Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

“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.

 

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

 

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.

 

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

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“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

I first learned about Solomon Northup many years ago, when I came across a television adaptation of his story in my local video story. One glance at the video case for the 1984 movie, “HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE:  SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, made me assume that this movie was basically a fictional tale. But when I read the movie’s description on the back of the case, I discovered that I had stumbled across an adaption about a historical figure. 

Intrigued by the idea of a free black man in antebellum America being kidnapped into slavery, I rented “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, which starred Avery Brooks, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I fell in love with Gordon Park’s adaption so much that I tried to buy a video copy of the movie. But I could not find it. Many years passed before I was able to purchase a DVD copy. And despite the passage of time, I still remained impressed by the movie. However, I had no idea that someone in the film industry would be interested in Northup’s tale again. So, I was very surprised to learn of a new adaptation with Brad Pitt as one of the film’s producer and Briton Steve McQueen as another producer and the film’s director.

Based upon Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same title, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” told the story of a New York-born African-American named Solomon Northup, who found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup was a 33 year-old carpenter and violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. After Mrs. Northup leaves Saratoga Springs with their children for a job that would last for several weeks, Northup is approached by two men, who offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without bothering to inform Northup traveled with the strangers as far as south as Washington, D.C. Not long after his arrival in the capital, Northup found himself drugged and later, bound in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup tried to claim he was a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free status again.

Eventually, Northup and a group of other slaves were conveyed to the slave marts of New Orleans, Louisiana and given the identity of a Georgia-born slave named “Platt”. There, a slave dealer named Theophilus Freeman sells him to a plantation owner/minister named William Ford. The latter’s kindness seemed to be offset by his unwillingness to acknowledge the sorrow another slave named Eliza over her separation from her children. When Northup has a violent clash with one of Ford’s white employees, a carpenter named John Tibeats, the planter is forced to sell the Northerner to another planter named Edwin Epps. Unfortunately for Northup, Epps proves to be a brutal and hard man. Even worse, Epps becomes sexually interested in a female slave named Patsey. She eventually becomes a victim of Epps’ sexual abuse and Mrs. Epps’ jealousy. And Epps becomes aware of Patsey’s friendship with Northup.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” gained a great deal of critical acclaim since its release. It won three Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture; and two British Academy Awards (BAFTAs).  Many critics and film goers consider it the truest portrait of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. I have to admit that both director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a powerful film. Both did an excellent job of translating the basic gist of Solomon Northup’s experiences to the screen. And both did an excellent job re-creating a major aspect of American slavery. I was especially impressed by certain scenes that featured the emotional and physical trauma that Northup experienced during his twelve years as a Southern slave.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes featured Northup’s initial experiences at the Washington D.C. slave pen, where one of the owners resorted to physical abuse to coerce him into acknowledging his new identity as “Platt”. Other powerful scenes include the slave mart sequence in New Orleans, where fellow slave Eliza had to endure the loss of her children through sale. I found the revelation of Eliza’s mixed blood daughter being sold to a New Orleans bordello rather troubling and heartbreaking. Northup’s encounter with Tibeats struck me fascinating . . . in a dark way. But the film’s most powerful scene – at least for me – proved to be the harsh whipping that Patsey endured for leaving the plantation to borrow soap from a neighboring plantation. Some people complained that particular scene bordered on “torture porn”. I disagree. I found it brutal and frank.

I have to give kudos to the movie’s visual re-creation of the country’s Antebellum Period. As in any well made movie, this was achieved by a group of talented people. Adam Stockhausen’s production designs impressed me a great deal, especially in scenes featuring Saratoga Springs of the 1840s, the Washington D.C. sequences, the New Orleans slave marts and of course, the three plantations where Northup worked during his twelve years in Louisiana. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Louisiana, including the Saratoga Springs and Washington D.C. sequences. And Sean Bobbitt’s photography perfectly captured the lush beauty and color of the state. Trust the movie’s producers and McQueen to hire long time costume designer, Patricia Norris, to design the film’s costumes. She did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions worn during the period between 1841 and 1852-53.

Most importantly, the movie benefited from a talented cast that included Garrett Dillahunt as a white field hand who betrays Northup’s attempt to contact friends in New York; Paul Giamatti as the New Orleans slave dealer Theophilus Freeman; Michael K. Williams as fellow slave Robert, who tried to protect Eliza from a lustful sailor during the voyage to Louisiana; Alfre Woodward as Mistress Shaw, the black common-law wife of a local planter; and Bryan Batt as Judge Turner, a sugar planter to whom Northup was loaned out. More impressive performances came from Paul Dano as the young carpenter John Tibeats, who resented Northup’s talent as a carpenter; Sarah Poulson, who portrayed Edwin Epp’s cold wife and jealous wife; and Adepero Oduye, who was effectively emotional as the slave mother Eliza, who lost her children at Freeman’s slave mart. Benedict Cumberbatch gave a complex portrayal of Northup’s first owner, the somewhat kindly William Ford. However, I must point out that the written portrayal of the character may have been erroneous, considering Northup’s opinion of the man. Northup never judged Ford as a hypocrite, but only a a good man who was negatively influenced by the slave society. But the two best performances, in my opinion, came from Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and especially Best Actor Oscar nominee and BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Nyong’o gave a beautiful performance as the abused slave woman Patsey, whose endurance of Epps’ lust and Mrs. Epps’ wrath takes her to a breaking point of suicidal desire.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I have been aware for the past decade, gave the definitive performance of his career – so far – as the New Yorker Solomon Northup, who finds himself trapped in the nightmarish situation of American slavery. Ejiofor did an excellent job of conveying Northup’s emotional roller coaster experiences of disbelief, fear, desperation and gradual despair.

