Archives for category: movies

Something spoilers this way comes. I’m assuming you’ve all seen the movie and aren’t reading this for trenchant commentary on something you’re unfamiliar with. I also know that there are far more important things to be writing about today. (June 24, 2022 is a date that will go down in history as the day that US democracy definitively died. I do hope we can resurrect it, but in the meantime, I’m writing about Star Wars.)

George Lucas’ Attack of the Clones (2002) is definitely an improvement on The Phantom Menace. The characters are better defined, the story is more coherent, and the arc of the story mostly makes sense. I remember being excited about the title because there’s the one scene in A New Hope where Luke says to Obi-Wan, ‘You fought in the Clone Wars?’ It’s a phrase that everyone who saw the movie before the prequels wondered about.

I was keenest to watch this one because it’s where we meet Boba Fett. I remembered, watching Book of Boba Fett that we meet him as a child, and that his father is associated with the Republic’s clone army. The entire army are growth-accelerated clones of Jango Fett and Boba Fett is his unaccelerated son. Boba Fett in the Disney+ series is played by the same actor who played Jango.

And who’s idea was it to name the planet that’s been erased from the Republic’s database of star systems Kamino? As in, it was unreal until Obi-Wan visited and the we had Real Kamino.

I’m sure I also have something to say about the person who gave Obi-Wan the lead on Kamino. A a too-small tank top-wearing short order cook in a railcar diner with a droid waitress like some kind of sci-fi version of American Graffiti. Oh. Wait. Lucas is still carrying that, isn’t he. Gracious.

There are two parallel plot lines running through Attack of the Clones. One is finding who is behind a plot to kill Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman, still acting head and shoulders above the rest of the cast). The other is the developing love story between Anakin and Padme. The love story seems creepy and weird and invasive. Anakin’s love is, however, obviously reciprocated, despite the dangers to all concerned, which Padme recognizes and Anakin rejects. I had to look up what the differences in their ages are supposed to be. Anakin is nine in Episode I and Padme (an elected queen, note) is 14. The elapsed time between the two films is supposed to be about ten years, so love between a 24 and a 19 year old isn’t too far-fetched.

The plot lines converge on a planet where a droid army is being constructed. Obi-Wan has followed the Fetts there from Kamino and Padme and Anakin go there from Tatooine. If I understand correctly, both the droid army and the clone army are products of a long-range plan set in motion by Darth Sidious (aka Chancellor Palpatine, later The Emperor). The clones were commissioned ten years before, theoretically by a Jedi knight who is long dead.

The convergence on this planet produces two fantastic scenes where the heroes are in definite danger and the only reason we know they survive is because they’re the heroes. In the droid factory, Padme ends up in a giant stone bowl soon to be filled with molten metal. It’s proper Saturday serial action. And Anakin ends up on an assembly line with one arm drilled into a piece of sheet metal and barely able to avoid big cutting things. This is the kind of knuckle-biting tension missing from The Phantom Menace.

As they get out of that part alive, they end up captured and chained in a giant arena, to be torn apart by giant alien creatures in a properly Roman style execution. And that tension is back again. And while this sequence might be as long as the pod race in Episode I, it serves a purpose – we see the relationships between Jango, Count Dooku (another lousy Lucas name – he seems chock full of them), and the Trade Federation leaders, as they all watch for the senator and the Jedi knights to be torn apart.

All in all, this one was quite entertaining. Possibly the best of the three prequels. In much the same way that Empire Strikes Back stomps on episodes IV and VI, it’s a bridge that the filmmakers use to stretch out the characters and let the story breathe a little bit.

I want to also point out all of Natalie Portman’s excellent costumes, of which she sports about a dozen in the course of the film. I thought maybe there might have been an Oscar nomination in that category, but it looks like the film’s only nod that year was for effects, and it lost out to Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (which, to be fair, had excellent effects as well).

Since best beloved and I started watching The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, I’ve been tempted to re-watch Star Wars Episodes I-III. I’ve seen episodes IV-VI so many times I’ve lost count (having been 10 when A New Hope was released, I’m of *that* generation). On the other hand, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith I’ve seen only once each. Until today.

Yeah, I know I’m not going to complain about anything here that the fandom hasn’t been complaining about for 23 years. Adding my voice to the noise, I suppose.

Well, I watched The Phantom Menace (dir: George Lucas, 1999) over the last 24 hours. Is it better than I remember it? A little. Does that mean that in any objective analysis it gets more than two stars? No. It’s still lousy from many perspectives. Don’t get me wrong, so are most of episodes IV-IX, but differently.

The effects are great. The make-up is great. The fight and battle scenes: Also great. Ray Park’s Darth Maul: Fantastic. Sort of.

And this brings us to the main problem: The story. From the three-paragraph crawl at the beginning with its nonsense about the Trade Federation, to Queen Amidala and her double, to Anakin’s immaculate conception, to miti-chlorians to Jar Jar Binks. Lucas had about 13 years of notes he’d taken since Return of the Jedi and he threw every single one of them against the wall. I suppose some of it stuck.

Read the text crawls for the first three episodes. Boom, you’re right in the action, you know who’s important, and you know enough of what’s going on to be present as the rebel ship is boarded and we meet our important characters. As soon as The Phantom Menace starts, we get trade negotiations, blockade, a planet we’ve never heard of, and no idea who to root for. The problems, of course, only begin there.

It’s hard to feel for any of the characters. The actors, oh yes, we feel for them because they have to deal with Lucas’ awful dialog. Poor Liam Neeson. He so took the brunt of it that one had to wonder what Lucas had against him. Then we remember some of the dialog the inestimable Alec Guinness was saddled with.

I understand the reasoning behind having Queen Amidala require a double who plays as a member of her bodyguard (or something), but the story doesn’t give us any reason to believe it was necessary. Nor is there any surprise in it when the one character’s identity is revealed.

Then there’s the casual, and not so casual racism associated with several important characters. The two representatives of the Trade Federation have faux Japanese accents. Watto, the character with the huge hook notes who owns Anakin and his mother, is so obviously supposed to be a Jewish caricature that it’s painful to watch and listen to. And then there’s the awful Rastafarian parody embodied in Jar Jar Binks. Several years ago, I read an argument that was supposed to become an agent of the Empire in episodes II and III. There was such a backlash against Binks, that Lucas had to drop any idea of him having much of a role at all after Episode I.

When this movie came out, I queued up on opening day to see it at the Coronet in San Francisco, a single-screen theatre with a proper sound system. It’s also where I’d seen A New Hope 21 years before. I wasn’t ready to analyze most of this at the time, but one thing any fan of the franchise knew was that The Force was The Force. The joke about it being like duct tape, having dark and light sides and holding the universe together rang true because that’s all you needed to know about it. The Phantom Menace fell apart when Obi-Wan explains The Force with a blood sample and the nonsense term miti-chlorian. It sounded enough like mitochondria, a term we all learned in high school biology, to be possibly interesting. Explaining The Force away as something found in the blood makes all of our belief in what motivated the characters meaningless.

In addition, did Lucas really not realize how many fans had memorized the original movies? He honestly might not have done, but we know that Obi-Wan Kenobi says he doesn’t recall owning a droid in Episode IV. Fans arguing over on Substack suggest that Obi-Wan was lying when he told Luke this. In the same way he lies when he says Darth Vader killed his father? Possibly. But it’s another thing that shreds the continuity and credibility of the work. People shrug this kind of issue off when they say ‘they’re just kids’ movies,’ but kids also demand credibility and continuity, and it demeans them to deny it.

The main problem is that there’s a certain inevitability to the whole thing. That everything that happens, has to happen. There’s no tension, no Saturday morning serial thrill to it. Anakin has to be found and has to win, the fight with Darth Maul has to end the way it does, even though Maul has only one spoken line and we have no reason to consider him anything but a bad guy – there’s no motivation behind that on our part or on the character’s. The pod race, in which we see Anakin’s skills made manifest takes longer in this movie than the Death Star run in Episode IV and yet there’s only one possible outcome. The satellite battle at the end, in which Anakin participates by accident only has one possible outcome as well.

So, yes, I’m going to watch the other two, but I know I’m only in it for the effects and the fight scenes, not for the storytelling. Which is, in fact, the sad state of action/adventure films in general.

I gave a lousy review to Spielberg’s film version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One at the time of its release*. I’ve recently listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the excellent Wil Wheaton. Yeah, excellent though he is as a voice actor (thumbs up to his narration of John Scalzi’s Lock In), he can’t overcome the problematic material.

One of the problems is the underlying trope’s hyper-masculinity. I know that that’s a buzzword these days, but protagonist Wade’s teenage trans/homophobia is hard to get away from. Especially when the character points out more than once that you don’t know what a person in The Oasis, the story’s virtual world, looks like in real life, with some variation on ‘she could be a 200 pound dude living in his mom’s basement.’

Wade (who goes by the name Parzival in the Oasis, a name which might be significant) is a nerd, but the Comic Store Guy from the Simpsons is Wade’s unnamed analogy for what any possible friendship outside the Oasis looks like and it’s the one thing that seems to truly disgust him. It’s Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura shtick about possibly kissing a trans woman, and it makes most of the story kind of painful to follow. (Eric Molinsky discussed this in some detail in a recent episode of Imaginary Worlds.)

The object of Wade’s affection, Art3mis, falls under the trope of manic pixie dream girl. She’s a little older than Wade, smart, funny, prolific, and out of all of his leagues.

The opponent is Nolan Sorrento, the head of IOI, a classic Evil Corporation ™, but we know from the start that Wade wins. The problem with this is that its history is written by the winners. Wade can justify whatever he did to help his friends and to take out his opponents because his was the righteous cause.

He also has all the cool and all the cultural knowledge that it takes to win. I think the 80s cultural milieus that make for the story’s back drop are its main attraction. Movies and books and video games people of a certain generation (mine) grew up with, even though Ready Player One is set in the future and its heroes are all of a later generation. (The developers of the Oasis, however, are children of the 80s.)

The cultural references don’t make for much of a story, though. They’re a wrapper for something resembling a quest. Hence the sort of significance of Wade’s Oasis handle. As a hero, he’s as flawed as any you’re likely to come across. He’s destined to win because he’s the eternal champion in his youth and his heart is in the right place (name a revolutionary whose heart isn’t, in that one’s own telling, though), and everyone else is inferior in some way, or missing the key white male privilege that he’s got. Cline could have stepped up his game and Spielberg could have done the same, but it’s the same pasty white hero who has to save the day. (Louder for the folks in the back: Not the woman, not either of the Japanese characters, not the one I’m not gonna detail because, spoilers. The white kid.)

In contrast with the other listening and reading I’ve been doing lately, it also fails key tests of relevance. One could say that Cline was writing precisely what he knew and couldn’t do any differently, but the fact is, he could have represented his hero as more heroic, there’s no reason to repeat the fat 30 year old in his mother’s basement line multiple times. One friend of mine pointed out that it’s okay for the protagonist to be unlikeable, but I think the problem here is that he’s unlikeable because his creator didn’t think the character needed to be any different. And perhaps the character is so close to the creator’s heart, that those flaws don’t seem like flaws. I’m not sure.

The real world vs. the virtual still winds up being about schoolyard taunts. The guy living in his mom’s basement is one of two or three that set my teeth on edge. The less said about them, the better.

There’s so much better SF/F out there that doesn’t give the game away from the opening. Because the competition in Ready Player One is based on video games and is (on one level) a quest, the fact that it relies on the quest token trope might be forgivable. Quest tokens are a way fantasy writers have historically gotten their characters from the starting line to the finish. You know the story line: The prophecy states that only the person with the characteristics of our hero who brings these hidden items to the meeting point will prevent ultimate doom. Think of Harry Potter collecting up the various deathly hallows. But it’s a motif that’s played out. Back when Michael Moorcock was getting paid by the word, it was fine. Again, I forgive RP1 this because the video games and tabletop role playing games that are the backdrop for the quest in this story all depend on these.

Looking at the story from the Arthurian quest motif may have some merit. As I said, I don’t want to give Cline too much credit in this department, but the book turns on a sequence in which Wade sacrifices himself in such a way that he might be out of circulation for a very long time, or very dead. While he planned carefully for the move that put him in IOI’s control, knowing that they killed his aunt and uncle and very probably one of his friends, the risk he takes is huge. In the world of Grail quest legends, there’s a pattern of the hero setting off in a rudderless boat in order to leave all in G-d’s hands. A quest can fail because the hero does something to take control of the situation. One could identify Wade setting himself up to be captured by IOI in this way. Was he leaving it all to fate? Not really, but the chances against the plan working were high.

Quest token

From that point forward, I was far more invested in what happened even though I didn’t feel there was any real growth on Wade’s part. It’s not as though everything is handed to him – he grows up in lousy surroundings, raised by people who don’t care for him, and finds his refuge in the Oasis. Where he thrives. The problematic aspect is that he sets his mind to things and generally succeeds. And keeps winning. When he’s behind, he finds a way to win. I never felt invested in his struggle, because there is no struggle. There’s no point at which he’s in true despair (except when Art3mis rejects him).

