Monday, February 12, 2018

The Worst Films of 2017


I hate to be the bearer of bad news, fellow moviegoers, but the worst films of 2017 were nowhere near as awful as the worst films of years before.  That is not a bad thing, not by a long stretch, in fact it was nice beyond description to finally go to the theater and discover good movies were waiting for me.  It does, however, cast all the more of a shadow over the films that did not live up to their counterparts.  And while the bad films that 2017 had to offer were by no means as bad as those of years previous, they were no more pleasant to sit through for that fact alone

As such, the moment you've all been waiting for is here.  The General's Post proudly presents:


The Worst Films of 2017!!!




Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Best Films of 2017

And so another year ends, a year full of tumult and chaos, but also full of a whole host of great movies.  2017 was one of the finest years that cinema history records, with an absolute deluge of excellent films barraging moviegoers all year, from the hidden gems of Doldrums season, to the sparkling triumphs of Blockbuster season, to a searingly-good crop of award films in Oscar season.  All throughout, whatever the season or weather, we could count on staggeringly good films in a dozen different genres and styles.  And we're going to talk about them now.

So join us, once again, as General Havoc and Captain Corvidae gather to discuss the finest movies that the year 2017 had to offer us, and reminisce over the best times to be had in a movie theater in the year now past.  This is:


The Best Films of 2017!!!






Next Time:  2017 was, without question, the finest year for film I have ever seen.  But even the best year ever has its dark side...

Sunday, January 28, 2018

I, Tonya


Alternate Title:  Abuse: A Comedy
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  Tonya Harding deals with her abusive mother and husband, all while trying to win acceptance through figure skating before and after the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.



Things Havoc liked: Like everyone else who was alive and above the age of eight at the time, I remember the infamous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan incident from the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. It was, in many ways, the perfect scandal, filled with lurid details to titillate and thrill a news audience, women fighting one another for supremacy, America's sweetheart attacked by a violent thug, lurid plots among stupid people, overtones of classism, one of the first big media frenzies. I was there man, every one of us ate it up with a spoon. Following the Olympics, in which Kerrigan won a silver medal, and Harding won such infamy, Tonya Harding disappeared into the tabloids, popping up on news feeds periodically in celebrity boxing matches, in sex tapes, and in one trashy thing after another. I cannot say that I thought much about her in the intervening years, but all of a sudden, here we have a movie about the story of Tonya Harding from beginning to end, a film I ultimately decided to see purely because I felt I owed its main actress another shot.

You see, I didn't see I, Tonya, because I really desperately wanted to know more about Tonya Harding, I saw it because of Suicide Squad, a movie so bad I still suspect it to have been the result of some gruesome experiment in human psychology. Margot Robbie, who had the singular misfortune of starring in that film as Harley Quinn (a misfortune only slightly lesser than those of us who had to watch her) is an actress I have seen in nothing else to date (save a cameo in The Big Short), and while she was pretty goddamn awful in Suicide Squad, that much could easily be explained by the fact that everything touched by Suicide Squad turned to galvanized shit. After all, Viola Davis and Will Smith are both charismatic actors of considerable skill, and neither one of them could salvage any dignity. I therefore felt, given her increasing prominence, that I owed it to Margot Robbie to find out if she could act at all, an exercise I try to engage in when I encounter actors or actresses who have had the misfortune of making their major debut in a film so bad that nothing positive could be gleaned from it. The ur-example here is Twilight, a film that forced me to seek other examples of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart's acting efforts, determining empirically that while Pattinson can act, Stewart cannot.

So with all that preamble aside, can Margot Robbie act? Ohhhhh yes. Yes she can, in fact Margot Robbie, playing a character that none of us ever got to know except in the pages of a tabloid, is phenomenal this time around, a treasure of a performance that fully justifies all of the faith that people placed in her following the atrocity that was Suicide Squad. Biopics are a dangerous game, as apt to win you condemnation as they are an Oscar, but Robbie, playing a character nobody really knows anything about, is exceptional, bringing all the classless rancor, the bitter devotion to her craft, the wounded patched-together pride of a victim of nigh-constant abuse, the serially-unreliable mentality of someone trying to make sense of her own life, bringing all of it together into a performance that merits the Oscar nomination that should be (and at time of writing, has been) forthcoming. It's a career-making performance, comic and tragic all at once, while still retaining the essence of what the public remembers of the character, and if that wasn't Robbie performing the fantastically-difficult skating maneuvers studded throughout, then the movie certainly fooled me.

I, Tonya, comes to us courtesy of Craig Gillespie, an Australian director who has yet to feature on this project, due to his propensity for mostly doing projects that don't look particularly interesting. The only movie of his prior to this one that I know anything about is 2007's exceedingly-odd Ryan Gosling vehicle Lars and the Real Girl, a movie that was effectively a weirder version of Her, and if you remember Her, that's quite a statement. This one is a bit more accessable than that one was, but is done in a fourth-wall-shattering style that emphasizes just how unreliable the various stories that the characters involved tell of the Kerrigan incident and everything that led up to it are. The result resembles The Big Short, or other movies that use unconventional directing techniques as a tool to emphasize the artificiality of the concepts they're attempting to get across, and in retrospect, it's probably the only way to do something like this without turning the entire thing into a Rashomon-style philosophical treatise, which would be highly unsuited for the material. It does, however, require a superb cast to be able to pull something like this off, and fortunately Gillespie has assembled one. Sebastian Stan, Bucky Barnes from the Marvel films, is utterly unrecognizable as Jeff Gillooly, an abusive loser who Tonya falls for due primarily to the fact that she has been conditioned by her upbringing to expect nothing but abusive losers to be interested in her. It's deceptively difficult to play a loser on screen, if only because most successful actors are charismatic, and the camera introduces such tremendous bias in their favor, but Stan pulls it off, giving us a character by turns entirely loathsome and yet completely believable, not a screaming monster but a person whose life is what it was always fated to be, and whose worst traits go utterly unexamined by himself or even his victims. But the best performance of all is Allison Janney's, because she gets to play a true monster. Tonya's mother LaVona, expertly portrayed by the one-time West Wing alum, is a vile, twisted, hyper-abusive harpy, an utterly loathsome creature whose every action and thought drips bitterness and resentment. And yet even here, Janney puts together a character that isn't just a caricature of an abusive single mother, but simply a person who is missing parts of their soul, who acts as she does because she thinks it the only way to properly act. We hate her all the more because we understand where she is coming from, and is that not the definition of an excellent villain?

If it sounds like the theme of abuse is coming up a lot in my description so far, that is because the movie is rife with it, not sensationalized, not dialed up to some unwatchable level, but inculcated into its very bones. The story of Tonya Harding, the movie claims, is a story of long-term abuse, not always cinematic and violent, and not always unreciprocated, but always there, poisoning everything it touches until actions that would seem unthinkable to any normal, rational person, are perfectly normal and indeed not deserving of comment to the characters that inhabit this world. Tonya is abused by her mother, by her husband, by the Media, by the US Figure Skating association which is made to look, probably with very good reason, like a bunch of classic snobs who never even considered giving Harding a real shot. Months and years of brutally-difficult work are rewarded time and again with "stylistic" point deductions and low-seeded rankings, despite Tonya being an exceptionally gifted technical skater, the only American woman to perform a Triple Axel jump. Without ever calling things out explicitly, the movie effortlessly places you in a mindset wherein anything, even attacking a rival with a retractable baton, seems reasonable, given that nobody else is playing fairly either. Moreover, despite everything I've just finished saying, the movie is also riotously funny at parts, mostly due to just how stupid so many of the participants in this little farce of a conspiracy were. Paul Walter Hauser, whom I've never seen or heard of before, plays Shaun Ekhart, Tonya's bodyguard, a loser among losers, who fancies himself some kind of CIA-trained espionage expert while living in his mother's house and plotting the dumbest caper in the history of dumb capers. Bobby Cannavale, whom I love dearly, gets the job of narrating most of this to us as a spray-tanned Hard Copy producer, describing in breathless glee how dumb the plan to assault Kerrigan actually was, with one conspirator staking out Kerrigan's training arena for three days, parking in an empty parking lot, and moving his car around it every fifteen minutes to avoid suspicion! Why only for three days? Because that's how long it took him to realize that Kerrigan was actually training in a different arena entirely in another state.


Things Havoc disliked: The film goes to some lengths to ensure that you know just how unreliable all participants in this absurd farce are. Everyone has their own version of what happened before and during the Kerrigan assault (the movie calls it "the incident"), and none of those versions stack up at all, particularly those of Harding and Gillooly themselves. This is fine, indeed it's only to be expected, nor is it surprising, given how much time it spends humanizing her, that the film ultimately winds up taking more of Harding's perspective than anyone else's. But the problem is that about two thirds of the way through the movie, without mentioning it or otherwise indicating, it basically hews entirely to the notion that Harding knew nothing about the impending attack, and if she did know something about it she didn't understand it, and if she did understand it she thought it was a joke, and if she didn't think it was a joke she thought the plan would involve threats, not violence, and if she did think the plan involved violence well it was only to be expected given her upbringing.

Um... right...

Look, nobody but Tonya Harding herself really knows how much she was or wasn't actually involved in the assault on Kerrigan, and given the nature of human memory and rationalization, probably not her either at this point. And it is certainly possible, though not much more, that Harding had nothing to do with the planning of the assault that put her back in the Olympics after her career was largely over. But for the movie to turn around so far into a story that is being told from multiple directions, and suddenly claim authoritatively that not only was the entire prosecution of Harding nothing but a political witch-hunt on the part of a classist Figure Skating world looking to finally be rid of her, but that it knows this for a fact is just ridiculous on its face. I don't demand that all movies represent nothing but the unvarnished truth, especially when that truth is open to interpretation, but when the movie's central thesis is that nobody knows the truth, it's a bit churlish to suddenly reframe everything that's happening as the truth because it casts your sympathetic protagonist in a more flattering light. And if you're going to do that, suddenly pivot from an unreliable to an authoritative viewpoint on the events in question, it's probably a good idea not to misrepresent the few actual facts that are known about the case. The movie's climax involves a tearful court hearing, where a barely-controlled Harding begs and pleads for her life after a stern, unsympathetic judge bans her from figure skating for life. Powerful stuff, if it had actually happened, but it did not. It doesn't take much research to know that criminal courts have no bearing on who can and can't participate in Figure Skating associations, and Harding was never so-sentenced. Instead, after she pled guilty to obstructing justice in the investigation of an assault on one of her competitors, the US Figure Skating association banned her for life, after their investigation concluded that she knew about the attack before it happened. Call the investigation a witch-hunt if you like, but please don't make up criminal penalties that never happened, framed to make your unreliable protagonist look sympathetic, and then wrap yourselves in the mantle of the one true arbiters of truth.


Final thoughts:   But I have to say, whatever the film's authorial bent or pretensions of truth and honesty, I, Tonya is an incredible film, a tightly-crafted, instantly-compelling, and brilliant-acted piece of 90s absurdity, taking a story we all knew and giving us even more salacious details about it, assuming we're willing to acknowledge that doing so makes us no better than the other people who tried to exploit Tonya Harding for our own purposes. It is a fantastic movie across the board, one that is entirely deserving of its buzz, and a fitting place to leave off the greatest single year I have ever experienced at the movies. With Awards season finally upon us, I, Tonya, along with many other fine films, is once more being re-released in theaters, and you all owe it to yourselves to give it a shot, whether you know the story or not.

Thank you to everyone who has followed these reviews over the course of the year now past. It has been quite a run, and I hope you are all ready to hear about it again, because it is finally time to evaluate the best this year offered us, and the worst...

Final Score:  8/10


Next Time:  Ladies and gentlemen, IT IS TIME!!!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Molly's Game


Alternate Title:  The Poker Room
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  A former competitive skier builds an empire of underground poker games before being caught up in a massive federal case against the Russian Mafia.



Things Havoc liked:  Some stories are just too good not to film, really. Molly Bloom, a downhill skier whose career was derailed by injury, moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and was hired to staff a Poker game out of a backroom club called the Viper Room, catering to Hollywood celebrities. The game expanded, and Molly first took it over, then took it big, throwing lavish events and attracting moguls from industry, finance, entertainment, and every other corner of the high-roller world. By 2009, she had moved her operation to New York, running one of the most sought-after games in the country, before a 2013 raid and indictment caused her to lose everything in a massive RICO sting aimed at the many members of the Russian mob who were participants in her game. Along the way she dealt with addicts, egomaniacs, mobsters, drunks, Hollywood big shots, princes of various European and Middle Eastern royal families, and plenty of people who fit into more than one of the above categories. Her career came to an abrupt end in 2013 when she was caught up in a money laundering and racketeering sting by the FBI and Justice Departments, as part of their attempts to crush the Russian Mafia, most of whose most prominent members were players in her game. In the intervening years, she wrote a tell-all book (notable primarily for not even remotely telling all), and there were a number of attempts to turn her story into a movie, and after several abortive attempts, who has decided to take this on, but Television's master of self-important dialogue, Aaron Sorkin.

