Star Wars and I

Note: although I have note see The Rise of Skywalker, this post includes a spoiler for that film.

Even before the tepid reviews of The Rise of Skywalker started coming in I had basically decided to sit this one out. Maybe I will see it when it lands on a streaming platform––probably while grading papers––but certainly not in theaters because most of the negative reviews have confirmed my fear that the movie has basically steered into everything that frustrated me about The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. However, after listening to The Watch podcast analyzing the movie and “spoiling” the big reveal, I wanted to revisit the topic.

One of the most appealing things about the original Star Wars trilogy is its simplicity, a perfect tri-colon of the hero’s journey to help the good guys triumph over the bad. Even the primary villains get progressively more powerful and villainous as the series goes along. Grand Moff Tarkin SW has a battle station that he blows up planets with, but he demonstrates his power by having control over Vader, who ascends to the top spot in ESB while teasing Emperor Palpatine for ROTJ. With all deference to Chewbacca, Ben Kenobi, and Lando, the movies only have five core characters (Luke, Leia, Han, R2, 3PO), with the others generally connected to this core group by one or more links. Similarly, each film has only three locations that aren’t starships (The Force Awakens has five, Rogue One had *seven*) and the only times I can think of where one of the original movies follows more than two simultaneous actions are the Death Star escape in SW and the climactic battle in ROTJ where Luke surrenders, Han and Leia are on the forest moon, and Lando has the Millenium Falcon, meaning that there are three arenas, but all circling one limited space.

For all of the issues in the original trilogy, including a rather shocking lack of diversity, this simplicity is one of the keys to its success. Deleted scenes from the movies reveal that Lucas had in mind a chattier story about the imperial academy and imperial politics more in line with the prequel trilogy. The final product drops most of those ambitions into the opening scrawl and a few lines of dialogue, allowing the audience to get swept away by the combination of knightly romance and space western. In turn, falling back on these tropes allows the series to develop somewhat more complex themes involving e.g. moral relativity and redemption by the end of the trilogy and leaves the door open to an expanded universe of cartoons and novels that can resolve many of the oversights in the original material.

This is an arc that can only work once. The prequel trilogy tried to literally reverse engineer the story, explaining the fall of the Anakin and the creation of the empire. As someone acutely pointed out to me in college, this turned the Star Wars saga from the Romance of a plucky young hero joining the rebellion against totalitarianism to the fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.

For all that they do well, the new Star Wars films are the mother of all third-act problems.

In the Watch podcast linked to above, one of the points Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald talk about is the garbled mess that is the story in The Rise of Skywalker. The original series had a final confrontation with the Emperor and the next set had the creation of Darth Vader and the Empire, where these three movies raced about the galaxy convincing people that Star Wars was back, but introduce stories that go nowhere (some of which are evidently excised altogether because of racist backlash to The Last Jedi) or that deserve a series-worth of exploration. While these issues contribute to the movie bloat, my bigger problem is that they give the sense that this is a trilogy determined to raise the stakes by trying to convince you that each movie is more epic than the last rather than by actually raising the stakes or by having each movie substantially build on the one before it.

All of this culminates in the big twist in The Rise of Skywalker that reintroduces Palpatine and reestablishes the inherited Force-aristocracy. To be clear: Palpatine and even the idea of heritable force powers are not the problem per se. These abound in the in the non-canon EU material and this is a setting where all sorts of technology can exist. In fact, as Kylo Ren’s obsession with the crushed face mask of Darth Vader hints at, Palpatine’s memory and resurgent Palpatinistas is fertile ground for storytelling (whatever Ian McDiamird thinks), except that we had just spent two films not talking about Palpatine in relation to the fascist junta that obviously regarded itself as his political heir.

Despite the idiosyncratic fact that the original three movies were the middle trilogy of nine movies, the third trilogy was never really never developed in any substantial way, which gave room for novelists, cartoonists, and other creators to build out the story. Some of these are not great, but they also gave rise to iconic villains (e.g. Admiral Thrawn), characters (e.g. Wedge Antilles) and room to explore inter-species relationships and xenophobia.

After each of the previous two films, I expressed my hope that people enjoyed New Star Wars, but that I did not fit into whatever the niche that they were filling––fully recognizing the irony of saying this about films directed at “everyone.” I stand by the first part of the sentiment, I hope people enjoy New Star Wars, up to and including The Rise of Skywalker. However, upon further consideration, and for all that the new films do right on the micro-scale in terms of filming, dialogue, casting, making Finn a Stormtrooper who bucks his conditioning, &c, that made the films have a markedly “Star Wars, but fresh” feel, they miss a macro-vision of what made the the original trilogy iconic.

