Monday, September 10, 2018

"The Nun"

"Hello?"
-Sister Irene, repeatedly

In my review of the overrated Annabelle: Creation (which dummies on the internet apparently think is good), I said the following:
The most egregious element, however, is a brief scene shoehorned into the first act (or so) of the film in which Sister Charlotte, the girls' guardian, shows Annabelle's father a photograph of herself with some other nuns, one of which is actually Valak, the demon from The Conjuring 2. This is obviously done not just as a reference but as a piece of promotion for 2018's upcoming "The Nun" film about the character, as the scene bears no other real relevance to the plot or characterisation of this film. It's clearly another pathetic attempt to rip off Disney/Marvel's successful, yet increasingly bland and soulless, "cinematic universe" method, as Warner Bros. already tried (and presumably has failed) to do with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Universal is apparently attempting with its dare-I-dignify-it-by-naming-it "Dark Universe" franchise.
Well the Dark Universe is dead and buried, like Father Burke nearly was, the DC superhero films ("Extended Universe" isn't an official name, apparently) are being carried through the lone strength of Wonder Woman, and King Arthur's definitely still marooned on the Isle of Albion, but with a box office gross amounting to 600% of its budget as of my writing, The Nun seems to have shown that Warner Bros. has got the moneymaking franchise it was dreaming of. If only they could copy Marvel's knack for making lots of money while simultaneously making films which, while genuinely good only very rarely, generally aren't completely accurately describable as "utter shit".

It's surely needless to say that The Nun is bad. The script is extremely lazy, the cinematography is unreliable, the tone is wildly inconsistent and the editing is at points totally appalling. As with Annabelle: Creation, the best thing it has going for it is its cast, who probably could have done something interesting with a better screenplay.

On paper, the premise of The Nun could be intriguing: a grizzled priest and a young nun novice are sent to a remote abbey to investigate why one of the Sisters recently killed herself. The isolated abbey is reviled by the locals and is frustrating to access; it turns out that the convent is in its entirety long dead, and a malevolent intelligence has been imitating its ongoing operation to lure a candidate to the abbey to enable it to escape its confines and export its evil to the wider world.

In all honesty, I liked the implicit ideas of parts of The Nun as I was watching it. All the nuns are dead; the characters are just seeing visions and hearing voices. Are they being guided by heaven or misled by hell? But why bother developing that into an interesting screenplay when you could just string a bunch of jumpscare set-pieces together and call it a day? The marketing sells itself: it has a nice simple title, the memorable image of the villain from The Conjuring 2 and the connection to the wider franchise to stick on the poster. Hordes of teenagers or, as was the case in my screening, bored university students, are looking for just this kind of thing to wile away an evening with some cheap thrills.

To its infinitesimally limited credit, The Nun has maybe one and a half decent set-pieces: one in which Father Burke is buried alive and to an extent one in which a shadow stalks around the walls of a chapel during an apparent prayer. Other than that it's Conjuring jumpscares at their most shallow, largely involving Valak running at one of the protagonists while going "Raar!", a zombie nun falling on or lunging at a protagonist while going "Raar!", or pale claw-like hands bursting out of things and groping people's faces. This is set against the characters mindlessly wandering around the abbey to little apparent purpose.

A few other memorable moments include a very old nun in a veil turning out to be long dead (but this was another idea better in concept than execution) and an absurd flashback to the Middle Ages in which a group of crusaders straight out of a 1950s historical epic seal Valak away using a vial of the blood of none other than Jesus Christ Himself, which is kept in an object which looks like the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. Sister Irene, our other hero, later uses this to defeat Valak again by spitting it on his face.

While the opening of the film was unimpressive, with two nuns seemingly pointlessly opening a door they knew Valak was behind only to immediately get killed, I thought everything from Father Burke's introduction to his and Irene's arrival at the abbey and their exploration of the cold room and graveyard was adequate. They seemed to have a surprisingly easy time of travel through early 50s communist Romania, traveling to a secluded Catholic abbey in an overwhelmingly Eastern Orthodox country, but I suppose they had to match it to that line from Annabelle: Creation in which Sister Charlotte, who was nowhere to be seen in this, said that she used to be there.

It was mostly after night fell on that first day that things started to go badly wrong, such as Maurice's uninteresting encounter with the demonic image of the dead nun, although as I mentioned Father Burke's premature burial was a decent idea. That being said, the idea that the slight, delicate-looking Sister Irene would be able to dig him up in time was absurd. I suppose you can attribute that to demonic magic or something. Father Burke has a storyline about a boy who died after an exorcism, but it doesn't serve his character development because he doesn't undergo any. None of them do, really, but I don't think the film cared.

The thing that perplexes me most about the film is the casting of Taissa Farmiga as Irene given that she is the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine in The Conjuring and its sequel. I was getting the impression that, having already chucked so much of the Warrens' real-life story out the window (such as the fact that they were massive crackpots), they were going to make this the fictionalised backstory of Lorraine and that they'd deliberately cast an actress who looked like Vera Farmiga to set this up. Imagine my surpise when the credits revealed that they'd cast an actual relative as an unrelated character. It turns out that this was simply a coincidence, or perhaps nepotism. It seemed like a wasted opportunity to me, especially because I thought Taissa Farmiga was decent in the role and got the impression she was playing a very similar character to (fictional) Lorraine. I was almost worried Maurice was going to turn out to be Ed somehow, but no, he was just that guy you see in the footage in the first Conjuring, Probably an even more laborious tie-in than the one Annabelle: Creation made to Annabelle the original.

In terms of filmmaking, on a handful of occasions the camera work and lighting did engage me, but at many other times it was flat and empty, completely denuding "scary" scenes of tension. The film in general is too tensionless to be scary; the scariest part, the live burial, happens in the first act of the film. Constantly barraging us with spooky nuns standing ominously in corridors before bursting forth going "Raar!" doesn't add much, nor do the endless shots of people being telekinetically shoved away into the walls. The other issue with engagement is that when Maurice is reintroduced in the third act of the film he is used almost exclusively for comedy, with the result that the film's tone abandons almost any effort at suspense and seems to intentionally embrace being farcical.

