Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Rogue Wonderful: Ranking the New Star Wars Story in the Pantheon



Another holiday season is upon us and we have another Star Wars movie, the second since Disney bought Lucasfilm. I've been seeing some rankings online lately, listing the SW movies from top to bottom, and I figured my hungry and adoring public wanted me to briefly chime in.

Rather than a simple list, I'm feel we can separate the eight movies (I'm not familiar enough with those Ewok movies, so they're not considered) into three distinct groups of quality:

Classics


  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Star Wars
For obvious reasons, these two are a cut above everything else. I don't have to get into it but I'm sure not many out there would argue too hard about this placement.

Solid Entries


  1. Return of the Jedi
  2. The Force Awakens
  3. Rogue One
Mind you, while the above three are numbered, at the moment they are very close together in my mind, just a hair away from each other. I know RotJ has dropped in favour with many fans over the years (Ewoks!), but there's just so much that's great about this one. The rescue of Han to start things off, the weird aliens in Jabba's palace, the sarlacc pit, the speeder bikes through the forests of Endor, and of course the space battle at the end (intercut with Luke/Vader/Emperor and the shield generator action) that still hasn't been surpassed by anything that has come since.

In the year since it's release, it's become cool to hate on The Force Awakens but I haven't jumped on that particular bandwagon. Rehashed plot notwithstanding, TFA has great pacing (barring a slight dip when they get to Maz's castle), and wonderful characters brought to life by instantly charismatic actors. For these reasons, it edges out the newest but still great entry, Rogue One.

Rogue One has one of the best last acts I've seen in a while, its space battle almost on par with RotJ. Gareth Edwards's sense of scope, imagery and direction of action is a revelation for a SW movie. The subtle ties to the original SW are great for observant fans, it even strengthens A New Hope. There's no denying any of this, and that's why I think it's a great and worth entry into the SW canon. But on the other hand, the first half is slow and the roster of characters aren't memorable, outside the droid and the villain Krennic. Sure, the blind guy has a cool gimmick and look, but we hardly know anything about him. And so it goes with the rest of the team. Perhaps that was the goal: to show that the mission was the important thing, and to demonstrate how tragic the life of the unknown rebel solider is. I'm not taking away anything from the actors, they all did fine jobs with what they were given.

I get it: both movies had different sets of goals and both succeeded in their respects. I can't wait to see Rogue One again, having loved it the first go-around. However, right now, if I want to be purely entertained, TFA gets the slightly higher ranking on my list.

Unmentionables


  • Revenge of the Sith
  • The Phantom Menace
  • Attack of the Clones
Notice the bullet points? That's because, on any given day of the week, my ranking for the prequel movies can change depending on my mood. Let's say the order in which they appear above is my usual ranking, though.

The less said about the prequels, the better. Sure, there are bits here and there I appreciate and actually like but on the whole, they're misfires. (Yes, I've read the exhaustive "ring theory" defense of the prequels but that doesn't change that they're failures just the same.)

I could go on about the prequels but I don't want to be here all day, or to think about them for too long.

***

So there you have it: my list as of this date. Over time, I might even change my mind about some of these, who knows? Be sure to check back this time next year when the oddly-still-unnamed Episode VIII comes out in order to find out where I think it fits.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Thoughts on "The Witch"

I've heard for a while now how great The Witch (sometimes stylized as "The VVitch") is, so I finally sat down to watch it on Netflix on Friday, and it was nothing like I expected it to be. At first I was ambivalent about the movie but as the hours passed, I couldn't shake it and gave it more thought.

Right away, I can say that it's guaranteed to divide opinions, despite the 91% score it holds on Rotten Tomatoes. The Witch is not a typical horror movie, but what I'd call art-house horror. There isn't much in the way of jump scares, rather relying on atmosphere and a sense of claustrophobia to unsettle the audience. That the characters speak in period-correct English also adds to the other-worldly ambiance.

On the surface, The Witch is about a Puritan family in 17th century New England who get kicked out of their settlement for being too religiously zealous...for Puritans. They settle outside of town on their own homestead and have a hard go at surviving. Oh, also, there's a witch out there in the neighbouring woods picking them off.

But the real story here is deeper than a simple witch tale. Spoilers follow.

So we have the father of the family, William, literally being holier-than-thou to the rest of the community, telling them he understands the faith more than they do. It's a kind of "you can't fire me because I quit" scenario, where William leaves, taking his family to the edge of a forest to build a new home. He thinks he knows best for his clan but it turns out he's kind of clueless. His religious fervour has put his family in jeopardy because he can't hunt and he can't grow food worth a damn. Even without the witches out there, this family was doomed, and he's too proud to make amends and go back to the community (even though pride is one of the deadly sins, something you'd figure William would be attuned to. Hypocrisy among extremists, you say?).

Now take his oldest daughter, Thomasin. She's approaching adulthood and her father is thinking of selling her off to another family, where surely a terrible life awaits. But after her younger twin siblings denounce her as a witch (blaming her for her brother's possession and death), her very life is now in jeopardy. So these are her two life options (both out of her control): either she's sold to someone as a wife/slave, or is murdered by her own family as a witch. There's no way to escape a miserable fate.

Except, that is, to become a witch. Yes, even though her entire family is slain by the end, this movie actually has what can only be seen as a happy ending for her character.

She sees a way out of this miserable life by calling forth Satan himself, in the form of the family's goat, in a desperate bid for survival. Only by joining the coven in the forest (and thus symbolically rejecting her family's rigid religious beliefs) does she escape the terrible paths guaranteed for her life.

A lot of witch mania in centuries past is related to the male fear and discomfort with girls becoming women. The Witch links those fears to the rigidity of thought and mental suppression of religious extremists. I'm by no means a film critic or an expert of women's issues, but I think it's apparent that The Witch is actually a feminist tale about how historically, the religious patriarchy subjugates women, and the only way out is for women to think freely.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Not with a Bang but a Whimper

Picard's reaction after watching season 7
I recently finished re-watching the entire run of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), and I must admit that our collective fond memories of that show are definitely viewed through rose-coloured glasses.

Don't get me wrong, TNG is a very important Trek show. It, along with the original cast's movie series, cemented Trek as a phenomenon, shepherding the franchise into its arguable peak period of the early to mid-90s. Its legacy is secure. However, when watching the individual episodes, especially backwards through the scope of the brilliant Deep Space Nine (DS9) that followed, TNG just doesn't hold up on the whole.

Yes, when TNG is firing on all cylinders, it's excellent. Every episode, with very few exceptions, Patrick Stewart delivers a nuanced performance that's unrivaled by any other actor in all of Trekdom, save perhaps Leonard Nimoy's Spock. The problem with TNG is the inconsistency. It could be great one week, then dreadful for the next few. (This pattern definitely continued with the TNG movies: for every one great entry, we get three bad ones.)

Trek fans will argue about which season of TNG is the best until they're as blue in the face as a Bolian (generally, seasons 3 to 5 are in that conversation, maybe 6), but I think we can all agree the final season is where they just threw their hands in the air and gave up.

Oh boy, season 7, where to begin? If you're not familiar with it, there's a great Twitter feed called TNG Season 8 that expertly mocks the increasingly ridiculous story lines from the end of TNG's run. The one-line synopses of fictional episodes sound absurd but after recently having seen season 7, they're shockingly plausible, a logical extension of where this show was going.

You know you're in for a rocky time on any TV show when a character's family member shows up out of nowhere every second episode; clearly the writers were grasping at straws.

To wit:
  • s7e1, "Descent, Part II": Data's brother Lore has a poorly thought-out and even more poorly explained plan of taking over the Federation using the Borg. Bad episode.
  • s7e3, "Interface": The VR specter of Geordi's mom appears to him after her ship goes missing. Bonus points: Geordi calls up his dad, too. Bad episode.
  • s7e7, "Dark Page": Troi mom comes back again (ugh) and we find out Troi had an older sister who died when she was young. Bad episode.
  • s7e10, "Inheritance": Data's "mom" shows up. Surprise, she's an android. Bad episode.
  • s7e13, "Homeward": Worf's foster brother shows up and tries to save a doomed village. An embarrassing hour of TNG.
  • s7e14, "Sub Rosa": Crusher has a romance with a ghost who was previously her grandmother's ghost lover. Another embarrassment.
  • s7e20, "Journey's End": Crusher's son Wesley comes back one last time to save Space-Native Americans. Decent episode if only for setting up some stories that get explored further in the subsequent Trek series.
  • s7e21, "Firstborn": Worf is concerned his son Alexander isn't growing up Klingon enough. Meh episode: Alexander remains stupid and Worf continues being an awful parent, but has a neat time travel element. Also, DS9's Quark appears.
  • s7e22, "Bloodlines": Bok (from season 1) returns, vowing to kill Picard's long lost son. Turns out it's not really his son. Oh well. Lame episode.
  • s7e23, "Emergence": The Enterprise essentially has a baby, plot holes and logic be damned. Awful episode.
As we can see, just under half the episodes of the final season had lame, we're-out-of-ideas family plots that did a disservice to the series as a whole. Perhaps the writers/producers were too busy making DS9 and prepping Voyager, as well as getting Generations made, I don't know. Yet, amid all this trash, they did manage to turn out some of the best episodes of the series, such as the back-to-back winners "Parallels" and "The Pegasus", as well as "Lower Decks" and, of course, the wonderful series finale, "All Good Things..."
You should be embarrassed!
But if you're still craving more episodic TNG after binge-watching season 7, there's a great Twitter feed you can check out...

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

I'm No One

Yesterday, the blu-ray release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out and, naturally, I bought it and watched it that very night.

I saw the movie twice in theaters and after the second time, picked up on many clues to the secret backstory of some of these characters. (You can read my thoughts here.) However, after watching the movie again for a third time, I have to amend my initial theories about Rey's mysterious origins.

I'm now confident that Kylo Ren knows exactly who Rey is.

"What girl?"

I came to this realization when a cringing officer informs Kylo Ren that a girl helped Finn and BB-8 escape Jakku. Kylo immediately and pointedly asks, "What girl?" - but it's the way Adam Driver delivers the line that made something click. He's asking because he knows of a special person left behind on Jakku; he knows a powerful girl who, given the chance, would be drawn to a larger purpose by the Force.

Also, in the novelization of the movie, when Rey uses the Force to snatch the lightsaber away from Kylo, he says "it is you". Now I'm not one for putting too much stock into scraps of dialogue found in ancillary materials, but there you have it nonetheless.

Kylo's Restraint


A few times in the movie, we see Kylo Ren in a position to kill Rey but he doesn't even think of it.
  1. Captured for interrogation, Kylo never threatens Rey's life. Yes, he could have shown restraint because he wanted information out of her...but he doesn't seem like the most stable person. At no point do we get the feeling he's going to physically harm her. Something's up.
  2. In Rey's visions, we see some kind of warrior standing above Rey in the rain, about to kill her - until he is himself killed by Kylo (backed up by the Knights of Ren). This is either a flashback or perhaps a glimpse of the future, but either way, Kylo is saving her life.
  3. Kylo and Rey have a climactic lightsaber battle, but Kylo's goal is not to kill her, but to break and recruit her. When put in the position to go for the kill, he relents, instead offering to be her teacher.

So What's Going On?

From the above, I conclude that Kylo knows who she is and continually spares her life to some purpose. Why?

Some of my original theory still stands but instead of Luke sending Rey away after the debacle that was his Jedi school, perhaps it was young Kylo who deposited Rey on Jakku. Assuming Rey is his cousin, it's possible they grew up together and he has a soft spot for her. Instead of killing her, he drops her on a planet out at the edge of nowhere to get out of his hair. It might also explain why the Falcon was there: Kylo stole his dad's ship, left it and Rey on Jakku, then took off on the vessel we see in Rey's vision. Maybe he left her there as a backup plan, in case he needed extra help one day, he'd go get her to join forces with him.

But now that Rey's back in the picture, his hand is forced, so he tries to recruit her instead, with the aim of ruling the galaxy as a family, as Vader once tried with Luke.

There's another, nuttier version of this theory where Rey is Kylo's younger sister. Nowhere in the movie is it said that Kylo is Han and Leia's only child.

Who Else Knows?

I think everyone who knew Rey as a child thinks her dead.

Luke, Han, Leia, even Snoke: they all believe the Skywalker girl is dead, so nobody even thinks that she is who she is. At least not at first.

Imagine this: there's a great battle at the Jedi school, Kylo wrecking everything, killing students. But when it comes to Rey, he holds back, kidnapping her instead but making it appear as if she's dead so nobody goes after her. That's when he dumps her on this backwater (back-desert?) planet, out of the way and effectively dead to the galaxy. At the end of the movie, it appears that Luke is standing next to a tombstone. If it is, perhaps it's not for a long-lost wife, but maybe his daughter (or is she his niece?). That would explain the look on his face and the watering eyes: he just came face to face with a ghost, kin he thought killed long ago.

To that end, there's an interesting juxtaposition during the Maz's castle sequence. Han and Maz are alone at a table, and Maz asks "Who's the girl?"; we don't see Han's answer. Instead, it cuts to Finn telling Rey he was taken from a family he'll never know (much like Rey was intended to live out her days), and then the next scene is Rey walking into her vision. These two sequences act as the answer to Maz's question.

So what did Han actually say? I think at this stage, Han suspects Rey is his niece (daughter?) and tells Maz as much. I could only assume that Maz (knowledgeable in the ways of the Force) arranges for Rey to find her way to Luke's lightsaber, to see if it calls to her, to see what reaction she has. It's a kind of test to see if she truly does have Skywalker blood in her veins, a test intended to prove Han's hunch.

But What Do I Know?

But hey! I could be way off base. The fun with movies like this is in the speculation. Fan theories keep interest alive during the interminable wait between installments (I can only imagine the speculation back in the day during the torturous years between ANH and ESB, then especially between ESB and RotJ). Even if I'm completely off my rocker with these ideas, half the fun is in the guesswork.

We've never had flashbacks in a SW movie before, so I'm really looking forward to seeing how they handle all this backstory: break with tradition and have extended sequences in the past, or via exposition. The former is more interesting to me than the latter, chiefly because it would be an excuse to get Harrison Ford back into these pictures.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Who Are You?


{Spoilers abound, of course.}

The new Star Wars movie is out and it is wonderful. One of the major lingering mysteries though is who is Rey? They mention multiple times that she's waiting for family to come back for her and she's clearly very strong in the Force, but we don't know much about her.

That is, until I saw the movie a second time and was better able to process what I saw. Putting together some bits and pieces I missed the first time around, I think I figured out Rey's backstory that I can only assume we'll see in flashback form before the new trilogy is done.

Some key observations from my second viewing are:

  • Kylo Ren seems to know Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow), mentioning how old he's become. They clearly have a history together. Tekka even mentions that Leia is royalty to him, so that firmly places him among surviving Alderaanians, linking him also to Leia, Kylo's mother.
  • When Kylo is trying to pry information from Rey's mind, he mentions seeing an ocean and an island. It's made very clear that Rey has only known the desert...but has she? This bit of dialogue is key to Rey's past.
  • Once Rey tells Han her name, he immediately offers her a job on the Falcon (to stop her from perhaps fulfilling her destiny of becoming a Jedi).
  • When Rey touches the lightsaber, she has a number of flashbacks, among them Yoda and Obi-wan talking to her, as well as Kylo and the Knights of Ren standing over a field of dead bodies. Most telling to her backstory though is when we see Rey as a little child, handed off to someone as she is abandoned on Jakku. The hand she is holding is that of Unkar Plutt, the junk trader.
  • Plutt's is generally stingy with the "portions" he offers Rey in exchange for junk but the moment he sees BB-8, he offers an obscene wealth for the droid. When Rey rejects the offer, he sends men to steal the droid. I feel he's not doing this out of malice but in an effort to separate her from this droid he perhaps recognizes and knows that it might lead her off into greater, dangerous, things.
  • When we finally see Luke at the end, it looks like he's standing next to a gravestone.
Piecing all this together with more straightforward bits of dialogue from the movie, I think I've come up with a timeline of events that fill in the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens (TFA).
  1. Luke starts a Jedi school on the planet we see at the end of TFA, training Force-talented people of all ages, including his nephew, Ben Solo (child of Han and Leia).
  2. Luke takes a wife (perhaps even one of his older students) and has a daughter, Rey. Having a wife is against Jedi code but would Luke even know that? Even if he did, who'd enforce that rule? This is a new Jedi order and he could change the rules for a new generation. If his wife is also a Jedi, it would likely account for Rey's seemingly off-the-charts Jedi powers.
  3. Snoke singles out Ben Solo as weak-minded, the most likely to turn to the dark side. Snoke knows he must nip the Jedi school in the bud before a new army of Jedi could stand in the way of the New Order.
  4. Ben Solo turns evil, joins the Knights of Ren, Snoke's elite death squad. He takes the name Kylo (sKYwalker/soLO? I dunno, just guessing there.)
  5. Kylo and the Knights of Ren slay everyone at the Jedi school, except Luke and Rey. Luke's wife is among the dead, hence the gravestone we see at the end of TFA.
  6. Luke realizes that he failed as a teacher and a Jedi and hides out. He gives Rey to Han and Leia to place her on a deserted dead-end planet, just as he was. He's scared that if his daughter knows who she is, she'll insist on being trained as a Jedi, something Luke is scared of, given his failure at training his nephew.
  7. Han, through his past as a smuggler, has an existing relationship with Plutt and trusts him. He gives Rey over to Plutt and leaves the Falcon there as Plutt's payment for watching Rey. Han is accompanied by BB-8 at this moment, meaning Plutt knows the droid before the events of TFA.
  8. TFA tells us that Han put a tracking device in the Falcon to notify him if it ever takes off. Plutt also put some kind of compressor on the ship to keep it from going into Hyperspace. This is all in an attempt to stop Rey from leaving if it ever comes to that.
  9. Plutt is to keep a watchful eye on Rey (as Uncle Owen did to Luke) while Tekka also watches from afar (as Obi-wan did).
  10. Luke perhaps had a vision of the future where the only possible scenario that Rey and Leia would meet would be under the worst possible scenario of the New Order becoming a major threat. In the event of this worse case situation, Luke entrusted a portion of a map detailing his hiding location to Tekka, leaving the rest of the map with R2-D2. R2-D2 is left specific instructions to reactivate only if his daughter meets his sister, which would exclusively happen in the most dire of times. (In TFA, R2-D2 only wakes up once Rey reaches the base and meets Leia.)
So what do you think? The only thing I can't figure out is how Kylo wouldn't know the location of Luke's planet if it's the same planet where his school was located. Maybe there's some planet hopping going on or some other excuse for him to forget it. I'll think about that aspect a bit more. Anyway, I can't wait to see the next installments to see how off-base or on the nose I am.

Addendum: A couple random observations from my second viewing:
  • The first spoken line of the movie feels like a direct shot at the prequels. Tekka says "This will begin to make things right." Zing, George Lucas!
  • When Kylo Ren takes off his helmet, he sets it down into a box of ashes. Darth Vader's perhaps?
  • When Kylo and Han are on the bridge, with Rey and Finn watching (in a direct parallel to Luke watching Obi-wan fight Vader), Kylo is going on about his conflicted he is, that he knows what he has to do but doesn't know whether he has the strength. As this moment, half his face is lit in blue and half in red. Then, it cuts to Poe Dameron in an X-wing above, talking about how "as long as there is still light, we have a chance." On the surface, he's talking about the Starkiller base's ability to suck the energy from the sun, but that line is also the screenplay telling us that there is still light in Kylo, that there is a chance to redeem him before the end. This line sticks out even more clearly when you remember Leia told Han that she knows there is still light in him.