“STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI” (2017) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI” (2017) Review

Following the success of the Disney Studios’ first hit STAR WARS film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”, I had assumed that producer-director J.J. Abrams would helm the next chapter in the franchise’s Sequel Trilogy. I was eventually surprised to learn that Lucasfilm president, Kathleen Kennedy, hired writer-director Rian Johnson to both write and direct “EPISODE VIII”

My positive reaction to the news about Johnson being hired by Lucasfilm originated with my reaction to his 2012 film, “LOOPER”. I found Johnson’s 2012 film to be original, ambiguous and well written, if not perfect. I had hoped Johnson would create a better STAR WARS film than J.J. Abrams, who was the creator behind the 2015 movie. Then the movie hit the theaters in December 2017 and I was relieved by the high level acclaim it had received from the critics.

Titled “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI”, this 2017 movie picked up immediately after the last scene of the previous Sequel film. Well . . . almost. Actually, “THE LAST JEDI” about an hour before “THE FORCE AWAKENS” ended, or around the same time. The movie opened with the Resistance forces abandoning their base on D’Qar during an attack by the First Order. Resistance pilot Poe Dameron disobeyed General Leia Organa’s order to retreat and led a costly counterattack that destroyed a First Order dreadnought, but following the Resistance’s escape into hyperspace, the First Order managed to track them using a code and continue its attacks. Leia demoted Poe for disobeying her order and leading many of their pilots to their deaths. Following another attack by the First Order, Leia is seriously injured, leaving the Resistance leadership in the hands of her second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Holdo. Meanwhile, Rey, Chewbacca and R2-D2’s arrived at Ahch-To. Rey tried to recruit Jedi Master Luke Skywalker to help his sister Leia and the Resistance. But Luke; disillusioned over his failure to successfully mentor his nephew, Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren; refused to leave Ahch-To. He also refused to train Rey in the ways of the Force. Initially.

Following the opening battle between the Resistance and the First Order, former stormtrooper Finn recovered from the wound he had suffered in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. He discovered that Rey was missing and that the fleeing Resistance was being tracked by the Force Order. Fearful that Rey might return and find herself in a tenuous situation, Finn decided to leave and track her down. Only he was stopped by a maintenance worker named Rose Tico. Grieving over her sister, who had been one of the bomber pilots killed in the opening, Rose believed that Finn was defecting. Once she realized otherwise; she, Finn and Poe devised a secret mission to find a code breaker to disable the First Order’s tracking device. Not long after Rey began her training under Luke, she discovers that she has a Force bond with her enemy, Kylo Ren. And without bothering to tell Luke, Rey and Ren begin communicating with each other.

I have to be brutally honest. I did not like “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. Not really. I thought the 2015 movie suffered from too many plot holes and felt like a remake of the 1977 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Being a fan of Rian Johnson’s 2012 movie, “LOOPER”, I had high expectations for “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI”. I hoped that the film would improve J.J. Abrams’ work on the previous film. Fortunately, I found a good deal to admire about the film.

One of the aspects of “THE LAST JEDI” that I truly admired was its visual style. I had nothing against the 2015 movie’s visual style. But if I must be honest, “THE LAST JEDI” took it to another level. Steve Yedlin’s photography struck me as sharp and colorful in scenes that featured the movie’s opening battle; and the duel inside the throne room, aboard Snoke’s starship the Supremacy. Yedlin’s photography assumed a rich and sleek style in the Cantonica sequence that featured the Canto Bight casino and the escaped animals chase scenes, as shown below:

 

However, Yedlin’s photography would have been something of a waste, if it were not for Rick Heinrichs’ production designs and the Art Direction team led by Kevin Jenkins. This was especially the case in Snoke’s blood red throne room aboard the Supremacy, Luke Skywalker’s habitat on Ahch-To and . . . of course, the Canto Bight Casino. What can I say? I really enjoyed the visual aspects of that scene. Between the photography, the visual design and the whole elegant, yet corrupt atmosphere of the scene; I have not been this impressed by a visual setting in a “STAR WARS” scene since the Outlander Club sequence in 2002’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES”.

If I must be honest, I never really had a problem with the acting in “THE FORCE AWAKENS’. Nor did I have a problem with the performances in “THE LAST JEDI”. In fact, I would go as far to say that the performances of three cast members actually improved. One of them was veteran actress, Carrie Fisher. As many know, Fisher passed away during the last week of December 2016. I must admit that I was not that impressed by her portrayal of the aging Leia Organa Solo in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. In “THE LAST JEDI”, she managed to regain a good of her sharp and natural style, despite being missing from the film’s middle acts. Another improvement came from Domhnall Gleeson’s portrayal of General Armitage Hux, a high-ranking commander of the First Order. Personally, I found his performance in “THE LAST JEDI” rather strident. A bit of that stridency managed to manifest in the film’s first twenty minutes; but otherwise, Gleeson’s performance struck me as good deal more subtle. I thought Gleeson did a first-rate job in conveying Hux’s negative realization that an overemotional man child had become his new leader. Daisy Ridley’s portrayal of the former scavenger/potential Jedi Rey struck me as an improvement over her performance in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. Her performance struck me as a lot less labored and more subtle – especially in her scenes with Mark Hamill. However, I still believe that her best performance, so far, was the 2017 Agatha Christie movie, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”.

However, those performances from other returning cast members were just as first-rate as they were in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. Oscar Isaac finally received more scenes to strut his stuff as energetic Resistance X-wing pilot and squadron commander, Poe Dameron. Granted, there were moments when he came off as a bit too energetic. Otherwise, I had no problems with his acting. I can also say the same about Adam Driver’s portrayal of the villainous Force user, Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo. I have a confession to make. I do not like the Kylo Ren character. But I do believe that Driver provided some excellent acting in this film and did his very best in injecting as much ambiguity as director Rian Johnson would allow. I had feared that when given full reign, Andy Serkis’ voice performance as Supreme Leader Snoke, would go over-the-top. Well, in the Snoke’s throne room scene, it nearly did. But in the end, Serkis eventually kept his performance under control and gave a very sinister performance. Lupita Nyong’o returned to provide the voice of Maz Kanata, the former pilot and smuggler who owned a tavern on Takadona. Her role in “THE LAST JEDI” was brief, the actress provided one of my favorite moments in the film as her character provided information about a code breaker to Finn, Poe and Rose; while fighting off a “union dispute” in the middle of a hologram transmission. As usual, Nyong’o was wonderful. I read somewhere that Johnson had originally planned for the Finn character to remain in a coma throughout most of the film. Eventually, Leia came very close in experiencing that fate. Thankfully, actor John Boyega did not have spend most of the movie lying on a bed or platform. Instead, audiences got to, once again, enjoy Boyega engage in his own kind of magic, as the movie sent his character, former stormtrooper Finn, into new adventures.

“THE LAST JEDI” featured first-rate performances from newcomers like Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran, Benicio del Toro and yes, even Mark Hamill. Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo is another character that I am not particularly fond of. But I must that actress Laura Dern gave her usual competent performance as the Resistance leader forced to step in when Leia fell into a coma. Benicio del Toro gave a very sly and entertaining performance as a sly and treacherous codebreaker found himself a prisoner on Canto Bight. Kelly Marie Tran proved to be the newest addition to the Star Wars mythos as a Resistance mechanic named Rose Tico, who found herself grieving her sister Paige, following the latter’s death around the film’s beginning. Tran gave a very strong performance as the emotional, yet strong-willed and determined Rose. She also managed to form a solid screen chemistry with Boyega and Isaac. Technically, “THE LAST JEDI” proved to be Hamill’s second appearance in the Sequel Trilogy. However, he only appeared briefly in the 2015’s last scene without any dialogue. Thankfully, Hamill was able to strut his stuff as the older and somewhat embittered Luke Skywalker. Although his characterization in this film proved to be controversial, I cannot deny that Hamill gave a superb performance, as usual. It seemed a pity that he never had any scenes with Boyega. I would have given my right arm to watch those two share a scene together.

Is there anything else about “THE LAST JEDI” that I enjoyed? Honestly? No. Despite the fine performances, the excellent photography and superb production and art designs, I was not impressed by the movie. In fact, my opinion of the film proved to be lower than my feelings about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. And I never thought that would be possible. I had two major problems about the film – the narrative and characterizations written by the director, Rian Johnson.

One of the main problems I had with “THE LAST JEDI” proved the length of time between it and “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. Judging from the film’s opening, the Resistance had fled its base on D’Qar and engaged in that opening battle against the First Order before Rey, Chewbacca and R2-D2 arrived on Ahch-To. Why did Johnson decide to begin the movie with such a small time frame? I have no idea. But thanks to this time frame, I found some of the events in the movie rather questionable.

According to the film’s opening crawl, the First Order had “decimated” the Republic and took military control of the galaxy. I found this hard to swallow. Yes, the First Order used their Star Killer weapon to destroy the New Republic’s capital and a few planets in the same system. But the Republic was spread all over the galaxy. Also, the First Order had suffered two major defeats near the end of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” – at Takodana, where it was searching for the BB-8 droid and the map to Luke Skywalker; and the destruction of the Star Killer weapon and its base. The last defeat proved to be a severe one for the First Order. Why would the entire galaxy surrender to the First Order when its super weapon, the Star Killer base and God knows how many troops and personnel were destroyed by the Resistance? I can understand the First Order licking its wounds and eventually conquering the rest of the Republic and going after the Resistance – but not so damn soon. Not within a space of one or two days.

The time frame produced another problem. After Snoke had punished General Hux for the Resistance’s destruction of the First Order’s new starship, the Dreadnought; the general informed his leader that he had used a new tracking device to follow the Resistance fleet through hyperspace. How exactly did this happen? When did Hux find the time – between the First Order’s defeat at Takodano, the destruction of the Star Killer’s base and the Resistance’s abandonment of their D’Qar base – to connect a tracking device to the Resistance convoy? When? I checked the Wookiepedia website on this hyperspace tracker, I discovered that it simply provided nothing more than a vague description. The website also failed to describe how Hux managed to have it planted in the first place. That is when I began to wonder if this tracking device was nothing more than a deus ex machina created by Johnson to keep the First Order on the heels of the Resistance fleet.

I have other problems regarding the First Order’s pursuit of the Resistance. One, how did the Resistance’s bomber fleets managed to drop bombs on the the dreadnought ship . . . in space . . . where there is no gravity? Would it have not been more sufficient for them to use the torpedo launchers of their X-wing fighter ships? Once the First Order managed to somewhat catch up with the Resistance fleet, it just basically kept its distance, while taking potshots at various Resistance ships; claiming that their enemy moved too fast for them to sufficiently destroy its convoy. What???? Did Hux fail to notice that the Resistance convoy was not particularly moving that fast? And whether the Resistance convoy was moving too fast or not, neither Hux, Snoke or Kylo Ren even bother to consider ordering part of the First Order’s fleet to jump into light speed ahead of the Resistance . . . and box the latter into a trap?

Rian Johnson’s handling of the Resistance proved to be equally problematic. A conflict has developed among the franchise’s fans on who was right – General Leia Organa or Commander Poe Dameron – regarding the bombing of the First Order’s dreadnought. Poe’s determination to destroy the dreadnought led to the destruction of Resistance’s bomber squad. On the other hand, if the dreadnought had continued to exist, who knows what would have hap . . . You know what? I do not give a shit one way or the other. I do not care. I found other things to complain about this story arc. I understood why Poe Dameron had blatantly ignored Leia’s order to retreat at the movie’s beginning. I do not understand why Paige Tico and the other bomber pilots did not follow her order. Surely, they had overheard Leia’s retreat order over the fleet’s communications system. And yet . . . like Poe, they ignored her order. And then we have Leia’s “Mary Poppins” moment, after the bridge of her flagship was destroyed. You know . . . the scene in which she used the Force to float back to her ship, after she and Admiral Ackbar (we hardly knew you pal!) were blown into space. I cannot believe that one of my last visions of Carrie Fisher on the screen was that ludicrous moment. God!

After Leia became incapacitated, Vice-Admiral Holdo took command of the Resistance. Chances are that Poe and some other members of the Resistance would have refrained from staging a mutiny . . . and sending Finn and Rose Tico on that mission to Canto Bight, if Holdo had informed everyone about hers and Leia’s plan to evade the First Order in thie first place. Only she did not. When she finally did, Poe and a few others dismissed it as cowardly and decided to stage a mutiny. This “mutiny” eventually led to Finn and Rose’s mission to search for a master code breaker at the Canto Bight Casino. I have one or two problems with this scenario. One, I could not understand why Holdo kept the evacuation plans a secret for so long, since it did not require a “need-to-know” reason. And two, why did Holdo wait so long to set hers and Leia’s plans in motion? Not only did I find this delay unnecessary, it allowed other factors in the story – Finn and Rose’s Canto Bight mission to affect the actual evacuation. One could dismiss this as an example of Holdo’s personality flaws. But the timing of this story arc makes it difficult for me to do this.

Leia and Holdo’s evacuation plan and gas lighting of Poe were not the only problems I had with their characters. I also had a problem with their costumes. Do not get me wrong, I found the costumes designed by Michael Kaplan rather elegant and lovely, as shown below:

 

But I could not help but wonder why both women wore outfits suited for dinner reception, a party or even a political meeting (in the STAR WARS universe). Their outfits seemed unsuited for military commanders in the field . . . especially military commanders who were attempting to guarantee the survival of those under them, in the middle of a life or death situation. Was this Kaplan’s attempt to outshine Trisha Biggar’s designs from the Prequel Trilogy. Who knows? Who knows? His costumes worked in the Canto Bight casino scenes. But they simply did not work for Leia and Holdo, who were not in elegant situations like the casino during this film.

Speaking of the Canto Bight mission . . . I honestly do not know what to say. It was such a crap fest to me. The only aspect of that mission that I enjoyed were the visual designs for the sequence. Otherwise, this whole story arc was marred by bad writing. Poe’s opposition to Holdo’s evacuation plan led him to send Finn, Rose and BB-8 to find someone who could break the code to the First Order’s tracking device, a master code breaker who hung out at the Canto Bight casino on Cantonica. So what happened? The pair landed their transport on a private beach and ended up getting arrested at the casino for illegal parking. Arrested . . . for illegal parking? Unable to contact the code breaker, due to being incarcerated behind bars, Finn and Rose met another prisoner named D.J., who claimed to be a code breaker. When he broke them out of jail, they recruited him to help the Resistance break the code . . . instead of returning to the casino in order to find the Master Code Breaker they had originally spotted. After the trio and BB-8 board Snoke’s ship, the Supremacy; Finn and Rose are betrayed by D.J., who also spilled the Resistance’s plans to escape from Leia’s cruiser via cloaked transport ships. Except . . . wait. How in the hell did D.J. know about that plan? He could not have learned everything about it from Finn and Rose, who only knew that Holdo and Leia had plans to evacuate. But they knew nothing about the transport ships being cloaked or that Holdo planned to send the Resistance to Crait. Hell, not even Poe knew the specific details, until he woke up aboard one the transports after being stunned by Leia. How did D.J. learn about Leia and Holdo’s complete plan?

I found something else rather odd about the Canto Bight mission. Finn and Rose were able to escape from Leia’s cruiser undetected and head for Cantonica in a cloaked transport ship. This sounds strangely similar to Leia and Holdo’s evacuation plan. I have already pointed out that the entire Resistance personnel could have done this and rendezvous at an arranged location a lot earlier in the story, instead of waiting until the last of the Resistance fleet was close to Crait. If Poe was able to help Finn and Rose slip away from both the Resistance convoy and the First Order fleet, why did he continue to oppose Leia and Holdo’s evacuation plan. Why did Poe believe that the evacuation plan was so cowardly (eyeroll) that he set in motion that ridiculous Canto Bight mission? I mean . . . honestly, Finn and Rose’s successful evasion of the First Order’s fleet and the Resistance convoy should have made him realize that Holdo’s plan – well, most of it – was pretty sound.

Another aspect of the Canto Bight story arc that I disliked was Rose’s revelations about the casino’s use of slave labor and the owners’ profiting from the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order, as arms dealers. Apparently, this entire story arc was created by Johnson for Finn to learn a valuable lesson about greed and corruption, enabling him to understand about what the Resistance is fighting against and drop his “selfish” concerns about Rey. WHAT . . . UTTER . . . BULLSHIT!!! There was nothing wrong with Finn being concerned about Rey not walking into the current conflict between the Resistance and the First Order. And there was no need for him to learn any damn lesson. And I sure as hell did not appreciate watching Rose lecture Finn about the evils of corruption, let alone slavery. You know, originally I thought she and had been a former slave herself. Then I checked Wikipedia and discovered that Rose and her sister Paige had been smuggled off their homeworld by their parents, before they could be snatched by the First Order and forced into slavery. So, why did Johnson believe it was necessary for her to lecture Finn about slavery, when the latter had been enslaved by the First Order ever since he was an infant? If anyone was qualified to give that speech, it was Finn.

