The Mos Eisley cantina, or when Star Wars became Star Wars

I remember the exact moment Star Wars: A New Hope cast its spell on me for good. It was a dark and dusty bar in Mos Eisley, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and it was filled with aliens. 

So many aliens! Despite endless franchising ever since and a big diluting of Star Wars mania for me, I’ll always love that cantina scene. This couple of minutes of film is crammed with babbling extras and inventive aliens and it opened up that Star Wars galaxy wide, to be far more than just that farmboy Luke Skywalker and few chirpy droids. The cantina was everyone and everything. It was a universe, filled with mysterious critters and their stories. 

Literally every single character that gets a second or two of screentime in this sequence has since gotten a name and their own complicated story in the “expanded universe” – sometimes a few versions of it. There’s the fun 1995 paperback Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina which delves into dozens of backstories and sidestories for everyone from Momaw Nadon (Hammerhead) to Muftak (the multi-eyed bear thing). The more recent From A Certain Point Of View collection imagines several more side stories from the cantina and the rest of the 1977 movie, and a listing of the gazillions of other Star Wars retellings over the years is far beyond the scope of one mere blog entry. 

I have trouble imagining a single work that has had quite so much backstory and interpretation for every single mask-wearing extra later added into it. You’d probably have to look at the Bible or Shakespeare for something that’s been examined and reimagined quite so much. 

There were just four cantina alien action figures released by Kenner in their original wave back in the day – “Snaggletooth,” “Hammerhead,” “Walrus Man” and Greedo. Poor doomed Greedo is the only one who actually got a name, and later on the others like Walrus Man got less, um, kinda racist names (he’s actually Ponda Baba, and he’ll kill you just for looking at him funny). 

Back in elementary school, I remember friends and I trading our Star Wars figures and daydreaming about other ones they might make – we all wanted the cantina band, but they didn’t get action figures until the late 1990s. By now pretty much everyone who appeared in that cantina scene has an action figure. There is a part of middle-aged me that craves them all. 

Because there were less of them, these OG Star Wars figures were played with within an inch of their lives. When there were just 20 or so of them, old Walrus Man (sorry, Ponda Baba) got pulled out a lot. And don’t even get me started on the mysteries of Red Snaggletooth and Blue Snaggletooth. (A friend had a Blue Snaggletooth once, and to us Kenner geeks it was like a comics fan pulling out an Action Comics #1 or a Beatles fan pulling out the butcher cover.) 

That was the appeal of old school Star Wars – there was so much hinted at in it that you could fill in the gaps yourself forever. There was a great Marvel comic book and the action figures; no internet, no expanded universe yet. You expanded your own universe.

I still feel the cantina scene is what made Star Wars for me – lifting it from a cool Flash Gordon homage about daring heroes and princesses in peril to a passageway to a galaxy vast, strange … and full of an unimaginable bounty of stories. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #8: Alfie (1966)

What is it: “What’s it all about, Alfie?” A time capsule of swinging ‘60s London, it’s the movie that made Michael Caine a superstar and broke many longstanding movie taboos in its frank depiction of a bed-hopping Lothario and the damage he leaves in his wake. Caine’s Alfie is an unapologetic cad juggling multiple women with a casual sexism that’s pretty savage more than 50 years later, yet despite his character’s nastiness Caine also charms – it’s the birth of one of the cinema’s greatest stars. 

Why I never saw it: First things first – I’ve always liked Sir Michael Caine, who brings authority and intelligence to pretty much everything he does, even A Muppet Christmas Carol. However, my exposure to him began with middle-aged Caine – the first movie I remember seeing him in was Blame It On Rio (1984), nominally a very ‘80s teen sex comedy about a man having a mid-life crisis affair with his best friend’s daughter. It’s highly creepy stuff in hindsight, yet what sticks out (besides the plentiful nudity that first caught teenage me’s eye) is Caine’s nuanced, frazzled performance, far better than the movie itself merits. I later grew to dig Caine in such ‘80s flicks as his hilarious turn in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and particularly his Oscar-winning role in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Yet it’s taken me years to really dig into the great run of 1960s/70s movies that made Caine’s career – the astonishingly gritty Get Carter, the classic heist flick The Italian Job, the marvellously intricate duel of wits that is Sleuth. And there’s 1966’s Alfie, his first enormous hit, which in some ways feels as ancient as Victorian times to today, but still has plenty of bite. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Alfie is a product of its time – post-war London, men who don’t bother with birth control, country clinics for tuberculosis patients and women who come second to men in almost every arena. It’s got a bit of a reputation as a light-hearted swingers’ comedy romp, but it’s really more of a drama – like Saturday Night Fever, another movie that is far darker and more cynical than its frothy reputation. Alfie dumps women at a moment’s notice, refers to them as “it”,  and fathers two children that we know of with little consideration for his lovers. Frequently breaking the fourth wall to laddishly address the audience, Alfie at first seems a charming jerk, but we soon see the damage he leaves behind. The emotional heart of the movie is a harrowing abortion sequence involving the wife of one of Alfie’s friends (a terrific Oscar-nominated performance by Vivien Merchant). What makes Alfie linger is Caine’s performance, which balances swaggering arrogance and snarky wit with just the faintest glimmers of self-analysis. He’s a confident Cockney bastard, and you often hate him, but Caine gives him more depth than say, Robert Redford or Peter O’Toole might have. There’s something a bit reptilian about Alfie, a sense that something is always held back. Alfie gets his comeuppance, in a way, but you’re still left with the impression he hasn’t really changed enough, or paid for the pain he dealt out. By 2020 standards, the world of Alfie is a time capsule, but there’s still a lot of Alfies out there today breaking hearts on Tinder and treating women with the same casual disdain Alfie did half a century ago. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely. Go in expecting a reflection of the world of 1966 which is pretty rough’n’tumble compared to today’s expectations of relationships, but underneath it all, a lot of how men and women interact today is still as cruel and callous as Alfie himself. It’s also the birth of a charismatic, unforgettable movie star, whose long career has always married Cockney confidence and charm with a hint of something darker, self-contained and possibly unknowable.

A year at the movies in the year of the plague

I went to the movies 237 times this year. 

However, due to the troubling times we live in, I only saw maybe six of these movies in the actual cinema. So it goes.

We all wanted distractions this year from doomscrolling and darkthinking. And social media rarely made me feel anything but anxious or mad, so to the movies it was. With new films in short supply this year, it gave me time to dig back into cinema history and either fill in some gaps or revisit old favourites. 

I started using the nifty website Letterboxd this year to keep track of my viewing habits. Turns out it’s actually a New Zealand creation which I didn’t realise at first, and it’s pretty swell – I don’t review the movies I watch on there, because then I’d spend the entire time watching a film trying to decide if it’s three or four stars … and besides, I spent years writing video and movie reviews for newspapers back in the day, so I’ve done my rankings time. 

As of Dec. 23, I’d clocked 237 films on Letterboxd since Jan. 1. The oldest movie I watched was 1922’s Nosferatu. The newest the superb Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which came out just last week. 

I’m fairly egalitarian in my habits. I watched a lot of the wonderful works of Akira Kurosawa and Robert Altman, but also trashy fun like Blacula, The Toxic Avenger and Flash Gordon. Sometimes you want an escape, like revisiting all three Karate Kid movies, and sometimes you want to be deeply moved by a film like Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

During the depths of New Zealand’s long initial lockdown, I watched all six of William Powell and Myrna Loy’s effervescent Thin Man comedies and dreamed of martinis and solving crimes. During the heart of the Black Lives Matter protests I watched Do The Right Thing again, with my son. Around American election night I re-watched Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, about a politician who loses his mind. 

There were great movies I’d never seen before – Michael Caine’s Get Carter, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, western Rio Bravo and fantastic more recent films like Midsommar, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and The Last Black Man in San Francisco. There was a dive into revisiting the always welcoming works of Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd. I got very into digging into the careers of Hal Ashby, Angie Dickinson, Michael Caine and Warren Beatty. The movies are an endless maze, with many exits. 

And perhaps best of all there were the occasional visits to the cinema again – getting to watch True Romance in a jam-packed theatre after New Zealand squashed COVID-19, or taking the entire family to see the big-hearted Bill And Ted Face The Music, which was so darned good-natured and amiable a reminder of the “before times” that it made one want to cry a bit for what we’ve lost.

I don’t mind watching movies at home, but the cinema experience is the real deal. As the curtain falls on 2020 and rises on 2021, I hope the big changes in how we view movies don’t take away their magic, and that I can still find ways to sit in a big room with strangers, popcorn in hand, and enter another world. 

“We live in a box of space and time. Movies are windows in its walls.” – Roger Ebert

In defense of that New Mutants movie

The New Mutants were what the X-Men were supposed to be. 

