Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 9

The last weekend kicks off with a 5 film Saturday. So with little introduction, here they are.

The early triple-bill was about painters.

THE LODGER (1944): Jack the Ripper story with Laird Cregar as the creepy gentleman pathologist who rents rooms in a house. Instead of prostitutes (production code, those don't exist,) he kills actresses. Instead of a maniac he's portrayed as a tortured soul, avenging his artistic brother (the "painter" element of the film) who was done in by his love for an actress. The story, production, cinematography are great. But it's Laird Cregar's perfect balance of menace, pathos, and erudition that makes this movie.

BLUEBEARD (1944): This is almost the same Jack the Ripper story, just moved to France (Jacques the Ripper?) But Bluebeard is a French folk tale, and here Edgar G. Ulmer gives it the low-budget, B-movie treatment. John Carradine stars Gaston Morrell, a charming puppeteer whose business is slow because nobody wants to be outside, what with the murderous Bluebeard out there. Lucille (Jean Parker) takes a liking to them, and they become friends...and maybe more. She volunteers to help him make costumes for his next show. Meanwhile her sister Francine (Teala Loring) comes to town. Her boyfriend (Nils Asther) is the inspector searching for Bluebeard. Clues are pointing to art dealer Jean Lamarte (Ludwig Stossel)--not as the killer but as someone who knows the killer. The killer might just be a mysterious painter whose work Lamarte has sold before. So a trap is set, and...well, everything ends in a very noir manner. A nice little low-budget flick.

SCARLET STREET (1945): And then Fritz Lang's brilliant adaptation of the French novel "The Bitch" (translated into English as "The Poor Sap.") Joan Bennett plays the bitch of the French title, Kitty March. And Edward G. Robinson is really the poor sap, Christopher Cross. He works as a cashier in a bank, and the film opens with him being honored for 25 years of service. On his way home, he sees a girl being roughed up by a guy. Turns out that's Kitty March, and the guy is her boyfriend pimp (okay, kinda both) Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea, at his oiliest best.) Chris "saves" her, and becomes infatuated with her, despite being old enough to be her father. Oh, and also being married, to Adele (Rosalind Ivan) who, come to think of it, might be the real bitch in the story. Kitty leads Chris on, just to get his money. See, he paints on the side, just for fun, and sort of let her believe he's a famous artist whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars in Europe (never appreciated in your own country, of course.) And so begins a long affair of Kitty taking advantage of him, and me silently screaming "Dammit! Why are you such a sap!" Oh, it's a great movie, it just made me very uncomfortable and I kept waiting for him to finally grow a spine, see what's going on, and take his revenge. And when he does, I was the first of many in the audience who burst into applause. But that's not the end, that's not noir enough. The ending is even more brilliantly dark than that.

Then there was a break before the evening shows, long enough for me to grab a little dinner and a beer, and still be back to the mezzanine in time for a cocktail. 

And then the evening show was all about Ballet Noir.

THE RED SHOES (1948): Okay, many times this festival we've stretched the definition of noir. In conversations with other patrons, there's kind of a mixed reaction to that. The "art" theme has taken precedence over the genre, and some people have a problem with that. For the record, I don't. Especially when the outside-the-genre selections are this freakin' great. In the opening scenes, a group of students barge into the balcony as soon as the opera doors open. They're excited to see the opera their professor wrote. But shortly in, one student Julian Craster (Marius Goring) quickly recognizes the score as something he wrote himself. Meanwhile the opera owner Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) is cajoled into attending a party where he is supposed to meet the hostess' talented dancer daughter Victoria Page (Moira Shearer, who really is a dancer, not an actress playing one.) While Lermontov doesn't like being bothered like this, he does give both Page and Craster a chance for small parts with the opera. Craster coaches the orchestra, Page...well, hangs around with other young, inexperienced dancers waiting to be noticed. And eventually she is, and eventually Craster's musical genius is recognized, and Lermontov assigns him to write the score to the Hans Andersen story of The Red Shoes--magical shoes that keep on dancing even after the wearer is too tired to go on. And the centerpiece performance of the ballet's opening night is sheer brilliance. Not just a great ballet, but one of the most sublime sequences of cinema ever, as movie magic transforms the stagy ballet into the dream world of the performers (and maybe even the audience.) Seriously, I've spent most of the last night just thinking about that ballet scene. Well, from there Craster and Page are rising stars. And, to the displeasure of Lermontov--lovers. And that's when it turns from a glorious story of the rise of great artists into a tragedy. And dare I say...a little noir-ish. I don't care if you categorize this as noir or not. Arguments over definitions are the purview of small, pointless minds. This is a great movie, and that's all that matters.

SPECTER OF THE ROSE (1946): And then for those who want real noir, and real weirdness, this was a pallet cleanser to the Technicolor brilliance of THE RED SHOES. Good ol' black-and-white is back, and Ben Hecht wrote and directed. But the struggle to make (and finance) great art is still there. Michael Chekhov is Max Polikoff, an opera producer who owes money all over town. Along with Madame La Sylph (Judith Anderson) they will put on the titular opera. A story of a woman who falls asleep with a rose, and dreams that it turns into her lover. All they need is a great dancer, Andre Sanine (Ivan Kirov.) Too bad he's suspected of murdering his wife. Sure, she died of a heart attack...on stage...while performing with him. But in his psychotic delusions he believes he's responsible, and when you can't stop yelling about how you killed her, the police get curious. Eh, it's all just in his head, and young dancer Haidi (Viola Essen) helps him snap out of it...kinda. He's still psychotic, but more often than not he's fine. So the opera will be an artistic triumph...or it might lead to a little bit of death. But one things for certain, Lionel Gans (Lionel Stander) will look like a tough guy but wax floridly poetic through the whole thing. He's awesome. This film is awesome. 

Total Running Time: 482 minutes
My Total Minutes: 416,368

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 8

Last Friday was dedicated to Hollywood's take on Hollywood

THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952): Kirk Douglas is Jonathon Shields, Hollywood producer, head of his own studio. In the opening scenes we don't see him, we see his old collaborators--director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan,) actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner,) and writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell.) Shields is on the phone, trying to talk them into making a new picture. Only Bartlow will even answer the phone, and that's just to tell him to go to hell. Seems he has a past with all of them. A past that involves friendship turning sour as he double-crosses each of them in turn. All in the cause of inflating his name...and in making great pictures. And that's the key, he got his start making low-budget pictures for Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) who now works for him. The framing device for the story is a meeting in Pebbel's office. And we learn that while Shields is an arrogant, credit-stealing, back-stabbing, cheating swindler...we also learn that he made great pictures in the past, and made each and every one of them into a star. Their careers were good working with Shields, and have been great since. So what's the big problem about working with him again? This is Hollywood's perverted love letter to itself, admitting it's personal faults while also pointing out that quite often those faults lead to some really great pictures.

