Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson)

The lame Jedi

(WARNING: plot twists and overall narrative discussed in explicit detail)

You thought The Force Awakens was clumsily stitched together from the cold leftovers of the first Star Wars movie?* Get a load of this carcass--

*(And let's not call it A New Hope. First saw Star Wars on its first commercial run and always called it Star Wars, the original director's directives notwithstanding--since when was I supposed to let some filmmaker tell me what to think or do?)  

In the hokily written opening crawl (But aren't they all?) we learn that the Republic has collapsed its loyalists having formed not a Rebellion but a Resistance;** we learn that Supreme Leader (as opposed to Emperor) Snoke is in charge of not the Empire but The First Order (correction: The Merciless First Order). Basically business as usual only under different names-- 

**(Have the good guys ever ruled successfully for more than a handful of decades? You start wondering if maybe the problem isn't people like Palpatine or Snoke but the folks in charge of the Republic.*** Correction: the desperate Republic.).

***(For the record the Federation of Planets has governed for some nine hundred years; Time Lords have been around since the beginning. Hell even the US of A has endured for over two centuries)

We have Empire ships laying siege to a hidden Rebel base; we have Rebel fighters scrambling to escape--

Sorry--mixed up the storyline with the opening to The Empire Strikes Back.

The Reb--Resistance--is being hunted by a gargantuan Emp--First Order--vessel. One of the good guys devises a plan to infiltrate said vessel, turn off the device that gives the Em sorry First Order overwhelming advantage and--


Young Jedi wannabe seeks out old master, finds him; abandons training midway on the naive belief that the dark villain everyone is afraid of still has good in him and can maybe just maybe be turned--


How bout this: say we've never seen a Star Wars movie before and we're going in cold (which I'm not but hey mental exercise right?). How does the movie hold up?

Too long (or afflicted with seriously slow patches). Cuts back and forth between too many action sequences (a chronic problem since the third movie). 

Some of the characters use cowboy tactics, are slapped down or demoted for it; later turns out cowboy tactics save the day (or the Resistance or whatever)--so what's the picture's official stance? Cowboy or no cowboy? Even 'feeling undecided' would have helped clarify the tone the filmmakes wanted to take. 

Though when you think about it why is General Carrie Fisher telling her subordinate to follow orders when hey this is Star Wars--a movie all about cowboys saving the day at the very last minute. If we implement a plan use our wits engage in teamwork, why, we would be Star Trek.

In fact let's talk Star Trek shall we? By the time sixteen years seventy-nine TV episodes and a big-budget movie had passed everything was set firmly in stone: Kirk the courageous leader McCoy the heartfelt physician Spock the cold logician. The Federation was always omnipresent and omniscient the aliens almost always all-powerful and/or unpredictable (but somehow always beatable), all is hunky-dory in this corner of the galaxy (basically The Cold War, but more enlightened). 

The Wrath of Khan changed all that. Turns out Kirk is a hothead who finagled his way out of everything; the Federation is a mostly absent, blithely clueless authority figure; the enemy--Khan Noonien Singh--isn't some godlike entity or hostile alien civilization but a figure out of Kirk's long past with a legitimate grievance: the neglect and agonizing death of his wife. 

Now that's a villain: not some schmuck who lacks the wherewithal to resist The Dark Side or a dork in love with some abstract sense of Power and Evil**** but a man in mourning, out for bloody vengeance. 

****(This from the almighty Disney Corporation!)

And Spock--where Kirk always hedged his bets or underhandedly altered the odds Spock with little fuss or comment offers his solution, elegant and logical yet somehow essentially human (Laura Dern's character does well enough in Last Jedi only we've barely gotten acquainted--liking very much what we saw--when she suddenly makes with the long goodbye). Arguably the first time a major character in a popular science fiction ('science fiction,' mind; not 'sci-fi' and not 'science fantasy') series resolved his storyline this way. 

Okay Spock didn't stay dead, but 1) I'm talking about this film 2) The Search for Spock was fun even moving but disliked the direction they took there 3) dislike how Star Trek space battles have become more and more Star Wars-y through the years. 

Where was I? Right--Last Jedi's villain (compared to Khan) is a clueless wimp; I guessed what was really going on the moment I noticed Mark Hamill failing to leave footprints on the Craitan salt, Adam Driver's character being too much into 'kill daddy' mode to notice (first Ford now Hamill--predictable much?). 