However, as I mentioned before, the most purely incompetent element of the film is the editing. At certain points the film smashes back and forth between shots and characters without room for establishment or pacing. An absolutely atrocious moment occurs in which Irene is being informed by the (vision) nun regarding the abbey's history; at one point, when the war is mentioned, the footage smash cuts to a shot of bombs falling on the castle, and a different piece of music suddenly starts blaring out with the hastiest of fade-ins, before smashing back. In the same conversation, the shot holds on Irene's face, cuts to a mid shot of the two at a table, and then a second later smashes back to the close up of Irene; I suspect they had to re-record dialogue and had no usable footage of the other nun actually saying it. A similar bit of awkward cutting happens when Father Burke is relating his unfortunate exorcism of years past, which suggests to me that some of the film's problems come from, surprise surprise (it's Warner Bros.), studio interference insisting upon more exposition and/or padding to bulk out the film and make brainless shitheads pay attention. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that the material about the Holy Hand Grenade full of Jesus' blood, the portal in the floor and the evil Duke being done in by crusaders was not in the original script. I mean, Jesus' actual blood?

I find the weird Catholic overtones of the film odd, but then again I did in The Conjuring 2 as well. I'm from a nonreligious family and went to a Protestant school, so I have little formal knowledge of Catholicism, and as such all the stuff about nuns taking vows and so on feels a little out of place to me. How come you never see the Anglican church fighting demons? Probably too busy organising church fĂȘtes and pretending that they don't also have a history of systemic child abuse. I also find bringing God into horror films a bit weird because for some reason the problem of evil seems to seem more problematic than ever if God isn't just letting history take its horrible course but is also letting fallen angels wantonly run amok on Earth. That's not really a problem with the film, just something that I always find slightly odd in exorcism-related films. As a comment I read pointed out, if these films operate within a Catholic universe then consecrated red wine ought to work just as well as Jesus' actual blood, incidentally, because theologically they're the same thing. Again, I don't come from a Catholic background so the idea of communion has always seemed incredibly alien to me, but there you go. I don't think McGuffins were something the franchise was crying out for, but now not only are they present but they're going the whole hog. Couldn't it have just been a local saint's blood or something?

Why am I still writing about this? The Nun is bad and I couldn't even honestly recommend it to die-hard The Conjuring completionists like myself. The film has made plenty of money, there's supposedly a third Annabelle in the works and Wan's working on a Conjuring 3 script. Yet while Warner Bros. now knows that they can comfortably use these films to make big returns on small investments, they ought to think of the kind of money they could be making if they actually bothered to invest just a little more to produce the time, creativity and effort to actually make these films good. Well-made films can still be cheap and will generally have a better return than bad films due to positive word of mouth and voluntary publicity. They need to learn from Disney-Marvel that if you really want the big money from a cinematic "universe" then more than half the films in it can't be complete garbage.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Hindsight: A 2017 Cinematic Retrospective

Here we go again...

10 Films of 2017 That I Didn't See
The Lego Batman Movie
I haven't seen the Lego Movie, so, perhaps absurdly, I felt like I shouldn't watch this until after I'd seen that. Update: I've seen it now. While not as funny as the Lego Movie from which it spun off, the voice performances are great, particularly from Will Arnett, Zach Galifinakis and Michael Cera, and the character-driven story makes a surprisingly pithy observation about loners who claim to feel nothing and need nobody. It's not really a Batman film, just a comedy about characters based on the Batman characters, but even so it's still the best film to feature him since The Dark Knight.

Logan
Given that I actually liked X-Men: Days of Future Past I should probably watch this as well.

Beauty and the Beast
No one appears in a film like 1991 animated Gaston. Couldn't be bothered with a live action do-over, despite, like many lads who grew up in the early 2000s, having a soft spot for Emma Watson.

Kong: Skull Island
More like Kong: Skullf*ck Island, amirite?

Baby Driver
Edgar Wright hasn't done anything good since Hot Fuzz.

Alien: Covenant
After Prometheus? Good god, no.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Despite being slightly tempted by the prospect of seeing Paul McCartney completely fail to act, and somewhat enjoying On Stranger Tides, I was totally put off by a) Johnny Depp these days, and b) the title being too similar to that of the second film, which is just lazy.

It
I haven't read the book (or indeed any Stephen King) so I feel like seeing the film would just be like seeing what it is, a film adaptation of a very long and complex novel. Why bother?

I, Tonya
I should probably see this, if only so I can compare it to Weird Al's music video for "Headline News".

The Shape of Water
I should probably see this too.

13 Films of 2017 I Have Seen:
Get Out
It was good. Is that a trite opinion now? The uncomfortable atmosphere and ludicrous, but satirically effective, sci-fi premise make it striking and memorable. Daniel Kaluuya's performance is pretty spot-on; personally I found it all rather gripping, but I think retroactively it was oversold to people, affecting its impact. The hypnotic abyss he's sent to is vividly realised, and the auction scene is absolutely haunting. Furthermore, it's nice to see him get his revenge on all these lunatics as the film continues. Besides, it's got that song Redbone in it that everyone loves, so surely it's all good.

