Star_Wars_The_Rise_of_Skywalker_posterHoo boy.

Look, folks, let me warn you up front: this is going to be one of those where I go on at length. There are going to be tangents, digressions, and detailed analyses of minutiae. Lots of spoilers, obviously. But you know, I think I was the last person in the world to see this movie, so I bet you already made up your own mind about it. This review is probably not going to be helpful to anyone as far as deciding whether they see it or not; it’s purely a form of therapy for me. So don’t feel like you have to read it. Or at least for balance, you should read Joy V. Spicer’s review of the film. She enjoyed it more than I did, and also, well, she’s just a fantastic reviewer and you can never go wrong reading a review that she has written.

Now, before we begin, some perspective: I first saw Star Wars when the Special Edition came out in 1997, when I was seven years old. I was thrilled when Han Solo arrived to save Luke during the Death Star attack, and I was shocked when Vader revealed he was Luke’s father in The Empire Strikes Back. I was terrified that Emperor Palpatine would triumph in Return of the Jedi, and I watched in awe as the climactic battle of Naboo played out in The Phantom Menace. I swooned over Padmé in Attack of the Clones, and I… well, actually, maybe I’ll save my thoughts on Revenge of the Sith for another time. But the point is, I’ve been watching Star Wars movies for a while now.

I loathed The Force Awakens, but I thought The Last Jedi was a great improvement. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from this installment. And I’m still not.

This movie is baffling. It starts off with the massive revelation that the Emperor, who we last saw being thrown down a miles-long shaft aboard a space station which blew up shortly thereafter, has somehow returned, announcing his resurrection in a broadcast stating that he intends to resume his malevolent designs.

And sure enough, the first thing that happens is Kylo Ren’s arrival at Palpatine’s HQ on the planet Exegol. Exegol, we are informed, is the legendary hidden world of the Sith. Whatever happened to good old Korriban?

Palpatine orders Ren to kill Rey, promising him the aid of a massive fleet of Star Destroyers, which he has up till now been concealing.

In the scheme of things, this is a minor gripe, and one that could reasonably have been raised as far back as the origins of the Empire’s military in Episode II, but: where the devil do they get all this stuff? Is there a factory somewhere that churns out Star Destroyers? If so, why hasn’t some enterprising rebel destroyed it?

You see, I wasn’t kidding before. This is going to be a long ride.

The film now cuts to Rey, who is training in the jungle where the remains of the rebels are hiding out. Sensing that Ren is up to no good, she is distracted from her training, and has a few brief chats with Princess Leia. I thought it was awfully sweet that they wanted to make sure she still made an appearance, despite the sad fact that Carrie Fisher passed away before the film was made. It was a nice idea to do as a tribute to the late actress. However, the fact that the scenes had been repurposed from The Force Awakens was painfully obvious.

Meanwhile Finn, Poe, and Chewbacca have gathered data from a spy within the imperial fleet, which tells them that Palpatine is on Exegol, though how to actually get there is not clear. Fortunately, from notes found among Luke Skywalker’s belongings, Rey learns that Exegol may be found through something called a “Sith wayfinder,” which Luke had been looking for.

And here again, we must pause. There are two questions this raised in my mind: first, how does nobody know where anything is in this galaxy? Every third thing is on “the outer rim” or the “unknown regions.” Their ability to map things in deep space seems decidedly worse than our own on present-day earth.

But that’s a mere technical gripe. The bigger problem here is the assertion that Luke was looking for this mystery planet. The Last Jedi makes it quite clear Luke was not looking for anything other than to live out his days as a hermit. This attempt to retcon Luke’s motivations undermines his behavior in the previous film, and weakened his character. Now, maybe I could let this slide except for… well, lots of things, which we shall get to in due course.

Rey, Finn, Poe, Chewbacca and C-3PO all head off to the planet Pasaana to find a clue to the Sith wayfinder. Not the wayfinder itself, per se, but a clue–a clue possessed by a Jedi hunter named Ochi, who back in his day had landed on Pasaana.

Unfortunately, Kylo Ren and his droogs, the Knights of Ren,  also arrive in hot pursuit. Ren, establishing a pattern that he will follow throughout, decides not to make use of his massive numerical and technological advantages and instead attack Rey alone by trying to run her over with his spaceship, an attack which she easily thwarts.

Ah, also, I should mention that I’m not telling this in strict chronological order, though trying to hew fairly close. The film is so fast-paced and frenetic that it’s difficult to remember what order things occurred in. For example, there is also a minor sub-plot involving the spy in the Imperial ranks, which seems important but we ultimately learn isn’t really. Also, at some point on Pasaana prior to Ren’s attempted vehicular homicide, our heroes met Lando Calrissian, who has helped them to locate the clue–a dagger, found near the late Ochi’s ship, which contains a clue written in the ancient Sith language. C-3PO’s programming prevents him from translating–the Sith language is so evil that it has been banned from being spoken aloud.

This is progress, after a fashion, but alas; even though Ren’s attack on Rey failed, his forces were nevertheless able to capture Chewbacca and haul him, the dagger, and the Millennium Falcon, aboard a waiting Star Destroyer.

All is not lost, however; because Poe suggests using Ochi’s ship to travel to the world of Kijimi, where a there is a specialist who can alter C-3PO’s programming to enable him to speak the forbidden Sith words. Kijimi is also home to Zorii Bliss, an old flame of Poe’s who wears a Rocketeer-like helmet and lives the life of a rogue, constantly tangling with the authorities.

Lest you think me incapable of saying anything nice, let me state clearly that I loved this character. Even though her appearance didn’t quite fit in with the Star Wars aesthetic, it looked so cool I could forgive it. I loved her chemistry with Poe. I loved the fact she never removes her helmet, but, in one of the few quiet scenes in the film, she does lift her visor to reveal her eyes to Poe. It’s a small, subtle thing; but it illustrated the intimacy between them perfectly. I’d gladly watch a full-length movie about Zorii and Poe’s adventures together.

But back to the story: the droid specialist, Babu Frik, wipes C-3PO’s memory, enabling him to speak the dagger’s message, which reveals the location of the wayfinder. At the same time, Kylo Ren’s Star Destroyer arrives, and Rey senses that Chewbacca is aboard. The heroes hasten to board the ship to rescue him, with the aid of a medallion Zorii gave Poe that… entitles the bearer to enter any Star Destroyer, apparently? I dunno, seems like the crew could just, you know, look out the window and notice it’s not one of their ships docking.

As fortune would have it, Ren has departed for Kijimi at almost exactly the same time the people he’s hunting are boarding his destroyer. It’s a wonder they didn’t pass each other. Again, Ren does not utilize his resources well.

Aboard the Star Destroyer, the heroes split up–with Rey running off to find the Sith dagger, hidden in Ren’s quarters, while Poe and Finn rush to save Chewbacca. Perhaps underscoring her mysterious connection with Ren, Rey shares his knack for going it alone without explaining where or why to anyone else.

Honestly, this sequence on the destroyer was one of my favorite parts of the film, and it gives me a golden opportunity to talk about something I really liked: the weaponry.

I talked about this a little bit in my review of The Last Jedi, but the small arms designs in these new films are fantastic. Weapons in the original Star Wars are basically old firearms with various gewgaws attached–e.g. the stormtroopers’ carbines are Sterling submachine guns, and Han Solo’s blaster is a Mauser C96. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it does seem a little jarring for futuristic weapons to be recognizable as antique Earth weapons.

The weapons in Rise of Skywalker are still based on Earth firearms, but the modifications are far more extensive. First up, we have Poe’s blaster, which is a modified Sig Sauer:

300px-ERD_Glie-44
Image via The Internet Movie Firearms Database

I love the look of this–a well-shaped grip that fits naturally in hand, but a properly sci-fi barrel that we can easily imagine houses the “laser cells” or whatever.

