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December 31, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Yup, I'm going to spoil it. If you haven't seen the film, I recommend you do so and come back to this later.

I've decided in 2016 to spend more time writing up the films I see, and I see a lot of them. In particular, my project is to spend some time familiarizing myself with the criticism of Pauline Kael, who is widely considered to be one of film criticism's best writers, even if people are often split on her opinions of the films themselves. Look for more about that in the near future.

It's perhaps fitting to start with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is a sequel to the film I can first remember seeing. When I was six years old, my father took my four-year-old sister and I to see it in a theater just off the boardwalk of Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Somewhere in the middle, and somewhat anticlimactically, I nodded off, though I was awake again for the thrilling climax. I blame the sun and salt and being six.

It is, however, a film series that has been a part of my life more than most. I've seen the original trilogy many times, particularly Star Wars and Empire, and I worked for the better part of a decade making films in that same universe set in that long-ago far away galaxy. The first film was shown multiple times in my middle school, as a treat -- it wasn't cool to admit you loved it, but I was excited each and every time they showed it to us. I remember fondly introducing it to my kids about ten years ago, and wondering if I had started them too young when they weren't as captivated by the thrilling revelations of Empire as I was. My younger son surprised me a little over a year ago when he wanted to watch them again, and we spent three nights running rewatching old VHS tapes.

I joked on Twitter, before sitting down to write this, that The Force Awakens is the third best of the four films in the Star Wars series -- to a degree it's a stance I feel I can stand by. I saw The Phantom Menace with hundreds of other Star Wars fans and Lucas employees shortly before it debuted, in a beautiful theater in Corte Madera, California. I was not so hyperbolic to say that it ruined my childhood, though many fans angrily said that -- I still love those original films and feel deep nostalgia for my enjoyment of them as a child. It didn't ruin Star Wars for me in the least; but it did drain me of any interest in seeing more of what George Lucas had to say about that world. It was not, in my eyes, a Star Wars film at all -- squabbling about trade is boring when politicians do it and not at all improved by being blown up to enormous scale on a big screen.

It's strange, then, to think that my major complaint with this latest film is that is maybe a little bit too much Star Wars and not enough its own thing. After seeing it, I immediately remarked to my son that I looked forward to Rey carrying Luke Skywalker around in a backpack in the next film, because there are so many elements lifted from the original trilogy here that it would be an impossible task to list them all. I also told my father that they managed to squeeze an awful lot of Star Wars into it. It is more a remix than an original film; there is nothing wrong with that, and it certainly appeals to viewers, but it does make me rate those originals that much higher.

Some of the new elements are particularly welcome: a racially and gender diverse cast most of all, but second to that are the new heroes Rey and Finn, who carry great chemistry behind their interactions. Rey particularly carries the scenes in which she appears for her massive competence and confidence, showing up the former storm trooper -- storm troopers have never been known for their grace. We come to admire so much of what she can do that when she is finally confronted with something that truly overwhelms her, the audience feels the fear that leads to flight. I was perhaps a little disappointed by Oscar Isaac here -- I'm an enormous fan of his work, particularly in another science fiction film this year (the terrific Ex Machina, which I very highly recommend). His Poe Dameron is established as competent but although I found him charming, many of his scenes left me frankly a little bored in spite of myself, even the return to the trench run. I know we'll see more from him in future films, and I can only hope that I'll come to see him as something more than he appears here.

Where the film especially falls down is in its villains. Kylo Ren stands almost literally in the shadow of Darth Vader, or of his mask, and though we initially see him striking down Max von Sydow (himself a shadow of Alec Guinness's Kenobi), his tirades and rage show him to be not just a child but childish. He inspires so little of the awe I can still feel for a Darth Vader, whose calm and deep voice carry an authority Adam Driver simply can't match. He is altogether too whiny to believably carry the mantle -- everything he does seems to be the grasping of an angry and emo teen for respect from those around him. Similarly, Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux can't carry the bureaucratic menace that underlies a Grand Moff Tarkin, though he's clearly a stand-in for the same. And Snoke struck me as laughable as well -- a character who is so apparently uncertain of his power that he must project himself to be several times the size of his underlings. An idol who must present himself as that large must indeed have feet of clay.

I did appreciate, however, the inversion of the central conflict of the original three films -- here it is a son who has turned on his parents and all they represent, and Han's failed bid to redeem him has a kind of poignance for me, a father of two teen sons. In Jedi, I recognize how watching the pain of a child can overwhelm a parent; in The Force Awakens, I recognize how only a child can only rebel so strongly against a parent and how hard it can be for a parent to reach through that wall. Even if I found Kylo Ren a bit much, his cruelty in leading his father to believe in his potential for redemption is closely observed and struck home with me more than any other scene of his. If only Darth Vader could be so bold, only Kylo Ren could be so cruel. As a father, I could almost believe that Han knew at that moment what was in store for himself, and yet willingly supported his son anyway. It felt like one of a very few moments that were true unto themselves -- not just true to a previous installment of the franchise -- despite being surrounded by the trappings of the earlier films. (Han and Chewie are there, after all, to fulfill the same need as Obi-Wan in the original -- to disable a bit of tech in the Death Star to forward the story along.)

I have other minor quibbles: there's a bit of a comedic bit where Rey uses The Force to convince a Storm Trooper to release her, and then drop his gun on the way out. It comes right after her first fearful encounter with that mystical force that surrounds us and binds us and all that, and it seems really out of place as a result. Indeed, it comes right on the heels of a mental battle between her and Ren that made me wince with its silly back and forth of close-ups that wouldn't have been out of place in Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. So, some wrong notes.

In the end, what I have to remind myself of is that this film is not really for me, and that's entirely okay. If I were six or 12 or even in my early twenties, I'm sure I'd love this film entirely and unreservedly. For someone encountering the series for the first time, it makes sense to include a scene to show just how evil the Empire First Order is -- by blowing up some planets with their planet-sized cannon. It's the biggest Chekhov's gun yet, and so it would be a shame not to have it go off. All the echoes and retelling are entirely appropriate for a new generation of viewers. These are myths, and myths are made to be mixed up and retold in different forms.

When you take into consideration that this is fundamentally a film for children, the virtues I mention earlier -- about representation -- make this the absolute best film in the franchise. I've been hoping for films that offer positive role models to kids across the spectrum of race and gender, and this is a firm and definitive step forward. Sure, I've sort of grown out of this sort of thing. But its best audience will be encountering these myths for the first time, and it's to Abrams's and Disney's credit that more kids will be able to see themselves in the heroes. I can't really ask for more than that; it retreads the same mythology, mixing and matching the pieces into a slightly new pattern, but in this one way it strides ahead, and I'm plenty happy about that.

I look forward to the next film in part because it'll be helmed and written by Rian Johnson -- I've loved his films so far and think he is a genuinely fascinating filmmaker with his own things to say, though I would prefer that he work on something original. And I genuinely would like to see the ways in which Ridley and Boyega's characters grow -- they are exciting and interesting. I hope they aren't thrown again into a Star Wars blender simply to rehash stories we already know we love... but even if they do, if they keep making heroes that more kids can love and identify with, I can be happy with that.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:04 AM | Comments (1)

December 10, 2015

How it feels: Guacamelee

In the toughest bits of Guacamelee, my hands sweat, and I feel myself gripping the controller, and my heart races, something I don't even notice until I step away for a minute to attend to lunch. This happens in the El Infierno challenges, say, or doing the longest of Poncho's combo challenges, or in the distractingly difficult Cueva de la Locura, or the treetops above Tule. I felt the same way doing the hardest challenges in Super Mario Galaxy -- the one in the play room galaxy with a pixel art version of Mario or Luigi where everywhere you stepped meant the platform would start to disappear, that was incredibly difficult, and you felt like you had to put all kinds of skills you had learned throughout play just to have a chance at completing it.

These level designs are fiendish, and yet I love the feeling I have when I complete one, even if it's frustrating getting there. It's not mastery, really -- I know I haven't mastered this game. It's more a feeling like I overcame my body, somehow. I'm in my 40s, and my reaction times are not what they once were. Mastery is out of my grasp; when I start playing, it takes me minutes before I can even execute the basic stuff with any fluidity. There was a point where I thought I'd just give up on getting the platinum trophy because I couldn't imagine being able to execute the combos that Pollo Poncho threw at me. Mastery suggests that I might be able to do it again, perhaps on demand; this is absolutely not that. Instead, it's sort of a meeting of persistence and luck. I persist long enough that some of the movements become rote, and if I'm lucky, my hands execute everything near enough to perfect to succeed.

Take Cueva de la Locura. It tests me by making me have to do two things at once -- I have to be in the moment, executing a precise set of jumps and "power" moves, but at the same time, I need to be doing it in the game's rhythm, looking ahead one step and keeping it in mind so that I can arrive in a place right when a supporting block reappears. I need to jump precisely to a place where there is nothing right now, but where something will appear by the time I get there. There's no visual indication of where it will be, so I have to remember from when it last appeared, when I was landing on another block as it appeared earlier; half the blocks are present at any given time, and I have to maintain a rhythm of progression.

If I'm to have a chance, I have to fight the frustration, make it not dominate, calm the heartrate, breathe, live entirely in the moment. This forces me to relax -- I can't do much about the sweating palms, I think, because my body is feeling this tension -- but if I can relax my hands enough, I might be able to get through it. And so, after every few failures, I'll stop, breathe deeply, try to relax my hands, dry those palms on my jeans.

What urges you on is when you get appreciably closer -- though not successful -- in a particular goal. When you *almost* get it but have just a couple of jumps or combos or whatever before you can get there. It spurs you on. It's the best kind of tease, like a day where there's cloud cover but the sun breaks through now and again, and you think there's a chance it might be beautiful and sunny if you just stick with it. The hardest part of Cueva de la Locura was not knowing, for a while, just how long I'd have to keep pulling these tricks off; the next stable spot wasn't visible from where I'd start off, and so for a long time I don't even have the encouragement of having a sense of when it will end. When I finally catch sight of it, in my excitement I actually fail immediately because my pulse spikes again, and I lose track of my next jump spot.

It was different in difficulty for me than another hard spot, at the top of a very tall tree, because there are no spots for rest. In many of the game's challenges, there are spots where you can stop, hold the controller, and pause for a moment of reflection as to what you want to do next. This area of this level, while really relatively brief in comparison, had no such breaks. You could not get half-way, and plan out the next bit. You simply had to do it all in one go.

There are lots of reasons to like Guacamelee -- it features a non-white protagonist (although he's still pursuing the same goal as Mario, with an endangered princess). The art is fantastic and the animation is fluid. There are lots of humorous moments and gleeful absurdity (such as being able to change into a partially hatched chicken egg). I could happily listen to the music for hours and have. All of that would be enough to keep me coming back, I'm certain. But these moments, when I have to still myself to be able to be strong enough to face its challenges down... those are sublime.

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:09 AM