And Benicio del Toro? Looks completely trustworthy. I'd give him my credit card number any time. 

Best performances? Mark Hamill has a dignity--if not the sly wit--that recalls Alec Guinness. Laura Dern (Yay Diane!) is by turns compassionate and iron-nails tough--you almost expect her to say "Fuck you Poe!" a few times (which she manages to do, in so many words). She does effortlessly fuse both moods in a poignant last expression before igniting the hyperdrive and sending the bad guys the single most serious 'Fuck you!' in the movie. 

Carrie Fisher has her moments of dry humor but there's something off--like she's been digitized or anesthetized or something. Can't quite put my finger on it. Sad, considering this is her last role. 

Loved Adam Driver since Scorsese's Silence, my respect for him rising a notch after Logan Lucky (Deadpan comedy too?). He acquits himself well here; I mostly have a problem with his character as written,***** not his acting.

*****(In Empire Darth Vader as carefully shot by Irvin Kershner's cinematographer Peter Suschitzky was a towering presence who could not be negotiated with slowed down or stopped. He cut off Luke's means of escape cut off his hand and when the hero had nothing left but a righteous cause to fling in his nemesis' face ("You killed my father!") Vader took that away too. Call the process 'test to destruction' (Keith Laumer anyone?), it's a darker more intense confrontation scene than anything in any other 'Wars movie. Driver's character? Played from minute one.)

Rian Johnson stages effective fight sequences--thinking mostly of the melee in the redlit throne room (long takes in medium shot, to better see the moves and stances) and on the briny sands of Crait; as I've noted writing about a previous work he's good at action, script not quite as. The special effects are first rate, the production design extravagant--you know how much I value that sort of thing, preferably in the hands of a visual artist with distinct ideas (otherwise: not a lot). 

My vote for best special effect (in a movie crammed full of effects) goes to Frank Oz's character which they finally stopped rendering as a bland full-figure digitally animated construct and instead went back to Empire's handheld muppet. There's a warmth and substance and impish humor to Oz's performance that the rest of the movie hell the entire franchise is missing (has been missing since Empire) and sorely needs.

The final confrontation, with rank upon rank of Imp--sorry First Order--walkers****** facing the lone figure on the ground? Been done and done much better in Doctor Who: "Come on look at me: no plan no backup no weapons worth a damn! O and something else I don't have: anything to lose."

******(Walkers, TIE Fighters, Star Destroyers--can't the Order come up with an all-new more creative weapon of mass destruction?

The show did have Steve Moffat, who could whip up a brief brilliant speech about the Doctor's utter lack of military power yet paradoxical ability to cow some ten thousand of his foes. Come to think of it Moffat would be an interesting choice to write for this franchise--only I suspect Disney probably won't ask him (too adult too sophisticated) and he probably won't accept (too humdrum too straightforward too thin a concept******* compared to The Doctor). 

*******(840 episodes spanning 54 years to draw on, compared to 'Wars eight movies an animated cartoon a couple of Christmas specials)

Updates in the Much Ado About Nothing Department: diehard geeks have responded to the changes Johnson have wrought by setting up a petition urging Disney to strike the movie from the canon. "Episode VIII was a travesty," wrote superfan Henry Walsh. "It completely destroyed the legacy of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi. It destroyed the very reasons most of us, as fans, liked Star Wars."

Which would be hilarious if it wasn't so sad. In my book the whole franchise is a travesty, of Flash Gordon, of World War 2 fighter plane movies, of Akira Kurosawa's jidaigeki. Johnson fiddled around a little--made Hamill's character reject The Force (the mystical basis for all this fantasy), motivated Driver's sudden betrayal, dropped the tracking device subplot halfway through--basically doodling around the margins without altering the basic design (Resistance = hope n love = good; First Order = hate n fear = bad). If you want to see a real filmmaker simultaneously turn his established mythology on its head and expand its scope exponentially check out what David Lynch did (and did brilliantly) a few months back. 

If one asked Moffat to step back and take the long view he'd probably say it's all a matter of time. Star Wars aspires to grand opera but hasn't taken the time to develop its characters its history; hasn't developed that sense of history slowly majestically moving forward, of life coursing its way through history, of history taking its toll on life. Characters pop up announce that they've either renounced the force or hate their father; empires fall republics collapse orders and resistances rise while our backs are turned. If this is opera it's opera stuck in fast-forward mode. The results are mostly cartoonish, and unintentionally funny. 

First published in Businessworld 12.22.17

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