Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Seventeen Things That Annoy Me About "The Force Awakens"

When Star Wars first hit theaters in May of 1977, it was the first of its kind. As such, audiences just kinda rolled with it. The opening crawl and the capture of the Tantive IV was more than enough to get movie-goers on board. We knew that an evil Empire had taken over this galaxy far, far away and a plucky band of Rebels, led by Leia, stood to oppose them. Simple.

The Force Awakens didn't enjoy that same privilege. Indeed, the 2015 sequel came pre-burdened with over thirty years worth of missing chronology, a gap that writers Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams and Michael Arndt largely chose to ignore. Instead, they decided to sew a bunch of ambitious but superficial new story threads which The Last Jedi found virtually impossible to explore in any original or satisfying way.

Now, in reading this list, you might conclude that I completely hate this movie, but I don't. In fact,  compared to the prequels, I think this movie is a reasonably well crafted piece of entertainment. It's just that, whenever I'm watching it, stuff niggles at me like a splinter in my brain.

So, here then are "Seventeen Things That Annoy Me About The Force Awakens".

(17) Rey the Resplendent

 
So, right from the get-go, Rey, our main protagonist...
  • Understands both droid and Wookiee. 
  • Flies the Millennium Falcon like a pro despite the fact that she's never been at the helm. 
  • Instinctively knows what a Jedi Mind Trick and a Force Pull is...and knows how to perform them with scarcely any effort. 
  • Handily beats a seasoned Force user in a lightsaber duel.
Because if this, I find it virtually impossible to connect to Rey. Luke is my all-time favorite Star Wars character and its not because he's male, its because he's flawed. Indeed, for half the saga's run time he's moody, reckless and impatient but he learns from his mistakes, grows up a little bit and eventually becomes a Jedi.

As for Rey, she's already fully formed right from the outset. Where's the struggle, the change, the growth...her freakin' character arc fer Chrissakes?!?

It's one thing to have a boring, flawless protagonist, but the writers don't even bother to acknowledge this. Sure, we get a few token scenes where she finds some parts, goes home, cleans 'em up, sells 'em, makes bread and has a nosh while wearing a rebel pilot helmet, but none of this qualifies as character development.

Look, if you're gonna front-load her with all of these inherent abilities, at least give us some insight. Perhaps some peril befalls her in the belly of the downed star destroyer, and only through an uncanny combination of skill and luck she barely manages to survive. Then, during the flight from Jakku, she pulls another instinctive, but otherwise impossible, stunt which prompts a dumbfounded Finn to just stare at her and say "That was impossible! We should be dead...how did you do that?" Then she could briefly explain that she's always had this ability to do things without the benefit of training, as if these memories and talents have been bred into her.

After all, isn't this what the writers were alluding to? Unfortunately Rey's set up was so glossed over that The Last Jedi just saw fit to ignore it. Doing things my way would have at least quantified this intriguing mystery and obliged Rian Johnson to pursue it. Other than learning a few lessons about heroes and history, Rey feels just as two-dimensional at the end of Episode VIII as she did at the beginning.

(16) Poe the Perfect


It makes sense that this new trilogy introduces a fresh-faced, hot-shot pilot, but does he have to be the aerial equivalent of Legolas in Return of the King?

He has no problem piloting a T.I.E. Fighter, he miraculously survives certain death (see below) and during the defense of Maz's castle he shoots down about dozen enemy ships and countless ground troops in quick succession as if they're standing still.

Which leads me to my biggest issue with The Force Awakens: there's hardly any peril. Unlike the original trilogy, the heroes are all hyper-competent and the bad guys are a bunch of incompetent fuck-ups.

(15) "WHAT IS GOING ON  HERE?!?"


 
What exactly is The Resistance? And who are the First Order? When we last left the Rebels, they'd struck a decisive blow against the Empire. We felt content that the story was told and good guys had won the day. So, what the hell happened in the galaxy over the past thirty / forty years?!?

Maybe the remnants of the Imperial fleet retreated to some distant corner of the galaxy, re-branded themselves and eventually came back with a vengeance. And maybe the New Republic, weary of conflict, just let them do their thing, underscoring the dangers of capitulation. Maybe the Resistance sprung up because Leia recognized the impending threat and could see where things were headed.

Unfortunately, everything I just typed above is an assumption. I've never read any supplemental Star Wars books and I flat out refuse to. Frankly, if I gotta read an effin' novel just to give this movie some badly-needed context, then things are clearly flawed.

All we needed were a few quick lines of dialogue to flash-paint in a few details and we would have been fine. Instead the producers leave us fumbling in the dark and assume that we'll give a shit about what transpires, despite the fact that there's scarcely any frame of reference.

(14)  Finn the Fickle


Like all of the other grunts, Finn was hypothetically brainwashed since birth to be completely loyal to the First Order. So why is he the only one to freeze up, go rogue and start slaughtering his fellow soldiers? What makes him so special? Sure forcing someone to go from sanitation to mass murder is pretty extreme, but this is never explored.

Instead a very interesting story thread is left twisting in the wind. And since modern blockbusters don't believe in dialogue and character development anymore, we'll likely never know Finn's story.

(13) First Order Stormtrooper Helmets Are Apparently Strictly Ornamental 


As if stormtrooper armor wasn't useless enough, Finn tells Rey that their helmets don't filter out toxins, just dust. Um...why? One of the selling features of original stormtrooper armor is that it's vacuum sealed and the wearer can exist in open space for a brief time.

Nit-picky? Sure. Idiotic?  Definitely. Worse still, this dumb-ass reference only seems to exist to legitimize Rey's "gas-trap" scheme, which doesn't even materialize anyway.

(12) "I LIKE this thing!"


You mean to tell me that after forty fucking years, Han has never, ever used Chewie's bowcaster? Mondo bullshit like this makes me suspect that Abrams was shining us on every time he professed to be a massive Star Wars fan during every interview.

(11) Starkiller Base



Okay, so, an enslaved galaxy producing a moon-sized battle station in the original trilogy is far-fetched enough but how did the First Order get the manpower and resources to convert an entire planet into a super weapon? If my suspicions RE: the First Order existing on the fringe of the galaxy for decades are accurate, then this concept becomes even more ludicrous.

I think it would have been better if the New Republic built the thing as a defensive weapon against the surging First Order, with Leia protesting its construction. Then maybe the bad guys could bomb in and steal it. The fact that it gets blowed up, Death Star-style is also pretty boring.

It would have been a lot more interesting if the Resistance only managed to disable it. That way the producers wouldn't have to wrack their brains coming up with yet another improbable mega-weapon for Episode IX.

(10) Hux's Rant

 
Look, I know the Empire, and now the First Order, are just a bunch of thinly-veiled Space Nazis but isn't Hux's apoplectic speech a tad on the nose, not to mention comically over-the-top? Seriously, who's he trying to convince here? If Mussolini was in the audience he'd be like "Dude, take it down a notch!"

(9) Science Fantasy...To The XXX-TRM



Star Wars was never been known for hard science, but its getting ridiculous now. In an effort to let the heat blow over, Han takes Rey to Maz Kanata's backwater planet because its supposed to be out of the way. Well, if that's the case, how the hell can they see the core planets of the Republic getting blown up by Starkiller Base? And, um, wouldn't the entire solar system be boned if the base drained the closest sun of all of its energy?