Molly's Game stars Jessica Chastain, an actress I have famously had little use for over the years (see my reviews for Zero Dark Thirty and Interstellar for more on that), as Molly Bloom, but for all my objections to Chastain's typical style of acting, if there's one thing 2016's The Huntsman: Winter's War taught me, it's that I had Chastain pegged incorrectly. The problem isn't that she can't act, the problem is that she can't act seriously. Her attempts to emote sincerity and seriousness have always fallen flat to me, making her sound alternately like a marionette struggling to understand these "hu-man" emotions, or like a petulant seven-year-old who has been denied a cookie. But give her a film or a situation in which she's supposed to be campy, or ridiculous, or over-the-top, and she suddenly becomes a completely different actor. And while Molly's Game is certainly intended to be a realistic portrayal of a young woman who simply got caught up in strange events, it's also written by Aaron Sorkin, of The Social Network and The West Wing (and several other things we will get to), who has one of the strongest and most distinctive authorial voices of any screenwriter in Hollywood (yes, moreso even than Joss Whedon). Sorkin's dialogue, no matter the setting or medium, has always felt like written dialogue, like something prepared in advance by a speechwriter, rather than something people might conceivably come up with and say in a real setting, and while that's not always a strength, it allows Chastain to do what she's good at, giving her the sort of snappy, witty, erudite one-liners that nobody would come up with in the spur of the moment. The long and the short of all this is that Chastain is excellent in this film, playing a driven young woman from a hyper-demanding background who is subjected to the sorts of raving, savagely egomaniacal, borderline sociopathic douchebags and pressures that are instantaneously believable as coming from the ranks of Hollywood or high finance.

And of course, Chastain is not alone. Idris Elba, my man-crush and yours, plays Bloom's lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, in the typical style of an Aaron Sorkin lawyer, meaning with wit, erudition, and snappy comebacks to every situation. As I know several people (Hi, Colleen!) who fantasize about Idris Elba yelling at them, this movie should provide plenty of fodder, and Elba is, as he always is, wonderful in the role, though his American accent this time is about as authentic as my British one. Kevin Costner, of all people, plays Molly's father, a professor of psychology and a helicopter parent, whose tough-love-style of borderline-verbally-abusive behavior is intentionally played in contrast with Costner's native salt-of-the-Earth persona. I've admitted before that for all the garbage that Costner has made over the years (and still continues to make, lest anyone forget Criminal), I've always liked him, at least in the rare occasions when the director and scriptwriters manage to get him something to say or do that is within his range. Sorkin does, and Costner, surprisingly, proves an excellent fit for Sorkin's stilted style, particularly in a late sequence where he sits down with his daughter and speaks what, to him at least, is brutal honesty. And then there's the various shitheads that Bloom encounters throughout her career, foremost among which is Michael Cera, of all people, as "Player X", a composite of various A-list Hollywood celebrities who frequented Molly's games, but apparently primarily based on Toby Maguire, or so the rumors have it. If those rumors are true, Maguire should take real care given the tenor of Hollywood today, as Cera plays this character as an actual raving sociopath, one who admits that despite all the poker he plays, he actually doesn't much like the game itself. What he likes, in his own words, is "ruining people's lives", something he does with Iago-like gusto to everyone he meets. My old pals Chris O'Dowd (of The Sapphires), and Jeremy Strong (of a whole bunch of crap), take smaller roles as, respectively, a drunken Irish associate of the Russian Mafia with a heart of gold, and a Hollywood wannabe/failed Los Angeles real estate agent with seemingly no heart whatsoever. This is the sort of thing one runs into when one turns in these circles, it seems. Both are superb, customarily so in O'Dowd's case, the opposite in Strong's, with O'Dowd managing to inject some real emotion into one of the oldest cinema character cliches in existence (the drunken Irishman), and Strong evidencing some of the douchiest behavior known to man outside of the White House.


Things Havoc disliked:You may have noticed by this point that I seem to be talking an awful lot about Aaron Sorkin, and that's kind of unavoidable, and not just because he both wrote, produced, and directed this film, his directorial debut, in fact. Honestly the direction is fine, Sorkin has a lengthy and well-established background in Television after all and has been working in film for over thirty years. But when it comes to the writing, we start to have an issue. You see, I mentioned before that Sorkin's authorial voice is one of the strongest in Hollywood, up there with the likes of David Mamet or Joss Whedon. This is not necessarily a good thing. You see for all of the success that Sorkin has had, with The West Wing, with Social Network, with Moneyball or Charlie Wilson's War, when Sorkin has nobody to restrain him the way David Fincher did, he generally produces works of such staggering, monumental authorial arrogance as to inspire mocking fake-twitter feeds that long-outlast the work in question. It was thus for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a failed behind-the-scenes-at-Saturday-Night-Live show that was so painfully preachy and unfunny as to make paint drying look like a Megadeth concert, and wherein Sorkin famously responded to the criticisms he was subjected to by calling all his critics basement-dwelling virginial bloggers with no taste. It was also thus for The Newsroom, one of the preachiest and most hamfisted television shows ever invented, wherein Sorkin re-wrote every story of the day as he would have reported on it with perfect hindsight, and then spent the rest of the runtime making his characters recite endless denunciations of strawman after strawman, particularly when it came to "the youths" and their "blogosphere". Now, let me be clear, Molly's Game doesn't have anything like those shows' levels of unfettered arrogance. What it does have, however, is the tendency for every character to sound the same.

You see, with a voice this strong, this recognizable, it's clear enough to me at this point that Sorkin doesn't know how to write anyone who isn't just like himself, an overeducated political and cultural snob (I say this with some endearment, as I am also an overeducated political and cultural snob). In shows like The West Wing, which was about a group of exceptionally intelligent and driven people at the heart of the political system, this mattered less, as Sorkin wrote his characters the way we'd like all of our elected officials to act and speak. With The Social Network, he was again dealing with masters of the universe, students at Harvard University with spectacular pedigrees and impeccable contempt for all the lesser creatures of the world. But in Molly's Game, despite all the high-rollers on offer, the movie is ultimately a character study of Molly, and to a lesser extent her lawyer, none of whom should sound the same as one another, and all of whom do, speaking in this inflappable, ultra-witty style of hyper-stylized dialogue that just does not exist when we are supposedly dealing with the real world. Everyone's speach consists of the same one-liners, peppered with references to high culture and in-jokes that it makes no sense for their characters to be making. And while I do like movies about smart people speaking in a smart fashion, Sorkin's voice is so overpowering that he risks losing the humanity of what's happening. It's hard for us as an audience to feel sorry or frightened alongside the main character when the film has spent the entire run-time establishing them as being beyond such mortal concerns as fright or sorrow. And none of this is helped by Sorkin, in the last third of the film, giving into his worst habits and spending a good portion of the movie waxing eloquently about the injustice of the FBI seizing Molly's assets and fining her hundreds of thousands of dollars, when in reality (as it turns out) neither actually occurred. I don't demand all biopics stick scrupulously to the truth of the matter, of course, but it's a bit rich to turn your film into an excoriation of the Federal Government for having done terrible things to poor Molly, when it did not actually do those things.


