Solo: A Star Wars Story

No, you’re touchy!

l3Usually, when someone refers to a movie as “fun” (especially in a review), it translates to “This movie is poorly written/made, lacks artistic merit, and is not worth watching again.” Since the announcement of Solo: A Star Wars Story, even before Ron Howard replaced Lord/Miller, I didn’t want it. I never related to Han Solo the way other people seemed to when I was a child (while I thought he was cool, I didn’t think he was particularly deep, and for myriad reasons, I identified more with Leia). Beyond that, Han was always an interesting character because of the absence of a solid past – this guy was a drifter, a space cowboy straight out of a western, only this cowboy didn’t drift out of town after helping save the day; he stayed the course for the good of everyone else, something a Sergio Leone joint would never give you. So as a whole, I didn’t think the Solo movie was a good idea. Then again, I thought Rogue One was a good idea, and it wasn’t.

Plot details/spoilers ahead, obvs.

The film is essentially a linear rehash of the Han Solo Adventures with a better supporting cast, a few names changed, and less time to spend on each adventure. We get a nice, gritty-ish opening with Han (Alden Ehrenreich), a typical “scrumrat,” trying to finagle his way off the Imperial-controlled shipbuilding world of Corellia with girlfriend and apostrophe-abuser Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), who looks suspiciously clean for an oppressed homeless person running dangerous schemes in sooty back-alleys, but I digress. Han and Qi’ra’s district is under the thumb (or, y’know, tendrils) of the White Worm gang, led by the terrifying Lady Proxima (an incredibly cool subterranean creature voiced by Oscar winner Linda Hunt). Through one thing and another, Han and Qi’ra steal some valuable phlebotinum to bargain their way offworld, but Qi’ra is detained by Imperials, and the duo is separated for several years, during which Han joins the Imperial Flight Academy, is kicked out for insubordination, and relegated to the “mudtroopers,” which when you think about it, doesn’t sound like a much more prestigious designation than “scrumrat.”

Han doesn’t fare much better in the Imperial infantry, and his on-point observation that “It’s their planet; we’re the hostiles” during a brutal colonization mission makes you wonder how he got as deep as he did. But soon, he runs into a crew led by Tobias Beckett (fantastic-as-ever Woody Harrelson), which includes redshirts Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio Durant (Jon Favreau). Beckett’s crew is planning on lifting great quantities of coaxium (aforementioned phlebotinum) from the Empire. Han develops a good rapport with them and admires their self-made nature, and when they refuse to take a greenhorn like him along, he attempts blackmail, which results in Beckett selling him out to an officer who hates him anyway, and he’s sentenced to a fight against “the beast.” Due to his modest prowess at speaking Shyriwook, Han is able to talk his way out of fighting this beast, whose name is Chewbacca, and the duo stage their first of many legendary escapes together.

From there, the film becomes the “space western” it promised to be, staging heist after chase after high-stakes card game, and planting seeds for the double-crosses we know are coming. The coaxium heist goes sideways after the Cloud Riders (the first of many Expanded Universe deep-cuts here) a group of marauders led by the mask-wearing, cool-suit-having, because-this-one-doesn’t-have-Vader-or-Kylo-in-it, Enfys Nest (Erin Kellyman), have the same idea. This is where Han starts to think about things. Up to this point, he assumes that everyone is out for themselves, but Beckett is actually working for Dryden Vos (a menacing Paul Bettany in a role inherited from the previously-cast Michael K. Williams), a Bond-villain-type who heads up Crimson Dawn, one of the five syndicates of the Shadow Collective (that galaxy-wide criminal organization that Darth Maul runs because he’s 0 and 2 against the Jedi). Han, Beckett, and Chewie visit Vos’s lavish, monolithic yacht to grovel, and wouldn’t you know it, Qi’ra is working for him, and she’s got a Crimson Dawn brand on her wrist. New mission: replace the shipment due to Vos so that he doesn’t kill the group.

The new crew’s adventures include all of the “greatest hits” you’d expect from a Han Solo movie: obtaining a ship (which involves the legendary Sabacc match with Lando Calrissian); making the infamous Kessel Run, Chewie tearing someone’s arms out of their sockets, and of course, Han shooting first. But it’s the supporting cast and the attention to detail that form the film’s magic. L3 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge), a self-built droid who is old friends with Lando, is one of many characters who seem like they have their own (sometimes better) movies going on, independent of what we see here. Her ideas about droid personhood are something not yet seen in the franchise, and it says loads about Lando that he considers her an equal. By the same token, we get Enfys Nest, who could have just been another masked bad guy with generic sinister dialogue/motivations, but her band of “marauders” turns out to be one of the first Rebel cells, and Enfys is in fact an indigenous young woman kindling the fires of her own revolution. It’s a masterstroke of nuance (read: not just a twist) in something that could have just been a dumb action movie.

In part, though, it is. Not that the movie doesn’t do what it says on the tin, but you can always do better. The film’s structure sort of feels like walking through the hallway of a movie theater and watching one scene from a bunch of different movies, as the movie never quite lets you settle in (it retains that “greatest hits” feel all the way through). Furthermore, Thandie Newton probably should have played the more central Qi’ra role rather than the ill-fated and barely-seen Val, both for performance ability and representation reasons (seriously, does MucusFlem actually listen to people? But hey, gotta make that paper, so snatch up the Game of Thrones actors). At least Vos is a legitimately scary enemy, but his demise is basically a discount version of Snoke’s.

There’s also a throwaway line that mentions Beckett being the one who killed Aurra Sing, a famous bounty hunter who was active during the Clone Wars and beyond. Hey, I get that you need to make Beckett seem impressive, but 1) that’s a kick in the shins to those of us who invested in that character for years and wanted to see what became of her, and 2) casual viewers don’t know who she is, so you didn’t accomplish anything here (and for the record, I blew a very loud raspberry at the screen when this line was spoken). Couldn’t you have had him kill Cad Bane instead? Cad Bane sucks.

My biggest nitpick, though, is the treatment of L3, and this is where the film’s fast pace creates problems. She’s the most lovable character in the piece, has potential for meaningful relationships with every character and for big involvement in every part of the story, but only lasts about twenty minutes in a movie that runs over two hours. I try to ignore media hype over new characters in order to avoid disappointments like this, but she’s also a vital in-universe presence: in the recent Han and Lando novel Last Shot, it’s revealed that L3 became aware of a virus that would eventually turn all droids against their creators, annihilating organic life, so she created an antivirus and built a group of droids (in her own image) that could potentially solve the problem. Sure enough, the problem arises post-RotJ, and with the help of Han and Lando (who still misses her to death and is unbelievably thrilled to see droids that look like her), she saves the whole damn galaxy. L3 is a savior of droids and organics. She’s also queer-coded and as feminist as you please.

In the film, although she commands every scene she’s in, she’s blown apart after triumphantly freeing slaves in the spice mines of Kessel. Lando, in perhaps Donald Glover’s most honest bit of acting here, scrambles to save her, but must resort to uploading her consciousness into the Falcon. Translation: she’s still alive, but now exists as the brain of the Millennium Falcon, which explains why the ship’s programming language was so unique and eclectic in The Empire Strikes Back. Overall, that’s great, because it means L3 is there for all the big victories, including the one where Lando pilots the Falcon to destroy Death Star II, but as far as her function in this movie, as the saying goes, they wasted a perfectly good character, because once she’s uploaded to the Falcon, we don’t get to hear her voice anymore, and the whole thing takes the wind out of the movie just as we’re getting to a big exciting part.

I’m starting to believe that the canon Expanded Universe novels are becoming a way to make us fall in love with characters who are going to be underused and then needlessly killed in the flagship films (L3, Amilyn Holdo, Kor Sella, Phasma), and I just don’t get it. I know it’s a cash grab, but some of us are emotionally invested. Worst of all with L3 is that she emphasizes freedom for droids from the control of organics, then is forced into the Falcon’s computer by organics. Bah.

Unlike the previous spinoff, Solo‘s joys outweigh the garbage. Warwick Davis reprises his role as Weazel (a podrace observer who jeered Anakin in The Phantom Menace), now working for a good cause alongside Enfys Nest (and by extension, working against the Empire Anakin is now part of). Also working for Enfys is “Two-Tubes,” the single Saw Gererra Partisan whose death was never accounted for. Other EU deep-cuts include Abeloth, the giant space-Cthulu-thing from the old Legends continuity that was central to the Kessel Run, and maybe best of all, Han actually says “Bantha crap” instead of “Bantha poodoo.” The performances make all of this stuff matter, so much so that it’s hard to pick a standout, but Harrelson’s Beckett is the most layered, at once a dedicated friend/lover, helpful ally, and charming rascal, but also a ruthless pragmatist. He’s just not always as great a judge of character as he thinks he is.

As for the appearance of Maul, I don’t feel any one way about it. It’s not a surprise if you’ve seen both TV series, but it’s a surprise to see Ray Park back in the movies after they killed Maul only a year ago on Rebels. Are they going to do an Obi-Wan movie and just reshoot their final duel on Tatooine? I don’t know. And I have to not care, because at the rate we’re going, I’m not going to live to see the last Star Wars film, and the countless hours I spent worrying about how it ends will probably be the last thing I think about on my deathbed.

Solo is the best Star Wars prequel. Unnecessary? Yeah. Only made for revenue? Yep. Should these spinoffs be canceled so we don’t have a Star Wars movie every year, and no time to process the saga films before having more multimedia shoved in our faces? Definitely. But if any Han Solo movie should have been made (albeit “with deficiencies,” as my department evaluations would say), this was the one.

solo_a_star_wars_story_posterSolo: A Star Wars Story (2018); written by Lawrence and Jon Kasdan; directed by Ron Howard; starring Alden Ehrenreich, Emilia Clarke, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Glover.

 

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

We are what they grow beyond

lastjediIt went pretty much the way I thought it would. Sorry, Luke. But before I go too far, be aware that this writeup will include plot details (you know them as “spoilers,” a word that should really be banned).

We pick up where we left off, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) building up two years’ worth of lactic acid from attempting to hand Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) lightsaber back to him. We are told that “The First Order reigns,” though specifics on that are cloudy, as only a few days ago, the galaxy as a whole didn’t consider the First Order a serious threat (hence Leia Organa, played by the immortal Carrie Fisher, needed to form the Resistance and push back on her own). Ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) awakens from the nebulous condition caused by getting his spine diced up in the forests of Starkiller Base, and as usual, his instinct to help takes over. Filling out the new power trio, Poe Dameron (Isaac the Incomparable) does a one-eighty from effective squadron leader to toxic military maverick who ruins anything he touches (more on the fantastic deconstruction of the “doesn’t play by the rules” action hero trope in a bit).

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whom I still can’t really bring myself to call “the villain” even after TLJ, returns to his mentor, Supreme Leader Snoke (whose resemblance to the actual Andy Serkis creates more of a haunting, uncanny-valley-type terror than his scarred and decaying flesh does). Snoke gives him a harsh verbal beatdown for his failure to defeat “a girl who never held a lightsaber,” and you’d think, for all his wisdom, Snoke would know that Kylo is not the person to berate, embarrass, and otherwise treat like a badly-behaved animal. When he zaps Kylo with a burst of low-voltage Force lightning, a prophetic line from Return of the Jedi comes to mind: “Your overconfidence is your weakness.”

Where The Force Awakens was required to dedicate most of its time to character introductions, The Last Jedi focuses on deepening those characters, developing themes, and pushing the story forward (fast). My hope was that director Rian Johnson would be the “company man” that J.J. Abrams was, catering to every part of what makes a Star Wars movie a Star Wars movie while also leaving his own indelible prints on the saga. The language is more colloquial than ever: A New Hope contains lines like “More well than you can imagine!” Here, the youngest character uses “like” as an interjection (and she should, shouldn’t she? If she’s to be a role model for actual kids who exist in the real world?) and Poe uses the phrase “big-ass door.” Interestingly enough, the legacy characters still speak more or less like they did in the original films, creating a realistic generational dichotomy that pays off most when certain characters try to understand the decisions and perspectives of the others. And within those of us who grew up with the originals, it creates the need to adapt.

The film’s core theme, spoken verbatim by Kylo to Rey, is leaving the past behind in favor of creating a new self, and it’s fairly easy to apply the theme to all of the principal characters. Rey knows that her parents were “nobodies” who sold her into slavery for booze money, but she still wants to believe that she’s from special stock. As a mirror in a cave strong with the dark side shows her, she is the only one who can face the truth of her past and leave it behind for good, and she ends the film with better control of her already-impressive Force abilities along with the knowledge that she can now become virtually anything (and she chooses to take the sacred Jedi texts and use them for something less rigid, less stuck in old, harmful ways). The theme applies to Finn, too: for the second time in the series, he tries to abandon ship, but Resistance mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) calls him on it. With one thing and another, they end up on an adventure that teaches Finn what the Resistance is fighting for, that its goals are attainable, and that it needs its people to commit to working together, not to seek individual glory (which is kind of difficult when you’ve got the stories of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Leia Organa as your backdrop).

Kylo, of course, who insists on “killing the past” if you have to, thought he made his choice when he killed his own father, but his soul (like his face) is split down the middle. His Force Bond scenes with Rey are emotionally resonant and powerful, and though Kylo chooses to push forward in his bid to leave his “good” self behind and seize the galaxy in place of recently-bisected Snoke, he remains a wildcard whose fate could take any shape, rather than the “Big Bad” he wants to be.

As much as I appreciated how most of this was handled, I will say that each protagonist’s characterization has its rough spots that could become problematic if not addressed correctly. For one, the Rey and Kylo “ship” can’t happen no matter how much we love their dynamic as characters. Sure, Kylo is sympathetic despite his deeds, but he’s a murderer who participated in genocide and personally kidnapped and tortured Rey. as A Certain Poet mentioned after our second viewing, pushing Rey and Kylo together creates a troubling Beauty-and-the-Beast dynamic that sort of skewers the sense of agency that makes Rey such a positive character. Secondly, Finn seems like he’s having just a little too much fun. This works when he’s enjoying the sights on Canto Bight, but not so much when the Supremacy is crumbling around him and his escape route is blocked by superior fighters who are trying to kill him. Lines like “Let’s go, chrome-dome” and his constant woo-hoo-ing during battles make him seem too aware that his character can’t die.

Third: Poe, maybe the true antagonist of the film, seemingly forgets everything about chain of command and command continuity, taking things into his own hands like so many action heroes before him: Snake Plissken, John Mclane, et al. But where those characters are praised when their rule-breaking leads to victory, Poe’s every move is a spectacular failure that gets hundreds of Resistance members killed. He leads a mutiny on Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), forgetting that she’s Leia’s oldest friend and carrying out Leia’s original plan. In the end, Poe learns to respect those with experience and begins thinking like a leader himself, which is a glorious surgical procedure on the Han-Solo-type character and how he fits into a structure that requires people to be selfless and united, but looking at what’s literally happening, you’ve got a hotheaded young guy pissed off that the women in charge aren’t doing what he wants, so he throws a fit, repeatedly fucks up, and is still rewarded even though the lives lost because of him aren’t coming back. The problem is that plenty of people watching the film (namely guys who always wanted to be Han Solo) may be tempted to watch those scenes and blame Holdo, saying, “Well she could have just told him the plan!” even though Poe had already screwed up before that and publicly insulted her before she could tell him anything, nevermind the fact that her actions later in the movie (ramrodding Snoke’s flagship at the expense of her own life) are more heroic than anything Flyboy has ever done. At least he eventually comes to understand this.

As satisfying as most of Johnson’s subverting of formula is, there are a few anti-payoffs that I suspect stem from a lack of communication between the parts of Lucasfilm that produce the films and those that publish the books. Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), the masked leader of the stormtrooper corps, was built up over the past year in a fantastic eponymous novel by Delilah S. Dawson, as well as a four-issue comic series that deepened the character, revealed her motivations, and set her up as a merciless, indestructible badass. As the novel and comic were both part of a campaign called “Journey to The Last Jedi,” you’d think that meant Phasma would have a major role in, say, The Last Jedi. Sadly, Christie appears in only one scene, where she falls victim to villain tropes that would make Roger Ebert cringe, and apparently plunges to her death in a scene that seems like it was filmed for one of the low-tier James Bond movies. I know Phasma has been referred to as the Boba Fett of the sequel series, but if this is really her last appearance, perhaps we’re to take that literally: cool-looking, underused, and dies stupidly.

