Archive for JJ Abrams

Stupidity of the First Order

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2017 by dcairns

Fiona dragged me to see… no, I’ve got to stop saying that. I was curious to see the new Rian Johnson film too — big fan of BRICK, LOOPER, and THE BROTHERS BLOOM may be a misfire but it’s the kind of misfire I’d welcome more of. I wasn’t absolutely sure I wanted to see the film RIGHT AWAY, but what the heck, it is a big screen spectacular…

There are spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to be discreet.

And some of the reviews were very good — though Peter Bradshaw bemoaned a major section of the plot being essentially a pointless side-trip. But that side-trip may be the most Johnsonian section of the narrative, a decadent art deco gambling world milieu. It inspires him to replay a shot from Wellman’s WINGS, soaring over the tables and between the customers. And it looks very much like it’s setting stuff up for the next film: the entrancing child actors from this sequence are coming back, it seems. But yeah, there’s too much of this film, and whole planets exist just to get the heroes captured so they can escape so they can get captured again. This is what happens when you don’t have enough real story.

Actors! Daisy Ridley seemed fine in the J.J. Abrams opener, but she has some very poor moments here, notably her first big speech. She’s cursed with a flat voice and an inexpressive face. That tiny cute scar on her cheek is her claim to interest. Though she’s not as bad as early Keira Knightley so maybe she’ll get there. John Boyega is fine in the non-eggy moments, Oscar Isaac is good but we know he can be better. Laura Dern continues her bold hair colouring from Twin Peaks. Hamill is good and Carrie Fisher’s valedictory turn is touching. Benicio Del Toro is the one bringing the real entertainment though I think giving him a stammer was over-egging it. He’s a natural eccentric already. Kelly Marie Tran is an unusual and charming presence and I was really interested in Veronica Ngo who has all too brief a role but gets to do the most affecting heroic stuff in the movie.

Andy Serkis is a CGI creation AGAIN, and I really don’t know why. The icky subtractive scar effect modelled by Frank Langella in the otherwise stultifying THE BOX is much more disturbing on a real actor than it is on a thing of pure pixels. Look at Voldemort in the HARRY POTTERs (there’s some quite Potterish stuff in this one) — a real actor rendered digitally noseless. As a voice performance, Serkis’ is a very generic baddie, and as a physical performance, he sits in a chair. And Adam Driver still feels too peevish and adolescent to be our boss villain, especially in a plot that basically has him outsmarted a lot.

Yoda and Maz Katana’s fleeting bits are just fan service. Chewbacca and the droids are barely more.

But there are some nifty set pieces — maybe the best light-saber battle ever, staged on a red set like something out of an MGM musical by way of Kurosawa. The opening dogfight has one very good thing going for it: it’s coherent. I wasn’t bored as I was with ROGUE ONE but I was ready for the movie to be over long before the makers apparently were. Then it would manage to muster my interest again. There’s a bit where the heroes escape on space buses. I was waiting for Princess Leia to say, “What am I, Carrie Fisher, doing playing piano on a bus to the moon?” I’ll be surprised if more than a couple of you get that reference.

If THE FORCE AWAKENS was a slavish remake of STAR WARS (you know, the first one, the film called STAR WARS), which it sure as shit was, Johnson’s opus is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in its broad strokes: the Rebels/Resistance have to flee their base, a young Jedi gets training from a Master while other characters go to a gambling planet but are betrayed; the heroes regroup at the end but face an uncertain future. Concurrent with these familiar beats are callbacks to memorable bits from the first film (Obi-Wan faces his pupil; garbage hatch escape; parental revelations; a hero disconnects his comms link while gunning for the weak spot of a huge weapon…), some deliberate, some maybe more desperate or resulting from the filmmakers running out of new situations.

But there’s stuff we haven’t seen before: super-fast dissolves as characters in different scenes exchange telepathic glances. A visual rebuttal of Lucas’s midichlorians bullshit, showing the force connecting all things with a nature montage suggesting the welcome influence of King Hu and A TOUCH OF ZEN. And I have to be cheered by so much of the film being set in Ireland, even if it’s meant to be Space Ireland.

There is some uncertainty of tone: is the movie duty-bound to feel like the old STAR WARS? Giving women and people of colour stuff to do is a welcome departure from Lucas’ films, but otherwise? One of the (innumerable) things that seemed wrong about Lucas’ own prequels was the stuff that just didn’t belong in the universe he’d created: fart jokes, the comedy sports announcer, that kind of stuff. There’s more of that here — a gag with what’s set up as a spacecraft but turns out to be a robotic iron pressing First Order uniforms seems more like a Richard Lester joke, and isn’t really connected to anything else the film attempts. There’s a relentless barrage of quips and many of them are not good. Though at least they don’t tend to paint the heroes as sadistic Man With No Name/James Bond thugs, as the quips in ROGUE ONE do: Poe Dameron doesn’t make mocking remarks to random stormtroopers as he’s killing them.

So it’s a mixed bag of Jedi mind tricks. Entertaining enough — if I had kids I would feel I was poisoning them if I let them watch the prequels, but this would get a pass. Not an exact clone,  for all its harking back, so that counts for something. But then, not as emotional as FORCE AWAKENS was. Watch this space, but I think I’m done with seeing this series on the big screen. But I’d like to see Johnson build a universe of his own.

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Red Dead Resurrection

Posted in FILM, Interactive, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 24, 2016 by dcairns

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We’re quite enjoying Westworld, the HBO series derived distantly from Michael Crichton’s fun film, the original Jurassic Park only with robot cowboys instead of dinosaurs.

No spoilers, unless you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to know anything, in which case you ought to have stopped reading by now.

The TV show, created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, attempts to spin the concept out by splitting the narrative among multiple characters, and putting the robot revolt into extreme slomo. The accretion of plot developments is glacial in pace. This is partly because of the numerous plotlines — just as something interesting is happening, we tend to cut away (J.J. Abrams is also involved, and those who lasted a season of Lost will recognize the strategy.) It makes the series compelling yet slooooowwww. Which is no bad thing in itself, although the regular inclusion of sex and violence is working hard to convince us that in fact this is an action-packed thrillride.

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But very little of the violence in Westworld itself counts for anything, since it’s all a mechanical simulation. There’s one massive plausibility hole, by the way. Crichton’s movie made its theme park seem vaguely like fun, until it all went wrong, but it was a movie made when video games consisted basically of Pong. A holiday destination where you could play dress-up and shoot Yul Brynner seemed vaguely desirable. This new series comes on the back of video games like actual western bloodbath Red Dead Redemption, and might not even be possible without that example. Nobody plays cowboys and Indians anymore.

But video games offer us more sophisticated narratives than Pong, and in order to engage us, they work on a reward-punishment system where the player’s skills determine how successful they are. In Crichton’s concept, continued here, robots are programmed with Asimovian restraints that prevent them shooting the guests. So you seemingly can’t lose a gunfight if you’re a guest. Seems to me this would get rather boring. Some kind of paintball scenario where you can get fake-injured and lose points/privileges could have been concocted, but this park is short on rules and explanations. Introducing one main character who is new to all this, who has a friend who’s played before, should have allowed the writers to dole out information in a dramatically pleasing manner, but seven episodes in I’m still unsure how the park is supposed to work on the most basic level. Turns out the robots are allowed to punch guests. I wouldn’t go on a holiday where robots punched me, not even Thandie Newton robots.

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Oh well, maybe just a little.

There’s another thing that doesn’t make sense — taking their cue from vidgames, the writers have imagined lengthy and complex narratives that the guests can get involved in. These are designed to be as believable yet dramatic as possible. But wouldn’t these be necessarily compromised by the fact that everybody who gets killed comes back to life the next day? A scenario like this would require the dead to stay dead until their narrative is over, and until the guests they’ve interacted with have finished their vacation.

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Despite all this, we’re hooked. Good actors like Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins (de-aged by CGI to appear in flashbacks), Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie. An AMAZING scene with a guy called Louis Herthum as Wood’s malfunctioning dad. Uncanny in all the right ways. The Abrams connection suggests it may not ultimately prove to be satisfying, while the Nolan connection suggests it may not be as clever as it thinks it is (see above). But it looks great and keeps throwing out good scenes.

Reboot of the Jedi

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2015 by dcairns

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I was going to be all noble and abstain from seeing STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS because I am an adult. I have managed to avoid giving George Lucas any of my money since the first mangling of the original STAR WARS with CGI characters dropped into it at random, though this was partially by luck rather than design — a friend acquired a bootleg of THE PHANTOM MENACE before it came out and I abandoned all ethical principles and said what the hell and watched it and was damned glad I hadn’t thrown my money away on that load of tripe.

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But Fiona wanted to see this one, because it has the original actors in it a bit and so it connects more convincingly to any residual fondness one has for the original trilogy… and she had an unexpectedly emotional response to it. Funnily enough, I had just come from a costume fitting with the magnificent thespian Gavin Mitchell, who reported that he saw the movie while rather tired but his girlfriend got really emotional. Same thing. Is this a STAR WARS film that works better for girls? No bad thing, since the first film was so boysie (and so white) as one female fan wrote, ruefully, “One wonders if Princess Leia had anyone to play with when she was small.”

