Tag Archives: Star Wars

Nostalgia, ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘The Hateful Eight’

“I started to cry.”

That’s what my wife said as we walked out of the theater after watching The Force Awakens. When that John Williams’ Star Wars theme kicked in and those yellow words started scrolling through deep space, I have to admit, I started feeling pretty warm and fuzzy myself, and I’m not the most sentimental of people.

It was a huge plus that The Force Awakens is an OK flick. Back when Episode I came out, my boss and I split five hours sitting in line in the south Texas heat to score tickets for opening night. Then we were treated to a raging shitfest of a “film” that would be best forgotten. Poorly written, poorly acted, poorly directed and with a focus more on scenery and settings than character development or story – thanks, George Lucas – The Phantom Menace made a mockery of the Star Wars franchise.

I think that accounts for some of the insanity surrounding The Force Awakens. Episodes I-III were so poorly done, so uneven, so tedious that the bar was set incredibly low for Episode VII. The Force Awakens introduces two great new characters – Rey and Finn – as well as setting up a number of potentially interesting strings that will be unraveled in the next couple of movies. Real scenery was favored over computer-generated worlds, there was character development, the dialogue was easily better than anything from the first three episodes and more.

But there’s plenty going on that’s just not that good. For example, Rey and Finn’s introduction to Han and Chewbacca. “Hey, there’s billions of people in the universe, billions upon billions of stars and planets, and billions upon billions upon billions of mileage in the galaxy, but pretty much the second Rey and Finn enter space, they run into the one person and one wookie they most need to run into.” The odds of that happening are pretty much like winning the Powerball and the Mega Millions jackpots, receiving a Pulitzer, getting elected president of the United States and being struck by lightning six times … all on the same day. And don’t try blaming The Force for defying the odds. It’s poorly done.

And then it gets worse. Abrams brings in Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian from The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 for cameos in the scene right after the previously mentioned fortuitous meeting, when Han’s man-eating cargo escapes and starts slinging blood and body parts around his ship. Why cast two of the biggest martial arts badasses on the planet only to have them run around and scream like little girls playing “Bloody Mary” at a sleepover? Beyond me.

There are other things, as well. The dialogue and acting in the scene where Han and Leia reunite was hard to watch it was so poorly done. I’m not sure why everyone was so excited about Oscar Isaac. Loved him in Ex Machina, but in The Force Awakens, he’s an under-cooked, third-rate Han. Kylo Ren is a sullen, uninteresting douche like his Grandpa Anakin and not worthy of his Grandpa Vader’s helmet. The scenes at Leia’s base are poorly framed and look cheaply done. And so on.

This is when the insanity surrounding The Force Awakens kicks in. People are willing to forgive a lot because Han is back acting cocky, the shadow of Luke hangs over all of the proceedings, Leia is still running things and Chewy provides some laughs. Don’t get me wrong, I loved all of that. But the nostalgia is not enough to hide The Force Awakens weaknesses, and it’s surely not enough to make it the highest-grossing ever … at least, in my opinion.

I had similar feelings about Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Luckily, it’s a better film than The Force Awakens. Jennifer Jason Lee put herself back on the map with her performance as Daisy Domergue. The snowy shots of Wyoming, a terrific cast and the claustrophobic setting of Minnie’s Harberdashery were all solid.

But the story mostly benefits from its similarities to Reservoir Dogs, which I think is the superior film. Quentin Tarantino fans love seeing QT faves like Kurt Russell, Samuel Jackson, Michael Madsen and others getting all macho and manly and staring each other down. It’s like Tarantino made a three-hour film out of the Mexican standoff at the end of Dogs. At lot of classic Tarantino.

Which is the problem. I think Tarantino did a better job of building the tension in the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds than he did in Eight. I think the showdown in Reservoir Dogs benefits from a better build-up than Eight. I think the Bride’s story of revenge is superior to that of Major Warren. I think Madsen and Tim Roth were better in Reservoir Dogs and Russell is better in Death Proof. And this is the most Jules-like Jackson has been since Pulp Fiction. I was waiting for him to start screaming, “What does Abraham Lincoln look like? Does he look like a bitch?”