Alexander (2004), revisited

For the entirety of my academic career, Oliver Stone’s epic biopic Alexander has been an object of ridicule. I praised a handful of casting choices when it came out (Angelina Jolie as Olympias, even if I don’t love what they did with the character; Anthony Hopkins as old-man Ptolemy), but otherwise loudly complained about the way the film warped history and have particular issues with the work of one of the main historical consultants.

In short, I was in line with the 16% score Alexander received on Rotten Tomatoes.

Outside a handful of conversations I hadn’t given thought to Alexander in a decade when I decided to show it this semester in a class called “The Afterlives of Alexander the Great.” Then two things happened: first, I discovered that 67% of reviews on Amazon gave it either 4 or 5 stars; second, I discovered that the movie is not as bad as I remember it.

First, despite hitting a few of my pet peeves in filmmaking (e.g. how will we know we’re in Greece if there aren’t schooling scenes with broken columns???), it is beautifully costumed in ways that show the increasing distance of the expedition away from Greece. I’m not wild about the script and Colin Farrell looks too old for teenaged Alexander, but the look is gorgeous and immersive, nicely capturing the fact that the Macedonians were leaving a relatively poorer part of the Ancient World for territories that were older and wealthier.

Second, Alexander tries to offer a psychological portrait of a king. I think this is where the critiques that it is a talk-y epic come from. I can appreciate the ambition even as it hews too far toward “Alexander the Idealist” for my taste, and the theatrical cut is overly concerned with an Oedipal interpretation that is deemphasized in the later cuts. However, this big swing also comes with drawbacks. For instance, one of the hallmarks of the ancient sources like Curtius Rufus and Plutarch is that they struggle to reconcile the great, humanistic idealist with the brutal and ruthless monarch.*

In fact, since all of our surviving narrative histories of Alexander campaign date from several hundred years later, they offer as much a commentary on monarchy and power as they do evidence for Alexander’s reign.

Stone’s Alexander struggles in much the same way, trying both offer a humanizing portrait of the great man and a soup-to-nuts biopic that covers the warts and all. The result is an uneven movie that swings from Alexander espousing idealistic platitudes about how Asians are people, too, to a wedding-night rape scene, to Alexander the tender homosexual lover, to him killing his loyal followers in a drunken rage, to showing his perpetual struggle for the approval of his parents. Trying to put it all in a single film that focuses this closely on Alexander lays bare just how contradictory our original sources can be.

*There are a number of books on this subject, my favorites being Elizabeth Baynham’s Alexander the Great and Diana Spencer’s The Roman Alexander.

Third, I was much more forgiving of how the movie warps the chronology, combining and compressing the battles. These scenes dragged in the film as it stands, so I could see how doubling or tripling their run-time would have just bloated the movie further without supplementing the attempted psychological portrait.

The obvious solution is that an entire Alexander story cannot fit in a movie. But Alexander predates HBO’s Rome (2005–2007), let alone Game of Thrones or a show like the Crown. The space afforded by a prestige drama, whether a single season on Alexander culminating in his death a la Ned Stark and multiple seasons on the period of the successors or an eight season run with three on Alexander is a much more appropriate format for this story, both because it better fits long-form storytelling and because a series would allow the creators and writers to develop characters other than Alexander, both Greek and Persian––an under-appreciated requirement for any successful adaptation of this story.

Fourth, one of the really interesting things that Alexander does is to frame it as being told by old-man Ptolemy, now a king in Egypt, in the process of writing his history of Alexander’s campaign. As with other points, I picked nits with the scenes, including that there is a fully-completed Pharos lighthouse and a statue of Philip with a Pericles helmet, but since Ptolemy did write a history of this period he is a natural surrogate as a narrator in the same way that Bilbo and Frodo Baggins tell the stories of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and Samwell Tarly writes Game of Thrones. The problem is that this framing device has layers of consequences for the story that the movie utterly disregards, leaving both superficial narration and a generic amalgam of the Alexander story.

To be clear, Alexander remains a hot mess of a movie. It doesn’t have much time for women, doesn’t do enough to get at the fundamental violence of Alexander’s reign, or spend enough time either humanizing the non-Greeks or exploring the sense of alienation that Alexander’s men, any of which could have made for a more compelling film than its psychological portrait. But it is also a hot mess with ambition in ways that give it more to think about than most movies that fail this spectacularly.

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.
  2. Continue reading Five Things I Liked and Didn’t Like about Blade Runner 2049

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:

https://www.wnyc.org/widgets/ondemand_player/studio360/#file=%2Faudio%2Fxspf%2F521443%2F

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.