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Working the Method: Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro

Working the Method: Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro

Marlon Brando died ten years ago this year. Back when all the Brando memorials came out, the acting legend was lauded for a handful of movies he made. That’s all it was, though; just a handful, and there’s a reason for that: Brando’s choices of film roles left a lot to be desired. Many people rightfully single out the handful of truly iconic movies he was in, because he did manage to get his name atop the marquee of some great ones: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Wild One, The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now. That there is a Criterion Collection of filmmaking excellence. But does anyone remember The Nightcomers? How about Burn, in which Brando wrote in his autobiography he believed he gave his best-ever performance? A Countess from Hong Kong? Sayonara, which fell out of remembrance in pure spite of receiving an incredible ten Oscar nominations – including Best Actor for Brando – winning five? Yeah, looking at Brando’s total film list, he comes off as less an actor who thought carefully about how good the scripts were and more like someone who just threw until something hit.

While Marlon Brando made a few good movies, he’s best known for his cultural influence, but even more so for what I’m debating now: His acting influence. Brando was the original poster boy of Method acting, which threw movie performances for a loop. For an enormous chunk of the 20th Century, it was common for filmmakers to nab their stars right from the stage, which is why performances from earlier movies are so much different. The Method relied on emotional memory, in which an actor focuses inward to basically bring out the character, in extreme cases turning the actor into a whole different person. Brando’s performances unleashed a beastly wave of actors who perfected what he started, and into this wave during the renegade period of filmmaking – late 60’s through the 70’s – entered maybe the two greatest movie stars of all time: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. The 70’s released any number of screen legends – Jack Nicholson and Dustin Hoffman are arguably the most notable among them – but it’s Pacino and De Niro who are scratched into the stars as Brando’s immediate torch-carriers. Before them, there was never a pair of actors who combined such presence, versatility, iconoclasm, and charisma to such a high level of consistency and memorability. Both actors are in their 70’s now, and with the “After Them” period sadly approaching, I’m still not sure we’ve found anyone on Earth who could so much as meet them halfway. Yes, the candidates are out there, but they all lack in one area or another. 

That being the case, it’s still Pacino and De Niro who dominate all the film school best actor ever conversations. Now, it might be unfair to compare two different actors, but Pacino and De Niro have also had such incredible career parallels that Pacino vs. De Niro became a 90’s debate before anyone knew just what the hell a 90’s debate was. Both are native New Yorkers who were taught by Method legends; De Niro learned his craft under Stella Adler (who taught Brando himself) while Pacino makes the case for Adler’s fierce rival, Lee Strasberg. Both performed to acclaim onstage before being noticed by critics in indie movies – Pacino in Panic in Needle Park and De Niro in Bang the Drum Slowly. Both rose to stardom in the 70’s in a series of iconic roles from classic movies. Both are popular for their parts in gangster movies. Both hit the skids during the 80’s before hitting their apexes in the 90’s. Both are in paycheck-cashing periods now. (Though De Niro seems to be undergoing a mini-resurrection.) Most importantly, both are among those people who force fans who favor one to bolster the other as much as possible while still defending their choice. So let’s do this! Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro. One day, I’ll learn. 

It’s tempting to say both actors use the same style, but when you take a real look at their performances, you start to notice just how different they are. De Niro tends to understate a lot of his roles, bringing the common idea of quiet strength. Pacino is a lot more explosive, and its given rise to the concept of “Shouty Al,” scenes in which Pacino starts hamming it up and goes over the top. This isn’t to say that Pacino breaks character. He just appears to have a knack for picking roles which give him good five-minute power speeches, and when the final delivery comes in his movies, you know exactly when he’s going to start spouting all the best lines – the ones you’re going to be remembering and quoting for the next decade. It’s fairly safe to say Pacino has the better presence of the two of them, but what De Niro doesn’t use in presence, he makes up with his sheer versatility. When De Niro steals a scene, you can’t help but get the impression sometimes that he’s doing it by accident, and that’s he’s trying to come off as more of a compliment to the movie’s other actors rather than as the marquee star in his own right. 
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod….. De Niro by about a hair. Lord knows this isn’t a knock against Pacino, but rather a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that there seems to come times in many of Pacino’s flicks when Al starts to slightly crack under intensity and he needs to let everything out. The reason “Shouty Al” is such a popular idea is because he always seems to include that single scene in a movie which is wrapped up and sent right to the Oscar committee immediately after it gets shot. You know these scenes when you see them, and can easily hear Pacino tacking an “I’M AL FUCKING PACINO!” right onto the end of it. De Niro can be small. Pacino not so much, even when he tries.

Breakthrough Performances
Okay, everyone can pinpoint Pacino’s breakthrough performance: A bit part playing a character named Michael Corleone in a small indie flick called The Godfather. I know, blink and you’ll miss it completely, right? De Niro’s big breakthrough is a little bit harder to spot, but most people are willing to credit the movie which also put director Martin Scorsese on the map: Mean Streets. With Pacino, you have to take into consideration the fact that he was playing what turned out to be an ego-check role, acting against a cast that also included James Caan and Robert Duvall. Marlon Brando gave the movie a major coup, a real marquee name to attract viewers and a small piece of prestige to go with it. It was Pacino who played the main role as Michael, though, and when Mario Puzo – the author of the book The Godfather was based on – learned that, he was pissed off and went around denouncing the movie until it was released. He changed his mind about Pacino immediately after seeing it. Mean Streets didn’t have nearly so much going for it. The cast and director were all basically unknowns, and during that part of his career, Martin Scorsese had done his only major movie, Who’s that Knocking at My Door?, with his Mean Streets star, Harvey Keitel. When Mean Streets came out a year after The Godfather, Scorsese was absolutely convinced that Keitel was going to be his guy, the big name marquee actor who would soon be bringing name recognition to Scorsese’s pictures. He kept on believing it even after the National Society of Film Critics gave De Niro the award for Best Supporting Actor in his role as Johnny Boy, and still believed it until he started making Taxi Driver.
This goes to Pacino. Great as De Niro played his role as Johnny Boy, all of the gravitas from Mean Streets was dropped onto Harvey Keitel’s head, and he did justice to the movie. Had Johnny Boy been removed, the movie would be different, but not by much, and it’s pretty easy to imagine Keitel moving on to take up the mantle that De Niro eventually picked up – it isn’t like Keitel is lacking for talent, after all. Pacino not only had to convincingly play the center of gravity in an epic drama, he had to play a very tricky role which required him to subtly shift from a sort of offhand, low-key family oddball into the cold, calculating, domineering head honcho crime boss while also getting an audience to think his character believes in his heart of hearts that he didn’t change at all. Pacino screws that up, one of the great, defining masterpieces of American cinema is totally ruined.

Popular, Acclaimed, and Iconic Roles
Oh god, where to begin? I guess the logical starting point would be The Godfather movies, because both Pacino and De Niro played parts which defined their characters. Pacino, of course, was Michael Corleone. Michael’s father, Vito, is the only movie character in history for whom two Oscars have been awarded to two different actors for playing him. Brando won Best Actor in 1972 for playing classic Vito, while it was De Niro who took home the 1974 Best Supporting Actor prize for playing a younger version of Vito in The Godfather Part II – a role for which De Niro barely spoke a single word in English! After The Godfather Part II, Pacino and De Niro spent the entire rest of the 70’s going head to head in an incredible iconoclast contest, playing meaty role after meaty role in a damn near flawless string of movies. Pacino went on to Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and …And Justice for All, all of which he received numerous award nominations for. He even made a movie during the time called Bobby Deerfield which netted him a Golden Globe nomination, even though most people forgot the thing existed. De Niro ran through a highly successful stretch as well, which included Oscar nominations for Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter. After speedbumping through the 80’s, they both hit highs again during the 90’s, Pacino in movies like Glengarry Glen Ross, Donnie Brasco, The Devil’s Advocate, The Insider, and Any Given Sunday while also reprising his old role as Michael Corleone one more time. De Niro also returned to his gangster guns in the 90’s with Goodfellas and Casino, but also making Cape Fear, Awakenings, A Bronx Tale, and Jackie Brown, and keep in mind I haven’t even scratched the surface with either of them. Smack in the center of the 90’s, they collaborated in the ultimate robbery movie, Heat, probably the greatest unheralded movie ever made when it was released, and now properly revered in hindsight. They also both portrayed brilliant parodies of the gangster characters that made them popular in the 90’s: In 1990, Pacino played Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice, the main villain in Dick Tracy, while De Niro waited until the other end of the decade before playing Paul Vitti in Analyze This! And for all we know about their nadirs in the 80’s, both actors still managed to carve out niches. Pacino played Tony Montana, one of the decades true icons and a guy who summarized everything both right and wrong about the country’s mindset during the decade; and playing the lead in an understated but well-liked low-key comedy called Author! Author! De Niro’s 80’s started with a bang: He won his very deserved Best Actor Oscar for Raging Bull. Although it wasn’t a sign for his 80’s, he still managed to do a few things very few other actors ever would have attempted: Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s supremely odd The King of Comedy; Sergio Leone’s massive four-hour fucker of a gangstar epic Once Upon a Time in America (which I’ve seen, but never in its entirety); and Terry Gilliam’s surrealist and fantastical Brazil before his work in 1987’s Midnight Run and The Untouchables signaled a real return to form.
I’d be a complete moron to try to pick this one. Michael Corleone against Jimmy Conway? Frank Serpico vs. Travis Bickle? Max Cady vs. Frank Slade? I know what my personal preference is, but trying to choose one on empirical evidence is way too difficult to judge. You pick them. Then I’ll commend you for your excellent taste.

