Sunday, August 21, 2016

Double Review: The Blob (1958) and The Wolf Man (1941)

Young "Steven" McQueen plays protagonist Steve in The Blob

I am a self-proclaimed horror movie fan. As a devotee of the genre, I love its towering canonical classics (the 1930s Universal horror films, GojiraNight of the Living Dead, John Carpenter's The Thing), its overlooked but easy to defend hidden gems (MartinThe Descent, Candyman), and even its schlocky fringe entries (Haxan, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Mountain of the Cannibal God) on the border between horror and comedy.

Of course I don't love every horror film I watch (e.g., most of the recent remakes of 1970s classics), and there are horror films I deliberately avoid (e.g., Human Centipede).

But I really enjoyed The Blob. I was aware of it, of course, but never got around to seeing it until a couple weekends ago -- as part of the Criterion Collection, it streams on Hulu Plus. It is a fun, well-constructed monster movie combined with a teen exploitation melodrama. It is infused with 1950s Cold War paranoia (the titular Blob is red after all) and sublimated teen sexuality. The movie maintains a fast clip and uses its studio-set mise-en-scene evocatively.

Check out the spooky meat locker!

A very young "Steven" McQueen plays protagonist Steve, a morally upstanding "good kid" who nevertheless pals around with his small town's group of resident juvenile delinquents. While out on a date with his girlfriend Jane (Aneta Corseaut), Steve sees a strange object drop out of the night sky and rushes to investigate. The object is a small meteorite containing the titular blob -- before Steve arrives, a local farmer finds the meteorite and gets attacked by the slimy, gelatinous entity.

Despite its predictable plot and some hamfisted B-movie acting, The Blob's built-in schlockiness saves it, as do its cool, visceral blob effects. The two go hand-in hand. For example, I laughed more than I got scared during the scene when Steve sees the doctor being attacked by the blob through the window. But that's okay: The Blob is a film that needn't be scary to be pleasurable. In some ways, the film does credit to fans of the monster movie genre by faithfully honoring its conventions and keeping the pace brisk.

God help me, the first time I saw this well-made scene I laughed at poor Dr. Hallen's violent death. 

McQueen is a treat to watch, as is Earl Rowe as Lieutenant Dave, the one cop on the local police force who takes Steve seriously and believes his claims about the monster before anyone else (besides Jane) does.

The Blob may not be a first-ranker as far as monster movies go -- it is no King Kong or Gojira or Them! nor does it have the frightening, paranoid power of Don Siegel's brilliant Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). But it is great fun for its unintentionally campy performances and its cleverly executed (if cheap-looking) effects. The Blob is scrappy, low-budget, schlock-horror cinema at its finest.

Sadly, Universal's The Wolf Man does not hold up quite so well, in part because it is tonally darker, taking itself more seriously than The Blob does. The Wolf Man is hard to laugh at yet isn't as scary or compelling as its studio cousins Dracula, Frankenstein (both 1931), or The Mummy (1932). In the end, despite my general love and admiration for the 1930s Universal horror film cycle, I enjoyed Universal's The Wolf Man quite a bit less than I do those other Universal films or The Blob.

Lon Chaney Jr. is The Wolf Man's star and its weakest link. Unfortunately for him and Universal Studios, leaving the "Jr." off of his screen credit does not grant him the substantial talent and acting chops of his late father.  

The Wolf Man's major problems boil down to its combination of

(1) Predictable, boilerplate plot elements you can see coming from miles away,

and, even more devastating,

(2) The lackluster lead performance of Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry / The Wolf Man.

It is easiest to talk about these two elements together.

In the opening shot of The Wolf Man, an encyclopedia entry on lycanthropy mentions Talbot Castle as a site of ongoing werewolf occurrences, then seconds later Larry shows up at -- you guessed it -- Talbot Castle. Badly written expository dialogue between Larry and his father (Claude Rains) follows.

It's not that I expect innovative plotting in horror genre fare like this -- it's just that if the plot and dialogue is going to be so canned, then the film needs either really good actors (like, say, Rains, who plays Larry's father Sir John Talbot) or terribly bad or stiff ones so you can laugh at them.* Chaney Jr. is just good enough to be mediocre but not bad enough to be hilarious. He's not colossally bad, especially when playing the Wolf Man, e.g., Larry in werewolf form. But as Larry, he comes off as the kind of one-dimensional, good-ol' American gladhander we usually see Chaney's Wolf Man costar Ralph Bellamy play in films like His Girl Friday or Rock Hudson play knowingly and parodically in Pillow Talk. One has the feeling that Chaney Jr. is not in on the joke here. Rather, his limited acting chops make his Larry unintentionally buffoonish.

To take a contrasting example, Bela Lugosi surely lacks range as an actor -- his portentious mugging as The Wolf Man's gypsy fortune-teller Bela is essentially the same schtick he used to play Count Dracula in 1931 -- but at least he works quite well in the (small) role he is given.

The same cannot be said of Chaney, Jr., who is simply not up to the task of carrying a genre film like this on his hulking shoulders. I should be able to feel more pathos for Larry as the terrible, supernatural disease of lycanthropy afflicts him -- instead, I root for the boring townspeople who want him dead. He comes off especially flat next to nuanced performers like Rains and Maria Ouspenskaya, who plays the gypsy woman Maleva and who steals every scene she's in.

Remember how I mentioned Universal's Frankenstein and The Mummy earlier? The main point of connection between those two films is star Boris Karloff, a world-class film actor who brings that special something -- screen presence, gravitas, charisma -- to every role he plays. Sure, one could argue that Frankenstein, at least, has a slightly better script than most of the Universal films that followed it, and that it benefits from the "freshness factor," being only the second film of the Universal horror cycle after Dracula. Furthermore, both Frankenstein and The Mummy also benefit from the abilities and inventiveness of their respective directors, James Whale and Karl Freund.

Yet the point I'm making here is that good stars make a big difference, especially in genre movies, where other elements are often (by design) formulaic. Even in the present day, there is a reason Tom Cruise action movies tend to perform well, and why big-budget blockbusters that eschew stars often face grim prospects. While I enjoy many of the Universal horror films of the 1930s and early '40s, the cycle's best entries are the ones with really charismatic and talented star actors: Karloff in Frankenstein and The Mummy, Karloff and Charles Laughton in The Old, Dark House (1932), and Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933).

So consider skipping The Wolf Man in favor of any of these other, better Universal horror films. Or watch it as an historical curiosity, as an example of what happens when a studio tries in vain to substitute one Chaney for another.

The great Boris Karloff as Imhotep in Karl Freund's The Mummy

* Rains also plays the title role in Universal's excellent The Invisible Man (1933), the nurturing psychiatrist who brings Bette Davis out of her shell in Now, Voyager (1942), and of course the evil yet ultimately pathetic villain in Hitchcock's Notorious (1946).

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review: Chimes at Midnight (1966)

Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight (aka Falstaff). 

I was very fortunate to get to see Orson Welles' late-career masterpiece Chimes at Midnight (a.k.a. Falstaff) at the Dryden Theater on Saturday July 9th. This great film has been hard to see in the United States until this recently restored version started touring select cities this year. Like many of the films Welles made post-1947, copyright issues and distribution problems have kept Chimes from ever getting a Region 1 (North American) DVD release. My hope is that this recently restored Janus Films version will change that.

Critical consensus places Chimes at Midnight high in the running for one of Welles' best films -- it's considered a top-tier Welles entry alongside his debut Citizen Kane (1941), his brutally truncated follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and his brilliant film noir Touch of Evil (1958).* Calling Chimes "the story that [Welles] had to tell," Simon Callow writes that
Nothing stirred him, moved him or grieved him more, and he strove, over more than thirty years, to find the perfect form in which to tell that story, a form that could encompass both the personal and the universal. The circumstances in which he filmed were almost perversely difficult and yet for once everything, or nearly everything, worked in his favour. Heart and mind, form and content, casting and location, technology and manpower -- all meshed perfectly.** 
I agree with this assessment. Along with Kane and Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight is the Welles film that feels most complete, the most consistent and harmonious. Okay, sure, his Macbeth (1948) and The Trial (1962) are also quite consistent and unified, yet maybe not quite so impactful or heartfelt as Chimes is for me.

Despite its visual brilliance, Welles' Macbeth in particular reveals its low budget and difficult production circumstances in ways that, at times, feel claustrophobic and limiting -- for example, its over-use of vertiginous low-angle shots and extremely high-contrast lighting to make its single set feel more varied and cinematic.

Chimes, by contrast, benefits from its limited locations: the lively pub where Falstaff dwells, the barren halls of King Henry IV, the muddy battlefield, the woods where Hal tricks Falstaff. Chimes' world is only a degree or two more physically expansive than Macbeth's, but it makes all the difference. The world of Chimes is, like all of Welles' film-worlds, exaggerated and hyper-real, yet it is one of the most organic and lived-in film-worlds Welles has ever brought to the screen.

In sum, Chimes at Midnight is the most holistically satisfying and emotionally resonant Orson Welles film I've seen.

Furthermore, Falstaff is the role Welles was truly destined to play. Even more so than Citizen Kane or Touch of Evil or even Carol Reed's The Third Man, Chimes at Midnight shows off the pathos and power of Welles the actor. It is one of the few performances of Welles' in which I really believe the whole time that I am watching a character live his life onscreen, rather than watching Welles winkingly portray a character onscreen.† Falstaff is probably my favorite Welles performance, tied with The Third Man's Harry Lime and besting Charles Foster Kane and even (personal fave) Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.

While the entire cast of Chimes (including Welles) is superb, Shakespearian stalwart John Gielgud is a complete standout here. He essentially steals every scene he is in, which is appropriate given that he plays the King. He is also one of the few characters in the film who delivers his Shakespearian dialogue in a measured, formal way -- this allows his speeches to really land, because the viewer can comprehend and take in everything he says. Callow says that "Gielgud inhabits the part with a seething inner energy, extraordinary emotional intensity and a flawless command of the King's volatility; it was -- of all people -- Lee Strasberg who said that when he saw Gielgud acting, he heard Shakespeare think" (One Man Band p. 384).

The brilliant John Gielgud as King Henry IV. 

Perhaps it goes without saying that one should have at least a passing interest in Shakespeare to really enjoy and absorb what makes Chimes at Midnight so great. Welles and most of his cast, Gielgud excepted, tend to speak their lines quickly and naturalistically, so some of the intricacies of the language can be hard to catch, especially on a first viewing. Yet that hardly matters. As with much Shakespeare, one can let the words wash over oneself and simply enjoy the rhythm and the poetry of the lines, deriving the meaning from the context, which isn't hard to do.

Chimes' real draw is its brilliant shooting and blocking and use of settings, perhaps particularly in its knockout battle sequence, which must be seen to be believed. This is Welles in top form, and no small detail goes unnoticed. In Chimes -- a film Welles completed to his satisfaction -- each shot lends something important and resonant to the whole.

The steam cloud emitting from this man's helmet is one of the best visual gags 
in Chimes at Midnight

Callow concludes that the process of filming Chimes brought out the very best in Welles, justifying his inspired, seat-of-the-pants directorial methods. As Callow writes,
This is what Welles adored: the gallant, the democratic, the all-in-it together, the romantic way, which he had tried to create in the theatre (with sometimes inspired results) and hoped to be able to bring to film-making, a medium which, because of the large sums of money involved, almost immediately lost its playfulness, its innocence. The idea of innocence is at the heart of Chimes at Midnight, and innocence is what Welles was trying to restore to the process of making movies. For that to happen, everyone had to go along with it, willingly endorsing his assumption of the role of the crazy captain of a mad enterprise. (One Man Band p, 389) 
This is precisely what happened on the set of Chimes: nearly everyone, by all accounts, embraced the process, putting Welles at ease and turning the finished film into something vibrant, alive, and special.
With his strong musical instinct, Welles rearranges the [original Shakespeare] text into an endlessly varying pattern of ensembles, arias, duets, trios and quartets, which form a through-composed whole. It is also quintessentially filmic, never still, ever-moving, breathing, changing direction. (One Man Band p. 384)
Indeed. If you have an interest in (or at least a tolerance of) Shakespeare and/or any interest at all in Orson Welles, you simply must see Chimes at Midnight.

Bonus Afterthought: The very day after I saw Chimes at the Dryden, my girlfriend and I headed north to the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario to see Breath of Kings, a six-hour, two-part theatrical adaptation of four Shakespeare history plays: Richard II, Part One of Henry IV, Part Two of Henry IV, and Henry V. These are the same plays that form the basis for Welles' Chimes, so it was quite a head trip to see two very different versions of similar source material in the space of twenty four hours. The two halves of Breath of Kings -- which we saw in one day, with supper in between -- were really superb.

Seeing these plays abridged and smooshed all together in this form made me realize what an imperialist dickhead Shakespeare's Henry V is. It also lent credence to Callow's claim that
Henry IV is, line for line and scene for scene, is one of the greatest of Shakepearian roles, but it is rarely attempted by a great actor because the King disappears from the play for long sections of the action; this is to be regretted (p. 384)
As performed by lead actor (and Breath of Kings script adapter) Graham Abbey, the Stratford Festival production lives up to Callow's expectation of greatness. In Breath of Kings, the initially heroic, subsequently conflicted, and ultimately morose Henry IV is much more interesting and complex than the brave, wide-eyed Henry V. Maybe, as Welles' film seems to argue, Hal is only interesting when he's slumming it with Falstaff.

In the end, seeing these two so similar yet so different versions of the Henry IV plays was an enormous treat and was very interesting. My memory of Chimes was quite fresh as I watched similar scenes played in front of me on the Stratford stage.†† Comparisons arose. For example, I liked Welles's version of the eulogizing of Falstaff much better than the play's, but I liked Breath of Kings' physicalizing of King Henry IV's wounds -- Chimes' Gielgud seems physically frail but Breath of Kings' Graham Abbey used double-canes and, by the end, could barely walk. He crawls painfully to his litter and is carried offstage to die. Great stuff!

* I have a hard time watching Ambersons -- it is a film in which, for me, the "could have beens" haunt the extant text too much. Oddly, I don't have that problem with the similarly butchered The Lady From Shanghai (1947), whose original soundtrack was replaced with a schmaltzy love theme over Welles' objections and whose climactic funhouse sequence was severely shortened by the studio. Maybe it's because it is a film noir that the weird shifts in tone and extremely repetitious love theme work okay for me in this case.
** Callow, One Man Band (Jonathan Cape, 2015) p. 379.
† There is, of course, much ribald winking and tomfoolery in Chimes, attributable to Falstaff and friends. But none of it feels like Welles peeking through and commenting on the character while he's playing him. In Chimes, for once, he just is the character he's playing.
†† For aficionados, Breath of Kings was performed in the round, a new innovation this year at the Stratford Festival's Tom Patterson Theater.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Carter's Top 39 Films (June 2016)

Here is an off-the-cuff list of my thirty nine "favorite" movies at present. Check out my "this is a gut feeling thing, not a critically thought-out thing" caveat the first time I did this, and see also my lists from August 2014 and November 2015 if you give a crap.

There's a new rule this time: to put a film on this list, I have to have watched it within the last two years.

Here goes:

Gas Food Lodging (1992)
Lovely and Amazing (2001)
Alien (1979)
The Terminator (1984)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Blade Runner (1982)
Peeping Tom (1960)
The TV Set (2006)
Duel (1971)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Escape from New York (1981)
The Room (2003)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
The Brood (1979)
Heat (1995)
12 Angry Men (1957)
Shampoo (1975)
Nashville (1975)
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
The Shining (1980)
Cure (1997)
The Witch (2015)
Das Boot (1981)
Leviathan (2015)
Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)
Throne of Blood (1957)
The Third Man (1949)
Memories of Murder (2003)
Prometheus (2012)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Fargo (1996)
A Serious Man (2009)
Terri (2011)
Nosferatu (1979)
The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Some comments:

The Third Man is on the list this time because it is the best fuckin' 1940s film noir there is (and if not this, then Double Indemnity). I have always loved The Third Man. It has my favorite tone of any film noir or practically any film, absurdly whimsical yet pervasively melancholic -- and deadly serious when it needs to be. Its use of setting is unparalleled. It has one of the best soundtracks ever. It features one of Orson Welles' best onscreen performances. It only gets better with time. Everything about it is beautiful and awesome.

Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli in Carol Reed's noir masterpiece The Third Man

The Brood is here because it's the most recent David Cronenberg film I've laid eyes on, and anything that guy does, up to and including Eastern Promises (2007), pretty much mesmerizes me. I would normally place Videodrome as my all-out favorite Cronenberg outing, but I saw The Brood at the Dryden last year and it really blew me away. So creepy!

I substituted Das Boot for Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), since I realized it's probably been over two years since I saw the latter. I saw Das Boot more recently and Wolfgang Petersen's anti-war masterpiece, a perennial favorite, has been on my mind a lot lately.

Similarly, I traded Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut for Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure, for the same reason -- I haven't seen Eyes recently, but I watched Cure earlier this year.

The most important new addition is Tommy Wiseau's schlock masterpiece The Room, which I had the good fortune to re-watch with an exuberant group of friends last weekend. I made an important plot-related realization during this latest viewing: the drug dealer Chris-R (Dan Janjigian) is essentially there to deliver the gun to Johnny. The gun Johnny confiscates from Chris-R during the rooftop scene is the same one he uses to rather dramatic effect in the film's final sequence.

Which is to say, The Room's "what kind of drugs?" subplot is in the film not just at random, but exists to serve a higher plot function. Sure, Chris-R is apparently sent to jail (as Denny claims during his rooftop confrontation with Lisa and Claudette) without the San Francisco Police ever investigating Denny's involvement in his drug dealings. Nor do the cops ever come looking for that gun. But these "plot holes" are rather minor when compared to the film's need to explain how the naive Johnny gets access to a handgun, wouldn't you say?

A few movies that should be on the list but aren't because I stopped at thirty nine this time include Vampyr (1932), King Kong (1933)The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), and probably Crimson Peak (2015).

"Why is this happening to me?"

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Periodizing the Blockbuster Era

The above diagram schematizes some of the factors influencing the transition from the Hollywood Renaissance period (1967-1980) to the early decades of the Blockbuster Era (1975-present).

In the middle part of the chart (with the "synergy" arrow), I draw a boundary at about 1981, walling off the Hollywood Renaissance from the Blockbuster Era. Going solely by the content, tone, and look of the films, it's easy to impose that gap, with Raging Bull (1980) the last barbaric yawp of the European-influenced Hollywood Renaissance period and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) the herald of the big-budget Blockbuster Era.*

You can even see the difference between these cultural and industrial moments -- Renaissance and Blockbuster -- in the two (successful) Spielberg films that straddle the turn of the decade. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), for all its third-act spectacle, is a film of the Hollywood Renaissance, or as close as Spielberg ever gets to directing one barring The Sugarland Express (1974). Close Encounters is an auteurist passion project for Spielberg, based on one of the few screenplays (outside of Sugarland and Poltergeist) he ever wrote himself. It features French New Wave icon Francois Truffaut performing in the movie, his presence a direct nod to Renaissance-era auteurism. More surprisingly for Spielberg, Close Encounters ends ambivalently: an emotionally unbalanced man abandons his earthbound family to fly away with aliens.

And then there's Raiders of the Lost Ark, a tightly episodic, sequel-spawning, consciously "calculated" action blockbuster.

However, at the infrastructural level, and as the short line at the bottom of my chart indicates, the transition between Renaissance and Blockbuster starts well before 1980. Disney is already lucratively synergizing their various product lines (live-action films, animated films, TV shows, theme parks, toys, etc.) by the 1950s, and TransAmerica buys United Artists in 1967. Disney and UA are the corporate harbingers of the post-1970s era of multinational corporate takeovers, corporate mergers, and the dominance of the synergistic business model built around "tentpole" summer blockbusters.

Film historian and political economist Thomas Schatz claims that 1974-5 represents the "peak and, as it turned out, the waning" of the Hollywood Renaissance period, its last hurrah consisting of films like NashvilleNight MovesChinatown, and The Conversation.** Indeed, film historians Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell tell us that the multinational corporate takeover of the major studios was more or less complete by 1982, at which point "all the Majors except 20th Century Fox had become wings of diversified conglomerates" like Gulf + Western, MCA, and Coca-Cola.†

Popeye Doyle sez: "We better enjoy this Hollywood Renaissance thing while we can, Cloudy -- it ain't gonna last."

Yes, certain artsy, downbeat, auterist films continue to be made into the late 1970s and early 1980s: The Deer Hunter, Coming Home (both 1978), Apocalypse Now, Being There (both 1979), Raging Bull, Reds (1981), and even First Blood (1982).

But despite all these promising late entries, there's no denying the implications of 1975's Jaws, "a social, industrial, and cultural phenomenon of the first order, a cinematic idea and cultural commodity whose time had come" (Schatz p. 26). Jaws is extremely well-made entertainment by super-genius director Steven Spielberg -- it's a totally badass movie, even according to Mark Kermode. Furthermore, it establishes the broad template for all subsequent blockbusters via its postmodern genre-mixology:
Jaws was essentially an action film and a thriller, though it effectively melded various genres and story types. It tapped into the monster movie tradition with a revenge-of-nature subtext (like King Kong, The Birds, et. al.), and in the film's latter stages the shark begins to take on supernatural, even Satanic, qualities a la Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. And, given the fact that the initial victims are women and children, Jaws also had ties to the high-gore "slasher" film, which had been given considerable impetus a year earlier by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (Schatz p. 25)
Genre-wise, then, the post-1975 blockbuster is nearly always an action-adventure film, even when hybridized with or superficially "skinned" to resemble another genre. Usually set "in the romantic past or in an inhospitable place in the present," the action-adventure typically features "a propensity for spectacular physical action, a narrative structure involving fights, chases and explosions, and in addition to the deployment of state-of-the-art special effects, an emphasis in performance on athletic feats and stunts." As Steve Neale, quoting Michael Nerlich, writes:
the ideology of adventure in its modern sense -- its association with the active seeking out of such events -- was developed in conjunction firstly with the medieval cult of the courtly knight, secondly with merchant adventuring (and state-sponsored piracy) in the early modern period, and thirdly with the spread of empire during the course of the nineteenth century. Hence its links with colonialism, imperialism and racism, as well as with traditional ideals of masculinity, run very deep.††
By defaulting to action-adventure pastiche, rather than artfully revising or reworking specific genres like many Renaissance films do, and by "recalibrating the profit potential of the Hollywood hit" to new, astronomical levels, Jaws and Star Wars toll the death knell of the auteurist Renaissance. Schatz writes that "the promise of Jaws was confirmed by Star Wars" -- its "emphasis on plot over character" solidifies the still-dominant action-blockbuster template (Schatz 24, 31, 29).

In 1981, Lucas and Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark confirms the successful formula and sets the tone for the biggest hits of the coming decade:

Top Grossing Movies of the 1980s (adjusted for inflation) according to Box Office Mojo
1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
3. Return of the Jedi (1983)
4. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
5. Ghostbusters (1984)
6. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
7. Batman (1989)
8. Back to the Future (1985)
9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
My favorite sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981's highest grosser and the film that sets the template for the summer blockbuster. 

Quoting Richard Schickel, Schatz notes that blockbusters from this point forward all belong to one of two "metacategories," either the comedy (e.g., Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters) or the action film (e.g., all the other films on the above list). Schatz describes Star Wars in particular as the key proto-"high concept" summer blockbuster. For him, Star Wars exemplifies the tension between story and spectacle that characterizes the summer popcorn movie writ large:
One the one hand, the seemingly infinite capacity for multimedia reiteration of a movie hit redefines textual boundaries, creates a dynamic commercial intertext that is more process than product, and involves the audience(s) in the creative process -- not only as multimarket consumers but also as mediators in the play of narrative signification. On the other hand, the actual movie "itself," if indeed it can be isolated and understood as such (which is questionable at best), often has been reduced and stylized to a point where, for some observers, it scarcely even qualifies as a narrative. (39)
I agree with this account and have myself written about the recent blockbuster's trend toward spectacle over narrative.

What I want to do with the rest of this post is to try to break down the Blockbuster Era (so far) into smaller constituent periods, mainly derived from the chronological sketch given by Mark Harris in his must-read 2014 piece "The Birdcage":
The revolution of George Lucas’s game-changer — in purely financial terms — was that it confirmed what the James Bond series had suggested a decade earlier: There was no ceiling on how much money the right kind of series with the right kind of potentially escalating fan obsession could take in. Over the 25 years that followed Star Wars, franchises went from being a part of the business to a big part of the business. Big, but not defining: Even as late as 1999, for instance, only four of the year’s 35 top grossers were sequels. 
That’s not where we are anymore. In 2014, franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period. Twelve of the year’s 14 highest grossers are, or will spawn, sequels. A successful franchise is no longer used to finance the rest of a studio’s lineup; a studio’s lineup is brands and franchises, and that’s it.
To continue where Harris leaves off, I turn to Pamela McClintock's recent piece "Hollywood's Obsession with the 'Requel'" for its succinct definition of the latest transmogrification of the blockbuster: the requel. A requel is "a movie that's both a reboot and a sequel, blending old with new in an effort to extend the life of a franchise and, in the best cases, reinvent it for a 'universe' of follow-up movies."

The most successful requel so far.

Whereas the "hard" reboot usually retells an origin story, as with Star Trek (2009) or The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), the requel, according to McClintock, is different from either the reboot or the pure remake "in that it nods to and exploits goodwill toward the past while launching a new generation of actors and stories." It is, in essence, a thinly veiled remake in which the same basic stuff, with slight new variations, happens all over again to a new generation of characters. I like to describe it as "strangely similar things happening to slightly different people."

It's appropriate that Jurassic World should lead the (successful) charge into the Requel period, since it is so transparently a remake of Jurassic Park (Lee Sabo calls it "fan-fiction story-telling"), which in 1993 was already hyper-aware of its status as a global commodity.

The most important shot in Jurassic Park: Jurassic Park's gift shop. 

To sum up: origin-story-retelling reboots include Batman Begins (2005), Star Trek (2009), and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

Recent "pure remakes" include King Kong (2005), Cinderella, and Pan (both 2015).

Our requels category is so far inhabited by Terminator Genisys, Jurassic World, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (all 2015), and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).

I propose the following Periodization of the Blockbuster Era so far:

1975-85: Marking the inception of the Blockbuster Era proper with Jaws and Star Wars, these are the "Ten years that shook the industry" (J. Hoberman), the inception of the mega-blockbuster era. Schatz notes the increase in sequels and remakes from 1974 onward, writing that "From 1964 to 1968, sequels and reissues combined accounted for just under 5 percent of all Hollywood releases. From 1974 to 1978, they comprised 17.5 percent" ("New Hollywood" p. 27).

1986-99: The period of international conglomeration, worldwide release, and global synergy. The period during which Schatz's "calculated Blockbuster" -- calculated to be a major hit, produce sequels and spinoffs, and synergize with a larger product line and brand -- becomes the driving force behind the Hollywood film industry. As Thompson and Bordwell write,
The first wave of film studio acquisitions, from the 1960s through the early 1980s, had been initiated largely by conglomerates who wanted to diversify their holdings, to add a movie company to a menu of bowling alleys, parking lots, soft-drink bottling, or funeral parlors. The wave that began in the mid-1980s was more narrowly targeted, aimed at synergy -- the coordination of several compatible business lines to maximize income. (p. 664)
This period includes the Michael Eisner regime at Disney -- he's CEO 1984-2005. Eisner focuses on synergy and developing branded content, placing "special emphasis on activities and services that went beyond moviegoing or TV viewing" (T&B p. 696).

1989 is a key year, the starting point for the "dark" and "adult" interpretation of Batman on film. As Eileen Meehan documents, a dark interpretation of Batman was test-marketed beforehand by the release of Frank Miller's comic The Dark Knight Returns into mainstream bookstores.‡

Neale notes that in the 1990s Hollywood "conglomeration and synergy tended to accelerate on a national and international scale, as some of the mini-majors disappeared and as others were absorbed by the majors, and as the costs of making blockbusters and routine features alike continued to rise" (p. 230).

This period sees the wholesale onset of computer generated imagery (CGI) with pioneering effects-driven blockbuster films The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and of course Jurassic Park (1993).

Jurassic Park (1993) is perhaps the key film of this period -- a landmark in computer-generated effects, synergistic product lines, and global release strategies (Thompson and Bordwell p. 697).

Michael Keaton in 1989's Batman, another key film of the 1986-99 period.  

2000-14: I am tempted to call this the "Pointlessly Serious Superhero Movie" period. Fox's X-Men franchise launches eponymously in 2000, setting the general tone for the period. Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe, which starts with Iron Man in 2008, goes a bit lighter in tone than X-Men, whereas Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy (2005-12) and Zack Snyder's Watchmen (2009), Man of Steel (2013), and Batman v Superman all go darker and more pretentious.

Speaking of Nolan and Snyder, Kevin Tsujihara becomes Time Warner's chairman/CEO in 2013 and announces a slate of ten Warner Bros. movies based on DC Comics characters to be released between 2016 and 2020. Of Tsujihara, Harris writes:
He has never produced a movie; in fact, he is the first studio head to rise in the ranks purely through brand extension and ancillary divisions, and brand extension is what he’s all about. Besides the DC announcement, his big accomplishments have been to nail down those three additional Rowling movies to add to the studio’s portfolio of eight, and to turn one Lego movie into four.
Tsujihara's counterpart at Universal is Jeff Shell, who becomes CEO in 2013 and about whom Variety's Peter Bart and Claudia Eller write that "Shell’s background and management style is strictly corporate and solidly Comcast." Significantly, Shell rises through the corporate ranks on the television side. Writing in 2014, Mark Harris suggests that by making seven- and ten-year plans for interlocking franchises a la Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe, contemporary movie franchises replicate formulas that have been honed to perfection on and by television:
TV looms large over this new movie lineup. How could it not? TV is everything. TV is how people see movies; TV is where people want to watch movies, on demand and on their own terms; TV is what Twitter wants to talk about. Most of all, TV knows how to keep people coming back, which is its job, every day and every week, and is a quality that, above all others, the people who finance movies would dearly love to poach.
2015: The Requel period begins. In addition to the McClintock piece referenced above, see also Adam Sternbergh's recent essay on the studio as auteur and the "Marvel movie" as prototypical blockbuster. Analyzing directorial duo Joe and Anthony Russo's successful run of MCU films, Sternbergh writes:
As TV becomes more cinematic in its execution (multiple locations, expensive FX), and films become more TV-like in their storytelling (single chapters in an ongoing story), the decision to employ TV directors on Marvel films starts to make sense. Which is why directors like the Russos — talented, proficient, flexible, and instinctually collaborative — are perfectly suited to flourish.
If the release of Jaws marks the beginning of the Blockbuster Era, then it's been forty-one years since then. We are over forty headlong years into this Era, it is barreling along, we are just beginning the Requel period, and there's no end in sight. We don't even really know what we're in for yet. As Harris concludes,
What we are witnessing is not stability but transition — the evolutionary moment of overlap in Hollywood when the old way and the new way transiently coexist. Ten years from now, the old way will be gone. The new way will simply be the way.
The way of the endless requel and its mutant spawn.

Hi, I'm Mark Harris. I'm so goddamned smart about movies and a fine writer, too. Carter is quite impressed with me.

* You'll notice that I call the Hollywood Renaissance a period and the Blockbuster Era an era. That's because the former is a short transitional period bridging the stretch between the decline of the Studio Era (and it is surely in decline by the 1950s) and the rise of the Blockbuster Era. The Hollywood Renaissance years constitute the tail end of a longer period that begins circa 1948 when the Paramount Decree critically alters the makeup of the Golden Age Studio System. Thomas Schatz describes the 1947-60 period in the later chapters of his The Genius of the System (Pantheon Books, 1988).
** Schatz, "The New Hollywood," in Movie Blockbusters, Ed. Julian Stringer (Routledge 2003),  p. 27.
† Thompson and Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction (Third Edition, McGraw-Hill, 2009) p. 664.
†† Neale, Genre and Hollywood (Routledge, 2005) pp. 49, 46, 51.
‡ Meehan, "Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!" in The Many Lives of the Batman (Ed. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, Routledge 1991) p. 53.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Film Reviews Are Subjective


Assigning numbers to creative works, even factory assembled ones like movies, is stupid. Reviews of cultural products like movies should be subjective and qualitative. They should tell you stuff ABOUT the movie, not try to force a meaningless number on it.

This is the main reason why I despise and refuse to use or endorse the Rotten Tomatoes website or its ridiculous Tomatometer.* The Tomatometer is a big-picture aggregator of reviews, which is not the same as an individual review assigning a numerical score. But it still attaches numbers (and its too-broad "Fresh" and "Rotten" labels) to something that (in my view) cannot be quantified -- not without losing its nuance and hence its utility.

Numerical ratings have no place in reviews of individual movies. As Gamasutra's video game reviewer Katherine Cross writes:
What may be an 8.5 to me is very different from what merits an 8.5 to another critic. And what’s worth marking down three tenths of a point? Is my site’s 6.75 different from another’s? What is the difference between a 9.0 soundtrack and a 9.5? Critics give scores on the basis of rubrics provided by their publications, often as not, but even there the score is still the product of a gut reaction; it is a melange of values, emphasis, and personal judgement. It can never be objective.
Yes, exactly that. We might as well embrace our fandoms and biases and just admit that film criticism is a subjective art. There is no point in pretend-quantifying the process.

I've been recently pondering an illustrative case. Reading fellow film blogger Sal Alonci's review of Captain America: Civil War, I noticed the superlatives he uses to describe what is, for him, a genre-pushing, evolutionary superhero movie:
"with Captain America: Civil War, Marvel Studios has once again redefined the superhero genre"

"Putting it simply, Captain America: Civil War is one of the smartest and best superhero films ever made"
I totally get where he is coming from -- this sounds like fandom and I definitely have my fandoms.** I love the excitement of Alonci's review. Furthermore, there are legitimate interpretive angles that a true fan with background knowledge of the comics can bring to bear on a genre film like this, as Alonci does in his sharp overview of the Marvel Universe films so far.

Darth Vader sez: "I am your father!" NOBODY fuckin' knew if THAT was true 
ahead of seeing Return of the Jedi in 1983.

