Thursday, December 28, 2017

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017): It’s Not All About Money

As in every Star Wars episode, the resistance is nearing extinction in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  The Empire has at its disposal a new killing machine and technology even better than the last.  General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is badly injured and for a time cannot lead the resistance.  And despite pleas from the new Jedi wannabe, Rey (Daisy Ridley), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is reluctant to help.  (Yet like Obi-Wan did for Luke, Luke is willing to train Rey as a Jedi.)  Meanwhile, through incredible courage on the part of their temporary leader, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), who sacrifices her life by crashing a resistance ship into the command ship of the Empire, it appears the resistance may still win.  Yet with his command of the dark side of the Force, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) rallies the Empire to once again put the resistance in an untenable position. 

Then Luke (Mark Hamill) shows up.  Just as Obi-Wan Kenobi faced off with Darth Vader forty years ago, Luke faces off in a light-saber duel with Kylo Ren.  And just like Obi-Wan did in the earlier duel, Luke dies at the hands of his foe.  But the victory for the Empire is hollow as the light side of the force remains on the side of the resistance – apparently in the being of Rey.  The resistance escapes to fight another day.

When Luke Skywalker says in the latest movie that we shouldn’t romanticize the Jedi knights (which he says a number of times), he could just as well have been telling the audience to not romanticize the Star Wars series.  Whatever apologists for The Last Jedi may say, the latest installment is in large part a rehash of old material for a new audience.  (It is almost impossible to separate any individual Star Wars film from the series as a whole.)  Yet despite being long (152 minutes) and not saying anything substantially new, The Last Jedi was better than I expected.  It does have the humor and some of the innocence of the first installments.

The Star Wars series has had some good films, and not so good films.  I enjoyed the first three Star Wars films (now known as parts IV, V and VI), but have never been a great enthusiast of the series as a whole.  The prequels (known as Parts I, II and III) are humorless. And The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are in some respects a farewell tour for the original cast (Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo and the late Carrie Fisher as Princess or General Leia).  Mark Hamill even grows a beard and looks remarkably like his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Alec Guinness in the earliest episode.  In The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, we also get to know some new characters.  Daisy Ridley as Rey, who is a cross between Luke and Leia.  Oscar Isaac plays Poe, who is fated to be the new Han Solo.  And we have Adam Driver to play Kylo Ren – obviously taking over the role of the villainous Darth Vader.  (In The Force Awakens, Ren kills his father, Han Solo.)

Not everyone loves what the Star Wars phenomenon represents.  Since opening less than two weeks ago, The Last Jedi has sold close to one-half billion dollars in ticket sales.  God only knows how much money has changed hands due to sales of Star Wars merchandise following this latest installment.  There are toys, costumes, paraphernalia and now a Star Wars cruise.

Apparently some diehard Star Wars fans also feel cheated by the The Last Jedi.  The film didn’t answer enough questions.  Or it felt like the film had nothing fresh to say.  But I’m not sure why such followers should have expected anything else.  However many Star Wars movies have actually been made, this is Episode VIII.  The first Star Wars movie appeared forty years ago, and it looks like the Star Wars series has a few more years of life in it.  Hollywood,  and especially Disney films, is not going to experiment at any length with the formula for this series when they know that a film like The Last Jedi will bring in this sort of money.  This film was set up with at least one other sequel in mind – along with more cash.

I hope that whenever the last Star Wars finally appears, the series will end with some dignity.  There is no doubt that the series revolutionized the making of movies.  While the storylines contain a great deal of “New Age” elements, George Lucas created the series with a definite vision in mind.  “The Force,” whatever that may be, is something that all characters in the film secretly wish to obtain.  It’s not so much different from what all human beings, good or bad, wish to obtain – some meaning for their existence.  Director Rian Johnson of The Last Jedi attempts to remain sensitive to that vision. 

December 28, 2017
© Robert S. Miller 2017

Sunday, November 26, 2017

LADY BIRD (2017): Coming-of-Age Story

Considering how many bad coming of age stories exist in the film industry, Lady Bird is comparably refreshing.  It’s short at 93 minutes.  The two main leads, Saoirse Ronan, as the daughter Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf as Marion the mother, are genuine human beings rather than caricatures.  Their arguments and struggles as well as begrudged affection for each other does not come across as affected.  And the movie overall is not ham-handed or cynical like the typical coming-of-age film.  It’s not perfect, either.

Lady Bird is in her senior year of attending a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California, and hopes to attend college at an eastern school.  A few things are getting in her way, however.  Her family is not rich.  Lady Bird’s grades are insufficient.  And most importantly, her mother is opposed to her going east.

