“Wonder Woman” Review

Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)In Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, an Amazon warrior, chooses to fight for a perpetually warring humanity that does not deserve her aid. In a similar fashion, it might be said that we as the audience do not deserve Patty Jenkins’ genuinely wondrous Wonder Woman. Audiences and critics have pummeled Zack Snyder’s bold figurings of the two foremost male superheroes in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. A public enamored with distraction from our ever-darkening social climate shunned Snyder’s aesthetically and narratively daring explorations of the present cultural zeitgeist, instead preferring to laugh the violent roots of society’s ills away in a slew of Marvel sequels, films that thwart any serious engagement with theme or emotion by constantly undercutting themselves with ironic humor. Given the thankless task of following up the obnoxiously kitsch Guardians of the Galaxy-clone Suicide Squad, Jenkins rights the momentarily listing DC ship not only by firing a shot across the bow of an industry beholden to masculine fantasies but also by engaging questions of war, innocence, and emotion in a film invigorated with dynamism and vibrancy.

Echoing Man of Steel’s jaw-dropping space opera opening, Wonder Woman begins by planting itself firmly in Greek myth on the island of Themyscira, embracing a world of gods, goddesses, and Amazons that is bursting with both color and life. Stunning blues and greens combine with massive white cliff faces to create an Edenic haven for Diana’s matriarchal warrior people. Jenkins showcases a command both of visual place and directing physicality, and early training sequences are clear, precise, and involving. Not enough can be said for Gal Gadot’s performance as Diana, as she balances innocence, charisma, and earnestness with an expansive emotional range that Jenkins uses to great effect throughout. This early chapter (featuring excellent bit parts from Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright as Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta and aunt General Antiope, respectively) foregrounds the film’s unwavering commitment to the reality and genuineness of its mythology (Diana was made by Hippolyta and Zeus and, refreshingly, that’s that) while also introducing broader questions of allegory and the materialization of ideals. The impetus that gets Diana off the island is to literally find and kill the god of war, Ares, and thus end the perpetual warring of humankind.

The war of the moment, World War I, is introduced via Steve Trevor (the ever-dependable Chris Pine), an American spy working for the British who crashes a stolen plane into the waters of the island, German ships hot on his tale, and is rescued by Diana. The initial combat between the Amazons and longboat crews is involving, shot with clarity and precision, but the best is still to come. World War I proves a curious and intriguing setting for Wonder Woman’s venture. Known as “the war to end all wars,” this particular conflict is historically regarded as a European struggle of unique futility and horror. The war, however, is figured not with close attention to historical specificity but rather as a universal avatar for war as horror, the actualization of the principle that Ares represents. The cruelty of war on humans, animals, and the Earth itself is compacted into a stirring composite that culminates in Diana’s refusal to ignore suffering in one particular village and charge across no man’s land. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score works wonders here, as Jenkins’ steady action choreography echoes a smoother and steadier version of Snyder’s colorful and dynamic constructions.

It is within the contradictions that this mythic and allegorical figuring of war brings about that Wonder Woman is at its most interesting. Unlike the Marvel or Disney Star Wars films, where theme is a coldly calculated and neatly arranged commodity, Jenkins plays out a number of the tensions inherent in Diana’s desire to be a warrior for peace. Her own strong conscience is held a hair’s breadth away from her immense martial skill, and the film wisely places a constant emphasis on Diana’s moral decision making that fuels her actions. It is in those actions, and the actions (or lack of actions) of her fellow warriors (both women and men) that Diana’s idealism is necessarily complicated, and the relative honesty with which the film handles these complications is one of its strongest elements.

Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman were both preoccupied with the complications arising when ideals of goodness and truth become embodied in physical forms on Earth, and Wonder Woman follows this thematic exploration by emphasizing the tensions between cosmic and physical values, the realm of allegory and the realm of realism. During the climactic battle, Steven says to Diana that he will “save today” while she will “save the world.” Juxtaposed against each other, then, are the cosmic values that larger than life heroic figures such as Wonder Woman and Superman embody and their intensely personal struggles and attempts to enact those values in a physical space as Diana Prince or Clark Kent. This is further emphasized by Diana’s goal of ending warfare in the universal by killing the god of war himself, a lofty desire complicated by both individual victims and perpetrators of militant violence. Humor, interpersonal conflict, and narrative beats continually revolve around humans as beings with bodies, part of a tangible, physical world. Couple this with the mythic figuring of World War I, a specific war figured in a universal aspect, and Wonder Woman under Jenkins’ direction furthers Snyder’s interest in questioning the stories by which we organize our lives, whether they be tidy narrative ideals or acknowledgement of an irreducibly complex reality, suggesting that the two polarities must not and cannot be dichotomized.

Wonder Woman does have a few weaknesses of note, chief among them being two campy villains, an evil German general and an evil German scientist, who echo the flippancy of a standard Marvel villain rather than project the ideological menace of General Zod or the Satanic machinations of Lex Luthor. Thankfully, the final act reveals these two to be red herrings of sorts, playing them off of the true threat in some interesting narrative and thematic ways. While a solid narrative turn, and a natural extension of the film’s themes, this final showdown does lack some of the visual punch that Snyder so effortlessly provides, but Jenkins infuses the climax with her own sensibility, orchestrating several heart-rending character moments along with lovingly-composed images bathed in the light of a rising sun.

It is this care for and sincere embracing of human emotion that lends Wonder Woman perhaps its greatest strength. While Jenkins may still be coming into her own as a constructor of action (not one to rival a George Miller or Ridley Scott at this point) she films her sequences with vibrancy and clarity, which is becoming an all too rare achievement in the overstuffed superhero genre. Of particular note are the moments when she merges an intensely anti-cynical emotional expression to visual and aural storytelling. It is a move out of sync with a genre riddled with irony and desperate to protect the desires and fantasies of fans. Jenkins instead provides a heroic role model (through Gal Gadot’s star-making turn) who intensely feels the brokenness of our world, rather than deflecting it through distraction and flippancy. Perhaps the film’s finest moment is not Wonder Woman at her most traditionally heroic, but rather as she walks through the aftermath of a gas attack, the orange of chemicals swirling around and fusing itself to her mounting grief and rage at the murder of civilians. It is a righteous indignancy, a moral horror, that has no respite or outlet except for heroic action, and it is in that action, the attempted realization of love, that Wonder Woman finds her greatest strength.

“Logan” Review

Logan_2017_posterIf the typical comic book movie is one that is light on its feet, quippy, sterile, and sanitized, Logan operates as the direct inverse. Directed by James Mangold, this entry into the X-Men franchise is bleak, dirty, and fixated on violence. Of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe also is obsessed with death and destruction, but while Disney covers its sadism with a sickly sweet sheen of special effects, Twentieth Century Fox’s Logan hurls mutilated bodies at its audience with a focused and unrelenting consistency. On the surface, this may sound like a necessary correction to a genre that increasingly cowers from the consequences of its own carnage (note the critical skewering of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman) but Logan functions as little more than a reactionary explosion of over-the-top violence that, aside from its nihilism, offers nothing substantively distinct from the numbing parade of big-budget blockbusters.