Again, though, that doesn’t mean Hateful Eight is bad. It’s probably a better film than Death Proof, Kill Bill Vol. 2, Django Unchained and 95% of what landed in theaters in 2015. And fully admit that I look forward to the day I go to see a stage production of Hateful Eight, because it’s just waiting to be adapted.

For me, though, both in the case of The Hateful Eight and The Force Awakens, the nostalgia doesn’t make up for the flaws. But judging from reviews and box office numbers, I may be alone in that.

So it goes.

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Is ‘Big Red One’ a lost classic?

Luke Skywalker, Lewis from 'Revenge of the Nerds' and American badass Lee Marvin kick the Germans of out of Northern Africa and follow them the whole way back to their homeland in 'The Big Red One.'

Luke Skywalker, Lewis from ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ and American silver screen badass Lee Marvin kick the Germans out of Northern Africa and follow them the whole way back to their homeland in ‘The Big Red One.’

The Big Red One is the longest continuously serving division in U.S. Army history, constituted in 1917. In World War II – the period covered by this particular film – the division saw action in Northern Africa, was part of the invasions of Sicily and Normandy, and clashed with the Nazis at the Battle of the Bulge. Yeah, this film has an epic sprawl going on, and it serves the story well.

The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) is a WWI veteran tasked with leading his fresh-faced soldiers through some of the most dangerous theaters of WWII. Private Zab (Robert Carradine, Revenge of the Nerds), a budding author, is the narrator, a wise-ass who is usually the one doing things to lighten the mood. Mark Hamill (Star Wars) is Private Griff, who struggles periodically in combat to keep it together, freezing at inopportune moments. An assortment of other soldiers come and go over the course of their odyssey.

For comparison, I’d call The Big Red One a low-budget Saving Private Ryan. The story and the scenery have the broad scope that Spielberg put together in his film, even going further than Ryan in that “The Bloody First” cover a lot more territory in the Eastern hemisphere over the course of their adventures. The budget … well, let’s just say The Big Red One‘s landing in Normandy is significantly less impressive than Private Ryan‘s.

But, again, like Ryan, it’s the focus on the characters that makes the film, particularly the Sergeant and Private Griff. The Sergeant has seen war before and has clearly been hardened by it. But there are moments, between the bombs and bullets, where the Sergeant finds peace and displays great compassion. He understands the importance of small gestures in the midst of terrible violence, and he finds solace in that.

Griff is torn by fear and his desire to not let down his comrades. The first time he freezes, no one notices amid the smoke and explosions. But at Normandy, his deer-in-the-headlights moment is on display for everyone. He overcomes it, but it’s not exactly a kumbaya moment that snaps him out of it.

The only thing that holds back The Big Red One is Carradine’s narration. While it occasionally serves as a bridge between scenes, particularly when a change of territory or passage of time comes into play, it doesn’t add much and at points is a bit annoying. The film really didn’t need it.

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Original vs. Re-make: ‘Oldboy’

Josh Brolin gets grim in Spike Lee's Oldboy.

Josh Brolin gets grim in Spike Lee’s Oldboy.

(Tons of spoilers for both Oldboy flicks. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.)

I REMEMBER WHEN TWILIGHT: NEW MOON CAME OUT IN THEATERS. My wife is a bit of a fan, so we went on a date to see it.

The big buildup in the film is for the introduction of the Volturi, the powerful, super, ultra-badass scary group of vampires that are sort of their world’s royal family/mafioso overlords. You wait the whole movie to see them, the tension building. And then … it’s like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, if the titular homosexuals actually didn’t know how to dress. The Volturi aren’t scary, intimidating, nothing. Really, they’re laughable, especially considering the little girl from War of the Worlds comes off as the only hardcore killer in the room.

Sharlto Copley is the Volturi of Spike Lee’s 2013 Oldboy remake. You watch almost two hours of interpersonal terror, murder, revenge and more, only to be served up Copley’s Adrian, a whining, ineffectual freak with daddy issues. In the 2003 original, Ji-Tae Yu brings a restrained, insane sadness to the role of the villain, Wu-Jin Lee. His confrontation with the main character, Dae-su Oh (an Oscar-worthy performance by Min-sik Choi) is the cherry on top of the disturbing, darkly hilarious cake that was the original film.

But Copley’s Adrian is … a caricature. Where Yu’s Wu-Jin Lee is truly heartfelt and grief-stricken (and undeniably twisted), you’re practically waiting for Copley to grow horns and a tail during his confrontation of Brolin’s vengeance-seeking Joe. Joe’s reaction to the Big Reveal (I won’t spoil it for potential viewers of either film) brought to mind Darth Vader’s operatic “Noooooooooooooooo!” at the end of Episode III. Just awful.

THE NEW OLDBOY HAS SOME THINGS GOING FOR IT. The dark secret is changed just a wee bit and it works. In the original, the main love interest is a counter girl at a restaurant and the connection, at least initially, feels a bit forced. Here, the love interest (played ably by the criminally under-used Elizabeth Olsen, who has shown she is capable of so much more) is a social worker who initially believes Joe might be a homeless, mentally disturbed man. The connection made between Olsen’s Marie and Brolin’s Joe is made smoother by this alteration.

Hit is the face of a truly disturbed dude.

This is the face of a truly disturbed dude.

But Spike Lee never manages to find the delicate tonal balance of Korean Chan-wook Park’s original. Park manages to infuse some black humor into the thick, unrelenting darkness of the Oldboy world. That really saves Oldboy from becoming a grim, unwatchable sadfest like Nicholas Cage’s 8MM, and that dark humor is the bow on the present at the end of the original.

And in key spots, Lee’s version just falls short. When Joe finds the place he has been held for decades, he arms himself with hammer, finds the man responsible for his time in solitary, then fights his way out. Spike sort of half-asses an ode to Far East martial arts flicks with the fight scene. It’s got the dim-witted villains blowing the attack in some of the worst fight choreography ever, as well as a Josh Brolin that is so stiff that the effect is comical in a way it’s not meant to be.

In Park’s original, when Dae-su fights his way out, it isn’t against 10 or so guys in a big, open garage. When the elevator door opens, Dae-su finds a narrow hallway full of armed thugs. The fight is brutal on a physical level, one man hammering his way through a tight space full of hired brutes trying to kill him. On the metaphorical level, this is the price of vengeance. Vengeance is not easy, it is not clean, it is not glamorous. It hurts, it screams, it bleeds. Vengeance demands all and offers little in return.

That is where Park’s 2003 Oldboy succeeds, finding that darkness, that hopelessness, and soaking in it, running toward it, plunging into its depths. And that is where Lee’s 2013 Oldboy fails, a movie that skirts across the void, trying to avoid the black depths that lie below.

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Why ‘Elysium’ falls short

Matt Damon is good in 'Elysium' ... but then again, when isn't he?

Matt Damon is good in ‘Elysium’ … but then again, when isn’t he?

In the fall of 2009, a buddy and I went to see District 9. I’m a big movie fan who pretty much refuses to read reviews or watch trailers much beyond the basic info for fear of dreaded spoilers, and my friend was and is an occasional movie watcher who had read about District 9 and was intrigued.

When we left the theater, I commented that seeing District 9 was like watching The Matrix for the first time. You had these interesting, layered works of art dominated by theme – in The Matrix it’s the influence of technology and lack of distinction between the real and virtual worlds, in District 9 apartheid and racism in general – and taking place in unique visual worlds.

My friend laughed. He responded that he was thinking the same thing, only about the original Star Wars. He felt like he’d just been blown away, completely unprepared for what he had witnessed on screen. For him, there was even a child-like joy to the discovery.

That, ladies and gentleman, is a badass movie. When you rock two educated filmgoers who have seen it all before, you’ve more than done your job.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is also why Elysium was such a disappointment. Because it does nothing of the sort.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll watch anything writer/director Neill Blomkamp throws up on screen. Visually, Elysium is stimulating, and, at times, gorgeous. Matt Damon’s the lead, and you can rarely go wrong with him, while Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley deliver riveting supporting performances.

But it all comes back to the story. And the story of Elysium is the story of many, many sci-fi books, shows and movies. The powerful people have the good stuff, they aren’t allowing the masses anywhere near it and there’s tension. Whereas District 9 is drenched in apartheid, with no way to separate or distinguish the plot, theme, visuals and characterizations outside of the rigorous caste system the movie establishes, Elysium is really an action movie where the battle between the powerful and the powerless is just the set-up.

Does that make Elysium a bad movie? No, not at all. It’s a perfect serviceable sci-fi/action flick with some nice moments. And it would have made a great first movie for Blomkamp, with District 9 as his powerful, career-making follow-up (not to get too Wachowski-heavy, but their career path started with the intense, completely non-techy indy flick Bound before they Matrix-ed the planet).

Elysium just feels like a let-down, a “what could have been” in the wake of the “holy f*&%ing s&*%” that District 9 was. A missed opportunity.

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Margaret Atwood, heartbreaker

I just finished The Year of the Flood and am eagerly awaiting third book in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake-verse, MaddAdam.

Or sort of eagerly awaiting it. I found myself, the closer I crept to the end of The Year of the Flood, reading slower and slower. Not because the material was in some way significantly getting more dense or that I was cringing at how it might wrap up, but simply because I didn’t want it to end. As I closed in on the final pages, I increasingly realized that once I finished The Year of the Flood, I only had one more book left before that world would be wrapped up in a tidy bow and completed. Just one more book in this wild-yet-possible future of Atwood’s creation.

As a fan, that’s the double-edged sword. You want more Star Wars, but then you get Phantom Menace and cringe. You love OutKast and think they’ll never do better than Stankonia, but if OutKast hadn’t evolved, then years later they wouldn’t have blown your mind with Speakerboxxx/Love Below. You read about Oryx, Crake, Snowman, Ren, Amanda, Adam One and all of the others, and you just want to read more about the world of the Waterless Flood.

That other sharp, gleaming edge … if you bind a mind and imagination like Atwood’s solely to that fictional existence, what is the opportunity cost? As much as I love Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, and as much as I expect to love MaddAdam, my favorites from Atwood’s catalogue are still The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin. The world of the Waterless Flood is not enough. I need to see where else Atwood’s mind will roam. I want to know what else Atwood can do, what new characters she will create, what unique ways she will develop to attack and undermine a global politico-corporate system that oppresses so many. Atwood unbound is the Atwood I want to read.

So I will cherish MaddAdam, and drag out those last hundred or so pages, as long as I can. And then I’ll eagerly await whatever other offerings Atwood chooses to bestow upon her readers.

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Another pair of classics: “Catch-22” and “Great Expectations”

I am a man of two minds when it comes to Charles Dickens. On the one hand, I see why the word “journalistic” is used often in critiques of his work. He has an eye for detail and does a nice job of laying out the political, economic and social justice issues of the day. He has a knack for undercutting corruption and outing false, self-important people. There is a straightforward quality to his work that is to be admired. And there is no doubt about the importance of his novels and their relationship to the Victorian Period.

However … I might argue that all of those terrific things don’t necessarily make Dickens a great writer of fiction. I know, heresy. But let’s think about this … If Darth Vader had virtually disappeared after A New Hope and not even shown up at the end of Return of the Jedi, would anyone care about the Star Wars series? If Voldemort had dropped out sight pretty much after The Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter had fought Crabbe and Goyle at the end of Deathly Hallows instead, J.K. Rowling would be a significantly less wealthy woman. Imagine a Big Lebowski where Walter damn near quits showing up after his run-in with “the Jesus” and the Dude is left to battle the nihilists and bury Donnie alone.

