Saturday, December 16, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Revenge of Gorilla City" (November 4, 1978)


In “Revenge of Gorilla City,” an episode of Challenge of the Super Friends (1977), Grod convinces his allies in the Legion of Doom that they must take over peace-loving Gorilla City. Long ago, he was banished from the peaceful metropolis.

Now, Brainiac has developed a mind amplification device that allows the Legion of Doom to enslave the city-dwellers.  Only the city’s King, Solivar, escapes this brain-washing, and manages to warn the Super Friends of the danger. Unfortunately, Superman is far away, in Galaxy 13, pulverizing asteroids.

Rescuing the city of intelligent simians is more difficult than it might seem, too, because Toy Man has created a Kryptonite toy airplane that can immobilize the Man of Steel.


“Holy Gorilla Warfare!” Robin exclaims in “Revenge of Gorilla City,” a story that blends a Planet of the Apes (1968)-style civilization with a superhero story. 

Grod -- the only criminal in the history of Gorilla City -- takes out his revenge on his people, and the episode’s big set-piece is a “royal hunt” of the Super Friends by the mesmerized apes and the Legion of Doom. So, think Taylor, Landon and Dodge under attack, but throw in the DC characters for good measure.


We learn much background about Grod and his civilization in this episode. Gorilla City is hidden under a dome of invisibility, near Bogota, and rests on huge deposits of gold. The Super Friends and the Legion of Doom know about its existence, and apparently Grod has been frothing at the mouth to return there and wreak his vengeance. King Solivar is a noble leader.


Here, everybody drives to the city in moon buggy-type vehicles, and the Legion of the Doom invention of the week is the brain wave amplifier by which Brainiac can establish mental control over the city's denizens.

This week, Wonder Woman is the hero who wears a helmet in space, but no space suit (last week it was Batman), and it’s confusing why she even bothers. Clearly, the writers of the episode understood that some protection is required in space, but didn’t want to give her a space suit, apparently.

Lastly, the Super Friends state a variation on the line that is repeated every week on Challenge of the Super Friends: “Not if we can help it!”

Next Week: “Swamp of the Living Dead.”

Friday, December 15, 2017

Movie Trailer: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star Wars Week 2017: Standing in Line to See Star Wars in 1977



I recently watched the (intriguing) documentary The People vs. George Lucas, and the news camera footage of folks standing in line for The Phantom Menace (1999) and other Star Wars prequels at first seemed quite odd to me. 

I mean, at that point in our national history, there was no need really to stand in line – or camp out in line as the case might be – to see any particular film. The distribution paradigm of carpet-bomb wide release makes the very idea of standing-in-line something of an anachronism, it seems.

But, in my heart, I suppose I do understand why some fans chose to stand in line awaiting a new release in the popular old franchise.  Standing-in-line is a communal experience first, one allowing fans to connect to other Star Wars fans and to plug-in to the community’s sense of enthusiasm and excitement  And secondly, standing-in-line now likely qualifies as a nostalgic experience for older fans, at least for ones of my (advanced) age.

Because let me tell you, back in the day, if you wanted to see Star Wars (1977) or The Empire Strikes Back (1980) or E.T. (1982), for that matter, standing in long lines was absolutely an unavoidable part of the experience.

I will always remember the summer of 1977 and the coming of Star Wars.  I was in second grade at the time, and a friend who lived up the block from me in Glen Ridge came to school with a Star Wars movie booklet; one that featured imagery of Dewbacks, Banthas, Tusken Raiders, Jawas, C3PO, Chewbacca, Darth Vader and other characters of seemingly impossible and unbelievable imagination. 

I had never seen so many strange creatures assembled between two covers, and I so listened in awe as Stephen, my friend, described the film to me in some detail.  I still didn't quite understand why robots were co-existing with monsters and other creatures. It seemed...weird.

At this point, I should add, I was still high on King Kong (1976), and could not quite believe that any movie might possibly surpass that particular viewing experience.  So sue me.  I was seven.

Soon after my introduction via Stephen to Star Wars, my parents took me and my sister to see the film at a movie theater in Paramus N.J., and I couldn’t wait to see what I would make of the movie.


Only -- in actuality -- I could wait. 

In line. 

For close to three hours. 

The line at the theater stretched around the large rectangular building -- around three corners -- and then led out into the huge parking lot. And the line moved at a snail’s pace.

Finally, of course, we got into the auditorium, and it was absolutely packed. Everyone in my family had to squeeze past other patrons to find four seats together.

And then the movie started and my life changed.  That night before I went to bed, my mother asked me if I liked the movie. My mind was still reeling, and I said that I did.  But I suppose I was a little reserved. 

She then absolved me of my guilt: “It’s okay, John if you liked it better than King Kong,” she said, apparently sensing my loyalty and allegiance to the big ape.  My façade cracked quickly at that point and I was glad and relieved to admit the truth.

I had liked Star Wars a whole lot better than King Kong.  It was…amazing, like nothing I had ever imagined.

By the time The Empire Strikes Back arrived in theaters in 1980, I knew to expect a long line.  And so did my parents.  Before queuing up for the sequel, they bought me Star Wars and Shogun Warrior comic books to read for the wait.  I also had my Star Wars novelization in hand, and a few action figures in my pockets.  The time in line still seemed eternal, but again, the wait was worth it.  I left the theater wondering how on Earth I was supposed to wait for three years to discover Han Solo’s fate.