The Blackcoat's Daughter aka February
Another horror film, this one was also tense, atmospheric and chilling. Its representation of the alienation and disaffection of young people represented through what could either be mental illness or genuine devil-worship is rather grisly and morbidly fascinating to watch. It's memorably lit and coloured as well in harsh whites, greys and blacks, adding to the sense of isolation and unease. Perhaps its only weakness is the narrative conceit concerning Kat and "Joan", because Kiernan Shipka and Emma Roberts just don't look that alike. Like a film I similarly appreciated with comparable elements, The Witch, it leaves plenty to the imagination: was she genuinely in contact with a malevolent intelligence, or was she just insane? This is the kind of thing that makes for good horror in my view.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
This is a pretty strong sequel to the first film, functioning well as a character study for virtually all of the main cast, including some new ones. Mantis is a welcome addition to the team and it handles the stories of Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket, Nebula and Yandu deftly, which speaks a lot to James Gunn's talent as a writer as well as a director. Drax, my personal favourite of the Guardians, is in more of a support role here, but his friendship with Mantis makes it worthwhile. The villain, Kurt Russell's Ego (no pun intended), has a reasonable if slightly rushed motivation. I only have two criticisms of this film. The first is that I think it slightly lacks the same spirit of adventure as the first film. The other is that the final battle in Ego's core is an over-long, weightless CGI nothing-fest, the kind of thing that bores me to tears rather than exciting me. Other than that, it's a solid space opera outing. If it wasn't for the excess of CGI, these films would actually have a chance of being worthy modern equivalents of Star Wars in some respects.

Wonder Woman
The best film in DC's current franchise by a staggering margin, Wonder Woman proves what's been eluding Warner Bros. all along: that if you actually let creative people with an interest and an appropriate vision (so not Zach Snyder) do their jobs and don't constantly interfere with them you might actually get something good. Gal Gadot, despite a shaky start in Batman v Superman, brings a great deal of strength and heart to the role of Diana, while Chris Pine provides admirable support as Steve Trevor. The First World War setting is interesting and well-utilised, positioning itself right at the end of the conflict to give the film an appropriately apocalyptic feeling. I do have a few issues with the film. I think it's slightly too long; I think it's weird that they represent the real-life Ludendorff as a supervillain when, despite being a co-military-dictator, he was really just a little fat man with a moustache; David Thewlis doesn't make for a terribly effective villain either; the female villain, Dr Poison, is surprisingly forgettable in an otherwise strongly woman-led film; and the final battle between Diana and Ares is another meaningless CGI dust-up with no weight to it. Otherwise, I liked it and it's frustrating the other DC films can't emulate it. Give the director's chair to Patty Jenkins for the next Justice League or whatever.

Spider-Man: Homecoming
I struggled to get into this one. Tom Holland is good as Spider-Man, and he feels like the best onscreen version of the character of the post-2000 adaptations, but the film itself felt off to me. I realise that they didn't just want to do the same old shit as Sam Raimi's films and those godawful Amazing Spider-Man ones with the Manhattan setting, crazy supervillain with some over-the-top plan and/or obession with Spider-Man, and so on, but sometimes it just didn't feel that much like Spider-Man to me. Then again, what do I know about Spider-Man? As with all Marvel Cinematic Universe stuff these days there was too much Tony Stark as Iron Man, I found the whole sequence in Washington DC weirdly out of place, and the bit where Spider-Man's trapped in the underground warehouse or whatever was just tedious. On the other hand, I liked Michael Keaton as the Vulture, his character development, and the fact that he had a pretty down-to-earth motivation. That twist in which he turns out to be Liz's father got me as well. An okay film, but I just feel like it's missing something. I wouldn't mind rewatching it.

A Ghost Story
I only just watched this, but it's a very touching thing. A representation of how we become attached to places and people, often without really knowing why, it manages to be bittersweet, poignant and successful at capturing a sense of the mysteriousness of life and reality while the main character is a silent man in a bedsheet with two eyeholes cut in it. It has an excellent soundtrack and long, lingering shots which ask us to contemplate and meditate, filling the space with our own moods and thoughts, reflecting on ourselves. I'm pretty sure the guy at the party with the beard is not expressing the film's own argument, but rather something we're meant to see as wrong; it doesn't matter if entropy and decay doom our works to eventual nothingness. What value can we have beyond that which we produce in our relationships with the people around us, and for a little while after us? It's fundamentally a triumph of existentialism over nihilism, a differentiation so easily misunderstood in the modern day. Plus it has five minutes of Rooney Mara eating a really gross-looking chocolate pie. I absurdly saw this at the shop today in the horror section. I assume whoever was stocking the shelves hasn't watched it.

Dunkirk
Christopher Nolan's much-lauded tension-fest, this atmospheric Second World War film is suspenseful almost to a fault, to the point at which I suspect an element of realism may have been lost, although realism was probably never the point. The practical effects used to represent the air combat, however, are hugely welcome, and if the film at times is predictable, and it loses something in featuring too many of Nolan's regulars, it's still of the same high standard as any Nolan film I've seen (apart from The Dark Knight Rises, that sucked). That's the thing about Nolan, though: he's like a "premium package" kind of director, who makes extremely, exceedingly well-crafted films, but doesn't necessarily make films of great artistic genius with any consistency, if at all. Maybe that's not what he's after.

Annabelle: Creation
It's crap. Read my full review here.

Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman's Oscar-winning performance as Winston Churchill is definitely engaging, as is the film as a whole, but despite its efforts to make Churchill a rounded character the film almost inevitably comes across as hagiographic, depicting Churchill as fundamentally a good man with a few minor character flaws. In reality, as the cliché goes, people are much more complicated. Churchill may well have been the only man in the party with the conviction to stand up to Hitler, but the film tries to present him as being, or developing into, a loveable man of the people when in reality he was a racist snob for whom the war was ultimately not about saving democracy but rather leveraging Britain's ongoing geopolitical influence in Europe. I'm not saying Churchill wasn't a great man of conviction and purpose for standing up to Germany when everyone around him was succumbing to defeatism, but couldn't the portrait be a little more balanced? Regardless, purely as a piece of cinema, it's well-made and entertaining, with only the Tube scene really standing out as something schmaltzy and reeking of wishful thinking.

Blade Runner 2049
A nice-looking and largely thought-provoking science fiction film in its own right, its greatest weakness ultimately derives from presenting itself as a sequel to the timeless, inimitable original. The first half or two thirds of the film is actually a good deal more engrossing than anything that happens after Harrison Ford shows up and the film becomes obsessed with the absent Rachel. You can read or, if you prefer, listen to my full review here.

Thor: Ragnarok
In my view, this is absolutely the best Marvel superhero film in years, probably since the first Guardians of the Galaxy. Its greatest success is in not taking itself particularly seriously, with a great deal of humour, an energetic soundtrack courtesy of Mark Mothersbaugh, and lavish visuals. Like all of these superhero films it does inevitably suffer from excess of CGI, but the humour and storytelling in my view largely make up for it. Unfortunately, the film grinds to a halt every time it cuts back to Asgard and Cate Blanchett hamming it up as Hela, which lacks the humour and visual style of the rest of the film; seeing Thor's friends get massacred, for instance, is almost too bleak compared to what happens elsewhere. Nonetheless, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo and Tessa Thompson are all on fine form, especially considering how many of these Hemsworth and Hiddleston have done. I actually enjoyed the idea that Asgard is a people, rather than a place (it's more set up in the film than you might think), Odin gets a nice sendoff, and the method of defeating Hela by exploiting Surtur to destroy the planet was a nice twist, I thought. Jeff Goldblum's good too. Can you tell I like this film?

Justice League
It sucked, everyone knew it was going to suck, it was always going to suck, it sucked. I actually kind of liked it because it was so stupid, but the villain is incredibly boring, Ben Affleck has already given up on being Batman after the last debacle, Wonder Woman doesn't have enough to do despite being in such a successful precursor, and Aquaman feels as pointless as the stereotype portrays him as being. The only vaguely successful new(ish) character is the Flash; Cyborg is totally forgettable. No one really seems to care about how ghoulish and Frankensteinian the resurrection of Superman is either. I honestly feel sorry for everyone involved in this, but if you want mindless superhero camp it kind of does its job.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
As I've said a thousand times, it's an unbelievably frustratingly flawed film with some incredibly good, very strong elements. Rey, Luke and Kylo equals interesting. Poe, Finn and Rose equals clumsy and distracting. As much as I think the film's biggest and loudest detractors come across as either frothing pop-culture obsessives or sinister political culture warriors, I can't help but feel that Rian Johnson should have just made more of a crowd pleaser, although it's the media's fault for making idiots think that Snoke's identity and Rey's parents were important. Read my full review here, my article on why Snoke doesn't matter here, my article on why Rey was right to not join Kylo here, my article on Luke's characterisation here and my article on the film's theme of nonviolence here.

Best Film of 2017?
Probably A Ghost Story which I reviewed above, in terms of pure cinema, by which I mean doing something with film in a way that couldn't work in another medium. That being said, I really did like Thor: Ragnarok, the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Maybe I'll split it, giving Thor: Ragnarok my "best piece of Hollywood trash of 2017" award and A Ghost Story my "best actual film of 2017" award.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Solo: Initial (Apathetic) Impressions

Half a year after The Last Jedi, Solo: A Star Wars Story has staggered into cinemas after months of worrying press and a widespread (if, in my opinion, misconceived) antipathy for the franchise arising after 2017's Episode. I didn't expect much from Solo: Han will meet Chewie and Lando, acquire the Millennium Falcon and do the Kessel Run. And in the end that's basically all that happens. As usual with these initial impressions posts, let me just run through what I liked, didn't like and didn't care about either way.

1. What I Didn't Like
Much of the Action
Solo wasn't as bad as Rogue One in this respect, but I wasn't terribly engrossed by a lot of the action. The opening act car chase sequence seemed to mostly just be CGI cars bashing into each other with no dialogue or use of characters, while the train job felt unimpressive because it's the same old greenscreen extravaganza we get all the time now, only mildly redeemed by a few slightly interesting ideas like the use of clips to keep the characters attached to the train. Similarly, there was no tension to the Kessel Run, because we know Han will succeed, so watching a giant space monster get sucked off into a black hole didn't have much impact on me.

The Excessive Number of Characters
I didn't see the point of having such a large supporting cast in this film. In addition to the two members of Beckett's original crew, who are killed off in the train job, we have Beckett himself, Qi'ra and L3. Then we have the villain whose name I couldn't be bothered looking up, played by Paul Bettany, plus the young rebel leader whose name I also can't remember. Personally I found this distracting and focus-pulling, especially as, given that this is a prequel, we know that everyone apart from Han, Chewie and Lando is going to die or disappear, so I didn't feel that there was any tension involving them. They at least had more characterisation than anyone in Rogue One, but that film, this one and The Last Jedi have all suffered from overstuffed casts which detract from the very character studies they try to achieve.

The Pacing and Character Inconsistency
Frankly, I felt that the film was too long and lacked narrative momentum. Han's initial goal seems to be to reunite with Qi'ra, but she turns out to be (largely) fine, so he's given a new motivation – avoid being killed by Paul Bettany – and then that in turn is replaced by a third motivation in the final act: to help out the young rebel leader. The last half hour or so of the film felt particularly clunky to me; the film didn't seem to be going anywhere in particular and in all honesty I couldn't see the point of any of it. Why didn't he just take his money and go? Having him hoodwink the villain to help the rebels seemed inconsistent with how he appears in the original Star Wars, reinforced by Qi'ra somewhat inaccurately insisting that he's a good person when we know that his character development really comes later in his life.
That's probably my biggest issue with the film, really: it doesn't tell us anything both new and important about Han, so what's the purpose of it (besides selling cinema tickets)? Star Wars is an action franchise, of course, but all the hijinks in this film seemed wildly disproportionate to Han's character and behaviour in Star Wars, in which the most he's really up to doing is running down a corridor firing a blaster. If it was meeting Luke and saving Leia which motivated Han to become a good person, why is he already doing more than looking out for himself here? All Han really learns is to be less trusting, but it's surprising to see his credulousness given his hard life anyway.

