Bastille Day

Your alligators are sewn on backwards

bastilleIn a college screenwriting class, I once wrote a script I thought was pretty good.  My professor even told me that every few semesters, one student script really stands out, and that this was the one.  I’ve since lost it, but if it had actually been produced, I assume I’d be cringing at it now.  I still think the characters were better than what you get in your standard Hollywood action fare, but instead of existing for the same reasons real people with complicated histories exist (i.e. no reason), their collected backstories served the larger narrative, one that needed them to come together to connect plot dots, a plot full of conspiracies, corrupt government officials, gunfire, and a sainted young white dude who can puzzle it all out.  I get bummed out thinking about it.  Even if I was on the right track (not with that script in particular, but moving toward something good), even if the dialogue was alright and the plot resolution reasonable and the characters okay to spend time with, the produced result probably would have turned out looking a lot like Bastille Day.  And it would deserve a crappy review.

Bastille Day pits a bunch of ex-HBO main-supporting actors against a terrorism conspiracy in Paris (sadly evoking thoughts of the recent tragedies there and in Nice): Special Agent Briar (Idris Elba), a generic cowboy cop, gets mixed into the investigation of a bombing accidentally triggered by Michael Mason (Richard Madden).  Briar is guided along by his classically beleaguered CIA superior, Tom (Anatol Yusef), and slightly more sympathetic agent Karen (Kelly Reilly) who mainly exist to emphasize how badass Briar is, and how evil the generic European bad guys are, respectively.  As straightforward as it sounds, the Island Syndrome never becomes exhausting because the actors never seem bored playing tropes straight and saying things like “I know an asshole when I see one.”

The tritagonist of the film, Zoe (Charlotte Le Bon) mostly exists as a target/ingenue/plot device, but it’s worth noting that every significant story movement is catalyzed by her: deciding at a certain moment not to trigger a bomb, bashing a corrupt cop over the head with a flashlight like someone out of a Lucia Berlin story (Google it), saving the dudes’ asses, and heroically rushing through a line of riot police in order to incite action.  The latter scene evokes great historical moments captured in photographs, including recent ones of women standing up to body-armored men with machine guns and shields, and even though I’m sure it wasn’t intended to do so, it’s one of the few moments worth taking away from the film (taking farther, at least, than your after-film chat with your filmgoing partners about what you just witnessed).

Speaking of the story, it’s pretty clear who the real bad guy is from the beginning, but the “why” continues to change, and the action doesn’t hit a low enough gear to reveal much depth.  The villains seem like stereotypical fear-mongering bombers who don’t mind creating collateral damage in order to keep citizens angry at the police (they use hashtags to guide protesters to the next significant location), which at first feels like an uncomfortable criticism of gullible internet-surfing social justice warriors who spend their days looking for stuff to protest, but it turns out that the bad guys are actually the police themselves.  Why are they doing this?  Because they’re pissed that no one appreciates them.  Wait, but they’re killing and manipulating citizens.  Why wouldn’t the people walk around chanting NWA lyrics?  Just when the layers seem to be peeled back as far as they’ll go, the filmmakers decide to settle on plain ol’ greed to justify the bad police’s actions: their endgame is to use the gigantic protesters vs. police rumble as a cover to lift mass amounts of cash from the Bank of France during the Bastille Day Parade.  It’s not that it’s lame in and of itself; it’s that it never seems like we need Stringer Bell, Robb Stark, and Meyer Lansky to take care of a bunch of cream puffs like these guys.

That said, the protest side-story does sit uncomfortably, if only because the filmmakers’ intentions with it are never made clear. It’s not half as bad as Christopher Nolan’s opportunistic and disrespectful treatment of the Occupy movement in The Dark Knight Rises, though.

BD is ultimately harmless, I think.  But it really does rely on the actors, not the writing/story/characterization – for instance, it wouldn’t have been watchable with, say, Keanu Reeves and Mark Ruffalo as the two non-buddy heroes, and it almost reaches that point in scenes that feature the tedious villains talking to each other.  Why didn’t they cast Anatol Yusef, an actor who can play deep menace with very little effort, as the evil police boss instead of Lee Van Cleef’s character from Escape from New York?  This isn’t intended to be the aforementioned “crappy review” I would have given my own movie.  But in a world where American action films come with a write-by-numbers kit, it seems to be very, very difficult to avoid making the same movie again and again.  My script didn’t come with the kit, but it also did: by the time I was twenty, I’d seen this movie a thousand times.

I get it, though.  It’s an Idris Elba vehicle, and an argument for his candidacy for the position of James Bond.  Fine.  If you have to keep making 007 movies, cast him as James Bond.  Just don’t have him sing the theme song.

220px-bastille_day_28film29Bastille Day (2016); written by Andrew Baldwin and James Watkins; directed by James Watkins; starring Idris Elba, Richard Madden, and Charlotte Le Bon.

