Movie Reviews postsWednesday March 22, 2017
My Father's Original 'Star Wars' Review from 1977 (with special guest star Muhammad Ali!)
A few days after Christmas, my 84-year-old father, me (53), and my 15-year-old nephew Jordy sat in the basement of my sister's house in south Minneapolis and did a podcast on three generations of movie reviewers talking about three generations of movies: “Four Feathers” from 1939, “Star Wars” from 1977, and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” from 2009. I first wrote about it here. You can listen to it here.
During the podcast, we referenced my father's 1977 review of “Star Wars,” which he famously, or infamously, didn't like, or at least didn't gush over. He has gripes. But if you read the piece, he's not wrong.
Because the Minneapolis Star-Tribune currently doesn't give subscribers access to its archive the way The New York Times does (and Strib: I would totally be a subscriber if you offered this service), I typed it up myself from the original newspaper review. I typed up a few other reviews of his from the '70s, too, including “Annie Hall” and “The Godfather Part II,” which I'll post someday.
Dad's “Star Wars” review shared a column with another film—The New Yorker still does this. Anyone remember “The Greatest” starring Muhammad Ali? Ironic title, given its release the same week as “Star Wars.” I've included that one, too, to give a better feel for the times.
‘Star Wars’ may be good fun, but leave your brains home
June 5, 1977
George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” his first movie since “American Graffiti,” is obviously the film phenomenon of the year, judging by the crowds it’s attracting at the St. Louis Park theater. It even packed them in at 11 a.m. last Sunday, which is an ungodly hour to see a movie. Clearly it’s the “Jaws” and “Exorcist” of 1977.
But is it also the best film of the year? Time magazine has already awarded it that accolade without bothering to check out the competition. If Time’s editors are so confident of premature judgments, why don’t they also select their Man of the Year now, instead of waiting till December?
I certainly don’t think it’s the best film of the year, or the month, for that matter (it ranks well behind “Annie Hall” and “Jonah” in my May rankings). It does have some gorgeous special effects and an amusing plot, if you like comic strips. There’s also a certain fun in spotting all the sources from which the eclectic Lucas has drawn his material.
It’s got some Flash Gordon, of course, but there’s also a good hunk of “The Wizard of Oz,” with a gold, English-speaking version of the Tin Woodsman and an apish version of the Cowardly Lion looking for that Yellow Brick Road in the sky, and a tribe of Sand People that sounds suspiciously like Munchkins. [Editor's Note: Yes, Jawas.]
Not to mention the Arthurian legends—the golden-haired, untested squire tilting lances with the Black Knight, who turns out to be a heavy-breathing warrior who sounds like the wrong end of an obscene phone call.
Most of Lucas’ dialogue sounds as if he’d lifted it unaltered from World War II John Wayne movies. “This is it, boys!” says the squadron commander as he prepares to attack the space station, followed by “Cover me!” (Sorry about all of those exclamation points, but this is a comic strip, so every sentence, no matter how innocuous, must end with an exclamation!)
The film also contains an ear-splitting amount of gunfire, none of which hits the outnumbered good guys. There’s a cornball story interred somewhere in the mish-mash—something about an interplanetary rebellion, a kidnapped princess (more of a take-charge type than we’re accustomed to in costumed epics) and the attempt to recover some secret plans. Your kids will love it, and you may too. But leave your brains at home.
Watching “The Greatest,” which is the filmed autobiography of Muhammad Ali, is like attending the weigh-in for one of Ali’s fights. For two hours.
The braggadocio, the doggerel, the taunting of a glowering opponent are all amusing in short doses. Stretched out for 120 minutes, they lose their fizz fast.
A hint of part of the problem emerged from a recent interview with Ring Lardner Jr., who wrote the screenplay but encouraged Ali to rewrite his own lines in the interest of authenticity. As a result, many of those lines become speeches—pontifical, redundant, verbose. It may be the way Ali talks, but it’s not very dramatic.
That’s just one of the problems, however. “The Greatest” certainly deserves one superlative: It’s the worst edited film I’ve seen in some time. Scenes are built up, then dropped, and key scenes are omitted. There’s very little about Angelo Dundee’s effect on Ali, for instance, either because it would have intruded on Ali’s ego or because it’s convenient to ignore his pre-Muslim past.
Ali is certainly an engaging actor, and the fight sequences are exciting, particularly if, like me, you’ve forgotten who won which fights. But despite the promise of the ads to discover the “real” Ali, you don’t learn much about him that you didn’t already know from the papers.
That “Leave your brains at home” line? Who knew we'd be doing that for the next 40 years?
The False Positives in the 29% Rotten Tomatoes Rating of 'Batman v Superman'
'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice' currently has a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is rotten indeed, but I got curious about those critics that liked it. As in: What exactly did they like about it?
That's what I went searching for, but I found something else.
Yes, a few of the positive reviews are positive:
- “Unfairly maligned, Snyder's dark vision is impressive and starkly different from the competition. The plot is perhaps too ambitious but the film delivers more often than it doesn't with Affleck's Bruce Wayne and Gal Gadot being highlights.” — Chris Bumbray, JoBlo's Movie Emporium
But many sound like shrugs:
- “You take the good. You take the bad. You take them both and there you have a Zack Snyder film.” — Wesley Lovell, Cinema Sight
- “Above all of it's [sic] flaws, what works in Batman v Superman is enough to please the less demanding audiences.” -- Cuauhtémoc Ruelas, Tijuaneo
While a few are so negative they make you wonder what a critic has to say to give a movie a thumbs down:
- “Unfortunately, director Zach [sic] Snyder's scattershot, overly complicated and hugely drawn-out exposition depletes the story of all its fun and power, reducing his leads to impotent cranks.” - Roe McDermott, Hot Press
- “While the actors and the show are worth [sic] of a superhero film, it sacrifices the humanity of the characters and drowns in endless videogame sequences that ultimately leave us an emptiness and without amazement. Totally numb.” -- Mario P. Székely
A few of these were translated (poorly) from the Spanish. Maybe that's how they got translated into positive reviews, too: poorly.
Michael Shannon by Anthony Lane
Came across this nice description reading Lane's review of Jeff Nichols' new film, “Midnight Special”:
The actor Michael Shannon appears in all four [of Nichols'] films, starring in three of them, and, if you seek a reliable guide to Nichols's work, consider Shannon's face. Smiles do not become it; the mouth tightens, by reflex, to a crinkled line, and once, in “Take Shelter,” it gapes wide in a terrible and soundless O, as the hero wakes from a nightmare. The eyes, not quite matched, are set far apart in a square and noble head, which feels too heavy with care to be borne upon his shoulders. Although he is rangy and tall, anxiety freights him down, or brings him to a devastated halt. Shannon does not look alien, exactly, but never, even in company, do his characters seem like happy members of the human tribe.
Lane found the movie flawed but resonant. He would like to see it again, “to revel anew in its group portrait of those who are haunted by the will to believe.”
Michael Shannon in “Take Shelter”
Michael Bay is the Stone on Which Critics Sharpen Their Wit
Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere has been criticizing the dudes at “Honest Trailers” for being a bit behind the times, but I suppose they did their send-up of the trailer for Michael Bay's 2001 film “Pearl Harbor” to coincide with the opening of Bay's new war movie, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” which is getting a lot of attention. (Me, I'd attack “Honest Trailers” more for not being very funny.)
Anyway, Wells uses the opportunity to quote from A.O. Scott's “Pearl Harbor” lede, which he calls “one of the finest opening paragraphs in the history of movie reviewing.” It ain't bad. But it ain't Anthony Lane, who gave us the following in his blistering review:
[That's] the second-best question of the film, topped only when Evelyn [Kate Beckinsale] finds Rafe [Ben Affleck] packing a suitcase, and, quick as a flash, says, “Packing?” She is understandably distraught by her sudden change of fortunes. One moment she is trying to cope with two grown men scrapping over her like a couple of roosters, and the next, as she says in some exasperation, “All this happened.” I am not absolutely sure what she means by “this,” but I imagine that she is referring to the trifling matter of an enraged United States being hauled into a global conflict. I guess we should thank Michael Bay for so bold a revisionist take on the Second World War: no longer the clash of virtuous freedom and a malevolent tyranny but a terrible bummer when a girl is trying to get her dates straight.
Critic Criticizes Critiquing of Critics
There are a zillion ways to lampoon a film critic, and sadly actor Jesse Eisenberg found exactly zero of them in his Shouts & Mumurs piece, “An Honest Film Review,” in the latest New Yorker.
Apparently critics have been objecting to the piece (and are accused of being thin-skinned), but I question Eisenberg less than The New Yorker, which gave prime real estate to a non-writer. Yeah, I know, Eisenberg's got a book out. Read the piece. He's a non-writer.
According to this post by Sam Adams on CriticWire, Eisenberg says he got the idea after reading a negative review of a Woody Allen movie:
The review said something along the lines of, “Woody Allen makes another movie. This one doesn't really work, but hey, he's doing one a year. Slow down, Wood-man.” And I realized the guy was not criticizing the movie. He was criticizing his own lack of productivity and laziness, vis-a-vis Woody Allen's productivity. But instead he was putting down the movie.
Interesting interpretation. But not mine. Mine goes like this:
- Woody Allen keeps making mediocre movies, year after year.
- Maybe if he took more time (say two years?) the movies might be better.
So not only is Eisenberg's piece lame, it's based upon an incorrect interpretation.
On the bright side, he's got a fallback position.