Role that Shouldn’t have Worked but did Anyway
You could probably think of a few candidates for both actors – Fearless Leader in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle for De Niro, Ivan Travalian in Author! Author! for Pacino, Max Cady in Cape Fear for De Niro, Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross for Pacino. But I’m just going to stick with the two that really stick out: De Niro played Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy. You would expect a movie called The King of Comedy in which Jerry Lewis is one of the stars to be a laff riot, but the movie is instead a very dark comedy coupled with a weird form of thriller with a little bit of drama mixed in. You would expect the lead of a movie like this to try to lighten the mood as much as possible, but trying to play a role directly for laughs means trying to emphasize some moments harder than others and sometimes dialing back the other nuances and intricacies of the character in order to do it right. De Niro, however, usually isn’t the kind of actor who half-asses a character to punctuate particular scenes, so he plays Pupkin straight, and it results in a performance of a character who comes off creepy and a little angry. Pacino’s usual suspect in this category is much better known because it sticks out like a sore thumb: Tony Montana from Scarface. Although Scarface looks like a regular old gangster flick from the outside with little nuances thrown in by screenwriter Oliver Stone clearly making this sucker the typical gangster morality tale, the movie’s entire point flew about three atmospheres over everyone’s head. Instead of seeing a theme about greed doing in a sick bastard of a human being – which was the theme, make no mistake – people saw a story of a man rising up and living the American Dream to an extreme excess, basically reinterpreting the movie. And Pacino’s dynamo of a performance was probably the defining factor. Although Pacino playing Montana should never, ever be mistaken for a good movie performance, it was booming, charismatic, and cutthroat in ways which made an otherwise high-powered cast look puny next to Pacino. 
Pacino. He’s the reason Scarface managed to transcend its medium and why its true meaning has been sapped away in favor of a strict Reaganist interpretation. De Niro’s performance in The King of Comedy, while very effective, also didn’t have any real sign of De Niro trying to hoist the entire movie; in fact, De Niro appeared to be acting perfectly in synch with director Martin Scorsese, who appeared to be making the kind of movie The King of Comedy turned out to be. Scarface ended up crossing a thematic line by freak accident because of Pacino, and it didn’t look like Scarface’s director, Brian De Palma, had much of an interest in rectifying what was happening or directing it to any vision of his own. In fact, it looks like De Palma was barely involved at all, and that he directed mostly by mailing in his daily stage notes from whatever vacation spot he happened to be sipping mai thais from.

Down Periods
General wisdom regarding both actors: Even periods are lean, odd periods are awesome. The truth is somewhere in between. The early nadir for both actors is generally considered the 80’s, but that’s a little hard on them from a more revisionist point. Pacino didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the 80’s being a movie star. Pacino made only five movies during the decade: Cruising, Author! Author!, Scarface, Revolution, and Sea of Love. Cruising was roundly bashed by critics and also by gay rights groups who believed it was homophobic. The reception warmed somewhat over the years, but never really thawed. Author! Author! and Scarface were also beat up, but years have been kind to both. Revolution was completely forgotten, and at that point, Pacino took the apparent hint and ducked out of movies for the next four years before finally returning to form with Sea of Love in 1989. De Niro made a lot more movies during the time. He started the decade with Raging Bull, which many consider the crowning performance of his career. While he did make forgettables like The Mission and Angel Heart during the time, he also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s strange movie about love and happiness in a clockwork world, Brazil; and in Sergio Leone’s ambitious epic Once Upon a Time in America; he also played one of his more popular roles, Al Capone in The Untouchables, before his big return in 1988’s Midnight Run. Came the millennium, both appeared to get a little less choosy about their roles as well, so their dreck started to trickle in: Simone, Showtime, The Recruit, Gigli, 88 Minutes, New Year’s Eve, Last Vegas, Jack and Jill…. It’s a list that might have been unfathomable 20 years ago, but it’s happening. 
Let’s see. Who’s down period movies would I rather watch? De Niro’s. Near the end of his career, Pacino can’t seem to help but keep being Al Pacino. While De Niro isn’t exactly testing his range either, he does seem to be having a lot more fun lately. We give De Niro a lot of shit for making more comedies now, but he’s been a sort of stealth comedy guy since Midnight Run in 1988, or 1983 if you count The King of Comedy (I don’t). I actually enjoyed The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and got a kick out of De Niro Yankovic-ing his role from Taxi Driver in that movie, and lampooning his own gangster roles in Analyze This! and Analyze That! He’s proven bankable as a screwball comedy star, and his career is lately rising again: He earned acclaim for Being Flynn, played an uncredited role in American Hustle, and was granted an Oscar nomination for Silver Linings Playbook. Hell, Pacino seems to be on an upward trajectory too, having won a lot of acclaim for playing Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Phil Spector in TV movies with the TV industry booming like never before. There are rumors of De Niro and Pacino teaming up for another movie which will be helmed by Martin Scorsese. I hope to god that’s true. 

Underrated Movies
Wow…. For Pacino, it takes work to think of a particular movie I think is completely underrated. Do I go with his screen-winking redefinition of the Devil in The Devil’s Advocate? His disgustingly overlooked …And Justice for All? The Insider? One of my very favorite Pacino movies is Carlito’s Way, a Brian De Palma thriller about a reformed drug dealer trying to go straight. It’s a gangster movie that holds up against anything else either Pacino or De Niro has ever done. De Palma is in top form, there’s a fantastic supporting performance from Sean Penn – who plays the lawyer responsible for leading Pacino’s character, Carlito Brigante, back onto the path he tried so hard to escape – and while Pacino is never small, he nicely understates himself and gives a true heart to his character. In a fashion, Carlito’s Way is a sort of reverse gangster movie. Instead of the head gangster starting with ambiguous morality being taken further across the moral event horizon, Carlito’s Way introduces a gangster who saw the light and is dragged away from it kicking and screaming. Many of the more sympathetic gangster characters want redemption. Carlito already found redemption; what he wants is his ticket out. I’m sure Midnight Run is a popular candidate for De Niro, but that movie has the benefit of hindsight now, and most seem to believe it’s a solid comedy that holds up well, with De Niro playing perfectly into character. The one that really stands out to me, is Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 movie Jackie Brown. Tarantino, at the time, was looking like the direct successor to Martin Scorsese while also being a wholly original screenwriter. Jackie Brown is an adaptation of the late Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, and one of the few Leonard adaptations that worked the way it’s supposed to. Instead of merely giving us an ordinary story stylistically directed and written (which, let’s face it, was what Pulp Fiction and the grossly overrated Reservoir Dogs both were), Jackie Brown focuses a lot more on creating rounded characters and relationships – so much so that the movie was attacked by some for its slow pace. De Niro plays Louis Gara, a dimwit pothead fresh off a prison stint, who simply goes along with his old cellmate’s idea just because he seems to be bored. It’s one of his last truly great performances in one of the most underrated movies ever released.
Pacino. Great as Jackie Brown is, and great as De Niro is in it, there’s not a single reason to hand this one to De Niro. He’s a supporting character in a movie defined by Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert Forster, and it’s entirely possible a more casual moviegoer or less knowledgeable in the nuances of good film acting would write him off. Pacino, just as he did in his earlier collaboration with De Palma (which happened to be Scarface), carried Carlito’s Way and gave it its beating soul. 

