Thursday, March 19, 2020

Pandemic ponderings

What a difference a week makes. This time last week, I was trying to figure out how our Teaching Federation’s work sanctions would affect my daily work routine; now, I’m wondering what happens for the rest of the school year and whether it’s time to consider changing careers and what the world will look like in 2021. But I've also been thinking on a macro-level about this pandemic and what it could mean, so I wanted to share some of those thoughts more widely.

I guess I knew it would just be a matter of time before life changed drastically, but I never thought it would be this soon that action would be taken, even when it was clear that COVID-19 was making its way to our prairie province. I had assumed that we would carry on for at least another month or so, even though I also assumed that there would be cases popping up here in Saskatchewan by the end of the week. (There were six cases in the province between confirmed and presumptive cases by the end of Sunday, all from travel and in self-isolation and sixteen by Wednesday.)

In just over a week, everything is being cancelled, everywhere is closing, and everyone’s suddenly an expert epidemiologist and virologist, and the phrases “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” are commonplace - although not necessarily common practice yet, judging by the pictures and videos from various places throughout the United States (in particular).

I’m sure that there will be a lot of analysis of how this all unfolded so quickly once the immediate fallout is not completely consuming our collective consciousness. But regardless of what it was that flipped the switch, up until a week ago, COVID-19 was something foreign, elsewhere, other - until suddenly, it was here, present, immediate, urgent, all-consuming.

And now, we are all just trying to figure out what to do and how to do it and how to solve the kind of problem that we knew was coming but for which we were not really prepared, even though we should have been. After all, in the past two decades alone, there were a few scares - SARS, avian flu, H1N1, swine flu, Zika, Ebola - but there was nothing like this. There were voices in the wilderness, warning us that a pandemic was coming, but they were not heeded with much regard, even in the past few months, as COVID-19 started to spread and shut down entire countries.

I suppose it's not that surprising that this has caught us collectively unprepared. The 2010s were kind of a difficult decade for a lot of people, and it’s hard not to be cynical and to see that in many ways that the advancements in technology over the past decade have helped bring out some of the worst tendencies in humanity, many of which have been very present thus far in the way that the pandemic has unfolded in the western world.

Sure, we’re more connected and immediate and there are a lot of benefits to all of the advances in our world, but it’s easy to have our vision of the good parts of the world blocked by the challenges that have arisen: the presence of increased political polarization, the normalization of extreme radicalization, myriad bad faith actors spreading disinformation, the erosion of institutional authority, the accumulation of wealth by an ever-shrinking group, the increasing rate of climate change and irreversible environmental damage... and now a global pandemic wreaking havoc with woefully underfunded health care instutitions.

And now, we have no idea what the world will look like in six months - much less for the next year or decade. It’s possible that it could be business as usual by the fall - school will start and businesses will be open and sports will resume and life will go on as it did pre-pandemic - but somehow I don’t think that’s going to be the case. It seems like things will be different after this is over, regardless of the eventual death count and whether the curve is flattened or not. The world will be a different place politically, economically, socially, technologically, and it will take generations to see the full impact of this pandemic, however long it lasts.

Maybe we’ll look back on this as a corrective period in our collective history. Maybe this is the kind of event that we will have needed as a society to wake us up from our stupor and to make us see the world differently and to make a difference. Maybe, as we pause and grieve the many losses of lives and livelihoods and hopes and dreams, and we then process all the ways that the world will have changed, and we work collaboratively to problem solve all of the issues that this will create not just in the immediate future but possibly for generations to come, we will gain some perspective and make some of the shifts that we need to make in order to move forward together.

Or maybe not. Maybe this exposes the raw, indigestible, inconceivable truth that humans are selfish and self-consumed, and that even the threat of a global pandemic is not enough to shift our focus to the collective good. Maybe the individualism and self-aggrandizement and polarization and the hoarding of wealth increases to an even more unbearable point, even accelerating as some bad faith actors find ways to profit from this life-changing event.

I sincerely hope for the former rather than the latter, especially because I am of the school of thought that this will not be final such trial that we will face as a species. I’m not trying to be overly pessimistic here, but I think I have long assumed that there will be multiple life-altering events in my lifetime, and that at some point in the next fifty years that I hope to live that my life - and everyone’s lives - will look very different as a result of those changes.

I was already preparing to some extent for a different world for my 13-month-old baby, even though I didn’t know what that world was going to look like in the future. I think I was assuming that we would be able to work together to solve the problems of the world; now, based on what I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks, I’m a little more skeptical of our ability and willingness to do so.

But I have also seen enough good from people and from institutions to know that we’re not outside the realm of hope. Right now, I have hope that enough people are making the changes that we need to make in order to flatten the curve, and that this pandemic may not be as bad as it could have been.

I have hope that this will collectively teach us the value of social institutions and local community, and that some of those aforementioned ills that have risen so sharply in the past decade will begin to wane.I have hope that this is not some kind of Pandora’s box that is opening us up to all of the ills of the world along with our hope. And I have hope that this will bring all of us a better tomorrow.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Oscars 2020: Final Predictions

It's hard to believe that movie award season is already coming to a close with the Oscars on Sunday, but here we are, several weeks earlier than usual. The accelerated pace of the season overall may have resulted in more groupthink, but it also is a bit of a reprieve, as this year's awards seem to be fairly straightforward and predictable. (Of course, me saying that means that there will be a ridiculous upset....) On with the final predictions!

