Review: Star Wars The Last Jedi 2017

Amid backlash and controversy Heather weighs in on Star Wars The Last Jedi

 By Heather Nichols, Tawfik Zone Contributor

Courtesy of aramajapan.com

There are SPOILERS in this review…You’ve been warned

Wow it has been a while since I reviewed a film, not that I haven’t been seeing films (though I totally missed the American Ghost in the Shell). There’s been a lot of things in my personal life and it hasn’t left much time to write so apologies, I’ll try to do more in this year.

The reaction to this film was certainly unexpected. After reading a handful of articles and fan reactions I wanted to take a moment to try and make sense of why this latest installment in the Star Wars franchise has brought such fan dissonance. Without further ado I’m going to dive right in. Given the nature of the backlash there will be spoilers abound so if you want to see it, do so and read this later.

I must start off by saying Critical Dissonance is nothing new to fandom in general (looking at you Game of Thrones) and certainly not new the Star Wars franchise. The direct prequel, The Force Awakens, has generally positive reviews from both critics and fans. But if you went to a convention and asked people in the fandom how they felt you may find as many people who enjoy it as there are who thought it was terrible.

Because there was such a huge gap in time between the conception of The Force Awakens and Return of the Jedi, many fan works had been created and many in the fandom consider them to be canon and were left feeling disappointed when Disney announced that all of those spinoffs would be discounted which rendered them into essentially published fanfiction. Obviously this has set off a chain reaction in terms of expectation versus what is actually canon which is something I’ll delve more into a little later on.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Directed by George Lucas
Shown from left: Liam Neeson (as Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (as Obi-Wan Kenobi), Jar Jar Binks (voice: Ahmed Best), Keira Knightley (as Sabé, a handmaiden disguised as Queen Amidala), unidentified handmaiden, Natalie Portman (as Queen Padmé Amidala, disguised as a handmaiden)
© Lucasfilm Ltd.

The best example of dissonance comes from the now infamous prequel trilogy, it’s important to point out was produced before Disney gained the rights, which was always rated higher by film critics then by the general fanbase. My personal take: producing them was always going to be a challenge because you only have so much film to show how things got to their inevitable end point. From Episode 1 to 3 there is a gradual improvement. Really.  Watch them in order and you see they learn but the unfortunate part is that by the time that they did they had more than a dozen plot threads that needed to be wrapped up in about a two hour time frame…

However there is one thing the prequels executed well and kept consistent which was how the Jedi’s belief in a prophecy became their undoing. Well okay that’s putting it a bit too simply; it’s really how the Jedi misinterpreted a prophecy which led to their undoing. I could write an entire article on this but I’ll give you the nutshell so we can get to The Last Jedi and why this is relevant. The Jedi believed there would be a person born who would bring balance to the force.

Well, here’s the thing, all the Jedi trained to that point were essentially on the Light Side with only a small handful of Sith’s representing the Dark Side so really to bring balance, an actual balance to all this Light Side, essentially meant the birth of Darth Vader. The Jedi really didn’t read the fine print on that one.

Courtesy of etonline.com

Okay so now we have Last Jedi and instead of an Aesop revolving around prophecies and the consequences therefore within this film takes an approach to Iconoclasm and oh boy is this going to be a fun to break down because it functions both within the film and it’s targeted at the audience. So let’s start within the film when we last left our heroine Rey she found the legendary Luke Skywalker who has become a hermit in the middle of the galaxy waiting for death.

Again, LEGENDARY HERO, Luke Skywalker, is a grumpy old man who is living in isolation and is drinking nasty ass blue milk and has given up on teaching the ways of the Jedi. I can’t remember the exact quote but at some point Luke asks Rey if she expected him to just run up to the Republic waving a giant light sword and that would bring peace to the galaxy. Hey fandom, you know why you’re so pissed off? It’s because the film is calling you out for your belief in Luke Skywalker being put up on a pedestal.

Yes, that scenario sounds cool but while no one likes a Mary Sue fic, essentially this is what Skywalker has come to represent in the extended universe and for him to essentially become the exact opposite in a way is like going up to Adam West at a convention center and extending your hand because you’ve been in awe of him since you were a child, only for him to turn you away and look past you as if you’re not even there… that wasn’t awfully specific now was it?

Courtesy of IndieWire

Oh but wait there’s more. People were put off by the humor in the film. Really? People are getting sliced in half with light swords and the Resistance has been mowed down to only a handful of people, not to mention our beloved General has died in real life- I’m sorry but I welcome these light hearted parts because when you go from laughing to the silence there was when Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo’s kamikaze of an imperial starship, it creates a wallop of an impact.

While we’re here let’s talk a bit more about the female representation in the film because it seems that this is one of the other divisive aspects of the film. The women are as diverse in this film as they are fierce. On the side of the Resistance we have General Leia, Admiral Holdo, Rey, Rose and to a small extent Maz. On the opposite side we have Captain Phasma. All are strong and capable in their own ways bringing their own set of skills to the fray. In a time where all female reboots of popular films are being produced as quickly as hotcakes, some accuse the film of pandering to the millennial generation.

I’m not sure what exactly it is that makes this eligible for “pandering,” but I do know that pretty much any and all characters received some sort of fan backlash. Rey received backlash for being “too perfect of a character,” by virtue of she is a strong force wielder that came out of nowhere. Isn’t this true of most of the Jedi? And it’s not like she’s some magical prodigy or she would have wasted Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens. I’ll say she’s not entirely developed yet and leave it at that.

Another point of contention revolves around Admiral Holdo. Many on the forums say and I quote, “she’s just a complete bitch.” Okay so she’s an authoritative female leader in a military organization, got it. Many arguing she should have just told Poe what the master plan was, okay now despite how ragtag the resistance is- they’re still a military organization and Holdo is Poe’s superior officer and thus doesn’t owe him any explanation. As for the other issues of her seemingly coming out of nowhere this actually ties into the next outcry in regards to a very different female leader.

Courtesy of NME.com

There’s no better way of saying Phasma has gotten the short end of the stick in both of these films. After appearing so menacing in the trailer it took audiences aback in both this and the previous film that she was defeated so abruptly reducing her appearance to essentially a cameo. I did some digging- in both the cases of Holdo and Phasma they are much bigger figures in the novelization and graphic novels that accompany the films. The film makers said in interviews that Phasma’s development while crucial was just too complex and rich of a character that would be worthy of her own film series entirely. And so they’ve actually created a graphic novel to enrich the backstory of Phasma and it sounds like something I’ll want to check out in the near future.

Fans also had many issues with the Finn and Rose storyline. Complaints including their love story felt forced, that one of them should have died and that their whole storyline was for nothing- except that was the entire point and many people seem to have missed it. The love story I personally could take it or leave it, but think about this, emotions are running high and everyone thinks they’re gonna die so it makes some sense.

As for offing a major character- we’ve already lost thousands in the resistance and Luke Skywalker, let the two kids live (for now). A common trope in the fantasy genre (which Star Wars totally is) is the heroes will have to go through a series of tasks that seem impossible to acquire the Macguffin that is the key that will assure their victory. Except this movie pushed the bleakness up to eleven by denying them a victory and in fact leaving them worse off than when they started. It’s completely defied the expected tropes and brought the story to a very dark place. This film isn’t pandering to anyone and its left us on a cliffhanger at the bleakest moment.

So we don’t have a story that is pandering by creating diversity, we have two opposing factions; we have a group led by women, prominently featuring a Latino man, an Asian woman and a black man against an evil organization led by two white men. This of course is over simplifying it but to simply call it a millennial thing is missing the point entirely. (Also see Rogue One, this is not the first time a diverse cast has been used in the Star Wars Universe.)

Two throw away lines in the film actually explain why the stage has been set this way and do so beautifully. The first is when Luke says, “This is not going to end the way you think.” The other is after Kylo Ren has slain Snoke and wants Rey to join him, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” This ties into a previous point of contention, remember when I mentioned expectation versus what is actually canon? Here we go…

Courtesy of nerdist.com

Immediately following the release of The Force Awakens, internet message boards were absolutely flooded by fan theories, among them, where did Snoke come from and who are Rey’s parents? (My money was on Palpatine). The film answers this, by not answering either, which even I’ll admit I feel cheated in some ways but it’s understandable given the theme of the film again tying back into Iconoclasm.

Star Wars is such an important fandom to so many people and the film essentially has just said, “we don’t care about your theories or nostalgia- we’re here to tell you a story.” This is not the same as saying “we don’t care about the fandom,” but unfortunately a large portion of the fandom seems to be taking it this way. The Force Awakens was often called out for relying too much on nostalgia and meeting fan expectation by essentially rehashing the plot of A New Hope, the original film.

This film takes characters on an unexpected journey and I too am feeling the divide, in fact I only give the film a 3/5 because to me it doesn’t stand alone. Instead, it’s part of a bigger picture. I’ve already touched on expectation versus reality but the one point I didn’t really delve too far into was the hacker character. He points out in a scene that the people who are getting rich sell weapons to both sides of the conflict and at the end of the day they both profit.

Well obviously you can make the argument about gun manufacturers but what if we applied that to Disney. It funds good movies, it funds bad movies- at the end of the day they’re making money regardless, except by that logic The Last Jedi is the film equivalent of giving the fanbase the finger because they know they’ll make money regardless… well we won’t know until episode IX…

Courtesy of The New Yorker

The biggest thing to take away is that visually the film is stunning, the effects and animation departments have outdone themselves. The score is moving, invoking the classic themes and providing a great accompaniment to the film on the whole. The plot only takes place of the course of a few days and in that time we really delve more into the characters, learning more about their motivations and raising the stakes in who is or isn’t going to make it out.

It’s also a giant social commentary. I sincerely hope the makers of the film aren’t making it simply to milk a cash cow and that by going against the grain they are really trying to forge a new story, a new legacy for the film saga that is 40 years in the making. Maybe at the end of the day Rey’s parents really don’t matter because the film makers don’t want us to root for her based on where she came from, but rather who she is.

A quote from the first Pokemon movie might best encompass this, “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.” Rey is her own character and the hero of the story and honestly I am still excited to see where episode IX is going to take her. In life you don’t have to come from a great family in order to do great things. Think of it from the perspective of someone whose family name has been tainted by shame and disappointment. Recently I read an article written by someone who was raised within the Kl Klux Klan and for a while they too were an active member until one day they realized the people you come from do not define you, that only you can define you.

Podcast: 1950s Horror

Hi everybody,

I’ve started a new position at my local library and I’ve met a colleague and friend Eddie Whitlock who listened to previous episodes of the Alternative Oscars and immediately proposed that we do a podcast on classic horror. Everybody at the Tawfik Zone, me, Candace and Tia, was all for it from the get go. The four of us discuss the state of horror in the 50s and mention many titles including House of Wax, Night of the Demon, The Wasp Woman, Curse of the Warewolf, and The Bad Seed. We give our definitions of horror. We ask you, what makes a movie horror?…..

If you want to catch up on our other podcast episodes, click here.

Review: The Incredible Jessica James (2017)

The Mediocre Jessica Williams

Courtesy of Essence

A year or two before Jon Stewart stepped down from The Daily Show in 2015 he was visibly not as sharp as he was in for the previous decade he fronted the program that he transformed into one of the best US contemporary political TV satires. Several of his greatest correspondents including Stephen Colbert, Jason Jones, Wyatt Cenac, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee were long gone and doing their own things.

In a group of mostly ho hum supporting talent, Jessica Williams, an acerbic millennial 6-foot black woman, was clearly the audience favorite. She had so much goodwill that several Daily Show launched campaigns for her to replace Stewart. Many went berserk when Trevor Noah got the job. I was never on the Jessica Williams bandwagon; I found her segments lacking in originality and the faux-bemused straight-talking shtick always fell a bit flat on delivery.

In spite of my bias against Williams, I wanted to like her newest movie, The Incredible Jessica James. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that this wasn’t going to be the movie for me. Writer-director Jim Strouse, who cast Williams in a supporting role in his 2015 indie film People Places Things, was captivated by her and felt that she needed her own vehicle.

Courtesy of Okayplayer.com

In Jessica James, Williams plays a 25-year-old aspiring playwright in a creative and personal funk after a break-up with her ex (Lakeith Stanfield). Watching Williams headline a 90-minute feature, I had a clearer picture of why I am not a fanboy. Towards the end of the film, James’ sort of love interest (Chris O’Dowd), who binged read her plays, remarked that her body of work reveals her complexity as a person.

The problem is, we don’t see James’ multifaceted personality because Williams doesn’t show it to us. For the most part Williams is replicating her Daily Show persona. Her character is intended to be intelligent and prickly, in part due to her frustration of being an unproduced playwright. We get that. The problem is Williams is incredibly guarded and unapproachable which makes it very difficult to be invested in her character. She’s poker-faced, but she’s not droll and there’s no mystery lurking beneath.

On The Daily Show, Williams preached to the choir. In Jessica James, she talks down to the audience. The only scenes Williams seemed to halfway enjoy performing are when she berates characters who don’t share her supposedly contradictory profound insights, such as her tinder date who isn’t romantically sexually aggressive enough or a suburban mom at her sister’s baby shower who is befuddled by James’ revisionist feminist children’s book.

Courtesy of The Guardian

Williams is unconvincing at showing the warmer side of her character, the one that encompasses a sister-like friendship with a struggling actress (Noel Wells) and a job as a drama instructor for underprivileged youth. These subplots are particularly ponderous to watch with their lack of charm and a sense that they’re more obligatory than organic.

The obsessive emphasis on Williams creates a large vacuum for the rest of the film. Chris O’Dowd, who shares the most scenes with Williams is particularly constrained. O’Dowd, who excels at goofy, broad comedy (his work in the brilliant sitcom The IT Crowd is excellent), visibly struggles with his dour character, an App developer who isn’t over his ex-wife but has feelings for James. It doesn’t help that he and Williams have no chemistry (it should be noted that Williams doesn’t convincingly interact with anybody).

The only source of amusement comes from nightmare sequences where James’ ex confronts her at unexpected places and aggressively corners her about their break up before being killed by a large, random object.

Courtesy of Heavy

Stanfield’s was the only mildly interesting performance, a big feat considering that his is a hodge podge abstract role with little screen time. With the charismatic twinkle in his eyes, he is personable and vivacious, unlike the rest of the film which is frigid and stiff. You can see why he is in demand.

A friend who watched Jessica James thought it would work better as a TV show. Considering how popular Williams is and how gung ho Netflix is in making TV series and how TV is as much of a cesspool for remakes as movies and Broadway these days, it’s entirely plausible that a TV version could materialize. If it does, I’ll skip it.

Interview: Jason Fisher Writer-Director-Producer

Making movies isn’t for the easily discouraged. Ask Jason Fisher who is about 250 drafts into a feature film script that he’s been revising and revising for the past 20 years.

The screenplay was inspired by a colleague (who I’ll call “Jamal”) with whom Fisher worked at Pizza Hut at Cincinnati. They had a cordial relationship on the job, which organically developed into a friendship. One day Jamal told Fisher that one day he would reveal what brought him to Cincinnati. At the time Fisher thought it would be something along the lines of a bad break up.

Jamal’s confession was a bombshell, and one that immediately got Fisher’s creative wheels spinning. He told Fisher that he grew up in an impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood and got involved in the drug ring transporting drugs from Brooklyn to Ohio. One day, he got busted, though comparatively speaking, he got lucky. “Had they caught me like 24 hours before, I wouldn’t be speaking to you today, because I had way more [drugs]. I took the first plea bargain they offered [which was 2 years in prison].”

Fisher’s script approaches this subject from the point of view of “an average middle man…who isn’t making millions of dollars…how [most] likely if you stay in it long enough, eventually, it’s going to be your turn to get caught.”

Although Fisher has always loved films and filmmaking, it wasn’t always the dream goal. He initially pursued what he thought was a more realistic career in college, sports management. It didn’t stick. This would be the case with most of his majors. In the midst of his indecisiveness, he met a woman involved with local theater who thought he had acting potential and invited him to audition for upcoming productions.

He didn’t click with the material. “I had this one audition” he remembered “I was playing a waiter who was a male, or not a male… or androgynous? It was some sort of comedy.” Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get the part. “I believe I was not yet confident enough as an actor, nor mature enough to handle the material, but today I think producing a project like that would be hilarious” he added.

“I was living in a house with a lot of friends and whining about the plays which were either the classics or this off the wall stuff. They said, ‘you have a lot of good ideas. Why don’t you start writing.’”

He took their advice. Early on, he knew he wanted to write for films, not theatre. Like all aspiring filmmakers, Fisher did trek out to LA, though he didn’t stay long. He realized that not only were industry jobs competitive, but all jobs were highly competitive. This made paying the rent a real problem.

Next stop, Vegas. Not knowing anybody, he figured he try to connect with fellow writers via Craig’s List. The response rate was high, and he eventually formed a writers group, which remains a tight knit community. When Fisher was ready to take the plunge into making a movie, a cinematographer of note reached out to him and offered to shoot it.

A.K.A The Surgeon, a 25 minute action short was initially conceived as a modest low-budget one or two day shoot. While filming, Fisher decided to rev up the scale- increasing the budget, the shoot time to 20 days (over a year and a half), and 18 locations. He is grateful that he had “the courage and stubbornness” to go the “mini feature” route because it was a closer simulation to the logistics and budgeting of making a feature.

Although Fisher made a lot of contacts and projects in Vegas, he eventually gravitated towards Georgia because its East Coast culture and weather was more similar his home state of Ohio. Naturally I asked if he was optimistic about Georgia’s ability to sustain itself as a filming hub. He is.

What about the fact that most of the people down to the caterers are transplants from New York and LA and that very few people working on sets are Georgia residents? Fisher admits that is a problem and that most of the people attached in his upcoming projects are non-Georgians (though he does have a few locals in the Atlanta and Athens area on his team).

He plans to include Georgians on the action, including the possibility of shooting films in Athens and Atlanta. But “the thing is I need to get a cast and crew that have some sort of track record to go with mine – mine’s not strong enough by itself.” Fisher is working very hard to up his street cred. A script he co-wrote was a semifinalist at the well-known Slamdance screenplay competition. Another was optioned by Paramount. He has involved himself with several projects in various capacities. The scale of the projects vary too from the micro budget art movie Crossing Flowers Motel to a higher budget, popcorn action flick Bounty Hunter (which has had nibbles from fairly famous actors).

Producing is a natural fit for Fisher who has been a manager at various companies for several years. He is no stranger to the hectic duties of coordinating with loads of admin, overseeing lots of different departments and ensuring maximum cost effective productivity. One of his most arduous, but rewarding stints was at a sheet metal manufacturing firm. “Each quarter (three months) was the equivalent of a feature” Fisher remembers.

At one point Fisher’s company bosses were frantic about fulfilling a large order with a looming deadline and a relatively small operation. Fisher found the solution by delving into the frugal filmie side of his brain. Instead of overtime, he proposed staggering shifts where half the workers would take a break while the other half continued working so that parts continually moved throughout the day. During his tenure there, the company’s revenue went from $5 million to $15 million.