By the same token, Dern’s depiction of Holdo is not quite the same character many of us fell in love with in Leia: Princess of Alderaan, where the two fourteen year-old girls underwent grueling trials of strength together, and eventually discovered the existence of the Rebel base on Crait (where The Last Jedi concludes). In that story, Holdo was a Luna Lovegood type who formed a fierce bond with Leia, and who had the potential to be the first straightforwardly queer character in a Star Wars film (in the book, she mentions that she considers only dating human males to be “limiting” – whether she’s attracted to women, aliens, or both, we’re left wondering, but the films have yet to show us a same-gender or different-species attraction of any kind, while the novels have done both. #SWrepmatters). The film’s Holdo is still a wonderful creation, but we don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with her before she basically tells Leia she’s teeing up a heroic sacrifice.

The film never feels as prepackaged as it might with more Disney interference, and the emotional tug is real (mainly due to the performances of Driver, Ridley, and Hamill). Occasionally, though, it’s manipulative. It introduces ace pilot Tallie Lintra (Hermione Corfield) and gets us just invested enough before giving her a horrible death two scenes later. Lots and lots of Rebels die in the film, and as much as it’s about the persistence of the whole, the body count becomes exhausting. The pretty-much-offscreen death of Admiral Ackbar is another good example: sure, the character is a glorified extra in RotJ, but he’s been a fan favorite for thirty-something years, and having an unnamed character announce his death (right after we almost lost Leia) takes some serious wind out of the narrative motion. The unnamed Rebels who die get graphic-ish deaths, screaming and burning up, while the bad guys who die are either not shown being engulfed in their ships, or just look sort of annoyed/disappointed as they’re blown up. Even Snoke, who probably killed fan-favorite Rae Sloane and who irreparably damaged everything Luke worked for, simply gives a surprised look and topples over when he’s shish-kebab’d. There’s a bizarre unbalance to it, designed to keep us angry and worried and frustrated. It works, but sometimes in a way that’s too meta: I’d like to be angry at the Space Nazis, not at the filmmakers.

One of the best things about The Last Jedi is that it’s a sublime return to form. Some have referred to it as “divisive,” but these fans (read: younger millennial dudes) are mainly those who grew up with the abysmal prequel movies. The original Star Wars trilogy (and most of George Lucas’s other films, like THX and American Graffiti) is pro-democracy, anti-fascism, and pro-resistance. It’s becoming clear that the villains aren’t going to win this round of Star Wars, whereas the prequels spent three films humanizing a creepy fascist who murdered children, choked his pregnant wife into unconsciousness, slaughtered indigenous people (and called them “animals”), and pledged himself to the Devil because he was denied a job promotion. Oddly enough, this guy went on to be the most beloved character in the saga, Darth Vader, while there are still people complaining that the new series has a girl Jedi and women in charge of things (citing this as “exclusionary”). If you don’t understand why that attitude is a problem, you apparently missed the first 35 years of Star Wars, not to mention the first 30,000 years of civilization.

This film remedies another issue: the prequel-era Jedi Order was depicted as a Gestapo-theocracy hybrid that accidentally put the Sith in power (sorry, citizens; we set out to protect you and then plugged in the overlords). Come to think of it, even in Knights of the Old Republic (which gets more nods in this film), the Jedi Order were total pricks who got creamed by the Sith for their arrogance. In The Last Jedi, Luke and Yoda (Frank Oz!) acknowledge the errors of the old Jedi, and agree that it’s time for something to end, namely the rooms full of rigid old men misinterpreting long-winded tomes while they focus on developing cool powers (“The Force is not a power you have,” explains Luke to Rey). Adorable, drunk-sounding Empire-Strikes-Back-era Yoda returns, and gives Luke some real advice about letting go, which leads to the culmination of Luke’s story arc (at least as a corporeal being), and wow, is it powerful. I am hesitant to say Luke Skywalker “dies;” he joins the Force, absent of pain or grief of confusion, full of peace and purpose, knowing that the future of the Jedi is in good, firm-but-delicate hands. Let’s hope we can say the same for the film series.

Regarding my feelings about Carrie Fisher (and Leia missing the treatment Han and Luke got in the first two due to Carrie’s passing), I just can’t right now. But I think I articulated my feelings about her pretty well elsewhere.

This film does a better job with charming call-backs than any recent Star Wars: Luke still drinks blue milk, the Millennium Falcon is once again called a “piece of junk,” etc. The real success of this trilogy, though, depends on where the relationship between Rey and Kylo goes from here. There are a finite amount of ways it can end, and from where I’m sitting now, none of them seem quite right. All I ask (right now at least) is that all of the current nuance isn’t abandoned for a black-and-white showdown between good guys and bad guys. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy seeing Rey’s new Jedi face down the Knights of Ren, but the two characters at the center deserve more.

Seeya around, kid.

Star_Wars_The_Last_JediStar Wars: The Last Jedi (2017); written and directed by Rian Johnson, starring Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, and John Boyega.

