Archive for December, 2015

Tangerine_(film)_POSTERTangerine (2015)

Starring- Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O’Hagan, James Ransone, Alla Tumanian, Luiza Nersisyan

Director- Sean Baker

R- strong and disturbing sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, and drug use


My opinion on Tangerine is a work in progress, and that might be what I like most about it. It means I can’t call it one of the best of 2015 or one of my favorites, true, but there’s something I find invigorating about a movie defying my expectations — even as I’m watching them play out. It’s the sort of movie that implies growth — that what I think of it now may not be what I think about it given additional viewings, and I actually intend that as praise for once. I don’t love it now, but maybe I will, someday, when I’m ready to return to it and know what I’m in for. It’s a movie that’s much more meaningful than its largely vulgar surface would suggest. Discovering those depths, rooting them out beneath all the things that were making me uncomfortable, proved to be quite the rewarding surprise.

My expectations for this movie began early. Some festival attendees mentioned it, generally in a positive light, so I decided to look into it. I didn’t know what to make of the premise — a transgender prostitute, fresh out of jail, hunting down her cheating pimp boyfriend, a perfect storm of touchy, complex, and sometimes discomfiting issues, any one of which could easily be mismanaged to the point of audience distress (and not in the compassionate, redeeming way of history’s great difficult films). It’s a story that automatically requires a deft touch, and very few people are going to be up to that task.

So, I watched a trailer. And yeah, that was enough to make me write Tangerine off entirely. It was loud; it was manic; the humor was abrasive and out of place; there was something rough and shoddy about it; it was shot entirely on iPhones and looked like a student film. It reminded me of some of the Quentin Tarantino movies I don’t like quite as much as everyone else — something that would spend 90 minutes reveling in prostitution and drug abuse and semi-offensive stereotypes with five minutes’ worth of epilogue tossed in to say, “Oh, by the way, don’t do this cool stuff, it’s really bad.”

But the positive reviews kept piling on, and critics started overwhelmingly adding it to their yearly Top 10 lists. When it became available for streaming, I figured I didn’t have much choice — my understanding of 2015 in cinema would probably be incomplete without it.

So, I watched it. For a long time — and I mean at least 45 minutes or so — it was exactly what I expected it would be. It was loud. It was manic. There was far too much energy. The blazing techno and sound effects got on my nerves immediately. The direction and editing were fine, but the grainy iPhone footage and constant glare took me out of the movie. The humor was uncomfortably dark. The film’s exploration of issues like prostitution was uncomfortably raw, but without a sense of purpose; the whole thing felt exploitative and dirty. It seemed as though there was nothing to the story other than a prostitute having misadventures on her way to revenge against a cheating boyfriend. Plus, there were things I didn’t anticipate — mainly, a subplot with a taxi driver that arrived from out of nowhere and appeared to have no connection whatsoever with the main story. And it all took place on Christmas Eve, for no reason I could discern. It was somewhat amusing, and its energy eventually did become infectious in a way. And despite its apparent meaninglessness, I had to admit that the story, at least, was well engineered.

Still, I spent roughly half of Tangerine mentally plotting out another “sorry, didn’t get it” review. From the beginning, it just wasn’t my thing, and I didn’t see that changing.

But then, something happened that I didn’t expect — I started to get into it. There wasn’t any particular scene where that happened, no specific stylistic decision, no major change in the story. It was such a gradual process that I didn’t even notice I was into it until the credits rolled and I realized I’d been at rapt attention for the previous half hour.

It was as if the movie spoke a language I didn’t understand but slowly learned, and once I pinned it down, everything it did started to make sense to me. And it started to work.

Yes, Tangerine was everything I expected it to be — loud, over-the-top, graphic, vulgar, uncomfortable, weirdly stereotyped in places, all that jazz. But it wasn’t an obstacle against depth and meaning — it was a mask, slowly being peeled back until the nuance emerges. It was a calculated and surprisingly effective delivery system for the depth and the meaning — and emotional potency as well. The movie uses all those unpleasant tropes to orient you to a certain perspective from which it can slowly let the complexity bubble up to the surface. And I love how subtle it is — there’s never a moment where the film drives a message home. It just quietly shows you a little detail here and there, enough for you to subconsciously absorb it into the story and characters, then allows all those details to build up over time until, in the end, you get it. You understand these people, and you have a balanced perspective on them.

The discomfort I had to wade through to get there was never as unintentional as I first thought — there was always a purpose. There’s a purpose to just about everything, even the parts of the movie that seemed completely pointless. Even the fact that it’s Christmas ends up being thematically important. The taxi driver’s disconnected subplot eventually not only has bearing on the main storyline but on the themes as well.

And what are those themes? Well, it’s tough to pin down exactly, but that’s more because the film is dealing in a lot of abstraction, a lot of loosely connected human thoughts and feelings and problems, than because the film is in need of additional clarity. I see it as a balanced treatise on human nature. It doesn’t see the human race as inherently good or evil, even on a person-to-person basis; rather, it sees that good and evil are inherent to every single one of us. We can attack with one hand and embrace with the other. Its perspective on its characters is that all of them are deeply messed up, fundamentally broken in a way that might not be reparable — at least, not in the way they might hope. There’s hate and disloyalty and vulgarity and abuse in all of them, but there’s also compassion and real friendship and shoulders to cry on. It’s possible to understand their minds and to understand their hurts — the crime, the prostitution, the addiction, the pain, the sadness, the self-loathing — and to empathize with their situations and easily imagine why they found themselves there. The movie is remarkably non-judgmental about this, too; its purpose isn’t to condemn its characters or what they do but to present it in a recognizable, human form. And it does that without ever really changing its tone — it’s always over-the-top, always weird, and always pitched just slightly toward the darkest possible comedy. The humanity of it nevertheless shines out of all the muck.

Tangerine has aged pretty well in my memory since seeing it. I keep turning over all the things I didn’t like and finding their purpose in the larger whole. I look at all the things I found disturbing or offensive and see their intent in making me feel that way. I see a movie that’s rough and ragged and strange, and I’m not sure yet if it’s great, but I am sure it was a fascinating journey.

That iPhone cinematography, though… Yeah, not the best idea. A lot of people seem to like what it does for the film, and I regret to inform you that I am not one of them.

Still, Tangerine is an interesting if somewhat unwieldy beast of a low-budget indie flick. It’s the most emphatically not-for-everyone movie I’ve seen this year, and I imagine it would hold on to that title for quite a while. But I’m surprised at how much it moved me by the end, and at how consistently smart it is — even though it doesn’t let you know that until very late in the game. It’s difficult to summarize its impact on the right person, given how odd it is. You have to see it to understand its inexplicable effectiveness. And the right person should consider doing so.

Mr._Holmes_posterMr. Holmes (2015)

Starring- Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy

Director- Bill Condon

PG- thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking


Once again, I find myself with very little to say. It’s not that Mr. Holmes is bad; it’s good, just in an ordinary sort of way. It’s well-made Oscar bait, basically.

The film tells the story of a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen), retired from detective work and slowly losing his memory. Now, he lives deep in the countryside, where he’s trying one folk remedy after another in the hopes of restoring his memory long enough to recall — and write down — the case that haunts him. He knows that it was his last and that the result of it was his withdrawal from society, but he simply cannot remember what happened. All he has is a picture of a woman he knew was involved, either as victim or perpetrator. So, he slaves away, picking up every clue he can find in order to resolve the guilt he feels but no longer understands.

Mr. Holmes has the usual strength of period pieces, in that it looks fantastic. And it’s not calling overt attention to how fantastic it looks. There are great sets and great costumes and great scenery, but all of it is part of the story rather than something outside of it, fighting for attention. There’s something about Mr. Holmes that’s quieter than most Oscar bait — a bit more grounded, a bit more realistic. It isn’t gaudy the way films like this tend to be.

You see that mainly in Ian McKellen’s excellent performance in the title role. It’s subtle, contained; he’s not playing to any particular on-screen persona he has, but he also isn’t ACTING, straining self-consciously to enslave posture, gestures, or mannerisms to become someone completely different. No terrible makeup, no weird hair, just the character, as played by Ian McKellan. He seems to perfectly understand Sherlock Holmes as a character — he’s always been a bit of a withdrawn intellectual, someone who treats socializing more as a curiosity than something with deep meaning to him. McKellan keeps him just out of reach, understandable to us only because of the private moments to which we have access. When the dam finally does burst, McKellan’s able to sell that moment — and it matters more, because we know what’s going through the character’s head when that happens.

Having an elderly Sherlock Holmes deal with increasing memory loss is, from a dramatic perspective, a brilliant idea. Here’s a man who has only ever cared about his mind and keeping it sharp. He’s an obsessive student of virtually everything, memorizing every detail he learns and using it to make deductions. You’ve read the stories — he can identify someone’s last location based on the symbols on their clothing; he can make inferences about peoples’ woes and projections based on the price tag of everything on their person at the time; he can even identify drugs, chemicals, perfumes, spices, and food items based on someone’s smell. His talent has only ever been half observation; it’s also a specific knowledge of everything that’s ever struck his fancy.

In this movie, Holmes isn’t really dealing with his long-term memory — he still has millions of obscure facts tucked away and can recall dozens of older cases. He’s still sharp, mentally present, and able not only to carry on a conversation but make off-the-cuff inferences about a person when asked to. The problem is his short-term memory — he’s retained the entirety of his life’s work and knowledge but can no longer add to it. He writes the names of people he’s just met on his sleeve and continues to consult it weeks, even months, into the relationship. And his most recent case — his last one — has completely eluded him. He’s forgotten it entirely until he sees a movie based on Watson’s account of it; his feelings of guilt, loss, and loneliness return, and he becomes desperate to understand them, to know why he’s punishing himself.

A lot of it works, mainly because of McKellen’s performance but also because he and the film understand the character well enough to make it hurt for the audience, too.

The movie just gets confused about expressing it. It adopts a few too many subplots, pulls itself in multiple directions, and never figures out how to focus its themes through them.

And it does have some of the subtlety problems of the most obvious Oscar bait. It tries its best to work important character and story information into organic exchanges and actions but almost always throws its hands up in the air and just has its characters sit down and explain it to each other, usually in a self-consciously poetic way that comes across cheesy and awkward. Strangely, it’s the housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her son (Milo Parker) rather than Holmes who are most guilty on this point. Too many of their scenes together are ham-fisted and goofy, filled with big moments transparently set aside as the Oscar showcase. I don’t know that it really says anything about Milo Parker, but the kid in this movie is just a little too precocious — too smart, too well-mannered, too poised. He seems more calculated to be cute than a character.

Still, Mr. Holmes remains a moving film in its own way, primarily because it gets its iconic protagonist exactly right and introduces some excellent drama into his story. I don’t know that I’d call it a must-see for anyone, but I might call it a should-see. Come for Ian McKellan and stay for Ian McKellan, basically.

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_PosterStar Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Starring- Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie

Director- J.J. Abrams

PG-13- sci-fi action violence


I have been accused of being a Star Wars fan. Once or twice.

I get it, I get it — every critic and blogger on the Internet is kicking their reviews off with the same statement: “Oh, I’ve seen all the movies and enjoyed at least three of them; I’m such a nerd.” Me, I’m including that disclaimer deliberately. In my case, you’d have to swim for a long time to reach the full depth of my Star Wars-related insanity. I’m currently sitting next to a DVD shelf with all six movies on it. Across the room from me is a bookcase with probably 50-plus old Expanded Universe novels. You want to know the names of all the members of the Jedi Council throughout the prequels? I can cue those up immediately. Every pilot we see in the attack on the Death Star? Done. I can tell you the model of blaster Han Solo uses and the name of the first ship we see in A New Hope. Basically, all six movies were my entire childhood and arguably the foundation of who I became as a writer.

That’s my way of saying that there’s nothing I can do to separate my bias from my assessment of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. All reviews are biased, obviously; that’s kind of what a review is, by definition. But you at least want to be as objective as possible going into the film. That was my intention with The Force Awakens. But when the lights went down and the screen lit up and the big Star Wars logo soared across the night sky and the classic theme blared out of the loudspeakers, my heart jumped into my throat and I was fully enthralled. And I knew there was no way I was going to produce anything other than the least trustworthy review on the entire Internet. I’m just too attached to it — I’ve been with these characters and this universe for so long that anything that happens isn’t simply doing so within the context of one film but within the context of an entire history of films.

In short, I have absolutely no idea if my reactions to this movie will even remotely resemble the reactions of a more casual fan or a newcomer.

Fortunately, it’s slowly, and rather recently, becoming clear to me that I watch movies with two minds simultaneously. For lack of better words, I will call these my subjective and my objective minds.

My subjective mind describes the personal things that make a movie work for me, and not necessarily for anyone else. As with anyone else, there are things a movie can do right that will completely save it for me and things it can do wrong that I can forgive. And there’s also the matter of taste — genres and styles and tones and character types and themes that speak to me in a way they might not to someone else. On top of that, there’s the personal relationship between me and the movie — in this case, my long and significant history of obsession over the Star Wars series. When I watch Star Wars, only part of me sees the movie; the other part sees me at 12 years old trying to write my own Star Wars, emulating everything those movies did.

My objective mind is the part of me that watches each scene, each performance, each directorial decision, and searches for the artist’s intent — what’s being said, how it’s being said, why it’s being said, and whether it’s being said well. This half of my mind is concerned with how “good” the movie is, outside of my own personal reaction to it. It’s the part of me that tries to figure out how it will play for people who aren’t me. And it’s also the part of me that keeps an eye on the future — when the shiny newness of it fades away, how am I going to respond to it on second, third, and fourth viewings?

All that lead-up to say this: My subjective mind loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens from beginning to end. It was the most intense emotional rollercoaster a movie has pulled me through in quite a while. It absolutely swept me away. My subjective mind thought it was fantastic.

On the other hand, my objective mind, after time and consideration, has decided that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is good, not great, and that the initial wave of hype and rave reviews will start to feel like a little much once people are adding this one to their home media collections (and make no mistake; I will be). It’s a solid movie, but the fan-run Oscar campaign should probably cool its jets.

Thirty years after the destruction of the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi, the galaxy has regressed to a point not dissimilar from the Galactic Civil War. The armies of the rebellion established a New Republic but failed to snuff out the last vestiges of the Galactic Empire. Those forces have coalesced into a new foe — the First Order, disciples of Darth Vader and the Empire who wish to bring the galaxy back under their control. Not wanting to get its hands dirty in the battles taking place in the Outer Rim, the New Republic is surreptitiously supporting the Resistance, an independent army staffed by a number of former rebellion heroes.

Both sides of the conflict are currently in a race against time to find a map that will lead them to Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who disappeared a long time ago after a personal tragedy.

As the film opens, hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is in a village on the desert planet Jakku, chasing the latest clue to Skywalker’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, First Order troops are hot on his heels. They lay waste to the village and capture Dameron, but not before he stows all his findings inside his droid, BB-8, and sends it into the desert.

BB-8 wanders until it stumbles upon a nearby town, where it meets a girl, Rey (Daisy Ridley), who reluctantly agrees to take it in. But the First Order isn’t far behind. Rey is forced to team up with First Order deserter Finn (John Boyega) to escape the planet and hand BB-8 over to Resistance forces.

However, the ship they stow aboard just so happens to be the Millennium Falcon. And so the adventure begins.

Basically, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a J.J. Abrams movie, and any suspicions that statement gives you are likely to prove correct.

Abrams frustrates me. I’m not saying that because I dislike him or his work; on the contrary, I like both quite a bit. He frustrates me because he’s almost there, but he has yet to successfully bridge that gap. He has talents, and those talents are so natural and effortless that I halfway suspect he doesn’t even need to think about them. His direction is energetic and sucks you right in; he’s great at managing tone; he’s good with characters; he has never made a movie with a less-than-perfect cast. He clearly aspires to be the next Steven Spielberg, and he’d be well on his way if not for that one fundamental flaw that cripples everything he’s involved in.

J.J. Abrams is a bad storyteller. A really bad one. And that definitely ends up being the Achilles’ heel of The Force Awakens.

