(Seventh or eighth viewing, On Blu-ray, May 2017) Well, well, well… Star Wars. The original. A fixture of my childhood, to the point where I long thought of the movie as review-proof: what would I possibly say about a film I watched every time it played on TV when I was a boy? I last saw it in theatres when it was re-released in 1997, and before then in the mid-nineties in a campus theatre with a bunch of animation students enthusiastic about the 1993 Definitive collection laserdisc, and before that nearly every broadcast on Radio Canada… But as I sat down to celebrate the 40th anniversary “May the Fourth” to watch the latest 2011 Blu-ray release of the 1977 film, I realized that there is, actually, quite a bit to say about Star Wars from a critical perspective. I’m not seven anymore, and the flaws of the film are more glaring than I expected. The story is simplistic. George Lucas’s dialogue, other than some oft-quoted lines, is frankly terrible. Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford have charm, but they were not gifted actors at the time (they got better, or more accurately grew more comfortable with their chosen screen persona). The universe is bare-bones and at time nonsensical. The special effects are all over the place, a flaw actually magnified by the hodgepodge of changes made to the film through the years, most notably in inserting now-dated CGI in the 1997 version of the film. The results clash, all the way to the overwhelming grain of 1977 film stock being blurred with 1997 digital makeup. The Blu-ray transfer of the film may be too good—much of the low-budget origins of the film clearly show, and harming the look of the film isn’t a good thing given that its substance is so lacking as well. Now, I still do like Star Wars—but I’ve become less and less of an uncritical fan over the years, and refreshing my memory of the first instalment does nothing to reverse the tendency. What may remain from Star Wars eventually is not much more than the launchpad of a much bigger and deeper shared universe. I’ll be watching the original trilogy in the next few months to officially log my reviews along the way (I saw them all last before I started keeping track of reviews), but I’m not going to be surprised if I end up re-evaluating the prequel trilogy based on my adjusted impressions of the three original films.
(On-demand, August 2012) It’s nonsense to discuss multi-million-dollar movies in terms of earnestness, but Red Tails is difficult to approach otherwise. It’s a well-intentioned, often spectacular attempt to restore glory to the story of the Word War 2 all-black Tuskegee Airmen, but it’s marred by a terrible script with flat characters, gag-inducing dialogue and dramatic arcs that couldn’t be closer to cliché. This mish-mash between good intentions and flat execution makes the film frustrating to discuss, as one threatens to overshadow the other. Admirably, the film was conceived, financed, produced and partially directed by George Lucas, using his Star Wars money to do some good and tell a story that deserved wider recognition. As a piece exploring racism during WW2, Red Tails is far more entertaining than the ponderous Miracle at St-Anna even as it scrupulously avoids getting too unpleasant in the details. Also worth praising are the air combat sequences, shot with crackling energy and showcasing the best of what special-effects technology can now offer to such stock sequences. There’s a lot to enjoy here, even the somewhat pop-corn treatment of the situation: it’s OK, from time to time, to have a movie in which African-American whoop it up while burning Nazis alive. As for historical accuracy, well, this is a Hollywood(ish) movie, after all, where “based on a true story” itself can be fiction. No, what hurts Red Tails a lot more is the amateur script, which doesn’t bother itself with distinctive characters or refined dialogue: everything is on-the-nose obviousness, heard countless times in similar films. The dramatic arcs are all copy-and-pasted from other movies, without too many surprises. Even more disappointing is the film’s fuzzy structure, ending on a note that isn’t anywhere near the triumph it should have been. (“Hey guys, why the funeral?”) Red Tails really comes alive when it’s up in the air, and even then when characters don’t say anything. While the dog-fighting sequences are state-of-the-art, everything else feels far too old-fashioned to be satisfying. But, at least, you can feel that it’s trying really really hard, and kicking the film for what it’s not feels like being unkind to a particularly happy puppy.
(On DVD, December 2010) I’ll be one of the first to bemoan the increasing cooptation of geeks from social outcasts to lucrative market segment, but even I have to admit that Fanboys is a fun comedy aimed squarely at that audience. The story of four Star-Wars-loving friends racing to steal an early copy of The Phantom Meance from Skywalker ranch, Fanboys gleefully indulges in geek references, inside jokes and enough re-quoted dialogue to qualify as a derivative work. I’m not sure why I was expecting something cheap, because the end result is polished B-movie, low-budget but not necessarily unpleasant to look at. The actors do their best (Jay Baruchel shows up in a decent early role, even showing his maple leaf chest tattoo), but it’s really the geekery of the film that takes center-stage in reflecting in the state of fandom circa winter 1999, still hoping that George Lucas would pull off a new trilogy of classic Star Wars films. (Part of the film’s humour is in the knowing references to the post-1999 reputation of The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar Binks or Harrison Ford) The geek stereotypes are extreme, but good-natured and even endearing when it comes to the five heroes of the story. If nothing else, fans should see Fanboys for the succession of cameos and bit parts for notables such as William Shatner, Danny Trejo, Seth Rogen (in three different roles), Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and many more. (Only Kevin Smith’s cameo feels rushed and incoherent.) There’s also a snappy pop soundtrack. Fanboys isn’t much of a comedy without the geek references (people without knowledge of the Star Wars universe, in particular, will miss out on much), but it’s good enough to exceed low expectations. [Classification note for metadata nerds: The film was shot in 2007, pushed back numerous times during the film’s troubled production history and eventually released in theaters and DVD in 2009. IMDB thinks it’s a 2008 film, but I’m listing it here as a 2009 release.]