There are still a number of Sterlings being carried by the stormtroopers, but they’ve been outfitted with white plating that makes them look much more futuristic. Rey and a couple other characters use these small, almost derringer-like pistols that have a very elegant curve to them.

And then there is the pièce de résistance, the thing that convinced me that I had to take a detour when I wrote this review to talk about it. It’s not actually in the part of the film I’m currently discussing, but this seems like a good opportunity to bring it up:

Blaster rifle

Look at that thing! Compact, sleek, and menacing. You’d never know it, but it’s built around a Glock-17, obviously heavily modified. Here it is being carried by the elite Sith troopers:

The-Rise-Of-Skywalker-Sith-Troopers-Force-Powers
Image via NewsLocker

(By the way, the source for much of the background information above is the Internet Movie Firearms Database, which is a truly handy reference site.)

I know these seem like very minor details–and to be honest, they are. But details matter in movies, and especially in sci-fi. Set and prop designs tell us about the world in which the story takes place.

I also just loved the whole gunfight sequence–in particular, one long tracking shot of the heroes gunning down stormtroopers as they race through the halls. That was great. It called to mind similar scenes from A New Hope, but actually better. Again, I’d cheerfully watch a whole movie that consisted of Poe and Zorii doing that.

Poe and Finn rescue Chewbacca, but are quickly captured, and just as quickly freed again by General Hux, who has decided to betray Ren and help the rebels. This was an interesting idea, and I was curious to see where it went. As it turns out, the answer is nowhere–Hux is quickly executed by General Pryde, who easily slides into the role of “sneering imperial officer.”

Meanwhile, Rey retrieves the Sith dagger from Kylo Ren’s quarters, and has a vision of her parents being murdered by Ochi. She then has a sort of telepathic duel with Ren, continuing the odd psychic relationship between them established in The Last Jedi, which enables them to somehow project themselves across vast distances so one can physically contact the other. Ren then returns to the destroyer in person, and reveals the big secret that Palpatine told him: Rey is Palpatine’s grand-daughter. Ren explains that the strange bond between them is what is known as a dyad in the Force. It’s very rare, although it will be old hat to anyone who played Knights of the Old Republic II.

For the umpteenth time, he urges Rey to join him and rule the galaxy, and once again she refuses, escaping with the others aboard the Millennium Falcon.

If you can’t tell by now: this movie is filled, absolutely overflowing, with references to earlier films in the series. This scene is an obvious callback to the “I am your father” scene in Empire. At the very beginning of the film, Palpatine repeated a line from Revenge of the Sith verbatim. (“The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some would consider to be unnatural.”) We’ve already had “I have a bad feeling about this,” and it was delivered by Lando, who has finally been heard from again for the first time since Jedi. It’s typical to have an ensemble reprise of the big numbers for the finale, but at this point, it felt a bit heavy-handed to me.

Little did I know…

They continue on to the coordinates C-3PO gave–to the Endor system, where they find the wreckage of the second Death Star. Rey realizes the dagger points the way to the location of the wayfinder, but before they can venture within, they are halted by a woman named Jannah, leader of a group of ex-stormtroopers who have rebelled against their commanders and formed a mounted infantry unit. She tells Rey and the rest that it’s too dangerous to enter the wreckage and they had better wait, but Rey once again ignores this and ventures ahead without telling anybody. She and Kylo really are made for each other, aren’t they?

The Wreck of the Empire’s Death Star is stunningly well-preserved. Remember, it was blown into tiny pieces and then presumably burned up in the atmosphere when crashing onto the planet below. And yet there are nearly-intact TIE fighters, stormtrooper helmets, and even the Emperor’s old throne room still lying about–a bit moldy and wet, for sure, but in fine shape considering the circumstances. Inside the remains of the throne room where Luke confronted Vader and Palpatine, Rey finds a hidden chamber containing the wayfinder, and upon picking it up, is confronted with a Dark Side doppelgänger–again, evoking Luke’s experience on Dagobah in Episode V.

Of course, Kylo Ren shows up, seizes the wayfinder and destroys it. He and Rey then proceed to fight a protracted lightsaber duel in the sea-tossed wreckage.

A word about lightsaber duels, if you will indulge me. And if you’ve come this far, it’s pretty clear you will.

In my opinion, the best lightsaber duel in all of Star Wars is Jinn/Kenobi v. Maul in The Phantom Menace–the “Duel of the Fates,” as the accompanying musical score is titled. And that score is a big part of what makes it feel so epic, but it’s also the pacing, the choreography, and the way it’s intercut so perfectly with three other action sequences. It feels, appropriately, like it’s the first maneuver in a grander battle, as the name implies–a lethal cosmic dance in which the course of galactic history itself is being shaped.

All the other battles pale in comparison–the ones in the original trilogy feel dull and restrained, and the subsequent ones in the prequels became unrealistic and exaggerated to the point of absurdity in a futile effort to top the climax of Episode I.

All the good things I said about the Star Destroyer shootout earlier? This is the opposite of that–this duel, like all the lightsaber duels in the new trilogy (and there aren’t that many), feels hamstrung and stiff. The energy and thrill just isn’t there. Even the Original Trilogy’s duels, while technically unspectacular, were at least interesting in that they felt organic and spontaneous, rather than labored and plodding.

The duel ends with Ren about to finish Rey off when he receives a telepathic message from Leia, imploring him to stay his hand. He does, which allows Rey to stab him in the stomach. However, Rey regrets this immediately and, using Force powers presumably inherited from her infamous grandfather’s line, heals his wound. She then departs aboard Ren’s starship.

Meanwhile, the psychic energy Leia expended to communicate with her wayward son has proven lethal, and she dies surrounded by the remaining rebel forces. Poe, Finn and company return to the rebel base and learn of Leia’s passing away, at which point Poe is promoted to general. (Which is kind of odd, because he’d been busted back down to captain in the last film. I’m not sure exactly how ranks work in this outfit, but if we assume it’s comparable to the U.S. Air Force, that’s a three-grade jump.)

Ren, meanwhile, stands on the Death Star ruin, brooding and staring out at the sea, when what should appear but a vision of Han Solo. Despite having been murdered by Ren, Han apparently bears no hard feelings, and offers his son words of encouragement. He tells him that “Kylo Ren”–the identity Ben Solo assumed when he turned to evil–is dead, and his son still lives. The vision, or ghost, or whatever he is, disappears, but now Ren is Ben once more.

I complained in my review of The Last Jedi that this Force ghost business was getting out of hand, but now it’s to where you can’t swing a lightsaber without hitting one. Almost literally, because we next see Rey on the planet where Luke Skywalker had been hiding. She is burning Kylo Ren’s ship (with firewood, apparently?) and throws Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber into the blaze when it is caught by none other than the spirit of Skywalker himself.

Ghost-Luke lectures Rey about the need to not simply hide out, as he had done, but to confront the Emperor and save the galaxy. He leads her to Leia’s lightsaber, which princess-turned-general had constructed decades earlier, when Luke trained her in the ways of the Force. Luke instructs Rey to take both sabers and go to Exegol to face Palpatine. Then, for his next trick, Luke reprises another scene from Empire and lifts his old X-Wing out of the water.

I felt like I should hold my lighter aloft each time they played one these “greatest hits.” But instead of doing that, let me pause here to do something that Rise of Skywalker rarely does, and surprise my audience.

