Tag Archives: Movies

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth: An Apology to a World Long Lost

I owe an apology.

In fact, I owe a few. The biggest one I will get to in due time, but I owe one to all of you, my loyal (or casual, perhaps even stumbling upon this site for the first time) readers. A few years ago I got caught up in nostalgia and praised too highly something that I normally am quite demanding on: a movie. Specifically, I am referring to 2015, a roller coaster year for me personally that saw me come to terms with a great many things regarding myself, my relationships with others, and my appreciation of art. These are reasons why I behaved the way I did then; not excuses. Many of us were – and clearly still are – swept up in the tide of nostalgia that reboots, rehashes, and long-awaited sequels provided for us in the cinema, but this is no justification for my actions either. Now, to be clear, I do not dislike Jurassic World, the 2015 release that marked the fourth film in the vaunted dinosaur-centric series. I called it one of my favorite movies of that year, after all. I realized at its release that it was a derivative film that hearkened back to the original in a manner that often exploited our nostalgia, and I was okay with this because damn it I wanted more dinosaurs! It didn’t matter that they didn’t have feathers now, nor did it matter that the most well developed character was a velociraptor and the rest were bland at best. I got my dose of dinosaurs again, and it was a grand, old time at the popcorn palace. I saw Jurassic World three times in theaters, which pales in comparison to the five times I saw Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens that year (always with different people too!). However, while both were derivative of their original film and capitalized on the success of their predecessors, The Force Awakens offered us lovable new characters who fit right in alongside our established favorites. We are all right with the notion that these are the people who will carry our beloved franchise into new stories. I do not make apologies when I say that Star Wars succeeded at this with their latest saga film, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. I’ve spoken more on this matter, and probably will again, but the important thing is that Star Wars took things in a new direction with new characters and delivered a well-crafted story that does not call back to the original films as its most previous film did.  The Last Jedi listened to Fleetwood Mac and went its own way. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom fucked around within itself like Fleetwood Mac and has steered the series off a cliff, and not even Chris Pratt with a gun and gusto can offer much support in saving it as it sinks.

I will not provide spoilers for the latest dino-spectacle, nor will I demand you stay away from it. You are your own person, after all, and perhaps you will like it. For me though, Fallen Kingdom really fell in a manner that is disrespectful of the original Jurassic Park. To be fair, this is hardly the first disappointment of a dinosaur sequel in the franchise – in fact, none of the films that have followed the 1993 original have delivered the goods the way it did. Nevertheless, none of the sequels have lost their way as this latest one did. Jurassic Park III is a more coherent movie than this latest despite all of its flaws – of which it has many, and it should not be forgiven for simply being less underwhelming than Fallen Kingdom. Still, there is something to say about simplicity. The original film is astoundingly basic in its concept: there is a park with dinosaurs that needs a test run clearance in order to open. From there, we add on the wonder of “Wow! Real dinosaurs!” Steven Spielberg offers heaps of fantastic wonder in so many of his movies, but perhaps none so pure as in Jurassic Park. There is a moment in Fallen Kingdom where Bryce Dallas Howard, who at least gets boots this time, asks Chris Pratt if he remembers the amazing joy he felt the first time he saw a dinosaur. It, like so many other instances is a chance for that movie to take off, but it just keeps bogging itself down in an abundance of activity. Too much happens in two hours for us to ever connect with the characters or the cliche-laden plot. Unlike the first Jurassic Park where Spielberg lets scenes stew to bring home the point at the heart of the story, beyond all the dinosaurs and colorful cast of characters and incredible scientific advancements that all feel so real, what he really wants us to experience is the moral of the story: we should not play God.

That’s it. At its core, Jurassic Park is a lesson in not meddling with nature, for just because you have awesome technological power to create new life, you do not have the means to control that new life. It’s a prehistoric retelling of Frankenstein of sorts; a cautionary tale for all would-be creators. As Ian Malcolm states in that first film, “But your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

I realize that the story has moved on from that initial theme, yet none have extensively explored anything other than what amounts to a rehash of it.

It would also help if we got less of timely Rexy, the Tyrannosaurus rex from the first movie who has continued her role of deus rex machina through three films now. It was amazing on the first go round (I even declared her grand finale entrance to be my favorite Spielberg movie climax moment), yet her appearances in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom are a little too convenient. It’s no surprise anymore when she shows up just the good guys need saving or a bad guy needs to be stopped.

Ultimately, 25 years later, Jurassic Park is a enduring classic because it does more with less; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom does less with more. The muddled plot and shallow characters will not do it any favors in preserving it in the cinematic halls of time, and its most gracious fate very well may be to fall into extinction.

Now while I have not and will not provide any spoilers for Fallen Kingdom in this post, I will offer up some good videos on the series, some of which do delve into spoils territory, so I will mark those accordingly, and encourage you to watch them (especially if you’re in charge of the next Jurassic Park movie):

Non-spoils: “Jurassic Park – Using Theme to Craft Character”

Spoils: “The Problem with Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”

“Pressing the Dinosaur Button – Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” – a unique take on how to fix a big problem in Fallen Kingdom

“Serious Questions -Jurassic Park Franchise” – for fun

Finally, my most sincere apologies to… The Lost World: Jurassic Park. I declared Jurassic World to be the best sequel in the franchise after I saw it, and stuck with that for too long. Again, I do still enjoy Jurassic World, and it certainly stands above Jurassic Park III and its own latest sequel. Nonetheless, I have kept what was rightfully yours on its shelf for too long. I now declare, that while it is not a perfect film by any stretch either, that The Lost World: Jurassic Park is the best Jurassic Park movie after the original. It is much maligned for being inferior to its predecessor, but let’s look at what it does right and original and give it the at fewest one thumbs up it deserves. You want more Goldblum? Check. You want intriguing new characters to join him? Check. You want more classic Spielberg suspense in sequences like trailer hanging off the cliff? Checkity check. You want Spielberg to provide awesome introductions to the established players like the T-rex and raptors while simultaneously introducing new ones like the pachycephalosaurus? You better believe check! You want Pete Postlewaite as a big game hunter bored with a lack of challenges seeking to hunt the greatest quarry that ever grace the world in the T-rex? Checkarino! Finally, do you want more of dinosaurs? Then you have come to the right place. Welcome to Jurassic Park…’s off-site dinosaur breeding island. And then San Diego.

For more on this, I encourage you to check out Filmjoy (formerly Movies with Mikey) for a more extensive defense of this still solid movie:

Thanks for reading! Be sure to come on back next week for more fun!

Go Brazil!

Alex

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Dynamo Deliverance

Today is the anniversary of the final day of the evacuation of Dunkirk in northern France in World War II. Code-named Operation Dynamo, the massive retreat across the English Channel ran from May 26 through June 4 in 1940. Thanks to the efforts of multiple countries, strategic planning and action, and some well-timed good fortune, over 330,000 soldiers were rescued from the encroaching German forces.

As I suspect is the case with many Americans, I did not know much about the Battle of Dunkirk or the scope and importance of its incredible evacuation until seeing Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk last year. I attribute this to the tendency we have to pay attention primarily only to what is relevant to our chosen history; in this case, as a citizen of the United States of America, I don’t generally consider what happened in World War II until December 7, 1941. Nolan’s excellent movie helped to show me the amazing story of Dunkirk, yet as harrowing and exciting as it is, I still did not grasp just how big on a global scale those 10 days were and the effect the aftermath had on England, France, and the World.

From May 10, 1940, the British, French, and other Allies, including Belgium and the Netherlands, were fighting a losing battle against the Nazis. The Battle of France was a six-week series of mostly defeats for the Allies that led to the Nazis taking France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. In the midst of this fighting, the British realized their forces – called the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) – and those of their allies needed to be rescued before the Nazis overtook them and all but won the war. They ordered Operation Dynamo, which sought to bring the English and Allied troops back to England where they would be able to regroup safely to return to fight the Nazis another day.

The first step of Dynamo was to secure an evacuation route from a good port. The biggest and best in northern France was Dunkirk, so the Allies converged most of their men in northwester France around Dunkirk. Certain smaller bands were designated to stave off the German advance in key areas with the intent to buy more time for the tremendous evacuation. Furthermore, canals were dug and flooded, and the BEF and French and their Allies utilized the natural marshes around Dunkirk to their advantage to set up countermeasures to slow the pace of Nazi troops and especially tanks. The British commanders knew that the German panzer tanks would not be able to slog through the waterways and wetlands. On May 24, the Nazi leaders and high command determined that an infantry and panzer advance was to be halted and the fleeing Allies be left to the Luftwaffe. Just two days later, Hitler rescinded his own stop order and urged the tanks and men to get back to the pursuit, but it was too late. The delayed march of the panzers – which also were unable to get underway for about half a day after they would ordered back into the fray – allowed the Allies to fortify their defenses and helped secure their escape. Had the panzers continued, then it is likely that many more Allied forces would have perished and the Nazis would have dealt a major blow to their greatest adversaries, perhaps even putting themselves in position to win the war. However, quite luckily, things did not go that way, and the British were allowed more time to send ships to retrieve and rescue. According to historians, Hitler assumed that once they fled to England, the British and French would simply give up on the rest of Western Europe.

Of course he was wrong, as he was about a great many things. The British people, soldiers and civilians, were resilient, a fact that was proven when the Little Ships of Dunkirk came to aid the evacuation. These were over 800 privately owned boats of all sizes brought into service of the Royal Navy to assist their own larger seacraft in getting men from the beaches to the ships and on to England. However, as the Naval forces were understandably thin, many civilians actively volunteered and sailed alongside the Navy men to pick up the Allied soldiers.

These events were shown in the Nolan movie (which it should be clear by now I recommend), as were the aerial role on a smaller scale. The Luftwaffe was frequently vexed by weather during the evacuation, but the Royal Air Force (RAF) also did their part in protecting the waiting men from threats from the sky. Most of these dog fights took place over the English Channel, and some fleeing vessels saw them, but the general sentiment at the time was that the RAF was not a help at all simply because the soldiers and naval men did not witness their protector pilots in action!

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the evacuation that was not detailed in the movie is the three different routes that the ships ferrying men to England took across the Channel. The featured title picture depicts these, showing that while it was a relatively short journey of just a couple of hours to steam north to England, this was not a realistic option for all the ships. They had to disperse to account for avoiding sea mines, aircraft, enemy ships and submarines, and fire from the French shore that was already occupied by the Nazis. Not to mention, nighttime travels were also bound by limitations. The shortest route was about 70 kilometers and was in line with shore-based guns; the mid-distance route was roughly 100 km, but was the most densely mined; and the longest route was near 160 km and took four hours to complete.

All in all, the incredible coordination between nations helped save hundreds of thousands and helped ignite the fire anew in the British and Allies. Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his impassioned “We shall fight on the beaches” speech (the one at the end of the movie) to the House of Commons where he reminded the people that wars are not won with retreats, but added that England would never surrender, and that even if they were somehow overwhelmed, that the rest of their Empire and other allies in the world would come to their rescue in due time because they could survive until then. Fortunately, the British, French, Belgian, Dutch, and others were able to endure and retaliate in time, and were aided by their allies across the world. This is the part typically where my history lesson would begin, but it should be noted and remembered that so much was at stake on beach in northern France before 1944.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to drop me a line at monotrememadness@gmail.com with any questions or suggestions. I hope you’ll come on back here again next week for a dive into the life of one of the most remarkable men to advance our knowledge of nature.

