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A Monster Calls, But Forgets Its Head

Jeremiah

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A Monster Calls is a gorgeous film with a big heart and without a thought in its head. It’s a fable of sorts. A type of story that wears what it’s about on its sleeve.

It is what it is and nothing more. A Monster Calls is a simple movie about a complicated moment in Connor’s (Lewis MacDougall) life. His Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. That alone would make a dozen movies to be entered at Sundance.

But J.A. Bayona and his screenwriter Patrick Ness have added a Monster (Liam Neeson). The Monster acts as a storyteller. He shows up one night at Connor’s house and intones that he shall tell him three stories and then Connor must tell the Monster his nightmare. He agrees reluctantly. After all, when a Monster calls and tells you to do something it’s generally agreed upon you do it.

From here we know what happens. We know because like all fables it’s a story we’ve heard before. The Monster will tell Connor stories that are tangentially or symbolically related to what Connor is feeling about his Mum, her dying, his Dad, or his Grandma. Connor’s mum, Lizzie, will die from whatever disease she has. It’s never discussed. This is best. People who die of something nameless don’t have to work that hard for our affection.

“Dying is easy” as they say. Coming up with why someone is dying is hard. You tend to have to look up symptoms and talk a lot of medical mumbo jumbo. This is a kids movie. It would not do to talk mumbo jumbo.

I loved the scenes where the Monster told Connor stories. Especially the watercolor visuals that Connor imagined as the Monster weaves his tale. But then the movie would go back to Connor and his dying Mum, and his Grandma (Sigourney Weaver) and I could care less.

Time after time, scene after scene Connor acts out in such a destructive way that would have most other kids committed or at the very least sent to their room. He’s given a pass because as the adults intone, aware of his situation, “What would be the point of that?” Presumably, the point of someone being the adult to this poor messed up, possibly psychotic kid, is not something that occurs to them.

There’s a moment during one of the Monster’s stories he asks Connor to help him destroy a Church. The boy, who we’ve seen loves to destroy things, eagerly agrees. The movie does a jump cut to reveal Connor was not destroying an imaginary Church but his Grandma’s sitting room. This kid absolutely demolishes it. The moment is jaw dropping.

When his Grandma comes in and sees the damage, she is speechless. She lets out a primal wail and then backs out. I get it. It’s meant to show the rage and grief of a young boy, and how he’s so distraught, he can’t comprehend how destructive his anger is. His Grandmother’s reaction is appropriate. She has no idea what to say or do. She leaves before she’ll say or do something she regrets. The next morning Connor’s Dad (Toby Kebbell) shows up and makes him breakfast, but doesn’t reprimand him, saying “What would be the point in that?”. Shouldn’t someone pull him aside and say, “Look I get it you’re angry, scared, and confused. But kid, you just destroyed an old lady’s furniture and mementos of her life. Your pain doesn’t supersede everyone else’s.”?

But Jeremiah you say. “The movie is from the kid’s perspective. He doesn’t know any better.” I get it. But just because he doesn’t know any better, doesn’t mean the adults shouldn’t either. “But isn’t the point that adults shouldn’t treat kids like they’re fragile? Isn’t the point exactly what you’re saying, that someone should do something?”

I don’t think the movie has thought that far. The movie is pretty to look at, but you shouldn’t let that fool you into thinking it has any real thoughts. It’s mainly interested in being “magical” and “profound.” It tells us over and over, people are messy and complicated but never really shows us that they are. Connor and his brood are as generic as possible. His Mum is just Mum, his Dad is just Dad, and is Grandma is just Grandma.

These are not people or even characters. They’re stock personalities. Cliches would be nice. At least they have names.

J.A. Bayona is a brilliant visual storyteller, but when he’s forced to deal with the real world, he stumbles.  The actors all turn in respectable performances. Considering what they’re given to play with it’s a miracle, they turn in what they do. The stories within the story are more fascinating and interesting than the story itself.

A Monster Calls is a kids movie, and they’ll probably enjoy it. It’s a dark, visually impressive, and possibly for them, even magical film. You should take your kids to see it. For those without kids, you can enjoy the fact you have no reason to see A Monster Calls.


Image courtesy of Focus Features

Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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Star Wars Rewatch: The Critic Awakens

Zach

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Ah, would that we could return to that bygone year of 2015. Things seemed so much simpler then, especially with the promise of a revitalized Star Wars franchise. After the bad taste that the Prequel Trilogy (PT) left in even many mouths—even with the 5 seasons of damage control that was The Clone Wars (TCW)—it was an understatement to say that the fandom was salivating for a return to quality. This anticipation only increased when it was announced that the entire Original Trilogy (OT) cast was reprising their roles.

Still, it is somewhat difficult to gauge the quality of this film, as it is only the first of three parts. That said, with its riveting pace, numerous unanswered questions, and fantastic new characters, most viewers agree that The Force Awakens (TFA) is a solid addition to the franchise.

Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm was nothing short of monumental when it happened. What did you think of the news when it was first announced?

Ian: I’d have to say I was cautiously optimistic. After what the prequels put me through in the 2000s, it was difficult to imagine what a good new Star Wars movie would look like. As details trickled out though, like Abrams’s use of actual sets and practical effects, I warmed to the concept. I was never much of an Extended Universe (EU) fan outside of one or two novels and comics, so the eradication of the old EU canon did not affect me. Having seen Abrams’s Star Trek adaptations (which is a subject unto itself) I felt he was competent enough to get the job done.

Gretchen: I honestly didn’t think anything specific when I heard it. At the time, it had been years since I was fully invested in the Star Wars fandom. Like Ian, I’d only ever read a few EU novels, so the switch to Legends didn’t mean much to me. I think I shrugged? A lot has changed since then.

