Category Archives: Reviews

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: A Full Analysis Part 2

Since I wrote Part One of my analysis of The Last Jedi, I have done two things.  First, I saw the film a second time.  Second, I re-watched Rashomon (1950).  This has sharpened my view of the movie.  While I initially lauded it as a masterpiece, I’ve dialed that back some.  It is still a very, very good movie, probably the third best Star Wars movie.  But it is an imperfect film, so calling it an unequivocal masterpiece is misleading.

None of The Last Jedi’s flaws particularly bother me, but that does not mean they aren’t present.  Most feel nit-picky to me.  One example is how the film hand-waves away several of the science fiction elements.  Star Wars has never been science fiction – its proper genre is fantasy.  Still, it made some viewers wonder why, for example, a hyper-drive collision hadn’t been used more frequently if it could destroy several ships at once.

The one problem that’s hard to explain away has to do with the characterization of Luke Skywalker.  The film doesn’t do a great job of explaining why Luke wouldn’t have tried to deal with Kylo Ren before going into exile.  The closest to a reason that we get from him is when he tells Rey, “What do you expect me to do? Grab a laser sword and take on the entire First Order by myself?”  Luke has concluded that trying to deal with his nephew would lead to nothing but certain doom.  But why?

I didn’t need to know exactly what happened that made him so jaded – the failure of everything he had fought for was enough of a reason for me.  I also can excuse a lack of exposition in an already jam-packed film.  The counter-argument is that this isn’t Snoke we’re talking about – a character who we didn’t really need a backstory beyond “stock dark-side villain.”  Luke Skywalker is the central character in the Star Wars saga and a film should describe his motivations clearly enough that everyone understands them.  If The Last Jedi did not universally accomplish this clarity, that is a flaw.  But how serious of a flaw is it?

Compare, if you will, The Last Jedi to a nearly flawless film, Rashomon.  Rashomon may be known for its unforgettable images and non-linear storytelling, but at its base it is an extremely well constructed film.  Akira Kurosawa gives us just enough plot and characterization to accomplish his storytelling goals, nothing more.  This limits distraction and allows the audience to be fully immersed in four different versions of the same story.  For example, the audience doesn’t even suspend its disbelief to question why everyone in the story takes a medium speaking for a dead samurai seriously.

The Last Jedi is a well made film, but it is not economical in the same way that Rashomon is.  One could argue that The Last Jedi needed to walk a tightrope between viewer reactions ranging from “this is like the boring, blah, blah, blah from the prequels,” and “we demand more world-building.”  That equates the amount of backstory with economy, but less backstory doesn’t cause a movie to be economical in the same way that Rashomon is.  You need enough backstory to keep the audience from questioning the movie in the middle of the experience, and The Last Jedi does not do this for a good chunk of its audience.

Kathleen Kennedy and her team at Disney are terrified of the prequels, and with good reason.  The first two are bad movies, full stop.  The third is okay, but still disappointing, and not a good enough film in its own right to overcome the problems of the Episodes I and II.  I can understand erring towards annoying the “we demand more world-building” people by cutting exposition, but sometimes you need backstory to make sure that your story is universally understood enough to keep its audience immersed in it.  A more economical movie would understand this – and to some extent this is a problem in the Force Awakens too.  We shouldn’t need to read a tie-in book to know what the difference between the New Republic and the Resistance, for example.

That brings me to why the lack of backstory in The Last Jedi isn’t a fatal flaw in the same way that the flaws of Episode I and II destroy those movies.  The information that The Force Awakens leaves out is available in tie-in books.  If we didn’t know about that information then, we know it now.  The Last Jedi will get its share of tie-ins too, which will fill in some of the missing worldbuilding and potentially clarify Luke’s characterization to viewers who wanted more information.

If this is Disney’s scheme to sell more books, comics, and video games,  so be it – film has always been a commercial artform.  But this isn’t a problem in the Original Trilogy and that made plenty of tie-in loot.  If it is going to be Disney’s strategy going forward to play loose with economical storytelling in order to sell side-content, this will prevent its films from being great movies like Rashomon.

(c) 2018 D.G. McCabe

 

 

 

 

 

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Review, Spoiler Free)

In your travels in the internet over the past few days, you may have seen comments, user reviews, and tweets calling The Last Jedi a bad film. Or a disappointment. Or claiming it “ruined Star Wars.”

These opinions are objectively wrong.

In the coming days I’ll expand on my thoughts of what a masterpiece this movie is. But in order to do so I’d have to reveal major plot points. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m give you one traditional, spoiler-free review.

I can’t emphasize enough how much I like The Last Jedi. The more I think about it, the more I like it. I can’t think of a single Marvel MCU movie that is superior. In fact, The Last Jedi serves as a direct response to those films and their often “paint by numbers” nature. It makes me wonder if any of those films are that good to begin with.

It doesn’t draw from a place that most fans of the modern blockbuster are necessarily familiar with. It draws from the same influences as the Original Trilogy, especially Kurosawa. But there’s a heavy dose of Greek Tragedy and Bergman in there too.

That is to say, despite a surprising number of jokes that land, it is a bleak, bleak movie. Far bleaker than The Empire Strikes Back dared to be. Then again, I’ve never seen Empire without being able to watch Return of the Jedi in short order. I don’t know how bleak Empire must have felt to people who viewed it in 1980.

That said, this isn’t a perfect film. There are legitimate questions about how well the creative choices will hold up if Episode 9 doesn’t stick the landing. These points are hard to get into in a spoiler free review, so I’ll save them for later.

Overall, the Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie aside from the first two. With time to breathe and a well executed Episode 9, it may rank even higher in the end.

You might like The Last Jedi if: You are willing to challenge your assumptions about what a franchise blockbuster should be.

You might not like The Last Jedi if: All you want is a predictable remake of The Empire Strikes Back.

(C) 2017 D.G. McCabe

La-La Land (2016) (Review)

I recently watched La-La Land (2016), the favorite of this past year’s Award Season cycle.  The film ultimately lost to “Moonlight” (2016) for the Best Picture Oscar.  After seeing both movies, the result was warranted – Moonlight is an objectively better film that La-La Land.  But why?

La-La Land is a good movie.  It isn’t a great movie, but it could have been one.  The main issue I had with it was that it begins as an homage to better things.  Remember in The Return of the King (2003) Extended Edition when Saruman taunts Theoden King by calling him “the lesser son of greater sires?”  The first half of La-La Land made me remember that line, so much so that for the first forty-five minutes my main thought was “I’d rather be watching “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952).”

La-La Land gets much better in the second half, when it gets out of its own way and becomes its own movie.  That isn’t nothing.  Homage films like “The Artist” (2011) never go beyond their initial tribute to the classics.  The question becomes, then, why did La-La Land have to start as such a blatant homage to begin with?

One could argue that La-La Land has to set itself up this way – it needs to build up the Old Hollywood musical in order to tear it down.  The problem is that it never builds up the concept of the Golden Age musical enough to really subvert it.  Part of this has to do with the skill sets of the actors.  Ryan Gosling, for example, puts in a yeoman’s effort, but he ultimately can’t dance or sing well enough to really sell his role as a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly type.  The other part, and probably the more important, is that after the opening couple of numbers the movie abandons the nostalgia aspect pretty abruptly.  The homage to Old Hollywood feels more like an abandoned concept than a theme the film is trying to comment on.

In the end, La-La Land is a strange animal of a film.  It didn’t successfully explore the themes it wanted to explore, but that doesn’t make it a bad film either.  It is exceptionally well made and entertaining after all.  It just missed the mark a bit.

You might like La-La Land if: You’re looking for a well made, original musical film that isn’t based on a preexisting property.

You might not like La-La Land if: You think about it too much.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe

Bridget Jones’s Baby (Review)

Directed by Sharon Maguire, UK, 2016

Sequels with large time gaps between them have not fared well recently.  Sure, reboots are all the rage these days, but a sequel to films that came out fifteen and twelve years ago respectively (Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004))?  This seems like a particularly risky proposition, especially when one of the lead actors has been absent from the scene for the better part of a decade.

Like the title character of the series, despite all of these obvious problems with the history of long hiatus sequels and actors, Bridget Jones’s Baby actually works out pretty well.  In some respects, it’s a better movie than the first Bridget Jones movie. Don’t get me wrong, Bridget Jones’s Diary is still the funnier movie, but it sometimes over-relied on funny set pieces to develop its stories and characters.

The first movie takes place over the course of a year and a half and jumps around between several different sub plots with no central narrative thrust.  The hilarious set pieces keep the movie together, and its humor, along with the performances of Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant, and Colin Firth (who plays Mark Darcy), are the reasons why it remains a modern classic.

The third movie has its share of humor, it also has a condensed timeline that works in its favor.  While there is a subplot focused on Bridget’s career, it is exists mainly to support the main narrative thrust of the story.  Otherwise, the script focuses the audience’s attention on Bridget and Mark, whose relationship is the central one in the film series, and on Bridget and Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey), whose relationship represents a potential new path for Bridget.

Overall, if you liked Bridget Jones’s Diary, you’ll like Bridget Jones’s Baby.  If not, well, there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out just around the corner.

You might like Bridget Jones’s Baby if: You enjoyed Bridget Jones’s Diary and are looking for a well written, funny romantic comedy that continues the story in a satisfying manner.

You might not like Bridget Jones’s Baby if: You’re kind of over Bridget at this point.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

Captain America: Civil War (Review)

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, US, 2016

First thing’s first, Captain America: Civil War is one of the best two or three Marvel Studios films.  It avoids the excesses of the comic book storyline of the same name.  Instead it intensely focuses on questions that should be inherent in the superhero genre.  What happens to the people in those buildings that get smashed?  Or, to blatantly steal a line from a classic graphic novel, who watches the watchmen?

When superheroes fight super-villains, buildings collapse and things blow up.  What is rarely addressed is the human cost of that destruction.  The concept of superhero collateral damage has been addressed before on film a couple of times, both successfully (The Incredibles (2004)) and unsuccessfully (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)).  In Captain America: Civil War, the response to this issue sets up the central conflict in the story.   The world is grateful, really, but has decided that the Avengers need UN oversight so that the destructive consequences of their operations can be more effectively contained.

That seems reasonable, right?  Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) certainly thinks so.  The problem is, what if the powers that be can’t be trusted?  What if they are infiltrated, by I don’t know, Hydra?  What if they are so bureaucratic that they send what could be their greatest fighting asset on a tour to raise money for war bonds instead of asking him to actually fight?  You can see why Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) disagrees with Stark.

Somehow, between setting up who’s on what side and actually having a plot, the movie takes the time to effectively introduce not one, but two key Marvel superheroes.  The first is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who just happens to be a warrior called the Black Panther.  He’s also a king.  And a genius.  If that’s not enough fun, your friendly neighborhood Spiderman (Tom Holland) joins in on the action too.

Overall, Captain America: Civil War is a great action movie that asks important questions about the cost of security, the need for oversight, and the destructive power of vengeance.  If you haven’t already, and the box office receipts tell me that most of you have, go check it out.

You might like Captain America: Civil War if: You are interested in a well executed, smart action film that effectively deconstructs some of the recent blockbuster superhero movies.

You might not like Captain America: Civil War if: You can’t stand watching another superhero movie no matter how good it is.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

Purple Rain (Classic Film)

Directed by Albert Magnoli, US, 1984

Yesterday, I attended an outdoor showing of Purple Rain (1984)  in downtown Minneapolis with about ten thousand other people.  Towards of end of the title track, during one of Prince’s guitar solos, I heard the familiar “woah-oh-oh-oh” refrain, but it was out of sync with the movie.  I quickly realized that it was coming from the crowd, which made it all the more powerful when the refrain from the soundtrack joined in.

In his introduction to “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929), the great Dziga Vertov asks us to imagine film as an art-form with a language entirely separate from the languages of theater and literature.  This is a critical concept to understanding why Purple Rain is so popular.  When judged against the standards set forth in theatrical or literary criticism – yikes.  However, when the conventions of page and stage are disregarded, what remains is a masterpiece of post-modern art.

The rather thin, melodramatic plot only exists to call the audience’s attention to concepts that are embodied within Prince’s music.  When he wrote the songs on the classic album that shares the movie’s title, he was certainly thinking about domestic violence, sexism, and despair.  But he was also thinking about the feeling of the wind flowing through your hair during a motorcycle ride and the pure catharsis of hearing a great musical performance.  Purple Rain shows us these ideas through images, but the images exist only to emphasize how the ideas are embodied in the music.

Film is a story told through images and, with due respect to Vertov, usually contains many of the same elements that exist in theatrical and literary storytelling.  Even the very best movie music tends to play a secondary, supporting role in that, storytelling.  Purple Rain flips that paradigm – the music is central and everything else exists to support the music.  The result is a powerful work of art, which, last night, moved a grieving crowd to joy and tears and back again.

You might like Purple Rain if: You love music, and would like to see a film where music is the primary narrative force rather than playing the usual supporting role.

You might not like Purple Rain if: You view it through the lens of a traditional understanding of what makes a good narrative film.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

Eye in the Sky (Review)

Directed by Gavin Hood, UK, 2016

Eye in the Sky is opening to a wide release this weekend, but I was fortunate enough to see a preview a couple of weekends ago.  The conflict in Eye in the Sky can be summarized as, “What the F do we do now?”

The British Army, with assists from the United States and Kenya, has a drone targeting a wanted terrorist.  Except it’s three wanted terrorists.  Oh and two other guys are trying on suicide bomb vests.  Fire and forget, right?  Wrong.  The problem is that there’s a little girl  selling bread outside the compound.

What follows is an intense, well-acted film about the consequences of waging a certain kind of war in the modern era.  The drone pilots are safe in Las Vegas (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox), and the officers calling the shots are safe in England (in separate locations, Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren).  The guy who’s in the most danger is a Somali-Kenyan operative (Barkhad Abdi).  Well the guy on the team anyway, the little girl is the most danger obviously.

The question the movie asks is a tough one to answer.  Do you let one innocent person die in order to potentially save dozens?  During previous eras of warfare, the answer seemed obvious.  When you’re flying a B-17 miles above the war, this isn’t something you think about.  In this instance, however, everyone involved can see the face of the girl in the crossfire.

Paul, Fox, Abdi, and Mirren are all great, as is the rest of the cast.  Of special note, this film is Alan Rickman’s last, as he passed away a couple of months back.  It’s good to see him go out on top.

You might like Eye in the Sky if: You are in the mood for an intense, morally ambiguous thriller.

You might not like Eye in the Sky if: You’re in the mood for something a bit lighter.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe