The Last Jedi

 movies  Comments Off on The Last Jedi
Jan 052018

Spoilers, obviously

1. The Last Jedi is a long movie because it has far too much to do, in part on account of the failings of The Force Awakens. The first failing is that TFA ended with Rey handing the lightsaber to Luke rather than setting off to find him: this compels an immediate sequel. That, in turn, requires this story to explain (as TFA doesn’t) why Finn would choose to be a Rebel and confront the First Order rather than following his natural instinct and bolting. TLJ also has to come up with some kind of character development for Poe Dameron, who although part of the “new trio” was given short shrift in TFA. And it has to work all of this into some kind of story about the First Order and Resistance. Worst of all, it has to deal with all of TFA’s mystery-box bull.

2. The film also has to find time for everyone to fail, because its theme is that failure is a critically important teacher. So, Poe has to fail at saving the Raddus and the rest of the fleet, Finn has to fail at both that project and keeping Rey away from the unfolding disaster, and Rey has to fail at turning Ben Solo back to the light side of the Force. Kylo Ren has to fail, too, at confronting and defeating his first master and at turning Rey. And of course, all of this has to be set up, while still finding time for some RAD ACTION SCENES.

3. I have seen some complaints about the Canto Bight sequence and I understand why some people might think it’s irrelevant or a distraction. To me, this ignores two important points. First, this storyline explains why Finn decides to join the fight, to be the “great Resistance hero” he’s been talked up as. Second, it’s one of the few sequences in the film that really works, in that it’s both entertaining and logically consistent throughout.

4. By contrast, the Poe storyline is a complete disaster. The screenwriters evidently know there’s no real reason for Holdo not to explain her plan (or, really, for Poe not to work out what it is) and the screenplay honestly seems embarrassed about the whole thing. Furthermore, it seems that the whole scheme can be easily defeated by a “decloaking scan” which begs two questions. First, why doesn’t the First Order constantly run decloaking scans in this situation? Second, why would Holdo risk the whole rebellion on the chance that they wouldn’t? Poe receives a much-needed humbling in this plot, but the internal logic of it is a wreck.

5. This brings us to Rey and Luke. I have to admit that I find Luke as a bitter old Jedi master entertaining, and Hamill plays this role quite well. However, he’s not recognizably Luke Skywalker, and the idea that Luke would run off to the end of the galaxy to feel sorry for himself really diminishes the character, no matter how awesome his final redemption might be. If you can swallow that Luke really would be this much of a selfish prick then I’m sure it’s fine, but to me it felt like little more than a prominently out-of-character fanfic. I can absolutely see Luke refusing to train Rey, seeing himself as a failure as a master, but I absolutely cannot see him abandoning his friends to danger and death as long as he had any ability to defend them.

6. You cannot cut yourself off from the Force. That is at odds with literally every explanation that is ever given about the Force.

7. Good on Yoda to show up after a decade or whatever to tell Luke that he should learn from his failure. I’m sure everyone is real glad you didn’t do that before the First Order destroyed a whole star system, killed billions of people, and brought a new era of darkness to the galaxy. Bang-up job, Yodester. You really are the one true Jedi master.

8. I’m a little disappointed that Luke never actually makes the sale on why the Jedi order has to end. His best explanation is that they (and he) failed titanically out of hubris, but that’s par for the course in a galaxy where it seems like every single person and droid is terrible at their job. This really should be an easy case to make, though, since the Jedi order was so deeply corrupt they made no effective protest against the creation and slaughter of an army of slaves. The Clone Wars were morally messed up to a degree neither the films nor the television series ever truly dealt with, and they are the mortal sin for which the Jedi and the Republic deserved to die. If Luke had explored this dimension, or the life- and self- denying nature of the Jedi philosophy, I might have bought in.

9. The island episodes have more problems than this, because they are where the film is at its flabbiest. Rey’s scene in the Dark Side cavern is visually very cool but those visuals ultimately don’t convey anything valuable, and her “Dark Side cave lesson” is much less comprehensible than Luke’s on Dagobah. The Rashomon-ing of the story of the moment Ben Solo became Kylo Ren is pointless. I love the scene where Luke milks some weird alien creature and slams that nasty green stuff warm, but it doesn’t serve much purpose in the film and sort of necessitates the following, less-fun scene of Luke catching a giant fish using an absurdly long spear. And, this film is 150 minutes long. Maybe we could have skipped some of this stuff?

10. Some of these scenes would have worked perfectly in a story where Rey spends weeks or months on Luke’s island trying to wear him down. Less so when the timeline is, well, how long is all of this really? It feels like time moves at different speeds in all the storylines. Finn’s story seems to take a day or two, Poe’s story seems like it’s just a few hours, and Rey’s feels like it has to take a week at least. This was, of course, also the case in The Empire Strikes Back, where Luke seemed to have spent a month on Dagobah and Han and Leia seemed to go from Hoth to “I know” in the space of a day or two.

11. It’s true that this film is not as slavish to The Empire Strikes Back as TFA was to A New Hope. At the same time, the basic elements of “would-be Jedi learning from reluctant and irascible old master”, “Dark Side cave”, “our heroes screwing up big time”, “desperate defense on a white-colored planet”, “weird, inscrutable timeline”, and “important new POC supporting character” are repeated.

