Friday, December 30, 2016

The Subversive Princess

I turned five in 1977, which I think most people in my American generation—and perhaps much of the world—will consider a year the planet changed.  The first movie I, and I am sure many, ever went to a theater to see was Star Wars.  Of course it made me the geek I still am to this very day, but there was an element there seeded in my young brain I did not realize for years.  The Subversive Princess.
Let me set the stage a little more.  I was living in very rural Arizona, and to be fair my parents, both, were some pretty tough people.  Around that time while moving hay, my Mom accidently put two tines of a pitchfork through her boot and foot, and then drove herself to the clinic 30 miles away because my Dad was busy.  My Dad would shoot rattlesnakes from the porch (sometimes while my Mom was maneuvering away from the snake, literally having to leap from the path of the buckshot) to protect the animals, and we didn’t have a working toilet.  This was before the days of VCRs or widespread cable television, so entertainment was whatever came on the broadcast network, or the (and I am so thankful for this) books that littered the small trailer broiling in the Arizona sun.  My Dad introduced me to Sci Fi very young (Bradbury, Burroughs, Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein) and when Star Wars came out, we made that same 30 mile journey to take the movie in one fine afternoon that, as will be pretty obvious if you scan through my Tumblr, forever molded my young psyche.
So, I, and I have no doubt at least 98.5 percent of my generation, fell in love with a certain Princess.  At that point in history, we’d all been programmed by Disney to love Princesses, usually ones who were seeking their Prince Charming, or waiting to be rescued from their dark towers, guarded by Dark Knights or dragons.  Indeed, in this story our Princess was in a fortified citadel guarded by a laser sword wielding menace who served as both dark knight AND dragon.  But, what slipped past me at age five, yet burrowed into my subconscious, was the fact that this Princess looked the dragon in the eyes and did not flinch.  That this Princess rescued her rescuers.  That this Princess stood firm and resolute watching her entire kingdom vaporized.
And when I got a toy of that Princess, she came not with a hairbrush (though I guess they did that with a larger figure), but rather a pistol.  And I found when I would play with those toys collectively, she had that pistol, and would make short work of my poor Stormtroopers, who like their movie counterparts, pretty much existed to be targets for the heroes. 
As the movies came out in succession, I was growing up a bit.  By the time The Empire Strikes Back came out, (and I had shifted to a slightly less remote Arizona town) I was buying Topps trading cards, meticulously organized…but any card with the Princess in a separate section, and the “A Brave Princess” card in my pocket more often than not.  But again, here’s the Princess, now in a military uniform, and having to be forcefully evacuated from a full assault by that dragon Darth Vader.  Who, when captured through betrayal, takes advantage of the first opportunity, grabs a rifle, kills some more (poor) Stormtroopers, and rushes into battle to free one of the male heroes.  Here again, the subversive Princess was taking what society wanted me to believe about girls, and was turning it on its head.
Then came 1983, and another trope came to play with the Princess.  After threatening to kill about a hundred aliens with a grenade to rescue the Damoiseau in Distress, she is indeed captured, and forced into an outfit bearing a great resemblance to many years of descriptions of another Princess, one of Mars, as described by the aforementioned Burroughs. 
I will not dissemble here, the sight of my Dear Princess in this now infamous outfit when I was 11 was certainly welcome.  I spent many years idolizing the “Steel Bikini” as so many of us did.  What was planted by the subversive Princess in my brain though was that though forced into this humiliation, vengeance was to be hers. 
Along with hip and leg, burned into my mind as well was a woman strangling an oppressor with the very chains in which he would hold her.  Think about how visceral the death scene is for vile space gangster Jabba the Hutt.  Again, not rescued by her freed beau, or the up and coming space knight who was at the time outside laser swording the hell out of a hundred minions, the Princess takes it upon herself to turn the instrument of her slavery into a weapon to slay her oppressor.  Later, on the planet Endor when their position is about to be revealed by more white armored minions, now on flying motorcycles, with no hesitation she leaps on to one of the speeding vehicles, the farmboy turned space knight clinging on behind her for dear life.
So, in those three movies between 1977 and 1983, the seeds were planted for a generation of men who would realize they liked it better when the Princess saved herself, and a generation of women who were shown that you didn’t have to wait for a hero to come along, and even when down, threatened, or captive, could find weapons with which to fight back, even when all that was available was a sharp tongue to remark upon a villain’s “foul stench.” 
No, not all men have gotten the message, and many will still watch for the steel bikini more intrigued by the Slave than the Huttslayer (and I still cannot dissemble; that Princess had a great influence on my discerning what words like “pretty,” “lovely,” and “sexy” meant).  But more often now we see those types of characters—and men whose masculinity is apparently offended will complain—and I think we can lay so much of the fact those characters may be found in our popular fiction at the feet of The Subversive Princess fighting the Star Wars.  The fight for representation is not yet won, but the seed still grows.
There is in any character a piece of the actor who portrays them.  It was later as the subversive message of strength in the Princess grew in my head I began to more and more realize that Carrie Fisher contributed so much more than society wanted me to see to that character.  Wit, humor, acerbic intolerance of foolishness; Carrie Fisher in real life broke through expectations by being the pretty showbiz daughter who also became a renowned novelist, fixed many men’s scripts when they had written an inferior screenplay, and would not hesitate to share her wins and losses in a battle against mental illness- that thing no one talks about, hush now.  Perhaps most subversive about The Subversive Princess is that she was real in a very real way, and she swaggered and cursed and carried around a French bulldog, and to HELL with how you think she should behave or talk or have imposed on her by Hollywood, Society, Directors, or Fans. 
All of that was brought home for me in September of 2015 when I got to meet her, ever so briefly, as she walked the floor of a Comic Convention in Portland, Oregon where my artistic partner and I were hawking our wares.  She was witty and smart and beautiful and more than a little eccentric, and I wished there was some way I could have gone back to share the experience with the 10-year-old who carried the trading card.
I would also though have to share that she is now gone, and for better or for worse immortalized as The Subversive Princess who left her mark on so many, even those who have not yet gotten the message.  There are many things, good and bad, Carrie Fisher was in her life, and many of those things left behind are remarkable (my God, her prose is sublime); but I will always first think of her as the Huttslayer, Royalty with a Rifle, The Subversive Princess.
And I am a better man today for it.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Official Black Owl Review of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

