Friday, January 12, 2018

The Last Jedi: the good, the bad, the controversial, and the outright absurd

Here is a brief overview of The Last Jedi in a nice simple format, devoid of the wordiness I'm so attached to. But if you want my very long and exhaustive thoughts, you can read them here. Be warned spoilers contained below.

The Good:
- Rey and Kylo Ren's force-connected conversations
- Light-speeding through the Star Destroyer
- Grumpy old man Luke excellently played by Mark Hamill (whether or not you like the direction they went, Hamill nailed it)
- Kylo Ren development (not great, but better than anyone else got)
- John Williams
- Artistic use of CGI at times
- Tender Luke/Leia reunion
- Cinematography and setting of Ahch-To
- The force is strong with others, not just Skywalkers


The Bad:
- *Overcrowded plot*
- Too many subplots
- Not much character development
- Weak plots
- Benicio Del Torro as himself
- Feminism in the extreme (all the men are screw-ups, the end)
- Overuse of CGI
- Greyhound goats on the Monte Carlo planet
- Rose's speech about classism
- Rescuing abused animals
- Sea cows
- Alien nuns
- Misused self-satirizing humor throughout
- Captain Phasma
- Vice Admiral Holdo


The Controversial:
- Luke's arc
- Ackbar's anonymous death, barely acknowledged
- The final battle between Luke and Kylo Ren
- Snoke's arc
- Rey's parentage revealed
- New uses of the Force


The Outright Absurd:
- Ships that blow each other up because they fly too close together
- Gravity in space
- Leia's Peter Pan moment
- All of the cast members that bring racial diversity to the movie are all involved in the same unnecessary subplot
- Luke's savage consumption of green sea cow milk
- The ship runs out of gas (they're not run by some nuclear reactor?)
- Vice Admiral Holdo vs. Poe Dameron -- just talk to one another and save the team!
- The Resistance is now small enough to fit on board the Millennium Falcon, and they think they're still taking on the First Order
- Crystal foxes to the rescue in time of need


Star Wars: The Last Jedi

"...let the past die. Kill it, if you have to..." 
- Kylo Ren

    Buckle in for a long read, because there's so much to say about The Last Jedi. For a bulleted review covering the main points in shorter fashion, see my companion review "The Last Jedi: the good, the bad, the controversial, and the outright absurd."

     The Last Jedi starts cold-open in a battle. The fragile Resistance is right on the edge of the First Order's blade, and like a threatened animal, the Resistance is fighting back with reckless ferocity. These introductory moments paint a sharp and uncompromising picture of the cost of these small victories, demonstrating the fearless devotion of the individuals that make up the Resistance, carefully humanizing each sacrifice. One particular vignette portrays a young female pilot giving her life to drop her load of explosives on an especially lethal First Order ship, rather than using those precious moments to save herself. Multiple times we are introduced to various faces, only to see them blown away later. The Last Jedi may very well have been titled The Resistance for all its focus on the Resistance fighters.

     One of the things that immediately comes to mind regarding The Last Jedi, is the cinematography. Luke's island sanctuary Ahch-To, an Avalon of sorts, is ethereal and haunting, beautiful in its serenity and unassuming presence on a seemingly endless ocean. While half of the movie takes place in the vast darkness of space, Ahch-To dreamily paints the screen with lush greenery and continuously rolling fog spilling across the screen. Like Yoda's final sanctuary Degobah, Ahch-To is remote and mysterious, suited for strange creatures and people who want to disappear. Everything about the setting feels cold and mysterious, yet somehow peaceful and unaffected by the problems of the universe. The very look of Ahch-To sets a tone of wonder and solemnity, appropriate for the refuge of a retired warrior.

     The Last Jedi, unfortunately, makes several pitfalls in multiple areas that are difficult to overlook, and the same aspects that resonate as strengths in one moment, make dizzying turns into weaknesses the very next moment. For example, the misty setting of Ahch-To seems a natural and tranquil monastery for Luke with its severance from the rest of the galaxy, but then we find the island populated by alien nuns, sea cows, and marketing bait called Porgs. One moment, The Last Jedi raises the use of CGI to the highest artistic levels; in particular a soundless moment involving one vessel using light-speed to harpoon its opponent ship, but elsewhere, characters make a preposterous escape on goat-creatures in a sequence so clearly green-screened, it feels cut and pasted from The Hobbit movies. Rey's "cave sequence" uses carefully and delicately constructed imaging to give the moment maximum impact without distracting visuals, artfully choosing a minimalist approach to this pensive moment. She emerges from this jarring experience back into the world of alien nuns and Porgs. The final battle features on a mineral planet where the white surface of the earth stirs red when disturbed, giving a unique and enjoyable visual effect, but there are these CGI crystal foxes running around, distracting from the greater conflict. The opening battle features a band of ships that blow each other up because they nonsensically fly too close together, setting up one pilot's emotional personal sacrifice, right on the heels of Poe prank-calling General Hux. The Last Jedi serves up a variety of moments that reach movie greatness, which are then flippantly shot down by its tonal inconsistency.


     One of the biggest issues for The Last Jedi is that it splits its focus among so many characters, that the potency of any one character is seriously diluted. None of the characters we met in the previous installment really do anything new or surprising here. Poe gets more screen time, but behaves exactly as you'd expect him to after his brief scenes in The Force Awakens. He's cocky, reckless, and willing to pay any price for victory. Despite his loyalty, he tends towards rashness, which hinders his ability to be a key leader in the Resistance. Ultimately however, Poe will always whip his head around at the right moment and come up with a plan, mostly saving the day and proving that he's at least got his heart in the right place. But... it never really dawns on him how many people in this story end up dead because of him (the initial battle, his unnecessary mutiny that ultimately set them up for betrayal, etc.). Vox sums up Poe as "shooting at anything he doesn’t like. He can’t see past his next move. And so, between defying orders, mutinying, and leaking highly sensitive information, he almost single-handedly gets the entire Resistance wiped out...He’s a blight, a danger to himself and the entire crew."

     Another returning character is Finn, whose background as a stormtrooper deserter turned Resistance fighter had some of the greatest potential for further development. In The Force Awakens, Finn was the main source of comic levity, but also managed to make an impression as a significant character. Here, Finn has neither comedic moments, nor important moments; his main function is to carry out an entirely disjointed subplot that ultimately has zero impact on the story. Eventually, as he careens towards self-sacrifice in an act that would save the small band that remains, he's hindered, and they figure out something else. Sadly, he does nothing of consequence throughout the whole movie, criminally undercutting his character's magnetism from The Force Awakens. The former deserter is now a shallowed version of a previously charismatic character.


     On the note of splitting the focus too much between characters, The Last Jedi introduces a few new ones, one of whom, Rose, is set up to be a major supporting character or later love interest for Finn. The main problem with Rose is that she is part of the unnecessary subplot that Finn is carrying out, and there's no chemistry between them at all. Rose delivers some of the most awkwardly placed lines in the movie, such as firmly reprimanding Finn for thinking the Monte Carlo planet is cool when there is a serving class that she was once part of. Also... Finn, Rose, and later Benicio del Toro as himself, are all involved in this same distracting subplot, lumping all the ethnic representations into the weakest part of the movie.

     Rey was the protagonist of The Force Awakens, yet the scattered focus of The Last Jedi condenses her arc, which should have been the driving force of the story. Like her co-characters, she does nothing new here, and packs no real surprises. She's unflinchingly independent, idealistic, and hopeful-- more than Luke Skywalker ever was, which is saying something. While she might occasionally experience discouragement, she doesn't take any truly surprising turns as a character, and retains her Arthurian heroism from beginning to end, without the slightest hint of temptation towards darker means. Rey stands firmly and unshakably rooted to her high ground, even in her weakest moments. Throughout The Last Jedi, Rey never seems in danger of doing anything remotely imperfect. Unlike her predecessor Luke, who was prone to discouragement and being schooled by Yoda on his lack of belief, Rey is the one putting her tutor in his place and eventually demonstrating that she was fine without whatever he had to offer.

     Daisy Ridley plays Rey with a natural ease, and her scenes with Kylo Ren through Force connection are especially dynamic and creative, especially in furthering Kylo Ren's character. There's a connection between them that isn't exactly attraction in a romantic sense, but a definite likeness in their individual searches for purpose that draws them together in a uniquely emotional way. Despite these well-written and excellently acted sequences, Rey's personal journey still feels contrived and overly convenient. Although The Force Awakens established that Rey's force powers were far advanced already, even without formal Jedi training, the swiftness with which she can use the Force just as confidently as a master is a little too simple. Apparently all she had to do was close her eyes and take a deep breath; a far cry from Luke's intensely physical training with master Yoda. By the time The Last Jedi ends, Rey can use her powers easily and confidently, but one can't help feeling that it was all too easy, and that she didn't really endure trial or hardship to achieve her level.

     Moving on to Luke, the name of the movie is The Last Jedi, yet very little actual time is dedicated to this idea. When The Force Awakens closed, Rey had found Luke on a solitary island, and one of the final images of the movie was Luke looking at Rey with ... bewilderment? Dread? Surprise? Recognition? For two years we've been wondering. The Last Jedi reveals that Luke's expression actually meant "Oh, s--t."