Zach: When I first got news of the merger, it was because Disney had canceled TCW on Cartoon Network. Then I learned that Disney was doing away with the EU and calling it “Legends.” To say I was “frothy” would have been an understatement. Several of my favorite characters from the Clone Wars era now had their powerful and moving stories erased completely, specifically Jedi Masters Aayla Secura and Shaak Ti, neither of which had featured very heavily in TCW. I was fit to be tied, and I promised to never watch the new series out of pure spite.

Then, from out of the darkness came Julia’s fantastic retrospective on Han and Leia’s relationship and suddenly I began to reevaluate my priorities. A few rewatches of the OT and retrospectives later, and suddenly I could not wait to see the new movie. I guess you could say The Fandomentals saved Star Wars for me.

Iconic.

What were your feelings on the movie going in?

Zach: Good gosh, I was so nervous going into this movie. On the one hand, it was a new series and a new generation of characters. On the other hand, I had been burned before. Although I was too young to feel the complete disappointment of the PT, as I grew up and got standards, I realized how bad they were. I was afraid to get my hopes up, though at the same time I could not help but feel excited.

Ian: Excited as f$%&! I don’t remember feeling as excited or as nervous for a new movie opening ever before, not even for The Phantom Menace. I actually took half the day off work that Friday to go see it and beat the crowd. So jazzed. So pumped. Couldn’t wait.

The feeling I had going into Revenge of the Sith was more like obligation. I guess I should see this thing. I’ve seen all the others. I felt trepidation this time as well, like should I be this excited? Am I setting myself up for disappointment? I hadn’t been spoiled on the movie, only heard some whispers that, yes, it’s good, rest easy, friends. So, excitement tempered with nervousness.

This time, after having watched it a number of times, I feel like it still holds up. It’s still exciting and funny, and I was happy to watch it again.

Gretchen: When I heard they were making more movies, I was mildly annoyed. My first thought when they announced a new trilogy was, “This again? Why can’t they leave well enough alone?” I expected to hate it, but also secretly wanted to like it. The OT was classic sci-fi for me and had formed a huge part of my childhood, so the opportunity to have that experience as an adult had me both nervous and excited. Going into the rewatch, I had a similar mix of feelings. I liked TFA when I came out of the theaters two years ago. But, the fandom soon soured me on certain aspects of it, and I spent a good portion of 2016 grumpy about it. Engaging with the books and comics of New Canon in 2017 gave me some perspective, though, so when I sat down to rewatch TFA, I wasn’t sure which side would win: the Grumpy Side or the Fangirl Side.

What did you think of the characters, new and old?

Gretchen: I’ll start with our new heroes, and the answer is I love them. While there are things I don’t like about TFA, the new trio of protagonists isn’t one of them. I unabashedly adore Finn, Rey, and Poe with all my fangirl heart. While many have pointed out that they echo the original trio in many ways, what I find fascinating about Rey, Finn, and Poe is how they switch who they’re echoing. None of them are a straight up copy of Han, Leia, and Luke despite how their story beats play off of ones in the OT.

Zach: Hell yes. I would let Rey punch me in the face and I would thank her for it afterward. I know that there was a lot of … shall we call it “inexplicable” backlash against Finn for a while, but that has mercifully died down for now. Gretchen points out that they are echoes of the OT trio, not direct copies. As George Lucas said: “It’s poetry… it rhymes.” We could do an entire article about how these characters echo each other. I think it is telling that, when people have any praise for the Prequels, it is usually for the story, while the Sequels have received their due praise for their characters. I think it is easy to tell which one is more compelling.

Ian: The new characters were what sold me on this movie the first time through. Plot holes and regurgitated ideas from the OT can’t make me love Rey, Finn, or Poe any less.

Gretchen: SAME. As far as old characters go, I’m still a bit salty about the original trio in many ways. After reading Bloodline and Legends of Luke Skywalker, I understand the intention behind the character choices better. However, I still don’t like certain aspects of it. More than anything, not getting a Han/Leia/Luke reunion on screen felt like a punch to the gut. Oh, and can you let Han and Leia kiss for the love of the Force???? They might bicker and have drifted as they dealt with their grief over losing Ben in different ways, but these two love each other goddamn it. LET MY MIDDLE-AGED OTP KISS ON SCREEN.

Good, but it could have been even better.

Ian: I’m a little bummed we never got to see Leia go full Jedi. If she’s as powerful or more powerful in the Force as Luke is, one could reasonably assume she would want to learn to use it. We get some brief flashes in TFA, but nothing more. I understand Carrie Fisher wasn’t in the best physical shape of her life, so I wasn’t expecting a big action-y fight scene, but just something that hints at her power would have been nice, like Galadriel in LOTR. I consider it a lost opportunity.

Zach: I think most of JJ Abram’s direction for the OT trio was “How can I make it as angsty as possible without any of that soft and squishy stuff.” He seems to have a mild understanding of their characters. Based on the things that the cast and crew have said when they worked on TFA, Abrams had no idea how to justify any of his choices for their direction, but he did it anyway. Just like we agreed in our reviews of the PT, the expanded canon stuff does not excuse sloppy writing in the film itself. We should not need that expanded canon stuff to understand what happens on the screen.

I feel that I should warn you all right now that I have a lot of Opinions™ about J.J Abrams.

Gretchen: Don’t worry, I do to. Very few of them are glowing.

