Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like About The Last Jedi

I saw The Last Jedi. As a friend put it on Twitter, this is, to date, the best Star Wars film of the twenty-first century. (Look at my excitement!) Like with The Force Awakens and Rogue One, my review is going to be a list of things I liked and didn’t like about the movie, a format shamelessly adapted from ESPN’s Zach Lowe. My usual caveats apply: I have read few reviews, almost none of the background on making of the film and it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. These are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had.

Spoilers follow.

  1. While still in graduate school I took a class on the Latin author Seneca, who lived in the first century CE. We dedicated one unit to his plays, during which we read the Phaedra, a play about Theseus’ wife Phaedra’s consuming lust for her step-son Hippolytus who has no interest in her. Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of raping her and Theseus uses a boon to summon a monstrous beast from the sea to kill his son. Seneca infuses the play with contemporary themes, but the play is functionally just Euripides’ Hippolytus, with some new bits. No where is this more notable than in his description of the the sea monster, which more terrifyingly monstrous in his version. In short, this is what is happening in the new Star Wars movies.

    One review that floated by me on Twitter argued that the success of The Last Jedi is in its willingness to discard The Star Wars you know. I disagree. This is an Empire supercut, with dedicated homages to episodes IV, VI, and VII. The new movies are doing some things differently in terms of what story elements are driving plot, which I found problematic for other reasons, but the pieces are basically the same. When I pointed this out for the first movie, I was told to be patient because JJ Abrams was on board to reestablish Star Wars as a franchise and thus his agenda was to do exactly that. Wait for the next installment, they said. The good news, having seen the next installment, is that they are (probably) out of source material to work with now; the bad news is that this movie did basically the same thing.

  2. Continue reading Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like About The Last Jedi

Five Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Blade Runner 2049

I saw Blade Runner 2049 last night and though I would write some thoughts in the form of things I did and didn’t like about the film. This post will contain spoilers, particularly after the first point.

  1. Blade Runner 2049 is absolutely worth seeing on the big screen. Unlike some blockbusters that entice viewers to lay out cash with explosions, though, this film does with scale and attention to detail. This film clearly works from the same template as its predecessor and the overwhelming immensity of its world is a perfect match for for the theater. Most of the fight scenes are subdued, but it makes wonderful use of camera work, including an imaginative sense of scale, use of light and darkness, sound and silence, and an all-around immersive experience that conveyed depth. The same goes for small allusions where, for instance, Gaff (Edward James Olmos) makes an origami ram and Deckard (Harrison Ford) dreams of cheese. The run time is long, but all of that time is used.
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Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Rogue One

I did this same sort of recap last year for The Force Awakens and figured I should just go ahead and do it again for Rogue One. Even though I am a book person and have read a lot of Star Wars books, I have read basically none of the novels set during the time of the movies. Still some caveats apply: I have read few reviews and almost none of the background on the reshoots, so it is possible I am mistaken about some aspects. Similarly, I these are things that stood out to me and may not be the same issues other people had. Overall: I enjoyed the experience of watching the film a great deal, but only if I didn’t think about it too much.

Fair warning: the rest of this post will contain spoilers for the movie, at least such that they exist. Anyone familiar with Star Wars is familiar with the ending writ large.

Continue reading Seven Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Rogue One

An observation about the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I’ve consumed most of the recent Marvel content, mostly because it is available and easily watched. Calling it a drug would be too dramatic, but as far as televisual media goes, there are parallels. Some of it is good, some is pretty bad, but there is something that bothers me about the entire extended universe project: there is too much emphasis on the cataclysmic event.

Other people have written on this topic and accurately noted both that the movies are pivoting from this trope and that the material has often been strongest when dealing with the fallout from the events rather than dealing with the events themselves. However, my specific complaint has more to do with the TV show Agents of Shield. The show essentially deals with the relationship between normal people and mutated people. This season’s arc had to do with the unleashing of “Hive,” a being that can control people with mutations–and is the powerful being associated with the Devil that Hydra had been trying to bring to earth. His scheme involves a massive bio-weapon that would destroy humanity. The scrappy heroes have to fight against this thing that is much more powerful than they are. As one would expect, this leads to all sorts of tension and human stories, which, in a vacuum, work. But this narrative isn’t taking place in a vacuum. It is taking place within a larger cinematic universe.

Agents of Shield as a show about the events taking place in the shadow of the ECU movies works. It is a universe that has to grapple with increasing numbers of super-powered individuals and there are many more stories to be told there than simply reducing it to an “imminent doom” arc, but, after a season of doing just that, Agents doubled back down on the action, while nominally being a step down from the movie stories in terms of both resources (for production) and power level (resources and powers to apply within the story). The movies and the shows are doing different things, but still professing to overlap, which, in turn, leads to a dissonance and strains credulity.