Best Picture: When the nominations were announced, this seemed like a competition between 1917 and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Then as the guild awards were announced, 1917 took a clear lead with wins at the Golden Globes, Producers Guild, and Directors Guild before, inexplicably, Parasite - the first film from South Korea to compete for any Oscars - emerged as a challenger thanks to wins with the Screen Actors' Guild and the Writers Guild.

It's wild to me that a number of pundits are picking Parasite to win, even though the most consistent predictors - the PGA and DGA - both went to 1917, which is my pick to win. And yes, there is somewhat of a precedent for a film winning the SAG and WGA and going on to win Best Picture when Spotlight won in an upset; in that case, however, the PGA and DGA had been split between two films, The Big Short and favourite (and my reluctant pick) The Revenant, so it seemed as though Spotlight split the difference to win.

Even though, as Riley McAtee of The Ringer wrote earlier this week, the betting favourite has not won Best Picture in the past four years, I think that streak will end this year, and that 1917 will prove out to be the winner over Parasite, in part due to the general bias against foreign-language films. (Now watch Parasite actually win and keep my losing streak going.)


Best Director: The predictions for this category have bounced around from Tarantino to Bong Joon-Ho, but I think it will end up going to Sam Mendes for 1917 because of the level of his achievement; this award has tended to go to the "most obviously directed" movie for years, and 1917 fits that bill perfectly.

Best Actor: The acting categories have been swept so far by four actors, so there is no reason to think that there will be any upsets in any of these four categories. If there are, it won't be here, and Joaquin Phoenix will win for Joker.

Best Actress: Renee Zellweger for Judy, which will continue a long tradition of awarding underwhelming and unmemorable imitations of real people in middling biopics with Oscars.

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt will finally get his much overdue Oscar for his role in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. (For what it's worth, he should have won for Moneyball in 2012 over Jean Dujardin for The Artist, the latter of which still remains one of the more mystifying calcifications of Oscar group-think in recent history.)

Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern will also get a long-overdue Oscar for Marriage Story.

Best Original Screenplay: I think this is where Bong Joon Ho will be awarded for Parasite.

Best Adapted Screenplay: I thought that this would go to Greta Gerwig for Little Women, but it seems like the momentum is with Taika Waititi for Jojo Rabbit, so that's who I'm picking - but I wouldn't be surprised to get this one wrong.

Best Animated Feature: Klaus won the Annie award, so this category could go weird, but I think that it will go to Toy Story 4 because the entire academy votes on this award.

Other Categories: Here are my picks for the rest of the awards:

Documentary - American Factory
International Feature - Parasite

Cinematography - 1917
Costume Design - Little Women
Film Editing - Ford vs. Ferrari
Makeup and Hairstyling - Bombshell
Production Design - 1917
Sound Editing - 1917
Sound Mixing - 1917 (although one of these might go to Ford vs. Ferrari)
Visual Effects - The Lion King

Original Score - Joker
Original Song - Rocketman

Animated Short - Hair Love
Documentary Short - Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)
Live-Action Short - Brotherhood

For the record: of the Best Picture nominees, I'm picking 1917 to win 6 awards, Joker and Parasite each to win 2, and Ford vs. Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, Marriage Story, and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood each to win 1, leaving The Irishman without an award. Now watch it win Best Picture.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Oscars 2020: Early thoughts and predictions

The Academy Award nominations were announced earlier last Monday, and the general reaction was somewhere between an exasperated sigh and a frustrated "meh" (as I will discuss throughout this post). The nominations were earlier than usual by at least a week (if not more than that), and there is an abbreviated season this year, with the Awards coming up on February 9, which means that the fact that I waited a week to publish this post makes my picks that much better, right?

That said, there has been some clarity that has come through the announcements of several Guild awards (Producers' Guild and Screen Actors' Guild), so I will incorporate those observations into this post. But first, a few general observations about this year's Oscars.

A top-heavy year


This year's nominations are unusually top-heavy, as all of the Best Picture nominees earned at least four nominations; four of the nine films were in double digits for their nominations, with another four at six nominations each and one at four. The dominance of those nine films left little room for other films in the mainline categories, as only seven other films in total received nominations in the acting or writing categories.

This particular division of nominees seems like it means that this year's awards may be concentrated on the core group of nominees, and that there may be a sentiment similar to previous years in which voters are trying to spread out the other awards among the dominant group of films, leaving little room for other movies to work their way into the conversation.

It would seem that there is more (or at least as much) of a trend of groupthink than there has been in the past, and that the Academy is mostly playing it safe this year, with just a couple of disruptions making it seem like they're being progressive.

With that in mind, it is also unlikely that there will be a dominant film at this year's Awards, and that even the most-awarded film will only win three or four Oscars. In the decade since the Academy expanded the Best Picture field to more than five nominees, there has been only once when a film has won more than six Awards (Gravity won seven) and another three times when a film won six (The Hurt Locker, Mad Max: Fury Road, and La La Land). So, basically, assume that most major nominees will get at least one award, and the most awarded film will only get three or four Oscars.

Nominations hurt by lack of diversity


The Oscars continued (or revived) a couple of unfortunately long-standing trends: mostly ignoring women and people of color. It remains one of the greatest stains on the Oscars (though there are a few), and I really hope that the changing composition of the Academy actually changes these trends in the next few years. It could easily be argued that Greta Gerwig deserved a nomination for Directing and not just a writing nomination, and that there were far more female directors and writers that deserved conversation.

The Oscars are once again #OscarsSoWhite, with only one acting nominee of color (Cynthia Erivo for Harriet), despite there being several widely well-recognized performances from that community. This really has become one of the worst continuing storylines for the Oscars, and although it's hard in some ways to find fault with the nominated performances when evaluated individually, it is very troubling that the general neglect of minorities continues as a trend.

What seemed particularly egregious this year is the way the conversation shaped over the past few months, as it seemed that this trend seemed inevitable, and that the actors of color were competing for one open spot in each acting category. There were several performances that merited nominations from other bodies - Lupita Nyong'o in Us and Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers come to mind as the foremost examples - but there are many others that could have been nominated, which makes this whitewash even more frustrating.

But it's not just the nominations that are male and white: it's the movies themselves that reflect that reality. Two-thirds of the Best Picture nominees seem to appeal primarily to that demographic, and as mentioned earlier, it seems as though the Oscars doubled down on those films rather than trying to incorporate a wider diversity of experiences.

Of course, each branch of the Academy works independently for their nominations, so it's perhaps not quite as simple as observing that the Academy is mostly male and white and so are the nominations. And there is an argument to be made that there should not be tokenism, and that the best films should be recognized, regardless of color; but to do that blindly is to also ignore the systemic patterns of privilege that continue to benefit white men (primarily).

There still is a significant system of privilege in place, and it's far easier for films that appeal to white men to succeed at the Oscars, and this year's nominations have demonstrated that there is a lot of work to be done in the Academy and in the world of film in general to rectify some of those historic imbalances of power that still proliferate.

Other emerging trends being established


There are a few other trends that seem like they may be solidifying in regard to new norms being established within the Academy. They're certainly less significant than the required changes in regard to diversity, but they're still notable shifts in the Academy's patterns (at least for now).

After emerging as a contending studio last year with Roma, Netflix continued to establish itself as a dominant studio, with a total of 24 nominations leading all studios. The Irishman, Marriage Story, and The Two Popes all earned multiple nominations, and Netflix has several other films contending in other categories.

Parasite's six nominations marks the second consecutive year that a film made in another language has received significant attention from the Academy at large - although it could definitely be argued that it deserved at least one acting nomination, especially in light of the film's win for Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors' Guild Awards

And Joker's eleven nominations seem to indicate that the superhero genre is now even less anathema than it was before last year's nominations for Black Panther. It's taken over a decade since The Dark Knight was snubbed in Best Picture, but superheroes (and villains, for that matter) may be here to stay in the serious consideration department. Also, what would the odds have been even a few months ago that Joker would have been the most nominated film? What a world we live in.

My early thoughts and predictions for the 92nd Oscars


Best Picture: This is by far my worst category to predict, and I'm still not sure exactly why. I made a couple of dumb mistakes, but mostly, I still defend my reasoning behind choices like The Revenant, La La Land, Get Out, and Roma over the films that won in the past four years. So, what I'm trying to say is, you probably shouldn't trust me in this category, especially since I have not seen any of the nominated films at the time of nomination for the first time since the Best Picture field expanded to more than five nominees in 2010.

With nine nominees becoming the standard, it's normally easy to group them into three categories based on their prominence and ability to win the big award - but this year seems different, with at least five or six movies that would seem to have a strong narrative to win Best Picture and another two or three that can make a case; that said, each of those eight movies also have a narrative against them that could develop over the next few weeks.

If I had to group them, I would say that the frontrunners are 1917 and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, as I find it hard to see a case for Joker to actually win (though it would be the most Oscarsiest thing ever for Joker winning Best Picture to be the way to finally recognize the superhero genre), and that the only nominee of the nine that seems likely to not win and not really gather much momentum in other categories is Ford v. Ferrari.

That leaves the middle group - the films that maybe could win, but will probably be awarded elsewhere (or maybe not at all) - as the largest, including: The IrishmanJojo RabbitJokerLittle Women; Marriage Story; and Parasite. In short, it feels like a mostly wide-open year, and with a shorter Oscar season, it seems as though the outcome is far from guaranteed. The Irishman could actually become the latest film to get blanked after receiving ten or more nominations, given this group of nominees.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, on the other hand, has the cachet of being a production about Hollywood with some of its biggest stars of the past quarter-century both in front of and behind the camera. There are some problematic discussions both of the content in the movie and Quentin Tarantino's career in general, but there is also a strong "he's due" case that's being made, in addition to the "this is the kind of movie that helps remind us of what movies are like" narrative that has developed since the summer.

1917 has a lot going for it, and I think it has the momentum right now with its wins at the Golden Globes and the Producers' Guild, as well as the advantage of having a sense of being political without actually having any current political stakes. OUATiH was the odds-on favourite right after the nominations, but I think there's a good chance that 1917 will keep coming on strong after its recent wins and box-office success, so I'm leaning toward 1917 to win right now. But chances are that I'll be wrong no matter who I pick.

Best Director: The biggest story here is that Greta Gerwig was omitted, leaving it as an all-male category yet again. Todd Phillips is just happy to be here for Joker, but each of the other four could win. Bong Joon Ho will probably be awarded elsewhere, but then again, Cuaron won this award and Best International Feature last year, so it's possible Ho will win for Parasite. Although there could be a move to give it to Scorsese to validate his career (in addition to his win for The Departed), I tend to think it will go to Quentin Tarantino, who has never won this award, over Sam Mendes for 1917. But it could go either way; my early pick is that they give this to QT as a way to acknowledge his work over the past three decades.

