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Sometimes the most fun movies are the ones you stumble across purely by chance. I happened to be flipping through the channels the other night, and this came on. 

It starts with an animated sequence narrated by a woman named Rebecca (Lori Petty) and the post-apocalyptic world she lives in. She tells us about “the Rippers,” a race of underground monsters that menace the struggling population, which has been largely deprived of water ever since a comet struck the earth. The majority of the water is controlled by a corporation called Water & Power, and run by a sadistic psychopath named Kesslee. (Malcolm McDowell)

The film switches to a live action sequence in which Water & Power thugs attack Rebecca’s home, killing her lover and kidnapping a young girl named Sam. The goons also capture Rebecca and torture her in the Water & Power prisons.

Rebecca befriends a fellow prisoner, a jet pilot/mechanic called simply “Jet Girl,” (Naomi Watts) who is repeatedly harassed by Kesslee’s second-in-command. Rebecca and Jet Girl escape after a Ripper attack on Water & Power; Jet Girl in a jet and Rebecca in—of course—a stolen tank, which she soon decorates according to her own punk-y tastes:

Tank and girl

Together, they set out on a quest to find Sam, which takes them first through a surreal brothel, complete with an ensemble performance of a Cole Porter song, and then to the lair of the Rippers themselves. 

The Rippers turn out not to be monsters, but rather a race of genetically engineered human/kangaroo crossbreeds. Created by the army to be the ultimate soldiers, they prove to be a friendly group of eccentrics. Though initially suspicious, they grow to trust Rebecca and Jet Girl, and ultimately they join forces for a final showdown against Kesslee and Water & Power.

I won’t spoil whether the heroes rescue the little girl from the hands of the over-the-top, eminently hate-able bad guy, or whether Jet Girl gets to serve the second-in-command his richly deserved comeuppance, or whether they are able to end the monopoly of Water & Power and the drought. But perhaps readers will guess the answers to all these when I say that what amazed me most about the movie was that—despite being a combination of live-action and surreal cartoon animation, despite the bizarre set design, despite the male love interest being part kangaroo—at its heart, it’s just a good old-fashioned tale of frontier justice.

It’s tough to make something weird and unique that is still compelling. Most well-worn tropes are well-worn because they work very well. Telling a story that is both innovative and yet follows a good, solid three-act plot structure that will satisfy an audience is hard to do, and Tank Girl does it.

I’m amazed I haven’t heard about this movie before now. It’s a funny, entertaining action film—Tank Girl’s one-liners are great, and most of the supporting characters have humorous lines as well. The film never takes itself too seriously, but it has an earnestness underneath all the silliness. Petty’s performance really encapsulates it: she seems cynical, snarky and sarcastic 90% of the time—but when she’s trying to save her young friend, there’s genuine concern in her eyes. 

Interestingly, the film is directed by a woman, it features a woman in the lead role, another in the role of the sidekick, and the main plot concerns the two of them trying to rescue a little girl. Recently, there has been a lot of call for female-directed, female-led action movies, and yet I’ve never heard people mention this one, made all the way back in 1995. The film was neither a critical nor a financial success at the time, but it deserves to be re-evaluated. I think it might be more relevant now than it was in the ‘90s. 

Wait—what’s that, Wikipedia article for Tank Girl? You have pertinent news?

“It was reported in September 2019 that a reboot of the film was in early development.”

AAAARRRRGHHHH!!

Okay, time for one of my rants… 

Look, movie people: you don’t need to reboot things all the time. The point of movies is that… follow me closely here… they record images to be presented again at a later date.

I agree with the sentiment that a Tank Girl movie released in 2020 or beyond could be a hit. What I don’t agree with is the idea that you need to make a whole new one. Just take the existing one, which probably most people have not even heard about, and re-release it in theaters.

Now, I get it: the special effects in Tank Girl are unmistakably those of a mid-‘90s low-budget film. Nobody is going to mistake it for a modern Marvel movie or anything like that. But so what? The aesthetic is unique, and screams “’90s Punk stuff.” Why mess with that? 

And yes, I know there’s a comic book that it’s based on, and presumably a new film would attempt to be more faithful to it, and incorporate more of the undoubtedly rich and nuanced lore of the Tank Girl universe.

But here’s the thing: no adaptation can ever be 100% faithful, so it’s pointless to try. Make an adaptation, see what it looks like, and then move on to the next thing. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to improve on a concept, but when did the idea of a “spiritual sequel” become extinct? 

Because there’s definitely room for more action comedies about wisecracking women fighting their way across surreal dystopias. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? But that doesn’t mean you should make the same one over again. Make a new one. 

This is why I don’t watch more movies—a week ago I didn’t know Tank Girl existed, and now here I am complaining they might do a reboot of it.

Anyway, the point here is that it’s a surprisingly good film. It does have a lot of swearing and a few sex jokes that might put some people off. (Most of these are through implication and innuendo, rather than anything explicit.) The violence is stylized, in typical action movie form. And the animation sequences can be so rapid I could imagine that they might cause some viewers to become nauseated. The film is rated R, although I kind of suspect that today it would be PG-13. It’s fun, it’s weird, and it has gunfights and tanks and cheesy one-liners. What else do you want from an action movie?

BtK vs DGo ahead, say that title out loud. (Okay, maybe not if you’re in a public place.) “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.” The words seem intrinsically strange together, and become even more bizarre when you know that William Bonney, the famous outlaw known as “Billy the Kid,” was shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, 16 years before Bram Stoker published his Gothic novel of vampire horror, Dracula. 

Now it’s true, Stoker’s vampire was based on Vlad III Dracula, who lived in the 1400s and thus—if he had been an immortal vampire, which most reliable historians seem to feel he wasn’t—might have found his way into a showdown with the famous outlaw.

But as the film begins, it quickly becomes clear that these details do not matter after all, because Billy the Kid isn’t really Billy the Kid—the film apparently is set in some sort of alternate history in which Mr. Bonney abandoned his outlaw ways, did not run afoul of Sheriff Garrett, and instead became foreman at a ranch, where he is engaged to marry the young daughter of the ranch owner.

Careful students of the craft of storytelling may here ask the question, “Why did the writer choose to tell a story about Billy the Kid in which Billy the Kid does not act like Billy the Kid, but somebody else altogether different?” Careful students of the craft of storytelling are advised to take a stiff drink before going any further, because it is also worth noting that the vampire is not once referred to as Dracula throughout the entire film. 

So, it’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, except Billy the Kid isn’t Billy the Kid, and Dracula isn’t Dracula. All quite clear? Smashing! We proceed.

The film begins with the vampire, (played by John Carradine who portrayed Dracula well in the surprisingly decent film House of Dracula) descending upon a family of German immigrants traveling by wagon in the American west. He bites the young daughter of the group, but is warded off at the sight of a crucifix.

Later, the nameless vampire comes upon a stagecoach, carrying wealthy travelers towards their ranch, where, he learns, their beautiful niece Elizabeth resides. He is much taken with a picture of young Elizabeth shown to him by the travelers. When the coach stops for an evening, the vampire attacks a young Native American woman camped nearby, sparking the rage of the rest of the tribe. They assume it to be the work of the stage coach’s occupants and retaliate by killing them—allowing the vampire to assume the identity of the ranch owner and Elizabeth’s uncle, Mr. Underhill.

Meanwhile, William Bonney and young Elizabeth are playfully shooting tin cans and flirting with each other, much to the annoyance of the previous foreman, who watches jealously from afar. Apparently, being foreman also entails being Elizabeth’s lover, since apparently Billy took both positions from him at the same time.

Realizing that Elizabeth’s uncle Mr. Underhill is due to arrive in town soon, Billy rides off to meet him at the saloon. He arrives just after the vampire, posing as Underhill, has come to the saloon and taken a room. Moments later, the immigrant family arrives, still shaken by the earlier vampire attack, and are horrified when their daughter recognizes “Underhill” as the vampire who attacked her. However, he is somehow able to convince them that he is not a vampire, and, as a gesture of goodwill, allows them to take his room for the evening while he follows Billy to the Underhill ranch.

But of course, this is all a diabolical trick, and the vampire returns that night to finish the job on the poor immigrants’ daughter. Meanwhile, Billy and Elizabeth ponder the idea that there is something odd about her uncle, although what it is they can’t quite put their fingers on…

Dracula

What could it be?

So, after much riding back and forth, Billy getting into a brawl with the ex-foreman, and the old immigrant woman’s attempt to keep the vampire away failing, Elizabeth is carried off into a makeshift lair the vampire has created in an abandoned mine. Billy rides there furiously, ignoring the town doctor’s advice that to defeat the vampire, he must drive a stake through his heart. Instead, in typical outlaw fashion, he tries to gun him down with his revolver. But the bullets have no effect. 

Okay, look: I know it’s absurd to complain about logic in a film called Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. But I can’t help myself. Bullets are just fast-moving, miniature stakes, right? So why shouldn’t they work on the vampire? Now, you might say, “Well, they didn’t hit his heart, so it didn’t work.” I could buy that… except that then Billy throws his gun at the vampire and hits him in the face and knocks him down!

Seriously, what is this? If being hit with bullets didn’t hurt him, why should being hit with a much slower-moving hunk of metal? I know, you all are thinking I’m being Comic Book Guy at this point, but I have a reason for talking about this, and it’s not because I’m one of those people who is going to go off and start a petition demanding that Billy the Kid vs. Dracula  be remade with proper consultation of a period firearms expert and a close-quarters combat specialist.

The reason is because it’s an important lesson for anyone who writes fiction: there are bound to be illogical things in any work of fiction. That’s a given. If there weren’t, it wouldn’t be fiction. But the important thing is that the logic must be internally consistent. We get to make up our own rules for our fictional worlds, but they must never conflict with each other. 

All right now, where was I? Oh, yes! So, Billy then stabs the vampire through the heart with the doctor’s stake, and releases Elizabeth from the spell the creature placed on her. He then carries her out of the mine, in the words of Wikipedia, “presumably to live happily ever after.” I love that use of “presumably.” Like, we think they’re going to live happily ever after, but who knows? It could be they’ll realize that they’re just two very different people who happened to get involved in this weird vampire business, gradually grow apart, and eventually come to the point where they argue over petty things like who should do the dishes before finally realizing that they need to go their separate ways.

