Monday, May 2, 2016

Portrait of contrasts

The strange interweaving of the stories of A Feast for Crows and A Dance of Dragons led to some weird timelines for the readers, in which events that were supposed to be happening simultaneously or even sequentially, were shown out of order. Part of the problem was that what was supposed to be one book was split into two. The other problem was that the two volumes that made up that formerly one book were written, re-written, and finally published almost six years apart. But that was all just part of digesting the story as a whole, so most shouldn't have been too concerned with it. Now, of course, we add in the timeline of the TV show, which also has had to jump around to satisfy the vagaries of production schedules and the limitation of 10 episodes per season.

What makes that interesting in this, the Age of Past the Books, is that the show storyline is now, essentially, the dominant one (uWoWid) and yet they've had to do the largest leap backward in this latest episode to date. The funny part is that they did so with a scene that wasn't actually in Feast: the assassination of Balon Greyjoy. In the books, no one is actually certain if Balon was pitched over the side of one of the inter-island bridges or if he simply fell. It's strongly implied that he was killed by his brother, Euron, but no one can prove it. So, not only do we have a case of uncharted territory in material that isn't yet published, but we also have it in a book that's 11(!) years old. This isn't taking a different turn or moving into new territory. It's just confirming what everyone already assumed and making a fairly dramatic moment out of it. Was this a scene that Martin had written and then eliminated to just cut to the chase (aka the Kingsmoot)? Or was this just Benioff and Weiss deciding that it was a far more dramatic way to introduce the menacing character of Euron? If it was the latter, wouldn't it have been prudent for the non-readers to know that Balon's brother's name was, in fact, Euron, since neither man says it during the whole confrontation?

But never mind that. The theme of the episode was clearly a study in contrasts. Bran, trapped in the utter north, is still able to travel farther than anyone, both in terms of distance and time. (Just like the Balon/Euron scene, we traveled back in time. Meta!) The fact that he's now accompanied on his journeys by the redoubtable Max von Sydow makes it all the better. Melisandre has lost faith in the Lord of Light, but is being asked to commit an act that requires an ultimate test of that faith. Tommen is trying to assert himself, not to gain control, but to protect his mother, the repeated loss of whom to the church would probably break him and the throne. Meanwhile, Cersei can't force the hand of her pliable son, but is now joined by the most implacable member of the Kingsguard to ever exist and whom is willing to fulfill every whim of the queen mother (a terrifying prospect in and of itself for most of the population of King's Landing, one would think), even down to hunting down the exhibitionists from the Walk of Shame (Ding!)

Nowhere is this study in contrasts more evident than in the confrontation between the High Sparrow and Jaime; one of the best scenes of the episode. As the Sparrow repeatedly points out, he may be the head of the church but he fears many things, including death, as even his faith isn't strong enough to assure himself that there is a next world after death. Jaime, used to resolving problems with the little people in the most direct manner possible, attempts to wield the intimidation of the armed and armored warrior, face to face with the peasant in his simple robes. But the implication of what his actions may do stays his hand. No matter how powerful the one, the many will eventually win out. It doesn't take faith to make that a reality.

That said, it may have been Melisandre's personal struggle that sent the most powerful message. Here is the arrogant, imperious priestess reduced to confessing to the lies that carried her to her station in life alongside the pretender, Stannis. But the priestess with the lapsed faith is begged to perform a "miracle" by one who lacks faith of any kind in the first place (Davos). In order to complete this act for a bunch of non-believers (including the man she aspires to return to life), she must overcome not only her own disenchantment with R'hllor but also the lack of faith in herself to perform any action on behalf of the Lord of Light, much less one that she states should be impossible by those whose results she has seen. This pairs up nicely with the question of magic in most fantasy presentations. ASoIaF has been called "the Middle Ages, but with dragons" because of Martin's insistence on sparing his audience nothing in terms of how Hobbesian (nasty, brutish, short) life can be, even if one is among the societal elite. But even though magic and the dragons exist, both are regarded as something essentially mythical. In the same way that JRR Tolkien's stories largely kept magic (or "lore") firmly in the background, as an element of history that could easily be myth, GRR Martin's stories do the same. The contrast there is that the wonderful escapes that the concept of magic (or flying away on a dragon) present are extremely rare, as opposed to the rough end that so many of our cast have met and will continue to meet. The limited amount of fireworks means that those moments that involve something otherworldly continue to be special for the audience and for the characters involved.

Despite all of that, the conclusion of the episode was the most expected moment in the series, to date, I think. My girlfriend even said: "And Jon Snow wakes up and... credits." even before Ghost knew what was happening. The big question had always been not whether Jon would return but how (Melisandre, warging into Ghost, etc.) I don't know that that diminishes said "magical" moment because it was so obvious, but I still have a bit of "OK, get on with it." puttering around my head. Some of that may have come from the way the scene was initiated, with Davos, the man lacking faith, asking for an impossible task from the sorceress who's given no indication that such a thing is possible. Plot hole? Another small stumble was the scene with Tyrion and the dragons.

While I understand the motivation behind the scene, as it will be much easier for the World's Most Unlikely Ruling Council (2 former slaves, a eunuch, and a foreign dwarf) to rule the city of Meereen backed up by Rhaegal and Viserion (if they're going to be "intelligent" characters in the story, we might as well refer to them by their names, rather than "the dragons", yes?) than it would be otherwise. But that scene had me arching an eyebrow or two. Tyrion isn't given to flights of fancy, outside his choice of women. He's a careful planner who is willing to use his considerable knowledge as an advantage, but usually to avoid getting killed. The idea that he'd be willing to take this considerable gamble without an equally considerable amount of time thinking about it and/or consulting with others seems off to me. In fact, it kind of seems like D&D took my previous advice ("get on with it") and left out some time in Meereen where Tyrion would have made this discovery. Yes, he did something similarly brave in the Battle of the Mud Gate, but that was in a moment of crisis where he knew it was do or die. This was a plan with even higher prospects of "die". So there's my own personal contrast: Yes, more magic and dragons is fine, especially this late in the game. But keep it real, man.

Side notes:

The return of Bran was welcome and the time travel back to the point of the ably intelligent Willas (nèe Hodor) was interesting, although why they decided to call him "Willas" instead of his name in the books (Walder) is open to question. Too close to the name of Walder Frey? And did they make a return to Iceland for that scene? It seemed a bit more studio-ish than previous sets in the utter north.

Speaking of unnecessary name changes, one of the best parts of the episode for me was the reappearance of the Greyjoys, including Asha (no more of this "Yara" business, please; it's Asha. Not Osha. Asha.) While the interaction between her and Balon was pretty pro forma, the appearance of Euron is exciting, as he's one of the most intriguing characters of the later books. Also, the Kingsmoot scene in the next episode or two should be pretty fascinating. Also also, was the grey-haired man in the water, reminding Asha of the rules of the 'Moot, supposed to be a stand-in for Aeron Damphair? While I wouldn't mind it if it were so, as I like the character (as I like most of the Greyjoy stuff), he was a bit too sane to be the priest of the Drowned God. And that's still the best fireplace in that or any other world.

There was a certain amount of symmetry in a couple of the casualties tonight. The giant smashing one of the Watch against a wall only to toss him to the ground, creating a line of blood and gore in front of Thorne's men that he was clearly daring them to cross, was an excellent bit of violence. It was mimicked a few minutes later when Ser Robert Strong decided to avenge the queen mother's honor on one of her taunters from the Walk. Clearly, they'll put your head out.

In a similar vein (ahem), we finally see Roose Bolton meet the sad end of having played with fire (aka Ramsay) for so long. That was a bit of a disappointment, as I thought he might hold out a bit longer until the changes in the North finally cracked a bit of his ultra-cool facade. But it was inevitable and Ramsay clearly has more political savvy than Roose expected, since the former knew what strings to pull to get the Karstarks on his side. Now they seem to think that the Umbers will fall right in line. Good luck with that.

Even more interesting was the impact of Ramsay's actions on Ramsay. I'm sure there will be people that will begin the wailing and the gnashing of teeth about Ramsay having fed Walda and the Bolton heir to the dogs, as it was a pretty brutal scene. But the interesting part was seeing the flicker of emotion on Ramsay's face, as if he was uncomfortable with the atrocity he'd just committed (as opposed to all the rest.) Don't go Helen Lovejoy on me now, Ramsay. On second thought, go for it. It certainly adds another, to date unknown, dimension to the character.

Despite all of that interesting stuff, perhaps the most heartfelt scene was one of the shortest, as Theon plans to leave Sansa in the hands of Brienne while he goes off to rediscover himself and perhaps atone for some of what he's done. Alfie Allen and Sophie Turner have really been among the best performers of the show and too often overlooked.

Lines of the week:

Tormund Giantsbane, admiring Jon Snow's corpse: "Took a lot of knives." That's a Wildling compliment if I've ever heard one.

"You would spill blood in this holy place?"
"The gods won't mind. They spill more blood than the both of us combined."
Jaime and the High Sparrow debating perspective.


"Every one of us is poor and powerless. And, yet, together we can overthrow an empire."
He's just singing to my Marxist heart.

"If I lost my cock, I'd drink all the time." As opposed to now... when he drinks all the time.

"That's what I do. I drink. And I know things." And that's why he remains one of the best characters in the show.

"I'm not asking the Lord of Light for help. I'm asking the woman who showed me that miracles exist." The confrontation between the disbelief in what you can't see and the belief in what you've seen but still don't want to believe.

And the winner:

"I don't mock the Drowned God. I am the Drowned God. From Oldtown to the Rock, when men see my sails, they pray." Euron. Always Euron.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Blind leading the blind?

I think we're going to have to get used to a couple abbreviations around here, since Game of Thrones is now the first TV show based on another property that has exceeded the bounds of said property while the latter is still running. Since fans of both books and show are familiar with ASoIaF (A Song of Ice and Fire), new phrases reduced to acronyms should be easy to digest.The first one is uWoWid. (unless Winds of Winter is different.) I'll be tossing that in there when it comes to talking about where the story is going, since we have a pretty good idea of its direction, but not the path that each medium is going to take to get there. Some things that seem bad or good in the show may be different in the book (and some we already know are quite different.) The other is "nits", as in picking them because they're "not in the show." We'd like to think that, finally, book and show fans are united and essentially as blind as Arya up there, but that's not entirely true. Benioff and Weiss are leading everyone into the wilderness as they attempt to finish George's story long before he ever will but many of the book fans will have a better handle on what's to come because we've been living with this story for 20 years and so much grondwork has been laid that it's hard to miss. That's part of what made this first episode utterly predictable, with one exception. Most of the trails have been blazed and the major players are just following them as they hurtle toward the inevitable confrontation between Fire (big lizards) and Ice (the Others.)

From Dany's condemnation to being one of the crones of Vaes Dothrak to Davos finally taking the reins of a situation to Arya's blindness being just one more step in her training to Brienne finally saving the day on behalf of Sansa, every event has been eminently predictable if people were paying attention. That's not to say that I'm able to lay out every detail of where the story will proceed from here, but I guess I did expect a bit more from the first episode without George's presumed guiding hand. Then again, since it is the first episode, there is a lot for much of the audience to re-familiarize themselves with yet again, so there's a limit to how much story progress can be made. Even so, I was a bit disappointed that the reunion of the World's Greatest Odd Couple, Tyrion and Varys, was so mundane as to be little more than them spelling out exactly how difficult things are going to be for them in Meereen, as if anyone needed to be reminded of that.

The lone exception to this general state of affairs were the events in Sunspear (Yes, Sunspear. The city. It has a name as the capital of Dorne.) I definitely didn't expect to see Doran assassinated by Ellaria and the Sand Snakes. This is certainly not something I'd expect in the books, uWoWid. Doran has a much larger role in the most recent books, but that's like saying the sun has a larger role in warming the earth. Given his five minutes of screen time in season 5 and 2 minutes in season 6, I think it's safe to say that the talents of Alexander Siddiq were completely wasted on the show. (Some book spoilers in the next few words. Highlight if you want to read them.) Given that Doran and Varys were behind the sheltering of Aegon Targaryen, Daenerys' nephew, who is making a claim to the throne at the end of Dance of Dragons and that Doran is attempting to make good on his promise to wed his daughter Arianne (nits) to Viserys by having his son, Quentyn, attempt to marry Daenerys. So, there's a lot more going on that the show has definitively closed the door on with the deaths of Doran, Trystane, and Areo Hotah. Of course, that also means that the eminently hostile Ellaria and the Snakes are now ruling Dorne, which has its own interesting angles, regardless of whether uWoWid or not.

There were definitely a few character-oriented highlights, such as Pod putting up a substantial fight against the Bolton outriders, and Dany's confrontation with Khal Moro, who initiated what has to be an homage to the modern era's foundational fantasy epic, Conan the Barbarian:

Khal Moro trying to get an answer from his lieutenants about what could be better than seeing a woman naked for the first time (Killing another khal, breaking a horse, etc.) is so redolent of the famous Conan question about life that I was laughing as soon as he started asking the rhetorical question. And there were good moments, such as Arya slowly infecting her anguish over being beaten/trained while blind with the frustration and determination that it won't stop her. That shot of her face with the Titan of Braavos in the background was well done. She's as constant as the statue and about as implacable.

OTOH, there were also some questionable bits of Jeremy Podeswa's direction. Jorah and Daario finding Drogon's landing site where Dany was picked up by Moro's khal, followed by the discovery of the ring in the grass, was about 30 seconds of melodrama that could have been shortened to five of exchanged glances. "They have her!", ominous drums and the crescendo of the orchestra... No, thanks. We knew this would happen as soon as she dropped the ring at the end of last year's episode 10. Hamming it up is not necessary. But, again, is that the difference between a book reader and a show watcher? It's hard to tell, but my girlfriend hasn't read the books and she was kind of rolling her eyes at that moment, too. One assumes that the longtime divide between fans is going to end once we get into the meat of season 6, but it will be a hard bridge to cross if the heretofore excellent writing is going to revert to bog standard TV drama. Shows that sit at the pinnacle of what television has to offer, like The Wire and Breaking Bad, didn't engage in this much handholding of the audience. Granted, neither of those had a story that was quite as complicated as Game of Thrones. But, to date, the show has treated its audience with a certain degree of respect. I'm hoping that's maintained even as D&D are charting their own course.