A group of outcast teenagers, struggling with strange new superpowers they’d been born with, in a world that hates and fears them. The X-Men used to be about that, but the super-sizing of the franchise over the years meant that got more and more diluted with Phoenixes and Wolverines and Gambits and such. 

I was the perfect age for the New Mutants comic which premiered in 1982, on the cusp of teenagerdom and a bit of an outcast myself. At long last, after nearly 40 years they got their chance to star in their own movie this year. 

Considering its epic series of delays, reshoot rumours and studio squabbling, the New Mutants movie by Josh Boone actually isn’t that bad. I rather liked it. It’s certainly better than the cluttered, underwhelming last several actual X-Men movies have been. 

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a five-star classic, no game-changing Dark Knight or Black Panther, but it’s a tight little potboiler that doesn’t utterly betray the spirit of the comics it inspires. It keep the core cast of the comics – Native American Dani Moonstar, Scottish werewolf Rahne, human “Cannonball” Sam, literally fiery Brazilian Roberto and the magic-cursed Illyana. The movie is set almost entirely in one mysterious institution where the teenagers are being kept forcibly, and the movie follows their attempts to learn more and then deal with the mystery powers of one of their own. It’s an origin story, but never forgets its central metaphor: Growing up is hard, but eventually, hopefully, you get better and find your powers in life. 

They fight, they squabble and act like real teenagers, not superheroes-in-waiting. Again, it’s not perfect – while Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy is superbly charismatic as the nasty Illyana, Game of ThronesMaisie Williams makes a good Rahne, but “Cannonball” Charlie Heaton has the worst attempt at a Kentucky accent I’ve ever heard. Yet it looks and feels a lot like the comic I loved, and refreshingly, the stakes are small for a superhero movie. There’s no CGI-filled battle for the entire world. There’s a little bit of unnecessary sequel-baiting but it doesn’t feel quite as assembly line as some of the other Marvel movies have, and has a much more horror edge to its storytelling. Like the comic itself, it realises that being a teenager is often a living nightmare. 

For its first 40-50 issues, New Mutants was a terrific comic book – written by X-Men guiding light Chris Claremont, it really dug into the teenage metaphor in a way that the older X-Men at the time (with the exception of Kitty Pryde) couldn’t. In its first 17 or so issues it was sturdy fun mutant superheroics, with lots of angst and batting mutant factions. 

Then in issue 18, like a bolt of lightning, Bill Sienkiewicz came on board as the artist and New Mutants proceeded to blow my mind. His impressionistic, painterly art was a radical change from the solid but very traditional artists before him, and suddenly the chaos of the teenage mind was laid bare in colours and images that surged off the page. It was an astounding mutation and Claremont, who works best with great artists, twisted to meet Sienkiewicz’s challenge with the best stories in New Mutants history – the “Demon Bear” saga which is loosely adapted in the new movie, the introduction of the alien Warlock, a shape-shifting surrealist blob who looked like no hero ever seen in comics, the rise of mutant fighting rings and more. 

New Mutants frequently got dark. In one of the best issues, #45, a young mutant commits suicide, and it’s dealt with in a genuinely honest manner. Then there’s the shocking issue where as part of mega-crossover Secret Wars II, a cosmic entity, the Beyonder, literally slaughters the entire team. It’s one of the bleakest mainstream superhero comics of the 1980s, an unrelentingly nihilist battle against an unbeatable foe, and at the end of the issue, everybody is dead. (Yes, they came back, but to Claremont’s credit, several issues were then spent dealing with the trauma of the team’s resurrection.) That one storyline alone makes the rather muddled mess of Secret Wars II worth it in my book. 

Just like the X-Men comics, the New Mutants comics eventually spiralled into an insanely complicated mess of continuity, spinoffs and hip new characters (I have zero time for the totally x-treme Rob Liefeld/Cable years). The main characters are still around (and of course, because it’s comics, barely have aged into their early 20s) and I like to check in on them now and again, but for me the first 60 or so issues of New Mutants was all I needed. Growing up, they felt like companions.

Again, I won’t defend New Mutants the movie to anyone by saying it’s a total gem. But in a year when we surprisingly ended up with almost no new superhero movies at all, it felt welcome. It brought to life a lot of characters I fondly remember that meant something to me at their age, and didn’t make me groan. When we’re literally surrounded by superhero TV and movie products, something that felt a bit more tailored to my childhood nerd hopes and dreams personally kind of hits the spot. 

