My short story, “Everyone Here Comes from Somewhere Else,” is now live at THE COURTSHIP OF WINDS. Please check it out. And if you don’t like me enough to read it, at least click on it and give the journal a hit, mmmmkay?
Recently, I finally got around to watching Revolutionary Road, in which Michael Shannon plays a small but key role as a recently released mental patient who disrupts the marital façade of a suburban couple. Over the last several years, Shannon has proven himself an invaluable and versatile actor, in both film and on the television series Boardwalk Empire. His General Zod notwithstanding—a loud, overbearing performance that I blame more on the writers’ and director Zack Snyder’s fundamental misunderstanding of their source material—Shannon has done excellent work. He seems most at home playing edgy, borderline-insane authority figures. In Guillermo del Toro’s masterful, moving magical realist film, The Shape of Water, Shannon’s Richard Strickland is, in some respects, the straw that stirs the drink, so much so that I recently told my wife it might well be my worst nightmare to awake and find Shannon standing over me, watching me sleep with those bug eyes of his.
Except for the visually muddled destruction-porn mediocrity that was Pacific Rim—a movie that could have been Snyder’s work, except that it had some semblance of character development and a more-or-less coherent plot—I love del Toro’s work. Were I to rank his films, always a dicey and subjective and ultimately useless proposition, I would put The Shape of Water ahead of everything but Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. It’s a strongly directed, well-edited movie with super makeup, beautiful retro set design, and a script that is equal parts Creature of the Black Lagoon monster-adventure and suspense-romance.
The plot: Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning woman at a research facility that looks like a dank VA hospital, lives a life of strict routine, right down to the perpetual tardiness that bemuses her best friend, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, who—in a situation that will likely please Academy voters even as it annoys cultural critics—plays a similar black-domestic role as her Oscar-winning turn in The Help). Each night, Elisa goes home to a small apartment located next to the near-identical residence of her other best friend, gay painter Giles (Richard Jenkins, who will also likely be recognized this award season).
Elisa’s dull life is disrupted with the arrival of Strickland and a mysterious research subject encased in a water tank. None of this affects Elisa much until, one day, an injured Strickland stumbles out of the lab, having gotten too close to whatever he brought into the facility. As the cleaning crew are left alone in the lab, Elisa discovers exactly what it is—a creature the film’s credits call Amphibian Man. He will look very familiar to fans of the old Warner Brothers Creature series. Played here by Doug Jones, who has made a career of embodying strange and/or homicidal humanoid creatures in del Toro films (see the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth), the Amphibian immediately bonds with Elisa and demonstrates a human capacity to learn and communicate.
Many viewers’ experience with this film may hinge on how deeply they buy into the romance between Elisa and Amphibian Man, which includes not only an underwater sex scene but a later explanation of exactly how this kind of interspecies coupling is even possible, given the Ken-doll appearance of the Man’s bathing-suit area. Perhaps Elisa’s enchantment comes too easily. Perhaps we might wonder why and how the Man reciprocates her fascination, given the physical and communicative barriers between them. One answer is that Elisa finds ways to communicate sensually without a voice, through food and music. Another is that we are probably supposed to understand that these characters, voiceless and lonely as they are, thrive on empathy. A third reason is, perhaps, revealed in the (imagined?) final underwater scene, and while you may see the revelation coming, it still feels impactful.
The eccentricities of this love story should come as no surprise to del Toro devotees, nor should the excellent performances he coaxes from his cast. Hawkins’s expressive face and the timing and tenderness of her gestures could serve as an acting class in portraying emotion without words. Shannon, all self-righteous glower and rage, conveys the personal and the universal threat of a xenophobic government; it feels all too timely.
Spencer’s quiet strength radiates in her every scene; she makes Zelda’s roles as Elisa’s fierce protector, as wife of a no-account man, and as background player in a government facility oozing masculinity and classism, more than the sidekick-of-color comedy relief she might otherwise have been. The script helps, giving Zelda key roles in facilitating Elisa’s opportunities for romance and in the ultimate rebellion against Richard Strickland’s angry-white-male tyranny. Though this is primarily still a story about white characters, the occasional nod to the period’s racial injustices at least assure that those problems are not erased.
As Giles, Richard Jenkins, always a strong addition to any cast, delivers an award-worthy performance dripping with the loneliness of the outsider. A painter, a gay man who lives alone and wants desperately to find love, best friends with his mute neighbor and—using symbolism that is becoming more common—owner of a couple of cats (one of which is quite unfortunate), Giles steps out of his melancholy but entrenched life to help Elisa on her great adventure, and Jenkins makes Giles’s every moment, every decision, every out-of-character act both funny and uplifting.
Whether the film earns our understanding of Elisa and Amphibian Man’s romantic connection is a key question for viewers and critics, and my main quibble with the film is that it spends key screen time on a couple of scenes that seem to add little to the narrative or characterizations—Strickland at home, for instance. This time could have been used to deepen and broaden the connective tissue between Elisa and Amphibian Man. I was also a bit surprised at how Strickland’s story ends. Given what we learn about the nature and powers of Amphibian Man and how the movie generally rejects aggression as problem-solving, I expected something else. Still, as a writer, I know you have to tell the story inside you, and not every reader/viewer will applaud every narrative decision. Even so, my disagreements are relatively minor.
Overall, The Shape of Water deserves the critical love it has gotten since its release and makes a powerful addition to del Toro’s canon. I look forward to buying my copy.