Final thoughts:  All that being said though, Molly's Game is certainly an enjoyable film, with a compelling story full of sleaze and greed and power games and, it must be admitted, luxuriously fun dialogue at times. Even if Sorkin makes everyone sound like himself, the fact is that his style of witty repartee is a lot of fun to listen to, especially when good (citation needed) actors are the ones reciting it. I don't know if it's worthy of the Oscars that it clearly is looking for, but as a film about the seedier side of high society and organized crime, I have seen far worse examples, and would recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone who likes the idea of the film, or just wants to watch Idris Elba yell for a while. And really, who doesn't?

Final Score:  7.5/10


Next Time:  Speaking of movies about women who formerly competed in Winter Olympic events...

Monday, January 8, 2018

Hostiles


Alternate Title:  A Million Ways to Die in the West
                                                                                                                                                            
One sentence synopsis:  A veteran of the Indian Wars is assigned to escort a dying Indian chief back to his tribal homelands in Montana.



Things Havoc liked:  I love Westerns. I love the iconography, the setting, the themes, the action, everything about Westerns. Not to say that there aren't incomprehensibly awful movies made with that setting, but in January, when there's nothing to see but a bunch of dump-off films that no studio has faith in, and a screaming horde of oscar-bait movies that all came out on New Year's Eve, one kind of has to take movies by genre and concept more than by anything else, and a Western suited me just fine. The entire genre still lives in the shadow of the titans of the early 90s, especially Unforgiven and Tombstone, both masterpieces of the genre (the former won the Best Picture award that year), which stamped their form indelibly upon the genre and all films within it thereafter. At the time, many critics thought that Unforgiven in particular had closed the books on all there was to be said for the Western, but Hollywood doesn't work that way, and we've had a number of Westerns since then, some good (True Grit), some bad (Cowboys and Aliens), some modern (Hell or High Water) or otherwise setting-crossing (Serenity), but all ineffably Westerns, and most, on the whole, a credit to their forebears. The genre may not have the prominence that it once had back in the 50s or 60s, when the Western was regarded as one of the surest moneymaking prospects in Hollywood, but Westerns still get made, and the good ones, at least still try to say something about the world when they are. So it was that, still in recovery from the flu and looking for something with which to start the calendar year of 2018 (even if 2017's film calendar still has a film or two to run), I spotted a Christian Bale, Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike vehicle promising six-shooters and mustaches and long tracking shots across desolate plains, and settled in on a Friday night to watch something good.


Things Havoc disliked:That is not what happened.

2017 has been a banner year for film, without question, and one of the many consequences of its stellar slate of films has been that we haven't seen a lot of films like this one in a while, but they are still out there, waiting to strike as soon as your guard is down. Hostiles is just such a hidden trap, a movie that looks very good from the trailers, cast, and concept level, but completely implodes once it gets around to actually trying to tell its story. It is not a good film in general, nor a good western in specific. In fact, it downright sucks, in a way that we have not seen in quite some time. So let's analyze for a moment who could possibly be the one responsible for this dreadful state of -

... what's that? It's directed by Scott Cooper? Oh... well there we have it then.

Yes, Scott Cooper, a man who never met a screenplay he did not feel needed to be more on-the-nose, more anvilicious, more filled with trepidatious pauses and forlorn looks at the camera, a director whose entire filmography is full of sound and fury and signifies very very little. I know that many people liked Crazy Heart, the 2009 Jeff Bridges vehicle, and I even know some who liked Out of the Furnace, but I remember him from 2015's Black Mass, a movie in which Johnny Depp played a vampire and called himself Whitey Bulger, and Cooper did everything he could to disguise whatever else the film might have been about, beyond a handful of disconnected events that may or may not have had anything to do with Whitey Bulger. I didn't hate Black Mass, but it was not a good movie, and Hostiles, for all the differences in tone and theme and genre, is honestly even more of the same, a plodding, placid film directly from the Terrence Mallick school of filmmaking. But where Mallick is at least an interesting visual filmmaker, Cooper has simply learned that some directors place long, empty spaces between every line that every actor intones, but has not learned why. The result is a movie that is stuck in the tonal sensibilities of the worst parts of recent years, but the genre sensibilities of the early 1990s. Not a good combination.

The year is 1898, and life is hard in the West. Commanches raid farmsteads in New Mexico, while reservation jumpers are hunted down by the US Army with extreme prejudice. Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), a veteran US Army Captain, is assigned a mission by his commanding officer (Stephen Lang, in a rare moment of life within the otherwise dead film) to escort a dying Indian chief and his family (Wes Studi) back to their homelands in Montana, so that he can die in peace. Why is this mission so vital that the President of the United States issues a personal and direct order that it be accomplished? I have no idea, for the film is not interested in that question. It is interested instead in the fact that Captain Blocker, who seemingly fought in every single war between the US Army and an Indian tribe in the thirty years prior to this film, is a very bad man, a murderer of men, women, and children, and consumed by all-powerful hate for the Natives he has spent a lifetime battling. Thus far, we are on good thematic ground, with the hero revealed as a broken-down killer, much like in this film's most obvious ancestor, Unforgiven itself, which this movie is so endebted to that it steals quite a few major lines from the aforementioned Clint Eastwood piece, wholesale. Still, this would all serve well enough were the rest of the film, say, a character study of this broken and hate-ravaged soldier, or perhaps a slow exploration of the means by which he discovers a route to becoming something else. Unfortunately, the movie is neither of these things, preferring instead to be about nothing at all besides its own portentous, over-weighty dialogue, and its cynical marginalization of the very people it purports to be exposing the cruelties towards.