Alex

The Movie Man

Today we’re going to get into pyro-processing and molten salt reactors and their use in nuclear energy. Check it out!

Holy shit! George Lucas! Oh hey, Happy birthday to you, George Lucas! The much maligned multi-billionaire (the criticism seems less harsh when you consider his considerable wealth) turns 74 today. Best known for creating some of the most popular film franchises in history – and subsequently ruining them – Lucas has been a master of the entertainment industry who helped to shape the movie making experience unlike any other. His vision for story often far exceeded the limitations of the most modern technology which most filmmakers would have made due with the best that they could, but Lucas is not most filmmakers. Today, I will write about the man behind some of the most formative films in current pop culture and how the course of his life brought him to where he is today.

George Walton Lucas Jr. did not have childhood aspirations to be a filmmaker. His pursuit of passion was fast moving cars. He loved to watch them, he loved to drive them, and he loved to race them. When Lucas was 18, he was ringing out one of his tricked out rides when he was struck by another driver and rolled over. The serious accident almost claimed his life, and he spent his recovery time reading up on the storytelling process. After high school, Lucas attended Modesto Junior College and later the University of Southern California where he further studied aspects of story and filmmaking. As I previously discussed in “Skywalkin’ Blues”, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the encapsulation of the monomythic hero in classic story. George Lucas read this book and used it as an outline for an idea he had that would become Star Wars, but before that he also turned his attention toward technical capabilities.

George Lucas is part of a group of directors and producers who are considered to be the New Wave in Hollywood. During the late-60s through the 1980s, Lucas and others such as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, Philip Kaufman, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and David Lynch to name a select few (all will be mentioned in this piece), helped initiate the new era in Hollywood to refresh and remix the old and increasingly decrepit tropes of aging cinema. Lucas’ skills behind the camera that he helped to hone by filming fast car races (he still stayed involved in his passion even after the accident) were being noticed, and helped him win an award for a film he made as a graduate student at USC called Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. Upon completing school, he co-founded film studio American Zoetrope with friend and colleague Francis Ford Coppola (see! there’s one!). The aim of the studio was to have greater artistic freedom in filmmaking to avoid being stifled by the traditional Hollywood studio executives. Lucas used the platform to turn his student film into a larger film THX 1138 (the THX sound recording/mixing company is a branch of Lucasfilm that became independent and takes its name from this movie), and while it commercially did not do well, he had enough to form his own company: Lucasfilm, Ltd.

Lucasfilm’s first film was American Graffiti which clearly drew upon Lucas’ familiarity of hot rod racing teenagers. Furthermore, it was a success! Both commercially and critically, American Graffitti allowed Lucas to set off onto his next planned project to make a Flash Gordon movie. Unfortunately, the inability to secure the rights to Flash Gordon prevented this, but even more fortunately, Lucas had an ace in the hole that throughout his life helped him to become not just a billionaire, but one of the richest men alive. Of course, I am talking about Star Wars, and seeing as how I have talked about the entire Star Wars saga numerous times, I am going to gloss over it here (at least until we get to the 1990s). The one thing I will point out here, is Lucas formed another couple of companies amid production of the first Star Wars film. Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) was created in 1975, and has since been the leaders of technical effects. In essence, they are the creators of your movie dreams making just about every monster, mechanical machination, and eventually much of the CGI effects seen in films (with many thanks to eventual partner Pixar). Also open for business in 1975 was Sprocket Systems, which would later be called Skywalker Sound. Basically, the visual magic that ILM created was given its buzz, hum, or whir by these sound maestros. Both of these companies were so new to the industry, that when Star Wars was being celebrated at the Academy Awards show, they gave an honorary sound effects Oscar to Ben Burtt because the categories for sound effects weren’t invented yet! Suffice it to say, Lucas ended the 1970s an extremely wealthy man who could make any creative project he wanted thanks to his Star Wars moolah, and the amazing team of effects personnel at his studio’s partner effects studios.

In 1980, his team churned out the greatest sequel ever made with The Empire Strikes Back, a film predominantly penned by Lawrence Kasdan (that’s two!). Kasdan would also help Lucas on his next trilogy turned more than three, the Indiana Jones series. Kasdan wrote the screenplay to Raiders of the Lost Ark based on a story from Lucas and Philip Kaufman (three!). As is well known, Harrison Ford was a star in both franchises, but the amazing archeologist’s adventures allowed friends Lucas and Steven Spielberg (all right, you get the idea; I already said they’ll all come up again) to work together. This was the plan again for Lucas’ third Star Wars movie, but did not come to fruition – the general consensus being that Speilberg was unable to contractually because Lucas had left the Directors Guild of America. Whatever the case may be, Lucas then turned to David Lynch after seeing his film Eraserhead (it’s a David Lynch movie all right), but this did not come to be either.

Not everything Lucas made was a smash though (cough, Howard the Duck!). In fact, most of his projects outside of Star Wars and Indiana Jones were not well received. Still, he did manage some key wins outside of the galaxy far, far away and the Nazi-punching whip-wielder. Lucas was involved in LabyrinthThe Land Before TimeThe Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and even got to work with idol Akira Kurosawa on Kagemusha.

Of course, today, Lucas is typically labeled a shell of his former creative self who has tarnished his own grand projects. He has become a caricature of a man who comes into too much power, just in this case it pertains to creative entertainment properties.

This is obviously in reaction to Lucas returning to filmmaking by returning to Star Wars, first with the re-release of his original trilogy with some major alterations, then with the release of his prequel trilogy that most fans of the original were not crazy about. Lucas actually started a debate over the control that creators should have over their own work once it becomes such a large part of the culture. On the one hand, I am a huge Star Wars fan who loves the stories as they originally were produced and I do not like any tinkering with them, even to fix their flaws. But just put yourself into George Lucas’ flannel shirt and consider that you have some major movies out there that you didn’t have the technology (even with the astounding tech your companies helped create) at the time to make the way you wanted. Now you do, and you have the money to make those changes. Who has the right to stop you? It’s a more complicated answer than anyone would like, but let’s not forget Lucas’ feelings on the matter. I am aware that I am asking you not to be mean to a billionaire who I have been plenty mean to in the past and will again be in the future, but hopefully this piece will help you realize that once he was a boy seeking to have an adventure of his own and ending up achieving massive success which in turn led to his own downfall in the eyes of so many who once loved him. Makes you appreciate the primary story of the prequels a bit more, doesn’t it?

Thanks for reading and watching! If you’d like to learn more about Lucas, there is no shortage of materials to explore the man behind so many of our most beloved myths of the movieplex. I can recommend his interesting episode of the show Prophets of Science Fiction that details some of Lucas’ life and how his ideas for the Star Wars universe inspired countless people to venture further into their own interests in science, filmmaking, storytelling, inventing, etc. The show was a series produced and presented by Ridley Scott, who rightfully states that he owes his career to Lucas and his dogged push to achieve his film vision for his most famous series because without the Alderaan shattering success of Star Wars, Scott would have never gotten the chance to direct Alien and Blade Runner.

Make sure to pursue your dreams like a young George Lucas, and make sure to run back here in less than 12 parsecs (or just by next week) for more stellar fun.

May the Fourteenth Force be with You,

Alex

Oh, wait! Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! I almost forgot about Martin Scorsese! Just like the Academy, I overlooked an astounding director, and when he finally won for The Departed in 2007, his buddies Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas were there to present it to him, with a bit that was tongue in cheek at the expense of George:

Congrats Marty, and fuck you Coppola and Spielberg! (not really; I love you guys!) But come one! George is richer than both of you! Who’s laughing now!?

Eulogy for Ermey and Earle

Last week we lost two legends from different worlds, but each helped shape young men and provided the rest of us with entertainment. R. Lee Ermey was a Marine drill instructor turned actor who was most famous for playing drill instructors. Earle Bruce was college football coach who made his mark at his alma mater and was inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame.

Ronald Lee Ermey was born in Emporia, Kansas on March, 24, 1944.  A bit of a troublemaker as a child, Ermey was arrested at 17 and offered the choice to join the military or join the jail. He opted for the Marines and found his footing, eventually becoming a drill instructor. He served in Vietnam for 14 months before being medically discharged for injuries he received during that time.

Ermey began his movie career as an advisor on Apocalypse Now, but Coppola appreciated his expertise to be front of the camera too, and put him in a helicopter as a pilot (Ermey originally worked with aviation in the Marine Corps). His breakout role was as Gunnery Sargeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, still his most famous role, and one that established Ermey as the epitome of drill instructor in any media. This was not Ermey’s first time playing a DI, as his first significant role in The Boys in Company C.

Ermey would go on to play numerous military men in all facets of entertainment, including cartoons and games, but he occasionally stepped outside of his frequent typecasting, such as in one of my favorite roles of his as Coach Norton in Saving Silverman. His advice in that movie may not be the best to follow, but damn it, it’s funny.

Ermey also starred on television, with a pair of shows on the History Channel back when it was good, Mail Call and Lock n’ Load. Enjoy this compilation of some of his greatest (and goofiest) moments as well as his immortal role as essentially himself:


Earle Bruce was born in Cumberland, Maryland on March 8, 1931. He attended The Ohio State University and looked to play fullback for the Buckeyes. However, just as he was preparing to suit up in 1951, a torn meniscus brought an abrupt end to playing days. Instead of letting Bruce leave the game he loved, the Buckeyes’ first year head coach, a man named Wayne Woodrow Hayes, asked Bruce to stay on the team as a coaching assistant. Woody Hayes went on to become the most legendary coach in Ohio State history and one of the most legendary in football history. After his frustrated punch at an opposing player forced the school to terminate him in 1978. It was apparent that following Hayes would be an enormous task, but who better to rise to the occasion than then-Iowa State coach, Earle Bruce. Bruce was ready to helm the Buckeyes after success with the Cyclones, and the University of Tampa, as well as a magnificent stint at Massillon High School where Bruce remains the only undefeated head football coach – at the school Paul Brown made a power! Paul Brown!

As head coach of his former team, Bruce posted a terrific 81-26-1 record and won four Big Ten Championships. Most importantly, he was 5-4-1 against Bo Schembechler’s Michigan Wolverines, an even better record than his predecessor and mentor, Woody Hayes. Famously, or more accurately infamously, Bruce’s 1987 Buckeyes team faltered compared to his others which all won at fewest nine games. Nevertheless, in the 1987, the Buckeyes’ star receiver and future NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter was kicked off the team due to improperly signing with an agent . The loss of this all star was felt severely and Ohio State went into the final week of the season against rival Michigan with a measly 4-4-1 record. Out of character for a successful coach after one lackluster season, the board pressured Ohio State’s athletic director, Rick Bay, to fire Bruce. Bruce was never truly loved by some of the top dogs on campus, but in a place where Woody Hayes was God, no one, not even the university president, got to make a move on the football team with out Woody’s okay. Unfortunately for Bruce and Buckeye fans everywhere, Woody Hayes died in March of 1987. Without his great backer and protector, Bruce was again on the chopping block, and with the Carter scandal and a mediocre record, the people in power got there chance to push him out. Despite this, athletic director Bay resigned rather than fire Bruce, so the Buckeyes lost the biggest names in their sports programs in succession the week of the Ohio State-Michigan game.

Earle Bruce may have been down and almost out, but he had coached under Woody, and had made his own name as his successful successor, so he had one more game in him as the OSU coach. He was permitted to stay to finish the season, and finish he did, leading the Buckeyes into Ann Arbor to post a second half surge and beat Bo’s Wolverines one more time, 23-20. Each player on Ohio State’s sideline wore headbands that read “Earle” to honor their coach, whom they loved.

Bruce served as a mentor to many of the best players in his day, as well as to many of the top coaches of current football, including Nick Saban, Mark Dantonio, and Pete Carroll. Current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer first served as a graduate coach on Bruce’s Buckeye staff and cites him as the biggest influence in his life besides his own father. Meyer remained close to Bruce until his death from Alzheimer’s last Friday.

Earle Bruce was beloved by many, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003, yet he received a greater honor in 2016 when he joined the elite short list of people who have been invited to dot the “I” in the Ohio State Marching Band’s famous Script Ohio.

Thanks for reading and watching! Feel free to send me any comments, queries, or suggestions at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Be sure to return here next week for the State of the Season.

Until next week,

Alex

Skywalkin’ Blues

This is not going to go the way you think.

I am a tremendous Star Wars fan. Frank(Oz)ly, it’s rare to meet someone who is a fan of the series who is not extremely passionate about it. For me, the Star Wars saga is the greatest story I have ever experienced. Yes, I know about the prequels, and honestly, while I don’t love them or blinded defend terrible facets of them, I certainly don’t hate them and even find much of what they serve to be quite entertaining. Even in the  original trilogy films, which for most Star Wars fans are almost critically untouchable, are scenes that are flawed or downright silly, but I love them even more for this. Okay, I cringe every time I watch Leia kiss Luke and see him revel in it in The Empire Strikes Back, but it hardly sinks the film for me. That is still my second all-time favorite movie behind only Jaws, another film that is hardly perfect, but is so to me.

Nevertheless, my opinion as a Star Wars nerd is not the highlight of today’s focus, but rather a justification of a certain expertise if you will. Time has passed, and criticism from myself and others has been digested, and now I have some things to say regarding the latest, and perhaps most immediately and globally controversial of all Star Wars films: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. Specifically, I will be addressing my take on the most significant aspect of the movie: the characterization of Luke Skywalker.

Allow me to again call upon my experience as a Force fanatic to say that my personal favorite character in any story in any media, whether it be film, book, television, radio, etc., is Luke Skywalker. I attribute this to many of the same reasons I love the Star Wars saga. For one, I saw these movies at an early age and they made an indelible impression on me (the same is true of Jaws). Like so many others over the decades, first seeing Star Wars in theaters was life-changing. My dad took me to see the release of the Special Editions (versions of Star Wars films with plenty of justified criticism) back in 1997, and I was blown away. No other movie looked like Star Wars, and nothing has looked like it since. Not just from a technical standpoint, but from a story and character level. Thanks to a great cast of characters (played by a great cast of actors) thrust into the space-based adventures of good versus evil, we the world over have been treated to an amazing trio of films that redefined how films were made in almost every way. None of this should sound new as countless people have heard about and experienced Star Wars in a similar way, and I would wager that many have also latched onto Luke Skywalker in much the same way as I did. It makes sense to, as Luke is the modern epitome of the monomythic hero, or the guy who goes on the big adventure in the storytelling structure know as the hero’s journey. Popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell, and altered and updated by many, including Dan Harmon with his Story Circle, the Hero’s Journey is a general outline of how a story’s protagonist gets his/her adventure rolling and changes as a result of it. Campbell explained this in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which after Star Wars was released had a newly designed cover with Luke Skywalker pictured among carvings and paintings of mythological heroes. It is based on classical storytelling from some of the earliest iterations of mythology and rolls the common themes in myths from across the world into one set called the monomyth. The original 1977 Star Wars followed this formula perhaps more apparently than any other film to date with fresh farmboy Luke Skywalker at its crux as – to borrow a term from Altered Carbon – the sleeve through which we, the audience observer, experience the story.

I believe that this is the primary reason why people, especially the most devoted Star Wars fans, had difficulty grappling with what was going on with Luke in The Last Jedi. Now, as should be obvious to anyone who has read this far, I will be getting into spoiler territory from here on out, so continuing to read assumes that you have already watched The Last Jedi. But, c’mon, who hasn’t by now?

Now that you have been warned, allow me to start off this dive into what’s going on with Luke by weighing some opposing views of his role in The Last Jedi. First, we have a well crafted video essay from one of my faves, Nerd Soup, the thesis of which may seem right on or harsh depending on your opinion.

As Beau Oliver likes to frequently reiterate on Nerd Soup’s many Star Wars related videos, nobody hates Star Wars like Star Wars fans. Now, of course he does not hate Star Wars, and certainly did not hate The Last Jedi, a point he makes quite clear in this video. In fact, I find his argument to be far and away the best of the bunch I offer up to you in this post, and I agree with what he says. However, I also agree with much of what the next two guys say as well.

Some good analysis that reminds us that Luke is a human who makes mistakes and has struggles, something that should be apparent in the best protagonists, be they good, bad, or ugly. In The Last  Jedi this is most obvious when a concerned uncle peers into his nephew’s darkening dreams (there’s no way that I’m going to make that sound not weird). Basically, Luke checks Ben’s text messages and freaks. He normally would not have done such a thing, but his sister’s son was acting really shady, and he decided he needed to take a quick peek to make sure it wasn’t drugs or something. When it becomes clear that the situation is out of hand more than he could have imagined, he makes a brief, but big bad call. For more on all this, let’s look to the video recommended in the last one.

Some fathier – er,  further good points for the film. For one that I particularly liked, Finn finds his groove as a Rebel. His storyline was the weakest part of the film and I’ll never be in love with it, but working with a great new character in Rose, and the always excellent Benecio del Toro plus BB-8 is going to win back some points. In all fairness, this storyline had the most cut from it before the final release, so there was a little more meat on those bones once. Regardless, the result is that Finn, who is still on the run from the fearsome First Order he knows the ruthlessness of better than anyone, finally makes the decision to fight for something more than his own skin and Rey’s.

Similarly, The Last Jedi shows us character growth in the other new crew members like Poe learning to be a leader and realizing sometimes you’ve got to lose the battle to win the war (Holdo totally should have told him and everyone else of her plan though). Rose goes from a mechanic working on the sidelines who gets starstruck by seeing Finn, to a badass on the frontlines working alongside him while also helping to teach him more about how the galaxy works and why the Resistance matters. Most prominently of all, Rey gets some schooling in what the Force truly is (I’ll talk more on this later), why it’s not entirely black and white, a crash course in trusting too much, and a harsh dose of reality regarding your heroes.

This final point is what makes and breaks The Last Jedi. As is the case with the entire film from start to finish, we have our expectations thrown back in our faces. Expecting a “can you hear me now?” schtick to open the movie? You sure weren’t. Did you call Leia and the other leaders getting blown into space in the first third of the film? Probably not. Did you think Luke was going to walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order? In all fairness, he pointed out how crazy it was to think this would ever occur when he asked it aloud. In all further fairness though, he later did this. But did you see him projecting his image from lightyears away to offer closure to his sister, escape to her comrades, and the ultimate “how you like me now?” to his nephew? Furthermore, did you expect him to die?

Expectations rarely come to fruition in our favorite films, especially Star Wars (watch  one of my absolute favorite YouTubers/film critics, Filmjoy – formerly Movies with Mikey – serve up some stellar stuff in his two-part series “How We See Star Wars” if you have not already for more on this). Look at how George Lucas expected so much more out of his initial movie in the series. He desired better effects, better acting, better support from the studio (yeah, all this), but the only thing that lived up to his lofty expectations, and actually far exceeded them was the incredible score from the amazing John Williams. This is the only constant that we can and should expect from movies in the Star Wars saga. The music will be excellent – the greatest ever among any film scores – as long as John Williams is composing it; all other bets are off. With that being said, allow me to get into the nitty gritty of my take on The Last Jedi‘s portrayal of Luke Skywalker, and remember what he told you in the film and I told you at the start.

This is not going to go the way you think.

Mark Hamill is a true professional. He was understandably not crazy about his character’s tonal shift and the finality of this role, but he set that aside and brought his A-game to every scene. Director Rian Johnson asked a lot of Hamill, and he got way more than he could have anticipated because Hamill recognized that his desires were not as important as making something great. Included in the bonus features of The Last Jedi is a documentary, The Director and the Jedi, that chronicles the making of the film with an emphasis on Johnson and Hamill’s relationship. We see Mark Hamill explain how he told Johnson that he disagreed totally with the direction of the character… but that he would do everything he could to give the best performance to bring Johnson’s vision of the character to life.

I would also recommend that you watch another bonus feature (I’m just generally assuming that everyone purchased the same steelbook that I did) called The Balance of the Force (which is shorter at around 10 minutes) where Rian Johnson explains that the Force is not a superpower, and he wanted to remind everyone of this fact while simultaneously presenting a new generation of fans with the realization of what the Force really is. To reiterate for the sake of not simply assuming all know, it is an energy that is created by and connects all living things. Channeling this energy is what allows Jedi and Sith and others to enhance their amazing abilities, but it does not magically bestow those abilities onto a select few. At least that is how it is supposed to work. As Mikey recently expressed in his two-part “How We See Star Wars”, there is a major canonical issue that spoils so much of the mystique of the Force: midichlorians. Check out his segment on The Phantom Menace here, and take a surprised trip down memory lane to realize how many people straight up loved this movie when it came out. (Props to the music intros to each film with a song that was prominent during the release of each.) As Mikey points out, the explanation that midichlorians make people sensitive to the Force – the all-living-things-are-connected energy that is felt by all and manufactured by all – is a problem. No longer, do we have the aspiration that we could be the next Luke Skywalker, for our fate with the Force is determined by bacteria in our blood or some such nonsense. Fortunately, this notion has generally been cast aside by one of the unexpected resolutions regarding Rey’s parentage being nothing special. If Rey is not from one of the dynastic Force-sensitive bloodlines we know of, and neither is that boy we meet on Canto Bight, then genetically-inherited midichlorians, like size, matter not where the Force is concerned.

Now that that is addressed, let’s consider a reason why Rian Johnson did not want Luke walking out in the flesh to face the First Order and Kylo Ren: it would open up a need for him to have a superpower. If Luke went to Crait (the salty sit-in for Hoth) why wouldn’t he just push aside the gorilla walkers with a wave of his hand? Sure, he probably is not the most agile swordsman anymore compared to Kylo Ren, but why duel him directly when you could fling him around the way Snoke was doing with Rey? The story could not have Luke confront Ren and his regime in person because he would be too much for them to handle and we would wonder why he could not simply handle them if he did not, but we would not be entertained if he did. It’s the Superman paradox of how do you make Superman interesting and relatable if he’s unbeatable both physically and emotionally. We need to see Luke’s humanity and his continued growth in order to care for him (and to have a ninth movie that isn’t just him mowing down the bad guys with ease).

Let’s look at Luke in each orig trig film according to Mikey from his great videos. He shows a snippet from each movie with a caption.

Star Wars: “Look at this precious boy”

The Empire Strikes Back:”Look at this struggling boy”

Return of the Jedi: “Owns entire Hot Topic catalog”

We need something different from older, weary Luke in The Last Jedi. But where to go from the Skywalker kid who grew up to save the galaxy? The classical hero has finished his quest; how does he grow up more? How does he even begin another quest without repeating his earlier adventure beat by beat? The solution is in updating his archetype.

In my post from last week, “Hit Me!”, I expanded upon similar scenes between Batman and the Joker in the 1989 Batman and 2008 The Dark Knight films after watching Just Write and his adorable Canadianly way of saying “out” in his videos “What Kind of a Hero is Batman?”. In the two-part series (which my YouTube faves are big on lately), he elaborates on how Batman has the unique distinction of having represented six of the main character archetypes over his many characterizations. Batman is a comic book character, so it is no surprise that he has seen a shift in style over the decades, but it is a testament to a character to be able to fit in more than one mold for the sake of his stories. Batman is my favorite comic book character thanks partly to this chameleonic ability, but mostly I am a fan of his time spent as a tragic hero, which Just Write goes into a good degree of detail of in his first video. He explains how the tragic hero must be relatable and not all powerful (using Superman as a foil example), but also has to be the reason for his own undoing. The moment at which Batman experiences his fall, his hamartia, in The Dark Knight is the scene I covered last week with the Joker staring down the barrel of a street with Batman rocketing toward him on his Batpod. Batman swerves, and sets in motion his fall from grace and more deaths, including the woman he loves, because he cannot bring himself to kill. Did Batman mean for this to happen? Certainly not. Should he be blamed for not killing the Joker? No. However, it cannot be ignored that his refusal to take down a man who has been a monster in his city perpetuates the events that unfold as a result of his inaction.

Similarly, Luke must have a hamartia in order for the Star Wars saga to grow beyond itself. This was set up in The Force Awakens as the instance where Ben Solo rebelled against his uncle, left him for dead, destroyed his temple and followers, and absconded with those loyal to him to don the moniker Kylo Ren. It comes as a shock to us to see a moment where an older Luke panics and contemplates, however briefly, murdering his nephew. Beau Oliver brought up the point that Luke has seemingly less of a connection to Ben Solo his nephew than to Darth Vader when he learns he is his father which makes their interaction and this moment come out of nowhere for us observers in the audience. I definitely don’t disagree with this, and I doubt that it will ever sit well with me as a huge fan of Luke from the orig trig, but it is worth noting that we do not see what leads up to this probably due to time and directorial desire to keep us in the dark. Rian Johson not only upended all of our predictions and expectations, but he crafted Luke as a tragic hero in a way that aided Rey’s arc as well. Rey, and the rest of us, discover that our hero is man after all. We’ve seen the great work that Luke has done, and we expect that ship to keep right on sailing without stopping, but that is not how life works, and Luke’s troubles with Ben create a new set of troubles to tackle, but he hung his helmet up a long time ago. We and Rey together realize how hard it is to see your heroes as anything but once they reach the level of legend.

Yet Luke’s story does not end entirely in tragedy. His shift into a tragic hero serves as a revival of his classical hero. Rey arrives with a call to action, but he refuses. Nevertless, with the help of an old mentor (in the greatest Yoda scene in the entire saga), Luke is provided with the push and guidance he needs to return to his sister and friends before confronting the new threat in a novel way, and receiving his reward of peace through that purpose to become one with the Force. His last act amplifies his status as a legend at a time when the galaxy needs it most, and provides the call to adventure that the heroes of tomorrow will answer.

The Last Jedi is not a perfect movie, and its characterization of Luke Skywalker is not perfect either, but it will endure for its effort to strike out in a new direction and burn the conventions of the past in order to reawaken the greatness we saw in the beginning of this magnificent series while continuing to make its own path throughout the galaxy far, far away.

Props again to Mark Hamill, the consummate professional and humorous presence who always excels at being honest and bringing joy to people. He may not be awash in film credits like his costar Harrison Ford, but his roles in his body of work is solid (something that honestly cannot always be said of Ford). Thanks to his talent, work ethic, and the happiness he brings, Mark Hamill is one of my favorite actors. He recently received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, along with some nice, heartfelt speeches of appreciation from Ford and George Lucas. Hamill himself thanked his fans for their support on a fantastic ride that has taken him “from Jedi to Joker and back again”. It is understandable why people love his characters so much when the man himself is so loveable. No matter what your feelings on The Last Jedi and the final hurrah of his most popular character, you’ve gotta love the man behind the lightsaber no matter who you are.

Thanks for reading and watching! Be sure to revenge- uh, sorry, return back here next week when I’ll take a closer look at the latest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees officially being christened in this Saturday April 14. As always, you can keep in touch with me at monotrememadness@gmail.com.

May the Force be with you,

Alex

Hit Me!

Earlier today, I was watching YouTuber Just Write’s excellent analysis on how Batman has fit into every traditional character archetype over his many iterations (I encourage you to watch Part 1 and Part 2), and it reminded me of a striking similarity between two of those.

Look familiar? You’re damn right it does…

Christopher Nolan offered this appropriate homage to his predecessor in Batman film lore, Tim Burton, while simultaneously emulating his and all other previous (and successive) versions of the Joker. Yet both versions are worth taking a closer look at as they provide us with a key look into the methods and motivations of each opposing character.

In the 1989 Batman, Jack Nicholson’s ever-smiling and often terrifying Joker stands unwavering in the bullseye of Batman’s crosshairs as the Batman unloads his arsenal. Everything misses, of course, and the Joker shoots Batman out of the sky with a comically oversized pistol. Here, the Joker stands firm at the foiling of his plan to gas Gotham’s residents at the Batwings of Batman. This Batman is down with killing the Joker as it is the only way to ensure his murderous spree against the innocents (and admittedly guilty too) will be stopped. This Joker is just too crazy to keep around. He’s certainly a man with a plan, but his actions are too wild to predict. Joker knows Batman is gunning him down, but his madness proves superior as he is miraculously to centralized for Batman’s big guns to hit. This proves better for us, the viewers, too, as it puts the Joker back in the position of power heading into the climactic final battle between our foes. I wonder who will win?

Flash forward 19 years, and we look at what many – including myself – consider to be the best Batman film, The Dark Knight. A major reason why so many share this opinion is thanks to Heath Ledger’s magnificent performance as the Joker, a performance so transcendent of its source material, that it’s easy to forget how well written this Joker is. Consider this scene: compared to the 1989 version, it bears the similarity of Batman accelerating toward the Joker with deadly potential (or rather kinetic energy, in this instance). However, Nolan’s Batman does not kill – it is his one rule to not take a life – so even with Gotham’s greatest adversary literally standing in the center of his path, daring Batman to hit him, Batman cannot bring himself to do it. In what should be a physical battle that ends in the Joker going kersplat! in big, bold, bright lettering (in both movies), Batman ends up crashing and provides the Joker with a prime opportunity to kick him when he’s down. Thankfully, in The Dark Knight he has help, but this scene takes place only halfway through the story, and only goes to show how dangerous this ever-terrifying and often smiling Joker really is. Here he stands firm, not due to madness, but because he is a man with a plan. In fact, he is a man with a plan for every occasion. He has plans ready for every contigency, but here it comes down to a dichotomy:

  1. If Batman hits him, then Batman kills him; Batman breaks his one rule and is corrupted as a murderous vigilante – Result: Joker wins
  2. If Batman misses him, then Batman proves he cannot bring himself to kill; the Joker can play this to Batman’s disadvantage and either uncover and expose his secret identity, or continue to shame Batman in the public eye by terrorizing Gotham and blaming Batman for his continued killings – Result: Joker wins

Of course, neither of these completely comes to fruition, but both kind of do. The Joker is willing to die at Batman’s hands to stain Batman’s heroic persona, but he is also happy to stay alive and tarnish it more cleverly through tarnishing others, especially Harvey Dent, who becomes a true agent of chaos, more akin to the comical, gruesomely giddy Joker in Batman. The true genius of Nolan’s Joker is that in the end he is physically defeated by Batman and detained by the police, but he still wins. Yeah, really! Remember how Batman hops on his bad motor scooter and rides away from the fuzz at the end? That’s because the Joker got what he wanted, and we get more than a glimpse of this form the action-packed street showdown that sends up its serious film origin.

Thanks for reading and watching! As always, feel free to send me feedback and well wishes and whatever else to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Be sure to batarang back here next week for more fun.

Same Bat time, same Bat channel,

Alex

View Unto Others

For most Christian denominations this coming Sunday is Easter, the most important holiday to Christianity even though Christmas is undeniably more fun. Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ after a weekend of fixing the afterlife infrastructure that followed his crucifixion. Now, it has been a long while since I took any stock in stories from the Catholic teachings I was brought up on, and my connection to the faith of my family is currently only apparent in my allegiance to the Ramblers of Loyola Chicago University in this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four as they are, like my high school and university, a Jesuit school (plus they’re playing Michigan and I hate Michigan).

Nevertheless, I am one of over seven and a half billion people in the world, and when you consider religious populations Christians are the biggest slice of that pie – according to an estimate made in 2012 – so losing me to the third place collective community of people who do not adhere to a religion (secular/nonreligious/agnostic/atheist) is hardly a problem for the remaining 2.3 billion Christians in the world. Among the reasons why I have drifted away from the Church and religion in general, is my concern that a strong devotion by on faith in place of facts is problematic, and truly fanatic. I am not trying to get you to cut loose from whichever practices of faith you partake in; so long as they are physically and emotionally safe for you and others, go for it, especially if you actively help people by supplying food, medicine, care, etc. I do have a concern though regarding advertising your creed aggressively, or worse yet, spreading your message with propaganda. You are not likely to convert nonbelievers to your cause, but you do certainly have the capability to rile up those who already align with your beliefs. Historically, rallying the masses to a like cause based on shared beliefs can turn sour, especially where religious-based agenda is concerned. More and more though, we see religious (and political) organizations take to technology to advance their cause. Really anybody who has a subjective stance to take and is trying to get others to take it too tries this using social media, or if they have big buckos, they put together a TV channel and/or movies.

One such newer practitioner is the Church of Scientology. It’s easy for us to look at Scientology and scoff. It’s a modern religion, legally-recognized by the United States government as such (the requirements are really not that difficult to meet), and their prophet is Tom Cruise – no, sorry that’s not exactly correct. However, Scientology was created by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, and numerous other high-profile celebrities join Cruise in praying to aliens or whatever it is that they do. Okay, that’s not quite what they have going on within the Church of Scientology, but do you feel bad for the institution in the wake of my poking fun at it? I imagine not, and that’s because Scientology just sounds silly. South Park skewered it, countless comedians jab at it in some way, shape, or form, and their most famous member isn’t doing them any favors with the non-believers either.

But what about Christianity? The world’s biggest religion doesn’t get all of its followers from whatever iteration of Jesus Christ Superstar is airing on Easter (it doesn’t hurt, either). As a matter of fact, Christian movies are becoming more popular for more studios to put out and for some bigger studios to get involved.

 

In 2016, the world went wacky over Deadpool, and for good reason as the self-aware superhero slayed in every way in his feature film. Deadpool quickly became not only the highest-grossing R-rated comic book movie, but the second highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time. Despite this fantastic success, it still falls almost $8 million shy of the top grossing R-rated movie: The Passion of the Christ.

Thanks for reading and watching. Have yourself a merry little Easter and a fantastic Passover this weekend! Who knows? Perhaps in a couple months we’ll see Deadpool 2 atop this list.

Good humor is divine,

Alex