Film Studies

Star Wars: My Worst to Best

Some years ago, my friend Doctor Robert asked me how I would rank the various Star Wars movies. At the time, I begged off with a rueful grin and another slug of scotch. It was an impossible question for me, like being asked to choose which of the children is my favorite, or perhaps more accurately — since I was at that time trying my damnedest to believe all the individual films comprised a single unified story — like trying to pick the best chapter of a favorite novel. It was also, I feared, an unintentionally loaded question that could only stir up more rancor over the still-controversial prequel trilogy, a sore spot I was dearly sick of poking.

That was then, though. Now… well, now things are different. Let’s just say that my feelings about this series have become far more clear in recent years. And so, for anyone who cares about one grumpy old man’s highly opinionated takes on some silly movies about space wizards and their lazer swords…

(Incidentally, I know I wrote in my last post that I’ve grown weary of talking about Star Wars, and I have. But now that the “mainline saga” has supposedly come to an end with the release of Episode IX, it feels like this is the time for an overview like this. Besides… it’s less stressful to think about this than current events.)

Counting backwards from my least favorite:

11. The Force Awakens

I can hear the gasps of surprise and outrage from all the way over here. Sorry. I know many people truly enjoyed this one, and I routinely see claims that it’s as good as any of the original trilogy (OT), but… no. Not for me. Besides my usual complaints about JJ Abrams’ shortcomings as a storyteller, this film struck me as incredibly cynical in the way that it played on my generation’s nostalgia for the originals while simultaneously slapping us in the face with its depiction of our OT heroes. I’m not exaggerating when I say that TFA — as well as finding myself once again the outlier against popular opinion when it came to Star Wars — contributed to me falling into a months-long depression.

10. The Rise of Skywalker

Better than TFA, and I’ll confess that I generally enjoyed it. It even had several moments that moved me to tears (mostly involving the OT heroes, no surprise). But it’s still a JJ Abrams film with all the problems that entails, and it still revolves around the idea that the OT heroes’ struggles and victories didn’t amount to a damn thing. I didn’t like it when Palpatine was resurrected in the old Dark Empire comic-book series back in the ’90s, and I like it even less in a movie trilogy of quasi-remakes built on deconstructing the original films and recasting the old heroes as broken losers.

9. The Last Jedi

While public opinion seems to have crystallized around the notion that TLJ is the worst of the sequel trilogy, I personally think writer-director Rian Johnson did an amazing job of trying to build something interesting on the very shaky foundation left to him by TFA. I like how he redeemed and elevated Luke Skywalker in the end, as well as how he tried to redemocratize the Force and get away from the “chosen one” elitism that settled into the story with the prequels (one of George Lucas’ biggest missteps, in my opinion). Even so, I can’t say that I unreservedly liked any of the films in the sequel trilogy, and I think that all goes back to the creative decisions made before a single frame of film was shot about where the OT characters ended up following the end of their trilogy. It was just plain shitty to do that to longtime fans.

8. Attack of the Clones

Next up is the shakiest entry in the much-maligned prequel trilogy. I never have been able to untangle the mystery plot of this one, and there are moments in it that make me cringe (curiously, Threepio’s head getting grafted onto a battle droid body and changing his personality — “Die, Jedi scum!” — bothers me far more than Anakin’s thoughts on sand). But there are also many elements that I love: the ground battle between the clone army and all the crazy-ass Separatist machines, Slave-1‘s “electric guitar” bombs, the launch of the Republic fleet to the sounds of the Imperial March, the image of dozens of lightsabers powering up all across the arena on Geonosis, and even the greasy-spoon diner on Coruscant. Especially that greasy-spoon… because it just plain amuses me that there is such a place there and that Obi-Wan apparently frequents it.

7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

A nicely done war movie that I nevertheless rank fairly low because (a) it’s built around a plot point that nobody ever wondered about, (b) the tone is a little too grim-n-gritty for my tastes (i.e., everybody dies), (c) the fan service at the end is a little too blatant (heart-poundingly cool though it was), and (d) I can’t get past the deeply illogical conceit that Leia’s ship was hiding inside a big cruiser during the Battle of Scarif. (Leia was both royalty and a member of the Senate, and her ship was well-known as a diplomatic courier. In short, she and the Tantive IV were extremely valuable undercover assets — “You weren’t on any mercy mission this time…” — and I can’t believe the Alliance would risk either her life or her cover. In my opinion, the old NPR radio drama of Star Wars had a much more satisfying account of how she acquired the Death Star plans, and it bothers me that Rogue One retcons that version away.)

Also — and I admit that this is a meta issue and unfair to the movie itself — I learned about Carrie Fisher’s collapse that led to her death literally moments after seeing this movie with its weirdly plastic-looking simulacrum of her, when I checked my phone during the closing credits, and the association of those two events and the remembered emotions of that experience are… difficult. If not for that, perhaps I’d rank Rogue One more highly.

6. The Phantom Menace

Oh, hush. Just hear me out. If the meta experience of what happened around the time I saw Rogue One can lower that film’s rating, than surely the same thing can elevate this one’s, right? The excitement of the months and weeks leading up to TPM, the experience of standing in line to get in (no longer an issue with online ticket ordering), the uproar in the theater as the titles came up and various characters appeared… I cherish the memories of all that and those memories inform the film itself when I see it now. And in addition, I posit that the film honestly isn’t that bad, as unpopular — even heretical — as that position may be. It tells a straightforward story, it introduces us to wondrous new places (one thing about the recent sequel trilogy: I never once felt any sense of wonder with the worlds it visits; not once), and it contains two of the most thrilling scenes in the entire 11-movie series: the pod race and the final lightsaber fight between Darth Maul, Obi Wan, and Qui Gon Jinn. Plus, Liam Neeson is just cool. I’ve always wished we could’ve seen more of him.

5. Solo: A Star Wars Story

Easily my favorite of the Disney era so far, Solo is also the one with the least baggage hanging over it and the most purely fun entry in the series since 1983. The fate of the galaxy isn’t at stake, there’s no big metaphysical battle between good and evil, it’s just a swashbuckling heist picture with a coming-of-age tale overlaid on it. I was very disappointed that it didn’t do better, as I would’ve loved to have seen where it went next (I strongly suspect there was at least one sequel, if not a full trilogy, planned). Perhaps now that Disney+ appears to be the future for the franchise, a streaming series will pick up the dangling threads.

4. Revenge of the Sith

I always feel like I need to qualify or apologize for my reactions to the prequel trilogy, but with this one it’s really as simple as this: I spent the last 40 minutes or so of ROTS weeping. And George finally gave me the lava-pit fight I’d been imagining since I was eight years old.

3. Return of the Jedi

The weakest entry of the original trilogy is still above everything that’s not part of the original trilogy. Because… original trilogy. Plus, speeder bikes, the Millennium Falcon zigzagging through the rebel fleet, the Emperor taunting Luke, the space battle and flight through Death Star II (the very limit of what FX technology was capable of at that time), “I know,” and Leia going for the deck gun on Jabba’s barge. All things that just make me happy.

2. The Empire Strikes Back

Most people rank Empire as the best of the series, and I can’t disagree on objective, technical terms. It looks the best, it has the most mature story and best performances, and the whole universe seen on-screen just feels more… solid than it did before or since. I adore Empire. But when you get right down to it, there’s one I adore still more…

1. Star Wars

Always my number one. Always. The original 1977 Star Wars was the one that captured my imagination and dominated my childhood dreams, the one that kicked off the phenomenon and inspired all the variety-show sketches and low-budget rip-offs, the one that made the biggest dent on the collective American consciousness. People who’ve never seen a Star Wars movie likely know the names “Darth Vader” and “Death Star,” and this movie is the reason why. It is also the one film of the entire series that works best as a standalone story, in my opinion. All of the others are, to one degree or another, dependent on this one. Certainly they are all derivative of it. But if no other Star Wars film had ever been made, this one would still work on its own terms. And it is still the one I’m most likely to reach for when I’m in the mood to visit the galaxy far, far away…

And there you have it. Probably not many surprises here, at least not for people who’ve listened to me ramble about this stuff over a glass of whisky. Although I don’t foresee my own opinions changing much, it’s going to be interesting to see how the general wisdom on these films evolves in the coming years. I suspect that the prequels and George Lucas in general will be reevaluated against the sequel trilogy and their reputations redeemed somewhat; in fact, I’ve already seen signs of that happening. Along those lines, I also predict that fans will someday talk about all this much the way James Bond fans talk about that franchise; people will have their favorite eras and will debate the merits of each, i.e., it will come down to Lucas Era vs Disney Era, and preferences will likely depend in part on one’s age. Again, there’s already some of that going on, as the generation that grew up on the prequels displays a far different perspective on them than we older original-trilogy kids.

For me personally, I can no longer view the whole thing as one big happy story. I now realize after all these years of trying to embrace everything that I’m really primarily a fan of the original trilogy, and in particular of all the stuff that came out in the years between SW and TESB. Everything else — everything! — is, in my view, derivative of the OT and has to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Which means that, for me, Star Wars will mostly be an exercise in nostalgia going forward. In other words, I’ve arrived at pretty much the same place with this that I’ve been at with Star Trek for many years now. And isn’t it interesting that I reached that point with both franchises as a result of films made by JJ Abrams? He is become Death, the Destroyer of Franchises. If I hear he’s been assigned to do the long-rumored Highlander remake next, I think it’ll be time for me to go live on a mountaintop somewhere…

One final thought: I think Star Wars might be finished as a movie series. There is still talk of a new trilogy in development that’s unrelated to the Skywalker Saga, but after all the truly vicious fan response to the recent films — and even going back to the prequels — I’ll believe it when I see it. Instead, I think Disney is going to take the safer route of producing SW television shows for its streaming platform, Disney+. I think The Mouse will find it less risky, as well as easier to satisfy all the splintered segments of fandom, to produce a number of limited-run, relatively cheap TV shows than to bet everything on occasional, very expensive feature films. And you know, I think that might be better for the content, too… a wider possible range of subject matter and tone, and maybe even the possibility of more inventiveness and originality, instead of stories always constrained by the need to fit the formula of “a Star Wars movie.” We’ll see, I guess. The Mandalorian has been a success, but the next one might not be.

In the meantime, we’ll always have the original trilogy…

 

 

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Quick Takes: Cutter’s Way

One of several noir-ish thrillers Jeff Bridges made in the early ’80s, Cutter’s Way is a bit confounding in the way it keeps refusing to be quite what you expect it to be. It’s not the murder mystery it initially appears, because the protagonists reach their conclusion quickly and that conclusion is never questioned. It’s not the Hitchcockian case of mistaken identity it has the potential to become, because Bridges never gets accused of the killing that sets everything off, and the maybe-villain never denies he did it (nor does the audience ever find out for sure if he did). It’s not even a satisfying revenge flick because the vengeance, when it comes, is perfunctory and open-ended. It’s a film noir that’s not especially interested in the usual trappings of noir. What keeps the film interesting is the characters.

Jeff Bridges is Richard Bone, a feckless young man going nowhere fast, who might in fact be a gigolo based on the first scene where we encounter him. Bridges’ youthful good looks and rangy build, so different from the grizzled “Dude” persona we’re so familiar with now, were perfect for this role. He even sports a ’70s porn-stache to complete the look. But he also uses his considerable skill to create a character whose main attribute is indecision.

On the other hand, Bone’s buddy Alex Cutter is reckless and impulsive, making decisions in the blink of an eye and then refusing to back down from them. Played by John Heard, Cutter is a Vietnam vet who was badly injured in the war. Heard is simply mesmerizing, a ball of barely contained rage and self-pity that dominates the screen whenever he appears, swaggering, drunk, hateful, and yet also magnetic and in a weird sense, heroic. Heard’s performance is fearless, and all the more remarkable in that he convincingly plays a man with only one arm and an artificial leg long before CGI was available to create those illusions.

Finally, there is Mo, played by Lisa Eichhorn, Cutter’s long-suffering wife who’s been thoroughly drained by the constant stress of putting up with Alex and his tantrums.

All three of these characters are drifters of one sort or another, moving through their lives like ghosts as they nurse their various hurts. They’re the last people who should be trying to solve a mystery… but then, like I said, this movie isn’t much interested in that mystery. I kept watching to see what happened to Cutter, Bone, and Mo, and what they said along the way.

 

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Welcome to the Future

(Remember, Blade Runner takes place in the year 2019… I can’t tell you how weird it feels to be arriving in the landmark years in which the fantasies of my youth were set. The next big one that comes to mind is 2029, the “Year of Darkness,” according to the original Terminator. That sounds fun.)

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Debunking Hollywood Babylon

If you’re at all interested in Hollywood history — by which I don’t mean the nuts-and-bolts of how any given classic film was made, or the ups and downs of the business, but rather the stories of the people behind the films and the business, the ones we revere, sometimes the ones we deplore, and especially those we’ve forgotten — then you owe it yourself to check out a podcast called You Must Remember This. I’ve been following it for about a year and a half now after first learning about it from Wil Wheaton, and I find it endlessly fascinating.

The podcast’s host, film journalist Karina Longworth, does two cycles or “seasons” per year, and each season is themed around a single topic that reveals “the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” to borrow from the show’s prologue. These histories can range from a comparison of the lives and careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, to the evolution of Jane Fonda from a sex kitten to a political lightning rod, to the McCarthy-era blacklist. (Personally, I started listening during a season called “Dead Blondes,” about all the blonde sex symbols who’ve met untimely and sometimes horrific endings.) The show is very well researched and documented, with source notes and photographs available for each episode on a related blog. It truly is a treasure trove for dedicated movie buffs, or even just people who enjoy a good story.

The current season is of particular interest because I have a personal connection to the topic.

Way back in my teens, I stumbled across a tattered paperback book called Hollywood Babylon in a thrift store. Its author is a guy named Kenneth Anger, which is an apt name considering the book turned out to be 200-some pages of someone grinding a very large ax. Babylon is one of those works that seeks to destroy plaster idols and press hot buttons, and it does that very effectively as it recounts some of the saddest and most sordid tales of Hollywood lore in the cruelest manner possible. It was in the pages of Hollywood Babylon that I first heard the tale of washed-up Peg Entwhistle hurling herself off the “H” of the Hollywood sign… of Lupe Valez’ ignominious suicide (according to Anger, the Latina star had wanted to die in a beautiful, carefully staged scene on her bed, but became sick to her stomach and ended up drowning in her toilet after vomiting)… of va-va-voom girl Jayne Mansfield being decapitated in a car accident and permanently traumatizing the policeman who found her head… of Errol Flynn’s trial for statutory rape and the rumors that he was a Nazi spy (Timothy Dalton’s character in The Rocketeer is based on this version of Flynn, if you didn’t know)… and most shockingly to me, at that time anyhow, of silent-era comedian Fatty Arbuckle’s trial for raping a woman with a Coke bottle, causing so much internal damage that she subsequently died. (I don’t know why the Coke bottle thing troubled me more than the gory mental images of Valez or Jayne Mansfield, but I remember that it did.)

Hollywood Babylon outraged me when I read it. Not because its stories were taboo or breaking down the glamorous facade of the movies’ golden age, but because it was just so damn mean-spirited. Something about the tone of the writing suggested that Anger was having a good laugh at the thought of all those pretty people being cut down to size, and he wanted the reader to have one too. And if you were shocked instead of amused, well… Anger struck me as the sort of smirking asshole who would just laugh harder and louder. I’ve never had much use for the provocateur types who get off on riling people up just to see if they can.

Moreover, I had a hunch that a lot of what I was reading in that book was horseshit. Even in my teen years, when I was admittedly naive about, well, everything, Babylon smelled off to me. And yet I knew that many of the stories Anger told were out there in the culture, accepted by people who either didn’t know better or wanted to believe the worst about all those immoral movie folk. And that made me angry, too.

The whole experience of reading that book was highly unpleasant, and I very quickly got rid of the damn thing, after which I took a long shower.

Now, getting back to You Must Remember This, the latest season of the podcast, titled “Fake News,” is dedicated to refuting Hollywood Babylon, or at least pointing out the places where Anger exaggerated or insinuated things that aren’t supported by facts, and I’m loving every minute of it. It’s weirdly vindicating to hear this stuff, as if some great injustice is finally being corrected, even though the urban legends promulgated by Anger have been debunked before in various places. Besides, like I said earlier, these stories, the real stories, are just plain interesting.

You can listen to You Must Remember This yourself through the official website or iTunes, or I imagine any place else you go to hear podcasts, and I highly recommend you do so. It’s a great show.

And no, Fatty Arbuckle did not rape Virginia Rappe with a Coke bottle. The autopsy showed no evidence of a sexual assault, and Arbuckle was acquitted. Not that that saved his career, sadly…

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Tarantino on Hitchcock

From a two-year-old interview with Quentin Tarantino:

“People discover North by Northwest at 22 and think it’s wonderful when actually it’s a very mediocre movie. I’ve always felt that Hitchcock’s acolytes took his cinematic and story ideas further. I love Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock movies. I love Richard Franklin’s and Curtis Hanson’s Hitchcock meditations. I prefer those to actual Hitchcock.” And Tarantino also prefers—passionately defends—Gus Van Sant’s meta art-manque shot-by-shot remake of Psycho over the original Hitchcock film.

I always knew my sensibilities were incompatible with this guy’s, even if he does know how to compose a nice shot.

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Movie Meme 2.0

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I’ve discovered that that meme I did earlier was actually truncated from a longer one, so I’m… doing it again. Because I’m like that. Oh, and I’m also changing a few of my answers. Because I’m also like that.

  • Most Hated Movie: Star Trek (2009)
  • Movie I Think Is Overrated: Interstellar
  • Movie I Think Is Underrated: Star Trek: The Motion Picture
  • Movie I Love: American Graffiti
  • Movie I Secretly Love: Young Guns 2
  • Favorite Action Movie: Die Hard
  • Favorite Drama Movie: Casablanca
  • Favorite Western Movie: Dances with Wolves
  • Favorite Horror Movie: The Fog (1980 version)
  • Favorite Comedy Movie: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Favorite Romance: Pretty Woman
  • Favorite Fantasy: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Yes, I am fussy enough to differentiate between the LOTR films! For me, the first is the most, well, magical… )
  • Favorite Disney Movie: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  • Favorite Science Fiction Movie: Blade Runner
  • Favorite Book-to-Movie Adaptation: The Shawshank Redemption
  • Favorite Animated Movie: The Incredibles
  • Favorite Superhero Movie: Superman: The Movie
  • Favorite War Movie: The Guns of Navarone
  • Favorite Thriller: Rear Window
  • Favorite Cop Movie: Dirty Harry
  • Favorite Musical: Rock of Ages
  • Favorite Chop-Socky: Rumble in the Bronx
  • Favorite Documentary: Man on Wire
  • Favorite Bad Movie: Flash Gordon (1980 version)
  • Childhood Favorite: Jason and the Argonauts (1963 version)
  • Favorite Franchise: Star Wars
  • Best Trilogy: Back to the Future
  • Guilty Pleasure: Bring It On
  • Favorite Director: Steven Spielberg (although he’s been pretty hit-and-miss ever since Schindler’s List)
  • Favorite Actor: Patrick Stewart
  • Favorite Actress: (tie): Scarlet Johansson / Dame Judi Dench
  • Favorite Movie This Year So Far: Logan
  • Movie I Have Recently Seen: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • What I Thought of It: Enjoyable, but it doesn’t develop Cedric Diggory enough to care when he dies.
  • Favorite Movie of All Time: Star Wars (a.k.a., “Episode IV: A New Hope,” pre-Special Edition version)

 

For the record, this is harder than you might think. I had the devil’s own time with the romance category, for instance, because it’s not a genre that usually appeals to me, and movies I find very romantic — Blaze, for example — usually don’t fit other people’s definitions of romance. And honestly, I don’t really have a favorite director, actor, or actress; the ones I listed are just the ones I thought of whose work I generally (but not always) enjoy. Truth is, there are many directors, actors, and actresses I like.

For the record.

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Movie Meme

Because I need the pointless distraction this morning:

Most Hated Movie: Star Trek (2009)
Movie I Think Is Overrated: Interstellar
Movie I Think Is Underrated: The Black Hole
Movie I Love: American Graffiti
Movie I Secretly Love: Young Guns 2
Favorite Action Movie: Die Hard
Favorite Drama Movie: The Big Chill
Favorite Western Movie: Dances with Wolves
Favorite Horror Movie: The Fog (1980 version)
Favorite Comedy Movie: Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Favorite Disney Movie: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Favorite Science Fiction Movie: Blade Runner
Favorite Animated Movie: The Incredibles
Favorite Superhero Movie: Superman: The Movie
Favorite Musical: Rock of Ages
Favorite Bad Movie: Darkman
Childhood Favorite: Jason and the Argonauts (1963 version)
Favorite Franchise: Star Wars
Best Trilogy: Back to the Future
Guilty Pleasure: Bring It On
Favorite Movie This Year So Far: Logan
Movie I Have Recently Seen: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
What I Thought of It: Enjoyable, but doesn’t develop Cedric Diggory enough to care when he dies.
Favorite Movie of All Time: Star Wars (pre-Special Edition)

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Giving Letterboxd a Try

I need another social-networking site eating up my already limited free time like I need a hole in the head. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to give Letterboxd a go after learning about it on Michael May’s Adventureblog. It appears to be along the lines of Goodreads, only for movies. So, if you have some voyeuristic need to explore my dubious tastes in cinema, hop on over to my profile and take a look around…

 

 

 

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The Evolution of The Face

I think it’s pretty common knowledge that the face of Michael Myers, the unstoppable boogeyman of the Halloween films, is actually William Shatner’s.

According to lore, the makers of the original Halloween bought a Captain Kirk mask at the local drugstore for a couple bucks, modified it a bit, and spray-painted it white. The rest, as they say, is Hollywood history, as that film went on to become one of the most successful horror flicks ever made (it was the most successful for several decades), spawning a slew of sequels, imitators, and outright rip-offs, while the Michael Myers character became an icon. Personally, I think part of the reason why Michael is so unsettling is because that blank, expressionless visage is so weirdly… familiar. But even knowing why he looks familiar, I’ve had trouble actually seeing my boyhood hero in that face of evil.

Not any more:

halloween_shatner-to-michael

It’s even more unsettling now.

Just something to ponder as Halloween 2016 winds down…

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