At the risk of trading-in my science fiction film-going card, I present my opening gambit: Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a minor achievement in mimicry, while Revenge of the Sith is a major achievement in failure, or rather, a major achievement in failing to achieve a personal vision. Fans who despise the film tend to confine the series to a contrived standard of quality, one rooted in scene-to-scene legibility, in flows of character logic, in the film not biting off more than it can chew for fear of alienating viewers who cannot follow the missteps and mistakes of a film that seems to be actively rewriting itself before their eyes. In this framework, The Force Awakens is a definitive but ultimately banal success at what it sets out to do, a clean, precise, efficient blockbuster machine. But the costs are also a subservience to the staggering weight of the franchise and an acceptance of the solidity of obligatory satisfaction, of adherence to expectation. The film’s complementary successes ring out like injunctions to respectability, refusals to violate or reconsider or explode the mandatory vision of a franchise in favor of your personal vision for that franchise. Continue reading
Phantom Menace naysayers aside, are you for real Attack of the Clones? Now this is how you do up a Star Wars disaster, grade-A incoherence and all. Specifically, Attack of the Clones ends up scrambling in a million directions in search of a new center after Qui-Gon Jinn’s death at the end of Phantom, a film which is itself almost a complete severance from Attack of the Clones in every way. Nothing about the earliest prequel develops any of the themes explored in Attack of the Clones, which nominally chooses to focus on the relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin to get us on its predestined but sometimes-unfathomably rocky pathway to Revenge of the Sith. Nominally, I write, because you’d need to see Revenge of the Sith to even read any such relationship into this film. The two hardly spend any time together at all, leading to a narratively disjointed film that mostly resounds as a powerfully unnecessary display of arbitrary plot development. For the most part, Obi-Wan does things and Anakin happens to be around him, and then, for a while, Obi-Wan does things and Anakin isn’t around him, and then they’re back together again. This decision, perhaps more than any other, tends to render the whole “prequel to Star Wars” business rather dubious. All of the meaningful Anakin character creation that catalyzes the original films has been displaced onto Revenge of the Sith, whereas this film basically relegates itself to the broader geopolitical strokes of the imperial conflict, which basically means “clone army”. Continue reading
As opposed to an abject failure of imagination, design, or cinema more broadly, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace suffers a more equivocal, ambiguous form of misfortune, the kind of flaw that is also signally exciting and valuable in its own right: it suffers deeply from 16 years of franchise-creator George Lucas stewing on his ideas. With The Phantom Menace, the lower rungs of his imagination inflated to the point of boiling over with a desperate need to prove his mettle as an author by complicating and nuancing the concept for Star Wars without actually having a grasp on, or paying attention to, the actual execution, the very cinema, of his ideas. Everyone loves to hate on the thing, slathering it in such a smothering aura of empty incompetence that the criticism seems not only unfair but essentially arbitrary. In point of fact, the film is often anything but empty, and its surfeit of under-baked ideas – exciting to a point – are also its comeuppance. The totalizing way everyone demonizes the thing like it’s a leper unable to scrutinized up close asphyxiates not only the filigrees of glee inhabiting the film from time to time but its more legitimate offenses as well. Continue reading
After the down-tuned-pulp pop space-opera of the original Star Wars and the astounding, apocalyptic depression of The Empire Strikes Back, what do George Lucas and his goons give us for round three? Neither fish nor fowl, but an extraordinarily and sometimes beguilingly stitched-together accident, a film loaded with and defined by peculiar tonal spasms and the kind of narratively-haphazard mess you just can’t get without a devoutly, almost feverishly passionate but mildly inept creative figure at the helm. Yes, Return of the Jedi is a travesty of writing on par with any of the prequels. But the real question is how it mobilizes its mess, whether it treats cinematic dysfunction as a liberating deliverance from acquiescence to middlebrow, mainstream cinematic perfection or as simple incompetence. Far from catastrophic but still strangely mishandled in ways both exciting and hindering, Return of the Jedi wears it fleet of script revisions and swamp of behind-the-scenes misgivings like a ball and chain. Every image, good and bad alike, are portals into the often dysfunctional production of this film as well as the obvious casualties of market success, both factors that are only barely hidden on camera. Continue reading
With the release of The Last Jedi, I’ll be reviewing every Star Wars film not currently covered on this site, which means all the pre-Disney films excepting the indomitable Empire.
Star Wars fan-boys fall head over heels for George Lucas’ world-building, but the standout quality of Lucas’ first Star Wars film is it vision of a world already built, destroyed, and stratified. Narratively and commercially an infamous break from the serious dramas of the New Hollywood during the early ‘70s, the visual style of Star Wars is nonetheless heavily schooled in the dog-tired, emptied-out malnourishment of ‘70s cynicism. The town of Mos Eisley in particular, druggy, hallucinogenic Cantina aside, could slide neatly into any washed-out Southwestern American state circa 1977. Visually, Star Wars bears all the bruised beauty and shambolic, hang-dog lethargy of a revisionist Western.
Narratively, of course, it’s another story. It’s for the best that the plot can be summed up so eloquently, because the film certainly doesn’t always do so. Lucas’ underrated knack for visual suggestion is not even remotely matched by his lead-footed screenwriting most obviously reflected in his infamously explanatory, banal dialogue that reverberates like human reason gone truly haywire. But we’re not there yet. For the moment, let’s just say that the dramatic outline – Star Wars works best as a sketchbook galvanized as a bracing series of beautiful visual stanzas – is essentially great, or at least potentially great when it is fertilized by Lucas’ imagery. Continue reading
I consider myself someone who takes cinema very seriously. But “serious” in this sense is a question of attitude and sensibility rather than tone. I take seriously the ability of cinema to plumb its inner-depths and expand its outer-registers, to twist and turn preconceptions about existence, to interrogate its own mortal coil and material medium as well as to dialogue with social context, to refresh itself, to treat every moment as a contingency rather than a certainty. But above all, I take seriously cinema’s ability to play: with itself, with the world, and with its conception of the world. Play does not imply glib triviality or even humor but the giddy effervescence steaming off of even the most solemn and sober film as it treats its medium as an experiment in any tone whatsoever. Serious play incorporates thematic, intellectual, emotional, philosophical, visual, spatial, temporal, and aural play in all its registers, the excitement of a film that is gloriously unsettled in its always-roving, never-finished mental exploration of self. Seriousness, in this lexicon, does not entail giving a pass to so-called serious cinema, especially cinema which wraps itself up in its seriousness as a hermetic seal, as a shield from real self-interrogation, or as position of sacrosanct refuge. Continue reading
Until 2007 when they unchained No Country for Old Men on unwitting audiences, Blood Simple was the black sheep of the Coen Brothers family. Their second feature Raising Arizona is, on the surface, its diametric opposite, a harried, maniacal fracas of disheveled lunacy and Southwestern loneliness. That latter film has, more or less, paved the way for many of the Coen Brothers’ more famous features, inaugurating their reputation as the pied pipers of modern artful screwball. But Arizona shares two central components with its predecessor despite Blood Simple’s reputation as the wild card in their canon. Tones aside, both films are mordant, fiendishly cunning grasps of dour, melancholic tragedy, both comedies-of-loneliness. And both are acid-washed images of people in need of an escape hatch. The sheer surfeit of mood aside, Blood Simple frequently feels like a premonition of the Coen Brothers’ entire career. Considering Blood Simple reveals the crestfallen image of a destitute US and stunted, criminally miscommunicating people that skulks, almost subterraneanly, within the notionally-chipper heart of many of their later films. Continue reading