Matilda, Annie, and the Generation Gap

“When I’m stuck with a day
That’s gray, and lonely
I just stick out my chin
And grin, and say, oh
The sun’ll come out tomorrow
So ya gotta hang on ’till tomorrow
Come what may”


“Just because you find that life’s not fair, it
Doesn’t mean that you just have to grin and bear it
If you always take it on the chin and wear it
Nothing will change
Just because I find myself in this story
It doesn’t mean that everything is written for me
If I think the ending is fixed already
I might as well be saying I think that it’s OK
And that’s not right”


I never had much of a relationship with any version of Matilda before the recently released film Matilda the Musical now on Netflix. Despite being a Roald Dahl fan as a kid in the 80’s/90’s, I somehow never read the original story. As a result, I didn’t make an effort to see the 1996 film, which I might have felt a little too old for at the time. The 2011 stage musical, which the new film adapts for the screen, never made it to my home of Tucson on its national tour. So despite a passing familiarity with the story and plenty of opportunities to connect with the material through my 38 years, I went into this new version of Matilda the Musical as a mostly blank slate, with my 4.5-year-old son beside me.

It instantly became our new household obsession. We’ve watched it four times in the last nine days, our son demands the soundtrack to be played at every opportunity, and he requests that I sing its climactic number, “Revolting Children,” for his bedtime song every night. It has spectacularly catchy and clever music, kinetic and exciting choreography, gorgeous production design, excellent performances from both the kids and adults in the cast, and a story that speaks to universal values of justice and equality.

It also has a lot of parallels to the iconic musical Annie, which were brought to the forefront of my mind yesterday when by coincidence my wife and I had tickets to see the current national tour. Our son asked to watch Matilda the Musical yesterday morning and our tickets for Annie were in the afternoon, and the juxtaposition of the two similar musicals in the same day had my mind reeling. Unlike Matilda, I have a long relationship with Annie, which was the first musical I ever saw on stage. My mother and grandmother took me to a performance as a young child, and it ignited my love of musical theater. Those first three dynamite songs (“Maybe,” “Hard Knock Life,” and “Tomorrow”) combined with the strong pull on the heartstrings that comes from Annie calling Sandy and having him come to her captured my imagination. We would have taken our son to Annie yesterday, because he would have loved it, but when the tickets were purchased almost a year ago we didn’t know whether he’d be old enough. (As it is, his first musical theater experience was The Lion King, which isn’t a bad way to go either.)

I love Annie. Its songs are almost all iconic for a reason, even as I notice things now as an adult that I didn’t notice as a kid. For instance, Annie opens with its three best songs in the first 20 minutes, and is forced to reprise them throughout while the remainder of the still-great songs fade in comparison. Still, I sang “Tomorrow” to my son when he was an infant, and I look forward to introducing him to Annie the next time it comes through town. But after watching it and Matilda back to back yesterday, I’m much happier to have my son singing along to Matilda (as he currently is while sitting next to me as I type and we watch it again) than to Annie, despite my love for both.

The Annie vs Matilda dynamic seems to perfectly speak to the generation gaps in today’s society, particularly between Boomers and Millennials. The two musicals, so superficially similar with their plucky young female protagonists, were written for very different audiences in very different times and have very different things to say about children, their places in society, and how they should act. Annie and Matilda, the characters, both start in awful circumstances with evil, neglectful, abusive guardians, come face to face with injustice and inequality, and end their stories in the care of loving, supportive parent figures. Their stories, however, couldn’t be more different, and those differences can tell us a lot about the disconnects between Boomers and Millennials.

Annie first debuted onstage in 1977, with music by Charles Strause, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and a book by Thomas Meehan. It’s based on the “Little Orphan Annie” comic strip which began in 1924 and which spawned film adaptations and a radio show before it made its way to the stage. Its high point of popularity was during the Great Depression and before World War II. As such it wasn’t the childhood staple of Boomers as much as it would have been for their parents, though it would have been regularly published in newspapers during Boomers’ youth. 

By the time of the Annie musical, Boomers would have been in their mid 30s, many with Gen-X children of their own to watch it with. The 1930’s setting of the musical, with its hardships of the Depression and the looming prospect of war, was intended to resonate with adult audiences who had lived through their own hardships of the Nixon era and the horrors of the Vietnam War. Its message of optimism and unity in that older era spoke to the need for optimism to try to lift the national mood in the 70’s. I can imagine that message speaking to parents of children who hoped their kids would grow up in a more positive situation.

Matilda, the novel, was published in 1988 and many Millenials doubtlessly grew up with either the book or the popular 1996 Mara Wilson film. By the time the musical debuted in 2011, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin and a book by Dennis Kelly, those Millennials had grown into young adults of the sort likely to go see a stage version of a story they loved as kids. And now with the movie another decade later, many of us now have children of our own to introduce to the story. But what speaks to us is very different from what spoke to parents of young kids in the 1970’s.

What is Annie’s defining characteristic? What motivates her? How does she follow that motivation and where does it lead her? Annie is primarily defined by her goodness and her sunny optimism. She looks after the other kids in Miss Hannigan’s orphanage, helping them when they wake up crying in the night. She dreams of finding her parents, who left her a note and a locket, and she runs away determined to do so. She has an irrepressibly positive attitude, as we hear in her signature song, and every move she makes is rooted in that attitude.

Matilda’s defining characteristics, on the other hand, are her genius brain and her sense of justice. Her motivations are to learn and to fight for fairness. These lead her to be a troublemaker, to challenge authority, and to ask questions of those in charge. Both girls try to protect their friends and those who are oppressed or down on their luck, but they do it in completely different ways. 

Annie shines her positive light to inspire the grownups to be more like her, good and kind. She brings together Republican billionaire Oliver Warbucks and Democrat president Roosevelt (who was hated by “Little Orphan Annie” creator Harold Gray) to catch the bad guys, create the New Deal, and eliminate the Hoovervilles like the one she passes through early in the play. Unity, honesty, and benevolence save the day in Annie’s world.

Matilda inspires those around her as well, but she doesn’t waste her time trying to appeal to the better nature of those in authority. Instead she uses her powers to destroy the tool of Miss Trunchbull’s oppression (the nightmarish “Chokey” dungeon), lends her bravery to her peers so that they stand on their desks in open rebellion against their headmistress, and frightens and then flings her bodily (at least in the new film) from her seat of power. Her righteous anger about the state of things makes her fight back in a way that’s completely foreign to the world of Annie.

The musical Annie treats its children like plot devices. Sure, Annie is a great character, with pluck and wit and charm, with great songs to sing. She sees the good in the world and helps things to turn out better in the end. But other than running away at the beginning she doesn’t actually do much other than be a positive presence. She melts Daddy Warbucks’ heart and inspires Roosevelt and his Cabinet, but she doesn’t drive the plot once Warbucks takes her in. Miss Hannigan’s and Rooster’s plot comes and goes without any particular input from her. Warbucks’ assistant, Grace, first notices the scam and it’s foiled due to Warbucks and his government connections to Roosevelt and the FBI. A wealthy benefactor having his attitude changed just by Annie’s mere presence is all it takes to save the day.

Matilda treats its children like humans, with agency, skills, and power. Matilda, the character, drives the plot. She’s thrown from one awful situation in her home into another awful situation at Trunchbull’s school. She bonds with her schoolmates and helps to protect them when they’re in danger. She uses her cleverness to foil Trunchbull’s plans, and when injustice happens she dares to shout, “No!” in the face of those in charge, inspiring everyone around her. As her power grows and Trunchbull’s rage to match it, she uncovers the headmistress’s evil past, tears down the Chokey, exposes Trunchbull’s crimes, and eventually drives her away for good. All of the positive change happens because of the children, and not Matilda alone. She doesn’t lead the final revolt, though her stands earlier in the film helped inspire the bravery of the others.

Annie and Matilda treat the systems we have to deal with completely differently. Annie sees its conflicts resolved by working within the system to find compromises between those with power to craft a New Deal. The massive amount of unhoused people are helped by being given jobs that will ultimately make one of the richest men on Earth even richer. The rising tide will theoretically lift all boats, and they’ll be well prepared to fight the enemy looming on the horizon, while the rich who never had to suffer any of the hardships of the common folk will continue to thrive. Matilda resolves its larger conflicts by ultimately tearing down the system, removing the unjust from power, and building something completely new. The evil headmistress is banished, the oppressive school is rebuilt into something completely different, and the neglectful parents are sent away. Matilda argues that sometimes there is no common ground, that those in charge who made things the way they are should be removed from power, and that the systems that enable abuses should be dismantled.

Even the good adults of these stories speak to very different values. Daddy Warbucks is one of the richest men in the world, a billionaire among millionaires, who isn’t in any way required to be kind or generous, but ultimately decides to be thanks to the goodness of his adopted daughter. His staff are all kind, good people, but they’re also presumably well paid with a generally benevolent boss in a time when those living in the Hoovervilles would probably do anything for their jobs. Can you imagine a popular musical today where the hero is a billionaire industrialist whose powerful connections help save the day?

Matilda‘s heroic adults are her teacher, Miss Honey, and the operator of the mobile library, Mrs. Phelps (not coincidentally, two women of color). Having a teacher and a librarian as the only two good adults in the story was a move that has only gotten stronger in the decade since the musical debuted, given how threatened our schools and educators, libraries and librarians are these days. Mrs. Phelps offers Matilda a refuge (though she does not know from what), an outlet for her stories and imagination, and an endless supply of knowledge through her books. Miss Honey is just as bullied by Miss Trunchbull as the students, as much of a victim of both the woman in charge and the system as a whole. Miss Honey admits after a question by Matilda that teachers are very poorly paid, and she is paid less than most. She lives in a rundown shack but has come to accept that, “it isn’t much but it is enough for me.”

In the opening number of act two (at least how the story is split on stage), “When I Grow Up,” Miss Honey even joins in singing with the children as they dream about being strong and brave enough to endure the challenges of the world. Miss Honey, relatable to many Millennial adults, still dreams of being those things despite already being an adult, as the system and those in charge treat her as if she is still a simpering child so that all she knows is fear. She is inspired by the children just as Warbucks is in Annie, but she doesn’t need to be inspired to goodness as she already has it within her (something common to the many teachers I know). Instead, she is inspired to have the bravery to fight back against the systems that have oppressed her and those like her, just as the children do.

As nice of a kid as Annie is, the Matilda of the musical is much more the sort of role model I would hope my son would emulate. That’s nothing against optimism, which I also believe is supremely important, but when faced with injustice I would always want my child to fight back, even if it means they have to be “a little bit naughty.” I’d rather have a child who is willing and able to tear down oppressive systems than one who only hopes and waits for things to get better. Many Millennials like myself would love to be Matilda, tearing things down and building something new and better in its place. But we’re more likely to be Miss Honey, quietly trying to do good and be kind in a world that is harsh and unfair. It isn’t much, but sometimes it’s enough or it is all we feel we can do. If we can’t be Matilda, then the best we can do is set up our children to be the fighters we wish we could be.

One of the most powerful moments in Matilda the Musical comes near the end but before Matilda’s final confrontation with Miss Trunchbull. She has discovered her telekinesis when she and the other children were finally pushed too far, when in her head “the noise becomes anger and the anger is light.” Miss Honey takes Matilda back to her shack for a cup of tea, and Matilda learns that Miss Trunchbull was responsible for the deaths of Miss Honey’s parents and her current awful situation. Matilda, resolved now to be proactive in the fight instead of just standing up in the moment, storms off in the rain, ready to do something. Miss Honey stops Matilda and warns her, “You need to be very careful. Miss Trunchbull is… capable of awful things.”

“I’m not scared of her,” Matilda replies.

“You should be,” Miss Honey tells her. “She’s dangerous.”

“So am I.”

Can you imagine anyone describing Annie as dangerous? Can you imagine Annie viewing herself that way? This exchange highlights one of the biggest disconnects of the generation gap in our age. Because the truth is, plenty of older folks do view children (and by extension youth, young adults, and basically anyone younger and more different than themselves) as dangerous. Millennials are used to being blamed by screaming editorials for everything from the trivial to the extreme, as if we’re ruining the world that was carefully crafted by previous generations out of spite or laziness. But while the young are dangerous, as Matilda understands, they’re only dangerous to the obstacles that stand in their way, the injustices and oppression that they see, and the systems and structures that create those things.

When you spend your life being told you’re a nothing and a burden and a waste, as Matilda and her classmates have been, you lose the respect and fear of those systems and structures that help to keep the young and the oppressed in line. That makes the young dangerous and powerful, and it’s why some of the biggest cheerleaders for Gen Z and their disregard for rules and tradition are the Millennials like Miss Honey. And I can only hope the next generation, like my son, are even further freed from those burdens and limitations society tries to set on them, because imagine what a generation of Matildas could create if they didn’t have to focus all of their energy on tearing down the walls built to hold them back.

Matilda inspires me to hope for the future, but not in the style of Annie, where the hope is that everyone will decide to be good and work together. Instead, the hope comes from the belief that the next generation, given the example of Matilda (and Newsies, and other works with similar messages) will fight and win in ways we couldn’t. Annie is an iconic and immensely entertaining piece of musical theater, but today its message of the power of optimism to bring about change merely by existing couldn’t hope to resonate with younger audiences the way Matilda will. (If you want a more challenging and rewarding story of optimism and its place in today’s world, I of course will point you towards Tomorrowland.) I will continue to push my son to be one of Matilda‘s revolting children: one who is dangerous, who won’t let a little thing like being little stop him, and who’s not afraid to get a little bit naughty.

“You mighta’ thought we were weak but we’re strong
Mighta’ thought we would break but you’re wrong
Because you finally pushed us too far
Now there’s no going back ’cause we are

Revolting children
Living in revolting times
We sing revolting songs
Using revolting rhymes
We’ll be revolting children
Til our revolting’s done
It is 2-L-8-4-U
We are revolting!”

-“Revolting Children”

Dune, My Dad, and Dementia

My dad was the one who first introduced me to Dune. We started with the 1984 David Lynch film, famously weird but ultimately endearing to us. I was fascinated by the universe of the movie, even to the point of annoying my dad during church the next morning with endless questions, to the point where I had to be shushed. When I was a little older I dove into the book. It was dense, complex, and a struggle to get through. I was furious when I got to the end to discover that there was a glossary that I could have been using the whole time that my loving father had neglected to tell me about. He thought it was hilarious. I’ve never forgiven him. The book rapidly grew to be one of my very favorites and I read it over and over. Though I never progressed to the rest of the series, as my dad had read them all and didn’t recommend them, Dune was always one of the pop culture bonds we shared.

My dad has dementia. It started with some vision problems soon after he retired. He was eventually diagnosed with Posterior Cortical Atrophy, an Alzheimer’s-like disease that affects the back portion of the brain that controls visual processing. He lost the ability to safely drive, to play golf, to be able to see to navigate around rooms. He’s not blind, strictly speaking, but he may as well be given his limitations. He can’t help out around the house in any way. He “watches” a lot of a TV, but most of the time he doesn’t even look at the screen, he just listens. It’s progressed far beyond his vision by now, affecting every part of his life. His general awareness of the world around him has shrunk, he talks nonsense or makes noises to himself all the time. He’s grown increasingly foul-mouthed, especially in the middle of the night. He has bathroom troubles. He’s occasionally been unable to recognize his wife of over 50 years, though he’s not quite so far gone that he doesn’t remember or recognize anyone or anything. It’s been hard on us all, especially my mother, who is an absolute saint in the way she takes care of him despite the enormous burden this is for her.

When the new version of Dune from Denis Villeneuve was announced 5 years or so ago, I was thrilled. We were due for an update, one that was both more faithful to the book while also being more accessible for a wider audience. At the time, my dad’s dementia hadn’t progressed as far as it has, and I looked forward to discussing the new Dune with him, comparing it to the book and to the 1984 film, seeing where it shined or where it fell short, analyzing the cast, debating the need to split the book into two movies, hoping part 2 would get made, etc. Given his condition, I didn’t expect the same level of conversation as we might have had when I was in high school, it was still something I was excited about.

Of course, by the time the movie was released in October of last year my father’s condition had changed significantly from even just five years before. I still wanted to take him to see it, but I kept coming up with various excuses to not do it. I couldn’t find the right time to go, or somebody was sick, or whatever. I kept making a good faith effort to plan an outing with my dad during its theatrical run, but I never treated it like it was something I really wanted to do. I think deep down I was scared. It wasn’t just the natural fear of having to manage my dad for 3 hours, safely getting him into my car, into the theater, and dealing with anything unexpected that came up, it was also the fear of disappointment. 

I knew that my hopes were destined to not come true. There’d be no exciting anticipation before the movie, no lengthy discussion afterwards. We wouldn’t debate how the movie had handled the many iconic scenes from the book, what had been changed or added or dropped. The best I could hope for would be some awareness or familiarity with certain moments. We’d talked over and over of the Gob Jabbar, so I still held onto hope that it might elicit a reaction from him when we saw it. Or perhaps the first sandworm attack on the spice harvester. Or even Dr. Yeuh and the tooth (which I had pestered him about in church all those many years ago). 

I chickened out, however. I never found an opportunity to watch it with my father. Instead I went to a late night showing with a good friend and fellow Dune fan, and that showing was everything I’d hoped it could be. A great movie with great discussion paired with it, with only a slight pang of guilt that it wasn’t with my dad. I knew he wouldn’t even know to hold it against me, but I still felt like I was letting him down. But hey, I had sort of tried to get it to work out so I could take him, but it just didn’t come together. That happens sometimes, right?

I figured that would be the end of it, but I was wrong. Since Dune was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it was given a showing at our local theater among a slate of all the Best Picture nominees. This time, for some unknown reason, my courage didn’t fail me, and I rearranged things to make sure I wouldn’t miss this opportunity again. So on a Saturday afternoon I took my 72 year old father with dementia to see Dune.

I chose seats that wouldn’t require climbing many stairs. I harassed the guy selling tickets to give me paper ticket copies. I helped my dad get his mask on. I bought popcorn for us and I even got him a Coke Icee, which used to be his favorite movie drink. I knew this could very well be the last time I ever get to go to a movie with my dad, the man who helped stoke my love of cinema and who went to a movie with me at least once a week for years and years. I was going to do everything I could to make it special for him, even if he didn’t understand.

Ultimately, that disappointment I had feared turned out to be well founded. On the way there he had asked me, “What’s the name of the movie we’re seeing about?” (His own confused way of asking what we were seeing.) I told him it was Dune and he nodded like he understood. I tried to explain that it was only the first half of the book, but I don’t know whether that meant anything to him. At the theater he couldn’t really drink his Coke Icee because fiddling with his mask and trying to drink out of a straw he can’t see is just too much to ask. He didn’t eat any popcorn. He stared into the distance during the whole movie, with no discernable reaction to anything that happened. I’d hoped for a nod at the famous line, “I hold at your neck the Gom Jabbar,” but nothing. I was struck on my second viewing, watching with my father as my primary consideration, how loud the movie is, particularly once the Harkonnens attack. Dark and loud with explosions and things that would be just indecipherable light to my dad.

There was no discussion afterwards, of course. No talk about gender-swapping Liet Kynes, or the design of the film, or where they decided to split the story. No talk about how we felt about Timothée Chalamet as Paul. Not even any real acknowledgement of the movie at all. Still, I was glad I took him. It did him no harm, it gave my mom a nice quiet afternoon to herself, and it was nice to be able to share that with my dad even if he got nothing from it.

I’m not far from being able to take my son, who is three and a half, to the movies. We’ve had plenty of fun watching all kinds of animated movies at home, both new and classics. He does a good job of sitting still for a movie at home, so he’d probably do just fine in a theater, though we’re going to wait until he’s been vaccinated for Covid before we take him out somewhere like that. Still, I may never get the chance to see a movie with both my dad and my son in the theater. It’s possible within a short while my dad might be in some kind of assisted living situation, and my son may never get to make that kind of multi-generation movie memory like I did with my dad and grandfather.

But despite the disappointment and the sadness, the realizations that the man who raised me isn’t the same as he used to be and that many doors are now closed that I’d hoped would remain open, there’s a positive memory from our movie outing that will always stick with me. It’s one that ultimately has nothing to do with Dune. Before I left to pick up my dad to go to the movie I gave some serious thought to what to listen to in the car. I normally just listen to audiobooks when I drive, but I wanted some music that I thought he’d enjoy.

I ended up picking the 1994 album Cracked Rear View by Hootie and the Blowfish. I could have gone with the Beatles, or CSNY, or Simon and Garfunkel, or any of a dozen other groups that he taught me to love in the same way he taught me to love Dune, but I went with Hootie, which got regular play in my house as a kid. As soon as I pulled the music up in my car, my dad got a huge grin on his face. He sang along to every song in his own creaking way, despite clearly not remembering many of the words or being able to carry a tune. The music jogged something in his memory and every song felt familiar to him. He smiled and sang the whole way there and the whole way back, and from now on whenever I think of Dune I’ll remember my dad, beaten down by the ravages of time, brought back to life by this familiar music. It wasn’t what I’d hoped for from an outing to a movie we both would have looked forward to 10 or more years ago, but it was a moment of connection, a moment of happiness, and a reminder that the dad I love is still inside him and is still human. It’s not everything, but it’s enough.

Review and Analysis – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

I haven’t written about movies in over a year and a half, so please bear with me. I just couldn’t let a Star Wars movie pass without making an attempt. This first review section will be spoiler-free, while the second section will be spoiler-filled and have ample warning before you get to it.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a mess. It’s also highly enjoyable. It is satisfying. It is disappointing. It is lazy, pandering, and focus-grouped. It is emotional, heartfelt, and genuine. It honors the legacy and themes of the entire saga. It misunderstands what Star Wars is about. It is silly and dumb. It is a thought-provoking discussion-starter. It is unpredictable. It is so predictable. It wastes characters. It gives characters the opportunity to shine. It answers many questions. It wastes many opportunities. It is the safest Star Wars ever. It is the craziest Star Wars ever.
The best description of The Rise of Skywalker is one I’ve seen making the rounds quite a bit. It is “a lot.” I truly did enjoy it but I can’t honestly say it’s very good. One of the benefits to it simply being “a lot,” jam packed with plot and answers and action and humor and moments to cheer, is that there’s something for almost everyone to like. Conversely, there’s something to bother almost everyone. I feel like The Rise of Skywalker, and perhaps the sequel trilogy as a whole when people look back on it, will end up being a Rorschach test for how people feel about Star Wars and how they approach storytelling generally and the revival of beloved franchises specifically.
On the whole, though, I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker. It has humor and heart, it serves as a broadly satisfying close on the story of the Skywalkers, and it is generally fun. It has some of the best performances of this sequel trilogy, particularly from Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, while Anthony Daniels gets to shine as the inexhaustible C-3PO. JJ Abrams and company manage to do a good job crafting a final role for Leia from Carrie Fisher’s deleted scenes from The Force Awakens, and it would have felt wrong for her not to be there. There are moments in the film that made me cheer, made my heart swell, and brought tears to my eyes (an admittedly easy feat).
But I wouldn’t call The Rise of Skywalker a particularly great movie. The script from Abrams and Chris Terrio is riddled with coincidences, plot holes, unexplained important events, and occasionally flat dialogue. Rose has been relegated to a criminally minor supporting role, but even Poe and Finn (who had great arcs in The Last Jedi) are mostly misused. There are new characters like Naomi Ackie’s Jannah and Keri Russell’s Zorii Bliss who are nice additions but aren’t given much of a chance to make an impact in a script that is too stuffed to let things breathe. So much of the movie is devoted to action/plot or to the Rey/Kylo/Palpatine triangle that there’s hardly room for anything else.
The Rise of Skywalker has about 50% too much plot. It’s too obsessed with answering questions that didn’t need answering, and with throwing bones to fans who didn’t like The Last Jedi. It’s never openly antagonistic to Rian Johnson’s vastly superior film, but there’s enough of a course correction there to please fans who felt burned by the previous movie. It feels like it was constructed by committee who sent out surveys to fans on what they’d want to see from the final chapter and wrote the script based on the statistics of the responses. The result isn’t bad, per se, it’s just lazy and pandering, not to mention often extremely predictable.
My ultimate conclusion is that JJ Abrams is a great trailer director. What I mean by that is that he knows how to engage an audience from the start, and he has far less interest in the story as a whole or its conclusion. (And this is coming from someone who deeply loves Super 8.) The sequel trilogy suffers from not having a plan from the start, with Abrams doing his thing (like he did on Lost) getting the ball rolling and letting other people sort things out from there. It really illustrates the limits of “mystery box” storytelling, and I hope Lucasfilm finds a new method going forward. The trilogy was redeemed in my eyes by Rian Johnson’s middle chapter, and from that perspective The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable but only serviceable finale.
I’m sure my thoughts and feelings about this Episode 9 will change over time. I wasn’t particularly a fan of The Force Awakens when it first came out, and some things about it still bother me, but it’s grown on me over the last few years, largely due to the strength of the characters it created. I went into The Rise of Skywalker with lower expectations than I usually would for a Star Wars film, and came away generally pleased and entertained. My childhood wasn’t ruined, the sequel trilogy wasn’t ruined for me, and I’m eager for more Star Wars in the weeks, months, and years ahead. It’s still a mess, with some objectively bad mistakes and missteps as well as some things that just didn’t work for me personally, but I’m looking forward to watching it again. The last four years have brought us five Star Wars movies, ranging from spectacular to just fine, and if this is the way this period ends I’m ok with that.
***Spoilers Below***
So Rey is a Palpatine. It was one of the popular theories, and one that seemed more and more likely to me once it was announced that Palpatine would return for TROS. (Even if I originally assumed she was Luke’s daughter after TFA.) Generally, I’m ok with her being a Palpatine even if it wasn’t what I would have preferred. I liked the idea from TLJ that she really was a nobody, and the idea that you don’t have to come from some famous background to be a hero or be important. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the more broad idea that you’re not defined by your background, and your name or your parents are not responsible for your legacy. Rey is able to set aside her shameful family name and her evil grandfather and choose a family and a name that has more meaning to her. Star Wars has always been about the families you create being more important than those you’re born with, so in that sense it fits thematically.
Rey’s struggle throughout the trilogy has been about identity. First she defined herself solely by the parents she was waiting for and the longing she had for a family that wanted her. She learned to stop waiting for that family and went looking for “someone to show me my place” in TLJ. But she eventually learned that she alone was enough, and she didn’t need to be defined by a family she had waited for that would never come back. In ROTS she learns she’s a Palpatine and that her parents abandoned her for her own safety, which is kind of a cop out from TLJ’s claim that they sold her for drinking money, but both have enough truth to work with the “certain point of view” theme that is a constant through Star Wars. And I could totally see how choosing the Skywalker name could feel like a step backwards for many people, but I look at it as coming full circle for her, not waiting for someone to bring her meaning, and no longer feeling like she has to stand alone, she chooses to take the name of those who meant so much to her, to keep what they fought for alive in a way that is stronger than blood.
I appreciated the return to Tattooine as a fan, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense as a final resting place for the lightsabers from Rey’s perspective. Leia has no connection to the Lars homestead, but whatever. It’s symbolic more for the story than for the literal actions of the character. What I don’t understand is people claiming online that the scene means Rey is going to now live there? That doesn’t seem implied or stated by the scene at all. I guess it comes from the title of the track on the soundtrack, “A New Home,” but I think believing Rey is actually going to live there seems like a misreading of the character even in a movie as messy as TROS. I kind of hope that she took the kyber crystals from the two sabers and is using them in her new, yellow saber, though.
Then there’s Ben Solo. I haven’t been a fan of Kylo Ren at all. I thought he made for an interesting villain, but I wasn’t eager to see his redemption and I certainly didn’t ship him and Rey. But I very much enjoyed his arc in TROS, and especially Adam Driver’s performance. I appreciate that he was able to be redeemed as Ben Solo without an unrealistically happy ending after participating in the murder of billions with Starkiller Base. I don’t think I would have been able to buy that, though had he survived and gone into hiding to do atone in secret I could have accepted that too. There’s definitely some nice parallels to Anakin with Ben having the power to bring Rey back from death, and his sacrifice was a fitting end to the Skywalker line, a line of Jedi who came into being to balance out Palpatine’s rise and which ended with Palpatine’s fall. I can get on board with that. The scene with his memory of his father was an emotional, but predictable, surprise, and I especially love that his mother was the one to turn him and Rey back from the darkness. Driver really sold the transformation, and his wordless performance as Ben for the rest of the film was truly special.
I’ve admitted to not being a Reylo shipper, and I’m happy to admit that shipping has never been a particularly passionate thing to me in fandoms generally. I enjoy the anticipation of possible relationships, and I definitely have couples I ship, but I’m rarely too upset when things don’t work out. But I also recognize that as a man there is probably something significant I’m missing in Reylo, so I’m trying to do my part to listen to why some people are so upset. I know many women identify with Rey and were thrilled to have a character they could see themselves in in Star Wars. So I can see how it feels like a betrayal that the relationship between Rey and Ben ends in tragedy because it feels like the powers that be are saying to women that they simply can’t have it all. They can be heroes but they have to be alone. I don’t personally read the story that way, but I can definitely see how it would feel like that kind of statement and I have no interest in dismissing that pain or that interpretation. I believe and I hope that Rey goes on to a full and happy life with her friends Finn and Poe and Rose and the droids, finds love and happiness and family and gets to continue being a hero to the galaxy. I don’t think the film contradicts that vision, it just doesn’t take the opportunity to show that a woman can have it all, which is understandably like a betrayal to many.
Speaking of Finn and Poe, what a wasted opportunity for the two of them. There are racial implications to Poe’s backstory as a drug smuggler that I don’t feel qualified to address and which I admit didn’t occur to me until they were pointed out. After all of his growth in TLJ, he basically became Han Solo this time around. Finn had one great scene with Jannah about leaving the First Order, but that was most of his story, too. Apparently his secret for Rey is that he’s Force sensitive? I don’t have an issue with it, but it didn’t add anything to the film and felt kind of tacked on. Really, the biggest missed opportunity was for Finn and Poe to become a couple, which would have worked so well in the film’s finale, but I have no doubt the powers that be weren’t ready to go that bold. LGBTQ+ representation is extremely important, and it’s no small deal that TROS has the first onscreen same sex kiss for Star Wars. But how awesome would have been for Finn and Poe to kiss upon their reunion? That could have been Finn’s secret.
I don’t really know what to say about Palpatine being the puppet master this whole time. It seems like it was the easy decision for the production team to make to please fans and find a way to wrap up the trilogy where they clearly didn’t have a plan. I don’t particularly care that Snoke was grown in a vat, but I don’t have a problem with it either. I can accept Palpatine surviving the end of Return of the Jedi even if it’s inherently silly. It’s just… fine. The Palpatine stuff was the least interesting aspect of the film for me, and this is from someone who loves Palpatine in all of the Lucas films. He’s a fascinating character in the prequels and in ROTJ, but here he was just kind of cartoonish. He’s probably the only villain that would have felt big enough and provide enough of a threat to work with Rey and Ben’s story, so it’s fine from that standpoint, it just wasn’t super interesting to me.
I was kind of overwhelmed by the Jedi voices encouraging Rey, so I’ll have to pay closer attention on the next viewing, but I love that they brought in more than just the obvious ones from the films. Nice to hear Ahsoka and Kanan! As far as other cameos, it was nice to see the Ghost from Rebels and Wedge return in the finale (though right after Wedge lost his adopted son, Snap), and I’ll be curious to watch people dissect the footage as time goes on to see what other hidden gems are scattered among the fleet. I loved the “They’re not a navy, they’re just… people” line so much, and it was one of the most Star Wars lines in the film. The idea that “Rebellions are built on Hope” is one I cling to desperately, and I loved the idea in this film that villains win by making people feel alone.
There’s a lot of healthy debate going on about how much TROS was intended to undo TLJ, but a lot of that comes from having lived the fan backlash the last two years. It would be impossible for the experience of watching the movie not to be colored by everything that has happened. But for the most part I read a lot of the “corrections” as growth and development rather than antipathy towards TLJ. Things like Luke preventing Rey from destroying the lightsaber feel like Luke acknowledging his failures, something that feels very in tune with his character growth in TLJ and Yoda’s lesson for him. I choose not to buy into the theory that JJ and Rian hate each other and there’s some kind of war between them. That’s just silly to me, even if they have very different styles of filmmaking and storytelling.
In all, I’m curious to see how and if my feelings about The Rise of Skywalker change with time and repeat viewings. I know I won’t become more accepting of things like the sidelining of Rose or the flattening of Poe and Finn. But things like the overstuffed plot and the Palpatine stuff that I’m neutral on now could go either way. Could I go back in time I would have given this trilogy to a single director, or at least found someone with a singular vision for the sequels. I don’t begrudge anyone being disappointed or hurt, but for now I’m choosing to be positive. It doesn’t undo the things I found most meaningful in The Last Jedi, particularly Luke’s story. It gives Leia a loving ending and Carrie a beautiful sendoff. It leaves the door open for more adventures while putting a reasonably satisfying cap on the Skywalker Saga. And Rogue One still exists. I can be happy with this messy, pandering film for now, and maybe one day I’ll grow to love it.

Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

solo_a_star_wars_story_posterSolo: A Star Wars Story comes at a bit of a difficult time for Star Wars, although most of the franchise’s issues have been vastly blown out of proportion. All of the new films have been commercial and critical successes, grossing over a billion dollars each (with The Force Awakens becoming the 3rd-highest grossing film of all time) and have connected both with longtime fans as well as a new generation eager for their own Star Wars stories. But there have been bumps along the way for Disney, who took over the reins from George Lucas in 2012, magnified by a fanbase that is vocal and demanding, occasionally to the point of absurdity. There was an outcry when decades of Expanded Universe stories were struck from the canon, giving Lucasfilm and Disney a clean slate to start fresh with their own stories and timeline. The Force Awakens was an unprecedented smash, seemingly designed expressly to please longtime fans, but it had its detractors who complained that it was basically a rehash of A New Hope. Rogue One was likewise a hit, but stories of massive reshoots led to (untrue) rumors of a production troubled by interference from Disney, while some fans found the characters to be less compelling than the original heroes or the new trio from The Force Awakens. Then The Last Jedi dared to be different and bold, and critics responded with enthusiasm, but a vocal minority strongly objected to how the film handled Luke Skywalker and planned boycotts and sabotage of the film’s online ratings. The Star Wars fandom has never been more divided, and it has become impossible for the artists behind these films to please everyone.

Of course, that was never really possible, but the internet magnifies the voices of the angry while ignoring the voices of the masses who seem to have generally enjoyed everything they’ve been given so far. We live in an age where fandoms increasingly claim ownership of the things they love, and the expectation has grown that studios have an obligation to deliver exactly the film that each individual wants, just as they had always imagined it in their head, regardless of the fact that there are thousands of different viewpoints about the “correct” direction of the franchise. These people want to only focus on characters from the original trilogy, those people want to honor the prequels, others just want to see the new heroes. These people want family films, others want R-rated “adult” movies. These people want movies about the Force and the Jedi, others want to spend time in the world of bounty hunters and smugglers. Some want Old Republic movies, others want to fill the gaps between the prequels and the original trilogy, while more would rather see what happened after the fall of the Empire. Some want the movies to have a political side, the way George Lucas intended, while others take any instance of inclusive representation of women, people of color, or LGBT individuals as a “SJW” or “Feminazi” agenda from people who only want things to be “PC”. Star Wars is such a broad franchise, with so many diverse fans, that no movie will ever satisfy everyone. Yet everyone expects every movie to satisfy them personally. It’s a lose-lose situation.

All of this is to say that Solo: A Star Wars Story, much like Avengers: Infinity War, does not exist in a bubble, and it’s impossible to try to completely separate the film from the context in which it exists. Solo comes in with its own set of burdens that could potentially threaten its success alongside the current state of the film industry and the Star Wars fandom. Its production featured the departure of its original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, partway through filming over “creative differences”, leading to Ron Howard stepping in to finish the film, while early negative fan reactions to the film’s lead fueled rumors of acting coaches and major concerns by Disney. And then there’s the constant talk that “nobody asked for this,” that a film about Han Solo’s origins was not something people particularly desired to see. But my goal is always to take each movie at face value, judged not on everything that went on behind-the-scenes, or the prevailing winds of the current internet conversation, with the hope of enjoying it. The fact that Solo works pretty well is a testament to the creative forces behind it, as well as the guiding hands of producer Kathleen Kennedy, who has stuck to her guns as the president of Lucasfilm and who has a vision of the types of Star Wars movies she wants to see made. Solo is a fun adventure, filled with the action and humor we expect from Star Wars, punctuated by moments of connection that enrich these characters we know so well, and holding a few surprise cards up its sleeve. It may be the “safest” Star Wars movie yet, in that it is neither revolutionary nor particularly challenging, without as much to say as earlier films, but it’s an enjoyable ride that combines the new with the familiar in unexpected ways.

Continue reading

Review: Avengers: Infinity War

avengers_infinity_war_posterIt’s tough to form an opinion on Avengers: Infinity War. As the culmination of 10 years and 18 movies of building the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s more of an event than a film, certainly the most anticipated movie of the year, and probably the most hyped since Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Everything has been building to this, a chance for all (or most) of the characters we’ve come to know and love so far to come together to face the villain that’s been teased since the first Avengers movie. Of course, we’ve been through this before in 2012, though on a smaller scale, with that first joining of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but things have grown so much since then. The scale of Infinity War is such that it’s easy to lose track of the fact that you’re still watching a movie, and a movie that just happens to be the first of two Avengers films a year apart which were filmed back-to-back. Occasionally, Infinity War forgets that, itself, getting lost to exposition or action that feels more like setup for the future rather than its own moviegoing experience. It hops from moment to moment with a feeling of inevitability, as though this was the predestined conclusion rather than a natural or organic culmination of everything that came before. But oh, those inevitable moments are still spectacular, thrilling, funny, and emotional, and when people look back on this Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment, Infinity War will be one of the defining pieces of the grand whole.

Continue reading

Review: The Post

When I tell people that my favorite director is Steven Spielberg, I tend to get a lot of eye rolls from fellow movie buffs. He’s considered too popular or mainstream, he plays it too safe and isn’t edgy or artistic enough, he’s too sentimental and melodramatic, his only interest is in spectacle, etc. Cinephiles love to hate on the man who is probably the most successful (critically and commercially) filmmaker of the last fifty years, and are often quick to point out alternative artists who they feel has a similar career but does everything better (Christopher Nolan frequently pops up in these discussions). But from now on when anyone brings up these hackneyed Spielberg criticisms I will simply point them to one scene from The Post and ask them to show me another filmmaker who could make that scene any better.

Continue reading

Review: The Greatest Showman

I’ve always loved the phrase “more than the sum of its parts,” particularly when it comes to film. Like any view on movies it’s an entirely subjective opinion, but it’s a phrase I’ve been known to use. I appreciate the fact that it so easily communicates a quality that can be unique to film, that sometimes a movie rises above the potentially mediocre pieces from which it is assembled to become something more. We all have movies that feel this way to us, that have poor acting, an uninspired story, or other faults, yet still manages to capture our hearts. However, there is of course another side to this coin. Some movies have wonderful individual moments, whether great acting, an engaging story, or beautiful production design, yet they leave you feeling disappointed, as though they’re wasting the enjoyable bits. So despite loving much of The Greatest Showman, including its performances, many of its musical numbers, and its message, I was left feeling like it was less than the sum of its parts.

Continue reading

Spoiler-Free Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the film that finally allowed me to be at peace with the new trilogy of Star Wars movies. There was a lot that I loved about The Force Awakens two years ago. I thought the new cast of characters were all compelling, particularly Rey and Finn. I enjoyed seeing the old favorites back, I appreciated the way it tried to honor the films that came before, and generally found it to be both a fun ride and an emotional experience. At the same time, there were a number of things in The Force Awakens that did not sit well with me, which ultimately served as distractions from the experience. I felt its tone was inconsistent and its humor occasionally felt forced or like it didn’t fit stylistically within the greater Star Wars saga. It occasionally felt too much like fan fiction (and I don’t mean that as a compliment), and it tried too hard to try to distance itself from the prequels. It also was far too much of a remake of A New Hope, which is not a huge deal for me the way it is for other people but which felt kind of lazy. Most of all, it bothered me that they were continuing the main series of films without George Lucas, and in fact intentionally disregarding any plans he might have had for them. I understand why they did it, but The Force Awakens did not justify these new uncharted waters they were sailing. (On the other hand, I 100% love Rogue One, even if its characters aren’t nearly as strong as those in The Force Awakens.)

Continue reading

5 Things I Love about Moana

In an effort to cut through the backlog of movies left to review after everything that’s happened the last couple of years, I’m going back to movies I skipped and giving them each 5 Things. These can be things I loved, things I hated, or anything in between, they’re just 5 thoughts I had about the movie. Today I’m tackling Moana, one of my favorite movies of 2016, and probably my favorite Disney animated film since Tangled. I gave it an A+ in my movie log at the time I saw it, and I probably love it even more today than I did then. It’s gorgeous, has fantastic music, and characters I find immensely relatable and compelling. So without further ado, here are 5 Things I Love about Moana!

Continue reading

Review: Geostorm

I’ve never liked the phrase “so bad, it’s good” when it comes to movies, even though I’ve used it myself. The truth is it can occasionally be the perfect description for a movie that is enjoyable not in spite of its badness but because of it. But I don’t subscribe to the notion of film quality as something quantitative that can be numerically measured, even though we all give grades to movies. I especially don’t think that there’s some hypothetical badness line where once you cross it a movie suddenly becomes good again. There are plenty of bad movies that I genuinely like, but also plenty of “equally” bad movies that are just torture to watch with no possibility of enjoyment whatsoever. But beyond this philosophical disagreement with the idea of a “so bad, it’s good” movie, I’m not a fan of movies that intentionally strive to be terrible with the hopes of crossing that imaginary barrier into the “so bad, it’s good” realm. The Sharknado series comes to mind, which works very hard to be bad in order to try to capture an audience that might be out there looking for the next sublime failure. That sort of thing holds no interest to me. “So bad, it’s good” movies are ultimately a very personal thing, just like all movies are. What I might love in an awful movie someone else might find insufferable, and simply having a bad story, bad acting, bad writing, or bad directing isn’t necessarily going to make something likable. Making a great, bad movie is much more difficult than that, but it also requires a very subjective reaction. So when I say that Geostorm is dumb, loud, clumsy, and ridiculous, know that it’s an objectively poor film. But when I also say that watching it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in a movie theater in many years, know also that I enjoyed it both because of its badness and because of my own personal preferences when it comes to bad entertainment.

Continue reading