Posts Tagged ‘star wars’

Somebody, please, tell me : where’s all the hate coming from?

Okay, maybe a better way to put that would be — why is all the hate coming in the first place because, strictly speaking, we know where it’s coming from : just as the gaming scene was disrupted mightily by right-wing trolls who didn’t want any women around and coalesced into a toxic stew known as “Gamergate,” and the comics scene has recently found itself fending off a broadly anti-diversity rump of retrograde fans who have taken to labeling their harassment and intimidation campaign “Comicsgate,” the Star Wars scene has been besieged by an as-yet-untitled, but damn noisy and annoying, group of right-wing ostensible “fans” who have decided that their (again, ostensibly) beloved franchise has been besieged by “political correctness,” and that the films are now loaded with so-called “SJW messaging.”

It’s all bullshit, of course : if anything, the Star Wars films are as obliquely pro-war as ever (hell, it’s right there in the name, so maybe it’s not so “oblique” after all), but that never stopped a bunch of noisemakers aligned with the “alt-right” from trying to gin up a controversy where none exists for the sake of hopefully making a few bucks. To date, actress Kelly Marie Tran has gotten the worst of it, her turn as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi — hell, her very existence — pissing off the troglodytes to the point where she has literally shut down all her social media accounts after getting understandably sick of literally hundreds or overtly racist messages and comments being flung at her every day, but for reasons I can’t fathom, these same douchebags also decided well in advance of its release that the spin-off film Solo : A Star Wars Story was going to suck.

Again, though, as always, the dipshit brigade was dead wrong.

And, again, that hasn’t shut them the fuck up, and at this point it’s worth noting that the crossover between the various “gates” is getting pronounced — not just in terms of their vile politics and their even more vile tactics, but even in terms of the very people involved : noted “Comicsgate” shit-disturber/untalented hack artist Ethan Van Sciver, for instance, has recently been migrating over Star Wars fandom and has made thousands of dollars selling bootleg “Soylo” t-shirts (“soy,” like “cuck” and “SJW,” being favored derogatory terminology deployed by “alt-right” types against their philosophical opponents) that I’m thinking Disney’s lawyers might want to take a good look at being that they use the exact same logo as the Solo film.

Tell you what, though — even if Van Sciver justifiably finds himself getting his ass sued off, he’ll probably still claim a pyrrhic victory : Solo, you see, has been the first legit box-office disappointment in Star Wars history, and the “anti-SJW” crowd is taking all the credit for it.

Which, say it with me now, is also complete BS, as there’s nothing even remotely “SJW,” or even political in any way, on offer in this flick. I don’t know why this movie hasn’t done so well — although it’s worth noting that when all is said and done it’ll probably still turn a healthy profit — but I do know that politics has nothing to do with it. Solo is essentially what any Han Solo “origin story” should be : a space western suitable for all ages, races, genders, ethnicities, and political persuasions. A 12-year-old kid who cried with his mom the night Trump won the election and a crusty 60-year-old in a “MAGA” hat can each find plenty to love here, because the film’s enthusiasm is absolutely infectious : Alden Ehrenreich is a pitch-perfect choice in the title role; Woody Harrelson’s rogue-ish Tobias Beckett is a fantastic foil/mentor; his partner in crime and life, Thandie Newton’s Val, is equal parts tough as nails and achingly human; Paul Bettany cuts a genuinely menacing and mysterious figure as chief villain Dryden Voss;  Donald Glover is spot-on stupendous as a young Lando Calrissian; Emilia Clarke is coolly intriguing yet eminently relatable as Han’s love interest, Qi’ra; hell, even Joonas Suatomo seems to approach the role of Chewbacca with a little extra heart. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that all the principal players flat-out nail it in their roles.

I’m thinking this all flows from the top down — veteran blockbuster director Ron Howard was brought in approximately halfway through to rescue what by all accounts had been a flagging production, and armed with a screenplay by old Lucasfilm hand Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan, the air of tonally perfect professionalism established is unmistakable : the humor (of which there is plenty) is well-timed and genuinely funny, the battle scenes and their attendant special effects spectacular, the various subplots compelling — seriously, this is a “popcorn movie” that’s firing on all cylinders all the way through, and more importantly, it has everythingStar Wars fan could possibly want, and nothing they don’t.

For all that, though, very little feels forced, there’s no sense a “checklist” Howard and the Kasdans are working from is having its various boxes ticked off : yeah, how the hell Solo became such a good “space cards” player is never really explained and just needs to be taken as a given, and they do rush on pretty quickly from a central character’s death, so much so that it feels downright callous, and sure, the third act contains a bit too much set-up material for a sequel that will now probably never happen (although there’s a real jaw-dropper among these foreshadowings that ties this flick into Lucas’s much-maligned prequel trilogy) — but apart from that, everything here really flows from scene to scene quite nicely.

And speaking of “flow,” the entire film positively flies by, it’s two-hour-plus runtime over with all too soon. But you know what? You’ll be smiling the whole way, because Solo : A Star Wars Story isn’t just the franchise’s best outing since The House Of The Mouse took over (well over 12 parsecs ago now), it’s the best since The Empire Strikes Back.

So, where’s all the hate coming from? Well, when I put the question out to twitter as to where the supposed “SJW messaging” in this movie was to be found, I only got one response, that from a person I recognized as being linked with “Comicsgate” (some of them follow me out of sheer spite, I think), who opined that the “problem” with it was that it featured a “miscegenation relationship” (Harrelson and Newton) and “acted like it was perfectly normal.”

