Friday, December 20, 2019

THE RISE OF SKYWALKER tries to give us everything we want, not everything we need

So just so everyone's clear here - this is NOT a spoiler free review. I'm going to be reacting to the biggest surprises of THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, so if you don't want to know the whole movie before going in, steer clear.
Ever since STAR WARS relaunched with THE FORCE AWAKENS in 2015, I've been pretty happy with the "Saga" films. TFA is one of the most rewatchable STAR WARS films in the canon and I really like THE LAST JEDI as well. SOLO was okay, and ROGUE ONE was a movie that didn't hold up as well for me on a rewatch, but thus far, I've been very invested in the core movies.

THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is less a feature film and more a series finale. If you watch it through that lens, the callbacks and occasional fan-service is less irritating than it might be otherwise. The plot construction feels looser here than in most of the other films. It's a video game quest, with our heroes going from location to location, getting the clue that sends them to the next location. It's STAR WARS at its most comic-book, particularly in the last third.

For the first half of the film, the overall thrust works remarkably well - particularly due to some great chemistry from the ensemble. This is the first time we see Ray, Finn, and Poe sharing an adventure and Chewie, Threepio and BB-8 are all along for the ride too, in a race against Kylo Ren to get a Sith artifact that will lead to a planet where Palpatine is hiding out.

Yep, Palpatine is back. Weirdly, this reemergence isn't revealed to the audience in the context of a dramatic scene, but in the opening crawl, which explains that Palpatine's voice has been transmitted across the galaxy as a message and everyone is reeling at the thought he's survived. It's the first weird choice in a series of them. Wouldn't it have more impact for us to see the Resistance hear that message in real time and realize "oh shit. We're screwed?" There's a reaction that's skipped right over here.

(Maybe this is because Leia's reaction would be the most significant and there was no way to manufacture that?)

How Palpatine survived is never explained, save for a throwaway line that theorizes something about clones. This guess is seemingly wrong, because when we see him in the flesh, his body appears broken in a way that suggests the original Emperor, not a rejuvenated duplicate. I would have loved a tiny hint of how he survived the Death Star explosion and made his way to that planet, and it would have helped a LOT if any kind of credible explanation was given for the fleet build-up he's been doing for 35 years.

His plan is missing a huge "Why now?" Why reveal himself now? What have all those officers on those ships been doing for these years? Why sit out so long even after the Republic was wiped out? Where did they get those planet destroying weapons?

And aren't the stakes already big enough without every ship being able to destroy a planet on its own? It's a capability that's only exploited once and after that it might as well not even matter. The final confrontation between fleets is dire enough for the Resistance without scaling up the threat to that level. It's stakes for stakes sake, leveling up on a threat that's already leveled up to a ridiculous degree.

They're just giant stakes that aren't earned.

The resolution to that sequence has a similar problem. We're told at the start that the Resistance has been trying to pull together new support, but they're still a bunch of ragtag fighters. As Palpatine's rise draws near for... some reason, Lando and Chewie whip around the galaxy trying to shore up support. Poe has one of the film's better lines when he says they need to show people that "We are not alone... good people will fight if we lead them."

The idea that there's this silent oppressed majority that is just waiting for a person to rally behind is a good one. Hell, done right it could dovetail right off of THE LAST JEDI and Luke's mythic reemergence. The execution is rushed. If Chewie and Lando could organize a massive fleet of allies in the space of an afternoon, why haven't they done this before? There's a case to be made that Lando's got a legendary reputation and it doesn't hurt to have him working all his connections, but then shouldn't we at least SEE him cutting that deal with one ally?

Like many plot points here, there are a lot of things happening between scenes that we're just meant to assume, even if they'd have made for better drama on-screen. We're shown Point A, Lando and Chewie leaving to drum up help from sources that have rebuffed the Resistance so far, and we get Point C, the massive fleet arriving as the cavalry, but Point B is skipped over.