In the meantime, Lady Bird mildly rebels against the Catholic school she attends, but never to the point where she rejects its authority.  She has her first sexual encounter during her senior year, smokes cigarettes and occasionally smokes marijuana, and fights and makes up with her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein).  She has two boyfriends during the film.  One is Danny (Lucas Hedges), a seemingly honest and innocent boy who we discover, in the most contrived manner, is gay.  The other boyfriend, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), deflowers Lady Bird only to reveal afterwards he’s been with a number of girls before.  Frankly, Kyle was not a necessary character in the film.

The only important relationship in the entire film is between Lady Bird and her mother.  The mother and daughter cry together, fight and almost always in the end makeup. Lady Bird’s affectionate father, Larry (Tracy Letts) mostly remains in the background and has little impact in pacifying the strong wills of his wife and daughter.  Sometimes the mother and daughter badly hurt each other, and the hurt never entirely goes away – even when Lady Bird finally receives acceptance to a college in New York.  Bored and frustrated with Sacramento, Lady Bird’s relationship with the city is similar to that with her mother (the symbolism is a bit forced). 

To listen to certain reviewers, you would think such a film is something never seen before.  It makes one nervous hearing terms such as honest and special and lovely and warm loosely thrown around like we’ve run out of other verbs or adverbs or adjectives to describe the film.  None of these superlatives are particularly precise.  Probably the most accurate review I read described the film as self-conscious while redeemed by the acting of Ronan and Metcalf.  It went on to label Greta Gerwig’s directing style as “stiff and mannered.”  (

I liked Lady Bird probably as much as any film in this kind of genre.  That’s not saying all that much.  But when the mother and daughter characters are on screen together, the film is powerful.  These scenes come close to making the viewer uncomfortable and help us appreciate the difficulties families go through when adolescent children are present.  The script also treats these difficulties with great care.  Without that mother/daughter relationship, the film would not be unique.  With the exception of Larry and Julie, none of the other characters in the film come even close to full development.  And very few scenes where the two main characters are not together leave any lasting impression.

As many reviewers point out (and without maybe even being aware of what they are saying), there was nothing groundbreaking in this film.  I have difficulty believing we will remember this film in a few years.   Hopefully, Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf will go on to play other roles in the future that helps us remember them better.  The credit for any value of this film should go all to them.

November 25, 2017

© Robert S. Miller 2017

Monday, October 30, 2017

THE HUSTLER (1961): Pool Room Drama

At 135 minutes, The Hustler, filmed in black and white, resembles a move from the 1930s or 1940s in all of its grittiness.  It also resembles more modern films that are always trying to say something more by giving us an ambiguous leading character.  But unlike those same films, The Hustler succeeds in accomplishing that feat. 

Directed by Robert Rossen, this movie includes top performances by Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson, George C. Scott as the villainous Bert Gordon, Jackie Gleason as pool shark Minnesota Fats, and Piper Laurie as the emotionally fragile Sarah.

Eddie comes to Ames, Iowa, with his longtime partner, Charlie, to take on the legendary Minnesota Fats in a marathon pool contest.  Eddie at first has the upper hand on Fats and is up at one point close to $18,000.  This doesn’t last, however.  Soon Eddie, full of liquor and his own conceit, then begins to lose all of the money he has so far won.  When it appears Eddie has no money left, Fats leaves the pool hall.

The loss to Minnesota Fats haunts Eddie.  So badly does he want to revenge this loss that he abandons Charlie in a hotel room, and he tries to set out on his own to pick up extra cash.  The result is fairly predictable.  He can’t find good prospects to hustle, and eventually he ends up in a poolroom in the rough side of town where he gets his thumbs broken.

At about this time, Eddie involves himself with Sarah, an alcoholic supported by her rich father.  Though both Eddie and Sarah are dealing with their own demons, they do actually love each other.  More disastrously, Eddie involves himself with Bert, a big time promoter and gambler.  Bert cares nothing about Eddie or Sarah.  He only likes money and action.  Yet Bert is the only one willing to bankroll Eddie in his quest to once again play against Minnesota Fats.

Eventually Eddie, Sarah and Bert end up in Louisville, where Eddie is set up to play a rich billiards player.  Eddie has never played three-cushion billiards before (he only knows pool), but in the end he manages to win.  However, he only does so by begging Bert for money and telling Sarah to leave him alone.  Bert then returns to the hotel where Sarah is staying at, seduces her, and she in turns commits suicide.

