Thursday, December 24, 2015

Reflection on the Star Wars Universe

Reflection on the Star Wars Universe

I’d like to make a quick programming note about my exploration of the Star Wars Expanded Universe and any further Star Wars related reviews in the near future. When I started investigating the Star Wars EU many months ago, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Would the novels recreate the joy twelve-year-old me had of discovering a galaxy beyond the original three films? Or would they be embarrassingly bad like so much of the popular cultural detritus of the past? Turns out it was somewhere in between.

As much as I enjoyed revisiting the Star Wars EU, not all of it worked. At the very least, even those works that capture the character and feel of the original trilogy--such as the Thrawn Trilogy--were hampered by the fact that the Clone Wars saga had not been fleshed out, meaning any references to events prior to A New Hope never fully meshed with George Lucas’s overall plan as it unfolded from 1999 to 2005. But there were also some goofy ideas that felt like hastily written fan fiction (Dark Empire, I’m looking at you).

I’m planning on continuing my journey through the Star Wars EU. After all, I still have to finish off the Thrawn Trilogy. It will be interesting to see the Star Wars EU now that we have a very real “official” vision of how the saga should continue. I would also like to take a look at the new ancillary novels and comics that have the Disney stamp of approval. Of course, I won’t be able to immerse myself in all Star Wars all the time. I think it was Jesus (aka Young Anakin) who said, “Man cannot live by Star Wars alone.” But I might keep this up until the release of Episode VIII. Hell, I haven’t even watched those Ewok movies yet, which will likely require some time, whisky and gumption to get through.

Finally, I wonder how my time spent in the Star Wars EU affected my experience watching Episode VII. As I noted in my review, I liked Episode VII, but I was also ambivalent about how much of A New Hope the film borrowed. If anything, familiarity with the Star Wars EU eased expectations I had of Episode VII. Of course, the roman numerals in the title ask the audience to see this entry as even more important. They’re telling us that it’s a part of the cyclical myth of the Skywalker family, which has always been central to Lucas’s vision. But, at the same time, it’s also one of hundreds of stories told using tools fashioned by Lucas. I love having all of these stories, but they by necessity make the films a little less special. After all, if you increase the supply, then the value of the “product” diminishes.

For me, the original trilogy will always be the very heart of Star Wars. After that, the prequels and the Clone Wars cartoon constitute Lucas’s insane and uneven vision. Everything else, good and bad, will stand apart. And I’m okay with that. I love Lucas’s influences and the world he built, and I’m just happy to get some more stories told within that galaxy. For now, I’ll take it.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII--The Force Awakens

Star Wars: Episode VII--The Force Awakens (4/5)

For many Star Wars fans, they have been waiting thirty-two years for The Force Awakens, both because the film continues the story of Han, Leia, and Luke and because they don’t consider the prequels a worthy follow up to the original trilogy. Disney, the new corporate stewards of Star Wars, seem to be acutely aware of fan reaction, and they have crafted Episode VIII with these disgruntled fans in mind. In order to do so, they brought in J.J. Abrams who has garnered a reputation as a fixer when it comes to franchises run astray. He directed an installment of Mission Impossible after Tom Cruise’s star had fallen, and then he helmed the rebooted Star Trek as well as its unsuccessful sequel. From his first announcement as director, I was disappointed to see J.J. Abrams in charge, largely because it seemed like such an unimaginative choice. Without a doubt, The Force Awakens is the best outcome we can expect from someone like J.J. Abrams (which I know is both something of a compliment and an insult).

I’ll try to make this review relatively spoiler free, but if you want to go in without knowing anything beyond what you may have gleaned from the trailers, then you might want to skip the review until you’ve actually seen the film.

In a knowing nod to the audience, the new generation of characters are themselves immersed in the tales of Star Wars. They’ve heard of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, the Millennium Falcon, and the Rebellion, but to them these stories are little more than myths. You can read this as cynical audience manipulation if you like, but the four new characters--ace pilot Poe Dameron, reformed Stormtrooper Finn, orphaned scavenger Fey, and Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren--all earn their place in the Star Wars galaxy. They’re genuinely interesting characters who have their own conflicts and arcs over the course of the film, and the actors turn in great performances, something that has long been missing from Star Wars.

