Ok, fine, get excited for Star Wars

“You know,” I told friends up until a few weeks ago, “this new Star Wars movie is probably going to suck.”

Here was my reasoning: viewed outside the lens of nostalgia, many of the Star Wars movies aren’t particularly great. The entire franchise rests on the excellence of The Empire Strikes BackStar Wars itself captures the imagination, but one wonders if it would have held up as a stand-alone movie. Return of the Jedi ties everything up nicely – but has its weak moments, too. Obviously, the prequels left a horrible taste in everyone’s mouth.

Since the franchise is really built on one excellent movie and a handful of flicks that hold up better in your memory than on screen, I figured a new, Disneyfied Star Wars movie would prove to be a shallow, thinly-plotted, poorly-acted money grab – just like the prequels.

Then the trailers started coming out. And three big reasons to get excited became clear:

  1. J.J. Abrams. There’s been plenty of excitement about the focus on practical effects over the CGI that made the prequel trilogy look like cartoons. The real value of Abrams, though, comes through in his work directing Super 8. If you’re a fan of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you’ll appreciate the way Super 8 uses light and sound to create a mood. Abrams understood what made those older movies special and adapted those elements in a modern film. He mixed a fan’s appreciation with a filmmaker’s expertise. That’s something George Lucas couldn’t do with the prequels; the storyteller can never see his or her own tale through the same lens as the audience.
  2. It looks like a good, new story. The first trailers banked on  familiar imagery – a downed Star Destroyer, lightsabers, Han and Chewie returning home. But look at this one, and seems clear there’s an well-thought-out story that intertwines the fates of several new characters. While the prequels were attempting to tell more of a story wehad already heard, this is uncharted territory.
  3. Prequels are, by nature, a disappointment. The problem with prequels is that, if a story is sufficiently interesting and addictive, fans will write their own prequels in their heads. Everyone who watched Star Wars had an idea of what Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker’s friendship must have been like, how the Old Republic fell, how the Empire rose. The mystery allowed each person to have their own image in their mind. Even if they had been good, the prequels couldn’t match the mythology each Star Wars fan had built in their own minds. (By the way, remember this in a few years when the Hunger Games folks cash in on a prequel showing how Panem was started.)

Early returns are good, so maybe there’s a new hope after all.

America’s Gone Burgundy

For a fake news anchor, Ron Burgundy sure gets a lot of work, doesn’t he?

Will Ferrell has been pimping Anchorman 2 like crazy, all in-character as Burgundy himself.  You’ve seen him peddling Dodges – which Ferrell does for free.  Today, Emerson College attracted the attention of transparent eyeballs everywhere by renaming their communications school after Burgundy for a day while Farrell bums around campus in costume.  Last week he showed up on a North Dakota newscast; tomorrow, he hosts SportsCenter with David Koechner.  (Whammy!)

Adweek posits that the Month of Burgundy will change how movies are promoted.  (That’s probably not true: not every movie could be promoted this way.  Martin Freeman will not spend a month walking around Boston looking like Bilbo Baggins.)

This may seem scattershot, but look closely at this promotion strategy.  It’s actually quite targeted; Farrell and Company are not just throwing anything against the wall to see what sticks.

The audience for Anchorman 2 is most likely 18-35 year olds – and probably the men in that group more so than the women.  The youngest are college students who enjoy the brand of humor, the eldest are people in their mid-20s when the original came out last year.  They are the people dropping cable and consuming entertainment mostly online.  

The idea of Ron Burgundy chilling on the quad at Emerson probably appeals to them, as does the YouTube clips of Farrell showing up in character on a North Dakota news set.  The best chance to reach this group through live TV is probably sports.  Not only does that make the SportsCenter appearance effective, but Farrell’s pro-bono Dodge commercials run during Sunday afternoon football games.  That’s some great real estate to get for free.

It seems like Ron Burgundy is everywhere these days, but don’t be fooled: Papa Burgundy probably knows just what he’s doing.

Why I fear the Atlas Shrugged movie will suck

The timing is perfect for a movie based on Atlas Shrugged.  The political debates waged in the last five years offer a nice backdrop to the hypotheticals Rand came up with more than a half century ago.   So the opening of the movie this weekend should be a cause for celebration.  I haven’t seen it yet (I plan on it), but color me cautious.  Here’s the trailer:

The fact that the film being released this weekend is part of a trilogy is concerning; it implies that the filmmakers are sticking as closely as possible to the original text.  That’s probably a bad idea.  Aside from the oft-repeated concern that stuffing an 1100-page book into a 120-minute motion picture is difficult, the caricatures of lobbyists, crony capitalists, and government officials translate better in print than they are likely to on screen (based on the trailer above).

And, despite the fact that the film is reportedly set in 2016 (the not-too-distant future), the plot revolves around the railroad business.  When Rand wrote the book, railroad barons were not long removed from being cast as the villains of American industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s; today’s audiences can’t relate to that.  More troubling is the promotional strategy.  The Tax Day  release, combined with the heavy influence of FreedomWorks, suggests that traditional movie promotions will not work.  If that’s the case, then Atlas Shrugged will be viewed primarily by conservative audiences who already agree with its messages.  It won’t get widespread exposure to audiences that just want to go see a compelling movie and don’t care about politics.

All of this adds up to a misguided effort to make a movie which drives home a point rather than tells a good story.  Media which forgets entertainment at the expense of politics gets lumped into the latter category and loses its widespread appeal.

