‘Westworld’ is pretty, but it’s not particularly good.

We’re now three hours into into Westworld, HBO’s high-concept science fiction drama loosely based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film of the same name. With a reported cost of $10M per episode, the premium cable giant is counting on Westworld to fill a certain dragon-free gap in their dramatic programming that’s been gaping ever since the second series of True Detective immediately went off the rails.

For now, Westworld seems to have done its job. With a pilot viewership of 3.3M -HBO’s best since the first series of True Detective– critical/popular acclaim, and a desirable place in a pop culture landscape very much shaped by recaps and fan theorizing……Westworld is a hit. A second season is essentially assured at this point. We’re just waiting on the announcement. Westworld appears to have already become what both The Leftovers (a bit too slow) and The Night Of (initially promising, but) failed to. My gripe is that I’ve seen nothing to convince me Westworld is actually good or worthy of the theorizing. And again, we’re through three episodes of a ten-episode season. The show’s past the point where pilot-like expositional setup and intrigue can pique interest. At some point, the characters need to carry it home.

The premise of Westworld is fun enough. Westworld is futuristic theme park in an old-West setting populated by semi-conscious, disturbingly realistic artificial intelligences called “hosts” (Cowboy robots? Cowboy robots!). These hosts can’t actually hurt the guests (at least not yet), but boy, can they die in grisly romanticized ways. These hosts are even given personalities and backstories, but they’re on a loop and completely acquiescent to the whims of the guests. These hosts exist to function within each guest’s own create-your-own-adventure. Whores, bandits, lawmen. A guest can do whatever he or she wants while in Westworld. You can drink brandy, fuck robots, rinse, repeat. Or you can grab a six-shooter and go off an adventure.

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There’s an interesting story somewhere in there. What drives people to spend $40K a day to visit? What drives people to make the decisions they make when they do visit? But Westworld the show doesn’t seem to care much about that. It’s narrative, which is very much about narrative in general, is more concerned with the hosts and the coding that goes into them and how they are/aren’t human. Rather than use the idea of Westworld as a way to study its human characters, Westworld (to this point) is happy functioning as just another “What does it really mean to be human?” epic. Only, it’s hard to feel anything for the hosts of Westworld because we’re told explicitly over and over that every single detail concerning them is manufactured. Nothing is natural. They don’t grow and learn, the just get a new storyline to follow from up top. Westworld doubled down on this in its most recent episode; communicating that the emerging memories of the hosts, which is what drives the plot, probably aren’t happening by accident.

The two most interesting characters through three episodes are veteran guest Logan (Ben Barnes) and his first-time friend William (Jimmi SImpson). Logan seems to be content coming to Westworld for its revels (i.e. having sex with robots). William is different. He’s repeatedly shown turning down said inorganic sexual advances, and is more interested in the adventurous elements of Westworld. These contrasts are intriguing, but the two are yet to really matter in the larger context of the show (though, at least that appears to be changing).

To a certain extent, an extent ultimately based on your willingness to sit back and just enjoy, the problems with Westworld are offset by its merits. Westworld is for the most part entertaining. It’s very cinematic in its look. The cinematography experiments, the sets are impressive, the loaded cast seems to be having a lot of fun (Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, and Ed Harris will always be watchable). Westworld attempts to combine two bankable subgenres -the violent western and the thinking man’s sci-fi film- into one tonal/visual aesthetic. It works at times. Westworld is at its best when it takes a Spielbergian approach and has its characters look in awe of everything that is unfolding. It’s more well-made and more thoughtful than 95% of what’s on TV.

It also is so deeply embedded in the idea of mystery that it can afford to tread water for the time being, with the promise of mind-bending payoff lingering in the back. Westworld refuses to show its hand too early. Assuming the show gets multiple seasons, viewers are likely looking at a 20+ hour wait before they know what’s really going on. Maybe this helps retain viewership- are you really going to stop watching this early when you don’t even know what the show is yet? But it also makes the show’s lack of character work even more noticeable. I’m watching Westworld because of what I think may happen down the road, not because I’m interested in what’s going on right now. I’m assuming the hosts are going to continue to be humanized and remember the horrible things they’ve been through and (maybe) team up in some way against those evil, vice-driven humans. Of course, I’m probably way off-base. Some insane twist, the ones folks theorize about, could emerge (one of the showrunners is a Nolan, after all).

Perhaps most alarmingly in terms of its future, Westworld is hurt by the dullness of its two apparent leads. The female lead (Evan Rachel Wood, trying her best) is a host named Dolores. She’s actually not a prostitute. She’s a farm girl who loves her dad(s) but dreams of adventures outside her little world. She’s shown to have more genuine feelings than the other hosts, though that’s due to her being a muse for the male lead (Jeffrey Wright, lifelessly playing a lead programmer) to use almost as a therapist. There are three lenses through which the viewer understands Westworld. Dolores is the host lens through which we begin to understand the psychology of these things. William is the human lens through which we see the actual park. Wright’s character, Bernard, is the human lens through which we experience the inner-happenings of Westworld. The latest episode attempted to make Bernard seem more nuanced than the hosts; tried to make him, you know, actually human. One forced expository backstory about the loss of a child later and we’re looking at a male lead more robotic than the actual robots.

Of course, none of my carping really matters. Westworld is a hit for the reasons I’m struggling with it, not despite them. It spends its time trying to be mysterious and the interwebs are rife with weary commenters trying to unravel those mysteries.

“Is so and so really dead?”, “What if X is actually Y?”, that sort of thing.

I’ve be burned before when I form an opinion of a show too early, both negative and positive (after the first two episodes of each, I’d have told you The Night Of was the best thing ever and that The Wire was kind of boring). I’ll sit with Westworld for a few more hours. But if I’m not soon given a reason to care about these characters, a reason to watch beyond the what-ifs, I’ll have a hard time justifying its place in my culture-consuming rotation.

FINAL 2017 Oscar Predictions: Best Original Screenplay & Best Adapted Screenplay

This post was updated January 13th and predictions are FINAL

Best Original Screenplay

The Predicted Nominees

You always have to take the Writers Guild nominations with a grain of salt since they have differing views than the Academy on what “original” and “adapted” mean, as well them simply disqualifying films that lack guild affiliation. Damien Chazelle has picked up some prizes for his La La Land script and looks to double dip both here and in director. Same goes for Kenneth Lonergan with Manchester by the Sea. Both are locks for a nom, though I feel like the Academy may want to award Lonergan here if La La Land is winning picture/director. My favorite work of the year is that of Taylor Sheridan with Hell or High Water. He should’ve gotten in last year for Sicario. He’ll be in this year as his film looks like a good best picture bet. The Lobster looks to surprise. It wasn’t eligible for WGA but there’s a lot of love and A24 Films has proven themselves capable of sneaking smaller stuff in major categories. Also, I think Mike Mills is in for some love despite 20th Century Women never really picking up the momentum many thought it would.

1) Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

2) Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)

3) Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water)

4) Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthimis Filippou (The Lobster)

5) Mike Mills (20th Century Women)

On The Bubble

Keep an eye on Matt Ross for Captain Fantastic. It’s small, but a lot of people love the film. It could double dip here and in best actor for Viggo Mortensen.

6) Matt Ross (Captain Fantastic)

7) Various Writers (Zootopia)

8) Nicholas Martin (Florence Foster Jenkins)


Best Adapted Screenplay

The Predicted Nominees

Finally, a category where Moonlight doesn’t have to battle La La Land. It should be an easy win for Barry Jenkins and his writing partner/best pal Tarell McCraney (who wrote the play on which the film is based). Eric Heisserer made so many changes to the Ted Chiang story that Arrival is loosely based on that it’s practically an original script; and a great one at that. Look for Pulitzer winner August Wilson to score a nom for adapting his own play (though the changes to make it fit the screen are next to none). Likely best picture nominee Hidden Figures should sneak in, and while I don’t think the Academy loves Nocturnal Animals as much as its late momentum suggests, this is a spot to cite Tom Ford for adapting a complex novel.

1) Barry Jenkins & Tarell McCraney (Moonlight)

2) Eric Heisserer (Arrival)

3) August Wilson (Fences)

4) Theodore Melfi & Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures)

5) Tom Ford (Nocturnal Animals)

On The Bubble

A spot or two could easily go to likely best picture nominees Lion and Hacksaw Ride, though neither are the type of films that overtly show off the writing. I want Jeff Nichols to get a nomination so bad, but Loving never really gained the traction folks thought it would. I think it’s getting shut out entirely on Oscar morning.

6) Luke Davies (Lion)

7) Jeff Nichols (Loving)

8) Andrew Knight & Robert Schenkkan (Hacksaw Ridge)

9) Martin Scorsese & Jay Cocks (Silence)

 

‘Vice Principals’ is essential.

The best show on TV over the last couple of months was hidden on the backend of HBO’s always-reliable Sunday night programming. Overshadowed by the critically-acclaimed (but frustrating) limited series The Night Of and the Dwayne Johnson-starring Ballers, the first season of Vice Principals -from Eastbound & Down maestros Danny McBride & Jody Hill- never seemed to garner the critical or popular attention it deserved. Surely, part of this is due to pilot culture in the current TV landscape. There’s just sooooo much “good” stuff on TV. From the eye of either a professional critic or a casual viewer, if the first episode of a series doesn’t reel you in, you’re likely to write it off immediately and spend your precious watching time elsewhere. That’s the nature of the game and showrunner/networks have to know that, but it’s very unfortunate for a show like Vice Principals, which doesn’t show its true colors until the second or third episode. The show wrapped its first season last night in fine form. I just wish more people were paying attention.

The premise is simple enough and something you may expect out of a family friendly network sitcom. A thoughtful “dramedy” in the truest sense of that overused term, Vice Principals concerns two white vice principals -Neil Gamby (Danny McBride) and Lee Russell (Walton Goggins)- at a mostly white high school. When their boss (Bill Murray!) retires, it appears as if we’re in for a competition between the two very different men for the big gig. But then the school district brings in Dr. Belinda Brown (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) to run things. She’s black. She’s a woman. She’s also remarkably accomplished and way more qualified for the job than either Gamby or Russell. She has multiple degrees and awards, pictures with famous politicians, and an uncanny ability to combine both Russell and Gamby’s respective strengths into one super-principal (Gamby is a capable disciplinarian, Russell is a shmoozer loved by the staff). Brown should have the job. She’s better than both Gamby and Russell. The show is sure to make that clear in the very first episode. However, Gamby and Russell won’t simply roll over. They both believe they’re “the one”. So the two rivals team up and hatch a sinister plan to go outside the bureaucracy, and the law, to bring down Dr. Belinda Brown.

And there you have it. A 2016 show about two white men with no filter trying to drag down a black woman in the workplace. That alone is unprecedented, and made even more poignant by the fact that Vice Principals never feels too heavy-handed. It never explicitly mentions its dealings with both racial and gender issues. Hell, it almost hides those issues behind dick jokes and psychedelic sequences (it’s Danny McBride, after all). But they’re there, and the show wants you to know that. McBride, co-showrunner Jody Hill, and Goggins have all addressed this in interviews. Everything was intentional. None of these artists are strangers to pushing the envelope. Eastbound & Down, while a bit sillier than VP, was much more intelligent and heedful of social issues than it got credit for.

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Anyone familiar with Goggins is well aware he’s made a career out of playing deplorable, racist characters with an astute level of nicety (most recently in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight). The subtlety with which the show navigates its “politics” is masterful. There’s also the shows handling of modern masculinity. Gamby is divorced and wants his daughter to participate in equestrian activities, but she seems more interested in dirt bikes; partially due to the influence of her mom’s new boyfriend, the classically manly Ray (HBO regular Shea Whigham). Russell, on top carrying designer handbags and walking in a manner that shows off his ass, is often emasculated by his live-in Korean mother-in-law. Both of these men have issues with their standing as men relative to the women in their personal lives; and those issues bleed into their handling of Belinda in their professional lives. There’s so much going on below the surface.

Of course, that doesn’t matter if the show isn’t actually funny. It is. Much of the comedy comes froms the distinct differences between Gamby and Russell, both professionally and personally. The less eccentric Gamby wears short-sleeve button ups and clip-on ties. The overtly flamboyant Russell wears bright-colored chinos and a bowtie/sweater combo under his flashy blazers. Gamby’s best friend at school is Dayshawn (Sheaun McKinney), a wise but apathetic cafeteria worker who nods his head in response to whatever Gamby says. Russell’s best friend is the drama teacher; with whom Russell can talk about what salon to go to without being ridiculed. Gamby seems genuinely distraught and bothered by the sinister plans against Belinda, whereas Russell is painted as a sociopath who’s done this sort of thing multiple times before. A strange bromance develops, and it’s boosted by the chemistry between McBride and Goggins. They rattle off quality one-liners and converse in a way that feels natural to their respective characters. McBride and Hill as dialogue writers are meticulously detailed. The improvisational nature to the conversations is actually something that requires a great deal of attention.

Many of the funniest bits in Vice Principals come from the specific, stream-of-consciousness way the characters structure their sentences. Goggins and McBride both find the perfect cadences and stresses in their characters’ speech. Russell is a drama queen to an extent, emphasizing certain words to get his point across. Gamby is forever nervous, many of his key phrases come via neurotic mumbling. He’s uncomfortable; whether speaking to his ex-wife, Belinda, or the English teacher who goes from wet dream fodder into his actual lover, Amanda Snodgrass (a perfectly quirky yet endearing Georgia King). Gamby and Russell are different people with different motives brought together by the same twisted, problematic endgame.

Vice Principals gets really dark, really fast. Beyond the social commentary waiting to come to a boiling point, the actions of Gamby and Russell establish them as protagonists that are very tough to root for. MINOR SPOILER ALERT. In the second episode, Gamby and Russell go to Belinda’s house hoping to find evidence to blackmail her with. Instead, they see plaques and achievements. Their response is to burn down her house. It’s provoked by Russell, naturally, but Gamby partakes and he carries the guilt all the way through the first season’s finale. Gamby being pushed to such extremes is what tries his character and makes for much of the late-season drama.

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The performances across the board are spot-on. McBride steps out of the shell that’s been formed by Kenny Powers and his characters in various Seth Rogen films. He’s ambitious and caring, but wounded. Not necessarily down on his luck but a man with enough familial problems to make his professional gripes seem silly to the viewer but major to his character, thus creating the character’s ultimate conflict. McBride actually acts here. Gamby’s heart breaks again and again. He falls back on his stern and professional facade even when you just want him to be a dad. McBride nails it with the heavy breathing and muttered profanity. Then there’s Goggins, who completely immerses himself into a self-parodic role a bit less serious than his usual work. He embraces the physicality and speech patterns of the character to a level only matched by the great, more famous working actors such as Christian Bale, Idris Elba, and Tom Hardy. This is a character that could’ve gone many ways but now feels like a dude only Goggins could’ve played. The supporting work from Gregory, Whigham, King, and Busy Phillips (as Gamby’s ex) all meshes itself into the show even if the characters are written as relative cliches.

Kimberly Hebert Gregory’s take on Dr. Belinda Brown stands out. The writing wisely embraces stereotypes of the old-school, hardened black mother. Gregory transcends this to make her character seem well-intentioned even when her methods point to the contrary. She uses her big, emotive eyes to play off Gamby and Russell all the while capturing her own motives. Belinda is really the third lead in this show. Her character is every bit as integral to the main plot, and every bit as fleshed out via subplots, as Gamby & Russell. It’s a breakout performance from Gregory, who to this point is best known for random guest spots on bad shows such as Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, though she’s rather accomplished on stage.

On a technical, filmmaking level, Vice Principals  is something to behold. It creates these strange montages, that show unpardonable destruction cut together with schoolboy innocence complemented by a score that channels a sloppy high school band. The horns are too loud, the drums are perfectly off-beat. The photography uses natural light that plays well off the usually bright color of the players’ clothing.

When Vice Principals was announced, it was slated for an 18-episode, 2-season run from the jump. That has to be liberating as a writer. Too many quality shows don’t get the run they deserve, or even worse, run for too long. This is a series tailored to a specific length and that allows its thematics to expose themselves at the perfect times. It’s a contained story that doesn’t get self-indulgent. I for one am looking forward to 2017 and the final nine episodes. Tune in, ya bish.

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‘Game of Thrones’ szn 6, ep. 6: Benjen with the good hair

It takes a great deal of confidence to do a play-within-a-play bit in modern storytelling, not to mention on something as expansive as Game of Thrones. It takes up precious screen time; but the benefits in this case are worth the investment. The kindness of the actress she was sent to kill fuels Arya’s decision, and it was funny to see past events played out in the way the common folk (whose perspective we rarely get) understand them to have been. Arya finds it amusing. This play isn’t merely a recapping of events for the viewer; it’s showing the viewer events from the perspective of your everyday Braavosian. Arya gets a great deal of joy out of watching the reenactment of Joffrey’s death. It’s easy to forget just how long it’s been since Arya was part of the other characters’ story. Most think her dead.

And the sudden motion in her storyline is refreshing. She’s basically calling bullshit on the code of the Faceless Men. They’re just another institution -like the crown, the church, etc- that’s controlling things they probably shouldn’t be allowed to control. The final straw comes via Arya being ordered to kill a seemingly decent lady. Now Arya and Needle are on their own, a target on her back. She’s on the run again but without The Hound or Jaqen or Hot Pie to protect her.

Another moment that showed off the writing team’s complete grasp of their characters was the conversation between Tommen and Margaery. The two carry an extended conversation about different things. This would be confusing if the writers didn’t understand each character’s cadences and motivations. Even when the conversation starts to fall apart it’s very telling of both characters. It reminded me an awful lot of the scene at the beginning of The Social Network where Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara are carrying on multiple dialogues simultaneously.

Tommen is talking of sticking it to the church; all the while, Margaery is telling him she’s “converted”. He doesn’t get it at first. When he finally does, he proves his acquiescence by doing a one-eighty and heeding her every word. He’s young, naive, and in love. Margaery is both his first sexual relationship and non-Lannister relationship. When Jaime and the Tyrell army storm the Great Sept to free Margaery and Loras only to find that Tommen has given his proverbial stamp of approval to the ever-tight church and state relationship, it doesn’t feel shocking. Tommen is going to do whatever Margaery wants, and Margaery probably doesn’t want to walk through the streets naked as plebeians chuck feces at her.

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Checking in with Bronn of the Blackwater, week 6

WE’RE SO CLOSE. Jaime mentioned getting Bronn and others to run up on Mr. Sparrow. We even got a glimpse of Bronn in the preview of next weeks episode. This cruel joke D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have been playing on us finally appears to be nearing its conclusion.

So let’s talk about Sam, who’s Dad is an asshat. “Blood of My Blood” gave us our first glimpse of Horn Hill, seat of House Tarly, and doing so helped explain Sam’s character (dating back to season one) so much. He always talked of how his father though him a coward, but we witnessed some pure hatred. During the dinner scene, you could see Randall Tarly (played perfectly by the character actor James Faulkner) waiting patiently for an opportunity to rip apart his son. Sam accepts another piece of bread and BOOM, here comes the fat shaming.

Things escalate and Randall starts prying about Gilly’s roots. She can’t take it, and eventually tells the stories of Sam’s heroic acts and despite Sam having KILLED A FUCKING WHITE WALKER all Randall can hear is that Gilly is a wildling. I’ve always found Gilly’s insistence on protecting Sam verbally to be fun. She gives him confidence and he gives her reassurance. These are two people who’ve been kicked while they’re down their whole lives rallying around each other. Mrs. Tarly’s support also helps exemplify just how much of a dick Randall is. That’s the main reason I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Horn Hill, despite Sam and Gilly (and Lil’ Sam) presumably leaving. It feels like Randall and his school of thought -the school of thought that judges a man’s worth off his latest hunting escapade- is now longer the status quo in Westeros. Wouldn’t Sam becoming the leader of this House and rallying the troops in support of the good fight be something?

Also, a nice use of sword-wielding as a motif this week to show free will. Arya grabs needle, Sam grabs Heartsbane.

Speaking of phallic imagery…

Was there any peen this week?

’twasn’t, but I’d assume what we got last week was enough to keep the PC Police at bay for at least a few episodes.

“Blood of My Blood” did the right thing and opened up right where the previous episode left off. I was relieved that Meera and Bran escaping the Walkers wasn’t as simple as them giving up after Hodor held the door for like 25 seconds. Anyways, the two were saved by our old friend Benjen Stark (aka Coldhands for the book-readers who’ve been crying about his absence for two years now). This wasn’t very surprising. Every since we got a glimpse last week the common theory has been that it would be Benjen who’d save these two. He obviously wasn’t done. Time wouldn’t have been wasted establishing him from the onset of the ultimate route was him disappearing without explanation.

Benjen was turning into a Walker until he was stabbed with Dragonglass, thus rendering him a half-walker of sorts. I thought the makeup artists did a fine job making him look grotesque yet still resemblant to the Benjen we knew form season one. I also really was taken away by the brief action sequences of Benjen killing the Walkers chasing Bran and Meera. Whenever you shoot something with a dude on horseback fighting dudes not on horseback it’s important to establish the higher-ground or the scene quickly becomes messy. Look back at it, and you’ll see that director Jack Bender and editor Yan Miles quickly cut between Benjen and Bran’s angles, with the slayings being the middle ground between both.

Fan favorite Walder Frey showed up this week, reacting negatively to the news that his men lost Riverrun to the Blackfish (aka Brynden Tully, brother of Catelyn Tully/Stark). It would appear as if we’re in for quite the skirmish at Riverrun. Jon Snow and his gang of VIP’s are heading there, and apparently Jaime Lannister is as well. I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING. A Jaime-Brienne reunion amidst the festering Tormund-Brienne chemistry. I’m here for it.

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The “Daenerys Sucks Diaries”, week 6

Last week, I suggested renaming this section because Daenerys’ storyline had become interesting and not completely cyclical. WELP. This week, she hopped on her Dragon and gave a really bad St. Crispin’s Day, again. What was the point of this? We already knew the Dorthraki were behind her seeing as she walked out of a burning fucking without a scratch on her. We already know she can ride the dragons.

This was pathetic fanfare. On one hand, I get it. There are people who watch this show because of the dragons. If you don’t sneak in a B-movie CGI sequence of them every episode, you risk the fantastical elements of the show become less significant. But, man, this was dumb. We’ve heard this song a million times.

Tweet of the Week

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Yes, actually.

That’s my only critique, really. While not as monumental or emotional as last week’s episode, “Blood of My Blood” was still a very solid episode that moved multiple storylines forward (most notably, Arya and Sam). Particlar scenes from this episode may not carry the dramatic heft of Hodor’s death but are still equally as mesmerizing when contextualized. This was a “set the stage” episode, and a very good one at that.

Arbitrary Ranking of the Week

Plays-within-a-play, ranked:

shoutout theatre kids

  1. The Murder of Gonzago used as provocation in Hamlet
  2. The shit we just saw on GOT
  3. Chekhov’s The Seagull and how it used this technique to both build a character and pay homage to that Hamlet play by that guy.
  4. The Two-Character Play by Tennessee Williams. The whole damn thing uses this motif at its core and Williams cites it as his favorite of his own work.
  5. Also, like anything Charlie Kaufman has ever written.

Five Random Notes

  1. So I saw X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s not good. But Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa on this show, makes one hell of a Jean Grey. The movies hints at the infamous Dark Phoenix storyline. She’s also the first young(ish) GOT star to have a movie really land.<

    Continue reading ‘Game of Thrones’ szn 6, ep. 6: Benjen with the good hair

Review: With ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, Daisy Ridley becomes the star we’re looking for.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens passed the universal cinematic measuring stick I refer to as the “pee test”. It’s a simple test. If you realize halfway through a movie that you have to use the facilities, do you get up and go, or is the movie so captivating that you have no choice but to just tough it out until the final credits roll? Even the weakest bladder will be put to the test with this one, as you’re hooked from the moment a title card reads “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and John Williams’ surprisingly fresh update on perhaps the most famous score ever kicks in.

Note: This review is spoiler free. With that being said, I do go into basic character and plot details. All of these were told to us by Disney in advance so I’m not giving anything away, but if you’ve managed to go into it completely blind at this point, you should probably stop reading.

J.J. Abrams, the fanboy who gave a nice if a little too friendly Spielberg impression with Super 8 and successfully rebooted Star Trek, was charged by the powers that be (Disney) with helming the $400 million return to a galaxy whose stories have become scripture in the pop culture landscape. Star Wars is not canon. It’s bigger than canon. It’s a planet-sized canon, actually. A planet-sized canon capable of wiping out entire species’ with the push of a button (yes, there is one of these weapons in TFA).

If there’s one thing Abrams has established about himself as a filmmaker, it’s that he has an outstanding eye when it comes to casting. The main reason I came into TFA believing it would be stronger than the prequel trilogy was the group of performers involved, specifically the young folks taking on new characters that hope to become every bit as iconic as the old folks who grace this film as well. They do just that.

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Set thirty years after The Return of the Jedi, this film isn’t exactly an exercise in tight plotting. A new empirical force called the First Order has risen and a group referred to as the Resistance is fighting to keep the galaxy free. Luke Skywalker has gone missing. We’re told this is important, the key to the whole story, though I’m not really sure why. A droid carrying the missing piece to the map leading to Luke barely manages to escape the First Order and then comes across a mechanically gifted loner on a dessert planet who happens to be a skilled pilot and have some supernatural abilities. From there, a group of characters are thrust into an epic adventure. Sound familiar?

The intrinsic flaw with TFA is that it’s more or less a complete retread of the original Star Wars. At times, this can be fun. The film is loaded with visual and dialogue-driven references to what’s happened before it. They’re not very subtle, as the six year-old sitting behind me seemed to pick up on every one. This will certainly appeal to all those who know how many parsecs it took the Millennium Falcon to make the Kessel Run. But to those who see Star Wars as a movie and nothing more, it will seem unoriginal, even campy.

When the film focuses on the wholly original is when it reaches the sort of highs the original trilogy did. The new principle cast is fantastic all-around, and I look forward to seeing them in movies for years to come. Oscar Isaac plays Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the Resistance and a hero from the start. He’s brash but well intentioned. He starts off as the character it took Han Solo an entire movie to grow into. He’s the owner of the droid carrying the map to Skywalker (BB-8, the soccer ball looking contraption sitting on Christmas lists everywhere). It’s a shame the script doesn’t give the very talented Isaac more to do. He’s absent for the entire middle chunk of the movie.

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Elsewhere, we have Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper whose storm-trooping days end before they really start due to his conscience. Boyega is the comedic backbone and serves as the lens through which we experience the film. He feels like a fan of Star Wars plucked out of his mother’s basement and thrown right into the action. His reactions to the happenings in the film are priceless. Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren, the films primary villain and a wannabe Darth Vader. His origins reveal themselves in the most Star Warsy way but Driver manages to keep the character from bordering on the ridiculous. There’s a reason Abrams made the conscience decision to have him play key moments with his mask off.

Domhnall Gleeson plays General Hux, the First Order general who has a humorous working relationship with Ren. He gives a Hitler-esque speech to his army that tops anything the generals in the original trilogy could do. Gleeson has had quite the year. There are also a couple of wise CGI characters played by Lupita Nyong’o and motion-capture maven Andy Serkis. They don’t really work, but they’re not large enough elements to hold back the film.

And then there’s Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, the scavenger on the dessert planet Jakku who comes across BB-8 by accident and instantly becomes an integral part of Star Wars mythos. Words cannot convey the quality of Ridley’s performance. She completely embodies the role both physically and emotionally. She’s the clear standout in a film full of very good actors. Rey doesn’t need help. When she comes across Finn, he keeps trying to hold her hand and lead her in a move that plays like a direct response to the gender politics of Jurassic World (whose director, Colin Trevorrow, will be helming Episode IX).

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There are already a hundred thinkpieces about a movie as big as TFA being led by a black man and a woman. More importantly, however, is that Boyega and Ridley are so good that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in these roles. Their (for now) platonic bond is fun to watch. I really hope further installments don’t turn them into star-crossed lovers. They are each interesting on their own, and there are plenty of stories to tell with these two. I also hope Hollywood doesn’t turn Ridley, now a full-blown movie star, into “girlfriend material”. She does here what Jennifer Lawrence did in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games. Ridley also carries this unique oomph about her that reminds me of Emily Blunt in a way. Lawrence and Blunt have been fortunate enough to have roles thrown at them that don’t force them into archetypes. I hope the same happens for Ridley, as she already looks like one of the brightest stars we have.

I can’t believe I’ve written 1,000 words without mentioning Harrison Ford. Han Solo is back, and he’s the only member of the original story whose appearance is more than a glorified cameo. He’s a huge part of this movie and we should be thankful for that. Ford dives into the role in what may end up being his last great performance. He’s a little older and wiser but he’s still Han, and we love him for that. I’ve never witnessed a larger round of applause during a movie than when Han enters TFA with Chewy. There is a lot of forced drama with Han but Ford is just so goddamned fun that you’ll overlook it. At the age of 73, Ford still manages to bring more to this sort of role than anyone else in the game. It’s easy to see why the system continues to attempt to find the new Ford with the likes of Chris Pratt, Chris Pine, and Ryan Reynolds.

The effects work and actual action in the film is fine, though a bit misleading. All the talk has been about how Abrams preferred practical effects to CGI, and while there’s certainly a lot of great building in play here, the most exciting sequences come via the digital artists. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s jus that as an effects movie, this is closer to The Avengers than it is to Mad Max: Fury Road. The space battle sequences are spectacular and I imagine George Lucas is wishing right now that he waited an additional decade to do the prequels. The climactic lightsaber fight is short, but it’s arguably the best in Star Wars history. It’s perfect because the parties involved aren’t masters of the force yet, so it’s done very sloppily. There’s no grace. It looks like two kids playing with toy lightsabers in the woods behind their house. This is a compliment.

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On top of being very referential and self-aware, TFA is just plain funny. Tonally, it’s similar to Abrams’ Star Trek films. This is important because it distracts from the shoddy plot and overall unoriginality of the film.

TFA suffers from what it can’t really help; that it’s the first part of a planned trilogy. It’s more important for this film to lay the groundwork, to tease, and to introduce excitement than it is for it to tell a truly great story. When Lucas made the original Star Wars nobody imagined it would become what it did. A sequel was just a possibility, so he had to tell a cohesive story. Abrams and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan don’t have to. TFA truly feels like a “part one”. It does its job to keep you eagerly anticipating the Rian Johnson directed Episode VIII, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit disappointed by the payoff, or lack thereof, with this one.

Diehard Star Wars fans will be salivating for all of TFA’s 135-minute runtime. Those not so close to the series may be frustrated at times, but the trio of Ridley/Boyega/Isaac and sheer wow factor of some of the bigger sequences will still keep them glued to their seats.

Only time will tell where TFA ultimately ranks amongst the Star Wars films. It’s certainly better than the prequels, though I don’t think it ever reaches the emotional highs of the original trilogy. But, again, it did its job. Star Wars is back.

Episode VIII comes out May 26, 2017. Let the countdown begin.

Oh, and thanks for introducing us to Daisy Ridley.

 

 

Game of Thrones: ‘_____ ________’ is officially back, and you should be upset.

Ever since Olly drove the final dagger into Jon Snow’s gut, there was rampant speculation as to whether or not one of the most popular characters on one of television’s most popular shows is actually dead– whatever that word really means in a universe with dragons and snow zombies and black fog monsters that come out of sorceresses va-jay-jays. The Jon Snow truthers, only marginally less infuriating than 9/11 truthers, dug through every detail of the last scene hoping find evidence supporting the notion that the character they’d grown to love would be back. They stalked actor Kit Harrington (let us not forget how #KitHarringtonHairWatch became an actual thing). The surplus of theories on both sides of the “Is Snow dead?” debate unfortunately have dominated the discussion of what was, for the most part, a fine Game of Thrones season. I for one am glad that the time for speculation and hypothesizing has, much like a character on this show, come to a sudden end. HBO has released numerous promotional images/posters for the upcoming season. One of them is the face of Jon Snow. Speculation, over (I think?).

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Updated: HBO has CONFIRMED Snow is alive and will be back.

I was of the apparent minority that believed Jon Snow really was gone for good as the season five closing credits rolled. I didn’t have any real logic for this frame of mind. I stopped reading the books long ago because I found them to be overly-detailed and, frankly, a lot more boring than the show. I just believed, as a fan of what I always deemed a very smart show, that the showrunners wouldn’t stoop to this level. I believed they had more respect for their audience than to show a main character perishing as the final frame of a season with full intentions of bringing him back just to get people talking (like we weren’t going to be talking about GOT regardless…). I believed Harrington and the writers when they said in numerous interviews that Snow really was dead. When the internet began to be flooded with images of Harrington with Snow’s hair, I told myself, “Maybe he just likes his hair that way”. Now, with it being all but confirmed that the noble ranger who had sex in a cave that one time will be back, I can’t help but feel disappointed. I’m not disappointed because I believe I was lied to. I’m disappointed because, regardless of George R. R. Martin’s larger plans, closing the season with Snow dying and then bringing him back is a bullshit, exploitative move you’d expect out of a brainless Network TV snoozefest that relies solely on cliffhangers…not a quintessential golden-age drama like Game of Thrones.

I get it. GOT is fantasy. Magic is a part of this show. We’ve seen that the Red Woman and the Lord of Light are clearly capable of resurrection. But this is different. This isn’t some relatively minor character being brought back to reinforce Westeros’ mythos. For all intensive purposes, Jon Snow is the most significant male character on the show. We’ve seen other dudes carry this mantle at various points in time, specifically Starks, and meet their fates in a shocking manner. There is now an asterisk next to those deaths, and one next to any major death that happen from this point on. Let’s say, hypothetically, that Arya was to die this season. How the hell are we supposed to believe she’s gone for good? Whenever the next major death happens on GOT, you simply have to take it with a whole fucking handful of salt. This is a horrible precedent to set for a show that figures to drop many more bodies before it throws in the towel.

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The most important factor for speculative genres such as sci-fi and fantasy in determining whether or not the general entertainment consuming public will buy it is to set at least some semi-concrete rules in place when it comes to whatever fantastical storytelling device you choose to deploy- whether it be time travel, magic, resurrection, superpowers, immortality, etc. It doesn’t matter how Jon Snow comes back to life (the prevailing theory is that the Red Woman foresaw this and has traveled to the Wall to save him). Six full seasons into GOT, there was no indication that major characters who had died were capable of coming back. In the books, another MAJOR character who we’ve watched die returns in strange fashion. The show hasn’t even hinted at that, and given the timeline, it doesn’t appear that it ever will (I’ll bite my tongue, just in case.). A show so reliant on an “anyone can die at any moment” aura will now find itself walking a tightrope when it comes to how it handles death. This a potentially devastating blow to the plausibility and emotional resonance of the shows dramatic narrative. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have to handle this very carefully. They’re very smart guys, so maybe they’ll figure it out and I’ll seem like a paranoid, overzealous fanboy for writing this. Maybe. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Worse than pretending to kill Jon Snow is the way last season was paced; completely based around said pretend death. Much like the deaths of both Stark men, the entire season built up to Snow’s demise both in regards to plot and thematic heft. The writing was on the wall. Ned refused to stay quiet about the incestual happenings that spawned the then-King Joffrey. Robb followed his heart and married Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter instead of marrying into the Frey bloodline and getting access to an integral bridge. Jon showed the Wildlings mercy. Nobility leads to death in Westeros. We’ve been beaten over the head with this theme. Seeing as Jon clearly has a key part in the larger story, unlike Rob or Ned, I don’t inherently have a problem with the series not killing him off. But to build your entire season up to a scene that really means nothing? That’s disrespectful to your audience. It’s a shameless attempt at a cliffhanger by a show that doesn’t need cliffhangers due to its large, loyal, and generally intelligent audience. Besides, did they really think they were fooling anybody? This isn’t The Walking Dead. Your fans don’t need forced “holy shit” moments to make up for the lack of genuine genre.

There is no way in Hell or Highgarden HBO was ever going to be able to keep Snow’s inclusion in season six a secret. We live in the internet age. If Kit Harrington was cast in something major that he couldn’t fit into his schedule on top of GOT, we’d know well in advance. I mean, some person bought a drone and flew it over the GOT set. You’re not keeping anything a secret anymore.

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Anyways, I just wanted to share my thoughts on this development. Of all the various topics I’ve posted on, Game of Thrones seems to be the most popular, so I’m thinking about doing some sort of “re-watch” over the next few months and writing about key moments in the early seasons within the larger context of the show.

Happy Thanksgiving, unless you’re PC police and can’t let other people enjoy eating food and watching football and hanging out with their friends/family. In that case, I hope what happened to Oberyn Martell happens to you.

‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1’ Review

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 never had a chance. It was doomed before the cameras started to roll. It was doomed before they even settled on a director. Hell, it was doomed before the first draft of the script was even turned in. Not even a cast including talents like Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman could save this project from this impending doom.

In July of 2012, Lionsgate announced that the final book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy would be split into two films. That book, a book that spent it’s first 40% or so going absolutely nowhere, may not have had enough compelling material for one movie, much less two. This decision from Lionsgate was essentially a foregone conclusion for a couple of years leading up to it. The final Harry Potter book was made into two films, and those two films combined to gross well over $2 billion. Peter Jackson/Warner Bros. took The Hobbit, a children’s book best enjoyed in one or two sittings, and turned it into three films that will combine for a runtime of nearly nine hours. The quality of Jackson’s return to Middle Earth can be debated. The commercial appeal cannot. Kiss my ass, Peter Jackson.

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So Lionsgate had already seen proof that if you have hot commodity with a loyal fanbase, Collins’ novels certainly fit the bill, those loyal fans are going to flock to the theaters no matter what the hell you do. We, as fans, have shown the studios that we don’t really care about them making the best movies out of the books because we’re fine with more movies. I’m obviously not expecting Hunger Games fans to start a Panem-level uprising and refuse to see the movie (which had an impressive worldwide opening of $275 million), but what is essentially an overlong prologue doing $17 million in midnight advance tickets? Ummmmm….okay. It’s hard to blame the studio, especially considering Lionsgate is a publicly traded company that isn’t under the umbrella of one of the big five media conglomerates. At least we all apparently agreed that Divergent is lame and didn’t go see that.

As for the actual movie I’m supposed to be reviewing here, many of its problems stem directly from the book. So the diehard “see it at midnight” types will likely view it as the best entry yet, just like they failed to recognize that the third book was, frankly, much weaker than the first two.

In some ways, Mockingjay Part 1 is the best entry yet. The loaded cast is as good as ever and benefits from additions such as Juliane Moore, Mahershala Ali, and Natalie Dormer. Lawrence is again something to behold despite not having much to do. She carries the movie. With a lesser young star, and by lesser I mean pretty much anybody else, this movie would’ve fallen apart completely. The scenes of Katniss suffering from PTSD, or living in fear, or being unsure of her role all resonate nicely because Lawrence is a gifted dramatic actress. The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman brought his usual charm to the screen despite also not having anything to do, as did Harrelson.

Back to Lawrence having nothing to do. It’s not hard to understand that an action movie needs its star kicking ass to work. That’s Newton’s third law, I think. In Mockingjay Part 1, Katniss spends the only two scenes that could even be argued as a climax sitting on the sideline. Whether she’s sitting in a bunk-bed or in mission control, Katniss does an awful lot of waiting around in this movie. This doesn’t seem like Katniss, and it seems like a waste of Lawrence’s star power (which is likely what sparked the decision to make this into two movies, suck every dollar you can out of her while you still got her under contract). I get that changing a popular book is tricky, but in this movie, it’s Gale (Thor’s less talented brother Liam Hemsworth) doing all the heroic things.

Another note on the use of actors. Sam Claflin was great as Finnick in Catching Fire, but apparently not great enough to actually get any meaningful scenes in this movie. When a book is flawed, IT’S OKAY TO CHANGE IT A LITTLE BIT. They have the legal rights and creative freedom to do so.

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I will give the writers credit for steering away from typical love-triangle conflicts the book relied so heavily on. Instead they use the times when the characters are not doing anything to focus on the very idea of revolution. There is some rather intelligent and intriguing dialogue throughout the film. They’ve done a good job of making this franchise smart enough for adults to enjoy, something Harry Potter never really had a chance at since it was entirely dependent on magic. Francis Lawrence, the director with no relation to Jennifer, does a nice job again as well. It’s not his fault they broke this is into two movies. When he was brought on for Catching Fire, which is by far the best movie and book in the series, he made everything bigger and darker. On top of that there are just some really impressive individual scenes that he must’ve been drooling over while reading the book.

For the most part, the special effects hold up (a major complaint with the first movie). The destruction that happens when Katniss shoots down a bomber was maybe a little too movie-like, but that’s really my only quarrel. There were a couple of phenomenal shots deep underground in District 13 that allowed you to see just how disciplined these people are.

The pacing is strange in this movie. They attempt to shoot so many scenes in a climactic manner (Katniss agreeing to become their symbol, the bombing, the rescue attempt) that all of them end up feeling like filler. The ONE CHANCE I thought this movie had was if it focused entirely on her struggle with becoming, and ultimate decision to become, the Mockingjay. Make it a character piece. They could’ve end the movie with J-Law storming into mission control and saying “I’ll be your Mockingjay”. That would’ve been dope. Instead, the studio is playing the role of mockingjay. And we’re the ones being mocked.

It’s hard to call this movie terrible and I won’t do so. But it wasn’t a good singular film. Maybe the finale will be amazing and we’ll all look back in a few years and call this necessary filler, but probably not. It’s the most financially successful prologue ever. It will hold over the appetite of diehard fans for another year. It will likely lead to even bigger box office numbers for the finale. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is doing exactly what Lionsgate wanted it to do. Unfortunately for us, their wants don’t seem to be making a good movie. And we’re allowing them to do it.

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