     Luke Skywalker's portrayal here has been polarizing to say the least. Personally I'd say that Mark Hamill is one of the strengths of The Last Jedi; an underused strength at that, especially his delightfully candid grumpiness. Where the young Luke Skywalker began as a whiny youth who eventually stepped up to the challenge of becoming a mature Jedi knight, the old weathered Luke is supremely annoyed at having been found, therefore disrupting his perfect plan to eliminate the Jedi by simply dying. Like Han in The Force Awakens, it's clear that Luke has been through more than we know. While traces of the young Skywalker fleetingly run across his face, this really isn't the same Luke we used to know. This Luke has no semblance of hope, no will to fight, and certainly no inclination to train a new order of Jedi, not after his extreme failures.

     Hamill's return as Luke brings a somnolent gravity to The Last Jedi; he simply doesn't get enough screen time to do justice to the size of his character or the intensity of his history. The opportunities that might have been emotionally moving are glossed over. For example, when Luke sees Chewbacca, he asks "Where's Han?" His face falls as the reality of the loss crests, but then that's that and he's back to resigned old Luke with nary a tear, a cry of frustration, or even a wistful sigh as he looks over the waves. It's not that Han's death doesn't have some continuing impact, but neither the loss of his dear friend nor the depths that his former student have fallen to seem to affect Luke. He's either too far in despair to sink any lower, or too calloused from his years of isolation to truly process the loss outside of it being further evidence of his own failure.

     The Last Jedi labors to give us a Luke Skywalker that is dark and tortured ala Logan, but invariably pads each glimpse into his true heart with ill-timed humor and forced storytelling. The rest of the time, he comes off as apathetically melancholy, plodding around his island sanctuary ignoring Rey and telling her to get off his lawn or something equally curmudgeonly. When we are given the opportunity to see his fall from heroism, these moments are so rushed and clumsily handled that they can't help but feel painfully contradictory to the original Luke Skywalker. The strongest and most intriguing themes of Luke's character, such as his inability to live up to his own legend, are casually tossed aside in favor of attention to sea cows and alien nuns. The Last Jedi paints an unforgiving picture of a familiar story; heroes fall, and even the bravest succumb to cowardice. It's not the story we wanted or would have imagined for Luke Skywalker, and the brevity of our exposure to all that has happened to Luke between The Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi cheapens the hero's journey deeply. The Force Awakens used a few well-written lines to explain Han Solo's regression to scoundrel-hood and that was enough; The Last Jedi tries, but doesn't entirely succeed with the less-is-more approach to exposition as regards Luke. Whether or not Luke's portrayal is agreeable to audiences, Mark Hamill does an excellent job with Luke, and might have even more so with a little more focused story.

     As suspected, Kylo Ren's murder of his father Han is a point of continual conflict for Kylo Ren, much to the disgust of his master Snoke. Despite his insistent posturing that he is truly nonredeemable and firmly planted on the Dark Side, he's still lingering moodily in a sort of dark mediocrity where he continually makes choices to prove his evilness, while failing to convince the audience that these displays are anything more than futile attempts to prove to himself that he really has no light left in him. In his turmoil of identity, he neither begins a redemption arc nor entirely usurps the position of being the arch-villain. In The Force Awakens, his choice to murder his father seemed to be a kind of breakthrough for him in resisting the call to the light. Yet here, he is being ripped apart by that choice. So he does something else to further prove to everyone how far gone he is. And yet... it's still somehow not convincing that he is beyond saving. His choices feel impulsive rather than organic, and largely emotional rather than rational. This creates a bit of a dichotomy, because Adam Driver portrays Kylo with excellence, yet Kylo's struggle to stay on the dark side doesn't feel genuine. Maybe this gap is due to a host of unanswered questions as to how he really got there in the first place. Or maybe it's that Adam Driver portrays the inner conflict so well, that we're meant to question his true darkness. Maybe it's a combination of both. Episode IX will determine the final verdict on this particular point.

