I, Tonya(1/7/2018)

I am old enough that I remember the O.J. Simpson controversy.  I don’t remember it very well as I was only about seven when the verdict was handed down and was mostly oblivious to its details and its social context, but it was something I knew was going on at the time.  I am not, however, old enough to remember the other scandal du jour of the early 90s: the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan kneecap clubbing affair.  In fact I first heard about the whole incident from a Weird Al Yankovic song called “Headline News” which was a parody of The Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” that described other tabloidy 90s news stories like that kid who got his butt caned in Singapore and that lady who cut off her husband’s wiener.   You’ll note that there was not a word about O.J. in that song, in part because that story involved a double-murder, but also because that delved into some pretty serious aspects of American society which wouldn’t make it terribly suitable for a song parody (dancing Itos notwithstanding).  The Tonya Harding case on the other hand was basically a joke from the beginning and was viewed by the public as little more than a cat fight writ large.  However, like the O.J. story this is being revisited recently in a number of documentaries and articles to see if there was actually something to be mined from it now that the dust has settled and we have some perspective and the latest manifestation of that is the new feature film I, Tonya.

I, Tonya begins with a title card saying that it’s based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” from it subjects.  The main subject is of course Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who the film follows basically from her first professional skating lesson at the age of four up through the duration of the scandal that would define her.  Throughout her youth she is being driven to succeed by her mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), who paid for Harding’s lessons out of her modest waitress salary and supports her as she rose to the top of her sport.  That would be an incredibly inspiring story if not for the fact that LaVona is otherwise a horrible mother who constantly abuses Tonya verbally and sometimes physically.  As a teenager Harding is frustrated both by her mother’s craziness and the snobbery that’s preventing her from getting good scores at tournaments and this drives her into the arms of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who provides something of an escape for her despite also being physically abusive and just generally a loser.  She ends up coming in fourth place at the 1992 Olympics and thinks her career is over until she learns that because of a re-allignment the next winter Olympics will be held just two years later.  She believes she’s primed for a comeback… one that will soon be sabotaged by her scheming husband and his nutty friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).

I, Tonya takes the form of a dark comedy and is structured by a series of faux “to the camera” interviews with the various characters which often become voice-over and the on-screen characters also occasionally break the fourth wall and talk to the screen.  A lot of this structure is reminiscent of The Big Short or perhaps even 24 Hour Party People, especially when we get to scenes the characters stop, look at the camera, and says something like “it didn’t happen like this” during scenes where the testimonies of the various principals contradict each other.  But the movie that this most clearly wants to be like is David O. Russell’s American Hustle.  That movie, and other recent movies from Russell, deal with lower class families like Harding’s and have a similar pace and patter to them.  The film certainly paints the “incident” at the center of the film as a hustle gone wrong more than anything and there’s a largeness to all the performances here that certainly matches what we saw from Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.  In fact I’d say it’s trying so hard to be like that movie and Goodfellas that it has an extensive soundtrack which mostly features music from the 70s even though the film is mostly set in the 90s, including certain songs that have become clichés of “70s soundtracks” like “Spirit in the Sky” and “The Chain,” which were both prominently featured in Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Derivative as the film may be it would be something of a lie to suggest that these techniques that the movie rips off don’t still more or less work.  As a comedy the movie does more or less function effectively with all the film’s colorful characters saying a lot of rather ridiculous things to one another and the film frequently cutting to them in interview form contradicting each other and commenting on certain things and occasionally even breaking the fourth wall.  That the film functions as well as it does as a comedy is surprising given that it covers some rather dark material, namely the domestic violence that occurred between Gillooly and Harding, which could easily come across as rather flippant.  The film has also been criticized for not being overly concerned with what Nancy Kerrigan went through in all of this, which seems a bit unfair as the movie is simply focusing on the more entertaining figures in all of this.  What’s more I’m not sure that the movie is as sympathetic towards Harding as people are making it out to be.  The movie certainly isn’t on Harding’s side when she makes goofy excuses or says wildly un-self-aware things like when she accuses Kerrigan of being the real bad sport in all of this.

There are a lot of movies that I respect more than I like.  They’re movies that I can clearly see doing new and interesting things but which I just don’t really enjoy watching.  This is the opposite of that, it’s a movie I like but don’t really respect.  Its director Craig Gillespie is a guy who can deliver professionally made movies like the Fright Night remake, but he’s clearly not an auteur with a vision and here you can tell that he’s just borrowing from other contemporaries and applying those techniques to a movie that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.  I don’t think it has a terribly clear message to deliver about wealth inequality, domestic violence, or tabloid culture but it sure wants you to think it does.  It does hit those funny notes when it needs to, it does move along at an impressive pace, it’s greatly elevated by its cast, and even when you’re cringing at how un-clever “Barracuda” is as a song choice you still sort of jam to it.  Winter is a time when movies like this get held to a slightly higher standard as we try to parse out which movies are deserve to have their legacies built immediately by awards, and with that in mind I feel the need to knock this thing down a couple of pegs, but it’s also a movie I suspect most moviegoers looking for a good time at a theater shouldn’t be dissuaded from.

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Molly’s Game(1/6/2018)

As with most vices I’ve spent most of my life avoiding gambling as an activity in all its forms.  I don’t go to casinos, I don’t bet on sports, and I don’t even play the lottery.  That having been said in the last couple of years I’ve developed a fascination with the game of Texas Hold ‘Em poker.  I never play it mind you, not for money anyway, but I watch a number of Youtube channels about the game and when high profile tournaments are televised or are being live streamed I try to check them out.  This does not make watching movies that have poker scenes in them all that much easier because poker scenes in movies are often kind of ridiculous.  Most poker hands involve one dude with a pair and one dude with an ace high and end with one or the other folding because the other shows the slightest bit of aggression.  The poker scenes in Casino Royale are basically science fiction scenarios with ridiculously large hands showing up on the regular, but then the movies that actually seem to take the game seriously end up being these mediocrities like Rounders and Lucky You.  But my eyebrow still pops up a little when a movie involving poker pops up and I was particularly curious when I heard about the film Molly’s Game, which was going to tell one of the more famous stories in the world of poker and would be the directorial debut of Aaron Sorkin to boot.

The film looks at the true events surrounding a woman named Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) who achieves fortune and infamy running underground poker games that were attended by movies stars, athletes, millionaires, and billionaires.  As the film begins Bloom, who has quit running poker games and wrote a book about her experiences, is being arrested as part of a wider crackdown on the Russian mafia under the belief that her games were part of a money laundering scheme, forcing her to seek out a high paid attorney named Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba).  From there we flash back to her childhood, where she was pressured to be an over-achiever by her father Larry (Kevin Costner) and became a highly successful skier before having that career cut short by an injury.  We then watch as she moves to L.A. and finds herself working as an assistant for an asshole Hollywood producer, and part of that job is to help organize his weekly high stakes poker night in the basement of The Viper Room which is attended by a number of big name directors and actors including one the movie calls Player X (Michael Cera) who is by all accounts based on Tobey Maguire.  Eventually things sour with the producer and rather than let him run things she simply starts up her own card game and poaches all his players.

One of the strengths of Molly’s Game is that it manages to not feel like a ripoff of Goodfellas despite basically having all the elements of one.  This is after all a movie telling the true story of the rise and fall of a crime empire of sorts through a briskly edited romp with voice over narration from the person at the center of it all.  Part of why this feels different might be the absence of anyone getting wacked and part of it might be its flashback structure or the lack of classic rock over the montages.  Really though I think it just comes down to the fact that it’s a movie that doesn’t exude machismo.  Unlike Martin Scorsese Aaron Sorkin does not come from “the streets” and he’s also a grown-up who isn’t terribly interested in seeming like a tough guy the way that most of the young filmmakers who are prone to ripping off Goodfellas are.  Also, perhaps more obviously, the person at the center of this movie is a woman and not one who’s trying to be an heir to Scarface.  Where most gangsters build their empires on being “respected” (I.E. feared), she built hers essentially on social skills, organization, and psychology.

Molly herself is pretty impressive as a person despite her flaws, and Jessica Chastain brings her to life with some clear star power.  This is also of course a film by Aaron Sorkin and you can certainly tell he wrote it though there a bit more restraint then there could have been.  The theory among critics is that Sorkin works best when his screenplays were interpreted by directors with somewhat icy directorial styles like David Fincher and Bennet Miller to dilute out some of his cornier ideas, but he seems to do a pretty good job of holding himself back while directing this one.  That said, he’s still clearly not a master filmmaker behind the camera.  There are certainly moments that are more visually ambitious than what he normally does with his television work but none of them really blew me away in their execution and the overall style here doesn’t really rise much above the level of “average.”  There also doesn’t ultimately seem to be much of a point to all this beyond the fact that it’s an interesting true story.  The things that make Molly tick ultimately aren’t all that deep or complicated, though that doesn’t stop them from outlining all of them via pop psychology in one rather on the nose scene towards the end, and the movie is also occasionally a bit too in love with her for her own good.  Her ultimate claim to sympathy is that she’s very intent to keep all the dirty secrets of the famous people at her games… which maybe explains why it’s as well liked as it is at industry awards shows in 2017… and that she isn’t a murderer.  At certain points it’s argued that it’s an injustice that Molly being prosecuted when white collar criminals who’ve done worse are often not prosecuted as vigorously, which is true, but there are also poor black kids who’ve done even less and get prosecuted even more vigorously so Molly’s position as an underdog in the legal system seems a bit dubious.

Ultimately, Molly’s Game is merely a good movie and that’s okay.  It used to be that dramas like this had a lot less pressure on them.  Hollywood would put them out regularly and they could serve as solid populist entertainment, but these days movies like this are immediately vetted to see if they’re Oscar-worthy and if they aren’t they get pushed aside.  I wouldn’t consider this movie to be high art but there’s certainly plenty of good in it.  Should you see this in place of all the other great movies that are out in theaters right now?  Probably not.  But if you’ve seen all of those or you’re in the mood for something lighter and this sounds interesting give it a watch.  And if you miss this in theaters, go ahead and give it a rental or catch it on HBO because it’s definitely the kind of movie that makes for a good casual viewing.

Call Me By Your Name(12/22/2017)

Do you need to relate to a coming of age movie to like it?  That would depend on your definition of the word “need.”  There are obviously ways to enjoy movies about the childhoods of characters who live lives pretty far removed from one’s own.  The ultimate coming of age movie is probably Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows which is based on Trufaut’s own experiences growing up in 1940s Paris, a milieu that would seem to be pretty different from where most modern American viewers would have grown up, and yet that hardly seems to matter because Antoine Doinel is such a well-drawn character and his ennui largely seems removed from his surroundings and on some level you can relate to the way that he responds to teachers and parents and the like.  Then there are examples like Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, which is set in a small town in Mussolini’s Italy, but in that case the town is in many ways more the protagonist than the young man at its center and the fact that it’s drawn from such specific memories of its director of this time and place makes it so everything that’s foreign about it simply makes it more interesting.  There are, however times when movies do lose some impact when your personal connection to them is a little more tenuous.  For instance, Terrance Malick’s otherwise immaculately made opus The Tree of Life ultimately never quite impacted me as much as I wanted it to, in part because I never quite connected to the nostalgia of its child protagonist and his rather specific experiences in rural 1950s Texas.  Conversely there’s a very good chance that the experiences I shared with the protagonist of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood really multiplied the enthusiasm I would have had for the film by quite a bit.  I bring this up because the protagonist of the highly acclaimed new film Call Me by Your Name is about as different from me on any level as someone can be and it in many ways puts to the test whether you can connect to audiences in situations like this and how.

The film is set in 1983 in a small town in Northern Italy and focuses on Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), the seventeen year old son in a Jewish American ex-patriot family that is in Italy because of his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an esteemed archeologist.  The film begins with the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student who has come to assist the father for the summer and will be staying with him at the villa.  Elio has spent much of the summer reading, practicing his skills at the piano, and chasing after his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel).  There is, however, something about his relationship with Marzia that leaves Elio unfulfilled and there’s something about this Oliver guy that he finds intruding.

Call Me By Your Name was directed by a guy named Luca Guadagnino, who previously directed a pair of films called I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, which were both movies with fairly different tones but the one thing they had in common was that they were both about rich people living decadent lives in Italy.  A Bigger Splash in particular felt almost like “lifestyle porn” with its British and American expat characters frolicking around on a Mediterranean island while decked in expensive fashions and eating expensive food and seemingly not having a care in the world until someone gets murdered.  Call Me By Your Name does not feel as decadent as that movie did but it’s still very much a movie about rich ex-patriots who live cultured European lives.  Because of this I found the first half of Call Me By Your Name to be a bit slow, in part because it mostly just felt like it was painting a portrait of Elio, who seems like the most privileged 17 year old who ever lived.  This is a dude who is living as a citizen of the world in an idyllic Italian countryside with super chill parents who surround him with culture and who has friends and beautiful girls (who he seems fairly receptive to despite future developments) throwing themselves at him.  His life is one that’s so far removed from my own teenage experiences that simply witness it during its more mundane moments was not really giving me that thrill of recognition I often expect from these kind of movies, which isn’t inherently bad but in the absence of story development I wasn’t terribly interested.

The movie does, however, pick up in a big way once Elio and Oliver stop beating around the bush and commence with their affair.  This development has become controversial in some quarters because of the age difference between the two characters.  On paper Elio is 17 and Oliver is 24, which is kind of questionable to begin with but it’s confounded by the fact that Timothée Chalamet is 22 but quite convincingly looks 17 while Armie Hammer is 31 and looks 31.  The movie does go out of its way to make it clear that the attraction between these two characters is mutual and that Oliver isn’t acting in a particularly predator manner and the movie does still eventually dig a bit into the reasons why a love affair between a high school student and a post-grad might not be an entirely healthy decision for either.  Still, I get why people would be queasy about this relationship but also why people would be open minded about it under these specific circumstances.  Regardless of the morality of the situation I do think Armie Hammer was a bit miscast here in terms of age and also because he never quite fit as this intellectual grad student and he never made it terribly clear to me why his character would be interested in this scrawny pretentious 17 year old.  The movie is primarily from Elio’s point of view so it’s makes sense that his experience of these events would be clearer, but that half of this romance could have been explored a bit more.

I can’t help but compare this movie to the year’s other high profile coming of age movie: Lady Bird.  Unlike this movie, the protagonist of that movie is incredibly relatable for middle class viewers from mid-size American cities.  That movie also feels a lot more clear eyed about how youthful romances tend to play out, which is to say that it views them as misbegotten superficial things that get literally painted over by the end rather than as grand romances to be remembered forever.  On the other hand this movie is hardly oblivious to the fact that the romance at its center is rare and out of the ordinary and the events of the film do feel increasingly meaningful during its last thirty minutes or so.  That’s the other big difference between this and Lady Bird: Gretta Gerwig’s movie feels highly entertaining pretty much from the beginning but never quite seems sure how it wants to end while Call Me By Your Name has a nearly perfect ending but seems to spend an awful lot of time trying to set it up and that made the film’s first half slow and uneventful.  I’m glad I saw the movie in a theater because I suspect I would have lost patience with it and abused the pause button if I was watching it at home.  It’s certainly a well-made film, one that I respect quite a lot, but it’s not necessarily the film for me or at least not the film that’s going to knock my socks off.

