In Smog and Thunder - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

In Smog and Thunder Reviews

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½ January 10, 2013
Ken Burns Could Do a Better Ken Burns Parody

I would imagine huge numbers of Angelenos are throwing off the popularity figures on this movie. This is because it is practically the only listed credit, here or on Netflix, for a man named Huell Howser. I mean, I could have watched the most recent [i]Winnie the Pooh[/i], but for starters, I don't actually like [i]Winnie the Pooh[/i] very much. For another, it's not in the right order. Sad but true; I do still care about that, even when I'm doing tributes. And other than that, Huell Howser didn't do anything that anyone cares about other than Californians. However, what he's doing here is a very brief parody of what we all know and love him for; at the end of the movie, he's supposedly filming a segment for his PBS show [i]California's Gold[/i]. He also did a recurring short for KCET Los Angeles called [i]Videologue[/i]. I grew up with Huell Howser, and even though I'm out of KCET's viewing area, I will still miss him.

This is basically a fake Ken Burns documentary about a war between Los Angeles and San Francisco. No one is sure quite what started the war, but somehow, the two cities are mounting enormous armies against one another--to the obvious displeasure of all that territory between them that non-Californians tend to be unaware exists. (We had lunch in the Bay Area this July and pulled up to my Mom's house in LA County at midnight, and we spent most of that time driving.) Somehow, a city that is consistently listed as one of the largest cities in the world isn't able to immediately crush a city that isn't even in the top ten of the US. In Burnsian fashion, we get a narrator, excerpts from various figures' letters and diaries, and still images of what happened. Because this is supposed to be a recent event, we even get one or two interviews with survivors--and the whole of it is capped off with Huell Howser checking out a historical landmark.

But unlike with Burns, all of our still images are drawings. They aren't even terribly good drawings; I was posting some things to Graham's Deviant Art page at the same time, and I have to tell you, his art is better. I don't think I've ever seen him paint, but he could do some decent coloured pencil sketches that would put a lot of the drawings here in the shade. What's more, having it all be drawings isn't realistic anyway. No, it isn't really possible for them to stage photos, but it also isn't all that difficult for them to fake photos. I personally can't do it, but I've seen it done. And even if they look kind of fake, well, it's less fake than the not-very-good paintings, right? Besides, Ken Burns used almost nothing but old photographs for [i]The Civil War[/i], which took place about a hundred and fifty years before this war supposedly occurred. That there are no photographs of this fictional war only highlights the fictional aspect of it.

I also get that, you know, this documentary couldn't afford the same level of voice performance that Ken Burns can. It is astonishing to me that basically everyone in the movie has a lengthy career in TV and film. (Maybe it wouldn't have if I'd ever watched [i]Beakman's World[/i], but I didn't.) I think they could have saved a healthy amount of their budget by getting unknowns who did a better job, though I also suspect that most of the people were friends of the filmmakers, since just about everyone in the movie was involved with that animated [i]Dante's Inferno[/i]. However, the performances still weren't terribly good. I know someone whom I've recently discovered is in the voice acting business, and I bet he would have done a much better job. And Ken Burns, contrary to what I think the filmmakers think, doesn't rob his voiceovers of all inflection, which might be why the performances here are as bad as they are. This might be what the filmmakers think a Ken Burns performance would sound like.

There's the potential for an interesting movie here, but there are also some pretty major flaws. You don't have to be an Angeleno or a San Franciscan to get all the in-jokes, though I suspect it helps. Would anyone really be surprised if, in this situation, Portland and Seattle chose to ally with San Francisco? Or that LA and the Valley can't put aside their differences long enough to keep the Valley from being overrun? But there is only scant mention of Sacramento, and there is no mention of the federal government. The federal armed forces would definitely step in if two US cities went to actual war with one another. Yeah, you'd probably have to weed all the Californians out of your troops, but they'd still step in, and no mention is made of that, presumably because it kills the joke. They say that no one knows how the war started, and that's probably a play on the many claimed causes for the Civil War, but in a case like this, we'd know what the Fort Sumter was--the final straw. With that kind of information glossed over, I couldn't focus on what they did show.
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