The Grinch who stole Star Wars

Or, why The Force Awakens is fun but will ultimately make you angry

I want you to see the new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens (also known as Episode VII). I want everyone to see it. If you’re looking for a light, fun, space-adventure movie to see on the big screen, you’re not going to find anything better. It is a visual treat on many levels, it brings some great new elements into the larger story, and of course it is wonderful to see some of the characters from the first Star Wars movie back again. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, so go see it, particularly in IMAX if you can.

Just don’t think about it too much afterwards.

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Obviously, from here on in we will be mentioning all kinds of spoilers (both plot developments and insights that will ruin some of the film for you). So please, I’m asking you nicely and seriously, stop reading this if you haven’t seen the film. This analysis is for people who have seen it and would like more insight into where the story does and doesn’t work: it will annoy the crap out of you if you read this first and watch the film afterwards. So don’t.

The TL;DR version of the critique is that although the film is executed very well and the new elements are welcome, the story is almost a play-for-play remake of A New Hope (the first of the Star Wars films, also known as Episode IV), only with some light twists (nothing wrong with that) that depend greatly on utterly ridiculous coincidences, character decisions, and filmmaker choices. So in short, it’s very much like Star Trek: Into Darkness in its interior badness. Because the film is very fast-paced, visually exciting, and has lots of explosions and fights, even serious fans will probably not notice this on first viewing, because the film is genuinely fun and cleverly made — and we also said this exact same thing about Into Darkness: it’s eye candy and then it grows increasingly silly until you’re finally angry at how completely empty the movie actually is.

Let us start, however, with those things that rightly deserve praise, because they do, and because nobody likes a wet blanket who can only talk about the problems with something and not acknowledge the good things. It was great to see some interesting new characters, major and minor, and while there are some questions lingering over Rey that hopefully will get answers in the future films (like “if she’s supposedly Luke’s kid, why has she got a British accent?”), but I have nothing but praise for her performance. Likewise, I thought the idea of showing that Stormtroopers are real people and can have changes of heart was an intriguing idea (yes, I know this was explored in other media, but I’m limiting myself to someone who mainly knows the Star Wars saga through the movies), and I thought John Boyega’s casting was fresh and good.

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I’m unsure how to judge the characters Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) just yet, since their characters are clearly going to be developed further, but my initial impression is that Poe is (sorry) kind of a two-dimensional and all-good mix of Luke and Han, Finn is a mix of pre-A New Hope Han Solo and A New Hope-era Luke, Rey is a mix of Luke and Leia and Chewbacca (yes, you heard me), while Kylo is a remix of Prequels Anakin and Empire Strikes Back-era moral-quandry Luke. I’ve rarely had an issue with the casting in JJ Abrams’ movies, apart from Chris Pine, so his continuing the tradition of adding some unknowns was a great move (as it was when Lucas did it the first time around), and they’re all interesting choices and a good mix. Simon Pegg’s disguised cameo as Unkar Plutt was delightful — I often wish we got a bit more time and story on these interesting minor characters.

Since it is heavily stolen from A New Hope with elements of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (and even a bit of the Prequels) thrown in, the story is naturally fun and exciting — a lot of older fans have said “it made me feel like I was 10 years old again,” or however old they were in 1977, which isn’t surprising since it is little more than a remix of that movie. That said, of course we’re thrilled to see the original characters, major and minor, and of course we’re pleased to see the effects updated to modern standards but otherwise left un-messed with. I thought the effects throughout were just great, including the mix of physical and CGI effects, the nice use of 3D in the 3D version (present, but not overused, and for once not dimming of the film overall), the expansiveness of the IMAX version, and the effectiveness of the music.

You can even get the film in a “D-box” version that rattles your seat when explosions happen, and jerk you around in the battle scenes, or the whole triple-play (3D/IMAX/D-box) if you shell out enough. I haven’t seen the “ordinary” non-IMAX 2D version yet, so I can’t judge on that, but I’d bet it loses none of the emotional or visual thrills for it. As I said at the top, if you’re just going to this movie for fun and thrills, it’s great. You won’t be disappointed — unless you wanted something substantive, because there isn’t that much here for people who care deeply about the entire saga, but there’s a lot of resonance for people who only remember Episode IV from their youth. A ton of it, and it’s not unwelcome at all.

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It’s only when you start to think about it — like the recent Star Trek, or Star Trek: Into Darkness — that it starts to fall apart, and you realize the Emperor — sorry, Supreme Leader — barely has a stitch on. I’ve seen some other criticisms of the film harsher than this one will be, such as “40 Unforgivable Plot Holes in The Force Awakens (which was followed up with another 20 additional problems, by the way!) — but about half of these are either subtle stuff he missed, or will probably (I say “probably” because you can’t trust JJ Abrams on this at all) be addressed later, or weren’t really either plot holes or unforgivable.

Still, most of the critics of the film I’ve read are more right than wrong — there’s nothing wrong with some homage to what came before, particularly at this point, but Abrams just went waaaay beyond that point into cribbing A New Hope wholesale, which ultimately makes The Force Awakens not fit in the saga at all. Say whatever you like about the three Prequel films, and believe me I did not enjoy them, but they did in fact add to the unfolding story. You can summarize the first six films by saying “there was a boy who was strong in the force and was eventually turned to the dark side, and as a man became the face of the Empire, but his son and daughter, led by a former mentor of the boy and a friendly but rogue stranger, teamed up to defeat the evil Empire and stop the mass slaughter of billions of freedom-loving people … and then, in Episode VII, they did that again.”

The Force Awakens doesn’t really advance the plot: it rehashes Episode IV in a sort of re-telling that appears, at the end of the day, only to exist to hand off the lead roles to some new people and bring casual people up to speed on where we are (which, this being a sequel to a 1983 movie, was important — but it’s all that’s here, with precious little actual new content).

Here’s what happened in the (let’s say) 25 years since Episode VI, since Episode VII is supposed to follow it: following a presumed period of peace, the New Republic (which is good, mostly, but seems ambiguous in the new film) have been running things, and the Republicans (sorry, the Empire — no, ’scuse me, the First Order) have sprung up and are fighting the New Republic (why? No reason given, sorry). For reasons also not mentioned or even hinted at, the New Republic has decided to fund a group of rebels (sorry, Resistance) within the systems controlled by the First Order to fight against them, and the First Order’s reaction is — in a stunning lack of imagination — to yet again (third time!) build a new Death Star (sorry, Death Planet — it’s bigger!) to destroy the Resistance and New Republic, and murder billions of apolitical innocents. Cuz righteousness, or … well, as I say, don’t think about it too much.

Han and Leia have split up because their son, Ben Solo, turned to the Dark Side of the Force, having previously been “the strongest in the Force we’ve ever seen,” at least since the last “strongest in the Force we’ve ever seen,” Anakin Skywalker — Ben’s grandfather, and of course the former Darth Vader. Luke, who was training Ben, was so devastated when he went bad and murdered the other students that he has spent several years (let’s say five?) years in hiding, doing absolutely nothing, it would seem. When we finally see him, he is literally doing nothing at all.

Ben has taken the name Kylo Ren and is now a slave of the Emperor, sorry Supreme Leader Snoke, and is a very high-up in the Empire (dammit, sorry, First Order) during this very short period (but let it slide, that’s not an unforgivable plot hole). Luke may have also abandoned his daughter (Rey, perhaps, we don’t know for sure but seems obvious) when she was around four years old to go take off somewhere for some reason, or maybe (likely) to protect her because she was so strong in the Force and he didn’t want the First Order to find her. Seems kinda harsh, but let’s reserve judgement on that, as that’s essentially what Obi-Wan did to Luke and Leia. C-3PO got a red arm and sounds kinda funny now, and R2-D2 has been in low-power mode since Luke left him behind following the massacre of his students, and will only awaken when the plot demands it — since he just happens to have the rest of the map they need to find Luke.

Han reacted to this situation by running away from it, rejoining with Chewbacca to go back to being a dodgy-but-lovable rogue smuggler (violating the laws of … the Republic? The First Order? Not clear) and Chewbacca seems completely unaffected by the passage of time (indeed, he’s gotten spritelier it would seem!). Leia has returned to being a General and leader of the Reb– sorry, Resistance, along with a bunch of old Rebel characters.

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Interestingly, at least to those of us who found the backstory alluded to in the early Star Wars films, and fleshed out quite a bit in the Prequels about the only interesting thing in those three later films, there’s been a lot of political changes going on in the background that leads up to Episode VII, but sadly we get too little information about it; a clever fellow at Vox has put together a really good summary that actually adds to, rather than detracts from or spoils, the new film, and if you’re interested in that aspect of the story you should read it.

In the actual film, it just ends up being the Empire (sorry, First Order) is again building a Giant Killing Thing to wipe out Mostly Innocent People (because mustache-twirling EVIL, that’s why) and the political establishment (making them, ironically, the rebels!), but a plucky band of Rebels (sorry, Resistance Fighters) manages to destroy it through a combination of one person turning off the shields (sounds … familiar …) and a bombing run where the bombs have to hit a small target by flying low in a suicide run (sounds … really familiar …).

Oh, but wait. Did I mention that the early part of the film covers the political awakening of a young man who was just trying to do his job (and a girl stuck on a desert planet with big dreams and few opportunities to achieve them — like I said, Finn and Rey have a lot of Luke between them) when the evil of the First Order’s machinations drive them to grow up quick and make huge life changes they are surprisingly well-prepared for, all revolving around a droid that contains a hologram of plans that are vital to the Resistance in the struggle to fight the Sith-led villains? Oh, and there’s a Cantina scene with pilots that will take you off-world for a price (though happily, Han shoots nobody in this scene … this time, and a sage old person who has Anakin/Luke’s light saber?

Finn seems to be a crack shot when (and only when) he needs to be, Kylo Ren is strangely bad at using his powers judiciously (you’d think someone would have noticed this after all the damage he apparently does when angry), Rey appears to be an ace pilot for no reason at all, and has huge untapped Force powers that emerge almost the minute she learns that the Force actually exists that allow her to be as world-class Jedi as a fully-trained Luke within a day, Han Solo just happens to be orbiting the very planet where the Millennium Falcon just happens to be sitting undisguised in the largest town (and Han is aware of the person who has it!), and though it hasn’t flown “in years,” it works more-or-less perfectly and somehow wasn’t destroyed by the First Order … oh dear, really I could go on like this for another few thousand words (and I am not kidding at all) on the silly contrivances that take careful observers out of the movie and into eye-rolling territory.

