Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Rise of Skywalker (and the end of Star Wars) 2019 directed by J.J. Abrahms

I won't belabour too much of the plot of this film which pretty much everyone in the known universe has seen already it. It ends the 43 years long Star Wars Saga and opens the way for new stories while tying up the loose ends for the original series characters. The First Order it turns out is being controlled by the old, presumed dead Emperor from the middle trilogy of the series and that Rey is somehow his grand daughter. The resistance must find his hiding place and hope that they can inspire the regular people to rise up and help them destroy a new fleet of star Destroyers, each with the ability to destroy a planet much faster than the previous Death Stars could. Klyo Ren is trying to turn Rey to the dark side of the force and have her rule the galaxy with him. This all ends in a SPECTACULAR space battle.

This film suffers from cramming in too much plot as most blockbusters these days do. Things move so quickly and back forth that its becomes hard to keep track of what is important or even what is going on all the time. The film is chock full of fan service as well, which would be more annoying if this wasn't the end of the saga and there was no escaping pulling every reference and minor character they could out for the final outing.

Even for a movie that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away; there is a lot of inconsistency in the world building and far too many convenient plot points and red herrings designed to pull at the heart strings that lead to nothing. I am not sure there was ever going to be a way out of those problems as tying up a generations spanning storyline in a pleasing for everyone is an impossibility. We do get a solid enough, exciting film with great effects decent acting and a conclusion to most of storylines introduced over the last 40 years. It avoids going to three prequels for much source material or inspiration which is truly the best decision they ever made. I tried to rewatch that trilogy and ended up tossing all three. They don't add anything, and in fact, take away from the series as whole. The film's pace and dependence on action does rob us of moments that should have been more impactful. The death a Lea was handled well enough and since it was brought about because of the real life death of actress Carrie Fisher before this film was made, it cannot help but bring a tear, but the relationships even after three films were not established enough to give a real emotional punch. We were promised that Carries Fisher would not be replaced by a digital double and they didn't... sort of. There is no CGU replacement for the current version of Princess Lea but in a flashback there are digital versions of Luke and his Jedi in training sister that leaps right out of the uncanny valley and into your nightmares.

Ranking this within the current trilogy I would say the first "The Force Awakens" was the least successful as it simply rehashed "A New Hope" from the first film. "The Last Jedi" was pretty fairly unpopular among super fans but I think it went in some interesting directions "Awakens" should have gone. This one is more on par with "Last Jedi" for me but with better acting and higher stakes. It should be noted that the "controversy" of this last trilogy is mostly overblown twitter nonsense and trolls looking for attention. They all made a boatload of cash and brought in new and old fans. They were never going to satisfy everyone, everywhere as basically the entire planet has ideas what Star Wars is about. To say any of them were terrible or silly means you never saw the prequels or know what an Ewok is. The entire storyline has always had its problems since the start.

Overall this isn't a bad film by any means and likely the best sort of send off these characters were ever going to get. I was surprised at how little was spoiled for me ahead of my watching it, months after the release. To me, that says many people who may not have got the film they imagined, liked it and those who followed the series enough not to ruin it for new viewers.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Has the Marvel Cinematic Universe ruined the movies?

There is a lot of talk going around that the Marvel superhero universe has ruined the film industry and movies in general. The basics talking points seem to be that they have overtaken the industry with films that lack depth or artistry, have budgets so high they leave nothing left for smaller films, take over multiplexes and cinemas in general so no other films can be shown and cater to the lowest common denominator of film goer.

There are some good observations in there but I'm not sure they add up to Marvel Studios having "ruined" cinema as we know it any more than the sci-fi rush after Star Wars, any number of the horror eras we have survived or the big western fads of times past. There is also an argument to be made they are more a sign of the changing habits of the average movie goer, who now has other things vying for their attention like streaming services and the sudden rise in high quality TV shows.