 

Star Trek Beyond

I like the beats and shouting

jaylahI gave Into Darkness some flack for lifting imagery and design material from the Mass Effect series, and joked to myself about what they might steal this time.  Lo and behold: Star Trek Beyond‘s entire premise is taken from the opening of Mass Effect 2, wherein Commander Shepard’s ship is attacked by never-before-seen aliens who decimate her beloved Normandy (replaced with the Enterprise here), “take” members of her crew, and possess technology that converts people into gray fluid.  Is this kind of pseudo-plagiarism commonplace because video games aren’t considered an art form, so any good ideas found in the gaming realm are fair game for use in something bigger and more important?  This question is half-rhetorical.  I’ve been playing video games since I was a child, and have had some of the most meaningful emotional experiences I’ve gotten from visual media by playing certain games, but I’ve only ever played one game that I would consider a pure work of art.  Still, even though this is conventional sci-fi fare, you’re taking someone’s work.

Gear shift here.  Despite all the ways in which Beyond‘s trailer looks like the filmmakers are phoning in an obligatory threequel, this is my favorite of the three.  Beyond feels the most like an actual episode of Star Trek, makes better use of its cast of women (and let’s face it: all it had to do was stop painting Uhura and others as yelping ingenues and scolding wives, but it goes beyond that – it’s aptly titled), normalizes same-gender (and different-species) relationships, and valiantly tries to make a group of relatively bland people who have no real stake in whether they discover anything during their five-year exploration mission endearing enough to an audience that they remember why so many of these damned series (and films) were made in the first place.

Kirk (Chris Pine, still less interesting than he was in Smokin’ Aces) is three years into his five-year stint as captain of a Starfleet exploration gig, and is oddly tolerable this time. His hair is more Shatner-y, and he seems to have grown up a bit (though he’s conveniently forgotten the time his remorseless recklessness got dozens of his own crew jettisoned into space).  Still, the womanizing fratboy is gone, and he seems to genuinely want to be a good leader, even going so far as recommending Spock (Zachary Quinto) for the captain’s chair if he should be unable to fulfill the duty.

Spock himself is more fun to spend time with now as well, partly because his tumultuous relationship with Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) happens between movies.  Interesting implications arise when he learns that Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has died, which in turn lets Spock know when exactly he’s going to die (or does it?  It’s not made clear whether that’s a rule, but Spock’s moroseness at the news certainly points in this direction).  His trajectory involves his coming to terms with this, as well as being paired with Bones McCoy (Karl Urban) in an adventure where he must rely on the beleaguered doctor for medical help and moral support.  Banter, friendly insults, etc. (never quite hilarity) ensue.  For better and worse, the focus on Spock’s survivor’s guilt is lessened, so while he’s less of a downer, he’s not as sharply drawn, nor is he much different from anyone else wearing a blue shirt (he just acts more like Abed than the rest do).

The supporting cast gets supporting-cast stuff to do, while their collective conflict surrounds escaping a planet that has become something of a ship graveyard after the Collecto – erm, I mean, a group of hostile bipeds have wrecked ship after ship there. These villains are led by Krall (Idris Elba), a hulking goblin who sounds like he’s perpetually out of breath and whose only motivation (until the final ten minutes of the movie) seems to be For the Evulz.  Funnily enough, he’s one of the two best things about the film, particularly once he’s actually played by Idris Elba (i.e. with reduced/no makeup).  At this point, he becomes something like a space-age Stringer Bell, albeit with much more black-and-white goals (he’s a former Starfleet captain who became disillusioned after the Federation made peace with the Romulans and other enemies, making the sacrifices of his people a waste, not to mention abandoning his ship, the Franklin, on an uncharted world – it’s a pretty good twist, not something you usually hear me say).  He’s the perfect foil to a reformed Kirk, who (while also having laughably black-and-white motivations and alignments) honestly tries to understand his opponent rather than just shouting “Let’s kick ass” and having at it.

Regrettably, Krall’s ultimate goal of pushing back against Federation expansion (an allegory for indigenous people vs. colonizing) isn’t given enough time or depth, so by the time the film ends, we’re not really sure whether Kirk was “supposed” to win or not.  He claims that he would “rather die saving lives than live with taking them,” but he never apologizes for doing it before, nor do the filmmakers give Krall much opportunity to explain whether Federation expansion would obliterate the Frontier races.  Thus, Krall appears to us as the Founding Fathers portrayed our Natives to the public (and how the current media portrays every other person with a different idea): a ruthless terrorist whose extremism overwrites the validity of his grievances.

The other best part of the film is newcomer Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a loner also confined to the uncharted world, living in the shell of the Franklin.  She’s one of a million Star Trek species who just look like humans with funny makeup, but some weight and respect is given to her character: she’s been severely wronged by Krall’s people, her family was killed by Krall’s right-hand dude (whom she conveniently gets to duel to the death in the scene immediately after she reveals this), and she’s lived a difficult life in the planet’s wastes.  The film’s crowded cast makes Jaylah seem like the protagonist of a really cool survival movie we’re not allowed to see, although her scenes with Scotty (Simon Pegg) are genuinely endearing at times (plus she gets to lead her own scenes, including tthe aforementioned fight, albeit with a lightweight Elite Mook who only exists to make the movie seem like it cares about Jaylah – points for effort).  Ultimately, Jaylah joining Starfleet serves as a way to say, “Hey, the Frontier races and the Federation can coexist without murdering each other,” but it’s a conversation that should be had onscreen.  Leaving it out makes Krall something of a tragic would-be hero.

