Star Wars: The Force Awakens – J.J. Abrams (2015)

Star Wars has become such a massive part of our cultural heritage that it is almost impossible to get far enough away from it to have perspective. The first, and still most powerful, film “franchise,” Star Wars, like McDonald’s, is so ubiquitous we can barely imagine what the landscape would look like without it. Child of the ’80s that I am, I grew up watching the first trilogy to death on pan and scan VHS tapes (still the best way to see them, I think) and like any nerd can pretty much recite the scripts verbatim. Somewhere along the way, however, I stopped caring. Star Wars is a decent enough, if (following Pauline Kael) junky entertainment, but as I came to appreciate film more and more, the popularity of this particular set of movies began to mystify me. The series really is a bottom-drawer bricolage of a teenage nerd’s mind: the abstracted, yet neutered Medieval trappings, full of knights, princesses, and sword fights; the uncomplicated Manichaeism of a universe divided into the binary of good and evil; the uninspired Hero with a Thousand Faces narrative laden with so much trite familial baggage that it makes a Mexican soap opera look circumspect; the lame humor. Even the title is so generic that, if it were a book or a game, or discovered at the video store by some inconceivable rube who had never heard of it, it would likely be quickly reshelved in the service of something more distinct and exciting. While I can understand how the generic nature of the film and its themes is a strength, and not a liability, it still mystifies me how adults far older than I continue to venerate this narrative as their cultural lodestar, the sun and moon of their film-going lives (at the same time, I find it less mystifying than the fact that masses of grown men continue to follow the static and rigged doings of men in costumes with superpowers). I know, right now fanboys everywhere (or the three who might ever read this blog) are inserting a sharp wooden stake into my virtual ass and massing to lay siege to my abode high on Mount Adorno. If only it were that easy. I am not a hater, and honestly have no problem with the enjoyment of these films, although I will resolutely maintain that their popularity reflects a dearth of imagination in our culture. Really, if you want to hate someone, hate George Lucas. A technologist rather than a filmmaker, Lucas has gone out of his way, Vader-like, to lay waste to his legacy by milking it drier than dry while making clear he has no grasp of film aesthetics or what even makes a good story. The first trilogy was fine, with The Empire Strikes Back being the best of the three, but it must be remembered that he only directed the first film. No, Lucas’s true legacy is Episodes I-III, and they reveal him to be a completely inept mythmaker, more obsessed with pointless, and tedious, “political” doings and backstory than anyone could care for, and a ham-handed director, tone deaf to what works (ahem, Jar Jar anyone?) and obsessed with rerunning the family drama unto death within an unnecessarily elaborated universe collapsing under the weight of its garishness. Nobody likes Episodes I-III, and he directed them all. (Furthermore, he took pains to go back into the archive and destroy the original trilogy with stupid digital additions, and, even worse, wrecked his best film, the spare, relatively experimental THX 1138, by also juicing it with digital critters, making manifest what was only suggested, and powerfully so, in the original). So while I may be sour on Star Wars, it is the doing not so much of the films I watched as a child, but of a man out of ideas, who devalued his own creation more than I ever could, by making it plain his only goal was an endless stream of dollar signs, marching, Imperial style, towards his Death Star sized bank account.

So thanks be that Episode VII, aka The Force Awakens, is indeed a reboot! (I can bet you will never catch me uttering that phrase again). J.J. Abrams, he who delivered us from pointless season to pointless season of Lost (which I watched every stupid episode of), magically, and against all odds, reworks Star Wars for a new generation, and lo, it is good. The thing moves, and unlike many franchise films, even feels like it’s going somewhere! I won’t rehash the plot much, since there are a few spoilers, and in many ways it is a retread of Episode IV – a preternaturally gifted backwater nobody (Daisy Ridley as Rey) is drawn into a universal conflict that she has little knowledge of. At her side is a defected Stormtrooper (John Boyega as Finn) and a small droid (basically R2D2’s younger sibling) carrying a secret message. There is a massive weapon/planet that can destroy whole worlds which must be destroyed, a mask-wearing heavy (Adam Driver as Kylo Ren), and a master of magic in hiding on a remote world (Mark Hamill as you know who). Along the way, we are reunited with our old friends – Han Solo and Chewbacca are back to their scummy, wheeler dealer ways, but quickly give aid to the cause of the young’uns. Leia is now a general, and she and Han have split, after siring a son. I must admit, the first half of the story was so much of a repeat that I was a bit bored, and feared the worst. But there are a few things that elevate this movie, generating tension and, in the end, a lump in the throat. First and foremost the film comes equipped with a very fine supporting cast. Oscar Isaac, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, brings heart and charisma to his role as Poe, the X-Wing ace. Likewise, Domhnall Gleeson, last seen as a gentle, sentimental Irishman in Brooklyn, switches things up as General Hux, the malevolent second in command to Supreme Leader Snoke (who sounds, and looks, like a Harry Potter export). The direction is also very good, with Abrams capably melding the digital with the analog rather more seamlessly than most, and using camera movement to greater effect than Lucas ever did. The real interest, and emotional weight, of the film falls elsewhere, though. The return of the original cast could have been little more than a gimmick; a series of cameos that add little except a chance to study the ravages of time upon faces we have seen fairly little of since the originals. (Even Harrison Ford has been scarce of late). There is something unexpectedly touching, and indeed uncanny, about reuniting with Han, Leia, and Luke – it is more than just marking time, theirs and ours, and more than updating their personal narratives. It is the unexpected shock of seeing someone you thought dead, perhaps, or sealed away in a picture on the mantle, and marking not the differences, but the similarities as they return to life. We remember why we loved these characters in the first place, but the passed time is piquant; Leia, for instance, now has a raspy voice, a tight upper lip, and looks a bit like Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil. It is Harrison Ford as Han that really delivers the goods, though. Yes, the swagger of the old Han is there, but he is softer now, made more thoughtful and serene not just by the passage of time, but by the loss of his son. Ford does some fine, understated work, particularly in the reunion with his child, reminding us what a good actor he is (for my money, he has done some of his best work in his old age, and certainly outshines his thundering, dundering peers De Niro, Pacino, et al). The other innovation is the character of Kylo Ren. When we are first introduced to him, we assume he is just a replacement Vader, the unimaginative, requisite baddie. It soon becomes clear that something is off about him, though. Unlike Vader, he is not genuflected to by the Imperial generals, nor does he cause them to tremble in his presence; instead, they flinch. The Supreme Leader treats him not as a peer, but as a bit of a flunky. And he exhibits some very un-Vader like behavior. We are a bit shocked when, the droid with the intel having escaped his grasp, he throws a fit and uses his light saber (decked out, tellingly, with some pimp cross-guards) to slash the control panel in front of him to bits. Yes, this is one impetuous, ill-tempered heavy, and we soon learn why – he is a young pretender, trying to fill Vader’s shoes by faking it until he makes it. This makes him the peer, in age and maturity, of the young do-gooders, and adds an element of psychological complexity, and realism, that was absent from Vader père, while also complicating the political makeup of the Imperial side of the story. Further, it breathes life into the franchise for Millennials and comments (I must remain agnostic on how astutely) on the problems of inheriting a much degraded environment, and overly-hyped history, from a previous generation. So while The Force Awakens did not cause a disturbance in my force, it did, in the last 30 minutes, have me leaning forward, if not to the edge of my seat. While not the equal of the spring’s Mad Max: Fury Road, it did what I had previously considered impossible: it left me excited for Episode VIII.

Three and a half stars out of five

Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller (2015)

I will unashamedly admit that this film had me stoked from the first trailer I saw. The Mad Max “franchise” (undeserving of such happenstance camaraderie with the Burger King or Grimace) is my favorite ’80s sequel series. The original Mad Max was a damned good, and original, thriller with touches of Dirty Harry and a grungy punk aesthetic that both presaged, and out-imagined in its down-to-earth granularity, many of its subsequent post-“post” brethren. The Road Warrior is what we think of when we think about Mad Max – it re-imagined the “day after tomorrow” scenario of the first film into a stylized, post-apocalyptic, no-holds-barred action film that was essentially one long chase sequence with some of the most effective, and dynamic, staging and characters to ever grace a screen during the reign of Reagan. Beyond Thunderdome, much maligned in some circles, is also, while the least of the three, a great film, and expanded the concept of The Road Warrior into the realm of Hollywood Blockbuster – the hair was big, the emotions were big; trappings of opera with the taste of cheese. Tina Turner ruled Bartertown, if you busted a deal, you faced the wheel, and all was right with the world. Perhaps there is a better trilogy in terms of pure entertainment from that (or any?) decade, but if so, I can’t think of it right now. So yes, I have been anticipating Fury Road, and felt confident it would be good, despite the obvious shift to CGI. Of course, what marked the original series, and The Road Warrior in particular, was the use of camera movement, cutting, and ingenious stunt work to grab you by the face and keep dragging, non-stop, for 90 minutes. Okay, so now we live in the era of fake stunts, but George Miller was still on board, Tom Hardy (a favorite of mine, if not always rationally so) was cast as Max, Toecutter was back looking like Skeletor channeling Frank Booth, and, praise ye gods, Charlize Theron was also going to grace the screen, giving Max the female foil he finally deserves (nothing against Tina Turner). I plunked down my $10.50, and dared to hope. Me, excited to see a summer blockbuster? When the hell had that last happened? A.I. in 2001? That hardly qualifies.

