First Impressions of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I braved jet lag and the bitter cold last night to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in a theater, as I have for all three Disney Star Wars releases (okay, one was at the Baghdad Embassy and the other in Florida, so it wasn’t too cold those other times). I should have known it was a bad sign when Disney entrusted a director with a handful of films under his belt, Rian Johnson, to not only direct the film but also write it. Honestly, I thought this was the worst of the Disney Star Wars films. Here are some of my first impressions.

  • The pointless and silly exposition was so annoying I almost walked out of the theater. Something would happen, and then a character would turn to another character and describe what just happened. How dumb does Rian Johnson think his audience is?
  • Just when I thought they were going to take the series in a completely new direction, they bring it back to the same damn thing. Again.
  • In the opening battle, the First Order sends out a handful of TIE Fighters to confront the Resistance bombers while their Star Destroyers sit there and do nothing.
  • I’m glad Disney decided to fix its messed up galactic politics from The Force Awakens, but do the good guys have to be rebels in order to be the good guys? They do this because we naturally root for the underdog, but surely there are other ways to create a good vs. evil plot line. Wouldn’t it be interesting, for instance, if the First Order and New Republic had to work together against a powerful external enemy?
  • Speaking of which, I’m not happy with the way Disney took the entire post-Return of the Jedi timeline and extended universe developed in comics, novels, and video games and just threw it in the trash.
  • The subplot of the gambling planet is pointless, and Finn and Rose Tico are morons. They’re running out of time, but waste so much of it just wandering around, concerned with freeing a bunch of animals. Then, after escaping captivity, instead of trying to find the guy they came to find, they run off with a sketchy character they randomly met in jail who of course ultimately sells them out.
  • The scene where Rey jumps into the “Dark Side” cave is pointless and doesn’t contribute to the plot or story in any meaningful way.
  • Why does the Resistance leadership refuse to listen to Poe Dameron, a loyal and longtime member, or answer his questions, while they allow a former storm trooper with questionable loyalty, Finn, to discuss plans with Leia Organa and pretty much do whatever he wants?
  • Continuing the trend from Rogue One, this felt like watching a video game with the way everything was so contrived. “In order to do X we need to find Y,” and “We have to hit this weapon in exactly this one way to destroy it.”

Ultimately, The Last Jedi was so disappointing. I know it’s gotten good reviews, but I just don’t see why. It’s literally the exact same thing we’ve seen in every Star Wars movie with only a slight variation. It teases you several times into thinking it’s finally going to break new ground, but ultimately ends up in the exact same place. I’m no longer excited to watch the upcoming sequel because I probably already have.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Based on the French sci-fi comic book Valérian and Laureline by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) follows two interstellar agents on a quest to uncover the cause of a mysterious radiation bubble in Alpha, a massive space station home to over a thousand species from across the galaxy.

Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are reluctant heroes. Valerian seems more concerned with convincing Laureline to marry him and Laureline in keeping Valerian out of trouble. Overall, the film is visually stunning, creative, rich with color and spectacle, and epic in scale. Cara Delevingne is beautiful and charming. Just enough to make it good but not great.

Valerian is largely a victim of poor timing. Valérian and Laureline came out in 1967 and though not well known in the U.S., had a huge influence on sci-fi films, including The Fifth Element (for which artist Jean-Claude Mézières created concept art). Unfortunately, by 2017 the movie feels like a copy of all the things its source material inspired.

I found myself constantly recognizing characters and settings I’ve seen before, including from The Fifth Element but also films like Avatar (2009). You can’t help comparing the Mülians to Pandorans. They’re virtually identical both in appearance and what they represent.

The only element that “feels original” is the concept of inter-dimensional travel, which was brilliantly executed in a scene in which Valerian and Laureline travel to a market to retrieve a rare creature. In our dimension, the setting is an open desert and a walled enclosure, but by putting on special equipment, shoppers are able to enter another dimension to a bustling, multi-story shopper’s paradise.


First Impressions of Valerian

I haven’t watched a movie in a theater in a while, so I decided to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets this weekend over the other two on my wish list: Baby Driver and Dunkirk. I picked Valerian because it has mixed reviews and I wanted to judge for myself. Here are my first impressions after seeing the film:

  • It was good! It was visually stunning, imaginative, and reminded me of The Fifth Element (1997). I like the idea of inter-dimensional travel and traveling to a parallel dimension to shop, which you know humans would do.
  • The aliens were really cool, though I’m not sure why amphibian humanoids would have breasts. Are they also mammals?
  • Dane DeHaan, who played Major Valerian, basically reprised his role in A Cure for Wellness (2016), which doesn’t bode well for his acting range. He lacked a personality in both films.
  • Cara Delevingne (Sergeant Laureline) is a British actress who hides her accent well. She played Margo in Paper Towns (2015), which I loved. I take back calling her a discount Emma Watson.
  • Clive Owen is wasted in this film as Commander Arun Filitt. Anyone could have played this generic bad guy.
  • Maybe things will change in the future, but if Major Valerian were in today’s military, he would be court-martialed for seeping with his subordinates and keeping their photos as trophies.
  • Major Valerian is introduced as a daring ladies man and Sergeant Laureline as uptight and studious, yet Valerian is an officer and she’s an NCO. By the end of the film, their roles are reversed: she damns the rules and he’s suddenly reluctant to break them.
  • If the film needs to recap the entire plot at the end for the audience to understand it, like an episode of Scooby-Doo, there’s a huge problem.

I’ll post a complete review later this week!

Northwestern Illinois’ Forgotten Winston Tunnel

The entrance to the Winston Tunnel, covered with iron bars like a gatehouse in a medieval dungeon, sits deep in the woods several miles southwest of Galena, Illinois, just off Blackjack Road, near the tiny community of Rice.  It has sat empty since 1971, and nothing but a few intrepid explorers and the rattlesnakes that make their nests in the damp and murky interior have ventured inside. Carefully navigating the slippery and steep slope off to the side of the entrance, it is easy to wonder what it must have been like for the engineers roaring through the dark tunnel in their steam locomotives.

At 2,493 feet, the Winston Tunnel was the longest railroad tunnel in Illinois. It was built in 1888 for the Minnesota and Northwestern Railroad, a line that ran from Chicago to Minneapolis, Omaha, and Kansas City. It took 350 workmen (and $600,000) more than nine months to complete the tunnel. Shortly after, the Minnesota and Northwestern became known as the “Chicago Great Western Railway.” At least one worker is known to have been killed during construction of the tunnel, which was so long a pump house had to be built to ventilate it. In fact, it is said that the ghost of this Finnish laborer still haunts the site to this day. Two engineers, one stationed at the east entrance and one at the west entrance, stood watch.


Gold Glitters

goldGreed and obsession collide in Gold (2016), a gritty morality tale set in 1980s Nevada, Wall Street, and Indonesia. Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a prospector desperate for a lucky break. He teams up with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez), and together they descend into the uncharted jungles of Indonesia hoping to find one big score. This poorly-advertised film almost escaped my notice, until I saw it playing at my local theater. I’m glad I took a chance on it. Gold is a solid film and surprisingly entertaining. Matthew McConaughey disappears into the role, achieving absolute rock bottom in body and spirit.

Gold is loosely based on a true story. In 1995, a small Canadian mining company called Bre-X, owned by David Walsh, claimed to find a massive gold deposit deep in the Indonesian jungle on the Island of Borneo, near the Busang River. Filipino geologist Michael de Guzman and John Felderhof convinced Walsh to invest $80,000 to purchase and develop the gold mine.

In 1997, Bre-X collapsed and its shares became worthless in one of the biggest stock scandals in Canadian history. On March 19, 1997, de Guzman committed suicide by jumping from a helicopter in Busang, Indonesia. An independent investigation of core samples from the mine determined de Guzman had been “salting” the samples with gold flakes, some from his own wedding ring. Walsh died of a brain aneurysm in the Bahamas in 1998, and in 2007, Felderhof was acquitted of securities charges. The scandal cost investors an estimated $3 billion.

Gold follows Nevada prospector Kenny Wells, who inherited his father’s company, Washoe Mining, in the early 1980s. Stress-induced alcoholism caused by the economic downturn leads him to sell the last of his jewelry and fly to Indonesia to meet geologist Michael Acosta. There he endures hardship and survives malaria. When he emerges from the illness, Acosta tells him he made what might be the largest gold discovery in history.