Ripoffs of other things aside (seriously though, didn’t they have enough material they could use from, say, I don’t know, STAR TREK?), the worst I can say about Beyond is that it wastes its supporting villains, phones in some CGI, and delivers so many obligatory plot points that one begins to lose faith in how interesting the rest of the universe actually is: what’s the point of leaving Earth if every planet’s genre fiction follows the same formula?

220px-star_trek_beyond_posterStar Trek Beyond (2016); written by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung; directed by Justin Lin; starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, and Sofia Boutella.

Room

Red bells

room_stillIt’s a bit problematic that many internet reviews of Room refer to the ordeal of the characters as “outrageous,” considering how often stories like this appear in the news (with a much less happy outcome, more times than not), and how important it is to realize that abductions of the kind presented here are a very real problem.  Nevertheless, Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s novel, manages a few impressive feats: creating a realistic, terrifying/magical look at a very specific type of bonding; doing it without a single trace of “missing white girl syndrome,” and in the process giving Brie Larson the pivotal role she’s deserved from the beginning.

Joy Newsome (Larson) has been a captive of a monstrous man she calls Old Nick (named after the Devil and played by Sean Bridgers) for seven years.  Her family has long given up the search, having no clue that she’s been in a local man’s shed, nor that she has a four year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has never left the shed (referred to as “Room” by the pair) and is completely unaware that there is a world outside of it.  Whether or not biology helps soften the blow he’s about to receive when they inevitably escape, we don’t know.

It’s no “spoiler” to say that the duo makes it out, as the film is not about a victim’s battle against a predator, but about all of the possible directions a relationship between a mother and son can take when they’ve been incarcerated for nearly a decade and have never been apart from one another, and about which direction that relationship ultimately takes.  There’s depression involved.  There’s a lot of confusion.  There are things none of us think about, such as having to accept the fact that “real people with faces” exist, or that stairs are a thing.  The mental trauma doesn’t end with the escape, which drives Joy into a downward spiral of frustration and resentment even though she’s not in danger of being recaptured.  Her father (William H. Macy, once again playing a character we want to feel bad for, but can’t) cannot handle the fact that he has a grandson, nevermind that he’s already accepted that his daughter was deceased, and refuses even to look at Jack during dinner.  Joy’s high school friends, little more than memories in photos, have all moved on and away, now college grads with full lives.  Joy explodes at her mother, even blaming her for the original kidnapping (“If I didn’t have your voice in my head saying ‘Be nice,’ maybe I wouldn’t have helped the guy with the sick fucking dog.”)

Jack’s personal development is difficult to track, his being a child and all, but he’s actually the narrator of the story, and his take on being a prisoner is one nobody else would think of: it’s whimsical.  His monologues about what Room means to him, if put on a pamphlet, would make one think it were the most wonderful place in the world.  And naturally, these sections devolve into kid-babble that seemingly has nothing to do with the story (and frankly, it doesn’t, but that’s the great thing about kids: they haven’t yet been brainwashed into thinking that everything has to be plot-related), such as “I’m the best at running, and jumping, and everything!”  Young Tremblay, while actually closer to nine years old when playing the role, is a marvel.  Not once does he seem like he’s acting – how often is he?  Y’know, considering how often child actors are simply expressing their real emotions (every time a child cries on Boardwalk Empire?  Actual trauma!).

Brie Larson, deserving of the suitcase of awards she’s carrying away this season, plays Joy as a complicated woman now living two lives – the free-spirited one that was abruptly cut off by an evil rapist, back when the entire universe was open to her, and the one she must face now, as a mother in the world, after a third, middling life – the one in Room, a fantasy life that no one but she and Jack knew – has likewise been cut off.  Those who would question the motivations behind Joy’s various post-Room decisions are exactly the ones who need to understand (hopefully by the end) why she makes them, and that she cannot be blamed for any of it.  Larson’s performance is so nuanced and honest that I’ve finally come to terms with her exclusion from the final season of Community in order to film this – we needed this movie, and what’s even better is that the people in charge of moving money and golden statues seem to realize it as well (as oblivious as they may be to other issues).

220px-room_posterRoom (2015); written by Emma Donoghue; based on her novel; directed by Lenny Abrahamson; starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.

 

 

 

 

The 15 Greatest Women in Video Games

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Jen and I in 2010 (non-civilian clothes)

Jennifer Wicks and I have united to bring you this more-than-a-list that examines (and lauds) characterization of women in a medium that has not always been so good about it.  If you’re looking at this, you probably know some of the history, whether it be constant damsels and femme-fatales, breasts that begin at the collarbone, or reductive “hottest video game babes” lists.  But in the aftermath of all the damage (and with the revelation that there are more female gamers than male), we’re in the midst of a massive healing period.

Our countdown, which is labeled “15” but includes plenty of honorable mentions, is going to look at things from the standpoint of genuine characterization, depth, and impact.  And we’re going to do it without slut-shaming any of the really, really bad characters.

Because this is a detailed examination, there will be thorough spoilers for every game mentioned.  Only one character per game or game series is allowed (except in the case of the rare “twofer,” in which two characters occupy the same slot).  Your first one: no one paid us to put Lara Croft, Chun-Li, or Samus Aran on the list, so they’re not included.  Onward!

