Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) – Review

How do you review Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Nobody will read this review to judge whether it’s worth a look. Let’s be honest, if you’re reading this, you’re either a Star Wars fan or my mother. So by what metric do we measure this film, carrying the legacy of arguably the most beloved films of American culture and representative of a $4 billion dollar investment by Disney? You keep it simple. Is it good? Yes, it is good.

Adding nuance is when we get to the heart of The Force Awakens‘ problems. This film – and the five more already in production or planned – are a direct reaction, creatively speaking, to the prequel trilogy’s failure to satisfy fans. As a result, writer/director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy studiously picked everything commonly loved about the original trilogy – from the original characters to the practical aesthetic to the intense family drama. Much care was made to elicit the childhood feelings in fans that lay dormant during the prequels. In that regard, they succeed brilliantly. They just forgot to innovate while paving this nostalgia-worn road.

The plot is essentially a thin remix, bordering on remake, of A New Hope, with dashes of the sequels Empire and Jedi thrown in. In the 30 years since the second Death Star blew up and the Emperor killed, the First Order has stepped up as an even more fascistic version of the fallen Galactic Empire and seeks to outdo its predecessor in every way – beginning by building a bigger, better Death Star with a biggerer, betterer name of Starkiller Base. The Rebel Alliance meanwhile has become the Resistance, fighting once again for the democratic values of the Republic.

Seriously, you could replace a few words and it’d be the old films but I digress.

The story begins with a simple hook: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, absent from all marketing materials) has vanished, along with all Jedi knowledge in the galaxy, and both the First Order and the Resistance want to track him down. A world-weary General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) a leads the Resistance while estranged from Han Solo (a game Harrison Ford) after a family tragedy. Of three original actors, Ford is given the most to do and effortlessly shoulders much of the weight of nostalgia and gravitas, which gives the benefit to the newcomers to make happy first impressions.

Where the film truly succeeds is in its characters and its casting, which is where Abrams’ remix approach yields the greatest returns. All the familiar roles are filled but with mild twists. The new trilogy’s power trio include Rey (incredible newcomer Daisy Ridley), a desert-dwelling scavenger left behind by her family, Finn (a charming John Boyega), an ex-Stormtrooper who deserts the First Order and Poe Dameron (an underutilized Oscar Isaac), the top pilot of the Resistance. At the midpoint in the film, we’re also introduced to Maz Kanata (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o under digital makeup), a kind of quasi-Yoda-as-a-space-pirate.

Having the new Han, Luke and Leia be a white girl, a black man and Latino man speaks volumes about Abrams’ diversified approach to this new Star Wars universe. It’s the right move and the strength of his casting decisions alone make him a worthy successor to Lucas and Spielberg.

Not to be outdone, the Dark Side is stacked with not one, not two, but four new villains. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the Big Bad here, an young and unstable Darth Vader impersonator obsessed with the deceased Sith Lord (a biting commentary if ever there was one). General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is the military commander of the First Order and a sneer come to life. Captain Phasma (Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie) is the first female Stormtrooper of the series and already a fan-favorite that’s being compared to Boba Fett. Finally, there’s Supreme Leader Snoke (a motion-captured being played by Andy Serkis) who, if the name didn’t give it away, is the First Order’s Emperor figure and Kylo Ren’s even eviler master.

What is interesting is the meta-approach the film takes to its own fandom. In the context of a galaxy far, far away, Rey and Finn grew up hearing stories about Luke, Han and Leia’s fight against the Empire and of the mystical Force but never knew any of it to be true. The same is true of heroes and villains as Kylo obsesses over Darth Vader’s legacy but knows none of the truth behind Anakin’s tragedy. They were legends, to them. Its an effective way to introduce the new leads while giving our previous players something to do.

The downside is Abrams and co. essentially reboot the whole property. There’s a sense of running in place to the film, despite its frantic pace and bouncy tone. Yet again, the Jedi are endangered. Yet again, we have a Darth Vader look-alike dominating the frame. Yet again, we have this this and that. We’re right back where we started.

At a certain point, the echoes become predictable and the contours of what makes a Star Wars film become rote, making it impossible to surprise the audience unless the storyteller takes a risk and breaks a rule, like what happened with the series’ best film, The Empire Strikes Back. Even when the film finally does reach its twists, the spoilers kept expertly hidden prior to release, they’re not so much twists so much as reassurances that we, the viewers, are watching what is quintessentially the Star Wars fan film.

Like another recent seventh entry in a venerable ’70s franchise, the film is next-level fan fiction of the tallest order, obsessively crafted not only to launch a decade of Star Wars films but to erase the stain the George Lucas-curated prequels that left fans cold with its sterile CGI use and emotionally-stunted characters and story. But unlike Creed, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not an instant classic.

That said, the original 1977 film would be judged far differently in an individual context if it had never been sequelized. We’re talking about the seventh installment in a saga so it’s understandably why Abrams and co. would play it safe with setup and coy with answers. Good news: the next installment begins filming in early 2016 under acclaimed indie helmer Rian Johnson, most famous for his sci-fi actioner Looper which successfully balanced headache-inducing time travel with the moral implications of killing, whether for good or bad.

It’s a bright sign that the series is on the right track with filmmakers like Abrams and Johnson who can balance the goofy sci-fi people expect with the heady philosophical underpinnings, the paradoxical dichotomy at the heart of the Star Wars phenomenon and at the heart of all of us.  This is the approach that worked 40 years ago and, with a new paint job and plenty of modern updates, it works again today.

 

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Dear Republicans, You Need to Evolve, Part 2

(UPDATED: December 8, 2015)

Dear Grand Old Party,

Hey.

It’s me.

Listen, I know we don’t get along. At all. The animosity has gotten out of hand at times but who hasn’t forced their roommate to invade another guy’s house based on lies or allowed the bank to short our mortgage knowing we couldn’t pay?

But I’m not angry about that anymore (SIDENOTE: I’m still totally angry about all of that). You had Bush for eight years and Democrats had Obama for eight years. Seems like an even trade-off, right? Eight years of neocons ripping up America’s carpet and eight years of bumbling Democrats trying to add new wood floors.

Part 1 of this series examining the modern Republican Party was published in late June after the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to make same-sex marriage legal nationwide in the United States. The GOP’s tone was predictably apocalyptic and it has only grown since. The party continues to do everything in its power to lose presidential elections, a process only hastened by the metastasizing malignant tumor known as Donald Trump. Sadly for the GOP, this tumor might be inoperable.

My instinct when peoples’ tone skews apocalyptic is skepticism. Sure, today is apocalyptic with the future of America at stake . . . just like it was in 2012, 2008, 2004, 2000 and every election in American history. It’s just regurgitated language that has lost its meaning over the decades. However, now I think there is reason to believe it. America’s beloved melting pot has come to a boil and the 2016 election will be set a definitive path post-Obama. There’s a fork in the road: right or left. And that path may already be set.

Too many options, I give up

Based on what is happening today, as of December 6, 2015, dear reader, you and I can safely assume, nay know, that this is what 2016 has in store for us:

The GOP, already combating intraparty fighting and demographic changes, will be felled in the 2016 election by its own nominee, Donald Trump, who will lose to Hillary Clinton in a landslide electoral bloodbath not seen since Barry Goldwater’s loss to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.

Let’s break down exactly where it went wrong for the Republican Party and why the future for the GOP looks pretty bleak today.

Like Trump, Goldwater was a truth-telling soothsayer and populist who campaigned in a similar unapologetic fashion against incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. His campaign slogan read “In your heart, you know it’s true.” A disgruntled Republican base bypassed the establishment to elect their poster boy and, well, loss is a charitable word for what happened that November.

The kind of campaign Trump is running not only echoes Goldwater’s, but seems to come straight from a playbook circa 1984, not 2016, when Reagan crushed Democrat Walter Mondale after a contested primary election, offering another useful comparison to today. The only difference is the name of the fractured party in question – Democrats then, Republicans today.

Much of the history of the party relative to issues at the core of the 2016 election was chronicled by The Washington Post‘s Janell Ross in her October 12 article “The seeds of today’s GOP’s infighting were planted long ago.” I highly recommend reading it in full for its excellent historical perspective but there are some pieces I’d like to point out.

The “party of Lincoln” was founded in 1854 by opponents to slavery, tragically destined to go from an anti-slavery party to an openly-racist one. The founders weren’t saviors in the least, more concerned with the broader, destabilizing impact slavery has on society and the economic power it gave the South. Post-war, the assassination of Lincoln and prolonged Reconstruction saw the party back away from black enfranchisement, leading to the rise of Jim Crow laws, particularly in the South where Democrats (many former Confederates) harbored grudges over losing the Civil War.

African-Americans finally began leaving the Republican Party in droves when FDR took office because some of his New Deal policies were among the first to provide federal help to black people since the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. For more on this oft-forgotten period of history, I recommend Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson, who spent 15 years chronicling the the time between Reconstruction and Civil Rights, in her book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, President Johnson correctly predicted that the price Democrats would pay would be the loss of the South for decades to come. His claim became prophetic when Republicans capitalized on this opening to win the support of the South for the past several decades. So deep was their racist intent that pro-segregation “Dixiecrats” refused to forgive the party that fought for equal rights for African-Americans and switched party labels en masse to Republican. Today, there is a grand total of two (2!) Democrats holding public office in the entire American South (more on the GOP’s collapsing “Southern strategy” further down). Ross writes:

“In essence, Republican candidates made themselves appear to be or were sympathetic to pro-segregationists, neo-Confederates and people who feared that more traditional American way of life was vanishing. Also part of the message was the idea that increased liberty for some groups had given way to a black criminal menace and more intense competition for jobs.”

Sound familiar?

As you can see, (and as infamous creator of the Southern strategy Lee Atwater flat-out admitted) race has always been a deal-breaker with Republicans, especially if its talked about as a societal construct instead of an incident of birth. They have a long and storied history of using racism, barely-masked in disingenuous language, to stir up their voting base. And evidence and studies have shown that racism’s prevalence in the GOP is not a correlation, it’s causation. Is it a coincidence that the Republicans’ next choice after America’s first black president is someone as quintessentially white as Donald freaking Trump?

No, party leaders will say, that’s wrong. They’re focused on conservative ideas, not on the “identity politics” of the Democrats. They’re true devotees, believing wholeheartedly that no matter race, class or gender, conservatism and the free market will save us all.

(UPDATE 12/8/2015: The irony of their outright rejection of identity politics is that it has turned the GOP, as Ben Domenech noted in The Federalist in August, into a party of one identity: whites. And as the party’s base gets whiter, the more white supremacist talk seeps into their rhetoric.

Trump’s leap off the moral event horizon yesterday – putting out a policy paper demanding all Muslims, including Muslim-Americans abroad, be barred from the U.S. – was met with a standing ovation at his rally of over 10,000 in South Carolina.

The polling numbers he used to justify this were gathered by the Islamaphobic conspiracy theorist Frank J. Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, which also happens to be classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

Paul Ryan, recent recipient of the least-wanted job in Washington, Speaker of the House of Representatives, gave just that message last Thursday in his first address as Speaker since taking over for the ousted John Boehner in late October.

In perhaps the most public way the party’s fault lines have been exposed, the House Freedom Caucus – a collection of 40+ hardline conservatives mostly elected in the Tea Party waves of 2010 and 2014 – was able to force Boehner to resign as Speaker of the House. Later, they were able to blacklist his number two, Kevin McCarthy, from replacing him.

(UPDATE 12/8/2015: An amazingly-reported piece by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker breaks down in detail the House Freedom Caucus’ kamikaze strategy to governing. Lizza writes of an interview with one of the caucus’ leaders Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho),

“[Low favorability ratings by Republicans] is what happens when we do nothing,” he said. “This is the new G.O.P. majority in 2015, when we stand for nothing.” The problem, in his view, was that the Party was “governing,” he said, adding air quotes to the word. “If people just want to ‘govern,’ which means bringing more government, they’re always going to choose the Democrat.”

These right-wing extremists in the Freedom Caucus are against government working because their worldview holds that government cannot work. Which in turn makes them prevent the government from working. Ah, self-fulfilling prophecies.)

In the article “From Trump, Ryan, Cruz and Rubio, clues to the Republican Party’s identity” The Washington Post‘s chief political correspondent Dan Balz reports on Ryan’s speech.

On Thursday, Ryan delivered his first major speech since taking over the top leadership in the House. He used it to sketch out his ambitions for his first year as speaker. His aims include helping to deliver a Republican victory in the presidential race. He pledged to use his House majority over the next year to set forth, as he put it, a conservative policy agenda that would provide “a complete alternative to the left’s agenda.”

The program, which he sketched only in the broadest of strokes, includes comprehensive tax reform, stripping away federal regulations, restructuring safety-net programs, repealing the Affordable Care Act and rebuilding U.S. military forces. It is an agenda for smaller central government at home and a more robust presence abroad.

“If we want to save the country, then we need a mandate from the people,” he said. “And if we want a mandate, then we need to offer ideas. And if we want to offer ideas, then we need to actually have ideas.”

Ryan conceded that President Obama would probably veto much of the conservative legislation that Congress might pass. But his larger aim, he said, would be to provide a substantive policy foundation that would be embraced by the party’s eventual nominee in 2016.

Though he decided not to enter the 2016 race as a candidate, Ryan clearly hopes to play a central role in shaping his party’s direction. His recommendations, substantively and politically, will resonate among the party elite.

Key words: “party elite.” The problem, Speaker Ryan, is that your base does not want your “ideas.” It does not want a conservative agenda.

Your base wants Donald Trump.

“Trump’s candidacy is the antithesis of Ryan’s approach — anti-elite in almost all respects,” writes Balz.”He has put forth some policy proposals, but that’s hardly the basis of his appeal. His ideas lack ideological consistency. He does not offer a conservative alternative to the left. Instead, he offers an alternative to what many angry conservatives regard as weak leadership, whether from the president or their own party leaders.”

Ah, the Donald. The apotheosis of All-American anger, representative of the right and embodiment of its pessimism and rage. To those outside the U.S., he is a manifestation of America’s worst excesses.

The party was quite proud of what it called its “deep bench” of 2016 presidential candidates, what with a moderately-diverse field including a two Cuban-American senators, a female former CEO, and a black neurosurgeon along with the prerequisite cavalcade of older white men. Little did they know the whole process was about to become Trump’s new reality show. As Balz writes, his supporters “appear not to be looking for ideological purity, an optimistic vision or a well-packaged policy agenda.” Their rage is destructive, not constructive.

I’ve written rather extensively on what a Trump presidency would be like (SPOILER ALERT: Get ready for gold-plated ID cards). He is everything the establishment is not. He doesn’t coat his bigotry in soft language. He peddles it directly to the consumer and they lap it up. Mexicans are taking our jobs! Muslims are secretly destroying America!

What’s most fascinating to me about the Trump phenomenon is not how successful he’s been but how happenstance his success was. While Trump has hijacked, in effect, the face of the Republican party well on his way to being its official presidential nominee, it’s hardly indicative of his self-touted intelligence or foresight. Quite literally, he stumbled on the illegal immigrant issue, bringing into the mainstream such fringe ideas as a border wall and mass deportation. The hostility Trump engenders from those he scorns cannot be understated and will destroy him come Election Day.

America Ferrera, speaking for Latin-Americans in The Huffington Post

Ideas previously thought to be evil, immoral but most of all expensive (Republicans couch everything, even human rights violations, in tax and money talk), Trump was a spokesman when the disgruntled Republican base needed one. In his infamous announcement speech calling Mexicans rapists and criminals and blaming their country’s government for purposefully shipping them here, he ran afoul another brewing cultural epidemic: the rise of – and backlash to – actions labeled politically correct or P.C. And that’s the final piece of the puzzle that is the Trump phenomenon.

Trump is unapologetically racist, unapologetically xenophobic and unapologetically divisive. Trump’s “gaffes” are not actually gaffes in the traditional sense; they’re proof to his supporters that he’s their guy. Not because he says what’s on his mind, but because he says what’s on their mind. He gives voice to every bad impulse and thought they have and then license to act accordingly, regardless of the truth, facts or reason.

Thanks to the quickening of global communication, issues fly by at such a rapid rate, Marty McFly and Doc Brown would get broken necks from whiplash if they time-traveled to today. We can’t settle one Donald Trump lie before he barrels into his next one. Most stunningly, illegal immigration was the very issue he blasted Mitt Romney for screwing up the 2012 election with his “self-deportation” rhetoric.

In an post-election interview in November of that year, Trump told Ronald Kessler of Newsmax that “the Republican Party will continue to lose presidential elections if it comes across as mean-spirited and unwelcoming toward people of color.”

No shit.

Here’s the full exchange:

“Republicans didn’t have anything going for them with respect to Latinos and with respect to Asians,” the billionaire developer says.

“The Democrats didn’t have a policy for dealing with illegal immigrants, but what they did have going for them is they weren’t mean-spirited about it,” Trump says. “They didn’t know what the policy was, but what they were is they were kind.”

Romney’s solution of “self deportation” for illegal aliens made no sense and suggested that Republicans do not care about Hispanics in general, Trump says.

“He had a crazy policy of self deportation which was maniacal,” Trump says. “It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote,” Trump notes. “He lost the Asian vote. He lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country.”

I don’t recognize this guy as the same guy campaigning in Iowa yesterday but the irony is delicious.

2012 Trump actually seems pretty reasonable because the facts back him up. The GOP is white and only getting whiter while the national percentage of white people has decreased substantially. African-Americans don’t vote Republican. Hispanics don’t vote Republican. Asian-Americans don’t vote Republican. Take a look at the exit polling from 1968 to today.

The GOP can’t stop thinking of ways to alienate increasingly-diverse demographics, whether it’s Trump’s coarse rhetoric against Hispanics and Muslims, Chris Christie’s hostile dismissal of the #BlackLivesMatter movement or Jeb Bush saying Asian-Americans are the primary perpetrators of “anchor babies.”

But let’s not forget about Trump’s candidacy isn’t torpedoing the party’s election chances by himself. The GOP has had the problems he exacerbated for a long time. Republicans may not like “identity politics” but they’re going to have to learn to because the identity of America is changing faster than ever and they’re falling way behind. As the party becomes increasingly white, the previous electoral Southern strategy of the GOP has left them hamstrung and dependent on diminishing portions of the population.

It did it again in 2004 when Karl Rove, in his wisdom, gave up on swing voters and drove evangelicals to the voting booths by pointing to Bush 43’s support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Cut to 2015 and that campaign promise seems grossly short-sighted in a “win the battle, lose the war” kind of way. On the bright side, that may be the last Republican presidential administration for sometime, because as the party stands today, it is in very real danger of losing the White House for decades to come.

Looking back, that election was the last chance they had, the last time the loosening grip of white Christian America was able to throw presidential politics in a meaningful way. They don’t have a good track record since (their champions were Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, to give you perspective). Most are with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and, to a lesser extent, Ben Carson this year. This cycle, make no mistake, will make them 0-3 in the last eight years.

Who could forget how success in Iowa brough us Presidents Huckabee and Santorum?

The nominee is irrelevant. They will get crushed come November. Each one of them will lose. Trump will lose worst of all. Why? Numbers, according to Balz.

“If the 2016 nominee gets no better than Romney’s 17 percent of the nonwhite vote, he or she would need 65 percent of the white vote to win, a level achieved in modern times only by Ronald Reagan in his 1984 landslide. Bush’s 2004 winning formula — 26 percent of the nonwhite vote and 58 percent of the white vote — would be a losing formula in 2016, given population changes.”

The Trump phenomenon is a fascinating rebuke of the GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Report, a study commissioned after Romney’s defeat in 2012. The 100-plus page document advised the party, among other changes, to do exactly the opposite of what Trump has done, which is alienate Hispanics and tack the party even further to the right on immigration reform.

The only person hated more by the GOP establishment than Trump is Cruz. In fact, The New York Times reported that some Republican strategists refuse to attack Trump solely because he is keeping Cruz from first place. Cruz’s strategy hinges, like Trump, on defying what the Republican Party laid out in 2013: a tacit refusal to court Hispanic or minority voters, instead focusing even more heavily on base voters like white evangelicals and hardline conservatives, essentially repeating Rove’s 2004 strategy.

The same numbers that prove the general election is beyond reach of Republicans show that, at least on a state and local level, the GOP is not only in control, they’re dominating. During the Obama administration, Democrats have lost 900+ state legislature seats, 12 governors, 69 House seats, and 13 Senate seats. That’s just an embarrassment for the party (I’ll be detailing how the Democratic Party has failed and what needs to be done to succeed in an upcoming column).  However, there are a whole host of factors affecting those numbers, not all attributable to Obama or his administration.

Theories attribute the GOP’s success here to an increase of dark money, organizations like the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), intense Republican backlash to President Obama and abject failure on the Democratic Party’s part. In no way does this invalidate the general election math and turmoil the GOP is grappling with. State and local elections are radically different beasts with more homogeneous voting populations. Still, the failure of all of those gains to achieve the kind of change the conservative/Tea Party base have long desired has driven them into Trump’s arms, so perhaps you could say their victories have backfired.

So they are clearly the healthier of the two parties yet Democrats are more likely to be optimistic about the future of America than Republicans? If the party is truly are better off yet the base remains pessimistic, does that mean nothing can possibly satiate the Tea Party beast?

As Peter Wehner, a former member of the Bush administration, wrote in an article “The GOP Is Killing Itself,” the answer seems to be nothing. The toxic rhetoric employed makes achievement impossible while at the same time dooming the party’s future.

“The message being sent to voters is this: The Republican Party is led by people who are profoundly uncomfortable with the changing (and inevitable) demographic nature of our nation. The GOP is longing to return to the past and is fearful of the future. It is a party that is characterized by resentments and grievances, by distress and dismay, by the belief that America is irredeemably corrupt and past the point of no return. “The American dream is dead,” in the emphatic words of Mr. Trump.”

That’s the truth.

The truth is that no matter how many Republicans are elected, no matter how bills or reforms are introduced and no matter if they even succeed, pass and become law, it will. Never. Be. Enough.

The problems GOP voters are worried about can’t be solved by good governance or bipartisan legislation. That’s why they’re so opposed to both. What they want is a return, to safety, to blissful ignorance from racial hatred and class inequality, to a time when the rest of the world was pulverized or rebuilding but America emerged as the only country intact. You know, the 1950s.

The GOP’s conundrum isn’t that it’s not conservative enough; it’s already plenty batshit conservative. This race-to-the-right is self-defeating because the one thing the Republicans can’t outrace is time.

It’s that simple. Times, they are a- changin’ and no amount of subliminal racial messaging (the silent majority!) will bring back the “good ole days” before our first black president, before Civil Rights, before the sexual revolution, before the rise of secularism. All the things that make the traditional GOP voter (older, whiter and conservative) awash in fear. So what do they do? They will listen to literally anyone who promises them it’s not true, even if that messenger is as vain, venomous and vile as Trump is. They will bury their heads in the sand and grow increasingly bellicose as the world changes faster than they can accept it.

Kind of like what’s happening right now.

Where does this end? Right now, it ends with the party’s preconceptions in tatters after a devastating rebuke to Trumpism in the general election. At that point, one of two things happen: a) the base is finally cowed by a staggering defeat and the establishment reasserts control, like what happened with Goldwater or b) the base becomes further inflamed by losing and a deeper, even uglier fracturing occurs, something that would have unknown consequences for America as a whole.

So please, I beg of your Republicans. Stand up to Trump. For the sake of your party, my sanity and America’s health, stop with the “anyone would better that Hillary for president” crap. That is objectively false. Party leaders need to be adults and, by saying no to Trump, say no to the ugly history of racism that is keeping the party in the past. You can’t survive in the past and the longer the party remains there, the more likely it’s going to get ugly when the base realizes time is linear and there really is no going back.

Sincerely,

Sam

 

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The Walking Dead 6.8: Start to Finish – Review

Color me underwhelmed by the mid-season finale of Season 6A (such a nerdy series of words) of The Walking Dead. It felt like the episode was meant to be 90-minutes but after the premiere and episode four were similarly supersized, AMC and/or the producers decided against it, opting to go for the cliffhanger here: Rick and his zombie gut-covered gang stuck in the middle of a horde of zombies after fatally-injured Deanna sacrifices herself, the Wolf Morgan was keeping prisoner loose and Glenn, Daryl, Abraham and Sasha still separated from the main group at Alexandria.

The fact is, the cliffhanger is not that strong to begin with. It’s not like we’re going to come back in February and deal with major consequences of an event, such as rebuilding after the horde attack. Instead, the story literally feels halved at a critical moment, guaranteeing that the opening moments of 6B will be eventful but certainly not as emotionally impactful if they hadn’t waited three fucking months to draw out the resolution. Laziness like this is sadly becoming the norm a la the recent #IsGlennAlive debacle.

I remain intrigued by Morgan, a radically different character than his comic counterpart who existed without the ninja stick and Zen “all life is precious” philosophy. He’s a wrench in the machine, much like the Wolf he’s kept locked in the basement all this time has been. Morgan manages to enlist the new doc Denise in his cause to “change” the psychopath, who remains resistant to all forms of redemption. If this villain weren’t so obviously and joyously evil, people might think Morgan has a point.

But public opinion has turned against the popular character in the blogosphere because of his pacifism.  Apparently, some viewers would prefer all their characters the same as Rick but beyond that, they dislike him because they deem him naive. Now, this wouldn’t be an issue with me – we’re all allowed opinions of course – if the show didn’t seem to be stacking the deck against him by making this nameless Wolf character so obviously irredeemable. Seriously, Morgan doesn’t have to kill him but does he have to save him?

In that sense, I feel that the show has done a poor job of illustrating the admittedly-interesting conflict that’s emerged between Morgan and Carol, the other ruthless pragmatist of the group with a worldview diametrically opposed to his. Their brawl in this episode was earned and the inner conflict between group members remains the most potent source of drama for this show, not the zombies, not the villains and certainly not the fucking kids.

Goddamnit, why do Ron and Enid exist (SIDENOTE: I know they exist to fulfill plot purposes but let me rage at the metaphorical heavens for a second). I know kids would survive the apocalypse and I know some would be shitty but that does not mean I’m going to enjoy watching them do or be either. Carl survived it and Chandler Riggs has admirably grown into the role and become a worthy ensemble member in his own right. But Enid is annoying as shit, even though Glenn is desperate to save his pregnant wife and Ron remains ready to fuck shit up at a moments notice. We get it: Enid’s a loner and Ron’s a psycho. Now can something happen already? Can the characters take action that isn’t moping or brooding? (SPOILER ALERT: At least one of those two will and it will spell a horrifying injury for another).

Speaking of spoilers, there was no sight of Daryl, Sasha and Abraham this week – last seen driving back to Alexandria after Daryl was robbed by the fleeing Dwight (Austin Amelio) and Sherry (Christine Evangelista). But that doesn’t mean we don’t know what happened to them. During a sneak “prologue” of Season 6B, a name was spoken that many comic fans have long awaited: Negan.

To be played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen, The Good Wife), Negan is the leader of the ironically-named biker gang the Saviors. The prologue, from episode 6.9 titled “No Way Out” shows Daryl, Sasha and Abraham getting stopped on the road by said Saviors, who’s chase of Dwight and Sherry the trio ran afoul in episode six. The lead biker (one of Negan’s henchman) announces that all their belongings down to the mints in the car and the porn under the seat belonged to Negan now, setting up a long building process culminating in a finale appearance.

Hopefully the infamously-unpredictable sociopath can bring the verve, energy and some fucking momentum back to a show that’s been all about delaying, delaying, delaying for too long. For more on what’s coming up on The Walking Dead Season 6 – including spoilers for what’s in store for Season 7 and 8 – check out this link.

Until February.

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Creed (2015) – Review

Creed, like its title character, is a boxer who’s focus is overwhelmingly on legacy – and rightfully so when picking up the torch of the venerable Rocky series. The film bobs and weaves, expertly hitting every emotional right hook and body jab at precisely the right moment. Watching Creed is more than the joy of seeing Sylvester Stallone’s legendary mumbler/rumbler  Rocky Balboa return to the silver screen; it is the rebirth of an entire franchise, one that lasted six (6!) films and now it’s set up for about six more. Eat your heart out, Lethal Weapon.

Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Rocky’s rival-turned-friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who was killed in the ring by Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Thus, Donnie never knew his father and when his mother died, he was seemingly destined for juvenile detention and foster care – until Apollo’s widow Marianne (Cosby Show matriarch Phylicia Rashad) finds him and takes him in.

However, an adult Donnie can’t stay out of the ring, going from his white-collar office to Tijuana on weekends to compete in underground boxing matches. After obsessively watching YouTube videos of his late father’s fights with Rocky Balboa, he quits his banking job and abruptly moves to Philadelphia to seek out the only person who he thinks could understand him. He finds Rocky lonelier than ever, still running Adrian’s Restaurant but reticent to step back into the world after losing everyone close to him. After much coaxing, Rocky agrees to be Donnie’s Mickey and the training montages begin.

When Ryan Coogler announced his followup to his critically-acclaimed indie debut Fruitvale Station (also starring Jordan) was a Rocky spinoff, myself and the Internet were baffled. Why board a sinking ship, the thinking went. But Coogler proves far smarter and savvier than any of us, wisely bringing the story back to Earth after the increasingly-cartoonish antics of the sequels (remember when Balboa singlehandedly solved the Cold War with his fists?).

Co-writing the script with his UCLA roommate Aaron Covington, the film’s biggest accomplishment is the simplicity of its story. Even if Rocky were swapped with an original character created for the film and the film not part of the series, it would still be a good film. Coogler and Covington saw the value of tapping into the commercial and historical legacy (there’s that word again) of a filmmaker/actor they grew up watching with their fathers. Circles within circles.

But the film far from a ill-advised cash-in on nostalgia or an attempt to resuscitate a dying franchise (looking at you Terminator Genisys). It asks real questions: what does legacy mean to an up-and-comer? What does it mean to the old or elderly? What’s in a name?

More than that, it treats boxing more reverently that even previous films in the series did. There is a heavy emphasis on the strategy and ferocity of boxing in this film missing from previous ones. Cinematically, Coogler compliments those threads with extreme long shots, including Donnie’s first official fight which was filmed in a single take, the camera moving fluidly inside the ring like the fighters their documenting.

The entirety of the film revolves on the fulcrum of the Rocky/Donnie relationship and it is magical. Emerging unscathed from the debacle of last summer’s atrocious Fantastic Four, Jordan gets the real star-making turn he deserves. Donnie isn’t a Rocky replica; he had it rough after his mom died, but he was later adopted by a loving stepmother and raised in wealth and grandeur, a fate many of his contemporaries only dream of. However, being surrounded by his father’s legacy only drives Donnie further to prove himself as a fighter and worthy of the Creed name. Like Rocky, Donnie is only interested in proving himself worthy – to his dead father, to Rocky and to himself.

If Sylvester Stallone isn’t at least nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, it’s a crime. Stallone has played the character for 40 years and in this film, all the little gradations and nuances explode from Stallone. It’s not a stretch to say the Rocky story is Stallone’s story. One of the most quietly understated moments of the film is when Donnie moves in with him to continue his training and sees a picture of Rocky and his son. Rocky reveals his son (last seen played by Milo Ventimiglia reconciling with him at the end of 2006’s Rocky Balboa) moved to Canada to be with his fiancee. The black-and-white picture however is of Stallone and his late son Sage, who died in 2012.

Another standout who gamely holds her own with Jordan and Stallone is female lead Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer-songwriter with progressive hearing loss that lives in Donnie’s apartment building. The two are drawn by the mutual love of self-destruction; Donnie knows all too well people get permanently injured or die in the ring and Bianca knows the more she plays her loud club shows, the sooner her hearing will be gone. The film doesn’t treat these as problems to be solved. These are in fact the things that bind Donnie and Bianca.

It’s easy to forget that, more than a boxing movie, the original Rocky was a love story. The lovable lunkhead wanted to prove himself most of all to Adrian. The film astutely avoids the “strong female character” stereotype simply by making Bianca have a life of her own. She didn’t pop into existence when Donnie showed up and she sure as hell isn’t going to wait around for him to figure his life out. The power of her will is what draws Donnie – and the audience – to this fully-realized woman.

I could write forever about this film. I could write about the story, the script, the direction, the acting, the history etc. There is so much packed into this one film, both in-universe and out, that compliment each other: the themes of legacy, fathers and sons, fighting for respect, learning to go the distance. Jordan is phenomenal; Stallone kills it. The emotion pours out of every scene. I cried more than I have at any movie since Marley & Me. Coogler wrote the film because he loved watching the older films with his father. Mr. Coogler, I’m proud to say that, sitting in the theater with my father next to me, 40 years after he had seen the first Rocky, you’ve made a classic.

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The Walking Dead 6.7: Heads Up – Review

Glenn’s alive!

Too bad the whole #IsGlennDead storyline was a gigantic bust. Let’s recap: Glenn spared the cowardly Nicholas last season after his actions get Noah (Tyler James Williams) killed and he tried to kill Glenn. Then, just as Nicholas was redeeming himself, the guy (and father) kills himself in a moment of hopelessness and seems to get Glenn killed. Heartbreaking commentary on the price of Glenn’s kindness, surviving in a cruel world etc.

Only the show didn’t do that. It purposefully created a no-win scenario wherein either a) Glenn was dead and it’s much ado about nothing or b) Glenn was alive and it’s still much ado about nothing. Nonetheless, for whatever misguided reason, Glenn’s “death” became an event. AMC even went the extra mile to remove Steven Yeun’s name from the credits for the last three episodes.

Glenn did indeed survive by hiding under the dumpster while the zombies devoured Nicholas’ body, giving him cover. It’s implied that Enid, last seen departing Alexandria in the wake of the Wolves’ attack in episode two, helped lead the zombies away from the dumpster before the two meet up. Meanwhile, back at Alexandria, it’s standard mid-season finale setup: Rick and Morgan’s ideological differences come to head, Carol discovers the Wolf he’s kept locked up and Rick trains Ron to shoot while Rosita teaches Eugene and the Alexandrians some machete skills.Off in the distance, the tower the truck hit during the Wolf attack slowly crumbles until it collapses at the end, just as Glenn signals his survival to Maggie using balloons.

For a season containing the show’s largest main cast (18!) and a plethora of redshirts who like to hang in the background, the show is more populated than ever though it does a good job servicing the ensemble with small moments for each. Father Gabriel continues to fail his way through a redemption quest, Deanna continues her plans for the future sustainability of Alexandria undeterred by her dickish son and Tara gets to give the finger to Rick, who’s acting all dickish himself throughout the episode while he struggles to accept that the Alexandrians are equals. One emerging background player, Tobin (Jason Douglas) shares a nice moment with Rick advocating such a thing.

But the whole Glenn endeavor was such a colossal blunder holds a shadow over everything else. (SPOILERS FROM THE COMICS AHEAD) Since Glenn already has such an iconic death scene queued up this season, the idea that fake-killing him for three episodes just for some extra drama instantly devalues it, even if the audience or the show isn’t aware yet. Instead of Glenn’s crushed skull as a sign of changing times, it will be seen as a grotesque signifyer that, indeed, Glenn is well and truly dead, the result of a pendulum swing that didn’t actually exist.

The goal of which was to convey the sense of uncertainty that people like Maggie was feeling, the all-to-familiar reality of being unable to communicate with a loved one trapped outside. But unlike Maggie, the audience knows Glenn is a character on a TV show. And not just a supporting character but one of the five remaining original castmembers, a sacred cow on television’s biggest series. The only uncertainty that was created was the doubt in Gimple and co. could be so stupid as to attempt this stunt.

It was a shameless gimmick. Sure, there’s superficial similarity to the other is-he-dead? story, Jon Snow’s (attempted?) murder in Game of Thrones‘ season five finale. But that was series author George R.R. Martin’s idea before anyone else’s and it most certainly will have seismic consequences for the story of that show. Whereas here, Glenn appears more or less the same, with his vaunted optimism still in place as he corals Enid back to Alexandria with him.

 

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The Night Before (2015) – Review

The Night Before hits all the right notes of a classic holiday film combined with the profane humor and bromance we’ve come to expect and love about writer/star Seth Rogen. Self-aware and mature about its immaturity, the film is comfort food of the finest order, pizza by way of Michael Symon or Anthony Bourdain. After a turbulent week or so, laughing your ass while Rogen’s character does everything but while high on a medley of drugs is just the right medicine, trust me.

Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) are the best friends of Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with a Christmas tradition stretching back to 2001 when Ethan lost his parents: going on a bar crawl while questing for the mythical Christmas party the Nutcracka Ball. However, 14 years later, Isaac is married with a baby on the way and Chris has found fame as a football star while Ethan remains in neutral and recently broken up from Diana (Lizzy Caplan). The three aging friends agree to end their tradition with a bang after Ethan steals tickets to finally get them in to the fabled rager.

While occupying a supporting role, Rogen is such a superb comic performer that he leaves Gordon-Levitt and Mackie struggling to keep up. Though that’s perhaps for the best as their capable hands anchor the film beyond Rogen’s antics. Of the two, Mackie is the weak link, with the least satisfying subplot of the group. Gordon-Levitt, the lead among the trio, handles the requisite love story with aplomb. It helps that Lizzy Caplan plays his ex to explain the lengths he goes to prove his love again.

The standouts without a doubt is Jillian Bell, hilarious and atypical as Isaac’s pregnant wife Betsy who gifts him the copious drugs that fuel his night and Michael Shannon as weed dealer Mr. Green. Shannon, known for his intense and searing performances, is the film’s pseudo-spirit guide, as if the angel from It’s A Wonderful Life found some pineapple express and decided it was a better way to change fates. This is the kind of guy who refers to his customers as his “children.” Yes, it’s as amazing as it sounds.

Rogen and Gordon-Levitt reunite with their 50/50 director Jonathan Levine for what’s pretty clearly a palate cleanser after that funny but more muted cancer dramedy (and the international incident that was The Interview). The camera flourishes and various ways Levine shows Isaac’s trip belay a steady hand that perhaps Rogen and co-writer Evan Goldberg thought was needed after making their directorial debut on 2013’s This is The End (speaking of which, a not-so-surprising cameo provides one of the biggest laughs).

Like his previous writing efforts like The Interview and Neighbors (which has a sequel in production for release next May), The Night Before combines raunchy R-rated comedy with the reality of maturing and coming to terms with age, parenthood and other midlife shit. It originates from Rogen’s ascendance under mega-producer Judd Apatow but where his mentor’s films are often treacly and long to the point of suicide-inducing, Rogen & Goldberg and their collaborators keep their films light and loose, never taking themselves too seriously.

If you can get past jokes about dick pics and cocaine nose blood, you’ll get to a story about brotherly bonds, growing up and the dangers of psychedelics, The Night Before is more-or-less what you expect where it counts and that’s ok. It’s a worthy addition to the holiday rotation.

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The Walking Dead 6.6: Always Accountable – Review

Here’s The Walking Dead‘s problem: it can’t maintain narrative momentum to save its slow, shambling undead life. It, along with shoddy character work in places, are what keep The Walking Dead from entering the upper echelon of prestige genre entertainment, something Game of Thrones did on the way to its recent Emmy win for best show.

I know how it sounds coming from a guy who, at the premiere, preemptively called the season the best yet. It’s doubly ironic because I felt the same way about Season 5 before it ended the thrilling Terminus arc after three episodes to spend time with boring Beth in a boring hospital with boring cops. Season 6 saw the zombie herd and the Wolves’ attack (also in three episodes) before hitting its wall.

The show experiments with structure and time, giving character threads in dedicated bottle episodes. This episode takes it to a whole ‘nother level, giving us copious amounts of time with Daryl and a trio of new characters who don’t even get names, who are being pursued by their former “friends.” Our window into their predicament is the same as Daryl, confused and without much context (SIDENOTE: According to the Internet, their names are Dwight, Sherry and Tina. There is a Dwight who is a member of the Saviors who plays prominently in the coming conflict between our leads and them but its unclear if this is meant to be the same Dwight, if that is his name at all. .

Their “friends” are suspiciously similar to the Saviors, the henchmen of their recently-cast leader the Big Bad Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, set to debut in the season finale). They speak about fleeing with what they “earned” from those who wanted to force them to kill. This party’s led by a guy named Wade who casually chops off the arm of lackey Cam when the idiot gets bit and then follows up with the genius line: “Walk it off.”

The Abraham/Sasha scenes at the office are such an echo of the Daryl/Carol scenes in last season’s sixth episode “Consumed” I’d call plagiarism if it wasn’t the same show. As it stands, it’s a callback but not a noticeable or needed one.

Speaking of last season, it’s uncanny how similar the structure is to Season 5; coming roaring out of the gates only to run right into a wall (made of storytelling exhaustion or budget deficits, we know not). The show’s attempts to work on said shoddy character work goes awry – the last two episodes are examples – and we the audience are left in stasis waiting for the next goalpost to hit.

Episode 7 is usually setup for the mid-season finale. In the sense that it’ll be plot relevant, it’s exciting. But when that’s the low bar that’s been set, something is very wrong with how the story is being told. Perhaps the problem is also audience and format. Binge-watchers are conditioned for instant gratification. Is it right? I don’t know, but it is the current reality storytellers face. I feel the brilliant “Here’s Not Here” (my review here) was unfairly maligned as a finger to the audience after the previous week left fan favorite Glenn’s seemingly dead beneath a horde of zombies.

It’s probably a narrative necessity to deal with the shallow Alexandrian residents reacting to the Wolves’ attack and to give a showcase episode to Norman Reedus and Michael Cudlitz, two of the most capable members of the ensemble. But nobody said that it had to reek of filler.

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The Walking Dead 6.5: Now – Review

As inevitably happens on The Walking Dead, the action happens in fits and bursts. And when they end, its with the jolt of a slammed brake pedal. Just like Season 5A, the first three episodes are action-packed before descending into lackluster soap opera and melodrama in the next five. The fourth episode acts as a bottle; last week’s Morgan-centric outing mirrored last season’s Beth-centric. “Now” focuses on Alexandria in the aftermath of the Wolves attack and amid the incoming herd.

The episode continues the Scott Gimple era of focusing on only a few characters each week which is equal parts pragmatic and frustrating. The primary players this week are Rick, Maggie, Aaron, Jessie, Deanna, Spencer with support from Carl, Ron Sam and a bunch of Alexandrian redshirts. Michonne and Morgan pop up for cameos while the adventures of Daryl, Sasha and Abraham outside the walls are left for next episode.

Rick reaches the gates of Alexandria just ahead of the herd drawn by the horn from the Wolves’ truck (SIDENOTE: How the hell did Rick escape the surrounded RV? The magic of a deleted scene? Writer apathy?) and the town is surrounded. It’s at this point I realized this whole season has taken place in one day, which we the audience have experienced over five weeks now. While the Alexandrians experienced the Wolves attack mere hours previous, it feels like a new day for us. That is the danger of Gimple’s style of compressed storytelling.

Maggie teams up with the guilty Aaron to find Glenn but frustratingly, like Daryl’s random side-trip in Episode 3, is rendered meaningless. It’s literally a go-here-then-go-back narrative and by episode’s end the status quo remains relatively unchanged, give-or-take a pregnancy, keeping everyone in stasis while the story waits to once again kick into high gear come finale time.

And really, that encapsulates the problem here. The Walking Dead, as its designed with its half-season, eight-episode story bursts, is really meant to be binged. Case in point, the #IsGlennAlive debacle. Stringing the audience along when all the episodes are there is one thing but when the inevitability of Glenn’s survival is so high, it saps the current drama of stakes. Maybe this is a Millennial entitlement concern born of a Netflix era but the shamelessness of this Is-Glenn-Dead story is blatant.

There’s a lot of speechifying this episode from Rick, Jessie, Aaron Spencer. Aaron feels the need to publicly confess his guilt over accidentally leading the Wolves to their door and Spencer continues to win points and lose them in equal measure with the audience, as if the writers’ themselves can’t decide over who the hell this guy is. Rick and Jessie meanwhile both bring their oratory powers together via mouth fusion (a.k.a a “kiss”). Can you believe Lori died over three years ago? Andrew Lincoln is a patient leading man.

Tovah Feldshuh’s Deanna is vast improvement over her male comic counterpart Douglas and I hope she avoids his fate (which, narratively, would fall at the end of this half-season). Developing these (doomed) characters is almost a necessary evil in the survivalist horror genre The Walking Dead occupies – executing it well is nigh-impossible, but as the cast grows and changes it gets harder to invest in these moments unless the character clicks. As the show does the enviably task of rebuilding its roster of zombie bait, its a constant challenge to, you know, make this stuff interesting.

 

 

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Spectre (2015) – Review

Spectre, the 24th film featuring British superspy James Bond and the fourth featuring Daniel Craig in the role, is about as close to a greatest hits album as a film can get. However, also like greatest hits albums, it’s repetitive, insubstantial and masturbatory. Instead of celebrating or playing with the classic Bond tropes introduced in director Sam Mendes’ previous, superior Bond film Skyfall, Spectre stumbles over them, clumsily stitching together the loose plot threads of Craig’s previous three films to make a haphazard narrative and emotionally-inconsistent character arcs.

The thinly-sketched plot is in place mostly to get Bond from one set piece to the next. Case in point, a posthumous video message from the deceased previous M (Judi Dench) inexplicably sends Bond on an unauthorized assassination mission in Mexico City on Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead).

When he is suspended by the current M (Ralph Fiennes), Bond goes rogue with the help of Ms. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) to follow another chance lead to Rome where he infiltrates the nefarious meeting of a criminal organization called Spectre, led by a mysterious man from Bond’s past (Christoph Waltz). From there, he jumps from the Austria Alps to the Moroccan desert and back to London fighting Spectre’s agents (like former wrestler David Bautista) with the help of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) while M grapples with Max Denbigh  a.k.a. “C” (Andrew Scott), a British bureaucrat looking to shutdown the MI6 and the 00 spy program.

The pre-credits sequence in Mexico is without a doubt the highlight of the film, especially a single unbroken shot following Bond weaving through the crowds and into a hotel. The title sequence is equally as Freudian as Skyfall‘s, albeit instead of blood and death themes, there’s tentacle porn and octopi galore. “Writing’s on the Wall,” the Sam Smith theme is melancholic, like Adele’s Oscar-winning song but without the catchiness. It grows upon repeated listens but still pales in comparison with the best Bond songs.

The film, reportedly one of if not the most expensive film every made at $300 million, follows the billion-dollar success of Skyfall. While producers pulled out all the stops to reassemble the team including director Mendes and screenwriter John Logan, it’s clear they buckled under the pressure. Sadly, because of the Sony hack in November 2014, we are privy to the script issues that persisted up until shooting began last December. There was hope they’d been fixed prior to production but alas, there they are on screen.

The biggest loser  is Waltz as lead villain Franz Oberhauser who (SPOILERS) it should surprise no one is also known as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond’s classic archnemesis. But the reveal is handled as badly as you’d hoped it wouldn’t. Did no one learn from the Benedict Cumberbatch/Khan debacle from 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness? The lesson is only reinforced here: reintroducing classic villains as a “surprise” is a non-starter in the Internet Age. Don’t do it.

As Ebert said, films are only as good as their villains and Bond films doubly so. Because their plots invariably revolve around Bond dismantling their evil schemes, the threat has to be real and credible. Minimally, their plans should make sense. As if bungling the Blofeld reveal wasn’t enough, screenwriters Logan, Bond veterans Robert Wade and Neal Purvis and newbie Jez Butterworth (FURTHER SPOILERS) added a backstory that Bond was adopted by Oberhauser’s father after his parents’ deaths, making James and Franz foster brothers. Fine, evil counterparts, foils, and all that, but the film leaps over logic’s edge by making the character’s motivation for killing his father, founding the global terrorist group Spectre and tormenting Bond over the years . . . jealousy over his dad liking James more as kids. *Wet Fart*.

Craig has nestled into the role and this time around takes the opportunity to inject more humor into his more stoic portrayal of libidinous spy. Lea Seydoux is a highly capable Bond girl despite the script letting her character down in places. Mendes wisely makes use of his superb MI6 supporting cast put in place by his previous film but their subplot is not particularly interesting. The film features the return of the reboot series’ only recurring villain, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) who after appearing in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, sat out Skyfall. However, his return is little more than a cameo to add continuity to the film. Most disappointingly, Monica Bellucci, at 51 the oldest Bond girl in the series, is utterly wasted in what’s essentially an extended cameo.

Craig’s four Bond films have a rhythm to them. Really, they’re two reboots, one which stripped away the Bond tropes (Casino Royale) and another which added them (Skyfall). Each followed by contested sequels with script issues concerning evil organizations (Quantum in Quantum of Solace and the titular Spectre here). In this film, Quantum is retconned as being a subdivision of Spectre all along and even Silva, Javier Bardem’s villain from the relatively standalone Skyfall is revealed to have worked for them. But the film egregiously never elaborates on these connections, other than to say they exist. It is its greatest failing.

A film that ultimately bit off more than it could chew, the result is a jumbled mishmash of classic Bond tropes and Daniel Craig era action. As an expensive spy thriller, it’s a fun time at the movies and ultimately entertaining. For Bond aficionados and those who were impressed by the prestige of Skyfall will be disappointed by this follow-up. Despite brouhaha over comments Craig made that he was done with the role on the recent press tour, the film promises James Bond will return and you can be sure Craig will return for a fifth and (probably) final turn as the quintessential British spy, if for no other reason than he is contractually obligated. Nonetheless, Spectre acts as a kind of summation of Craig’s tenure in the role, wrapping up plot threads and setting the series up yet again for a return to “classic Bond.”

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The Walking Dead 6.4: Here’s Not Here – Review

The importance of Morgan Jones, played with wonderful range by veteran British actor Lennie James, to The Walking Dead is belied his limited screentime; he only appeared in five episodes prior to becoming a series regular this season and two of those appearances were post-credit cameos.

The enjoyment of Morgan’s character is clear (haha, puns) on writer/showrunner Scott M. Gimple’s part and is the core of what “Here’s Not Here” is, a love-it-or-hate-it 90-minute indie zombie movie (especially in the wake of last week’s controversial episode) explaining Morgan’s transformation from insane killing machine to pacifist Zen warrior. I fell firmly on the love-it side of the equation. I’m a longtime fan of James as  an actor and seeing the opportunity for him to become a more integral part of the show’s mythology is rewarding, as is the brilliant performance by character actor John Carroll Lynch as Morgan’s mentor.

Gimple penned this episode’s predecessor, Season 3’s classic “Clear,” which explained how Morgan’s son Duane’s death by the zombified wife he was unable to put down drove him insane. The next time we saw him, he was on the railroad tracks to Terminus, subsequently following the Hunters’ tree markings to Father Gabriel’s church where he found Abraham’s map, leading him to Rick and Alexandria.

“Here’s Not Here” acts as a sequel of sorts to “Clear,” filling in the gap between that episode and Morgan’s cameo in Season 5’s premiere “No Sanctuary.” It begins where we left off: with Morgan ranting and raving in his booby-trapped Georgian hometown. In his late night delirium, he knocks over his lantern, burning down his house and setting the crazed “clearer” on the road (this effectively feels like an excuse not to re-create the sets from Season 3).

He builds a makeshift camp surrounded with sharpened pikes, burning all walkers he encounters and killing anyone he encounters, including a father-and-son duo he stabs and strangles, respectively. It isn’t until he comes across a beautiful clearing that he discovers a cabin, complete with solar power, a garden and a goat. Here lies Lynch’s Eastman, a forensic psychiatrist conveniently suited to forcefully rehabilitate Morgan with a healthy diet of goat cheese, The Art of Peace, and the Japanese martial art Aikido.

There was a lot of fan backlash to Morgan’s philosophy-in-action during episode two “JSS” wherein he spared several of the barbaric Wolves who had attacked Alexandria and slaughtered many of its residents (Rick would end up killing them but not until they’d disabled the RV in last week’s episode). This episode’s two-person story recalls Cormac McCarthy’s play “The Sunset Limited,” which also tells the story of two men, one white, one black and their struggle to convince each other of meaning (or lack thereof) to life.

Over the course of Morgan’s captivity, he repeatedly asks Eastman to kill him and tries to kill him multiple timesyet he never responds violently, except to defend himself. “All life is precious,” indeed. Slowly but surely, Morgan comes around, learning his jail cell is actually unlocked, defending Tabitha from walkers and learning Aikido from Eastman, the art of redirection with a strict creed of no-killing.

Eventually, Eastman relates his story: he’d interviewed 825 men and women who’d committed horrific crimes but only encountered one truly evil person: Creighton Dallas Wilton, a charming psychopath who’s act only Eastman saw through. Upon denying him parole, he escaped prison exclusively to murder Eastman’s entire family, after which he turned himself in. The origin of Morgan’s jail cell? It was built with the intention of kidnapping Wilton and starving him to death. Did he do it, Morgan asked? “All life is precious,” a glassy-eyed Eastman repeates.

Lynch is phenomenal, given the heavy-lifting of conversing with the largely silent-and-sulky Morgan. Of course, this is a flashback and Eastman ain’t around in Alexandria. Inevitably, Eastman is bit by the zombie of the son that Morgan strangled weeks prior. Morgan, overcome with guilt, regresses, fights Eastman and flees into the woods. But when he comes upon a couple, he refrains from killing them. As Eastman would say, progress.

Eastman, who buries every single walker he puts down (in direct contrast to Morgan’s previous pyres), reveals a grave for Wilton. He had followed through, capturing him and starving him to death in the cell. But it gave him no peace, he told Morgan. Only accepting the no-killing rule brought him peace. He encourages to Morgan to give up living alone and find people again, “the only thing that’s worth a damn.”

The “now/then” flashback is framed by Morgan telling the Wolf he captured two weeks ago his story. Morgan, it seems, wants to do for the Wolf what Eastman did for him. But like Eastman, Morgan may be staring a truly evil person in the eye, as the Wolf says while Morgan’s code prevents him from killing, his tells him to murder him and every single man, woman and child in Alexandria. He also reveals he has a zombie bite, dooming him to death regardless. Morgan leaves him tied up in a room but diverges from Eastman and locks the door.

This subplot recalls previous “peaceful black man” archetype Tyreese and Martin, the chatty Termite who grilled him for his empathetic actions. I hope Morgan isn’t simply another bowling pin of morality set up to be knocked down by the show – especially in the wake of last week’s maybe-maybe-not death of Glenn – as if reiterating the same thing would be substantive storytelling. But as it stands now, “Here’s Not Here” was great, a zombie mini-movie that presented us with a pleasant alternative to survival than Rick’s patented no compromises, kill-or-be-killed style.

 

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