Interestingly enough, a similar question of faith is still being presented in the show, as well, since Melisandre's visions are again proved wrong and she finally reveals one of the main illusions that she's been presenting to everyone else since she entered the story. Is she a crone because of the Red God or has he been maintaining her as a favored servant? Is the show able to stand on its own legs from here on out or will we start to see the cracks in the story that even some readers are questioning after this long?

Lines of the week:

Hypothermia is a far better way to die than what's waiting back at Winterfell.
"He thrust a terrible choice upon us. And we made it." Alliser Thorne, late of Nuremburg.

"It was a good victory. Do you feel like a victor?" Roose Bolton with the constant reminders that Ramsay will never truly be the accepted son.

"She's not suffering. She's gone. No one can hurt her anymore." Is it a comforting thought that the safest place in Westeros might be in a crypt?

"Fuck prophecy. Fuck fate. Fuck everyone who isn't us." That was, uh, kinda the High Sparrow's complaint about Cersei, man.

"Sinners don't make demands. They make confessions." Jonathan Pryce continues to be a revelation as the High Sparrow, even when he's trying to play the good cop with Margaery.

"You're a greedy bitch, you know that?" There's sibling rivalry for you: arguing over who gets to be the one to kill their cousin.

"I like to talk when I'm finished. Otherwise, we might as well be dogs." Dothraki perspectives on sex, even if the one being talked to might have been mounted like a dog?

"What's one redhead going to do against 40 armed men?"
"You haven't seen her do what I've seen her do." Sounds like my girlfriend. Don't underestimate, man.

And the winner:

"Buried? Burned? She's good meat. Feed her to the hounds." The tenderness of Ramsay Bolton and the fitting end to the houndmaster's daughter.

Some technical notes:

You're seriously telling me that they couldn't alter the opening just a tiny bit and call it "Sunspear"?

They're going to have the same problem with Ollie that they did with Bran, as the former looks massively older after just one year since last season. Similarly, Theon looks much more together than he did even at the end of last season. Is that intentional on the part of D&D, demonstrating how he can't look as decrepit as he has been as Reek and still be Sansa's semi-savior?

The presentation of Melisandre seeing the warped vision in the metal before finally revealing her true form was well done, similar to the shot of Arya with the Titan. Podeswa has a good sense of visual storytelling and it served him well here.

The continued presence of Podrick isn't just a matter of providing comic relief or a contrast to the eternally stiff and socially awkward Brienne. Given the massive amount of lore contained in the story, it's nice to have someone who's had reason to be a walking encyclopedia, since a squire knowing the heraldry and customs of the people his lord (or lady) might encounter is eminently understandable. Pod stepping right in and helping Sansa finish the oath of fealty ritual with Brienne was perfectly natural and an easy way to both help exposition without seeming obvious and add to the cultural density of the world.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The teevee and the moving picture shows

Bird watching.
The finale of Better Call Saul was excellent. The best thing about that show is the fully-formed characters, in that you can see a number of different possible reactions and/or paths for them to take and all of them seem valid to one degree or another, such that none of them are easily predictable. You can't look at decisions that Jimmy, Chuck, Mike, Kim, Nacho, or Howard have made and say that they were obviously linear storytelling or that the actions were obvious because there was only one instinctive response to a situation. In many ways, I think Vince Gilligan's storytelling has only improved since Breaking Bad and it was already excellent there. I watched a few minutes of Talking Saul with Gilligan, Peter Gould (the other showrunner), and Jonathan Banks (Mike) as the guests. Gilligan was talking about the fact that Chuck had ended the season pulling a con on the ultimate con man (Jimmy) and he turned to the studio audience and asked: "Did you like that?" The response was a muted chorus of boos. Is that an example of the low expectations of much of the audience or of a writer willing to travel the rough road with his characters, or both? I think it, again, shows the well-rounded nature of these characters, in that it was perfectly reasonable for Chuck to have given in by now or, in fact, be taken in by his brother's shenanigans, given how disoriented Chuck has become. Instead, Gilligan and Co. have kept Chuck alive and in the game and given Jimmy a much larger hill to climb in season 3.

Also, despite the knowledge that nothing is going to kill either Mike or Hector (since both are still alive in Breaking Bad), there was a great deal of tension in the sniper scene, both in terms of Mike's target (Is he trying to take out Hector? Is Hector's condition in BB an aftereffect of being shot through Nacho?) and the car horn and note event. Even if Mike isn't going to be killed, being cornered by someone who's been able to stalk the canny Philly cop is enough to leave the scene with the eerie sensibility I think they were (ahem) aiming for. Plus, Mike's role in the show is one of slow transformation, just like Jimmy. You see how, step-by-step, his overwhelming pragmatism slowly erodes the moral barriers he puts in front of it and transforms him into the efficient fixer of Breaking Bad. As Banks said, he's not there yet, but this is the story of how it happens. Because we know the end result of both Jimmy/Saul and Mike, one of the more interesting characters of the show turns out to be Kim, the end result for whom we don't know at all. Does she finally get disgusted with Jimmy's excesses and leave before he becomes Saul or does she ride the con job and stay attached when he's in full flower? Does she get caught up in the Mike/Saul world and get killed? Some good things to think about while we await the return of Gus Fring to the TV world. Also, it still remains amusing that calm and cool Mike was once this guy:

"Don't you do it, Jack!"
Of 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop fame.

Who's "House Martell"?
I've been rather studiously avoiding most of the previews and trailers for Game of Thrones, mostly because my demeanor at the end of last season was pretty similar to Jon Snow's above, but I suppose I'll watch them this week and then write up a preview of sorts before Sunday. I was fairly demoralized by last season, since the problems with the storyline and its presentation (Dorne!) were numerous, which was new for this series. It is interesting to see the amount of Flounder coming from the cast during the promotional tour/interviews this year. Are they trying to reassure TV fans disenchanted with last season (of which I was far from the only one) or book fans worried about the uncharted waters without GRRM? Both? Was last season the point where GoT descended from being a cultural event to another series that dragged out too long?

What? Again?
On that note, I think I'm over The Walking Dead. It's not that this past season was bad or even worse than those before it. It's just that it's basically more of the same. I appreciate some of the moral introspection that Rick's group went through when they were slaughtering the Saviors, but it's not really that different from the "kill or be killed" quandary that they've been facing for 5 years now. While fans of the comic are enraptured by the introduction of Negan, I look at him and his band and see just one more charismatic menace, just like the Governor or even whatshisname from Terminus. Just because the threat to survival now has a new name and a weapon named after a famous blues guitar (Base Ball (bat) King...?) doesn't make it much different from the last one. That point was driven home when I tried to watch the first episode of the second season of Fear the Walking Dead and realized it was true for that series, as well (i.e. they're about to run into the true threat in the midst of the world being overrun by zombies: other living people.) It's basically the Gilligan's Island principle, right? How long can you keep making stories about the threat that the environment presents before you have to resort to the coconut radio or bring in aliens/crashed cosmonauts to introduce some variety to the situation? Except that said cosmonauts just want the same thing you do and are willing to step on you to make it happen. I mean, in the broader sense, that's the competitive perspective on the human condition in the first place. But it also reaches a point where one charismatic sociopath is the same as any other: they're both a threat that Rick's going to have to shoot if the show wants to continue.

I've been catching up on Oscar-season films lately, too, courtesy of the omnipresence of our Amazonian overlords.

Guess who the crazy twin is.
Legend was decent. There was a ton of story to try to pack into two hours and you could certainly tell where the editor had pulled out the machete. Tom Hardy, per usual, was brilliant as both of the Kray twins (the mannerly-looking one above is actually the less socially stable of the two.) But it seemed like there were too many stories to tell, so that many of them got shorted by the necessities of the medium. The fact that they didn't skimp on the Cockney slang at all is to their credit, as it originated as a way for East End gangs to keep the police from figuring out what they were saying, but it also slowed the pace of the film for the viewer, as you occasionally had to try to dissect what was being said. The fairly muddled shifts from the perspective of Reggie Kray to his girlfriend/wife, Frances (Emily Browning), didn't help. I was tickled to see Christopher Eccleston looking like a very senior Scotland Yard inspector, as he will forever be the Duke of Norfolk to me, but that's about the only genuinely memorable thing about the film. Except for Tom Hardy, of course, who is worth seeing in just about anything.

"Operator, I'm trying to reach some place without a bland ending."
Bridge of Spies... Ugh. Nathan and Kate tried to warn me off of this, but I was like: "Cold War themes! Good reviews! Dude won Best Supporting! I have to try-! ... Oh. Spielberg." There was a day when Spielberg films were actually progressive. When he was making things in the late 70s and the 80s, it seemed like he was willing to take risks with his storytelling approach and cinematography. I mean, he's never been a visionary, but it takes real drive to do something like his magnum opus, Schindler's List, with all of its stylistic approaches to a very sensitive topic. Most of what he's made since then have basically been him killing time. "Hello? Oh, hey. How ya doin'? Me? Just livin' on the residuals, man. Something new? Well, I guess that sounds like a middle-of-the-road topic. I could do that for a few months, sure." Hence, Bridge of Spies. There are no risks here. It's a completely linear story that finishes with the perfect Hollywood Spielbergian ending: hero safe, marriage secure, world and picket fence perfectly painted. Bleah. Admittedly, Mark Rylance's performance was the absolute highlight of the film and I can see why it earned him the nod for Supporting Actor, but the fact that his performance was so low-key and subtle may give you a clue as to how the rest of the film feels (and I still say Hardy got robbed for The Revenant.)

Unlike you and me, these people were actually working.
I liked Spotlight. I think it's a worthwhile film. I don't quite get the accolades it's received, since I have a feeling it could have worked almost as well as a documentary about the investigation and its aftermath. Yes, there was a fair amount of emotional tension and, yes, most of the performances were quite good. But I don't get the raving over Mark Ruffalo's role as the emotional guy on the investigatory journalist team. He was good, but the role was pretty much paint-by-number. I thought Michael Keaton's role had much more meat on the bone, even though Keaton preferred to handle it in his usual "I can out-subtle you without even trying" manner. When it came time for his character's turning point confession about an error in judgment from years before, it fell completely flat because he'd played an awesome statue to that point. Oddly, I thought the best performance was from Liev Schreiber because of its understated nature (and he's, uh, not the first guy I'd associate with the word "understated" in most films to date.) And it was nice to see John Slattery still doing semi-Roger things, post Mad Men.

Advantage of smoking: you can burn that damned blank page if it stares too long.
Likewise, I liked Trumbo. It's a topic that's kind of near-and-dear to my heart (both screenwriting and persecution for one's Marxist ideas) and Bryan Cranston has earned one of those passes that means I'll likely not regret losing the two hours of my life simply because he's onscreen. But, like Legend, I think there was a bit too much story here to really elaborate upon what needed to be told. Plus, the overall subject matter is one that's somewhat difficult to portray in a dramatic sense. Is there real tension between starting a screenplay and finishing one? Does the audience rise in anticipation as the last few keys on the typewriter are struck? No. Writing is a long and solitary process that doesn't really present moments of accomplishment until you're winning an award or someone's handing you a check; both of which in this story were muted because of the blacklist. It's an interesting quandary to be in as the writer of a screenplay about screenwriting and I'm glad that John McNamara was able to get something workable out of it. I just think the end result was kind of tedious because that's what watching a writer work can often be (no matter how cool it may be for the writer.) I thought Helen Mirren was her usually capable self as Hedda Hopper and Mark Stuhlbarg's turn as Edward G. Robinson deserves mention for some of the most emotionally-affecting moments of a film which didn't have many. Recommended for writers, at least.

Too small to be one of the actual plot holes.
I've gone on record before as stating that the Daniel Craig Casino Royale is the best Bond film every made, full stop. When I saw it (and saw it again. And again.) and realized that, for once, a screenwriter and director may have actually read a Fleming novel, I thought perhaps we were on our way to a new era with Daniel Craig able to shoulder the responsibility of being the ruthless assassin for the good guys. Quantum of Solace doused that fire almost instantly, as he went from ruthless to monotonous in very short order. Skyfall rescued it a bit, but not that much, and Spectre has now put the last shovelful of dirt on it, since it's obvious that they've decided that what works is Bourne over brains. I wanted so much more from this film, since they had run the gamut of old Bond schticks in new format with Skyfall and now were finally introducing his most famous nemesis, played by Christoph Waltz. But, no, it's just Bourne and, even worse, Bourne with added layers of technological improbability that induce installations in the middle of the Moroccan desert to spontaneously explode when their owner's plans go awry. Said owner's plans being universal control of all surveillance and information networks around the world, naturally. Didn't we leave this shit behind with Moonraker? Waltz really has nothing to do but look menacing and we can confirm that Lea Sèydoux is perhaps the least-convincing Bond romance of all time, since she and Craig have the chemistry of lead plus formica. Conclusion: Back to the books for the real Bond.

Hopefully, that's not something I have to say about GoT season 6 (especially since there is no book yet, George!)

Monday, March 14, 2016

The fascism of the oompah-loompahs

Now that Donald Trump has become the most likely winner of the GOP presidential nominating contest, the attitude toward him from most of the major media outlets has transformed from one of disdain to one of outright fear and concern. Where before the hook was "How could modern America actually be nominating this guy for president?", now it's become "How could modern America actually be looking like 1930s Italy or Germany?!" And that is a many-layered question and, consequently, a many-layered response.