     As stated earlier, Kylo Ren and Rey's force-connected conversations are one of the strengths of the movie. In these emotionally charged moments, Kylo Ren is revealed as a layered and complex character, with some unique baggage driving his flight to the Dark side. David French notes that 
"the movie accomplished what Lucas couldn’t quite pull off in the prequels. It made a convincing case for Kylo Ren’s rage... All at once, we see not only why Ren is such a conflicted, emo Sith, we also see why Rey might have compelling reason not to trust Luke." 
     That being said, this is once again a theme that is handled a little too lightly onscreen, but makes sense in the realm of contemplation. Ben (now Kylo Ren) Solo's father never thought much about his powers. His trusted uncle and mentor nearly killed him in his sleep. His new master will likely dispose of him as soon as a better apprentice comes along. There is something in Kylo Ren that feels desperate and alone, making Rey's rejection feel disproportionately personal. Ren isn't the greatest villain Star Wars has ever seen by a long shot, but is certainly on a different path than our standard big bad guys have ever been, which is certainly compelling. 


     As far as the other villains go, Snoke (played by the chronically under-celebrated Andy Serkis) certainly strikes a different note than the Emperor as far as character and portrayal, but more or less fills the same archetype, but with more of a Marvel super-villain flair (including a rather flamboyant wardrobe). Whatever questions were generated about him in The Force Awakens are certainly not dealt with here, and likely won't be. General Hux, the new trilogy's answer to Tarkin, is an unintentionally self-satirizing caricature, going preposterously over the top in his every moment to convince everyone of his resoluteness to wipe out the Resistance, yet failing to do anything but deliver cliched villain lines. There is also the predicted return of Captain Phasma; a character whom the movie-makers seem determined to set up as some kind of arch-nemesis for Finn, but can't seem to make her into anything but aggressively unremarkable.

     When it comes to story, The Last Jedi could have endeavored for something more complex than a plot that is essentially about running out of gas at a bad time. This straightforward and unvaried plot is more suited to a two-part episode of the animated Rebels than a big blockbuster movie. Yet it seems that in this endeavoring, what results is an overcrowded story lacking depth. Throughout, the movie takes itself on side-quests that ultimately amount to nothing in forwarding the plot or developing the characters. Finn and Rose send themselves on a clandestine mission to a casino planet to find a guy who will help them disable the hyperspace-tracking device, but they may or may not actually find him (it's not entirely clear), sneak onto the ship, and then not even need this entire operative because the people they are out to save have another plan anyway. Rey travels to find Luke to invite him back to the fight and learn about the Force through him. Eventually, she can't convince him to rejoin the fight, she learns very little from him, and then proves that she never needed Luke's training in the first place. Then there's this whole piece where Poe leads a mutiny against General Leia's substitute, which ends up getting most of the Resistance killed.

     Where The Force Awakens leaned hard into sentiment, The Last Jedi strongly agrees with Kylo Ren's admonition to let the past die, maybe even actively kill it. Throughout the jumbled story vignettes, The Last Jedi seeks to reinvent characters, expectations, lore, and the universe in which these exist, with an attitude that cheekily disregards continuity and tradition. Seemingly to support this determination to bury the past, Yoda himself appears and sets fire to the ancient Jedi texts (or at least seems to). The Last Jedi is resolute in its irreverence of Star Wars tradition, blithely turning icons into cowards, giving some of the greater moments to characters we don't have time to grow to care about, and hammering on points of social commentary that are simultaneously unclear and condescending (ex. Rose's aside on child servitude, the tragedy of animal abuse, etc).

     Both JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson are clearly cognizant of the legacy they've been entrusted with, but neither seem intimidated or limited by the weight of this legacy, and have taken the stories in their own directions. To a great degree, Star Wars needs the unfettered creative talents of new people like Johnson who are willing to take risks, but doing so in the middle of a relaunch trilogy was a mistake on Disney's part. For example, the self-satirizing humor found throughout The Last Jedi is tonally out of place in a movie that was expected to take a darker and more contemplative approach. Even how the Force becomes a crutch for tricky situations creates a discontinuity with the seven other movies in this story-line. Johnson's treatment of the ends left loose by Abrams is glib at best, though admittedly not always unwelcome (such as Luke's response to Rey handing him his old lightsaber). Abrams handled The Force Awakens with the tenderness of a caring parent preparing you for life's hard truths; Johnson is the jerk uncle who outright says there's no Santa Claus, so move on with your life.


      If it is possible to remove the context of expectation surrounding the movie, both from the creative and the narrative perspective, The Last Jedi is actually a good movie; it's simply not what we expect of Star Wars. The National Review says of The Last Jedi,
"It's supposed to be something more. It could have been something more. The story of Last Jedi is a story of a movie walking right up to the brink of greatness, staring cinematic immortality in the face, and saying, 'Nah.'"
     It is mostly within this context of expectation and anticipation of greatness that The Last Jedi can be called a disappointment. While there are definite flaws to The Last Jedi, some of them serious ones, it tests some boundaries that we didn't know we had on Star Wars. Star Wars is changing drastically, and needs to in order to maintain its power as a defining franchise, but The Last Jedi moved this point forward a little too fast in its treatment of the iconic characters and story that began it all. By the end, the narrative choices made in The Last Jedi leave the new trilogy in some tricky territory, but not entirely a lost wilderness. Episode IX has a lot of ground to cover, and The Last Jedi doesn't set it up to be the unconventional finale as I might have hoped, but Episode IX is set up to rebuff the rule that the second installment in a trilogy is usually the strongest one. But, as Obi-Wan Kenobi once said,
"Many of the truths that we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." 


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Christmas Classics: Home Alone and Home Alone 2

Continuing my series on Christmas movies and their endurance through the years in holiday entertainment, today I select a more contemporary favorite; one of my own generation. 

     Home Alone and its sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York are classics of the 90’s on their own, with or without the fact that they’re also considered Christmas classics by many. Kevin McCallister will always be the role that McCauley Culkin is most remembered for; a career high at a ridiculously early age. So why is this museum of 90’s caricatures a must-watch year after year?

     Home Alone combines the worst fears of every parent (their child being alone and preyed on by miscreants) and the worst fears of every child (being left behind), and turns it into something hilarious and lightly sentimental. Most young boys fantasize about how they would deal with “bad guys”; Home Alone runs with this idea, presenting that maybe a kid with an imagination might be a force to be reckoned with. In many ways, Home Alone is the actualization of this boyish fantasy to protect his home and fight off “bad guys,” while also lightly exploring the delusions of adulthood from the perspective of a kid. Home Alone isn’t just a juvenile’s dream of playing the soldier, but also the fancy of playing grown-up for real: braving the basement, picking out your own food, sole possession of the remote control, and all of the fun things about adulthood, with none of the real responsibilities.


     The fantasy aspect of the Home Alones is certainly not the only factor contributing to their appeal, but I do believe that it contributes significantly. The boyhood tale of valor versus the bad guys feels familiar to anyone who remembers what it was like to be a kid and to have such imaginations. But what is also familiar here is the unapologetic portrayal of family. Home Alone delivers multiple moments of frustration and drama, and very few of the maudlin displays of love and affection more often associated with holiday movies. Whether it's crass uncle Frank, plump and sweet Aunt Leslie, bullying big brother Buzz, or a devoted but exasperated mom, everyone can find that one family member onscreen that's a heck of a lot like someone they know in their own family. 

     Unlike the plethora of holiday-themed romance movies or feel-good family movies, the originality of Home Alone and its sequel Lost in New York are two of a kind that has been often imitated, but never duplicated, and certainly never surpassed. The Home Alones marry a Three Stooges style buffoonery with light sentimentality and the one thing every audience member can relate to: a difficult family. That combination, carried by character archetypes of the 1990’s and the suburban holiday backdrop, make the Home Alone movies a unique kind of entertainment that is one part wishful thinking (beating up the bad guys through ingenuity), one part realistic association (difficult family, holiday hubbub), and by now, a bit of nostalgia for those of us that remember the 90's. 




Monday, December 11, 2017

Christmas Classics: White Christmas

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to be taking a look at a few choice Christmas movies that are considered classics, and talk a little about why I think these particular movies have endured over the years. What is it about these particular movies that makes them a must-watch year after year? What is it that has made these particular movies stand out and endure through time to be considered classics? 

I begin this series with an obvious choice, White Christmas.

     White Christmas is in every way, a quintessential Christmas movie. With the incomparable skills of Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney as the leading voices, and the peerlessly charismatic Danny Kay tapping and dancing his way around Vera Ellen, it’s little wonder that White Christmas has stood the test of time to become one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time.

     Although White Christmas boasts Irving Berlin’s iconic songs and “the most fabulous music and mirth show in motion picture history” according to the movie’s tagline, it is neither of these things that, I believe, are the true reason why White Christmas has endured through the decades. Certainly no one can sing it like Bing, but the heart of White Christmas is gently hidden in the sweet lyric “just like the ones I used to know.”

     More than anything, White Christmas simultaneously mourns and celebrates a bygone era for America, and for its individuals. When we first meet Bob Wallace and Phil Davis (Bing Crosby and Danny Kay), they’re dutifully entertaining their troops while deployed during WWII. When the war is over, the pair become hugely successful partners in the entertainment business. Bob Wallace immerses himself in workaholism to avoid being entangled with the bubbleheaded starlets he is necessarily surrounded by, while Phil Davis works tirelessly to try and get Bob to settle down and accept their new lives. A few subtle lines hint that Bob longs to find meaning and purpose in his work; something that the former captain has yet to find in show business. Maybe he doesn’t miss the war, yet as a viewer it’s clear that Bob is more at home standing on a makeshift stage on ruins in front of his fellow soldiers to raise morale, than he is consorting with showgirls backstage of elite clubs.

