21 December 2015

Cultural notes, spoiler-y

Jessica Jones.

Marvel's Netflix foray continues to be pretty good. It's darker, much more clearly rated R material than the Avengers work. This was better than Daredevil in most every way (except the fight choreography in Daredevil is totally badass. It has several of the best fight sequences ever shot in my opinion). Jessica is more clearly conflicted than Murdock, she doesn't need to know how to fight most people (because she can intimidate them with raw strength), has a sometime sidekick or two, etc.

The main reason it works though is that the villain's evil genius power is Professor X crossed with the Joker. Near the center of the X-Men universe is a question that's rarely examined: what happens if someone can control minds, or influence people to do whatever they want? And further, what happens if what that person wants is petty, violent, and selfish? How do we stop them? How could we protect ourselves? Who could we trust? These are questions that cycle around continuously in the first several episodes of the season. Taken away from the comic book elements of direct mind control, there are serious philosophical and psychological questions about who is really calling the shots in our behavior and how much influence others have over us when we do things "we don't really want to", or even determining what it is we really want to do in the first place. This is referred to a few times within the series as some people almost expressing a kind of relief at not being responsible for the actions and will someone else had imposed upon them (Jessica notably does not do this, not really, but she encourages everyone around her to do so).

The show has gotten a lot of "feminist" buzz and aplomb. It's feminist in so far as they took roles for men (in one case, it was a male in the comic), and flipped it to cast a woman as the main character. They did some more extensive flipping than just casting however. Men are typically the "eye candy", in some state of undress. Women not so much (usually). Jessica's main relationship dynamic isn't with a male (Luke Cage), it's with her best friend (Trish) (In my experience, men are more likely to define a "best friend", and the person with whom they have the most dynamic relationship as someone they are also romantically attached to, although this is not universal and certainly is not the only way Hollywood tells stories, ala Kirk and Spock, Batman and Robin, etc). Her main problems, flaws within her past, are what may be regarded as more typically problems women would encounter than men (psychological abuse/control and rape, plus a super-creepy stalker), they are just amplified by superhero qualities. It's also a way of saying it doesn't matter how strong someone is (and she's very strong), someone can break into your life and do terrible things. Most importantly it says: this is not your fault that you were "too weak".

Jones' character is not particularly feminine or feminist, but she is a heroine. There are few such depictions as yet in TV or film for this generation in sci-fi or fantasy roles (Black Widow, eventually Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel, depending on how Civil War goes Scarlet Witch, Leia, another which I'll get to in a minute). Progress is occurring here, again, but it is complicated. Widow doesn't have a stand-alone franchise within the Avengers for example. So the series lets a lot of that air out that somehow a female hero doesn't carry a series or couldn't carry a movie.

There's a few choppier bits, and it seems clear the show wanted to introduce another villain arc for later on that feels like it interrupts the existing arc too much in the moment (and this is, at least tacitly, acknowledged by the show itself). But there's a lot of raw power in some of the moments where our hero is being isolated and broken down by her villainous opponent who is systematically trying to break her again, and she knows it and is fighting to find ways out of the traps.

Force Awakens.

I have more mixed reactions here.

Good:. Rey was fantastic (and is another in the lineage of superheroines listed above). Almost all of the "unanswered questions" surrounding the series coming up to the next one have to do with her, on top of her being a badass. The first sequence where Finn meets her is hilarious (she gets attacked and into a fight, he starts to run over to help, and the fight is over with them on the ground and her picking her stuff back up before he can make it a few steps).

Harrison Ford seemed to have actually pushed the "actor" button that has gone unpressed for about 20 years. He did a good turn as Solo. I think he was happy to get killed off finally. (oh right, that's the main spoiler: Han shot first. And now Han dies).

Effects are much better, it did not look like a CGI mess like the prequels. Several sequences are clearly in there just to show off. The one exception is the tentacle monsters on Han's cargo ship, I could have done without that whole sequence really.

The bar owner character was solid. I liked her as a semi-Yoda-ish channeler.

Middle: I'm not sure what to make yet of the villain. Ren wasn't terribly intimidating except in terms of raw rage. His opening sequence where he stops a blaster bolt mid-air is very impressive, but he fades down the stretch, particularly at the end when Rey easily bests him in a duel despite being mostly untrained. He therefore comes off almost like a whiny teenager. This is still a miles wide improvement over the young Vader/Anakin who came off like a block of wood for reciting terrible dialogue but it doesn't give me a clear idea where he is going next or what sort of conflict is actually going on within him. Luke was much more dynamic in this sense. There are a lot of directions Ren could go that would be interesting next. But Rey is by far more compelling in this work. A weak or bland villain is fairly common lately in film (Loki maybe one of the few good ones for comic book/sci fi purposes).

Isaac's character, Po, was okay. I could have used both more and less of him.

There were some nice moments of nostalgia. Way overdone, but some were good. The plot was lifted almost whole cloth from New Hope so it gets to be too much easily.

Max von Sydow's cameo felt totally wasted, though it was nice to see/hear him.

Poor: Dialogue can be choppy. There's at least one line that was repeated verbatim from New Hope that made absolutely no sense when it was used. It's like they edited it in at the wrong time.

Rebel/Resistance plan to take out the Star Killer base is pretty lame and not built up much. New Hope it makes more sense because they have to sneak out the droid to analyze the plans and try to destroy it based on those. The sneaking out of the droid here has to do with something else. They basically luck into the ability to attack this thing.

I'm extremely tired of watching the Rebels blow up planet destroying bases anyway. This is undoubtedly the reason Empire Strikes Back is so good is it moves on from the "we have to destroy this thing or everybody dies" plot device common to sci-fi/comic book films and centers the conflict within and between the major characters. This may have been necessary nostalgically to establish that this is in fact a Star Wars film. But it wasn't very interesting.

The first Star Killer attack doesn't really make sense or have much impact because the politics of this universe don't make much sense. Universe building failure here. Alderaan being destroyed made a lot of sense. This does not. Really the main thing Abrams seems to have done is rebuild the old Star Wars pre-prequel universe without really trying to a) understand it or b) show us something new and awesome or terrible within it. It feels more like the film wiped out the "Republic" simply to start over on the board, like the way Abrams "reset" the Star Trek universe with time travel and then moved the same old pieces around in a haphazard way without understanding the universe from which they were built.

The Stormtrooper commander (Phasma) was lame.

Finn wasn't very well scripted for my tastes, or the actor wasn't very good. I'm not sure which (or both). He ought to be the other interesting internal conflict because of his status as a defector/traitor to the First Order, but he mostly spends a lot of time running around being a plot device and generally acting like a goof.
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