Sunday, June 14, 2015

7 Days in May | Aloha, Clone Wars

Aloha (2015)



I was geared up for Cameron Crowe's new movie from the first time I heard about it. I'm not the world's biggest Crowe fan, but I like more of his stuff than I don't. The real attraction to me was the cast and Hawaii as not only the setting, but a crucial element of the movie. It couldn't be set anywhere else and be the same story.

Unfortunately, early buzz wasn't good, starting with former Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal, who wrote in a leaked email that it "never not even once ever works." From there, the critics piled on. And I get it. I understand why a lot of people don't like Aloha. There's a lot going on in it, many of the characters don't act in believable ways, and it can feel preachy at times. But I like it a lot.

Mostly I love the actors. That helps me root for the characters and want to defend their story, so maybe that's why I don't see as many problems with the film as other people do. Yeah, there's a lot going on in the movie, but I disagree with the critics who interpret that as Crowe's inability to fine tune his tale. I think it's intentional. There's a lot going on for Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) and the chaotic activity around him reflects that. It wasn't always a pleasant experience, but the structure of the story helped me get into his head.

And I don't think the movie is actually preachy. There are characters who aren't shy about sharing their very strong opinions, but I don't believe that those opinions are the point the movie's making. The point is about how Gilcrest reacts to those opinions. The major conflict is around a satellite that's being launched from Hawaii. There are people in the movie who think that's a very bad thing, but the movie itself isn't about whether or not it's inherently okay to launch a satellite. In fact, the people against it don't even completely agree on why it's a bad idea. What the movie cares about is that Gilcrest has made some assurances to these people - either directly or by implication - that there is no satellite, and when he finds out that oops there actually is... well, that's where the drama comes from.

Gilcrest is a messed up, very confused dude. One character tells him that he's sold his soul so many times that no one's even interested in buying it anymore. Maybe it's because I like Bradley Cooper, but I wanted to see this guy finally do the right thing and maybe be rewarded for it. That was the hook for me. I'm not going to spill what ends up happening, but that was plenty to keep me invested.

As for characters not always acting like real people: it's true that some of them behave in pretty strange ways. None of these actions are impossible though; they just seem unlikely. John Krasinski's character for instance is mostly defined by his inability to communicate with his wife (Rachel McAdams) using words. I've never met someone as dramatically closemouthed as he is. No one in real life actually behaves that way. The movie exaggerates that trait partly for comedy; partly to show how annoying it really is. I've seen plenty of movies with extremely reserved characters and my reaction is usually, "Hey, everybody. Leave the poor guy alone." This time, my reaction was, "Dude! Say something!" I think that same tactic of "exaggeration to form an impression" applies to a lot of the other characters, too. It's a tricky tactic though and we're seeing in audiences' reactions how polarizing it can be.

And that pretty much describes the whole movie.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her (2013)



Speaking of experiments, Ned Benson's The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a very cool one. The history behind it is that Jessica Chastain apparently was a fan of one of Benson's short films, so he showed her the first draft for Disappearance and asked if she'd be interested in playing Eleanor. She was, but not as the character was written in that script. That led Benson to create a different version, telling the same story, but from the woman's point of view. The original version more or less became The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him, while the revised version got the subtitle Her.

When the movies were introduced on the film festival circuit, they were shown as a double-feature with one admission price. But when the Weinstein Company offered to distribute it, they weren't interested in showing it that way. They didn't believe regular audiences would want to sit through both films, much less pay for each of them separately. So the Weinsteins insisted on a third version, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them that edited the two into a more traditional narrative.

I was interested in seeing them the way that Benson intended and fortunately we can do that now on Netflix. Ideally, you're supposed to be able to watch them in any order, but I went with the way they were written and presented at the festivals: Him first and then Her. I recommend that approach, but maybe that's because I'm a dude.

Of the two films, I identified most with Him. Big shocker. It's the story of a man named Conor (James McAvoy) who's marriage is dissolving completely outside of his control. The death of the couples' child has affected both him and his wife (Chastain), but Eleanor is severely depressed and needs to disappear for a while to figure out who she is and where she wants to go. She tells him that she's leaving, and then she does, and he feels as resistant to, but helpless about the whole thing as I imagine that I would. Him does a great job of running Conor through a variety of difficult decisions and conflicting emotions, showing how fragile our lives are and how they can be so quickly changed by the choices of another person if we're deeply enough connected to her.

Having been through Him, and knowing a little about the origin of Her, my expectation for Her was that I would be challenged to then relate to Eleanor as much as I had to Conor. Surprisingly, that never happened. Her doesn't offer a rational explanation for Eleanor's behavior. It's not even trying to. Because there is no rational explanation. Making sense has nothing to do with it. She is - justifiably - an emotional wreck. Her life has been radically changed as well and though she and Conor both lost their child, they've dealt with it in different ways. What Her does is to let us see the aftermath of this from her point of view so that we can see just how confused and ungrounded it's left her. In Him, her leaving is something she did to Conor. In Her, it's something she's done to herself and it's no less painful. Neither version is interested in keeping score of who's hurting more though. And that's what I love most about them.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008 TV show)



We finally finished The Clone Wars. It was a rocky ride.