In the first act of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a woman marches into the local advertising office and pays five thousand dollars to rent three derelict billboards located on a seldom-traveled rural road. That woman is Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), and from the first words she speaks, from her hard facial expression, from her indomitable body language, the viewer—and the poor ad agent—understand that you mess with Mildred at your peril.
These billboards, set at perhaps fifty-yard intervals, catalyze a communal crisis that involves Mildred, her son, her friends, the local police, the advertisers, and one dentist who picks exactly the wrong time to take a political side. Mildred has the billboards painted red and sequentially messaged:
Raped While Dying
And Still No Arrests
How Come, Chief Willoughby?
These messages represent Mildred’s shot across the bow of the local constabulary, led by William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). We soon learn that Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered, her body set afire, months before. The police have no leads. And Mildred has waited long enough.
Though you might think a small conservative town would rally behind the victim’s family, much of their loyalty to their fellow citizen ends where their adoration for Chief Willoughby begins. Mildred learns this almost immediately when Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell, who, like most actors in this film, disappears into his role so well you forget whom you’re watching) spots the billboards and reports them to Willoughby (yet another excellent Harrelson character). This leads to a talk between Willoughby and Mildred, in which the complicated nature of the film is epitomized:
Willoughby: I’d do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don’t match no one who’s ever been arrested, and when the DNA don’t match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn’t a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well… right now there ain’t too much more we could do.
Mildred: You could pull blood from every man and boy in this town over the age of 8.
Willoughby: There’s civil rights laws prevents that, Mrs. Hayes, and what if he was just passing through town?
Mildred: Pull blood from every man in the country.
Willoughby: And what if he was just passing through the country?
Mildred: If it was me, I’d start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.
Willoughby: Yeah well, there’s definitely civil rights laws that prevents that. (This quote courtesy of IMDB.com)
From this exchange, we can see that Willoughby is less a bad man than a flawed human being. We can never forget those flaws, but we can acknowledge his empathy and the real problems law enforcement faces in cases without leads. From the same scene:
Willoughby: I don’t think them billboards is very fair.
Mildred: The time it took you to get out here whining like a bitch, Willoughby, some other poor girl’s probably out there being butchered.
The brutal rape, murder, and desecration of Mildred’s daughter has hardened her past the point of empathy with Willoughby’s problems, including his slow and agonizing death from pancreatic cancer—though there is a later scene in the police station that suggests that isn’t quite true, either. In short, from the opening moments of the film, we realize that we have entered a complicated world, where those who deserve our sympathy don’t always get it and no one is clearly and purely good or bad.
Chief Willoughby, whom, we might assume, is the antagonist—and who is capable of saying things like, “If you fired every cop who was just a little bit racist, you’d have, like, three cops. And they’d hate the fags”; who is capable of strong-arming the mother of a rape/murder victim; who continues to employ Dixon in spite of rumors about his torturing black suspects—is also a self-sacrificing man who can see the smallest, dimmest spark of humanity in a goon like Dixon and the likely outcomes of his disease for his loved ones. A series of letters he writes to the other characters reveals further depths in this man, who, against your better judgment, you may come to love a little.
Mildred, so strong and so broken, backtracks and shows honest concern over Willoughby’s health just before she commits an act of protest that may well shock you. In many ways—hence this review’s title—she is like her own character from Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film, Blood Simple, moved to a new town and sick of men’s bullshit. If McDormand is not nominated for Best Actress, I shall cry foul.
Dixon, at first a cartoonish buffoon who embodies the worst characteristics of southern white men and police officers, reveals layers of compassion and dedication underneath those borderline-inhuman traits.
In short, the film never lets us settle comfortably into rooting for any one character, and it forces us to see all sides of a complex, maddening, tragic situation. There is nothing wrong with a good guys vs. bad guys tale, but Three Billboards’ story is one we could imagine occurring in a thousand small towns anywhere in America. That universality and the depth of the movie’s character development make this story impossible to forget.
Plus, for a narrative that hinges on racism, sexism, rape, murder, Missouri citizens versus the police, terminal illness, suicides, severe injuries, and familial strife, Three Billboards is often surprisingly and refreshingly funny. At times, you may laugh and cry after one scene.
Supporting characters, played by always-welcome film and television veterans like Zeljko Ivanek and Clarke Peters, play key roles. Caleb Landry Jones’s advertising man is the hinge on which key plot points turn. Peters, playing a black officer who sweeps in and takes over a station with a history of racial problems, brings his typical no-nonsense gravitas to a minor character, as well as a few key lines that remind us of the stakes: looking about at the all-white force in the station, he says, “Ain’t y’all cracker motherfuckers got work to do?”
Some viewers might not appreciate the film’s non-resolution resolution, but for this writer, it perfectly encapsulates the world of Ebbing, Missouri, which, in its turn, perfectly encapsulates so much of American life in the 21st Century—questions without clear answers, strife on intersectional levels without clear solutions, individual pain rippling through a community and vice versa.
Underrated director Martin McDonagh and his stellar cast and crew have crafted one of 2017’s best films. If you missed it in theaters, rent it as soon as you can.
I have never seen any of Pixar’s Cars movies. Something about the concept never really appealed to me. I’m not sure why. Old dude who flies his house across continents using helium balloons without losing so much as a shingle? No problem. A rat who wants to be a chef? Sure, I’ll watch that. A family of superheroes, sentient toys, a robot that can love? I’m there. A film about talking cars, co-starring Larry the Cable Guy? I just couldn’t.