Zach: Another of my Opinions™ about Abrams’s direction is how he writes about Darth Vader. He seems to be deliberately ignoring all the previous films’ information about Anakin Skywalker, like his motivation and redemption. It seems like no one knows that Anakin was redeemed in the end. This is especially thrown into sharp relief with Han’s comment “He’s got too much Vader in him.” What does that mean? A fierce love for people and a willingness to do anything to protect them? A feeling of constant inadequacy? Disillusionment with a corrupt system that is attempting to control him? Vader’s evil was a consequence, not his goal.

Ian: Yeah that’s a little weird. Kylo’s worship of him seems out of place as well for those same reasons. What was it exactly that Vader started that you’re going to finish, Kylo? Was it having a decent relationship with his kids?

Gretchen: This is another one of those times that Abrams love for ~secrets~ got the better of him. We all saw Vader choose Light in the end, so give us one on-screen reason why Kylo would want to follow in his footsteps. It doesn’t have to be the main reason, just one that makes sense. Even “I hate my Uncle Luke and wish Vader would have killed him instead of the Emperor” would have been better than a handwave. “…Reasons” just isn’t going to cut it.

One thing I do appreciate, however, is what the film is trying to say about this new generation of heroes lacking mentors and authority to ground them. Han and Maz are the only mentors our heroes have, and neither of them are Force wielders. Han is a former skeptic. Poe is the only protagonist with a sense of direction, and he’s given the least screen time, which I think is on purpose. Our two main heroes have very little to go on to find their way and decide between right and wrong. Rey doesn’t even have anyone to lie to her about her family like Luke did. She literally has nothing. Same with Finn. The sense of being adrift and lacking any reliable authority is a message that I think has a lot of meaning to our current generation.

Zach: TRUTH. I had not even thought about it like that.

Ian: What about Kylo? He had a mentor. He had Luke. How did that turn out? Not good. So the two characters cast adrift ended up in better shape than the one with his family intact, and a teacher to boot. He had all that and he rebelled. Hard. Now he has a new authority figure, one that’s feeding him the things he wants to hear. What does that say about the current generation’s relationship with authority?

Kylo himself I found pretty compelling. He’s my least favorite of the new batch, but I think that’s by design. I do like the way he seems out of control. His emotions get the better of him time and time again. I think that is indicative of some of the shortcomings in being a dark side user.

What do you love most about this movie?

Ian: Mostly, the sense of fun and adventure that the film brought back. The prequels were such odd things. They professed to telling this emotional story about the fall of a great hero, and love and betrayal, but it was all so devoid of emotion. Blame the acting, or the direction, or the extensive use of green screen, but those films don’t have any humanity to them. The moment–THE MOMENT– that sealed the deal for me with TFA, the moment where I sat back in my seat and breathed a sigh of relief and knew I was in good hands was that line from Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) when he is brought before Kylo Ren. They stare at each other for a beat and then he says, “So who talks first? Do you talk first?” I laughed. The whole theater laughed. After that, I was all in. We have real characters. They are allowed to be funny. They are allowed to be human. That moment I think is still my favorite in the movie just because of the memory it brings back of that first watch in the theater.

Gretchen: Same. I love that they established early on that these characters, and the films, have a real sense of humor (not one that relies on racism and stepping in poop) and adventure about them. We’d get more honest, human, and real characters rather than tropes. I adore that line from Poe for the same reason. It gave me hope that we were getting something truly good.

Zach: For me, the moment in the movie that sealed the deal for me was Rey’s introduction scene. While I do have a lot of Opinions™ on Abram’s writing of characters, I cannot fault his handling of the new characters or the cinematics. Both of them come together beautifully, stunningly, in Rey’s introduction. We spend several minutes following her around her home on Jakku. She never says a single word, but we get a real sense of who she is as a character and we bond with her immediately. I think Daisy Ridley’s portrayal of the character goes a long way too.

Ian: I love Rey. She’s fantastic. I have no problems with her seemingly quick grasp of the Force, or her aptitude in combat or piloting, or mechanics. Anyone who says she’s a Mary Sue either doesn’t understand what a Mary Sue is, or wasn’t paying attention when they watched the movie.

Gretchen: Preach. Gotta love how most of the people who complain about this don’t seem to lob the same complaints at Luke in the OT or Anakin in the PT. An unusually gifted hero just waiting to discover their power is a well-established trope in fantasy literature, yet “Mary Sue” seems to only be a complaint thrown under specific circumstances (hint: like when the protagonist is a woman). The only thing that annoyed me was the whole “she knows the Millennium Falcon better than Han” thing, and that was a minor nitpick, really. Han may not be an intuitive mechanic like Anakin, but the one thing he does know is his own ship.

Ian: I love Rey and Finn together. They are both damaged in a way that they compliment each other so well. That hug on the Starkiller base is another favorite moment.

Gretchen: They drew me from the first moment I saw each of them alone, and then again when they finally met each other. They’re fantastic as both a matched pair and foils. They’re both so lonely and aching for a real home. Both lack a family and are defined by their relationship to their past. Rey can’t let go of hers, no matter how incomplete and tenuous it is. Finn, on the other hand is desperately trying to forget who he is. Rey wants to go home; Finn wants to run away. Neither know who they are and neither has any strong heroic aspirations at the outset of the film—like Luke’s desire for adventure in A New Hope (ANH). However, together they find both family and begin to help each other find the balance between their opposing positions regarding their past. Just…this is everything I love about found family narratives and breaking the cycle of violence.

This never ceases to make Gretchen laugh until she snorts. (Source)

Ian: I love the whole tone of the movie, too, the way it moves from a kind of breezy adventure to some heavier action. The visuals are stunning. I don’t know, I can’t decide.