I am going to start non-spoiler here, and will give everyone a warning when it’s time to look away!

When Lucasfilm, now under Disney, released The Force Awakens last year, they played it safe.  They basically gave us a retooled serving of What Had Gone Before.  That’s not a complaint on my part; they used context well to introduce new characters, and they matched the feel of previous episodes, with that kind of “fairy tale” feeling with Princesses and Knights, and a hero rising into her destiny etc.  That’s all very Star Wars, and as someone who really liked how they did that, it was probably exactly what they needed to do. 

The “Story” films though were expected to be different.  They TOLD us they were going to bring some different styles, and I admit I was skeptical they really had any intention of that.  Formula is what defines Hollywood these days, and if TFA made a billion dollars, that would be the formula to go with. 

Thankfully, I was wrong.  Rogue One has its own voice, its own delivery, and it is anything but a fairy tale.  This is The Dirty Dozen (or at least half dozen) set in the Star Wars Galaxy, and the fantasy is over.  Now, it is not one of those nihilistic gritty reboots; the fun and adventure are still there, but there are stakes and consequences, and if Han shooting first made him too edgy for older Lucas, wait until he meets Cassian Andor.  The characters are rich and complex and realize that terrible things have to happen when you are defying an Empire; And that Empire is relentless.  Hordes of troopers (which is good, because I think this movie has a higher on-screen body count for Stormtroopers than all seven of the other movies combined) and starfighters, and of course the MacGuffin to end all MacGuffins, The Death Star, delivered in a way that somehow manages to make the menace of the device even greater than a quick lightshow as Alderaan ceases to be.

The first act has pacing issues; we spend too long in some places, and not enough time in others, and there may even be at least one scene that doesn’t need to be there at all.  But after about 20-25 minutes, when the movie hits its stride, all those issues go away, and we get an efficient, harrowing espionage and war story that shows how hard the fight for the Rebellion is going to be.  I have seen this film elsewhere described as “The Star Wars film I didn’t know I needed.”  That is an apt description.  This movie manages to bring fresh-and chilling-insight to a story that has probably had more scrutiny and commentary over the last 40 (yes, FORTY) years than any other.  That’s an amazing feat to pull off without it feeling like a retcon, and it is done here to perfection, answering questions I thought had no answers, and taking two paragraphs of opening scroll and turning them into a delightful story of flawed heroes trying to give an oppressed Galaxy the one thing it doesn’t have: hope.


So there are a few things that really stood out as excellent for me in this film as a Star Wars fan.  The thing that hit me the most is the idea that the fatal flaw in the Death Star we’ve been writing off as a contrivance of the script or a symbol of Imperial hubris since 1977 was intentional on the part of a rebellious designer.  In an example of just how complex the characters are in this film, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) works for the Empire helping design the technological terror that will secure the Empire’s control.  He knows they would do it anyway, regardless of his involvement.  He goes ahead, despite the death of his wife and the possible death of his daughter, but leaves this one fatal flaw.  This one chance for hope that somehow the word will get out and a Rebellion will be able to plant a torpedo in just the right place.  It’s a fantastic reveal, and the crux of this movie, and it brings both a tragic and a hope-filled context to Star Wars that we never knew was there.

Part of the “fairy tale” being gone gives us some of the realities of insurgency as well.  Though not as extreme as Saw Gerrera’s group, we still see Mon Mothma’s Rebel Alliance send out agents like Cassian Andor who will sabotage military targets, assassinate officials if necessary, and perhaps even put a blaster in your back to take you out before the Imperials can capture you.  It gives a touch of consequence to our casually cheering them when they blow up a Death Star with two million people on board.  Sure, there were bastards like Tarkin on board, but were there also people like Galen Erso, trying to minimize the destruction?  Or like Bodhi Rook, the pilot in Rogue One who defects with news of the flaws.  He’s a guy who had to serve and makes a choice when confronted with the immensity of what the Empire is willing to do.  How many of those Stormtroopers on the Death Star watched Alderaan go up, and were planning defection or desertion?  Rogue One makes you look at those questions in a very grown-up way.

So grown-up that the characters, all of whom I would love to see expanded on, do not make it out of this film.  I had feared that The Mouse would not let a movie into theaters where each of their protagonists dies before the credits roll, but indeed they did, and to great effect.  We understand now what this truly means:

The peril you now realize is just the continuation of a much longer battle.  When Princess Leia (whose appearance here in R1 gives me great joy) looks at Vader (whose appearance here in R1 restores any menace Hayden “I hate Sand” Christiansen may have removed) and lies through her teeth about where they have been, we see how desperate she is.  We know why Vader is so sure; he just literally watched her spaceship fly away from the Scarif battle.  The heroes of Rogue One die passing on an important baton, one we’ve seen the outcome to for decades, but now know just how grueling it truly was for those plans to be revealed.  Making all of that feel organic is quite an accomplishment.  Kudos to all.

A big thumbs up to Felicity Jones and her character Jyn Erso (shown here with the K-2SO, which is what you get if you put R2’s attitude in C-3PO…and put them in a battledroid).  We see her character go from a little girl watching her mother die, to a dejected misfit in prison, to reluctant helper to a Rebellion she’s not sure she wants any part of to FORCING THAT REBELLION INTO ACTION when she and Cassian take on the assault on Scarif without any support.  Let’s think about that; the Rebel Alliance though formed, has (as we have seen on the Rebels cartoon) only been making little raids against the Empire for a few years.  But they are nowhere near being unified enough to stand up to the Empire.  Not until Jyn Erso forces them to be.  The next three movies, despite their focus on the Skywalker family drama, rely on the fact this woman listened to her father when he said “whatever I do, I do it for you.”  (Later, when she and Cassian are searching the Imperial database on Scarif for the plans, and find them under her father’s nickname for her, she says, “Because it’s for me.”  A great subtle payoff, the delivery of which brought tears to my eyes.) 

I have to also mention Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen as Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus.  Not Jedi, not strictly warriors, but a new type of adherent to the Force.  I have never much considered myself (as mentioned here) a Jedi or Sith  type, but I could sure get behind the way these two relate to the Force.  When Chirrut wraps himself in prayer and steps into the line of fire, it felt to me as big a hero moment as any Jedi anywhere in the saga pulling out their lightsaber. 

There are a few people who have read the relationship between these two as romantic, as if they are a couple.  I have to admit, when I was watching that was the impression I walked away with; in any sense of the word, these two are partners, and of all the cast, they are the two I would most love to see some additional material on…or perhaps theirs is an ambiguity best left to fanfic just so I don’t have to hear the complaints of some jackass on Twitter who also wants to “#dumpStarWars” because he just figured out the Empire is a Nazi allegory.  If you didn't see their relationship that way, fine.  Star Wars has always been open to interpretation.  Regardless, Chirrut and Baze?  I ship it.

Speaking of the Rebels cartoon, I got more references than I was expecting, but not as many as I wanted.  Chopper apparently shows up on screen on Yavin (though I missed him), Hera gets a namedrop over the loudspeaker, and of course the Ghost appears in the Scarif battle.  We don’t see their final fate there- will Hera and whoever is still on the Ghost there go on to fight the larger fight just off screen in Empire and Jedi?  Or will the last episode of Rebels show us something like the Ghost flying interference for the Tantive IV, blocking Imperial fire to allow the plans to escape, joining the cast of Rogue One as sacrifices who make the Empire’s eventual fall possible?  I look forward to finding out, but I don’t think it would have killed them to have a certain Twi’lek pilot be present in a briefing or walking through a hanger. 

And though I could go on for many paragraphs more about how Tarkin was portrayed, or Vader’s Mustafar castle, or how we get to see why the “Red 5” position is open for Luke to take at the end of Star Wars, I want to talk about one last thing: The Soundtrack.  I was underwhelmed by John Williams work on TFA; the only theme that stood out for me at all was Rey’s theme in the desert, and even that didn’t stick like “The Imperial March” or “Duel of the Fates.”  Michael Giacchino though manages to make music that is completely organic to the Star Wars universe, weaving in familiar themes, while giving us new music to carry us through like “Hope” (which plays during Vader’s force-driven murder spree), new Imperial themes that fit right alongside the March, and all the thrills the Empire Strikes Back soundtrack gave me when I played that vinyl to slag as a kid.  I’ve been listening to the soundtrack as I write this, and I am just glad that digital can’t get scratched or warped, as I will be listening to this quite a bit. 

So yes, the movie is a little awkward to start, but as it plays it delivers in ways I would never have expected.  I don’t know if it will have the rewatchable nature of the Saga films, but it is a fine fleshing out of the story and a taste of the sacrifice that must be made to stand up to oppression.  That is a lesson for every generation.  Rebellions are never easy, especially when they are necessary.  But I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.

(All images are property of Disney and Lucasfilm, no infringement intended.)

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Star Trek We Need Right Now; the Official Black Owl review of Star Trek Beyond.

Short non-spoiler version: drop what you’re doing and go see it right now. Okay?  Thanks.

From here on out, spoilers abound; you have been warned!

I am one of those Trekkies who actually really loved Star Trek Into Darkness.  Not at first when I was kind of “well that was pretty good” about it, but as I rewatched and saw the themes opening up, and the multilayered character motivation and allegory come to into focus behind all the kinetic action, I have to say it really grew on me.  Given that, despite the vociferous hate from other fans, I was a little worried when the sequel pulled Bob Orci as writer, director, and seemingly whatever else he was doing.  Replacing him with Simon Pegg and Doug Jung I knew would likely give us a more “traditional” Trek film.  What I did not expect was a movie that perfectly conjoined the best of the new films (now referred to as the “Kelvin Timeline”) and the best of the Original Series.

What this means is still plenty of kinetic action (indeed, I think the film takes less breaths than STID did) while having a less complex subtext, and focusing not on the accusatory allegory but the example of a  better tomorrow.  OK, there’s still some allegory there, but I’ll get to that in a minute.  Let me get the couple of things that didn’t quite work for me out of the way, and then I can dig into the many, many things that did.

