Category Archives: Movies

The Rise of Skywalker and the Redemption of Sith Lords

Fair warning, this post will have slight spoilers for THE RISE OF SKYWALKER.

Some years back, Orson Scott Card, in a review of one of the Star Wars films, complained about Darth Vader’s appearance as a “force ghost” alongside Obiwan and Yoda at the climax of Return of the Jedi. By what logic has Darth Vader redeemed himself when all he did was turn on his master and trusted friend, Palpatine? Did that one moment of heroism when he saved Luke in Return‘s climax?

The same point could be made about Kylo: he chose his dark side, loyally served the First Order, murdered his father. Do his actions after Rey leads him back to the light really justify his redemption?

I wrote about this some years back and I don’t disagree with what I said then. But since I saw Rise of Skywalker I’ve been thinking about redemption in terms of Rabbi Danya Rutenberg’s breakdown: God absolves us of sin if we ask, the victim forgives us if they chose and we do the work of our own redemption.

To put that into a Star Wars context, as I said in my previous post on redemption I accept that despite all the horrible things Anakin and Kylo did (let’s not forget Anakin’s body count in the prequel trilogy is high), absolution for sin is possible. In a Christian context, there’s nobody so evil that they can’t attain redemption by turning to God. I can buy that something equivalent applies with Force ghosts.

Does that obligate Leia to forgive Anakin after his death? No, it doesn’t. She might — saving Luke and helping defeat Palpatine certainly counts for something — but Darth Vader still tortured her and blew up Alderan, her homeworld. If she doesn’t want to forgive him, or to forgive Kylo for killing Han, she’s within her rights. Getting into Heaven or Force Heaven doesn’t mean your crimes didn’t happen.

Did Kylo and Anakin redeem themselves by their actions? If they’d survived their final battles should the good guys treat them as trustworthy? Put them on trial for crimes against humanity? Suspected them of shifting alliances for their own ends?

All of these are possible options, depending how the writer shapes the story and stacks the deck. I’d be inclined to say that yes, they still have a lot of work to do: the Rebellion would be perfectly justified putting Darth Vader on trial for his crimes, though considering his final actions as a factor in sentencing. Or if there’s no actual punishment, Darth goes off and finds some way to balance the scales.

This is not a deal-breaker for me. I’m okay with both movies settling for one simple act of heroism to fix anything: movies are a dramatic medium so using a single moment as a turning point works for me dramatically. But if this were something longer form (TV, print, comics) where the creators can take their time, I think it would work better if they did.

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From the Red Forest to Eternia, from 2007 to now: TV viewed

Hulu finally streamed the last season of SyFy’s 12 MONKEYS and it was worth waiting for (I binged while all my regular shows are on Christmas break). As someone who’s seen a lot of time travel stuff — hey, I wrote the book on it — it’s hard to impress me any more, but the show did.

At the end of S3, we learned that the murderous Olivia (Alison Down) of the Army of the 12 Monkeys was also the Witness, the antichrist figure who would destroy time and bring about the Red Forest, a timeless world in which we’d all experience our most perfect moment, without end — but without change or growth. As Cole (Aaron Stanford) says, “we can have forever or we can have now” but not both.

Learning there’s a weapon to stop the Red Forest, Cole and the rest of the cast hunt through time to recover it. But when they do, it appears even if they make it work, the solution will erase Cole from reality (as the first person to time travel, erasing him restores causality). What results is a grim race against time to save time, with several surprises and some paradoxes from earlier seasons resolved. The ending shouldn’t have worked for me: the twist of “we must restore the original timeline … but we’ll change just this little bit so it ends happy” normally doesn’t work but they pulled it off. And the cast remains great, particularly Emily Hampshire as Jennifer. “Save Hitler? That’s not what you do with a time machine!”