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The Hateful Eight

There won’t be many comin’ home

hateful_eight-jennifer-jason-leighQuentin Tarantino and I are sort of like exes.  I remember our best times (True Romance, Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Death Proof) as fondly as any memories I have; however, every few years, he attempts to reignite our relationship, and because he once charmed me so, I’m always seduced again.  “It’ll be like old times!” is what I hear.  My friends warn me against dating again, or they roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, I’m sure it’ll work out this time.”  And when it comes down to it, I’m never sorry that I gave it another try, but I can’t deny that things have changed, and I’m ultimately left feeling exhausted at how hard I’ve tried to convince myself that things could be the same as they were.

I introduce this piece this way because True Romance and some others meant so much to me on a cinematic level when I first saw them that I’ve since referred to Tarantino as “Quentin” in conversations with my friends about his films.  These conversations (in the past few years, at least) often involve whether Tarantino has “matured” as a filmmaker, which is to say, “Will he ever do a third act wherein everyone doesn’t get blown away?”  These days, it seems like he keeps doing that simply because everyone keeps criticizing it, but let’s explore a little.

The Hateful Eight, referred to in the opening titles as “The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino” (which gives him two more chances, if you’re keeping score) is a western not in the exact style of any other, but that borrows characters who might wander into a midseason episode of Bonanza and take Michael Landon hostage.  The story centers around Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter “open for business,” attempting to hitch a ride with a stagecoach occupied by another of his kind, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his current prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is wanted for murder but whose crimes are never explicitly revealed to us.  Through one thing and another, the trio, along with soon-to-be-sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), end up at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they plan on weathering a blizzard before they head into Red Rock.  However, when they reach their destination, they find that other folks – Englishman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), Confederate General Sandford Smithers (Bruce Dern), and black-hatter Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) – are already making use of the premises, and caretaker Bob (Demián Bichir) wasn’t expecting another group.  Oddly enough, Warren, who has been to the haberdashery before, has never once seen Bob, and notices that owners Minnie (Dana Gourrier) and Sweet Dave (Gene Jones) are inexplicably missing.  None of this aids the paranoia of the already-paranoid Ruth, who makes a big show of warning the others to stay the hell away from his prisoner.

The film is essentially Reservoir Dogs if the latter took place in the mid-1800s.  It involves several hours of dialogue between very bad people on a single set, initially concerning everyone’s suspicions about one another, and later confirming them in Clue fashion.  It also features Tim Roth not only as a mole, but in a role where he spends a good portion of the film bleeding from the abdomen; and Michael Madsen as another violent maniac who receives the same tracking shot he got in Dogs: walking out of the main set to grab something from his “car” in order to commit another heinous act (and in the process, maybe embracing the fact that he still has not escaped the shadow of Mr. Blonde).

But there’s another layer to The Hateful Eight.  Warren is a black man in America following the Civil War, and is constantly threatened by men like Mannix and Smithers, who resent even sharing a room with him (Smithers, otherwise a kindly-seeming old man, is particularly despicable in that he won’t even speak directly to Warren, instead having Mannix relay the insults for him so that Warren hears them twice).  Not that there are many Tarantino films in which the N-word isn’t employed, but it seems heavily topical in this case, not only for the characters, but in general, when one considers the current social climate in America.

Warren, though, essentially the protagonist of the piece if we have to pick one (making Mannix the deuteragonist), is no Django.  He’s not a straight/narrow good guy simply because he once lived on a plantation.  His actual deeds (if he’s telling the truth about a certain encounter with Smithers’s son) are as bad as those of the other characters, and he’s not shy about relating his experiences in extreme detail while laughing, not to mention using them to goad a feeble old man into a deadly duel he can’t win (not that he doesn’t deserve it).  Samuel L. Jackson once again plays a layered and intense character, and although he has appeared in most of Tarantino’s work in some form, his characters never become repetitive or blend together (something that cannot, sadly, be said for frequent contributor Madsen at this point).

The other real wildcard is Daisy, who acts like she doesn’t much care about being taken to her death by Ruth (although she doesn’t appreciate it much when he blatantly elbows and punches her in the face for so much as talking or singing a song he doesn’t like).  She’s a hardened criminal, but we can’t quite see her as a villain when surrounded by so many other bastards.  Add to that the fact that she’s the only woman among these gruff brutes, and that she’s in chains throughout the entire movie, and she doesn’t seem so bad next to neurotic lunatic Ruth, racist war criminal Smithers, stoic-butcherer-of-innocents Bob, or, y’know, Mr. Blonde.  Regardless, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays what could have been a one-note psychopath as someone that we’re constantly keeping an eye on because she’s just so damn exciting to try to figure out.

Early on, Ruth suspects that someone in the haberdashery was planted there in order to spring Daisy loose, and Tarantino plays curiously close to formula by not only having Ruth be correct, but in some cases telling us what’s going to happen (literally: Tarantino himself voices the narrator who lets us know that “Somebody poisoned the coffee!” while we were watching something else).  Having nearly everyone who was waiting at the haberdashery be involved in the prison-break plot seems obvious and too easy, especially since both Warren and Ruth guess as much two hours before it’s revealed (whereas Mr. Orange being revealed as a cop was a genuine surprise that also made sense with context).  Alas, Gage/Mobray/Bob are all just bad guys who that very morning executed poor Zoë Bell and a cast of the most unsuspecting, likable ingénue-types you’ve ever seen, with the help of Daisy’s brother Jody (for some reason played by Channing Tatum, who seems out of place).  If the intention is to have the result be unexpected because it’s what the audience thought they were supposed to expect, it doesn’t quite work, simply because it’s too tamely handled (even with the vicious actions of the outlaws), and renders some very interesting details we thought we were supposed to be paying attention to (for example, wondering how a pink jellybean wedged between two floorboards ended up where it was) relatively futile.