Then, by the time of Return of the Jedi, there was no need to stand in line, at least in Montclair, N.J., where I saw the film at the Clairidge Theater.  I came out of the film deflated, thinking “that’s it?”  And now I must wonder if my disappointment came about at least a little bit because I missed waiting in line.  There was no build-up to the experience, and no plugging-in to the enthusiasm of other Star Wars fans and even general audiences. More likely, the movie was just disappointing, and the experience played almost no role.  Right?

Of course, I’m glad that, by and large, we don’t have to wait in line to see movies anymore…unless we choose to. 

But I do wonder what the lengthy standing-in-line experience meant in terms of a movie meeting or not meeting audience expectations.  By waiting for hours in line for a film, were we just relieved to be inside -- in the air conditioning -- and therefore more receptive to a film’s spell? 

Or did the waiting-in-line actually build up our anticipation to such a degree that nothing could meet those expectations?  I wonder.

I do know this for certain: Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. certainly surpassed my wildest expectations, and those are the films I remember most vividly standing in line for.

Ranking Star Wars Now (Before The Last Jedi)



Star Wars: Best to Worst:







All right, there you have it: the Star Wars series as ranked by me at this minute, on the fly.

I reserve the right to think about it, and go over it. Some days, I prefer Revenge of the Sith to The Phantom Menace.

I don't think I would shift either the #1, #2 or #8 slot, but the rest is all in motion.

Ask JKM a Question: Star Wars, Has it Been Good for Cinema or Bad?


A reader, Beth, writes:

I recently read your book Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s and would like some clarification on a particular point.  

I realize I might be reading between the lines, but do you believe that Star Wars had a negative impact on science fiction cinema?

Hi Beth, that’s a terrific question.


What my book said -- and the idea I stand by -- is that Star Wars dramatically changed the nature of the science fiction cinema (and science fiction TV, for that matter). 

I feel I can make that case without arguing pro or con regarding the value of Star Wars influence.  But since you asked, I will argue my side too.

First, the case that Star Wars changed the sf cinema:

Before Star Wars, the science fiction cinema of the 1970s was concerned primarily with two ideas: apocalypse and dystopia. 

Thus we had films such as No Blade of Grass (1970) the Planet of the Apes sequels (1970-1974), The Omega Man (1971), Z.P.G. (1972), Zardoz (1973), Soylent Green (1973) and Logan’s Run (1976) to name just a few of the titles.

George Lucas himself began his sci-fi career with a film in this dystopian mode: THX-1138 (1971).

Following the blockbuster trajectory of Star Wars, a strong fantasy and swashbuckling component came into the genre. 

Escapism became the key defining factor of sf cinema.


We had films such as Star Crash (1977), Message from Space (1978), and so on. Notice that some of these titles seem to have a grounding not in science fiction, necessarily, but in Western movie tropes translated to the final frontier.

Even James Bond went to space in Moonraker (1979).

Instead of pondering the end of the world, or the future shape of mankind, many post-Star Wars films featured adventure, mysticism and multi-colored laser battles instead.  Politely put, this shift could be described as a dumbing-down; a movement away from big, controversial ideas and towards special effects showcases.

Yet it is undeniable that Star Wars proved that science fiction could succeed at the box office in a big way, and therefore I judge its influence as quite positive.  

The film itself is brilliantly-achieved, a blast of raw energy and hope in a (largely) cynical and down-beat decade. The film is a lot of fun, but let's not forget that it is something beyond entertainment. It presented us, in meticulous detail, the brilliant idea of a "lived in" universe. It re-purposed and re-imagined old serial tropes in a way that made them feel fresh

Without the arrival of Star Wars, additionally, it is doubtful that Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) would have been made.


Without Star Wars, we might not have gotten Alien (1979), a truly magnificent film in terms of production design, and its revolutionary view of space travel (blue collar space truckers, for lack of a better term). 

Even some films from the immediate post-Star Wars era that have been widely dismissed as Star Wars knock-offs had something of value, philosophically, to offer. The trippy and dark ending of The Black Hole (1979), elevates that movie above its juvenile shoot-em-up qualities. 


Similarly, Glen Larson’s theatrical version of Battlestar Galactica (1978) was really a fascinating Cold War allegory worrying that we would sell out our nuclear store for the possibility of a fake peace with the Soviet Union.  It was Peace Through Strength…In Space...with chrome robots.


So a careful reviewer with an eye towards history could say that Star Wars changed science fiction cinema -- moving it into deep space and other galaxies, and elevating the escapist aspect of the genre -- but that it didn’t gut the science fiction cinema of its guiding principle: to comment on mankind, his nature, and his future.

Yes, Star Wars was so successful that Hollywood producers fell all over themselves getting silly, empty-headed “space” fantasy movies into theaters. 

But other, cleverer producers, saw that Star Wars gave them an opening to work in a genre that was suddenly incredibly popular. By the 1980s, the success of Star Wars had laid the groundwork for big-screen, big-budget adaptations of the works of Frank Herbert and Arthur C. Clarke, for example.

So, no I don't judge Star Wars' existence of influence as negative.

On intellectual and critical grounds, I would not want to see Star Wars subtracted from film history.  Not merely because I feel it is a great and worthwhile film, but because I feel it opened the doorway for a lot of great movies, even if its success altered the nature of science fiction for a few years.

On personal grounds, I would also not want to take Star Wars out of film history. As a second grader, the film was revelation to me. It changed the direction of my life in so many ways.

