November 22, 2015

Tremors in The Force

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 3:00 pm
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It doesn’t seem so long ago that The Walt Disney Company acquired Lucasfilm for roughly $4 billion dollars and announced a new slate of Star Wars movies were in the works, but in fact it’s been almost three years. Like any lifelong Star Wars fan, I had some thoughts on these matters, just as I did a few months later when J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of Episode VII. All was quiet on the official news front for a long while after that, and I thought the casting announcement would be a good time to check back in. Well…that came and went nearly a year-and-a-half ago, and I apparently had too much going on at the time to wade back in. With each new milestone – title announcement, trailers, Comic-Con, etc. – I wanted to weigh in, but could never find the time…partly because I was accumulating so many articles on the subject that I needed to go back through, the writing itself was always delayed by the “research.” Now, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens just a few short weeks (weeks!) away, it’s now or never if I want to get some thoughts off my chest before the movie is looming too large in front of us – not unlike the Death Star over a Corellian starship caught in a tractor beam – for it to matter anymore.

Not that it really matters now. Or ever did. But is that going to stop me?

Since casting was the topic I was so keen to discuss, why not start there? Abrams and company put together an impressive ensemble for the new film, and when they it was announced at the end of April 2014, the big question was how many of the rumored names would turn out to have made the cut. There were, after all, a lot of rumors. In fact, from casting to plot and everything in between, these new Star Wars movies have had the rumor mill churning so aggressively that they might yet break the mechanism.

It was known that Abrams met with a huge number of actors during the casting process. The names I saw connected to the film – whether by their own admission or by sources said to be in the know – were Benedict Cumberbatch, Zac Efron, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Michael B. Jordan, Jack O’Connell (star of Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken), Gary Oldman, David Oyelowo, Dev Patel, Alex Pettyfer, Jesse Plemons, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Saoirse Ronan, Tye Sheridan, Ed Spleers (Downton Abbey‘s footman Jimmy), Sullivan Stapleton (of the Cinemax series Strike Back), and Hugo Weaving.

The names to surface during this period that actually made the cut were John Boyega and Lupita Nyong’o, as well as Adam Driver, whose casting was pretty much confirmed a few months before the full, official group was revealed. Just a few days before the announcement, Oscar Isaac’s name suddenly popped into the mix, and he too would be counted among the holders of this golden ticket. When the announcement came, accompanied by a table read photo featuring most of the participants, it was satisfying to see some people who hadn’t been mentioned in the speculation phase at all. Up and comer Domhnall Gleeson – son of the excellent character actor Brendan Gleeson – was a welcome surprise, as were Andy Serkis and Daisy Ridley, who along with Boyega, extends the tradition of casting newcomers in lead roles…not that we knew at that point that Boyega and Ridley would be the leads. I’m also a huge Oscar Isaac fan, so I loved seeing him thrust into the mix, and later learning that he rounded out the trio of central new characters alongside Boyega and Ridley. But perhaps the coolest inclusion of all? Max von Sydow, the now 86 year old veteran whose epic career stretches back to the classics of Ingmar Bergman. Dude played chess with Death!!  From Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing to Terence Stamp and Christopher Lee, the presence of older, esteemed actors bringing a charm and gravitas to these modern stories is another Star Wars tradition. With so much of the attention focused on younger actors during the frenzy of casting rumors, no one reported on the possibility of another veteran performer carrying that torch. I was thrilled to see von Sydow amongst the cast.

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Although their involvement was all but assured, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were confirmed to return as part of the big cast reveal, along with Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker (Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, respectively). But if there was one complaint amidst the general enthusiasm which greeted the casting announcement, (Stephen Colbert’s disappointment notwithstanding) it was the lack of women. Only Fisher and Ridley represented the ladies, but Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy were both quick to assure fans that a few key cast members were yet to be announced, and that the eventual names would likely appease the concerns. Within weeks, those additions came to pass, with Nyong’o going from rumor to real deal, and Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie coming aboard as well.

The combination of beloved old blood and exciting new blood was a promising indicator that Episode VII, as it was still known at that point, was on the right track. As the months went on, there was plenty more evidence to suggest that Abrams and Kennedy were making all the right moves. Before following that thread, however, I should jump back prior to the casting, to cover the big news that broke about the script during the early genesis of the new trilogy. When Disney first announced its intention to create Episodes VII-IX, they revealed that Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 scribe Michael Arndt was already on the job of developing the new story, and had been for several months. So perhaps the first big surprise in the making of the film came when Lucasfilm announced that Arndt was moving on and script duties would be taken over by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, the latter returning to the Star Wars galaxy having co-written The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

When the serious effort to create a new trilogy began, Kennedy assembled a brain trust – a term which has long been associated with Pixar’s team of creative leaders and has gained popularity in Hollywood these days as more shared universe film series are developed – which included herself, Arndt, Kasdan and Simon Kinberg (whose writing credits include Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Sherlock Holmes and the last two X-Men movies). Kasdan’s deep history with Lucasfilm – he also wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark – made his return to the fold a major coup. Once hired, Abrams joined this group to help develop the story for the new trilogy. By all accounts, there were a lot of ideas, but time wore on without any kind of actual story taking shape. Abrams told Entertainment Weekly recently:

 “[They] had just been hypothesizing and throwing out a bunch of what-ifs, but there was no story in place. It was, without doubt, a formidable assignment. There were so many options and so many paths that could be taken. Even when we were in debate — and sometimes it was frustrating and heated — it was always thrilling, because it seemed almost everywhere you looked there was something potentially extraordinary, which felt very much like the DNA of Star Wars itself.”

Kasdan said something similar in a Vanity Fair cover story from June of this year. “We were struggling to come up with a story. There were elements that we would come up with and say, ‘Oh, that’s good! That’s strong!’ But it was not coming together.” At the time, Episode VII was still scheduled for summer 2015, and with pre-production already underway, the script needed to take shape. However things went down behind the scenes, Arndt left and hasn’t made any public comments about his time on the project or his departure. In the press release announcing the changing of the guard, Kennedy said, “Michael Arndt has done a terrific job bringing us to this point and we have an amazing filmmaking and design team in place already prepping for production.” She also said she was excited about the story they had in place, though these more recent interviews make it clear that when Arndt left, there was no story in place. But hey, Kennedy is a consummate producer, and a little bit of spin goes with the territory. Abrams too, had praise for Arndt, but only a vague explanation about the changeover. It seems odd to me that in all the time Arndt was on the project – and he was on it for a while – there was no story in place by the time Abrams got involved. If he was initially doing a treatment before delving into the actual screenplay, there must have been more than just a random collection of ideas. I’d be quite curious to hear his unfiltered thoughts on all of this. (Fast forward to the present: Arndt retains credit along with Abrams and Kasdan as one of the film’s writers.)

With Arndt off the project, Abrams and Kasdan started nearly from scratch, incorporating some ideas from the brainstorming period but largely working from a clean slate. One thing they had all known from the start was that Hamill, Ford and Fisher were onboard, thanks to the efforts of George Lucas, who had met with each of them before selling to Disney, explaining his plans to hand over the company and, in the process, help launch a sequel trilogy. (Kasdan says he too was courted by Lucas to return.) While I give big kudos to Lucas for being instrumental in getting these members of the original trilogy involved in the new films, I can’t resist noting that the Godfather of the Galaxy Far, Far Away had his own story outline for Episodes VII-IX, which Disney and company decided not to use. It’s intriguing that Lucas even had an idea for post-Jedi storylines, since in the prequel era, he often talked  about Anakin Skywalker, not Luke, as the true central figure of the Star Wars saga. This article from The Verge contains a screenshot from an interview Lucas gave to Total Film in 2008, addressing that idea. Then again, the lore going back to my own childhood was always that Lucas had outlined nine stories, of which New Hope, Empire and Jedi comprised the middle three. Whether the ideas that Lucas floated to Disney were developed decades ago or more recently, the studio preferred to start fresh. Lucas told Cinema Blend, “Well, the ones that I sold to Disney and everything, they came up to the decision that they didn’t really want to do those. So they made up their own. It’s not the ones that I originally wrote.” Lucas sounds unfazed about it, though the Vanity Fair story attempts to suggest it’s a touchy subject for all involved. From the article, by Bruce Handy:

How Lucas felt about that seems to be a delicate topic, one that Disney and Lucasfilm executives declined to address. Decades ago, after Universal had made cuts in his second film, American Graffiti, against his will, Lucas constructed his career so that he’d rarely not get his way. As he told Bloomberg Businessweek while his new Star Wars ideas were still on the table, “Ultimately you have to say, ‘Look, I know what I’m doing. Buying my stories is part of what the deal is.’ I’ve worked at this for 40 years, and I’ve been pretty successful.” But another part of the deal was that he was paid a handsome sum to cede control, and however he felt about having his story ideas rejected, Lucas (who turned down an interview request for this story) is by all accounts supportive of the new films and eager to see them for the first time in theaters like any other audience member. “I talk to him and see him frequently,” Kennedy said. “And I’m telling you, every time I say, ‘Is there anything you want to know?’ And he’s like, ‘No, no, I want to be surprised.’ ”

In the article, the paragraph preceding the one you just read says that Lucas’ stories apparently focused on teenage characters, and we all know that didn’t work out so well in the prequels. Disney knew it too, as the article suggests. Whether the discomfort Handy alludes to around the situation actually exists or not is hard to discern based on things we’ve heard from Lucas. On one hand, he has expressed that he’s happy to be out of the loop and excited to see the movie along with the rest of the world. This past January, he told USA Today, “The only thing I really regret about Star Wars is the fact I never got to see it — I never got to be blown out of my seat when the ship came over the screen. The next one, I’ll be able to enjoy it like anybody else.” (Really? That’s his only regret? I’ll assume he means his only regret about the first movie specifically. His quote above about knowing what he’s doing — does he mean he knows what he’s doing when it comes to Star Wars? Because that hasn’t been true in a long time.)