The Info Dump
Everything the info dump after "A long time ago" etc tells the audience is immediately obvious by watching the first five minutes of the film. Some executive must have decided this was necessary, and I can't think why. It's especially absurd for introducing the character of Proxima as if she's going to be a major villain, when she's barely in it at all.

Moving on.

2. What I Did Like
Han, Chewie and Lando
I thought it was "fun" actually seeing how Han, Chewie and Lando met, although it was hardly necessary. Alden Ehrenreich was fine as Han, although he seemed more Harrison Ford-y in the opening of the film than at any other time. Chewie was used appropriately. Everyone seemed to anticipate Donald Glover as Lando, and he was pretty entertaining, although I didn't think he had enough to do. I think I would have liked the film more if it was more focused on these three characters. I also found Paul Bettany to be pretty watchable as the villain. Finally, I appreciated the moment when Han simply shot Beckett while he was trying to give out some more pithy advice. That was a glimpse, I felt, of the Han we ought to expect, regardless of any other "shooting first" issues.

Three Years Later
An isolated moment I found quite enjoyable was when the film abruptly jumped forward in time after the opening, depicting Han as a terrified grunt on a war-torn battlefield. Given how sanitised the action usually is in these films, seeing dirty, miserable soldiers in the middle of nightmarish chaos was pretty effective in my opinion, even if it was only for one scene. People talked about Rogue One as a "gritty war film", but its final run-around on a tropical beachfront paled in comparison to the few minutes of horror we got to see here, which also gave a neat insight into the cruelty and (ironic, given their prejudices) inhumanity of the Imperial government. Most of the rest of what we saw in the film has been done before, in the Cantina, Jabba's Palace and Coruscant. I felt like this one little bit genuinely did something different. It was also nice to see Imperial troops who weren't just the generic Stormtroopers.

Some of the Design
There were some decent puppets and things in the film, although I felt like a lot of it was too visually busy. I don't have much else to say about it. Lando had a good costume?

3. What I Didn't Care About Either Way
L3
People are acting as if this character is a blatant indication of the nefarious something-ist agenda on the part of Disney – insert your favourite loaded ism here; feminists or Marxists or something. Firstly, she was barely in it, and secondly, none of the characters take her seriously, which suggests a parody of these kinds of people rather than a sincere message. Regardless, the idea of "robot rights" is a really old one in science-fiction. As far as I'm concerned, people these days are just looking for excuses to be reactionary about the most insignificant things, and usually they're too lacking in self-awareness to see that they've been stirred up by pundits who want clicks for their YouTube videos or whatever. I didn't care about this character either way.

Darth Maul
His presence, voiced by the same actor who's voiced him in the cartoon shows, and with his obligatory robot legs, only seems to suggest that the line between the mainstream films and spin-off crap for kids and nerds is becoming more and more hazy. I just don't see the point. I thought Darth Maul was cool when The Phantom Menace came out – when I was nine years old. His presence is meaningless to me now.

So there you have it. Solo is just a film. I liked it more than Rogue One, but that's not saying much. It's not doing well at all at the box office, comparatively speaking, which suggests that Lucasfilm needs to do a bit of thinking about its flagship franchise and how much mileage it really has in it right now.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Reverse Thanks on Backerkit

Sometimes I back Kickstarters so I can add cheap toy soldiers to the ever-growing pile of plastic and metal shit that substitutes for happiness or fulfilment in my life. Sometimes once you've forked your money over, you have to allocate that money to the specific products you want from amongst everything the Kickstarter will produce. This is done using a site called Backerkit. Once you've sorted that out, which in my case typically ends up giving them more money because they've taken shipping out of what I wanted, this message comes up:
"Now it's time to thank your project creator!" What? Why? Is it just me, or does this make no sense? Why would I be the one thanking the project creator? I'm the one giving them the money that contributes to their project. They should be thanking me. I don't understand the logic behind this. Is the implication that I want this product so badly that I need to express gratitude to the business creating it simply for making it available for me to invest in? 'Cause that's not how investment works. I invest in a project and expect a return. I don't see how gratitude factors in anyway. It's a simple business transaction.

If I was more inclined to get worked up about things than I actually am, I might be tempted to say that this reeks of capitalism out of control, in which we have to toadyingly bootlick the companies which produce consumer goods for which we pay them our own money simply because they're giving us an opportunity to spend our money on things we want.

It doesn't make any SENSE!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

"There are alternatives to fighting": Good vs Evil in "The Last Jedi"

In Star Wars (or A New Hope, if you prefer), when the Millennium Falcon is pulled into the Death Star by tractor beam, Han Solo declares, "they're not going to get me without a fight!", to which Obi-Wan Kenobi replies, "You can't win. But there are alternatives to fighting."

In The Last Jedi, I struggled to see the relevance of Finn and Rose's sojourn to Canto Bight, where the upper crust of the galaxy luxuriate in the spoils of war profiteering. Rose informs Finn that "There's only one business in the galaxy that'll get you this rich [...] selling weapons to the First Order." It turns out that Rose isn't completely correct. DJ later reveals to Finn that in fact Canto Bight's patrons sell to both sides, the First Order and the Republic/Resistance. He recommends to Finn that the best course of action is to "live free; don't join."

Like Kylo Ren's sentiment that "It's time to let old things die", this has been misinterpreted as a message of the film, but it isn't. Kylo's mistake is his belief in the need to "let the past die". Yoda puts us on the right course: "the greatest teacher failure is." Similarly, we're not meant to agree with DJ. He isn't even firm about his own arguments. When Finn challenges him later in the film, arguing that he's wrong to perceive the conflict as he does, DJ replies, "Maybe."

