“Page-turners they were not.” Star Wars: The Last Jedi, A Christmas Story Live!, and the failure of marketing

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There are few pieces of holiday entertainment about which I am more excited than the arrival of a new Star Wars flick or a live television musical event, and, yet, somehow, it took me a good week get around to watching Disney/LucasFilm’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi and soon-to-be-Disney-corporate-stablemate FOX’s A Christmas Story Live! In part, that is because we insane monkeys (humanity writ large) feel the absurd need to cram ALL POSSIBLE JOY and festivity into the four-plus week span between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, leaving January a bleak and empty month of snow drifts and credit card bills. Consequently, the things we might put at the top of our list under any normal circumstances slide depressingly to the bottom of our “must do”s.

Yet, there was something else about both Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! … I wasn’t that excited to see either. The messaging and advertising surrounding both events couldn’t have “buried the lede” worse, and I believe that the “backlash” or audience disappointment in both is less a result of the quality of the work (both are actually excellent in wildly divergent ways) and more a result of misaligned promotional efforts.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Did you know Christmas Story Live!, brilliantly directed with military precision and classic Broadway charm by Scott Ellis and Alex Rudzinski, was a musical by Oscar-winning Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land) before you started watching? We theatre geeks did, but all of the commercials promoting the three-hour event conveniently bypassed that there would be, you know, singing and dancing galore. As a result, Twitter lit up like the “dumpster fire,” which internet trolls accused the show of being, with self-righteous indignation that “childhoods were being ruined” by the introduction of “musical numbers” to such a “great classic.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Let’s also note, for the record, that the original 1983 Christmas Story (which is a pretty perfect confection, even if it suffers from some now-tone-deaf misogyny and racism) was a flop that only found life in video store rentals and through HBO’s habit back then of running forgotten films 38 times a day. It has become beloved, but that doesn’t mean some tinkering couldn’t benefit the timeworn tale.

It’s an absolute shame that audiences didn’t embrace this new production, and I can only hope that this TV-musical finds its own cult following on YouTube or NetFlix or whatever venues now allow 8-year-olds to watch any piece of entertainment to the point of nausea. The cast for A Christmas Story Live! was sublime, from a warm and winning Maya Rudolph and Chris Diamantopoulos as the parents to a crackling Jane Krakowski and Ana Gasteyer as the teacher and Mrs. Schwartz respectively. Nary a beat was missed, and even the to-be-expected line flubs (“purkey”) were handled with grace and aplomb. The role of Ralphie was split between a lovely and magically omnipresent Matthew Broderick (adult narrator Ralphie) – who mixed just the right holiday cocktail of sentiment and cynicism – and a remarkable Andy Walken (child Ralphie) – who buried all annoying “look at me” child actor tics in a star-making performance that propelled every scene with heart and raw talent. Walken is one to watch.

(By the way, broadcasters, please cut down the number of in-show commercials. You’re killing the momentum and joy of a stage-show-on-TV by shilling for Old Navy every 8 minutes.)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Much like FOX’s production of Grease Live!, the camera whizzed and swooshed from interiors to back lot streetscapes to fantasy playgrounds and back again accompanied by a literal army of extras who populated each locale with verve. Standout numbers included Gasteyer’s “In the Market for a Miracle,” Rudolph’s “What a Mother Does,” Diamantopoulos’ “A Major Award,” Krakowski’s “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” and the children’s ensemble “When You’re a Wimp.” The musical expands on the original film’s notions of inclusion balanced with the bittersweet comic realities of half-remembered holiday times, giving the female characters an agency and authority lacking in the 1983 script and discovering shades of sympathy for both the bullies and the bullied on the playground and in life. (Including PSAs for folks to go out and adopt rescue dogs like those amazing canine thespians portraying the Bumpus hounds didn’t hurt either.) It’s just a shame FOX was too chicken to promote the musical honestly and directly. I triple-dog-dare the execs to rethink their approach if there is a next time, but I’m sure the suits will blame the show itself and not their mishandling of its promotion.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

My lumps of coal aren’t only reserved for FOX’s marketing team, but Disney/LucasFilm’s as well. (For those Star Wars fans who have patiently – or impatiently – read through my analysis of A Christmas Story Live!, thank you. Now go watch it, and fast forward through the commercials.) The ads for Star Wars: The Last Jedi were nigh inescapable. No shock there. Disney has pretty successfully re-established the franchise as a holiday tradition – first with 2015’s The Force Awakens, then last year’s Rogue One – and that means advertising the bejeezus out of each new film’s imminent arrival.

However, the ads for Last Jedi overplayed the “trust no spoilers, for there be amazing twists and turns here” hyperbole. We nerds who grew up anxiously awaiting the familial, Shakespearean revelations offered by each subsequent episode of the previous two trilogies walked into Last Jedi ready to gobble up a smorgasbord of “galaxy far, far away” secrets: who was Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis); who are Rey’s parents; why has Luke Skywalker withdrawn from life; how does Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) keep her armor so dang shiny; why is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) such a pouty brat? The marketing for the film had us all whipped into a lather that had nothing to do with the actual film Rian Johnson gave us, and that also is a damn shame. We do get a few of these answers, but mostly Johnson challenges whether or not any of those questions should be asked in the first place.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Was the film too long by half, suffering from a meandering and episodic structure that seemed more suited to the small screen than the large? Perhaps. Did Johnson riff on The Empire Strikes Back‘s structure in a similarly derivative way to J.J. Abram’s lifting passages wholesale from A New Hope for Force Awakens. Kinda. Was it disappointing that Johnson basically thumbed his nose at our expectations for the same regurgitated Joseph Campbell hero-quest stuff that has fueled every Star Wars movie to date?  Damn straight. And rather exhilarating as well. Like cold water in one’s face on a mid-December evening.

I admit I was bored silly at times, and I nervously giggled at some (perhaps intentional) Spaceballs-esque series-self-satire. (Could that New Order/Resistance three hour-long-slow-ass chase through space be any weirder?). However, I also appreciated that – yes, not unlike A Christmas Story Live! – Johnson mines and reinvents the source material, jettisoning the self-satisfied reverence holding it back and embracing the core essence of what hippie Baby Boomer filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg and Henson were trying to achieve with their 70s and 80s cinematic fantasias. Lucas always came this close to feminism and to embracing diversity in his films, but always fell short, leaving us with the same white male space-knights-in-shining-armor we’ve always had. Johnson, with Last Jedi, gives us a Star Wars allegory rich with thorny and difficult implications for modern-day America.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

An “evil empire” propping up and propped up by the one-percent (note: I hated the “casino planet” sequence in Last Jedi, until I realized how truly subversive it is) aims to squash the “spark” of individuality across the galaxy. They are challenged at every turn in Last Jedi by a rag-tag band of characters who wouldn’t be out of place among the human cast of Sesame Street … or a Benetton ad: a feisty female mechanic (Kelly Marie Tran) who isn’t going to suffer any fools gladly; an “I’m-With-Her” battle-scarred princess-cum-general (Carrie Fisher) who leads with wit not super-powers; a purple-haired-don’t-nobody-mansplain-to-me admiral (Laura Dern) who carries her own agenda with no apologies; a fighter pilot (Oscar Isaac) who gets his impulsive swagger handed back in shreds by Fisher and Dern and likes it; a former Stormtrooper (John Boyega) who finally learns that love not self-aggrandizing-self-sacrifice is true heroism; and a nascent Jedi who learns that the lessons she needed were in her own heart all along (Daisy Ridley).

The cast, for the most part, is great, saddled with a talky script that fails to match the pure swashbuckling-zip of previous films in the series. Blasphemous as it may sound, I wasn’t  particularly taken with Fisher’s performance, which appeared to run the gamut from sort-of-exhausted to “I’m so tired of this sh*t.” Mark Hamill, on the other hand, delivers a career-best turn as a defeated and curmudgeonly Luke Skywalker for whom life has been crueler and less rewarding than the once optimistic farm boy had ever anticipated. Hamill is no Sir Alec Guinness (by a long shot). Yet, it is interesting and a tad surreal to see Hamill now playing the cranky Jedi mentor to a young whippersnapper (Ridley) at roughly the same age Guinness was when he appeared in a similar role (Obi Wan Kenobi) in A New Hope.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I exited the theatre from The Last Jedi disappointed and ambivalent. However, as I reflected the next day, I realized I was doing a disservice to the film Rian Johnson made because it didn’t align with the film I expected. I daresay it deserves a second viewing, on its own merits and divorced from its own discombobulated marketing campaign.

As one character (who shall remain a surprise for those who haven’t seen Last Jedi) wryly observes about a stack of old Jedi training manuals, “Page-turners they were not.” Both The Last Jedi and A Christmas Story Live! are more thoughtful and challenging than the easy and comfortable “page-turner”  nostalgia pitched in their respective marketing campaigns. I hope they both get their due.


[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“There’s a problem on the horizon. … There is no horizon.” Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“You’re confusing peace with terror.” – reluctant Death Star engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen)

“Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.” – power-hungry Imperial overlord Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

It’s December again. And in the new merchandise-mad, money-hungry cycle that Lucasfilm’s corporate parent Disney has established, it’s new Star Wars movie time too. May is now Marvel’s month, and that makes me a little sad. Summer was Star Wars season when I was a kid, so I equate that long-stretch of warm weather as the period you escaped the rigid confines of public school and caught up with Luke, Leia, Han, Lando, Darth, and friends, reenacting big screen adventures in the backyard or poolside. Unless we all plan to ride Tauntauns across Hoth’s frozen tundra (#nerdjoke), ain’t too much role play happening in the backyard this holiday season.

The latest entry in the series is being dubbed a standalone “Star Wars story” in that it is not tied into any particular trilogy of films. Rogue One fleshes out a throwaway reference in the original 1977 film (now known as A New Hope), explicating how the plans for the original “Death Star” make their way from Imperial architects to the shiny dome of one bee-booping droid R2-D2.

It’s a clever (and wisely capitalistic) conceit, and, for the most part, the film satisfies the inquisitive fifth-grader in us all, acting out a scenario many may have tried to imagine 30-some years ago using piles of Kenner action figures.

Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy have concocted a blockbuster that is one part The Guns of Navarone with a sprinkling of Saving Private Ryan and one part The Wizard of Oz with a dollop of Little Orphan Annie, blended with a whole heaping helping of deep geek references to the infrastructure and mythology of the original Star Wars films – heavier on the 70s/80s entries, but not entirely neglecting the better parts of thee 90s/00s flicks. Rogue One is a darker journey (in a-not-terribly-shocking SPOILER alert, let’s just say things don’t end particularly well for the new characters), exploring the bowels of the Star Wars universe and setting up the oppressively fascistic milieu of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. I mean the Rebel Alliance has to rebel against something, right?

Much has been made in the news (well, FoxNews … ironic, since Fox used to own the franchise) about the filmmakers’ social media critique of President-elect Donald Trump and of their allusions to the frightening similarities between the fantasy world concocted by George Lucas and the hateful xenophobic power-grabbing of our real-world politicians. Let it be said that there is nothing in this film that satirizes directly the shenanigans of this past fall as we head toward January’s inauguration. How could there be? The film was shot in 2015, with a mountain of special effects to achieve in post-production until now. However, in these fraught days of dubiously motivated cabinet appointees, tumultuous international relations, heartbreaking Middle East conflict, and cyber-attacks of an unprecedented (NOT “unpresidented”) scale, I found it difficult to enjoy the escapist “fun” of a band of scruffy rebels fighting unscrupulous bureaucrats, planet-hopping at a dizzying pace, engaging in bloody street battles across crowded and dusty marketplaces, and hacking into monolithic computer systems to release state secrets. But maybe that’s just me.

Rogue One is entertaining and gives us longtime fans a lot of intriguing backstory upon which to chew for months to come. I fear that the casual viewer will find it too talky and somber by half, waiting for the trademark space dogfights to kick in. And they do – the last 45 minutes are a doozy. For us Star Wars nuts, the “palace intrigue” will be a hoot, albeit a bleak hoot, with effective reappearances by Darth Vader (voiced again by James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (creepily CGI-reincarnated Peter Cushing, looking like a refugee from The Polar Express).

The series newcomers blend in well, if not leaving any lasting impressions. Felicity Jones, so good in The Theory of Everything,  is haunting if a bit dour throughout as protagonist Jyn Erso. She is yet another in the long line of Star Wars orphans, abandoned by parents more invested in political statements than child-rearing; consequently, she has a reason to be rather glum. Like The Force Awakens‘ Rey (Daisy Ridley), she is a welcome addition to a series that hasn’t always celebrated strong, independent, adventuring women. Her father Galen Erso (a soulful Mads Mikkelsen) is the chief designer of the much-vaunted Death Star, and his change of heart puts both him and his family at great peril when he flees the project, hiding out as a moisture farmer on some forgotten planet. (The Roy of 30+ years ago would have been able to remember all of the planets named/visited in Rogue One. Present-day Roy? No clue. Nor do I care.) The Empire, led by Orson Krennic (a rather forgettable Ben Mendelsohn in a stiff, starchy, heavily-creased white cape that implies there are neither fashion designers nor irons in space) tracks Galen down and drags him back to work, leaving Jyn effectively orphaned for a really long time.

Eventually, the nascent Rebel Alliance seek the adult Jyn out. Jyn is now a felon, living the Lucasfilm equivalent of Orange is the New Black after being raised by cyborg Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker in his typical scene-killing-ham mode). You see, the Rebels want Jyn to help them find her pa, get the plans for whatever the Empire is cooking up (“That’s no moon!”), and save the day. Along the way, Jyn meets cute with Cassian Andor (a pleasant but uncharismatic Diego Luna) and his comically nihilistic robot buddy K-2S0 (voiced delightfully by Alan Tudyk, proving that he is always the MVP of any movie in which he – or his pipes – appear). The trio collect a band of good-hearted and refreshingly diverse misfits (actors Donnie Yen, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen – all turning in credible, nuanced character turns) on their way to the inevitable denouement, setting up neatly the opening sequence of A New Hope.

Rogue One is stingier with the whimsy than other Star Wars films. The humor is sardonic, not Saturday Matinee side-splitting. As the Death Star baddies use their new toy for target practice, noble Cassian scans the incoming cloud of debris and destruction and mutters, “There’s a problem on the horizon. … There is no horizon.” It gets a laugh, but not a hearty one. Perhaps, we in the audience are just a bit too worried about our own horizon these days to find the humor any more.

Maybe I will go play with my old Kenner toys in the backyard, frostbite be damned. I need the escape.

“It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.” – Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) when asked how can she live in a world where Imperial flags oppressively dominate the landscape


[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.