Now, I feel this way today, I might add, as a qualifier. 

We’ll be getting a new Star Wars movie every year for now until eternity. Disney is strip-mining the property, and this will make Star Wars seem less like a special event, and more routine.  We know there have been difficulties, behind the scenes, on Solo (the Han Solo movie), due out next year.

Let’s make a date to revisit this discussion. Ask me again in five years if Star Wars has had a positive influence on the cinema of ideas. 

Don’t forget to ask me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Star Wars Week 2017: Yoda Hand Puppet

Star Wars Week 2017: Return of the Jedi Lunch Box (1983)







Stars Week 2017: The Empire Strikes Back Lunch Box (1980)



Star Wars Week 2017: Star Wars Lunch Box (1977)



Star Wars Week 2017: Star Wars #15: "Star Duel" (Marvel)



The Marvel-produced Star Wars comic book of the late 1970s wasn't always good. That's for sure. The series suffered from a distinct lack of direction immediately after the adaptation of the blockbuster film; particularly in regards to a silly regurgitation of The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven involving Han Solo and other mercenaries (including one who looked like a giant green Bugs Bunny...) combating a giant behemoth on Tattooine.

But when the Star Wars comic-book series was good, it was very good indeed.

Case in point is one of my favorite issues, numbered #15. It's titled "Star Duel" and was first published in September of 1978 (just months before I would soon turn nine years old).


This issue completes a lengthy, multi-issue story arc involving Luke Skywalker and a war on a distant water planet, as well as Han Solo's deadly rivalry with a menacing, scarlet-bearded villain called Crimson Jack. "Star Duel" is written by Archie Goodwin and the artists are Carmine Infantino and Terry Austin.


As "Star Duel" picks up, the planetary war is over, but Crimson Jack -- a space pirate with a stolen star destroyer at his command -- has finally caught up with his Corellian nemesis, Han Solo. At Jack's side is a gorgeous but conflicted space pirate lass named Jolli. She claims she wants Solo dead too (for a recent betrayal when he was her prisoner...), but the fact is...she's in love with him.

As the issue commences, Jack plans to launch an aerial attack (led by Jolli) on the sea-berthed Millennium Falcon (which is undergoing repairs by Chewie and C-3PO). Jolli pilots a Y-Wing against Solo, and this issue features several good character touches for her, including a brief flashback to her tragic youth; one that explains how Jolli became a space pirate and why she's always felt she needs to be "harder," and "tougher" than "any man around her."

The pitched battle between Han Solo and Crimson Jack rages from sea to air to space (with Luke manning the Falcon's turret guns again...), to a final one-on-one outer space quick draw finale -- a blaster duel - involving Solo and Jack. 

But it's Jolli who ultimately casts the deciding laser blast here, in a great (and uniquely touching) finale. The issue's final panel, involving a tender kiss (Jolli's first and last...) is an emotional showstopper. If you love Star Wars, and if you love these characters (especially if you've been following the comics...), this one packs a wallop.

Although undeniably scientifically inaccurate (Solo and Jack don't wear pressure suits during their duel in space, only masks, kinda like the Mynock scene in Empire), this story nonetheless has a lot going for it. There's some great (and forward-looking...) attention to detail. For instance, the droids are depicted in one panel on the exterior hull of the Millennium Falcon making repairs during space flight. I may have forgotten something, but I don't think we actually saw such a thing happening (besides R2 in his bucket back seat on an X-Wing...) until The Phantom Menace in 1999.

"Star Duel" also reveals an assortment of captured spaceships re-purposed by Crimson Jack...and one of them is a TIE Bomber. Again, my memory banks may be failing me here, but I'm pretty sure we didn't see that make and model on screen until the asteroid pursuit of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980...over a year after this comic issue was released.

These instances of cross-media saga continuity certainly warm the heart of my inner geek, but the tragic love story of Han Solo and Jolli, played against the larger-than-life villainy of space pirate Crimson Jack speaks powerfully to my romantic side.

I have fond memories of being very young and reading, re-reading -- and then reading again -- this entire Marvel Star Wars story arc. 

I felt then, and I still feel now, that the climax of "Star Duel" really brings everything home in a wonderful and poignant way. This is a good story about human characters and the choices they make. It may be set against a cosmic landscape of combat, yet it feels intimate and personal. 

Such a mix is precisely what the franchise does best.

Star Wars Week 2017: Return of the Jedi CAP-2 Captivator (Kenner; 1983)




This is the Return of the Jedi (1983) edition of the CAP-2 Captivator by Kenner, a Star Wars "mini-rig" that was not featured in the Original Trilogy. 

You'd think that with all the amazing ship and vehicle designs featured in the Lucasfilm movies, Kenner would not have had to resort to coming up with new toy designs, but here was CAP-2, along with INT-4 (which looked like a mini AT-ST...), the MTV-7, the MLC-3, and PDT-8. 

All these mini-rigs accommodated the small Kenner action figures so that you "could create your own Star Wars Adventures."

I always felt that CAP-2 Captivator was actually the coolest (and perhaps most outlandish...) of the Star Wars mini-rigs collection.  It features "suction cup feet" so you can "hide CAP-2 in secret places." 

I don't remember that as a design feature on other vehicles of the Evil Galactic Empire, but it's fun to make this thing climb walls, anyway. After watching The Clone Wars, this toy definitely looks like it could fit in with the some of Repulic's walkers.

