The Star Wars “Problem”

*** WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER AND THE ENTIRE SKYWALKER SAGA. PROCEED WITH CAUTION. ***

Back in 2015, as the lights dimmed in the theater and those iconic words lit up the screen, and John Williams’ fantastic score transported the audience into the vast reaches of a faraway galaxy, I had tears in my eyes knowing I would finally get to experience a Star Wars film on the big screen. The Force Awakens reignited my interest in the revived, freshly Disney-purchased Lucasfilm franchise, just as it inspired a ton of new fans, including the little girl I saw in line at the theater this past Sunday, clutching her Rey doll in her hand and bouncing on her heels in excitement while waiting for her popcorn. Things like that warm my jaded, cold heart and make me earnestly believe that films are made in order to legitimately inspire others, not just to make money.

The Force Awakens was, in more than one way, an awakening. An awakening of new fans, of a new chapter in the franchise, of new cash flow for the House of Mouse, of new beginnings… and of an onslaught of criticism, backlash, and controversy, not entirely undeserved, which has culminated in a massive divide in fan reaction of the last release in the Skywalker saga, 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker.

Full disclosure: I’m not a lifelong Star Wars fan. I didn’t deep dive into the books or the extended universe, but I love the original films, I tolerate the prequels, and I liked all of the sequel films. I liked The Force Awakens. I liked The Last Jedi. And I liked The Rise of Skywalker. But I will say, as a whole, that the sequel films do not feel like a completely cohesive trilogy – and that is likely due to different approaches in directing and storytelling creating an over-arcing plot that stuttered when it could have truly shone, which probably has something to do with Disney’s overlords, too. No disrespect to the Mouse, of course. Y’all have plenty of my money, don’t worry.

Of course, my appreciation for the newest cinematic adventures long ago in a galaxy far, far away, and my defense of their merit is not to say that all three sequel films were without problems. Do I think certain things could have been different? Of course. TFA could have been less derivative. TLJ could have retained more elements of TFA to make them feel more connected. And TRoS could have felt less crammed, done less backtracking, and could have handled characters/stories better. And that’s the short list.

I don’t read reviews and try to avoid reactions for Star Wars films until after I see the films myself. When it comes to toxic fandoms, Star Wars is near the top of the list – as is expected with fandoms that are also highly passionate – so I like to steer clear of the horde yammering about “so and so should have happened” and “so and so should have done this” and “my theory was wrong and now I’m going to whine about it on the internet” and “well, in the lore they did this” until I can form an opinion on my own, untainted by the interpretation of others.

Many complained that The Force Awakens was too much like A New Hope – and it certainly does follow extremely similar story beats. A new hero rises to prominence and must go on an adventure with some recruited droids/friends and a reluctant mentor, there’s a conflicted bad dude in a mask, Rey witnesses Han’s death the same way Luke sees Obi-Wan’s, big spherical evil base gets destroyed, etc, etc.

So, when Rian Johnson took the helm for The Last Jedi, he abandoned many threads introduced in TFA and defied story tropes by claiming that our heroine, Rey, was actually “no one,” and thus an incredible Force user without strong blood-ties to a prominent family, by having Kylo Ren kill the “Big Bad” Snoke, by showing a divisive side of Luke Skywalker, and introducing the first female POC major character in the films, Rose Tico – and it sparked a volatile reaction among the fandom, despite critical praise. Toxic fans went after Kelly Marie Tran because they didn’t like her character, fans rebelled against the idea that Luke Skywalker would just “walk away” from being a Jedi, and many hated the idea that Rey was not related to anyone from the original films. Not invalid complaints by any means, but complaints nonetheless.

