Category Archives: movies

Star Wars: The Next Generation

One of the fun aspects of parenthood is sharing your child’s first experiences with some of the wonders of the world:

  • First time they experience snowfall
  • First time they see a Christmas tree
  • First witnessing of a fireworks display
  • First time they hear: “Luke, I am your father!”

When the girls were 6 and 8 we watched what I consider the first Star Wars movie, the 1976 classic with Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. They loved it. So then we followed up with The Empire Strikes Back and the priceless moment when they realized that Darth Vader was the father of Luke Skywalker. Then we watched Return of the Jedi, in which they hear that Luke and Leia are siblings. Three seconds later, they both suck in their breath as they remember the kiss Leia gave Luke in Empire Strikes Back: “Ewwwww!”

So I’m in Costco, and they’re selling Star Wars I, II and III in a set, so I thought I’d pick them up and do a marathon with the kids, in preparation for the new Star Wars movie I’d heard is coming out. Bit early, I know, but still. You have to study in advance. I’m no Star Wars scholar, so a little brushing up is necessary. (Someone should have told George Lucas.)

So about 10 minutes into Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, my 10 year old turns to me and asks, “What’s with the accents?” We live in Vancouver, so she’s familiar with a Chinese accent, and it seemed inappropriate in this context. I vividly remember the uproar when these movies came out, because of all the cultural stereotyping.

As we watched, it dawned on me that the real marathon was going to be my answering questions about 1) the Star Wars storyline, 2) the bizarre details in the “first” 3 Star wars movies, and 3) the Star Wars storyline inconsistencies overall.

(It must be said that the “first” three are WAY longer than they had to be. We were actually surprised by how short the original Star Wars movie is.)

Remarks during The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, And Revenge of the Sith:

“How come they have nicer spaceships than in the other movies? This is supposed to be the olden times for the other movies!”

“Wow, R2D2 has rockets! He can fly around! Hey, how come he doesn’t do that in the other movies?” …(answering own question)…. “Must have got damaged or something.”

“If they don’t trust Anakin, why do they let him do important stuff? Shouldn’t he be locked up?”

“Why is Anakin so stupid? All that old guy has to do is say,”Search your feelings,” and it’s game over.” (The apparently effortless manipulation of Anakin really irked us all.)

“If they want to hide Luke, why did they put him with Anakin’s half-brother? That’s his real uncle!”

And so on. I was sort of playing Candy Crush when this was going on so I wasn’t paying full attention and frankly, I found this series to be hard to follow even when in the theatre, so my answers were, to say the least, unsatisfying to my questioners.

Then we decided to watch Star Wars IV: A New Hope, the original 1976 movie. I have to say, this movie is much more enjoyable than the later ones, even with all the CGI advances. Much more laughter, even though my 8-year-old loves JarJar Binks and laughed a lot when he was on screen. But in this movie you see the big disconnect between the prequels and the story’s “continuation.”  The questions came fast in this viewing:

As the first stormtroopers enter the Rebel ship: “Are these the same clones? How come they don’t have that accent?” (referring to the New Zealand accent of Jango Fett)

“Why is Obi-Wan so old?” (Good question. It’s only been, at most 23 years since Luke and Leia were born. Obi-Wan was, at most, 35 years old in the last movie, so why is he 75 instead of 58? This led to many other age-related questions. Like, how old are the stormtrooper clones?)

Obi-Wan: “Your father wanted you to have his lightsaber.” Kids: “What????”

“Why doesn’t Obi-Wan recognize C3PO and R2D2? They were together in the other movies!”

“Why doesn’t Darth Vader recognize R2D2 and especially C3PO? He made him!” (They loved the detail that although Anakin Skywalker made C3PO, his mom had to finish it. Because that’s what moms do. We’re quite familiar with this particular division of labour when it comes to crafts.)

“Yoda didn’t train Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon did!”

Leia to General Tark (Tarkin?): “I should have known you’d be on the end of Vader’s leash!”  Kids: “What? Is he the emperor? Why is he the boss? That doesn’t make any sense!” (You can hear the penny dropping.)