Also, the CAP-2 features rear-mounted, silver-painted teeth that can grip action figures. This way, you can "capture Rebel prisoners and take them to Darth Vader."  Additionally, the cockpit opens and holds one action figure. 

On all the art for this edition of the CAP-2, bounty hunter Bossk is driving the CAP-2. He's one mean customer, so watch out if the CAP-2 is headed in your direction...it means business!

Star Wars Week 2017: Death Star Space Station (Kenner)



This giant play-set representation of the Star Wars (1977) Death Star -- a literal "pie slice" of the space sphere -- remains one of the greatest and most impressive toys of the late 1970s space craze.

Released by Kenner in 1978, The Death Star Playset recreates the central location of Star Wars, the Imperial battle station, with four different levels of intricacy and detail.


The promotion material describes the toy in detail:

"Kenner's exciting play environment simulates the Death Star space station with manual elevator to take the Star Wars figures to any of the action play floors."

"TOP FLOOR: Laser cannon that swivels, emitting "clicking" sounds; it explodes from housing when hit by X-wing fighter.  Also has ledge for Ben Kenobi."

THIRD FLOOR: Manually operated "light bridge" that opens and closes, and an escape rope swing for Luke and Leia.

SECOND FLOOR: Control room for piloting Death Star and escape hatch to trash compactor.

FIRST FLOOR: Trash compactor complete with removable foam garbage; has turn-screw to close end of compactor, which stops in in time for Star Wars hero to escape."

This description doesn't indicate one of the coolest aspects of this great toy, however: the Death Star comes complete with a figure of the Dia Noga -- or trash-compactor monster -- thus allowing us to see its full body shape for the first time.

I received this impressive toy for Christmas as a nine year old, I believe, and I loved it.  I was disappointed that the station was not in the familiar sphere aspect from the movie, but the "pie slice" structure allows for easy access on all sides, and makes playing Star Wars easy.

I kept my Star Wars Death Star for years and years, but eventually all the pieces either got lost or destroyed.  I now have another I bought on E-Bay, and it's just as fun to play with as I remember.



Star Wars Week 2017: Droid Factory (Kenner)


Back in the late 1970s, Kenner created a hugely diverse and impressive line of toys based on the original Star Wars (1977). A young fan could play not just with cool action figures by the dozen, but large-scale mock-ups too, such as the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star Space Station, the Creature Cantina, and more.

Under the category of "more" came this most unusual and interactive of the Kenner Star Wars play sets, 1979's The Droid Factory. This industrial droid production center was unique because it was not a reproduction of a set or ship, or even a landscape (like the Land of the Jawas Playset...). Instead, it was an original and very cool setting not seen in the film, one in which you could build your own version of R2-D2. As a child (and even before The Empire Strikes Back), I appreciated this -- it was good for the burgeoning imagination -- because an original toy like the droid factory indicated that there was a larger world "around" Star Wars than the one we saw in the movie.







The Star Wars Droid Factory came in a large box complete with a beige "factory base with swivel crane" plus "38 robots parts." Essentially, you could "build up to 5 different robots at the same time," "make hundreds of different combinations," and just have a hell of a lot of fun with the "interchangeable robot parts." These factory-constructed robots were the same scale as the other figures, so kids could experience the immediate gratification of landing their newly-built droids into the action with Han Solo, Hammerhead, Jaws, Greedo, Blue Snaggletooth or anyone else.

The Kenner Droid Factory also came with a neat "Droid Maker Blueprints" set which offered instructions for building "the 5 basic droids." These were: the Mechano Droid, R2-D2, Tracto-Droid, Quad-Pod Droid, and Rollarc Droid. The last page of the booklet offered details on how to build a goliath "Monster Droid." Clean-up after play was easy too, as the booklet thoughtfully informed parents: "Each part has its own place in the Base. When you are finished playing with your DROID FACTORY, put all the parts back just like you see it here."




The only drawback to this great vintage toy: there was no way to build Threepio. Yep, Anakin could do it on Tatooine, but you can't do it with your Droid Factory! Clearly, that's a huge oversight in an otherwise very cool toy.

Below, you can see the original TV commercial for the Kenner Star Wars Droid Factory.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Star Wars Week 2017: Rogue One (2016)


[Beware of Spoilers.]

In the months since the theatrical release of The Force Awakens (2015), I have been (vocally) critical about Disney’s impending strip-mining of the Star Wars franchise, with the studio planning to drop a film every year.  

On Facebook last week I saw a meme about Gonk Droid: A Star Wars Story, and feared that we are just one step removed from such an absurdity.

Fortunately, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is the first product to emerge from Disney’s assembly line stretching from here to eternity, and for the moment my fears seem unmotivated. 

Why?

Rogue One is a great movie, and a great Star Wars film to boot.

Indeed, in spirit and texture, Gareth Edward’s film is the closest thing to A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) that franchise fans have seen in over thirty-five years. 

If that’s what you seek in a Star Wars movie, you’ll be enormously pleased with this film, which seems to have emerged from another decade...through a time warp.

I’ll go further than that in my praise.

Rogue One features all the suspense and intrigue that audiences could hope for, and these are qualities that I felt were largely missing from The Force Awakens; a film I liked but didn’t love.

Here, the battle scenes are crisply and colorfully executed, so that we know the geography of the fight, and the importance of each and every sacrifice. Here, although we know the outcome of the plot -- The Death Star plans are transmitted -- we are never quite sure how steep the cost will be.

