Star Wars

Movie anti-review: Dune

It's been a while since I did an anti-review, and many readers may not know what that is.  An anti-review is where I take a movie I might have wanted to see and explain why I'm not going to see it.  A lot of the new Star Wars films got anti-reviews.

Dune is getting an anti-review for several reasons.  The biggest is that this is the third film adaptation of the books and I'm just not that interested in the topic.  As far as I am concerned, the Sci-Fi Channel's miniseries was pretty definitive.  Yes, it had poor special effects and some of the action was sub-par, but it did a good job of conveying the content of the books and the general weirdness of Frank Herbert's landmark novels. 

While the current films are being lauded, I've read that corners were cut in order to fit the story into a cinematic format.  This kills what little curiosity I have left.  Dune works - and was successful despite terrible writing - because of how Herbert was able to (for the most part) bring everything together at the end.  That makes it very difficult to film.

I'm going to add another reason completely unrelated to the rest and that is that I'm sick of remakes and reboots.  As I said, there are already two other versions of the same material.  There are now three versions of Avatar: The Last Airbender.  The lack of creativity is absurd.

Godzilla: Minus One took a familiar franchise and gave it a new, unique and captivating twist.  One doesn't have to start from scratch to make something fresh and exciting.

More and more, I'm just going back to the originals.  I'm also continuing to explore films I've overlooked, of which there are many.  Life is too short to watch derivative trash.


Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: another disappointing 1970s movie

Until today's horrific film offerings were unleashed on a sinful and unrepentant world, I'd have said that the 1970s were the worst decade in films.  Yes, there were great films like Star Wars or Grease, but there was a lot of nihilistic garbage.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot falls into the that category. 

On the surface, this should be an awesome movie, with Clint Eastwood starring opposite Jeff Bridges in a fun buddy-buddy heist movie.  It even has Daisy Duke herself, Catherine Bach.

Yet, despite it's promising opening, it slowly but surely becomes yet another depressing cinematic salute to the "the death of the American Dream."

Part of the problem is that it has George Kennedy essentially reprising his brute, skull-smashing character from Charade.  Kennedy would go on to lighter fare (such as Police Squad/The Naked Gun), but at that time he was often a foul-mouthed heavy.

Seeing him do the same thing in a far less light-hearted film felt derivative.  I get that having a less than happy ending was part of the zeitgeist of diminishing expectations and anti-heroes, but that doesn't make it enjoyable.

I will here note that it was this kind of depressive film making that made Star Wars the outstanding success that it was.  It was a rare happy ending in an age of deep cynicism.


The Duellists - a great, intense little film

While I continue to crawl my way through the Ford Madox Ford biography, I'm also digging back into Joseph Conrad and came across his short story The Duel.

I then recalled that an excellent film of it had been made in 1977, The Duellists.  This was Ridley Scott's first movie and it's excellence gave a huge boost to his career.

The film is an excellent adaptation of a very Conradian tale - a rational, intelligent officer who inadvertently offends a hot-headed comrade and then is forced to fight duel after duel with him against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. 

The film moves efficiently through the timeline, which runs from 1800 to 1816, and the costuming and atmosphere is superb.  The duels themselves are brilliantly choreographed.

It is also an example of using weapons to tell a story and the contrast between The Duellists and the decline and fall of lightsabers in Star Wars is pretty stark.

In short, it is a tight little movie of the kind that simply cannot be made today.


A few more words about lightsabers

Earlier this week I posted an article about the decline and fall of lightsabers in Star Wars over at bleedingfool.com.

Right on cue, one of the new Disney Star Wars shows has a character take would should have been a moral wound and essentially walk it off.  Fans are not amused.

As I point out in my piece, the increasing overuse of lightsabers is illustrative of poor writing and increasingly feeble efforts to produce dramatic tension by substituting action for plot and character development.

People who don't know how to write a loaded conversation or create a compelling story will simply resort to extended fight scenes, but the more they resort to this, the less any of them matter.

Having characters survive mortal wounds completely unscathed is part and parcel of this.  Once that happens, the reader (or viewer) ceases to take the story seriously.  This is why in all of my fiction, not a single character has returned from the dead.  I have had characters who people assumed were dead come back, but that's different device which leaves the consequence of death intact.

I have to say that seeing how awful entertainment is these days is really shocking.  I know that the political scene is a disaster area, which is why I avoid it, but entertainment seems to be even worse.  Who approves this stuff?  Is there any concept of quality control? 

This is the consequence of three generations of nepotistic promotion, I suppose.  The current generation of studio heads have no real knowledge of life, art, or their audience - and it shows.

 


Days of Wargaming Passed - West End's R.A.F. and the Heyday of Gamer Geekdom

This past weekend was drill for my old unit, so in addition to sleeping in, I set up a wargame I haven't time to play for years.

The game is question was R.A.F., a solitaire game of the Battle of Britain.  Designed by John Butterfield and published by West End Games, R.A.F. is somewhat unique insofar as there is no option for a second player.  Once wargaming became big enough for market research, it was clear that most games were played solo and many of them had ratings for both complexity and solitaire play included in their advertising.

I'm not here to do a review per se - you can find a complete inventory on boardgamegeek.com or grognards.com, the point here is that this is how I spend much of my youth - playing wargames, with or without human opponents.

Wargaming could be competitive, but for me it was a way to interact with history.  Instead of just reading a book, I could become and active participant (usually while reading books on the topic).  Much of what I know about military history was acquired by playing a wargame on various conflicts.

West End Games was an eclectic outfit, and one without any particular focus.  In addition to R.A.F. it published the brilliant Imperium Romanum II, a wonderful and sweeping study of the Roman Empire.  Yet much of the company's product line centered on less erudite topics, such as sci-fi roleplaying (Paranoia) and some licensed products.

It seems incredible now, but back in the 80s, obscure lightweights like West End obtained the licenses for both Star Wars and Star Trek gaming systems.  At that time, both franchises were assumed to be "kid stuff" and so anyone willing to try to make a buck on them in the new niche hobby of gaming was welcome to try for a relatively modest fee.

West End took the ball and ran with it, particularly in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game.   A plethora of supplements, adventures and other aids flooded the marketplace and were eagerly devoured by fans left high and dry by the end of the original trilogy. 

I was not one of them.  I bought a couple of the wargames, but by that time I was putting Star Wars in the past, along with other 'kid stuff.' 

How times have changed!  Now even superheroes are unabashedly followed by people well into adulthood.  We truly live in an age where childhood never ends and the phrase "act your age" had no apparent meaning.  Back in the 1980s Bill Shatner could infamously tell a bunch of Trekkies in a Saturday Night Live skit to "get a life," but fandom is here to stay.

I don't think that's a positive development.  Many of my contemporaries are developmentally locked in the late teens, and have abandoned relationship formation and child-raising in favor of a perpetual adolescent emphasis on hobbies.  On a personal level, I haven't talked to most of them in many years - precisely because I have so little in common with them.  On the macro-scale, we see plummeting birthrates and a culture where people are sharply divided in large part because they have so little in common.

A childless ever-teen isn't going to have the same approach to political questions as parents trying to bring up a family.  Indeed, the oddly casual attitude to sexualizing children is part of this - people without proper adult formation see no need for such boundaries.

Meanwhile, West End ultimately lost its licenses and went out of business, along with most of its contemporaries.  Gaming continues, but it is both more accepted and also more fragmented, sustained in large part by advances in print-on-demand services and online communities.

Thus, gaming and geekdom are still growing strong and have never been more accepted - which is a serious problem.

 


Veterans Day, 2022

Later today I will be playing "Taps" for the last time as an active service member.  Amidst all of the changes of the past couple of years, this is one that has come in an entirely unexpected way.

Just as with storytelling, how an experience ends can have a profound impact on how one looks back on the whole thing.  I've written before about how a botched conclusion can not only wreck a particular film or book, but trash the entire franchise.  I'm talking about you, Star Wars.

As I wrap the 21st and final season of "A.H.Lloyd's Remarkably Uninteresting Military Career," I'm definitely getting same vibe as watching the lamentable last season of Miami Vice.

Maybe it will look better in re-runs.

On the positive side, I will have a lot of spare time and  more much more latitude to vent my spleen on military affairs.  This opens up new areas of writing as well as more time with which to do it.

Speaking of writing, Walls of Men is now undergoing its final edit prior to being formatted for publication.  It's been through my hands and those of two test readers, but reading it aloud has found a great many areas of improvement.  I think this will be standard practice for me from now on.


Will Amazon's Lord of the Rings show stink?

When Amazon announced the purchase of the television rights to J.R.R. Tolkien's literary estate, I was not optimistic.

To be sure, the family had demanded certain assurances that the work would not be corrupted in the way of the film versions of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but that only goes so far.

As I've noted before modern writers seem to have very high opinions of themselves and this leads them to "fix" classic literary works to make them more in accordance with the views of the moment.

The result is inevitably hot garbage, and instead of turning a known property into a "sure thing" financially, it ends up damaging the property itself.

Examples of this are legion, and I've written about them so many times that instead of giving a pile of links, I will direct the curious to simply look up the posts tagged for Star Wars.

What sets Amazon's gambit apart is the sheer scope of the project, which was undertaken when Game of Thrones-mania was at its height.  The failure of that enterprise should have provided an object lesson in the dangers of poor storytelling and the recent disastrous live-action reboot of Cowboy Bebop provides further warnings.

Suffice to say, I'm not optimistic.


The ideal family-friendly strategy game

From time to time, I come up with various game designs.  Conqueror: Fields of Victory remains my only published work, but I lots of other projects in various stages of completion.

It seems to me that the ideal game should have some potential for direct conflict between players, use a little bit of resource allocation, including enough randomness to keep things interesting, and be finished in an hour or less.

That last part is key.  If a game is interesting but ends quickly, you can also give it another try.

Euchre - the semi-official card game of Michigan - is like that.  It's possible to do a couple of hands of Euchre in a few minutes.  In high school, people would do a hand or two between classes or a full-on game over lunch.

Perhaps I'm showing my age, but standard kit by my senior year was a Euchre deck in your backpack.  Find three other people, and it's game on.

That portability and ease of play was a major factor in the rise of games like Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon.  No need to set up a game board, place pieces and so on, just give me some table space and a pack of cards and we can sort things out.

One of George Lucas' many crimes against humanity was his decision to end the licensing agreement for the Star Wars Collectible Card Game.  This was a fun and very successful system, but Lucas had by this time bought out Hasbro (which had acquired his original merchandiser, Kenner) and he wanted to consolidate toy and game sales.  Hasbro by this point owned Wizards of the Coast, so they were directed at coming up with a suitable replacement that is entirely forgotten today.

At any rate, my mind is turning towards a new game design, and with the holidays coming up, the potential for playtesting is pretty good.

 


The spiritual desolation of The Big Chill

It's weird to say it, but I'm spending a lot of time these days catching up on movies that came out when I was younger that I never got around to seeing.  In large part this is because the cheapest way to buy movies that I did see - and want to see again - is as part of a DVD collection.

So it was that I finally got around to seeing The Big Chill, which came out when I was 10.  A slice-of-life ensemble cast film about the approach of middle age and the loss of youthful idealism would have made little impression on me, so it's just as well that I skipped it.  Besides, 1983 was the year Return of the Jedi came out and that pretty much held my attention.

This is the kind of movie Hollywood used to make fairly often but it is now beyond the movie industry's creative capacity.  For one thing, there aren't sufficient actors to carry the parts.  When the film came out, Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Meg Tilly still had their greatest work before them, but their talent was mature.

The plot line is pretty simple: a group of college friends stage an unplanned reunion when one of their number commits suicide.  It is now more than a decade since they were bright, young things living at a co-op at the University of Michigan and over the course of a long weekend they confront the challenges and disappointments the years have brought them.

It's basically a Boomer "coming of middle age" story, and as well all know, Boomers assumed that they were the first people in world history to have issues with getting older.

To some extent, however, that was true.  Previous generations valued maturity, responsibility and above all tradition.  The Boomers threw all of that away, instead mocking tradition, lauding youth over experience and placing personal freedom (by which they meant short-term pleasure) over responsibility.  The Big Chill is their first realization that things aren't working out the way they planned.

The story is based on events and characters writer/director Lawrence Kasdan encountered during his time at Michigan.  As a Michigan State grad, I have to admit I bristled a bit when I realized these were all Wolverine alumni, but as the film progressed I was entirely satisfied to see U-M grads portrayed as a bunch of self-centered, drug-using, adulterous whiners.

Kasdan of course had already written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and would go on to pen a few more hit films in that decade, but he hasn't had much success since.  He put his name on both the disappointing Episode VII as well as the unwatchable Solo movie, so his best days are clearly behind him.

Still, there's no denying that The Big Chill is an excellent film.  The acting is first rate and the while the characters are less than admirable, they absolutely feel real.  I can personally attest that Ann Arbor produces vast numbers of people such as these.

That actually counts for a lot.  Today's writing emphasizes specialness if not perfection, and heroes (particularly women) are super-strong, super-smart and know neither doubt nor regret.  This makes personal stories impossible to tell.