Zach: PRACTICAL. SPECIAL. EFFECTS. They saved my life in this movie. Just watching it and seeing all these beautiful creatures in the background it really, really sells it to the audience. The PT’s over-abundance of CG effects in every scene immediately pulls the viewer out of the moment. For whatever reason, our brains can know, even if everything on the screen is perfectly right, if something is fake. EVERYTHING in the PT was fake. Compare that to TFA. You have a really hard time trying to figure out what is a puppet and what is CGI, but it all feels real to you. You can believe it more easily.

Ian: God yes. That was one of the things that made this movie feel real to me. They are on location, they have sets, they have actual people and creatures to interact with. The best CGI in the world can’t compare to the real thing… yet…

Gretchen: I barely noticed the effects, and that’s a huge compliment. It’s all so seamless. God and the music! My heart soared so many times hearing those themes again.

Zach: John Williams is back! While his scores are not as good as some of his previous work in Star Wars, Rey’s Theme and March of the Resistance really do a good job at setting the tone and telling the story with music.

Ian: Rey’s theme is the best. I bought the soundtrack for that alone.

Zach: Again, say what you will about Abrams’ writing, but he has a true gift for creating thrilling action sequences. There are a lot of scenes that we could talk about, but I think the most standout among them is Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku with the Millenium Falcon. First of all, it innovates on Star Wars’ signature space-dogfights by putting them in the atmosphere of a planet. The setting is also fantastic; flying amongst the cavernous ruins of Star Destroyers from the old Imperial days serves as both an obstacle to avoid and a grim reminder of what will happen if there is the slightest mistake. Other scenes have fantastic direction too, but that is the one I have singled out. Anyone else have any favorites?

Ian: That lightsaber fight at the end. The overwrought and insanely complicated fights of the PT are gone. We’re back to two actual characters just kind of hammering away at each other. Rey gets a lot of flack for being too good here, but she’s shown her ability with a staff. Plus Kylo is gutshot with a bowcaster, he’s not exactly at one hundred percent. Seeing that lightsaber fly past him into Rey’s hand was a jump out of your seat moment for me, and the fight after was great. (And it’s on an actual set).

Gretchen: That’s my favorite as well. Having just watched Return of the Jedi (ROTJ), the similarity in the sequence stands out so starkly. This is Luke and Vader all over again, only Rey has less training and Kylo less control. Plus, my boy Finn is there, too, and he gets his chance to be ‘Luke’ only to trade off to Rey. It’s a beautifully-shot, beautifully written and choreographed action sequence that’s brimming with thematic significance and character work.

Zach: Kylo Ren is a fun villain. We still have a lot to learn about him in the New Canon, but from what we see in TFA, at the very least he is entertaining. He is a little less murderous than his grandfather when underlings give him bad news, but he is just as extra. The fact that he just has tantrums every so often while simultaneously being an absolutely terrifying and effective villain really gets to me. Though I have difficulty imagining his redemption arc now, I am keeping an open mind about his direction until I see TLJ.

Gretchen: I can see a potential redemption arc, I just really, really want him to earn it. Star Wars is a story about hope and the presence of light no matter how powerful the darkness seems to be. However, I think the sequel trilogy has a real chance to show us how someone lives out their redemption arc rather than just making a death bed choice. Not that Vader’s turn isn’t valuable, but I want a journey to redemption and then a trajectory for life afterward. That’s how it will feel earned to me.

What do you like least about this movie?

Ian: I’ve had a problem in recent viewings with Finn. There is some dissonance to his character and what the movie tells us about him that I find a little troubling, but not story-breaking. Think about Finn’s motivation. He breaks away from the First Order presumably for moral reasons. He sees a fellow trooper gunned down, and then disobeys the order to execute a whole village en masse. Rather than go to be reprogrammed, he breaks Poe out and escapes the toxic situation he is in. One can assume from this that Finn has deep misgivings about the First Order’s methods, and about violence and killing in general. Finn is a victim of the system. He was taken at an early age and trained for trooperdom. We empathize with him even as we root for him to succeed. That in itself isn’t a problem.

The problem comes when in the remainder of the movie, after humanizing one storm trooper, the rest of the storm troopers are regulated to their position throughout the OT as simple cannon fodder. These are all presumably victims of the First Order machine, being forcibly recruited and brainwashed. Of course, there might be some actual bad guys in there, but we don’t really know or care about the rest of them because they have to get blown up by the good guys. Sometimes, their deaths are even played for laughs.

It’s at odds with the reasons why we root for Finn, who doesn’t seem to have a problem with the death of hundreds of his former peers, some of whom he almost certainly shared day-to-day life with. There is a dissonance there that is troubling, but I generally tend to whistle past it. Of course, it could be that Finn is an exceptional case, and that no other trooper has been able to overcome their conditioning, but they are still victims of the First Order military machine, and humanizing one makes it difficult to see the rest slaughtered.

Gretchen: I agree with you, and I think there’s a way to read that as meaningful. That cognitive dissonance is very much in line with what the rest of New Canon is doing. One of the goals, I think, is to humanize the ‘canon fodder’ and force us to recognize that not everyone who participates in the oppressive system does so of free will and malice. The humor aspect is out of place, and I think that’s a sign that something wasn’t executed properly because I think Finn is meant to lead us to acknowledge that there are victims within the First Order, not just outside of it.

My one complaint about Finn stems from the film not doing a good job clarifying that he’s actually a very competent and intelligent Stormtrooper. You have to read the novels to know that he was the best in his class and that sanitation was a standard shift and not a sign of his incompetence or him being unskilled at battle. I think it was meant as a joke, but it has crept into the fandom as a sign that he’s stupid, weak, and untalented (fandom racism is the worst, you guys).

Other than that, what I truly like least about TFA is Starkiller base. It was one plot echo too far, and the lampshading didn’t help at all. No matter how people spin this or how many explanations I read, I still think it was stupid. Sorry, Abrams.