Princess Leia is STILL small, but she’s now a general. Han Solo is back to smuggling, the marriage thing having not quite worked out. Best of all, there are new characters, who actually have characters, unlike the entire cast of the prequels. John Boyega plays Finn, a disaffected stormtrooper — someone with actual demonstrable integrity, who rejects the politics he’s been raised with — nobody else in the films has such nobility. Daisy Ridley plays Rey (I think that’s short for Reysie Diddly, although it may also be a nod to the maker of another celebrated trilogy). Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, the only one of these kids with a surname, and does a lot well with very little writing to support him. It had been uncertain, looking at his previous performances, whether the brooding O.I. could pull off lightly likeable, but he does it here. Oh, and bad guy Adam Driver, he of the massive face, a co-star of O.I.’s from INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, is excellent too. J.J. Abrams has by now made a lot more films than Lucas had when he made the first film in the saga franchise, and has certainly shown a lot more care than Lucas lavished on the prequels. And he has a surer sense of what STAR WARS films need to be like. I swear, when that two-headed sports commentator turned up in PHANTOM MENACE…

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Abrams’ great vice is his tendency to pass off remakes as reboots, so here we get secret plans hidden in a droid, yet another, an even bigger death star, Luke as the lost Jedi master in place of Obi-Wan, and a climax which intercuts a dogfight with a light-sabre duel. Plus a desert planet which might as well be Tatooine but isn’t, and a snowy planet that isn’t Hoth. The sense of deja vu is entirely intentional, but I would certainly have liked to see the filmmakers invent more — there are some striking background characters, but they stay in the background. And the filmmakers’ imaginations seem constrained, as if they can’t really imagine all this stuff they’ve imagined. The new death star is the size of a planet, but when the heroes land there next to one particular building they have to destroy, they quickly bump into the one person they’re looking for. It’s a small world after all.

The relentless compaction extends to time also — take a stop-watch with you and see how long elapses between the terrible news that the death star will be able to destroy everybody in two minutes, and the eventual solution to that narrative problem. We’re very used to this kind of trick in movies — the bomb timer that keeps doubling back on itself — but I swear it’s about fifteen minutes this time.

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Things Abrams definitely does better than Lucas:

The dialogue. With the aid of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK co-writer Larry Kasdan and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE guy Michael Arndt, Abrams has written (sparse) dialogue which doesn’t make you want to chew your own jaw off.

No midi-chlorians. Interestingly, midi-chlorians are the reason that, whenever you meet a Jedi knight, they smell like swimming pools.

Action. Lucas has recently tended to equate “excitement” with “shitloads of things buzzing about” whereas Abrams favours coherence, and has a pleasing tendency to make each shot do more than one thing, tying the scene together with images that develop and move, enhancing the sense of context at every turn.

Domnhall Gleeson with his permanent expression of “Ooh, matron!” camp outrage. So nice to find an actor making a bold choice and sticking to it.

Emotion. Even in the first/fourth film (the film that was called STAR WARS), Lucas rather shrank from emotion. John Williams provides a soaring Wagnerian leitmotif when Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed, but since there hasn’t been a single hint of human warmth between Luke and his kin, this can only do so much. A comparison with THE SEARCHERS, from which Lucas has borrowed this moment, shows how much is lacking — or avoided. This kind of thing has caused me to equate the word “operatic” with the phenomenon of “gesturing grandly at a supposed emotion without actually making you feel anything” — which I don’t think is the original meaning of the term. In amidst the frenetic running about, Abrams’ characters build up some actual affection — Reysie Diddly and John Bodeya are particularly useful here.

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But the reason Fiona had such a strong emotional response to the movie is that it reminded her of the original, which made her want to make movies at age 11. And maybe it was more the publicity booklet we both owned, which drew shrewd connections to everything from METROPOLIS to SILENT RUNNING, highlighted behind-the-scenes activities, and unpicked the creative process.

Meeting these characters again could be glibly compared to meeting people you grew up with, but really they haven’t grown up. It’s like meeting someone from your childhood and finding they haven’t matured at all. It’s cheering, in a nostalgic way, for a little while (135 minutes may be pushing it), to meet people incapable of growth or development, whose world doesn’t change. I don’t know why it should be so, but whenever friends meet Fiona & I after a while apart, they assure us that it is.