Laurel and Hardy, still funny after all these years

In my dotage, I keep turning back to the classics to make me laugh – the film stars who were mostly gone and dead long before I was even born, the Chaplins and Keatons and Marxes. But I’ve long had one curious blank spot – the stylings of Laurel and Hardy.

I’ve been chewing through a fantastic collection of most of their best shorts and feature films the last few weeks, and enjoying how well many of these 90-year-old gags still work. The basic building blocks of their comedy – the pratfalls, the slow burns, the turns of phrase and the elaborate chaos – can be seen everywhere still in comics today.

Stan and Ollie became an institution, marketed long after their heyday in comic books and products, and even lionised recently in a well-acted (if a little too melancholy) biopic. Today it’s kind of easy to just see them as dusty archetypes and forget the actual comedians who first hit the screen almost a century ago. 

Many of their famous shorts spring out of fairly everyday domestic settings – a picnic with the wives, installing a new radio antenna, moving a piano. Yet inevitably these ordinary situations seem to go horribly askew in the hands of Laurel and Hardy, ending with plenty of Ollie’s outraged squeals and Stan’s weeping, all attempts at civility and erudition collapsing into a sea of tears and babble. Unlike the Marx Brothers, they’re not quite as surreal, and they’re not as mean-spirited as the Three Stooges

You can’t quite imagine the Marx Brothers navigating the bills and obligations of ordinary life in their movies, and while Chaplin and Keaton often took on domestic life, the elaborate performative style of their silent work gave it a more pantomime quality and they generally stumbled more when sound came on. Laurel and Hardy start off grounded, then spiral into chaos. 

There’s a formulaic glee to the best of their shorts, which tend to start slowly and ramp up into elaborately orchestrated disasters – a lot like any sample episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm does today, for example. That formulaic quality means you don’t really want to binge 12 Laurel and Hardy shorts in a row, but it makes them comforting. 

Escalation and repetition is key to Laurel and Hardy. If a piano falling down an endless flight of stairs once is funny, by the third time it’s kind of zen hilarity. The key to Laurel and Hardy comedy to me seems to be that everything falls apart a bit in the end. In 2020 there’s something kind of weirdly comforting about that notion. Same as it ever was.

Laurel and Hardy, in some ways, still feel like our reaction to modern life – Ollie, exasperated and raging; Stan, confused and flailing. In Ollie’s many world-weary double-takes as one of the pioneers in breaking the fourth wall, or Stan’s always-funny “sad cry,” we see some very modern gestures that still echo today. Not everything old is still funny – but Laurel and Hardy hit a gold mine that’s still paying off to this day.

Movies I Have Never Seen #7: Suspiria (1977)

What is it: One of the grand touchstones of moody horror, Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria. This highly influential film is a surreal nightmare about a young ballet dancer who discovers her new school is not what it seems. Inspired by Italy’s giallo horror subgenre (but not, according to many, technically a giallo film itself), Suspiria is drenched in vivid colours and disturbing sounds, and a horror film like few before it. 

Why I never saw it: As I’ve mentioned before, while I love a good horror movie, I’m less of a slasher movie fan. Suspiria’s blood-soaked, intense reputation kind of scared me off for a long time, and for many years, pre-streaming, it was also kind of a difficult movie to find to actually watch it. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Suspiria isn’t a movie you go to for plot – the “haunted house” storyline (well, haunted dance school) is as old as the movies itself. But where it soars is in creating a nightmare world all its own. Much of what makes a good horror movie work is mood. And Suspiria is almost all mood. The acting can be wooden and the story is a thin thread to drape the atmosphere around. Yet it all works, because Suspiria is about unsettling you. It’s that pounding iconic score by the band Goblin, which ramps up for the film’s gory set pieces to almost unbearable intensity. The gory scenes are brash and brutal, but the bulk of the movie basks in creating a more subtle unsettling dread. It’s seen in the film’s striking use of colours (it was the final film to use three-strip Technicolor), which make even the most gruesome of scenes oddly beautiful. In its own way, it uses colour as memorably as The Wizard of Oz, Vertigo or Black Narcissus. It feels like an adult fairy tale, a Snow White without dwarves but plenty of witches. Argento’s chilly, removed storytelling gives Suspiria a very Stanley Kubrick vibe. It’s defiantly original and unforgettable. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely, but not for the squeamish or easily rattled. As a sheer exercise in macabre, colourful style, it’s a cinematic milestone and perfect for the spooky season.  