Playing Against Type
Despite the prominence of their movies, this is actually a little harder to think of than you would expect because they’ve both created brands on playing gritty tough guy characters. For Pacino, certainly Scent of a Woman makes an argument, but the one that really sticks out in my mind is a disremembered 1991 romance called Frankie and Johnny. Pacino plays the titular Johnny, trying to woo a woman named Frankie, and that line sums up the whole movie. It’s an odd movie in large part due to its very existence – it’s not a snarky romantic comedy where the characters are either teenagers or twentysomethings with wealth, professional accomplishments, and reputations well beyond their years. Both characters are rutted, in the middle of their lives in which they’re merely existing and searching for some sort of purpose. It might be the sweetest role Pacino ever played, and the movie doesn’t try to spice itself up with any tricks – it’s earnest and straightforward. There’s more playing against type in De Niro’s body of work, since he was the busier and more experimental of the two. Do I go with Flawless? Awakenings? The biting political comedy Wag the Dog? Off-kilter as those were for De Niro, what I’m really going to go with is Brazil. Terry Gilliam’s vicious satire against bureaucracy and high-level incompetence has De Niro in one of his more comedic forms playing Harry Tuttle, a rebel leader and renegade air conditioning specialist who helps Jonathan Pryce’s main character, Sam Lowry, escape a pair of Central Services workers who are actually there to serve a much nastier purpose than their humble service titles imply. For all the actual comedies De Niro made, he was probably used most effectively as Tuttle, who is more or less a caricature of a fast-talking salesman but is able to do the job, along with showing Pryce that his feelings toward the oppressive Central Services are spot-on.
De Niro. Both Pacino and De Niro do drama all the time, and they both excel at it. So while Pacino’s role in Frankie and Johnny is notable in its tenderness, Johnny does tend to come off sometimes as the post-prison Sonny Wortzik (Pacino’s character in Dog Day Afternoon). Although not necessarily a comic role, De Niro’s Harry Tuttle was played rather comedically, and we got a sense of what De Niro could do when he wasn’t losing his temper or brooding. Although De Niro’s appearance in Brazil was little more than a cameo, it certainly left an impression on filmgoers. As for my own personal biases, I’m ever a romantic at heart, but romance isn’t something I enjoy as an entertainment genre. Brazil, meanwhile, is one of my all-time favorite movies, a funny but brutal shot at the idea of bureaucratic control of society. There was never a movie like Brazil before, and we may never find one like it again; this is the kind of movie studios live in abject fear of, because it goes against every ethos Hollywood movies push, and it’s way too elaborate to be made independently. It takes place in a strange fantasy world with little semblance of sanity to start with, and it gradually loses what little ground it was standing on in the first place, culminating in an ending which spirals away from any control or sense, taking you on a path which makes you wonder whether you should be cheering, laughing, or just gaping in amazement…. Before ultimately swiping the rug and absolutely crushing your heart.

Oscar Roles
This one is simple: De Niro won his first Oscar in 1974, the Best Supporting Actor award for his role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. He won his second in 1980 – Best Actor for playing Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Pacino won his only Oscar in 1992 for Best Actor, playing Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman.
Honestly, it’s sad that this popularity contest gets so much attention at all, and looking over this category, it’s easy to see why. De Niro got an award for which he not only performed almost entirely in a language that wasn’t his, but which was already portrayed two years earlier by Marlon fucking Brando, who also won an Oscar playing it! His second Oscar was the result of an all-time great performance, for which he had to quickly put on a dangerous amount of weight for two scenes which didn’t last a collective total of ten minutes. Pacino was awesome in Scent of a Woman, yes; he even managed to trick many people into thinking Chris O’Donnell was a good actor for awhile. But Frank Slade had none of the manic intensity of Pacino’s early Oscar-nom roles, and it’s generally accepted fact that the Academy was throwing the lifetime achievement Oscar at him. This category belongs to De Niro.

Although gangster and crime roles actually make up very little of the filmographies of both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, both of them are indelibly weaved into the image, defining and redefining the common gangster in much the ways of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney before them. Both actors broke through playing gangsters; Pacino played Michael Corleone, a straight man who eventually became the personification of evil. De Niro played Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, a nutty trench gangster with grand delusions of hitting the organized crime bigtime. When Pacino returned as the Corleone patriarch two years later, he brought De Niro with him to play a younger version of his pop, and ever since I first saw The Godfather Part II, I always thought young Vito’s story was the more engaging of the two. Pacino’s portrayal of Tony Montana was like a steroid-addled cartoon, while De Niro’s supporting role as Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas tricked a lot of people into thinking Jimmy was the center of the movie; a hell of a trick, considering how great Ray Liotta was as main character Henry Hill. De Niro was the reigning overlord of Tangiers in Casino, a cold, calculating, strategy-oriented businessman whose control just didn’t extend quite as far as he thought it did. Pacino was the world’s only gangster with a heart in the sorely underrated Carlito’s Way, and later played Lefty Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco – the character De Niro’s Johnny Boy might have become had he lived longer. De Niro was the very face of all-time gangster-dom in The Untouchables as Al Capone, a wisecracking and dominating villain who, in all honesty, is the only reason to watch the movie. Pacino parodied his gangster characters in Dick Tracy, while De Niro made fun of his image in Analyze This! and Analyze That!
I know there are people who are automatically going to throw this at Pacino just because he was The Godfather, but that’s a huge disservice to De Niro which requires forgetting that De Niro also played The Godfather. Fuck this. You choose, and I’ll commend you on having excellent taste.

Wow. Close. So close. If you want to state your defense for Al Pacino, I totally understand, but Robert De Niro wins this sucker.


The Schlock-Down: Michael Bay vs. Roland Emmerich

The Schlock-Down: Michael Bay vs. Roland Emmerich

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I love a good, schlocky disaster movie, and as far as good, schlocky disaster movies go, 1998 was a real watershed year. We got two movies about giant asteroids slamming into the Earth, and another movie about a giant lizard wrecking Manhattan. The truly important aspect of 1998 in disaster movies, though, is that two of them were directed by two men whose names would soon go on to become synonymous epitomes of the schlock disaster movie genre: Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay. Today, of course, both of those directors are very well-known and widely panned as blights on silver screen entertainment, but back then, things were a little bit different. While both Emmerich and Bay were working directors, they were more or less fairly well-regarded newcomers who both showed a lot of promise with their genres. Both were a mere two years removed from blockbuster extravaganzas of movies; Emmerich’s Independence Day was the ruling box office champion of 1996 for miles, and Bay’s The Rock was fourth or fifth in the standings. While both of those movies have an enormous share of haters today, they were actually pretty well-received at the time.

1998, though, is when both directors – Bay in particular – started turning toward a drastic style shift. After making their first handful of movies in relative anonymity, Emmerich’s Godzilla and Bay’s Armageddon saw both of them turn toward the trademark styles they’ve come to define for themselves. They also started the shifting of the very ethos of disaster movies; whereas many previous disaster flicks made a point of focusing on the human drama surrounding disasters, the advent of CGI imagery allowed filmmakers to start zooming in more on the disasters themselves, and not many directors have been living and dying by that rule like Emmerich and Bay. While this has resulted in wholesale hatred from a lot of serious moviegoers and critics, its also resulted in big bucks from audiences who, no matter how much they love movies for their artistic merits, still believe movies are ultimately a form of escapism. This summer, Bay is acting as the producer of a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie (NOT the director, as many think), while helming the next Transformers movie. Emmerich, well, he’s related to this because there was a new Godzilla movie which was just released. And while I haven’t seen every movie by either director, I’m extremely well-versed in the work of both. So let’s do this! Roland Emmerich vs. Michael Bay. One day, I’ll learn.