I also binged the fourth season of SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER and damn, that was good.  As Katra and the Horde increase the pressure on the Princess Alliance, friendships start to fracture, abetted by the conniving shapeshifter Double Trouble. This mirrors what happens in the Horde, as Katra’s arrogance and ambition alienate even the people close to her, such as Scorpia. And Adora learns there are secrets about She-Ra that she has no idea of yet … It’s good both as action/adventure and at the personal drama level. “That’s why nobody comes to games night any more.”

As I bought TYG the WILD PALMS DVD set, we naturally watched it last month, and I was started to realize this 1993 miniseries took place in the near-future of 2007. Fortunately we live in the real world where we don’t have to worry about authoritarian extremists using the threat of terrorism to chip away at our freedom —oh, wait.

Jim Belushi plays Harry, an attorney swept in a mysterious conspiracy when his former lover Paige (Kim Cattrall) asks for help, though it turns out he’s been unwittingly entangled in things for years. What is the “Go” chip? Why is there a rhinoceros in the swimming pool? Who is Harry’s son really? Solidly cast with Dana Delaney as Harry’s troubled wife, Angie Dickinson as her vicious mother, Robert Loggia as an evil senator and David Warner as a scientist. Despite being 13 years in our past, it holds up well. “Death to the new realism!”

My reason for watching the Bonita Granville and Emma Roberts Nancy Drew movies was that I’ve become hooked on the CW’s NANCY DREW series. Much like Riverdale, sex plays a larger role than in the original books: Nancy and Ned sleeping together, Bess is gay and George was having an affair with a married man. The story arc for the first half-season concerns the murder of said married man’s wife, with Nancy and her friends all looking like suspects. Further complicating things is the ghost of “Dead Lucy,” a beauty queen from Nancy’s father’s generation who died mysteriously and wants Nancy to investigate. How does it fit together? We get an answer at the mid-season break, but I’m confident it’s not the real one. I’m glad CW picked this up for a full season. “I just banished a spirit from the mortal world, now I’m summoning an Uber.”

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Ali Baba, Nancy Drew, Emperor Palpatine and other movie people viewed

Note: there are spoilers for Rise of Skywalker below.

ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES (1944) was one of the first sword-and-sandal swashbucklers wherein Prince Ali (Jon Hall) escapes the Mongol conquest of Baghdad and rallies the Forty Thieves and their leader “Old Baba” to fight for the oppressed people (“As I am Old Baba, we shall call you — Ali Baba.”). Their Robin Hood-style campaign of taking from the rich and giving to the poor hits a snag when Ali’s childhood sweetheart shows up as the stunning (but not terribly talented) Maria Montez, bride to the Mongol leader. Now Ali has extra reason to fight the tyrants, alongside Turhan Bey as a knife-throwing slave and Andy Devine as a blustering loudmouth (surprisingly he gets to kill the Mongol leader rather than Hall). Not an A-list swashbuckler, but fun enough. “I am the sword that hangs over your head.”

STAR WARS: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) drove me nuts in the first third as it couldn’t seem to keep still: Rey & Co. are constantly bouncing from planet to planet, goal to goal, subplot to subplot. After that it starts to stabilize and we get the core plot: Emperor Palpatine has somehow resurrected himself and is preparing an all-out war from the lost planet of the Sith — can the good guys find it in time?

TYG and I enjoyed this, but it’s definitely flawed, pushing Rose into the background and adding way too many new characters. The big twist that Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter didn’t work for me at all (it has none of the dramatic heft that “Luke — I am your father” did) and it isn’t necessary for the plot (he plans to possess her body, which I imagine he could do to her even if she wasn’t kin). Kylo Ren’s redemption is not great but didn’t really bother me (I’ll have more to say about it later though). Not as good as Last Jedi but better than The Force Awakens. “I saw the thrones of the Sith — and I saw who sat on them.”