This combination of jumbled pop culture from a previous generation and detailed social structures that are both two steps ahead of now and two steps from the Middle Ages makes for a compelling setting. And the goal of preserving what’s good and moving it into something better is worthy. Another part of the Arthurian quest motif is bringing back a boon to society. As a knight in pixelated armor, Wade doesn’t start the game with any altruistic motive. He wants to get off planet Earth entirely if he can. It’s not amusing to me that this self-centered, immature use of great wealth is what currently drives Bezos, Musk, and Branson. Three overgrown, too-privileged white boys. As result of Art3mis goading him to think differently, he determines to make good use of the fortune winning will bring him.

On a certain level, the story has merit, but my saying this is like realizing there are songs by the Killers I actually like. I’ve actually looked for a translation of von Eschenbach’s Parzival, which I haven’t read in 30 years. (Interestingly, the freebie found on archive.org is Jessie Weston’s translation. Her volume From Ritual to Romance was one of the key influences on TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ which brings us around to Arthurian legend again.) The fact remains that Ready Player One is pure popcorn and the references to things that aren’t 80s pop culture are as paper thin as those that are. And the relationships are flimsy excuses for how actual humans interact.

Does it fail on its own merit (or lack thereof) or only in comparison with other books I’m reading these days? There’s so much good SF and fantasy coming out these days, that it’s a shame that stuff like this does so well. I had similar things to say when everyone was reading Dan Brown novels. There’s better popcorn and there’s stuff that actually makes you think. I say that it not only fails to live up to what it could have been, I feel somewhat had for the time I’ve spent on it. I wish Cline weren’t so enamored of his own cleverness. The possibility that there’s an emotional depth to his characters, grief and joy that are separate from simply leveling up or failing to, seems lost on the author.


* And I watched it again last weekend, and find it only slightly less troubling than I did a couple of years ago. It’s still fluffy. Spielberg still gave up the opportunity to make it better, but it’s different enough from the novel, that I was amused by it. And the whole Shining section is still mindblowing.

In recent news, employees at the Hachette publishing group staged a walkout over the publication of Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing. Last year, Hachette imprint Little, Brown published Catch and Kill, a work by Allen’s son Ronan Farrow (by actress Mia Farrow, Allen’s partner for 12 years) about the Harvey Weinstein scandal and how powerful mean escape accountability. Farrow has also been public about his support for his sister Dylan who claims that Allen molested her when she was 7. The internal Allen/Farrow family dynamic doesn’t interest me so much as the fact that someone at Hachette felt that the house could sidestep that dynamic. They could take the kudos for publishing Farrow’s work and also have financial dealings with Allen without taking an internal or external PR hit.

Yesterday, Hachette decided to back out of the Allen contract and pulped all copies of his book, appeasing that opposition to Allen. Farrow himself was surprised at the Allen deal because no one at Hachette had informed him it was happening.

I wish I could be surprised that a large business would engage in this kind of having cake/eating it too activity. Was it really possible that no one in the organization spoke up to say, No, the Allen deal is lousy, that it just doesn’t look good, that we have to stand by a principle in this matter? No, the principle was still let’s make money on this as long as we can get away with it. After the walkout, one executive admitted to the conflict of interest and stated that the decision to cancel the Allen contract was difficult. It’s worth noting that according to Wikipedia the Hachette group is one of the Big Six publishing houses (along with Penguin Random House and HarperCollins) and publishes approximately 2000 titles per year.

Stephen King, an author who has had his own censorship issues, released a pair of tweets. The first said ‘If you think he’s a pedophile, don’t buy the book…Vote with your wallet…In America, that’s how we do it.’ He followed up by stating my point, ‘Let me add that it was fucking tone-deaf of Hachette to want to publish Woody Allen’s book after publishing Ronan Farrow’s.’

I’d say that Allen is free to get his book out there any way he can. He’s wealthy enough to publish the thing himself if he wants to. The fact that his name is toxic in entertainment circles is not the fault of Hachette (or of any of the other publishers who passed on Apropos of Nothing). The fact that nothing came of the investigations into the charges against Allen doesn’t mean he’s innocent, first of all. It also doesn’t mean he’s guilty. But at a certain point you can look at his public behavior (his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter which began when Previn was 19 and Allen 56, and while Allen was still in a relationship with Farrow) and his movies (Manhattan for a prime example) and not just be creeped out a little bit. It’s a separate matter that over and over again in his movies he shows what little use he has for middle-aged women. Since noticing it, this has always left a bad taste in my mouth.

