Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Last? Promise?

This weekend, The Last Jedi limped over the $600 million mark in domestic gross.  For any other film, this would be a great achievement--it's presently the sixth biggest grosser of all time.

But for the new Star Wars series, this is a disappointment.  Last Jedi opened huge but burned out fast.  The first of the Disney Star Wars, The Force Awakens, made $936 million.  Last Jedi will end up with about two-thirds that.

Fans couldn't wait to see it, but they had serious problems after they did.  I didn't hate it, but I certainly had my problems.  I could list quite a few, but here are my top five:

1)  What happened to Luke?

He started as an eager kid hoping to be a hero.  He later became a Jedi master.  And now he's a whiner.

Rey comes to his planet, Ahch-To (which sounds like spitting) to learn the Jedi way.  She finds Luke, who half the time acts like a jerk, the other half like a baby.

Then when we get to the big explanation for how he got this way, it turns out we were right--he's just a big whiner who, when things didn't go perfectly, took his ball and went home.  Imagine if the original Luke pouted the entire first film because he couldn't go to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.

Characters should grow over time, but Luke regressed.

2)  Everyone is too close.

Look how they did it in The Empire Strikes Back.  The Empire is hot on the trail of the Rebels.  They catch up to them and attack.  But the good guys manage to escape, though eventually the bad guys catch up again.  The cat and mouse aspect is fun.

Instead, The Last Jedi has good guys and bad guys who are, cosmically speaking, ten feet away from each other, engaged in a staring match for two and a half hours.

3)  Han Solo is dead.

Okay, this problem was bequeathed to The Last Jedi by the previous film. But Han was the best of the old characters, giving The Force Awakens a jolt of energy, so it wasn't easy to recover from his loss.

All the more reason not to have Luke spend most of the film licking his wounds while Leia spends most of her time in a coma.

4)  Everyone's got secret plans.

Poe sends some friends on a secret mission to disable a tracking device.  Meanwhile, Vice Admiral Holdo has her own secret plan to save the Resistance. If these people just sat down for a second to compare notes, maybe they could have come up with something.

By the way, neither plan really works. (Snoke also has a secret plan which fails ever worse.)

5)  The worthlessness of Captain Phasma.

I want my bad guys to be tough, so when you beat them it means something.  Instead, Captain Phasma, in charge of the storm troopers, can barely get out of her own way.

She captures Finn and Rose, but soon afterwards loses a fight and that's that.  (And why hire a well-known actress to play the role if we're not allowed to see her face?)

Bonus complaint.  As I noted in my 2017 film year in review, the great Admiral Ackbar is dispatched with even less ceremony than Bob Fett got in Return Of The Jedi.

Oh Ackbar, you should have known it was a trap.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Lead Better

Lead Belly was born 130 years ago today.  That sounds like a good reason to celebrate.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Mighty Amazon

Amazon has been looking for a site for its second headquarters. Suitor-cities across the nation begged for the leviathan to ensconce itself in their environs.

Now Amazon has announced a list of 20 spots it's considering:

Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Columbus (Ohio), Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami, Montgomery Country (Maryland), Nashville, Newark, New York City, Northern Virginia, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, Toronto, Washington D.C.

A few notes.

1) Sorry all you also-rans.  The list tends to be major metropolitan areas, so you were never in the running to begin with.  And most are in the East or Midwest, which makes sense since you don't want to be too close to the other HQ in Seattle.

2)  Chicago?  A fine city--I've lived there--but the way Illinois (and Chicago) is being run, I'd stay away.

3)  Columbus, Ohio?  Let's get serious.

4)  Los Angeles?  It might seem to make sense if you're planning to take over show biz, but please stay away--traffic is already impossible.

5)  Newark can probably offer you a pretty sweet deal, since it's badly in need of renewal.  But are you willing to do that renewing?

6)  New York City is certainly the home of many a large business, but it's pretty crowded and they won't appreciate you, anyway.

7)  Raleigh was hip twenty years ago.  Is it still the place to be?

8)  You may have to do a lot of lobbying, so I could see being located in D.C.  But otherwise, would you really want to hang there?

9)  I guess my hometown of Detroit never had a chance.  But hey, when I was growing up, three of the five biggest companies were headquartered there.  Maybe you should give it another look.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Baddest Part Of Town

I've caught the first couple episodes of The Chi, the Showtime drama created by Lena Waithe about life in the South Side of Chicago.  Interesting enough to keep watching.

It's about how tough the life is, with violence and repressive authority, but also about how those living in its midst try to make do, and find happiness where and when they can.  Because this is gang territory, and treated apparently with benign neglect (if that much) from the cops, people know the score and understand that violence can erupt at any moment. But it doesn't define their lives.

The show is somewhat reminiscent of The Wire, except that tale of Baltimore was equally about the cops and those on the streets (and kept widening its view in later seasons).  The Chi concentrate on the community as a whole (which does mean spending some time at the precinct). All ages are represented--kids in school, young people trying to establish themselves, older people holding on as best they can.

I lived in the South Side for a few years when I was in law school, but it was the relatively safe confines of Hyde Park.  Very few students would venture past the southernmost tip of the University of Chicago (which is where the law school was located).  But I did get to know the area somewhat, and just seeing the streets and the structures brought back memories.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Fun in The Dark

I just read Opening Wednesday At A Theater Or Drive-In Near You, Charles Taylor's look at exploitation films from the 70's.

The titles, such as Vanishing Point, Hickey & Boggs, Foxy Brown, Ulzana's Raid, Citizen's Band and Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, were dumped into theatres without much fanfare, treated as vaguely disreputable by the studios who made them.  Yet Taylor sees something more there.

It was a different time.  Hollywood, released from censorship, was experimenting, and the films of the era--not just famous ones like The Godfather or Chinatown or Nashville--treated audiences like they were adults.  In the post-Star Wars world, according to Taylor, Hollywood makes movies for adolescents, but back then, even cheap films could have ambivalent characters, and protagonists who lose and lose big.

They also described, generally without condescension, an America that was at war with its own impulses.  Americans were searching for a sense of community that was lost (or never there to begin with) while at the same time seeking a sense of freedom and autonomy that required living outside normal society.

Taylor has always been a lively writer, and he expresses his enthusiasm for these films quite well.  He's also perceptive, making one want to take a second (or, in some cases, first) look at these films.  I question some of his arguments (both aesthetic and political), but overall, a book well worth reading.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Dolores O'Riordan has died.  She was only 46.  As I write this, her death is unexplained.

Seeing her name really brought back memories of the 90s. Her group, The Cranberries, had a pretty specific sound, mostly thanks to Dolores.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Softie Simon

I've been reading a collection of John Simon's theatre criticism from 1974 to 2003.  Simon is known for being hard to please, and not holding back.  For instance, this book contains the review where he notes how Liza Minnelli looks like a beagle.

But I notice a bit of softening.  He seems to find more he likes--compared to his film criticism, and earlier theatre criticism, anyway--and at times takes an almost jovial tone.  Occasionally, he even gets hyperbolic in his praise (I'm guessing--I didn't see most of these productions).

More surprising, he admits he made mistakes.  I'm not saying he shouldn't--we all change our minds over time on some things.  It's just that most critics, especially ones as harsh as Simon, don't like to take things back.

Yet a few reviews--particular for Sondheim shows--now have footnotes written in 2005 when the book was published.  For instance, regarding Merrily We Roll Along, we get "Sorry.  This is a much better show than I realized at the time.  Some of it was the production's fault, much of it mine."  And for Sunday In The Park With George: "In this and other reviews of Sondheim's music, the passage of time, repeated exposure, and my own maturing have proved me wrong." Good to see he was still maturing, even though he was almost 60 when George opened.

After reading his harsh, unyielding criticism for years, I'm not sure how to take this.  It shows a graciousness, I suppose, but mostly it's unsettling.

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