The Canto Bight sequence did not feature the only problematic scene between Finn and Rose for me. Another occurred during the Resistance’s defense against an attack by the First Order at an old Rebel Alliance base on Crait, near the film’s finale. In one scene, the remaining Reisistance fighters – which included Finn, Poe and Rose – charged at the incoming First Order forces in order to give the others time to make their escape. While the surviving fighters broke off from the charge, Finn decided to make a suicidal charge against the First Order siege cannon that threatened to break into the base. And guess what happened? Rose stopped Finn’s charge. And what was her reason? Well . . . let me quote her:

“We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!”

What . . . in . . . the . . . hell??? Let me get this straight. According to Johnson, it was fine for Vice-Admiral Holdo to sacrifice herself to prevent the fleeing Resistance from being destroyed before they could reach Crait. But Finn was not allowed to sacrifice himself against the First Order’s siege cannon, because . . . why again? Hatred? What made Rose believe that Finn’s actions were all about hatred for the First Order? And when did Johnson convey the idea that Finn’s suicidal charge was all about hatred on his part? And why did Johnson keep creating scenes that gave Rose an opportunity to lecture Finn for the slimmest of reasons? Or decide that she knew better than him? Were the Canto Bight casino and Crait scenes indicative of some racism on Johnson’s part? Is he just another person who regards people of color, especially those of African descent, as childlike? I wonder.

Then we come to Rey’s experiences with Luke Skywalker on Ahch-To. Most critics of “THE LAST JEDI” tend to focus most of their complaints about the Canto Bight mission. My strongest complaints against the film are all about Rey’s experiences from start to finish. Judging from the first scene between Rey and Luke Skywalker, I got the impression that Johnson had written his own version of Luke’s first meeting with Yoda in “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. Actually, this scene was one of many that seemed to remakes of those from the 1980 film and “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. I do not know how to describe Rey’s first two days on Ahch-To. Unlike many other fans of the franchise, I had no problems with Luke tossing away his/Anakin’s old lightsaber that he had lost on Bespin. As far as I am concerned, it should have remained lost. However, I noticed that Luke’s initial rejection of Rey as a padawan struck me as a lot crueler than Yoda’s initial rejection some thirty or so years before. Actually, I was not that impressed by the dynamic between Rey and Luke. I hate to say this, but Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill’s on-screen chemistry did not seem that interesting to me. There was another problem in this story arc. Rey ended up receiving very little training in the Force. How long did Luke train Rey? What? A few hours, before it was interrupted by Rey’s discovery of the whole Luke-Kylo Ren mess? It seemed like it. There was one scene that featured Luke milking a rather . . . busty alien called Thala-Siren that just . . . I found this just as embarrassing as Leia’s Mary Poppins moment. It did not help that the creature’s udders resembled those of women. Oh God. Also . . . is it just me or Luke did not seem like himself? He seemed rather cynical, in compare to his younger self. And snarky. Luke seemed more like the younger Leia and Han . . . or Mark Hamill. I understand the circumstances that led Luke to his exile and how it may have emotionally damaged him. But his refusal to leave Ahch-To in order to help Leia . . . just did not feel right. I just cannot see him initially refusing to help his own sister, whose life was endangered.

But that was nothing, until the movie revealed what led to Luke’s estrangement from his nephew, Kylo Ren. Rey learned from the latter that Luke had a vision of his nephew/padawan causing a great deal of destruction and briefly considered killing the sleeping Ben. Although he relented, Kylo/Ben woke up and spotted Luke with his lightsaber drawn. An enraged Ben killed Luke’s loyal padawans in retaliation and joined the First Order, because he felt betrayed. Let me make this clear. I am aware that Luke is capable of terrible deeds or allowing his anger to get the best of him. These traits were apparent in both “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” and “RETURN OF THE JEDI” when Luke had engaged in bouts of murderous rage. But to deliberately contemplate murdering his own nephew, because he had visions of a destructive future from the latter or Snoke’s influence? Luke Skywalker? I simply do not see it. He is not Obi-Wan Kenobi, who has proven to be not being above doing or suggesting something terrible for the greater good. Luke has always struck me as the type who needed to have his emotional buttons pushed in order for him to commit a terrible deed.

While most detractors of “THE LAST JEDI” had a problem with Luke’s characterization, I had an even bigger problem with Rey’s . . . and the story arc she shared with Kylo Ren. What in the hell was Rian Johnson thinking? He managed to create another story arc that I believe was marred by the time span between “THE FORCE AWAKENS” and “THE LAST JEDI”. The whole Rey-Kylo Ren story seemed wrong within the Sequel Trilogy’s time frame. As I had earlier pointed out, not long after Rey had began her brief training into the Force under Luke, she discovered that some mental Force bond had developed between her and the man who nearly killed her, Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo. This . . . Force bond led Rey to discover what Luke had nearly did to Ren. And this, along with her telepathic conversations with Luke’s nephew and visions of him being redeemed convinced Rey that it was necessary to travel to Snoke’s ship, the Supremacy, and save Kylo Ren and convince him to give up evil; evoking memories of Luke’s attempt to save his father, Anakin Skywalker, in “RETURN OF THE JEDI”.

When I watched as Rey decided to travel into “the bowels of evil” in order to save an overprivileged and murderous man child from himself and Snoke, I could not help but indulge in a massive face palm. Or groan. This was just simply ridiculous to me. Was I really expected to accept that Rey had developed compassion or any other kind positive feelings for Kylo Ren two to three days after what he tried to do to her in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Does anyone realize how unrealistic that is from an emotional point-of-view? After all, only two or three days had passed since Rey had witnessed or experienced the following in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”:

*Kylo Ren kidnapped Rey during the First Order’s attack on Takodana.
*As he had done earlier to Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren tried to violate Rey’s mind in order to learn Luke’s whereabouts, using telepathy. Only she managed to defend herself using the same method.
*Rey, Finn and Chewbacca witnessed Kylo Ren’s murder of his father, Han Solo.
*Kylo Ren tried to injure or kill Rey by tossing her into a tree, near the Star Killer base.
*Kylo Ren maimed Finn during a light saber duel.
*Rey engaged in her own light saber duel against Kylo Ren, in which she managed to wound him.

During Rey and Kylo Ren’s telepathic interactions in “THE LAST JEDI”, she managed to develop compassion for him. And I am at a loss at why she would do this over a person, who had caused so much harm to her and those she cared about . . . in such a short period of time. When Rey asked Kylo Ren why he murdered his father, the latter explained – in a scene in which he was shirtless (a massive eyeroll) – that trying to cut out any sense of emotional attachment. WHAT IN THE HELL???? That was his excuse? And she bought it? And when Rey questioned Kylo Ren’s murder of Luke’s loyal padawans, he revealed how Luke had contemplated on killing him. Never mind that I believed this did not jibe with Luke’s personality. This was a lame excuse on Kylo Ren’s part. Those padawans had not played a role in Luke’s brief contemplation to commit murder. Those padawans had done nothing to Kylo Ren or anyone he may have cared about. And yet . . . Rey failed to continue questioning Kylo Ren’s murders. She expressed anger at Luke’s behavior, which I do not blame her. But she also decided to use this and Luke’s reluctance to save his nephew as an excuse to surrender to Snoke in an effort to save Kylo Ren, someone who had wronged her and those whom she cared about . . . VERY RECENTLY. As far as Rey knew, Kylo Ren was not related to her and a long period of time had not passed between “THE FORCE AWAKENS” and “THE LAST JEDI”.

Another problem seemed to manifest this story arc – namely Rey’s visions of Kylo Ren’s future. I am not claiming that he was redeemable. But did Rey ever consider that her visions had been manipulated in the first place? Did she ever consider that her telepathic bond was manipulated, which the movie later confirmed during Snoke’s monologuing? I realize that Rey was somewhat naive. But considering her recent past experience with Kylo Ren attempting to violate her mind, she never considered that this might be another attempt? Or that he had successfully found a way to violate her mind and try to manipulate her? Apparently not. Instead, Rey simply jumped up and rushed to Snoke’s ship in an effort to “save” Kylo Ren. It seemed obvious that Johnson had set up this whole scenario in order to plagiarize the Palpatine throne scene from “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Unfortunately for me, it failed on so many levels. Worse, it made Rey looked like “the Idiot of the Galaxy”. This entire story arc struck me as incredibly stupid.