No character encapsulates this sentiment of seeking meaning and purpose more than General Waverly. There’s something in the life he used to know that is acutely lacking in his retirement. In the film’s most poignant moment, Waverly is publicly honored and remembered by his men for his years of leadership. The longing subtly aches for a company of men, a purpose to fight for, and the love and honor of the home country, just like they used to know. They don’t long for war, but for the comfort and warmth that coming home from war used to mean.


     Elsewhere, White Christmas relishes in what we call old-fashioned romance in the midst of grand song-and-dance pieces. Characters act selflessly, mischievously, nobly, and humorously. All of the hallmarks of a great romcom are present in White Christmas, and while that’s not what the movie is remembered for, it wouldn’t be the same without the sweet relationship between Bob and Betty in all of its 1950’s charm, or the awkward schemes of Phil and Judy driving the subplot. Truth be told however, the real chemistry here is between Phil and Bob, with their endless supply of witty lines endlessly thrown at each other. 


     White Christmas has become an all-in-one picture of the life, the holidays, and the friends “just like the ones I used to know” or wish we did. It’s an homage to a time (real or imagined) when patriotism was running high, romance was sweet and simple, and men would rise up to bring goodwill to their fellow man. Whether or not things ever were this way, the years upon years that White Christmas has been replayed have embedded this sentimental idea in our hearts, carried on the wings of a warm and inspiring story, and sealed with unforgettable music and mirth. 


Thursday, December 7, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

     For a franchise centered on the God of Thunder, the Thor movies have been disappointingly lackluster. Well, over-lustered truth be told. Preposterous costumes. Overuse of color. Dialogue bogged down in its own pretentiousness. And just when it seemed like Thor might only be good as a small part of the Avengers ensemble, we get Thor: Ragnarok. Thor: Ragnarok is over-lustered with preposterous costumes, overuse of color, and pretentious dialogue, but delightfully embraces it with gusto, humor, and shameless self-awareness.
     
     Thor: Ragnarok parodies itself and its predecessors at every turn, flatly refusing to take itself seriously. Whatever Thor and The Dark World were aiming to be, Ragnarok doesn't care. If Thor and The Dark World had ambitions of being part of a serious franchise, Ragnarok casually tosses these hopes aside and then knocks back a swig of Asgardian ale, swaggering onward without a care. 

     Ragnarok decides early on that it won't be bothered with petty emotional arcs, and immediately dispels with the weakest points of the previous two movies with apathetic irreverence. The completely nonsensical romance between the God of Thunder and utterly boring earth scientist Jane Foster is mercifully over, and not even Thor seems to mind that too much. Odin passes away, and neither Thor nor Loki are affected beyond the healing powers of ten seconds' screen time. When Hela, the sister Thor never knew he had, shows up to reign sovereign over all nine realms and beyond, Thor never even asks why he's never heard of her, or wonders why his parents never mentioned her. Elsewhere, Hela unceremoniously disposes of Thor's sidekicks, and Thor never seems to notice. In fact, if you weren't paying attention, you may have entirely missed that Thor's best friends have been offed. It would seem that angst, drama, and pondering are the domain of Captain America, not Thor. And this works charmingly well in Ragnarok. 

     Whomever it was that decided that the third and final Thor movie could do without certain things was equally wise in realizing that there isn't a necessity for such things to be replaced. For example, Jane Foster is absent from Ragnarok, Lady Sif is nowhere to be found, and there's no love story of any kind in the movie. This decision alone buoyed Ragnarok out of the painful mediocrity that The Dark World left the franchise in. Ragnarok also avoids giving us too many villains and subplots. Hela is the villain, and everyone else is a nuisance at best. Not even Jeff Goldblum's absurd Grandmaster seems very threatening next to Hela's elk-from-Hades vibe. Speaking of Hela, true to the tone of the movie, Hela is an over-the-top villain, fitting perfectly into this absurd world of flashy colors and outrageous costumes. She's not a tortured semi-sympathetic villain, but a classically aristocratic evil who relishes in her nefarious ambitions.

     Back for his fourth turn as the bane of Asgard is Loki, ever vacillating between narcissistic mischief and dark ambitions. Predictably, Thor and Loki must team up again while contending with how often they try to get rid of each other along the way. Thor will never stop insisting that Loki can't be trusted, all the while trusting him anyway. Loki will never stop insisting he can trusted, all the while stabbing the backs of whomever is in his way. Everyone uses each other, and that's just the nature of the game. Thor knows that Loki will ultimately betray him again, so he uses him as long as he can. Loki knows that at some point he'll want to make another play for power, so he plays sides wherever best suits him.