The hate, then? It’s coming from racist fucking assholes. And any movie that pisses them off is probably pretty damn good — this one certainly is.

 

It’s always a dicey proposition when you’re reviewing a new Star Wars flick. One way or another, you almost can’t win — I recall, for instance, my lukewarm review of Star Wars : The Force Awakens being met with a comment stating, I shit you not, that “I agree with all your criticisms, but you should have given it a positive review anyway.” When I asked, naturally, why the hell my review should have been more sunny even though all my criticisms were legit, said individual responded, I assume with a straight face, something to the effect of “well, it’s more difficult to write a positive review than a negative one, so you should challenge yourself more.”

If I had any sense, I would have just walked away at that point, perhaps with a quip like “it’s only ‘more difficult’ to write a positive review of a film when said film sucks,” but instead I pressed further, insisting that it takes no more effort to write a glowing review than it does to write a pissy one, which is obviously and inarguably true, and was met with a (very) poor man’s bit of philosophy about life in general, my internet sparring partner insisting that “it’s hard work to be positive about anything, and way too easy to be negative.” Uhhhmmm — okay, if you say so.

For the record, I am not “down on” life. Hell, I wasn’t even that “down on” The Force Awakens. I just thought it was a mediocre re-tread of shit we’d seen done earlier, and better. What was painfully obvious, not just in retrospect but at the time, was that this particular commenter knew that’s all the flick amounted to, as well, but he liked it anyway, and was bent out of shape that I was both decidedly more cool on it than he was, and was able to articulate in fairly cogent terms why the overflowing love it was getting at the time really didn’t make much sense.

Well, that was two years ago, and when the hype died down, sure enough, my opinion at the time rather solidified into something like the overall consensus view. The Force Awakens hit a number of nostalgic notes, it made people feel the right way, but it certainly didn’t break any new ground, and basically amounted to a couple hours of fan service. Clearly, then, it would be left to the second chapter of the new trilogy to actually move things forward in any kind of significant way.

As early reviews for writer/director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars : The Last Jedi first trickled, then flowed, in, I was feeling reasonably good about its prospects to do just that : critics seemed to like it, while hard-core fans seemed to hate it. Pretty good sign right there that the amount of “fan-wank” in this was going to be minimal. It even seemed like Johnson was taking some risks here, and let’s face it, when you move forward, you’re going to necessarily leave plenty of overly-protective sorts behind. Maybe now that the Star Wars “greatest hits” reel was out of the way, we could get down to business.

And to an extent, Johnson does exactly that. Picking up essentially right where the last film left off, we see the so-called “Resistance, ” Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron in particular, scoring a pyrrhic victory against the “Empire-Lite” that is the newly-labeled “First Order,” only to find their space armada surrounded and running low on fuel while, concurrently with all this, Daisy Ridley’s Rey attempts to lure the reclusive Luke Skywalker (played by an older, but no less wooden and whiny, Mark Hamill) out of retirement to come save the galaxy from Lord Snoke (Andy Serkis, who joins Frank Oz, Lupita Nyong’o and, after a fashion, Carrie Fisher, as CGI “cast members”) and his now-apprentice — and Luke’s former trainee — Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Those two plotlines take up most of the flick, and certainly Rey’s eventual training (no big surprise, but she’s the titular last Jedi, not Luke) in the ways of The Force is loaded with any number of call-backs to the Luke/Yoda scenes from The Empire Strikes Back, but beyond that, yeah, the “nostalgia factor” here is kept to a welcome minimum. A third major story strand involving John Boyega’s Finn and new sidekick/potential love interest Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) attempting to locate, and then secure the services of, a supposed “master code breaker” in order to disable an Imperial — sorry, First Order — blockade is a bit hackneyed on the whole and too dependent on a series of lucky coincidences to be overly interesting, but I’m willing, probably just because it’s the holiday season, to give Johnson props for trying with that one, even if it’s one big “twist” moment amounts to audiences saying to themselves “hey, whaddya know, I never thought I’d see Benicio Del Toro in a Star Wars movie.”

Surprise casting moves seem to be a running theme of The Last Jedi in a more general sense, though, too, truth be told, and since we’re on that subject Laura Dern should get some credit for her turn as Vice Admiral Holdo, who takes over the Reb — goddammit, I’m doing it again — Resistance fleet when Fisher’s Princess/General Leia is incapacitated for a good chunk of the runtime. In fact, of all the various competing subplots, the one she features in prominently is probably the most effective, as her motives — and, by extension, those of the Resistance leadership itself — come into question, throwing some shades of grey into what’s usually a fairly black-and-white Star Wars cinematic “universe.” Things work out alright in the end, of course — they always do in these movies — but at least there’s some genuine intrigue and tension along the way.

Speaking of ends, though, that’s where most of the trouble here comes in. Johnson has, by my count, two “red herring” endings that he toys with until we get to the actual big finale, and by then you’re sort of ready for the thing to be over. The conclusion, when it arrives, is every bit as spectacular as it needs/is expected to be, but there’s definitely a sense that it’s past due. So, yeah, if you’re getting the idea that this film’s third act is more than a bit herky-jerky, you’re absolutely right.