12. May the Force spare us from a Rey-Finn-Rose love triangle.

13. My favorite thing about TLJ is that it takes a huge steaming dump on all the mystery box things JJ Abrams set up in TFA. I guess some people are disappointed that Luke wasn’t doing anything important, that Rey’s parents are nobodies, and that Snoke is just an ugly man in a bathrobe. Perhaps they believed that something super cool was going to come out of these hooks, despite the fact that JJ Abrams’ mystery boxes invariably contain an ice-cold turd of an answer. A less-satisfying aspect of TLJ is that it makes most of TFA seem worse in retrospect, not least because so many of its problems can be traced back to the previous film. And we get JJ back for Episode IX! I’m sure it will be really satisfying and not have our heroes trying to destroy STARKILLER BASE PART DEUX or whatever.

14. I’m also pleased that literally none of the elaborate ideas people spun out for Rey’s origins were right. Keep in mind that the dynastic Force-family of the Skywalkers is an aberration. Most Jedi came from families of nobodies. It’s good of Star Wars to acknowledge that you don’t have to have a special daddy in order to save the galaxy. Of course, I fully expect JJ to JJ the third installment and reveal her grandparents were Obi-Wan and Plo Koon or something.

15. That said, I genuinely prefer the old SWEU outline to this depressing stuff. It would be nice for the Skywalker line to have a legacy other than trashing the galaxy twice. Luke, in particular, deserves better than what the present canon gives him.

16. It’s worth noting that while the younger generation screw up quite a bit in this film they don’t have a patch on the older crew. Luke’s mistakes get shown in detail, and the whole film is to an extent the result of Leia’s failure to get the Republic to deal with the First Order when it had a chance to. Snoke fails pretty badly, too, but at least we get a pretty good lightsaber fight out of it. Anyway, at a moment when the generational failure of the Boomers has never been more obvious this is an apt story.

17. I don’t think a lot of the movie’s humor works. Too much of it is intentional jokes being told by the screenwriters to the audience, rather than banter that is supposed to be exchanged between actual people. Some of the humor lands but most of it feels like somebody was called in to punch up the script with a couple of laffers.

18. When in doubt, Benicio del Toro gives his supporting character weird diction or strange tics. Or both!

19. TLJ is a pretty good film. It’s too long and some of the plotting doesn’t work, but the performances are good and the action is satisfying, if a little over-the-top. If you don’t have a particularly strong attachment to the original trilogy and its characters this film might even rank as very good. I don’t think it’s as good as any original trilogy film, but it’s better than TFA.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

 bond, movies  Comments Off on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Jul 192017

How Good Is It?

I’m always struck by how odd On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is. It’s not just that this is George Lazenby’s sole outing as Bond, or the bizarre clinic at Piz Gloria, or the awkward way the film’s two stories bang into each other. The movie consistently feels like it’s trying to do two things at once, and usually fumbling both.

Lazenby is part of the problem, in part because of his own shortcomings and in part because the movie just doesn’t know how to deal with his not being Sean Connery. At times there’s an effort to be flippant about the recasting, most obviously in the quip at the end of the opening scene. At other times the movie seems almost desperate to convince us that yes this really is that same James Bond that was in all the other films please believe us. Lazenby himself doesn’t help, because he can’t play menacing at all and can barely play anything else. The charisma of Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas buoys the film but both of them practically blow Lazenby off the screen in their scenes together.

Lazenby at least handles the action well enough, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has a lot of it, although it’s not all well-staged. The opening fistfight features a lot of men punching each other amongst the waves but little continuity, and the bobsled chase and fight at the end gets a bit jumbled, but in between there’s quite a bit of good stuff. The NASCAR fan in me is particularly fond of the ice race that turns into a demolition derby, though the ski chase, ending in an avalanche, is more influential.

In between, the film finds enough time to create some nice high-tension sequences and also a love story. It’s here that the film’s core problem lies, though. The sell here is that Bond is really smitten with Tracey, and it’s tough to swallow not only because Bond sleeps around atrociously up at Piz Gloria but also because he does nothing with Tracey that he wouldn’t (or doesn’t!) do out of duty in other films. Lazenby at least plays it broadly enough to seem plausible; Connery probably couldn’t have sold the story at all without completely revamping his approach to the character.

Even in the main plot, the film can’t seem to decide what it is. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service lays off the gadgets for the most part in an effort to focus on more “realistic” forms of espionage but it just can’t help itself. There is a secretive clinic (that has taken over a world-famous restaurant on a mountaintop!) where an obscenely rich, uncatchable criminal (who is risking all to lay claim to a minor noble title!) is hypnotizing girls from all nations (to deliver a toxin that will destroy all crops!), whose plans are thwarted by a secret agent (who teams up with the Corsican Mob for a helicopter assault!). There is a clear effort here to make a more “grounded” film but the draw of absurdity is just too strong.

All of this makes On Her Majesty’s Secret Service one of the more interesting Bond films but not, really, one of the better ones.

How Gross Is It?

The whole plot with Draco and Tracey is deeply retrograde, a marriage arrangement with a small but crucial piece of information for a dowry. It is perhaps made right by the blossoming of true love from inauspicious beginnings, but that plot culminates just in time for Tracey to receive an unceremonious fridging. Tracey at least gets to hold her own and contribute a great deal to the plot up until then, but I couldn’t help but notice that she is hit by both of the men who supposedly love her (knocked out by her own father!). Diana Rigg deserved better; I would happily watch a whole movie of this character getting the better of various men.

How’s The Song?

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service doesn’t have a title song, and instead has a droning, threatening instrumental theme that ranks among the series’ best. Allegedly the musical team couldn’t come up with a way to incorporate “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” as a lyric unless they went for some kind of Gilbert and Sullivan tune. As much as I like the theme music here, we must regard the choice not to go for a musical-theater-style title song as one of film history’s great tragedies. The film’s romantic tune, “We Have All the Time in the World”, is a serviceable use of Louis Armstrong’s voice but not otherwise memorable.

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