What do I mean? Well consider the setup above. A man who hates Natives is now forced to escort a Native chief halfway across the country through territories filled with hostile bandits and Commanche raiders. And yet of all the many and varied paths that the film could potentially take from here, the film chooses none of them, preferring instead to simply have Bale sit stone-facedly in the grass or in his saddle and stare off across the plains as though reviewing internally the emptiness of his life. I don't mean the life of the character, I mean the emptiness of Bale's life having been forced to make this movie. Bale spends the entire film in an unplaceable monotone that sounds like a Ron Swanson impression, staring into space blankly as the various other characters he meets recite ridiculously overwrought lines at him about how dark his soul is or how dark their own souls are or how dark everyone's soul has become or how much they wish they understood the meaning of the darkness that lies within their souls or how they wish their souls were not so dark but unfortunately they are, or or or or or. I get the desire to tell a revisionist Western (though the notion is not as revolutionary as Cooper thinks it is), but you actually do have to tell the Western, not just gesture at the self-evident notion that everyone who dared set foot in The West was a soul-destroyed PTSD-riddled hollow wreck of a person, whispering dialogue concerning the darkness that was their souls at ten second intervals before riding over the next ridge to do it all over again. The entire film is comprised of nothing but dead-eyed stares and monotone line delivery, until we as the audience start to wonder if the problem isn't something more medical than "the sickness of man". At least when The Homesman acted like this, it had the excuse of portraying characters that had literally gone insane.

But heavy-handed as this sort of thing is, I might have forgiven it (might) if the movie had had the balls to actually follow through with the premise that the story of the West is truly the story of the Natives, and that the disconnection the other characters feel has to do with the horrors they have perpetrated on such people. Unfortunately, for all its pretensions at telling a revisionist story of modern understandings of The West, the movie's interest in its Native characters, which as mentioned before include Wes Studi, the greatest Native American actor of all time (go watch Geronimo or Last of the Mohicans if you disagree with that), is practically non-existent. In addition to Studi's Chief Yellow Hawk, there is his son, Black Hawk, his daughter, his daughter-in-law, and grandson, and not a single one of these characters get a goddamn thing to do throughout the entire movie but sit in a circle and look enigmatically upon everyone else, without saying a word, and occasionally demurely giving gifts to the white characters and radiating angelicness. Yellow Hawk himself doesn't get much more to do. He and Blocker are established as being old enemies, both bad men who did bad things during the Indian Wars to one another's people, who have hated one another for years without halt. Yet Studi doesn't get more than a handful of lines across the entire movie, all of which are calm, dispassionate requests for Captain Blocker to listen to his wisdom in terms of how to deal with other Indian tribes, how to deal with his guilt, or (get this) thanks to the good Captain for having the common decency to treat him... better? It's not quite as obsequious as it sounds, but it's not far off, and this is the only Native character in the film with what amounts to a real part! Yellow Hawk and Blocker share barely a handful of scenes together, and then suddenly transform into best friends, with Blocker telling Yellow Hawk in his own language that he carries a piece of him in his heart. There is a way that this sort of admission between two old enemies could work, hell there is a way where it could be profoundly moving. But it would have to be in a movie that was about the relationship between these men, while this film is not interested in being about anyone, least of all the Natives, who are treated here like the Indian equivelant of Spike Lee's famous Magical Negro archetype, props for the movie to trigger the spiritual renewal of a sinful white character who is now redeemed. At least the majority of the Magical Negro movies out there (Legend of Bagger Vance for instance) actually involve the black character getting to do something, be it give wizened speeches or demonstrate his superior ways. This movie seems to posit that the mere presence of Native Americans will render you more spiritual and absolve you of your sins, like the symbols of some holy faith, bereft of the need to actually do anything.


Final thoughts:   I said before that I love Westerns, even though this sort of failing is not unheard of in the majority of them. Hell, I like Dances with Wolves, which a number of people have castigated for being nothing but another White Savior film. Maybe that's fair and maybe it isn't, but goddammit, in Dances with Wolves the Natives got to be real characters, with speaking parts and character arcs and everything, not mute props dragged along so that the "real" characters could react to their presence and be cleansed of their guilt. And when you combine all this with the fact that none of the characters actually do anything to cleanse said guilt beyond staring into space and occasionally getting in gunfights with the most thinly-characterized "bad people" imaginable, well let's just say that a film which starts to give me Under the Skin flashbacks is not precisely putting its best foot forward.

Westerns have come a long way in the last three decades, not always to great effect, but frequently so. Go watch Unforgiven or Tombstone, or Geronimo, or for that matter Wind River from earlier this year, as all of those movies are good movies first and foremost, with characters who take action and who deal with one another as people might do. Not all of them involve Native Americans, but the ones that do actually involve them, they don't play-act at involving them and then pretend that they somehow have something to say that the aforementioned movies did not say. Above all though, go watch movies that are actually about something, because Hostiles is about nothing besides its director's ego, and the highly out-of-date sensibility that the only thing you have to do to increase representation of Native Americans in movies is to physically include them within the frame occasionally.

Final Score:  3.5/10


Next Time:  We continue our trek through the Oscar Bait of 2017.  What gems shall we find therein?

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Winter 2017 Roundup, Part 3

And now for things which are in some ways other than anticipated previously.

I promised myself that this year, 2018, I was going to finally break with the tradition of 2017 and actually catch up with my reviews, and despite a sudden bout of death-flu, that is what I am going to do.  So let's have a look at the last movies we saw in the calendar year of 2017, and look ahead to the year to come.


The General's Post Winter Roundup, Part 3


The Shape of Water

Alternate Title:  Fishfucking

One sentence synopsis:    A mute custodian at a top secret research clinic gets to know a strange, magical fish-creature brought there from the Amazon at the height of the Cold War.


The Verdict:  No, I don't think the alt-title is at all inappropriate, given what this move is about. You go see an R-Rated Guillermo del Toro movie, and you're gonna see some strange shit, man.

I'm a movie critic, and therefore I'm more or less contractually obligated to sing the praises of Mexican fantasist Guillermo del Toro, and to discourse windily whenever his name comes up about how much of a visionary he is relative to the studio hacks that populate Hollywood, etc etc etc... Unfortunately, I've always been hamstrung by the fact that I've disliked more of his movies than I've liked. Yes, Pan's Labyrinth was a masterpiece. Yes, the Hellboy series is awesome. But absent those two, we're left with crap like Mimic, Crimson Peak, Blade II, and Pacific Rim (yes, Pacific Rim was crap. Fight me!). He's a fantastic visual director, one of the few imagesmiths in Hollywood who really understands the soul behind B-movie genres like splatter-horror and Kaiju, but he also brings a real lack of narrative and structural polish to the proceedings, which ultimately result in most of his films turning out to be average creature features with excellent art design. I was consequently nervous about this new features of his, a send-up to Creature from the Black Lagoon, but was somewhat re-assured by the strength of the cast.