Anybody here remember the 2013 film, Star Trek: Into Darkness? I reviewed it on here back when it came out. One of my big problems with that movie is that, not to spoil too much, Kirk dies, but Dr. McCoy revives him, using Khan’s regenerating cells, which are treated effectively as a cheap plot device that allows us to have a Capt. Kirk death scene, and then to have a living Kirk again at the end of it. I think it’s kind of supposed to be an homage to how Spock sacrificed himself in the original Wrath of Khan, but the difference is, Spock’s death took an entire sequel film to undo, as opposed to being reversed in five minutes. That feels cheap. There’s no drama in a world where a character’s death can be undone in an instant.

Why is this relevant? Only because J.J. Abrams directed both Into Darkness and Rise of Skywalker, and in the latter, I see this same cheapening of death. Nobody really stays dead in Star Wars anymore–even if they die, they can come back as Force ghosts, which enjoy ever-increasing power. Palpatine is back as a zombie or something. Even minor things, like C-3PO’s memory being wiped, are soon reversed, as R2-D2 quickly restores him from a backup.

Something similar also happened in the video game series Mass Effect. The protagonist, Commander Shepard, dies during the prologue of the second game, only to be restored to life during the opening credits. Again, this cheapens it. The audience isn’t going to worry a beloved character might die if they know they can just come back later.

Remember, it was supposed to be a really big deal in Revenge of the Sith that Darth Plaguies could stop people from dying. By Rise of Skywalker, try not to stop people from dying. Rey has already brought Kylo Ren back to life once. There are no stakes; nothing feels important.

Case in point, to get back to the story: Palpatine sends one of his new Star Destroyers, which is equipped with a Death Star-caliber cannon, to destroy the planet Kijimi. There’s real emotional resonance because it’s like, the fourth-oldest of the new planets introduced in this film, and Zorii was there, so we had really become emotionally invested in it over the last forty minutes.  Right? Right?

The rebels are able to track the signal from Luke’s X-Wing as Rey pilots it to Exegol, and decide to launch a final daring assault to wipe out Palpatine’s fleet before it can disperse. Lando and Chewbacca meanwhile depart in the Millennium Falcon to see if they can possibly scare up anyone else in the galaxy to help the small rebel fleet.

While the utter insanity of the space battle–which somehow turns into a ground battle that sees Jannah’s mounted infantry charge across a destroyer on horseback–rages overhead, Rey makes her way to Palpatine’s throne room. Palpatine launches into his classic “strike-me-down-wth-your-hatred-and-join-the-Dark-Side” routine. And for some reason, it appears to work, as Rey seemingly goes along with the Sith ritual.

But then Kylo Ren–I mean, Ben–arrives, and joins the fight on Rey’s side. Together, the pair stand before Palpatine, who then drops the pretense at temptation and instead absorbs their force energy into himself, granting himself even more power.

Meanwhile, the desperate rebel attack on the massive fleet goes poorly. Poe and his forces are badly outmatched and find themselves facing annihilation. But then Lando and Chewbacca arrive, leading what is, by far, the biggest fleet of ships ever assembled in a Star Wars film.

I would have liked to know how Lando pulled this off. He’s actually one of the few characters who you could sort of imagine doing it–he’s charming, charismatic, well-connected, and presumably knows a lot of people who owe him money and favors. I would have enjoyed, say, a five-minute montage of him cajoling, flattering, arm-twisting, flirting, bartering and threatening everyone who’s anyone into lending their ship to the cause. But alas, no such luck. He just shows up to save the day with no explanation, in another blatant throwback to an Original Trilogy moment. But I’ll admit, even as corny and predictable as this was, it kinda worked for me anyway. Even my heart of stone warmed a little at the idea of everyone banding together.

And I do mean everyone. Remember what I said earlier, about how the destruction of Kijimi had emotional resonance because that’s where Zorii was? Yeah, I was kidding. She’s fine, and comes back to help our heroes in the big space battle. And I can’t even really complain, because she’s my favorite of all the new characters.

Before we move on, one other thing I like about the space battles in this movie: the noises the spaceship cannons make. They have this great percussiveness that makes them feel really powerful. I liked that. Admittedly, sticklers may complain about the fact that they are making any noise in space, but, you know, in the words of Harrison Ford as quoted by Mark Hamill, “It ain’t that kind of movie.”

Meanwhile, back in the heart of all evil, Palpatine throws Ren–that is, Ben–into a deep abyss, which you would think Palpatine, of all people, would know is not an effective way to kill someone in this galaxy. He then turns his attention to Rey, but she has just had a moment of tremendous psychic clarity during which she communes with the Force ghosts of all the Jedi–we hear the voices of all the big names speaking to her.

Renewed by the spirit of all the Jedi dead and gone, Rey defeats Palpatine, reflecting his Force lightning back at him. She then slumps to the ground, apparently dead of exhaustion.

But then Ben emerges from the pit and, somehow, manages revive Rey using Force powers of his own.

I’m just going to pause here to note that Anakin Skywalker betrayed all his allies and turned to the Dark Side specifically for the purpose of acquiring this very power, and yet he never got it. Palpatine implied that he possessed it, although all indications are that he was lying, at least at the time. And yet both Ben and Rey have learned it without  ever having even taken the final exams at the Jedi academy.

Anyhow, Ben revives Rey, she kisses him, he smiles at her, and then falls over dead. It is not clear why Rey does not revive him.

With the Emperor dead, the massive rebel fleet easily wipes out the destroyers and everyone heads back to the jungle planet for a celebration. Somehow, all imperial forces all across the galaxy are defeated simultaneously, allowing for a victory montage similar to the one at the end of Jedi. The best part is the wordless exchange between Poe and Zorii. Have I mentioned I like them?

And then Rey heads off to Tatooine in the Millennium Falcon, to make a pilgrimage to the Lars homestead.

All right, we’re almost to the end, but I’ve got to pause here one more time. The Lars homestead is iconic for us as the audience, because we all remember seeing Luke Skywalker standing there, staring wistfully out at the twin suns setting. That’s a great moment–but it makes no sense for it to be iconic in-universe. I mean, even Luke himself was doing that because he couldn’t stand the Lars homestead and wanted to get away from it. It’s hard to imagine that he, or anyone else in the galaxy, would remember it as a historically important place.

Admittedly, this isn’t totally the fault of the people who made Rise of Skywalker. This problem goes back to Attack of the Clones, when Lucas contrived the plot so Anakin and Padmé would visit the moisture farm, and then again in Episode III, when Obi-Wan somehow knows about the place and, rather inexplicably, brings baby Luke there. It’s as if Lucas confused what was significant to the audience with what was significant to the characters. And Disney just picked it up and ran with it.

This points to the real problem that afflicts Star Wars: somewhere along the way, the people who make it forgot what it was about. Back in 1977, Luke Skywalker was an everyman–the whole point of his character is that he is just a regular guy who dreams of being the hero of an epic adventure. And sure enough, that’s what he does! The promise of Star Wars is that anyone can be a hero.

And then Darth Vader turned out to be Luke’s father, and ever since there’s been this family drama aspect to the story that keeps diverting it. That’s why the prequels focus on Anakin, and why the sequels focus on Rey’s heritage.

Ah, actually, let me correct that: two of the sequels focus on Rey’s heritage. The Last Jedi conspicuously made it clear that she didn’t have a heritage of note. She was everywoman, a no-name swept up on a grand adventure. In that regard, The Last Jedi is the one that’s truest to the spirit of the original film. And look what it got for it: they spend most of the first act of Rise of Skywalker undoing the stuff that happened in Last Jedi.

Oh, which reminds me, if I may digress from this digression; what happened to Rose and Finn’s romance? Rose is barely in this movie, and Finn spends more time with Jannah than with her. What’s up with that? I liked Rose.

Anyway, returning to the main digression: my favorite Star Wars stories are the ones that don’t hinge on questions of who is related to whom, but on the individual adventures, triumphs, and tragedies that take place in the vast universe and cosmology that Lucas created. A New Hope was one adventure in that universe, but there is room for many more. And over the years, there have been some fantastic ones, from the story of the exiled Jedi who learned to live without the Force, and in the process came to understand the true human cost of war, to the story of the decadent Republic that collapsed into a frightful tyranny.

Star Wars is a playground; a galaxy far, far away where the imagination is free to roam. Why restrain it by turning it into the muddled story of the Skywalkers and Palpatines feuding like Hatfields and McCoys when there exists the potential for so much more? I think the fact that The Mandalorian has proven much more popular than The Rise of Skywalker just goes to show that people didn’t want a “Skywalker saga,” they wanted Star Wars!

Okay, that’s enough of that. Time to wrap this thing up, which is just what Rey does with Luke and Leia’s lightsabers, enclosing them in cloth and burying them in the sand outside the old farm. An old woman comes by–apparently having trekked into this vast desolate wasteland just to check if someone happened to be at the colossal wreck of an old moisture farm–and asks Rey who she is. She replies, sensibly enough, “Rey.” The woman then asks, “Rey who?”

Rey looks over her shoulder for a long, and what must seem to the old woman very awkward, moment, at the Force ghosts of Luke and Leia. Then she answers, “Rey Skywalker.” And with that, she turns to look at the twin suns setting, and the credits roll.

I have this haunting fear, whenever I carry on like this about a Star Wars movie, that you all will think I’m one of those crazed fans who furiously creates internet petitions whenever he doesn’t like something in a movie. I’m not quite that bad, I promise. Star Wars is fun, and while I may say harsh things about it sometimes, I enjoy writing about it, and I enjoy making fun of movies when they are silly. The Force Awakens annoyed me maybe more than it should have, because it felt so cynical to me, but oddly this film didn’t strike me that way. It’s kind of a disjointed incoherent mess, but it feels like it has a heart. Not a brain, nor a central nervous system, but a heart.

Anyway, that does it for the Star Wars sequel trilogy. The Last Jedi was sort of interesting, the other two were just pastiches of Star Wars moments jumbled together kind of at random. At least that’s how it seemed to me. But then, Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon, and even flawed Star Wars stories have a way of striking a chord with people, if they see them at just the right moment in their lives. Maybe I’ll write about that sometime. But not now. I have gone on far too long already.

Star_Wars_The_Last_JediYes, it finally happened. I watched it.

As some readers may recall, I was, shall we say, not impressed with the first film in the Disney Star Wars series, The Force Awakens. It was so bad that I had no interest in seeing any of their subsequent efforts.

But then I started to hear things about The Last Jedi. It’s controversial and polarizing. The alt-right is griping that it’s full of preachy progressive politics. There are hundreds of YouTube videos made by angry fans complaining about multiple aspects of the film. At the same time, I also heard elements of the film’s plot compared to the game Knights of the Old Republic II, which I consider the greatest Star Wars story ever, and one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever experienced.

This sounds like fodder for an interesting review, I thought. Could be a lot to talk about here. I enjoy writing reviews, and I am no stranger to unorthodox opinions on Star Wars movies, whether it’s my hatred for Force Awakens or my defense of the prequel movies. I wondered how I would react to this most divisive Star Wars film.

Well, there certainly was no lack of things to talk about. This is going to be one of my signature long, sometimes meandering reviews, so settle in for the long haul and prepare to read my thoughts on The Last Jedi.

(more…)

The_Death_of_Stalin
A truly great poster! (via Wikipedia)

What a crazy idea, to make a comedy about the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But there is something about the absurdity of the overly-bureaucratized communist mass-murder machine that lends itself to dark humor—the petty logistical concerns and office politics familiar to white-collar workers everywhere, combined with the matters of life and death that concern a government, particularly a totalitarian one.

The film definitely plays this weird juxtaposition to the hilt right from the opening scene, in which Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls the manager of a concert broadcast live over the radio to demand a recording of it. When the manager learns there is no recording, he frantically tries to reassemble the orchestra to perform it again. The piano player, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) initially refuses, but ultimately gives in when bribed. After the performance is finished, she places an insulting note to the dictator inside the record sleeve.

Intercut with this are scenes of Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of Stalin’s secret police, dispatching his men to seize people from their homes and torture them in secret prisons. Beria holds immense power in the government, and when Stalin dies—on reading the note Maria has written—Beria is the first into his office, hastily removing important documents before other members of the Central Committee, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), arrive.

They are reluctant to pronounce him dead, and even the doctors hastily assembled to examine him are hesitant to give their assessment. When they finally do, the Committee proceeds with Georgy Malenkov nominally in charge, but with all of the Committee members, Khrushchev and Beria in particular, jockeying for power.

Stalin’s children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), arrive for their father’s funeral. Vasily repeatedly launches into drunken rages, attacks guards and makes wild threats. Beria keeps Khrushchev busy dealing with these matters while he moves to consolidate his power by putting the city under the control of the secret police, increases his popularity by pausing arrests, and seizes control of the train system, preventing people from entering the city.

Beria also reveals that he has the note that Maria wrote to Stalin. She is an acquaintance of Khrushchev’s, and Beria uses this to threaten Khrushchev, implying that he will use the note to incriminate both of them should Khrushchev try to cross him.

In frustration, Khrushchev orders that trains to Moscow resume running, causing people to enter the city and be shot by Beria’s secret police. The Committee argues over whether Beria or his lower-level officers should be blamed for this.

Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov arrives in Moscow, annoyed to find his army confined to barracks. Khrushchev secretly strikes a deal with Zhukov to help him remove Beria from power during Stalin’s funeral.  Zhukov agrees, on the condition that Khrushchev has the support of the entire Committee, which Krushchev manages to secure by bluffing that he has Malenkov’s backing.

At a Committee meeting after the funeral, Khrushchev signals Zhukov and his men to storm the room and arrest Beria. After much badgering from Khrushchev, Malenkov reluctantly signs off on the summary trial and execution of Beria.

The film ends with Khrushchev watching Maria play at a concert while Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) looks ominously over his shoulder.

It’s an odd movie, with scenes of slapstick comedy (the Committee members awkwardly transporting Stalin’s body from the floor to his bed) mixed with more subtle satire, as in the sequences depicting Committee meetings, and one unforgettable scene in which Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are speaking contemptuously of Molotov’s presumed-dead wife Polina, who was arrested as a traitor to the Party, only to change their tone mid-sentence to singing her praises as Beria appears with her in tow, having released her from prison to secure Molotov’s loyalty.

The humor throughout is very, very dark: for example, there is a running gag in the scenes in the secret police prisons where we repeatedly hear prisoners off-screen exclaiming “Long Live Comrade Stalin!” followed by a gunshot.

But in addition to the sometimes over-the-top satire, the plot is that of a very tight and coherent political thriller, as Khrushchev and Beria joust for power. I went in expecting it to paint all the Soviet elites as villains in equal measure—and they certainly all do some nasty things—but in my opinion the film pretty firmly sides with Khrushchev as the hero and Beria as the villain. The former is depicted as vulgar and a bit corrupt, but reasonably well-meaning. (He reminded me, in both looks and manner, of a Don Rickles character.) It’s impossible not to root for him over Beria, who, besides all his other crimes as head of the secret police, is a sexual predator of the most evil sort. It is altogether fitting and satisfying that the most graphically violent death in the film is Beria’s execution.

As you might expect, the film is very controversial, and was banned in Russia and former Soviet States. A member of the Russian Culture Ministry stated: “The film desecrates our historical symbols — the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot.”

I can’t speak to the hymn, the orders, or the medals, but I will say that while Zhukov is certainly a caricature (he’s played by Jason Isaacs, whose hammy acting  works much better here than in Harry Potter), for me, he was one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, after Khrushchev and Maria.

I would like to see a historian specializing in Soviet history do a thorough examination of what is and isn’t accurate in this movie. This article mentions some inaccuracies—notably, that Beria’s downfall was more protracted than the hasty arrest and execution depicted in the film. But that’s the sort of change that can be excused for the sake of the drama. I don’t know much about the Soviet Union post-World War II, but on cursory scanning of Wikipedia entries about the people and events depicted, I was surprised (and quite often disturbed) to learn how much of it was accurate.

Of course, the mark of a really good work of historical fiction is that it’s not just about the time period depicted, but that it contains observations about human nature that are relevant to the present-day. This is why, for example, the historical dramas of Shakespeare are still read and performed today.

So does The Death of Stalin contain any interesting lessons beneath the caricatures of historical enemies of Western capitalism and farcical depictions of Soviet state ceremonies? It’s hard to say. Maybe there is something about the dehumanizing effect that power has upon both those who wield it and those upon whom they exercise it. But that has been pretty well picked-over by people like George Orwell. The absurdity of bureaucrats administering lethal force? Joseph Heller covered that. So I’m not sure this picture brings anything new to the table in that regard.

Would I recommend seeing it? I don’t know. If you’re a Soviet history buff, it might be interesting to see what they got right and what they got wrong. If you like your comedy extremely black, then it might be worth a watch. But if you prefer uplifting cinema, or if you don’t like violence, or if you are offended by swearing, or–above all else– if one of your relatives worked for the Soviet Secret Police, then you should probably skip it.

Most fiction is treated as entertainment and nothing more. You watch a movie for two hours, maybe talk about it a little with your friends afterward, and that’s it. There are some works here and there that are so dazzling they make a more lasting impression on you. Really spectacular special effects in a movie, or a particularly good line of dialogue, or a moving character death in a novel can do this.

This is as much of an impression as most fiction makes upon its audience. But there is another level on which a story can function. It is the most powerful, and also the hardest to achieve. That is the type of story that actually makes the audience look at the world differently, and act differently as a result.

This is, I think, pretty rare. There may be many stories trying to achieve it, but only a few succeed. And even those that do succeed probably only do so for a small percentage of their total audience.1

Note that when I say “act differently”, I’m not referring to the people who saw Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to start attending fan conventions in costume, or to name their children “Anakin” or “Hermione”, or to have themed weddings based on the stories. That’s fandom, and can happen with anything.

What I’m talking about is general knowledge that you can apply to a wide variety of situations. And it has to be something that wasn’t obvious or easy, at least not for you. Lots of stories try to have some overarching theme on the order of “You can do anything if you believe in yourself”. Which may be true, but is so obvious most audiences probably have heard it already.

Naturally, the idea for this post began when I asked myself, “What works of fiction changed how I act?” This is the list I came up with. Long-time readers will probably not be surprised by most of the entries:

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. (In a nutshell, the big takeaway is that every action has consequences, often ones we don’t foresee. So choose wisely and think about how your actions will influence others.)
  • Jane Got a Gun. (The lesson here is that you should never assume you know the whole story. You should listen to what other people have to say, even if you think you know better.)
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. (This one is pretty well known, but for me the lesson is that people try to seize power not only by force, but by controlling the thoughts of others. You have to resist them.)
  • Eating Bull by Carrie Rubin. (The point here is that what people eat is driven by a number of personal, societal and economic factors. Your diet is a more complicated business than you might realize.)

KotOR and Jane changed how I approach day-to-day interactions with people. Nineteen Eighty-Four changed how I read political news and think about government. And Eating Bull changed how I eat.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of fiction I consider “good”, though it is a sub-set of it.2 In fact, I was shocked at how short the list is, given how many works of fiction I enjoy in different genres and media.

I am a big fan of weird fiction, but I can’t say I did anything different after reading Lovecraft et al. (Other than trying to write weird fiction myself, I guess.) I love the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, but they didn’t change how I approach the world. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are also absent from this list, even though it was from a G&S critic, Gayden Wren, that I first learned how to analyze fiction in terms of “levels” of storytelling.

Now, it’s probably true that the stories I listed above weren’t the only way I could have learned these lessons. Maybe the reason I needed fiction to learn them at all is that I’m an especially unobservant person, or else I would have figured them out myself from observing the real world.3

But if so, that speaks to the power of fiction: it can teach people things they would otherwise never have learned.

NOTES

  1. To a degree, it’s a personal thing. The unique circumstances under which somebody sees a film, plays a game, or reads a book, probably play just as much of a part as the work itself.
  1. It’s important to realize that a story can also be pretty bad, from a technical perspective, but still change how people see the world. Many people seem to get life-altering epiphanies from reading Ayn Rand’s novels, but they still have many flaws as works of drama. This raises an important point, which is that some people  “cheat” and try to tell a story about big, powerful themes without first having a solidly-constructed plot and characters. If you do this, you usually just end up making something incoherent and pretentious.
  1. I guess this is the central difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment, and it’s a bonus if you learn something from it. Whereas every work of non-fiction should teach you something new, or it’s a waste of time.

Wonder Woman, Jane Got a Gun, and Ghost in the Shell
From left: “Wonder Woman”, starring Gal Gadot, “Jane Got a Gun”, starring Natalie Portman, and “Ghost in the Shell”, starring Scarlett Johansson

Have you heard? Feminists and superhero fans have been getting anxious about the relative lack of promotion for the upcoming Wonder Woman film, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins. They are concerned that it is going to suffer the same fate as recent DC Comics films have, and be cast as second-rate superheroes in comparison to Marvel’s string of successes.

I’ve been following the fortunes of the Wonder Woman film for a while now, and I also noticed this lack of publicity.  It registered with me because it fit into a pattern I’ve seen before.

My favorite movie of all time, Jane Got a Gun, was another film whose marketing campaign I watched closely. The Weinstein Co.’s promotional efforts for it were abysmal–I think I saw one trailer for it, and it made the movie look like an action/adventure flick when in fact it was a romantic drama. (Even the title is kind of misleading. They should have called it Jane Ballard.)

Jane Got a Gun had an infamously turmoil-filled production, and apparently the Weinstein Co. based its decision on the film’s history, rather than the finished product. (It’s usually a mistake to focus on process over results.) As such, they didn’t put much effort into promoting it, and didn’t hold advance screenings for critics.  As a result, few people heard of it, and it fared poorly at the box office.

This isn’t the only recent example of a film getting hamstrung by bad marketing.  Ghost in the Shell was a big-budget sci-fi picture with a strong story, and it flopped badly at the U.S. box office.

Unlike the case of Jane, the studio could never be accused of not spending resources promoting Ghost. Paramount even bought a Super Bowl ad for it.  But it was hit with an intense negative buzz, in which people accused it of “whitewashing” because of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead character, Major Killian.

This accusation is obviously nonsense to anyone who bothers to watch the film. Major Killian is a cyborg–a human brain housed in a machine.  True, she was originally a Japanese woman, but the entire premise of the film is that her mind and consciousness are transferred to an artificial body.

And yet the accusation of whitewashing persisted, and undoubtedly contributed to negative press surrounding the film. Which is too bad, because while it was not a great film, it was certainly one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years. It was far better than the highly-successful blockbuster The Force Awakens, for example.

This is why what’s happening with Wonder Woman doesn’t surprise me too much.  I have, as they say, seen this movie before. But like Ian Fleming wrote, “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” At this point, I have to think this is part of some pattern.