The Shape of Water(12/17/2017)

Warning: Review contains spoilers

A few months ago I had the privilege of attending a special 3D screening of the 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a movie that’s been lumped in with the canon of Universal Horror classics like Frankenstein and Dracula but which in many ways hues closer to 50s science fiction movies like The Blob or The Fly.  At its center is a monster that’s come to be known as the “gil-man”; a half human/half fish hybrid who can breathe both under-water and on the land.  The gil-man never seems entirely feral but the extent to which it has human intelligence is never entirely clear either.  In many ways the gil-man feels a bit like King Kong in that he’s this legendary creature in a remote location who encounters a group of white explorers as they encroach on his territory.  Also like King Kong he becomes infatuated with the one white woman who comes along with these explorers and proceeds to spend much of the movie attempting to kidnap and presumably rape said white woman who spends most of the movie screaming in its presence.  Most people who saw this simply accepted it as the slightly silly B-movie convention that it was, but in the mind of Guillermo del Toro there was a lot more potential here; he’s the one guy who saw this dynamic and thought “if only she was a little more open minded and if only this guy came on a with a little more respect maybe this relationship could have worked.”

Set in 1961, The Shape of Water focuses on a woman named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who lives next door to her best friend, a middle aged gay man named Giles (Richard Jenkins).  During the day Elisa works as a janitor with another friend named Zelda (Octavia Spencer) at a secretive government facility called the Occam Aerospace Research Center which is run by a straight laced but often cruel man named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).   I’m not exactly sure what this facility normally does, but early in the movie it’s tasked with the unusual job of housing a rare live specimen: a humanoid amphibian entity capable of both breathing water and air that was found in the Amazon and is known only as The Asset (Doug Jones).  The Asset is being studied by a mild mannered scientist named Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who believes it may be a highly intelligent being possibly capable of communication and greater human interaction, but Strickland is offended by its very existence and often mistreats it.  While cleaning the room this creature is being housed in Elisa catches a glimpse of it and is immediately fascinated.  Unlike Strickland she tries being nice to it and giving it food and playing it music.  Soon enough there is a connection there, but Elisa has very little control over The Asset’s fate, at least not without taking matters into her own hands.

The Shape of Water is in some ways a “do or die” movie for Guillermo del Toro given that his supporters have been waiting a long time for him to really live up to the potential he showed in his 2006 triumph Pan’s Labyrinth.  In the decade since making that movie he made one solidly entertaining studio film (Hellboy 2: The Golden Army), one lackluster attempt at studio entertainment (Pacific Rim), and most disappointingly one ambitious horror film that proved to be a misfire (Crimson Peak).  Given that string of disappointments The Shape of Water could be seen as something of a return to the well if looked at cynically as it’s “adult fairy tale” tone feels a lot like a return to what worked for him so well in Pan’s Labyrinth and to some extent The Devil’s Backbone.  That’s in terms of tone anyway; the film’s plot is certainly divergent from that movie and from what people normally expect out of movies in general.  Most notably this is a movie that wants it audience to root for a relationship that is unconventional to say the least and could be called straight up bestiality when looked at in a particularly uncharitable way.

That Elisa would find a way to empathize with the creature in the film is logical and speaks to her purity and spirit.  That she would be so stricken as to want to begin a sexual relationship with this thing is a little harder to swallow and in some ways feels like a couple of steps were skipped.  We see early on that the creature is gentle and not the threat that he seems to the people running the facility, but he never really develops a way to converse with Elisa in any comprehensive way to the point where she doesn’t even know his name and there isn’t necessarily a conventional courtship where they come to realize they’re right for each other.  In this sense the fact that she’s drawn to him seems to say more about her own isolation than about how charming he is, and his interest in her seems to have more to do with the fact that she’s the only person who’s been nice to him in quite a while.  Of course that’s perhaps looking at this a little too logically.  This is after all a movie that begins with a voice-over which all but says “once upon a time” and refers to the protagonist as “the princess without voice” and which seems to be set in a particularly heightened world that feels almost like a Lynchian pastiche of the Eisenhower era.  Clearly we’re in the world of fairy tale, much as we were in Pan’s Labyrinth but this time there isn’t such a clear line between the real world and the fantasy.

Of course there can at times be a tension when you set fairy tales in the real world or an approximation thereof simply because the aesthetics of the modern world occasionally demand more modern readings.  That clash is particularly troublesome here when it comes to the film’s villain Richard Strickland, who is described in that voice-over as “the monster who tried to destroy it all.”  Strickland is very reminiscent of Captain Vidal, another authoritarian character who is plainly evil almost from the moment you see him and who becomes oddly fixated on an injury he receives at one point as he descends into madness towards the end.  The over-the-top evilness of Vidal stood out a bit less given that he was a literal fascist within the Franco regime rather than a mid-level American government worker.  One could perhaps view this parallel between Strickland and Vidal as some sort of statement that there may not have been quite as much of a difference between the paranoid and often prejudiced power structure in place in 1961 America and Franco’s Spain, but given that even Strickland’s superior officer seemed a little more reasonable than Strickland, that only goes so far.

It probably doesn’t help that this is something like the hundredth time that Michael Shannon has been chosen to play the role of a dangerously insane villain and in general I feel like the movie makes casting choices that are a little too on the nose like that.  Octavia Spenser’s sassy janitor certainly has shades of what she did in The Help, and Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Jenkins are also falling pretty comfortably within their usual ranges.  Granted, complaining that people fit their roles a little too well probably seems like an incredibly odd complaint but it would have made some of these characters resonate just a little more if they were being portrayed by people who were doing something a little more unexpected.  Of course I cannot make this same complaint about the movie’s most important performance, that of Sally Hawkins as the film’s lead.  Hawkins is an actress I primarily know for her work in the film Happy-Go-Lucky, which is a somewhat lesser known Mike Leigh film about a woman who is somewhat annoyingly chipper, but in a very human and interesting way.  This is hardly a copy of that performance but you can see the same persistence of spirit underneath it.  Combine that with the fact that she defines the character as well as she does without being able to speak at all even in voiceover is really impressive.

Ultimately one’s ability to love The Shape of Water is going to come down to how willing you are to go along with its “modern adult fairy tale” tone.  Audiences that don’t pick up on that or aren’t into it will be more bothered by the over the top villain, the unlikeliness of the romance, and certain other elements while those who are into the tone won’t have a problem with these things at all.  That was also what Pan’s Labyrinth was going for and on some level this feels like a very intentional companion piece to that movie some ten years later.  On some level I guess I find it a little disappointing that Del Toro’s first really respectable movie since Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie that feels so much like that last success rather than a new and exciting direction for the director.  On the other hand it’s pretty hard to call a movie where a woman bones a fish man who’s being tracked down by American and Soviet agents unoriginal.  I feel like I’ve spent a lot of this review looking a gift horse in the mouth, make no mistake I think The Shape of Water is an exceptionally well made movie that takes a frankly crazy concept and manages to make it work really well on screen in a way that few other movies could.  If I’m hard on it it’s because I feel like this is the movie he should have made in 2010 or so and should be on to the next thing had he not gotten stalled in his evolution, but better late than never.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi(12/14/2017)

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

It’s been about two years since the release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens but the hype-train leading up to it almost feels a bit like a distant memory.  That movie’s very existence almost seemed like a miracle, like something we were never going to see until George Lucas passed away, or that if it did exist under Lucas’ eye it would have been met with incredible suspicion.  But the movie did come out, all signs pointed to it being the movie everyone wanted and somehow some way it basically lived up to the hype.  Critics like it, audiences loved it, and it ended up being the highest grossing film of all time at the domestic box office.  I liked it too, I didn’t love it beyond reason, but it was a very solid blockbuster with some great new characters and a firm grasp of what a Star Wars movie should probably look like in the 21st Century.  Prior to its release I greeted The Force Awakens with cautious optimism but I’ll admit I came pretty close to getting caught up in the hype as well on some level.  Oddly though, with its direct follow-up The Last Jedi my excitement has been a bit muted despite all signs pointing to it being and even bigger deal than its predecessor.  This might have simply been the result of me being a little too diligent in avoiding spoilers for my own good.  At a certain point all I’d really known about the movie was that initial “breathe” trailer, which maybe wasn’t the best put together piece of advertising ever.  Still, it’s Star Wars, and when Star Wars comes around you show up for it.

The film picks up not too long after the events of The Force Awakens and despite having had their super-weapon base destroyed in the last movie it seems that the First Order have largely taken over the galaxy and the resistance against them is on its last legs.  In the opening scenes the resistance are evacuating from their last base and escape to light speed just in time to avoid destruction.  They think they’re in the clear, only to suddenly have the First Order have found a way to track people through hyperspace and suddenly appear right behind them.  Realizing that another jump to light speed would only waste the last of their fuel, the resistance hits their thrusters and diverts shields to the rear, which allows their faster armada to stay just ahead of their pursuers as long as their fuel lasts.  Desperate, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) hatch a plan for Finn to leave the flotilla along with his new friend Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and travel to a separate planet to find a codebreaker who will help them infiltrate the lead imperial ship and turn off their ability to track the rebels when they jump to hyperspace.  Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is reunited with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on Ahch-To as per the final moments of The Force Awakens only to discover that Luke has become bitter about the ways of the Jedi and has no interest in training another apprentice.  Persistent, Rey proclaims she will not be leaving the planet without Luke or at least without some lesson, but she’s also become troubled by strange visions she’s been having of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), visions where she starts to wonder if he’s looking back at her.

Let’s start with that inciting incident.  One of the problems I had with The Force Awakens is that it seemed pretty unclear just what this First Order was and how they managed to take over the galaxy in such a short time from this republic that our heroes had fought so hard to establish in the first movies.  This problem sort of persists here with us learning in the opening scroll that despite taking a big L in the first movie the First Order had become dominant in the galaxy and were now more or less in the position the Empire was in in the original trilogy.  This felt a bit odd given that the Resistance did seem to still have a pretty decent foothold in The Force Awakens but here they seem even weaker than the scrappy rebellion of the original movies and are so small and contained that they are confined to what appear to be four spaceships.  The idea of those four spaceships getting into a sort of low speed battle of attrition with star destroyers as they just barely outrun them is a cool one and I can imagine something like that having the makings of a good episode of Battlestar Galactica or something but it’s a little hard to believe in this context.  Why doesn’t the First Order simply call for re-enforcements to cut them off from the other side?  They’re running the galaxy now and they have gigantic armies don’t they?  For that matter what’s stopping them from simply sending more Tie-Fighters try to outflank them like Kylo Ren did early on?

But okay, it’s a cool little tense scenario and I can work with it, but the tenseness of that scenario is something of a double edged sword as it makes the danger feel really immediate and pressing and that really takes the fun out of any sort of delay along the way.  It makes it harder to sympathize with Luke’s hesitance to join in initially, but the bigger problem is that it makes it kind of infuriating to watch Finn and Rose horse around (literally and figuratively) while on their side mission to the decadent planet of Canto Bight.  This whole section of the movie is frankly a disaster.  I might have enjoyed exploring this decadent space resort but everything’s supposed to be on the line at that point in the story and that is not the time for them to be exploring the lighter adventure aspects of the franchise and especially not when they’re this poorly executed.  That space horse escape scene was decidedly not worth the effect it has on the narrative and the fact that they were stupid enough to put their whole operation in danger just because they couldn’t wait to find a parking lot was dumb and so was the coincidence of finding themselves in the same jail cell as a code-breaker who is good enough to help them with their rather specific mission.

Granted, as new characters go I rather liked Rose and thought Kelly Marie Tran brought something interesting to the table in terms of Star Wars characters and didn’t just feel like an echo of or reaction to previous Star Wars personalities like so many of the characters from The Force Awakens did.  It had more mixed feelings about Benecio Del Toro’s character DJ, I did enjoy his interactions with Finn where he debated the morality of the resistance but I did not like the way he just coincidentally entered the movie by showing up in the right jail cell and didn’t believe that Finn would have risked hiring him for such a critical mission.  Poe Dameron, though technically established in The Force Awakens only really starts to get significant screen time here.  I wouldn’t say I disliked Dameron in the previous film, but nothing about the character particularly impressed me, he just seemed like this very generic hero and given what we’ve been given here he almost seems like a parody of the white male heroes that have historically been at the centers of space operas and serials like this.  In many ways this movie seems to have been made to pull the rug out from under him but it doesn’t quite have the nerve to really go in for the killshot.  I did appreciate how effectively the movie tricks the audience into going along with his insubordination and makes you assume the ends will justify the means but it also doesn’t want him to live with the consequences once this blows up in his face.  This guy was essentially gambling with the fate of the galaxy and lost; he got hundreds if not thousands of resistance members killed, and yet just a couple hours later he still has a leadership position in the resistance and is still being treated as a hero.

The material with Rey and Luke on the other hand generally fared a little bit better but isn’t without its own flaws.  Mark Hamill is quite good in the movie and makes a compelling case that he should have been getting more work all these years.  That said, unlike Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher it’s a little hard to reconcile the older Luke Skywalker with the fresh-faced young man from the original films.  That’s explained to some extent in the backstory about his history with Kylo, which is shown in what I believe is the first instance of real flashback in the history of Star Wars.  This backstory does a pretty good job of explaining why Luke is bitter and ready to end the Jedi order, but I don’t necessarily get why he opted to fuck off to a remote planet instead of staying behind to help clean up the mess he made.  Regardless, his unwillingness to train Rey now that she’s sought him out on the planet is understandable given the track-record we’ve seen so far of highly powerful people getting trained late in life that we’ve seen so far.  In fact I feel like the question of what qualifies as Jedi is kind of an inconsistency throughout the Star Wars canon at this point.  The prequels made the Jedi out to be these warrior monk samurai who achieve their status through years of hard work and study, which probably scans best with how these sorts of things work in real life.  The original trilogy doesn’t exactly contradict this as it seems to suggest that force sensitive people can go their entire lives not even knowing they have powers, but it does seem to suggest that in a pinch a few months of running through the jungle with Yoda will probably be good enough.

In this new Abrams trilogy it feels more like being a Jedi is just something you can sort of pick up on even if you’ve never been trained at all.  Here Leia is apparently able to use the force to survive in the vacuum of space despite having presumably rejected Jedi training (a truly odd scene if ever there was one) and in the last movie Rey could apparently fight off a trained sith in a lightsaber fight just on instinct and here she’s similarly able to take on all the knights of ren about as effectively as Kylo could.  In the last movie I gave them some benefit of the doubt about this in hopes that there would be some explanation for that in the sequels but here they seem to actively suggest there is no explanation.  Yet Luke still insists at the end that Rey is going to become a Jedi somehow despite having not received any real training, losing her one possible mentor, and having not even been left with some books to study.  And if training is truly this irrelevant to what being a powerful Jedi is all about why exactly does Luke feel guilty about having trained Kylo or think it might be dangerous to similarly train Rey?  Doesn’t exactly make sense for someone who thinks she’s such a natural that she can just be a Jedi autodidact.

The Rey-related elements of this section of the movie generally work quite well though.  It’s pretty easy to relate to her frustration with Luke and her palpable desire to train while on that island works pretty well.  More importantly her strange force-induced psychological bond with Kylo Ren is quite effective and you can really feel a palpable tension in them.  These also lead to what is rather plainly the strongest section of the movie: the confrontation between Rey, Kylo, and Snoke.  Andy Serkis’ Snoke is great here and throughout the movie and really redeems what had seemed like a rather odd element in The Force Awakens and while I was sad to see him go I will say that I was pretty genuinely surprised that they were willing to split him right in half right here in the second movie and the ensuing fight with the guards was also a really good.  It wasn’t just the Kylo/Rey stuff that was working well here; all the storylines converge quite nicely during this section of the film.  Poe’s mutiny was very exciting and tense, Finn and Rose’s storyline finally picks up as they sneak onto the ship and get captured, and the moment when Holdo does a light speed kamikaze run is obviously incredible.  In fact the movie so clearly peaks at this point that it’s kind of odd that it keeps on going for another twenty minutes or so and while there’s good stuff in the battle on Crait it certainly feels less involved than what came before and almost feels like something that should have happened in a latter movie.

The big complaint about The Force Awakens was of course that it played things too safe to the point that it almost felt like a re-skinned remake of the original Star Wars.  To some extent this sequel also seems to echo its predecessors.  The way it splits up an aspiring Jedi trying to train on a remote planet with her friends being on the run from bad guys is not unlike the structure of The Empire Strikes Back and the way Finn and Rey are betrayed is not unlike what Lando does to Han and Leia in that movie.  And yet “playing it too safe” is certainly not something you can really accuse The Last Jedi of doing given that it pretty deliberately does the opposite of what you’d expect at various moments, sometimes to the point of underwhelming.  Most controversially the film kills off the mysterious Snoke without so much as trying to explain who he was or where he came from and also rather casually giving the most mundane explanation for Rey’s parentage possible.  One could blame Star Wars fans for obsessing over those two mysteries and setting themselves up for disappointment, but to that I call bullshit.  The fans had every reason to ponder over those mysteries given that they were questions that J.J. Abrams quite intentionally left open, more than inviting people to theorize about them for two years.  If he doesn’t have a good answer for something he maybe shouldn’t set it up as a mystery… has he learned nothing from “Lost.”

There is perhaps something of a meta-textual reading to all this.  Leaving the old ways behind seems to be one to the film’s most consistent and on the nose themes.  Luke talks about letting the Jedi die out until sort of changing his mind, Kylo literally kills his mentor and talks about leaving “the old ways” behind, Yoda’s force ghost literally burns the old order to the ground.  The whole thing seems to be some sort of metaphor for the series itself breaking away from its usual traditions and framing it through a sort of Silicon Valley lens of “disruption” as necessary for progress.  It’s kind of a wild message to be delivering given that their last Star Wars movie was nostalgia-tinged to the point where it inspired the phrase “memberberries,” and to go straight from something like that to something like this which is flipping over tables and burning things to the ground causes a certain degree of whiplash.  A lot of people are praising them for being bold and taking risks, but taking risks isn’t an inherently praiseworthy thing; you also need to make the right risks, the ones that actually pay off, and all too often I don’t think the direction that Abrams and Johnson chose go pays off.

Beyond meta readings of the movie the more overt messages of The Last Jedi are all over the place and at times contradictory.  In his ghostly appearance (which was poorly executed incidentally, I think Frank Oz has lost his gift at doing this voice) tells Luke to let the old order burn and Kylo Ren also destroys the Sith order, and yet by the end Luke defiantly declares that he won’t be the last Jedi.  Finn’s story ends with Rose preventing his kamikaze run and telling him that they’re going to win by saving what they love rather than fighting what they hate, whatever that means, but this more or less contradicts a similar act of self-sacrifice that Holdo had more or less been valorized for committing and if not for the unexpected intervention of Luke’s force projection this act of “saving what they love” would have done nothing more than to doom the galaxy.  Finn’s lesson on the other hand is supposed to be that he needs to stop taking unnecessary risks and quit acting impulsively, but as stated previously the film never really engages in the consequences of this.  The overall theme might be something more general along the lines of “you need to learn from your failures,” but a lot of these failures seem more the kind of failures that kill you than make you stronger.  By the end of the movie the resistance (which seemed oddly small to begin with) has been reduced to the point where they can all fit into the Millennium Falcon.  It’s implied that the true victory is that the galaxy is now “inspired” by their stand, but I don’t see why they would be given how much they screwed up, the events of the last movie seem a hell of a lot more “inspirational” to me.  The only real hope to be found in this ending is that their opponent seems kind of incompetent and is now in the hands of a petulant child who got his ass kicked by a novice in the last movie and got played for a chump in this one.

So is this even a good movie?  When I first left my the theater I would have said “yes” even though I was a bit baffled by what I’d just seen.  While watching the movie disappointment had set in early on and there continued to be moments I just did not like, but there were also moments that sort of made up for that.  The characters remained fairly likable and there were action scenes which gave me that excited Star Wars feel.  However, the film’s general messiness and tonal confusion remained and as time has gone on its flaws have stuck with me more than its moments of excitement.  I could go on and on about why Rian Johnson’s “burn it all down” attitude annoys me and why his refusal to engage in the mysteries of the previous film is a dereliction of duty, but that isn’t really the problem here so much as a series of smaller offenses just sort of drown the movie.  It’s less a death of a thousand cuts than a injury of 250 or so cuts.  I do not, however, want to go too deep into the realms of hyperbole and suggest that I hate the movie or that there aren’t plenty of redeeming qualities to it.  I suspect that a lot of the things I found to be gaping flaws will seem a lot more forgivable to the more casual Star Wars fans who just wants to see a lot of lightsaber fights and space ship battles, but the movie does not hold up to closer analysis and its rather flippant attitude towards a filmmaking legacy that means so much to so many people is pretty hard to take.  I’ll give the movie one thing: my dislike of it has been a keen reminder of how much this franchise meant to me in the first place.

