it was a weak title and cajoled a reluctant Lucas to change it to Revenge of the Jedi, and most of the early drafts of the screenplay bore that title. (Lucas, of course, had the last word, and just a few weeks before the film's premiere in May of 1983, 20th Century Fox had to scrap all the publicity material for Revenge of the Jedi. The reason Lucas gives to this very day is: "A Jedi doesn't act out of revenge. That leads to the dark side.")

Because Lucas doesn't feel comfortable writing screenplays, he once again hired Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back) to help him write the script to Return of the Jedi. After all, Kasdan had grasped that Empire wasn't an ordinary sequel or a remake of the first Star Wars movie, but rather was the second act of a three-act story.

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi -- The Illustrated Screenplay is the blueprint to the concluding act of the Luke Skywalker half of the Star Wars saga. As such, it has to resolve all the plot lines from the previous two films, including:

1. The rescue of Han Solo from Jabba's Palace on Tatooine

2. The revelation of Darth Vader's true identity and his relationship to Luke

3. The identity of "the other" hope for the Alliance hinted at by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back

4. The relationship between Darth Vader and the Emperor

5. The resolution of the relationship between Han and Leia

Not only did Lucas need to tie up all those loose ends, but he also wanted to explore the theme of a technological superpower (the Empire) being defeated, Vietnam-style, by a primitive society (the Ewoks). His original idea had been to involve the Wookiees, Chewbacca's race, but he realized that the tall "walking carpets" were acquainted with technology, so he basically cut the Wookiees down to pint size and renamed them Ewoks. (He didn't entirely toss the Wookiees' planet idea into a trash can; in 2005's Episode III: Revenge of the Sith there are some stunning battle sequences on Kashyyyk, the Wookiee planet.)

This 1998 re-issue of the Jedi screenplay contains the final revised draft by Kasdan and Lucas, and it is illustrated with storyboards. And although it's not presented in the industry-approved format, the entire script's scene descriptions and dialogue for all the characters is in its 113 pages.

For instance, this is how Emperor Palpatine's arrival aboard the new Death Star was written:


Squads of TIE fighters escort an Imperial shuttle toward the half-completed Death Star.


Thousands of Imperial troops in tight formation fill the mammoth docking bay. Vader and the Death Star commander wait at the landing platform, where the shuttle has come to rest.

The Emperor's Royal Guards come down the shuttle's ramp and create a lethal perimeter. Then, in the huge silence that follows, the Emperor appears. He is a rather small, shriveled old man. His bent frame slowly makes its way down the ramp with the aid of a gnarled cane. He wears a hooded cloak similar to that Ben wears, except it is black. The Emperor's face is shrouded and difficult to see. Commander Jerjerrod and Darth Vader are kneeling to him.

EMPEROR: (to Vader) Rise, my friend.

The Supreme Ruler of the Galaxy beckons to the Dark Lord. Vader rises and falls in next to the Emperor as he slowly makes his way along the rows of troops. Jerjerrod and the other commanders will stay kneeling until the Supreme Ruler and Vader, followed by several Imperial dignitaries, pass by; only then do they join in the procession.

VADER: The Death Star will be completed on schedule.

EMPEROR: You have done well, Lord Vader. And now I sense you wish to continue your search for young Skywalker.

VADER: Yes, my master.

EMPEROR: Patience, my friend. In time he will seek you out. And when he does, you must bring him before me. He has grown strong. Only together can we turn him to the dark side of the Force.

VADER: As you wish.

EMPEROR: Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen.

He laughs to himself as they pass along the line of Imperial troops.

My Take

Although Return of the Jedi is considered by many fans to be the weakest Episode of the first trilogy, it still serves its function: to conclude not only the Luke half of the saga, but to tie up the entire Tragedy of Darth Vader storyline, including the still unwritten Episodes I-III. It's not without its flaws - in one scene Leia tells Luke she has memories of their mother, but unless these are unwitting Force visions, this is inconsistent with the fact that Padme Amidala dies in Revenge of the Sith. And when viewed (or read) out of context, the redemption of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader does seem a bit too abrupt; if watched as part of a greater whole of six Episodes, this change is logical and, indeed, inevitable.

Like its companion volume The Empire Strikes Back: The Illustrated Screenplay, this Ballantine Books/Lucas Books/Del Rey paperback includes storyboards, which are comic book-like panels drawn by production artists (such as Joe Johnston) to allow directors to see what certain scenes – particularly special effects sequences – will look like. In a book like this one, storyboards not only give readers a glimpse into the creative process involved in the making of a film such as Return of the Jedi, but also enhance the reader’s enjoyment of the screenplay itself.

Although Laurent Bouzerau's Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays is more fascinating because each screenplay is dissected and discussed in detail, this book is a good addition to any Star Wars or movie fan’s library.

