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.

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Rogue One

Jynglorious Basterds

jynersoI became worried about Rogue One when it was reported that George Lucas loved it.  That the creator of the Star Wars prequels, writer of the infamous “I don’t like sand” monologue, father of Jar Jar Binks, who apparently found zero value in last year’s powerful The Force Awakens, would love this one, concerned me more than any amount of reshoot reports.  On top of that, I keep hearing that Rogue One is “brutal,” a “war film,” and “a Star Wars movie for grown-ups.”  But wait a minute.  There’s not even any blood in this movie.  The Force Awakens had blood, both rubbed on a stormtrooper’s helmet and leaking out of Adam Driver’s body as he punched himself in his own gunshot wound.  That movie was also full of psychological terror and contained the telepathic version of sexual assault.  I’m starting to think that a certain number of people either don’t remember what they saw last year, are still sore about Han Solo, or Disney simply told them to fall in line on this one (they did).

A note here: Rogue One is better than a good percentage of blockbuster fare, but as the studio has at least four more Star Wars films coming up (and a responsibility to make them good), I think it’s more important to discuss what sucks about this one.

The film follows a ragtag group of misfits who find themselves involved in a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, leading up to the moments before A New Hope.  The mission is led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who has had enough of the squabbling and doom-saying of the Rebel Alliance’s brass. She is joined by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Fulcrum operative who plays like a darker Han Solo; Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a pilot who defects from the Empire; Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a warrior monk from Jedha (essentially a Mecca for Force-believers); Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Chirrut’s bodyguard/apparent life partner; and K2-S0 (Alan Tudyk), a wise-cracking droid who works as Cassian’s copilot and comic relief (because let’s face it: Cassian is a bit of a downer).

On the other side of things, ambitious bureaucrat Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who has been invested in the Death Star project for over a decade, continues to try to impress the Emperor and become the station’s commanding officer.  As we all know, that role eventually goes to Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, recreated here with terrifying CGI).  Mendelsohn plays a great villain and Krennic is even sympathetic at times, but if you haven’t read the tie-in novel, James Luceno’s Catalyst, Krennic comes off as a bit of a hollow shell with no motivation but to be a badder bad guy, and he’s upstaged by the combo of Tarkin and the returning Darth Vader.

In fact, none of the characters are greatly developed; their depths as people and reasons for sacrificing themselves to the cause are thrown aside in favor of exhaustive battle scenes involving mooks in different shades of black/white/gray armor.  The entire third act is like playing chess with one of those special boards where the pieces actually look like people: it’s a bummer when you lose one, but it’s not a real person, so what are you really losing?

The haphazard treatment of characters is even more infuriating if you’ve read the novel.  Lyra Erso (Valene Kane), Jyn’s mother, whose perspective you’ve spent hundreds of pages on, is predictably and unceremoniously killed in the first five minutes of the film (and in a way her novel counterpart could have easily escaped from, given that she dealt with much worse).  The other returning characters, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and Saw Gererra (who also appeared on the Clone Wars series and in Catalyst, played here by Forest Whitaker), are given only slightly more to do before they’re dismissively brushed off the board.  It’s all in an effort to showcase the “Wars” part of the series title, which mostly works, but you have to be willing to pretend you don’t see each cliche coming.

But the most egregious disservice goes to the main characters themselves.  Yen’s limited screentime causes his character to have no real reason to be in the final battle, unless you headcanon the idea that the Guardians of the Whills allow the Force to use them as a tool, and that he sees a purpose for himself (none of this is addressed directly though).  Chirrut and Baze have a close and seemingly very old relationship, but we don’t get to be part of it.  Bodhi’s redemptive arc and ordeal at the hands of Gererra are all for nothing, as he magically recovers from the supposedly irreversible torture, and is sloppily eliminated from the film just as he becomes one of its best characters.  Gererra, so important to Jyn’s upbringing, simply allows himself to die after he gives her some vital info, as if he’s fully aware that the plot no longer needs him.  What happened to his Che Guevara rebelliousness?  How/why did he end up with a breathing apparatus and golf clubs for legs?

Speaking of Jyn, the newest in a line of incredible Star Wars heroines with their own stories (Leia, Rey, Ahsoka, Asajj Ventress, etc.), the part is played with such confidence and skill by Felicity Jones that it’s a shame this character will never get more room to expand and breathe.  Despite her motivations for launching a suicide mission being a bit murky, she’s ultimately the film’s sun and moon, and I would have traded any amount of fanservice for more time with her.

