Saturday, December 30, 2017

End of the Year Roundup 2017

To begin with, I acknowledge that last year's roundup was WAY too long. One of the hallmarks of this year's roundup will be its brevity.

I'll start by discussing the films that made the deepest impression on me this year. These are not in any particular order after the first one, and should NOT be taken as some kind of ranked or preferential list of any kind. Remember, film reviews are subjective!

My favorite movie of the year is Lady Bird. I can hardly believe that this wonderful, confident, superbly written and directed coming of age story marks Greta Gerwig's feature film directing debut. It never hits a false note. It is funny, self-assured, and poignant. It is a must-see.

If Lady Bird possesses any flaw, it is not intrinsic to the film itself (I hope). Instead it lies with claims that it may have plagiarized. Michelle Cruz Gonzales has written a blog post mentioning the eerie similarities between Lady Bird and Real Women Have Curves (2002), another must-see mother-daughter themed movie. Gonzales calls Lady Bird "the white-lady Real Women Have Curves" and outlines the case for plagiarism on Greta Gerwig's part. While I am not sure (and Gonzalez admits in a follow-up article that she cannot prove) Gerwig plagiarized the earlier film, I also noticed striking similarities while watching the newer one: the hard-working, "tough love"-oriented mother figure, the daughter who goes to New York City at the end. So I consider this a valid issue yet I still love Lady Bird very much. 

The other most memorable and affecting films I saw this year include . . .

. . . another feature film-directing debut, Jordan Peele's great thriller Get Out -- see my review here. Also, read Mark Harris' smart commentary about the film and its place in contemporary Hollywood.

Blade Runner 2049 is probably the most visually stunning film of 2017, a lavish sci-fi spectacle I enjoyed very much. Despite some lingering questions about its gender politics (which could be an interesting provocation or just more of the same Hollywood sexism), the Blade Runner sequel is easily my favorite big-budget film of the year. Read my complete review here.

The Shape of Water is another visual stunner -- though I would expect no less from director Guillermo Del Toro, one of the great masters of lavish mise-en-scene. Water is an offbeat, 1950s-set love story between a mute janitorial employee (Sally Hawkins) at a U.S. government facility and a Black Lagoon-esque amphibious creature who is being held there. The film drags a bit in its second act -- it could use a bit more Octavia Spencer and a bit less government (and Soviet) plotting -- but overall, this is a remarkable film, lovingly crafted, chock full of superb performances (Richard Jenkins is a standout) with about the best ending of any film I've seen this year.

My favorite action film of the year is Wonder Woman - read my complete review here.

I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi about a week ago, I plan to see it again, and while I really enjoyed it my first time out, I am unsure how it will hold up over time. But whether I like it or not, this one is going to loom large in the pop-cultural conversation for awhile, especially since Disney has recently furthered its plans to take over the entertainment universe. My review is here.

Recent movies I would like to see but haven't include The Disaster Artist; Colossal; The Big Sick; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Thor 3; Beatriz at Dinner; and The Post.

And my favorite TV shows of the year include:

Big Little Lies (HBO) - The best dramatic show of the year.

The Crown (Netflix) - The other best dramatic show of the year.

Poldark (BBC / PBS) - A persistent favorite of mine, an artfully crafted, zippy bodice-ripper featuring the world's greatest villain, Jack Farthing's George Warleggan.

Outlander (Starz) - I've been watching this for three seasons and found it uneven early on but despite one sluggish and unnecessary episode (Ep. 5 "Freedom & Whisky"), season three is a knockout!

The Good Place (NBC) - The funniest, cleverest, and most poignant comedy around. I can't say much without giving stuff away, but Kristen Bell and Ted Danson lead a stellar cast in this whip-smart metaphysical comedy. A must-see, but don't read too much about it ahead of time as there are big twists ahead!

Schitt's Creek (CBC) - The other funniest, cleverest, and most poignant comedy around. Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara drew me in, but younger stars Daniel Levy and Annie Murphy keep me coming back. A warm-hearted, very funny series about a formerly rich family down on its luck.