(8) "TRAITOR!!!"...To Good Storytelling

  
The stormtrooper who throws away a perfectly good blaster to engage Finn in melee combat is a fucking idiot. And why doesn't he at least flinch when Finn produces a rare, notoriously-deadly weapon like a lightsaber? Shouldn't this clown be taken aback ever so slightly?

And instead of using a random nobody like FN-2199, why didn't the screenwriters use this as an opportunity to explore Phasma and Finn's mutual animosity? Instead, we get a pointless sequence featuring two unrelated characters who whale on each other just for the sake of an obligatory duel.

(7) Pop-Up Poe

 "What took you guys so long?"

Despite being written off as dead, Poe Dameron miraculously materializes back at the Resistance base with zero explanation. Honestly, if blatantly-lazy storytelling like this doesn't bother you, then you might be part of the problem.

(6) Maybe It's Him, Maybe Its Mandalore

 "HuuuNNN!!! Rrrowoooaaarrr...!!!"
Translation: "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful!"

Why does Chewbacca look so goddamn well-coifed? I know that wookiees are long-lived and all but its been forty years and he looks better than he did in Jedi. What kind of galactic Benjamin Button shit is this? Will he look like Lumpy in the next trilogy?

This could have been a good opportunity to make him look a tad scruffier, perhaps sporting a distinguished grey streak. Instead he looks like a wookiee version Sofia Vergara.

(5) The "Dialogue"

Finn: Not anymore. The name's Finn and I'm in charge. I'm in charge now, Phasma. I'm in charge.
Han Solo: [to Finn] Bring it down. Bring it down.

Han Solo: I'm trying to be helpful.
Leia: When did that ever help? And don't say the Death Star.

I don't know what's worse, the blatant fan service or the contemporary humor which sticks out like a sore thumb. 

(4) The REAL Traitor

"HALT! Or I'll ask you to halt again!"

Despite Phasma's bad-ass appearance, she ends up folding quicker than Barry Allen on laundry day.

Why would a fanatical military leader, who's likely conditioned to resist torture and intimidation, voluntarily lower the Starkiller Base shield, risking its destruction and the lives of countless allies? It just smacks of script convenience.

Since the First Order models itself after the Empire, Phasma must know that they don't suffer failure, let alone outright capitulation, very lightly. At the very least, The Last Jedi shows us that Phasma suffered some pretty major repercussions for her surrender.

Oh, wait, she doesn't. Like at all.

(3) Convenience Earthquake

 
I really would have preferred just about any other way to break up the Rey / Kylo fight. What is this, The Search for Spock?

(2) "What, That Walking Carpet? *Ugh*, He's Soooo 1983."

 
Why does a sad Chewbacca (Sadbacca?) just drift past an oblivious Leia at the end of the movie? Shouldn't they console each other first before Leia goes to Rey?

You had one job, Abrams! Well, admittedly you had a lot of jobs, but putting Leia and Rey's grief before Leia and Chewbacca's was inexplicable. 

(1) Not Particularly E-luke-sive.

 
If Luke was so hell-bent on never, ever being found then why did he leave a map to his location floating around out there in the galaxy? And why did he deliberately plant a part of it in R2's memory banks? I know Mark Hamill is famous for playing the Joker, but is he also auditioning for The Riddler?

And just because a computer is in "low power mode" it certainly doesn't mean that you can't see the files it has on it. Even if Luke buried the map deep in R2's memory banks or password protected that shit, surely one talented Resistance slicer could dig it up?

Fun fact: if you were to tear Branson, Missouri out of a map of the United States and then give it to someone, they'd still be able to travel to Branson, Missouri.

Finally, how does R2 know precisely when to "come to" at the end of the movie?

Honestly, so much in this flick completely baffles me.

***

Because The Force Awaken was so derivative of A New Hope, I think it's solely responsible for this current Last Jedi fan schism. People lost their shit over the new film because it didn't spend its run time aping Empire and hand-picking the most popular fan theories.

And, honestly, I don't blame writer/director Rian Johnson one bit. When he sat down to write Episode VIII, he knew that he'd end up with a boring, predictable, workmanlike story that added nothing new if all he did was fill in the blanks. This all adds up to an important lesson. You can add as many fancy eaves, towers and parapets as you want to your house, but if the foundation is rotten, it's still gonna collapse.

I don't envy the writers of  Episode IX since, in my opinion, they still need to address the questions lingering from the first film while giving people a satisfying and reasonably-original conclusion. And if the third film fails, this whole new saga is gonna founder under the weight of unrealistic expectations while sullying the classic trilogy that came before it.

Oh, for the record: I have a very simple solution to all of this. Just invent a time machine, go back to 1997 and convince George Lucas to let three talented directors helm the Heir to the Empire trilogy.

Done. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Movie Review: "Star Wars - The Last Jedi"


*** WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW ***

So, here we are. Another year, another Star Wars movie.

Hey, Disney! Since I know you read every one of my reviews, I'm gonna let you in on a little secret:

People can get sick of Star Wars.

Don't believe me? Well, I've seen it happen before. After 1983's Return of the Jedi, people were positively done with it. And that included me, the most passionate, crazed fan that George Lucas ever could have hoped to indoctrinate. But even at the tender age of thirteen, I knew that the brightest flames can burn out the quickest. And honestly, at that stage in my life, I was okay to put Star Wars behind me and move on to other things. 
 
So, Disney, I really think you need to cool it after Episode IX. Because, I assure you, there can be too much of a good thing, especially when good things are getting increasingly scarce.

Fun experiment: if someone tells me that they loathed The Last Jedi, I always ask them what they thought of Rogue One. If they say "Oh, bro, I totally LOVED that movie!" then I just smile politely and change the conversation 'cuz I recognize a bridge too far when I see it. 

Before we continue, please permit me a brief autobiographical note. I've been a diehard Star Wars fan since May of 1977. After the saga went to fallow for over fifteen years, the prequels had tremendous potential to tap into nostalgia and add to the myth. Unfortunately, the resulting "films" were clearly made by someone who couldn't reconcile his role as THE SOLE CREATOR with the obvious limits of his creative talent.

The Force Awakens brought me back into the fold somewhat. Even though that movie was blatantly derivative and many of the things that happened on screen ranged from inexplicable to downright stupid, I still liked the characters. Sure, we didn't get nearly as much time establishing Daisy Ridley's Rey as we did with Luke in A New Hope, but it was more than I expected. After all, we live in a day and age where solid character development and good dialogue is unfairly written off as "the most boringest parts" of a movie.

And then there's Rogue One. Whooo, boy, what can I say about that crushing bore? The first third is a meandering, intergalactic travelog, the second third is a tangled mess of failed character development and senseless plot points and the final third is a bloated action sequence. The latter, BTW, might be thrilling at first but it starts to feel increasingly vapid and boring when you realize that nothing that came before it made a lick of sense.

So, when I sat down to watch The Last Jedi, I was feeling pretty guarded. And even though it's the best Disney-stamped Star Wars entry to date, I still can't shake that sinking feeling that nothing is planned out and the creative team is hurtling off in a bunch of random directions.

