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3 Stars Movies

Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die is an unaffectionate homage

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that Jim Jarmusch would make a zombie movie, since he’s already cycled through idiosyncratic interpretations of westerns (Dead Man), vampires (Only Lovers Left Alive), samurai (Ghost Dog), and thrillers (The Limits of Control). But unlike these, The Dead Don’t Die reads as an unaffectionate (or to coin a word, disaffectionate) homage to its genre.

Directly quoting Night of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead, The Dead Don’t Die initially seems to be taking a nostalgic poke at contemporary interpretations of the genre: be they the frenetic 28 Days Later rabid variety, or the mopey end-times soap opera of The Walking Dead. But Jarmusch takes the inherent nihilism of the zombie horror subgenre to its logical end: there is no “post-” after the apocalypse, and zombie movies are dumb and you’re dumb for watching them.

Iggy Pop in The Dead Don't Die
Iggy Pop as Coffee Zombie, with whom I think many of us can relate.

The cast is notably diverse in race, age, and gender (at times looking like the most Jarmusch that ever Jarmusched, with just enough room for delights like Iggy Pop as Coffee Zombie, Carol Kane as Chardonnay Zombie, and Tom Waits as Hermit Bob). But while The Walking Dead has vague themes of the apocalypse being the great socioeconomic leveler, here it’s part of a cynical joke. It’s hard not to interpret the casting of Tilda Swinton as a scotswoman in samurai kitsch as an allusion to her role in the Disney/Marvel appropriation of an asian comic book character in Doctor Strange.

Fittingly, her subplot builds to a glancing swipe at sci-fi/superhero blockbusters, with the iconic Star Wars Star Destroyer reduced to a tchotchke keychain wielded by its star Adam Driver, and then inflated back up into a dinner-plate flying saucer straight out of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Zombies and spaceships are taken seriously by millions as part of a modern mythos, but from the condescending perspective of Swinton’s woman-who-fell-to-earth, it’s all naught but “a wonderful fiction”.

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2 Stars Movies

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker smothers all hope and wonder

My brilliant wife had the following absolutely perfect appraisal of the first two entries in the new Star Wars trilogy, which I will paraphrase here:

“Most of the criticism of The Force Awakens was absolutely correct, but I loved it anyway. Most of the criticism of The Last Jedi was absolutely wrong, but I loved it anyway.”

In other words: yes, we acknowledge the consensus that J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was a stealth remake of A New Hope, somewhat lacking in imagination, but wow was it thrilling.

Then Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi faced an even fiercer backlash: mostly directed at its female characters, its rejection of Star Wars‘ royal lineage nonsense, and for directly addressing the military industrial complex issue that all previous films had ignored. These criticisms infuriated us; for these aspects were exactly what made The Last Jedi one of, if not the best of the entire series. (sorry, Empire, I will always love you too)

John Bodega and Kelly Marie Tran in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Perhaps the worst of The Rise of Skywalker’s many failings is relegating two of its best new characters (John Boyega as Finn and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose) to the sidelines.

But after seeing The Rise of Skywalker, this formulation is disrupted. With J.J. Abrams back in the director’s chair, the concluding chapter retreats from the progress made in the second film, and seems to have pulled off the impossible: disappointing everybody. If it’s not the worst Star Wars movie, it’s certainly the most disappointing. Instead of rating it out of five stars, I want to rate it with a countless number of exasperated sighs.

Ian McDiarmid in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Hands up, who hoped Star Wars would rewind all the way back to The Return of the Jedi? Anyone?

Even more than the unwanted spinoff product Rogue One and Solo, The Rise of Skywalker seems to have been designed by spreadsheet in an antiseptic Disney boardroom, in a misguided attempt to appease a toxic fandom riven by the divisive The Last Jedi. Star Wars is not my personal sentimental favorite story (that would be Doctor Who), but my generation grew up with it and I can’t help but have an emotional attachment. I could enumerate The Rise of Skywalker‘s various plot deficiencies here, but it’s the smothering of wonder and spirit that really hurts.

My thoughts here are a kind of spoiler — not for revealing plot details, but for sending out bad vibes. Hopefully there are some viewers (especially kids) that don’t read complaints like this and get some joy from the movie. Here’s hoping that with time, The Last Jedi is retrospectively recognized as the height of the entire franchise.

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1 Star Movies

Battle Beyond the Stars is Star Wars gone wrong

Battle Beyond the Stars is the rare bad movie worth experiencing. How can you not be at least a little curious about a Roger Corman-produced Star Wars pastiche, starring John-Boy from The Waltons, Hannibal from The A-Team, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., with a screenplay by John Sayles and special effects by James Cameron?

