Sunday, December 17, 2017

Saving what you Love: The Official Black Owl Review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

I want to start by describing the evening of Thursday, 14 December 2017 to you.  After a nice dinner, my wife Jennifer and I, along with her parents Rick and Anne, our daughter Hannah, and Hannah’s girlfriend Bree, went to the theater for a 7PM showing of “The Last Jedi.”  We watched the film, and as it is two and a half hours long, when it was over, most of the crew went to compete for the line to the restroom, while Hannah and I watched the credits.  (I have an Instagram buddy who did work on the film, and I wanted to see a name in SW Blue whom I actually knew- shoutout to Julianne!) We emerged from the theater, sharing a dad/daughter moment, arm in arm and all smiles, simply blown away by what we had just experienced.  We found our crew, also similarly impressed, exchanged a comment with my brilliant Mother-in-Law that this was not just a great Star Wars film but a great film on its own merits, and we all cheerfully went home.

My first sign of trouble came when another friend of mine, an avowed fan and collector (Shoutout to Aaron!) messaged me describing how awful the film was.  I actually thought he was joking, and asked him as much.  Nope, he was really put off by the movie.  

I was sorry to hear that, but I posted my standard Facebook “Spoiler-free mini review” as follows:

This movie defied every expectation I had for almost every character, and I am not sure I could love it more. Very pleased to have tickets to a second viewing already.

Then, I opened the internet and looked into a fandom civil war the likes of which a Galaxy far, far away had never seen.  There was rage against the film, name calling in support of the film, feelings of betrayal, messages of astonishment at the achievement.  It was rare I saw a mediocre comment; it was either adoration or vitriol.  “Star Wars,” always full of passionate, expressive, and opinionated fans, and become as divisive as American politics.  I always expect there to be naysayers, and I can see where there might be pushback against things this film does, in particular with the character of Luke Skywalker, but I was blindsided by how divided it was, and the lines I saw divisions forming along.  

I watched the film the next day, eager to look past the giddyness of a first time viewing that might have skewed my opinion toward a more positive look than the film deserved, and instead the movie worked like a wine that has been allowed to breathe for a while before drinking- more texture, more subtlety, more nuance came to the surface, and I walked out of my second viewing even more sure I had just witnessed something truly amazing from a storytelling perspective, but also more sure that the things that made me love this movie were going to be impediments to others, and I would never convince some of my dear friends how great this actually was.  And though I do see people out there who are hating because it’s fashionable, or because their delicate man-sensitivities were offended by the fact women have to save a lot of men from their own mistakes in this story, or just because their deeply developed “who is Rey” or “who is Snoke” theory fell through, I also see people, who love what Star Wars has meant to them their whole lives, and legitimately can’t fit what happens here into their paradigm.  Given what this film does to expectation, given the risks this movie takes to unfold its story, I can honestly understand their reasoning, though I completely disagree with it.  It doesn’t make me a better fan than them, or them better fans than me (it’s my love of the Holiday Special that makes me a better or worse fan, we all know that), but I am legitimately sad there are people whom I normally spend hours chatting about what we love about Star Wars with that I can’t do that with regarding “The Last Jedi.”  They aren't wrong.  We can both look at the sky and see it's blue, and some people love that color and some people don't.  That's taste.  

Yes, I know plenty of people who loved it, but it does force me to wonder if the fact the film is so divisive is something that should be held against it, regardless of the movie’s quality (I hear some of you already saying yes).  But in the end, I will be exploring this movie for years to come, and we might all be looking at this as a turning point in Star Wars lore, even more than the Prequel Trilogy did.  I am sorry as a fan that has happened, but I cannot turn away from the fact that this movie stunned, moved, and entertained me, and made me want more Star Wars.  I have to almost liken it to another divisive movie this year, “mother!” which (see my review) I also loved, but can see why people hated it.  There are people I know to whom I cannot recommend “The Last Jedi” (indeed, another good friend and deep SW fan texted me last night in how disappointed he was…and I knew that was coming; shoutout to Eli!) not because they aren’t fans, but because they are, and others to whom I will strongly recommend the film, because they too are fans.

So, a thousand words in, and still not having actually discussed what happens in the movie, I am going to take a lesson from the movie.  I am not going to argue against the criticism I see, but rather, I will “save what I love,” and just give my raw thoughts and feelings on this movie, as removed as I can be from the gestalt of  Star Wars fandom, and just be the 45 year old man who 40 years ago first visited a galaxy far, far away and never quite came back.  The man who spent the last two years digging through cartoons and books and dialogue for clues as to Rey’s origin, or where they were going, or why they were going there, only to find nearly everything I had surmised was wrong, and the truth was both simpler and more complex than anything I had guessed.   Perhaps I’ll do an argument or become a Last Jedi apologist at some point, but not here.  Here I am going to save what I love, because I love The Last Jedi.  It is moving, complex, nuanced, exciting, and far more invested in telling its story than delivering for fans, for better or for worse.  It’s similar to what “The Wrath of Khan” did for Star Trek 30 years ago, breaking all the paradigms to expand the consciousness of what Trek could be and challenging what Trek was to do it, leaving a bigger, better universe in its wake. People forget how vehemently TWOK was hated at the time-to include Gene Roddenberry among its detractors-but time passed and it’s greatness came to be recognized.  I hope that happens someday with this film.  But until then, here is why I loved “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”


Let me start with what I didn’t like, as that’s short.  I think there were missed opportunities to have a deeper tie to the wider Star Wars universe.  “Rogue One” at least acknowledged “Rebels” and it has seemed Rebels was giving us some Easter Eggs that would crack open in “The Last Jedi.”  That does not happen, and I am willing to bet a lot of justified displeasure grows from that.  As a Rebels fan I was hoping we get a little more acknowledgement of what should be a shared universe, but we don’t.  There is some possibility still that Benecio Del Toro’s “DJ” is a future downtrodden Ezra, as he has a matching scar, that for some unfathomable reason they decide to put on the opposite side of his face.  It’s poor sport if Rebels is just being used to create Red Herrings and not feed the universe at large.  Another missed opportunity is the “Master Cracker” Maz Kanata (in a delightful cameo) points them toward on the casino world of Canto Bight, should quite obviously have been Lando Calrissian.  Even in the short cameo, it would have really tied us to the larger universe, and OF COURSE Maz knows Lando, and OF COURSE we find him in a casino.  Real mistake there.  

I wanted to also say that the movie makes the mistake of forgoing the famous “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”  However, it seems that in fact BB8 “says” the line, to have Poe Dameron retort, “Come on, Buddy; happy beeps.”  Those are my hangups, but now let’s get to a lot of what works for me.

The plot is mature, well paced, and complex.  It may be a little inaccessible to some who aren’t expecting, or wanting, that, but it worked for me.  There are plotlines I have seen dismissed as going nowhere, but I think all of them do the only thing more important that moving along story: Developing character.

The biggest thing about these characters that made an impression on me is how they are allowed to make mistakes.  We have to start that discussion with Luke Skywalker, who is almost Jonah in this film.  It would have been easy just to leave him as a bombad Jedi, ready to come back and save the day, but the years have gotten to Luke, old mistakes have taken their toll, and he’s quite broken and pretty much waiting to die when we come upon him.  His quest for the first Jedi temple has not been one for spiritual awakening after the fall of his new Jedi Academy, but rather simply looking for escape.  The same flicker of Darkness that he had to keep in check when he defeated Darth Vader leads to him standing over young Ben Solo with a lightsaber, wondering if he will have to stop that rising darkness in Ben in the worst way possible.  He discards the though almost as quickly as it rose, but the damage is done, and Ben destroys the temple.  Luke hides, unable to face Leia after losing her son in that way.  It’s not the Luke we’re expecting, but it is a powerful character development, and reminds us that he was once just a talented farmboy.  As Rey slowly begins to bring him out, his redemption comes in fits and starts, and there is a major confrontation between the two characters, with her convinced she can save Ben Solo, and him, with some guidance from Yoda (who is a puppet again, yay!) realizing that there is a way he can still help, a way he can set the next generation off on the right path.  One of the big spoilers for this movie is “Luke dies at the end.”  I disagree.  We’ve only seen three Jedi “ascend” to join the Force in the saga: Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin.  In each case, they physically die first before they fade; not Luke Skywalker.  Luke chooses to ascend, sitting up watching a double sunset before his body fades away.  It’s a beautiful moment demonstrating the master Luke is, despite what has happened before.  He leaves behind one Jedi to take his place.

Rey.  Rey is headsure, conflicted, and thinks there may be a way to save Kylo Ren from Snoke.  She also spends this movie going through her own “trial” to become a Jedi, she touches the dark side, sees what it holds for her, but does not give in to its temptation.  Her experiences on Ahch-To have a profound effect on her, as she not only has her own “cave” experience (like Luke in Empire) but begins to touch on the oldest of the Jedi concepts, visualizing the “Prime Jedi,” shown in art on the island, written of in books (which she squirrels away), and a concept that is one with the Force, understanding that light and dark are what you bring to it, while the Force simply is.  She breaks away from perhaps thousands of years of Jedi tradition to understand that- the Force is not light, she is.  And she hopes to shine that light on Kylo Ren.

That goes poorly.   Kylo in this film teases us with redemption, and his killing Snoke is a plot twist I never saw coming until he was turning the lightsaber.  In the true tradition of the Sith, Kylo Ren surpasses his master and kills him.  It is only when he stops trying to be like Darth Vader that he truly becomes a Sith, turning to Rey as a new apprentice, and revealing something that shoots holes in a million theories, and makes the Force far more powerful than we knew: Rey has no special lineage, she is neither Skywalker nor Kenobi, and her parents died drunk on Jakku.  He tells her he is her only path to greatness.  Luckily, she doesn’t buy it.  All of this does make Ren a truly evil character.  Indeed, his belittling of Rey reminds me of the guy who will flirt with a girl, and when she rejects him, tell her how ugly she was anyway, that she has no intrinsic value outside of what he can bestow on her.  It’s ugly, and it ends forever the idea that he will find redemption.  We were never seeing a new Vader in Ren; we were seeing a new Palpatine (though, he’s going to have to up his subterfuge game).  

A quick word about Snoke and Rey’s parentage before I move on.  The Lovely Jennifer pointed out that the scenes in Snoke’s throneroom, his Praetorians, and the resulting, stunning battle, all felt very “Old Republic” to her, and on a second viewing, I could not help but agree.  Though Snoke is dead, it does not necessarily mean his origin won’t be important to future events, and some of the ways he describes the Jedi/Sith conflict point back to thousands of years of experience. Don’t throw out all of your crazy Snoke theories just yet, there may be more to come.  Don’t throw out all your crazy Rey theories either. Though I admire the idea the movie may be saying that you don’t have to be a Skywalker to be significant in the Force, look back at the allegory I used describing Ren and the Revelation.  When a d-bag tells a woman whom he just propositioned that she’s worthless and no one wants her, its a lie.  He is preying on her insecurities.  Perhaps indeed Rey’s parents sold her for drinking money, but perhaps, just perhaps, it’s a lie to keep her from a greater truth.  Keep some of those Rey theories in an old tree in case you need them too.

Meanwhile, in the Resistance: Carrie Fisher is fantastic here and it just underlines how much we will miss her when she can’t be in Episode 9.  We see that you don’t have to be a Jedi to be strong with the Force as she survives in open vacuum and pulls herself to safety like Yondu or Mary Poppins. Her tough love of Poe Dameron plays off beautifully, and I love how the story let’s him make mistakes and then come to his senses later to understand what type of leader he must be.  

Poe’s interaction with Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo is one of the skewered tropes in this movie as we see her as the new leader who simply can’t stand up to the task at first, but along with Poe get our expectations ripped out from under us as we find out she and Leia had a plan all along.  I could argue that had she shared that plan with Poe, some bad things wouldn’t have happened, but also, had Poe listened to what Leia told him and followed her damn orders those bad things wouldn’t have happened either.  (And Holdo’s sacrifice of the Raddus into the First Order ship brought more than a few stunned gasps to both of my viewings.)

 And that brings us to Finn.  It’s his first time conscious since we saw him in The Force Awakens, and he has the same thought that led him to tell the Resistance he could take down Starkiller base’s shields when all he really wanted to do is save Rey.  He is mistaken here for a deserter, but it’s not his own butt he is trying to save, it’s Rey’s.  As the film progresses for him, he comes to understand that doing good for the universe may be his best chance of saving Rey, and he eventually does exactly what he never thought he would do; he walks back into the First Order.  His final battle with Phasma is a delight, though I will certainly miss her character as a villain, she helps him accept what he is: Rebel Scum.

(Though, we see her fall into fire in her full armor which just deflected laser bolts right off the chest.  Maybe we see her again, the exposed part of her face scarred by flames, and still ready to end Finn…Darth Maul got cut in half and dropped down a mile deep shaft, hard to keep a good hater down!)

 But then we have to look at who helps both these guys get better, and in the process learns to be a hero herself: my favorite character in the film, Rose Tico.  In a movie that is painted in shades of grey, there is no moral ambiguity to her.  She practices a little hero worship certainly, and I will allow you to judge what her worship and subsequent judgement of Finn means to the overall message of the film regarding how heroes can be flawed and still be heroes.  She also is willing to dive right into  plan to help save the Resistance fleet, and when it comes to a last stand, jumps right into a speeder to join the fight.  It is her character who delivers the true message of the film: We don’t win by fighting what we hate, but my saving what we love.  I don’t know that I can live up to Rose Tico’s example, but I will certainly aspire to it.  

And that brings us to what this movie tells us all along: Herosim is democratic.  You don’t have to be a Skywalker to be a hero.  Rey doesn’t have to have famous parents.  Rose Tico doesn’t have to be one of the “great heroes of the Resistance” to make a difference.

 We also see that every era will fade into another era.  It’s doesn’t diminish the heroism of the previous generations: Despite what would eventually happen to Anakin, he saved a lot of worlds in the Clone Wars.  Evil rose again.  The Rebels in the Original Trilogy saved the Galaxy, but evil rose again.  It’s not that those things didn’t matter; quite the contrary, the good that DOES get to exist is because people stood up to save that good.  But it is a never ending battle.  Star Wars has always shown us that, from its earliest time.  Destroying the Death Star in “Star Wars” did not destroy the Empire, which soon after struck back.  Winning the Clone Wars did not keep the Sith from rising.  In the EU for years, we still had Imperial remnants rise (The Zahn Trilogy) or new a new Sith Order destroy the Jedi Academy Luke built and reestablish the Empire (Star Wars Legacy, Jedi Academy, the whole Jaina/Jacen Solo story).  Story group editor Pablo Hidalgo recently said something to the effect of the difference between a happy ending and a tragic ending is where you stop the story.  We can stop the story with just episode I and II and claim victory if we want (Yeah, there’s a Clone War, but we have an Army to defeat it, and look!  Anakin and Padme are married!).  We can stop the story at the end of Star Wars, we can stop it at the end of Return of the Jedi.

But in various forms the story has always kept going, and in the end “Star Wars” is going to be about Wars, internal to our heroes and external to the Galaxy.  “The Last Jedi” acknowledges that in ways I didn’t expect, but also shows the struggle to save good is worth it’s own existence.  Never surrender to that.  Be Rebel scum.  And somewhere while you are fighting to save good, there’s a kid with a broom telling your story, and when that kid grows up, they will pick up the baton.

And that, that is hope. Rebellions are built on hope.

Some other small observations:
Billie Lourd (Carrie Fisher’s daughter) gets some great screen time as Connix, Resistance member.
Nien Numb!
Rest in peace, Admiral Ackbar.  Caught in his last trap.
BB8 is a beast; the little round guy feels like R2 and Chopper from Rebels bastard child…hmmm.

The flashbacks to Kylo Ren turning on Luke provide two points of view (Obi-Wan would be proud), but also show a dry night, and Kylo defending himself with his own blue lightsaber.  In “The Force Awakens,” in Rey’s vision we see what I had assumed were Kylo and the Knights of Ren descending on the temple.  But there, he’s in full mask and black robes and already has his distinctive hilted red saber.  We don’t hear about the Knights of Ren in this movie at all, and this really now seems like a different event.  An event Rey had a vision of, tied to her ending up with Unkar Platt.  Now, maybe I am wrong, and this is just a discontinuity between JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson (which would be sad, and certainly burn a lot of my goodwill), but it’s part of why I am not yet ready to dispose of my Rey theories; this is the second movie in a Star Wars trilogy.  Remember, Empire left us wondering if Vader was really Luke’s father and who Yoda meant when he said “there is another.”  We don’t find out about Leia until RotJ.  I am willing to bet as much as “The Last Jedi” subverts our expectations, there are still some mysteries floating around to be dealt with in Episode IX.

At least, that’s my hope.  See you in two years.

Sunday, September 24, 2017


I probably should wait a few days before writing this, as this is a movie that will be waking me up in the middle of the night for months as my subconscious unravels the deeper layers of imagery and meaning.  It’s a Rorschach Test of a movie that allows different people looking at it from different perspectives to see different things.  If you’re walking in here expecting the haunted house story the trailer wanted to feed you, you are going to be sorely disappointed.  If you walk in with zero expectations and allow the movie to teach you its rules as it goes, you might find one of the most meaningful cinematic experiences you’ve ever encountered.  When it finished, Jennifer and I sat in rapt silence, wrapping our heads around what we had just seen, interpreting it the way one might look at an abstract painting or sculpture.  A guy in the back of the theater just shouted “that’s bullshit!” and went on with his day.

You get from it what you take into it I suppose.

So, I’m going to talk about the movie, I promise, and I am going to talk about what I got from the film itself.  I have to say, what I pulled from the film is apparently not what was intended by Darren Aronofsky, which you can find elsewhere if you want to read (I’m not going to do your Googling for you).  There are other opinions as well, but I will tell you up front: this movie is not for everyone.  It is often surreal, it is at times brutal, there are horrific moments that though not overtly gory are remarkably tense and there’s a direct implication of one of the most devastatingly awful things I have ever seen in a film.  Though the film follows it’s own logic, there are things that don’t quite make sense when you pull them out of the movie and look at them in the real world.  It is less a narrative than an allegory.

I am not trying to imply that someone who liked it is smarter than someone who didn’t, or that anyone who didn’t like it just didn’t “get it.”  (Though I have no doubt those people are out there.)  This movie does not give a damn whether you like it or not, and you could flow completely with the story elements and the allegory and still hate how it made you feel and therefore the movie.  As Jennifer and I wandered slightly zombie-like through a store afterward, I made the statement, “there are a lot of men who are going to hate that movie, and maybe not know why they hated it.”  This movie is black licorice: you hate it or you love it, but if you love it, it opens your world to absinthe.  See the odd metaphor I used there?  Get used to it before you go see “Mother!” 

So, now that I am 500 words in and still haven’t actually discussed the movie itself, I suppose I should.  Spoiler warning, but honestly, I’m not sure its necessary.  This movie is far more than its plot points, as atmosphere, performance, and inference are every bit as important to the experience as its relatively simple story.  The framework for the movie is a young woman, played by Jennifer Lawrence in a standout performance among standout performances, married to an older poet, played with dripping condescension by Javier Bardem.  The poet has been unable to write for some time, so he and his wife have settled into his former home which was previously destroyed by fire.  She is rebuilding the house herself while he sits in his study, not writing, but entranced by a strange gem that he later mentions was found in the rubble of the house after the fire.  One evening, there is a knock at the door, and Ed Harris arrives; a man who thought the house was actually a bed and breakfast.  Bardem’s poet insists Harris stay the night, despite Jennifer Lawrence’s misgivings, and this all gives way to a sequence of events that will start with more unexpected guests, and then wind through murder, abandonment, hero worship, riots, war, and an apocalyptic reset of the entire world they inhabit.   

Got that?  Yeah, exactly.

So, here’s what I got from the film, and promise you your results may vary if you work up the courage to see the movie.  To me, Lawrence represented the role women play in 10,000 years of human society.  She nurtures, she preserves, she restores, she becomes a mother.  She provides advice, she helps celebrate victories, she tries to help us minimize our defeats.

Everyone else in the film are the assholes who mistreat her for it.  Be it the husband who takes what she has done for granted, and can’t understand why she’s upset when he does not consult her, or did not give her the first reading of his completed work despite all her support, or who is so caught up in the adulation of others he doesn’t care to notice how much she has done to facilitate what he has created, that indeed he would be nowhere without her.  Or maybe it’s the older woman (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), who is ready to discount her experience and encourage her to rely only on her sexuality to get the attention of the man in her life.  To stay self-medicated and stop trying to build something for herself, or participate in the creative process.  How about the man who arrives, in her house, and insists she should hook up with him.  And when she doesn’t want to, when she doesn’t share her number, calls her an “arrogant cunt” and dismisses her like trash.  Or perhaps it’s the people who are perfectly happy to destroy what she has built as if it has no value because it came from a woman, and dismiss her telling them that a particular piece of architecture is not finished and will not hold.  And of course it is the society represented by the mob that will take her newborn and literally cannibalize it because they need to consume anything she has made, and then beat her savagely when she tries to resist them and maintain her agency.

Over and over I saw the allegorical examination of how society “mansplains” over women experts, or takes for granted that a women has to be sexual when we demand it, and a mother when we demand it, and her agency be damned, she should be more appreciative that she even HAS a man to take care of her.  The Poet simply baffled that she wouldn’t want to see his wishes come true at the expense of all she has done, because he has never noticed her actual struggle to make it all so. 
Aronofsky and crew have called 10,000 years of Patriarchy to task in this film, and that’s the type of message and delivery that’s going to make a thousand Dudebros go, “that’s bullshit!” and not want to see themselves in the Bardem character, or as one of the mass of people who rely on her, yet is happy to use up and marginalize the women of our society.  They may not even be consciously aware of why they feel indicted, but it will make them dismiss the film.  That won't be why everyone who dislikes it dislikes it, but more than I few I wager.

There are horror elements and suspense in this film.  In a country where one out of every five women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, half of those before the age of 18; where women are subjected to verbal abuse or ignored in work settings be benefit of their gender; where women can spend 20 years raising children, managing a budget, keeping a household going…and be dismissed as “just a housewife” and have nothing to put on a resume when they have decided to get out of their empty nest and into the world; where three women are murdered EVERY DAY in the US, and one of those three will be murdered by someone with whom they trusted enough to be intimate.  Hell yes there are horror elements in this film, because that is all horrific.  And that’s not even looking at other countries where women are not allowed to read, or after being told they must submit to a man’s will are then considered “unclean” and subject to being killed by their family to uphold “honor.”  Yes a movie illustrating what the world does to women is a horror movie, because how else do you tell it?

Yeah dude, I know.  YOU aren’t a rapist.  YOU don’t beat your partner.  YOU  don’t kill women who reject you in a bar.  But is your first thought when you hear about a rape, “well what was she wearing?” or “well what was she doing there?”  Do you notice how much more often men interrupt women during conversation than they do other men?  Or how much more willing men are to encroach on personal space of a woman versus another man?  You ever tell that joke about “what do you tell a women with two black eyes?  Nothing, she obviously didn’t listen the first two times.”  Ha ha, funny.  Hell, I’ve told that joke myself because it’s just a joke.

Until it isn’t.

Anyway, getting back to “Mother!” Again, other people got other things from it, and there are certainly plenty of metaphorical elements to support some of the “Mother = Earth, Poet = God, the Man and Woman = Adam and Eve” interpretations I see out there. Regardless, the performances from everyone involved are nuanced and stunning.  The photography is claustrophobic and breathtaking.  The emotions are discomforting and horrifying.  I love this film, my wife loved this film; most people are going to hate it,  either for what it says to them, or what they don’t want to hear from it, or because it does not deliver a “normal” experience.  It most certainly, regardless of your interpretation, does not do that.

I say judge for yourself, but if you’re not up for challenging cinema, you may want to let this one go by.  “Mother!” is not for the standard audience, and certainly not for the timid.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

To Porg or not to Porg.

So as "The Last Jedi" has gotten closer, various behind the scenes and toy reveals have given us The Porg.  Or thousands of Porgs from the look of things.  And I see people either diving right into Disney's plans to assimilate us into the Porg Collective with what I assume is weapons-grade cute developed somewhere in a Sith temple on Malachor, or immediately turned off by the hype and afraid we are getting new Ewoks.

I spent a lot of my fandom hating on the Ewoks, but now that I am older and I hear Porgs being compared to them I say: I hope the Porgs are like the Ewoks.  They would be lucky to be Ewoks, because Ewoks may be the single most subversive thing the Flannel-clad Maker ever gave us in his six films.

Stand back, I'm about to testify to the mad genius of George Lucas, because it took me 30 years to figure out that Mr. Eleven Thirty-Hate used all that kiddie marketing to make us all love an entire population of Hannibal Lectors.

We mostly remember cute little things, don't we?  Like this little guy.
Get Kenner on the phone, I need a dozen in plush, STAT!

He came along just when Leia needed him most, and he takes her in.  Do you remember why he took her in?
She killed this guy.  Wicket only decides for sure that Leia needs to come back to the tribe because she has shown she's a warrior.  He now sees her as an equal.  Don't believe me?  What is going to happen to the guys who are dumb enough to fall into a trap and then get (much to Han's chagrin) captured without a fight?

They are going to be eaten.
THEY are going to be EATEN.
They are GOING to be EATEN.

The Ewoks consider anyone outside of their tribe to be food, unless that someone has demonstrated the ability to kill.  Their minds are changed only after their golden god dissuades them otherwise. And THAT is only after he demonstrates he is an angry god by floating around the village.  Remember, they are going to kill and eat Han, Luke, and Chewie to honor Threepio EVEN AS HE IS COMMANDING THEM NOT TO and Luke has to Force the issue.  The Ewoks are willing to defy GOD HIMSELF for their hunger for flesh.*  

Did they do all that to Leia?  Not at all, she's basically become one of them. (More on this later.)

Take a moment and bask in the glory of our now luminous Princess and General.
So, the Ewoks are then persuaded to join the Rebel Commando company in their assault on the Imperial Garrison.  Sure we get funny moments like Chewie and the Ewoks swinging like Tarzan, or the Ewok on the speeder.  We get sad moments like the little Ewok who's Mom gets killed.  But really, why do the Ewoks get in on this?  What are they getting in return?

A kick ass drum set.

But besides that, where do you think the troopers for those helmets are?  Lando, don't eat the soup.

So thinking of this, take just a moment and look at this screencap:

What do we say to the god of death? Yub nub.

Realize you are actually seeing a false deity acting as a god of death setting his flesh eating minions upon soldiers who are just trying to do their jobs.  This isn't the First Order where Stormtroopers are trained nearly from birth, or the Republic where the Troopers are cloned to fight.  These are conscripts from across the galaxy, or maybe someone who joined up to get off their little podunk planet because THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE (even Luke was on his way to the Imperial Academy).  Instead they will be eaten by friggin' teddy bears with spears that someone on this day gave fully armed commando support to.  

Now, I am not the first person to come up with all this.  Before Disney purchased Lucasfilm, we used to have a wonderful--and semi canonical-comic series called "Star Wars Tales."  Yes, there are things they published like Indiana Jones investigating tales in Mexican jungles of an Ape Man, only to find an ancient crashed hunk-of-junkspaceship with the skeleton of a pilot who seems so very familiar to him somehow, and the ape-man with a life debt watching over the body.  But they gave us some keen insights into Star Wars as well, such as issue 14's "Apocalypse Endor."

 I love this story because it disables the myth of the "incompetent Stormtrooper" I have discussed elsewhere.**  It also points out, the Ewoks are vicious killing machines who will eat your flesh in a ritualized manner.

And that's why I have to bow to the genius of George Lucas.  He takes the idea of cute marketing to kids, and packages it up, but in that package he has actually given us cute little cannibalistic monsters; not obviously monstrous like a rancor or a krayt dragon, but far more insidious.  Right in front of us all this time.

Now, will the Porgs be something like that?  I don't know, it's not like Disney would do something like that, would they?

Hey, have you seen the new "Forces of Destiny" cartoon?  Here's an episode with Leia on Endor.  It's two and a half minutes long, give it a look and come on back.

So, the Ewoks get two Stormtroopers here, right?  Captured alive.  They all go back to the village, and Leia gets a gift.  A leather dress.  Where did the leather come from?  Where did they get a human sized piece of leather to make her a dress and ritualistically bring her into the tribe?

No Dan, Disney wouldn't do that. Disney does nice Star Wars, they wouldn't suggest Leia is walking around in a dress made from the hide of her enemies.

And they certainly wouldn't make a film where every character you care about dies on screen in heartrending fashion, would they?
A Baze of Glory
So, maybe Porgs are just cuteness overload.  Maybe something we need since it looks like The Last Jedi is taking our characters some pretty dark places.  But maybe, just maybe, there's a little old style subversion hiding in those Puss-in-Boots-from-Shrek eyes, and a joke you may find to your taste.

Actual screen cap: Looks like Chewie chew-chew-chooses the Porgs.
Oh, Chewbacca doesn't eat raw meat?  Remember how they got captured by the Ewoks on Endor in the first place?

Besides, what do you think Luke's been living off of on one island for the last 10-15 years?

A smorgasporg.  

*At least we believe Threepio was trying to stop them.  Perhaps he saw himself with an opportunity to finally free himself of Skywalker family drama and live as the Ewok god until he rusted?

**A native population that outnumbers you hundreds to one in terrain that they know every inch of.  It's almost the kind of thing that might lead a big, strong country to fight a war for 15 years or more somewhere.

(All Star Wars images property of Disney, used here under fair-use laws, not for profit.)
(Even I don't mess with the Mouse.)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Let My Sequels Go! The Official Black Owl Review of "War for the Planet of the Apes."

Spoiler free for two paragraphs!
I will not rehash here my love of this franchise, all the way back to Pierre Boulle's book that was originally translated as "Monkey Planet," but more artfully as "Planet of the Apes."  You can read my review of the first of these modern films here and get my whole simian love affair leading into "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."  

Somehow, I never reviewed "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," and I regret the oversight.  Let me assure you I found it as engaging and intelligent as "Rise" and again just as sad in its own way.  It leaves the idea that war is on its way at the end, and I was both eager to see where a third film would go, and anxious that like so many modern films we would stumble in the third act.  I am delighted to say that my worry was unwarranted.  There is plenty of action in "War" but at its heart it is a movie asking questions like what defines humanity?  Is vengeance our principle trait? Do we deserve to maintain status as the dominant species if we continue being so utterly horrible to each other? This is a smart movie, an exciting movie, and a heartbreaking movie.  In a world of reboots done simply to cash in on nostalgia, these Apes movies manage to take the basic conceit and use it as a vivid tableau to examine whether it's just intelligence that defines humanity, or something greater.

Spoilers commence.

A lot of movies, particularly hero movies, play off a lot of religious themes and imagery.  Be it Ripley in "Alien 3" throwing out her arms in a cross as she sacrifices herself to kill the hatching queen, or Superman in "Superman Returns" throwing out his arms in a cross as he sacrifices himself to save the world from Lex's growing continent or Superman in "Batman V. Superman" throwing out his arms under the burden of saving the exploding rocket...well you get the idea (especially with Superman) and lot of Christ imagery out there.  I came to realize with this film however that the "Apes" trilogy went old school with their heroic/savior template.  Caesar is not Christ, but rather Moses.  I found that pretty refreshing.

Think about it, he starts as an infant hidden away, is taken in and raised by the ruling species, and ends up returning to his people.  In this film we specifically get him preventing the beating of an ape slave by an overseer, him seeing the delivery of a plague that strikes at the children of humanity, a hurried escape from a pursuing Army that is then swept away (snow is just very cold water after all), and finally he leads his people to a promised land that he can look into, but as a result of his sins, he cannot himself enter.  His destiny we are assured from our Ape movie knowledge is to be known as a Lawgiver- Ape shall not kill Ape.  Andy Serkis's performance has been universally, and rightfully praised as one that shines through the mocap, and his Moses by way of chimpanzee I can only hope is in some way obliquely inspired in the mind of the writer by Charlton Heston's "The Ten Commandments." (After all, Heston got to do HIS Christ imagery when he threw his arms out to save the survivors in "The Omega Man.")

Every Moses however needs a Pharaoh.  In this film we get Woody Harrelson as "The Colonel" (his uniform says McCullough, but I don't think they ever say his name).  A plague has taken his first born, he is relentless in pursuit of the enemy, and that uncompromising nature proves to be his undoing.

I saw a rather astute observation, that the crux of this film is how Caesar and The Colonel deal with the need for vengeance.  Caesar to the point he has broken his law of killing ape, and his pursuit of vengeance has endangered his entire tribe.  The Colonel- though perhaps in ways correct from a purely Darwinistic standpoint-has prioritized killing the Apes and any carriers of the now mutating Simian flu to the point of going to war against the rest of humankind.  Both Serkis and Harrelson are electric in these roles, and their interaction is gold.

I was also pleased that The Colonel with his argument for survival of the species really does have a point, though the film does not simply say he is the bad guy because he's Army; More of the US Army is on the way to stop his reign of terror against Ape and Man.  It's a wonderfully complex setting and character, making you consider just who is right, and if we are just destined to continually fight enemies or one another.

I do want to address a criticism I have seen of this movie, regarding the idea that no female character--human or ape--has a spoken line in this film.  I do think that the writers could certainly have done better in that regard, but there are female ape characters who communicate through sign language, and I feel that should not be dismissed.  I also want to point out the delightful young Nova.  She is made mute by the mutated Simian virus and learns to sign from the orangutan Maurice.  She is pivotal to not only the actual plot (she saves Caesar's life and facilitates the Ape Escape), but also in exploring the theme of what it is to be human.  She discusses whether or not she can be ape, and provides the human anchor in this film that gives the argument that though there are awful humans, there are good people as well.   The initial criticism has some validity, but I do not want that criticism to overshadow the enormous impact, story-wise and emotionally, this girl fighting through a disability brings to the film.

And speaking of that mutation, this movie has done a very interesting thing with Ape-lore.  The Apes have entered the desert near the lake; humanity is being reduced to a mute, almost savage state; young Cornelius and young Nova are in place. If you remember the Easter Egg in the first movie that a space probe with astronauts had been launched and lost; how tidy it would be to now have a fourth film placing the events of the classic just a couple of decades after this movie, and now instead of Nova being the poor, mute savage following Taylor around, she is the advocate for the Apes to him...and for him to the Apes.  That could be a compelling film and continue where this excellent, heartrending, intelligent trilogy leaves us.  

Maybe Nova in the next one can save human and ape alike with arms wide open?

PS- Oh, and Bad Ape.  I just want to hug Bad Ape.