Best Actor: I don't see a way that this doesn't go to Joaquin Phoenix for Joker, but also for his entire body of work . Driver seems too young, DiCaprio won recently, and Banderas and Pryce seem mostly happy to be there. For that matter, though, the entire slate of Acting nominees is entirely uninteresting this year, with all four having highly favoured nominees.

Best Actress: Renee Zellweger seems poised to win for Judy, and that's probably a lock. But if there were an upset, I'd pick Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story over Saoirse Ronan in Little Women.

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt being nominated along with four previous winners seems like a lock for Pitt to finally get an Oscar for his role in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.

Best Supporting Actress: This category consists of one previous winner, three young actresses (well, Scarlett Johansson isn't exactly young anymore, but I think it still fits the general narrative), and the much-beloved Laura Dern, who should win for Marriage Story.

Best Original Screenplay: Will Tarantino win his third writing Oscar (tying him with Woody Allen), or will Noah Baumbach win for Marriage Story? Or maybe Bong Joon Ho for Parasite? I have a poor track record in this category, but my early hunch is that it could be Bong Joon Ho winning for a screenplay in another language.

Best Adapted Screenplay: It seems like this should go to Greta Gerwig, as she has adapted a much-beloved work, was snubbed for Directing, and didn't win for Lady Bird two years ago because she was up against Jordan Peele for Get Out. Her main competition is probably Todd Phillips for Joker, but I think we'll see Greta get an Oscar.

Best Animated Feature: I have no idea. Toy Story 4 might seem to be the frontrunner, but I have a sense that this could go weird - like I Lost My Body weird. But it's probably Toy Story 4. But maybe not.

Other Technical Categories: I'm assuming that these will mostly be divided among the Best Picture nominees, with 1917 picking up two or three awards of the eight (Cinematography; Costume Design; Film Editing; Makeup and Hairstyling; Production Design; Sound Editing; Sound Mixing; Visual Effects). I imagine that most of the main contenders will get an award here, too.

My prediction records since 2005


For the record, here are my results by category and by year since I've been publicly predicting the awards in this forum. As you can see, I have been particularly poor at predicting Best Picture most years, but I have only had two really bad years in which I have missed more than three of these nine categories; in fact, my most common result is 8/9 (five times), and I only miss one or two awards (at least 7/9 correct) 60 % of the time, so chances are I will mostly be correct in my final picks - except for Best Picture, of course.

Results by category:
Best Picture: 6/15 (missed 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)
Best Director: 12/15 (missed 2011, 2013, 2015)
Best Actor: 12/15 (missed 2007, 2009, 2017)
Best Actress: 12/15 (missed 2008, 2012, 2019)
Best Supporting Actor: 13/15 (missed 2007, 2013)
Best Supporting Actress: 13/15 (missed 2006, 2008)
Best Original Screenplay: 9/15 (missed 2005, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2019)
Best Adapted Screenplay: 12/15 (missed 2008, 2010, 2015)
Best Animated Feature: 12/15 (missed 2007, 2013, 2015)

Results by year:
2019: 6/9 (missed Picture, Actress, and Original Screenplay)
2018: 8/9 (missed Picture)
2017: 7/9 (missed Picture and Actor)
2016: 8/9 (missed Picture)
2015: 4/9 (missed Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay, and Animated Feature)
2014: 8/9 (missed Original Screenplay)
2013: 6/9 (missed Director, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature)
2012: 8/9 (missed Actress)
2011: 7/9 (missed Director and Original Screenplay)
2010: 6/9 (missed Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Screenplay)
2009: 8/9 (missed Actor)
2008: 6/9 (missed Actress, Supporting Actress, and Adapted Screenplay)
2007: 5/9 (missed Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Animated Feature)
2006: 7/9 (missed Picture and Supporting Actress)
2005: 7/9 (missed Picture and Original Screenplay)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Dough of Skywalker

I don't know that there was ever a time in my formative years that I considered myself to be a "Star Wars fan". I mean, I enjoyed the original trilogy well enough as a kid, but I always fancied myself a Star Trek person rather than a Star Wars person. I don't think it's that much revisionist history to say that I actually wasn't a big fan of Star Wars, even though there were a few years in the early 1990s in which I read almost all of the Expanded Universe novels (alongside the monthly paperback releases of Star Trek novels, which occasionally verged into more salacious territory than the Star Wars books).

As a result of friendship with a couple of rabid Star Wars fans in my life at the time, I watched The Phantom Menace in theatres a second time (I fell asleep the first time), but the experience of that movie, even as a teenage viewer, was enough to turn me off of the franchise almost entirely. (Though, to be fair, I was ignoring Star Trek and most of pop culture at that point as well; it's a long story.)  I skipped the next two entries in the prequel trilogy, and by the time that trilogy ended, I saw myself as an outsider to the fandom of the franchise; to this day, I have still not watched either Episode II or III, and I have no intention of doing so.

All this is to say that when Disney purchased Lucasfilm in October 2012, I was mostly indifferent to the franchise, though I was curious as to where the series might go. And as they started announcing various plans to erase the canon of the Expanded Universe that had developed over the previous two decades and to bring back the principal characters of the original trilogy - all of whom were alive and still acting at the time - in the new series of movies, I started to become more nominally enthusiastic - even excited at times - about the possibilities of the revival.

The past four years of the revival of the franchise have provided a lot of entertainment - highs and lows - and more than a little fatigue, even, it seems, for devoted fans; after all, it has been an eventful half-decade for this entity that is arguably the most beloved intellectual property of all time, but that perhaps tried to do too much too quickly too soon and, it could be argued, squandered a lot of good will along the way.

With this context in mind, I thought it might be interesting to take some time to think about where the franchise and my fandom are at in the days before the finality of the release of The Rise of Skywalker, which will shape the ways in which the entire series is viewed; think of this as a final snapshot of my view of Star Wars before it is permanently altered before The Rise (hence the pun in the title).

Reflecting on the recent revival of Star Wars


I was effusive in my praise for The Force Awakens when it was released, as I think it accomplished the challenging task of honoring the original trilogy while introducing a new group of iconic characters and ideas, and above all, it made me realize that I could enjoy Star Wars again. I remain enthralled by what it accomplished - even if it was at times an almost shot-for-shot remake of the first movie - as it started something new while honouring what had been.

But after The Force Awakens, I have enjoyed each subsequent movie less than its predecessor. Rogue One was a great idea for a movie and what should have been a great war movie that seems to have gotten muddled from corporate interventions resulting in reshoots - although I maintain that the final half-hour - the actual "war" part - is as exciting and dynamic as any action sequence in the franchise.

Solo was narratively and tonally a dud, as well as proof that simply releasing a movie with “Star Wars” in the title would not be enough to guarantee success. It turned out that viewers didn't really care about Han Solo's background or need an explanation of the Kessel run and they didn't need Han to be a rogue with a heart of gold and a lost love; they actually needed him either to remain steeped in mystery or to be truly developed as a full character over time in the way that, say, a TV show on a streaming service could do.

If anything, fans needed a young Lando movie, as Donald Glover (and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37) seemed to be the only one to get the comic tongue-in-cheek tone that the movie should have had - and likely would have had under released writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, as opposed to the semi-serious tone that seems to unfortunately be embraced as the base for the series at this point.

That leaves the previous entry in the Skywalker Saga, the much-maligned The Last Jedi, which I think deserves a bit more analysis at this point heading into The Rise of Skywalker - particularly since I neglected to write anything when it was released two years ago. (For the record, I have yet to watch The Mandalorian, though I suspect that the fact that I have heard it described as "Justified with blasters"  means that I will enjoy it greatly when I finally get around to binge-watching it.)

The Last Jedi


I always intended to write out my thoughts about The Last Jedi after I rewatched it, which I assumed would have been within a couple weeks of my initial viewing upon its release. I figured that it probably wasn't going to be fair to judge it on a first viewing, so I was going to do the responsible thing and see it again to really form my opinion. Then, after watching it, I as so baffled by it and generally non-enthused by what it did that I just didn't watch it again...until this past weekend, in order to prepare for The Rise of Skywalker.

I realized in my rewatching of TLJ that I had perhaps been somewhat unfairly remembering it as worse than it was, as often happens when you rely on one viewing of a movie for your reference; while it might not be the "hot garbage" I have been known to use as shorthand in reference to TLJ, I do now recognize that a number of my criticisms were well-founded. It's just kind of a messy mish-mash of ideas, and it just doesn't really work as a result. [Obligatory spoiler warning for The Last Jedi - but why are you even reading a post like this if you haven't seen it?]

I was super keen on TLJ in advance of its release, mostly because it was being written and directed by Rian Johnson of Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper, “Ozymandias” - the single best episode of Breaking Bad, and now Knives Out. I’m still a fan of Johnson’s (especially after really enjoying Knives Out and recently rewatching Brick), so I remain mystified as to what happened with TLJ.

Maybe he was trying to do things that couldn’t be done in this kind of a mega-blockbuster, or maybe there were too many restrictions from Disney, or maybe his vision for the movie and/or franchise just did not work; I tend to lean toward a combination of the three, with more emphasis placed on corporate intervention as a culprit.

There are elements of the movie that work really well. The four new principal characters all deliver spirited performances, and the acting might be the best of any Star Wars movie so far (which is not exactly a high bar to clear, but it's still something to note). It is easily the most visually engrossing entry of the series, and it has several incredible indelible scenes: the initial bombing sequence; the escape from Cantobite; the throne room battle; the moment after a light-speed jump tears a ship apart; and the sand speeders at the end, to name several examples.

There are many aspects of the narrative that also work really well: the Kylo-Rey plotline; the Kylo-Luke conflict; Luke and the ending of the Jedi; even aspects of the Resistance chase. But when you actually try to diagram the plot, it becomes a lot more confusing and ultimately kind of pointless, leaving more questions than answers. Sure, Star Wars movies have always jumped between sets of characters and taken some shortcuts in narrative and/or character development,, but TLJ seemed to be even a bit more herky-jerky and disconnected than any previous movie in the series.

For example, as I rewatched the movie, I was really trying to understand the military structure of the Resistance, especially why Commander Poe Dameron seems to outrank General Leia at the beginning, while Admiral Ackbar and Vice-Admiral Holdo report to her? And why is Poe, even after being demoted to Captain, still calling the shots throughout most of the movie, despite committing treason and committing a mutiny and attempting an ill-fated plan that ultimately gets another significant portion of the remaining Resistance transports destroyed? It seems like he is probably personally responsible for three-quarters of the destruction of the Resistance fleet, and yet he’s a hero at the end? (Don’t get me wrong - I think Poe is a great character, but his plotline makes very little sense.)

Then, there’s the matter of that little side adventure and the three sequences of events in which Finn and Rose try to bring in a "master" codebreaker - the travel to and initial experience in Canto Bight, the escape from Canto Bight, and the attempt to get to the tracker on the First Order ship - that, while entertaining, have very little effect on the outcome of the plot. Sure, I get that Johnson was (maybe?) trying to make points about the nature of "real life" in the midst of the genre - after all, the "plan" usually doesn’t work IRL - but I had expected there to be something more than what actually happened, which was just that the plan doesn’t work and in fact puts the Resistance further in danger.

Perhaps the thief would turn out to be the real Master Codebreaker and he would use their capture as a way to disable the tracker and allow the Resistance to escape; or maybe he would turn out to be a double agent for the Resistance; or maybe he would die saving the life of one of those heroes; or anything, really, other than just disappearing after having sabotaged the Resistance. I get that Johnson was again seeming to attempt to make a point, but the "meh" ending to that character seemed to invalidate all of the time spent on that entire sequence of events.

And on that point, wouldn’t the First Order have been able to see that planet - the only planet to which the Resistance could escape? Wouldn’t they have had the intel to know that it had been a Rebel base in the past? And even if they did not know it for sure, wouldn’t they have been able to guess at the attempts of the Resistance - or are they really that obtuse and/or blinded by hubris?

Also, where is the rest of The Resistance, anyway? Why do they have everyone in such a confined space and not spread out throughout the galaxy? For that matter, how did they get to this point (other than "yada yada"ing everything that happened since TFA in the opening crawl)? Does this progression of events even make sense considering what happened in The Force Awakens? (You can probably guess my answer.)

And then there's the ending of The Last Jedi, in which the Resistance is reduced to the point at which everyone can fit on the Millennium Falcon. There's something to be said for cliffhangers to be resolved in the conclusion, and then there's just writing yourself into a teensy-tiny corner. I don't know why Johnson wrote it this way, and why Disney allowed it - perhaps this was their attempt at having stakes to the franchise? - but it ultimately seemed short-sighted at the time and has not aged well in the years since.

The Force Awakens opened a lot of narrative possibilities - too many, arguably - and then it seemed as though The Last Jedi wanted to operate in an entirely different narrative reality. The Last Jedi did not do much to resolve many of those open threads, and instead created more questions and problems than answers. I felt at the time - and after rewatching it, I still feel this way - that The Last Jedi was a mish-mash of ideas that probably should have been spread over two movies. I'm not sure how they would have done that, exactly, but it felt, well, forced (pun intended).

Speaking of which, although I have no problem with the new uses of the Force in The Last Jedi - Leia flying through space, Kylo and Rey being connected psychically, Luke's projection from across the galaxy - in regard to the integrity of the concept of the Force, I do wonder about them in regard to narrative progression. It really seems like Leia shouldn't have been put in the situation to have to use the Force in that manner, and that there were other choices that should have been made in her arc.

Also, what exactly happened with Rey in that chasm? Was it meant to be her temptation to the dark side? Was there something she discovered? And what was the point of that scene? It just kind of happens, and then...nothing - another narrative dead end, other than leading into the Kylo-Rey relationship that did result in an inspired choice in killing Snoke - even if I still think that they used that plotline one movie too early.

As you can tell, I thought that The Last Jedi was a misfire at best, and that it created significant narrative problems for the story arc of the new trilogy, as well as a few confusing and disingenuous character arcs (I like the idea of Luke's arc, but it is problematic at times, particularly as it marks a very significant character change without the true explanation of how it fully occurred). I think that even on rewatching TLJ that I wanted to like it more than I did and to be more sympathetic to its cause, but even as I have tried to parse it here, I have realized that it really was not very good.

Part of what I have found really frustrating, however, is that the narrative of disapproval of TLJ was co-opted by the internet trolls who criticized the movie for reasons for which it should not have been criticized - namely, the development of strong female characters and the changes in the use of the Force. I did not have a problem with either of those aspects of the movie - after all, Star Wars certainly needed more strong women, and the Force has always been kind of wishy-washy.

My criticisms of the movie are based in more legitimate concerns about character, conflict, and plot, and although I know I am not alone in those criticisms, I think that the voice of people like me who had defensible criticisms of the movie was lost in the morass of propaganda from the anti-Last Jedi community.

And now, it seems that the corporate entity of Star Wars is finally trying to distance themselves by essentially disavowing Johnson and TLJ altogether. There seems to be a full public embrace of J.J. Abrams from the cast, and an accompanying distancing from TLJ; sure, it seems mostly to be a brazen attempt to bring back those alienated fans, but still, it's notable that even the franchise itself is essentially ignoring The Last Jedi, other than having to wrap up any loose ends that it left and find a way out of its awkward ending.

Conclusion: Final Thoughts before The Rise of Skywalker


I am certainly less enthusiastic about The Rise of Skywalker before its release than I was about The Last Jedi mainly because TLJ was so disjointed and ineffective. But despite the relative failures of TLJ - and Star Wars in general - in the past few years, I'm still very interested to see how they resolve the conflicts of the series and how they "end" the Skywalker Saga.

I really have no idea how they will resolve the many hanging plots from TFA and TLJ, other than the fact that TROS is going to have a lot of plot - which has been echoed in the thoughts I have heard and read. I don't think that it's even really worth conjecturing about what might happen, since I have a feeling that there will be some attempts at subverting expectations even as those very expectations are further advanced through the story - that said, I have a feeling that there will be a few turns away from what was established in The Last Jedi (like Rey's parentage) and that good will be victorious in the end.

I am more than a little dubious about the choice to bring back Emperor Palpatine as the true source of evil; after all, it seemed as though part of the point of this new trilogy was that these patterns of power and evil and resistance and valour and freedom are not centered in one person, but in the nature of our very being, meaning that we keep repeating the history of these patterns. Therefore, it would seem that bringing back Palpatine would undercut that entire idea by having to have a Big Bad to mastermind behind it all; then again, there could be some turns and twists there, too.

Something else that has struck me in the whole course of this revival is that it has been very very fast - arguably too fast to allow for the kind of reflection that may have really helped make each entry better.  The pacing of the two previous trilogies left three years between releases, and the abbreviated release schedule of this trilogy left two years between releases. Sure, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were released in very quick succession, but those were less sequels than they were simultaneous stories that were divided into several movies (not that I saw the second or third Hobbit movie, anyway.

Despite the problems of The Last Jedi and the overall issues of the revival of the franchise, I am interested to see how they bring it all together, and whether Joseph Campbell would be proud. I'm sure it will be a little shaky and overstuffed and kind of a head-scratcher at times, but that's kind of the nature of Star Wars as a franchise. Patchwork, pastiche, homage - call it whatever you want, but the whole Star Wars franchise is kind of rickety and hokey and yet endearing and enjoyable, kind of like the Millennium Falcon.

So whatever happens in The Rise of Skywalker, the movie will be more enjoyable if it's not taken too seriously and I know how to not take Star Wars too seriously, even if I did just write over 3,200 words before watching a movie. Whatever happens in the movie, I just have to remember the words of the great baker, Yoda: "dough or dough not; there is no try".

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The 10s: An Introduction

In the past few months, I have been increasingly keenly aware of the upcoming shift to a new decade and what that transition entails as a self-identifying pop culturally aware blogger: making "best of" lists. I know it's a bit cliché, and it's definitely overdone, but I do feel as though I need to present these lists as a way of creating a snapshot of what my past pop culture decade looks like at the end of the decade.

But as I have gone through this process, I have also spent a fair amount of time thinking about the process of making best of lists, as well as my permutations thereof over the past fifteen years of blogging. So I thought I would start with some reflections on the nature of making a best of list, especially at the end of the decade, and some of the ways in which this process has evolved for me in the time that I have been consuming and critiquing and commenting on various forms of media. (Leave it to me to write over two thousand words about the process of writing a best of list, right?)

On making "best of" lists


I used to make best of lists - or at least personal summaries - for each year in a variety of media: movies; music; television; video games; board games; and on occasion, books or authors or podcasts. I've stopped in recent years, however, mostly because I found it difficult to see/hear/play everything in a reasonable amount of time within the end of the year, and I always felt there were too many gaps in my list to justify publishing it. Then, by the time I would finally feel like I could compose a list that would be truly reflective of the year, it would be too late to post it, so I just would not post (even if the list was started or significantly underway).

Of course, there are other areas of tension in creating "best of" list for a year, other than actually experiencing all of the possibilities in time to publish a post. Perhaps foremost among those areas of tension is the difference between choosing the "best" entries in a given time period, and including personal favourites, whether out of a sense of personal advocacy, contrarianism, or some other strange compulsion.

Some critics just pick their own lists without regard for critical consensus, but I know I always felt like there could be a significant difference between movies I really liked and "the best movies of the year," usually in the sense that there are almost always movies that I really enjoy and appreciate but that I (or the wider critical world) would not likely list among the "best".

Maybe the best example I can think of is Pacific Rim in 2013, a refreshingly entertaining and original sci-fi blockbuster from Guillermo del Toro in which kaiju (giant monsters) attack Earth through a dimensional rift in the ocean, only to be defended by humans controlling giant robots called Jaegers in pairs of pilots who are connected through a psychic drift.

It's as wacky as it sounds, and it has emerged as one of my favourites of that year (and arguably my all-time favourite "guilty pleasure" movie); that said, even though it is very well shot, paced, scripted, and directed, I would struggle to justify as one of the ten best of that year; although, now that I think about it, the entire exercise of picking a "best of" list is about choosing the movies is as much about demonstrating that you are worthy as a critic. So maybe Pacific Rim - and other movies like it in my personal esteem - should merit more consideration after all; it's certainly an intriguing proposition as I create my lists that attempt to reflect an entire decade.

Making a decade list


As I entered this process, I found myself being both enthusiastic about the possibilities and cautious about all of the ways it could go wrong. I assumed that the tensions of making a year-end list would be compounded in doing a "best of the decade" list; after all, it seems as though the stakes should be higher with a longer period of time and more choices.

As an aside, some of you may note that I was blogging in 2009, when there was also an opportunity for a best of a decade list, so my experience from back then should surely be enough to have assuaged any trepidation or tentativeness I experienced in the past few months. Indeed, I wondered that myself, so I looked back and realized why this process felt somewhat fresh this time around: I did not actually write that much to review the previous decade.