Shooting Style
Basic style is what most people comparing Emmerich and Bay automatically think of, which is a perfectly natural thing to do because they do the same thing in such different ways. The best explanation I can give for their stylistic differences comes from an article I read recently on a site I can’t remember (I think it might have been Whatculture): Emmerich thinks of his sequences in terms of sequences while Bay sees sequences as sums of his shots. In Bay’s case, style results in a lot of confusion because he has a habit of trying to get every shot from every conceivable angle, and the final product will frequently produce all those different angles spliced together. The result is meant to look flashy and exciting, and there are times when it can work if it’s used right. Bay’s problem is his sworn reliance on that style, and the way he uses his lighting effects much of the time combines with his shot style to form something which tries to be edgy, but which has the potential to bring seizures. When Emmerich shoots a sequence, he wants viewers to behold the scale of the thing. Emmerich tends to rely a lot on wide pans which present a more contextual view of the destruction, and he’ll frequently add a little bit of accent by giving us occasional character viewpoints or otherwise showing us models of everyday cars or houses in order to let us grasp the sheer size of the event.
Roland Emmerich. Emmerich shoots his disasters to make them look like disasters, and you can’t help but marvel at the way he makes things collapse around and into themselves. I swear, Roland Emmerich movies have probably inspired the next generation of demolition experts.

Storytelling Style
Emmerich’s way of telling the stories in his movies often results in regular token critical beatings, but for some reason, he usually manages to escape without any real damage to his credibility. That’s a way of saying that while Emmerich is regularly hammered for his storytelling, everyone doing the hammering seems to forget about Emmerich’s story flaws until his next movie comes along. (The exception would be Independence Day, which people gleefully pick apart.) Of course, the best thing that can probably happen to stories in modern disaster movies is people forgetting them because they can be so redundant, but Emmerich does use staples. He frequently relies on the strength of the ensemble cast to try to bring human faces to his movies. Unfortunately, the trouble with ensemble casts is, between the multitude of characters and destruction, no one gets developed, and cheesy melodrama with the occasional high-handed Message becomes the order of nature for Emmerich. Even his better movies tend to rely on melodrama. Emmerich also has a thing for conspiracies and fringe theories – Roswell (Independence Day); Atlantis-like prehistoric civilization (10,000 BC); ancient astronauts (Stargate); and even Shakespeare not having written his own work (Anonymous) have all been explored by Emmerich, and it even culminated in an entire movie about that big-ass apocalypse we were supposed to have in 1012. Bay approaches his stories with more of a frat boy mentality. He’s best known for his explosions, in your face style of 90’s hubris humor, and frequent use of the USA military. Bay frequently defends himself against criticism by pointing out that his movies aren’t made for art house snobs, but this tends to show more in some of his movies than others. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is particularly egregious in its pandering to the young adolescent, with its servings of juvenile humor, explosions, and cleavage. Lately, Bay seems to enjoy overcooking his movies, and he seems to be falling back on certain safety tropes like the buddy movie (Bad Boys); the honorable sacrifice (Armageddon), and the aforementioned military porn (damn near all of them).
Roland Emmerich. Despite my own criticisms of Michael Bay, I’m entirely capable of enjoying his style. I just have to be in the right mood in order to swallow one of his increasingly long boom festivals. Where Emmerich really gets the edge, though, is in his concepts. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I do enjoy interesting ideas, and Emmerich likes to take fringe thoughts and run them to their furthest logical extremes.

Misguided Attempt at Historical Prestige Piece
Emmerich directed The Patriot in 2000, and Bay followed in 2001 with Pearl Harbor. Both movies revolved around huge seminal events in American history: The Patriot took place during the American Revolution and Pearl Harbor, of course, was about the Missouri Compromise. Both were written less with an emphasis on accuracy than jingoism, and therefore both are wildly inaccurate. Notoriously so, in fact, to the point that both have been singled out for inaccuracies many times in an industry where historical inaccuracy is not only accepted, but seen as a boon which keeps the story running. Both use black characters as tokens. Both paint the other side dark – The Patriot’s redcoats and Pearl Harbor’s Japanese are both seen as violent maniacs, although Pearl Harbor made a (very half-witted) attempt to tell things from Japan’s side. The Patriot is probably the more melodramatic – a daughter whose anger caused her to never talk? FUCKING REALLY?! – and the one that dodges history more; it ignores the slavery issue completely and Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, was based on Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion, who in real life hunted Indians for fun and raped slaves. Pearl Harbor, meanwhile, shows the Japanese bombing civilians – which NEVER HAPPENED – and uses that damned trope where the badass fighter pilots basically get promoted for endangering themselves, other soldiers, and expensive military equipment. Both fall back into cliche and caricature repeatedly. Where they differ is that in Pearl Harbor, Michael Bay was trying to skirt James Cameron’s Titanic by setting up a love story through a disaster backdrop. That’s the biggest weakness of Pearl Harbor; the buildup is insufferable, the main characters – especially Ben Affleck’s Rafe – are either dumb or jerkasses, and the movie makes use of every love triangle cliche ever. The Patriot, meanwhile, is more interested in being American Braveheart. Emmerich even managed to cop Mel Gibson to play the lead, and Benjamin Martin is virtually indistinguishable from William Wallace. The Patriot, though, tries to play the action epic straight to what it is.
Roland Emmerich. Braveheart is a much better movie than Titanic, and so The Patriot succeeds in spite of itself and its ridiculous cliches. Besides, The Patriot really is an inspirational movie which uses plenty of action to spur the story along. With Pearl Harbor, Michael Bay basically forgot who he is and what he does. There’s no action until the halfway point and by then, you hope all the main characters are killed in the bombing. Also, the performances in The Patriot are infinitely better.

Popcorn Factor
It’s difficult to find the greatest moment of cheese from both Emmerich and Bay, but for different reasons. It was pointed out at me recently that Emmerich’s movies have a common vein running through them in the way they bring people of all different backgrounds together in the face of whatever worst case scenario Emmerich is peddling this time. It’s not as if Emmerich doesn’t have any sense of fun in his movies, but it’s so buried behind his other themes, it doesn’t even seem like it’s there half the time. The Patriot may be his most unintentional moment of cheese, but for sheer schlock value, it doesn’t get much better than Independence Day. Even Independence Day is played a bit too seriously for its own good, though, between the comedic moments of Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum and the melodramatic moments being written and performed in a subtle manner which makes them pretty affecting. It’s hard to pick a particular moment for Michael Bay, too, but that’s because his career has been nothing but highball cheese. If I had to pick off the top, though, it’s almost certainly Armageddon. The first half of Armageddon comes off like a comedy; the second half like a drama, and Bay makes no effort to hide the shift; he switches gears the moment the movie does. Bay knows what kinds of movies people enjoy seeing in the theater, and he goes out of his way – frequently to his own detriment – to show that movies are supposed to be fun.
Michael Bay. Emmerich too frequently forgets people don’t pay ticket money to see his movies for high-handed messianic messages. Bay, for the most part, remembers he’s an entertainer above all else even in his worst moments. The one time he forgot it was when he made Pearl Harbor, but he seems to have realized his mistake there and gone right back to what he knows best.

Best-Reviewed Movie
I’m getting my information from Rotten Tomatoes, which includes heavy critical archives, and besides, I was listed there myself as a critic when Netjak was still running. Bay’s best-rated movie was The Rock, which scored a solid 67 percent. Emmerich’s best-rated was The Patriot, which scored a respectable 62 percent. (Independence Day scored 60 percent.) From objective standpoints, it’s difficult to argue either one; although I’m not sure I would score The Patriot higher than Independence Day, I’ll go with it. The Rock has Bay directing almost perfectly to type – it’s an adrenaline action thriller movie with clear nods to Die Hard, which I would give it a favorable comparison to. Where Bay isn’t actually directing to type, though, are points where he’s directing above the tropes he’s known for. The characters in The Rock are formulaic as hell, but they’re not insufferably immature or stupid, and all are played with conviction by Oscar-winning actors Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage, and Ed Harris. None of Bay’s juvenile humor is here, and so we get an action movie which is fun and exciting without trying too hard. From Emmerich, there’s The Patriot, which has excellent action sequences as well, complimented by compelling performances. The scale tips at the amount of bloat and caricature, and The Patriot has this in spades. Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Tcheky Karyo, and the rest are intense and compelling in their parts, but they aren’t enough to make anyone forget how melodramatic and choppy the script can be.
Michael Bay. Given the choice of The Rock or The Patriot, there’s no question which one I’d rather watch. As much as I enjoy The Patriot, the movie is still a little too bloated for its own good, and the actors aren’t good enough to excuse the melodrama. The Rock is shorter, moves faster, is free of any melodrama, and while Bay was directing into type, he frequently chooses to take the high road, and you know what? While Michael Bay will probably never be mistaken for an artiste, when he has an array of great actors and ignores juvenile humor to focus on action, he’s a very good director. If Independence Day had only gotten three more points on the Tomatometer, things might have gone better for Emmerich, but it didn’t.

Worst-Reviewed Movie
Emmerich’s worst-rated Tomatometer movie is 10,000 BC, with eight percent. No surprise there. Bay’s is…. BAD BOYS II?! Yeah, it looks like critics are a bunch of fucking idiots again, because Pearl Harbor somehow managed to score two points higher than Bad Boys II – 25 percent to 23 percent. This is completely unacceptable to me because Pearl Harbor was as bad as it gets, while Bad Boys II was gloriously overblown, and one of the few movies to come out over the last decade which gave a real jolt of electricity to the catatonic genre. Unfortunately, the rules I made for this say I have to use the highest and lowest rated, not the ones I agree with. On the upside, though, I can spare everyone a real rant since I haven’t yet seen 10,000 BC. (Although I’m definitely planning to!)
None. It wouldn’t be fair to pick a winner when I haven’t seen both qualifying movies, although 10,000 BC has some real work cut out for it for me to prefer it to Bad Boys II.

Michael Bay’s movies are filled with overkill. They’re overkill in and of themselves, but for the last seven years, Bay has been placing an emphasis on the Transformers series. The fourth Transformers movie will be released this month; Bay directed it, just as he did the last three. Transformers appears to be becoming Bay’s signature series; they comprise four of his last five movies as a director. They also run the gamut in quality; the original Transformers is seen as one of his best efforts; Revenge of the Fallen usually occupies discussions about whether or not it’s worse than Pearl Harbor, and while Bay himself does defend it, he admits it deserved a bit of the hate it got; and Dark of the Moon is generally seen as solid, if not great. Bay’s signature style is frequently referred to as “Bayhem,” and that’s a pretty decent summary of it. Not only is there a ton of action in a Michael Bay movie, but between the action and character threads, Bay’s movies tend to haphazardly tumble toward a conclusion, and so they are able to be mayhem even when there’s no mayhem. Also, Bay’s movies are getting longer and longer lately. Roland Emmerich’s movies also seem to be expanding in length quite a bit. Emmerich, however, usually isn’t privy to turning his movies into series (although the long-rumored Independence Day sequel is now officially slated for release next year) – in a lot of his movies, the world is virtually ruined by the end anyway, so it’s tough to make a sequel which would blow more shit up with no shit to blow up. Emmerich’s overkill is still there, though, which you can see in themes. He’s destroyed the world three separate times (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012) and turned the White House into a target several times as well, in Independence Day, 2012, and White House Down. Emmerich makes such a habit of it, you would think he’s an honorary member of the Tea Party.
I’m calling this a draw. Much as I love both Emmerich and Bay, it would be difficult for me to really marathon with a collection of either of their movies.

Overall Body of Work
Believe it or not, both Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay have themes which reach across much of their bodies of work. Emmerich’s demolition festivals usually tend to unite people. He’s even told that common thread across dimensions in Stargate. A lot of Emmerich’s best-known movies feature it: Independence Day; The Day After Tomorrow; 2012; and even Godzilla all have that theme, and it’s blindingly apparent in each movie. Bay’s theme is broader: Let’s blow some shit up! As to the actual quality of their work, though, you have to first accept the fact their movies aren’t high art. Bay seems more aware of this than Emmerich, and he tends to embrace it in the name of escapist entertainment and commercial success. Emmerich isn’t quite so willing to fall into trope, and so while Michael Bay’s movies tend to be very similar to each other, Emmerich’s are a lot more sporadic as he tries to reach out to different genres. Aside from the disaster movies Emmerich is known for, he’s also frequently directed against type. We know Emmerich’s disaster movies, but Stargate; The Patriot; 10,000 BC; Anonymous; and White House Down aren’t really typical of Roland Emmerich. The results have varied – The Patriot was his best-received movie, remember, while 10,000 BC was the worst – but I have yet to see a Roland Emmerich movie I thought was a complete waste of time. Michael Bay is probably the worse director of the two, but it’s hard to tell since he is more prone to stay in his comfort zone with his signature style. The quality of his work is pretty varied as well – while Emmerich’s worst movie was more hated than Bay’s worst (Bad Boys II for the critics, Pearl Harbor for anyone else), his best (The Rock) is considered better than Emmerich’s best (The Patriot to many, Independence Day to me). Bay’s work, though, tends to lean into the terrible-but-entertaining categorization, and it’s hard to argue that any of his work could help define any genres. It’s easier to make the case for Emmerich because he was instrumental in redefining disaster movies for both better and worse. His straight disaster movies are eye-popping and convincingly use models and CGI. The Patriot aside, the only times people seem to truly hate Emmerich is when he directs against type.
I’m giving it to Roland Emmerich. Michael Bay is great in small doses, and he also has a habit of sticking to the things he knows. I appreciate Emmerich’s attempts to direct against his type more because his work outside his comfort zone at least tends to be interesting.

Roland Emmerich takes it against Michael Bay. I will note again, though, that I haven’t seen every movie by both directors, so I may end up feeling differently soon. The Michael Bay movies I missed, in fact, are The Island and Pain and Gain, both of which are lower-budget, more cerebral, and from what I’ve heard, more challenging and against type for Bay. From where I stand now, though, the champion is Emmerich.

The Dark Territory of It’s a Wonderful Life

The Dark Territory of It’s a Wonderful Life

I looked up the writers of the classic Frank Capra flick It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra’s name was among them, and when I did some further-depth research about his own life, I was a little surprised to learn that he suffered occasional bouts of depression during an earlier downswing in his younger years. It seemed odd to me because It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t come off as anything that could ever have been written by anyone who’s suffered from depression. It comes off like more the fantasy of a screenwriter trying to put his arm around the backs of depression sufferers everywhere and say “There, there, it’ll all get better.”

There was a brief window of my life when I made a tradition, like everyone else, of watching It’s a Wonderful Life during the holiday season. I was just a few years into it, though, when I noticed that there was something about it which really wasn’t sitting right with me. I had hit a low point in my life at the time and was contemplating suicide harder than I ever had – it’s fairly safe to say only my religious beliefs at the time kept me from going through with it. That, of course, puts me in a situation similar to that of George Bailey, James Stewart’s main character. The movies takes us through George’s life story, bringing us to the moment the movie begins, when God – yes, THAT God – is commanding an angel named Clarence to talk George out of his suicidal depression. Clarence visits George, shows him what everything would be like of he never existed, and George is magically happy again.

If only real depression were that simple. In real life, there’s no Clarence, and George offs himself. The problem with the movie’s premise is that George is set up and defined as a man of very significant impact. It’s true that George has thwarted dreams that are similar to my own in a couple of ways, but it’s difficult to get me to believe George really had it that bad. His dream of traveling the world, after all, is something he surrenders willingly, even if he does do it quite often. George first takes over a business that was threatening to stop writing loans out for the poor because the board heads would only continue doing that if George was running it. I don’t have any problems with this; but George gives his college cash stash to his brother Harry, and that’s where the problem begins. Harry takes George’s cue and then seemingly coasts through his life on a series of implausible breaks. Harry marries into a rich family and becomes a war hero.

George, meanwhile, runs his company and keeps roadblocking his own path. His gestures are admittedly noble: At one point, he gives his honeymoon money to depositors to satisfy their immediate needs. At another, he turns down the job of his dreams when it’s offered because his nemesis, Potter, is planning to take over his city.

Throughout all this, by the way, George is able to find the time and means to marry his longtime love and sire four kids. He buys a home, too. During the never-born sequence, George’s wife, Mary, ends up being a shy, perpetually single librarian, as if she could never have found a man who wasn’t George Bailey and a fulfilling career. (Well, okay, this movie is from 1946, so the career isn’t very likely.)