Not like there isn't any historic precedence for this. Nowadays, story arcs for books, television shows and even movies are meticulously pre-plotted out. However, if you know anything about the making of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi you'll know that virtually nothing that ended up on-screen was planned out back in 1976. And, honestly, if the sterile, predictable safety net that passes for a plot in The Force Awakens gets irreversibly shredded, I won't shed a single tear.

For the first time since The Empire Strikes Back, I had no effin' clue what was going to happen in a Star Wars movie and that's just about the highest praise I can give to it. Conversely, a lot of people, particularly rabid fans, seem pissed off by what happens, and even more telling, what doesn't happen in this movie. Good. When movies cater solely to expectations and don't challenge people, that's when they cease to be interesting and become the cinematic equivalent of fast food. 

First off, the opening battle sequence is fantastic. Oscar Isaac's hot-shot pilot Poe Dameron is trying to take on the whole First Order fleet by himself. Of all the characters in this movie, it's his arc I like the best. Yes, that's right, a legitimate, bonafide, died-in-the-wool character arc. It's the sort of basic storytelling ingredient that's completely absent in the inexplicably-lauded Rogue One.


After going against the direct orders of General Leia Organa (elegantly realized by the late, great Carrie Fisher), Poe literally gets smacked down with a demotion. Eventually he starts to realize that  rash, emotional, gut decisions often results in more ruin than right. Needless to say, this is a particularly relevant sentiment as we move into 2018.

Poe eventually learns this lesson, even if the script has to do some pretty kooky contortions to get him there. His main foil, Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, is great and all, but her entire role should have been split between Leia and fan-favorite Admiral Ackbar. I think it would have been a lot more impactful if writer / director Rian Johnson used already-established characters instead of dragging new ones into the mix.

Given Leia's recent admonishment and their oil-meets-water chemistry, I suppose it makes sense that  Holdo keeps her secret plans from Poe. Unfortunately, this drives him completely nuts with curiosity. Regardless, I love the fracture this creates in the Resistance leadership. It's a new dynamic which we haven't seen before and, like I said, if it ain't new, it ain't worth bothering. 

Going back to Carrie Fisher for a moment: she's wonderful. It's a cruel twist of fate that took her from us so early, especially when you consider how hypothetically pivotal she was to the resolutions we'll hopefully get in Episode IX. Here she's elegant, sardonic, commanding and funny. I just wish the Force was a real thing and we could get Carrie back again. We all miss her terribly and the world is a darker place without her in it.

This leads me to Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. I've said this before but it bears repeating: if Disney is gonna force-feed (pun not intended) us a bunch of arguably-superfluous Star Wars movies, I'm really glad that he's a part of it. For far too long, the villains in Star Wars have been overtly fetishized. Back in the day, we recognized the stormtroopers, Darth Vader and Boba Fett as undeniably cool, but we also saw them as major assholes. Nowadays, the Dark Side is increasingly represented as a legitimate choice.

And that's what makes Kylo Ren such a wonderful character. I see him as a living, breathing parody of neck-bearded fanboys who orgasmed in their Underoos when Darth Vader made his needless and painfully "punny" appearance in Rogue One. He shows us that the Dark Side isn't particularly rewarding or welcoming, it's more like a half-way house for sad, bitter, dorky outcasts who won't be happy until everyone else is equally miserable. Adam Driver does a great job oscillating back and forth between menacing, petulant and vulnerable.

Then there's Daisy Ridley, who continues to be inhumanly charming and charismatic as Rey. Unlike Poe, Rey doesn't really get a character arc and seems just as lost and confused at the end of the film as she was in the beginning. Sure, she learns that blind hero worship is bad and slavishly-adhering to the failed tenants of the past are a symptom of madness, but I'm not sure this qualifies as legitimate character growth.

Which is a real pity. At one point, Rey and Kylo share the callback to Empire where Vader invites a beaten Luke to join him, defeat Palpatine and rule the galaxy as father and son. Even though things do play out differently, I really wish Rian Johnson had doubled down on this departure. I think it would have been great if Rey actually joined Kylo and convinced him to stay his hand against the Resistance. The next movie would then be all about Rey trying to steer him back to the light and  hand over the reigns of power.

Some folks are also loosing their shit over Rey's domestic origins but I completely understand why Rian Johnson went this route. What else were you expecting? People with entirely too much time on their hands have spent the past two years speculating about her parentage ad nauseum, so wouldn't it have been boring to go down one of these obvious avenues? I'm delighted that Johnson willfully upset this OCD apple cart, democratizing the Force in the process. Hopefully J.J. Abrams wont retcon this in the cinematic equivalent of dueling banjos.


Sadly, John Boyega's Finn continues to be a non-entity to me. Once again, we get absolutely no explanation as to why his First Order programming didn't take, why he switched allegiances on a dime and then proceeded to massacre his equally-deluded squad-mates without hesitation. I wish he'd been allowed to go A.W.O.L. after Rey instead of being saddled with a wacky misadventure. We might have gotten some legit character development and maybe his story would have dove-tailed with the main plot a bit better.

The Canto Bright scene is fine enough. In fact, I really appreciate the social commentary that writer Rian Johnson makes about war profiteering. Using Empire as a template, one might see the First Order's pursuit of the Resistance fleet as Vader's hunt for the Millennium Falcon. That would make Rey and Luke's storyline comparable to Luke's training on Dagobah. Unfortunately, that leaves "Finn and Rose go to Space Las Vegas" feeling decidedly superfluous. 

One thing I do like about their mission is that, once again, things don't work out the way they (and we) expected. Such is life. Yes, their mission is kind of a bust but Finn and Rose manage to put a sizable space fly in the punch bowl of some interstellar one-percenters while giving the next generation some hope and heroism. I just wish this could have been done in a more economic fashion. 

Perhaps the most unfortunate example of Finn's storyline getting short-shift is his truncated confrontation with Phasma. Honestly I have no clue why Gwendoline Christie took this role since all Phasma ever does is show up and get her shiny metal ass kicked. During their brief tete-a-tete, not only do we get zero insight into the origin of their mutual hatred, the goofy spectacle unfolding all around completely flushes any tension down the space-loo.

As for the dynamic between Finn and Rose, it's pleasant enough, but if it was done just to set up a love triangle and make some superfluous points about arms dealers, there were certainly easier and more relevant ways to accomplish this. Like Admiral Holdo, the things that Rose is tasked to do could have been given to a preexisting character. This would have kept the focus on our established heroes and not inflated the film's run time. 

But, alas, I can only talk about the film that was made, not the speculative one. At the very least we're treated to a twitchy, hypnotic and unpredictable Benicio del Toro as DJ. Notwithstanding his Roger Rabbit-esque speech pattern, del Toro gets some choice lines which call into question the very nature of Star Wars. In much the same way that Randall in Clerks ponders the fate of innocent contractors on the second Death Star, del Toro makes us wonder where all of this war materiel is coming from and how fuzzy the line is between "good guys" and "bad guys".

Awrite, let's talk about Monsieur Skywalker. First off, I love his reaction to the lightsaber. Folks have to understand that we haven't seen Luke in thirty years, so naturally he isn't the same resolved, idealistic person we see at the end of ROTJ. He's come to the logical conclusion that the Jedi are nothing but an abject failure, so he's sequestered himself away to atone for his past deeds, reflect on his hubris and make sure that he never makes the same mistakes again. 