Similarly, The Mary Sue's Christy Admiraal points out that foreknowledge often enhances a fan's viewing experience: "Knowing the identity of a previously unseen character can make it much more exciting when they finally make an entrance, and knowing what’s coming next before it happens can feel like keeping a secret; the informed viewer and the creators are in on it, while the general public will have to wait and see what happens." Alonci clearly possesses this kind of knowledge so his experience of the MCU movies is heightened relative to mine.

There is a lot of subjective fandom in Alonci's Civil War review, especially in passages like: "It's my favorite movie of the year so far, and will probably be my favorite movie of the whole summer." I mean, Alonci isn't hiding anything here. He is admirably up-front about his status as a fan: "I've already seen it three times and I'm going to see it again soon."

What this exemplifies is that ALL of us who write film criticism do so subjectively, at least in part because we are fans of the medium (and of specific genres, films, directors, stars, periods, etc.). This is as it should be. For while there are technical and numerical things we can learn about a movie -- its all-time grosses, for example, or its average shot length -- holistic film criticism is always colored by the history, tastes, predilections, hatreds, and fandoms of the individual reviewer.

For example, I have no interest in, and no intention of seeing, Captain America: Civil War. I never even really considered seeing it, but if I had, that consideration would've ended once I saw this review, in which Mike -- Mike! -- finally says (around the 26:28 mark) that "I got tired of all the punching. I think I'm done with superhero movies. It's no longer exciting to me. It's just punching."

Mike sez: "I think I'm done with superhero movies. It's no longer exciting to me. It's just punching." This is an example of a reviewer's film tastes changing over time. 

I felt like Mike does now a whole MCU Phase ago -- I quit after the first Avengers (2012). So for me, the whole MCU phenomenon is a thing happening to other people -- albeit LOTS of other people, if worldwide grosses are any indicator.

I keep my finger vaguely on the MCU's pulse, reading review articles and the like, and based on what I've read and heard, I may yet watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) one of these days. But as I have written before, I am not all that "on board" with the Marvel films in general. I am a superhero movie burnout case.

What, then, do we make of my recent defense of Escape from New York (1981)? Escape is a dystopian, science-fiction-y action film whose dark tone and "all-time icy badass" protagonist, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), make it an obvious cinematic precursor to the post-2000 superhero film. So why do I defend Snake Plissken yet show such callous lack of interest in Steve Rodgers and Bucky Barnes as they enjoy their moment of massive worldwide fame?

Part of it is the passage of time and the transmogrification of my film tastes. In the 1980s, I was a big action-movie fan. Action films (including James Bond) and Star Wars-esque science-fantasy were my go-to genres in those early years. That and comedy.

Nowadays I can hardly be bothered to write seriously about a superhero film or a Transformers film because I just don't care all that much about them. My tastes have grown up and changed, and if I pen anything as gushy as Alonci's Civil War review, it's going to be about something a bit less mainstream like Belle or Snowpiercer or Mad Max: Fury Road.

It is now the superhero fans' moment in the sun, and I do not begrudge them it, even if I have reservations about the dangerous cultural messages geek-centered power-fantasy films typically convey to their target audience. I am not alone in this concern. But hey, there is a time and a place for fantasy, and I grew up on Snake Plissken and James Bond movies and I turned out okay.

In any case I better get used to it. Disney has Marvel movies planned out until 2020. Those super-profitable motherfuckers aren't going anywhere.

Meanwhile, in my own musty corner of the blogosphere, I pen defenses of science-fiction movies nobody else likeslow-budget 1970s horror films, and offbeat directors of whom most people have never heard. Long live fandom.

Werner Herzog sez: "Go for the ecstatic truth, man."

UPDATE 8/5/2016:'s Matthew Dessem agrees with my view, opening his smart piece saying that "If your opinion about a work of art can be expressed as a number, it’s not a very interesting opinion." He contends that "there’s little value in assigning a number to how much we liked [movies]. The interesting questions are 'Why?' and 'How?,' not 'How much?'"
There’s nothing wrong with the question “Should I see this movie?,” and criticism can definitely help answer it. But the right way to find an answer is to consult one or two critics whose taste you trust, not a thousand critics you don’t know.
My sentiments exactly -- well said Mr. Dessem.

* As Kevin P. Sullivan reminds us, the Tomatometer "doesn’t measure film’s quality in the eyes of critics" but is rather "a record of critical agreement." Possibly so, though the value of even that aspect of the Rotten Tomatoes site has been called into question by Film School Rejects' Landon Palmer: "the numbers featured on Rotten Tomatoes provide some notion of a critical response ('critical consensus,' by comparison, is something that can only be argued, not tabulated) conveniently devoid of substance and content. Thus, Rotten Tomatoes can serve a purpose as an initial point of access, but never as a substitute for criticism itself." 
** Even beyond my love of Bond, rekindled embers of my ancient Star Wars fandom surely account for some of my warmth toward The Force Awakens.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review: Escape from New York (1981)

John Carpenter's Escape From New York is one of the most tonally sophisticated, visually iconic, and outright enjoyable dystopian action movies of the 1980s.

During the '80s I was a big-time action movie fan, watching stuff like the Rambo movies (1982, 1985, 1988), the Mad Max movies (1979, 1981, 1985), The Terminator (1984), Commando (1985), Raw Deal (1986), Predator (1987), The Running Man (1987), Die Hard (1988), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Aliens (1986), and Escape 2000 (aka Turkey Shoot, 1982).* To this day I love 1980s-vintage dystopian, near-futuristic action movies, especially low-budget ones like The Road WarriorEscape From New York, and The Terminator.

Escape From New York lies at the heart of John Carpenter's amazing directorial hot streak stretching from 1976's Assault on Precinct 13 to 1986's Big Trouble in Little China or maybe even 1988's They Live. By general consensus, Carpenter's weakest film of this remarkably fertile period is Escape's immediate predecessor, The Fog (1980) -- a film I personally love and robustly defend. In any case, Escape From New York is a standout Carpenter film from a period when "dark dystopian action film" was a prevalent, competitive genre.

Carpenter has a genius for working within the constraints of a low budget -- in Escape's case, a supposed $6 million. I've written before about how much I love low-budget cinema. I like to see what inventive filmmakers can do on a shoestring. Escape from New York deploys many low-budget cheats, such using radar screen images and atmospheric cockpit footage to help "sell" its model work in the Gulf Fire landing sequence. Yet each time I watch Escape I am reminded of how evocative and rich its film-world feels even though you can "see through" many of the special effects. The low-budget feel of the film perfectly matches and conveys the rag-tag nature of the near-future society it depicts.

Keith Phipps writes that "John Carpenter's Escape From New York took Taxi Driver's urban hellscape and projected it onto a cartoonishly savage future." I concur: Escape From New York haunts me in lasting ways, with its dirty urban setting and grim, moody tone. It also entertains me with its cartoony action-movie touches, like the lamps on the hood of the Duke's car and its rather quotable dialogue.

Yet Escape's cartoonishness does not detract from its darker elements or its lived-in mise-en-scene. As Phipps puts it, Carpenter's dystopian action masterpiece "may be his most visionary film: Escape allowed him to build a future out of scraps from the past." It is indeed very postmodern in feel, with a bleak, existential edge that few '80s action movies achieve with this much style and meaning.