So we’re 1,097 words into this review and you’re wondering, “Berthold, why are you even writing about this random lousy 55-year-old movie?” 

The reason is very simple: I’m fascinated by the Weird Western genre. I like westerns for the desolate desert landscapes and their frequent use of themes of loneliness and revenge, and of course, weird supernatural horror was my first love in fiction, and the combination of the two will always interest me. And so while I’ve made a huge amount of fun of the film, it’s nonetheless, in its own odd way, significant as one of the first Weird Western films. 

I mentioned the title at the beginning because I honestly think that a competent storyteller could make something interesting out of that. Make Billy the Kid be honest-to-God Billy the freakin’ Kid, the ruthless outlaw who boldly escaped from a New Mexico Jail, and have him encounter a vampire while on the run from the law, somewhere in the gorgeous New Mexico landscape. A skilled writer could spin all kinds of compelling yarns about death, murder and revenge out of that.

But, instead we got a move that shows a vampire strutting around in daylight! For shame!

That’s okay, though. They say that once you invite the vampire in, your fate is as good as sealed. And since early Weird Westerns invited the vampires west, it’s paved the way for all sorts of interesting stories to follow.

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Image via IMDb

A couple weeks ago, Pat Prescott blogged about this film. It’s his go-to escapism movie. I’d heard of it, but prior to Pat’s post had never known much about it. Then I saw it was directed by the same guy who made the science-fiction adventure Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which I enjoyed, and Lucy, which was at least decent. Honestly, I was surprised I hadn’t seen this already, because it sounded like exactly the sort of film I’d enjoy.

And I did. I thought it was better than Valerian. It’s almost impossible to summarize–it starts in Egypt in 1914, when aliens land at an archeological dig site and reveal that they have devised a weapon to combat an ancient evil when it arises every 5,000 years. It requires earth, wind, water, fire and a mysterious “fifth element.” They take this fifth element–which looks like an Egyptian sarcophagus– aboard their ship, telling the human priest who guards it to pass the key on to his successors for when the evil is due to rise again in 300 years.

Fast forward 300 years, and the evil has indeed arisen in the form of a giant, growing orb in space, gradually increasing in size and engulfing everything in its way. From there, the film is a wild ride featuring the fifth element herself (Milla Jovovich), who turns out to be a woman named Leeloo who possesses unnatural strength, an ex-soldier-turned-flying-taxi-driver named Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), who helps her in her fight against evil, an over-the-top DJ (Chris Tucker) who I initially found incredibly annoying, but by the end thought was funny as hell.

There’s also a blue-skinned opera singer, a race of bloodthirsty shapeshifting monsters,  Dallas’ nagging mother, and best of all, the main antagonist, Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), an evil businessman who seems like a cross between Ming the Merciless and Jerry Jones.

All these characters find themselves battling to find the stones that symbolize the other four elements, beginning with a flying car-chase and culminating in a huge shootout inside a glitzy space resort. And of course, along the way, Leeloo and Korben wind up falling in love.

It’s a good old fashioned, light-hearted sci-fi adventure romp with plenty of humor, excitement, and memorable characters. I loved the futuristic, cyberpunk-ish sets, costumes, and art design. And (because I’m sure you all just have to know) the weapon props were excellent, from the Mauser pistol used in the opening scene to the all-in-one super-gun manufactured by Zorg.

Now it’s true that the computer-generated effects look pretty weak to the modern viewer. But remember, this was 1997, and for the time, they weren’t bad. The gunfight in the resort was especially good. It looked downright gritty.

The Fifth Element (1997)
Does this look kinda silly? Sure; but it’s also unique and stylish. (via IMDb)

Is it a deep, thought-provoking tale, rich with allegory, complex characters, and biting social commentary? No, it isn’t. But so what? Not every film should be that–sometimes you just want a fun little story with likable heroes, bad guys you love to hate, memorable scenes, and plenty of funny lines. The Fifth Element definitely has all that. I’m so glad Pat posted about; otherwise I might never have seen it.

Star_Wars_The_Last_JediYes, it finally happened. I watched it.

As some readers may recall, I was, shall we say, not impressed with the first film in the Disney Star Wars series, The Force Awakens. It was so bad that I had no interest in seeing any of their subsequent efforts.

But then I started to hear things about The Last Jedi. It’s controversial and polarizing. The alt-right is griping that it’s full of preachy progressive politics. There are hundreds of YouTube videos made by angry fans complaining about multiple aspects of the film. At the same time, I also heard elements of the film’s plot compared to the game Knights of the Old Republic II, which I consider the greatest Star Wars story ever, and one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever experienced.

This sounds like fodder for an interesting review, I thought. Could be a lot to talk about here. I enjoy writing reviews, and I am no stranger to unorthodox opinions on Star Wars movies, whether it’s my hatred for Force Awakens or my defense of the prequel movies. I wondered how I would react to this most divisive Star Wars film.

Well, there certainly was no lack of things to talk about. This is going to be one of my signature long, sometimes meandering reviews, so settle in for the long haul and prepare to read my thoughts on The Last Jedi.

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Anton Ego from the movie “Ratatouille”. Image via IMDb

My most viewed posts on this blog, not counting one anomaly, are my reviews of movies, books, video games, etc. So I thought I’d talk about how I write them and, more significantly, what I think an effective review should do.

The easiest way to begin is to categorize reviews by usefulness. I based the idea on Paul Graham’s disagreement hierarchy.  Reviewing something isn’t exactly the same as arguing, but they are related in the sense that both should be about working to improve something, so there is a fair amount of overlap.

[In the following x = any movie, book, game etc. being reviewed.]

Tier 1 – The Most Useless Review

“This x sucks. I hated it. Why would anyone think it was good? What a terrible piece of work.”

This review is useless to everyone except the reviewer. It does not explain what the flaws with the x were, nor does it even give us an idea of what the reviewer looks for in xes.

Note that a really good writer can dress up a useless review very nicely, so much that you might think it’s a useful review. For example:

“x is a piece of unmitigated tripe, the likes of which I am sorry to have ever had the displeasure of enduring. It is a blot on the [whatever x’s genre or medium is] landscape.”

This sounds kind of funny and clever, but it doesn’t say anything helpful.

Tier 2 – A Mostly Useless Review

“I loved this x! It’s the best one ever. Everything about it was terrific.”

This is close to being as useless as a Tier 1 review. In fact, I was originally going to group it as a Tier 1, but then I realized that there are two important differences. First, while a Tier 2 might be useless to everyone else, if I read a Tier 2 review of something I made, it would at least make me happy.

And secondly, if somebody wrote a Tier 2 review about one of my books, it would be more useful to me than a Tier 1, because if I know someone liked something, I can figure out how to produce more things they’ll like by sticking to that formula. Whereas with a Tier 1, I have no idea how to produce something they will like. It’s completely useless feedback.

That said, while a review like this is mildly helpful to the creator themselves, it’s useless to all other consumers. They have no way of determining what was good about the x in question—all they know is this reviewer liked it for some reason.

Tier 3 – The Diagnostic Review

“I liked the parts of the x with these characteristics. I didn’t like the other parts with these characteristics. The second half was stronger than the first. It reminded me of y at times, but lacked its [some element of y]. Fans of z will like it.”

This is getting somewhere. This review tells us some specific elements about the x that they thought were good or bad, and provides a reference point that we can use to start to form an idea of what x is, and what type of audience it would appeal to.

This is an informative, workmanlike review, and if I write a review this good, I feel like I’ve done my job. But there is still one higher form to aspire to:

Tier 4 – The Corrective Review

“The central flaw of x is its [some characteristic], which could have been fixed by the following adjustments.”

Or, if it’s a positive review:

“What makes x work so well is its [some characteristic]. This separates it from [other things in x’s genre or medium] to make it truly effective.”

The best type of review not only diagnoses what is good and/or bad about an x, but states why these elements are there, what could be done to fix them if they are bad, and how to replicate them if they are good.

The best review, in other words, not only tells you the negatives and positives of x, but provides sketch blueprints of how to make more and/or better xes. If it’s a bad x, a good review tells you what went wrong and how to fix it. If it’s a good x, it tells you how to replicate its goodness.

Not surprisingly, Tier 1 reviews are the easiest to write and Tier 4 reviews are the hardest.

Also, it’s important to realize that context matters. Sites like Amazon encourage short reviews, and on average a Tier 1 or 2 will be much shorter than a Tier 4. A Tier 4 is an extended argument, in that you have to make a series of statements that follow one another logically.

Realistically, I think a Tier 3 is the most you can ask for from anyone who isn’t a professional writer or trying to become one.  Tier 4s take too much time. The most useful Amazon reviews I see are all Tier 3s. My eyes glaze over when I see a really long Amazon review, so even if it’s extremely helpful, it probably isn’t worth posting there.

On blogs or sites dedicated specifically to criticism, it’s a different story. On my blog, I feel like I have license to go on as long as I need to make my point.  (You may have realized that already.)

One thing I noticed once I started thinking about this is how many professional reviewers are only capable of writing Tier 1 and 2 reviews, albeit dressed up with five-dollar words and clever turns of phrase. How are they getting away with this? Well, people don’t read professional critics solely to get information, they also read them to be entertained. And nothing is more entertaining than a well-written negative review.¹

This is dangerous. There’s a strong incentive to write negative reviews, because they tend to attract more attention and comment. And if you’re focused on being negative, you’re very likely to lose sight of the thing that makes a Tier 4 review: ways to make the x in question better.

When faced with a choice between being helpful and being entertaining, critics feel a strong pull towards being entertaining. I’m guilty of this myself—writing a scathing but unhelpful review is way more fun and more rewarding (in terms of page views and comments) than writing an extremely useful review.

I’m not saying you can’t be witty and entertaining when you write a review, but that you should be careful not to lose sight of the larger goal. The job of an x critic is to figure out how to make good xes and avoid making bad ones.

Looking back at reviews I’ve written, I’m not sure that I’ve ever achieved a Tier 4. Probably the best one I’ve done so far is this review of Planescape: Torment. I say it’s the best because it’s the only one where I figured out why I liked it so much as I was writing the review. I felt like by writing it I was finally solving a mystery I’d been trying to answer since I first played the game in 2010.