Perhaps due to the backlash kicked up by TLJ, J.J. Abrams took the reins back for The Rise of Skywalker, and, predictably, he picked up some of the ideas that Johnson had abandoned. Palpatine is back – or, rather, he was there all along. The Knights of Ren are back. Rey is revealed to be a Palpatine, thus explaining her strong connection to the Force. Kylo Ren – the “villain” – is redeemed, and his name of Ben Solo restored. Easter Eggs, fan service, and callbacks to the original films and other Star Wars media everywhere you look. And, yet again, fans and critics are calling it the worst film in the entire series. That is a bold claim after Phantom Menace (I kid, I kid… maybe).

I understand a lot of the criticism surrounding the newest release. Palpatine being the big bad regurgitates another villain. Rose Tico / Kelly Marie Tran – and her 76 seconds of screen time – certainly deserved better. Introducing Zorii Bliss as some old flame of Poe’s felt forced, though her character is cool. Jannah feels similarly short-changed, and I hope we see more of her in the future. We have no idea what Finn is going to do next. It was difficult to watch Ben Solo earn his redemption and take his name back only to give up his life force to save Rey, although it makes narrative sense. I mean, I loved Driver’s emotionally-charged portrayal in all 3 films and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is my favorite character in the new trilogy with the exception of General Hux, but that’s due to my crush on Domnhall Gleeson. A HEA between Ben and Rey might have worked and part of me would have loved it due to their incredible onscreen chemistry and their almost palpable bond, but it’s hard to just forget how many times over the series he gaslit and manipulated Rey to try and convince her to his way of thinking, including the whole “the only way you get to Exegol is with me” moment, which is a big no no in a relationship, but that’s also besides the point and I won’t drone on about it. I know he was basically a puppet and manipulated into becoming a villain from the start, and he was extremely conflicted about his evil deeds, and he did reject the Sith in the end, but that doesn’t entirely absolve him of things like killing his dad, even if Han forgave him. Would have at least liked to have seen him as a Force Ghost at the end, if not be permitted to take further steps on Redemption Road. The whole “Rey Skywalker” thing is… meh. I get it, but I also think she could have owned her Palpatine name instead of burying it. In all, TRoS is predictable entertainment, and it retreats into familiarity instead of breaking new ground… but as the finale to a trilogy of trilogies, one that must conclude a nine film saga, that is to be expected.

Basically… both TLJ and TRoS (and Johnson and Abrams, respectively) made an effort to undo what their predecessor did – one by taking daring new steps in a progressive direction, the other by sticking to a proven formula that honors tradition, and, at times, “caves” to the toxicity of the fandom. And the effect is certainly… jarring. TLJ feels the most out of place in both tone and plot – I’m not saying that’s bad, because it’s not, and the film certainly hearkens back to ESB the way that TFA does to ANH – and it’s sandwiched between two Abrams-directed films, which, as a result, makes the trilogy feel disjointed, and contributes to much of the dissatisfaction with the conclusion. TFA was too derivative, so TLJ made some changes, and TRoS undid those changes. I mean…. I’m not going to say it was a directorial pissing contest, but maybe it was – I’m not sure what went on behind the scenes. Then again, I also don’t know how much either director knew about what the endgame was, or how much overall plot was worked out beforehand, so I can’t criticize their decision-making too much. Point is, a lot of valuable plot time was probably wasted – especially in TRoS – trying to “fix” ideas from the previous film that fans and critics took issues with.

It’s easy to say what should have happened in retrospect, but I truly believe the films would have benefited from having the same director for all three. This one probably should have been Abrams, only because he started it off with TFA. I would have liked to see what he could have done if he had been behind the camera for the second film, as much as I appreciated TLJ – which features one of the absolute greatest scenes in the entire series in the Kylo Ren/Rey fight against the Praetorian guards. Like, imagine if The Two Towers was directed by… Michael Bay, instead of Peter Jackson. That’s an extreme and not totally equivalent example, but you get the point – it does make a difference. Cohesion is so, so important to a story. And when directors aren’t on the same page – and producers most likely aren’t helping matters by meddling, which did not help Solo or Rogue One either – you fail to achieve balance, and it will be noticeable in the final product.