On the other hand, a brand new, yet-to-air interview with CBS This Morning that will coincide with Lucas’ imminent Kennedy Center Honor, finds him revisiting — with faint traces of bitterness — the rejection of his story proposals by Disney and his lack of involvement with the new movies. So really, who knows what goes on in that guy’s head anymore…

With the taste of the prequels still souring scores of fans, we all approached news of Episodes VII-IX with understandable trepidation. And yet with every announcement, every tease, and every peek, the enthusiasm has been palpable. As I said earlier, the evidence strongly suggests that Abrams and company have gotten it right. The signs started early, when we learned the movie would not be shot digitally as the prequels were — and so many movies these days are — but rather on good ol’ 35mm film (and in the case of one sequence, IMAX!). Shooting on film is an unimportant detail to most, but for movie buffs, a good sign. Additionally, the movie would not shoot in 3D, something I would not have put past any major studio to impose on the filmmaker for a movie like this. It will be post-converted, of course, so that 3D is an option, but again, power to the purists.
Very early in the production, Abrams appeared in a video announcing a contest through UNICEF that could win a fan a walk-on part in the movie. His message was interrupted by a creature walking by, and it was joyful evidence that Abrams was going old school on the new movies. This wasn’t a CG character inserted after the fact, but a tactile, seemingly animatronic being interacting with Abrams and the rest of its environment. It backed-up what Abrams and others had been saying, that one big way the new movie would try to recapture the magic that eluded the prequels was by using real sets and practical effects as much as possible. Abrams would continue to send teasing messages throughout the production, offering visual clues that were like manna to the masses. A nod to the Millennium Falcon here, a callback to the Empire there…just fun, non-substantive nuggets, but enough to provide a jolt of excitement of the faithful.

That note about the leaks? It was no surprise that production was going to be off-the-charts in terms of intensive fan scrutiny. Speculation has run rampant since the casting phase we already discussed, and it hasn’t subsided. I don’t think there’s been a single day since the movie started shooting that I haven’t seen at least three stories about it on Yahoo‘s home page, and plenty of other websites have been plastering coverage as well. Hitfix contributor Donna Dickens has been doing near-daily countdown posts since I don’t even know when she started; this is her 287 Days Until Star Wars piece. It’s not even about Episode VII; it’s just random Star Wars stories. Really though? 287 days ahead of time?

Supposed plot and character details were constantly appearing online (and still are). In October 2014, a large number of images from the film leaked onto the web. (I love Entertainment Weekly‘s position that they wouldn’t post or link to the images because they’re stolen property, but describing them in detail was okay because the leak was newsworthy. Sorry guys, but that’s some bullshit. Report on the leak, by all means, but your journalistic integrity melts away when you start describing the material in detail. You’re as guilty as anyone at that point.) Personally, I’ve avoided all of this. I wanted to know nothing that wasn’t officially sanctioned by Disney and Abrams, the latter being well known for guarding his projects’ secrecy and being extremely deliberate about what he chooses to reveal and when. Bits of info slipped through my self-imposed firewall here and there, and things we have learned through proper channels by now have confirmed some rumors while disproving others. But even now, I’m trying to preserve as much surprise as I can. As much as I like the idea of going in completely blind, there’s no way I could ever remove myself from the build-up entirely. When that first trailer debuted almost exactly a year ago, the only debate in my head was whether to watch it online or attempt a trip to a movie theater over an out-of-town Thanksgiving weekend with family in order to watch it on the big screen. That lasted about five minutes, then the laptop came out. There wasn’t much to go on…but it was a perfect and potential-filled tease.

Reactions were overwhelmingly positive, though there were dissenters too. (This guy had some interesting thoughts). The rolling droid was an instant hit. The three-pronged lightsaber was an instant controversy (Abrams enjoyed that debate, and offered that there was plenty of back and forth about it among the filmmakers as well.) The narration was an instant puzzler. (Who is it?? Andy Serkis? Adam Driver? Someone else?) And the sweeping shot of the Millennium Falcon that brought it all home? I didn’t hear much chatter about that, though I’m sure it was divisive. It’s a cool shot, but it doesn’t feel like anything from the original trilogy. I was okay with that. It’s a good thing for Abrams to bring his own sensibility to the film, up to a certain point (i.e. let’s keep the lens flare at bay, J.J.). By and large, we all want the new movies to evoke the classics while carving their own path.

A few weeks after the trailer hit — which itself came a few weeks after The Force Awakens moniker was revealed — we got a superbly clever and old school introduction to some of the characters and scenes glimpsed in the trailer. These holiday gifts had to hold us over for a while, because it wasn’t until the annual Star Wars Celebration event in April that the next wave of goodies would hit.

More to chew over than in the initial teaser. A lot of enticing and promising imagery. Still not a lot to go on, but it did its job. I loved the piano notes at the end of that superb first shot; loved the hissing echo of Luke’s narration (a sound effect I was only recently able to finally decipher; listen and you’ll hear the phrases “my father has it,” “my sister has it” and “I have it” quietly repeat after being spoken); loved the figure that was soon dubbed the Chrometrooper, and the Death Star-like hallway it was walking down; loved BB-8 peeking around the corner; and odd as this sounds, I loved Han Solo’s hair. I admit to being concerned about whether Ford would be given Han Solo’s traditional style once again or whether he would have the shorter hair the actor naturally sports, which frames his face more vertically vs. the more rounded-face look that distinguishes Han from most of Ford’s other characters. That final image of Han and Chewie, which sent fans into a tizzy of delight, was satisfying to me because of Ford’s hair. What can I say?

This new trailer kicked off another wave of publicity that would continue over the next few months as yet more details were revealed. The aforementioned Vanity Fair cover story was the occasion for The Chrometrooper to be identified as Captain Phasma, with Gwendoline Christie underneath the foreboding suit. We also learned that Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Serkis would be donning motion capture suits to transform into characters called Maz Kanata and Supreme Leader Snoke, respectively. (These revelations came as slight disappointment, since this means half of the movie’s primary female cast members won’t be seen as themselves — though maybe Captain Phasma’s helmet will come off, just as it appears Kylo Ren’s mask will; and because Serkis’ mocap bona fides are well established by now thanks to  Gollum, King Kong and Planet of the Apes‘ Ceasar. It would have been nice to see him in the flesh.) Maz Kanata wasn’t revealed, but we were told she is a pirate and has a castle that looks like the same sort of hip intergalactic hangout Jabba the Hutt once provided. And looking at this rogue’s gallery photo, many of these characters look as though they could have stepped right off the set of Return of the Jedi, further demonstrating the new filmmaking team’s commitment to practical makeup and creature effects.

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The next few months, with Comic-Con, Disney’s D23 convention, and an Entertainment Weekly cover story, would bring a smattering of new details and clues, from the identity of Domhnall Gleeson’s character — a villainous officer named General Hux, operating out of a location called Starkiller Base — to the possibility of appearances by Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb, two minor but key participants in Return of the Jedi‘s Rebel attack on the Death Star. But no doubt in keeping with Abrams mandate to maintain the element of surprise, the official hype machine had been quiet. Only in mid-October, with about two months to go before the release, did things finally pick up again. First there was the long overdue appearance of the film’s poster, followed closely by the third and final trailer U.S. theatrical trailer.

And so began the final marketing push. As we’re now in November, commercials have started popping up all over TV; more promotional tie-ins will be revealed; and talk show appearances will start up, beginning with Abrams, Boyega, Ridley and Driver on Jimmy Kimmel Live tomorrow night. But in terms of details, plot, etc., we still know so little, and it’s unlikely that we’ll learn much more between now and the movie’s December 18 release. Those who expected the final trailer to give us a more traditional preview of the story or to finally reveal Luke Skywalker were met instead with simply a longer tease which even recycled some shots from the previous trailers rather than offer entirely new footage. The Japanese trailer that followed gave us more enticing footage, but still few answers.

I’m fully in favor of this less-is-more approach, and while I never would have expected Luke to be completely withheld, I love it. And if some of the plot rumors that I failed to avoid turn out to be true — as it looks like they might be based on footage and official details we’ve seen — than I understand why we’re seeing so little of him. But really, how ballsy of Abrams and Disney to keep Luke Skywalker totally away from the ramp up to a new movie in which we know the character returns? He doesn’t even appear on the poster!

So with all of this unnecessary recapping out the way (sorry, but I had to justify the months worth of story links I’d been collecting with the intention of writing multiple posts over the last year and a half), and with the unveiling of the film rapidly approaching, here are some of my thoughts on what we’re in store for when the force awakens. I’m not one to go too deep down the rabbit hole of plot speculation (God knows there’s been more than enough of that plastered all over the internet day after day for months on end), but what we’ve seen — along with what we haven’t — has left me chewing on the following topics.

Oscar Isaac’s character, Poe Dameron, was revealed earlier this year to be one of the three leading protagonists of the new film. And yet we’ve seen surprisingly little of him so far. Not that we know much about Rey or Finn, but both have been featured prominently in all the publicity to date. Not so much with Poe. All we saw of him in the first trailer was a shot of him flying an X-wing. In the second trailer? Pretty much the same shot, and that was all. In the third trailer we see him twice, briefly both times: wearing his fighter suit as he passes Finn, and getting Force-raped by Kylo Ren in one of the trailer’s most captivating images. At Comic-Con, in lieu of a trailer, fans were treated to a behind the scenes video from the set of the film, and we got a shot of Dameron in civilian clothes and handcuffs being marched by a stormtrooper down a hallway strongly reminiscent of the Death Star detention cell block in A New Hope. There’s also this quick shot of him aiming a gun and looking alarmed, released just before the third trailer but not actually included in it. So why such mystery around Poe? How does he fit in? While on stage at the Star Wars Celebration, he said his character has “been sent on a mission by a certain princess and he ends up coming across Mr. John Boyega’s character, and their fates are forever intertwined.” Indeed, one of the newer photos making the rounds is a shot of these two together…though seemingly at a point in the story where I wouldn’t have thought they’d met yet. In the Japanese trailer, we see a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Poe standing close to Princess Leia in what looks a war room similar to the one from which Leia monitored the first Death Star attack. So that, taken with his description, indicates that he already has a connection to Leia when the story begins.

Part of the marketing lead-up to The Force Awakens has been a variety of books covering the period between the events of Return of the Jedi and the new film. Among these titles is a Marvel comic series called Shattered Empire, and apparently the central character of that series is Poe’s mother. So it’s likely that Poe — whatever his role in the story — is already deeply involved in what we presume is a struggle between the Resistance and the First Order (names — revealed at April’s Star Wars Celebration — which seem to have taken the place of the Rebellion/Rebel Alliance and the Empire, respectively).

Oh, and in a related question, how does America’s new sweetheart BB-8 figure into events? The trailers so far have shown him (him?) keeping company with Rey and Finn. But the packaging for the remote-controlled (sorry: “app-enabled”) BB-8 toy that is already the hit of the holiday season and maybe one of the ten most adorable things I’ve ever seen in my life, describes him as “the spherical, loyal Astromech Droid of the Resistance pilot Poe Dameron.” The third trailer does show BB-8 positioned in the rear of an X-Wing fighter, and a model of Poe’s X-Wing that was on display at the Star Wars Celebration showed  BB-8 nestled in the back. So which characters is this little droid rolling with, and when do Poe, Finn and Rey cross paths? (Yes, by the way, Force Awakens toys hit shelves as early as September, and the absurdity of that is a topic I’ll have to avoid for now since this post is already longer than the CliffsNotes for Hamlet.)

The casting of Adam Driver has been a point of interest for me from the start. He’s one of the most original, unpredictable actors to emerge in the last several years, most notably in his three-time Emmy nominated performance on the HBO series Girls. But he seemed an odd choice for Star Wars because there’s something about him that seems so…I keep wanting to say contemporary, but that’s not it; he’s had small roles in period pieces like Lincoln and Inside Llewyn Davis (opposite Oscar Isaac!), and he was not out of place in either. He just doesn’t strike me as an actor whose persona would translate to sci-fi, fantasy or something otherworldly. Maybe because on Girls he comes off as so real, so unscripted, the idea of him in something less grounded in reality, where the dialogue will have a certain formality to it, has puzzled me. Hearing him speak as Kylo Ren for the first time in the third trailer — even with his voice altered a bit to sound more mechanical — gave me a jolt of excitement. It was just one line, but something about it put me at ease. (Not that I was worried. Totally wasn’t worried.)

I’m also excited to see what the mass audience makes of him. I take my familiarity with his work for granted, but there are a huge number of people who are scarcely aware of his work. They don’t watch Girls; they didn’t see Inside Llewyn Davis, they didn’t see This is Where I Leave You — a bigger, studio movie in which Driver has a large role, but which wasn’t a huge hit — and they haven’t seen his work in other small indies or low-profile films like What If, a rom-com with Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. So this will be their first exposure to his untamed talent. I’m fascinated to see how it fits into Star Wars.

I talked earlier about how excited I was for Max von Sydow’s involvement. His role has been kept entirely secret up to this point, even more so than Luke’s. There’s been nary a photo or cryptic hint about who he’s playing or what he’ll be doing, and I love that. So here’s some light food for thought. Given his age, whoever he plays must be somebody who will not only have been around during the years of the original trilogy, but also the prequel era…which means conceivably he could be someone who knew Anakin Skywalker and Anakin’s mother, Shmi. Just doing some very rough math, if von Sydow is playing a character near to his actual age of 86, and we’re now 30 years out from the events of Episodes IV-VI, which themselves began 30 years after the events of Episodes I-III, then von Sydow’s character would have been around 26 when Luke and Leia were born…so maybe in his mid-teens when Anakin was a kid. Before I ran those numbers, I wondered if he could turn out to be Anakin’s father — a random notion that popped into my head only because von Sydow and Pernilla August, the actress who played Shmi, are both Swedish. Like that would need to matter. I was probably just reaching for something to negate the idiotic Immaculate Conception idea that Lucas came up with in The Phantom Menace.  Anyway…my number crunching shows the character would have been too young to father Anakin (not incapable of fathering him, but c’mon, this is a kid-friendly movie), so it’s moot. And there’s no reason to think he will have a connection to Anakin. I just like the idea that he could. That whoever he is, he has probably been around throughout the events depicted in the six previous movies — a set-up that offers some tantalizing possibilities.

Or maybe his character will simply be relevant to these new events, and that’s that. Either way…Max von Sydow!!

It’s been known for a while now that Han Solo has a large role in The Force Awakens, while the size of Luke and Leia’s is said to be smaller. The absence of Luke from the marketing, and the things Abrams has said about him, suggest that his role, even if small, will be central to the plot. As for Leia, it’s tough to gauge. She’s been nearly as scarce in the marketing as Poe Dameron. One of the rumors I heard when Michael Arndt left the project — no idea if there’s any truth to it — is that he wanted to sideline the original characters in favor of new ones, whereas Abrams wanted them to play a larger role and receive a proper send-off. It could be argued that they got a proper send-off in Return of the Jedi and we should be content with that, but at the same time, continuing the story of the original trilogy without its stars figuring in somewhat prominently wouldn’t feel right. Just having them show up for obligatory cameos might be even more awkward than not featuring them at all. So we seem to be getting a story in which Luke, Leia and Han factor heavily. Based on everything I’ve seen so far, it feels right.

But there is that nagging worry of whether or not Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford can slip comfortably back into those characters after so long away. Do we really want to see Luke, Leia and Han 30 years older, or do we just think we do? Nostalgia has its allure, but it carries the risk of disappointment. We know they aren’t going to be the same as they were in the movies we grew up with, but will that knowledge make it any less uncomfortable to watch if they seem a little…off? Abrams has addressed the concerns too. In the Vanity Fair story, he said of Ford:

I knew that he had done in some movies a kind of more growly thing, and I didn’t want Han to be growly. But because of the backstory I wanted him to have evolved somewhat. I mean, when you’re in your late 60s you’re not the same person you were in your late 20s, and yet he had to be the character we know and love. So it was a balance that felt sort of emblematic for me in terms of this whole experience, which is it had to be what you know, but it can’t be exactly what you know.

From what he told The Seattle Times, he was not disappointed.

What was incredible from my point of view was how apparently easily they flipped back into these roles. I knew for a fact, for example, that Harrison Ford was going to be in this movie, but I couldn’t be certain that Han Solo would be. Meaning, I hadn’t seen Han Solo return after nearly 40 years, either. And it wasn’t until we got on set that I got my answer. It was a remarkable thing to see how effortlessly Harrison Ford became Han Solo again.

If we take his word for it, then they acclimated to their characters with ease and comfort. Like he says, however, they’re 30+ years older, and have surely accumulated experiences which have shaped and changed them into people who are the same but different. Will we accept those changes? Much of the Star Wars fiction that has extended the life of these characters over the last three decades has concerned offspring of Han and Leia, because of course the assumption is that the fiery princess and the charming scoundrel would stay together and have a family. But isn’t it kind of weird to think of Han Solo as a dad? The prominence of Daisy Ridley’s Rey in the marketing of The Force Awakens, and various clues gleaned from trailers and interviews, suggest that she might be the child of Han and Leia. If she is, in what kind of light will that recast Han? His relationship with Leia already had him softening a bit in Return of the Jedi. How will fatherhood have affected him?

From The Big Chill to Grand Canyon, Lawrence Kasdan has frequently dealt with questions of how people evolve as time and experience impact them, and he said in an Entertainment Weekly interview that those questions were part of what appealed to him about coming back to Luke, Leia and Han after so long.

I thought, ‘Wow, okay, these people have lived — they’re in a different place in their lives, Han and Leia and so on. They’ve lived the same 30 years I have. What would that be like? How would you see things differently?’ And I was trying to figure out how I saw things differently, and one of the surprises is that you don’t learn all that much. You haven’t become much wiser than you were, and things are not clearer to you, and the world is just as confusing as it always was — and that’s a kind of lovely thing to get to write about again. Age does not necessarily bring wisdom; it just brings experience.

If Kasdan’s personal insight can successfully inform the characters, adding layers of depth while still holding onto the traits we love about them — and if the actors can tap back into those elements even as they bring their age and experience to bear — then it could be a real joy to watch those performances. My confidence continues to hold. I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen (and haven’t seen) so far, and I think bringing them back was the right move. We’re getting the best of both worlds, with a story that connects to the originals but launches a new group of characters and helps us invest in them by pairing them with their predecessors. So far it’s looking like a winning recipe.

Another topic of feverish fan speculation has been the fate of Luke. His absence from the film’s posters and previews — with the exception of that confounding voiceover from the second trailer and the same clip’s hooded, metal-handed figure by the fire with R2-D2 that we all assume is our MIA Jedi — has elicited a lot of discussion. Abrams told Entertainment Weekly that one of the hooks Kathleen Kennedy dangled in front of him, enabling her to reel him into the project in the first place, was the opportunity to explore Luke’s post-Vader trajectory. “In the context of talking about story and laying out what we were thinking, I said one thing to him,” Kennedy recalls. “‘Who is Luke Skywalker?’ He said, ‘Oh my God, I just got the chills. I’m in.’ I mean, it really was almost that quickly.”

I find that question to be less chill-inducing that Abrams.’ Episodes IV-VI gave us a perfectly satisfying picture of who Luke Skywalker is, and Kennedy’s question seems like one that never needed to be asked. That doesn’t mean there isn’t more story to tell after Jedi, just that this notion of Luke Skywalker needing to be demystified kinda comes out of nowhere. Yet it seems the query truly was a guiding light for the filmmakers. Kennedy went on:

The themes and ideas that we all continue to talk about are the themes and ideas that were the inherent in the original movies. We’re looking, obviously, for aspiration, for characters who are conflicted between good and evil, dark and light. George spoke often about that tension in everybody between what’s good and bad. He always felt that it was easier to be bad than good. I’m not sure all people would agree, but I think that that’s always an interesting conflict to explore. So that’s a big part of the themes inside of Episode VII.

That might explain why Lucas often said that his favorite moment in the classic trilogy was when Luke, hiding in the Emperor’s Throne Room from Darth Vader, gave into his anger and suddenly, furiously attacked his father at the suggestion that Leia could be turned to the dark side. The Emperor applauded Luke’s crippling assault that left Vader on his back with his hand chopped off. This was the moment when Luke would give into the dark side. But he didn’t, as we well know. He was a Jedi, like his father before him. Last month, a 10 year old episode of the Independent Film Channel show Dinner for Five resurfaced, featuring Mark Hamill telling the group that he thought Return of the Jedi would see Luke succumbing to the dark side…for a while at least. He talked about how interesting that would have been to play. Of course, the reason the clip gained traction now was that J.J. Abrams was also on the show that night. So between this TV show and the talk from Abrams and Kennedy about the existential nature of Luke Skywalker and the delicate balance between good and evil, the big new theory was that The Force Awakens‘ Luke would be evil. That’s why they had to keep him out of the trailers. That’s why his place in the movie is such a secret.

I understand why people might think this. But it’s a terrible idea that would make absolutely no one happy. Nobody wants to see Luke Skywalker as a bad guy, and to portray him as such would demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what fans desire, but of the beloved character’s core values. Who is Luke Skywalker? He’s not the villain, that’s for sure. If he managed to stay true to himself in that moment of defeating Vader in front of The Emperor, if in that moment of indulging his fear and his hatred he was still able to keep his wits and tell The Emperor to go to fuck himself (in more PG-rated vernacular), he’s not going to give into the dark side now. What stakes could be higher than they were then? Besides, if Luke had gone bad, Abrams and company aren’t going to leave him that way, and then the story becomes about bringing him back to himself, and we’ve already had the story of a Skywalker’s redemption. We don’t need another one.

All that said, there’s still some room to play with in that idea of the struggle between good and bad. Presenting Luke as a man who continues to feel that conflict within him which The Emperor hoped would result in a transformation, who is tempted by his anger and his fear…that could all be interesting, rich material to explore. A recovering alcoholic will still grapple with the urge, even years after their last drink. We could be looking at something like that when we’re re-introduced to Luke. Perhaps he’s gone into hiding, isolating himself because he has lost his sense of place in the world. Wherever he is when The Force Awakens picks up, it’s likely that he’s separated from Han and Leia. But how long will that have been the case? What is the relationship between them now? He seemed at peace when he returned to Endor to join his friends in celebration, overseen by the spirits of Anakin, Obi-Wan and Yoda. What will have transpired to unsettle him during the intervening years? The fate of Luke Skywalker is easily the most captivating question among many captivating questions raised so far by The Force Awakens. As it should be. Let’s just hope the story doesn’t find him too far astray.

Just a quick thought here. Has anyone noticed the prevalence of red in the footage and images we’ve seen so far? Not the red of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber or the red of other lasers and such, but red on objects? New images of C-3PO show him sporting a red arm. Both Finn and Poe have been seen with beige jackets that have red on the shoulder and above the breast pocket. (Hmm…are they actually the same jacket? Is Finn the stormtrooper who’s marching Poe down that corridor?? Does Poe give him that jacket??? Why????) The TIE fighters — or at least one of them, seen damaged and hurtling through space in the third trailer and then crashed on the ground — appear to be partly red. In a shot from the second trailer that I mentioned earlier, of Captain Phasma striding down a hall, there’s a big red area to her left. Also in the second trailer, there’s that huge red curtain at what looks like a First Order rally (see Trailer #2 embed above). There’s a lot of seemingly symbolic red going on here. But symbolic of what?

We haven’t even seen Episode VII yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look ahead to Episodes VIII and IX. Rian Johnson will pick up the reins from Abrams and Kasdan as the writer/director of Episode VIII. Johnson is the director of the highly original indies Brick and The Brothers Bloom, as well as the time-travel thriller Looper. He also helmed some Breaking Bad episodes that are considered among the series’ best. He’s a great choice for Star Wars, somebody who has talent and vision that he can bring into this familiar world, and he’s already been hard at work on the script, applying his own stamp to the next chapter in a story whose groundwork has been laid by Abrams, Kasdan and the rest of Kennedy’s brain trust. I don’t think it’s been made official by Lucasfilm or anyone in charge yet, but Benicio del Toro is all but confirmed to be joining the movie, and there are also reports that rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw has landed one main role, while fellow ingenues Olivia Cooke, Tatiana Maslany and Gina Rodriguez were also said to be among the top contenders for another. (That news came in September, and since then all three actresses have joined or are close to joining other films that might impact their availability for Episode VIII, which will return the series to its proper schedule with a May 26, 2017 release.) Maybe it was all the same role; we know too little about the movie right now to say.

Casting news always excites me, but I hope each new movie isn’t overloaded with major character additions. The original trilogy, and even the prequels, didn’t bring in too many new significant figures from film to film. The Empire Strikes Back obviously had a couple of key additions, but by and large the cast that we met in A New Hope stayed intact through Return of the Jedi. Abrams has assembled such an impressive line-up for The Force Awakens (the jury’s still out on Ridley, but she looks poised to nail it), and I hope that the movie doesn’t pull a Darth Maul and get rid of promising characters before they’ve had a chance to be developed. While the articles linked above mention that some of those actresses might have been screen testing with John Boyega, we really have no idea who will be back for Episodes VIII and/or IX. So far, the only actor I’m aware of to confirm their return for the rest of the trilogy is Anthony Daniels…which makes sense, since C-3PO and R2-D2 have been the connective tissue across every Star Wars trilogy. Boyega and Ridley are safe assumptions at this point, but who else? Harrison Ford has a big part in The Force Awakens, but is he appearing in the next two as well? And if so, how sizable will his role be going forward? If Luke and Leia are featured less prominently in this outing, will they be more central to the next two installments? Given how crucial it sounds like Luke will be to this film — regardless of how much screen time he has — doesn’t it stand to reason that he’ll remain a key figure as the trilogy unfolds?

And what about Lando?!? When so many original cast members were confirmed to return, there was vocal disappointment among fans that Billy Dee Williams wasn’t involved. But hints have been dropped that Lando will yet find his way into the new adventure, and having him join Episode VIII would mirror his arrival in the second film of the original trilogy. Williams expressed the same thought when asked about Lando’s return by some outlet called Cinelinx:

But I uh…I may very well…I have a feeling I’m going to show up. There’s nothing I can really discuss about it at this stage. People think of me as the original cast, but I didn’t come in until the second movie.  I did Empire and then I did Return of the Jedi, but I came in after everyone else was introduced…So I think they’re probably proceeding in that way. I can’t imagine them not bringing Lando back.  But we’ll see, I don’t know.

In his Vanity Fair interview, Lawrence Kasdan also provided hope, saying, “Right now, there’s no Lando Calrissian in this movie. But Lando I don’t think is finished in any way, shape, or form.” So hopefully we will see Billy Dee Williams back in action down the line. Assuming the new cast and their characters prove engaging in The Force Awakens, I already hope we’ll see most of them back too.

So Rian Johnson’s taking on Episode VIII. For Episode IX, Lucasfilm and Disney made a less exciting choice, tapping Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow. It felt like a knee-jerk reaction to his having lucked into making what this summer became — to universal shock (and Universal’s shock) — the third highest-grossing film of all time, domestically and internationally. I don’t want to come down too harshly on Trevorrow; he might prove a great choice in the end. It’s just that he’s only directed two features so far (the first being indie charmer Safety Not Guaranteed) and I’d consider the jury still very much out on him. I wish Disney and Kennedy would have gone with someone a little more proven. Not so much in the experience department — Trevorrow showed he was definitely capable of handling a big movie — as in the realm of talent and point of view. To be fair, Gareth Edwards, who won the assignment of directing the first Star Wars spin-off movie, Rogue One (which I just don’t have room to address in this post, but I’ll get to), also has just two films to his credit: like Trevorrow, an indie breakout (Monsters) and a blockbuster follow-up (Godzilla). His hiring was met with much more fanfare than Trevorrow’s, but I would argue that based on those two films, he’s expressed a stronger vision than Trevorrow has yet demonstrated. Now I liked Safety Not Guaranteed quite a bit, and I enjoyed Jurassic World well enough, but I’m not sure what he really brought to the latter that a number of other competent directors couldn’t have brought. The massive success of the movie is much more a testament to the subject matter and the Jurassic Park brand than to anything exhibiting vision on its director’s part. If the powers behind Star Wars were willing to hire someone like Rian Johnson, whose movies definitely have their own stamp, then they are obviously comfortable handing the reins of their precious $4 billion investment to someone who will apply that stamp. In a September 2014 conversation with director Terry Gilliam, Johnson addressed this:

It’s a balance. That’s been the great thing. Kathy [Kennedy] and her whole creative team have been just so insistent that all the filmmakers they’re hiring for these new movies, ‘We want you to take it and turn it into something that you really care about.’ We’ll see how the process plays out, but so far, that’s a big part of why I’m in it, because that seems to be their attitude towards it. It’s really exciting.

Trevorrow might have a strong voice of his own too, but if so, it’s still emerging, and Lucasfilm and Disney’s decision to hire him seems more concerned with playing it safe, whereas hiring Johnson was inspired. Obviously I want the movies to be great, so I’m rooting for Trevorrow all the way. He’ll have one more chance to show us what he’s got before tackling Episode IX, as he returns to the smaller scale of Safety Not Guaranteed with a drama called The Book of Henry, starring Naomi Watts, Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, Dean Norris and excellent young actors Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) and Jacob Tremblay (Room). Here’s hoping that film let’s him show us something promising and sends him into Star Wars with strong buzz that justifies the choice to hire him.

Yes, finally…there’s this. I am fully aware that I’m a grown-ass man becoming giddy about the extension of a movie series that fueled my imagination when I was a little-ass kid. When I was growing up, Star Wars was still a new thing. It’s stature and significance has grown and grown into a phenomenon that I believe to be unequaled, and I came of age as that was happening. Star Wars is in my DNA. But I’m not a kid anymore, and I can’t expect these new movies to impact me the way those first three did. I think those who never caught the Star Wars bug and are able to view us fans from a distance believe that the reason we disdain so much about the prequels is that we expected them to stir us the way the original trilogy did, and they didn’t, because we had grown up.

That’s not it.

We disdain so much about the prequels because so much about the prequels is bad.

Today, those skeptics think we’re setting ourselves up for a bigger fall, because we’re even older now, and that much further removed from the state of being we existed in when Star Wars cast its spell on us. And that’s true. But I don’t expect or need these new movies to take root inside me the way the initial films did. How can they? I’m not an impressionable child anymore. I just need them to be good. To be charming and thrilling and exciting and fun and dark and emotionally grounded. To tell a story that builds on what came before but charts its own course, and makes me want to follow. In various interviews, Abrams has talked about the mood and spirit everyone involved hopes to achieve with these new films. He’s talked about what made the original Star Wars so special to so many and about trying to transport us back to that place. Sadly, we can never truly occupy that space again, but we can feel connected to it.

Even for today’s kids, it will be different. The world has changed. When I was a kid, there was nothing else that had the scope and scale of Star Wars. There was no competition. Today’s kids may love it, but the popularity of Batman, Superman, Spiderman and The Avengers is boundless. Kids have Harry Potter, they have Transformers, they have movies and TV shows that are rife with technical wizardry the likes of which, in my childhood, couldn’t be found anywhere except in Star Wars. With all of these influences (and more) competing for kids’ imaginations, Star Wars is just one piece of the pie. They may love it, they may go back for repeat viewings, but they’ll also move onto the next thing with relative ease. They won’t swim, soak and steep in it the way my generation and those just before and after mine did, because there are too many other exciting things vying for their attention. But the fact that a nearly 40 year old creation still holds such a powerful sway is a triumph in itself, and we need to keep all of this in mind as The Force Awakens takes its place in the world.

In a recent interview with Wired, Abrams spoke of developing the movie, saying, “I asked questions like ‘How do we make this movie delightful?’ That was really the only requirement Larry and I imposed on each other: The movie needed to be delightful.” It’s an interesting word for him to use, because while each trailer I’ve seen has suggested a movie that will live up to its expectations, “delightful” is not a word I would use to describe what we’ve seen. The trailers have been action-heavy, and even a little melancholy and a little dark. Who knows what the overall tone of the movie will be, but hearing Abrams use a word like “delightful” — a word that conjures all the things I said above that I want the movie to be — makes me feel like we really are in store for a treat, because this thing must have a tone that hasn’t been revealed yet. It’s a reminder that even with the exposure going into high gear as we enter the final few weeks before release, we have no idea what to expect.

We’re in the home stretch now. My excitement is high and I can only imagine the fever pitch it will hit as opening night approaches. My tickets are purchased, and while new commercials, articles, photos and interviews are starting to fly at us, I’ve cut myself off. I don’t want to know anything more than I do at this point. If I got more clarity about Poe Dameron with only a few weeks to go, I’d be disappointed. Abrams and Disney have laid down their approach to marketing the story, and I’m on board. If they’ve withheld Dameron from us for this long, then I don’t want to find out anything. If any light were shed on Max von Sydow’s character before I’m sitting in the theater on December 17 watching the movie, I would be sorely disappointed. So right now, I’m good. I feel the Force, and I can’t wait to see what Abrams, Kasdan, Kennedy and this cast of aces have in store for the worldwide community of Star Wars faithful.

I have a good feeling about this.

August 24, 2013

Holy Questionable Career Decision, Batman!

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 7:00 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Well, wrong suit, but close enough.

Since Thursday evening, the internet — nay, the whole of Planet Earth, and possibly galaxies beyond — have been abuzz with the news that Batman’s cape and cowl, last donned by Christian Bale, will be taken up by Ben Affleck when the Dark Knight returns to the big screen in 2015’s sequel to this summer’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel. A sequel to a reboot of another character’s series? Those of you who don’t follow these things might find all of this too confusing. So let me take you back about a month.

It’s Saturday, July 20th, day three of Comic-Con 2013, and the San Diego Convention Center’s famed Hall H is awash in the stale, pungent stench that can only result when 6,000+ geeks pack into a large, windowless room, surging with adrenaline and not daring to exit for food or bathroom breaks during or even between panels, for fear that they might lose their seat or miss a major reveal. A reveal, for example, like the one made during that day’s Warner Bros. panel by Man of Steel director Zack Snyder, who teased the crowd with news that in the next Superman film, the hero would square off against the Caped Crusader.

I know that fanboys were creaming themselves at this news — an ejaculation of collective excitement that surely wasn’t helping the air quality in Hall H — but I have to say as someone who was never a comic book reader, I don’t really get the appeal of Superman vs. Batman. I know there is a long history of these two meeting up in the pages of DC Comics — sometimes as friends, sometimes as enemies — and I can see the attraction of having them fight side by side. But why do I want to see them fight each other? They’re both heroes, even if far apart ideologically. From what I understand, the source of conflict between the two — when it exists — is that Batman sees Superman as a boy scout whose vision (aside from being laser) is black and white in a word of grey, while Superman rejects Batman’s M.O. of revenge-fueled, vigilante justice. Maybe the past stories of antagonism between the two always give eventual way to a coming together against a common enemy. I don’t know. Like I said, I haven’t read the comics. But it does seem clear that pitting the two against each other in the upcoming movie is meant to be more than just a brief skirmish before they eventually join up (think Iron Man, Thor and Captain America pummeling each other in a scene from The Avengers). I’ll tell you one thing: if this clash of the titans is anything like the never-ending battles between Superman and Zod in Man of Steel, you can wake me when it’s over.