Probably the biggest knock against The Last Jedi, though, is one that plagued The Force Awakens, as well : simply put, this First Order outfit just never seems like an “A-list” threat. Kylo Ren is an even more unstable basket case in this flick than he was last time (ditching the mask only accentuates his status as a lame bad guy), “Boy General” Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is about as intimidating as a frat boy incensed at getting to the liquor store ten minutes after closing time and banging on the door to get in, and when Lord Snoke is finally removed from the equation, these guys are even more decisively “Bush League” than they were before. We all know the Resistance is going to win the day in the final act of this trilogy (which will no doubt be J.J. Abrams doing an updated take on Return Of The Jedi), but damn, with this Keystone Kops crew as their adversaries, the outcome is never even momentarily in doubt.

Still, for all that, The Last Jedi has more on the “plus” side side of its ledger than the “minus.” It establishes Rey as the powerful central protagonist she needs to be, it actually gives Poe Dameron plenty to do, and Finn and Rose make a good team. In short, it’s far more concerned with the characters we’re supposed to care about now rather than those we cared about a quarter-century (or more) ago — even if Hamill gets top billing in the credits.  It steps out of the long shadow cast by the franchise’s past (hell, it’s unafraid to poke fun at its own mythology, although some of the humor comes off as a little bit forced on occasion), even if it does so in a wobbly and uneven manner, and makes a statement (albeit, again, a shaky one) about where the series is in the here and now, rather than taking all of its cues from the past.

Huh. Now that I think about it, I hope my quasi-antagonist from a couple years back reads this review, since my final verdict should be right up his alley : Star Wars : The Last Jedi has a lot of problems — some of them pretty large — but you know what? I liked it anyway.

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The late 1960s/early 1970s were a tumultuous time for the “Big Two” comics publishers — with Jack Kirby having taken his creative genius back over to DC, then-Marvel head honcho Stan Lee quickly decided that putting his name on other peoples’ work was too much hassle for him to bother with, and so turned the reigns of the future billion-dollar business over to the youthful Roy Thomas, who had first come to the Smilin’ One’s attention for running the ahead-of-its-time Alter Ego fanzine. Thomas was eager to do any number of things at the self-described “House Of Ideas,” but rocking the boat wasn’t one of them. Having grown up on the Kirby/Ditko/Everett/Wood/Burgos/Heck/Trimpe/Lee brand of super-heroics, his primary concern, creatively speaking, was to keep on serving up more of the same to an eager public, and to that end, his first wave of hires came largely from the same fandom ranks that he had once lorded over himself — names like Gerry Conway, Steve Gerber, Jim Starlin, Al Milgrom, and others that would come to dominate Marvel credit boxes in the ’70s were all examples of “fan creators” whose literary and artistic tastes — and ambitions — were shaped by the groundbreaking innovators who had preceded them.

Meanwhile, over at DC, Kirby may have been busy churning out an impressive, even mind-boggling, array of iconic characters and worlds (many of which would be “borrowed” by one George Lucas as the building blocks of the franchise we’re here to talk about today), but the rest of the company’s let’s-not-call-it-a-bullpen was populated with the likes of Len Wein, Denny O’Neil, Marv Wolfman,  even a 13-year-old named Jim Shooter who would later succeed Thomas as top dog at DC’s cross-town rival — and like Marvel’s “young turks,” these fresh-at-the-time faces were all “graduates” of comic book fandom, brought in when the seasoned pulp pros who made up the company’s earlier freelancer ranks, men like Gardner Fox and John Broome, were summarily fired by management for having the audacity to try to form a union and push for radical things like health insurance and retirement benefits.

It’s a situation that persists, as you’ve no doubt guessed, to this day, with skilled, “overpaid” veteran hands being replaced on books whenever they ask for a raise by 19-year-olds fresh out of mom and dad’s house who only a few weeks earlier passed their art portfolios or spec scripts across convention tables from their clammy, sweaty, trembling hands into the ever-eager paws of DC and Marvel editors always on the lookout for cheap, easily-exploited talent. The end result? A half-century of hopelessly derivative storytelling punctuated only occasionally by the arrival, and usually-quick departure, of visionary talents who really do want to expand the medium’s boundaries, only to find their work drowned under and endless sea of “updated” Spider-Man vs. Doctor Doom battles.

Comics, though, are only the most glaring and obvious example of what happens to entertainment media when former fans are put in charge : it’s happening in movies and TV, too, and there is perhaps no better witness for this particular prosecution than J.J. Abrams, who, having cut his teeth on prime-time fare such as Alias and Lost, was soon handed the keys to one of Hollywood’s most dependable cash cows, Star Trek, and, having proven his bank-ability there, found himself approached by Marvel’s semi-new corporate parent, Disney, to revive George Lucas’ Star Wars juggernaut when Lucas sold out for a reported $4 billion and headed off into the sunset.

A perhaps-intimidated Abrams said no at first, but when no other names leaped to the forefront, The Mouse came calling again — apparently with even more money in its bag — and the rest, of course, is history. Which brings us, finally, to episode VII of the Star Wars saga, The Force Awakens.