Yet the film clearly isn't advocating, as some reactionaries have argued, a nihilistic message that good and evil are meaningless and that we're all just pawns in a capitalist machine. We're still clearly positioned to see the Resistance as good and the First Order as evil. Instead, the film is arguing that good doesn't have to win through violence. This is particularly emphasised in the film through its depiction of the human cost of "righteous violence". Poe's attack on the dreadnought Fulminatrix (yeah, I remembered the name from a Wookieepedia article) gets a huge proportion of the Resistance's members killed. He ultimately recognises this in the finale when he calls off the speeder attack on the (poorly named) battering-ram cannon.

How all this becomes relevant, ultimately, is how it is borne out in Luke's narrative. In the conclusion of the film, Luke projects himself using the Force to appear on the planet Crait, and single-handedly faces down the entirety of the First Order's ground forces. In the ensuing confrontation, he completely humiliates Kylo Ren and makes the First Order military look utterly incompetent and impotent, and he does all of this without striking a single blow.

In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda tells Luke that the Force is to be used for "knowledge and defence, never attack". In The Last Jedi, Luke never attacks, and he still wins. In my review of The Last Jedi I said that Kylo Ren wins "politically" by usurping Snoke, but more accurately, in terms of his long term goals, he loses. He gains rank, but fails to destroy the Resistance and kill Rey, or kill Luke, who instead peacefully becomes one with the Force. Luke won because he used an alternative to fighting.

This doesn't mean that the film somehow advocates pacifism or surrender. Far from it. What it relates, however, is a long-standing theme that good cannot and should not win by being like evil, by matching their raw violent strength with strength of the same kind. In The Last Jedi, despite the failures of Rey, Finn and Poe to turn Kylo, outwit the First Order and outfight it respectively, the Resistance still "wins" because they humiliate the First Order and make them look stupid and pathetic.

In Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance wins great victories over the Galactic Empire. Yet they do not do this by mounting full-scale campaigns of war against the Empire, seeking to conquer planets, seize resources and acquire better and more powerful weapons. Rather, they use the resources they have to destroy two weapons, the first and second Death Stars. No one in either of these films ever advocates capturing the Death Star and turning it against the Empire, or for the Rebellion to construct superweapons of its own to terrorise and attack enemy systems. In this regard the Original Trilogy is reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings: Sauron is defeated by destroying his greatest weapon (the Ring), not by using it (or similar weapons) against him. The Force Awakens rather unimaginatively reused this concept.

Nonetheless, in this manner The Last Jedi offers another response to evil: good wins if it can expose the limitations of evil and, going by the kids at the end, if it can inspire hope and resistance. Evil cannot win if its weaknesses are exposed and if it fails to dominate the hearts and minds of those it seeks to control. Again, this is not to say that good does not need, to some degree, to fight back, but the battle is not won purely through overwhelming military force. This is entirely consistent with how the Rebellion wins in the Original Trilogy, by destroying the Death Stars rather than trying to conquer the Empire. In the same manner, in Return of the Jedi, Luke avoided falling to the dark side, firstly by insisting that he would not fight his father, and ultimately by refusing to kill him, refusing to match violence with violence and hate with hate. Similarly, the elite of Canto Bight only flourish through their clients' mistaken belief that victory only comes through physically destroying one's enemy. There are alternatives to fighting, and ultimately they are more powerful than evil can possibly imagine.

Note that this doesn't excuse The Last Jedi's structure and pacing issues and the weakness of some of its humour, and it doesn't change the Canto Bight plot from feeling heavy-handed, distracting or clumsy. It just occurred to me that perhaps some of its disparate elements are more connected than they first appeared. Seriously, though, couldn't there have been a minute or two for Luke and Yoda to discuss what "learning from failure" might mean for force users in general or future Jedi specifically, and what being a Jedi might mean in a galaxy recognising that the force "does not belong to the Jedi"? After The Force Awakens, people expected the next film to answer a lot of "plot" questions: who are Rey's parents? What's Snoke's deal? Where'd the First Order spring from? I didn't care about that, but obviously it bothered other people. More importantly, in my opinion, I think Episode IX needs to resolve the thematic questions set up by The Last Jedi: having learnt from the mistakes of the past, what is the future of the Force and the Jedi? How can the Resistance win without resorting purely to militarily overpowering the First Order? What are the consequences of Luke's very public humiliation of the First Order on Crait? I'm a tad concerned that this is just another course for viewers to be disappointed as the direction of the Sequel Trilogy again changes hands.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

"The Last Jedi": The Fanboy Cut



EXT. AHCH-TO - DAY

REY hands LUKE SKYWALKER the official Anakin Skywalker's Lightsaber™.

REY
We need your help to fight the First Order!

LUKE
Okay, let's go.

INT. FIRST ORDER FLAGSHIP - DAY

The Millennium Falcon flies into the hangar, guns blazing. Stormtroopers are blown up left and right. The hatch descends and Luke, Rey, CHEWBACCA and R2-D2 run out. Luke ignites his GREEN LIGHTSABER.

REY
I have a bad feeling about this.

Rey is instantly knocked out by stormtroopers. Luke shrugs.

LUKE
More for me, then.

INT. FIRST ORDER FLAGSHIP - DAY

Luke runs down a corridor on the flagship, cutting down stormtroopers with his GREEN LIGHTSABER.

INT. FLAGSHIP BRIDGE - DAY

GENERAL HUX is watching a monitor. The WILHELM SCREAM is heard over the intercom as Luke cuts down more stormtroopers.

GENERAL HUX
He's heading for Snoke's chamber! Warn the Supreme Lead-argh!

General Hux is shot by Chewbacca, who roars.

CHEWBACCA
[roars]

INT. ELEVATOR - DAY

Luke is now in a glass elevator heading up. Space can be seen through the glass. Two Star Destroyers are heading towards the Flagship.