Freddy Krueger, child killer and, briefly, the coolest man on the planet

It’s Halloween season, and while this year has admittedly been spooky enough for most, I still love to dive into some of my favourite horror movies over the month of October. Spook-tober generally always involves an annual visit to my old pal Freddy Krueger, one of the 1980s’ strangest pop culture heroes. 

I do dig the Nightmare on Elm Street series, with its dream-stalking serial killer Freddy murdering people in deeply inventive ways, usually while making terrible puns. I prefer Freddy, portrayed with a corny charisma by Robert Englund, over Halloween’s Michael Myers or Friday The 13th’s lumbering brute Jason Vorhees, who both always seemed rather dull compared to Freddy. Adding a dollop of black humour to the silent, ultra-serious slasher villains like Jason and Michael took Freddy to the next level. The potentials of the dream landscape gives the Nightmare movies far more creative killing fields than its rivals.

The Nightmare movies – there’s been eight of them, plus a widely panned reboot – are generally good gory fun. You’ve got the still-creepy original, the ultimate ‘80s horror/superhero indulgence of Part 3, The Dream Warriors, and a pretty clever meta reinvention with A New Nightmare. Even the lesser sequels – and by part 6, Freddy’s Dead, they got pretty sloppy – usually have a few fun one-liners and inventive slayings to enjoy. Heck, I even kind of like the monster mash Freddy Vs. Jason

But what’s still truly strange about Freddy to me is how popular he was for a span of a couple of years in the mid-1980s. Not just in a cult way. A child-killing nightmarish serial killer became a pop icon, appearing in everything from terrible rap videos to fan clubs to board games and bubble gum. The movies became big events, even as the quality of the series went downhill. I still remember going to a packed theatre for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, which is objectively not a great movie. Freddy became a wisecracking goofball who also murdered people, like an R-rated version of Bart Simpson or Yosemite Sam. 

Horror icons have often crossed over into pop culture – Karloff’s Frankenstein, Christopher Lee’s sexy Dracula, the Vampire Lestat – but they’ve rarely been quite so celebrated in the mainstream as Freddy was for that brief period of time. Make no mistake – Freddy Krueger, no matter how witty Englund’s portrayal made him, was no hero, not even an anti-hero. He was a thuggish, inventive psychopath, who hacked up children and teenagers and was never really given any sort of redemptive arc to make him more likable. 

The original series very carefully walked the line between “Freddy kills kids” and “Well, actually, Freddy’s a pedophile child molester.” (The 2010 reboot made Freddy more serious and really leaned into the pedo-thing, one of several reasons it failed to catch fire.) The sexual undertones of the Nightmare movies are a bit icky today, but they’re somewhat redeemed by the fact that in nearly every movie, a strong woman kicks Freddy’s arse in the end. 

As much as I like the Nightmare series, I’m not alone in wondering what that brief period of Freddy-mania said about where America’s head was at in the 1980s. Creeps were big – look at movies like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard and Wall Street, where the heroes are all basically kind of jerks. 

Was it just that Freddy was a funny guy who shook up the system? An ‘80s maverick party animal like Chevy Chase or Rodney Dangerfield who also killed folks? That Freddy didn’t seem to give a f**k about who he offended? (Cue up analogy comparing him to the current President.) Or was this pizza-faced, ratty-sweater wearing villain just cool, like the rock stars on MTV that he ended up hobnobbing with

I’ll always love the original Nightmare movies, even at their campiest. It’s hard to imagine a child-killing undead burn victim making it quite so big in 2020. I don’t think it’s that our culture has become “snowflakes” as some would have it, but somehow, things have changed a bit and while horror movies will always endure, it doesn’t seem likely their villains will become quite the pop culture juggernaut Freddy Krueger was for a year or two in my teenage nightmares. 

Godzilla Vs Hedorah, or the grooviest kaiju flick ever

Brothers and sisters, let’s rap about Godzilla’s strangest trip of all time, the crazy, freaked-out madness that is 1971’s Godzilla Vs Hedorah (also known as Godzilla vs the Smog Monster in the US). 

I love me some Godzilla, but the psychedelic 11th Godzilla movie is, um, divisive among Godzilla fans, and even landed a spot in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time

Yet there’s something nervy and loose about Godzilla Vs Hedorah that the mostly formulaic 30-something other movies in the franchise lack. It’s a Godzilla movie, so there’s smashing and screeching. But it’s also without a doubt one of the strangest Godzilla movies ever made, a dogged attempt to be topical and hip as Godzilla fights the evils of … pollution. 

The “smog monster” Hedorah is, to put it mildly, disgusting. He’s a shapeshifting blob of goop and tendrils whose most imposing form has a strong Cthulhu vibe, with one single sideways staring eye that never fails to creep me out. At one point Hedroah gets blissfully stoned sucking on factory smokestacks. He’s constantly leaking and spurting out his bodily fluids, raw toxins and disease. Unlike say, Rodan or Mothra, he isn’t cuddly at all. A scientist at one point says he comes from “a negative world of death.” He looms over the movie far more than Godzilla does. 

A trippy movie that’s soaked in 1971 vibes, from the go-go hippie music sequences to the inexplicable brief animated cartoons that pop up between scenes, Hedorah is firmly planted in its time. It boasts many of the familiar Godzilla cliches – an evil monster to fight, buildings toppling, an incredibly annoying little kid who keeps screaming “Godzillaaaaa!” – but there’s something spartan and weird about Hedorah. Godzilla himself seems half drunk, introduced with a bizarre woozy horn fanfare in each scene. (One of the most infamous scenes in Hedorah has Godzilla flying, backwards, using his nuclear breath to propel him. It’s mental as anything, and yet it’s another one of the weird touches that give this flick the feeling of a strange fever dream.) 

Unlike pretty much every other kaiju monster in the Godzilla series, Hedorah doesn’t flinch in showing the body count. At one point his toxic goo invades a boardroom of Japanese businessmen, who are then shown in a rapid cutaway all dead, soaking in ooze and oddly evocative of some of the horrors of Hiroshima. In several scenes, Hedorah swamps civilians and leaves them nothing but smoking bones. In most Godzilla movies, carnage is abstract, smashed buildings. Hedorah dissolves you.

Godzilla movies mostly stick to the basics, but some of the other films have tried to be topical – the 1954 original is all about nuclear fears, while 2016’s innovative Shin Godzilla, made in the shadows of the Fukushima disaster, is one of the boldest movies in the series since Hedorah. Hedorah is definitely preachy, but it’s hard to pretend its environmental message isn’t still in the right place nearly 50 years later. 

Director Yoshimitsu Banno was trying to shake up the Godzilla franchise from its kiddy-movie reputation. He didn’t really succeed in the long run – he was actually fired from the franchise! – but yet his goopy masterpiece still stands out from a line of assembly-line kaiju clashes. Most Godzilla movies are just popcorn fun, which is totally cool, but Godzilla Vs. Hedorah is the only one of them that really leaves you feeling a little creeped out over the horrors we can’t always see. 

Sometimes you can go back, and it is most excellent

So a few weeks ago I had a bit of a rant about inessential sequels, the never-ending Terminators and Predators and remakes which plague Hollywood.

But then on the flip side, there are the revivals that bring something new to their franchise, and when it works it’s like the best school reunion ever. 

Exhibit A: Forget Tenet, I am so here for Bill And Ted Face The Music. It was the first new movie I’d seen in theatres since March, and the first time the whole family went to a cinema since gosh, maybe Avengers: Endgame.

After nearly 30 years, was the return of Bill and Ted really necessary? Turns out it kinda was. Face The Music is goofy, silly and big-hearted, just like the other two Bill and Ted movies, and even if I kept squinting and seeing John Wick when I looked at Ted now, it was ultimately a mighty fine palate-cleanser for the sour stew that is 2020. 

These movies about time-travelling doofuses are not high art – and don’t think too hard about the plot mechanics – but they’re effortlessly charming, thanks to a never-goofier Keanu Reeves and the spunky Alex Winter (who is always fun despite a pretty low-profile acting career). When writing about Terminator: Dark Fate and other encore sequels the other week, I lamented how they just keep repeating the greatest hits. Bill And Ted 3 does a bit of that too, but it still feels scrappy, surprising and less machine-made than Terminator 6 or Predator 4 – and has a great subtext about what it’s like to be a middle-aged dude and still not quite made it. Its message of unity makes Bill and Ted feel weirdly relevant in 2020. It won’t win Oscars, but most of the unashamedly feel-good Bill And Ted 3 left me smiling like seeing a friend I hadn’t seen in years. That’s what any long-in-the-works sequel should do, rather than just straining to keep the intellectual property alive. 

