Monday, December 18, 2017

Ambitious, Maddening, Confusing, Genius - Reappraising The Last Jedi.

So - you know a film has gotten under your skin when, after seeing it that first time, you can't stop thinking about it.

This is no less true for me with Star Wars The Last Jedi. It hasn't left my mind since I saw it on Saturday. I posted my initial thoughts about the film, at a time when I'd had such a visceral reaction to it. I wasn't sure how to feel about it. I knew that, in terms of Star Wars, it was unlike any Star Wars story I'd seen before - both on screen and in literature. You have to remember that, for die hard fans of the franchise, there has been a forty year catalog of Expanded Universe stories for us to digest. I initially called The Last Jedi ambitious, maddening and confusing.

Since Saturday, Star Wars: The Last Jedi has percolated in me. It has boiled and bubbled around in my gut. It has lead me through such a spectrum of emotions, I still can't even process them.

It was inevitable that I was going to see it again.

The bulk of this post was written in the first few hours after I left the cinema, having had that second viewing.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was an infinitely better viewing experience the second time around. Free from the hype of expectation, I was able to settle in and appraise the story on its own terms. I'd already credited writer/director Rian Johnson's approach to some aspects of the film narrative in my previous post, but I'd found them difficult to take in. 

Kylo Ren's arc remains brilliant. It is probably the most compelling story arc of a dark side character in Star Wars history. He comes to us from The Force Awakens as a quintessentially character, having struck down his own father and accepted the Dark Side of the Force over the Light. All of that is turned on its head in The Last Jedi. Adam Driver's Ren - or Ben Solo - walks a tight rope, balancing over a chasm of the Force. One has to wonder whether there are moments where even he is not sure of his true destiny. 

The subsequent trajectory Ren takes, through his interaction with Rey through the Force, is an exercise in minimalist genius. It is ballet. I had problems with this new characteristic of the Force but I now question why I should have at all. The Force is as much a character in the Star Wars universe than any other character. It can evolve and change just as human, animal or alien. 

I think Kylo Ren's die was cast from the moment he shatters his mask in the elevator at the beginning of the film - following his confrontation with Snoke. Ren is on a search for ultimate power, ultimate control, in much the same way that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were. Ren sees Rey as a threat to that control. Thus he must control her too. The way Kylo Ren manipulates Rey and, by extension, us throughout the story is nothing short of exquisite. 

I still can't quite accept the murder of Snoke, so early in the piece. Part of that shock has been influenced by my buying into the fan speculation surrounding who Snoke may or may not be and part of it is my belief that Snoke is a compelling enough character that he should have remained in the saga until the third film. In light of the brilliance of Kylo Ren's trajectory I'm not as angered by it as I was after my first viewing.

Luke Skywalkers's arc is even more brilliant on second viewing. I knew there was something special in this narrative but I was able to take it in more thoroughly. It is superb. I experienced moments of real emotion throughout both viewings of the film. Mark Hamill's acting is superb. Johnson's writing, his flipping of the script in terms of who Luke Skywalker is, is superb.

Writer Joseph Campbell defined the hero's journey in his 1949 book "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" and it served as a template for popular story telling throughout the 20th century, influencing none other than George Lucas himself. Lucas resolved his particular Hero's Journey with Luke Skywalker at the end of Return of The Jedi and gave the character a happily ever after. Rian Johnson opens the window beyond that happily ever after and reveals the hero in a completely new light. Middle aged, scarred by the subsequent years, guilt ridden by subsequent failure and closed off from everything that defined his heroism. 

I still have problems with Luke Skywalker "dialing" into Crait through the Force at the emotion charged climax of the film. Again, this is coloured by my own perceptions of what the Force should be. But again, it is not for me to define what the Force is. The thing is, Skywalker was there. He was there when the, Resistance and Leia and Rey and the Galaxy needed him most. He'd opened himself back up to the Force. He accepted his failure with Kylo Ren and he accepted that the Jedi will not end. He became the hero he always was. It was perfect.

