Monday, December 28, 2015

What is Allowed, Some Thoughts on "The Force Awakens"

(This post discusses the plot of "The Force Awakens" in detail)

If you are a girl who loves movies you learn a few things. You learn that you are there to help, not be the hero. Your place is clearly marked, and the consequences for stepping outside it severe. You learn that you do not speak up first. You do not rush for the captain's chair. You do not use your wits to survive. You wait to be saved. You do not ask for anything more. You learn what happens to women who ask for too much, who demand to be first. They are the villains, and they end the story dead or humiliated. There are exceptions, but they are piteously few.

And as you grow and your tastes include a fondness for sci-fi you learn how much you have to imagine yourself into the story. Because often there isn't anyone there who looks like you. You aren't even there to help most of the time. You are there to be saved. You are not the chosen one. You do not have special powers. And if you do you are refiled from character to objective. You are the prize the hero will collect after completing enough plot trials. You certainly will never revel in your abilities.There will be no space given to your trepidation discovering the hidden depths inside yourself. You matter only so much as you can help the hero look good. And there are exceptions to this too, but again they are piteously few.

This is why I had to see "The Force Awakens" for a second time. I had to be sure I had seen what was really on screen. I had to confirm Daisy Ridley's Rey was real. Because Rey speaks up. She speaks up for herself and for the little drioid BB-8 she meets when he's in the process of being stolen. She rushes for the captain's chair of the Millennium Falcon when she and Finn (John Boyega) flee the desert planet Jakku. And it's her very wits that have enabled her to survive for so long alone on a harsh world. Using her smarts to scavenge crashed ships for parts and building up a considerable mechanical acumen in process. She aches for a family that is not coming back for her, We see her struggle to finally let go of the dream of being found and move forward to claim the future in front of her. Rey does help Finn and later Poe (Oscar Isaac) but that is not the only reason she is in this story. Not by a long shot.

She is guided by voices, some she can hear clearly, some she can only sense as suggestions in the back of her mind.  She is destined for important things. And her clear terror at recognizing that is what saves her from Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren is the traditional male hero who hasn't had things go his way and is broken by that and can only respond in turns by tantrums and lashing out in violence. He senses Rey's importance and wants to possess it for himself. It's Rey's willingness to trust her instincts, to listen to the small still voice that lets her escape his clutches.

In the snowy woods of a planet sized weapon she and Finn face off against Ren. Ren knocks out Rey with a wave of his hand and Finn flicks Luke Skywalker's (Mark Hamill) lightsaber to life. Earlier we had seen Rey discover the lightsaber and receive a vision the moment she touched it. But I was still so used to how stories like this usually work that I wasn't surprised to see Finn be the one to wield to it. Rey even starts to regain consciousness to witness the fight between two men. But then Finn is seriously wounded by Ren, the lightsaber knocked away into a nearby snowbank. Ren reaches for it with his Force powers, frowning that it seems to be taking so long to draw the weapon through the air to his waiting grasp. The lightsaber finally pulls loose and flies, right past him and into Rey's outstretched hand.  There is a moment of shock for them both. And then Rey raises her gaze and flicks the lightsaber on. And from that moment I had to remind myself to not forget to breathe.

I watched in dawning wonder and awe as Rey ably defended herself from Ren's killing blows. How she fought him to a standstill and was only stopped from a final reckoning by the destruction of the artificial planet they were standing on. How she got Finn to medical attention back at the Resistance base. And then there was the final scene. The scene where Rey walked to the long missing Luke and simply held out his lightsaber. And the look on Ridley's face made my heart crack into pieces. Her hope, her fear, her need for answers echoing the audience's own as the camera pulled away for the final dissolve into the credits. And as the familiar theme kicked up for the second time the weight of it hit me. I had met the character I'd been waiting nearly three decades to see in a movie like this. I felt universe get bigger as I accepted what I had been shown. This wasn't just going to be the story about how Finn and Poe become great heroes, with Rey helping out and minding her place. This was also going to be the story about how Rey becomes a great and powerful Jedi.

I didn't know how badly I needed to see that story.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Field Guide To Star Wars Cash Ins

"Starcrash" (1978)

Notable For: David Hasselhoff's man perm. Christopher Plummer's white hot shame being able to power entire city grids.

The Lowdown: Oh Italy. Luigi Cozzi made one of the first "Star Wars" cash-ins that not only saw American theatrical release but had an in name only sequel tagged on to it. (See lower down the list.) The Emperor of the Universe and the dreaded Count Zarth Arn lock horns over the fate of the galaxy. Only the bikini clad Stella Star and her motley crew of robots and a former child evangelist can ensure that truth and freedom win the day. The film's ambitions outstrip its budget by a considerable margin making this one of the all time b movie greats.