The film, finding Max wandering as if in a new incarnation (which he is), dazed and altered, with a hazy connection to his past, picks up somewhat thematically from where Thunderdome left off. Max, after demonstrating he has grown more “mad” than when we last encountered him (conveyed by his voice-over ruminations and a new penchant for munching mutant lizard crudo), is captured by a cult of wackos called the War Boys, let by one Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). He’s kept alive to serve as a “blood bag,” a plasma factory for Joe’s boys, who will die for Joe’s attention and huff silver paint to mark their kamikaze intentions, their desire to be taken to “Valhalla” and do him honor. Max is taken along by one Nux (Nicholas Hoult) to serve as his personal I.V. during an outing to reclaim a gasoline rig driver gone off the reservation. This driver, Imperator Furiosa (Ms. Theron), is on a secret, personal mission to liberate Joe of his kept wives, young women he has enslaved to breed some non-mutant, healthy babies to grow big, strong, and keep control of his personality cult. Furiosa, with her cargo tucked away in the tanker truck, is making for her remembered homeland, the Green Place, where she hopes to find refuge and a still-viable ecosystem cum feminist utopia. The end. Or rather, that’s all you really need to know. The rest of the film is a series of chase sequences as Furiosa and Max, eventually joining forces, flee the War Boys, along with various other factions, in an attempt to win their freedom, and, along the way, regain perhaps a gallon of hope (priced, in this future world, at $2,354,395,865 and 99/100 of a cent).

Yes, my friends, and my enemies, believe the hype: this film delivers the goods. I must admit to being quite disgruntled during the first 15 minutes or so. The pre-title sequence, which establishes Max’s capture, unfolds the realities of life in War Boy central (er, the Citadel), and introduces us to Furiosa, as well as portrays her initial flight from the male crazies, is a blur of too many quick cuts, and too much CGI embellishment. (Further, our wonderful digital print was marred by a line of pink pixels that looked like a swarm of angry, if fabulous, bees). 100 more minutes of this, thought I? Bollocks. Happily, after this sequence (which indeed comprises most of the material for the trailer), and once clear of the Citadel, things fell into a more familiar rhythm – 75% action, 25% exposition, with each chase sequence spare enough in its staging and lucid enough in its construction to deliver tension and excitement, in increasingly increasing increments, and each subsequent lull just enough of a rest, and a pause, to refresh and allow us to contemplate things that matter: the fate of pregnant young women, the improbability of hope in the face of numerous psychotic henchmen, and, by god, how good Charlize looks with axle grease smeared across the top half of her face. Many have made mention of this film as an example of feminism in action, and it is, but that is by the by in my estimation, as the narrative trappings are a bit cliche, even if true: women as the stewards of the environment and fosterers of coming generations, forced to fight fairly, if viciously, to defend the future from the corruption of horny, crazy, power-mad men. The feminism that is less cliche, and ought to be de rigueur in cinema these days, comes in the form of Theron’s character; in this film, the mantel of “madness” passes from Max to Furiosa, and she becomes the star of the show, an action hero with heart who kicks ass without being sexualized but with her femininity intact. Max lends a hand, and is crucial in certain moments, but in all feels a little around the bend, the burden of leadership settling squarely on Theron’s capable shoulders. (Tom Hardy is fine in the role, but his Max is more of an homage to the concept of Max, a riff on the Max we find at the beginning of The Road Warrior. Mel brought more depth and humanity to the role in his conflictedness, which seemed easy, and his charm, which he often fought to conceal).

At times, the film feels like a remake of The Road Warrior, which is not a bad thing. All the same, the scope of the enterprise has grown with each installment. In the original, we were in a backwater Australian town on the cusp of a “morning after” scenario; The Road Warrior dealt with Max encountering tribalism after the unnamed disastrous “event;” Beyond Thunderdome portrays the first vestiges of a new social order, a society rebuilding itself in the shape of a stable settlement, resembling a wild-West town. Fury Road takes that vision in Thunderdome to a new level. The War Boys, while technically a “cult,” are indeed a city-state, warring for resources with other regional civilizations, which we encounter only glancingly. They have massive numbers, infrastructure, “public” works, and a religion. While some have groused about the amount of anthropological detail and embellishment that flies at, and often by, the viewer in this film, I found it one of the chief pleasures. Miller has an obvious talent for this type of thing, even if it is not to everyone’s taste, and the length of the film coupled with, yes, the CGI, allows him to explore this aspect of the saga at a level previously unavailable. (It also allows this entry to be the first citational one, as he visually tips his hat to the Sand People from Star Wars and the Landstriders from The Dark Crystal, among others). That said, this is a ripping good yarn in which most of the effects, generated by computers or not, feel real. Like the other titles in the series, everything feels up for grabs, and we never get the sense that anything is sacred or that Miller will pull punches to court mass appeal; no winking or reflexive in-jokes as in many reboots, thankfully, and there’s a political dimension too. I didn’t see the film in 3-D, as visual clarity in that format is simply nonexistent, but Miller makes such effective use of the Z axis even in the regular format that I’m going to return to see it from behind finger-smudged germ goggles. The film is no masterpiece, and I’d rank it in a tie for 3rd (with Thunderdome) as my favorite of the series, but it is indeed a thrill. I can’t imagine having a better time at the cinema this summer, although I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