In a strange way, Mangold seems to have adopted a mirror position of fallacies typically made by religious fundamentalists in judging artistic merit. The fundamentalist will view a film and reject it out of hand because the work contains content (actions, ideologies, religious beliefs, etc.) which the individual objects to, neglecting how those aspects of the story may be utilized in a manner that is both artistically compelling and humanly truthful. Likewise, Logan confuses the mere presence of horrific violence as a sufficient response to the glossing over of said violence in countless blockbuster franchises. Forcing the viewer to witness innumerable skull-punctures and dismemberments (all depicted in graphic detail) does nothing in itself to justify its own existence, and therein lies the chief problem with Logan: it offends, but it offends with no purpose.

Logan may depict violence, but it offers no meaningful questioning of that same violence. The brutality simply exists. The film is ostensibly an exploration of the modern fear that in a capitalist society we have all been reduced to weapons and tools at the mercy of corporations. Logan (Hugh Jackman) and the eleven-year-old Laura (Dafne Keen) are saddled with powerful claws and regenerative abilities, yet the film never presents the opportunity for either character to solve conflict with anything other than the very tools of weaponization the narrative purports to hold in disdain. Scene after scene of slaughter is put before the audience, culminating in a dizzying massacre of nameless bad guys that we’ve seen two-dozen times too many (and this time at the hands of children, a fact that the breathless film never seems to seriously mourn but instead plays as cool and exciting). This climactic battle sees the film perform perhaps its most egregious act of moral jujitsu: it celebrates freedom for children born in test tubes and weaponized in labs while simultaneously reveling in the violent and repeated annihilation of X-24, a mutant clone of Logan also born in a test tube and weaponized in a lab. The obvious parallel is disregarded by a film too obsessed with its own faux-seriousness.

Mangold does certainly know how to direct actors, and Jackman works extremely well with the small-scale material (it’s undeniably refreshing to have a superhero movie where the world/galaxy isn’t at stake), while Patrick Stewart makes quite the impression as an aged and unstable Professor X. Hints of novel ideas, like this theme of aging, pepper the landscape, but Logan is so obsessed with its own brutality that it literally eviscerates every shred of creativity as soon as it threatens to emerge (the excessive and casual disposal of a kindly farmer’s family should sear the most hardened conscience). The cinematography is of the competently mediocre variety that most comic book movies tend towards, an anonymous succession of mathematically consistent close and medium shots that fail to use visual language in any meaningful way other than to linger over a shattered skull or bleeding stump. Its villains are of the cartoonishly predictable and one-dimensional variety, one a soulless scientist, the other an insecure rank hopper who feels lazily plucked from Mangold’s far superior 3:10 to Yuma.

Mangold’s sense of character and moral complexity is alive and well in that also-violent Western, while Logan is content merely to beat its audience over the head with cruelty and refuse to provide any artistic form to the proceedings. Most offensive and concerning of all, Logan seems to think that this shotgunning of brutality with little rhyme or reason is in fact its primary virtue. It is a film that can be considered worthwhile only in relation to the recent slew of obnoxiously safe Marvel titles. Because it is essentially an exercise in excess without craft, Logan often feels like the once repressed child of sheltering parents gone overboard in teenage rebellion. If you find yourself wanting a thoughtful exploration of violence and nihilism, pulling out No Country for Old Men from the DVD pile may prove more worth your time.

Rogue One, Fan-Theories, and the Death of Friendship

 

I will discuss some plot-revealing elements about Rogue One. If you care about that kind of thing, save the article until you’ve seen the movie!

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Spoilers ahead!

When I went to the theater to see Rogue One, I was excited to see Donnie Yen play Chirrut Imwe, a staff-wielding blind monk who devoutly trusts in the Force. I’ve liked Yen’s work in other films, and I was interested to see the martial artist/actor star in a Star Wars movie. He didn’t disappoint. His character was engaging, showed a compelling trust in the providence of the Force, and added some good comic relief to an otherwise heavy film.

I’ve always appreciated the monk-type hero. Showcasing discipline, peace, and wisdom, the archetype is an interesting one, and it often runs afoul of our more contemporary virtues of self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction. This conflict alone makes the character interesting. In the film, Chirrut serves as an anchor to the spiritual world of Star Wars and an embodiment of faith and hope, themes that run all throughout the movie.

I was impressed with the character, so I googled what people were saying about Chirrut. Primarily, the discourse centered around whether or not he sleeps with his friend Baze Malbus.

Fan speculation was created so quickly that even before the film was released to wider audiences, an interviewer asked director Gareth Edwards about whether or not there was a sexual subtext between the characters. He responded with a dodge worthy of the blind monk himself, saying “I don’t mind people reading into [Chirrut and Baze’s relationship]. I think that’s all good. Who knows? You’d have to speak to them.”

If you’ve seen the film, this may confuse you. There is, after all, little to no evidence to support a sexual relationship between the characters. It is perplexing why the conversation around Chirrut is so fixated around his suspected sex life.

Vulture writer Kyle Buchanan makes the argument by citing the death scene of Chirrut, where his friend holds his dying body and “stares down at him, devastated, Chirrut raises his hand as if to caress Baze’s cheek. It’s the simplest gesture, but it packs a potent, more-than-platonic current, and as Chirrut expires, it’s clear that Baze does not want to live in a world without this man.” Buchanan then proceeds to cite this as the example of the first gay relationship depicted in Star Wars.

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He gets pretty close to these stormtroopers in this scene. Polyamorous Chirrut, anyone?

A compassionate look and touch of the face is to Buchanan enough to evidence a sexual relationship. I’ll be honest, I don’t buy this at all. It’s a poor thesis, and it reflects a frustrating trend in our approach to art. We have hyper-sexualized relationships to the point that there is no other conceivable close relationship.

The first issue with this idea is that there is no reference to sexuality or even romantic desire in Chirrut. A homosexual, let alone sexual, Chirrut is simply nowhere to be seen in the film.

Perhaps more glaringly, this fan-theory ignores the fact that both characters are monks. Monks are usually celibate, which makes a sexual relationship impossible. And before we speculate that these force-monks are a little more loose with the rules, remember that the Jedi order also demanded celibacy. Both monks live a lifestyle and participate in a religion that forbids any sexual union. To see two monks acting together and to read romance into their companionship is to actively ignore prominent characteristics of Chirrut and Baze’s identities. It would be tempting to see this fan-theory as a way to give representation to sexual minorities, but redefining all affection or tenderness as sexual is shockingly regressive. It reduces all human interaction to sex.

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As Positive K says in “I Got a Man,” “If we can’t be lovers, then we can’t be friends.” Ph: Jonathan Olley ©Lucasfilm LFL 2016.

This idea subjects any affection to a strict sexual reinterpretation. There is no friendship in the eyes of an internet fan-critic. To be tender, to be compassionate, is to show sexual desire exclusively, and the final conclusion of any friendship is for it to develop to romantic love. Look at Marvel’s Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes: as soon as these characters were established as close friends, communities sprung up around the internet reinterpreting them as passionate lovers. This form of thought has eliminated any relationship other than a sexual one.

So let’s say a writer is going to create two close, tender peers who have a platonic friendship. How can he/she convince the audience that they are not romantically involved? In a climate where two likely celibate monks are called lovers because one is sad when the other dies, it is nearly impossible to keep sex out of friendship.

This doesn’t just impact the two force-monks. When I left the theater, I heard many fans discussing Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor as if they were romantic leads, complaining that they faced their death with a hug rather than a romantic kiss. As before, neither of the characters show or profess romantic love for the other. In fact, it isn’t until the last fourth of the movie that they can even trust each other. Their romance would do nothing for the plot, it makes little sense given the context of the characters, and it would be a meaningless distraction. She shared about the same level of friendship and intimacy with the droid K-2SO. Nevertheless, because two attractive leads are roughly the same age, they are, in many viewers minds, destined for romance.

Fan-theorists go into a movie theater with a specific set of items that they want to see. This leads to plot points being forced into unwieldy shapes to service this list of items. Often, viewers will look at a film strictly in how it can service them and their plot hobby-horse, and the list of demands almost always includes romance for the heroes. This approach reduces art down to a series of strategic pairings and plot points, sapping nuance, human interaction, and depth from the work.

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Haven’t we all thought at some point that Hollywood needs more romantic subplots?

Edwards was willing to write a story where there was no love interest, a rare absence for an action film. Unlike Rogue One, in the film Guardians of the Galaxy, a romance is awkwardly forced onto the plot. This movie, already lambasted by my co-writer Eric Marcy, features a male and female lead, both attractive. Even though the film offers little to no reason for romance and the characters have known each other for, maybe, a few days, by the end of the film they are a couple. The romance serves nothing for the movie and exists solely to demonstrate a pairing for the fans, pleasing the fan-theorists. This pattern has beaten itself into the minds of viewers, causing them to be senseless to any exploration of other types of relationships.

This plot abuse exists only to tantalize the viewer. It gives the fans a jolt of satisfaction but offers little else. It’s the cotton candy of plot points—it’s flashy, sticky, and ultimately disappointing. We must stop forcing our “theories” or imagined pairings onto our stories when they have little grounding in the plot—it isn’t just distracting, it actively contributes to the destruction of potentially helpful plot points. If I sound like a disgruntled curmudgeon, spitting on wide-eyed fans “ships” and “headcanons,” then so be it. Somebody’s got to.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” Review

Rogue_One,_A_Star_Wars_Story_poster.pngSpoilers ahead. Evasive maneuvers.

Another December, another Disney Star Wars film; and so it will be from now until whenever the box office returns are outstripped by the marketing budget. At the end of a year that saw tent-pole franchises provide unexpected masterpieces (Zack Snyder’s phenomenal Batman v Superman – Ultimate Edition) alongside carcasses picked dry by studio executives and fan service (Suicide Squad), Gareth Edwards, fresh off the aesthetically impressive if narratively inert Godzilla, tries his hand at besting a system stacked against him by stakeholder meddling and extensive reshoots in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Though Edwards’ original vision for a Star Wars war-film has been watered down to a mere shell of the grounded and brutal film that was originally promised, Rogue One still holds enough artistry and life to distance itself from the creatively stagnant The Force Awakens and finally bring us back to a galaxy far, far away.

Rogue One is a prequel of sorts, occupying the timeline space between George Lucas’s masterful Revenge of the Sith and the original A New Hope. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a tough, jaded woman caught up in a rebel mission to (unbeknownst to her) assassinate her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), an Imperial scientist who walked away from the Death Star project for moral reasons, but was forced back into working for the Empire by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) at the same time Jyn’s mother was killed. Heading up the rebel mission (which takes a detour to visit some rebel extremists led by Saw Gerrera, played by Forest Whitaker) is Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), an intelligence officer for the Rebel Alliance, whose hardened methods and steely resolve come into conflict both with Jyn’s familial loyalties and cynicism towards both sides in the Galactic Civil War. Also gathered along for the ride are the Imperial defector Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), and the mysterious Guardians of the Whills, the burly Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) and the blind Force-zealot Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen).

Of course, one has to address the extensive reshoots Edwards was forced to conduct by Disney executives, a pox upon Rogue One that the film is able to overcome, if not ever fully shake. There is no way at this point to know for certain the degree to which Edwards was forced to alter his film at the request of corporate executives (detective work can be done by analyzing trailer and behind the scenes footage); the main point is that it was extensive, and it does show. Compared to Edwards’ recent Godzilla, it’s recognizable pretty early on that Disney has its director on a tight leash. To his credit, Edwards frequently bumps up against the top-down dictated aesthetic sanitization, but the war-film target that the initial creative crew were aiming for is pretty watered down. Glimpses of this tension are particularly evident in the muddled handling of Saw Gerrera’s extremist group on Jedha. In an engaging action sequence, a group of Gerrera’s rebels ambush an Imperial cargo shipment in a crowded marketplace, and Edwards does something that Lucas did to great effect in his original six episodes: he taps into a real-world iconography to frame his space-fantasy narrative, in this case the visual language of Mujahdeen or Taliban fighters fighting Soviet or American occupation forces.

The usage of such imagery is fraught with charged implications (similar to Lucas’s complex visual fashioning of Republic planes in the Attack of the Clones as Vietnam-era gunships), but unfortunately Gerrera’s cell is later cast in a muddled fashion more akin to Maz Kanata’s castle than a serious terrorist organization. There’s an interrogation octopus more campy than creepy (between this and the rathtars in The Force Awakens it seems post-Lucas Star Wars can’t quite get creatures sorted out), a total lack of spatial awareness within the base itself (shot tightly, cramped, and blandly) and the charismatic extremist version of Gerrera glimpsed in the first teaser trailer (“what will you do if they break you!?”) is replaced with an eccentric, quirky, unstable and goofy figure lacking in menace and coherence, but abounding in vague exposition. While the destruction of Jedha at the hands of the Death Star is visually remarkable, Gerrera’s role leaves disappointingly little narrative impact, his driving impetus obscure and undefined. Characters in the film tell us that Gerrera and company are extremists, but the film never truly convinces that Gerrera does anything “extreme” beyond shooting stormtroopers, a tonal shift most likely handed down by executives fearful for the marketability of the film.

Choppy editing in this first half of the film generally muddies the proceedings as the crew takes a tour of the galaxy to assemble the members of the crew. Slower-pacing to establish both place and character is eschewed, and dialogue and character bits feel pasted together from multiple cuts of the film, shortchanging consistent and natural character development (this weakness may actually be the fault of Edwards himself, as the human element was the one area where Godzilla noticeably floundered). Other moments that should be darker are declawed (Cassian’s murder of an informant at the beginning of the film is played as ho-hum and without tension rather than as disturbing), a Darth Vader appearance at about the midpoint is textbook shoehorned fan-service (and another example of the Disney strategy of raiding Lucas’s discarded idea junk pile for visual concepts), and the film in general continues the baffling Disney tendency to sonically quiet Star Wars. Blasters, spaceships, and explosions continue to lack the sonic bite and distinctness that Lucas’s films had. This all combines to divert the film from the unsettling and visceral war-film we might have gotten had Edwards been left alone with his artistic vision.

On the aural note, there is one more (and perhaps the clearest) area in which executive meddling seems to have robbed the film of artistic power: the musical score. Alexandre Desplat, Edwards’ collaborator on the muscular score for Godzilla, was mysteriously dropped from the project in September because of reshoot “scheduling conflicts” (a highly suspect explanation that is most likely code for creative disagreements with the second directors and writers brought in to aid in the reworking of the film). Whatever the reason, John Williams imitator Michael Giachinno, a competent composer in his own right, was brought in to write a brand new score in only four and a half weeks. Any composer would find this a daunting challenge and, of no real fault of Giachinno’s, the rushed nature of the score is glaringly obvious. Though Giachinno’s music is featured much more prominently than Williams’ score in The Force Awakens (theoretically a good thing), it occasionally feels like a second rate imitation of the real deal, and, more significantly, is sometimes tonally out of sync with the action onscreen. Most glaring is its negative impact on the otherwise engaging sequence on Eadu, in which Krennic, Galen, Jyn, and Cassian all face off and are interrupted by a rebel airstrike. Jyn’s father is hit in the fray, but the score doesn’t start proclaiming the tragedy of the moment until far too late into the scene, and so an awkward minute or so of action unfolds in which the audience is witnessing the fear and anguish of Jyn for her father, but the brass is still twinkling away in faux-Williams exciting-action-mode. These, and other moments that should have been scored more ominously or tragically (or simply less anonymously), are likely victims of a director and composer not being given sufficient time and independence to formulate a focused artistic vision.

All this being said, if Edwards is on a leash, he is constantly straining at that leash, pushing as far as he can artistically within the constraints placed on him, and this persistence proves to be Rogue One‘s saving grace. Edwards and company, like Lucas before them, try some bold cinematic and technological moves, the digital recreation of Peter Cushing to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin chief among them. Not only is Tarkin rendered remarkably well (for the most part) in a daring push of special effects technology to its limits (reminiscent of Lucas’s experimental flair throughout his six films), but he gets a fleshed out role and not a mere winking cameo. Tarkin highlights one of the film’s central motifs in his interactions with Krennic: that of the small, ordinary figures in the galaxy clawing to make an impact on the titans we recognize from Episodes I-VI. Krennic tries and fails to ascend the Imperial hierarchy as an individual, his project seized by Tarkin at completion, and credit slipping out of his reach. This failure of solitary ambition is juxtaposed with the collective efforts of anonymous rebel soldiers, whose minute acts of sacrifice compound to lay the groundwork for the eventual toppling of the Galactic Empire.

Edwards also works on this motif with his visual constructions, even if his knack for elaborate set-piece construction so evident in Godzilla has been somewhat lost. Edwards films the Death Star as a ghostly, looming specter (not unlike the form of the specter that the Death Star II takes in Return of the Jedi), eclipsing the sun and seemingly the universe itself, literally uprooting the natural order. Of particular note is the framing of the space station moments before its weapons test on Jedha, in which the weapon aligns with the planet in carefully positioned spherical arrangement that calls back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, framing the moment not only as a technological threshold, but the passing from one spiritual era of the Star Wars galaxy into another.

This all builds to a climactic final act that, even if it may have been restructured in reshoots, bursts on screen with color and vigor not seen since Lucas’s explosive conclusion to his Saga in Revenge of the Sith. Of course, nothing can quite compete with Lucas’s near flawless rendering of large scale combat at the end of Attack of the Clones or the beginning of Revenge, but Edwards and company nail the essentials: the bright greens and blues of tropical Scarif back a frantic rebel gambit to seize the Death Star plans and beam them off in a combined land/space effort in the vein of The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi. Edwards infuses the rebel scramble with a frenzied fanaticism that pays dividends: X-wing pilots careen into Imperial shield-gates, rebel frigates ram Imperial Star Destroyers, ground troops scramble in an explosive diversion effort, while our main heroes find themselves in hair-raising predicament after predicament. Edwards even performs a bit of cinematic necromancy for continuity’s sake that would make Lucas and his Special Editions proud, cutting in footage of Red and Gold Leaders from A New Hope. Most emotionally satisfying of all is the tangible sense of the unlikelihood of the whole venture: every member of the Rogue One team gets a classic moment of warrior’s sacrifice. Particularly impactful are the ends of the wonderfully animated K-2SO and the religious Chirrut, whose moment of action convincingly conveys a sense of the Force’s all-encompassing will making such an unlikely chain of events possible.

The real payoff comes, however, in two brief moments at the end of Rogue One. After Jyn and Cassian successfully beam the plans off-planet, nameless rebel soldiers begin passing the plans one to another in their desperate bid to escape the just-arrived Darth Vader in his Star Destroyer. Vader boards the rebel flagship and hunts down these anonymous heroes one by one, as they defy the titan cutting them down by the dozens in a collective action (ordained by the Force) to get the plans to Princess Leia and the Tantive IV. It is here that Rogue One feels most like the war-film it was billed as: the story of small people matching up against an overwhelming conflict and making a galaxy-shifting difference.

Surpassing even this thrilling set-piece is the brief lyrical and visual moment that directly precedes it. Having successfully completed their mission, Jyn and Cassian sit exhausted on one of Scarif’s island beaches as the Death Star turns to vaporize the facility in a last-ditch Imperial effort to foil the raid. The sky before them is engulfed in flame in an inversion of A New Hope‘s binary sunset; if Luke’s horizon spoke of the infinite potential of the future, Jyn and Cassian’s tells only of the imminent and fiery end of the present. Giachinno’s serviceable score suddenly swells with strings and choir, pairing with the beautifully composed image of two friends embracing for comfort in the face of coming death. It is a moment of tragedy, beauty, and tenderness that overwhelms in both its visual and aural power. It is a moment that feels right in line with the loftiest of Lucas’s operatic ambitions, yet conveyed in a fashion that distinguishes itself from Lucas’s sensibilities, and it is in this moment of undiluted cinema that the purest spirit of Star Wars stirs suddenly and potently back to life.

“Arrival” Review

arrival_movie_posterDenis Villenueve’s science fiction tale of peacefully bridging linguistic and cultural gaps could hardly come at a more appropriate societal moment, with financially dominant blockbusters struggling to outdo each other in excesses of quick-witted violence, and a political climate that reached a boiling point a couple of years ago and hasn’t paused to take a breath. Arrival slams the breaks on our all-consuming societal paranoia, forcing audiences to reckon with a slow, deliberate story of bridging inter-species divides and resisting the human urge to violence. Though its final act can’t quite narratively deliver on the near flawless setup, the first half of Arrival is an astonishing feat of visual and sonic immersion; a master-class of tension-building and question-prompting.

Arrival can’t be easily summed up, (nor would it be fair to a reader to attempt to) other than to say that Amy Adams plays linguist Louise Banks, a professor introduced through a brief, touching character sketch built around grief and tragic loss, who is then recruited by a colonel in the US Army (Forest Whitaker) to assist physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in translating for extra-terrestrial visitors that have appeared over middle-America, along with eleven other places around the globe.

In its slow-moving introduction to characters both human and alien, Arrival feels most akin to a particular subgenre of science fiction that deals in transcendent, quasi-religious narratives of first contact: 2001: A Space OdysseyClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and even Interstellar. Each film posits an ideal human who functions as much as an archetype as a person: Kubrick’s Nieztschean astronaut who subdues humanity’s rebelling technology, Spielberg’s St. Paul-esque convert who follows his bliss, Nolan’s humanist savior of intense paternal love, and now Villenueve’s teacher who fights for empathetic understanding and communication across linguistic gulfs. As in preceding contributions to this generic conversation, Villenueve (paired with cinematographer Bradford Young and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson) crafts sequences that envelopes the audience in sensation, both aural and visual, anchored with cinematic composition that is both precise and beautiful.

Villenueve balks at deception in his set-pieces (rejecting filmmaking built on quick-cutting and shaky-cam to create the illusion of excitement that too often disguises the nonsensical nature of the action), instead guiding his camera in slow, smooth, and deliberate motion that allows the human eye and imagination to engage with every part of what is portrayed onscreen. He worked wonders with this methodology in Sicario to create a near unmatched and pervading sense of tension, and in Arrival he challenges the audience to participate in the work of bridging the gaps between them and the aliens themselves. Most notable is a gorgeous sequence depicting Louise’s arrival at the base camp just beyond the alien ship via helicopter, as the camera slowly swings over a perimeter packed with people desperate to catch a glimpse, through mist, and then into a lush valley, where bleak military tents sit before the cocoon-like vessel as clouds billow in over a ridge like a waterfall and Jóhannsson’s experimental score drifts and echoes alongside. The successive encounters with the alien visitors stand out as unique cinematic achievements, playing with the audience’s expectations, sending one’s mind scrambling to dissect and interpret every piece of aural and visual stimulation. It goes without saying that Villenueve has very quickly asserted himself as a master of atmosphere.

It comes as a bit of a disappointment, then, that the final act of Arrival ties the story up in a way that, while tidy and resonant on an individual level, is derivative of previous science fiction films and doesn’t pack quite the bewildering punch that 2001, Close Encounters, or Interstellar do. Perhaps it’s a bit of a high standard to apply, but Arrival clearly aspires to be considered alongside these giants of science fiction (the first encounter here contains a subtle nod to the irreversible moment of touching the monolith in 2001). It may succeed more on the aesthetic front than the narrative front, but that still leaves Arrival a high point of the cinematic year, chocked full of sounds and images that will haunt you long after leaving the theater.

“Suicide Squad” Review

Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterSuicide Squad is less a movie and more a warning; a warning of what blockbusters, and comic book movies in particular, could be and are becoming: primarily financial investments even at the creative level, with any and all artistic and narrative ambition snuffed out for the sake of fulfilling perceived fan desires. With a production history fraught with conflict and a theatrical cut that reveals serious creative and tonal clashes between director David Ayer and studio executives, Suicide Squad flounders along in fits and starts, waffling between ambitious attempts at provocative storytelling and jokey, half-baked Marvel-esque sequences.

One can’t really understand Suicide Squad if one doesn’t first note its production history. The Hollywood Reporter provides a timely and insightful look into the series of events that led to the “hybrid cut” of the film presented in theaters. In a brief summation, after the wildly controversial release of Batman v Superman in a cut deliberately truncated by request of Warner Bros. executives, those same executives panicked and determined that the issue with Zack Snyder’s ambitious film was not their own imposition of cuts but rather its serious tone. They eyed Marvel’s artistically stagnant and flippant but financially lucrative production line and grew envious. When director David Ayer (known for oppressive, brutal films such as Fury and End of Watch) presented his reportedly dark and serious cut to executives the money-holders panicked, demanding and financing reshoots and recuts to add humor and levity to the venture. Caught in the crossfire was Ayer’s initial cinematic vision, and a compromise hybrid cut was released to theaters, mashing together Ayer’s serious cut with the studio’s decidedly more light-hearted affair.

Of course, the viewer cannot fully or accurately discern which scenes should be credited to Ayer, and which ones belong to the teaser trailer company Trailer Park that was brought in to craft the studio’s cut, but it remains painfully obvious that this hybrid cut contains two competing cinematic visions. One features sparks of ambition, even if it wouldn’t hold a candle to the likes of the Snyders and Nolans in the realm of comic adaptations. This possible path for the film utilizes the charismatic charm of Will Smith as Deadshot to explore a super-assassin as first and foremost a man with a daughter. One sequence in particular stands out as Deadshot is confronted by Batman. Deadshot prepares to resist the vigilante, and with his renowned marksmanship skills, the audience doesn’t doubt that Deadshot may very well succeed at killing Batman. Deadshot’s daughter, however, steps in front of the gun that her father holds, pleading with him to cease his endless killing. It’s a poignant scene that makes intelligent use of the DC cinematic universe, guiding the audience towards viewing the activity of the super-villains for what it is: shameful.

There are other character bits that hit home not only at an entertainment level, but a human one. Margot Robbie is superbly cast as Harley Quinn, fully embracing her psychological instability and landing some really great one-liners, but (even better) she also draws out empathy for the character. By the end of the film, and a revelation of Harley’s deepest desire, the audience begins to pity her (while Ayer adroitly avoids anti-hero idolization). The gang-lord/pacifist arc for the fire-summoning El Diablo is also a compelling idea, and a conversation within the squad at the end of the movie bluntly confronts and grieves for the evil that they have individually visited upon others. And one would be remiss to not mention Viola Davis’s chilling turn as Amy Waller, the frightening mastermind behind the government program that organized the squad under threat of death.

These glimmers of narrative ambition themselves are not what fails Suicide Squad. What fails the film is the lack of a substantive superstructure, a narrative construct to hold the adventure together. The failure is not the presence of jokes, or the whimsical, simple nature of the plot. Rather, it is the replacement of that plot with an omnipresence of humor. Conversations that should be used to advance characters are instead littered with quips, idle banter, and visual gags where one or two as comedic color would have sufficed. Even more painful, those conversations often do not flow naturally within themselves, moments where dialogue was obviously pasted together from multiple takes and dialogue threads disrupt the cinematic flow.  With the narrative front-loaded with humor, when Suicide Squad attempts to turn introspective in its final act the turn is undercut by an insufficient amount of foreshadowing and build-up. A villain lacking compelling motivation, like General Zod or Lex Luthor from Snyder’s films, deadens the tension and the emotional high-marks don’t hit with the force they should. The aesthetic does the movie no favors as well: ever shrouded in darkness, the movie never capitalizes visually on the natural pop and life of its cast, instead copying the flat visual composition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Even more obnoxious is the derivative and blatantly manipulative incorporation of pop and rock music numbers into the film at a rate probably never before seen in action cinema. I counted no less than six music montages within the first fifteen to twenty minutes alone, and they continued throughout the film to the point of self-parody. Introduction of Deadshot? Pump in those good rock vibes. Approach an ominously dark and abandoned Midway City? Good rock vibes. Frightening prisoner-abuse scene? Good rock vibes. It’s as if the editor watched nothing but Guardians of the Galaxy for a year and decided that literally any scene could and should be improved with some nostalgic radio tunes, even intruding upon moments that should be (and clearly are meant as) more somber and reflective bits of the film. The most egregious of them all is when a rock number fails to fade out before a flashback to Superman’s funeral, so we get a wonderfully inept moment of editing when guitars and drums are licking happily along while Earth mourns the man of steel.

This moment gets at the utter failure of a particular philosophy of film-making that centers itself around both the trivial criticisms and expectations of fandoms. The emphasis on jokes over story and the scattered, nonsensical movies that result, spring from an emphasis on giving fans and audiences what they want at the expense of what the narrative needs at any given moment. The studio misdiagnosed a problem they themselves had started by tampering with Snyder’s vision for Batman v Superman, and instead determined they would give the audience a hyped-up version of Guardians of the Galaxy because, hey, violence without consequences is all the rage these days.

It’s a trend towards storytelling that balks at challenging its audience, instead catering to their every desire, good and bad, moral and immoral. It should be abundantly clear that a series like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy would never make it through production in today’s climate without executives panicking that audiences couldn’t handle or wouldn’t respond well to his unsettling vision of Batman. These mega-franchises are increasingly becoming mirrors that reflect a societal desire for consequence-free entertainment. Marvel set the precedent while the fandoms, with their endless social media rages and bullying, enforce the new orthodoxy, and now DC is feeling the pressure to bow the knee to fandom reception rather than artistic quality.

The postcard-like and inconsequential appearances of the Joker (Jared Leto) in Suicide Squad provide a fitting snapshot for this philosophy of fan-centrism: one that tantalizes rather than engages, tickles the senses rather than challenges assumptions. Snyder may have bested the comic-book movie machine by eventually getting his masterful Ultimate Cut released, but it appears Ayer’s artistic vision was felled by a beast that we, the audience, have created: one drenched in darkness, splattered with moments of kitsch-neon, in which the world is always in danger but our souls are not.

“Captain America: Civil War” Review

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That’s 10 Superheroes just on the poster (don’t worry, there are more)

This post is part review, part confession. I don’t have the best relationship with the Marvel franchise. Enamored by the first Thor film, my enthusiasm gradually wore off until it was dealt a painful blow by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film that dashed my expectations, turning a story billed as a discussion of power and centralization into a story that taught me the ever-relevant lesson “don’t trust Nazis.” My Marvel cynicism grew deeper, hitting its lowest point with Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel films were white noise— always present in the box office, but unremarkable.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by Captain America: Civil War.

The film had its flaws. It carried the usual Marvel burden of having too many superheroes with too many clever retorts and witticisms. The massive 6 on 6 battle in the airport was almost entirely unneeded and exhausting.

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That’s just half of them, and I’m already worn out.

Nevertheless, the movie wasn’t just good— it challenged and even redeemed many of the problems in previous Marvel films. There were three main points of improvement: the introduction of a compelling moral conflict and resolution, moral weight, and the testing of Tony Stark’s character.

One of the most frustrating things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe was that the conflicts held little moral consequence. So often the conflict was set up as an unreasonable (often pseudo-religious) villain who threatened to destroy the world, galaxy, or in some cases, universe. This tension leaves little to consider. After all, when considering a sacrifice of, well, nearly anything, next to the entire universe, there is not really much of a decision to make. You save all of reality every time. The movie has no room for failure, because if they fail, everything, including the franchise, is gone.

What I mean to say is that the destruction of the world is a boring concept. It’s too easy to think about.

In Civil War, however, the conflict isn’t the universe, or even the world, ending. The conflict is a relational one. Every other Marvel film served to unite and bring people together. This one dealt with what would tear people apart.

A moral discussion set in a framework that could possibly fail creates the ability to have both sides of the conflict make sense. Stark’s camp is right: oversight is needed and innocent bodies have been piling up from Avengers actions. Captain America’s camp is right as well: Bucky needs to stand fair trial, and UN oversight would destroy the active ability of the superheroes, rendering them useless. This kind of conflict is a real one, one similar to those that we face in our current political discussions. By placing real issues at the heart of the film, Civil War inherits moral weight, making the film more profound, more engaging, and more serious than its MCU predecessors.

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While predictable, T’Challa added considerable moral weight to the film.

Another firm moral discussion the film probes is the justifiable nature of revenge. The film not only operates as a wholesale condemnation of vengeance, but the theme is carried far enough to subvert traditional tropes about ironic justice. As Baron Zemo, no longer able to continue his vengeful course, places a gun to his head to take his own life, conventional film wisdom would have him pull the trigger, allowing the story to take its vengeful course so that the protagonist wouldn’t have to. T’Challa, however, intervenes to save the life of Zemo, not even allowing the viewer the catharsis of vengeance.

Secondly, the film finally gives emotional weight to the Marvel universe. The MCU has always had strong characters. The people who inhabit the Hydra, SHIELD, and Asgard are colorful and interesting. Regrettably, however, the Marvel story writers seem to have their hands tied behind their backs when figuring out what to do with these characters.

Making good plot decisions with characters requires sacrifice, vulnerability, and often destruction. When entire movie series are based off of people involved in your story line, you don’t have the artistic freedom to make wise character decisions. For example: if Thor makes a horrible, disgusting decision, the blot on his character could mar future films, potentially harming the productivity of an entire franchise. As a result, character decisions become stale, stagnate, and predictable.

Civil War, however, breaks this pattern. Because it is set in a fleshed out conflict, the characters make fleshed out decisions. The final, snowy fight scene between Captain America, Bucky, and Iron Man (thanks in part to Henry Jackman’s score) achieves am emotional power that was previously unreachable by the Marvel Universe. The splitting of the Avengers, the near-death (it would have been a much better complete death) of War Machine, and the irreconcilable hatred between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers leaves the film in a place that is far, far different than where it started. It comes to a conclusion.

A particularly compelling theme in the film is the testing of Tony Stark’s character. Previously, Stark, an arrogant jerk, always evaded the consequences of his actions. His defiance to authority, his devil-may-care attitude, and his irresponsible decisions (like creating an apocalyptic world-ending AI, a fault that he gets little if any condemnation for) always work out for the best, or at least have negligible harm. This kept Stark’s character in a stasis. He remained static, and I expected no change. After all, his arrogance was part of his appeal: he appealed to our love of a powerful figure who defies the big wigs and profits nonetheless.

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He totally should have died, but I’m not salty.

But in an unexpected turn, Marvel decided to finally bring Stark face to face with the consequences of his decisions, including a scene where he is berated and condemned by the mother of a dead bystander to one of the Avenger’s world-saving operations. Stark makes definitive, character-altering decisions that impact his relationship to himself and to others. These decisions are finally not decisions he can science his way out of or teamwork his way around. He has to live with the consequences of his decisions.

For these reasons (and others) I am admitting that I was wrong. Marvel made a good movie that wasn’t Thor. Marvel fleshed out characters that I thought commercial markets had deemed to remain skeletal, blockbuster pushing devices, and I am grateful. Sadly, most likely the next few films will destroy the conclusions reached in this film by bringing the characters back together, back into the comfortable status quo. But then again, I was wrong once, maybe I’ll be wrong again.

“Last Days in the Desert” Review

Last_Days_in_the_Desert_posterIn the Bible, the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness appears in the Gospels, but Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert may strike audiences as something far more akin to Ecclesiastes. Anchored by a fine performance from Ewan McGregor as Yeshua (Jesus is identified by his Hebrew name in this most recent film to tackle the Christ) and moving at a subdued pace through Emmanuel Lubezki’s stark desert cinematography, García provides a story that prompts reflection on the meaning, frailty, and purpose of human relationships.

García’s film is strikingly minimalist right from the opening passage of Jesus wandering alone through the wilderness, during which only two lines of dialogue are spoken, and makes no pretensions as to faithfulness to any specific Christian or Jewish understanding of Jesus beyond that of Jesus having been a holy man in real time and space who claimed to be the son of God and was crucified. If Jesus is God become man, then García’s Yeshua is man first and foremost: an ascetic wandering through the desert, searching for an intangible something from his Heavenly Father as he struggles against the elements. This is a shivering, dirty, tired Yeshua, one who laughs at his own predicaments, like his long hair tangling in the bushes he cowers in for shelter, before peaking off into a frustrated, agonized scream.

Yeshua is played by McGregor as a quiet, but earnest man who believes firmly in both his mission and the love of his Father for him, and those around him, who is struggling to fulfill and understand that divine purpose. (I’d be remiss not to mention that it is a bit frustrating for yet another film about Jesus to be so obviously ethnically inaccurate. However, García’s avoidance of the Jewish context for the story in favor of a more universal parable might shed some light on the casting decision.) He is taunted and harassed by the Devil, who most often appears in the form of Yeshua himself (played again by McGregor, fittingly outfitted with a few extra trinkets of jewelry). The conversations between the resolute, pure-hearted Yeshua and the devious, often petulant Lucifer are the highlight of the film. García allows Yeshua to actually be tempted (this isn’t a sympathetic Satan who wants to enlighten Yeshua), and while Satan asks vexing questions to a man who claims to be the son of God, he is frequently spiteful and cruel.

The film is at its most effective when it capitalizes on the Ecclesiastical tone, wondering at what (if any) meaning is to be found in the bitter wastes of the desert. For example, Yeshua catches Lucifer wondering at the beauty of a shooting star, to which Lucifer hotly denies admiring God’s creation before launching into a tirade on the boring repetitiveness of the earth, with its unceasing cycle of animal and human life. It is ultimate death, an ultimate end, that Lucifer longs to see. A motif of the cyclical pattern of life is echoed in the tension-fraught conflict in the family that Yeshua stays with for the bulk of the film’s middle act, where a dreaming son, a frustrated father, and an ill wife talk past each other and cling to alternating love and hatred just as their ancestors have and descendants will. Satan challenges Yeshua to solve the family’s struggles to the satisfaction of all, and Yeshua (who does not use his divine powers in this pre-ministry context) struggles to heal three frail human beings through both word and deed.

It’s a moving struggle, but it is here that the minimalistic nature of the film occasionally works against it. Somber in its tone, though undeniably beautiful, the film lacks a certain something in its resolution of the family plot (though the Crucifixion finale and epilogue are made all the more potent because of their artistic restraint). My instinct is that an element of joy, of the life that Yeshua celebrates in his parting blessing to the young son, is lacking. This is not to say that Last Days in the Desert is one-dimensional: there is occasional welcome and refreshing humor. But it is difficult for sparse humor alone to resonate on a spiritual level, and giving but a glimpse or two more of true human gladness might have made a delicate but significant difference.

Lubezki’s cinematography deserves greater mention here, as he captures the essence of García’s vision, placing characters within curiously subtle vistas. There’s a mystifying unobtrusiveness to Lubezki’s composition: at one point Yeshua and the father walk and talk, and it is only about halfway through the scene that one notices they stand on the edge of a cliff overlooking a beautiful, rugged, valley. An elusive but sublime truth lies hidden here in the desert, the shot suggests, if one would only take the time to notice it. It is an indictment of our modern quickness, our rushing over of things that do not strike us as important or interesting. Last Days in the Desert isn’t perfect by any means, but it prompts us to slow down, to pause, and to reflect, and in this case that’s more than enough to make it well-worth seeing.

Specter of the Past: A reflection on the Star Wars Expanded Universe

specter of the past (2)The Iredell County Public Library will always hold a special place in my heart: it was there that I discovered the Star Wars Expanded Universe. It was a discovery that, in a certain respect, changed my life forever.

You might scoff at this, but let me explain. I was about eleven or twelve years old, and had reached “peak Star Wars,” so to speak. I was entirely obsessed with George Lucas’s epic saga. I had action figures, I had Star Wars Risk. I played Star Wars Battlefront and Star Wars Lego on XBOX for ungodly hours with my brother, cousin, and neighbors. I had (and still have) a Darth Vader folder in which I kept my intricate sketches (ahem, well…tracings) of clone trooper armor. My parents had bought me the 2004 Special Edition DVD set of the Original Trilogy along with the soundtracks to Episodes I, III, and VI, music and visuals that framed my imaginative adventures for years. My brother and I had light-up lightsabers with sound effects, Darth Vader’s red and Mace Windu’s purple blades respectively, with which we pummeled each other so thoroughly we had to duct-tape the shattered points at the top. It was a glorious time to be a kid.

Glorious, yes, but even at a young age it was bittersweet. Revenge of the Sith had been released in 2005, an event which I treated with an almost religious anticipation and reverence. The week spent waiting for my parents to decide whether my brother and I were old enough for a PG-13 movie only heightened the sense of honor that we would be blessed with the opportunity to see the last ever Star Wars movie in theaters. And so our dad took us to the Statesville Marquee Cinema, where we met another father and son we knew from church and buckled in for what remains the single greatest cinematic experience of my lifetime. I was overwhelmed from the opening shot of the battle of Coruscant to the final image of the binary sunset on Tatooine, during which I cried, struck with the sudden realization that this story that I loved so much was over.

The fervent and impassioned discussions with friends at lunch in my homeschool co-op, the thrill at having new Complete Locations and Incredible Cross-Sections books to dissect along with an ARC-170 Lego set to labor over (don’t get me started on those technic s-foils) softened the finality of it all, but eventually a subdued sense of mourning started to set in. It might be hard to explain outside of the context of childhood, but try to understand: a significant part of my life up to that point was spent in anxious anticipation for Revenge of the Sith, and no matter how satisfying that movie had been my imagination craved more. I had my own adventures to act out with friends, of course, the stuff of hundreds of outdoor lightsaber fights, but they always devolved into arguments over each other’s Force powers (“What do you mean you blocked my Force push!?”). I didn’t like that. I wanted stories. I wanted narrative.

Enter the Iredell County Public Library. It was towards the end of the school year, and my mom had stopped at the library before we went to get our yearly standardized testing done. Instead of hopping onto one of the computers downstairs as I usually did, I decided to wander around upstairs, where the “real” books were kept.

Now, it should be noted that I was and always have been a voracious reader, but at this point I mostly stuck to classics and history books of the children’s variety, the Wishbone series being a particular favorite of mine. I didn’t regularly dig into “grown-up” books, but everything was about to change.

As my eyes scanned the shelves I caught a glimpse of the Star Wars logo, those fat, rounded letters that blasted onscreen with the London Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of every episode. I almost did a double-take. “On a novel!?” It was a big, hefty, library bound copy with a blue spine that read: Heir to the Empire. I quickly yanked it off the third shelf to look at the cover.

 

heir to empire

There were Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie, all arranged in stunningly true-to-screen likeness (my artistic sensibilities at that time were easily impressed), Stormtroopers illuminated by an explosion in the midst of combat, X-wings cutting through the sky just as they did at the end of Return of the Jedi, and a mysterious Imperial officer, dressed in white with skin that looked vaguely blue, scowling in the bottom left-hand corner. What struck me most, however, was the robed, bearded man with piercing eyes, a medallion dangling from his neck, whose hands sent splinters of light shooting across the sky in some act of primally-focused power. And there, right over the logo, were the words that sent shivers down my spine: “THE SAGA CONTINUES!”

It was too good to be true. I rushed the book off to the circulation desk and checked it out on the spot. When my family left I was the first to our Dodge caravan, curling up in the front seat and eagerly flipping to the first page: “‘Captain Pellaeon?’ a voice called down the portside crew pit through the hum of background conversation. ‘Message from the sentry line: the scoutships have come out of lightspeed.’”

By the end of the first chapter, in which it had been revealed that Captain Pellaeon commanded the Star Destroyer Chimaera (what a beautiful, mysterious name it was!) and served under the brilliant alien Grand Admiral Thrawn, I was enthralled. In the coming weeks I stayed up late into the night (probably till 9 o’clock or so) awe-struck by the fact that the New Republic, led by our heroes, was still fighting the remnants of the Empire five years after defeating the Emperor. And these remnants were led by a blue-skinned red-eyed man who could defeat his enemies by understanding their art. Their art!

