Sunday, January 30, 2011

Review: Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars: A New Hope

I think that George Lucas, after years of fielding questions about Alderaanian nerf-herding and Dathomirian rancor-riding, genuinely hates his fans. As proof, I submit the addition of Jabba the Hutt into the “special edition” of Star Wars: A New Hope. Jabba appears in a scene that was added thirty years after the movie’s original release and is now attached to every DVD and Blu-Ray release. In other words, Lucas has made this scene all but impossible to avoid.

In the scene, Jabba the Hutt, a nefarious gangster, gives our hero Han Solo a good tongue-lashing.* Solo had dumped cargo that he had been smuggling for Jabba, and Jabba is understandably upset. Solo promises to pay him pack, Jabba says “Cool, ‘tevs,” in Huttese and they go their separate ways. What’s so wrong with that, you may ask? Am I just whining because I fear change?

Actually, as a child of the ’90s, the Jabba version of Star Wars was the one that I saw first. I didn’t have any particular problem with it, but bear in mind that at that point I also liked rat tails, pogs, and Return of Jafar. So I’m not complaining out of a sense of nostalgia for the original. I’m complaining out of a sense of this-is-a-friggin-terrible-piece-of-movie-making.

1. Every fact this scene gives us is redundant. Approximately 90 seconds earlier, Han Solo had been cornered by a bounty hunter who told him (and the audience) the EXACT SAME information. We learn that Han owes money, that Han jettisoned his cargo, that Han has a price on his head. The audience begins to understand that behind his posturing, Han is actually kind of a desperate lowlife deeply in dept.

If anything, the added scene dilutes this information, because when Han actually meets with his creditor, Jabba sounds a lot more reasonable than expected. Han breezily buys himself more time and goes about his business. Most of the tension is lost, all thanks to Jabba the Hutt actually being a patient and understanding guy. Which leads me to…

2. CGI Jabba the Hutt is completely different from his first appearance in Return of the Jedi. As I just mentioned, Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars Special Edition is a complete pushover. He butters Han with compliments, yelps and pouts when Han steps on him, and is quickly shouted down when trying to set the interest rate that Han will pay. There doesn’t seem to me much reason for Han (or the audience) to be afraid of him, which is sort of weird, since he is a bad guy.

Compare that to how Jabba first appeared in Return of the Jedi: as a cruel and stubborn psychopath. He feeds people to monsters for fun and laughs at their screams. When Han begs for release in exchange for tripling his money, Jabba doesn’t let him finish his sentence. He has slaves and a torture chamber. He’s not exactly scary in the horror movie sense of the word, but it is clear that he is a Bad Guy, and not to be messed with.

Also, consider how his appearance changes.

3. CGI Jabba is bad for acting. Harrison Ford as Han Solo is, without a doubt, the best thing about the Star Wars trilogy, thanks to his unflappable charisma and sardonic humor. And yet Ford can’t quite pull this scene off. His eyes never quite focus on the green worm in front of him (understandably), and the longer the scene goes on, the stronger our sense that he is talking to himself. We’re reminded that we’re watching actors in a movie, that the spaceport is really a studio lot in L.A.

4. CGI Jabba is bad for storytelling. Lucas says he wanted to “introduce” Jabba to the people watching Star Wars. First of all, who wants to introduce a character long before the character has anything to contribute to the story? Second of all, if a character’s purpose is to be a figure of dread, it’s far more effective to have them unseen until the last moment; this way, a viewer’s imagination can do the work. If Jaws had started with three minutes of footage of the shark swimming around eating chum, the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.

5. CGI Jabba looks fake. No one would describe Jedi‘s puppet Jabba as “realistic,” but it had a physical presence. It looked like you could reach out your hand, touch the skin, and get your hand slimy. But watch the way Han walks around Jabba in the new scene: check out the video at 52 seconds and tell me it doesn’t look like he’s walking through a ghost. If Han doesn’t actually step through virtual Jabba, he certainly invades his personal space, thus ignoring the ancient proverb, “Angle your face away from those who eat raw frogs.”

Watching it as an adult, it’s agonizing just how inescapably BAD this scene is, a rancid fart that lingers in the air even after it has passed. It’s only a minute and thirty seconds, but it takes me completely out of the movie. I’m reminded of the cartoonish and insubstantial nature of the prequels, of their terrible acting, of the propensity for self-indulgence that has become Lucas’ trademark. And while I’m thinking of these things, it’s awfully hard to focus on the story that is taking place far, far away.


A postscript: There are a total of four special edition changes that are acceptable to me. 1) Digitally restoring color, 2) digitally restoring sound, 3) Replacing candle-faced emperor with Ian McDiarmid in Empire,** 4) Replacing “Yub yub” song with a new orchestral piece at the end of Jedi. All other changes are crap.

*Not literally. Sorry for the mental image.

** This change is on thin ice, but Ian McDiarmid is awesome. He’s possibly the best thing about Return of the Jedi, and certainly the best thing about Revenge of the Sith.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Attention world! Jesse Reviews The World is moving!

That's right, yinz...My judgments will now be displayed on the easy-to-remember This site will stay up, but all new content will happen on the new site.
I am pleased as pickles about all of this!

There will likely be a few tweaks to the site as I go on, and please let me know if you have trouble viewing anything.

In conclusion, yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay.

(of, dontcha know)

Review: Snow Days

First, I should state that I love my job working at a school and am grateful to have it. The kids, parents, and teachers are all wonderful, and the Waldorf philosophy is super cool. All that said...


Snow days are very exciting to me because I almost never had them growing up. This was in Denver, a city founded by Grizzled Prospectors who took wading in three feet of snow for granted.
Pictured: Jefferson Q. Denver cuts the ribbon unveiling the new city hall, circa 1875.

So whenever the streets would fill with snow, the school board members or whoever would call each other up and say, "People here have chains on their tires and cross country skis, right? Right. School stays open." I kid you not when I say I only had ONE school day in my thirteen years in the Jefferson County school system, despite the fact that there were more than ONE blizzards on school days.

But now...ah, Pittsburgh, you know what's up. You can recognize a sign from the universe when it clears it cosmic throat. Now I have a day dedicated to eating toast, practicing piano, working on my website, and possibly dancing in my room to "Sugarfoot."

The only downside to snow days, once you're an adult, is that you don't get paid for not working, so my celebrations today should probably be of a frugal variety. Still, you've got to treat yourself every once in a while, and if you can't, it's nice of Mother Nature to do the treating.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Review: Reasoning With Vampires

My challenge to you: whoever you are, write, sing, paint, dance, and whittle without worrying overly much if you are any good. For even if you are awful, terrible art can spawn interesting things. Consider Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books. They are wretched (at least the first one is... I didn't read any further), yet if the world did not have them, there would not be my brother's Brooding Love spoof, a Buffy/Edward mash-up, or the topic of today's review: the "Reasoning With Vampires" Tumblr feed.

"Reasoning With Vampires" is a blog wholly devoted to examining the writing of the Twilight books page for page and line for line. It mercilessly attacks all aspects of Meyer's prose, including but not limited to word choice, parallel structure, themes, character development and punctuation. The blog updates with remarkable regularity, posting frames that look like homework ravaged by the most overzealous English teacher of all time.

The author – in searching the site, I've only found her first name, Dana – can be scathingly funny, and her writing advice is virtually always correct. I particularly appreciate the passages that focus on clarity and brevity (or lack thereof) Meyer, as with many other hack writers, has a tendency to stuff paragraphs with superfluous detail, and this fluff virtually never makes it past Dana's BS detectors. Take a look at a recent post tagged "Just read the yellow" for a prime example:

I'm less of a fan of Dana's endless critiques of improper comma placement, ellipses usage, and other grammatical misdemeanors. I'm a fan of good writing, but I've never really believed that to split an infinitive is to promptly summon the end times. I'm more aligned with author David Crystal, who, in his excellent The Fight For English, notes that our language is really weird. English is riddled with loopholes and contradictions and archaic rules that were originally intended for Latin. A strict no-exceptions attitude, like the one Dana maintains, seems inappropriate except in passages where the author's intent is obscured. But maybe I'm just defensive since Dana hates on sentences that begin with conjunctions, a grammatical no-no that I nonetheless appreciate for the way it mimics speech.