What all this means is that I will follow Pixar almost anywhere. Moreover, I usually love the trip. They tell stories that work well for the typical target audience of Disney animation—little kids—and the people who buy the tickets.
I saw Coco with my wife, my son, and my youngest daughter, who is eighteen. Our theater, while not packed, was well-attended. Families with up to half a dozen kids piled in, popcorn and sodas and hot dogs in hand, ready to experience the latest Pixar magic.
We had heard that a twenty-minute short film preceded the feature, a point of contention among some local and vocal viewers we had encountered, but our showing got right to the main event. I’m not sure why. I was disappointed in that part of the experience, because I usually dig Pixar shorts, but that’s not Coco’s fault.
To the movie—Coco tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a pre-teen would-be musician born into a family that hates music. Why? Miguel’s great-great-grandfather abandoned his family—including his daughter, the wheelchair-bound and so-old-she’s-barely-aware titular character—for a music career. Formerly a passionate singer, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother, Mama Imelda, forswore music, banning it from her house and passing the edict down in the family ethos all the way to Miguel’s day. If his parents—or, worse, his fiery grandmother, known only as Abuelita—so much as catch him near a Mariachi, woe be unto that poor musician.
The film is set on Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. As Miguel tries to sneak away to practice his musicianship—the film never reveals how he procures a cheap guitar or builds a hideaway complete with a television or learns to play his instrument so well—Abuelita and the rest of the family try to teach Miguel the importance of building an altar to their dead ancestors, displaying pictures of the departed and leaving offerings, like food.
Convinced that his great-great-grandfather was the famous singer/actor Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced with plenty of self-satisfied ooze by Benjamin Bratt), and infuriated with his closed-minded family after Abuelita destroys his guitar, Miguel runs away and attempts to steal de la Cruz’s guitar from the mausoleum. This is, of course, a problem, because the cemetery is full of families cleaning and decorating tombstones. Stuck within the tomb, Miguel strums the guitar while standing on top of a carpet of flower petals and, through the magic of Dia de los Muertos, is transported to the light-filled, celebratory, walking-and-talking-skeleton-populated Land of the Dead.
The catch? Miguel is a live boy, but he can only stay that way if he returns to the Land of the Living before the holiday ends. To do so, he must get the blessing of his dead family—who will only grant it if he forswears music forever. Rejecting this condition, Miguel sets off on a quest to reach de la Cruz, whose celebrity status makes a visit nearly impossible. Aided by a mysterious figure named Hector, who desperately needs to reach the Land of the Living, and chased by Mama Imelda’s griffin-like spirit animal, the ever-more-skeletal Miguel races against time and the ways that the deepest, darkest truths of his family tie him ever tighter to the Dead.
If it seems like it took me a while to reach the film’s central conflicts, like this review leans heavily toward multiple points of exposition, that’s because the movie does, too. Along with some unanswered questions, like those mentioned above, the initial plot threads—Miguel’s love of music vs. his family’s unwavering rejection of it! Miguel’s need for an instrument and an audience! The identity of his great-great-grandfather! Mama Imelda’s ultimatum! The chase through the Dead’s city! The question of just who this Hector dude is! Why the film is named after a secondary character who barely moves or talks! The purpose of a lovable but doofy stray dog!—fly in many different directions, making for a haphazard and overly busy first act. When compared with the emotionally devastating yet economical storytelling of Up, for instance, Coco feels muddled.
Once Miguel runs from his dead family, just as he ran from his living one, and the race to find his musical ancestor coalesces with his race against time, the film gels, and its twin arcs—Miguel’s fate as a musician and his understanding the true importance of family history—interweave beautifully. From that point on, the already visually stunning movie churns at a quick pace, hitting key emotional beats at just the right time.
Pixar has gone dark before—Ellie’s death in Up, the third act of The Incredibles, the torture of toys in Toy Story and the attempted murder of our fave characters in Toy Story 3, the end of the world in Wall-E, et cetera. Somehow, though, parts of Coco feel even darker. There are long-kept family secrets, a devastating betrayal, a murder (!!!), questions of what happens in life after the afterlife, issues of legacy, Miguel’s increasingly skeletal body, and more. While some parents might find these elements a tad too dark for the film’s youngest viewers, they add gravitas and high stakes to the narrative, making Miguel’s journey feel urgent and intensely personal.
Yet the movie, rightly lauded for its commitment to diversity, also feels universal. Voiced by an entirely Latinx cast and exploring Mexican cultural traditions in a time when American leaders talk of bad hombres and border walls and travel bans, Coco, with its emphasis on family ties and the extraordinary power of art, feels necessary and timely in a way it might not have before November 2016. In fact, though the timeline of Pixar filmmaking almost guarantees that this is coincidental and not an intentional decision, Ernesto de la Cruz—vain, concerned above all else with his legacy and image, loyal only to his sycophants, greedy, myopic—bears, in terms of personality and values, more than a passing resemblance to certain Muppet-headed American leaders of today.
For all that, though, the story is, at one level, about one boy’s acceptance of and into his family—finding his place in the world. The scene between Miguel and Grandma Coco, praised in Entertainment Weekly as one of the top ten movie scenes of the year, may well break your heart, even as it makes you smile.