I’ll give Tarantino this, though: he avoids the extended Django-esque shootout in favor of having each shot fired count for something.  Scenes in which characters are killed take not the form of action scenes, but of old-fashioned duels and straightforward executions.  Appropriate and realistic (aside from the buckets of blood), yes, but still fatiguing after we make it to the end, sitting with the last living characters (who are soon to be goners anyway) and thinking about what we’ve just been through and what it was all worth.  The union of Warren and Mannix is a nice illustration of how things may have been if the South simply looked at slaves as human beings, or perhaps how things could be now if everyone chilled the fuck out and loved one another, but it’s done in such Rocky IV fashion that you have to ask, “What else?” after the credits pop up, even after being in the theater for three hours.

As usual, Tarantino brings out career-highlight performances from the actors, especially Jackson, Leigh, and Goggins, keeps it all hilariously and satisfyingly in-universe (Red Apple Tobacco, anyone?), and leaves us feeling like we’ve witnessed something big happen.  Much like Basterds and Django, it’s not a film I’d probably watch again (something that hurts me to say about a Tarantino piece), but it’s enough to keep me, y’know, casually seeing him.

220px-the_hateful_eightThe Hateful Eight (2015); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Walton Goggins.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I have a cautiously optimistic feeling about this.

Star_Wars_6-580x387Suffice it to say my reasons for seeing a Star Wars movie today are different than they were when I was five. “Fun” is pretty easy to come by without spending twelve-something on a theater ticket, and “entertainment” is something I can achieve by watching nuthatches devour birdseed outside my living-room window, so that’s not the reason.  Is there nostalgia involved?  Yeah, sure.  But I’ve voiced my views on those things during plenty a review of the pop-culture brainjunk that I get off on chewing into so many celluloid pieces, so I want to look at The Force Awakens objectively.

Fair warning: story and character details (read: “spoilers” for the entire movie, including the ending) follow.

J.J. Abrams (in danger of being called “Jar Jar Abrams” until the end of time if he’d screwed this up) directs the film, under the watchful eye of Kathleen Kennedy and with help from Lawrence Kasdan (the screenwriter who did edits on Leigh Brackett’s original Empire Strikes Back script). Set thirty-something years after Return of the Jedi, the story follows Rey (Daisy Ridley), a desert scavenger who reminds one of a young Luke Skywalker, both in environment and fashion sense.  Sadly, Rey is homeless, abandoned by her parents on the desert world of Jakku at age five.  She lives in the shell of an Imperial AT-AT walker in Jakku’s pseudo-badlands, where she is (mostly) left alone but always aware of the fact that while she awaits the return of her family (who never actually promised to return), she risks spending her entire life spit-shining pieces of salvage for an uncaring dealer (Simon Pegg) who trades portions of food for refurbished parts.  An early scene that simultaneously warms and breaks the heart involves Rey eating dinner (a sort of instant-biscuit powder) while wearing an old discarded rebel pilot helmet and grinning at a starship leaving the planet.  No dialogue necessary.

The fact that Luke was hidden on a similar desert world, Tatooine, in order to conceal his identity, is lost on zero percent of the audience, not to mention that Rey’s surname is withheld.  More on that in Rian Johnson’s sequel, we can assume, but the backdrop here is that the First Order, a splinter group formed when the Empire collapsed, has now taken a Germany-invades-France approach to reclaiming the galaxy.  Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, of course) has vanished after his attempt to restart the Jedi Order was sabotaged.

The new “power trio” is filled out by Finn (John Boyega), apparently the only individual in the legioned stormtrooper army who thinks rallyin’ ’round a family with a pocket full of shells isn’t something to do casually, much less every day for the rest of your life; and Poe Dameron (the incomparable Oscar Isaac), a character mentioned in Shattered Empire and Leia-centric spinoff material.  Poe, working for Leia’s Resistance (the current incarnation of the Rebellion, no longer working to overthrow a corrupt and tyrannical governing body, but now pushing back against an illegal terrorist occupying force), meets Finn in the first of many endearing scenes between the new protagonists.

While George Lucas’s prequels (which now feel more like a recurring childhood nightmare – toxic but blurry enough that you can discuss it when the mood is just right) attempted to develop characters by having them shout expository dialogue in one another’s faces, not to mention giving each character so few layers that even a pre-Strindberg playwright would have cringed, the characters of The Force Awakens have real layers, both implied and directly explored, and the most wonderful thing is that the writing, directing, and acting allow for characters to often say a lot without speaking (something severely undervalued and sorely needed in the Star Wars universe, and used to achieve a remarkable degree of genuine emotion here).  Gone are the days of “I will be the most powerful Jedi ever!” and “Careful, Greedo, or you’ll come to a bad end!” and “I don’t care what galaxy you’re from – that’s gotta hurt!” and the vending-machine version of the original trilogy’s most winsome humor.  Anyone can claim to have a story about watching a protagonist grow from nobody to hero, but here, the most important facet of that formula is intact: we actually know the people doing the growing.  When Rey, a scavenger who has never had a friend, smiles or gets excited, it means something.  When Finn, a trained killer who may as well be the TK assassin droid from Knights of the Old Republic, drops a hilarious one-liner, there’s something beneath the laughter he induces, something that the Jar-Jars and Van-Wilder-era Threepio and Artoo of the prequels could only dream about.  I’m only talking minutiae here, but that’s what makes a story with archetypal roles and formula narratives worth telling at all.  Here’s the aphoristic version of what I mean: archetypes and characters cannot occupy the same space.

And then there’s Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the face (well, mask, at least) of the movie, expected to fill the shoes of Darth Vader for the new trilogy.  But here’s the thing: Ren himself knows that’s what he’s supposed to do.  He’s got Not-Emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis), the dopily-named mentor who turned him from light to dark, expecting great things, yet the very thing that turned him against his own family was his own insecurity.  When a mook delivers bad news, Ren destroys a computer terminal and then employs the infamous force choke.  When an opponent expresses the least bit of resistance, he becomes afraid.  Even with Han Solo (Harrison Ford, obvi) and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, duh doy) as parents, and Luke as a master, he couldn’t settle into himself.  His crossguard lightsaber represents his own personality: warped and unstable, and even the parts meant to guard the user can be used as weapons.  He wears a breather mask that distorts his voice, but he doesn’t need it.  He’s a perfectly beautiful human being underneath it (and impervious to helmet hair, no less).  Everything about Kylo Ren, including his assumed name, is an attempt to create an identity as opposed to inheriting one.  And he’s a great character because he’s not an oven-ready villain; he’s a person with serious mental health problems experiencing a forced transition.  All that stuff he tells Han about being torn apart isn’t a line of bullshit, even given how the conversation ends.

In fact, plenty of the film’s characters subvert their antecedents.  Kylo Ren aspires to be the new Vader, which is a secret to no one, but Vader was more measured and secure with himself (despite having very few of his own body parts and the inability to breathe without wearing a suit of metal and circuitry) and didn’t mind taking orders.  Rey seems to be destined for greatness, but she’s not a bratty Aryan extrovert like Luke; in fact, she has demons we have not yet earned the right to see (just look at Maz Kanata’s face when she examines Rey’s eyes).  Finn thinks he’s supposed to be a combo platter of Luke and Han, but everyone who looks at him sees something more like C-3P0.  General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), the most effective evil character in the film, plays the same role Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) did in A New Hope, but he’s more ruthless and twice as smart.  Both are aboard their own version of the Death Star when it crumbles, but Hux isn’t foolish enough to think it’s invincible, and he lives on to hold another Nuremberg Rally in the next episode rather than becoming an easily forgotten Disc One Final Boss (hashtag: NoDisrespectToGrandMoffTarkin).

The original power trio also appears, made meaningful by the fact that they’ve grown quite a bit in the last thirty years.  Han, once jaded and self-centered, is now gentler, perhaps too gentle to continue on with the lone smuggler life he once led, especially now that he’s swindling opponents who are younger, faster, and more tech-savvy.  He tried to settle down and start a family with Leia, but the Kylo Ren incident caused another rift, and each of them went back to the thing that always distracted them from confronting their emotions.  For Han, that was gallivanting around the galaxy with Chewie (Peter Mayhew), and for Leia, it was concentrating on her military career and putting the screws to the First Order.  It’s difficult to watch them try to reconcile, mostly vocalizing things the other (and the audience) already knows, sharing what always threatens to be their final embrace because Han keeps pointlessly wandering off.  Even R2-D2 has become despondent, choosing to stay in “low power mode” ever since Luke disappeared.  The only ones who haven’t changed much are Chewie and Threepio, the latter of whom still seems to exist only to obnoxiously interrupt poignant moments between Han and Leia.

Happily, the film’s only objective issues have to do with quality control and things that could have been fixed with a single line.  For example, how the hell did Poe’s jacket get where it was?  Why does Finn automatically assume Poe is dead, creating a synthetic element of surprise for the audience in place of actual suspense?  Does the Resistance really need to keep a protocol droid around when galactic technology has been more or less streamlined in the last thirty years?  Why does R2-D2 have free will?  Stay with me here.  I love Artoo, in all his snarky adorableness, as much as the next nerd, but let’s face it: in-universe, he’s a piece of equipment.  How does he simply choose to shut down with no possibility of any tech expert in the Resistance able to revive him?  Did everyone just forget about him because he became obsolete when BB units were introduced?  I like to think that Luke programmed him to behave this way and to reactivate when Rey arrived, which would make her more than an everywoman who fell into this adventure (Han and Leia’s other child?  More on that if you talk to me in person).

Speaking of the map pieces, that scenario is taken from Knights of the Old Republic, as is the basic design for Kylo Ren’s armor.  And speaking of Kylo Ren, the whole “Han and Leia’s son becomes a dark Jedi” story is straight outta the EU.  While I think it’s worthwhile to acknowledge these things, the film actually takes much of the best stuff from the EU (including stuff that’s still canon, like KOTOR) and utilizes it in an original and passable way.  At least they didn’t rip off anything from Mass Effect (which is more than I can say for any other space opera of the last five years).  There are enough other plot-related nitpicks to satisfy the parameters of any drinking game.  I guess the studio would not have been as fine with a 3-hour Star Wars as virtually everyone else would have.