I won’t dwell overlong on the obvious — that The Force Awakens is extremely derivative and, with a few character changes and minor plot adjustments, could easily have been presented as a semi-loose remake of the original Star Wars. The originality isn’t the problem as much as the functionality.

Part of the problem is its status as a years-later sequel. I generally prefer for such films, when they’re made, to kick off a new, or mostly new, story — for a recent example, Creed, which found Rocky Balboa at a new stage in his life, now filling the Mickey role for another up-and-coming boxer who serves as the true protagonist of the film. But it’s hard for a years-later sequel to pick up directly where its predecessors left off. It becomes very likely that exposition will have to fill in a lot of gaps the audience would have been better off seeing.

It’s difficult to discuss the ways in which that negatively impacts The Force Awakens without getting into some pretty significant spoilers. There are some gaps I’m fine with having explained to me — I don’t need the details of the transition of the rebellion into the New Republic or the Empire into the First Order; I don’t need further exploration into the personal circumstances in which the original characters now find themselves; and even though I’d like to have seen it, I don’t need to know the specifics of what happened with Luke and his first Jedi trainees. Most of it isn’t really about the explanation anyway; it’s about having enough emotional context for the immediate needs of the story at hand to strike home.

So, without spoiling anything, I will simply say that there are things about the relationship between Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and their role in the larger story that should have been shown and not told. It’s too important, and it sells short too many of the movie’s biggest emotional crescendos.

Still, even as a standalone film, The Force Awakens is…wobbly. It uses the usual storytelling tropes of Star Wars and similar movies but doesn’t seem to understand what makes them work. It just assembles the elements into a formula and blindly trusts that they’ll click because, hey, they did in the first Star Wars! It’s not really attending to those details. As such, it assigns protagonist status to the character who has the most nonexistent arc, then takes all the others and fails to develop their flaws and motivations in compelling ways. Most of the characters don’t have to work all that hard to overcome or accomplish whatever their particular circumstances are. Character and plot development happen all at once, never as a gradual process. There are a few too many scenes that could be cut without affecting anything — little action bits that don’t express much of anything about the characters or story. (The worst of these is a monster chase sequence that, on top of being inessential, is also kind of stupid and involves too much bad CGI.)

The movie doesn’t seem to understand that a movie’s stakes are always personal — it doesn’t matter how big or dangerous they are, it matters what the characters stand to win or lose and why that’s important to them. When The Force Awakens needs to up the ante, it just scales everything up — that’s why it has a third, even bigger Death Star. And that’s why it’s used on a planet we’ve never seen before (although it looks confusingly like Coruscant; it was days later that I realized it wasn’t) that has only stated significance to the characters. And that’s likely also why the incident is never mentioned again. It’s just a quick device to enforce a not entirely convincing sense of desperation on the heroes prior to the climax.

Because of these problems, The Force Awakens mainly relies on your relationship with the previous films to earn its emotions. Frankly, I also got the sense that it’s relying on its own sequels — while mostly self-contained, there are a few loose ends that are very conspicuously left hanging when the credits roll. While the movie mostly forgoes the giant plot holes and logical leaps that typify the large part of Abrams’ oeuvre (I did kind of wonder why Luke left a map to his location lying around), the story itself is more important and still not there.

Fortunately, Abrams is really good at other things, and thankfully, they include the element that’s most important to my own enjoyment of a movie — the characters. Almost always, I will forgive a bad story if it has great characters, and The Force Awakens has great characters.

You’ve obviously got the old favorites — Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and R2-D2. There are even a few fun cameos for diehards like me.

But what impresses me most about The Force Awakens — and it also was likely the most important thing to get right for the future of the series — is that not only do the new heroes and villains hold their own against the old ones, they’re the best part of the movie that’s introducing them. With a passing-the-torch movie like this, it’s hard not to worry that the new characters will be re-skinned versions of the old ones, having largely the same personalities, the same group dynamic, and the same roles. That, fortunately, is not at all the case. These new characters are entirely their own entities. They have different stories, come from different places, express themselves differently, and have their own unique personalities and relationships.

Rey is a great protagonist, and somewhat the opposite of Luke. The Luke Skywalker of Star Wars was chomping at the bit to get off his backwater homeworld and have adventures in space; Rey is a more reluctant hero. She doesn’t seem to like change; her life on Jakku objectively sucks, and she clearly doesn’t like it, but she stews in it anyway. She doesn’t want attention or adventure; she just wants to live alone in the gutted AT-AT she calls home. And she is going to make Daisy Ridley a big, big star. Ridley was a total unknown going into this, with only a few episodes of various lesser-known TV shows under her belt. She’ll be able to do whatever she wants going forward. She certainly has a career in action movies if she wants it — she has very natural charisma and looks utterly convinced of all the silly things happening around her. She also finds a lot of great nuance in Rey that isn’t there in the script — without her, I truly believe this character would be a flat, boring protagonist, only there for the audience to project onto.

Finn commands enough story and screen-time that you could make an argument for the movie having co-protagonists. He’s a former stormtrooper who defects after being ordered to kill civilians. He carries that weight around, but he isn’t miserable. Actually, most of the film’s humor centers on him. He’s very excitable, easily startled, and has outsized emotional reactions to everything that happens to him, good or bad. It’s never too much, though — he’s a comical character, but we all know people like him. I don’t know if John Boyega’s performance is the best in the movie (for the first time in Star Wars history, there’s a lot of competition for that title), but it’s the most perfect for the movie — he feels like a cast member in the original Star Wars, playing things a bit broad and goofy but keeping it grounded in something real and recognizable.

Poe Dameron most resembles the heroes of the old serials to which Star Wars has always paid homage. He’s dapper, debonair, and smooth. He’s the guy who charges confidently into the frontlines and comes out the other side without a hair in place. He combines that with a sarcastic, biting, very Han Solo-esque sense of humor, but there’s a self-deprecating quality to it. He wields it as a weapon, both to disguise and to manage his own pain. It’s the way he expresses defiance toward his enemies, even when they have the upper hand. Poe may also have been boring without the actor portraying him — Oscar Isaac, who I trust I don’t need to talk about at this point, since I’ve only been singing his praises for about two years now. Poe is a pretty underwritten character, and a lot of his personality comes from the way Isaac presents him.

Everyone is going to leave the theater wanting their very own BB-8. It’s a great addition to the Star Wars pantheon of lovable droids. Where C-3PO is prissy and well-mannered and R2-D2 is a plucky little guy who takes orders from no one, BB-8 is an adorable people-pleaser, almost puppy-like in its wide-eyed need for everyone’s approval. There will be a lot of kids unwrapping a BB-8 this Christmas.

And then there’s the new villain — Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Dark Jedi in service of the First Order. He is easily up to the Darth Vader standard, albeit in a much different way. Kylo is basically the Anakin Skywalker story of the prequels done right. He’s whiny, petulant, temperamental, childish, egotistical, and entitled. He’s what you’d expect of a young man who heads off to join a fascist movement.

His skills aren’t really up to the standard he’s set for himself — they may not even be up to the standard he thinks they are. His relationship with his new master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), is like the relationship of a child with his abusive father. Unlike Darth Vader, pre-Return of the Jedi, Kylo is fully aware that he’s only a pawn in Snoke’s game. His response to that is not to reconsider his stance or to remove himself from the situation but to become almost dog-like in his deference to Snoke, doing everything he can to ingratiate himself to his master and be seen as a friend and equal. He isn’t Darth Vader; he’s a guy who desperately wants to be Darth Vader and fails at every turn.

It’s a phenomenal cast of characters, and I absolutely cannot wait to see what future films do with them. There’s a ton of potential for further expansion and development, as well as the establishment of the new series’ themes. That’s especially true given that Episode VIII’s director, Rian Johnson, doesn’t have the storytelling problems Abrams does.