First off, there's a certain segment of America that's always looked like 1930s Italy or Germany. Always. From the time of the Alien and Sedition Acts to the Know-Nothings, determined that immigrants shouldn't ruin the glory that was America, the Immigrant Nation, there's always been a portion of the electorate only too happy to blame their problems on "the other." The modern manifestation of it was, of course, Nixon's Southern Strategy, where it was convenient to sweep up racist Southern Democrats' votes because the Johnson Democrats new policies wouldn't let them continue in the historic tradition (i.e  telling poor white folks that their misery, created by rich white folks, was actually caused somehow by poor black folks.) Trump's other is two-fold: it's not only poor Mexicans stealing your jobs but it's also Muslims coming here to kill you (who are, inevitably, Arabic Muslims because how else could you tell them apart from non-Muslims at the border? Plus, what other kind of Muslims are there?!)

Psst. Don't look here.
Interestingly, though, the original fascists, Italy's National Fascist party, didn't really have an "other". There was no racial or religious component to the Italian Fascist ideology. It was simply hyper-nationalist: the idea that Italy should be great because ancient Rome was great and ruled most of the ancient Western world at one point. Sounds like Trump, right? "Make America great again!" Why? No reason. Just because America should be great because it's... America. City on the hill. Greatest nation evah.

It was only later that the racial elements become dominant in the popular conception of fascism because they were so integral to the German brand of the ideology, tied up in the concepts of eugenics and the Master Race and so on. Germany couldn't be great because some ancient precursor had been great. There's wasn't one. Germany had to be great because its people were inherently great. And because die Juden were keeping it from being great. Of course, Godwin's Law springs into effect as soon as any comparison is made between Trump and the Nazis because, of course, no one can be as bad as the Nazis! (Certain regimes, like Stalin's USSR and Pol Pot's Cambodia, beg to differ. Actually, they probably wouldn't beg.) But I don't think anyone is saying (now) that Trump is as bad as the Nazis. They're drawing a comparison between the movement supporting him and the historical movements that emerged around people like Mussolini and Hitler because the similarities abound.

Take, for example, the polls that indicate the number of Trump supporters who dislike Muslims, in general. This is indicative of a populace who's been given a boogeyman without any foundation in reality. It doesn't help that the leader of their particular political movement of the moment fuels that fire by suggesting that he'd institute a way to register and track Muslims in the US. I mean, obviously you probably won't tag them with a yellow Star of David like they did back in the day, but I guess a yellow crescent would be OK? Maybe? The hilarious part of this is that the "news" outlet so responsible for creating the boogeyman that Trump is so interested in tracking, Fox News, has been one of the leading voices trying to kill the Frankenstein's monster that they created, usually kind of sidling their way into the idea that Americans aren't really racists (read: fascists.) But, of course they are.

The Tea Party began as a response to one man: President Obama. And, no, it's not because Obama is a socialist. Far from it. As I've mentioned before, nothing in Obama's record or anything he's done in the Oval Office would indicate that he's a socialist. What he is, of course, is black. The kneejerk response to this disruption of the social hierarchy ("It's not just black people takin' OUR jobs! Now they've taken THE job!") was to form a party that spoke for the Common White Man, since neither of the major parties was interested in doing that anymore (Just FYI: They never really have been.) Hence, the Tea Party and the immediate labels of Obama being a Muslim, a socialist, not an American (Remember one of the loudest voices proclaiming the birth certificate controversy? One Donald J. Trump...) or anything else that would get an immediate response from the bulk of the electorate that is both ignorant and has been encouraged to think that they have no impact on the political process and no avenue by which to change that status, other than to vote for rich, white guys who promise to change it. Somehow.

Fascism, of either stripe, is not new to Americans. It's been here for a long time. The fact that it's now the dominant aspect of one half of the major party is as inevitable as the Mississippi changing course. A lot of people just don't like to admit it because things like systematic racism (in the name of freedom!) and registration (in the name of freedom!) and internment camps (in the name of freedom!) just don't tend to ring out the tones of the Land of Opportunity and Liberty for All. But those have always been nice illusions, too.

So, yeah, calling Trump a fascist is not a label that anyone should shy away from. He could also be labeled "demagogue" because he's that, too. But the bigger question is why it takes the public and the assembled media so long to admit the truth that's been right there in front of them. The real question isn't why a buffoon who looks like the loudest and most abrasive of the Oompah-loompahs is a leading candidate for president. It's why the apparently most popular candidate opposing him is a war criminal (among a host of other less-than-salutary activities over the past 20 years) and why that whole situation seems to be acceptable to the bulk of the populace. It's just like what happens after every time someone pulls a gun and commits a mass murder: "There's nothing we can do!" says the only industrialized nation in which this happens on a regular basis. At some point, you'd think people would get tired of it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


One of the popular legends surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio is the Susan Lucci curse. The latter was famous for being repeatedly nominated for the Emmy for Best Actress on the soap opera All My Children and failing to win every time until her 19th nomination (and 18th consecutive) in 1999. (She was then nominated twice more after that win and lost both times.) Similarly, DiCaprio has been nominated 4 times for acting and once as a producer at the Oscars and lost every time, even when opinion seemed to bend sharply in his favor. That curse may be broken with his performance in The Revenant and in a situation where his may not have even been the best performance on the screen.

The Revenant is the story of Hugh Glass, trapper, hunter, and mountain man and his trek over a couple hundred miles of wilderness after being mauled by a protective mother grizzly. The director, Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu, is already well-known for his preference for fairly intense and very personal stories (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful, and, of course, Birdman.) but here he takes it up a level. The audience is dropped right into the action and is forced to catch up (which remains one of my favorite storytelling approaches, as I've noted before), arriving in an active hunting/skinning camp which, moments later, is overrun with hostile Arikara warriors. Forced to flee with his remaining compatriots, Glass later has his unfortunate encounter with the bear and is abandoned for dead. We're told nothing about where or when this takes place, although the dress, flintlocks, and aforementioned hostile Native Americans should give some clue. Being only vaguely familiar with his story, I figured out roughly where they were when Glass mentions avoiding the Missouri River and then when they were when they showed him dreaming about his deceased wife's village being ransacked by US soldiers, as I recognized the uniforms specific to that time period (the 1820s; oh, yes, I am a history nerd.) We're told nothing about Glass' background except what we see via those dreams and given precious little description about the rest of the group or the setting, My girlfriend objected to being set adrift like that, which I can sympathize with, but I loved it. It engenders a focus by the audience to find out what's going on and the film intensifies that focus by paring things down to a very simple premise.

