Saturday, December 16, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi


Not surprisingly, this second film in the continuing Star Wars franchise is much more complicated than the first. Mirroring Episode V as most expected and some feared, Episode VIII sees Rey () spend time alone on a deserted planet with a grumpy old Jedi Master () learning the ways of the force, while her allies face dire threat from The First Order. Leia (), Poe (), Finn (), newcomer Rose (), and BB-8 must find a way to save The Resistance from being blown out of the sky as General Hux () tracks them through space and they slowly run out of fuel. Meanwhile Kylo Ren (), berated by Supreme Leader Snoke () and connected to Rey via random Force-style Skype calls is going through an existential crisis. Will he rejoin the Light side? Or will Rey join the Dark?

We can only guess -- pretty accurate guesses actually if we use Ep 5 as a blueprint.

The parallels between this and The Empire Strikes Back are pretty clear, though generalized, and while it all ends up in the place you'd imagine, it often takes the unexpected path in getting there. In fact I'm sure that while this was being written unexpected turns were eagerly sought. Everything we had to think about for the past two years was dealt with in a way that no one would see coming. Like Luke tossing his lightsaber over a cliff after Rey gives it to him. Everyone speculated wildly over who Rey's parents were -- so the reveal is that they were nobody. I have no strong opinions on plot direction, but doing the unexpected so determinedly did create difficulty at times.

Taking a clearer, more straightforward path, for example, might have helped what I thought was the film's biggest trip-up: the middle section. About halfway through the movie I looked up and realized nothing had happened for at least a half-hour. Rey was still on the planet with Luke who was still refusing to train her. Poe was still trying to save the day "the wrong way" and Finn and Rose were wasting time on his mission that wound up being totally and completely moot. Seriously, if they'd stayed on the ship and followed orders the exact same outcome would have happened. I like to see characters fail, but they need to do it in a way that affects the plot.

"This is not going to go the way you think." No, it's just going to get there the most roundabout way possible.

Poe was my favorite character in The Force Awakens so I was excited at the prospect of him doing more this time around. Disappointingly, all he did was almost mess things up and then get taught a lesson like he was a child. He didn't learn anything, he just got told it. On one hand, at least they tried to give him an arc, on the other, I maybe would've preferred if they hadn't. Most of the other characters were lacking in various degrees also, but I had less investment and expectation with them. Rey does a few interesting things, and her and Kylo's dynamic was good. Luke is cooler than he ever was in the Original Trilogy, so that was nice. He makes a great grumpy teacher, and I would've watched a whole movie of him training Rey -- if only he had actually trained her any!

Honestly Kylo Ren is the best. I knew from the moment he first removed his helmet in TFA that he had a long journey ahead of him, and boy, is it rich and satisfying. Everything he does feels natural, and the way it was intended -- and still he goes in unexpected and exciting directions. All the best of the film is centered on him. He's involved in the most compelling drama, and a part of two absolutely wicked fight scenes. Hux looked fantastic with those dark circles under his eyes. He was undermined a bit, but made himself more useful than Finn and Rose did. They were really floundering trying to give Finn something to do, poor guy, and basically wasted him. Snoke in person was underwhelming, but he served his purpose.

I liked his scar. And everything else.

We all expected this to mirror The Empire Strikes Back. I was actually excited at the prospect. I'm not sure if Empire is my favorite Star Wars film, but it's certainly my favorite tonally. It's cold and harsh on Hoth, then grimy on Dagobah, then bright reversed into dark on Bespin, and ends with a duel shot in shadow, one character losing and hand and another captured by the enemy. I guess I should have known these were the elements that wouldn't end up being copied. But Empire is "dark" and I think that was tried here. At its best it gets to be intense, and shot with breath-taking, edgy beauty -- but the dire situations never have the full... dark... force. They pointedly make the good guys fail, but in the end they've still won -- not just narrowly escaped after a defeat.

Very few things that happen have a significant impact on the story. Rey is still good and Kylo is still evil. Luke is dead after contributing a few epic scenes to the narrative. Everyone is in regroup-mode on the Falcon with no significant losses or urgent tasks at hand. Poe and Rey finally said hi to each other, and that made me happier than anything else this movie did. I only wanted to see one thing happen, and that was it. But I digress. No characters were permanently changed, except Kylo. He's the one thing that happened here. Snoke is dead, and I'm wondering where that will lead Kylo next. The Resistance is smaller now, but will probably grow again when their allies come along in the next movie, and their location has changed, but that's not significant either.

Sorry Finn -- you were great before, but pretty insignificant here. Even this fight was insignificant.

The Last Jedi has the classic middle-movie syndrome, where there's too little to do and too much time to do it in, no solid starting place and no solid ending place. did do a good job making it feel like a complete movie at least, and it sure was beautiful. That one moment when the ship light-speeds through the destroyer... man. He was right for the job for that alone. I also appreciated that he spent less time doing fan-service, and more time trying out new directions. I wish he had been able to commit to one of those directions. It felt like he was pushing the envelope out, but then kept bringing it back in. I would like to say that was because of the constraints of the studio, but I can't know for sure. I know that I like him as a director, and when I noticed his style here it seemed like a good thing. But all his movies so far have had flaws, and this one's no different.

My overall impression of the movie is positive. I half expected the shortcomings, so they didn't much affect my enjoyment, and there are some fantastic moments that will warrant sitting through the slow bits to see again. I imagine it could've got to the same end in a better -- and certainly faster -- way, but it's not a terribly offensive fault. Really, it's a classic fault of franchise films of this type; stories by committee and influence of expectations. This one tries hard to subvert expectations, but can only manage it within details. In the big picture it's still the same; everything's expected, and nothing is new.

The Poe-Poe is coming. Oh no!

There are very few ways to truly fail a Star Wars film. Production is top of the top-notch, cinematography is strikingly gorgeous, the scifi world is rich and detailed, the good vs. evil themes are die-hard classics, and there's no tiring of light-saber battles and space-ship flying, and out-of-this-world adventure. Not the best Star Wars installment, which is expected, nor even the best it could have been, which is unfortunate -- but Star Wars is a low-risk franchise with a strong safety net. The Last Jedi produces a few duds, but it only hurts itself in the process, and in the end balances it out with a few exceptionally solid hits. And isn't that how The Force works?

Friday, December 8, 2017

Stranger Things - Season 2


After a first season that unexpectedly blew up the entertainment world, The Duffer Brothers returned with Stranger Things 2. But they failed in recreating the easy retro wonder and chilling suspense of their original masterpiece, and instead the sequel isn't much more than a cheap imitation of their previous work.

Give me this look if you must, but just know I'm giving it right back.

It watches a like a big-budget stroll down memory lane. The cast returns as tour guides, pointing out dim reflections of season 1, winking and saying, "Remember that? That was pretty magnificent, right? Right?" Yep, this show used to be magnificent, but now it's a jumbled pile of fan service via self-reference and obtrusive Easter Eggs. Before, it was a labor of love. Now, it's a meme. It's Funko Pop Culture, and, and Mom Steve™. They've lost sight of the art, and spent all their efforts appeasing the masses of fans with whatever it was they squealed over before. And it's the same, but MORE! so fans squeal again, but the soul is gone. The Demogorgon got it, probably.

I specifically recall the Duffers promising this wouldn't happen. "We'll write until the story is over, not stretch it out," they said. Well if the story isn't stretched out right now, I need to quit reviewing things, because I know nothing. The first four episodes are about 5% plot, and 95% fan service. Every introduction of a returning character I half expected to be accompanied by an applause track, like fans cheering whenever Kramer burst onto the Seinfeld set. Even Carol gets one of those moments, and then is never shown again. She, Tommy, Powell, and Callahan are insultingly useless and unused, so why are they back in the first place?

They did good keeping Hopper the same I guess, but he loses interest.

Answer: Fan service. This season values fan service over everything, to a level I've never seen before, not in Star Wars or Marvel movies -- or even Sherlock. It's almost like the same people didn't write it at all, but just took the fluffiest fan-fiction they could find, filmed it, and served it up. Well, this fan feels like she's been served -- a pile of rotting table scraps. Easter Eggs might be yummy in the moment, but they're no replacement for substance in entertainment. As Mike would say, we're not dogs; and we deserve to be respected and challenged as intelligent viewers. I will always question why things happen the way they do, especially in a sequel, and I want to find a reason that exists in the narrative of the story, rather than, "Uh, the fans would love it duh!"

Obviously, I'm not a fan of fan service. Having Easter Eggs constantly chucked at my head is unpleasant and distracting. But I do understand the appeal in theory. I just don't understand how anyone could think this stuff is acceptable as character or plot development -- fans or creators. Dustin was a fan-favorite, so now he's got a mom and a cat, and a pet baby Demogorgon (Haha, remember when he was the reasonable one?) and he gets scenes wholly devoted to "comedy" and swearing a lot. No character direction or plot-developing to be seen. But even worse, his character is changed to allow for it.

*rant intensifies*

And fans were upset with Nancy for picking clutch-good-guy Steve over Jonathan last time, so that gets "fixed." I hate this most because they actually subvert season one events to make it happen. No, she didn't wait a month before taking Steve back. She just didn't. They tried to twist it into Jonathan's fault not Nancy's choice, and I call bull on that. The end of their arcs is the place for official romance (if it should happen at all) when they're both the best versions of themselves. It's so cheap to do it now. Nancy's a worse person than she ever was in season 1. And Jonathan is such a misunderstood loner that even the writers don't know what to do with him. They don't fit anymore -- their unexpected connection is gone -- but details like that won't stop the fan-pleasing train!

Anyway Steve's nice now, so he doesn't deserve to be saddled with Nancy either. Instead he's saddled with leading the plot line created for all the useless characters to populate. Like Dustin and Lucas and the new girl Max, and her brother Billy. I really don't get the point of Billy. They apply 80's music to him like he's cool, but we're supposed to hate him, right? All but forgotten are Joyce and Mike. I missed Mike being the main character dearly, but at least his character wasn't ruined. His reunion with El lasted about two seconds though, which is hands down the stupidest thing this show does, out of a plethora of spectacularly stupid things. Sean Astin's Bob is the new Barb, and surprisingly likable, though his overdone, manipulative sucker-punch wasn't nearly as effective as Barb's, in spite of a longer set up.

The Steve/Dustin stuff had charm of course. It was downright cute at times. But totally empty, like everything else.

The worst victim is Mrs. Wheeler: from strict, sensible mom to flustered and dewy-eyed over a 17-year-old boy in two seconds flat, which was ten times creepier than those stupid Demodogs. Ugh. Demodogs. If I could erase one thing it would be them. It took a whole year for them to go from large slug to large slug, then three days to go from large slug to large dog. What? And the Demogorgon rules are completely changed! They're attracted to blood not raw meat, and they hunt alone. By the end there's so many they're not even remotely scary anymore. So animated too, and why oh why do they suddenly look like dogs?

Everything is CGI-ed into oblivion. The scope is so wide it loses focus, and then becomes distracted by the increased budget. Sets that used to be practical -- like the Upside Down -- are now CGI, and the effects aren't even good. They're obviously fake. Some effects in season one were fake-looking too, but used carefully and sparingly, for best possible results. The underground tunnels were mostly practical, and worked the best. The Upside Down inside the school was offensively bad. Overall, the locations just don't feel real anymore, and it kills the nostalgia. Everything lost the organic, non-pop-cultured retro feel. And it's intentional, moment by beautiful moment pacing is gone too.

The big mistake that makes room for little mistakes is that the plot was stretched far too thin.

I think I can see where the story was meant to go though -- before it was distracted by its own popularity. And it gets there in the end, more or less; battered, bruised, and all but destroyed, but technically intact. This base plot line is The Shadow Monster, and Will being infected and controlled by it, then, because he's smart, signaling the way to defeat it. Then El is the only one able to complete the task. El and Will were always the most important characters, so it makes sense that they would be done right. Will is basically the main character now, and shines impressively. He, and the plot he's the center of, spurs all things actually scary, mysterious or strange this season succeeds in.

El almost fails, because she isn't needed until the end, and they take their sweet time getting to her important development. Her relationship with Hopper was bursting with potential, but reduced to the angst-y rebellious teenager and overly-protective father cliche without reasonable explanation. Finally in episode 7 she gets all her good development in a rush. Not a great idea since she's the most fascinating character, and deserves gradual development in a constant spotlight, but at least it was true to her character. She runs away to explore her dark side, but her love for her friends and the truths she learned from them keeps her from falling away, and brings her back, more powerful than ever.

If you think episode 7 should be skipped, I don't know how else to put this: you're WRONG.

Straying from the formula and from Hawkins in episode 7 was the one risk the Duffers took, and for some reason it's the only criticism they're getting from the squealing fans. But El's development there, along with the main Shadow Monster plot line are the only things to save the show from total disaster. It's short and simplified, but on a base level, is all good stuff, and when it's being actively implemented, the show is genuinely good. Not quite incredible or mind-blowing, but good. And whenever characters touch it, they thrive again -- briefly, but without fail. Away from it, the directionless, bloated mess drags them down.

I could go on for twice as long, but suffice to say I was disappointed. The show copies its old self with a cut-and-paste method, and the degraded quality shows painfully. In fleeting moments it matches up and becomes glorious again, but then, like one of Will's visions, it vanishes away. It isn't terrible, granted. But I'm struggling to find anything worthwhile in it that isn't done better in season 1. It's not even scary. The characters are betrayed and forced to be stereotypes. The mood is dishonest, and the emotion clouded with insincere self-reference. The writing and production has dwindled away from immaculate to forgettable and nonsensical.

This photo reflects my disappointment.

Call me a snob if you must, but this is Stranger Things! It used to be jaw-dropping; a gorgeous medley of fear, charm, mystery, and wonder, created with impressive care and devotion. It paid homage to classic films, and rebuilt them into a new, original creature. That tiny little 80's scifi adventure has affected big-budget blockbusters. It has boldly proved that passionate, quality entertainment is still the best commodity. A mere year later, it fails to live up to its own influential standard. It barely even lives up to its title.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Upcoming Movie Roundup - December

I had a very productive Movie-November, watching Thor: Ragnarok, which was entertaining but far too shallow and irreverent (review here). Then Murder on the Orient Express, which was a lovely and well-performed production (review here). And then Justice League which wasn't the worst movie ever but sure did feel like it after all that promise and hype (review here).

Then I caught up on some other 2017 movies I missed in theaters -- Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which was better than expected and the most scifi fun I've had all year (review here); and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, which was worse than expected with low expectations, and really quite sad. I doubt I'll get around to reviewing it.

Also I forgot to mention it in November, but I also watched Netflix's Punisher, and it was fantastic. Frank Castle in all his jarringly violent glory. I just finished it last night, and it may be the most thoroughly great thing Marvel-Netflix has done. Review on that probably coming soon!

December looks to be slowing down a bit, mainly because I don't have much interest for Oscar-grab season. There's only one must-see for me -- Star Wars, of course, but plenty of others to keep a close eye on too. Are you excited for Star Wars 8? And is there anything else on your radar this month?

The Shape of Water
Dec 1st(limited); R
Sally Hawkins is great, Michael Shannon is great, Guillermo Del Toro is great, and his style of fantasy is great. The trailer is beautiful and unusual, and it looks like the kind of dark and serious fantasy I'd probably love. I won't be seeing it in theaters, but probably will someday. And reviews are saying it's great, so whenever I do see it, it will be with high expectations.

November Criminals
Dec 8th(limited); PG-13
Oh, I thought that after Baby Driver, Ansel Elgort would stick to grown-up movies. This movie screams teen movie that wants to be grown up so that's kinda awkward. It looks like it deals with serious issues, but then teen movies deal with serious issues they rarely do a good job. Based on a YA novel of the same name, which isn't necessarily a bad thing since novels are more likely to have cohesive plots than movies generally, so there is that. Still, I doubt this will be anywhere as good as it apparently wants to be. Also, it has the word "November" in it's title, yet is coming out in December...?

Bullet Head
Dec 8th(limited); R
Haha, this looks like the kind of movie I'd enjoy no matter how bad it is. Adrien Brody is always a plus. And there's also Antonio Banderas and John Malkovich... and some kind of monster that looks like a large zombie dog or something. Nice.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Dec 15th; PG-13
(Why no "Episode VIII" in the title??) Who needs any other movies this month -- we have Star Wars!! I'm very excited for this of course but also a bit nervous. I think because after Ep 7 we now have expectations about this trilogy so the stakes have been raised. From the beginning I was most excited at the prospect of Ep 8, because I expected it would take a darker turn like Ep 5 did (though hopefully it will be less similar plot-wise than 7 was to 4) and because I have loved all of Rian Johnson's movie's so far. He has excellent storytelling instincts I think, and always puts emotional umph into his films, while still making them super enjoyable and entertaining. But directors like him have been stifled by big studios before. Star Wars is only part his baby now, and he can't possibly have full control. But it may very well work out perfectly, so here's to that! The trailer looks gorgeous and intriguing... all the great new characters are here... the hype is hyping... I'm ready!

Beyond Skyline
Dec 15th(limited); R
This month's obligatory non-mainstream scifi movie apparently is this -- starring Frank Grillo. Apparently a sequel, or just set in the same universe as another movie I guess. It actually looks like a bigger film than most I mention, with some creative and well-animated aliens. Plus Frank Grillo does the tough-guy action hero very well. It probably won't be great, but it does look like pretty solid entertainment, and not the sort of thing that only a scifi-obsessed person would be interested to see. However, it is hard for me to tell, because I'm definitely scifi-obsessed.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Dec 20th; PG-13
And this is basically the same idea as the above movie: Probably some solid entertainment, and not much more. The only difference is that this is a big mainstream release, which will make all its shortcomings all the more disappointing. I do like the idea -- how they updated it -- but beyond that, it doesn't promise to be much like the Jumanji we know, or very worthwhile on the whole. The Rock, Karen Gillan, Jack Black and Kevin Hart star.

The Greatest Showman
Dec 20th; PG
More light entertainment, but I guess it's more appropriate here, being a musical loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum, who was... a showman. In the movie, Hugh Jackman plays him, and creates a circus, and it all looks very razzle-dazzle. He's got a supporting cast of Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, and Rebecca Ferguson, and some original songs. If nothing else, it is sure to be entertaining show.

All the Money in the World
Dec 22nd, R
When I went to see Murder on the Orient Express, they played the trailer that had Kevin Spacey in it. This trailer was published two days ago... and now it's Christopher Plummer. I'm kinda wondering why Spacey was cast in the first place, because they had to use makeup to make him look old. Anyway, most of my interest in this movie is because of the last-minute tossing out and replacing, but ignoring that, the movie looks like a good movie. How much of a good movie, I don't know, but I doubt the change-up could have seriously effected the quality. It's not exactly the sort of movie I'd be eager to see unless it has a happy ending, but I certainly am curious. Michelle Williams stars, with Mark Wahlberg.

The Post
Dec 22nd(limited); PG-13
And what would December be without an Oscar-grab movie? Sure, others might also be Oscar-grabs, but this movie is literally nothing else. It ticks the right political boxes, teams up Meryl Streep with Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, and is so try-hard it's making me uncomfortable for it. I like Spielberg, but boy, not like this. I'll wait for Ready Player One.