Maybe I’m stretching it with the last one, but you get my point. Miss Havisham is the interesting personality in Great Expectations. Not Pip, who the novel is about. Not Estella, who gets less interesting the more the novel progresses and eventually just fizzles out. Certainly not Joe, the people of the town or London, even the notorious lawyer, Mr. Jaggers. And most of those characters stick it out through the end of Great Expectations. But Havisham is outed as the fraud mentor at the end of the first third of the book and is relegated to minor character status for the rest of the novel. Easily the most interesting personality in the novel, Havisham is gone well before the end. The second two-thirds of Dickens’ fairy tale drag without her presence. And for some reason, both Dickens and Great Expectations are celebrated for it.

No similar problem plagues Catch-22. It’s madmen wall to wall: Yossarian, Doc Daneeka, Captain Black, Major Major Major Major and, of course, Milo Mindbender, who I may be elevating to my personal great literary characters pantheon. Each character – great and small – has their way of contributing to the madness of Joseph Heller’s WWII bombing unit. And despite each character’s unique foibles, each in his own way is locked into the catch-22 that plagues all of them. Every time you think Heller can’t take it any farther, he does. It takes a focused mindset to pull that off, almost an author’s form of method acting. To consistently immerse yourself and your work in the same logical fallacy and find new, more extreme ways of expressing it as the novel unfolds … it’s astounding. I couldn’t recommend this novel enough.

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Another pair of classics: “Catch-22” and “Great Expectations”

I am a man of two minds when it comes to Charles Dickens. On the one hand, I see why the word “journalistic” is used often in critiques of his work. He has an eye for detail and does a nice job of laying out the political, economic and social justice issues of the day. He has a knack for undercutting corruption and outing false, self-important people. There is a straightforward quality to his work that is to be admired. And there is no doubt about the importance of his novels and their relationship to the Victorian Period.

However … I might argue that all of those terrific things don’t necessarily make Dickens a great writer of fiction. I know, heresy. But let’s think about this … If Darth Vader had virtually disappeared after A New Hope and not even shown up at the end of Return of the Jedi, would anyone care about the Star Wars series? If Voldemort had dropped out sight pretty much after The Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter had fought Crabbe and Goyle at the end of Deathly Hallows instead, J.K. Rowling would be a significantly less wealthy woman. Imagine a Big Lebowski where Walter damn near quits showing up after his run-in with “the Jesus” and the Dude is left to battle the nihilists and bury Donnie alone.

Maybe I’m stretching it with the last one, but you get my point. Miss Havisham is the interesting personality in Great Expectations. Not Pip, who the novel is about. Not Estella, who gets less interesting the more the novel progresses and eventually just fizzles out. Certainly not Joe, the people of the town or London, even the notorious lawyer, Mr. Jaggers. And most of those characters stick it out through the end of Great Expectations. But Havisham is outed as the fraud mentor at the end of the first third of the book and is relegated to minor character status for the rest of the novel. Easily the most interesting personality in the novel, Havisham is gone well before the end. The second two-thirds of Dickens’ fairy tale drag without her presence. And for some reason, both Dickens and Great Expectations are celebrated for it.

No similar problem plagues Catch-22. It’s madmen wall to wall: Yossarian, Doc Daneeka, Captain Black, Major Major Major Major and, of course, Milo Mindbender, who I may be elevating to my personal great literary characters pantheon. Each character – great and small – has their way of contributing to the madness of Joseph Heller’s WWII bombing unit. And despite each character’s unique foibles, each in his own way is locked into the catch-22 that plagues all of them. Every time you think Heller can’t take it any farther, he does. It takes a focused mindset to pull that off, almost an author’s form of method acting. To consistently immerse yourself and your work in the same logical fallacy and find new, more extreme ways of expressing it as the novel unfolds … it’s astounding. I couldn’t recommend this novel enough.

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