Friday fanfare: “Merchant’s Lunch”

I first heard this incredibly evocative comic horror-movie of a song when the Austin Lounge Lizards covered it on Strange Noises in the Dark, but it was originally written and recorded by the Red Clay Ramblers in 1977, and was based on an actual diner in Nashville, frighteningly enough.

Here’s the Red Clay Ramblers performing the song live in the early 1980s on the TV show Fire on the Mountain.

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4-Color to 35-Millimeter: Spider-Man (2002)

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Sam Raimi is one of the first actual comics fans to direct a superhero movie. Shock and awe. After 25 years of development hell, a Spider-movie finally came out at the turn of the century that was well cast, well written, and which understood the character. The great superhero movie rewatch looks at the 2002 Spider-Man.

An excerpt:

The two standout performances are by J.K. Simmons and Willem Dafoe. The latter is despite the best efforts of the script, as there’s a lot of clunky dialogue here, and Osborn gets some of the worst of it. Having said that, he elevates the material, making Osborn’s Gollum-and-Smeagol act as his Goblin persona convinces Osborn to do evil things much more convincing than it deserves to be.

my review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Every month on my Patreon, I review a movie, and the one I did for December 2017 was Star Wars: The Last Jedi. With the film’s home video release, I present that review here on the ol’ blog now. If you like what you see, please consider supporting the Patreon, where $1/month gets you a monthly movie review just like this (I’ve also reviewed Proud Mary and Black Panther, with reviews of Avengers: Infinity War and retro-reviews of A Rage in Harlem and The Great White Hype coming soon), and $5/month also gets you weekly TV reviews. Plus you can get cat pictures, excerpts from my upcoming work, and more. Give it a shot!

ForceAwakens

Be warned that what follows is a completely spoiler filled review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. This review assumes that either you’ve seen the movie or you don’t mind reading about the plot elements of the movie. This is for two reasons:

1) Over the last twenty years or so, spoilerphobia has risen to an obsession, one I’ve never had much patience for. It’s the execution of the story that matters, not the details. It helps that, as a writer and editor, I know enough about story structure that I can generally predict what’s going to happen, anyhow. And so what? It’s how the characters get there, and how it affects them, that’s interesting. Plus, the actual term has become meaningless. Every once in a while there’s a plot point that counts as a spoiler—like the revelation about Jae in The Crying Game or, to give a more salient example, Luke finding out about his parentage in The Empire Strikes Back. But generally? If knowing who’s been cast in a movie or that a person is going to appear in the next episode of a TV show or being aware of the basic plot actually spoils your enjoyment of something, then I posit that your ability to actually take pleasure from art is horribly stunted.

2) Most of the discussion of The Last Jedi that I’ve read has been maddeningly superficial due to fear of angering the spoilerphobes. And there’s some serious stuff to talk about here that I haven’t seen in any reviews that weren’t heavily marked for spoilers.

Like, y’know, this one.

So there be spoilers here, and there’s plenty of spoiler space to warn you—where I talk about spoilers! I’M SO META!!!!

Anyhow…

The Last Jedi is a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, it’s a total thrill ride, with the action constantly moving and with great set pieces. The action sequences are superbly done, from the space battles to the swordfighting. I especially liked the fact that writer/director Rian Johnson killed the sound when Admiral Holdo lightspeed-rammed General Hux’s carrier, which made that bit a thousand times more effective. And the Rey/Kylo fight against Snoke’s guards was a thing of beauty. (Though once again, as with every other film in the series, Jedi telekinesis only exists when the writers/directors remember it’s there, which is about 20% of the time.)

On the other hand, the pacing is a bit of a mess. There’s so much happening in this movie, and it feels overstuffed. Finn and Rose’s diversion to Canto Bight feels like it wandered in from a different movie, and it’s just too much (though it does set up the final scene beautifully). Holdo’s heroic action is great, but it should’ve happened the microsecond Hux started firing on the convoy, not after half the transports got blown up. And the Millennium Falcon just disappeared from the action on Crait for a significant period with no explanation until it was time for Rey to lift rocks.

One the one hand, the script is superb. There’s not a false line of dialogue in the movie, and it’s glorious. I especially like that the big moments aren’t played big, but small, and more devastating for all that, from Luke casually tossing away the light sabre to “Where’s Han?” to “I changed my hair” to that last scene with the kids playing Luke’s confrontation with Kylo. The script also handled prophecy well, as everything both Kylo and Rey see comes true, but not the way either of them expected.