That’s also why I hope Johnson gets his shot at a new trilogy or film, if he’s still on board for making one and if producers butt the eff out. If nothing else, moviegoers should check out his other work as well. Knives Out, which he directed and which is still playing in theaters – is one of the best films of the year, by far. He didn’t deserve the backlash he got for TLJ, and I, for one, would love to see what he could do with the Star Wars universe if given a totally clean slate. His ideas are compelling – and he could make some serious galactic magic.

As a fan, I was satisfied, but not blown away by the conclusion of the Skywalker saga. I have fallen in love with new characters, new worlds, and new droids – here’s looking at you, D-0. Do I think things could have been different, and perhaps better? Sure – they always could, no matter how great films are or how much we like them. But perhaps the biggest, baddest enemy in the Star Wars universe is not Emperor Palpatine… but the franchise itself, bogged down by it’s own nostalgia and strict adherence to tradition and the familiar. Listening to fans is not always the best policy. I can only hope that small sparks – like Solo, Rogue One, and The Mandalorian, which are of a more standalone nature – shall lead to a bright future and continued success for one of the greatest franchises of all time.

Favorite Books and Films 2017 Edition!

Favorite books! (In no particular order!)

1.) Age of Heroes Trilogy – Kelley Armstrong
I got so engrossed in this series that I plowed through the last book in one sitting, even though I had to be up early for work the next day. I loved how different the two heroines (sisters Ashyn and Moria) are from one another and the contrast in their story-lines and perspectives is presented in a way that keeps the reader invested in both of their journeys. I loved all the characters, the romance, and the unique world-building, and I can’t wait to get into some of Armstrong’s other books.

2.) The Goose GirlShannon Hale
This book was just so adorable and sweet and I absolutely loved it. The romance is probably my favorite that I read this year because it was presented in such a genuine, earnest way, and Ani is one of my favorite protagonists of all the books I read this year for her bravery, generosity, and relatable disposition. Based on the German fairy-tale of the same name, this is a more lighthearted, yet captivating tale with a protagonist who can speak to birds, and I highly recommend if you’re look for a cute, quick dive into a well-developed fantasy world.

3.) His Dark Materials TrilogyPhilip Pullman
I know, I know… I am way late to this party. But better late than never! I actually saw the film version of The Golden Compass back in 2007 and was unimpressed, which is part of the reason why I put off reading this series for so long. Now, I see what all the fuss is about; the books are phenomenal, and Pullman created a vivid and spectacular fantasy world and characters who feel real. He doesn’t shy away from controversial opinions or views (especially on religion) and the books are all the more stunning for it. Polar Bear king Iorek Byrnison (one of few things I did like in the film) shall forever be one of my favorite literary figures of all time. I think it’s better that I read this series as an adult, because some of the messages and themes hit me harder now than they would have back when these books were first published.

4.) The Great Hunt and The Great Pursuit Wendy Higgins
I was absorbed by both of these books and ended up reading The Great Pursuit all in one day, more or less in one sitting. I’m a sucker for a good fantasy, even those with familiar story-lines, and these books have enough twists and engaging characters (Aerity in particular is stellar) to keep readers enthralled through both volumes. I also really enjoyed the romance in this duology – it’s so easy to get sick of seeing the same romantic subplots over and over again, but familiar scenarios feel fresh in these books. Also, I’m glad this wasn’t stretched out over three books, as it worked very well as a duology and might have been too thin for three volumes.

5.) EntwinedHeather Dixon
This twist on the fairy-tale The Twelve Dancing Princesses (which I was unfamiliar with prior to this book) is a quick, fun read and Azalea was a wonderful heroine to read about – the sort that is “girly” without being too much of a “damsel,” and is capable of saving herself. It’s a fairly straightforward story about dancing and danger, family relationships, love, and sisters, and it manages to adhere to the familiar fairy-tale format while adding twists and turns to keep the reader on their toes.

