Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Listen, the spoilers are strong with this one, so if you haven’t seen the film and you keep reading anyway, well, you have your reward.

I don’t review films, not really, not often. Mostly I don’t care to, and when I do most of what I’d say has been said elsewhere and better.

But Star Wars is a little different, isn’t it? It’s more of a generational touchstone, a sort of culture-shaping thing that transcends its ambitions and obvious limitations to become this thing we all partake in. In one way or another.

I went to see it in IMAX 3D, and I have some thoughts.

IMAX 3D

I saw it in IMAX 3D because I had to. Not because I wanted to. I don’t like 3D except in rare cases where it’s used for a specific reason. This time was no exception.

But before going on about that, a little bit about the IMAX experience. It’s… okay I guess? The screen is a bit bigger and curved, the sound is a bit louder and they obviously invested a lot of money in subwoofer technology. But the experience ends up being just incrementally better than a regular cinema experience, especially if you’re going to a cineplex. I don’t think it’s worth the extra few dollars. The seats leaned back, so that was something, but if anything the seats felt narrower than normal theater seats: I’m a big dude and I felt wedged in there at points.

Now for 3D. When I got to a theater my brain expects to pan left and right to follow the action. When I have to pan left, right, forward, and backwards, I find this distracting. I don’t like having to constantly adjust my focus. Not to mention that with modern theaters, the resolution they’re capable of producing is absurd, and 3D makes everything look blurry to me. What’s the point of dim and blurry bits and pieces flying at my head?

Modern action filmmaking actually makes this a lot worse. The constant cutting, steadicam, and lack of visual coherence is bad enough on a 2D screen; on a 3D screen it’s unbearable.

The only thing I really liked about the whole IMAX presentation was assigned seating. Which leads me to…

Theatres

This is a big one for me. I don’t actually enjoy the theater experience. I mean, I like the screen and the sound, but I don’t like having to get there an undefined amount of time before the showing for the chance to get a seat in the “good seat zone” (aka center middle). Or worse, doing this with a group of people.

The crucial bit of technology to get me to the theater more is well within reach here. I could see the seating charts online when I did the IMAX purchasing. I knew where I was going to be sitting, and I knew we didn’t have to show up a half hour before the showing in order to get 2 seats together in a decent place.

If I can buy tickets online, know where I’m going to be sitting, print them out at home or show them my phone or whatever, show up, walk in, and watch the film, I’ll go to the theater more often. I know it. It takes away all the annoying “unknowns” of the situation.

I guess I understand why theatres don’t do this. They want to upsell to experiences where they do it, and the probably also think they’ll sell fewer tickets if you know you’re going to be sitting in the front row getting a crick in your neck. But there are plenty of people who still walk in and buy tickets not caring about that stuff, so don’t tell them where they’re going to be sitting. Just have the algorithm assign them next best seating. Or maybe have a section of the theatre (again, center middle) that are specifically reserved for people willing to pay an extra dollar to have assigned seating in a particular place and then have everyone go into overflow.

Anyways. If you were counting on a review of the actual film, sorry about all this theatre bullshit. Technical stuff like this matters to me sometimes more than the actual film (but only sometimes).

Technical Stuff About The Film

Okay, so before I get into what I thought about the film proper and what kind of job they did on the character and story and whatnot, let me get into some good and bad stuff about the film technically.

First off, there was almost no steadicam in the film that I remember being there. This is a good thing. It’s a part of what makes a Star Wars film feel like a Star Wars film: The technique in them has always been more stately and restrained than other more recent action films. I really appreciate that, and I hope that action movies as a whole knock it off will all the unsteady camera work. Part of the reason for this is that when the camera is “part” of the action it really breaks immersion for me. If I’m noticing things about what the camera is doing, if it really seems to have a personality, I can’t help remembering that yes, this is a camera, yes, this is a film. Not great.

The action itself was at once a lot more restrained than other action films, and a lot (a lot lot) more complex than the original Star Wars trilogy. When I say restrained, I’m thinking especially of Marvel movies where a lot of computer generated stuff is flying around and hitting a bunch of other computer generated stuff in a way that’s obviously artificial. The Avengers movies are particularly bad at this, as are any of the Thor setpieces in Asgard. Those action scenes feel meticulously designed and cold, almost built to be too much to handle. I don’t particularly like them. They make me feel removed from the film as an experience. They’re scenes to be marveled at (ha!) but not really grasped and felt. This doesn’t have to be bad: Mad Max: Fury Road did action setpieces on an extreme scale for extended periods of time. I’ve struggled to understand what the difference is between these two franchises, but I think it has something to with scale (Mad Max takes place on a much smaller scale, even when the action is intensely bonkers) and intelligibility (Mad Max makes a kind of visual sense that’s hard to explain; Marvel movies seem chaotic and random in comparison).

In any case, The Force Awakens is mostly fairly intelligible. There are some Tie Fighter vs X-Wing scenes that honestly lost me. Like, I understand what the intention of the scenes was, but especially at the end, right before the trench run… they mostly just left me thinking that yes, I had just seen a bunch of things happen, but no, I didn’t know exactly what. Maybe I was just tired. I’ll have to watch it again.

I don’t want to compare TFA to the prequel trilogy, but I do want to compare it to the original trilogy. Obviously the original trilogy was limited in its approach to space action by the technology of the time, but it was massively simpler. And it made more visual sense. I suppose it lost a sense of scale in not being able to really show a massive space battle in all its chaos, but I’m not sure that being able to show chaos is actually helpful the viewer.

But on balance TFA was very good in its action restraint.

One thing I really noticed was the pacing of the film. There’s not a lot of breathing room here. It’s a modern blockbuster after all, so there’s not much time devoted to just slowing down and taking a moment. This is mostly okay, and it lets the scenes that do breathe (like the introduction of Rey scavenging the bowels of a crashed and abandoned Imperial starship) really speak for themselves. And, frankly, this film was approaching too long as it is. So I understand the pacing. However I would have preferred some of the cuts to last a little bit longer. Like just a few seconds. I felt like the film cut away, especially from faces, a bit too soon. So maybe what I’m trying to say is I would have appreciated a film that kept a similar pace with fewer or less frequent cuts. The editing wasn’t terribly obvious, and definitely wasn’t the sort of stylized editing that draws attention to itself as technique, but it was often cut quicker than I would like. So I did notice it despite its lack of a particular flair.

The staging and locations were uniformly great, though two stick out as really top shelf: The desert planet at the beginning (more on that later) and the lighsabre battle in the snowy woods at the end. Almost every location was an archetype a la vintage Star Wars: Everything is either forbidding or lush. There’s no nondescript temperate planets here.

Characters

The new characters are just great. Just flat out great. Unlike Luke Skywalker, who I originally wanted to punch right in his whiny throat, none of the characters seemed out of place or annoying. They didn’t really need to be changed or redeemed in some way, they were just fully formed right from the start.

Rey is a treat, probably the breakout performance of the whole film. Finn is an unexpected twist, being a fully humanized Stormtrooper (even before he defects, he’s obviously stricken by what he’s seeing done and being asked to do). He does get a little mouthy and jokey as the film progresses, but again, more on that later. Poe is fantastic, though underused (how can you get someone as pure 100% good as Oscar Isaac and not use the crap out of him?). He’s constantly referred to as the best pilot in the whole wide universe, blah blah blah, but we get to see very little of him actually doing that. Of course the film is already jam packed without having to show, not tell us that he’s super duper pilot man, but this character is clearly set up to be important later on. I wish I would have seen just a bit more about him.

I have to say, I had some mixed feelings about Adam Driver as Kylo Ren going in. I’m a fan of Driver as an actor (he’s good in Girls, great in While We’re Young). But nothing about him really said “villain” to me. Until I saw TFA. I just bought it. I loved the character. The idea of a conflicted villain trying desperately to stifle his best impulses is a sly twist of the Force as it’s been revealed so far in the Star Wars universe.

Kylo is a clear inversion of the Luke trope, where Luke avoids killing his father by turning away from the dark side, Kylo does the opposite, killing his father (Han Solo just in case you weren’t paying attention) in order to fully turn toward the dark side. This sets up Kylo as effective antagonist to Luke, having walked the same path and chosen differently.

His bursts of uncontrolled anger, or him punching his own wound to (presumably) level up his dark side powers, all great touches. But allowing him to be wounded, to show his vulnerability, this is a great touch too. He obviously needs to finish his training to get on Vader’s level, formidable as he is.

I think Kylo has been set up to be irredeemable in a way Vader never was: Where Anakin was seduced and eventually taken over by the dark side, Kylo is chasing after the dark side. It’s his goal. It’s the thing that he wants, to finish what Vader started.

Interestingly enough, much like the original trilogy, there’s no mention of the Sith. So Kylo’s master may indeed be a Sith Lord, but we only hear him referred to as Snoke. Much like the Emperor was the Emperor, not Darth Whatever. I like this ambiguity; as the canon of Star Wars stuff got more granularly explained, it lost the magic you find in things that you can’t or don’t need to explain. Sith, Jedi, midichlorians, these things are all best left behind the veil and trotted out for novels and whatnot.