NANCY DREW (2007) stars Emma Roberts as a Nancy Drew who seems to have stepped out of the 1950s, which makes her an odd fit when she’s stuck at a hip LA high school while her dad’s doing business in the City of Angels. Fortunately the house she lives in has a mystery (what happened to a long-dead movie star?) and despite her promise to Dad to stop sleuthing, she just can’t help snooping … Roberts doesn’t work in the lead: she looks about 12 and doesn’t seem happy even when she’s cracking a mystery. Not recommended. “Oh, did I mention there’s a strange caretaker?”

ALCHEMY (2005) stars Tom Cavanagh (best known to me as the various Harrison Wells on Flash) as a college computer prof whose solution to a Publish or Perish ultimatum is to test whether his AI can win Sarah Chalke’s heart faster than a smooth-talking ladies man, with the outcome to be published in a woman’s magazine. This is bland, and the ladies man feels odd, more like a parody of a romantic charmer. Ileana Douglas plays Cavanagh’s coworkers and Celeste Holme plays his grandma. “Love is like when you turn lead into gold — what’s the word for that?”

KNIVES OUT (2019) is a lively, twisty mystery in which mystery novelist Christopher Plummer turns up with his throat slit in what appears to be suicide — but then who hired ace PI Daniel Craig to investigate the death? And what exactly was Plummer’s devoted nurse doing while he was dying? This was well done, with some effective jabs at Nice People Who Are Not At All Racist; the cast includes Chris Evans, Don Johnson, K Callan and Jamie Lee Curtis as members of Plummer’s family. “Don’t you see, it’s not a hole — it’s a smaller donut with a hole of its own in the middle!”

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Christmas means misers, liars and thieves: movies

First the misers, starting with MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL an animated adaptation in which Jim Backus’ Mr. Magoo performs as Scrooge on Broadway (the character’s notorious nearsightedness doesn’t figure in the Christmas Carol plot, but does make the director’s life complicated). A good adaptation with some great songs; I’d add them to my Christmas iTunes playlist if I could find them. “A hand for each hand is the way it was planned/Why won’t my fingers reach?/A millions of grains of sand in the world/Why such a lonely beach?”

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951) remains the king of Scrooges (though next year perhaps I’ll check out Stewart and Scott versions again) as Alastair Sim discover Michael Horden’s Marley is not a delusion brought on by food poisoning, Patrick Macnee and George Cole as young Marley and Scrooge sign on with the “vested interests,” the Cratchitts listen to the pudding sing and human vultures loot Scrooge’s death scene. Always a pleasure. “The boy is ignorance, the girl is want. Beware them both, but most of all, beware this boy!”

The Bah, Humbug! episode of WKRP IN CINCINNATI doesn’t get as much attention as that sitcom’s Thanksgiving episode, but it’s a really funny send-up. The station manager having decided to skimp on bonuses this year, he’s visited by the usual ghosts, giving us a look back at the station’s early years and at its bleak future (“Les Nessman — minority whip in the U.S. Senate!”). “Yes, Scrooge was able to wake up — but Scrooge didn’t eat one of Johnny’s brownies.”

And then we have the Chuck Jones-animated, Boris Karloff-narrated HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (the Grinch isn’t a miser, but he’s sure a Scrooge) which I imagine needs no recap from anyone reading this. A Christmas perennial for me; this year I learned how the Grinch became green. “He puzzled and puzzed/Till his puzzler was sore/Then the Grinch thought of something/He hadn’t before.”

Then the liars and thieves!
CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) starts with Barbara Stanwyck as a homemaker/columnist who can’t cook and doesn’t have the family she writes about; by the end of the film she’s apparently cheating on her non-existent husband, sailor Dennis Morgan is cheating on his fiancee, Sidney Greenstreet crashes the party and Una O’Connor and S.Z. Sakall debate goulash vs. Irish stew. Easily Stanwyck’s sweetest role (even in rom-coms, she’s usually tougher). “When the bag lets out the cat, someone gets scratched!”

