Skip’s Quips: Sorry, But the New ‘Star Wars’ Trailer Looks Blah

Blog Sketch 082813Unfortunately,  we can’t go back in time to feel what it was like to experience the original Star Wars firsthand.

We can, however, watch the trailer to the forthcoming Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens, and after doing so, I have to say that I’m not impressed.

I wasn’t too happy with director J.J. Abrams’ work on Star Trek Into Darkness, which I felt was a lot of posturing. Tedious, sloppy filmmaking, in my opinion. Now’s he’s getting his hands on the Star Wars franchise, and I’m cautiously pessimistic. The trailer to the 2015-destined new installment suggests it’s very special-effects-heavy – nothing new for this series. But I have a bigger problem. Why add more to a story that’s already ended … and in a satisfying way, to boot?

You won’t get a more iconic villain in this franchise than Darth Vader, and I don’t know if Abrams will try for that. Part of the reason the original worked, however, was due to the strength of the mythology behind Vader and his minions. They were bad. They were evil. And they had James Earl Jones’ voice leading them.

You’re not going to get the same effect in the latest sequel, and I’m worried it’ll fail because of that.

The Star Wars fan base is sizable. I’m sure this will make a lot of money. And putting out a teaser trailer now for a film that’s slated for a late-next-year debut is a good marketing strategy.

I just hope it’s not all for naught. Given the many problems with the prequels, this isn’t a new hope.

Unfortunately.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: The Times They Are A-Spacin’

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613My father has an interesting story that he likes to tell about the original Star Wars movie.

Back in the late 1970s, after the flick came out, he went to see it in the theater. Once there, after the picture started, he fell asleep.

What? you say. Fell asleep during Star Wars?

Yea, verily, yea. Apparently, all the noise and flashing lights from those proletarian blasters combined with the dark theater put him right into slumberland.

Nowadays, that may seem bizarre, but it’s an interesting reflection of the times, I think. In those days, not everyone regarded Star Wars as the classic it’s thought of today. Even Alec Guinness, Obi-Wan Kenobi himself, reportedly didn’t think much of the script when he first read it. Since then, after repeated viewings, my father has come to like the film, but it took a while for that to happen. Like a fine wine (or perhaps, more appropriately, cheese) Star Wars gets better as it gets older. And it just goes to show you: Not everything good has immediate appeal.

See? Sometimes, to decide whether you like something, you just gotta sleep on it.

Skip’s Quips: There’s a Gaffe in My Soup

Blog Sketch 082813I look back in bemusement whenever I recall the original 1977 Star Wars.

It’s a terrific flick, don’t get me wrong. But each time I start thinking about it, I summon up remembrance of continuity issues past—specifically, that scene where Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, out cold after being beaten up by mean-spirited Sand People, somehow shifts his head’s position on the ground without allowing the audience to witness the change. In the first shot, it’s facing the side. In a later shot, it’s facing up.

The Force is strong with that one, right? He moves so quickly, the camera doesn’t even capture it.

Of course, everyone makes mistakes, and it’s too small an issue to ruin the film. Yet it strikes me as bizarre that in such a slick, polished production, a little continuity error like this could slither past. Wouldn’t someone have caught this before it reached the theaters?

Perhaps director George Lucas was concentrating more on the big picture when reviewing the film. He definitely had a lot to oversee, all things considered. Still, the paradox of great movies featuring tiny gaffes remains a constant. One can turn to Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which allegedly saw the director order the set rebuilt after viewing a component that wouldn’t have appeared in the story’s era, yet contains a visible cut jumping from Toshiro Mifune’s still-alive Washizu to one pierced through the neck with an arrow. Or check out Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which Kim Novak’s faux Madeleine disappears into a house with no other exit, thereby befuddling both Scottie (Jimmy Stewart), who has followed her, and the audience. Or look into Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, where the army attacking Mordor finds itself mounted on horses in one shot and dismounted, with the steeds nowhere to be seen, in another.

There’s nothing we can so about this but suspend disbelief. These flicks are good enough to wave off continuity quibbles. As an audience, however, do we have a right to perfection for our money? Or just greatness? Am I asking too much that a film be error-free?

Perhaps. I’ll keep enjoying all the movies above, of course—nothing’s different there. I may, though, break a smile each time I watch these continuity-challenged scenes, in recognition of the idea that even masterpieces aren’t infallible.

It’s a good way to feel good about a good movie, isn’t it? I’ve already convinced myself that that’s true.

Skip’s Quips: Slamming the State of Serious ’70s Sci-Fi

Blog Sketch 082813Gosh, Rollerball is a mediocre movie.

I came to this realization after giving the Norman Jewison-helmed sci-fi flick yet another chance on Turner Classic Movies last night. It confirmed all my previous assessments: that it’s pretentious, tiresome and not as introspective as it thinks it is. The blame can partly fall on the script–which documents a future society in which corporations rule the world and sanction the violent, eponymous arena game–but it also features a lethargic performance by the usually reliable James Caan, slow-paced direction by Jewison (no, shots of people turning their heads to stare at the protagonist menacingly are not a substitute for character development) and dubious social commentary … most lamentably evidenced by a scene in which a posse of doltish partygoers representing, I assume, our worst inner voices, commit arboricide with the help of a rather powerful gun.

OK, I get it. Humans are bad. We like wars and killing trees. Fine.

We also like quality filmmaking–and Rollerball doesn’t cut it. The main problem, however, is that it could’ve been so much better, like so many other serious 1970s sci-fi flicks. Logan’s Run, A Boy and His Dog, Soylent Green … science fiction really had a lot to say in that era, but a scarce few films then aced the sniff test. I wish the folks behind them had taken the time to streamline the scripts, make the messaging less heavy-handed, kept the preaching to a minimum. Forbidden Planet‘s a benchmark. So is Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. Spare, concise screenplays, quick-flowing dialogue, tense direction. That’s all you want in a good sci-fi movie, and you don’t find that a lot in the “golden” age of the 1970s. Ideas are almost commonplace. Execution isn’t.

So why is that? I know that period heralded an age of cinematic risks, and many of the non-sci-fi films then exemplified that. Yet with the exception of pictures such as Fantastic Planet and A Clockwork Orange, many of these flicks don’t live up to their expectations. Yes, I know the 1970s also saw the debuts of Alien and Star Wars, but those are less like “message” movies than old-fashioned, leave-your-thinking-at-the-door entertainment.

Rollerball, at its core, is a message movie. And it doesn’t work. Does that mean sci-fi should be devoid of messages altogether–that it should stick to what it does best? (Read: lasers.)

I don’t think so. But it’s something I’ll ponder next time I watch one of these futuristic “man-must” movies. Man must do this, man must do that.

Man must make better science fiction films, methinks.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Sympathy for the Movies’ Devils

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613To lift (and thoroughly mangle) a line from the Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I do not know which to prefer, the beauty of an irredeemable movie villain or one with nuance and definition.

On the one hand, I believe a great portrayal of a vile, two-dimensionally loathsome evildoer can make a film–Dirty Harry is one example, with Andy Robinson’s sinister “Scorpio” killer giving viewers every reason to boo him. But then you have pictures such as M and Precious,  whose ghastly, repellent villains both get speeches at the end that aim to suggest they remain human … despite their horrific acts.

Not surprisingly, those last two films are a lot harder to watch than Dirty Harry–or, for that matter, any other flick with baddies you love to hate. And I think it’s because making a choice about a character is much more difficult than having one already made for you.

There’s definitely a time and place for movies with clear-cut antagonists. Sometimes, these films can be masterpieces: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King offers evidence of this. Yet the main evildoer, Sauron, is hardly well defined. He’s just … evil. Even Darth Vader from Star Wars shows more love than mean old Sauron. You can blame the great actor James Earl Jones for infusing Vader’s voice with character.

Giving a frightening villain more than one shade doesn’t always work, and it’s not right for every movie. But good directors can make unwieldy things fit while asking questions you don’t want to answer. Alfred Hitchcock did just that in Strangers on a Train and Frenzy, both of which have scenes where the killers frantically try to retrieve misplaced pieces of evidence. Hitch makes us almost feel for these creeps as he forces us to watch their travails. That’s manipulative, folks–manipulative to the nth degree. But it’s something only a great artist can do.

Ultimately, characters with multiple dimensions–whether they’re good or evil–add heft to a movie. It may not be a heft you enjoy, but it’s solid nonetheless and often points to a film’s quality. That doesn’t mean you’ll want to watch them over and over to see if the villain gets his or her due, but it suggests that there’s something more about the picture than providing “you-must-pay-the-rent” thrills.

That’s risk in my book, and filmmakers who take it for art’s sake deserve a hand.