The plot itself is pretty pedestrian: a mean alien wants to drop a bioweapon on a big starbase and he exploits the Enterprise to do it.  Pretty straightforward, though Krall’s origin and motivation which left me a little cold initially make more sense as the grander theme of the film unfolds, so I’ll give it that.  Many of the action sequences seem a little too familiar.  Kirk hangs off things again; the Enterprise crash and running through spinning corridors as it spirals and pitches felt strongly like STID.  Just the Enterprise getting beat up for a final time gave me a little pause, but the sequence is so visceral, and much longer than one would think as to make me be willing to accept that.  Indeed, in the process, we get this kind of nod that the Enterprise is herself a character and we’re watching her death, and that’s something I needed for this to work.

There are a couple of places where I felt a few logic gaps: Why couldn’t Edison and his crew fix and launch the Franklin with years to work with when Scotty and Jaylah alone were able to make it work?  I never did quite get the idea how much of The Swarm was manned and how much was automated.  It seems to me there was no way Krall had 80,000 troops (40,000 Swarm ships, two people each) yet every time Spock and McCoy entered one, they found a manned one.  And rather than fighting with the big air fan to blow the bioweapon out into space at the end, why couldn’t they just beam it (and Krall) out into space?

None of these are problems that ruin the experience for me, and perhaps subsequent viewings (only two so far) will reveal some of those answers for me and I was just being dense.  I admit to having fought down a rather nasty stomach virus to see it, and my gurgling belly might have obscured some dialogue.*

Even if not, there’s so much great Trek here, it really doesn’t matter.  We tend to forget a lot of the stories on TOS were fairly standard tales; it was the moral of the story and above all the characters that made TOS more than the sum of its parts.  This film does great things with those characters.  Everyone gets a moment to shine, and some are so deliriously perfect (looking at you Karl Urban) as to make your head spin. 

I found Chris Pine’s Kirk particularly interesting here; he is NOT the Kirk of the Prime Universe, but seems to in this case share the malaise we saw in Christopher Pike in “The Cage.”  That makes a lot of sense given this Kirk’s origin, that he might reflect Pike a little more; Pine delivers it wonderfully, and as Kirk breaks his existential ennui and emerges again ready to go boldly at the end, we buy every minute.  He gives a marvelous performance that never makes you doubt he is the Captain.

The newly introduced Jaylah character is a lot of fun.  Smart, capable, and not once sexualized.  I hope we get to see more of her in the future, or indeed, she might serve wonderfully as a spin off character if Paramount would ever bother to actually market or expand it’s film franchise (sorry, that’s a different rant).**

Again, as short as her presence in the movie is, the 1701 gives us some sleeker lines, and some painful moments that made my stomach hurt for her (maybe it was the virus): the severed nacelles, the cut throat, the helpless saucer burning in.  But, that moment when in her final motion she gets her revenge on Kalara, the alien who betrayed them all and led them into the trap in the nebula, that moment was special.  Kirk said she had a few tricks left, and indeed she did.

The trick of bringing in the real world death of Leonard Nimoy by making Prime Spock’s death organic to the arc for young Spock was inspired.  Not only does this film give us that acknowledgement, they manage to give us that image as a nod to all of the classic crew from “The Final Frontier” and I will admit, my eyes filled with tears both viewings.  Such a nice way to honor the originals, living or dead.  I hope they do as well honoring Anton Yelchin in the next one.

Other callouts to earlier Trek included a reference to Apollo from “Who Mourns for Adonis?”; actually seeing a universal translator work the way it would have to; and an again completely organic reintroduction of the Beastie  Boys’ song “Sabotage.”  Look, I don’t care if you like it or not, but I love the tie between Kirk and the Beasties.  No one batted an eye at “A Tale of Two Cities” or all the Shakespeare that shows up throughout TOS (and a nice Bard-drop in here as well!); 300 years from now, our culture will be as classic to them as Dickens.  I like that.  Also, the use of “Sabotage” is so utterly perfect on every level, thematically right through to the stunning visuals accompanying it.  I grinned like an idiot the whole sequence.

Speaking of the visuals, just wow.  From the Enterprise’s new warp effect and fascinating angles from which to shoot her, to the simply stunning concept, design, and appearance of Yorktown station, this movie just looks beautiful.  If someone doesn’t get an Oscar for effects or production design, there’s a real problem.  Yorktown alone could be the setting of a thousand sci fi stories.  Rumor has it they designed 50 new aliens for the 50th anniversary; it shows.

Here ends the basic movie review.  However, I have something I really want to talk about here.  I mentioned it took me subsequent viewings to appreciate Into Darkness more, and I found my second viewing of Beyond gave me the theme I didn’t really think was there the first time.  I could be wrong, maybe very little of this was intended by the writers, but I’m about to argue why Beyond—though a good but not the best Star Trek movie—may be the most important movie of the year.

The theme of unity and Humanity pulling together with the aliens of the Galaxy to form the Federation, and why that is a good thing is obvious.  Scotty’s grandmother’s aphorism about a twig in a bundle; the calls for unity; how team and family will win the day.  We see diversity in all those aliens, beings of all genders, and finally the subtle inserted husband for Hikaru Sulu which works so well.  The villain Krall argues against unity, feeling there must be strife and conflict in order to grow.  He can’t get over the wars he once fought on behalf of humanity and now has become a monster wielding ancient alien technology to bring darkness back into the Federation’s light.  I was initially a little “meh” about yet another rogue Starfleet Captain, but I began to think about the nature of this one.  A soldier who could not accept peace, was willing to employ the tools of others, but never join or enlist them, just to force others, to do his bidding.  He felt he had been wronged, and could not let go, and was scared of what an open future meant. 

That establishes him as the same type of bad guy as Admiral Marcus from STID.   STID is, let’s face it, a 9/11 movie.  It’s about a Democracy losing its way and employing the techniques of terrorists out of fear in the name of safety.  Beyond picks up with Kirk’s speech from the end of that and declares that we don’t have to feel that angst anymore, that we can—together—move on toward the future.

The United States has been in a state of angst over the events in 2001 for 15 years.  Can you name a blockbuster movie in the last decade that hasn’t dropped a building (or dozens, Zach Snyder) for effect?

Star Trek Beyond is declaring an end to the post-9/11 era.  It’s telling us it is time to stop being ruled by our fear and pain, and move forward.  The lighting in the movie goes from dark rooms and displays to the twilight greys on the Franklin, to a final confrontation in the light (yet the villain vanishes away in the darkness he cannot escape).  We are shown that unity is humanity’s strength as each member of the Enterprise crew brings their specific talent to the table to save the day; not homogenous, but together and celebrating their differences.  The movie talks about “adventure” and “fun” and getting past all the darkness to reach out because “there is nothing unknown; just that which is temporarily hidden.”

There’s even a scene where three aircraft are speeding toward buildings full of people, and our heroes in the USS Franklin physically interpose themselves in the path to keep it from happening.  This is not a movie where buildings fall to tap hidden fear.  This is a movie where heroes save the day, not with ease, but with cooperative will and unified just cause.

The movie is a romp, a joyride, one that does not ignore the dangers in the world, but tells us there’s a better way to confront them than with fear and darkness.  It’s the antithesis to all those dark, angst ridden blockbusters that have become so normalized.  This movie is happy, this movie takes us from the shadows to the light, this movie dares us to do better.

This is a movie that wants us to move past all our angst; and that’s exactly what I—what we all—needed right now.  With all the hate and vitriol in news and entertainment, Star Trek Beyond challenges us to be more and sets the example as to how.

As good as it is a Trek movie, Beyond is so much more important to who we are as a people right now, as TOS was a fairly entertaining space show in the 60’s that proved to be more than the sum of its parts when we needed it then. 

We need more like this; we need more movies that encourage us to go Beyond.

*Indeed! Subsequent viewings did point out to me that only Krall and two minions were actually beings (and for that matter the survivors of the Franklin) and all of the drones and their pilots were automated.  Makes me almost wonder if they had Ruk down there somewhere.

**Not even a novelization? Really?

All images property of Paramount Pictures, no infringement is intended.