Rey. Dear sweet Rey. I said in my previous blog post that her arc reminded me of (Ryan Gosling) K's arc in Blade Runner 2049, in that - even when he realizes that he is not the missing child of Deckard and Rachel, that he is no-one, he still decides to do the right thing - *because it is the right thing to do*. Well, I am definitely more accepting of the truth of Rey. That she is no-one - and yet she chooses to do the right thing. She chooses the right path. She does so because she is inherently good and she is just as open to receiving and interacting with the Force as anyone. The Force is an energy field that moves through all living things - all living things. I like that a lot.

I think I can accept that Rey's parentage matters less now than it did. And maybe it never mattered. Again, fan speculation and a subtle manipulation by Lucasfilm - in that they deliberately conflated her parentage to wind us all up - contributed to so much of my initial shock at this reveal. Rey is now presented to us as a character who exists completely on her own terms, unburdened by a family legacy a'la a Skywalker or a Kenobi or even a Palpatine 

There remains problematic aspects to this film. Canto Bight still feels out of place and I don't think it should have been in the story. In fact, at times it doesn't feel like it exists in the same film. I think it contributed to Last Jedi's unacceptably long runtime and Rian could have gone with a more condensed thread that would have kept the action on the Raddus - ie. there's a compromised Droid on the ship that the Mega Star Destroyer is communicating with and thus able to track the ship the light speed. Our heroes have to find it. I dunno - it's just an idea.

Admiral Holdo seemed to make more sense to me but I'm not quite there with her yet. I think that, in the story arc dealing with Canto Bight and the Resistance Cruiser, her arc got confused. I'm still trying to work that whole thread out in my head.

I never had a problem with Leia surviving that first attack on her ship. In the 30 years since Return of the Jedi, I've come to accept and appreciate that Leia can wield the Force. She may not do so in the same way that Luke or Rey can but her pedigree cannot be denied. Again, it illustrates a new interpretation on the Force and who is able to use it. Princess Leia has to be in 9. She has to be! They didn't conclude Leia's story in any way like I thought they would, and to just not have her in there for the final film - if just to resolve her character with a fitting death - It would be wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong!

So - second time around - I'm emotionally exhausted. In a much better way than I was after my first viewing of the film. 

Rian Johnson has sold me. The Last Jedi is the most ambitious Star Wars storytelling - ever. It remains maddening and confusing but that is actually the genius of it. The Last Jedi is not a story for lazy consumers of story telling. I made that mistake in my initial reaction to it. It is a story to unpack and consider in different ways. Rian Johnson has challenged my perceptions of what a Star Wars narrative should be. 

I'm grateful for that. 


P.S. - For a comprehensive, engaging and entertaining reaction to The Last Jedi, listen to the latest episode of the Richie & Ollie Show. Available where ever good podcasts are down-loadable (Click Image). 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Ambitious. Confusing. Maddening.

So, regular readers to this blog and those who know me well, know that my love of Star Wars runs deep - 40 years deep - ever since my Dad took me to see the original Star Wars back in 1977.

I went to see The Last Jedi yesterday with my family, replicating that first excursion to Star Wars all those years ago. For my 8 year old daughter, it was a special occasion as it was our first cinematic experience of Star Wars together.

It was always going to be special. 

I came away from The Last Jedi not really knowing what to think. To absorb something set in a fictional universe you've loved for 40 years is always a challenge, simply because you're emotionally invested in it. You have skin in this game. 

So, 24 hours later, what do I think about this film?

It's complicated.

I'm still trying to process exactly what I saw in The Last Jedi. Undoubtedly, it was the most complex Star Wars film of the saga to date but, I think they were too ambitious in some aspects of the film.

So here goes...

The Last Jedi was half an hour too long. It made several attempts at comedy, some of which was good, some was not so good and some ran dangerously close to breaching that fourth wall. It was cringe worthy. Characters - both new and established - did things in this film that seemed out of place for Star Wars and, at times, it jarred badly. That wasn't something I expected.