Fisher has seen several of his friends and colleagues take indefinite hiatuses or leave the film scene altogether. Why hasn’t he given up too? “I love it too much.” He pauses briefly. “While I’ve run into frustrations, I continue to go at it because I keep thinking, OK, I trained myself all these years to get from one mountain range to another one and another one and all I can see in the horizon is more mountain ranges.” He adds, “What if I’m really close? And I think I am.”

UPDATE 31 AUG 2017. An earlier edition of the article stated the sheet metal company’s profit’s went from $5 to $15 million. Those figures were actually the revenue.

News & Views: Tina Fey and The Satire Backlash

The tragic death of anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer at the hands of a white nationalist in Charlottesville has naturally sparked anger, fear, and despair towards the reemergence of old school apple pie pernicious American racism.

Tina Fey, a graduate of UVA, the school that was the epicenter of the carnage, did a widely viewed segment where she denounced the KKK and other white nationalist groups via a sheet cake which she savagely devoured over the course of six-minutes.

It was a big hit with many viewers. But it royally pissed off others. Several commentators found her stance to reek of a 21st century Marie Antoinette-esque white privilege.

Quite frankly, I find the backlash is overwrought, like much of the commentary about satire these days. There has been a trove of bizarre think pieces, such as an article in The Atlantic that argue that satire is responsible for Donald Trump and anti-intellectualism. This is a patently ridiculous assertion because satire doesn’t cause events, it responds to things already taking place. This means that the argument that Tina Fey’s parody of Sarah Palin made her unelectable is just as false as the declaration that Fey’s current segment is an anti-activist screed.

Another thing I admired about the segment is that it tackled satire from a different angle. Usually satire is a complete and total mockery of a public figure, often somebody in a position of power (although with reality TV and 24-hr entertainment cable news “power” is a bit more relative). In Fey’s segment, Trump’s dickishness in refusing to disavow white supremacists is a large butt of the joke, but she also deftly interweaves the helplessness that the average disgruntled feels in these turbulent times. She brilliantly used the cake as both a prop for fantastic physical humor but also as a symbolism of catharsis of sorts.

Many of her critics fault her segment for being too shallow and light. These articles instead praise responses by Late Night hosts Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon, whose monologues take on a somber tone and denounce #45 as a totally immoral, hate mongering man unfit to be President. Their points are valid, but they also state the obvious. It doesn’t do anybody any favors to recast comedians as morality gatekeepers when comedy by nature is about subverting rules and expectations. I think Fey invoked the wrath she did because she was willing to go for the jugular when a situation was still raw. I have been frustrated with many comedians who are almost waiting for Godot when it comes to delivering their take on tragic current events. We look to them for a thoughtful, humorous slant.

There is a wrongheaded, but increasingly popular idea that anything that counters your views is not only wrong, but must be stopped in its tracks. On a British panel show Jack Dee’s Help Desk, which pokes fun at the televised Q&A town halls between public figures and normal people (yes the UK and Australia have those shows for real), there was a special episode aired after the US Presidential Election. Naturally, the audience and the panel of comedians were a little more rattled than usual and many of the questions and answers had a lot of anxiety wrapped up in tongue and cheek humor.

One young woman casually asked (at about 17:45) “how can I ensure that people only tell me things I agree with?” Her rationale was if politicians could cherry pick truths, she should be able too. Sara Pascoe quickly pointed out that cleansing the world was a “slippery slope.” Romesh Ranganathan remarked that Brexit was a shock to many because they surrounded themselves with people who shared their views. He suggested that she “cut off people who agree with her” and only follow people who disagree with her so that “when you leave the house, you think, oh everybody’s not an asshole.” Taken aback by the passionate responses, she remarked “it’s turning a bit more serious than I intended.”

Absolutely, the facts matter. That is why we need more satire, not less, to cleverly and humorously shine a spotlight on and compete with the insanity and evil in the world. If we don’t, Trump and the other loonies will have a total monopoly on the absurd.