Christopher Maher: Hey! Welcome to our second monthly round table round up. This month we’re joined by contributors Brian Russell and Conor Bell. Huzzah! Let’s start with Star Wars, because why would we not start with Star Wars?
So, now that we’re a few weeks out from the premiere we get to bask in “fan” irritation. A lot of the critiques are silly. Some of them are good. The movie is overly long, the Casino sequence, though it bothered me less the second time around, is poorly paced and contains bizarre character beats. But the critique that the movie doesn’t fall enough in line with what fans wanted is dangerous. Rian Johnson made a daring movie, and that should be encouraged, even if its a failure. What’s more he made a movie that followed through writing-wise. It’s not his job to create or solve “mysteries” – far more important are that character logic follows through. So Snoke dying works because it’s the right thing for Kylo Ren’s story. Rey’s parents likewise make sense from a character standpoint. She comes from nothing, which is why she so desperately wants definition. Her lying to herself in TFA is more, not less, effective once you know the truth. Just because you don’t like the answer doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just not what you expected, but good movies don’t adhere to what you expect. In a recent interview with James Mangold of Logan he cites his teacher, Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest, Amadeus) who told him the writer and director’s job is not to prove 1+1 is 2, because the audience already knows that. They should prove 1+1 is 3 and then back it up.
Brian Russell: Well I for one LOVED The Last Jedi and was super jealous I didn’t get to write a review for it here! I totally agree with you Chris … it is a daring movie, it subverts expectations, and thrillingly entertains along the way. I don’t believe these movies should be made as fan service, but as art required to stand on its own. I must point out that there appears to be significant evidence that a lot of this “fan backlash” mumbo-jumbo may just be a few bad trolls auto-botting Rotten Tomatoes and some other user review sites. IMDb and CinemaScore tell a very different story. I actually dredded some of the fan predictions about this movie … “Rey was Luke’s Daughter, Kylo Ren’s sister, Obi-Wan’s illegitimate child; Snoke was Darth Plagus, etc etc.” Whatever. It makes so much sense for Rey’s parents to be nobodies. When I was a kid, I thought anyone who tapped into their feelings and got a little sword training might possibly become a Jedi. I thought I might become a Jedi. (Literally — not kidding … but of course I was ten!) And then the prequels made it some dumb preordained BS involving midichlorians. The Last Jedi brings us back to character and hard work and training and the idea that we all have our demons to face, and each of us can make choices about who we become. And that our parents and mentors can have huge impacts on us, sometimes in some not so great ways. Destiny is defined by our our choices, our work ethic and probably a little bit of luck, but not by ancient prophecies.
Conor Bell: I really appreciate that we weren’t given any backstory as to who Snoke is and Rey’s background being very normal. The Rey backstory is similar to what was just in the recent Blade Runner movie where you find out that the protagonist is just an ordinary person. They don’t have any secret ties to anything special. Brian’s comment about how he thought about being a Jedi when he was a kid really demonstrates the impact of that. It’s a really interesting sort of class thing that happens in narratives. Where you have so many stories these days, especially in the YA world where these characters find they’re actually related to some royalty or something, but one of the messages that narrative gives is that you’re only special if you’re related to people who are in power. And it’s odd that’s a really prominent narrative device and the nobody hero isn’t because as someone who isn’t related to anyone with a vast fortune I find it easier to relate to characters who come from nothing. So in conclusion to that I really dug how Rey came from nothing. Also Adam Driver’s curt and abrupt delivery of that line was really funny. I feel a lot of actors would kind of drag it out, but he was so blunt and to the point about comparing her to dirt. It was great.
CM: Something we’ve also seen a lot of is people claiming that, by what Johnson did with Snoke and Rey, he didn’t respect Abrams’ “plan”. But, as Sam and I were discussing yesterday, we think that’s sort of BS. Series shouldn’t be all about “plans” and “reveals” – as long as you follow characters and give them good, movie contained arcs, Abrams can pick it up from there. Abrams brought Rey to the point where she left Jakku, and now Johnson has brought her to the point where she is no longer “trying to find her place” but rather claiming a place by, as you say Brian, casting off the “prophecies” model and just saying “I’m no one, so who am I going to be?”. Even Lucas in the original series probably had an overarching idea of where he was going, but not anything super specific.
BR: Chris your mention of the word “plan” is key to any Star Wars discussion. Lucas always maintained he had this story all mapped out — nine episodes worth — but if he did have one, he became such a slave to the macro and failed miserably in the details. In story, it’s all about how the details add up. To many fans, the prequels fail to honor what Lucas himself created originally, and he appears to retcon some big Michael Corleone-esqe plot over three movies (Coppola did it in one movie!) Lucas forgot that we loved the original three movies because they each worked on their own, told their own stories, and then ultimately added up to something greater than the sum of their parts. Johnson received a gift rare in Hollywood … it seems Disney trusted him. And the result is that we the audience also received a great gift: A new and unique Star Wars film that has something to say.
CB: Yeah, I’ve seen people complain about Abrams’ plan or how it was bad writing that they didn’t give Snoke a backstory. But his character really didn’t need that. I think I saw an interview with Rian Johnson somewhere and he spoke about his choice with Snoke’s character and said something to the effect of, “I don’t really want every new character I have to stop and give an expositional monologue.”
