Friday, December 18, 2015

Call me when the force really awakens. Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Sorry, that’s the best I can muster. Star Wars: The Force Awakens isn’t an awful movie, but it’s not a great one either.  Read on, and I promise no spoilers.

Haven’t I seen this somewhere before?
A teenager on a desert world with a hard life who doesn’t fit in. An robot with a secret agenda. A reluctant hero. A masked villain with a mysterious past. A super weapon. No I’m not describing the original Star Wars. All those same elements are in this movie along with many other similarities. Star Wars was an iconic moment in cinematic history. Any new movie in the genre should be a homage to the original, not slavishly derivative.

The surprises are disappointments. Kylo Ren’s real identity is revealed halfway through the movie. Enough hints were dropped so that if you had been paying attention, his relationship to other characters was obvious. The news arrives not with a gasp, but with a yawn. While we’re on the subject of Kylo Ren, there hasn’t been a more irritating villain since Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker.  Whiny and grating, there is nothing scary about him. Darth Vader was chilling from the first moment he appeared on screen. He never told you what he was going to do to you. He simply snapped your neck like a dry twig when you didn’t answer his questions. The worst thing he said? “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” It’s still creepy.

Kylo Ren stomps around the movie like a petulant schoolchild. Why aren’t I popular? Why don’t the cool kids like me? The rebellion has nothing to fear from him. Every time he throws another hissy fit (and he throws several) I imagine the storm troopers rolling their eyes beneath the masks and thinking, Oh crap, not again. Doesn’t he ever zip it? Eventually, they’ll rise up and kill him. Not because they fear for their lives, but simply because they’ve grown tired of his whimpering petulance. Ah well, what can one expect when Kylo Ren’s master, Supreme Leader Snoke, isn’t any more threatening? He comes across as a cranky CEO rather than an archetype of evil.

BB-8 was supposed to be the new R2-D2. Not even close. A good part of R2-D2’s charm was his relationship with C3PO.  He nagged, C3PO protested. They argued, they made up. They were a metallic odd couple. The range of whistles and clicks had a funny, weird friendship dynamic missing from the movie. BB-8 is a cute little robot, but has no one to talk to except the occasional human. There’s nothing memorable about him.

Apparently, love doesn’t conquer all
The end of the first trilogy left you with warm feelings about Han and Leia. Two people who needed each other found each other.  Sure, the road ahead wasn’t easy. There were still dangers lurking, remnants of the Empire who wouldn’t play nice, but they had each other. They would face the trials together and triumph.

Nice to know we were all wrong. Han and Leia are now grumpy Grammy and Gramps. There is no passion. This is no romance. They seem more like brother and sister. Kirk and Spock had more sexual chemistry in Abrams’ Star Trek movies than these two. Ford and Fisher are actors. Couldn’t they at least have acted as if they once had a spark?

How to improve the series
I’m so tired of all the heroes with daddy issues. This film, like so many other blockbusters, embraces father/son conflict, hoping to pull on the heartstrings. It doesn’t. All it gets from me is a Not again. Don’t they have any new ideas? The mantra in bloated budget movies seems to be if it worked the first five hundred times, it’s good enough. The big boys in Hollywood need to cut back on their cappuccino budget and find money to add a few female screenwriters.  Women would nip that daddy issue nonsense in the bud and come up with something more creative to add drama and engage an audience. Better yet, use women writers who have children. They know a thing or two about dealing with whiny toddlers and they most certainly would never write one as a villain.

Why are the powers-that-be in Hollywood so afraid of a little warmth and romance? It won’t turn an action film into a bodice-ripping chick flick, but rather humanizes the characters. There can and should be a happily ever after for well-loved heroes and heroines in movies that are meant to be fun. It makes us all feel a little better knowing that love can conquer all—even if it’s only on the movie screen. Don’t take that away from us.

Pluses. Really?
Yes there were a few. In particular, the new cast additions were excellent. Rey made a plucky heroine. Finn’s transition from storm trooper to reluctant hero added a nicely done twist. Poe Dameron’s pilot had a gritty appeal as a seasoned warrior. The story should have focused completely on them and their fight against the First Order. Dump Kylo Ren and Snoke. Add a new villain, and the movie would have been ten times better.

More to come. 
Maybe the second movie will improve. With a young cast this good there’s hope, but I won’t hold my breath. The first time I saw Star Wars, I was left with a triumphant feeling, and a desire to immediately watch the movie again. Not this time, I’m afraid.  It was an okay movie with an okay plot that generated nothing more than a vaguely dissatisfied feeling. With all the money thrown into this project, the end result really should have been memorable. It's not.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

In the long twisted course of human history it’s rare to come across a woman yielding true power. Even highborn females were generally under the thumb of male relatives and relegated to serve as either prizes of war or political pawns. Cooney has written a fascinating history of the only known female pharaoh, Hatshepset.

Little is known about Hatshepset’s life. Egyptians didn’t record individual thoughts and motives, to them they didn’t matter. Because they “enacted their politics through the rituals of religion, we cannot know exactly where the affairs of government ended and the ideology started.”  Cooney circumvented the lack of information by imbuing the book with a quasi-biographic tone. Historical purists may turn up their noses since the author had no firsthand knowledge of Hatshepset’s beliefs and feelings, but the book doesn’t suffer from the speculation. This is less history than story. Attempting to explain Hatshepset’s motivation and sentiments gives a voice to a fascinating woman long dead who succeeded in a culture and time far different from our own and climbed to a position of power few ever achieved.    

As a teenager Hatshepset’s husband/brother died. With no son to succeed to the throne, she became the regent to the new pharaoh, Thutmose III, infant son of a lesser wife. She was both his stepmother and his aunt. Retaining her role as Egypt’s High Priestess, God’s Wife of Amen, Hatshepset built her political career supported by the Amen priesthood. By the age of twenty she claimed her divine right and formed a co-regency with Thutmose III. A shrewd politician, she eventually used her insights into the political and spiritual life of Egypt to redefine the nature of kingship.  

After Hatshepset’s death, Thutmose III began the long process of asserting his own power and erasing her contributions and even her name from the historical record. Poor Hatshepset. Early Egyptologists took the misogynistic stance that she was “a woman who took what was not hers and got what was coming to her.” In the end, Cooney writes “Hatshepset’s greatest contribution and most daring innovation was her methodical and calculated creation of the only truly successful female kingship in the ancient world.” She managed her rise to power without assassination or a bloody coup and ruled peacefully for many years. That there is so little known of her is more the shame, but in The Woman Who Would Be King, Cooney manages to imbue her story with the dignity it deserves.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for a review.