Even when I am in complete agreement with Dana's critiques, I sometimes take issue with her tone. Dana vacillates between irritation and complete outrage. She calls Stephanie Meyers names ("Stephylococcus"), edits the writing so it insults itself, and tags her posts with notes like "vomit." In case these touches are too subtle, she also frequently writes "I really hate reading Twilight."

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that mercilessly mocking things should be fun. I am not defending Twilight, which is a melodramatic, boring, misogynistic transcript of an immature fourteen-year-old's wet dream. But it's also pretty funny, albeit unintentionally, and Dana would do well to acknowledge this more often. For example, in the hilarious Youtube series "Alex Reads Twilight," there is still an acknowledgment of Twilight's essential failings but also a general sense of gleeful bemusement.* The host (Alex) knows that he's reading garbage, and he snorts and giggles and arches his eyebrows through the whole thing.

I think "Reasoning With Vampires" is secretly having fun as well, but it needs to reveal its exuberance far more often. That said, it's worth checking out for some good writing tips and occasional laugh-out-loud moments.** And even on "Reasoning With Vampires" worst days, I'm glad that it exists, because it spawned this review, which will hopefully someday inspire a snarky take-down of its own.


*Yes, the use of the word "bemusement" was a test of how picky an English stickler you are. I know the real meaning is confused, but I like the popular misuse of the word: a combination of baffled and amused. There's no other word for that exact sentiment, and plenty that mean confused, so let's change it! It's our language, and we'll change definitions if we want to.***


*** And we'll end sentences with prepositions if we want to.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Review: 2010

Two thousand ten was a year of transition, of driving figuratively and literally from one place to the next. After a certain point in life, you see, people stop telling you what to do next, and I was fairly unprepared for this development. As a result, the year was marked by both freedom and existential crises, two great tastes that taste great together.

So I tried out some jobs, very few of which were related to my major, and some of which even paid money. I then had money, so I made some Excel spreadsheets detailing a budget. This budget was then ignored until the beginning of the next month, when I would fume and curse my irresponsibility and create a new spreadsheet.

Despite this irresponsibility, I feel I packed a fair amount into 2010.  I bought my first car, (which I named Franklin) and I drove back and forth across the country, eventually settling in a new city with an incomprehensible road system. I started playing piano for churches and an improvisational movement group. I did arranging and notation for a CD called "Awesome I Am Multiplying." I also found time to start a blog, record two albums with my Happy Camper & the Bees compatriots, and read more books than I ever did in college.

All of those things are great, but I'd be lying if I said that I was the type to handle transitions well. The first three months in Pittsburgh were overall pretty rough, as I wondered exactly how long my savings would keep me afloat. Throughout college, people had asked me what I planned to do with a music major, to which I invariably replied, "Live in a box," but once actually in a city, and a cold one at that, boxes seemed less appealing.

The world outside my own personal bubble seemed strained and unpleasant as well. I'm sure there was good news as well, but a lot of 2010 seemed like super-villain schemes come to fruition, such as:

• An oil spill the size of the moon
• A thick layer of volcanic ash coating Europe
• Miners trapped underground for weeks
• A neon-orange mannequin taking control of the House of Representatives

I didn't have any such catastrophes in my own life in 2010; the worst I had to suffer through was uncertainty. Still, uncertainty, paired with under/unemployment and staying inside a house too long, can quickly mutate into suspicion that one is wasting one's least, this happened to me on multiple occasions, despite the fact I was contributing to the world such gems as a review of granola.

But 2010 was book-ended nicely. At both the opening and close of the year, I found myself with steady, enjoyable employment,  and wonderful free time to spend with friends and family. The beginning and end of 2010 were good reminders that tricky transition times are important because they encourage me to seek support from others, and other people are, in the final review, pretty rad.

Also, I got engaged. High fives all around! Plus three bonus points!

