The Grinch who stole Star Wars

Or, why The Force Awakens is fun but will ultimately make you angry

I want you to see the new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens (also known as Episode VII). I want everyone to see it. If you’re looking for a light, fun, space-adventure movie to see on the big screen, you’re not going to find anything better. It is a visual treat on many levels, it brings some great new elements into the larger story, and of course it is wonderful to see some of the characters from the first Star Wars movie back again. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, so go see it, particularly in IMAX if you can.

Just don’t think about it too much afterwards.

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Obviously, from here on in we will be mentioning all kinds of spoilers (both plot developments and insights that will ruin some of the film for you). So please, I’m asking you nicely and seriously, stop reading this if you haven’t seen the film. This analysis is for people who have seen it and would like more insight into where the story does and doesn’t work: it will annoy the crap out of you if you read this first and watch the film afterwards. So don’t.

The TL;DR version of the critique is that although the film is executed very well and the new elements are welcome, the story is almost a play-for-play remake of A New Hope (the first of the Star Wars films, also known as Episode IV), only with some light twists (nothing wrong with that) that depend greatly on utterly ridiculous coincidences, character decisions, and filmmaker choices. So in short, it’s very much like Star Trek: Into Darkness in its interior badness. Because the film is very fast-paced, visually exciting, and has lots of explosions and fights, even serious fans will probably not notice this on first viewing, because the film is genuinely fun and cleverly made — and we also said this exact same thing about Into Darkness: it’s eye candy and then it grows increasingly silly until you’re finally angry at how completely empty the movie actually is.

Let us start, however, with those things that rightly deserve praise, because they do, and because nobody likes a wet blanket who can only talk about the problems with something and not acknowledge the good things. It was great to see some interesting new characters, major and minor, and while there are some questions lingering over Rey that hopefully will get answers in the future films (like “if she’s supposedly Luke’s kid, why has she got a British accent?”), but I have nothing but praise for her performance. Likewise, I thought the idea of showing that Stormtroopers are real people and can have changes of heart was an intriguing idea (yes, I know this was explored in other media, but I’m limiting myself to someone who mainly knows the Star Wars saga through the movies), and I thought John Boyega’s casting was fresh and good.

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I’m unsure how to judge the characters Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) just yet, since their characters are clearly going to be developed further, but my initial impression is that Poe is (sorry) kind of a two-dimensional and all-good mix of Luke and Han, Finn is a mix of pre-A New Hope Han Solo and A New Hope-era Luke, Rey is a mix of Luke and Leia and Chewbacca (yes, you heard me), while Kylo is a remix of Prequels Anakin and Empire Strikes Back-era moral-quandry Luke. I’ve rarely had an issue with the casting in JJ Abrams’ movies, apart from Chris Pine, so his continuing the tradition of adding some unknowns was a great move (as it was when Lucas did it the first time around), and they’re all interesting choices and a good mix. Simon Pegg’s disguised cameo as Unkar Plutt was delightful — I often wish we got a bit more time and story on these interesting minor characters.

Since it is heavily stolen from A New Hope with elements of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (and even a bit of the Prequels) thrown in, the story is naturally fun and exciting — a lot of older fans have said “it made me feel like I was 10 years old again,” or however old they were in 1977, which isn’t surprising since it is little more than a remix of that movie. That said, of course we’re thrilled to see the original characters, major and minor, and of course we’re pleased to see the effects updated to modern standards but otherwise left un-messed with. I thought the effects throughout were just great, including the mix of physical and CGI effects, the nice use of 3D in the 3D version (present, but not overused, and for once not dimming of the film overall), the expansiveness of the IMAX version, and the effectiveness of the music.

You can even get the film in a “D-box” version that rattles your seat when explosions happen, and jerk you around in the battle scenes, or the whole triple-play (3D/IMAX/D-box) if you shell out enough. I haven’t seen the “ordinary” non-IMAX 2D version yet, so I can’t judge on that, but I’d bet it loses none of the emotional or visual thrills for it. As I said at the top, if you’re just going to this movie for fun and thrills, it’s great. You won’t be disappointed — unless you wanted something substantive, because there isn’t that much here for people who care deeply about the entire saga, but there’s a lot of resonance for people who only remember Episode IV from their youth. A ton of it, and it’s not unwelcome at all.

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It’s only when you start to think about it — like the recent Star Trek, or Star Trek: Into Darkness — that it starts to fall apart, and you realize the Emperor — sorry, Supreme Leader — barely has a stitch on. I’ve seen some other criticisms of the film harsher than this one will be, such as “40 Unforgivable Plot Holes in The Force Awakens (which was followed up with another 20 additional problems, by the way!) — but about half of these are either subtle stuff he missed, or will probably (I say “probably” because you can’t trust JJ Abrams on this at all) be addressed later, or weren’t really either plot holes or unforgivable.

Still, most of the critics of the film I’ve read are more right than wrong — there’s nothing wrong with some homage to what came before, particularly at this point, but Abrams just went waaaay beyond that point into cribbing A New Hope wholesale, which ultimately makes The Force Awakens not fit in the saga at all. Say whatever you like about the three Prequel films, and believe me I did not enjoy them, but they did in fact add to the unfolding story. You can summarize the first six films by saying “there was a boy who was strong in the force and was eventually turned to the dark side, and as a man became the face of the Empire, but his son and daughter, led by a former mentor of the boy and a friendly but rogue stranger, teamed up to defeat the evil Empire and stop the mass slaughter of billions of freedom-loving people … and then, in Episode VII, they did that again.”

The Force Awakens doesn’t really advance the plot: it rehashes Episode IV in a sort of re-telling that appears, at the end of the day, only to exist to hand off the lead roles to some new people and bring casual people up to speed on where we are (which, this being a sequel to a 1983 movie, was important — but it’s all that’s here, with precious little actual new content).

Here’s what happened in the (let’s say) 25 years since Episode VI, since Episode VII is supposed to follow it: following a presumed period of peace, the New Republic (which is good, mostly, but seems ambiguous in the new film) have been running things, and the Republicans (sorry, the Empire — no, ’scuse me, the First Order) have sprung up and are fighting the New Republic (why? No reason given, sorry). For reasons also not mentioned or even hinted at, the New Republic has decided to fund a group of rebels (sorry, Resistance) within the systems controlled by the First Order to fight against them, and the First Order’s reaction is — in a stunning lack of imagination — to yet again (third time!) build a new Death Star (sorry, Death Planet — it’s bigger!) to destroy the Resistance and New Republic, and murder billions of apolitical innocents. Cuz righteousness, or … well, as I say, don’t think about it too much.

Han and Leia have split up because their son, Ben Solo, turned to the Dark Side of the Force, having previously been “the strongest in the Force we’ve ever seen,” at least since the last “strongest in the Force we’ve ever seen,” Anakin Skywalker — Ben’s grandfather, and of course the former Darth Vader. Luke, who was training Ben, was so devastated when he went bad and murdered the other students that he has spent several years (let’s say five?) years in hiding, doing absolutely nothing, it would seem. When we finally see him, he is literally doing nothing at all.

Ben has taken the name Kylo Ren and is now a slave of the Emperor, sorry Supreme Leader Snoke, and is a very high-up in the Empire (dammit, sorry, First Order) during this very short period (but let it slide, that’s not an unforgivable plot hole). Luke may have also abandoned his daughter (Rey, perhaps, we don’t know for sure but seems obvious) when she was around four years old to go take off somewhere for some reason, or maybe (likely) to protect her because she was so strong in the Force and he didn’t want the First Order to find her. Seems kinda harsh, but let’s reserve judgement on that, as that’s essentially what Obi-Wan did to Luke and Leia. C-3PO got a red arm and sounds kinda funny now, and R2-D2 has been in low-power mode since Luke left him behind following the massacre of his students, and will only awaken when the plot demands it — since he just happens to have the rest of the map they need to find Luke.

Han reacted to this situation by running away from it, rejoining with Chewbacca to go back to being a dodgy-but-lovable rogue smuggler (violating the laws of … the Republic? The First Order? Not clear) and Chewbacca seems completely unaffected by the passage of time (indeed, he’s gotten spritelier it would seem!). Leia has returned to being a General and leader of the Reb– sorry, Resistance, along with a bunch of old Rebel characters.

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Interestingly, at least to those of us who found the backstory alluded to in the early Star Wars films, and fleshed out quite a bit in the Prequels about the only interesting thing in those three later films, there’s been a lot of political changes going on in the background that leads up to Episode VII, but sadly we get too little information about it; a clever fellow at Vox has put together a really good summary that actually adds to, rather than detracts from or spoils, the new film, and if you’re interested in that aspect of the story you should read it.

In the actual film, it just ends up being the Empire (sorry, First Order) is again building a Giant Killing Thing to wipe out Mostly Innocent People (because mustache-twirling EVIL, that’s why) and the political establishment (making them, ironically, the rebels!), but a plucky band of Rebels (sorry, Resistance Fighters) manages to destroy it through a combination of one person turning off the shields (sounds … familiar …) and a bombing run where the bombs have to hit a small target by flying low in a suicide run (sounds … really familiar …).

Oh, but wait. Did I mention that the early part of the film covers the political awakening of a young man who was just trying to do his job (and a girl stuck on a desert planet with big dreams and few opportunities to achieve them — like I said, Finn and Rey have a lot of Luke between them) when the evil of the First Order’s machinations drive them to grow up quick and make huge life changes they are surprisingly well-prepared for, all revolving around a droid that contains a hologram of plans that are vital to the Resistance in the struggle to fight the Sith-led villains? Oh, and there’s a Cantina scene with pilots that will take you off-world for a price (though happily, Han shoots nobody in this scene … this time, and a sage old person who has Anakin/Luke’s light saber?

Finn seems to be a crack shot when (and only when) he needs to be, Kylo Ren is strangely bad at using his powers judiciously (you’d think someone would have noticed this after all the damage he apparently does when angry), Rey appears to be an ace pilot for no reason at all, and has huge untapped Force powers that emerge almost the minute she learns that the Force actually exists that allow her to be as world-class Jedi as a fully-trained Luke within a day, Han Solo just happens to be orbiting the very planet where the Millennium Falcon just happens to be sitting undisguised in the largest town (and Han is aware of the person who has it!), and though it hasn’t flown “in years,” it works more-or-less perfectly and somehow wasn’t destroyed by the First Order … oh dear, really I could go on like this for another few thousand words (and I am not kidding at all) on the silly contrivances that take careful observers out of the movie and into eye-rolling territory.

There’s a lot I’ll forgive in the name of fun, but there does come a point where you say OH COME ON!, and I should make clear that this is not the only movie I feel this way about: I’m not one of those people who get angry that we can hear sounds (like explosions) in space (where you actually couldn’t), but I do find that the utterly impossible physics in Peter Jackson’s films that can’t be hand-waved away by saying its a fantasy world (they’re all fantasy worlds, that’s why we call them movies, kids) really hurt the later Lord of the Rings movies, and in particular The Hobbit (as much as the stretched-too-thin storyline in the latter trilogy), the ridiculous stunts in the JJ Star Trek movies (of course you can fall many miles from a starship to a planet without being harmed! Of course you can be shot out of a photon cannon without a scratch!) really get to a point of ridiculousness where it takes me out of the movie, and that’s really annoying — like a fly buzzing around when you are trying to read a really good book.

I was really a lot more fearful for the JJ-led Star Wars going into it, and relieved this wasn’t as awful as Into Darkness, which I’m going to credit, unfairly and entirely, to Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan’s no Harve Bennett, mind you, but he is generally a force for good story sense. It’s a pity he didn’t write this screenplay outright.

So, at this point let’s agree that The Force Awakens, um, borrows too heavily from A New Hope, and that this means things get awkward if we want to view Star Wars as an (in)complete saga. Unforgiveable? Maybe not, though we are left at the end of this movie with a setup that harkens back to the second chronological Star Wars movie so much that Episode VIII might end up being called The Emp — I mean, First Order Strikes Back: a young person who is strong in the force and has no immediate family we know about has left their old life behind, and arrived on a lush green world to be trained by a long-exiled Jedi Master, meanwhile the leader of the evil forces will plot revenge with his miraculously-saved apprentice, and the weakened Resistance will bravely fight the forces of the Empire (ack, sorry again, First Order), despite feeling the loss of a major character, who was murdered by the film’s chief antagonist.

I hope I’m wrong about Episode VIII, but come on, where else would a remake of A New Hope leave us? I actually love it when later films in a series “call back” to earlier films, but this is just way, too much. I would remind you also that I haven’t even gotten to some of the big, obvious (at least to me) issues or just plain dumb moments in the film: let’s take one just for starters — at the point where Snoke asks Hux to go get Kylo Ren, there is no possible way, even in Convenient Movie Time Stretching, for them to locate him, rescue him, and get him off-world in time. Rey’s rescue was a Lucky Coincidence too, but at least we saw them starting to go after her well before they reach her.

Yet, we know for sure that Kylo Ren will somehow be in the next movie, and now will need that mask he was conveniently wearing for no reason at all for reals. I’m hoping that if they go down this road, we get us some more Lando Calrissian. DO NOT go all Creed on me here, JJ — I demand 100 percent authentic Billy Dee Williams! If you’re going to remake Episode V, then I want Bespin and Lando and a Kylo Ren trap where they have to have an awkward family dinner, god dammit!

Speaking of Kylo Ren — why does he use the Force against nearly everyone except Finn? He knew something was up with Finn (FN-2187) early on — he noticed the trooper’s change of heart remotely, and knew it was him that helped Po escape. He has a lightsabre battle with Finn, but not only can he not beat him (even though Finn has never used a lightsaber in his life and is not very good with it), he doesn’t even really try to use any of the control tricks he used on Rey. Incidentally, Rey can speak Wookie, and droid, and at least one other language (when she yells at the scavenger who initially captures BB-8). The fact that she can speak droid might be explainable, but Wookie? Which doesn’t surprise anyone, like say Chewbacca or Han Solo, at all?

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Finn, who worked with droids all the time as a Death Planet janitor, can’t speak droid. Nor can a lot of people in this movie, except Rey. If this doesn’t prove she’s Luke’s daughter, I don’t know what to tell you. There’s a number of other subtle and not-so-subtle hints that this may be the case; when we first see her, she’s dressed exactly how George Lucas and original Star Wars concept artist Ralph McQuarrie envisaged Luke looking when they were (briefly) considering making the character female, just as an example. Oh, and also, are there really only three kinds of planets: desert worlds, lush green planets, and permanent-winter hollowed-out Starkillers? How boringly familiar.

When she touches Luke’s lightsaber (get your mind out of the gutter, you pigs!), she hears voices, including a bit of Yoda and more clearly Obi-Wan Kenobi (voiced by Ewan McGregor, in a nice touch). That lightsaber, or lightsabre if you’re British, was unguarded and unprotected in a chest that looks similar to the one seen in A New Hope, and if you remember the films was actually lost when Luke lost his hand near the end of Empire Strikes Back. It fell to the bottom of the cloud city, so who could have retrieved it and brought it back for safekeeping? GEE I WONDER.

Like I said, there are a number of questions the film raises that could be addressed later, so I’m not going to belabor every one of them, but I do have to wonder about what kind of warped comment on solar energy it is when the Starkiller base (which actually kills planets, but never mind) depends on sucking dry the energy of a sun (which the planet could not possibly hold, but again — let it go). Indeed, when you think about it, that’s really all the weapon had to do: without a sun, every planet in that solar system will rapidly die, no PEW PEW PEW missiles of death needed. If our sun went out, Earth would become uninhabited in about a day, at most.

Other than for plot-mystery reasons, why can’t Rey remember her family? She just remembers them leaving, and being placed in Unkar Plutt’s (!) care (shades of Oliver Twist here, really …). She claims she “couldn’t imagine” a world as lush and green as the first one she gets taken to after leaving Jakku, but Kylo Ren noted that she dreams of exactly such a world, so … and while we’re at it, Leia appears to either know or intuitively understand who she really is (she just met Rey, but lets her be the one to go find Luke), but says nothing to her … presumably for only plot-reveal reasons later. That’s fine to a point, but it will look silly later if I’m even half-right about this.

I’m actually being easier on this film than it deserves — there are a lot more oddities/belief-stretching coincidences/“oh come on!” moments that I’m willing to defer since this is the first film of a new trilogy. There will be a lot of people who might read this and say I’m taking it too seriously, that Star Wars is meant to be nothing more than light adventure, and that there’s a lot of boom and wheee and pewpewpew and zoom, whiz, lightsaber sound effect and droid squawk, and that’s all anybody other that dorky nerds want out of it. Fair enough.

The problem is that Lucas and Kasdan and the writers since then have (well, for the most part) infused a rich backstory into what is more obviously shown on screen, one that intrigues and rewards looking deeper into the films, and that it really wouldn’t have hurt The Force Awakens to get that stuff right — almost every issue I’ve raised with the film could have been avoided with a single line of dialogue in the right spot. Another issue is that in trying to pay homage to the classic three films (Episode IV, V, and VI), Abrams is just unbelievably unoriginal and ham-fisted about it.

You want proof? Okay, let’s forget, for a moment, that The Force Awakens is very nearly a remake of A New Hope. Let’s forget that the Millennium Falcon has been lost for a dozen or more years, but gets found roughly five minutes after it is fired up for the first time in “ages.” Let’s forget that BB-8 is just another R2-D2, and that it’s still odd that with all that advanced science around, nobody seems to be able to make small droids speak English. Indeed, let’s doubly forget that at least 25 in-movie years have passed since the events of Episode VI — presuming Rey is Luke’s daughter, and looks to be in her 20s, and Kylo Ren looks to be not much older than that — and yet the technology for ships, blasters, stormtroopers, et cetera does not seem to have changed even a little from 1977. Put that all out of your mind.

There’s a moment where Finn bumps the chess table on board the Falcon, and the chess game turns back on. In the original film, this was a cute moment — and a tip of the hat to stop-motion special effects master Ray Harryhausen, who had just a few years earlier done some masterful work in the Sinbad movies. In the new film, the game picks up exactly where it was left at least 25 in-movie years earlier. Does that seem credible to you, given that the Falcon was acknowledged in the film to have been owned by several different beings, and looks to have been on many different adventures since Episode VI? There — that’s the whole problem with this film in a nutshell. It’s fun, it’s flashy, it’s exciting, but it is really not too credible.

Once again, JJ Abrams delivers enough bangpow to enthrall audiences, but the moment you stop and think it through a bit — you realize you’ve been had. This is a pastiche of the old films, not a new chapter in the story at all. The man doesn’t seem to be able to come up with a sensible original story to save his life, and when he thinks to go the safer route of remaking an old story, he mishandles it.

I’m relieved that someone else will be directing Episode VIII, because I don’t think this franchise could handle another Abrams hack job. I actually do care about this story; that’s why it disappoints me that we didn’t move the needle much forward, particularly with such a great cast and some lovely new ideas. So much more could have been done, but someone — either Abrams, or someone higher up at Disney — felt like a rehash of the one that had the big impact the first time around would be a better approach. This is just plain old lazy storytelling.

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(Above: who is “The Pilot?” Did you see this in the film? Is he important? Nope, just more merch for you suckers to buy! Buy buy buy!)

Sure, they’ll make a gajillion dollars, and maybe that’s all that matters — there are more merchandise characters than actually appear in this movie, and some that do appear as toys would have you believe are far more important to the film than they turn out (at least so far) to be, and maybe that tells you something about where the creative energy in this project was really directed. I’m sorry to have to say it, but The Force Awakens is the movie equivalent of reality TV — visually appealing, popular, and fun — but kind of empty and unsatisfying, and not very good for your brain in the end.

Still, let it be said that the next related movie we’ll see — Rogue One — takes a different approach to working with what’s come before that could be quite interesting, and perhaps Episode VIII will finally take us someplace both new and complementary to the bold, brash, come-from-nowhere experimentation and energy that powered the first, and particularly the second, of the original movies. That’s my “new hope,” if you will.

To the extent that The Force Awakens is better-made than the Prequels, I am glad. To the extent that most people will find it thrilling fun that deeper subtext doesn’t matter to them, I am glad. To the extent that we still have a hope of getting a kick-ass chapter the likes of The Empire Strikes Back, I am glad and hopeful. Why, with so many great people working on this film, we couldn’t have gotten a torch-passing film that embraced the big dreams of the original classics instead of a remixed pastiche (that often wandered into parody … “you can always blow these things up!”), I am mystified. Playing it safe is the very last thing you should do with Star Wars.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One (2010)

Written by: Steve Kloves (screenplay)
Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Running time: 146 minutes

It’s a bad sign when your mind wanders during a film. It happened a couple of times during this one, which is not to say I didn’t like it. Overall, I liked it quite a lot — in part because after six of these films they finally figured out how to make Harry Potter movies, and in part because J.K. Rowling has nicked so many “bits” from other books and movies and just twisted them a little, and there’s nothing wrong with that generally speaking.

The first thing that broke my suspension of disbelief was a moment early on in the film when Harry meets Elphias Dodge, an old friend of Dumbledore’s. Nothing against David Ryall, who’s been in everything British TV can offer at one time or another, but I would have loved to have seen Tom Baker in that part — he’s much more the kind of mad character Dumbledore would hang out with.

Later, during the sequence in the Ministry of Magic, I remember thinking “ooh they should have let Terry Gilliam direct this one.” There were several moments like that.

But what really broke my concentration was the laid-on-thick parallels to The Lord of the Rings. Now, the whole series has at this point become a “Quest” tale so bits of other quest classics are of course going to show up, from Greek mythology to Doctor Who’s The Key to Time, but Rowling really doesn’t try to terribly hard to hide it.

I come at these movies not having read the books (yes, I’m the one guy who hasn’t read any of these books bar the first one!), so I judge them as movies. From that perspective, the series has been pretty uneven; after the first delightful one, they quickly got jumbled, hurried and senseless (particularly The Prisoner of Azkaban, which was a disgraceful mess). After a slight respite in the much-better Goblet of Fire, things returned to silly, overwrought and confusing in Order of the Phoenix, which I found totally forgettable and impossible to follow.

Much of the damage finally started being repaired in 2009’s The Half-Blood Prince, helmed by David Yates who took what Mike Newell started and ran with it, focusing like a laser on the actual story buried in the details and extracting it, much to the delight of anyone who hadn’t re-read the book the week before. HBP was clear, set up new events nicely, really let the young actors shine instead of being just an endless walk-through of notable old British veterans like the first five movies were, and as a result solved the pacing issue that had really hobbled all the films from #3 onwards.

Yates returned for this one, and the two-part nature of it might have been a crass marketing ploy but I for one am grateful; the slower pace makes this the first Harry Potter movie to have any appreciable amounts of silence in it. I found myself really enjoying the slower-paced scenes, such as Harry’s kiss with Ginny to remind you that they’re still a couple, and some of the later picture-postcard scenes do allow for some genuine thoughtful acting (rather than, say, re-acting to one of the many effects shots).

There is still a certain amount of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them with the by-now enormous guest cast (and remember, half of those characters have died in the films by this point!) and there are still some introductions of people who, as in so much of Rowling’s work, walk on and then are quickly killed or thrown out never to be seen again. I was disappointed we didn’t get more of the Dursleys, but at least this time they didn’t forget about having a few lighter scenes; the Seven Harrys will get a giggle out of many.

There’s a fair amount of sexual tension in the film, though for the life of me I can’t really see how the Ron-Hermione romance actually works so their on-screen actions feel kind of forced (and the “triangle” with Harry even more so), but the kids do pretty well with the material; this movie is much less a spotlight on Radcliffe as it is on Watson and Grint, the former proving herself what I have always suspected — a reincarnated Audrey Hepburn — while Grint struggles to look like he even belongs in this movie.

I don’t fault Grint so much as Rowling — Ron is just a blah character meant to balance the other two, and in the films he’s been a total third wheel since the first one and he knows it. Of the original young cast, I think Watson and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) have a real shot at having genuine long film careers if they care to. Felton isn’t given that much to do in this one but he’s quite obviously going to have a bigger role in the next one, and I found the whole dynamic of the Malfoy household much more interesting in DH1 than ever before, as the family — particularly Lucius, Draco’s father — was painted in such cartoonish strokes up until the last film (and speaking of him, what the holy hell happened to Jason Isaacs? He looks terrible in this movie, like he’s aged 10 years to everyone else’s two!).

There were still sequences that didn’t make much sense, or seem to add much to the plot, but it is the scenes of the heroic trio on the run that make up the entire second half of the film, and while a nice change from the Hogwarts-bound nature of the previous movies, went too far over the LOTR-homage cliff and felt circular in nature — apart from destroying the Horcrux, they don’t actually accomplish much, and what few clues they turn up felt very Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew-ish in nature. Finally, they end up in right where they didn’t want to be — and despite their escape, they lose Dobby (I was not sorry to see him go, I considered him the Jar-Jar of this series, but at least they gave him a very good send-off) and the villain seems to have won the day.

Despite not having read the books, I have a pretty fair idea of where this is going for the wrap-up, which characters will return and which ones will redeem themselves. Why? Because while Harry Potter’s saga is imaginative — and enjoyable for that — it is not terribly original. Anyone well-versed in the Hero’s Myth, Freytag’s model and the best adventure stories that have come before it can see the general path ahead. But have we enjoyed the journey?

Though it remains entirely too dependent on the source books to make much sense without them, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, like The Half-Blood Prince, at least tries to give us a coherent enough main plot to follow that we aren’t bothered too much about the details, and on that level it succeeds.

For once, I understood perfectly what the subject of the title of the film was all about, thanks mainly to a really standout bit of shadow-play homage animation to illustrate the tale of the Three Brothers, and even the racism/eugenics allegory was further explored without beating me over the head with it. It even tied back to the first movie, well there’s a nice reward for those who have grown confounded by Rowling’s tendency to throw tonnes of interesting stuff at us and then refer back to precious little of it ever again.

I have hope that the finale really will tie up at least some of the bigger loose ends and give us a satisfying conclusion. I have no doubt that Voldemort has fallen for the last of Dumbledore’s traps, that just as the brass ring is in his grasp his “family” will begin to defect, and that characters not seen in this movie (or for a while, if you get my drift) will return. Hell, I’m half-expecting Ghostly Alec Guinness — sorry, Ghostly Albus Dumbledore — to turn up at a crucial moment and tell Harry to use the Force.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Written by: Norman R. Raine & Seton I. Miller
Directed by: Michael Curtiz & William Keighley
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains
Running time: 102 minutes

The short version: this is an absolute classic of a movie, so good that I don’t even mind that a number of the cast are obvious Americans.

This is a beautifully-executed amalgamation of various legends of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men in Sherwood Forest, a story that has evolved greatly over time (and deviated from what scant details are verifiable) but has its roots in genuine tales of a legendary archer who addressed injustices via vigilante violence from at least the 14th century.

This version presents the now-standard portrait of Robin of Loxley as a dispossessed Saxon knight forced to become an outlaw when the Normal Prince John, conniving brother of King Richard I, attempts to seize the monarchy and subjugate the Saxons while King Richard is away at the Crusades.

Very little of this squares in any way with the actual legend (itself full of disputed details) — it’s off by a mere couple of centuries, a different king and lack of nobility for a start — but who the hell cares. The setting gives us a genuine historical backdrop (Prince John really did overthrow Richard’s regent William Longchamp in an attempt to seize the throne while Richard was held prisoner), a rich and clearly-drawn cast of characters, an injustice for Robin to fight and plenty of pageantry. The 12th century never looked as good as this, and despite all the detail inaccuracy, most people consider this the definitive version of the story which, despite many subsequent attempts, hasn’t been topped (or even equalled).

The key to this movie’s enduring success — it’s still very watchable and enjoyable some 72 years after it’s release — has a lot to do with the screenplay, which is beautifully peppered with comedy and drama in perfect proportion to the action, and structured very much along the patterns of Shakespeare’s plots.

The casting must also be mentioned, as time has proven most of the choices very wise. Errol Flynn (who was actually born in Australia) gives us a passable attempt at an aristocratic English accent, convincing us he’s a Saxon lord being discriminated against by the treacherous Prince John (just this side of camp portrayal by Claude Rains), the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne (the flawless Basil Rathbone), and the rather ineffectual and oafish Sherrif of Nottingham (a refreshingly different, Cowardly Lion-esque approach by Melville Cooper).

Strangely, however, the Merry Men are appear to mostly be made up of Americans. Excluding Robin and Will Scarlett, the main speaking roles amongst the outlaws are the frog-voiced Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette, a former silent-movie star who’s distinctive voice made him a comic actor in the talkies) and Little John (father of “Gilligan’s Island” skipper Alan Hale Jr.), the former of which is especially jarring in 12th-century Yorkshire.

Still, all is forgiven once the characters are introduced and the action begins, including a number of breath-taking stunts (remembering that there was no technology or safety standards in those days) set against a (California!) backdrop of perfectly gorgeous technicolour, still quite the novelty in 1938 but which has definitely helped preserve interest in this film.

Flynn comes off as the perfect heroic archetype; charming, sassy, bold, witty and noble. From his first encounter with Sir Guy and particularly in his latter bold appearance in the court of Prince John, his portrayal seems natural and self-assured, like he was born to play it — the fact that his interpretation stands as definitive to this day speaks loudly of how well the script was tailored to Flynn’s personality.

Poor Olivia De Havilland has to do all her acting using almost exclusively her eyes for most of the film, only ridding herself of her maiden headdress towards the end, but she proves up to the challenge and gives a surprisingly rich and nuanced performance, even when overshadowed by the much more (shall we say) theatrical stylings of messrs. Rains, Rathbone and Cooper.

Sharp-eyed or repeat viewings of the film can yield forth all manner of continuity goofs, embarrassingly rubber clubs and swords, strange plot points (Richard and his men just “show up” in Sherwood with no explanation of how they escaped or got there, right on cue) and so forth, but these sorts of things — which would be excoriated as sloppy in most films — are swept under the rug by the an audience swept away by the pageantry and action. Directors Curtiz and Keighley boldly stage complicated fight scenes and other set pieces with huge numbers of extras and rather complicated shots and by and large it all works stunningly well.

Like Captain Blood and other high-adventure films of the period, the filmmakers have no trouble balancing slower, character-rich moments with the fast-paced action, because at all times they remember to be servants to the overall story. The comedy is always delightfully light-hearted, the dramatic moments are credible (particularly thanks to De Havilland, such as the scene in the forest where she begins to be won over to Robin’s cause), and nothing feels out of place — even the entirely-invented romance between the hunter Much and Marion’s nurse Bess. Even the small moments and throwaway lines give the story more variety and depth — careful not to make Robin less than perfectly noble, giving the Merry Men sufficient backstory, avoiding painting the Normans as all-bad or the Saxons as all-good and so on.

The Axis of Evil, circa 1166.

If you only ever see one Robin Hood film in its entirety, this is the one to see (well, actually, you should watch Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights right after it). If you only watch one Errol Flynn movie in your life, this is the one to see. If you only watch one colour film from the late 1930s … okay yeah, that would be dumb because there were a number of fabulous colour movies from the late 30s, but this is definitely right up there with Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz.

Historical accuracy be damned, this is Hollywood legend-making at its finest and the source of so much influence over not just later Robin Hood movies, but adventure movies in general, that it should be a staple of film schools and periodic revivals, particularly at outdoor film fests. This is genuinely among my all-time favourite films — great historical fun that holds up so well it may well last another century as a beloved fable.

The Runaways (2010)

Written and directed by: Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon
Running time: 109 minutes

The Runaways is a decidedly lopsided film about the hugely influential all-girl rock band who roared into life just on the crest of punk and combusted, as all legendary bands tend to do, before they ever reached their full potential.

The background of the film is that its screenplay is derived from (lead singer) Cherie Currie’s tell-all biography Neon Angel, but also has as one of its executive producers one Joan Jett, the leader of the band, and so we can presume that from the point of view of these two, at least, the real story of The Runaways is being told.

Fanning and Stewart are, frankly, miracle pieces of casting giving their best performances ever (Fanning we already knew was an adept actor, but who could have guess that Kristen Stewart had more to offer the world than Bella Swan?), totally submersing themselves in their roles and even actually singing most of the numbers performed. Apart from scene-stealing Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, the two girls dominate not only the band but the entire movie.

