“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.

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[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.

“You view the world through a keyhole.” Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“You view the world through a keyhole,” intones an  eyebrow-less (and bald) Tilda Swinton (Trainwreck), as the Ancient One – yet another in her long-line of eyebrow-less fortune cookie-philosophizing androgyne Yoda-lite characters – in Marvel Studios’ latest offering Doctor Strange.

Let’s face it, her synthetic ethereality is a lock for movies like this. How she isn’t sitting beside Stan Lee (on a bus, in a plane, on a boat, in a car) for every single one of his corny, ubiquitous cameos in these Marvel flicks is beyond me.

The recipient of her philosophical guidance in the film is one Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, August: Osage County, The Fifth Estate, Star Trek Into Darkness), every bit her interplanetary match in the wide-eyed, chiseled-cheek-boned, glacial-foreheaded race for cinematic space alien beauty. Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange, an egomaniac neurosurgeon whose egomania is totally justified by his remarkable skills in the operating room. Cumberbatch’s Strange wisely takes a page or two from the Robert Downey, Jr./Tony Stark “charming spoiled cad” playbook, layering in a welcome dollop or two of dyspepsia, contempt, and petulance.

As in any fairy tale … er … Marvel movie, our hero has a tragic flaw: Strange is a jerk.

  • He’s punished for it:  while driving his fancy sports car like an entitled and distracted prat, Strange finds his elegant surgeon hands crunched to paste in a grinding car accident.
  • He seeks redemption: under the tutelage of Swinton’s Ancient One, he learns some gobbledygook about not letting fear hold one back, realizing that what gets one here won’t get one there, and identifying who might have moved one’s cheese … or something that sounded vaguely like the counsel of a bad business self-help book one might be forced to read in an MBA class.
  • AND, voila!, he gains magical superpowers (plus, a nifty cape that behaves a bit like the mischievous, yet helpful, mice in Cinderella).

It’s all great fun with just the right touch of solemnity – the latter, no doubt, chiefly a contribution of the one-note, award-winning Brit gravitas that Swinton and Cumberbatch bring to everything they do. Director Scott Derrickson has cast the film exceedingly well. We also have Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) as Strange’s medical peer, confidante, and, yes, sometimes girlfriend (we can’t have everything). McAdams brings spark and wit, fire and intelligence, elevating Strange’s backstory in a compelling and heartfelt way. Mads Mikkelson (who seems consigned to always have black or bloody tears emanating from his unearthly peepers – see: LeChiffre in Casino Royale) is capably understated as Strange’s villainous foil Kaecilius. Benedict Wong (The Martian) delivers wry comic timing as Strange’s tutor/librarian/sidekick Wong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) successfully counterbalances Wong with ambivalent notes of resentful admiration toward Strange as friend/rival Mordo, foreshadowing intriguing future conflict.

Strange is visually sumptuous, taking the MC Escher stylings of Inception or Interstellar, losing the ponderous Christopher Nolan self-righteous self-aggrandizement, and amping up the kaleidoscopic fun. Skyscraper-lined city blocks fold upon themselves like origami; mirror images bend and twist and deceive; entire galaxies devolve into motes of dust. This movie is trippy, playfully updating, for the Millennial crowd, gonzo artist Steve Ditko’s 1960s psychedelic visuals of Doctor Strange’s original four-color adventures. Like Marvel’s recent Ant-Man, Doctor Strange succeeds by embracing the free-wheeling whimsy in its source material, but grounding the proceedings (and its audience) in our common humanity and the very real consequences of our bad judgment.

I have a confession to make. For the past month or maybe longer, I have not much felt like writing. Or had much interest in seeing movies for that matter. The results of our recent election (not to my liking) have thrown me for a bit of a loop. Additionally (and from a completely selfish perspective), in the past few weeks, I’ve had some heartbreak in my theatre life, we have had some of the mind-numbing/back-breaking “Money Pit” unforeseen distractions that all of us share as middle-aged homeowners, and I find myself looking down the barrel of an impending holiday season that (any more) seems to bring more mania than holly jolly.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Yet, I keep thinking about that line from Swinton’s Ancient One character. Albeit cliched, the line is spot on (as cliches often are): we do view the world through a keyhole, a self-constructed self-pitying sliver of perspective, forcing us to lose the moment and live out-of-sync with our loved ones, with our surroundings, and with ourselves. That is the magic of loud, plastic, silly, allegorical movies like this. Every fable has its very important lesson, and we should never be too old to listen.

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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.

 

“Droid, please.” Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

With the clarion blast of John Williams’ trademark fanfare, a militaristic waterfall of brassy notes, Star Wars returns to the silver screen in “Episode VII,” otherwise known as The Force Awakens.

Director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Super 8) has been entrusted (wisely) by the slick branding minds at the Mouse House, LucasFilm’s new owners, to inject the franchise with a postmodern jolt of nostalgia-fueled adrenaline, after the late 90s/early 00s prequel series failed to sustain fanboy adoration.

Let me add that I find some of the rampant hatred of Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith (oh, those names) a bit disingenuous, lemming-like, and arguably age-ist. We nerds were all lined up in geeky hysteria to devour those films, debate their merits, and consume every last bit of merchandising. Were we thrilled with the films? Not totally. Were they ponderous, meandering, and wooden? Heck, yeah. Did we care? No, because we loved this bizarre universe that was less sci-fi and more Land of Oz with its blend of preposterous names (Count Dooku?), anthropomorphic machinery, fuzzy Muppet-y sidekicks, and simplistic delineation of right from wrong.