I think the point of the story was essentially to excise everything but Glass' motivation to stay alive and take vengeance on the men that abandoned him (among other crimes.) The story was his will to survive. That's all. There are any number of trappings that make for an interesting setting for that simple approach, but they're mostly set decoration. This was Iñárritu at his most personal. Nothing mattered but that drive. This was not a biopic. This, like most of his films, was a story about motivation. The cinematography contributed to that by alternating dramatic vistas of the Montana countryside with extreme closeups on DiCaprio and Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald. Seeing it in IMAX format as we did made that personal involvement unavoidable. There was a fifty-three-foot image of DiCaprio, caked blood, frozen snot, and all. You were there with him and could feel the cold only slightly lessened by the ferocity of his eyes as he tried to keep crawling, swimming, staggering, and finally walking back to safety. It was a fairly marked turn in style for Iñárritu, who really didn't present any specific approach in his earlier films until Birdman when, in his effort to present a film as a stage performance, he often kept the camera locked at stage distance, even in intimate moments. There was no such restraint here and I think it served the film well.

As noted, DiCaprio's well-known intensity fairly blares off the screen here. This is a step beyond the angst of The Departed or the revulsion to the facade in Revolutionary Road or the jittery determination of The Aviator. All the production took place on location and DiCaprio has mentioned that he essentially spent months in an off and on state of hypothermia. We could see the desperation emerge in a character who, to that point, had been pretty recalcitrant except where it concerned his half-breed Pawnee son, who had become the real focus of his life and the only thing he cared about. DiCaprio does well with every facet of that character and there was no struggle for the audience in focusing on him through the majority of the film.

However, as good as DiCaprio is, the best and genuinely magnetic performance on the screen may have come from Hardy. As a friend of mine mentioned, he didn't even know it was Hardy until after they'd seen the film. The actor lost himself somewhere in Fitzgerald and emerged as a fur trapper in the 19th century. Watching the gears turn behind his eyes as he considers his next move was fascinating and he provides a great deal of texture to the world in which the characters find themselves, as well as being the end goal of what is, at its root, one very long chase scene. There's a great deal of energy in Hardy's performance but it's contained energy; coiled and only released at moments that serve his interests, whereas DiCaprio's is on display at all times. This was their first collaboration since their excellent dual turn in Inception and, interestingly enough, I got a lot of Tom Berenger's Sgt. Barnes from Platoon in Hardy's Fitzgerald in both personality and tone of voice (both of them employing a backcountry Texas growl.) You can hear a lot of it when Fitzgerald is lecturing young Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) about the necessities of their (his) choices. Of course, Berenger was also in Inception and, in fact, Hardy's character "plays" him for a bit. (Getting very meta here.)

Since everything was on location, the scenery is spectacular. One moment of Glass clinging to a log as he drifts down the Yellowstone River was particularly great. It was also one of the few moments where Iñárritu let an orchestral score really come through. For most of the rest of the film, the wilderness is the soundtrack, enhanced only occasionally by noise to heighten the tension or soft music to create the dream atmosphere of the visions of Glass' wife. It was a good choice, since it continues in that same vein of bringing the audience into the wilderness with Glass, rather than removing them from it with the sound of a string section.

In fact, the only real drawback to the film as a whole was its length. At 3 hours, it simply went too long. While I understand the desire to impart some of Glass' trial and how strenuous it was, given the rigors of what he had been through on the way back to Fort Kiowa, they could have excised the last 20 minutes of chasing Fitzgerald through the snow and simply had his confrontation with Fitzgerald at the fort. It would have been every bit as dramatic and Fitzgerald still would have been considered an elusive foe and Glass' quest would have been no less traumatic. Getting in one more bloody fight and allowing a pat ending to the Arikara storyline seemed a bit too Hollywood to me and might have reduced what could have been an amazing film to "just" a great one. But in the long view, it's a relatively minor flaw and I'd certainly recommend seeing the film in the theater, as the big screen experience definitely serves the story. Besides, if Glass can travel 200 miles on a broken leg, you can sit in a comfy chair for 3 hours.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Catching up

Having fallen behind in watching movies these days, I found out that several of them have arrived on Amazon in the interim and decided to catch up on a few that I'd intended to see in the theater, but never got around to.

The first is The Martian. Now, some of you that have actually stuck around for a few years know that I regard Ridley Scott's early phase to be among the finest directorial periods in modern film history. The vast majority of his output since then has been somewhere between middling and half-assed spectacle. The Martian does not deviate sharply from this trend. The film is good, but doesn't really excel in any notable way.

Matt Damon as the lead does well. It's tough to be the only person on screen for long stretches and I think that may have played into his performance as stranded astronaut, Mark Watney. You know that on the other side of that camera are people waiting to be entertained, so you have to do your best even when there's no one else to either bounce off of or divert attention to. But despite the star-studded roster that fills out the rest of the cast (Brandi Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean), no one but Ejiofor really stands out because there's not a lot for them to do other than stand there and look frustrated when things go wrong. The movie, as a whole, is very pro forma: here's the problem... and here's the solution. Just like Damon's quandary, it feels like the story kind of informs that approach, since Watney's/NASA's problem in most cases does come down to basic science and math. But the problem is that with the story being that direct, there's no room for that wonderful cast to show us much. Kate Mara, in particular, is completely wasted (Zoe Barnes from House of Cards), as the film's Wikipedia entry tells me more about her character than I actually got from the film.

The lone exception is Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, who does a great job of running with that frustration and bringing in other emotions and elements that give him a certain degree of magnetism when he's on screen. At several points, I was less interested in seeing Mars than I was in seeing Kapoor interact with Daniels' Teddy Sanders and the rest of the bureaucracy while he tries to save his man and his program. I certainly appreciated Scott's return to a hard science topic (as we studiously avoid the atrocious hackjob that was Prometheus...) and it's not as if the movie wasn't entertaining. It was. But it was also wholly predictable and linear and could not possibly be a better example of the term "star vehicle". This was Damon's show. Everyone, and everything, else was just background noise.

Next up was Ant-Man. I've written before about what seems to be the "fun" side of the Marvel Creative Universe. I thought that first effort was subpar, largely because the screenplay was and most of the actors employed seemed to be ill-suited to the kind of goofiness that the film seemed to be calling for. There were no worries in that respect for Ant-Man with Paul Rudd taking the lead.

As they have with most of their productions, Marvel Studios just let the comics set the story ("These things almost write themselves!") and connected the dots. Michael Douglas was the former title hero, Hank Pym (albeit minus the domestic abuse issues that surfaced in the early 80s) and he recruits thief, Scott Lang, to be his replacement. Back in the day, of course, Lang was a cat burglar (albeit, still an electronics expert), not a cybercrook, but that's how the world has changed, kids. Interestingly, despite Rudd's self-effacing humor (honed through years of work with Judd Apatow), this is one of the more serious roles he's undertaken and he spends a fair amount of time redirecting others to what the important stuff is supposed to be, when he's not playing straight man to Michael Peña (who was also in The Martian; it's like long-range, delayed cinematic stalking. They're after me.) But even with the "real" issues of importance, there's no getting around the fact that Ant-Man's most notable ability is controlling ants. No space gods, no Cosmic Cubes, no world-destroying robots. Ants. And that's why it had to be on the goofier end of the spectrum.

Michael Douglas looked like he was just filling time as Pym, but I thought Corey Stoll as Darren Cross was a good choice, since he'd showed a bit of that angry, manic side in House of Cards (seriously, the parallels.) While it was obvious that Evangeline Lilly was going to be a bit more than just the female stand-in as Hope van Dyne to us comic nerds, since she was wearing the Wasp's most memorable haircut, she had enough stage presence to sell the role on her own. While most of Rudd's personal storyline reminded me a bit too much of Hugh Jackman's (to cite another Marvel character) in Swordfish, I get that there's only so many "good guy does bad thing he used to do but doesn't want to do anymore for what's actually a good reason" approaches that you can take.

Finally, there was Sicario. Speaking of parallels, the comparison between Traffic and Sicario is obvious, even if Benicio Del Toro hadn't put in excellent performances in both (and, of course, Michael Douglas was in Traffic; was Kevin Bacon in any of these three films?) Where Traffic showed the seedy side of the American consumer end and the impact on Mexican neighborhoods, Sicario shows the American response to the current chaos and how the Mexican impact is far more direct, at least in Juarez.

I wanted to like the film mostly for Del Toro and Josh Brolin's performances, as I'll generally watch anything that either of them make. The story was kept taut and lacked the more rangy and comprehensive Soderbergh approach, but it seemed to end up too taut. Del Toro's character was simply too perfect and the end of his storyline was too pat to be believable. It seemed like they had a chance to keep things relatively big picture (i.e. the references to the collapse of the Medellin cartel turning the business and much of the surrounding Mexican community into a free-for-all and the CIA having lost control of what was its pet source of income) but instead reduced it to a simple revenge story. If that's what it was, you'd expect Del Toro's Alejandro Gillick to have greater depth so we could watch what happens to him in the course of finally bringing a close to the focus of his life. But everything he does simply slides off. Or we could have gone back to the big picture and watched Brolin's Matt Graver veer even deeper into the ruthlessness that belies his casual flip-flops attitude.

Instead, the personal angle to this revenge tale was taken up by Emily Blunt who, unfortunately, portrayed the least interesting and largely one-dimensional role of the cop that "doesn't think any of this is right." Granted, if they wanted to do the Training Day thing, fine. It's been done, but fine. But instead she has basically zero development from the beginning to the end and, instead, is a sideshow to Del Toro's revenge mission. Somewhere along the way, it feels like the story was either trimmed too much or was two films cobbled together and it lost some of its internal sense. That said, it's paced really well and the action sequences are constructed for maximum tension. It's a good film, but not a great one. One thing it did do was remind me of a solid documentary about the drug gangs in Mexico and how ordinary people are resisting them on both sides of the border, Cartel Land. Again, sticking to that angle might have produced a better film.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Force doesn't awaken so much as reboot

Let's get this out of the way right now: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS BELOW, so if you haven't seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, you do not want to read what follows. Of course, if you really liked the film, you probably also don't want to read what follows...

Finn's (John Boyega) expression above is probably the best rendition I could find for what I was feeling through most of the movie. Note the mild scowl, the slightly cocked eyebrow, and the just parted lips, on the verge of saying: "Fer reals?" I mean, seriously, if I wanted to watch Star Wars: A New Hope again with flashier graphics, I can do that in about 15 different formats and for far less money than the full IMAX 3D experience that I sat through this morning. I say that because The Force Awakens is virtually a note-for-note retelling of the first film, down to the young person discovering the Force on a desert planet with a droid carrying a crucial piece of info, and getting transported to the Imperial base to both rescue a hostage and destroy the galaxy's ultimate weapon. The only real difference is that this time there's two of them.

Don't get me wrong. I respect JJ Abrams' attempt to put this thing back on track after Lucas' abominable prequels and if his route for doing so is essentially the same thing he did with Star Trek: rewriting the lore but with different people and a few funny moments, I can understand that. But that's exactly what it is: a reboot. That's not "Episode 7". It's a retelling of Episode 4, which comes out feeling like a cheat, rather than an actual step into the future.

So... you're saying you didn't like it?
The key thing for me in most films is story. I don't care about your flashy lights or beautiful people or funny one-liners or skillful camera work in and of themselves. I appreciate all of those things but, dammit, tell me a story. Give me an idea (or even more than one!) that makes me think while I'm watching; that makes me say to myself "Yeah, that's a good move there."; or, best of all, that lets me lose myself in the film as it's proceeding. The worst thing for most fictional tales is to lose your audience's immersion in the plot. The water for this one never even got to knee-high on me because there basically wasn't a plot that we hadn't seen 38 years ago and countless times since. Most adventure films can be broken down into the basics of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey, but they can rarely be as linear as this and remain interesting, especially when someone has told the same damn story 4 decades ago. At the very least, tell me a story that equates to more than one half-hour episode of a Saturday morning cartoon (Hero discovers unknown power, hero finds friends who help her use said power, hero uses power against evilest people in the universe. The End.) The first film was never more than a straightforward fairy tale. Harlan Ellison dismissed it as the equivalent of a B-level Western. He was aghast that people would call it science fiction because he felt it lacked depth. He was right. It was never going to be deep because Lucas based it on old Flash Gordon serials that he saw as a kid and then perpetuated that monochromatic approach in the prequels. So along comes JJ Abrams with an opportunity to right some of the wrongs and instead he walks the road most traveled by and came up with no difference at all.

On the positive side, no one's performances were abysmal. I think Boyega and Daisy Ridley as Rey did well with the material they were given, which was far more than anyone else. The two of them functioned like actual humans in that they had lines that indicated that they were thinking and developing in the changing circumstances while playing their roles, rather than just regurgitating fan-serving one-liners like, say, Harrison Ford. Here's a key example: At one point, Han Solo asks for Chewbacca's bowcaster when the latter is injured. In two instances, he spouts lines like: "Wow!" and "I really like this thing!" So, you're telling me that in the forty-odd years of their association, through all of the shady deals and consequent gunfights, that Solo has never traded weapons with his Wookiee partner. Seriously? That scenario plays like a character who's hitting the screen for the first time, not a couple of SF icons who were given an opportunity to play up the legacy of their long partnership a few minutes earlier ("Chewie, we're home!") All it would have taken to make Solo an actual human with a history is a simple change. Instead of "I really like this thing!", you'd have "I always liked this thing!" That's a micro-intensive look at how these characters existed in the minds of the writers and the director. They're not humans. They're archetypes. But you can extrapolate that out to their presence as a whole and discover that Abrams really wasn't saying anything new. He was just getting the chance to say "Star Wars" for the first time and treating all of us like we were in the same boat with him.