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Certainly there’s nothing on offer here that would offend long-time fans in the way that Lucas’ reviled prequel trilogy did, and while I found myself smiling more often than not as I watched the film, it only took all of about five minutes’ reflection afterwards for me to wonder if Abrams’ note-for-note fealty might not be its own kind of insidious trap — and one that bears a strong correlation to the situation at Marvel and DC I discussed just moments ago. There’s no doubt that studio edicts determined a lot of the content for Star Wars : The Force Awakens (I don’t think, for example, that it’s any coincidence that the first image we saw in the first trailer for the film was a highly-marketable robot that looks like a fucking soccer ball), but I don’t sense any real director-vs.-his bosses tension here, either. I’m sure that the film Abrams wanted to make is the one that got made (having veteran hand Lawrence Kasdan on board to co-write the script virtually guarantees smooth continuity anyway), it’s just that his vision for Star Wars is no different than what the bean counters want : a two-hour toy commercial peppered with just the right character arcs and plot beats to satisfy life-long fans and to silence (most, anyway) critics. By and large it works — but even under the full-throttle onslaught of  fan-wank, some glaring weaknesses are obvious, so I might as well delve into those right now, with a commensurate “mild spoilers ahead” warning attached.

For one thing, the intergalactic politics of The Force Awakens make no sens whatsoever. The one-time Rebels appear to have won the day, with the former Empire in retreat, but even so, a rump that apparently can’t get fighting out of its system known as the Resistance endures — presumably to “resist” both the very same government they’ve created, as well as the remnants of the fascist/Dark Side apparatus that have re-grouped as the First Order. Except then we find out that the new Republic in in league with the Resistance, and so appears to be supporting, if not even funding, its own opposition under the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” since neither group is particularly fond of the First Order. There’s reason for both to fear the FO, of course, given that they’ve perfected some new super-weapon that’s much larger and more powerful than the dreaded Death Star — but the movie is almost 3/4 over when we find that out, given that Abrams and company have taken some mighty side-steps from their supposedly “main” narrative that introduces new characters like Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in order to re-introduce familiar faces like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Pricess/General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and, eventually, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Don’t get me wrong — I grew up on the original Star Wars trilogy and want to know what happened to all these folks as much as anyone, but to sacrifice valuable screen-time that could be utilized to establish a new mythology just to put some purportedly- finishing touches on the old strikes me as a colossal missed opportunity.

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Speaking of which — giving the great Max von Sydow a grand total of five minutes (more than enough time for an actor of his stature to create a memorable character) to make one appearance before getting killed definitely qualifies as just that, as does relegating the immensely talented Lupita Nyong’o to voice-over work for a CGI stand-in. We expect that sort of treatment for Andy Serkis (and he gets it as the First Order’s new Emperor Palpatine stand-in), but one of the most promising new talents of her generation surely deserves better.

As does Oscar Isaac, frankly, who admittedly struggles mightily as “the new Han Solo,” but should have been given a chance to actually develop his character a bit more before disappearing altogether until the film’s final act. And while Ridley and Boyega — especially Ridley — come up big in their roles and show themselves as being more than capable of carrying a film, Abrams’ hard lean on the nostalgia button insures that they’re given no opportunity to do so.

On the bad guy front, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is a character hemmed in by his director’s overly-reverent take on the original trilogy, as well. Appearing at first to be a somewhat lackluster Darth Vader redux, his backstory is fleshed out all too quickly (and all too awkwardly, as the “infodump” conversation between his parents veers into “painfully stilted” territory), and his big confrontation with his father? Well, it plays out more or less exactly as you’d guess it would. It also doesn’t help that Driver himself lacks the acting chops to convincingly sell you on his character’s supposed “emotional conflict.”

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And yet, for all that — not to mention the crass, overblown commercialization attendant with any Star Wars film that’s blown entirely out of all sense of proportion thanks to the franchise’s new corporate overlords — I still can’t bring myself to actively dislike The Force Awakens. The movie wrapped me with a warm, nostalgic glow for about two hours and, pathetic as it sounds (and no doubt is), I felt like a kid again for a little while — and living as we do in a time when there’s very real talk of us walling off  our borders, deporting Mexicans en masse, forcing Muslims to carry special passes and forbidding them to enter the country, and invading one Middle Eastern nation after another for with the explicit aim of stealing their oil, anything that harkens back to a simpler, kinder, saner time is worth something.

But I could have gotten the exact same feeling watching any of the three original Star Wars films, and therein lies The Force Awakens‘ greatest failing : by being so deferential to the Lucas/Kirshner/Marquand trilogy, J.J. Abrams hasn’t given us much by way of a compelling reason to care about his new one.

 

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To quote the Man In Black himself — “I sense something, a presence I’ve not felt since —” oh yeah, since the last horeshit Star Wars comic I read, Jason Aaron and John Cassaday’s Star Wars #1. Marvel cranked out the second issue (which I didn’t buy) of that series a mere two weeks after the first, and now here we are a week on from that with the debut installment of their first “spin-off” book, Star Wars : Darth Vader, which comes our way courtesy of respected creators Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larocca.

Given the thorough dressing-down I gave of Aaron and Cassaday’s comic (a view not shared by many, as most write-ups online have been positively effusive in their praise for it) , some readers might be surprised that I forked over five bucks for this one, but I was determined to give it a shot simply due to the fact that  Gillen is one of my absolute favorite writers at the moment (are you reading The Wicked + The Divine? Because you really should be), and the “virgin art” preview pages for this tacked on at the end of Star Wars #1 made it look kind of interesting. What the hell, I figured — even if it’s lousy, I can cut my losses quick and high-tail it after the first issue.