Now, we all want to kick George Lucas to the curb, like some previous homeowner who had terrible taste in shag carpeting since we know so much better with our Ikea coffee tables and stainless steel appliances. We seem to be saying, “Go away, you doddering old man. We don’t care if you created all of this from broad cloth. You’re tiresome.” That bugs me. A lot. Maybe it’s because I’ll likely be 50 years old when this latest trilogy wraps up or because I will be forever grateful to Lucas for all the backyard adventures he fueled for this plucky only child, but I think he deserves a break and our gratitude.

…That said, I’m sure glad he didn’t direct this latest installment.

Abrams is not the most ingenious of directors. If Spielberg and Lucas, his most immediate forebears, were consummate recyclers of B-movie tropes (Indiana Jones, Jaws, and, yes, Star Wars), then Abrams is, at best, a fabulous remixer. He takes the Spielberg/Lucas greatest hits, adds a dash of irony, self-satirizing humor, marketing panache, and copious lens flares in a transfixing gift for cinematic misdirection. Take his two Star Trek films, for instance.  Great fun, right?  Yet, there is not one original thought between them that wasn’t already expressed a hundred times over in earlier Trek films and series. Into Darkness is pretty much a remake/reinvention of one of the better films Wrath of Khan infused with the earth-bound whimsy of the best Star Trek … The Voyage Home.

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Little Roy and Friends

That’s what Abrams does, and that’s just fine. The instinct for escapist self-preservation is Hollywood’s bread and butter, and, with the assured success of Force Awakens, Abrams is sure to be Tinseltown’s favorite son.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens gives us everything we want, with few surprises. While every other Star Wars film has debuted in May to provide air-conditioned cinematic asylum from the hottest days of the year, Force Awakens arrives just in time for Christmas. Not unlike those Disney Park rides that dump you right into a gift shop so you can load up on memory-preserving souvenirs, this film seems built to send you packing to Toys R Us posthaste for some last minute stocking stuffers. Just like the holidays, Force Awakens showers us with familiar, comforting indulgences.

X-Wing and Tie Fighters engaged in balletic dog fights, every sound effect you remember well-preserved but with new paint jobs so you’ll have to capture the newest miniature versions for your personal fleet at home. C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker) are still fussy as ever, but with a little third-act intrigue to keep you guessing. Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) remains adorable as a Golden Retriever on two legs who happens to be really adept at piloting the Millennium Falcon. Han (Harrison Ford) and Leia (Carrie Fisher – who looks like she’s about to crack a joke every time she speaks, thank goodness) are a little grayer and wizened, mercifully winking at the proceedings but also providing much-needed flesh-and-blood poignancy. Any tears I shed were all due to the two of them – both from my joy at seeing them in these iconic roles again and in their ability to inhabit those characters, thirty years later, so effortlessly.

The plot (spoiler … well, 38-year-old spoiler) is pretty much a carbon copy of Star Wars: A New Hope,  itself ripped off just two movies later for Return of the Jedi. Scary fascists (this time called “The First Order”) in matching outfits can’t tolerate free-thought or weirdly-featured cantina-frequenting creatures, so they build a big ol’ planet-sized armageddon machine; and Dorothy and The Tin Man and The Scarecrow and The Cowardly Lion blow it up real good and save the universe (for now). Actually, that sounds a bit like rhetoric from the Republican presidential debates. Maybe a disenfranchised Lucas is moonlighting for Trump these days?

Damn, Force Awakens is fun, though. Seeing beloved characters in a place and time you’ve worshipped since you were a kid is akin to the perfect extended family reunion … that is, if you liked your extended family. Abrams is a canny filmmaker. He uses the free-pass such familiarity brings to introduce a new generation (literally and figuratively) of characters who end up carrying the torch quite nicely. Furthermore, Abrams layers an Empire Strikes Back-style ominous gloom over Force Awakens’ Saturday matinee escapades – a sense of forboding that holds welcome promise for future installments.

Adam Driver (Girls) channels Millennial angst as antagonist Kylo Ren – imagine Darth Vader with ADHD. Oscar Issac (Inside Llewyn Davis) is all Errol Flynn swashbuckling swagger as pilot Poe Dameron.  John Boyega (Attack the Block) as turncoat Stormtrooper Finn and newcomer Daisy Ridley as scrappy orphan Rey are the heart and soul of the film. Like the film’s viewers, these two actors have grown up admiring the fantasy and the fiction of the Star Wars universe. Consequently, they bleed respect, wit, and warmth for their characters and for the heroic quests they get to play, yet they escape the overly reverent quagmire that afflicted prequel stars Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen. (Boyega’s seemingly ad libbed “Droid, please.” to the equally affable, Chaplinesque, volleyball-shaped robot BB-8 exemplifies his free-wheeling, contemporary comic approach.)

I will also commend Abrams for bringing us our most diverse Star Wars cast yet, offering a galactic reflection of our earthly life today. About time.

It wouldn’t be Star Wars without an action-figure phalanx of oddball spirit guides and gleamingly militant heavies (played by a Love Boat-sized cast of “special guest stars”). Spotting them is like playing a space-faring game of Where’s Waldo? Look, Daniel Craig is a cheeky Stormtrooper! Look, Max Von Sydow is Alec Guiness! Look, Gwendolyn Christie is a cheeky chrome-plated Stormtrooper! Look, Domhnall Gleeson is Peter Cushing! Look, Andy Serkis is Gollum-channeling-The-Wizard-of-Oz! Look, Lupita Nyong’o is … Yoda?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will satisfy all you playground Han Solos and Leia Organas and Luke Skywalkers. Indeed, the 12-year-old boy in me was transported … a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In that sense, Abrams and crew did their job flawlessly. But this installment was easy. The audience was waiting and appreciative to see the old band back together, playing the classic tracks we know and love.

The trick for the upcoming films (to mix Abrams’ Star franchises blasphemously)? To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no (hu)man has gone before.

I look forward to it.

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Roy_Star_WarsReel 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.