The biggest delights in Rogue One are references and easter eggs planted there for superfans and the generally observant: unused footage of Red Leader and Gold Leader from A New Hope; the inclusion of Hera Syndulla from Rebels; a run-in with the ill-fated Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba; a mention of the Whills; the line “May the Force of Others be with you” (the original “May the Force be with you” before Lucas revised it), to name the most notable ones.  A cameo by C-3p0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2, which felt jarring to many, was a relief for me.  “Hey,” I thought.  “At least those guys make it out of this.”

The original ending of this film had the characters surviving, but last minute changes led to a “darker” ending where the characters achieve a Pyrrhic victory by sacrificing themselves to get the plans to Princess Leia.  This change supposedly came late in the process, with director Gareth Edwards not knowing that Disney would be fine with him killing everybody off. I’m not sure I buy the idea that two ships run as tightly as Lucasfilm and Disney didn’t communicate about this before production even began, but whatever happened, the real sacrifice was that triumphant shot of Jyn and co. storming the beach, Death Star disk in hand, living to see the fruits of their labor.  I’m not saying everyone needed to survive, but the deaths of all seven characters aren’t earned by the time they happen.  And Edwards/Kennedy’s justification for this?  “Well, they’re not in A New Hope.”  Do I need to mention that the Rebels were battling the Empire all across the galaxy?  That Luke/Han/Leia just happened to be at the center of the group that fought Imperial leadership, and thus are the ones we follow in the original trilogy?  That there were thousands of Rebel ships at the battle of the Second Death Star, with unnumbered pilots and solders we don’t see?  That characters in the Aftermath novels (canon stories approved by Lucasfilm) fought on Endor, but weren’t in the movies?  There were plenty of ways to end this without a contrived bloodbath.  The ending isn’t the worst this film could have had, but it’s rushed and out of order.

One thing I do appreciate is the diversity of the cast.  However, it’s a diverse cast of people destined to be cannon fodder and who are never remembered by the main characters of the trilogy.  Now we know why the original Star Wars is all white people: everyone else died in this fucking movie.

220px-rogue_one2c_a_star_wars_story_posterRogue One (2016); written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy; directed by Gareth Edwards; starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, and Donnie Yen.

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 might be in the middle 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 problematic 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).  Onward!

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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.

The Imitation Game

The Big Bang Theory, ca. 1941

People love underdog stories, especially when the underdogs are eccentric loners, so I don’t begrudge screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum for embellishing details of Alan Turing’s personal life – you have to do some invention when it comes to his relationship with Joan Clarke, because we need Keira Knightley to be in it a lot, and the film needs to “say something” about her situation.  You need to trim the Bletchley Park cryptographers down to a ragtag band of misunderstood do-gooders, because it makes people think of Star Wars and El Dorado and everything else they like.  You need to create conflict amongst this group, because a bunch of coworkers getting along for two full hours is 1) boring; 2) not analogous to the real-life experiences of the current working class.  But portraying Turing as being somewhere on the autism spectrum (when by all accounts he was not) does something interesting: because of series like The Big Bang Theory and other popular media that employ the cutesy, popcorny method of depicting people with Asperger’s as asexual geeks who happen to be geniuses, and whose personal struggles (common TV/movie ones include inabilities to understand jokes and sarcasm, lack of interest in socializing, and complete immunity to romance) make them adorable and endearing, plenty of laypeople think they know everything about an extremely varied mental condition that affects people differently depending upon myriad factors, including personality.  On the way out of the theatre, one of the chatty people in the row behind me made this comment: “I think he was just confused about what he was.”  Mind you, Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film) utters the line “I am a homosexual” several times to several different people, says “I prefer men, not women” and “I have had affairs with men,” is shown in an almost-romance with a boy during adolescence, and does not deny his sexuality when he is criminally prosecuted for “gross indecency” (i.e. happening to love the company of the same gender).  So it’s partly a basic comprehension problem, but it’s also media damage: how many Emmys has Jim Parsons won for playing the lovable nerd upon whom so many now base their “knowledge” of Asperger’s?  True, the people in the row behind me are not a very large sample size, but these micro-cases illustrate the larger problem: passive, casual media being taken as fact, and dangerous ignorance about serious subjects as a product of a popular TV show.