Ian: Yeah, even Han’s snarky lines about Death Stars can’t save that one.

Zach: Oh yeah. Starkiller Base was abysmal. For me, the movie was fine with all its echoes until we hit Starkiller Base and the dogfight over it. It was way too similar to ANH for comfort. The first act keeps me invested, but everything beyond that read like a bad fanfic. I always say “Every story has already been told, so we’re going to judge this by how the story is told,” but I draw the line when a story plays it too close to one that has already been told.

Ian: Nothing about Starkiller base made sense. I know this isn’t hard sci-fi, but it should at least be trying to sound plausible, right? People watching the streaks of red across the sky from Maz’s place is impossible, as is the distance that beam of energy travelled in a short amount of time. It was just too much. Then once that sun is drained, what? The planet flies to a new sun? Really? Just dumb.

Zach: ARE YOU READY TO HEAR MY RANT ABOUT TFA’S ART DIRECTION!? BUCKLE IN, BECAUSE I HAVE OPINIONS™. IT WAS ALL LAZY AS FUCK AND TRYING TOO HARD TO COPY THE OT RATHER THAN IMPROVE IT.

Literally every single bit of this movie was a direct ripoff of the OT. Compare it to the Prequels; for all their numerous flaws they had their very own art style, and canonically they only happen 20 years before the OT. TFA takes place 30 years after the OT, and literally everything is the same. Compare the X-wings. In the PT, the classic T-65 of the prequels had not been invented yet, but we had the ARC-170. With its long nose and splitting s-foils, it is a definite step in the X-wing’s direction, but it has its own distinct silhouette. Compare that to the Resistance’s T-70 X-wing. The only difference is that now the wing-split is down the middle of the wings. If the other starfighters shown in Star Wars: Battlefront 2 and walkers shown in The Last Jedi trailers are any indication of the future art direction, it looks like more of the same. Expect more salt after I see that movie.

Ian: Wow, Zach, you have entered a level of nerdery I could only dream about. Well played, sir. Yeah, it’s weird how samey things are there, but then the storm trooper helmets got a total redesign. Does The First Order have a marketing division? “Has Jeff turned in the concept sketches for those new helmets yet?” “Oh yeah, General Hux is reviewing them now.” Like, the TIE fighters just have new paint jobs, the X-Wings are the same, the Star Destroyers are (basically) the same. Why overhaul the trooper uniforms? Maybe the original molding equipment was confiscated or destroyed?

Gretchen: Heck, they even copied the exact same biomes from three of the planets in the OT. If you’re not going to break the “every planet has to have a single biome” rule, can you at least branch out from desert planet, forest planet, snow planet? At least we’re getting a new planet in TLJ. Though I have to admit, a salt planet has me giggling. You might have to move to Crait over the art direction, Zach.

Are you a Vuptex? Because you are made of salt.

Zach: Oh, believe me, I was actually born there. Abrams was so wrapped up in copying the feel of the OT that he forgot to justify how he got there. When the OT closed, the implication was that freedom and justice had returned to the Galaxy, and TFA’s opening crawl says that there is a new Republic, but that aside we have no idea what is going on in the galaxy. Are we supposed to believe that a galaxy-wide government had no idea that the First Order had a planet-killer just floating around? Why is the Republic not taking an active role in fighting the Space-Nazis next door, and is leaving the fight to the Resistance instead? Why is the Resistance separate from the Republic starfleet? Why does the Republic not oversee the assets that it is funding to fight the First Order? Who is Lor San Tekka, outside of being “[Leia’s] old ally” as described in the opening crawl? Uuuuurgh, I hate it.

Ian: The politics of the Galactic Republic are very poorly laid out, or not laid out at all, and I found that a little troubling. One would think if there was an Imperial uprising, the Republic military would have been mustered to snuff them out, not some rinky-dink resistance.

Gretchen: A lot of this comes up in the extended materials, like Bloodline and the Aftermath trilogy. They’re really good at filling in gaps. However, I am of the opinion that the films ought to make sense on their own. Casual fans who only watch the movies should be able to understand the basics of how to get from A-to-Space Nazis have a planet-sized wmd that no one noticed. Abrams penchant for “mystery boxes” and unexpected plot twists bit him in the ass when it came to setting up TFA. Way too much was left un-explicated between ROTJ and the sequels, and the film suffers for it.

Zach: We need more Phasma in our movies. She better be more prominent in TLJ.

Gretchen: I literally cannot wait for Finn to confront Phasma again. It’s gonna be so good. (Fingers crossed for Finn leading a Stormtrooper uprising!)

Ian: The Phasma comic miniseries and novel flesh her character out better. And yes, you are right.

The first installment of a trilogy often sets the tone. What did you think of the tone and themes of The Force Awakens?

Gretchen: Ironically, I think the films are the weakest parts of New Canon for me. A lot of my increased enjoyment of TFA this time around comes from my engagement with the novels and comics. More than either of the New Canon films, the print materials lay out the themes and direction for where Star Wars is headed as a franchise. When you engage with them, you can see the threads in the films, but they’re subdued. Part of it is medium, part of it is that the films are meant to reach a much wider audience and have to stand up to that. Part of it is Abrams leaving things out for the sake of ~mystery~.

Still, I do think that TFA fits within the wider tone and themes of the franchise, even if casual fans might not pick up on all the pieces. As mentioned above, I find the theme of disconnection from the heroes and stories of the past quite compelling (though with mixed success as to execution), same with the found family narrative. I have even more mixed feelings about Ben—too many to go into here. I’ve never found the idea of a Solo, Skywalker, or Organa child going Dark Side remotely appealing, so TFA was working uphill to get me to engage with that.