Like Starcrash a few years earlier, Jimmy T. Murakami’s Battle Beyond the Stars crassly copies a number of superficial elements from Star Wars: sassy robots, radial wipes, exploding planets, severed arms, and heavy borrowing from Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges (Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven in this case).

But it betrays a total cluelessness regarding the real feat that George Lucas pulled off: iconic characters, mythic underpinnings, and a tantalizing sense of a larger world worth exploring. Its spaceships, lasers, and robots are all in service of the story, not the other way around — otherwise you wind up with Battle Beyond the Stars, essentially a special effects reel with cursory linking material. Everything Star Wars gets right, Battle Beyond the Stars gets wrong.

Battle Beyond the Stars
They really know how to party, beyond the stars.

As for those aforementioned James Cameron special effects, there sure are a lot of them. The ratio of effects shots to live-action studio footage must be near-equal. There’s a tremendous discrepancy between the level of effort expended on the models and matte paintings, vs the dialogue, characterization, and story.

The performances certainly don’t commend it. Robert Vaughn sleepwalks through it, and George Peppard hambones as an Earth cowboy. Richard Thomas doesn’t seem to have a handle on his character, which I suspect is due to a lack of clarity in the writing & direction. Like Luke Skywalker, he’s an everyman farmboy with aspirations to be a pilot. What appears to make him unique among his people is his ability to pilot a A.I.-powered spaceship, but he later claims to not know anything about computers. He’s also an embittered jerk who seems resentful for the ragtag army that sacrifices everything for his world.

And it would be a waste of time to outline the ways in which it is ridiculously sexist. It’s only 3 years younger than Star Wars, but decades more retrograde.

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2 Stars Movies

Gorging on Nostalgia: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Like a big bowl of candy, Solo: A Star Wars Story certainly went down easy. But also like a big bowl of candy, generations raised on too much Star Wars are going to gorge themselves sick on nostalgia. Who filled that bowl, and why? When Disney acquired the Star Wars rights, and promised a new movie every year, I don’t think I was alone in imagining there would be more than enough room for original stories. But so far Disney has spent more time facing backwards than forwards.

To recap: The Force Awakens was in many ways a phantom remake of the original Star Wars, rationalized as rebooting the franchise with a new foundation for future stories. Rogue One and Solo are essentially neu-prequels, plastering in the gaps deliberately left in the original foundation. Solo is especially focussed on continuity and nostalgic callbacks, and teasing future nostalgic callbacks yet to come. It isn’t about anything other than itself. Four films in, The Last Jedi stands alone in striking out for new territory. It’s the first to really surprise.

Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but what is the point of the neu-prequels, if not mere fan service? Aren’t the missions to steal the Death Star plans and the Kessel Run better left to the imagination? Did anyone really wonder how Chewbacca came by his diminutive nickname? Do we feel we understand Han more now that we know where he got his surname? The one major new detail we learn about him — that he is an Empire deserter — loses its impact when even this idea is recycled: q.v. Finn in the mothership films.

Alden Ehrenreich in Solo: A Star Wars Story

The most egregious fan service in the film is of course the confounding cameo by Darth Maul — confounding, that is, only for those evidently undedicated Star Wars fans like myself that haven’t seen the spinoff animated series. My reaction was not “wow, Darth Maul survived being sliced in half!”, but rather “All this took place before The Phantom Menace? How old is Han Solo? Does Darth Maul always fire up his lightsaber before hanging up the phone?”

Alden Ehrenreich has caught some flak for his performance here, but he was given an impossible job: impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized, or don’t impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized. He either chose the latter or was not able to pull off the former. Whichever explanation, he looks bad opposite Donald Glover, who successfully channelled Billy Dee Williams while still doing his own thing.

By the standard set by the original trilogy and prequels, Solo‘s three prominent female characters should count as progress. Or, it would have, had the film not quickly killed two of them off. The original Star Wars infamously included only one woman among its cast, but Carrie Fisher’s force of personality made her instantly iconic, and that’s lacking here.

Also, Paul Bettany was fine but Michael K. Williams got robbed.

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2 Stars Movies

George Lucas Cedes Control, in Star Wars: The Clone Wars

After writing and directing three Star Wars prequels between 1999-2005, it’s easy to forget that back in the 1980s, the series’ godfather George Lucas opted out of directing The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Now Lucas appears once again to be ceding control over his most famous baby. He’s back to shepherding along splinter projects like The Clone Wars in the more aloof role of Executive Producer.

For anyone else confused, as I certainly was, Star Wars: The Clone Wars is a feature-film sequel to the 2003-2005 Cartoon Network television series Star Wars: Clone Wars, which was in turn followed by a second series with the same name as the movie. Got that?