I think it was Johnson, or The AV Club who made a really great point about the direction of Luke’s character where they said, “Do you really want to see three more movies of Luke saves the galaxy with his friends?” They also talked about how the minute they announced a sequel trilogy that meant Luke, Han, and Leia could not have a happy ending. I think what a lot of fans and myself for a moment experienced with the direction of the film was we thought that Luke, Leia, and Han’s stories were over. That their arcs were completed. But it only took me until now to realize that these are the movies where their stories end. I had a writing teacher who told me to put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them. The Last Jedi throw a ton of rocks at its characters and I’m all for it.
Sam Russell: After obsessively reading every think-piece and hot take about The Last Jedi, at this point I am a little fatigued. There are certainly legitimate criticisms, it’s not a perfect film, but most of the main anti-TLJ talking points are frustratingly dumb. I don’t have much else to say beyond our initial review, and that I agree with all of what you three have said here.
So in that vein, I’m gonna move this thing right along….Brian, I know you recently saw The Disaster Artist. What did you think?
BR: I loved it. I really had little intention of seeing this film until I read your analysis and discussion Sam, comparing The Disaster Artist and I, Tonya and how the two pictures showcase our ability to achieve our own American Dreams. James Franco is not an actor to whom I have ever really felt a connection. In films like Flyboys and the Sam Raimi Spider-Man, he always seemed so whiny and on the verge of tears no matter the emotion intended. But he literally disappeared into Tommy Wiseau. Franco owned the role in what I feel is among his best work ever. The movie has been criticised for failing to give us the full depths of Tommy’s abuses, and in the end offers up a weirdly pathetic hero. I haven’t read the book upon which the movie is based, but as a film I think it completely works. I did recently watch The Room, and it is hilarious. I belly laughed more than at any other official comedy movie in recent memory, but watching the film doesn’t give much insight into it’s making. The Disaster Artist made me feel both anger and compassion for Tommy, and also made me feel a lot sorry for him. I don’t think people like Tommy ever really know how weird and creepy they are, and why they have no friends. I really like the fact that we see how hard Greg works to be his friend, and in the end we see how Greg makes this very conscious choice to show up for this guy who really is so alone in the world.
CB: It’s really miraculous that Greg stays friends with Tommy. The guy literally walked into a coffee shop with his girlfriend where Brian Cranston was and his girlfriend knew Brian Cranston who then got him a spot on Malcolm in the Middle but then he had to quit that for a film he knew wasn’t great. Maybe that was just the actor in me, but the scene where Greg picks The Room over Malcolm in the Middle was insanity. But I think the movie also made a point of demonstrating that Greg was also incredibly naive.
I think Franco’s work was fine–sometimes it felt like I was watching an impression. I’ve seen bits and pieces of The Room, so I was able to get the basic recognition jokes. I think where it fails to give these characters more depth it sort of makes up for it by, unintentionally-perhaps(?), exploring whiteness in the entertainment industry. You have these two white dudes who keep trying to fit into the James Dean mold of white masculinity while trying to become celebrities. So a lot of what happens in the film is them coming to terms with their sense of entitlement to all the wealth and success of their heroes. At the end of it, they make something really mediocre that gets a cult following and they sort of run with it. Which I think is a pretty funny satire of a lot white mediocrity in the entertainment industry.
SR: I think any exploration of whiteness in The Disaster Artist is absolutely unintentional. I agree that reading is in there, but I don’t think race is explicitly addressed in any way. There are few (if any?) non-white characters, and I don’t think the film was particularly self aware of that. I do think the movie makes a statement about class- it constantly calls attention to Tommy’s mysterious, enabling wealth. Which I thought was a really interesting element of the film. It’s undercut a bit by how much they heroicize Tommy in the end. The film is more focused on Greg and Tommy’s friendship- this is a James Franco picture after all, and the “bromantic comedy” is the James Franco/Seth Rogen crowd’s defining genre. Looking at it from that angle, I was pleasantly surprised with the complexity shown. It depicts a truly challenging friendship with a legitimately troubled and troubling individual. Not a lot of buddy comedies explore what friendship with a manipulative, socially incapable person looks like. For that I thought the The Disaster Artist did a pretty good job. What else? Did anyone see I, Tonya or The Shape of Water?
CB: Yeah I was probably giving the team a bit too much credit for the satire. I did not see I, Tonya or The Shape of Water but I am extremely willing to talk at lengths with anyone about 2016’s The Greasy Strangler, which I would like to declare as the best comedy of all time.
CM: It’s pretty shocking to me that so many people went to see The Disaster Artist without having seen The Room – I guess it should be able to stand on its own two feet in some respects. Even so I don’t really have any intention of seeing it – I’m glad James Franco had a blast but honestly The Room already tells me so much about Tommy Wiseau.
BR: I did see The Shape of Water. Del Toro’s visual achievement is stunning, but the story less so. The 1962 period design literally took my breath away, and mesmerized me throughout. But ultimately this woman/amphibian man love story didn’t work for me. The creature makes steps toward showing his intelligence and humanity. The Amphibian Man has learned some rudimentary sign language, and tells out heroine “Me and you together.” So in one regard I have to disagree with your review Sam, because I think he does make progress away from being an animal. But hitting the other side of that same coin, I don’t’ think we get enough to believe these two would want to be together. The central love story just didn’t work. That said, see it anyway. Del Toro is a filmmaker deserving of our support. He is not afraid to take risks, and that alone is worth the price of admission.
CM: Well, that’s that! I was going to see I, Tonya tonight but I missed my connection at Jamaica in Queens and couldn’t get to the theater in time. Another day. Good chat, y’all, and happy new year.