Grade: B

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Review: Tangled

If you're the Walt Disney Animation Studio,* you probably want to pretend that the last ten years didn't happen. A slew of critical and commercial bummers (Home on the Range, Treasure Planet) caused Disney to announce that they would be discontinuing hand-drawn features and switching to CGI**. Unfortunately, no one really cared about the CGI Disney Movies either (Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons), probably because they looked like they would be stupid.

But Disney has been in trouble before, and they've always recovered via the cunning application of princesses. Disney's first full-length animated picture was Snow White, and Cinderella revived the struggling studio in the wake of World War II. When Don Bluth's rival animation company was eating away at Disney profits in the 80s, a mermaid princess saved the day. So it's only fitting that the besieged studio would yet again turn to damsels in distress to rescue them. In its earnest, beautiful, and generally charming 50th feature, Tangled, Disney returns to its roots***.

Tangled, in case you haven't seen the posters full of hair, is a straight-forward and earnest retelling of the story of Rapunzel (Mandy Moore). Rapunzel, a princess (yaaaaay!) with magical glowing hair, is kidnapped by a selfish witch who keeps her locked in a tower all her life. Despite being fed lies about the dangers of the outside world, Rapunzel longs to explore. So when a dashing thief named Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi) arrives, she jumps at the chance to participate in life outside her tower, which of course consists of bouncy musical numbers, hyper-intelligent animals, and twue wuv.

Does this sound familiar? Disney seems to have taken the elements that worked for them in hits past and pasted them together. There's a near-kiss on a boat, some very Aladdin-eque chase scenes, and a dramatic moment towards the end that is lifted almost beat for beat from the end of Beauty and the Beast. Even the characters feel a bit like they're in a sequel; Rapunzel doesn't stray far from the typical princess mold, and Flynn is basically Robin Hood, albeit a human rather than a fox.

  "Lookin' good."

All this copying would be a bigger problem if the final product wasn't so enjoyable. The story-telling is witty and fast-paced, and most of the dialogue crackles. The songs are catchy and heart-tingling, especially the gorgeous "I See the Light," which has been stuck in my head for a week and a half now. Also, the Disney team seems to have finally grasped CGI animation; the visuals are breath-taking. and the characters move with the same grace that characterized the old hand-drawns.

Tangled is also nice because of all of the "kid movie" stuff that it omits. You will be pleased to learn that Tangled does not include:

Fart Jokes
Talking animals
Pop culture references
Ridiculous disco moves
The phrase "That's GOTTA hurt!"
Justin Bieber

Despite the above list, Tangled isn't perfect. Though the voice work is great, the chemistry between the leads takes some time to grow. The mix of Classic Disney innocence with Emperor's-New-Groove-style snarkiness occasionally clashes. And the big build-up to the end, a requirement for any Disney adventure, feels a bit forced. I guarantee you will be able to think of at least eight ways the protagonists could have handled the situation better.

But no matter. Tangled is the best Disney product I've seen in years, filled with humor, great music, and some warm n' fuzzy emotional manipulation. Though I doubt it'll completely blow your mind, it might remind you why you liked Disney movies and their kingdoms and their princesses and their (SPOILER ALERT) happy endings in the first place.


*If you are the Walt Disney Animation Studio, you should introduce me to Alan Menken. That dude writes some dang good melodies.

**Computer Generated Imagery

*** I swear I didn't notice that this was a hair-related pun until the final edit. Don't hate.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review: Santa Claus

There is no Santa Claus.

Yes, there was a guy named St. Nicholas and yes there are Santas in malls and yes Santa lives in your hearts and minds in a Mufasa-like way but the fact remains that there

ain't no Santa Claus.

I'm writing this extra big with the hope that some kid will pass by the computer as the words appear and will know the truth sooner rather than later. To some, this may seemly like a Grinchly wish on my part, a cruel humbuggy desire to crush dreams. Why would you want to make a child jaded so quickly?

