Notes on The Last Jedi

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, Bully.


I feel like I need to clear the air a little before I start. I knew I’d want to write about The Last Jedi for this series pretty much immediately after watching it. It had parts I found breathtakingly beautiful, among the best things in the entire Star Wars franchise. It also had parts so bad I sincerely entertained the notion my screening was shown a joke version of the film for a prank show (the Yoda scene, mostly). I don’t know what an interesting cinematic failure is if it isn’t The Last Jedi. In accordance with our ethos of cold takes, I waited to start writing until (1) I’d given myself adequate time to sit with my thoughts, move beyond my initial impressions and hopefully deepen my analysis, and (2) there was no ongoing cultural discourse of significant scope or fervour around the film. I didn’t want my take on the film to be hot in either the sense it came too quickly after I watched the film or the sense it was too pegged to any particularly heated discussion unfolding when I wrote it. The former to ensure I developed my ideas well and the latter to ensure I wasn’t overly invested in responding to specific takes on the film that might be personally infuriating, but weren’t actually that interesting or relevant. So I waited.

It took the most devastating global pandemic since the Spanish flu to get people to shut up about this movie for five minutes.

The Last Jedi might not be the most controversial film of all time, but I can’t think of another that has continuously generated such a consistently high volume of discussion and debate for so long. People may have committed acts of terrorism over The Last Temptation of Christ, but they didn’t keep doing it for three years after release. The film came out, people saw it, the controversy abated, the world moved on. Not so with The Last Jedi. Obviously, a major part of that is the existence of social media as a permanent global forum with no space limits. Even with a 24-hour news cycle, only so much can fit in a newspaper or in a broadcast at a given time. News websites don’t have space limits, but they have the practical constraints of a human workforce that can’t pump out endless coverage of infinite topics (at time of writing). Social media knows no such limits. If thousands of people decide to spend their time arguing about whether a film is good or not, the only limit is their own patience.

But the changing nature of how we communicate only explains how The Last Jedi discourse lasted so long, not why. The 2016 remake of Ghostbusters also generated lots of controversy and discussion, months of it, but it was a dead topic within a year of its release. Not The Last Jedi. Until just a couple of months ago, it was still an active battlefield of culture war nonsense. Tens of thousands of words in op-eds and essays, thousands of hours of video on YouTube, and that’s not even touching on the tweets. People have written books about it. And I guess I needed to give all this context just so I could be clear about one thing before I dive into my own thoughts on the film.

I do not care about any of this.

Continue reading “Notes on The Last Jedi”

Notes on Bully

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, Mallrats.


I watched Bully because Roger Ebert said it “calls the bluff of movies that pretend to be about murder but are really about entertainment”. It’s based on the real murder of Bobby Kent in 1993 by people he’d bullied and raped, and others who were along for the ride. Ebert goes on: “His film has all the sadness and shabbiness, all the mess and cruelty and thoughtless stupidity of the real thing… this is not about the evil sadist and the release of revenge; it’s about how a group of kids will do something no single member is capable of. And about the moral void these kids inhabit.”

His description of the film immediately brought to mind American Animals, one of the best films of this decade. It isn’t about murder, but it is about a violent crime, committed by young people who are propelled forward as much by the interpersonal dynamics of their group as their stated motives. It takes the violence its characters commit extremely seriously, setting you up to expect stylised film violence and then dropping you suddenly and horribly in something upsettingly realistic. I didn’t go into Bully hoping it would be the same as American Animals, but I like seeing how different films – and filmmakers – handle similar subject matter and themes.

Bully is a great film in almost every way. The cast are phenomenal, especially Rachel Miner and Brad Renfro as Lisa and Marty, the ringleaders of the murder. The camera stalks moodily through Florida suburbs perched precariously on the edge of the Everglades, everything cast in light and shadow by the harsh streetlamps. You can almost hear the ambient buzz of electricity through overhead wires. The screenplay avoids the pitfalls of many realistic treatments of teen life written by adults. It isn’t full of outdated slang. The teenagers sound like teenagers, especially in all the ways teenagers try not to sound like teenagers. It’s a great film. Almost.