There are a lot of missing Point Bs in this film. I'm fine filling in some of them for myself, but the ones that would have made for more compelling material than what we got on film tend to nag at me more.

"There are more of us" is a thought that's expressed multiple times in the film and it's exceedingly relevant in 2019, as we're governed by our own Emperor Palpatine who is destroying the American way of life, our national security and our national dignity by the day. He's made an entire political party complicit in this. Just watching impeachment hearings has made it clear - there is not a shred of intellectual honesty or patriotism left within the Republican Party. They welcome a fascist Trump dictatorship.

If you're about to roll your eyes at me getting political, remember that this Saga has ALWAYS been political. It grew out of George Lucas's feelings about Vietnam and there's no mistaking that REVENGE OF THE SITH is a very pointed criticism of everything awful about the Bush Administration making people think they had to trade liberty for safety. If you're just noticing NOW that STAR WARS is a political allegory for the times it was made in, you haven't been paying attention.

Indeed, this is a time that demands commentary. Donald Trump is a vile human being who's appealed to the worst human beings. They're loud about their support and at times, it can feel hopeless to fight because I could never conceive a compassionate human being supporting him just based off of what we knew about him BEFORE the election. To see people still proclaim him as their guy after running literal concentration camps that separate children as young as infants from their parents and force them to sleep on concrete floors, to see them cheer this guy has he puts people in power who are there to destroy the rights of others, and to see few consequences for it... is soul-shattering.

To see people you know who embraced their worst racism and misogyny to cast a vote for this scum is disheartening. To see them cling to that even after he's shown us worse sides might break you... if you thought the only path to victory was to turn back those who'd embraced the Dark Side.

And yet, all the polls show "There are more of us." He might have power, McConnell and his band of fascist might hold power and be using it to rig the game for elections to come, but when it comes to people who reject everything about Trump and what he represents "There are more of us."

To get through this moment in history, we need to remember that. We need to fight like hell against everything Trump and the Republican Party stand for, even when it seems like it's not having an effect. Why? Because THERE ARE MORE OF US.

This is how we win.

We have the numbers. Anyone who's still with Trump at this stage is not coming back from the Dark Side. They're further gone than Darth Vader ever was. We are not Luke Skywalker. We won't win by fighting for their redemption. We win by showing up, because no matter how many disciples the Dark Side has...


Imagine a STAR WARS movie that truly affirmed that power. Perhaps even a movie where the gambit isn't to turn Kylo Ren back from the Dark Side, because in the end we don't need the help of one who helped condemn us. I'd love a version of this where the galaxy rises up against fascism and Rey stands alone with the power of the Jedi against the Emperor, with Kylo Ren's heel turn ultimately immaterial to her arc.

Adding to the moments of "There are more of us," I would have loved for some scenes that showed the galaxy-wide scope of Palpatine's army going into battle. As a tacked on epilogue, we see Imperial ships destroyed above Cloud City and Endor, among others, but those feel like payoffs without set-ups. My reaction was "Oh, did we know that those worlds were being threatened?" Why didn't we see the peril brought to those worlds before they're apparently easily defeated by a movement that fit onto one ship just a single movie ago?

But now I'm going into the movie I wish I'd seen rather than the one I got, so maybe it's time to make some short takes on other points.

Rey as a Palpatine. I like the idea of her being "nobody," as THE LAST JEDI affirmed, but I can't deny the logic of bringing back Palpatine as a way of unifying all nine films in this chapter. Once Palpatine is on the table, it certainly helps earn that dramatically if he's tied to the most important character in this new trilogy so... if she has to be related to someone "known" I'm okay with it being Palpatine.

The reveal could have been handled better. Kylo Ren is the guy who told her in the last film that her parents were nobodies, so him spinning another tale here is a little like when the Joker tells two different versions of how he got those scars. When a character tells two incompatible truths, so you know it's not a case of one of them being a lie - it's an indication the character is a total liar.

