(In French, On Cable TV, November 2018) There’s quite a bit of metafictional context about Postcards from the Edge that make it a fascinating movie for those steeped in Hollywood history. For one thing, it’s not just a movie about a Hollywood actress with addiction issues trying to get back on the right path despite the domineering influence of her mother—it’s also adapted from an autobiographical novel from Carrie Fisher that many saw as a roman-à-clef about her relationship with her own mother Debbie Reynolds. (Fisher herself maintained that it was a novel for a reason, but there are substantial differences between the inward-driven, stylistically experimental novel and the far more conventional film whose script she adapted herself.) Taking all of this rich material and giving it to seasoned actors’ director Mike Nichols seems like a natural fit, even more so when he’s able to count on an impressive gallery of capable actors, staring with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine in the central mother/daughter roles. I don’t particularly like MacLaine in general, but she’s quite good here and Streep has seldom been as funny as in this role. The Hollywood satire circa 1990 is likely to remain more interesting than the familiar dramatic material, but there’s enough here for everyone—including musical numbers. Postcards from the Edge is almost a piece of Hollywood history the more you know about the business and the history, but it’s strong enough to be interesting even to casual viewers.
(Fourth or Fifth Viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2018) I do have a soft spot for Return of the Jedi: I don’t hate the Ewoks as much as some pretend to do (heck, keep in mind that they’re probably going to eat those fallen Stormtroopers) and as a kid who was eight when the movie came out, cinema couldn’t get any better than the sequence in which the Millennium Falcon goes inside the Death Star to blow it up. Decades later, I still get a kick out of that sequence, especially given its place in the three-ring circus that is the last act of the film. Richard Marquand does a fine job directing a complicated film, and the result it still fun to watch. I’m not happy with some of the digital alterations made to the movie since its release—the celebration sequences set on planets that would be introduced in the prequels are the worst. Mark Hamill is a much stronger presence this time around (even though the short timeline between the two movies don’t support much of his growth), while Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are up to their standards. (Fisher never looked better than in this film, and I’m not talking about the Jabba-the-bikini sequence as much as her long hair extensions down in the Ewok village.) While revisiting the original Star Wars as a not-eight-years-old was a serious let-down, the two immediate sequels are still fine—as long as you learn to live with the various idiocies of the science-fantasy adventure tone requiring so many contrivances along the way.
(Fourth or Fifth Viewing, On Blu-ray, November 2018) Popular opinion has it that The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie, and even a recent look as a jaded middle-aged man (who’s happy not to be eight years old any more) does little to convince otherwise. The much-better dialogue helps a lot, but it’s impossible to discount the impact of three memorable locations (Hoth, Dagobah and Bespin) along with a sombre finale that raises the stakes for all characters. Irwin Kirshner is also a better director, and the actors understand what they’re trying to do—Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher still run circles around Mark Hamill, but the film benefits a lot from the addition of Billy Dee Williams as the truly cool Lando Carlissian. Screenwriter Leigh Brackett (a written SF legend) does her best work in spinning the Han/Leia romance carefully through a series of antagonistic interactions. The special effects are generally successful, and I’ll note that the 1997 digital enhancements seem more natural here than in the overstuffed re-edit of A New Hope. I hadn’t seen the film since its 1997 re-release in theatres and I found it much better than its immediate prequel.
(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.
(Second viewing, On TV, March 2017) I was wary of revisiting The ’burbs: what if it didn’t measure up to my good memories? Fortunately, I shouldn’t have worried: As a comedy, it’s still as increasingly anarchic as I recalled, and the film has aged relatively well largely due to director Joe Dante’s off-beat genre sensibilities. Baby-faced Tom Hanks stars as a driven suburban man daring himself to spend a week at home doing nothing. But his holiday soon turns to real work as he starts obsessing over his neighbours and, egged on by friends, suspecting them of the worst crimes. Set entirely in a quiet cul-de-sac, The ’burbs still has a few things to say about the hidden depths of suburbia, dangerous obsessions and the unknowability of neighbours. It’s also increasingly funny as actions become steadily more extreme—by the time a house blows up in the middle of the climax, it’s clear that the movie has gone as far as it could go. Corey Feldman (as a fascinated teenager treating the whole thing like a reality-TV show), Bruce Dern (as a crazed survivalist), Carrie Fisher (as a voice of exasperated reason) and Henry Gibson (deliciously evil) are also remarkable in supporting roles. The “burbs may take a while to heat up, but it quickly goes to a boil and remains just as funny today.
(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.]