Wednesday, May 4, 2016

THE LOOK OF SILENCE (2015)

Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to The Act of Killing is deliberately less spectacular because it shows the perpetrators of Indonesia's anti-communist massacres of 1965-6, in which hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered on often slight pretenses, in less boastful circumstances. While the earlier documentary, which famously presented the perpetrators' cliched, hagiographic and surreal dramatizations of their dirty work, attempted to encompass the entirety of the slaughter, The Look of Silence takes place on the micro level, focusing on one village, one family and one event. At the same time, a certain artsiness persists, only at the narrative rather than the visual level.

For the most part, the new film is about the act of killing one person, a young man named Ramli. Two of the killers remember him well, or at least claim to. These two knuckleheads will remind you them most of the previous film as they narrate how they dragged people to the killing field, one playing the killer, the other the victim, both in apparent good humor. After almost fifty years they remember specifically how they killed Ramli, though they treat his execution like another day at the office.


Meanwhile, Ramli's brother Adi (to the right in the picture on top), born after Ramli's death, returns to the community as an eye doctor. Because Oppenheimer understandably has kept most information about his collaborators secret, I don't know whether this was Adi's real work or whether it's a ponderously symbolic device to illustrate the different degrees of blindness among the people Adi interviews. In any event, while he tests prescriptions on their eyes softspoken Adi goads his patients toward admissions of responsibility for the slaughter of mostly if not entirely blameless people. Some claim to know nothing about the killing, though some had told Oppenheimer otherwise on camera. Some insist chillingly that everyone would be better off forgetting the past if they don't want it repeated. When you hear these subtle and not-so-subtle threats you see the true face of the Indonesian repression and you understand, despite the country's democratization, why so many credits at the end go to "Anonymous."


The big irony that has little to do with the politics of Indonesia is that while Adi, who never knew his brother, is determined to get some accounting for him by his persecutors, his father, senile and mostly crippled, has forgotten his older son. In one sad scene the old man's long-suffering wife tries to remind him of Ramli, but while he can sing some pop tune from memory he can't hold on to Ramli's name or the idea that he had a son who was murdered, from one sentence to the next. There's something slightly unsettling about Oppenheimer's denial of any dignity to the old-timer, last scene scuttling around on hands and butt in a panic, convinced that he's wandered into someone else's house and will get beaten for it, but maybe he sees some tragedy in the old man's madness, as compared to the forgetting that the perpetrators, who still remember things well, seem to require of the families of their victims. They'd like to see everyone forget the Ramlis of long ago like his father has, while Adi and Oppenheimer are battling them for the Ramlis' place in history, beyond memory. While The Look of Silence is less of a stunt than The Act of Killing, and will never yield as many compelling screencaps as its predecessors, it's in many ways, especially by documentary standards, the better film for capturing that dangerous collision of memory and history.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Pre-Code: still being scolded

There's a moment in Norman Taurog's Hold 'Em, Jail! when Wheeler and Woolsey pretend to hold up a speakeasy, not realizing that they've been armed with real guns. When they appear brandishing their weapons, the patrons panic. Several women faint into their husbands' or boyfriends' arms -- and Taurog caps this montage cleverly by having a man faint into his female companion's arms. Others duck for cover, and the director lingers on a woman squirming under a table, her rear end trembling in front of the camera. We cut to Wheeler or Woolsey reacting to the sight, and then we cut back to the imperiled derriere. This is the sort of thing David Denby doesn't like about Pre-Code cinema. Denby has an essay in the May 2 New Yorker, apropos of no particular film series or new publication, in which he mildly deplores the cinema of 1930-34 and challenges the perception that Pre-Code was a feminist spring before the sexual repression of the Code Enforcement that followed.

Feminist film critics have embraced the period for its self-determined women and its eager acknowledgment of female sexuality. Yet these freedoms didn’t always work out so well for women. The atmosphere of the movies could be crude. There’s an unmistakably sour element of male mockery in the portrait of Lily’s opportunism in “Baby Face."... For every movie like “Red Dust” (1932), in which Harlow and Clark Gable tussled in the steaming M-G-M jungle—moments of what you might call healthy open sex—there were many films that were merely naughty or mildly voyeuristic.

