Friday, October 23, 2015

Star Wars: What's All the Hubbub, Bub?

We're Back!

I think it's fair to say that Star Wars is, without doubt, a "huge deal."  Uncountable geekdoms were spawned forty years ago from the moment the first interplanetary warship graced the silver screen, and few fictional characters in any medium can boast the devotion claimed by Luke, Leia, Solo, and the rest.  While I never fell deep into it, my sister has been a hardcore fan since the very beginning, and I've always appreciated its role in popularizing the Science Fantasy genre I've relished so much over the years.  So all that said, I confess I didn't think much of the announcement a few years back that Disney was releasing a new addition to the saga.  In fact, I'd say it left me down-right sour.  Between the 30-year gap from the last "beloved" trilogy, the relatively lackluster prequels, and the always-divisive presence of Disney in, well, everything, I hardly imagined there would be any room for longing from even the most devout Star Wars fan - and the relative apathy from my sister seemed to have confirm that.

I couldn't have been more wrong.  There's been mounting anticipation steaming from many quarters over the past year or so, but it was only on the trailer premiere and ticket sale opening this past Monday that I really felt the force of my errancy.  The full trailer has already broken 35 million views on YouTube, and even if most of the outrageous rumors of $700 ticket sales turn out to be just that, their existence speaks volumes about the excitement surrounding this upcoming blockbuster.

Naturally, such fevered expectation invites an analysis of some kind, and though I've toyed with dissecting the trailer to uncover its core, a number of other critics have already done just that, so instead I'll briefly examine just a few of the possible engines driving this surprising surge of Star Wars fanism, despite the setbacks of recent times.

1. The Eternal Return 
As implied by the trailers and the cinema rumor mill, this new iteration of the Star Wars franchise won't merely feature a brand new cast of fresh nobodies that plead us to care about them.  Instead, we've got Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher all making a return, stirring the pot of nostalgia for both long-term followers and those raised on their eulogizing memoirs of escapes into distant galaxies.  Part of the problem with the previous trilogy is that it felt disconnected from everything that imbued Star Wars with meaning, especially the original cast and their idiosyncrasies.  This new movie, therefore, must feel like a "coming home" of sorts for many long-time fans. 

2. Fresh promise
Still, we shouldn't skimp on the new characters entirely; Daisy Ridley and John Boyega will share the spotlight with the "old favs," and if the trailer is anything to go by, they'll breathe fresh life into the franchise, making their own mark in Star Wars history.  Ridley's apparent rendition of the Mysterious Lone Drifter archetype - so common in these epics, but so uncommonly played by a woman - may show her to be the next Luke Skywalker, and Boyega's prominence in the trailer all but cements his arc as one from darkness to redemption, and finally onto heroism.  We won't know for sure what role they play in the greater scheme of things until the final wire, but it's the mystery that's so engaging.  This isn't a fabricated origin story, the conclusion to which is already set in stone; we really don't know what destiny awaits for Ridley and Boyega or the characters they play.  But I'm sure we're all eager to find out.

3. The Hero's Journey
This last point culminates much of the appeal of the other two - and indeed, probably explains the popularity of Star Wars as a whole more than any other individual factor.  Let's face it: however much it's parodied or denied, however much it's criticized and discounted as meaningless through the lens of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell's monomyth has left an undeniable mark on the human psyche since it was first formulated.  Who hasn't wanted to be part of a greater battle between Good and Evil?  Who hasn't wanted to rise from nothing, discover your fate and your place in the world, and make a difference?  While cynical or "mature" minds scorn these fantasies as infantile or even dangerous, their appeal is undeniable and timeless.  Star Wars is Campbell's chanting herald in the movie realm, and the star ensemble so far seems ripe to deliver the age-old goods: a few fresh-faced wanderers - both literal and metaphorical - called to adventure and guided by both Old Masters and old salts.  This is the nexus of Star Wars, the heart and soul of its power, and the trailer flows with all the pregnant possibilities that this new journey can offer.

While I admit that I'm not foaming at the mouth or tossing money at my screen on the return of the franchise after over a decade, I'm a good bit more excited than I was just a few months ago.  Only time will tell if Lucas and co. can deliver on their promise, but Star Wars is sure to be on everyone's minds come the holiday season.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Movie Review: Pan

Movie: Pan
Directed by: Joe Wright
Starring: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund

Loud, hammy, and laughably anachronistic, Joe Wright’s unnecessary adaptation attempts to give a “fresh” origin story to J.M. Barrie’s well-known characters, but succeeds only in killing the magic of the original and throwing all charm and wonder to the crocodiles.

In depth:
When approaching an adaptation, one should always keep an open mind and analyze it on its own merits, apart from the original that inspired it.  This is risky, to be sure, as every adaptation carries the potential to be either a spectacular success or a momentous flop, but the fairest and most logical view should be that of neutrality, and a good-natured trust in the filmmaker’s own creative vision.  Unfortunately, this very openness leaves the resulting failure all the more painful, for Joe Wright, whatever his intent in crafting Pan, falls far short of the mark, getting lost in a murky fog of glaring CG and confounding action sequences, and drowned in a hum of overacting, stale deliveries, and bizarre anachronisms in musical choice.  The resulting concoction is a poison to Barrie’s legacy and the movie world as a whole, and though not the worst thing to blight the screen this century, has certainly left the worst kind of impression for both long-time Pan fans and newcomers alike.

The story kicks us off in the most conventional and cliched way possible; a baby left on the steps of an orphanage by his surprisingly nimble young mother, his only link to her, a letter, a piece of jewelry, and the inevitable promise to come back and see him “one day.”  Wright and his crew do away with all pretenses of subtlety and finesse right from the get go; the infant Peter - and by extension, the audience - are given the full “chosen one” shebang - even before the meat of the plot starts to pickle.  This is a lazy move full stop, and can make or break story progression based on the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief.  Despite this major slip, the first few scenes of this movie were more or less the best in the entire flick, giving young Levi Miller a chance to flex his acting chops and paint a unique portrait of Peter as a vulnerable yet silently courageous child, sparkling with a surprising degree of charm.  I am sad to say that this is the best development we see of any actor of the film, and despite Miller’s tolerable effort, the overwrought brutishness and ridiculous outfits of the nuns running his orphanage blotted any light the young actor could generate.

Things only went south from there, for after the plot gained a bit of traction and finally sets off, we’re bereft of even the simple joy of Miller’s modest efforts and thrust head first into an unrecognizable Neverland.  Anyone expecting a magical romp through archetypes of boyhood wonder and whimsy are soon disillusioned by a dreary world of industrial mining and forced labor, all presided over by Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard, living it up in the hammiest performance I’ve seen him in to date.  I usually enjoy Jackman’s brand of tough-guy machismo blended with whatever is required of the script, but this time, he goes a little too far, wallowing in an overplayed corporate cynicism when he isn’t screaming his lines at the tops of his lungs over the blaring, anachronistic rifts of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit,” courtesy of his collective mine slaves, as the pirate ship ferrying Peter docks to unload its latest human cargo.  

I want this image to sink in for a minute: a crowd of dirty slave miners, most of them children, all cheering as a flying pirate ship makes landfall, and the flamboyantly-dressed pirate king stands dramatically before them...with everyone chanting the lyrics for an alt rock anthem from the 90s.  Never before has a movie scene made me convulse with actual emotional pain, but that’s not even the worst of it.  Regardless of your status as an adaptation and your relationship to the source material, as a fantasy film, Wright’s main mission is to maintain his world’s fragile grasp on the audience’s wonder - and hence, their suspension of disbelief.  I can understand, on some level, why the filmmakers made the choices they had which resulted in the wide-as-a-mountain deviations from the books; the miners, and Blackbeard’s arbitrary rules on promotions and “demotions” (read: executions) are probably meant to mirror the adult world’s drudgery, and set up Peter’s refusal to grow up.  That much is clear, though still a poorly executed waste of potential that fails to factor into Peter’s predestination plot.  However, the Nirvana chorus line has no fricking place in the film whatsoever, and I can’t imagine what, if anything, it was supposed to coax out of me besides my bile.  All it shows is that Wright and company have no understanding of their genre or what it’s meant to convey - an assessment held up as the movie progresses.

After this early nosedive, the story never regains its balance, helped least of all by the introduction of new characters - Rooney Mara as a static Tiger Lily, and of course, Garrett Hedlund’s “rendition” of a young James Hook.  I don’t know what they were going for when they took the suave yet brutal buccaneer and morphed him into a bizarre Indian Jones expy, but even all that aside, it could have worked if Hedlund didn’t drive the Pan Acting School’s theme of shouting your lines in the most exaggerated way possible to the absolute limit.  He was devoid of any depth or pizzazz, as heroic or cowardly as the plot demanded him to be, and was generally unlikable through it all.  To top it off, Pan’s place as an origin story effectively removes any tension or concern over his fate by the end, so we’re stuck staring at him longer than most of us would care to. Catching a glimpse of how Peter and Hook - the archetypal nemeses of modern children’s literature - interacted before they became enemies was my main draw to this film.  However, the dearth of any meaningful interaction between the two, plus Hedlund’s abysmal failure as Hook in general, stripped me of my only real expectation, leaving me lost in Wright’s funhouse horror pit passed off as Neverland.

Beyond these massive stumbling points, Pan has little else to offer its audience.  The CGI was lame and unpleasant to look at, especially during the action sequences, which were all, bar the climactic battle, dull and plodding.   The whole thing left me scratching my head, wondering where the $150 million they apparently spent on this monstrosity actually went.  In fact, exact descriptives of any kind are hard for me to draw up, derivative and just plain boring as this film was.  The hamfisted lessons on childhood innocence and adult duplicity were simple-minded at best, and in either case got lost in the film's many other shortcomings.

This isn’t to say that everything in Pan was rage-inducing; a few of the gags worked, and the final battle was less objectionable than the ones preceding it.  But that’s all to it, really, and even then, some of the continuity-related asides -  like Hook’s fear of crocodiles, or his and Peter’s future as mortal enemies - are told with all the subtlety of a jack-knife to the skull, signalling the filmmakers’ poor grasp of humor, timing - or anything else, to be honest.  Pan isn’t just a “bad movie” - those can at least be enjoyable on some level.  It fails hard in multiple ways: as an engaging origin story for a collection of beloved characters; as a fantasy film, providing healthy escape through the element of wonder; and even, more broadly, as a lesson in storytelling, proving unable to even get the done-to-death hero’s journey right.  While I believe that few things are beyond redemption, Pan’s poor box office returns and total disservice to the very core of film makes the heavily hinted sequel unlikely this side of Neverland.

Grade: F

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

October Releases

October Releases

The first month of the Fall premieres has come and gone, giving us a general sense of how the rest of this season will play out.  There have been a few gems, a couple of duds, and many more I refrain from judging until I see more of what they got. On another note, theater season is back in swing, so between that, the movies, and the continual unfurling of the fall line up, October promises to be an interesting month.






See you at the movies!