The Imitation Game follows Turing and his team’s attempt to break Nazi Germany’s Enigma code, thereby shortening World War II and saving millions of lives.  The story movement involves slightly-higher-than-garden-variety mystery stuff, and is buffered by a very personable cast: Matthew Goode plays Hugh Alexander, Turing’s main foil in the group, which includes Peter (Matthew Beard), Jack Good (James Northcote), John Cairncross (Allen Leech), and most importantly, Joan Clarke (Knightley), who shows up to Turing’s all-but-impossible mass interview for a new cryptographer, resists sexist comments, and aces the test more efficiently than even its creator can.  All the while, the group combats antagonism from their commanding officer, Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance doing what he does), whose motivation is to have the last word, no matter what, even if it allows the Nazis to destroy the world, apparently.  Soon, Turing and Joan become engaged so that she can stay and continue her invaluable work on the Enigma project – her overbearing parents are concerned about her being a single career-woman – and despite reservations on both sides, they care for each other and have each other’s backs in every way.  From there, as Turing puts together a machine named after his childhood almost-boyfriend Christopher, who died of tuberculosis, the team grows closer.

Despite the minor female presence in the film, interestingly enough, Turing’s biggest epiphanies occur as a result of female influence.  Joan’s ideas fuel much of the anti-Enigma project’s success, and it’s a passing comment from Helen (Tuppence Middleton), a friend of Joan’s who flirts with Hugh, that causes a major turning point in Turing’s thinking (which allows Cumberbatch to do the always-fun “Epiphany causes main character to rush out of room, crashing into as many people and breakable things as possible in the process”).  Knightley controls all of her scenes, and one of the toughest things about watching the film is that her Joan Clarke could be the protagonist of her own film (and she’s layered enough that we get the sense that she’s leading an offscreen film we never get to see).  The scene wherein she obliterates all thought that a woman can’t do this job is triumphant, but these scenes can be problematic in period pieces, and I’m not talking about her victory as much as the language used (and this was also a big issue in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire): filmmakers create these spectacles with the intention of looking smugly upon the awful ways the patriarchal/Christian power structures treated certain people in the past, without thinking about the ways in which these are still issues for us in the present.  Add to that the fact that the target audience for many of these narratives (adolescent boys) are still feeling things out (i.e. largely clueless to the struggles of women and people of other cultural backgrounds), and when they’re being constantly fed this stuff, this type of language becomes normalized now.  It isn’t enough to just show things “how they were” when you’re attempting to illustrate how far we’ve come, or how certain revolutionaries and hero(ine)s were crushing the status quo: in art, in order to say something, you have to actually say it.

The crown jewel of The Imitation Game, unsurprisingly, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, which all at once honestly portrays the struggles of a gay government employee in the ’40s (and respects the real-life Turing by not showing sex scenes or taking sharp turns into conjecture/invention) and the difficulties of being that fish out of water, taken to the extreme with the personality prescribed to him by the filmmakers.  His last scene with Knightley, highlighting the development of their friendship and trust over the years of (and following) the war, is amongst the most emotional of the year.  It’s incredible that a story like this can be buried for fifty years, while borderline propaganda like American Sniper gets greenlit to glorify violence and accessorize women within a few years of its supposed real-life events.  With The Imitation Game, we have a rarity: a war drama that does not suggest that a sainted soldier – rugged, white, heterosexual, male, American – was responsible for the greatest heroics.  It’s responsibly told, well-characterized, and has the only end-title “where are they now” sequence at which I’ve ever teared up.

The Imitation Game (2014); based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges; screenplay by Graham Moore; directed by Morten Tyldum starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, and Mark Strong.

Argo

A great American what?

The unfortunate part of Argo is its timing.  The suspicion and mistreatment with which the film’s American characters are met in Iranian airports is the exact treatment Middle-Eastern folks receive in American airports now.  Additionally, the Iranians are portrayed as bloodthirsty animals just waiting to unleash gunfire on anyone revealed to be American “spies.”  Their well-documented fascination with American movies and culture is touched upon; however, these scenes are brief and stylistically backwards, making a group of Iranian soldiers seem like, for lack of a better term, dummies.  There’s also an added dramatization in which armed revolutionaries chase an escaping airplane down a runway, which sounds worse than it is.