“How come Leia says she remembers her mother?”…answering own question…. “She must mean her adoptive mother.” Kids look to me for corroboration: I shrug and make a “sure, why not?” face.

“Why doesn’t Obi-Wan call Darth Vader “Ani”? Haha, that would be funnier!”

“What would happen if Luke joined Darth Vader? Aren’t there only supposed to be only 2 Sith Lords? How come the Emperor’s ok with this? How come they don’t talk about the Sith in these movies?” (my answer: The writers hadn’t thought of it yet.)

So, they’re only 8 and 10 and they’re paying closer attention than apparently George Lucas did when he started writing the prequels. The inconsistencies were such that I had to be ruthless and provide an explanation that went like so:

“When they made the first Star Wars movie they didn’t really know how big it would be and that they’d have to continue. So then when they made the next one, someone on the writing team probably said, “Hey, we should make Darth Vader Luke’s father!” and everyone loved that so they wrote it in. And they were probably writing during filming, so that’s why the kiss and they just didn’t take it out. And then they put in the Emperor because as soon as they made Darth Vader Luke’s father they wanted him to have at least the possibility of being a good guy underneath it all, so they needed an even bigger baddie. So, Emperor. And they didn’t think of the Sith Lord thing until they started with the prequels. And they were able to do much cooler things with CGI in the 1990s than they could do in the 1970s and 80s, so I think they got a bit carried away and had the technology of the past be superior to the technology of the future. They couldn’t help themselves.

And I don’t know why Princess Leia is a princess when her adoptive family wasn’t royalty and her real mother wasn’t a queen when she had Leia.

And I don’t know why Han Solo calls Jedi an “ancient religion” when it’s only been 20-odd years since Jedi were the galaxy’s peacekeepers.

And I don’t know what Anakin’s doing with his hands under the covers when he’s having a bad dream. I think he’s itching or something.”

We’re watching Return of the Jedi piecemeal as now we’re into the week, so I’m only letting them watch a bit at a time. Then I serve up the greatest line after “because I told you so”:

“OK, time for bed. If you’re up too late you’ll be tired tomorrow… You object? Search your feelings, you know it’s true!” Although that phrase doesn’t work the same magic on my kids as it does on Anakin and Luke.

 

 

 

 

 

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My List: The Powerful Actors

Disclaimer: I’m having a light day. I’m going back to book reviews soon but am being self-indulgent and thinking about movies lately:

After my review of Les Misérables, I got to thinking about actors and how some actors not only have great range and ability to convey emotion, but can project power. Just standing, they have enormous presence – your eye is drawn to them and they effortlessly hold your attention. I wonder why that is but I can’t figure it out. What I can do is post a lightweight piece (I’m having a lightweight day) about my favourite “power” actors (I’m just dealing with men right now; I’ll deal with women some other time):

Russell Crowe: Obviously he comes first to mind as I just saw him play Javert in Les Mis. But when I think “power” I think of Maximus in the Colosseum, head slightly lowered like a bull about to charge, and murderous intent in his eyes. Power comes out of him in nearly visible rays. The soundtrack of Gladiator helps but Russell Crowe has tremendous presence and also a good range, which is a quality I’m factoring in here. Being able to look menacing isn’t enough to make the list. He has a somber face but when he smiles something happens in his eyes and you could knock me over with a feather. Cinderella Man? Master and Commander? This is why he is number one.

Serious Crowe

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Happy Crowe

Denzel Washington: If I hadn’t just seen Russell Crowe play Javert I probably would have placed Mr. Washington first. He can be loud and raucous, he can be quiet and introspective, he can project suffering with liquid eyes (remember the whipping scene in Glory?),  he can do it all. He has a smolderingly dangerous presence, and even though he’s incredibly good-looking he has an everyman quality that is essential to place on this list.

Liam Neeson: Authority. Strength. Vulnerability. Even in Love, Actually he was a towering presence like an eagle amongst sparrows. When there’s an emergency, everyone will look to him. Like they did in The Grey.

Daniel Day-Lewis: Obviously. “Stay alive! I will find you!” And she did, and he did. I haven’t seen Lincoln yet but apparently he kicks ass in that too. And, of course, A Room With a View. Talk about range! Check! Everyman quality, check. Power, check.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: This is probably the third time I’ve mentioned that PSH should have played Henry VIII in The Tudors and it’s because he has the presence to play such a larger-than-life monarch. Henry VIII was a monster and megalomaniac but apparently he could also be quite charming and I think PSH would have conveyed those qualities very well. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, though gorgeous, doesn’t quite project the power that you need for this particular monarch. Nobody can do weary irony quite like PSH either, and every time I see him do it I get a thrill. Actually maybe it’s just how he’s feeling at the time. I just watched Mission Impossible III and I wonder if the ironic look on PSH’s face just is him thinking, “What am I doing here?” It’s hard to say. But he was wonderful in Patch Adams and The Talented Mr. Ripley and Doubt and I haven’t seen The Master yet but I hear he’s amazing in that too. That voice!

Eric Bana: He actually did play Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl, with some success. Again, Henry VIII was a gingery blonde, very fair. Casting Eric Bana is another attempt to make the Tudors hotter than they actually were. I know that when he was young, Henry VIII was strong and handsome, but he spent 20 years with Katherine of Aragorn; by the time he took up with Anne Boleyn he was already getting pudgy and he was damn near forty. Sorry for the digression – at least Eric Bana has the power that you need to convey the majesty of the throne, and a monarch as willful as Henry VIII. What about Munich? Pow! Amazing. Hulk? Also amazing. He can do charming, he can do menacing (Star Trek!), and he’s able to be vulnerable as well.

Daniel Craig: The only Bond to make this list. I love Sean Connery but he’s not as dangerous as everyone else here. DC is the suffering Bond, the yearning Bond, the less-smooth but more-compelling, rougher-round-the-edges Bond.

George Clooney: He held everyone’s attention in ER and that was just the start of it. Natural authority, big presence, ability to convey a wide range of emotions and thoughts, and although he can look devastating, he also has the everyman quality. (Denzel Washington did a stint on St. Elsewhere, it can’t be a coincidence.)

Christian Bale: He’s been around a long time and has displayed a wide range already, otherwise I’d put him in the “Growing Into It” list. In Empire of the Sun, when he was very young, he was riveting. He’s still riveting and has anyone else noticed that he looks like the young James Brolin?

Matt Damon: Good Will Hunting showed Matt Damon’s range in just the one film, and that was the first really notable thing he did. Since then he’s sought out interesting roles and he’s really grown into a figure with a presence. His Jason Bourne, though at times a stony-faced automaton dealing out death, also shows wonder, pain, longing, all the vulnerable emotions that land an actor on this list.

Ray Winstone: Although Mr. Winstone is not as well-known as the rest on this list, I think he has quite a presence! He’s one of a group of older character actors whom I adore: Ian McShane, Ben Kingsley, Brian Cox, Tom Wilkinson, Chris Cooper, Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, Geoffrey Rush…the list goes on.

I also have to add Chow Yun-Fat and Ken Watanabe; because they’re Asian actors, their exposure in Western film is less. However, whenever I have seen them on film (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha, Batman Begins, and Inception) they have both demonstrated the range, power and versatility of everyone else on the list.

Growing Into It List: these are the actors who are still evolving – they belong on this list but they’re not quite in the same league as my men above. Almost there but not quite…it’s just a matter of time and exposure and opportunities.

Mark Wahlberg: Talk about everyman. MW is a tightly coiled spring in the body of your ordinary guy. He can be tarted up and is devastating when he wants to be, but he has the ability to be anyone. I haven’t seen him do period yet and I doubt I ever will, but it would be interesting. Maybe Steinbeck or Hemingway as opposed to Brontë or Austen.

Ben Affleck: I don’t think he really found it and brought it until The Town. But The Town was amazing, one of my favourite movies ever. I think his strengths are perhaps more as a producer and director even though he is a very good actor. Can’t wait to see him do more challenging roles.

Jamie Foxx: The power is there, but as yet unleashed, so to speak. The range is nearly there but I haven’t seen Django Unchained yet so maybe it is there and I just don’t know it. My bad. But his performances in Ray and Collateral were stellar, in my opinion.

Robert Downey Jr.: He’s nearly there but so glib. There’s a lightness and wittiness that gives him membership on another list. Why? The characters he’s been playing have been limiting him. Sherlock Holmes and Tony Stark tend to intellectualize everything, suppressing emotion and holding it at bay, thus reducing opportunities to emote in any meaningful way. It’s not that I don’t think it’s there, it’s just that in movies like Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes it’s just not evident. It’s all wit, facetiousness and sarcasm. Fun, but not powerful or earnest. I’m talking in film, in what I’ve seen. Maybe he’s done something with tons of earnest emoting but I haven’t seen it.

Sam Worthington: He’ll probably top my list in a year or so. Brimming with potential but still quite young and kind of stagnating in the “Titans” movies. But he’s going to get there, I feel it.

Leonardo DiCaprio: I still think of LDC as a “young” actor, I don’t know why. As he ages he looks more and more like Jack Nicholson and he is tremendous actor. But this is my list.

Who isn’t on the list and why? I know; part of the reason I started this list is because I was watching MI: III during my workout and wondering why Tom Cruise, though fun to watch, does not have the same aura that Russell Crowe does. And Denzel Washington, and on and on and hey I think I’ve got a blog post here. Why not Brad Pitt? Why not Colin Firth? Hugh Jackman? Kevin Costner? What about Clint Eastwood and Al Pacino? I have my own criteria and not everyone made the cut, even though I think these are all amazing actors. Empirically, they are. But the essential qualities were 1) powerful presence, 2) range, 3) everyman quality and not everyone has that or has had the opportunity to showcase said qualities. Or else I just haven’t seen the film that would have landed them on my list. It’s subjective. Basically, I took everyone I could think of and tried to mentally cast them in Gladiator as Maximus, the quintessentially powerful yet vulnerable character. And period, to boot. It’s quite a fun exercise. Some work; some make you laugh out loud. Picture Hugh Grant as Maximus. See? But everyone on my key list could play Maximus. Oops, except for Philip Seymour Hoffman, but he could be king, so.

I thought hard about Clint Eastwood. I love him but his range of expression tends to go from Generally Annoyed to Detecting an Escape of Sewer Gas and not much else. I think it’s an old-school thing. My father-in-law has the same two expressions, very Clint. I’ve been trying hard to remember the end of Million Dollar Baby but I really don’t remember Clint’s expression changing much. He still looked pretty flinty at Hilary Swank’s bedside when any other human being would have been sobbing and howling with grief.

It’s a repressed thing. There’s emotion there, but it’s being repressed. Personal anecdote: I remember having the same look on my face after my father died. I suppressed my grief because I needed to be there for my mother and sister, and I didn’t dare indulge in the swelling of sorrow I could feel in my chest. I pushed it down ruthlessly, fearing that if I should allow a chink in the dam, the flood of grief would inundate me, drown me, and I would never be able to come back to any kind of equilibrium again. It literally felt like being at the edge of the abyss; if I allowed myself to feel the emotion I would tip over and never stop falling. Outwardly, I had the same narrowed eyes and gritted teeth that Clint displays on a regular basis. My mother sent me to a therapist, eventually, and even then it took the therapist 4 hours to get me to experience the emotions I was so relentlessly bottling up. It’s an old-fashioned, self-protective response to extreme emotion: the stiff upper lip, the stoicism. And the fact that our culture valued this quality shows when you watch older films and actors. But nowadays our culture allows us to emote and feel what we feel, and it’s ok, and we like that reflected in the films we watch. Every actor in Les Misérables had tears in their eyes at some point or other, if not constantly. In Gladiator, Russell Crowe emotes grief in a heartrending scene when he discovers his murdered family. I remember being shocked the first time I saw that. It made my chest hurt. You wouldn’t see Clint doing that. But it was raw, it was real, it was incredibly powerful, and that’s why Russell Crowe is at the top of my list.

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Les Misérables, sniff sniff

After the Oscars, in which the cast performance from Les Misérables nearly brought me to tears (I know, I know) I texted a friend to see if she wanted to go see it in the theatres. We’d gone to see The Hunger Games together and have a good cry, and it was tremendously satisfying, so we thought this would be great fun too.

Les Misérables

I’d seen the stage version, and while the music was good it didn’t really move me and I think I actually dozed off in some of the recitatives. I have not had a lot of luck with live musicals in general – I find the actors too far away for me to perceive any emotion in them, and in their efforts to project emotion they’re forced to the front of the stage to squall at the audience. I find this embarrassing. This is my fault; I love movies so much I think I’m conditioned to have expectations of close-ups and plots that move along with lightning speed. Also, when I was in my first year of university I bought seasons tickets to the opera with my cheap student discount. The opening night opera was a modern one set to a novel by Dostoevsky (if memory serves) and took place in a Siberian prison. I was in my first year of university and exhausted all the time from the course load and working to pay for it all – so my response to being warm, and in the dark, and in a Siberian prison – was of course to fall asleep. That set a pattern. I think I spent the entire season snoozing in the plush velvet seats of the Orpheum. I think I slept through The Marriage of Figaro, which is a great opera, but let’s face it, it’s four hours long.

The advantage of course of live stage productions is that there is an intermission so you can go pee – if you see the movie, it’s also 3 hours long and so gripping you don’t want to leave for the bathroom. Also the entire theatre is weeping so it’s fun to be part of that. Anyway, we were bursting by the time the movie finished. I’m amazed there was any water left in our bodies to excrete as we were weeping so copiously but there was a mad dash for the loos as soon as it was over so we weren’t the only ones. When you have a jumbo pop in a three hour movie with no intermission what do you expect?

Obviously, we loved the movie, and I did prefer it to the stage productions I’ve seen – sorry! I know it’s not very purist of me, but there you have it. It makes a big difference when you can see the actors’ faces close up, and they don’t have to do “big” emoting because of it. They can sing more intensely and passionately because they don’t have to project so far. I’m impressed that they recorded the singing while filming, so they weren’t dubbing in later, and they all managed to imbue the songs with so much emotion and feeling that it was all very touching even to a cynic like me. Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried and Anne Hathaway have amazing voices and they sounded trained to my admittedly not professional ear. Russell Crowe’s voice is as furry as he is himself, and while he sang well he didn’t have the same clarity and precision as the others. However, he is such a forceful presence that he made an amazing Javert. Hugh Jackman made a powerful, sensitive Valjean and he emotes like a madman. He, Amanda Seyfried and Anne Hathaway all have these huge liquid eyes that they’re able to fill with pain, and sorrow, and joy and every other required emotion. It looks really easy when  you have those enormous eyes. All the actors (excepting the comic ones and they just didn’t have the opportunity in this category) have the quality of vulnerability which came across in film and I think would have been missed on the stage. Is Eddie Redmayne the most incredibly vulnerable-looking actor or is it just me? I spent half the film wondering how he makes his lips tremble like that. Amanda Seyfried’s clear blue eyes and even clearer soprano can melt you like chocolate in a toddler’s hand. You just want to put them all in your pocket like so many kittens.

Sacha Baron Cohen was such awesome fun in his role as the innkeeper Thénardier, which I expected, but it was surprising nonetheless, because he was so good. I liked him better in this than I did in anything else I’ve seen him in (I don’t like his films in general). I thought it was brilliant casting but he was so good it was still a surprise. Helena Bonham Carter is fabulous in everything she does (I’ve loved her since A Room With a View) and she really sucked the marrow out of this particular bone. I love the actors with the versatile faces, who can look beautiful, but tweak their hair a bit, fleck them with makeup and they look totally insane. HBC is definitely one of these and she brings it on in this role. Hugh Jackman was also good in this respect – he is empirically good looking, everybody agrees, but in the opening scene, when Valjean is an enslaved prisoner, he’s almost unrecognizable. He seems to physically manifest pain and agony. It can’t just be the makeup; it’s a gift. His unbearably poignant death scene unleashed a fresh torrent of tears from our audience; you could hardly hear the singing.