 

 

 

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

They wasted a perfectly good short story title

billboardsMartin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that makes you question what you want to know, sympathizes with lots of people no other film will, challenges characters who have the best intentions, and ends in a much different place than viewers probably want it to. In other hands, the film would focus on Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) quest to bring her daughter’s killer to justice, because that’s Mildred’s single motivation throughout the story. However, reality ensues: it’s not always that easy. Resources for such a quest are hard to come by. The authorities are useless. She has another kid (Lucas Hedges) to focus on. And beyond all that, it’s just not what the movie is about.

Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) left the house one day after a fight with her mom, and was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant. A year later, the police have come up with nothing, having seemingly forgotten about the case, so Mildred purchases ad space on three defunct billboards on a lesser-used route into town. Put together, the message reads, “Raped while dying and still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?” The police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson at his best) isn’t exactly an obstructionist, but he’s done all he can legally do, and on top of that, he’s dying of cancer. If that weren’t enough, his most assertive officer, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a racist layabout whose brutal nature and utter incompetence have gone unpunished for years, so hell if there’s anyone in Ebbing who can actually hunt down a suspect who may have been nothing but a drifter who passed through town a year ago.

The film’s narrative involves Mildred’s war on the town rather than the hunt for the killer (which may or may not begin at the very end, depending on how you look at it), and is mostly a study of Ebbing’s various personalities. Mildred is a classic anti-hero, complete with plenty of anvil-drop scenes that emphasize just how badass she is, but the film often invites us to critique her actions: blowing up a police station, beating on minors, being rude to dwarfs and the terminally ill, etc. But she’s been through it all. Besides the loss of her daughter, she’s had to endure years of abuse by her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), who still won’t just go away. Bits of her real self – or at least the caring, mama-bear-type side of the self we see here – reveal themselves in interesting places, but her emotional scars prevent her from ever being who she was before, just like the literal scar on the town where Angela’s body was burned.

Willoughby and Dixon are the other characters who are examined closely, sometimes in the right way and sometimes not. The film spends a perhaps unnecessary amount of time with Willoughby and his family, leading up to Willoughby’s inevitable suicide, whereupon he leaves parting gifts and advice to a few folks, including Mildred and Dixon. These sequences are mainly used to beat the audience over the head with the idea that one needs love and compassion to achieve their desires – advice both Mildred and Dixon can use in spades. However, Willoughby could have spent more time guiding his right-hand man more closely, rather than making excuses for his race-motivated torture of citizens and allowing him to just keep on squeaking by.  By the time Dixon receives Willoughby’s heartfelt letter, it’s too late for him to become a real detective. Worse, the film turns Dixon into Mildred’s fellow anti-hero without punishing him for his racism or his unwarranted violence against innocent people (which includes punching a young girl in the face), or even giving the slightest hint that he’s going to change his ways. Instead the film creates this “face turn” in the cheapest way possible: simply introducing someone much shittier (a bar patron who threatens Mildred and brags about sexually assaulting women). McDonagh’s thematic material needs some work in this respect. It’s difficult to reconcile the film’s overt messages of love and compassion with its demand that the audience show these things for characters that haven’t really earned it.

This is McDonagh’s third film to include conspicuous racism (In Bruges had the “race war” tirade; Seven Psychopaths had Woody Harrelson throwing the N-word around and murdering Black women), more or less without comeuppance for the perpetrators. It’s his second film to use a dwarf as a comic sidekick/victim of “midget” talk. Maybe I’m being too critical of minutiae, but if the whole point is just that shitty people exist and aren’t usually punished for their shittiness, then fine, we get it. But you’re making works of art. Do something with that. Or at least have an idea about it.

The film ends with Mildred and Dixon driving to Idaho to maybe kill a rapist who had nothing to do with Angela’s death, beginning a possible cycle of vigilantism and taking matters into their own hands. Much like Mildred’s experiences must be for the real-life people who experience them, the final shot is the beginning of a story that never ends. Ultimately, the film’s greatest success is what it says about agency, and the lengths the desperate are willing to go to obtain it.

billboards2Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017); written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.

 

Lady Bird

Hella tight

lb

Years ago, in my Frances Ha review, I praised Greta Gerwig’s screenwriting as being full of nuanced characters, fearless language, woman protagonists who don’t abide by male-invented tropes, and dialogue wherein you don’t immediately know whether the character is right or wrong. Lady Bird fulfills my (and probably lots of other people’s) prediction that Gerwig was going to break out big time.

A film that takes place in 2002 is a period piece now, and Gerwig’s vision of Sacramento captures a currently popular theme: the clash between nostalgia and the need to escape from home. These narratives always center around young people, and the best ones lately (I’m thinking, fondly, of Life is Strange) involve adolescent girls with difficult family dynamics, figuring themselves out as they realize they want more. In the case of Christine (Saoirse Ronan), the escapism involves abandoning her birth name, which sets her apart from everyone at her Catholic high school.

Lady Bird’s best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), is her only equal, and the only person she laughs with (I’m talking actual laughing, where the laughers don’t care who’s watching or how goofy they look or what problems are waiting outside the laugh). The film is as much about the arc of their friendship as it is about anything else. The rest of the supporting cast also get complete, unique arcs, including Jenna (Odeya Rush), a popular girl whose short-lived friendship with Lady Bird is entirely based on lies; Danny (Lucas Hedges); Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, whose too-good-to-be-true vibe pays off fantastically; Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), Lady Bird’s adopted brother with whom she shares a classic love-hate rivalry, and others. The most important relationship in the film, however, is between LB and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who works her ass off in her job as a nurse, but just doesn’t speak LB’s language or understand what she needs beyond food and shelter.