Thus, it’s a pity that the movie focuses on only these two members of the band (and Fowley) so heavily. Drummer Sandie West (Stella Maeve) at least gets some decent screen time and a few lines, but Lita Ford (played by Scout Taylor-Compton) just comes off as a permanently disgruntled bitch with the very few lines she’s given throughout the film, and the bassist (a made-up character called Robin, since actual bassist Jackie Fox chose not to be represented in the film, played by Alia Shawkat) doesn’t get so much as a single word of dialogue! Ford and “Robin” just disappear into the background for 99% of the film, and West only fares slightly better. It’s like trying to tell the story of the Beatles while ignoring George and Ringo and instead only focusing on John, Paul and Brian Epstein.

That said, seeing the formation of the band makes for an interesting first half, showing not just Currie’s upbringing but Jett’s as well (though the film’s version of the band forming and their early practicing is an out-of-sequence and fictionalized version of what actually occurred). Frankly, Fowley still has enough life story left over to make several more films just about him.

The backstory on Currie’s disintegrating family is interesting, but by the middle of the film we see where that’s all going and would rather stick to the band members (who’ve had a very illuminating introduction into the realities of first-tour experiences), but since half of the band are little more than window dressing we get more about Marie Currie, Cherie’s long-suffering sister, left behind to take care of their alcoholic dad. After the band experience great success in Japan, things begin to fall apart with Currie taking on too many drugs (etc) to really function, even as she and Jett begin a relationship.

Before you know it, the band are in the recording studio, Currie is having a breakdown, Lita Ford gets her big bitch scene and voila, the whole thing flies apart. In reality, this process took four years and three albums (with Currie) plus a final record with Jett on lead vocals before it came crashing down. The film leaves us with Jett ruminating on a solo career, and an awkward coda years later as Jett is being interviewed by Rodney Bingenheimer on KROQ (played over-the-top, if that’s actually possible with Bingenheimer, by Keir O’Donnell); Currie, who hasn’t spoken to Jett in years, phones in and stammers through some on-air awkwardness, then goes back to her job folding napkins.

Viewers who are not familiar with the background of the band and its actual breakdown are likely to be a bit confused by the abridgement and time compression of the film, which actually helps the film feel rather short at 109 minutes, but rock n roll is as much a feeling as it is a series of actions, so this film is probably as much of the real story as you’re ever likely to get, and the soundtrack (mostly reperformed Runaways songs, but there’s also some delicious Bowie, Stooges, Gary Glitter, MC5 and even a little Suzi Quatro in there as well) is pure gold.

The film itself is efficient and well-shot, covering a lot of ground pretty smoothly overall. Although there’s more dysfunctional family life in this one than you get in most rock band biopics, it still feels at times fairly mechanical in its run-through from origins to breakup, complete with “updates” on most of the characters at the end.

Despite having little to no “message” apart from “the rock lifestyle is fun, but don’t overdo the drugs, mmmkay?”, it’s good to see big-name stars actually put some acting blood on the line and do justice to the (limited scope of) the story for a change, and the music is killer, so ultimately I recommend you see the film. I somehow just don’t see Ford, West and Fox (et al) ever getting it together to tell you their side of the story, so eat what you’re given and enjoy The Runaways.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Stars: Robert Downie Jr., Jude Law
Running Time: 129 minutes

When I was a boy, I devoured the Sherlock Holmes stories — and still credit my reasonable powers of observation and fair ability to “read” people to my studied enthusiasm for those imaginative tales.

Every few years, I get the itch to re-immerse myself in that wonderful world of Victorian crime and intrigue, intense problem-solving matched with equally intense pleasure-seeking, and the power of pure friendship and pure intellectualism. Most recently I’ve finally (after 20 years!) gotten a chance to watch Tom Baker play the world’s foremost detective from a 1982 BBC production. Baker, who’s best-known role (The Doctor of Doctor Who) is more than a little inspired by Doyle’s detective, was actually bloody marvellous in the traditional theatrical interpretation of the part, rather talky and stagey and with an emphasis on the character’s regal bearing contrasted with his inability to cope with anything beyond crime-solving. It’s available for rental and Holmes purists will probably find themselves generally delighted at this unfairly-overlooked production.

When this new Sherlock Holmes film first came around last Christmas, I had mixed feelings that ultimately kept me from seeing it in a cinema until now. I had great confidence that Robert Downey Jr would be fine in the lead, despite the alarming 80s hair he boasts in the promotional poster (thankfully not replicated in the film), but I frankly don’t care much for Guy Ritchie’s output; neither his choice of usual subjects (British gangland) or his particular directorial style (no more than 10 minutes till the next implausible action sequence) have ever sat well with me, though I’d be the first to admit the two generally go together successfully.

The trailer didn’t inspire me much, except to dare to hope that Jude Law (who plays Watson) would actually be good, something I’ve never managed to see happen before (including, most recently, in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Holmes as a boxer? A dashing ladies man with all the right words? A Victorian London that appears to have a lot of explosions??

But one should never trust trailers. The actual film itself is, in my view, Ritchie’s most successful effort at being light-hearted, and while great liberties have been taken with the source, it is still identifiably Holmes and Watson, and makes for a solidly entertaining film that deservedly did well at the box office.

While the film is carried by the strong performance of Downey as Holmes, this is actually more Watson’s movie, a very wise move on the part of the screenwriters and director. Watson is often played (ever since Nigel Bruce ruined the part) as a bumbling fool whose only job is to provide narration and makes Holmes look good, but in this version we get something much closer to the Dr. Watson we met in the books and stories; a colleague who, after several years with Holmes, has picked up much of his power of observation, a foil who Holmes himself sees as the man he might have been, a faithful chronicler but not always so loyal a friend, often getting tricked or challenged into participating further.

Jude Law has, to my eyes, never ever been better than he is here. I have never much cared for him and find most of his performances wooden, underplayed and dull, but he clearly had a strong regard for Watson and a good chemistry with Downey, and hits exactly the right note.

As for Downey, his accent is (as Ritchie called it) “flawless” and his interpretation of the part is entirely suitable. If Doctor Who ever got made into a another big-screen movie and the current incumbent was unsuitable, Downey would be my second choice — his entire performance here might as well be one long audition piece for The Doctor. Though he lost some weight for the role to get into fighting trim, I still don’t see him as quite physically right for the role — Holmes was a wastrel in many ways, and the usual consequence of such addictions is a gauntness Downey just doesn’t possess. But he’s more than adequate in the part and apart from some occasional mumbled lines (usually spoken too quickly to be heard clearly), he provides the necessary mix of gentlemanly bearing with mischievous misanthropy, adding style and wit, particularly to his relationship with Inspector LeStrade (Eddie Marsan).

The plot is scarcely worth mentioning, in part because its not based on anything in the Conan Doyle canon and in part because apart from its overall raison d’etre — purporting to show the first meeting of Holmes with his later arch-enemy Professor Moriarty — it doesn’t matter really. The mystery is lovely and atmospheric and, as we know full well going into this, fully solved by the end. The supporting players are equally trivial to the point of the film, which is to showcase the complex relationship of Holmes and Watson. The whole film is actually structured more a Dan Brown runaround (such as The DaVinci Code) than a proper Holmes tale, for example eschewing the traditional “told after the fact” narrative angle and omitting the also-traditional part where a visitor to Baker Street sets up the entire background, one of Doyle’s most common literary devices. But it’s all been cast aside so that we may spend more time in the present moment with Holmes and Watson and watch their bromance take its roller-coaster ride through some very scenic set pieces.

Instead of all that drawing-room chat, we are dropped right into the thick of things, with Holmes and Watson stopping the ritual murder of a young girl by occult leader Lord Blackwood (bit of an in-joke, that name), played by Mark Strong. Blackwood tries his best to convince Holmes of the existence of the supernatural, even returning from the dead after three days (it’s been done), but Holmes is having none of it. Methodically and (as usual) against time and obstacles both external and internal, he unfolds the mystery and (along with the help of Rachel McAdams as an American former lover and jewel thief) saves the day.

London is of course a great place to shoot a Victorian mystery as its quite easy to use current locations with a minimum of dressing. The problem with Ritchie is that he has no concept of the word “minimum” — sets are usually over-dressed and dwelled on more than the actors. Some scenes appear to be chosen purely for their visual value rather than any practical meaning; a prolonged fight scene with Holmes bare-knuckle boxing a larger fellow exists ostensibly to show his ability to calculate his victory over an opponent, but this exact same ability was showcased in the first scene of the film — so this repeated scene is merely an excuse to show the same thing, only this time with Downey’s shirt off.