I had stumbled upon the section of the library that held science fiction author Timothy Zahn’s books, and I left clutching what readers know as the first novel in the Star Wars Expanded Universe tightly to my chest. It was such a blurred, euphoric moment of discovery that I can’t honestly remember whether my selection was purely the will of the Force or instead the result of me noticing the “VOLUME 1 OF A THREE-BOOK CYCLE” pronouncement right above the title, but either way I was taking my first steps into a larger world, a world that stretched beyond what is now known as the Thrawn Trilogy to Zahn’s Hand of Thrawn Duology, to Survivor’s Quest and Outbound Flight, to Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando novels and James Luceno’s Dark Lord Trilogy.

Vision of the FutureThis world would take me to incredible places imaginatively, narratively, and morally that I had never realized existed. It was like watching Lucas’s movies for the first time all over again. There was Mara Jade, the Emperor’s Hand, a young woman whose arc from pawn of the Emperor to friend and eventual wife of Luke Skywalker spoke to the possibility for redemption and freedom even for “bad guys,” and whom I definitely never crushed on. There was Joruus C’Baoth, a crazed Jedi-clone who warned me about the seductive, maddening desire for power. There was Grand Admiral Thrawn, an Imperial of brilliant cunning but with an unexpected sense of honor. There were space battles, temptations of the dark side, clones, smugglers, and enslaved assassin peoples who broke the bonds of their oppressors through the reception of knowledge from their enemy. There were Interdictor cruisers that yanked enemy ships out of hyper-space with their gravity-well generators, intricate villainous political plots that preyed upon racial tensions, smugglers that learned to act with nobility, space pirates who foolishly chased money and ambition to their own destruction, and clones who rejected their created-purpose to serve as destructive agents of the Empire to live peaceful, quiet lives of farming. These were the stories that filled my childhood imagination, that challenged me to think about right and wrong, heroism and cowardice in ways that I had never thought before.

So why bother writing this? On April 25, 2014, Disney declared all these works to be “non-canon” for the purposes of creative freedom in building a new Star Wars trilogy. With a stroke of the pen, a corporation had deemed these books and stories to be irrelevant, null and void. They had been deemed “Legends,” a golden banner crying out a warning to newcomers that these stories are a fiction within fiction.

I understood the decision, but it remained a little strange to have books you loved as a child declared “untrue.” As I speculated on the upcoming Star Wars films with friends I thought, with a twinge of sadness, that Zahn’s novels no longer mattered. But after the disappointment of The Force Awakens and the sudden return of free-time post-thesis writing, I’ve revisited a few of these old friends (The Thrawn Trilogy and the Hand of Thrawn Duology) to find that they’re just as alive and well as when I first found them in the Iredell County Library those many years ago.

All fiction is untruth, in a sense. In the end, stories are still just stories. Does it make any sense then for an executive to impose factual and historical restrictions on a universe that allows characters to heal themselves via Force-trance and fight mob-boss space-slugs? The universe of these particular stories is so beyond the factual it defies canonization.

I’m not here to claim that the Star Wars Expanded Universe produced great literature (it didn’t). I’m not here to tell you that the old canon is better than the new canon, or to engage in one of a thousand silly arguments of continuity and textual faithfulness that fandoms fixate on. That’d be wasting your time.

I’m just here to say that those books rang true to me, resonating with such strength that the love of story they helped build provided the kindling for a fire that burns even brighter today.

May the Force be with you, Timothy Zahn. Thanks.

“The Finest Hours” Review

The_Finest_Hours_posterSometimes a simple story earnestly told can prove just as effective as the most complex of narratives, and such is the case with Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours, a historical drama based on the astonishing true account of the Coast Guard rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton, an oil tanker that split in two during a fierce storm off the coast of New England in 1952. Gillespie fully embraces well-worn narrative conventions that trumpet common man heroism and romance against the elements, but imbues those conventions, and even occasionally subverts them, with a passionate sense of human nobility and a deft command of cinematography and tone.

From the unfortunate title, a misguided attempt to play on the old cliche, one might expect The Finest Hours to be a paint by the numbers adventure on the open sea. Capable and entertaining, perhaps, but nothing that would linger in the consciousness for long after the credits roll. Such an expectation, however, speaks to a subtle, perhaps unspoken aversion to straightforward, earnest storytelling. Our entertainment desires seem to have become split between the spectacle driven blockbuster franchises that thrive on their own self-evident lunacy on the one hand, and brooding, cynical and darkly humorous works on the other. One group wears the thin veneer of virtue to justify its own absurdity and incoherence, while the other exists only to mock and tear down whatever moral instincts we might cling to as a society. A simple tale of human courage, then, of the human spirit triumphing over incredible odds, appears to have no market (as its paltry $10.3 million opening weekend and tepid critical reviews attest to) in an environment where audiences seem to only be interested in that which distracts from or deconstructs reality.

All this to make the point, primarily, that The Finest Hours is astonishingly refreshing in its simplicity of mind and focus in the same sense that The Revenant is. While Gillespie doesn’t communicate with the rich and brutal symbolism of Alejandro Iñárritu, his focus is essentially the same, though filtered through a distinct artistic lens: the practical and tangible concerns of men and women struggling against both nature and each other.

The Finest Hours concerns itself primarily with two men: Coast Guard crewman Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and the tanker’s engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), both men of quiet purpose whose character is judged best by their actions rather than words. They’re a refreshing change of pace from the boisterous and dominating action heroes that tend to helm this sort of adventure. Bernie (mumbling all the while in a convincing New England accent) finds himself asked to do the impossible by a novice commanding officer, but his only (and oft-repeated) question is “what do the regulations say?” Ray, facing almost certain death on a tanker split asunder, seems reluctant to contradict his frightened shipmates when they insist on delusional plans to save themselves, but his understated but rational grasp of the physical realities saves the lives of many. The heroism praised in this film is not one of assertive, domineering men, but rather of those who quietly try to do right by their fellow human beings and tend to the problems immediately in front of them.

By focusing on two understated characters thrust into circumstances beyond their own control, Gillespie exercises remarkable restraint that pays dividends in terms of authenticity. We aren’t subjected to laborious exposition about families and girlfriends at home. Rather, Gillespie trusts the early introduction and continuing subplot of Bernie’s engagement to Miriam Webber (Holliday Grainger) to have sufficiently tuned the audience in to the personal stakes (in an endearing romantic twist, Bernie is such a gentle and timid man that Miriam’s proposal of marriage frightens him into initially saying no). This frees the action sequences to focus their propulsive emotional intensity on the immediate concern, staying alive and beating back the forces of nature, while adding far more poignancy to the moments where Gillespie allows the melodrama to naturally flow (aided by a classically romantic score by Carter Burwell).

This focus is magnified in its visceral effect by phenomenal composition work by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. Aguirresarobe utilizes steady long shots to frame the scale of the nor’easter our characters find themselves trapped within. This is used to particular effect during the initial splitting of the Pendleton, as the rolling seas break apart a powerful technological feat like it was a mere plaything. Shrouded in darkness but partially illuminated by the flickering of both man-made lights and natural lightning, the divided ship becomes a testament to the power of nature and the smallness of man, and in these moments the film deals unabashedly in the sublime. On land as well, the oppressive whiteness of a merciless winter storm is beautifully rendered, and it is here that comparisons to The Revenant become most fitting. While The Finest Hours may impart a level of pure heroism and innocence to its central figures that The Revenant rarely does, both films concern themselves with the physical struggles of men against the harsh realities of the world we inhabit. It’s a simple film, yes, but it’s about as real and earnest a story as you’re apt to see from Hollywood.