Relax, FINDING DORY is good

There are fewer scarier possibilities for today’s modern moviegoer than a Pixar sequel. I personally cope with this by tempering my excitement for new Pixar fare in a way I didn’t used to, and emotionally holding out as long as I can to see if the films can win me over (Inside Out did, The Good Dinosaur did not). Is it fair to hold every new movie from the studio up to the “Pixar standard?” That’s a big question, but thankfully we can table that discussion for another day because Finding Dory both manages to justify its existence as a sequel to one of the most-loved family films of the ‘aughts and a comfortable addition to the Pixar canon.

Finding Dory feels retroactively necessary to the first film in a way few sequels do, primarily by taking the title to heart and giving Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, returning to the role that pushed her back into the mainstream over a decade ago) new dimensions that were only hinted at in Nemo. Her short-term memory loss is taken seriously as a disability instead of a cute narrative device, and the consequences of her mental handicap are brought into an uncomfortable new light. The sadness in her parents’ eyes as they try to teach a young (and dangerously cute) Dory how to survive is an unforgettable beat.

Dory’s search for her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton) provides the narrative thrust for the story, and their clear love for their daughter (expressed through extensive and meticulously-constructed flashbacks) and how that manifests is the most touching take-away from the film. The movie doesn’t venture into the same three-hankie territory as Up or Toy Story 3, but in some ways that’s a relief. There are a few big emotional moments that land well, but the film wisely doesn’t dwell on them for too long.

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The film struggles for the first half hour as it covers familiar territory (there’s an action beat designed to mirror the shark scene from the first film that doesn’t feel essential), and straightens out and takes off like a rocket once it sidelines Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Hayden Rolence, taking over for Alexander Gould). Dory’s new foil is Hank the octopus (Ed O’Neill) who provides some comic edge and visual dynamism that help the film tremendously. Hope you like tentacles. There are interesting hints in the script that Hank has had a rough go of it, but they’re mostly subtextual touches for those who are paying attention.

Like the best Pixar films, Finding Dory is both consistently and unexpectedly funny. Pixar films are workshopped and tweaked within an inch of their lives, and while this vetting process may take away a sense of individual authorship, it means few jokes are duds. The few obvious pop culture references (some obvious but very funny references to Inception and Alien come to mind) work and won’t date the film but most of the biggest laughs come from well-constructed character moments. Also, make sure you stay through the credits.

It’s not top-tier Pixar (neither, arguably, is Finding Nemo), but it’s a very worthwhile addition to the studio’s stable and justifies its existence in a way that’s unexpected and heartening. Unlike the lesser Pixar sequels (ahem, Cars 2 and Monsters University) Dory succeeds by staying true to its source material and expanding on it meaningfully, as opposed to trying to switch genres or get too clever. You’re going to see Finding Dory no matter what, but rest assured, it’s worth it.

Now in Theaters: April 2016

Right now, there’s a lot more good stuff playing at your local multiplex than you might expect. Here are some of my plot-free impressions of several interesting movies you can go see today.

 

THE WITCH

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If you missed it the first time around a few months ago, The Witch is back in multiplexes and for fans of genre filmmaking, it’s an absolute must-see. The film, from first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers, can be classified most accurately as a horror movie but doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with all the PG-13 jump-scare nonsense we’ve gotten so accustomed to lately. While The Witch is short on the sudden jolts, its atmosphere is shaded with ten layers of creepy and makes for a more deeply unsettling experience than just waiting for some pale, black-robed creature to come out and yell at you.

The Witch enjoyed a rapturous response at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, but the gushing hyperbole about it being the “scariest film of the year” led a lot of folks to have the wrong impression and not give the film the thought it deserves. Besides the lack of sudden spikes in the audio track, the film has an ending that has proved polarizing, but I’m completely on board with (and I won’t dare spoil) it. The Witch isn’t afraid to step into some fascinating and morally ambiguous territory, and while many horror fans apparently weren’t looking for it, there’s a morality play bubbling underneath the surface that’s just as troubling and fascinating as the movie’s claustrophobic imagery.

I typically avoid horror films like the plague, but I was so enraptured by The Witch,  I bought another ticket the same day. My second viewing of the film is easily the best theatrical experience I’ve had all year, and left me giddy and smiling. Dunno what that says about me, but I can’t recommend this film highly enough whether you’re into horror or not.

 

ZOOTOPIA

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If you haven’t seen Zootopia yet, where the hell have you been?! It’s a masterpiece. The newest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios is almost certainly its best yet in a long line of winners since Disney’s merger with Pixar and John Lasseter’s reign as chief creative officer of Disney animation proper.  It’s lush, it’s deep, it’s culturally resonant in a way that’s almost shocking. The candidacy of Donald Trump and Zootopia do not exist in separate vacuums.

While the filmmakers and Disney will never say so, Zootopia is an intensely political film and it comes at a volatile and important period of demographic transition in our country. Like America, the city of Zootopia is a promising but imperfect place where ideals of promoting diversity and inclusiveness clash with the harshness of reality as different populations are made to coexist. Many characters, even ones we like, betray their own biases and have to learn from their mistakes and accept the consequences of their ignorance.

The film’s inter-species dynamics are specific and different enough from our society’s prominent racial biases that it’s easy for Disney to shrug off the allegory, but make no mistake: Zootopia leans to the left. And I love it for that. There are so many ways to tackle the film as it excels on almost every level, but its daringly progressive stance was the aspect I found most thrilling. If Zootopia achieves even a fraction of the cultural penetration that Frozen continues to demonstrate, we’ll be living in a slightly better world.

 

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

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Whoof.

Talking about this movie is tough for me, because quite frankly I was biased against it going in. I don’t like Zack Snyder’s aesthetic very much, and BvS bears his visual trademarks as much as anything else in his filmography. Predictably, it’s a washed-out, smoky and loud dick-waving contest. Having said that, the film is not completely without merit and if you’re a film fan or pop-culture connoisseur it’s required viewing regardless of its quality. The movie is called Batman v Superman for God’s sake, what are you going to do? Skip it? Just because a movie is bad doesn’t mean it’s not culturally relevant. I saw it twice just to make sure I didn’t like it.

My first viewing was conflicted experience. The opening title sequence features the murder of Batman’s parents (again) intercut against a restaging of young Bruce Wayne’s discovery of the Batcave from Batman Begins, except this time young Master Wayne is elevated, Christ-like, from the cave by a fleet of bats as the words “Directed by Zack Snyder” appear on-screen. I almost barfed. This cinematic atrocity is followed by easily the most interesting sequence in the film, as the film takes a different perspective on the final act of Man of Steel from Bruce Wayne’s point of view.

The third act of Man of Steel is highly problematic and those issues have been discussed in thorough detail from a variety of sources.  BvS attempts to atone and provide commentary for Man of Steel‘s wanton displays of destruction but muddles its message to the point where the intent is frustratingly unclear. Similar to its Marvel analog, Avengers: Age of Ultron, the film feels unfinished and in need of a 3-hour cut. This is a terrible precedent to be setting for event films. Several scenes feel unnecessary to the plot and are not interesting enough to stand on their own. Snyder also continues to indulge his embarrassing slo-mo fetish.

Batman v Superman is interesting, but unfortunately that is mostly due to its flaws rather than its strengths. I was drawn to Tomorrowland last year due to its trainwreck nature, and I feel similarly about BvS. It’s fun to wrestle with, but it is not a good movie. Sorry.

 

HARDCORE HENRY

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If this movie is for you, you probably know it already. Hardcore Henry distinguishes itself by being told entirely from the first-person perspective of the title character (i.e. GoPro helmets), and draws just as much, if not more, influence from the world of video gaming than other films. It’s a non-stop 90-minute barrage of bloody violence and profanity, and it’s hard to deny that can be a lot of fun.

As a project willing to actually break new cinematic ground, it can feel rough-around-the-edges at times in a way that is both refreshing and periodically annoying. Curiously, for a film told entirely from a character’s first person perspective I was expecting a lot more long takes, but almost every sequence is filled with cuts, even if it feels like only a few seconds of footage were removed.  The staccato editing style keeps up the ferocity and momentum, but this comes at the expense of  a real sense of geography in several of the locations. The plot is secondary at best, which itself is not necessarily a problem, but after a while it can feel exactly like an FPS in the wrong way: a progression of levels, NPCs (played mostly by Sharlto Copley in various ridiculous outfits) and ever-increasing hordes of baddies to slay. By the time the credits rolled, I was tired.