One could say that Rey’s stupidity in the above scenario finally erased the Mary Sue label from her character. Perhaps. There was also the fact that in compare to Snoke, her mastery of the Force was a joke. He handled her like a toy doll in the Supremacy throne room sequence. And yet, she was able to master the Force with easy in other scenes. The movie’s novelization, written by Jason Fry, explained that the telepathic connection that Rey had unexpectedly formed with Kylo Ren enabled her to learn his skills with the Force. In other words, Rey is the “STAR WARS” version of Chuck Bartowski from the NBC series, “CHUCK”. For me, this was one of the most idiotic and lazy piece of writing that I have ever encountered in a movie or novel. To make matters works, the movie’s ending revealed that Rey had stolen Luke’s ancient Jedi texts. This seemed to be a hint that she will continue her Jedi studies using those texts. Jesus Christ! This scenario had failed when an Extended Universe (EU) novel used it to explain Luke’s development of his Force skills in “RETURN OF THE JEDI” after failing to return to Yoda on Dagobah for more training. This scenario strikes me as even more ludicrous, considering that Rey’s actual training lasted a hell of a lot shorter than Luke’s.

Rey also continued to display her Force skills in a lightsaber fight scene that featured her and Kylo Ren against Snoke’s guards. However, since the latter were not Force users, I would equate this scene with Obi-Wan Kenobi’s duel against General Grievous in “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”. Utterly irrelevant. And to be honest, both Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver seemed like more proficient duelists in a You Tube video clip that featured them practicing the fight than they did in the movie. Whoever handled the lightsaber choreography for this film need more lessons on how to stage a fight between swordsmen.

Before Rey had made her escape from Snoke’s starship, Kylo Ren revealed to her that her parents were two-bit junk dealers on Jakku, who had sold her into slavery for drinking money. He did this in an effort to emotionally isolate her and manipulate her into serving his desires. Now, if what he said about Rey’s parents are true, who had abandoned Rey on Jakku and left the planet? If the people who had abandoned Rey on Jakku were her parents, then they had sold her for more than drinking money. Also, how and when did Rey ceased to be a slave? I read somewhere that Rian Johnson made Rey unrelated to the Skywalker family because he wanted to move the saga away from them. When I heard this . . . Jesus Christ! Do Disney and Lucasfilm even know what what the hell they are doing? If the main protagonists for the Sequel Trilogy are not supposed to be members of the Skywalker family, then why . . . regard . . . this . . . particular . . . trilogy as part of the Skywalker Family Saga in the first damn place? Why not simply regard this trilogy as something other than a part of the Skywalker family saga and utilize characters from the previous two trilogies as minor supporting characters – like 2016’s “ROGUE ONE”?

There were other characterizations that proved problematic to me. Many of the saga’s fans had complained about Snoke’s death and the fact that his background was never revealed or explored. I had no problem with this for two reasons. One, Palpatine’s background was never revealed until the Prequel Trilogy. Unless Lucasfilm plans to release films that featured Snoke’s backstory or the rise of the First Order, I must admit that as a character, he was a waste of time. And two, I am not a fan of Snoke. Despite Any Serkis’ excellent voice performance, Snoke struck me a ham-fisted and one-dimensional version of Palpatine. I could blame J.J. Abrams, who created the character in the first place. But the real blame lies on Rian Johnson’s shoulders, who had transformed the character from a somewhat mysterious villain to a one-dimensional remake of one of the best movie villains I have ever seen on screen.

Captain Phasma has to be one of the most wasted characters I have ever encountered in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. This character, who happened to be commander of the First Order’s stormtroopers, had less development than some of the one-shot villains in the saga. Hell, even General Grievous, whom I have always harbored a low opinion, was better written than her. Poor Gwendoline Christie. It was bad enough that Abrams wasted her character in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” by failing to show her in action. When she was finally featured in an action sequence in “THE LAST JEDI” – a control baton duel against Finn aboard Snoke’s ship – she was quickly killed off. And she was dispatched rather fast, due to . . . you know what? I do not know. I do not know why Johnson had shortened the Finn/Captain Phasma duel to such a ridiculously short length. I have come to the conclusion that Phasma was, in the end, a wasted character. If there was a character even more wasted than Captain Phasma, it was Admiral Ackbar, who had also appeared in both “RETURN OF THE JEDI” and “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The Mon Calamari military commander was unceremoniously killed by the same blast that nearly killed Leia . . . before he even had the opportunity to utter a line. God, what a waste! Although Chewbacca was utilized more than Admiral Ackbar, his character had been reduced to a comic relief arc and a species called the Porg on Ach-To and Rey’s personal chauffeur. Despite having more screen time, poor Chewbacca proved to be wasted just as much as Phasma and Ackbar.

A relative of mine had pointed out that what made “THE LAST JEDI” unique was that it featured how the theme of failure in a STAR WARS movie. Others had pointed out that Rian Johnson managed to present a movie with a subversive narrative. I say bullshit to that. “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” was the first STAR WARS movie that featured the failures of its protagonists. It was also the first film that subverted the mythos of the saga that Lucas had created. And guess what? The Prequel Trilogy was basically one long saga on how Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi and the Galactic Republic failed themselves. Also, the last third of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”, the Prequel Trilogy and “ROGUE ONE” were other movies that subverted the saga’s mythos. Rian Johnson had not created anything new. Not really. Also, both George Lucas and Gareth Edwards did all of this with better writing.

There were aspects of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI” that impressed me. I thought the film’s performances from a cast led by Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were either competent or first-rate. And I was more than impressed by the movie’s production values. But overall, I found “THE LAST JEDI” to be a major disappointment. And a great deal of this disappointment came from Rian Johnson’s screenplay – both the film’s narrative and characterizations. In fact, I dislike this film a lot more than I did “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. I understand that J.J. Abrams, who had directed the Sequel Trilogy’s first film, will direct its third and final movie, “EPISODE IX”. Even if this movie proved to be enjoyable, I do not think it can save this new trilogy as a whole. After two very disappointing movies, the STAR WARS Sequel Trilogy has proven to be a disaster in my eyes.

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“The Lightsaber Connection”

 

“THE LIGHTSABER CONNECTION”

A great deal has been made of the light saber given to potential Jedi acolyte Rey by former smuggler Maz Kanata in “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. It was during this moment when young Rey experienced visions of her past as a child and her future encounter with villain Kylo Ren. It was this moment when movie audiences became aware of her connection to the Force. 

I really do not recall how I felt when I first saw this scene. After all, it has been at least two years since the movie’s release. Yet, the more I think about it, the more I have come to realize that it may have been a big mistake to put so much emphasis on that particular light saber in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. One, both J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan used a weapon to ignite Rey’s connection to the Force. Worse, they used an object with a questionable and rather bloody past to serve as some kind of special Jedi relic.

Sometime between “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES” and “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”, then Jedi padawan Anakin Skywalker had constructed a new light saber following the loss of his previous one before the Battle of Geonosis in the 2002 film. He used this new light saber during his services as a military leader during the Clone Wars – before and after he had become a Jedi Knight. And he used the light saber during his final duel against former Jedi Master-turned-Sith Lord Count Dooku in “REVENGE OF THE SITH” before decapitating the latter’s head. Anakin also used this very light saber to chop off Jedi Master Mace Windu’s hand during the latter’s duel against Sheev Palpatine aka Darth Sidious. He used it to participate in the Jedi Purge (which included killing younglings at the Jedi Temple) and to help the new ascended Emperor Palpatine by killing the remaining leaders of the Separatist Movement. This is also the very light saber that Anakin had used during his duel against his former mentor, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi on Mustafar. Near the end of this duel, Anakin lost the light saber when Obi-Wan chopped off his legs and his arms. Obi-Wan took possession of the light saber and left the limbless Anakin aka Darth Vader on a lava bank to slowly burn to death. Unfortunately for Obi-Wan, the seriously wounded Anakin was found by Emperor Palpatine and a squad of clone troopers and survived for another twenty-three years.

Obi-Wan kept the light saber during the nineteen years he lived as an exile on Tattooine. When he and Anakin’s son, Luke Skywalker finally met in “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”, the former Jedi master gave the young man his father’s lightsaber. Luke kept that lightsaber for three years before he faced Anakin for the first time at Cloud City, on the mining colony of Bespin in “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. Unaware that Anakin was his father, Luke engaged in a duel with the Sith apprentice until the latter chopped off his hand. Not only did Luke lose his hand, he also lost the lightsaber, which fell down a mining shift to God knows where. Sometime during the year between “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”, Luke constructed a new lightsaber.

During the thirty years or so between “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and “THE FORCE AWAKENS”, Anakin’s lost lightsaber ended up in the possession of the pirate queen known as Maz Kanata. She kept the weapon in a wooden curio box inside her castle/tavern on Takodana for years. Then one day, her old friends Han Solo and Chewbacca appeared on Takodana with a BB droid and two young people – Finn and Rey. While roaming around Maz’s castle, the “lightsaber awaken” and called out to Rey. She ventured into the castle’s basement and found the lightsaber inside Maz’s curio box. Upon touching it, she received a series of visions and recoiled in horror, rejecting Kanata’s attempt to give her the lightsaber. Finn later took it for safekeeping. Later in the film, both Finn and later Rey used the lightsaber in their duels against Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo, an apprentice of Supreme Leader Snoke of the First Order, on an ice planet where the Starkiller Base was located. Although Ren managed to seriously wound Finn, Rey took up the lightsaber and eventually defeated Ren by wounding him.