Which, again, I don’t really intend as a slight against Abrams, because he absolutely nails everything else in The Force Awakens. He’s really doubled down on the practical effects here, and they’re pretty great. He’s particularly reliant upon puppetry, so much so that the movie takes on a bit of a Jim Henson feel, which I found to be surprisingly welcome. He’s also great behind the camera — there’s so much verve in his direction that all of his movies become 10 times more compelling as a result. There’s almost something surreal about watching a visually evocative Star Wars movie — George Lucas, as well as Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand, had a stagier approach to action and dialogue scenes, which was good for the choreography but forced what was inside the frame to drive the visual energy. Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn’t. Abrams, on the other hand, shoots with angles, close-ups, and wide shots; he uses judicious edits; he moves the camera in interesting ways; he uses lighting tricks to his benefit (and, fortunately, doesn’t overdo it with the lens flares); he employs shaky-cam where it benefits the film and keeps it steady when it doesn’t. I honestly think The Force Awakens would at least be watchable even if it didn’t do a single other right; it’s directed with such fire and conviction.

He brings touches of his own style to the proceedings, too. Primarily, you can see his sense of humor all over this one — it isn’t the best Star Wars film by a country mile, but it is the funniest. The humor is always grounded and makes sense for the characters and the circumstances; he just finds more opportunities for it. His visual sensibility also frees him up to incorporate more physical comedy, those moments where motion, character placement, and editing enhance the humor.

In short, it’s a great movie, apart from the one super-important thing it does really badly. There’s a great Rotten Tomatoes pull-quote for you, huh? Like I said, I’m biased, and it’s hard to tell how well this movie will play for someone with no prior relationship with the series. Parts of it definitely require you to have done so, in order to access the full scope of its emotions. It’s always subjective, but this movie seems somehow even more so. I think the right critic could make an argument that The Force Awakens is a bad movie, and I’d struggle to disagree with the points made. Filmgoers whose taste is exclusively story-driven probably aren’t going to like this. Personally, I can access a movie from a number of different angles, and nothing gets me like characters I enjoy and find interesting. The Force Awakens more than delivered on that level, in addition to being pretty well-directed, well-paced, and fun. But, of course, I am a nerd.

Woah, did I just successfully write a review of the new Star Wars movie without spoiling everything? Go me.

-Matt T.


Welcome back to RetroViews! I am officially classifying the currently non-released status of The Force Awakens as a war crime. The film is done! It exists! People have seen it! Why can’t I go see it right now, too? Oh, because I’m not a “professional critic.” That’s discrimination! When will someone stand up for the rights of Non-Professional Critic Americans? It’s time the Hollywood elites stopped paying so much attention to the one percent. It isn’t okay to do this to people! I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore! 

Anyway, today’s entry: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

It all ends here — well, at least until Dec. 18, 2015. It’s the end of this series, anyway, and it’s been a ride. I’m glad I decided to introduce the RetroViews series; it’s been good for me. It’s served as a potent reminder that I should revisit old favorites too often; I spend far too much of my time solely on new releases or my determination to watch every moderately famous movie ever made. Neither of which is bad; just this week, the latter pursuit introduced me to The Wages of Fear, which was one of the best movies I’ve seen in quite a while. But I need to attend to the movies that made me. It’s been fun.

My relationship with Return of the Jedi is odd. You may have picked up on that the handful of times I referenced it in my review of The Empire Strikes Back.

The gist of it is this: Return of the Jedi is definitely the least of the original Star Wars trilogy, but it also contains most of my favorite moments in the entire Star Wars saga. On balance, it isn’t as fun as Star Wars or as interesting as The Empire Strikes Back. But it’s the Star Wars movie I’m most likely to put on when I just want to watch one or two scenes that I really like.

The problem, as I see it, is that Return of the Jedi isn’t a great standalone film. The original trilogy tells one continuous story, but Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are pretty self-contained — or, at least, self-contained in the way they need to be. Star Wars is a standalone movie in every sense of the word; I think we’d find it equally satisfying even if no sequels had ever been made. The Empire Strikes Back isn’t self-contained on the plot level — the beginning drops you right in the middle of the action, and the ending leaves you on a cliffhanger. However, it is self-contained on the emotional level, which I consider to be the more important one. While it builds on characteristics established in its predecessor, it takes a few brief moments to efficiently get everyone acclimated to the storylines it will be pursuing, and the ending, while technically a cliffhanger, resolves all of them, albeit tragically.

Return of the Jedi isn’t self-contained in either sense. The movie is a direct continuation of The Empire Strikes Back, both in terms of its story and in terms of its themes. The film picks up right where its predecessor left off, with the heroes arriving on Tatooine to rescue Han Solo. And the characters’ baggage is the same as it was in Empire: That movie tore them down, and Return of the Jedi rebuilds them.

Of course, that means the film’s character development isn’t all that interesting, because most of it occurs before the opening scene — there are only a few more pieces to slide back into place.

And it’s also saddled with some storylines it clearly doesn’t particularly want to explore. In large part, that’s the entire opening third, where the heroes infiltrate Jabba’s palace to save Han. In the grand scheme of things, the entire sequence — and the Empire cliffhanger — prove to be entirely pointless. It’s pretty obvious that it came about as a result of contract negotiations — no one knew if Harrison Ford would come back for the third installment, so the Empire cliffhanger was mainly there to provide a convenient way to write him out if the need arose. So Return just resolves it immediately and then gets on with the real plot. All of the scenes on Tatooine play out with an overwhelming disinterest, and beyond my investment in the characters, it was difficult to care. (It doesn’t help that the entire scene is a bit of a mess, especially since I only have access to the special edition DVDs, meaning I get to sit through the bizarre musical number involving tons of 90s CGI. But even beyond that, the heroes don’t appear to have any real plan, so most of what happens is completely arbitrary and unmotivated.)

And then, since Return of the Jedi is mainly the third act to the larger story of the original Star Wars trilogy, it immediately starts setting up the extended climax and basically does that for the rest of its run-time.

In short, it’s easy for me to see why someone who’s never seen a Star Wars movie might not be all that into Return of the Jedi. It’s equally easy to see why someone who has but places a lot of importance on the need for a movie to be its own entity might find it off-putting.

Me, I’m a bit more of a big-picture guy. The Star Wars original trilogy has always been it’s own entity to me, a story consisting of three parts. Maybe it’s because I live in a world where every major film series concludes with a two-parter and I’m just used to it by now. Would I like for Return of the Jedi to stand on its own? Sure — its predecessors manage to do so while also being part of a larger story. But I’m also content to view Return of the Jedi as the two-hour third act of a six-hour story.

And it’s really good at being that.

Apart from the needless diversion that is the Jabba’s palace sequence, I don’t have many complaints about Return of the Jedi. Watched as part of the series rather than a standalone film, it rarely misses a beat. It’s a perfect continuation of Empire’s story, one that’s smart about where it takes the character arcs and how.

Like I said in my review of Empire — that was the movie where the characters learned their lesson. Return is the third act of that movie — where the characters are tested one last time.

I love how completely different the Han/Leia relationship is at the start of this film. The Empire Strikes Back established that they have feelings for each other but are too immature, in their own unique ways, to deal with that intelligently. Han postures for attention and gets mean and entitled when that doesn’t get him anything. Leia still, on some level, views him as a lesser being and is cold and overbearing even when he doesn’t deserve it. And that came back to hurt both of them. They weren’t able to effectively communicate about their situation. When Han decided to head for Cloud City, his ego and determination to be right all the time made it impossible to change his mind. And why would he listen to Leia’s concerns about the situation anyway? All she ever does is shoot down his ideas and accomplishments. As such, they blunder straight into a trap.

The characters we meet in Return of the Jedi are fully ready for this relationship. In Empire, Leia refused even to address it; in Return, the first thing she does is profess her love for Han. She’s addressed the feelings she previously bottled up and understands what her sense of superiority almost took from her. She and Han still bicker — that’s pretty much the core of their relationship, after all — but both of them are far kinder about it. They aren’t targeting each other’s weak points and are clearly joking whenever they get going. During the climax, when Han is trying to hot-wire the shield generator and accidentally seals it up even more, she holds steady and continues to fight off the stormtroopers bearing down on them. It’s hard to imagine the Leia of Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back doing that.