Recommended? Oh yes.

"Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980)

Notable For: The ridiculous amount of before they were famous behind the scenes talent. Putting boobs on a spaceship.

The Lowdown: John Sayles scripts "Seven Samurai" in Space with music by James Horner. And happily, the movie is just as much fun as that sounds. A fantastic cast of familiar faces from John Saxon in Kabuki makeup to Robert Vaughn semi-reprising his role from "The Magnificent Seven" carry the story. The production design is a reminder of the charms of low budget films, as the cobbled together look of everything is perfect for a story set on remote outpost worlds. They don't make them like this anymore, and more's the pity.  

Recommended? Pour yourself a drink from your scotch and soda belt and enjoy this one.

"Message From Space" (1978)

Notable For: A Darth Vader knock-off who lives with his mom. Magic walnuts.

The Lowdown: Japan's main entry in the game. An international cast compete with the model spaceships for attention in this overstuffed adventure finally referencing "Seven Samurai" in its home country. Veteran director Kinji Fukasaku ably steers this one from running aground on it's many plot cul-de-sacs. It's ponderous. It's cheerful. And its Space Hippies wear an entire aisle's worth of plastic foliage from Michael's.

Recommended?  This one tends to divide the room. However I love every talky, over-designed minute of it.

"Starship Invasions" (1977)

Notable For: Sir Christopher Lee working the hell out of a black body stocking. Canadians being polite even when committing mass suicide.

The Lowdown: Canada gets in on the act with this dour, turtleneck festooned conglomeration of "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". In a wood paneled space ship aliens cause problems that humans worry about in their wood paneled kitchens and take to their wood paneled offices to figure out what to do about it. The costumes walk the amazing line between dowdy and Sold Gold dancer. Your tolerance for this will depend greatly on if you can't get enough of those bullshit documentaries about Ancient Astronauts or The Bermuda Triangle. You can watch it on YouTube here.

Recommended? I find its tin foil banality strangely hypnotic, most are likely to be put to sleep by it.

"Escape From Galaxy 3" (1981)

Notable For: Trying to pass itself off as a sequel to the equally demented Starcrash. Excessive beard glitter.

The Lowdown: The Italian Exploitation Film Industry begins it's downward decent with this riff on both "Star Wars" and a grab bag of then current hits as diverse as "The Blue Lagoon". A princess in a star spangled swimsuit and her companion flee the dreaded, dressed like Dolemite in space, villain to an idyllic world. There they learn about kissing, and interpretative dance. A good party movie, to watch or for when you want everyone to go home I'm still not sure.

Recommended? If you have a considerably high tolerance for Italy trying to do "Star Wars" on 10 dollars, go for it.

"Flash Gordon" (1980)

Notable For: Everything. Brian Blessed in leather tap pants.

The Lowdown: Dino De Laurentiis wanted a "Star Wars" of his own and got the rights to the Flash Gordon serials George Lucas wanted but couldn't get back in the mid seventies. Director Mike Hodges unleashes a candy colored, cartoon made flesh pulp wonderland. Glam rock headdresses, brass spaceships trailing plumes of red smoke, and Timothy Dalton in Kelly green tights. All set to a rocking beat by Queen. A beloved favorite, and deservedly so.

Recommended? Yes! AH-AH!

"Hawk the Slayer" (1980)

Notable For: Letting everybody know what "Disco Morricone" sounds like. Silly String as instrument of powerful witchcraft.

The Lowdown: Often lumped in with the Sword and Sorcery boom post "Excalibur". It predates it by a year. On closer examination that you realize this English/Italian co-production is attempting to do "Star Wars" in the more budget friendly setting of Ye Olden Times. Jack Palance is on hand to wear the modified Vader helmet and deliver line readings in a meter that suggests a drag queen auditioning for Game of Thrones.

Recommended? An acquired taste, but if you've got a soft spot for a D&D campaign used in place of a script dig in.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

A Holiday Treasury of My Writing This Year

On "Fury Road" and Italian Post Apocalyptic movies in particular...

How diversity in Blockbuster directors is desperately needed and "Jurassic World" is the absolute worst...

Some James Horner (RIP) scores you should give a listen to...

Remembering "Attack the Block" and who we allow to be heroic...

A look at one of the 80s most unusual and beautiful love stories...

Encountering the sacred in secular art...

The films that inspired the floor plans of "Crimson Peak's" Allerdale Hall...

The dames, broads and badass ladies of Schwarzenegger's Golden Age...

When 20th Century Fox backed the wrong horse in 1977...