Case in point, REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940) stars Stanwyck as a shoplifter (expensive jewelry, not trinkets) facing Christmas in jail after her trial gets delayed. Prosecutor Fred MacMurray winds up taking her home instead, melting her heart even as she gets inside his, but can love possibly bridge across the crook/law enforcement divide? Preston Sturges’ script starts out as smart-ass as most of his work, but softens considerably by the end; still, it works for me. “No, you’re not a kleptomaniac if you sell stuff after you steal it — you lose your amateur standing.”

WE’RE NO ANGELS (1955) has escaped Devil’s Island convicts Humphrey Bogart (swindler/forger), Peter Ustinov (safecracker) and Aldo Ray (murderer and probable sexual assailant — that part hasn’t aged as well) becoming the guardian angels for Leo G. Carroll’s goodhearted family when covetous relative Basil Rathbone shows up. A fun film with a great cast. “We’re gonna cave their heads in, gouge their eyes out, cut their throats — just as soon as we wash the dishes.”

KLAUS (2019) is an Origin of Santa animated film in which a postmaster assigned to a dead-end gig in a feuding town (the only letter anyone’s likely to get is a letter bomb) cons the local kids into sending letters to the eponymous toymaker — if he generates enough business, he can leave town for somewhere better. This not only turns the miserable place around but helps the guy’s own heart grow three sizes, and in the process births most of the legend (“A magic sleigh pulled by flying reindeer? Seriously?”). The best of the new Christmas movies I’ve caught this year. “I’m sure it’s nothing that could fester and become a source of regret.”

Departing from the Misers And Liars theme, LET IT SNOW (2019) is a rom-com anthology like Christmas Eve or Office Christmas Party with a bunch of different Y/A subplots woven together: a dying woman’s daughter meets up with a rock star, a lesbian wonders why her great date from last night doesn’t seem to know her, a guy struggles to speak his love to his female best friend (a shtick I could have done without) and eccentric tow-truck operator Joan Cusack (“She thinks she’s a burrito and the Earth is a giant microwave.”) dispenses advice. Surprisingly fun. “The universe always has the answer — you just have to subscribe to her newsletter.”

As usual, TYG and I watched A CHRISTMAS STORY (1984) after unwrapping the presents and enjoyed little Ralphie dealing with the vicissitudes of visits to Santa, soap-induced blindness, Scott Farkus (“He had yellow eyes — yellow eyes!”) and a bunny suit. “Only I didn’t say fudge.”

And I can’t forget SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN with Rankin-Bass’s Origin of Santa in the story of a young toymaker defying the Winter Warlock and Burgomeister Meisterburger to deliver toys to children. Not the greatest of Christmas specials, but pleasant comfort food. “All the magic I have left is some stupid corn that makes reindeer fly.”

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Crisis in the Arrowverse: Mid-Season reviews

If you follow this blog, you know I’m a huge fan of DC Comics’ superheroes, and of the Arrowverse. So as we’ve now reached the mid-season break point partway through the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, I thought I’d review the first half-seasons. Every show but Black Lightning was shaped by the looming crossover and predictions Flash and Green Arrow would both die.

I gave up on the CW’s initial superhero show ARROW after its flat S6 and the uninteresting opening of S7 (Ollie in prison and a B-plot with his kids trying to save Star City in the future). However, with the Crisis looming and this season announced as the finish, I figured I’d give it a try — and I’m glad I did. With nothing left to hold back, the season has Ollie working for the Monitor to try and stave off the looming apocalypse. In the process he gets to see most of the show’s long-gone cast including Thea, Roy Harper, Nyssa al Ghul, Katana and Tommy and Malcolm Merlyn (parallel world versions who die in the first episode when their world is devoured by anti-matter). Plus the show brought the future kids William and Mia and their teammate Connor into the present, and interacting with the regular cast they became much more interesting.