There are much bigger differences than swapping a colon for a definitive article, starting with the visual look itself. The best thing about the original series was its bold, striking visual style, realized in a hand-drawn line-art look similar to Genndy Tartakovsky’s previous show Samurai Jack. From what little I understand of the process, CGI animation created in 3D can still be rendered in a flat 2D style, giving it the look of traditional hand-drawn cell animation. So the characters in the original at least appeared hand-drawn even though they almost certainly weren’t.

Ashley Eckstein and Matt Lanter in Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Anakin trains a young propellerhead, Ahsoka Tano.

However, the feature film sequel looks like director Dave Filoni opted to skip that step and render the characters with full 3D shading. The result resembles a rough animatic or a throwaway videogame cut scene. Filoni gets kudos for not aiming for photorealism, which becomes very creepy when approaching the uncanny valley — the point where animated characters look almost, but not quite, like real humans. Look with fear upon the nightmarish zombie horrorshows Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, and Beowulf (the latter being a huge step forward, but still not quite there yet). But The Clone Wars‘ particular brand of stylization just seems cheap to me; I would have preferred the cool-looking 2D characters as they appeared in the TV series.

The Clone Wars is canon within the Star Wars universe, but no one (probably not even Lucas himself) would ever consider it as primary as its six older siblings. One advantage to being relegated to the second tier is a freedom to violate venerable Star Wars traditions. The classic opening crawl is gone, replaced with a Citizen Kane-style newsreel catching the audience up with the key facts needed to make sense of what’s going on in between all the ‘splosions.

That particular change is a shame, but brace yourself for some heresy when I admit I find another change rather welcome: Kevin Kiner’s very non-John Williams-esque score. As much as Williams’ music was the soundtrack of my childhood (my entire generation can sing the Star Wars, Jaws, and Indiana Jones themes a cappella, on cue), I had long since tired of him. The point at which I lost it was the wall-to-wall blanket of redundant music that threatened to drown out the already almost overwhelming Saving Private Ryan.

The Clone Wars series and movie are both set chronologically between the events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, a razor-thin slice of time in which nothing of import really happened in Star Wars continuity. The movies already showed us how the war began and ended, so The Clone Wars movie and series are basically war stories. This is actually a good thing in light of how the prequel trilogy often became bogged down in tedious political procedure involving interplanetary trade routes. The series was by its nature a string of vignettes, but the feature film still feels like an episodic tour through a number of spectacular battles.

A particularly gripping and exciting battle takes place on a vertical cliff face, “shot” with a hand-held “camera.” Lucas was sure to conceive of his two armies as droids and masked clones, allowing for carnage and huge body counts without a drop of blood (not to mention the economical reuse of costumes, and now, digital models). I remain puzzled, however, how clones and droids can have names, ranks, and varying skill sets. This writer grew up with the original trilogy, and still has trouble accepting stormtroopers being on the side of the good guys.

Tom Kane in Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Yoda’s looking more “kitten” than “turtle” today

The TV series focused mostly on the battles, but the movie squeezes a fragment of a plot in between the action set pieces. Anakin Skywalker is inconveniently charged with training Ahsoka Tano (Ashley Eckstein), an annoying teen “padawan learner” (a Lucasism for “apprentice” that still sounds very much like a George W. Bush malapropism). I still find it difficult to accept that the Anakin we see here and in Episode III is so close to the tipping point to absolute corruption that he will soon betray the Rebels and become the embodiment of evil, Darth Vader. At this point, he still seems a merely moody and impetuous kid horny for the girlfriend he left behind on Naboo. Being responsible for the spunky, goodhearted Ahsoka certainly does little to help him attain the state of emotional detachment Lucas equates with goodness.

Even though there’s no doubt a great deal of very expensive technology behind this kind of animation, it’s still cheaper than mounting a live-action production. Animation, where anything is possible, is also the best way for the Star Wars franchise to expand the stories of its existing characters, when the original actors have aged, become too expensive, disinterested, or passed away. So why focus only on the prequel characters? Why not tell more tales starring the trinity that everybody really loves: Luke, Leia, and Han?

Perhaps Lucas fears that messing with the canonical heroes that generations of fans have taken to heart is to risk fatally wounding their deep emotional connection to the mythos. Or to be cynical, he is legally able to utilize the various masked characters (Chewbacca, Boba Fett, Jabba the Hut, Darth Vader, C-3PO, R2-D2) in anything at any time without clearing actors’ likenesses. That said, some of the original cast do lend their voices to The Clone Wars, including Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Daniels, and Christopher Lee. James Arnold Taylor does an excellent impression of Ewan McGregor’s excellent (in turn) impression of Alec Guinness.

One last thing: it wouldn’t be Star Wars without at least one offensively characterized alien. Jabba’s uncle Ziro the Hutt (Corey Burton) is inexplicably voiced as an old Southern queen.

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