There’s also a scene mid-film that goes on so long that it evokes (albeit in a coded way) sexual assault, and if the characters involved are potentially related (or, by the same token, we take into account the horrors that Rey may have endured after being abandoned as a five year-old and dragged into a world of skeevy men, few women, and no law enforcement), the implications are more than a little uncomfortable, and maybe not intentional.

The Force Awakens respects its audience enough to let themes, motifs, and vaguely related moments speak for themselves.  Rey has a trigger involving being pulled by the hand, something that she would understandably be annoyed at anyway (especially when it’s some dude she just met who thinks he needs to rescue her), but then, later, when she touches Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, the Force shows her a vision that partially involves reliving the day her family abandoned her.  We see her being pulled by the hand as she cries at the sight of her parents’ starship leaving Jakku’s atmosphere.  Layers!  And the film doesn’t ruin it by having Rey explain to Finn why she doesn’t like having her hand held while they’re running for their lives.  Similarly, during the above-mentioned-mid-film scene, when Kylo Ren claims that he can “see the island” in Rey’s mind, there’s no need to explain what it is or what it means, because even if we don’t know why her brain conjured that image, both of the characters in the scene do.  In the last moments of the film, Rey ends up on an island.  Is it the same one?  Did she invent the island in her mind as a place to escape to when it became difficult to deal with the harsh desert landscape day after day?  Or did the Force decide it was Rey who needed to fly to Ireland and give Luke his saber back?  These are good questions to have at the end of a story like this: not questions of clarity, but questions that open up dialogue about people we’ve just gotten to know.   A question of clarity would be how exactly Finn has no trouble interacting normally with other people when he’s just been sprung out of an organization that raised him to be a mindless war machine.

Abrams’s Star Wars is the most well-characterized of the series, and we can only hope Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (the one I’m most worried about after the boring, CG-slathered, bizarrely sexist fiasco that was Jurassic World) can maintain the quality.  The original characters have aged realistically, and the fatigue shows on them all, especially Luke, in what might be Mark Hamill’s best piece of onscreen acting ever.  Han, for all his solo-ness, just wants to be useful, and truly cares about Rey (look at his face when she mentions not knowing there was “this much green in the whole galaxy”), not to mention approves of her as a successor to the Falcon.  Would the old Han have admitted being impressed by anyone else?  Leia continues to be a competent leader that everyone respects, and has even grown to be able to tolerate Threepio (though the ranking system in the Resistance is a little murky – the crawl claims that General Leia runs the entire thing, but Ken Leung plays a guy with “Admiral” as a title).  Poe is every bit the guy you’d want running your ace X-wing squadron: able to both destroy a planet-sized genocide machine and handle diplomacy with secret contacts, but also treats his underlings like family (he’s even got Jessika Pava from Shattered Empire as a wingwoman, played by Jessica Henwick).  Finn is not only charming and hilarious, and not only serves as an example of how the stormtroopers can be just as victimized as anyone else, but also provides an interesting look into gender roles: when he’s drinking the gross water on Jakku and runs over to help Rey (who doesn’t need it), what is he doing?  Does he think she needs help because she’s a girl, or is he trying to begin his atonement by helping anyone he sees?  If it’s the latter, it’s worth noting that although Finn has no knowledge of the natural development of things outside the First Order, he’s still falling into the gender trappings of what boys his age generally think they should be doing: “protecting” girls (who, again, don’t need it).

Finally, there’s Rey, the film’s hero, and the new Golden Child of Star Wars.  Where Luke whined his way to destiny and had his path set before him by twenty years’ worth of planning by Yoda and Obi-Wan, Rey is a hardened, involuntary loner from a bitter environment.  Despite this, she hasn’t lost the ability to experience joy, to recognize irony, or to take advice, even when it criticizes her own tendency to pine.  She’s athletic and powerful, but not physically infallible.  She’s driven, but knows how to laugh.  She appreciates little things.  Every decision she makes and every lie she believes makes sense, and they all serve to deepen her rather than weaken her.  She can channel the force, but has very real reasons not to.  She’s independent, but has plenty of room to grow and mature – specifically in areas of interdependence, something she might understandably have difficulties with going forward.  The most important thing is that she’s been given the space to grow in just about any direction, and if Johnson’s script can avoid making her a flouncy shell of what she was in this movie (can’t you just see the filmmakers chalking it up to her recent “socialization”?) or giving her the sudden urge to have sex with the nearest action dude (as Johnson’s women characters tend to), this might truly be the beginning of a saga that should be passed forward.  To call Rey “wish fulfillment” or a Mary Sue is an insult to those of us who have had to put up with an eternal assembly line of indestructible male mannequins with the same stupid stubble, dubious morals, unpunished womanizing, and identically stiff delivery of meaningless bromides.  Rey is not just an answer to that crap; she transcends it.  And the story ends with exactly what she needs as she comes upon a world-weary Luke Skywalker, and what we need as we ponder her future: a profound moment of quiet.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015); written by Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams; directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher.

*Special thanks to A Certain Poet for her help and insights with this one.