And the Han who comes out of carbonite isn’t the same as the Han who went in. He’s mellowed out. He’s more of a team player. He doesn’t have to be right all the time. He’s just as capable of taking instruction as he is of giving it. At long last, everything isn’t about him. Of course, he’s still the confident, sarcastic, charming rogue we fell in love with — but he’s the best version of that character here, a version that’s truly altruistic and mature. In the end, when he mistakenly believes that Leia is in love with Luke, he decides to let go and tells her that he’ll back off. He no longer feels entitled to her affection simply because of his own emotions. In their last scenes in this movie, they’re meeting as equals for the first time, and that’s the moment when they truly click as something other than a fickle passion.

It’s Luke who gets the most attention, as you might expect. And on this point, I think Return of the Jedi just nails it. His struggle has always been about his recklessness and impatience, both qualities unsurprising in a person his age. The trilogy as a whole really is the coming of age story of Luke Skywalker, the boy’s journey into becoming a man. In Empire, he went to Dagobah and began his Jedi training with Yoda. When he received a vision of Han and Leia in pain, he did what any young man would do — rushed to their rescue, despite Yoda’s warning that he wasn’t ready. It’s arguable whether or not Luke made the situation worse by his presence, but he certainly didn’t make it any better. Most of his friends had already escaped on their own, and Han was already long gone. All Luke got for his trouble was an amputated hand and a complicated revelation received in the worst possible way from the worst possible person (whether the Jedi were right to hide it from him in the first place is another conversation entirely).

The character we meet at the beginning of Return of the Jedi is profoundly different. The new Luke is calm and cautious. He assesses situations instead of running into them guns blazing. He doesn’t allow his emotions to get the better of him. He’s found his way into the wisdom of adulthood.

The movie never directly shows us, but it implies that some time has passed since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s suggested that Luke, instead of rushing straight to Jabba’s palace to rescue Han, instead returned to Dagobah and completed his training, knowing that without it, his efforts might only doom his friend to an eternity on the Hutt’s wall. He knows because he’s already seen it happen.

But whereas Han and Leia mostly spend the movie expressing their newfound maturity without any significant development beyond that, Return of the Jedi has one last test in store for Luke. He must face Darth Vader. And now that he knows his mortal enemy is his father, Luke is considering whether it might be possible to redeem him.

The resulting battle of good vs. evil, the rebellion vs. the Empire, is, in my opinion, one of the highest points of the entire Star Wars saga — the perfect end to the story. It’s increased in scale, to be sure — there’s a big space battle and a big ground battle and an emotionally charged lightsaber duel. And if only The Phantom Menace had taken a page from Return’s book on the matter of multi-pronged climaxes with a ton of parallel action. There are three confrontations here, each of which has its own tone and emotional undercurrents — the space battle has more of the entertaining derring-do for which Star Wars is famous; there’s a little more humor in the ground battle; and the lightsaber duel is a complex and serious battle of the wills. And, of course, each one has its own arc — there’s a little darkness in the ground battle and a little despair in the space battle, and Luke’s confrontation with Darth Vader and the Empire has big emotional climaxes and smaller moments where the three of them are simply engaged in a high-stakes philosophical debate. The movie balances all of it expertly — it’s carefully planned the cuts from one sequence to the next and has a very good sense of what tone it should be striking before and after the transitions and how to build up to and lead out of it in the interim. Each conflict has its own arc, but there are a lot of mini-arcs scattered throughout. It’s able to reach a certain feeling in one scene and maintain that feeling into the next, only to gradually dial it one direction or another until it’s ready for the next cut. It makes for a thrilling, emotionally varied, but ultimately consistent finale, one that feels appropriately sized to the needs of the story and its scope.

And it’s here that Luke faces his last trial. He gets off to a strong start, willingly turning himself over to Vader so that he can come face-to-face with the Emperor and make his final plea. He isn’t prepared for a duel to the death; he’s prepared to redeem his father.

Vader, of course, isn’t ready yet, and the Emperor certainly won’t have any of it. Luke intends to turn Vader to the Light Side, and the Emperor intends to turn Luke to the Dark. He has reason to believe he might succeed — he knows Luke’s weak points, and he goes right for the jugulars. The Emperor taunts him with the trap he’s set for Luke’s friends, tormenting him with the threat of their deaths, knowing tapping into his darker emotions will show him the power the Dark Side has to offer — and hopefully persuade him to join it. Luke halfway surrenders — he draws his lightsaber and begins to fight Vader, but he still appears to be in control of himself. He gradually becomes calmer as the fight goes on.

So, Vader fires the last salvo. He threatens Leia. And that’s when Luke snaps. That’s when he allows his anger to take control and attacks Vader. And everything he’s been told is true — his anger and hatred give him power. He absolutely destroys Vader, eventually knocking him down and cutting off his hand. Then, the Emperor makes his final appeal.

Luke faces that choice — the power of the Dark Side, or the redemption of the Light. Seeing Vader wounded on the floor, his empathy is awakened, and he chooses to throw his lightsaber aside. He decides that he’ll either die or save his father’s soul.

It’s hard to say exactly why it happens — maybe it was Luke’s final act of defiance. But ultimately, it’s the latter. The Emperor begins torturing Luke to death, and Vader comes to his rescue and throws his former master into the abyss, sacrificing his life in the process. Love defeats hate. Redemption defeats hopelessness. Light defeats darkness.

And that’s the moment the Jedi truly return.

Next time: Star Wars: The Force Awakens! Um, but not as a RetroView, obviously.

P.S. I plugged the movie title into Google to find an image to run with the review, and 95 percent of the results were bikini Leia and people cosplaying as bikini Leia. Stay classy, Internet.

Yoda-Empire-Strikes-Back-image   Welcome back to RetroViews! Is The Force Awakens out yet? I’m not sleeping properly. I can’t focus. It’s only Tuesday, but it feels like it’s next month. Who keeps letting me out of the cryofreezer? I specifically told you Friday, Dec. 18, at 3 p.m. (I saved up vacation days for this, because I am a loser.) Anyway, today we’re talking about Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

I wonder if I’ll ever make up my mind whether I prefer Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back. I’m capable of making that decision on a temporary basis. Right now, it’s Star Wars. But you shouldn’t put any stock in that whatsoever. I change my mind about which one is my favorite almost every time I marathon this series. Up until the RetroViews marathon, it was The Empire Strikes Back. Before that, it was Star Wars. Early in college, it was The Empire Strikes Back. Late in high school, it was Star Wars. And so on. A year from now, I’ll probably be back on The Empire Strikes Back. But on this viewing, it’s Star Wars.

And I think that may just be the circumstances of my life right now. Star Wars was just what I needed at the moment, something light and fun and hopeful. That’s the main difference between it and The Empire Strikes Back, as well as the most important factor in which of the two plays better for you personally. Star Wars is fun, uncomplicated, funny, and stuffed with spectacle. The Empire Strikes Back is complex, weighty, sometimes slow-moving, and a bit dour. You go to the former for a blast of pure entertainment; you go to the latter for the storytelling. It’s all in what you want at the moment.

And The Empire Strikes Back delivers in a big way. There’s a reason it’s widely, almost overwhelmingly, believed to be the best of the series.

There are a number of more superficial — for lack of a better word — ways in which it’s an improvement over its predecessor. That may be because George Lucas worked on this movie in the capacity where he seems to fit best — the ideas guy, the guiding hand, sketching the universe of the film and the broader scope of the story, supervising writers and directors who bring their own talents to the table as well. That shows mainly in how sharp the dialogue is here. Most of the great lines in Star Wars were improvised by actors who didn’t want to say what Lucas wrote. The acting is stronger here, too — the slightly over-the-top performances in Star Wars largely matched its broad, goofy tone, but the characters here are far more human. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford seem to have settled into their characters in The Empire Strikes Back; they’re capturing the complexity alongside the spirit.