This relationship is what the movie is about, and the writing pulls no punches. Neither mother nor daughter is allowed to be right all the time. Ronan carries every scene, playing LB as a child, wild youth, mature friend, fostering older sibling, and more. Sometimes, she says something awful and screams and storms out of a room, and love her as we might, we can’t defend her. Everyone is held up to scrutiny, even the dad (Tracy Letts), who just sort of agrees with LB about everything so he doesn’t have to be the bad guy.

Gerwig, Ronan, and the crew have really given us something here: a truthful film about the place below the poverty line, about the complexities of mother-daughter relationships (and women’s lives in general), about un-fetishizing girls in Catholic school, and a story where the men get the “stereotypical love interest” treatment (goody two-shoes schoolboy vs. pot-addled rocker guy). And it’s got a school assembly scene that obliterates the one from Donnie Darko: In response to an anti-abortion speaker’s sanctimonious baloney, LB says, “Maybe if your mom had gone through with the abortion, we wouldn’t have to sit through this fucking assembly.” Hard to argue with that logic.

Lady_Bird_poster.jpegLady Bird (2017); written and directed by Greta Gerwig; starring Saoirse Ronan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wonder Woman

Exactly what it says on the tin

wonderwomanPatty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman joins the very short list of superhero movies whose existence is justified.  It’s a landmark for the genre, but also a refresher course on how to make a decent blockbuster: characters are well-defined despite the focus on plot and action, everyone’s motivations make sense (to a reasonable degree, anyway), the supporting cast is likeable (even lovable), the villains are worthy opponents, and despite the its length, the film is never bloated with unnecessary side material. Best of all, the protagonist is a layered, thinking person who despite her superhuman abilities and “chosen one” status must adapt, learn, doubt, fear, and overcome. Not that the audience ever doubts that she’ll kick the enemies’ asses in the end, but it’s how she gets there that makes the CG-slathered action watchable.

The film centers around Diana (Gal Gadot), child of Amazon Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who has been raised on a strangely Christian-ified version of Greek Mythology in which God of War Ares takes on a Lucifer role and seeks to eradicate his father’s creations (humans) by manipulating them into killing one another.  In the world outside Themyscira, World War I is raging, so when Diana rescues American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and learns about the years-long conflict with countless millions of casualties, the story seems to check out.  Although she can never return if she leaves, Diana sets out to kill Ares (whom she assumes is the cause of the war, and whose death will instantly end it).  Along the way, she learns to integrate herself into human society (to varying degrees of success) and becomes sharply aware of something she was never taught by the Amazons: nuance.

The film is part action epic, part formula comic-book fare, part period romance, and part fish-out-of-water comedy.  Unlike Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2, whose tone doesn’t work because 1) the humor isn’t funny and 2) only some of the characters take the story seriously, Wonder Woman balances its parts rather masterfully, and it’s clear that a lot of care went into its pacing and characterization.  We go from ancient immortal god-women on horses (including Robin Wright as Antiope, the greatest warrior in history) to the gritty, crapsack WWI era, where women are secretaries (or “slaves,” as Diana would argue), and the transition is seamless.  Pine’s character is likeable, and although he seems to consider himself special, he’s not arrogant enough to think he, rather than Diana, should be the hero simply based on gender. On top of that, even though the romantic connection between the duo is an inevitable part of the formula, it’s not all that bad because Pine plays Trevor as a nuanced person (not just a super-spy) who actually respects Diana in addition to being physically attracted to her, and is more than willing to follow her into battle when she takes the lead.

The supporting cast is well-utilized and genuinely worth spending time with. The classic ragtag band of good-hearted scoundrels includes Saïd Taghmaoui as secret agent Sameer, Ewan Bremner as Charlie, a Scottish sniper with PTSD, and Eugene Brave Rock as “Chief,” a Native trader who is none too shy about giving Diana an education about what hostile takeovers by one people over another actually look like.  On the enemy side, Danny Huston takes mostly-center-stage as a fictionalized version of real-life German general Erich Ludendorff, a sort of wannabe supervillain who obviously isn’t Ares. He and Doctor Isabel Maru (Elena Anaya), aka “Doctor Poison” (now there’s a supervillain name) form the Big Bad Duumvirate that the good guys must content with until the true nature of Ares is revealed, and despite its predictability, it pays off well. Admirably, none of the characters, hero or villain, are wasted or dismissively killed off for a laugh.  In fact, Diana’s decision to spare a certain character shows a real maturity on the part of the filmmakers (and by extent, the character).

Spoilers in this part. Gal Gadot’s performance is really something, because she’s not relying on audience expectation in order to sell herself as a hero. Here’s an actress who understands Diana in and out, put real effort (read: nearly twenty pounds of muscle) into transforming into the character, and whose real-life combat expertise (Israeli military) lends the fight scenes a realism and urgency that most other superhero movies cannot boast (although we do get some of the DBZ-style “characters shooting colored beams at each other from a distance” stuff when Diana’s badass final adversary is revealed).  Diana, in sum, is a rare and incredible find in a genre that throws the word “hero” around way too loosely, and while I wasn’t paying attention to Gadot’s work before this, I now can’t think of anyone else more worthy of the role.

Among the film’s pitfalls are the erasing of Diana’s bisexuality (though her intimate scene with Trevor more than implies that this isn’t her “first” anything), and the film as a whole could certainly be more intersectional (where are all of the Black soldiers and American/European citizens?), but it’s a decent rough draft of what is (hopefully) to come.

wonder_woman_282017_film29Wonder Woman (2017); written by Allan Heinberg; directed by Patty Jenkins; starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis, and Robin Wright.