The Comic-Con announcement was made using a passage of dialogue from Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. Snyder introduced Man of Steel actor Harry Lennix to read a brief snippet of dialogue from that book, and those familiar with Miller’s story knew what it meant. Those who didn’t got the picture a moment later when the Superman logo appeared on the screen, encased after a few seconds by the Batman logo. Snyder added that the currently untitled follow-up to Man of Steel would not necessarily be adapted from The Dark Knight Returns, but that the dialogue Lennix read represented the gist of what the filmmakers intended for the next installment. The decision to bring Batman into the Man of Steel sequel seemed to me like Warner Bros. and Snyder lacked confidence that their new Superman could support his own franchise. Before even giving him a chance to thrive on his own, he’s being paired with another iconic protagonist. But maybe the studio and DC are just in a rush to compete with Marvel’s Avengers success by building toward an already announced Justice League movie.

So that’s the background, which returns us to Thursday evening and the announcement that Ben Affleck will be playing Batman in the new movie. Even the Comic-Con bombshell caused less of a shockwave than word of Affleck’s casting. I’m not sure last November’s news that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm and would be making new Star Wars movies generated as much fevered chatter as this has. Some are fine with the choice. More appear to be indifferent. Most are outraged, and seem to think that this casting is a crime worthy of trial at Nuremberg.

Me, I’m just surprised. I can’t figure out why Affleck would be interested in such a move at this moment in his career. To understand why it puzzles me, let’s jump back in time again. After Good Will Hunting, Affleck and Matt Damon were Hollywood’s new golden boys. The following year, they each played supporting roles in prestige projects that competed for the Best Picture Oscar (Damon in Saving Private Ryan, Affleck in Shakespeare in Love). They also reunited on-screen in 1999 for pal Kevin Smith’s Dogma. But by and large, those next several years after Good Will Hunting were marked by forgettable movies from Affleck. Boiler Room struck a chord, and Changing Lanes was pretty good, but these were bright spots amidst a spate of bland studio fare and would-be blockbusters that included Pearl Harbor, Reindeer Games, Daredevil (another comic book character, this one from Marvel’s stable), Paycheck, Jersey Girl, The Sum of All Fears, Surviving Christmas and the dreaded Gigli. High profile romances with Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t help his falling public persona, and by 2004 Affleck was both punchline and punching bag (as this example shows).

So he smartly withdrew from the public eye for a couple of years. He married good girl Jennifer Garner, started a family, and re-emerged with a supporting role in the 2006 drama Hollywoodland, earning praise for his performance as George Reeves, star of TV’s Adventures of Superman. But it was the following year that Affleck really silenced the naysayers, impressing critics and audiences with his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. Anyone who dismissed his success behind the camera as a fluke was proven wrong by his follow-up, the extremely well-received heist drama The Town. And then came Argo, which swept through the 2012 award season with multiple wins for Best Director and Best Picture (including an Oscar for the latter). As Affleck’s directing career has ascended, he’s worked less frequently as an actor (outside of his own movies), being more selective about the movies he’s chosen to appear in, and balancing lead roles with supporting.

So here he is, director of the reigning Best Picture winner, reigning Best Director recipient from the Director’s Guild of America, back on top of the Hollywood food chain, no longer hunting for goodwill. He’s settled on his next directing gig — an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel Live By Night — and has accepted the male lead in David Fincher’s adaptation of the Gillian Flynn bestseller Gone Girl. With things going so well, I can’t see the upside for him in taking on the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in a sequel to Man of Steel.

Accepting his Best Director award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts earlier this year, Affleck poignantly spoke of being given a second act by the film industry. He echoed that sentiment when accepting Argo‘s Oscar for Best Picture. So why now, when his directing career is on fire, would he step back into the kind of commercial product that brought his career to a screeching halt in the first place? Man of Steel‘s reviews were pretty evenly split between positive and negative, and although audiences have turned it into a $200 million-plus hit, opinions seem just as divided. (I was disappointed, though the problems I had might not necessarily be an issue with the sequel.) I mention the critical and box office reception to point out that as blockbusters go, jumping onto the next Superman movie is hardly a career killer. It just isn’t something Affleck needs right now, and seems like a distraction from continuing on his post Argo trajectory.

Did he do it for money? Maybe, but come on…a guy like Affleck doesn’t have to make a move like this solely for financial reasons, and I would think that continuing to capitalize on his directing heat would be more appealing than donning spandex and cashing a many zeroed check. Did he do it to strengthen his business relationship with Warner Bros., possibly gaining the cache to direct a less commercial project down the line that might otherwise face an uphill battle to secure funding? It’s been done before. Whether it’s acting in a big studio movie and then a small indie, or acting in a big studio movie and then directing a small passion project, the one-for-them, one-for-me mentality goes back to John Cassavetes appearing in movies like The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby, if not further. But Affleck’s movies as a director have been profitable for Warner, and well received by audiences and critics. While not blockbusters, his movies are solidly commercial, so unless he’s eyeing something particularly obscure, I can’t imagine he’d have trouble getting bankrolled any time soon.

It’s more understandable that Warner would want Affleck. His strongest relationship at the studio over these past few years has been with Jeff Robinov, who was president of Warner Bros. Picture Group until studio politics led to his recent departure. Robinov had a reputation as a filmmaker’s champion, enjoying close relationships with people like Affleck, Baz Luhrmann (both of whom commented on his situation as it was unfolding), Christopher Nolan, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Their loyalty to Robinov leaves future collaborations with Warner Bros. uncertain, so it’s no surprise that the studio courted Affleck to take on a cornerstone role like Batman. He’s already been given first shot at directing many of their projects in development, including — apropos of this new development — the eventual Justice League movie, a job which Affleck turned down. But he will make Live By Night for Warner, and he was apparently planning to write and direct the studio’s adaptation of Stephen King’s classic, The Stand. (Less than 24 hours after announcing Affleck would play Batman, Warner revealed that The Stand would shift to Scott Cooper, director of the Jeff Bridges Oscar winner Crazy Heart and this December’s highly anticipated Out of the Furnace. I hope any plans for The Stand involve more than one film, because even a three-and-a-half hour running time won’t do justice to that tome…but that’s another discussion.)

By securing Affleck for a prominent role in a major franchise, the Warner Bros. leadership can show Affleck that they are committed to the relationship. In the announcement, studio exec Greg Silverman said, “We knew we needed an extraordinary actor to take on one of DC Comics’ most enduringly popular Super Heroes, and Ben Affleck certainly fits that bill, and then some. His outstanding career is a testament to his talent and we know he and Zack will bring new dimension to the duality of this character.” Sue Kroll, Warner Bros. Pictures’ president of worldwide marketing and international distribution, added, “We are so thrilled that Ben is continuing Warner Bros.’ remarkable legacy with the character of Batman. He is a tremendously gifted actor who will make this role his own in this already much-anticipated pairing of these two beloved heroes.” Clearly, the studio wants to stay in the Ben Affleck business.

In addition, the studio will no doubt want to spin the Man of Steel sequel off into the next series of Batman films. The clock is ticking on rebooting that franchise now that the Nolan/Bale trilogy is done. After all, studios seem to think that audiences will lose all interest in a franchise if it isn’t relaunched within five years of the previous version – see Hulk, Spiderman, and Superman himself. Does that mean Affleck is committing to carrying on the Batman role in multiple movies, including Justice League? (Maybe they’re hoping he will change his mind about directing that DC answer to The Avengers.) Nothing has been officially announced beyond the Man of Steel sequel, but sources say that Affleck’s deal does include more than one time up at bat. I always take “sources” with a grain of salt, but in this case I’m inclined to believe it. Why would Warner cast Affleck as Batman if they didn’t intend for him to stick around?

That’s another reason that Affleck’s decision puzzles me. Let’s assume Warner Bros. will want him for at least three standalone Batman movies, plus Justice League. That means he’s looking at a long-term commitment that might prevent him from accepting more logical acting roles in between his directing gigs. By logical, I mean acting for great directors he could observe for his own developing method. The late, great Sydney Pollack used to say that even after years of directing, he would still take acting roles in films by the likes of Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick in order to observe them in action. That’s exactly what Affleck should be doing. His decision to star for Fincher in Gone Girl makes sense, as did taking the lead in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. But what is he going to learn from Zack Snyder? How to fetishize tormented, provocatively attired girls?  (That’s not fair; I’ve never seen Sucker Punch. The trailer pummeled me into a brutal migraine, and I worried the full movie might kill me.)