As Brian Eggert points out, Escape from New York
comments on how the New York of 1981 has isolated itself to such an extreme that walls, both metaphoric or literal, enclose its inhabitants within the crime-ridden sprawl, itself a symbol for all of America. Carpenter explores a world in which the American Dream has failed, where the increasing crime rates never stopped. In response, America becomes a fascist state and transforms New York into a penal colony. Carpenter's unique dystopian future, set in 1997, exists on the verge of an apocalypse. And though the setting has been enclosed inside of New York Prison's walls, it resembles many post-apocalyptic worlds to follow in cinema.
As a feminist I must mention Escape from New York's most disturbing incidental scene. Using a tracking device to trace the missing President, Snake descends into the basement of the Fox Theatre. He passes by an area in which three men are manhandling a seemingly inert or unconscious woman. We watch from Snake's point of view as one of the men tears the woman's shirt off, exposing her breasts. We cut to a close-up of Snake, who just walks on by, consulting his scanner. We see and hear nothing of what occurs in the area after Snake leaves (the whole brief scene is eerily quiet and wordless) but imminent rape is clearly implied.

This "incidental rape" scene reminds me of The Road Warrior's very similar scene and of Escape 2000's generally exploitative approach to sexuality. The scene is included to make the film-world seem more harsh and to make Snake look more dark-edged and cruel. He's an antihero; he does nothing to stop the sexual assault. But what, we might ask, of the victim? The film never says.

I can offer no excuse for this. This scene disturbs me. Maybe that's the point -- that it should. But as Karen Valby points out, sexual assault is often misused in television and film as an "easy" go-to device to raise the narrative stakes. This particular scene feels exploitative because we are not encouraged to empathize with the victim -- she is kept silent, anonymous, at a distance. The focus is swiftly returned to Snake, our white male protagonist. The woman's suffering exists to make Snake look more badass.

Adrienne Barbeau, who plays a more compelling and central role as Stevie Wayne in The Fog, is ill-used as Maggie in Escape. Maggie is a one-dimensional, eroticized object whose main role is to be looked at and discussed by men, to be the bearer of the masculine gaze.** The male characters don't even call her by name, they just call her Brain's "squeeze." Her main motivation is to follow Brain around and protect him.

Indeed, most of Carpenter's work tends to be male-centered. This masculine focus, while partially explicable via the writer-director's ties to the action genre, may also explain why his best horror film, The Thing, is so goddamn good. It's Carpenter perfectly in his element, with nary a woman in sight. It is also a Howard Hawks remake. Carpenter is quite Hawksian -- for example, his Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is a reworking of and homage to Hawks' classic Rio Bravo (1959).

However, despite Carpenter's indebtedness to the western, and despite the presence of spaghetti western star Lee Van Cleef in the second lead, Escape from New York is not a western. Carpenter infuses western moods and elements and plot structures into Escape but its setting and iconography have more in common with Blade Runner, a science fictional film noir, than they do any western.

Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef), whose line about Snake "flying the Gulf Fire over Leningrad" helped inspire William Gibson's cyberpunk novel Neuromancer.

Then there's the fuckin' music, composed and performed by Carpenter (with Alan Howarth). Escape from New York's soundtrack rocks, especially its totally badass opening theme.*** Some misguided souls consider keyboard-driven music, especially '80s-era synth-driven music, to be inherently silly or cheesy. What a sad case of affairs for such unfortunates.

For those who either grew up with synth-pop music or have otherwise developed an appreciation for it, Carpenter's early soundtracks, especially those for Halloween and Escape from New York, are absolutely top-notch.

In the end, the appeal of Escape from New York largely hinges on Kurt Russell's brilliant, spot-on portrayal of Snake Plissken. Russell is so goddamn cool as Snake Plissken that I can't really describe it  -- just watch the damn movie.

Or if you prefer campier fare, see one of the other Carpenter-Russell team-ups. Russell's badassery as Plissken is most of what sustains Carpenter's somewhat lesser, not too original, but still enjoyable follow-up Escape from L.A. (1996) -- a film which has its defenders. Hell, despite its myriad pleasures -- and they are many -- Russell is the funniest and most entertaining thing in Big Trouble in Little China (1986) too. His Jack Burton is one of the great American screen protagonists and is the main thing that makes that crazy-ass movie work.

As for Snake Plissken and the fine first movie built around him, if you enjoy male-centered action-movie fun set in a bleak, grungy, existential future -- 1997 as imagined by 1982 -- then check out the artfully constructed, action-packed Escape from New York.

"Call me Plissken."

* Like most young people, I had rather catholic tastes as an eighth grader, which may explain my appreciation for 1980s action cinema (though it cannot fully explain my ongoing love for Oz-sploitation classic Turkey Shoot). I should also mention Walter Hill's The Warriors (1979), a film that properly belongs to this group but that I did not see until the mid-2000's. I additionally recommend Hill's under-seen Streets of Fire (1984).
** I am using terminology introduced by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in her famous, accurate essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," originally published in Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975) pp. 6-18. Mulvey argues that the default gaze of Hollywood cinema, emerging as it does from a patriarchal society and sexist film industry, is gendered masculine. That is, our cinema is sexist, depicting masculine things (like male characters) as active drivers-forward of narrative and feminine things (like women's bodies) as passive objects best suited for erotic display.
*** You simply must check out John Carpenter's recent live studio recording of the Escape from New York theme song, plus its cool video:

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

One of my favorite bits from The Force Awakens.

I have written before about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams' "requel"-style sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy. I claim the new movie
is better (by far) than any Star Wars prequel and better (by less far) than Jurassic World. The dialogue is decent, the characterization (especially of the new characters, Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and BB-8) is good, and the action sequences and overall narrative flow work really well. I agree with A.A. Dowd when he says that the film does not slow down and develop its characters and worlds quite enough and that it fails to land a couple moments (like the revelation of Kylo Ren's parentage) that could have been far more emotionally impactful than they are.
I stand by that statement, yet having recently re-watched The Force Awakens, I aver its dialogue is better than "decent." As these kinds of basically superficial movies go, the latest Star Wars entry is actually quite well scripted.

Take. for example, the two lines exchanged between Han and Leia as they sum up why they have drifted apart from one another over the years:

HAN: I went back to the only thing I was ever any good at.

LEIA: We both did.

Simple stuff but it implies so much. Perceiving themselves to be failures as lovers and parents, Han and Leia have fallen back on their respective jobs as smuggler and military commander to sustain them through their trauma. This makes sense. It's human. People in the real world throw themselves into work and old habits to avoid pain and discomfort all the time. Succinctly put, not revolutionary, but believable and resonant.

The film's high entertainment value also stems from Abrams' considerable ability as a "show don't tell" filmmaker. In this, thank God he is more a disciple of Spielberg than of Lucas. He moves the camera dynamically, he focuses on action and gesture over expository dialogue, and he -- unlike his contemporaries Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder -- seems to comprehend human emotions.

This moment, like many similar moments between Furiosa and Max in Fury Road, subtly illustrates how heroic men depend upon smarter, more capable women.

However, one can easily tell that Abrams' hands were tightly tied while making this franchise-rebooting component of the highly synergized Star Wars product line.* As the L.A. Times' Michael Hiltzik writes,
Whether out of his own instincts or via directives from the suits at Disney, J.J. Abrams, the co-writer and director of The Force Awakens, plainly labored under a mandate to not get the thing wrong. It's a mark of Disney's own caretaker mentality that not only is a Jar Jar Binks-level blunder absent from The Force Awakens, but so is surprise or even much suspense.
That's hard to argue with. The film is fun but generally unsurprising, in large part because it is a barely-disguised remake of Star Wars (1977). (Though I am pleasantly surprised by Kylo Ren's sudden tantrums -- show don't tell!)

Hiltzik allows that "Abrams' big advance is said to be supplanting the whiter-than-white protagonists of the original Star Wars with a young woman and a black male." Agreed.

Finn (John Boyega) rocks. He also signals imminent major SPOILERS in this review.

What's more, The Force Awakens makes good on two key unfulfilled promises: to give Han Solo a meaningful death, and to give us a frikkin' female Jedi protagonist.

As Harrison Ford has been saying for decades, Han Solo should have croaked at the end of The Return of the Jedi. It makes sense in terms of the character's arc (greedy bastard in Star Wars, learns his lesson in Empire, sacrifices himself for his friends in Jedi) and would have given the conclusion of the original trilogy some much-needed gravitas. Tony Zhou writes that
J.J. Abrams must spend half of The Force Awakens re-building the same emotional ground under Han Solo [as existed in the original trilogy]. That’s why Han is back to his factory default setting of “smuggler,” why he’s escaping again from people to whom he owes money, why he and Leia are separated then reunited, and why he quickly agrees to storm a planet and disable the shield so that fighters can attack the Death Star. 
Han Solo is literally, moment by moment, reliving Return of the Jedi. Because in story terms, he should’ve died then.**
Don't get me wrong, Jedi is an aesthetic triumph. Its action sequences, particularly the Endor speeder bike chase and the destruction of the second Death Star, are among the best you will ever see. Luke's final confrontation with Vader and the Emperor in Jedi is one of the best dramatic scenes in any Star Wars movie and is probably the most emotionally resonant scene George Lucas has ever had any hand in creating.

But on a basic story-structure level, and as far as including the Ewoks goes, Return of the Jedi is a lazy, stupid, watered-down piece of shit. It stupidly keeps Han Solo alive, denying the character a meaningful death and reducing him to comic relief. Worse, Jedi gives Solo screen time that rightfully belongs to Leia at this point. Why the fuck isn't Leia, a longtime military leader, commanding the attack on the Endor shield generator? For that matter, why the fuck is this blaster-wielding leader of the rebellion being chained up in a slave bikini in the opening act of this puppet-fest?

Whatever happened to this Leia?

Did she follow this Marion Ravenwood down into the pit of 1980s sexism?

In any case, The Force Awakens' Rey (Daisy Ridley) appears to be Star Wars' attempt to reverse course on its usual sexism.† The attempt may never fully succeed -- that slave bikini is going to haunt the franchise forever. But our new series protagonist (for at least the next two numbered episodes I presume) and her black comrade-in-arms both provide a compelling and much-needed antidote to the series' usual white-male-centeredness. 

On the basis of its diverse cast and camera work alone I'm inclined to rate The Force Awakens up there pretty close to Return of the Jedi in terms of overall viewing pleasure. We'll see how it withstands the test of time. 

However, much as I complain about Disney taking over the goddamn universe, I sure look forward to seeing the next couple episodes of Rey's ongoing adventures. She is the single most compelling element of this latest Star Wars viewing product. 

Rey tells Kylo Ren to go fuck himself.

Bonus Afterthought: Make sure to check out this interesting piece about a possible unforeseen after-effect of The Force Awakens' enormous success: a critical reevaluation of George Lucas. Bryan Curtis explains that "in the era of reboots, Lucas' pastiches have a kind of integrity." A thought-provoking read.

UPDATE 7/1/2016: See also Film Crit Hulk's detailed explanation of why The Force Awakens doesn't quite work for him -- including accurate insights about why most of J.J. Abrams' films are big hits but lack staying power. According to Hulk, Abrams' films "DON'T UNDERSTAND HOW TO BE HUMAN SO THEY EFFECTIVELY IMITATE IT. [IN THE FORCE AWAKENS, ABRAMS AND COMPANY] LOOKED AT EVERY MOMENT AND WORKED BACKWARDS FROM THE INTENDED RESULT. J.J. KNOWS WHERE YOU WANT TO BE, BUT HE'S GOING TO RUSH YOU THERE AS SOON AS HE CAN, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER OR NOT IT'S CATHARTIC."

UPDATE 9/10/2016: I recently came across this piece by Brian Merchant and feel it to be the best overall assessment of the place of The Force Awakens in the larger Star Wars film series. As Merchant writes, Episode VII "is more a product of the same market logic that gave rise to the Marvel Universe films—a logic that rewards emulation and nostalgia above all; reusing ideas, characters, and narrative arcs that have already proven lucrative—than it is of the imagination that launched the series nearly four decades ago." Though he has high hopes for 2017's Episode VIII, he concludes that "Science fiction is supposed to be all about exploring the unexplored, not rehashing the well-trod. As its key franchises become increasingly more important to the bottom line of huge studios that are fending off streaming and view-on-demand, expect them to become more formulaic, and less interesting."

* Eileen Meehan calls the web of cross-references created by the product lines surrounding a blockbuster film its "commercial intertext." She argues that each consumer interacts with the web of meanings created by a film text and its surrounding commercial intertext differently, each of us "positioning ourselves to construct different readings of the film and positioning the film and its intertext to suit our particular purposes" (pp. 47-9). If you are interested in the rise of the blockbuster and/or corporate synergy in Hollywood, you simply must read Meehan's "Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!" in The Many Lives of the Batman (Ed. Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, Routledge 1991) pp. 47-65.
** Zhou compellingly argues that The Force Awakens wastes too much time fixing the original trilogy's Han Solo problem: "the real film that Episode VII is fixing is Episode VI. Half of the runtime of this new movie is spent correcting one problem, the mere fact that Han Solo should have died then and didn’t." Along similar lines, Gary Kurtz, who produced Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, says in this interview that
one of the reasons I was really unhappy [about Jedi] was the fact that all of the carefully constructed story structure of characters and things that we did in Empire was going to carry over into Jedi. The resolution of that film was going to be quite bittersweet, with Han Solo being killed, and the princess having to take over as queen of what remained of her people, leaving everybody else. In effect, Luke was left on his own. None of that happened, of course.
Kurtz parted ways with George Lucas over these issues and instead of producing Return of the Jedi, he collaborated with Jim Henson and Frank Oz on the utterly badass The Dark Crystal (1982).
† The prequels are absolutely terrible on the gender front as well, so it's a good thing they don't exist.