LUKE
I don't think so.

Luke stretches out his hands and then brings them together. Using THE FORCE, he causes the two Star Destroyers to collide and explode. Suddenly, the elevator stops. Luke speaks into his communicator from A New Hope.

LUKE
R2! I need this elevator running!

INT. CONTROL ROOM - DAY

R2-D2 electrocutes a stormtrooper, plugs into a wall socket and spins the dial.

R2-D2
[beeps]

INT. ELEVATOR - DAY

The elevator resumes its ascent.

LUKE
Thanks R2.

INT. ANTECHAMBER - DAY

The elevator doors open, revealing Luke. He raises one eyebrow.

REVERSE SHOT --

The dreaded KNIGHTS OF REN™ ignite their LIGHT BLADES. DARAK REN is armed with a LIGHT SPEAR. SHENDAR REN is armed with a LIGHT AXE. ZEKRUS REN is armed with a LIGHT GLAIVE. IJNIL REN is armed with two LIGHT-CHUKS. FELMAN REN is armed with a LIGHT NAGINATA. DONF REN is armed with a LIGHT FALCHION. All six of the dreaded Knights of Ren™ are available in an action figure combo pack for $59.99 at Wal-Mart.

LUKE
It's time to say Good Knight.

They fight. All six of the dreaded Knights of Ren™ are defeated, although they survive so that they can appear in Episode IX. Luke goes through the door at the end of the Antechamber for the next round.

INT. ANTECHAMBER 2 - DAY

The door opens to reveal KYLO REN. He looks angry.

KYLO REN
You will never defeat m-

LUKE
Nope!

Luke uses FORCE PUSH to smash Kylo Ren into a wall. He proceeds through the door to the third round.

INT. RESISTANCE BASE - DAY

FINN and POE stand around doing nothing.

INT. SNOKE'S THRONE ROOM - DAY

SUPREME LEADER SNOKE is sitting on his throne.

SNOKE
Welcome, Master Skywalker, to the last day of the Jedi!

LUKE
It's time to end this, Snoke - or should I say Darth Plagueis?

Dramatic chords are heard.

SNOKE
So, you discovered my true identity. Then you must know I can never die due to my immense power with the Dark Side!

LUKE
I'm willing to put it to the test.

They fight. Snoke uses a RED LIGHTSABER, while Luke uses his GREEN LIGHTSABER. Eventually Luke disarms Snoke, who resorts to using FORCE LIGHTNING. Luke struggles.

SNOKE
You see, you fool? I cannot be beaten!

LUKE
Oh really? You think I spent all those years on that island for no reason at all?

Raising his arm, Luke uses a new FORCE POWER on Snoke: FORCE LIGHT. A beam of light shoots from his hand. Snoke dodges, but the Force Light blasts off his right hand. Shocked, Snoke runs for the escape pod behind his throne, where he is joined by Kylo Ren and the dreaded Knights of Ren™. They clamber inside.

SNOKE
I'll get you next time, Skywalker! Next time!

The escape pod blasts off. Luke wipes his brow.

INT. RESISTANCE BASE - DAY

LEIA gives Luke another medal, as well as giving a medal to Chewbacca. Luke winks at the camera.

SMASH CUT:

CREDITS
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
RIAN JOHNSON

etc.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

"The Last Jedi": Luke's Character Arc

Arguably the most contentious element of The Last Jedi has been the characterisation of Luke Skywalker. When we last saw Luke in Return of the Jedi he was a triumphant Jedi Knight who had become confident and wise, resisted the lure of the Dark Side and redeemed his father. When we catch up with him in The Last Jedi he's a broken man who has come to despise both himself and the belief system he so strongly embraced in the Original Trilogy. The question is whether this makes sense.

Obviously a lot can happen in thirty years. Over that kind of time some people change drastically. Others scarcely change at all. So how did Luke change, and why? In The Last Jedi, Luke implies that the world he fought for in the Original Trilogy did come into being: "for many years there was balance." It appears that the change began when Ben was born; Luke notably says "I thought I could pass on my strengths." This seems to relate to what Yoda tells him later: "Pass on what you have learned: strength, mastery, but weakness, folly, failure also." This implies an error at the foundation of the philosophy Luke took towards training the new order of Jedi: that it was about strength primarily, particularly in Ben's case of enabling the "mighty Skywalker blood." Perhaps this to a degree explains how Snoke was able to manipulate Ben, because he had been trained to see the Force as a form of strength alone, as power, something Luke was very keen to tell Rey was explicitly not the case.

Is this error consistent with Luke's character in the Original Trilogy? It's difficult to say. In Return of the Jedi Luke certainly used the Force as a source of raw strength, particularly when he called upon it to threaten and ultimately destroy Jabba the Hutt. He also called upon it in fury in the final confrontation on the Death Star, in which he nearly slew his father before realising what the Emperor was doing. It's also true that he never truly finished his training with Yoda, because he left recklessly early in The Empire Strikes Back and only really "completed" his training and became a Jedi when he refused to kill Vader. Certainly Luke understood the value of compassion, and surely would have brought that to his training, but it might be argued that his victory on the Death Star was a combination of his own compassion and the Emperor's arrogance. I'm honestly not sure whether it's possible to conclusively say that Luke might have lacked the overall mastery to train Ben, but it's possible, and he seems to think so, claiming it was "hubris" to do so. Again, however, it may be a combination of circumstances: Luke's own overconfidence and Snoke's manipulation.

Nonetheless, I'd argue that this leaves room for Luke to develop in this way. It seems that the final say on how he lost Ben was a moment of weakness in which, foreseeing the destruction his nephew would cause in the future, he panicked and drew his lightsaber upon him: "I saw darkness. I'd sensed it building in him. I'd seen it in moments during his training. But then I looked inside, and it was beyond what I ever imagined. Snoke had already turned his heart. He would bring destruction and pain and death and the end of everything I loved because of what he would become."

