Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I May Have to Turn in my Man Card

Pieces of You
1995, Atlantic
produced by Ben Keith

  • Who Will Save Your Soul
  • You were Meant for Me
  • Foolish Games
I think by now, if you've been reading the rest of my posts, it is no secret that I like folk music. With that being said, this a pretty good folk album. This is Jewel's debut album, and probably her best. I'm not sure, because I only bought this one.

I'm sure most people would write about the honesty of the music. I'm pretty sure that's an abstract term used by critics who like the music and can't tell people why. I really don't know what honest music is, basically because if music can be honest, than it can also lie, and that's not possible. Instead, I would describe this album as being sweet, and moving. Her voice disarms, making even everyday things sound beautiful, and I think that is where this honesty thing comes from. You believe, when listening, that not only is Jewel revealing a part of herself in these songs, but also opening a window into the struggle of what it is like to be a girl, and what it's like to be disenfranchised in America. This is an album for feminist scholars everywhere. I'm sure they appreciate it, and hate it at the same time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I Hope You Enjoy Your Stay

Ben Harper
Welcome to the Cruel World
1994, Virgin
produced by JP Plunier


  • Like a King/ Whipping Boy

I like this guy a lot.  This is his first album and has a softer folk sound to it than some of his later albums.  This album helps usher in a new era of the blues and American folk.  The songs speak to the multiracial working class unlike hip hop, r&b, or country music could.  Honestly, those genres probably still can't.  This music had quiet desperation, power in sadness.  Harper had a realness about his music, unlike other '90s acts that seemed to force their pain out in order to make hit records.  Rolling Stone called him the man who inherited the Blues.  I think I agree.  

Speaking of being welcomed to the Cruel World... I don't own this album anymore.  I lent it to a guy who lived across the hall from me in college, and he stole it.  Not only did he steal it, but he came up to me and handed me the empty case, telling me that he was returning it.  I didn't open it to look.  So, not only did he steal from me, he lied also.  This is actually not the last time I lent a Ben Harper album to someone who didn't return it.  

Thursday, September 8, 2011

They Can't all be Winners

Neil Young
Living with War
2006, Reprise
produced by Nick Bolas and LA Johnson

  • Let's Impeach the President
This sounded like a good idea.  Coming from the man who wrote Ohio and Rockin' in the Free World, an album of Bush era protest music sounded like a great thing, epic even.  However, this album falls so far short, I gave it another listen just to make sure it wasn't me.  It wasn't.

I heard it was rushed to completion and distribution, and it sounds like it.  The fact that the album cover is just a stenciled paper bag should have tipped me off.  It sounds like Young wrote the songs on Monday, recorded on Tuesday, and then handed it in on Wednesday, like some college kid completing a term paper that was supposed to take a month.  The lyrics are predictable, and overly simplified.  The music is nothing to write home about, compared to his other work.  If someone told me it was all improv, I think I'd have more respect for it.  Even the album cover looks like the brown paper bags I used to use to cover my school textbooks.  Recycling is a great idea.  Just not for album cover art.

What I can't understand is how it was nominated for 3 Grammy awards.  Clearly the dude in control of nominations didn't actually listen to the music, he just saw "new Neil Young", and got excited.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Swinging with the Flappers

Cherry Poppin Daddies
Zoot Suit Riot
1997, Space Age Bachelor Pad
produced by Steve Perry (not the guy from Journey)

  • Zoot Suit Riot/No Mercy for Swine
  • Brown Derby Jump
  • Here Comes the Snake
This really wasn't my thing.  I had a buddy in high school who was into this sort of stuff, learned how to swing dance too.  The single was catchy, had radio play, so I bought the album.  I think it wasn't what I really was expecting and I shelved it for years.  But the album is well done.  A showcase of swing era sounds done by a ska band.  Picture smoke filled speak-easys, an energetic band with a horn section, wise guys from the Mob making deals in the corner, and perhaps Jim Carey dancing like a fool dressed like the Mask.  That's what this album sounds like.

Friday, September 2, 2011

and now... some nerdiness

I think I'm a closet nerd. A classic dork. This will make sense as I go on. The other day I had a conversation about how George Lucas missed an opportunity to make Star Wars more epic, and if he should reboot his prequel trilogy and forget the first one ever happened. There seems to be a rash of reboots and remakes in the film industry lately and if they can redo the Incredible Hulk, the Punisher, Superman, Spiderman, and even Star Trek, why not Star Wars episodes 1-3?

remember when this was cool?
There are plenty of problems with Star Wars as a science fiction franchise. It is probably the best example of the softest of soft science fiction. However, whether or not the physics and science actually makes sense is an argument for another time. This article is purely about story telling. The prequels are a classic example of poor storytelling.