In another example, being chased by a giant French henchman (Fre-henchman?), the action allows for a large vessel to be loosed from its moorings and fall into the Thames, where it sinks entirely out of sight. The Thames, at its absolute deepest point and highest tide, wouldn’t be quite 20 metres (the spirit of Conan Doyle was notably absent during the “logical sequence of events” part of writing this screenplay). Not only that, the boat slipping from its drydock is entirely unnecessary and adds neither atmosphere nor content to the story.

The big climatic fight on the top of the still-being-built Tower Bridge was probably enjoyable to mainstream moviegoers but struck me as very unrealistic, breaking my suspension of disbelief by being so obviously green-screened. It’s no accident that it’s the only really “talky” part of the movie, the part where Holmes explains to the villain (as though he didn’t know) — and the audience — all the ways in which he’d rigged his “supernatural” tricks. I guess Richie can’t abide the idea of people just explaining things without visual drama all around them. At least he confined himself to only one huge explosion this time.

For a “Hollywood” movie (albeit shot in England), Sherlock Holmes is generally very successful at making the character more appealing to modern (read: less entertained by displays of cleverness) audiences; as a movie its good fun and I’m not surprised that the estate of Sir Conan Doyle gave its blessing, despite it being an original story. The choice of a “supernatural” villain was both genre-appropriate and created a nice contrast of styles. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack makes use of authentic sounds and even a few period songs alongside the usual “action” soundtrack requirements, so I’d rate it above average. The editing was, as is typical of a Guy Ritchie production, rather slapshot and trendy. Like the sets, it felt overworked at times. One fears for Mr Ritchie’s ability to stay focused for any lengthy periods of time.

This interpretation of Holmes may not go down as a classic, but its well worth your ticket or rental money, features a surprisingly strong pair of leads, and preserves the colour, charm and brains of the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes. Despite the sometimes ill-fitting choice of director, I’d say this is about as good a Sherlock Holmes movie as you could possibly hope for out of a mainstream US studio.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray
Running Time: 87 minutes

Wes Anderson’s films are very hit-and-miss with me, in part because he tries very hard not to make the same movie over and over, for which I thank him. I’m always a little amazed at how generally well his films do considering they have a distinctly “indie/art house” air to them; he’s the kid who somehow gets to make largely uncompromised movies on the studio’s dime, never having a megahit but always paying off the investors sufficiently that he gets to make another one. In some ways, he’s this generation’s Woody Allen.

So I have my reasons for wanting to like what I see from him, and by and large I have — although he’s very rarely moved me to be terribly enthusiastic. Such is also the case with his latest movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox — or as I call it, Not At All Bad Mr. Fox. I enjoyed it, not least because it certainly doesn’t look like any other movie on the screen this year — but it didn’t thrill me all that much, and I was a little disappointed to find the well-remembered Roald Dahl book quite tinkered with.

Still, it’s important to remember that I’m not the target audience for this — it’s a kid’s movie based on a kid’s book, and on that level I think the film works pretty well. I hope it inspires kids to read more Roald Dahl. The all-hand-done, stop-motion animation is a really nice change from the surplus of 3-D computer animation we’ve gotten, and although it uses the same technique as the Wallace & Gromit series it does have a distinct look and “feel” (what Ebert would call “texture”). The story works out pretty well despite Anderson’s (unnecessary) addition of a sub-plot and character that don’t end up making a big impression. As a children’s movie, I can recommend it at least as much as the book.

I can’t help but be disappointed by two key decisions, the first of which I’ve already alluded to: Anderson’s decision to (literally) wedge in a “young men who are rivals then bond” subplot that doesn’t actually go anywhere unexpected and seems to exist solely to “mark his territory” in the movie. The second mistake (in my opinion) was casting George Clooney as the lead. Certainly Mr. Fox is a smug sonofabitch and Clooney is terribly good at playing that sort of character, but there’s a reason why Mr. Clooney isn’t constantly swamped with voice work: it’s because he’s not a voice actor. A voice actor is someone who has great range in his voice and can hide, exaggerate his audible personality and usual range with aplomb. Clooney either can’t do this or was directed not to, which means you spend the entire movie looking at Mr. Fox but hearing (very obviously) George Clooney, which hurts the suspension of disbelief.

By contrast, Meryl Streep (who plays Mrs. Fox) is unrecognisable till the end credits (in part because the role is rather beneath her, quite frankly), as is Willem Dafoe. Even Owen Wilson, who sports a pretty recognisable voice and is of course to be expected to appear in every Wes Anderson film any more, manages to inject some actual character into his role. Not George — he just puts on that smug tone he employs in every Oceans movie and phones it in from there.

The aforementioned subplot is Anderson’s weakness — he just has to find a way to stick in some non-conformist dork character who refuses to stop being a odd little twerp, but at the exact same time longs to be accepted by the mainstream. To give Mr. Fox’s son Ash that title, it was necessary to invent a foil who starts off as a rival but then ends up as a friend, thus the invention of Ash’s “cousin” Kristofferson (what an original name!). Kristofferson is “acceptably odd” with his meditation and his quiet nature, versus Ash’s “unacceptable” lack of physicality and grace (bad qualities for a fox, I’m sure you’ll agree). Everyone else in the film is endearingly (but acceptably!) odd as well, except strangely enough for Mrs. Fox, an artist who just comes off stupid and rather gullible in the film.

The film diverges from the book in an number of important ways, some sensible and some insensible. In the movie, Mr. Fox is an expert thief who steals (primarily) chickens and such from the three local farmers just for the fun of it. In the book, he does this to feed his family (as every fox does). In the book, Mr. Fox has four children; in the movie, his “reformation” from a chicken thief to a newspaper columnist (who presumably now pays for food? It’s never explained) is brought on by a close escape and the revelation that his wife is pregnant (with their one son Ash).

Twelve years later (in fox years, a delightful invention that pops up periodically), Ash is feeling his oats again and conspires with the super of his tree-home, the opossum Kylie to start pulling heists of chicken, ducks, geese, turkeys and alcoholic cider. Mrs. Fox is extremely slow to notice. Mr. Fox’s thefts lead to a war of attrition with the mean old farmers, who use increasingly strong methods to try and flush Mr. Fox out, displacing all the other animals in the nearby land. Eventually, the Fox family as well as the the Badgers, rats and other animals are forced very far underground and are in danger of starving. Amazingly, the animals (including most incredibly Mrs. Fox) get only mildly annoyed with Mr. Fox for getting them all into this mess when everything was perfectly fine before by nothing more than his sheer avarice and lack of willpower. He is quickly forgiven, however, when he comes up with a plan to dig into the farmers’ storehouses while they are distracted by trying to flush him out.

From here, the rest of the film is largely a Roadrunner cartoon in stop-motion; the farmers try something, Fox miraculously figures out a way to outsmart them. Repeat. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. In the book, Mr. Fox takes some responsibility for his actions, and his plans are borne of a sense of guilt about what has happened to the other animals while he was just trying to feed his own family. In the film, you never get that; you get instead an arrogant prick with no real willpower who takes more than he needs, gets into entirely predictable trouble, but manages to weasel (heh) his way out of one self-created jam after another, aided by enabling co-dependents. I was almost rooting for the farmers by the end of it …

I read somewhere that during pre-production, Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) was going to be involved, and you have to wonder how that would have turned out, but in some way the art direction on this (done without him) is one of the things that really shines; a few scenes don’t quite “look right,” but that’s part of the charm of hand-made stop-motion.

In 10 or 20 years when nobody remembers George Clooney, this film will be seen for what it actually is; a charming, perhaps a little sloppy, but ultimately human adaptation of Dahl’s story of “wild animals” in a refreshing style that’s enjoyed by children (there were a fair number of laughs at the screening I went to, which had a healthy kid contingent).

At the moment, however, (particularly with Clooney being in every third film out in 2009), the film seems more like an animated version of that funny Captain Kirk “motivational poster” going around the net that says “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of how awesome I am.” I can’t help but think that sticking a little closer to the book and using a better vocal actor for Mr. Fox would have made the film a classic.

The 1st Annual (Almost) Totally Blind Oscar™ Predictions!