There’s a lot I’ll forgive in the name of fun, but there does come a point where you say OH COME ON!, and I should make clear that this is not the only movie I feel this way about: I’m not one of those people who get angry that we can hear sounds (like explosions) in space (where you actually couldn’t), but I do find that the utterly impossible physics in Peter Jackson’s films that can’t be hand-waved away by saying its a fantasy world (they’re all fantasy worlds, that’s why we call them movies, kids) really hurt the later Lord of the Rings movies, and in particular The Hobbit (as much as the stretched-too-thin storyline in the latter trilogy), the ridiculous stunts in the JJ Star Trek movies (of course you can fall many miles from a starship to a planet without being harmed! Of course you can be shot out of a photon cannon without a scratch!) really get to a point of ridiculousness where it takes me out of the movie, and that’s really annoying — like a fly buzzing around when you are trying to read a really good book.

I was really a lot more fearful for the JJ-led Star Wars going into it, and relieved this wasn’t as awful as Into Darkness, which I’m going to credit, unfairly and entirely, to Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan’s no Harve Bennett, mind you, but he is generally a force for good story sense. It’s a pity he didn’t write this screenplay outright.

So, at this point let’s agree that The Force Awakens, um, borrows too heavily from A New Hope, and that this means things get awkward if we want to view Star Wars as an (in)complete saga. Unforgiveable? Maybe not, though we are left at the end of this movie with a setup that harkens back to the second chronological Star Wars movie so much that Episode VIII might end up being called The Emp — I mean, First Order Strikes Back: a young person who is strong in the force and has no immediate family we know about has left their old life behind, and arrived on a lush green world to be trained by a long-exiled Jedi Master, meanwhile the leader of the evil forces will plot revenge with his miraculously-saved apprentice, and the weakened Resistance will bravely fight the forces of the Empire (ack, sorry again, First Order), despite feeling the loss of a major character, who was murdered by the film’s chief antagonist.

I hope I’m wrong about Episode VIII, but come on, where else would a remake of A New Hope leave us? I actually love it when later films in a series “call back” to earlier films, but this is just way, too much. I would remind you also that I haven’t even gotten to some of the big, obvious (at least to me) issues or just plain dumb moments in the film: let’s take one just for starters — at the point where Snoke asks Hux to go get Kylo Ren, there is no possible way, even in Convenient Movie Time Stretching, for them to locate him, rescue him, and get him off-world in time. Rey’s rescue was a Lucky Coincidence too, but at least we saw them starting to go after her well before they reach her.

Yet, we know for sure that Kylo Ren will somehow be in the next movie, and now will need that mask he was conveniently wearing for no reason at all for reals. I’m hoping that if they go down this road, we get us some more Lando Calrissian. DO NOT go all Creed on me here, JJ — I demand 100 percent authentic Billy Dee Williams! If you’re going to remake Episode V, then I want Bespin and Lando and a Kylo Ren trap where they have to have an awkward family dinner, god dammit!

Speaking of Kylo Ren — why does he use the Force against nearly everyone except Finn? He knew something was up with Finn (FN-2187) early on — he noticed the trooper’s change of heart remotely, and knew it was him that helped Po escape. He has a lightsabre battle with Finn, but not only can he not beat him (even though Finn has never used a lightsaber in his life and is not very good with it), he doesn’t even really try to use any of the control tricks he used on Rey. Incidentally, Rey can speak Wookie, and droid, and at least one other language (when she yells at the scavenger who initially captures BB-8). The fact that she can speak droid might be explainable, but Wookie? Which doesn’t surprise anyone, like say Chewbacca or Han Solo, at all?

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Finn, who worked with droids all the time as a Death Planet janitor, can’t speak droid. Nor can a lot of people in this movie, except Rey. If this doesn’t prove she’s Luke’s daughter, I don’t know what to tell you. There’s a number of other subtle and not-so-subtle hints that this may be the case; when we first see her, she’s dressed exactly how George Lucas and original Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie envisaged Luke looking when they were (briefly) considering making the character female, just as an example. Oh, and also, are there really only three kinds of planets: desert worlds, lush green planets, and permanent-winter hollowed-out Starkillers? How boringly familiar.

When she touches Luke’s lightsaber (get your mind out of the gutter, you pigs!), she hears voices, including a bit of Yoda and more clearly Obi-Wan Kenobi (voiced by Ewan McGregor, in a nice touch). That lightsaber, or lightsabre if you’re British, was unguarded and unprotected in a chest that looks similar to the one seen in A New Hope, and if you remember the films was actually lost when Luke lost his hand near the end of Empire Strikes Back. It fell to the bottom of the cloud city, so who could have retrieved it and brought it back for safekeeping? GEE I WONDER.

Like I said, there are a number of questions the film raises that could be addressed later, so I’m not going to belabor every one of them, but I do have to wonder about what kind of warped comment on solar energy it is when the Starkiller base (which actually kills planets, but never mind) depends on sucking dry the energy of a sun (which the planet could not possibly hold, but again — let it go). Indeed, when you think about it, that’s really all the weapon had to do: without a sun, every planet in that solar system will rapidly die, no PEW PEW PEW missiles of death needed. If our sun went out, Earth would become uninhabited in about a day, at most.

Other than for plot-mystery reasons, why can’t Rey remember her family? She just remembers them leaving, and being placed in Unkar Plutt’s (!) care (shades of Oliver Twist here, really …). She claims she “couldn’t imagine” a world as lush and green as the first one she gets taken to after leaving Jakku, but Kylo Ren noted that she dreams of exactly such a world, so … and while we’re at it, Leia appears to either know or intuitively understand who she really is (she just met Rey, but lets her be the one to go find Luke), but says nothing to her … presumably for only plot-reveal reasons later. That’s fine to a point, but it will look silly later if I’m even half-right about this.