None of this is to say Hardcore Henry isn’t fun or worth seeing, because it is. I’m not a professional critic, but I go see a lot of films and watching something in a theater that is actually unique is an experience I’m always, ahem, game for. Go to a matinee screening with appropriate expectations, and you’ll have a good time.

(note:  I went to the Fathom Events opening-night screening of the film, and was given a prequel comic-book which fills in a lot of backstory for Hardcore Henry‘s villain that isn’t even hinted at in the film. The experience would have been much more perplexing without this background info.)

My thoughts on a few other current releases will be forthcoming soon, thanks for reading and stay tuned to this station.

Why I keep going back to THE FORCE AWAKENS

As of this writing, I’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens six times. I know that’s weird, but this film is special and I have an obsessive personality, so I’ve decided not to give myself a hard time about it. And I mean come on, there’s a new Star Wars movie out and it’s really, really good.

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS.

Even after many viewings, I’m amazed at how well the thing operates on a minute-to-minute basis. It’s tight and it’s fast, no second is wasted and unlike the ponderous prequels is stuffed to the gills with character and almost devoid of bullshit. It’s not perfect, there are some structural issues and there are little touches here and there that are a bit too obvious, but these are minor criticisms of a thoroughly successful project.

‘Successful’ may be the best descriptor of The Force Awakens. It gets a ton right, gets very little wrong, and has made almost everybody happy. What else could you possibly ask of it? A conscious creative decision was clearly made to echo the structure of the first film instead of getting too radical or esoteric, and we should not have expected anything different when J. J. Abrams was brought on board (if you want a crazy, unrestrained flight of fancy in the Star Wars universe, you can go ahead and watch Episode I)In terms of filmmaking craft, however, the new film is a far different beast than any of the George Lucas films.

Whenever I watch A New Hope and then put on Empire right aafter, I’m always struck by the jarring aesthetic shift between the two films. The first Star Wars film is mythic, archetypal, and arguably even simple. Luke’s character arc follows the Hero’s Journey taken straight out of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad. By today’s standards, it feels slow. A lot of the dialogue is very on-the-nose. It’s almost like a children’s book. After that, The Empire Strikes Back is like a breath of fresh air. It feels like a film. I haven’t found a better way to describe it, but I’ll bet you’ve had that experience too. To me, The Force Awakens represents a similar aesthetic leap forward. Abrams’ films have always been sprightly and this one is no exception; the film possesses a kind of manic energy not found in the original trilogy or prequels. Actual good dialogue, too!

The first act is close to perfect. From the opening titles until the Millenium Falcon leaves Jakku’s atmosphere, I could watch that every day. The pacing is spot-on, we’re given precisely enough information about each character, the actors have a great rapport, it nails so many moments. Rey’s introduction up until she rescue BB-8 is almost wordless, reminding me in a pleasant way of the legendary first act of WALL-E. We’re left with no doubt the First Order is both really evil and really dangerous. BB-8 is The King. There are three separate action set pieces. By the time Rey and Finn congratulate each other on their heroics after escaping two TIE Fighters, we want to give each of them a high-five, too.

So much of what makes The Force Awakens great isn’t written explicitly in the text of the dialogue. The whole ensemble has tremendous chemistry and bounce lines and gestures back and forth with aplomb. Certain character dynamics, like Finn’s horn-dog attraction to Rey or the adversarial relationship between Kylo Ren and General Hux, are strongly implied through action and body language instead of mentioned explicitly. In fact, many of the most powerful moments in The Force Awakens (Han Solo entering the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit, Rey’s encounter with Luke) are told completely without dialogue.

Once Rey and Finn escape Jakku and Han Solo enters the picture, the whole affair inevitably gets a bit more complicated as the movie more closely intertwines with the original films. You could definitely argue that Han Solo still being up to his old tricks is a little tired, and it doesn’t do the film much good having him owe space gangsters money again (plus rathtars why?), but spending more time with Harrison Ford playing his most iconic character (and having fun, to boot) is not something I’m going to complain about.

If we’re continuing to nitpick, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron can feel shoehorned in to many of his scenes after Finn loses him on Jakku. Like Luke in A New Hope, Poe is the only X-Wing pilot we really care about, but unlike Luke he doesn’t have a full character arc to make us care about the guy in the pilot’s seat. Because of this, Poe’s trench run, though very fun, feels disconnected from everything else going on. Also, the spatial relationships between various settings on the planet (in particular the distance between the forest and the oscillator) are not particularly clear.

These criticisms are all very minor; overall The Force Awakens is great. But why is it so great I’ve already seen it six times? First, and most importantly, it’s Star Wars. That is never something to be discounted. Besides that, it’s a really great ride, fun and compulsively watchable. Seeing the film with a big audience is a riot, watching the audience reactions can be almost as much fun as watching the movie. It’s a big movie that should be seen on the biggest screen possible, IMAX Laser or 70mm if possible. I’ve also seen the movie in a D-Box motion seat, and that experience was far more fun than it had any right to be (though the motion can distracting on a first viewing).

If you’re going to see The Force Awakens again (and you probably are,) see it in the best presentation you can. Find an IMAX dome with a 70mm print (note to my New England friends: the Jordan’s Furniture IMAX theater is a laser setup) or see it in D-Box. The release of this film is the motion picture event of our generation, enjoy it while it lasts like I have.

First Impressions of STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

THE SPOILERS ARE STRONG WITH THIS ONE.  IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS YET, DO NOT READ THIS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

It’s here. The hype train has reached the station and Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now in theaters. Because it’s a Star Wars movie, the opening week is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our discussion and we’re going to be living with this film for a long time. We still talk about the prequels, after all.

We would all see The Force Awakens even if it was terrible, but fortunately, it’s good! In fact, it’s really good. Episode VII is, remarkably, the first non-sucky Star Wars movie to be released in 32 years (or longer, depending on who you ask). Considering the series’ place in pop culture, that is not to be taken lightly. One of the few big criticisms that can be leveled at the movie is that it plays it too safe and banks on sure-bet imagery and moments from the original trilogy, but we’ve seen what happens when big creative risks are taken with Star Wars, and I’ll take this thank you very much.

YO! SPOILERS! LAST CHANCE TO EXIT! YOU WILL GET WET!

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So yes, let’s get this out of the way. The plot of The Force Awakens hews pretty closely to A New Hope. This approach to crafting the story places certain limitations on where the plot can go and prevents the film from being truly surprising. It may not be the most creatively daring experience, but it’s a great popcorn romp. The three new lead characters, played ably by Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, reflect many of the traits of the original trilogy’s leading trio but not in the obvious ways you might expect. Each character is an amalgam of things we’ve seen before, for example Rey has shades of Luke and most closely follows his arc but has all the feisty energy that made Leia such a forward-thinking character. Finn has some of Han’s reluctance, A New Hope Luke’s pluckiness, and some droid-like dopiness thrown in for good measure. Poe Dameron has Solo’s acerbic wit and lazy confidence, but also Luke’s wholesome earnestness for the cause of the light side.

It deserves a moments’ notice to say the cast of The Force Awakens is spot-on across the board, both new and old. Harrison Ford falls back into the role of Han Solo more comfortably I allowed myself to hope for. John Boyega is wonderfully dippy. Adam Driver continues his streak of making every scene he’s in, no matter the role, a lot weirder. As Rey, newcomer Daisy Ridley hits it out of the park and with the help of a snappy script helps create an exciting new kind of female action hero for our ever-more-progressive times (and who is sure to be a role model for millions of kids of both genders going forward).

The Force Awakens occupies a unique place in pop culture; there’s never really been a release like this one. As such, the film is just as meta as you would expect. Everything you could reasonably expect to see as a Star Wars fan is in there, from the ships to the characters to the production design. It’s even got a cantina scene! And a Death Star! The overtly referential nature of the whole affair looks a bit tired on paper, but for whatever reason none of the similarities really bothered me in the theater, and became less worrisome on subsequent viewings. The film is simply good enough to make up for it.