  • Series: Star Wars
  • Paperback: 113 pages
  • Publisher: Del Rey; 1st edition (March 24, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345420799
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345420794

'Star Wars' Toys and Collectibles Review: 'Battle Droid: Arena Battle' by Hasbro

Photo Credit: (C) 2002 Hasbro, Inc. and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Star Wars - Saga Collection 
Battle Droid - Arena Battle action figure

Pros: Comes already posed, better detailing than 1999 Episode I Battle Droid.
Cons: Okay, I know Hasbro needs to attract figure collectors, but blaster effects? Yuck.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away....

Ten years after the defeat of the Trade Federation at Naboo and the election of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, the Galactic Republic is in decline. As the Galactic Congress becomes more unable to assert its authority and political debates become more acrimonious, thousands of star systems have declared their intention to secede from the Republic.

Led by the mysterious Count Dooku, the Confederacy of Independent Systems has set up a secret manufacturing facility on the remote planet of Geonosis. Allying itself with the greedy bureaucrats of the Trade Federation, the Commerce Guild, and other ultra-capitalist groups, the Confederacy is creating a huge army of battle droids to challenge the weakening authority of Palpatine's democracy.

When completed and supplemented by other, more powerful weapons systems, this gigantic army of battle droids will allow the secessionist movement to achieve its goals and even overwhelm the dwindling and overextended Order of Jedi Knights....

In George Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith), the battle droid is the ever-present counterpart to the Classic Trilogy's Imperial stormtrooper. Deployed by the thousands in a galaxy where standing armies are rare and conflicts are resolved by the 10,000-strong Jedi Order, battle droids are the Trade Federation's ultimate ace-in-the-hole; remorseless, soulless, and programmed to be ruthlessly efficient, entire invasion armies can be landed and controlled from Federation "freighters" that are really heavily armed battleships.

Designed to resemble the skeletal form of the Neimoidians (the aliens that created and run the greedy Trade Federation), battle droids follow the edict "form follows function." Their thin bodies and limbs present hard-to-hit targets, and their ghostly appearance is designed to instill terror in their victims. Programmed to obey a central computer and lacking independent decision-making abilities, battle droids function best against worlds with no tradition of fighting or with only meager defenses.

From the storytelling point of view, the battle droid's dependence on central control is its greatest flaw, and it was the command-and-control failure during the Naboo Crisis (as seen in Episode I: The Phantom Menace) that forces Darth Sidious to consider replacing fully automated battle droids with more battle-efficient troops that are both ruthless and obedient, yet immune from being cut off from a central computer and rendered totally useless. (The clone army is one of the alternatives; it will later evolve into the more familiar stormtrooper corps once the Republic morphs into the Empire.)

Because the Trade Federation still relies on battle droids in Attack of the Clones, it isn't surprising that thousands appeared in the climactic battle sequence of the prequel trilogy's second chapter. Thus Hasbro released Battle Droid -- Arena Battle, the 11th figure of its 2002 "Collection 2" wave.

Essentially, this variant of the Battle Droid action figure is a slightly more elaborate edition of the toy introduced in 1999's Episode I. The basic design is unchanged, although the color of the "paint job" is more toward a ghostly beige rather than the dirty yellow of the '99 original. The details, however, have been improved somewhat; instead of having a pristine "new droid" look, Battle Droid -- Arena Battle sports what appear to be blaster scorch marks on the right upper torso, left shoulder, and "thigh," as well as a removable "simulated blast effect" that looks like two translucent blue plastic "snakes" that are wrapped around the droid's left leg and right arm. There is another "effect" add-on, a red blaster bolt attached to the tip of the droid's laser rifle; it can be removed and pressed onto the "gash" in the upper torso to simulate a fatal blaster hit. Finally, Battle Droid -- Arena Battle comes with a removable signal augment and power boost backpack.

Because posing battle droid figures without supporting stands (which Hasbro rarely supplies) is a pain, my Battle Droid -- Arena Battle is, like most of my figures, still in its bubblepack card. (I have opened a few of my Episode I figures and can attest to the non-posability of the battle droid figure; it has a hard-to-find center of balance and often topples over when I have to dust it and the shelf it's on.) Like most of Hasbro's newer figures, it is already posed holding its blaster rifle in a firing stance, the blue worm-like "electricity effect" things wrapped around its leg and arm, with only the backpack set to one side. It is a bit distracting, but since most of the new "extras" are packed this way at the factory, I have gotten used to it and don't worry about it; at least the figure and all the loose pieces are safe in the bubblepack and not floating around my room, as some of my other figures are now missing a blaster or two because I foolishly listened to pleas from friends to "open up a few figures, dude!"

This figure is nice for serious collectors, even though I don't really care for either the "electricity effect" snakes or that red blaster effect. Kids, on the other hand, might like the snazzy look and even like making the Battle Droid -- Arena Battle look "dead" with the blaster effect embedded in its "wound." It's this feature about which I caution moms and dads who may be tempted to give this to their young Star Wars fans. The parts are indeed small -- I ought to know, since I have had to crawl on my floor looking for blasters the size of a large army ant -- and can be a choking hazard.