I’m actually being easier on this film than it deserves — there are a lot more oddities/belief-stretching coincidences/“oh come on!” moments that I’m willing to defer since this is the first film of a new trilogy. There will be a lot of people who might read this and say I’m taking it too seriously, that Star Wars is meant to be nothing more than light adventure, and that there’s a lot of boom and wheee and pewpewpew and zoom, whiz, lightsaber sound effect and droid squawk, and that’s all anybody other that dorky nerds want out of it. Fair enough.

The problem is that Lucas and Kasdan and the writers since then have (well, for the most part) infused a rich backstory into what is more obviously shown on screen, one that intrigues and rewards looking deeper into the films, and that it really wouldn’t have hurt The Force Awakens to get that stuff right — almost every issue I’ve raised with the film could have been avoided with a single line of dialogue in the right spot. Another issue is that in trying to pay homage to the classic three films (Episode IV, V, and VI), Abrams is just unbelievably unoriginal and ham-fisted about it.

You want proof? Okay, let’s forget, for a moment, that The Force Awakens is very nearly a remake of A New Hope. Let’s forget that the Millennium Falcon has been lost for a dozen or more years, but gets found roughly five minutes after it is fired up for the first time in “ages.” Let’s forget that BB-8 is just another R2-D2, and that it’s still odd that with all that advanced science around, nobody seems to be able to make small droids speak English. Indeed, let’s doubly forget that at least 25 in-movie years have passed since the events of Episode VI — presuming Rey is Luke’s daughter, and looks to be in her 20s, and Kylo Ren looks to be not much older than that — and yet the technology for ships, blasters, stormtroopers, et cetera does not seem to have changed even a little from 1977. Put that all out of your mind.

There’s a moment where Finn bumps the chess table on board the Falcon, and the chess game turns back on. In the original film, this was a cute moment — and a tip of the hat to stop-motion special effects master Ray Harryhausen, who had just a few years earlier done some masterful work in the Sinbad movies. In the new film, the game picks up exactly where it was left at least 25 in-movie years earlier. Does that seem credible to you, given that the Falcon was acknowledged in the film to have been owned by several different beings, and looks to have been on many different adventures since Episode VI? There — that’s the whole problem with this film in a nutshell. It’s fun, it’s flashy, it’s exciting, but it is really not too credible.

Once again, JJ Abrams delivers enough bangpow to enthrall audiences, but the moment you stop and think it through a bit — you realize you’ve been had. This is a pastiche of the old films, not a new chapter in the story at all. The man doesn’t seem to be able to come up with a sensible original story to save his life, and when he thinks to go the safer route of remaking an old story, he mishandles it.

I’m relieved that someone else will be directing Episode VIII, because I don’t think this franchise could handle another Abrams hack job. I actually do care about this story; that’s why it disappoints me that we didn’t move the needle much forward, particularly with such a great cast and some lovely new ideas. So much more could have been done, but someone — either Abrams, or someone higher up at Disney — felt like a rehash of the one that had the big impact the first time around would be a better approach. This is just plain old lazy storytelling.

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(Above: who is “The Pilot?” Did you see this in the film? Is he important? Nope, just more merch for you suckers to buy! Buy buy buy!)

Sure, they’ll make a gajillion dollars, and maybe that’s all that matters — there are more merchandise characters than actually appear in this movie, and some that do appear as toys would have you believe are far more important to the film than they turn out (at least so far) to be, and maybe that tells you something about where the creative energy in this project was really directed. I’m sorry to have to say it, but The Force Awakens is the movie equivalent of reality TV — visually appealing, popular, and fun — but kind of empty and unsatisfying, and not very good for your brain in the end.

Still, let it be said that the next related movie we’ll see — Rogue One — takes a different approach to working with what’s come before that could be quite interesting, and perhaps Episode VIII will finally take us someplace both new and complementary to the bold, brash, come-from-nowhere experimentation and energy that powered the first, and particularly the second, of the original movies. That’s my “new hope,” if you will.

To the extent that The Force Awakens is better-made than the Prequels, I am glad. To the extent that most people will find it thrilling fun that deeper subtext doesn’t matter to them, I am glad. To the extent that we still have a hope of getting a kick-ass chapter the likes of The Empire Strikes Back, I am glad and hopeful. Why, with so many great people working on this film, we couldn’t have gotten a torch-passing film that embraced the big dreams of the original classics instead of a remixed pastiche (that often wandered into parody … “you can always blow these things up!”), I am mystified. Playing it safe is the very last thing you should do with Star Wars.

Movies For (Film) Lovers

(This guest article I wrote is reprinted with permission from Liz Langley’s “Lust Never Sleeps,” an excellent but NSFW blog on all things erotic. Highly recommended.)

The films you saw at the early stages of your romantic life can have an enormous impact on your perceptions of love, the opposite sex, and life in general. Further, because most people tend to see movies on the big screen only once — those thoughts and impressions and visual memories work their way deeper into our subconscious than something we can see on-demand any old time via the cable box or the internets.

Thanks to a local art-house cinema in my youth, my fantasy love life was longer and much richer than my actual love life for quite some little while, but I used that time learning from the Masters of Romance, from Rudolph Valentino to Errol Flynn. The main thing I learned from them is that their pick-up lines don’t work as well if you’re not as rich or good-looking — or living in the 1940s.