On the other hand, much like the second movie in the first trilogy, there are timing issues out the wazoo here. Rey is with Luke for several days, yet the events with the rebels happens over the course of one day—which wouldn’t be a problem, except Rey’s Force-induced conversations with Kylo mean that the events were parallel, which just doesn’t work. Also there’s no way the diversion to Canto Bight could have happened in the time available, nor does it make any sense that Finn and Rose survived the cleaving of Hux’s ship.

Most of the acting here is excellent, with the notable exception of Joonas Suotamo, who is unable to bring the emotion to Chewbacca that Peter Mayhew did. He’s got the comedy and physicality down—that moment when he smashes Luke’s door open is classic, as are the Porg bits—but he doesn’t sell Chewie’s grief over Han at any point. One of the three or four most emotionally poignant moments in the entire series is in Empire when Leia orders the doors closed on Hoth and Chewbacca rears his head back and screams his anguish. Mayhew made us believe in Chewie as a person; Suotamo’s not there yet, sadly.

Everyone else, though, is superb. I’m sad that we only got one scene with Maz, and over a viewscreen, no less, but Lupita Nyong’o was delightful as ever. Kelly Marie Tran and Veronica Ngo made us invested in the Tico family, and the pair of them did an amazing job of showing us the people in the rebellion, the first time a mainline Star Wars film has truly done this. (It’s one of the many great features about Rogue One, too.) John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are still excellent as Finn and Poe, the former with a bit less to do, the latter with a bit more. Laura Dern’s Holdo is nicely complex, with the movie leading us to think that she’s incompetent or evil, but her turning out to be one of the biggest heroes of the movie. (More on that in a bit.)

The other holdovers from the first trilogy, though, make the movie shine. Frank Oz brings back the mischievous Yoda we met when Luke arrived at Dagobah in Empire, and it’s a welcome bucket of water to Luke’s face. (And even after all these years, Yoda’s still trolling Luke, as Rey already took the Jedi texts with her, so burning the tree is pointless, but Yoda doesn’t bother to tell Luke that. Just like all the other important things Yoda never bothered to tell Luke. Nothing changes…) R2D2 and C3PO remain the Greek chorus of the series, the latter as comic relief, the former as the solid, reliable droid. (The moment when R2D2 shows Luke the recording of Leia from Star Wars is magnificent, reminding Luke that his being a hero is something he chose when he saw that recording decades earlier, and that that woman, who is also his sister, needs him again.)

Mark Hamill gives the performance of a lifetime as the aged Luke, fed up with the expectations of his position and unwilling to be the hero everyone thinks he should be. And then in the end, he has the same confidence that he showed at the top of Return of the Jedi when he led the rescue of Han.

And holy crap, does Carrie Fisher hit it out of the park. I have no idea how the hell they can even do the next installment without her, as General Leia is the heart and soul of this movie. Just a bravura performance. When Luke and Leia are finally reunited, it’s glorious, and too short by half, but just the right scene for the pair of them before we lose Luke forever.

With all that, though, they are still supporting players, as the main focus of the movie is Rey and Kylo. Their duality, their similarities, their differences are all front and center. In this single movie, Johnson gets right what Lucas got wrong in the prequel trilogy with Obi-Wan and Anakin. This coming together and then separating is how the sundered friendship between Obi-Wan and the future Darth Vader should have played out.

It’s especially nice to see the improvement in both Kylo and Snoke. Both characters were underserved by The Force Awakens, way too one-dimensional, and in Kylo’s case, irritatingly whiny. Adam Driver is given more to do emotionally here, and he nails it. You see the process by which he works his way to the dark side, something he hadn’t committed to up until he kills Snoke. (We also see the origins of his conflict in the flashbacks with Luke, as both of them made crucial errors in judgment—Luke that Kylo had completely turned, Kylo that Luke had betrayed him—that led to where we are now.) Andy Serkis also imbues Snoke with more subtle menace that we saw in the last film, making him a far more effective bad guy.

Still, despite the good and bad in the movie—and there’s plenty of both—I think it ultimately is one of the top echelon of films in the series because it is a brilliant examination of heroism.

People in this movie try to be heroes, and they’re the ones who fail at it (Poe, Kylo). People who don’t want to be heroes anymore are forced back into it (Luke, Finn). And people who don’t look for heroism and don’t consider themselves heroes wind up being the most heroic (BB-8, Holdo). And those who seek to be better heroes get hard lessons in how incredibly difficult that is (Rey, Paige).