With $3,000 to his name after his victory in billiards in Louisville, Eddie then returns to Ames, plays Minnesota Fats and comes out victorious.  The victory is, of course, a hallow one due to the loss of Sarah.  Also, his refusal to pay Bert any percentage of his winnings from Minnesota Fats leads to the banning of Eddie from ever playing in a big-time pool hall again.

The Hustler is an almost unbearably sad film.  In the end, only Eddie, Sarah and Minnesota Fats appear to have any human qualities.  Sarah dies.  Eddie is condemned to never play again the game he is so good at.  And Minnesota Fats is destined to have to associate with someone like Bert Gordon.  Yet unlike Bert, the three generate what we would call real emotion and live real lives – not at the expense of others.

There was a sequel to The Hustler made in 1986 called The Color of Money.  It certainly wasn’t the worst sequel ever made, and it was a better than average movie.  It just never matched The Hustler in quality filmmaking.  The Hustler is a film that is unusually exceptional on various levels.  The pool scenes between Fats and Eddie are entertaining in themselves.  Also, the pool game and Eddie’s development as a pool player is largely symbolic of Eddie’s development of character.  The term “character” is uttered several instances throughout the movie.  Finally, The Hustler is a well-told story of someone coming of age.  Eddie matures during the course of the film.  Sadly, it is too late when he realizes just how much he loses in growing up.

October 30, 2017

© Robert S. Miller 2017

Monday, August 28, 2017

A SOLDIER’S STORY (1984): Story Concerning Black Soldiers

With race relations still always the subject of news stories, I thought about the movie, A Soldier’s Story, filmed over thirty years ago. Like Fences, also featuring Denzel Washington, A Soldier’s Story originally was a play and even on film makes viewing feel like one is watching a play.  Being only 101 minutes in length with the average film today going well over two hours, I’d say that this is refreshing.

A Soldier’s Story is a murder mystery.  It concerns the killing of a black sergeant, Sergeant Waters (Adolph Caesar), at a Louisiana army base during 1944.  Though a series of flashbacks we learn how the killing occurred.  At first everyone suspects white soldiers committed the deed – the murder occurring in the Deep South.  But subsequent investigation by a black officer and lawyer, Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins Jr.), eventually demonstrates that the murderer was one of the sergeant’s own men.

Waters is a tyrant when it comes to leading his platoon.  He is deeply ashamed of the humiliation he as a black soldier faces, and wants to prove to his white officers that a black soldier has the discipline to fight in the war in Europe.  Any soldier who does not live up to his exacting standards he demotes or tries to force out of his unit.  In one particular case, Waters’ tactics get a soldier, C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley), sent to the brig. Unable to withstand the confinement or the unjust accusations that Waters brings, C.J. eventually commits suicide.

This leads to the final confrontation between Waters and Private Peterson (Denzel Washington).  Peterson appears to be the only one in the platoon who can stand up to Waters’ bullying.  At one point he even takes Waters on in a bare-fisted fight only to come out on the losing end due to the dirty fight tactics that Waters uses.  Yet Waters secretly admires Peterson for his willingness to fight back and even wants to promote him.  Peterson, on the other hand, hates everything about his sergeant.

After C.J.’s suicide, Waters begins coming to the conclusion that no matter what he does, the white officers he serves will never respect him.  This leads to him drinking more and becoming even more sullen.  One evening, drunk and returning to town, Waters berates a couple of white patrol officers.  The patrol officers in turn beat Waters up.  Peterson, while out walking with another black soldier, discovers Waters lying by the side of the road.  Waters tells Peterson that no matter what a black soldier does, the white man will still hate him.  Peterson has no sympathy for his sergeant and instead shoots him.  Peterson, in his own way, is like Waters due to his willingness to harshly judge the character of another black man.

There is almost too much understatement in A Soldier’s Story with the exception of the acting of Adolph Caesar.  Caesar is almost the entire show.  Yet the movie is also a thoughtful film demonstrating not only the strained relations between black and white individuals, but also showing the tension that exists between blacks and other blacks.  Knowing the conditions black have faced through American history, such tension is understandable.
Director Norman Jewison has shown a willingness to take on films with race as a theme throughout his long movie career.  Most notably, this includes directing In the Heat of the Night released in 1967.  To his credit, Jewison never seems concerned about having a low budget.  In fact, he makes up for budgetary constraints by letting the dialogue tell the story and filming in locations such as bars and army barracks rather than providing dramatic scenery.

In a time where honest discussion concerning almost any issue is out of the question, it would be good if there were more films like A Soldier’s Story.  Such films will probably not come out of Hollywood, however, where storytelling resolves around special effects and every blockbuster appears to be a sequel.

August 28, 2017

© Robert S. Miller 2017