But those of us who first fell in love with the original trilogy probably aren’t coming to The Force Awakens primarily for the new characters. We’re showing up for our old favorites whether we want to admit it or not. I was skeptical of the plan to bring back the big three from the original trilogy. Why reuse characters whose stories have already been told, I reasoned. But when Harrison Ford finally arrives decked out as Han Solo, I’ll admit to becoming a little giddy. Not only was it exciting for Han to show up but for Ford to show up as well, since he has seemed completely absent for his last several performances. I’m not sure what Abrams did--perhaps slip some whisky into Ford’s morning coffee?--but Ford is by turns funny, charming, and gruff. And when he finally rendezvous with Carrie Fisher as General Leia, I may have become a little verklempt.

Most moviegoers will get a vague wiff of deja vu for most of the proceedings, and that’s because the film cribs heavily from the original trilogy. In fact, The Force Awakens largely plays out like a mix and match A New Hope. There’s a desert planet, a character with a greater destiny, an older mentor, and a giant superweapon (we’ll get to that soon). In fact, The Force Awakens feels like a reboot in multiple ways. First, the film isn’t too far off from being a remake of A New Hope. Second, the film’s goal appears to be resetting the series after the poorly received prequels. From the recycled plot to the smaller focus to the use of practical effects, The Force Awakens aims to go back to basics. Still, it's clear the film was made with genuine affection and reverence (but perhaps too much of the latter).

How much enjoyment you can ring out of the film’s retread of old favorites depends on what you expect from a Star Wars movie. Personally, I went back and forth on the issue. The one retread that genuinely bothered me was the return of yet another Death Star superweapon. Learning that they were bringing back a version of the Death Star gave me terrible flashbacks to all of those awful superweapons from the 1990s Star Wars novels. At one point Han Solo voices my feelings, saying that this new planet sized weapon is just like the Death Star, to which another character swats away such concerns, basically saying, “Naw, dude. This isn’t anything like the Death Star. It’s, like, much, much bigger.” (I’m kind of paraphrasing here). But unlike in A New Hope, where the Death Star plans drive the plot forward, the new superweapon seems mostly incidental.

I’ll admit to both enjoying The Force Awakens and feeling somewhat ambivalent. For all their faults, the prequels strove for something new. George Lucas didn’t have to answer to anyone, and he gave us something that was weird, unique, and, yes, sometimes terrible. What he didn’t do is repeat himself. Disney won’t let that happen again, you can be sure. And according to fan reaction, the public has largely welcomed our new corporate overlords. Perhaps it’s a fool’s errand to hope for something unique and exciting from big budgeted entertainment. At the same time, that’s exactly what George Lucas gave us with A New Hope, a postmodern bricolage of cowboys, samurai, myth, WWII, and experimental cinema. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see something like that in the Star Wars universe, but we will get a string of some pretty good movies. I guess for now that’s good enough.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (3.5/5)

As you might guess from the title, Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, was designed to follow the lead of Empire Strikes Back by going darker than the original installment. Where the first game attempted to recapture some of the energy of the original trilogy, Sith Lords really rubs our noses in the darker side of Star Wars. Once again, the Jedi have been nearly wiped out. (The Jedi seem so prone to mass extinction that it’s a wonder they’re still around four thousand years later). Your character stands as the last Jedi, but you have lost nearly all of your Force powers.

Slowly your backstory is revealed. During the the Mandalorian War, previously mentioned in the original game, your character decided that the Jedi Council was too slow to act and joined Revan and the other Jedi who mounted a defense against the Mandalorian onslaught. Upon returning to the council, you were stripped of your connection to the force and exiled. Since then, the Jedi have seemingly disappeared from the galaxy, and a bounty has been placed on your head, because you are the last of their kind. Eventually you discover that other Jedi exist, but they are in hiding, attempting to uncover the threat facing them and to strike when the moment’s right. Your goal is to assemble these Jedi and face this threat together.