I have to admit to particularly liking the fact that Poe, Finn, and Rose’s batshit crazy plan to turn off the tracking system on Hux’s ship was such a complete and total failure. In fact, that very plan was what led to half the transports going to Crait getting destroyed. So many times in fiction the scrappy characters who decide to go their own way without approval from the bosses turn out triumphant, and it’s tired and stupid and dangerous.

Because Holdo was absolutely right. She did have a plan, but all she knew about Poe was that he was a recently demoted jackass who got a lot of people killed. She had no reason to read him in on the plan, and he should have followed the chain of command. But he didn’t, and because of it, a lot more people died—for the second time in a row, as his previous disobeying of orders to do something crazy resulted in all their bombers being destroyed.

Poe was trying to be a hero, and that trick never works, because the legends of heroes and the reality of their lives never intersect. Legend has it that the Jedi Knights were great heroes who defended the Old Republic, but the reality is that they were corrupt and incompetent. I have to say, I almost cheered in the theatre when Luke came out and said that the Jedi were total fuckups, since the entire prequel trilogy is a chronicle of the Jedi Knights’ abject failure. They not only didn’t stop the fall of the Republic, they weren’t even aware of its imminent demise. Palpatine’s plan to take over as emperor never once had a single setback over three movies, and 99% of the Jedi who were wiped out by Order 66 died not having the first clue why they were being assassinated.

Luke knows the truth, and he knows how badly the Jedi failed—not just against Palpatine, but again when he tried to revive the Jedi Academy. Because of that, he has shut himself off from the Force and refuses to help Rey, even though her mission comes straight from Leia. Even when he does give in and finally train her, he spends all his time proving all the legends wrong.

But eventually, thanks in part to R2’s kick in the ass, he takes on the mantle of hero once again, Force-projecting his astral form to Crait and giving the rebels a legend to latch onto. Because in the end, the kids are talking about how the mighty Luke Skywalker stood up to half a dozen walkers blasting him, and him coming out unscathed. Nobody’s talking about Holdo’s kamikaze run on Hux’s carrier, because she’s just the substitute commander, filling in while Leia’s recovering from her wounds. Yet, she’s the true hero of the piece. But Luke is the legend, the guy who stopped the Empire.

Perhaps the entire theme of legends of heroism versus the compromises of reality is embodied in Benicio del Toro’s DJ. He comes across at first as a lovable rogue, a type this film series has always had a soft spot for. We think he might be a hero in the mode of Han Solo or Lando Calrissian—he shows up with BB-8 in a stolen ship, he uses the necklace he extracted as payment from Rose to break into the engine room, and then gives it back. We think he might be on the side of angels—and then he betrays them to the First Order, because he’s still a person who has to survive in the galaxy, and this is the way to do it. As he says, “it’s just business,” which is the reality of life for most. We can’t all be heroes, we can’t all be willing to sacrifice ourselves.

So many great moments here. Rey’s misunderstanding what “reach out” means, and Luke whupping her upside the head for it. Maz giving useful advice while in the middle of a firefight. Poe distracting Hux with nonsense while waiting for his weapons to charge up. Rose stunning Finn when she realizes he’s trying to desert. Yoda’s entire scene. Rey practicing with her staff and then switching to the light sabre, thus reminding everyone that she was already trained in how to use a staff before she found out the Force was strong in her, and most of her sabre techniques are similar to staff techniques. Leia and Holdo’s last conversation. Rose taking the saddle off the fathier and saying, “Now he’s free.” Poe scratching BB-8’s belly when they’re reunited. The sheer loathing in Kylo’s voice when he orders his soldiers to fire on the Millennium Falcon (some serious Daddy issues connected to that ship…). Kylo’s inability to fire the shot that would kill his mother. Leia saving herself with the Force, something we haven’t gotten to see hardly at all, which sucks.

And lots of head-scratchers, too. Why isn’t Chewbacca more involved in recruiting Luke away from his island? Admiral Akbar’s death was rather perfunctory. Convenient how Poe and BB-8 manage to survive the destruction of the X-wings when no one else does. Just in general, there’s a lot of cases where characters only survive because they’re main characters and therefore can’t die, when everyone around them is dead—the only time it works is Leia saving herself.

Still, ultimately this movie works because the themes it explores are so powerful, because the character work is superb, and because it’s a stupendous last hurrah for two cinematic icons (one on purpose, one enforced). It’s an overly ambitious film, and while it doesn’t always hit the target, that’s only because it shoots a bit too high, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

my ConGlomeration schedule

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I will be the Author Guest of Honor at ConGlomeration 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky this weekend. Looking forward to my second trip to the land of Unbridled Spirit in as many years….