Rest assured, the cost is steep.

I am not a J.J. Abrams hater, nor a prequel hater. In fact, as my reviews on the blog attest, I enjoyed the prequels quite a bit (and yes The Force Awakens too…). 

However, what I see as the most glorious achievement of Rogue One is the restoration of Star Wars original promise: that “everyday” people can be heroes too. That people like you and me, banding together, can achieve great things.

That’s a message -- in the age of Midichlorians -- that was sacrificed in the last decade of Star Wars films.  The prequels (which again, I’m not hating on…) followed a more overtly fascist approach. You needed to have the right blood-line to be a Jedi or a Sith, or a movie-worthy hero.

Delightfully, Rogue One puts the idea of human -- not superhuman -- heroes front and center, where it belongs, and more than that, gives the audience its closest look yet at the Rebel Alliance. 

I was delighted to see that the Rebel Alliance is not monolithic, nor “good” in a black-and-white sense. 

Rather, it is a messy conglomeration of competing agendas, but with one common purpose: the defeat of the Empire.  This approach contributes immeasurably to the “reality” underlining the lived-in universe of Star Wars.

Rogue One features other virtues too. It’s a travelogue, in a sense, revealing at least four fascinating new worlds (Kafrene, Jedha, Eadu, and Scarif), though it doesn't visit them all with the depth I would have preferred. 

And, finally, the film is a great showcase for Darth Vader at his most monstrous.  Although the Sith Lord has limited screen time here, the filmmakers make the most of that time, showcasing a Vader who is nothing less than terrifying.

Rogue One isn’t perfect, for certain. 

The first hour is muddled and largely incoherent, and some characters make baffling or opaque decisions. But by the time Rogue One reaches hour number two, the film seems to pull itself together, with all thrusters firing in one glorious direction: towards a relentless, suspenseful, rousing final act.


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….the rebel alliance frees small-time crook Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) from an Imperial gulag, in the hopes that she can help them get an audience with extremist Saw Guerrera (Forest Whitaker), who raised her following the death of her mother, and her father’s capture by the Empire.

Guerrera -- who lives in a holy city on Jedha -- has captured an imperial pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). The pilot has a message from Jyn’s father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), one in which the scientist reports that he has built a flaw into the Death Star’s reactor. Guerrera, however, suspects an imperial trap.

Captain Andor (Diego Luna), and his reprogrammed imperial droid, K2SO (Alan Tudyk) are assigned to transport Jyn to see Guerrera, but the mission takes a catastrophic turn when the Imperials test the Death Star’s weaponry at Jedha.

After a mission to Eadu to find Galen, Andor and Jyn attempt to convince the Rebel Alliance to locate and steal the Death Star’s plans in the Imperial Archive on Scarif. 

But the Death Star is also en route to Scarif, as is Lord Vader…


I wont mince words: Rogue One’s first act is not promising. The narrative is unnecessarily complicated with a lot of planet hopping, and myriad introductions to characters we don’t recognize, and don’t really understand. In short, we don't always understand where we are, who we are with, or why any of it matters.

The weakest character in the film is Whitaker’s rebel extremist, Saw Guerrera -- Che Guevara? -- who comes across as paranoid, resorts to torture, and then, when faced with annihilation, accepts his death feebly, rather than escaping to fight another day. 

The question regarding Guerrera is, simply, would a character who is so paranoid about a trap that he instantly resorts to torture willingly give up his life when faced with an attack by his enemy?

If you’re so worried about a trap, the inference is that you care about what happens to you.  Saw chooses suicide by Death Star instead.  It feels like a plot contrivance for him to die at this juncture, when the audience still knows almost nothing about him.

The section of the film involving Guerrera is long and convoluted, and his allegiances and agenda -- other than showing Jyn a hologram of her father -- are not entirely clear.  I understand the value of creating a kind of “extremist” rebel character to contrast with the nice, friendly, image we may carry of rebels (hey, boys and girls, everybody gets to be a general in this army!) but the character just doesn’t work.


Also, the scene shifts from planet to planet, early on, are jarring. I love the travelogue aspects of the film, and we encounter some beautiful worlds here.  But some scenes only leave the audience wanting more. I know I felt that way about Kafrene, the trading post.  This is a hustling-bustling, overcrowded world that looks like something from Blade Runner, and a world worthy of a closer look.  Instead the rocky wasteland worlds -- Jedha and Eadu -- get more play time.

The overall impression of Rogue One, starting out, is of a film in search of its setting, its purpose, and its narrative drive. Fortunately, everybody rallies and the film rises above its sense of disorganized chaos following the excursion to Eadu.

The final act, on Scarif, is stunning.

It is legitimately breathtaking.

It is also purposeful, beautifully rendered, and exciting as hell.  This sustained, complex battle sequence represents “the gritty war movie” fans were promised, and generates almost unbearable suspense as the strategy to steal the Death Star plans is enacted.  

That plan would not work, incidentally, without several characters choosing a meaningful death (a strong contrast to Guerrera’s baffling choice for a meaningless one). Droids and guardians of the Whills, alike, sacrifice their lives to push the strategy forward. 

I’ll confess, I loved this choice on the part of the filmmakers. And I loved the message that sometimes to win a war or battle, sacrifice is necessary.  Sometimes, an idea -- like freedom – can only survive at extreme personal cost.  Sometimes in the Star Wars saga, however, the Force is but a gimmick which gets one out of scrapes, or dangerous situations, and so the sense of danger is minimized.  