That's all well and good, but I can't quite reconcile his stubborn refusal to leave the island and help. He's just been told that his best buddy is dead and his sister is on the verge of capture or annihilation. Upon hearing that, I don't think even bitter, jaded, crusty ol' Luke would continue to milk sea cows and go spear fishing. My main reason for believing this is that he left a map to his location lying around.

Otherwise I really like what they did with him. Mark Hamill is at the height of his thespic powers and he's riveting whenever he's on screen. Despite my own doubts, Hamill's conviction sold me on Luke's resolve, regret and trepidation. The way he factors into the film's climax is surprising, satisfying and, most importantly, it doesn't undermine everything that came before it. In the end, Luke learns that buying into your own hype can be dangerous but legend are instrumental in sparking a revolution.

So, I guess all that's left now is address the nitpick-y crap that people are losing their collective marbles over. So let's knock these off as quickly as possible:
  • How do the Resistance bombs drop on the dreadnought? Ummm...because there's gravity in the bomber and the momentum carries them through space? Don't buy that? Then stick around and I'll trot out at least a half dozen more reasons as to why you really need to get a life.
  • The humor. Actually I kinda liked the humor for the most part. Poe is this trilogy's Han Solo so why wouldn't he act like a disrespectful twat to Hux? Rey inadvertently wrecking the caretaker's wheelbarrow also really cracked me up.
  • Yoda. Some folks are wondering why Yoda is acting like his goofy, pre-reveal self in Empire. Well, what's wrong with that? Clearly that's a part of his persona, so why not use it to make a point with Luke? Honestly people, pick and choose your damn battles. 
  • "Space Flight" Leia. Look, I love the fact that my girl finally gets a chance to manifest the Force, I just would have chosen to do it a bit differently. Perhaps when the First Order hit the bridge, she could have used her powers to "act on instinct" and prevent explosive decompression. The way it happens in the film it's clearly designed to generate some cheap tension and put her out of commission for a bit.
  • Porgs. They're cute and not nearly as annoying as Ewoks. I'm amused by their sense of entitlement and get a kick outta that one little feller stamping on the discarded lightsaber. Two flightless wings up for these imminently-marketable but still harmless l'il fuckers. Bonus points: Chewie's Galactic Test Kitchen proves that they plump up nicely when you cook 'em! 
Last but not least, the people who are livid over The Last Jedi really need to do some soul searching. First off, they need to re-watch the prequels, which, in my opinion, barely qualify as a series of moving images. Moreover, they need to ask themselves what they expect to see in these new Star Wars films...and then promptly chuck it all into the trash compactor.

Did they really want to see Snoke as Palpatine 2.0? Did they really want Rey to be related to Han or Luke or Obi-Wan or Lando? Did they really want to see Kylo and Luke fight to the death? C'mon, people, we've seen that all done so well before that we keep loitering around like lost dogs sniffing around for table scraps. 

One last point before I drop the saber hilt and peace out. I was there in 1980 when The Empire Strikes Back broke my fragile eggshell mind. Ten year old me came out of that first screening legitimately pissed off. How dare they take my fictional friends, who's G-rated adventures I'd been continuing via action figures over the past three years, and drag them through a black hole of misery? 

Well, it taught me a valuable lesson that I'll paraphrase from The Rolling Stones: "you don't always get what you want but you might just get what you need." And like it or not, this post-modern Star Wars film is precisely what we need. Otherwise, the entire saga is in danger of become an irrelevant and repetitive passion play.


Tilt: up.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Movie Review: "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) by David Pretty


AUGUST 18'TH, 1973

Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) heads out on a road trip to find her abandoned childhood home in what I can only describe as Defilement County, Texas. Along for the ride is her wheel-chair bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) as well as her friends Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn) and Jerry (Allen Danziger).


After a harrowing encounter with a crazed Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), their van runs out of gas, prompting Kirk to investigate a nearby farmhouse for help. This inadvertently stirs up the Sawyer clan, a crazed group of homicidal rednecks who's chief guard dog / pet ogre, Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), decides to pick off the interlopers one at a time.

What follows is a spooky little cinematic romp that pairs nicely with such family-friendly fare as Hocus Pocus, The Addams Family or Caspar for a pleasant Halloween movie night. 

WHY THE LAST STATEMENT IS A DIRTY, DIRTY LIE

This movie wastes no time establishing a mood of total, abject horror. After John Larroquette's oddly incongruous voice over narration, director Tobe Hooper segues into a pitch dark screen where the only sounds we hear is a shovel moving earth and heavy breathing. Periodically the scene is illuminated by the flashbulbs of a still camera, giving us macabre half-glimpses of a recently unearthed corpses. This suggests that the sick bastard exhuming these bodies is also taking pictures of them, which, in my book, rates about a "12" on the ol' Creep-O-Meter.

Stifling darkness gives way to daylight but Hooper grants no reprieve. Instead he gives us a flinch-inducing close up of the grave-digger grim handiwork: two skeletal cadavers artfully poised atop a grave marker. The orange color filter and drippy condition of the bodies gives the viewer the impression that the bodies are melting away in the punishing heat of the mid-day Texas sun. Ewww...


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a perfect example of a movie that actually triumphs thanks to its low-rent feel. Witness the scene where Sally and company find and explore their old homestead. Kirk notices a huge pile of cellar spiders getting phreaky in the corner of an abandoned room, so Tobe Hooper and his cinematographer Daniel Pearl zoom in on the vile image with child-like glee. You can almost hear them giggling "Hey, get a load of this! Gross, huh? Here...lemme get closer!"

Moments later, Franklin discovers this weird bone fetish altar thingie in the house and sees a matching totem hanging overhead. This serves as an ominous visual precursor for what's to come. After Pam and Kirk's plans to go swimming fall through, they notice a windmill and the top of a roof in the distance. The unmistakable sound of a gas generator gives them hope that they may not be stranded for much longer.

But as they get closer to the property, that feeling of foreboding continues to grow. You start to wonder what sort of person would tie a bunch of rusty old junk onto the tree limbs, and, better yet, why? The inordinate number of abandoned cars lying around seems rather odd. What's even stranger is they're all covered up with camo netting.

When they reach the house, we get another omen when Kirk finds a molar and uses it scare the shit  out of Pam. Oblivious to the horrors that lie within, Kirk ventures into the house to ask for help. As he inches he way down the hallway toward the crimson-hued back room, we notice that the walls are covered in animal skulls and taxidermy projects. By the time Leatherface makes his iconic first appearance and "greets" the interloper, a part of us isn't completely surprised.

The triumphantly-ghastly production design by Robert A. Burns really gets showcased when Pam goes into the house to look for Kirk. She stumbles into the ironically-named "living" room and the camera takes a bone-chilling inventory of the human detritus scattered around. We see piles of feathers, scattered bones, a live chicken crammed into a tiny cage, chairs re-enforced with tibias, hanging skulls with a horns driven through the mouth and similarly-charming bric-à-brac.

 
On more than one occasion, the production's gritty, bargain-basement-style sensibilities makes you feel as if you're a witness to something you shouldn't be seeing. A snuff movie, of sorts. Just check out the scene where Jerry manages to delve deeper into the house than any of his predecessors. He makes his way into the revealed back room, hears thumping noises coming from the deep freezer and then opens it up to find Pam lying there like a frozen fish fillet. What happens next will challenge the integrity of even the most hardened horror hound's bladder control.

The film's mercilessly creepy mise en scène results in one of the most shocking scenes in the film. With everyone else missing, Sally pushes her wheelchair bound brother Franklin through the pitch-dark woods to try and get to the mansion. All of a sudden, Leatherface and his roaring chainsaw pop up from out of nowhere and instantly Franklin is put on frappe. This is just another example of how the film's "faults", in this case sub-par lighting, actually contributes to the shock factor. 

THE SOUND OF HORROR

Also piling onto our wits is the movie's dissonant, schizophrenic score, which is rife with cymbal crashes and echoey drums. This sets the tone right from the opening credits. It's the perfect soundtrack to such gruesome visuals and running news reports about chronic grave desecration.

More memorable musical stings can be heard as the characters explore the abandoned house, when Pam stumbles into the living room and during Jerry's approach to the Sawyer homestead. The dinner scene at the end of the film is made even more bone-rattling due to the industrial-style soundtrack. Hell, even the "music" that plays over the end credits sounds like rusty farm equipment being thrown down a bloody metal sluice.

A METHOD (ACTING) TO THEIR MADNESS

Sure, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is totally on-point with its visual and auditory horrors, but the film's population of Grade-A weirdos is what really makes the movie pure nightmare fuel. Not the least of which is Edwin Neal's Hitchhiker. With his prominent birthmark, antiquated camera, sassy varmint purse and a head of hair that looks like it was combed with a greasy pork chop, its no wonder Franklin takes one look at him and remarks "I think we just picked up Dracula."


I think Edwin Neal is the number one reason why no-one ever picks up hitchhikers anymore. Prior to this, most horror movies used monsters, werewolves, ghosts and zombies to try and frighten people, but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a completely different animal. It's easy to discount supernatural threats as pure fantasy, but viewers can't help but ponder the cold, hard fact that there are people in the world that make the Hitchhiker look like Ryan Reynolds.

Indeed, Edwin Neal's Hitchhiker is particularly effective because you get the impression that the character's weird and abhorrent behavior makes perfect sense in his own fevered brain. Never before had  movie-goers seen such a harrowing, convincing and sustained depiction of good, old-fashion human mental illness on screen.

In any other movie, the Hitchhiker would be more than enough to terrify the average popcorn-muncher, but he's quickly overshadowed by one of the most genuinely-scary movie villains in film history. His introduction to the screen is burned into my brain for all eternity. As Kirk is creeping through the Sawyer mansion, we actually hear him before we see him "thanks" to a series of muted pig squeals and grunting noises.

Kirk trips and stumbles headlong into a room at the far end of the hall. Suddenly the doorway is dominated by a hulking brute clad in a filthy short-sleeve dress shirt, a blood-splattered butcher's apron and a sharp little hipster tie. Oh, and in case you missed it, he's also wearing a mask made entirely of human flesh.

 
After Leatherface brains Kirk with his mallet like a prized heifer at the slaughterhouse he proceeds to deliver a few more shots just to quell his death-throes. He then picks up Kirk's lifeless body, hurls it off-screen and then slams the metal door shut behind him, exhibiting super-human strength and pure, mindless rage. Between his porcine vocalizations, horrifying appearance and overwhelming might, actor Gunnar Hansen is the physical embodiment of a nightmare.

The other kills in the movie are equally traumatizing. After hanging out in the "living" room, Pam realizes that she's made a horrible mistake and heads towards the exit. Just as she enters the hallway, the metal door whips open revealing Leatherface who lets out a guttural bull-moose call and then gives chase after her. What happens next isn't so much gory as it is inconceivably awful.

What makes Leatherface infinitely more interesting than Micheal Myers and Jason Vorhees is that he's inherently human. After Jerry gets pasted, Leatherface actually starts freaking out. Still emitting a chorus of hoots and grunts, he runs over to the window in a panic, frantically looking around to see if anyone else is outside. He then collapses into a nearby chair, holds his head and starts rocking back and forth.

Clearly he's trying to figure out where all of these meddling kids are coming from and whether or not they'll stop coming. He's genuinely scared. He knows that if one of these strangers gets away and calls the authorities, the jig'll be up for him and rest of his unconventional fam jam. 

And, for the record, only one actor had been and forever will be Leatherface and his name is Gunnar Hansen. In my humble opinion, every other depiction of the character, from Bill Johnson's hyperactive, eye-rolling, two-stepping goofball in the direct sequel to Andrew Bryniarski's neck-less goon in the remake, has missed the mark by miles. Only Hansen succeeded in making the character real for me and, subsequently, absolutely terrifying.

As for the rest of the characters in the movie, most of them are just walking flank steaks except for Sally, played to frantic perfection by Marilyn Burns. Based solely on her performance here, Marilyn belongs with such hallowed company as Faye Wray and Jamie Lee Curtis as one of the greatest Scream Queens in cinema history. I'm sure the harsh shooting conditions inspired a lot of method acting on her part. Her palpable misery and mental deterioration is so realistic that it's almost impossible to watch.


During the film she's gets relentlessly chased by Leatherface, caught up in brambles, stumbles upon dead bodies, gets defiled by one of them, suffers untold head trauma, gets her back sliced up and voluntarily leaps through more panes of glass then friggin' Batman. But perhaps her most horrifying encounter comes at the hands of The Cook.

After eluding Leatherface, Sally manages to run back to the gas station we saw earlier in the film. For a second, the audience breaths a sigh of relief, particularly when the station's elderly attendant shows up. Almost immediately, however, things don't sit quite right. Sally begs him to call the police but instead he tells her to stay put while he goes to get his truck.

We're baffled as to why he voluntarily goes outside after Sally tells him that a chainsaw-wielding lunatic is lurking just outside the door. He's gone for what feels like an eternity, partly because Tobe Hooper chooses this moment to serve up a lingering shot of the gas station's BBQ cooker. The blood-red light and the sight of abstract-looking meats sizzling away inside the oven is accompanied by disconcerting news reports on the radio about grave robbing. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to put two and two together here.

 
Eventually the gas station manager reappears and when you see that he's holding a bag and some rope your heart just wilts. What we witness next makes Jim Siedow's Cook one of the most reviled and repellent characters in cinema history. As if beating Sally senseless isn't heinous enough, he alternates between comforting her with reassuring words and then roughly jabbing at her with his broken-off broom handle. Between the perverse script and Siedow's creepy portrayal, it's one of the most convincing depictions of mental illness I've ever seen in a movie.

YOU DON'T JUST WATCH THIS MOVIE, YOU SURVIVE IT

Just a quick side note here: many people who have seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will claim  that it's one of the goriest films ever made. These same people will also swear that Janet Leigh got "totally" stabbed in Psycho's famous shower scene. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, most of the violence in Chainsaw is implied. If you get queasy while watching it, it probably has a lot more to do with the unflinching, realistic depiction of gonzo human behavior then it does with graphic violence.

Unlike any other film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is flat-out grueling to watch. Just seconds after thinking "Well, it can't get any worse!", it invariably does. Old faces show up, Sally is dragged into the most harrowing and dysfunctional family meal in cinema history, the last remaining member of the Sawyer clan re-appears with a penchant for blood and her final attempt to save herself seems doomed from the start. 

The less said about these final scenes the better. Just suffice to say that you'll be tempted to question the sanity of both Tobe Hooper and his writing partner Kim Henkel. Without reprieve, the viewer is clobbered with a series of twitchy, microscopic closeups, perfectly conveying Sally's wide-eyed terror. Watching this for the first time, you'll begin to feel your own wits unraveling along with our heroine.

As it turns out, the movie's tag line ("Who will survive and what will be left of them?") is just as effective as Alien's "In space, no-one can hear you scream". At the end we're left staring into Sally's blood-covered face frozen in a rictus grin of hysteria, her involuntary screams slowly degenerating into peals of maniacal laughter. Physically she may be safe, but it's clear that her sanity, like ours, is in tatters. The very last shot is of Leatherface, spinning around like a whirling dervish of impotent rage. The implication is chilling: we've physically survived the experience but the Insane Clan Posse is still out there. 


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has but one raison d'être and that's to scare the ever-lovin' fertilizer out of you. This isn't a horror movie with training training wheels like the Paranormal Activity films. While watching this flick you'll constantly be wondering 'What sort of damaged brain comes up with sick shit like this?'

But that's the most chilling twist of all. Chainsaw was inspired, in large part, by the real-life crimes of necrophile / cannibal Ed Gein. The brutal fictions depicted in the film are nothing compared to the real-life cruelty being inflicted by people on other people every single day. Like many films of that era, including Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust and Night of the Living Dead, this movie is Hooper's attempt to reconcile the constant parade of real-life horrors in the news. It's art imitating life, people, not the other way around.

It's not often I say this but watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre changes you. Above and beyond feeling as if you've been smoked in the back of the head with a vulpine hammer, you're forced to confront the truism that truth is infinitely stranger then fiction. You're forced to wrestle with the troubling concept that dark things happen in our world that make the ghoulish goings-on depicted in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like Frankenweenie.

For being the archetypal definition of a true horror movie in every sense of the word, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre earns a perfect score.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Movie Review: "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" by David Pretty


CAUTION: SPOILERS AFOOT!


The movie starts soooooo bad. But then it gets soooo good, soooo quick.


If you can't already tell, I'm a tad conflicted when it comes to Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The first half, with its endless parade of new words, anemic character snippets and boring exposition is so shockingly ham-fisted that it nearly sinks the entire picture. But then suddenly everything jumps into hyperspace and the flick becomes incredibly thrilling. I can't recall the last time I watched a movie that was so... schizophrenic.

Ever since I saw Rogue One I've been trying to pin down precisely why it starts off so poorly. I think screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy along with director Gareth Edwards should have given us more time with Felicity Jones's Jyn Erso, the way we had time establishing Luke in Star Wars

Yeah, sorry, fuck that Episode IV / New Hope shite, btw.



The only characterization we get for Jyn is that her dad was taken away, her mom was killed and she ended up in a hole until a family friend pulled her out. Then we smash cut to twenty years into the future and see her in jail. We don't see why she got arrested or what she's been doing to warrant an arrest. We just get a fully-formed, bitter, nihilistic "rebel" who understandably wants revenge on the Empire. Otherwise we know precious little else about her.

Diego Luna's Cassian Andor doesn't fare much better. We first see him meeting with a skittish informant during the first half's endless cavalcade of clunky, workmanlike planetary stops. After getting the information he needs, he casually blasts the dude in the back to shut him up. The idea of a morally-ambiguous Rebel Alliance is super interesting to me, which is why I was super disappointed when this wasn't explored at all. In fact, the only insight we get into Cassian's background is some vague talk later on about how he's been doing this "since he was six". Well, c'mon...pull up a space chair, pour yourself a blue milk, sit down and tell us all about it! What, no time for that? Okay, then, on to the next planet! 

Instead of investing time in our two leads we get these bland little vignettes meant to set up the supporting characters. Riz Ahmed as Imperial pilot defector Bodhi Rook really gets screwed here. Armed with a decent script he really could have been the flinty, grudgingly-accepted part of an inevitable triumvirate between Jyn and Cassian. But, no, instead he's flash-sketched with some throw-away lines of dialogue just like everyone else. We're meant to believe that he was inspired by Jyn's dad, Galen Erso (stoically played by Mads Mikkelsen) but we don't see why. It kills me to to say this, but Rogue One has a downright deplorable "show, don't tell" track record.



Oh, and don't tell me that this was in Catalyst or some other shit. I shouldn't need to read a fucking tie-in novel to give a shit about the characters. 

Even when a guerrilla-style action set piece finally meandered into the first half of the film, I just kinda sat there feeling disengaged. Watching wave after wave of extras dressed like storm troopers falling down on cue, I actually started to feel kinda sorry for the boys in white. Which is something that I never felt a twinge of while watching the original trilogy. I hated the storm troopers for killing Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru and for blasting at my on-screen friends at every opportunity. Here the stormtroopers just seem like just poor, sad jobbers out on patrol. To see them slaughtered in endless waves by interchangeable characters is oddly wince-inducing. 

I think the first half of the film really could have benefited from excising some of the superfluous characters. First off, I would have chucked Forest Whitaker's Saw Gerrera under the walker, since he's only there to pull Jyn out of the bunker, torture Bodhi with an incongruous Hentai tentacle porn monster and then expire in a scene that's less noble and more script convenience. I get the impression he's mainly there to provide some connective tissue to the Rebels cartoon.



Despite of the fact that both characters are likely there just to appeal to the emerging Chinese theater-going market, I wouldn't want to jettison Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus and particularly Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe. Mainly because both of these guys make me feel like I'm watching West End Game's Star Wars: the Role Playing Game - The Movie. Unfortunately, they're given so little screen time that they end up being about as deep as the two-line character template descriptions in that venerable, ol' RPG. And frankly, that sucks, since I love the idea of a guy who's Force sensitive but doesn't have any direct connection to light sabers and Jedi lore.

All of this makes me wonder why I didn't connect with these character very much, and I think I know why. In addition to my aforementioned case for Luke in Star Wars, we don't even meet Han Solo until about a third of the way into that same film. So why is Han so memorable and why do I have to keep looking up the names of the characters Rogue One over and over again? Well, the devil is in the details, kiddies.

As soon as Harrison Ford shows up on screen we can tell that he's a boundless font of charisma. The script isn't afraid to take a knee for a moment and let the characters talk about more than just the next action item on their galactic things-to-do list. By the time the Falcon reaches 'splody Alderaan, Ford has taken the on-point dialogue and presented it such a way as to illustrate Han as a cynical, cocksure, blowhard who exudes calm cool and undeniable skill. 



The same goes for Leia. Beyond talking sass to Tarkin and Vader throughout the entire film, we feel as if we've known her for years after she's sprung from that Death Star detention block. Carrie Fisher's spunky performance, on screen verve and flinty dialogue speaks volumes about the kind of person she is: I.E. she's highly-capable, no-nonsense and physically incapable of taking shit from anyone. Except for maybe Jyn, no-one in Rogue One gets the same consideration.

