Friday, December 25, 2015

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Directed by JJ Abrams
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaacs, Lupita Nyongo’o

I went into this film with a lot of high hopes and excitement, but I knew it would never live up to the very first Star Wars film. How could it? I was 17 when I saw the original Star Wars. It was unlike any film I had ever seen before. It was the first film I ever spent my own money to see in a theater more than once. It’s the only film I’ve ever seen in a theater more than three times. That’s a big legacy to live up to.

This film was also released in an atmosphere of massive anticipation, with an accompanying social media and advertising blitz. I read numerous online articles speculating about it, saw hundreds of still photos, and watched many behind-the-scenes videos on YouTube. In the weeks leading up to its release I saw at least a half-dozen different trailers. Yet somehow I managed to find the movie full of surprises.


I’ll start from the beginning. The film opens with the classic introductory title “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” followed by a title crawl. The crawl mentions that the best pilot in the Resistance has been sent to find Luke Skywalker. I took that statement to be a wink at the audience, likely indicating that the “best pilot” was Han Solo, since I knew Harrison Ford was in the film. But the movie promptly proved me wrong by introducing a new character, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs). The trailers had also led me to believe that the franchise’s newest adorable droid, BB-8, belonged to main new female protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley). But immediately this was also disproved when Poe Dameron was seen with BB-8, treating the droid as his best companion.

The film went on to shatter almost every preconception I had about it. I had expected Han Solo’s role to be small, due to the desire to focus on the new characters Rey and Finn (John Boyega), and Harrison Ford’s age. But Han was an important part of much of the story. I expected Leia’s role to be larger than it was. I expected Luke to show up earlier and have some dialogue. I expected to see more of C-3PO and R2-D2. I expected Rey to be related to the original characters somehow (she still may be), but there was certainly no indication of that in this movie. I expected Finn to also be a Force user because he was shown using a lightsaber in the trailers, but no one commented on that (so either lightsabers can be used by anyone, or he is a Force-sensitive but none of the other Force-sensitive characters cared to say anything about it). I expected Finn’s reason for abandoning his stormtrooper armor to be different. I expected Kylo Ren’s true identity to come as a horrible surprise to Han Solo and General Leia. I spent a lot of the movie thinking, “Oh, wow, so that’s what happens!” and grinning.

I also found myself pleased and amused by how well this movie stuck to the style of the original trilogy. In many ways it felt as though Episode IV: A New Hope, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and Episode VII: Return of the Jedi had been mashed together. A young person living on a desert planet was suddenly taken away aboard the Millenium Falcon to be introduced to a whole new life. She learned the ways of the Force in a very short time. She fought a black-clad masked villain and overcame him. A young man abandoned his former life to join the fight against a repressive regime, and helped his new friends to destroy an ultimate weapon of mass destruction. I’m sure there many people out there who found this annoying, in the same way they disliked how director JJ Abrams re-worked the iconic Spock death scene from Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan in his film Star Trek: Into Darkness. But I enjoy that kind of storytelling, taking an existing tale and twisting it a little, letting the viewer see it from a different perspective. I liked seeing how Abrams and his team did that in this movie, and yet did it very respectfully with the same kind of characterizations, plot elements, and dialogue as in the original films.

But this movie, like its predecessors, is part of a continuing saga, and the new production team wisely left lots of questions yet to be answered. Why was Rey on Jakku, and who are her parents? Why is she so strong in the Force? How did she learn to use it so quickly with no one to teach her? How was Finn able to overcome his lifelong conditioning and rebel against the First Order? What happened to Kylo Ren and Captain Phasma when the planet started to implode? What has Luke Skywalker been doing all the years he’s been missing? What will he say to Rey? I want answers, and I’ll be waiting eagerly for the next installment to answer some of them. The original film made me want more, and this film made me want more. I’d say that’s a success.

Don't Spoil It For Me

Author's note: I wrote this blog about a month ago, but hadn't posted it yet. It seemed appropriate now that I've actually seen the movie in question.

In less than a month the seventh Star Wars film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, will arrive on theater screens. In this era of social media, I know a lot more about this upcoming film than I knew about the original Star Wars when I saw it in 1977. In the ‘70s we were lucky to see one or two trailers for a film, and typically you only saw a trailer in the theater, during the previews that ran before the feature film began. There might have been a few magazine articles in magazines for film industry professionals, or in some of the sci fi genre ‘zines like Starlog, but I didn’t have access to those. I didn’t know much about Star Wars beyond that it was a sci fi film when I walked into a theater in Lubbock, Texas to see it for the first time.