The co-writer of that screenplay, David McKenna, disowned the finished film, writing in a furious letter to the director and producers that it “resembled a porno” with “unbelievably gratuitous sex, no story, zero motivation [and] no character development”. He is credited as Zachary Long in the finished film. I don’t agree with McKenna or others who gave Bully harshly negative reviews, like David Edelstein. But I also don’t agree with Roger Ebert, who said it was basically perfect.

It’s not perfect. It’s almost perfect. But it’s too goddamn creepy to get there.

Continue reading “Notes on Bully”

Notes on Mallrats

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, Black ’47.


Kevin Smith has had a really weird career. He’s one of the directors I’d be least surprised for someone to mention as a key influence in getting them interested in films and filmmaking, and also one of the directors I’d be least surprised to hear mentioned in pure contempt, no explanation necessary. He seems to be more known as a generic pop culture figure of the internet at this point: he’s responsible for the worst tweet of all time, which I’m sure more people have seen than saw Tusk. He has like a hundred podcasts and mostly makes films based on episodes of those podcasts now? I don’t even know. I couldn’t watch the trailer for Yoga Hosers through to the end, but I’ll still probably go see Jay and Silent Bob Reboot in the cinema.

I like Kevin Smith a lot more than people who hate Kevin Smith. I like a lot of his early films. I think Clerks is a masterpiece. I love Dogma, a film that is legitimately important to me as an… idiosyncratic Catholic. I think Chasing Amy has become sort of misunderstood because its logline – lesbian falls in love with a man – seems pretty gross in 2019, even though watching the film, it is made clear that she was bisexual the whole time, as is every other character. I never rewatch Clerks II because I would rather just watch Clerks, but it’s legitimately pretty good, and I would watch Jeff Anderson play Randal in anything.

But then there’s Mallrats. Smith’s second film – about a bunch of goofy misadventures of some twenty-somethings in a mall – was a critical and commercial flop on release, but it became a cult hit on home video. In the VHS episode of Harris Bomberguy and Shannon Strucci’s Scanline series, Bomberguy talks about how the aesthetic differences between watching a film in a cinema vs. watching it on a television work in favour of Mallrats, as it becomes something much lower-stakes, a backdrop to you and your friends doing something else that pulls you in at the funnier parts rather than something blasted at you from all angles like it’s the most important thing in the world. “The joy of [Kevin Smith films] is in crowding round a small TV at your friend’s house and watching little people on it with no pretensions of grandiosity,” he says.

But unfortunately, even in the lowest-stakes environments – from a VHS at your friend’s house to on your laptop while you scroll through your phone – Mallrats still sucks. Continue reading “Notes on Mallrats”

Notes on Black ’47

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, Mary Magdalene.


The Great Famine is the most significant event in Irish history by some distance. It killed around a million of the eight and a half million or so people on the island of Ireland, and turned another million into refugees. The loss of population didn’t stop there either: devastated economically, mass emigration drove the island’s population down to around four and a half million by the 1920s, where it hovered for a good fifty years. It began to climb steadily from the 1970s onward, so that now, over 150 years later, we’ve just about returned to where we were after a plague wiped out a quarter of our population in less a decade.

The Famine is well-represented in literature and song, but, until last year, with the release of Black ’47, never in film. There was, some might argue, the increasingly obscure silent feature Knocknagow (1918), based on the novel of the same name, which is ostensibly set in rural Tipperary in 1848, but it only depicts evictions, not starvation. The Irish communist author Liam O’Flaherty, whose novel The Informer was adapted for screen by John Ford, wrote his novel Famine with the explicit intention it be made into a film, but it never came to pass. Stephen Rea, who stars in Black ’47, told Today FM he’d been approached about a famine movie in the nineties, but the American producers thought it was too heavy. (“How are you going to lighten it?” Rea’s agent asked, “Feed them?”) So, here we are, with Black ’47, the first film about the Great Famine.