The Rey/Palpatine confrontation was somewhat unsatisfying in execution. It's another case of the bad guy telling the good guy what the rules are without anything that affirms he's telling the truth. He seems to WANT Rey to strike him down, and claims it's so he can possess her, but this is a guy known for mind games within mind games. What if that's just a ploy to make her hesitate so he can dispose of her? Or use her against Kylo Ren somehow? Or convince her she needs to submit willingly?

It also leads to this weird confrontation where Rey's told, "Kill me and you become me!" But if she leaves him alive, her friends are still screwed. He's definitely built a Xanatos Gambit here, where all paths lead to his victory, but then how do we parse the loophole that lets her definitively kill him and win? It feels like the difference is that all of the Jedi have her back, and that their spirt is keeping her on the Light Side no matter what the Emperor says will happen, but it's muddled. Maybe the idea is if she killed him, he had to have corrupted her enough to get a foothold?

What I'm getting at is, the Third Act could have used another pass. I can see the broad strokes of what the movie's going for on all levels, and I like the general direction, but it needed more refinement. 

Leia. It's hard to believe it's been three years since Carrie Fisher left us, placing the series in a difficult spot because her character was the last of the core three still alive at the end of THE LAST JEDI. I'm glad that the filmmakers chose neither to rework TLJ to kill Leia off, or recast her here, as either would have been disastrous choices.

So how does it work repurposing deleted scenes to incorporate Leia into this film? It works. Mostly. There are a few moments where I couldn't help but think of The Simpsons episode where an editor demonstrates how one can complete Milhouse's performance using footage they've already shot:

But by and large, the device is effective. It helps that it's treated mostly casually and not a "Look at us! We resurrected Carrie Fisher!" Tying her death to the moment that eventually triggers Ben Solo's reemergence works on an emotional level. There's a hastiness to it that I can forgive based on the limited ways Leia could have interacted with that plot. I wish there had been a more meaningful mother/son story here, and all signs point to the earliest versions of this final chapter building to that.

But the bottom line is that both Carrie and Leia are treated with reverence, and using her here has real impact on the story, so I can go with it.

Also, we've finally canonized the idea that Leia DID complete her training, she DID become a Jedi and she actively chose not to walk that path. I wish Carrie was really here for that moment, especially to get to hold her own lightsaber, but I'll gladly take that fan service.

Kylo Ren's path out of the Dark Side. I want to be very clear with how I parse this. Though Kylo Ren eventually rejects the Dark Side and reassumes the identity of Ben Solo, I don't see any of this as a redemption. I've said for four years that in TFA, Ren committed "possibly the single most visceral act of evil depicted on screen in any of the STAR WARS films" and so he deserves no redemption.

When I've said this on Twitter, people try to argue Vader's redemption to me. "He killed billions in Star Wars alone!" No, he didn't. He's a glorified henchmen. Tarkin orders the destruction of Alderaan. And for the audience, that billion deaths is a statistic anyway. It's a pyrotechnic moment - it's not one the audience FEELS. That many deaths is a statistic.

"Yeah, but Anakin killed younglings!" Sure, we know that now. But in 1983, when RETURN OF THE JEDI was produced and we were asked to buy into Darth Vader's redemption, we neither knew that nor experienced it. Even when we DID experience that moment in REVENGE OF THE SITH, the murders are kept off-screen.

Look at Darth Vader's actions in the original trilogy, the moments of brutality we actually experience viscerally, and you'll find there's nothing there that's a true emotional dealbreaker in the way that Kylo Ren impaling his father is. A movie is less about what happens and more about what the audience experiences - and that is straight up, the most brutal moment in a Star Wars film, from an emotional point of view.

And even when he kills his master Snoke, Ren's response is not "I'm free!" It's "now I can claim MORE power!" Every opportunity he has to turn back, he doubles down. He blames Luke for a moment of drawing his lightsaber when by that moment, Ren had not only turned fully dark, but had turned several other students. Moments after that, they all slaughter the rest of Luke's Jedi students, his classmates.

He's true evil, and that has been reinforced in every appearance. His turn here feels rushed to me. It's a story decision only if you decide to experience it in the moment - the death of his mother, his mortal wound and Rey's compassion in healing him. I see all the story math of how those things could flip "Generic Supervillain," but it's hard to reconcile with this SPECIFIC supervillain's history.

I was glad to see Harrison Ford incorporated somehow, and I was relieved they didn't go with some kind of cheat that he had a Force Ghost that could show up and actually talk to him. Ben reliving the memories of Han's last moments, where he's reaching out to his son, isn't a bad concept dramatically. I think that scene could have tilted more to the direction of what Ben NEEDS is forgiveness, but he understands he can't get that. He can only relive that moment and seize the opportunity to make a different choice.

For me, this scene got about 80% of the way I wanted. Digging just a little bit deeper could have sold me more on Ben's conflicted nature and how complicated it really would be for him to erase the legacy of Kylo Ren. Just throwing away the saber and switching allegiances isn't quite enough. This moment could have been the beginning of a compelling redemption arc, but the movie just doesn't have the room for anything more. Adam Driver doesn't get anything compelling to play after this. He's just there to race to the rescue and eventually die.

I don't think the movie earned either Rey's assertion that "I wanted to take Ben's hand" or the kiss between them before she dies. All their interactions in the first film are hostile, with their first face to face being when he tries to mentally rape her. I can believe she'd try to turn him back in THE LAST JEDI, but with everything he's done - and everything he's done TO HER - making the romantic subtext into text threatens to turn them in to STAR WARS's "Luke and Laura" (kids, ask your mothers)

Luke and the Force Ghosts. I wanted more from Luke's return. It was inevitable he'd be the Obi-Wan whispering in Rey's ear, but Hamill plays that scene strangely. Him using the Force to lift the X-Wing out of the waters by the island was a payoff I was waiting for since THE LAST JEDI, though, and it was nicely done.

I know this would have been fan service, but I would have loved to have seen Force Ghost Luke again during the finale, perhaps returning with the Force Ghosts of ALL the Jedi characters, including  Leia and Anakin. Give us an "Avengers Assemble!" of all the Jedi, staring down Palpatine as Rey settles his hash once and for all.

And I'm not sure how you get there, but with as important as Darth Vader's was to Kylo Ren, I'm a little cheated we didn't get an Anakin/Kylo Ren force ghost conversation. I guess that's what fanfic is for.

Finn. So what was Finn going to tell Rey when he thought they were gonna die? That's dropped and never addressed again.

See-Threepio. I like that the droid got his most useful role in the series thus far here. I sorta wish the bold move with him halfway through the film wasn't undone, though. The film sets up major consequences and then undoes them for the sake of a feel-good ending.

THE RISE OF SKYWALKER has the unenviable task of winding down nine films and drawing threads to a close in a way that unifies everything. I don't think it's successful in every regard, though. Some of the strains can be glossed over or forgiven by nostalgia-driven dopamine rushes, but when it fades we're left with a movie that tries very hard to give everyone everything that they want, and
as such, it can be a satisfying experience on the most superficial levels.

It was probably impossible given the time crunch this movie had to be produced under, but maybe would have been better served by more investment into what the audience needed.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

MasterClass offers "Buy One, Gift One" All-Access Pass for the holidays!

(Note: this post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after using one of my links.)

If you've read my MasterClass reviews over the last couple years, but have been waiting for the right opportunity to buy, you might be interested in this Christmas deal. MasterClass is doing a "Buy One, Gift One" sale.  The promotion allows a new customer to purchase an All-Access Pass for $180 and receive another All-Access Pass to give to someone else at no additional charge.

Also if a customer has already purchased a single class for $90, they can upgrade to the All-Access Pass for an additional $90 and still receive another All-Access Pass to give as a gift.

Each class runs about 5-6 hours and comes with a workbook and often valuable supplementary materials. For instance, if you take Shonda Rhimes's class, you get the series bible for Grey's Anatomy, the original 10-page pitch document for the series, and the pilot scripts for both Grey's and Scandal.

As I've said in my reviews, I consider the Ron Howard class on directing to be essential for anyone who wants to be a film director. I absolutely will guarantee its value. If there's someone in your life who might find this of value, definitely consider gifting them the All-Access Pass. To help you out, I've included links below to the reviews I've written for the writing and filmmaking-related classes, as well as links to the full roster if that helps convince you that this purchase will be worthwhile for your interests.

And best of all, if you use any of these links, I get a commission, so it's like giving a gift to a friend or family member AND me!

Again, you can purchase that All-Access Pass and get one to gift here.

Prior MasterClass Reviews:
Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass on TV Writing (review)
David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing (review)
Ron Howard Teaches Directing (review)
Shonda Rhimes Teaches TV Writing (review)
Judd Apatow Teaches Comedy (review)
Steve Martin Teaches Comedy (review)
Samuel L. Jackson Teaches Acting (review)
Dustin Hoffman's MasterClass on Acting (review)

The full MasterClass roster:

Spike Lee teaches Filmmaking
Judd Apatow teaches Comedy
Malcolm Gladwell teaches Writing
Martin Scorsese teaches Filmmaking
Werner Herzog teaches Filmmaking
Ken Burns teaches Documentary Filmmaking
Mira Nair teaches Independent Filmmaking
David Lynch Teaches Creativity and Film
Jodie Foster Teaches Filmmaking

Shonda Rhimes teaches TV Writing
Aaron Sorkin's Masterclass on TV Writing
David Mamet teaches Dramatic Writing
Steve Martin teaches Comedy
Judy Blume teaches Writing
Margaret Atwood teaches Creative Writing
James Patterson teaches Writing
R.L. Stein teaches Writing for Young Audiences
Dan Brown teaches Writing Thrillers
David Sedaris Teaches Storytelling and Humor
Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling
Margaret Atwood Teaches Creative Writing
Joyce Carol Oates Teaches the Art of the Short Story
Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing
David Baldacci Teaches Mystery and Thriller Writing
Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry

Samuel L. Jackson teaches Acting
Helen Mirren teaches Acting
Natalie Portman Teaches Acting

Christina Aguilera's MasterClass 
deadmau5's MasterClass 
Herbie Hancock teaches Jazz
Hans Zimmer teaches Film Scoring
Reba McEntire teaches Country Music
Usher teaches Performance
Tom Morello teaches Electric Guitar
Carlos Santana teaches the Art and Soul of Guitar
Danny Elfman Teaches Music for Film
Timbaland Teaches Producing and Beatmaking
Itzhak Perlman Teaches Violin

Stephen Curry teaches Basketball
Serena Williams teaches Tennis
Garry Kasparov teaches Chess
Misty Copeland Teaches Ballet Technique and Artistry
Simone Biles Teaches Gymnastics Fundamentals

Wolfgang Puck teaches Cooking
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking.
Gordon Ramsay teaches Cooking Techniques II: Restaurant Recipes at Home
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking
Thomas Keller teaches Cooking Techniques II: Meats, Stocks and Sauces
Dominique Ansel teaches French Pastry Fundamentals
James Suckling teaches Wine Appreciation
Aaron Franklin Teaches Texas-Style BBQ

Bob Iger Teaches Business Strategy and Leadership
Anna Wintour Teaches Creativity and Leadership

Bob Woodward Teaches Investigative Journalism
Doris Kearns Goodwin Teaches U.S. Presidential History and Leadership
David Axelrod and Karl Rove teach Campaign Strategy

Jane Goodall teaches Conservation
Marc Jacobs teaches Fashion Design
Annie Leibovitz teaches Photography
Chris Hadfield teaches Space Exploration
Daniel Negreanu teaches Poker
Paul Krugman teaches Economics and Society
Jimmy Chin teaches Adventure Photography
Will Wright teaches Game Design and Theory
Penn and Teller Teach the Art of Magic
Phil Ivey Teaches Poker Strategy