     In the way of new characters, personally, I didn't see that Valkyrie brought very much to the table other than fan service, but since I've already gone to great lengths to explain how very un-serious Ragnarok is, I can't be overly critical about unimportant characters or gratuitous cameos. Speaking of the latter however, I was expecting to see more of Dr. Strange after the end credit scene in his movie, but it was a somewhat shoehorned moment. The only real purpose for it seemed to be putting Cumberbatch and Hiddleston on screen at the same time, and reminding the audience that they're all in the same universe. But since Strange's otherwise unnecessary cameo provided a few more moments to chuckle about, I'm not complaining. Ragnarok also introduces Skurge as a sort of accidental henchman, who is likewise not particularly important, but has his moments here and there before traveling an utterly predictable road in the finale.

     The strongest point of Thor: Ragnarok is the effortless chemistry between Thor and Loki. The brotherly dynamic between Thor and Loki never wears off, and as always, you can't help but hope that they can work things out long enough to stay onscreen together as long as possible. Yet even when they inevitably double-cross each other, there's a playful mischief in it that's oddly endearing.

     Thor: Ragnarok is quite simply, fun. The film walks the perfect line of comedy without making itself into a parody, and keeps just enough relevant story in the mix to make it interesting and worthwhile. Ragnarok may not top any lists of greatest superhero movies, but it towers over its other Thor predecessors, boldly and hilariously taking its own trippy and somewhat un-heroic path. 


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Jurassic Park: Live in Concert

     Few experiences are as poignant as the marriage of exquisite instrumentation to perfect visual accompaniment. It's a form of art that has been exemplified through film, and conquered by visionaries like John Williams. The delicate tapestry of melodic inflections, woven into the most intense, regal, or somber moments of a movie scene, wields a power so mesmerizing, that evermore can a piece of music evoke adventure, heroism, wonder, fear, reverence, victory, or majesty.

    Of the many symphonic glories brought to the world of cinema at the hands of John Williams, one of my personal favorites is Jurassic Park. Recently I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Jurassic Park with a live orchestra accompaniment. I'm not sure I can accurately describe my excitement at reliving one of my favorite childhood films with the added addition of the National Symphony Orchestra, but suffice to say that I was eagerly awaiting that moment when the lights dim, the screen comes to life, and the orchestra begins its hypnotizing dance. 


     I expected to feel the music reverberating through the hall, and I did. I expected to appreciate how many individual talents are needed to produce the sound of music, and I did. I expected to enjoy seeing one of my favorite childhood movies again in an entirely unique setting, and I did. 


     What I did not expect was how much the live orchestra would change the experience. I did not expect to become so much more aware of light portions of music I hadn't noticed before. Perhaps naively, I did not expect to feel actual chills when the signature anthems struck up. And most interestingly, I did not expect the presence of the live orchestra in the semi-open air theater, surrounded by trees rustling in the breeze, to create an experience so immersive that it restored the tension and adventure to a movie I have seen dozens of times. Particularly the scene where a jeep is fleeing a charging T-Rex, I was surprised to find myself tense. I had not forgotten how the scene unfolds or who would ultimately leave the island, but the subtle creeping rise of an ominous harmony captured me in a way that completely caught me off guard. 


     The idea of movies with a live orchestra is a unique and beautiful concept, made all the better by it not being just any movie, but one with a score worthy of the National Symphony Orchestra or others like it. Jurassic Park was my second movie experience with a live orchestra, and even with a few audio issues needing quick correction, I hope to attend many more. Yet it's hard to imagine that many experiences could surpass this particular one. Not only did the music soar with stunning authority through the cool and breezy full moon night, Jurassic Park is also a glorious bit of nostalgia. How can your heart not swell when the T-Rex reclaims the ruined visitors' center, lets out a mighty roar, and the classic theme bursts majestically in honor of the prehistoric queen? And with a live orchestra, the heart doesn't just swell, but almost stops altogether. 





Thursday, August 3, 2017

Thoughts on the future of Star Wars

   
     A few years back when it was announced that Star Wars was going to return in Disney's hands, I promptly wrote about all the pitfalls that I hoped the new saga would avoid, in a post titled "Star Wars: What Not to Do." I'm glad to say that they mostly followed my advice (because Disney follows my blog and cares about my opinion), but now I look to the future of movies bearing the name Star Wars and feel a strange sense of cautious foreboding at the future of the franchise.