Season One was mostly about enjoying some fun and adventure in the Star Wars galaxy again after the darkness of the prequels. Season Two was also a kick, mostly focused on doing Star Wars riffs on other kinds of stories like The Seven Samurai, murder mysteries, or King Kong and Godzilla.

Seasons Three and Four got to be a slog though. They introduce some cool bounty hunter characters, but that's a problem when the show has to power down the Jedi in order to make the weaker villains seem like a credible threat. The Jedi characters were constantly forgetting to use their powers and it seemed like any bad guy could pick up a lightsaber and competently fight a Jedi with it.

Seasons Five and Six picked up again though. Season Five had longer story arcs that showcased some new and interesting characters, like a group of younglings that Ahsoka's helping to train, or a squadron of droids that R2 joins for a special mission. Season Six then starts to move purposefully towards Revenge of the Sith, with storylines that hint about things that happen in that movie and beyond. I'm extremely pleased with the last beats of the final episode.

As much as I liked Seasons Five and Six though, I found myself getting increasingly frustrated with the Jedi. They started using their powers again, but they - and especially the Jedi Council - were continually making bad decisions. At first I thought this was just bad writing, but it became so consistent that I realized it had to be on purpose. And I realized that it was also consistent with how the Council had acted in Phantom Menace (refusing to train Anakin, for example) and Attack of the Clones (easily getting sucked into the Separatist conflict, creating a situation where Anakin and Padme have to marry in secret, etc.). In the movies though, I'd always made excuses for the Council. "That's just their way," I thought. I might not agree with them, but I figured that was part of my responsibility in suspending disbelief. I bought that they were supposed to be wise, without ever questioning it. The Clone Wars made me question it. And by the end, I was actually ready to see the Jedi wiped out.

Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003 TV show)



We also went back and finished the Genndy Tartakovsky cartoon. Watching the shows in chronological order, we started with Tartakovsky and watched it to a certain point in the second episode of Season Three. That episode covers a lot of time, so if you stop it right after Anakin returns to Padme with the new scar on his eye, there's time for the entire Dave Filoni series to fit. Picking up after that scene in the Tartakovsky episode, Anakin looks like he does in Revenge of the Sith and the rest of the Tartakovsky series takes you right up to the opening scene of Sith.

We like both Clone Wars cartoons for different reasons. The Filoni show is strong on characterization and created versions of these characters (and completely new characters like Ahsoka) that we fell in love with. But its CG animation is limited in how fast it can move, which gives Tartakovsky's an advantage over it. Tartakovsky's show can't touch Filoni's for characters, but it is way more action-packed and full of awesome. Everyone is tough and amazing; good guys and bad guys alike.

The Revenge of the Sith (2005)



My hope for watching Filoni's The Clone Wars was that it would somehow make Revenge of the Sith better. My biggest issue with Sith has always been that I don't believe Anakin's transition to the Dark Side. I get the logical arguments that Palpatine presents to Anakin, but I've never felt what Anakin's supposed to be feeling. So I wanted The Clone Wars to help with that. I figured I was probably asking too much of it, but I want to like Sith more than I do, so I hoped.

And it does help. Quite a bit actually, but not in the way I imagined. Instead of showing Anakin get progressively angrier, The Clone Wars undermines his faith in the Jedi. One of the major ways that Palpatine tricks Anakin in Sith is to convince him that the Jedi are out to take over the Republic. Attack of the Clones set some groundwork for this by showing Anakin's impatience for all the deliberating that the Senate and the Jedi do. He believes that a just, all-powerful ruler is the answer the Republic needs. But feeling that way is a long leap from actually distrusting Obi-Wan, Yoda, and the rest of the Jedi.

What The Clone Wars does is call that whole organization into question. The Council isn't wise, they've never made good choices, and they're actually not to be trusted. They look to protect themselves and maintain the status quo. Exactly what Palpatine accuses them of. Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones both support this interpretation, but The Clone Wars makes it abundantly clear. So that, plus the chance to save Padme's life, are reason enough for Anakin to put some faith in Palpatine.

When Mace Windu and Palpatine are fighting and Anakin is forced to pick a side, this time I bought why Anakin backed Palpatine. Mace Windu is the absolute worst of the Jedi Council. He's a great warrior (especially in the Tartakovsky show), but he's also arrogant, foolish, and blind to both of those faults. And once Anakin chooses Palpatine and plays a role in Windu's death, he's forced to be all in. There's no going back for him after that; the first domino has fallen. His only option is to delude himself into believing Palpatine's lies, which leads him to march on the Jedi temple and murder everyone there, which drives him insane with grief and anger.

I still have some big problems with Sith. But now the largest of them is the way Padme dies. Could they not have at least left open the possibility that there were complications in childbirth instead of specifically stating that there was nothing physically wrong with her? I don't understand that at all. I'm glad to finally be able to believe in Anakin's transformation though. That's a major issue solved.
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