THE BIG KNIFE (1955): And then this one is all about Hollywood's faults. Based on a stage play by Clifford Odets, who was not shy about his hatred for Hollywood. Jack Palance plays movie star Charlie Castle, a man living with the tragedy of having a dream, compromising on it, but still holding on to it. He's a big Hollywood star, but his life is managed by the studio, and ultimately the studio head Stanley Shriner Hoff (Rod Steiger.) His personal life is falling apart, as he's separated from his wife (Ida Lupino, providing some small measure of sanity) and son. And there's a bit of a hidden scandal in his past that makes him susceptible to pressure from all sides. There's not a heroic character in the entire cast (a mark of true noir) and the ending is depressing and perfect. The point couldn't have been clearer if it was 90 minutes of Odets' middle finger with his voice screaming "This is for you, Hollywood!" And I love it.

Total Running Time: 227 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,886

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 7

Thursday has become the traditional night of weirdness at Noir City, and last Thursday brought it to a new level, with nightclub act noir.

SCREAMING MIMI (1958): Based on a Frederic Brown novel, this story is insane. We start with a young woman, Virgina Wilson (Anita Ekberg) narrowly escaping an attack by an escaped mental patient. That puts her in the mental asylum herself, where after much treatment, she is released into the demanding, obsessive care of her doctor/lover/controller. She goes back to work as an exotic dancer at a nightclub called (I'm not kidding) El Madhouse, run by Joan 'Gypsy' Masters (Gypsy Rose Lee.) And her dance is...something else. And then there's a plot about a statuette she owns of a screaming woman (actually, based on her screaming at the beginning of the film) and the fact that a similar nightclub dancer was murdered while in possession of an identical statuette. And the killer seems to be after her. Yeah, this is a strange, strange film.

MICKEY ONE (1965): And then the really strange, strange film of the night. Starring a very young Warren Beatty, and directed by Arthur Penn (they would next team up to make a little film called BONNIE AND CLYDE.) The story is film noir, the cinematography is French New Wave, and the style is surrealism. Beatty plays the titular character, a nightclub comic who somehow crosses the boss and is in trouble for his life. It's unclear whether he owes money from the craps table, or if he put the moves on the wrong girl, or if it's just that he's a lousy comedian. In any case, he goes from living the high life in Detroit to riding the rails as a bum to living on the streets in Chicago to actually becoming a nightclub comic again and perhaps drawing a little bit too much attention to himself. As some big shots from Detroit want to see him perform in a special private audition. Beatty is great as the mixture of fear, drunkenness, and wisecracking. And the style...well, don't try too hard to follow it. Let it wash over you. I have to admit, for the first half I thought it was the greatest thing ever. Then it got to be a bit exhausting. I think I love this movie. I think I'm obsessed with this movie. I need to watch it again when I'm better rested to make sure my love and obsession are not misplaced.

Total Running Time: 172 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,659

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 6

I skipped day 5 (Tuesday) because...well, I was cheating on Noir City with a different film festival. It was the Cinequest media launch, and I just had to be there. By the way, check out the Cinequest trailer.

But on Wednesday I was back for a double bill of Doris Day.

LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955): The Ruth Etting story, as a musical melodrama, in bright colors. I don't care if that doesn't sound entirely noir, it's a great picture and Doris Day is great in it. She plays Ruth Etting, who stars as a dance-hall girl and works her way up to be the biggest recording star of the 20s. James Cagney stars opposite her as Martin "Gimpy" Snyder, a gangster with a limp who runs the laundry racket in all the Chicago nightclubs. And who takes an interest in her and uses his muscle to put her on stage. And it turns out she's good. Really good. Like good enough that you can manage her legitimately and let her become a star based on talent. But that's not Gimpy's way. It becomes a story of him suddenly not being the great man who calls all the shots, and he doesn't like it one bit. Great (true) story, great acting, great soundtrack, everything is just great.

YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (1950): This is practically the jazz variant of HUMORESQUE from the other night. But instead of John Garfield we get Kirk Douglas. And instead of a violin with get a trumpet. And instead of a classical music we get jazz. And while there is a love triangle with him, Doris Day, and Lauren Bacall (who is pretty clearly bisexual) his ultimate love is always his music. Music his way, without compromises. Which makes it really hard for him to keep a job in a dance band, much less keep a relationship with a human. Well, except maybe his buddy and pianist Smoky (Hoagy Carmichael.)  Fantastic.

Total Running Time: 234 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,487

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 4

Last Monday was Humphrey Bogart night. Excellent!

IN A LONELY PLACE (1950): Bogart is Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter. He's also got a bit of a drinking problem, and a bigger anger problem. He's given a book to try to adapt, and he brings a coat-check girl home from the club to tell him the story (he overhears that she has read it.) It's all innocent, and she leaves relatively early. But the next morning there's a problem--she's been killed, shoved out of a car down a canyon. And Dixon is the prime suspect. Gloria Grahame as his neighbor Laurel Gray comes to his rescue as his alibi. And then as his friend, lover, muse, fiance... But the cops keep putting the screws on him, and the strain gets to be too much. She sees a bit of his temper, and starts wondering if maybe he does have it in himself to kill... Excellent acting, a well crafted story and character study of the near-psychotic man.

THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS (1947): Hey, I've seen this one before...at Noir City. Let's take a look at what I said back then:

Bogart plays Geoff Carroll, an American painter in England. He falls for his sketch model Sally Morton (Barbara Stanwyck) while on a trip to Scotland. Only problem is he's married. But his wife dies, even though he took such great care of her, bringing her milk and everything. The new Mrs Carroll works out fine, until he starts acting weird. Maybe it's just exhaustion from his latest masterpiece, or maybe it's their new neighbor Alexis Smith (Cecily Latham), who flirts with him pretty hard. Bogart always bring something interesting to his roles, and dances across the line from calculating and insane fairly nicely (love the ending). In fact, all the acting is great, especially his creepily mature young daughter Bea (Ann Carter). It is more than a little daffy--it got many big laughs, not all of which were intentional. And it sometimes falls into self-parody, like when Bogart meets his wife's ex-boyfriend and announces "This looks like the start of a beautiful hatred." Fun for a laugh, but the uneven tone takes away from the greatness this story and this cast could've created.

Yup, that still sounds about right. Especially the creepily mature daughter part. What fun.

Total Running Time: 193 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,253

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 3

Two movies last Sunday, as the art theme of the day was classical music.

DECEPTION (1946): Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis) and Karel Novak (Paul Henreid) are old lovers and musicians. She thought he had died in the war, but it turns out he's alive. And that's wonderful...and complicated. Because see, while Karel was away and thought dead, she had hooked up with famous composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains, who is the true star of the picture. Oh yeah, and with Henreid and Rains, it's a mini CASABLANCA reunion.) And Karel...he's the jealous type. But he has nothing but admiration for Hollenius' work, and knows he's the only cellist talented enough to play his new composition. And so Hollenius has some power over them both, and a power he wields with delicious wickedness, twisting them in the wind, knowing just how to destroy them in the best possible way.

HUMORESQUE (1946): John Garfield stars as Paul Boray, a kid from the slums, son of a shop owner who has a talent for classical music. Joan Crawford co-stars as Helen Wright, a socialite born with a silver flask in her mouth, who takes a liking to Paul and helps him become a star. But the whole show is stolen by Oscar Levant as Sid Jeffers, a wise-cracking pianist (that "silver flask" line is his) and Paul's oldest friend. There's a love triangle, with Paul going for the completely unstable Helen Wright over the nice Gina (Joan Chandler) who is his friend from the music institute. And the acting is all top-notch, but I didn't care. I just cracked up any time Sid Jeffers spoke, and wanted more of that. Maybe there's not much of a story if there's nothing but a wise-cracking pianist making jokes. But it was all I could think about afterwards.

Total Running Time: 240 minutes
My Total Minutes: 415,060

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 2

Four more movies on Saturday, including an amazing double bill of foreign noir. But first, a double bill about art collectors

THE DARK CORNER (1946): We started the day with this unsubtle near-parody of noir. Mark Stevens is Bradford Galt, a private eye who set up shop in New York after some unpleasant business back in San Francisco. His secretary/love interest is Kathleen Stewart, played by none other than Lucille Ball (who went on to say that making this movie was the worst time in her life, mostly due to the bullying of director Henry Hathaway.) William Bendix plays the ruffian, and Clifton Webb is the villain, gallery owner and jealous husband Hardy Cathcart. His wife has fallen into the arms of another man, and in true Hollywood style he (the other man, not Cathcart) happens to be the source of the trouble Bradford had back in San Francisco. So an elaborate plot is sprung to frame Bradford for murder. And in a convoluted plot he--with the help of Kathleen--has to stay alive, prove his innocence, and catch the bad guy. Oh, and make fun of high society art snobs while they're at it.

CRACK-UP (1946): At night, a man breaks into an art gallery, raving mad, and starts wrecking the place. Turns out that man is George Steele (Pat O'brien) who is an art expert who lectures at that very gallery. To keep the scandal out of the paper, they don't press charges. But his story makes no sense. It starts with surviving a train crash...only the records for all the train companies show no crashes that night--none for months, in fact. He seems to be losing his mind. Which is awful convenient, considering the board was already considering firing him for his shocking lectures that have led to riots in the gallery (yeah, there was a time and a place when people cared that much about art.) But there's more going on, a complicated international plot of theft and forgeries, and Steele has to get to the bottom of it, even if everyone else thinks he's dangerously deranged. Well, that was a lot of fun.

Then a long break, where I had time to get a little food and a little drink, and back for some international noir.

LOS TALLOS AMARGOS (THE BITTER STEMS) (1956): From Argentina, this uncovered gem made it's North American debut at the Castro last night, only 60 years after it was made. Brilliantly shot, it has the noir-est of noir plots--absolutely no heroes. A small time newspaperman has a crisis of confidence, thinking he has done nothing worthwhile with his life. When a European barman befriends him, they hatch a plot to make a ton of money with a shady correspondence course on journalism (actually, the course may well be above-board, except for the promises of a lucrative, exciting, powerful journalism career--he knows full well being a reporter is a shitty job.) And the scam works, pretty soon the checks are rolling in. And he has a sense of purpose--not in the scam itself, but in the fact that he's helping his friend raise the money to bring his family to Argentina. Especially his son Jarvis. But friends make him consider whether or not he's actually being played. Is there a family at all? Or is his "friend" playing him, planning to steal their fortune and leave him holding the bag? Well he has to find out...and he does. He overhears a conversation that convinces him his friend is scamming him. And so he takes steps to...get rid of the problem. And then Jarvis shows up. Okay, I could see the twist from some ways away, but it doesn't make it any less thrilling, and the photography, acting, story, and ending are all top-notch noir.

FLICKA OCH HYACINTER (GIRL WITH HYACINTHS) (1950): And we ended the night in Sweden, with this movie that Ingmar Bergman called perfection, and who am I to argue? We start with a small party, people laughing, drinking, playing music. And Dagmar Brink (Eva Henning,) a lovely blond lady, goes home and promptly kills herself. She leaves behind no family, no close friends, and all her possessions are left to the writer who lives across the hall, even though he and his wife hardly knew her. But they go on a search to figure out who was Dagmar Brink, and why did she kill herself. And they meet many acquaintances--a lover, a husband, a father (maybe,) and a musician in stories that eventually tie together. Although the clues mean different things to the husband and the wife. And I can't say anymore, I would spoil it. I'll just say that while I guessed at the twist of the ending, it was still immensely satisfying.

Total Running Time: 371 minutes
My Total Minutes: 414,819

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Jason goes to Noir City--Day 1

My favorite party of the year started last night. Here's to Eddie Muller! Here's to this year's Miss Noir City Aja De Coudreaux! And especially here's to Four Roses Bourbon! Oh yeah, and here's to the movies!

REAR WINDOW (1954): What can you say about this classic that hasn't been said before? It's brilliant. Perhaps Hitchcock's best (although there are so many, that's hard to pin down.) The tableau outside James Stewart's Greenwich Village apartment is varied and fascinating. The film is both/either a voyeuristic extravaganza and a moral indictment of voyeurism. And with Eddie Muller's introduction I caught on to the fact that the heroes are artists and the villain is a salesman--all about making money, while James Stewart's character often lives paycheck-to-paycheck. In Eddie's words, (badly paraphrased by me) "The lifeblood of society is money. But the lifeblood of culture is art!" Plus, it's just a wonderfully told, funny, exciting, thrilling story. What a way to start the festival.

THE PUBLIC EYE (1992): I did a bit of a double-take when I say a 90s movie playing at Noir City. Leave it to the Czar of Noir to expand and challenge our definitions. It's not a 40s or 50s flick, but this is noir through-and-through. Based on the legendary photographer Weegee (who I confess I didn't know about before, but someday when I have a spare hour I'll watch Eddie Muller's talk about him.) They didn't have the rights to the name, so Joe Pesci's character becomes The Great Bernzini. He's a great photographer, the eye of New York, who manages to get to the crime scenes often before the cops do. And he isn't above maybe moving a body a little bit to make it a little prettier (especially to make sure their hat is in frame--people love seeing the dead guy's hat.) He knows all the important cops, and also all the important gangsters--and he doesn't take sides. But when a beautiful dame (Barbara Hershey) is having trouble with the mob and the nightclub she inherited, he gets involved. Maybe to do her a favor. Or maybe just to get some great photos. 

I barely remember when this was in theaters, and I don't think it did to well when it came out. But Joe Pesci is great in it, there's a good story, and thank you to Eddie Muller for teaching me--and I assume a heck of a lot of other people in the audience last night--about this almost forgotten gem.

Total Running Time: 214 minutes
My Total Minutes: 414,448

Jason Watches THE BIG SHORT

That was a surprisingly funny, breezy story of financial shenanigans, a broken system, and the few men who saw what was happening and made a fortune on it. You know, these guys shouldn't really be the heroes, they made a fortune on the collapse of the U.S. economy. But they're also presented as the only ones who could see what was happening because they weren't blinded by greed and the promise of an easy buck. I'm not sure I understand the financial collapse any better after the movie than I did in the beginning. And the movie acknowledges this. The system collapsed in part because shenanigans were specifically pulled to make sure you couldn't understand what was going on. But I did appreciate the running joke of different ways to try to explain it, ranging from Margot Robbie in a bathtub to Anthony Bourdain in the kitchen to Selena Gomez and...I forget who, some guy who's supposed to be really smart at a blackjack table. About as much fun as mathematics and financial collapse could possibly be.

Running Time: 130 minutes
My Total Minutes: 414,234

Jason Watches SPOTLIGHT

And that was about as thrilling as a story of people looking at and writing about documents could be. And about as uplifting and inspiring as a movie about priests molesting children could be. The true story of the Boston Globe's Spotlight team--a 4 person crew of investigative journalists who dig deep into stories and spend the time to get the details and do it right. And an indictment not just of the church, but a wide-ranging system including law enforcement and the media (even the Globe itself) that turned a blind eye. Well done.

Running Time: 128 minutes
My Total Minutes: 414,104

Jason goes to Niles for a Baby Peggy Benefit Weekend

I'd seen almost all the movies this weekend before. But this was about helping out a wonderful lady, a woman I met at her 90th Birthday party, an excellent writer/Hollywood historian, and the last surviving silent film star. Diana Serra Cary, aka Baby Peggy.

Anyway, I'm not good at writing about how awesome a 97 year old lady is, or the conflict I have about whether I love her more as a 97 year old or as a 2 year old, so let's just get to the movies.

On Saturday Night

PEG O' THE MOUNTED (1924): Here's what I said the last time I saw it:
Peggy is playing beside a mountain cabin in Canada (actually Yosemite) when a wounded, exhausted Mountie shows up. After Peggy nurses him back to health, he explains that he was chasing some moonshiners. So now it's Peggy's job to track them down and bring them to justice.
Yeah, I guess that's technically true. Although I didn't say anything about how funny and cute it was. That's also important.

BABY PEGGY'S 90TH BIRTHDAY NEWSREEL (2009): This is the one movie of the weekend I hadn't seen before. And I was actually in it! Like I said, I first met her at her 90th Birthday. So it was really cool to finally see it! And I hadn't noticed that Vera Iwerebor was there shooting footage for her documentary BABY PEGGY, THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll just say great job by her of getting the footage without being distracting.

CAPTAIN JANUARY (1924): Another one I've seen over and over. Here's what I said the last time:
 I've seen this over and over again (starting with when I first met Diana six years ago at her 90th birthday party.) And it always gets me. The friendship between the Captain and Jeremiah Judkins (Hobart Bosworth.) The nosy busy-bodies trying to take her away. The tragedy, the comedy, and the beautiful ending. This film always gets me, and it's just beautiful. I like to think I would love it even if I wasn't friends with the star.
Well, I'll stick by that, other than failing to explain that "the Captain" is daddy Judkin's nickname for Baby Peggy's character, named after he found her washed up after a shipwreck (he's the lighthouse keeper, and she helps out now.)

On then on Sunday, I worked in the story during the day so I missed the screening of THE FAMILY SECRET (1924.) I had seen it a few times anyway.

But I did stick around for BABY PEGGY, THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. Again, I've seen it many times and own the DVD (which includes CAPTAIN JANUARY.) Here's what I said last time:
It's a nice overview of her career, but what makes it interesting is not the Baby Peggy part of her life but the Diana Serra Carey part of her life. See, far from a wonderful blessing, Baby Peggy for most of her life was something of a curse. This is very common for child stars (and Diana has chronicled this in her book Hollywood's Children--available here) She was very aware even at 18 months of age that she was working and the main breadwinner for her family. She lost her childhood (however much her parents insisted that she thought she was just playing make-believe) and her status as the breadwinner caused quite a lot of family tension. And it all became worse when her step-grandfather ran off with all the family's money.
You know...it's actually kind of hard for me to review this. It is, after all, the often sad life story of a woman who is now 93 years old, who I met at her 90th birthday party, and who I now consider a friend. I'm just very happy that her life has turned out well and Baby Peggy is enjoying a rediscovery and revival now.
Well, update 93 to 97. And I'd add that the scene where Diana's sister writes her a thank-you note always brings a tear to my eye. It's a beautiful scene, in a wonderful movie, about an exceptional woman.

Total Running Time: 131 minutes
My Total Minutes: 413,976

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Jason Watches THE GOOD DINOSAUR

But first there's a short SANJAY'S SUPER TEAM. A cute story (loosely autobiographical) about a little boy who loves his cartoon about superheroes, and his father who tries to teach him to meditate at his simple Hindu shrine. In his mind, the two worlds combine. This should have been the short in front of INSIDE OUT instead of THE GOOD DINOSAUR. And not just because it was soooo much better than that stupid singing volcano, but because there's a common theme of stories taking place inside a child's head.

So now to the feature. Well, as a friend of mine said, there's a reason it's not called The Great Dinosaur. A lot of it really is impressive. The landscapes are amazing, practically photo-realistic. Which clashes strangely with the crudely crafted characters. Even so, the characters are likable. In an alternate timeline, a meteorite did not destroy the dinosaurs, and they progresses at least as far as an agrarian society. A family of Apatosauruses run a farm. Momma and Poppa and their three kids, a prankster daughter, an athletic son, and...Arlo. Arlo is...a good dinosaur. He's just kind of a screw-up. Everyone else "makes their mark" but not him. In fact, instead of killing the critter (a dog-like human) that's eating their food stores, he has a heart and let's him go. And that launches a wacky adventure with Poppa dying, and Arlo and his human Spot trying to find their way home. There's a good--even great--setup here, and then...it all fizzles out. The ending...just kind of ends, and doesn't make a lot of sense. It reminds me a lot of Disney's BROTHER BEAR (2003) which had a lot of heart, was setup to be a beautifully emotional story, and then reeked of unmet potential. That was near the last of Disney's traditional animation features, and the fact that THE GOOD DINOSAUR reminds me of it is not a good sign for Disney/Pixar....

Total Running Time: 100 minutes
My Total Minutes: 413,845

Jason Watches THE REVENANT

And boy is it fun to watch Leonardo DiCaprio suffer!

In all seriousness, it's an exceptionally made movie, Leo is fantastic in it, and I expect it to get lots of awards. It's also absolutely brutal and hard to watch sometimes. I could try to describe the plot--Leo is a guide for a gang of trappers, has a native (Pawnee) wife and a half-native son who is helping him. The band is attacked by rival natives, he's attacked by a bear, a scumbag in the party agrees to watch over him but instead kills his son and leaves him for dead. And the rest of the movie is Leo struggling to survive, heal, and get his revenge. Wow, that was super spoiler-y, sorry. Except that the movie is so much more than the story. It's the visceral, vicious, brutal, uncompromising, unblinking look at his suffering and survival. It's brilliant, but I don't know if I can ever bring myself to watch it again.

Running Time: 156 minutes
My Total Minutes: 413,745

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Jason Watches STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS a third and fourth time (including in IMAX)

And this will be a totally spoiler-ful recap of my thoughts and feelings about nearly every scene. So be warned.

This is mostly by memory, from having seen the movie 4 times, but not taking notes in real-time (by the end of this article I was consulting a copy of the script a friend found on line and sent to me.) So a few things might be out of order, and as always there are bits I intended to mention but forgot at the time of writing.

Opening crawl. Luke Skywalker has vanished. Well, that explains why he's not in the promotional material, and it looks like the main macguffin is about finding Luke. Cool. Also "Empire" becomes "First Order" and "Rebels" becomes "Resistance." Haters are complaining about how derivative this is. Maz Kanata will later explain how there's a cycle of dark side--the Sith, the Empire, and now The First Order, but I'm jumping ahead of myself. In brief, I'm with Maz Kanata--history repeats itself, and that's an intentional motif of this film, not a weakness.

Star Destroyer shadow over the planet. Nice.

Other than a phalanx of nameless Stormtroopers, BB-8 is the first character introduced. This sentient soccer ball will consistently upstage everyone else in the movie. And that's not a slight against the actors, that's a comment on how cool BB-8 is.

Max Von Sydow gets the first line in the movie: "This will start to make things right." Then he's killed off quickly. I want to know more about Lor San Tekka. Seems like he has an interesting backstory.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, the best Resistance pilot. Cool. He's got the skills, and the swagger. I like him.

The First Order attacks. Poe's X-wing is damaged. He's done for, but puts the map to Skywalker in BB-8. Now BB-8 is guaranteed to be the center of the film.

In the fight, we see one Stormtrooper become hesitant after his buddy is gunned down and smears a bloody handprint on his helmet (nice way to recognize him.) That's actually some great acting-- showing the fear, the second-guessing, etc. without the benefit of using your face. I'm still impressed by this every time. Kudos to John Boyega, impressive acting before we ever see his face.

By the way, the guy who gunned down his buddy happens to be...Poe Dameron, the guy who later becomes his BFF. I imagine sometime later, Finn and Poe are at a bar, shooting the breeze, talking about how they met. Finn starts talking about the battle that turned him against the First Order, and how it started with his buddy getting killed. Finn says, "I know I'm on the other side now, but I just wish I could get my hands on the bastard who did that!" And Poe is thinking 'Oh shit! Should I tell him? No, don't say anything...'

Kylo Ren appears. He makes for an interesting villain. Haters are disappointed, but I think they're missing the point. He is not the bad-ass that Vader was (at least when we first see him in the original STAR WARS.) He has raw strength with the force, but not great control. In fact, if you go by the theory that the Force is a finite resource, the fact that he's nearly the only one using it makes him strong, but not necessarily skilled. More on this later.

In any case, after a brief exchange establishing that he and Lor San Tekka know each other (and that his family connection is important) he strikes him down.

Poe shoots at Ren, and HOLY CRAP HE JUST FORCE-STOPPED A BLASTER BOLT! (and Poe.) Again, he's strong, but not subtle. Also, this is kind of an excuse for more lens flares. This is, after all, a J.J. Abrams movie.

"Who talks first? Do I talk first?" Lol. This is kinda stretching the comic relief factor, but I love it as part of Poe's cocky swagger.

Kill all the villagers. Finn doesn't fire. He's realizing not just that war is hell, but he's on the wrong side of it.

Back to the Star Destroyer. On the 4th time through, I was keeping an eye out specifically for wipe effects. This is the first one I noticed. J.J. Abrams has certainly changed the visual style plenty (even beyond the copious lens flares.) Visually, this is J.J. Abrams movie more than a STAR WARS movie. But at least he kept this nod to the originals (which, of course, was itself a nod to Kurosawa.)

We finally see Finn (still FN-2187) without his helmet. And Captain Phasma giving him some shit. He's gonna be in trouble!

Now let's go back to Jakku and introduce Rey. A scavenger among the ruins from the end of the last war. Star Destroyers, AT-ATs, pod racers, etc. are half-buried in the sand, and she collects parts, cleans them up, and turns them in to Unkar Plutt (unseen Simon Pegg cameo!) for "portions" (food rations.)

My fellow burners will immediately recognize Niima Outpost as Center Camp. Don't know if that's intentional, but I always laugh at it.

She lives in a fallen AT-AT, she has a handmade rebel pilot doll, a rebel pilot helmet, and all sorts of other artifacts. Later moments of recognition will confirm that she's heard stories, legends of the battle between the Rebellion and the Empire, and that's set up visually from the start.

Rey rescues BB-8 from Teedo. Yay! Two of our heroes meet! She tries to give him directions, but he follows her home. Congratulations Rey, you have a pet soccer ball!

Back at Niima, she can't get a good price for her scavenged parts, but Unkar offers her a fortune for the droid. No sale. So Unkar will steal it. Kind of pointless plot-wise, but sets up an important positive element of Rey's character.

But first, back to the Star Destroyer. Kylo Ren interrogates Poe. By which I mean he reads his mind, because that's something force users can do now. Now both sides know to look for BB-8.

Finn rescues Poe. I love this exchange:
     Poe Dameron: Why are you helping me?
     Finn: Because it's the right thing to do.
     Poe Dameron: You need a pilot!
     Finn: I need a pilot.
Finn is becoming a hero. In fact, he's becoming my favorite--an ordinary guy, who finds himself on the wrong side of a fight, and has the moral courage to switch. People of conscience are more valuable than people who are strong in the Force. But right now, he's still conflicted on 'doing the right thing' vs. 'just getting the fuck away from there.'

They steal a tie fighter. The tie fighter shooting up the interior of the Star Destroyer bay is pretty fucking cool.

Finn is a natural gunner, Poe is one hell of a pilot, they make a good team. This is also where Finn officially gets his name.

They're hit, they crash, oh no! Back on Jakku, Finn has ejected and survived. This is one shot that bugs me every time. He sees the smoke of the tie fighter way in the distance, then in the next shot he's running right up to it. I understand it adds nothing to show a minute of him walking over towards it, but it results in weird time/space distortion in my mind.

Anyway, Poe's nowhere to be found, but his jacket is. And then the tie fighter sinks into the sand, and then explodes. We're led to believe Poe is dead, but I didn't believe that for a minute. Let's call that whole thing a weak-ish scene. But the fact is Finn's story is what's important now, not Poe's.

BTW, haters have complained that after surviving the crash Poe apparently just went back to the Resistance base rather than searching for BB-8. This is allegedly a plot hole. Except it's not. When they're reunited later, Poe tells Finn he ejected and then woke up at night. By then, Finn, Rey, and BB-8 were off the planet. He could've searched for them and found someone who saw them leave, so he knew it was useless to stay on Jakku.

Finn makes it to town, and there's a gag (literally) about him drinking from the same pool as a disgusting giant snout-monster. That was pretty funny.

Finn sees Rey attacked by Unkar Plutt's goons. He gets up and starts to run to her rescue. His latent good-guy instincts are awakening.

But she's a bad-ass and fights them off. Then BB-8 fingers him, recognizing Poe's jacket. A brief chase, and Rey clobbers Finn with her staff. Also BB-8 electrocutes him. I love all the little gadgets BB-8 has hidden inside.

Finn tells how Poe didn't make it. I love the downcast motion BB-8 makes. Droids have often been the best part of STAR WARS filmmaking, especially in how much character and emotion they can communicate with just motion and beeps. BB-8 is fantastic at this. It makes me wonder if they not only studied the droids in the previous movies, but also studied one of my favorite movies ever--WALL-E.

Stormtroopers, run! The joke of Finn taking Rey's hand and her objecting might be a little overplayed, but I still like it. Shhh...Tie Fighters, run some more!

And finally, after introducing 4 great heroes and one fascinating villain, we get our first introduction to a classic original trilogy character--the Millenium Falcon! The joke that it's "garbage" telegraphs what you're about to see, but it's timed great and I still get chills every time I see it.

Flight, and fight. A kick-ass escape/dogfight scene. And cool, BB-8 has little cables he can shoot out to secure himself!

Both Rey and Finn are impressed with their abilities, also they're starting to like each other. Interesting that they're both impressed with their abilities. I think an overlooked element is that Finn is finding himself to be kind of a surprising badass almost as much as Rey is. I wouldn't be surprised to find he has a little bit of the Force in him, too. Not that I necessarily want that, I think he's a cool character even without a single midichlorian, but I wouldn't be at all surprised or disappointed to learn that he's at least a little bit of a Force user.

Back to Kylo Ren--an officer tells him that the droid escaped, with the help of FN-2187 and an unknown girl. He goes apeshit destructive with his lightsaber on a compute console. Wow, like crazy, unhinged destructive! There's a lot of anger in him, and not a lot of control. He's becoming more interesting.

The Millenium Falcon, as always, is fucking falling apart. While fixing it, Finn confesses to BB-8 that he's not actually with the Resistance (oh yeah, earlier he had told Rey he was.) But they come to an agreement anyway. I mention this only because BB-8's thumbs-up with a lighter makes me grin every time.

Then they're trapped in a tractor beam, and...Han Solo and Chewbacca are back! Their entrance still thrills me every time. "Chewie, we're home!" Damn straight!

Finn knows of Han Solo as a rebel and war hero. Rey knows Han Solo as a famous smuggler. That's funny. And, of course, she knows the Millenium Falcon did the Kessel Run in 14 12 parsecs. Still makes me laugh.

Mention Luke Skywalker to Han, he gets all serious and nostalgic. I love seeing Han Solo have the same nostalgia as the audience--that really gets me in this scene.

Two different gangs confront Han Solo, and we're on a collision course with wackiness. Rathtars escape and there's a big old action sequence. Just pure visual, visceral thrills. But in terms of moving the plot forward, it puts Han and Chewie on the Falcon with Rey, Finn, and BB-8 heading to the Resistance, and it informs the First Order of this fact.

Ren and Hux talking to Snoke. I forget, is this the first time we see Snoke? Anyway, he's big as fuck, until we realize he's just a hologram. Can't wait to learn more about him. There are already ridiculous fan theories about him (e.g., he's Darth Plagueis, or even Darth Vader) but I'll just wait to find out. Anyway, Andy Serkis continues being the master of acting without being on screen.

Also, giant reveal, Han Solo is Kylo Ren's father! And Snoke and Ren know this will present a major challenge for him. Interesting reversal that they talk about being seduced by the light side of the Force. I like that more each time.

In the meantime, Hux prepares to use their super-weapon. Oh yeah, we have our first views of Starkiller Base. A planet with a giant weapon built into it. Yes, it's a Death Star rehash. Or rather, as sequels often do, it's modeled on the giant weapon in the first movie, but bigger and badder this time. We will soon see how much.

Back on the Millenium Falcon, travelling to Maz Kanata's bar. Rey again proves to be a bad-ass by fixing the Falcon--bypassing the compressor (ripping it out.) I love the dynamic between her and Han. He's obviously impressed. Han has always been a great audience surrogate in the films, and what was missing most in the prequels.

We get the first look at that map that BB-8 is carrying. And...it's not complete. Han is again nostalgic about Luke, and we get the mention of the first Jedi Temple.

Back to Kylo Ren. Talking to and seeking strength from the charred remains of Darth Vader's helmet and skull. I don't care about how he got it (which is something that seems to bug the haters) I just love that he has it. And he calls it "grandfather."

Takodana, "I never thought there was this much green in the whole galaxy." Nice line. Rey's sense of wonder poking through her orphaned survivor shell is one of my favorite themes of the film. Also, Han sees through Finn's "big deal" bullshit pretty quickly.

Now the only thing that really bugged me, and I didn't notice until the 4th viewing. When Han gives Rey her mini-blaster, she practices aiming by holding it out with her right hand but closing her right eye and aiming with her left. She shouldn't be able to hit shit like that.

On a personal note, this registered with me because I, myself, am right-handed but left-eye dominant. The first time I held a rifle as a young Boy Scout I made this exact mistake, rolling my head over as far as I could to aim with my left eye and right hand. I know there's plenty of material online for people with this condition about training yourself to aim and shoot with either your right eye or left hand, but after trying a bit of both, I was still a lousy shot and not having much fun, and that's why I don't own a gun today.

Anyway, we get to Maz Kanata's bar. Yes, it's a callback to Mos Eisley, but I love the idea that the galaxy is littered with strange bars where varieties of unsavory characters--even enemies--stop to unwind. Spies from both the Resistance and the First Order alert their masters that the droid they're searching for is there. There will soon be a battle there.

I like Maz Kanata. She has a relatively small role here, but is important as someone who has the wisdom of years. "I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people." Not only a cool line, but I think that's my go-to response to the haters who talk about it being derivative. Life is derivative, life is cyclical, history repeats itself. I said that before, and it bears repeating.

But first, "I like that Wookie" might be my favorite line of the movie.

Finn is still looking to get the heck out of there. Rey is confused, betrayed. Just before leaving, Finn comes clean--I'm not with the Resistance, I'm a Stormtrooper who defected. Also, I love you and come with me to the Outer Rim (not in so many words.) She doesn't go for it.

And now Annakin's/Luke's lightsaber calls to Rey. This is one of the most fascinating, mysterious scenes in the film. It took me a few times watching it to come to this conclusion, but I'm convinced her visions are not coming from the lightsaber itself. It's a conduit, maybe touching it opens a pathway for the visions, but I don't think they're originating from it. Follow me on this...

First vision: The hallway on Bespin, just before Luke's first duel with Vader. Okay, obviously the lightsaber was there for that. Along with both of it's previous owners.

Second vision: Burning temple, Luke's hand reaching out to touch R2D2. The lightsaber should not have been there. But Luke was.

Third vision: Kylo Ren and the Knights of Ren attacking, killing all of Luke's students. Again, the lightsaber wasn't there, but Luke was.

Fourth vision: Rey as a child being left with Unkar Plutt on Jakku. The lightsaber wasn't there. But...was Luke? Are these all Luke's memories, being transmitted to her through the lightsaber?

Theory: she was a student of Luke's, the only one in his Jedi nursery to survive the attack. Kind of the Harry Potter of this universe. And Luke himself hid her on Jakku, knowing that hiding on desert planets work because Sith hate sand (http://hellogiggles.com/darth-vader-plot-hole-star-wars/) Also, I don't think Luke is completely absent on his little island on a distant planet. I think he's actively but secretly reaching out with the Force, and manipulating events as best he can while staying hidden. R2D2 suddenly coming to life at the end (sorry for jumping ahead) is the strongest evidence for this, but it explains most of the vision sequence, too. And can explain a lot of how quickly she learns to use the Force...perhaps she's hearing a voice in her head, much as Luke heard Obi-Wan at the end of the original STAR WARS.

Anyway, Fifth vision: This gets even more interesting, as it's foreshadowing the ending of this movie and the fight in the snowy woods on Starkiller Base. It's a vision of the future, and now we have Obi-Wan's voice (actually a blend of Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness) calling to her and telling her these are her first steps. Well, it appears Luke isn't the only one reaching out to her through the conduit of the lightsaber. Obi-Wan's Force ghost is, too. Which leads to tantalizing theories about who else might be. After all, if it was Annakin's lightsaber, could there be some dark side forces reaching her, too? We'll have to wait for the next movies.