A supremely ironic point that occurs to me right now is that so far, the movie and I are in agreement over the main theme: George is leading a life most people would consider very significant and fulfilling. But that’s where our similarities end. George is very well known and beloved throughout his community because of the willing selflessness he shows, constantly sacrificing pursuit of his dreams in order to better the lives of those around him. Everything he did, except getting rejected by the military, was something he gave up by personal choice. He has good friends and a devoted wife and a good home in a nice community.

This is basically magical Hollywood depression. It’s sanitized nicely for people who believe a few inspiring words are more than enough to snap anyone out of a funk and return them to their jolly old selves. Just like real depression and real suicidal contemplation, I swear, knowing from experience. It’s basically the same, except take away George’s communal niceties, flowing opportunities, family, and largely decent job. Strip him of all the status, prestige, and trust he earned from the people around him, and put him in a much more menial situation in which the livlihoods of a lot fewer people depend on his fortunes and you’ll start to get the idea. I can’t imagine myself being the only person who ever watched this while depressed and thing holy shit, this movie is fucking mocking me!

The one inspirational thing that I did take away from It’s a Wonderful Life is actually the life story of Frank Capra himself. He got himself stuck in a life rut very similar to my own, and our ages during this rough patch weren’t that far apart. Capra was going through his during much worse circumstances. Yet, he still found a way to overcome his obstacles and eventually become one of the most important directors in the history of American film.

A Raving, Maniacal Tribute to Star Wars

A Raving, Maniacal Tribute to Star Wars

I’ve read the Jedi Prince series. It’s not something I’m proud of. It isn’t anything to do with the fact that it’s a series of Star Wars books. Star Wars is very popular. It resonated with so many people that it turned into its own industry, so why shame myself about loving Star Wars? It isn’t the fact that the Jedi Prince books are objectively awful, either. Reading them yields ridiculous shit like Luke Skywalker using The Force like an inept buffoon at some points while unleashing its absolute hell at others; a main villain more concerned about his image than anything in Trioculus; Han Solo and Princess Leia fretting over their wedding; Han Solo, scoundrel rogue smuggler, wistfully building his dream sky house; a Mount Yoda; Jabba the Hutt’s pop winning Cloud City in a card game against Lando; Lando running a holographic theme park (with 1138 THX Ultrasound speakers, dear fucking GOD I wish I was making that up); villains wishing each other “dark greetings;” Han Solo finishing his sky house in the third book, throwing a housewarming party, and teaching Leia a dance called the Space Pirate Boogie; and Chewbacca being relegated to a background character while new character Ken turns Luke into the annoyed pop. (You’re dying to read these books now, aren’t you?) Hell, back when these books came out, you couldn’t blame kid me for reading them because the expanded universe that’s gotten wider than the Star Wars universe itself basically didn’t exist. There was just the Jedi Prince series and Timothy Zahn’s acclaimed Thrawn Trilogy. And THAT is where my embarrassment is. I missed The Thrawn Trilogy because I was too busy reading the Jedi Prince books. All I have to stand by for my alibi is the fact that I was very young and didn’t know any better.

It was pretty disheartening to hear about the recent closure of LucasArts and the impending cancellation of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I joke a little bit about the LucasArts closing: On the downside, it means less Star Wars and fewer video games. Of course, the practical upshot is that it means fewer Star Wars video games! In all seriousness, though, it’s sad mostly because it’s 150 people who are now out of work because Disney switched the business plan. I’m certain it has something to do with money.

As a game developer, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a diehard game fan mourning the track record of LucasArts. It relied heavily on the Star Wars license, and while Star Wars has a better track record than The Simpsons as far as licensed games go, there’s no simply stumbling into a Star Wars game in the local Gamestop and buying it there. As individual games, the galaxy-wide span of Star Wars games runs the gamut of quality. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is considered one of the greatest video games ever made. After that, the quality tends to drop to your Lego Star Wars (a title I always believed should have been granted the subtitle “Together at Last!”), your Rogue Squadrons, your Battlefronts, your Episode I Racers, your Bounty Hunters, your Obi-Wans, your Flight of the Falcons, your Rebel Assaults, your Yoda Stories, and, finally, (sigh) your Masters of Teras Kasi, one of the worst video games ever made. As a whole, though, Star Wars video games are well on the sucky side.

Then there was Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In the entirety of six live-action movies, George Lucas left the vast majority of the Clone Wars to our imaginations. Throughout the Original Trilogy, in fact, we knew three things about the Clone Wars: Number one, they were wars. Number two, they involved clones in some way. And number three, they were epic enough to snap Luke Skywalker to attention when Obi-Wan Kenobi said he fought in them alongside Luke’s father. Episode IV also gave us a vague description of Luke’s father: Best starfighter pilot in the galaxy, cunning warrior, and great friend of Obi-Wan. In Episode V, we got the added detail that Luke’s father was at the right hand of the Emperor wearing a new, evil identity known as Darth Vader, so we now knew something had gone wrong for him somewhere on the line. The Prequel Trilogy was a big letdown in large part because it deprived us of a lot of those descriptions, and we only saw the beginning and end of the Clone Wars. The Clone Wars was a great series because it was able to give us the parts left out, showcasing Anakin Skywalker at his Jedi best. It went into detail about the war itself and gave us Anakin’s friendship with Obi-Wan, as well as a few other things like Mace Windu in real combat and Anakin training an apprentice named Ahsoka Tano.

I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan. I got into Star Wars before I was even into video games, which means this passion goes back quite a ways. The first time I saw the Original Trilogy was probably about the time they were first being aired on TV, when my parents were recording them – Return of the Jedi had only been released one or two years previously at that point. Star Wars is the movie I’ve probably seen more often than any other now, with the possible exception of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I still remember the first time I saw it. I hadn’t yet learned to read so I couldn’t read the opening monologue, but you can bet your ass I understood the swooping crescendos of John Williams’s magnificent score, telling me I was in for an adventure beyond anything my underdeveloped mind yet had the capacity to imagine. The opening theme ended, and then came the opening scene, with the biggest damn starship I’ve ever seen whizzing over my head. Finally, the Rebel Alliance soldiers made a heroic last stand in the halls of their doomed transport, were mowed down by the terrifyingly faceless Imperial Stormtroopers, Darth Vader appeared, and Princess Leia was captured as C-3PO and R2-D2 made a break for the planet below. Like every other kid who watched that spectacle, I was hooked on the spot. Hell, anyone who isn’t yanked right in by the time the droids reach Tatooine just hates movies. Period. It’s still probably the greatest, most effective movie opening I’ve ever seen.

Luke Skywalker became one of my childhood heroes, and Princess Leia my first dream girl. To this day, those two particular characters are extremely representative of the kind of man I want to be and the characteristics I like in women. (It’s no coincidence that my biggest celebrity crush as a teenager was on Sarah Michelle Gellar.) Upon the introduction of the Prequel Trilogy, in which we learned that the whole saga was the story of Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker, it took on an even deeper resonance. In a spiritual sense, I was able to draw certain parallels between Anakin’s choices and my own life. I’m aware of the little plotholes and inconsistencies, and I frankly don’t care. I’m still waiting for the day lightsabres become a reality.

I’m not exactly what it is about Star Wars that it casts such a spell over myself and others like me. Perhaps one answer is because the Star Wars universe is so simplified and its views of good and evil are so direct. Did anyone, on seeing Darth Vader for the first time, have any doubt he was the bad guy? While the obvious retort to that idea is the end of Return of the Jedi – where Vader finally renounces the Dark Side and becomes Anakin Skywalker long enough to perform his final act as a Jedi Knight – every movie in the series, as well as a lot of the material in the expanded universe, emphasizes The Force as having a Dark Side which is always there, tempting the Jedi who know giving into it produces dire consequences. The Star Wars universe gives us something we don’t frequently have in real life: A clear-cut division between good and evil, where the bad guys are easily distinguished by their heavy english accents and dark, mysterious wardrobe choices. The good guys are archtypes: The young kid looking to learn, the wisecracking hero, and the seen-it-done-it old guardian whose pearls of wisdom offset the younglings’ ability to get the group into trouble. In the inversion category, Star Wars gives us three cute animal sidekicks: One is a tense ball of nervousness and primness; one is his adventurous best friend who excels at getting them into trouble; and one is a beacon of overwhelming physical strength with a heart of gold. The Princess is both an archtype and an inversion of it – she needs rescuing, but is more than capable of defending herself. Her immortal first line when the good guys bust into her cell is a masterwork of defiant snark: “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”

My mother explains my father’s love for Star Wars by saying it’s a classic fantasy story in a sci-fi cover. I don’t doubt that, but this angle has been run into the ground, so I feel very little need to expound on it.

In a way, Star Wars also tells two stories which are, at heart, quintessentially American. The first speaks to the country’s origins: A small band of struggling rebels rises up and overthrows an evil, oppressive empire. No matter how debatable the accuracy of that summary is, it’s still the commonly propagated story every American schoolkid hears to the point of such repetition that they all tune it out after awhile. The less obvious parallel is the story of Luke himself, rising from a humble, unassuming origin to become the most powerful Jedi Knight in the galaxy. I imagine that while Han Solo may steal much of the show, it’s Luke Skywalker that many of us dream of being in some way or another. By the end of the Original Trilogy, it’s Luke who has grown the most. After starting as a naive little farmboy with nothing to offer except an open mind, Episode IV ends with him being awarded as a hero of the Rebel Alliance, a result of his resourcefulness and maximization of the few abilities he has. By the end of Episode VI, he’s the greatest Jedi Knight in the galaxy. In the expanded universe, Luke has the responsibility of beginning the Jedi Academy after Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine nearly wiped out the Jedi. Like Luke, many of us dream of rising as high as we can using our smallest, most bare resources and abilities.

It seems a little too easy and convenient to play the Star Wars is Just Cool card because it comes so close to winning the sabacc hand that doing so feels like cheating. But it is true, and anyone who doesn’t think that is either a hipster or Alec Guiness. I can sit here and write out rehashed intellectual theories until the banthas come home, but I’m also part of a generation that was fortunate enough to see the magic of Star Wars when it was still a very recent thing. Did I know WHY I like Luke and Han? Nope. I knew I loved the Battle of Hoth scene, and that I wanted a lightsabre. Even the comparative suckitude of the Prequel Trilogy and the Jedi Prince books never spoiled it for me. Why couldn’t I have my own smuggling cargo spaceship to go to an interesting planet like Bespin? People falling in love with Star Wars for the first time at a young age aren’t saying “What kinds of different meanings and influences could the mysterious Force hold? What parallels can be drawn between the Battle of Endor and modern Islam?”

Disney owns Star Wars now, and they’ve handed it off to JJ Abrams for direction, and subsequent spinoffs will be written by Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. George Lucas said there would be no more new Star Wars movies after the Prequel Trilogy, but hell, he also said that after the first Star Wars movie. (Which explains a few things in Empire and Jedi.)

I’ve had the fortune to be introduced to a lot of beautiful sci-fi/fantasy escapist paradises in my lifetime: The Lord of the Rings; Dune; Doctor Who; and Harry Potter. That last one there, Harry Potter, brought in the only weapon possibly cool enough to equal lightsabres with the way it used magic wands. While the magic wands don’t have the ominous whirling sound and hypnotic glow of a lightsabre, they do have the ability to produce many powerful spells. But, given the choice, I would probably still take the lightsabre. Actually, I take that back; I would take the magic wand, immediately use it to construct a lightsabre, then sit back and relax as “problems” and “irritants” became concepts relegated to the knaves.

Really Bad Movies: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

There are times when the true, awe-inspiring stupidity and insipidness of mass media works never really strikes you until the thought hits: THIS. WAS. WRITTEN. By people who presumably have normally functioning human brains. Sometimes by more than one of those said people. For every work of art in which you are keen on finding out who the artist is in order to praise him, there are many others so bad you put them out of your head, forgetting completely that people were behind them making them work. Elevator muzak, for example, was printed out on paper, then recorded by real musicians with real instruments in recording studios. The lame jokes dominating family sitcoms such as Full House were also written.

That feeling hit me once again when I watched Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It’s true we don’t expect a whole lot of depth from a Michael Bay movie, but Revenge of the Fallen takes hormonal teenage guy visual candy to an unprecedented level. Although Bay doesn’t use his seizure-inducing flash cut style to his usual extent in this movie, it does contain all of the mean-spirited drunken frat boy in your face attitude that also defines his films. One of the opening jokes features main character Sam Witwicky’s pet dogs humping each other, another features his mother eating pot brownies, and it culminates with one of Sam’s friends being put down with a freaking taser because he won’t shut up! Meanwhile, the romantic subplot revolves around Sam’s apparent inability to say the three magic romance words to Mikayla. People, somebody wrote all this!

Part of the problem is pretty generic; this is a movie which is trying to center a plot about giant transforming robots trying to destroy each other around humans. The main characters are Sam Witwicky and his girlfriend Mikayla, both returning from the first Transformers movie. Sam is off to college, but he begins speaking jibberish in class. He is seeing symbols which he apparently picked up when the all spark from the last movie went kablooey, and this makes him the only source of the history of Cybertron. Everyone is after him. Ultimately there’s something about a group of Transformers called the Fallen, and another something about some kind of doomsday device.

It isn’t that I didn’t want to pay attention or didn’t try. It’s just that trying to pay attention is a chore. Michael Bay directed Revenge of the Fallen with the completely wrong idea of the proper way of holding the audience’s attention at any and all cost. He doesn’t do it through good storytelling, but with female curves and explodey things. Normally, things like that make for a very fun action movie, but the problem is that your brain can only take so much visual candy before it tunes out. Revenge of the Fallen is two and a half hours long, which is an awful long time to watch mindless action candy no matter how much you love it. By the end, my brain was so numb that it felt like it was drizzling out of my ears.

Revenge of the Fallen plays out like one giant action sequence without any of the wit needed to make it bearable. The plot thread about Sam’s symbols wears out before the halfway point, and the rest of the movie blends together from there. Stuff happens, matter explodes, and many of the robots talk in the most annoying voices possible. Everyone just forgets everything the movie is supposed to be about, which is usually acceptable for brain candy. But this feels different because of the length – it feels like everyone had a base need or desire to replace the story with as much gratuitous action as possible.

The movie isn’t served very well by its mythology. Yes, the movie tries to push a mystical, mythological background onto us to make it interesting. To my utter lack of surprise, this fails. The big problem is that Michael Bay doesn’t know when to lay off his accelerator. In order to tell a good story epic, the story has to remain strong. The Lord of the Rings and Avatar had stories and themes. I would blame the writers for being blind rats, but the three-person writing crew includes Ehren Kruger (The Ring) and two of the writers of the awesome 2009 Star Trek reboot. Let’s chalk this up to executive interference. Anyway, Bay hits the gas and drives this movie right over the canyon. The difference between him and James Cameron is that Cameron knows to let up at times to let the story go in whatever natural direction it’s turning in.

The advice of Timothy Leary applies when you shove Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen into your disc tray. Tune in, turn on, drop out. Worse than being a shiny thing that doesn’t realize it’s a shiny thing, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen DOES know it’s a shiny thing and it takes every available opportunity to remind you of that until you hate it. Kind of like a diva.

Really Great Movies: The Social Network

I take back every bad thing I ever said about Justin Timberlake. It’s that he came riding in on the back of a popular boy band, and we all know how that usually turns out, right? Well, if you were among the many, many Timberlake bashers, you may take heart in the fact that his singing hasn’t really changed one bit. However, he has proven to be a great pop music innovator, but what really surprised me is his acting ability. In The Social Network, he plays Napster founder Sean Parker, the charismatic machine gun-talking salesman who leads Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg down the path to success, but at the cost of Zuckerberg’s soul.

How do you make a good movie about the formation of a website? Well, hiring David Fincher to direct is a good start. It’s pretty odd that a project like this would come from Fincher. The Social Network is, after all, a movie which is giving acknowledgement to the beginnings of one of the most dominant corporations in the world. One of Fincher’s other indisputable classics (he’s building an impressive resume of them) was Fight Club, a roaring primal scream from one person in a materialistic, corporate world wondering where the line between his gussied up material character and his real self is drawn. Also on the staff of The Social Network is the great screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who wrote A Few Good Men, The American President, and created TV’s The West Wing. The Social Network, as a result, is written and directed in a very engaging manner.