Zach: For me, the themes of TFA that I picked up on initially were a little too close to those of ANH, but on closer examination I think that they are still applicable, especially to our modern times. When TFA was released, white nationalism seemed to be on its last legs. Now, the president defends it. A group of determined individuals fighting against an implacable enemy speaks to me a lot more now.

Ian: I have no problem with the way it echoes certain story beats from ANH. Yes, it is a similar story, and yes, some of the actual story beats are very similar. This does not make it the same story or the same movie. It is not a re-make, and again, anyone who says so wasn’t paying attention. Disney played it safe with this film, and understandably so. This HAD to go well. If this movie tanked, it could quite possibly have killed the franchise. So I understand why they played it safe and went with a similar story. That’s not to say it is the same as some people criticise it for being.

Gretchen: TFA actually goes through beats from all three of the OT films, which I find interesting. That’s what tells me that while it is mixing in elements from ANH, it isn’t a straight-up retelling. On rewatch more than the first viewing I realized just how many beats from Empire Strikes Back and ROTJ end up in TFA. As with the new trio both echoing and switching up the original trio, the film itself does so, too. We get bits and pieces of all three OT films, but in different or sped up order and with different context. We’re seeing bits of the PT and OT unravel and reweave themselves together in a different way. It’s like a symphonic variation, and I really enjoy it.

Ian: I have a hard time with theme because I tend to just turn my brain off and enjoy it. The found family aspect is always there for me. I guess the tone is really what spoke to me. The sense of fun and adventure is back in the series, and that’s a good thing even if thematically it’s not quite there.

With that in mind, what do you expect from The Last Jedi?

Ian: They’re gonna kill Luke. Oh God, no, please don’t kill Luke. No they’re going to make him evil. Look at the posters. He’s in the bad guy position. He’s gonna be evil. They’re going to kill Leia and make Luke evil. No, Rey’s gonna turn evil. Kylo Ren’s going to turn her over to Snoke and then Kylo’s going to turn good. That’s wholly unearned, why would they do that so soon? Oh God, no, please don’t kill Luke. But Rey… But Luke… Leia… Oh, God, this movie is going to rip my heart out and stomp on it! At least there will be porgs.

Gretchen: Honestly? Same. Though having read Legends of Luke Skywalker, I’m less worried about Luke going evil than I was. As far as him dying, with Han dead and Carrie Fisher no long available to do more Leia scenes, it makes zero sense to kill off the other member of the OT. I do, however, fully expect to have my heart broken seeing Leia on screen again. And I have a feeling things with Luke and Rey are going to hurt me as well. It’s going to be a looooong two years until 2019, folks.

Zach: Of course it’s going to be a feels-fest. As Yoda said, “Fandom leads to feelings, feelings lead to being attached to characters, being attached to characters leads to suffering.” I’m with Gretchen in that I do not expect Luke to turn evil either, same with Rey. I think that they might up the ante on Kylo Ren’s villainy and make him usurp Supreme Leader Snoke, but that is pure conjecture. I honestly have no idea what is instore for us in VIII

Ian: I’m scared, you guys.

Gretchen: As Leia said, “hold me.”

Zach: If fear is a path to the Dark Side, I’m toast.

One more hug from space mom for all of us. For luck.

Overall Thoughts

Gretchen: I enjoyed it more the second time around, despite my almost year long salt binge. Extended materials in the Star Wars universe have given me a lot of hope, and a new perspective, on what the sequel trilogy is doing. I love the sense of adventure, the humor, and the strong pathos that the new protagonists bring with them. Also, I adore BB-8 with my entire being.

Zach: It is a long awaited return to form after the prequels. Sure it is pretty derivative, Abrams has no idea what he’s doing with the OT trio, and there is no innovation in art direction. But, the characters, slick pacing, and adventure make it all worth watching.

Ian: I love this movie. It’s imperfect, flawed even, but it has great characters and a lot of fun and drama. It’s just the shot in the arm this franchise needed.

Gretchen’s Score: 7 – Satisfying: Fantastic! Entertaining! I would be willing to watch it again. It isn’t perfect, but it hits an emotional or thematic sweet spot that leaves you glad you spent time on it.

Zach’s Score: 6 – Good: Very watchable and with enough honey-potting it can be considered great. Leaves the viewer with a smile and a desire to see more.

Ian’s Score: 8 – Inspiring: Any shortcomings are nothing but small dots on an otherwise perfect painting. Despite some minor issues, it’s on par with some of the best. I could definitely watch it more than once (or twice).


Images courtesy of Disney and Lucasfilm

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‘I, Tonya’ Skates The Thin Line Between Comedy and Tragedy

Jeremiah

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I, Tonya is a breathless tragicomedy based on true events that just so happens to perfectly illustrate how woefully ill-equipped our present set of systems are for dealing with abuse. The movie barrels along with a breathless narrative and a searing sense of righteous fury. To top it all off, it dares us to reexamine a woman we helped turn into a national punchline.

Craig Gillespie brings a Rashomon quality to I, Tonya. Gillespie and his screen writer Steven Rogers based the movie on a series of interviews with Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan),  Tonya’s Mother LaVona (Allison Janney), and a producer for Hard Copy played by Bobby Cannavale. Each one tells their own version of Tonya and “the incident.”

“The incident,” for those too young to remember, is this: in 1994 figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a man who claimed to be hired by Tonya Harding’s ex-husband Jeff. I, Tonya however does more than just examine “the incident” it dares to indict the twenty-four-hour news cycle that all but convicted her as well as us the audience for participating in it.