This brings me to a final point about Tier 4 reviews: writing one will probably mean going over the x in question more than once. Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake, but I usually have to read/watch/play something at least twice before I can give a useful review of it. This is another reason Tier 4s are so rare.

Footnote

1.Mark Twain’s brutal review of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels is a good example of this.

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From left: Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) in “Lawrence of Arabia”. Image via IMDb

I’ve referenced this movie many times on this blog–I’ve quoted lines from it, hailed its timeless themes, and in general sung its praises at every turn.  And yet, I’ve never done a proper post about it.  Well, I intend to rectify that now.

Of course, you might think it hardly seems necessary. The movie is practically legendary at this point. It’s been referenced in scores of other movies, its influence can be seen in the work of directors like Kubrick and Coppola, and of course, its subject matter remains relevant to the politics of the Middle East to this day.

And yet, for all that, critics don’t really get Lawrence of Arabia.  They still can’t understand what makes it great. Fortunately, I’m here now, and can tell them.

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I thought Oliver Stone’s JFK would be the weirdest movie I ever saw about the Kennedy assassination, but Jackie has surpassed it.  I went to see it again, thinking I must have been mistaken in my first impression.  The film can’t possibly be as bizarre as I remember, I thought. I must have just misunderstood it.

I didn’t.

I did get a few lines of dialogue slightly wrong in my original review, but as it turned out, the lines were even stranger than I remembered.  In Jackie’s frenzied query about the caliber of the bullet, she not only says she thinks it’s a heavier round “like soldiers use”, but also like those used for deer hunting.

Also, her aide doesn’t say “build a fortress in Boston and disappear.” He says “Disappear. Build a fortress in Boston.” Not appreciably better.

I talked to someone else about this movie, trying to work out what it was all about. She had an interesting interpretation: that the Journalist and the Priest who Jackie talks to aren’t meant as literal characters but as representatives of Journalism and Religion.

This would explain why these characters don’t have names; they are just “the Journalist” and “the Priest”. It also explains why their dialogues with Jackie seem so surreal. The Journalist, in particular, is way too rude to her–I don’t think a journalist would speak like that to any interview subject, especially not the President’s widow. But if he’s representing Journalism in general, Jackie’s perception would be that Journalists are incredibly rude.

Interpreted this way, the dialogues aren’t two characters talking; they are philosophical exercises meant to examine Jackie’s relationship to the institutions of the Press and the Church. And by extension, it makes sense to guess that most of the rest of the movie is her interaction with another institution: the Government.

If you watch the movie this way, you get the sense that Jackie is extremely disenchanted with all three of these.  That’s sort of what I meant when I wrote the movie was subversive–major institutions appear useless or untrustworthy.

All that said, I’m still not convinced that this is the way to interpret the movie.  Besides which, I’ve never been a big fan of allegories, and this one–if indeed that is what it is–is still ham-handed.  A piece of drama must work first as drama, and only then can it have allegorical or symbolic meaning.  The dialogues in Jackie are not smooth dialogues, no matter how much philosophical depth they may have or aspire to have.

But I don’t want to just give a short-attention span dismissal and say, “Oh, the script is rotten. Sad!” Because while it gets almost all the micro-level details of dialogue wrong, there is one very macro-level idea that it gets right, and that is the use of images and symbols (e.g. JFK’s funeral procession) to create legacies, and to shape the perception of history.

A few other observations:

  • The soundtrack didn’t seem as bad this time, although I still thought it came in too loud at inappropriate times when silence would have been better.
  • The scene where the Priest sums up his reflections on Life and Death is very strong, largely because it is the late John Hurt delivering the lines.  Great actor. R.I.P.
  • I said this before, but it’s worth repeating: all the acting was great, which was especially impressive given the problems I’ve mentioned with the dialogue.
  • Have I mentioned I have some issues with the script?

Lastly, I don’t get why people are calling this a “biopic”.  It isn’t one. A biopic should give you a sense of who a person is, and how they evolve over time.  Jackie takes place over a very short time frame, and it deals with a woman’s reaction to a tragic and shocking crime that had few historical parallels. That’s fascinating subject matter, but it’s not a biopic because it really doesn’t give you a larger sense of who Jackie was or what her life was like.

I’m not complaining about that.  I think this was a far more innovative thing to do.  I’m just saying they shouldn’t be calling it a “biopic”.  It’s more of a historical drama, on the order of Julius Caesar.

That’s all for now.  I might write more later.  This movie has limitless potential for discussion.

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“Denial” (Image via Wikipedia)

Denial is a courtroom drama about the libel lawsuit filed by author David Irving (portayed by Timothy Spall) against Prof. Deborah Lipstadt (portrayed by Rachel Weisz). Irving sued Lipstadt for calling him a “Holocaust denier” in one of her books. Because Irving brought the case in England, the burden of proof is on the accused, and so Lipstadt and her legal team are required to prove Irving knowingly lied in denying the Holocaust.

As part of the research for the trial, Lipstadt and her lawyers go to Auschwitz, where her barrister, Richard Rampton, asks a series of matter-of-fact questions about the camp and the methods of killing. This makes Lipstadt very uncomfortable, but Rampton argues it is necessary to build their case.

As the trial begins, it is clear that Irving is a master of public relations.  He acts as his own lawyer, against Lipstadt’s well-financed legal team, to cast himself as an underdog and create a “David vs. Goliath” image.

As part of their strategy, Lipstadt’s lawyers don’t allow her to speak at the trial, or to the press.  They also refuse to allow Holocaust survivors to speak, even after Lipstadt is approached by one, pleading with her to allow their voices to be heard.

Lipstadt is greatly distressed by this. But as Rampton explains, these are the sacrifices they must make. “It’s the price you pay for winning,” he tells Lipstadt. The goal is to make the trial not about the Holocaust, but about Irving himself.

The strategy works well, and gradually they begin to expose Irving as an anti-Semite, and his “historical errors” as deliberately calculated to paint Hitler in the best possible light.  Ultimately, their strategy succeeds, and Irving is ruled to have knowingly lied to deny the Holocaust.

The victory is satisfying, but Irving remains a genius at the dark art of “spin”–after the verdict is announced Lipstadt watches as Irving is interview on television saying that he obviously beat Lipstadt’s legal team, but was just not forceful enough to convince the Judge.

Although the ending of the film is as upbeat as one could expect, given the subject matter, there is a certain subtext that suggests Irving may have lost in court, but will use his skills as a showman to win with the press.  I’m not even sure if the filmmakers intended this, but Irving is portrayed as a shrewd and manipulative man, and the implication seems to be that he–and others like him–could continue to trick uninformed people.

The acting is terrific throughout. Rachel Weisz is brilliant as Lipstadt, right down to her Queens accent. Timothy Spall plays Irving as a man of intelligence and a veneer of “old English gentleman” charm masking a core of hatred. Every performance is excellent.

The script is not bad, but at times tries too hard to be clever and snappy (a common flaw in dramas nowadays), and too often has characters blatantly stating exposition or background information for the benefit of the audience.

The annoying wordiness of the script is compounded by the fact that some of the film’s most powerful scenes are the ones where the characters don’t speak. The scenes at Auschwitz are every bit as powerfully haunting as they should be, without any words being necessary.

Of course, a courtroom drama is bound to have some talking, and the script is certainly good enough when it needs to be. The trial scenes are riveting, even knowing the outcome.

It’s a dark film, and not only because of the Holocaust subject matter, but also because of its depiction of how the bigot Irving advances his agenda with lies and clever manipulation of the press and public alike.  The concept of truth itself comes under attack from Irving, and Lipstadt is forced to confront the possibility that to even respond would be to lend him legitimacy.

Overall, a very good and interesting film. I recommend it. It prompted me to do more research regarding Irving, the lawsuit, and the subject of Holocaust denial generally.  I have a lot more to write on those topics, but that will be a separate post.

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“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”. Image via Wookiepedia, reused under Fair Use.

This week, Star Wars: The Force Awakens surpassed James Cameron’s Avatar as the highest-grossing movie in U.S. history. I had some pretty harsh words to say about Avatar when it came out. I thought it was absurdly over-hyped and over-rated. A mediocre fantasy/sci-fi film being marketed as a cinematic triumph merely because it was “3D”.

Avatar was a work of utter genius next to the abomination that is The Force Awakens.

I knew going in that Force Awakens was playing the nostalgia card and trying to imitate the original movies rather than attempt anything innovative, so my hopes weren’t high.

It was still worse than I could have ever imagined. Even the Star Wars Holiday Special was better than this nightmare.

This movie has all the flaws of every Star Wars movie ever made, only more so. It has dialogue that is worse than anything Lucas ever wrote. It has characters who appear out of nowhere, with no buildup, and are disposed of summarily almost as soon as they arrive. It has a plot that makes Attack of the Clones look like an intricately-woven masterpiece of storytelling. It has horrible CGI special effects that are worse than the prequels’ decade-old CGI effects, and it has sets and costumes that are worse than the originals’ four decades-old sets and costumes. Somehow, the CGI stormtroopers in the prequels look more real than the real stormtroopers in The Force Awakens.

The villains in this movie are called things like “the First Order” and “the Knights of Ren”. It is not clear who they are, what they want, how they got there, or how they got all the men and materiel that looks like the stuff the Empire had 30 years before.

Opposing this inexplicable fascist regime is something called “the Resistance” which is allied with something else called “the Republic”. Since these organizations are both affiliated with the heroes from the originals, the fact that the First Order achieved this absurd degree of power indicates that Luke, Leia, Admiral Ackbar and the rest must be utter morons. They toppled one Empire only to somehow allow another one almost exactly like it to spring up!

Luke, perhaps having become rightly ashamed of his role in this disaster, has vanished, and Leia is looking for him. The movie begins with a Resistance pilot, Poe Dameron, meeting an old man who gives him a map that may lead to Luke. Poe then gives the map to a droid, and is captured by the stormtroopers of the First Order. The droid escapes and is rescued by a junk scavenger, Rey.

Meanwhile, the lead villain, Kylo Ren, interrogates Poe, who eventually tells him about the droid. While Ren is away, one stormtrooper decides to free the pilot and escape with him. The stormtrooper, who is named “Finn”, apparently managed to resist years of brainwashing and became horrified when ordered to fire on civilians.  This has led him to desert. (His name and his intro both made me think of Flynn Taggart)

The two steal a TIE fighter and escape, but are shot down. Finn ejects and, thinking Poe has been killed, wanders the desert planet for help, eventually finding Rey and the droid, moments before the First Order soldiers do. Rey, Finn and the droid escape aboard the Millennium Falcon, which is conveniently in the junkyard / shantytown that Rey lives in.

Let me now pause the synopsis to analyze this sequence. The Millennium Falcon is an extremely famous ship. As we shall find out soon, Han Solo, the ship’s owner, is legendary for his exploits in the war. Moreover, Rey makes her living selling ship parts scavenged from wreckage, and yet for some reason a fully-functional ship was sitting right here?

During their escape, they of course engage in a dogfight with the First Order forces. At one point during this fight, one of them says “we need some cover.” Cover is essential during a gunfight on the ground. It is virtually impossible in an aerial battle. This is utter nonsense.

Let me also stop to mention that Daisy Ridley’s flat performance as Rey pretty much kills any tension this scene might possibly have possessed, though in fairness to her, Rey is extremely unlikable, so it’s not all Ridley’s fault. John Boyega’s performance is good, and Finn is a relatable “Everyman” character, but it’s not enough to save the scene. This state of affairs will persist throughout the film, so feel free to go back and re-read this paragraph every time I mention either character– it will apply equally well at that time.

Somehow or other, the two get pulled aboard a large and sinister ship. They hide in the Falcon‘s trademark secret compartments, which does no good at all when they are boarded by Han Solo and Chewbacca, who know that underneath the floor is the first place to look.

Rey and Finn are shocked to meet the legendary Han Solo, who tells them that Luke is missing, and looks at the map the droid is carrying. He tells them it will help them locate Luke. He also tells them that he is smuggling some kind of giant monsters, and has apparently angered some tangential hooligans in the process.

By an extraordinary coincidence, several rival gangs of these tangential hooligans happen to show up at once, demanding that Solo pay them back or turn over his cargo or something. The hooligans also are looking for Rey and Finn and the droid on behalf of the First Order, even though the First Order only realized they should be looking for them 20 minutes earlier.

At this point, the monsters get loose, killing the hooligans and enabling our heroes to escape in the Falcon. Han urges them to join the Resistance and takes them to a cantina clearly meant to evoke the one in A New Hope.

Here they meet the worst character in all of Star Wars–a poorly animated cat with glasses. Yes, you read that correctly. All I can think is that someone said “What if we crossed Jar Jar Binks with an Ewok, and then gave them the same function as Dexter Jettster?” And then they did it, and they got this idiotic character, who is ham-handedly introduced for the sole purpose of plot development. The character is named Maz Kanata, but they should have just called her “Eks Pozishun”.

Around this time, Finn decides he wants to run away and not bother fighting the First Order. He tries to arrange passage to the Outer Rim with some more tangential hooligans. Elsewhere, Rey wanders off down a dark corridor where she hears ghostly voices. There she finds Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber in a pile of junk. When she picks it up she is subjected to a vision that indicates she is Force-sensitive. She’s scared by this, and says she doesn’t want the lightsaber when Maz comes to find her. (Maz, by the way, somehow came to have Luke’s lightsaber. The ridiculous contrivances never end in this Galaxy.) Rey runs away, and Maz gives the lightsaber to Finn.

Meanwhile, the First Order has just completed building their impossible planet-destroying base that makes no sense. One of their military commanders, who makes the Colonel from Avatar look like a subtle, nuanced and well-developed character, gives an absurdly hammy speech to celebrate the first firing of the superweapon.

It was completely unclear to me what they destroyed with it. I mean, clearly it was some important bunch of planets, but who the people on the planets were, or what was important about those planets, or why we should care about them was unexplained. Hack screenwriting at its absolute worst.

I know, I know: you’re thinking “But the same thing could be said about the destruction of Alderaan in Episode IV!” Well, yes; but it worked in that movie because everything was new. It was the first one most people saw, and we expected to be dropped in the middle of things. Force Awakens is supposed to be a follow-up movie, and so the audience reasonably expects to be able to follow along from the previous movie, and not have a bunch of new stuff dumped on them.

Could they not have blown up something we cared about? Something we had seen before? Barring that, could they not have at least blown up something that had some strategic significance?

At roughly the same time that they are blowing up the planets, Kylo Ren and his men arrive at the planet Solo, Finn and Rey are on, and commence shooting everyone. Ren captures Rey, and carries her off in accordance with melodramatic tradition. I was surprised he didn’t say “I have you now, pretty one!”, and twirl his mustache, except of course he has no mustache. Possibly the reason for the mask is that he was ashamed at being a stock villain who had no mustache.

Finn fights off the stormtroopers using Luke’s lightsaber, and “the Resistance”, including Poe, arrive in X-Wings to fight the First Order. This is the one part of the film that might have managed to evoke some nostalgia for the original Star Wars, except that such battles have been done better and more often by countless of the “Expanded Universe” stories. This tiny dogfight paled next to, say, Rogue Squadron II. But I suppose the generation Force Awakens is pitched at never played those games.