Han Solo’s Pants

I have a theory that, somewhere in the planning of The Force Awakens, when the decision to jettison the bulk of Expanded Universe canon and not follow an established story arc (a decision I largely like, I might add) had been made, there was also a conscious decision to go through EU looking for reference points, objects, and names that have their own mythological status. Anything with too much cachet was excised from the movie. It is clear watching the film, which had to be resonant with the original trilogy, that they frequently gave a response the conversation around Star Wars as much as trying to forge their own path ahead. Sometimes, though, the choices seemed to zig in odd directions because a more reasonable solution had already been claimed by EU. Other times they just made choices and moved on without comment. This is something I noticed at several points in the film, including their choice for Kylo Ren’s given name, the designation “black squadron” and, particularly, Han’s pants.

In the original trilogy Han’s gear includes a blue pair of pants with a gold braided stripe down the side of each leg. This may be chalked up to nothing more than a sort of goofy ’70s costume design choice, but those stripes came to possess their own mythology that is bound up with Han’s past, his relationship with Chewbacca, and how, despite his nonchalance, interest in money, and eye toward self-preservation, he is actually a nice man at heart. Those stripes came to represent that Han did not miraculously develop a conscience across the three movies because he became friends with Luke and had the hots for Leia, but rather was a hero already–one who was only fighting who he was in running from the rebellion. Likewise, the stripes indicate that it was not mere nepotism or happenstance that Han became a general in the Rebellion for doing basically nothing. In this mythology, the stripes on Han’s pants explain who he is as a person and inform his character in the trilogy.

In the Expanded Universe, Han’s pants display Corelleian Blood Stripes, a military honor awarded for conspicuous bravery, and were the only military decoration he was allowed to retain after being drummed out of the Imperial navy for saving Chewbacca from a press labor-gang. In The Force Awakens, Han just has black pants, but when Leia comments about his wardrobe she only does so on his jacket. There are, of course, character reasons why Han would have discarded military decorations after going back to smuggling, but, even though the the movies err on the side of giving away nothing about the characters beyond what is shown on screen, the casual discard seems to be a conscious decision to say that the originals were no more important than a quirk of the original costume design.

I liked the decision to largely avoid direct portrayal of EU storylines, but the insistence in avoiding overlap is a shame. Some of the EU material is quite lackluster, but there is also a lot of it and there were some good ideas tossed about.

Eight things I liked and didn’t like about The Force Awakens

I am a book person, for better and worse. I even have a bad habit of dismissing things designed for visual representation because I read them rather than seeing them performed. In the case of Star Wars, I have read both a lot really good novels set in the expanded universe and read a lot of dreck. I went into the The Force Awakens hesitant, but cautiously optimistic that Abrams and co. would make a fun, watchable film. I was not wrong, but neither was I completely swept away. My verdict is that The Force Awakens was good, not great. With that in mind, what follows is a list of things I liked and didn’t like about the film (format adapted from ESPN’s Zach Lowe), and contains mild spoilers.

Continue reading Eight things I liked and didn’t like about The Force Awakens

What is making me happy: Simon Pegg

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and its final segment, I am using some of these posts as a reminder to myself that there are things that bring me joy and as a means of posting recommendations of things–usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary–that are worth consuming.

I’ve enjoyed Simon Pegg on screen for a few years, but he is not someone who I had ever heard speak as himself. Earlier this month, though, he was on Studio 360 to talk about his movies in general and the latest Mission Impossible film specifically. As part of the conversation he spoke about a sound-byte of his that caused a stir earlier this year where he supposedly accused comic book movies of causing society to become more childish. In talking about all of these issues I found Pegg to be personable and thoughtful.

The interview:

Netflix and recapturing time

My personality is such that I am somewhat compulsive and somewhat addictive. I have a thing for completion and tend to get antsy if I feel that I have left something unfinished; Netflix enables these traits with hundreds of hours of shows designed to draw in and keep the viewer tuned in, only, instead of requiring him or her to tune back in next week, the next episode begins to play automatically after just a few seconds–and that is before considering the extensive library of movies and documentaries. Most of the time I use Netflix as background for activities like cleaning, cooking, or grading, but I have also wasted more time than I would like to admit. A lot of this time has been spent watching mediocre or worse shows and a lot of procedurals or semi-procedurals that have familiar rhythms and are easily mainlined. There are a lot of beautiful and truly excellent shows and movies there, too, including some of the Netflix original series, but there is a lot of dreck and a constant barrage of stuff.