Meanwhile, I’d have laughed if you’d told me a decades-on sequel to The Karate Kid would be some of the most enjoyable TV in ages, but Cobra Kai, which recently landed on Netflix, is absolutely a blast. I grew up with Ralph Macchio’s cheesy inspirational Karate Kid series, and even had one of my quasi-first dates at a screening of The Karate Kid Part II. (Peter Cetera’s goopy power ballad The Glory Of Love still slays the memory of pubescent me every time.) Cobra Kai is brilliant because it flips the script to tell us the story of Karate Kid Danny LaRusso’s nemesis from the first film, Johnny Lawrence (a terrific William Zabka), now a washed-up alcoholic trying to make one last go at his dreams. By turning the heel into a troubled antihero and giving returning Karate Kid Macchio (now a car salesman!) some much-needed moral ambiguity of his own, and tossing in the same stirringly motivational karate kicks of the original films, Cobra Kai turns out to be the model for how a franchise can come back from the dead and really have something to say. 

Even a once-adapted, beloved novel can have some new life in it, like Hulu’s recent take on Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. The 2000 film starred John Cusack, but the recent TV series flipped the switch and cast Zoe Kravitz as “Rob” Robin, record store owner and confused romantic. Switching genders doesn’t always improve a story – see the forgettable Ghostbusters remake – but Kravitz’s excellent performance finds new depth in Hornby’s tale, and the grittier, more lived-in feeling of the series elevates it above the movie. It’s a shame the show was cancelled after just one season as it was very promising stuff and moving well beyond just being a cover version of its predecessors. 

I still think there’s way too much strip-mining of popular movies of the past in hopes of striking gold twice. But Bill And Ted, Cobra Kai and High Fidelity show that if you’ve still got a good story to tell, there’s still hope for the future in the past.

Chadwick Boseman, and the stories left to tell

The death of Chadwick Boseman at just 43 from cancer hurts, coming as it does in a year when there’s been so much hurt already. 

Just over two years ago, he was the star of the biggest superhero movie ever at the time, the first nominated for Best Picture. But he was eye-catching and charismatic in everything he appeared in during his too-short starring film career, which spanned just seven years. To most of the world’s shock and dismay, we learned that he was fighting colon cancer for much of the time he was starring in some of the biggest movies on the planet. Unimaginable. 

He’s going to always be remembered for Black Panther, but he starred in several wonderful films, carving out a bit of a niche career as a chameleon portraying famous inspirational Black figures. Legendary baseball star Jackie Robinson. Soul star James Brown. The first Black U.S. Supreme Court Justice. He was very different, dazzling in each role and was much more than just T’Challa, the Black Panther. He leaves us these stories. 

I always loved the Black Panther as a kid. He was mysterious and cool, and back in the 1980s, he didn’t actually appear all that often in comics. And Chadwick Boseman brought him to life wonderfully on screen, capturing the Shakespearean tumult of a Prince-turned-King wrestling with his own power. I would’ve loved to see what he did in future films. 

Boseman’s pivotal place in Black film history is not my story to tell. But his starring as the Black Panther – telling millions of Black kids and adults that yes, a superhero could look like anybody – changed the parameters. He made the world bigger, and broader.

Some of us mourn actors and musicians because we see the storytellers they are, and when one of them dies suddenly or too young all you can see are the stories yet untold. Chadwick Boseman should’ve had a career stretching for decades, and it’s unfair. The last sudden film star death that hit me like this was Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I felt much the same thing – I wanted to see more. I felt cheated. 

Two scenes from Boseman’s turn as the Black Panther keep ringing in my head, neither one of them your typical superhero punch-ups. One is the quiet moment at the very end of Black Panther between T’Challa and his vanquished foe Killmonger, which achieves a kind of graceful sadness. The other came at the very end of Captain America: Civil War, where T’Challa confronts Baron Zemo, the villain who assassinated his father. 

Both scenes are notable for the calm centeredness of Boseman. At the end of Civil War, T’Challa decides not to kill the man he’s been hunting the entire film, and stops him from killing himself. 

He tells Zemo, “The living are not done with you yet.” Yes, it’s a line by a superhero to a murderous villain, yet somehow it echoes to me so much as I think about Chadwick Boseman today. 

He is free from pain now, but the living were not done with you yet.

There were so many stories left to tell.