Anyway, all this is too much too fast, and Rey freaks and runs away. But not before Maz gets in a little more wisdom: "The belonging you seek is not behind you."

Back to Starkiller Base, and the super space-nazi rally. Holy crap that's a great scene, and Domnhall Gleeson throws himself into the role of Gen. Hux. He's great (have I mentioned how cool it is that he and Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron) were also in EX MACHINA, in very different roles. Anyway, they make great sci-fi opponents.)

Can we pause for a moment and consider how the super-weapon is a galactic-sized lens flare?

Also, let's gloss over the fact that people on Takodana can both see and hear this weapon from the surface of the planet. The Star Wars franchise has never been big on scientific accuracy, so let's just pretend this Galaxy Far, Far Away has slightly different physics. The important thing is everyone notices, especially Finn. He's no longer leaving for the outer rim. He cares more about finding Rey (yay, love!) And Maz hands him the lightsaber. That's his weapon for this battle.

Yes, Finn wielding the lightsaber is cool. The fight with stormtrooper TR-8R is cool.

And elsewhere, Rey actually can shoot with the wrong eye/hand combination? Actually, I like to think that's why she missed her first shot but corrected it on the second.

But in this whole battle, Han's love of Chewie's crossbow is the best part. Harrison Ford, who famously wanted to die either in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK or RETURN OF THE JEDI, is actually having fun still being a part of Star Wars.

And The Resistance shows up to join the fight. And, no surprise, Poe Dameron is leading them. "Woohoo! That's one hell of a pilot!" Ha, Finn and Poe's bromance is strong.

Ren and Rey face off in the forest. It's no contest, Ren is definitely more powerful, but keeps her alive and kidnaps her so he can Force-read her mind and get the map. They no longer need BB-8 (or so he thinks) so he order a retreat. Our heroes, Finn and Han see Kylo Ren leave with Rey's unconscious body.

Han and Leia's big reunion scene...interrupted perfectly by C-3PO. Okay, that was silly, but fun. And the "You probably don't recognize me, because of the red arm." line is pretty funny. For a protocol droid, C-3PO is especially inept at human interactions.

At the Resistance base, Poe and Finn are reunited. Poe tells Finn to wear his jacket. Dude! They're totally going steady like high-school sweethearts!

Lots more exposition at the base. Han and Leia talk about Kylo Ren, their son. He's the reason they're not together. Their scenes are sweet and they still have the loving antagonism thing going on. Most important part--Han thinks Kylo Ren is beyond saving. But Leia wants him back, and tells Han so. He's his father, he can reach him in a way Luke couldn't.

Back on Starkiller Base. Ren interrogating Rey. She's better at resisting him then he thought. He takes off his mask, and again we see there's more conflict in him than he likes to let on. The part about the island in an ocean--obviously Luke's island. She dreams about it. More evidence that she was there before she was placed on Jakku (or at least that Luke is reaching out to her and giving her visions.) Anyway, she successfully resists him.

And Snoke is pissed at that. Especially since he took the girl rather than finding the droid, and now the Resistance has it, and possibly the map. The "Bring her to me" line is fantastically menacing.

Rey somehow gets the idea to try a Jedi mind trick on her guard (trivia, that's Daniel Craig under that armor, and fans have taken to naming the character JB-007.) Of all the derivative-but-who-cares-it's-fun scenes in the film, this is my favorite. Even if it's never explained how she even knew about the mind trick (my theory, of course, is Luke put the idea in her head.)

Ren finds out she has escaped and goes bat-shit crazy on the room with his lightsaber. The Stormtroopers walking by turn around and decide to patrol elsewhere. That scene always makes me laugh.

Biggest exposition scene back at Resistance base, explaining Starkiller Base relative to the Death Star, and coming up with a plan to blow it up. I'll revisit this later when I address some of the complaints with the movie. Important thing is it puts Han, Chewie, and Finn on a mission to both rescue Rey and blow up the base.

Ignore the physics of coming out of light speed right at the planet's surface. Ignore a lot of physics in most movies, but especially in Star Wars movies. They're fun without the physics.

Kylo Ren can tell Han Solo is on the planet. Haters make a big deal that he can sense this but not when Han is right behind him later. Makes perfect sense to me if you keep in mind that Kylo Ren is strong, but not skilled. He can tell he's on the planet, but can't localize it down more than that. At least, not to the level of a few meters, maybe to the level of kilometers? (Sorry for getting all metric on you)

Outside, Finn admits his job on Starkiller Base was sanitation...he was a janitor. Haters pick on this (ignoring that he was, in fact, a trained Stormtrooper, this was just his assignment at one time.) I think it's perfect, and not just for the trash compactor joke later. If you've ever been to a strange new building and want to ask directions, often the best person to ask is the janitor. He goes into every room of that building, he knows the layout. Hell, people never seem to worry about the janitor overhearing sensitive information, he's just the guy taking out the trash.

Okay, "That's not how the Force works!" is actually my favorite line of the movie. Note: they ultimately lower the shields using not "The Force" but simply...force. Ha!

The Resistance fleet rushes in, bombs the whatever-it-was-called doohickey...oscillator, that's it...that will make the planet blow up. But...no effect. And now they're in a huge dogfight with a ton of Tie Fighters. Haters seem to ignore the fact that their super-quick blow-up-the-planet plan...didn't actually work. It was a long shot, but they actually needed help on the surface.

Which brings us back to Han, Chewie, Finn and Rey (oh yeah, they find Rey remarkable easily, in another comic scene.) So, time to set the explosives.

And then the pivotal scene, Han confronting Kylo Ren/Ben on the bridge. What always gets me in this scene is remembering how Han thought there was no saving him. I think Han walks out on that bridge thinking he'll never walk back. He does it because Leia asked him to. And he's almost successful. You could see the conflict in Kylo/Ben, even before the line about being torn apart.

And then, of course, as the light goes out Kylo Ren kills Han Solo. Yeah, yeah, Harrison Ford is signed on for the next movie. But he's not going to be a Force ghost. And he didn't survive. It will be a flashback, nothing more. Anything else would be stupid.

Chewie shoots Kylo Ren, wounding him. And then he detonates the explosives. That damages it enough that one more bombing run by Poe can finish the job. Gotta get all the heroes working together for this.

And now outside, the showdown between Kylo Ren, Finn, and Rey. Haters make a big deal that Finn can hold his own against Kylo Ren. Ummm...no, he can't. He gets one good hit in but Kylo Ren overpowers him and slices him up the back. It's a miracle he survived.

The scene where the Skywalker lightsaber flies right past Ren and into Rey's hand. I love it, and yes, I think Luke has something to do with that. In fact, OH MY GOD, it's Luke Skywalker's theme music!!!

Okay, that's not the first or last time it plays (and actually it's kind of Obi-Wan's music, too. It's basically the light side of the Force theme.) But this is my favorite instance of it.