Sexually-charged scenes always made an impact on me and the first I can recall was in Zefferelli’s 1968 Romeo & Juliet when the sun rose and the lovers gently bickered about the nightingale and the lark. It wasn’t just the nudity, I had seen that before — there was a beauty and a tender emotional connection, between the lovers and between them and us — that a movie hadn’t given me before. To this day, I get dreamy-eyed just thinking about this film.

Around that time I snuck into a showing of Fellini’s Satyricon and received a mind-blowing vicarious thrill of teen love and decadent lust that fueled a powerful fire indeed, one that drove me to accelerate my indoctrination into the forbidden worlds of adult pleasures. I happened to catch The Rocky Horror Picture Show on its earliest “cult” runs and recall vividly how Frank N. Furter — particularly in the scene where he disguises himself and seduces both Brad <and Janet — took my notions of “normal” and traditional sexual roles and blew them as sky-high as that spaceship mansion of theirs (it’s the sheer curtain that really does it for me).

Blue balls from unsatisfied lust has nothing on the pain of a pure and broken heart, and as I transitioned away from the raw thrills of sexually-charged films, I found (no doubt due in part to the early influence of Romeo & Juliet) that sad films often produced the most romantic feelings, as tragedy often reminds you of the importance of appreciating what you have when you have it. Films such as The Elephant Man and Requiem for a Dream, The Very Long Engagement or In America have all those elements — but most to be honest, most romances are trumped by the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up; that such a charming, effective and utterly perfect portrait of love and loss and everything that is important about life should be the preamble of a children’s “wacky misadventure” type movie makes it all the more amazing.

It still must be said that if you made a movie of my love life it could only be a comedy. The romantic bits of Monty Python’s Life of Brian come to mind: I’m not the Messiah, I’m a very naughty boy!

One type of movie I can’t recommend if you’re serious about making Valentine’s Day something special is the so-called “Romantic Comedy.” There are a few good ones, certainly — but as a whole, the genre is pretty swamped with Lifetime-esque cliche and unsatisfying junk. I suggest – as always – that you dig up movies with genuine emotion as much as wits or tits. A shared laugh is an often-overlooked but insanely powerful bonding agent. For all the yuks and sight gags, Airplane! is actually a really sweet love story. Young Frankenstein has nothing but love at its heart when you think about it. Still, my favourite commedia di amore is a classic in the “war between the sexes” genre – combining sagacity and sexuality, mischief and misdirection, exotic locations and erotic elocution; songs and words and deeds in praise of a love based on genuine friendship – 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing. Indeed, it was the theme of my wedding.

So give up that Ghost DVD and pass the porn on to your bachelor buddy – for true love, the play is the thing.

IMDB’s “Top 15 Movies This Millenium”

Harnessing the power of the omnimind (and perhaps a little groupthink), the Internet Movie Database compiled ratings on films made this century. Since their userbase is far more massive than the sample size used in most polls (and contains entirely self-selected film lovers), I do in fact give more weight to their choices than I would a poll produced using the usual methods, so I was happy to see it.

On the whole, I think the results are really quite strong. There is still a bias here, in that American users of IMDB outweigh users from other countries, so naturally the results favour US or English speaking movies, but apart from that inherent problem, I think you’ve got a good guide — broadly speaking — to some of the best films anyone’s actually heard of in the last nine years. Certainly this is a list of films I can recommend most people try and see. The only film on the list I myself haven’t seen is The Departed, since that genre’s not really my cuppa, but I’m willing to take the word of the assembly that it’s a winner.

But, inasmuch as I’m a critic, I have to pedantically point out that IMDB have made a dreadful error which I simply must correct; two of the entries are from the year 2000, and as such don’t qualify to be in a list of Best Films of the New Millenium, since as every calendar geek knows, the new millenium didn’t start until 2001. To be sure, Memento and Requiem for a Dream are very fine films indeed, but I’m nonetheless going to use their rightful omission as an occasion to throw in two films I think should be on the list, because they were made in this new century of ours.

Before we get to that, however, let’s look at what is properly on the list, and also what’s noticeable by its absence. For example, all three Lord of the Rings films made the cut, but not a single Harry Potter movie. Half the films Pixar has put out this decade are mentioned, but not a single Dreamwerks or non-Pixar Disney movie (no surprise to me, but might come as a shock to some). Some are on the list not because they’re great (though they are) so much as because they are recent (Wall•E is better than The Incredibles or Finding Nemo? The Departed is better than Gangs of New York or No Direction Home? The Dark Knight is better than everything else on the list? Sorry, don’t think so).

Kudos to the userbase, however, for the remarkable scope of the films they’ve picked. Light-hearted entertainment and big epics always do well in these sorts of round-ups (as evidenced by Pixar and LOTR, as well as The Dark Knight in the #1 slot — to be fair, Heath Ledger’s reinvention of the Joker turned out to be culture-changing moment, not just a great performance), but they went beyond that and chose some excellent foreign-language films like the intense drama The Lives of Others, the visual feast that is Amelie, and the Japanese anime film Spirited Away, none of which fit the mould of a Hollywood blockbuster. There’s also nods given to The Pianist and City of God, both high-quality films that didn’t get a huge audience during their theatrical run. And downright quirky but effective films were also given a shot; in addition to the aforementioned Amelie, we have The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which somehow did score significant box-office largely on the strength of word-of-mouth, the only way you can really explain a film like that to enough people to have it be a hit.

I certainly would have ranked these films in a different order, and changed a number of the choices to suit my own tastes, but I see no need to reinvent the wheel when a list comes out that actually gets it mostly right. My only real qualm is the complete lack of documentaries on the list, though admittedly a few of the films (The Lives of Others, City of God and The Pianist) kind of fulfill that role.

