The Cynical Optimist is no fan of Rick McCallum

Disclaimer: The Cynical Optimist is an opinion column filled with, you guessed it, opinions of a very cynical, critical nature.

LucasFilm’s Rick McCallum is a person of unquestioning obedience. If you’re not familiar with the name, McCallum is a producer known for his collaborations with filmmaker George Lucas. Actually, calling McCallum a collaborator is rather misleading…

From The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles to the Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition and the much-maligned Prequel Trilogy, McCallum has been Lucas’s most esteemed yes-man for more than twenty years.

He’s the creator’s lap dog essentially – a professional stooge. McCallum is unflappable in his ability to inflate George Lucas’s already enlarged ego while simultaneously elevating everything LucasFilm does to a mythic, God-like status — including “Red Tails,” which is… a really, really bad film.

Let’s start with the recent New York Times article about Lucas retiring from blockbuster filmmaking:

“But otherwise, “Red Tails” will be the last blockbuster Lucas makes. “Once this is finished, he’s done everything he’s ever wanted to do,” says Rick McCallum, who has been producing Lucas’s films for more than 20 years. “He will have completed his task as a man and a filmmaker.”

Firstly, Lucas retired from filmmaking in 1999, didn’t he? Secondly, in every single interview or behind-the-scenes featurette I’ve seen with McCallum, he’s kissing George’s ass. I mean seriously, “He will have completed his task as a man and a filmmaker?”

I like to imagine most conversations between George and Rick go something like this:

George: So we’re going to have Anakin jump around and say “Yippee!” and “Oops!” a lot and accidentally save the day through a series of hilarious and mischievous merrymaking.

Rick: I love it, George. This is your ultimate vision!

George: And then we’ll have Jar Jar Binks, who will also be clumsy and idiotic – you see, I want the Star Wars films to be like stanzas in a poem, everything has to rhyme…

Rick: Oh that’s great, George. I love Jar Jar Binks – what a fascinating, multi-dimensional character you’ve created!

George: Did I mention that Anakin Skywalker is going to build C-3P0?

Rick: WOW! What an amazing revelation, George! Who would have thought!?!

And so on and so forth. When it comes to a billionaire’s intellectual property, there is no peer review – no collaboration whatsoever. I’ve heard horror stories from former LucasFilm employees whose creativity and imagination were smothered by Lucas’s own domineering ways. He’s not interested in your ideas, just your obedience.
As far as Rick McCallum is concerned, he’s just doing his job. McCallum’s job is bringing George’s vision to life – no matter how underwhelming and harebrained it might be. I suppose if I were in his position I would be too preoccupied cashing checks to consider the artistic integrity (or narrative quality) of what I was peddling to the masses.

Which brings me to Star Wars: Underworld, the live-action television series. According to McCallum, there are fifty scripts written, collecting dust on the shelf waiting for an economically feasible way to be produced.

Set between “Revenge of the Sith” and “A New Hope,” the series is about the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars universe. Gangsters, smugglers, bounty hunters and assassins would take the spotlight, giving us all a much-needed respite from somersaulting Jedi Knights, Padawan Learners and Clone Troopers.

In a recent update, MovieHole told you about a scoop from Ain’t It Cool News involving a major plot point from the series:

“One of the series’ first episodes will involve a group of bandits acquiring the capability of time travel, and using it to travel back in time to stop Darth Vader from ever existing.”

First off, if the technology to travel through time is available in the Original Trilogy timeline, why isn’t the Rebellion concerned with obtaining it to stop the Empire? Wouldn’t it be ideal to travel through time and assassinate Palpatine? Screw the Death Star plans, Bothan Spies would definitely sacrifice themselves if it meant the galaxy never knew the oppression of the Empire.

Better yet, can these time bandits use this device to go back in time and stop George Lucas from making the Prequels?
It becomes more and more obvious that Lucas does’t understand his own creation at all. He has no idea why people love it and why people get so frustrated with his continued tinkering and tampering. Star Wars is at its best when George isn’t behind the wheel – look at “The Empire Strikes Back,” directed by Irvin Kirshner and written by “Raiders of the Lost Ark” scribe Lawrence Kasdan.

Time travel aside, wasn’t the whole point of this series to get away from the Skywalker storyline and start exploring new ideas and characters? I’m assuming it’s because Darth Vader is a costume and a voice – and the character can be replicated, unlike Luke, Leia or Han who can’t be recast. I’m willing to bet we’ll see Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO and a half-dozen other cameos of characters in masks and suits.

This has happened with the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series already. What started as a great show has degraded in value as George and his daughter Katie take a more hands-on role with the show. Tune in weekly now to see throwaway cameos by Greedo, Bossk, Sy Snootles, Admiral Ackbar, Boba Fett and Chewbacca.

As a kid, Star Wars was fascinating because of the world Lucas had created. An entire universe filled with millions of planets and alien species and infinite possibilities for adventure and excitement. Sadly, as the years go by, that universe gets smaller and smaller, and the Force grows weaker.

Does George Lucas realize that he has become Darth Vader? In 1988, Lucas provided Congressional testimony against the altering of films. Here are some choice excerpts:

“People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians,”

“Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder. Tomorrow, more advanced technology will be able to replace actors with “fresher faces,” or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor’s lips to match.”

The man notorious for constantly tinkering and tampering with his films spoke out against such practices.  Lucas lobbied for Congress to make laws that allowed future generations access to the unaltered original films, and yet he refuses to release his films in their original form.

What would 1988 George Lucas think of his 2011 counterpart? I imagine it would be much like young Luke Skywalker confronting Darth Vader. Unfortunately, I have serious doubts that the Dark Lord of LucasFilm will ever find (or even seek) redemption.

Follow me on Twitter @AdamFrazier.

This Week’s Reviews : “Chronicle”, “Woman in Black”, “The Grey”

Presented as found footage film from multiple cameras, “Chronicle” stars Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, and Alex Russell as a group of Seattle friends who gain powerful superhuman abilities and use them for mischief and personal gain until one of them utilizes his power for darker purposes.

In an attempt to document his own inadequacies, high school teenager Andrew Detmer (DeHaan) starts videotaping his life. At home, his mother, Karen (Bo Petersen), is dying from cancer and his alcoholic father, Richard (Michael Kelly), berates and abuses him. At school, Andrew is unpopular and bullied constantly – of course walking around with a busted old camcorder doesn’t help his cause much.

Andrew’s cousin, Matt (Russell), invites him to a rave to help him meet people but Andrew’s insistence on filming the rave leaves him even further disconnected from his peers. Approached by Steve (Jordan), the school’s popular star quarterback, Andrew is pressured to join him and Matt and document something extraordinary the two discovered in the woods nearby — a hole in the ground that emits a loud, strange noise. The three enter the cave and discover a massive, blue, glowing, crystalline object, pulsating with a frightening intensity.

Weeks after the encounter, Andrew Matt, and Steve begin to display telekinetic abilities; much like their comic book brethren, they are able to move objects with their minds. When they overexert their newfound ‘muscle,’ the trio suffers nosebleeds – a small price to pay for the ability to crush cars and [eventually] soar through the skies like Superman.

I won’t spoil what happens next, but I will say that “Chronicle” succeeds in doing what NBC’s “Heroes” couldn’t. It shows a realistic portrayal of what happens to regular people who gain superhuman abilities – specifically how a good person is corrupted by power and becomes a villain. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the meteoric fall of one of these three teenagers is one of the best portrayals of comic book villainy on film ever.

You will truly sympathize with the villain and understand why he did what he did and how he ultimately became this vengeful symbol of rage and unlimited power. Directed by Josh Trank (editor of “Big Fan”) and written by Max Landis (son of director John Landis), “Chronicle” is a terrific real-life superhero movie crafted by people who obviously love and understand comic books and superhero mythology.

Final Thought: Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Trank’s found footage film is the exciting way he finds to move the camera around. Being as these characters have telekinesis, they begin moving the camera with their mind to free up their hands. The result is some very interesting camera moves including close-ups, pans and crane shots that put you in the middle of the action without inducing Blair Witch-esque motion sickness.

See this film and witness the beginning of Max Landis’ career. This kid’s DNA is hardwired for genre storytelling – and I’ve got a feeling “Chronicle” is only the beginning.

From director James Watkins (“Eden Lake”) and screenwriter Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass”), “The Woman in Black” is adapted from the 1983 gothic horror novel by Susan Hill. Produced by Hammer Films, the film features Daniel Radcliffe as widowed lawyer Arthur Kipps, who travels to a small village to finalize the estate of a recently deceased woman.

Arriving at her forsaken mansion on a perilous causeway, Arthur is introduced to The Woman in Black, a malevolent spirit who haunts the property, seeking revenge on those who wronged her by taking the town’s children.

“The Woman in Black” is an ornate, expertly-crafted ghost story that conjures up old-fashioned thrills. The atmospheric nature of this creaky old gothic yarn is palpable. Ancient cobwebs, overgrown cemeteries complete with crooked crosses and tombstones, and the occasional creepy doll tea party.

While technically Daniel Radcliffe is the lead, the real star of “The Woman in Black” is the production design – from the sets to the haunting locations, everything in this film feels truly authentic, not just to the gothic period it portrays but the ‘70s esthetic of Hammer Horror.

Radcliffe could easily be a young Peter Cushing, investigating crypts and viscid marshes for clues to a ghostly mystery that haunts an entire village. In an age where the horror genre has become a celebration of watered-down derivative torture porn it’s nice to see a film where atmosphere and character trumps blood and gore.

Final Thought: While Radcliffe does a great job in Watkin’s film, he’s still got a long way to go before people see him as anything other than Harry Potter. Even in this film, when I see Radcliffe boarding a train I assume he’s going to Hogwarts – or when he opens a trunk I expect to find his school books and wand. Even the end of the film feels like an ethereal King’s Cross moment. In any case, he’s a talented kid and I’m sure he’ll beat it – but for now, Five Points to Gryffindor!

Now to “The Grey” starring Liam Neeson…

John Ottway (Liam Neeson) works in Alaska killing the wolves that threaten oil drilling teams as they encroach on the animals’ natural habitat. Before you ask, no there isn’t a cameo of Sarah Palin sniping majestic creatures from a helicopter. I know, I was just as disappointed as you no doubt are.

Anyways, on his last day on the job, Ottway writes a goodbye letter to his wife Ana and sets out to commit suicide. While holding the gun to his mouth, Ottway hears the howl of a wolf, which forces him to shoot the approaching animal instead of himself.

After completing the job, the oil drillers and Ottway embark on a plane headed home during an icy blizzard. The plane cannot withstand the chaotic storm and crashes in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.

After doing a post-crash assessment of who’s left, Ottway stumbles upon a survivor being eaten alive by an enormous gray wolf. Ottway and his banged-up gang of roughnecks are stranded in a wolf pack’s territory. These aren’t cute, cuddly Siberian huskies either.

These things are massive, snarling man-eaters – monsters with glowing eyes and slick black fur matted with dried blood. They’re closer to the beasties from “Attack the Block” than “White Fang.”

To repurpose Samuel L. Jackson’s immortal dialogue from 2006’s “Snakes on a Plane,” Liam Neeson has had it with these motherf*cking wolves in this motherf*cking Alaskan wilderness!

Needless to say, crotchety old wolf-killer Neeson takes matters into his own hands and tries to lead the survivors to safety while being stalked by the alpha male and his pack. With no guns, there’s a lot of hardcore Rambo business going down as Neeson creates boomsticks (sharp branches with shotgun shells fixed to the ends) to stab the wolves with.

One particularly “Movies For Guys Who Like Movies” moment involves a man stabbing a wolf to death and then shoving a stick up its ass to roast over an open flame. After eating the greasy wolf meat, one of the survivors cuts the wolf’s head off and howls to the rest of the pack, tossing it into the forest as a way of saying “Don’t f*ck with us!”

The wolves’ response: a series of horrifying howls, their hot breath rising in the air from the darkness of the forest, their eyes glowing – waiting for the men to let their guard down so they can dismember them and re-claim their territory.

“The Grey” is a brutal, bleak film where man (without technology or weaponry) is left to fight one of nature’s true apex predators. It’s like “Predator” with a dash of National Geographic – or “Gran Torino” if, instead of fighting Asians and Blacks, Clint Eastwood’s character beat the shit out of wolves.

Clint waves goodbye to Whitney Houston (1963-2012)

Is The Mortal Instruments movie dead?….. Not entirely