dune – movie review

Thoughts and reactions while wondering the Gom Jabbar scene was triggering to the anti-vaccine crowd…

So I watched Dune.

Despite the most peer-pressure I’ve felt since high school, that viewing took place in the comfort of my own home, via an internet streaming device connected to my television set. I understand this violates the catholic doctrine that has swept the world of film criticism, where anything less than 100% adherence to seeing the movie on the biggest theatrical screen available requires immediate confession and will result in generations to come being required to buy AMC Indulgences™.

Somehow I was able to still enjoy the movie and appreciate the work of director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Greig Fraser. This is obviously because, based on the opinions of various essayists and sharers of hot takes, I do not truly love film, nor do I support filmmakers.

Its Time Adventure GIF by Dune Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

Still, there are a handful of thoughts I’d like to share, though of course you are free to give my opinions the weight you consider appropriate given the shameful admissions above.

on the presentation…

I’m the first one to agree that theatrical viewing is great, but we need to do away with the notion that there’s some sort of hallowed experience that needs to be preserved. Even putting issues of the quality of the theater – including the parking lot, lobby and everything else connected with it – aside, arguments that seeing a movie theatrically is “immersive” fall apart quickly. That’s especially true with any movie over 1:45. After that point I’m no longer immersed in whatever I’m watching and can only concentrate after I miss 10 minutes of the movie and come back to my seat.

Tell me how that’s a more pure viewing experience than being able to pause the film and come back to it without missing a single scene.

Also, I’m going to assume every critic and columnist insisting people can only fully appreciate the movie on a massive screen will not be buying or viewing any home video release, including its current streaming on HBO Max. Wouldn’t want to sully yourself, after all.

Which leads me to:

on the box-office…

Dune’s $40 million domestic opening weekend total may seem somewhat on the small side, especially since both Halloween Kills and No Time To Die recently hit or exceeded $50 million and Venom: Let There Be Carnage hit $90.

Conventional wisdom has suggested that, if Dune hadn’t been on HBO Max in addition to theaters, it might have scored closer to $80 million or so. But that $40 million is significantly better than Villeneuve’s last two big budget sci-fi movies, and given the…imposing…nature of the source material in this instance, it could have been a lot lower.

While it’s impossible to prove a hypothetical alternative, I’m inclined to believe the constant “go see it in theaters!” message from the filmmakers, critics and the campaign itself motivated a lot of people to go do just that. In a non-HBO Max timeline my hunch is the weekend total would still be under $50 million, and the long-term value of the hybrid release to Warner Bros. is probably greater than the difference.

on the visual design…

One thing Villeneuve, with the help of his production designers and other trades experts, seems to do better than many other current filmmakers is create a sense of proportion between massive sets (both practical and virtual) and the performers being asked to move in and around them.

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Throughout Dune, especially in the first 1:30, characters are walking around massive 50-foot tall inscribed solid walls. Somehow the director and his team are able to successfully convey the size of these while also showing the characters as fully inhabiting them instead of being dwarfed by them.

on the performances…

That’s in part because the performances of the actors are not trying to fill the room. Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet all seem to be acting in a small, storefront black-box theater instead of on the set of an epic sci-fi motion picture. The focus from all of them and others is on the moment and the emotions contained therein, not on trying to act next to a huge dragonfly-esque flying craft.

There’s not really a weak link in the chain in terms of cast. The three mentioned above are all great, Chamalet conveying a lot about Paul Atreides simply by staring at the sculpture of his grandfather fighting a bull, Isaac being stoically honorable behind his thick beard and Ferguson clearly demonstrating love for her son Paul despite repeatedly setting him up for various tortures and tests.

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Also completely enjoyable are Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa, Zendaya, Javier Bardem, Charlotte Rampling and others. Rampling in particular manages to be more menacing behind her black veil than most mustache-twirling villains in other movies.

Speaking of which:

on the score…

The praise being given to composer Hans Zimmer for his score is absolutely deserved. But you really have to stand up and applaud how the music fits into the overall sound design from Mark Mangini and Theo Green, who are responsible for creating everything from huge mining vehicles to the smallest sound of two grains of sand bouncing off each other.

I mean it’s no Toto, but in this economy, what is?

on the comparisons to David Lynch’s 1984 film…

The two can’t really be compared, at least not objectively. They’re both trying to do completely different things and convey completely different themes and messages.

Villeneuve’s movie is more straightforward, seeing the whole story about honor and destiny, whereas Lynch’s is more about the machinations of the characters that lead them to take the actions they do and break the trusts they do. That’s most seen by considering what scenes Lynch included but Villeneuve did not and vice versa.

The visuals are just as stunning in both versions but in different ways, most clearly exemplified by the different approaches to portraying Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård), not just because certain…unsavory…aspects of the character have been excised in the new version but in the general design of the gluttonous leader of the clan opposing House Atreides.

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Psych 2 is Good For What Ails You

Come on, son.

In the leadup to and immediate aftermath of the launch of Peacock, NBC Universal’s new streaming service, much of the press coverage focused either on the subscription tiers or on high-profile *Peak TV* originals like “Brave New World” and others. What blockbuster catalog movies were and weren’t included and when they would be removed from the lineup of offerings also accounted for substantial amounts of writeups.

That relatively narrow scope meant not much attention was paid to the real best reason to try out Peacock: Psych 2: Lassie Come Home.

If you’re not familiar with the premise of “Psych,” it’s pretty simple: Shawn (James Roday) is amazingly good at noticing and remembering details, a skill drilled into him by his police officer father Henry (Corbin Bernson). He uses that talent to pass himself off as a psychic and partners with his lifelong best friend Gus (Dule Hill) to become consultants to the Santa Barbara Police Department, often working with Detectives Lassiter (Timothy Omundson) and Juliet (Maggie Lawson).

Lassie Come Home is the second made-for-TV movie since the show went off the air after seven seasons in 2014. Like 2017’s Psych: The Movie, it catches up with the familiar characters and where they are professionally and personally, reuniting the team for a case that’s somehow tied to their past. In this case Shawn, Gus, Juliet and Chief Karen Vick (Kirsten Nelson) are out to investigate who shot Lassiter, leaving him severely wounded and with a foggy memory.

“Psych” has always shared more than a small amount of DNA with shows like “The Rockford Files,” with Shawn and Gus often bluffing themselves into situations they then had to fast-talk their way out of, and the latest movie is no exception to that. Just like in the show, Lassie Come Home has the pair taking unnecessary risks, sometimes motivated by a desire to see justice done or to help a friend and sometimes simply because Shawn wants to impress Juliet or Gus is trying to prove how tough he is to a girl he’s pursuing.

What’s wonderful about the Psych series to date is that it’s incredibly light-hearted, never stepping very far into deep pathology or psychosis the way other PI/detective procedurals sometimes do. The jokes are always fluffy and deserving of a chuckle, if not more. The relationships between the characters are clear and free of any massive continuity elements aside from the evolution of Shawn and Juliet’s romance. In that way it’s the perfect show for syndication, with no real long-running arc that gets in the way of watching whatever episode you like or whatever happens to be on while you’re unpacking in your hotel room.

That’s what makes it perfect for right now and why it deserved a bigger portion of the spotlight when it was announced as one of the launch day originals for Peacock. It’s not a show (or movie) that you will have to read 3,500-word explainers about, nor will you have to dissect all the Jungian principles that have been woven into the story by the creators. It is not dystopian or mind-bending and does not demand your attention by virtue of an all-star cast enlisted in the service of a cerebral adaptation of a best-selling novel.

Instead it’s a movie that will make you feel refreshed. It’s not mindless in the way some entertainment is, because you have to pay attention to catch all the rapid-fire one-liners and comebacks. Quite the opposite, it rewards careful viewing since the conclusions to the mysteries are almost always satisfying and consistent with the internal logic put in place by co-creator Steve Franks and others. More than anything, the cast uniformly delivers fun, breezy performances that make it obvious they’re having a good time on set and enjoying being reunited with the others, playing off each other with ease.

Peacock was never going to be a success or failure solely on how well Psych 2: Lassie Come Home delivered on the promise of the series or the 2017 movie. But the good news is that it *does,” in part because the model the creators have adopted means that these reunions/continuations every couple years come without the overwrought expectations and burdens of being a reunion or reboot. It only has to work on its own merits, not live up to the water-colored memories people might have from ~20 years ago.

Not only does the movie play just as funny and whimsical as the show almost always did, but it’s just as true with its feelings as well. Since the plot revolves around Det. Lassiter being shot, it naturally allows for Omundson, who suffered a stroke three years ago but has recovered to a great extent, to be involved and to serve as the emotional core of the story. Everyone is working the case because they owe Lassiter for all he’s done for them and don’t want to let him down while he’s sidelined. Still, he winds up being far from a passive observer to the action and his arc throughout the movie will make fans wonder why it’s getting so dusty in the room.

If you’ve already signed up to try out Peacock and see how it can fit into your streaming lifestyle, do yourself a favor and take two hours to watch Psych 2: Lassie Come Home. Even if you’re not a long-time fan and aren’t someone who watches closely for hidden pineapples, you’re likely to have a good time, one that won’t come with the need to go online and search for “what does X mean” in relation to every single plot point or development.

Spike Lee Is Our Most Intriguing Filmmaker

No one else is operating at his level.

During the publicity cycle for BlacKKKlansman there was a fair amount of press over how director Spike Lee ending the film by using news footage from the 2018 Charlottesville white supremicist rally as well as shots of Trump praising the “very fine people” on both sides of that rally. That coverage treated it as something novel or unusual, for Lee to use real life footage in his film. It was anything but.

As I rewatched Lee’s Malcolm X I was reminded it begins with footage of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police as well as the ensuing protests that swamped parts of that city in the aftermath less than a year after those events occurred. There are plenty of other examples, including his recent short video that shows the real police killings of Eric Garner and George Floyd along with the scene of police killing Radio Raheem from Do The Right Thing.

Lee uses the same style in his recent film Da 5 Bloods. The movie is an examination of the connections between the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 70s, specifically dealing with how black soldiers were treated before, during and after that military action. Throughout the story, the question is asked why black soldiers were sent overseas to die disproportionately for freedoms they themselves were not able to enjoy at home?

As we watch the five veterans navigate the jungles of Vietnam in search of the remains of their fallen friend and the treasure they buried decades prior, we get footage from that era. Lee weaves in clips of protests, marches and more along with the often violent actions of law enforcement to those protests.

In Da 5 Bloods that footage is contemporary, at least in relation to the flashback sequences of the soldiers’ time in-country. In the other movies the news clips serve a different purpose, juxtaposing recent news with a feature whose narrative is set in the past to show how little has changed in that time. The Charlottesville rallies make it clear that the Klan depicted in BlacKKKlansman is not a part of history but something that is alive and active right now. Rodney King’s beating shows how the dignity Malcolm X fought for is still missing.

The skillful way all that is presented in these and other films never gets in the way of the narrative he’s building but always supports it. Unlike some filmmakers, he underlines the point being made without it being obtrusive or distracting.

If anything, it shows he is telling a narrative story – often a real life one – with the ethos and mindset of a documentarian. That’s something no one else is really doing.

It’s just the latest reason Lee has remained one of the most vital filmmakers operating for over 30 years, someone who’s never really had a downswing in terms of quality or relevancy. Everything he does sizzles and pops off the screen and is just as important today as the day it was released. That’s both a positive in that he has told important stories that reward continued viewing regardless of whether you’ve seen the film before or not and a negative because we’re still dealing with the same issues Lee was addressing in 1986.

Few others can say likewise. In fact, the director he’s a contemporary of and is frequently compared to – Oliver Stone – has devolved into a parody of himself in the last 15 years with movies that keep hitting the same paranoid themes and Boomer mentality. Stone made his bones telling stories about Vietnam and its veterans, but always from the perspective of there being someone else to blame for the tragedies that happened there and without examining how that has reverberated through the rest of society.

Lee has now done that, using the archival footage to support his thesis, showing that the party to blame was us, because we weren’t grappling with issues at home while feeling we could still help the rest of the world deal with theirs.

That comes into focus in one relatively minor piece of dialogue. As Paul (Delroy Lindo) is trying to negotiate for the eventual transportation of the gold he and his friends recover out of the country, he and the French smuggler (played by Jean Reno) begin trading words about the U.S. assistance provided to France in WWII. “Yes,” Reno’s character points out, “but even America couldn’t win in Vietnam.”

That’s an admission that goes beyond the “war is hell” ideas presented by Stone and others and plays into how Lee is and has always been willing to go where others can’t or won’t. Even the premise of the film, that Vietnam impacted some groups more than others because of racial or economic disparities at home, has rarely been addressed so clearly. It’s just the most recent example of how Lee is a filmmaker unlike most others, one that too often is left out of discussions of the great directors in cinema history.

Shaun The Sheep: Farmageddon – Movie Review

So many of the modern movies ostensibly meant tor young kids or labeled as being “family” or “all ages” films aren’t really appropriate for all ages and aren’t going to be interesting to every member of a family. The same can be said for a good number of the shows and series also bearing those or similar labels. Either the humor is overly crude and offensive, the script is stuffed with pop-culture references that will fly over the heads of kids and be dated five minutes after the first screening, or it’s so kinetic it actively impairs the brain’s ability to process information.

A notable exception to that is Aardman Animation’s “Shaun the Sheep” series. Set on a Scottish farm, Shaun is the most precocious of the sheep under The Farmer’s care. He and the others are corralled by the very good dog Blitzer, who simply wants them to follow the rules.

Originally a series airing on the BBC, there’s been one feature length film already and now a second, A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, is available on Netflix in the U.S. after a theatrical release in the U.K.

The plot is just as simple as what’s often found in an episode of the series. Things are relatively quiet on the farm save for the hijinks that Shaun is instigating, which never gets more serious than wanting to score some ice cream from a passing delivery truck. Out of the sky comes an alien, which sets off a series of events that has Shaun and his friends tangling with a government agent hunting extraterrestrials, helping to repair a broken spaceship and building an outer space theme park on the farmer’s land.

Because of the nature of the movie’s story there are a number of subtle nods to sci-fi genre touchstones such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, “Doctor Who” and others. None are so overt as to generate the kind of cheap, guffawing laugh that is the stock and trade of many animated features. No one does a Spock impression, for instance. The appearances of a TARDIS and a few other references are simply there and then they’re not, the writers and directors opting not to underline the joke, unlike some of their Hollywood peers.

With characters that never speak intelligibly it falls to the physical direction of Will Becher and Richard Phelan to convey not only the action but the story. In all the Shaun stories that means lots of sight gags, though never any that rise to the level of anyone being seriously hurt in any way. And even more rewarding than the sci-fi references are those to the long tradition of cinematic physical comedy.

In particular is a scene that is explicitly pulled from Charlie Chaplin’s classic Modern Times. It’s not there as a quick gag, and the character who finds himself winding through the gears of a giant machine isn’t wearing a mustache to make the reference clear. It just happens and is the more wonderful for it.

With so much going on in the world, taking an hour and a half to watch the gentle humor of A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon is good for what ails you. It’s just the kind of calming entertainment that’s greatly needed at the moment. It also uses the history of film and media with a sense of respect instead of exploitation, wanting to build on what’s come before instead of merely borrowing (or stealing) from it.

The Kitchen – Movie Review

70s New York is the backdrop for an exploration of what women can do when free of others.

It’s surprising to me that The Kitchen didn’t make more of an impact when it came out late last year. The movie, adapted from a DC/Vertigo comics series everyone should read, tells the story of three women who have to find a way to make it on their own after their mobster husbands are sent to prison for three years. The criminal organization those husbands were part of promises to take care of them, but fails to come through on that, pushing them to the edge of financial disaster. So they decide the best way to survive is to become crime bosses themselves.

The performances by stars Tiffany Haddish, Melissa McCarthy and Elizabeth Moss are all wonderful, as the three fully inhabit the characters they’re playing. And they flourish under the direction of Andrea Berloff, who builds a world of late-70s New York City that feels lived in and not dirty instead of a mocked-up Hollywood set.

There are three points from the story that particularly caught my attention and require being called out.

Motives Matter

Each of the three women embarks on their criminal endeavor for different reasons, though those reasons undergo some evolution over the course of the story. Ruby (Haddish) wants to finally show the strength her mother tried to instill in her as a child and winds up the coldest, most vicious of the three. Claire (Moss) wants to finally show she can defend herself after years of being abused by her husband. Kathy (McCarthy) wants to help her neighborhood thrive.

While those goals bring them all together at the outset, they also pull them apart as time goes on. Ruby’s ambitions grow as she sees the power she’s accumulating as never being enough. Claire’s mission becomes more and more personal and her actions very specific to carving out a life free of abuse for herself. Kathy’s continued focus on her neighbors and family becomes even more intense, with anything outside that seeming to be a distraction from that.

In fact the movie shows that the motives they’ve adopted impact their ultimate fate.

Toxic Masculinity Is the Problem

The biggest lesson of the story is that the biggest impediment to women succeeding in the world is men.

the kitchen banner

Ruby is in a terrible marriage and continues to be held down by her mother in law after her husband goes to jail. Once he’s gone she can be as ambitious as possible and his return presents an immediate threat to her plans and so has to be eliminated.

Claire’s marriage is even worse, and his return reminds her of how weak she once was and refuses to be again. She will no longer be subjected to anyone else’s feelings and takes matters into her own hands when she’s put back in the role of victim.

Kathy’s is the story most exemplary of this problem. Her husband Jimmy is initially shown as loving and supportive, but doesn’t like his wife getting into the business. That makes sense when it seems he’s just worried about her safety. But when he’s released it becomes apparent it’s his own ego he’s most concerned about, taking steps that put the wellbeing of their entire family at risk. He simply can’t handle not being part of the operation, jealous of his now-influential wife and the power she’s claimed.

It’s the elimination of those three and others that mark important rites of passage for the women, showing how committed they are to the life they’ve chosen and the goals they have in mind. All three husbands represent different aspects of the worst parts of masculinity and how fragile it is. The one can’t feel like a man if he’s not sleeping around. The other can’t feel like a man if he’s not beating his wife. The third can’t feel like a man if he’s not the primary breadwinner.

Hope Over Nihilism

While I still haven’t seen Joker, part of that movie’s brand identity was it being a gritty, raw presentation of a fictional New York City in the throes of early-80s urban decay. The message, based on reviews of the film, seems to be that the logical result of such an environment is a lone nihilist who seeks to get the attention denied to him by becoming a theatrical murdering sociopath.

The Kitchen has the same basic setting, but shows that women are more likely to choose an alternate path. Kathy in particular is the polar opposite of the Joker ethos, using her power to bring jobs to friends and family, seeking to protect and support local businesses. She shows that being marginalized by society – as women commonly are – can result in someone seeking to lift everyone up, even if the means chosen are sometimes violent.

If you haven’t seen The Kitchen, find it today and watch a movie whose morality doesn’t have to be endlessly explained and nuanced by the filmmakers but instead shows what women are capable of when they’re given the chance to decide their own fates.

Blinded By The Light And Setting Artists Free

Director Gurinder Chadha crafted something fun and highly entertaining in Blinded By The Light. Based on a true story, the story focuses on Javed (Viveik Kalra), the son of Pakistani immigrants living in mid-80s suburban Luton, a time and place filled with economic hardships and a rise in racism and intolerance. Amidst that, Javed finds the music of Bruce Springsteen and discovers how that music speaks to universal truths. He’s particularly affected by it because Javed is a writer himself, filling notebook after notebook with essays and poems and dreaming of a career where he can do that professionally.

Standing in the way of that dream is Javed’s father, who wants his son to pursue something more practical. Much of the movie’s conflict is centered around the clash between generations, with the older parents wanting Javed to follow a certain, largely traditional path and keep his head down and ignore the hatred around them. But Javed wants to be a teen, make his own path and take a stand against the nationalism infecting the country.

The disagreements between Javed and his father are constantly butting heads in part because of the recession gripping the country at the time, one that results in the father losing the job he’s held for decades and pushing the family to the edge of financial ruin. He wants Javed to be more secure and not have the same struggles, so a career in writing is a flight of fancy, one that can’t possibly come with any security.

In that way, the story of Blinded By The Light offers a great example of the benefits a Universal Basic Income situation can offer a society.

The real life Sarfraz Manzoor, on whom Javed is based, did go on to become a journalist and professional writer of course, but others who grow up with the same dream aren’t always as lucky. They are forced to make choices based on financial realities, opting to pursue some other profession that offers a more stable income and other options.

As the movie points out, if Javed were forced to make that decision the world would be denied an important voice. He may not be a best-selling author or a well-renowned poet, but his creations would still be important to himself and potentially others. Art still matters, even if the audience is small.

UBI means the freedom to pursue passions without consideration of how a living will be made. If they don’t have to worry about paying the rent or procuring health insurance, they can choose not to take a job they don’t care for but instead can keep creating their art and put something new and precious into the world.

That budding artists are forced by society to compromise their callings because without doing so they won’t be able to afford the basics in life is a tragedy.

While the movie isn’t perfect – it suffers from not being able to quite commit to being a musical – it has that and other important and entertaining messages to send. It captures that moment of teenage life when you discover something and are obsessed with it to the point where you annoy everyone around you talking about it all the time. It also shows how music can inspire and reach across cultures.

The $18 million grossed by Blinded By The Light at the box office was largely seen as disappointing, but it’s a great choice for home viewing, where you can sing along with the outstanding soundtrack and overlook some of the story’s issues more easily.

Mostly, though, it should be seen as a warning of what might be missed when we force all our artists to get other jobs.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Movie Review

J.J. Abrams returns to direct a mixed finale to the Sequel Trilogy and the Skywalker Saga.

My love for The Last Jedi is, at this point, well documented. While The Force Awakens was a massively fun thrill ride of a Star Wars movie, TLJ moved me in ways I didn’t think were possible. Not only was it a great Star Wars film, it was a great *any kind of* movie. It accomplished this by constantly defying expectations, resisting any inclination to formula and offering a wholly unique perspective and story.

Where The Force Awakens was intentionally familiar in many aspects of its storytelling, The Last Jedi revealed something new with every scene. While it certainly continued on the story of Luke Skywalker and his relatives and friends, it also took the saga in a new directly by focusing on the kinds of people who have had to make a galaxy at war their home. And it suggested you didn’t need to be part of that lineage or group to make a difference in the world. Instead, you could be no one from nowhere – a junk salvager on a desert planet, a stable boy in a resort frequented by war-profiteering oligarchs – and still be important, still have a destiny.

That message is all but erased in The Rise of Skywalker. Once more, lineage is the only important factor determining how much success and influence you can enjoy in the universe. If you’re not to the manner born you are simply one of the “other” who only play minor roles in supporting the mission of those who are truly important.

While that might be more in keeping with the original idea of the Star Wars saga, it’s not necessarily one that’s reflective of the times we’re living in. Nor is it the only problem with the story Abrams and his writers wound up telling.

Abrams is well known for his “mystery box” way of structuring stories. He loves putting big twists into his shows and movies that reveal themselves either suddenly or over the course of several episodes, with the outcome drastically changing the audience’s understanding of what they’ve seen.

The Rise of Skywalker has several such moments, including what’s meant to be an earth-shattering revelation toward the end. But these payoffs to mysteries that have been speculated on and debated in the four years since TFA came out don’t feel in any way earned and therefore don’t carry the meaning and emotional heft they are intended to.

It comes down to the difference between “stakes” and “mysteries.” The latter can be explained or revealed and it’s supposed to be shocking. The former is supposed to make you feel something and care about the characters and the situation they find themselves in.

There are stakes in TLJ – Poe’s journey from hotshot pilot to reasoned leader, Luke’s grappling with insecurity and shame as he reflects on how his actions have impacted the universe, Finn’s perspective opening up to see more of the world around him – that go beyond simple story points. They are the messages the story is there to reinforce. So much subtext can be found in TLJ that watching it offers up something new every time. Such depth isn’t better or worse than the fast-paced kineticism of TFA, just different.

The story and its attendant twists are so prevalent in TROS, though, that nary a moment can be found where things slow down enough for any of the action and events to mean anything. No stakes are felt because none of the big moments are earned through intricate setup. In TLJ, even the joke moment with the porg crashing into the Falcon’s window during the final battle has been earned through all the development they were given leading up to that.

The Rise of Skywalker is in many ways a satisfying ending to the Star Wars saga that I and countless others have been following over the last 42 years. Most of the story choices made by the filmmakers were compelling and interesting and logical. Few, though, rise to the level of high emotion that Johnson’s did in The Last Jedi.

Solo and the Future of Star Wars (After the Campaign Review)

There’s been a wave recently of writers using the box-office results of Solo: A Star Wars Story as a kind of Rorschach Test for their own personal issues and beliefs regarding the potential future of the Star Wars series. Terms like “franchise fatigue” and “inessential” have been thrown around pretty freely. People have wondered whether opening to $103m domestically in its first weekend is a sign Disney needs to rethink its Star Wars strategy or if the franchise is about to falter. Poor reviews have lead people to speculate on what correct measures need to be taken by the studio to right the ship.

Solo, in case you need a refresher, tells the story of the younger days of the lovable smuggler and scoundrel. Played by Alden Ehrenreich, we start off with him as a hard-living thief on his home planet of Corellia, where he works for a local thug alongside others, including Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Over the course of the story he embraces his destiny as an outlaw, albeit one with a penchant for doing the right thing, even if it costs him in the short term. He meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Chewbacca along with others who will help shape him into the cocky, boastful pilot we meet in a Tatooine cantina.

Unlike many other recent large-scale movies, Solo delivers more or less exactly what the marketing campaign mounted by Disney/Lucasfilm promised. It’s fast-paced and funny, with a zip in its step that keeps the mood light even when dealing with some heavier topics. Glover steals most scenes he’s in but Ehrenreich really and truly delivers with his take on Han, never trying to do an impersonation of Harrison Ford, who made the character leap off the screen, but working to make him his own and succeeding in doing so.

While I respect and understand the viewpoints of those who didn’t care for the movie for one reason or another, there are some commonalities to the criticism that’s been shared by many people that I feel need to be addressed.

The Movie Feels Cobbled Together

You will never convince me that widely-reported production problems don’t wind up impacting eventual reviews. Critics can claim to be focusing on the finished product, but it would be impossible for them not to be considering the drama that went on behind the scenes. In this case, the replacement of original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller with Ron Howard created a lot of noise, poisoning the well of goodwill the movie would need to draw on. Suddenly it can’t help but be viewed through the lens of the “troubled production.” There is, in other words, a thumb on the critical scale.

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I don’t blame anyone for this point of view, especially since I have it myself. Honestly, though, it didn’t feel any more disjointed in assembly than any other major studio franchise release from the last 10 years. These movies almost always are made by committee, with various producers, editors and executives wanting to have their input counted in the final product. And it certainly is less so than last year’s Justice League, a monstrosity that had all vestiges of coherence stripped from it, though that’s a low bar to clear.

It’s An Inessential Story

OK, but what counts as an “essential” Star Wars story? Does it need to focus on Luke, Leia and Han in order to matter? Does it need to have galaxy-spanning implications? Would it have been better if there had been a giant space laser of some sort that needed to be shut down at all costs?

Much as I did after seeing some of the same issues raised in the wake of 2016’s Rogue One, I maintain that your comfort level with these “smaller” stories depends to some extent on whether or not you’ve dug into the Expanded Universe. Whether we’re talking about the new line of books and comics that have come out since Disney rebooted what is or isn’t canon or those prior to that turning point that are now branded “Legends” titles, those stories were often just like this, with lower stakes, a broad set of vaguely-defined supporting characters and so on.

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Many of these are great stories, but few could make the cut if we really wanted to take a strict approach toward what is or isn’t “essential.” That’s alright, though. We need throwaway stories every now and again, otherwise the stakes just keep getting bigger and bigger and more unrealistic.

Along these lines the question has been asked as to whether we really need Han’s backstory. Well…no. He was fine as a character just as we had him in the Original Trilogy, where we learned very little of his background and history. But since when has “need” been the standard determining which stories are or aren’t told? There’s nothing in Solo that takes away from the enjoyment of the character in the OT and as long as we clear that hurdle we’re fine.

It’s Too Full of Fan Service

This is perhaps my least favorite point of criticism against this or any other movie.

First of all, “fan service” is a terrible term, making it seem like the filmmakers are just throwing in some moment or detail to make some members of the audience turn to their partner and say “I get that reference” or something like that. I don’t believe that’s actually how things work, though “Hey, the fans will like this” is almost certainly a consideration. Also, you can’t spend three months dissecting all the easter eggs in every new trailer or TV spot and then act put out when the movie itself is full of such moments.

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It’s true that Solo hits a lot of “Oh, that’s why he later…” beats. That’s called “establishing the character,” though, and is in the DNA of any flashback or prequel story. But so does the first 10 minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and I defy you to find anyone who doesn’t feel that’s one of the greatest sequences in that series. If that came out now it’s easy to imagine it would be pilloried for making cheap plays on the audience’s emotions as we see Indy get the hat, whip and other accessories he’ll use for decades to come on his adventures.

People Are Tired of Star Wars

Disney *is* taking an awful risk by releasing Solo within six months of The Last Jedi, though there are a number of reasons for that decision. And this *is* the fourth Star Wars movie it’s released inside of three years.

On the other hand, Disney has put out three Marvel Cinematic Universe entries within the last six months and has two more slated for this year, making a total of five in a 12-month window. And you don’t see the same kind of hand-wringing with that franchise that has been a common media narrative around Star Wars since before Rogue One hit theaters.

Looking at numbers, Solo’s $103m opening weekend places it in line with 2014’s Thor: The Dark World ($108m) and higher than Ant-Man ($83m), Thor ($85m) and Captain America: The First Avenger ($92m). Somehow the MCU powered bravely through those setbacks and kept the franchise going, not concerned whether malaise was setting in among the members of the audience but continuing with their plans. That’s worked out pretty well and each one of those movies has had or will have a sequel released.

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Basically the “franchise fatigue” idea seems to be a narrative that’s uniquely applied to Star Wars. It’s tainted a lot of coverage since commentators and critics seem to just be waiting for the first signs of labored breathing in the patient, like an ungrateful child looking for any excuse to send dad to the assisted living facility and get him out of the basement. I don’t mean to imply ill-will, just that there’s a very different conventional wisdom being applied to coverage.

Disney’s Future Plans Are In Doubt

It’s true that Disney’s stock took a bit of a hit in the wake of Solo’s lower-than-projected opening weekend. That’s to be expected when shareholders are disappointed the made-up numbers the studio shares impact the made-up money those shareholders deal in. I think, though, that the company will be fine and certainly, given its history in managing the MCU films through ups and downs, knows how to take the long view of franchise management.

One specific subset of this argument I’ve seen is that specifically it calls into question plans the company has to use Star Wars as a foundation for its upcoming streaming service. The idea, this line of thinking adheres to, is that if a movie like Solo is going to bomb theatrically (which it did not do) then you can’t expect Star Wars content to anchor this service.

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This is an argument I don’t buy at all, though there are some caveats.

The kind of mid-tier space western that is Solo would actually be *perfect* as a streaming original, but the budget would need to be cut at least in half. The $250-300m Solo cost wouldn’t work, but a $125m feature would likely work just fine. This is just the kind of “good enough” movie material that is exactly what Netflix in particular has been aiming to produce and acquire. I’m not saying they could make even that more than once every couple years, but in concept, Solo represents just the kind of add-on stories that you’ll watch because it’s there and it’s entertaining and you can pause it to go get a beer.

So Here’s What I Think Actually Happened

There are elements of truth in all the above points. I’m not dismissing any of them completely. It’s true that:

  • The movie lacks a clear and consistent vision, something both The Last Jedi and Black Panther had in spades. I’d say that’s less a symptom of directorial shuffling than that Ron Howard, for all his many qualities, is not a strong action director. The guy does drama with the best of them, but action isn’t his forte.
  • It is an additional story that’s easily skipped if you only want to devote your time to those stories that bring something new and significant to the universe. The same can be said of many MCU movies, though, especially something like Ant-Man or even Guardians.
  • There is a case to be made that it’s too full of moments specifically designed to create the character as we see him in A New Hope. Again, though, you could make the same case about the flashbacks in The Godfather Part II, this isn’t unique to Solo.

The main issue, though, is simply timing. While there were certainly good reasons for Disney to maintain this release date, it also meant it was competing against itself, with Avengers still eating up a lot of box-office oxygen. Combine that with Deadpool 2 and you have a lot of people who have already used up their moviegoing allowance for the month. Finally the (similarly understandable) tight marketing window means it just didn’t have the kind of time to truly and deeply penetrate the public’s conscious.

Solo is a fun, highly enjoyable movie. Not everyone feels that way and that’s fine. It worked for me, it didn’t for others. That’s how most movies are. When it came down to it, though, the biggest obstacle it faced was just not having the time it needed to make a compelling case to the audience.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

We All Slept on The Circle Because It Was a Year Early

The Circle didn’t do particularly well when it came out last year. Having recently caught up with it on Amazon Prime I can see there are certainly some issues, particularly with the story’s pacing, jerking around suddenly from one idea or plot point to the next, often with little context or transition. It’s not hard to imagine there’s a 3.5 hour version of the movie that works a bit better because some story elements are explored more deeply and given more time to breathe.

In the story, Emma Watson plays Mae, a young woman who thanks to her friend (a misused Karen Gillan) lands an interview – and then a job – at The Circle, a tech giant that’s basically what we all fear when Google, Facebook and Amazon collide. She starts at the same low level many do but rises quickly when she gets the attention of the heads of the company, becoming a sort of in-house influencer. That success helps blind her to some of the problems that already exist within the company, which often resembles a cult that’s suspicious of any tendency to not participate in every available activity and use any non-company resource. Indeed, the celebrity she achieves leads to her creating new problems in the name of furthering the company’s mission.

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A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE and How Narrative Constructs Help Biopics

A Futile and Stupid Gesture, now streaming on Netflix, ostensibly tells the story of Doug Kenney (Will Forte), the guy who along with his friend and former Harvard classmate Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson) co-founded The National Lampoon and essentially created the comedy world we live in to this day. If not “created” then he certainly dropped a rock in a pond whose ripples are still apparent and felt.

As I said when I wrote about the campaign Netflix launched to promote it, the subject matter makes it something I was absolutely inclined to enjoy. I never read more than a handful of issues of Lampoon but certainly knew of its existence and reveled in the world Kenney created directly (Animal House, Caddyshack), indirectly (“Saturday Night Live,” which poached many of the writers and actors from Lampoon and its radio show) and as an influence (literally 90% of comedy since 1980). That being said, I didn’t know much about Kenney as a person or what motivated him.

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