As the release date for The Force Awakens approaches, I’ve seen innumerable articles on websites, and if I followed more people on Twitter I would probably have seen hundreds of tweets. I’ve seen many photos. There have been many tv ads and several trailers. I should be feeling as though I already know the plot of the film. But I don’t. Some of that is down to good editing; the television spots and trailers have managed to avoid giving away too many details. Some of my continued feeling of wide-eyed anticipation is down to my optimism. I hope that this film will regain some of the charm that the ‘prequel’ films lost. I’m excited to see the main characters from the original film brought back to the big screen. And despite any disappointment the prequels may have caused, I’m eager to see more of that imaginary universe.

But some of the reason I don’t feel all this media coverage is spoiling the movie is that no one can spoil a movie for me, not even by telling me the entire plot. I’ve heard complaints in recent years that social media and the movie studios’ push to use social media to get potential viewers excited about their products have ruined any sense of anticipation for movies. Sometimes I would agree with that sentiment, especially when a studio decides to release a trailer that appears to include all of the important plot developments. I don’t want a trailer to give the whole story away, even if that won’t prevent me from seeing the movie anyway. Occasionally this type of reveal will tell me that a movie I thought I might want to see isn’t really my cup of tea. But most of the time I feel that all this information just whets my appetite if the film is one that I genuinely wanted to see from the first time I heard about it.

Let me explain this further by describing how I choose a book in a library or bookstore. First, I look at the cover blurb to see if it describes a type of story that I think I would enjoy reading. Then, I read a bit of the first page to see if I like the writing style. After that I take a look at a page or two somewhere in the midsection, to find out if the writing style is consistent throughout and doesn’t make a dramatic turn to something darker or less accessible. Then I read some of the last page to see if I like how it ends.

That’s right, I read the end. That part horrifies my spouse, who thinks that knowing how the story ends before reading it is ruinous. But for me, it’s a guarantee that the author is taking the story somewhere I want to go. Most of the time I find that the final page of a book doesn’t give away all the most important plot developments. It doesn’t tell me everyone who lived or died, or what they did between the first page and the last. That’s how I feel about reading/seeing/hearing information about a movie before I see it, too. Just because I know all of the characters and general plot elements doesn’t mean I know everything that happens in the film. Even if someone else watches the film and gives me a detailed description of it, I still won’t feel that they ruined it for me, because what that person got out of the movie and what my experiences and values will lead me to derive from it may be completely different.

Based on all of the information I’ve received about The Force Awakens thus far, this is what I think I know:
There’s a man named Finn, who at some point in the story wears stormtrooper armor. There’s a woman named Rey who is on a desert planet similar to Tatooine. Han Solo and Leia appear. Han Solo talks to Finn and Rey. Chewbacca is seen with Han Solo, and they appear to be flying the Millenium Falcon through the interior of a crashed star destroyer. R2-D2 also appears, but not with any of the other familiar characters. A person who has a prosthetic hand is seen touching R2-D2, but the person’s face is not visible. There’s a person wearing a helmet reminiscent of Darth Vader’s helmet. There are stormtroopers. There is Darth Vader’s actual helmet, which appears to have melted. There is a dark-robed figure with a red lightsaber shaped like a sword. There are some mysterious voiceovers mentioning the Force, but we never see who is speaking. Rey and Finn seem to be involved in some fights, at least one of them in a snowy landscape.

If one reads the information available online, one will learn that the person in the Vader-like helmet with the red lightsaber is Kylo Ren, but nothing in the trailer tells you that. Online sources also state that Finn is a stormtrooper with some type of organization that is trying to preserve the Empire. The trailers don’t tell you that, either. Based on my knowledge of the prior films, I speculate that the person with the prosthetic hand that touches R2-D2 is Luke Skywalker, because I know Mark Hamill is appearing in the film even though he isn’t seen in any of the ads or trailers. I know he probably survives this film, or at least survives to become a ghost like Obi-Wan Kenobi, because I saw a tweet from Mark Hamill stating that he’s had to re-grow his contractually obligated beard, which he had shaved to appear in another part.

Now based on all that information in the preceding two paragraphs, how much do I really know about this film? I don’t know who Finn and Rey are or how they meet each other, or how they meet Han Solo. I don’t know what Han and Leia and Luke and Chewie and R2-D2 have been doing for the past 40 years of Star Wars Universe time. I don’t know who Kylo Ren is. I don’t know who the forces involved in the combats are, or what they’re fighting about. I don’t know the beginning, the middle, or the end of this story, so I know less than I would if I were buying this as a book. I know just enough to make me excited to see it. So the trailers and ads and tweets and blogs have done their job, and all these glimpses have not spoiled my anticipation to see this movie.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Welcome to the Fall Season

It’s September, time for the weather to get cooler, the leaves to turn colors, and the big tv networks to release all their new fall shows. This week saw the introduction of a whole new slate of series attempting to grab a chunk of the viewing audience numbers.

“High-concept” seems to be the watchword for developing new tv shows lately, and I watched the premieres of three new high-concept series, all of them from NBC: Blindspot, Heroes Reborn, and The Player.

Since I wrote this five weeks ago and never got around to posting it, I'm not going to warn you about spoilers. If you haven't watched these shows yet and are planning to, it's your problem if you don't stop reading.

Blindspot on Monday evening aroused a certain amount of resentment in me. Its premise is very similar to the sadly short-lived 2002 Fox series John Doe. In John Doe, a nude man with an unusual symbol branded on his chest falls into Puget Sound. Although he’s unable to remember any personal information about himself, he proves able to speak numerous languages fluently, hack computers, play the stock market successfully, and remember all sorts of obscure facts. He starts helping the Seattle police solve crimes, all the while being pursued by a mysterious organization with apparently nefarious plans for him.

Now look at what happens in the first episode of Blindspot: A large duffle bag is found in New York City’s Times Square. Inside is a nude woman, her body covered in tattoos. She has no memory of personal details. Tattooed prominently on her back is the name of an FBI agent. As the FBI investigate this “Jane Doe” she reveals she’s able to speak and read Chinese, including an obscure dialect, and that she has skills that would make her eligible to be a Navy SEAL. She helps them stop a terrorist plot to blow up a national landmark – a plot which is bizarrely indicated by one of Jane’s tattoos. Meanwhile her progress is observed by a mysterious bearded man, who murders a man who might have been able to provide some information about who Jane Doe is and what happened to her.

After I got over the initial irritation of Blindspot’s plot seeming so familiar to me (I really enjoyed John Doe and was very disappointed when it was canceled), I made an effort to look at this show objectively. Like far too many new tv shows, it tried to give the viewer too much information all at once. I miss the days when new shows often had two-hour season premieres to allow them to provide all the character and premise introduction gradually. Blindspot raced through this at a breakneck pace, throwing stock characters and situations at the audience one after another. One hopes that all of the standard FBI characters will get some development that makes them interesting in subsequent episodes.

The show’s best feature was the presence of Jamie Alexander as Jane Doe. Her performance was great, nicely touching on how frightened and confused Jane was when she realized she couldn’t remember anything about herself, not even her favorite foods, and that someone had covered her body with tattoos possibly without her consent. The performance of Sullivan Stapleton as FBI agent Kurt Weller wasn’t bad either. I’ll probably watch again, just to see if they develop anything interesting about the mysterious bearded man. But I expect my disbelief will struggle to remain suspended as the characters leap to conclusions without evidence and Jane conveniently manifests whatever special skill or knowledge is necessary to resolve that week’s conflict. I hope I’m wrong, though, and the show gets over these typical flaws of pilots to make something better of itself.

My second new series pilot this week was Heroes Reborn, the 13-episode miniseries sequel to the 2006-2010 Heroes series. I have to confess that I never finished watching Heroes, and I don’t know what happened at the conclusion of that series. I enjoyed the first two seasons of it but found the third season disappointing. But I liked what I saw of it enough to be excited by the thought of a sequel, particularly since it features some of the best characters from the original series.

Heroes Reborn starts a few years in our past, in a world where people with superpowers, known as “Evos”, actually exist and their recent appearance has caused some social upheaval. Noah Bennett (aka HRG, 'Horn Rimmed Glasses'), former representative of the nefarious Primatech and adoptive father of the nearly invulnerable Claire Bennett, is now living an ordinary life as a car salesman. He believes his daughter was killed in a terrorist attack for which Mohinder Suresh (another character from the original series) has supposedly claimed responsibility. Suddenly Bennett is contacted by a man who claims to have information about the terrorist attack, which leads Bennett to a disturbing encounter with his old friend, the memory-manipulating Haitian.

In the meantime, the audience is introduced to a new group of “Evos”. Most Evos are in hiding, as they are blamed for the terrorist attack and many of them have been arrested or killed. As Heroes did, the show introduces the new cast one at a time, skipping back and forth between their stories and that of the non-powered Bennett and his new companion. The powers in the original series were interesting and handled in a fairly original way, and that holds true for Heroes Reborn as well. One of the first characters introduced is Tommy, a teenage boy on the run with his mother. Tommy narrowly misses being killed by a duo of assassins who are dedicated to eliminating all Evos as vengeance for the death of their son in the terrorist event. A mysterious man who carries a briefcase full of pennies helps Tom avoid being caught by law enforcement, as well as preventing him from being exposed after he unwisely allows some schoolmates see him using his power. The other two main plots besides Tommy’s and Bennett’s are those of a Japanese girl named Miko Otomo, and Carlos Gutierrez, a decorated veteran. Miko is an Evo, while Carlos is not, but his brother and nephew are Evos.

Although all this jumping around from character to character and plot element to plot element was a feature of the original series, it feels a little more choppy and random in Heroes Reborn. Miko especially lacks any character development that would make me interested in her arc. She and her new friend Ren Shimosawa are reminiscent of the relationship between Hiro Nakamura and his friend Ando in Heroes, and that’s not just because all of those characters are Japanese. But while Hiro was a charming character who had an existing relationship with friend and coworker Ando, Miko and Ren don’t really have any reason to be together except through their connection to an online game called Evernow. Miko also isn’t nearly as appealing a character as Hiro. I’m hopeful that as the miniseries develops she’ll become more interesting. Her power is certainly original. Carlos also lacks some of the appeal that made the characters in the original series watchable. He’s too good-looking, and his presentation as a hero who doesn’t feel like a hero seemed forced. Perhaps his growing relationship with his nephew in the wake of sudden tragedy will make that work better as the series progresses. As with Blindspot, I’ll watch Heroes Reborn again, but I’m a bit worried that the cast from the original series will overshadow the new characters.

My third series premier this week was The Player. I hadn’t originally intended to watch it, but it aired immediately after Heroes Reborn and I left the tv channel on NBC while it ran. You might think that a series about an amnesiac woman whose tattoos predict crimes is pretty high-concept, but somehow The Player’s premise feels even more high-concept than Blindspot. The promo ads for the series looked like they were advertising the latest Hollywood action movie starring Jason Statham. Series protagonist Alex Kane (an action-movie hero name if ever there was) is a former FBI agent turned Las Vegas security consultant. Someone breaks into his estranged wife’s apartment while he’s there and murders her, leaving no evidence, and despite being ex-FBI Kane does a lot of things that make him look guilty. Fortunately he has the obligatory friend on the Vegas police force who doesn’t believe Kane did it. Then he gets an offer he can’t refuse: a mysterious man played by Wesley Snipes approaches him and tells him that he works for an organization that has figured out how to predict crimes. They know that the Middle Eastern billionaire Kane was working for is about to be the subject of a kidnapping. The murder of Kane’s ex was just to get Kane out of the way. Snipes’ character, who calls himself Mr. Johnson, offers to give Kane information unavailable to anyone else if Kane will act for Johnson’s organization. Seeking revenge for his wife’s murder, Kane agrees.

Sounds like a contrived action movie plot, right? The difference is the reason for Johnson’s organization. They have huge financial and information resources, but it’s not in the service of Evil Government Big Brother, or of the Good Guys – it’s just a form of entertainment for some people who are so rich they can’t figure out anything better to do with their money than gamble with it. Someone, somewhere, is literally betting on whether Kane will succeed or fail. There are hints that Johnson’s assistant Cassandra, who acts as Kane’s informant, may have known Kane’s ex-wife and may also be trying to subvert the intent of the “game” in which Kane has agreed to participate. She seems to genuinely want Kane to solve the crimes and stay alive, while Johnson appears to be interested only in satisfying the entertainment needs of his multi-billionaire backers. To give Kane more reason to stick with the game, he’s told that it’s a lifetime commitment. He’s also given a more personal cause to keep working for Johnson: he has evidence that his wife isn’t really dead.

Aside from feeling like I was watching a Bond-style action movie, I was a little disappointed that the hero of this story was a blond white guy, and Cassandra is a pretty blond Brit. The only people of color in this story were Wesley Snipes as Mr. Johnson and the black cop who is Kane’s friend – who will obviously have the thankless task of constantly believing Kane is good no matter what he does in future episodes, since of course Kane can’t tell anyone about the organization he’s working for and no one would believe him anyway. I couldn’t help wondering why Wesley Snipes couldn’t play the lead instead. Hollywood evidently still thinks that white audiences won’t watch a serious show with a non-white main lead.

The Player had a bit of a Matrix feel as well, with Cassandra feeding Kane information the same way that Tank fed info to Neo and Trinity in the first Matrix film. At one point Kane needs to activate the fire alarm system in a hotel without actually starting a fire, and Cassandra tells him the code to enter to set off the alarm. I think I’d actually like it better if Cassandra’s interaction with Kane was more limited and he had to figure out how to achieve his goals without her assistance. This one probably won’t get a second viewing from me. It was just too derivative of every action movie I’ve ever seen, although it was interesting to see all those action tropes playing out on the small screen.

Author's note: It's the end of October now and I'm still watching Blindspot and Heroes Reborn, and still not watching The Player. Perhaps I'll write some reviews of each series individually to follow up on this intro.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Movie Review - Conan the Destroyer

Conan the Destroyer (1984)
Directed by: Richard Fleischer
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Grace Jones, Mako, Olivia d'Abo, Sara Douglas, Tracey Walter, Wilt Chamberlain

This film has been vilified by plenty of critics and reviewers, as well as thoroughly skewered in this blog by a friend of mine. I won't deny that it has plenty of flaws in plotting and casting. But i still have a certain fondness for Conan the Destroyer.

As I said, I don't deny that it has flaws. The biggest flaws in my opinion are the casting. I don't know why they didn't ask Gerry Lopez to come back as Subotai, but replacing him with the comedy-relief thief Malak played by Tracey Walter wasn't a good idea. It's no wonder that Queen Jehnna offers him the job of court fool at the end of the movie. But Conan doesn't need a fool. He needs a boon companion who's good at sneaking around and disabling traps, and maybe at throwing knives or using a bow. I don't know why Conan doesn't leave him with the horses when he asks to be left behind. Except for showing his companions where to get into Shadizar through the back way, he does nothing else of use.

Wilt Chamberlain isn't too great as Bombaata, either, nor is Olivia d'Abo as Jehnna. But they are more than made up for by the presence of Grace Jones and the return of Mako as Akiro.

Grace Jones makes this movie for me. I based one of my first tabletop RPG characters on Zula. One of my favorite moments in the film occurs in Zula's first scene. As Conan approaches her while she is tethered and being harassed by angry villagers, she turns to look at him with an expression of such resentment, clearly expecting him to be another of her tormentors. When Conan slices through the rope around her ankle and sets her free, her expression turns to one of such glee. Later in the film she stabs an enemy to death with her spear and expresses that same fierce glee. It's delightful.

Mako if delightful too, as the wizard. It's a bit sad that he first appears as dinner for a tribe of cannibals, which seems a rather ignominious introduction for him. But he's redeemed by having the great scene in which he does wizard battle with another wizard.  He's also the one who figures out what Sara Douglas's Queen Taramis is really up to, and how to defeat Dagoth. He also gets a great little scene at the end when the newly-crowned Queen Jehnna asks him to become her new vizier and he looks back to Conan for approval.

Speaking of Sara Douglas, she's pretty good too, as Taramis. And she gets some fabulous costumes. Which leads me to the next thing I like about this film: the aesthetic design. Both Conan films, and even Red Sonja (which I may write about in a separate review) do well in demonstrating that the world in which their characters live is an ancient one, full of vast ruins, mysterious magic, and age-old cults. It is a bit underpopulated - Shadizar doesn't have enough citizens to really feel like a big city - but at least it doesn't feel like a world that was just invented for the movie.

Although the movie doesn't make much sense in places, particularly the wizard Toth-Amon capturing Jehnna (why?) and turning into an ape-man to fight Conan in person (again, why?), I always find it fun to watch and evocative of its Hyborean setting. It makes me want to play in a RPG with that type of setting, so I can recreate Zula as my character.