Monday Morning Critic – Lance Armstrong’s Legacy, George Lucas & American Graffiti, Premium Rush

Every Monday morning, InsidePulse Movies Czar Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings an irreverent and oftentimes hilarious look at pop culture, politics, sports and whatever else comes to mind. And sometimes he writes about movies.

One of the things that was insane about this week was that Lance Armstrong, bicycle god and all around wonderful guy by some accounts, had his Roberto Duran moment when dealing with the USADA. For those who aren’t long time boxing fans, Duran was a fairly famous fighter who was so thrashed by “Sugar” Ray Leonard that he quit during the fight, going “no mas.” There’s a long story to it, of course, and you can see the famous moment below.

The interesting thing is that Lance Armstrong had his own “no mas” moment, giving up his fight with the U.S Anti-Doping Agency and going to be presumably stripped of his entire laundry list of accomplishments from his peak as a cyclist. And for all the posturing and navel gazing from his own camp and on his own website, as he called it a witch hunt and such, the fact that he threw the towel in tells us a lot about the man.

Mainly that he knew they had him dead to rites and was conceding to save the last shreds of his reputation. What was going to happen in the next couple months as they made their case? Tons of scientific evidence, of course, but the thing people would be discussing is all the testimony from former members of his own cycling team. This would’ve been a Sandusky type hearing and everything Armstrong had ever done to build himself, his reputation and his charitable work would’ve been burned to the ground.

For all the ass-kissing about Armstrong going on, for all the sycophants trying to make this out to be something small that won’t matter in the long run, the thing that stands out to me is that this is Armstrong doing the one thing you do when you’re in a hole: stop digging. Lance Armstrong isn’t an American hero or anything of the sort: he’s a drug cheat who succeeded beyond any reasonable level, in a sport seemingly defined by drug cheats, who just got caught. Armstrong saved himself the public humiliation, nothing more.

Random Thought of the Week

One of the interesting things about this weekend’s adventures in cinema was Premium Rush, my favorite of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s films of 2012 (so far), is that it takes the best of the ‘80s action formula and meshes it in a modern setting. Travis reviewed it right here and was spot on with the quality, et al, and I had nothing else beyond that to say myself or else I’d have thrown up a review as well. But the one thing I wanted to explore, which I didn’t think was appropriate for a review (since it was completely random and off topic of a proper review) is that the film is essentially a ‘80s action film but without the steroids and machine guns.

How so?

— Boiled down to its essence it’s a near unstoppable bike messenger who takes massive bumps, etc, and walks away without much of an injury until the film requires him to do so. That’s virtually every ‘80s action film; in Commando Schwarzenegger doesn’t get a scratch or a bump until he’s required to do. He’s virtually indestructible until he has to show some vulnerability.

— He’s a bit of a rebel, using a crappy bicycle with no brakes or gears, and walked away from a potential law career because he couldn’t stand the person he was about to become. You ever noticed that nearly every ‘80s action film hero always had some badass skill set he was trying to walk away from for some reason?

— Love conquers all … no matter what JGL does to piss off his better half (Dania Ramirez) you know in the end he’s going to get the girl and save the day. It’s the one thing an action film with a romantic love interest can’t do; have both sides walk away. John McLane may have gotten divorced in the end of things but at the end of Die Hard he gets the girl.

— A character actor going so completely over the top it’s enthralling as the villain. Yeah, Michael Shannon just owns it as a bad guy. Like so many others did in the ‘80s that it resembles in that it’s not a brilliant performance, far from it, but it’s a fun one. Sometimes being ridiculous as a bad guy makes the film more intriguing.

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

This Week’s DVD – American Graffiti

There was a point in time when George Lucas wanted to make an honest film, not just figure out how to make a bunch of toys to sell and craft a film series around it. Thus comes American Graffiti, one of the two films he directed that didn’t have the phrase Star Wars in it. The other was THX 1138, his debut that was based out of a student film while at USC.

The film’s fairly simple: it’s the last day before Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) are about to go to college in 1960s southern California. So they have one task in mind: enjoy their last night before moving on with their lives. But it’s not without complications, of course, as Steve is leaving behind his high school sweetheart (Cindy Williams) and Curt isn’t quite ready to leave behind his high school days and memories. Throw in some unique side characters and you have a vivid recollection of the time period before the hippies took over: it was muscle cars, sock hops, drag racing and going steady. George Lucas viewed Happy Days, at the time an unsold pilot, and cast Howard from it. The film would wind up launching Happy Days into a regular show … which spawned spin-offs in Laverne & Shirley, Mork & Mindy, Joanie Loves Chachi and Blanksy’s Beauties. So American Graffiti has some grander context besides being arguably George Lucas’s best film.

Watching the film I always wonder what would George Lucas’s career have become if Star Wars (I refuse to use Episode 4: A New Hope for no real good reason) hadn’t become the cultural entity unto itself that it has since become. This is a triumphant second feature after a first that bombed critically and commercially, as science fiction back then wasn’t a real draw, and this was the film that allowed him to make his passion project. The rest is history, of course, as Star Wars made so much money off of everything retail that Lucas funded his own studio and films, et al.

I wonder what kind of director he could’ve been if Star Wars had failed and he had to go in a new direction following that. He never really grew as a storyteller after that as the best of the series (Empire Strikes Back) had nothing but his producer’s touch and his main focus was on producing and writing. The only film since then that wasn’t related to either Indiana Jones or Star Wars that he was involved in as more than a producer was Radioland Murders, a forgettable murder mystery. It’s kind of amazing that a director with so much prominence has such a limited library to work from. Lucas is a hall of fame director, if such a thing was possible, but it’s one of those where it’s for what he’s done for film as opposed to actual films he’s made.

Lucas’s entire career has essentially been wrapped around using his entire creative prowess for either a galaxy far, far away or the American version of James Bond. Considering he’s made about a billion dollars off it, and used it fund passion projects like Red Tails, it’s not all that surprising but that the majority of what he’s been a part of is from one of two cinematic universes is amazing to me. Lucas hasn’t done anything of note as a writer or director outside of Murders (which he developed the story for), American Graffiti and the aforementioned THX film.

It’s what makes this film so much more fascinating in retrospect to me: this is George Lucas before everything that he’s going to be remembered for. For a film-maker one imagines that honesty is a rare commodity; most times you see directors making a film for a variety of reasons but none that come out as a pure expression of the art for the sake of. This is a director with so much talent and story-telling ability making his mark; if Star Wars never makes it big, and never gives him the kind of cash that allows him to bankroll a $200 million blockbuster at his discretion.

If he never gets that kind of money, and that kind of control, I’m always curious to what kind of director George Lucas could’ve become. American Graffiti is a look into that director, back when he was a young writer/director who wanted to make movies alongside his friends and contemporaries like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. That group would change the world of cinema forever, of course, but Lucas never really developed himself as a filmmaker like his contemporaries did. You can tell the advancement in ability over the years of Spielberg but Lucas’s abilities remained stagnant. His abilities moved upward and then stagnated … it’s like he peaked with Star Wars and when it came time to the prequels he had this swoon that was covered up by several decades of inactivity.

The rest of that group wound up changing cinema forever much more significantly in terms of film than Lucas ever did. Imagine if Lucas had made more films as a director and developed his craft like his friends did; the one thing painfully evident from the Star Wars prequels was that Lucas knew how to craft a film technically but not actually tell a story. The prequels were brilliant technically but overflowing with crapulence in every way that mattered.

Imagine if the guy who did American Graffiti had further honed his craft and made several dozen films over the years. George Lucas made a masterpiece in his second film … and after that cashed in and never looked back. Lucas the auteur intrigues me. Lucas the mogul doesn’t. American Graffiti is a brilliant piece of cinema that seems forgotten amidst the whoring of what Star Wars has turned into.

Strongest recommendation possible.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and community college co-eds with low standards at the Alumni Club

Lawless – Shia LaBeouf and Tom Hardy run moonshine. Guy Peace and Gary Oldman don’t like it.

Skip It – This film has been delayed for a long enough time, and being dumped into August to boot, that it looks like it’ll be on DVD in time for Christmas. Probably a lot sooner.

Oogieloves in the BIG Balloon Adventure – A bunch of Teletubbie looking things get into wacky musical adventures or something. Chazz Palminteri sings in it.

Skip It – I feel bad for parents. They have to take their kids to garbage like this while the rest of us get … oh wait. We get the next film in this film. Oh joy.

The Possession – Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s kid gets possessed by a demon or something.

Skip It – I like Morgan but his choice of horror films has been … rather lacking. If this is what he has to do to get a Losers sequel then call it an even trade.

For a Good Time, Call … – Seth Rogen’s wife and the chick from that Jonah Hill flick where he babysits kids can’t afford their apartment in New York. So they opt to get into the phone sex business to pay their rent. Kind of like Pretty Woman but without the hooking. And Justin Long’s a gay dude in it, apparently. In Limited Release

See It – It’s been getting good hype so far but I’m cautious.

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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