The standout character introduction though has to be BB-8. That thing is adorable! Say whatever you want about JJ Abrams, he has a knack for knowing what not to put in his movies. Jar Jar Binks this is not. The droid has real personality in way that even R2-D2 never had, as affectionate as we may feel for the older model droid.

So that’s the new characters. On to the old. I’ve been hearing rumblings around the web about some older characters looking older. Yeah, Leia and Han look worse for wear, but these actors are actually old now, you know? Even Mark Hamill (who looks very, very good in the movie compared to, oh, the last few years) looks worn out and trampled down. This is expected, I think, and if this seems weird to you, maybe stop pretending people don’t get old.

Han Solo is around for most the film until he dies. Ford puts in a pretty good performance, but honestly I could have done with him dying a little sooner. A lot of the screen time is sucked up by Han Solo, more than I think the character deserves. Yes, he’s a huge part of the charm of the originals, but I didn’t expect TFA to be quite the Han Solo show that it was.

He’s there, Carrie Fisher shows up being all generally and whatnot, and of course we see Mark Hamill at the end. They’re all fine, I guess, and I suppose there are some people who get misty eyed at seeing them again, but I could have done with seeing them a little less.

Before we get to story, I’d just like to say this: C-3PO can go ahead and fall into a volcano. I hated him in the original trilogy, I triple hated him in the prequels, and I hate him now for talking up valuable real estate that could be given to just about anything or anyone else.

Story and Miscellanea

So here’s the thing. Before I watched TFA, I was very familiar with JJ Abram’s work. He’s a good filmmaker, not great, but good, and very solidly good at that. He hasn’t made any real stinkers (I even liked Into Darkness). But where his real genius lies is his chameleon-like ability to imbibe the essence of a thing and then produce something that smells the same. None of his movies are original ideas, they’re all remakes or entries in series, and his strange proficiency with capturing the tone of a property makes him something of a reboot auteur. (Before you say anything about Super 8 being an original property, I’d like to point out that in Super 8 JJ captured and reproduced Spielberg; the movie might be original script but it is not by a long shot an original property.)

I used to think of the Star Trek reboot as a dry run for doing Star Wars. I don’t know if that was the intention at the time, but it just looked like the obvious next thing. And so here we are. When they announced Abrams was doing Star Wars I wasn’t surprised… but I was a little worried.

And my worries were borne out here. I said on Twitter before I went to see the film that I was afraid that TFA would be such a faithful reproduction that it would be old hat before I saw the film.

There’s nothing about the story that’s really hugely different from anything Star Wars has been before. There are some subtle twists and some things are certainly done a lot better, but it’s a beat-for-beat photocopy of Episode IV. Everything that Episode IV did, TFA does, just bigger. It starts on a desert planet like Tatooine… but worse. It has the Empire… but more Nazi-ish than the Empire. Our heroes get sucked into the Resistance which is just… the Rebel Alliance. There are space fights… but bigger. There’s a Death Star… that kills stars and planets and is as big as a planet. There’s a trench run to blow up the thing that makes the SuperDeathStar blow up. All the archetypes are there, all the plot points get hit.

Thing is, that’s kind of what we need. Star Wars is in need of a cathartic release, a reawakening if you will, to cleanse it from the stink of the prequels. If that means taking the original Star Wars movie an half-rebooting, half-remaking it, then so be it.

This film doesn’t have to be a great film, it just has to be a great Star Wars film, and in that I think it does the job really well. I enjoyed most of it, and I want to see where the next episode takes the universe. As long as the next film isn’t The Empire Strikes Back 2.0. I really want a Star Wars installment that takes the series and universe as a whole in an unexpected direction. I want not just to be given what I already know I want, but what I don’t know I want because I’ve never seen it before.

Casino Royale

I’ve seen quite a few people ask this question: why, in the west, do we view explicit violence in film differently (or, more the point, take less offense from it) than we view explicit sex? And I suppose there’s an answer, but that’s tangential.

When I was kid, my dad used to watch Bond flicks; I always wondered what he saw in them. I still do; the Pierce Brosnan period of the franchise was a very silly time indeed, and he always looked a bit too much like a French waiter for my liking. Never mind the techno-obsession each movie took to a new and ridiculous hight.

However, I just finished watching Casino Royale. And it was good. Very good. Maybe even the Bond film by which all future Bond films will be judged.

That is all.

Home sweet throwing up at home.

Ever have that feeling after you worked out that maybe that last push was a bit much? I’m right there right now. And despite feeling like decorating my furniture with the insides of my stomach, it’s good. Weird how two separate and opposite dispositions can exist at the same time in the same person.