After working so hard to rebuild his image, Affleck has put himself right back in moviegoers’ crosshairs by accepting the role of Batman. As I said earlier, the reaction amongst fans seems to be primarily vitriolic. If opinions are in fact more evenly split, it’s the dissenters that are making the most noise, as is usually the case. Petitions calling for Affleck’s removal from the project garnered thousands of signatures within a day of the news. Then again, these over-the-top reactions are nothing new when it comes to casting an iconic character, particularly in this franchise. When Christopher Nolan told the world that Heath Ledger would be playing The Joker, fans were skeptical at best, incensed at worst. Check out the graphic embedded here, showing various online responses to the news. I would love to see what all those people had to say once they finally saw Ledger take a wrecking ball to their concerns with his spectacular performance. And let’s not forget the response when Tim Burton cast Michael Keaton as Batman back in the 80’s. The internet didn’t exist yet to document the disbelief and disappointment, but word got around nonetheless. Then the movie came out, and Keaton’s performance was roundly applauded. So Affleck may yet have the angry mob eating its words. I hope so. I would love to see him prove them all wrong. I’m more interested in why he would play Batman than I am in whether he can. I don’t know if he has the right stuff for the character. I do know that statements like the ones made by Warner execs Silverman and Kroll, calling him an “extraordinary” and “tremendously gifted” actor, don’t quite hold up to scrutiny. Affleck has a twinkle in his eye and a charm that serves him well in roles with a comedic bent, as well as a penchant for quiet weariness that suited his self-directed work in The Town and Argo. But let’s not pretend his acting gifts are broad and varied. He doesn’t have the range or subtlety of his buddy Damon. That weariness I mention could absolutely work for Batman, while the playfulness could befit Bruce Wayne. I suppose it all depends on how Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer choose to present the character.

Even if Affleck is rejected in the role once people actually see it, I’m confident his credibility will survive thanks to his proven track record as a director. He’ll bounce back relatively unscathed in the long run. But why open himself up to the abuse in the first place? He’s been making the most of the second act that he spoke of in the BAFTA speech above, and this move just doesn’t seem in keeping with that revival. Just like after Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck is once again a golden boy in Hollywood. I’m not sure why he wants to go down this road, but I’m rooting for him to stay golden.

July 15, 2013

A New Breed of Sequel

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 6:00 pm
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When I was in eighth grade, I wrote an article for the school paper about what seemed like an oversaturation of sequels. I don’t remember the specifics all that well, but my memory is that it may have been less an article than a list of all the sequels that had recently come out or were in the works. Given the era, that list would have included movies like Caddyshack II, Big Top Pee-Wee, Cocoon: The Return, Ghostbusters II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future Part II and Lethal Weapon 2. These were the early days of my single-minded movie fandom, so I might have thought that what felt like an increase in the number of follow-ups was something new. But I soon learned that sequels have been a part of the movie landscape nearly as long as there have been movies.

Those of us who criticize Hollywood’s incurable case of Sequelitis tend to talk about it as though it’s a symptom of the blockbuster era that began in the early 1970’s. Au contraire, cinephiles. In 1916, Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote and directed what is acknowledged as the first sequel, The Fall of a Nation. It was a follow-up to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 hit “The Birth of a Nation,” which was adapted from a novel by Dixon. Though the sequel was a commercial failure, the early studio moguls learned that there was easy money to be made by satisfying the public’s craving for beloved characters. Warner Brothers put out 19 Rin Tin Tin pictures in a seven-year span during the 1920’s. In 1937, MGM released A Family Affair, which was originally conceived as a courtroom drama about a small town judge named Hardy. His family life was a minor part of the story, but studio head Louis B. Meyer was seeking a showcase for child star Mickey Rooney, so the story was retooled to focus more on the judge’s home life, allowing for Rooney’s role as son Andy Hardy to be expanded. When A Family Affair—particularly Rooney’s Andy—struck a chord with audiences, MGM quickly built a series around the character, dedicating a complete production unit to making Andy Hardy pictures. According to The Genius of the System, a book by film professor Thomas Schatz about the early years of the Hollywood studio system, when the second movie started to shoot, the writers set to work on the third, and the Seitz Unit (named for the films’ director George B. Seitz) “turned out Hardy pictures virtually nonstop for two years, averaging about one every three months.” Other popular characters also had series built around them, with rapidly produced sequels flooding theaters. During the 30’s and 40’s, MGM made six Tarzan movies and six Thin Man installments. In the 1950s, Universal Pictures made nine movies starring the characters Ma and Pa Kettle.

Looks like Disney’s plan to release a new Star Wars movie every two years has some precedence.

So this sequel thing is not a phenomenon unique to post 1960’s Hollywood. And I’m not here to knock it. From The Godfather Part II to The Empire Strikes Back to Aliens to Toy Story 3, and many in between, some of my favorite movies are sequels…and I’m hardly alone. But I’ve noticed a mutation in the Sequelitis virus over the last year or so. It’s no surprise when massive financial hits like Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers continue to spawn follow-ups. They made gobsmacking amounts of money, so sequels remain inevitable. But now we’re starting to see sequels to movies that are only modest financial hits, and that didn’t particularly grab hold of the pop culture consciousness. Just this weekend, we had Grown Ups 2. The original film, released in 2010, cost $80 million to make and grossed about $162 million domestic, and another $109 million in foreign markets. So it performed well and turned a nice profit. But by today’s standards, neither that gross nor the profit are all that noteworthy, and it’s not like the movie or the characters took root in the hearts and minds of the world’s moviegoers. I’m sure the movie has many fans, but it didn’t introduce us to the next Jack Sparrow, Austin Powers or Ron Burgundy. Adam Sandler is pretty much always Adam Sandler, and you don’t hear people talk about Grown Ups the way they talk about Billy Madison or The Wedding Singer. Yet Grown Ups 2 is the actor’s first sequel.

This coming weekend, Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Mary-Lousie Parker return in the action comedy RED 2. I really enjoyed the 2010 original, which cost $58 million to make and earned $90 million in the U.S. and $108 million in other countries. Perhaps I’ll enjoy this one too. But was it necessary? Again, we’re not talking about staggering grosses, stunning profits or unforgettable characters. Why does this movie merit a sequel? Grown Ups 2 and RED 2 are just the beginning of what appears to be a new trend of making sequels to movies that, even more so than usual, don’t really need sequels. Here are six others in development:

Title Budget Domestic Gross Foreign Gross Total Gross
Safe House (2012) $85 million $126 million $81 million $208 million
Salt (2010) $110 million $118 million $175 million $293 million
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) $36 million $50 million $14 million $64 million
Bad Teacher (2011) $20 million $100 million $118 million $218 million
Dolphin Tale (2011) $37 million $72 million $23 million $95 million
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) $10 million $46 million $90 million $136 million

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 and Dolphin Tale 2 appear to be the only ones that are definitely happening as of now, but even if the others never make it into production, the fact that they are being developed at all remains somewhat puzzling. Some of these movies were huge hits on DVD, which can sometimes justify investing in a follow-up. I mentioned Austin Powers and Ron Burgundy earlier, and both of those characters’ initial films were bigger hits on video than they were in theaters. But once viewers caught on and discovered Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, both movies gained strong footholds in pop culture. None of the movies on this chart, nor Grown Ups or RED, have taken on any such traction as pop culture currency.

The success of Grown Ups 2 this weekend could be seen as a sign that, yes, the sequel was justified and that people had a legitimate interest in these characters. I’m inclined to think that the movie’s $42.5 million weekend speaks more to the general idea of people wanting to see Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade and Kevin James together…something that could have been accomplished with an entirely new premise. Using a modestly successful, forgettable comedy as the springboard to reunite a group of actors who play well together is a hallmark of Hollywood laziness. And in a typically competitive summer movie season like this one, I suspect Grown Ups 2—while still ending up a respectable success for Sandler and company—will see its fortunes sink fairly quickly. So in a posh office somewhere at Columbia Pictures, I’m sure Grown Ups 3 is being seriously discussed today.

I’ll be curious to see if this trend continues. Hopefully it isn’t paving the way for the next step: sequels to movies that weren’t hits and that nobody liked. Case in point: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which opened earlier this year to lousy reviews and lousy U.S. box office, but which did decent business overseas. Decent enough to make Paramount Pictures think that a sequel is worth pursuing. I can’t imagine the studio would be able to get Jeremy Renner back on board (he couldn’t have been less enthused when he was forced to promote the original, as Vulture points out). I’m not sure they could get Gemma Arterton back either, and she has less clout than Renner. More importantly though, I don’t think they could get much of an audience. Hopefully that hard truth will dawn on somebody at Paramount before this punchline-in-waiting gets greenlit. I’m not enthused that we’re getting yet another Pirates of the Caribbean movie or another Transformers, but seeing as both series’ most recent installment grossed over $1 billion worldwide, I understand why we are (even if I don’t quite understand how those gigantic grosses were achieved, seeing as nobody seems to have liked the movies). I even understand why we’re getting a sequel to 21 Jump Street, which had a comparable budget-to-gross figure as the movies discussed here, yet with much more pop culture viability. What I don’t understand is why studios are getting into the business of making sequels to any ol’ medium-sized hit with no particular resonance in the zeitgeist. Most sequels that get made probably shouldn’t get made for one reason or another, whether it’s the lack of story logic for a follow-up, a tendency to just be a remake in a different setting or because most sequels usually just suck. Yes, I said at the beginning that there are many I love, so I’m not saying, “Don’t make sequels.” I’m just saying, “Be more selective about the sequels you make.” Because the odds are that we’re far more likely to get Major League II, Son of the Mask, Look Who’s Talking Too or An American Werewolf in Paris than we are to get The Dark Knight, Terminator 2, The Bourne Ultimatum or Before Sunset.

