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I’d Ask You to Think about Fish and Water: THE SHAPE OF WATER Review

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.


Spoilerful Review: STAR WARS: #TheLastJedi

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:

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. A New Hope
  3. Rogue One
  4. The Last Jedi
  5. Return of the Jedi
  6. The Force Awakens
  7. Revenge of the Sith
  8. Attack of the Clones
  9. 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.


Randoms: On David Foster Wallace and The Hush Puppy

We interrupt this series of “My Ideal Bookshelf” columns because, um, we want to.

I’ve been swamped with work lately and haven’t had a chance to finish up the “Ideal Bookshelf” series, but as I’ve been slogging through the various items in my inbox, I’ve come to realize that I need to get something off my chest.

I am angry and sad, and it’s all related to David Foster Wallace.

Those who know me should be unsurprised. I have long been a Wallace devotee. My book The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light was partly inspired by his collection entitled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men[1]. His graduation speech “This Is Water” is on my list of Things to Make Everyone I Know Read before They Die.[2]

Lately, I’ve been reading his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.  Its subtitle is “Essays and Arguments,” which is exactly what you’ll find inside the covers. And, as always, whether he is writing about tennis stars or David Lynch or the perils of taking luxury cruises with dickish crews and asshole rich people, his work is funny, insightful, and emotionally bare. In fact, his article on Lynch represents exactly what I want to do in my own popular culture criticism—marry high-level academic thinking with language and tone that anyone of reasonable intelligence or curious intellect can access. [3]

When I read Wallace’s work, it is as if he’s reaching across time and distance and tapping me on the shoulder. His erudite, self-deprecating, often-despair-driven nonfiction work often mirrors exactly how I feel about something, and I simultaneously admire him and hate him for saying it so well. Hell, he’s even fascinated with footnotes and asides. Read my doctoral dissertation and, on the page, it won’t look much different from the typical DFW essay.

I do my best, even in my bleakest moments, not to disparage or minimalize whatever talents God gave me; doing so, I believe, disrespects them, and Him, and myself. I never want to seem ungrateful for things I should never, ever take for granted.  Yet I think it’s only human to feel inadequate or fraudulent when you read the work of writers whose genius has already been established and your own talents are still mostly obscure.

And but so (see what I did there, DFW? I stole your weird transitional phrase!), when reading Wallace, I often feel like a second-string mid-major college quarterback must feel when they watch Peyton Manning or Drew Brees—the heady, almost orgasmic thrill that comes with experiencing a world-class practitioner at work in your field, doing the very thing that you aspire to do and at the level you aspire to achieve, plus the concurrent and soul-wrenching suspicion that you will never actually reach those heights. That you might not be as good as you hope you are, and that, even if you’re (thanks be to God) just as good as those guys who already have the job, you might not catch the same breaks, get the same opportunities, find the same kind of support system in the field that will believe in you and advocate for you and by God just help you do what you damn well fucking know you’re meant to do[4], for your sake and the sake of those who might find your work entertaining or a pleasant distraction from daily miseries or thought-provoking or inspirational or, we might as well say it because it’s what we all hope for in some part of ourselves, genius-level art.

DFW intrigues me, tickles me, entertains me. And yet I’m angry.

For those who don’t know—on September 12, 2008, after a life-long battle with depression and a concurrent quaffing of pills and electroconvulsive therapy and other typical stavings-off of the crushing despair of daily life and its equally unbearable beauty, David Foster Wallace waited until his wife left their home, wrote a farewell note, and hung himself on his own patio.[5]

On that day, a great light went out of the literary firmament. Those who knew him, and those of us who felt like we did, still find the world a dimmer, less interesting place than it was when he was in it.[6]

So I’m mad. I’m angry that a man who wrote so much about choosing to see the world in an empathetic way could not, in the end, keep choosing. I don’t know whom to blame for this. Many people see his suicide as a failure to live up to his own principles, but for God’s sake, as he himself points out in “This Is Water,” we have no idea what’s going on in anyone else’s head or what their life’s circumstances are like. I don’t know if his death speaks to a failure in his particular support system or to the great malaise in our country’s attitudes about/willingness to pay for preventative care of mental illness. I do know that five years later, I’m still grappling with my own complicated responses, and that sometimes those responses take the form of anger at DFW himself.

“What the hell, man?” I want to ask him.

The thing is, I know despair. I have lived in the deep black pit of it for years at a time. When I was younger, I suffered from the generalized and overly Romantic soul-sickness that is so common to young creative types. I spent most of my time absolutely certain that most people did not understand me and had no real desire to. (Even today, I’m not sure I was very far off with this belief.) In the years since, I have labored under the fears that I am a terrible father, an inadequate husband, an okay teacher at best, and a writer who may or may not ever achieve widespread publication or a broad audience. On some days, the blank page that I want to fill up or the half-full classroom full of people who actually expect me to know what I’m doing is so daunting that I can barely breathe.

I know what it means to hurt.

But what the hell, man? You took yourself away from us. You truncated a brilliant career. You left. You left.

I mean, listen to this shit for a minute:

“What he says aloud is understandable, but it’s not the marvelous part. The marvelous part is the way Joyce’s face looks when he talks about what tennis means to him. He loves it; you can see this in his face when he talks about it: his eyes normally have a kind of Asiatic cast because of the slight epicanthic fold common to ethnic Irishmen, but when he speaks of tennis and his career the eyes get round and the pupils dilate and the look in them is one of love. The love is not the love one feels for a job or a lover or any of the loci of intensity that most of us choose to say we love. It’s the sort of love you see in the eyes of really old people who’ve been happily married for an incredibly long time, or in religious people who are so religious that they’ve devoted their lives to religious stuff: it’s the sort of love whose measure is what it has cost, what one’s given up for it. Whether there’s ‘choice’ involved is, at a certain point, of no interest . . . since it’s the very surrender of choice and self that informs the love in the first place.”—From “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”

Can you dig what he just said about love? “The very surrender of choice and self that informs love in the first place.” What a great turn of phrase. And the son of a bitch wrote that when he was around 33, ten full years younger than I am now. (!!!!) What would he have been capable of at fifty? Sixty? Eighty?

This is the crux of my dilemma. I am reading the work of a writer whose mind and work I deeply respect. But every time I laugh or nod knowingly, I also want to scream. Because he’s gone.

What the hell am I supposed to do about that?

And now, on a different note…

I’ll tell you one thing I won’t do—go back to The Hush Puppy again.

For those who don’t live in Las Vegas, The Hush Puppy is a dinner-only restaurant on West Charleston Boulevard. It’s just a few minutes down the road from the College of Southern Nevada’s main campus. When I heard about the place, I was terribly interested. The owners were originally from Texarkana, Arkansas, not all that far from where I grew up. The restaurant serves a lot of good old southern dishes—barbecued ribs, sweet tea, fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried oysters (are you detecting a pattern?), and more, along with some south Louisiana favorites like gumbo and alligator. I had to go.

It started out well enough. We arrived just before the 5 pm opening and were allowed to come on in. They seated our party of three within a couple of minutes and took our drink orders in a timely manner. I ordered the sweet tea, and when they say “sweet,” they are not kidding. The Hush Puppy’s sweet tea is the kind where, after your first big swallow, you feel like going outside and dashing around the building eight or ten times. Seriously, diabetics should not drink this stuff. It was a little too sweet for my tastes, too, but mostly I dug it. In Las Vegas, pre-sweetened iced tea is about as common as slow nights on the Strip and blizzards.

Soon our waitress, expressionless but dutiful, brought out a basket of hushpuppies. They were plentiful and piping hot and tasted like the batter on corn dogs. Not the exact kind of puppies you might get at a southern fish fry, but good nonetheless. I put away six or seven of the suckers, with butter from three generous tubs spread on them. So far, we were all happy.

Kalene and Maya both ordered the 10 oz. top sirloin with baked potato and a corn cobette. Both meals came with a trip to the salad bar and, allegedly, garlic bread, though said bread never appeared, and no one ever mentioned it. Kalene ordered her steak medium well. Maya ordered it medium.

I ordered something called a Big Bayou Platter (“Sure to satisfy a healthy appetite”), which consisted of Louisiana Shrimp, alligator tail, “New Orleans” fried oysters, and farm-raised fried catfish. It also came with a salad bar trip. I ordered crawfish rice as my side. Sounds good, right?


The salad bar was small and crowded, but I had no real problems with it. I wasn’t expecting anything fancy. I got my iceberg, my carrots, what on further review appeared to be Bac-Os (which taste like vaguely bacon-flavored uncooked popcorn kernels), some shredded cheese, and a bit of ranch dressing. I saw some watery black olives, but other than the carrots, no other hearty veggies in evidence. No broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, red onion, bell pepper, and so forth. Perhaps I missed them in the crowd. In any case, I had a serviceable but unspectacular salad with enough room on the plate left over for a tablespoon or so of oily pasta salad. The ladies came back with small salads made of the same sorts of super-basic ingredients.

At this point, we were a bit underwhelmed but still happy enough.

Then the entrees arrived.

Let’s talk about mine first. The Big Bayou Platter—“sure to satisfy any appetite,” you’ll recall—looked like somebody’s first trip to an enormous buffet, the kind of plate where you can tell the bearer is pacing him- or herself for several more courses as the night wears on. Given that I had already eaten a salad (of sorts) and a fistful of hushpuppies, it did in fact satisfy my appetite. But if I had come in really hungry, or if I had been, say, a professional wrestler or a UNLV basketball player fresh from the after-practice shower, I might have considered a false advertising suit.

That farm-raised fried catfish fillet was far and away the best item I ate, and if I ever do consider going back, it will be because my desire for southern-tasting fried fish overwhelms my better judgment. The Big Bayou Platter comes with exactly one filet, a small enough portion to flabbergast any southern boy who has ever been to a backyard fish-fry. A truly big platter would have piled up three or four of those suckers at least. I know southern boys who could take one filet and stuff it into their cheeks like a chipmunk while they went somewhere else for a real meal.

But at least it was good. The six or eight Louisiana Shrimp, on the other hand, smacked less of Louisiana and more of the kind of low-sodium diet that a dangerously obese person with sky-high blood pressure might eat. They appeared to have been grilled or baked or something; they were on a skewer and cooked through. The problem is that they had about as much flavor as a Styrofoam to-go box. They weren’t bad per se; they were just bland. I can tell you with authority that New Orleans patrons might well riot if they knew their state foods were being so maligned.

The New Orleans fried oysters were fine enough for me. I am not a fried oyster connoisseur; in fact, I seldom eat them. To me, they taste like battered, burnt dirt. If I’m going to eat oysters, I normally want them on the half-shell, and I don’t even do that very often, because a raw oyster’s consistency is not unlike what I imagine a quarter-cup of boogery snot would feel like in your mouth. They can taste pretty good, especially with the right condiments, but still. Anyway, I can’t disparate the Hush Puppy’s fried oysters, except for the fact that this “big” platter held exactly three. If this platter is truly supposed to satisfy any appetite, one can only imagine that the Hush Puppy’s regular clientele must consist of super-models and recent stomach-band surgery patients.

The three medallions of alligator tail—somewhere between a quarter and a half-dollar in diameter and about as thick as one of those cotton pads women often use to remove their makeup—were fried to near-jerky consistency. It, too, was more bland than bad, but if I had wanted bland, I would have gone to Smith’s and bought a package of plain rice cakes.

I ate what I would estimate as a cup of crawfish rice, the most savory part of the meal and the closest to Louisiana cooking, though still not what I would call authentic. It sat on my plate in an almost perfectly circular ball, as if it had been dipped from a vat with an oversized ice cream scoop. My portion contained exactly two small crawfish.

So my meal was not exactly memorable, at least not for the right reasons. Still, at this point I was looking forward to coming back. I planned to order more tea and the all-you-can-eat fish to maximize my enjoyment of what the restaurant really does well.

What happened next lessened the odds of my ever returning by at least 80%.

Remember how Kalene ordered her steak cooked medium well? That is generally defined as a cut with some pink in the center, firm, warm throughout.

Kalene’s steak was gray-brown throughout, not the least glimmer of pink anywhere, and, in places, rather dry. The flavor was good, but it was not cooked to order.

Maya’s was worse. Again, the flavor was fine. But her “medium” steak—“pink and firm,” warm throughout (I understand the USDA recommends 160 degrees Fahrenheit for medium cooking)—was indeed medium, at least in the outer portions. The inner part of the steak, a good 2/3 of the cut—was red and bloody and spongy. It was medium rare at least, bordering on rare in places. Maya the carnivore would not eat it.

Our expressionless waitress came over at the end of the meal. Kalene wanted to let her know that our steaks were not cooked to order, not because we wanted any money back or anything comped (we had eaten most of the food, except for Maya’s still-mooing steak and part of Kalene’s) but because we thought they might want to inform the cooks that they needed to step up their games. Customer satisfaction and all that, right?

Our waitress looked at Maya’s steak, which sat bleeding on her plate as if someone at the next table had swallowed a grenade and spattered our table with chunks of their pancreas.

“That’s medium,” she said, still expressionless.

“No, it’s not,” Kalene said, looking incredulous.

“That’s supposed to be medium well,” I said, indicating the remains of Kalene’s grayish top sirloin. “That thing is [here pointing to Maya’s plate] is not one step down from medium.”

She looked at us for a moment, the air weighty with tension.

“You want to-go box?” she asked.

No, we had little desire to drive a chunk of rare meat all the way across town and actually cook it ourselves. We declined her robotic offer of a to-go box (we really would have needed a pet kennel anyhow, as I remain unconvinced that the steak was actually dead) and carried the check by hand to the front register, since she laid it on our table and walked away and did not return for several minutes.

At this point, I split off from our little group. When you’ve just imbibed enough sweet tea to float a respectably sized canoe and have to drive across town, you go to the bathroom before you leave whether you feel like you need to or not. On the way out, Kalene said that the manager took five bucks off our bill, but that she had reported the lousy cooking and contentious waitress, only to discover that she had to explain what “contentious” meant.

“Then he told me that if we wanted a better steak, we should get the New York Strip next time,” she said, shaking her head.

I was astounded. This guy a) pretty much just admitted that his sirloins suck and that if you want a decent steak, you have to upgrade to a more expensive cut, and b) completely glossed over the fact that we were dissatisfied with the cooking, not the cut of the meat or the flavor.

This is a manager?

And that, friends, is why we won’t be going back. The Hush Puppy had come recommended by one of our colleagues, another transplanted southerner. He has had better experiences there. And we can easily forgive it when a kitchen has an off night. That can happen at any place. It’s happened at some of our favorites.

But when your cooking was, at best, acceptable and often inedible; when your wait staff argues with dissatisfied customers and does so in ways that show they don’t understand how things are supposed to be cooked; when your manager does nothing about the lousy service and makes only the most perfunctory gesture to make up for the food; and when they demonstrate that they don’t care what kind of time you have as long as they can talk you into spending more money, I’m done.

Sorry, Hush Puppy on West Charleston. You and I are over. It’s not me. It’s you.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com

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[1] I actually stopped reading BIwHM only two stories in because I had already started on the first tales in Subtle Dance and felt the anxiety of influence. I didn’t want my book to transmogrify from an original exploration of voice and theme into a DFW clone.

[2] This means you. If you don’t want to read it, you can listen to it on Youtube. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

 [3] These works being attempts to think about things in a deep and insightful way without succumbing too much to the thick jargon of pointy-headed academic blather more interested in peacocking its author’s ability to name-check Foucault and Levi-Strauss and Derrida and Hegel ad infinitum ad nauseum.

[4] Hello, agents! Hi, editors! Greetings, publishers! How ya doin’? Don’t you want to work with a writer who is not untalented, who works harder than anybody has any right to expect, who takes constructive criticism well without sacrificing his own artistic vision? Don’t you? Huh? Huh?

[5] A more apt and tragic example of the dire results of our country’s failures to account for the mental illnesses from which so many of us suffer would be hard to find outside of a mass shooting.

 [6] I cannot, and would not want to, imagine how DFW’s family felt in the moment of his body’s discovery, or how they feel now.