As a film, Argo is drama 101.  Its structure is simple and effective, and its narrative is complete.  There is a stigma revolving around Ben Affleck, as though he’s somehow the successful hack of the current Hollywood generation; sure, his acting is sometimes pretty flat, but he’s a good filmmaker.  He knows the ropes of a realistic drama.  Argo is a movie that is allowed to be two hours – it vibrates with a sort of quiet that renders its scenes tense and thrilling without the contrived insertion of fight scenes and villains.

The narrative, based on a true story, follows Tony Mendez (Affleck) as he is pressured by the CIA to come up with a solution to a problem: Islamic “extremists” have taken over the U.S. embassy in retaliation for the country’s support of the recently deposed Shah Pahlavi.  Six of the embassy staff escape capture, however, and end up virtual hostages of Iran as they are housed in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) with little hope of escape.  Mendez and his supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) will team with renowned Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and fictional movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), and together they will create extensive marketing for a fake Star Wars knockoff.  The six hostages will take on the identities of the movie crew after Mendez makes contact with them in Tehran, and with the CIA’s help, will board a commercial aircraft out of Iranian airspace.

As this is a film, the plan must not be an instant success, but Affleck’s dramatic license is not as egregious as it may have been in other hands. Immediate problems include the fact that the extremists are re-piecing the shredded documents from the abandoned embassy, which means they’ll soon discover the identities of the six missing staff and be able to recognize them on sight.  Additionally, Taylor’s housekeeper, Sahar (Sheila Vand), who does not speak English, may be onto the identities of Taylor’s six “house guests,” and Taylor and Mendez fear who she might tell.

The film’s action, though evenly paced and quiet, is climactic, particularly when the plan is put into motion and the six hostages plus Mendez are out in the open, attempting to make their way through the airport.  A slew of real footage from the crisis is used, particularly in the beginning, almost in an attempt to say, “Look how close to real life we made this movie look!” but which doesn’t distract from the story for long.  In the end, we see some photos of the real people next to the actors who played them, voiced over by a speech from the real-life Jimmy Carter (whom Affleck wisely decided not to have appear as a character in the film), all except Mendez, since Affleck seems to have been rightfully embarrassed/ashamed about casting himself, rather than a Latino actor, in the role of the hero.

In fact, Mendez is really the only character we don’t get to know very well.  Carter refers to him as a “great American” for what he sacrifices to get his people out of Iran.  Why does he go so far to do this?  The mission is classified, so he’s not doing it to impress his estranged fiance’ (Taylor Schilling) and son.  He’s (thankfully) not a staunch patriot, as we see him sleeping through the morning news reports and wrestling with his supervisors (mainly Cranston’s character) about which technique they should use to stage the escape.  As a bad acting instructor would ask, what’s his motivation?  Affleck’s Mendez reaches Boring Hero status by the time the mission begins.  As author Clint McCown would tell you, “it happened in real life” is no excuse in fiction.

Goodman and Arkin play the most enjoyable characters and provide some truly funny moments, including industry-savvy-yet-accessible Hollywood banter, in a film so awash in its own seriousness.  Goodman’s character at one point quotes Karl Marx’s line about tragic history repeating itself as farce, and cites this quote as belonging to “Marx,” after which Arkin replies, “Groucho said that?”

The would-be breakthrough character in the film is Sahar, who despite the paranoia of Mendez and Taylor, actually protects the hostages and the mission at the risk of being killed by interrogators who fanatically support the Ayatollah.  Of course, since this is a Hollywood movie, the misunderstood foreigner with a heart of gold must, as a rule, be played by a beautiful girl in her early twenties, but the inclusion of a sympathetic Iranian character (with her own ambitions, despite how little they may be touched upon) is a positive gesture.

Best Picture buzz already surrounds Argo.  It won the Toronto Film Festival, which has predicted BP at the Oscars for the past five years.  Due to its (in)convenient timing, the film may slide into home, beating out Lincoln and Les Miserables, the other shoo-in nominees, and it may deserve it (over the other nominees, that is – not over every film that came out this year).  Argo may be a bullet-for-bullet example of what a screenplay is supposed to look like, but there’s also a heart there.  I’d have appreciated it if the heart wasn’t so glowingly red-white-and-blue, but it’s there all the same.

Argo (2012); written by Chris Terrio; directed by Ben Affleck; starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin.