(On Blu Ray, September 2019) I’m aware that Willow has its fans—if you were a fantasy fan of the right age in 1988, Willow was supposed to be a genre-defining event, a bit of hype that was helped along with having George Lucas as the film’s screenwriter. The intent was to deliver a fantasy equivalent to Star Wars (you can recognize themes running through both), working from an archetypical plot executed through state-of-the-art technology. The result, well, isn’t quite as successful. Drawn-out, dull, repetitive, predictable, it’s somewhat balanced with a great lead performance by Warwick Davis, some oddly likable bits of worldbuilding, Val Kilmer in a breakout role, and some digital special effects that, in retrospect, demonstrate the road to even more sophisticated CGI. Watching the film as a middle-aged man, I can’t quite say that it has aged well—the film’s young target audience is obvious, and part of the point of fantasy stories is the immersion that the sometimes-dicey special effects break. For every good thing that makes us like Willow, there’s at least one other bad thing pulling us farther away. Clearly, I’m far too old to watch it as intended.
(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.]
(On VHS, April 2001) The story’s been done better elsewhere (man tries to escape his oppressive society; see Dark City, Gattaca, Truman Show) but this is a creditable effort for the seventies. You will be unable to associate this grim and artistic George Lucas with his latter American Graffiti or Star Wars series. (Sharp-eyed observers, however, will note Lucas’ recurring motifs of car chases and distrust of technology) Unfortunately, Lucas’ vision is hampered by four things; a low budget, a lack of storytelling skills, no knowledge of science-fiction and an approach more suitable to arty films than popular entertainment. All of this combine to produce a film with recycled imagery, simplistic plotting, awful dialogue, an unsatisfying ending, laborious introduction/development of well-known concepts and “artistic” imagery that exasperates more than it enlighten. While THX-1138 doesn’t hold up to modern standards and inspires more guffaws than deep thoughts, it’s of definite historical interest. Worth a look despite everything else.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, August 2019) It had been nearly twenty years since I’d seen THX 1138, but as I watched it a second time it became obvious that it wasn’t the version I had watched in 2001: The inclusion of obvious CGI in a 1971 quickly led me to realize that I was watching the 2004 director’s cut of the film, with added digital details to fix the most dated aspects of the film. The result is strangely compelling: by updating the effects, George Lucas has removed a fundamental stumbling block of casual viewing (focusing on bad effects rather than the story), while the block he has added (those are modern effects in an older movie!) won’t be as obtrusive to most viewers. The story, of course, has not changed much: it’s still a good old repressed protagonist in a dystopian society (although one notes with some interest that it’s a society that’s not even particularly good at keeping itself working: there are plenty of hints that things are not going well, that there are accidents and errors and systemic failures even in an environment where everything is supposed to be controlled) realizing that the society is dystopian and escaping it. It’s the ur-example of dystopian fiction plotting familiar through endless examples, but it’s not badly done. The antiseptic aesthetic sense of THX 1138 remains intriguing, and some of the details (including, yes, the bolted-on CGI additions) do create a certain tangible reality. A dystopian vision from the early 1970s can feel intriguingly out of time these days, and while I’m still not a fan of the film, at least I can see that it may be worth a look. Then there’s the whole link with Star Wars to think about, but that’s been discussed already.