So, my first nomination to fill the two “holes” in the list is Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), the top-grossing documentary of all time, first to win a non-specialty Oscar, first to win the Palm D’Or and so on and so forth. Building on the strength of the revolutionary Bowling for Columbine, Moore continues his exposé of the marriage of the corporate media and power politics, though I think most of the people who dismissed it thought it was just a personal vendetta against George W. Bush, the unelected president. But it wasn’t — Bush (being an idiot) merely tore down the curtain and revealed the ugly elitism behind it — that America (or at least the Republican part) had long ago given up fighting for a better tomorrow and had instead decided that raw, naked capitalism was the new science, sure to solve every problem with “truthiness” and that the public were just a herd to be managed, set against one another for the pleasures of the rich. Fiddles, Rome, you get the idea.

Moore’s documentaries are a call for the public to wake up and take (metaphorical) arms against leaders who no longer care about them, and yes he’s ultimately tilting at windmills — but like Quixote before him, Moore is at least engaged in a noble if ultimately futile battle. The film got the powerful (and their enablers) a little hot under the collar for a while, and while it’s about all Moore is able to accomplish, it was enough. He didn’t get Bush thrown out of office (Diebold saw to that), but he punctured the balloon of the administration’s infallibility myth and slowly let the air out, slowing (perhaps) America’s determined march to obsolescence and irrelevance. He woke a lot of people up.

Filling the first “gap” was easy, but filling the second one is difficult. Trying to pick just one film of the many, many (too many) I’ve seen over the past few years, even among the dozen or so I would call “the absolute best” of their years of release, you feel like you’re insulting the ones that you leave out.

So finally I came to the conclusion that the last spot should be filled with with a movie that gave me utter and absolute joy to be watching it. One such movie, Pixar’s Up (2009), is already on the list, and I thought long and hard about giving that spot to In America (2002), a completely moving and amazing take on the struggles of the immigrant that almost nobody reading this has seen. I thought about giving it to Monster (2003), a film who’s Florida-set tale is as unnerving as Charlize Theron’s performance, or to The Dreamers (2003), a fabulous erotic adventure that never dips into porn, never falls short of exquisite, and never fails to impress.

But, oh we really should give that spot to another documentary as they’re so criminally neglected amongst IMDB voters. What about Spellbound (2002), the utterly charming story of the drama within the National Spelling Bee (and which kicked off a whole wave of like-minded docs about our love affair with language)? Or perhaps An Inconvenient Truth (2006), the ultimate slideshow lecture that reinvented Al Gore and brought climate change to the mainstream? What about 49 Up (2005), the seventh entry in a series of documentaries chronicling the lives of a handful of British kids every seven years, presumably until death? It’s one of the greatest ideas for a film series ever, and it’s proven amazingly illuminating and … well, human as it’s gone along. What originally started as an experiment to see how soci-economic class influences your life has turned into a diary of change and growth, and a mirror of ourselves.

Finally, inspiration. I would give the sole remaining slot to a documentary, yes, but one that made me squeal with delight the whole time I was watching it. I was a young man in the late 1970s, and that was a good time to be such if I do say so myself. So when The King of Kong (2007) came out, the number of buttons in the pleasure centre of my brain that it pushed can only be surpassed by certain kinds of orgasms.

This incredible documentary, which detailed the life-or-death struggle of two arcade-game champions to be the biggest fish in an incredibly small and nerdy pond, was a vision of pitch-perfect fantasy made reality. The people involved — “new kid in town” Steve Wiebe (a dork name if ever there was one), “the champ who refuses to let go” and comically arch-villainish Billy Mitchell, plus the über-dork who built his own fantasy empire (and then proceeded to turn it into a tawdry soap opera) Walter Day are just too perfect to be real, but there they are. If there’s such a thing as the ultimate documentary, this might be it (at least for me). I’ll admit that I saw this on a triple-bill with Air Guitar Nation and If It Ain’t Stiff (about Stiff Records), so that was one of the greatest evenings of my life (while sitting down, anyway), but the fact that King of Kong went on to win actual honest-to-gosh mainstream distribution, cult status and became one of the few documentaries to make any money at the box office says that others of my generation saw it like I did.

Really, this exercise could have waited another year or so and become “Best Films of the Decade,” but I guess IMDB were eager to play with their new-found data-mining toy. But we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg — again it should be stressed that ultimately the greatest purpose of the internet will be to redefine polling forever, giving us new and much more accurate insights about ourselves through the power of enormous sample sizes. Well, that and making porn ubiquitous, but you already knew about that part.

It’s undeniably fun to be at the beginning of a new century, though, if for no other reason than list-makers like IMDB and myself get to say that this or that thing is “the (blank) of the century!”, at least for a while. As far as you know, it’ll be true forever. 🙂

A Remarkable Bit of History

A hat tip to Roger Ebert, who pointed me to this delicious find on YouTube: a 10-minute colour (sort of) film of London from 1927, yes, 1927. They didn’t have sound, but at least one man had invented a process called BioColour (straining B&W film through red and green filters) to produce a painted colour look.

You might wish to pair this with some music (some have suggested that Stephen Baystead’s “The Long Road” repeated to fill the full time works well), but if you’ve ever been to London you will be surprised at how little the city really has changed:

My New Cinema BFF: CineCenta in Victoria BC

Whenever we talk about the things we miss from our lives in Florida, our first breath on the subject is always devoted to the great people there: not just family and the smaller circles of close friends, but the many, many fascinating/insane/beautiful folks we knew on one level or another. But after that, you’ll often hear us talk about the great places of the metro Orlando area. Right at the top of that list is a miraculous movie theatre called the Enzian.

If you haven’t been there, it’s not like any other cinema. Period, full stop. I’ve been to many great movie houses of yesteryear, like the insanely beautiful Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Enzian is nothing like them. I’ve been to many modern art-house cinemas. Again, no. I’ve been to my share of “Cinema Drafthouse” type places, and you’re getting warmer but still far off the mark. The Enzian is really quite individual in this world, and not even the many warm memories I have of the Rhodes Cinema in Atlanta or the Grove Cinema in Coconut Grove or the other film dives that came alive only when the lights went down and the movie came up can erase my love of the Enzian, it’s owners and staff, it’s festivals and events but of course it’s wholistic movie experience, which goes far beyond just the good stuff on the screen.

Having said all that, the Enzian has a rival. They don’t even know about it (till some of them read this post and I know they will!), but it too flirts for my affection. It is called CineCenta, a part of the University of Victoria, and it is different from the Enzian, but in a kind of “kid brother” way. I’ve been lazy in not finding it till recently, trying out the other cinemas in town both mainstream and off-beat; Victoria has a strong art-film sensibility and you can find foreign and highbrow works all over town, particularly during the Victoria Film Festival. I am ashamed to have avoided driving “all the way across town” (15 minutes) to the UVic campus for almost two years.

Like Enzian, the prices at CineCenta are insanely low. They offer memberships in the society, they frequently mix “revival” prints and other curiosities into the mix, they host mini-fests of their own and yes, Enzian — they put real butter on their popcorn.

Oh, there are differences, to be sure. CineCenta operates on a shoestring, their theatre is smaller (300 seats), their advertising is virtually non-existant off-campus and they don’t serve wine or beer.

What they do have, though, is an appealing “student” atmosphere, a frankly fantastic sound system that squeezes the sweetest highs and shakes the bottoming bass with astonishing clarity; the pre-screening jazz we heard was melting my brain with audiophile delight, and of course, a plethora of wildly diverse but mostly amazing movies.

As I write this, the 60th anniversary print of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (see my review here) has given way to Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae, which will be replaced this weekend by showings of Pixar’s Up and Duncan Jones’ Moon, with an almost obligatory screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show next week. And much, much more. Wow.

I’m now down to missing mostly Enzian’s rolling, reclining chairs and tables, their high-quality menu and their wonderful staff, because CineCenta is meeting my needs on most of the other fronts pretty nicely now.

I feel a bit like a cat who’s gone to live down the street, where they feed me more yum-yums. 🙂

Trailer: Black Dynamite (2009, no not 1974)

Torchwood writer and Twitterpal James Moran turned me on to this righteous trailer that brings back that coffee-black blaxsploitation groove you know we were all hurtin’ for ever since The Man took it all away from us. Set in the early 70’s, if this thing is half as good as the trailer makes it look, we may be in serious need of some new Dolemite action in the not-too-distant future!

Even After All These Films …

I have seen, in my life so far, at least 1500 movies.

That’s not an idle boast: I have supporting documentation from the film festivals I’ve covered, the reviews I’ve written and other sources to confirm at least that number. On the AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest (American) Films (2007 Edition), I’ve seen 73 of them. I would guess that there are a handful of movies I’ve seen more than 50 times, dozens I’ve seen more than 20 times, and hundreds I’ve watched more than once

In short, I am a serious movie geek. And yet after all these years, and all those films, someone like me can still get excited and “hyped up” over a forthcoming movie.

Of course, I’m a trickier customer to please than your average schmoe who actually goes out to the cinema maybe six-to-eight times a year. I know these plotlines. I recognise storytelling techniques. I notice shortcuts, edit points, lighting, cinematography, the whole mix. And I can tell when a trailer is giving me a distorted view of what the film’s really about, or when it’s trying to salvage a turkey, or just trying to get by on quick cuts, explosions and a touch of T-n-A.

But certain trailers still get me excited, usually if they have a very distinct look to them, or communicate clearly that this is the sort of film that will only really work well if you watch it in a cinema, or make it obvious that everyone involved is very proud of how it turned out. A good example of these sorts of trailers would be the ones for Amalie, City of Lost Children, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and Pan’s Labyrinth.

This trick doesn’t always work: the trailers for the recent remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Speed Racer and Star Trek actually served to lessen, not raise, my interest in these films. It takes more than just fantastic visuals to get me worked up, there has to be a promise of a story, of the creative vision and imagination necessary to really take me somewhere.

As I sat in the cinema recently for the most recent Harry Potter movie, I noted with some alarm that out of six trailers for upcoming films, five of them were based on TV shows, comic books or toys of the 70s and 80s. Only one was for an original story. How depressing.

Happily, I just stumbled across an HD version of the one trailer I’ve seen in the last year that has me chomping at the bit to see it: the one for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

I’ve been a fan of Terry Gilliam since about 1971 or so, when I got my first glimpse of him in “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” and have since discovered and enjoyed nearly everything he’s ever done before or since that point. He’s definitely one of my favourite directors, despite his ability to sometimes miss the mark. He’s had a dud or two, and indeed the last one starred Heath Ledger, as does Imaginarium.