But is “12 YEARS A SLAVE” perfect? No. Trust me, it has its flaws. Many have commented on the film’s historical accuracy in regard to American slavery and Northup’s twelve years in Louisiana. First of all, both McQueen and Ridley took historical liberty with some of Northup’s slavery experience for the sake of drama. If I must be honest, that does not bother me. The 1984 movie with Avery Brooks did the same. I dare anyone to find a historical movie that is completely accurate about its topic. But what did bother me was some of the inaccuracies featured in the movie’s portrayal of antebellum America.

One scene featured Northup eating in a Washington D.C. hotel dining room with his two kidnapper. A black man eating in the dining room of a fashionable Washington D.C. hotel in 1841? Were McQueen and Ridley kidding? The first integrated Washington D.C. hotel opened in 1871, thirty years later. Even more ludicrous was a scene featuring a drugged and ill Northup inside one of the hotel’s room near white patrons. Because he was black, Northup was forced to sleep in a room in the back of the hotel. The death of the slave Robert at the hands of a sailor bent on raping Eliza struck me as ludicrous. One, it never happened. And two, there is no way some mere sailor – regardless of his color – could casually kill a slave owned by another. Especially a slave headed for the slave marts. He would find himself in serious financial trouble. Even Tibeats had been warned by Ford’s overseer about the financial danger he would face upon killing Northup. I can only assume that Epps was a very hands on planter, because I was surprised by the numerous scenes featuring him supervising the field slaves. And I have never heard of this before. And I am still shaking my head at the scene featuring Northup’s visit to the Shaw plantation, where he found a loaned out Patsey having refreshments with the plantation mistress, Harriet Shaw. Black or white, I simply find it difficult to surmise a plantation mistress having refreshments with a slave – owned or loaned out. Speaking of Patsey’s social visit to the Shaw plantation, could someone explain why she and Mistress Shaw are eating a dessert that had been created in France, during the late 19th century? Check out the image below:

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The image features the two women eating macarons. Now I realize that macarons had existed even before the 1840s. But the macarons featured in the image above (with a sweet paste creating a sandwich with two cookies) first made their debut, thanks to a pair of Parisian bakers in the late 19th century, decades after the movie’s setting. This was a very sloppy move either on the part of Stockhausen or the movie’s set decorator, Alice Baker.

And if I must be frank, I had a problem with some of the movie’s dialogue. I realize that McQueen and Ridley were attempting to recapture the dialogue of 19th century America. But there were times I felt they had failed spectacularly. Some of it brought back painful memories of the stilted dialogue from the 2003 Civil War movie, “GODS AND GENERALS”. The words coming out of the actors’ mouths struck me as part dialogue, part speeches. The only thing missing was a speech from a Shakespearean play.

Not only did I have a problem with the dialogue, but also some of the performances. Even those performances I had earlier praised nearly got off tracked by the movie’s more questionable dialogue. But I was not impressed by two particular performances. One came from Brad Pitt, who portrayed a Canadian carpenter hired by Epps to build a gazebo. To be fair, my main problems with Pitt’s performance was the dialogue that sounded like a speech . . . and his accent. Do Canadians actually sound like that? In fact, I find it difficult to pinpoint what kind of accent he actually used. The performance that I really found troubling was Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the brutal Edwin Epps. Mind you, he had his moments of subtle acting that really impressed me – especially in scenes featuring Epps’ clashes with his wife or the more subtle attempts of intimidation of Northup. Those moments reminded me why I had been a fan of the actor for years.  Perhaps those moments led him to earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  But Fassbender’s Epps mainly came off as a one-dimensional villain with very little subtlety or complexity. Consider the image below in which Fassbender is trying to convey Epps’ casual brutality:

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For me, it seemed as if the actor is trying just a little too hard. And I suspect that McQueen’s direction is to blame for this. I blame both McQueen and Ridley for their failure to reveal Epps’ insecurities, which were not only apparent in Northup’s memoirs, but also in the 1984 movie. Speaking of McQueen, there were times when I found his direction heavy-handed. This was especially apparent in most of Fassbender’s scenes and in sequences in which some of the other characters’ dialogue spiraled into speeches. And then there was Hans Zimmer’s score. I have been a fan of Zimmer for nearly two decades. But I have to say that I did not particularly care for his work in “12 YEARS A SLAVE”. His use of horns in the score struck me as somewhat over-the-top.

Do I feel that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” deserves its acclaim? Well . . . yes. Despite its flaws, it is a very good movie that did not whitewash Solomon Northup’s brutal experiences as a slave. And it also featured some exceptional performances, especially from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. But I also feel that some of the acclaim that the movie has garnered, may have been undeserved, along with its Oscar and BAFTA Best Picture awards.  As good as it was, I found it hard to accept that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” was the best movie about American slavery ever made.