Talking with some of my friends, I can't think of any comparable movie that has come out in the last 20 years.  For one thing, who would play the parts?  Hollywood is entirely populated by super-hero actors in skinny jeans leavened with overweight minority women who supply moral authority. 

No one in The Big Chill is remotely like that.   One of the friends is a TV star, another a reporter for People magazine.  The rest are typical professionals -  doctor, lawyer, business owner.  The standout is William Hurt's character, who is a Vietnam veteran who (in a nod to Hemingway) was rendered impotent by a war wound and therefore cannot consummate a relationship.  Rounding out the cast is Meg Tilly's Chloe, the younger, sex kitten girlfriend of Alex, whose death brought them all together.

Alex is only briefly glimpsed, a corpse being prepared for the funeral service.  He was played by Kevin Costner in flashback, but these scenes were cut and have never since been released.  Kasdan decided it was better to leave Alex entirely to the cast's recollections, and he was right.

By universal acclaim, Alex was the most gifted of the lot, described as a brilliant physicist who nevertheless abandoned a career in science and worked menial jobs, hopping from place to place.  He finally landed with Kline and Close (the married couple of the group), who supported his latest endeavor up to the moment of his suicide.  Alex also carried on an affair with Close, but this was supposedly resolved and in the past, which of course it wasn't.

Thus, we have a complex web of relationships that need to be worked out as well as existential problems that are all played out over a weekend.  It's a fall weekend, and being Michigan grads, the movie takes time out for them to watch the Michigan-Michigan State game, which is a marvelous detail to include.

Another nice touch is to borrow from George Lucas in American Graffiti and use a soundtrack comprised entirely of vintage music.  By watching the characters' reactions, one gets a sense that they too are going back in time and recalling their fading youth.

It is an excellent film, but for all of the funny and tragic moments, there is a profound void in its structure, and that is its total lack of any kind of religious faith.  I do not think this was by design, rather it was simply a reflection of the world Kasdan experienced in college and subsequently lived in when he made the movie.

There are a couple of nods to faith, such as the funeral and a brief appearance of a crucifix, but it's otherwise absent, both in action and words.   Alex's funeral is at a local Baptist church, but no one goes to the Sunday service.  These are very much secular Hippies turned Yuppies.  They have their degrees, their jobs, marriages, children, houses and yet they feel hollow.  All that they thought they would do has vanished and what they have left is material comfort and spiritual desolation.

Just as Game of Thrones is an unintended apologetic for Christian culture, so The Big Chill is a cautionary tale for life without faith.  None of the marriages portrayed in this film are stable.  The great Boomer gift of no-fault divorce looms large, and adultery is explicitly described as a morally neutral act, to be condemned or condoned only by the conditions in which it takes place.

It would be interesting to extrapolate what happens to those families in the succeeding decades and the knowledge of the world we have now makes the film all the more poignant - and damning.

Normally, I'd condemn this movie as being something very similar to Carly Simon's early work, but there is something about it that transcends my moral outrage.  Instead, I feel nothing but sympathy for the broken, half-formed people portrayed in this story.

 

 

 

 

 


The surprise ending

Arguably the greatest challenge to contemporary writers is coming up with a way to make an ending both surprising and plausible.

Game of Thrones failed spectacularly in this respect, and Star Wars did the same.  I think the first big whiff was The Matrix, but plenty of shows start with a bang and end with a whimper.

Of course, sometimes life imitates art, and while this blog generally avoids the pointless churn of political commentary, certainly the last chapter of American involvement in Afghanistan was entirely unexpected.

On the other hand, historians tend to look at wars as wholly contained narratives.  War was declared on this date and ended on the other date, and anything beyond those bookends is beyond the scope of most conventional books.

Sometimes one has to look outside those confines, because in real life, the end of one story necessarily leads to another.  The characters change, the plot lines switch around, but the tale never ends.

J.R.R. Tolkien brought this up in Lord of the Rings, at one point having Sam Gamgee reflect that the stories told of the Elder Days in the Last Homely House had continued down to the present day and that he and Frodo were part of the same plot line that ran back to Beren and Luthien.

And so it is.  As Tolkien also noted in his timeless work, victories and defeats are at best transitory.   Time passes and new challenges emerge.

What is surprising to people at the time will likely seem a foregone conclusion to future generations.

All one can do in such circumstances is do what any solid character would do: muddle through and carry on as best as possible.  It may not be satisfying drama, but then again the story isn't finished and in real life, the actors rarely get to see the final result of their effort.