FLASH‘s previous season was so-so (though as I love the character, I rated it better than perhaps it deserved) and the main plot this season was disappointing. The villain, Bloodwork, tried using dark matter to cure his lethal illness and instead became a freak who can create zombie armies by his control of blood. He’s not interesting, nor is he tragic (they try) and the big zombie battle that wrapped up was uninspired. On the plus side, Barry and Team Flash trying to deal with the Crisis and Barry’s inevitable death (spoiler: not so inevitable after all. You’ll see) was a lot more interesting. Unfortunately we’ll be back to Bloodwork next year.

SUPERGIRL also had a mixed previous season, ranging from the high of Jon Cryer’s Lex Luthor to the low of wasting Manchester Black. This season she’s been dealing with J’Onn’s evil brother M’alefic; Lena seeking revenge for what she feels is Kara’s betrayal; and Leviathan, a cabal of aliens out to preserve the Earth by mass-culling of the human population (plus the corporate takeover of CatCo). Some of this worked well, like M’alefic’s redemption, some of it not so much: while I can understand Lena having trust issues given her murderous family, it’s hard to have that much sympathy for her. Katie McGrath does her best, but as Alex points out, Lena kept her own secrets last season. But I’m more hopeful for the second half than I am with Flash.

BATWOMAN started its first season awfully slow as Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) discovers her cousin Bruce’s identity and deals with her longstanding trauma, the death of her mother and twin sister Beth in an accident that Kate survived. However things picked up fast as Kate stepped into the absent Bruce’s crimefighting shoes: Rose is good in the lead, supported by Lucius Fox’s son Luke (Camrus Johnson) and opposed by Alice (Rachel Skarsten) whom Kate becomes convinced is her missing sister, though dad (Dougray Scott) doesn’t believe it.

Skarsten’s Alice is a Joker-class lunatic and the actor nails it. I also like the sibling rivalry aspect: Kate’s stepsister Mary and Alice’s surrogate brother and partner-in-crime Mouse both resent that the twins still have a bond that rivals theirs. The pre-Crisis season ends with everything falling apart, so I look forward to what follows in 2020.

BLACK LIGHTNING ended S2 with the American Security Agency locking up the entire Pierce family. Things haven’t improved this season as the ASA places Freeland on lockdown, nominally to protect from the Markovian terrorists but just as much to control them. By the mid-season point, Jeff has given up on trying to be moderate, Blackbird’s a revolutionary, Jennifer’s doing wetwork for the ASA and the agency’s scheming Odell has Lynn addicted to the greenlight drug. It’s grim stuff, but I’m enjoying it. This show continues staying apart from the rest of the Arrowverse: Jeff appears briefly in the crossover (I’ll review that in a subsequent post) and the show’s final pre-crisis episode involves Jennifer encountering her parallel-world selves from out in the multiverse, before Black Lightning’s earth dies (don’t worry, I’m confident they’ll be back).

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Christmas movies: something old, something new

The new, alas, were not very good.

SAME TIME, NEXT CHRISTMAS (2019) has Lea Michele taking her traditional family Christmas in Hawaii, where she runs into her childhood crush; despite her last attempt at dating him going badly, she’s ready to give it another shot, but is he? This was so bland I couldn’t finish, even using it as  “talking lamp” (i.e., keeping it in the background while I did stuff online).

I did manage to finish Netflix’s THE KNIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (2019) but only because a Christmas time-travel film is automatically more interesting than a straight romance (for obvious reasons). Unfortunately the story is just as bland as the previous film; Vanessa Hudgens worked as the sweet straight woman in the sitcom Powerless but here the sweetness works against her role as a love skeptic forced to reconsider when she meets a time-traveling knight on a quest. The male lead is worse, and the script lets both of them down: there’s no real romantic conflict nor does the quest seem to matter much. Heck, the knight doesn’t even suffer the usual time-travel culture shock, settling in after one night of binge-watching. I might suggest Lancelot: Guardian of Time as a double-bill because it has a similar romance cynic/true knight relationship, but that would be one mediocre night of viewing. “Modern technology is lit as F.”

Getting back to my perennials, SCROOGE (1971) is one of the many “all actor” (as opposed to All Star) versions, wherein misanthrope Albert Finney reconnects with humanity (a theme that matters a lot to me) thanks to the ministrations of Marley (Alec Guinness), Christmas Past (Dame Edith Evans) and Christmas Present (Kenneth More), all of which works out well for Bob Cratchitt (Michael Crawford) and his family. Shows the influence of the previous Dickens musical Oliver (particularly all the singing street urchins) but regardless of its roots, I love this one. “As for you, nephew, if you were in my will I’d disinherit you!”

WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) amounts to a backstage musical mixed with the “let’s put on a show” plot Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland frequently used: when entertainers Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye discover their old CO Dean Jagger’s Vermont inn is at risk for going under, they decide to stage their big musical there, drawing enough of a crowd to put his finances back in the black. But how will it affect the guys’ romances with dancing sisters Vera Allen and Rosemary Clooney? I don’t think this would be half as well-regarded if it wasn’t a Christmas perennial, but with the four leads dancing and singing it’s extremely watchable. “My one love affair/Didn’t get anywhere/ from the start/To send me a joe/With winter and snow/ in his heart — wasn’t smart.”

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Christmas movie binging begins!

But before I start the constant flow of Christmas treacle into my brain, I caught a few other items Thanksgiving weekend:

A young couple become something RICH AND STRANGE (1931) when a relative’s gift of money lets them travel around the world, only to find themselves pulled apart en route by everything from seasickness to romantic rivals (a dignified veteran falling for the wife, a golddigging fake princess preying on the husband). This Alfred Hitchcock film has some striking visual moments including the husband’s silent-comedy style evening commute and its frustrations and a moonlight walk across a ship’s desk that focuses entirely on feet and floor. However the film’s story is trite and uninteresting, even though The Hitchcock Romance considers it a masterpiece. “The thing about beautiful women like you is that you don’t want enough.”

I had much more fun with ROADSIDE PROPHETS (1992) whose biker protagonist strikes up a new friendship only to have the guy die minutes later. The biker impulsively pays for the cremation, then sets out to scatter his buddy’s ashes at the place in Nevada he requested — assuming the place is findable. Along the way the protagonist meets the usual array of road-trip oddballs including a hero-worshipping teen, a vagabond stripper, a terminally ill couple, an officiousmotel clerk, John Cusack as a dine-and-dash petty crook (“It’s entrapment — the sign said ‘free buffet’!”) and David Carradine, Timothy Leary, Arlo Guthrie and Abby Hoffman in cameos. Self-consciously quirky, but a lot of fun. “I didn’t get to be a management trainee by breaking rules!”

And now the Christmas stuff — CHRISTMAS PERFECTION (2018) combines the premise of 2007’s  Snow Globe (the female protagonist is magically transported to the perfect Christmas village) with William Dean Howell’s short story Christmas Every Day, in that the village never stops celebrating Christmas. No surprise, the protagonist is soon sick of perfection and thinking her imperfect male best friend is looking much more attractive. This is too sugary and low-key to work for me, and there’s something unsatisfying in her BFF/love interest (like they carefully calibrated the soft spot between “conventional” and “too oddball to be sexy.”). “This is some kind of reality show where they gaslight the children of divorce with happiness!”

SNOW GLOBE (2007), by contrast, seems to be turning into a Christmas perennial for me. Christina Milian is really likable as the lead, a Brooklyn baker who’d love an old-fashioned Christmas but her Italian/Cuban family are so loud and obnoxious and green lasagna is their traditional Christmas dinner — but then Milian stumbles into a world inside a snow globe where everything Christmas is picture-perfect. Part of why I like this is that where the preceding movie buts the blame on the protagonist (too much of a control freak to tolerate imperfection), Milian has valid reasons for getting fed up with her family, even though they all work it out in the end. Rewatching, I do wonder about how the magic works — the village is literally in the snow globe, but it somehow has an independent existence — but like wondering how Santa’s sleigh gets around the world so fast, it doesn’t stop me enjoying.  “Aren’t you having an existential crisis right now?”

I’ve had the soundtrack of RAGTIME (based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel) on my iPod for a while and love it, so I plunked down the money for TYG and me to catch a local production. It was money well spent as 1906 America deals with Emma Goldman, polar exploration, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini and a Ragtime pianist who retaliates for his true love’s death from a police beating with a wave of terrorism, all set to music. Powerful, though downbeat (reminding me of the book American Movie Musical‘s argument that where musicals traditionally showed music bridging strife in the community, modern productions no longer see the rifts as bridgeable). The production was minimalist in design (you can see the set above, though parts of the show took place on the risers above the audience) and used modern dress but effective nonetheless. My only complaint is the way the script paints Nesbit, a rape victim, as some kind of publicity-seeking adulteress. “When you’re trapped/And destruction seems imminent/Look to Houdini/The ultimate immigrant!”

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A smuggler, a teen detective and a power struggle: movies viewed

SOLO (2018) is, of course, the story of how young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) got a Wookie BFF, won the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), lost his Great Love (Emilia Clarke), made the Kessel run in twelve parsecs and shot first (doing so in the final showdown with Woody Harrelson can’t be unintentional). This was a lot of fun, but not entirely satisfying — my big problem is that Han comes off too noble an anti-hero to be the money-hungry cynic and crook of A New Hope.  With Thandie Newton as a crime lord. “Did you forget? Never trust anyone.”

NANCY DREW — DETECTIVE (1938) stars Bonita Granville as an impetuous Nancy, convinced the mysterious disappearance of an old spinster right before she could donate her wealth to Nancy’s school is a sign of something sinister (spoiler: she’s right). While I’m not terribly familiar with the Carolyn Keene novels, Granville’s wide-eyed naif seems less like the book version and closer to amateur female sleuths like Deanna Durbin in Lady on a Train. This has the odd catchphrase “I’ll bet you $23.80” (supposedly it’s a standard WPA weekly paycheck) and I wonder if Nancy driving her own car didn’t have different meaning back then (it’s common today for a teen, but I imagine it must have been an unattainble fantasy during the Depression). “The password was bluebell — and a bluebell is also a larkspur.”

Granville becomes NANCY DREW — REPORTER (1939) as part of a school competition, then contrives to cover a sensational murder trial in which her woman’s intuition tells her the accused is innocent. Trying to prove otherwise, of course, plunges her and quasi-boyfriend John Litel (they don’t seem to be dating, but she’s quite possessive of him) into deadly danger, not to mention boxing. This was an improvement on the first film. “The man had a cauliflower ear.”

SKIN GAME (1931) is another of those stiff upper lip dramas Hitchcock seems to have made in his early career, a stagebound adaptation of a John Galsworthy play (even Juno and the Paycock opened the sets better). Ed Gwenn gives an excellent turn as a man of business whose plans for a country village put him on a collision course with the local squire, with both of them playing increasing hardball until a tragedy ensues. Better than Easy Virtue, but if this had become a lost film, cinema would not have suffered.. “Papa, may I spit in his eye?”

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Reporting In the Internet Age, In Fact and Fiction

One of the story elements in this season of the CW’s Supergirl is that CatCo has been bought out and taken over by Andrea Rojas (Julie Gonzalo), a corporate schemer (and, we’ve learned, a supervillain on the side) under whose governance clicks, hits and eyeballs are the sole measure of good journalism. Crap is better than good journalism if the crap is serious clickbait.

Recent developments at the Deadspin sports-and-news site have demonstrated that’s a very realistic prospect. The new owners promptly told everyone that to draw more eyeballs, they should stick to sports coverage and nothing else. The flaw in this argument being that the political stuff drew lots of hits: if the owners had any brains, they’d have run with it. As former Deadspin reporter Megan Greenwell puts it, “The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.” Which is why so many of the staff are resigning.

Part of the problem may be that “publishing well-written, well-researched articles that address various subjects with authority takes longer and costs more than publishing a high volume of short posts that exist only as filler underneath narrow-topic headlines designed to game Google searches.” Which fits with my experience at the Freedom News chain: I often felt like upper management would have been happy to convert the papers to endless pages of ads and “Cutest Cat” contest instead of actually paying anyone, only they, at least knew that wouldn’t work. It’s why I became suspicious of the business-speak phrase “content providers” which implies that reporters and photographers are really no different or more important than the people who submit press releases, fishing photos or letters to the editor. It’s all content, what’s the difference?

Where Supergirl gets it wrong is that, as Greenwell puts it, “the journalists at Deadspin and its sister sites, like most journalists I know, are eager to do work that makes money; we are even willing to compromise for it, knowing that our jobs and futures rest on it.” Again, that fits with my experience. I know writing about city council budget meetings or zoning hearings might as well be blank space as far as most readers are concerned (though it’s still a bad thing that local news coverage is disappearing), even though it affects their lives big-time (more than once I’ve seen someone declare at a Destin City Council meeting that there’s been no information released about a particular issue or city project, even though I’ve written dozens of stories about it). But I do the best I can to make them interesting and readable. And I also do stories that are more appealing to readers: talented kids and their accomplishments, local writer publishes book, new business development on the harbor.

Kara, Jimmy, Nia and their fellow journalists, however, don’t think about that. As Greenwll puts i, it’s a story where “idealistic journalists, unconcerned with profit, are posed against ruthless business-doers” rather than journalists trying to combine quality and popularity with management that happily flings crap against the wall in the conviction they know what will stick. Nobody argues with Andrea that their serious news article will be a better hook than whatever clickbait she has in mind, they just protest on principle.

Of course, I also have problems with the opposite handling of journalists, where their only standard in covering stories is how it will advance their career (e.g., the graphic novel Genius: Siege). Most of the reporters I’ve known find covering stories and writing about them interesting; awards are great but they’re not the prime motivator (and bosses don’t usually assign coverage based on what will advance our careers).

Still, despite my criticisms, Supergirl comes closer to capturing 21st century reporting than the comics have lately.

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Marital discord in Ireland and Scandinavia: movies

DIE NIEBELUNGEN: Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924) is Part Two of  Fritz Lang’s silent film (I watched Part One, Siegfried, a couple of months back) and disappointing after the epic fantasy of the first. Here, Siegfried’s wife Kriemhild is not only dealing with Hagen murdering him but her brother’s refusal to punish his loyal follower. When Attila (yes, the Hun) proposes marriage, Kriemhild agrees, convinced she can turn him into a deadly weapon against Hagen. And if her family get in the way, too bad … This is a much a more straightline story than Siegfried and correspondingly less interesting; I’m also unclear why Hagen kills Attila’s son at a crucial turning point (from what I recall of reading the prose Niebelunglied, this is a problem with some versions of the story too). Impressive visually though. “You swore on the edge of your sword.”

Alfred Hitchcock again — JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (1930) is a filmed stage play I’d never imagine comes from the same director who later made Rope. Where the later movie is visually compelling despite taking place on a small set, this film comes off way too stagebound, though Hitchcock uses sound to create a sense of things happening off-screen.

The story didn’t work for me either, though apparently it’s much-beloved in Ireland. The story involves a working class family with a shiftless father, goodhearted daughter, son who’s fighting for Irish independence and Mom trying to keep it all together. When a wealthy relative leaves them an inheritance it looks like the clan’s hard luck story is turning around. Then it all comes crashing down and their doom is so heavy-handed I don’t know I’d have cared even on-stage (but a good stage production would certainly work better than this film). “Yes, that’s right — I have fallen to so low a state.”

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