While re-reading the last paragraph, I found myself contemplating the words – “lightsaber awaken and called out to Rey”. Anakin’s second lightsaber called out to Rey via the Force? What . . . in . . . the . . . fuck? What on earth were J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan thinking? Why on earth did they tried to portray the very weapon that Anakin Skywalker had used to help Emperor Palpatine purge the Jedi as some mystical connection to the Force for one of the franchise’s newest protagonists, Rey?

I feel the two filmmakers made a serious mistake. Or else they really had no idea what George Lucas was trying to do in his creation of the Force. Why did Abrams and Kasdan use this very weapon as a means for Rey to become aware of her connection to the Force? Why did they use a weapon in the first place? Did Abrams and Kasdan believe it would be . . . what . . . cool? Were they simply too lazy to find another way for Rey to become aware of her connection to the Force? Or did they need an excuse for both Finn and Rey to become in possession of a lightsaber so that they can duel against Kylo Ren?

By the way, who in their right mind would use a weapon with such an ugly and bloody history to be some kind of Force relic? Why use a weapon in the first place? Because that is basically what a lightsaber is . . . a weapon. A tool that all Force sensitive individuals used – regardless of their moral compass. Like the old Jedi Temple’s library. Or a Jedi fighter. A lightsaber should not be regarded as the ultimate symbol for any Force user . . . or of the Force. I especially take umbrage that Abrams and Kasdan used it as means for Rey’s connection to the Force. I mean honestly . . . a weapon? I am certain that some “STAR WARS” fan would remind me that the average Force user had constructed his or her own lightsaber. My response to this is . . . so what? I do not recall a Force sensitive individual using a lightsaber to form a connection to the Force. At least not before “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. And if it had been used as a connection to the Force before the 2015 movie, it should not have been.

The Force is an energy and spiritual entity that connects all living things throughout the galaxy. An individual using a weapon to achieve a connection to all of this strikes me as a corruption of what Lucas was trying to say about the Force. After all, Luke Skywalker did not become a Jedi in “RETURN OF THE JEDI” because of his skill with a lightsaber. He truly became a Jedi at the moment when he dropped his weapon and refused to slay his father in anger or revenge. When he rejected the use of aggression and force. Apparently, this was something that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan failed to consider. Why on earth did they not allow that damn lightsaber to remain lost for good?

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

During the fall of 2012, the media and many film fans were stunned by news of filmmaker George Lucas’ sale of his production company, Lucasfilm, to the Walt Disney Company. I was flabbergasted. However, this sale led to Disney’s plans to continue Lucas’ “STAR WARS” movie saga with future releases, television shows, novels and comic stories.

One result of this sale proved to be Disney’s new film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The first of three movies for the franchise’ “Sequel Trilogy”, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is set some thirty years after the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Some time after the Galactic Empire’s major defeat at the Battle of Endor, remnants of this political force formed a new galactic power known as the First Order under the mysterious leadership of Snoke, a Force user. Within less than thirty years, the First Order has managed to take possession of new worlds and become a powerful force within the galaxy. Although appalled by the First Order’s development, the New Republic government decided to do nothing.

Former Rebel Alliance leader, Leia Organa, managed to form a military organization from the rank and file of the New Republic’s armed forces called the Resistance. Believing that the Resistance need more help, Leia recruited a pilot named Commander Poe Dameron to acquire find a segment of a star map that was in the possession of the legendary explorer Lor San Tekka on Jakku. This map would lead to the whereabouts of her brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who had disappeared into exile following the destruction of a new generation of Jedi under his tutelage. Unfortunately, the village where Tekka lived was captured by a force of First Order stormtroopers under the command of one of Supreme Leader Snoke’s enforcers, a Force user named Kylo Ren. Ren ordered his troops to kill Tekka and the other villagers, while he took Dameron captive. Fortunately, the Resistance pilot had hidden the map inside his astromech droid, BB-8, which managed to escape. Even more fortunately, Dameron was rescued by a stormtrooper designated FN-2187, who wanted to use Dameron to help him defect from the First Order.

Finn and Dameron stole a TIE fighter plane and returned to Jakku to find BB-8. However, the plane crashed. FN-2187 – renamed “Finn” – by the pilot, encountered a desert scavenger named Rey, who had already found BB-8. Realizing that the First Order was after the droid, the pair made their escape from Jakku aboard the old freighter, the Millenium Falcon, and set out to find the Resistance forces. Along the way, Finn and Rey attempted to evade the pursuing Kylo Ren and met the Falcon’s former owner, Han Solo and the latter’s companion Chewbacca; who ended up helping them with their goal.

Many critics and moviegoers hailed “THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to what the franchise used to be back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And not surprisingly, it became the top earning movie released in 2015. Lucasfilm, now headed by producer Kathleen Kennedy (who had worked with Lucas and Steven Spielberg for years), turned to producer-director J.J. Abrams to helm this first film. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was originally hired to write the movie’s script, following Lucas’ treatment. But Lucasfilm and Abrams decided to scrap both him and the treatment. Then Abrams and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan created their own screenplay . . . one that obviously pleased a lot of people. How do I feel about the movie? Well, like many films, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” has both good and bad qualities. I am going to start what I liked about it.

For me, the stars of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” are actors John Boyega, who portrayed Finn; and Harrison Ford, who reprised his role as Han Solo. Their performances gave this movie an energy that could not be matched by the rest of cast. In the case of Ford, this movie featured his best performance in the four “STAR WARS” he has appeared in. And of the new cast members for the Sequel Trilogy, I feel that Boyega has quickly emerged as the best of the bunch, thanks to his energetic and humorous portrayal of a very complex character. Actually, Finn reminded me of a younger Han Solo. Perhaps that is why he clicked so well with the veteran actor. Come to think of it, he also managed to click well with the other two new leads – Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac. My only problem with Finn is that his character sometimes came off as some doofus who seemed to stumble his way through life. Two other performances in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that really impressed me came from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who served as the voice and movements behind a new character called Maz Kanata. And Peter Mayhew, like Ford, was marvelous as always as the aging Wookie, Chewbacca. In a way, I found this miraculous for both Ford and Mayhew, considering that both suffered health issues during the movie’s production. What else did I like about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Well to my utter surprise, I enjoyed the new astromech droid, BB-8. When I had first saw it in some of the movie’s trailers, I had dismissed it as a second-rate version of R2-D2 and C3-P0. I was very surprised at how quickly I grew fond of the character.

There were other aspects of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that I enjoyed, as well. If I have to brutally frank, I did not find most of Dan Mindel’s photography that impressive. But there were a few scenes that did impress me. I found Britain’s Lake District, which served as Takodana, very beautiful, thanks to Mindel’s photography. I was also impressed by his photography of United Arab Emirates and New Mexico, which served as the planet of Jakku. Mandel even managed to include an iconic shot, as shown below:

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One last aspect of the movie that impressed me was Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing. I thought they did a pretty damn good job in the sequence that featured Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku aboard the stolen Millennium Falcon. But I found their work in the sequence in which the pair, Han Solo and Chewbacca get into conflict with pirates gangs who want to settle a score with Han, while three Rathtar creatures run rampant throughout the Falcon and Han’s other ship . . . to be very impressive. And it lacked the taint of confusion which has hampered many action scenes in the past.

Did I have any problems with “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Unfortunately, yes. A lot of problems. I read somewhere that Lucasfilm/Disney had originally hired Michael Arndt to write the movie’s screenplay, but in the end, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams rejected it. Abrams recruited Lawrence Kasdan, an old Lucasfilm veteran to rewrite the script and the result is what ended on the movie screens. And honestly . . . I was not impressed. Not by a long shot. The main problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is that it shared too many plot points and characterizations with the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Hell, Abrams and Kasdan managed to borrow a bit from 1980’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the Prequel movies. It is one thing to lift certain aspects of from other works of art and even history – especially in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. It is another to literally borrow from another movie . . . within the same movie franchise. Just to verify my complaint, I had come across an Entertainment Weekly article that listed eighteen similarties between “THE FORCE AWAKENS”and “A NEW HOPE” that included:

*A droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet
*A Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed antagonist who arrives on the scene shortly after the information is handed off, looking for the droid
*A lonely, Force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more
*A cruel military officer who holds a comparable level of authority to his Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed colleague
*A massive spherical weapon that’s used to destroy a planet
*A coordinated aerial attack on the massive spherical weapon that’s monitored from a control room by Leia

Six similarities between the two movies strike me as disturbing. Eighteen similarities seem utterly ridiculous to me. Even worse, I managed to come up with four similarities between this movie and “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. The masked enforcer is revealed to be a member of the Skywalker family, the heroes end up on an ice planet, the roguish protagonist is left in dire straits by the end of the movie and the potential Force user meets an aging Jedi master for new lessons. J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios might as well stop protesting and admit that their new blockbuster reeks of unoriginality and plagiarism.

Another problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” proved to be characterization. I had no problem with the idea of characters from the saga’s previous trilogies making an appearance. I had a problem with the new characters being a rehash of other characters – like our desert future acolyte Rey being a remake of the young Luke Skywalker; the First One enforcer Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo being another Anakin Skywalker; Resistance pilot Poe Dameron being another Leia Organa (but without the caustic wit); former stormtrooper Finn being another Han Solo; Supreme Leader Snoke is another Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine; and General Hux is another Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (without the presence). Actually, this video clip from You Tube/Dorkly.com pretty much said it all. The similarities between the saga’s characters strikes me as another example of the lack of originality in this movie.

But some of the characters proved to be very problematic for the movie’s plot. One of the biggest problems proved to be the character of Rey. As a woman, I found it satisfying that a leading STAR WARS character is not only a Force user, but a young woman. Unfortunately, Abrams and Kasdan took this too far by nearly portraying Rey as a borderline Mary Sue. Well, Lucas nearly transformed Luke Skywalker into a Gary Stu (same thing, male version) – especially in the last half hour of “A NEW HOPE” and the first hour of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. But with Rey, Abrams and Kasdan took it too far. Using her strong connection to the Force as an excuse, they allowed Rey to become a talented pilot who could rival Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, easily learn how to utilize the Jedi Mind Trick and defeat an experienced Force user with a lightsaber without any training. Without real any experience or training whatsoever. By the way, that last achievement really rubbed me the wrong way. I mean . . . what the hell? What is she going to do in the franchise’s next movie? Walk on water? Now . . . Daisy Ridley gave a nice performance as Rey. But she failed to knock my socks off. Her performance was not enough for me to overlook the ridiculous level of skills that her character had accomplished.

Equally problematic for me proved to be the Kylo Ren character, who turned out to be Han and Leia’s only son, Ben Solo. According to the movie, he was one of Luke’s padawan learners, before he made the decision to embrace evil, kill of Luke’s other padawans and become an enforcer for the First Order. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. “THE FORCE AWAKENS” made it clear that he seemed to worship his grandfather’s role as a Sith Lord. I can only assume that either the next movie or “EPISODE IX” will reveal the reason behind young Ben’s embrace of evil. I hope so. Because the reasoning presented in this film really sucks. It sucks just as much as Ren’s man child behavior. You know, I could have stomach this behavior if he had been around the same age as his grandfather in the Prequel Trilogy’s second and third movies. But Kylo Ren is pushing thirty in this film. He strikes me as too old to be engaging in childish temper tantrums. I can only assume that contrary to Han’s “He has a bit of Vader in him” comment, Kylo Ren is more a chip off the old block – namely his dad, who had behaved like a man child in the 1977-83 films. And why did Han and Leia name their son after Obi-Wan Kenobi, who used the name “Ben” during his years of exile on Tatooine? Leia never knew him . . . not personally. And Han never really clicked with Obi-Wan on an emotional level. So, why did they name him after the long deceased Jedi Master? As for Adam Driver, he gave a decent performance, but honestly . . . it was not enough for me to be fascinated by his character. It was just . . . decent.

Leia Organa seemed to be a ghost of her former self, thanks to Carrie Fisher. God bless Fisher, she tried. She really did. Abrams and Kasdan even gave her a few witty lines. But . . . Fisher’s performance reminded me of the one she gave in“RETURN OF THE JEDI” . . . lacking in any real fire. And I was disturbed by one scene in which Leia rushed forward to hug Rey, following the latter’s return from the First One’s Starkiller Base. Why did Leia ignore Chewbacca, who must have been torn up over Han’s death? Why did Chewie ignore her? Poe Dameron proved to be a real problem. One, he was not an interesting character to me. Frankly, I found him rather bland. And considering that Oscar Isaac portrayed the character, I found myself feeling very disappointed. A talented actor like him deserved a better role than this. Also, why did Poe leave Jakku and returned to the Resistance’s base? His mission was to acquire information leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts . . . information that he had stored in his BB-8 droid before the First Force appeared at that Jakku village. After Finn had rescued him from Kylo Ren and the First Force warship, Poe insisted that they return to Jakku, so he could find BB-8. What did he do after his and Finn’s TIE fighter crashed on the planet? Poe walked away from the crash, found transport off the planet and returned to his Resistance base. Not once did he bother to finish his mission by searching for BB-8. What the fuck? He went through all that bother to drag Finn back to Jakku and failed to hang around long enough to find BB-8? SLOPPY!! As for Mark Hamill . . . why was he even in this movie? He appeared in the movie’s last scene without speaking one word of dialogue. What a waste of time!

There were other scenes that rubbed me the wrong way. Critics made a big deal over the Nazi-like speech that General Hux gave the First Order troops on the Starkiller Base, swooning over the idea of Nazi metaphors in a “STAR WARS” movie. Big deal. There have been Nazi metaphors in the franchise’s movies since the first movie in 1977. Only Lucas did not resort to a ham fisted speech, similar to the one given by actor Domhnall Gleeson. I also found Leia’s little military conference rather laughable. She did not confer with a handful of military leaders. Instead, she seemed to be conferring with anyone – commanders, pilots, etc. – who seemed to have made their way to her table. It was like watching a STAR WARS version of a town meeting. What the hell? And what was the big deal over the First Order’s search for Luke Skywalker? So what if he was the last Jedi? According to the Lor San Tekka character portrayed by Max von Sydow, there can be no balance in the Force without the Jedi. Really? Since when is the balance of the Force depended on the presence of a religious order that had not been in its prime for over half a century? With Tekka’s comment, Abrams and Kasdan regressed the saga back to the Sunday School morality of “A NEW HOPE”. And could someone please tell me how the lightsaber that Anakin had first constructed following the loss of his first on Geonosis and which Luke had lost during his duel against the former on Bespin, end up in the possession of Maz Kanata on Takodona? How? And why on earth did Abrams and Kasdan thought it necessary to re-introduce it into the saga? Why? It was nothing more than a lightsaber . . . a weapon. There was no need to transform it into some kind of mythologized artifact.

Aside from the colorful photography and editing, I was not that impressed by the movie’s other technical aspects. One, Lucasfilm and Disney allowed both the Resistance and the First Order to use military technology that was last scene in the 1977-83 trilogy. Why? Why did the Resistance and First Order characters wear the uniforms that members of the Rebel Alliance and the Imperial Fleet wore? How cheap is that? And why have the Resistance and the First Order use technology from the same groups? The only new technology I had spotted was the two-seater TIE fighter for the First Order and the lumbering desert vehicle that Rey used on Jakka. Were Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios too cheap to hire someone to create new designs for the military in this film? Or was this another over-the-top attempt to re-create the past of the first trilogy? As for John Williams’ score . . . uh . . . not really impressed. Mind you, I had nothing against it. The score served the movie’s plot rather well. But there was nothing memorable or iconic about it.

I can see why many critics and moviegoers praised “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to the “magic” of the Original Trilogy. The movie not only utilized many technical aspects of that first trilogy, but also characterization and plot. To be brutally honest, I believe that this new movie had more or less plagiarized the first trilogy – especially “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Many might regard this as something to celebrate. I do not. I regard this “celebration” of the first trilogy as an artistic travesty and a sign of the lack of originality that now seemed to plague Hollywood. From an artistic point of view, I do not believe the Force was with this movie.

 

Kenny_Baker_convention

R.I.P. Kenny Baker (1934-2016)

 

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1880s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1880s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1880s

1. “Stagecoach” (1939) – John Ford directed this superb adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, “The Stage to Lordsburg”, about a group of strangers traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona territory. Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell starred.

2. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Shekhar Kapur directed this fascinating adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a former British Army officer accused of cowardice. Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson starred.

3. “Back to the Future Part III” (1990) – Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in this third installment of the “BACK TO THE FUTURE” TRILOGY, in which Marty McFly travels back to the Old West to prevent the death of fellow time traveler, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. Written by Bob Gale, the movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

4. “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) – Mike Leigh wrote and directed this biopic about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their creation of their most famous operetta, “The Mikado”. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner.

5. “Tombstone” (1993) – Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer starred in this colorful and my favorite account about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. George P. Cosmatos directed.

6. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in this adaptation of William Gillette’s 1899 stage play, “Sherlock Holmes”. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

7. “The Cater Street Hangman” (1998) – Eoin McCarthy and Keeley Hawes starred in this television adaptation of Anne Perry’s 1979 novel about a serial killer in late Victorian England. Sarah Hellings directed.

8. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) – Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders starred in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel about a handsome young Englishman who maintains his youth, while a special portrait reveals his inner ugliness.

9. “High Noon” (1952) – Gary Cooper won his second Oscar as a town marshal forced to face a gang of killers by himself. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the movie was written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman and co-starred Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado.

10. “Open Range” (2003) – Kevin Costner directed and co-starred with Robert Duvall in this western about a cattle crew forced to take up arms when they and their herd are threatened by a corrupt rancher.

The Celebration of Mediocrity and Unoriginality in “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

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“THE CELEBRATION OF MEDIOCRITY AND UNORIGINALITY IN “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

Look … I liked the new “STAR WARS” movie, “THE FORCE AWAKENS”.  I honestly do.  Heck, I feel it is better than J.J. Abrams’ two “STAR TREK” films.  But I am astounded that this film has garnered so much acclaim.  It has won the AFI Award for Best Picture.  It has been nominated by the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture.

“THE FORCE AWAKENS”???  Really?  It did not take long for certain fans to point out that the movie’s plot bore a strong resemblance to the first “STAR WARS” movie, “A NEW HOPE”.  In fact, I am beginning to suspect that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had more or less plagiarized the 1977 film, along with aspects from other movies in the franchise.  Worse, it has some plot holes that Abrams has managed to ineffectively explain to the media.  In other words, his explanations seemed like shit in the wind and the plot holes remained obvious.

Then I found myself thinking about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series.  I will not deny that the movie had some flaws.  Just about every movie I have seen throughout my life had some flaws.  But instead of attempting a carbon copy of the television series, Ritchie put his own, original spin of the show for his movie.  And personally, I had left the movie theater feeling impressed.  And entertained.  It is not that Ritchie had created a perfect movie.  But he did managed to create an original one, based upon an old source.  Now that was impressive.

But instead of having his movie appreciated, a good deal of the public stayed away in droves.  Warner Brothers barely publicized the film.  Worse, the studio released in August, the summer movie season’s graveyard.  And for those who did see the movie, the complained that it was not like the television show.  Ritchie had made changes for his film.  In other words, Ritchie was criticized for being original with a movie based upon an old television series.

This is incredibly pathetic.  One director is criticized giving an original spin to his movie adaptation.  Another director is hailed as the savior of a movie franchise for committing outright plagiarism.  This is what Western culture has devolved into, ladies and gentlemen.  We now live in a world in which the only movies that are box office hits are those that form part of a franchise.  We live in a society in which glossy and mediocre shows like “DOWNTON ABBEY” are celebrated.  We live in a world in which a crowd pleasing, yet standard movie biopic like “THE KING’S SPEECH”can receive more acclaim than an original film like “INCEPTION”.

In regard to culture or even pop culture, this society is rushing toward conformity, familiarity and mediocrity.  God help us.

 

“TOPSY-TURVY” (1999) Review

 

“TOPSY-TURVY” (1999) Review

I have very limited past experience with the world of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. I have never seen a stage production of any of their works. And I am vaguely familiar with one of the tunes featured in their most famous play, “The Mikado”, thanks to the 1978 comedy thriller, “FOUL PLAY”. Pathetic is it not?

I never saw “TOPSY-TURVY”, Mike Leigh’s dramatization of the duo’s creation of “The Mikado”, when it first hit the theaters back in 1999. Considering my penchant for costume dramas, I find it surprising that it took me so long to see this film. It spanned the 14-month period that began with the premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s play, “Princess Ida” in January 1884 and ended with the premiere of the “The Mikado” in March 1885. During this period, the summer heat discouraged theatergoers from attending more shows of “Princess Ida” and ticket sales decline. Producer Richard D’Oyly Carte called on Sullivan and Gilbert to create a new musical play for the Savoy Theater. The duo encountered creative impasse after impasse, until a visit to the Japanese Village Exhibit in Knightsbridge by Gilbert and his wife Kitty, inspired the dramatist write a liberetto set in Japan – an idea that Sullivan agreed to write the music for.

The rest of “TOPSY-TURVY” focused upon Gilbert, Sullivan, the cast and the stage crew working to make “The Mikado”a success. Leigh allowed audiences glimpses into the lives of the cast and crew members that include scenes of them negotiating their salaries with Carte, costume fittings in which both Durward Lely and Jessie Bond express their concerns over C. Wilhelm‘s designs, the women’s chorus learn to walk like Japanese women, Sullivan’s rehearsals with both the orchestra and the cast, and Gilbert’s rehearsals with the cast over lines. The movie also depicts the world of late Victorian England through the characters’ private lives with scenes that include Geprge Grossmith‘s morphine addiction, three actors’ discussion of the Charles Gordon’s defeat at Khartoum, Leonora Braham‘s alcoholism and lesbianism, and Sullivan’s visit to a French brothel, Gillbert’s family circumstances and encounter with a beggar. And throughout the movie’s second half, director Mike Leigh interjected scenes of Gilbert and Sullivan’s preparation of the operetta with actual performances from the production by the cast.

“TOPSY-TURVY” received four Academy Award nominations and won two. But none of the nominations were in the Best Picture, Best Director or any of the acting nominations. I found this a bit disappointing. Mind you, the movie was not perfect. With a running time of 160 minutes, the movie struck me as too long. Someone once complained that the movie featured too many vignettes of late Victorian life . . . scenes that had nothing to do with the creation of The Mikado. To a certain extent, I agree with this complaint. I had no problems with the film starting off with the opening night for “Princess Ida” and the conversations between Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan about the creative pair’s partnership. There was one particular vignette of Victorian life that I found entertaining – namely Rutland Barrington, Lely and Grossmith’s conversation about Gordon’s defeat at Khartoum and their upcoming appointments with Carte. But there was a great deal in the movie I could have done without. I really did not need to view an extended scene from one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s earlier works, “The Sorcerer”. I did not need extended views of Sullivan’s visit to a Parisian brothel or Gilbert’s private life – especially his relationship with this father. In fact, Leigh’s portrayal of Gilbert’s wife, Lucy “Kitty” Gilbert as this meek and mild woman constantly longing for children proved to be inaccurate. The only time “TOPSY-TURVY” provided an accurate portrayal of the dramatist’s wife was the scene in which she dragged him to the Knightsbridge Japanese Village Exhibit. In fact, by the time the movie shifted to the Gilberts’ visit to the exhibit, which inspired the dramatist to write “The Mikado”, at least 50 to 60 minutes of the film had passed.

But despite these flaws, I still believe that “TOPSY-TURVY” should have received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. At least. Flawed or not, it is a superb movie that not only explored late Victorian England, Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaboration, but more importantly, the world of creating a work of art. As a lover of movies, theater and books, watching the creation of “The Mikado” through Gilbert becoming inspired, costume fittings and various rehearsals sent a thrill through my veins. Someone with the Motion Pictures Academy must have agreed. Leigh received an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay. I especially enjoyed those scenes in which both Jessie Bond and Durward Lely griped about their costumes, Gilbert and choreographer John D’Auban argued over the stage directions for the “Three Little Maids From School” number, and especially the hullabaloo over Gilbert’s initial decision to cut the A More Humane Mikado”, which was eventually performed by Richard Temple.

The film’s Victorian vision would not have been possible by the work of production designer Eve Stewart. She did such an exceptional job of recapturing London of the mid-1880s that I did not realize that the movie featured very few exterior shots until my last viewing. Helen Scott’s Oscar nominated art direction added to Stewart’s re-creation of Victorian London, along with the set decorations she created with John Bush. As for Lindy Hemming, she won a most deserved Academy Award for the brilliant costumes she had designed for the film, as shown below:

Aside from Leigh’s exploration of how “The Mikado” was created, the movie also benefited from strong performances, thanks to its talented cast. Jim Broadbent was the first cast member selected for the movie and he did a superb job as the blunt-speaking, sardonic and artistic William S. Gilbert. Allan Courduner was equally superb as the more extroverted Arthur Sullivan, who seriously considered breaking up the partnership in order to embark on a career as a “more serious” composer. There were supporting performances that left a strong impression with me. They include Lesley Manville as “Kitty” Gilbert. Her characterization may have been off, thanks to Leight, but Manville gave a brilliant performance. Ron Cook gave one of the most subtle and satisfying performances as Savoy Theater owner, Richard D’Oyly Carte. I especially enjoyed Timothy Spall, Shirley Henderson, Kevin McKidd and Martin Savage as Richard Temple, Leonora Braham, Durward Lely and George Grossmith, respectively.

No movie is perfect. And that includes “TOPSY-TURVY”. My main problem is that it required more editing than it actually received. It really needed a shorter running time. But the movie’s flaws were overshadowed by its virtues – an in-depth look into the world of Victorian theater and the creation of “The Mikado”, a beautiful production design that came very close to reflecting life in the late Victorian era, a first-rate cast led by Jim Broadbent and Allan Courduner, and excellent direction and writing from Mike Leigh, himself. It was not perfect, but I believe it could have received Oscar nods for both Best Picture and Best Director.

“LITTLE DORRIT” (2008) Review

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“LITTLE DORRIT” (2008) Review

In my review of the 1998 miniseries, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, I had stated that I was never a real fan of Victorian author, Charles Dickens. But I was willing to give the author another chance with a second viewing of the miniseries. However, I have yet to watch “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” for a second time. Instead, I turned my attention to another miniseries based on a Dickens novel – the 2008 production of “LITTLE DORRIT”

Based upon Dickens’s 1855-1857 serialized novel, “LITTLE DORRIT” is basically the story of a young late Georgian Englishwoman named Amy Dorrit, who spends her days earning money for the Dorrit family and looking after her proud father William, who is a long term inmate of Marshalsea Prison for Debt in London. When her employer’s son, Arthur Clennam returns from overseas to solve his family’s mysterious legacy, Amy and her family’s world is transformed for the better. And she discovers that her family’s lives and those of the Clennan family are interlinked. Considering that“LITTLE DORRIT” is a Dickens tale, one is bound to encounter a good deal of subplots. Please bear with me. I might not remember all of them. I do recall the following:

*Arthur Clennam is initially rejected by Pet Meagles, the daughter of a former business associate, due to her infatuation for artist Henry Gowan.

*John Chivery, the son of the Marshalsea Prison warden, harbors unrequited love for Amy Dorrit.

*A mysterious Englishwoman named Miss Wade, had been jilted by Henry Gowan in the past; and has now extended her hatred and resentment towards his wife, Pet Meagles and her family. She also notices their patronizing attitude toward their maid/ward, Harriet Beadle aka Tattycoram.

*Amy’s older sister, Fanny, becomes romantically involved with the step-son of wealthy businessman Mr. Merdle.

*Mr. Merdle becomes the force behind a fraudulent speculation scheme that impacts the London financial world.

*French criminal Rigaud/Blandois not only stumbles across the Clennam family secret regarding the Dorrit family, but is also recruited by Miss Wade to accompany Henry and Pet Gowran on their Italian honeymoon.

If there is one thing I can say about “LITTLE DORRIT”, it is a beautiful looking production. Four of the Emmy Awards that the miniseries won were in the technical categories. Production designer James Merifield, art director Paul Ghirardani, and set decorator Deborah Wilson all shared the Emmy Award for Outstanding Art Direction in a Miniseries or Movie (they shared the award with the art direction team for HBO’s “GREY GARDENS”). And honestly? They deserved that award, thanks to their outstanding re-creation of both London and Italy in the 1820s. Owen McPolin, Alan Almond and Lukas Strebel, who won the Outstanding Cinematography Emmy; contributed to that re-creation of 1820s Europe with their sharp, colorful and beautiful photography. Costume designer Barbara Kidd and costume supervisor also won Emmy awards for the beautiful, gorgeous costumes created for this production. Not only did I find the costumes beautiful, but also a perfection re-creation of the mid-1820s fashions, as depicted in the images below:

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I could go on and on about the many subplots featured in “LITTLE DORRIT”. But honestly . . . I am too exhausted to do so. The only plots that interested me were the fortunes of both the Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam, Mrs. Clennam’s secret about her husband’s past, and Mr. Merdle’s financial schemes. I thought that Emmy winning screenwriter Andrew Davies and directors Adam Smith, Dearbhla Walsh (also an Emmy winner for her direction of Episode One), and Diarmuid Lawrence did a very good job in handling these plot lines. Or tried his best. His adaptation of the rise and fall of the Dorrit family’s fortunes was probably the best thing about “LITTLE DORRIT”. This was especially effective in plot lines that revolved around Amy Dorrit’s inability to adjust to her new status as the daughter of a wealthy man and especially, William Dorrit’s inabilities to move past his memories of the Marshalsea Prison. The subplot regarding the Dorrit family’s ties to the Merdle family also struck me as very effective. Fanny Dorrit’s relationship with Merdle’s stepson, Edmund Sparkler proved to be one of the funniest and more satisfying subplots in “LITTLE DORRIT”. And the subplot regarding Mr. Merdle’s financial schemes not only effected both the Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam’s fortunes in an effective way, it also strongly reminded me of the circumstances that led to the international community’s current economic situation.

However, there were subplots that did not strike me as that effective. I wish I could solely blame Charles Dickens. But I cannot. Davies and the three directors have to take some of the blame for not making some improvements to these subplots, when they had the chance to do so. The subplot regarding the Meagles family, their servant “Tattycoram” and Miss Wade struck me as a disaster. I found it poorly handled, especially the narrative regarding the fate of “Tattycoram”. In the end, nothing really came from Miss Wade’s resentment of Henry Cowan, the Meagles and especially her relationship with “Tattycoram”. I am also a little confused at the financial connection between the Clennam and Dorrit families. Could someone explain why an affair between Arthur’s father and some dancer would lead to a possible inheritance for Amy Dorrit? Many critics have tried to explain Dickens’ creation of the French villain Monsieur Rigaud. No explanation can erase my dislike of the character or its addition to the subplots involving the Clennam/Dorrit connection and the Gowans’ honeymoon. I realize that Rigaud was Charles Dickens’ creation. But it seemed a pity that Davies and the three directors did nothing to improve the use of Rigaud . . . or eliminate the character altogether. Aside from killing Jeremiah Flintwinch’s twin brother, intimidating other characters and blackmailing Mrs. Clennam, he really did nothing as a villain.

If there is one thing I have no complaints regarding “LITTLE DORRIT”, it is the excellent performances found in the production. I honestly have no complaints about the performances in the miniseries. I can even say this about those characters, whose portrayals by the writers that I found troubling. And yes, I am referring to Andy Serkis and Freema Agyeman’s performances as Rigoud and “Tattycoram”. Both gave excellent performances, even if I did not care how Dickens, Davies or the directors handled their characters. Emma Pierson, an actress I have never heard of, gave a superb and very entertaining peformance as Fanny Dorrit, Amy’s ambitious and rather blunt older sister. I would have say that Pierson’s performance struck me as the funniest in the miniseries. I was amazed at how intimidating Eddie Marsan looked at the rent collector, Mr. Pancks. Yet, Marsan went beyond his superficial appearance to portray one of the most compassionate, yet energetic characters in the production. I was also impressed by Russell Tovey’s portrayal of the love-sick John Chivery, who harbored unrequited love for Amy Dorrit. Tovey managed to give a very intense performance, without going over-the-top. And I found that quite an accomplishment.

However, there are a handful of performances that really impressed me. Two of them came from the leads Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen. On paper, the characters of Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam struck me as boring and one-dimensional. They were simply too goody two-shoes. But somehow, both Foy and McFadyen managed to inject a great deal of fire into their roles, making them not only interesting, but allowing me to care for them a great deal. Another outstanding performance came from Judy Parfitt, who portrayed Arthur’s guilt-ridden and cold mother, Mrs. Clennam. But instead of portraying the character as a one-note monstrous mother, Parfitt conveyed a good deal of Mrs. Clennam’s guilt regarding her husband’s will and inner emotional struggles over the memories of her marriage and what Arthur really meant to her. Another outstanding performance came from Tom Courtenay, who portrayed the vain and insecure William Dorrit. In fact, I would have to say that he gave the most complex and probably the best performance in the entire production. Courtenay managed to create contempt I felt toward his character with skillful acting, yet at the same time, he made William Dorrit so pathetic and sympathetic. I am amazed that he did not receive a nomination or acting award for his performance.

I now come back to that earlier question. Did “LITTLE DORRIT” improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a writer? Not really. Although I cannot deny that it is a beautiful looking production. Some of the subplots not only struck me as interesting, but also relevant to today’s economic situation. And the miniseries featured some outstanding performances from a cast led by Claire Foy and Matthew McFayden. But some of the other subplots, which originated in Dickens’ novel struck me as either troubling or unimpressive. So . . . I am not quite a fan of his. Not yet. But despite its flaws, I am a fan of this 2008 adaptation of his 1855-1857 novel.