Here’s my schedule:

Friday

8-9pm: opening ceremonies (Elliott)

Saturday

9-10am: “Q & A with Keith R.A. DeCandido” (Grant)

2-3pm: “Self-Publishing A-Z,” w/Lydia Sherrer and Bill Levy (Grant)

4-5pm: “Leveraging Facebook and Social Media,” w/Lydia Sherrer and Jay Garmon (Elliott)

Sunday

11am-noon: “Guests of Honor Last Call,” w/James L. Sutter and Stephen Hickman (Elliott)

 

Looking forward to seeing folks there!

 

Monday music: “Don’t Quit Your Day Job”

Here’s a blast from the past, specifically 2003. From 1994 to 2000, I was part of a group called the Don’t Quit Your Day Job Players. We started out jamming at conventions, but it soon grew into a viable band that played actual gigs, not only at cons, but also at clubs and colleges and state and county fairs. We also released two CDs, TKB in 1996 and Blues Spoken Here in 1999.

The original lineup was me, David Honigsberg, and Pete Heck. Pete left in 1997 and we were then joined by Steve Rosenhaus. Like Pete before him, Steve split the lead-singer duties with David, and Steve also wrote lots of songs. One he decided to do was our “theme song,” since we had the name anyhow — so he wrote “Don’t Quit Your Day Job.”

The band kind of fell apart in 2000, as bands are wont to do, and David and Steve each put out solo CDs in the early 2000s. Steve invited me to participate on three of the songs, one of which was his own take on “Don’t Quit Your Day Job.” That’s me on percussion.

(Re)Generation Who 4 day 1: I sat next to Janet Fielding

The first day of (Re)Generation Who 4 has been a huge success, at least for me. Which was good, as it’s also been very hectic.

Wrenn and I made it down here at 4.15, which was later than we’d hoped, as I was on programming from 5-7. However, Wrenn and I (aided by a bellhop) unloaded the car, checked in, and then Wrenn went off with luggage to the room while I parked the car, leaving the stuff we’re selling with my handler’s assistant. I don’t normally have a handler for cons, but ReGenWho is very thorough about these things, and while I’m pretty low-maintenance and generally don’t ask of much from my helpers, I was extremely grateful for the extra help today, as Adam kept an eye on my stuff while I went to park the car.

I got back with just enough time to accompany Adam and my stuff to the dealer room and drop it all off, then go do my 5pm panel.

I was asked to moderate a panel on the 19th season of Doctor Who, which was a very important one. Airing in the first half of 1982, it was the first time since December 1973 that episodes of the show aired that didn’t star Tom Baker, as that was Peter Davison’s first year in the role.

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Okay, first of all, I GOT TO SIT NEXT TO JANET FIELDING! Tegan has always been my favorite companion, and the woman who played her TOTALLY SAT NEXT TO ME! And she’s also a total pip. The entire panel was wonderful, even if much of it was spent making fun of Matthew Waterhouse (though Matthew did very much lean into it), and a grand old time was had by all. We talked about puking and audio books and some of the odd choices in guest stars and how you can’t go to the bathroom if you’re playing a monster and playing dual roles and all kinds of stuff.

But mostly it was Janet taking the piss out of her fellow actors. It was tremendous fun, and people spent the rest of the night walking up to me and telling me what a good job I did moderating, so that was nice. I started the panel off by pairing each actor with an episode and asking what their memory was of filming it.

After that, I went straight into doing my practical self-defense workshop, which was very well attended, then I spent the next two hours in the dealer room selling my books and Wrenn’s stuffies. After a desperately needed nap, I joined Kara Dennison, Paul Magrs, and Rob Shearman for a late-night reading panel, where we each read a short bit of our work. Rob read a hilarious piece that takes a twisted look at air travel, while Paul read a delightful anecdote from his blog about a friend who met David Bowie. Between them, I read my short-short “A Vampire and a Vampire Hunter Walk Into a Bar.” Mercifully everyone laughed at the funny parts……..

Wrenn and I hung out with folks for a while, but then we started to fade. This was a really good day — in addition to everything I mentioned, I sold bunches of books and stuffies in the two hours I was in the dealer room — and I look forward to an even better one tomorrow, complete with a panel on writing at 2pm. Aside from that panel, you’re most likely to find me at my table in the dealer room, so come on by!