Like most RPGs, Sith Lords follows the Wizard of Oz narrative structure of a long journey where new and strange character join your party as you continue on your quest. There’s the soldier, Atton Rand, the blind Force wielder, Visas, the bounty hunter with a heart of gold, Mira, a Mandalorian only known as the Mandalorian, and of course the droids from the first game, HK-47 and T3-M4, who, liked Artoo and Threepio, make a reappearance. This list is hardly exhaustive, and like too many RPGs, the number of characters are overwhelming. I don’t think I once included in my party, G0-T0, the robotic avatar of a crime boss (don’t ask).

But perhaps the most important character is Kreia, an old crone who has a strong connection to the Force and bond with the main character. You first meet Kreia after waking up on a seemingly abandoned mining facility. Kreia is neither fully Jedi nor Sith, and instead represents a middle path between the warring philosophies. This is best illustrated in the game in a cutscene that occurs after you have given some money to a panhandler on Nar Shaddaa. Kreia advises you against this seemingly altruistic action, suggesting that it may have unseen consequences, which turns out to be the case since the man you gave money to is later attacked for his recent boon. There’s an interesting comment here about how actions reverberate across the galaxy in ways unknown to us.

The Sith Lords was a notoriously rushed game, and it’s obvious to anyone who plays it that the story’s incomplete. Recently, a bunch of good samaritans developed a patch that restores a good deal of the lost content, but The Sith Lords still feels unfinished. However, there are those who have championed the game as better than the original. While I enjoyed playing The Sith Lords, I can’t agree that it’s necessarily an improvement. With the exception of some more micromanaging, the gameplay is nearly identical to its predecessor. (No one finished an RPG and thought to themselves, I really wish I could spend more time tweaking my weapons and armor). And because of the game’s unfinished nature, you don’t delve as much into the characters. I never felt as if I knew my allies as well as I did those in the first game.

I think some who claim The Sith Lords is better than KOTOR fall under the false assumption that just because something is darker then it is necessarily more complex. Certainly, a game can be gritty and explore complex moral grey areas, as this game accomplishes during the cutscene on Nar Shaddaa. But just as often, going dark can merely be a juvenile’s idea of what it means to be adult. In The Sith Lords, any moments of genuine moral exploration are counteracted by sophomoric understanding of dark and gritty.

**SPOILERS AHEAD** The worst instance occurs after you have finally found and assembled the remaining Jedi on Dantooine. And they are all quickly killed. So the main focus of your quest is rendered moot. What’s more, most of these members of the Jedi Council are kind of jerks. What makes this development less interesting is that the prequels, which have plenty of their own problems, actually explored the destruction of the Jedi and the difficulty of seeing the consequences of our actions in a more interesting manner. I would take questions of how war makes fascists of us all in the prequels over the veneer of dark and gritty The Sith Lords too often presents. So while the original game attempted to reignite a sense of fun and adventure missing from Star Wars during the prequel era, The Sith Lords competes directly against the prequels in their own arena and somehow ends up losing. **END SPOILERS**

Still, there’s plenty to like about The Sith Lords, especially if you liked the first game. While underdeveloped as characters, the designs of the Sith antagonists are admittedly pretty cool. Darth Sion is nothing more than charred remains apparently fueled only by his hatred, and Darth Nihilus dons an awesome mask that appears to be influenced by Japanese Kabuki theater. With more time, the game may have fulfilled its promise, even if it may never eclipse the original game.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Guided by Voices Reunion Albums

Guided by Voices - Let’s Go Eat the Factory, Class Clown Spots a UFO, Bears for Lunch, English Little League, Motivational Jumpsuit, Cool Planet

On September 18th of last year, the seminal indie rock band, Guided by Voices, released a statement on Facebook announcing their unexpected dissolution, thus ending their four year “original lineup” reunion. The break up occurred in the middle of a tour, and the announcement provided no clear reason why the band had decided to throw in the towel then and there. I was lucky enough to have seen the band live a few weeks prior to the break up, and they were just as energetic and rowdy as a bunch of fifty-something rockers could be. (Perhaps a little too rowdy. Robert Pollard’s excessive on stage drinking often threatens to tip over from funny drunk to scary drunk, and plenty of people have suggested that this may have been the cause of the break).

Despite rumors of Pollard’s prickly personality, Guided by Voices’s reunion in 2010 wasn’t completely unexpected considering that reunion tours have become de rigueur among  90s alternative rock stalwarts. But the creative force of this reunited GbV was unexpected. Alternative rock reunions have run the gamut from artistic triumphs (Dinosaur Jr.) to quick cash grabs (The Pixies). Starting in 2012, after some time playing live shows, GbV pumped out six albums in about three years, each album a shotgun blast of about twenty songs. Over the course of these three years, GbV produced the equivalent of what would be the entire discography of certain bands.  

While some music critics recognized the startling quality of this reunited GbV, most critics leveled the same statements they had been making about GbV and Pollard’s work for years: it’s uneven. But this simple dismissal doesn’t do the reunion albums justice. Any band would be lucky to produce these six albums, much less within such a short time frame. So a little over a year after GbV unceremoniously broke up, I’ve decided to do a brief rundown of all six of their reunion albums, many of which surpass the work Pollard was doing in the late nineties and early aughts.

Let’s Go Eat the Factory (5/5)

If there’s one consistent criticism of Guided by Voices it is that they are unable to separate the wheat from the chaff. Too many weird song fragments disrupt the pop perfection of GbV’s best writing, or so the story goes. But for GbV fans, the weird shrapnels of music heighten the band’s best songcraft and the albums as a whole. For those looking for the more experimental side of GbV, Let’s Go Eat the Factory, delivers the goods. Many of the songs sound purposefully clipped and incomplete. The sugary and non-sensical “Doughnut for a Snowman” fades in on a wind instrument and fails to make it to the two-minute mark. The following song, “Spiderfighter,” along with “Waves” sound like pop music made by a swarm of bees. The album also makes plenty of room for strings on tracks like “Hang Mr. Kite,” “Chocolate Boy,” and “We Won’t Apologize for the Human Race,” the album closer that would inaugurate a string of absolutely killer album closers on each reunion album.

Class Clown Spots a UFO (4.5/5)

For those looking for the highs of Robert Pollard’s best pop songs, Class Clown Spots a UFO absolutely delivers. The title track, “Class Clown Spots a UFO,” and “Keep It in Motion” eschew the group’s usual lo-fi antics for a fuller sound, and either could have been radio staples two decades ago. There are also a handful of acidic, guitar meltdowns that draw on the band’s psychedelic side. “Tyson’s High School” combines Pollard’s typical lyrics about grade school with a wall of guitar fuzz. Class Clown is arguably more uneven than Let’s Go Eat the Factory, because there is a larger gulf between the catchy songs and the weird ones. But any album that provides space for “Lost in Spaces,” a sub-one-minute piano ballad by Tobin Sprout is a winner in my book.

Bears for Lunch (5/5)

There are a couple of easy rebuttals to the criticism that Guided by Voices albums are uneven. If you don’t like the weirdo song nuggets on Bee Thousand and Alien Lane, then all you need is to look at Under the Bushes Under the Stars, which, minus the noise track “The Perfect Life,” contains twenty-three (twenty-three!) killer songs. For me, Bears for Lunch stands as the unofficial follow up to Under the Bushes Under the Stars, because each and every song aims to embed itself in your brain and stay there. Despite the fact that Bears for Lunch was recorded decades after the band’s golden period, it actually serves as a great introduction to GbV, mostly by encapsulating their great songwriting skills and musical influences. Punk, psychedelia, Pete Townsend guitar heroics, and 90s indie rock all find a place on Bears for Lunch. The album also serves as a great showcase for Tobin Sprout whose often lighter touch nicely compliments the work of frontman Robert Pollard. Sprout’s responsible for many of the album’s highlights, including the Beatlesesque “Waking Up the Stars” and the CSNY inflected “Waving at Airplanes.” It’s Sprout’s prettier songs that really balance out the album, and it’s often true that Pollard works best when someone works as a foil. While he has written a few great solo albums (including the incredible From a Compound Eye), Pollard benefits from working closely with other creatives, which is why outside of GbV, his best work is with the band Boston Spaceships. What’s truly amazing about Bears for Lunch is that at a moment when GbV should have been tiring out (this was their third album of 2012), they sounded more energized than ever.

English Little League (3.5/5)

2013 must have been a pretty relaxed year for the reunited Guided by Voices, since they released only a single album. English Little League leans more heavily on longer songs (by GbV standards). There are only two songs shorter than two minutes and none under a minute in length. The more out there songs don’t land quite as well as on the band’s previous three albums, and a couple of the longer cuts could have been shaved in length. Still, there are plenty of highlights on English Little League, even if not all of them hit you immediately. Album opener, “Xeno Pariah,” starts with some “ooohs” and “ahhhs” borrowed from the Beach Boys and only gets better from there. “Flunky Minnows” stands out as one of the album’s absolute pop gems. And, as is true of everyone of the reunion albums, the final song, “W/ Glass in Foot,” absolutely sticks the landing.

Motivational Jumpsuit (4.5/5)

Motivational Jumpsuit opens with “Littlest League Possible,” a sort of manifesto and call to arms about finding enjoyment out of being a big fish in a small pond. It’s a great attitude not only for aging alt rockers but for anyone looking to produce art in our splintered culture. Not even half of the songs on Motivational Jumpsuit stretch past the two minute mark, and only a single song eeks its way past three minutes, making the album sound more tossed off than even their previous efforts. For most bands, this would be a dig at the quality of the album, but Robert Pollard and company have always allied themselves with the spontaneous prose, first-thought-best-thought philosophy of the Beats. Because of their blink and you’ll miss them length, it might take a couple of spins for the songs on Motivational Jumpsuit to sink in. But if there are great songs, they’re easy to find on the album, including the optimistic sounding “Record Level Love,” the exuberant “Planet Score,” and riff heavy “Zero Elasticity.” And while it’s a fool’s errand to look for meaning in most of Pollard’s cryptic lyrics, “Writers’ Bloc (Psycho All the Time),” in which Pollard sings “The last recording nearly killed me,” might have been our first inkling that this reunion line up was not long for this world.

Cool Planet (4/5)

Coming out months after Motivational Jumpsuit, Cool Planet sounds in many ways like a companion piece to the earlier record. Like its predecessor, Cool Planet consists of a smattering of quickly written and recorded songs that get much of their energy from their six pack and a tape deck origins. Sadly enough, the album was the final product of Guided by Voice’s productive reunion. This time around, the boys of GbV have a cool story to go along with the album. During the brutally cold and snowy winter of 2013/2014, the band decided that while they were stuck inside, they might as well write an album. (This kind of makes me feel bad for watching so much Netflix during that winter). As always, the album contains a number of standout tracks. The nearly over before it starts, “Pan Swimmer” is a welcome injection of yelps and guitar. Pollard sounds like he’s having so much fun on “Males of Wormwood Mars” that he nearly lets the song break the three minute mark. And “All American Boy” sounds like a ramshackle Mott the Hoople. The entire affair ends with the title track, “Cool Planet,” a tightly-wound pint-sized epic that serves as a fitting end to a hell of a second act.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Darth Plagueis by James Lucero

Darth Plagueis by James Lucero (3.5/5)

“Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?” So begins Senator Palpatine’s short tale about a Sith lord who had such control over midichlorians, microscopic organisms that are symbiotic with the force, that he could defeat death itself. As told to Anakin Skywalker, the story of Darth Plagueis helps turn the Jedi to the dark side of the Force by dangling the promise of his wife, Padme’s, continued survival. Out of a couple lines of dialogue, author James Lucero weaves a narrative of Darth Plagueis’s rise and fall in a time before the events of Episode I.
Darth Plagueis can be an incredibly fun read. Like a videogame that allows you to indulge in wanton destruction, there’s something electrifying about rooting for the Sith for once, and at times the novel feels as if it has opened up a whole new perspective on the Star Wars universe. We no longer have to spend time on the side of the Rebellion or the Jedi Council. Still, if Darth Plagueis had hewn more closely to his description in Episode III, an ancient Sith delving into arcane magics, then Lucero’s narrative might have a little more room to maneuver.

When I first heard that there existed a novel that detailed the life and times of Darth Plagueis the Wise, I assumed it took place centuries prior to the prequel trilogy, perhaps around the events of the Knights of the Old Republic. After all, Palpatine tells Anakin that the story of Darth Plagueis is a “Sith legend” and that he lived “many years ago.” Unfortunately, Lucero’s novel chooses not to explore Star Wars lore from the past and instead develops Plagueis as a Sith master to Palpatine. Less a retelling of an ancient legend, Darth Plagueis serves as a prequel to the prequels.

Early in the novel, Darth Plagueis rendezvous with his master Darth Tenebrous, a meeting that ends in the death of Tenebrous at the hands of Plagueis. This battle between master and apprentice, a relationship formed out of the “rule of two” mentioned in the prequels, characterizes a Sith’s fraught life hardened by a form of social Darwinism. These events do not occur in some distant past, but about thirty-five years prior to the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo. The Sith, it appears, haven’t been eradicated from the galaxy, but rather, have existed in secret for some time.

Plagueis isn’t a human like Vader, Palpatine, and Dooku. He’s a Muun, a species devoted wholly to financial dealings and whose homeworld is the center of the InterGalactic Banking Clan. It was a smart decision to make Plagues a Muun, because it establishes his love of money and working evil through misdirection behind the scenes rather than through brute force. Plagueis’s modus operandi becomes important as it becomes clear that he developed the grand plan to destroy the Jedi that Palpatine would later carry out. In his civilian life, Plagueis is Hego Damask, the CEO of Damask Holdings, a position of power that allows him to manipulate galactic politics from afar.

Following the murder of his master, Plagueis soon sets his sight on his own Sith apprentice, the mononymous Palpatine. Large portions of the novel are devoted to fleshing out the backstory of the duplicitous senator and eventual emperor. We learn that during his youth, Palpatine was the black sheep of a prominent Naboo family. Plagueis senses Palpatine’s force sensitivity and guides him towards the dark side, nudging Palpatine along far enough so that he eventually murders his entire family, including his overbearing father, while making it look like an accident.

In the films, Palpatine was purposefully opaque. We don’t see him in the original trilogy until Empire, and even then we’re only given a holographic glimpse of the man behind Vader. In the prequels, Palpatine mostly just, to paraphrase Bela Legosi, pulls the strings, which means that the convoluted backstory leading to the Clone Wars remains largely unseen. Darth Plagueis sheds light on both Palpatine’s rise to power and the execution of the grand plan to dethrone the Jedi from Coruscant. By focusing much of its attention on Palpatine, the novel risks shedding his cloak-like mysteriousness. Throughout the Star Wars series, Palpatine comes to be known by his mercurial slipperiness, a kind of reptilian embodiment of evil. Fortunately, Lucero is smart enough to maintain some of the character’s unknowability thanks to some smart characterization.

As one might expect, the story is heavily influenced by the world building from the prequels. This means that midichlorians are front and center, and Darth Plagueis’s search for immortality is less about digging up arcane Sith scripture than it is about carrying out Dr. Frankensteinesque experiments, a development that might bother those still upset that a person’s connection to the force can be determined by a blood test.

Personally, I’ve always been a little ambivalent about developments in the prequels that made the Star Wars universe closer to our own. The original trilogy derived much of its power from its ability to transport us to a completely unfamiliar realm. If Star Wars were to take from our own history, I’ve always felt they should borrow from myth and the middle ages, which is why I never liked the idea that Padme was “elected” queen, and, similarly, I’m ambivalent about Muuns and the introduction of finance capitalism in the Star Wars mythos. It makes sense that, as a Muun, Plagueis has access to nearly unlimited wealth to pull off his massive scheme. This also ties into the theme that all of the Sith villains in the prequels are men who come from power: aristocrats, politicians, and financiers. Still, I sometimes get the feeling that we’re just a step away from introducing credit default swaps into Star Wars.

As the novel proceeds, we learn more about Palpatine’s training how he and Plagueis went about sowing disorder in the galaxy. Much of the narrative is episodic, and we move from one event to another. There’s nothing wrong with this structure, and the fact that the novel contains no single adversary kind of necessitates a looser narrative. However, as the events in the novel begin to collide with the events of Episode I, it feels less like a story within the larger Star Wars universe and more like a Wookiepedia article.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Retrieval

The Retrieval (⅘)

Set in the back half of the Civil War, The Retrieval follows two African Americans, a young boy Will (Ashton Saunders) and his uncle Marcus (Keston John), as they are tasked to recover a bounty on a former slave who now works for the Union army. Although themselves victims of slavery, Will and Marcus work for a group of bounty hunters roaming the war ravaged countryside and recapturing former slaves. In the first scene of the film, Will is taken in by a house on the underground railroad, and shortly after he is given shelter in a shed with other escaping slaves, he immediately provides their location to Burrell (Bill Oberst Jr.), the alpha male of the slave hunters.

Burrell learns of a hefty bounty on Nate (Tishuan Scott), a former slave in the employ of the Union, and while it would be difficult for Burrell and his bounty hunters to venture north, Will and Marcus’s blackness allow them to enter Union territory. Will and Marcus find Nate digging soldiers’ graves and lure him back south by claiming his brother is sick and dying and offer to accompany him along his travels. Nate doesn’t know that his brother is already dead.

No major studio would even glance at a film like The Retrieval, which is an intimate film by design and, likely, budget. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the film for the studio to wrap their heads around is the blurring of racial lines of power and oppression.  Will and Marcus are implicated within the institution of slavery despite the fact that they are also its victims, a situation that is reminiscent Edward P. Jones’s novel, The Known World, which depicts the seemingly unlikely situation of a southern black who owns black slaves. (But, of course, blacks owning black slaves is a historical fact).

I’m sympathetic to those who are uncomfortable with stories that examine ways in which blacks were used to buttress slavery, especially since even in the 21st century we have barely come to terms with white culpability in slavery. White supremacists have long pointed to black slave owners as a means to elide the simple fact that the institution of slavery was built by and for the benefit of whites. But the film attempts to address these tricky reversals. Marcus, who is presented as brash and aggressive, repeatedly refers to the outsized bounty on Nate’s head, which will be shared by him and Will. But, for extra measure, Burrell threatens the life of Marcus and his entire family if he decides he wants to stay up North.

No more than thirteen-years-old, Will easily garners the audience’s sympathies. Because of his age, Will is both more beholden to the forces of slavery and capable of escaping it, at least once the war is over. The Retrieval reminds viewers that slavery itself was beholden to the marketplace, a means to unjustly enrich others through forced labor, torture, and rape. At one point, Marcus reminds Nate of their bare economic subsistence prior to working with Burrell and his men. And Burrell, who is of course a racist himself, is able to briefly put aside his white supremacy in order to prevent one of his men from irrevocably harming the “lost property.” But because the war is nearly over, this “property” and all the violence Burrell and his men employ capturing escaped slaves is meaningless and unnecessary. The institution of slavery is lost, even if they don’t know it.

The film’s dramatic center hinges on the whether in the end Will is going to bring Nate to Burrell, a question from which the film wrings plenty of suspense, despite its subtle visual approach. The relationship between Will and Nate grows as the film progresses, and in Will, Nate sees the possibilities of a life he was never allowed to fully live. Towards the end of the film, Will convinces Nate to see his former wife (in practice if not in fact, since slaves were not allowed to legally marry). Nate had long ago meant to return and buy his wife’s freedom before circumstances got the best of him. Unsurprisingly, the reunion isn’t exactly joyous. But the scene offers a glimpse a life denied.

[From here on, there are some spoilers]

Director Chris Eska and cinematographer Yasu Tanida paint a bleak landscape drained of color. Much of the film  appears bathed in morning fog, which can be equally menacing and beautiful. The film takes place in the winter of 1864, and the barren trees speak more powerfully of the Civil War’s violence than the brief glimpses of battles, but they also signify the death of antebellum America. We know that this death precedes the beginning of a necessary transformation of the nation. In the final shot of the film, Will returns to Nate’s wife and her new husband, an image that suggests that despite white supremacy’s attempt to sever black bonds, the black family survives, reassembled in unique ways.

The Retrieval was given a small release and earned only $50,000 in its theatrical run. (It’s now streaming on Netflix). But I think it’s a necessary addition to a recent spate of 21st-century films that examine slavery and the Civil War. Alongside discussions of Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave, and Django Unchained, we must make room for The Retrieval when thinking of how the present attempts to make sense of the past.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dark Force Rising

Dark Force Rising by Timothy Zahn (⅘)

The second entry in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy, Dark Force Rising, opens up shortly after the events of the first novel and the battle of Sluice Van.  Zahn takes this opportunity to splinter the characters, so that we follow a handful of different narrative threads: the criminals with a code of honor, Mara Jade and Talon Karrde, go on the run from Admiral Thrawn, Luke chases down the batty Jedi Master Jorus C’baoth, Han and Lando encounter a general from the Old Republic turned independent freedom fighter, and Leia negotiates with longtime Imperial mercenaries, the Noghri, to prevent them from coming after her and her unborn children.

Tying most of these disparate plot threads together is the Katana fleet, a lost fleet of starships that, if recovered, have the potential of shifting the balance between the New Republic and Admiral Thrawn’s imperial forces.  The Katana Fleet consists of two hundred Dreadnaughts, precursors to the Imperial Star Destroyer, and years prior to even the Clone Wars, its crew was infected by a virus that caused insanity, leading the crew to fling the compliment of starships out into the void of the galaxy.  (Along with unstable Jorus C’baoth, the madness of the crew of the Katana fleet makes insanity something of a recurring theme in the series).  As a MacGuffin, the Katan fleet bends each plot thread together by the end of the novel, although, because this is the second novel in a trilogy, plenty goes unresolved.

Dark Force Rising improves on its predecessor in most ways.  The multiple plots make sure that the narrative moves swiftly as we bounce around the galaxy catching up with what our characters are getting themselves into.  The sequel also provides Leia with a more satisfying role than Heir to the Empire.  In what is arguably the most interesting plot of the novel, Leia takes a Noghri captive to his homeworld where she uses her role as ambassador to try and convince the Noghri to abandon the Empire and join the Republic.  Leia must navigate the unique culture of the Noghri while also avoiding detection by Imperial forces.

Too often Leia gets scant attention, but she’s actually the highlight of the novel.  While tense negotiations with an alien race might not be the most visually interesting story in a film, it’s well tailored for the medium of a novel.  In fact, the role that the Republic has in keeping the peace is granted renewed attention.  In another wonderful moment in the novel, Luke must mediate between two seedy businessmen, and during the negotiation, he muses to himself that this must have been one of the central roles of the Jedi Knight.  With an exception of the opening of Episode I, we never really see the Jedi Knight as keepers of the peace, and it’s smart of Zahn to acknowledge this purpose.  (It’s also interesting to see how the prequels change Zahn’s timeline.  At one point it’s suggested that the Clone Wars occurred fifty or more years ago, but according to Episodes I-III, it’s probably more like twenty-five or thirty).  

Zahn’s great strength as a storyteller is his ability to plot out ways in which dueling characters continually think they have the upper hand until they don’t.  In fact, the strategizing reaches its wonderfully absurd peak with the character of Thrawn who studies a culture’s art in order to learn how they think and in turn how to defeat them.  At its most exciting, Zahn’s novels are like the sword fighting scene in The Princess Bride in which Bonetti is counteracted by Capo Ferro which is cancelled out by Thibault and then undermined by Agrippa.  These moves and countermoves are what makes the Thrawn Trilogy exciting, and by the end of Dark Force Rising, it’s easy to become eager to know who, in this interplay of strategems, gets the upperhand next.