There are plenty of reasons why books rarely make it to the screen without major overhauls.  Mario Puzo’s The Godfathertold of the childhood of Vito Corleone and the back stories of several other characters; then the book was translated to film much of those details were skimmed out.  The problem with Atlas Shrugged as a movie is not simply length, but the fact that the book uses that length to unravel a mystery around the core concept of a production strike.

In that central theme is a very compelling movie idea based loosely on (but still true to) Rand’s work.  What if the people who held up the world simply shrugged their responsibility?  Instead of being national in scope, the idea might have been better set in a small town, perhaps with small business owners rather than moguls of industry as the protagonists.  That would help audiences relate to the characters – and ultimately the messages.  After all, who wants to root for a billionaire?  (That’s why the Richie Rich movie lost money at the box office.  Don’t you dare blame John Larroquette.  Don’t you dare.)

With a relatively low $10 million production cost,  the movie will be true to one core Rand value: it is almost guaranteed to make its money back even if it bombs miserably.  Assuming an average ticket price of $7.89, Atlas Shrugged need only sell 1.3 million tickets to cover expenses.  Putting a price tag on the missed opportunity to tell a compelling story for our times is much more difficult.

3 more books that would make good movies

On today’s edition of his podcast, Matt Lewis and I talk about movies – and, like the guys from the Muppet Show who complain from the balcony, we do our share of kvetching because all the big summer blockbusters are either sequels (like Shrek 4 and Sex and the City 2) or remakes of iconic pieces of 1980s pop culture (like the A-Team and the Karate Kid).

Earlier this week, news broke that filming had actually started on another adaptation – a silver screen version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  Aside from having a network of near-guaranteed customers through the tea party movement, Atlas Shrugged is a great story and Rand’s a good, vivid writer.  Outside of being 1100 pages, it’s a book made for the movies.

Matt and I ran out of time before we could get to some other books that ought to be in pictures:

Advise and Consent

We started talking about this briefly.  Yes, this would technically be a remake, but the 1962 adaptation of Allen Drury’s 1959 novel about the politics of personal destruction missed the mark so completely that it deserves a second look.  Set against the backdrop of a Cold War (which the Soviet Union is apparently winning), Drury’s original work involves a Secretary of State nominee with alleged ties to the Communist party.  Drury’s work is decidedly character-driven, and the central theme is how people sometimes get lost in the machinations of winning and losing in political battles.

Witness

This has nothing to do with Harrison Ford or the Amish.  Whittaker Chambers was an editor for Time Magazine who risked his credibility and livelihood to out Alger Hiss as a former Communist.  (The Congressional hearing actually served as the inspiration for Advise and Consent.)  But Chambers’ life leading up to that – acting as a member of the Communist party and establishing Soviet ties – is actually thrilling, as is his and his family’s middle-of-the-night desertion from the Communist Party.  Because of the histrionics of Rep. Joe McCarthy, the extent of Soviet operations in America is one of the under-told stories of the twentieth century.  Obviously, it didn’t work out so well for them (with the only major casualty being Apollo Creed), but it is fascinating that they tried.

Reagan’s Revolution

This one might be a made-for-HBO joint, because of a limited appeal, but political junkies would eat up Craig Shirley’s account of Reagan’s 1976 primary challenge to former President Gerald Ford.  The decision to challenge a sitting President from your own party is difficult enough, but the Reagan campaign had plenty of issues, such as early fundraising challenges and lack of institutional support.  This could be educational – many Americans don’t understand how the Presidential primary process works – but, like any hotly contested primary, it makes for a great story.

Of course, based on Hollywood’s interest in making anything original or non-3D, I expect to see trailers for Airwolf, Go-Bots, and a remake of the remake of Dukes of Hazzard before Witness comes to a theater near you.

But we can hope, right?  What favorite books would you like to see made into a movie?

Who ya gonna call?

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein revealed yesterday that Harry Reid and others feel like the filibuster has been “abused” because it takes days for the Senate to enact cloture votes.  (It sparked an interesting discussion in the Post’s message boards, as well.)

“I file cloture” — the motion to end a filibuster — “to move to discuss the bill on Monday,” Reid explained. “That takes two days to ripen. We don’t have a vote till Wednesday. Once that’s done, Republicans have 30 hours to do nothing. After the 30 hours is up, you’re on the bill. If there’s no amendment offered” — remember, amendments can be filibustered, too — “you file cloture to move to the vote. It takes two days and then another 30 hours. So that’s 60 hours plus four days to vote on the bill. That happened 67 times last year.” You do the math.

One way to make the lawmaking process more efficient would be to reduce the number of people in the legislature, or to merge lawmaking authority with the executive branch.  Cuba, Venezuela, Iraq, North Korea, Germany, France, and others enacted similar systems at various times in history… though it hasn’t gone well.

Otherwise, we all may have to accept that our legislature’s inefficiency is by design.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course.

The filibuster exists to maintain the Senate’s deliberative nature, so the best reform might be to force actual filibusters.  Senators who want to extend debate should actually have to talk.

When Republicans made the same grumblings years ago, they missed an opportunity to demonstrate Democratic obstructionism on judicial nominees. The GOP could have made political hay out of CSPAN clips of Democrats talking endlessly or reading the phone book to keep debate going.  Republican parties in the home states of the filibuster-ers could have organized “Save the Judicial Branch” rallies to protest their talkative Senators.

The problem for Democrats now is that the filibuster is blocking an unpopular piece of legislation.  If I were a Senate Republican, I would welcome the chance to speak on national TV about the future of health care, about federal spending, about the risks of government running anything, and the bribes Democrats are using to win support.  And even the bill’s passage may be a losing proposition.

At the very least, we should all agree that the filibuster should be maintained so that the eventual remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington makes sense.  All in favor… say die: