It's been a year since "The Last Jedi" was released, and thus, a legion of online arguments about the merits of said film was born. But "The Last Jedi" was not the first Star Wars movie to diverge from the predicted path.
Last week I got the chance to chat up Jay Mewes, star of several Kevin Smith movies including the iconic “Clerks” from 1994. Mewes is super talkative, as he awaited his next opportunity to play the game “Fortnight” on his Facebook Live stream, which is pretty much what you would expect from the pop culture persona he’s developed for 25 years.
"Superman: The Movie" succeeds in so many areas that it's easy to see why it's still revered, while many other superhero movies, popular when released, have faded from memory. "Superman" inspired millions in the middle of a dark, cynical decade for the United States. Of course it's still relevant today.
As a toddler of the 70s and a child of the 80s, I’m in the exact generational sweet spot for the original Star Wars toy line from Kenner. While I may have enjoyed other franchises better, there’s no doubt I was among the millions of kids who played the hell out of these small, barely-articulated action figures. These hunks of plastic made an impression, as now there’s a huge fan base eagerly awaiting #ForceFriday, a social media marketing event about the release of the new toys from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which doesn’t come out for another four months.
Outside of buying some franchise toys for my kids so we can share the love of our fandom, I’m not really in the toy buying business these days, but I still have an extreme fondness for the original Kenner line. Back in the 90s before you can just look up obscure video clips on YouTube, I bought a bootleg videotape just filled with old “Star Wars” toy commercials (I also bought the Star Wars Holiday Special, but that’s a story for another time). There’s even nostalgia of the packaging, as the ReAction company now sells Kenner-like figures of popular franchises like “Aliens,” “Back to the Future” and more. If you ever thought to yourself, “I really like those Star Wars toys, but I wish they made a figure of the Gimp from ‘Pulp Fiction,’” I’ve got good news for you.
The nostalgia business is not just angling into the toy market. Since anybody with a smartphone can shoot, edit and release their own videos, and there’s clearly a market for our childhood obsessions of the 70s and 80s, I’ve discovered a whole cottage industry of niche documentaries about VHS stores, pinball machines and graphic novels available on streaming. One of these is “Plastic Galaxy,” a 70-minute documentary about those original “Star Wars” toys.
Director Brian Stillman talks to some of the original Kenner employees who dreamed up a 3 and ¾ inch scale universe, as well as some heavy “Star Wars” collectors (Not heavy as in weight, but people who own original prototype figures like the fabled rocket-launching Boba Fett). The loose story told here is of Kenner, a small Cincinnati toy company that exploded after they secured the license to “Star Wars” a month before its original release in 1977. As the movie quickly became a phenomenon, Kenner was caught flatfooted by the demand for toys, so much so that during the Christmas season that year, they actually sold a just cardboard stand promising buyers actual figures later in the new year. Today those “Early Bird” cardboards are one of the most prized “Star Wars” collectables fetching hundreds of dollars.
Much of the documentary is focused on the minutiae of the “Star Wars” line, from how they marketed the commercials to show kids how to play with the toys, to some of the odder, obscure pieces of merchandise. There is a too-brief section on Kenner designers creating their own toys for an art exhibit. This is mostly the equivalent of spoon-fed sugar, pushing happy memory after happy memory to the point that when anything suggests a less-cheery thought (like the Kenner supervisor who missed two years of his kids’ lives because he was working nights and weekends at the height of "Star Wars" fever), dramatic music and editing kicks in, almost to let us know the bad times will be over momentarily and we’ll get back to playing with plastic.
This is a documentary with limited appeal if you have little interest in the franchise or its merchandise, but for those adults who remember playing with the toys as a kid, this might go down as easy as a bowl of Count Chocula.
“The compelling thing about these toys the fact that they can take you back to that time,” says one fan. “That’s the coolest thing about them.” Sounds about right.
"Plastic Galaxy" is available for rent or purchase on iTunes, DVD on Amazon or for free streaming for Amazon Prime members.
In honor of the occasion, I’ve rebooked the perfect blockbuster season, taking the best summer movies since 1975 (when Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” provided the perfect mix between crowd-pleasing fun and action-filled suspense) until last year. For five weeks in May and July, and four in June and August, I map out a season that even the snobbiest cinephile would have a ball with.
2014 was a pretty great year for movies, and despite adding a second child to the mix, I happened to see a lot of them thanks to a more flexible work schedule and a number of new movies hitting VOD and streaming services pretty quickly. There’s a lot out there, and a number of them below are now available free-ish on the streaming. Here’s my Top 10:
1. UNDER THE SKIN-Dark, haunting and an experience unlike any I had in a theater this year. It also happens to ting my child-endangerment senses off the charts. If you enjoy Kubrick and Lynch, do yourself a favor and check out this flick, now streaming on Amazon Prime.
2. IDA-It’s interesting to probably nobody but me that what I believe to be the two best movies of the year are both about young, pretty and naïve “women” going out into the world for the first time and being utterly changed by the experience. “Ida” is about a young Polish woman about to profess her vows to a religious order when she’s told to first talk to her aunt about her family history. Filmed in black and white with very little dialogue, this movie is starkly beautiful in what’s not being said. And it’s up on Netflix and Amazon Prime!
3. WHIPLASH-You’ve probably seen your share of teacher/student relationship movies, but this is less “Dead Poets Society” and more “Full Metal Jacket.” An intense experience, and the final concert is one of the best scenes of the year.
4. SNOWPIERCER-Between this, “Under the Skin,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” 2014 has been a tremendous year for sci-fi movies. Chris Evans leads an amazing cast as the leader of a downtrodden group trying to make their way through a train that carries the last group of humanity on Earth. It’s on Netflix!
5. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL-Enjoying this movie is probably completely dependant on your tolerance for Wes Anderson, but I loved spending time in this alternate-World War II Europe where decorum and intelligence are still considered the most redeeming traits in a film.
6. BOYHOOD-I wasn’t over the moon about this as a lot of other people, but it’s still staggering achievement to film one boy growing up over a 12 year period. The best attribute of this movie is how we recall the small moments of our childhood with as much weight as the milestones.
7. BIRDMAN-This flick probably appeals more to theater nerds, but “Birdman” is a fascinating study on how far we have to go to produce great art, and whether it matters at all in the end.
8. THE LEGO MOVIE-I’m not going to say I had a minor panic attack watching my kids put Duplos together in a different way from the instructions, but this is a pretty good movie.
9. FORCE MAJEURE-Have you ever wondered how would you react in a split-second crisis situation? Welp, it’s exactly what happens to one family on a ski vacation, and it threatens to tear them apart. Mostly dramatic and psychological, but also darkly funny.
10. THE ONE I LOVE-Here’s one thing I discovered in 2014: I tend to enjoy movies a lot more when I literally know nothing about them. So the only thing about this movie I’ll say is this: it’s about a married couple heading off to a cottage retreat to work on their relationship problems, and then “some Twilight Zone shit” starts happening. It’s on Netflix.
THE BEST OF THE REST: Nightcrawler, Stranger on the Lake, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Raid 2, Guardians of the Galaxy, Life Itself, Wild, Only Lovers Left Alive, and Big Hero 6.