Three hours of melodic revolution later, we staggered out of the movie, into the loo, and out again, our makeup smeared and the fronts of our shirts speckled with popcorn bits. Then we happily headed down to Hapa Coal Harbour and had a light post-show meal.

I’ve been on iTunes comparing the vocal performances with the original Broadway cast performances and overall, the Broadway ones are better, although Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne are contenders. Interestingly, in comparing Russell Crowe’s “Stars” with the Broadway version I actually preferred Russell Crowe’s, go figure, because the stage voice seemed less masculine than Crowe’s – as anybody’s would, let’s face it – so the casting agents were definitely on to something. Conclusion: I enjoyed the film version much more than I did the live version. Close-ups and scenery pack a real punch and you just can’t do it all on the stage. I don’t know if I’ll purchase any recordings, mostly because I can’t hear some of these songs without crying and that would disrupt my day. There’s a time and place for everything.

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The Master – another brilliant movie I probably won’t enjoy

The Master is coming out – it stars Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman and critics are raving about it in that “best film I’ve seen all year” way.

I read the review – the acting sounds brilliant, Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of my favorite actors, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to see it. It carries the classic hallmarks of the Amazing Critically Acclaimed Movie that I am not going to enjoy. I’ll be impressed, but will I have any fun? Even a lot of black humour films just make me cringe. I couldn’t watch a lot of Seinfeld because I couldn’t stand watching George humiliate himself. I also have trouble with Sacha Baron Cohen’s movies. I enjoyed about 2 minutes of Borat and I hated Bruno. It was just embarrassing. I haven’t seen The Dictator because I’ve learned my lesson.

So many movies are in this category and now I have a sense of what to avoid, thanks to these excellent films:

  • Doubt – I love Meryl Streep but this was not fun to watch
  • Requiem for a Dream
  • No Country for Old Men
  • The Road
  • Leaving Las Vegas
  • Rachel Getting Married and the other wedding film, Margot at the Wedding – not painful but cringe-worthy
  • Fargo – I know it’s supposed to be funny but I found it painful, although I loved the Frances McDormand character
  • Glengarry Glen Ross
  • Lars Von Trier films – Breaking the Waves, gah; Melancholia, double gah
  • Precious
  • Larry Clarke’s Kids – I had nightmares for weeks after this one
  • Once Were Warriors – ditto
  • Paris Trout  – ugh
  • Eyes Wide Shut – for god’s sake
  • Baise-Moi – my French isn’t very good; I didn’t research this before going with a group; I thought it would be a charming French film with subtitles – subtitles yes, charming no! I actually had to leave.

It’s not that I don’t like dramas or indie films, but certain things I find really repugnant to watch. Or I’m embarrassed for the actors. Or the subject is just so depressing. I read a lot; I know bad things happen but it’s just so disturbing to see it presented visually, I’m depressed for days afterwards. Sometimes these films are boring and painful. That’s entertainment!

(While I’m talking about painful movies – this is painful, but worth seeing):

I saw the Japanese film Graveyard of the Fireflies a few years ago; it’s animated, so I didn’t realize how harsh it would be (it was made by Studio Ghibli, the same company that produced Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away). It’s harsh. I cried so hard I had to put a pillow over my face so I didn’t wake the kids. It’s a really good, very powerful, heartbreaking, anti-war film. But when things are animated we tend to have certain expectations. (I blame Disney for this.) Things go downhill, but eventually the cavalry arrives. The cavalry doesn’t arrive in this one. I should have known; Japanese films don’t follow the same storytelling patterns Western ones do. I was so upset afterwards I couldn’t sleep; I had to go downstairs and comfort myself with ice cream. I told the story to Justin the next day and he got teary just hearing my description. I arrived at Japanese preschool to drop the kids the next morning and my face was all messed up from crying all night and the other moms were like, “Are you ok?” All I had to say was, “I saw Graveyard of the Fireflies last night.” They had to process that into Japanese but then they were all, “Ohhhhhh.” But I recommend it. It’s as important a film as Schindler’s List. It’s also, like Schindler’s List, based on a true story. I know; waaaaaah! snif

Yet I love certain types of horror movie. But that’s another post.

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