Yeah, I kinda felt like this, too.
A perfect example is Carrie Fisher's role in the film. What was she doing there? What was her purpose? She was a minor foil for Han Solo (again) and then she kinda stood around and let people emote to her. They had to have her because they have the rest of the (still living) original cast and at least she's become a general in the Rebel- ahem, Resistance*, but she didn't actually do anything. She's a complete cipher with maybe two dozen lines and none of them particularly meaningful other than to tell her ex-husband to bring back their estranged son, the emotional baggage of which Ford had already expressed to Rey and Finn. I've seen a couple comments around the Web suggesting that she'll actually have something to do in the next couple films. But if all you're doing is a reboot, you could have summed up her role in the opening scroll at the start ("General Leia Organa, off-stage, awaits the return of her estranged son who now leads The First Order...") And that's the key problem again: this is just a reboot, not a story, because one of your supposed main characters has nothing to do in this film.

*And that's another thing. What exactly are they resisting? If the end of Return of the Jedi signaled the return of the Republic and if the First Order are determined to destroy the returned Republic (which they apparently do when we see the Republic's key(?) worlds for all of 5 seconds before being disintegrated by the Starkiller), that sounds like two competing states, not one dominant one with an internal rebellion. Is it a Resistance inside the worlds controlled by the First Order? If so, is the Republic operating a Contra-like army inside the opposing state? Is this a Cold War? None of this is explained because, for Abrams' purposes, it doesn't matter. The Resistance is just the Rebellion because all we're doing is a rehash.

So you're saying you've seen this kind of thing before...?
The aforementioned offspring, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is another fine example. This kid is Darth Vader. That's all he is, down to the same black armor and propensity for torturing people telekinetically. We've been here before. Hell, he even talks to the new Emperor, Supreme Leader Snoke (Snoke? Really? Not menacing like 'Maul' or elaborate like 'Palpatine'. Snoke.) on a floor-lit hologram. If you're trying to tell a story about tragedy, it helps to not expect people to have an emotional response about the same thing you've been running with for 38 years. Driver, at least, was given a fine moment of patricide, where you could see him struggling with his inner demons, but the whole character was kind of a wash to me because a) he was Darth Vader and b) he was the son of two key people in the films. Science fiction will always involve suspension of disbelief by its very nature. But if you're expecting me to believe that the son of two people that were intimately involved with the former dark lord who led the destruction of the Jedi is now walking in those same footsteps because he was somehow corrupted, you're losing me. I get that unusual circumstances and heroic moments are what make adventure stories in the first place, but when it all keeps happening to the same family, we're getting more than a little Die Hard 2 here, which is a film that no one wants to be accused of cribbing from. And I haven't even talked about the fact that, since the Resist- ahem, Rebellion destroyed two planet-destroyers, the Resistance now has to deal with a star-eating, multi-planet-destroyer. This is straight out of Michael Bay. "We had 5 explosions per minute in the last film, so now there has to be 10 per minute! And bigger!" Seriously? This is what it took 4 or 5 years to come up with? Getting a cheap laugh from the audience when you do the "size matters" comparison between the Death Star and the Starkiller?

Snoke. Really. I mean, you gotta be kidding me. Snoke?
The other thing that's sure to initiate my departure from immersion is technological issues in a science fiction film. Yes, it's high tech and beyond that of our world, so it takes that suspension of disbelief I was talking about. I have that already when it comes to Star Wars when you consider things like hyperspace and lightsabers. But here we're talking about basic concepts like, say, navigation. The McGuffin in the film is a mini-drive containing the map to where Luke Skywalker supposedly resides. ... Why in the galaxy would anyone need a map when you have hyperspace travel? Wouldn't you just need coordinates? Give somebody an X, Y, and Z and they should be able to find what they're looking for as long as they have a consistent central point to orient from. If you're using hyperspace travel, you kinda need that central point in the first place. But we're talking basic astronomy here. Using a "map" means we've reverted back to second star to the right and turn left at the nebula. What it is, of course, is an excuse to replace the plans to the Death Star with some other piece of data that is presented as enormously important. Speaking of stars, was there any consideration given to what happens to a planet if you drain its host star of all its energy in order to power your superweapon? Or was that all just lost on the way to the next exponential function of Bayism?

Furthermore, said awakening of the Force was wildly inconsistent. At one point, you have Rey as young Jakkuan scavenger who has no idea what the Force is and wouldn't care since it probably can't earn her food from the local junk dealers. But then she has a series of elaborate visions just from touching Luke's old lightsaber. Guess there must be a deep connection that's been activated, even though she has no idea what it is or why it's happening. But then, somehow, despite Luke needing extensive training from one of the greatest Jedi masters to have ever lived, Rey employs an almost master-level technique with her power, from the brute force of resisting and then overpowering an acknowledged adept when she beats Kylo Ren (twice) to the incredibly subtle mind trick of confusing the guard of her cell at the Starkiller; all without any guidance whatsoever. And, oddly enough, despite the extensive visions that accompanied her grasp of Luke's old weapon, when she sat there for a minute of screen time in an invisible push-of-war with Ren, we got nothing but the two of them grimacing at each other. Wouldn't that have been a great moment to show how her resistance (ahem) was expanding her mind or exactly what kind of mental darkness Ren was throwing at her? Instead, we got two mimes in a slapfight.

This is the legion of fans who think I'm clueless.
This isn't a case of the film coming in below my expectations, because I really didn't have any. Lucas' prequels had mostly killed my Star Wars fandom 15 years ago. And, like I said, I largely agree with Ellison on the first film's storytelling merits. It's not something that's going to leave you pondering its nuances hours later. But the first film was groundbreaking because of both its visual effects and the broad appeal of its imagery and story. That's why it deserves a place of respect in the genre of science fiction. Why bother to mine that vein again? We've been there, multiple times. What's even worse is that, in the succeeding 4 decades, we've seen countless Star Wars comics and novels with ready-made storylines that were actually original ideas, from 20,000 years before the Star Wars films, to many decades after them. If Hollywood doesn't do anything but reuse established material at the moment, at least rehash one of those stories that dared to make its characters something other than figments of themselves from the 70s. And if I'm supposed to come into the theater and turn my brain off and just enjoy the visual ride (something which is, uh, not me, as you may have noticed) at least give me something different to look at than what I've seen before. Otherwise, it's like channel surfing and stopping on a movie you've seen 20 times because it's familiar and you don't really need to pay too much attention to it. Same thing here. I can do that without shelling out $30, thanks.

So, just like Guardians of the Galaxy, I have little doubt that I'm in the distinct minority on this one (94% on Rotten Tomatoes.) Lucas gave an apparently snippy response to someone asking about the new film, saying that he figured "the fans will love it", as it was made for them. My kneejerk reaction to that was: "You mean it has a screenplay above an 8-year-old mentality?" But, in the end, I think there is some merit to what he said, in that the fans revere the original trilogy and The Force Awakens is basically a carbon copy of the first of those films. Abrams isn't directing the subsequent episodes, so there's reason to believe we'll avoid the trainwreck that was the attempted rehash of Wrath of Khan (Star Trek: Into the Darkness of Screenplay by Committee.) But if the replacement is simply The First Order Hits Back, then I have zero interest in seeing any more of this. Do I regret losing the two hours of my life? No. I'm just wondering why, with all the possibilities, would you do this again?