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Needless to say, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing. Yeah, I admit I went into this prepared for the possibility that it might suck, but there’s no way I could have guessed that it would suck this badly. Larocca’s art is nice, sure, even if it’s highly and obviously photo-referenced, but his stubborn insistence on horizontal panel grids for every single page (apart from the double-page splashes) begins to grate rather quickly, and even colorist Edgar Delgado’s nicely-rendered hues can’t save this comic from working your last nerve in the visuals department for too long. Salvador, buddy, you can draw pretty well — now please vary things up a bit so we actually want to keep looking at your drawings from the first page to the last!

Still, that’s a chump-change complaint in comparison to the larger one I have about this book — one that, in retrospect,  should have been obvious from looking at the cover alone. I’ll freely admit that Adi Granov gives us a nicely-rendered, iconic Vader pose to kick off the proceedings (one of a dozen different options for the easily-snookered consumer to  choose from, including the ever-popular Skottie Young and “Action Figure”-style variants, as shown), but within a few pages it becomes apparent that he didn’t opt for a “timeless”-style image simply because this is a first issue, but because nothing fucking happens in this comic that he can base a cover on. Yes, the fact that this is most likely a standard-length story that was expanded out to 30 pages so Marvel could gouge an extra buck out of readers is a problem (and one not unique to this book — Marvel recently had Joe Quesada spread Grant Morrison’s “lost” Miracleman story out from what should have been three or four pages to 10 for All-New Miracleman Annual #1, with predictably disastrous results) that well-nigh destroys any sense of pace and timing Gillen’s script could theoretically have possessed, but the simple turth of the matter is that there’s not even enough happening here to fill a standard 20-page comic.

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Consider : Vader is sent by the Empror to cut some sort of deal with Jabba The Hutt. Upon arrival, he kills a couple of Hutt’s lackeys with his light saber. He attempts to cut a side-deal of his own while there, and a flashback sequence showing him being chastised by Palpatine for letting the Death Star be destroyed (like Aaron and Cassaday’s Star Wars this series apparently takes place between A New Hope  and The Empire Strikes Back) that dovetails with events happening over in the “main” SW book shows why he’s opting to play this little gambit of his out. Then he meets up with the guys who are going to help him with his  “off-the books” mission, Boba Fett and some Wookie sidekick of his. The end. Positively scintillating stuff, is it not?

Yeah — I didn’t really think so, either.

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About the only thing I can say in this book’s favor story-wise is that the opening “credits scroll” is kinda fun in that it’s clearly written from a pro-Empire, pro-Vader point of view, but beyond that I have to admit that Gillen really seems to be mailing it in here. Some might just chalk this up to the absence of his frequent creative partner Jamie McKelvie, but that theory quickly falls flat on its face when you consider that  Uber is a pretty good book and McKelvie is nowhere to be found on that one. More than likely I think the obviously talented writers Marvel is employing on their Star Wars comics don’t seem to give much of a shit about the work they’re turning in here because the publisher itself doesn’t give much of a shit. As long as they have all the superficial trappings in terms of look and feel of the films themselves, the so-called “House Of Ideas” knows that most of the suckers out there will be back every month. The old saying might go “once is an aberration, twice is a coincidence, and three times is a pattern,” but two strikes is definitely enough for me as far as these SW series go. Star Wars #1 was a failure, Star Wars : Darth Vader #1 is an absolutely dismal failure, and the forthcoming Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo “spin-off” books won’t be getting any of my hard-earned cash.

Not that it matters much, of course — some poor schmuck will no doubt buy two copies of every cover for each comic, and Dis/Mar will get by just fine without my custom. Folks like that are the real “target audience” for these books, anyway, as evidenced by the fact that so far there’s been no attempt to even interest anyone else outside of the hardest of hard-core Star Wars fan circles. Mind you, those people probably should be pissed off about the fact that Marvel is so openly contemptuous of them that they aren’t even bothering to give ’em much of anything for their money, but maybe that’s just human nature — if readers are going to fork over the same $4.99 a pop regardless of how much effort you put into it, would you bust your ass, or would you just put the whole thing on cruise control, sit back, and collect their money?

 

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So this is it. After months of relentless hype and build-up, the opening salvo of Dis/Mar’s full-spectrum Star Wars dominance has arrived in the form of the new Star Wars #1 from Marvel Comics. Get ready for more, of course — the year-long lead-up to the new SW flick, The Force Awakens, is going to get positively deafening. We’ve only just begun.

And the four-color page seems a natural enough place to start things off, given that the second Disney purchased Lucasfilm lock, stock, and barrel it was obvious where the Star Wars license was going to go once Dark Horse’s deal for the property expired at the end of 2014. Marvel is using “back home” as their motto not only for this series, but the solo series featuring Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, et. al. to come, and while it’s true that they were the first to publish Star Wars spin-off comics, I’m not sure if what’s going on here isn’t more of a consolidation than a true “homecoming.”

Still, make no mistake — a lot is riding on this book, and especially on this first issue. Marvel has put this out stapled between no fewer than 100 (yes, you read that right) variant covers (of which I’m only including a few examples —- hmm, can you guess which one is by Skottie Young?), and a distribution deal with Toys ‘R’ Us has them confidently predicting that this will be the first comic to sell a million copies in well over a decade.

Honestly, it’s enough to make the early ’90s — when people argued over whether or not Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 was a “legit” million-seller because it featured two different covers — seem quaint, isn’t it? Of course, the profits involved here are staggeringly higher,  even though the numbers being bandied about are similar,  simply because Spider-Man hit the stands with a cover price of $1.50, while Star Wars costs a mind-boggling $4.99, and it doesn’t exactly take a math whiz to figure out that a million books at five bucks a pop adds up to five million dollars. Sure, the price per issue Marvel is getting from Diamond — and Diamond from the stores — is a lot lower than the $4.99 us dumb suckers have to pay, but considering that the variant covers are being parceled out based on number of orders per shop, and that most of them cost anywhere from $10 to $50 depending on their “rarity,” five mil seems like a pretty solid bet for this book’s total take for its publisher at the end of the day.

Tell ya what, Marvel will probably reach that lofty goal, too — at my local comic shop this morning (Comic Book College on Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis) there were all kinds of people pouring in who quite obviously hadn’t set foot in the place in years, if ever, and most of ’em were buying both the regular five dollar version to read and at least one of the variants, most of which were in the $12-$20 range, to bag, board, and presumably save forever — or to hustle off on eBay within the next week when demand will be at its highest, take your pick. One guy I saw was buying six different copies of what is, let’s face it, exactly the same comic.

Well, to quote In Living Color, homie don’t play dat, so I just walked out the door with the bog-standard version only, and I damn near didn’t even get that because this way a pricey enough Wednesday as it is, what with a number of actually good books coming out.

The common theme you’ll be hearing, of course, is that this temporary surge of interest is “good for comics,” because at least a few of the hard-core Star Wars fans out there who come into the shop will find a few other things to try, and if they like ’em, they’ll be back. Maybe that’s true — but I remain skeptical that this hoopla will be “good” for anyone other than Marvel, and that even for them it will represent only a temporary bump at best. Consider — the nearest thing conceptually to Star Wars to come out this week was the newest issue of Image Comics’ frankly far superior sci-fi series, Copperhead, and my LCS only ordered its usual five or six copies of that, despite the fact that anyone who takes a chance on that title probably will be back for more, while your average Star Wars customer, assuming they’re not completely drunk on Lucas Kool-Aid, is simply going to go home, read the thing, and feel instantly ripped off.

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All of which is my none-too-subtle way of saying that, you guessed it, I didn’t like the book. Oh, sure, I probably should have given the fact that it boasts a trio of “A-list” creators in writer Jason Aaron, artist John Cassaday, and colorist Laura Martin, but once the story proper starts in (after a mind-numbing four introductory “design pages” at the front), it becomes pretty clear that everyone involved is mailing this one in. Cassaday’s art looks okay but is nowhere near his usual standard with uncharacteristically sloppy character forms and facial expressions, Martin’s colors are solid enough but don’t really add any depth of feeling or atmosphere to the panels, and Aaron’s script is a threadbare run-around in space peppered with just enough quick and easy “spot-on” bits of dialogue to fool lazy readers into thinking he “gets” these characters. Shit, after spending most of the preceding 29 pages setting up some lame non-negotiation for the supply of unspecified “raw materials” to the Empire from our barely-disguised Rebel forces, the story ends on the most predictable cliff-hanger of all — a splash page teasing a looming light saber battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Hmmm — where have we seen that done both before and better?

From the moment I read the initial announcement regarding the creative teams behind these titles, the choice of Aaron to script the main series puzzled me. Yes, he’s one of the best writers in mainstream comics today — Scalped and Southern Bastards prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt — but gritty rural-ish “noir” seems to be his forte, and his one foray into the cosmic that I’ve read, Thanos Rising, was almost remorselessly uninspiring stuff, despite featuring some truly incredible art from Simone Bianchi. There’s probably nobody in the industry I’d rather have telling me stories set in Deep South backwaters or on “The Rez,” but as far as space operas go, Aaron just isn’t the man for the job. Sorry.

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Cassaday, on the other hand, definitely seemed like a “home run” choice for artist, but he’s really off his game here. Presented with a number of chances to do some truly dynamic, memorable splash pages — I believe there were three in this issue alone — his work instead appears stiff, uninspired, and even out of proportion. Is this really the same guy who did all those beautiful issues of Captain America a decade ago? He seems a shadow of his former self here.

Still,  while the choice of Aaron and the work turned in by Cassaday were both surprising — and not in a good way — what doesn’t surprise me in the least is Marvel’s decision to set these stories in between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. If you’ll recall, the first issues of Marvel’s spin-off Star Wars comic came out right after the first film and before the second was able to further “nail down” Lucas’ mythology, and consequently, a number of things that the creators of those books, most notably Archie Goodwin and Howard Chaykin, came up with were subsequently either ignored completely, or changed beyond recognition in Empire and Return Of The Jedi — things like a skinny, yellow-skinned Jabba the Hut with long walrus whiskers, or that pesky flashback scene that shows Luke’s father being killed in a light saber fight (of course) by Darth Vader. Clearly, there are numerous continuity issues here that Marvel probably won’t bother trying to actually resolve, but will do their damndest to bury under a raft of new, more technically “accurate” stories set in the same period.

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This is one reader who definitely won’t be sticking around to see how it all plays out, though. Star Wars #1 was so thoroughly mediocre, with all of the principal creators giving such a sub-par effort, that no matter how much better things get (assuming that they do), it won’t be enough to even drag this series kicking and screaming up to “average” status. Once upon a time, we got really well-done imaginative Star Wars comics, but that feels like it happened a long time ago in a galaxy — well, you know the rest.

 

"Starcrash" Movie Poster

What do you get when an Italian director and crew, French producers, and English and American actors try rip off Star Wars on a shoestring budget? Read on and you’ll find out —

In the later half of 1977 and the early part of 1978, every movie executive worth his or her salt was looking for the next Star Wars. George Lucas’ space epic had literally revolutionized the movie business and become a blockbuster the likes of which the world had never seen before.  And who would you expect to be at the forefront of those looking to cash in, often as directly as possible, on the public’s sudden love for epic space adventure?

That’s right, friends, the Italians were standing right at the front of the line, eager to prove they could so sci-fi intergalactic opera at the very least cheaper, if not better, than anyone else. For a brief, shining moment between the eras of the spaghetti western and the pasta-flavored postapocalyptic yarn, between the Godfather riffs and the Alien rip-offs, the Italians turned their attention to the Star Wars homage, churning out titles like Star Odyssey, War of the Robots, The Humanoid, and the most well-remembered of the bunch, writer-director Luigi Cozzi’s seminal shlock masterpiece Starcrash (also released under the title The Adventures of Stella Star).

The (Stella) Star of the show, leaving no question as to why she got the part

Now, in fairness to Cozzi, he had been pitching an earlier version of this script around for several years before the global success of Lucas’  baby finally convinced a group of French financiers, lead by Nat and Patrick Wachsberger (who would go on to produce to Tom Cruise starring vehicle Vanilla Sky, among others) to green-light his project. But Star Wars blowing up the way it did was both a blessig and a curse for Cozzi — yes, it insured that his pet project would finally get made, but it was with one important caveat — he had to make it as similar as possible to Georgie-Boy’s cash cow, his initial ideas be damned.

And so what began life as an homage to the old sci-fi Saturday afternoon serials of the 30s like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (Cozzi was a lifelong sci-fi fanatic) ended up evolving into a pastiche of a movie  that was — well, that was a modern retelling of those old classic matinee serials, anyway, as Lucas himself has admitted that they were the single biggest source of inspiration for his at-the-time-nascent franchise.

Still, it wasn’t quite what Cozzi had envisioned, and his script was fucked with so mercilessly that co-producer Nat Wachsberger himself ended up with a co-screenwriting credit.

The matinee serial pedigree didn’t really get entirely buried, though, as Starcrash doesn’t so much tell a story as string a bunch of disjointed scenes together. Roughly every ten minutes or so our heroine, intergalactic smuggler Stella Star (British beauty Caroline Munro — looking, it must be said, sensational) finds herself plunged into a new ordeal that barely has anything to do with the last. So don’t expect the script to make much sense here — and Cozzi and Wachsberger’s rather rudimentary grasp of English doesn’t help matters much here, either. What we’ve essentially got is a story that makes very little sense being “explained” to us by dialogue that makes even less. But you’re not here for the story, you’re here for the spectacle, right?

Original "Starcrash" VHS boxcover. Looks kinda familiar ---

On that score, Starcrash doesn’t disappoint. As pure visual feast, it’s unlike anything else you’ll ever see. Which is not necessarily a compliment.  Nor is it a criticism. It just — is.

Due to budgetary constraints above all else, this movie has a unique stylistic — uhhhmmmm — sensibility that was almost certainly achieved by accident, but definitely stands out for its absolute singularity. Starcrash is a unique viewing experience, and I use that term with precise intent. Star Wars may have had revolutionary special effects, expansive sets, seminal costume designs, and sweeping landscapes and starscapes, but goddamn if you won’t find the overall look of this film a whole lot more memorable.

Let’s go down the list of visual treats on display here — art-deco primary-color starfields, glowing planets, dime-store Ray Harryhausen stop-motion robots and monsters (Harryhausen’s work was another admitted huge influence on Cozzi), a blue-headed (and shaved-headed) alien cop, a “robot” with a southern lawman’s drawl that breaks the visual stereotype of characters dressed head-to-toe in black being automatically evil, lava-lamp red blobs which are alternately referred to as “energy waves” and “monsters,” (script continuity, again, is not a strong selling point here), “hyperspace” travel that looks like a drawing of energy-zap motion lines on the screen, black construction-paper “outer space” backdrops, the Maniac himself, Joe Spinell (in the first of three films he would appear opposite Munro in, the others being The Last Horror Film and, as mentioned a split-second ago, Maniac, which TLHF was actually a sequel-in-all-but-name to) decked out in an outer space Dracula costume, and our gal Caroline prancing around for about 3/4 of the movie in a black leather bikini. Yes, this is indeed a feast for the eyes in every sense.

You're probably wondering why I've called you all here ---

The disjointed and entirely nonsensical visuals literally leave the viewer not knowing what the hell he or she will be seeing next, and since the “plot” leaves the viewer not knowing what the hell will happen ext — or indeed, what just happened before — it all works together almost operatically. If you go hit the opera on three tabs of purple microdot, that is.

There are some surprising flourishes of actual quality in here, as well, which makes the already-convoluted proceedings even more of a hopeless mishmash. For instance, John Barry, of James Bond fame, provides the music score, and it’s a lot more elegant and majestic than the antics on camera deserve, to say the least. Barry himself admits that he stole huge chunks of the score for his later, Oscar-winning work on Out of Africa, figuring nobody would remember this thing (even though it raked in $30 million at the box office in the US and over $100 million internationally).