This appears to be highly reminiscent of Luke's rash reaction in The Empire Strikes Back when Yoda tells him he must not go chasing his vision: "But Han and Leia will die if I don't!" Obi-Wan tells him, "You don't know that," and when Yoda reminds him of his "failure at the cave", Luke insists "I've learned so much since then." He hadn't learned enough, however, to prevent him from running off after a vision about which he could not be sure. Yoda sums up the situation as he leaves: "Reckless is he." This isn't just a mistake Luke could make once; it's a consistent part of his character, seen also in Return of the Jedi when Vader's taunting about Leia almost leads to his fall to the Dark Side.

So, was a moment of weakness in which Luke would contemplate destroying his own nephew consistent with this aspect of his character? It seems that way. He nearly killed his own father before feeling pity for him, seeing what he himself was at risk of becoming, and relenting. Furthermore, sometimes people change in some ways but not in others. Yoda remarks upon this in both The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi. In the former, he observes, "All his life has he looked away, to the future, to the horizon; never his mind on where he was, what he was doing." In the latter: "Still looking to the horizon, never here, now, the need in front of your nose." At this point Yoda also argues that Luke failed to pass on the value of learning from failure; I suppose we just have to accept that to be the case, but it appears to relate to his fixation on "the horizon"; he has never been sufficiently concerned with the present, thinking too much about the future and about certain consequences, which is actually a narrow point of view, as it both blinds him to the present and limits the possibilities he imagines. Just as he assumed that Han and Leia would die if he did not save them on Bespin, for a moment he assumed that Ben would bring the galaxy to ruins and acted rashly in response. This is a consistent part of his character.

The next thing to consider is the action he took after this, going into isolation on Ahch-To rather than rectifying the problem he had created. I feel that much of the explanation for this can be found in what Luke says earlier about training Ben. He observes that "Leia trusted me with her son," and "Leia blamed Snoke, but it was me. I failed." He later says that after drawing his lightsaber upon Ben he was "left with shame, and consequence." Luke argues elsewhere in the film that the Jedi are fundamentally flawed, as their actions have led to disaster, but I'd argue that the specific reason for his exile is more personal: he was deeply ashamed of having betrayed Leia and Han, his two closest friends who were also his family, by letting their son fall to the Dark Side. The other source of shame is probably the feeling that he failed to restore the Jedi Order, a responsibility which, after the death of Yoda, had fallen solely upon him. Reflecting upon his own failures and those of the Jedi Order historically, he must have decided that any further action on his part would only cause further pain and suffering and destruction. This would still fit with the "looking to the horizon" mentality; he must have believed that anything he could do would only make the problem worse.

Ultimately I think the characterisation works and is consistent with Luke's character and story, but I can also perceive a few problems with it.

1. Despite the enormous length of The Last Jedi, Luke's character is perhaps slightly underwritten. The audience is possibly asked to read into things more than they should. I think the characterisation works, but should I have really needed to rewatch specific scenes from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to find the most tangible links? These Disney Star Wars films probably need more production time to allow the screenplays to breathe. Also, while I'm sure Lucasfilm keeps a clear eye on the scripts, it may not have hurt to have had a collaborator or two on the screenplay.

2. The entire character arc only needs to exist because of the plot of The Force Awakens, and this leads me to a broader issue: I feel like the problems with the sequel trilogy fundamentally lie with The Force Awakens, and that there was not the time or means for this film to rectify them. If The Force Awakens had been willing to give a clear reason for Luke's disappearance rather than trying to keep the audience hooked with "mystery box" storytelling, there would have been no need for Luke to undergo so many changes in (from the audience's point of view) so little time.

3. This speaks to a wider problem with the Sequel Trilogy in general, which wants to have its cake and eat it too by introducing a new set of protagonists while retaining the old ones. Luke's role in The Force Awakens was minimised because it reduced the viewer's interest in Rey, and this leaves me thinking that, from a storytelling point of view, it was a mistake to have the Original Trilogy characters at all, because they will end up having either little to no character development (which is how Han appears in The Force Awakens), or have to go through too much (which is how Luke arguably appears in The Last Jedi). Yet Disney knows that familiar characters sell more cinema tickets. The film wants us to care about Rey, Finn and Poe, but by selling the films to us with Luke, Leia and Han, we are left wanting to know more about and see more of them. This is why I almost think the narrative about how the characters got to where they were by the time of the Sequel Trilogy sounds, from the snippets we get in the films and putting the spinoff material aside, more interesting than the story of the new characters in some respects.

4. This might be a bit unfair, but is there a slight issue in Return of the Jedi having an overly triumphant ending? Don't get me wrong, I love Return of the Jedi, but the screenwriters only gave it such a happy ending at George Lucas's insistence, and he probably wanted it because a film which left the audience happy would sell more toys to kids. That's probably why Han didn't die on Endor, and why Luke didn't have either of the touted endings he might have had: either falling to the Dark Side and replacing Vader, or "walking off into the sunset" at the end, having been utterly emotionally drained by his experiences. An ending more on these lines might have arguably set up more for Sequel Episodes, but I suppose we can't really blame it for not setting up sequels that even George Lucas wasn't thinking seriously about making until the 2010s (apparently he did consider making at least Episode VII himself before selling the rights to Disney. Google it if you want to know more).

The last thing I wanted to discuss was Luke's ending in The Last Jedi. He stops looking to the horizon and focuses on the here and now: if he uses his great knowledge of the Force, he can save the Resistance, maintain hope in the galaxy and start a new legend to inspire it, while also intimidating the First Order and leaving his fallen nephew with something to think about. He couldn't undo the effects of his failure, but he could act to attempt to help build something new. Now that he's one with the Force, he just needs to make sure to pass this on to Rey in Episode IX...