We have been here before and survived but this time there is new technology and new ways to watch things that rival the arrival of television on the scene in the 50s. Marvel movies have a long, interconnected series of films now behind them which more to come. This is more like a TV model than a film model, which traditionally had sequels that did not have to follow a storyline throughout. (See the James Bond series, for example.) Marvel movies are forged in comic book fandom, a group of people notoriously hard to please and meticulous in their opinions of what is or isn't canon in a series. Most of the properties in the films have many decades of history behind them and any changes or mistakes are debated endlessly among fans. It limits what they can do with a story. On the streaming side of things,  services like Netflix offer very high end productions and no real limitations on the content they offer. In many ways they are much freer than the film world with its hierarchy, studio controls and rating system and they take full advantage of that.

Money for smaller independent directors has been moving to online platforms where they have money and more freedom while the cineplexes are selling spectacle and HUGE stories that would have impossible to pull off even 15 years ago. So independent and middle range films are without a doubt being squeezed out of the big venues and with many repertory theatres already closed for a decade now, streaming has started to scoop them up. This does rob us of seeing these projects in a communal setting on a large screen, but it has given us another way to see them at least. The average ticket price now is ridiculously high and while we cry and moan that Herzog's latest documentary can't get shown on the big screen, the truth is - not many of us would pay that price to see it larger than life anymore.

Marvel films overall are not bad films by any definition. In fact, many are fantastic, visually exciting with compelling characters even if the plots are complicated in some ways but pretty generic in many others. Even some of the worst of them are entertaining and the best are inspiring and affecting millions of viewers, except perhaps the strictly art house set. Many of the same things can be said about the Star Wars franchise, though those films seem to be in their own world, pun intended.

Are they a fad? Well a decade plus into it... maybe. But it's a long term fad and to Marvel's credit they are not just churning out sequels of the latest popular films like we used to get. Instead they are putting a large effort into each one, trying to make them as different in tone and scale to keep them for getting too repetitive even if they don't always succeed. The budgets are, however, the roof and there is something to be said abut making 100 smaller films less effects driven than one 600 million dollar Affinity War movie. It would be nice to see some of that cash go to ideas that don't need to break a billion to be a hit. There are still smaller films that manage to break out and rule the box office from time to time which shows the audience is there for new and more grounded (or totally off the wall) films to be shown.

I am sure a day will come when the public is tired of spectacle and goes into something else, something more personal and smaller. This sort of happened in the 70s when films were slower and more personal even as the trend started giving into the blockbuster phenomenon. Until then, the films we used look for are now on TV, computers and other devices in various forms, unhindered by time limits and getting bigger budgets than ever was allotted to them for the big screen. I say we can enjoy them both and be aware that the entertainment landscape has changed not because Marvel is an evil supervillain but because WE (the general filmgoing public, that is) have changed the terrain with our viewing habits and need for convenience over shared experience. Not sure where it will end up but we do have some say in where and how we spend out money. That might not be enough to beat market forces currently in play, but in some ways we gained some things while losing other things and blaming superhero movies for all of these changes seems simplistic and ignores everything else going on around them. I guess the moral is to support the films we love, wherever they are found.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Lost in Space (2018- 2019) Netflix TV series

I will admit I was never a big fan of the original Lost in Space TV show. The first season was dead serious and then it went into high camp without warning. This new version of the show does a great job updating the basic idea, letting the family Robinson be lost but not alone. There are a ton of colonists lost for them to play off of.

While I will love Jonathan Harris forever, his Dr. Smith was super campy and shrill. This reboot sees Dr. Smith played by Parker Posey who really shines as a psychopathic version of the character whose real name (June Harris) is a nod one of the original series actors. She is truly scary at times. The robot, one of best known elements of the original show is now and alien robot who befriends the youngest Robinson, Will and has its own complicated back story.

It is a life changing  experience? No, not at all. It is a ton of fun with beautiful visuals and engaging enough characters. The situations they get in, one after another, after another do make you wish for an episode of them just sitting around playing space "go fish" or something but the characters themselves reference how over the top it is often enough that you just go along with it all.

The crew of the Jupiter 2 et al are of course all super attractive including sexy smart mommy Robinson and hot ginger daddy Robinson