And how about that cast? Sure, we’ve got B-movie stars, and future Z-grade TV stars, left and right — but in the middle of Caroline Munro as Stella, former tent-revival evangelist (and subject of an Oscar-winning documentary on what a fraud his “faith-healing” shtick was) Marjoe Gortner as her faithful and quasi-mystical sidekick Akton, Robert Tessier as the treacherous sellout space cop  Thor, Joe Spinell as Darth Vader-without-the-mask Count Zarth Arn, Munro’s at-the-time husband Judd Hamilton as Elle, the comic-relief-robt-with-a-Texas-sheriff-twang, and a very young David Hasselhoff as Simon, who becomes Stella’s quasi-sorta-semi-pseudo love interest, we’ve got, flown into Italy for exactly 48 hours and probably getting paid  more than the rest of the cast combined — Christopher Plummer, as Simon’s father, The Emperor. More specifically, his full honorific is The Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe. Scoff all you want, but it’s a more prestigious title than you’ll ever receive.

Sure, the story’s not only got problems, the story is problems — but you almost have to stand back in wonder at how they make it all work (and yes, I use the term “work” incredibly loosely). Gortner’s Akton character, for instance, seems to develop new magical, or advanced scientific, powers  at the drop of a hat whenever they need to pull something out of their ass to move the action along from one scene to the next. He’s literally a walking, talking, breathing deus ex machina — that is, when he’s not a walking, talking, breathing info-dump of quick and nonsensical plot exposition.  And The Emperor can command his Imperial Ship to “stop the flow of time!” Don’t try that at home, kids (and it’s not a power that apparently always works, or that he apparently always thinks to utilize — for instance, it would come in real handy at the end, when Count Zarth Arn is trying to kill them all with his ill-defined doomsday weapon, but the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe comes up with a much more discombobulated plan — the “star crash” of the film’s title — to deal with a menace thousands of times more deadly than the one he stopped time to deal with a few minutes earlier). The normal laws of science don’t seem to apply to this flick any more than the normal rules of logic, either — for instance, when the Emperor launches missiles filled with soldiers inside into Zarth Arn’s ship, they break through all the windows and there’s not even the slightest bit of decompression even thoug the vessel is flying through space (specifically through the region known as The Haunted Stars).

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts --- she'll do .5 past light speed. Whoops, wrong movie ---

But I digress. Again, if you’re here for the story, you’re watching the wrong movie.  If the appeal of Starcrash can be summed up in one word, it’s the absolute and unequivocal otherness of the film that makes it work. It feels like it was made by a group of aliens who intercepted transmissions of Star Wars from Earth, had no idea what it was was about or how to make it, but saw that it was making a lot of money and figured they would give it a go and see what happens. It’s a truly alien viewing experience, and it feels almost entirely decoupled from reality itself. Needless to say, I absolutely love it.

"Starcrash" DVD from Shout! Factory

And I’ve saved the best news for last — for “Crashers,” as the small-but-way-too-enthusiastic cult of fans that has sprouted up around this spaghetti space opera are known, the long wait is finally over. No more bootleg DVD-Rs or 30-year-old VHS cassettes. Thanks to the fact that legendary B-movie mogul Roger Corman (who, it should be stated, had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual making of this film) picking up its US distribution rights back in 1978, Starcrash is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray as part of the Roger Corman’s Cult Classics library from Shout! Factory. The movie is presented in a superb widescreeen 1.78:1 anamorphic high definition transfer that look,s no pun intended, stellar, the sound is presented in either 2-channel Dolby Digital or an awesome new 5.1 DTS surround mix, and as for extras, well —

How about not one, but two commentary tracks by Stephen (Shock Festival) Romano, who’s got to be the world’s foremost Starcrash expert (he wrote a book on the film that remains unpublished) — the first take a detailed look at the story behind the scenes of the film and its pre-production, as well as placing it within the larger context of science fiction movie history, and the second offers a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown of its production. They really should be listened to in order, and are numerated as “commentary 1” and “commentary 2” on the on-screen selection menu. Then there’s the trailers — three of them, to be precise. One is the plain, bare-bones version, then we get it with commentary from legendary director Joe Dante, who actually assembled the trailer, and in fact did all of Corman’s trailers for several years before “making it” as a filmmaker in his own right. And thirdly we get it with commentary from Hostel director Eli Roth, who offered his remarks on it as part of his “Trailers From Hell” website. You may wonder what the point is of watching the same damn preview three times in a row, but trust me, you’ll want to. Then we’ve got an enormous selection of still photos featuring screen caps, pictures from the studio floor, behind-the-scenes production stills,  all kinds of advertising and poster art from around the world, and even a selection of fan art. Next up there’s a detailed interview with the man himself, Luigi Cozzi, and to top it all off we’ve got a nearly 20-minute featurette on John Barry’s score for the film.

And folks, that’s just on the first disc (unless you’ve got the Blu-Ray, in which case everything’s contained on a single disc). The second disc features a 72-minute interview with Caroline Munro about her entire career, with special attention paid, of course, to Starcrash, , a feature on the making of the special effects for the film, 17 deleted scenes that Corman excised for the US theatrical cut of the film, a selection of behind-the-scenes home-video taken during shooting presented with commentary by Romano, and the entire original screenplay presented in .PDF format for your PC or Mac, including corresponding storyboard sketches for many of the scenes.

No doubt about it, this DVD/Blu-Ray release is a genuine labor of love, and while all of the releases in the Roger Corman’s Cult Classics series have been, to date, superb, this stands out from the rest of that admittedly dinstinguished pack and is, I think it’s fair to say, the year’s best DVD release.

Do I even need to tell you to rush out and pick this up immediately? I didn’t think so.