And I honestly feel bad for young people who mistake on screen bad-assery and a few casual lines of dialogue as character development. I related to Luke in Star Wars not because he was male, but because he wanted to get away from boring ol' Tatooine. He craved adventure and excitement and he also had some interesting flaws to deal with. I liked Rey in The Force Awakens for many of the same reasons, but ultimately she was so fucking perfect at everything that she didn't come across to me as a real, three-dimensional character.

Poor characterization and muddled first act aside, Rogue One miraculously "switches on" midway through and becomes the Star Wars movie of my dreams. Ben Mendelsohn effectively stamps around as Inspector Orson Krennic, having encounters with established villains that makes perfect sense within the movie's timeline. Regardless of what you may hear to the contrary, I think these scenes are highly effective and used sparingly.



The infiltration of Scarif base and the subsequent ground and space battle are undeniably thrilling. The special effects are absolutely exquisite in the sense that everything, especially the Star Destroyers, actually look like plastic models. The irony isn't lost on me but I should stress that the tactile environments, physical props and on-set droids and creature really give the film that classic "lived in" Star Wars look.

Now, some people are bitching that these cameos and call backs are gratuitous fan service but I tend to pronounce "fan service" as "continuity". Look, if I was making a film set in this classic rebellion era, a herd of wild Banthas couldn't prevent me from include some of my favorite classic characters. The only issue is that some of them show up as distractingly-obvious CGI models and spout quippy one-liners that comes across as slightly out of character. 

I also wish that they'd been more creative on the design side of things. With this being the earliest film in the rebellion era, it was the perfect opportunity to showcase some technological evolution. In other words, it would have been great to see prototype AT-ST's and AT-AT's instead of seeing this same exact things that pop up later on in the trilogy. 



And trust me, there's no shortage of awesome shit in the Lucasfilm archives; just a quick glance through my old Empire Strikes Back art book proves that! Instead, the visual impact of these vehicles will be diminished somewhat when they pop up later on in the saga. But, hey, I guess the masses might be puzzled by something familiar but not identical, so I guess we should just spoon feed them exactly what they want, amirite?

Admittedly, the last act of the film is a jaw-dropping tour de force, no pun intended. Jyn and Cassian go through pure hell to recover those data tapes, including having to deal with a mini-game that looks like an homage to George Lucas's THX-1138. All of this is juxtaposed against a backdrop of brutal, unflinching combat that might result in hordes of regretful parents wishing that they'd just stayed home on Christmas Day. This is no more apparent than in the agonizing fate of Alan Tudyk's appropriately-emo droid K-2SO who's denouement will leave no eye in the house thoroughly moistened.

And that's one genuine positive I can say about the film. All bets are off. None of these characters appear in future continuity so everyone is expendable and the stakes are pretty darned high. More the pity, then, that the script didn't give us more time with these people. It would have made the final act feel less like a hollow spectacle and more like an impactful Greek tragedy. 




Tilt: down.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Movie Review: "Ghostbusters" by David Pretty

Nostalgia can be a pretty powerful thing. Movies that were originally nothing more than nominal, high-concept diversions can eventually morph into full-blown cultural phenomenons over time.


When Ghostbusters first came out in 1984 I was fourteen years old. And, just like everyone else, I enjoyed the movie. But did I think that it would become fodder for today's rabid fandom? NOPE. In fact, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the whole thing was a failed franchise after the obligatory and scattershot sequel manifested itself in five years later and promptly evaporated from sight.

But unbeknownst to me, a tsunami of toys and cartoons featuring The Real Ghostbusters was turning an impressionable generation of kids into life-long devotees. In fact, many people in their mid-thirties look at Ghostbusters the same way I look at Star Wars. That's why the 2009 video game sequel was so successful and, conversely, why this year's patently-mercenary and wholly needless reboot got the collective cold shoulder.

Granted, there are infinitely more baffling things to me, such as the adult beatification of Transformers, Sailor Moon, My Little Pony, Power Rangers, Pokemon, and Masters of the Universe. Mainly because all of these things were initially created primarily for the express purpose of selling toys and other ancillaries. Which makes you wonder: what exactly is the statute of limitations on nostalgia? Do we need to brace ourselves for the inevitable but-no-less-passionate Teletubbies resurgence in a few years?

Now, I'm not saying that you can't feel wistful about whatever pop culture detritus that you were weaned on, but the adult human who lords a two-hour Nintendo commercial like The Wizard over the collective works of Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese is doing themselves a tremendous disservice. We all collectively need to face the cold, hard fact that many things from our childhood are just not worth dwelling on.

 
As for Ghostbusters, even though I don't think we should be treated like some sort of pop-culture Golden Calf, it still deserves some adoration. The four leads are a major reason for this, forever preserved here in celluloid amber. What amazes me is how distinctly different these four characters are and how clearly delineated their motivations are.

Take Bill Murray's Peter Venkman for example, who seems to be only nominally interested in parapsychology. In fact, you get the distinct impression that he just meandered into it in a likely-misguided effort to meet women. Murray's dry wit is on fleek and he's personally responsible for the lion's share of the film's funniest moments, many of which are delivered so casually that you suspect they were improvised. When he mutters "I feel so funky!" after his close encounter with Slimer, it cracks me up every time.

Then there's Dan Aykroyd's Ray Stantz, a goofy, exuberant man-child who literally gets a ghost-induced boner at one point in the film. Ray is Aykroyd's perfect avatar since he's completely obsessed with paranormal stuff in real life. He does a great job in the film, selling Ray's fetish-like interest in all things spectral. The scene where he brings The Destructor into being is perfectly played and has become the stuff of cinema legend.  

Next up is Harold Ramis, who's Egon Spengler has to be considered one of the best cinematic "eggheads". Ramis is note-perfect: oblivious to social niceties, consistently odd in behavior and every one of his line readings is exactly the same. Whether he's telling Janine about his collecting of "spores, mold and fungus" or confessing that he's "terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought", everything he says is flawlessly deadpan. 

 
Finally Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddemore is the perfect every man, mirroring the incredulity of the audience. Affable, easy-going and possessed of a winning smile, Ernie Hudson just oozes on-screen charisma. The thing is, he's isn't just a sounding board for all things spooky, he's also exhibits the chops required to deliver the chills. Hudson exhibits such sincere conviction regarding his theories about the afterlife during his scene with Dan Ackroyd in the Ecto-1, he ends up giving us all serious case of the wiggins.

And, hey, what about that amazing supporting cast? First off, we've got an alternately winsome and feisty pre-Aliens Sigourney Weaver who later on becomes impossibly sultry while playing host to Zuul, the Gatekeeper. Also, seeing Rick Moranis in action makes me wish that hadn't turned his back on Hollywood, since I still think he's one of the funniest carbon-based life forms on the planet. Finally, Annie Potts is a real hoot as the prototypically-bitchy Brooklyn secretary Janine Melnitz.

Even though the olde-skool practical puppetry, miniatures and optical effects can be slightly creaky at times, this just adds to the film's goofy charm. I challenge anyone to maintain a straight face when Venkman starts berating Ray for inadvertently incarnating the "Stay Puft Marshmallow Man". On the other hand, I'm also open-minded enough to admit that the movie isn't wall-to-wall comedy gold. In fact, many of the "humorous" exchanges are kinda forced and some of one liners are pretty weak.