Four stars out of five

Texasville – Peter Bogdanovich (1990)

I enjoyed The Last Picture Show so much that I decided I’d take a look at the sequel, against my better judgement. The fact that the film was adapted from a sequel book by Larry McMurtry set me at some ease. At the least it would be instructive, thought I. Well, I escaped turning into a pillar of salt or a stony statue, I did not stab out my eyes, but sadly that ancient affliction known as “yep – shoulda figured” was unavoidable. Why does this film exist? There are reasons; it is not that bad. All the same, I don’t really feel like tiring myself enumerating them. The main problem is that this movie takes figures who, in the first film, are semi-mythic, mostly because of the proto-American setting and their taciturn nature, and makes them human, all too human. Where the first film’s real focus was on the town itself, and, to a lesser extent, Sonny as the emblem of this community, here Bogdanovich has refocused the drama on a reunion between Jacy and Duane. Did he really think their relationship was so central in the earlier film that it merited reopening? Is the topic of the film bridging the gulf of time, and their characters are the only viable ones left from the first film? Perhaps he felt he needed a more traditional anchor for a drama that is, if possible, even less dramatic than the first film (although it tries much, much harder). All I care to say is that watching this, so soon after having seen the first film, was like a fever dream in reverse – waking from one lovely, lilting unreality into a garish, nightmarish present. The choice to shoot in color, while making absolute sense, doesn’t help this feeling. Neither do the performances. Jeff Bridges is fine, as Duane wasn’t much of a character to begin with – kind of a doofus jerk, who, thirty years on, is an older doofus jerk, mellowed a bit. Cybill Shepherd does well too, and touches of the younger Jacy are still there in terms of her affect. The rest of the original cast, no matter how closely they hew to their previous incarnations, seem unsure of why they are back. For this, I blame the script. Whereas the first film primarily dealt in images, and talking was kept to a minimum, Texasville is almost all talk, and not very interesting talk at that. It makes the characters seem old and insecure, draining out any mystery that previously held sway. Perhaps this is the point. But poor, poor Timothy Bottoms as Sonny is a true tragedy. The script has him, in middle age, already senile and losing it (to be fair, half the characters seem in their premature dotage) – remembering the old days by sitting in the burned out movie theater and watching “movies in the sky” with his one good eye. Bottoms gives a limp, mannered performance. I don’t blame him, but it really is destructive of his work in the earlier film. The details also nag. The tone is semi-farcical, to provide some “action,” I guess, but the levity is undone by a lack of requisite yeast. Harvey Christiansen, for instance, plays Old Man Balt, a character who as far as I can tell is not in the earlier film, but who, in appearance and age seems to be a stand-in for the sheriff and his cohort. Instead of supplying some meaningful link to the past, he falls out of cars and off of horses and says stuff like “What’s on TV?!” while pulling a mug. Ug. Randy Quaid leads up a supporting cast that can find little to do but run around acting manic, looking sweaty, and shooting things up (this is Texas, after all). Whereas the lack of racial diversity in the prior film was a problem, left unspoken and unsolved, Bogdanovich now provides us with one black character – Pearl Jones as housekeeper Minerva, pure comic relief. Double ug. The new characters do better, although Duane’s children seem to be a tired retread and mash-up of aspects of the original young generation, with his son Dickie reworking Sonny’s attraction to the older Ruth into a veritable career of MILF womanizing (as if that was one of the themes of the earlier picture). The number of premature marriages and surprise pregnancies would make your head spin, if any of it mattered. On a positive note, I would like to pay particular homage to Annie Potts, who, as Duane’s wife of twenty years, is the most interesting and “real” of any of them, and dominates the screen handily in her scenes (which thankfully are many). I could go on and on about the alternating doldrums of leaden plot-shaped meatballs and thick slices of cheese which are draped all over this feast, such as Sonny’s dramatic “rescue” from himself at the top of the football field bleachers that brings all the characters together, feel-good eighties style, in the finale. But why bother? There might be something in here about selling out and flattening out in Reagan’s America, but do I care enough to excavate further? Obviously not.

Two stars out of five