If I'm to compare The Last Jedi - the middle act of a three act play - with it's spiritual predecessor, the Empire Strikes Back, this film should have adhered to two or three key story threads and ran with them to a cliffhanger. The Last Jedi went with around six or seven and of those, none were satisfyingly resolved or parked for the third act. They were confusing and and they detracted from the strengths of the film.

And much of the story didn't need to be there. For example, the Canto Bight sequences. For all its Bond-esque bombast and chintz, this thread was brutally unsatisfying and it didn't need to be there.

See the thing is - they had a perfect plot device that would have explained the First Order being able to track the Resistance through hyperspace. They had a black BB unit on the bridge of the Raddus, *next to BB8* early in the film! 

That Droid *could* have been the node the First Order were using to track the Resistance ship through hyperspace!

Writer/Director Rian Johnson could have dropped clues to the presence of this droid throughout out the film and dispensed with Canto Bight altogether. In the process they would've saved potentially 20 minutes of run time and kept the story more contained. 

Finn and Rose could still have had their character moments in searching for the node and it would have been a lot more satisfying. 

The whole DJ subplot - that crafty code breaker played (poorly) by Benicio Del Toro - where he eventually sold Finn and Rose out on the deck of Snoke's Super Dooper Star Destroyer - it was a messy way to get where they needed to go.

The supporting players in this film - some of them established, some newcomers - fell surprisingly flat, despite their acting chops. Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico was a pleasant enough but she ended up being a nothing character who felt tacked on and too obvious at times. She was there to be a love interest for John Boyega's Finn but that trajectory was way too clunky and cringe worthy at the supposedly emotion charged climax.

I did like aspects of John Boyega's Finn's arc - ie. his finding courage within himself and not running away from the fight was good and satisfying. Especially at that moment during the Crait battle. But I felt it was less than it could have been - and yet I don't know how it could have been more.

Laura Dern's Admiral Holdo was another new addition who fell flat. Her presence in the film was way too convoluted to be convincing and it became painful to watch. And I read the Journey to the Last Jedi novel Leia: Princess of Alderaan which was a good primer for the relationship between Holdo and Leia. Their relationship here and the supposedly clandestine final solution they'd cooked up off screen was flat and confusing.

Chewbacca was relegated to a second string character and I thought they treated him badly. I wanted to see moments of Chewie dealing with his grief at losing Han Solo - his best friend - and perhaps coming full circle and committing a life debt to Rey. I wanted to see more gravitas in the reunion between Chewie and Luke. There was none of that. Chewie was almost non existent, forced to interact with the worst Star Wars creations since Jar Jar Binks  - the Porgs. 

Captain Phasma...

This character has become the most useless excuse for a Star Wars antagonist ever. I don't ever want to see her in Star Wars ever again. And yet, here's the thing - I actually feel for actress Gwendoline Christie and, even the character of Phasma.

I've seen Christie's work, most notably with Game Of Thrones, and I know she is capable of so much more than what they gave her across The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. I kept spotting places where they could've dropped Phasma into scenes but they didn't - and the character suffered that.most egregious of fates - she became irrelevant.

Now, is she dead? No. I don't think so. I think they'll bring her back because they revealed her eye in that last scene and her fall reeked of "Oh, you know we're gonna bring her back".

Now - Rey's parentage.

My wife Emily, who regards herself herself as a casual Star Wars viewer observed this in our post viewing dissection. Emily loved the The Force Awakens. She loved Rey and she was really invested in finding out who Rey's parents were. 

Lucasfilm teased us with Rey's parentage -  both in the run up to the film and within the film itself. They teased us with that whole Dark Side sink hole sequence on Ach-To - the one Rey fell into, then encountered the multiple versions of herself. 

They teased us right up to the point of threatening a reveal of her parents - only to reveal herself. It was a shallow imitation of the whole Luke confronting himself in the tree on Dagobah from The Empire Strikes Back! No! No, no, no! 