Mockingjay 2

Recognition, restoration, reparation

hunger-games-mockingjay-2-teaser2-900Just when I was trying to have a quiet year over here (not completely voluntarily – the indie theater I frequent around here has changed ownership and is currently closed for who-knows-what-horrifying alterations), the sluice gates of ignorance opened upon the release of the final Hunger Games film, and I felt the need to add my spices to the pot, as it were.  So here’s how it actually is.

The second part of Mockingjay, based on the final novel in Suzanne Collins’ subversive-heroine-in-generic-dystopia trilogy, continues to center on its characters, particularly Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who narrates the novels and stands at the center of nearly every scene in the film.  The story follows Katniss’s involvement in the rebel District 13’s final move against the autocratic Capitol, led by President Coriolanus Snow, played once again by Donald Sutherland, who continues to smirk his way into movie-villain history.  Although Katniss has become the symbol of the rebellion, she does not fight on the front lines as most “YA” protagonists would; instead, she is placed with a filmmaking crew led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and tasked with creating propaganda videos.  However, Katniss has her own plan, which is to kill President Snow herself.  Her crew, of course, is in no less danger than anyone else, given the fact that Snow has placed deadly “pods” around the Capitol, which makes the journey to his mansion resemble the old Hunger Games arenas.  Roughly half the movie deals with the most expendable members of the crew being picked off in traditional adventure movie fashion whilst Katniss attempts to talk Peeta (Josh Hutcherson ) into becoming himself again. The second half concerns what happens after the war ends – something too few stories about war actually explore.

Criticism has been aimed at the fact that this is not the expected ending of a series like this.  Apparently, the absence of a rousing finale with orchestrated victory music, a concrete happy ending, and a “final battle” is too much (or too little) for some to handle (none of whom have actually read the source material).  But Mockingjay ends as it should, with Katniss trying to find her place in the new system of government, or rather, being told what her role is going to be in an administration that has used her as a pawn for years.  Now bereft of her sister and countless friends, plagued by PTSD and nightmares, and without any sense of “mission,” not to mention recognizing that a horrible cycle is about to repeat itself, Katniss has never been more truly alone among other people.

How do you reconcile with a best friend whose aggressive carelessness is responsible for the death of your beloved sibling?  Do you?  How do you move on with your life when a war that has lasted your entire adult life finally ends?  How do you accept the mantle of “hero” when your victory was achieved through the slaughter of countless innocent people?  To whom do you turn when everyone close to you is equally broken, despite the larger goal being achieved?  These are the sorts of questions the film asks, and it doesn’t shy away from them or pretend that the future is bright just because the “correct” side won the big battle.

I’m not sure The Hunger Games really is “YA” anymore.  Sure, Collins’ prose is accessible to even the least well-read of preteens, and sure, giant cinema chains pair the film with trailers for teenage brainjunk and Justin Bieber albums, but its themes resonate in a way that is important now, especially for ambitious young people, but also for adults who don’t think about the way they talk about war and death.  In the world of Katniss, just like real life, killing is not glorious, and the idea of “war heroes” is fiction.  But although Katniss sacrifices her chances at normalcy and calm (not to mention becomes irreversibly disfigured in a way that is severely toned down onscreen), there is a mite of optimism.  She’s done this out of hope for the next generation: the hope that her children will be the first living people to experience an entire life without the Hunger Games.  She may be too shell-shocked to bond with them, may have taken the guy she ends up with only because he’s the sole person who knows what she’s been through (save for Johanna, but she’s another story), but ask yourself this: has any entire generation of Americans been able to live without witnessing our country involved in any kind of organized violent conflict?

J-Law is at her best once again in this (and on fire – at least one trailer before the film has her in it, albeit as David O. Russell’s muse for the third time).  Jena Malone is still incomparably powerful and seen too little, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who makes his final-final-final onscreen appearance, fades away with a (digitally rendered) smile.  It’s obvious which scenes he was supposed to be in and unable to do, and it’s heartbreaking.

Katniss is an important character for the unique place she finds in the YA canon.  Her very real vulnerability turns off the faux-masculine and those who need their heroes to be blocks of wood with just enough stubble and the same inability to express emotion that they themselves are inflicted with.  Her self-sufficiency, take-no-shit attitude, and various talents are enough to make anyone root for her, but in spite of what we (or the people of Panem) might demand of her, she refuses to stop being a real person, and in a world where so many narratives, especially for young people, feature only girls and women who find themselves in the stock roles of the virgin, the Tsundere, the whore, the nerdy friend-zoned best pal, and so on.

I’m not made of stone.  The Hunger Games is populated by characters with dumb names (combine a random nonsense word with a name from Shakespeare, and you’ve got someone who could live in Panem without making anyone flinch) and contradicts its own anti-reality-TV/anti-coliseum/anti-war-as-spectacle commentary by being a blockbuster film series in the first place.  But I think we’re well-served to also recognize its importance as a popular franchise that not only has a fully realized woman at its center, but confronts themes of death, futility, and the horrors of war.  It just hasn’t happened enough to be tired yet.

220px-mockingjay_part_2_posterMockingjay: Part 2 (2015); based on the novel by Suzanne Collins; screenplay by Peter Craig, Danny Strong, and Suzanne Collins; directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, and Josh Hutcherson.

 

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