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Destroying Star Wars: “The Last Jedi”

shifting Rey and Kylo

Whether or not the Galaxy no longer needs the Jedi, it certainly doesn’t need any more Star Wars reviews. Why write another? Because I am tired of having this conversation with myself in the shower. The characters and conflicts Rian Johnson depicted in The Last Jedi touched me deeply. I decided to ask myself “Why?” With the Blu-Ray, I can examine my thoughts.

“Destruction” and “Belonging” seem to swirl round the heart of this film. Who and what still belongs, and is relevant, in the Star Wars universe? And what is best left sliced apart by Laura Dern with purple hair in heels?

Rian Johnson’s film creates new space for new characters to live and breathe within the narrow, pigeon-holes called characters in earlier films. The characters, and film itself, rebels against the lofty “archetypes” and “legends” Lucas and Campbell assigned to them in the 70s, and remakes a legend for our times.

The Last Jedi felt like a smack in the face and punch in the gut because it was meant to. Johnson dove into the “sacred” space of Star Wars. And somewhere, between a fold in Jabba’s back fat and a CGI Gungan, he came up with what still matters in Star Wars. Just as Yoda destroys the ancient Jedi temple without hesitation, Johnson blows apart the myth of the mythos of Star Wars. And, though we realize that Rey has made off with the “Sacred Jedi Texts,” the Star War’s fan is left holding Joseph Campbell’s ponderous Hero with a Thousand Faces. Read it have you? A page-turner it is not. Already know we that which we need. Hmmmm!?

The most important piece Johnson salvages from the junk heap that is the checkered history of Star Wars is its humanity. The sometimes disgusting and confusing tangle of real human emotion, exorcised from the Prequels, return. The excitement, adventure, and humor The Force Awakens gave us back have returned, minus the 40-something nostalgia wallow. And, in true Star Wars tradition, offers an awesome and glorious vision of space and The Galaxy on the red and visceral edge of visual effects and cinematography that pushes itself from backdrop to integral story-telling tool.

Within the first moments of the film, we learn everything we need to know about it. Cocky, fly-boy Poe Dameron approaches The First Order’s lead ship with “an urgent communique for General Hux from General Leia.” When Poe’s “tooling” has bought the time his mission required to evacuate the Resistance from the planet below, he signs off with a “your momma” joke directed at Hux.

Aside from the character-appropriate, Star Wars humor, I found myself thinking of Hux’s mother. Hux obviously had one. We know he isn’t a clone. And suddenly all of his Uriah Heep misery and resentment makes Hux human. In a Galaxy where your lineage means everything, somewhere, Hux has a mom.

In the bombing sequence that follows, we also learn that the film is an action film with clear human consequences. In the death of the bomber pilot Paige, we see the human cost of Poe’s rashness. He earned that slap in the face from Princess Leia. Even rebellions have rules. “Into the garbage shoot, fly-boy!”

But where Johnson’s vision truly sharpens, lies in the relationships between Rey, Luke, and Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. We begin where we left off, with Rey earnestly holding out Vader’s old light saber to Luke on the lonely island that houses the first Jedi temple. I had a brief flash in the theater: “He should to toss it.” Single best choice in the entire film: an honest moment that set us up for what to expect from both the character of Luke and the film’s treatment its venerated idols and icons.

We know Mark Hamill disagreed with Johnson’s choices for Luke. So, let’s think about what we know about Luke Skywalker. While his Uncle is purchasing the droid that will lead to the destruction of the Death Star, what is Luke doing? Say it. “But I wanted to go into Toshi Station and pick up some power converters!” In the next scene he’s playing with his model space ships and complaining to droids. Luke is a good person, with good impulses. From what we see, he was raised with care by his salt of the earth aunt and uncle. But his mind is always elsewhere, chasing distant dreams, searching for excitement, a place to belong set apart. He cannot see what is in front of his face. Luke craves excitement and fame. And he will whine and pitch a fit when he doesn’t get his way.

Yoda liberally beats Luke for this. When Luke executes his plan to free Han Solo from Jabba’s palace, Han describes Luke as having “delusions of grandeur.” So what do you really believe would become of such a man when he fails? What happens when the man who single-handedly * destroyed the Death Star, trained with both Obi-wan and Yoda, brought about the end of The Empire, and redeemed his father Vader? The last Jedi? What happens when that guy fails? When Luke Skywalker finds the weakness, the Vader, the humanity inside himself, reflected in his nephew Ben. He lashes out with his light saber, just as in Yoda’s cave. Luke is left utterly broken. Just as Obi-wan failed Vader, Luke fails Leia and Han by chasing their son to the Dark Side. How does a legend, how does Luke Skywalker deal with that level of failure?

Johnson’s choice to leave Luke a bitter, broken, self-pitying and self-loathing man hiding away from the Galaxy in Ireland seems true to the character we have known. So when a young girl from “nowhere,” turns up with his father’s old light saber, in desperate need of a surrogate father, a sense of belonging and care, of a teacher; he pushes her away. Straight into the arms of Ben Solo.

And while both Luke and Rey were from nowhere, let’s call him Ben Solo, is definitely from somewhere and is someone. He is a Skywalker. That passionate family that drove the plot of a 40 year old franchise. They slice each other’s limbs off. They live on the planets where they were engulfed in flames and had their limbs sliced off. They commit vague acts of incest. They are hard-headed, petulant, and powerful. In short, they are a dynasty as mighty as the Olympian Gods. And in Luke’s own words, they have the flaw of those who would be gods, hubris, and they suffer their fate. Pity and Fear.

Which leads us to Ben Solo. While he sees Vader as a man to emulate, his character surpasses Vader as a villain in complexity and relevance. He is a man to be both pitied and feared, in the ancient Greek sense. As a boy, he has a barely there Dad, and a working Mom who pushes him off on his famous Uncle, who feels threatened by the boy. As a young man, he seeks escape and belonging with a manipulative leader. He becomes a patricide, and what we all too clearly recognize as a rampage killer, a Columbine kid. That is who he is. A shattered monster. But he is still a Princeling with pedigree. And, unlike Vader, he is young, vulnerable, and handsome. The perfect “fixer- upper boyfriend” for a lost, confused, lonely, and rejected young woman, searching for someone to show her where she belongs in the world. Which is exactly what Rey is.

Ben Solo uses the language of an abuser with Rey. He tells her what she fears most, that she is utterly alone, a nobody. That her parents where nobodies, junkies, buried in forgotten graves in the sands of nowhere. He tells her that she is nothing, except to him. Except with him. In a world where lineage and status count for everything, to be with him is to matter. #MeToo Rey.

And this is the true essence of Johnson’s modernization of Star Wars expressed through the failure of Luke that Yoda refers to. His failure of Rey. But, like Luke’s insistence that “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” Like the burning of the ancient tree of the first Jedi temple, and Ben’s desire to “kill the past.” Rian Johnson manages to save Star Wars by destroying it.

Earlier in the film, Luke snidely demands of Rey if he should walk out and face down the entire First Order with a “laser sword.” And yet, that is what he does. As Leia and the remaining rebels hole up inside the rusted remnants of an old rebel base, Luke performs his most heroic act in any of the films, he offers himself as a sacrifice so that his friends may escape and live on, and only then finds the Hero he needed to be.**

And, as we watch knowing that Carrie Fisher has herself become one with the Force, the burden of STAR WARS falls away forever. Rian Johnson’s great achievement in creating The Last Jedi was, yes, kill the past. Lords and Princesses are replaced by nobodies from nowhere. Clones are replaced by Finn and Hux’s Mom. Storybook romance is replaced by the complexities of the neglect, dependency, abuse, and just the usual messy humanity that Disney films in particular have glamorized for too long. Both the heroic and the evil, the Light and the Dark, are left in the hands of the uncertain young characters who will determine the future of the Galaxy. And I like that.

*Unapologetic pun

**Like the old King Beowulf, Campbell fiends. πŸ˜‰

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I Wanna Call Saul

better-call-saul-key-art-560

but I just ran outta nickels

I’m falling for Better Call SaulΒ (AMC, Mon. 10/9 c). Which is weird because my hopes were not high for the show regardless of the opportunity to see Bob Odenkirk reprise his role as Walter (I am the danger!) White’s “criminal” attorney. But Black & White Cinnabon flash-presents aside, this show grabs me in its own right.

We follow, Jimmy McGill, Β petty con-man cum attorney-at-law struggle, suffer his way towards his destiny to transform into Saul Goodman. Which is kinda fun. Because the show is an old tragedy weΒ alreadyΒ know the end to. Apparently, seeing the process unfold is glorious. Because I adore it.

Odenkirk, Jimmy, endears himself. His sad, kicked puppy-dog look, his terrible shoes, his hair that’s clearly transitioning from once being “really cool”. This guy is a nice guy. But he sucks at straight life. He’s a con-man with a gift for gab. He’s desperately losing his battle with encountering his destiny.