The Social Network’s universe revolves around Mark Zuckerberg, a young Harvard student first seen mouthing off to his girlfriend with the cold bluntness and efficiency one might hear in someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. She finally ditches him with equivocal coldness and efficiency, sending The Zuck back to his dorm to get drunk and badmouth the girl in his blog before setting up a hot-or-not site called Facemash, which crashes parts of the Harvard network. It also brings him to the attention of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, who have an idea for a Harvard alumi dating site and and thing The Zuck is the perfect guy to get it online. Zuckerberg likes the idea and uses it to create a whole new social network for people to stay in touch.

Long story short: It gets big. It expands in a way no one has ever seen before. Mark gets rich and inadvertently screws everyone over.

Mark Zuckerberg the way The Social Network portrays him is a tangled mass of contradictions. He is a genius who is easily led on by a very good snake oil salesman. He is a stone, thick and impenetrable for most people but he has an excellent idea of what makes people tick. He is a faithful friend to his friend and business partner, Eduardo, but doesn’t seem to care that Eduardo was screwed over by Sean Parker. Zuckerberg has a personality set to the robot position for the entirety of The Social Network. He seems alienated from the real world most of the time, but is a creative innovator who is able to make billions by analyzing the base desires of humanity.

Zuckerberg likes the idea of a universal connections network, so he takes his inspiration from the Winklevoss twins and a grand from Eduardo for his startup fee. When two girls at a Bill Gates lecture tell Mark and Eduardo to Facebook them, they know they’re on to something, and Sean Parker enters the picture as something of an advisor to Facebook. He has two things Mark and Eduardo need: The first is an excess of charisma shooting from every pore in his body at the speed of sound. The second and more important thing is connections, which Eduardo come in handy when Eduardo tries to make them himself in New York City and fails. Parker definitely plays a role in the success of Facebook, but he also turns into a wedge when he correctly calculates the respective reactions of Mark and Eduardo to him when they first meet. Mark, shooting for the stars, likes Sean. Eduardo, who doesn’t like him, prefers a more conservative approach. Sean, acting like the average kid after doing something which results in his folks playing the good parent/bad parent routine, snuggles up to Mark and uses him as a shield.

The Social Network is set around a pair of lawsuits Zuckerberg faces from the Winklevoss twins and Eduardo. They are all suing Zuckerberg, the Winklevoss twins because they believe he committed intellectual property theft by using their idea to form Facebook and Eduardo because he came back for a slice of the Facebook stock which Sean Parker slickly tricked him out of. The story is told in flashbacks, but they are mostly unbroken so the interruptions to the boardroom scenes are kept at a minimum.

There is a little bit of a Shakespearean element to The Social Network. No one dies, of course, but Mark seems to be made into some shade of Hamlet. Lawsuits are used as vengeance killings once Mark wipes his formerly solid relationships with his friends right off the face of the Earth. Like Hamlet, The Zuck seems lost and uncaring in his own little world at times, much to the detraction of everything that isn’t taking place in his head. The Social Network ends not with a massacre, but with a bitter irony: His Facebook site now has over a million members, but Mark Zuckerberg has no one left in his corner to help him fight his battles. The final scene is Mark, having the kind of money which society deifies, sitting pathetically in an empty boardroom, attempting to friend his ex-girlfriend on Facebook.

It’s possible that by making Mark Zuckerberg such an alienated character even a the best of times, Fincher was turning The Social Network into an other social commentary about where the tricky location of a blurry line between materialism and reality, where the accumulation of things ends and the actual person is formed. If that’s the case, maybe The Social Network has something in common with Fight Club after all.

A Tribute to Tony Scott

I doubt there’s a single person of my generation who didn’t feel almost legally obligated to spend a couple of hours a day playing Top Gun, pretending to be Maverick, or Goose, or Iceman. Top Gun was the first movie that I could ever legitimately call a favorite movie, and a neighbor had a copy of it on a blank video which I watched a lot, up to the scene where the prize is handed out at the ceremony; that’s where the copy cut off. Of course, it wasn’t until later that I began to realize the absurdity of the entire movie. In real life, Maverick would have had his ass court-martialed for probably five or six of the little stunts he had pulled throughout the movie, assuming they had let a guy with his temperament and mentality become a fighter pilot in the first place. Even though the Navy’s most effective recruiting video was almost entirely fraudulent, though, Top Gun was a fun little fantasy, and it held its impact on me far more than any other movie of the time with the possible exceptions of Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET: The Extraterrestrial, or Batman.

God bless the director of Top Gun, Tony Scott. Scott received word recently of the fact that he was developing a form of inoperable brain cancer. As a director known mainly for his action movies, Scott did something which was as fitting as it was sad and tragic: Instead of letting his cancer slowly eat him, he went the way of a lot of tragic action heroes and jumped off a bridge near the Los Angeles area. More philosophical types can probably find ways to argue the nobility of this gesture; however, in this case there was no being a real hero. No one was burning in a building or about to get blown up. It was just Scott taking what I guess was an easier way out, at least in his mind.

It’s often Tony Scott’s older brother, Ridley, whom all the attention and critical acclaim gets lavished on. It was Ridley, after all, who redefined science fiction in 1978 when he directed Alien, and again in 1982 with Blade Runner. It was Ridley’s movie, Gladiator, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2001. There are few film buffs who will argue against the idea of Ridley being the more talented of the two. Tony’s trademark style was a lot more frenetic than Ridley’s, and it was unfortunately brought to lows through constant usage by Michael Bay. But while Ridley’s boosters mainly seem to be people who are film buffs, it was Tony who captured the heart of the average moviegoer. Yes, Tony might have had the worse directorial style, and his acumen in picking out decent scripts was questionable. There are movies he made in which he came off as desperate to turn a scene without any real substance into an image that could keep an audience’s interest (The Fan, ahem). But it was always Tony who had the touch necessary to connect with those who see movies for the pure escapism and joy of the movies themselves.

Although I can admit my guilt in the Tony-bashing role, the truth is he always did receive something of a bum rap. His 1993 masterpiece, True Romance, is considered a legitimate classic and a thought-provoker. His 1998 chase festival, Enemy of the State, was written off as masturbation for conspiracy theorists when it was released, but in the social media age, it’s looking more and more eerily prophetic by the year. Crimson Tide made an exciting movie out of a communications mishap which would be very silly and absurd in real life and, like in the case of Top Gun, would probably result in someone getting booted from the Navy. Speaking of Top Gun, that was one of three movies in Tony’s output which are considered exciting action movies which aren’t completely reliant on direct man-to-man violence. There’s a little bit of hostility between characters, and the American pilots enter a dogfight with some Russian pilots in the end, but the crux of Top Gun’s action is a bunch of training sequences. Days of Thunder is seen as an action movie but, since it’s about race car drivers, could very easily be written up as a sports movie. Unstoppable is about a train full of chemicals that needs to be slowed. I’m not certain about that last one since I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard there’s no actual violence it in.

It’s a classic case of people concentrating so hard on what a director can’t do that we forget just what he can do. Tony Scott was deprived of critical acclaim because he was so good at tracking down the popcorn scripts. Movies rarely go both ways. Everyone knows the last Best Picture Oscar was taken by The Artist, but how many people would honestly know that movie even existed if it didn’t receive attention from the Academy? Iron Man 2 was forgotten about in short order because it was the worse sequel to a good movie, even though it got a huge release and had a brilliant actor playing the titular role. Occasionally, we get movies which somehow travel down both roads; Inception and The Dark Knight Rises are both great examples. Those, however, are the kinds of scripts that just have to be lucked into.

In all, Tony Scott knew he was an entertainer, first and forever. Unlike a lot of other directors, he didn’t give second mind to allegorical depth and metaphor. He never tried to twist a script into a kind of theme glove which he would try to then fit over a meaningless piece of popcorn entertainment in an attempt to ambush movie audiences. Even when a little bit of reflective examination might have helped a script, he held back and let screenwriters do their jobs.

Tony Scott’s greatest achievement was probably the fact that, in spite of the fact that so many of his movies were popcorn flicks, people remember them and still enjoy them, long after they should have faded out of the spotlight.