So what’s the common thread?

While they are all very different films, Jane Got a Gun, Ghost in the Shell and Wonder Woman do have a few shared characteristics.  Most obviously, they all feature female protagonists.  They also are all categorized as action films. (Although Jane probably shouldn’t have been).

Is Hollywood deliberately sabotaging female-led action films? That seems crazy, since the easiest way for studios to prevent such films from succeeding would be to… not make them in the first place.

Let us, like Woodward and Bernstein before us, “follow the money”.

One thing to look at is the studios producing the movies: Warner Bros. is handling Wonder Woman, because they own DC Comics.  As I mentioned earlier, DC has been in competition with Marvel on superhero movies, and they have been losing.

Marvel is owned by Disney, which acquired it in 2009.

It so happens Disney also originally had a deal with Dreamworks to release Ghost in the Shell, but it was terminated in 2016, and the movie was released through Paramount instead.

Jane Got a Gun is the clear outlier here–the Weinstein Co. isn’t on anything like the same scale as Disney, Warner Bros. et al.  Also, Jane was rated “R” whereas the rest of these are “PG-13”.  So, presumably it had a much smaller marketing budget at the outset.

The key point is that all three of these movies are released by companies that aren’t Disney.

This is most significant for Wonder Woman, because of the ongoing DC/Marvel battle, which is really a proxy war between Warner Bros. and Disney.  And Disney has been winning it.

Part of the reason I brought up The Force Awakens to contrast with Ghost in the Shell  was because it got way more positive press despite being an inferior film.  But of course, Force Awakens was made by Lucasfilm, which since 2012 is owned by… Disney.

The upshot is that I think Disney is way better at promoting their movies than most of the other studios are.  Even when Disney has something sub-par, they can generate enough positive buzz about it to get people to buy tickets.

It’s important to understand what promotion really entails.  It’s more than just advertisements on television and the internet.  It’s more even than tie-ins, and red carpet events, and sending the cast and crew on talk shows.

It has to do with how PR firms work.  They feed stories to industry journalists to create a buzz around their clients’ products. (Read this marvelous essay by Paul Graham for an in-depth description of this process.)

My impression is that Disney–or perhaps the PR firm they hired–does a vastly better job of promotion compared to the other studios.  They have a much higher success at generating positive buzz for whatever they are releasing next.

Now, to some extent, there is bound to be a “crowding-out” effect. If Disney can internally do better PR, or if they can pay more to get it, it leaves less room for other non-Disney productions to get good PR.

And of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual quality of the movie in question.  (Indeed, I often wonder just how many movie reviews are influenced more by the PR campaign surrounding the film than by the film itself.)

In my review of The Force Awakens, I concluded by saying:

“[W]hy do so many people like The Force Awakens?  I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.”

The comparison actually runs a bit deeper than that.  Trump, whatever else you want to say about him, is great at promotion.  He is like a one-man PR firm in terms of his ability to draw an audience for whatever he is peddling.

Disney, or whoever is handling PR and marketing for their movies, has a similar level of promotional skill.  And the other movie studios are unable to match it.

I think there is also something of an escalation going on, in that the more Disney hypes their releases, the more the other studios are then going to be expected to do to hype theirs. Expectations for marketing campaigns get higher and higher, and when studios fail to meet them, people don’t go to see their movies.

mv5bmtmxmze1otmwof5bml5banbnxkftztywndy3nzc2-_v1_
From left: Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) in “Lawrence of Arabia”. Image via IMDb

I’ve referenced this movie many times on this blog–I’ve quoted lines from it, hailed its timeless themes, and in general sung its praises at every turn.  And yet, I’ve never done a proper post about it.  Well, I intend to rectify that now.

Of course, you might think it hardly seems necessary. The movie is practically legendary at this point. It’s been referenced in scores of other movies, its influence can be seen in the work of directors like Kubrick and Coppola, and of course, its subject matter remains relevant to the politics of the Middle East to this day.

And yet, for all that, critics don’t really get Lawrence of Arabia.  They still can’t understand what makes it great. Fortunately, I’m here now, and can tell them.

(more…)

I thought Oliver Stone’s JFK would be the weirdest movie I ever saw about the Kennedy assassination, but Jackie has surpassed it.  I went to see it again, thinking I must have been mistaken in my first impression.  The film can’t possibly be as bizarre as I remember, I thought. I must have just misunderstood it.

I didn’t.

I did get a few lines of dialogue slightly wrong in my original review, but as it turned out, the lines were even stranger than I remembered.  In Jackie’s frenzied query about the caliber of the bullet, she not only says she thinks it’s a heavier round “like soldiers use”, but also like those used for deer hunting.

Also, her aide doesn’t say “build a fortress in Boston and disappear.” He says “Disappear. Build a fortress in Boston.” Not appreciably better.

I talked to someone else about this movie, trying to work out what it was all about. She had an interesting interpretation: that the Journalist and the Priest who Jackie talks to aren’t meant as literal characters but as representatives of Journalism and Religion.

This would explain why these characters don’t have names; they are just “the Journalist” and “the Priest”. It also explains why their dialogues with Jackie seem so surreal. The Journalist, in particular, is way too rude to her–I don’t think a journalist would speak like that to any interview subject, especially not the President’s widow. But if he’s representing Journalism in general, Jackie’s perception would be that Journalists are incredibly rude.

Interpreted this way, the dialogues aren’t two characters talking; they are philosophical exercises meant to examine Jackie’s relationship to the institutions of the Press and the Church. And by extension, it makes sense to guess that most of the rest of the movie is her interaction with another institution: the Government.

If you watch the movie this way, you get the sense that Jackie is extremely disenchanted with all three of these.  That’s sort of what I meant when I wrote the movie was subversive–major institutions appear useless or untrustworthy.

All that said, I’m still not convinced that this is the way to interpret the movie.  Besides which, I’ve never been a big fan of allegories, and this one–if indeed that is what it is–is still ham-handed.  A piece of drama must work first as drama, and only then can it have allegorical or symbolic meaning.  The dialogues in Jackie are not smooth dialogues, no matter how much philosophical depth they may have or aspire to have.

But I don’t want to just give a short-attention span dismissal and say, “Oh, the script is rotten. Sad!” Because while it gets almost all the micro-level details of dialogue wrong, there is one very macro-level idea that it gets right, and that is the use of images and symbols (e.g. JFK’s funeral procession) to create legacies, and to shape the perception of history.

A few other observations:

  • The soundtrack didn’t seem as bad this time, although I still thought it came in too loud at inappropriate times when silence would have been better.
  • The scene where the Priest sums up his reflections on Life and Death is very strong, largely because it is the late John Hurt delivering the lines.  Great actor. R.I.P.
  • I said this before, but it’s worth repeating: all the acting was great, which was especially impressive given the problems I’ve mentioned with the dialogue.
  • Have I mentioned I have some issues with the script?

Lastly, I don’t get why people are calling this a “biopic”.  It isn’t one. A biopic should give you a sense of who a person is, and how they evolve over time.  Jackie takes place over a very short time frame, and it deals with a woman’s reaction to a tragic and shocking crime that had few historical parallels. That’s fascinating subject matter, but it’s not a biopic because it really doesn’t give you a larger sense of who Jackie was or what her life was like.

I’m not complaining about that.  I think this was a far more innovative thing to do.  I’m just saying they shouldn’t be calling it a “biopic”.  It’s more of a historical drama, on the order of Julius Caesar.

That’s all for now.  I might write more later.  This movie has limitless potential for discussion.