He has three angels of his nature. Firstly there is Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Don’t groan! She’s awesome! She’s the anti-Skyler White! I love this chick. Kim strives honestly to move up in the law. But she can’t help but occasionally hooking up with Jimmy to con a mark out of $50 shots of tequila. Really, those two are great. Super chemistry. I don’t want to die when I see her on-screen like her counterpart on Breaking Bad.

Oppositely we get back our favorite dead-mackerel eyed tough guy, Mike Arhmentrout (Johnathan Banks). Dude, Mike is an older, tougher, more beat-up Humphrey Bogart. He’s a retired Philly cop taking work as muscle to support his widowed daughter-in-law and his grand-daughter. In his spare time, Mike maintains an on-going “misunderstanding” with a Mexican drug-cartel.

Then finally, there’s Chuck. Chuck the older brother, senior partner in a big law-firm, has some One Percent allergy to electro-magnetism. Chuck exists to remind Jimmy of what a screw-up he used to be, and may still be. Chuck is what Jimmy will never be: a “respected man”. He’s utterly resistant to Jimmy’s charms.

But I am not! Watching Jimmy McGill is like if, without knowing it, you were staggering your way towards becoming Luke Skywalker. That’s how it feels. Uplifting! I mean, we all are stuttering, stammering fools, but here’s one fool who has the gift we lack. He speaks! It’s his super-power. And his destiny. (Just a Jimmy B.S. sample: a lie involving a client, and videos, and sitting in pies.)

Jimmy isn’t a mad-scientist psychopath like Walter White. He’s just a guy in bad suit, with a degree and a gift for gab. That’s really all he’s got. I want to believe that this schlub who keeps an apartment/office in the back-room of an Asian nail salon can unfurl like the glorious peacock we all know as Saul Goodman. He also doesn’t kill anybody. So, yeah, he’s just relatable.

Anyhow, I watch this show through the Amazon Prime Season Pass where you buy a season, get it the next day, then you have it forever. I usually only do that for The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad before. But I know the first season is on Netflix now. I suggest giving it a shot. Because wouldn’t it be nice if we all had a destiny?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Star Wars: The Force Awakens: a Personal Review (No Spoilers)

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Yes!

Somewhere, deep down in a locked and staunchly protected room in my heart, lay my sincerest hopes for how Star Wars: The Force Awakens would make me feel. I grew up on the original films. In many ways they substituted for religion in my household. My Dad and older brother showed me the first two (on Betamax). My sister and I were old enough to go to the theater for Jedi, and we spent many childhood hours playing Luke and Leia with our white lab Obi-wan in the yard.

I never got into the “expanded universe.” In film school I learned about Joseph Campbell, lending the old films of my youth new credibility and significance. But by the time the prequels came out, I was watching Fellini and Bergman and The Sopranos. And The Lord of the Rings outshone the dottering old empire.

That’s not to say I didn’t still love Star Wars. Far from it. I bought all of the successively worse “Special Editions”. And I still watched the original trilogy whenever it was on TV. And, like all fans, I quote the films regularly.

My reinvestment in Star Wars really began with the cathartic Red Letter Media reviews of the prequels. And, soon after, the news of Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilms was announced.

As a grown-up, managing expectations became a priority in all areas of my life. I certainly loved JJ Abrams. I devoured every episode of Lost. His second Star Trek was disappointing. But, given my knowledge of Lost and his 2009 Trek, he felt right at the helm of the new generation of Star Wars.

Yet, still, beneath my growing anticipation for the new film, I buried my secret hope for it. I didn’t much care about an expanded universe, or what new Star Warsy things I’d learn. I just wanted to feel that joy. I wanted to know if it were possible. I wanted to feel like a kid again.

Secretly, I pinned Fox Mulder’s poster up in my heart: “I want to believe.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens delivered and more. It was better than I allowed for even in my most hidden hopes. And laughing and crying and cheering with that audience was the best I’ve felt in a long time. I feel connected to my fellow human beings in a ring of pure, undiluted bliss.

I’m not going to nit-pick the plot. Everything I wanted, and needed, was there: the wonderful characters, the banter, the thrills, the family drama and friendships, the Force…but most importantly…the fun.

Isn’t that why we all loved Star Wars to begin with? It’s not because they’re the best films ever made, or the greatest works of art, or the deepest explorations of the human heart and psyche. Star Wars began as George Lucas’ homage to the serials and movies that made up his childhood. His creations made up my childhood. Star Wars is about wonder, the wonder of seeing the world as a child. Star Wars isn’t about reserved, measured grown-up sensibilities. Star Wars is for children of all ages.

So I have to thank Disney, Abrams, the cast, Kasdan, the gaffer, the caterers, the sanitation troopers (hey Finn!)…you all gave me a gift that was better than this weary soul had allowed itself to hope for. I feel just like a kid again. I can’t wait to see it a bazillion times…and buy the toys!

And, without reservation, it is my pure pleasure to wish:

May the Force be with you…always

I know you were watching too Dad. πŸ™‚


Boldly Going: Civilization Beyond Earth

I can totally do that, Dave.

I can totally do that, Dave.

I sometimes wonder whether I study history to become a better strategy game player or play strategy games to better understand human history. (The life lessons I draw from both are another post.) But certainly one often feeds into the other, no more so than with the Sid Meier’s Civilization series. As my Steam page reminds me, I have invested 1,350 hours of the past two years of my life in Civ V alone. Β And I haven’t even played the scenarios. At any rate, lover that I am of building roads with my legions as Augustus Caesar, finding that Gandhi has declared war on me, building the Parthenon, developing great works of art and literature, and spending face time with Alexander or Elizabeth I, you may well understand my initial discomfort with the concept of Beyond Earth. Moreover, as my idea of the future is Star Trek, I was disappointed with the idea of going to space just to fight humans again. Β I was rather looking forward to going toe to toe with Space Rome. But when I finally realized that this Β truly Β is a game of exploration and new possibilities, I was hooked. (Although I am holding out for that Space Rome mod.)

After rather arbitrarily choosing one of the unfamiliar new Civs in the game and my various attributes, I made epic landfall on my new planetary home, which satisfied as much as one might expect. Then after blindly stumbling through some Virtues (Social Policies), engaging (unsuccessfully) in war against the native alien life-forms, choking some units in miasma, and getting tangled in the new Tech Web, I finally got it.

I saw my human neighbors slowly morph into cybernetically enhanced Borg-like creatures, genetically altered alien-huggers, or Β more perfect humans as they aligned with the three Affinities the game offers: Supremacy, Harmony, and Purity. My units, cities and landscapes morphed with my Civ to more closely reflect the Virtues and Affinities with which I had aligned. And all the while the music varied from pulsing, space-trance, to Star Wars Imperial themed WAR DECLARED! and Dagobah mystical, to epic TNG opening credits glory. Β I found myself as immersed in this future as I had ever felt in any of Β my alternate pasts on Earth. I also eventually killed some aliens and cleared that miasma.

That said, most of the mechanics of the game will be familiar to previous Civ players. The main difficulty I still encounter is in the new Tech Web. Unlike the Tech Tree, the player doesn’t need to research every tech to advance. However, the benefits of researching “Bionics” or “Alien Ecology” are not as self-evident as researching “Iron Working” or “Steam Power”. Also, there simply is something less fulfilling in spending 20 turns building Β a Wonder called “Prometheus” than say “The Taj Mahal”. The quotes that accompany achievements do seem both well-thought-out and humorous, while Β giving insight into the back-story and evolving culture of the vision of the future this game proposes. But, alas, gone are Mark Twain, Shakespeare, et al to guide us on our road to victory. Β The trade-off is launching various benefit conferring satellites in the “Orbital Layer”, which is possibly possibly possibly worth it. The “Planet Carver” sure is as vicious and awesome a weapon as it sounds.

As to Victories, Domination is still an option because, well, it’s fun for we unenlightened who are not really beyond Earth (yet). Alternately, one could return to Earth to bring colonists to your newly terraformed world, go back and annihilate/assimilate their inferior buttockses, or become one with the consciousness of the new planet. However, my personal favorite is Contact. As the name suggests, this is based on the Carl Sagan novel and involves establishing communication with the planet’s former intelligent inhabitants. Double plus points for the Sagan reference. However, the game necessarily becomes vicious by the end, and you may find yourself compelled to wipe out other Civs or conduct covert ops to undermine them, all while putting up some major defense as everyone inches closer to victory conditions.

This is by no means the end of my journey with this game. Two play throughs is nothing for a Sid Meier’s game, especially one so immersive, hypnotic, exotic and exciting. There are new challenges to meet and face, transformations to take place, mysteries to unravel, and no doubt a ton of DLC that will make this version seem like watching the theatrical release of LOTR after you’ve watched the Extended Edition. And, yeah, what Ned Stark said. And if this one is anything like the last, I plan to spend a good deal of it “Beyond Earth”.


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