6.) The Jessica Darling SeriesMegan McCafferty
I cannot believe I missed out on the series when it was being released – this series is a hilarious, poignant, and occasionally daring look at growing up, high school drama, deciding your place in this world, and falling in and out of love, as told through the eyes and observations of the outrageously witty Jessica Darling. I wasn’t really crazy about the last book, but the entire series works together to form an arc that captures the turbulence and the emotional journey of stepping into young adulthood, and Jessica’s voice changes accordingly in each book, which made for a pleasant reading experience.

7.) The Girl Who Chased the MoonSarah Addison Allen
A simple little read about a small town, a girl trying to find her place in this world, a woman trying to do the same, and a family that cannot go out at night, I did not expect to be so engrossed in this book, but the characters are all so realistic and well-written that it was impossible not to be drawn in. Plus, there’s a tiny bit of paranormal in it, which is just the right amount for me.

8.)  Glass Faerie, Shadow Faerie, and Rebel Faerie by Rachel Morgan
I absolutely love the Creepy Hollow books (I read Violet’s saga in a matter of like, 2 days back in 2015) and was so happy that the story continued with Emerson’s POV in Glass Faerie, with new characters and old favorites alike. With a unique perspective on the ideas of faeries and magic, compelling characters and relationships, and an engaging story-line, the latest trilogy brings the Creepy Hollow series to a fitting and satisfying end. I look forward to rereading all 9 from the start!

9.) The Girl from Mars – Brenda Hiatt
Hiatt’s Starstruck series is not a collection I expected to resonate with me, but they did on a level I didn’t expect, so I’m glad the story has continued through the eyes of a new heroine. These stories feel very genuine and are super cute, wholesome, and fun, and Kira, the titular girl from Mars, has a believable and relatable mindset that is easy to follow. I also like the world-building in this series, especially the society on Mars and the ties to Irish culture. It adds a unique twist to familiar scifi tropes, and I hope there’s another novel to follow!

10.) Walk on Earth a StrangerRae Carson
This book took me back to the good ol’ days of playing Oregon Trail in computer class back in elementary school. Set during the gold rush and following the protagonist Leah Westfall across the country as she tries to escape those who seek to use her unique “gift” to sense gold, the story is engrossing and Leah’s voice is both charming and easy to read. She is a wonderful protagonist, the plot and all the characters are intriguing, and though I haven’t picked up the next book in this series, I look forward to continuing it.

Favorite Films! (In order!)

*I am not going to include Moonlight and La La Land on this list, since they came out in 2016 and I saw them so early into 2017. Just know that I loved them both. Also, this list is just my favorites. The list of “BEST” films would be different.

10.) Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a stunner that encapsulates what it’s like for a teenage girl to grow up and go through adolescence/young adulthood in post-9/11 America. The conflict between “Lady Bird” (Saorise Ronan) and her mother (Laura Metcalfe) is mesmerizing, and each member of the ensemble case delivers layered, nuanced performances. Plus, I think everybody who grew up in the 90’s/early 2000’s knew a Kyle, am I right?

9.) Wind River
A film I did not expect to stick with me the way that it has, Wind River is a poignant look into the state of Native American affairs in the U.S. and how Native Americans are treated in terms of the law/justice. Also, this is my favorite Jeremy Renner performance, thus far – he and Olson make a great team, and Gil Birmingham is fantastic in a supporting role, as is the rest of the cast.

8.) Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
“I’M MARY POPPINS, Y’ALL!” Enough said.

7.) Logan
Not gonna lie… I have about a 0% investment in the current X-men films. Actually, after the total abomination that was Last Stand, I have about a 0% investment in the past films, too. But Logan really turned it around for me, with it’s gritty portrayal of the world and the way mutants are treated, coupled with the cynical, dark, gruff, and emotionally broken version of Wolverine. Jackman’s swan song as the titular character is a fitting one, and is easily his best performance as the character overall. I usually hate excessive violence and swearing in films, but in Logan, I didn’t even mind – the film packs enough of an emotional wallop, I didn’t mind all the physical ones.

6.) Dunkirk
Admittedly, I am a Chris Nolan fangirl and thus inclined to like anything he puts out. Dunkirk is not a film I’ll watch over and over (and may never watch again) but the unique narrative structure (three viewpoints out-of-sync with one another until they converge) lack of dialogue and gripping music created a remarkable cinematic experience and atmosphere during which I was so tense I forgot to eat my Reeses Pieces. The ensemble cast turns out excellent performances all around and the cinematography is stellar. If you are a fan of war films, you should definitely check it out; though the experience in cinemas, with the sound and the massive IMAX screen, will likely be difficult to recapture in a living room on a television.

5.) Thor: Ragnarok
While I love Marvel movies, I was never much for the Thor films… especially The Dark World. But the third installment in the Thor series totally makes up for the lackluster middle film. Ragnarok amps up the humor, packs on the action, features an amazing cast, and segues nicely into the next major installment in the franchise, the upcoming Infinity War. This film is comedic gold, and features so many quotable lines and memorable scenes that I’m giggling at my computer now just remembering Mark Ruffalo dive-bombing onto Bifrost.

4.) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I have never hated, loved, hated, then kind of maybe liked, then definitely liked a character more than Sam Rockwell’s character Dixon in this film. This black comedy about a woman who buys three billboards to criticize the police over the unsolved murder of her daughter is carried by an all-star cast and a plot that is original, occasionally hilarious, and full of unexpected moments that literally made my jaw drop more than once.

3.) Beauty and the Beast
Was this film needed? No. Did I love it anyway? YES.
Also, I LOVE DAN STEVENS. The end.

2.) Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Despite the massive divide in the fandom over this film, I loved The Last Jedi and thought it was an apt continuation of the series. Following directly after The Force Awakens, our new hero Rey continues to search for her place in this world, Finn teams up with a new friend to try and save the Resistance, and Poe learns a valuable lesson about what it means to truly be in command and be a leader. Packed with action, shades of the previous films, and a whole lot of new and unexpected twists, TLJ is an undeniable spectacle, no mater which side of the fandom you fall on. Mark Hamill is outstanding in his return as conflicted Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, and a particular moment between him and another character was powerful enough to reduce me to tears. Adam Driver’s evocative performance as the internally-conflicted Kylo Ren/Ben Solo has already made him the most convincing villain in the franchise, and the tension between Kylo and Rey is a major highlight of the film. You can actually feel the struggle while watching it unfold onscreen. For all the issues folks have with the film, I found it to be one of the strongest across the entire series, an “awakening” of sorts, and though I had some issues with it (Canto Bight, how criminally underused Phasma is, Snoke’s treatment, a couple of other nitpicks) it still made me all the more excited for episode IX and the conclusion of the sequel trilogy.

1.) Wonder Woman
Not only was the Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman my favorite cinematic experience of 2017, the “No Man’s Land” sequence is actually my favorite film scene overall of 2017. This film is not just a great superhero film helmed by a woman and starring a woman; it’s a great comic book film overall, easily one of the best super hero origin stories, and I definitely rank it as the best superhero film of the year. Plus, it’s 10000% the best DC film thus far, no contest. Gal Gadot nails the role of Wonder Woman, the music is fantastic, the chemistry between the leads is stellar, and it’s probably the first DC film that has more than a couple of genuinely funny moments, and a lot of emotional impact to boot. It didn’t try too hard to be an amazing film or outdo similar films – and it is a badass film all on its own.

 

 

Do Trailers Ruin Movies?

Over the last few months, I have been actively avoiding any movie trailers or clips for the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi, in an attempt to avoid spoilers. I won’t be seeing it until Christmas Eve, per family tradition, so I try to avoid as much info as possible until I finally get to view it on the big screen. That all blew out the window when I went to see Thor: Ragnarok and it was too inconvenient for me to leave the theater when a Star Wars trailer began, so I just sucked it up and allowed myself to be dazzled.

Though the trailer hinted at some things, made some allusions, and showed what are sure to be key moments, it didn’t reveal anything groundbreaking or show anything too spoilerific. It created intrigue without making anything too obvious, and made me all the more excited to see the film later this month. That is what a trailer should do; it should generate interest and lure audiences without blowing all the important info or all the humor in a 2 minute teaser. You shouldn’t be able to guess the entire plot of a film from a trailer, unless it’s a series you are already familiar with or you’ve read the book an upcoming movie is based on.

On the other hand, I recently saw the first trailer for the upcoming Downsizing, starring Matt Damon, and was instantly compelled to see it. The trailer presented a unique and interesting plot, showed some humor, and offered images and clips that made me wonder how characters got into a certain situation or what would happen next. And then the second trailer came along tacked onto Murder on the Orient Express, and it totally gives away what I perceived to be a pretty major plot point, which was not presented in the initial trailer. It dampened my enthusiasm a bit, as it allowed more pieces of the plot to fall into place, and chased away some of the allure. I’ll still see it when it comes out, but I was bummed to have something spoiled in the trailer that I wish I could have seen for the first time during the film itself. The same thing happened with the second Spider-Man: Homecoming trailer. Watching it, I felt like I could predict the entire movie, and I ended up being pretty close, though, thankfully, it was still a great film and I was not disappointed. Films can often fall into the trap of having too many trailers, as well, and I hold the belief that a film only needs 2 trailers max, and 1 will typically suffice. If I’m not drawn in by the first trailer, I probably won’t be swayed by another.

Trailers can be deceptive, as well – they can show a snapshot that is nothing like the completed picture, and effectively “trick” viewers, for the better or the worse. Trailers for Zack Snyder’s films are some of the best out there – I can still imagine just about every frame of the brilliant Watchmen trailer in my head, almost a decade later – but his films tend to have a polarizing reaction. Regardless, the trailers make you want to see his movies. 2012’s Brave offered a trailer that made the movie seem like it would follow a certain narrative, but it went off in a direction that my best friend and I totally didn’t see coming, and it was a pleasant surprise.

Trailers also make me not want to see movies, sometimes. I’m a big fan of the original Jumanji, and was skeptical of the remake/sequel, but when I saw the first trailer, I was tentatively hooked. There were some decent jokes and it looked like, if not a direct successor, a spiritual successor to the original. Since the first time I saw the trailer, I have  now seen it 5 or 6 times, and the second trailer 3 times. I’m kind of burned out on it, at this point, and I can probably quote the entire thing. “I’m an overweight middle-aged man!” “We’re in other people’s bodies!” “I’m missing the top two feet of my body!” Again, if the reviews are okay, I’ll probably still make the effort to see it, but I’m now worried that the funniest moments are all in the trailer, as is often the case. I’ve got The Greatest Showman, TLJ, and a few others to see before it, and it I must suffer through the trailer again, I might shelve my Jumanji plans until it’s available for streaming. Oversaturation can, unintentionally, kill the interest in a movie instead of building it up. I felt the same about last year’s lackluster Warcraft film. I saw the trailer every time I saw an IMAX film for months, and all it did was make me not want to see the movie. I actually did leave a theater after the Warcraft trailer began for what must have been the 10th time, and that remains the only time I have ever left a theater during the previews. I LOVE previews, but I hated that trailer, though Transformers: The Last Knight sure gave it a run for its money this past year. If I so much as see an Autobot onscreen, it is an insta-groan.

So that creates a question; do trailers ruin movies? After all, the big wigs behind a film’s production have no idea how many times you are going to be forced to see a trailer. They just want to put butts in seats. But they do have control over how much info goes into a trailer, and it’s a fine line; give too much away and risk scaring people off, or don’t offer up enough and fail to hook viewers. Avoid trailers, and you might fall behind on what movies are coming out, unless you monitor them religiously (as I do). I may love previews, and eagerly anticipate trailers for films and film series that I’m a fan of, but nothing ruins a movie for me like a trailer rife with spoilers.

 

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