There’s a lot I’ve been thinking about recently, but I’ll save that for later. Right now I have to watch the movie Laura so graciously loaned me. I believe it’s called Bambi… so I’m going to go for the tissues before my eyes flood with tears this time.

The Duh Vinchee Code

I am going to weigh in – like every other blogger in the world, and his cat – on the Da Vinci Code. But I’m not critiquing content or combatting conclusions. I’m looking at the violence of encounter, or the clash of worldviews, or the soft words of tolerance as their own encryption.

The book itself is for idiots to believe. A work of fiction, yes; also, a bad work of fiction (that is, insult to injury, being fleeced with a cheesegrater). No need to argue that point.

Rather, what underpins the argument? I think this determines what terrain you choose. My personal leaning is the conflict between objective and subjective historicity or its sythesis, but even that is too far from centre.

Deeper: how do I confront the book’s assertions and its rails? This is essential, to know what to do. I can do several things, not all of which I’ll spell out, but one of which is ignore it and go my own way. Some would see this as ceding ground, and others would see it a being tolerant. Others would fight a surface battle of assertion/counter-assertion while making history object/subject or trying to do both at the same time.

But let me ask you: are you afraid of what will happen at the collision of these two opposed visions? Will you try to squeak them by eachother or try to throw each a bone? You know in the heart of you each encounter is a thing of violence. Either I am right or you are right. In this place there cannot be both. But there’s a third dimension of the casual nihilist trying to just get along with a fake smile and such.

That’s the guy you want to kick in the ribs. While the screaming Dan Brown army is obvious, the snake-oil tolerance salesman is not, though he should be. You can ignore the crowd with pitchforks and torches trying to loot the gold between the bricks of the church; Jesus Christ has bee victorious over Nero. Dan Brown is the poppy seed inbetween God’s teeth.

Tolerance, on the other hand, is like mainlining those poppies: easy to fall asleep. But it breeds its own problems. (Aside: I am not speaking of grace, and peace, and longsuffering, and humility; I am speaking of that sort of slimey you-have-you I-have-me that won’t stand for anything except when it inexplicably stands for something.) The idea is an excersize in futility. The world wasn’t designed so that all poles of a magnet are equal forces. Tolerance – obviously – can’t tolerate intolerance, for instance. But more to the point, tolerance won’t tolerate land mines, genocide, female circumcision, or neon pink leg-warmers.

And in this age where tolerance – a concept lost on our father’s fathers – is the catchphrase on every goody-two-shoes lips, one has to wonder if the concurrent rise of rigid fundimentalism isn’t at all exacerbated by the inherent internal conflict of tolerance as a culture watchword. Or more to the point, does the internal violence of the postmodern lack of metanarrative breed the sort of insane fundimentality we see both in our cultures and others? Can we even imagine an age where men had grand passions?

This is the Da Vinci Code to me. It’s a cultural polarising agent. It will breed five types of people: followers, detractors, rabid detractors, the supposedly tolerant, and those who just don’t care. And there will be an inherent violence to the confrontations between those groups: when they encounter, people retreat licking wounds. Even the tolerance brigade will at some point have to oppose something.

Stay

I just watched a really, really good movie called Stay. You all should know what sort of movies I like based on what sort of books I read and what sort of stories I write: I like wankery. Sorry, but it’s true. Movies that give my mind a good shake and leave more questions than they answer. Even The Sixth Sense in its suprise ending but more importantly the foreshadowing that accompanies the ending.

But I also like movies with style. Multi-layered films with texture and subtlety: stories that use the medium they inhabit to tell the story as much as the script and actors themselves do. The Matrix did this with its symbology and cinemography.

Beware that if you continue reading this, I present spoilers galore. If you’ve watched the film already, you’ll probably come out with a better understanding of what’s actually going on. If you haven’t, the story will probably be subsumed in your attention to detail while viewing it.

First off, the entire movie happens as the protagonist is prostrate beside a burning vehicle in which his mother, father, and fiance have all perished; he himself is mortally wounded. Most of the film is the story of him choosing whether or not – as he lies there on the pavement – to live, or to die. It is secondarily concerned with his guilt over killing his family (though it’s not his fault).

The film, every bit of it, takes place in that limbo: the traditional life-flashing-before-your-eyes moment before you actually kick the bucket. But instead of seeing his life – although you will see his life in various places throughout the film – he halucinates, dreams, whatever you want to call it, melding things he sees before going unconscious and the important people in his life.