Then, to have Kylo Ren deliver that limp wristed revelation about her parentage, later, on Snoke's Star Destroyer? 


Lucasfilm have had two years to offer something of significance with Rey, that would truly elevate her and they allow Rian Johnson to go with something so weak???

Rian Johnson has essentially written Rey off as a nobody - a worthy nobody - but a nobody nonetheless. Despite this revelation, Rey chooses the path of the Light. It is an admirable choice on her part and it defines her character as inherently good. This actually reminded me of a similar thread from Denis Villeneuve's outstanding Blade Runner 2049. 

In that film, the protagonist K discovers that he is not the secret child of Deckard and Rachel. He is, essentially, a nobody - a no-one of significance. Yet he, chooses to do the right thing in reuniting Deckard with his long lost child - because it is the right thing to do. Star Wars does not have the luxury of doing that. No one who is Force sensitive should be an insignificant player on the Star Wars chessboard. The lore that George Lucas established throughout the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy, with respect to Force sensitive individuals does not allow for that. 

I actually suspect that the reveal of Rey's parentage by Ben?Kylo was a misdirection. If that is the case, it was a monumentally clumsy one.

Now, there were strengths in The Last Jedi - narrative arcs that ran close to being brilliant - until they weren't.

Kylo Ren's arc was among the strongest in the film. Ben Solo/Kylo Ren is pretty much irretrievable by the end of the film and his killing of Snoke illustrates just how dark he has become. Supreme Leader Snoke is partly responsible for who Solo/Ren is. So is Luke Skywalker. I found this was a compelling exploration of the Balance of The Force and how precarious that balance is.

And Ben/Kylo's twisted psyche totally feeds into the legacy of Anakin/Darth in that he craves power so that he can control events and shape the galaxy. He will do anything to achieve ultimate power to protect himself. He will manipulate Rey, destroy Snoke, confront his shame ridden Uncle.

Mark Hamill was brilliant - flawed brilliance - but brilliance none-the-less. His performance is potentially Oscar worthy. Hamill brought moments of real emotion to his role and I felt those. Any actor who can cry on screen is a genius!

I can fully accept Luke Skywalker's act in wanting to put down Ben Solo in the flash back scenes in the film. His fear of Ben's darkness and what it could mean for the galaxy was a brilliant exploration of the character and added much to the lore of Luke Skywalker. 

To apply a real world analogy to this - I consider my own experience. Sitting here, in my 40's as I am, I can buy into that sense of middle aged doubt Luke Skywalker experiences. I have doubts about the world around me, the people in it, the consequences for the future. While not wanting to actually kill anyone per-se, I felt empathy with Luke wrestling with his existence as portrayed in the film.  

What I could not accept was that Luke Skywalker remained on Ach-To safe from the events of the Crait climax. This was the Jedi equivalent of phoning it in.

Initially, I couldn't even determine whether his entrance into the Resistance hide out was  physical or not. But when that fact was revealed, it was a disappointment. 

Luke Skywalker should have made that final decision to protect the Spark *in person* - to reunite with Leia just one last time and confront Kylo/Ben on the salt flats of Crait. The resulting duel between Uncle and Nephew fell flat. It had no emotional punch - because Luke wasn't actually there. It was disrespectful to the character and his legacy.

That Luke Skywalker died alone, away from the fight, was another example of Lucasfilm copping out with an attempt at gravitas that was an utter failure. Luke Skywalker should not have died on Ach-To. He shouldn't have died in this film. 

And nor should have Snoke.

Here's where I have to talk about Snoke. 

Fuck Snoke!! 

Supreme Leader Snoke is the most egregious mishandling of a character in Star Wars - ever. Again, for Lucasfilm to manipulate us, for two years, with tantalizing ideas about the origins of Snoke -  only to *not* give us any idea of who Snoke is. Then to kill him off like that?

We have no context with which to remain invested in Snoke. Who was he? How was it that he was able to wield absolute chaos over the Skywalker family? We got none of that. The Last Jedi should have explored that. Instead, he became a throw away character - disposable and irrelevant.