I wrote exactly three posts at the conclusion of The Aughts: one that summarized each year of my life of that decade in haiku; one post on television that was woefully incomplete and rightfully criticized in the comments for several key omissions; and one on assorted influences - authors, filmmakers, musicians. Nothing about video games, books, movies, or music outside of those posts, even though I was blogging quite regularly at the time - so that makes this time around feel fresh and unfamiliar, which is, in fact, I think a positive thing to make this process even better than it otherwise might have been.

As I have been compiling my lists over the past couple of months, I have been pleasantly surprised at how much easier it seems to do this task for an entire decade than it does at the end of each year. Perhaps that's because there is more time and space to have clarity than there is at the conclusion of a year, or perhaps it's because it's easier to separate the highest quality entries - the ones that really stand out - when there's a larger scope. Maybe I'm just more confident in who I am as a critic, consumer, and evaluator of culture, which has made it easier; but whatever the reason, I have enjoyed this process more than I expected to.

I think I also care less now than I have in the past about being "right" or about understanding or mirroring the general consensus of what's "best". My lists now seem to be more descriptive than prescriptive, meaning that I have learned to work within the boundaries I have set according to what I have experienced, rather than trying to experience everything. These lists are not authoritative, and nor should they be treated as such; they are my choices based on what I have experienced over the past decade. Of course, I still feel the need to qualify my choices sometimes and to create lists of things I should have experienced and runners-up and honourable mentions, but overall, I have still enjoyed the entire exercise.

Thinking about my lists


As I started going through my annual best of lists and the various lists of media I have taken in over the past decade, I found myself gravitating back to the usual suspects: video games; board games; television; music; movies; and books/podcasts. Most of those were fairly easy to compose for various reasons, but there were a couple that proved to be more challenging.

The areas that proved to be easier had a variety of reasons for the comparative simplicity, even compared to a decade earlier. In some of those areas - music, for example - I have far less interest than I once did (say, in that previous decade), which lowers the stakes for me overall in creating a list. For some - video games, for example - I have long since given up being an "expert" in the field, and I have self-limited my areas of exposure and expertise to specific niches or styles, which again removes any temptation to be authoritative.

Media like television, music, and books/podcasts are now so fractured that it is almost impossible to be "prescriptive" in choices, so all I can do is talk about what I have experienced and why I enjoyed and/or appreciated those things without nearly as much worry of missing out. (By the way, maybe that phenomenon of being nervous of omissions be called "FOMOOBOL" - "fear of missing out on best of lists".) There were two areas, however, that I found challenging this time around: movies and board games.

In regard to movies, even though my general movie-watching activity has significantly decreased from the beginning of the decade (maybe by as much as half), my interest in movies is still high, and I still have a significant base of information and interest from which to draw, so I still feel some "requirement" to be more authoritative in making my choices. In addition, there seems to be more consensus about movies than in other areas, and so I feel that it is more challenging to make a list that is accurate and that reflects the best of the decade, even though it is personalized.

Board games are a different story, as they are the form of media into which I have put the most energy, effort, and money over the past decade. Sure, I played board games before the start of the decade, but it wasn't until the end of 2010 that I started to track my collection and my plays on BoardGameGeek, in doing so becoming a lot more invested in board games as an intentional hobby and not just a pastime.

I have had more exposure to board games than any other form of media in the past decade, so it's hard to sort through what I think are the "best" games. In addition, I feel a lot more internal pressure to be an "expert" in the field, and so I know that I give more weight to my own choices in that area, even if my experiences far exceed the game-playing of most people who profess to like board games.

I think I have managed to come to some resolution in each of those areas, and if nothing else, I can rest in the impermanence of the nature of this medium as a way to amend any possible omissions; after all, I can always post an updated list in any of these areas at any time in the future. My goal, then, with all of these lists, whatever the medium of choice, is to give a picture of what I thought at this time, not for all time.

Conclusion


In my relatively recent return from my general absence from blogging over the past two years, I have learned that it is better to provide a snapshot than it is to not write at all, so I have been learning that any pressure that I feel in regard to this "Best of the Decade" exercise is internal and ultimately meaningless. Any lists that I generate are my best guesses at this point, and it is entirely possible - even likely - that these lists will change, even in the next few months.

My goal in this series is to provide a snapshot of the kinds of things I have been enjoying over the past decade, and, where I can, to point out the gaps that I know are there. I'm not making a career out of any of this consumption or criticism (at this point in my life, anyway), and my reputation is not at stake; I just get to share about people and artists and thinkers and games and shows that I enjoyed.

I am certain that, despite the general level of care and attention that I give to these lists, that I will forget things or have regrets or otherwise miss the mark several times, but that's not the point; the point is to get these lists out there in whatever form they exist as a time capsule for the past decade at this point at the end of the decade.

This is one of the best parts of blogging - its malleability and permanent impermanence, as I can always return to these lists and update them in the future, or at least admit where my gaps might be revealed in the future (or in the present, as it may be).

Over the next couple of months between now and the end of January (I hope), my goal is to make these lists public in whatever form they exist with whatever issues exist in their midst. It's more important that I contribute to the greater conversation in whatever way I can at this point than to miss out like I did back in 2009, as I really wish that I had published those lists even with their imperfections. I hope you enjoy these upcoming "best of" lists from the 10s; I know I have enjoyed reliving the highlights of the past decade as I have compiled them, and I look forward to being part of the greater cultural conversation moving into the 2020s.

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