Because the Famine looms so large in the Irish consciousness, yet is so invisible on screen, I’ve often thought about different ways the subject could be approached in a film. The Western seemed the perfect fit, the ruined Irish countryside replacing the lawless desert wastes, so I was really excited when Black ’47 was announced.

Folks, it was bad.

Continue reading “Notes on Black ’47”

Notes on Mary Magdalene

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, notes on Hamlet (2000)


I was looking forward to Mary Magdalene for like a year. I liked Lion, director Garth Davis’s debut film, and Rooney Mara has an outsized place in my heart thanks to her work with David Fincher. But mostly, I love religious films. It’s hard to say that when Pure Flix have made a cottage industry out of crap like God’s Not Dead, films designed to reassure Christians that of course you’re better than everyone else, don’t worry. But great religious films can wrangle with all the messy complications, can be free to be more art than indoctrination. A lot of the best ones are made by atheists – usually Marxists from Italy. Great religious films are great films that focus thematically on something I care intensely about, and they inevitably mean a lot to me.

But you’re always rolling those dice. Christianity is an extremely loaded thing, and it often seems like reviews are written in code: I’m pretty sure Martin Scorsese’s Silence didn’t get its due because secular audiences didn’t or couldn’t fully engage with it and religious audiences found it uncomfortable, challenging viewing, but then it’s hard to know what the reviews would be like if it really was a dull slog.

So I was excited to see Mary Magdalene, even if the reviews were pretty mixed. I love religious films, and I love unorthodox Gospel retellings, and I’m a feminist, and I’d been looking forward to it for like a year.

It was a disappointment. Here’s why.

Continue reading “Notes on Mary Magdalene”

Notes on Hamlet (2000)

This article is part of the Notes on Failure series, which discusses interesting cinematic failures. Previously, notes on Split


Sometimes a film is so set up for me to like it that nothing speaks to its failure like my thinking it’s only okay. It might tick a bunch of boxes of things I reliably enjoy, like Hell or High Water, a neo-western about the Great Recession featuring comedic bank robberies and a great performance from Jeff Bridges, one of my favourite actors. It might be targeted at a very specific niche of which I am a part: Mary Magdalene was described as not appealing to Christians because it’s such a different take on the Gospel story, and not appealing to non-Christians because it’s so religious, but I’m a feminist Christian whose favourite film is The Last Temptation of Christ, king of unorthodox Gospel films. It’s kind of heartbreaking, when a film stacks the deck so in favour of me loving it, as if it was made with me in mind, but fucks it up so badly that I think “it’s basically fine, I guess, I don’t know, it has some problems.”

Hamlet (2000) is one such film. Here’s why.

Continue reading “Notes on Hamlet (2000)”

Notes on Split

I went to see Split on my twenty-third birthday, and I was very excited. That was partly because my birthday was the day Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and it was a way to not think about, you know, events. But it was mostly because I am an M. Night Shyamalan apologist, and he was back! I love The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and The Happening, and after a string of bad decisions, he was resurgent. He’d had a surprise hit on television with Wayward Pines and his previous film, The Visit, had been both well-received and profitable. Now it was time for his redemption story to go mainstream with his biggest success since Signs.

And it did.

Measured by return on investment, Split was Shyamalan’s most profitable movie, turning $9 million into over $250 million, and it received some of the best reviews of his career. It was number one at the US box office for three consecutive weeks (a record in Shyamalan’s filmography matched only by The Sixth Sense), it had a sequel greenlit by April, and James McAvoy is one of the year’s prototypical examples of an actor locked out of the Oscars race by genre rather than merit. M. Night Shyamalan brought his reputation back from the dead with one of the year’s most successful movies.

And I hated it.

Continue reading “Notes on Split”