Wonder Wheel(12/10/2017)

Alright, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: being a Woody Allen fan is not very fashionable at the moment.  This of course stems from the accusation of child abuse that occurred in the early 90s, which was litigated and dismissed at the time but which suddenly came back into the conversation thanks in part to a rather vigorous campaign on the part of the Farrow family starting in late 2013 and which has been brought back into the conversation in the wake of the #MeToo campaign despite there being no new allegations.  Frankly Allen’s past has never had much bearing on my interest in his movies, partly because I’m decidedly on Team “Separate Art From Artist” but also because the case against him is far from ironclad and there seems to be no indication that he’s some sort of serial offender.  Given a choice I’d be happy to avoid talking about all of this altogether but in recent times he has been using his filmmaking to comment on his past controversies, and specifically his relationship to Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, often in slightly coded ways.  His last film, Café Society, ended with someone contemplating an affair with someone who would be his aunt-in-law and his 2014 movie Magic in the Moonlight ended with a man much the senior of a younger woman deciding to go through with a relationship with her despite all logical reason not because the heart wants what it wants.  I don’t have a problem with Allen exploring his controversies on scree but I’m honestly surprised more people didn’t pick up on these themes until now but they’re certainly picking up on similar themes in his newest film Wonder Wheel.

The film is set in the 1950s in and around the famous Coney Island back when it was still a pretty relevant attraction.  At its center is a woman named Ginny Rannell (Kat Winslet) a waitress at a Coney Island clam bar who’s married to a carousel operator named Humpty Rannell (Jim Belushi) and who lives in an apartment right in the middle of the island above a loud shooting range but with a view of the titular Ferris wheel.  This is a second marriage for both Ginny and Humpty, and Ginny has a twelve year old son from her previous marriage who is kind of disturbed, has a compulsion to start fires, and does not get along at all with his hardass step-father.  At a certain point Ginny started having an affair with a lifeguard/aspiring philosopher named Mickey (Justin Timberlake), who actually narrates most of the film.  Things are really set off when Humpty’s twenty-something year old daughter from his previous marriage, Carolina (Juno Temple), turns up on their doorstep desperate for a place to stay.  Carolina had apparently run off and married a gangster when she was young, something her father has not forgiven her for, and after a while with this unsavory person she found herself in a situation where she appeared to be snitching on him and because of this she’s on the run from hitmen.  Eventually they kind of make the situation work, at least until Carolina runs into Mickey and a strange love triangle commences.

So, this is a movie where a guy starts out sleeping with a 40-some year old woman and ends up falling in love with her 20-some year old step daughter… gee, I wonder what attracted Woody Allen to that scenario.  Truth be told I’m not one hundred percent sure Allen intended for this to be a metaphor for his own tabloid scandal some twenty years ago.  That whole story is very much on the forefront of cultural commentators these days but I don’t think it as much as the forefront of his own mind as a lot of people might think it would be.  That said, as an outside observer it’s pretty hard to not see the movie that way and he must have been aware of the similarities on some level even if only sub-consciously.  If it was intentional it’s a little disingenuous as there are clear differences between the two scenarios most notably the fact that the man in this situation is Justin Timberlake, a guy who is about twenty years younger than Woody Allen was when he started his relationship with Soon-Yi Previn and Juno Temple is about ten years older than Previn was.  What’s more the step daughter in in Wonder Wheel is one hundred percent absent from the life of the Timberlake character before he falls for her and there’s zero question as to whether he played any kind of parental role in her life.  Of course the other little wrinkle to this interpretation is that the love triangle at its center does not exactly end well, and if Allen does mean for it to be any kind of allegory it does not necessarily speak well of his own actions.

Truth be told, all of that doesn’t really matter, as the bigger problems with the movie are largely unrelated.  The problem really isn’t the story so much as the writing.  The movie is very talky, which I suppose could be said about most Woody Allen movies but the dialogue is particularly heightened here.  I think Allen is very intentionally trying to make this seem like a stage play with the way most scenes only involve two or three people and who they’re pretty willing to tell rather that show at certain points.  The exposition here is really lazy, characters just monologue off their entire backstories for the first third of the movie and they seem to verbalize a lot of what they’re thinking and feeling rather than letting the audience intuit it.  In other, more comedic Woody Allen movies this wouldn’t have been as conspicuous but this movie is pretty serious and somber, there aren’t really laughs to distract from that kind of thing.  There’s also a certain theatricality to the performances here, particularly from Winslet, who manages to really make a lot of this material work better than it might have.  Juno Temple is also pretty good here but the male actors don’t fare as well.  Jim Belushi, who doesn’t have the same background in dramatic theater that Winslet does generally fares worse with this material but it’s Timberlake who is particularly miscast.  I get why the idea of casting Timberlake might have made some sense; he’s about the right age, he has the look of a life guard, and he’s also attractive enough to make sense as the love interest for two different women, but his character is supposed to be this sensitive intellectual and that is very decidedly something Timberlake cannot pull off.

If nothing else Wonder Wheel certainly looks better than pretty much anything else Woody Allen has ever made.  The film, like his last film Café Society, is the product of a special deal he signed with Amazon Studios which has given him much larger budgets to work with than he’s used to.  This one cost about $25 million to make, which isn’t a huge budget in the grand scheme of things but is huge for him.  The dude has only made three movies since the 70s that have grossed more than that in theaters.  You can certainly see the budget on the screen.  There’s a ton of period detail and Coney Island is recreated effectively and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro beautifully captures the light of the wonder wheel shining into the characters’ apartment.  I do however wonder if this huge budget is part of the problem though, like Allen knew this kind of financing was not going to last so he pulled the one script set in 1950s Coney Island out of his files and rushed it into production before his last opportunity to make something this expensive went away.  Obviously the guy has been accused of using first drafts before, and I’ve usually felt that was unwarranted but I think it’s true with this one.  That’s a shame because all told I really wanted this thing to be great and to prove Allen’s doubters wrong, but it just isn’t.