Haters make an even bigger deal that Rey holds her own against Kylo Ren (despite the fact that she obviously is pretty strong with the Force.) Let's ignore the fact that he's injured. Let's also ignore the fact that his concentration is way off after just killing his dad. Even beyond that, let's get to the essence of his character. He is violent, angry, undisciplined, conflicted...strong, but not skilled. This is reflected in his ragged, crackling lightsaber blade. The fact is he's not a lightsaber expert. He attacks a person the same way he attacks a computer console--with rage, with force, but with no style or grace. Lightsabers were introduced first as an elegant weapon from a more civilized age. And the Skywalker saber is. Ren's is not. It's not an elegant weapon, and he is not a product of a civilized age.

Thinking more on this, I love the progression (or regression) of lightsaber duels over the entire series. In the prequels, lightsabers were everywhere and were flashy, shiny, and used with extreme skill. It was an art--truly an elegant weapon for a civilized age. By the time of the original trilogy, there were only a few lightsaber wielders left, and the skills had declined. The wars were fought with blasters and spaceships, not lightsabers, except in rare, almost ceremonially staged duels. And now...lightsabers are uncivilized, and nobody knows how to wield one. Except the Skywalker saber still has elegance, it's just waiting for someone who can wield it properly.

Okay, all that's left after the battle is to get the principles on both sides off Starkiller Base before it collapses. Snoke order Hux to get Ren and evacuate. Chewie finds Rey, they get Finn onto the Millenium Falcon and take off. The planet does not explode. It collapses and forms a new star with all the energy it sucked from the old one. Everybody has to slightly update their star charts.

R2-D2 wakes up (clearly Luke's doing) and reveals the rest of the map to find Luke. Rey flies there, walks up a lot of stairs (am I mistaken or does she pass Yoda's old dining set at one point?) and we finally see Luke Skywalker. I have to say, the beard looks good on Mark Hamill. Cool ending, and makes me want to see what happens next.

So all 4 times, I enjoyed it immensely. In fact, I'll stick with my initial assessment that it might be the best so far, we just won't know until there's 30+ years of nostalgia and repetition behind it.

Now let me address the haters. First: things that you don't understand or are unexplained are not plot holes. Some things they're clearly setting up for future films, and some things you can just fill in the blanks yourself. If we want to talk about movies that leave things unexplained, the top example of that, just from this year alone, is MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. As many have pointed out, it doesn't even make sense in context of the other Mad Max films, unless he's not actually the same character. But it's still much beloved, scored a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Also, much of what you think is unexplained actually is explained, if you actually watch the movie instead of look for things to pick at.

Second, noting that the seventh movie in a series is derivative is not particularly noteworthy, and pretty puzzling as a criticism. 'This was too similar to something I greatly enjoy' is at best a confusing complaint. Just off the top of my head, the two movies I can think of that vastly deviated from the rest of their series are...THE GODFATHER PART III and MATRIX: REVOLUTIONS. I would love to see a defense of either of those movies for brilliantly taking their series in new, unexpected directions, but you have to realize that's going against the grain of popular and critical opinion. Knowing J. J. Abrams skills as an homagist (a word I just made up, but probably should've years ago for Quentin Tarantino) I expected there to be plenty of call-backs and references to other films in the series. What I hoped for, and what he delivered brilliantly, were new characters that could continue moving the stories forward. The fact that I'm more interested in what happens next to Rey, Finn, BB-8, and Poe (in that order) than in what happens to Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C3-PO tells me he did a fantastic job (although rumors that Lando Calrissian is coming back in episode VIII also have me excited.)

Most importantly, I have yet to see anyone suggest any changes they'd make. There's a whole lot of criticism, but none of it constructive. (I'm sure I've missed someone's blog post on this, but I haven't read anything saying "STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS would've been better if they had...[insert actual suggested scenario here.]" So I want to return to one scene. The Resistance planning the attack on Starkiller Base, starting with Han's "There's always a way to blow it up" statement. It seems that's the tipping point for many haters. They were letting Abrams have his call-back in-joke fun up to that point, but somehow that pushed them over the edge. I submit to you that the problem with that scene is not that it's derivative. It's that it's brief. It's light. It cares more about getting to the next action piece than putting any weight into the scene itself. No Bothans died bringing us this information. Calling back to previous movies is the method to keep the action moving, but it is not the root cause of your complaint.

So with that in mind, here is my concrete suggestion for how to make STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS better: Don't blow up Starkiller Base. At least, not yet. Leave it for the next movie. Or even deal with it a different way--in the next movie. If the root cause is that exposition scenes are abbreviated in order to get to the next action piece, then take a 'less is more' approach to the action. Spend more time on everything up to that point (maybe leave fewer of these questions that haters call plot holes.) Have R2-D2 wake up right then (for that to be worth it, he--and the Resistance Base--would have to be introduced earlier.) If Luke is the one waking up R2-D2, in Abrams' movie he must do it because after Starkiller Base was destroyed and it was relatively safe. In my version, maybe he turns on R2-D2 out of desperation, because Starkiller Base just went live. A lot more would have to change to make it work, but basically my proposal is to cut the last act of the film and move it to the next one.

I should stress again that I liked the movie, in reality I would change nothing (other than have Rey aiming with the right eye.) So I present my "improvement" as an attempt to fix what ain't broken, and as a challenge to the haters to do the same. If it sucks so much, what would you actually change?

Running Time: 135 (x2)
My Total Minutes: 413,589

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Jason Watches THE HATEFUL EIGHT

And I'll have to go back and watch it again in 70 mm sometime soon.

Anyway, Happy New Year! I spent my New Year's Eve with my brother, watching an evening screening of Tarantino's latest, to officially get my 365th movie of the year!

Short, short review: It's a Tarantino film.

Slightly longer, but still short review: The snowy white vistas demand to be seen in 70 mm, but it's an odd choice that so much of the movie is set in a single, claustrophobic room. Seems kind of a waste of the format (when I see it in 70 mm, I'll report back.) The plot is pretty simple: bounty hunters holed up in a cabin weathering a storm with a bunch of strangers. Sam Jackson is Major Marquis Warren, the bounty hunter who brings in dead bodies for rewards (the poster, after all, does say "dead or alive.") But Kurt Russell (doing his best John Wayne impersonation since BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA) is "the Hangman" John Ruth who brings in his bounties alive so they can be put on trial and get real justice. His bounty is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who takes a terrific beating in the movie. But then again, so does everyone. In the cabin are Mexican Bob (Demi├ín Bichir,) a stylish English hangman (Tim Roth,) an old civil war general (Bruce Dern,) and a mysteriously quiet cowpoke (Michael Madsen.) And all suspicions are that someone is a plant, planning to free Daisy and kill John Ruth.

The big reveal of who the conspirator is...is kind of a cheat. But what interested me was the Tarantino level of violence. I expected the violence, of course, and I expected it to be over-the-top. But in his previous movies I always understood the point behind it. INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is a Jewish revenge fantasy--it's clearly okay to revel in violence against Nazis. DJANGO UNCHAINED is a slave revenge fantasy--it's clearly okay to revel in violence against slave owners. But here...as well made and beautifully photographed everything was, I had to think a while on what the point of all that violence was. And I'm glad I didn't write this up right away, because I probably would've left it at that. But on further contemplation, it's kind of obvious. The point is about the difference (or lack thereof) between "frontier" justice and "real" justice. And in some way that serves as a justification/defense for all the violence in all of Tarantino's films.

Running Time: 187 minutes
My Total Minutes: 413,454