I have mixed feelings about the race to develop new original content by every channel or service because of the value of shows that are owned in house, something the Hollywood Prospectus podcast has talked a lot about, but not just because there are too many T.V. shows. The thesis is that the race to produce a large number of these shows quickly has resulted in a lot of really good shows, but few great ones. As someone who primarily uses Netflix, my problem is more that Netflix has a tendency to push their own shows over the rest of the library. In other words, my complaint isn’t with the shows themselves so much as the feeling that they are being forced upon me.

Most of the shows I was committed to seeing through until the end had their series finales last year, but the bigger quirk of consuming these shows through a streaming service is that there is a lag between the air date and their availability online. Sometimes this means a good show will have multiple seasons available immediately, and, other times, it means that good shows only get discovered after they have been cancelled. This dynamic isn’t new, just more pronounced. Streaming services are all about instant gratification, but the only shows that are immediately available from the outset are the original series. I find that this makes it somewhat more difficult to find new shows that I can really become committed to. There are shows I want to see, but none that I feel so excited about that I will go out to pay for them sight unseen and the marketplace for streaming services means that there is no certainty about which one the shows will come to, or when they will arrive. Beyond that, I am increasingly finding that the shows I am most excited about are on or available through PBS, with the main exception being CNN’s Parts Unknown.

I have also reached a tipping point with podcasts and am falling behind on things I want to listen to, and podcasts are more often more informative, less demanding on my attention, and free. If I am going to let one of the two go, the choice is obvious.

The semester is about to start and I have been giving through to what I want my life to look like this year. There have been some recent changes at Mizzou that play into this, but, mostly, I am going on the job market for the first time and coming very close to ending a phase of my life. One of the big conclusions I have come to is that I become too engaged with Netflix and don’t get enough enjoyment in return. Its primary function is distraction and contributes to my anxiety level.

In sum, I’ve decided to cancel my Netflix subscription. If I want to watch something, I will pay for it (not for the whole package) or use my local video store, though I am giving myself a week to pick through my list on Netflix and watch a last few things. The goal here is to be more efficient with the eventual goal of making me happier. I thought similarly when I deleted my Facebook account, albeit for different reasons, and have had very few regrets, most of which boil down to how people use Facebook for social organization rather than my not having an account. Hopefully I will have similar results with this decision.

A Thought on Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

When I want to just watch a movie, to be engaged by the twists and turns of a narrative without being concerned with literary quality or artistic merit I usually turn to a good action film. Within that genre, some of my favorites have been the adaptations of Tom Clancy’s books such as The Hunt for Red October, Sum of All Fears or Patriot Games. I disagree with Clancy’s politics most of the time, but his books have an engaging, cinematic quality that translate well to the screen.

Largely for this reason, I decided to watch Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, despite having heard how it is a bad film. And it is not a good film. Chris Pine takes up the mantle held by Ben Affleck, Harrison Ford, and Alec Baldwin, by playing Jack Ryan, a marine, PhD, and CIA analyst. All the hallmarks of the character remain intact: his doctor (soon-to-be) wife, his helicopter accident and subsequent fear of flying in them, his insistence that he is an analyst. villainous Russians. However, the entire setting has been moved into the contemporary moment, so the helicopter accident took place in Afghanistan, and Russia has joined the ranks of the capitalist nations. Not unlike the Bond franchise, Jack Ryan: Shadow Report takes the core elements for the character and then reboots the story in a contemporary setting without too much concern for continuity.

This brings my thought. JR:SR suffers from a large number of problems, including pacing and that, twenty three years after The Hunt for Red October, and several decades in the future, we now get to see the introduction of Jack Ryan’s relationship with his bride-to-be. The larger issue, to my mind, is that JR:SR fundamentally changes the type of movie these were. Instead of a film where much of the action is carried out by other characters and culminates in one action scene where Jack Ryan wields a gun, usually as a last resort when he himself is attacked, he spends a lot more time actually doing action-hero-y type of things in this film–despite the mandatory statement that he is “just an analyst.” Perhaps I should have expected this change based on the title, but it was an unwelcome change because that is emphatically not the type of character Jack Ryan was. At least Clancy was able to create a standardized background for Ryan and, as long as the movies were based on the books, that background loosely matched up.

The Hobbittt [sic]: a review (spoilers)

I saw The Hobbittt for the sake of completion and am writing up my in the same vein, having done so for installment one and two. As was the case last year, I don’t have time to go back and read the relevant passages in the book, but there was a lot of things I found stupid and problematic without it. The list entries include spoilers, but the concluding paragraph does not.