But there are lots of things about the way this crazy industry operates that I don’t understand. I should have learned by now to stop asking questions. I guess I just love movies too much not to question Hollywood’s unerring penchant for making baffling decisions.

May 24, 2013

Who You Gonna Call? Sorry, That Number is Not in Service

When a movie makes $230 million dollars and becomes the second highest grossing movie of the year, a sequel is practically guaranteed. That’s just science. So it came as no surprise that the team behind 1984’s Ghostbusters reunited five years later for Ghostbusters 2. It did come as a surprise that the follow-up lacked so much of the charm that made the first film work. But maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising. I touched on this when praising Bill Murray’s performance last year: Ghostbusters is a weird movie. Think about it. The premise is strange, the humor is dry, the tone is offbeat…the fact that it was such an enormous hit was kind of a fluke. It could easily have missed the mainstream and landed, at best, in the cult classic bin alongside titles like Time Bandits, Buckaroo Banzai and Remo Williams. But somehow, against the odds, the public embraced it and the movie took on legendary status and became a cultural touchstone.

Whatever had worked so well about Ghostbusters, the sequel failed to recapture it. Even with Ivan Reitman directing again, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis back on script duty and the entire principal cast onboard, Ghostbusters 2 didn’t have the ease of its predecessor. It wasn’t entirely devoid of laughs; Bill Murray was still pretty great and had some choice moments, while new cast member Peter MacNicol stole the show as Sigourney Weaver’s heavily accented boss who becomes possessed by an evil spirit. And it should be noted: the movie wasn’t a flop. It earned over $100 million and was the seventh highest grossing movie of 1989. But fans were disappointed and the movie is largely forgotten.

Which explains why, nearly 25 years later, after little-to-no clamoring from fans, we may finally be “treated” to Ghostbusters 3, talk of which has persisted — mostly courtesy of Dan Aykroyd — for the past few years, at least. For a while, it was just talk. “We’re trying to make it happen;” “We’re working on a script;” etc. But the talk seems increasingly likely to translate into action. Apparently there is a finished script, initially written by The Office scribes Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, now recently rewritten by Etan Cohen, whose credits include Tropic Thunder, Idiocracy and Men in Black 3. Ivan Reitman is returning to direct, and Aykroyd says the film will find the original Ghostbusters passing the torch to a new generation, making this both a sequel and a reboot.

This is a bad idea.

If you’re fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing, let me elaborate. First of all, Bill Murray is not returning. Do we even need a second of all? Murray’s involvement has long been in doubt, and while discussing his friend’s reluctance with Dennis Miller in 2011, Aykroyd said, “What we have to remember is that Ghostbusters is bigger than any one component, although Billy was absolutely the lead and contributive to it in a massive way, as was the director and Harold [Ramis], myself and Sigourney [Weaver]. The concept is much larger than any individual role and the promise of Ghostbusters 3 is that we get to hand the equipment and the franchise down to new blood.”

That may be true, to an extent. I would never say that Ghostbusters only works because of Bill Murray. But I will say without hesitation that it absolutely does not work without Bill Murray. He’s the key. As I said above, he was one of the few bright spots in Ghostbusters 2, and without him…c’mon. Anyone who thinks a third movie can work sans Murray is delusional. When I was finding clips to include in my Roger Ebert tribute, I watched Ebert and Gene Siskel review Ghostbusters. When Ebert says at the end that these characters could go on to star in a series of similar adventures, Siskel adds that it is Bill Murray who would make that work. And he’s right.

Now it’s one thing for me to say, as a fan of the movie, that Murray’s presence is invaluable, or for a couple of critics to say the same, but his contribution can actually be quantified. In December, Oscar nominated director/screenwriter Jason Reitman — son of Ivan — staged a reading of the Ghostbusters script as part of his immensely popular LACMA Live Read series. In preparing for the event, he discovered that much of Murray’s dialogue was improvised, and through access to his father’s materials, he put together a script for the live read that combined the actual shooting script and the stuff that Murray came up with on the set.

Strangely, when addressing the possibility of involvement from Rick Moranis, who has been retired from acting for years, Aykroyd said, “If we can get the script to Ghostbusters 3 right, then it would definitely have Moranis as a major component. None of us would want to do the movie without having him as a participant.” So…he would make the movie without Bill Murray, its star, but not without supporting player Rick Moranis? And what if Moranis  — who couldn’t even be lured into providing voice work for the 2009 Ghostbusters video game (something Murray did) — says no? Will Aykroyd be true to his word and put the kibosh on this ill-advised threequel? Speaking about the project’s slow progress this past December in Esquire, Aykroyd insisted that he has plenty going on in his life without this movie. “If it does not happen, the life of Dan Aykroyd and his family and friends will be quite full without Ghostbusters 3.” If that’s the case, then why not let it go? Is there really a groundswell of fan demand for a new Ghostbusters movie? I’m sure there are people who would like to see it happen — the comment sections of some of these linked articles support as much — but we’re not exactly talking about a movement here. And Aykroyd, of all people, should know better than to revisit hallowed ground years later, without the involvement of an original star, having subjected the world to the offense against cinema that was Blues Brothers 2000. Aykroyd spoke to The Telegraph in February 2012 and commented on Murray’s lack of interest, and while he sounded disappointed, he said he respects Murray’s decision and remains committed to the movie nonetheless…though I’m surprised that a studio would be willing to invest millions of dollars in a Ghostbusters movie that lacks the series’ MVP.

For Murray’s part, I have to applaud an actor who has the integrity to recognize that the magic has passed and that even the massive paycheck he would likely earn is not worth pissing on the legacy of a beloved movie. Or so I’m assuming; to my knowledge, Murray hasn’t actually clarified why he doesn’t want to be involved, so I’m choosing to call it integrity and good sense. When asked about Ghostbusters 3 during a GQ interview in 2010, he merely seemed skeptical that it would even happen, and unenthused about participating if it did. (The whole interview is worth a read; Murray is as dryly hilarious as ever.)

One thing I learned while writing this, which I had not known about and which saddened me to hear, is that Murray and Harold Ramis don’t really talk anymore, having apparently fallen out during the making of their classic Groundhog Day. In 2004, The New Yorker profiled Ramis while he was in production on his film The Ice Harvest, and a few pages of that article (starting at the bottom of this one) are devoted to his history with Murray and, vaguely, what happened between them. When The A.V. Club asked about progress on Ghostbusters 3 in 2009, Ramis offered a few additional comments about Murray. He seems sad that they don’t talk anymore, and perhaps their distance is one of the reasons Murray is reluctant to be involved. I hope they patch things up some day. I also hope it doesn’t take Ghostbusters 3 to make that happen.

But Murray or not, the movie seems close to getting made, and its fate may be determined within the next several months. As of last October, the script was approved and production was slated to begin this summer. About two weeks later, production was delayed until the fall, “at earliest.” This stall is what likely prompted Ackroyd’s wearied comments in the Esquire link above. Yet still he remains confident, offering a cryptic clue to the plot just this week. In the meantime, Reitman is now in production on the promising football drama Draft Day, which will likely occupy his time at least through the summer, if not beyond. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of Ghostbusters, so if the parties involved are going to move forward, sooner would make more sense than later….though given the film’s likely visual effects requirements, a 2014 release is unlikely to happen if production doesn’t begin by September or October. Considering Reitman’s commitment to Draft Day, that seems impossible.

Take it as a sign, boys. The delays, the Murray refusal, the tight timeline…the universe is trying to tell you not to make this movie. Some things should just be left alone. The popularity of Ghostbusters endures thanks to its original fans passing on their enthusiasm to new generations, but that doesn’t equal demand for a new chapter. I’m sure that for Aykroyd, reasons to revisit the phenomenon range from the sentimental to the financial, but this is a recipe for disaster (not necessarily of the biblical, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together ilk, but still). If you couldn’t recapture the magic five years after the original, when you were all still in your glory days, what makes you think you can do it 25 years later, without Murray and Moranis around to contribute their unique brands of funny? Looking through the articles linked here and seeing comments not just from Murray, but even from Ramis and Reitman, it seems clear that nobody other than Aykroyd is all that enthusiastic about doing another movie. (Add Sigourney Weaver to that list. She seems willing to be involved, but sounds perfectly fine to let it go.)

On the chance that the sort of telekinetic energies that the Ghostbusters might investigate in the real world actually exist, please join me in sending thoughtwaves to the executives at Sony to let them know that because we love Ghostbusters so much, we want them to pass on this third movie. Proceeding would be like crossing the streams, only we’re all more likely to wind up doused in foul excrement than delightful marshmallow.

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