POST-AWARDS UPDATE: Well that went well … I finished the evening with a 12-4 record, my best ever score. Turns out you can predict the Oscars by just watching the machinations of the hype machine! And here I’ve been wasting all this time actually watching the films. Lesson learned! 🙂

I’m actually shocked at how few films I’ve seen this year, but my usual film employer spent the last few months being bought and then rebuilding, so I didn’t get to see my usual 50-70 or so movies this year (unless you count Turner Classic Movies!). I did go out and see some films in cinema that personally interested me, but by that count this was an off year; there are some films out now that I would like to take in (and probably will over time), but very few I absolutely had to see. Of the nominees listed, I actually did see Up, Julie & Julia, Star Trek, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Thus, I’m in a good position to make Academy Award predictions, because I can go by almost nothing but the hype. I’m not even going to read Ebert’s predictions this year. I feel this frees me from the slavery of actually having to watch these films, at least some of which I might not enjoy, and allows me to discover the zen of pure movie criticism. I learned that from Helmut Spargle.

So, with a few measly drops of LSD and my critic’s intuition, I’ll stake my claims today, and find out how well I did tomorrow. Glory or shame will be mine!

Original Song: “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart. Because Hollywood wants you to know they love country music too. Yeah right.

Original Score: I will be pulling for Michael Giacchino for Up, but I actually think it will go to Avatar (James Horner). Nope, Giacchino won. I’m happy to be wrong on this one.

Sound Editing: This will be The Hurt Locker’s first of many Oscars.

Sound Mixing: I actually think Star Trek should get this one, as this is one area where I thought the film hung together (since it didn’t in terms of plot, continuity, direction or design …), but it will probably go to Avatar. Got it for sound editing, missed it for this one, it was The Hurt Locker again. Riff-Raff lookin’ good!

Cinematography: My bet is on Avatar for this one, which is a shame because computer-generated pictures shouldn’t be eligible for cinematography awards. It really ought to go to Inglorious Basterds.

Art Direction: Unless the Academy is feeling extraordinarily ornery, this will go to Avatar as well.

Animated Feature Film: For no reason I can make out, the Academy hates Pixar (probably because they are a clique), nevertheless I will be like Charlie Brown and kick the ball for Pixar’s Up. But if I’m right about the Academy, expect it to go to Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Original Screenplay: Well, Tarentino’s out of this one, since Inglorious Basterds is about as original as an episode of Hogan’s Heroes; Up won’t get it because the Academy hates Pixar; and The Hurt Locker won’t get it because there have been charges that the story is stolen. That leaves  The Messenger and A Serious Man. From what little I know of these two films, I’m going with the Coen Brothers on this one. Dang it, missed this one. It was The Hurt Locker yet again.

Adapted Screenplay: Precious. That is all.

Foreign Language Film: Based completely on wild-assed guessing, I’ll pick The White Ribbon (Germany). Nope, it was the Argentinian film El Secreto de sus Ono.

Directing: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, though perhaps we’ll get an upset win with Lee Daniels for Precious — he certainly seems to be able to pull performances out of actors that other directors can’t get.

Supporting Actress: Mo’nique, Precious.

Supporting Actor: It’s between Christopher Plummer for The Last Station and Christoph Waltz for Inglorious Basterds. I’ll be rooting for Plummer, but my gut says headline writers everywhere have already got it: “Christoph WALTZES Away With Award,” har-de-har-har.

Actress: I would love to see a total newcomer like Carey Mulligan or Gabourney Sidibe win it, but nah, it’ll be either Meryl Streep or Sandra Bullock. My guess: Sandra, even though Streep was actually much better. I personally thought Julie & Julia was awful (well, the Julie part anyway), but Streep was absolutely amazing as Julia Child, whereas Sandra Bullock is being rewarded for taking a risk outside her comfort zone (but wasn’t actually at all convincing IMHO). If Gabourney Sidibe pulls an upset, that will be the big story of the night.

Actor: I actually think Jeff Bridges could pull an surprise here.

Best Picture: Everyone thinks it will be The Hurt Locker, and they’re probably right, but I’m going with Precious for the upset. I was half-right on this, so I’m counting it. 🙂

Whether I’m right, wrong or somewhere in-between, I will say this: 2009 was a good year for variety of stories in movies, even if a number of them weren’t to my taste. I can think of many years where the nominees for Best Picture were mostly dramas with a token comedy, but this year we have a real buffet of styles and stories to choose from. I’m also seeing a pleasing trend back towards what I’ll call “sophisticated adult fare” like Up in the Air, An Education, A Serious Man and A Single Man (among others).

And in my world, the first 10 minutes of Up would receive a special award for Perfection in Computer Animation — that sequence is a summation of every element of a film coming together.

Movies For (Film) Lovers

(This guest article I wrote is reprinted with permission from Liz Langley’s “Lust Never Sleeps,” an excellent but NSFW blog on all things erotic. Highly recommended.)

The films you saw at the early stages of your romantic life can have an enormous impact on your perceptions of love, the opposite sex, and life in general. Further, because most people tend to see movies on the big screen only once — those thoughts and impressions and visual memories work their way deeper into our subconscious than something we can see on-demand any old time via the cable box or the internets.

Thanks to a local art-house cinema in my youth, my fantasy love life was longer and much richer than my actual love life for quite some little while, but I used that time learning from the Masters of Romance, from Rudolph Valentino to Errol Flynn. The main thing I learned from them is that their pick-up lines don’t work as well if you’re not as rich or good-looking — or living in the 1940s.

Sexually-charged scenes always made an impact on me and the first I can recall was in Zefferelli’s 1968 Romeo & Juliet when the sun rose and the lovers gently bickered about the nightingale and the lark. It wasn’t just the nudity, I had seen that before — there was a beauty and a tender emotional connection, between the lovers and between them and us — that a movie hadn’t given me before. To this day, I get dreamy-eyed just thinking about this film.

Around that time I snuck into a showing of Fellini’s Satyricon and received a mind-blowing vicarious thrill of teen love and decadent lust that fueled a powerful fire indeed, one that drove me to accelerate my indoctrination into the forbidden worlds of adult pleasures. I happened to catch The Rocky Horror Picture Show on its earliest “cult” runs and recall vividly how Frank N. Furter — particularly in the scene where he disguises himself and seduces both Brad <and Janet — took my notions of “normal” and traditional sexual roles and blew them as sky-high as that spaceship mansion of theirs (it’s the sheer curtain that really does it for me).

Blue balls from unsatisfied lust has nothing on the pain of a pure and broken heart, and as I transitioned away from the raw thrills of sexually-charged films, I found (no doubt due in part to the early influence of Romeo & Juliet) that sad films often produced the most romantic feelings, as tragedy often reminds you of the importance of appreciating what you have when you have it. Films such as The Elephant Man and Requiem for a Dream, The Very Long Engagement or In America have all those elements — but most to be honest, most romances are trumped by the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up; that such a charming, effective and utterly perfect portrait of love and loss and everything that is important about life should be the preamble of a children’s “wacky misadventure” type movie makes it all the more amazing.

It still must be said that if you made a movie of my love life it could only be a comedy. The romantic bits of Monty Python’s Life of Brian come to mind: I’m not the Messiah, I’m a very naughty boy!

One type of movie I can’t recommend if you’re serious about making Valentine’s Day something special is the so-called “Romantic Comedy.” There are a few good ones, certainly — but as a whole, the genre is pretty swamped with Lifetime-esque cliche and unsatisfying junk. I suggest – as always – that you dig up movies with genuine emotion as much as wits or tits. A shared laugh is an often-overlooked but insanely powerful bonding agent. For all the yuks and sight gags, Airplane! is actually a really sweet love story. Young Frankenstein has nothing but love at its heart when you think about it. Still, my favourite commedia di amore is a classic in the “war between the sexes” genre – combining sagacity and sexuality, mischief and misdirection, exotic locations and erotic elocution; songs and words and deeds in praise of a love based on genuine friendship – 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing. Indeed, it was the theme of my wedding.

So give up that Ghost DVD and pass the porn on to your bachelor buddy – for true love, the play is the thing.

Romeo & Juliet (1936)

Director: George Cukor
Starring: Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer, John Barrymore
Running time: 126 minutes

One of my favourite movies of all time is the 1968 Franco Zefferelli version of Romeo & Juliet.