His psychiatrist, for instance, is the doctor who stands over him on the road; the doctor’s girlfriend in the dream is a nurse who he works with.

Throughout the film, you’ll notice the odd transition between segments: they blend into eachother un-naturally, they cut and weave, and as the film progresses, they become more eratic and disturbing. Audio elements start intruding on the narrative in places, like when the psychiatrist visits the young man’s mother in the disturbingly empty house.

All of these things are indicative of the mental state of our protagonist: as he dies, the narrative becomes more fractured; scenes repeat and the camera shifts awkwardly.

This is all fine and good. But there are some other significant factors that go unexplained. For instance, the significance of the number three. In one scene, the young man and his psychiatrist are walking through a college after an art lecture; as they progress around the building, there are sets of triplets in just about every corner of each shot. In another scene there are three out of focus metal globes; they appear in the next shot as well, though it’s in a different room. The psychiatrist’s girlfriend has three scars on her wrist from attempting to commit suicide. It is three days from the time the young man tells his psychiatrist he’s going to commit suicide till the day he says he’s going to it. Personally, I think these groups of three refer to the three other people in the car. Or perhaps it’s an allusion to the entire film taking place during the three – admittedly hypothetical – minutes he spends dying in real life.

The main characters, as well, exhibit characteristics that are, frankly, bizzarre but at the same time understandable in context. The psychiatrist is the side of him that doesn’t want to die and seeks to save him; his previous psychiatrist is the side of him that doesn’t care. The girlfriend is a sort of neutral ground. She has no real good reason not to die – other than that there’s so much beauty in the world – although she’s tried to kill herself (not to mention the three scars on her wrist from self-inflicted wounds, as if to say that even if he lives he’ll bear the scar of those three people dying in the car forever). The man he calls his father, who he heals of his blindness is his own understanding of what’s going on: when the blindness disappears, it’s a signal of his mental grasp of what’s going on. Shooting himself is his way of launching himself out of the dream and back into reality to finally die.

Do I agree with the film’s point? If it has one, not really. But on the other hand, you will have to watch this at least several times to get it down pat. It may even freak you out a bit. But at the end of the day it’s an excellent, excellent movie, and deserves to be seen.

Hey ho Korean movies!

I don’t generally watch a lot of non-English movies, with the exception of some Anime, some French films, and several Russian titles. But I heard about a South Korean movie called Yeopgijeogin geunyeo, which translates roughly into “My Sassy Girl” and just had to see it. Which I did.

And it’s good. Really good. In fact, if there were more American movies like this, I might go to the theatre more than once a year. This is my advice: if you have a chance, rent this movie. You’ll like it.

The other day…

I was at home sick from work and I watched “Lost in Translation” again, considering how I own it. And I just have to say, if you don’t like that movie – you’re insane. Except for a couple scenes, it’s pure genius all the way through. Slow, yes. But a character study with the concurrent themes of being lost in life and being lost in a foreign country, as if to say, “Hey, these relationships, they’re like visiting a foreign country where everyone’s speaking a different language; we lose so much meaning crossing over.” Excellent. And beautiful.

dan (am I right or am I right?)

Serenity.

Well, I finally broke down and saw the movie Serenity. As well I should have, as it turns out, because it’s an amazing film. And unbelieveable film. Maybe the best scifi film I’ve ever seen, bar none. Certainly the best scifi-western. I would urge you all to go out sometime and see a matinee showing of it in a nice uncrowded theatre, just so good films that deserve to be winners actually are.

You know what’s interesting? Hollywood funding distribution is funny, that’s what. How so many banal films are made with money ranging into the hundreds of millions of dollars is beyond me – and why people go to see them is even further. In fact, so much of the movie-going populace is turned off by what HWood is producing these days that they don’t even bother to watch those top-ten grossing films anymore, if they even watch movies at all. I, for one, haven’t watched a single “blockbuster” movie this year unless I was with friends and had to seek the lowest common denominator in what movie would appeal to everyone.

Which is part of the industry’s problem. They cater to big audiences and leave the small ones behind. But is it so strange to imagine that you’d make the same sort of money with four small films that cost $25m in lieu of one film that costs $100m+? Not only that, instead of having hugely expensive films that go bust, you’d have minorly expensive films that go bust, and sleeper hits that basically cost only a tenth of what they’ll gross in theatres alone. Even out the money distribution. It doesn’t work anymore. We don’t like your stupid movies that focus on making us covet lifestyles while ignoring plot. We’re not drooling idiots with money flowing out of our pockets, waiting to spend it on whatever film has “adrenaline” or “octane” in the description.

Well, most of us aren’t.

dan (hates movies. loves movies)