With excellent voice acting, Pixar’s high standards of astonishing visuals, cultural significance, timeliness, and poignant humanity, Coco overcomes its haphazard first act and proves itself a worthy entry into the Pixar canon.
From fan reaction around the world, you’d think that Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is either the greatest film ever made or the worst affront to this fine and storied franchise since Jar-Jar Binks. It is neither, but when has reality ever stopped hyperbole?
As of this writing, IMDB.com users’ average rating is 7.6/10. The film rates a “Certified Fresh” on RottenTomatoes.com with a 91% critics’ average, though the same site reflects fan polarization, with a current (as of 12/29/17) rating of 51%. Metacritic.com rates it 86/100.
All this seems to suggest that people who know movies and watch them for a living overwhelmingly like the film, while everyone else is split nearly down the middle.
Count me in the pro-TLJ camp. While the film is imperfect, I enjoyed it as a viewer, as a critic, and as a Class of ’77 member.
I was seven years old when Star Wars IV: A New Hope burst into theaters—or, in my case, onto a southeast Arkansas drive-in screen. I can honestly say, without exaggeration or irony, that sitting in a car with my parents, listening to a tinny speaker gargle out James Earl Jones’s stentorian Darth Vader voice and watching Luke and Leia swing from platform to platform in the Death Star, changed my life. For the first time, I realized that I, too, could see more and do more than my immediate environment provided. Life could be an adventure, not just a series of days in which you took one more sequential step toward some far-off goal—getting through this year’s grade, waiting for baseball season, becoming a teenager. It was also the first time I realized that I was drawn to tweeners and scoundrels, because I identified much more with Han Solo than white-bread goody-two-shoes Luke Skywalker.
And so, while some have argued that any Star Wars film is ultimately for kids and not to be taken seriously, I reject that notion. As artist, academic, critic, and fan, I find the distinction between so-called “high” and “pop” art dubious, but even if we accept that distinction, I believe this series of films adds up to far more than popcorn entertainment for the twelve-and-under crowd.
When I say, then, that TLJ is a good movie and one of my favorites in the series, know that I ain’t playin’.
My current, and extremely mutable, ranking of the films looks like this:
- The Empire Strikes Back
- A New Hope
- Rogue One
- The Last Jedi
- Return of the Jedi
- The Force Awakens
- Revenge of the Sith
- Attack of the Clones
- The Phantom Menace
Don’t bother giving me shit for putting Rogue One at #3. I really liked it, other than the strained cameos by R2D2 and C-3PO, and it’s just my opinion. Plus, admittedly, #s 3-6 are likely to change with more reflection and my mood. For instance, I admit that it is as much sentimentality and nostalgia as good critical arguments that led me to list RotJ ahead of TFA. Still, at least for the moment, TLJ is a top-four film in the canon.
[SPOILER ALERT: if you have not yet seen the film but still intend to, stop now and come back later. I’ll wait.]
Much of the ire aimed at the film seems to have centered on fanperson theories that turned out not to be true—Snoke as Mace Windu, Han and Leia as Rey’s parents, and so on. Look, folks, it’s not the movie’s fault that you’re wrong. Get over it.
Other people’s issues seem to stem from TLJ’s left turn from plot beats and characterizations that we all recognize.
Of course, some of these same folks lambasted TFA because it hewed too close to ANH’s bones—young orphan stuck on a desert world (swap out Jakku for Tatooine) and eking out a fairly miserable existence; the arrival of a visitor from the stars and a droid or two (swap out Poe Dameron and BB8 for R2 and 3PO) as inciting incident; mysterious Sith Lord and his dark-clad, enormously powerful apprentice, who opens the movie by slaughtering rebels; old freedom fighter who imparts wisdom and sets our new heroes on their course before he is struck down by the Dark Side (swap out Han for Obi-Wan Kenobi); yet another Death Star, more properly called a Death Planet; the usual plan for destroying a Death Star (even Han says, “Let’s blow it up. There’s always a way to blow it up.”); a visit to a wretched hive of scum and villainy; and on and on.
I chose to view TFA as a love letter to the original trilogy and its fans, not a thinly veiled copy churned out by creators with no new ideas. But the death of Han Solo—my all-time favorite Star Wars character, the one with whom I have always most closely identified, played by an actor I adore—and the way that Kylo Ren, badass Sith apprentice meant to take Darth Vader’s place, got his ass kicked by someone who had never used the Force before, and our first view of an individual Stormtrooper who had different ideas about how his life should be lived, also demonstrated that the series would be taking us in new directions.
I had no problem with that. In fact, though I hated seeing Han Solo die (and no, I don’t care that Harrison Ford wanted to kill him off in RotJ), the possibilities excited me. Can Rey possibly become the new Luke AND the new Han? Can Luke be Rey’s Yoda? When Finn wakes up, what will he do? Should we care about Poe? How will Leia survive without her long-time love?
TLJ gave us some answers. Can Rey fill Han’s place as outside-the-box rebel and Millennium Falcon pilot AND Luke’s role as the Jedi’s best hope?
She doesn’t really have to. Rey and Poe Dameron share Han’s tendency to go off-script and spout off whatever’s on his mind and generally drive the rebel authorities nuts, even as he proves himself indispensable to the cause. Because she must toe the Padawan line, Rey cannot be pure hero-against-her-better-judgment, I’m-my-own-best-boss role that Han played, which partially necessitates Poe’s existence. On the other hand, the I-know-what’s-best-goddammit Poe, as a commander in the rebel fleet and General Leia devotee, cannot be pure Han, either; he follows orders well, as long as they come from Leia, and he’s no smuggling scoundrel. He’s just a hardheaded mansplainer and the best pilot since some guy named Skywalker—the part of the Luke role that Rey cannot fill because a) she pilots the Falcon and b) she must spend too much time on the ground, fighting lightsaber duels and trying to save Kylo Ren from himself.
In short, Rey and Poe replace Han and Luke by each taking on parts of the original characters’ duties and characteristics. It’s not a one-for-one trade. This strategy allows us old Star Wars fans to recognize the characterizations while moving on from the films, and the characters, and the actors that we grew up loving so much. That’s not just good storytelling. It’s also good marketing, since the franchise is trying to reach new audiences who have not aged with the originals and lack the same kind of emotional investment you can only feel when you have loved something for forty years.
There are many indications that this film signals a watershed moment in the Star Wars universe. Certainly, the death of Han Solo was the first, and perhaps the most painful, transition. Outside of the films, Carrie Fisher’s untimely death sent all of us into the theaters with the knowledge that we would be seeing Leia for the last time, no matter what happened in the movie, and that lent my particular viewing a deep sense of melancholy that existed side-by-side with my forty-year-old excitement upon hearing that theme music cue up again and seeing those opening text crawls.
In TLJ, one major moment of change comes when Luke contemplates burning down the Jedi Temple, their Tree of Life, their original sacred texts. He cannot do it, of course, because deep down, regardless of Ben Solo’s betrayal and Luke’s disenchantment with what he calls Jedi vanity, he is still a Master at his core.
So Afterlife Yoda shows up and does it for him, calling down a lightning strike that would make Thor proud, forcing Luke to realize that change, evolution itself, often begins with letting go of the past. This, in fact, is one of the major themes of the film. Kylo Ren speaks it aloud several times, including in the wake of the battle in Snoke’s throne room. He pleads with Rey to join him in leaving behind the Jedi, the Sith, the darkness-and-light binary of the galaxy’s entire belief system. Though I cannot believe that the next film will eschew uses of and discussions about the Force, the Light Side and the Dark Side, searching and using one’s feelings, Empire vs. Rebels, lightsaber duels and Tie Fighters vs. X-Wings, the idea that a major Star Wars character might want to think and exist in some Third Space suggests a desire to point Star Wars and its tropes in fresher, newer directions.
Of course, another of my questions above is whether Luke can fill the proverbial shoes of his great teachers, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. The short answer? No. When he sees a growing darkness in Ben Solo, he faces a test of character not unlike his Journey into the Cave in TESB. We see two versions of this story play out—one from Ben/Kylo’s perspective, in which Luke betrays him, tries to murder him in his sleep, and sends him further down his dark path; and one from Luke, in which he admits to considering the murder, snuffing out his nephew/apprentice for the galaxy’s greater good, before realizing that he cannot, will not, do it.
What this suggests to me is that, despite the committed and confident Jedi Knight we see in RotJ, Luke has continued the struggle with his faith that make up some of TESB’s most poignant and quotable moments. In ANH, Luke is the wide-eyed and idealistic Padawan; in TESB, he roils in a crisis of faith, both in himself and his mission; and in RotJ, he seems to have come out of his crisis and into the Force’s light for good. TLJ reveals that the naïve young man-turned Knight-turned Master, through hard experience and personal failure, has evolved into a cynic who would rather burn down the Jedi religion than lead any more young people to their deaths or into the hell that is the Dark Side. His self-doubt leads to fear, which, as we know, leads to anger, which leads to hate. Fear of what Ben Solo might become leads Luke to inward-pointed anger, which leads to self-hate, which leads, mercifully, not to the Dark Side but to self-exile.
That Luke has changed so much over the years; that he never becomes the pure hero he always wanted to be because he is, ultimately, all too human; that his self-loathing and other-directed empathy bring him to that lonely island; that Rey, R2, and Chewie are able to reach him through all that and coax him back to the fight, all contribute to a deepening of Luke’s character and a stronger, more powerful film than we would have gotten if Luke had become Yoda without the weird syntax.
Yet his example—his knowledge of the Force, his clear-eyed view of what it truly means to be a Jedi Knight, his final heroic act of self-sacrifice and his understated yet heart-wrenching goodbye to his sister and 3PO—demonstrates to Kylo Ren, to Rey, to Poe, and to the scattered but unbowed rebellion that hope still lives. Taken together, Rey, Finn, and Poe are supposed to be our new New Hope, and Kylo Ren is supposed to be our new Emperor/Vader combo. If they seem less archetypal and legendary than Luke and Leia and Han and Vader, I would like to believe that it is a purposeful complicating, a strategic humanizing, of the new characters. Let’s face it; it’s doubtful that they could ever operate on the level of the original trilogy’s beloved figures. And so the legends leave us like legends do, while those still finding their way stumble over obstacles and screw things up and fail.
What will happen to Finn? Well, as we see, he wakes up and still sees the small picture—save Rey and get the hell away from the First Order! That he is immediately caught, tasered, and thrust back into the fight recalls the series’ complicated exploration of destiny vs. free will. When he realizes that running is not an option and that the Rebels face extinction, Finn steps up, and by the end of TLJ, he refers to himself as “Rebel scum” (emphasis Finn’s). Much like Han at the end of ANH, Finn wants nothing to do with the war until personal ties outweigh his political and social neutrality. These parts of Han’s and Finn’s arcs follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey pattern and echo other moments in cinema history, such as when Rick in Casablanca does, in fact, stick his neck out for somebody. It also suggests a strategy for our current times and troubles—that when we cannot persuade someone to act for Great Political Causes or Social Issues, appealing to their love of family and friends might work.
Plus, Finn’s better at close-quarters fighting now, so there’s that.
Should we care about Poe? Well, the jury’s still out. Oscar Isaac, a chameleonic actor who seems to star in every other movie released these days, does his best with a crucial yet underwritten role. Who, exactly, is Poe Dameron? Is he the hotshot pilot and good Rebel soldier we see in TFA? Is he the smartass X-Wing jockey who takes on an entire Star Destroyer by himself in TLJ, only to buck orders and sacrifice the entire Rebel bombing contingent? Is he the Leia loyalist who will follow her anywhere, or the rebel amongst Rebels who incites mutiny when Leia is injured and his mansplaining to Vice Admiral Holdo doesn’t work? Is he, in his own way, a Padawan, and if so, whom will be his Master when the next film must go forward without our Princess?
I’m interested to see where the series takes Poe, but at this point, he is the least interesting of the new characters.
As for how Leia will survive without Han, well, she survives by being the same badass, take-charge woman we first met in 1977. Though older and wiser, a general instead of a Princess, or both at the same time, Leia remains the consummate leader, the sun around which all the other characters orbit. This is a woman used to loss. Remember that a Death Star obliterated her entire home planet. Her biological mother and father both died without her ever really knowing them. Her brother disappears. She loses countless friends and colleagues to the Empire and First Order. Her son betrays her and everything she stands for.
Of course she can thrive without Han. She has never needed a man to complete her. The bigger question is what the franchise, and the characters, will do without her.
Yet we also see new wrinkles in Leia. TLJ, in a much-maligned scene, shows that Leia understands and wields the Force in ways that we have never seen before, such that she can survive an explosion and the vacuum of space. Though overt demonstrations of Force mastery have obviously never been Leia’s way, I was pleasantly surprised with that scene. Why? First, Kylo Ren’s inability to blow up the bridge himself shows, rather than tells through didactic dialogue, that he is, indeed, still conflicted—that Rey might still save him from himself. Second, the scene pays off the conversation between Yoda and Obi-Wan we saw way back in TESB—the “Luke is our last hope” and “No. There is another” talk on Dagobah. That always suggested that Leia could be what Rey is becoming—a female New Hope that could stand against the Dark Side—yet the films never really showed any evidence that she had real truck with the Force.
Now we know. She could have taken over for Luke, but the Rebels needed more than one kind of leader. She chose another path, but Yoda was right; she could have been the Chosen One, had Luke fallen.
We also know, thanks to scenes between her and Rey in TFA and her and Poe in TLJ, that Leia has remained a loving, caring, nurturing mother who can still kick your ass. Whether Ben Solo was seduced to the Dark Side because Luke failed him, or because Han did, or because of his own character flaws, or some combination of all three, we can be pretty sure that Leia did nothing to drive her son away. Yet, just as she is willing to stun Poe and end his mutiny, she is also practical enough to realize that her son may well be gone and cannot, in any case, be allowed to run roughshod over the galaxy.
Leia is probably the strongest character George Lucas has ever created, and if TFA was a final showcase for Han Solo’s brand of heroism, TLJ is, in many ways, a curtain call for Leia’s unbreakable spirit and love.
More praise for the film—whereas TFA took us back to the good old days of blowing up Death Stars, TLJ teases us with stratagems similar to those used in earlier films: the infiltration team sent into the First Order ship to disable its tracking mechanism, similar to ANH’s mission to shut off the Death Star’s tractor beam; a Walker march on a Rebel base, such as we saw on Hoth in TESB; an attempt to destroy something with one pilot’s near-suicide run and precise shooting, referring to Finn’s attach on the battering ram and Luke’s one-in-a-million shot in ANH; and more.
Yet, unlike in ANH and Rogue-One, the infiltration party is betrayed and fails; the Rebels escape the base before it is overrun, as in TESB, yet it takes a major character’s sacrifice to do it; and Finn is stopped before he can martyr himself, which leads to his own once-in-a-lifetime shot missing. In these and many other ways, TLJ echoes past movies while changing outcomes and attitudes. The lack of patience and the general failure of Poe Dameron’s brand of heroism—in-your-face fighting against incredible odds, unnecessary risk, self-belief that borders on hubris, et cetera—leads me to wonder what kind of heroics the next film will model for a new generation.
Luke’s final battle with Ren also echoes yet alters previous films’ beats. It’s TLJ’s version of ANH’s Kenobi-Vader throwdown, complete with its own version of “Strike me down, and I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” and the turning off of a lightsaber. Yet its twists on that scene—Ren’s team’s all-out assault on Luke, leading to Luke’s “Bitch, please” shoulder-brush; Luke’s outright admission that he failed Ben Solo; and the revelation that the entire battle was not just an Obi-Wan-style distraction but a complete swerve, with Luke projecting his image and voice across untold distances so that Ren is, in effect, fighting a hologram; Luke’s “see you around, kid” line that portends his continued influence on Ren’s conflicted soul—freshen the familiar and provide a true “Oh my God, Luke really IS the man” moment that I never once felt, even in the original trilogy.
As usual with this series, the visual effects and sound editing are top-notch. The fight choreography is often excellent, particularly in the Rey/Kylo team-up in Snoke’s throne room. The acting is strong, with the Most Improved Player award going to Adam Driver, who shakes off TFA’s “Emo Ren” characterization and brings Ben Solo into his own as a vicious, determined, capable fighter who misses his mother.
And no, I have no issue with the Vulptex crystal-wolf creatures, who provide both a key plot point and a spectacular visual, or the Fathiers Finn and Rose ride, or the Porg. The latter have come under particular fire as a cynical source of potential merchandise cash from little kids. Perhaps they are, but they’re so damned cute, and so much like puffins, and such good comedy relief in a film that mostly ignores older sources like R2 and 3PO, that I don’t care. I’m really intrigued to see how the stowaway Porg gets on with Chewbacca, who thus far has mostly used it as a football. Better a cutesy mascot than an Ewok or a Jar-Jar.
I am, of course, cognizant of the film’s problems. As a friend recently pointed out, this movie and TFA talk a lot about Ben’s seduction to the Dark Side without really showing how it happened or what, indeed, is so seductive. For all we know, the “growing darkness” Luke senses in Ben Solo might have been hormones.
Though the visuals and emotional payoff of Vice Admiral Holdo’s self-sacrifice are powerful, one wonders why the plan had to be kept secret from the rest of the crew, including Poe, other than that the script wanted to surprise the viewer. It just seems like poor strategy.
R2 and 3PO have been written as largely irrelevant.
Kylo Ren cannot pull the trigger and kill his own mother, but he can order others to do so, as his “no prisoners” directive in the assault on the rebel base makes clear. This seems like a contradiction in characterization. Kid, you either protect your Mom or you don’t. Causing her death by proxy isn’t better than killing her yourself.
Rey’s characterization as a Jedi deepens as her skills and control increase, but her characterization as a person doesn’t really progress much. That’s disappointing.
Worse is Poe’s haphazard development, especially since off-screen issues—our Princess’s death—may well lead to the character’s ascension to Rebel leader. He seems ill-suited to that role. He’s a better pilot than a strategist. In fact, none of the surviving characters seems particularly ready to lead the whole rebellion, and this film undermines the concept of the individual zooming off to take down an empire alone. Will the Rebellion lose, allowing darkness truly to rise, simply because they’ve run out of military brainpower? In short, have the creative powers-that-be written themselves into a corner? Or will a new leader arise? Could that leader be Finn, who at least received military training? If so, will we buy it, considering he’s only now wholeheartedly getting on board with the Rebellion? Or will Rey have to shoulder that burden, too? Must she be part Han, part Luke, and part Leia, and if so, will it keep her from every truly being herself?
TLJ has made me long to know the answers to those questions. It works well for me as the second act of this new chapter in Star Wars. In fact, it works for me, in part, because of its difference from previous pacing. The Big Bad Emperor dies in this film, not the third act, and Ren gets the chance to do what even Vader never did—rise to the throne. Rey must step up without her Jedi Master one full film earlier than Luke did. The head of the rebellion has been cut off.
What happens next? What new ground will be broken? Who will survive, and who will turn, and why?
I can’t wait to find out.
Very grateful that my story “Closed for Storm” was accepted by The Baltimore Review. As always, thanks to God, Kalene, the editors, my friends and family, and my readers.
Thanks to the small online literary mag THE COURTSHIP OF WINDS for accepting my short story, “Everyone Here Comes from Somewhere Else.” This is one of those stories that is kind of a hard sell, and I’m very grateful someone appreciates it. And thanks, as always, to God, Kalene, my kids, my friends, and my readers.
**NOTE** I wrote this approximately one year ago. I sent it out to two or three of the usual MSM outlets, where it was summarily ignored, and then moved on to other writings. I figured it would just go in my metaphorical trunk, where half-finished and unpublished manuscripts sleep in silence. In the wake of today’s Supreme Court ruling upholding one of Trump’s travel bans, though, I thought I’d post it here, in its original form (I’m not even sure the original links work). Perhaps there is relevance here; perhaps not. Make of it what you will.
As the Predator-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump, took the oath of office, whitehouse.gov pages for climate change, LGBTQ issues, healthcare, and civil rights vanished, as did Spanish-language content. In the coming weeks and months, Americans of conscience will resist any attempt to roll back or eliminate laws and rights that protect all people, not just the members of the white rich nativist conservative (allegedly) Christian ableist heteropatriarchy. Others will uncritically accept the Predator’s vision.
Recently, one of my old friends, caught in the grip of a patriotism that seemed closer to jingoism or nationalism, conflated my anti-Trump stance with anti-Americanism. This is, of course, an old argument, and a highly problematic one, as measured, thoughtful, researched criticism of one’s nation is much more patriotic than blind devotion. I refused to recount all my reasons and evidence for resisting the Predator’s positions and values—reasons and evidence that I have stated and defended for the better part of two years—but I did summarize a few of the positions that I find unconscionable, including his characterizations of the Mexican people.
“He didn’t call all Mexicans rapists and murderers,” said my friend. “Show me where he did that.”
“Look at his speeches,” I said, “and do your own research, from multiple sources.”
It’s true that Trump did not characterize every Mexican immigrant as a rapist or murderer. But it’s also true that he purposefully, strategically downplayed their humanity. His racist and distorted attacks on Mexicans, and Hispanic people in general, outweigh his disingenuous praise. Parsing all of these comments would take more time and space than I have available here, but an examination of the Predator’s inflammatory comment about rapists and murderers might be useful, especially when juxtaposed with self-serving, thinly veiled advertisements for his own products.
Back in June of 2015, Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Like George W. Bush before him, the Predator-in-Chief lacks linguistic sophistication. His use of “bigly” still staggers me. In the above quote, “they’re” is confusing. At first, “they” refers to Mexico, a place—an “it,” or, if you accept traditional gender assignations of objects and places, a “she.” Later, though, “they” refers to immigrants. Sometimes, he uses both in the same sentence; they send people with problems, and they bring those problems to us. Trump seems to conflate the entire country of Mexico with “people that have lots of problems,” and those same people are next characterized as drug-runners and/or mules, criminals, and rapists. He uses Othering language, establishing a victimized us and an evil, corrupt them.
To some people, that might seem like splitting a grammatical hair, so let’s look at his presentation of these ideas.
The quote begins with the idea that Mexico “sends” people across the border, as if the land has a mind of its own and wants to stick it to Americans. This anthropomorphic characterization of a geographical locale seems nonsensical unless Trump is speaking of the Mexican government, which would suggest a series of offices where mustache-twirling bureaucrats interview citizens and assign “bad hombres” to cross the border en masse. Nothing is impossible, I suppose, but one would think such an organized and wide-ranging assault on American stability from a border country might attract the intelligence community’s attention.
Next, look at how Trump organizes his ideas—the generalized “people that have lots of problems,” followed by a general list of what those problems allegedly are, drugs and rape and the much vaguer “crime,” which could mean anything. He states all of this as if it were fact, and he provides no specific support for his assertions. Like so many things he says, he wants us to believe these statements are true because he made them. Only after he spends five sentences denouncing immigrants from Mexico does he tack on the qualification, which is notable not only for its lack of development but for his admitting that their goodness is hypothetical. Trump seems to be saying, “Factually, immigrant criminals rape and run drugs, but because I am so magnanimous, I am willing to assume that some of them don’t.” Gosh, isn’t he nice?
In short, Trump did not say that all Mexicans are rapists or criminals, but he emphasized criminal traits when describing them, a rhetorical strategy meant to make his audience fear immigrants and support whatever Fascist strategy might keep them out or deport them. Even his “I love Hispanics” taco-bowl tweet, so ridiculous and self-aggrandizing, reduces an entire culture to servers of food for rich white men.
To combat this influx of marauding chefs, Trump continues to insist on a border wall. What does he plan to do about the existing barriers or the enormous stretches of land along the Rio Grande—drain the river? Which Goldman Sachs executive will get that job?
Trump wants to make Mexico pay for this wall, but he can’t even manage to pay his own contractors. To be fair, he has said that he would be fine with having a big door in that wall for legal immigration, but then why not just embrace President Obama’s call for an easier path to citizenship? How does Trump factor in the ever-expanding Border Patrol, and why doesn’t he mention that illegal border crossings have already been declining for years? (See the “Unauthorized Immigrants” section here.) Why doesn’t he say much more about the good, desperate people who come to America, which still casts itself as the Biblical/Winthropian “city on a hill,” seeking a better life? Has the light of the world burned out?
Why hasn’t he spent much time discussing unauthorized immigration from other countries, across other borders, including victims of sex trafficking? Why the focus on Mexico, Hispanics, “bad hombres”?
Something is going on here beyond a concern for national security or economics—perhaps blatant racism or a cynical appeal to his base’s xenophobia.
In any case, as of this writing, whitehouse.gov’s new, and rather spare, “Issues” page lists nothing about immigration reform. Instead, the Predator-in-Chief has given us something called (rather problematically, from a grammar perspective) an “America First Foreign Policy.” It’s a blustery statement, vaguely threatening to nations that have the temerity to put their own concerns above America’s. You can read Trump’s pre-election positions on immigration here. As for details about the wall, or immigrants who have lived in America most of their lives without citizenship, well, it’s all anybody’s guess. We can, however, glean more about his conscience, or lack thereof, from his recent executive order banning immigrants, especially Muslims, from certain African and Middle Eastern countries. Trump’s abandonment of those in dire need, such as Syrian refugees, and his anti-Hispanic, nationalist, exceptionalist rhetoric echoes Nazi Germany’s demonization of Jews and the contemporaneous call for a national identity predicated, to a great extent, on destroying this Demonic Other.
Near the Statue of Liberty, a plaque bears Emma Lazarus’s famous poem, “The New Colossus.” This sonnet names America the “Mother of Exiles.” Though this romanticized view of the country glosses over our blood-soaked bedrock of Native American genocide and displacement, we cannot ignore that, even before its Declaration of Independence, America as a nation has always consisted of immigrants and their descendants. Yet the Predator-in-Chief rejects our national valuation of embracing those in need. He uses language and imagery that dehumanize the desperate and the destitute. He wants to turn off the lamp and shut the golden door.
We all need to ask ourselves if we can live with that.
My essay “Past, Present, Popcorn” is now live on Wild Violet. Check it out, please.