Today on TCM (February is always a great month to watch, it’s all Oscar winners all month long), they ran the 1936 version of the classic story. Having not seen it, and being interested in some of the cast — Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, John Barrymore as Mercutio (a role I have played myself), Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in the title roles etc. — I gave it a whirl.

Not as good. Appalling by today’s standards, in fact.

In large part this is due to how old the leads were at the time — in 1936 it was probably considered immodest to actually cast young adults in teenage roles — but Leslie Howard was 43 YEARS OLD playing Romeo (Shearer was 34!). Most of the rest of the company were equally far too old to be in their parts, with the curious exception of the actors playing actual old people (!).

Throw in some truly diabolical overacting by 54 YEAR OLD John Barrymore as Mercutio (admittedly I’m biased), Edna May Oliver as Juliet’s nurse and a completely unwatchable “performance” by Andy Devine as the lummox Peter (idiot servant of Capulet), and even the rest of the production (some parts of which are actually quite excellent) becomes quite unbelievable. Did I mention the awkward male leotards with their Scottish-esque sporrans, by the way?

The American accents in most of the cast don’t help much either … I think we all know that if Shakespeare set the play in Verona Italy, he meant it to be performed in the the King’s English! Hmph and all that! 🙂

The movie isn’t worthless by any means — obviously we’re still talking the beautiful rhyming language of Shakespeare here (except when Andy Devine is speaking), and director Cukor (who went on to do many outstanding films) does good work overall, particularly in the larger scenes (the street fight between the families, the soirée where Romeo first lays eyes on Juliet and so on), and despite their great age Howard and Shearer do the roles justice, but still — a Romeo with a receding hairline is pretty hard to get past.

Some have said that Barrymore was deliberately playing Mercutio as an older guy who just won’t grow up (or, more cynically, likes to hang out with young men), but I’m not buying it. He’s a comic character, yes — but comparing Barrymore’s campiness to Reginald Denny’s much more finely-judged Benvolio shows off which of the two is the better actor, at least in this movie.

The sets, costumes and score are all excellent, but I have to admit that even as big a fan of B&W movies as I am, the story of Romeo and Juliet demands so much passion and exuberance to pull off all that flowery language that the movie not being in colour hurts it (in my eyes, particularly since I’m so enamoured of the 1968 version). Not only that, but the film is very “stagey” rather than naturalistic, which in 1936 might have been perfectly acceptable but looks terribly stiff today.

If you can get past The World’s Oldest Teenagers as the leads, there is obviously more than enough here to commend a viewing of the film if for no other reason than to compare it to the many other versions out there. Basil Rathbone as Tybalt in particular is easily the best version of the character of any film version in my opinion — he’s just flatly terrific in the role of an eager young buck spoiling for a fight, and completely dominates every scene he’s in. But Shearer, despite a fine performance, didn’t get the role based solely on her talents — she was the wife of producer Irving Thalberg, and it was perhaps her casting that made it necessary to make Romeo so old (etc).

Fundamentally flawed in a modern context but still based on what is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most universally-appealing stories (since he nicked it from Tristan & Isolde), this version is lavish and beautiful to watch — but it’s fairly bit hard to listen to.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet
Written By: Dashiell Hammett and John Huston

I recently got to see this film again for the first time in many years at the CineCenta theatre with a near-capacity crowd. Watching old movies — particularly familiar classics — takes on a lot of new meaning when you have a crowd, a fine print, excellent sound and such a big screen. Changes the whole dynamic.

When people refer to “film noir,” this is one of the archetypes of that whole genre. Many people today believe it refers to crime films taking place largely at night, but it actually has less to do with the stylised B&W look and a lot more to do with characters who have ambiguous motivations, secrets, and sexual agendas (well downplayed thanks to the Hays Office, but represented in other ways).

Bogart’s character Sam Spade is the perfect example: he’s in business with his partner Miles Archer but doesn’t like him, and at some point in the past was seeing Archer’s wife (though he has since lost interest). He doesn’t mourn Archer’s death when it happens, but he gives up a promising love affair to see his murderer brought to justice. He plays both sides of the law like a hopscotch court, alternately cooperating with then abusing the local police; and he admits that money sways him, although he (barely) ends up the hero. “Hard-boiled” is too weak a description for this guy: he drinks and smokes like a fiend, is blatantly greedy, is abusive to the people who are the most help to him, and his moral compass swings around like its at the North Pole.

The colourful supporting characters, and Bogart’s interaction with them, is what really holds the film together and why this version (and not the two previous film versions) is so well-remembered. Although each character (but one) is a delight, it’s Bogart deftly adapting to each one that is the real magic: Sam Spade is a consummate judge of character, knowing exactly how far he can push each person till they give.

Of course, this is the long-gone world of the early 1940s, and the interaction of characters as seen now gave for many moments of laughter as Spade steamrollers his devoted Miss Moneypenny secretary, smacks Peter Lorre around and tells him he’ll like it, intimidates the hapless police and brushes off Archer’s now-available widow in favour of the more dangerous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, among others. The laughter came naturally from a combination of awareness at how social morés had changed, along with the sharply written and rapid-fire banter. There’s a lot of really good lines in this film.

It doesn’t hurt that the movie is well-stocked with a diverse range of well-drawn characters, from the relentlessly civilised crime boss Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) to the rage-filled gunsel (that term used quite deliberately it would seem) Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr) to Peter Lorre’s unforgettable clever weasel, Joel Cairo. Even Spade’s office moll Effie (Lee Patrick), forever to become a caricatured stereotype in later films, projects a lot of heart into what we would today call a hopeless enabler. The only person really miscast in my view was Mary Astor, trying too hard to match Bogey’s machine-gun delivery until in some scenes it resembles an episode of Dragnet, and carrying off an Irish immigrant grifter about as well as Queen Elizabeth would have. She’s too stiff and too upper-class to really pull off the constant turns of softness and hardness the character needs, alternating from victim to gangster in a flash. Astor is just naturally glamourous and while some of that is called for, it never cracks enough for us to see if there’s anything underneath.

First-time (at the time) director Huston makes up for his inexperience by cleverly planning out every sequence and shooting almost totally in chronological order, making it easy for the actors to keep their performances consistent and keeping the crew on high efficiency (almost no dialogue was cut from the raw footage to the final edit). There are still short bits where the story gets into a bit of a muddle, but overall this is a very sharply-directed film.

There are several long sequences that appear to have been shot in a single take, including the finale which is over seven minutes of uninterrupted single camera angle, but my own favourite scene in the protracted struggle between Spade and Cairo in Spade’s office; motivations and fortunes change several times in the course of a five minute scene, with brilliant dialogue as punchy as the violence. Indeed, The Maltese Falcon is a far less violent film than you would expect; ultimately only two people actually die, and one of those is off a character who never actually appears in the film.

The elaborate plot unfolds rather deliciously, with the viewer led on a number of false starts; this is still a refreshing change from the hamfisted spell-it-all-out-complete-with-flashbacks approach too many modern mysteries indulge in. With almost all of the characters, there’s so much we’ve clearly not been told that could flesh them out, but instead Hammett and Huston leave them as they are, and we accept them as they are — even though we’d love to know more. We get enough of their essential personas to let our imaginations fill in the gaps, and the sexual innuendo and tension laid on thick thanks to the censorship of the times actually helps give these characters more mystery than they would have had otherwise.

I was particularly re-impressed (as I always am) with the various scenes of Spade’s love/hate relationship with the police; there were gasps from the audience during moments where Spade takes command and browbeats the fuzz into submission, not once but several times.

Music, sound effects, incidental characters and establishing shots are similarly concise and economical, letting the characters and dialogue have the day over much action or violence — all in service to the story, which is how it ought to be for a movie like this.

Despite some now-unintentional comedy due to the customs of the day, the tale and particularly its players bring a still-modern sense of complexity and ambiguity to their parts that still works to keep our interest; its only in the climax of the film that we finally find out of Bogart is going to sacrifice all for love, fall in with the villains or — as it turns out — find a nifty third way out of the whole mess.

Well-cast, well-played, shot in a workmanlike style and directed with great economy of tone, memorable characters and a multi-level story make The Maltese Falcon not just the first, but one of the best, of a just-minted genre. Guys should take their dolls out to this one; it’s not only a classic, it’s a San Francisco Treat.