The search for truth comes from the characters themselves,  cauldron of unreliable narrators all seeking vindication. By the end we are only sure of our own complicity.

In other words I, Tonya does quite a lot and to its credit mostly succeeds. Gillespie and Rogers portray the emotional and physical abuse Tonya suffers from her mother and her husband mundane and laconic. The abuse has a matter-of-fact quality that lends an air of horror and immediacy to it. I, Tonya is brutally honest about abuse and the effect the cycle of violence has on a person.

I, Tonya almost methodically lays the groundwork to help clearly illustrate how the systems set in place—then and now—hinder women more than help them. Tonya gets a restraining order against Jeff, and yet still he shows up to her home with a gun. He accidentally fires the gun, grazing her head with a bullet. He grabs her and puts her in the car and is eventually pulled over. As the officer talks to Jeff, Tonya looks to the camera. “He had alcohol bottles in the backseat and the officer found him in possession of two guns. And he never even said one word to me. That’s when I learned…you can’t trust the authorities.”

Over and over again, Tonya is betrayed by the people and things she loves the most. Tonya Harding is one of seven women figure skaters in America to ever successfully pull off a triple axle. But this somehow isn’t enough.

Growing up she is told time and time again that she needs to dress fancier to be taken seriously. Her father skins a handful of rabbits and makes her a fur coat. She is mocked and ostracized. Figure skating is as much presentation as it is talent, and Tonya isn’t presenting the picture the figure skating community wants. Her ambition to go to the Olympics is hampered by the “image” she projects: herself.

Tonya skates to ZZ Top while other skaters play Mahler and Tchaikovsky. She’s a girl from rural Kentucky and the judges don’t let her forget it. She’s told by one judge that the reason her scores are low has nothing to do with her ability but the fact that she doesn’t present the image the association wants to show to the world. They want someone with a model, wholesome American family. “But I don’t have a wholesome American family,” she responds.

Tonya cusses, smokes, and shoots guns. She’s also one the most naturally talented and driven figure skaters the skating community has ever seen. I, Tonya shows us the sheer guts of a woman who yearned to be part of something that wanted nothing to do with her. She got even in the best way possible—she became a legend. The tragedy of the legend she left behind is not of her making.

But Rogers doesn’t let Tonya off the hook completely either. As much as she’s beaten down both by her chosen community and her loved ones, Tonya seems incapable of  taking responsibility for her actions. “It wasn’t my fault,” is a constant refrain throughout the movie. The phrase becomes more complicated and begins to carry more weight as the story progresses.

Margot Robbie turns in a blistering performance of sheer fury and vulnerability. Gillespie tosses out slow motions, whip pans, and flashy editing, but it’s Robbie that propels I, Tonya. Robbie’s Harding has a ferocity and a tenaciousness that has us rooting for her even when we groan inwardly as she keeps taking Jeff. Her Tonya is less acting and more eerie possession.

Robbie’s performance is all the more impressive when we consider the dazzling and darkly comic manner in which the story is being told. As stated before, the structure is essentially a mockumentary from multiple points of view. This could have resulted in a fractured narrative, but instead it leads to a morbidly nuanced comedic portrayal of class. I, Tonya is never condescending; the humor comes from places of human truth. The stupidity that is mocked is the stupidity of criminals who refuse to admit the limits of their knowledge.

Take Jeff’s best friend and confidant Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). I’ve known people like Shawn growing up, as I suppose we all have. Shawn lives at home with his parents yet boasts about  his ‘government ops experience’ and ‘expertise in counter terrorism measures’. When Jeff hires him to mail some threatening letters to Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) we can see the train about to jump the rails from the next county over.

It’s clear why Jeff has Shawn as a friend though. Shawn feeds Jeff’s ego and makes him feel like a bigger man than he is. Jeff realizes too late just how unhinged Shawn is and furthermore what he’s done to Tonya’s life. Sebastian Stan never asks for our sympathies and rightfully so.

Jeff beats Tonya with such a casual frequency that it makes it all but impossible to even like him. Stan’s performance is so tough to swallow not just because it’s so good but because there’s nothing special about Jeff. You can, and have, met Jeff anywhere. He’s not particularly evil but neither is he good. Jeff is somehow the hero but also the victim of his own story which is counter-intuitive until you realize that’s how most abusers see themselves. Stan shows us how Robbie’s Harding could have fallen for him without making us do the same.

Gillespie’s style could easily be called derivative but we should also call it what it is: effective. Though the film has the look of a Martin Scorsese film, it lacks the same sort of daring musical choices that Scorsese is known for. Nor does it bubble with the same wonderful unpredictable energy that Scorsese infuses into his films. Gillespie chooses songs that tell us as what to think and feel as opposed to songs that would add anything extra to the scene or force us to think about the events in a different way.

But this is a minor quibble. Despite the obvious Scorsese influences and obvious song choices it works. It works spectacularly. Margot Robbie is effortlessly amazing despite the less-than-stellar CGI they use to show us the triple axle spin. Robbie is an integral part to I, Tonya’s dizzying momentum. Whenever the story briefly switches to Jeff and Shawn, the film begins to slightly drag.

Allison Janney, it should be mentioned, is brilliant as usual. Her LaVona is a bitter, callous woman who discovers too late that she actually loves her daughter. The violence she visits upon Tonya seems more brutal because of the rage behind it. LaVona denies the accusations while somehow also justifying them. To her, love and violence go hand in hand.

Gillespie’s greatest achievement is how much fun he’s made I, Tonya. It is dark and glaringly honest about abuse as well as classism. But I, Tonya is never a slog to sit through. This is in large part due to the brilliant and deeply joyous editing of Tatiana S. Riegel. She and Gillespie give the film the feeling of a rushed confession without allowing I, Tonya to devolve into a chaotic mass of overlapping voices. It is deeply entertaining and weirdly fun without ever taking any of its characters for granted. Along with the laughs and clever little insights into how messed up our media cycle is and how we’re partially to blame, there is the quiet devastation of a life destroyed.

I, Tonya is easily one of the greatest films of the year. It has unquestionably one of the best performances of the year in Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding. Clear-eyed and loving, I, Tonya portrays its subject in a fair light—at least a fairer light than we were ever willing to give her before.


Image Courtesy of Neon

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‘The Shape of Water’ Is A Dark, Enthralling Fairy Tale

Jeremiah

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The Shape of Water is one of the best films of the year. It is the first film I have seen that threatens to topple Oliver Assayas’ Personal Shopper from its perch of ‘favorite/best movie of 2017’. Whether or not it succeeds will require further viewings.

Guillermo del Toro is unquestionably one the greatest directors working today, as well as the most visually distinctive. He is a director who seems to have an innate understanding of the term ‘dark beauty.’ Del Toro’s movies are often gorgeous and haunting in the way he weaves dreamlike imagery with achingly tender stories.

What del Toro has done here is quite simply cinematic magic at its peak. He has cobbled together a love story about outsiders, for outsiders, by outsiders, but accessible to everybody. The deftness of The Shape of Water as it moves nimbly from story to story leaves us spellbound as we’re never sure which character we’re going to follow next.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at Occam’s laboratory. She lives next door to Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay commercial artist. The two of them rent apartments above a rundown movie theater. This alone would be enough, but we are also treated to the homes and personal lives of Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Colonel Strickland (Micahel Shannon).

Del Toro allows us to see every character as the hero in their own story. We’re never asked to agree with or even empathize with these characters. He is confident enough in his abilities as a storyteller to show us these characters as they see themselves.  

This allows us to understand Shannon’s Strickland, a pustule of a human being with almost no redeeming qualities. We’re not meant to understand Strickland though. He’s the villain in del Toro’s fairy tale. But we do come to understand Strickland’s view of his place in the world and how it should operate.

Much in the same way we come to understand Elisa and her view of her place in the world. Hawkins has no dialogue, with the exception of a musical fantasy number, and she commands every moment she’s on screen. Hawkins’ conveys a range of complex emotions with just a flick of her wrists and eyes. She can relay her feelings about other characters by how she stands with them in such a deep and revealing way that it borders on conjuring.

The ‘Asset’ as played by Doug Jones amplifies Hawkins’ performance. Jones’s work is all the more admirable considering the amount of prosthetic and makeup he must act through. The ‘Asset’ is an enigma. We know little of the backstory of where the creature came from. What little we do know comes from Strickland as he recounts it to his superior General Hoyt (Nick Searcy).

Jones and Hawkins bring to life a relationship without a single word of dialogue. It is, simply put, cinematic poetry. What del Toro, Hawkins, and Jones achieve is a fairy tale overflowing with longing, companionship, internal understanding, and lust. The history of movies is littered with such couples as Belle and the Beast, the Creature and Kay, King Kong and Ann, along with many, many others. With these films and others, there was an eroticism which was always vaguely hinted at.

The Shape of Water isn’t necessarily explicit so much as it dares to push the word ‘imply’ to the limits of its definition. Refreshingly it’s not shy about Elisa’s sex drive. As the movie opens, we are treated to her morning routine in which she has allotted time for masturbation. Once while eating corn flakes with Giles, he states, “You know corn flakes were invented to stop masturbation.” Hawkins’ silent response to this is a subtle gem of comedic timing.

The humor is part of what makes The Shape of Water so sublime. Del Toro and his co-writer Vanessa Taylor have loaded their movie with a wonderful depth of wit and observance of character idiosyncrasies. For instance when Dr. Hoffstetler, a Soviet spy in reality, complains to his superior. Every time they wish to talk he has to go to the same remote place, exchange the same cryptic phrases, only to be taken to the same crappy restaurant. “I may change my mind one of these days,” his superior responds. “Yes, but you never do.”

Taylor and del Toro wrote a sci-fi film, a cold war thriller, a creature feature, a period piece, a comedy, an erotic love story, and a suspense story rolled effortlessly into one. All while maintaining a sense of magical realism that never veers too far into one or the other. Amidst all of this, they have the nerve, and the audacity to show how we can turn a blind eye to horrors and abuses we know are wrong, just because they upset us.

As Elisa watches television with Giles, she switches channels and lands on a news report of a race riot. Giles walks away, “Turn that off! I don’t want to see it!” Later, after a mistaking a waiter’s patter for genuine interest, he sees the same waiter kick a black couple out for daring to sit at the counter. Giles is then asked to leave himself. He may not want to see it but whether he likes it or not he is just as complicit as anyone.

Empathy and love run through almost every vein of The Shape of Water. These are outsiders not because they choose to be but because they are told they are. Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa’s friend and coworker, acts as Elisa’s voice. It’s fitting that Zelda be the one who speaks for Elisa, she, after all, knows the pain of having her personhood denied. Spencer, as ever, dominates as she waxes poetic while also complaining about the ups and downs of matrimony.

Dan Lausten, the cinematographer, has shot The Shape of Water in a way that makes you feel damp. Lausten and del Toro lovingly pay homage to the movies of yesteryear without getting bogged down in re-enactments or shot homages. It is a love poem to the movies without demanding you know actor’s names or directors intentions. 

The Shape of Water in some ways feels like the movie del Toro has been trying to make all his life. It is a deeply personal film about alienation. But much like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, it is somehow mysteriously relatable to us all.  


Image courtesy of FOX Searchlight Pictures

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