This line of thinking, to me, is analogous to the following logic: Bob tells his kids that he is taking them to Disneyland, and they cheer and get in the car. Rob notices that Bob has actually printed out the Mapquest directions to the dentist, so Rob tells the kids their true destination. The kids cry and cry as the dentist tells them they seriously for-real-this-time need to floss. Who's the jerk here, Bob or Rob?*

The inevitable traumatizing discovery that Santa is make-believe is one reason that the whole Santa business is stupid. There's also the messages implicit in the Santa story. Pro-Santa factions want you to believe that underlying moral is that goodness will be rewarded in a magical, spritely way. Here's what you can really take away from the Santa narrative:

1. An old white guy is watching you, day in and day out (for a crass 'n' explicit but funny article that carries this thinking to its logical conclusion, click here)
2.There are two types of people, good and evil.
3. If you are good, the old white guy will bring you whatever you want, while his wife stays home and makes cookies or something.
4. Even weirdos can sometimes be helpful, albeit only in unusual, desperate situations (Rudolph).

But teaching kids that Santa is real carries a bigger message: parents will straight-up lie when the lie is cute or funny. To me, the whole Santa narrative seems like something cooked up by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; it feels like a sardonic tale designed to demonstrate the folly of faith. When parents teach their kids 1) a virgin had a baby, 2) an enormous star blocked out the sky for weeks, and 3) reindeer can fly around the world in a night – and then later the kid gets ridiculed by classmates for setting out reindeer food – well, it calls into question the whole idea of trusting your parents about miraculous things. That's right, parents, you heard me: Santa Claus will destroy your child's faith in the Baby Jesus.

Is there no room for magical stories? Sure there is. If you want to tell your kids that their presents come from a magic chubby NSA reject rather than from loving family members, go for it. But TELL THEM IT'S MAKE-BELIEVE, like Saturday morning cartoons or the idea that Obama was born in Kenya. Because lying to kids isn't nice. It's naughty.


P.S. I wasn't sure how to work this in, but Santa got another demerit for all of the God-awful songs written about him. "Santa Baby," in particular, is scabbed-over vomit in musical form, and nothing will ever convince me otherwise.


Monday, December 27, 2010

Review: Christmas

Rapping Jingle Bells Bear will tell all you sucka MCs the true meaning of Christmas.

Celebrating Christmas* is a lot like attending the buffet at China King. There are an overwhelming number of options to choose between, and you will surely become sick if you try to enjoy them all. After all, many of them have been stewing in their own juices for too long.

When I talk of options, I'm referring to the fact that Christmas tries to be approximately 50,000 things at once. It's a joyous festival with feasting and singing! No, it's a contemplative observance of the winter solstice! It's a celebration of the birth of Jesus! It's a celebration of the birth of Santa! It's the money-making engine of the American economy! It's a time to focus your attention on your family while widening your perspective to encompass the poor and the homeless. It's for everyone, but also it's explicitly Christian. It's a gleefully solemn, religiously secular invitation to celebrate the simple things in life by drowning in a Wassail-pot of material fluff.

To accompany these glut of interpretations comes a plethora of traditions, some of which are frankly kind of stupid. I happen to really like evergreen trees and white lights, but I've never seen a party that benefitted from the inclusion of mistletoe, candy canes, or the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Of course, I say to each their own particular traditions**, but I suspect that the sheer number of rituals that people feel they ought to do is why this such a stressful time for so many.

But just because there is too much going on doesn't mean there aren't good choices in the mix. I've got my own custom-fitted Christmas: it should be Dickensian, with both eerie mystery and Fezziwig-style festivity (plucky orphans with Cockney accents optional). No radio music should be played during the month of December, but four-part carols, the Hallelujah Chorus, and Vince Guaraldi are all acceptable. Pizza should be et at some point following the opening of presents. As for presents, they should be as bountiful as stars in the skies.

That's the magic of buffets; by combining elements that are rad, one can create a masterpiece of sorts. Of course, since Christmas is best shared with others, one must also do a fair amount of bartering (one plastic snowman outside in exchange for one singing of "Jingle Bell Rock"). Still, I think people can cobble together a pretty neat holiday by using some good communication skills. Christmas is a cornucopia of wonderful and terrible rituals, theologies and expectations, and though I sometimes grumble at the abysmal taste of others, I'm glad for the bounty of choice.


*It is my opinion that the letter "T" in the word Christmas should be overemphasized.
**But in my follow-up review, I will tear one stupid tradition to shreds.