I. Plot Synopsis

jackie_282016_film29
Poster for “Jackie” (Via Wikipedia)

The movie Jackie is only partially about the title character, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. (Natalie Portman) Ironically, it is categorized as a historical biopic when in fact it is an exploration of public relations, image vs. reality in politics, and, in some ways, the nature of Truth itself.

That does not mean Mrs. Kennedy is not featured prominently–she is in nearly every scene, and often in extreme close-ups. Especially in the film’s opening half, we see her raw emotion in response to the assassination of her husband.

But as the film makes clear from the framing device–a reporter, (Billy Crudup) interviewing Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination–it is focused on the role of media and appearance in politics, and ultimately in history. During the occasionally combative interview, she explains not only her emotional state, but also the ways in which she sought to shape the perception of her husband’s legacy.

This segues to flashbacks, first to a televised White House tour given by Mrs. Kennedy in which she discusses various historical Presidential artifacts which she has restored to the White House. This tour really did take place, and the filmmakers clearly went to some trouble to recreate it.

From here, the film next shows us the fateful trip to Dallas, and Mrs. Kennedy’s grief and horror in the aftermath. But even in these circumstances, political intrigue continues, as we see glimpses of the tension between Robert Kennedy and the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson.

As Robert and Jackie ride with JFK’s coffin in Washington, she asks staff members if they know anything about Garfield or McKinley. They don’t. She then asks what they know about Lincoln, and they respond that he won the Civil War and freed the slaves. She then decides that she will model her husband’s funeral on Lincoln’s, to ensure his memory lives on as Lincoln’s did.

In one memorable sequence, we see her wandering the empty halls of the White House, listening to John Kennedy’s favorite record, the recording of Camelot, while drinking and taking pills as she is overwhelmed with grief.

Planning for the funeral continues, and Jackie makes clear her desire to have a long procession–a grand spectacle, that will capture the attention of the entire nation watching on television, and preserve Kennedy’s legacy. However, the Johnson administration is hesitant to do so, because of the security risk.

When Oswald is shot by Ruby, it confirms the risk to Mrs. Kennedy, and she decides not to have the procession on foot and go by motorcade instead. She shouts at Robert Kennedy in frustration, berating him (and by extension all politicians), for being unable to know what’s going on or keep anyone safe, despite all their power.

But later, as they are sitting in the empty White House, it is Robert’s turn to rage in frustration at the apparent wasted opportunity of his brother’s tragically ended administration. As she listens, Jackie makes up her mind that his death will not be in vain, and goes to Jack Valenti to tell him the procession will be on foot after all.

Valenti tells her that the problem is that foreign dignitaries–specifically, Charles de Gaulle–are afraid of the risk. Jackie replies that she wishes to let it be known that she will go on foot, but if de Gaulle wishes to ride “in an armored car, or a tank for that matter” she will understand, and pointedly adds that she is sure the national television audience will as well.

Bowing to this implied threat of public humiliation, they accede to Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes and proceed on foot.

Interspersed with all of this, in addition to her exchange with the reporter, are scenes of Jackie conversing with her Priest. (The late, great John Hurt). She is understandably having a crisis of faith, and pours her feelings out to him. He tries to console her, but in the end even he can give no satisfying answer to why God inflicts such suffering as has befallen Mrs. Kennedy and her family.

As their interview concludes, the reporter assures her that she has preserved Kennedy’s legacy as a great President. She tells him there’s one more thing, “more important than all the rest”, and relates the late President’s love of the musical Camelot, quoting the lines: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot,/ For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot.”

The film ends with this song playing over flashbacks of the White House tour and the Kennedys dancing together.

II. Review; Praise and Criticism

The film is very powerful, but also strangely disjointed. It can be hard to keep track of where action takes place even in the narrow time frame the film covers, so quick are the cuts to different moments.

Early on, there are many tight close ups on the face of the grieving widow, and long scenes of her cleaning the blood from her face and hair. These scenes are shocking, but seemed unrelated to the film’s larger theme.

The best scenes are those of the journalist interviewing Mrs. Kennedy. There is a tension between the two, who seem to strongly dislike one another, and Mrs. Kennedy’s harsh editing and commentary on what the reporter is and is not allowed to print starkly make the point about using the media to create a narrative–a point that seems especially relevant in light of recent political events.

In general, the acting is quite good. Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy is terrific, Hurt is very good, as he always was, and Billy Crudup is excellent as the journalist. The only actor who did not really seem right was John Carroll Lynch playing Lyndon Johnson, and this was not really an issue of his acting–which was quite fine–but simply his extreme non-resemblance to Johnson. There were times when I did not know who he was for parts of scenes.

This brings me to the star of the piece. Faithful readers know that Portman is my favorite actress, and it is because she is in this movie that I have followed it so closely.

Her performance is very good, and her Academy Award nomination is well-deserved. That said, all the talk that this is the greatest performance of her career is overblown–indeed, I would argue it is not even her greatest performance in a movie released in 2016. Her roles in Jane Got a Gun and A Tale of Love and Darkness (which Portman also directed) allow her far more range and depth.

There is however one very notable feature of her performance which, despite all the press about it, I have not seen mentioned in any reviews. That is the difference between how she plays Kennedy in the flashbacks and in the “present day” interview with the journalist.

In contrast to the panicked, grief-stricken widow of the immediate aftermath, in the interview scenes she seems about 20 years older, even though only a little time has elapsed. Her tongue is sharper and her attitude more bitter. The contrast is very noticeable, and quite effective at conveying the pain Jackie endured.

The single biggest problem with the film is its script. It is not uniformly bad–it is not even mostly bad–but when it is bad, it is absolutely dire. This might be worse than if it had been bad throughout, because it makes the really terrible lines stick out all the more.

At one point, someone advises Jackie to take her children, leave the White House quietly, and “build a fortress in Boston and disappear”.

Who the hell talks like that?

At another point, Robert Kennedy says that walking by the Lincoln bedroom reminds him that “one ordinary man signed an order that freed millions of people.” This is a rebuttal to Jackie saying it feels “peaceful”.

One scene was so bizarre I almost wonder if it really does have some basis in fact: aboard Air Force One, after the assassination, Jackie is asking about the bullet that killed her husband. “It didn’t sound like a .38” she says. “It sounded like a bigger–what do you call it?–caliber, like soldiers use.”

First of all, I find it hard to believe she would talk about the bullet. Second of all, I find it even harder to believe she would be able to tell if it was a .38 or not. And thirdly, if all that did happen, I think she wouldn’t then say “what do you call it” and be unsure of the word “caliber”.

Another example: when Jackie and Robert are walking through Arlington cemetery to select the grave site, Jackie is obviously having difficulty walking through the mud in her high heels. Robert asks her what’s wrong, and she says her shoes are getting stuck in the mud.

There’s no reason for her to say this.  It was clear enough to the viewer; so why include the line?

The Priest says lots of things that I highly doubt any Priest would ever say, least of all to the President’s widow. Even the scenes with the interviewer, strong as they are, have some ham-handed lines, such as when he awkwardly raises the subject of the White House tour film that introduces the flashback.

The musical score is just flat-out weird. It is primarily a growling, synthesized noise that is sometimes appropriately foreboding, but at other times is just annoying. Sometimes it overpowered scenes of the grieving Jackie in instances where silence would have been far more effective. (As if to drive this home, later in the movie many scenes have no soundtrack, and these are much better.)

The cinematography, on the other hand, is very good throughout. There are some beautiful shots of Washington D.C. and the White House interior, and the scenes at Arlington are appropriately grim. And best of all is a scene of Jackie and Robert talking about the funeral in the gloomy November twilight.  The scenery, make-up, costumes and acting all make it feel very real and immediate.

This all adds up to a wildly uneven picture.  Just when it gets good, some jarring line throws it off, and just as it seems about to run off the rails completely, the cinematography or acting grabs your attention again.

I would be tempted to say it’s a mess with great acting and cinematography.  If that were all there was to it, I could end the review now and just say, “See it if you are a Kennedy history buff or a Portman fan; otherwise, skip it.”

But that would ignore something.  Which brings me to the third and most complicated aspect of this thing…

(more…)

As I touched on in this post, I approach drama criticism differently than many people do.  I tend to criticize specific things like “I liked the performance, but not the writing”, rather than just say “I didn’t like that character”, for example.

I just realized the other day why I do this: it’s because I started in drama criticism by analyzing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, thanks to Gayden Wren.

For those who don’t know, there are only 14 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.  And Gilbert and Sullivan have been dead for over a century, so it’s not like there are any new ones coming out.

So, whereas fans of, say, Star Wars can always be looking forward to the next installment, G & S fans pretty much have to content ourselves with re-evaluating the existing body of work. This means watching performances, listening to recordings, and then critiquing and analyzing them.

Very quickly, a young G&S fan gets to know the core libretto and music pretty well.  Then they have to start comparing different performances and actors.  For example, I greatly prefer Martyn Green’s Ko-Ko in The Mikado to John Reed’s. Green always seemed spontaneous, (which must be really hard with material one has performed a thousand times)…

 

…whereas Reed seemed robotic. (In his defense, Reed did seem like a better singer.)

 

That’s only one small example.  I could write an entire essay about why the 1973 University of Michigan Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s recording of The Grand Duke is vastly superior to the 1976 D’Oyly Carte recording. (And I am an Ohio State fan, so praising anything from That Light Opera Society Up North is difficult.)

My point is, when you get used to seeing or hearing different performances of the same lines, scenes, etc., you learn to separate acting from writing from directing from set design and so on.  Being a G&S fan isn’t the only way to do this–I imagine Shakespeare aficionados are the same way.

But most people don’t evaluate works of drama that way.  They just make a gut reaction judgment on whether they liked it or not.

Jane_got_a_Gun_Poster
“Jane Got A Gun” (2016)

“You can let the sun shine on your story, if you still have a mind to,” Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) tells his ex-fiancée, Jane Hammond (Natalie Portman), in the final act of Jane Got a Gun, as they await an attack from the Bishop Boys–the criminal gang out for revenge on Jane and her wounded husband, Bill “Ham” Hammond. (Noah Emmerich)

I wrote a glowing review of Jane Got a Gun back when it was in theaters, and have seen it several times since, appreciating it more each time. As it is being released on DVD/Blu-Ray this week, it seemed like a good time for me to write about it at length.

Once in a while, a movie comes along that really dazzles me. Lawrence of Arabia was one, Chinatown was one, and Jane Got a Gun is the latest. Westerns don’t usually hold much appeal for me, and I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it if Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor (as the villain, John Bishop) weren’t two of my favorite actors. Their performances alone would make a solid film. But there is much more to Jane than that.

The first thing that stands out is the bleak desert environment–Mandy Walker’s cinematography does the harsh landscape justice, and communicates the feeling of emptiness and vast desolation that I do so love in art.

The early scenes of the movie are really meant to establish a mood more than physical distances between places. Jane’s ride to her ex-fiancé’s house, with its beautiful silhouetted rider shots and underscored by haunting music, reminiscent of The English Patient, is about creating an atmosphere. The soundtrack is tremendous throughout the film. While rarely grand or sweeping, it is full of subtle touches, like the ominous growl that sounds as Jane enters the town of Lullaby, implanting the idea that populated places are dangerous and sinister. This foreshadows the shopkeeper’s indifference as Jane is seized by one of the Bishop Boys.

Subtlety and nuance are what make Jane such a riveting film. The characters’ emotions are conveyed in silences and in glances as much as they are in dialogue. The scene in which Jane hands Dan a roll of bills as payment for his service as a gunslinger packs an emotional punch, as both of their faces show them recalling the happier days of their youthful romance. Dan says little, but with every move conveys his misery at losing Jane.

The film is packed with moments like these–from the suspenseful scene when Jane, Dan and Ham hear an ominous sound from outside the house, to Dan’s tense encounter with another member of the Bishop gang, it balances building the suspense of the impending showdown with exploring the Jane/Dan/Ham love triangle.

The love story–or more accurately, stories–reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s romances, especially Far From the Madding Crowd. In Hardy romances, someone usually marries someone other than who they are truly “meant for” first, only to encounter that person again later. This is a tricky thing to do in writing a romance, but in Jane, as in Hardy’s novels, it is written so well that the actions of all three characters seem reasonable and logical, and never forced or contrived.

Jane loves Dan, and Dan loves Jane, but cruel circumstances keep them apart. Both characters are honorable and honest, and that forms the tragic core of the story–both are trying to do the right thing, and both suffer for it. Bad things happen to good people.

I think the marketing for the film was misguided in that it played up the action/gun-fighting elements, instead of the personal relationships at the heart of the film. The Bishop Boys, though very effective villains–thanks in particular to McGregor’s performance–are secondary to the real drama. They are the catalyst for Jane taking control of her life and confronting her fears, and for reuniting her with Dan.

Another marketing mistake was to play the climactic scene in the trailer. This lessened the effect of the powerful sequence when Jane, filled with the rage of a mother who has lost her child, holds John Bishop at gunpoint. It is the culmination of her evolution from the sweet, gentle country girl of the flashbacks into a strong and confident woman. Bishop tries to use his slimy charms to save himself, but Jane will have none of it. There is a desperation in Bishop’s eyes when he realizes that even after confessing to Jane that her daughter is alive, she will not hesitate to mete out justice.

Where Jane departs from the Hardy romance pattern is that it ultimately rewards its characters with a happy ending. A few ignorant critics may grouse that it seems forced or tonally dissonant, but in fact the film only works dramatically if the ending is a happy one. It has to provide some hope, some measure of relief, in order to balance all the pain Jane and Dan endure.

As I said, I rank this film as one of my favorites, alongside Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, both of which have decidedly grim endings. But those two films start off relatively light, and gradually descend into darkness. Jane starts off dark, and gradually rises to a hopeful and upbeat ending.

The key is balance. Robert Towne, who wrote the original screenplay for Chinatown with a happy ending, called the effect of the final film a “tunnel at the end of the light”. You can’t make a film that is unrelentingly dark throughout, or it is excruciating. Likewise, you can’t make a film that is completely lighthearted, or it is cloying. If Jane ended as grimly as it begins, it would feel pointless and unsatisfying.

The Western is a quintessentially “American” genre, and Jane Got a Gun evokes the best of the American frontier mythology: hope and triumph in the face of harsh and unforgiving circumstances. That it has such a diverse international cast and crew only adds to this feeling, as people of different nations coming together is very much the story of America itself.

The film touches briefly, yet significantly, on the Civil War–the conflict at the heart of America as we know it. It forms an important backdrop for the events of the film, but never are the political or social details allowed to overshadow what really makes a strong narrative: the people caught up in these events, and their struggle to survive.

“Not much sun in my story,” Jane tells Dan before she begins recounting the horrors she experienced at the hands of the Bishop Boys. This line, in addition to echoing an earlier line of Jane’s, also sets up one of the most memorable transitions in the movie: from the muzzle flash of Jane’s pistol as she fires the fatal round into Bishop to the sunlit sky as she and Dan ride to rescue their daughter.

The sun in Jane’s story, after a lifetime’s worth of darkness, shines brilliantly–and, most importantly, it is through Jane’s toughness and bravery that it does.