I now couldn't give a shit who Snoke is in the wider arc of this story. I don't need to know his history. I don't care! Again, we have another character who should have been someone of significance in the Star Wars universe. Lucasfilm baulked! As though it was too hard. 

As the middle act of a three act play, The Last Jedi should have followed the trajectory of The Empire Strikes Back. It should have deepened the characters established in The Force Awakens and their relationships with one another. It should not have dispensed with characters so easily as it did. And it should have ended in a cliff hanger - unresolved, with us fearing for the future of our beloved heroes. It misfired on most of these, if not all of them.

Look, I did not hate The Last Jedi. The more time I spend thinking about it, the more I like what they tried to do with the story, particularly Like Skywalker and Kylo Ren's respective arcs, the nature of the Force and the precarious balance it constantly challenges those in the universe with. 

But, I have a lot of difficulty with what Rian Johnson did give us. The Snoke arc. The Canto Bight and the DJ sequence. Rey's arc and parentage. These showed a surprising level of incompetence and cowardice in the story telling and I think Johnson has damaged the trajectory of the sequel saga. It remains to be seen whether J.J. Abrams - who is returning to direct the final film in this current trilogy - can pull something together out of this spaghetti bolognaise.

The Last Jedi - Ambitious. Confusing. Maddening. 


(disclaimer - all images are copyright of Lucasfilm/Disney).

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hollywood Buzz - A Look At Buzzworthy by Elsie Moody.

BuzzworthyBuzzworthy by Elsie Moody

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

She had only one dating rule: no more actors. 

For entertainment reporter Kate Ferris, interviewing celebrities is just part of the job, and she’s never been one to get starstruck. At least, not until she meets movie star Nick Archer in the flesh. One of the hottest and most elusive bachelors in Hollywood, Nick seems miles out of her league, so when he takes an interest in her at a press junket, Kate can’t help but be intrigued. She may have a strict rule against dating actors, but he’s drop-dead gorgeous and she’s only human. 

As their flirtation blossoms into full-blown romance, Kate struggles to maintain her journalistic integrity, while potentially becoming a subject of tabloid gossip herself. Can she and Nick survive the public fallout when the painful mistakes of their past come back to haunt them both? 

If only romance were as simple in real life as it is in the movies.

When I happened across Buzzworthy by Elsie Moody, my expectation was that it would be a pleasant and fun romance, set amongst the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. What I did not expect is that Buzzworthy would be a story of uncharacteristic depth and emotionally satisfying heart.

Elsie Moody brings considerable journalistic experience from a career in the Hollywood press industry, providing a vivid backdrop where industry politics and the cut throat nature of celebrity interweave through a narrative about real people, trying to make their way through an often superficial and unforgiving environment. The result, on that score, feels authentic.

Into the mix, Moody inserts a cast of diverse characters, led by plucky journalist Katelyn Ferris and enigmatic Hollywood A-List actor Nick Archer. They are appealing characters on their own terms, well drawn and full of nuance. I was impressed with how fully realized they are - though this I consider is a failing on my part. The Hollywood setting, the world of movies and celebrity had me thinking that I would find limits in the trajectory of Moody's characters. I underestimated just how much these individuals had to offer. They crackle with ambition, intelligence, sexiness, villainy and humanity. It was a delightful discovery.

Moody's story craft is layered well, with some satisfying twists and turns on its path towards resolution. There was unpredictability in the narrative too, which had me anxious and wanting to read ahead. And, of course, the romantic elements were lovely, with moments of tenderness, emotion and steam.

Buzzworthy is a smart, funny, sexy and heartfelt romance and a resounding success as a debut for Elsie Moody.

Elsie Moody worked in Hollywood for many years as an entertainment reporter, where she attended her share of press junkets and spent countless hours interviewing celebrities on red carpets. Now, she focuses her time writing romantic novels set in the entertainment industry. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two precocious cats.