Hold 'Em, Jail! would be guilty, for that one moment, of the sin of voyeurism, as would all the films with "women undressing, in negligees, or 'scantily clad.'" Meanwhile, where feminists and Pre-Code fans see empowerment and honesty in the era's gold-digging, Denby finds that "the mercenary sex in these Depression-era movies comes off as both a survivalist tactic and a repeated joke." That it could be treated as a joke, he implies, undermines any emancipatory context the film may have and whatever power the films seem to confer upon women. Denby's claim is that women became more empowered with Code Enforcement, which made possible, so he further claims, the classic romantic comedy. While acknowledging in perfunctory fashion that "the 'morals' embedded in the Code were foolish and hypocritical," he claims that "these semi-inane standards had an extraordinary effect." The Code eliminated "tawdriness" from cinema -- all to the good, Denby implies -- and replaced "the old fables of domination" with the idealization of the romantic couple: "two people matched in beauty and talent who enjoy each other's company more than anything else in the world." William Powell & Myrna Loy and Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers were the models for a cinema in which "sex became play -- even, at best, a springlike flourishing of fantasy and grace." His argument seems to boil down to a proposition that in romantic comedy women had more to offer than carnal pleasure. "Unlike the pre-Code goddesses, vamps and bad girls, who crooned or spoke in snarls and wisecracks, the post-Code women could talk," Denby asserts, rendering Pre-Code more primitive on every level with every paragraph, to the point when he can say things as preposterous as "In effect, censorship created plot" and, later, "Censorship helped create art."

I suspect that Denby is judging Pre-Code by Post-Code. In our time, he laments, "Candor, informality, and directness have dissolved not only prohibitions but also defensible standards....The old story conventions for romance have mostly been destroyed."  He invites us to imagine that Hollywood would have reached the depths of Fifty Shades of Grey all to soon had Code Enforcement not interrupted the (d)evolution of cinema under way in the Pre-Code era. I don't buy this, and I don't buy Denby's overall argument that censorship, despite some indisputable hypocrisies, actually was a matter of addition and enhancement rather than subtraction and denial. His implied arguments against Pre-Code (e.g. it lacked both "plot" and "art") are indefensible. I don't have to make the equally indefensible argument that the 4-5 years of Pre-Code are superior to the subsequent 30+ years of Code Enforcement to refute his case against Pre-Code. Despite his increasingly faint and damning praise, Denby ultimately misrepresents Pre-Code by seeing it through the eyes of its mortal enemies, figures like Joseph Breen whom he seeks to rehabilitate as thoughtful and conscientious critics, and by judging the era by a standard according to which romantic comedy seems to be the highest form of cinema. That sells the Code Enforcement era short as far as I'm concerned. Finally, I'm not sure that censorship deserves so much of the credit for the emergence of the new sensibility that Denby loves. I think it's important to recognize Pre-Code not just as the product of sudden intoxication with the sounds of cities, as Denby observes with some justice, but as the cinema of the Depression, representing the concerns and desires of victims and survivors and validating, with both humor and deadly earnest, the "survivalist" ethos from which Denby seems to flinch. Code Enforcement was coincident with a kind of programmatic optimism promoted by the New Deal that, along with an undeniable moral-religious backlash, discouraged some of the frank survivalist cynicism associated with Pre-Code cinema. Pre-Code is cynical and tawdry and voyeuristic and naughty and frank -- to a point, but on the one hand, what's wrong with all that? And on the other, it's not too hard to find Hollywood movies made between 1930 and 1934 that are none of the above. In other words, while Code Enforcement excludes elements of Pre-Code, vice versa is not true. Pre-Code contains that multitude within it, while the absences of Code Enforcement are more glaring than Denby cares to admit. But if he prefers classic romantic comedy, that's his prerogative.He just shouldn't confuse aesthetic with moral judgments.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: HOLD 'EM JAIL! (1932)

The title of Norman Taurog's comedy plays on Hold 'Em Yale, a popular play that was made into a 1928 movie. A comedy that begins with a joke few people get more than eighty years later would seem to start with a handicap. Worse, this is a film that climaxes with a comedy football game and is almost exactly contemporary with the Marx Bros.' football picture, Horse Feathers. In Spokane WA, whose newspaper ran the ad above, the films opened head-to-head and their ads ran next to each other. Horse Feathers remains beloved today, while Hold 'Em Jail! is as forgotten as its stars, Wheeler and Woolsey. It's actually one of their better comedies, at least as far as I'm concerned, taking Horse Feathers' college football parody to another level of absurdity by implanting football madness into the U.S. corrections system. Edgar Kennedy is a football-mad warden whose prison team is performing poorly in the corrections league. His convict coach appeals to the alumni -- the ex-cons of the underworld -- for help, even though he can barely pronounce "alumni." The alums share Kennedy's concern and arrange to have some new talent transferred to Kennedy's jail. They're poor judges of talent, however, for they frame Wheeler and Woolsey for a speakeasy robbery on faith, having been told by Woolsey, a party-favor salesman, that Wheeler, his partner, is an ace quarterback, on the evidence of his having ridden his horse to victory in the big race. They can hardly be worse than the in-house talent. For God's sake, stuttering Roscoe Ates is the prison's starting qua-qua-quar-qua ... signal caller. The boys don't join the team until late in the picture, once it's been further sabotaged by Ates getting a pardon. For the most part, after their arrest and before, they're interested in making trouble. There's a brazen ruthlessness to Wheeler and Woolsey that is utterly unredeemed by any likability on Woolsey's part, yet must have been admired, or at least found funny, by struggling Depression audiences. Their abusive salesmanship, visited relentlessly upon slow-burning Kennedy with apparent indifference to whether they make a sale or not, must have struck a chord with crowds newly but still uncomfortably accustomed to constantly applying for survival. W&W are definitely an acquired taste, but Hold 'Em Jail! may be their most accessible film, both because it has some of their best slapstick and sight-gag work and because it has no musical numbers. It wouldn't surprise me if it had numbers at some point and lost them, though, because there's something haphazard about it. Rosco Ates gets fairly high billing but appears in only one scene, while Robert Armstrong gets a cameo as a radio announcer broadcasting the big inter-prison game. A separate writer is credited with Armstrong's patter, which suggests to me that the future Carl Denham was a late addition to the picture. None of this bothers me, though, because I can do without Ates and I don't mind Armstrong. The main thing is that the stars are as funny as I've seen them, no doubt enhanced by Taurog's crisp comic timing, whether they're torturing Kennedy or guilelessly helping Warren Hymer by nearly crushing his foot, then nearly hacking it off, then nearly melting it, to remove a ball and chain. The football game is constantly inventive, nearly as funny as its Horse Feathers counterpart, and definitely more violent, befitting a film that's more or less the distant ancestor of The Longest Yard.  I especially liked a brutal running gag that had referees getting stretchered off the filed after virtually every play, despite wearing pads like the players. Perhaps that sort of violent football humor shouldn't be funny anymore, but it would be in keeping with Pre-Code not to care what people would think eighty years afterward.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

DVR Diary: FOUR BAGS FULL (La Traversée de Paris, 1956)

Filmed only a dozen years after Paris was liberated from the Nazis, Claude Autant-Lara's film must have seemed shockingly irreverent to many French viewers. A kind of mock-epic or mock-thriller, it portrays one man's night from Hell in the occupied city as he tries to deliver a butchered pig to a black-market customer in the four bags that give the film its American title. It's dangerous work, if not heroic, because the Germans are always on patrol. But what makes the night especially hellish for our clandestine courier Marcel (Bourvil) is his new partner, an impromptu replacement for his usual assistant, now in jail. For the foreign viewer, the shocking thing about La Traversée is Jean Gabin's performance as Grandgil, Marcel's new "helper." Gabin often comes across as Mr. Cool in his movies, but for Autant-Lara he gives a John Goodman-like performance of boorish bluster. Grandgil seems almost sociopathic in his determination to exploit the illegality of it all for his own gain, intimidating Marcel's colleagues while constantly endangering both of them with his bombast. We learn that there's more to Grandgil than there first seemed. He'd told Marcel he was a painter, but looking at him Marcel took him to be a house painter. It turns out he's a fine artist, with Germans among his customers. This comes in handy, for him at least, when the pair finally get arrested, since the local commandant, a cultured man, recognizes the artist. Even when an order comes to herd everyone in confinement onto trucks for deportation to a work camp, the commandant pulls strings to get Grandgil off the truck. Marcel isn't so lucky, and an epilogue that shows that he survived the war doesn't quite wash away the bad taste that has built up. You wonder about Grandgil's privilege and whether he could be deemed a collaborator, and whether on the other hand his adventure with Marcel was the painter's larkish foray into resistance of a sort -- or whether he was taking crazy chances out of some desire to be caught and punished for who knows what. It's a vaguely disquieting yet constantly funny performance from Gabin, and the film as a whole is the sort of black comedy in which the perfunctory reassurance of the epilogue is part of the grim joke. Not all the comedy is black, unless you feel that comedy under German occupation can only be black. Autant-Lara complements Gabin's loose-cannon antics with plenty of slapstick and sight gags -- the leaking suitcases get our heroes followed by bothersome dogs -- and with some inspired visual moments that make the film a kind of comic noir. The best of these is the heroes' arrest, filmed through an indoor window with the actors's distinctive shapes silhouetted in the lights of patrol cars. You can see Marcel run for it, and there's a moment of awful suspense before he reappears in front of the window as a prisoner. The character and actor have earned our empathy for enduring Grandgil's recklessness throughout the picture, and the only real disappointment of the film is that Marcel never gets any payback, though it's probably realistic to deny it to him. I suspect the French will see more in this film than the rest of us can, but the rest of us can at least be entertained by it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

DVR Diary: BLACK MAGIC (1949)

Orson Welles finished so few of his own directorial projects that fans look hopefully -- or forlornly -- for signs of the great man's hand in films in which others directed him. Inevitably, it is claimed that he directed some of his Black Magic scenes in place of official director Gregory Ratoff. In his just-published third installment of the definitive Welles biography, Simon Callow writes that he "quite openly directed his own scenes late into the night [while] Ratoff's directing was confined to the morning." Which scenes are his is unclear, but anyone who watches the picture can single out certain bravura bits of framing that may have been beyond Ratoff's talent or imagination. Callow adds that Welles tried to rewrite the story, a loose adaptation of Alexandre Dumas -- a favorite of producer Edward Small -- to make his character, Joseph "Count Caligostro" Balsamo, into a would-be revolutionary. He didn't get far in that regard; the character's moments of revolutionary potential pass in montage. But Black Magic definitely is torn between two conflicting views of its protagonist, though this arguably is a matter of the main story violating expectations created in a prologue portraying young Balsamo as an orphaned victim of anti-Gypsy persecution by the Vicount de Montagne (Stephen Dekassy). This cruelty puts us on Balsamo's side and appears to set him up as an avenging hero, but while the adult Balsamo definitely has revenge on his agenda, he has also gone mad with the power he discovered quite by accident while touring with his medicine show, when he calms and appears to heal a woman who has accidentally poisoned herself. His stunt attracts the attention of Franz Anton Mesmer (Charles Goldner), who lent his name to the skill Balsamo appeared to possess. Mesmer appears disinterested, unwilling to accept a rich reward when Balsamo seems to heal a palsied aristocrat, but Joseph himself is a poor, hungry Gypsy with big dreams who's found a way to make money. As Cagliostro, he and his powers become the talk of Europe, earning him a visit to the court of Louis XV of France, where the main story takes place.

Caligostro's old oppressor is part of a conspiracy inspired by Mme. Du Barry, the King's mistress (Margot Grahame), to discredit Marie Antoinette (Nancy Guild), the wife of the Dauphin, who disapproves of Du Barry. They've discovered a double for the princess in Lorenza (Guild, quite effective in the dual role), an innocent young woman with a soldier paramour, Gilbert de Rezel (Frank Latimore). If Calgliostro can mesmerize Lorenza -- why not caligostrate her? -- she can be used to trick a high official into buying an expensive necklace with public money. When this is exposed, the real princess's reputation will be ruined. Cagliostro is all for this -- historically, he was acquitted when accused of involvement in the real-life conspiracy -- if it means making Lorenza his mind-controlled mistress, but an even bigger scheme gradually forms in his mind. There are only two problems: Gilbert is implacably determined to track down his lost love, and Lorenza has irrepressible feelings for the soldier -- despite Latimore being one of the stiffest romantic leads ever.

Cagliostro quickly surrenders all sympathy through his ruthless domination of Lorenza and his mounting megalomania. Even Svengali, at least in the Barrymore film, realizes ruefully that when mind-controlled Trilby reaffirms her love for him it's "only Svengali talking to himself again," but if Cagliostro realizes this, it doesn't bother him in the least. One suspects that Welles, behind the scenes, was successfully turning the real man, or Dumas' version of him, into a typical Wellesian narcissist monster, for whom revolutionary tendencies wouldn't necessarily be contradictory. To the extent that Welles participated in the creation of his character, he seems also to be reworking ideas born with his fugitive Nazi in The Stranger. That Ratoff and his credited writers may have been thinking the same way may be tipped off by the extended climax, a bravura variation on Stranger's clock-tower finale, in which Cagliostro and Gilbert fence atop a Roman landmark standing in for a Parisian landmark. There are plenty of bravura moments in Black Magic, whether from Ratoff or Welles, amid spectacular Italian locations, but the film is just about sunk by Welles's shocking failure --especially shocking for a practicing magician -- in the role of a diabolical mesmerist.

First, the script, possibly with Welles's own input, makes Cagliostro so unpleasant that you can't root for him even when the male romantic lead is a hopeless dud like Latimore. Second, there's an irrepressible restlessness about Welles that undermines Cagliostro's credibility. Tellingly, the film depends as much on Welles' voice -- the voice of The Shadow and the voice that convinced millions that Martians were invading Earth -- as on his physical presence to put over Cagliostro's power. When you learn that Bela Lugosi wanted to produce and star in a Cagliostro picture you realize what's missing in Welles's performance -- a certain stillness, an uncanny calm, except for the eyes, that focuses your full attention on the mesmerist. By comparison with Lugosi, Welles isn't doing enough with his eyes, or else is doing the wrong things. He could have nailed this on the radio, but he never was that great of a movie actor and that shows here. In fact, Black Magic has one of the most embarrassing moments in Welles's acting career. On trial for his role in the necklace affair and managing his own defense, Cagliostro has reasserted his control over Lorenza and made her deny any knowledge of his role in the plot. Suddenly, Dr. Mesmer appears and asks to interrogate Cagliostro. The jurisprudence of absolute monarchy permits this, and the good (?) doctor proves that he has more tricks than he taught Joseph Balsamo. Putting the defendant under his control with an irresistible shiny object, Mesmer gets him to confess all, including a lust for power that Welles underscores by croaking "Power!" repeatedly and punctuates with the vow, "I can still do it!" I like to think Ratoff directed that scene, and toward the end of the shoot as payback for whatever abuse Welles reportedly heaped upon him. Whatever Welles was up to, Ratoff and the writers must share most of the blame for Black Magic's failure as a story -- it remains a visual treat -- most likely because they never really figured out what to do with or about their star.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

CHAPPIE (2015)

Neill Blomkamp's Chappie is one of the most archetypally dense films I've seen in a while. It pretty much touches all the bases of man-made life, from Frankenstein to Pinocchio to Robocop, yet manages to make a modestly original contribution of its own. I think it's a better riff on the Pinocchio myth than the vaunted Kubrick-Spielberg AI (2001) because of its incorporation of the other archetypes, all in one character, and because of the way it turns the Pinocchio idea on its head at the end. The film's Geppetto is Deon (Dev Patel), the creator for the Tetravaal corporation of a line of "scout" robots that assist police in fighting crime in day-after-tomorrow Johannesburg. Deon wants to develop artificial intelligence further, to create a robot that is itself creative. Since that doesn't really promise to pay, Deon has to pursue his project clandestinely, all the while being spied on by an envious rival (Hugh Jackman) promoting the Moose, a more ED-209 type unit. It's just Deon's luck that he and his creation are kidnapped by gangsters with day-glo guns who want to hack into a scout and turn it into a gangster robot. Ninja (Watkin Tudor "Ninja" Jones) and his expatriate buddy America (Jose Pablo Cantillo) are disappointed when Deon introduces them to a robot with the mind of a baby, but Ninja's moll Yo-Landi (Yo-Landi Visser) bonds with the poor frightened thing and calls it a "happy chappie." The new creature, adopting Chappie as its name, is hereafter torn by conflicting influences. "Creator" Deon wants it to act ethically and encourages its artistic potential whenever he can. "Daddy" Ninja wants to train it to be a badass criminal and distrusts Deon's influence as much as Deon does his. "Mommy" Yo-Landi almost instinctively feels that Chappie ought to be allowed to grow up as it wants.

Through a series of circumstances "Daddy" gets the upper hand despite his casual mistreatment of Chappie. He tips the balance his way when Chappie discovers his mortality. Deon installed his new AI software in a damaged scout limited to the life of its. current battery, and a horrified Chappie feels betrayed that Deon would create him only so he would die. Yo-Landi talks of the soul moving to another place at death, but Deon doubts that Chappie's software can transmigrate that way. But when Deon explains a stolen helmet the Jackman character uses to control the Moose, Chappie intuits that he could project his consciousness into another body if he can only crack the right codes. On this hope Ninja hangs a plan for Chappie to override his objection to heisting -- taught, not programmed, by Deon -- in order to earn the money for a new body. This only sets up another betrayal when Ninja admits, after the fact, that he lied about the availability of another body for Chappie, but by this point another gangster storms in demanding Chappie for himself, and Jackman's robot closes in with a mission to destroy Chappie and everyone else....

Blomkamp alter ego Sharlito Copley provided visual inspiration and voice for Chappie, while Jackman's grotesque hair and clothing suggest that he's playing a version of Sharlito Copley. Both actors were overshadowed, for many hostile reviewers, by the musicians Ninja and Yo-landi playing versions of themselves, but rather than being annoyed by their mannerisms I found them appropriately odd figures in the film's futuristic fairy-tale landscape. Meanwhile, Copley does a great job animating Chappie -- he's especially good portraying the robot's confused anger at his plight, which persists despite his learning at a rapid rate -- while Jackman delivers one of last year's most entertainingly loathsome villain turns. I think Chappie goes a little overboard in pursuit of a happy ending that not everyone in the film or watching it might find happy -- I was left wondering what Ninja and Yo-Landi would actually think of the destiny the film intends for the latter -- but I admired the integrity of the production and its commitment to big ideas in candy-coated form. It's a great comeback for Blomkamp after the disaster of Elysium and leaves him once again a figure to watch in the sci-fi action genre.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

George Lucas's mistake was to think of Star Wars as a fictional universe to be shaped by his imagination. At least that was his first mistake -- the second being that his imagination wasn't so hot after a while. But the big mistake was not to realize that Star Wars essentially is a very specific type of story. Certain things have to happen in this story, and certain things have to be in it. At the turn of the century Lucas made three films that failed, among other ways, to meet these criteria. It was time for someone to step up and say they knew Star Wars better than George Lucas. To judge by the box office and a critical consensus best described as a sigh of relief, J. J. Abrams proved that he knew Star Wars better than George Lucas by remaking Star Wars. It wouldn't do, of course, literally to remake Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), but the idea clearly was to do an archetypal remake, to tell essentially the same story while continuing the original story. An unintended consequence of this strategy is a strange sense of demoralization, of the impossibility of progress, hangs over the film, despite it being not at all implausible that partisans of the Galactic Empire would not all lay down their arms upon the deaths of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, however much such an outcome was implied at the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), especially in its later, enhanced edition. So if I understand the opening crawl correctly, this rump Empire, ruled by an entity called the First Order, itself led by some nebulous Oz-like power named Snoke, occupies a significant part of the former Empire, while the restored Republic occupies the rest and wages a cold war against the First Order masterminded by Leia Organa, who supports and/or provokes insurgencies on occupied worlds under the rubric of the Resistance. In answer, and in the classic action of the insane, the First Order builds a death star, bigger and more destructive than ever yet with the same fundamental vulnerabilities required by the Star Wars archetype. Meanwhile, on some outlier planet, the Force stirs in a resourceful ragamuffin who winds up with custody of a cute droid with important strategic information. And there's Han Solo!

The one relatively original idea in The Force Awakens is to have one of the heroes be a deserting Stormtrooper, a young man whose conditioning fails him when he's ordered to take part in a massacre. On some level, however, Finn (John Boyega) defaults to a Han Solo archetype -- while the actual Han (Harrison Ford) limps into the Ben Kenobi role -- according to which selfish motives evolve into selfless heroism. None of the major characters in Episode VII is a perfect match for someone in Episode IV; Rey the resourceful ragamuffin (Daisy Ridley) is sort of Luke and Leia rolled into one, while the cheerful X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is a similar blend by virtue of his original ownership of the cute droid and his high-spirited heroism. Black clad Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is obviously our Darth Vader -- it's his right by blood -- but he looks more like a Slytherin dropout when he takes his mask off and his overhanging family drama leeches any badassery from him. For all that Abrams and Disney have declared themselves unbound by all the once-canonical novels published since 1983, the key idea that Ren is actually Han and Leia's son turned to the Dark Side had already been done in the books. It turns out not to be a good idea on film, for nothing could take the life out of the beloved Han Solo before he was actually killed than to force him into a "fathers and sons" storyline, and to treat his final confrontation with his delinquent brat as a moment of operatic grandeur undermined by cliched earnestness. Han's exit is a mercy killing, since Ford is unconvincing as a septuagenarian swashbuckler, however necessary his mostly irreverent presence was to make this new film recognizably "Star Wars" to all the people who cried for a Han-type character through all the Prequel Trilogy the way small children cry for Mickey Mouse during the second hour of Fantasia. That demand for programmed irreverence has always been a drag on fantastic ambition, a warning to creators not to take anything more seriously than the casual viewer is willing to. Here, somehow, by bringing Han back only to burden him with child issues and then kill him, Abrams manages to have his cake, spill it on the floor and face-plant into it. Still, the film's treatment of Han and Ford is as reverential as intended compared to its pathetic display of Carrie Fisher as General Organa. I don't know whether Abrams gave her nothing cool to do as, say, a fighting general, because he couldn't imagine it or because Fisher is heartbreakingly incapable of doing anything. You'd hardly believe, if you didn't know, that she's considerably younger than Ford from her presence -- it can hardly be called a performance -- in this picture. Neither her face nor her voice appear capable of expression at this point in her life, though I try to tell myself that she might have given more had Abrams given her more to do. Seeing this Leia is more tragic than seeing Han die. The real surprise, for anyone who'd seen him play the Trickster in episodes of The Flash, is that Mark Hamill, conveniently bearded, is the least decrepit looking of the original trio. Objectively, by appearing in only one scene he does the least to poison our imaginations.

While it's depressing to see the old stars displayed this way, the overall effect of The Force Awakens is like a random Star Wars role playing game brought to life, with roughly sketched player-characters getting to meet some famous NPCs in settings new yet familiar, Tattooine-ish or cantina-esque. For all that, it's not an overtly bad film; it lacks the ambition to be bad in the ways the prequel films often were bad. The craftsmanship is unimpeachable, apart from the acting, but there's only so much you can do with a paint-by-number set. The new main characters might have been more interesting if they (not counting Finn) weren't so tied, explicitly or implicitly, to the old characters. While the prequel films are largely failures, you can appreciate what Lucas was trying to do, and actually did, which was to expand his universe by exploring its past. We're supposed to be moving forward now, but Force Awakens doesn't feel like its expanding the universe in any way. Since the prequels showed us the slow rise of the Empire, having the First Order and Snoke and Ben Solo's corruption thrown at us each as a fait accompli seems wrong, and the incestuousness of the story in the way it has everything circle back to Han, Leia and Luke feels like a universe closing in on itself and locking into unalterable archetypes. A lot happens in this film, and some of it is quite impressive visually, but I don't know if "awakens" really describes any of it.