The addition of Irvin Kershner as director isn’t quite an improvement, but he does have an interesting touch that fits the universe. He seems to share Lucas’s instincts toward action — Lucas is a diehard fan of Akira Kurosawa and old Japanese samurai movies, so he tends to film action a little more distantly, letting it play out within a wider frame, as though you’re watching it on a stag. There’s a balletic quality to the way he shoots things. Kershner leans the same direction with the action beats, so there’s very much a sense in which The Empire Strikes Back still looks like a George Lucas movie. Kershner, though, has a stronger talent for spicing up the other scenes — not that he lathers them in immediately noticeable Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino flair, but he keeps in mind that he’s working in a visual medium. My observation here is that his greatest talent is establishing depth within the frame. It’s a shame that the 3D remasters of the Star Wars series never really went anywhere, because I suspect The Empire Strikes Back might actually look pretty good. It already has a three-dimensional quality. I think of how Kershner moves the camera in the opening scene so that it’s following the descending probe droid and getting closer to it at the same time; I think of the shot in the wampa’s ice cave, where he sets the camera just behind a row of icicles and pans it over to Luke, who’s further toward the wall. The Empire Strikes Back feels like a diorama, as though you could reach into it and touch the trees and snow and technology and architecture.

But what really impresses me about The Empire Strikes Back is that it’s so unlike the typical sequel — by the standards of its time as much as today. The instinct is usually to do the same thing in terms of structure and tone, but bigger — more battles, more explosions, more expertly choreographed lightsaber duels, more Force powers. The Empire Strikes Back is interesting because it’s almost the diametric opposite of Star Wars.

Star Wars keeps its plotting tight and structured — there’s always a goal, and every scene feeds into it. It’s very propulsive storytelling. The Empire Strikes Back is more freeform — it doesn’t give off the sense that it has no idea where it’s going and is just making up its plot on the fly, but it’s looser and more character-focused. If you summarized the plot of Star Wars, you’d say something like: “Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, who convinces him to join an adventure to rescue a princess, during which he learns that the Empire is obliterating planets with a new superweapon and teams up with the princess and an army of rebels to destroy it.” If you summarized The Empire Strikes Back, you’d say, “Well, the rebels are on Hoth, but the Empire finds them, so they run away, and then they run away some more, and Luke hightails it off to Dagobah to do something else while Han and Leia go to Cloud City and mess around for a while before Darth Vader shows up and everyone has to reunite to stop him.”

The Empire Strikes Back lacks the drivenness of Star Wars. The latter is always going somewhere; the former is content to sit around a bit longer. It’s much more character-driven. Han and Leia’s scenes on Hoth and the asteroid don’t have any particular plot function; those scenes are focused on exploring and developing them as characters. The same goes for the scenes between Luke and Yoda on Dagobah — they’re not immediately necessary in any objective sense. The goal is, superficially, for Luke to pick up some new skills that will be important later in the series and, more importantly, to examine his flaws.

I think the film makes a really smart move in pursuing that angle. Luke’s flaws — his impatience, his recklessness, his immaturity, his uncertainty — are introduced in Star Wars, but they’re never really resolved. The first film is more about giving him a chance to shine. Presumably, everything else is still there, and The Empire Strikes Back deals with it more directly. So, he’s forced to make tough decisions, decisions that require him to exercise caution, to wait, to make sacrifices.

He always chooses wrong.

And that’s what really sets The Empire Strikes Back apart from Star Wars. Star Wars is one of the happiest films in the series, a jovial, lighthearted, adventurous romp. The Empire Strikes Back is a tragedy. There’s no forward motion here, no end goal that the heroes are pursuing. It’s a movie in which characters are presented with difficult decisions, universally make the wrong ones, and end up in a worse place than where they started.

Luke takes his weapons into the cave and has a terrifying vision of himself as Darth Vader. Han’s relationship with Leia remains a bit testy — even though they’re starting to have feelings for each other — and he ignores her instincts about Cloud City, leading them all into a trap. Luke receives a vision of Han and Leia in pain and decides to go rescue them, even though Yoda and Obi-Wan both warn him that he won’t be strong enough to face Darth Vader and might doom them all. In the end, at the very least, Luke’s involvement in the incident on Cloud City changes nothing — he’s unable to rescue Han, and Lando has already rescued Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO. All he gets for his trouble is an amputated hand and the devastating revelation that Darth Vader is his father.

The characters screw everything up, and by the time the film ends, they’re scattered and on the run, with Han’s fate unknown.

That’s the other major difference from Star WarsThe Empire Strikes Back isn’t very self-contained. Star Wars has a clear beginning and a clear end, and even though it leaves Darth Vader alive for future adventures, it doesn’t leave many threads hanging. If it had never gotten a sequel, we’d all have contented ourselves with the knowledge that, sure, Darth Vader lived, but Luke destroyed the Death Star and maybe the Empire as well, for all we knew. The Empire Strikes Back, on the other hand, drops us right in the middle of things — Luke and Han show up immediately, within thirty seconds of their introduction, they’re endangered and adventuring. Then, there’s a major battle, and the movie just keeps going. It definitely presumes you’ve seen the last one. And the ending is a cliffhanger; there’s a touch of hope in it, but the heroes are nevertheless left in a very bad position.

The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi really are a double feature. I almost wish they were one movie (more for the latter’s sake than the former’s, since it’s the one that, if memory serves, struggles to complete itself thematically). Return of the Jedi carries over the character development of its predecessor.

Luke has seen what comes about as a result of youthful ignorance and recklessness. Han has seen what comes about as a result of his ego and childish sense of entitlement. Leia has seen what comes about as a result of her frostiness and condescension, as well as her distaste for her own emotions. Lando has seen what comes about as a result of his cowardice, cutting deals with the enemy for what he perceives as the greater good. The Empire Strikes Back is a tragic learning experience that positions all of its characters to be better people at the onset of Return of the Jedi — and they are. That leaves Return of the Jedi in a weird position where it’s more a third act for the trilogy than its own film, which I’ll probably discuss in more depth next time. But in the moment of The Empire Strikes Back, it’s very satisfying — in that it’s exactly as dissatisfying as it intends to be. Star Wars built these heroes up; The Empire Strikes Back tore them right back down. It’s a dark tale, but an extremely effective one nevertheless.

I’ll conclude on a few random notes that I didn’t find room for in the larger review:

• Lando Calrissian is one of my favorite fictional characters. In fairness, so is everyone else in this movie. But I can’t express to you how much I enjoy every second Lando is on screen. On a deeper level, it’s because there’s something about the character who wants to do the right thing but finds himself in an impossible situation that I find inexplicably compelling. But it’s mostly because he’s just so cool. He’s no different than Han; his suave, sensitive masculinity is transparently an act, but it’s an act that he presents knowingly, with a touch of self-deprecating humor. And even though it’s an act, it’s such a charming one. You want to be taken in by it even though you know it’s basically a glorified joke. Lando is the smoothest smoothie who ever smoothed, and I love him.

• Speaking of awesome fictional characters: Yoda. I imagine the twist that the annoying muppet was a Jedi Master really played well to audiences in 1980, but I also appreciate it as a kid who grew up in a post-prequels world. It’s the one thing that the prequels didn’t ruin. They allowed me to find much more humor in the world-class trolling Yoda gets up to when Luke arrives. And having been exposed to a fully CGI Yoda, I have much more appreciation for the puppet version (okay, not all of the improvement was intentional). Seriously, the puppet is something you might find on The Muppets, but it fits surprisingly well into the world of the film; it doesn’t feel like a silly diversion from the otherwise serious tone. Also, would it be possible to get a puppeteer nominated for an acting Oscar? Because Frank Oz’s work here is just tremendous. He finds so much life and personality in Yoda; before we learn that the character is Yoda, he does a great job injecting slightly over-the-top humor into him, and afterward, he convincingly sells Yoda as a wise, somewhat melancholy old mystic. The process behind contorting a puppet’s face to convey complicated, human emotions has to be the most subtle, involved, and difficult thing ever. I don’t think Oz gets nearly enough recognition for it.

• Also, the production design is fantastic, and the effects are extremely well-incorporated. It’s a Star Wars review; I have to say that eventually. But seriously, there are matte paintings in this movie that look like a seamless part of their environment. There are one or two effects in this movie that don’t hold up all that well today (the tauntauns, mainly), but it impresses me how many of them still do.

Next time: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.


Welcome back to RetroViews! I’m still working on my Star Wars series, in an effort to get pumped up for The Force Awakens (clearly, I am not already pumped up enough). This time, I’m finally getting around to the good half of the series, starting with the movie that started it all: Star Wars.

There’s little that delights me more than discovering that a favorite childhood film is aging like a fine wine. I’ve done that a few times over the course of these RetroViews, particularly my series on the Pixar canon. But Star Wars is a bit different.

It’s always a thrill to return to a movie you loved as a child and find that you love it exactly as much as an adult. But usually, when that happens, the specifics of that love have changed — you love it the same amount, but for different reasons. Look at my RetroViews of the Pixar canon — surprise, surprise, I was not at all attuned to the thematic undercurrents of Toy Story and Finding Nemo when I was a kid. Back then, I liked those movies for the characters, the story, the humor, the adventure. I still enjoy all of those things, of course. But mainly, my enjoyment of the films as a whole stems more from the adult elements you don’t notice as a kid.

Star Wars is unique in that not only do I love it exactly as much as I did when I was a kid, I love it for exactly the same reasons.

It has been a stalwart in my life. I watched it all the time when I was a kid, I watched it all the time when I was a teenager, I watched it all the time when I was in college, and I’ve watched it a few times as an adult as well. At no phase of my life did my feelings toward it, or my assessment of the reasons for those feelings, change.

It’s basically the perfect four-quadrant movie, appealing to almost every audience member in exactly the same way. In that sense, it’s a bit of a rarity — a movie that gets its viewers on the same page. Go read a positive review, professional or otherwise, of Star Wars. Now read a few more. Did you notice that all of them praised it for the same things and usually to the same extent? How many movies have that kind of consensus?

And that’s the interesting thing about it. Whether you’re a critic or the most casual moviegoer alive, whether you’re an adult or a child, Star Wars plays on the feelings you share in such a pointed way that all of you walk away from it having enjoyed the same things, regardless of how well you’re able to articulate it.

There’s a reason just about every screenwriting book, good or bad, gets to Star Wars within the first two or three chapters. It’s simple but extremely effective storytelling that works equally well at almost all levels of cinematic comprehension. It’s an enshrinement of the basic tropes that have defined our storytelling since the dawn of time, delivered in the form of an idiosyncratic sci-fi vision.

That has the side effect of making it difficult to properly review it in this day and age. What could I possibly say that hasn’t been said a thousand times? Or that you wouldn’t already know, even without someone telling you? I could talk about the mechanisms of the story and how great the movie is at dramatizing its basic plot elements. I could talk about the well realized and endlessly fascinating world this film inhabits (I have seen every movie in this series a thousand times, but every time I watch them, I find things I never noticed before lurking about in the background). I could talk about the then-groundbreaking effects and how the movie still manages to feel so tactile in its presentation, so filled with places you feel like you could visit, with animals you feel like you could touch, with technology you feel like you could wield (and I could also talk about how amazing it is that George Lucas and his team created all of it on a less-than-impressive budget). I could talk about how flawlessly it controls its tone — it belongs to a genre of truly lighthearted, broad, goofy, but emotionally grounded and character-centered films that don’t really exist anymore, even among the studios and filmmakers that are actively trying to recreate them.

But I’ll keep this review uncharacteristically short (for a RetroView, anyway) and focus on what truly makes me love Star Wars — the characters.

Has any movie seen even half the number of characters in Star Wars ascend to the cultural canon of great heroes and villains? Every member of this movie’s core cast — and even, arguably, a few characters outside of it — became an icon. And now, nearly forty years later (holy crap), they remain that way. Who among us doesn’t know who Luke Skywalker is? Han Solo? Princess Leia? Darth Vader? They’ve practically become the modern blueprints for their character types. Lucas used them in roles that play on traditional myth-making; little did he know that he was about to make his own.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the most crucial difference between the original and prequel trilogies, and the one thing that might have saved the latter.

It’s interesting — everyone willingly says that the Anakin Skywalker of the prequels and the Luke Skywalker of the originals are whiny. But we forgive Luke for it and hate Anakin for it. Why? Well, because Luke is whiny in an age-appropriate way, one that we recognize from our own young adulthood and empathize with, on some level. We’re led to believe that he’s 18 or 19 years old and shown that he’s chafing under the rural farm life his aunt and uncle enforce upon him. He feels held hostage by his desire for approval and his good-hearted need to help his family. He wants to do something more with his life, but one door after another gets slammed in his face. Luke is in the middle of an emotional crisis that we all went through at that age, to some extent or another. In addition to that, there’s a fundamental good-heartedness to the whining that makes it tolerable — his ambitions center on doing something for the greater good. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.

And that’s why he makes for a great hero — we like and understand him, yes, but we embrace his flaws as well. We see a bit of ourselves in him — adults because we remember being that age and kids because they share his desire to grow up, be independent, and do important things.

It’s also why he and Han Solo make such great foils for one another. Luke is a wide-eyed dreamer, caught up in adventure, longing to be a hero. Han is cynical and unpleasant; there isn’t much altruism in him, and he seems to snuff out what little there is the moment he feels it bubbling to the surface. It’s interesting how much perspective on Han has changed over the years. When you’re a kid, he’s the coolest guy ever. He’s got a cool ship and a sweet laser gun. He’s detached, snarky, and above it all — nothing gets to him! He doesn’t take orders from anyone!

When you’re an adult, on the other hand… Well, it becomes clear why kids think Han is so cool — Han’s understanding of what it means to be cool is very childish. As an adult, the character comes off as a bit of a buffoon — a preening, posturing loser trying desperately to be the manliest guy in the room. And that’s probably why he’s so at war with his conscience — nothing’s more effeminate and uncool than caring a whole lot about something. But it’s an act, and that act is hilarious unraveled throughout the film.

Mainly because of Princess Leia. She might fill a pretty traditional damsel role, but it’s nevertheless surprising what a progressive character she was for 1977. Heck, she’d be a halfway progressive character right now. She’s not just a love interest (this movie doesn’t even have one, which is unusual in itself); she’s a fully formed character with a personality, her own motivations, and a life outside of the protagonist’s. She’s the one who gets the ball rolling in the first place, getting her hands on the Death Star plans and trying to run it to the rebels. The first thing we see her do in this movie is shoot a stormtrooper and then insult Darth Vader to his face. In essence, the only reason she needs to be rescued is that the keys are on the other side of the door, and you’d need superhuman strength to get through it from her side. Once, she’s out of there, she’s dealing with the situation herself, thank you very much.

And that fact alone is a threat to Han’s ego, made worse by her determination to keep needling him all the time. Look at the difference in Han’s character before he meets her and after — before, he’s smooth, smug, and above it all; after, he’s following her around and complaining loudly about how he doesn’t take orders from her and SHUT UP YOU’RE NOT MY MOM. Once she’s out of her cell, it takes Leia all of two seconds to decide that this rescue has been horribly mismanaged and wrestle control of the mission right out of Han’s hands. And since Han is determined to be the toughest guy in the room, he doesn’t take it too well that this random princess is running roughshod over him.

It’s not the first time — Obi-Wan has already been taking potshots at his ego. Han wants people to think he’s above it all; it’s Obi-Wan who actually is — albeit in a mature, adult way. He’s compassionate and does what’s right; his detachment is not in that he doesn’t care about his principles and about other people, it’s in that he doesn’t care if people think less of him for it. Obi-Wan is difficult to faze. Insults don’t get through to him. Odds are he’s smarter than you. He doesn’t waste time explaining his plans to people he knows will never get it. Trying to prove him wrong will eventually get you embarrassed. He’s the embodiment of “killing them with kindness” — he responds to criticism and personal attacks with light barbs and soft-spoken counter-arguments, then waits for the cards to fall. He’s a model of maturity, self-control, and openness, and that’s something that Luke and Han both need in different ways. Luke worships the ground he walks on, and Han finds him pretentious and irritating, but his presence is important for both. In that sense, he’s the perfect mentor — not only because he embodies the typical traits of the mentor character but because those traits are pitched directly at our protagonist and semi-co-protagonist.

Then, you’ve got the supporting characters. They’d always been around, but R2-D2 and C-3PO put a permanent new face on the Those Two Guys trope, the comedy duo tagging along with the main plot. I’m still fascinated at how much personality the film gives R2-D2 despite him being a round garbage can with no ideas or facial features that communicates exclusively in beeps and whistles. He’s one of my personal favorites in the Star Wars saga (admittedly, I have, like, a dozen personal favorites); there’s something about him that I find inherently amusing. He’s this adorable, chipper little robot with absolutely no tolerance for anyone else’s BS. He is determined to accomplish whatever he sets out to accomplish and simply does not care about your objections or the things you do to stop him. Since C-3PO’s main purpose in life seems to be “objecting to things,” that makes him a great comedic partner for R2-D2. R2-D2’s the one you laugh with, and C-3PO’s the one you laugh at. He’s likable, in a weird way, so you don’t want him to suffer too much, but he’s fussy, uptight, and a bit annoying, so you do want the other characters to continue crossing his boundaries and making him uncomfortable. Which they are mostly glad to do.

And, of course, Chewbacca, the family dog. Who doesn’t love Chewie? The “family dog” description isn’t appropriate solely because he resembles one; his personality is, essentially, that of a sentient dog. Like a dog, he’s loyal and friendly to all those who are in his good graces, but he’s a tiny bit unpredictable and doesn’t seem to be invested in what’s going on around him. He follows the heroes because they are his friends, but he doesn’t seem to care what they’re doing. Like Obi-Wan, he’s pretty hard to faze, unless you make him angry.

You can see why these characters are the heart and soul of Star Wars and, in my opinion, why it’s as great as it is. It’s not just that they have lively, enjoyable personalities; it’s that the way they relate to one another is surprisingly nuanced and multilayered. Despite the fact that they conform to a lot of ancient storytelling archetypes, no one seems to fit any role precisely. Luke is the hero, but he’s also naive and even a bit dumb, and there’s an unusual subservience to his personality; he seems to go through a hero worship phase with everyone he meets. Han is the grumpy sidekick, but he’s also a protagonist in his own right — the film actually ends on the completion of his arc. His return during the Death Star battle is the biggest moment of triumph in the movie. Leia is the damsel, but she’s such a forceful personality that she immediately humiliates and sidelines her rescuers. And the characters don’t have any one relationship — no member of the cast is all things to all people, and even on an individual basis, the relationships change over time. Luke reveres Obi-Wan as a saint; Han finds him tiresome; Obi-Wan uses those attitudes to impress change upon both of them. I don’t think Leia respects Luke, but she does like him; she definitely doesn’t respect Han and makes no secret of it, but she develops enough of a subconscious regard for him that his departure comes off as a sort of betrayal. R2-D2 is his own entity, not really attached to anyone or anything other than his own mission. He’s only friends with C-3PO, and that’s mainly by proximity. Chewbacca is mainly a fixture at Han’s side, but he’s a bit of a morality pet in that sense — he’s more open than Han is and embraces the others a bit more readily. He’s defined mainly by his ability to treat everyone as equals — he doesn’t seem to have any more respect for Obi-Wan than he does for Luke.

Their motivations, their personalities, and their relationships with one another circle around and intertwine and change things and, ultimately, establish a palpable group dynamic from which tension, drama, camaraderie, and chemistry emerge very naturally. You know who everyone is, what they want, and how they feel about each other, and that makes it easy for the movie to drop inciting incidents into their laps and push things in a certain direction. You can guess how you’d react or be treated if you stepped into this group.

Essentially, the movie works not just because Luke, Han, Leia, Obi-Wan, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO are likable and interesting but because, by the time the credits roll, you feel like they’re your friends. You can examine this group dynamic, these personalities, and decide which one you are in your own social circles. Which is all to say that, despite the film’s simplicity and goofiness, there’s something authentic at the heart of it — something about these oddball characters that registers with us more deeply than we realize. We come for the adventure, for the effects, for the unique universe, for the intriguing mythology — but we stay for these characters. We remember these characters.

And that is why Star Wars is friggin’ awesome.

Next time: Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

Trainwreck_posterTrainwreck (2015)

Starring- Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton, Colin Quinn, John Glaser, Vanessa Bayer, Ezra Miller, LeBron James

Director- Judd Apatow

R- strong sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use


On paper, Trainwreck had to look like an interesting genre mash-up — take a traditional rom-com, inject it with a ton of dirty gross-out humor, and fuse it with the standard “adult child becomes regular adult” storyline. But it turns out those three elements in combination don’t really change one another all that much, and gender-swapping the lead doesn’t particularly affect the overdone formula.

When she was a child, Amy’s (Amy Schumer) father told her that “monogamy is unrealistic.” Twenty-odd years later, she’s doing her utmost to live by that creed — and to cling to her fading youth by any means necessary. She writes for a snarky gossip rag; she’s drunk every night; and every day of the week is a one-night stand. Then, she’s assigned to write an article about Aaron (Bill Hader), a sports physician whose techniques are revolutionizing the industry. Aaron is nice, stable, thoughtful, good-humored, and she soon finds her interest in him evolving beyond the usual “hit it and quit it.” Since this is a threat to her status quo, her life immediately spirals out of control.

I don’t really have a lot to say about Trainwreck. It’s pretty easy to summarize my feelings. Honestly, the first paragraph of this review about covers it. It’s difficult to investigate it further without meaninglessly repeating the world “formula” into infinity. It has two formulas — it’s telling a typical rom-com story and a typical adult-child story simultaneously, mainly using the former to advance the latter. But neither one surprises. Each story type has its formula, and Trainwreck hits all the beats of both, for largely the same reasons and with largely the same end result. It’s been done a thousand times.

I suppose the only thing I have to add is that, if nothing else, Trainwreck does the formula about as well as it could be expected to. Even though both are formulaic, I am impressed with the way the movie uses the rom-com and the 30-something ennui to complement each other — there are, to an extent, two different stories, but they’re working alongside each other to get to the larger point. It’s pretty tight on the thematic level — the message is what you’d expect it to be and isn’t all that novel, but it’s built into everything the movie does. Amy’s career, Amy’s social life, Amy’s relationship with Aaron, Amy’s relationship with her family and ailing father — in every element of her life, you see irresponsibility and resistance to maturity. There’s a lot to overcome, and the main plot walks her through most of it. Like I said, it isn’t all that original or done all that differently, just done well.

Other scattered observations:

The humor is 50/50 for me. You probably know the drill by now. There were a lot of laughs but a lot of bits that didn’t connect with me. I understand that “I’m not a prude” has become my version of “I’m not racist,” but I don’t know how else to explain it. I’m not above laughing at some really dirty jokes, and there were even a few here that got me. I just don’t understand the pervasiveness of it, the need to fall back on it at every opportunity and in every conceivable context. Anyway, don’t listen to me; my taste in comedy apparently is very bizarre considering how many classics in the genre have no effect on me.

Trainwreck has marketed itself heavily on LeBron James having a substantial supporting role as himself. He’s…weirdly okay. I wouldn’t say that he gives a good performance so much as that the movie uses his mediocre one very well — it’s a self-deprecating role that casts him as the lovable semi-idiot, so the emptiness in the performance comes off as a byproduct of the character’s off-kilter perspective on the world. Aaron is his physician, and the two have an odd couple sort of friendship. Gender-swapping the leads only makes his part funnier. Since Amy is now the boozy, childish commitment-phobe and Aaron is the angelic, wounded image of relational perfection, James basically ends up in the “girlfriend’s girlfriend” role, which is one of those things that’s just inherently funny to me, regardless of context. My favorite scene in the movie is probably the bit where James confronts Amy to determine if she really loves Aaron and asks her deadly serious questions like, “Do you see his face when you look at the clouds?” His acting isn’t good, or at least isn’t given the opportunity to become good, but I still enjoyed every second he was on-screen. My opinion may not be the most objective; I have a comedy soft-spot for celebrities playing themselves in somewhat unflattering roles.

So that’s that. I don’t mean to be flippant; I just feel as though Trainwreck is a review I’ve written a dozen times already. I think I mostly liked it, but it’s obviously not something I’d recommend you go out of your way to see. It’s somewhat amusing, basically well-done, not a bad way to kill two hours but not a lot more than that either.

-Matt T.