In spite of this, it's still a ton of fun watching all of these kooky ideas gel reasonably-well together. Only in the wonderful world of movies is such a strange high concept even possible. By the time the boys are bombing around the streets of New Yawk in the Ecto-1, trashing hotel ballrooms and getting "slimed", all to the tune of Ray Parker Jr's eponymous hit, you can't help but be on-board.


As I said before, some things aren't worthy of nostalgia, especially when you revisit them as an adult. But  Ghostbusters is certainly one of those rare and wonderful exceptions.

  
        Tilt: up.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

An Important Announcement...

Greetings, Movie Mavens!

You might have noticed that there haven't been any new reviews posted here lately. If you care to know the boring reason why, you can find all the gory details right here.

Soooo, between the fact that I'm rarely if ever indoors during the summer, currently holding down part-time night job at night and getting paid to write in some capacity, I don't have any time for recreational blogging right now. The precious little time I have left is being funneled into working on my second novel.

One of my goals this fall / winter is to start up a website in an effort to monetize the massive archive of work you see here and create a home for future reviews. In the interim, this blog will continue to be the default landing ground for any new content that will most likely still appear thanks to a windfall of free time that inevitably comes from being trapped indoors all winter.

Related to that, if anyone out there reads this and would like to retain my services to write something review-related, hit me up. Being paid to write is cool and all, but I'd much rather be talking about creative / artistic  endeavors than cobbling together corporate profiles and retirement home editorials.

Cheers, Me Dears!  

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Movie Review: "Edge of Tomorrow" by David Pretty

 
I gotta say, folks, this one came out of the blue and pleasantly surprised me. I was expecting an addle-brained dollop of sci-fi schlock à la the remake of Total Recall but instead got Dragon's Lair: The Motion Picture crossed with Groundhog Day.


THE ELEVATOR PITCH

A feckless media-relations military officer named Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise) unexpectedly finds himself at the front line of a desperate battle against a vicious race of alien invaders dubbed the Mimics.

Not only does this offensive fail miserably, Cage is snuffed out almost immediately, but not before blasting a rare alien boss and getting marinated in its blood. Because of this gory baptism, Cage wakes up seconds later, destined to repeat the whole disastrous affair over and over again in the sort of temporal causality loop that Star Trek fans have wet dreams about.

After several failed attempts to break free of this pattern, Cage stumbles upon a fellow time-looper and war veteran Sergeant Rita Vrataski, played by Emily Blunt. Eventually she's persuaded to whip Cage into shape, condition him to adapt to his mistakes and "reboot" him (read: put a cap in his ass) whenever things go awry.

Together they eke out a last-ditch surgical strike to defeat the enemy and save humanity but will they be able to negotiate a path to victory and how many false starts will it take to get there?


NEW IDEA OR RECYCLED GARBAGE?

Well, since I've already cited no less than three different sources that this movie culls from, I'd be hard-pressed to describe Edge of Tomorrow as wildly original. But, in the immortal words of Harry S. Plinkett "the devil's in the details, my lovelies" and the execution of this flick is what gives it considerable entertainment value.

Of particular note are the circumstances that necessitate many of the reboots and the various "trial and error" branching paths that the characters must explore to try and win the day. Basically if you've ever played a frustratingly difficult video game and you're eternally grateful for the concept of "save points", you'll at least get a few chuckles out of Edge of Tomorrow.

Notwithstanding the film's ludicrous premise which is a lot more fiction than science, about the only other issue I have with the script is that sometimes we're just flat-out told that Cage and Vrataski have experienced something before, like with the helicopter scene, for example. In a perfect world, I'd rather see this than be told it but even I know that this could easily drag out the proceedings and unravel some of the impromptu dramatic tension.

Oh, and a slightly less "shiny happy people" ending certainly would have been a lot more impactful. 


HOW DOES EVERYTHING COME TOGETHER?

Actually, the film's direction is one of it's brightest spots. Even though the script features a lot of repetition, director Doug Liman ensures that these scenes are more intrigue and amusement than monotony. Another major feather in the cap of Liman and dual editors James Herbert and Laura Jennings is just how well the action scenes are mounted. Usually blender-cut, hyperactive battles come off as lazy and disengaging to me but such is not the case with Edge of Tomorrow.

Mercifully, the same dedication that Liman and company bring to spicing up the reboot dialogue scenes is applied to the action set pieces. Between the increasingly-involved beach landings to the motor home escape to the infiltration of United Defense Force headquarters, each tilt has its own visual clarity, style and distinguishing elements.


TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

There's a lot to like here. The combat suits look pretty good if not ridiculously cumbersome to move in. Many times the actors look inadvertently comical, as if they're on the verge of falling forward onto their faces at any moment. The alien design is suitably intimidating; like a combination of the creatures from Attack the Block, which proceeded this flick, and the rathtars from The Force Awakens which followed. I also dig the quad airships, the costumes and the myriad of cool-ass weapon tech on display in the film.

But perhaps the movie's most impressive visual arsenal are the stunning and seamless special effects. Clearly the creatures are CGI but it feels as if a lot of the environments aren't. It looks to me as if real sets were utilized quite often and even when I knew I was looking at a digital artifice, it still looked durned convincing to me. Perhaps my highest praise is that the special effects made me feel immersed and embedded in the story and not the other way around. High praise indeed. 


ANYTHING UNDER THE HOOD?

So, is there anything else going on in Edge of Tomorrow above and beyond all the visceral 'splodey stuff? Welp, other than a labyrinthine plot that forces you to pay attention, the movie has a lot to say about the value of team-work, practice, bravery, growth and self-determination. But that's about as deep as it gets.


ACTING!

Aside from Tropic Thunder this could very well be my favorite Tom Cruise performance to date. Even better: Cruise has an actual character arc to work with here, starting out as an incompetent, craven jackanape and eventually growing into a brave, noble and resourceful hero. I have to give it to Cruise; he's sure-footed throughout all of these transitions.

As for Emily Blunt she's also terrific. First off she's totally ripped, so clearly she felt committed enough to the character and the script to get in stellar shape. Occasionally she defaults to this dreadful slack-jawed expression of resignation which makes her look like she's been hit in the head with a 2 x 4 but otherwise she habitually strikes an imposing figure and also has the acting chops to pull off the script's subtleties.

Mild jeers, however, for hinting at a relationship between 53-year-old Cruise and 33-year old Blunt. I've seen worse but it really underscores the double standard in Hollywood today: I.E. men can continue to be action stars well into their fifties, sixties and seventies but women can only become Peter Parker's hawt aunt. Yes, Blunt does a great job and I know she's more marketable, but I would have love to have seen an actress in her late forties or early fifties tackle this role. 

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention great supporting performances by Brendon Gleeson as the hard-to-pin-down General Brigham and Bill Paxton as the Foghorn Leghorn-esque Master Sergeant Farell.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Like I said, Edge of Tomorrow kinda took me by surprise. Amidst a tsunami of sequels, remakes and reboots, it distinguishes itself just on the merit of being different. Thankfully its also smart, engaging, well-made and rewarding in its own right.


       Tilt: up.