GLOW (Netflix) - Easy to take for granted because of how effortlessly this series combines comedy and pathos. This first season is mostly buildup to greater things yet to come, but is worth watching for Alison Brie's and Marc Maron's performances alone.

That's all for now. Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)


Despite my mostly positive comments here, I recently tried to re-watch The Force Awakens and could not get past Han Solo's entrance. I find that, like Tony Zhou, I long for a different new-trilogy-kickoff film, one that spends more time on its new characters than its legacy ones. And one that tells a different story than the one that is already told more impactfully and economically in George Lucas's 1977 Star Wars.

However, despite my "blah" feelings about Episode VII, I stand by my concluding sentiment in that review, which says that
I sure look forward to seeing the next couple episodes of Rey's ongoing adventures. She is the single most compelling element of this latest Star Wars viewing product.
Indeed, I went into Episode VII with mediocre expectations overall but some hopes for interesting Rey / Luke developments. I ended up enjoying the film very much, at least on my first viewing. For me, The Last Jedi strikes a good balance between "soulless corporate pablum" and "a film somebody actually wanted to make." I like writer / director Rian Johnson's idiosyncratic touches and  I mostly found the tone of Last Jedi and the whole Luke Skywalker storyline to be spot-on. Kylo Ren continues to be the best-developed new character and Rey is compelling onscreen despite thin, predictable scripting for her this time around. I even enjoyed the Yoda cameo, an aspect I assumed I would hate. Yes, it was obvious fan service but it was handled well for the most part.

Even some of the gratuitous nods to the structure and visuals of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi didn't bother me too much. I am not sure we needed walkers attacking a rebel base on a "snow" (er, salt) planet yet again at the end, and some of the visual homages were heavy handed (e.g., the image of Yoda in the foreground, Luke in the background watching a ship take off copied from Empire). Along the same lines, the whole "gambler betrays the heroes" story element felt shoehorned in, but maybe that's because that whole Finn-Rose subplot, despite those two characters' good interpersonal chemistry and a fun animal chase, was clumsy, thinly plotted, and unnecessary.

All that said, I mainly enjoyed Last Jedi a great deal. Visually, it is a cut above most other Star Wars films (reason enough to see it in a theater) and there were enough new twists and fun ideas, mostly surrounding Luke's renouncing of the Force and his big astral-projection-trick finale, to keep me on the hook. I especially liked Leia's return to the ship after her brush with death -- FINALLY the series does something with HER portion of the Skywalker Force-imbued bloodline. That moment was weird and powerful and unexpected and I liked it very much.

The very best element of this film is its meta-commentary on failure:
In tackling this notion head-on—in being willing to not only challenge Star Wars’ happy ending, but to question whether happy endings actually exist—these new films are giving the saga something that it’s always somewhat lacked, even in all its constant grappling with themes of the spirit versus the machine: humanity.
Indeed, The Last Jedi, especially as it concerns Luke Skywalker, is the most humanly resonant Star Wars film since 1980's Empire. It is, as other reviewers have noted, a bit overlong and messy, but probably not too much the worse for it. I certainly enjoyed this film -- and had elements of it stick with me afterward -- in ways not even remotely achieved by any prequel or recent sequel.

The Last Jedi contains far fewer dead moments and outright imaginative failures than does The Force Awakens (e.g., Leia and Chewie failing to acknowledge each other post-Han's death) and I'm quite glad Johnson at least tried to take some chances (e.g., with Luke's character arc, with our understanding of what the Force can do). There were some subtle yet palpable misfires, such as:
  • Holdo's big death scene should have been Leia's.
  • Speaking of Holdo, why doesn't she just tell Poe the plan (or at least admit that she's got one) so as to eliminate that largely superfluous subplot he secretly and insubordinately sets in motion?
  • Finn's self-sacrifice should have been allowed to happen, even though he's then a black guy sacrificing himself for the whities.
  • Ren's bullshit talk of letting everything die, of letting go, seemed like a coded message to fans rather than anything he actually believed. He still wanted to indulge his hate and destroy the resistance. I guess we're supposed to just take it as bullshit, as lies he tells Rey to win her to his side, but it still felt weird and too meta-textual to really work.

"Hey guys, director Rian Johnson here. Be sure to let go of the past 
before you watch The Last Jedi!" 

Is Yoda a bit jokey? Yes, but this works for me -- he and Luke are colleagues now, not master and student. When Yoda blows up the tree and Jedi library, it fits the theme of the film and Yoda's approach to the Force. I like it.

But the smash cut from the end of that scene, Luke and Yoda sitting together watching the fire, to a ship hurtling through hyperspace comes a few seconds too soon and is emblematic of the film's most pervasive weakness: it is trying to pack so much in that it rushes things. It doesn't fuck up character moments as badly as J.J. Abrams does in the prior film but it still rushes them. I get that the casino planet sequence is ultimately a lesson about failure, a meta-theme of the movie, yet couldn't some of that material be eliminated or trimmed to give us a few more grounded character moments with Rey and Kylo, or even Luke and Yoda?

Also, as the Red Letter Media guys note, there is a real sense of finality at the end of this installment. The Last Jedi, even in its title, has the feel of a final chapter, not a penultimate one. So while it vastly improves on the lackluster Force Awakens, it doesn't really leave us with anywhere interesting to go. With Luke dead in the film and Leia dead in real life, two of the best characters are gone, leaving us with Ren and Rey. But what can they do next except battle it out some more?

I guess we'll find out.

JAY: See you again in two years for the next one . . . 
RICH: . . . when they just have to blow up a super-weapon and she has to get into a light-saber fight with Kylo Ren again. 'Cause they can't do anything new or interesting with Star Wars, they just can't, it's not there. I'm sorry -- you've wasted your life and your fandom.

UPDATE 1/2/2018: I saw The Last Jedi again yesterday and overall, I enjoyed it as much as, if not more than, I did the first time. It honors (most of) its characters and really keeps the viewer on the hook. I still think it is TOO fast-paced and overfull at times (that cut away from Luke and Yoda at the burning tree is quite wrenching -- it does not even wait for the last note on the musical score to resolve), yet overall the movie jells very well and is a real pleasure to watch.

That said, my main critique of it -- that the subplot involving Benicio del Toro's codebreaker character is especially weak -- still stands, and in fact was even more glaring to me on a second watch. As much as I love del Toro -- and I really do, I have sat through the shitty James Bond film Licence to Kill many times largely for his great performance in it -- his character in Star Wars is woefully underdeveloped and the whole plot involving him is, as I said, unnecessary. The "failure" theme is more than adequately covered by the Luke storyline, and the only part of the casino planet sequence that really comes alive is the stuff with the racing herd animals and the stable-cleaning kids. THAT part of that subplot IS narratively relevant, as it continues the theme of empathy for non-human animals that begins with Chewie and the porgs and concludes with the "crystal critters" on the salt planet.

But as for the "finding the codebreaker" stuff, it is weakly scripted (how and why do they meet Benicio in that prison cell?) and should probably have been cut. It would make far more sense to just have Rose be the codebreaker (or know someone who is) and have the side quest forego the casino planet altogether and head straight for Snoke's ship.

In fact, this time through I noticed what I think is The Last Jedi's one and only plot hole, and of course it involves the Benicio del Toro plot. (And let me preamble this by saying that I almost NEVER notice plot holes or continuity errors unless they are especially glaring. I did not catch this one until the second viewing.) It is this: when Finn, Rose and Benicio are in Snoke's ship at the end, and our two heroes learn that he has betrayed them, how does he know the information that he uses to buy his freedom? That is, how does Benicio know that the rebels are escaping in shuttlecraft when the film has already established that NOBODY except Holdo and possibly Leia know about that plan? Finn and Rose surely don't. So how does Benicio learn about it?