     After the beautiful success of The Force Awakens, it was somewhat inevitable that an opportunistic company like Disney wouldn't limit themselves to the saga. In fact, true fans have been calling for spin-offs for years to explore the expanded universe and its fascinating characters like Darth Bane, Grand Admiral Thrawn, or the Knights of the Old Republic. Disney (wisely, but regrettably) cast the expanded universe of books and material aside to reinvent as they see fit, counting only Lucasfilm properties as binding. Basically, only the movies (even the bad ones, sadly), Clone Wars cartoon series, and Rebels cartoon series are considered true canon now. But the excitement has been reignited, and Disney is excitedly lining up future movies within the galaxy far, far away.

     Personally, my excitement about all of this is cautiously contained. I loved The Force Awakens and eagerly anticipate the finale of the Skywalker saga and the ripple effects of it. Meanwhile, there's a Han Solo origin story in the works, a Boba Fett origin story in the rumor mill, and a Death Star origin story (Rogue One) already on DVD and Blu-Ray after a successful run at the box office. Yet somewhere within, I can't help but start to wonder if Star Wars as a franchise is treading towards the direction of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and will eventually run the risk of doing too much, and wearing out. In a recent post, I predicted that the comic book movie genre may be hitting its twilight years, due simply to an overage of movies in the genre, and a shortage of original stories remaining. Star Wars needs to approach its coming years with caution and control to avoid a similar overdose.


     I will admit that Star Wars has a ways to go before it will seem too overdone, but Rogue One, after a tumultuous time in filming, was received with mixed reviews, and the Han Solo origin story has already been met with grievous amounts of trouble in production. Where Marvel introduced the main players in individual movies and then gave us Avengers as the ensemble movie, Star Wars is almost doing the same thing, but backwards. We already had episodes IV-VI to introduce us to the ensemble that included Han Solo, Boba Fett, Darth Vader, and the Death Star, and now they're going back to show us where these entities came from (though in the case of Darth Vader, we already got that story... cringe). Essentially, Star Wars seems to be tampering with the idea of following the trend that is currently dominating nerd-dom entertainment, namely, pursuing origin stories for just about everyone.

     Here's part of the problem though: when Marvel decided to explore Wolverine's backstory, Hugh Jackman was there to reprise his role as the iconic character he created and see it through to the end. Star Wars doesn't have that option, which means that particularly as regards the Han Solo movie, a young unknown actor is now tasked with filling impossibly large shoes that have only ever been filled by the man who made the character iconic. No one but Harrison Ford has ever done Han Solo, and to ask someone else to try severely limits the next actor, and automatically puts a certain unforgiving rigidity on the audience's expectations.

     If the Han Solo movie does even moderately well, I can guarantee that there will be an instant surge in production plans for more spin-offs, and really that wouldn't be the worst thing, provided it's done right. And in order for it to be done right, I strongly believe that Star Wars needs to get away from the core story of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, etc. Rogue One had the right idea at its core to use completely new and hitherto unknown characters, even if the execution played out in polarizing ways. But in order for Star Wars to not become the next MCU, I would argue that Star Wars needs to get further away from its origins, rather than continuing to exploit them.

     If I'm being honest, which I always am, we don't need to know Han's backstory; we've never needed to know. He's always been fine as is, fortuitously dropped into the Mos Eisley Cantina with murky motives and a certain moral ambiguity. Where he came from and how he came to be the Han we know is just as good a story untold. That's not to say I've never wondered, but from a purely cinematic perspective, while it might be fun to see how Han came to be the smuggler we meet in A New Hope, over-exposition can absolutely rob a story and character of its gravitas. This very point is what birthed proposing watching the saga movies in "Machete Order."

     Perhaps the best stories yet to be told don't stem from stories that have already been told. What kinds of evils did the Jedi battle before the Empire began its rise? Circa episode 1, the Jedi confidently state the Sith have been extinct for over a millennium; well what happened there? Who were the Sith of a millennium ago? Who were the warriors on the Dark Side before Palpatine, Dooku, and Vader? Who were the Jedi of the Old Republic? The clones-- what are the psychological effects of the accelerated growth and having an entire army of identical faces, each as expendable as the next, with no expectation of surviving the war? These are stories that Star Wars can explore without damage to the parent stories, characters, or actors, while breathing actual new life into the galaxy. Let's hear no more of Death Stars and super-weapons; let the current Rey story-line finish its run, and then let Luke, Han, Leia, and their friends rest in peace.

There's a whole galaxy far, far away to explore.