So who's in it? Well Michael Shannon, for one, an absolutely stellar character actor who has been in bad movies but never been bad in them, and who here is playing to type as a tightly-wound G-man in charge of a project to capture a fish-man thing from the Amazon jungle and bring it to the United States for testing. Shannon is in his element here, menacing and fragile and awkward and creepy all at the same time, a pastiche of 50s stoicism asked to loom about as only he can. His nemesis, this time around, is English indie actress Sally Hawkins. I've yet to have an opportunity to speak of Hawkins in these reviews, as she's always been firmly lodged in the independent film circuit (she's been in several recent Woody Allen films, and won a slew of awards for a 2008 Mike Leigh comedy). Nevertheless, I now have cause to regret the lack for she is fantastic in this movie, pulling off one of the hardest tricks in the world by creating a comprehensive, three-dimensional character, complete with goals, desires, aspirations, and libido (it's astounding how often the scriptwriters forget that part), all without speaking a word. Her character, Elisa, is a mute, communicating only by sign language and expression, a useful characteristic when dealing with fish-men who do not possess vocal chords. The movie does not infantalize her, which is a rarety for characters with disabilities, and her performance is the best thing here.

The rest of the cast is equally stellar, from Boardwalk Empire's Michael Stuhlbarg as a concerned scientist (movies like this require one), to Olivia Spencer, who is basically playing the sassy black friend, but is really damn good at it, so who am I to complain, to Richard Jenkins as a closeted gay artist who lives next to Eliza, and who, due to his co-star being mute, gets to steal all the best lines in the film. The creature itself, meanwhile (played, of course, by long-time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones), while it isn't the phantasmagorical nightmare-beast of some of del Toro's other creations (the fucking Pale Man has everyone beat there), is toned down into something more humanizable and evocative, which is a good thing, given that the movie requires it not to be terrifying to be pitied, studied, and, eventually, screwed. Yes, screwed. The movie is explicit about this, so if you ever wanted to see a scene where the mother from Paddington Bear has sex with a fish-man, boy, have I got a film for you. I'm not sure if this aspect adds to the movie or not, to be honest, the sequences are fine but it brings up certain unavoidably uncomfortable questions (of consent, for one thing). Then again, this is a fairy tale, and del Toro a modern fantabulist who does not shy away from the adult materials therein, so I suppose I should not complain. The film makes the most of its early-cold-war setting, with everything taking place inside massive ferrocrete bunkers, gargantuan brutalist laboratories, enormous industrial plants, or spiraling, Victorian buildings. Always, the aesthetic seems to be elegant corners carved out of enormous facilities, like the upstairs lofts that Eliza and her neighbor inhabit above a richly-appointed movie palace. None of this is all that uncommon for del Toro, consider where Hellboy took place, but it works with the paranoid structure of Shannon's character, and as a space for Eliza and her friends to scoot about in unseen.

Ultimately, The Shape of Water isn't a great movie, it's a bit too pedestrian a retelling of Creature from the Black Lagoon for that, despite the fish-sex, but it is a good one, in parts a very good one. Del Toro's command of space and aesthetic is entirely intact, and despite the absurdities on-offer, the movie does not embarrass itself at any point. It does seem to think that there's more hay to be made from its central conceit of "look how uptight the 50s were" than there is, given that every film since 1966 has had the same, but that doesn't hurt it overmuch. As such, if creature features are your thing, this film will be an excellent choice. And if not, then give it a shot anyway. Where else are you likely to encounter a sign language explanation of the proper functioning of fish-man sexual organs?

... you know what, I don't actually want to know the answer to that.

Final Score:  7/10


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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Alternate Title:  Jumanji: GOTY Edition

One sentence synopsis:   Four high school students discover a video game that transports them into a fantastic adventure world.


The Verdict:  The original Jumanji, a 1995 movie by pulp-master-general Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Captain America), was not a great movie, but it was a good one, a Robin Williams vehicle that was funny and adventurous when it needed to be, didn't take itself tremendously seriously, and did everything it needed to do in order to be remembered fondly as a landmark of 90s nostalgia. As we presently live in the era when 90s nostalgia is regarded as a lode to be mined by every film studio on the planet, of course we wound up with a sequel, and I probably would have given it not a second thought, save that the trailers... intrigued me. They promised a movie that was fun and funny, starring multiple comedians of note, and placing, front and center, one of my favorite actors working, and the highest-paid man in Hollywood at the moment, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Dwayne Johnson is a man hewed directly out of calcified charisma, who has been in bad movies but always manages to elevate them at least somewhat, and so I went to see this movie, expecting that The Rock would headline a cavalcade of adventure-comedy and bring a smile to my face.

What I did not expect was for the film to remind me how much I have missed Kevin Hart, and Jack Black.

Kevin Hart is a comedian who rides a very thin line between funny and annoying, and who has fallen off of it before. He generally appears in awful-looking films that I have no interest in seeing, and so I have not had much to do with him in the last several years. And now I regret this lack, because Hart is riotously funny in this movie, easily the best thing in it. With the premise being that four high schoolers are transported into video game archetypes in the world of Jumanji, Hart plays a football star who finds himself now in the diminutive body of... well... Kevin Hart, and is not happy about it in the slightest. The sequences where he tries to exert his will physically against The Rock are exactly as hilarious as you would expect, as both men are skilled physical comedians, and are in their element here. Almost as good is Jack Black, who often plays a caricature of himself, but this time does a brilliant job as an Instagram-obsessed popular girl/airhead shunted into the body of an overweight, middle-aged man. In lesser hands, or with a lesser script, this could all have been played as nothing but a Gay Panic joke, but Black plays the material sermon-straight, which is manifestly the right choice. Perhaps the best sequence in the movie is one where he, as the popular girl, must teach Karen Gillian, a bookish nerd-girl transported into the body of Lara-Croft-style sex bomb, how to be sexy and flirtatious. As to Gillian herself, I've not known her from much beyond certain seasons of Doctor Who, but she's excellent here, playing a semi-genre-savvy high school revolutionary who abruptly finds herself stuck in a crop top and short shorts, and given the ability to dance-fight with armed men. Ironically, the only main character who doesn't pop off the screen the way the rest of them do is The Rock himself, not from any lack of charisma (God no), but because his character arc (the nerdy hero who gets transported into Superman's body, and must discover his inner bravery) doesn't allow for much. There's moments, of course, any movie with The Rock is likely to have those, but overall, the movie puts The Rock in a back-seat position when it comes to the best lines and sequences. It's a weird decision, narratively.