I hope audiences will have long forgotten the similarly-named but pretty-bad Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium and that it being Heath Ledger’s final film will push mainstream filmgoers to give this a chance, even though the trailer just screams “This is weird! It will disturb you! It will challenge your comfortable notions!!” I would so love this to be widely seen, and having almost every popular male screen idol in the thing (Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell stepped in to finish the film in Ledger’s stead after his accidental death) might ironically not only salvage the film but make it a mainstream hit.

Have a look and see for yourself. I personally can’t wait.

The Longest Way


What follows is, rather unusually for this site, not a film review of a movie shown in cinemas, but a video on the inter-tubes. I don’t plan to make a habit of this, but this one is extraordinary enough on various levels to warrant the same kind of attention given to traditional movies.

You can find out more about the young man who made the video via his website (currently overloaded) if his story interests you, so I will only recap it very briefly here: Chris Rehage walked almost the entire width of China, from Beijing to Ürümqi over the course of a year. Rather than just “take pictures and/or video” as most of us would have done, he was inspired by the “picture per day” videos that have become a fashion on the net, but took it a definite notch up from there.

This is a brilliant fusion of photo-journal diary, time-lapse travelogue and music video, beautifully edited to a fabulously incongruous soundtrack. I think it really “raises the bar” on self-made travel videos and rises to the level of a genuine work of filmic art.

The first time you watch it, you will likely (and should) focus on Rehage’s own metamorphosis over a year’s time; as he says, “one year walk/beard growth time lapse.” But there’s a lot more going on there; you’re watching a man step into the unknown, and it doesn’t always go to plan. It’s part of the fascination of these sorts of self-portrait videos, looking directly into their eyes.

The second time you watch it, try to look past Rehage most of the time and notice his various surroundings; where he lingers, what goes by fleetingly, all the detail captured in the background. You may be surprised what (mostly) rural China has in store for you …

I also suggest a third, more frame-by-frame (or at least slowed-motion) view so you can catch captions and combined details of each photo (and often, photo-sequence) composition.

One of the best things about projects like this is that modern photography is very “high-def” and so while we are constrained by annoyances like “economical file size” and “bandwidth” in determining how “big” a picture we can see, the “original” in Rehage’s possession is entirely suitable for future, larger presentations. I look forward to seeing a real “HD” version of this again soon.

The Longest Way 1.0 – one year walk/beard grow time lapse from Christoph Rehage on Vimeo.

Inflation-Adjusted Box Office Totals

Now this is a clever idea, and really the way it should be done. BoxOfficeMojo.com has crunched the numbers and given us the real skinny: Gone With the Wind is still the all-time-so-far* box office champion.

*I really hate the use of the term “all time” without qualifiers, as though Time is officially coming to an end this Thursday and we can finally settle the score. Even worse, most of the time the use of the term “all time” is weighted incorrectly, as box office returns have been up until the publication of this list. You really can’t properly use the term “all time” on anything unless your name is Yahweh. It would really be much better if people put out definitive lists on those things that can actually be considered closed matters, like “best-selling books of the 1800s” and “most popular sandwiches of the 1990s.” These are things we can know. We can never know the best song, or top movie, or worst politician “of all time” because, as Sarah Palin showed us, just when you think you knew who the worst of all time was, another one comes along …

Anyway, the list holds several nice surprises, as well as vastly increases the diversity and timeline of the films that have ascended to the top. Not all of the top films are great classics, but many of them certainly struck a chord with their audiences and the ones at the top are, without exception, the kind of movies that people watch more than once, often routinely.

One of the biggest surprises in the list is that (when you adjust for inflation) the very top film, the aforementioned GWTW, “only” did $1.5B (all figures US$). This suggests that it might be possible for a film to top this someday (as the totals allow for re-releases), as the worldwide market continues to grow. You have to expect the Lord of the Rings films to move up the charts a bit when the inevitable re-release happens, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Harry Potter movies are re-released one more time just before the final film unspools.

I was disappointed to see that E.T. did as well as it did. It’s almost certainly just me, but I have never liked the film, thought it very schmaltzy and better-suited to TV at the time, and the re-release and re-edit/re-visionism was just … an abomination. Even worse than the “Han Shot First” revisionism of the Star Wars re-releases.

The fact that the totals allow for re-releases is the main reason why Disney movies are so well-represented here. Snow White has made many times more money in re-release than it ever did originally. The highest-grossing movie of which I cannot find reference to any sort of theatrical re-release was 1956’s The Ten Commandments, which scored the #5 slot.

I was quite shocked to see that The Rocky Horror Picture Show limped in at a mere #70, a rating that can only mean that midnight screenings don’t count with the compilers of this list as a “theatrical re-release,” because I assure you that film has made way more than (just under) $400M. Heck, I am myself alone probably responsible for 1% of that (I’ve seen that movie many times, though I’m now fairly retired from watching it).

I would be interested to see an adjusted-for-inflation version of the worldwide gross boxoffice chart, rather than just domestic US, but this is a good start that will hopefully inspire a few people to check out some “old” movies.

Speaking of old movies, I note with interest that the all-time-so-far top-grossing B&W movie is the 1945 Bing Crosby film The Bells of St. Mary’s (#49). Other B&W films that made the list are The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, #72) and Sergeant York (1941, #95). I was kinda hoping that 1974’s Young Frankenstein would have made the list, but no such luck.

O.M.F.G.

Hollywood plans to make a movie of the videogame “Asteroids.”I think that’s it, we can officially now say that they have hit bottom.

EDIT: I knew when I wrote that I’d be eating my words, but I didn’t think it would only take a day. A movie based on ViewMaster. Oy vey.

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