I had the opportunity to have a chat with Elsie over a 3AM cup of tea while Elsie was keeping a nervous eye on the Californian wildfires that have dominated the news cycle this past week. I started by congratulating Elsie on Buzzworthy. It's what I regard as a real step up in terms of romance. I was intrigued to know more about how she brought elements of her career as a journalist in Hollywood to the character of Kate Ferris. 

DM:  Having been a journalist in the entertainment industry, and modeling Kate on your own experiences, have you had any encounters where the interview script kinda got thrown out the window and you found yourself having a much deeper discussion with your interview subject? I imagine those experiences would have been really satisfying for you as a journalist.

EM: I've never broke protocol the way Kate does by talking negatively about the film with the star, though I'd definitely had the same thoughts! Maybe that was a little projection there, having her say the things I couldn't because I actually wanted to be invited back. There isn't time to go into depth in a junket situation, but I have had the opportunity to attend private dinners set up by publicists with a single star and a few journalists to promote a film or home-video release. Those were really enjoyable, because by the end of the night you've run out of questions and you're just chatting like a group of friends hanging out. 

I've also had some great experiences visiting sets. Usually, you're squeezing in whatever interview time you can get when the actor or director is on a break, then they go back to work or to their trailer or something. But there was one set visit where a big-name actor kept coming over to talk to us in between takes. The director would yell cut, and he'd come back to our table until they called him over again. We got more than an hour with him, broken up into little fragments. It's always nice when you feel like they actually want to talk to you.

DM: The thing that I was most engaged me with Buzzworthy, was the your style of writing. I found it really accessible and your voice authentic. As a journalist, having to adhere to a certain writing style, was transitioning to fiction writing a challenge for you or have you written fiction alongside your professional duties as a journalist.

EM: When I started the book a few years ago it was the first time I'd ever written original fiction outside of school. It requires a whole different set of intellectual muscles, but there are some similarities. Already having the discipline of sitting in front of the screen coming up with words really helped me. When I wrote feature stories I would start with the quotes I wanted to use and then build the article around them. So, whenever I got stuck on the book I'd just write the dialogue and let the characters talk to each other for a bit. Then I'd fill out the rest of the scene later. Of the two, I'd say fiction is harder. I'd compare it to jazz, where non-fiction is more like classical. Many jazz musicians can play classical music if you put it in front of them, but ask a classical musician to improvise and they'll balk. It's possible to learn both styles, it just takes practice.

DM: I'm interested to know how you infused your characters with the depth they contain in the story. Was it a difficult process? Did you find yourself trying to avoid certain stereotypes in their portrayal?
EM: The characters progressed so much from the first draft to the last. I started with a vague idea of their back stories and filled the rest in as I wrote. Then I'd go back and revise earlier chapters after I'd decided on some detail about their personality or history that I needed for the story. Nick took the most tweaking, I think. I started out with this notion that he was the typical Hollywood player/bad boy, but that has been done so much already. I tossed that idea out almost immediately. I wanted to do something different. So I made him more guarded and private. He doesn't like the attention, doesn't want to be in the news for anything other than his films. That's more true to life, but surprisingly rare in stories about movie stars.

DM: You sat down with Novel2Screen recently to discuss the novel. I note from that interview, you've talked about more 'in universe' stories. Could that include a future sequel featuring Kate & Nick? Their journey was so compelling that I found myself wondering about their possible futures after turning the last page.

EM: That's an interesting question. Some people have described the book as having an open ending. To me, it's pretty clear where the story is headed. They've conquered their obstacles, so what's left? I don't have any plans for a sequel at the moment, but I wouldn't rule it out if a good story idea came to me. That being said, don't be surprised if there's a passing reference to one or both of them in the next book that confirms where they ended up. I do plan on writing a number of books set in Hollywood and will be using the characters I've already created to populate it. One problem with writing about Hollywood in the current climate is that you never know whether that real-life actor you name dropped will turn out to be a creep. It's easier just to make up my own movie stars, writers, directors, etc.

Buzzworthy is available now from Amazon.

Visit Elsie Moody here.

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