Ren and his forces leave, and General Organa (formerly known as “Princess Leia”) arrives, and shares a brief moment with Han Solo, the father of her son (Kylo Ren). It’s the best scene in the movie, probably because the annoying newcomers get out of the way for once and let us see two original Star Wars characters (one of whom is even portrayed by a good actor!) speaking to each other.  Their lines are really good too:

Han: You changed your hair.

Leia (giving him a sarcastic look): Same jacket.

Han: No… different jacket.

This was a good scene.  It deserved to be in a better movie.

Leia and the Resistance take Han and Finn and the rest of the crew to their base, where they begin to analyze the situation.  The First Order’s new weapon is an even bigger Death Star–a hilariously lame idea that the movie seems hellbent on emphasizing as much as possible; going so far as to have the Resistance displaying holograms of the two weapons side-by-side.

Oh, and do I even need to tell you that Ren has taken Rey to this same super-base to interrogate her regarding the whereabouts of Skywalker? Didn’t think so. You’d think these evil overlord-types would have learned by now not to conduct all their business aboard their superweapons after what happened to the first two Death Stars. It’s like if Hitler had his personal office on the battleship Bismarck.

Rey resists Ren’s interrogation, and for some reason he takes his helmet off, revealing that he looks like a young Alan Rickman-as-Severus Snape. (I suspect Disney’s marketing people were well aware of this resemblance.)

The Resistance, realizing they have to destroy the new superweapon, launch a daring raid to infiltrate the base, led by–who else would you choose?–Han, an old man who has already deserted the cause once, and whose own son is the leader of the enemy forces, and Finn, who a few days earlier actually worked for the First Order.

Rey meanwhile has managed to escape and is wandering around the First Order’s base at random.  Ren can’t use the Force to sense her because he is too busy throwing temper tantrums that would make even young Anakin Skywalker ashamed.

Han, Finn and Chewbacca eventually run into Rey, and then set out to plant the explosives at the critical point that will destroy the station.  But will they be in time? The weapon is nearly charged, and the Resistance leaders know it is mere moments from firing and destroying their planet.

Many have criticized this sequence for being blatantly copied from Episode IV.  But that’s not really the problem. All the Star Wars films intentionally echo one another; so having this same setup isn’t what’s wrong with this sequence.

What’s wrong with this sequence is that it’s done really badly.  Everything about it feels like the work of amateurs. No–not amateurs.  Hacks. It feels lazy.  When experts do it, it’s a recurring leitmotif. When amateurs do it, it’s a loving homage.  But when hacks do it, it’s just depressing recycling.

When the First Order base is close to firing, C-3PO actually says “It will take a miracle to save us now!” This is by far the worst line in Star Wars. I can’t believe it made it past the editors.  Note that there is no similar line in the equivalent scene in A New Hope. That’s because Lucas didn’t need to tell his audience “Hey, you feel tension now! The heroes are in trouble!”; he had built that feeling organically, and the actors expressed it with their eyes and their body language. A New Hope is by no means a great film,  but it felt like the work of people who cared.

Star Wars died for me at this point. So I guess it was fitting that in the next few minutes, the last truly interesting and likable character–not to mention good actor–from Star Wars also made his exit.

Aboard the base, Han confronts his son (while standing over a bottomless pit, of course) and asks him to return to the light. Ren removes his helmet, turns to his father, says some words of contrition–and then runs him through with his lightsaber. The mortally-wounded Han then plunges into the pit below.

It’s a powerful moment–more powerful, indeed, than J.J. Abrams “can possibly imagine”; because it symbolizes how his movie destroys the soul of the franchise.  Here we have a beloved character from the original movies being cut down by a two-bit emo villain cobbled together from spare parts.  This is the moment when Star Wars fundamentally changes from being the epic space opera Lucas envisioned into, in every sense, a Mickey Mouse operation.

The rest is perfunctory–the X-Wings blow up the enemy base, the heroes fight a lightsaber duel with the villain (Both Finn and Rey take their turn) and escape victorious back to the Resistance base.  It all feels very much done in haste–“here you go, here are your classic Star Wars tropes, eat them up!”–with no emotional power. The essence of the characters is forgotten. We never really see Leia mourn Han’s death–there’s no time for characterization or emotion, as she has to hustle Rey along to the final plot point: finding Luke Skywalker.

R2-D2 powers up and together with the new droid they are able to complete the star map that leads to Luke–a scene that looks even more ridiculous than it sounds, once you realize it is comparable to the Joint Chiefs of Staff having been unable to locate a China-shaped cut-out from a map of the Earth.

Rey flies off in the Millennium Falcon to a very beautiful planet of rocky islands. There she finally finds the protagonist of the original trilogy, looking worn and grizzled, with a thick grey beard.  Luke, ever the odds-defying hero, pulls off one more miracle escape: the film ends before his character can be ruined along with everything else.

I’ve criticized George Lucas a lot, and he made a lot of artistic decisions I don’t agree with. But dammit, he was an artist, and he had a talent for film-making. And what’s more, he had a vision.  Here there is talent, perhaps, but no vision.  This is a cargo cult Star Wars–made by copying superficial aspects only, with no understanding of what made it compelling.

Given all that, why do so many people like The Force Awakens?  I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.