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It helps that The Force Awakens is compulsively rewatchable. It’s dense and packed to the gills with fun throwaway details, but ditches a lot of the prequels’ visual clutter. Star Wars has always been more than just a movie franchise, with the films dictating big plot events to be expanded upon in other media like books and games. The Force Awakens is the first look into a big new storytelling universe we’ll be living with, presumably, for the rest of our lives. There will always be new details to mine. Beyond the interests of Star Wars fandom, the film is rewatchable because it’s so damn fun. It’s easily the funniest Star Wars movie, and it’s also the tightest. Cut at the breakneck pace for which J. J. Abrams is known, the film zooms along too fast for any cringeworthy moments (“HEY!!! THAT’S MINE!!!!!!”) to really stick. It just keeps coming, and every scene has something new and crazy to look at.

The Force Awakens is not perfect. Most of the  film’s bigger issues stem from the 30-year sequel gap and a lack of definition about the current state of the story universe.  The Starkiller planet destruction scene is the one big moment that really falls flat, we don’t have enough information to know what the stakes are; at least we knew Alderaan had some political importance and we understood Leia’s personal stake. I know nothing about the Hosnian system. I don’t even know if I spelled that right. Really, once the current political landscape of the Star Wars universe is laid out in the opening crawl it’s not brought up in detail again and that was probably the right decision for the movie. This is the biggest movie event ever, it was only going to be so dorky. Also, in a somewhat disappointing footnote John Williams’ score works effectively in the context of the movie, but lacks the next “Imperial March” or “Duel of the Fates.” Rey’s new theme is as close as the score comes to a memorable new idea, but it took several viewings and listening to the soundtrack to really get it. The new trilogy’s musical motifs are currently a little foggy, and that was unexpected.

After seeing The Force Awakens (several times), I’m more excited than ever for the future of Star Wars. Was Episode VII a little basic in its plotting? Maybe. Does it get a bit too on-the-nose with its references to the lore? You could argue that. Did I openly weep when the Star Wars logo appeared on screen? I tried to keep it together.

Little gripes don’t really matter. The fact is, we’re going to get a Star Wars movie every year until the end of time. The next one can be weird, this one just had to be good. And it is. It’s way better that just good. There truly has been an awakening.

Fall 2015 Review Blow-Out (Part 3)

Welcome back, folks! Our review round-up continues with three films that all have their own problems.

SPECTRE

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Daniel Craig in Spectre (Columbia/MGM)

Spectre is this year’s Star Trek into Darkness. I haven’t found a better way of putting it. Both films are sequels to massively successful franchise films that fail artistically by giving fans what they think they want, and clumsily calling back to the series’ past. Into Darkness aped Wrath of Khan in an irritatingly obvious way, and Spectre‘s third act is a soup of Connery- and Moore-era tropes somehow designed to act as a coda on Craig’s entire run. It’s unconvincing and ruins what is otherwise a fairly enjoyable mid-range Bond pic.

Spectre peaks early. In fact, it peaks in its first sequence, designed to look like a minutes-long unbroken take as the camera slinkily follows Bond through a Dia de los Muertos parade, in a building, up an elevator and out to a roof. It’s great, but it’s a red herring and the proceeding two hours don’t contain a moment that comes close to matching the excitement of the first two minutes in terms of either storytelling or technical bravado.

Much of the team from the previous Craig 007 outings, including director Sam Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins and several members of the Skyfall writing team, return for this installment. Much of the cast returns as well, and turn in typically fine work. Individuals aren’t the problem with Spectre, it’s the weak script. More so than any previous Craig outing, the script pulls heavily from elements of Bond’s history and the parallels are mind-numbingly obvious. Dave Bautista’s evil henchman, Mr. Hinx, is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Oddjob from Goldfinger. The big bad, Christoph Waltz’s (SPOILER ALERT I guess but really) Blofeld is ripped directly from previous installments. What this does to the admittedly muddy Bond continuity is left unaddressed. This stuff would be fine if it was handled with a bit more care, but all of the callbacks are handled with the subtlety of a chainsaw. Bond viewers are smarter than Spectre gives them credit for. The pattern of every other Bond film being good persists; Spectre is a misfire.