 

 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

A woman has never handled my Herschel

pirates-5-carinaPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is sort of like dessert at a busy restaurant on Valentine’s Day: it feels like it took way too long to get here, and no matter how excited you were about it, it just couldn’t be that good.  As a person obsessed with maritime history, folk music from the sea, and pirate stories (having even made my own pirate movie since the last PotC was released), I got myself pretty worked up about this film.  Sure, I thought, it’s going to be silly, full of anachronisms and unnecessary supernatural stuff, and diluted beyond recognition by the legioned Disney mooks working on it, but hell if that Johnny Cash trailer didn’t get me pumped.

The film takes place more than a decade after the much better end of the series, At World’s End (at which point the series already felt exhausted), with new protagonist Henry Turner (Brendon Thwaites), son of Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), attempting to break his father’s curse (the thing that requires him to sail the depths of the ocean and do…something). The deuteragonist is Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer who is accused of being a “witch” (because she’s a woman who knows things and doesn’t conform to the standards of – wait, where are we? 1700s still?  Early 18?).  Carina is a more interesting character than Henry, in part because her personal story is honest about the institutionalized sexism of the period, which only the original film really touched on, and even then, only in terms of corset jokes, rather than showing a woman about to be executed for being a scientist.

As they must, the two meet with Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), who is back to his regular pirating ways after saving the world (something I always liked about the end of the third one: after everything’s back to normal, no one really cares much about Jack).  The duo are both looking for a McGuffin called the Trident of Poseidon, which Henry thinks can break Will’s curse, and which Carina realizes she’s being led to by a constellation map on an old diary that was left to her by her father (who dumped her at an orphanage after she was born).  Jack realizes that the Trident could also be useful to him after realizing he’s being pursued by his archnemesis, Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead Spanish privateer tricked by a young Jack into sailing into the Devil’s Triangle (the Bermuda Triangle), where he and his crew were cursed and trapped.  Meanwhile, Carina and Henry are hunted by Lieutenant Scarfield (David Wenham), a British Navy officer who’s actually a little scarier than Salazar.

The whole setup is pretty good.  It’s great to see the return of Jack’s crew , including Gibbs (Kevin McNally), Scrum (Stephen Graham), and Marty (Martin Klebba), although still missing AnaMaria (Zoe Saldana), which I guess I need to just get over at this point.  On top of that, much of the Jack Sparrow humor (read: lines of dialogue, not crazy antics) is actually funny in this one, including a conversation between he, Carina, and Scrum in which they each think “Horologist” means something different. (Carina: “Was your mother also academically inclined?”  Jack: “More like…horizontally reclined.”)  It’s just fun to spend time with these weirdos, no matter what they’re doing.  We even get a badass sea-witch played by Golshifteh Farahani, and more Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who is now the most feared pirate on the seas (no word on what happened to the Brethren Court), and is even more Long-John-Silvery than usual.

The film’s issues are rooted in a staggering lack of character development, which is expected in a Disney blockbuster, but becomes more egregious (see what I did there?) when you notice how many great opportunities this one misses.  Wenham’s character could be an awesome secondary villain, but he’s utterly wasted.  Carina could be a powerful addition to pirate stories, but she spends most of the film tied up and/or being accessory to the film’s men (and for all the emphasis on her intelligence, the filmmakers ensure that her hair, makeup, and lip gloss are always perfectly in place).  The romance between her and Henry is inevitable and phoned-in.  Why do they need to end up together?  Just because they’re both young and good-looking?  But wasn’t Carina supposed to be subverting old assumptions about women?  Why do they even like each other?  The only time any attraction is mentioned is when Carina partially strips in order to be able to swim to shore, and Henry excitedly mentions to Jack, “I saw her ankles!” Sure, she’s got great ankles, I guess, but that’s enough for a marriage proposal?  (A note here: Jack’s response is actually pretty funny: “We’d have seen a lot more if you’d kept your cake-hole shut.”)

There are important revelations about Jack Sparrow’s past, including how he got the name and why anyone would ever follow him, and the scenes from the past involving Salazar are more than worthy of something that is meant to be the “final adventure” in the series (though I’m not really trusting in that at this point).  The problem is that we never really know how Jack feels about anything.  He’s always just waltzing through the plot and making jokey comments about stuff.  At least in the first movie, he was somewhat surprised that his old crew was now an undead retinue of bloodthirsty ghosts.  Now, not only has it become routine, but he doesn’t even remember Salazar (“Yes,” he says, “I remember an old Spanish sailor named…something in Spanish.”), which makes their day of reckoning ring a bit hollow.  So when it seems like the film is digging at the essence of Jack’s character and what made him, all they come up with is that Jack was apparently always just an asshole.

To top it all off, you’ve got a movie that features Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and Elizabeth Swann (finally played again by Keira Knightley), and…you don’t put them in a scene together?  Elizabeth is only seen at the very end, rushing out like a faithful wife awaiting her sailor man, and she has no lines.  It’s a nice little reunion for the family and a good way to close the series, but a short decade ago, Elizabeth was the Pirate King, for crying out loud.  She plays no part in breaking the curse?  And she was fine with Henry being gone for so long?  And furthermore, Jack doesn’t care about seeing them?  Also, what happened to Penelope Cruz and that voodoo doll?  I mean, I prefer to forget about On Stranger Tides as well, but you had a long time to figure out continuity.