Unfortunately, it's also the only at-all weird decision that the filmmakers made. The new Jumanji is the brainchild of Jake Kasdan, son of the renowned Laurence Kasdan, one of the very greatest genre scriptwriters to ever work in Hollywood (his resume includes Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and four separate Oscar nominations. This may be unfair, but his son has a lot of catching up to do. There's nothing tremendously wrong with the structure of Jumanji or with its direction, but that's only because the movie is as formula as you can get, a structure-obsessed piece of Hollywood fluff, with action setpieces parceled out at precise intervals, between which lie beats of character "drama" so obvious that one knows which way the film is going with them before they even begin. I certainly wasn't looking to a Jumanji sequel to revolutionize my understanding of narrative storytelling, certainly, but it's disappointing that nothing was done to spice the material up beyond hiring comic actors with charisma and giving them license to improvise. And even that doesn't extend to everyone. Bobby Cannavale, a fine character actor whom I know best from various television dramas, has basically nothing to do, playing a one-note video game boss (literally) whose biggest character attribute is the ability to spit centipedes from his mouth. More importantly, a fifth member of the troupe, un-announced by the trailers, turns out to be portrayed by one of the Jonas Brothers of all people (Nick, for those who can tell them apart). The best thing that can be said about Nick Jonas in this film is that he does not embarrass himself. The worst thing that can be said is that the previous sentence was the best thing.

So... Jumanji is not some kind of epochal story, destined to be remembered for all time, nor even a side-splitting classic of modern comedy, but for all that, it is not without its charms. I mean what I say when I praise all four of the leads, even The Rock, who may not have much to do, but mugs for the camera regardless in the best Rockian fashion. I won't pretend that I loved the film, but it's a decent enough little diversion, enjoyable on its own terms, and one that doesn't take itself seriously enough to ruin the proceedings. I can't pretend it will be remembered as a classic, nor that it will be featuring strong in my memory, but for what it is, it's an entertaining film, and one should never become too cynical to appreciate that.

Final Score:  6/10


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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi


Alternate Title:  Metastory

One sentence synopsis:    As the First Order attempts to eradicate the last remnants of the resistance, Rey seeks to unravel her destiny as a wielder of the Force with the help of Luke Skywalker.


The Verdict: So, here we are.

It's a new year now, and every movie critic alive, from myself to the professionals, is presently engaged in looking back over the year just ended to see what sense can be pulled from it. Personally, I've been trying to catch up for the first time all year so that I can start 2018 with no review backlog (be still, my beating heart!), but as a result, I feel like I've come a bit late to the discussion of Star Wars, by which I mean that everyone has already commenced calling one another Nazis over their opinion of the film, and I feel sad to have missed my chance to be so-labelled. All joking aside, The Last Jedi has been one of the most polarizing movies that even recent history records. Though it has, thus far, made a billion dollars worldwide, there are those who still see those numbers as somewhat disappointing, given the scale of the all-out global media offensive that has accompanied it (has anyone seen a car ad that didn't feature Star Wars in the last couple months?). More importantly, the responses to the movie from critics and audience-goers alike has been decidedly mixed, with the obvious result that everyone has begun calling one another cucks, libtards, Nazis, racists and citing Donald Trump. Boy do I love the internet.

It's unlikely, given everything, that this review is going to be the deciding factor as to whether any of you reading it go see the movie, indeed its unlikely, given everything, that any of you haven't seen it already. As such, my purpose here must be a bit different than the standard review tenet of "tell the people whether they should see the film", but rather a retrospective of what I, an experienced filmgoer and fan of Star Wars, thought of the proceedings. And the answer? Well... it's complicated.

Let's get some basic elements out of the way. The Last Jedi is, above everything else, heartrendingly beautiful, shot and framed like a work of fine art, with a richness and eye for visual detail that stands alongside any of the great genre works of yesteryear. Certain sequences reference visually the classic shots of the old trilogy, while others showcase the universe of Star Wars in a way that we've never before seen. The soundtrack is spectacular, because of course it is, rousing and classical, and though it lacks any of the singular touchstone leitmotifs like the Imperial March or Duel of the Fates, it still buttresses the action tremendously well. The acting is superb across the board, something not always the case with Star Wars movies, with the standouts being Daisy Ridley (Rey), and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), both of whom get the best and juiciest material as they both struggle with their place in the universe, with responsibility and duty, with their respective pasts, and with what place they wish to have in the new universe being created. Both of these actors took a while to grow on me in the first movie, but both of them are stand-out amazing here, and feature in several of the best sequences in the film, including a lightsaber combat (I shall speak no more of who is fighting what) that is the hands-down highlight of the entire affair. They are not, however, alone in this, as the returning characters from the original trilogy are just as good, with Carrie Fisher turning in her best performance in the entire series (as is fitting) as the world-weary, but still struggling on, figurehead of the entire resistance, a figure of almost mythical reverence to her crew and officers, and who gets several of the funniest lines in the movie. Mark Hamill, meanwhile, is absolutely on fire this time, playing Luke Skywalker not as simply Yoda to Rey's Luke, but as a bitter, defeated hermit, who has lived now long enough to see the cycles that perpetuate across the galaxy with the choices he and others have made, and wants to be done with it all. The story is consequently less Rey learning the ways of the Force from a wise old master, than it is Luke facing down what demons and flaws he had within him all along, trying to make a younger force sensitive see the larger picture to the mythic events of the day, and trying to provide not only guidance for Rey, but closure for himself. Finally, I'm just gonna come out and say it: The Porgs are cute and awesome. Come at me.

But let's be honest here, all of you already knew all of this before opening this review. Of course the visuals were amazing, they cost over half a billion dollars to produce. Of course the score is excellent, John Williams is a God. Of course the lead actors are great, we found that out from the previous movie. So what do I have to tell you about this film, as a Star Wars film, and its qualities or lack thereof? Well, simply put, this is probably the most daring Star Wars film I've ever seen, one of the most daring major franchise films of all time, purely because of the decisions that it makes concerning what the movie is actually about, both in terms of theme and tone, and in terms of simple plot mechanics. This is commendable, hell in some ways it's downright revolutionary. But it's also the source of a lot of problems, as some of the decisions the film makes, ballsy as they are, just aren't good.