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 2

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Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Lionsgate)

The deck was stacked against this one from the beginning. The Hunger Games film series has excelled partly because the films are faithful to the books while taking out some of the stupidest YA crap, and this approach worked in the previous three installments. However, Mockingjay Part 2 had a problem this approach can’t solve: the end of the Hunger Games book series is a huge letdown.

The film sands off some of the ending’s roughest edges, but the fundamental flaws remain. To end a huge series like this on such a dour note may have seemed bold if it was the film’s decision to make, but in reality it’s just playing the book’s shitty hand. If you read the book and disliked it like most people did, the movie won’t make you feel any better. The ending is problematic, but instead of feeling edgy and challenging it feels needlessly grim. A disappointment, but perhaps an inevitable one.

Because the Hunger Games film franchise hews so close to its source material, really assessing it means we have to look closer at its cinematic elements, and set the tricky story elements aside. All four installments, this one included, are well-made and competently constructed. Mockingjay Part 2 is solid but not artistically distinctive, director Francis Lawrence has shepherded the final films to their release ably but not with the intent to distinguish himself as an auteur. David Yates had a similarly long run directing all of the Harry Potter films from Order of the Phoenix on, but those four films all managed to be uniquely distinct from one another. The Hunger Games films share a unified artistic approach that is in its own way unique, but as the relative box-office disappointment of Part 2 indicates, we’re all a bit tired and ready for this journey to end, for now.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR

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The Good Dinosaur (Disney•Pixar)

Let’s just get this out of the way now: The Good Dinosaur is second-tier Pixar. It’s not going to lead you to emotional places you haven’t been before, and feels more like a kid’s movie than Pixar’s usual four-quadrant fare. That being said, it’s pretty weird and dark for a movie aimed at children and had several moments which genuinely shocked me.

The publicity for The Good Dinosaur leaves out the single most interesting element of the film, and that’s how deeply strange the whole thing is. Dinosaur seesaws wildly between different tones and genres as the story progresses, even becoming a take on  John Ford westerns for about half an hour. There are some gnarly and violent moments that come out of nowhere; the movie does not mess with the fact that these characters are all, at the end of the day, wild animals. Some of the dinosaur characters the protagonist, apatosaurus Arlo, encounters are clearly damaged and feel legitimately dangerous. The film also includes a drug-trip sequence that looks like it came from experience.

It has to be said that The Good Dinosaur looks gorgeous. Every Pixar film has some big technological leap forward (Monsters, Inc. nailed fur, Incredibles figured out hair, etc.), but Good Dinosaur feels like it has maybe ten. Except for the dinosaurs, which look bizarrely cartoonish compared to their surroundings, everything in the frame is rendered in jaw-dropping photorealistic detail. Computer-generated water has never looked so good.

The Good Dinosaur suffered a famously arduous production process, the film’s release was delayed 18 months and the original director was replaced. The film is odd and disjointed enough that I don’t think it’s a stretch to say what we see on screen is not the original intent of the project. It may not be one of Pixar’s masterpieces, but The Good Dinosaur is an interesting oddity that’s worth seeing.

Thanks for reading and watch this space, there might just be a part 4 to this review round-up before Star Wars comes out. Once December 18 hits, you won’t care about anything else and neither will I. In the meantime, here are links to PART 1 and PART 2 of this piece.

In advance of The Force Awakens…

  
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the last few days processing the new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I haven’t been fretting over the details and plot specifics (the footage is vague for a reason), I’ve been marveling at the accomplishment of what the trailer represents. The footage is great and the trailer as a whole is tremendously exciting, but more importantly it caps off what might be the best and most important marketing campaign in the history of modern mass media.  Even though The Force Awakens doesn’t open for another two months, it’s already been a major ongoing cultural event for the entire past year and I think it’s been one really worth savoring. 

I don’t normally call advertisements “art,” but the three trailers and perhaps most importantly the Comic-Con reel have a lot going on that’s worth exploring and acknowledging. Over the past year, Disney and Lucasfilm have been carefully threading a meta-narrative through the footage about this film’s place inhistory and sending the most important message they possibly can: we’re not going to fuck it up this time.

The footage

Disney’s media rollout of the film has been very slow and carefully measured, and all in all we still don’t know very much. However, whenever anything new is released the results are seismic. Why is this? The easy answer is “because it’s fucking Star Wars,” but that undercuts the incredible quality of what we have been shown. These are not normal trailers. They assume a high familiarity with the brand, and are designed meticulously to evoke a certain set of feelings on their intended audience. They reveal basically no plot information. They exist in the unique position of selling a product that sells itself, and don’t have many uninitiated to convince. They are truly for the fans, and possess a certain sparcity and delicacy rarely seen in mass marketing. They also get deeper and more exciting with each viewing.

The trailers form a progression, each getting more detailed and esoteric as December 18 approaches. The first teaser from late 2014 is strikingly bare: a series of simple, unconnected but incredibly striking images. A harried stormtrooper removing his helmet. A jangly, homemade-looking light saber. BB-8. The Millenium Falcon being chased by TIE fighters as the Star Wars fanfare blares in the background. Each of these images is both evocative of what has come before and an enticing tease of what is to come. I cried.

  

In the subsequent trailers, the main fanfare is not used again. It’s not necessary. The first teaser was a shot across the bow and basically achieved the goal of acknowledging that the new film will draw heavily from the iconography of the original trilogy. The second teaser provides some new images, most importantly establishing the post-Jedi film universe, and the big Han Solo money shot. Like the first teaser, it’s much more regal than frenetic, allowing the viewer time to digest what they are seeing and begin to grasp the significance of each shot. And while “Chewie, we’re home” may be a bit on-the nose, it works. I cried.

As Star Wars took over Comic-Con, the behind-the-scenes reel provided a great look at lots of new things, but was more about establishing an overall narrative for the project. Each of the trailers is its own mood piece, and the the mood evoked by the reel is one of unbridled optimism and joy. It’s probably the most earnest piece of publicity for a movie I’ve ever seen. However, just because it isn’t a trailer doesn’t mean the Comic-Con reel is any less meticulous in its construction. Footage of real sets, real vehicles, serious character makeup. A lively creature shop. 35mm film running through a Panavision camera. For film dweebs, it’s heady stuff. I cried.

  
The final trailer is a bit more conventional than the other footage, but no less thrilling. There’s still virtually no plot, but this time we’re treated to a barrage of images, an embarrassment of riches that will keep folks guessing all the way up to opening night. The pacing and arc of this trailer are as flawless as the previous trailers, and the two minutes greatly expand the scope of what we’ve seen, and Han Solo’s dialogue give us an idea of the mythic scale the storytelling aspires to. In a brilliant moment, at the end of the trailer the music, shots and cutting escalate to a tremendous crescendo, before the screen cuts to black and film’s logo appears resting above the soundtrack that’s gone almost silent. It’s striking and ballsy, and plays to an audience that is paying rapt attention. It’s about as good as a trailer’s going to get. You can probably guess my reaction.

The narrative

The Star Wars franchise occupies a unique space in film history both in terms of its near-universal cultural acceptance and its troubled filmography. Few, if any other films are as ingrained into the collective American psyche as the three films that make up the original trilogy and it’s easy to make the case that the original Star Wars is one of, if not the most, culturally important movies ever made. To many of us, we grew up on the original trilogy and got close to wearing out the VHS tapes.

  
Then the prequels happened. All three films are deeply flawed, and while upon some detached examination they do have some merit and on the whole are not terrible, it’s too late. The only reason people still watch the prequels, and the only reason they got made, was because they are Star Wars films. The Phantom Menace came out when I was 9 years old, and I still have memories of seeing it in a theater, and I still have a lot of the toys, and I know it back-to-front. This is not because it’s good, it’s because it’s Star Wars.

Whether The Force Awakens is good or not, as a culture we will absorb it just the same. Kids will get to grow up playing with BB-8 toys instead of Jar Jar figures. They’ll think black X-Wings are just a normal thing. Everybody will know who John Boyega is. Just as we’ve learned to live with the prequels, elements of Episode VII will enter our standard pop culture lexicon. We’re going to get a new Star Wars film every year too, so it’s possible we’ll be soon be living in a future where the prequels are just a weird footnote. That alone is something to celebrate. So enjoy this moment of anticipation, and get your tickets. December 18 is going to be a very big day.