I think the problems with the storytelling for these films has been documented enough online and perhaps the most comically and accurately by this guy right here. His review is in three parts for each of the three films. This guy touches on each of the big problems with these movies. First and foremost is the lack of character development.

There are an awful lot of throw-away characters. Because they are either in the original movies prominently, or at the very least alluded to, Anakin Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi, Padme, Yoda and Palpatine are necessary for these prequel films. Just about every other character is not. Just because a character shows up in the original films doesn't mean they have to be in the prequels. So, these films would have survived without R2D2, C3PO, Boba Fett, and Chewbacca. Bringing in all these other characters from the other films causes questions of continuity, like why didn't Kenobi or Darth Vader recognize the droids decades later, especially since Vader created C3PO? Unnecessary things like this ruined the films.

It seems that Lucas has left character development and depth to the legion of fanfict writers that publish a ridiculous amount of pulp trash about this universe. I would think that the films, the basis for everything these books are about would be the best place for developing characters. Quigon Jinn and Darth Maul seem to be important characters and they are gone before being developed. This makes them pretty unnecessary.

unnecessary.  grow up.
Anakin Skywalker, specifically, was a poorly conceived character. He had to be in the film, as he is the fallen hero of the first original films. But, did we have to start with him as a bratty little boy? And did we have to find him on the same planet where we found Luke? It's pretty impressive that the Empire never went to Darth Vader's home planet to search for relatives. It also highlights Lucas's creative ineptitude. Anakin could have been from any planet in the universe, and Obi-wan Kenobi could have hidden Luke on any planet also. But Lucas chose the same planet twice. A much better idea would have been to skip the home planet stuff and begin with Skywalker already as a padawan.  Skip the freed slave, podracing, child with no father, midichlorian nonsensical backstory. There would be so much more to explore if Skywalker turned evil from inside the Jedi ranks, instead of him coming in from the outside and being some sort of  force-miracle baby who is already a little bent. Little boy Anakin failed to be a good protagonist.

Also, they never do explain this midichlorian stuff very well, and should have left it out. Part of the coolness of Jedi was the mystery surrounding the Force. Explaining it by creating microbial force-creating organisms takes away from that cool factor. Biology lessons in a sci-fi action film can be a turn-off.

So, right away, if the prequel were to be rebooted, the Phantom Menace needs to be skipped over completely.  Which lets us begin with....

Attack of the Clones:

Or some other, perhaps better sounding Star Wars name. First of all, establishing characters...
We need some better stronger characters. Comparing again the originals to the prequels, the cast of characters in the original did not change too much, unlike the prequels where there were new villains each time. I say, build up convincing villains like Count Dooku and Darth Maul, and Grievous and don't kill any of them until the third film. The only villain in the original films that died before Return of the Jedi was Grand Moff Tarkin. No loss there. If you really need to kill someone every film, fine, but introduce all your villains ahead of time. No surprises later on, no one sitting in the theater whispering, "who is that guy, and where did he come from?"

like father, like son?
What made Luke and Han such good characters is they are thrown together and you watch them grow on each other. The prequel trilogy never showed that happen with Anakin and Obi Wan, they just talk about it, reminiscing scenes we never saw. So... the beginning of this reboot ought to have padawan Anakin being paired with Obi Wan for the first time. In Return of the Jedi, Obi-Wan states that he thought he could train Anakin as well as Yoda and was mistaken, so this pairing has to happen.

The Anakin and Obi-wan relationship ought to be better established. Are they master and apprentice, or Jedi Knight peers, like police officer partners? The original films have already decided that they were master and apprentice, which is a completely different sort relationship than co-workers on equal footing. The reboot characters need to be developed accordingly.

In the first films, Anakin is described as a great pilot. Obi-wan tells Luke that Anakin was already "a great pilot" when they first meet. We see Anakin do some piloting in the prequels, but he isn't known in the prequels as a pilot. Anakin, the rebooted character, should be a well known fighter pilot. A Jedi commander of a Republic squadron, perhaps? I'm thinking much like a Roy Fokker character (yes, from Macross.  I told you I'm a bit of a dork).

Padme Amidala is a character that never really made sense. Is she Naboo royalty? Is she an elected Senator? Why change her character between films? In the reboot, let's just make her an elected official, the junior senator to Palpatine's senior and be done with it. No fancy weirdass outfits, no decoys, no weird age difference between Anakin and Padme that leaves questions about how Anakin mysteriously grows older between films and Padme does not. She ought to be a vehicle for Palpatine to take power by using her naivete, and be the vessel for Anakin's kids and that's it. Speaking of government...

The Phantom Menace is the movie where you wonder how any sort of government can function when they allow businesses to build and use their own private armies. For example, if Microsoft built a robot android army and tried to annex the state of Oregon, the United States government would probably have something to say about it. However, this is how Lucas pitches the beginning of the Clone Wars.

The Attack of the Clones goes even further to establish this ridiculous intergalactic system of government. It is not clear what, if any, authority the Senate has over the thousands of worlds it represents. And in this movie it makes it clear that aside from the Jedi, it has no means with which to enforce law and manage disputes (read: no standing army). There is no way that armed conflict disappeared from the known universe, even our own UN has peacekeeping forces donated from member nations.

For the reboot, these issues must be addressed. Timothy Zahn wrote the first Lucas approved Star Wars fiction in 1992.  The Zahn Trilogy, as it would be known, started with the Heir to the Empire, and established a few things in the Star Wars canon that had previously been hinted at, but not set in stone.  The Clone Wars, according to Zahn, were a period of war that devastated the universe, as both sides had an inexhaustible supply of soldiers and weapons.  Lucas liked to borrow familiar historical themes in the first films, why not this time?  Where in our history was there a war of universal devastation?

People understand the fundamental issues surrounding the American Civil War, and  World War 2, why not mirror one of those in the reboot? The audience shouldn't have to guess at why the galaxy is gearing up for war. It should be pretty obvious and easily understood. A section of the Republic wants to secede, why? Because they feel under represented and feel another government would treat them better. War starts because the Republic wants to keep itself together, preserve the thousand year old union, and the other government believes in slavery, or human sacrifice, or something equally disturbing and evil, and must be stopped. See? That was easy.
Imagine they're clones, and have lasers
Usually wars are fought between nations, or people. In movies, there is usually a good side, and a bad side. And they are usually easy to tell apart. The original movies did this easy.  The Empire was led by this big angry guy in black armor. The Empire does horrible things, like ambushes, torture, and blowing up entire planets just as a test. In the prequel films, the "bad guys" don't seem too bad. It's a bunch of bumbling goofy looking businessmen and their robotic army that somehow is a threat to an enormous well established intergalactic government protected by telekinetic kung-fu monks with laser swords. There needs to be an antagonist that truly horrifies with means and motive to do harm. Something bad enough that the people of the Republic would rather be kept safe under Imperial Rule than by the antagonist of the Clone Wars.

In fact, according to all of the Star Wars literature, there are plenty of bad guys you could start a war with...  like the Mandalorians (think an army of Boba Fetts), or the Nagai (failed Marvel comics antagonists), Yuuzhan Vong (if we plunder the literary mythos), or even the Hutts. Once again, it is a pretty big universe, you could make up a new evil, as long as Palpatine is still the most evil and takes control from the shadows. Much like the prequel, only better.

There could still be three films. The first sets up the conflict, the second brings you into the middle of the conflict, and the third nearly resolves the conflict with the Republic coming out on top, only to be toppled by Palpatine and Darth Vader when no one is paying attention. There should be no need of an animated series to bridge the films so they make sense.

There should be no obvious clues as to how Anakin falls until he falls. Pride, they say, goes before a fall. Instead of jealous love, a better turn would be Anakin's pride, pride in being a great pilot, a Jedi hero?  Perhaps Obi-Wan's pride in being a superior Jedi teacher to Yoda could help with Anakin's downfall? Anything is better than some star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet cliche. By the way, since when did Jedi not get married? I thought hate, fear, and anger were paths to the dark side, not friendship, love, and happy thoughts.

In short, the prequel left much to be desired. And even though it would be a miracle if Lucas actually decided to redo his prequel from scratch, I think everything would have to be rethought, rewritten, and built from nothing in order to make better movies. The only things that went well with the prequels were the way Palpatine/Darth Sidious manipulated everything to his design for domination. And the special effects. Everything else should be changed, and Lucas should give up his writing duties to an actual writer. Some of those pulp-fiction guys do write some good stories. Comic book writers know what they're doing most of the time too. A director not named George Lucas ought to direct also, with Lucas executive producing.

Perhaps these guys could do it?