What do I mean? Well, it's mostly a matter of structure and narrative. The concern prior to the film being released was that as Force Awakens was basically a clone of A New Hope, that Last Jedi would basically be a retread of Empire Strikes Back. It is very, very much not that, which is a positive overall, but it also makes the choice of sending my favorite character from the new series, former-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) down a plot cul-de-sac for the first hour of the movie for no real purpose beyond tendentious gestures at the wider universe that never really pay off to anything. It's not that Finn gets no screentime, for he does, nor that he is unenjoyable to watch during this time, for he is, but the whole sequence is awkwardly-placed, features the worst writing of the entire film, and sticks Finn next to an additional character, new to the series, named Rose. Again, there's nothing wrong with the concept here, Rose is the sort of below-decks, non-fantastical character that we don't get to see a lot of in Star Wars, nor does her actress (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) do a poor job of portraying her. But the character feels shoehorned into the proceedings, given an immediate importance well beyond the scope of what her position in the narrative would appear to warrant, to the point where I seriously considered the possibility that this was a character introduced in some ancillary related media (a book, comic, or TV episode) with which I was simply expected to be familiar. A similar fate befalls Laura Dern's newly-introduced Admiral Holdo, brought into the narrative with the cinematic equivalent of trumpets to announce her advent, only for her entire plot arc to be a massive contrivance bordering on an idiot plot, wherein many large-scale problems could easily have been resolved with a single word to the right person, and were not solely so that Poe Dameron (still ably played by Oscar Isaac) has something to do for the first half of the film. Yes, Laura Dern is excellent overall. Yes her character arc is resolved in the most excellent manner possible (and with one of the coolest visuals I've ever seen), but all that Admiral Holdo does throughout the film is highlight the enormous pacing problems bedeviling most of the film as characters get shot off in different directions in pursuit of objectives that make little sense within the plot and less sense outside of it. On top of all that, is a massive tonal fault line running through the entire movie, as the earnest, pulpy line delivery clashes spectacularly with more snark-laden comedic lines designed to "take the piss" as it were out of the self-seriousness of Star Wars. It's not that I have anything against Star Wars playing things a little less Buck Rogers once in a while, but you can't match up dialogue from an Edgar Wright film directly next to something out of the Joseph Campbell stable and expect everything to come up shining, as the "let's not take this too seriously" material prevents people from taking seriously the material that comes directly after, begging the audience to take it seriously.

These are all serious problems with the film as a whole, not merely the sour grapes of various retrograde scum whom we imagine to comprise all forms of opposition to our opinions. And yet, I do not see them as "flaws" so much as "unavoidable complications" that arise when you take great risks as a storyteller, and director Rian Johnson, whom I have previously seen very little of, has swallowed enormous risk this time around, to the point where I have to stand in awe, for The Last Jedi is a movie that knows what it is to be a Star Wars movie, a film that plays with every aspect of audience expectation as to theme and narrative and meta-narrative and character, in the service of trying to create something that is truly "about" Star Wars as much as it is of Star Wars. Not all of these attempts work. Some blow up violently in the film's face. But when the movie threads that narrow passage, it produces sequences and character moments that we simply haven't seen before in any context within Star Wars, and precious few in any massive, multi-billion-dollar entertainment franchise. The character arcs for Rey and Kylo Ren, though they are the focal points of the film, work nothing like what I or anyone else would have anticipated, answering questions posed by the previous film(s) in ways that comment on our expectations as much as the characters involved themselves, and diverts the entire narrative theme of Star Wars into directions that it previously has not seen. Things as simple as what Kylo Ren's motivation actually is, what he desires and why he desires it, are fascinating, not so much because of the implications they line up for later films, but because we have simply never explored Star Wars before from these perspectives, and are now getting to do so. The entire plot arc of Rey and Luke on the hermetic island is less a retread of the Dagobah sequence from Empire Strikes Back than it is a metaphysical analysis of what Star Wars is on a narrative level, what sorts of stories it has told us in the past and what stories it might be able to tell us in the future. As much as this matters to Rey, and moreso to Luke, the person actually being addressed through most of it is us, the fans of Star Wars, we who find the series compelling and worthwhile, even if we don't necessarily know (or care) why. There are explosions in this movie. Dogfights and battles reminiscent of the greatest periodicals of WWII (including a bombing-run sequence that has few analogues in sci-fi in any context, mostly because the physics are stupid even by Star Wars standards). There are lightsabers and the use of the Force, and old mentors confronting fallen students on several sides of several coins. There is even comic relief, some of it good and some less so. But The Last Jedi is less a Star Wars movie than it is a movie about Star Wars movies, about legends and stories and what they mean to all of us, here and elsewhere. If A New Hope was a retelling of Joseph Campbell's Hero-with-a-Thousand-Faces theory, then The Last Jedi is a movie that asks us, sincerely, and without necessarily knowing the answer, what it is about that archetypical story that appeals to us so much, and what role such a tale plays in our lives, as imagined above the circumstances that we live in.

So, yes, I would have changed things in The Last Jedi. I would have reduced the presence of characters like Admiral Holdo and Rose and other characters we are told to care about for no reason other than the movie says so, and increased in turn the presence of previously-established, and interesting characters like Captain Fasma and Maz Kanata. I would have junked about a fifth of the dialogue overall, in an attempt to smooth out the cracks between the "Star Wars" writing and the "modern" writing. I would have restructured the plot in a number of major and minor ways. But given the film as it stands, warts and all, I am deeply impressed by it. It's a movie that does not play things safe, as the previous film did, seeking to prove that modern Star Wars films are possible, but instead seeks to show what is possible within Star Wars' framework, not necessarily by telling strange new stories, but by broadening the horizons of what Star Wars means as a franchise and a concept. It's a metanarrative gambit that could only have been spectacularly difficult to pull off, but that the director manages, somehow to execute upon, even if it leaves the film itself lacking polish that one might normally, and with reason, expect from a multimedia extravaganza like this one.

I enjoyed The Last Jedi very much, despite my reservations, and I respect the achievement of creating it even more. What it augurs for future Star Wars movies, I cannot say, as the film's purpose is not really to augur specific things, but to instead instill within us the sense that anything is possible. Perhaps Episode XI will be nothing but a return to the beats and themes of Return of the Jedi. Perhaps the new Han Solo movie will suck. Or perhaps none of these things will be the case, because this is Star Wars, and ultimately, there is a reason we gravitated towards it in the first place. This film doesn't always know what that reason is. But it does know that the reason is there, buried within ourselves and the stories we tell, waiting for the slightest spark of imagination to spring triumphantly to life.

Final Score:  7.5/10



Next Time: The Film Calendar doesn't end with the New Year, I'm afraid.  Next time we get to turn our heads to the Oscar-contenders that came out at the very end of the year, particularly for a primer on how to deal with Nazis.

The Worst Films of 2017

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, fellow moviegoers, but the worst films of 2017 were nowhere near as awful as the worst films of years ...