No matter how “big” the series gets, the proper ending was still Jack on that tiny little dinghy after the adventure was over, rowing out to sea to find out what came next.  As far as what comes next for the series, hopefully it’s nothing.  This is enough.

A good way to get people to remember this movie as being better than it is: show the Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer before it.  I was in tears by the time the movie began (and on another note, this film really makes you appreciate how good the new Star Wars series is, and how awful it could be if Disney stuck their hands in it the way they are with Pirates).

pirates_of_the_caribbean2c_dead_men_tell_no_talesPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017); written by Jeff Nathanson; directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg; starring Johnny Depp, Kaya Scodelario, Brendon Thwaites, and Javier Bardem.

A Quiet Passion

Because I could not stop for depth

a-quiet-passionTerence Davies’s take on Emily Dickinson’s life is a quiet film that addresses important conflicts of puritanical 1800s New England, particularly the lot of women in well-to-do religious families.  It’s carried along by a juggernaut of a performance by Cynthia Nixon, who captures Emily’s titular “quiet passion” in truly astounding fashion.  But as it stands, the film is a bit too focused – something I never thought I’d say – in that it seems intent on saying something, rather than shedding light on Emily and creating a complete, definitive piece of art about her life and legacy.

The film begins with Emily played by Emma Bell in a scene that could have been taken from Jane Eyre (and means to remind us of that story), spelling out her conflict with the religious traditions that women of her station were meant to unquestioningly embrace.  Otherwise, much of the film takes place at the Dickinson estate in Amherst, where Emily embroiders poems in her room, has meaningful talks with her family members (mostly her younger sister Lavinia, played by period-piece veteran Jennifer Ehle), and confronts the ugliness of the time period, slowly growing into the reclusive woman in white that romanticized versions of history tell us she was. We see her eagerly scribbling on paper while Nixon’s voice speaks the poems she’s producing.  What we don’t see is the struggle.  Sure, we witness Emily worrying about stuff, but not thinking things through, see.  In this way, the film sort of glosses over the writing process and just says, “Here’s this woman in this repressive time period who happened to be a genius; here’s some of her work.”  Not that everyone wants two hours of a character thinking about line breaks, but this kind of structure somewhat perpetuates the (incorrect) idea that the great writers all just got it right the first time.

A Quiet Passion zeroes in on one major theme: the struggles of women as a result of religious oppression.  In Emily’s world, women do, as her father (Keith Carradine) so sternly puts it, what is demanded by the station that God chose to saddle them with.  As such, Emily and her peers are taught nothing about what “married life” entails (including sex), and if you are not heterosexual, like poor Susan Gilbert (played sympathetically and masterfully by Jodhi May), you don’t even know what it means, much less can you express it in a meaningful way. One of the film’s most powerful scenes involves a conversation between Susan and Emily, in which the former describes her intimate life with Emily’s brother, Austin (Duncan Duff), in this way: “The thought of men in that respect turns me to stone.” On top of Susan’s struggle, we bear witness to the lack of life that other women of the time are afforded, most notably Emily’s mother (Joanna Bacon), who suffers from postpartum depression in a time when depression isn’t treated, much less in women.  Emily Sr.’s explanation for the fact that her crippling depression keeps her confined to her room and mostly ignored by her family? “I lead a quiet life.”

Succeed as the film might in discussing this subject, it does so at the expense of Emily Dickinson herself.  Besides glossing over her writing life, the film also omits her relationship with Susan, which (while possibly not physical) has been well-documented through incredible love letters between the two, and is a vital facet of Emily’s life (not to mention ideas about love in her poems).  Instead, we just get the one scene between them, the takeaway of which seems to be that Susan is yet another woman in an unfair situation, and that Emily wishes everyone could just be happy.  Also skipped are Emily’s penchant for baking (and sharing her baked creations with local children) and the eventual publishing of Emily’s cache of poems, found in her room after her death by Lavinia (which you’d think would be an important detail to include in a story about a writer who monologues about what her reputation will be when she’s gone).  Every publisher she meets (or who writes about her) is condescending and/or changes the poet’s work without her permission.  While these were certainly real experiences for her, the film is selective about these details: the real Emily met with plenty of men who respected her as an artist, and the altering of her work to suit the styles of the time, while a perverse act, was mostly done after her death, and by Mabel Loomis Todd, who appears in the movie not in that role, but in a relatively dead-end side plot with Austin.  There’s also a needless amount of time devoted to the Civil War, how many people died there, and how Austin’s “honor” is damaged because his dad won’t let him test his mettle.  So while Emily appears in every scene, she is sometimes relegated to the background, listening to dudes talk about their pride.  It would all be fine if we could see her thinking about her poems while these self-important chest-pounders go on and on, having no clue which person in the room will actually be remembered by history.

Some of the film’s most impressively acted (yet difficult to watch) scenes come after Emily contracts Bright’s disease, which attacks her kidneys and causes seizures, which we see in their entirety.  When all is said and done, and Emily’s siblings have witnessed her agonizing final days, the film leaves us having seen more of a biographical overview and a feminist critique of said biography rather than an intimate study of a character or the mind of a writer.  And the whole time, we just know that Emily will narrate her own funeral with “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” I don’t mean to diminish its impact; it’s powerfully executed and left me feeling appropriately drained.  But when you consider how many theatrically-released movies have been made (or are likely to be made) about Emily, perhaps we owe her a little more.

a_quiet_passionA Quiet Passion (2017); written and directed by Terence Davies; starring Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Jodhi May, and Keith Carradine.

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