Revisiting Wyatt Earp, the 1994 Epic Starring Kevin Costner and Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

As I continue to stroll through 1994 for RetroPerspective on The Nerd Party, we hit the week I’d both been anticipating and dreading. The week that saw the release of Disney®©™’s classic animated feature The Lion King (the original one), and…Wyatt Earp, the second take on the legendary law dog six months after the supremely satisfying Tombstone.

Building Anticipation

A script co-written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, famous for Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Big Chill (admission: I still haven’t seen it as of this writing), the clever Western Silverado (also starring Costner), and The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, secured my anticipation. As a nerd and burgeoning film obsessive I felt an obligation to see this movie.

It promised a more sober look at this legendary figure. From the previews, you could tell it was going to be an epic undertaking, informed by sober analysis of the truth behind the myth. This was going to be the mature answer to Tombstone‘s thrilling embrace – and tacit endorsement – of the legendary interpretation of Earp’s life. Tombstone was focused on one period, and the people close to Earp; Wyatt Earp was to be a biographer’s reliable accounting of history.

You could, of course, debate the artistic merit of it being “reliable” when we have documentaries aplenty. You could also debate that with so much apocryphal retelling and Earp’s own supposed self-promotion, accuracy is in the eye of the beholder.

This was the early 1990s though, and the shift in philosophy from romanticizing the Old West, or past in general, to re-examining it through modern sensibilities and judgments was finding fresh footing. In a sense, this philosophical shift is pointedly illuminated by the contrasts between Wyatt Earp and Tombstone.

The Nature of the Discussion

Is it inevitable to discuss Wyatt Earp without mentioning Tombstone? Yes it is.

Costner was originally involved with Tombstone. They battled each other for production services and resources. They filmed close to each other. Costner tried to use his pull to kill Tombstone in any way he could. They were nemesis productions from the start.

They look at the same historical figure and time period. I loved Tombstone, and its embrace of the mythical telling of Earp. It’s terrific.

Did I love Wyatt Earp? Read below. And listen to RetroPerspective for a fun story about one of my viewings of it…and also to find out why my cohost is a monster who doesn’t like The Lion King.

Wyatt Earp Tombstone Cowboy
This is his expression even in the emotional scenes.

My Review of Wyatt Earp from Letterboxd:

This is a stunningly boring film.

Wyatt Earp suffers from a total lack of narrative discipline, and a tendency to meander through events. It’s not even accidentally exciting during the scenes that rely most on adrenaline.

Costner’s Earp is devoid of charm, charisma, and energy. His performance is so deadpan as to suggest the legendary lawman was a part-time narcoleptic. There is an abscence of chemistry between him and his costars that damages the film beyond reclamation.

The overstuffed script would only have worked with the electric aura generated by actors finding those invisible rhythms that thrill an audience. The result is an antiseptic take on a passionate time.

The other performances are fine, but there’s not much for anyone to do except get bogged down in a self-indulgent biopic that mistakes running time for epic scale. It’s kind of mind-boggling to behold the talent onscreen and behind the camera that can’t breathe life into an inherently interesting tale.

I Finally Saw Beverly Hills Cop III and Here’s the Review

As usual, this is one of those reviews that appeared first on Letterboxd.

Once again for RetroPerspective over on TheNerdParty.com, I come upon a film from 1994 that gave me a chance to correct an historical oversight. Why did I miss Beverly Hills Cop III at the time? Aside from critical fizzle, I hadn’t liked Beverly Hills Cop II, and so like any healthy adult I didn’t see the next one.

I held out hope that I’d have the opportunity to buck the conventional wisdom and find a film that had been unfairly maligned. I was ready to let Axel Foley back into my life and find something that, at the very least, was “so bad it’s good.”

Instead, I encountered Beverly Hills Cop III.

Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop III which is a Beverly Hills Cop movie called Beverly Hills Cop III featuring Eddie Murphy but not Craigula.
Eddie Murphy looks just as baffled as the audience.

This movie is terrible. In the litany of 1994 “terrible” movies that I’ve encountered, it’s terrible in a very special way. It’s so bad as to make you *feel bad* for the talented people involved. Unlike Deadfall, this is something where you can’t even come up with a legitimate reason for why things wouldn’t come together.

John Landis was a proven director. Eddie Murphy, though fading by this point, was a major star. Steven deSouza is a successful screenwriter. Everything should have worked. It doesn’t, though. It’s like a band of talented musicians who just can’t get in rhythm together and become a nightmarish supergroup like Hollywood Vampires.

You want this movie to succeed in some way. You see people trying to make something worthwhile. But there is a magnificent lifelessness to the scenes, all the way from how they’re lit to how they’re performed. This is people going through the motions, collecting a check and hoping that someone else will provide whatever’s missing.

The resultant movie is a listless half-narrative that even botches its fan service and callbacks to the first film. This is a movie in desperate need of an identity, without any idea how to build one. It’s constructed as an action film, executed without a sense of urgency or peril. It’s got elements of a comedy film, without the timing or goodwill to execute the comedy for a laugh.

I can say that, for all the great films that came out that year, 1994 had more than enough of its share of stinkers. Beverly Hills Cop III stands out among them because it had the money and the talent to be something great, and instead is the cinematic equivalent of a well-polished turd. Is it as bad as On Deadly Ground? No, it is not. But On Deadly Ground is so insanely bad as to be a modern marvel. Beverly Hills Cop III is terrible in a boring way.

I’ll go ahead and spoil the one truly worthwhile moment in the movie for you. Go look up “George Lucas Cameo Beverly Hills Cop III” and enjoy the only point where there seemed to be any real energy onscreen. Which, given Lucas’ reputation for maintaining a lowly-expressive demeanor, is ironic as all get-out.

Save yourself the precious time and money to see this. It’s not worth it.

“Masters of the Universe”: The Unrecognized Trailblazer in Making Kids’ Properties Grittier and Darker

In discussing movies recently with a pal of mine, he mentioned he had recently rewatched Masters of the Universe. For those of you unfamiliar, it’s a 1987 movie that had the dubious honor of trying to turn He-Man and his friends (and enemies!) into box office icons.

It had a name cast, if not an all-star one, and featured future 1990s television and film icons like Courtney Cox (Friends, Scream) and Robert Duncan McNeill (Star Trek: Voyager). The hero was played by fresh star Dolph Lundgren, still enjoying his success playing Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. The main villain, Skeletor, was played by screen legend Frank Langella.

Much like The Transformers, He-Man was a dominant cartoon of the 1980s; a thirty-minute ad blitz with crazy stories based on the action figures from Eternia. The entire premise of everything was silly, but it was high drama to kids.

Though people think it’s a new-ish thing for movies to try to bring toys and cartoons into “real world situations,” it isn’t. Marvel®©™ movies are basically that exact thing, but they struck lucky gold when they got Robert Downey, Jr. to star in a Jon Favreau movie.

Reliable templates before Marvel®©™’s Iron Man were few and far between; the belief was that, if you’re going to bring it life you need to make it “dark.” This was supported by the occasional franchise-starters like BatmanThe Crow, or Blade, which relied on making things darker and grittier.

The problem is that the material doesn’t always lend itself to that. But I’m not here to offer a review of the movie, which remains one of my guiltiest pleasures. No, enough digital ink has been spilled to both praise and bury Masters of the Universe.

I’m here to talk about its unrecognized cinematic impact.

Courtney Cox in Masters of the Universe which is a He-Man movie starring Courtney Cox called Masters of the Universe.
That’s Courtney “Friends” Cox tending to Robert Duncan “Voyager” McNeill as Dolph “Drago” Lundgren oversees things.

Masters of the Universe Made it Dark, FIRST

Back to the point at hand, when my pal said he’d watched Masters of the Universe, a sudden realization occurred. He mentioned how “dimly lit” the final fight between He–Man and Skeletor was. Everything rushed into my brain about the look of that film, and the amazing fact of its darkness, in general.

I remembered when Skeletor’s barge (?) floated into town between the two worlds at night. I remembered Skeletor’s creepy skull-head design, as they took his skull face and adapted it to the makeup capabilities of the time. I remembered how gritty and used the world was made to look, and the grim re-imagining of Skeletor’s horde of henchmen. The grim design of his soldiers, with their shiny black evil and capes, marched into my mind’s eye.

I realized that, in 1987, Masters of the Universe had ushered in the gritty, dark adaptation of kid-friendly properties. It had busted the door down two years before Tim Burton managed it with the genre-shifting Batman!

I’m ashamed to have come to this realization now. I can’t believe it’s been this long to arrive here. I’m stunned no one else has pointed out this irrevocable historical cinema fact.

I just can't do it with this one. The keywords joke can't touch this.
It’s not about budget, it’s about design!

Reclaiming History

I think it’s time to let Masters of the Universe rightly reclaim its place in film history. For too long, people have overlooked a truly influential film that changed the way things were done!

This movie was dark before it was cool. It was imagination run wild, mixing magical fantasy and space-age technology on a scale not seen since Krull. It fully embraced an aesthetic that would be attributed to Batman‘s influence, simply because the fanboys love Batman and insist on holding it up as a standard.

We get blinded by box office success. Masters of the Universe had a more targeted audience and a smaller budget. Batman was carried forward by marketing and a giant base of fans that was multi-generational.

We should move away from the toxic obsession with comic book heroes and recognize a real trailblazer. We should recognize Masters of the Universe.

One Final Note

By the way, since some people don’t pay attention all the way through my posts, I’m totally screwing with everyone. Since you’ve made it this far, I feel you’ve earned this. You’re in on the joke.

This is one of those posts highlighting the absurdity of the majority of online “analysis” and “criticism” we get. Twitter makes it even worse, too, as people trot out half-baked quasi-intellectual takes based on nothing more than knee-jerk emotionalism.

By the end of this, I’ll have put together more than 800 words heaping fake praise on something that I openly acknowledge as a nostalgic curio. If you were to subtract this final section, you’d be convinced that I honestly came to this conclusion without irony. The arguments can’t be disproven so much as disputed, because it’s contained within a perfect bubble of self-assurance.

It’s like an article on just about any opinion site you frequent! I just don’t have a social media army to push this out to the world and legitimize it. [HINT, HINT.]

At the honest best, Masters of the Universe is a magnificently cheesy misfire. As pointed out by my friend “Old Joe,” it was bad enough to kill a successful toy franchise.

I still love it, but just because it looks exactly like the movie that would be made by a kid if you gave them a copy of The Dark Knight Returns, some He-Man figures, a large bag of Skittles, and locked them in a room to come up with ideas.

Frank Langella as Skeletor in Masters of the Universe which is a He-Man movie starring Frank Langella as Skeletor in a movie called Masters of the Universe.
That’s *Frank Langella*.

Also, in case you were wondering, when I mentioned Krull earlier, that was part of the joke, too. That movie’s terrible.

I Don’t Know What to Write for a Mother’s Day Post

There’s this odd burden to participate in the trending topics, or holiday hashtags, even when you’re on a quasi-retreat from Social Media. As such, we find ourselves at Mother’s Day.

In years past, I’d have written up some special memory of my late mother. That in and of itself was a fine tradition. I enjoy remembering my mom, especially after so long a time has passed without her. It’s still disorienting to think that the memory of her is all I can share with people, and that she’s been gone so long.

It gets harder to recall people over time. Enough distance weakens the tether that holds you to their memory.

That’s the way life is, though. We lose and we move forward. Eventually, we’re someone else’s loss.

It’s easy to forget that some people don’t have great relationships with their moms. Holidays like this, loaded with the sense of obligation to honor someone because of their honorific, have to be weird for them.

That’s also a part of life. We could parse any holiday – any event at all – into categories of pain. Pain is as much a part of life as anything else. It’s like a grand subway where, eventually, we have to stop somewhere that sucks.

As much as I don’t want to revisit certain memories on Mother’s Day, I do. I’m grateful that I had a mom that I loved, and who loved me, and who I can remember. Even if it’s only in stolen snippets, I can remember those sense impressions and how hard she worked to make my world make sense.

I don’t really write about those moments very much anymore, because I decided that not everyone has a right to them. Memories of loved ones who’ve passed on to their eternal rest are to be treasured and shared with those whom we love and trust.

That’s not the internet at large. I used to think differently about that sort of thing. I used to work to commemorate her at every chance for the public at large. Maybe I’ll feel like sharing those memories again at some point in the future.

Maybe writing about these thoughts acts as a testament to the tremendous love and respect I still have for a woman who shaped me into what I think is a pretty decent guy. In a way, I don’t know if I think the world at large deserves to know her as well as I did. I don’t know if the world at large deserved her at all.

So I’ll say a small prayer and sing a sad song for a mother long gone. If I’m right about the way things work, she knows I’m thinking of her today. She knows I’m thinking of her every day.

She knows her son still misses her. She’ll also know he’s happy to have had the time he had with her. She’ll know he’s glad she made sure it counted, even when he was insufferably unaware of how lucky he was.

She’ll know, especially, that he’s just as addicted to a late-night bowl of cereal as she was, and that he thinks of her when he has one.

Happy Mother’s Day.

20140511-230744.jpg
Fine, here’s her picture from long ago.

 

 

 

On the Topic of the Documentary about Flat-Earthers, “Behind the Curve,” on Netflix

We live in interesting times. I was pointed toward a documentary about members (adherents? disciples?) of the Flat Earth movement that’s currently showing on Netflix, called Behind the Curve.

The documentary primarily follows Mark Sargent, a prominent evangelist for the Flat Earth movement that has taken on a bit of momentum in recent years. We meet others as well, from Patricia Steere to Math Powerland (no, really).

Each of these people seems sincere in their beliefs. That could easily make this a challenging watch. It’s not, though. It’s fascinating. In many cases the subject matter is stronger than the structure at play, but it all comes together to create a compelling moment. It’s certainly one I won’t forget.

Flat Earth is a bunch of bunk, but I want to give people a hug and tell them it's OK that the world is crazy and scary.
The flat-hand signal there is apparently the “salute” (?) that Flat Earthers give.

I have to give the documentary a lot of credit for remaining kind in the treatment of its subjects. It’s a force of habit for many people simply to ridicule and deride others who don’t believe accepted doctrine.

This is especially true when it comes to accepted consensus. You need only to turn on your television to see everyone from Neil Degrasse Tyson to Stephen Colbert turning derisive sneering into an oft-lucrative art form.

In short, it’s easy to call someone “stupid” or “crazy” and move on with your life. It’s an emotional bloodsport we’ve elevated to a place of great honor in our society. Everything from sitcoms to Twitter have reinforced the idea that the best way to deal with “heterodox” thought is to tear down the person.

I agree instead with the person speaking at a convocation of scientists, captured in this movie. He points out that many of the people who believe things as outlandish as flat earth theory, faked moon landings, or the artistic merit of The English Patient, aren’t stupid people.

In many cases, they’re intelligent people who would benefit greatly from empathetic communication. They can and should be spoken to with a presumption of respect and intelligence, and work from there.

Calling someone stupid simply stops the conversation. Finding out why they believe something like Flat Earth Theory can go a long way toward understanding how to discuss it with them. If you start from a point of disrespect and attack, any human being is going to go into a defensive mode and stop listening.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you shouldn’t point out the flaws in their reasoning. You’re not obliged to go along with a delusion, as much as that seems to be the cultural norm these days. It’s fine to pretend someone you love is Teddy Roosevelt, but only so long as you’re Abby and Martha Brewster.

There will also be people you simply can’t reach. It might be beyond your personal ability. That’s OK, let them encounter someone else who can continue the conversation.

By and large, the movie does a terrific job of approaching these people sympathetically. Where it fails is that it diverges every so often from the intellectually curious to the self-righteous, as if it’s forgetting its own lesson.

Then it wraps up with a moment that needed more exploration than being interspersed with the end credits. A Flat Earth group, doing an experiment to prove that curvature is a lie, fails. Instead of continuing to explore their reaction to the failure in detail, it’s seemingly played for a chuckle. That’s all well and good, but undercuts the empathetic approach advocated earlier in the movie.

There’s another experiment earlier in the movie that works against another set of Flat Earthers, but that’s not followed up, either. It’s left dangling, and as a viewer I was unsatisfied that it was discarded and we just kept moving.

You can’t help but feel like the movie moves past these moments because the director can’t completely resist the default urge to mock just a little bit. That may feed into the perspective of other viewers, but for me it just doesn’t work.

In all, it’s a worthwhile movie to watch. If anything, it’s a fascinating exploration of the human desire to be important, to be heard, and to be special. It’s a testament to what makes conspiracy theories enduringly powerful; their adherents can hold a claim to intelligence and perception beyond the average.

There are undoubtedly conspiracies in this world. But we should approach the claims of them with extreme skepticism. The burden of proof should be on the people proving them to exist, not vice versa.

In short, I recommend this movie to you, if you have Netflix.

This review can also be found on my Letterboxd profile. Share and share alike, as it were. I also talk about it on a podcast. Cheers!