Another thing to note about the Hachette Group is their Center Street imprint of conservative titles. Authors who have found a home on Center Street include Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump, Jr. Recent titles include Michael Savage’s Scorched Earth: Restoring The Country After Obama. It’s not a bastion of liberalism by any stretch, and if the issue was just about authors or subjects with marital issues, then the Center Street imprint would be dragged into the discussion too.

I’d heard of Performance from a couple of different angles. I knew Jagger’s Memo From Turner came out of this movie, and I knew a couple of samples nicked by Big Audio Dynamite for the song E=MC2, which is itself an odd musical tribute to Roeg’s work.
The film is both a continuation of the gangster dramas that had been coming out since the 30s and an influence on movies that came later including In Brugges and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.
The plot has a fairly straightlaced gangster, Chas, going to ground after he kills his boss’ new protégé without authorisation. There’s an interesting subtext going on that his boss and those higher up in the organisation are middle-aged queens while Chas is not only straightlaced, but decidedly straight. Through a turn of luck, Chas overhears of a room in Notting Hill Gate from a musician going on tour who has left his gear and some unpaid rent. Chas shows up at the address and pays off the debt in return for the room. Visiting Notting Hill in the late 60s is quite odd, because the lower-class neighbourhood of that era is full of million quid houses now. Those self same houses.
Mick Jagger plays the house’s owner, retired rock star Turner. In the course of Chas’ stay in the house with Turner and his two lovers, Pherber, played by Keith Richards’ girfriend at the time, Anita Pallenberg (RIP), and Lucy, he discovers a situation that is decidedly Bohemian and sexually open. In order to get into his head, Pherber and Turner dose Chas with mushrooms and from there the movie takes a distinctly psychedelic turn.
Another place I heard of this movie was in conversation with Coil’s Jhonn Balance. I was lucky enough to chat with him after Coil played in Prague in 2002. My friend Chris asked him what the source of the sample ‘We must go further back. Further back and faster’ was from. (The track Further Back and Faster is on the 1991 album Love’s Secret Domain.) Balance referenced this movie and talked about Roeg for a little bit before we moved on to talking about Derek Jarman movies. So this film has been at the back of my mind for over 15 years. Queerness and queer identity were very much at the heart of Coil’s musical identity and the queerness of those who have authority over Chas is not a lost plot point. Chas holds enough fascination for Turner that he feels the need to defend himself from what are fairly subliminal advances on Turner’s part.
performance-lobby-card The fascination for Balance in this movie possibly included what was essentially a music video inserted in the midst of Chas’s mushroom trip. When Jagger lip syncs Memo From Turner in the offices of the gangsters Chas reports to, it’s not clear who’s experiencing what, but it’s interesting that when the movie was made, the queerness of both the song and the action in this sequence is quite matter of fact. That Chas rejects unspoken advances, as well, is (I think) meant to be interpreted as a shortcoming on his part.
This was not without controversy at the time. The studio refused to release the movie for two years due to graphic sex and violence. My first thought on reading about that was that I’d love to know what the Memo from Warners actually pointed to as problematic. By more recent standards, a few killings and a little sex are considered PG-13 fare by the MPAA, but there are two graphic scenes of gangland violence that were probably more shocking then than they’d be considered now. And unfraught sexuality between two women was also quite shocking. Imagine my surprise to find the image accompanying this review. Initially it was either given the X rating or the studio simply assigned the film an X rating. (Note: All of the other MPAA ratings are trademarked. Only the X rating can be used without MPAA authorisation. I think the idea was that the MPAA didn’t actually want to assign ratings to porno. Porn studios could take the rating and the limited release associated with it. On the other hand, in the early days of the ratings system, movies like Midnight Cowboy and Bilitis which had non-pornographic inclinations could take the rating and the artistic freedom that came with it.)
Regular readers might take my opinion of Chas’ response to Turner’s interest as hypocritical. Didn’t I just recently write that the correct response to the possibility of homosexuality in an interaction should be ‘not a problem’? What’s the difference here? The storytellers of Ready Player One were positing that the homosexual angle was to be avoided where presented. In Performance, however, the storytellers suggest that Chas’ rejection of the possibility is part and parcel of Chas’ rejection of life as a whole.
The ending of the film confused me and the friends with whom I saw the movie. It wraps up rather quickly with the viewer being not quite sure who lives and who dies (despite the writers at Wikipedia seeming very certain of themselves). That said, the movie’s seedy opulence, spot on performances from all concerned, and excellent soundtrack earn this goody four stars.