  1. The trope that “bred for war” became. Tolkien did stuff like this, too, but it seemed that every creature that Jackson trotted out on the side of the bad guys was bred for war and some of those were hilariously ineffective. Like the stupid flying bat things. I was half expecting the dwarves and the elves and everything else to be bred for war, too, because while Tolkien’s world-building does create the other races for purposes other than fighting, Jackson’s doesn’t. Even in the first Hobbit film, the Dwarves are all warriors and little else. Along the same lines, the only sequence in any of Jackson’s films that show the breeding of any of these creatures is in Saruman’s betrayal. The rest is just a hinky catchphrase meant to sound ominous and I am going to start using about the squirrels on campus.
  2. I understand cinematic license and one cannot just let the full stretch of a siege play out because most of the audience would be bored, but even old walls should not fall down when hit once. Or when fallen upon. And walls should probably be taller than the things coming to fight against them. I’ve had this complaint with all of Jackson’s LotR films, but it was particularly significant in the Hobbittt, and rendered some of the subsequent dialogue clumsy and moronic.
  3. Legolas and Dain’s stupid fight scenes. This was a problem since this was most of the film. I’m just going to lay down my cards here: I think many of the fight scenes, from the individual heroic duels to the massive battle episodes, in all of Jackson’s films were just dumb. This film was the worst of the lot. Legolas, who didn’t even need to be in this film, encapsulates this where he leaps and jumps and hangs, all in order to appear impressive and break up the monotony of a large melee. Call me jaded, but this was all flash and no substance.
  4. Tauriel is looking for Kili, but runs into a big orc and is in danger! Kili comes to Tauriel’s rescue! Orc handles Kili! Tauriel comes to Kili’s rescue! Orc takes them both! Legolas comes to their rescue and gets lucky in defeating orc. This was one of the dumber sequences.
  5. I didn’t like the purging of Dol Guldur. This is not so much the few heroes sneaking into the lair of the enemy, which is a very Tolkien episode, even if it largely runs against Jackson’s vision. It was just another episode that added to the clutter. When I heard that this part was going to show up in the films, I had defended it, but I also expected for the cleansing of Dol Guldur to take place on the way home from the mountain, with the White Council appearing as a distinct arc where, maybe, the background for the Lord of the Rings would be explained, instead of Legolas being blandly told to go find Strider, who, in the original chronology, is probably a wee lad. Even in Peter Jackson’s original films, I’m not sure Legolas and Aragorn had met when the council met some sixty or so years later…which makes Legolas hilariously inept?
  6. The Hobbittt was too long and a large amount of this time could be recouped if Jackson had eased back on the overly-long sequences of psychological drama. The review I read on astutely observed that, for the most part, Jackson cast excellent actors and then refused to let them actually act by throwing graphics around them to show trauma.
  7. Jackson also did strange things with the chronology, including having people travel long distances in unconscionably short periods of time. Some camera cuts passed days, some moments and it was uneven as to what was what. I was also amazed that there was as much warning as there was for the Dragon arriving at Laketown.
  8. Which leads to another point. The Dragon attack looked catastrophic and it was shocking how many people survived. Then, every time you turned around there were more people of Dale fighting back against the bad people. This was particularly shocking given that the dwarves and elves appeared to die in droves.
  9. Why save the Dragon’s death for this movie? Yes, it added a bit of a prequel so that it wasn’t just battlebattlebattle, but it also added the sense that The Hobbittt was just a mishmash of things.
  10. There were far too many unfulfilled promises in The Hobbittt. Two, in particular, stood out. First, Bilbo showed the acorn that would become the Party Tree, but it was used to try to humanize Thorin. Even though Bilbo comes home in the film, that tree was, sadly, never planted. Second, much was made out of the Arkenstone and how much Thorin wanted it. In the book, Thorin is buried with the stone on his chest. In the film, his death is a tragedy, but I’m pretty sure that Bard still has it in his pocket even as he chastises other people for seeking wealth.

I’ve recently been thinking about Jackson’s tendency to add female characters to Tolkien’s particularly masculine world. For the most part I have not been a fan since it frequently undercuts the original story-lines that I really like. However, I also like what Saladin Ahmed has done for some of the stories he reads to his children, where he simply makes some of the original characters female. I am a purist in most of these representations, but for a largely sexless world that Tolkien creates, I don’t see why this solution wouldn’t work–for instance, if several of the dwarves were women, or Bard. Or in the original Lord of the Rings, why couldn’t Legolas be female? Or both Legolas and Gimli? Or the wizards? Or Borimir? Or Merry and Pippin? Leave Sam and his relationship with Frodo and the love story between him and Rosie alone, as well as the Farimir/Eowyn and Aragorn/Arwen pairings and the ents, but none of the other genders matter. I will most likely do something similar if I get a chance to read these books to children.