Not here.

Here, the Force is called upon as a source of Faith and strength, but not a deus ex machina which miraculously saves the lives of the protagonists. I love that for the heroes of Rogue One, their actions are undertaken with knowledge that the consequences will be grave.  

They choose to fight anyway.  The galaxy -- and its freedom -- means more than their lives, and they accept that fact.


Rogue One also gives the world a glimpse at the Darth Vader that we’ve always known existed, but have never truly seen in action. It’s true that we saw a dark Anakin kill a number of Trade Federation agents on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith (2005), but that was pre-Vader.  Rogue One offers us our first opportunity to see Vader -- more machine than man -- unleash his wrath on screen in a sustained, horrifying fashion.

More than one critic has likened Vader’s scene to a horror movie, and that’s an apt description. We see here why Vader has developed such a reputation for being a fearsome enforcer. He goes about his task with ruthless, merciless, murderous focus. He is terrifying, the last person in the universe you want to encounter in the dark. The scene of his arrival on a rebel starship, first in darkness (then bathed in the red light of his saber) is unforgettable.

The entire sequence on Scarif (and in Scarif orbit) is a master class in building and sustaining suspense through cross-cutting. 

The sequence generates a roller-coaster ride of motions, because we see characters who we have grown to like and admire (such as my favorite, K2S0) give the cause every last breath. It’s a foregone conclusion, as I’ve written above, that the Death Star plans get to their destination, but the magic of Rogue One is that it still erects this massive aura of tension around the characters and their choices, as the battle rages.

Rogue One also features approximately a million and one “fan service” moments, from hammerhead spaceships to Walrus Men, from R2-D2 and C3PO to Vader’s castle on Mustafar, and yet each one of these touches feels organic and right, like a valid piece of the film’s tapestry.  

The much-discussed CGI representations of Tarkin and Leia are unfortunate, and poorly rendered, and the only moments I can recall that took me out of Rogue One's narrative.  They exist, ironically, not as fan service, but so as to create a more solid continuity with A New Hope. I worry that these moments will hurt the film’s longevity. In five years, they will look even more egregiously “wrong” than they do in 2016.  I think re-casting would have been a better choice than the use of a dodgy, not entirely successful technology.

These are small quibbles, no doubt. 

I will tell you this, with some certainty: After The Force Awakens last year, I worried that I had outgrown my love of Star Wars. The film was fine.  

Really. It was.  

But the rerun Death Star/Starkiller Base, and general lack of overall suspense (not to mention visual clarity) made me feel that I had moved beyond any real need to stay current or passionate about the franchise. I vowed I would see the films, as a completist, if necessary.  But I feared the days of being inspired by Star Wars films was over.

Rogue One, by contrast, left me feeling jazzed, and excited about exploring the Star Wars universe anew. 

It is one with the Force, and the Force is one with it.

Star Wars Week 2017: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)



Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a good film, but not a great one,

How do I make this particular assessment?

I’ll tell you. 


“I hope the movie is coherent, joyful (in J.J. Abram's words), and exciting.

I hope it has something to tell us about the world we live in today, while also transporting us to one of the most fascinating fantasy worlds of all time.”

I also wrote: “I hope The Force Awakens meaningfully reacquaints us with characters we love, and introduces us to new ones who are love-worthy and can carry the torch forward.

That’s it. That’s all I wanted. That’s all I needed to write a positive review in this space.

The movie didn’t need to be the Second Coming, or the best Star Wars ever. I just wanted those particular Christmas presents from it.

J.J. Abrams delivers on quite a few of those deeply wished for items, and deposits coal in place of a few others. But overall I like the film a lot. It’s a solid, if not particularly inspired foundation for the new trilogy to build upon.

I’m rather surprised that what The Force Awakens accomplishes well (and what it doesn’t do well) failed to line up with my expectations.

For instance, I would say that the film is indeed joyful, though not particularly coherent or exciting. 

Furthermore, the action scenes are shot in undistinguished fashion, and don’t build suspense in any careful or sustained way. The film’s major threat -- Star Killer Base -- is a rehash of a rehash that never feels like a significant threat, or even a fully-formed plot-point. The film's big villain, Snoke, is a bust.

Nor does The Force Awakens speak meaningfully about our world today, as -- love or hate them -- the George Lucas prequels definitely did. Abrams usually shies away from any kind of subtext in his work (the much derided Into Darkness [2013] is a stark exception), and so perhaps it is no surprise that this Star Wars pretty much works on a surface, soap opera level, and leaves it at that.

However, The Force Awakens does transport us back to the Star Wars universe with a lot of gusto and energy. That fact also seem undeniable.

Where I feel the film succeeds most --- and the reason why I say it is “good” -- involves my final laundry list of qualifications. 

The film very meaningfully, and touchingly re-acquaints us with characters we love, and it beautifully -- and very successfully -- introduces us to new characters who are worthy to carry the torch. 

Harrison Ford is amazing in this movie in his attempt to revive and deepen the Han Solo character. He delivers a great, affecting performance. He is the film’s most valuable player, by a long shot.

And that fact takes nothing away from the rest of the cast. The newcomers -- Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver -- are nothing less than terrific. The casting for the movie is great, and I can already envision great moments from this group still to come in the rest of the trilogy.

Given J.J. Abrams’ track record, however, I expected the film’s action to be achieved in more accomplished fashion and the treatment of the characters to be only mediocre, when in fact, the precise opposite appears true.

This Star Wars movie earns major kudos because of the characters, first and foremost. They resonate, and never feel like cartoon stand-ins for real human beings.

The reason to return to this galaxy far, far away in 2017 is, clearly, the people you meet there.


“There are stories about what happened.”

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, conflict still rages.

The survivors of the Empire have re-formed under a new name, The First Order, and under a new Leader called Supreme Leader Snoke. The Republic is reformed too, and the former rebel alliance is now a resistance force battling the Order.

Both sides seek to know the location of the last surviving Jedi knight, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who disappeared years ago, and whose whereabouts are unknown. 

General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) sends a hot-shot resistance pilot, Poe Dameron (Isaac) to the far-flung desert world of Jakku to recover a map revealing Luke’s location.

The First Order sends a sinister agent, Kylo Ren (Driver) as well. Dameron is taken into custody by Ren after giving the map to his droid, BB-8.  But he is freed from custody and torturous interrogation by a Stormtrooper who has rejected his training, Finn (Boyega)

BB-8 meets a wily scavenger, Rey (Ridley) and she takes responsibility for Dameron’s mission, a mission that brings her into contact with Finn, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the Force itself.

Now these new friends must get to know one another even as the First Order prepares to launch an attack with its deadly new weapon at Star Killer Base.


“I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people.”

I have lived long enough to see Star Wars re-use the same plot-line three times.

The assault on the Death Star (Star Wars), the second Death Star (Return of the Jedi) and Star Killer Base (The Force Awakens) all repeat key plot points. First, there’s a weapon that can destroy planets in an instant. Then there’s a sustained fighter attack on the base. And finally, there’s a weak point on the evil base that can be exploited during that sustained attack. In two of the three attacks, there’s also a shield that needs to be brought down by a ground-team during the assault.

The first part or movement of each Star Wars trilogy so far also features the youngster who is taken under the wing of an elder-statesman or wise-man. That wise-man -- as part of the hero’s journey -- must die before the story ends. Anakin loses Qui Gonn Jinn in The Phantom Menace. Luke loses Ben Kenobi in Star Wars. And Rey lose someone who fits that role in The Force Awakens.

And then of course, we have our young hero. This person lives on a backwater world (Jakku or Tatooine), and experiences a mundane life as a farmer, slave, or scavenger. Soon, however, the galaxy comes knocking on the door of that character (often in the form of a droid), and the hero's true potential and destiny is realized. Thus we have Anakin/Luke/Rey.

A couple of things we can consider here. 

The first is that each trilogy serves as a reflection of the earlier one(s). This is the grand saga of the Skywalker Family across three generations, and in each generation, the same events (attacks and deaths, as noted above, for instance), recur. If one accepts this line of reasoning then the repetition of similar events in The Force Awakens is intentional, and an attempt at a genuine artistic flourish, a sense that although the generations pass, the story remains the same. 

Another way to explain this is that although our generations pass, we keep looking to the same, unchanged mythology (especially in terms of the Monomyth) to understand our world. Star Wars keeps giving us new characters taking the same steps because the overall myth underlining the saga doesn’t change. It is universal, and eternal.

Another line of defense for the over-familiar plot-line is this. Star Wars has always been first and foremost a pastiche: picking out and harvesting plots, characters, and set-pieces from other Hollywood and non-Hollywood movies and literary sources. 

By now, Star Wars is actually a pastiche of itself, so a case can also be made that J.J. Abram has fashioned the whole 2015 film as a kind of tribute to the 1977 edition, deliberately sprinkling in familiar ingredients and plot points. And that’s why we get the new cantina (a poor reflection of the original, alas), and the McGuffin device of the Luke Skywalker map, which fills in for the Death Star plans of the original.

Yet by the same token, not one of these familiar plot points (with the possible exception of the death of the wise elder) is handled with enough flair or color to mask the fact that we are watching a very expensive narrative rerun, or hide that the plot has little or no originality, and thus little or nothing to offer in terms of real surprise.

By comparison, the final trench battle in Star Wars was exciting, but also tense. The scene was incredibly suspenseful and it was constructed like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. Jedi’s Death Star battle was a shadow of the first in terms of complexity and tension, but the film’s frenetic three-way cross-cutting between the Emperor’s Throne Room, the battle raging in space, and the boots on the ground on the moon of Endor, nonetheless created a kind of fever pitch intensity. The final battle in this film is totally devoid of any sort of escalating tension or suspense.

At this point, it’s a foregone conclusion in a Star Wars film that the evil battle station will get destroyed with just seconds to spare before Princess Leia, C3PO and the rebel leaders -- standing grim-faced in their control room -- buy the farm.

The film’s other action scenes aren’t any better, and many of them are actually tiresome. Much of the action in the film involves endless battles with Stormtroopers as they get shot up and blown through the air in explosions.  The point, I believe is to show the practical nature of this Star Wars. Real people in costumes, in real locations, with real pyrotechnics. This is a rebuke to the prequels, I understand, but there is a sameness to all the action in this mode.

Indeed, many of the film's act action sequences seem interchangeable, set in long, poorly lit, gray and red corridors. 


I said I wanted coherence, above, and the movie doesn’t always satisfy on that front, at least in terms of visual coherence. 

For example, it isn’t always clear when Ren is on the ground base or in the star destroyer -- the sets all look alike -- and it similarly isn’t clear whether the Star Killer Base destroys Coruscant or some look-alike planet. 

Leia mentions the Hosnian System, but as far as casual Star Wars fans know, Coruscant could be in the Hosnian system, right?  I had to look it up on the net when I came home to see that Coruscant survived the film.  Otherwise, I was going to complain that Abrams apparently possesses some kind of mean fetish for blowing up canonically-important planets (see: Vulcan).


Even the light saber duel in The Force Awakens is not orchestrated in any sort of overtly memorable or suspenseful way we have come to expect; one that would suggest the outcome could be uncertain. 

In this regard, The Phantom Menace’s light saber duel is far superior. It is clever, indeed, to give us a fight between two (or three, actually…) untrained saber fighters in The Force Awakens, but as a result of the characters’ inexperience, the fight lacks any kind of visual distinction. It’s just people hacking and charging at each other in a picturesque setting.

Although Abrams occasionally lands on a memorable shot (like TIE fighters silhouetted against the glowing orb of a burning alien sun), there are very few compositions in The Force Awakens that stir the emotions, or ignite the imagination.

There is no equivalent here of that famous “sunset” shot, for instance; that moment of yearning in the original Star Wars. Even against 21st century contemporaries, The Force Awakens is a letdown in terms of its action and visualization. This film doesn’t have one-tenth the visual brawn of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), for example, which sustained a car chase for two hours, essentially, via dazzling cinematic chops.

What Star Wars: The Force Awakens lacks in spectacle, suspense and real adrenaline, it absolutely makes up for, however with a lot of good humor, sly banter, and strong characterizations. Harrison Ford and the late Carrie Fisher bring grace and charm to their roles. They don’t get a whole lot of screen time together, but they make the most of it, for certain. Fisher has less time to make an impact that Ford gets, which is a shame in a historical sense, but she registers strongly. Ford is fantastic in this movie.


It’s funny, but Harrison Ford’s persona in later years -- Air Force One (1997), even Ender’s Game (2014) -- is, well, kind of dour. I wondered if he could find the Han Solo within, after all this time away from the part. He sure as hell does. 

The interlude that involves his discovery of the Millennium Falcon, a smuggling deal gone wrong, and some hungry living cargo that gets loose aboard his ship is, in many ways, the high point of the film. 

Here, Ford performs the miracle of reminding us of the devil-may-care young Solo, while projecting, simultaneously, the idea that he has lived through all these years and adventures since the last time our paths crossed. And when later scenes require Ford to tread into trick emotional territory, he is also up to the challenge. He nails every nuance of the character.

It’s also great to see returning characters Chewbacca, R2-D2, and Admiral Ackbar, but the film’s best introduction of an old friend belongs to none other than C3PO (Anthony Daniels) who -- with typical lousy timing -- inserts himself into the middle of a Han-Leia reunion. This scene really made me laugh, and brought back memories of the characters as they interacted in The Empire Strikes Back. Like so many moments in the film, this scene is delightful.

The new characters -- Finn, Poe, Rey, Ren, and BB-8 – are also handled very, very well. There isn’t a bad actor or bad concept anywhere in the bunch. These new individuals all manage to come across as vivid and real personalities, with Ridley’s Rey being the obvious stand-out. She’s a real find. The camera loves her, and so, I suspect, will every fanboy (and girl) in the universe. Rey is strong and resourceful, independent and funny, vulnerable and tough, at the same time. I can’t wait to see her character grow over the next two films and I am glad she so capably takes center stage here. I look forward to Rey being the central character in this chapter of the Skywalker Saga.

The one character who didn’t work for me at all in the film is Supreme Leader Snoke. He is composed of (bad) CGI, and looks like uncomfortably like Lord Chaos from Skylanders, right down to his choice of wardrobe. I didn’t find him particularly menacing or interesting. He’s like a weird-place holder or something, until the trilogy’s real villain shows up, or takes center stage.  My son Joel insists we haven’t really seen Snoke at all, only his holographic image, and that the real Snoke will look quite different when we finally meet him in the flesh.  I hope so, because I couldn’t take him seriously in this guise. Of all the characters, he is the one who transmits as a cartoon, a parody of the kind of villain we would expect in a Star Wars film.

Finally, I should add that The Force Awaken’s climactic scene packs a punch, in part because of the location shooting, in part because of the return of another major, beloved character. This is the best filmed scene in the movie, and will be a great leaping off point for Episode VIII. It features the visual coherence or poetry that the remainder of the film seems to lack. It is also, finally, suspenseful.

The Force Awakens is an entertaining and solid Star Wars entry, and that’s what I hoped it would be. I understand some devoted fans are apparently angry at reviewers who don’t like the film, or who somehow do not praise it highly enough.

That’s just silly. This is a film, like any other film, and it obeys the same laws of physics. The fact that it is Star Wars doesn't give it a pass.

Let’s leave the hyping of the product to the marketers, the irrational exuberance to the fanboys, and permit the critics do their jobs. 

I was satisfied with the film on many fronts while feeling that -- much how I felt about The Phantom Menace -- there is also significant room for improvement as the saga continues. 

The Force Awakens is a good beginning to the third Star Wars trilogy, but it's not the greatest show in the galaxy. As the nostalgia wears off, people will begin to see this film and its values and deficits far more clearly, I believe.